Elisabeth Augusta Chant: Part Two

by Susan Taylor Block

"Side Yard," by Elisabeth Chant, 1911. (Courtesy of elle-belle.livejournal.com)

Soon after her arrival in Wilmington, ladies of the town began to visit Miss Chant. They spread word around town that she had a delightful personality and an amazing knowledge of art. As always,  there was even more talk about the artist’s appearance. In a time when Wilmingtonians dressed in muted colors and conventional styles, she stood out like a tropical bird among wrens. She was taller than most women and frequently ablaze in colorful fabrics and beads. When she walked through town on a breezy day, her butterfly sleeves fluttered and her skirts waved. She created her flowing clothes and hats from Indonesian-Malay Batik and Japanese Shibori and brocade — fabrics she and her parents collected while sailing the seven seas.

The artist would keep to the same style of dress throughout all her days in Wilmington. Young children were sometimes “scared of Miss Chant,” but many older people welcomed the sight of the artist. Gar Faulkner, speaking of the 1940s, said “I lived on Third Street and I would see Miss Chant from time to time. I used to love to look at the vibrant colors in her clothes – purples and greens and pinks.”[1]

Miss Chant’s hair caught attention, too. Former students, reminiscing in 1964, recalled her “ long mahogany red hair.” She washed it “in rain water from a barrel,” they said. She then rolled it in “whirls over her ears, then tied it with a cord or band.”[2]

Elisabeth’s physical appearance was only part of the picture. “Her individual style and her calm authoritative manner created an arresting presence,” wrote a journalist in 1964.[3]

Despite her candid declarations that she was a Druid, it did not take long for Chant to make solid friendships in the conventional world of southeastern N.C. Miss Kate Stuart, proprietor of the famous Southport guest house, was one of Elisabeth’s first local friends. “Miss Elisabeth Chant who is now making her home at the Orton will go to Southport tomorrow,” the Wilmington Morning Star reported. Typically, she stayed at least one week, and enjoyed discovering Brunswick County as only an artist could. She later made friends with the Torguson family who owned the Robbin’s Nest inn at Southport, and split her time between the two places.[4]

Miss Chant's depiction of Orton Plantation, Brunswick County. (Star News photograph by Krasky, New Hanover County Public Library)

Chant, who other than a small inheritance from her father, had no known means of financial support, often repaid her hosts with paintings. However, even without works on canvas, her fascinating conversation and local celebrity would have made her a welcome visitor, particularly in a place like Miss Kate Stuart’s where the guest list was heavy with attorneys, North Carolina politicians, distinguished mariners and other interesting characters. In those days, after-dinner conversation was the television and Internet of the time. Miss Chant added thought provoking repartee with an exotic twist.

Miss Chant conducted art meetings at the Orton Hotel on an irregular schedule, even after she moved to other quarters. The meetings most likely mimicked salons she had conducted and experienced in other places. On July 19, 1923, talk became substance when Chant and her followers organized The Art League, predecessor of the Wilmington Art Association, Wilmington Art Museum, The Artists’ Gallery, St. John’s Art Gallery, and the Louise Wells Cameron Art Museum.

By March 17, 1922, Elisabeth Chant had moved from the Orton Hotel to the Edward Kidder House at 101 South Third Street. There she had an apartment large enough space to include a studio. The 1922 city directory made her work offical, listing her in misspelled form as, “Chant, Elizabeth A. Miss, artist, 101 S. 3rd St.”[5]

The Edward Kidder House, just south of the St. James Parish House, on left. (Kidder Family Collection)

By the time she moved there, the old Kidder residence, like the Orton Hotel, had seen the last of its glamour days, but the high ceilings and large windows created an airy feeling quite unlike a hotel room. Some artwork owned by the Kidders still hung in the large first-floor drawing room and a large number of handsome books graced the small library on the second floor. Black marble fireplaces were still intact, and handsome red carpet remained on the steep interior stairs.[6]

Her living space on the top floor, facing north, gave her artist’s eye a wonderful view of downtown. Use of the formal areas of the house made it possible for her to entertain in memorable ways. One of her first pupils was a 14-year old neighbor named Henry J. MacMillan (1908-1991), whose grandmother, Jane Williams, and his mother, Jane MacMillan were both prominent in the early days of local organized art. The MacMillan family celebrated Miss Chant’s arrival and stood by her throughout her years in Wilmington. Soon after Henry began taking art lessons, his teacher invited him to come to dinner, one summer evening in 1922.

 

“Last night I went to supper with Miss Chant,” he wrote his sister Helen, “ and it was the funniest supper I ever heard of…. The first course was served in a red lacquer Japanese rice bowl. In it was rice with a queer sauce on it. The sauce was made of eggplant, hard-boiled eggs, onions, and tomatoes. The second course was toast with the same kind of sauce….

