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Monthly Archives: March 2015

Pilgrimage

drogo1

In 1905 Julius Drewe began to acquire land near the village of Drewsteignton in the county of Devon, intent on building a family seat. By 1910 he owned 1500 acres in the vale of the river Teign, only a few miles southwest of a village linked with the family’s legendary founder Drogo de Teign. At the recommendation of Edward Hudson, editor of Country Life magazine, Drewe sought the architectural services of Edwin Lutyens, who had designed Hudson remarkable country house Lindisfarne Castle on the North Sea coast at England’s nether end. Drewe’s appetite and ego were satisfied with Lutyens’ picturesque massing at the edge of the gorge; if you’re amazed by its size, recall that only half the house was built. My first Drogo visit twenty-five years ago was one of the genuinely spiritual events of my life—of which I’ve been privileged to have many.

Drogo was also the name of a character in the first season of “Game of Thrones” which makes me wonder whether the castle would have made a suitable setting for the series—somewhat the way Highclere does for “Downton Abbey.” [By the way, did you know that Highclere was the ancestral home of Lord Carnarvon, whose passion for Egyptian antiquity underwrote Howard Carter’s excavations and the revelation of Tutankamun’s tomb in 1922. But that’s another story.] Unlike Highclere, which seems set upon a site of billiard-table flatness, Castle Drogo perches on the brink of primal beauty, with naught but the occasional jet stream to mar its vista. Relationships such as this are what make my interest in architecture so satisfying. Pilgrimage to places like this—or Ronchamp or Fallingwater or the Bauhaus or anything by Mackintosh—have been the high points of my life and it has been my privilege to share some of these experiences with good friends of similar bent. My point here, with respect to that first visit to Drogo, is the hindsight that architecture has been my religion.

Recollecting this pilgrimage of the 1980s reminds me that: I can imagine a god I cannot conceive much more readily than I can conceive a god I’m able to imagine.

[#701]

Confession is good for the psyche

PentreIfan2

Twenty-five or so years ago, Sir Edwin Lutyens was at or near the head of my “Top Ten Architects in History” list. Truth be told, he’s always been there, a bucket list of sorts, though we didn’t call it that at the time. So Lutyens was among several well-known names—Michelangelo, Hawksmoor, Furness, Sullivan, Wright—and many lesser lights such as Barry Byrne, Josef Plecnik, Burnham Hoyt, or Paul Schweikher. [Count on me for the obscure and abstruse.] During the summer—precisely which summer I can’t say—I happened to be in England, traveling alone and intent on seeing Castle Drogo, one of Lutyens’ large late country homes.

Devonshire is a rural county in the southwest of England, famous for an extreme landscape called Dartmore, a dramatic windy wasteland worthy of the Brontë’s but actually used by Arthur Conan Doyle as setting for “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” Devonshire is also an ancient county, littered with dolmens, menhirs and other enduring evidence of Stone Age spirituality. Lutyens’ house would be in good company. Indeed, he conjured his own “menhir”—London’s Cenotaph—as memorial to the First World War, the Great War, the War to End War.

Taking the train to Exeter—I recall the British Rail station being some distance from the city center—I found that a bus would get me close enough to Drogo. The driver let me off at an unmarked crossroad and gestured to the left. “The castle is down that lane,” he said and drove off. It was one of those Ektachrome days, a metaphor lost on anyone whose photography is purely digital, so the prospect of walking several kilometers was a welcome change from London’s hurly-burly. The road was a wide single track, a typically British experience where the etiquette of two oncoming vehicles requires that one of them reverse direction to a spot suitably wide for passing. For half an hour at least, I had the road to myself—absent cars, farm vehicles, signs, power poles, or any sound more intrusive than chattering birds. There I was, alone with myself.

Ten minutes into the trek, William Blake came to mind—not the Blake of “Red Dragon” and Hannibal Lecter but the Blake of “Jerusalem,” an anthem set to music by Sir Hubert Parry and made (in)famous by Monty Python:

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land

But it was Pugin’s imagery that these words brought to mind, not Blake’s.

Accompanied by a chorus of crickets and wind-blown crops, I broke into a solo Sunday-morning service worthy of Sabine Baring-Gould. [Ask me some time about him and the first Episcopal church service in Lisbon, Dakota Territory in the spring of 1884.] My baritone is respectable but that day beneath that sky, with a vista little changed in three hundred years, I bellowed Blake’s words and Parry’s tune as best I could remember them. And then a Kyrie I’ve set to the chorus in Bela Bartók’s “Concerto for Orchestra.” What was missing from this ad hoc service? Looking back, this may have been the most sanctifying communion of my experience before or since, but I also suspect it was more Celtic than Christian.

