Helen Ellis and Rosamond Peirce
Helen Ellis and Rosamond Peirce were interviewed by Mary Giles on September 15, 1975. They spoke about a house that Helen had remodeled and her talent for sculpture.
I bought it about 1916. Some people say there’s something new going on all the time. As we live, we change the things to fit what we’re doing.
Mary Giles – What were some of the things you first did to it in 1916?
Helen Ellis – You see, my brother was with me when I bought the house, and he was scared to death that I’d get into more than I should. He was sort of holding me down, he knew my weaknesses.
Rosamond Peirce – You said it had hideous wallpaper all over the walls. You probably took that off first.
Helen Ellis – Oh, it was awful. You couldn’t have seen a more awful looking house. We cleaned it up as much as possible and took off the old wallpaper, but it was very untidy. Some would think that I am wrong in saying that, but it was so. It wasn’t in order at all, and it wasn’t as if I had to be careful of hurting anything because there wasn’t anything worth saving. I’d paid for it and I wasn’t going to just….. My brother thought it was terrible, that I bought this thing. He didn’t know.
Rosamond Peirce – You were teaching school at Milton then.
Helen – I had perfect right and I had money enough to get it, and I didn’t see any reason why I shouldn’t. I had a perfect right.
Rosamond – You decided to run a tearoom here – do you remember?
Helen – Yes, but not for many years – just to get people here, to get them interested in the house. People were awfully nice about it. The Prescotts came down every weekend. She brought all her boys down and they always sat at a little round table in the front window. I had already taken off the old wallpaper and cleaned it up. Can you remember, Rosamond?
Rosamond – No, I wasn’t here then, but I think you said you put on sort of an oatmeal paper – just a plain paper. That was long before you began paneling.
Helen – It was wonderful because so many nice people came because they knew me.
Rosamond – It was after the tearoom when you and Carlton Wing, one of Westport’s carpenters, put up the paneling yourselves.
Helen – He didn’t do planning – he just followed along doing what I wanted.
Mary – It’s the old 18th century type of raised paneling.
Rosamond – It’s an old ivory color and you haven’t changed the color from the beginning.
Helen – The latches were here.
Rosamond – The living room fireplace had a stove in it. The fireplace had been ripped out the way they used to do. The big old fireplace in the pantry had been ripped out.
Helen – By taking out the stoves, we tried to get it back to its original condition.
Mary – What were the floors like when you came? Do you remember?
Helen – Board floors. I don’t think they were anything too much, so I did the spattering because that covered up all the secrets. It’s badly done.
Mary – I don’t think it’s badly done. I think it’s lovely. As long as I can remember, this room has always had a blue floor. Has it always been blue?
Helen – I know I put theblue color on and spattered it.
Rosamond – I know I’ve always seen it blue.
Mary – Did Carlton Wing build the mantel piece?
Helen – I put the tiles in.
Rosamond – I think you said the mantelpiece itself was here.
Helen – Yes, I added the tiles.
Rosamond – And the corner cupboard in the dining room was in the original house. It is a very nice one. You said you took the panels from an old door and made them into the mantelpiece for the dining room.
Helen – The windows are the same as they have always been, and I thought it was quite surprising because they’re quite big panes. I don’t know whether the windows were that size when it was built because I don’t know when it was built. I was trying to think who would be able to talk with me on the subject.
Rosamond – It’s hard to find the age of some of these old houses. Because of the paneling in the dining room, you would think this one was (built) around the late 1700’s – 1760 or 1770 or around there.
Helen – It’s just a guess.
Rosamond – There’s a piece of feather paneling in the dining room – just one piece – and that was about that era.
Mary – I’ve been so impressed with the way you created your own unusual crewelwork design for your big wing chair and the smaller one in the dining room, and the other crewelwork. Most people send away for patterns. In all these things you made up the stitches more or less as you went along.
Helen – Well, all these things I made to fit what I was doing. You can’t put your finger on just what I did and how I did it. Rosamond, if you turn that stool up, it would help show how the pattern fits into the frame of the wood.
