Queer Places:
Pratt Institute
12 W. 10th Street, New York
All Saints Churchyard Lydd, Shepway District, Kent, England

Isabel Lydia Whitney (1878 - February 2, 1962) was an American painter and muralist. She was a student of fellow artists Arthur Wesley Dow and Howard Pyle, having studied at the Pratt Institute. Whitney traveled extensively, most prominently in Taos, New Mexico during the 1920s. In later life she befriended the transsexual writer Dawn Langley Simmons, who was then living as a man. While living in Whitney's New York townhouse in the 1950s, Simmons was introduced to Margaret Rutherford and her husband Stringer Davis. Rutherford, interested in meeting Simmons to discuss a role in a possible adaptation of Me Papoose Sitter, became enamored with the young author, then in his 20s, and she and Davis agreed to serve as unofficial adoptive parents. Subsequently, Simmons and Whitney purchased a house in Charleston, South Carolina, though Whitney would die two weeks later, leaving Simmons the house and $2 million.

Isabel Lydia Whitney was the daughter of Joseph Botsford Whitney, a Brooklyn Heights silk merchant. Her age was a closely held secret, confided not even to her closest friends. Joseph Botsford Whitney (1849-1933), son of James Wheeler Whitney and Anna Maria Lewis, married in 1874, Martha Hazeltine Cummings (1852-1932), of Honesdale, PA, daughter of Arthur Aaron Cummings and Harriet Squires. Joseph Botsford Whitney graduated at the Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY. He came with his parents to Brooklyn in early childhood. He was educated at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, taking the scientific course of study, intending to follow the profession of a civil engineer, but afterward decided on a business career. He entered his father's firm in New York city and finally succeeded to the business. Later he turned his attention to the manufacture of silk goods and subsequently to improved methods of manufacture combined with economic features. He invented an improved creel, by means of which are made more perfect warps, and by the same process reducing the cost of manufacture. His next and most important improvement was a warp stop-motion for looms, so finely adjusted as to be suitable for silk, the most delicate of fabrics. In this not only the quality of the fabric was improved but the cost of production was decreased, as it had been in the previous instance. A third improvement was for the purpose of equalizing the tension on the threads in the process of quilling on a silk quilling frame. By means of these and other improvements, Whitney advanced his manufactures to a high degree of perfection, being the first manufacturer in America to make goods equal to those of the finest foreign looms, and although he had studied and perfected himself for the profession of a civil engineer he has succeeded in carrying the art of silk manufacturing to a higher state of perfection than any other manufacturer of his day in this country by putting into practice in this line the principles of thoroughness and exactness of his scientific course of training. His manufactory, located at Paterson, New Jersey, of which he was the sole owner, was known as the Brilliant Silk Manufacturing Company.

Isabel Whitney learned the art of fresco painting by reading a book written in 1500 by Cennino Cennini. She obtained a copy at the Library of Congress, spent two weeks transcribing the formulas and evolved her own formula - one better suited to the rigors of a New York winter than those of Cennini. Whitney found a necessary variety of salt-free sand in a lake in Connecticut. "As the salt would cut into the color of the fresco, only earth colors can be used - no synthetic colors," she wrote. "These earth colors are put on the walls while the mortar is still fresh because the carbon in the air combines with the lime of the mortar to form a substance which is both brilliant and permanent. The nature of the process demands swift work, a sure touch and a keen decorative touch. It means working at white heat, continually under nervons tension. Even men find it strenuous."

Isabel Lydia Whitney was the first woman in America to stand on a scaffold or ladder and do fresco painting. During a raging blizzard in 1924, she walked back and forth on a scaffold eight stories over the entrance to 25 W. 51st St., decorating the front of a studio hotel building. The story of the exploit was reported by national news wires. On her work above 51st St., she said: "I learned my social status on that hotel job. There was only one electric light available in one of the interiors. The steamfitter got it, and I had to work with a candle."

In 1925 Whitney did fresco work for a new wing of the Brooklyn Museum, providing a background for Renaissance art.

Her series of paintings showing historic scenes of Brooklyn Heights, executed in 1928, were presented to the Brooklyn Museum for its permanent collection.

Whitney, who was 4 feet 11 inches tall, wore a costume of her own design while at work: tennis shoes, high black stockings, long linen knickers, and a knee-lenght smock with sleeves rolled back almost to the elbows.

Fresco is defined as the art of painting on freshly spread plaster, before it dries. Pigment is applied to the plaster with water. Whitney recalled that "on one occasion, while working high on a scaffolding, wielding a trowel and doing as good a job of plastering as any of the men on the job, I was approached by an organizer from the plasterer's union, who asked me for my card. Of course I had none, but when I explained to him the necessity for my having wet plaster on which to apply the fresco, he made all kinds of apologies for his intrusion and went away."

Whitney was also a water-colorist whose work has been frequently exhibited in galleries and museums in New York and in circuit shows in the United States and Canada. Her watercolors have been shown in Switzerland, Italy and Australia.

Whitney spent a year in the tiny village of Old Heathfield, Sussex, England, for whose 14th century Church of All Saints she restored, by minute embroidery, a 17th century Spanish religious banner, which had been worn nearly to shreds.

A fail in her kitchen in the 1950s ended her career as a fresco painter. With Gordon Langley Hall, the British author, Whitney carefully restored two rooms of her Greenwich Village home to their original, 1805 state, by searching the United States and Europe for such objects as the correct keyholes and door handles.

In October 1955, the Right Rev. Charles Sydney Daly, Anglican Bishop of Korea, dedicated a 14th century monastery bell, bearing the arms of the Medici, in the courtyard of Whitney home.

The American Baptist Foreign Mission Society honored her in May 1960, for having restored the portrait of Adoniram Judson, pioneer American missionary to Burma.

She died of leukemia at her home on 12 W. 10th Street, New York.

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