By Edie Clark
COPYRIGHT © 2008 BY EDIE CLARK
Albert Duvall Quigley moved to Nelson, New Hampshire, in 1934, when he was 43 years old, and created the vast majority of his work in this northern New England hill town. He lived there with his wife, Mildred, and their three children, Terrence, Tami, and Barnabas, until his death in 1961. Though his paintings, which were mostly in oil, have never received distinctive formal recognition, they were and are regarded as wonderful representations of the Monadnock region and the people within it.
Albert Quigley, known affectionately as “Quig,” was born in 1891 in Frankfort, Maine, a small village on the shore of the Penobscot River. As a young man, Quig, the son of a stonecutter, not only learned the art of stonecutting at the local quarry but he also taught himself to play the violin and learned to repair old fiddles from his neighbor, a violinmaker by trade.
During World War I, Quig, then in his early twenties, joined the Signal Corps and was sent to France, a place that transformed him. It is said that he never spoke of his war experiences but that he reminisced instead of his long walks through the French countryside, through villages and down long country lanes. After he was discharged, instead of coming home, Quig went to Paris to study art at the Isadora Duncan Pavilion. Most of the friends he made there were artists who came from Keene, New Hampshire, so on his return to this country, he found his way to Keene. While in France, he had also learned photography and, sure he could not earn a living as a painter, he set up a shop in Keene. It was there that he met the small, intense, determined young woman named Mildred Gilmore. He invited her to go for a walk, which turned out to be a very long walk and eventually a lifetime together. They married in 1925.
It was also in Keene that Quig met Alexander James, who would make the difference for him in the art world. James believed in Quigley enough to find a place for him to live in Dublin and later introduced him to the Tolmans, a local clan, who knew of a small place beside the Nelson Town Hall that was for rent. The rent for the house was very inexpensive, exactly what he and Mildred needed in order to get by on his meager earnings. His artwork not withstanding, Quig worked for many years at the Harrisville woolen mills, which was located about three miles from this little house in Nelson. Quig worked the 3 to 11 shift, finding rides with neighbors or co-workers. Quig was barrel-chested and of strong constitution, physically capable of just about anything. Although the rent was minimal, nevertheless, Quigley endeavored to buy the little house. In 1946, he bought the house for $640, taking out a 15-year mortgage, which he paid off, in due course.
May Sarton, a well-known novelist and poet who was born in Belgium, moved from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Nelson in 1958, a sea change in her life experiences. Her new home, a well-appointed 18th century farmhouse, was next door to the Nelson village church, and diagonally across from Quig’s humble abode. Sarton became fascinated with her neighbors and the surrounding area and wrote about them in several of her books. Sarton and Quig got along well and she was a frequent visitor to the Quigleys. Sarton, who was known for her sometimes melancholy writings, at once embracing her solitude and almost simultaneously rebuffing it, maintained a deep respect for Quig and for Mildred who she referred to as “distinguished” and “extraordinary.” When Sarton drafted a poem, she often crossed the road and knocked on the Quigley’s door to read it to them. She also enjoyed talking with Quig about their shared passion for art and about the difficulties of their mutual struggles in the arts. In the Quigleys, she apparently found a welcome kinship. “What would have become of me that long winter if there had been no one to listen?” she later wrote in regard to their friendship.
The subject of friendship was of lasting interest to Sarton and she was especially fascinated by the close friendship between Quig and Alexander James, which, according to all sources, was pivotal for both of them. Every year, James took Quig to the Woodstock Inn in Vermont for a week where they would go out on painting expeditions together. Sarton may have injected some of her own feelings into her interpretation of their friendship but, nevertheless, she wrote about it this way in her book, Plant Dreaming Deep (W.W. Norton and Co., New York, 1968): “They were an extraordinary pair, Alexander James, son of philosopher William James, born into New England aristocracy, and Albert Quigley, stonecutter’s son, millworker, fiddler; but their differences fused in the passion they shared for their art and craft. For Alec, Quig must have been like an older brother, less volatile, sturdier, less of a race horse, able to share wild fits of humor that released the tension in the younger man. To Quig, Alec brought the standards and know-how of the highly professional craftsman and critic. He taught Quig a great deal about techniques, brushes, canvas, taught him expensive tastes in these matters, and helped him to pay for them by employing Quig as his own framemaker and by getting him commissions from other painters. Above all, Alec took Quig’s painting seriously and held him to it, for art must be nourished by faith, the faith of an equal. For Alec, “dear old Quig,” as he called him, represented, no doubt, the pure, unadulterated person, free of the pressure of the professional artist under which Alec lived. Like any real friendship – and this was a great one – it sprang out of mutual need and was nourished from mutual riches. No one outside the two men will ever know the depth of it.”
