I find Chapel Hill’s Hopper nestled amidst verdant forest. Chapel Hill is a college town of the University of North Carolina (UNC). On Chapel Hill’s main street, amputee panhandlers and drunk manic depressives alternately yell at each other, passers-by and police.
The Ackland Art Museum – Home to Chapel Hill’s Hopper
The Ackland Art Museum, part of UNC, is just one block from Chapel Hill’s main street. The Ackland’s morbid history fits neatly with that of Mowfield Plantation (1942), Chapel Hill’s Hopper watercolor.
William H. Ackland was a Tennessee lawyer who had no connection with UNC during his lifetime. On his death in 1940, Ackland left an endowment to create an art museum. Ackland’s tombstone inscription said it was for ‘the people of his native south to know and love the fine arts.’
Ackland intended the endowment for Duke University. However, the trustees there passed up on Ackland’s gift. Apparently, Ackland’s requirement that he be buried in the museum which his money founded scared the university off.
In the end, after years of courtroom proceedings, UNC ended up with both Ackland’s money and Ackland himself. In 1956, two years before the Ackland Museum finally opened and its benefactor could rest in peace, another wealthy Southerner died. Her name was Elizabeth Amis Cameron Blanchard.
Elizabeth Blanchard – A Loyal Hopper Collector
Californian-born, European-educated, Blanchard had Southern roots through the Amis family of North Carolina. However, Blanchard was in fact a New York socialite. Interestingly, Blanchard was also an interior decorator, reminiscent of Louise Caldwell Murdock in Wichita.
Elizabeth Blanchard was one of Edward Hopper’s earliest patrons. Indeed, she purchased three watercolors from his first solo commercial show at the Rehn Gallery in 1924. Over the following years, she continued to loyally purchase his pictures, including the beautiful oil Corn Hill, Truro (1930).
Blanchard had grey hair, a mischievous glint in her eye and a smile born of independent wealth. Amazingly, she kept most of her collection, which included a John Singer Sargent watercolor, in her cupboard at home. ‘I get added thrills when I don’t see them every day,’ she told a reporter.
Nevertheless, Blanchard was exceedingly generous with loan requests. In fact, Blanchard lent her Hoppers to at least six museum shows between 1933 and 1938.
This, on top of her loyal patronage, no doubt gained her considerable favor in Hopper’s eyes. In the end, she became a close friend of Jo Hopper’s.
Blanchard’s Unwelcome Commission of a Hopper Watercolor
Through Jo, Blanchard convinced Hopper in 1942 to paint her ancestral home in Northampton County, North Carolina, near the Virginia border.
The resulting picture, Mowfield Plantation, was composed under sufferance from an old photo and it suffers as a result.
As Carol Gillham, Assistant Curator at the Ackland Museum, says with a wan smile, ‘It’s not, perhaps, the most exciting work.’
Blanchard, however, was immensely excited about the book for which the Hopper picture was intended as an illustration. Sir Archie – the Godolphin Arabian of America – Greatest of American Foundation Sires, His Background and His Times was the working title.
The Amis family raised Sir Archie (aka. Sir Archy), a famous thoroughbred horse, at Mowfield Plantation. The thoroughbred was a point of entry for Blanchard to her Southern roots and became an all-consuming obsession.
Hopper’s reluctance in completing the project may have stemmed from his early work as a commercial illustrator in the long years before he achieved artistic recognition.
Hopper’s misgivings only increased when he found that Blanchard had unceremoniously dislodged Corn Hill, Truro from above her fireplace with an amateur portrait of Archie.
Jo Hopper and Elizabeth Blanchard – An Unlikely Friendship
Jo wrote pages-long letters to Blanchard, whom she called ‘Bee’, with Archie a favorite subject.
‘We do hope you keep well + strong + that all goes well with Sir Archie (in heaven – with my Arthurs fierce cat),’ she wrote in one letter, ‘you won’t rest until that book’s published, so I hope that big event is close at hand + that it will be exactly as you want it to be so that will leave you free, with that tremendous job done to have time to really relax + be happy.’
Privately, Jo worried that the book would send Blanchard to her grave.
‘We saw Bee last way back in April – busy + happy,’ she wrote to a mutual friend in 1941. ‘We’ll be happy too if Sir Archie and his endless progeny are not the death of her. She’s on the last lap of that book now, praise her.’
Mowfield Plantation and Posthumous Publication
Sadly, Blanchard died in 1956 before she could reach ‘the last lap of that book.’ However, her labor was not in vain.
Manly Wade Wellman finally finished and published it in 1958 as The Life and Times of Sir Archie – The Story of America’s Greatest Thoroughbred, 1805-1833. He placed the Hopper illustration opposite page twenty-six of the book.
The original Mowfield Plantation was bequeathed by Blanchard to UNC. She made the gift in memory of Blanchard’s ancestor, Thomas Amis, one of the university’s founders. She also made it in honour of the owners of Sir Archie, her great-great grandfather, William Amis, and his son, John Amis, an 1802 UNC alumnus.
The university transferred the picture from the North Carolina Collection of the UNC Library to the Ackland Art Museum in 1984. This was due to a determination ‘that the watercolor has value as artwork rather than history, it not being a good likeness of the actual place.’
Hopper’s Mysterious Woods
Timothy Riggs, the slightly disheveled, pleasant Curator of Collections at the Ackland, agrees that it is not a ‘good likeness.’ Indeed, he says that Hopper inserted his own version of the surrounding woods into the picture.
Unsurprisingly, these woods are the best part of the picture.
In addition to the usual mysterious, dense trees present in so many of Hopper’s paintings, there is the Southern touch of a weeping willow in the foreground. This has short Japanese-like brushstrokes of yellow-green drooping down on the house’s roof.
The profound darkness of the forest behind the house seems restrained. Perhaps it was an attempt by Hopper to keep any mystery or seduction out of this particular commission.
Today, Ackland is buried downstairs from where the Hopper watercolor is buried in storage. Archie is also purportedly buried at Mowfield Plantation.
Spurred on by the publication of Sir Archie, the Northampton Historical Society sponsored an archaeological dig in 1958 of the plantation’s grounds in search of the great horse’s bones.
The dig found no bones. Nevertheless, they concluded that it was ‘possible, and even probable, that Sir Archie’s grave is somewhere in the immediate locale.’ Just who is now turning in which grave is hard to conclude.