A symbolic sycamore will be planted in Chadds Ford on April 29 in memory of George A. “Frolic” Weymouth— and it will honor the legendary conservationist, artist and sportsman in several ways. First, the tree will be one of three in the Brandywine Conservancy & Museum of Art’s new founders’ grove. It also will be the 50,000th tree planted by the conservancy. It will stand in Potts Meadow on acreage that inspired Weymouth 50 years ago to thwart development, found the museum just to the west, and preserve, conserve and restore vast swaths of land in the area.
Weymouth died last April at age 79. He was the conservancy and museum’s main fundraiser and board chairman for decades. But he knew he had to prepare for a transition. That’s why, in 2015, the organization’s bylaws were amended to create a co-chairman position.
The result? “Everything has changed, but nothing has changed. It’s the same staff, same board and same mission,” says executive director Virginia Logan. “The institution had gotten bigger than he was. He knew we had to change to be relevant to art lovers and conservationists. He put the people in place and stepped back over the last few years.”
Consider what the organization has accomplished: It has helped to permanently protect more than 62,000 acres, mostly in Delaware and Chester counties and Delaware’s New Castle County—representing more than 6 percent of their land. It owns several hundred acres near its offices and museum, including three properties associated with the Wyeths that “allow you to immerse yourself in the artists’ landscape,” Logan says. Its museum draws over 100,000 visitors a year for exhibitions of its 4,000 paintings and 10,000 other objects, plus traveling shows and a holiday spectacle of trains, dolls and naturally decorated Christmas trees.
What Weymouth created has become “the third great du Pont legacy, along with Winterthur and Longwood,” says Morris Stroud, chairman of the board.
Weymouth—whose mother was a du Pont—is one of 22 individuals and couples who have each given more than $1 million to the organization, and his will added a bequest to endow the museum director’s post. He knew all sorts of people. The Way Back, a recollection of his playful, modest life and impressive legacy, mentions Britain’s Prince Philip (Weymouth painted his portrait), Martha Stewart (who loved the gardens at his home, the Big Bend), Andy Warhol (a museum visitor), and Michael Jackson, Rudolf Nureyev and Luciano Pavarotti, all passengers on his horse-drawn carriages.
Weymouth bought Potts Meadow in 1967 with the help of Francis I. du Pont and Bill Pritchett, friends from a foxhunting club in nearby Unionville. Two years later, he granted the conservancy’s first conservation easement, for the Big Bend.
America’s earliest conservation easement was made in 1891. The Internal Revenue Service started authorizing tax deductions for scenic easements on federal highways in 1964. Weymouth’s easement, then, was on the forefront of an environmental trend that today encompasses 56 million acres across the country that are controlled by land trusts like the Brandywine Conservancy. Property is a bundle of rights, Logan says. How many rights are granted to land trusts varies, yet such easements are often the best way to restrict future development, protect ecological and cultural elements, and earmark the land for activities like agriculture and recreation.
Weymouth’s easement was prescient in another way, Logan says. At the time it was made, he envisioned it becoming part of a short greenway along the Brandywine. Today, the conservancy is thinking far bigger, working to safeguard a 30-mile stretch of the watershed that runs from the Delaware line to the northern edge of Chester County, including Honey Brook Township, where 26 percent of the land is protected. “This land will remain to inspire artists,” says Andrew Stewart, the conservancy and museum’s director of marketing and communications.
D.D. Matz, the board’s vice chairman, praises Weymouth for his vision in fighting “development that was coming down the pike.” “We are charged with continuing his legacy by protecting some really incredible properties in the Brandywine and Christina watersheds and their diverse ecosystems,” he says.
Logan says the organization’s strategic planning now includes “studying the map” to see where its efforts would be most effective, adding that perhaps there would be more attention on New Castle County. Leaders of the conservancy, the county and the city of Wilmington have long understood the importance of the health of Pennsylvania land upriver for water quality in Delaware.
Andrew Johnson, the watershed protection program director at the William Penn Foundation, believes the organization is on the right track. “For decades, the Brandywine Conservancy & Museum of Art has successfully led protection of the Brandywine Valley and [Brandywine] Creek through its strategic conservation programs and its elevation of the landscape through art,” Johnson says. “Looking to the future, this highly effective approach—based on both defining and harnessing a strong sense of place to promote stewardship— will be an increasingly important model for watershed protection locally, in the larger Delaware River watershed of which it is a part, and nationally.”
Logan says the conservancy takes “a more holistic approach” by working with government planners on land use and encouraging stewardship among landowners— hence all the trees being planted.
The organization’s 50th anniversary—with a weekend of activities at the end of April—also jibes with the 100th anniversary of the birth of Andrew Wyeth. Both occasions will be marked by a summertime exhibition and the debut of 12 stamps on July 12 that feature details of Wyeth works.
Weymouth—who learned egg-tempera painting and other artistic techniques from Wyeth—will get his own retrospective at the museum in 2018. He’s known for portraits and landscapes that captured the essence of his beloved surroundings, selling his first pictures when he was just 6. Exhibition curator Joe Rishel will be looking for the best works to illustrate Weymouth’s creative career. “So much is unpublished and unseen,” he says.
Rishel says the death of an organization’s founder is “inevitably earthquakey,” but he believes Weymouth left “a happy, young institution.” “The energy is great, and it’s financially stable,” he says.
“I’m excited at where the conservancy and museum are headed,” adds Mary Landa, who manages the Wyeth collection for the museum, which is enhancing its profile by partnering with major institutions. “It is my hope that they continue this momentum and fulfill Frolic’s vision of a partnership of art and land conservation.”
Landa recalls Weymouth’s involvement to the end. “The Brandywine River Museum of Art is Frolic’s legacy, and his fingerprints remain on every aspect of the building, the land and the collection. Even a few weeks before his passing, Frolic was designing and directing the installation of the new floor of the museum’s revamped restaurant,” she says. “He was wise and proactive in handpicking his successors (Logan and Stroud) and mentoring them during his lifetime for a smooth transition.”
The museum is growing to include artists who have affinities with the Wyeths, Howard Pyle and others from the Brandywine school of illustration, whose works dominate its collection. With the new art director, Tom Padon, “Frolic left his comfort zone,” says Landa. “He encouraged Tom to launch a number of exhibitions, bringing in a new and diverse audience.”
Stroud and Logan are confident that they are preserving Weymouth’s legacy, tweaked as needed. “He wants this museum and conservancy to stay vital and important,” Stroud says. “If that means changing things on the edges, so be it.”
It’s time for the kids to be running the show,” Logan adds. “He’ll be grinning ear to ear that we’re keeping his spirit.”
That spirit had a sense of humor—as in Weymouth’s wearing a pin of a river rat as the organization’s mascot. He once placed nude models as distractions along a maze he created for carriage drives, and he feted Jamie Wyeth with a January clambake that featured live poultry as table centerpieces. Weymouth was most certainly “irreverent,” Stroud says.
“With a smile, with a twinkle in his eye,” Logan adds.
They both hope to maintain that feeling of fun in their work on the land, the art and the history. “There’s a lot of beauty in this world—whether woodland, meadow, water or work of art—touching hearts, minds and souls,” Logan says. “That spirit will remain.”