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Who was Henry Jay MacMillan?

Ben Steelman
StarNews

A nationally known artist, Henry Jay MacMillan Jr. was born Jan. 13, 1908, in Wilmington, the son of Henry Jay MacMillan, a prominent businessman, and the former Jane Meares Williams.

He studied art from the age of 13 under Elizabeth Symmes and Elisabeth Chant. Late in life, he wrote a pamphlet, “Violet and Gold,” published through the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society, which vividly described his time with the eccentric but inspiring Miss Chant.

At the age of 18, MacMillan headed off to study at the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts (later the Parsons School). After three years’ study of architecture and interior design, he graduated from the school’s Paris Branch in 1929 and proceeded to further studies at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center and the Woodstock School. For a number of years, he worked in interior design with firms in Washington, D.C., and New York.

In 1936, MacMillan had a one-man show at the Women’s College Library on the campus of Duke University. Back in North Carolina, he was a founder and, in 1937, a member of the board of directors of the N.C. Professional Artists’ Club, which organized shows and exhibits around the state. In April 1938, he had his first major show in his hometown, when he and his friend Claude Howell exhibited watercolors of the Cape Fear region at Wilmington’s Cape Fear Hotel.

Later that year, along with Miss Chant, his mother and his sister, Helen MacMillan, he was among the organizers of the short-lived (1938-1942) Wilmington Museum of Art, 225 Princess St., Wilmington [Map this]. In December 1938, he became head of the fledgling museum’s art school, organizing class schedules, recruiting teachers and personally teaching classes in art history and art for high school students.

Meanwhile, one of his paintings was included in the show for the New York World’s Fair of 1939. One of his portraits, “Liz,” was reproduced in The New York Times in 1940. About this time, he executed a major commission, a mural for the Sperry Corp. in the RCA Building in New York.

In 1941, MacMillan deisgned interior decorations for Thalian Hall and supervised their painting by volunteers, including his sister, Claude Howell, and students from the Wilmington Museum of Art. MacMillan’s color scheme would remain in the theater until a major restoration in the 1970s.

MacMiillan joined the U.S. Army in 1942 and soon became associated with the Army’s art program at Fort Belvoir, Va. Attached to the 62nd Engineer Topographical Co. and later the headquarters of the Army’s XIX Corps, he served as a combat artist in North Africa, Sicily, Normandy (where he executed a major study of German hedgerow defenses), Belgium, Holland and Germany. During the war, he executed a major body of watercolors and sketches documenting wartime destruction, battlefield landscapes and everyday military life. These were given major exhbitions in 1973 at the Wilmington-New Hanover County Museum and in 1994 (under the title “Behind the Lines”) at the Cape Fear Museum.

Discharged with the rank of technical sergeant, MacMillan returned to New York, where he studied briefly at the Art Students League and then, for a decade, served as an instructor at the Parsons School of Design. In 1956, he returned to his home town, settling in the house at 118 S. Fourth St., which had been built by his maternal grandparents and where he had grown up. Now known as The Camellia Cottage and operated as a bed-and-breakfast, the house still has his wall murals of cherubs and flowers.

MacMillan had major one-man shows at Charlotte’s Mint Museum and at the N.C. Museum of Art in Raleigh, which has several of his paintings in its permanent collection. St. John’s Art Gallery, the forerunner of the Cameron Museum of Art, held major retrospective shows of his work in 1970 and 1975.

Famed for an elegant Southern drawl and a disposition that grew crustier with age, MacMillan was active in the Wilmington cultural scene. He was chairman of the New Hanover County Historical Commission, a president of the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society and a member of the boards of the Wilmington-New Hanover County Museum and St. John’s Art Gallery.

He died on Dec. 29, 1991 in Wilmington.

MacMillan’s sister, Helen MacMillan Lane, was also a notable regional artist.

User-contributed question by:
John Wright

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One Response to “ Who was Henry Jay MacMillan?”

  1. On September 26, 2009 at 7:58 am Anne Russell wrote:

    Excellent article. I Iearned a lot.