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Looking Back with Aurore Eaton: Lydia Parrish leaves NH for a life in Georgia

December 16. 2015 10:55PM

The cover of an early edition of the book “Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands,” by Lydia Parrish, first published in 1942. 

Lydia Parrish, the wife of the famous artist Maxfield Parrish, has a story worth telling. Lydia Ambler Austin grew up in Salem County in southern New Jersey in a Quaker family. She met her future husband, Maxfield Parrish, in Philadelphia in 1894 when she was an art teacher and he was a budding illustrator. They were married on June 1, 1895 when she was 23 and he was 25 years old. They moved to Plainfield, N.H., in 1898, where they became part of the famous Cornish Colony of artists and intellectuals.

The Parrishes had four children, born between 1904 and 1911. Lydia managed the household and tended the gardens while her husband painted. Both she and Maxfield enjoyed the busy social life of the Cornish Colony. Lydia hosted numerous dinner parties and musical recitals at their beautiful home, The Oaks. The family became involved in local amateur theater, and in 1916 Maxfield painted a stage set (that still exists today) for the Cornish Town Hall that depicts a colorful fall landscape. Lydia was active in several civic organizations, including the Cornish Equal Suffrage Association.

In 1905, 15-year-old Susan “Sue” Lewin of Hartland, Vt., joined the Parrish household. She was hired to help with child care and general chores. She also frequently modeled for Maxfield, posing as characters for his illustrations. After several years of working together, Sue and Maxfield became intimate. Sue moved into the studio, while Lydia struggled to maintain at least the appearance of living a normal married life.

The Parrishes were friends of the novelist Winston Churchill and his wife Mabel, who had survived their own marital difficulties. So, in 1923, a desperate Lydia asked the Churchills for help. To get Sue away from Maxfield, the Churchills hired her to work at Harlakenden House, their mansion in Cornish. Unfortunately, on Oct. 7, 1923, shortly after Sue moved into the Churchill’s home, it was destroyed by fire. She returned to Maxfield’s studio, and she remained with him until 1960 when, at the age of 70, she married a childhood friend.

Lydia preferred to avoid New Hampshire winters, so in 1909 she began traveling south in the cold months. While in Georgia she was surprised to hear some of the old slave songs being sung. She remembered this music fondly from her childhood in Salem County, N.J., where there had been a sizable black presence because of the influence of the Quaker abolitionists.

By around 1912, Lydia was spending the winter months on St. Simon’s Island on the Atlantic coast of Georgia, where she bought a stretch of land that included several cottages. Her children often stayed with her, and friends also visited, including the Churchills, who rented one of her cottages. St. Simon’s was a center of the unique African-influenced Gullah culture, which had emerged within the population of slave descendants in the region. Lydia made friends with her black neighbors, and she encouraged them to perform their traditional folk music in the Gullah dialect. She set up an old cabin on her land where the musicians and singers performed their dance songs, religious songs, work songs, children’s game songs and fiddle music.

Lydia made it her mission to save black folk music before it disappeared. She wrote down the lyrics to the songs, and took notes about the religious and secular customs that gave the music meaning. In the 1930s African-American linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner worked with Lydia to interpret the rich material she had collected, and he also made sound recordings of the performances. Creighton Churchill, the son of Winston and Mabel Churchill, who was trained in musical theory, transcribed the songs in musical notation, along with Robert MacGimsey, a Louisiana composer.

The culmination of Lydia Parrish’s tireless devotion was the publication of her book “Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands” in 1942. This book, still in print today, is recognized as having played an important role in the survival of early African-American musical traditions.

Lydia Parrish died on March 29, 1953, at Saint Simon’s and is buried on the island. Maxfield Parrish, her husband of 58 years, died on March 30, 1966, and is buried in the Plainfield Cemetery in Plainfield, N.H.

Next week: Sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and the Cornish Colony.

Aurore Eaton is a historian and writer in Manchester. Contact her at

Aurore Eaton

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