After Frolic: Honoring George Weymouth’s Vast Legacy
A year after his passing, nothing is different but everything has changed—which is exactly what he had planned.
George "Frolic" Weymouth//Photo by Jim Graham
A symbolic sycamore to be planted in Chadds Ford on April 29 honors George A. Weymouth—known to everyone as Frolic—in several ways. It will be one of three in the new Brandywine Conservancy & Museum of Art founders’ grove. It will be the 50,000th tree planted by the conservancy. And it will stand in Potts Meadow, acreage that 50 years ago inspired Weymouth to thwart development, found the museum just to the west, and to preserve, conserve and restore vast tracts of land in the area.
Weymouth, who died in April (2016) at 79, was for decades the main fundraiser and board chairman for the conservancy and museum. 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 of the board.
The result? “Everything has changed, but nothing has changed,” says executive director Virginia Logan. “It’s the same staff, same board and same mission. 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 63,128 acres, mostly in New Castle County and Pennsylvania’s Delaware and Chester counties. The figure represents 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 more than 100,000 visitors a year, for selections of its 4,000 paintings, 10,000 other objects, traveling shows and a holiday spectacle of trains, dolls and naturally decorated Christmas trees.
Weymouth, whose mother was a du Pont, was one of 22 individuals and couples who have given more than $1 million to Brandywine, and his will added a bequest to endow the museum director’s post.
He knew all sorts of people. “The Way Back,” Brandywine’s documentary of his playful and modest life and impressive legacy, mentions Britain’s Prince Philip (Weymouth painted his portrait), Martha Stewart (who loved the gardens at his home, Big Bend), Andy Warhol (a museum visitor), and Michael Jackson, Rudolf Nureyev and Luciano Pavarotti, all passengers on his horse-drawn carriages).
What he created “is the third great du Pont legacy, along with Winterthur and Longwood,” says Morris Stroud, chairman of the board.
Current chairman of the board Morris Stroud with Weymouth.
Weymouth bought Potts Meadow in 1967 with the help of Francis I. du Pont and Bill Prickett, friends from a fox hunting club in nearby Unionville. Two years later, he granted the conservancy’s first conservation easement, for Big Bend.
America’s earliest conservation easement was made in 1891, and in 1964 the Internal Revenue Service started authorizing tax deductions for scenic easements on federal highways. Weymouth’s easement, then, was on the forefront of an environmental trend that today encompasses 56 million acres across the country controlled by land trusts such as Brandywine.
Two views of the mill before it became the museum.
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 such as 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. The conservancy today is thinking far bigger, working to protect a 30-mile stretch of the watershed 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, director of marketing and communications for the conservancy and museum.
D.D. Matz, the board’s vice chairman, praised 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.”
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, watershed protection program director at the William Penn Foundation, believes Brandywine is and will be on the right track. “For decades, the Brandywine Conservancy & Museum of Art has successfully led protection of the Brandywine Valley and creek through its strategic conservation programs and its elevation of the landscape through art. 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 with a summertime exhibition and the July 12 debut of 12 stamps featuring details of Wyeth works.
Weymouth, who learned about egg tempera painting and other artistic matters from Wyeth, will get his own retrospective at the museum in 2018. Exhibition curator Joe Rishel says he will be looking for the best works—“so much is unpublished and unseen”—to encompass Weymouth’s artistic career. Weymouth is known for portraits and landscapes that captured the essence of his beloved surroundings. He sold his first pictures when he was 6.
From left: Weymouth’s "Eleven O’Clock News"; Weymouth’s "The Way Back."
Rishel says the death of an organization’s founder is “inevitably earthquaky,” but he believes Weymouth left “a happy, young institution. The energy is great, and it’s financially stable.”
“I am excited at where the conservancy and museum are headed,” says Mary Landa, manager of 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.
“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.
“He was wise and proactive in handpicking his successors (Ginny and Morris) and mentoring them during his lifetime for a smooth transition. With the new art director, Tom Padon, Frolic left his comfort zone and encouraged Tom to launch a number of exhibitions bringing in a new and diverse audience.” 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.
Stroud and Logan are confident they are safeguarding 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. For example, museum visitors will soon notice an enhanced audio guide.
“It was time for the kids to be running the show,” Logan says. “He’ll be grinning ear to ear that we’re keeping his spirit.”
It was a spirit that used a river rat for a mascot, placed nude models along a maze that he created for carriage drives, and feted Jamie Wyeth with a January clam bake, with live poultry as table centerpieces. Weymouth was “irreverent,” Stroud says—“with a smile, with a twinkle in his eye,” Logan adds. They both hope to maintain that sense of fun in their work on the land, history and art.
But he kept his eye on missions to nurture and create. “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.”