“Miss Chant wore a green silk, kimono-looking dress and a very wide gold lace thing around her head… Miss Chant carried us down into the big drawing room to show us the old Kidder paintings and Mr. H. was carried away with admiration over the handsome frames.”[7]

Elisabeth Chant also wrote letters to Henry when he was away at camp. “It is hot and I must write with a pencil where I can sit in the breeze. Have been starting new canvases and one is nearly finished. I don’t care whether I go away or not as long as I can keep painting……Best love from your friend, E. A. Chant.”[8]

Both Henry MacMillan and his sister, Helen MacMillan Lane, became professional artists. Though Miss Chant was only one of many distinguished art teachers in Henry’s life, her influence ran deep. As an elderly man, he honored his old friend and teacher by writing, with Merle J. Chamberlain, a short biography of Miss Chant entitled Violet and Gold: The Story of Artistic Activity on Cottage Lane in Wilmington. The Lower Cape Fear Historical Society, of which MacMillan was a founder, published Violet and Gold. Henry J. MacMillan died in 1991, at his family home at 118 South Fourth Street.

Henry MacMillan, 1964. Star News photo by Krasky. (New Hanover County Public Library)

Miss Chant’s direct and loving manner and her unhurried attentiveness won most of her students to herself. Not only did she bring art to life for them, but she also brought something to life within them. Her repetitive instruction to create something entirely original flattered and challenged them. Her advice to paint accurate portraits regardless of negative fallout made many of her students stronger people. And the quiet-spoken feedback she offered taught them the value of constructive criticism.

Rosalie Oliver, a former student, spoke of Miss Chant in affectionate terms and described a woman who met children at their own level, yet treated them as if they were adults of merit. “I loved her. She was sweet as she could be – very kind.”[9]

“She had a low soft voice,” said Joe Nesbitt, who knew her because she lived with his family on Bradley Creek for several summers. She painted portraits and landscapes for the family, and was a patient of Dr. Charles Torrance Nesbitt (1870-1938), Joe’s father. Painting at Wrightsville Sound revitalized Miss Chant and gave her a different variety of light than she had downtown.

Elisabeth also spent many months on Masonboro Sound with dear friend, Rachel Trask Cameron. The Cameron and MacMillan families were connected by friendship, business, and love of art. Rachel Cameron’s husband, Bruce (1890-1944), was in retail car sales and the automotive parts business with W. D. MacMillan on North Third Street. After Mr. MacMillan died, in 1920, his wife, Jane Williams MacMillan, became a full partner in MacMillan and Cameron. Among other personal art commissions, the company called upon Miss Chant to create a promotional poster for the company.[10]

By 1924, Miss Chant was living at 311 Cottage Lane, just across the alley from Jane Williams MacMillan’s house. Charlie Hooper, Jr., son of Orton Hotel manager Charles E. Hooper, assisted Chant in procuring the cottage from Isabel B. Moore, a cousin of the Manly, Belden, and MacMillan families. The Cottage Lane residence was a part of the Manly-Belden property at 117 South Fourth Street. The mysteries of Chant’s personal finances must have muddied the quaint lease qualification process, for Jane MacMillan was called upon to vouch for her.[11]

The Cottage. Star News photo by Krasky. (New Hanover County Public Library)

Though small, the cottage was shared by Miss Chant and a Mr. Spencer who was a violin teacher. Spencer was also from England. Bruce B. Cameron, Jr. (1917-    ), remembers taking violin lessons in the little cottage. “Miss Chant would be around. She was always working on something. The two of them lived together and no one thought a thing of it because of their age and nature.

“I was about ten years old. We lived at Fifth and Meares streets and we kept a cow and a pony in the back yard. I would ride my pony, “Roscoe,” to violin lessons. One day after the lesson started it began to snow. I kept looking outside at the snowflakes and checking on Roscoe. Suddenly Mr. Spencer said, ‘That’s enough. You are just wasting your Daddy’s money by taking violin!’

“So, I got on my pony and left violin lessons for good, but I can see Miss Chant in my mind right now. She was quite a novelty. Those long dresses and her hats. I remember riding to my grandmother’s house at Masonboro Sound one day with my grandmother, Rachel Trask Cameron, and Miss Chant. The two of them were very close and Miss Chant spent lots of time at the house we called Pelican Point. She did a painting it. The house is gone now but the old tree is still there.”[12]

"Pelican Point," by Elisabeth Chant. Star News photo by Krasky. (New Hanover County Public Library)

Miss Chant also painted Rachel Trask Cameron’s portrait, as well as images of wildflowers gathered at Blythe Savannah, a vast Trask-Cameron property of which the Pine Valley subdivision and the site of the Cameron Art Museum are just a part.[13]

Soon after moving to Cottage Lane, Elisabeth Chant established a studio next door to her cottage in what had been Levi Hart’s Wine House. Miss Chant made the Wine House her own by painting “rugs” on the wood floors in muted hues of blue, lavender, and green. She painted each board a different color and continued the interruptive pattern by filling the plain walls with arcs and circles that resembled tide lines on a beach. She draped shawls, coats, and lengths of fabric on two grand pianos that sat in the building’s first floor to create backdrops for paintings.

