George Laurence Nelson
George Laurence Nelson lived at Seven Hearths, in the Flanders section of Kent, from 1919 until his death in 1978. He wrote a small book about his love affair with the house, entitled New Life for Old Timber, which was published by the Kent Historical Society in 1982. At the end of the book, following Nelson’s account of his years in the house, the society added the following text from the eulogy given at Nelson’s funeral by his friend, the Rev. William Dolan Fletcher:
“February 6, 1978 marked the end of an era at ‘Seven Hearths’ because on that day George Laurence Nelson died. ‘Seven Hearths’ had seen many a tenant since its building in 1751 but none had been so devoted, none so interesting in personality, none so committed to everything that ‘Seven Hearths’ had meant over two centuries.”
“Nelson was born George Laurence Hirschberg in New Rochelle, NY, on September 26, 1887, the son of Carl and Alice Kerr-Nelson Hirschberg, and the youngest of three brothers. His parents were artists of no little repute in both the American and European art scenes.
Before he finished his education, he became one of the prime movers and shakers in the American Art movement, first as reorganizer of the Art Students League and then as co-founder of the Salmagundi Club in 1875. As a young man, he went to Paris to study under Alexandre Cabanel whose influence he would pass on to his youngest son – classical design, modern media, timeless mood.
While in Paris he met another young artist, one from London, named Alice Kerr-Nelson, and in 1881 they were married. After the birth of their first son, Carl Nelson Hirschberg, they returned to the United States in 1884. Working together as a team, the Carl Hirschbergs would set the pattern for American design in calendars, fashion literature, painting in oil and water color and etching.”
“Laurence’s mother, Alice Kerr-Nelson Hirschberg, often referred to in American circles as THE Woman of the Century, was the one person who had the greatest influence upon him. By coincidence the day of Laurence’s funeral was his mother’s one hundred and twenty-eighth birthday.
She was the daughter of George William Kerr-Nelson, Lord of Chaddleworth Manor in Northcutt, Middlesex, England – an estate going back to 1068 when it was conferred by William the Conqueror. It was lived in by Eleanor, Queen of Edward I, who in 1283 gave it to the Priory of Ambresbury in whose custody it remained until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1544. In 1576 the Manor passed to William Nelson, Chief Prothonotary of the Court of England, and it stayed in Laurence’s family until his mother’s time.”
“Among the ancestors of Alice Hirschberg was Elizabeth Kerr, England’s most noted painter of flowers, an artist who startled England with an art exhibit in London in 1763, daring to become a professional artist in a man’s world. John Henry Nelson was another member of this family, still hailed today in England for his portraits of the nobility in the nascent years of the last century. Alice’s grandfather, not a direct descendant but a nephew, to qualify for inheritance of the Manor, had to change, or rather add, the name Nelson to his original name, Richard Walter Kerr.
Hence the name Alice Kerr-Nelson. It was into this background of artists, rich in history, talented in artistic ability, that George Laurence Hirschberg was born. By the age of four he was drawing animals, and at five sketching portraits, generally of his mother. In 1897 when he was ten, as a vehicle for his drawing and writing, Laurence began a magazine, written in pencil on tablet paper, first calling it The American Monthly Paper, changed to The American Weekly Paper as the issues became more numerous, and then to The Weekly Duet when his brother Edgar joined as assistant editor.”
“By this time the family had moved to Buffalo and there Laurence attended local schools, being an editor of the high school review. In 1904 his crayon sketch of a cow won first prize, a pair of skates, still at Seven Hearths, in a contest sponsored by Crayola Crayons.
It would be the first in a legion of awards and prizes that he would gather during the long years ahead. After high school graduation, he returned to New York City to enter the Art Students League to begin his formal study of art.
It was at this point in time that the three Hirschberg brothers changed their name to Nelson because of the anti-German sentiment in New York, and because of the discrimination Carl Hirschberg had suffered as an artist, one German-born but an American citizen. Four years later at the age of twenty-one Laurence began teaching at the National Academy of Design, and he opened his studio at 10 W. 61st Street.”
“In, 1911, he sailed for London; he would remain in Europe – France, Spain, Italy – for two years, studying under Laurens, Gerome and Constance at the Beaux Arts and Academie Julian. His reputation had grown quickly. Before leaving for Europe he had been commissioned by Mrs. Henry Clay Frick to copy twenty paintings in the Metropolitan Museum for her home, now known as the Frick Museum. She and her friends sat for him for portraits and by the time he left for Europe his was an international acclaim.”
