Town Diary - August 2003
Valuable Paintings Discovered in D.E.P. Field Office
This summer the Department of Environmental Protection (D.E.P.) discovered a virtual "gold mine" in 10 long overlooked paintings hanging on the walls and stored in the attic of their Pleasant Valley field office in Barkhamsted! It all began with a phone call from the James Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where they were planning a major Harry Leith-Ross retrospective art show.
A small mention in one of Leith-Ross' scrapbooks describing a series of forest landscapes he was commissioned to paint in 1934 for the Connecticut Forestry Department had started the museum searching. The paintings and the hand-carved chestnut frames that surround them, done by Richard Perry, were part of a federal Civil Works Administration project, one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal programs during the Great Depression.
The paintings were easily found, many still hanging on the walls of the office, covered with 75 years of dirt, grime and cigarette smoke and still looking pretty good in spite of it. Since they are now worth much more than the $244 Leith-Ross was paid in 1934 to paint them, they have been taken to the William Benton Museum of Art on the Storrs campus of the University of Connecticut for safe keeping and display. A professional appraisal will be done soon, but estimates range to $250,000 or more.
So who was Harry Leith-Ross anyway?
He was born in 1886 in the former British colony of Mauritius, an island off the southeastern coast of Africa, and grew up in Scotland and England. He came to the United States in 1903 at the invitation of one of his uncles. After studying in Paris, London and America, he worked in commercial art and advertising. In 1913 he quit advertising and attended the Art Students League summer school in Woodstock, New York.
Harry Leith-Ross worked primarily in oils and watercolors. He taught classes in landscape painting in Woodstock and in Rockport and Gloucester Massachusetts. While attending the Art Students League, he first heard of the New Hope Pennsylvania art community and visited there in the summer of 1914. He returned often to visit artist friends, especially John F. Folinsbee whom he met while they were students at Woodstock. This New Hope art community was home to a group of painters known as the Pennsylvania Impressionists; in recent years prices for their works have been increasing in galleries in New York.
Leith-Ross settled permanently in New Hope in 1935 when he temporarily took over teaching duties for his friend John F. Folinsbee who was summering in Maine. Harry and his wife Emily lived in the Jericho Valley area of Solebury, near New Hope. During his career Leith-Ross won many awards for his works from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Phillip's Mill, the National Academy of Design, the American Watercolor Society, the Salmagundi Club and others, and wrote "The Landscape Painter's Manual" in 1956. Harry Leith-Ross died in 1973 in Pineville, Pennsylvania.
During Leith-Ross' time here in Barkhamsted, our own Doug Roberts was a bicycle riding youngster who struck up an acquaintance with the painter. Doug saw him at work and knew where the artist had a studio in People's Forest (the studio was located in the "Skinner cottage" which is still standing near the Farmington River at the main area of People's Forest). Leith-Ross painted all of the commissioned paintings between January and March of 1934. During this time he apparently lived in Litchfield, Connecticut. At least two of the paintings were of locations in Barkhamsted: The Big Spring Road and The River Road, both in People's Forest. The paintings that included people (e.g., Log Team and Tractor and Saw) were thought to have been done in Paugnut State Forest where there was a CCC camp near Burr Pond. Correspondence to and from Leith-Ross during this time indicates that he traveled to Paugnut to paint. These letters, nineteen in total, were found in local DEP archives and preserved by DEP employees Walt Landgraf and Marilyn Aarrestad. The letters provide further details of the artist's time spent in this area. One letter, not by Leith-Ross but from the People's Forest Ranger to his boss in Hartford, said "Mr. Leith-Ross has another good sized one (painting) which is about 18 x 24. He considers this last one about the best of the group...". This reference was to the painting entitled The Big Spring Road which apparently Leith-Ross highly regarded.
Keep your eyes open as you travel through Barkhamsted; some believe there are twelve Leith-Ross paintings that were done in this area. If true, that means two have yet to be found!
Above- The River Road was painted by Harry Leith-Ross in Barkhamsted on East River Road.
Above- An August 2003 photo showing the Farmington River (through the trees at left) near East River Road. This location is in Barkhamsted between Riverton and Pleasant Valley and is thought to be near the site where Leith-Ross painted The River Road.
Above- The Big Spring Road was also a scene in Barkhamsted, in Peoples Forest on what is now called Greenwoods Road.
Above- Log Team is thought to depict a scene with Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) workers in Paugnut State Forest, probably near Burr Pond in Torrington. A CCC camp was located there and was in operation during the time Leith-Ross did these paintings. The CCC camp in Barkhamsted (Camp White) was not up and running at this time.
Above- This work, Tractor and Saw, was also probably painted in Paugnut State Forest. This photo clearly shows the carved frames made out of chestnut wood. All the frames for the Leith-Ross paintings were also contracted out as a Civil Works Administration project. They were hand carved by Barkhamsted resident Richard Perry who lived in the Squire's Tavern building and was the father of Allan Perry, the first ranger at People's Forest.
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