Escaping Manhattan during the summer months is a storied (and sensible) pursuit, and those of us who can’t afford to take a cottage or beach house for the whole of July and August remain enviously in situ. The Berkshires (pronounced berk, not bark) are a range of hills up in Massachusetts which have long provided a summer retreat from New York and Boston, and we were delighted when some good friends invited us to drive up with them last Friday for a weekend break.
Some three hours north of Manhattan – a largely pleasant drive along leafy parkways – we arrived at the town of Great Barrington. Tom and I had eschewed the boutique B&Bs in favour of an AirBnB stay, and we were delighted with our cool and quirky attic room in our host Carolyn’s beautiful home. By the time we arrived it was beyond lunchtime, so following Carolyn’s recommendation we stopped at Martin’s cafe for some tasty sandwiches, before making our way to the neighbouring town of Stockbridge and the Norman Rockwell museum.
Rockwell (1894-1978) was a prolific illustrator, drawing mainly for magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post and Look. The museum’s collection of his Post covers provided a detailed look at his style and subject matter – depicting, for the most part, cosy images of families interacting, children at play, and seasonal activities – and it was also fascinating to learn about his process for creating these images. (I had rather assumed that illustrators just dashed off a few sketches until they were happy with the image, but Rockwell worked with live models, costuming, posing and even photographing them for his preparatory drawings, and sometimes painting them in oils too.) Although his work was described to us as kitsch Americana, we both felt that there was a little more to it than that – some of his images around desegregation were extremely powerful, and in fact many of his covers were shaped by the Post’s editorial policies so may not have been his choice (for example, during the Great Depression he was apparently told only to draw positive, reassuring images).
The museum itself is located in the grounds of an 1859 Berkshire “cottage”, the Linwood House (now museum offices), and Rockwell’s studio has also been moved up there from its original location in Stockbridge. I’m not sure what its previous views were like, but its current location couldn’t be more idyllic:
Next stop was Tanglewood – the woodland campus which forms the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Picnicking on the lawn was already in full swing as we made our way to the Ozawa hall for the first of two concerts – a delightful program of wood and brass quartets, culminating in a fun Stravinsky octet – after which we just had time for a quick dinner in the cafe and a wander around the grounds before taking our seats in the Shed for the main concert. Led by Ken-David Masur (son of Kurt), whose conducting is quite wonderful to watch, the program culminated in a superb performance of Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ piano concerto with soloist Garrick Ohlsson. Having only seen this played by a much younger (and overly energetic) soloist, it was such treat to watch Olhsson’s calm and lyrical playing.
Bright and early(ish) on Saturday morning, we drove along pleasant country roads to yet another charming small town, Williamstown, for coffee and a look around, before heading on to the Clark art institute. The main event at the Clark was a significant exhibition of Van Gogh paintings (where I experienced one of those “visited far too many galleries” moments, re-encountering works I’ve seen previously at MoMA and the Guggenheim in New York and the National Gallery in London), but the buildings and grounds are also worth the trip.
A detour up to the top of Mount Greylock for some spectacular views occupied the remainder of the afternoon, before returning to Stockbridge for drinks and dinner in the garden of the historic Red Lion Inn. Then it was time for the main event of the weekend – opening night of Frankie and Johnny in the claire de lune at the Berkshire Theatre Festival. Another Manhattan friend has a regular engagement doing sound design here, and he’d kindly arranged tickets for us all to see it. It was fun to discuss the performance with him, and to meet the director (Karen Allen!!) and leading lady afterwards. I didn’t know the play beforehand, but it was extremely well done, and both actors were superb. Tom and I were also quite taken with the set – described in the programme as a walk-up tenement, it looked extremely similar to our old apartment on the Upper East Side.
On Sunday morning we said farewell to our lovely lodgings before meeting the others at their much fancier accommodation. Leisurely coffees in the dining room turned into chatting by the pool, and it was almost a shame to leave. Stopping briefly to collect a picnic lunch, we drove the short distance from downtown Stockbridge to Naumkeag (pronounced something like norm-keg).
Joseph Choate was a notable New York lawyer and diplomat who summered in the Berkshires with his family, and decided to purchase property in Stockbridge in 1885. Designed for the Choates by Stamford White, Naumkeag was clearly intended to be a proper summer home, rather than a grand show-piece, and it feels very welcoming and lived-in. His daughter Mabel inherited the property in 1929, and she was responsible for much of the garden design.
We enjoyed a lively and informative guided tour of the house before taking ourselves for a wander around the beautiful grounds. Then, sadly, the road back to New York was calling, so we tore ourselves away from those views for the last time.
We’re already talking about possibilities for a return trip, but in the meantime there are more photos in my Flickr album for the weekend.