Tuesday, March 29, 2022

“It is a big serious business”

“The class organization that Mr. Pyle suggested at his dinner has been going forward and I am now serving as one of five on a committee for framing a constitution and perfecting some scheme for the school organization.”

So wrote Pyle student Allen Tupper True to his mother on March 29, 1903. “His dinner” was Howard Pyle’s 50th birthday party, held at his Wilmington studio on March 5, 1903. There (as True had told his mother in a previous letter), in addition to the feast and festivities, Pyle had “made a good speech in which he told us of the organization he wanted among us and what hopes he had for the American Art that we were to build.”

“The committee on constitution has its work very nearly done now and we are all a bit proud of what we have done,” True wrote on April 12, 1903. “It is a hard business to get a hold of I find….” And a week later he said, “The work on the Constitution Comm. is about finished and our report will go before the crowd soon…”

The crowd, in this case, were the 18 official or “active members” of “The Howard Pyle School of Art”:

Stanley M. Arthurs
Clifford W. Ashley
William J. Aylward
Arthur E. Becher
Ernest J. Cross
Philip R. Goodwin
George M. Harding
Philip L. Hoyt
James E. McBurney
Gordon M. McCouch
Francis Newton
Thornton Oakley
Samuel M. Palmer
Henry J. Peck
Frank E. Schoonover
Harry E. Townsend
Allen T. True
N. C. Wyeth

(Absent from this list were several other Pyle students who had attended the birthday dinner, but who were not considered members of the school, per se, including Herman Pfeifer, Hermann C. Wall, Frank Bird Masters, and Ethel Franklin Betts. Also absent were Sarah S. Stilwell, Dorothy Warren, and Walter Whitehead, who had studied with Pyle after he resigned from the Drexel Institute. And it should be noted that although Pyle was always willing to critique the work of women artists who sought his advice, “The Howard Pyle School of Art” was strictly men only.)

Eventually, the constitution and by-laws - as well as the text of the song sung at Pyle’s party - were handed over to Wilmington’s John M. Rogers, who was Pyle’s go-to printer for almost a decade. It’s not yet known how many copies were printed, but the copy seen here belonged to Henry J. Peck.

In his March 29, 1903 letter, True had said of the constitution: “It is a big serious business and unless I am mistaken, this organization - whose seeds only we are planting now - will be heard from in coming years and its influence will be decidedly felt in American Art of the future.”

But, as with many of Pyle’s big plans, “The Howard Pyle School of Art” - as a formal organization, at least - lasted only a few years before it fell by the wayside. Yet the Pyle “School” - in the broadest sense of the word - was indeed heard from and its influence was decidedly felt for decades to come.

Monday, March 28, 2022

Detachment Disorder

Howard Pyle’s bookplate on the marbled pastedown endpaper of…what, exactly?

We may never know, because someone - a monster - conveniently detached the cover from the rest of the book. (Please don’t follow this example: it’s like cutting the signature off a letter then throwing the letter away.) I suspect, though, that it came from a uniform set of one of Pyle’s favorite authors - Jane Austen? Eugene Field? Robert Louis Stevenson? - as there are at least two other detached, half-morocco, marbled boards just like this one.

When Pyle made his own bookplate is, as yet, hazy. On January 9, 1902, he wrote: “I would be very glad to send you a bookplate if I had one but, upon the same principle that a shoemaker’s children go barefoot, my not invaluable library has, for all these years, gone without such accompanying decoration.”

For years Pyle had pasted a small paper label, featuring only his name engraved in script, into his books, but sometime after January 1902 he settled on this more elaborate design, which he painted - and hoped to reproduce - in full color. But the color version was unsatisfactory, so Pyle had a photogravure plate made instead, and had the bookplate printed in sepia.

Pyle’s Latin motto - ITA PRIMO, ITA SEMPER - was one he had used before, on THE WONDER CLOCK title-page, the frontispiece of TWILIGHT LAND, and perhaps elsewhere. Roughly translated, it means, “Thus first, thus always,” or “As it was in the beginning, so it will ever be.”

The original painting, by the way, now belongs to The Brandywine River Museum.

Monday, March 14, 2022

A Witness to History (Sort of)

Although not particularly substantive, this Howard Pyle letter - written 122 years ago today - to Mrs. John G. Milburn of Buffalo, New York, is of interest by association.

Mrs. John G. Milburn’s husband was President of the Pan-American Exposition Company and the Milburns lent a suite of rooms in their house at 1168 Delaware Avenue to President and Mrs. William McKinley to use during their visit to the Exposition in 1901.

After spending two nights with the Milburns, on the afternoon of September 6, 1901, the President was shot pointblank in the abdomen by Leon Czolgosz at the Exposition’s Temple of Music.

Following an operation at the Exposition hospital, McKinley was taken by ambulance to the Milburn house. There, Abraham Lincoln’s son Robert and Vice President Theodore Roosevelt (among dozens of others, apparently) came to visit while McKinley convalesced. And it was there, on September 14, 1901, exactly 18 months to the day after Pyle wrote his letter - which must have been somewhere on the premises - President McKinley succumbed to his wounds.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Paul Preston Davis (1931-2021)

“‘We note the passage of our life by its losses and neglects,’ says a certain author,” Howard Pyle once wrote. I have yet to identify who that “certain author” was, but the quote has come to mind often since my last post - and especially since March 18, 2021, when we lost one of Pyle’s greatest champions, Paul Preston Davis.

I’d felt Preston’s loss since May 2020, in fact, when he called to tell me he was terminally ill. I meant to write him soon after, but I couldn’t find the words, and the next time we spoke - for over two hours, all about the weathervane on Pyle’s studio - he sounded so “normal” that I foolishly thought he’d gotten better, somehow.

