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Johan Thomas Skovgaard [1888-1977]


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

SKOVGAARD, Johan Thomas [1888–1977]

“Lammegrib Zool. Have”


oil canvas mounted on board / 14.7 inches by 13.8 inches

Who but a naturalist would choose the Bearded Vulture for subject matter? And who, for that matter, would hang it on their living room wall?

Known primarily for his church decoration, Johan Thomas Skovgaard attended The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts during 1907-11, a pupil of Viggo Johansen.  He later worked with his uncle Niels Skovgaard, and assisted his father Joakim Skovgaard, decorating the Viborg Cathedral in 1912. J.T. Skovgaard is also recognized, however, for his paintings of birds, though not in the familiar Audubon-like rendition. This 1915 work shows two impressionistic vultures in the Copenhagen Zoölogical Garden. He would continue to work for another sixty years.

The Community Collection can be viewed in several different ways, each of them equally artificial. Presented chronologically, they represent a mini art history, a sequence of styles. Grouped by medium, a different story is told; by subject, they reveal yet another aspect. Perhaps a more insightful perspective comes from the order of their acquisition, in which case this is one of the most recent. It was given in 2012 by the children of Virginia Lawton, long-time science teacher at Fennimore County High School, as a memorial. Skovgaard’s painting had hung in her classroom as testament to the balance of Nature.

Howard’s Dead End


The enclosure that Aunt Phyllis mentioned in her letter to Howard was more than a little surprise; but more about that in a moment. In the meantime, you should know that Phyllis Tabor lived at home until the week before she died.

Phyllis Tabor—one of Fennimore county’s “Daughters of Flight”, a title she shared with her twin Ella Rose—might have attained “greater glory” in the bigger world, if she’d wanted it. But the Dirty Thirties brought her home to tend the family business with her younger brother Warren. Ella Rose was engaged in missionary work in China (from which she never returned) and brother Dwight had died in childhood; Mary Grace was too young. So Phyllis and Warren shepherded Tabor Industries through the late Depression and war years. By 1950 their diversification and employee profit-sharing had saved the company.

Phyllis continued to live at home with her widowed mother Lucy until Lucy died and maintenance of the old house tipped the balance between nostalgia and nuisance. She moved into a small apartment above Van Kannel’s Drug and sold her interest in the business. But the Tabors aren’t the sort to slip discreetly from the scene. So Phyllis continued to fly into her sixties and was easily recognized round and about town in her red Indian “Chief” motorcycle with sidecar, one of the last produced by the company in 1953.

During the second half of her life—though she couldn’t have known there would be a second half—Phyllis accomplished many things. She learned Chinese and made a trip there to investigate the 1937 disappearance of her sister. She taught engine maintenance at the high school. She taught her nephew Howard how to pickle and preserve. She taught Sunday School at Saint Joseph-the-Carpenter with her good friend Rev. Chilton Fanning Dowd and disagreed on certain theological points with pleasant persistence. But more important for our story, in 1957 at the age of forty-five Aunt Phyllis bought a decrepit farmhouse near Fahnstock and undertook a fifty-year renovation that gradually whittled the old place away until it had been transformed as “Howard’s Dead End”.

Carl Larsson's house, garden shed

With apologies to both Carl Larsson and E.M. Forster, that house has been brewing in my head for twenty years or more, and it’s time to give it birth.

Oh, and the surprise in her letter to Howard was a deed to the property with a curious proviso: the house would be made available as a writer’s retreat to any who applied. If you’re looking for an out-of-the-way spot to conceive the Great American Novel, I can put in a word for you. The landlord’s a friend of mine.

George Murray Gilbert [born 1870]


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

GILBERT, George Murray [born 1870]

Basket of Fruit


oil on board / 10.0 inches by 8.0 inches

Who was George Murray Gilbert?

Standard sources are silent on the identity of Gilbert, artist of this still life.* Dated 1938, it is more characteristic of the 19th century, the period of its frame. Neither do we know its source for the collection or the date of acquisition.

*On-line genealogical sources reveal a George Murray Gilbert who was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1922. A sixteen-year-old could have painted this still life. However, a nephew of that Gilbert has written to say that it was more likely his great-grandfather, who was born in 1870 in Nebraska and still active about the time this work is dated. The 1940 US Census places Gilbert in Brooklyn, NY, aged seventy, and still an artist. We are grateful for the clarification.

