Sallie Ellington Middleton, born Sallie Williamson Ellington in Washington, DC, February 11,1926 – August 7, 2009; Middleton was one of the first female botanical watercolor artists to achieve professional status. The family immediately moved to the “boom” town of Asheville, NC, where Kenneth (working as business manager and promotions director) had won a huge architectural job for his brother Douglas Ellington. Kenneth bought a one-room log cabin surrounded by fifty acres of forest. Douglas Ellington began adding onto the cabin using rock and timber from the property and leftovers from his other architectural projects. No machinery was allowed in the construction. The Douglas Ellington House, as it came to be known, was completed in 1930 when Middleton was only four years old, but she had absorbed much of the creativity that went into it.
Early Life and Education
Soon after the move from Washington, DC to Asheville, NC, a second child was born, Martha, 1927-1992. Kenneth thought his children would be better educated at home than at public school (against the law). They were tutored by Margaret in academics and the social graces, but also by the handy man in the art of collecting honey from bees’ nests before dawn and other arts generally lost to humans. Kenneth introduced the girls to the details of nature by looking for “fairies” under leaves in the forest. Middleton gained a keen love for wildlife, insects, snakes, and botanicals during this time. Once, a truant officer did show up to put the girls in school and Margaret explained that Middleton was not “robust,” meaning she succumbed easily to allergies, especially poison ivy. At that moment Middleton showed up half-naked and unkempt with twig-entwined hair. The truant officer said, “I see what you mean.” He left them alone after that. Margaret figured he must have thought Middleton was mentally challenged. -1
In 1935, Middleton was sent to a real school for the first time - fourth grade at the very progressive Plonk School. Douglas Ellington began getting jobs in Charleston, SC so the family moved and the girls were put in Kraft School, a public school where all the children on the peninsula went, rich and poor alike. Middleton loved this school and made life-long friends there.
At the onset of WWII, the family moved back to Asheville, and Middleton (14 years old) was sent to Fassifern, a boarding School in Hendersonville, NC. She said, ”I would rather have been bombed at home with my parents than be at Fassifern.” -2
Interestingly, she painted her most remarkable (for its symbolism – undoubtedly subconsciously wrought) watercolor during that time, never published, called Hags on a Lonely Island, now owned by her niece, Katharine Pettigrew Coleman.
In an effort to further a career in art, Middleton was sent to Vesper George Commercial Art School in Boston. She encountered much bias from the other students for being a southerner. She was so shocked by their preconceptions, that she left the school after one semester.
In an effort to “civilize her,” Middleton was then sent to the National Cathedral School in Washington, DC. In 1943, stockings were scarce, so Middleton drew lines up the backs of her legs. She also learned to smoke in the school basement. However, this, too, was destined to be a short stint. An injustice was committed against Martha, which infuriated Middleton. She verbally blasted the perpetrator, but the incident spoiled their time at the National Cathedral and both girls left after a short period of time. -3
Eric Ellington, 1934-1972, was born to complete the Ellington family. Like many people in those days, Kenneth believed in progenitor. He treasured his son above all else and the attention he had formerly given his daughters, he poured upon Eric. It is possible that Sallie’s prolific output of watercolors was to gain Kenneth’s attention. She always said she painted for her father. - 4
In 1946, Sallie Ellington met George Abbott Middleton during debutant season in Charleston, SC. Abb, as he was known, saw her at a party and fell instantly in love with her. He made certain that all the hostesses put him as her escort for every dance for the rest of the season. At twenty-two years of age, Abb was newly home from the war during which he had not only flown a B-24, and trained other young men in celestial navigation, but he’d also piloted eight successful submarine attacks, some solo, off the coast of France. - 5 For these, he was awarded many medals of honor, including the Distinguished Flying Cross.
On September 3, 1947, Middleton and Abb got married at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Asheville, NC. Abb, who had given up piloting (for which he had a passion) to help his desperate father save the family business (shipping cotton primarily to England and Germany), which Abb knew could not be saved since England couldn’t afford cotton and we were at war with Germany. So when they closed the books for good, he tried farming to make a living. Middleton and Abb moved to Edisto Island.
To help ease her loneliness, Middleton painted constantly. In 1950, their first child was born, Sallie Ellington Middleton, Jr. Soon after, Abb decided to take up advertising and they moved to Charleston.
Middleton volunteered for art-related jobs. -6 The Charleston Artists’ Guild elected her to be program chairman and treasurer, and she restored valuable, old books for the Gibbes Museum. Her favorite volunteer effort was with the marionette theatre for the Junior League of Charleston. - 7 As chairman of the committee, she helped make marionettes as well as produce and direct the shows. This became so successful, they had to move to an auditorium the following year.
