Betsy Wyeth’s Magical Benner Island, Off the Coast of Maine
From Architectural Digest
Text by Paul Theroux/Photography by Peter Aaron/Esto
Published June 2003
From May to October, Betsy James Wyeth—wife of painter Andrew— lives on and maintains Benner and Allen islands, several miles off the coast of Maine. Her main residence is on Benner, just across the channel from Allen, in the foreground, which holds more family dwellings.
A dock leads to Benner Island’s Oar House, far left, and outbuildings, which include a 19th-century grocery store that has become a freestanding library, far right. Andrew Wyeth’s studio, Wharf House, is second from right. Flanking the dock are the Fish House, left, and the Salt Shed.
The entrance of Oar House, whose slatted wood exterior has patinaed naturally under the island’s extreme conditions.
Shelves in an Oar House hall hold Wyeth’s collection of shells under bell jars. A nature lover (as well as a descendant of the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning), Wyeth collaborated with her artist son, Jamie, in 1979 on a fictional children’s book about animals titled The Stray.
The dining area of Oar House, which Wyeth calls “my tempera,” contains items that she has collected over the years. A visitor once referred to the interior as looking “like an Andrew Wyeth,” to which the artist replied, “I think it looks like a Betsy Wyeth, myself.”
Having renovated an 1857 lighthouse on Maine’s Southern Island, which the couple inhabited from 1978 to 1990, Wyeth created her compound on Benner Island in a few years’ time.
A 1943 drybrush by Andrew Wyeth, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, hangs in the Oar House living area.
Wyeth, who once remarked, “I’m not easily tied down,” pauses on a swing in her barn on Allen Island, which she, Andrew and their two grown children frequent in summer.
A drawing by Jamie Wyeth of his father hangs in the bedroom/office of Oar House.
Influenced by formative years spent in a sparsely furnished Maine house, Wyeth has said, “I’ve liked to come home to orderliness because I am so chaotic underneath, so really wild that I really have to keep things in order. I’ve always done that.”
The Oar House bedroom/office.
In the Oar House dining area is Blue Barrel, a watercolor Andrew Wyeth did in 1989 of a scene in the Fish House, which his wife has turned into a small fishing museum, with old lobster nets and other nautical accoutrements.
The fish house.
A ramp leads to the Fish House.
The library still retains signs of its previous incarnation as a grocery store, with records of transactions and IOUs, one dating to 1842, written on the wood paneling. Wyeth placed a pair of sheep figures—a motif echoing throughout the compound—near the shelves.
Andrew Wyeth’s studio.
Wyeth constructed an octagonal building, Round House, where she archives her husband’s works (one of which, his 1995 Two If by Sea, depicts it).
A bronze casting of the artist’s hands rests on the table. The busts are of Thomas Jefferson and John Paul Jones.
A view of the 500-acre, spruce-filled Allen Island from the considerably smaller Benner Island. Wyeth acquired both islands shortly before she passed along Southern Island in 1990 to son Jamie. “It’s a pleasure,” Wyeth has said of her time so far on Benner. “It’s been a great pleasure.”