In his 1928 satirical short story Things, author DH Lawrence examined the lives of the Melvilles, an idealistic, hard-up couple who moves around the world in search of freedom and meaning. At first the Melvilles try to find fulfilment in Indian thought, then in France, then in Buddhism. In the end, they settle in suburban America, “surrounded by their possessions, their things”.

Lawrence’s inspiration for the Melvilles were his friends Earl and Achsah Brewster, an American artist couple he first met in 1921 in Capri. Like the Melvilles, the Brewsters were helplessly smitten by wanderlust. After living in Capri for a while, they headed off with their 10-year-old daughter Harwood to Ceylon, where they were shortly joined by Lawrence and his wife Frieda.

The Brewsters shared similar ideals and had devoted themselves to the search for truth. They moved through life drawn, as author Lucy Marks writes, by “a purer and more abstract realm of thought and feeling”. They were both artists, unique and unworldly, who found their muse in nature and all its colours.

In a world riven with divisions and conflict, the two travelled as if they were oblivious of borders. They lived for some years in Capri, Ravello and Taormina in Italy, and in Paris and the French Riviera. But the place that would become their forever home, the one they always searched for, was high up in the hills of northern India – Almora.

Achsah and Earl Brewster with their daughter Harwood. Courtesy: Willa Cather Collection, Drew University Library, New Jersey.

In their lifetime, their art never got due recognition in their home country, the United States. Partly the reason for this was their wayfaring and partly their impractical nature. However, in the last few decades, their granddaughter Frances Holt says, their art has drawn a loyal band of admirers, with some of their paintings being displayed in a New York gallery.

No longer are they overshadowed by more famous people who were influenced by them, such as Lawrence and writer Willa Cather. Now they are considered fascinating figures in their own right. In 2002, Holt gave their letters and other archival material to the Drew University Library. Drawing on this resource, Marks co-authored a book with David Porter titled Seeking Life Whole: Willa Cather and the Brewsters (2009).

Interest in religions

Earl Brewster was born in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, on September 21, 1878, and Achsah Barlow was born on November 12 of the same year in New Haven, Connecticut. They met through a friend, the poet Vachel Lindsay, in 1904 and got married in 1910.

Earl’s belief in the unity of all creations had started with his early interest in Theosophy. An occult movement that drew from ancient religions and myths, Theosophy was quite the rage in cities on the American coast in the 1890s. Its popularity incidentally coincided with a renewed interest in Buddhism sparked largely by Edwin Arnold’s poetic biography of the Buddha, The Light of Asia (1879).

Courtesy: Frances Holt.

While Earl was studying at the School of Art in Cleveland, he came in contact with philosopher Jagadish Chatterji, who was delivering lectures on Theosophy in American cities. Chatterji made Earl an offer to travel with him to Kashmir, but the idea was vetoed by Earl’s mother Flora.

From Cleveland, Earl moved to New York, where he joined the New York School of Art, the same institute where Achsah was studying. Soon as they were introduced, the two hit it off. Both of them were inspired by the pure, vivid murals of the French painter Puvis de Chavannes. This might have been one reason why they moved to Europe in 1910, when it was the centre of artistic innovation, a little removed from the materialistic world they saw around them.

No matter where they went, Earl did not abandon his enthusiasm for religions. An association with Caroline Rhys Davids, a lecturer at the School of Oriental Studies in London, and Lucile Beckett, who was part of the thriving Buddhist society in Naples, made him deeply interested in Theravada Buddhism. In 1915, he began memorising the Abhidhammattha-saṅgaha, a Pali text of the Theravada school. Rhys Davids encouraged him to contribute to the Buddhist Annual of Ceylon and, in 1924, he wrote Life of Gotama, a book based on his translation of Pali texts that has never gone out of print.

Courtesy: Frances Holt.

Early trips to India

Through their friend, the writer Dhan Gopal Mukerji, the Brewsters met Josephine MacLeod, a Vivekananda devotee who was dedicated to serving the Ramakrishna Mission and spreading the message of the Vedanta in the West. MacLeod must have left some impression on the couple for when they travelled to India in 1926, they first stayed at Belur Math, the headquarters of Ramakrishna Mission in Calcutta.