The Wine House. Star News photo by Krasky. (New Hanover County Public Library)

Her students ranged from those with real talent to those who took lessons to satisfy their parents, but all learned something good from Miss Chant. Her list of students included:  Ethel Williams, Henry J. MacMillan, Jane Iredell Williams, Margaret Williams, Delbert Palmer, Lillie Belle Harper French, Rosalie Oliver, Claude Howell, Margaret Tannahill Hall, Joe Nesbitt, Halle Townes Jones, Rosalie Oliver, I. Henry Caliga, Emma Lossen, Mrs. C. B. Davis, Mary Vann, Joe Nesbitt, Em Green, Peggy Hall, Blanche Bolles, Josephine Hinton, Ann Baltzer, Mrs. Albert Summey, Margaret Lippitt Rorison, Ethel Williams, Margaret Williams, Charles E. Hooper, Virginia Nesbitt Jennewein, John DeHaan, Margaret Walthour Lippitt, Mary Bell Bullock, Vollian Rann, and Charles Gault.[14]

Charles Gault was an unusual case – a promising young artist who studied under Miss Chant from about 1922 until 1926. Chant even visited with the Gault family at their Lake Waccamaw home, however the boy’s father still took a stand against his son’s plans. “Only women do art,” he told young Charles. “I want you to be a businessman instead” Gault obeyed his father, abandoning art for a lackluster business career, but eventually earning respect as a genenalogist and historian.[15]

Charles Gault was fourteen when he made this St. James Church silhouette. (Historical Society of the Lower Cape Fear)

Miss Chant continued to make close friends of some of Wilmington’s most conventional inhabitants. Martha Jane Smith Rehder, a devout Lutheran, widow and the mother of three grown daughters became a dear friend. Miss Chant created an oil painting of gardenias for Mrs. Rehder, a member of the family that founded the first floral business in North Carolina. The Rehder family, particularly Henry B. Rehder, eventually amassed a large collection of Miss Chant’s work.

But Miss Chant kept most of the art she created to herself. Writing autobiographically but in the third person, she said she “painted freely with bold technique, local subjects, flower arrangements, portraits from life, interiors, landscapes. Few saw her work. She did not show it: she realized it was beyond.”[16]

(TO BE CONTINUED….)


[1] Author’s interview with Peggy Moore Perdew, June 6, 2007; and Gar Faulkner, August 14, 2006.

[2] Star News, March 8, 1964. NHCPL. “Elizabeth Augusta Chant,” a 1972 St. John’s Art Gallery exhibit program written by Harriet S. Schmidt and Henry Jay MacMillan.

[3] Star News, March 8, 1964. NHCPL.

[4]Wilmington Morning Star, February 4, 1922; March 8, 1922; March 14, 1922; March 16, 1922. NHCPL. CHJ, NHCPL.

[5]Wilmington Morning Star, March 17, 1922.

[6] Author’s interviews with Peggy Moore Perdew, 2006. Art hanging in the Kidder home included a fine reproduction of Leopold Louis Robert’s painting, “The Arrival of the Reapers in the Poncine Marshes.” AND   (check Graystone Inn.)

[7] Henry J. MacMillan, as told to Merle Chamberlain. Violet and Gold: The Story of Artistic Activity on Cottage Lane in Wilmington. Lower Cape Fear Historical Society. nd.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Author’s interview with Rosalie Oliver, August 12, 2006

[10] Author’s interviews with Bruce B. Cameron, Jr. 2000. St. James Collection, UNCW Special Collections. Block, Wilmington Through the Lens of Louis T. Moore (Wilmington, 2001.) Hewlett, Crockette W. Two Centuries of Art in New Hanover County. (Durham, 1976).

[11] Author’s interview (by phone) and correspondence with Louis Belden, 2006. Hewlett, Crockette W., Two Centuries of Art in New Hanover County. Durham, 1976.

[12] Author’s interview with Bruce B. Cameron, Jr., May 17, 2007.

[13] LWCAM Archives. Author’s interviews with Bruce B. Cameron, Jr.

[14] CHJ, LWCAM. Various interviews. Hewlett, Two Centuries.

[15] Author’s interview with Mike Gault Holt, 2004; June 21, 2007.

[16] “Elizabeth Augusta Chant,” a 1972 St. John’s Art Gallery exhibit program written by Harriet S. Schmidt and Henry Jay MacMillan.

(Grainy photos from the Star News, March 8, 1964.)

(This article is based on research and writing done by the author in 2005 for the Cameron Art Museum. It may not be reproduced in any way without permission of the author and Cameron Art Museum.)

About Susan Taylor Block

Susan Taylor Block is a writer who lives in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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