“He spent his time well in Europe, going to museums where he copied famous Masters, studying technique, color and design. He loved the region of Normandy best, and he spent much of his time in the area about Douarnenez, as his father had before him.
Many of his paintings of this early period are those depicting the people and the landscape of this area, including the monumental Washerwomen, still at Seven Hearths (an award winning work).
Because of the illness of his mother, he ended his foreign studies, returning to the United States in 1913, shortly before her death.
He established his studio first at 15 W. 67th Street, and then at 33 on the same street, remaining there until he and his father moved to Good Hill and then to Seven Hearths, in Kent, CT, where they began their summer school for painting (room and board being twenty-five cents per week).”
“Late in 1915 a young critic from The New York Globe, a leading fashion model of New York society, came to his studio for an interview for a feature article on his work. Her name was Helen Charlotta Redgrave.
But instead of her doing an interview with him, Laurence painted her portrait, a profile of one whom he called the most beautiful girl in the world. Judging from the painting, she was indeed all that he claimed.
On August 21, 1916, they were married, and for fifty-six years Helen and Laurence complemented one another in writing and painting, in ink and in pigment, in theatre and opera, flowers and people, city and country, doting on their daughter Beatrice, affectionately known as Bunny, and their grandchild Bonny.”
“Life for Laurence was a full one. He mastered the skill of painting, whether it was a landscape or a portrait, a page out of nature, a mural or one of the myriads of flowers he would grow to study and paint. With oil and water color under mastery, he turned to lithography and found it no great challenge.
Perhaps the secret behind Laurence Nelson was his mother, Alice Hirschberg. C. Y. Turner and William Merritt Chase claimed that she was America’s greatest woman artist and a woman truly liberated – a master of painting in oil and water color, etching and wood engraving, designer of fashion, magazine illustrator, collaborator with Turner and Chase in some of their greatest works.
George Laurence Nelson came by his talent from a rich heritage, but he was who he was because his mother taught him how to live, how to dream, how to draw and encouraged his love for art and music (he played five instruments and had a rich voice).”
“Second to her were his mentors James Whistler and John Sargent. They taught him through their writings and paintings how to work with tools, how to reverence the brush and its stroke, how to see life as it is meant to be lived, how to share a vision however delicate with others. That he learned well from them is evident in the very early painting he did of his mother, a work often attributed to Sargent.
Long is the list of those who boast of his friendship, ownership of one of his paintings, of those who acclaim him as a good neighbor always interested in the welfare of his house, his district, his community.”
“The likes of George Laurence Nelson is not likely again, at least not in numbers. His dry humor, quick step, long stride, shy smile, twinkling eye, warm handshake, effervescent conversation, enthusiasm for the new, deep humility when faced with praise, amazement when sought after for interview or one of his works – all these and more spell out this resident of Seven Hearths, who so loved this spot of history that he left it so others might share in its beauty and significance.
He knew his origins, appreciated his many talents, knew well his life’s mission, and he could and did take pride in what he accomplished, whether it might be a gold medal, a comment from his peer, an international recognition.
His was a gentleness fashioned and tempered by the three loves of his life: his mother, his wife, his ‘mistress’ art. He has taken his place in American history as one of the ten greatest portrait painters and one of the all-time lithographers, but he has taken his place in Kent and its history, not because of his international stature or reputation in American Art; rather because he chose to live here, share himself as a warm genuine human person who knew how to love and be loved, and finally to be buried in the land he loved so well – Kent.”
William Dolan Fletcher
February 11, 1978
The First Congregational Church
After his death, Nelson’s popularity waned considerably. His reputation now falls far short of what it was during his prolific career. The Kent Historical Society has embarked on a mission to restore him to his rightful place in the annals of American art. To that end, we have recently donated carefully selected pieces to The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, CT, The Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, CT, The New Britain (CT) Museum of American Art and the Newington-Cropsey Foundation in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY.
In July, 2008, we had a fundraising exhibit of his work at the Morrison Gallery in Kent, where visitors previously unacquainted with his art were stunned by its beauty and genius.
In addition, we are trying to increase our knowledge of the whereabouts of other Nelson pieces, and will welcome communication from owners of any his treasures. As of this writing in 2012, we have made the acquaintance of many knowledgeable members of the art community who are very enthusiastic about Nelson’s work. We are assembling a task force of these advisors to guide us as we move forward with our mission. Stay tuned!