Augusta Maverick Kelley

Augusta Maverick Kelley

1885 – 1989

Augusta Maverick Kelley in New York. Courtesy of the Kelley family.

In a moment of weakness, I agreed to write something about my aunt Florence Kelley Worgan for the Historical Society’s project on Little Compton women. Somehow my brief expanded to include write-ups about my great-grandmother, the original Florence Kelley, aka ”Granny,” for whom Aunt Florie was named, and my grandmother, Augusta Maverick Kelley. I tried unsuccessfully to fob all of this onto others – either Lucy O’Connor or my sister Debby Kelley would have made a much better choice, but neither was available. Mike and Heather Steers did a fair amount of digging and composed an early draft, but they obviously couldn’t fill in a lot of the blanks without knowing the family stories. But I didn’t know an awful lot about these three women for purposes of this project. For example, I had found a suffragist medal in my grandmother’s things while cleaning out her house, but I had no idea she had been as active in the movement as she was. The more time I spent on the project, the more I realized how little I knew about them, even with the contributions of my sisters Debby and Susie, cousins Steve O’Connor and Lloyd Macdonald, and the Steerses. I regret so much not asking more questions when I had the chance.

A friend thought perhaps I should lead off with Aunt Florie as there are still many people in Little Compton who knew her.  But the chronological approach seemed best as Granny Florence and my grandmother had to have been important models for Florie in helping explain Florie’s remarkable career.  

One more introductory word. I understand this exhibition is presented in honor of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment and focuses on women with Little Compton connections. For those keeping score at home, we believe Granny rarely visited Little Compton, but she was a leader in the national suffragist movement. Grandmother met her future husband in Little Compton and spent every summer of her life here after they married. As a suffragist she protested at the White House and was arrested several times! Aunt Florie grew up spending summers in Little Compton and commuted here from New York almost every summer weekend for decades until she and her husband retired here. She wasn’t a suffragist as far as we can tell. When the 19th Amendment became law in 1920, Florie was only 8 years old.

Grandmother was born the same year as her husband, Nicholas Kelley, or “Granddad” to my sisters and me, 1885, in St. Louis; she and her family returned soon afterwards to San Antonio and their network of Maverick family relatives and friends. Her grandfather, Samuel Augustus Maverick, had left South Carolina for the “new frontier” of Texas, which was then still part of Mexico, arriving in San Antonio in 1835. A lawyer and real estate investor, he was active in the Texas independence movement and a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence. He later served as mayor of San Antonio. (Sam Maverick is often cited as the reason the word “Maverick” is used to describe an iconoclast or outlier. His fees were often paid in cattle, but he was slow to brand his steers and unbranded ones were widely accepted as “Sam Maverick’s”.)

I always felt Grandmother had a very happy childhood in San Antonio. She was devoted to her family, particularly her three older sisters, Lola, Rowena (“Rena”) and Lucy, to whom she always remained close.  All three were artists and suffragists. It is little surprise therefore that Grandmother also became an artist and a suffragist.

She attended school in San Antonio (she almost always pronounced it “Santonia”) and at the Mary School in St. Louis where she studied art. She engaged in the usual social and philanthropic activities her sisters and other young women did in San Antonio and spent time at the Maverick Ranch in Boerne, TX to escape the heat of the city. (She told us the trip to Boerne took a full day in covered wagons; today it’s maybe a 45-minute trip by car.) But her interest in art set her apart. It’s likely Lucy influenced her the most; she was only two years older than Grandmother and devoted her life to making colorful, original pictures frequently using crayons. Lola and Rena were each several years older than Grandmother and each pursued multiple other interests besides art. Lola was a socialist and an advocate for world peace, Rena was an author and preservationist who served several San Antonio civic institutions. Whenever Grandmother and Lucy saw each other, they enjoyed making art together. In the house in Sakonnet there’s a handsome portrait Lucy did of a local sea captain who lived in a shanty nearby, a product of one of her visits to see Grandmother.

In 1902 Grandmother’s sister Lola married William Bross Lloyd, a son of Henry Demarest Lloyd. She travelled to Little Compton one summer to visit her sister and brother-in-law. There she met Granddad, who was tutoring HDL’s son Jack that summer, and one thing led to another. The young couple married in San Antonio upon his graduation from Harvard Law School in 1909. (Surprisingly, Granny did not attend the wedding; she had lecture commitments. I’ve read that Granny was happy about the marriage and thought of Grandmother as another daughter. She wrote to both Granddad and Grandmother and visited from time to time. For her part, Grandmother told my sister Debby she found Granny intimidating. She also said Granny would tell her it was time for her to go to bed, she wanted to speak to Granddad.)