In one of my old journals there’s an entry about a visit I made with my mother to Wilmington thirty years ago today, on February 15, 1992:
Saturday was grey and the Book Fair at the DuPont Country Club was not abundant, but I was successful in that I met Paul Preston Davis who told me to come over after the show - so Mom and I did follow him home through the rain and stayed 3 hours, me talking nonstop and poring over his dogeared but massive Pyle collection. It was a wonderful thing, as he is a man after my own heart and mind when it comes to Pyle. It was overwhelming, amazing, dizzying, and I left grinning.
I also left with a big box of Preston’s duplicates and a promise to pay him back at some point. But after receiving a portrait of Pyle I’d painted as a thank you, he forgave the debt. (That’s also when he inadvertently became a completist collector of my work - whether he really wanted to or not.)

Around the same time Preston and I met, we both realized that, despite being longtime collectors of Pyle’s work, we knew comparatively little about Pyle’s life. So we set about tracking down information in earnest: he in the Greater Wilmington area; me in and around New York and writing - longhand - to libraries across the country that might hold even just one Pyle letter. There was much more out there than we’d expected, and every few weeks we’d debrief each other and exchange copies of what we’d turned up. The tiniest factoid often led us to whole new areas of research which spurred us to ferret out still more and more.

Of course, all that ferreting applied to our respective Pyle collections, too, so our friendship sometimes had - for me, at least - a competitive, covetous edge to it. Preston was a quiet, methodical, doggedly determined collector of the “Hoovering” school - sucking up anything and everything - and he had the advantage of living in “Pyle Country” and having myriad local connections. It was maddening. I still kick myself over things I “lost” to him: Pepper and Salt in a dust jacket! That photo of Pyle with a full head of hair! Yet he never crowed over his acquisitions and was always congratulatory when I found something special or interesting. Eventually - mercifully - we reached a point of “Well, if I can’t have it, at least it found a home with you.”

Over the years I must have logged more telephone time with Preston than anyone else in my life, including my own family: I was always happy to talk about new leads, new finds, new treasures, or to pick up threads of years-old conversations. And when he asked for help on his huge Pyle bibliography, I gladly spent several four- and five-day stretches holed up in his library, collating, cross-referencing, and double-checking details. During other visits we ventured outside: digging at the Delaware Archives and the Delaware Art Museum, and driving in around Wilmington and Chadds Ford, in search of remnants, ruins, or at least locations of Pyle’s haunts and homes. Those long, meditative hours with him are among my favorite memories.

And yet, for all our time together - on the phone, in letters, or in person - Preston and I rarely spoke of things other than Pyle, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I knew little about the rest of his life, except for snippets picked up here and there. But the pursuit of all things Pyle has always been a respite from the outside world for me, and I think it was for Preston, too.

I still can’t find all the words to say how important he was to my life - and to Howard Pyle’s memory - but maybe these will do for now.


More about Paul Preston Davis’s Pyle collection - which now resides at the Brandywine River Museum - can be found here. And this video highlights his collection of Delawareana, now at the Delaware Historical Society.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

“I have made a very great mistake”

“I have just received the complimentary copies of my last book, ‘Sir Launcelot and His Companions,’” wrote Howard Pyle to Charles Scribner’s Sons on October 26, 1907.

Like many authors and illustrators, Pyle may have leafed through the new volume with a mixture of pride and apprehension. And in this case an embarrassing discovery was in store: “I notice in looking it over that I have made a very great mistake, for the picture on page 200 entitled ‘Sir Gawaine of the Fountain’ should read ‘Sir Ewaine of the Fountain.’”

Ever careful Pyle had not been careful enough. As with most of his children’s books, he had delivered Sir Launcelot and His Companions in fits and starts while juggling other work. To safeguard against errors and inconsistencies, on mailing one batch he had asked the publisher “to send me proofs of these drawings as soon as they are reproduced, for I shall maybe use the same characters in later decorations.”

And yet, although the picture served as a frontispiece to Part V of the book titled “The Story of Sir Ewaine and the Lady of the Fountain,” and three other illustrations of which featured Sir Ewaine, “Sir Gawaine” had slipped past Pyle - not to mention everyone else involved with the production of the book.

“Perhaps before any more copies are printed you will have this changed in New York (where almost anyone could do the lettering) or else send it to me to have the lettering changed,” Pyle continued in his letter of October 26. “It is very curious that this mistake should have happened but, as I say, it is altogether my fault.”

The expense of correcting the plate, however, must have been too much for Scribner’s to consider, and Pyle must have forgotten all about it, because the mis-titled illustration has lived on, reprint after reprint, and has never been called out or corrected.

But as I am “almost anyone [who] could do the lettering” (as well as being in New York), I’ve belatedly honored Pyle’s request, below.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

He looked down and sang out, “Lower away!”

Howard Pyle’s painting “He looked down and sang out, ‘Lower away!’” has never gotten much attention.

There are two chief reasons for this: the first is that it was printed only once, in Scribner’s Magazine for January 1900, where it and two other pictures - one of which was featured here - accompanied Pyle’s short story, “A Life for a Life.”

The tale was inspired by the effects of the Blizzard of 1888 on the ships in and around the Breakwater at Lewes, Delaware. A day or two after the storm, Pyle made the 90-mile trip “down the bay” to look things over and interview several survivors. The result was the article “The Great Snow Storm in Lewes Harbor” in Harper’s Weekly for March 31, 1888. But the eye-witness accounts lingered with Pyle, and some ten years later he wrote a “A Life for a Life,” which Scribner’s Magazine accepted for publication probably sometime in late 1898.

By early January 1899, Pyle had finished his story’s three black and white oil illustrations (each about 18 x 12 inches). But he had misgivings about “Lower away!” almost as soon as he had shipped it: on January 10th, he wrote to art editor Joe Chapin that while the other two could stand as they were, “The picture of the man being lowered out of the shrouds, however, does not seem to me to be so satisfactory. I do not feel the blowing of the wind and the figures strike me as being too much like models posing.”

The painting was returned to Wilmington, but it wasn’t until June 13, 1899, that ever-busy Pyle told Chapin, “I am sending you today the drawing for ‘A Life for a Life’ which I have, I trust, improved by making the storm a little more realistic and powerful.” It’s not clear if Pyle altered the figures, after all, or if enlivening the background had remedied their “posed” look.