For the record, James was merely a year older than Quig so the age difference she refers to must have been her own perception. Still, Alexander James pre-deceased Quig, which left him wanting. Again, Sarton felt the parting. “I sensed how terrible a gap this “friend of the work” had left when he died, how Quig missed Alec’s touch, Alec’s warmth, Alec’s fits of gaiety, and how he longed for Alec’s eye to criticize or approve a morning’s work.” Almost all of Quig’s woodworking (carving frames, crafting violins, creating furniture) took place at Alexander James’ shop in Dublin, a place Quig continued to use after James’ death.
Alexander James used Quigley exclusively as a framer for his paintings and recommended him to his friends. Many of Quig’s frames were hand-carved, some painted or gold-leafed and they were often tinted to in some way match or complement the painting. They were thought to be the very finest frames available at that time. Mildred, who was also very deft with her hands, helped him with this aspect of his work and was known to be quite good at it. They often gold-leafed frames together, which they apparently did in their living room as often as they played cribbage together.
In addition to his painting and framing, Quigley also made violins and fiddles and repaired musical instruments. He loved music and played the fiddle with the legendary Ralph Page at the famous Nelson town dances. But much of his time, he painted. Though during his lifetime he received no awards nor artistic distinction, Quigley’s paintings enjoyed a robust local reputation, as they still do today. According to his son, Barnabas (known to all as Barney), Albert Quigley spent virtually all the time that he could painting the barns and fields of the area and, of course, the iconic Mt. Monadnock. People knew of his paintings by word of mouth and came to the door to buy them, for small amounts, $10, $20, and sometimes, during the Depression, for a bushel of potatoes. There are many stories of Quig trading paintings for groceries at the Harrisville store.
Quigley did a number of things to make ends meet, which they rarely did. He played fiddle at the dances and sometimes traveled with Ralph Page to play at other dances, all for a small fee. He wrote music, mostly dance tunes. The music was in him as deeply as his art. There is a story, often told by Quig himself, about a night when he was working at the Harrisville mill. An old man worked there with him, a man from Nova Scotia. When he found out that Quig could play all the old tunes, he asked him to bring his fiddle with him to work one night so he could play for him at coffee break. Quig was warned that the old man had a heart condition but he brought the fiddle anyway and, in an empty room, he broke out the tunes. Hearing this wonderful, infectious music, the old man commenced to dance, up and down the big space, with the joy and abandon of a young man in love. Coffee breaks were brief so when Quig came to the end of the reel, he hurried back to his work. Within a short time, he learned that the man had dropped dead while climbing the stairs to return from his joyful coffee break. Though Quig often told this story himself, he never revealed how he felt about this. Did he feel responsible for the man’s death or did he feel he had allowed this man one final jubilant experience?
In addition to his music and his painting on canvas, Quig painted murals, all of which have since been painted over. At one time, his murals graced the walls of the Munsonville church as well as several restaurants in Keene, where he traded the work for meals. He paid for the delivery of his three children by painting murals on the walls of the pediatric ward of what was then Keene’s Elliot Hospital. Similarly, he traded paintings for medical care. Currently, at Keene’s hospital, now known as Cheshire Medical Center, one of Quig’s landscapes hangs on the first floor, in front of the elevator.
