Nina May Skeel Weir-Lewis was the fourth of six children born to the Rev. Harlow B. Skeel (1824-1909) and his wife Lucy L. Deuel Skeel (1824-1905). (Although named Sarina in honor of a maternal aunt, she was always known by the diminutive Nina.) Her father was a much-beloved minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church who served as pastor in churches throughout New York State. The 1880 Federal Census finds the 23-year-old Nina in her parents' household in Pulaski, N.Y., giving her occupation as landscape painter. She also gave painting lessons. In May 1881 the Pulaski newspaper reported the following:
Miss Nina Skeel, of this village, who has been in New York city during the winter, will shortly leave for Europe. This talented young lady is an artist of no little repute, orders for her paintings coming in about as fast as they can be completed. So far as it is known to us, there is something in Miss Skeel's career peculiarly encouraging to students generally; for, as we understand it, very much of her proficiency and success in the art is due to her own energy and perseverance. We recall a conversation had with the young lady some years ago in which the desirability of a tour in Europe was brought forward and lightly discussed. Said she: "It seems a long way off, and a great undertaking, but others have gone with light purses, and perhaps where there's a will there's a way." Time has tested the truth of the remark, and the young lady's friends will rejoice in this fulfillment of her daydream.
["Pulaski Democrat" (Pulaski, N.Y.), Mar. 24, 1881, 3.]
Nina was twice married. In1882 she married John Weir (1856-1892), a native of Lanark, Scotland, by whom she had two daughters: Frances Underhill (1883-1932) and Helen Stuart (1885-1969). John Weir was a naturalized U.S. citizen and a successful grain commission merchant with the firm Weir & Hallett in New York. As his career prospered, the family moved from New York to the affluent borough of North Plainfield, N.J. After John Weir's death from consumption (tuberculosis) Nina married on July 2, 1898 David Lewis (1835-1901), a widower and cashier of the Ilion National Bank, Ilion, Herkimer Co., N.Y. Lewis died in Ilion in 1901. Unfortunately, this short-lived second marriage was not a success. The Utica newspaper reported in 1907 that "about a year and a half before Mr. Lewis's death his wife, it is said, left him" ["Utica Herald-Dispatch" (Utica, N.Y.), Dec. 27, 1907]. The 1900 Federal Census listed Nina Lewis in N. Plainfield as head of a household that included her daughters and a servant, but no Mr. Lewis.
In 1902 and 1906 Nina and her daughters traveled to Europe, spending time in Germany before settling in England sometime after 1909. (Scandal continued to dog Nina. In 1907, an attorney in Berlin claimed she absconded, leaving more than $3,000 in unpaid advances and legal fees. During the subsequent litigation the court attached Nina's New Jersey home.)
Though Nina began painting at an early age, it was in England that she embarked on a career as a serious artist. She became associated with the thriving artist colony at St. Ives in Cornwall. Unfortunately, her paintings are not judged very highly these days. Nevertheless, what Nina may have lacked in talent she more than compensated for in dogged determination and a rare independence of spirit.
The following text is courtesy of David Tovey, an English historian of artists in Cornwall (e-mail to J. Coffey, May 30, 2012):
[Nina Weir-Lewis] is first referred to in St Ives in 1913 and she exhibited at Lanham's that September. However, she elected to study further under Frances Hodgkins, who commented in a letter to her mother (16/9/1915), "Mrs Weir Lewis keeps on having lessons in a methodical and sensible way and pays me 4 guineas a month for helping her acquire a good imitation of the Hodgkins style." Indeed, when sketching restrictions became very stringent, Nina offered Hodgkins the use of her garden, for which Hodgkins was most grateful. This confirms that Nina was renting accommodation in the [St. Ives area], but its location is unknown. However, the Rate Book for 1916 confirms that she had started to rent Rose Lodge Studio, on the harbour beach. During her time in England, she specialised in flower and still life subjects and worked in all media. She took part in Show Day in 1915 and had four works "Confidantes" (£21), "Radishes and Onions" (£18-18), "A Twilight Pageant" (£15-15), and "Fog and Sun" (£10-10). She first exhibited at the Society of Women Artists (SWA) in 1921 and had thirteen works hung there in total. Her exhibiting address between 1920-3 was given as Hill House, Corston, near Bristol, but she and her daughter continued to rent Rose Lodge Studio. A photograph by Herbert Lanyon shows them both in the studio. In 1922, they held a joint show at Lanham's, and both also took part in Show Day in 1923. Nina also exhibited at the Royal Institute of Oil Painters (ROI), having a St Ives subject hung there in 1921, and had her works "Delphiniums in Somerset" and "A May Morning" reproduced. By the time St Ives Society of Artists (STISA) was formed, she appears to have been based in Stanhope Gardens in London, but she contributed to the first STISA show in the Porthmeor Gallery in 1928. However, she was not as regular a contributor as her daughter. On her death in 1937, she was buried at Lelant.
NOTE: Nina's two daughters were equally accomplished. Frances Underhill Weir studied musical composition with the American composer Edward McDowell and piano with the Polish-American pianist Leopold Godowsky in Berlin. She also sang professionally as a soprano. Frances is credited as the composer of several popular songs, including "Where Roses Fade" (1911) and "A Celtic Lullaby" (1912). In the summer of 1913 she married Arthur Claude Cuthbert (1891-1943), a wealthy Scottish gentleman with estates in Fifeshire. Frances Weir Cuthbert died of uterine cancer at St Andrews, Fife on March 17, 1932. She had no children.
Helen Stuart Weir never married, devoting her life to a career as a painter, primarily of still life subjects. In this she far excelled her mother. Helen studied in the U.S., Germany and England before settling permanently in England. Like her mother, she was long-associated with the St Ives artist community, dividing her time between Cornwall and a home in London. She died in 1969 at the age of eighty-four.
NINA MAY WEIR-LEWIS / 1858-1937 / HE GIVETH HIS BELOVED SLEEP