Middleton began entering her originals into contests and selling them for $25 a painting. Abb implored her to put higher prices on them, but she refused, saying that turning painting into a business would take the pleasure out of it.
Art as a Hobby
Some of Middleton’s paintings took three years to complete. She would work on a living subject until the subject grew too big. Then she would pack up the painting and wait till the following season to find a similar object at about the same period of growth as the first one had been, and continue to work. Middleton called her technique “brush drawing.” It allowed greater control of the subject matter than traditional watercolor methods. In her paint box, some paintbrushes had only one hair. “I have to work quickly. When you’re working so intimately with models, you can see their colors changing almost daily.” Neighborhood children discovered they could bring animals to her––healthy, sick, injured, or dead. The ones she could help, she’d nurse back to health before using them as models. The dead ones, she put in the freezer to use later.
In 1957, at Abb’s urging, Middleton priced Red-Winged Blackbird and another painting at $200 each and hung them at the St. Phillip’s Sidewalk Art Show. - 8 Someone bought both paintings at the new price. With new confidence, Middleton opened a studio at 129 Church Street with Julia Homer Wilson. Although she painted in rich detail, Middleton considered herself to be an abstract artist because her subjects were never showcased, but instead were tucked into their natural environments, the way they would be found on the beach, or woods.
This sentiment was echoed by a critic after the Gibbes’ Camellia Exhibit in the mid-1950s. In writing about Frog on a Log (now lost), he said, “Mrs. Middleton here clearly shows a grasp of textural and dimensional qualities rare among watercolorists." In addition, the frog picture, while strictly representational and quite correct botanical and biological detail, is a stimulating and brilliantly composed study in form and color for their own sakes – an excellent argument that a picture need not be divorced from reality in order effectively to express abstract qualities.” -9 During this time, Middleton painted Owl in the Apple Tree: -10
Owl in the Appletree, finished in 1960 Sallie’s blue feather appeared in this painting before it became her trademark. Gibbes Art Gallery of Charleston, S.C. exhibited the unfinished Owl in the Appletree as an example of watercolor technique. Later, in 1963, the finished painting was chosen by a national competition conducted by the Springfield Museum, Springfield, Mo. for “Watercolor U.S.A.”
Owl in the Appletree won 2nd place in the “Coastal Carolina Agricultural and Industrial Fair - Professional Division in Watercolor,” date unknown.
It won honorable mentions in the “$1,000 Springs Art Contest and Show,” Lancaster, SC, 1950’s; and the “11th Annual Exhibition,” sponsored by the Guild of S.C. Artists at the Gibbes Art Gallery, 1961. Robert B. Cuthbert IV gave the original of “Owl” to the Gibbes Art Gallery in memory of the late Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, 1967.
Sallie’s work was gaining fast recognition. People compared her to John Singer Sargent, John Whorf, Winslow Homer, Sir Russell Flint, William Glackens, Phillip Jamison, and John Michael Marion (all of whom were men). When Sallie discovered her work hanging in a show in Charlotte with paintings by Andrew Wyeth, she was ecstatic. -11
Fifteen years after the first child, on November 30, 1965, a second child was born to the Middletons - a daughter, Mikell Abbott Middleton. Three years later, on May 3, 1968, they separated. Abb stayed in Charleston, while Middleton moved back to Ellington House to raise Mikell. They divorced in 1969.
Art as a Professional
Middleton was faced with the difficult decision of having to provide for herself with no marketable skills or college degree. On a whim, she sent a photo of Owl in the Appletree to American Artist Magazine and they featured her in a five-page spread.-12 Soon after that, she was “discovered” by one of the owners of Fine Prints Gallery Incorporated of Danville, Kentucky and signed a five-year contract to have prints made of her work. In 1974, when the five years with Fine Prints Gallery were up, Sallie signed a contract with FoxFire Fine Prints Gallery, Inc.
With FoxFire’s emphasis on promotions, Middleton and her work became highly sought after, mostly in the Southeast, but also though out the U.S. -13 In 1975, the federal government chose her work to exhibit in the World’s Fair.-14 She began doing many one-man shows, group shows, and winning in competitions.-15
North Carolina Wildlife Magazine had Middleton sign a contract for five cover images in March of 1970.
