Stephen and Maxfield Parrish in New Hamsphire

Editorial Staff Magazine

Originally publsihed in June 1979

By Virginia Reed Colby

Stephen Parrish, a well-known painter and etcher, and his son Maxfield,1 one of the most popular artists of the early twentieth century, both moved to New Hampshire in the 1890s. Stephen came to Cornish in 1893, following the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and other artists, writers, and musicians who made up what came to be known as the Cornish colony.2 The members of the colony found rural Cornish a delightful place to work, yet they had easy access to New York City by train from Windsor, Vermont, across the Connecticut River.3

Stephen Parrish’s house Northcote4 was designed by Wilson Eyre 91858- 1944), a noted architect from Philadelphia, where Parrish had also lived before coming to Cornish. From 1893 to 1902 Parrish spent his time building the house, a shop, a greenhouse, a stable for his horse Betty, a studio, and the extensive gardens. To take advantage of the view Parrish lined up the main garden path with the sunset, and set benches around a tall pine at the end of the path. Many plants that thrived in Philadelphia could be destroyed by a single Cornish winter, and every spring Parrish received shipments of flowering plants and shrubs which he, working alongside one or two hired men, would plant. Cutting stove wood was another major job, since the kitchen stove was fueled with wood year round and there were wood stoves in the library and dining room to supplement the coal furnace. The library and dining-room stoves were removed in the spring, and the fireplaces were used instead. Another important chore was stocking the icehouse.5

Stephen Parrish began his artistic career by painting before turning to etching, for which he is better known.6 Between 1879 and 1886 he made nearly 170 etchings; and he, Charles A. Platt, and James McNeil Whistler were acclaimed the best etchers in America before 1900.7 When his house was finally finished, Stephen Parrish returned to his art. One July 2, 1903, he wrote in his diary, “Painting in studio all day. Have taken it up again after years of neglect.” The diary never mentions etching. Parrish frequently exhibited his paintings in the larger cities,8 and he sold many of them to members of the Cornish colony who visited Northcote. On September 17, 1908, he wrote in his diary, “Framing and cleaning pictures in the studio and bringing them over to the house. Evening supper party. Had an exhibition of my pictures afterwards. Judge and Mrs. Learned Hand selecting one.”

Travel was by sleigh in winter and wagon in summer, and was not without its hazards. On August 18, 1903, Stephen Parrish recorded in his diary, ‘coming home we were attached by Henry Fuller’s big dogs and nearly upset. Damn that dog!” And two years later, on June 7, he wrote, “Anne P. and Hazel MacKaye were thrown out of the wagon by Betty’s falling near Miss Wood’s and the horse ran away, smashing the wagon.” And, inevitably, the automobile came to Cornish. In his diary entry for July 16, 2904, Stephen Parrish recorded, ‘When coming home from a festive evening at Arnolds, met Winston Churchill’s [the American novelist] automobile on the road. Got by after a fashion!”

During the early days, Charles A. Platt was a frequent overnight guest at Northcote. Everett Shinn, one of the group of painters known as the Eight, was a frequent visitor both at Northcote and at the Parrishes’ residence in NewYork City, where they went often to keep abreast of the latest exhibitions and theatrical events. And on October 22, 1902, Parrish called on Shinn, who was then building a house near Cornish.9

Stephen Parrish died in Cornish in 1938 at the age of ninety-two, forty years after his famous son Maxfield had moved to Plainfield, across the valley from Cornish. There Maxfield had bought nineteen acres of land from Charles Williams, a farmer, with $950 advanced by his father.10 Maxfield’s house, the Oaks, begun in 1898, burned to the ground last February (pls. I-IV). Maxfield was his own architect, for he had studied architecture at Haverford College in Pennsylvania before studying art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, his birthplace. His chief carpenter was George S. Ruggles, a near neighbor, who, in later years, when he was too old for heavy work, made frames for both Maxfield and his father.11

