Somerset Place and Painting Historic Plantations


In October, 2017, I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in the Plein Air Painters of the Southeast Plantation Exhibit in Valdosta, Georgia.  The project was first initiated by Katie Cundiff in 2015. Each PAP-SE member was requested to select a Southern antebellum plantation, produce one 11x14 plein air study and one 24x30 studio painting of the plantation, and include a brief history of the plantation and description of our painting process.  The project would conclude with a museum exhibit in 2017 along with a member paint out. 

The plantation I selected was Somerset Place of Eastern North Carolina.  Somerset Place has a lot of well-documented history that I was able to research and learn about.  This was important to me as I lack an authentic Southern heritage—I grew up in Indiana.

I am thrilled North Carolina maintains this wonderful historical property.  Visiting Somerset Place was a truly educational experience for this Indiana boy.  Over the years Somerset Place has restored much of the slave housing and working facilities along with the Collins family mansion.  They also provide free education tours to the public.

Located near Creswell in Eastern North Carolina, Somerset Place is a historic education center run by the state of North Carolina.  The property is open and staffed Tuesday thru Saturday year-round.  The center gives wonderful, on-demand tours and admission is free.  The plantation was established in 1785 along the shore of Lake Phelps surrounded by a dense, Cypress swamp.  The plantation harvested timber, and later, grew rice, corn, oats, wheat, beans, peas, and flax.  The plantation laborers were black and white, enslaved and free. Over the life of the plantation – about 80 years – three generations of owners, around 50 white employees, two free black employees, and more than 850 enslaved people lived and worked on the plantation.   Somerset Place was one of the upper South's largest plantations.


View from the 3rd floor of the Collins mansion.


Here is a close up of my initial sketch plan with 4 values of gray markers.  I actually moved the light on the finished painting from the right to the left to catch some sunlight on the slave buildings.

In my painting, I wanted include the small, slave buildings alongside of the Collins family's 14 room mansion.  In addition, I wanted to show the strength of the majestic Cypress trees and the beauty of Lake Phelps peering between the buildings.  The mansion itself is not architecturally elegant or impressive, rather it is decidedly utilitarian.  Finally, I tried to include the warm, humid atmosphere of a late-morning, September day with sound of cicadas and tree frogs.

Somerset Place Study” 11 x 14 oil on linen by Scott Boyle


I enjoyed the technical challenge of keeping the large, yellow house in the shadow and the cool, grey slave-buildings in sunlight.  As you can see from this photo, the actual house was a dull, warm yellow.

“Somerset Place” 24 x 30 oil on linen by Scott Boyle

This, of course, is a bit boring view of the mansion (head on & square looking).  However, I was really amazed at the large, towering chimneys glowing in the sunlight and the huge, majestic Cypress trees behind the house.  The scene is from an intense 11 AM sunlight that is backlighting the objects with heavy atmosphere and humidity.  With the larger canvas, I also wanted to have a more defined glimpse of Phelps Lake between the grey buildings and mansion.  One of the issues of this painting was it had lots of blue sky and green grass.  To create interest, I used many layers of transparent glazes and scumbles, juxtaposing many colors.  The final product, I think, produced depth and vibrancy.  This is not easily seen in the digital image, but is apparent in person.


As the Exhibit of Plantation was going on at the Annette Howell Turner Center for the Arts in Valdosta, GA (September 18 thru November 1, 2017), sixteen members of Plein Air Painters of the Southeast descended on Thomasville, GA during the 2nd week of October.  During this paint out, we visited local historic plantations for two days of plien air painting, mentoring, and demos.   

PAP-SE members along with students at one of the many beautiful plantations that we visited.


Thomasville Center for the Arts in South Georgia – Exhibit of plein air works on Oct 7, 2017


Annette Howell Turner Center for the Arts – Valdosta, GA


Annette Howell Turner Center for the Arts – Valdosta, G 


Annette Howell Turner Center for the Arts – Valdosta, GA

Scott Boyle