Charles Scribner’s Sons paid Pyle $300 outright for the three paintings, which were subsequently exhibited in a travelling show of illustrations made for the firm. And in 1915 two of the three - as well as scores of other Pyle originals - were sold to the Wilmington Society of the Fine Arts. But “Lower away!” was not among them. And here is the second reason why it’s gotten so little attention: born out of one disaster, “Lower away!” (like Pyle’s set of pictures for The Story of Siegfried) succumbed to another: the Scribner building fire of July 29, 1908.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

A Pyle Inscription

Howard Pyle sometimes drew a little picture when he signed his books, like in this copy of the 1901 edition of The Wonder Clock which he inscribed on November 5, 1901.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Story of Siegfried

“The Forging of Balmung” by Howard Pyle (Frank French, engraver)

“Please let me know when you are likely to be in New York again,” wrote E. L. Burlingame, editor at Charles Scribner’s Sons, to Howard Pyle on January 12, 1882. “We have a matter of some importance which I think would interest you; at all events I should like to talk it over with you at your first opportunity.”

The “matter” was the illustrations for James Baldwin’s retelling of the Siegfried (or Sigurd) legends. At the time, Pyle - whose interest in Medieval folklore was already well-established - was under an exclusive, one-year contract with Harper & Brothers for his pictures, but as it only extended to periodicals and not to books, he was able to accept the commission.

“The Death of Fafnir” by Howard Pyle (John Parker Davis, engraver)

Four and a half months later, on May 26, 1882, Burlingame updated Baldwin on the book’s progress:
Up to this time the manuscript has been in the hands of the artist, Mr. Howard Pyle, who has been somewhat delayed in making drawings.... The illustrations are now well advanced, however; they are six in number, full-page cuts, and are in our opinion admirably conceived and drawn. Proofs of them will be sent you as they are received from the engravers.
It’s not clear if “the illustrations” referred to Pyle’s black and white gouache paintings or to the wood-engravings thereof, but Pyle definitely delivered his work before June 8, when Burlingame again wrote to Baldwin:
We send you by this post some very rough unmounted photographs of Mr. Howard Pyle’s drawings for Siegfried. These will give you no idea, to be sure, of the great beauty and force of the pictures themselves; but they only convey the grouping and general composition well enough to show you that we have given the work to one of the best artists for such a subject. Mr. Pyle has been cordially interested in it, and in our opinion has done his part in the true spirit of the text.

The Story of Siegfried (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1882)

Handsomely bound, with cover art adapted from Pyle’s “The Forging of Balmung,” The Story of Siegfried was published in October 1882. The illustrations were roundly praised: the Detroit Free Press said that they “deserve special mention for their beauty and fidelity. Nothing better in book illustration has been done this season.” “The interest in the legends will be much enhanced in young eyes by the striking pictures furnished by Howard Pyle,” observed The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Daily Union-Leader of Wilkes-Barre noted that the book “is happily illustrated by Pyle, whose drawings, it is safe to say, have never been surpassed for such a purpose.” And Pyle’s hometown paper Every Evening remarked:
The dear, delightful people of the Nibelungen come before one bodily, and in such a way that one feels thankful to the artist for his creation of them. The illustrations are full of ideality, and without that apparent assumption of oddness that has, in the eyes of some, spoiled Mr. Pyle’s good work. The awakening Brunhild by the kiss of Siegfried, is exquisite. The calm, placid expression of her face, and the wonder that overspreads the knight’s, display a real feeling with the legend, and without which feeling no man should illustrate a book.

“The Awakening of Brunhild” by Howard Pyle (E. Clément, engraver)

What Pyle himself thought of the illustrations is not known, but “The Death of Siegfried” (below) is surely one of the best and most “Pylean” things he made thus far in his 6-year-old career.

In 1885, four of the set were included in the Grolier Club’s Exhibition of Original Designs for Book Illustration, but afterward they - like most of Pyle’s Scribner work - joined the other two at the publisher’s offices on Broadway near Astor Place, and then to Fifth Avenue between 20th and 21st Streets, where Charles Scribner’s Sons relocated in 1894.

“The Trial of Strength” by Howard Pyle (John Karst, engraver)

Over the years, some of Pyle’s originals found their way out of storage - sold or given away piecemeal - but most remained there until 1915, when The Wilmington Society of the Fine Arts acquired some 68 of them - almost all that were left. The six Siegfried illustrations, however, were not included. Why?

“The Quarrel of the Queens” by Howard Pyle (John Karst, engraver)

On July 29, 1908, the New York World reported:
Fire Starts in Counting Room and Does $6,000 Damage.

A fire originating on the third floor of Scribner Bros.’ publishing house, Nos. 153, 155 and 157 Fifth avenue, at 5 o’clock this morning caused damage amounting to $6,000. Patrolman Jones saw the reflection of the flames and turned in an alarm.
The firemen broke into the building and found the blaze had gained headway in the counting room on the third floor and worked through to the fourth floor. The origin of the fire is a mystery.
The extent of the “$6,000 damage” is also a mystery, but Scribner’s index-card inventory of artwork (now at the Brandywine River Museum) shows that all six Siegfried pictures and at least one other Pyle oil - not to mention works by his fellow artists, like N. C. Wyeth - were destroyed.

“The Death of Siegfried” by Howard Pyle (E. Clément, engraver)

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Love Will Tear Us Apart

It was in 1880, most likely, that 27-year-old Howard Pyle - then living and working at his parents’ house, but soon to be married - painted “St. Valentine’s Day in the Morning”. The black-and-white gouache measured about 18 x 15 inches or so, but the picture as engraved by Gustav Kruell was only 12.7 x 9 inches when it appeared in the February 26, 1881, issue of Harper’s Weekly.

As far as early Pyles go, the postman, the costuming, and the setting are as strong as usual - even then he was a master at depicting overcast days and the tangle of distant trees. But I confess that I don’t love the woman.