Wood Ducks won first place in the Printing Industry of the South’s Seven State Competition. Defender’s Magazine, The State Magazine, Carolina Lifestyle and other magazines featured her work and/or wrote articles about her.-16 Museums had Sallie Middleton shows. -17 People became Sallie Middleton collectors-18 and so did some museums.-19 She illustrated books, including one for poet laureate Archibald Rutledge,-20 and a biography, The Magical Realm of Sallie Middleton by Celestine Sibley, was published. -21
Middleton and FoxFire developed a rocky relationship because of her demands for perfection in every aspect of the business. -22 The final falling out occurred when FoxFire decided to print a smaller, unsigned, less expensive version of her paintings. They said it was necessary for sales, while she maintained it cheapened her work.
In 1990, Middleton signed on with Village Arts Gallery owned by Butch and Sandy Ochsenrieter. They encouraged her to produce three series, The Months of the Year, The Four Seasons, and Flutter Animals. In 1991, she painted Swan, her biggest and last painting as a professional artist, after which she retired.
Middleton used her retirement to restore Ellington House (which had fallen into decay) and vowed to never paint again since her eyesight and dexterity were compromised by age.
In 1997, the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, Michael Owens, asked Middleton to do a painting of the Christian shield, the holy trinity. She declined; but after a few days, accepted the invitation. The Holy Trinity was Middleton’s last painting, a thank you to God for the talent he gave her. She gave the original to the church.
Her daughter, Sallie, Jr., had a website created to showcase Middleton’s work and successes. - 23 It attracted Rey Waters, who wanted to be Middleton’s newest publisher. Instead of printing new paintings, he would hunt down lost paintings and make giclees.
On May 15, 2005, (Middleton was 79 years old) Waters purchased the entire inventory of prints from FoxFire Fine Prints, Inc.-24 and launched an aggressive promotional agenda, and soon began locating Middleton’s early paintings. Once again, Middleton found herself on the road facing admirers.
Middleton studied a subject for weeks to discover its personality before putting brush to paper. She was not only interested in its correct anatomy, but also in its personality. This caused her detailed realism to never be “photographic,” but instead, paintings with soul.
She began by sketching a quick, light outline with a number 2 pencil of the general shape and size of the painting as she saw it in her mind. After that, she used only watercolor, sometimes using brushes with only one hair. She could not make a mistake or the painting would be ruined. For many years in Charleston, SC, her studio was in her bedroom, the easel set by the window with a south light; in Asheville, some years it was a converted sun-porch, others it was an unheated, damp little chamber called, The Tower Room of the Crocodile (after a story her father had read) at Ellington House. Only once, in the 1960s, did she have a studio proper, in Charleston.
On August 7, 2009, Middleton died of a stroke at Ellington House. At her request, her ashes were thrown in the poison ivy that had plagued her all of her life.
Sallie Ellington Middleton Paintings
The following are only a partial list of Sallie Middleton’s work. Her output was prolific, and she tended to give her early works away. All of her realist watercolors depict plants and animals indigenous to the Appalachian Mountains and Coastal Carolina. Many early and later paintings have not been located.
1-The Magical Realm
2 -Interview with Sallie, Jr. for Look Here, God, I Need a Terrapin (In manuscript form)
3- interview with Middleton by Sallie, Jr. for Look Here, God, I Need a Terrapin
4- interview with Middleton by Sallie, Jr. for Look Here, God, I Need a Terrapin
5- Interview with Abb by Sallie, Jr.
6-The Charleston Evening Post, article and photos, Friday, October 14, 1955, Entitled “These Women” with article, “Socialites Serve”, page 1-C
7-The Charleston Evening Post, article and photo, Friday, November 25, 1955, “Marionettes at Museum Enchant Young Viewers”
8- News and Courier, photo taken for paper on Saturday, March 16, 1957, page 10-A: Youths Browse At Sidewalk Art Show
9 - Article by P.M., newspaper and date unknown – probably the News and Courier, Ashley Cooper is on the back page
10 – From Salliemiddleton.com, which got its information from the Magical Realm of Sallie Middleton and the Asheville Art Museum
11 - Sallie had an audience in the many fans who saw her work at exhibitions and her studio. In 1965, she received a letter from one:
“I am writing to let you know about the two paintings I bought from you. One has been loaned to museums and colleges, and one of the colleges, Agnes Scott, had the students write a comparison of artists. The artists they compared yours to were: Andrew Wyeth, John Sargent, John Whorf, Winslow Homer, Sir Russell Flint (which picture has been exhibited in the National Gallery in London), William Glackens, Phillip Jamison, and John Marion.
“I am loaning (some of my paintings to) the North Carolina Museum of Art in September and October and your painting was one of the ones they wanted to include in the collection.” (Harry L. Dalton)
12- "American Artist Magazine" summer 1969 *article *one color representation
*several black and white representations
13- Blue Ridge Now.com Times-News Online, September 18, 2005:
“During the ’70s and ’80s, Middleton was considered one of the top wildlife watercolor artists in the nation. Her remarkable eye for detail made her work extremely popular with art collectors.”
