Nantucket in the Art of Maginel Wright

Maginel WrightIn September 1912, Maginel (Maggie-Nell) Wright Enright Barney (1877–1966) purchased a house in the Town of Nantucket. For nearly thirty years thereafter this early twentieth-century artist portrayed the island’s historic architecture, picturesque landscape, and quaint customs in illustrations for calendars, magazines, and books for children. Though the artist spent the greater portion of that period in New York City, her work nonetheless conveyed a conscious preference for Nantucket’s environs. Her visual representations of Nantucket documented the then contemporary appearance of the island and many of its familiar landmarks—in several cases prior to major additions or reconstructions.

Born in Weymouth, Massachusetts, the youngest child of Rev. William C. (1825–1904) and Anna Lloyd Jones Wright (1838–1923), Maginel and her older sister Jane (1869–1953) and brother Frank (1867–1959) moved, along with their parents, to Wisconsin in the spring of 1878. The Wrights settled in Madison, the state capital, where Anna and the children continued to reside following their parents’ divorce in 1885.

Later, after selling the family’s Madison home, Anna and the two daughters moved to Oak Park, Illinois, where they lived in a house adjacent to the one Frank—who would later become the world-famous architect—constructed for himself and his new bride in 1889. Most years Maginel attended the local schools in Oak Park, but in the fall of 1896 she returned to Wisconsin for her senior year at the Hillside Home School, a rural boarding school run by her two Lloyd Jones aunts. Integrated and coeducational long before “progressive” educators endorsed such practices, the school followed then-unconventional teaching methods. Science classes were held outdoors, where plants and birds could be studied in their native settings. This opportunity for close, firsthand observation would prove valuable for Maginel’s growing artistic aspirations.

In the fall of 1897 Maginel enrolled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which had recently begun a program for students who wanted to specialize in illustration. By the 1890s, Chicago had achieved a reputation as a major graphic-arts center; nearly fifty publishersand printers in the city employed hundreds of artists and designers. Consequently,Maginel had no trouble securing a position with a Chicago engraving firm that paid well enough that she could afford to take her mother to Europe for several months in 1903.They visited Liverpool, Venice, Paris, and many other cities as well as Wales, whereAnna’s extended family welcomed the young artist and her mother. A year after theEuropean trip, Maginel married Walter “Pat” Enright (1875–1969), a talented graphic artist and young instructor at the Armour Institute, whom she probably met when they were both students at the Art Institute.

From Chicago to New York
Three years after the birth of their daughter, Elizabeth (1907–1968), Maginel and Walter Enright moved from Chicago to New York, where he secured a studio in the Flatiron Building and she set up one in their seven-room apartment. Elizabeth’s development from a curly-haired youngster to a beautiful young woman is recorded in dozens of Maginel’s illustrations produced in her home studio. She later described watching Maginel work and serving as her mother’s model:

I watched her through the glass doors of the little room she used as a studio, my nose snubbed resentfully against the pane, for Iwas forbidden to enter while she was at work. I can see her now as I saw her then, her drawing board tilted against the worktable before her. In her dark curly hair two or threepencils were stabbed like geisha ornaments, and a watercolor brush was often gripped between her teeth. Another, the one she was using at the moment, was in her fingers. Almost always there would be an aboriginal stripe of paint or ink across her cheek, and her whole attitude as she applied the brush—then leaned away from the picture and bent her head from side to side, narrowing her eyes at it, then leaned forward again––was the attitude of an artist at work; alone, concentrated, for the moment wholly self-sufficient. To a child this attitude is sometimes disconcerting, and I did my share of whining and snuffling at the door, trying to force her attention to myself. Sometimes, though not often, I was allowed to come in and watch for a while. I liked to see the picture growing on the board; I liked the little round porcelain dishes in which fat worms of color had been squeezed: crimson lake and cobalt blue and emerald green.

Between 1902 and 1940, Maginel illustrated more than forty children’s books, including classics such as Heidi and Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates; several books written by The Wonderful Wizard of Oz author, L. Frank Baum, under his pseudonym, Laura Bancroft; and others for the P. F. Volland Company. Her illustrations also appeared in Collier’s, McClure’s, Good Housekeeping, The Ladies Home Journal, and Woman’s Home Companion. And for more than twenty years—at least 1918 to 1940—she produced cover illustrations for issues of Woman’s World, a once-popular monthly magazine that at its prime enjoyed a circulation of over one million.