The couple settled in New York City where they lived continuously for the rest of their lives, except for the three years (1918-21) Granddad served as an assistant secretary of the Treasury in Washington, D.C. and the last few years of Grandmother’s life which she spent with my parents in Little Compton. Summers were always spent in Little Compton in the house overlooking Lloyds’ Beach. Florie has written that her parents bought the land from the Lloyds and moved the house there from a nearby location. According to another version, however, the Lloyds gave the land and/or house to them as a wedding present.

In New York they lived in Riverdale and on Gramercy Park before buying the house on East 16th Street where they lived for decades. Grandmother moved to a much more manageable co-op on East 66th Street after Granddad died. They started a family right away: Nicholas, Jr. was born in 1910, Florie in 1912 and Gus in 1913. Granddad was already working long hours for the Cravath firm. They were very busy, but Grandmother made time for her art whenever she could. She began taking classes early on at the Art Students League, studying for years with Kenneth Hayes Miller and others. The house on E. 16th had lots of rooms with high ceilings and tall windows, and she used one for her studio.

As noted above, she was committed to winning the right to vote for women. According to the Texas State Historical Association Handbook, she attended the inaugural two-day meeting of the Congressional Union in 1914 that led to the formation of the National Woman’s Party (the “NWP”). She donated regularly to the NWP and was an active participant in its activities, serving on its Lobby Committee that interviewed and met with members of Congress about the suffrage amendment. In October and November, 1918, she was arrested several times while picketing outside the White House with other NWP members, including her sister Lola. During these episodes, many suffragists were physically assaulted by the police and onlookers. (I also learned from the Texas Handbook that Granddad called Grandmother “Gus,” short for Augusta obviously. I never remember him calling her that.)

As mentioned, except for trips abroad with Granddad, Grandmother spent all summer every summer in Little Compton. In the beginning, like hundreds of other wives and mothers, she would board an overnight ferry at the foot of Manhattan that would take her up to New England. Her ferry would dock at Providence or Fall River but other ferries for other destinations along the coast would leave New York at roughly the same time, all proceeding in single-file heading north. The line shortened as ferries peeled off toward their separate destinations. Later, Grandmother made the trip by train. Granddad usually commuted on weekends by train.

I looked forward to seeing my grandparents each summer and thought their small house on the Point was the most wonderful place in the world. In the beginning Granddad, Aunt Florie, Uncle David and Uncle Gus would be there on weekends, and Grandmother would often have relatives up from Texas staying with her – I remember her sister Rena and her niece Mary Green, another talented artist, among others. More people just dropped in to see her, her niece Jessie Lloyd O’Connor was a regular.  Add to this list sisters Margaret and Mary Johnson and their nephew Joe Beaton, all from Nova Scotia, who lived and worked cooking, cleaning, and doing odd jobs and errands at the house on East 16th Street and would come to Rhode Island with my grandparents every summer, and it’s a wonder looking back that everyone was able to fit inside the house on the Point with, it seemed at the time, plenty of room to spare.

Things seemed naturally to revolve around Grandmother who organized meals, projects and people with a light touch. I thought she was unique, being Texan, a little southern, and very creative. Avocados were “alligator pears,” she always wore dresses or suits, meals were often served on the brightly colored Mexican dishes and glassware she loved and we were expected to use our finger bowls before dessert which included things like tapioca pudding made from scratch. She retired upstairs after lunch every day until 4 o’clock or so when she would re-appear to work in her garden before cocktails. She was fun, too. She often swam at Lloyds’ with the rest of the family before lunch, and I remember her leaping once in her dress from the float at the Yacht Club onto Granddad’s Alden “Augusta” as we sailed by. When someone asked how she was doing with a book or some other task, she’d say she was getting there “by degrees.” And she was up for local adventure, from antiquing in Adamsville and Westport, shopping in Newport for things like Japanese kites and ceramics, to traveling to Provincetown and back to see an enormous exhibition of modern art organized by Jack Chrysler, the son of one of Granddad’s clients. Although she often drove herself, someone else would handle the driving on long trips. After Joe Beaton left to train to become a plumber in New York, my grandparents hired a young man from Sakonnet each summer to drive for them, do errands, painting, yard work, etc. Rod Perkins, David Tappen and Gabe Faria were among those who helped my grandparents.

But her art set her apart.  For what it’s worth, I think her best things are as good as anyone’s. Lloyd Goodrich, a Little Compton summer resident who ran the Whitney Museum in New York for several years, apparently thought so, too. He’d written books about Winslow Homer, Albert Ryder, Edward Hopper and his best friend Reginald Marsh, another Little Compton summer resident. According to family legend, Goodrich wanted to do a book about Grandmother. According to the same legend, she told him she wasn’t interested, which is something I’ve never been able to understand. Although she painted a lot – apparently she tossed out dozens of pictures, including several nudes, when she sold East 16th Street, I’ve never heard of her selling anything. It seems like making pictures and sharing them with her family was enough for her. She did exhibit her work from time to time in member events at the Art Students League, with her sisters in a group show in San Antonio and in at least one gallery show in New York, but that’s as much as I know.

