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Michael Upton [1938-2002]

[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]

UPTON, Michael [1938–2002; British]

“Telephone Conversation”

1986

oil on board / 9 1/8 inches x 7 5/8 inches

This subtle painting by British artist Michael Upton in both small and powerful. The subject — the disappearing cultural phenomenon of actual conversations on a telephone — invites comparison with Michael Paul’s similarly scaled work “People Talking without Listening”. The gallery handling his estate (Upton died in 2002) has this to say about him:

Michael Upton was born in Birmingham in 1938 and studied painting at the Royal College of Art, where his contemporaries included David Hockney. During his time at the RCA he was awarded a Leverhulme Scholarship and later went to study in Rome. He divided his activities between performance work and paintings, considering the two practices intimately connected. For most of his performance work Upton collaborated with artist Peter Lloyd-Jones, a partnership that manifested as a developing series of actions and installations throughout the 70s and 80s. He referred to his paintings as ‘domestic’ using a muted palette of four colors and concentrating on nostalgic images from his immediate environment.

During his life he exhibited in the RA Summer Exhibition and the Royal West of England Academy, Bristol. His solo shows included Yale Center for British Art (1987), the Anthony Ralph Gallery, New York (1987), and at Anne Berthoud and Cassian de Vere Cole’s galleries in London. He also taught at the Royal Academy of Art before retiring to Cornwall due to severe ill health.

Upton died in 2002 aged 64. A posthumous exhibition of his paintings took place at The Henry Peacock Gallery in 2004.

This work was exhibited during 1987 at the Roger Ramsay Gallery in Chicago, from which it found its way to Agincourt.

G-B-D

No, this isn’t one of those alphabet soup agencies of the Great Depression—the WPA, CCC, and PWA, among so many others; the heroic efforts of an era that made America genuinely great, if you ask me. No, G-B-D is peculiar to me, an observation that I find curiously compelling, yet far too unsophisticated for actual historians of architecture to bother.

Those initials represent three hierarchical architectural elements: gable, bay, and dormer; a triune composition not only prominent in middling-sized single-family houses of the 1880s and 1890s, but downright in your face — if you’re looking. They appear as high style in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Walter Gale house of 1893 — (1) the dominant gable roof (presented to the side yards), (2) the two-story cylindrical bay (jauntily off center), and (3) a balancing dormer (in this case, a dramatic attenuated two-story example). The purity of those shapes is borderline crystalline more than passingly “Froebel”. But, while Wright’s idiosyncratic flair allows the Gale house to bear bold witness to his signature style, this was hardly precedent-setting design for mid-decade houses.

A number of late 19th century American architects were adept at the then current Shingle Style. Among them, Bruce Price (NYC), William Ralph Emerson (Portland, ME, and a nephew of Ralph Waldo), J. Lyman Silsbee (Buffalo and, later, Chicago, where he influence the work of a young Frank Wright), and G. W. Maher (also Chicago), the Coxhead brothers (San Francisco). But there were dozens of others from Mount Desert Island, Maine, to the lumpy landscape of San Francisco Bay. It’s possible to abstract certain architectural principles at work within these buildings, but I don’t have to do that. John Beverly Robinson will explain everything.

I first noticed the G-B-D triplet in a house by Wright contemporary George Washington Maher, fellow contributor to the Midwestern Progressive movement and one of several Chicagoans linked in the new Prairie Style of 1900. Maher’s Gilman house in Chicago four years earlier, an exercise in the prevalent Shingle Style idiom, displays the same composition, if only a little more mainstream. Maher replicated that composition a few times, and its publication in two architectural journals led to its imitation, if not actual duplication, in several places — one of them my own home base of North Dakota. The Chester Motte residence in Agincourt is yet another. Their common trait is the G-B-D trinity of hierarchical elements: a dominant prismatic gable punctured by a cylindrical (or sometimes polygonal) bay and a tertiary dormer (which can be the exaggerated two-story version or a simple “eyebrow”). But whence cometh such a formula?

