The Pasture House Studio
The Heath Pasture Studio and Beech Tree on Burnt Hill. Photo by Burt Ashworth.
Robert Strong Woodward rode around the country roads at first with his horse and buggy, and subsequently with an open Packard Phaeton
automobile, looking for the places to paint which took his fancy. One of the places he discovered was at the top of Burnt Hill in Heath
where there was a spectacular view and where stood a lone beech tree, windswept from years of harsh weather atop the mountain.
He made many paintings here and eventually exchanged two oil paintings (Blue Drifts
and Autumn Brilliance
) with the owners for the abandoned 140 acres of mountain top pasture land.
The original owners of this mountain top property were Roswell and Florence Tripp then of Rye, New York and Heath, Mass. Their summer home in
Heath had been burned to the ground by antique thieves and the mountain pasture had little use to them.
On this land, RSW's hired man,
, built a rustic studio called the Pasture House Studio so that he would be able to continue to paint even on cold winter days.
In those days it was not a town-maintained road out to the property. Hired help had to keep the road open except in midwinter and in
the worst of "mud season."
At this time the horse shed which was a part of the Mary Lyon Church in Buckland Center was being dismantled. Cars, not horses,
were bringing people to church on Sunday mornings. Fabian
convinced the carpenters to give him the
central ceiling beam to be used to "frame up" the new studio on the Heath hilltop. The beam was supposedly from a local virgin forest in
Charlemont and was an extraordinarily long perfectly straight log which ran from one end to the other of this long shed. Fabian cut it
into the proper lengths and dragged them the long distance up the mountain to the Heath pasture. On this pasture top Fabian
proceeded to build the new studio, with of course the artistic advice and experience of the artist himself.
RSW looking out the window of the Heath Pasture Studio.
It was a cabin of sorts with
a wood stove and sturdily built outside rock chimney, a full front picture window looking out over the valley toward the beech tree, a privy,
an attached garage, a beautiful front stone plaza with stone seating, and a really comfortable inside room. A garage lean-to addition was
constructed on one side which would accommodate the new Packard Phaeton. Parts of the garage were used for storage, a tiny kitchen
area with a kerosene cooking stove, a large wood box for feeding the parlor stove, and as mentioned above, the privy. Fabian had built
privies into all of the RSW buildings. All were unique. The Heath Pasture House privy was a one--holer with a bucket of lime and a tin cup
for sprinkling over one's "doings." This privy, just like all the other Fabian
privies, had no door.
A water ram pump.
There was no running water at the Pasture
House, however water did come by lead pipe from a spring down the road a bit where in the old days there had been a house. The cellar
hole stone foundation is still very visible. Mention of it was made in the diary notes of the RSW oil painting
Close by this
cellar hole was a vigorous spring and the water from this was piped up the mountain to just below the Beech Tree by a ram. (For those
who are not familiar with a ram click HERE
The antique ram was not capable of lifting the water all the way up to the level of the Studio,
but it did pump it up almost to the Beech Tree. (As you continue to learn about the Heath property you will understand why this windswept
tree deserves to be capitalized) The old ram was a piece of ingenious equipment. It could be heard making a "chugging" noise from a
long distance away. This old Heath Pasture House ram has now been donated to the
Heath Historical Society
and can be seen there. A
ram is able to lift water without need of electricity, hand or horsepower. To simply explain its operation a LARGE amount of water flowing
through it was able to push a SMALL amount of water out and up the pipe almost to the level of the Beech Tree.
A photograph of the Heath Pasture Studio showing the wood stove,
hanging oil lamp, braided rug, mirror and table. Photo by F. Earl Williams.
Cherubs on similar stove.
The Pasture Studio was
a one room house heated by an old parlor wood stove. This is the type of stove which heated the Pasture House Studio. It could burn
wood or coal. The three draft vents at the bottom front were adjustable for either type of fuel. The top cover could be swung to the side
or was easily completely lifted off to expose a flat top for cooking purposes. The cast iron stove front decorations were of black cherubs.
The painting Frost on the Window shows an oil lamp, the purple
bureau, and the rear view out the windows of the Heath Pasture Studio.
There were several hand braided rugs on the floor, a comfortable couch to lie down on, several stiff New England straight back chairs, a dining
table in the center of the room, an old--fashioned mirror, a kerosene ceiling hung lamp and a handsome purple bureau beneath the rear window.
Of course, there was no electricity. All the lighting at night came from oil lamps and candles.
A writer for the Worcester Mass Telegram on June 28, 1942, submitted the following description of a visit to the Woodward Southwick Studio
and a trip up to the Heath Pasture House Studio.
