The Bermudian

A Magazine Devoted to Bermuda
and to Bermuda Life

September 1961


by Terry Tucker

Most people living in Bermuda and innumerable visitors have heard of the two remarkable sisters, the Misses Ethel and Catharine Tucker, who live at the house with the arched verandahs that faces up Point Finger Road in Paget. They are sometimes referred to as "the Arches Tuckers" to distinguish them from other branches of that notable family. But those who have merely heard of them by repute and realize only the long span of their years (Ethel will celebrate her 87th birthday next month) are astonished when at an art exhibition in the City Hall they see them eagerly scanning the paintings; or, at a meeting of the Bermuda Historical Society, hear them adding lively footnotes of recollection to some speaker's story of the past. Surely these extremely vital ladies with such keen interest in contemporary affairs are not the ones they have heard spoken of as old?

Each of the Tucker sisters is an individualist, Ethel with her quiet brand of bubbling humour, Catharine (Kate) with a saltier wit, both possessing a zest for life rooted in a past of arduous simplicity, and a passionate interest in everything Bermudian. For the Bermuda of their childhood was a place of almost stark homeliness. Shoes and hats could be bought in the little jumbled shops; but almost every other article of clothing was perforce made at home.

Ethel and Kate, as two of the eight children of Mr. and Mrs. Robert R.J. Tucker of The Lane House, Paget (now Tamarisk Hall) thankfully recall a childhood rich in human values and family affections, in which they learned the nobility of hard work and discipline, the necessity of happily "making do", and the futility of envy. Their artistic mother, with a large family to care for, found time to design wallpaper and paint Christmas cards with one hand while rocking the cradle with the other. No wonder a little girl began wielding a brush to copy mother even before the infant high-chair was discarded.

By the time Miss Eliza D. Williams' school was established on Reid Street, Hamilton, Ethel had become ambitious to take art lessons. She made a bargain to strum the accompaniment for the pupils' drill in exchange for receiving instruction in painting from an American lady who taught at the school. Since the young girl's musical repertoire was extrememly limited, it says much for her determination that she carried her plan through. More encouragement came from Mr. James B. Heyl, who was making up albums of his own photographs, some of the earliest taken in Bermuda, and asked the aspiring young artist to name her fee for illuminating the margins. Audaciously, she asked for a shilling a page, and has never forgotten that the 18 shillings thus earned procured for her the material for an evening gown. Suddenly the future appeared illimitable.

Greatly daring in an age when young ladies, however gifted, stayed at home to pour tea, in her late 'teens Ethel ventured to New York to study art. She still remembers with gratitude such people as Mrs. Grenville Kane of Tuxedo Park, the Hon. Elihu Root, Secretary of War in the U.S. Government, and other kind friends who took an interest in and encouraged the young Bermudian lady living alone in a "select boarding house" in New York where board and lodging cost $7 a week. This was a New York of horse-drawn buses on Fifth Avenue, but it must have appeared excitingly cosmopolitan to the young islander who returned home for some holidays and presently took her younger sister Kate back to New York to study painting too. By day, for two years, Ethel studied at the New York School of Applied Design for Women. In the evenings the two girls made Cotillion favours in their bedroom in order to meet living expenses.

In all the Tucker sisters spent eleven happy hard-working years in New York in a variety of jobs - as designers for manufacturers of art embroideries; with the New York branch of Raphael Tuck of London; in an interior decorating studio on Fifth Avenue; and as teachers in an art school. By the end of that time they were ready to return home and branch out on their own.

They came back to Bermuda before World War I and opened the Colony's earliest souvenir and gift shop on Queen Street, Hamilton, under what is now the Children's Library. Here the first day's profit was a princely nine shillings

Soon their beautiful water-colour scenes of Bermuda became so much the rage with the just-burgeoning tourist trade that they decided to have colour reproductions made. Miss Kate, already very much the business woman, went to Germany to get in touch with a well-known colour printer, and the sisters found themselves investing their meagre savings in their first picture postcard of a Bermuda scene - oleanders and sea water in Somerset, with a peep of a distant cottage, painted by Miss Ethel. And Miss Kate's cartoons, sometimes satirical, always amusing, show her to have been a competent draftsman.

In 1915 the Tucker girls moved to The Little Green Shop (now the Perot Post Office) and this became the Island's art centre, remaining such for more than 40 years. There, original paintings, reproductions, postcards of their own sketches, souvenirs of all kinds, were purveyed to a fast-widening and faithful public under the chaste sign of a white hand-sewn flag bearing, in green lettering, the words "Little Green Shop". After World War I the colour-printing was undertaken in Sevenoaks, Kent, England, by a man named Salmon. The number of Bermuda scenes thus reproduced on postcards mounted to about one hundred.

When the Duke of Windsor came to Bermuda in 1921 as the Prince of Wales, he bought 20 views of Bermuda by the Tucker sisters. This led to Queen Mary sending an order for herself, and some of these Tucker pictures were exhibited at Kensington in the Queen's famous collection of water-colours.

In 1958, when the Tucker sisters decided the time had come to wind up their business, it was as if an era of Bermuda life had ended. Several generations of tourists had visited and spoken of the Little Green Shop, and Bermudians themselves regretted that final closing on February 22, 1958, even though the little building reverted, appropriately enough, to its earlier status as the Perot Post Office. But let nobody imagine that Miss Ethel had discontinued painting, or that either of the sisters had relinquished their keen interest in current styles of art.

