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Monthly Archives: May 2013

“St Martin-in-the-Fields”

st martin001 

[From the catalogue-in-progress for “Landscapes & Livestock”, a loan exhibition for Agincourt Homecoming in the Fall of 2015]

WEISE, Edward [1899-1958]

“St Martin-in-the-Fields, London”


gouache on paper / 6.5 inches by 4.5 inches

Omaha native Edward Weise was an artistic amateur in the better sense of the word: he was a self-taught lover of art. With nothing more formal than high school art instruction in Omaha, he worked in gouache (opaque watercolor), producing small studies of flowers in his mother’s garden and  views from his bedroom window of their yard, garage, alley and neighbors’ clothes lines. Weise painted for pleasure and personal satisfaction alone, declining to exhibit his work and only giving a few pieces to family members and friends. This example was contributed in his memory by granddaughter Professor Emily Wiese, Instructor of English at Northwest Iowa College here in Agincourt. Not incidentally, Prof Weise is Keeper of the Community Collection.

This subject—painted when Weise was only eighteen years of age and a U.S. soldier during World War I—is the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, London. Designed in the English Baroque style by architect James Gibbs and built during 1722-1724, St Martin’s stands prominently at the northeast corner of Trafalgar Square and facing the National Portrait Gallery. Looking up at Gibbs’s Corinthian portico (and minimizing any of the nearby distractions), Weise’s quick charcoal sketch provides a loose framework for judicious application of color, probably a palette limited to what would fit in his duffle bag. Many amateur artists, on both sides of the conflict, found time to record the war itself and their travel to and from its battlefields.

“Night Court”

The show within the show

[From the catalogue-in-progress for “Landscapes & Livestock”, a loan exhibition for Agincourt Homecoming in the Fall of 2015]

FROMM, E. G. [1903-1955]

Night Court


oil on panel / 9 inches by 12 inches

On a still winter evening, three cloaked figures trudge through a snowy forest, carrying a litter. A pale form (perhaps living, perhaps not) seems about to slide from its carriage. Without the context of the play which it illustrates, this painting is as cryptic as the artist-author’s largely undocumented life, making “Night Court” among the most unusual works in the Community Collection.

Oral tradition and the chain of provenance associate it with Evangeline Grandbois Fromm [1906-1959], whose last years were spent here, living with her son the late Abel Kane in the old Brinkman Township school. E. G. Fromm—as she preferred—was born and raised on “The Hill” in South Omaha and schooled in the American labor movement by her parents, both active labor organizers in the meatpacking and railroad sectors of the Omaha workforce. Thirteen years of age during the Race Riot of 1919 and a young woman promoting unionization in the 1930s, Fromm published on multiple social issues (though often writing anonymously) and corresponded widely with radicals everywhere. [Her extensive collection of letters is preserved at the Fennimore County History Center.]

Late in life, Fromm presented her ideas in other less direct but equally confrontational ways, in this case through art and a play which it illustrates. Anticipating the 250th anniversary of the Salem Witch Trials in 1942-1943, she began to write “Night Court” but completed only the first act. In a style reminiscent of pulp magazine illustration—and certainly unintended to find itself framed and hanging on a gallery wall—she chose to imagine the scene that brings Act I to dramatic conclusion. A debilitating illness prevented completion of the play, though local theater director Seamus Tierney hoped to put flesh on Fromm’s skeletal notes for a second act.

Landscapes & Livestock 1.1

A few words about the proposed catalogue for “Landscapes & Livestock”, a loan exhibition from the Tennant Memorial Gallery:

As the summer looms, I’ve set a goal—several, actually—for the next Agincourt exhibit. One of them is already well underway: the catalogue for L&L. Initially, I had thought there might be forty works purportedly lent from the “Community Collection” in Agincourt. But, as the selection process proceeds, I’m reluctant to limit the number; six months ago, forty had seemed like a huge number, but it’s already grown to fifty-five or more, with several more waiting in the wings. If you should see me lugging a white ring binder around town, don’t ask. I’m likely to tell you what’s in it.

The format is simple (though I’m hardly trained as a registrar and may have overlooked important elements): 

  • ARTIST, Name of (with dates of birth and death, when known) [Some artists are real people; some are invented, and I’m disinclined to leave clues to which is which.]
  • Title of Work [with some graphic convention to indicate whether the title is 1) known, authentic, and assigned by the artist; 2) assigned by someone other than the artist; or 3) invented by me]
  • Date of the work, if known
  • Medium and dimensions (in inches, height preceding width)
  • Date and circumstances of the work’s acquisition by the Community Collection
  • And then a more or less standard catalogue entry, including some information on the artist as well as the work’s connection to the community. You’d be surprised how much fun it’s been to imagine each work as a fragment of local history, a piece of material culture. Just remember this: some of what you may read is true; some is totally fabricated.

