A peek at historic local painters’ private lives

04/28/2011 7:42 AM |

When the Indian Neck estate of acclaimed father and son artists Lemuel and Irving Wiles was sold in the 1970s, the records of their paintings, dating back more than 100 years, were scattered throughout Southold.

But over the past five years, Southold Historical Society director Geoffrey Fleming has been gathering in the pieces of their legacy, including ledgers documenting their works and letters between the painters and their family members, to compile two exhaustive illustrated books on their works.

Lemuel Wiles, the subject of the first book, released in 2010, was a landscape painter of the Hudson River School. Born in 1826, he first came to the East End in the 1880s.

The second book, about his son, Irving Wiles, was just released. Irving was born in 1861, developed a reputation as a fine portrait painter and traveled the country to do commissioned work until his death in 1948.

Before coming to Southold, Lemuel Wiles founded the Silver Lake Art School in upstate New York, and Irving Wiles was studying at the Art Students League in New York and in Europe.

In 1895, after flirting for more than a decade with the idea of living on the North or South fork and summering at several local boarding houses, father and son converged on the Overton house on Peconic Lane. There they lived and ran a painting school for one summer.

“It was mostly people who were not from here,” Mr. Fleming said of that summer’s students. “It was people who were training [as painters] from the city and Brooklyn, people who were associated with William Merritt Chase’s school on the South Fork.”

Only one copy of a brochure advertising the school is still known to exist.

In 1897, the family built a house they called “The Mooring” on Indian Neck, where they would sail, paint and relax.

Mr. Fleming said he believed father and son painted together, based on family letters donated to the historical society. One, from Lemuel’s wife to a family friend, said, “I can’t tell you how much the boys love working together.”

But while Lemuel Wiles devoted a great deal of energy to teaching, demand for Irving’s work led him to devote more time to painting. Irving’s daughter, Gladys Wiles, was also a noted painter who likely painted with her father and grandfather in Peconic. She sold The Mooring in the mid-1970s.

The elder Mr. Wiles died in 1905, and in 1911, Irving Wiles built a studio on the Indian Neck property. The studio has since been converted to a beach house, and their home torn down.

Mr. Fleming had a chance to visit the studio when its new owners began the conversion. The owners donated to the historical society most of the archival material and most of the paintings that remained in the studio.

“It was one of the nicest studios ever built out here,” said Mr. Fleming. “It had giant windows and balconies outside. Irving did a lot of his portrait work there.”

Both father and son kept excellent records of their work in ledgers, which were also donated to the society after they were salvaged by other Southold residents. Unfortunately, most of the pages were missing from one of the ledgers containing Irving Wiles’ early work.

Lemuel’s ledgers even contained details on who bought the pieces. That documentation allowed auction houses and art historians to learn more about the history of the Lemuel Wiles works in their collections.

Mr. Fleming said the book on Irving Wiles took much longer to finish than the one about his father. This partly because, although the younger Mr. Wiles took prolific notes, he had terrible handwriting.

“Irving’s ledgers had lots of information, which we had to make sortable and usable to art historians,” said Mr. Fleming.
Equally interesting, he said, were letters between members of the Wiles family and their friends. They formed the basis for the biographical sections of both books.

“A lot of people’s letters are mundane, ‘I milked a cow today’ kind of things,” he said. “But they’re talking about schools of art.

“They open up a window onto the private lives of two important American artists in a manner that cannot be achieved from any other source,” he added.

Both books, “Lemuel Maynard Wiles” ($40) and “Irving Ramsey Wiles” ($50), are available at the historical society and at amazon.com.

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