Helen “Teri” Card (1903-1971) - the comparatively early champion and dealer of illustration art - didn’t love her, either. And sometime before issuing her landmark, pulse-quickening “Catalog #4” of Pyleana in the early 1960s, Card tore off the offending half of Pyle’s original and tossed it. I wouldn’t have gone that far: the woman’s coy expression doesn’t feel right, but the rest of her is rendered nicely enough.

Card sold the surviving “better half” (see below) for $90 to collector Clifton Waller Barrett, and it now lives at the Brandywine River Museum.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

“This is the last week at the Ford...”

“This is the last week at the Ford and I’ll make the best of it,” wrote N. C. Wyeth to his mother on Sunday, October 18, 1903. “Then back to Wilmington where I hope before I leave again I’ll be doing illustrating galore.”

It was indeed the last week at Chadd’s Ford: after six years, never again would Howard Pyle conduct his “Summer School” there. That very morning he had held his final composition lecture - “an exceptionally fine” one, noted Wyeth, “although my comp. wasn’t up to snuff.”

“Today a friend of Randolphs was out and had a camera,” Wyeth also wrote, referring to the Randolph family of the “Wyndtryst” estate nearby. “He wanted a picture of Mr. Pyle but Mr. Pyle would not be taken alone so took Palmer and I, putting his arms around both of us.”

The result - almost certainly - was the snapshot shown here, although it includes a couple more people than Wyeth mentioned. From left to right are Samuel Morrow Palmer Jr. (28), N. C. Wyeth (about to turn 21), Howard Pyle (50), Allen Tupper True (22), and James Edwin McBurney (34). (Palmer and McBurney, by the way, had studied with Pyle at the Drexel Institute and in 1900 or 1901 Pyle had invited them both to join his newly-formed school of art in Wilmington.)

The five are standing outside Lafayette Hall, where the Pyles lived when summering at “the Ford”. And although it had rained all Saturday and the sky still looks gray in the photograph, on Sunday the weather had cleared, and - as True said in a letter to his mother - sometime after the lecture, or the photo, or both, “we took a long cross country walk and it was great because today has been one of the finest days of the whole year.”

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

In 1776 - The Conflagration

Behold Howard Pyle’s exquisitely delicate depiction of the fire that destroyed part of lower Manhattan 240 years ago.

He made this pen and ink drawing - most likely in the winter of 1892-93 - as a headpiece for Thomas A. Janvier’s two-part article on “The Evolution of New York” (Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, June 1893), and he must have used this 1730s engraving - “A View of Fort George with the City of New York from the SW.” - as reference.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Howard Pyle, Costume Designer

Five costume designs for “Springtime” by Howard Pyle (1909) - via Northeast Auctions

Howard Pyle’s stint as a Broadway costume designer has been all but forgotten. So, let’s remember:

In 1909, impresario Frederic Thompson - co-creator of Luna Park on Coney Island and the Hippodrome Theatre in Manhattan - began production on a play to promote his wife, actress Mabel Taliaferro. The star vehicle - called “Springtime” - was set to debut that fall and Thompson garnered early publicity for it by changing his wife’s confusingly pronounced name to the mononymous “Nell” and by signing on the then-well-known Booth Tarkington and Harry Leon Wilson to write the script, Harry Rowe Shelley to compose the score, and Howard Pyle to design the costumes.

Harper’s Weekly later spelled out the plot of the fluffy romance, set in Louisiana at the end of the War of 1812:
The action of the drama immediately precedes and follows the battle of New Orleans, and the scenes are laid in or near the plantation of M. de Valette, the head of an old French family, who hates his American neighbors.

M. de Valette has arranged a marriage for his daughter, Madeleine, with his cousin, Raoul de Valette, although the two persons most concerned in the matter have never seen each other. Implicitly obedient to her father, Madeleine offers no objection to the parental plans, but when Raoul is introduced to her, she is unable to conceal her disappointment at finding him elderly and unattractive. While preparations are being made for the wedding, Madeleine happens to meet Gilbert Steele, the son of an American planter, who has come to see M. de Valette in regard to a sale of property. These two young people immediately become deeply interested in each other, but Gilbert apparently departs in anger when M. de Valette orders him from the plantation and gives him to understand that his daughter is betrothed. Madeleine, desiring to explain the situation to Gilbert, steals away from the plantation, outside whose precincts she had never before set foot. She meets the young American in the forest, where he has a rendezvous with a band of backwoodsmen who are to support General Jackson in battle on the next morning. Here Madeleine becomes aware of her love for Gilbert, renounces any intention of marrying Raoul, and insists upon accompanying her lover to the front. However, military discipline necessitates her return home, only to learn there that she has been disgraced in the eyes of her stern father and disowned by him. While dazed by this inexplicable reception to her, she is cruelly shocked by the sudden announcement of Gilbert’s death in battle, and loses her reason. But the report proves to have been erroneous, and through the stimulus of Gilbert’s return and her father’s forgiveness, Madeleine regains her faculties and all ends happily.
Interestingly, while Thompson was getting his ducks in a row, Pyle’s “When All the World Was Young” was published in Harper’s Monthly for August 1909 (issued in mid-July). The picture, painted about a year earlier, could practically serve as an illustration for “Springtime” and it may well have inspired Thompson to seek Pyle out.

“When All the World Was Young” by Howard Pyle (1908)

Or... it was pure coincidence and Thompson didn’t see the picture at all but was simply lured by Pyle’s respectability, reputation, and name-recognition. At any rate, soon after meeting with Thompson, Pyle got the blessing of Harper and Brothers (with whom he was under exclusive contract for illustrations) and accepted Thompson’s proposed $2500 fee. Before long, Pyle’s involvement with the play was being reported in the press.

from The New York Times (August 14, 1909)

As an acknowledged expert on American historical dress, Pyle must have found his task relatively easy, but, stickler that he was - “I am very anxious to get the costumes as correct as possible,” he said - he wound up seeking more precise information on at least one character’s outfit from author and New Orleans native George Washington Cable. But that’s a tale for another day.