Both Maginel and Walter Enright were successful in their professions and also enjoyed socializing with their new friends, many of them fellow artists. These included Gelett Burgess, William Glackens, Maud Tousey Fangel, and Wallace Morgan. In 1912, Maginel was elected to membership in the Society of Illustrators during Charles Dana Gibson’s term as president. And like many of their artist friends and professional colleagues, the Enrights sought an escape from New York’s oppressive summer heat and headed north, seeking a place that offered cooler temperatures, a seaside location, and picturesque surroundings. They found it in Nantucket.

A House Her Own
It is unclear whether the Enrights had visited Nantucket prior to the summer of 1912, but the timing of Maginel’s purchase––at the end of that summer, not the beginning––would seem to suggest that she had gained some familiarity with Nantucket, responded favorably to the island, and purchased the house with the expectation of spending time there in the future. Like previous owners dating back to 1887, the individuals from whom she bought the house did not live on the island but were fulltime residents of Connecticut. Its short-term-only occupancy by a series of off island owners during this extended period may have helped to ensure its remarkable state of preservation and thus its artistic appeal to the new owner.

The house Maginel acquired in 1912 was a two-and-a-half-story, shingle-surfaced, pre-Revolutionary War, typical four-bay Nantucket house with a ridge chimney, a front door with a transom, twelve-over-twelve panes in the windows of major rooms, and nine-over-nine panes in less important rooms. Known locally as “The Anchorage,” its unpretentious simplicity was consistent with the period when Quakerism dominated the island. Set close to but still separated from the street by the locally favored ship-rail style fences found throughout Nantucket Town, the house then had a pent roof (later removed) over the front door––painted blue-green while Maginel owned the house––and a hatch in the roof that provided light to the attic, where she would later set up a summer studio. There, she would produce dozens of illustrations inspired by her new summer locale.

Nantucket Places and People
One of the most identifiable buildings in Maginel’s Nantucket–inspired work is Auld Lang Syne, originally built as a seasonal fishing shack in ’Sconset, a small village on the eastern shore of the island. Reported to be the oldest surviving structure (1675) on Nantucket, its irregular, sagging-roof profile, ridge chimney, and frontal “wart” extension as well as the location, type, and number of windows; shutters, and rustic front door were captured in several illustrations. These include a 1918 calendar, a 1923 magazine cover, and the 1923 Honey Bear, a children’s book written by Dixie Willson, the sister of Meredith Willson (1902–84), who authored the book, music, and lyrics of The Music Man. The small-format Honey Bear was a particular childhood favorite of the writer Tom Wolfe.

Another familiar Nantucket building is the Jethro Coffin House (or Oldest House), built in 1686 on Sunset Hill and owned since 1923 by the Nantucket Historical Association. Maginel’s inclusion of this well-known local landmark in her 1917 calendar underscores the appearance of the house prior to the 1928 restoration, during which an earlier shed-roof extension was replaced. A vintage postcard shows a cultivated area in the foreground that replicates a similar feature in her illustration, but there are no corresponding apple or other flowering fruit trees. The artist may have added them to provide a welcome bit of color to the otherwise dark-hued sky and house. Her use of diagonal slashes to convey the intensity of the spring rainstorm suggests the similar use of this artistic device in Japanese woodblock prints, particularly in the work of Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858). Hiroshige was a favorite of Frank Lloyd Wright’s, who over several decades acquired, sold, and exhibited hundreds of Japanese prints and gave his sister those displayed on the walls of her New York and Nantucket homes.

