Monadnock In Winter: William Preston Phelps

Monadnock From Stone Pond - Wm. Preston Phelps

Monadnock From Stone Pond – Wm. Preston Phelps

“Phelps, during a visit some 2-3 years before he reacquired his homestead, saw the mountain (Monadnock) through new eyes, and was to be excited and inspired by what he saw. Here were the things he had known from boyhood, which had grown into his soul, and which though they had laid dormant for years had awakened to vigorous life. From that moment he worked under the influence of a new inspiration. He studied the mountain with eyes of a lover. In sunshine and shadow, in storm and in calm he watched and noted and painted.”

Had a nice visit to the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester the other day, including a chance to see one of the original, iconic renderings of one of the most-painted mountains in the world. “Mount Monadnock from Stone Pond” was painted c. 1900 by William Preston Phelps, (1848-1923), New Hampshire native and the “painter of Monadnock.”

Suddenly coming face-to-face with Phelps’s work at the Currier was a pleasant surprise: White Mountain Art and Artists proclaims: “Mount Monadnock from Stone Pond is among the finest known examples of Phelp’s work.   It survives in excellent condition and exemplifies the fine technique and refined aesthetic sensibility that are the hallmarks of his best works.”

And it seems appropriate to note during this especially hard winter that this exceptionally hardy (if troubled) Yankee preferred this season above all others to pursue his art, according to the fascinating biography by Edie Clark on the excellent Monadnock Art website:

Preston was especially fond of painting in winter, which was a cold and forbidding endeavor. To make himself comfortable, he built a traveling studio that could be transported on horse-drawn sled or wagon. The shelter was equipped with easel, paints, canvas, and a small oil stove. This enabled him to work outdoors for long periods of time. Though the summer seasons would have permitted him to work outdoors with less of an encumbrance, it’s interesting that so many of his canvases capture the mountain in the winter, in ice, in snow, the afternoon light casting pink shadows onto the blueish snow.

The whole story is worth a read, which includes the sorry tale of what Phelps considered to be his true masterpiece, which could not be farther removed from snowy New England landscapes:  A massive (7′ x 12′)  1886 painting of the Grand Canyon, that he painted on location, as was his habit.   The painting has been lost to fate, but remarkably, just a month ago a 9″ x 12″ Phelps Grand Canyon study turned up on eBay, claiming: “This particular one may well be the only surviving work of the Canyon by Phelps. A “plein aire” painter, he took huge canvases into the open, and built shelters around them to complete his landscapes on site.”   And fetched a tidy $7500…

A Phelps Pfind?

A Phelps Pfind?

Farewell to Mr. Mac


“It kind of feels like we’ll be getting up in the morning and Mount Monadnock is not there.”

Much has been made of how Bridgegate was broken in the local New Jersey press, long before MSNBC, the Wall Street Journal and other national outlets got ahold of the story.

That thought came to mind when this week the Boston Globe finally got around to reporting the passing of a national treasure: New Hampshire’s own Bob McQuillen, awarded a National Heritage Fellowship by the NEA in 2002 for “having a central position in the New England traditional dance music scene for more than fifty years.”

The obit was nice enough for the man my generation knew as “Mr. Mac” – the larger-than-life personality who made each and every member of the usual stratified high-school society – e.g., the jocks, the greasers, the music nerds, the honors students, the theatre types, and most especially those who were failing at the fringes – feel special, valued, and unique.

But I think the true essence of the man – and why he meant so much to so many in both the school corridors and music halls – is better captured in a terrific remembrance written by Dave Anderson of the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.  Great slideshow to boot.

Sample grab:

McQuillen, who had moved with his family to Dublin, was hired to teach industrial arts at Peterborough High School after graduating from Keene State. He founded a weightlifting group at the school and quickly became one of the most popular teachers.

“He had such a positive attitude,” said [Butch] Walker, his former student. “He never missed our games. He encouraged us all, both honor students and kids like me who’d screwed up.”

Walker said McQuillen was the one person who kept him in school.

“He was the guy who sat me down and said “You’re staying here,’” Walker recalled. “By senior year, I’d made the honor roll. He hunted me down and just hugged me. Now he’s been my best friend for 60 years.”

Jill Lawler of Peterborough got to know McQuillen when she started teaching at Peterborough High School in the late 1960s.

“He was a bigger-than-life personality, this ex-Marine with tattoos before they were fashionable,” Lawler said. “He had this trademark yell to get people’s attention in the cafeteria or the hall. He was the only person I’ve ever seen who could quiet a gym before a basketball game and talk about sportsmanship. And the kids would listen to him.”

Amen to that.  There was also the time that Mac – shop teacher by day, contradance composer by night – co-taught a Music Theory class Richard Sanders, the school’s beloved music teacher.  As Dick Sanders told me, “McQuillen would come up with a dance tune on the spot – which was this remarkable gift he had – and I would fill in the harmonies and explain them.  We joked about it probably being the only instance of a shop teacher and a music teacher teaming up to teach theory.”

And now, decades later, here I am at WGBH, I amazed and pleased to see this 1974 clip from the old kids’s TV show Zoom that’s been making the rounds among Mac’s admirers, featuring his young protoge -and future pennywhistle virtuoso – Sarah Bauhan:

And can’t let this post go without hearing Mac’s most famous tune, “Amelia,” played by Zoë Madonna.

The torch has been passed.

Monadnock Music

A chance to visit my back pages, checking back in after a few decades away with my hometown summer music festival as part of our new series on the radio, New England Summer Festivals.


WGBH Media Player New England Summer Festivals: Monadnock Music