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Groundbreaking book in a digital age

Excitement is building behind the high walls of the fortress that is the National Museum of Bermuda, as preparations for a groundbreaking book are being excavated from archives in Montreal by a team of architectural and furniture historians led by myself, the former museum director, and co-editor of the book, Linda Abend.

It is hoped in this digital age that John Goodwin Lyman's The Old Bermudas will appear in that centuries-old format of the book, which, unlike your smart phone, needs the attention of both your hands and quite a lot of your brain.

The story behind the coming story began some years ago when Duncan McDowall, the Bermudaphile and longtime visitor with his wife, Sandy Campbell, found an unpublished manuscript from the Great War period and photographs to illustrate it by Lyman, the now famous Canadian artist.

That discovery was recently followed up by the National Museum by the scanning of the “book” and its 86 illustrations, and a further unknown set of over 100 other Lyman images of Bermuda houses and furniture, giving us a remarkable group of almost 200 unpublished views of Bermuda in the period 1913 to 1918.

The images are stunning “eye candy” for those who love the look of the Bermuda home in its natural setting.

Had Lyman's book been published, it would have been the first on the extraordinary Bermuda house architecture, for the seminal Bermuda Houses by John Sanford Humphreys of Harvard University only appeared in 1923.

Sadly, that was not to be, but the matter will be remedied by the National Museum in early 2020.

The story began when Anna and James Morgan purchased Southlands in Warwick in 1913, to which they added more buildings and converted some of the grounds into wonderful gardens.

Late that year, Lyman, Anna's nephew, visited Bermuda with his wife, Corinne St Pierre, for a respite from the ravages of old-fashioned Canadian art critics.

Lyman obviously fell in love with the Bermuda house, or vernacular architecture (which is unique), and by several visits later had written a book on the subject and brought in a photographer, Edward Babcock from Fifth Avenue, to capture buildings, interiors and individual pieces of furniture.

The book was hawked around the hallowed publishers of Manhattan but fell from view for almost a century.

The National Museum will remedy that oversight and the book will contain six chapters and over 300 illustrations and will be funded by donations from the public.

The first chapter, by Dr McDowall, is a biography of Lyman and will include most of his known paintings of Bermuda, though sadly Portrait of a Mulatto Girl, presumably Bermudian, has been lost.

The second chapter will be John Lyman's book, as he would have liked to publish it, while the third section, by Linda Abend, will be all the pictures of houses that he did not choose for the book. The fourth chapter will be all the pictures of furniture that were not included in Lyman's book, as discussed by a great friend of Bermuda, Keith Adams, in his discourse on the development of furniture making on the island.

The fifth chapter will be architectural historian Ed Chappell's 30-year study of the evolution of the Bermuda house, while the sixth brings forth the flowering of such buildings in the former Bermudian possession of Salt Cay in the Turks Islands. The book will thus be the earliest and the most recent views of our delightful and irreplaceable Bermuda vernacular architecture: it eventually will go online for all the world to see and appreciate that extremely valuable cultural tourism asset of our island home.

Word has it that there are over 3,000 Canadians living in Bermuda, so it is hoped that they will come to the wicket and help with this project, which may include an exhibition in Montreal, from whence the Lymans and Morgans came to grace our shores and landscape. Had Lyman's book been published at the time, it would have probably done much to promote the preservation of the unique architectural heritage of Bermuda.

Edward Harris, PhD is founding executive director emeritus of the National Museum of Bermuda

Historic picture: on the left are quarrymen with the tools of their trade at Southlands, Warwick, while guests are gathering on the hillside about the quarry circa 1913. The gentleman in the suit and white hat in the right foreground is thought to be James Morgan, then owner of Southlands (Photograph supplied)

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Published March 23, 2019 at 9:00 am (Updated March 23, 2019 at 1:10 am)

Groundbreaking book in a digital age

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