The Murals of Pebble Hill
J. Clinton Shepherd, artist
Tours of Pebble Hill’s Main House conclude in the home’s largest single space, the spectacular Big Room. Located at the far east end of the house, this room is part of the loggia wing added to the old plantation house in 1914. The loggia wing was not destroyed by the fire of 1934. It remained to become part of the new Main House, which was completed in 1936. The Big Room is the most formal of the sitting rooms and was used for entertaining large groups of guests after dinner; the rallying point for big family Christmas celebrations; and for other events that required the upmost in formality.
Kate Hanna Ireland Harvey chose her friend, architect Abram Garfield, to design the loggia wing. It is Garfield who is responsible for the beautiful proportions, magnificent fireplace, and wonderful architectural details that grace the Big Room. Panel moldings applied to the walls follow the pattern created by numerous large windows and built-in cabinetry. The original furnishings were a mixture of Victorian and Empire styles. For 35 years the room reflected Mrs. Harvey’s tastes and influence.
When Elisabeth (Pansy) Ireland Poe became the mistress of Pebble Hill Plantation in 1936, she began developing ideas for making the Main House more reflective of her own tastes. Hand-painted murals have fashionably graced the walls of large grand homes for years, so Mrs. Poe began planning to use this time-honored tradition to decorate the walls in the Big Room. She began looking for an artist, thinking about themes for the artwork and wondering if a mural would work successfully with the beautiful panel molded walls.
Around 1948, Tim Ireland, Mrs. Poe’s nephew, arrived at Pebble Hill proudly announcing that he had found the answer to his aunt’s “mural dilemma.” Having visited a lovely inn in the mid-Florida community of Clewiston, Tim was overwhelmed by a beautiful mural located in the inn’s bar area. The wall space was broken up by large windows and banquet seating requiring a complex design solution similar to the one posed by the windows, doors and moldings of the Big Room of the Main House at Pebble Hill. The subject of the Clewiston mural is the fauna and flora of Florida, a theme that would both interest Mrs. Poe and could be translated to Pebble Hill’s South Georgia location. Mrs. Poe took a road trip to Clewiston and was as impressed by the artwork as her nephew Tim. She set her mind on procuring an equally splendid mural for Pebble Hill’s Big Room.
Mrs. Poe contacted J. Clinton Shepherd, the artist responsible for the Clewiston mural, and a warm working relationship quickly developed between the two. Mrs. Poe, like her mother Mrs. Harvey, was a knowledgeable and concerned client with a good eye for design and definite ideas about what she wanted. There are numerous letters in the Pebble Hill Museum Archive documenting correspondence between artist and client. Shepherd sent black and white photos of his work as it progressed. Photos were taken of each panel and framed to create images all in correct proportion. The pictures were trimmed so they could be laid out in order, allowing Mrs. Poe to more easily visualize the entire completed mural.
The artist was first commissioned to paint a large mural for the men’s smoking room. The room now takes its name from the mural, the Indian Room. Woodland Indians are seen in a South Georgia landscape of magnolias and tall pines watching turkeys cross their path.
After completion of the Indian Room mural, Shepherd almost immediately began work on the Big Room masterpiece, The Flora and Fauna of South Georgia. Shepherd painted the large panels in his Palm Beach studio on huge pieces of canvas arranged according to its finished position on the wall in the Big Room. This working method allowed Shepherd to carefully arrange elements, making sure they flowed correctly from one panel to the next. For example, a limb from a tree in one panel appears to slide behind a section of wall and then emerges in the next panel as perfectly as if the tree was actually growing on the wall. The horizon line moves flawlessly from one painting to the next; the sky flows accurately around the room; and nature’s creatures inhabit the entire space. The result is an illusion of an open arcade above built in cabinets and between beautifully detailed windows. The predominance of a beautiful teal blue and other light hues give the room a radiant airy feel appropriate for South Georgia.
Shepherd was later employed to paint a mural for the Ark at Honey Lake, another property owned by Mrs. Poe. The ark shaped building served as the lady’s changing room and featured Shepherd’s mural of animals two by two on the interior. Shepherd’s close attention to the differences between the males and females of each species is extraordinary The Ark was moved to Pebble Hill when the Honey lake property was sold. The Ark provides an excellent learning opportunity for students.
As you visit Pebble Hill, be sure to take time to examine Shepherd’s beautiful murals in the Main House; and if you have never visited the Ark, drive down by the lake and enjoy! You may also enjoy our Murals Photo Gallery showing the J. Clinton Shepherd murals.
About the artist: J. Clinton Shepherd moved to Palm Beach, Florida in the mid-thirties to head up the Norton School of Art. In 1939, he left teaching and established a private studio where he could devote his entire time to painting. Shepherd began his formal education at the Kansas City, Missouri, School of Fine Arts and continued at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Beaux Arts School of Design in New York City. His ability to move successfully between two dimensional design and sculpture allowed him to become both a successful sculptor of western bronzes and a well-known illustrator. His work was seen in The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, Good housekeeping and other glossy magazines popular in the twenties. During depression years glossy magazines began to struggle. Pulp novels, cheap thrillers published on newsprint, replaced the glossies as the chief source of commissions for illustrators. Shepherd struggled on in NYC until the opening at Norton offered a chance for an improved working situation.