The state legislatures of Alabama and Oklahoma are unlikely to agree with my assessment of that afternoon: its holiness, its spiritual buoyancy. That three- or four-mile walk to Castle Drogo stands out as a cleansing moment so vivid I can relive it even today, twenty-five years later and several thousand miles away.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about religion lately, not the least reason being the wedding I’ll officiate next August. What right have I to celebrate the union of two friends, other than that they asked me?

[#700]

Default

anchor stone blocks

Three blogs. Three relatively distinct and defined topics. Yet considerable overlap exists among them. William Halsey Wood, for example, has materialized in Agincourt on three different occasions—a realization that came as quite a surprise to the person in charge — me.

First…

To be a community with any degree of promise, Agincourt had to become a county seat. The presence of a courthouse doesn’t guarantee stability but makes it more likely. As a designer it also offered a sizable building type with potential sophistication. So there I was, incidentally gathering information about Halsey Wood, an architect recognized for his church commissions and who was not known for public work, other than two Carnegie library designs. Like the Sullivan connection with the library design — Sullivan never designed a Carnegie library; Halsey Wood never designed a courthouse — the story-line was too seductive to let it pass by. Objectivity has never been my strong suit, so you should take with a grain of salt my claim that the courthouse is pretty good.

courthouse #2

Second…

Wood must be always on my mind, because he offered one of his own designs—the long-demolished C. S. French house in East Orange, NJ—as the inspiration for aspiring young architect, Anson Tennant. The fifteen-year-old Tennant modified the French house (seen in the July 1886 issue of The Scientific American Architects & Builders Edition) to become a doll house given to his sister Claire when she was gravely ill at Christmastime 1905. If you’d like to see it, visit the AR/LA office in Renaissance Hall and look above Teresa’s door.

Finally

There was the family excursion during the summer of 1912 when Martha and the children, including Anson who was then twenty-two, visited Aunt Hester (Hester Tennant Farnham) at her annual Jersey shore rental. The chapel at Mantoloking is Saint Simon’s-by-the-Sea, a high church seasonal congregation whose building had been designed by Halsey Wood, though Anson may not have known that while he sat in a back pew, sketching the interior during a particularly steamy sermon. That program made its way back to Iowa and later that year Anson crafted a set of wood blocks in the spirit of Friederich Fröbel or Richter’s “Anker Stone Building Sets”  for his sister’s kindergarten. Tennant made a brief attempt to market the “blox” through popular magazines with limited success.

mantoloking

WHWblox

Thinking of William Halsey Wood’s meteoric career, I’m reminded of Edna St Vincent Millay’s early poem “First Fig,”

My candle burns at both ends;
   It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
   It gives a lovely light!

It’s gratifying that Wood’s lovely light has shone now and again in Agincourt, if nowhere else.

[#699]

Incidentally, Ed Pavek and Krystal Rinkenberg Pavek took this evocative photograph of the Wood Blox.

 

Pictor Ignotus [active 1890s]

cow

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

Pictor Ignotus

Odalisque

ca1890

oil on wood panel / 6 inches by 12 inches (overall)

“Pictor Ignotus” (Unknown Artist) is too convenient an attribution for works with faulty provenance or none at all. In this case it has been tempting to link “Odalisque” with the collection’s two works by 19th century Austrian artist August von Pettenkofen; all three works came from the Wasserman family, whose origins are Austrian. A firm attribution to Pettenkofen would add considerably to its value—monetary and otherwise. The damage is not recent.

[#698]

204-206 Wasserman Block

My mind’s eye isn’t necessarily sharper than yours. I just wish that it worked more reliably; more predictably. Perhaps I should be grateful that it functions at all.

In the reverse “domino theory” of Agincourt, every consequence seems to require a cause. Case in point has been the necessity of establishing a backstory for young Anson Tennant, the circumstances the brought him to compete for Agincourt’s new public library in 1914: the dollhouse for his sister’s Christmas of 1905; the addition to the family home in 1908; studying architecture in Chicago during 1909-1912; returning to open his own office that year and offer his services to the region. Those and other small steps helped me understand what the trajectory of his career might have been. It’s that most difficult task for the Communist historian: predicting the past.