Mary – I know so many people who attend classes in crewelwork and get pieces all stamped out and the stitches they should use are all described. That isn’t the way you approached you work at all, is it?
Helen – No, no. I couldn’t do that.
Mary – Aren’t you glad you couldn’t?
Helen – Yes, I wouldn’t want to do someone else’s design.
Rosamond – Remember when you went up to those women who were experts in Boston and asked them what they would advise, and they told you they were terribly sorry but they couldn’t give out any advice unless you bought one of their designs. When you went back some time later to get some more wool, one said, ‘Oh, how did you do this?’ And you said, ‘You wouldn’t tell me how I was supposed to do it, so I can’t possibly tell you how I did do it.’
You sketched out freehand what you were going to do as you went along, but you didn’t have a set pattern.
Helen – I think that little footstool behind you shows how very informal I was in the way I did it. It’s now crewel – it’s just some sort of stitch I made up as I went along, and I think that is the way I worked.
Rosamond – Where the little greenhouse is now was originally a door to the outside. There was the front door and this door too. I call that the ‘pool room’ because it has a pool in it.
Helen – I think of it as a little greenhouse. If you think of a pool room, you think of a big thing.
Rosamond – We put the plant room on about 15 or 16 years ago. I was trying to think who did it. I think it was Carlton Wing who helped you with the woodwork and Allen Haskell helped you later with the planting. You had the door into the greenhouse made into a French door. We didn’t use it much as a greenhouse – it sort of grew into a greenhouse as we went along.
Most of the rooms here are about 14 feet by 14 feet. I wanted a large room for my bedroom, and I did it by just adding six feet onto this room.
Helen – I wouldn’t want it that way for anything. I like nice cozy rooms. It’s gone into a barn almost, but I told her to go to it and do what she wanted. I was horrified because she made it into a larger room. She has large tastes.
Rosamond – I love it. We had this paneling done so it would look like the rest of the house. We had an excellent man do it.
Helen – If anyone wants to have anything done to old houses, he’s the one. He’s just perfect. Vaughn Baasch.
Rosamond – He lives in Westport and he’s very good in connection with older house, and he’s done over a lot of the historic district in Newport, and he was doing work down at the Old Dartmouth Historical Society when they renovated an old building.
Mary – I remember when you added something to your room, Betsy. Will Brightman and Dave Tripp worked on that.
Rosamond – Yes, you put that little alcove over the garage.
Helen – Yes, it was over the garage that goes under the house. There’s a new garage for Rosamond’s car.
Mary – So you really have two driveways.
Helen – We wouldn’t have had room to park two cars down here.
Rosamond – We’ve had a variety of heating arrangements here. At first we had a coal stoker, which we had until it began to be difficult to get coal out here, and now we have electric heating, which is very satisfactory.
Helen – Electric heating is looked upon as a luxury, but it’s the cheapest thing we could have, because we can regulate the heat in each room and turn off whatever is not in use.
Rosamond – The rooms heat up very quickly because the ceilings are so low. They’re only six feet. We know several people who have to come in quickly and sit down.
Mary – One of the nicest places to be in this house is that little porch off the kitchen where the baskets are, where you can sit and look out over the garden.
Rosamond – Well, we haven’t very much this year, but we did in the past.
Helen – I built that little porch. This house was a very crude house; the only think that I liked about it was that it was on the road here. The kitchen, pantry and woodworking shop were here to begin with, but I made them into something much nicer. They were very crude. The walls of this house are very thin. The width of that post is the width of the wall – it’s only about four inches thick.
Rosamond – The boards on the outside are put up vertically. They couldn’t blow any insulation in here. I think they used newspapers under the paneling, and when you had the electric heat put in, they put regular insulation up under the eaves so we wouldn’t waste heat.
Helen – I don’t think we’re giving you very much.
Mary – Yes, this is exactly it – the fact that you have taken this house, taken off the old paper, put paneling on, painted the floors and spattered them blue and red…
You’ve had so much fun out-of-doors with the garden.
