Biggs Museum of American Art

Dover, Delaware


The following essay was first published in connection with the Museum's exhibition "Painting Ever Since She Can Remember: Works by Betty Harrington Macdonald," held from October 21 to November 29, 1998. Essay reprinted with permission of the Biggs Museum of American Art.


Betty Harrington Macdonald

by Dr. Jann Haynes Gilmore


"I have painted ever since I can remember."[1]


Eighty-six years ago, Elizabeth Watson Harrington was born in Dover, Delaware, on July 19, 1912, to Chancellor (1874-1959) and Mrs. William Watson Harrington (1875-1966), as the middle child between two sisters, Sarah and Anna Banks, who was called Nancy. Tracing her ancestors back to the American Revolution, she was steeped in American and Delaware history by both her parents who were "great historians."[2] Her father was the Presiding Judge of the Court of Chancery, Delaware's Court of Equity which is based upon an old English model. Her mother, Sarah Godwin from Milford, also had an abiding love for history and her family owned farming interests east of Frederica, acquired from the Indians, from which grain, primarily wheat and corn, was shipped on the Murderkill River up to Philadelphia, and from there, to all ports of call. Betty Harrington also acquired a love for history from her paternal aunt, Jessie Harrington, who became an expert on colonial history, especially decorative arts, and wrote a definitive book on early Delaware silver.[3]

The Harringtons built a handsome colonial revival house north of the town center in Dover's best residential neighborhood. They were among the state capital's circle of most respected families, including the Richardsons and the Denneys.[4] Her godfather was Henry Ridgely, a banker, landholder, and with his wife, Mabel Lloyd Ridgely, a great lover of Delaware history and culture. Henry Ridgely was a founder of Farmers National Bank in Dover. The family owned the eighteenth century Ridgely house on The Green. Henry Ridgely was perhaps the most beloved man in Dover during the early years of the century. During the 1930s Mabel Lloyd Ridgely initiated the annual Old Dover Days event to celebrate the capital's history. She was the driving force behind the establishment of the Delaware State Archives and Portrait Commission. Henry Ridgely was blind as an older man, and Betty Harrington Macdonald remembers that as a child, she wished she could lead him on walks throughout the town, but she was never deemed old enough to take on the responsibility.[5]

In 1918, Chancellor Harrington purchased a beach-front summer cottage in Rehoboth Beach, north of town on Surf Avenue and Betty Harrington recalls her summers as a youth in the resort: "Our times there were absolutely wonderful. We would walk up the beach to the Henlopen lighthouse and keeper's house. There were dances at the Henlopen [Hotel], our cousins gave us a sailboat that we sailed on Rehoboth Bay, and they had a speedboat which we also enjoyed. We knew everybody, and one could always count on meeting interesting people."[6] Chancellor Harrington owned two horses which he stabled at The Homestead (now owned by the Rehoboth Art League) in Rehoboth Beach and he and his daughter rode horseback on the beach during the summer months. Each year he rode horseback from Dover, a trip that took two days, and his daughter remembers wishing that she could have made the trip with him to bring down the horses.

Betty Harrington's artistic talents emerged early, and she never remembers a time when she was not painting. She attended the Holmquist School in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Encouraged to develop her artistic talent, she enrolled as a fine arts major in October 1930 at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, which later became Moore College of Art. A problem of nearsightedness almost ended Betty's artistic pursuits, but her eyesight improved while studying in Philadelphia. She decided to seek a college degree and enrolled in Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. Although Harrington intended to pursue a two-year degree, she was among one of the first classes to graduate from the school when it became a four-year college. Majoring in art, she studied with Peppino Mangravite (1896-1978) and Bradley Tomlin (1899-1953) who taught there from 1932 to 1941, both considered modernists in the emerging twentieth century artistic climate. She recalls not having been particularly influenced by the teachings of either man, "...because I was stubborn, I disregarded their modernist leanings and stuck to what I liked."[7]

