To say Thistle Brown was “to the manor born” was no metaphor. She was born in 1925 in Ardmore, Pa., the daughter of two mainline Philadelphia aristocrats – banker James Crosby Brown and Aurelia “Gladys” (Pomeroy Jenkins) Brown, who each had been widowed and left with seven children between them. Infant Thistle was brought home to the family estate Clifton Wynyates, a sprawling 50-room Tudor-style stone mansion on 200 acres of farm country. As the youngest child, Thistle enjoyed the attentions of this large and happy clan. Early photographs and portraits of Thistle show a towheaded little girl with brilliant, cornflower blue eyes driving her own decorated pony cart or astride a Welsh pony waiting for the hunt to begin.
There were several farms on the estate, and Thistle’s early memories were filled with trips to the barns and pastures to visit the livestock, which gave her an abiding love of farm animals, especially cows.
She credited her father with instilling in her a love of weather – fair or foul – and would often recount her memory of being wakened as a child on bleak, rainy days by her father announcing “It’s great weather for ducks; let's all go for a walk!”
Thistle herself was known to take a bracing dip in the ocean as late as Thanksgiving.
Thistle’s father died of a heart attack in 1930, when she was only five years old, just months after learning that most of his fortune had been lost in the stock market crash of 1929.
By the mid-1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, her mother had moved the family to a farm where, instead of visiting the barns as the privileged “princess,” Thistle tended her own chickens and sold eggs at a roadside stand to bring in money for the family. In 1937, when Thistle was 12, her mother passed away.
Despite the family’s financial and personal hardships, Thistle was able to graduate from the Shipley School and from Bennington College in Vermont (1946), where, after years of sketching animals and landscapes, she resolved upon a career as an artist. She received further training at the Art Students League of New York and won a Fulbright Scholarship to India. Living for two years in the mountain village of Simla, she painted the everyday scenes of daily life: musicians and boatmen, and her beloved animals.
Her body of work from India earned Thistle considerable recognition, and she had successive shows at galleries in Philadelphia and New York throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
Somehow, Thistle also found time to do some serious sailing in the North Atlantic with family friend Dr. Paul Sheldon aboard his vessel Seacrest and for several years, she helped him chart the arctic waters off the coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland.
Apparently there was romance in her life as well. Yet while she came close to marriage several times, she shied away from that commitment, choosing instead, more travel and adventure.
Quite unexpectedly, Thistle found herself deeply committed to something that was at least as demanding of her time, energy, patience and love – the Wingspread Gallery in Northeast Harbor.
In 1969, urged by her artist friends and Adele Seronde, who had introduced her to MDI, she opened the gallery at the far end of Main Street in Northeast Harbor with the idea it would be a place where serious contemporary artists from anywhere – not just Maine seascape painters – could show their works.
In a 2008 interview, she confessed that she only intended to give it a try for four years.
“I was sort of an absentee manager, at first,” she said. “Leaving most of the day-to-day work to a series of young artists who were thrilled to be able to live and work in Maine for the summer.”
But, it was the sixties and, she said, she started hearing distressing reports of customers being attended to by shoe-less, bra-less and occasionally disoriented sales people, so she decided to give the gallery more hands-on attention. She continued that personal attention for the next 40 years, making a summer home for herself in a sun-filled apartment above the gallery.
The gallery typified Thistle’s character, says her great-nephew, John K. Brown. Welcoming all ages, exhibiting in all media and styles, Wingspread quickly earned a reputation for showing quality work by established big-city painters as well as emerging artists.
“Typically, Wingspread had three major shows each summer, and each opening was much like a hurricane,” Mr. Brown says.
Behind her bohemian appearance, however, was a savvy mind for business. The gallery really had no more than a ten-week season in which to earn its annual keep, reward its stable of artists, and leave something left over for the proprietor. With the help of a small army of devoted helpers, Thistle managed to keep this up for four decades, until disaster struck in 2008, when Wingspread, along with several other Main Street businesses, was destroyed by fire.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of works of art and treasured personal belongings (among them virtually all her paintings and sketches from India) were lost in the blaze, from which Thistle herself barely escaped with her life.
Thistle was 83 years old at the time and one might have thought this crushing blow would have felled her. But she not only survived the disaster, she moved forward and managed to continue the Wingspread legacy for the next three years in any space she could find.
“Thistle called me one day a couple of years ago and asked if it would be okay to show a few of her Wingspread artists’ works at the Maritime Museum in Northeast Harbor,” says Sidney Roberts Rockefeller. “I said I thought it could be arranged and asked how many pieces I should expect. ‘Oh, about four or five,’ Thistle says. Well, by the time the show was launched, we had more than 100 artworks on the walls and floor of the Museum.”
While she mourned the loss of her early art works, Thistle’s response was to get busy and paint more.
With that goal in mind, and an eye toward a barge trip along the canals of England, this winter, Thistle decided to take the risk of open-heart surgery. She came through the operation just fine and after two weeks in the hospital was talking animatedly with her many visitors about returning to her New York apartment and getting on with her plans for the coming summer season when she suffered a massive stroke that left her in a coma.
Although Thistle never awoke, her visitors still came to sit and talk with their old friend, telling her the news of the day, holding her hand, and hoping against hope for one more glimpse of those beautiful cornflower blue eyes.
Thistle is survived by many cherished nieces and nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews and a host of friends and admirers.
Memorial services are set for April 20, at 4 p.m., in St. James’ Church, Madison Avenue at 71st Street in New York City. A summer date in Northeast Harbor will be announced. Gifts in her honor may be made to the Acadia Wildlife Foundation, 49 Blackdog Road, Bar Harbor, ME 04609.