On the eve of the Gibbes Museum of Art exhibition “Anna Heyward Taylor: Intrepid Explorer,” take a look into the unconventional life of the noted Charleston Renaissance artist, whose passions for travel and honing her talent took her to Asia, the mountains of Mexico, and the jungles of South America
(Left) Anna Heyward Taylor on expedition in British Guiana (present-day Guyana); (Right) Carolina Paroquet (woodblock print on paper, 1935) by Anna Heyward Taylor
Mr. Chase gave me a dandy criticism today,” wrote a youthful Anna Heyward Taylor to her sister, Nell, back home in Columbia, South Carolina, in July 1903. “Says I am all right, improving right along, etc.”
The “Mr. Chase” was none other than world-renowned William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), widely regarded as the finest American Impressionist and portrait artist of the time. Taylor was studying with Chase in Holland (she’d previously taken his classes in New York City) and was brimming with enthusiasm. “I have never been in such an exalted frame of mind in my life before,” she wrote to her cousin Colie Goodwyn a month later. “I could paint all day & all night & never get enough paint.”
Later in Provincetown, Massachusetts, while studying under Swedish block printer Bror J. O. Nordfeldt (1878-1955), her excitement remained unsullied. In a letter to Nell written on August 1, 1916, Taylor exclaimed, “I am having the most thrilling time working with Mr. Nordfeldt and he seems to think that I am getting hold of things right along, and I certainly feel that he is helping me. I am now trying to compose pictures intelligently, and trying for solidarity and rhythm of line. I also paint in a lower key so I can get much greater richness of color.”
The richness of color and rhythm of line in her watercolors, block prints, and batiks are what ultimately made Taylor one of the loftiest in the pillars of exceptional talent who were working in Charleston during the early 20th century, giving rise to the term “Charleston Renaissance.” Thriving on the wealth of material offered in the deep-rooted colonial city with its fluid pastels and panache, they included artists Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, Alfred Hutty, Prentiss Taylor, George Biddle, Edward Hopper, and Elizabeth O’Neill Verner, along with writers and poets John Bennett, Laura Bragg, Hervey Allen, Beatrice Ravenel, Julia Peterkin, and Josephine Pinckney.
While all became celebrated in their own ways, Anna Heyward Taylor brought the unique sophistication of a world traveler. Her trips were not limited to Europe and England but extended to the Far East, the islands of the Caribbean, and the mountains of Mexico, as well as two expeditions with the celebrated explorer and zoologist William Beebe in the jungles of South America. That she made such journeys during the tightly corseted and silk-stockinged primness that marked a woman’s life in the early 20th century is even more of an accomplishment. Yet this natural boldness coupled with clarity of purpose was a hallmark of Taylor’s extraordinary life.
“Whatever Anna Heyward Taylor looks at she sees in a clear and unmistakable design,” Charleston arts critic Rowena W. Tobias wrote in a March 26, 1939, News & Courier feature on the artist. “If she is ever assailed by the doubts and philosophical enigmas that often plague artists, it shows neither in her work or her person. She knows the how and why of all that she has painted and done.”
Taylor was born on November 13, 1879, into a life of privilege. Her father was prominent Columbia physician Dr. Benjamin Walter Taylor, and her mother was Marianna Heyward, whose ties to South Carolina hearken back to Lowcountry planter and Declaration of Independence signer Thomas Heyward, Jr. Her paternal great-grandfather, Colonel Thomas Taylor, sold the land on which the city of Columbia was built following the Revolutionary War.
After graduating in 1897 from the Presbyterian College for Women in Columbia, by all custom she should have married a man of equal social position and settled into a quiet, comfortable life as a well-to-do society matron. Instead, she moved to New York, where she studied at the Art Students League and New York School of Art, where she became a pupil of Chase. She was only 24 when she traveled to Holland and London for Chase’s classes.
“She was self-contained,” explains historian and Taylor scholar Alexander Moore, who, with Taylor’s nephew, the late Edmund R. Taylor, published a compilation of her letters and writings, Selected Letters of Anna Heyward Taylor (USC Press), in 2010. “This trait may have been inherited from her mother who was as independent as she was,” notes Moore. “Anna must have really been a force to deal with, but she was a dedicated artist. From the outset, she knew that in order to be successful she had to be a professional.”
For a good portion of her twenties, Taylor migrated between Columbia, New York, Philadelphia, and the summer arts colony at Provincetown, Massachusetts. During this period, she studied under a number of artists, including Frederick DuMond (1867-1927) and William Langson Lathrop (1859-1938). After a few years teaching art in Columbia, she and her sister, Nell, traveled to Europe together, with Nell studying voice lessons in Germany while Anna studied art in England, Scotland, Switzerland, and Italy.
