Alexandra Heintzelman Sharma

There is much history in the Lowcountry of South Carolina if one looks for it. When I met Iva Welton, long-time Hilton Head Island resident, former Director of Rose Hill Plantation, and an historian of the Lowcountry, she asked if I would be interested in the black and white photographs from her private archives of Belfair mansion and Rose Hill plantation house. The photos provided me an intimate and alluring glimpse of private, forgotten and lost places and became a reference for my paintings.  I have chosen views and moments that attracted me in some way—play of light and shadow, color, an unusual point of view, the time of day. All document a time past and scenes that no longer exist. 

Belfair Mansion was built in 1928 but by the 1980s it had been vacant for many years and was just a ghostly reminder of the past—a mysterious great house with a fatal staircase and structural issues. In contrast, Rose Hill plantation house--a Gothic Revival masterpiece begun in 1858--is a survivor. Despite lying unfinished for nearly 90 years from the start of the Civil War, it was completed in the 1040s and by 1983 was listed on the National Register of Historic Places by Iva Welton. Despite a devastating fire in 1987, it has once again been carefully restored by its latest owners and is a much-visited architectural gem.

For Belfair, Rose Hill and surroundings, I wanted to be true to architectural detail while allowing my loose painting style to conjure the ephemeral magnificence, loneliness and mystery of the place to create a mood and implied narrative that resonate with the viewer.
Pink camelias growing wild  and windblown and the sight of leaves and broken branches on the magnificent oval staircase are the first hint that Belfair, built in 1928, is abandonned and uncared for.  sold
Built by Dr. John Kirk between 1858-60, Rose Hill is an exceptional specimen of Gothic Revival architecture.  Its completion was delayed by the Civil War and the house stood incomplete for almost 90 years until Mr. and Mrs. John Sturgeon bought it in 1946.
Through the overgrown foliage, Belfair, built in 1928 by William Moseley Swain, is a vision of beauty and mystery.  No signs of failing mortar and ruined interior are apparent from a distance. 
On a rise above the Colleton River, this is the view that greeted all who came to Belfar.  sold
Rose Hill's open-stringer staircase rises at the north end of the oval entrance hall and follows the curve of the wall to the second floor gallery. Circa 1983
Imagine this immense reception hall with a 1920s chandelier and a double staircase.  Belfair, built in 1928 by Wm. Moseley Swain, was the site of many festivities—but also of young Billy Swain’s murder in 1948 when he was found dead at the bottom of the stairs at age 36.  sold
Deep shadows guard the balconies and entrances to the interior.  The windows are like eyes—now empty.

