As a young girl, I inherited my mother’s library of Betty Cavanna books. Cavanna was a Y.A. novelist who wrote sensitive, intelligent coming-of-age stories about teenagers, often featuring well-researched milieus: a struggling Vermont inn, a Pennsylvania ranch, a fishing community. “Paintbox Summer,” in which the aimless protagonist is sent to Cape Cod to work as an apprentice in Peter Hunt’s Peasant Village, was never my favorite — Kate is a bit passive for my tastes — but from the jump I was intrigued by the setting.
Peter Hunt was a real person, and his “Peasant Village,” which produced folk art from the 1930s through 1959, was something of a phenomenon and tourist attraction. (Here’s a nice digest on him by the design blogger Amy Chalmers.) Hunt published workbooks and a how-to book and was generally regarded, in his flamboyant capes and hats, as the ne plus ultra of family-friendly midcentury bohemia. The jacket copy on “Peter Hunt’s Cape Cod Cookbook” describes him as a “writer, artist, designer, decorator, shopkeeper and collector of exciting ideas.”
While Hunt’s persona might have been designed to catch the eye of free-spending summer people (he also did some “peasant”-inspired decor for urbanites with bohemian pretensions, and decorated the late Cape Cod Room restaurant of Chicago’s Drake Hotel), his savvy doesn’t mean he wasn’t the real thing: He loved Cape Cod, and was a mainstay of the burgeoning gay scene and artistic communities.
His workbook from 1945 showed homemakers and D.I.Y. types how to impose whimsy on their own lives and furniture via upcycling. Personally, I lacked the discipline to master his basic hen (I wanted to decorate a footstool) but in theory you, too, can paint like an apprentice in Provincetown, and possibly find love and heartbreak and chowder in the process. In any event, this provides a window into another time on the Cape and the irrepressible personality of someone who deserves remembering. Personally, I think he’s due for a revival.
Read if you like: Cape Cod, Betty Cavanna, folk art, interiors, “The Search for Peter Hunt,” “The Shores of Bohemia”
Available from: On the headboard bookshelf of a Provincetown rental, ideally, although I’ve also seen a copy at the New York Society Library