Two of Nantucket’s religious structures, the 1834 First Congregational Church on Centre Street and 1809 Unitarian Universalist Church (originally the Second or South Congregational Church) on Orange Street, also appear in Maginel’s illustrations. Ties to the first example may not be readily apparent to newer island residents, however, since her representations of the Carpenter Gothic–style structure predate the restoration of the church tower in 1968. Visible from the front bedroom window of Maginel’s house on North Water Street, the church appears in her 1917 calendar and the 1918 “Follow the Pied Piper” poster, one of three that she prepared as part of a group effort by members of the New York Society of Illustrators to design recruiting and other war related posters during and after World War I. The church also appears in her covers for the November 1926 Woman’s World and December 1926 Woman’s Home Companion, while the Unitarian tower and clock establish the setting of her December 1925 Woman’s World cover. The artist’s signature on the first three items was Enright and those on the last three, Barney; in between the two groups Maginel obtained a divorce from Walter Enright and later married Hiram Barney Jr., a prominent lawyer and international financier who died unexpectedly in July 1925.

Creating illustrations for Downright Dencey, a historical children’s novel honored as a runner-up for the Newbery Medal in 1928 and reissued again in 2003, provided a unique opportunity for Maginel to draw on her knowledge of Nantucket. The setting for the book is Nantucket Island, where the author, Caroline Dale Snedeker (1871–1956), spent her first summer in the early 1920s accompanied by her husband, an Episcopal clergyman and one-time bishop of the New York diocese, who died shortly thereafter. Following his death, Snedeker returned to the island and stayed in the same room where they had stayed and she completed writing the book about a young Quaker girl named Dencey Coffyn and an orphan boy called Sam Jetsam. Concerned that the text not betray the author’s off-island status, Snedecker shared the manuscript with her friend Mary Eliza (Mollie) Starbuck. Upon noticing in the text that a thrifty housewife was to dispense pound-rounds to a transient sailor, the well known Nantucket resident explained that the items were delicacies reserved only for special occasions and that a more appropriate treat for the sailor would be ginger cookies.

Maginel’s color and black-and-white illustrations for Snedeker’s book portray––with only a few deft strokes of her pen and brush—some of the island’s most well-known natural areas and historic buildings. These include ships docked at the wharf, vintage windmills, sand dunes along the north and south shores of the island, the Elihu Coleman house and Quaker Meeting House, as well as views of Main Street and the Union Street curve. Several illustrations correspond closely to H. Marshall Gardiner’s (1884–1942) photographs and postcards documenting the Nantucket summer fetes. The first such event was held in August 1921 along upper Main Street from the Pacific Bank to Monument Square and featured historical costumes and tableaux. The event was initiated by Maginel’s longtime friend Austin Strong (1881–1952), a well known author, playwright, Nantucket booster, and step-grandson of Robert Louis Stevenson. That fete and subsequent ones sought to raise funds for the local hospital.

Mary and Austin Strong were among Maginel’s closest friends in Nantucket as well as in New York. They visited each other’s homes, enjoyed meals together, and corresponded by mail if not in the same locale. When staying in Nantucket, the Strongs lived only a few blocks from Maginel in their own two-and-a-half-story, pre-Revolutionary War shingled house at 5 Quince Street, originally built for David Hussey. Their Greek Revival doorway with sidelights (added at a later period)—and sporting its summer shutters—served as the backdrop for Maginel’s June 1919Woman’s World magazine cover.

Austin Strong also figured in another of Maginel’s magazine covers. For most readers of the July 1932 issue of Woman’s Home Companion, the colorful sails and youthful sailors on the cover may have seemed like an exaggeration on the part of the artist. Nantucket residents, however, would certainly have recognized her illustration as the Rainbow Fleet, Beetle catboats with brightly dyed sails.

Beginning in 1926, Strong, a founder of the Nantucket Yacht Club, provided sailing instructions for his nieces and nephews as well as the children of local and summer visitors at his boathouse on the Old North Wharf. There, seated in a catboat suspended from davits, Strong’s young pupils learned the basics of maneuvering a sailboat while still on dry land.

Challenges and New Opportunities
When both the Depression and changes in the style of illustrations preferred by publishers curtailed Maginel’s commissions during the late 1920s and 1930s, her work under went a major transformation, as evidenced by the 1932 cover showing the Rainbow Fleet. Her later illustrations featured patches of flat, bold colors and fewer and larger compositional elements. Although she would continue to produce occasional illustrations until the early 1940s, the demise in 1941 of Woman’s World, a magazine for which she had produced covers for more than two decades, eliminated what had been a regular source of income. In response, she redirected her insatiable creativity into new outlets.

