“For heaven and the future's sake”

The starting point of the Lasting Legacies exhibition at the Lawrence Library opening October 25, 2008, will be two remarkable Williams and their wills: William Wolcott, whose last will and testament bequeathed a collection of impressionist paintings to the people of Lawrence and William Prescott Frost, whose last will and testament enabled his grandson Robert Frost to realize his ambition as a poet. The upcoming exhibition in the Lawrence Library will focus not only on the physical documents but also on the lasting results of these two legacies.

William Prescott Frost, an overseer in the Pacific Mill, was a stern taskmaster and disciplinarian. His last will and testament serves as a response to an anecdote recounted by Frost’s biographers. When William Prescott Frost told his grandson, "I give you one year to make it," Frost then says that he put on an auctioneer’s voice. "I’m offered one; give me twenty, give me twenty, give me twenty." Frost then says, "My grandfather never brought up poetry again."

Frost’s grandfather may have had early doubts about the vocation of poetry; however, the exhibit will show that William Prescott Frost’s ultimate answer to Robert was the surprisingly generous bequest of his Derry farm. His only condition was that Robert and Elinor live on the Derry farm for a ten year period–a shrewd guess of how long it would take Robert Frost to become a poet.

A newly discovered teacher’s ledger in Robert Frost’s own handwriting provides a visual emblem of Robert’s transition from the world of the mill, where his grandfather worked, to the new world of teaching and poetry that he would discover and claim.

Robert Frost made the most of his grandfather’s legacy, in what some critics feel to be Frost’s most creative and productive period. The upcoming exhibition will zoom in on some of the early lyrics of Robert Frost to highlight how Frost’s individual talent interacted with and contributed to the English-language lyric tradition. Specifically, the exhibition will document how Frost, while still at Lawrence High School, came in contact with the early poetry of W. B. Yeats and Thomas Moore and thereby found his own "Lake Isle of Innisfree" on the banks of the Merrimack River.

William Wolcott, an Oberlin-trained, community-minded minister, presided over the Congregationalists in Lawrence for thirty years and counted the William Prescott Frost family among his congregation. As a result of a wealthy brother’s (Edward) sudden bequest and of the Reverend Wolcott’s will, the people of Lawrence inherited a priceless collection of impressionist paintings. Due to the ever-increasing value of these paintings–a Monet painting in a comparable series to "Poppy Fields at Giverny" recently sold at auction for 87 million–the collection known as the White Fund continues to be held in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Where there was such a will one would expect a lawsuit, and in fact it took decades of controversy and a ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to decide that because Reverend Wolcott’s art objects were given for the benefit of the people of Lawrence, they could not be sold.

However, trustees and art experts concur that the paintings cannot physically reside in Lawrence until a secure facility can house them there.The full collection was for the first time fully and beautifully displayed last year in an exhibit at the Addison Gallery of American Art. Thanks to the efforts of the White Fund trustees and the Addison Gallery staff, at that time many Lawrence residents and their school age children were invited to see the actual paintings displayed in a museum setting.

The format of the upcoming Lasting Legacies exhibition will allow Lawrence residents and other library and Frost Festival guests to view images of the paintings in a virtual gallery for the first time.Thanks to some new software and computer techniques, visitors to Lawrence Library will be able to explore the paintings, zoom in on their canvases, and view several simulations of impressionist brush strokes.

Additionally, an exhibition guide will make available the results of renewed research on Frost’s early lyrics and on the provenances of Reverend Wolcott’s paintings during the Gilded Age when wealthy Americans collected French impressionist paintings.

Finally, the exhibition will speculate how Reverend Wolcott seems to have given Robert Frost and his family the key support they needed for the family to move beyond its grief for an infant lost to childhood illness to allow Robert Frost to develop as a great teacher and poet during this period.

As a result of these two remarkable Williams and their thoughtfully made bequests, the people of Lawrence continue to enjoy the lasting legacies today–in the form of Frost’s poems and Wolcott’s paintings. Moreover, thanks to generous donations from the Massachusetts Foundation for Humanities, the White Fund,the Stevens Foundations, and the Veritas Bank,and in-kind donations from the Kao Design Group, Amy Latva-Kokko, Jim Knowles, the City of Lawrence, the University of Massachusetts Lowell, Cambridge College, the Lawrence History Center, the Lawrence Library, and the Robert Frost Foundation, this exhibition can be shown in a newly created gallery space in the lobby of the Lawrence Library.

In the words of another Robert Frost poem, these are legacies, "for heaven and the future’s sake."

Author: M. A. Schorr

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