Renowned artist made Shattuckville shine
A portrait of George Gardner Symons. Submitted photo.
George Gardner Symons' painting of North River in Shattuckville, Colrain.
Painting by George Gardner Symons of Colrain.
BUCKLAND — Before there was Robert Strong Woodward, there was George Gardner Symons — a well-known American landscape painter with a studio in Colrain — to whom the young artist Woodward turned for advice.
Gardner Symons, who painted many winter scenes in the Shattuckville section of Colrain, is the subject of a talk Thursday night at the Buckland Public Library on Upper Street.
The talk, by Deborah Wheeler of Colrain, is part of the annual meeting of the Friends of Robert Strong Woodward, which begins at 7 p.m. The program will include slides and discussion of Symons’ work in the valley. Admission is free and light refreshments will be available.
Although Symons died in 1930, his Colrain house and studio were just part of the neighborhood to Wheeler, who grew up in a house down the road from the artist’s.
“He had a house back on Frankton Road, and a studio right on (Route) 112, which was an old schoolhouse” said Wheeler. She is a nurse and antiques collector whose extensive research on Symons began about 10 years ago.
As a child, Wheeler remembers peeking through a crack into the garage and seeing painting canvases inside.
Wheeler’s mother once saw Symons doing a painting of one of her neighbors with a cow. “She said, ‘If you ever see that painting, buy it.’ I never saw that painting,” says Wheeler, “but since then, I have seen many paintings of that neighbor’s house and barn.”
“They are labeled ‘the Berkshires’ and not Shattuckville, at all,” she added.
Those paintings of “Cud” Call’s home and barn prompted Wheeler to look for Symons’ New England landscapes, to see if they were also of Colrain. She has found paintings of the old Four Mile Square covered bridge over the North River, of Sunburn Beach, near the Marshall Johnson Farm on North River Road, and the old cotton mill and dam in Shattuckville.
Symons was a “plein-air” artist, which meant he painted in the open air. Wheeler said he was best known for the way he captured ice and snow on the landscape.
“He was painting outdoors in the winter, and in those days, he wouldn’t have had a car to get into, to warm up,” she said. “Then I realized he wasn’t going very, very far from his house or his studio — because he had to go somewhere and get warm.”
The Friends consider Symons to be “the one fellow artist who was most influential in the life and professional career” of Woodward, the better known Franklin County landscape painter of the early 20th century.
Symons was a Chicago native who studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. Wheeler said one of his first jobs was to paint posters, along with artist William Wendt, for the Pacific Railroad Co. Wheeler said they painted the Grand Canyon and other major landscapes to attract rail passengers. Symons was also part of an art colony in Laguna Beach, Calif., and eventually went to Cornwall, England, where he met his future wife.
Symons first came to Charlemont in 1908, after being invited by a Healy family member to stay at the Healy farm and paint the Deerfield River. Symons completed a painting called “An Opalescent River” that won the Carnegie Prize at the National Academy of Design in 1909. That painting was immediately bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it remains today.
This was the beginning of his love affair with the North and Deerfield River valleys.
Woodward, Buckland’s famous painter, was born in Northampton in 1885, and was preparing to go to college when, at age 21, he suffered from an accidental gun injury that left him paralyzed from the waist down. In 1910, he came back to New England, determined to make his living as an artist. After attending the Boston Museum of Fine Arts School, Woodward moved to Buckland, in a small, remodeled out building on his uncle’s farm, which Woodward renamed “Redgate.”
“RSW painted for more than a year before he showed his work to anyone,” wrote Allstair Maitland in “Robert Strong Woodward in Heath.” “Finally, he mustered courage enough to take a number of canvases to Gardner Symons, who lived in the neighboring town of Colrain. Young Woodward, while hopeful of ... encouragement from this one-time prominent artist in the American School of Naturalism, was scarcely prepared to hear Symons urge him to send a picture to the National Academy ... What astonished him more was to have his canvas accepted and actually hung on the same wall as pictures by the day’s notables.”
A year later, Woodward won a prestigious prize, and “he considered his career to be effectively launched,” Maitland wrote.
According to The Friends of Robert Strong Woodward, it was around 1915 that Woodward went to see Symons, bringing several paintings to Symons’ studio. Symons advised him to send several to an exhibition in Boston.
In 2010, a group of admirers of Woodward’s, along with the Buckland Historical Society, put on an exhibition of 60 of Woodward’s paintings in honor of his 125th birthday anniversary. Then the group met a year later to form a permanent organization to preserve, promote and perpetuate Woodward’s artistic legacy.
Since then, the Friends group has put on two smaller exhibitions, and met with the editor of Fine Art Connoisseur Magazine, which ran an article about Woodward in this year’s January/February issue.
The Robert Strong Woodward website has a section devoted to Symons and his western Massachusetts paintings, which include New England mills, covered bridges and other landscapes.
More information is available at: www.robertstrongwoodward.com