Rosamond – Out front, we had a fence – half picket and half stonewall and last year we took down the pickets and made it all a stonewall. Elliot Taber put it up five or six years ago.
Helen – If you knew how much I hate picket fences, you’d know I wouldn’t have nay more than we could help. These beautiful elms were here when we bought the house. I try to take care of them. The house is called ‘The Five Elms.’
Rosamond – We’ve done a lot of planting with Box and Viburum and bulbs and ground cover and a great variety of shrubbery. We have Borne Knowles, who has very fine men working for him; take good care of the trees. The men and boys who do this work are the best we could have.
Helen – This house was hard to live in because it had an open attic and so few closets. The closet in the front hall was where it is now, and the stairs went up just as they do, but we had two bedrooms and a bathroom made in the open attic, with a big hallway in the center.
You see, my family was a big family and sometimes they would come down and just take over.
I’ve made some special plans for this house and the way the plans are made now, nothing in this house can be legally removed.
Separate interview about Helen Ellis’s sculpture:
(Mary Giles, Interviewer) – Here on this table, I have placed several pieces of Helen Ellis’ sculpture, which we will talk about in detail. Let’s begin with this figure here, which is so heavy. Miss Ellie, what is this made of?
Helen Ellis, with Rosamond Peirce – That’s a lignum vitae – it’s the heaviest kind of wood that exists; they sent it here on the whale ships.
Mary Giles – Was it more difficult to carve because it is so hard?
Helen Ellis – No, I’d rather have a hard piece of wood than a soft one. A soft piece of wood is very difficult to work with. This figure represents a child and his mother. The child has come to get comfort from her. Lignum vitae is always the same color; the patina is just due to age. I don’t do very much oiling and that sort of thing. I usually leave the wood the way it is.
Mary Giles – Where do you get your woods – so many varieties?
Helen Ellis – People from all over have given me wood. I’ve never tried to sell my work; people who have wanted them, I have given them to them. I got started way, way, way back. My mother realized that I, the youngest in the family, was sort of left running around by myself more or less, and she thought that I had ability, so she decided that she would talk to some older persons who worked with their hands to see whether she couldn’t inspire them to take me on for a little bit. Everyone loved my mother very much, and she spoke to these two single ladies. I can remember them more or less. They were interested in the little town of Barnstable where I spent most of my early life. My father had bought a house and land in Barnstable.
These two women were interested in me because of my mother, and I worked on a dollhouse with them. They had started this with some other younger people; probably I was four or five. For the dollhouse I made all the little things – children things, people and animals that went into the house. This dollhouse was given to the Town of Barnstable, and they had it for years and years. I had a wonderful time making those little figures of people.
Mary – What about some of your other education and stimulation and inspiration in the art world? We might talk about that before we begin to talk about your work.
Rosamond speaking abut Miss Ellis – Well, the noted sculptor, Gaston Lachaise, was crazy about your work and he wanted you to stop everything else and just do carving. You couldn’t do that because you were teaching at Milton Academy then, but you did do a lot of it on the side. So that’s how you really got started. His enthusiasm spurred you on.
Because you ask me, I’ll say that I’ve exhibited in Boston, New York, New Bedford, on the Cape and, of course, here every year at the art exhibit (Westport Art Group). I’ve belonged to the National Women’s Sculpture and Artists Association, and they’ve sent some of my things on the tours that go around the country.
Miss Ellis – When they write to me and say that they want some of my things for a tour, I say, ‘Come take them.’
Mary – Here you were teaching at Milton when Lachaise said, “Don’t do anything except sculpture.’ How did you like teaching?
Helen – I didn’t like it. It bored me; I found it very difficult to do it rightly, because I knew I wasn’t very good at it and it bothered me. Yes, I taught woodworking. Yes.
Rosamond – You did other things there besides teaching. You helped run the lunchroom and you did all sorts of things around there.
She graduated from Milton Academy, and then studied for a year in Boston at the Lloyd School on Bennington Street, and after that she began teaching at Milton Academy. She was awfully young when she went there – about eighteen.
