Kitchen Blog

James Wells Champney

January 12, 2016 by WhiteStone  

Self portrait of sketching on Old Main Street

We are often asked why our restaurant and tavern here is named Champney’s. Everything on the walls in Champney’s references and acknowledges this building and this small, unique town. James Wells Champney is part of that history.

He was born in July 1843 and raised in Roxbury. Sketches show evidence of very early artistic leanings, and he studied at the Lowell Institute, where Dr Oliver Wendell Holmes taught his life and anatomy classes. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Champney joined a drilling club, and later fought with the 45th Massachusetts Volunteers in the Battle of Gettysburg where he contracted malaria and was invalided out.

1865 found Champney teaching drawing at the Young Ladies’ Seminary in Lexington, MA where he met and fell in love with the “Madonna-like face” of the “exquisite” Elizabeth Williams from Deerfield – his future wife.

Lizzie had gone on to graduate from Vassar, and her parents – abolitionists and temperance crusaders had moved to Kansas to help free the state from slavery. They arranged an engagement between the spirited Lizzie and a well-heeled farmer, but when Champney followed her there in the spring of 1873, she gladly eloped with him – “an unexpected and unspeakable happiness”. Champney was a mere artist, and the Williams were not thrilled despite his awards and recognition, especially when the couple decamped to Spain and then France to pursue exhibitions and commissions.

In 1876 the couple returned and moved in to the Williams Homestead in Deerfield. Champney built a studio, named the house “Elmstead” and added the still existing “Colonial” features such as the gambrel roofed ell, including the doorway from Alexander Hamilton’s house in New York City.

Champney became Professor of Art at Smith College in 1877, where he was one of the founders of the art gallery. He was still teaching there in 1884 when the Deerfield Inn was built.

Champney was endlessly expanding his artistic knowledge – from oils to pastels, from etchings and engraving, from pencil sketches and watercolors, into photography. He painted society ladies, illustrated books – in particular those written by his independent wife and ones related to social issues of the time, designed murals and stained glass windows, and was one of the first American artists to apply the French Impressionist theory of values to his work.

With their son Frère and daughter Maria, the Champneys split their time between New York and Deerfield, where in the summer he gave art classes by the Deerfield River and in the meadow by his house. Apparently “the old town always seemed to come alive” when he was in residence.

James Wells Champney died in an elevator accident in 1903 when he was in Manhattan to give a lecture on photography as a legitimate art form. His new-found discoveries in photograph techniques enabled him to get one of the earliest-known moving images showing two people jumping. He is said to have experimented with nighttime photographs, using the flash of a pistol shot for lighting.

We chose the name Champney’s because – beyond his close connection with this village, we admire who he was as a person. He was an abolitionist, an adventurer, an innovator, and a supporter of women’s suffrage. He was genial and sympathetic, and we here all highly value kindness. (Once he bought the house of an elderly Deerfield couple having financial difficulties, fixed it up so it was in good repair, and gave it to the couple to live out their days in.)

The Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association records say of Champney that “he loved his work, and loved his play, there were no dull hours with him.” We love that James Wells was known as “a genial host and charming guest”. This so perfectly captures for us the essence of the hospitality that is the gathering place named for him. It is also a tribute to Deerfield that, no matter how distant and varied his travels were, he always came back here where he found his greatest contentment.