Thursday, February 3, 2011

“Morgan at Porto Bello” (and then New York)

Above is the earliest known letter written on this date by Howard Pyle. It is addressed to Edmund Clarence Stedman (1833-1908), the “Banker-Poet” and one of the first seven men elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

For a couple of years, Pyle carried on a spirited correspondence with Stedman, who had been fortunate enough to have a few of his ballads embellished by Pyle. After seeing Pyle’s illustration for his poem, “Morgan,” (published in Harper’s Monthly for December 1888) Stedman wrote on July 20, 1888:
The drawing, or rather painting, is magnificent! Figures, faces, composition, all dramatically fine, and catching the spirit of the ballad at its most characteristic point. ’Tis a pity that this unique painting, which is the result of both talent and close labor, should have to be condensed into a page of Harper. Yet, it will be effective, even on that scale.

Yes, it is one of your very best, and will bear off the honors next December.

I suppose you own the painting, but I ought to. I wish I were able to pay your price for it, if you would permit it to go on my walls. When I see such a picture enriching my own verse, I feel more than ever the loss of my former means. Still, I will pinch a good deal in other directions, if you will name a price for it.
Pyle named $100. Stedman replied:
I am charmed that you are willing to sell me the “Morgan” cartoon, and at a price which I dare pay, and to obtain which (the amount) I shall write and sell a hundred dollar poem, between now and the date of its return to your possession. And if I had the means formerly at my command, I should tell you that you ought to have more for so successful and elaborate a picture. If then, you are willing to dispose of it to me, for the hundred dollars, please consider it sold. And when you deliver it, advise me as to the most appropriate frame for me to give it.
By late October 1888, the painting hadn’t yet made its way back to Pyle, who worried that Frank H. Wellington (who, incidentally, died after eating toadstools in Passaic, NJ, in 1911) may have “soiled” it while making the wood engraving for the magazine, and he begged Stedman to “let me slick my child up a little before he is finally presented to Metropolitan Society”:
Seriously, I have always felt a little bit shabby - a trifle hang-dog concerning that charge of a hundred dollars for a drawing which should unquestionably have belonged to you. So I would like to do all that I can to make it presentable and acceptable.
But Stedman told Pyle to “do that you choose, & I’ll be proportionately grateful.”

It took a while, but by January 28, 1889, Pyle had finished cleaning, repairing, retouching, re-varnishing, and framing the painting, and “Morgan” was on “his last cruise, perhaps,” to New York. Pyle also mentioned to Stedman that he was about to take a cruise of his own to the West Indies, “to follow in the footsteps of the redoubtable Welshman [i.e. Henry Morgan] and others of his kidney”:
Oh, that you were inspired to go along! What an opportunity to become acquainted with you as we cruised together through the Spanish Main and amongst those musty old towns that were one time the glory as they were the ruin of poor Mother Spain. My wife goes along with me.
Stedman jokingly warned Pyle of the “beautiful girls, of mixed breed & dubious character” in Panama, who “wear jasmines in their hair…& talk Spanish-Indian - but you are to take your family with you? If so, you are safe. However, the French invaders have probably taken all the poetry out of the place.”

And - to make a long-winded story short - Pyle replied on February 3, 1889:
Wilmington, Delaware

Feby. 3rd 1889

My Dear Mr Stedman: -

I am glad that your Morgan came at last - the hanging which he received was too good a fate for the like of him.

As for the frame - I may as well be frank at once - it was the making of it that delayed his final voyage to New York. To tell the truth I have always had a sneaking fondness for that particular offspring of mine, and it tickled a certain rib of self vanity to dress him in good clothes before I packed him off to his new home in great New York. Moreover I have always had an idea that black and white would look well set in a wooden mat. I hope you like the plan of so framing it and will pardon me if I have taken a liberty in putting a stick or two around the drawing instead of leaving it to your better taste.

I shall certainly endeavour to make the Panama trip that you advise - it sounds alluring enough. But as for the girls with jessamines in their hair, why, as I take my good wife with me and as in these seven years I have n’t found anyone that quite tickles my fancy as she does I hardly think that I shall leave the tiller and jump overboard at the beck of the “greaser” sirens.

I remembered your book-plate very well so soon as I laid eyes on it. It was published in the “Book-Buyer”, was it not? Honestly I like it much better than my own lucubrations, if I may so apply the word, it looks more like a real book-plate and less like a Christmas card.

I suppose that the Players will officially notify me if I am to be enrolled as one of them [They did so on February 11, 1889]. As for the book-plate, if they pass favorably upon it I hope that they will return it for corrections as soon as possible as I leave home on Saturday next.

Very Truly Yours

Howard Pyle

I might add that I’ve been able to bask in the glory of the original and I’ve sometimes wished that Pyle had followed Stedman’s advice and had made “a painting four times this size, from this fine study, possibly with more colors than black-and-white, for a large effect and for exhibition and sale.”

But he didn’t. And “Morgan at Porto Bello” - a relatively small, black and white thing at 15 x 24 inches - now resides in rural New Jersey.

“Morgan at Porto Bello” by Howard Pyle (1888)

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