Helen – I got the house here while I was still at Milton. My brother thought I was crazy. He was in the real estate business in Cambridge, and when I said I was going to buy a house, he said, ‘Well, how are you going to do it?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do it, you can tell me how.’ So we had a little time of it, but that’s the way I did it.
Mary – On this tape, I want to talk about your sculpture. We’ll make another tape and talk about how you developed this house.
Let’s look at that one of ‘Men Talking on Wharf.’ It’s handsome.
Helen – Have I got any dates? I thought that was one of the early ones. They’re just ordinary workmen, gossiping on the wharf. They were very nice. Rosamond went down and sketched them every once in a while and then you’d come home and work on them from memory too. The group itself is all one piece of pine. It’s altogether about 11 or 12 inches high. No finish – just a feeling of polish from dusting it and taking care of it over the years.
Ellis – This piece shows that it hasn’t had anything done to it; it shows that. Some people who came over the years, like to feel the sculptures.
Mary – You’ve done so many different boxes. I’m curious about this one. What wood is it?
Helen – I think its pine. No, it’s a heavy piece of wood – it isn’t pine. I don’t know what it is.
Mary – It has a little color- instead of being just natural. Were these oil colors that you used?
Helen – Yes, I think so. I don’t use anything else but oil. The handle for the top is a piece of whalebone. That came off a whale ship.
Rosamond – It may have been a handle for one of those tiny parasols that women used to use. I found it in the attic one time and I think it’s a handle to a parasol.
Rosamond and Mary – It’s a snake with its head bent, and the carving on the box suggests sea plants and other sea forms.
I’d like to pick one to look at because it illustrates so well the ‘going with the material.’ This is the ebony figure, which surprised you so much by not being black when you got into the middle.
Helen – Well, I suppose you might think it was the natural material in brown, and I cut into it and it turned black.
Rosamond – I think the light (portion of the wood) is what is next to the bark on the outside.
Mary – It is a figure of a nude woman. When you started working, did you think of her as a person?
Helen – I don’t think of anything except just making a figure. I don’t go into any details of what it’s going to be. The person starts in making something, they don’t know quite what they’re making, and then they decide as they go along that it will develop into this or that or the other.
And, this piece is one that I didn’t have any idea it was going to be that. It’s a piece of ebony and I started carving, and then I discovered that on the inside – I do think that’s ebony. And, as I worked and carved into it, I found that half of it was light, not dark, and so instead of getting mad with hit, I said, ‘Oh, that’s fun,’ so I turned it into an imaginative lady, letting the form follow what happened with the material. Going with the material is half the fun.
Mary – Where shall we turn next?
Rosamond – Well, how about Mr. Hanson?
Helen – That’s in pine. Mr. Hanson was first violinist in the Boston Symphony for years.
Rosamond – A friend of our who had never been in the house before, came in one day and the first thing she said when she walked in the house was, ‘Why, there’s Mr. Hanson.’ She was a Boston woman who had attended the Symphony all her life.
Mary – It’s an amazing piece of work technically, because of the fact that the legs of the chair, the violin bow, his arm, the positioning of his hands, are all free standing. You had to go deep into this block of wood to make the detail. It’s freestanding and quite lacy, but it is all balanced by the solidity of the base.
Helen – Yes, I think it’s quite interesting. I wasn’t going to say anything wonderful, but I had a great deal of fun doing it because it was so provocative.
Mary – The difficulty made it challenging. This piece (of Mr. Hanson) is pine, but it’s green. How did it get green?
Rosamond – Remember? You just used a little green oil on it, and you rubbed most of it in with your fingers.
Helen – Yes! Yes!
Mary – Let’s talk more about the ebony figure. It looks as modern as a Henry Moore.
I think most people working with a piece of wood would try to go with the grain and color, but I think that most people wouldn’t have thought this piece was thick enough to do two aspects of a female form, but it was such heavy wood, you could do it. I’m afraid many artists would have fought this sudden change in color in the wood and removed it because it wasn’t what they expected – whereas you went with it.
