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Clark Voorhees’ Isles of Tranquility

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A view from Somerset towards Boaz Island and the Dockyard by Clark Voorhees, pencil study inset.

“Every work carries a message, all are different and each truthfully exhales the atmosphere of its locale.”— American Art News, 1920Representational art in Bermuda began to appear towards the end of its second century of settlement, which saw life on the island revolutionized with the appearance of British Imperial Forces and the building of the dockyard for the Royal Navy. Some of its officers were talented painters, as evinced by the works of Sir Michael Seymour and Lieut-General Gaspard le Marchant Tupper in the Fay and Geoffrey Elliott Collection at the Bermuda Archives.Those Forces could be classed as Bermuda’s first tourist population and military funding underpinned the economy of the island into the early 1900s, when civilian tourism came to the fore with the advent of early steamships, vessels that culminated in the ‘millionaires’ ships’ of the 1930s, such as Monarch of Bermuda, Queen of Bermuda and Ocean Monarch, the second two rendered obsolete by aeroplane tourism of the 1950s.It was on the predecessors of those vessels that a civilian force of artists-as-tourists descended upon Bermuda from the East Coast, along with notables like Samuel Clemens and Woodrow Wilson. Bermuda was seen as an oasis of tranquility, away from the hustle and bustle of the burgeoning metropoles of New England, a place where people of means could spend the winter. The natural and cultural heritage of Bermuda was a major draw for artists, its unique vernacular architecture in particular being fitting subjects for pencil and brush.Among the emiment artists who sought peace in Bermuda was the American Impressionist, Clark Greenwood Voorhees, a Columbia University medical man turned painter, who unfortunately died in 1933 at the early age of 62: would that he had lived longer so that we might have enjoyed more of his empathetically Bermuda works.It was thus with pleasure that one recently saw some of Voorhees’ Bermuda paintings, in an exhibition aptly entitled ‘Isles of Tranquility’ at Hawthorne Fine Art in Manhattan. The title is a play on words, a grammatical painting if you will, for Voorhees bought an old Bermuda home in Somerset, which he named “Tranquility”, so named to this day and appropriately inhabited by artists. Voorhees produced several charming pictures of his Bermuda home, as well as one of the original house at the Cambridge Beaches resort, ‘round de corner’ from “Tranquility”. It is of interest that John S Humphreys, professor at Harvard University, included the hotel home in his seminal book on the island’s vernacular, Bermuda Houses, published in 1923. One would like to think Clark and John were friends as well as artists, the one in traditional imagery-making of painting, the other in photographic essays.Collections such as Voorhees’ are not only of artistic value, reflecting ‘varied subjects, have fine quality, lovely colour and rare sympathy’, but are of significance to the historian and archaeologist, and indeed the natural scientist, for the artist captured the nature of the place, but without any intention that an historic state was being embedded in ink and paint on his canvas. Thus they are unbiased images of the Past. Some of paintings record the landscape before the demise of the Bermuda cedar and the advent of the pernicious Mexican Pepper and the dreaded Australian Casuarina. Cedars abound in Voorhees’ paintings and in views in his sketch book that gallery partner Jennifer C. Krieger kindly showed to friends Bill and Georgia Belk, the latter being an American descendent of the Bermudian Harriott family of Salt Cay fame.An essay by Caroline L. Gillaspie accompanies the exhibition, which gives the context of the life and times of Clark Voorhees and the important artists’ colony at Old Lyme, Connecticut. A number of those colonists also came to Bermuda and left a significant legacy of their impressions of the place.While leaving artistic evaluations to those better qualified, as an archaeologist, one was drawn to the works such as ‘Springfield Courtyard by Moonlight’ and the wonderful view from the hill overlooking Watford Bridge, with the Casuarina-less island of that name, for which a small study image in pencil is also extant. “Tranquility” still reposes in one of the many oasis that survive in our beloved island, if some of the peace is now broken by traffic and anti-tourism social activities.Voorhees came, saw and conquered a Bermuda ambience that is still with us, despite the efforts of some to destroy what is unique and endearing about the island. It is for that reason that we might someday think of including such guest artists, who loved the island as most Bermudians do, into the panoply of national heroes of the island. It is the brilliance of their imagery that allows us in turbulent times to anchor our spirits in firm ground, when reflecting upon much that was good about this place through their ‘Impressions of Paradise’, as Gillaspie rightly intimates in her essay. As with most Bermudians, the Old Lyme artists had a “pride of affiliation” with the island, an empathetic phrase suggested lately at the Indian Harbour Yacht Club by an architect friend of the island.The messages these paintings give the exhibit visitor are as good today as they were a century ago to the tourists of the early twentieth century. As the milieux captured therein yet exist, we might benefit from a detailed study of such artistic works as that of Voorhees, in considering how to revive our flagging tourist economy, the decline of which might be said to have started when many began to forget the heritage that forms the framework of all that still makes the Bermuda painting the ‘Isles of Tranquility’.The Voorhees exhibition is open until January 18, 2013, details at www.hawthornefineart.com: The images herein are courtesy of Hawthorne Fine Art LLC, New YorkEdward Cecil Harris, MBE, JP, PHD, FSA is Executive Director of the National Museum at Dockyard. Comments may be made to director@bmm.bm or 704-5480

Church Bay looking west, one of the many natural scenes along Bermuda’s south coast captured by Voorhees.
Voorhees’ oil painting of Ely’s Harbour seen from the west coast of Bermuda; the artist inset.
Bermuda National Trust’s “Springfield” was evocatively represented by Voorhees in a moonlight setting.
Clark Voorhees’ home, “Tranquility”, on Somerset Island, Bermuda, is still a peaceful oasis.