The village of Lanesville is shy Gloucester, quietly facing Northwest to Ipswich Bay, turning away from the open sea, away from the bars, restaurants, and squawking seagulls of Rogers St., instead facing sunsets, and cradling shadowy granite quarries in its woods. Finns and artists lived in Lanesville together, married each other, and created a unique sauna-going, nisu-loving community more cultured at times than entire sections of Montmartre.
I talked to Lee Natti, 92, a patrician woman who first came to Lanesville as Virginia Lee Burton’s Houghton Mifflin book editor, and who is an emblem of this Athenian time.
Natti was born in Reading, MA, attended Smith College where she majored in English Literature, and then in 1944, at 24 years old, became editor to the Lanesville/Folly Cove author who had just won the Caldicott Award for The Little House.
Natti says Virginia Lee Burton impressed her so much when they first met she could barely speak to the author. Houghton Mifflin subsequently sent Natti to Cape Ann for two weeks to study figure drawing with the sculptor George Demetrios, Burton’s husband, so that Natti could better edit children’s book illustration.
Natti was given a tiny cottage right on Folly Cove while she attended Demetrios’s drawing class, clearly a high point in the publishing industry, when editors were sent to beautiful New England settings to study life-drawing with great artists!
More and more often Natti came up to Cape Ann. Being the editor for a woman who was probably the best known children’s book author at the time meant helping the author do the canning, which the two women did outside in an enormous copper pot, so that Burton would have more time to work on her books.
At one point Burton and Demetrios gave a party (they gave many parties, always a muti-national gathering; Demetrios would insist Russian, Greek, French and English guests all sing a song in their native language) which young Robert Natti, a local Finn on leave from the war for two weeks, attended. Like many of the local boys, he’d been spending some of his leave posing for Demetrios. Although he returned to the war, two years later Robert and Lee married, and Lee became a full-time Lanesville resident. She subsequently joined Virginia Lee Burton’s Folly Cove Designers, a guild of the thirty or so local women – and some men – designing and producing high quality block printed textiles.
From 1941 to 1969 the group met once a month in Burton’s barn.
“As you worked on a design,” Natti explained, “the group would see it; ultimately a finished design was shown to a jury of the designers; if they approved, you could print it.”
Of the thirty or more designers, some stayed for two years, some stayed a long time, “but Ginny was the priestess.”
“She had very high standards,” the same standards, Lee Natti claimed, as any of the great artists living and working in Lanesville.
It was an amazing time: local people, many of them Finns who had come to work in the quarry industry, not only posed for world renowned artists and sculptors, but swam with them in the quarries and sunbathed on the Folly Cove rocks together. Walker Hancock, National Medal of Art and Medal of Freedom recipient, the sculptor who produced such significant national works as an altar at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. and the Pennsylvania Railroad World War II Memorial, Angle of the Resurrection, in Philadelphia, settled in Lanesville after coming here to study with Charles Grafly. (as did George Demetrios and other prominent sculptors.) Local young man Eino Natti posed in those first years for Walker Hancock, a bust which won the artist the prestigious Prix de Rome early in his career.
Hancock married Lee Natti’s sister-in-law, Saima Natti, and became, in spite of his national profile, a quiet resident of the far-north Gloucester community. Hancock worked on sculptures with immense national significance, but he also designed the new spire for the Lanesville Congregational Church.
Lee Natti went on to be an acclaimed children’s book author herself. A long shelf of her books, some illustrated by Barbara Cooney, published in English and Japanese extends over her desk, the length of it.
She has spent her adult life beside a beautiful quarry in Lanesville; her neighbor at the next quarry was her sister-in-law Saima and her husband Walker Hancock. Lee Natti has two Hancock busts of her husband, one when Robert was a young man, and another when he was seventy-seven, both treasures, both monuments to the richly embroidered Finnish and artistic lives lived together in Lanesville.
Here is Lee Natti’s favorite recipe, a blueberry cake from yet another Cape Ann children’s book – and a cookbook – author, Ruth Holberg, who lived in Rockport.
As Natti says of the cake, “It may seem silly to use a roasting pan for a blueberry cake, but to take it to a potluck, it works very well.”
Cape Ann Blueberry Cake
from 1700, originally from Ruth Holberg’s recipes
(Makes large amount Use roasting pan sprayed with Pam. Use large bowl and big wooden spoon (easier than electric mixer!)
1 cup shortening
2 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup milk
5 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp salt
5 cups flour
3 cups blueberries
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a roasting pan with Pam.
Cream shortening and sugar together. Beat in eggs one at a time. Add the milk.
Sift together the dry ingredients. Add to the batter and mix well. Stir in the blueberries. Sprinkle all with cinnamon-sugar and bake for 50 minutes if berries are fresh and you are using a convection oven. In a regular oven with frozen berries bake it for 55 – 60 minutes.