Friday, September 30, 2011

“I am glad I am not dead”

Today is the 108th birthday of Miss Mary Asenath Ball, who sent a fan letter to Howard Pyle when she was seven years old. Her letter is lost, but we can glean what she wrote by reading Pyle’s reply:

In case Pyle’s writing is difficult to decipher, he said:
My Dear Mary Ball

I like your letter. I am glad you like my books. I wish I had written an Indian story. I did not write one. I am glad I am not dead.

I am yours truly

Howard Pyle
Pyle received Mary’s letter when he was in Florence, Italy, and he sent his reply sometime in April 1911 (I haven’t yet figured out if, on the postmark, the “1” refers to the day and the “17” to the hour, or vice versa). This is (so far) the last known letter in Pyle’s own hand - in fact, all the others sent from Italy were written or typed by his secretary, Gertrude Brincklé. And, of course, there’s a certain poignancy to it since Pyle died some seven months later.

Mary was the only child of Bertrand Emery Ball and the sculptor Caroline Cheever (Peddle) Ball (1869-1938), who studied under Pyle’s friends Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Kenyon Cox.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Good Gifts and Harper’s Fool Folly

Decorated title for “Good Gifts and a Fool’s Folly”- Harper’s Young People version (1890)

Decorated title for “Good Gifts and a Fool’s Folly” - Twilight Land version (1894)

Sometimes Howard Pyle would alter his pictures after they were published. And in a few instances he would redo them entirely, like two for “Good Gifts and a Fool’s Folly.” These, however, he redid not out of choice, but of necessity.

In early 1892, Pyle was assembling his latest crop of fairy tales from Harper’s Young People into a children’s book, which - he hoped - would be on sale by the following Christmas. At his request, Harper & Brothers returned his original pen and ink drawings, but in a letter of March 6 Pyle noted that he hadn’t yet received the seven for “Good Gifts and a Fool’s Folly,” which appeared in the September 9, 1890, issue of the magazine.

Art editor Arthur B. Turnure tersely replied that they were gone.

Pyle, of course, was not happy. On March 10, 1892, he wrote:
If I may make bold to say so it impressed me as seeming just a little “cool” to tell me, without offering any explanation or remark or expression of regret, that my drawings for “Good Gifts and a Fool’s Folly” “were not preserved”. However, it occurred to me that perhaps the many calls upon your official correspondence did not allow the use of such formal expressions and also precluded your telling me why and how the drawings were not preserved.
Pyle added that perhaps Turnure - who had only taken charge of the Art Department in November 1891 - didn’t realize that the plan all along had been to publish the stories in book form - and that, with that understanding, he had charged less than usual for the illustrations. Pyle also expressed doubts that the plates used to print the magazine could be re-used for the book, because some of the pictures had “been so reduced as to have much of the artistic quality eliminated.” And he concluded, again somewhat pissily:
I do not, of course, know just where the responsibility for the loss of the drawings belongs, but, taking for granted that the Art Department should have seen to it that they were preserved, will you kindly let me know what you propose as an alternative in the event of the photo-reproductions not being found available for the book and failing the originals being recovered?
Then it was Turnure’s turn to take offense (his reply to Pyle is missing, unfortunately). But Pyle had calmed down by March 12, and he apologized, explaining, “that I have been, perhaps, somewhat over worked of late and I am sure that you will know that overwork is somewhat apt to disturb ones poise - I know it makes me irritable.” He sheepishly figured that if he could “give up several magazine illustrations, I may find time to do my work more quietly and not be so quick to take offense for small things.”

He also pointed out that the loss of the pictures wasn’t what annoyed him so much as what - “doubtless in my haste” - he saw as Turnure’s “slighting and indifferent regard of the fact.” He went on:
You see that the matter of making up this proposed book is of considerable importance to me. I want it to be as perfect as possible and to not have any make-shift about it if it can be avoided.
However, after this uncomfortable back-and-forth - and having realized that he still needed to write and illustrate more fairy tales to flesh out the book - Pyle put the project on hold for two years. In the meantime, Turnure (by the way, a founder of The Grolier Club, of which Pyle was an early member), had left the Art Department and had gone on to found Vogue.

In a July 18, 1894, letter to Harper & Brothers, Pyle wrote that - with two exceptions - the Harper’s Young People plates for “Good Gifts and a Fool’s Folly” could be re-used in printing the book (by then called Twilight Land), after all: “The first drawing is the decorated title, which I have re-drawn, and the other is the one which is to be used either as a tail-piece or as a final illustration - the man sitting among the rocks.”

And although those seven particular originals “were not preserved” at the Harper offices, two of them have since turned up, so perhaps they weren’t thrown out, pulped, or burned, but (as Pyle himself had theorized) they went home with an admiring member of the art staff.

“He lay there sighing and groaning” - Harper’s Young People version (1890)

“He lay there sighing and groaning” - Twilight Land version (1894)

NOTE: The original copies of the letters quoted above belong to the Morgan Library. I assume, however, that since Pyle, who died in 1911, wrote them in 1892 and 1894, I am justified in quoting them at length. But I hope that someone will alert me if my assumption is incorrect.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

“I am conquered! I am conquered!”

I was just looking through Howard Pyle’s under-appreciated book of fairy tales, Twilight Land, and came across this picture: the untitled tailpiece for “Woman’s Wit” - which originally appeared in Harper’s Young People for July 29, 1890. It shows a despairing Demon howling, “I am conquered! I am conquered!” and “bellowing so dreadfully that all the world trembled.”