Susan Ricker Knox [1874-1959]


[From the catalogue-in-progress for “Landscapes & Livestock”, a loan exhibition  for Agincourt Homecoming in the Fall of 2015]

KNOX, Susan Ricker [1874-1959]

“Gentleman in Spectacles” / Portrait of Dr Wilhelm Reinhardt


oil on canvas / 14.25 inches by 10.25 inches

Wilhelm August Karl Ernst Reinhardt, first president of the Northwest Iowa Normal School, was born in Hildesheim, Germany, in 1874 and received his doctorate from Göttingen University at the age of twenty-seven. His emigration to North America in 1904—facilitated by family already living  in St. Louis and the German exhibit at the World’s Fair that year—brought him to a faculty position at Washington University. He taught history there for ten years until his appointment as first president of the new Normal College at Agincourt, Iowa. Susan Ricker Knox’s portrait, commissioned by the college Board of Trustees as part of his investiture in the Fall of 1915, hung in the Board Room until it was loaned to the Community Collection in 1970.

Susan Ricker Knox was born in New Hampshire and evidenced artistic ability from an early age. At the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia and the Cooper Union in Brooklyn, she studied with Howard Pyle and Douglas Volk, and continued her education in Spain, Italy, Paris and London. With studios in both New York City and York Harbor, Maine, Knox specialized in portraits, especially of mothers and children. One critic noted: “Her special attention to the sitter’s character, or the spiritual, was a trademark of her work.” It’s not known whether Professor Reinhardt sat for this portrait in Iowa, New York or some intermediate point or whether she may have worked form a photograph.

The portrait was restored by Anthony Moore Paintings Conservation in 2008.

A later work of 1923, “The Bathing Hour” (in a private collection), shows the heavy use of impasto, a slight change in technique from the more impressionist rendering of Prof Reinhardt.

“Norfolk Bridge”


[From the catalogue-in-progress for “Landscape & Livestock”, a loan exhibition for Agincourt Homecoming, an exhibit in the Fall of 2015]

HORNUNG, Bertha [1885–1974]

“Norfolk Bridge” 


etching/aquatint / 8.5 inches by 6.375 inches

Despite the obvious quality of her work as an etcher, artist Bertha Hornung has slipped into the netherworld of art history, through a sieve of unnecessarily open weave; the history of art catches only Big Fish. Our Community Collection is indeed a critique of that restricted view of what art is and who decides. How we acquired this work is also a mystery: other than its accession date (1948) and a small label on the back of its frame hinting it had come from Marshall Field’s gallery in Chicago, we can only speculate who bought it and what their artistic criteria may have been. If nothing else, history has shown their eye to have been good—and our fortune equally good to own and be able to share it.

Bertha Hornung’s subject was the Norfolk Bridge at Shoreham-by-Sea, on the English coast in what is now the county of West Sussex. A suspension bridge designed by civil engineer W. Tierney Clark, it opened in 1834 as a toll facility over the River Adur and stood until dismantled and replaced by something far less graceful in 1923. But for eighty-nine years, the fearless lion and noble horse atop each triumphal arch greeted travelers to and from what was then the Borough of Shoreham. Hornung’s composition and the grainy texture of aquatint—as well as an inscription dated December 1908 “To Mr Fell”—seem to confirm its Edwardian character. For contrast, consider the more photographic representation in an engraving made shortly after the bridge opening nearly a century earlier. Artistic expression contrasted with engineering authenticity.


Our attempt to document Ms Hornung has yielded an interesting possibility: a Bertha Mary Hornung was born in Portugal in 1885, daughter of a British sugar planter and a Portuguese mother. She married in 1915 but was widowed just five years later, when her second son was born posthumously. The name “Bertha Hornung” appears in 1917 issues of The International Studio.

bertha mary hornung

Synecdoche 1.1

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

It came upon a midnight clear

There have been periods of Agincourt history when its veterinarians were more skillful than its medical doctors. Outside the collective wisdom of Sissy Beddowes and old Doc Fahnstock, we were often in the hands of medical quacks and charlatans, promoters of patent medicines and electro-magnetic apparatus who passed through with no more than two or three years of residence. Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip posits that the strong continued their westward migration; the weak of body, mind and spirit or those with insufficient resources stayed behind. More accurately, perhaps, they were left behind—in the sense of Hal Lindsay.

Our livestock, on the other hand, luxuriated (though they couldn’t appreciate it).  At one point, one noble beast was in the care of world-renowned veterinarian Finlay Dun, for example, who invested little time here but left an enduring legacy of progressive procedures and innovative techniques passed on to local practitioners. In plain speech, he did good work and shared his knowledge before moving on.

Dun [1830-1897] was Scottish by birth and training, but spent considerable time in the U.S. as a land manager for the Close Brothers at Larchwood (not far from here), before moving on to Dakota Territory and then Wyoming as manager for the Swan Land & Cattle Co. His texts on veterinary medicines enjoyed multiple editions on both sides of the Atlantic and his book American Farming and Food lured more than a handful of Brits to this part of Iowa. It was serendipity that brought Finlay Dun’s train through Agincourt on a rainy night in 1883, almost precisely 130 years ago last Saturday. (I love anniversaries and the more obtuse, the better, don’t you agree?)

