Riley’s paintings transport us to 1900s Rehoboth Beach

Kit McNeilly worked with Francis Riley to orchestrate the Bertha Riley exhibit.  She is shown with Riley's painting of Dan Simpler's rental boats. BY DENNIS FORNEY
February 15, 2013

Artists find beauty and poignancy in the world and then share it with us. That’s a good thing. In the midst of all the wild gyrations of a heaving planet, we need to be reminded that our universal appreciation of beauty in all its guises confirms the oneness of our souls. And so it is that I communed Tuesday at noon with an artist who has long since gone to the promised land.

Bertha Riley.

Her paintings of the Rehoboth Beach area from more than 100 years ago, now on display in the Tubbs Gallery of Rehoboth Art League in Henlopen Acres, transported me. While Paul Cullen effortlessly drew a sauntering Gypsy dance out of the strings of his acoustic guitar, Riley showed me summer days in the Rehoboth area, setting up an easel along a freshwater lily pond, looking northward across marsh and dunes, finding the white towering form of the old Cape Henlopen Lighthouse in the distance to center several paintings.

Seeing that lighthouse, so small yet framed so masterfully and colorfully in Riley’s compositions, plucked a note in my historic sensibility. Riley lived in a world when Methodism - her mother in the thick of things - was driving much of the early development in Rehoboth Beach. Access to God for the common man. Camp meetings and the sweet melodies of Charles Wesley’s hymns. Ecstasy. “Oh for a thousand tongues to sing!”

As akin as spirituality and art are - think Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel - Riley and her artistic friends left the singing fading in the pines and oaks. Ethel P.B. Leach and her husband, Will Leach, often joined Bertha on her painting forays. Instead of hymns, they chose the steady drumming of the surf as their accompanists. There are many paths, but they all go to the same place.

Bertha, a Wilmington native born in 1870, painted in decades before and after the lighthouse tumbled down the face of a steep dune in the spring of 1926. It was as iconic to her as the World War II fire towers are to those of us who now walk those same beaches where Bertha and her friends once painted.

The Riley exhibit will be hanging until March 3. An opening reception is scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 16, from 4 to 6 p.m. Kit McNeilly of Dewey Beach orchestrated this first exhibit of the Rehoboth Art League’s 75th anniversary year. Riley’s great-nephew, Francis Riley, loaned all 43 of the original works for the exhibit. He is part of the extended Riley family that still owns properties on the north side of Rehoboth Beach.

The Riley exhibit served as a backdrop for a press party Tuesday at the art league. The occasion was the announcement of the return of the Beaux Arts Ball as the signature event for the 75th anniversary celebration. That’s why Cullen was there with his guitar, his voice and his personal-label wines.

Surrounded by Bertha’s images of 1900s Rehoboth and the high spirits of 2013 Rehoboth Art League celebrants, Cullen’s music drifted around and through a soulful gathering.

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