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Walter W. Thompson Papers, 1918-1974   

| Manuscripts Gifts 2006 | Front Page 2006 | Previous Issues | Friends of the Library |

In a 1935 radio broadcast designed to advertise his latest art school, Walter Thompson exclaimed, “There is beauty in Nature, rich, vibrant, soul-stirring color, sometimes seen at dawn, or amid the brilliant lights and shadows of mid-day, or the soft, lingering peace of even-tide, that makes one long to retain it, permanently. There are those of us, who, loving the color and beauties of Nature, go each year, to sea-shore or mountains, again and again and drink thirstily of changing sea and skies and changing skies and mountains, and drain all the hues of earth until we gladly become drunken through our eyes. What a wonderful dissipation!” (9 June 1935, WTOC, Savannah, Georgia)

Walter Whitcomb Thompson (1882-1948) transferred his intoxication with nature into a lifelong devotion to painting and teaching art to others. He was nationally known for his marine and landscape studies before he moved to South Carolina in 1934, after being transfixed by the beauty of the Beaufort area. Although often faced with financial obstacles and personal struggles, Thompson kept an enthusiasm for art which extended beyond his own easel. He wrote newspaper columns, essays, and plays; acted; and gave lectures on art techniques and on artists’ lives and philosophies. He was a gifted teacher who gave other artists a sense of community and connection. Thompson operated several art schools in South Carolina during the 1930s and 1940s, served as an administrator for the Works Progress Administration with the Federal Art Programs, and taught in the Beaufort and Hartsville public school systems as well as at Coker College. In 1942 he married Elizabeth Gertrude Dabbs; hence, these papers contain many items connected with her family that further enrich the South Carolini¬ana Library’s rich and varied holdings relating to the Dabbses.

Thompson studied art at the New School of Design in Boston under Will Robinson, C.W. Reed, and John J. Enneking. He revered painters John Constable, John Singer Sargent, and Joaquin Sorolla for their ability to portray natural light. Before moving to South Carolina, Thompson had exhibited his lyrical oil and watercolor studies in major cities throughout the United States and had conducted painting schools in New York, California, Oklahoma, Florida, and Georgia. He belonged to many art organizations, including the American Artists Professional League, the Carolina Art Association, and the College Art Association of America.

Thompson’s papers contain detailed records about the operations of several outdoor painting schools which he conducted in the Beaufort area from 1934 to 1937. He co-directed these with Mary Hope Cabaniss, an art educator, poet and painter from Savannah. The first summer session was held on the Marvin plantation near White Hall, South Carolina, and was called the “Combahee River Art Colony.” On 10 July 1934 the Savannah Evening Press reported, “Creature comforts have not been neglected in the economy of the colony. There are camping accommodations in an old remodeled rice barn, well screened through¬out, with hot and cold showers, electric lights and other accommoda¬tions, including splendid meals prepared by a plantation cook...fishing and boating facilities, and a tennis court.”

In 1935 the school moved to Beaufort, S.C., where students were offered room and board at the famous tabby-walled Gold Eagle Tavern for seventy dollars a month. The “Beaufort-Brevard Art Colonies” offered an additional session during the month of August in the mountains of Western North Carolina, and a year-round school was opened that fall in Beaufort. It offered “elementary classes in still life drawing and art structure as well as advanced courses in drawing and painting and color analysis leading up to more specialized work in figure, portrait, landscape painting and commercial illustration.”

In July 1936 Thompson was asked to volunteer his writing skills in providing architectural descriptions of Beaufort-area houses for the Works Progress Administration’s American Guide. Thompson was then hired as an assistant state director in the WPA’s Federal Art Program, a position he held until 1939. The collection contains a significant amount of material related to the operations of this program in South Carolina.

Artists and other South Carolinians were so thrilled by Thompson’s talent and exuberance that he quickly became a prominent figure in the state’s art scene. Thompson’s connection with the Dabbs family began in 1935 after he met James McBride Dabbs and his wife Edith in Beaufort. That October, Dabbs (who taught English at the college and served on the lecture committee) wrote Walter asking if he would exhibit his paintings at Coker College and inviting him to stay at their home during his visit to Hartsville, S.C.

