Our Founder: Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts
Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts (1871-1927), Elsie, as her friends knew her, founded the Concord Art Association, now known at Concord Center for the Visual Arts, in 1917. She is Concord’s most admired painter, creating canvases of beauty, simplicity and emotion.
EWR and Concord Art’s Roots
By Kate James, Executive Director
(Published in the November 13, 2014 Concord Journal)
The casualties of World War I in Europe were horrifying to the people of Concord. EWR, determined to make a difference, took charge. She organized groups of artists and citizens to create numerous art exhibitions at The Town House and Trinity Episcopal Parish House, whose proceeds went directly to give aid to victims of war. EWR summoned artists from far and wide to contribute. Referring to an extremely successful sale, The Boston Journal wrote that “many students from the Boston Art Museum and School of Fine Arts have sketches in the exhibition which is the first of its kind ever held to raise funds to relieve the sufferings of war refugees.” They sold over 200 items.
The Belgian refugees were of particular interest to EWR and the world. When Germany entered Belgium on August 4, 1914, the Belgians would not let Germany pass to invade Paris. Their country became a battleground and consequently all citizens were evacuated to Great Britain. “Over a million Belgians have come to England – terrible relics of life with everything swept away” was written to EWR in a letter of thanks and praise for the large contribution she made to aid these displaced people.
From 1914-1919 the women at the Episcopal, the Trinitarian and the Unitarian churches of Concord worked dutifully sewing for those who suffered because of the war. EWR documented these historical moments in nine sublimely beautiful “sketches.” Two of these are still on view at Concord Art and two are in the Parish Hall of First Parish Church. The Boston Evening Transcript wrote on April 19, 1915, “they are vivid and faithful studies of groups of busy women. The artist will give the proceeds of the sale to benefit destitute Belgian children”. Today these sketches are seen as considerably more then “vivid and faithful”.
In fact, when visitors encounter “Sewing for the Refugees” at Concord Art they are transfixed. We see piles of loosely painted fabric on tables with six women in deep concentration, purposeful and dignified. Like Mary Cassatt, the painting captures the intimate lives of women. Her palette and informal yet brilliant composition are reminiscent of Edouard Manet. EWR was often called an Impressionist, but the depth of mood and simplification of forms point to a more modernist sensibility. One can really feel the dedication and intensity in the room. It is generally thought that Manet was the first modernist painter; reducing detail, suppressing the unimportant. EWR’s faces without features echo this same modernist sensibility. We do not need their expressions because one can deduce the dedicated mood of the room from the angle of their shoulders and positioning of their heads. It is clear from these paintings how EWR’s heart was overflowing both for the refugees whose burden she wanted so desperately to lessen and for the tireless efforts of her peers sewing in the parish halls of Concord. The painting evokes a transcendent feeling. The women are sewing for the refugees, and we picture EWR painting them with the purpose of selling the completed sketches for the refugees, also. These sketches are an art historical treasure and a superb historical document.
The newspapers of EWR’s time are full of praise for her monumental efforts. She was given a Field Service Award for raising enough funds to purchase an ambulance and driver stationed in France. The driver, Joseph B. Keyes, of Concord, was awarded the Croix de Guerre and other medals for bravery. The proceeds from her painting sales also supplied wool for the Belgian refugees to make clothing to sell and to wear so they could remain industrious while “camping” on British soil.
The exhibitions that EWR organized in Concord during these years were the seeds for The CONCORD ART CENTRE that she would eventually create in 1922. In 1919 a Concord newspaper quoted her. “I am so hoping that we may have a real art centre here in Concord. Before the war a group of us, including Charles Pepper, French the sculptor, Miss Mary Abbott and myself formed a little committee to get up a small exhibition. We carried it off successfully for a couple of years and our group enlarged to 83 members…then came the war (she threw up her hands) that went the way of everything else. But I hope we can soon start up the group again and make it a national affair”…and so she did, showing the works of Monet and Sargent within the first few years.
One hundred years later, the Concord Art Association is still a cadre of artist members, but there are over 800 of them and “The Centre” that she founded still stands at 37 Lexington Road with contemporary artists work on the walls along with EWR’s paintings on display (which were very contemporary 100 years ago), and of course the education and programs that serve our local community and beyond.
The Transformation from House to Gallery by Boston’s First Female Architect
by Kara Fossy, Archives & Collections, Concord Center for the Visual Arts
(Published in the Concord Journal, November 5, 2015)
Lois Lilley Howe, born in Cambridge in 1864, studied design at the Museum of Fine Arts School before completing a two year architecture program at MIT in 1890. In a photograph of the architecture department taken that year, Lois stands out as the only woman in a class full of men. Howe took on early work for friends and family before partnering to start a firm in 1913 that would ultimately become known as Howe, Manning, and Almy: Boston’s first women’s architectural firm.
Howe, and the other women in her firm, went on to design private and public buildings around New England in a style that both harkened to old Yankee ideals and incorporated the most contemporary tastes. Howe retained a great interest in historic architecture and even published a book with another MIT graduate entitled “Details of Old New England Houses” which contained carefully measured and drawn architectural details like paneling, railings, and mantels from existing historic structures.
1937 view of the John Ball House in Concord Center
As with many of Howe’s projects, the renovation of the 18th century Jonathan Ball House that would become “Concord Art Centre” on Lexington Road was performed with a thoughtful blending of original colonial details with modern additions to transform certain spaces. Concord Art Association, formed in 1917 by Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts, had held its annual exhibitions in the Town Hall. Then in 1922, Roberts purchased the Ball House on Lexington Road and employed Howe to redesign the interior of the building to be suitable for an art gallery. MORE [LINK to remaining text]
Howe and her firm were known for ‘renovising’ (a term coined by one of her partners): renovating and revising outdated buildings. Howe was careful to reuse any materials that were salvageable and to look at each building with respect for its original design. Her work on the Ball House was no exception. Howe changed very little in the first floor of the house. In fact, she took care to make sure the woodwork in the lower rooms was preserved and that the original hardware on the doors remained.
While most of the first floor was left undisturbed, Howe completely transformed the upper floor. A large octagonal gallery on the second floor was created by removing room partitions and disassembling part of a substantial central chimney. The most impressive part of the design was a large grid of windows on the roof to allow for a top-lighted gallery. This was achieved by removing the attic entirely. The skylights were installed on the backside of the roof and therefore remained invisible to passers-by on the street, preserving the colonial façade of the house. A portion of the large chimney, too, was rebuilt above the roofline for authenticity.
Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts’ vision for an art center in the heart of historic Concord came to fruition through the thoughtful design of Lois Lilley Howe who managed to create an unexpected space without disturbing the historic integrity of a house that has stood on Lexington Road for over 250 years. The carpenter who originally questioned Howe’s work is said to have admitted after the renovation was complete: “architecture is quite a proper profession for a woman after all.”