By Terry Rogers
Milford Museum recently received a donation from the Fitchett family of a painting by artist Ethel Pennewell Brown Leach. Ms. Leach painted the artwork for Dr. Laurence Fitchett, a family practice physican in Milford around 1953 or 1954.
“I grew up in Milford, in a house on King’s Highway, and spent many hours walking along, swimming, boating, ice skating on Silver Lake,” said Peggy Kahan, the daughter of Dr. Fitchett. “Ms. Leach was one of my father’s patients and I didn’t realize until many years later that she was a highly respected artist in the early to mid-20th century. We had a few of her local paintings and at some point my parents commissioned her to paint a picture of Silver Lake.”
Ethel Pennewill Brown Leach was born in Wilmington and studied art at the Clawson Hammitt School of Art. She also studied in New York City at the Art Students League, eventually returning to Delaware and studying under the famed Delaware artist, Howard Pyle. Ms. Leach was a successful book and magazine illustrator prior to World War I and her work appeared in many leading publications. At the age of 44, she married her old friend, William Leach, who was also a famed Delaware artist. The couple established a summer art colony in Rehoboth Beach where they spent their summers. During this time, Ms. Leach began to focus on easel painting and documenting southern Delaware.
“Ms. Leach painted several of the Governor’s portraits that hang in Legislative Hall,” said Claudia Leister, Executive Director of the Milford Museum. “Ryan Grover, Curator of the Biggs Museum, said that it appeared the frame on the painting we just received was made by her husband, Will Leach.”
Ms. Kahan said that when she grew up in the house on King’s Highway, there were a pair of swans on the lake and she thought that the first pair were introduced by the Grier family who also lived near the lake. The swans had a large nest on what was known as “Swan Island” and every spring there were a group of cygnets that she enjoyed watching grow up. Ms. Kahan said that when her parents commissioned the paining, she was sure that they asked the swans be incorporated as well as the pier where the family kept a boat.
“My parents had this painting over the mantle in our Milford home and my wedding ceremony took place in front of it,” Ms. Kahan said. “When my parents retired and moved to Florida, they asked me and my brothers what items we would like as they downsized. I told them the main thing I wanted was the painting. They took the painting with them to Florida and then to Oregan where they moved to be closer to my brother and I. After my father passed away and my mother eventually moved into a group home, she kept the painting over her bed. After her death, the painting hung in our dining room until we decided to downsize as well.” Ms. Kahan said that it always made sense that the painting go to the Milford Museum as it reflects the history of the lake and the town.
Ms. Kahan said that she was not sure of the value of the painting as it has always had a personal attachment to the painting. She said, for her, the painting was priceless due to its sentimental value. Ms. Leister said that Mr. Grover mentioned that a painting of similar size and subject matter had sold at auction for $25,000, so it would not be surprising that the painting given to the museum would be worth that amount.
“My brothers and I are so happy that the painting has found a new home where it will be safe and appreciated,” said Ms. Kahan. “I will be returning to Milford for a class reunion in June and look forward to seeing the painting in its new setting.”