"Shangri-La: imaginary land depicted in the novel Lost Horizon by James Hilton.
A remote beautiful imaginary place where life approaches
perfection: Utopia. A remote usually idyllic hideaway."
LOOKING OUT over the far hills of Northern Massachusetts and the deep valleys of Buckland (near Shelburne Falls) from the tea terrace
of Robert Strong Woodward, artist who has immortalized this scene and has thrown over every corner of his own domain a mantle of
spiritual and material beauty, came the lovely illusion of the picture version of "The Lost Horizon."
The same tranquility and peace, the same vast pattern of the universe seemed to brood over those distant hills. The man who looks out
over the valley and lives in the harmony of his own New England home, with easel and paint brushes where once a blacksmith toiled, is
the spirit of all this, transcending mere time or space. Later when the distant hills were shut out and the studio curtains drawn close,
the color he has give to his canvases glowed for his guests.
Until last week-end the reproduction was enough. Now his chalk drawings and oil paintings haunt me with remembered loveliness.
One great New England tree, this native beech, dominates much of his work. The following day, Sunday, continued the pilgrimage in
his own beach wagon to the top of Burnt Hill, and his Heath Studio there, approachable through drifting snow as late as February
every year. This magnificent tree, seen through the window in the photograph (made by a Woodward admirer and friend,
Principal Williams of the Gardner High school), reaches the height of five feet before the branches begin. It is windswept.
This goes unsaid in such a location. It has a fair background of ever changing valley and mountain, a panorama shut out by rain
and cloud one week ago today. It was just as well. The travelers had enough to remember without that further glimpse of infinity!
Inside the Heath Studio was homely comfort of stove and braided mat, cupboards with hand-hewn pegs. Chairs that look as stiff
as the New Englanders who fashioned them, and belie their looks as much as their human prototypes, were enjoyed for the brief
hour on the summit.
Descent into the valley again, brought a startled deer bounding across the path, the last fantastic analogy with the dream world of
Shangri-La. A studio dinner with literal "pot luck" of stew, salad, watermelon and fragrant coffee sent the travelers on their reluctant
way back home to reality. Glimpse of a rare beauty of soul, and genius of artistic creation, a house where in every vista within and
without brought exquisite harmony of color, form and expression of gracious living, was ours to reflect on along the way.
Worcester Telegram, June 28, 1942
To Robert Strong Woodward, the Heath Pasture Studio was indeed Shangri-La.
It was a place where he could get away from (in his words) "the constant hustle and bustle of nurses, housekeepers, hired men
and the stresses of the valley life." He could come here and completely relax and forget the invalid life he had to lead down below.
It was also a place where he loved to come to sunbathe. He was an ardent lover of the sun. He felt that it had some sort of power
to heal and strengthen his invalid body. Many hours were spent, stripped of his clothes, sitting out on the stone patio of the Pasture
Studio, soaking up the sun. He also encouraged those who worked for him to follow in his footsteps and strip down to get the sun
on their bodies. Even down in the valley he preferred to have his men work shirtless in shorts so that they could absorb the sun
into their systems while working on the lawns. So little was known, back in those days, about the harmful effects of sun radiation
and it being the cause of various skin cancers.
Old road to the Heath Pasture (2006).
There is another part of the Heath Pasture Studio story which is interesting to relate. As mentioned above, the Studio was on a
piece of land at the far end of an old road from the Oxbow region of Charlemont. The road
had long been abandoned. There were no permanent residencies on it. Being abandoned, and no reason for keeping it open
for school buses etc., it reverted to those who wished to travel on it to keep the road repaired. This was a job for RSW's hired men.
To enable them to do this Fabian,
had stripped down an old Model A Ford to the
point at which it was simply a motor without a hood,
a driver's seat, a steering wheel and controls, and a sort of truck body built onto the rear. This was used to haul gravel to fill in the
ruts in the road all the way from the old school at the top of Burnt Hill Road out to the pasture gate. The road consisted of two
wheel tracks with grass growing in the center. (Whenever the RSW Packard or Chevy beech wagon went in for service at the
Wilcox garage in Greenfield, the garage mechanics marveled at how clean the undercarriage was from being swiped by the
grass in the center of this old road. They always remarked that no other cars came in so spotlessly clean. The jitney was kept
far back from the Pasture House Studio up against the timber line in a small lean-to.
