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