In 1914, Taylor journeyed to Asia, visiting China, Korea, and Japan, where she became keenly interested in the printmaking techniques and textiles that would make up much of her later work. It was then that she met artist Helen Hyde (1868-1919), who had been in Japan for several years and become a master of Japanese woodblock printing.
Taylor’s plan had been a trip around the entire world. The outbreak of war in Europe cut her itinerary short, and both she and Hyde returned to the United States, Taylor traveling by way of Calcutta and Bombay. She wrote Nell in October 1914, “Now that I am turning homeward I get awful spells of homesickness.”
Back in Columbia, in December 1915, Taylor organized an art show for Hyde’s woodblock prints. She then introduced the artist to Charleston and helped her set up classes in print-making techniques. Taylor wouldn’t remain for Hyde’s instruction, however: she was traveling again, this time with her friends Rachel and Inness Hartley to South America by way of Grenada and Trinidad to work as a scientific illustrator at naturalist William Beebe’s “jungle laboratory” in British Guiana (present-day Guyana).
INTO THE WILDS
Taylor had befriended fellow artist Rachel Hartley in Holland while both were studying with Chase. Rachel and her brother, Inness, were well placed in the art world: Their grandfather was landscape painter George Inness; their father, New York sculptor Jonathan Scott Hartley, helped establish the Art Students League. Inness was also a friend and research associate of Beebe. It is likely through the Hartleys that Taylor decided to join the Beebe expedition in British Guiana in 1916.
“Beebe was deliberately larger than life,” explains Moore. “He was exploring parts of the world that had yet to be completely discovered, part of that last group of naturalists, archaeologists, mountain climbers, and such who could do it all. They lived at the tail end of a time when one could say, ‘I’m going to do something, and I’m going to do it my way.’ Taylor shared this curiosity for the natural world and different cultures,” continues Moore. “To her, a strange plant had as equal a scientific value as it did as a basis for her art.”
The Beebe laboratory in 1916 was deep in the jungles of Kalacoon. Aside from Beebe, the expedition’s members included Taylor; Rachel and Inness Hartley; Donald Carter, whom Taylor drolly described as “keeper & catcher of snakes & animals”; entomologist Paul Howes, who also served as photographer; and journalist and world traveler Gertrude Singleton Mathews. “Taylor knew she was joining Beebe’s expedition purely as a scientific illustrator,” says Moore. “And that is what she determined to do. She was a great team member and got along well with the others. Yet she also knew the work she was doing was essential to her advancement as an artist.”
The medium used for Taylor’s scientific illustrations changed according to need. “I am to help Inness particularly & then Paul who is working on wasps & some other insects,” she wrote her sister, Nell. “Inness is working on the embryo of birds, making comparative studies of the growth of the bones in the legs and wings, an entirely new field of work… this will require pen & ink outline drawings & some little color work, but not the finished kind Rachel will do.”
Taylor also served as housekeeper and oversaw the kitchen. In early March 1916, they received a surprise visit from Beebe’s close friends, former President and Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt. “Our dining table for our lunch for 12 people was made of three rough boards nailed together and put on horses. Some of the party sat on boxes as there weren’t enough chairs to go around…. They were all amazed at the lunch Rachel and I managed to get up. We had veal, rice, butter beans, pumpkin, asparagus and mayonnaise, rice pudding and canned pears…. I have never seen people easier to entertain and they ‘spent the day’ in true old time fashion… Roosevelt not leaving until dark.”
Taylor adapted to the wilds, writing Nell, “My idea of the tropics & jungle is absolutely different from my preconceived notion of it.” While there were fewer mosquitoes than she expected, she still came down with a brief but “horrid” attack of malaria in April. Characteristically, she wasn’t concerned so much about being ill but missing “mangoes in new leaf which I was anxious to paint.”
In May, she returned stateside to spend the summer in Provincetown, where etcher and oil painter Bror Nordfeldt was experimenting with a revolutionary new method of “white line” woodblock printing. This process, which came to be known as “Provincetown Printmaking,” greatly streamlined the work and allowed the artist to make multicolored prints from a single carved block rather than having to carve separate blocks for each color used. A deeply carved groove separated each color, leaving a bold white line that also emphasized the design. While Taylor would later move to the less physically challenging linoleum block printing, the style became a hallmark of her work.
Returning home to Columbia in the fall, she organized exhibitions of Edna Boies Hopkins’s woodblock prints and Nordfeldt’s etchings and block prints. Nordfeldt later wrote her, “I can just see you stirring up your town… dragging the poor unwitting public into art when all it wants is to be left alone wallowing in its tea and muffins.”