You think I make this up, don’t you.


The night of the albino calf

James McGinnis (an Irish name that also appears in western Scotland; it means “son of Angus”) bought land beyond Fahnstock near the county line and imported a few Highland cattle, thinking they’d thrive in our harsh wet winters. I suspect it also involved an element of national pride. One of his heifers was late with her first calf and one chilly spring night went into several hours of troubled labor. With luck, Finlay Dun was in town, changing trains on the way to Larchwood and checking out the local scene. McGinnis got wind of the renowned veterinarian’s presence and sought him out at the Hazzard House. “Dr Dun, I presume,” would have been an appropriate opening gambit. We can only guess.

McGinnis explained the circumstances, Dun checked the contents of his ever-ready medical bag, and the two of them set off by horse (one of them lent by Equus & Co) for the farm, about twenty miles west. Roads were muddy but passable in late spring, so we can only speculate about their conversation along the way and the anxious pace of the horses. It was well past supper when they arrived and Mrs McGinnisherself pregnant at the time—was waiting in the barn. Breach births are always difficult and Highland cattle may be more antsy than other breeds, so the three worked well through the night, with Margaret McGinnis shuttling between the barn and her stew, molten on the kitchen stove, until finally at 3 o’clock, after more than six hours of careful observation and cautious meddling in what ought to be an Act of God, the calf took its first faultering steps. A white albino calf loved all the more by its rusty mother for the trouble it had caused.

Dun stayed the night, ate a hearty breakfast the next morning, charitably refused payment for his expert services, rode slowly back to the Equus stables, and then regaled everyone at Hazzard’s dining room that night with stories of the Fennimore county’s White Calf. It made the Plantagenet‘s front page as Dun set out on the last leg of his interrupted journey to Larchwood.

Synecdoche 1.0

I love a happy ending.

“Welcome to Agincourt…”

A matter of public record

Welcome to Agincourt, Iowa, the town that time forgot and geography misplaced: a collaborative exploration in place-making.

Agincourt is a town of about 30,000 people, the seat of Fennimore County in northwestern Iowa. Founded in 1853, its 160-year history has been shaped by the same factors that influenced most Midwestern towns from the Appalachians to the Great Plains: nurtured by agriculture and railroads, conflicted by war and social change, immersed in dramatic economic and technological forces, Agincourt may not seem very different from towns of your own acquaintance. But don’t look for it in your Rand-McNally highway atlas, because Agincourt isn’t there.

What we call the Agincourt Project has been a broad academic exercise in the fundamental processes that make communities. Now in its seventh year, the Project’s seminars and studios have engaged students of architecture, landscape architecture and art; faculty, graduates and friends; professionals, craftspeople and others in an unwieldy dynamic collaboration, not always sure where it will lead. Anyone can play in the sandbox of its history, design any building or landscape, where only two rules apply: 1) you must be true to the circumstances of time and place, understand the socio-economic framework of the chosen era, and be guided by the prevailing technologies; and 2) you must also tell a story, describe the characters involved, identify their motives and delineate their interactions within the larger context.

What has come from this is a huge body of work—buildings, landscapes, fine and decorative arts, music, and writing in various forms—comprised the 2007 Agincourt Sesqui-Centennial exhibit at the Rourke Art Museum in Moorhead, Minnesota, celebrating 150 years of community history. Today we are working toward “Agincourt Homecoming”, a second opportunity to explore the relationship between narrative and place that will become another exhibit in the Spring of 2015.

We hope to see you there.

Begged, Borrowed, Stolen

Ronald H.L.M. Ramsay

Ron Ramsay, a Chicago native and the instigator and “curator” of the Agincourt Project, is an Associate Professor or Architecture at North Dakota State University in Fargo, North Dakota, where he has taught since 1971. Ramsay’s BArch came from the University of Oklahoma, Norman, and the University of Texas at Austin granted him an MArch in 1992. He has also done further graduate work in American History toward a PhD at the University of Delaware. Professor Ramsay teaches both design studios (not all of which involve Agincourt, by the way), the undergraduate architectural history survey sequence, and seminars touching on topics such as the Progressive Movement, the Social Gospel and Early Modernism. He has also been an active proponent for historic preservation, working with public schools and retirement communities on greater popular awareness of architectural history. He and Prof Steve Martens have recently co-authored The Buildings of North Dakota, a volume in the “Buildings of the United States” series being published by the Society of Architectural Historians; the North Dakota volume will be in print in the Summer of 2014.

In addition to the Agincourt Project, Ramsay’s research energies are currently directed toward 1) “American Gothic: the life and career of William Halsey Wood”, and 2) “Building the Social Gospel: American religious architecture 1880-1920”.

In May 2013, Ramsay presented The Agincourt Project at the UCDA Design Education Summit, at Chattanooga, Tennessee, annual meeting of the University and College Designers Association.

Mappa Mundi