The Ancient House; James Britton 1934; oil on canvas.
By Emily J. Weitz
Once upon a time, a long time ago, an artist and his family lived in the cramped quarters above the offices of The Sag Harbor Express. James Britton was one of the very first in a long line of artists to live and work in sleepy Sag Harbor while maintaining an artistic identity in New York City. In his extensive writings, which his granddaughters have poured through over the years, Britton described the journey home from the city, being the only passenger on the train to Sag Harbor.
“This little town on the eastern end of Long Island was indeed a harbor of refuge for me in 1924,” Britton wrote in an autobiography that he started in 1935.
When Britton lived in Sag Harbor in the early to mid-1920s, the town was at an in-between. It was no longer the thriving whaling port, but it was still completely overlooked by the summer people who came to Southampton and East Hampton.
“’Everybody’ went to Southampton,” Britton wrote, “certain others went to East Hampton, and still others to Hampton Bays. No one went to Sag Harbor. That was as it should be. Very often, I rolled in on the little steam train, in the dark, the sole passenger making the change from the New York train at Bridgehampton.”
Britton kept a studio in the city, and his work was shown annually at Babcock and other galleries, notably with his art group, The Eclectics. His writings on art were also highly respected, and were published in American Art News, the precursor to ARTnews, among other publications.
After a few years in Sag Harbor, Britton moved with his wife and three children to Connecticut. He became ill, and he died in 1936. Because of the climate of the art world at the time, his name lapsed into obscurity. But the diligent work of his granddaughters has brought his art back into the fold.
“We didn’t know our grandfather,” says Barbara Britton who, along with her sister Ursula, has gone through James Britton’s collection. “He died before we were born. But [going through his work] has made him a living grandfather. It’s been a wonderful experience.”
The sisters have gotten to know their grandfather through his intimate portrait work and his extensive writing, they said. Britton played with a variety of mediums, in part perhaps because he never had any money and his compulsion to create was so great that he would work on any surface.
“Oil in those days was the traditional medium,” says Barbara. “The wood cuts that he did were a bit of an anomaly.”
Britton experimented with wood cuts when he was a student around the turn of the century, but then he all but abandoned the medium for decades. It wasn’t until he was in Sag Harbor that he began to work with wood again.
“As far as we know he only did them in Sag Harbor,” says Barbara. “I’m not sure what it was about being there that prompted him to use that medium. He would sometimes take apart pieces of old crates, or even pull off pieces of his desk for wood. He would use whatever he could. He printed a number of them on grocery bags.”
When Britton was working in Sag Harbor, it was the prohibition era. The village became a bootlegger’s port, where boats would bring alcohol in, and they’d be sent in to New York City on the train.
“He did a lot of pictures of rumrunners,” says Barbara, “bootleggers unloading bottles in the middle of the night, that kind of thing.”
She imagines her grandfather peering at the wharf from an unseen vantage point, capturing this unique moment in history from an artist’s perspective.
He loved this village. Towards the end of his time here, he wrote of his excitement to have a piece of work printed in The Sag Harbor Express.
“Mrs. Gardner, the editor’s wife downstairs,” he wrote in his autobiography, “came to ask for an item to print in the paper. This pleases me more than if The New York Times had made a similar request… If I could make a living selling pictures in this village, I think I’d be willing to paint here all the time, making only occasional trips to New York. If these people want to take pride in anything I can do, I am with them heart and soul.”
While Britton’s presence as an artist in a bootlegger’s town may have been unique, thousands have since followed in his path, finding the shelter of Sag Harbor ideal for creating their art. That’s why his granddaughters are so pleased to be bringing him back.
From August 15 to September 12, Canio’s Books, 290 Main Street in Sag Harbor, will have a sampling of Britton’s woodcuts and oil paintings on display. There will be an opening reception Sunday, August 18 from 4 to 6 p.m. Call 725-4926 for more information.