It’s hard to see much “classic” Pyle in this scratchy, vigorous (and beautiful) pen and ink - it’s a world away from his deliberate, Düreresque drawings for Otto of the Silver Hand, which he made only two years earlier. It reminds me more of... Heinrich Kley?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Lost and Found Pyle

With the exception of sketches, doodles, and embellished inscriptions in books, the bulk of Howard Pyle’s pictures have been published at one time or another, so “lost” ones of any importance are exceedingly rare. But I just found one.

After my Cass Gilbert post, I was looking around for information about his house in Ridgefield, Connecticut. In a letter of August 28, 1907, to Pyle, Gilbert wrote that he had just bought the property. “It was an old tavern in the revolutionary time and is really a charming little place,” he said, adding that he didn’t plan to alter it, only repair it and restore the garden to the way it had been in the 1700s. “It is just the sort of thing that you would like, and we have said again and again that if we can get you, we want you to come there and visit us just as soon as we can give decent accommodations to a guest.”

I don’t yet know if Pyle took up Gilbert’s offer, but the place has since become the Keeler Tavern Museum & Garden House. And on one of the pages of their website I was surprised to see this tiny reproduction of a picture of Cass’s wife, Julia Finch Gilbert.

Portrait of Julia Finch Gilbert by Howard Pyle (c.1908-10)

Some years ago, the Gilberts’ granddaughter gave the 28.5 x 34.5" portrait to the museum, where it now hangs in the Cass Gilbert Dining Room. The museum informed me that “We were told Mrs. Gilbert did not like the way her hands looked in the painting so the lower part of the portrait was cut off along with the artist's signature.” But surely this is Howard Pyle’s work.

Fortunately, there’s documentation to prove it. That which I’ve been able to read (so far) suggests that Pyle started the painting sometime in 1908, when, perhaps, the Pyle-Gilbert friendship was at its most intimate. Cass Gilbert said in a December 22nd letter of that year:
I am tremendously interested in the outcome of the portrait. Mrs. Gilbert tells me that you expect her to come down again for a day some time in the near future, just when I do not know, and that after that my curiosity may be satisfied but not until then.
But Pyle seems to have let it slide: in a letter of March 22, 1910, Gilbert begged, “I do wish you would send me the portrait just as it is and some time when you can come and visit us for a week or two you can touch it up. It must not be allowed to interfere with your work...” He pointed out that the “limitations of Mrs. Gilbert’s wardrobe are such that I think she feels the lack of a hat and gown which she left in Wilmington” - and he asked Pyle to return them.

Drawing from letters I haven’t yet looked at, the new Pyle biography also discusses the portrait and indicates that the plan was for Pyle to paint it “for a commission determined by [Mrs. Pyle and Mrs. Gilbert]”:
Ever generous, Pyle said he preferred doing the work for free. Insecure about his abilities at portraiture, Pyle complained that he was unaccustomed to the genre. Once the portrait was completed, Pyle felt he might not have captured Mrs. Gilbert’s likeness, telling her husband she was “really a very difficult subject to paint.” Self-effacingly, Pyle suggested Gilbert destroy it if it was unsatisfactory and “get some better fellow” to undertake another painting.
Needless to say, I’d been wondering where the picture was since first reading about it in Gilbert’s letters some 15 or so years ago. But I had no luck in trying to track it down. I also had no clue as to what it would look like: Pyle really wasn’t a portrait painter, and his self-portrait of 1906 (at the National Academy of Design) isn’t particularly notable. This painting, however, is great. It’s so much better, stronger, and more interesting than I thought it would be. And even if it was, indeed, cut down, it still works. Pyle’s ever-inventive placement of bold colors and lights and darks is just terrific. I can’t wait to see it in person.

Incidentally, I showed it to one of Pyle’s great-granddaughters and her husband remarked that “Mrs Gilbert looks like a pirate!” She does bear a resemblance to this one - among others...

“The Buccaneer Was a Picturesque Fellow” by Howard Pyle (1905)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Howard Pyle Slept Here, Part 2

On September 9, 1911, Howard Pyle’s sons Theodore (22) and Howard Jr. (20) sailed on the S. S. Canopic from Genoa, Italy, bound for Boston and, ultimately, their fall semester at Yale. The next day, apparently, his sons Godfrey (15) and Wilfrid (13) took the train up to their school near Lausanne, Switzerland. “We shall be cut down then to the feminine skeleton of our family,” Pyle had said colorfully, if not a little morbidly, in anticipation of their departure.

A few days later - perhaps even one hundred years ago today! - Pyle and his wife, Anne, and their daughters Phoebe (24) and Eleanor (17), and his secretary, Gertrude Brincklé, went to Siena for a two-week stay at the Pensione Chiusarelli - seen here in a postcard of that vintage. (The place, by the way, is now the newly restored, three-star Hotel Chiusarelli - in case you’d like to sleep there, too.)

It was a welcome change for Pyle, who had grown to despise his summer residence, the Villa Torricella, in the hills above Florence. “It was more nasty than I can make you understand,” he said in a letter to Stanley Arthurs, after itemizing the “great high walls” surrounding it and the “very rough and very steep” roads to it that “were so filthy that you had to keep your eyes straight before you so as to see where you stepped,” as well as the long stretch of hot, dry weather and his own bouts of “sickness and blues.” In fact, Pyle confided, “I would rather have ever so sharp an illness than such dreadful mental depression as overwhelmed me.” In escaping to Siena, however, the family “all became prosperous and happy again.”

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Another Look In and Around the Pyle Studios

Still more video showing the insides and outsides of Howard Pyle’s studio buildings at 1305 Franklin Street in Wilmington, Delaware.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A Video Tour of Howard Pyle’s Studio

I just noticed this video on Howard Pyle. Not all of it is accurate, but there are lots of images and much footage taken in and around his Wilmington studio. Makes for a good vicarious visit.