One of this steps was the design of his studio-office in the Wasserman Block (told here before) and the first artifact was “Als ik kan,” the stained glass window that came from the fertile imagination of Mr Dan Salyards. That spectacularly successful artifact won a prize at the Minnesota State Fair and will soon find its home in a dutch door that could be crafted by Mr Brad Rutter. I have consistently depended upon the creativity of others.

That door became Anson’s professional face to the world, a direct expression of his emerging aesthetic and the preface to his first important work, the Agincourt Public Library. But while that door offered symbolic access to Tennant’s design point-of-view—to his mind’s eye—it also provided access to his studio-apartment. So today I spoke with a talented young man who’s actually volunteered to render aspects of the project for our next exhibition this fall. He spoke about his own storyline (which I thoroughly admire) but we also discussed this notion of when Anson’s office might look like. I’ve already described it in some of the earliest entries here. Now I’m happy to report that our new collaborator has agreed to take this project on: When you passed Tennant’s partially-open dutch door and glanced inside, what would you have seen? I think I’ve seen it in my mind’s eye.

image048 image040

By the way, these aren’t it, but they’re helping to bracket what I do see.

[#697]

 

Miss Kavana’s table and chairs

When Anson Tennant sailed from New York for Southampton aboard the Lusitania, he imagined a smooth crossing and a welcome respite from his labors on the new Agincourt Public Library. He didn’t anticipate German torpedoes, a Basque fishing trawler, amnesia and recuperation in a Spanish convent hospital outside Donostia until the first shots of the Spanish Civil War. I certainly hadn’t intended Anson’s life to have been so disrupted, but Dr Bob wondered “Why does he have to die?” So the too convenient sinking of the Lusitania had to be reconsidered.

The twenty-one years in northern Spain also had to be accounted for, I suppose. So it was logical for him to marry the young nurse, Graxi Urrutia, who cared for him and that they would have three children, Aitor, Alize and Mikel. Reunited with his Iowa family in 1937—his mother and sisters were still living, though his father James had died, some say of a broken heart—Anson enjoyed thirty-two more years shuttling between his two homes: Agincourt and Donostia. But I’d thought very little else about the amnesiac years or those of his recovery and reunion.

He’d been an architect in Iowa before 1915, though it seemed unlikely that he would ply that same profession in Spain. I wondered, however, about a fascination with carpentry he’d enjoyed in 1912, spending part of that fall in Albuquerque in the furniture workshop of Manny Galvez. Could it be that his Basque wife’s father was also a carpenter (“arotz” in Basque) and that Anson was invited to the family business? I think so, and that these skills might have served him well once safely back at home. In fact I believe we’ve found his sketch for a writing table and two chairs crafted in the late thirties for Miss Rose Kavana, someone Anson had known before “the accident” and who encouraged his reintegration with the community. Miss Kavana’s table will be part of the exhibit this fall, an artifact of Anson’s second life.

miss kavana's table002

Incidentally, this is the self same table and chairs where Howard Tabor sat many years later, having delivered a package from his mother one Saturday afternoon.

[#696]

Pictor Ignotus [active 1890s]

ozymandius

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

Pictor Ignotus

Ozymandias

ca1890

oil on wood panel/ 5 inches by 8 inches

Though the artist and actual title are unknown, a copy of Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias” had been attached to the back at the time of its acquisition: “I met a traveler from an antique land….” The painting has always borne that title. A virtual postcard from the 19th century, two persons converse in the foreground, speaking, no doubt, about the ruins in the desolate distance, which could be Egypt, Baalbek, or Carthage. Some have speculated that the large element is a fragment of a Roman aqueduct, which would place it in the southern extremities of Italy.

This is typical of small sketches done as studies for larger works, such as, for example, the collection’s two small works by August von Pettenkofen.

Ozymandias_Shelley_draft_c1817

 

Trudence Tomlin [1919-?]

$_57-38

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

TOMLIN, Trudence [1919–?]

“Golden Gate”

1939/1940

oil on canvas / 17.5 inches by 13.5 inches

During the 1930s Karl Wasserman consulted Dr Reinhold Kölb, proprietor of the Walden Clinic, on the subject of psychotherapy. Kölb was known to use art therapy with his “clients” as Wasserman introduced symbolic abstraction into his art classes at Northwest Iowa Normal. Student Trudence Tomlin painted “Golden Gate” as a sophomore at the college. She did not graduate, however—perhaps due to financial matters during the Depression—and has only a sketchy alumnae record. It is fortunate for us that this work was chosen from the student exhibit in the Spring of 1940, probably chosen by Wasserman himself.

[#694]