After graduation from Sarah Lawrence in 1936, she decided that she needed further art training and moved to New York to study with Harvey Dunn (1884-1952) in night classes at the Grand Central Art School on the upper floors of the Grand Central Station. Dunn had been a student of the great Delaware illustrator, Howard Pyle (1853-1912), and Betty Harrington Macdonald speculates that it was perhaps her association with Delaware and her friendships with the Pyle family, that gave her an "in" with Dunn.[8] She studied oil painting with Harvey Dunn, who " general consensus...was the greatest teacher of illustration in his era,"[9] and she considered him to be the only teacher "who had an influence on me."[10] Dunn's teaching ideas were greatly influenced by Pyle, and he emphasized feeling over technique. Dunn had begun his career as an illustrator but turned to easel paintings using a vigorous, painterly technique.[11]

Betty Harrington returned to Delaware after her studies and quickly became a recognized artist in her native state. Her earliest success came in Rehoboth Beach in the late 1930s when she began to participate in the Annual Summer Art Exhibitions at the Village Improvement Association (V.I.A.) Clubhouse on the boardwalk. These exhibits were initiated by Delaware's leading woman artist, Ethel Pennewill Brown Leach (1878-1959), a pupil of Pyle, who had studied in New York and Paris, and who had built a studio in Rehoboth Beach in the early 1920s. These exhibitions formed the nucleus of an art colony in the resort and attracted entries from well-known artists not only from the East Coast but from as far away as the American southwest and California. In 1938, Betty Harrington's works of familiar local subject matter were among those receiving the highest votes for the public's popularity award. In 1939 and again in 1941, she co-chaired the art committee within the V.I.A. which mounted the art show. Her sales from the V.I.A. exhibitions were encouraging, "I sold a lot of work."[12] When the Rehoboth Art League was established in Rehoboth Beach in 1938 to provide a permanent home for the arts, Betty Harrington became one of its first instructors, teaching youth classes in art during the first few summers.[13] She also became a member of the Rehoboth Art League where she exhibited her work for many years.

The period between the Depression and the outbreak of World War II was a time of travel for the Harrington sisters. In 1939, she and her older sister Sarah engaged an agent in New York to arrange a sailing trip to the Virgin Islands and Haiti. Later, they spent two months in Hawaii. After the war, Betty Harrington met William R. Macdonald, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, and married the young career naval officer in February, 1950. The Macdonalds were stationed briefly in Boston, but lived in the Washington, D.C. area throughout most of his military career, except for stints in San Diego and a three-year assignment in Paris, where their son, Andrew, was born in 1955. After their return to the United States, the Macdonalds settled in historic Alexandria, Virginia, a seaport city steeped in colonial maritime history where they live today.

Before Betty Harrington Macdonald left for France, her art work had received much recognition in her native state. More than a decade earlier, she had begun to produce a calendar for the Farmers Bank of Dover which depicted Delaware subjects. In the early 1950s, her work became even more well known through pen and ink drawings of historic landmarks which appeared in the Wilmington Journal-Every Evening newspapers on the Saturday editorial page from March 28, 1953 until April, 1955. Selecting sites "she knew," these drawings were known as "word pictures" and she provided text based on her own historical research of each location.[14] Schooled in the history of many of these mid-Atlantic architectural treasures by her parents, Betty Harrington Macdonald "...purposely included some significant but lesser known buildings. She rendered what she saw in some cases deterioration of the
original building, in others, later additions."
[15] Some of these drawings were also used as designs for a dozen ceramic plates produced for the Friends of the Kent County Hospital in Dover.[16]

These sketches became so popular that the Delaware State Society of the Daughters of the American Colonists published a book of these drawings with Macdonald's texts in 1963. Titled Historic Landmarks of Delaware and the Eastern Shore, this book was much admired. Jeannette Eckman, an historian, edited the original historical research undertaken by Betty Macdonald for her newspaper series, and Dr. John Munroe, Chairman of the History Department of the University of Delaware, provided the preface which noted the influence of Chancellor Harrington on his daughter's undertaking: "[he] knew this land and its history in such intimate detail..."[17] Landmarks on Maryland's Eastern Shore were also included in the book because of the long contiguous border with the state of Delaware and the two states' intricately tied histories. This book won first place in the Women's Club of the Year Competition.

