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Monthly Archives: July 2015

Gladys Best [1898-1965]


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

BEST, Gladys [1898-1956]

“The Guildhall Exeter”


watercolor on paper / 16 inches by 12 inches

What would Sigmund Freud discern from psychoanalysis of the Community Collection? Assuming that roughly two hundred works of art might represent us collectively, could he put us retroactively “on the couch” and derive some community-wide profile? Even if he could, would we want to see it? In that unlikely context, Gladys Best’s watercolor of the 1930s—a vignette of British cityscape before the ravages of WWII and postwar urbanization—reinforces a sense of retrospection, of longing for the civility and simplicity of our lost youth.

Exeter’s official website attests that the Guildhall has been “the centrepiece of Exeter’s civic life for more than 800 years,” the oldest municipal building in the U.K. still in use.

A structure of outstanding architectural interest, it is not merely an ancient monument but remains a busy working building—still in regular use for a variety of civic functions and full meetings of the City Council.

Best is only one of several artists to render its Jacobethan chutzpah, tempered here with watercolor softness. This work found its way to Agincourt in 1948, a gift from a war-weary British family who had come to recuperate with Iowa friends following the Blitz.

Biographical information on Gladys Best is scant. Born at Plymouth, Devon, in 1898 [to a family of hydraulic engineers], she died sixty-seven years later in Exeter, the county town and the subject of this painting.

Sesquicentennial Quilt

Still in the planning stages at the time of Agincourt’s sesquicentennial, the quilt celebrating its 150th anniversary will be displayed for the first time in the exhibit during September-October this year. I can’t show you any images of it but it is safe to say the square is its driving force.


The plan of Agincourt’s original townsite is a square one mile on each side, typical of the jeffersonian grid that dominates our conception of the landscape throughout the Midwest and Great Plains. It doesn’t work so well where the topography is lumpy or where natural features—rivers, lakes, fjords—interrupt the general horizontality of the place we call home. The townsite was derived from familiar mid-19th century models (and earlier) such as Philadelphia or Madison. Philly isn’t the best example, perhaps, because its “squareness” is often misperceived.

Our quilt is about eighty inches square and includes enough of the historic core to be immediately recognizable. We hope you enjoy it. I include a different quilt here to whet the appetite.


The way things work…

Among other things, this week has been riddled with panic attacks regarding the September opening of “Agincourt Redux.”

“Reflux” might be a better word.


Atop the 1889 Fennimore County courthouse there is or, rather, was a weather vane. It withstood the elements and the vagaries of men (a frequent target for kids with their first rifle) from the day of dedication in October 1890 until it was struck by lightening in 1966. For those seventy-six years, it hinted at the direction of prevailing breezes, though it weighed so much that gale-force winds could barely move it. Firefighters found it while extinguishing smoldering debris in the days after the fire.

But this was no mere arrow with N, E, W and S on its cardinal extremities. Ours was a five-foot iron representation of a Mediæval bowman, the sort who prevailed at the Battle of Agincourt on October 25th, 1415. Weathered and worn, beaten and burned, retrieved and lost and found again, it spent several decades misplaced in a pole barn on the Schütz farm, before being donated to the Heritage Center at the old Vakkerdahl Farm. I’m pleased to report that the preserved artifact will be prominent—with other building components and decorative objects—at this year’s exhibit at the Rourke Art Museum.


The exhibit’s main event, not incidentally, will occur on Sunday afternoon, October 25th, 2015, the six hundredth anniversary of the very battle that the weather vane represents.

William Richard Lethaby (1857-1931)


William Richard Lethaby was an important contributor to the Arts & Crafts movement at the turn of the 20th century, though his name is hardly a household word. Tomorrow, Thursday, 17th July, will be the eighty-fourth anniversary of his death.

Lethaby’s entrance to the architectural profession might have assured some degree of notoriety. Originally on track to enter the office of William Butterfield—the mid-century Victorian that we love to hate—he was articled instead to Richard Norman Shaw, slightly younger and more directly connected to the Arts & Crafts, where the young Lethaby earned his credentials working on “Cragside,” a Northumberland country house that may be Shaw’s most renowned commission. My friend Marilla Thurston Missbach and I visited “Cragside” about twenty years ago, a treasured memory for its strategic convergence of person, place and an iconic summer afternoon. I was ignorant of Lethaby’s connection at the time; a return engagement seems required.