In all, the commission took Pyle three weeks and resulted fourteen (known) watercolors - each measuring upwards of 25 x 18 inches - which would serve not only as guides for the costumes, but as stand-alone pictures. He delivered them by early September and then left town with his wife and two eldest sons on a few-days’ steamboat trip on the Chesapeake Bay and Pocomoke River.

How closely Pyle’s designs resembled the finished costumes is hard to say. The few photos of the cast are in black and white and the shapes and sizes of the actors often differed from Pyle’s idealized conceptions - despite the fact that the cast and Pyle were hired at about the same time. For example, William B. Mack, as M. de Valette, had broader shoulders than Pyle imagined.

Costume design for “M. de Valette” by Howard Pyle (1909) - via Northeast Auctions

Photo of “M. de Valette” (William B. Mack) and “Madeline” (Mabel Taliaferro) in “Springtime”

And Samuel Forrest was a much older-looking Raoul and wore looser-fitting trousers.

Photo of “Raoul de Valette” (Samuel Forrest) and “Madeleine” (Mabel Taliaferro) in “Springtime”

Costume design for “Raoul de Valette” by Howard Pyle (1909) - via Northeast Auctions

But the costumes of Madeleine and Gilbert Steele - as worn by Mabel Taliaferro and Earle Browne - are almost dead on.

Costume design for “Madeleine” by Howard Pyle (1909) - via Northeast Auctions

Costume design for “Gilbert Steele” by Howard Pyle (1909) - via Northeast Auctions

Photo of “Madeleine” (Mabel Taliaferro) and “Gilbert Steele” (Earle Browne) in “Springtime”

“Springtime” opened in previews at the Garrick Theatre in Philadelphia on October 4, 1909, and although Tarkington, Wilson, and Thompson were there, it is not yet known if Pyle attended that or any other performance of the show, either in Philadelphia or during its New York run at the Liberty Theatre, which began on October 19. Pyle’s work, however, did not go unnoticed: the day after the Broadway premiere, the New York Evening Sun commented:
Springtime bloomed at the Liberty Theatre last night not only on the stage but in the lobby. The audience entered the theatre through a bower of roses, carnations and chrysanthemums, and on the few blank spaces left on the walls hung the exquisite costume sketches which Howard Pyle had designed for his play. Oddly enough, though, none of the costumes on stage looked half as beautiful as these sketches did.
And, in referring to Pyle, the Christian Science Monitor of November 3, 1909, said:
He has succeeded in gaining some brilliant effects and has combined his picturesque colors into impressive groups which give a striking effect upon the stage. He has successfully aided in creating a suitable atmosphere for this romantic play.
Although reasonably well-received, “Springtime” was not a huge success: it closed on Christmas in New York after only 79 performances and it more or less disappeared from the boards in 1910, after travelling to several different cities and appearing in “novelized” form (often illustrated with photos of the cast) in various periodicals. It was resurrected by at least one stock company in Rhode Island in 1913, and perhaps others here and there. And in 1914 it was made into a 5-reel silent movie, directed by Will S. Davis and starring an entirely new cast, but copies of or stills from the film have not yet been found, so it’s impossible to tell if the costumes followed Pyle’s designs.

The watercolors, by the way, went home with Mabel Taliaferro (the “Nell” rebranding having been abandoned), where they were hung as a frieze in her dining-room, and then weathered her bitter divorce from Thompson (she accused him of “extreme and repeated cruelty”) two years after “Springtime”’s run. In 1916 she sold all fourteen paintings to Francis Patrick Garvan and his wife, Mabel Brady Garvan - owners of a half dozen other Pyle originals - and at least some of them remained in the family for the next one hundred years - until this weekend, that is, when five will be sold at Northeast Auctions in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Who knows what happened to the other nine pictures? Maybe someone will tell me.

Costume design for “Julie” (played by Sallie Brent) by Howard Pyle (1909) - via Northeast Auctions

Friday, January 1, 2016

A Cover Design for the New Year

Howard Pyle’s cover design for the January 1900 issue of McClure’s Magazine is not necessarily his best work, nor is it very well known: it was used only once and the original art is missing.

Pyle had promised to do the job early in 1899, but, busy as ever, he only got around to submitting sketches in July, while working and teaching at Chadd’s Ford. After a couple of false starts, he finally hit on something acceptable to the publisher in mid-August. In a letter accompanying his ultimately approved sketch, he explained, “My idea is to depict somewhat the feeling of the Angel of Futurity bearing in one hand the wassail bowl and in the other the scythe of Fate, the crescent moon typifying a new era and the dead branches that of the past.”

It looks like Pyle replaced the bowl with a chalice, for some reason. And it’s not clear how he executed the final picture: was it - like many of the illustrations made by his female students - in charcoal tinted with watercolor? Or was it in oil?

Friday, November 27, 2015

Margaret of Cortona

“...the illustration for ‘Margaret of Cortona’ is now in the possession of Mrs. Dan Bates, to whom I gave it some years ago,” wrote Howard Pyle from his villa in Italy on August 10, 1911.

“Mrs. Dan Bates” was the former Bertha Corson Day (1875-1968), who was, as she herself put it, “an enthusiastic pupil of Howard Pyle” for several years, starting with his very first class at the Drexel Institute in 1894. In 1899 she attended the second Summer School of Illustration at Chadd’s Ford - where she was photographed with the class on her 24th birthday. In May 1902, Miss Day married Wilmingtonian Daniel Moore Bates, Jr. (1876-1953) - already part of Pyle’s social circle - and when their daughter, Bertha, was born, Anne Poole Pyle presented her with a baby blanket she had quilted and which her husband had designed. (Incidentally, Bertha Bates - later Mrs. J. Marshall Cole, - is the only person I ever met who had known Pyle, if only slightly: she was just 6 years old when he sailed for Europe. Still...)