14- Chosen by the federal government to exhibit at the World's Fair, 1975
15 - Awards
• The print of the "WOOD DUCKS" won first place in many shows, including an international competition
• Asheville Art Museum, 16th annual Art-in-the-Park Show, first honors in watercolor, 1969
• Coastal Carolina Fair, 2nd place in watercolor
• Springs Mills Art Contest, honorable mention, 1963
• Guild of S.C. Artists, honorable mention, 1961
16 - Magazines
"Southern Living Magazine" 1973 *article
"North Carolina Wildlife Magazine" March 1970 *cover image
"North Carolina Wildlife Magazine" August 1970 *article *cover image
"North Carolina Wildlife Magazine" September 1971 *cover image
"North Carolina Wildlife Magazine" March 1971 *cover image
"North Carolina Wildlife Magazine" August 1977 *article *cover image
"North Carolina Wildlife Magazine" November 1982 *article *cover image
17 - One Man and Group Shows
• Rice Museum, Georgetown, S.C., August 1978
• Hinchman House, natural science museum, Nantucket Island, Mass.
• Sumter Gallery of Art, Sumter, S.C., 1974
• L. Nelson Bell Library, Montreat Anderson College, 1975
• The Gallery, Spartanburg Co. Art Association, 1971
• Mint Museum, Charlotte, N.C., 1971
• Vail House Gallery, Morganton, N.C.
• Schiele Museum of Natural History, Gastonia, N.C.
• Chosen by the federal government to exhibit at the World's Fair, 1975
• Greenville Co. Museum of Art, 1977
20 - Books
The Magical Realm of Sallie Middleton by Celestine Sibley
* published by Oxmoor House Inc. * 1980 * Birmingham, Ala.
* 105 pages * many color representations•
Woods and Wild Things I Remember by Archibald Rutledge
( now valued at over $575) * published by R.L. Bryan Co.
* 1970 * Columbia, SC * 260 pages * black and white illustrations by Sallie Middleton
•Sparks from My Chimney by S. Lewis Johnson * published by R.L. Bryan Co.
* Columbia, SC * 1963 * black and white illustrations by Sallie Middleton•
South Carolina Forests and Trees by Lelia O. Darby and Beth G. Causey
published by Supplemental Press, Mount Pleasant, SC
1968 * black and white illustrations by Sallie Middleton
21- The Magical Realm of Sallie Middleton by Celestine Sibley
* published by Oxmoor House Inc. * 1980 * Birmingham, Ala.
22- Interview with Larry O’Boyle by Sallie, Jr. for Look Here, God, I need a Terrapin
23- www.Salliemiddleton.com created by Namey Design Studios
24- He could never reach an agreement with Looking Glass Press, which meant that Sallie Middleton Art, Inc only had half of the Middleton inventory, but with “new” old paintings being released, collectors were happy.
LIST OF PAINTINGS:
HISTORIC CHARLESTON FOUNDATION,
a composite of Charleston landmarks
This print was sold to raise money for restoration of downtown Charleston. It raised more money than any other fundraising effort.
The Months of the Year
January (Titmouse in Yellow Jasmine)
February (Towhee in Beauty Bush)
March (Cardinal in Budding Dogwood)
April (Sparrow in Peach Blossoms)
May (Goldfinch in Sweet Betsy)
June (Indigo Bunting in Rose)
July (Yellow Warbler in Rose of Sharon)
August (Hummingbirds in Trumpet Vine)
September (Purple Finch in Wild Astor)
October (Bluebird in Bittersweet)
November (Carolina Wren in Rose Hips)
December (Carolina Chicadee in Barberry)
The Four Seasons Series
Other Works by Sallie Middleton
A Cat Called Bob (Bobcat)
Butterflies in Autumn
Butterflies in Summer
Clintons Lily & Trillium Set
Ginseng & Indian Turnip Set
Owl in Appletree
Trillium & Trout Lily Set
Turks Cap Lily
Warbler in Spring
Young Gray Squirrels
Portrait of a Spider
American Golden Eye (small)
Blue Winged Teal (small)
Bob White Quail
Buttercups & Birdfoot Violet
Cardinals in Winter
Chipmunks in August
Foam Flower & Gentian
Great Horned Owl
Opossum & Chamelion
Otter & Teal
Rabbits in Clover
Rabbits in Rhododendron
Redhead Landing (large)
Redhead Landing (small)
Robin & Sparrow
Wild Iris & Blood Root
Wild Rose & Violet
Young Red Fox
The Flutter Series
Flutter Polar Bear