Ghosts of Christmas Past #8: “Dear Nephew”


June 16th, 2012

Dear Nephew—

Our lunch last Saturday was enjoyable, more than you can imagine. Not only because we had each other’s undivided attention, but your cooking has improved considerably. (Is Rowan teaching you?) The wine was also a treat, considering I rarely open a bottle here at home. One glass at a time—it goes to vinegar before I can finish it. One day at a time, too—and I’m going to vinegar, as well.

Thanks also for the draught of our family history. Technically, I’m not a Tennant, so trimming the in-laws and cadet branches will simplify your task. And we both know a few who would best be forgotten; the less said, the better. So, thank you for the opportunity to add a few words about myself. Now, in my hundredth year, friends treat me with deference and relatives with tongs. Most are concerned that I’ll break — and a few that I won’t.

You ask about twinship. Being one qualifies me as an “expert” I suppose, but only in the way that you can testify credibly about being a male. Eller and I—I forget that you never knew her; your personalities are so much alike—were identical; Dwight and your dad weren’t. She and I spoke little to one another; we just seemed to know. Then Barnett Fentress entered the picture. Barney, Eller and I became a “couple” of sorts—a friendship that was very modern for the ’30s. People wondered when he’d choose between us, but that was never a possibility. The three of us, after all, were looking for a good man.

One summer in ’35 or ’36 we entered a dance marathon in Kansas City; Barney loved to dance. They didn’t know, of course, that Eller and I would alternate. Wearing identical dresses, she and I switched places in a dark corner by a cluster of potted palms. Barney carried the show, and it was he and Eller who eventually won. We gave the prize money—$50 if recollection serves—to the soup kitchen at St Mary’s church and laughed ’til we cried. Eller left for China the next Spring; I never saw her again.

Uncle Malcolm (Father’s brother-in-law; married to Kate) was a missionary in China, teaching at Saint John’s College, Shanghai, but he also operated a clinic for women in rural parts of Jiangsu province. Eller had trained as a nurse but flying was her real contribution toward increasing the missionary outreach. I treasure her letters from 1937—until they stopped suddenly just before Christmas. We never learned what happened, but it had something to do with the Japanese invasion. The State Department offered no explanation. Ironically, it happened just about the time your great uncle Anson was restored to us. There seems something karmic in the exchange.

I’ve made a few more notes for your writing project (a rough outline) and will include them with this note. There is also a surprise for you and Rowan, a gift I hope you two will enjoy long after I’m gone.

Your loving aunt,


PS: You’ll know where to scatter my ashes.



Why is the way ’round the barn so long?

Dr Bob rarely asks specific questions. Anything more pointed than “What’s your mood?” would be unusual; out of character. So he took me by surprise Friday morning with this one: “Are you self-indulgent?” That zinger was followed with a cautionary “…and you don’t have to answer right away.” I don’t need to admit my answer here—it was spontaneous and quick, by the way—but there was a follow-up query which morphed into a homework assignment. Damn, he’s good.

Indulgence is inherently no bad thing. For me it has been a double-edged sword, cutting when I do or don’t indulge, but especially when I do. The personal price I pay is often great, and that would be acceptable were there not considerable collateral fallout—sometimes for others, sometimes from them. Had I “world enough and time” an apology would be forthcoming; I’m working on it. Really. In the meantime, Dr Bob advises balance.

Agincourt is, of course, my ultimate indulgence. And invention has been its greatest, its most satisfying pleasure. But not, as you might guess, the invention of buildings and landscapes. No, I find the characters and their stories far more gratifying work. Not work at all, really.

Oddly, I had hoped for something else.

Henry Joseph Darger, Jr.

Perhaps not the ideal model for a citizen of Agincourt, Henry Darger has become a prototype nonetheless. Look him up.

I had lunch today in the Food Court at West Acres, our regional shopping center, and found myself among people who could just as easily have been from Agincourt. Over garlic beef and orange chicken, I wondered about that random sampling of my fellow creatures; about how diverse we are and how ever diverging. What wondrous eccentricities were represented there.

The distribution of a Darger or a Robert Walser is limited, but their presence in a Chicago neighborhood or a Swiss bank changed a life or two, even if it didn’t, couldn’t change their own.

The trip ’round the barn is long but worth the investment. And it is long in time, not distance, because there are so many wondrous distractions along the way.

Now, about that apology….