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A long-forgotten manuscript comes out of hibernation

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A new book from the National Museum of Bermuda tells how Canadian artist John Lyman long ago discovered the beauty of the island’s vernacular architecture. In the second in a two-part series, historian Duncan McDowall tells the story behind the book

The Old Bermudas was a labour of love, one that further restored Lyman’s artistic will. When his island sojourn ended in 1919, he left with a renewed commitment to modernism, one ironically dovetailed with his new Bermudian-born appreciation of received artistic tradition. Sadly, the manuscript never made it into print. There were negotiations with New York publishers, but a contract was never secured. Factors such as wartime rationing of paper, the slim marketing possibilities of a small island, the immediate onset of a postwar recession and the difficulty of selling the “old” into an American culture now addicted to the “new” may all explain this outcome. Lyman, however, put the disappointment behind him, hitting his painterly stride as a modernist, re-emerging himself in the artistic circles of Europe and eventually returning to Canadian acclaim in Montreal. He returned to Bermuda only once, in the 1950s, but never lost the liberation that sunny places brought to his work. He died in Barbados in 1967.

Lyman’s Bermuda manuscript went into a long hibernation, entombed in the personal archive he left behind. Finally, in 1975, it emerged in the Lyman holdings of the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec in Montreal. In the intervening years, others also succumbed to Lyman’s fascination with the Bermuda vernacular. In 1923, Harvard professor John S. Humphreys published his Bermuda Houses with its salute to Bermuda as a place with an architecture “worthy of perpetuation”. Prominent American architects came to Bermuda, where they marvelled at the persistence and simplicity of its homes. Ralph Adams Cram, architect of the West Point Military Academy and New York's Cathedral of St John the Divine, described Bermuda architecture as being in “a class quite by itself ...The little stone cottages are masterpieces of simple and effective design”. Bermudians, too, seemed to awaken to the preciousness of the buildings around them. In the early 1930s, a young Bermuda architect, Wilfred “Wil” Onions, returned from McGill University dedicated to carrying the Bermuda cottage style into the modern age. “No other measure is so potent in depicting a country’s civilisation than is its architecture,” he wrote. Today, an Onions-inspired home is synonymous with Bermuda’s true built heritage.

Many Bermuda homes were inspired by the architect Wilfred “Wil” Onions

Twenty years ago, Duncan McDowall, a Canadian historian with a long fascination with Bermuda, stumbled upon the Lyman manuscript while researching in Montreal and dispatched a microfilm of it to the island. Recognition of the manuscript’s quality and significance was immediate. Immediate in the sense that it offered a valuable reference document to those studying Bermuda’s architectural evolution, but also in the sense that it stood as a hitherto unknown yet seminal celebration of island architecture. Initial talk of finally bringing Lyman’s work to print was soon amplified by the idea of publishing Lyman’s text in the broader context of Bermuda’s long-lived vernacularism.

Preparation of the Lyman manuscript for publication attracted an array of multinational talent. Spearheading the effort were Edward Harris, renowned archaeologist and then executive director of the National Museum of Bermuda, and Linda Abend, a historian of island architecture and prodigious contributor to the Bermuda National Trust’s parish-by-parish Architectural Heritage Series. From Canada, Dr McDowall contributed his knowledge of Bermuda tourism as well as research on Lyman’s Canadian roots and artistry. From the United States, the late Edward Chappell, longtime Roberts Director of Architectural and Archaeological Research at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, brought a tremendous erudition stemming from his years of hands-on scrutiny of Bermuda architecture. More Williamsburg expertise was brought by Jeffrey Klee, an architectural historian with an ability to set Bermuda heritage in an Anglo-Atlantic context. The team was rounded out by Keith Adams, a Delaware landscape gardener, specialist in English pottery and keen Bermudaphile. Out of such expertise, Lyman’s original manuscript now finds itself nested with chapters that analyse its context and significance to Bermuda’s heritage and Impressionist art.

A centennial book launch

Reinforced by this exemplary set of talents, The Old Bermudas finally enjoyed its christening this spring, skilfully brought to life by the National Museum of Bermuda press and editor-designer Paul Shapiro. With more than 200 illustrations — in colour and black and white — the volume not only presents Lyman’s original intention but reinforces it with its new authors’ insights on Lyman’s artistic soul, the simple intricacies of Bermuda architecture, the richness of Bermuda furniture and the migration of the Bermuda vernacular style to the Turks & Caicos Islands in the Caribbean. Edward Chappell enhances Lyman’s inquiry by addressing the place of enslaved, and then free, Bermudians in the domestic architecture of the islands — who were often relegated to behind-the-scenes kitchens and back staircases or housed in outbuildings.

Elena Strong, the executive director of the National Museum of Bermuda, has described The Old Bermudas as “the definitive text on Bermuda vernacular architecture”. In her foreword to the book, former Bermuda premier Dame Jennifer Smith notes that Lyman reminds us all today of “what makes Bermuda so distinctly different from the homogenous world around it”. On one level, much has changed since John Lyman wandered Bermuda’s lanes a century ago, awed by the island’s masterful use of local stone.

Today, Bermuda homes come adorned with electricity, air-conditioning, aluminium shutters and a rainbow of durable acrylic paints, but the core aesthetic is still tenaciously vernacular. The “architecture of habit” has served Bermuda well down through the centuries. John Lyman’s passionate and eloquent recognition of this durable heritage merits a place on every Bermuda bookshelf.

Canadian historian Duncan McDowall, PhD is co-editor of John Lyman’s Old Bermudas with Linda Abend and Edward Harris, PhD

Canadian historian Duncan McDowall, PhD is co-editor of John Lyman’s Old Bermudas with Linda Abend and Edward Harris, PhD. John Lyman’s The Old Bermudas: A Study of Bermuda’s Vernacular Architecture 1913-2019 is published by the National Museum of Bermuda Press and is available at Bermuda bookstores and online through the National Museum of Bermuda Bookstore at www.nmb.bm

Part 1

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Published May 25, 2023 at 8:00 am (Updated May 24, 2023 at 6:31 pm)

A long-forgotten manuscript comes out of hibernation

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