During the late 1930s Maginel began to substitute stitches of yarn for strokes of paint. She devised a new term, “long” or “longue point,” to distinguish the resulting pieces from the traditional gros- or petit point needlework. She also developed her own line of custom embroidered, silk-lined felt jackets and slippers, which were sold at America House in New York. Maginel also began to produce jewel-embellished felt flats––similar to those now appearing in fashion magazines—sold through the Capezio firm. The shoes proved so popular that she had to hire assistants in order to meet the demand.

A New Generation Responds to Nantucket
Maginel’s eldest grandson came to spend part of the summer in Nantucket in 1938, which may have been her last summer on the island. A year later, in September 1939, she sold the house on North Water Street to off-island owners from Connecticut. In 1940, two events took place that underscored the passing of Nantucket’s influence from one generation to the next: an exhibition of Maginel’s most recent work in New York and the publication of a new children’s book written and illustrated by her daughter, Elizabeth Enright (Gillham).

A majority of the sixteen new “long-point” pieces Maginel exhibited at the Marie Sterner Gallery in the spring of 1940 bore a direct relationship to identifiable landscape and architectural features of her new summer locale: the maternal Lloyd Jones family valley in Iowa County, Wisconsin. After selling her house in Nantucket, Maginel had begun staying—and working on her “long points”—at Tan-y-deri (under the oaks), the home of her sister Jane, designed by their brother Frank for the hilltop adjoining his home, Taliesin (shining brow).

Maginel’s daughter, Elizabeth, who had visited the same Wisconsin valley as a child, incorporated those experiences in a 1939 Newbery Award–winning book, Thimble Summer, her second. For her third book, The Sea Is All Around, published in 1940, Elizabeth drew upon still-vivid memories of her mother’s Nantucket house and her own childhood experiences on the island. The main character, a young orphan named Mabeth Kimball, moves to Nantucket (identified as Pokenick Island) to live with her aunt Belinda, whose house closely resembled the Water Street house in which the author had once lived. Both had an old-fashioned square grand piano in the living room, another was said to be haunted by an elderly woman’s spirit (as was the second living room at 23 North Water), and young Mab slept in a four-poster bed nearly identical to the one in Maginel’s Nantucket bedroom. Mab frequently visited a local antique shop called the Curiosity Shop where she sat around the pot-bellied stove listening to the proprietor’s tales, just as Elizabeth may have visited Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, once located in the former Amelia Coffin House on India Street. As in real life, island residents in the book wrapped their boxwood in burlap to prevent winterkill and were accustomed to hearing the Unitarian church bell ringing fifty-two times at seven, noon, and again at nine every night. These and similar details in Elizabeth’s book seemed believable because they were drawn from the author’s own personal experiences.

In his introduction to Maginel’s 1940 exhibition brochure, Austin Strong described his old friend’s newest works: “With strong, sure strokes she makes us see nature alive and breathing through brooding hills, wild skies, and the upturned earth of ploughed land. She makes us feel the heat rising from the freshly cut wheat fields. Maginel Wright Barney has caught a living rainbow and somehow woven it into patterns for our delight.” Strong’s description referred to Maginel’s recent long point needlework pieces inspired by Wisconsin subjects. The artist’s lifelong practice of responding to her surroundings—whatever the locale––and incorporating that imagery in her work is evident in the nearly three decades of her drawing inspiration from Nantucket.

Mary Jane Hamilton: An independent scholar who did her graduate work in architectural history, Mary Jane Hamilton has been doing research on Frank Lloyd Wright and his Lloyd Jones family for more than thirty years and has written extensively and organized several exhibitions on the work of Wright and his sister, Maginel. Several years ago Hamilton visited Nantucket and spent time identifying the buildings and locales depicted in Maginel’s work.

Author’s note: The author is especially grateful to Patricia Egan Butler, Dr. George Butterworth, and Nicholas Gillham for their assistance in preparing this article. The author would be interested in learning the whereabouts of any Maginel items for possible use in a future exhibition and comprehensive catalogue of her work.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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