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This month’s family story takes us to the 20th century, for a look at the life of one of the family’s most talented artists, Eleanor Iselin Wade. Eleanor, born June 3, 1910 to parents Eleanor Jay and Arthur Iselin, was the third of four children.

“Weenie,” as she was known to family and friends, began to grow a passion for equestrian life at a young age while growing up at her family’s Bedford estate. Farm life in general became a huge part of Eleanor’s identity growing up, “The stable was my playground. I mean, I just loved being there… I learned to milk a cow by hand ‘cause I had to pitch in.” Bedford Farm’s commercial operation had shrunk significantly since John Jay’s time, and now was mainly focused on chickens and eggs. Still, horses were everywhere at the Bedford farm, used not only for plowing and farming, but for sport as well.

The entire Jay family were passionate sporting equestrians, and Eleanor certainly carried on this tradition. Her grandfather, Col. William Jay II, founded the Coaching Club of America in 1875 and Eleanor’s first riding experience came at 2 years old when he let her ride one of his Shetland ponies. A natural, Eleanor was riding on her own just one year later. Thomas Ryan, Col. William’s coachman, was also influential in growing Eleanor’s passion for horse riding. “Thomas, the coachmen, was my closest friend, and almost more like a father than my own father… Thomas taught me everything I know about horses: doctoring and driving and riding, and you name it.” She rode frequently during her childhood and even travelled to Aiken, South Carolina during some winters to ride year-round. She learned to drive coach by working with two carriage ponies given to her by her godmother Ellen Vanderbilt, and was an annual contestant in the Bedford Whip and Spur show.

At the same time Eleanor began riding thoroughbreds, she began to discover and indulge her artistic talents as well. She received an excellent art education early on in classes at the schoolhouse on Bedford Farm, and then at the nearby Rippowam Cisqua School, of which her mother was a founding donor. Her mother was very supportive of her arts education, even taking young Eleanor to the Metropolitan Museum of Art with some wet clay to practice by copying Renaissance era horse sculptures.

In 1925 Eleanor began attending the Foxcroft School in Middleburg, Virginia, A private boarding school that emphasized equestrian skills. Eleanor rode and competed constantly while there. Even though there weren’t many art classes at Foxcroft, she did sell some artwork to extended family while there to pay for the boarding of her horse Blue Ridge at the school’s stables. Upon graduation, Eleanor received “Miss Charlotte’s Trophy for best rider at Foxcroft” (Miss Charlotte was the school’s founder).

After leaving Foxcroft Eleanor began more serious study as an artist. She returned to Bedford and began spending time practicing and studying sculpture with Lawrence Tenny Stevens, who had a studio in Mt. Kisco. She also took classes at the Grand Central Art School in New York City. It was during her time at Grand Central that she began to have a fascination with the American West, prompted by viewing the artwork of Charles M. Russell.

Eleanor and her family began to realize that she possessed real artistic talent, and she decided to make an effort at an art career in earnest. She always acknowledged how much support she received from her parents Eleanor and Arthur, saying that her art career “would not have been possible had it not been for the incident of my heritage since it provided me with the great friends and social and business contacts of my parents.” Many friends of the family were ardent equestrians, and several aided Eleanor’s early career. One couple of note was Helen and Tom Hastings, who commissioned Eleanor to make a sculpture of their horse Scipio, and arranged to have it cast in bronze at the Brooklyn Foundry, a process which Eleanor studied closely for future reference. Hastings, along with the renowned artist Wilfrid de Glehn (who painted the portrait of Eleanor’s mother that hangs in our ballroom), and other prominent family friends sent a collection of Eleanor’s drawings to the Royal Academy of the Arts in London.

To her delight, Eleanor was accepted in June of 1929, and during her time there expanded her artistic palette. She was introduced to several new sculpting techniques, and was able to see the work of the best bronze sculptors of the time, most notably Sir Edwin Landseer.  That autumn, the school held a sculpture contest to see which student could produce the best piece with the subject “The taming of a horse.” It was no surprise when Eleanor was the big winner and she was awarded the Landseer prize, with a silver engraved medallion to commemorate her work.

Eleanor remained in Europe to continue her studies from different parts of the continent. She traveled to Munich, Germany where she studied in the studio of famed sculptor Hans Stengel. During her time there she experimented with the technique and style of her sculptures, at times attempting some more modern appearing work. She also dabbled in sand casting, and limestone carvings. Eleanor returned home to Bedford in 1931.