AN EXCERPT FROM ALASTAIR MAITLAND essay:
Robert Strong Woodward in The Book of Heath:
"Moreover, although Woodward's Studio no longer stands, enough of it is left to provide us with a precious, if tenuous, physical
link with the artist and his work. The site is still clearly recognizable by the large slabs of ledge rock that once formed the paving
stones of the terrace to the west. Beyond them, scattered over the remains of the foundation, lies the debris of the brick chimney
that had buttressed the south side; and, amongst the fragments of brick and mortar, lumps of molten glass--a poignant reminder
of the perfectionism that was 'Woodward's hallmark.' In all of his studios he insisted on 'old glass' for the windows. Gone too,
alas, and virtually without trace, is the focal point of the
A View From Burnt Hill
and of the many other landscapes that Woodward
painted, in all seasons, as he sat on the terrace - the great wind-swept beech that stood some fifty yards below the studio on the
western slope. At the base of the beech Woodward had placed what was in effect a wide stone bench. The bench is still in place.
But there is no shade there now on a summer afternoon. Only the blackened and jagged stump of the once majestic tree remains."
THE BEECH TREE
As has been recorded above in this essay Robert Strong Woodward was accustomed to ride around the countryside, mostly on weekends, searching for New England scenes to paint. He was undoubtedly one of the so-called "en plain air"
painters. In his early days these excursions were made with him driving a buggy drawn by his beloved horse, Thomas ą Kempis
. During his middle years of painting the vehicle was an open Nash Advanced 6
driven by his hired man, Fabian.
In later years the automobile used was a huge Packard Phaeton.
During these excursions RSW would want to be driven about 5 or 10 miles per hour, so that he could study and take in the various New England vistas of mountains and valleys, old houses, and especially old barns.
The wind swept beech tree on Burnt Hill - Photo by Burt Ashworth.
It was on one of these Sunday rides that took him to a Heath pasture top. The story, as I remember it, is that he was alone on this trip driving the horse and buggy by himself. Traveling up hill out of Charlemont into Heath, he came across a mountain top vista which would command a future plethora of oil paintings and chalk drawings. It was also to become a retreat to which he could escape from his valley life of hired men, nurses, housekeepers and the hectic and confined existence of one living in a wheelchair.
The Beech tree behind the bedrock at the top of Burnt Hill.
Mt. Greylock as seen from Burnt Hill.
It was on this hilltop that RSW discovered THE BEECH TREE.
This magnificent unique beech tree had all of its branches swept by the prevailing winds from the west (where Mount Greylock could be prominently seen) to the east (where the mountain ranges from Buckland and Mount Holyoke could be seen.) This beech tree, a marvel of nature, and the result of many years of growth, was produced by the prominent, prevailing, westerly winds of this New England mountain top. One can imagine a young beech seedling sprouting up from among the many wild, low-bush blueberries in this pasture land on the Heath hilltop, and immediately being blown by the wind toward the east. And, as the many years that followed, it was continually, especially in the winter months when the winds were strongest, developing branches all bent toward the east. This is how RSW found the adult tree sometime in the late 1930s. In the following years he was to make hundreds of sketches, chalk drawings and oil paintings of this tree, made from all directions, even from underneath.
The stone fireplace near the Beech Tree
still seen under the overgrowth today.
Mark Purinton, the Bauerleins, and Robert Strong Woodward having a picnic under the
beech tree in the Heath blueberry pasture..
It was to be a love of his life. There were frequent summer cook-out picnics around a fireplace built beneath the tree, and there were frequent sleeping bag sleep-overs beneath the tree to enable him to be on the mountain top in order to capture in a painting the early morning light or the late evening light. (See The Evening Moon).
The mountain top scenery and especially THE BEECH TREE were to become famous around the entire United States, and, even in England and Scotland. (For many years a winter oil of the beech tree, Snowing On The Hill,
hung in the American Embassy in England.)
The stone bench beneath the Beech Tree.
Will the reader please click HERE
to see a collection of images of THE BEECH TREE in various seasons.
It is the feeling and intent of this writer that this splendorous production of hill top botanic life formed by the prevailing westerly winds of New England should now and henceforth be referred to as THE BEECH TREE....in caps!!
The Blueberry Field
Low bush blueberries on the Burnt Hill pasture.
Burnt Hill is well known, far and wide, for blueberries: wild low-bush blueberries. The history of Burnt Hill dates back to the days
of the American Indian. They are said to have cultivated the berries here since prehistoric days. And they even knew how to
foster their growth: burning off the fields every fall. The burning not only kept the brush down but the ashes fertilized the earth.
The blueberries loved it.
Low bush blueberries.