In 1940 Thompson was invited to join the faculty of Coker College. Edith Dabbs wrote two letters to him in April of that year inviting him to stay at Rip Raps, their plantation home in Sumter County, S.C., for the summer, and she tried to persuade him to conduct a small colony for artists while there. Thompson then appears in the guest book of Road’s End in the Pines, the home of James’s sisters, Elizabeth and Sophie, not far from Rip Raps. Walter soon willed all of his earthly belongings to the poet Elizabeth. Walter and Elizabeth married in May 1942 at the Salem Black River (Brick) Presbyterian Church.

Many of Elizabeth’s poems show how she shared Walter’s love of nature. She paints with words in “Three Colors”: “Three colors piled high/Overhead in the sky/One long ago day/I can see even yet - /Can never forget - /So glorious were they:/Ashes of roses,/And roses,/And grey.” In her poem “Flight,” she describes sitting in church on a June day, staring out an open door that frames sunlight and green leaves and a changing purple pine, and wondering, “Can a soul in June on words be fed?/My soul through the open doorway went/Into the picture, deeply content.” She submitted the poem to The Rose Chalice in April 1936, but it was rejected. The editor wrote to her, “I happen to feel most keenly all that you say therein. However, I am not sure that it would be good policy to publish such an idea.” The following month The North Carolina Review accepted it for publication.

Elizabeth and Walter’s joyful letters and scrapbooks further attest to the manifold ways in which they wove art into their lives at Road’s End. Walter wrote to fellow artist Charles Crowson on 26 January 1944 of their plans to build a combination chicken coop and artist studio. “Sophie has been in need, for some time, of storage room for chicken feed etc., therefore we decided to pool our funds and build a one story building, partition it into two equal size rooms, she to occupy the southern half and I to make the northern half into a professional studio, with a north light ten feet wide and twelve feet from window sill to peak, with window seat book-shelves, storage lockers for pictures, new canvases and so forth. Almost perfect!”

During his six-year marriage to Elizabeth, Walter had five major exhibitions of his paintings. In March 1947 the Pink House Galleries in Charleston gave him a one-man show. At its opening there was a steady three-hour stream of visitors, and afterwards Walter wrote of how he was delighted by the gracious support of Alice Ravenel Huger Smith and by Elizabeth O’Neill Verner’s compliment on his mastery of “giving distance to several strong color values” in his painting “Crop Game,” a feat she claimed she had not been able to attain.

Walter Thompson died on 29 April 1948. A newspaper article in The State the following day eulogized Thompson as someone who would be “remembered not only for his canvases, but for the students he inspired with high standards of workmanship. In a world which many modern painters have found chaotic and terrible he saw always beauty, the beauty of trees, of clouds, of slow-moving rivers, of the never-resting sea, of great music, and above all, the beauty of light, which he painted so vividly that a minister once, visiting an exhibit of his in New York, said: ‘It is like stepping out into the sunlight after a dark room.’” Comprising approximately seven and a half linear feet of material, Thompson’s papers include correspondence, business records, pam¬phlets, brochures, ledgers, diaries, news clippings, scrapbooks, and photographs. Arranged chronologically by material type, the manu¬scripts date from 1918 to 1974, with the bulk of the collection covering the 1930s and 1940s. The papers are of value to those studying the history of art in South Carolina, the Federal Art Program of the WPA, or artists’ lifestyles during the first half of the twentieth century. Correspondents include Mary Hope Cabaniss, Marie Chisholm, Elizabeth Boatwright Coker, Charles Mason Crowson, Edith and James McBride Dabbs, Beulah Glover, Elizabeth Parker, Mary Haskell Minis, Mabel Montgomery, Catharine P. Rembert, Anna Wells Rutledge, Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, Mary Prichard Taylor, Kathleen Tisdale, Julia Elizabeth Tolbert, Edna Reed Whaley, Elizabeth White, and Robert N. S. Whitelaw.

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