There was a time during and after World War II when Quig gave up painting because he couldn’t see. He felt he had gone blind. There was a doctor, a Dr. Dube (pronounced Du-bee) from Manchester who used to come by every once in a while to buy a painting. When he found out about Quigley’s condition, he came to Nelson to examine him. He discovered that Quig had bad scar tissue on his cornea from an injury suffered while working in the quarries when he was young. Dr. Dube fitted him with glasses that cured the blindness and permitted him to paint again. Quig and Dube became lifelong friends. Dube never charged Quig for his service and always insisted on buying paintings from Quig, rather than accepting them in exchange for his favor, as Quig wanted.
The world once again visible to him, Quigley produced a great volume of work after that period of darkness. He painted usually in oils and though he preferred gesso panels, these were extravagant and he would commonly work his art on any surface that would accept paint, including the back of an old pew door and once, as a favor to his daughter, on the back of a motorcycle jacket. He rarely painted in watercolor. For a while, he took a job painting scenes for a greeting card company in Keene which required him to use watercolor but he much preferred oils and the job did not last long.
Subject matter for Quigley varied. He often painted Mt. Monadnock and he went out into the field to paint when he could get there, sometimes asking neighbors to drive him out to the painting site when his car broke down. He often painted portraits, many of them from memory and most of them unsolicited. The portraits were often of local people whose faces interested him. Of his father’s paintings, Barney says his favorites were the portraits which represent a small gallery of local characters who came alive to him through his father’s studies. The Nelson Congregational Church was one of Quig’s favorite subjects, or at least one that he painted with great frequency. He could see the church from his house and it made a good study on a winter day when the weather was too harsh for outside work. And he could watch the light change on the steeple, waiting in comfort at the window for the right moment. Quig was endlessly entranced by the natural world that surrounded him and was often, in the words of May Sarton, “silenced by a fit of looking.”
Though Quigley sometimes used the kitchen table in their tiny space as a place to paint, pushing aside the dishes and accumulations of his large household, the light in the house was not very good so, more often, he used the upstairs of the Nelson schoolhouse as a studio. The school was no longer used and he put in a small woodstove, making a kind of refuge for himself. Just steps from his tiny, cluttered house, the big empty, well-lit space became a whole new world for him.
Even aside from his art, Quig was known as a warm and interesting character in Nelson village. He was kind and honest, and possessed a wonderful sense of humor. One old friend, Harvey Tolman, who is himself a fiddler of wide renown, credits Quig with teaching him to play the fiddle. Tolman recently observed that Quigley seemed to have an inner sense of contentment. Children were drawn to Quig. He liked to make wooden toys and give them to the children of the village who all seemed to congregate around him. Of their little home on the green, Barney says,”It was probably the worst place in the village. The roof was always leaking and one thing or another but the house would always be full. It was a happy place.”
Ironically, the last work he finished before his death were portraits of the four sons of the funeral director, a man with whom Quigley had done business in the past. Quig was paid handsomely for these, the last of his portraits.
Quigley kept no list of his paintings and made no record of their sales and thus their whereabouts are pretty much unknown. The family has retained a few. There were but a few left in his house when he died. He sold or traded most of his paintings as he finished them. It is thought that there are hundreds in existence, possibly thousands. As a result of the way he used his paintings as a kind of currency to keep himself and his family afloat, not all Quigleys in existence are good paintings. But some of his canvases are extraordinary. It will be for future generations to sort them out.
Albert Duvall Quigley died of cancer on January 23, 1961, cancer that spread so rapidly he died before the diagnosis had been given. He was 70 years old. He is buried in the Nelson village cemetery. His paintings are in the collections of the Currier Gallery in Manchester, NH, and in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Locally, there is a Quigley on display at the Cheshire Medical Center and one at the Cheshire County Historical Society. A show and sale of his work was displayed in 1991 at the Chesham (NH) Baptist Church, one of the first such exhibits ever organized. His frames are instantly recognizable to those who are familiar with his work, as are his paintings, renderings of the gentle landscape and interesting faces of the Monadnock region in the middle of the 20th century, a world gone by.
Interviews with Barnabas and Nancy Quigley as well as Harvey Tolman
Plant Dreaming Deep by May Sarton, 1968, W.W. Norton and Co., New York