Alice Ravenel Huger Smith came from a prominent local lineage of four-name ancestors, but the Charleston Renaissance-era artist is revered for much more than her multi-syllabic pedigree. Her pastel-drenched landscapes, moody moss-wisped watercolors, and majestic shore birds in mid-flight evoke iconic aspects of the Lowcountry. She was instrumental in both launching the city’s creative revival in the 1920s and ’30s and giving us images that have become an indelible part of our regional arts lexicon.
Smith was a pioneering spirit in the cultural reawakening of turn-of-the-century Charleston. Born in 1876 to a distinguished family—her paternal grandmother (who raised her; Smith’s mother died when she was 12), Eliza Carolina Middleton Huger, was the granddaughter of Arthur Middleton, signer of the Declaration of Independence and patriarch of Middleton Place plantation, and her father’s father was a descendent of Bishop Robert Smith, the first post-Revolution Bishop of South Carolina—she grew up amidst the waning shadow of her family’s former wealth, in a city as poor as it was proud.
“Poverty was the inheritance of the land in which I dwelt,” she wrote in her “Reminiscences,” memoir-like recollections about her childhood and family life that Smith began penning at age 74 (she died in 1958 at age 81), though they were not published until 1993, when art historian and author Martha Severens included them in her seminal work, Alice Ravenel Huger Smith: An Artist, A Place and a Time (Carolina Art Association).
During Smith’s childhood, Charleston’s grand buildings bore the scars of earthquake, fire, and war, and the post-Reconstruction, post-rice plantation economy was a shambles. As a young adult she endured the Great Depression and First World War, which only added to Charleston’s bleak outlook. Even so, Alice Smith celebrated beauty. In sparse brush strokes and the ethereal wash of watercolor, in the ghostly rise of heron emerging from a brown winter marsh, Smith articulated the austere splendor of the shifting times and place in which she lived.
During the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, when most Charleston society ladies were married and hosting teas, “Miss Alice” was a genteel renegade: a professional artist who was a central force behind the Charleston Renaissance; a preservationist; a published author and illustrator; a teacher, role model, and encourager of others; a close observer and lover of nature. She was a woman of “spiritual beauty and intensity,” wrote Laura Bragg, the founding director of The Charleston Museum. But she was also, and perhaps foremost, a devoted daughter, beloved sister, and doting aunt. Neither Smith nor her older sister Caroline, a pianist and piano teacher, ever married. The spinster sisters lived their adult lives with their father in the family home at 69 Church Street, where they had grown up with their sister Lilli and two brothers, Mason and Jamie, as well as aunts and uncles.
Their economic straits kept Smith close to home, and though she did not travel broadly as a young woman, she loved spending time in the countryside at the family’s rustic cabin on the Wando River, as well as out at Middleton Place. Yet limited funds did not mean stingy hospitality. To the contrary, the Smiths’ downtown home was known for its warm welcome, with music and art students and other artists and visitors frequently coming to call. But it was family—both her blood relations and her dear friends Harry and Talulah McInvaill, to whom she left her estate—that became the central axis around which Alice Smith’s many interests and creative endeavors revolved. And so it is fitting that a new exhibit of the artist’s work focuses on pieces from the private collections of her loved ones.
This fall, Middleton Place and the Edmondston-Alston House will present “Alice Ravenel Huger Smith: Sharing Her Legacy,” dual exhibitions of some 40 watercolors, rare oils painted on mahogany panels, sketchbooks, and other heretofore unseen works that were gifts from the artist. Many of these pieces once hung in the house on Church Street and have since been fixtures over mantels and in guest rooms of other family homes, or in some cases, such as a delightful children’s book handcrafted in 1912 as a birthday gift for her niece Caroline Ravenel Mason Smith, may have been tucked away under beds.
“We’ve been talking about an Alice Smith exhibit like this for years,” says Charles Duell, president of Middleton Place Foundation and a cousin of Smith’s. Duell’s grandfather, J.J. Pringle Smith, was Alice Smith’s second cousin (their grandfathers were brothers), and Duell’s grandparents, along with his mother who was then a young girl, moved out to Middleton Place in 1925 to restore the house and begin their pioneering work reshaping the formal gardens. Alice Smith and her father would frequently visit their cousins at Middleton Place and at their summer home in town, the Edmondston-Alston House on East Bay Street.
Although Duell grew up in New York City, he remembers annual vacations to Charleston in which a visit to see “Cousin Alice” was always on the agenda. Duell’s father, a book publisher in New York City, published Smith’s book of watercolors, Carolina Rice Plantations of the Fifties, in 1936 and also put together a monograph in 1956 in honor of her 80th birthday, cataloging all the artist’s known works, many of which belonged to family members. Using that list as their guide, Duell, along with Smith’s grandniece, Anne Gaud Tinker of Connecticut, and grandnephew, William Mason “Matey” Smith III of Massachusetts (both of whom serve on the Middleton Place Foundation board), began planning a way to gather works from their respective collections and share them with the public.
From October 23 through June 17, these works finally will have their own homecoming, so to speak, as part of the 2016 Middleton family reunion, an event held every five years that brings both European and African-American descendants of the Middleton clan together at Middleton Place. This year’s reunion, to be held in November, also coincides with the plantation’s 275th anniversary.