There was another enterprise that will forever be associated with the Tucker sisters, namely, the Little Green Door. To say that this was merely a tea shop would be gross understatement. You came to a tall green door set in the wall opposite what is now the Bermudiana Hotel, and stepped down uneven little steps and sloping brick walks, through a maze of ferns, palms, nightblooming cereus, pride-of-India trees, to a bower overhanging the waters of Hamilton Harbour. Here, if you came often enough and established your right to be there, a bright little waitress who herself remembered returning guests over a score of years or more, would smilingly murmur your name and find your favorite table shaded by a fragrant tree. Bemused, if you had been long away, you would gaze around at rustic seats bearing famous names. Yes, there was the table claimed by Mark Twain as especially his; nearby was another table where William Dean Howells seated himself each afternoon with his daughter Mildred. Rudyard Kipling, Eugene O'Neill, Charles Evans Hughes were other ghosts that haunted you as you looked around, for this had been their background of Bermuda. In fact, celebrities without number frequented this delightful spot which not only became a social rendezvous but held the very essence of old-world Bermuda charm compounded of decorum, gentility and peace.

Once only was the serene atmosphere of the Little Green Door disturbed. A governor's A.D.C. thoughtlessly turned up for tea clad in football togs after a game. He was politely but firmly requested to withdraw, which he did after apologies to Miss Kate.

Short stories and novels of the period often pictured the Little Green Door as the setting for many a budding romance, and visitors from December to May between 1909 and 1938 would have been dismayed indeed if the first sight that met their eyes on stepping ashore and glancing westward from the wharf had not been the yellow flag bravely sporting a black teapot device that flew at the masthead beside the Little Green Door. ("Yellow", Miss Kate had planned firmly "shows at any distance. It'll be as noticeable as the Cathedral tower. And the teapot says tea's ready.") But there it always was and, better yet, the menu offered at the tea garden never varied. On a small white card, in green print, appeared: TEA, BUTTERED TOAST, TOASTED NUTBREAD, FANCY BREADS, HOME-MADE MARMALADE, CINNAMON TOAST, STRAWBERRIES AND CREAM.

About 1934 a zealous new Chief of Police arrived in Bermuda. Before he had time to appreciate the local mores or the fact that the Colony's motto "Quo Fata Ferunt" is often loosely translated "It all depends on who you are", he determined to enforce several flagrantly violated regulations, in particular one forbidding advertising signs against the skyline. The yellow flag with its teapot device had by then been flying over the tea garden for 25 winter seasons.

One day a constable reluctantly approached Miss Kate at the Little Green Door. Surely not for tea? No, he said, and stammered an order for her to remove her flag. She flatly refused. By the time she received a summons to appear in court the whole island was agog. Mr. Allan Smith (now Sir Allan), the magistrate scheduled to try Miss Kate's case, departed on leave with alacrity, leaving his brother Donald to carry the baby. Miss Kate enjoyed herself in court, protesting that the Furness Line flew a flag over their office bearing the letter F, and the Princess Hotel used one with the letter P. However the court ruled that these were ensigns or house flags, while hers was advertising. She was found guilty and given one month in which to remove the offending bit of bunting. Miss Kate went home thoughtfully to do some needlework.

As might be expected Miss Kate flew the teapot flag right up to the deadline, then replaced it with another yellow flag bearing a huge T. Thus challenged, the police again interfered, whereupon Miss Kate innocently pointed that the letter had nothing to do with advertising. The T stood for Tucker not Tea. It was her house flag. Completely out-maneuvered, the Chief of Police threw his hand in, and the flag continued to fly until the tea garden closed in 1938.

The story of the "Bermuda Tea Party" (as one Boston paper dubbed it), hit the headlines in several countries. Lowell Thomas, the American radio commentator, gleefully used it in his evening broadcast. The two yellow flags are now stored away at The Arches among other mementoes. Perhaps one day the sisters will donate them to the Bermuda Historical Society.

During the early 1930s the tourist season here was a winter one, lasting from after Christmas to after Easter. The Misses Tucker put the rest of the year to good use by opening other Little Green Doors and painting at Muskoka Lakes, at Lake Placid in the Adirondacks, and in Florida. They also operated an antique business at the top of Burnaby Hill in Hamilton and a branch at the Castle Harbour Hotel, businesses which necessitated enjoyable buying trips to England.

The successful and hard-working lives of the Tucker sisters have been full of pleasure to them; their overflowing zeal has benefited the whole community. Everything Bermudian holds their interest, from starting recreational clubs for youth in the more isolated islands to preserving interesting relics for the Bermuda Historical Society, of which Miss Ethel is a life vice-president. Miss Kate's hobbies include her cottages and her fruit and flower gardens. Their love of Bermuda was expressed also in such publications as "Bermuda: a Few Highways and Byways" by Ethel and Catharine F. Tucker. This small book, published 50 years ago, is "a collection of the many lovely mosaics which go to make the total design of this three-centuries little British Colony", and it contains reproductions, with suitable text, of twelve water-colours from the brushes of these gifted sisters, the subjects selected from St. George's to Somerset in the days when "no motor cars, trams, or trains . . . disturb the peacefulness (or) break the tranquillity of this heaven-blessed island".

In addition, Miss Ethel has written some charming descriptions of the west end which have been published in the Bermuda Historical Quarterly under such titles as "Memories of old Somerset" and "The Bridge House, Somerset (Sandys Rectory)".

Today, one or the other of the Tucker sisters may be seen at each preview of the Society of Arts' exhibitions, gravely considering styles of painting that often differ widely from those current in their youth. And one has only to glance around at the exhibits of the Bermuda Historical Society in Par-la-Ville to become aware of their generous contributions. By breaking through the rigid conventions that encircled them in their girlhood, these two outstandiung ladies set a proud tradition for all time.

Ethel's Tucker's first painting reproduced for postcards; printed in Germany in 1912 in full colour.
Reproduction of dance program cover designed by
Kate Tucker for regimental dance in March, 1913.

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