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book review: Byrdcliffe: an American Arts & Crafts Colony

Bookicon_3Last year, Keith Wiesinger of the Wilson Crafts Guild had the opportunity to see the Byrdcliffe traveling exhibit and wrote up an excellent review for us. I was recently given a copy of the book Byrdcliffe: an American Arts & Crafts Colony, produced by the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art as a catalog for the exhibit, and have spent the past few days reading it.

To call it simply a catalog of a museum exhibit, though, is to do a disservice to the book and its authors. An ethnography of the Byrdcliffe community, a personal history of its founders, and a very thorough meditation on what drew them together and the philosophy that informed their work - that's a far better description of this book. Editor Nancy Green is the Senior Curator at Cornell's Johnson Museum, and she's assembled a number of extended essays here: a very complete history of Byrdcliffe, by Tom Wolf; her own essay on "the Reality of Beauty," tying Whitehead to Ruskin, Morris and their reactions to Victorian culture; Heidi Nasstrom Evans' inquiry into the life and work of Jane Byrd McCallWhitehead, the cofounder of the Byrdcliffe school and backbone of the community itself; Robert Edwards' excellent and well-illustrated dissection of Byrdcliffe furniture; Tom Wolf's general discussion of art at Byrdcliffe; a catalog and examination of Byrdcliffe ceramics by Ellen Denker and a very thorough analysis of Byrdcliffe architecture and its relationship to the natural landscape of the Catskills.

I myself had seen Byrdliffe furniture before, but had no knowledge of the utopian community that spawned the movement, or the art school that generated the simple and subtle Byrdcliffe glazes and White Pine(s) pieces. The beautifully rustic handpainted tiles, bowls, vases and other usefully everyday objects are relatively rare today, of course, and there were never many made to begin with, but I was still surprised that I didn't know much at all about such an important part of American A&C ceramics history.

The book is well-illustrated but is by no means a "coffee table" picturebook; while it's more than a catalog, it is a catalog, too, with pages upon pages of accessioning data relating to the hundreds of items in the exhibit and their provenance. The essays are not too dense to pick up and read for pleasure, though, unlike many such books, and I think anyone interested in the roots of American A&C - or looking for new inspiration in their own work - will find quite a bit worth reading and looking at in what has been until recently a relatively forgotten corner of the A&C world. I'm glad that Byrdliffe is getting its due in the publication of this book and the production of the exhibit, which I suggest you see when it comes to a museum near you.

My only problems with the book are aesthetic. Perhaps it would have been slightly more accessible if it were a bit more of a "coffee table" gift book. I don't think the essays should be reduced in length, but higher quality printing, better paper (the softcover shows wear within a few hours of reading), a bit more editing of the photographs, and inclusion of more of them - and larger use of the best! - as well as a less-dense layout would have improved it tremendously. However, I hope that doesn't dissuade anyone who is interested in the philosophical underpinnings of the movement and the history of A&C in this country from reading the book; it provides a glimpse into the transferrence of English A&C to American that is missing (obviously) in the recent catalog of the V&A show, and takes a backseat to the objects themselves in the catalog of the LACMA show. It is very much worth reading.