Achsah writes of this time in her vivid 430-page unpublished memoir, The Child. At the math, they met agricultural scientist Boshi Sen, many monks, and Rabindranath Tagore’s artist nephews Gaganendranath and Abanindranath. The Brewsters held an exhibition of their art in Calcutta, but like all their exhibitions, it was appreciated, not remunerative.

On this 1926 trip, the couple travelled to Benares, Sarnath, Almora and Hamirpur, where they renewed their acquaintance with Raj and Sridhara Nehru, a cousin of Jawaharlal Nehru. When Earl returned to India in 1930, this time with Mukerji, they stayed for a few days in Allahabad as guests of the Nehrus at Anand Bhavan. In a letter to Achsah, Earl wrote:

“Here we are staying with the Nehrus – I don’t know that I have ever seen so lovely a family. I hope you may meet the women of the family – the father and son are splendid, but I like the son best of all – and feel very close to him. There are cousins and aunts and grandchildren, and grandfather and sons-in-law and daughters-in-law but perfect harmony seems to reign. They live in a beautiful and spacious house surrounded by gardens but this much larger house is being presented to the Indian nation. This morning’s paper contains the letter from the father to the son (who is president of Indian National Congress) making the gift, and the son’s letter of acceptance.”  

Courtesy: Frances Holt.

Mukerji too wrote of this visit. In Disillusioned India (1930), the third of Mukerji’s trilogy dedicated to Kamala Nehru, Earl appears as “Mr. John Earl”, a Pali scholar and artist. The Earl in the book is “a gray-haired American of the most unbusinesslike appearance. Though belonging to no particular religious sect, he has kept up a steady habit of meditation of two hours a day for over twenty five years. His sculpture, especially the Buddha that he has carved, is well known in the continent of Europe and Ceylon.”

Sunset years

In 1935, the Brewsters moved to Almora for good, starting what would become the most creative phase of their lives. The paintings they made in the hill town won them a new set of admirers and friends, prominent among them MS Randhawa. A civil servant posted in Almora, Randhawa wrote glowingly about the couple in his book The Art of Earl and Achsah Brewster after they organised an exhibition in Lucknow in 1938.

Randhawa was really impressed by their murals and their depictions of religious figures, such as the Buddha and St Francis. His book describes him visiting the Brewsters in their remote home to find the ever-patient Earl at work and Achsah at her piano. If Earl minded the intrusion, he gave no indication, although in letters he dismissed Randhawa’s book as “sentimental” and expressed a hesitation in selling his paintings to the civil servant (he did, finally).

Courtesy: Frances Holt.

Jawaharlal Nehru stopped by the house soon after his release from Naini Jail in 1945. His sister, the diplomat Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, bought Brewsters’ paintings, and his daughter, the third prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi, commissioned a painting on her father’s birthday.

Achsah, who suffered from pernicious anaemia, died in 1945 after suffering several falls. Earl continued to paint, write and meet the occasional visitor. On August 15, 1947, the day of India’s independence, he hoisted the flag of a “reborn India” at a local college and made a speech, which was later translated into Hindi.

His dedication to art, especially his paintings of the Himalayas, and monk-like existence made him popular with the locals, artists, writers and an esoteric bunch of seekers. These included Gertrude Sen and Boshi Sen, who lived four miles away, along with a series of Indophiles: Alain Danielou, Raymond Burnier, Major Robert Alexander (a doctor who went by the name Haridas), Ernst Hoffman (later Anagarika Govinda), Alfred Sorensen (or Sunyata), and Walter Evans-Wentz.

The media too was intrigued by Earl. The BBC ran a story on him in 1956 headlined ‘Portrait of a Buddhist’ and Life magazine called him a ‘Happy Himalayan Hermit’.

Courtesy: Frances Holt.

Earl died on September 19, 1957, two days before his 79th birthday. A year earlier, he wrote this about India: “I myself feel that it gives me what I essentially need and desire… Externally, outwardly, I live like a visitor in India–more or less–but inwardly I feel that I am and always have been Indian. The very space and atmosphere about me give me what I seem to need.”

The writer would like to thank for their help Frances Holt, Lucy Marks, Candace Reilly and the staff of Rose Memorial Library at Drew University.

This article is part of a series on notable Americans who visited India before mid-20th century. Read the rest of the series here.