With less than two months away from this year’s Nantucket By Design event, we are pleased to share more highlights from our collection. 

Just around the corner from the stately Whaling captain homes of Main Street lies Greater Light, the former home of two Quaker sisters.
Enjoy a closer look inside and view their edge on style that still lives on today.
Welcome to Nantucket
Next in our series of moving impressions of our island, we feature Nantucket: A Short Film by Oregon Poet Kim Stafford . Kim visited Nantucket in 2013 for a week of outreach and creative writing programs. He created this film shortly after his arrival, capturing what he felt was the essence of the island with an emphasis on "place." If the Monaghan sisters could have shown videos in their Greater Light studio, they would have chosen this one.
Greater Light
A Virtual House Tour
Explore Greater Light and its iconic design
Greater Light, ca. 1930, shortly after it was remodeled by the Monaghan sisters,  PH37-n54

Gertrude (1887–1962) and Hanna Monaghan (1889–1972), Quaker sisters from Philadelphia, discovered an old cow and pig barn (built ca. 1790) on Nantucket’s Howard Street (then Bull Lane) in 1929. Guided by their “inner light,” they transformed the barn into a summer sanctuary and art studio. They named it “Greater Light,” today an iconic example of the Nantucket Art Colony of the 1920s–40s.

This virtual tour is based on Hanna Monaghan’s book, Greater Light on Nantucket, a Memoir, completed six days before she died in 1972. You’ll hear Hanna’s stories in her own words about how the eclectic objects and architectural features in the house were acquired, often miraculously, as she tells it. While the objects are from around the world, the sisters acquired most of them through auction houses, antique dealers, demolition sites, and junk yards. The Monaghans have been called “scavengers with a pocketbook.” Clearly, they had a good eye.
Collection Highlights
The Gimcrack: Italian Repousse Plaque
This ornate brass plaque displays emblems of the evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, surrounding an image of the Virgin Mary being crowned. It was not always destined to reside at Greater Light. It lived in the Monaghan’s parents' home in Pennsylvania and was originally the target of Gertrude’s disdain. She called it a gimcrack, a useless object, and declared it “too ornate, it is not art. It must go.” Her mother explained that she had taken the maiden trip of the Central Pacific Railroad across the plains to visit Salt Lake City, and it was there that the plaque was presented to her by one of Brigham Young’s wives, his favorite, she claimed. It isn’t clear if Gertrude ever changed her opinion, but the gimcrack was relocated to Greater Light and given a place of honor over the mantel in the studio, where it has remained ever since.

Above right: Photo of mantel decorated for NHA Holiday Homes 2019 showing the “gimcrack” still in its original location.
Updating a 1920s Classic for 2020
A Fabled 1920s Palm Beach Mansion Revival
Nantucket summer resident Susan Zises Green brings a fresh and cheerful aesthetic to a Mediterranean interior.

The vast living room divided into seating groups anchored with an Italian fireplace echoes the feel of the Greater Light studio.

Italian Carved Coat of Arms
This Italian-carved and polychromed coat of arms depicts two reclining lions flanking a cartouche, containing a snarling black lion rampant on a field of blood, surmounted by a crown.

It was one of a pair of matching plaques, offered at an auction in Philadelphia, that Hanna had attended looking for treasures to decorate Greater Light. She had her eye on the pair, but they were gone before she had a chance to bid. Undaunted, she approached the buyer and asked to buy one. Reluctant at first, he gave in. The coat of arms was eventually placed prominently over the French doors looking out over the patio and garden. The sisters had it evaluated by specialists, who suggested it was Venetian, but no further information surfaced as to its origin.

above right: Today the carved Italian plaque ( 2013.1006.001 ) hangs over French doors at Greater Light as originally envisioned by the Monaghans
The Greater Light Garden
As Hanna relates in her memoir, as she and Gertrude sat on their newly created patio and surveyed the dump and rubble around them, the beautiful grilles seeming ludicrous, Hanna concluded, “A patio must have a garden, a green grassy room under the sky. But we know nothing about planning or planting a garden.” Very shortly thereafter, a woman appeared at their door. Well known in the town for her talent for planning gardens, she had come to help. She spotted the rubble and saw a stone wall with flowers in the crevices. Through the expanse of ashes and debris, she saw a lush garden of flowers, shrubs, and trees. “Beautiful!” she proclaimed. By the following year, with the help of the “garden lady” and her gardener, the Greater Light garden became a showcase. It has been maintained as such ever since.
Photo by Caroline Sollman
Modern Take: Eclectic Style
We are quite sure that the Monaghans would have been big fans of Nantucket by Design alum Michelle Nussbaumer and her extraordinary wanderlust style.

This room by Design Luncheon Keynote Speaker Alessandra Branca shows an aesthetic similar to that of the Monaghans—layered, collected, eclectic.

Visit Greater Light

While Greater Light is closed for summer 2020, you can still enjoy the Greater Light garden

Meet Gertrude and Hanna Monaghan
Artists, Designers, and Decorators
Detail of Gertrude Monaghan, P16956 and Hanna Monaghan, PH37-60
These two intrepid and eccentric sisters, descendants of a long line of staunch Pennsylvania Quakers, resolved at an early age to devote their lives to the arts. Born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and affiliated their whole lives with the Swarthmore Friends Meeting, the sisters experienced an early conversion akin to a religious awakening, as Hanna recalls in her spiritual autobiography: “Something happened in this Quaker household. A virus struck under the pseudonym of ART. How it entered this sanctuary and hit two who came from a long line of Quaker martyrs cannot be explained. Thereafter these two victims live for nothing but art.”

The Monaghan sisters discovered Nantucket in the early 1920s, after completing an impressive and varied art education that included attendance at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, traveling fellowships, and residency at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. At the behest of their friend, the illustrator and muralist Violet Oakley (1874–1961), they journeyed to Nantucket, and were among the first tenants of Florence Lang’s waterfront studios (first Sail Loft on Commercial Wharf, and later Barnsite at the foot of Main Street). In addition to exhibiting at the Candle House Studio, they showed regularly at the Easy Street Gallery and became staunch members of the Art Colony.

above right: Ad for Monaghan design services in  The Inquirer and Mirror,  July 29, 1939 
1800 House at Home
Unlocking the Mysteries of Penwork Decoration
Gertrude Monaghan could have taught this technique, but today we have our own 1800 House veteran Mary Lacoursiere, NHA Peter M. and Bonnie J. Sacerdote Chair of Education and Community Relations, sharing tips and tricks, taking the mystery out of the delicate and beautiful art of penwork decoration.
Nantucket Historical Association’s 1800 House program is dedicated to celebrating and reviving Nantucket’s rich tradition of early American decorative arts.

Supreme Folly: Greater Light
This short film by Beverly Hall honors the creative legacy of Gertrude and Hanna Monaghan. Beverly portrays Hanna as she does in the NHA summer program “Hanna in Her Garden,” performed in the beautiful Greater Light garden.
Stay tuned for summer 2020 performance schedule!
The Museum Shop Online
Discover Greater Light Books

By Beverly Hall
Becoming Hanna My Greater Light on Nantucke t sheds light on Beverly Hall's fascinating journey as she discovers and resurrects this very special Nantucket icon, Hanna Monaghan.

By Betsy Tyler
Greater Light, the summer home and art studio created in the early 1930s by Gertrude and Hanna Monaghan, is a small but intriguing paragraph in the continuing saga of the history of Nantucket Island.

By Hanna Monaghan
Hanna Monaghan's memoir, printed in conjunction with the restoration of this historically significant house, converted by the Monaghan sisters in the early 20th century from an 18th-century livestock barn.
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