“Margaret of Cortona” was a poem (reprinted below) by Edith Wharton, published in Harper’s Monthly for November 1901, and - so far - this “collaboration” is the only known solid link between them. They did have several acquaintances in common, however, most notably Theodore Roosevelt and William Crary Brownell of Charles Scribner’s Sons, who edited Pyle’s The Garden Behind the Moon and several of Wharton’s works.

Wharton’s poem, by the way, (not Pyle’s illustration) was condemned by the Catholic press because of its depiction of the future Saint. Dominicana: A Magazine of Catholic Literature, for instance, said, “This poetic (?) blasphemy and historical slander is an evidence of extremely bad taste, because it offends against the canons of fact and truthful record.” Harper’s Monthly even went so far as to print an apology for publishing it.

Margaret of Cortona
by Edith Wharton

Fra Paolo, since they say the end is near,
And you of all men have the gentlest eyes,
Most like our father Francis; since you know
How I have toiled and prayed and scourged and striven,
Mothered the orphan, waked beside the sick,
Gone empty that mine enemy might eat,
Given bread for stones in famine years, and channelled
With vigilant knees the pavement of this cell,
Till I constrained the Christ upon the wall
To bend His thorn-crowned Head in mute forgiveness...
Three times He bowed it...(but the whole stands writ,
Sealed with the Bishop’s signet, as you know),
Once for each person of the Blessed Three -
A miracle that the whole town attests,
The very babes thrust forward for my blessing,
And either parish plotting for my bones—
Since this you know: sit near and bear with me.

I have lain here, these many empty days
I thought to pack with Credos and Hail Marys
So close that not a fear should force the door -
But still, between the blessed syllables
That taper up like blazing angel heads,
Praise over praise, to the Unutterable,
Strange questions clutch me, thrusting fiery arms,
As though, athwart the close-meshed litanies,
My dead should pluck at me from hell, with eyes
Alive in their obliterated faces!...
I have tried the saints’ names and our blessed Mother’s
Fra Paolo, I have tried them o’er and o’er,
And like a blade bent backward at first thrust
They yield and fail me—and the questions stay.
And so I thought, into some human heart,
Pure, and yet foot-worn with the tread of sin,
If only I might creep for sanctuary,
It might be that those eyes would let me rest...

Fra Paolo, listen. How should I forget
The day I saw him first? (You know the one.)
I had been laughing in the market-place
With others like me, I the youngest there,
Jostling about a pack of mountebanks
Like flies on carrion (I the youngest there!),
Till darkness fell; and while the other girls
Turned this way, that way, as perdition beckoned,
I, wondering what the night would bring, half hoping:
If not, this once, a child’s sleep in my garret,
At least enough to buy that two-pronged coral
The others covet ‘gainst the evil eye,
Since, after all, one sees that I’m the youngest -

So, muttering my litany to hell
(The only prayer I knew that was not Latin),
Felt on my arm a touch as kind as yours,
And heard a voice as kind as yours say “Come.”
I turned and went; and from that day I never
Looked on the face of any other man.
So much is known; so much effaced; the sin
Cast like a plague-struck body to the sea,
Deep, deep into the unfathomable pardon -
(The Head bowed thrice, as the whole town attests).
What more, then? To what purpose? Bear with me! -

It seems that he, a stranger in the place,
First noted me that afternoon and wondered:
How grew so white a bud in such black slime,
And why not mine the hand to pluck it out?

Why, so Christ deals with souls, you cry - what then?
Not so! Not so! When Christ, the heavenly gardener,
Plucks flowers for Paradise (do I not know?),
He snaps the stem above the root, and presses
The ransomed soul between two convent walls,
A lifeless blossom in the Book of Life.
But when my lover gathered me, he lifted
Stem, root and all - ay, and the clinging mud -
And set me on his sill to spread and bloom
After the common way, take sun and rain,
And make a patch of brightness for the street,
Though raised above rough fingers—so you make
A weed a flower, and others, passing, think:
“Next ditch I cross, I’ll lift a root from it,
And dress my window”...and the blessing spreads.
Well, so I grew, with every root and tendril
Grappling the secret anchorage of his love,
And so we loved each other till he died....

Ah, that black night he left me, that dead dawn
I found him lying in the woods, alive
To gasp my name out and his life-blood with it,
As though the murderer’s knife had probed for me
In his hacked breast and found me in each wound...
Well, it was there Christ came to me, you know,
And led me home—just as that other led me.
(Just as that other? Father, bear with me!)
My lover’s death, they tell me, saved my soul,
And I have lived to be a light to men.
And gather sinners to the knees of grace.
All this, you say, the Bishop’s signet covers.
But stay! Suppose my lover had not died?
(At last my question! Father, help me face it.)
I say: Suppose my lover had not died -
Think you I ever would have left him living,
Even to be Christ’s blessed Margaret?
- We lived in sin? Why, to the sin I died to
That other was as Paradise, when God
Walks there at eventide, the air pure gold,
And angels treading all the grass to flowers!
He was my Christ—he led me out of hell -
He died to save me (so your casuists say!) -
Could Christ do more? Your Christ out-pity mine?
Why, yours but let the sinner bathe His feet;
Mine raised her to the level of his heart...
And then Christ’s way is saving, as man’s way
Is squandering - and the devil take the shards!
But this man kept for sacramental use
The cup that once had slaked a passing thirst;
This man declared: “The same clay serves to model
A devil or a saint; the scribe may stain
The same fair parchment with obscenities,
Or gild with benedictions; nay,” he cried,
“Because a satyr feasted in this wood,
And fouled the grasses with carousing foot,
Shall not a hermit build his chapel here
And cleanse the echoes with his litanies?
The sodden grasses spring again - why not
The trampled soul? Is man less merciful
Than nature, good more fugitive than grass?”
And so - if, after all, he had not died,
And suddenly that door should know his hand,
And with that voice as kind as yours he said:
“Come, Margaret, forth into the sun again,
Back to the life we fashioned with our hands
Out of old sins and follies, fragments scorned
Of more ambitious builders, yet by Love,
The patient architect, so shaped and fitted
That not a crevice let the winter in - ”
Think you my bones would not arise and walk,
This bruised body (as once the bruised soul)
Turn from the wonders of the seventh heaven
As from the antics of the market-place?
If this could be (as I so oft have dreamed),
I, who have known both loves, divine and human,
Think you I would not leave this Christ for that?

