Lauren Ford was born in NYC on January 23, 1891, the daughter of Simeon Ford and Julia Ellsworth Ford. Simeon was co-owner of the fashionable Grand Union Hotel opposite Grand Central Station. The family lived on West 74th Street and also owned a 48 room Victorian "cottage"on Forest Ave. near the present Forest Cove. Lauren's mother Julia was a celebrated author of children's books and films and a patron of the arts. At her "salon" on West 74th St., she hosted such famous and diverse figures as William Butler Yeats, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Kahlil Gibran, Isadora Duncan, Madame Chiang Kaishek and the socialist Norman Thomas.
Simeon bought the Knapp House in 1906 as a wedding gift for his son Ellsworth who was also a painter specializing in marine art. When Ellsworth lived at the Knapp House, he added an artist's studio to the back, depicted in this lovely small painting done by Lauren.
The back of the painting contains the following description written by Lauren: "This little girl is Lauren my grand baby for whom the little book was made. The picture of me is by Gino Mangravite. It is in the studio because he was making it there. The horse is named horse and belonged to all of us when we were little. The doll's name is Rinjinia and the Bunny is dear rabbit."
The view in the painting is from the artist's studio, now the archives of the Rye Historical Society, looking into the reading room. The same corner cabinet is still in use today, looking just as it did when Lauren made her charming painting.
Lauren was named after an uncle who was a portrait painter and who lived in an old chateau in Brittany. When Lauren was just 9, Julia sent her to live with her Uncle Lauren. She subsequently studied in Paris and at the Art Students League in New York where her teachers included James Abbott McNeill Whistler.
During the 1920's, Lauren became deeply involved in the Monastery of Solesmes, a leading center for the revival of ecclesiastical art and Gregorian chant located in the western part of France south of Brittany. Here, Lauren converted to the Catholic faith and was accepted as an Oblate of St. Benedict. Lauren loved living in the countryside and developed a keen observation of nature. (As an aside, while living in Rye, she owned a flower shop on Purchase Street, and her brother Ellsworth operated the greenhouses on their Knapp House property that eventually became J.B. Rich Nursery.) Her love of flowers and of medieval tapestries influenced her art and her unique primitive style, which can be seen in the painting above. In 1926, Lauren (with the help of her mother) had a one-woman show at the Feragil Gallery on 57th Street. Note that a sticker from this gallery appears on the painting above.
Following Simeon's death in 1933, Lauren bought a farm near Bethlehem, CT which she named The Sheepfold, inspired by biblical texts. There, she raised sheep, built a studio and a chapel and enlarged the house to accommodate her adopted daughter Dora (mother of the "grand baby" Lauren shown in the painting). In the 1930's and 1940's, Lauren's art became increasingly religious, with many paintings of the Nativity, angels, the Holy Family and saints. Typical of her work during this period is this drawing of an "Adoring Angel."
In 1946, Lauren's life took a totally unexpected direction when two members of the Benedictine Abbey at Jouarre, France were introduced to Lauren. They were looking for a place to found an abbey in the U.S. and, through a mutual friend, found their way to The Sheepfold. Lauren's neighbor gave Mother Benedict 50 acres in Bethlehem. Soon, more nuns arrived and they set about building the Abbey of Regina Laudis which today is a vibrant community of nuns who keep the chant tradition alive. The Abbey continues to print and sell Christmas cards today with images created by Lauren Ford. When Lauren died, she left The Sheepfold to the Abbey. The nuns still raise the sheep, tend the land and teach painting, pottery and printmaking in Lauren Ford's studio.
The story of Lauren Ford and Regina Laudis was captured by Clare Boothe Luce who wrote the book for the movie "Come to the Stable" co-starring Celeste Holm, Loretta Young and Elsa Lanchester playing the role of Lauren. Celeste Holm received an Academy Award nomination for her role, and the movie is still available today.