Because the book was quickly out-of-print, the organization published a Bicentennial edition thirteen years later in 1976. Some of the texts were revised because of the expanding historical knowledge of the sites brought to light by such federal programs as the National Register of Historic Places and the data emerging from the state programs in historic preservation. Betty Harrington Macdonald also re-sketched some of the historic properties for the Bicentennial edition because of restoration or changes in the structures. The John Dickinson mansion, for example, appears in the second edition restored from its previous derelict condition illustrated in the 1963 edition.

Betty Harrington Macdonald also authored a third book, based on many years of research at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., on the ship-building history of southern Delaware. Titled Mispillion Built Sailing Ships, it was published in 1990, by the Milford Historical Society. While she did not illustrate it with her drawings, she meticulously researched and obtained photographs of two and three-masted schooners which had been built in Milford, Delaware. Her extensive research yielded photographs of these ships from as far away as Nova Scotia and Holland. Into her ninth decade, she has amassed an additional body of research on Delaware-born seamen who sailed out of the Port of Philadelphia. She has gathered profiles of over 5,000 Delaware sailors by tracing their lives and travels throughout the world.

When asked about the priorities in her creative life and whether there has been a conflict between her desire to undertake historical research and to write or her desire to paint, she firmly states that painting has always come first and that she has been lucky because her husband allowed her to follow her interests. She reflects that she was able to put the two activities "into slots" and that she was able to approach each separate activity with intense devotion and concentration.[18]

Her artistic output has been as prolific as her literary work as she has combined her passions for history, family, and the outdoors. In the winter months, she painted commissioned portraits in oil and watercolor; and in the summertime, she painted in watercolor, her favorite medium, noting that she long ago gave up painting in oils because she got tired of "carrying wet pictures around all the time."[19] While she has had great success as a watercolorist, she professes to have had little training in the medium, having taught herself the technique as she eschewed the modernist instruction of her art teachers.

Her art work is characterized by a love for a time past and an interpretation of historic architecture in harmony with nature. Many of her compositions of landscape and seascape show hallowed man-made structures harmoniously cradled and framed by remarkably intricate and diverse trees whose great forms are modeled by use of simple line. Almost all of her interpretations of early church architecture are composed from the vantage point of their silent forebearers' perspective in the nearby church cemetery.

Another of her pervading themes has been life on the water. Whether she was describing it with pen or paint in scenes of older Delaware fishing villages like Leipsic where she went to paint as a young woman and observed the locals who were members of the "Spit and Whittle Club," she has been drawn to the water's edge. Her work captures Bowers Beach, the tidal marshes around the St. Jones River near her hometown of Dover, scenes recalling summer pleasures on the beach or bay in Rehoboth, and the quiet, reflective water views on a lake near Keene, New Hampshire, where the Macdonalds own a summer cottage.

Betty Harrington Macdonald's work has been exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., at a one-person show in a Baltimore gallery, at the Clothesline Fair shows in downtown Wilmington through the 1950s,[20] at the Wilmington Society of the Fine Arts (now the Delaware Art Museum), and at the Rehoboth Art League where she held joint exhibitions with fellow Delaware artists such as landscape painter Margery K. Pyle (1903-1993).[21] The 1936 exhibition of Delaware Artists held at the Library Building by the Wilmington Society of the Fine Arts from November 2-28 included two works by Betty Harrington, Dodds Windmill House and Boats-Leipsic Delaware as well as works by Ethel Leach, Stanley Arthurs, and Frank E. Schoonover, all of whom are represented in the Biggs Collection. Betty Harrington Macdonald's work is included in the collections of the Hotel duPont in Wilmington, the Sewell C. Biggs Museum of American Art in Dover, the Lewes Historical Society in Lewes, and in numerous private collections throughout the mid-Atlantic region.[22]

