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Off Road

Finally I realized that I had traveled a little too much. I was never impatient with the wonders of the road, but I had to find a way to get my clients to come to me. Informal conversations with people I met from across America pointed to Charleston. Charleston is the most beautiful city in America—an amalgamation of Old World, European experiences and Southern heritage and hospitality. Red brick buildings, narrow streets, and high-walled gardens have brought tourists here since the turn of the late nineteenth century. Today, it consistently ranks as one of this continent’s premier destinations. Everyone who visits remembers the city fondly.

And they come back. Over the years, I heard it discussed at every turn, frequently at my own instigation. I asked my far-flung clients where they went, in the South, when they wanted to slow down, when they needed to exhale. The answer was Charleston—often enough and with sufficient emphasis—that Jane and I decided to move the business. We accomplished the task over a four-year period beginning in the spring of 1998. The transition was founded not only on our conviction that Charleston was the ideal backdrop for our enterprise’s mission, but also on twenty-five years worth of contacts made with institutions and private collectors alike.

It involved changing the name of the business to something that had local meaning and rolled off the tongue a bit easier than “Robert M. Hicklin Jr., Incorporated.” Just as the aesthetic reawakening had done for the city itself in the first half of the twentieth century, the words “Charleston Renaissance” provided us with limitless potential, and we became the Charleston Renaissance Gallery. The period between the two World Wars was one of intense artistic activity in Charleston and, indeed, it was this part of the South’s most vital expression of regionalism. In concurrence with our move to the Lowcountry, Martha Severens, curator at the Greenville County Museum of Art and former Charleston resident, wrote The Charleston Renaissance, which we published to critical acclaim.

In addition to a change of name, the move meant exchanging rubber and steel for a gallery of nineteenth century bricks and mortar, badly in need of refurbishing. Our historic (1816-1820) building on Church Street gave us a sense of place—a concept critical to all things Southern. I believe that the melding of the art and the architecture with the inherent character and charm of Charleston has given a certain synergy to Southern art. Sitting as it does in the midst of such a vibrant visual arts community, I believe our gallery gave Southern art a destination, and that is the real change for those looking in from the outside.

When we relocated, I was warned that without a frame shop on the second floor or in the back to even out the sales, I just wouldn’t make it. Any establishment meeting success without such tended to be what were sometimes known as vanity galleries, offering only the work of the artist-owner. We still see those, but there are now far more galleries offering paintings, prints, and sculpture by national and international artists, all eager to have a Charleston presence. Our gallery, however, is the only one with a commendable inventory of period pictures, the work of deceased artists.

Landscape architect Loutrell Briggs lived in Charleston until his death in 1977. He designed and supervised the implementation of the landscape plan at Mepkin Plantation, now Mepkin Abbey, for Henry and Clare Booth Luce; campus designs at both the College of Charleston and the Citadel; and garden blueprints for numerous private residences on the peninsula. Among these projects was the restoration of Cabbage Row, immortalized in the opera Porgy and Bess, for which Briggs won a prestigious award in 1928. That job took place next door to 77 Church Street where Loutrell’s wife, interior decorator Emily Briggs, maintained the Solleé Gallery, specializing in the painters and printmakers of the Charleston Renaissance. Raymond Holsclaw continued this enterprise as Carolina Prints and Frames on King Street until his death in 1988. The successor to that endeavor was Carolina Galleries, which returned to Church Street. Sitting in the center of it all, we felt a part of both tradition and trend.

Charleston made me feel welcome and gave our business a sense of place and permanence I hadn’t realized I had missed during those years in Spartanburg. Now there are hundreds of works to see, not just the few dozen that managed to fit in the back of my car. Many people whom I met in those years of travel—people who saw me on the periodic pass-through of their communities—now visit me here, to my great pleasure. Over a decade later, we judge our move here a success from both a personal and professional perspective, frame shop aside.

Walter W. Thompson (1882-1948)
At Sundown (1934)
Oil on masonite
16 x 20 inches
Signature Details: Lower left, on verso
Owner: Collection of the Greenville County Museum of Art, Greenville, South Carolin
1451 River Road · Yemassee, SC 29945 · 843.412.8738
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