Hey Providence, What is That: The Fleur-de-Lys Studio

An artsy atelier on Thomas Street

by by Belle Cushing

illustration by by Annika Finne

This is the studio that Sydney built.
This is the art
That lives and works and thrives in the studio that Sydney built.
This is the club
That makes the art
That lives and works and thrives in the studio that Sydney built.

It is called the Fleur-de-Lys: the artists’ studio that Sydney Burleigh built in 1885 to serve as workspace for himself and other members of the Providence Art Club. It stands out in good-natured contrast against the houses of clapboard tradition along Thomas Street. The gold and gray façade looks out over the First Baptist Church and beyond to the edifices of the Rhode Island School of Design. Playful plaster figures, carved floral designs, and many-paned windows enliven the wooden front. Across the bottom of the gable that protrudes out from the third floor, a ten-paneled frieze retells the Mother Goose rhyme, “The House that Jack Built”—hand-modeled rat and cat the imperfect heralds of this studio, tattered and torn, that Sydney built.

If a passerby were to stop and take a closer look, he might see, emblazoned on the street-level corner, the phrase, “The Fleur de Lis, Fair Among the Fairest.” Over one hundred years after its construction, the studio still lives and works and thrives, providing artists with studio space and existing as a work of art in itself.

Today, the five houses on Thomas Street that slope down from Benefit Street to South Main—the Fleur-de-Lys among them—house the Providence Art Club. The Fleur-de-Lys offers five workrooms for current members, while events and exhibitions are held in the other buildings. A members-only association, the Club holds contests and exhibitions, provides studio space and a community for like-minded artists around Providence as it has done since its founding over a century ago.

One February night in 1880, the signatures of ten men and six women initiated the existence of the Club, citing as their cause, as written by one founder, Charles Stetson, in a letter of purpose to the Providence Evening Press, “the desire to interest the people not only in our own work, but more fully in art itself.” Sidney Burleigh was not one of the signing members, though he had been involved in the Club’s planning and was an dedicated member by winter of that year. At the time of the Club’s formation, he and his wife in Europe enjoying a vacation after two years of painting study in Paris, passing through Chester, England on his way home. Here, he greatly admired the half-timbered architecture of the medieval city. Five years later, back in Providence, with the oak timbers and decorated facades of the houses of Chester in mind, he began the building of his studio.

Architect Edmund Willson helped the painter draw up plans, which were carried out by Burleigh himself and two artist friends, Stetson (the letter-writing founder) and John Aldrich. Burleigh was to become a well-known watercolorist and a leading member of the Providence art community, serving on the board of directors and as a professor at RISD, and exhibiting his work around the Northeast. It was the style of his studio, however, that first got Burleigh noticed, and would later make him remembered.

The building caused quite a stir when it was erected on the tiny traditional street, a crude gem in a strand of eighteenth-century Georgian restraint. Despite its medieval roots, the studio was modern—nay, newfangled!—in the eyes of the Gorham silver factory workers from down the street who ogled the construction during lunch breaks. In an account of the building later published in George Miner’s 1948 history of the little street, Angell’s Lane, Sidney Burleigh’s wife Sarah describes crowds gathering to watch the carving of oak beams, the modeling in plaster on the façade from scaffolds, the building of this preposterous house with, as she overheard one worker exclaim, “snakes and naygurs and every dom’d thing on it!”

Artisans and craftsmanship
Art historians consider the studio one of the first and finest examples of Arts and Crafts architecture in America. It is a memento of Victorian England, where the Arts and Crafts movement arose as a response to industrialization; attempting to escape the impersonal and mechanical, artists began to place value instead on handcraftsmanship.

In Providence, also undergoing an industrialized transformation, the Fleur-de-Lys studio was an embodiment of this enthusiasm for quality and authorship. The carving and modeling was done by hand, the hands of three friends, with materials readily available. The attic façade is graced by pre-Raphaelite allegorical representations of Sculpture, Painting, and Architecture, three women dressed in colorful togas of Greek muses. The trio embodies the Arts and Crafts precept of unity among the arts. This notion differs from how art is generally viewed today, according to Robert Emlen, Brown University Curator and Professor of American Civilization, also a former Arts Club president. Emlen suggests that “Today, we say we would pay more for a painting,” considered more ‘art’ than sculpture or architecture. An Arts and Crafts mindset holds that “any kind of work is valued in its own right.”

The movement drew inspiration from the beliefs of nineteenth century critic John Ruskin, whose influential writings just before the advent of the Arts and Crafters rejected mechanization and championed the expression of truth and nature in art. For Ruskin, and for Burleigh, medieval art represented an ideal of crafted form, later lost in the standardization of the machine. The Art Club is reminiscent of an artists’ guild from the Middle Ages, and the studio is one that, affirms Emlen, “you would see in Europe in some medieval town.”

Fair among the fairest
Today, the Club functions as it has for over a century, now the traditional counterpart to more alternative burgeoning artists’ communities in a Providence art scene. The Art Club was founded only two years after the signing of the RISD charter, and Burleigh’s project was a bold statement within an industrialized city that an artists’ studio was a building worth constructing. As historian Miner writes, the studio is “a public monument—a symbol of the progress the community had made in its flowering art culture, and a declaration of faith by the painters, faith in the importance of their painting and of their place in the life of the city.”

During its early history, members upheld a prominent place in Providence nightlife. They would gather once a week for Friday Knights, evenings of social drinking, socializing and art appreciation. Every year, the artists spared no creativity on holiday costume parties, the themes of which ranged from “French Market Day” to “Toyland.” The party in 1919 was a projection of what the year 2000 would look like for the artists; club records reveal how members were encouraged to abandon the conventional in their costumes: “Picture your wife in a purple cubicle drinking green tea from a spiral vermilion cup. Can you create a futuristic golf costume, grande toilette, something smart and chic for brokers or artists? A futuristic Ophelia! A modernist Hamlet! What?”

The Art Club now inhabits a more conventional millennial reality. “I don’t know how young or edgy the members of the Club are now,” says Emlen. The Club is no longer the only artist community in Providence, and certainly its members are different from artists “coming into a warehouse in Olneyville.” Potential Club members must submit work for evaluation, and styles tend to verge on the more traditional. However, any local artist, membership notwithstanding, is eligible for inclusion in open shows, and the Club seeks to maintain its founding ideal of the sharing of art.

The studio, too, remains true to the ideals of the Club, the Arts and Crafts movement, and joy in artistic production. The building was declared a National Historic Monument in 1992, but it is artistic business as usual behind the archaic façade. Artists who are members of the Club continue to use the studio space. Visitors and locals alike pause as they descend Thomas Street to gaze up at the building, simultaneously grotesque and picturesque. And the house can still laugh at itself. Flanking the allegorical maidens are plaster portraits of the Burleigh couple done by Burleigh’s own hand. Master Burleigh sports a pom-pomed Scottish tam ’o’ shanter while the missus models a Pilgrim’s witch hat, forever ready to carouse at a costume party as long as the studio shall stand.

BELLE CUSHING B’13 sports a tam ‘o’ shanter.