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The Sewell Sisters: Art for the People

The Sewell Sisters: Art for the People July 26, 2023
Photo of “She Did… What?” exhibition.
“She Did… What?” profiles seven women, including illustrator Helen Sewell (left display case) and landscape designer Marjorie Sewell Cautley (right case).

“She Did…What?,” the current exhibition at the Bolton Museum, profiles seven women, two of whom were sisters: Marjorie Sewell Cautley and Helen Sewell.

Like the six other women, the Sewells called Bolton home (for at least parts of the year) while, at the same time, making lasting impacts through their work upon American life.

Both Marjorie and Helen Sewell spent their summers at the home of their grandfather, Admiral John White Moore, at the house named “The Moorings,” the headquarters, today, of the Darrin Fresh Water Institute.

Marjorie Sewell Cautley (1891–1954) became the first woman landscape architect to design state parks, the first to plan the landscape of a federally funded housing project, the first to lecture in a university’s city planning department – and the first person to design a plan for Bolton Landing’s D.L. Rogers Memorial Park.

Helen Sewell (1896-1957) would grow up to become one of the nation’s foremost book illustrators, best known for her illustrations of the first editions of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s ‘Little House’ books but also widely admired for the artwork created for the books of philosopher Susanne Langer – a childhood friend from Bolton.

“This is an absolutely spectacular exhibit,” says Diamond Point resident Bob Bailey, whose grandmother, Emily M. Bailey, was a cousin of the two sisters. “World class. That these famous women were tied to Bolton Landing is just extraordinary.”

Bailey said he was “just blown away” when he walked into the Bolton Museum during the exhibition’s formal opening on July 7 and found that along with Louise Homer, Dr. Mary Jacobi, Mary Hillard Loines, Dr. Katherine Blodgett and Franziska Boas, two people from his own family were represented.

Bailey has clear recollections of the artist Helen Sewell, who frequently visited his grandparents’ Fo’Castle Farm in Burnt Hills, where she drew caricatures of the neighbors and completed much of her work – paintings, drawings, stories, illustrations and greeting cards.

She once said that she became a childrens’ book illustrator in part because of her fondness for children, especially the children of her own family.

“I have always occupied myself with them and with all the children I have known. It was natural that I should turn to making pictures for children. Good art for children must be intelligible to them, so I have always gone to them for my cue and inspiration,” she said.

When Bailey looked through the windows of the museum’s new wing, where the exhibition has been installed, he could see the influence of Helen’s sister, Marjorie Sewell Cautley, on Rogers Park.

By the 1920s, Cautley was already an experienced landscape designer. But Bob Bailey believes that being Admiral Moore’s granddaughter would not have hurt her chances of winning the commission to design the beachfront park, which lies less than a mile from the home where she spent her summers.

In July, 1924, the Lake George Mirror reported that the town’s newly-acquired three-acre lake shore parcel would “undoubtedly become one of the most beautiful of parks.”

Cautley’s vision for Rogers Park was never completely realized, presumably because of the expense.

Nevertheless, many of the design’s elements, such as the amphitheater, the recreational facilities and the use of natural features, were incorporated into its construction and remain essential ingredients.

“Cautley’s design illustrates a sensitivity to the site’s surrounding landscape (and the need) to create spaces for a variety of community activities,” writes architectural historian Sarah Allaback in “Marjorie Sewell Cautley: Landscape Architect for the Motor Age,” the first full-scale biography of Cautley.

Allaback surmises that the early deaths of the parents of Marjorie and Helen Sewell led them to seek careers that would provide them with the means to be self-sufficient.

Bob Bailey is not surprised that both also chose careers that would give them the means for self-expression.

“An artistic strain runs through the whole family,” said Bailey.  “My grandmother was an artist, the first woman to graduate from Pratt Art Institute, which Helen also attended. My father, Claude Bailey II, was also an artist.”

Bolton Supervisor Ron Conover, whose administration has overseen the improvements to Rogers Park over the past decade, has also made note of its aesthetic qualities.

“Marjorie Sewell Cautley was obviously someone who understood what a powerful impact art and design can have on people who are continuously exposed to it, as in a well-planned public park,” Conover said at the exhibition’s opening.

Like the other women featured in “She Did… What?” the Sewell sisters were women “who put themselves and their voices ‘out there,’” said Dr. Glenn Long, the Bolton Museum’s executive director. “They were all of a mind. And, as far as I can tell, they would have recognized each other as fellow travelers.”

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