The History of Irene Leache and Anna Wood
The concept of the fine arts as a civic obligation took root in Norfolk in 1871, when two women arrived in the city and established a school for girls. Irene Leache and her student and companion Anna Wood ran the Leache-Wood Seminary for nearly two decades before retiring to Europe, where Leache died in 1900.
ABOVE: Luigi Guglielmi, Irene Leache, marble, 20th Century.
BELOW: Anna Wood in a tinted photograph, ca. 1930. Click any image to enlarge.
To honor her memory and her life-long devotion to the arts, Wood established in Norfolk the Irene Leache Library, which nurtured a growing art collection for a future museum in the city. Their efforts inspired generations of women in the region.
From the members of the Norfolk Society of the Arts to influential art patrons such as Florence Sloane and Jean Outland Chrysler, it was the women of Hampton Roads who insisted that the arts play a central role in the life of the community, and who paved the way for the rich cultural experiences that we enjoy here today.
Their Saturday-night “open houses” became an integral part of community life with intellectual discussions, dances, and musical recitals. Miss Leache and Miss Wood, as they always were known, also hosted The Fireside Club, at which women and men discussed literature, philosophy, religion, and art. In 1891 as Leache’s health began to fail, they sold the school, moved abroad, and traveled across Europe, Russia, and the Middle East. In 1900, when it became clear that Leache had little time to live, the pair returned to Norfolk. She died, probably of tuberculosis, in December.
In March 1901, Wood, heartbroken but determined, founded the Irene Leache Memorial to perpetuate the memory and mission of her friend of 32 years. Having as its aim “all true illumination,” the group would provide lectures, concerts, and musical instruction, as well as aid and encourage the fine arts, literature, and the study of mystic science. Among its loftiest goals was to gather works of art—and to establish a Museum for their display and preservation.
Wood enlisted the support of her seminary alumnae before returning to Florence to begin sending artworks back to Norfolk. Until Wood’s death in 1940 and in the years that followed, the Leache-Wood protégés not only formed an art collection; they also became allies and arts activists, fostering cultural activities across the city. The vision and pioneering efforts of the Irene Leache Memorial led not only to the creation of the Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences, but to the founding of the Norfolk Symphony Orchestra, the Little Theater, the Norfolk Society of Arts, and the Tidewater Artists Association, and support for a host of other leading arts organizations in Hampton Roads.