- I rave, you say? You start from me, Fra Paolo?
Go, then; your going leaves me not alone.
I marvel, rather, that I feared the question,
Since, now I name it, it draws near to me
With such dear reassurance in its eyes,
And takes your place beside me...

Nay, I tell you,
Fra Paolo, I have cried on all the saints -
If this be devil’s prompting, let them drown it
In Alleluias! Yet not one replies.
And, for the Christ there—is He silent too?
Your Christ? Poor father; you that have but one,
And that one silent - how I pity you!
He will not answer? Will not help you cast
The devil out? But hangs there on the wall,
Blind wood and bone - ?

How if I call on Him -
I, whom He talks with, as the town attests?
If ever prayer hath ravished me so high
That its wings failed and dropped me in Thy breast,
Christ, I adjure Thee! By that naked hour
Of innermost commixture, when my soul
Contained Thee as the paten holds the host,
Judge Thou alone between this priest and me;
Nay, rather, Lord, between my past and present,
Thy Margaret and that other’s - whose she is
By right of salvage - and whose call should follow!
Thine? Silent still. - Or his, who stooped to her,
And drew her to Thee by the bands of love?
Not Thine? Then his?

Ah, Christ—the thorn-crowned Head
Bends...bends again...down on your knees, Fra Paolo!
If his, then Thine!

Kneel, priest, for this is heaven...

Monday, November 9, 2015

“Surprised by the Hero of Seventy Fights”

“Surprised by the Hero of Seventy Fights - The Good Lord James of Douglas” - another long lost work by Howard Pyle - will be sold at auction this coming Saturday. By “long lost” I mean that for almost 130 years the greater public has only been able to see a small wood engraving of it - that is, provided they could find copies of the magazine and books in which it first (and perhaps only) appeared.

Pyle painted the 13.5 x 16.5" black and white oil on canvas (or canvas board?) sometime in late 1885 or early 1886. It illustrated the true (or truish) story of “The Little Donna Juana” - subtitled “An October Story of the Moors of Spain, and how the good Lord James of Douglas kept his Hallow E’en. a.d. 1340” - one of Elbridge S. Brooks’s series “The Cycle of Children” in the juvenile magazine Wide Awake for October 1886. The following year, it was published by D. Lothrop & Company (publisher of the magazine) in Storied Holidays, A Cycle of Red-Letter Days.

Both publications (as well as subsequent British editions of the book) featured the 3.8 x 4.5" wood engraving of the picture made by George Leander Cowee (1852-1908). Cowee, like so many of the engravers of his generation, did an admirable job, but it’s still more of an interpretation than an exact reproduction, and it lacks much of the warmth, softness, and subtlety of Pyle’s original.

Although Pyle probably sold the picture outright (for, I gather, about $75) to Lothrop, it somehow made its way back to where Pyle painted it: the catalog entry states that the picture comes “From the collection of Mr. and Mrs. William Walker of Wilmington, Delaware. This piece was handed down from his father, who worked for the DuPont family.”

“Surprised by the hero of seventy fights The Great [sic] Lord James of Douglas” is Lot 80 in Day One of Wooten & Wooten’s Fall Americana auction at 1036 Broad Street, Camden, South Carolina, on November 14, 2015.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Study for “Life in an Old Dutch Town”

Study for “Life in an Old Dutch Town” by Howard Pyle (1910)

Howard Pyle’s 16.5 x 71" oil on canvas study for his mural “Life in an Old Dutch Town” (also known as “The First Settlement on Manhattan Island”) will be sold by Sloans & Kenyon Auctioneers and Appraisers in Bethesda, Maryland, this Sunday, September 20, 2015.

The finished mural was one of three Pyle painted for the Freeholders’ Room in the Hudson County Court House in Jersey City, New Jersey. (See this post for more information.)

Documentation on the murals is sorely lacking, but Pyle seems to have received the commission in February 1910; he then visited the courthouse in late March (no doubt to get a sense of the room and the lighting, and to take precise measurements of the spaces his murals would occupy), and he probably prepared and submitted studies for approval sometime that spring. His fee was reported to have been $15,000 for all three pictures, which would - ideally - be in place before the courthouse opened that fall.

Because the murals were longer than Pyle’s own Wilmington studio was wide, he commandeered two of the student studios next door, removed the wall between them, and - assisted to a large degree by Frank Schoonover and Stanley Arthurs - set to work painting the first mural at the end of May 1910.

“Peter Stuyvesant and the English Fleet” took up all of June and “Hendryk Hudson and the Half-Moon”, begun the first week of July, was completed in mid-August. Then, before beginning “Life in an Old Dutch Town”, Pyle seems to have spent two weeks either fine-tuning his study, or maybe even redoing it from scratch: a 1977 article in The Jersey Journal made the so far uncorroborated claim that Pyle “originally started to paint the interior of a Dutch inn taproom, using as a model the Bergen Room of the swank Union League Club in Downtown Jersey City” - but then changed his mind. Either way, as Pyle said to Arthurs and Schoonover in a letter of August 30, 1910, “The last picture that you will work upon is progressing, and will be ready for you on Thursday or Friday next [i.e. September 1st or 2nd].” And, indeed, on the 2nd, they “squared” (or gridded out) the canvas - some 7 feet high and 33 feet wide - and began transferring the image in charcoal from (no doubt) a similarly “squared” photo of Pyle’s study. Painting proper began on Monday, September 5th.

