I have loved the seashore and rural suburbs of New England and the mid-Atlantic states since spending time in the US as a student in the 1970s. Back then it was not so much the landscape I was interested in as the brilliant depictions of the inhabitants and their houses, swimming pools, country clubs and adulterous affairs by great American writers like John Updike and John Cheever. But my appreciation of the region was recently enriched by an artist friend working in Rhode Island who took me to idyllic Old Lyme in Connecticut – the home, I discovered, of American impressionism and the fascinating Florence Griswold Museum.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Old Lyme on Long Island Sound, about a two-hour drive from New York City, was the site of an artists’ colony that was compared to Barbizon and Giverny in France. Distinguished American painters such as Childe Hassam, Willard Metcalf and Henry Ward Ranger, along with the future US president Woodrow Wilson, were drawn to this picture-postcard town by the perfect light and tranquil New England setting. But what brought them all together as a group was the patronage of Florence Griswold, a remarkable Yankee sea captain’s daughter who ran her home as a kind of boarding house for artists to live and work in. The house, which was built in 1817 and resembles a Roman temple with four Ionic columns, is now a museum where the door and wall panels were painted with rural scenes by Griswold’s famous guests. The nearest comparison in the UK would be Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant’s Charleston farmhouse in Sussex.
The Griswold house and garden adjoins a modern 930sq m exhibition space and gallery, which holds temporary exhibitions such as the current Flora/Fauna: The Naturalist Impulse in American Art. There’s also a charming restaurant, Cafe Flo, where you can eat lunch outside while gazing out over the leafy banks of the Lieutenant river. Afterwards, I recommend strolling down Lyme’s peaceful main street, where the beautiful Colonial-era clapboard houses have white picket fences and deep-green lawns shaded by trees. There’s a post office, a fire station and a shop selling homemade ice cream, and the atmosphere feels like wandering back into an archetypal American past that, at least in this select and artistic corner of the north-east, still seems to be alive and well.