Her representational work was inventive and often witty and she found even the most mundane subjects worthy of her attention. The Sakonnet pictures are gems and reflect her love for this place.

One of her classic Sakonnet pictures is of greenskeeper Cad Grinnell and his crew – all of the men, now long-gone, were recognizable to members – weeding the third green at the Sakonnet Golf Club. Another is of the “Islander,” the Sakonnet Steamship ferry that brought day trippers to Sakonnet Point from Providence; figures line the decks and fill the windows. The one of Cad et al is more or less true to life, while the “Islander” has a folk art feel despite its detailed depiction of the ferry. Much later, she painted a picture of a plein air painting group she had welcomed to her house on the Point. The painters are shown sitting or standing at their easels all over her lawn from the perspective of someone looking down on them from above; Grandmother probably sketched out the scene from a second-floor bedroom. One of my favorites is the very large picture – it’s roughly 12 feet wide and 4 feet high – she did of Lloyds’ Beach, the islands and the lighthouse with a fisherman and two boys, presumably his sons, prominent in the foreground and facing the viewer straight on. Shown by the Historical Society in a recent exhibition, it had been discovered rolled up in Florie’s house on Quicksand Pond after she and her husband, David Worgan, had died. Everything about this picture is a mystery, including why it’s so large and the identities of the fisherman and his sons if in fact she meant to depict real people as opposed to idealized figures. It’s too large for any wall in the house on the Point. Could it have been meant as decoration for some event or a backdrop for a summer theatrical? I’m afraid we’ll never know.

The human figures in many of her paintings are what I think of as Art Students League-style – the limbs and torsos are rounded, the clothes flowing, the effect a little cartoonish – like the figures of her friend, contemporary and fellow Art Students League member Molly Luce. But she could also paint more realistic portraits, like the one she gave my parents of my sister Susie and me when we were maybe 3 and 5 years old. This painting also shows Grandmother’s interest in experimenting with composition. She’s placed Susie and me in the center-left of the canvas and Susie is reaching tentatively to touch the nose of a cow in the lower left corner, the rest of the cow is hidden. Grandmother managed to balance this skewing toward the bottom left with a large green field in the upper right half of the picture. She did another painting in which the lighthouse and West Island are framed by the mass of her house and front railing on the right – it’s as if the viewer emerges around a corner from the shadow cast by her house into the bright light of the summer day. (Wilbur’s sold reproductions as postcards for several years.) I think It’s my favorite painting of hers; it’s certainly my favorite of her Sakonnet pictures.

I wish I knew more about how Grandmother made her paintings. I don’t believe she sat outside painting directly from nature in plein air style.  I’m guessing she made preparatory sketches and worked from those, but did she ever use photographs? Did she paint from memory? I don’t remember seeing her actually painting in all the times I saw her.

Her still-life paintings were a different story as she likely started them with the tables, dishes, vases and flowers in front of her. Many of these were terrific, too. None were photo-realistic but they were convincing just the same. She outlined many of her subjects in black paint. I used to wonder if this was meant to convey some darker thought in the midst of her bright colors and cheering pictures, but now I think it may have been something else she picked up at the Art Students League and made her own..

But Grandmother didn’t just make oil paintings. She made wonderful ink and watercolor drawings, including several she made to illustrate a book she and my mother worked on together concerning the removal of a certain young person’s tonsils with the memorable title “Nicky’s Trip to the Hospital.” She also hooked rugs, a wonderful one shows Uncle Gus outside her house in New York walking his black standard poodle Spahi. She made handsome curtains with an ocean theme by cutting out shapes of crabs, fish, seaweed, stones, etc. from different-patterned cloth remnants and sewing them onto plain cotton muslin panels in an arrangement that makes the viewer feel he is looking at an underwater landscape. She made other unusual curtains for her kitchen from a design by her sister Lucy that consisted of geometric shapes cut out from brightly colored fabrics and looked a little like stained glass. Her crafts masterpiece, though, is the quilt she made with separate panels depicting scenes from the 1938 hurricane. Also made with shapes cut from remnants, the panels show, for example, waves breaking over the lighthouse with the keepers inside, and a man in his truck, motor in gear, pulling on a line wrapped once around a telephone pole and attached to his shanty building, to keep it from sailing into Sakonnet Harbor.

Nick Kelley, Grandson

April 2020

From Little Compton Historical Society’s 2017 Exhibit : Little Compton’s 20th Century Artists

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