Rosamond – Don’t you think that anyone who is really an artist and sensitive would have left it and gone with the wood rather than with their original idea?
Mary – Here’s a piece. What material is this?
Helen – It’s a cypress knee – and I didn’t do anything practically. When it was sawed off the tree, I made so few changes – nothing to speak of.
Mary – As you look at it, it is very beautiful and you can see all kinds of things in it. It becomes a human form; it becomes a plant form.
Helen – It becomes anything you want it to become.
Mary – It is the natural wood – no color added.
Helen – I don’t color much of my work.
Mary – Here’s a little box, which has that wonderful little invention of yours – the pivoting top.
Helen – I put a screw in it. It isn’t put on quite straight, because I didn’t want it to be pushed either way. The fact that the top slants, makes it possible to only push it one way to close it.
Mary – That was a functional part of the design and took a lot of ingenious planning. The forms you’ve carved in this piece are…
Ellis – Wild growth from the meadow.
As an entirely different thing, I’m picking up a piece of soapstone, which I hope I don’t drop on my toe because it’s quite heavy.
Rosamond – That was an old foot warmer. Those holes on the sides had a wire pushed through, and you could use the wire as a handle to pick up the warmed stone and put it into the carriage.
Helen – It could also be used as a bed warmer, because it’s so heavy, it doesn’t move.
Mary – And these figures?
Helen – I think a boy came in with a broken winged bird and brought it to his father, and together they took care of it so that it would be able to fly.
Mary – This was outdoors. Here is the branch of a tree and there are grasses and plants, and here’s a little creature.
Helen – This is a little dog.
Mary – All of it is in low relief because the bed warmer itself is only a little over an inch thick. Here are two pieces, which have always been very special to me. Who are they?
Helen – A mother and a boy, and he’s probably done something, which he shouldn’t have done, and he’s coming to tell his mother about it. Don’t you think that was it, Rosamond? Maybe he’d been off with somebody and he’d come back to tell her.
Rosamond – She looks very forgiving anyway.
Mary – And he looks pleading doesn’t he? – the expression on his face. When you started, you didn’t know it was going to be a boy coming to his mother pleading? You started with a piece…
Rosamond – That’s teak wood.
Mary – Teak comes in different colors doesn’t it? The figures are dark brown and the base is a rich golden brown.
Helen – Well, this base has been covered all the time so it’s not darkened with age.
Mary – It’s beautiful and one of the artistic things about it, which I’m trying to bring out, is the fact that the color contrast between the figures and the base adds to its quality.
Rosamond – I’m not sure that light bottom is teak.
Helen – Yes, I think it is.
Rosamond – I think that base may be mahogany.
Mary – See this tall piece of sculpture. What does it represent to you?
Helen – I think it’s a mother who has been looking for her son and he’s just shown up, and she’s telling him that she’s glad he’s back and he’d better be careful.
Mary – I really don’t need to know that it’s a mother looking for her son. I just love the feel of it.
Helen – Yes, I think it’s one of the nicest ones I’ve ever made. I’ve always liked that piece – haven’t you Rosamond?
Rosamond – Yes, it has lovely curves in it.
Mary – It’s so very simple when viewed from a distance. And, as simple as it is, there’s also detail. The detail in the carving of the figures in this basically simple form adds to the quality of the whole form. The other day, when we were thinking of things we might focus on, I think this was the first one Rosamond chose.
Rosamond – Yes.
Helen – She’s a pretty good person with my work – she knows it better than I do.
Rosamond – Not better.
Mary – Here’s something entirely different. I’d like for you to talk just a little bit about that piece standing on the table.
Helen – Well, that’s one of my pets. Don’t you think that’s one of yours, Rosamond? Don’t you like that?
Rosamond – Oh, very much! It’s a man fishing, and he looks half asleep – the way people look when they fish. And, there’s a fish looking at a worm, but I don’t think he’s going to be taken.
