Seventy-Five Years Later
Paintings Return Home
Twenty works by an early 20th century master of landscape painting, James Britton, returned to their point of origin in Sag Harbor in a remarkable exhibit in August, 1999.
Britton, who was born in 1878, moved from New York City to Sag Harbor in 1922 and took rooms on Main Street, upstairs from the office of the local newspaper, the Expressin the same building whose rear extension houses the Nabi Gallery today.
During his three years in the village, while his wife supplemented the family income by playing piano accompaniment to silent movies at the Sag Harbor Cinema, the artist produced many scenes of the nearby landscape, the bay shore, and buildings such as a bootlegger's storehouse visible from his studio window.
Rum Runner's Cottage, oil on board, 4x8, 1925These luminous views, which still appear astonishingly fresh, are shown together with work by an artist who painted the East End landscape half a century later, N.H. Stubbing (1921-83), who in his last years had a house and studio in Sagaponack. The exhibit, titled Sag Harbor Skies: 1925 . . . 1975, remains on view through August 31.
Britton was well known in his lifetime both as a painter and a writer. His portraits, landscapes, and woodcuts were widely exhibited at galleries in New York and New England, and his art criticism appeared in a number of publications, including American Art News, forerunner of today's ARTnews. The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford held an exhibition in his memory following his death in 1936. In the 1990's his reputation, after long neglect, has been again on the rise . His work has been the focus of exhibits at Saint Joseph College in Connecticut and Ventura College in California, among other venues, and is again sought by collectors.
Self Portrait, Sag Harbor, oil on canvas, 11x9, 1923In conjunction with the Nabi exhibit, the artist's granddaughters, Barbara and Ursula Britton, have compiled a selection of excerpts from his autobiography and diaries from the Sag Harbor years in an illustrated booklet that is available at the gallery. "This little town at the eastern end of Long Island was indeed a harbor of refuge for me," Britton recalled, at a time of "unbearable summer heat" when "the pavements of New York shot up everything horrible short of actual flames." It was "a sleepy little village," in contrast to "the Hamptons, especially Southampton, a fashionable watering-place for New York's socially elect.
"'Everybody' went to Southampton," he wrote, "certain others went to East Hampton, and still others to Hampton Bays. No one went to Sag Harbor. That was as it should be."
A typical diary entry reads: "Last day of this June 1925 has a magnificent sky and a fresh breeze. It is now close to sundown and the water out my window is the most delicious blue imaginable. I have tried to paint some of it and I thank heaven for the privilege."
Untitled, oil on board, 10x8, 1925