Now backed by a formal education in sculpting, Eleanor began to take on commissioned work almost full time. She was commissioned to make sculptures of famous racing thoroughbreds Questionnaire and Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox. Gallant Fox is in the John Jay Homestead collection. She was able to complete both by the fall of 1932.

Around the time Eleanor was completing these major commission works, she married Thomas Frothingham Mason in a small ceremony at St. Matthews Church in Bedford. The reception was held at Bedford House. Mason worked at the Bank of Manhattan, and the couple’s first apartment was located at 53 E 66th street. For weekend and holiday getaways, the Eleanor and Thomas also had a small cottage on Davenport Ridge Rd. in the north end of nearby Stamford, Connecticut. This allowed Eleanor to keep some of the farm life she loved so much. While living there she schooled polo ponies, went on fox hunts, and had consistent commission work for her sculptures.

By 1935, Eleanor had a rather large body of sculpture work and decided to give exhibiting a try. A friend’s husband had organized a small showing in February of 1936. However, the effort was a disappointment as the friend’s husband, who was acting as her agent in this matter, took all the proceeds from the sales for himself, leaving Eleanor to pay the gallery fees out of pocket. In May of that year, Eleanor gave birth a daughter who she named Hope Mason, after a friend. Hope would be Eleanor and Thomas’ only surviving child, as two sons had previously died at birth.

When 1940 rolled around, the family moved back to Bedford Farm and Eleanor happily moved her artistic workspace back into the studio that her mother had built for her as part of the 1924 addition to Bedford House. In this studio, Eleanor expanded her artistic abilities by exploring different mediums, especially pencil drawings. She was commissioned to do the illustrations for The Southborough Fox, by author Gordon Grand, whom Eleanor had met in the Stamford fox hunting community. She also illustrated High Hurdles, a book about young people and their horses in Westchester, for friend and author Frances Duncombe. Her most notable illustration work came in 1944 when she was hired by Lippincott Publishing Co, and author Mary O’Hara, for My Friend Flicka, the most popular horse book in the 20th century that went on to be adapted into a film trilogy, and a Disney Channel series. One reason for this shift in medium may have been the onset of World War I, as most metals, including bronze Eleanor used for sculpture, were being used to support the war effort. In fact, a bronze sculpture of a Shire Horse made in 1940 was Eleanor’s last sculpture for decades.

The war brought a significant change in Eleanor’s personal life as well, as Thomas’ sense of patriotism led him to join the Naval Reserve unit, leaving Hope and Eleanor to manage the farm. The time apart caused irreparable damage to Eleanor and Thomas’ marriage, and the couple ultimately divorced in 1945, in what Eleanor described as “a casualty of war.”

Eleanor decided to explore her fascination with the American West that had grown during her art school years. In 1947 she and Hope moved to a ranch near the Blue River Valley in Arizona. They rode and worked with horses, and began raising Beefmaster cattle for profit. A few years later they moved to Castle Valley, Utah, and in April of 1954, Eleanor married again, to a man named Cactus Wanny Wade, a range detective she had met in Arizona and a native of Great Falls, Montana. The couple purchased land in Northwestern Montana and built a homestead they named the 4W Ranch, where they hoped to build a profitable cattle ranch. Instead, likely to Eleanor’s delight, the couple purchased several thoroughbred horses and built a training facility. While living there, she discovered a deposit of natural clay on the ranch, and it sparked an interest in sculpting with clay, re-igniting her art career.

Eleanor’s commissioned work was once again consistent throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. She found a bronze foundry near the ranch and became a regular customer there. Once again, several former acquaintances from Bedford commissioned her to make bronzes of their horses or famous thoroughbreds. In the 1990s she worked on a series of pieces depicting young foals, two of which are John Jay Homestead’s collection. Her pieces during this time also included a commemorative sculpture of her mother riding her old horse Billy, and a cast of famous steeplechase champion Lonesome Glory.

After an artistic career spanning multiple decades, a proper exhibit of all of Eleanor’s artwork was assembled at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York during the summer of 1997, which included 27 pieces. Eleanor Iselin Wade died on January 12, 2003 at the age of 92 in Woodland, California, a small suburb near Sacramento.