Sunday, April 15, 2012

Howard Pyle’s Titanic Connections

Headpiece for “McAndrew’s Hymn” by Howard Pyle (1894)

Howard Pyle’s connections to the Titanic disaster are tenuous at best, seeing that he had been dead five months when the ship went down. Legend has it, however, that his son Wilfrid, aged 14 - and perhaps also his other son Godfrey, 16 - who had stayed on in Europe to attend school in Switzerland, had tickets for the Titanic’s maiden voyage, but didn’t use them. At least one ticket is believed to have survived, but it’s gone missing. The question is, though, why would the boys leave school in April instead of filling out the school year? Grief? Homesickness? Spring break? At any rate, they wound up sailing safe and sound on the Kaiser Wilhelm II from Cherbourg in July 1912.

But Pyle was indeed connected to at least two bona fide Titanic passengers. One was Major Archibald Butt, who had served as an aide to both Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, and who had grown so distressed over the 1912 presidential race that he needed a recuperative trip to Europe. Teddy’s daughter Alice Roosevelt Longworth (whose conversations generated one of my favorite books, Mrs. L) recalled him fondly:
Archie Butt was another good friend. Archibald Willingham Andrew Brackenbreed...Butt, we used to chant, teasing him about his name, which we said sounded like a load of coal falling downstairs. He had a very good sense of humor.
It so happens that Butt mentioned both Alice and Pyle in a letter to his sister, written November 12, 1908, the day after a celebratory White House luncheon attended by key players in Taft’s recent campaign victory over William Jennings Bryan:
A Mr. Pyle, a distinguished illustrator, and his wife were guests also. The former spent most of his time making sketches of those at the table and presenting them to Mrs. Longworth.
(Oh, what I’d give for those sketches! I’ve looked for them, in vain. But, anyway...) It sounds like Butt barely knew Pyle. Actually, unless he was just over-explaining for his sister’s benefit, it sounds like he may not even have known of Pyle. This seems odd, though, considering Pyle’s stature at the time, not to mention his friendship with people Butt knew very well. Like Francis Davis Millet, who apparently shared a house with Butt in Washington, D. C. (and whose relationship with Butt has been the source of some speculation).

Artist-author Frank Millet had known Pyle for over 30 years and was an unabashed enthusiast of Pyle’s work. In fact, Millet had been instrumental in getting Pyle his last mural commission for the Hudson County Court House in Jersey City, New Jersey. On November 14, 1911, Millet, then in Rome, had written to Anne Poole Pyle:
Having been out of touch for some time with newspapers, I came across by accident yesterday the shocking news of your husband’s death. I had planned to come to Florence within a few days to see you all quite unsuspicious that anything was the matter with him.

I write now to offer you my heartfelt sympathies in your great affliction and irreparable loss, this to you and to the children. I shall always cherish as one of my most pleasant memories the visit I made to Wilmington.

He has built a great monument for himself and his family in the art he has produced and has had no rival....
Five months later, Millet joined Archie Butt on the Titanic for the voyage back to America. Both went down with the ship.

Tailpiece for “McAndrew’s Hymn” by Howard Pyle (1894)

[Please note that the images shown here have nothing to do with the Titanic per se, but they’re the best I could do. Pyle made them to illustrate Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “McAndrew’s Hymn” for the December 1894 issue of Scribner’s Magazine.]

1 comment:

James Gurney said...

How sad to lose Millet on the Titanic. He was a great painter. I remember reading that both Pyle and Millet were members of the same art and literary circles, such as the Tile Club, along with William M. Chase, Arthur Quartley, Swain Gifford, A. B. Frost, George Maynard, Alden Weir, Edwin A. Abbey, Charles S. Reinhart, Elihu Vedder, William Gedney Bunce, Stanford White, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Amazing to think of such top-flight architects, writers, illustrators and gallery painters hobnobbing like that.