His own office opened in 1889 but Lethaby’s architectural output was limited to just six buildings, each of them idiosyncratic. I’ve seen just one: the diminutive church of All Saints, Brockhampton-upon-Wye, near the Welsh border; indeed, I’ve seen it twice and would happily return to learn more from its deceptive simplicity. With only five other works to his credit, you might wonder about Lethaby’s significance.

Even while he worked with Shaw, Lethaby joined the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, where he encountered William Morris and the inner circle of the Arts & Crafts; Philip Webb became a close friend. Writing some years later, he credited Webb especially for an important insight: “The happy chance of close intimacy with Philip Webb the architect, at last satisfied my mind about that mysterious thing we call ‘architecture.’ From him I learnt that what I was going to mean by architecture was not mere designs, forms, and grandeurs, but buildings, honest and human, with hearts in them.”

Conceiving an architectural point of view and writing about it is one thing. But Lethaby put his theories into practice more intensively at London’s Central School of Arts & Crafts, where he had received an appointment in 1902. Coupled with his teaching at the Royal College of Art and a role as Surveyor of Westminster Abbey, he strode into the thick of theorizing in the early years of the 20th century

I found that quote—about Philip Webb’s influence—twice today, thinking about William Richard Lethaby and his passing in the early years of Modernism, and took solace from it; that architecture is about buildings, “honest and human, with hearts in them.” What do you suppose Lethaby would have made, for instance, of Villa Savoye, so different from the crusty irascibility of, say, a residential project like Melsetter House,” Lethaby’s magnum opus on Hoy in the Orkneys.

There is so much left to learn; my time is running out.



Chamber Opera

“Opera is actually a lot better than it sounds.” —Cecil Elliott


I came to a fondness for opera rather late in life. Possibly because the standard repertoire suffers (in my jaundiced view, at least) from overexposure. My world does not require yet another production of “Carmen,” thank you very much. Once you get passed the perfectly fine operatic works of Tchaikovsky, Rossini, Verdi and Bizet, however, the domain of opera is considerably larger than I’d imagined as a teenager. I seem to have an affinity for operas of the late 20th and 21st centuries. it was in the Minnesota Opera production of Dominick Argento’s “The Aspern Papers” some years ago that Cecil Elliott’s claim was made startlingly clear.

I had won a ticket on MPR and drove down to the Ordway in time to grab a hotdog in Rice Park and then settle uncomfortably into the second night of Aspern—and a massive case of indigestion from a bad dog masked by far too much onion and relish. There is a scene  with four characters on stage. The trick is that two of the characters are in the 1840s and the other two are in the 1890s—in the same room and oblivious of the other couple’s existence. So, technically they are not singing a quartet; it is, in fact, two simultaneous duets. It was costume—the pale pastels of the ’40s and the dowdy greys of the ’90s—that made sense of it. The next day, on a Sunday Afternoon, MPR broadcast that afternoon’s live performance and when they came to that particular scene it was painfully evident that, without color-coding and stage direction, its sound alone was an aural swamp that made little sense to my untrained ear.


There is a delightful operatic subset intended for the salon; the setting typical of the 18th century when music was performed in the drawing rooms of nobility. Since the late 20th century, there has been a renaissance of this chamber variety, much of it very accessible in English (for the linguistically challenged, like myself). Two come to mind, both because I happen to like them and also because they highlight opera’s ability to reveal nuances of character: Samuel Barber’s tiny production “A Hand of Bridge” and the more recent “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” by Michael Nyman (based on the book by Oliver Sachs). Their forces are modest (casts of four and three); the sets minimal (one requires a card table and four chairs); and the orchestras limited. One wonders why they aren’t performed more often. By contrast, Giuseppe Verdi’s “Aida” requires elephants and a Cecil B. Demille-scaled cast of hundreds.

