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.