Essex County Chronicles
---- — “In late years there has been a return current which has given Salem an artist colony including such names as Philip Little, the late Ross Turner, Frank W. Benson, I.H. Caliga, and L.H. Bridgman, the illustrator.”
— A Handbook of
New England, 1916
That “artist colony” had been a long time in the making, dating back to at least to the fifth annual Essex Institute art exhibition, held in 1881. According to the American Art Review, which covered the event, it was the first time the institute’s show featured work by local contemporary artists. Among the many exhibitors mentioned in the piece were Annie Agge, Helen Osborne, Frank Weston Benson and John J. Redmond. The two men were students at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and also taught evening art classes offered by the city of Salem.
Five years later, Benson, just back from studying in Paris, and Swampscott native Philip Little, another friend from his Museum School days, rented the third floor at 2 Chestnut St. in Salem. Among the many other tenants in the “Studio Block” were up-and-coming painters Mary Mason Brooks and Charles Whitney and two friends from the Essex Institute show, Helen Osborne and Annie Agge.
By 1891, Benson was teaching at the Museum School and renting a Boston studio while continuing to live in Salem. A number of young artists from his hometown would study under Benson, including George Elmer Browne (who would later live in Paris and New York while summering in Provincetown), Martha Silsbee and former “Studio Blocker” Charlie Whitney.
Ross Sterling Turner, a resident of Bridge Street in Salem since the 1880s, also taught in Boston at MIT and later at the Massachusetts College of Art. Turner, Benson and the Midwestern artist Isaac Caliga, who lived for nearly two decades on Chestnut Street and Federal Street, all commuted by train to Boston and served as Salem’s ongoing connections to that city’s lively art scene.
A major figure in the Boston art world, Dwight Blaney, was often drawn to Salem by the presence of Ross Turner, his brother-in-law, and his close friend, Frank Benson. Blaney and Benson were members of the collegial Tavern Club in Boston along with mutual friend Bela Lyon Pratt. A noted sculptor, Pratt taught at the Museum School with Benson, and the two had neighboring farms on North Haven Island in Maine. Due largely to his Benson connections, Pratt was commissioned to sculpt the Nathaniel Hawthorne statue that today graces Hawthorne Boulevard.
Benson, Turner, and the noted illustrator and Salem resident Lewis Bridgman were also connected through their volunteer work at the Essex Institute. Benson and Bridgman served on the Art Committee, Turner as the volunteer curator. When Turner died in 1915, he was replaced by Benson’s former schoolmate, Philip Little.
Little lured other artists to Salem, including Philip Kappel. Through Little and Frank Benson, the Connecticut native learned the fine art of etching and carved out a successful career as a printmaker. For nearly two decades, starting in the early 1920s, he was given summer use of his mentor’s studio on the Salem waterfront. Little also lent his studio to the Danvers artist Richard Ellery when the latter and two friends were hired under the WPA Fine Arts Program to create historical murals for the Danvers Town Hall.
As 1940 approached, the vaunted Salem art scene was in its final days. Ross Turner was dead, Isaac Caliga was living in Provincetown, and Benson and Little were nearing the end of their illustrious careers. But there would be one last hurrah.
As part of the 1939 Chestnut Street Day celebration, an art exhibition featuring works by artists with local connections was held at Hamilton Hall. “Headlining” the show was the now-famous Chestnut Street resident, Frank Weston Benson, who was joined by his daughter Eleanor Benson Lawson and his brother, the marine painter John Benson. Also represented were Frank’s Museum School chums, Philip Little and John Redmond; George Elmer Browne, nearly 40 years removed from Salem; Dick Ellery and his WPA partner Sol Levinson; and the late Ross Turner. Works by three of Benson’s young neighbors, Festus Rousseau, Quentin Jones and Harry Sutton, hung alongside his own.
And there was one final, nostalgic touch — the inclusion of Mary Mason Brooks, who, after studying in Rome and Paris, had carved out a fine art career for herself in Boston, and Charlie Whitney, a respected educator and longtime director of art at the Salem State Normal School. They, like Frank Benson and Philip Little, had “traveled” a long way since their Studio Block days a half-century earlier. It was fitting that their final show together should be held in the very shadow of the building where they had first come together.
Salem historian Jim McAllister is a regular contributor to these pages.