Betty "Betts" Burroughs Woodhouse

Betty “Betts” Burroughs Woodhouse

1899 – 1988

Essay by Hilary Woodhouse

Excerpt from Claire Johnson’s History through Women She Has Known

1977 Oral History Recording and Transcript by The Smithsonian Institution (external link)

Photo by E. Atwater Byers

Essay by Hilary Woodhouse

Betts’ early life was consumed by the art world. Her father and mother were artists and the family’s close friends were noted artists. Her father’s career as Curator of Painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, spanned over 30 years. He was a painter and taught briefly at The Art Student’s League. Her mother was recognized as one of the influential woman artists of her time. It was no surprise that this parental influence would impact Betts’ life.

After graduating from the Arts Students League where she studied under Kenneth Hayes Miller and George Brandt Bridgman, Betts married Reginald Marsh, a fellow student. She often said, “my love for Reg was simply my love for his artistic talent and work”. Reg was a childhood friend of Lloyd Goodrich in Nutley, New Jersey and, later, Sakonnet.

Lloyd Goodrich was a fellow student at the Arts Student League. While he was not encouraged as an artist, Lloyd became a noted art critic and contributor to The Art, a magazine subsidized by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. At his urging Betts and Reginald (Reg) spent summers in Little Compton. Reg – son of a prominent painter and close friend of Lloyd’s parents – also summered in Little Compton. A house overlooking the Sakonnet Harbor was owned by Reg’s father. A mural by John Marsh, over the fireplace exists today.

While married to Reg, Betts traveled extensively in Europe before returning to the family home in Flushing, NY. However, by 1932 the couple divorced and Betts remarried Thomas Frederic Woodhouse, an editor. She and her husband continued to spend summer vacations in Little Compton, eventually renting and later buying the house on Round Pond. Sadly, her husband, Tom, passed away in 1943 after a long illness with tuberculosis.

Remarkably, while not a degreed college graduate, Betts was a “renaissance” woman. She became fluent in French and versed in Italian and Greek. Her library consisted of classic novels, plays, and volumes of art reviews. Her cookbook collection was unequalled. In the tradition of her husband’s English heritage, Betts served tea and cucumber sandwiches every afternoon at 4:30. Friends, mostly scholars, would drop in for a ‘cuppa”. Betts translated, edited, and added scholarly review to Giorgio Vesari’s Lives of the Artists. This became the assigned text at college art history classes.

With her husband’s passing Betts was left to raise her three sons, aged 11, 9 and 7, no small feat. To help with school tuition, she taught art and art history at various schools which would provide free tuition to her children. With the help of generous scholarships all three graduated from college.

During school vacations and later as Curator of Education at RISD, Betts began doing commission artwork in clay (terra cotta), wood carving, stone, marble, alabaster, and bronze. Hundred of her pieces adorn the private collections both here in Little Compton and Westport but also in Washington, D.C. and Pittsburgh. A New York company, Museum Pieces, reproduced a dozen, or so, of her artwork. Over 100,000 were sold commercially.

Until the time of her death in November 1988, Betts was excited each day to get to her studio to work on a new composition of go to her Foundry in Johnston, R.I. to work on wax molds or file and chisel finished bronzes.

Hilary Woodhouse

December 2019

Excerpt from Claire Johnson’s History through Women She Has Known

I had the wonderful pleasure of meeting Betts Woodhouse while directing the Jr. Choir at the United Congregational Church. Betts made it a point to attend specially on the two Sundays the Jr. Choir performed each month, as she absolutely LOVED seeing the children!    Most of the Jr. Choir members were 12 years old and younger, and Betts sat as close as she could, in the second pew from the front. Being very near the piano and the Jr. Choir where they stood and sang on the altar enabled her to enjoy and savor up close, the cherub voices and lovely angelic faces of the children as they sang.  Always in her white gloves, her blue eyes sparkled when the Jr. Choir girls and boys walked up to sing, and she beamed with a huge smile being so close to them.

When our daughter Kate was almost a year old, Betts asked if she could sketch a portrait of me holding Kate, and of course I smiled and happily said YES!  She spent a morning at our house, and sketched me holding Kate on my lap. How incredibly surprised I was when she appeared one morning a month later, presenting us with a beautiful sculpture of Kate and myself, which  she had brought over after firing in the kiln.   I was speechless with gratitude, and had no idea this gift had been in the making.

There she stood, in her Birkenstock sandals, and wool socks, on that late winter morning, after driving over in her car. Betts often sat so low in the driver’s seat, many in town thought no one was driving the car, as she was not often visible. However, I suspect everyone knew it was Betts driving on a mission.

Three years later our son Will (William) was born, and one day at church Betts asked if she could do a portrait of Will, since she had already done one of Kate. This time she invited us to her beautiful house on Round Pond one late Spring morning, where we sat in the warm sun surrounded by her lovely gardens. Will lay on a blanket in the grass, and during our visit, she sculpted Will, while giving Kate her own clump of clay to work on. She nicknamed Will Winston Churchill, as he reminded her of Winston, saying he had a very round face like Winston’s.

A month later Betts came over with a beautiful sculpture of Will, just as he had looked that morning in his overalls. These two treasures have graced our home for the past 36 years, commanding a very special place in our living room and also in our lives. How incredibly fortunate and honored we all have been to have shared these precious moments of friendship with Betts, treasuring these two wonderful sculpted figures she so generously created and then gave to us to enjoy always! Thank you so very much, dear Betts!

Claire Johnson

April 22, 2020

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

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