Inspiring Charleston’s neo-Renaissance

Despite his numerous commissions, Williams’ role inspiring a new generation of artists may one day be considered his most significant contribution to the Charleston art community.

Photo of artist supplies.

One of Charleston, SC’s feature writers, Patra Taylor, remembers artist Manning Williams.

The art of Manning Williams

At the turn of the 20th century, Charleston languished as an old Southern town that time had forgotten. Devastated by the Civil War, Charleston’s rich heritage hung over the city like a faded dream. But in 1920, an amazing collaboration of artists and writers spearheaded a dramatic cultural revival that would last 25 years and help Charleston reclaim its title as one of the most significant art and cultural centers in America.

Drawing on an endless supply of subject matter, the artists of the period between 1915 and 1940 dubbed “The Charleston Renaissance” began documenting the lush landscapes, plantation life, architectural landmarks and local color through their oils, watercolors, drawings and prints. The four local pillars of this era–Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, Elizabeth O’Neill Verner, Anna Heyward Taylor and Alfred Hutty–are also credited with inspiring Charleston’s preservation movement by reawakening the public to the charm and significance of the city’s architectural heritage through their images.

Even as Charleston continued to rush towards its cultural destiny into the mid-20th century, a young boy stood captivated by the miniature portrait collection at the Gibbes Museum of Art. Probably the finest collection of its kind in the United States, the miniatures were often commissioned on the occasions of births, deaths, engagements, marriages, and other personal events, therefore revealing people’s most private moments.

“After seeing the collection of miniatures, I went home and immediately started sketching the faces I saw in the newspapers,” stated artist Manning Williams in 2011. ”So I was a portrait artist first.”

Born in Charleston in 1939, Williams was actually a skilled whittler by the age of nine who could easily switch his work-in-progress from one hand to the other…an act he used to impress his fellow Boy Scouts. After graduating from the College of Charleston in the early 1960s, Williams toyed with the idea of taking a more traditional career path, but ultimately followed his passion into the world of art.

“Julia Horner-Wilson, a very accomplished illustrator, saw his sketches and really encouraged Manning,” explained Williams’ wife, Barbara, the former editor of the Charleston Post & Courier, the city’s only daily newspaper. “I also encouraged him. So after he graduated from college, we got married and ran off to Philadelphia. That’s the kind of thing you do when you’re young.”

After completing his graduate work at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, the couple returned to Charleston where Williams settled into the artist’s life. True to the passion that sparked his career, Williams began painting portraits.

According to David D. Harlan, a visit to Williams’ studio revealed the many styles that collectively make up Manning Williams massive body of work. “Leaning in a bookshelf, I found an early 1967 miniature portrait of a woman…precise, austere and mysterious,” stated Harlan, an architect from New Haven, Conn. The studio is also a testament to his mastery of Realism as reflected in the faces of his heroes such as John Wayne, and the many cowboys and American Indians he’s captured on paper and canvas.

“I am a fan of his landscape and narrative panoramas, some now on permanent display at the Charleston International Airport,” added Harlan. “Whenever we fly into Charleston, these paintings restore our collective memories of the Lowcountry landscape.”

Artist Lese Corrigan saw Williams as one of last remaining connections to the Charleston Renaissance artists. According to Corrigan, artists William Halsey and Corrie Parker McCallum were attached to the very end of that era. “Manning came less than 20 years behind them and knew them,” explained Corrigan, the owner of Corrigan Gallery which represents Williams’ work. “He and Anne Worsham Richardson were the last remaining artists who had that past connection to the Charleston Renaissance artists. And Manning made the same transition that both Halsey and McCallum made, from representational work to abstract work.”

Both Williams and Richardson died in 2012.

“I consider myself a narrative painter,” Williams once stated. “Yet times have changed the way we see the world. TV, movies and the Internet pour out information faster than we could have imagined only a few years back. My work today is about finding a new way to narrate our times.”

Throughout his prolific career–estimated at over 10,000 sketches, paintings and sculptures–Williams exhibited nationally and internationally, with solo shows in Charleston, New Orleans, Washington, D. C.; and at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, the Greenville Museum of Art, and the Florence Museum. Group shows encompassing his work included “Second Story Show” at Piccolo Spoleto in 2002; “100 Years/100 Artists, Views From the 20th Century” at the S. C. State Museum in 1999-2000; and “Old South, New South” at Winthrop College in 1995. In 2004, Williams teamed up with artist Linda Fantuzzo for a duo show at the Gibbes Museum of Art entitled, “Visions.”

Despite his numerous commissions, Williams’ role inspiring a new generation of artists may one day be considered his most significant contribution to the Charleston art community.

“I think one of the key things about Manning was that he had the ability to look at your work and understand where you wanted to go with it–and then he encouraged that,” explained Linda Fantuzzo. “He was unlike most artists…they seem to want to grab you and get you to do what they do.

“Manning was an artist’s artist,” continued Fantuzzo. “His passion for art and art history, and his work ethic were enormously inspirational to me and to his other students. Not only was Manning generous with his knowledge, he was also generous with his work. The eternal optimist, Manning was my best friend, and greatest mentor.”

Copyright © 2019 by Patra Taylor Bucher. All rights reserved.

Photo of RIP gravestoneManning B. Williams, Jr.

1939-2012

Your legacy lives on.

Author: Patra Taylor

A freelance writer for three decades, Patra Taylor is currently a regular columnist and features correspondent for the Charleston Mercury. In that capacity, she has interviewed numerous Charleston celebrities along with a few national figures including FOX News political commentator, Tucker Carlson; Washington, D.C. insider-turned-winemaker, Bear Dyke; and country music singer/songwriter, Philip Claypool. She is also a regular contributor to Charleston Style and Design and the Southeast Film Guide.

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