Arthurs, Pyle, and Schoonover, September 21, 1910 (Paul Strayer, photographer)

According to Schoonover’s daybook, the mural was finished - in a mere three weeks - on September 26th and it was packed for shipment on the 28th. It’s likely that on the 26th, 27th, or 28th Pyle had Joseph Pearce of Philadelphia come down to photograph the mural (in two exposures because of its extreme breadth) in the studio, where the lighting would have been brighter and more even than in the dim and shadowy Freeholders’ Room. Pearce’s photos (below) come from Cortlandt Schoonover’s Frank Schoonover: Illustrator of the North American Frontier (Watson-Guptill, 1976): the missing middle portion was cropped in the book; the other blank areas were left unpainted to accommodate brackets and the doorway.

“Life in an Old Dutch Town” mural (Joseph Pearce, photographer)

But after installing “Life in an Old Dutch Town” in Jersey City in early October 1910, Pyle saw a major flaw in his scheme: the brick buildings were acting as visual roadblocks, interrupting the flow from one mural to the next. He must have then reworked the study to solve the problem and then used it once more as a guide in reworking the mural.

Study for “Life in an Old Dutch Town” (Architectural League of New York catalogue, 1911)

And so, what Pyle probably had anticipated to be a day or two of “touching up” turned into over a week of extensive, on-site repainting: replacing the seated folks and the buildings with water, sky, and a horizon line which more pleasingly linked the three murals together. (He also removed baskets from the woman to the right of the young couple and from the woman to the right of the center of the picture.) The mural was finished for good on October 13th or so - more than three weeks after the courthouse had officially opened.

Pyle copyrighted the mural on October 15, 1910, but it isn’t clear if he submitted Pearce’s photo(s) - with the buildings - or a photo of the reworked study. In the Library of Congress’ Catalogue of Copyright Entries it is described (likely by Pyle himself) as “Dutch of New Amsterdam. Street scene, number of people, of time of 1650, coming and going” - which doesn’t really help. It’s possible, too, that the reworked study was photographed before Pyle finished the mural, because the trees on the far right of the study are missing in the mural.

Be it chicken or egg, the study was photographed sometime within the next three months and reproduced in the catalogue of the 26th Annual Exhibition of the Architectural League of New York (January 29-February 18, 1911).

Freeholders’ Room, Hudson County Court House

Decades later, when the courthouse faced demolition, the above photo of the Freeholders’ Room was taken which shows extensive water damage in the center of “Life in an Old Dutch Town”. But the building was saved and the murals were restored in the late 1970s - as seen in this blurry, cropped color photo from the book Heroes in the Fight for Beauty: The Muralists of the Hudson County Court House by Cynthia H. Sanford (Jersey City Museum, 1986) - coupled for comparison with Pearce’s photos.

“Life in an Old Dutch Town” mural before being reworked, 1910 (top); after restoration, c.1986 (bottom)

Since then, the murals may have been restored or cleaned: a photo taken just a few years ago by Leon Yost, shows that “ghosts” of the painted-out brick wall and basket have re-emerged.

“Life in an Old Dutch Town” detail (Leon Yost, photographer)

Now back to the study.

Six weeks after finishing the Hudson County Court House commission, Pyle sailed to Italy, never to return. The study, meanwhile - which, apart from the mural itself, is the last known Colonial scene Pyle ever painted - probably came back from the 1911 Architectural League show and sat in his studio or house for a time, and eventually it wound up with his second youngest child, Godfrey (1895-1959), who in turn, sold it to Francis and Laura (Bryn) Winslow of Chevy Chase, Maryland, whose family has held onto it until now. One grandson described its history this way:
My grandparents were friends of Howard Pyle’s son “Goff” Pyle (presumably that means Godfrey) because they used to go bird hunting together in Delaware in the 1930s and 1940s. In the mid-1940s, my grandparents noticed a rolled-up painting beside the couch in Goff Pyle’s house, asked about it, and bought it. They brought it home, framed it, hung it over the fireplace.
The study probably hadn’t been rolled up or reframed, after all, because the simple oak frame seen in the 1911 catalogue looks to be the same one in this 1949 photo.

Study for “Life in an Old Dutch Town” (1949)

However, as the later photo shows, sometime after being photographed for the 1911 catalogue, about 1.5 inches were cropped from the bottom of the study. Pyle himself may have done this so that it more closely resembled the finished mural - but if that had been his object, why didn’t he paint out the trees on the right of the study as he had done on the mural?

Study for “Life in an Old Dutch Town” 1910-11 photo (top); 2015 photo (bottom)

Confounding matters, the recent color photograph of the study (courtesy of Sloans & Kenyon) shows a few more differences from the 1911 catalogue photo (shown together, above): the trees on the far right, although present, are changed, and a small patch of sky between the young couple (also seen in both photos of the mural) has reappeared. Also, the absence of the windmill’s blades in the center of the picture - and the presence of the small triangle of dark blue water on the far right - may indicate that parts of the study were painted over by Pyle after the 1911 catalogue photo was taken, or by someone else after Pyle’s death. And, as seen in Mr. Yost’s photo of the mural, parts of the brick wall and one of the baskets have re-emerged in the study, perhaps because of fugitive pigments or too rigorous a cleaning.

Even so, Pyle’s study is particularly striking and is stronger both conceptually and compositionally than its enormous counterpart. The latter, of course, was hastily painted - and hastily repainted - and although Pyle knew parts of it had to be cut away for the brackets and doorway, he seems not to have taken this into account when arranging his composition: why, for example, would he crop that pair of women at the knees? The mural was also not the work of Pyle alone: as with the other two, Schoonover and Arthurs had painted much of the canvas. N. C. Wyeth had a point when, in referring to “Peter Stuyvesant and the English Fleet”, he complained:
...Schoonover and Arthurs are painting the decoration for him to considerable extent. Now this is permissible providing they carry the work only through the preliminary stages, and then the master, in seclusion with his whole soul, waves his magic wand and lifts the mass of rudimentary paint and masses into living, virile or personal expressions.
But Pyle - chasing an almost impossible deadline - just didn’t have the time to do that. The study, however, does him great credit - and here’s hoping it finds a good home.