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American illustration given a grand, gilded setting

Email|Print| Text size + By William A. Davis
Globe Correspondent / June 18, 2006

NEWPORT, R.I. -- Visiting the National Museum of American Illustration in Vernon Court, a grand 1890s residence on famous mansion-lined Bellevue Avenue, is a trip to a literally colorful past.

The museum's collection consists of more than 2,000 paintings and drawing s by 75 artists from the Golden Age of American illustration, roughly 1870-1965. In this era ushered in by advances in printing and color reproduction, brilliant illustrators like N.C. Wyeth, Howard Chandler Christy, Howard Pyle, Maxfield Parrish, James Montgomery Flagg, and Norman Rockwell produced advertisements, posters, book and periodical illustrations, and magazine covers that both depicted American life and influenced it.

``This collection is American history visually portrayed," said Laurence Cutler, who opened the non profit museum six years ago with his wife, Judy Goffman Cutler, on the ground floor of their home. He is an architect and urban planner, she is an art dealer specializing in illustration.

The museum, the only one in the country devoted exclusively to American illustration, is normally open only for guided tours with advance reservations , and the grounds of Vernon Court are usually closed to the public. But for two special weekend programs, ``Nature Perfected" -- A Garden Tour (June 23-25) and ``Sixth Anniversary Celebration" with a selection of patriotic images (July 1-2), reservations will not be required and from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. visitors can tour the museum on their own.

The ``Nature Perfected" program also will be the only time this season that Vernon Court's grounds are open to the public. There will be special tours of the gardens, expected to be at their peak, and a lecture by a horticulturist at noon each day.

The great age of illustration coincided with the heyday of Gilded Age architecture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, epitomized by the mansions of Bellevue Avenue. The period also marked the emergence of landscape architecture as a profession. A Beaux Arts style building, Vernon Court has an ornate period decor and formal gardens inspired by Hampton Court, Henry VIII's palace near London.

Vernon Court was constructed in 1898 for Anna Van Nest Gambrill a wealthy widow. Architect Thomas Hastings, known as a designer of mansions for such financial titans as Alfred I. du Pont and Henry Morrison Flagler, adapted the plan of an 18th- century French chateau to produce a classic Newport Cottage, with an imposing exterior topped by eight 85-foot-high chimneys.

The interior includes salons and a ballroom modeled after Marie Antoinette's suites in the Palace of Versailles. Vernon Court was empty when the Cutlers acquired it in 1998 and they brought in period furniture and marble sculptures as well as the art collection. A gallery or loggia off the rose garden now has a set of murals, ``A Florentine Fete" by Parrish, that is part of the museum collection.

Gambrill commissioned her favorite florists, Wadley & Smythe of New York, to enlarge the plan of the Pond Garden design at Hampton Court, which Henry VIII built for Anne Boleyn, to fit Vernon Court's three-acre site. There have been some modifications of the design since, but the magnificent rose garden is much as it was a century ago. Two fern leaf beech trees, planted as saplings, are now enormous and among the largest of their kind in North America.

When completed, the gardens were considered among the finest in Newport. A 1906 article in Town & Country magazine praised Gambrill for her vision: ``The gardens have been her joy and pride ever since she first planned to make them rival anything of their size. . . . she has succeeded wonderfully in bringing perfection."

When they bought Vernon Court, the Cutlers also purchased Stoneacre, a neighboring property named for a mansion that was torn down in the '60s. Its grounds were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted , who created Central Park in New York and Boston's Emerald Necklace park system.

Olmsted's original naturalistic design, which included exotic trees such as Japanese zelkovas and Yaddo spruce, has been restored as a memorial to him. Called Frederick Law Olmsted Park , it will be included in the ``Nature Perfected" garden tours.

The museum first opened to the public on July 4, 2000. ``We selected that date as a museum devoted to American art to align the birth of our museum with the birth of our nation," Cutler said, ``and to celebrate the museum's sixth anniversary this year we will feature a selection of patriotic images not usually on display."

At any given time, about 100 paintings and illustrations from the collection are on view in the mansion's ground- floor salons, library, and loggias.

Highlights of the ``Patriotic Images" exhibition will include Rockwell's famous Saturday Evening Post magazine cover ``Miss Liberty, " depicting a young woman dressed in red, white, and blue and festooned with tools and implements of all sorts, symbolizing the way American women pitched in and took over jobs vacated by men during World War II.

Also on display will be works by Flagg, whose finger-pointing Uncle Sam on a recruiting poster with the message ``I Want You!" is one of the best-known images from World War I; and Christy , whose poster from the same era of a woman in a sailor suit declaring, ``Gee!! I wish I were a man. I'd join the Navy" was credited with inspiring 25,000 men to enlist.

Contact William A. Davis, a freelance writer in Cambridge, at billadavis@earthlink.net .

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