Mary – In contrast to the simple form of the last piece, feeling this one is an entirely different experience. In this one, you have opened up the space so that the light comes all the way through in many places. It has many so-called negative spaces in it. Perhaps this was a more complex….
Helen – Well, I think that in some ways, it is more difficult to do than the simple one, but in other ways, the simple form must be just right, otherwise it would be just a lump of wood. I had a lovely time doing all the plant forms – the grasses on the bank – giving this form the feeling of greater depth than the wood really has. It was great fun. Do you think the fact that I’ve colored parts of it spoils the piece itself?
Mary – No, I think it adds to it.
Rosamond – Oh, I do – on that particularly. The back is just as interesting as the front really. It’s beautifully done.
Mary – And you know, when you think of it, the imagination that went into making a fisherman on a bank, with all the things that would be growing on a bank, in a piece of pine 8” wide by 14” and 3” thick, took a great deal of feeling as you worked to make these expressive forms from it.
Helen – Yes, I think it’s one of the best that I’ve ever made and I’m fond of that myself.
Rosamond – The dancers up there – that was made out of a lobster buoy from over on the beach, one of the first things you ever did.
Helen – Oh yes, that’s one of my very favorites.
Rosamond – That has lovely sweeping curves and swirls.
Mary – Yes, it flows like dancing waves in a high wind.
Rosamond – It’s full of action – like the sea.
Helen – Isn’t it pretty though?
Mary – Do you think you sawed this off yourself, or did you find it?
Helen – Yes, I think I sawed it, but people have been awfully good to me, bringing me hunks of wood.
Rosamond – And I brought you a lot of tropical wood from Cuba one time.
Mary – As I look out into your little glass enclosed garden, I see pieces that were left outside to weather. Does it bother you when they weather and turn soft gray?
Helen – No, but they don’t usually do that.
Rosamond – Well, a few of the have.
Helen – Now that big log – that’s just about the way it was when it was lying on the pond.
Rosamond – That came up the Westport River one day.
Mary – To me, this piece is one of your best, maybe because it’s standing on that beautiful log that came up the river.
Rosamond – That’s St. Francis.
Helen – That I did years ago. I don’t know how long it’s been since that was done.
Mary – Again, this is not solid. You’ve opened the form up and a great variety of different forms come out from the main mass.
Helen – It’s all just one solid piece of wood.
Rosamond – There’s always a beautiful sense of motion in these things – curves…
Mary – And this must have been one that took longer, because you have extended the forms from the central mass in so many directions with such a variety of shapes and sizes.
Helen – Well, I don’t know. I think that when I start one, I make it and finish it. I don’t go jumping around. If I’m going to make something, I make it completely, don’t you think?
Rosamond – Yes, I think so.
Mary- There are so many sculptors who do not work as consistently as you do. Some of them may wait a year, giving it thought, and then come back to the piece.
Helen – I don’t do that. When I get a thing going, I get excited over it and want to finish it. I’m afraid I have always been that way.
Rosamond – Well, I think it’s a good way to be.
Mary – Here’s a cute little thing hanging here.
Helen – They’re just fun pieces.
Mary – What do you call them?
Helen – He’s a fisherman. I don’t know if there’s any name for that sort of thing. It’s just a self-made toy. I think they’re rather nice. The fish move because it’s attached to a rod that comes out from the pool, and a child can have a moveable toy.
Rosamond – Those two pieces and the man there on top, the one hanging up there, that one’s very old.
Rosamond – Yes, that’s one Father had when he was a little boy.
Helen – I got the idea from that – such a good idea. In this one, you pull a string and his arms and legs dance.
Mary – This boy is about to behead a chicken, you made that?
Rosamond – It’s very ingenious. You’ve created a nice moveable toy for a child to play with.
Helen & Rosamond – And the chicken never loses its head.
Mary – As I look around, I don’t see any instance where nature has not been a most basic part of your inspiration. You’re an outdoors woman aren’t you?
Rosamond – Your love of nature certainly does show in your work.