“Middleton Place is the perfect setting to showcase these works. We know she adored this place, calling it ‘a jewel thrown down in the green woods,’ and loved painting it,” says Mary Edna Sullivan, the curator of Middleton Place Foundation who worked with Tinker, Matey Smith, and Duell to assemble the exhibit. Indeed, 11 of Smith’s works that will hang in the Middleton Place House Museum’s front hall and second-floor library are all either marsh or garden scenes painted on the plantation property or reminiscent of its landscape. The works that will be on view at the Edmondston-Alston House feature a variety of other subjects, including family members and two paintings of sailboats done during trips north to visit her brother in Mattapoisett Harbor—a departure from the Lowcountry marsh and rice plantation scenes Smith is best known for.
Wistful, Evocative, Enduring
Alice Smith began drawing and painting as a young girl, heeding her grandmother’s decree that she would be an artist, “preferably a portrait painter,” as there would always be a market for portraiture. Although she took drawing classes at the Carolina Art Association (now the Gibbes Museum of Art), as well as lessons from a French artist, Lucie-Louise Féry, Alice is considered by scholars to be largely self-taught. Her distant cousin Motte Alston Read introduced her to Japanese art, particularly woodblock prints, which he collected; Alice later learned the technique from Helen Hyde, an accomplished printer who had studied in Japan and visited Charleston in 1916.
Hyde was one of many artists, writers, and poets who came to Charleston during the late teens and early ’20s and contributed to the creative cross-pollination that fueled the Charleston Renaissance. It seems as though most of them, as well as local artists, found their way to the hospitable Smith, whose talent they both recognized and encouraged. Anna Heyward Taylor, Bertha Jaques, DuBose Heyward, Elizabeth O’Neill Verner, Birge Harrison, and Alfred Hutty were some of Smith’s friends and artistic influences; Harrison and Hutty, at times, used Smith’s kitchen house as their studio.
In addition to woodblock prints, Smith learned to etch, dabbled in oils, and was also a noted illustrator who collaborated with her father, genealogist and historian D. E. H. Smith, to author two books on Charleston history and architecture. But from 1924 on, Smith focused primarily on watercolor, a medium conducive to the ethereal, almost abstract effects that she preferred. “I eventually wandered from the suggested field of portraiture to real fields of grass and flowers, woods, and creeks surrounding fields of rice or equally golden lotus,” she wrote in “Reminiscences.”
Indeed, being out in the natural world and Lowcountry landscape had a strong pull for Smith, who on a Sunday stroll once walked the 17 miles to Middleton Place with her father. Her paintings have that slowed-down, let-the-beauty-soak-in sense—a mystical allure and whispery nostalgia that eschews realism for memory, imagination, and, some might say, particularly of her “Carolina Rice Planter” series, a romanticized representation of antebellum culture.
Romanticized or not, Smith’s work chronicles a bygone era of rice fields and vast pinelands. Yet her artistic legacy endures and, in fact, is today stronger than ever. “In terms of the marketplace, her star has risen exponentially,” says Martha Severens, an expert on Charleston Renaissance artists who served as curator of the Greenville County Museum of Art from 1992 to 2010. Works that Smith may have given away as wedding gifts (as were some of the pieces included in the upcoming exhibit) or sold for anywhere from $100 to $9,000 in her day now command nearly six figures. One of her watercolors popped up on Antiques Roadshow three years ago and was appraised by Nan Chisholm Fine Art Ltd. in New York for $85,000.
Poignant & Intimate
The Middleton Place and Edmondston-Alston House exhibits will be a departure from any previous presentation of her works to date, including most recently a 2013 Gibbes Museum of Art exhibit that dusted off her “Carolina Rice Plantation” series, which the artist donated to the Carolina Art Association in 1936.
“It’s wonderful to bring her back to her ancestral roots at Middleton, a place she returned to often for family gatherings and to paint. Having this show of family-owned pieces in a domestic space reinforces that the exhibit will be intimate and poignant, and that’s what makes it distinctive,” says Severens. That, as well as the fact that the public will see some of these pieces for the first time. Even the children’s book is new to Smith scholars and art historians such as Severens.
“The family connection is what makes this show so special,” says Dwight McInvaill, who is lending two of the pieces inherited from his parents for the exhibit. “It includes works that Alice really valued and prized, like Folly Beach After the Storm, which hung over the mantel in the enormous second-floor drawing room at 69 Church Street, and Lotus in Great Blake Reserve, once placed near her sister Caroline’s grand piano in the same room.” McInvaill, director of the Georgetown County Library, is writing a book about Smith entitled Pursuing Perfection: The Artistic Lessons of Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, 1876–1958 and will deliver a lecture as part of the exhibition program.
“I’m delighted that the public will get to see works that have never been shown before,” says Anne Gaud Tinker, who was 13 years old when her great-aunt died. She hopes viewers will come away with a broader appreciation for Smith’s artistic range, and with an understanding that “she was very much a family person in addition to a successful professional artist,” adds Tinker, who fondly remembers Alice encouraging her and her cousins to “open the windows of your mind to let the fresh air in.” In a sense, this homecoming exhibition does just that, opening a new window onto the legacy of Alice Smith. Fresh air, indeed.
Alice Ravenel Huger Smith: Sharing Her Legacy
View the paintings, sketchbooks, photographs, and the never-before-seen children’s book on exhibit at the Middleton Place House Museum and the Edmondston-Alston House from October 23, 2016, to June 17, 2017.
Middleton Place, 4300 Ashley River Rd. Daily, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. House Museum is open Tuesday-Sunday: 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; Monday: Noon-4:30 p.m. (843) 556-6020, www.middletonplace.org
Edmondston-Alston House, 21 E Battery. Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; Sunday-Monday, 1-4:30 p.m. (843) 722-7171, www.edmondstonalston.com