Thus the name of this Heath mountain: BURNT HILL
During the days when Robert Strong Woodward owned the Heath Pasture he continued to enhance the growth of the wild
blueberries. During summer months we who worked for him spent many hours cutting the brush which aggressively sprung up
over the entire area. A few seasons, before burning restrictions became so restrictive, we even set fire to portions of the
pasture to mimic the Indians who had come before us.
A hand tool for picking low-bush blueberries.
Many, really a great many, times during blueberry seasons when
we drove RSW to the Heath Pasture to paint, we brought along in the rear seat of the open Packard Phaeton, a guest or two
(Mrs. Buell, Ethel Dow
, Cousin Martha, Cousin Florence, Dr. Blakeslee
and many others) to spend the day picking the berries.
Most of the time they would simply pick by hand. A few, in the later years, started using a hand tool--picker for faster collection.
This method though was fraught with much more unwanted debris and made it necessary for a lot of after cleaning. They would
always meet at noon for a cool picnic lunch sitting on the stone seats beneath the Beech Tree.
And what do you think they had for dessert? Blueberries, of course!
The Prehistoric site
A stone obelisk on Burnt Hill.
A standing stone obelisk at the Heath Pasture on Burnt Hill.
There is another fascinating feature of Burnt Hill which goes back in history to the days when the American Indians roamed our
countryside, or perhaps well before. They not only came to this hilltop for the blueberries but they apparently also conducted some sort of religious
practice here. It has long been known by the local people that there were many unexplained rock formations in this area. There
are two interesting links which we are providing for the interested reader. One is scientific and one is not so scientific.
to read the story by an inquisitive young man, Faux Doe, who visited Burnt Hill with
the intent of learning about all of the rock formations he had heard about.
to read an essay by a geologist,
Daniel Boudilion, who also made a visit to the area and made detailed recordings of his findings.
Artist's Heath Studio Burns
HEATH---For the third time in less than
three decades Buckland Artist Robert Strong
Woodward's studio has been destroyed by
fire. At his Burnt Hill here yesterday,
Woodward discovered the building burned
to the ground sometime since he visited it
Estimate of the damage was not available
today. Only a stone chimney was standing.
Although this was not the artist's main
studio, it was a favorite. From its large
picture window he was able to look across
the sweeping Deerfield valley, which he
copied in many mediums during the
years. Among the articles destroyed in the
fire was a completed chalk drawing of
a large beech tree the artist often painted.
On Christmas eve 1922 a studio on the
Bert Wells property in Buckland was
destroyed by fire and in 1935 a studio
on Buckland Road was gutted by fire.
The studio here was constructed
about then years ago.
There is still a blueberry farm on the hiltop that once belonged to Robert Strong Woodward. For further information, please visit. The Benson Place.
The black and white photographs below were taken by F. Earl Williams
at the Heath Pasture Studio.
Robert Strong Woodward and F. Earl Williams in front of the Heath Pasture house.
(F. Earl took this with a delayed shutter on his camera.)
The famous beech tree with the Pasture Studio on the mountain top beyond
The Pasture Studio above the fireplace where many cook-outs were held. All the rocks
to build it and the surrounding seating were constructed out of slabs of the protruding ledge.
The Pasture Studio over the rocky ledge.
Robert Strong Woodward on the stone steps in front of the Heath Pasture Studio.
Note: RSW did not like to have his photograph taken. On the actual print shown above,
RSW had taken a pen and obscured his face. Another copy of the same print was found
in the collection that F. Earl Williams donated to the Smithsonian museum.
In general, that version of the photograph was not very good, but the image included RSW's
face, so that copy was used to restore the face on the photograph. (see inset).
The Pasture Studio with the open garage to left.
Interior of the Heath Pasture Studio showing tables, chairs and wood stove.
Interior of the Heath Pasture Studio looking out towards the beech tree.
Unnamed, unfinished oil painting from Heath Studio.
Heath pasture looking up towards beech tree and the studio.
The beech tree and rock ledge with a 'sea of hills' in the distance.
The overgrown field of blueberries and grass soon after the construction of the Pasture Studio.
The hilltop was regularly burned to eliminate weeds and brush and to encourage
blueberry growth. The stone chimney had not yet been built by Fabian.
The protruding rock ledge and the beech tree.
The beech tree showing signs of winter ice storm damage.
These are two trees on the Heath hilltop that RSW chose for the chalk drawing Double Victory.
Stone wall on Burnt Hill
The stone bedrock outcrop on Burnt Hill.
The view from Burnt Hill.
Sea of Hills seen from Burnt Hill.