Sun highlights the rusting rebar that slowly destroyed this great house due to Wm. Swain's use of salt in the tabby cement mix
After Billie Swain’s murder in 1948, Belfair was sold.  During the Swain years the lower floor rooms were said to have had Wm. Swain’s paintings.  Now the rooms are dark and deserted.  The only light comes from a gap in the destroyed ceiling and an empty, light-filled doorframe. sold
The beautiful Corinthian columns that graced the front of Belfair from the time it was built in 1928, were made from different masonry than the rest of the house.  They survived unscathed over the years and found new life on another great house built on the same site.
These rear stairs led upwards to a second story balcony on one of the mansion’s wings.  Another staircase curved elegantly down from the second story to join the garden that faced the long, white shell road  leading into the property from the Bluffton county road.  sold
These three windows suggest a silent narrative and I began to imagine who might have stayed in these attic rooms under the roof.  A visitor to Belfair in 1931 described attic rooms used for hunting parties.
From these windows one could see the Swain’s white yacht riding at anchor.  sold
In January of 1931, Mrs. Martin, a visitor to Belfair, described the ornamental plantings and the Satsuma orange bushes that bordered the flagged terrace steps leading from the great house through the garden and down towards the Colleton River.
The changes of season and the activity in the apparently still marsh attract me.  On this winter day, I was alone at the edge of this section of tidal marsh.  Just me, the fiddler crabs, and the pluff mud making small popping sounds as the tide went out.
When I saw this small fruit tree amid some rubble, it called to mind the description of the Satsuma orange bushes that William Swain planted around the entrance pathway at Belfair.   It is said that in December they were heavy with fruit, glowing golden through the green foliage.
The roof angles and paired six-over-six windows and quarrel overlights typical of antebellum Gothic Revival architecture intrigued me.  Vertical board and batten siding emphasizes the height of the two story half gable section.  The blue metal roof blends with the sky.
The house was on a bluff, or rise, above the Colleton River.  There are descriptions of the garden and pathway leading downward toward the river and although the grounds lay untended for decades, some remnants of the original garden design are apparent in old photos.
After the 1987 fire ,gone were Rose Hill's copper roof and magnificent interior features.  Yet, seen from a distance, even with the sky and landscape visible through the burnt vertical board and batten siding, the   house appears mysteriously intact and alive in its beauty.
I like to get out to paint in the early morning hoping to catch some special moment.  I am rarely disappointed.  Something that catches my eye. This particular morning I began to paint near a pond where a cormorant sat quietly on a fallen tree branch.  sold
An out-building is perhaps a potting shed with clues to its use in the shadowed outline of clay pots and a forgotten plant.  As I painted, I imagined it could have been one of the structures on Belfair’s grounds.
Throughout the Lowcountry, small, tidal inlets provide access to the river.  Private docks offer a glimpse of life and activity along the river and ocean access routes.  As I paint, small details begin to reveal themselves and a story—or narrative—forms in my mind.   sold
Rose Hill's formal dining room featured antique, hand painted Chinese wallpaper believed to date from the 18th or 19th  century.  It had been installed at Rose Hill between 1946-49. Most was destroyed by the 1987 fire.  sold
The porch is unchanged since its construction between 1858-1860.  Its Gothic Revival architectural style is highly apparent with sunlight that  highlights the form and emphasizes strong, cast shadows. Tall proportions are true to Gothic style and add to the elegance of the entrance.
This tall, unfinished original dome was hidden above the plastered domed ceiling of the main hall.  It rises to an open eye that was originally filled with stained glass.  The framework, lathing, and frieze at the eye of the dome with its hexagonal panels, was intact until the 1987 fire.  sold
 A man walks in front of Rose Hill's conservatory.  Prior to 1946, this one story wing was much smaller with only one south-facing window.  It was enlarged to its present form between 1946 and 1949.
Rose Hill's dining room has a formal design with Georgian proportions. This white marble fireplace mantle with dark Rose Peche Ionic columns, installed during the 1940s was destroyed in the 1987 fire.
I came upon a small shed or out-building on one of my painting mornings.  It dated from the early 1900s.  Its small panes set with decades old caulking, fit the description of windows on the small, house near Belfair’s front gate where the property’s superintendent lived.
A black and white photos I used for reference showed a walkway that was clearly overgrown but which must have had flowers and ornamental shrubs along it.  In 1931 Mrs. Martin visited Belfair and wrote an article for a Bluffton publication describing a “flagged walk".
What drew me to this simple clapboard sided structure was the enigma of the padlock closing on a second story shuttered window.  Who could climb up, and what was inside?  Although this building is not on the grounds of Belfair, the padlock called to mind the mysteries of Belfair mansion.
I thought, how symbolic this simple image is! Despite decay the beauty lives on in one of the Corinthian columns as it stands unscathed, tall, and still supporting crumbling Belfair..
The four Corinthian columns were saved and installed on a new house constructed on the site.  sold
The Colleton River is common to both Belfair and Rose Hill as both were constructed alongside it.  During the Prohibition Era Low-country rumrunners used the river for their trade.  They dropped barrels of rum off their boats where the currents would carry them ashore.
Constructed for Dr. John Kirk between 1858-60, Rose Hill survived the Civil War intact but after Dr. Kirk’s death in 1868, the house was largely unoccupied until the Sturgeon family purchased it in 1946. A period of restoration by architect Willis Irvin began.
The Grand Days--Belfair 1940s
I had only a dark, black and white photo to work from.  As I painted I noticed the shutters on the windows.  Excitement!  This photo was from a time when the house was lived in, circa 1948 or earlier.
Afternoon on the May River
Heyward House Window
I liked the unusual, large single shutter on this window next to one of the chimneys.  The reflection in the windows became a small skyscape.
Packard Service
Young William (Billy) Swain, Jr. used to drive his roadster on the country dirt roads around Bluffton.  I imagined his outings from Belfair did not go unnoticed by the locals.  I was painting from a black and white photo circa 1940; the colors are mine.
Hayward House Afternoon
I liked this view of the house as it appeared  through the garden shrubbery.  The different sizes of window, the types of shutters, and the curves of the chimneys provide clues to the period: circa 1848.
Kitchen Windows- Heyward House. In old times  the kitchen was a separate building from the main house so that a kitchen fire would not destroy the house.  I liked this view through the windows of the cook house where I could see through to Heyward  House.
Library Window-Rose Hill  This tall double window in true Gothic Revival style  is the largest window of the house and is located on the second floor library.
This page was last updated on: March 2, 2018