Betty Harrington Macdonald's artistic and literary legacies are intricately tied to the state of Delaware and its history. While she has produced a remarkable body of work, until recently her creative contributions to the region have been overlooked. She takes some responsibility for this oversight, stating that she "never tried hard [to exhibit her work] but always tried hard to paint."[23] The Sewell C. Biggs Museum of American Art is proud to be placing her artistic work in the public forum it deserves.



1 Elizabeth Harrington Macdonald, interview by Jann Haynes Gilmore, Alexandria, Virginia, August 12, 1998.

2. Ibid.

3. Jesse Harrington, Silversmiths of Delaware 1700-1850 and Old Church Silver (Wilmington: National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the State of Delaware, 1939). Jessie Harrington was influential in Sewell Biggs' collecting; her name is inscribed on the wall in the Museum's Reception Hall.

4. William Duhamel Denney (1873-1953), a governor of Delaware was related to the Harringtons.

5. Interview, August 12, 1998.

6. Ibid.

7. Elizabeth Harrington Macdonald, interview by Jann Haynes Gilmore, Alexandria, Virginia, December 11, 1992.

8. Interview, August 12, 1998.

9. Henry C. Pitz, The Brandywine Tradition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1969), 173.

10. Interview, August 12, 1998.

11. Rowland Elzea and Iris Snyder, American Illustration: The Catalogue of the Delaware Art Museum (Wilmington, Delaware Art Museum, 1991), p. 210. Brandywine River Museum, Catalogue of the Collection 1969-1989 (Chadds Ford, Brandywine Conservancy, 1990), p.216.

12. Interview, August 12, 1998.

13. "Art Exhibit Will Open on July 24th" Delaware Coast Press, 14, no 15, July 18, 1941, 1.

14. Interview, August 12, 1998.

15. Mabelle Springer Draper, acknowledgment to Historic Landmarks of Delaware and the Eastern Shore, by Betty Harrington Macdonald (Wilmington: Delaware State Society of Daughters of the American Colonists, 1963 and 1976).

16. Telephone interview, Karol Schmiegel with Elizabeth Harrington Macdonald, September 13, 1998. Plates with six different designs have been identified.

17. John Munroe, preface to Historic Landmarks of Delaware and the Eastern Shore, by Betty Harrington Macdonald (Wilmington: Delaware State Society of Daughters of the American Colonists, 1963).

18. Interview, August 12, 1998.

19. Ibid.

20. For a discussion of the history of the Clothesline Fair in downtown Wilmington, see The Studio Group: First Fifty Years, (Wilmington: The Studio Group, Inc., 1988), p.5. Several corporate art collections were amassed from works purchased at these Clothesline sales including the Hotel duPont collection, the Wilmington Trust Bank collection, and others. Also see Four Decades: The Hotel duPont Collection (Wilmington: Delaware Art Museum, 1982). Betty Macdonald's work is represented in the Hotel duPont Collection.

21. Another largely forgotten woman artist, Margery Pyle was an early member of the Studio Group of Wilmington and she held a two-woman exhibition with Betty Harrington at the Rehoboth Art League in 1948. Pyle's work depicted scenes of upper Delaware, Pennsylvania, and the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Harrington's works focused on subjects of southern Delaware. Research on Margery Pyle and other Delaware artists is being assembled for a forthcoming book on the Rehoboth Beach art colony by Jann Haynes Gilmore.

22. Hotel duPont owns Kent County Farm, an undated watercolor; the Biggs Museum owns St. Anne's Church, a watercolor dated 1969; and the Lewes Historical Society owns three works of familiar scenes of Lewes, Delaware, which are on view in the Burton Ingram House owned by the Historical Society in Lewes, Delaware.

23. Interview August 12, 1998.


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