CALL OF DUTY
With the entry of the United States into World War I in 1917, Taylor joined the American Red Cross as a volunteer in France (the first woman in South Carolina to do so) and remained overseas for the duration. She started in Paris making bandages, then was detailed for canteen work at the railroad center at Bourges, through which thousands of American troops passed on their way to the camps. She helped found a club for officers at Souilly in the devastated region of France. After peace, she was one of the few who went to Germany as a “canteener” with the army of occupation. The State newspaper wrote on January 5, 1919, “Probably no other American girl had a longer, more varied and more valuable service overseas than Miss Taylor.”
In 1920, the war over, Beebe planned another expedition to British Guiana, this time to Kartabo, upstream from the previous location at Kalacoon. Taylor again joined the Hartleys and focused her illustrations on the flowers in the jungle, many of which had not yet been identified. “Although I could not go very far into the jungle alone,” Taylor told Rowena Tobias in 1939, “we often went on tramping and painting trips two by two. My companions were often a young Englishman or Clifford Pope of Savannah, who was interested in reptiles, while I concentrated on the flowers. So canoe trips often proved the ideal solution for us since we could find both flowers and snakes in the trees and vegetation along the riverbanks. You inevitably became interested in what the other members of the expedition were collecting, so that I rarely returned to camp without some specimens for scientists.”
Taylor’s drawings, watercolors, and gouaches not only captured an exotic plant’s appearance but the changes of shape and color that occurred during its life cycle. She also found time to paint and make studies on her own that she would turn into block prints later. “You can make your watercolors on the spot,” she told Tobias, “but you can’t do it with block prints. You can’t carry all your materials and equipment around with you.”
Also on the expedition was Harvard botanist Irving Widmer Bailey. Corresponding with Nell in September before her return stateside, Taylor wrote, “I want to look over Bailey’s photos of cross sections of wood and select some to put into textiles. It will be interesting trying & then quite a new stunt. Some of them will lend themselves wonderfully to Batik.”
Even before she left Kartabo, she was planning upcoming exhibits using Bailey’s photographs. “This use of the scientific information to create art was highly original,” notes Moore. Indeed, in the spring of 1922, the resulting watercolors, batiks, and block prints were shown at the Museum of Natural History and Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Taylor became known as “the jungle artist” and gave lectures to accompany her exhibits. She gained the reputation of explorer and later was welcomed into the Society of Woman Geographers.
“I returned to the United States with a glorious collection of brilliant colored suggestions for textile designs and wood block prints,” she wrote in an article about the expedition. She also carried something else. Amidst her luggage were living creatures, including monkeys, parrots, and snakes, that Beebe was sending to the Bronx Zoo. “It was the only time in my life when I could have brought into the United States any amount of gold or diamonds or high duty goods without paying a cent,” quipped Taylor to Rowena Tobias in 1939. “For in the first case of my luggage which the customs inspector saw, there were 15 fer-de-lance, one of the most poisonous tropical snakes. He was so completely unnerved that he hustled me through the customs without looking at another thing. To me the tragedy was that I was only bringing in 10 dollars’ worth of goods, far below my normal duty-free quota.”
ACROSS THE POND
In 1925 she crossed the Atlantic yet again, this time on a three-month tour of Europe and the Mediterranean with her friend and artist Susan Greenough Hinckley Bradley, who, at age 74, was making her final visit to Europe. Taylor was now 47; however, her spark for discovery was not dimmed by middle age. “I have been seeing some wonderful museums I never saw before,” she wrote Nell.
“I think this trip to Europe was her real immersion into European art,” says Moore. “This was also when she came to fully comprehend what she could and couldn’t do—to realize that she was not a portraitist in oil or a landscape painter. She began to understand what her own abilities were and how they fit into her purpose.”
While they encountered many people they knew on the trip, including several South Carolinians, there were times when Taylor preferred being alone. She wryly wrote to Nell from Paris, “Mrs. B. can’t understand why I don’t make a mad dash after every American I happen to know…. I can’t make her understand that I am finding myself quite delightful.”
“She had a strong sense of her own integrity,” explains Moore. “She was perfectly happy to circumscribe her own life.”
Almost immediately following her European trip, Taylor was traveling again, this time to the Virgin Islands with Rachel Hartley. The two artists would spend six months painting on the islands of St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John’s. “I feel like I could stay here & paint the rest of my life,” she wrote Nell on January 16, 1926. “It is just too beautiful.”
From St. Thomas she wrote, “The Gods are with us in every sense of the word. Such things to paint! One has only to stand in one place & turn a degree in any direction & behold, a new subject.”
From St. Thomas, while sojourning at the Grand Hotel, she wrote home, “We painted a ‘Gauguin.’ I doing the South Sea landscape & Rachel the naked islanders, signing it with a copy of his own signature. It turned out so snappy that R. wanted to keep it.”