The Oaks was built around the trees and rocks on the hillside site. The largest white oak in Sullivan County, New Hampshire,12 stands near what was the front entrance of the house, and the ground floor was built on two levels to accommodate a large rock ledge. The original house had a kitchen, living room, and two bedrooms, and it grew with the artist’s family and income. Mr. Ruggles once commented that “the house started as a rectangle and then he built east, west, north, south and up.” In the end there were fifteen rooms and five bathrooms. 13 With its terrace, pool, and gateway, the house blended with the natural setting. Maxfield preferred the oaks and white birches already on his property to the kind of elaborate gardens his father planted. A tall pine (14) which stands on the hillside not far from the site of the house is one of the two shown in Parrish’s painting New Hampshire; Land of Scenic Splendor, or Thy Templed Hills, or 1936 (cover). When the other pine was blown down in the hurricane of 1938 Parrish was so upset that he had a lightning rod installed in the remaining tree. These tall white pines (Pinus strobus) were of the species harvested in Cornish and Plainfield in the eighteenth century by order of King George III to make masts for the Royal Navy.15

The last major addition to the Oaks was the west wing, completed in 1906. Called the music room, it was about twenty feet wide, forty feet long, and almost fourteen feet high. The parquet floors were oak, and the oak-paneled walls were stained a dull gray-black,16 as was the beamed ceiling (see Fig.1). One end of this room was occupied by a stage, which was the scene of many and varied entertainments when the Cornish colony flourished (Fig. 2). One of the favorite entertainments was charades, of which Maxfield Parrish was the star, according to his father’s diary entry of October 14, 1905. Frequent guests at these entertainments were Saint-Gaudens, the poet Percy MacKaye, the musician Arthur Whiting, Charles Platt, and Winston Churchill. Stephen Parrish recorded in his diary on July 25, 1906, that a birthday party was held for Maxfield at the Oaks and that among the guests were Ellen Shipman, a landscape architect; Herbert Croly, the editor of The New Republic, and his wife; the poet William Vaughn Moody; and the actress Ethel Barrymore.

Maxfield Parrish found it difficult to paint amid the distractions of the household, so in 1905 he built a studio some forty yards from the house. Fortunately, the studio survived the recent fire that destroyed the house. The studio has eight rooms, including two painting rooms, a darkroom, and a remarkably well-equipped machine shop (Fig. 10) Where Parrish made many latches and hinges of his own design (Figs. 7, 8) and some of the wooden models he used in his paintings.17

Parrish often painted from photographs. He would frequently make a model in the shop, light it with a floor lamp to cast the proper shadows, and then photograph it. On other occasions he used photographs to capture the golden glow just before sunset-the fleeting effect in nature he most loved to paint. He developed and printed his photographs in the darkroom in the studio, from which light was excluded by black-painted wooden panels that slid across the windows. The door to the darkroom is closed by a counterweight contained in a brass pipe, and in the room is a motorized agitator for mixing solutions.

In the painting room that Parrish used in the winter was a closet containing a counterweighted projector for glass-plate negatives. Parrish could adjust this like a photographic enlarger until the image was the proper size. Then he traced the image on tracing paper and later transferred it to the canvas or panel. At each of these stages he could refine the drawing to suit his needs. When the projector had served its purpose it was swung back into the closet.

A potbellied stove in the winter painting room served both to warm the room and to dry the glaze on the paintings. Parrish often had a number of works in progress at one time because he used the ancient painting method of applying a layer of pure transparent pigment, allowing it to dry for ten days or two weeks, covering it with a layer of glaze, or varnish, and then applying the next color.18

Both painting rooms in the studio have very large, high windows. The summer painting room, the larger of the two, was built to accommodate murals which could be lowered into the garage below through a trap door in the floor.

Upon the completion of a mural or other important painting, Parrish often held an open house and invited neighbors and friends to see the picture before it was crated and shipped. On October 24, 1909, for example, his father noted in his diary, “p.m. drove over to Fred’s [Maxfield’s; see n. 1] to see his decoration ‘The Pied Piper of Hamlin’-for a San Francisco hotel-everybody there.”

Parrish’s most famous mural is Old King Cole, which was commissioned for 45,000 by the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York City for its bar and painted in 1906.19 During Prohibition the Kinickerbocker Hotel was closed, and the mural was retired from public view until 1935, when it was installed in the St. Regis Hotel, also in New York, where it may be seen today. Maxfield Parrish died at the Oaks on March 30, 1966. The studio is now run as a nonprofit museum by its owners, Alma and Maurice Gilbert. Four exhibitions of Parrish’s works are displayed annually in the museum.