Samuel Barber’s friend Gian Carlo Menotti wrote the libretto (“book” to you and me) for “Hand of Bridge,” whose action takes place entirely  within the confines of a single hand of bridge. Two couples drift from the mechanics of the game into their innermost fears and desires, until the game ends abruptly with “Trump!” With so little diversion—orchestral pomposities; costumed extravagance—we are left with character. Nuanced intimacy. There is inspiration.


Brenda Hartill [born 1952]


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

HARTILL, Brenda [born 1952]



etching on paper / 14.6 inches by 11.2 inches

Hartill is a contemporary British artist. She was born in England but emigrated to New Zealand as a small child with her parents. Today, from her studio in Rye, East Sussex, she “is becoming increasingly interested in painting, creating a series of embossed watercolour paintings (see new works), as well as her mixed-media collage paintings using oil paint and encaustic wax. Her recent work includes a series of unique monoprints, in muted colours, and black and white, and there is a strong element of embossing in the latest prints.”

“Prelude” was acquired from a London gallery by Sarah and Michael Bruhn during their honeymoon. The work is on long-term loan to the Community Collection from the Bruhns.

“Your talent is in your choice.” —Stella Adler

What I call “a long attention span” is really my unparalleled ability to postpone. The irony is that I write extensively about my resistance to actual writing. So when Jerry Lewis hosts the telethon to help stamp out procrastination, I’ll be the poster child they wheel on stage. When you give, give generously.


The word Noh means skill, craft, or … talent particularly in the field of performing arts.”

There are two parallel histories of theatre in Agincourt. One is the fairly orthodox 19th century tradition of vaudeville or live music hall performance that began in Harney’s Orpheum and shifted to The Auditorium when that older opera house burned. Both plays and musical drama (i.e. operas and operettas) were staged at the College after 1910, while independent community theatre emerged at some point as well. The Auditorium itself morphed from play to movie house and back to legitimate theatre. [I wonder if Howard will get around to writing about this.] Theatre’s other track—unorthodox, even peculiar, I suppose—begins in the 1920s with the introduction of drama therapy by Agincourt’s resident alienist Dr Reinhold Kölb at Walden, his private sanitarium out on Thoreau Avenue.

Kölb had come to Iowa in the mid-1920s to escape the rise of Fascism in his native Austria. In Vienna he knew and admired the work of his contemporary Jacob Levy Moreno, inventor of drama therapy and counterpoint to Freud in that psychologically volatile decade. Moreno transplanted his method to New York City where it was continued by his wife into the 1960s. Kölb’s contribution in his smaller, more conservative adopted community was a melding of drama therapy—the writing and performance of plays by patients as an integral part of their healing—with both puppetry and Japanese Noh. Yeah, like I know anything about either of those.

In their more highly evolved forms and only when his “actors” were comfortable with public performance, Walden’s plays were enacted in The Commons in a plywood and corrugated metal puppet theatre built especially for them. One of the last performances—in the mid-1940s near the end of the war—was witnessed by the young Seamus Tierney. It must have been a transformative encounter for the twelve-year-old Tierney, a powerful memory that lingered into his own theatrical career: in the late 1950s Tierney founded the Prairie Players as Agincourt’s first successful community theatre and one of his earliest productions, “The Cave of the Heart,” was inspired by both Martha Graham and Kölb, who may have even collaborated in the production. It is Tierney’s play that I hope to reconstruct.


Giuseppe Parano

giuseppe parano001

Is it too much a cliché that the barber in this RPPC is Italian?

Further populating Agincourt with the fullest complement of butchers, bakers, makers of candlesticks, etc., I acquired this postcard of a barber give one of his patrons a shave. Penciled lightly on the back is the name “Giuseppe Parano” but without postmark or any additional information. Ancestry.com confirms someone with a similar name:  a U.S. draft card puts Giuseppe Peirano, Italian-born in 1881, at Framingham, MA, but you know what happened to emigrants’ names when passing through Ellis Island. Somehow, this gentleman will have a shop on Broad Street, eventually, and a satisfied clientele.