HOME IN THE HOLY CITY
In 1927, Taylor set her sights on Charleston, acquiring a studio on Atlantic Street near fellow artists Alice Huger Ravenel Smith and Elizabeth O’Neill Verner. Two years later she set up permanent housekeeping at 79 Church Street. She pragmatically told Rowena Tobias, in a future correspondence, that the reason for her move was because “Columbia was not very interesting to paint and there was no buying public there.”
More to the point, Taylor knew Charleston was the place to be. The Lowcountry had all the color, animation, and enthrallment an artist could desire. She quickly became an active part of the cultural scene of the Charleston Renaissance. In the bold strokes of watercolors and batiks and the dramatic black-and-whites of her block prints, she brought her own vision to the beauty of the natural world, the delicate whimsy of the town’s narrow streets, and lyrical portraits of its African American citizens.
“She fit into the arts scene easily,” explains Moore. “And as a sophisticate and world traveler, she was able to give it a direction that some of the other artists couldn’t. She had studied art all over the world and under many superb artists. She brought this into the community and into her art.”
Taylor remained in Charleston for the rest of her life. While she curtailed her traveling in her later years, in 1935 she spent a year in Mexico, then a popular gathering ground for artists. In typical fashion, she learned Spanish so she could get to areas tourists seldom visited. She spent the winter painting in Taxco, after which she traveled throughout the country using any means possible, including horseback. She was enchanted by the landscape and the culture—the friendly courtesy of the people—how they “did not stare at you because you were painting: they were much too polite.”
“I think Mexico also shows Taylor as part scientist and anthropologist,” says Moore. “She became deeply engrossed in their culture, studying their Day of the Dead and other Catholic rituals and how they sometimes paralleled African-American church practices in the Lowcountry. The prints she did there are fabulous…the colors are distinctly hers.”
The remaining two decades of Taylor’s life were spent in her adopted city, Charleston. In 1948, she was commissioned to illustrate This Our Land, Chalmers S. Murray’s book on the history of the SC Agricultural Society. For it, she produced 23 dynamic black-and-white linoleum block prints showcasing Lowcountry plantation and farm life—the land and the people who worked it, the cotton harvesting, rice threshing, and carrying of crops to market. These prints became some of her best loved works and are now valued holdings in museums and galleries.
From Provincetown to the jungles of South America, from European cities to the rhythmic color of the Caribbean, Mexico, and the Carolina Lowcountry, the well-traveled Taylor produced an abundant, outstanding body of work. As Rowena Tobias wrote, “There are no soft fuzzy lines to Anna Heyward Taylor. She has a forceful personality, a straightforward, unwavering approach to all things both personal and artistic…. If you know her work you know her, for into it she puts the strength and direction of her own personality.”
When Taylor died at age 76 in 1956, the News & Courier honored her with this fitting tribute: “All that is and has been the Lowcountry—the harvesting of rice on the Edisto, a flower woman under St. Michael’s portico, palmettos on a sea island, the history-laden streets of this old city—are in Miss Anna’s block prints.”
BEHIND THE EXHIBIT
This is the first time that Anna Heyward Taylor’s British Guiana watercolors, batiks, and woodblock prints will be on view together,” says Gibbes Museum of Art exhibitions consultant Pam Wall, who, after years of research and a bit of sleuthing, was able to pull together this special exhibition.
“About a decade ago, I did some in-depth work on Taylor and her time in British Guiana,” she explains. Wall and some other scholars knew the prolific artist had created a large number of botanical watercolor paintings from the colony but could find no clues to where they were located. Years went by, and Wall had almost given up when she happened upon several paintings in The Charleston Museum’s archives. “At first glance, I knew they were the British Guiana paintings. It was a thrill!”
And so Wall’s vision for “Anna Heyward Taylor: Intrepid Explorer” became a reality. The exhibition features 30 objects from British Guiana (as well as Mexico and Charleston), including watercolors (eight on loan from The Charleston Museum), woodblock prints, two woodblocks, and a stunning batik.
“Anna Heyward Taylor: Intrepid Explorer” - January 18 - May 12
Member Preview reception: Thursday, January 17, 6 p.m. for Museum Fellows & 7 p.m. for all members
Curator-led tour: Thursday, January 24, 12:30 p.m.
The Gibbes Museum of Art, 135 Meeting St., (843) 722-2706, gibbesmuseum.org
Photographs courtesy of The Charleston Museum; Images courtesy of (portriat) Gibbes Museum of Art/Carolina Art Association & (Batik) The Charleston Museum; Images courtesy of Gibbes Museum of Art/Carolina Art Association