This notion, that architecture can be approached as three-dimensional geometric composition, was common in the last years of the 19th century, common enough that a series of articles on that very topic appeared in several early issues of Architectural Record. Those articles were assembled and published in book form in 1900 by their author John Beverley Robinson under the title Principles of Architectural Composition. The subtitle is informative as to his motives:

An Attempt to Order and Phrase Ideas Which have hitherto been only felt by the Instinctive Taste of Designers.

And though Robinson does not include a specific example of my G-B-D observed motif, the chapter headings reveal his intentions: Unity–Grouping–Grouping of Subordinate Parts–Appendages–Grouping of Details–etc. In the chapter on “Subordinate Parts”, he includes two of H. H. Richardson’s small public libraries (at Burlington, VT, and Quincy, MA) which play that game exceptionally well, for each subordinates a dormer and stair tower as secondary and tertiary components subsumed by a simple large rectangular mass: 1:2:3. So the now much abused C. F. Mott design (repurposed as a residence in Agincourt for lumberyard magnate Chester Motte) fits right in. Yes, it’s missing the dormer, but I’ll excuse that variation by claiming its role is being played by the living room bay on the right—the dormer slid on its side.

And whatever became of “Instinctive Taste”?

Protected: The Art of Subtraction

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Ann Winn [1930-2015]

[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]

WINN, Ann [1930–2015; British]

A Scene in Greece

date unknown

oil on canvas / 9 1/2 inches by 10 inches

Late British artist Ann Winn is a recent addition to the collection, possibly acquired from the London gallery which represents her estate or from her participation in a Chicago art fair. During her lifetime, she exhibited in many solo shows in London and group exhibitions including Royal Academy, New English Art Club, London Group, Royal Society of British Artists, International Art Fair London, Chicago International Art Fair, Surrey University, Arts Council Travelling Fair, National Academy in Greece. Public collections include Paintings In Hospitals, County Councils, British Museum Poster Museum of Mankind.

This delightful minimalist sample of Winn’s work gives us a glimpse of rural Greece, such as might have been seen in the corner of an eye while passing in a bus or train, then rendering it just as quickly on a shard of canvas hours later, the vivid memory of a moment.

Hans Frank [1884-1948]

[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]

FRANK, Hans [1884–1948]

“Landschaft mit Fluss” [“Landscape with River”]

ca1925

woodcut print on laid paper / 10 1/4 inches by 7 3/4 inches (image)

The prints of Austrian artist Hans Frank are not as familiar to U.S. audiences as the comparable work by John Edgar Platt. Our search for information led to a British site, to which we’ll defer:

Twin brothers Hans Frank and Leo Frank were born in Vienna on 13 May 1884. They were both students of Anton von Kenner at the School of Applied Arts in Vienna and Franz Rumpler at the Vienna Academy. Hans Frank was a painter and printmaker, working in both aquatint and colour woodcut and he exhibited at the Vienna Secession in 1912 and 1913. During World War I he served as an artillery regiment officer but after the war he travelled extensively through southern France, Italy, and Austria. Frank was awarded numerous prizes, including the Golden State Medal in 1908, the Silver Medal of the City Graz, the Royal Sakson Medal for Art and Science, the Staatlicher Ehrenpreis, the Prize of the City Vienna in 1931, the Goldene Ehrenmedaille des Wiener Künstlerhauses in 1934, the Waldmüllerpreis für Malerei, and the Kriehuber-Preis der Stadt Wien in 1944. He was a member of the Künstlerhaus in Vienna, the London Society of Graver Printers, and the California Society of Printmakers. His favourite motifs were birds and forest animals depicted in their natural habitats.

Compare Frank’s “Landschaft…” with Platt’s “Building the Trawler”, both of which profit from the influence of Japanese ukiyo-e.

Adriaan Johannes van ‘t Hoff [1893-1939]

“Achter de Duinen” / etching / Adriaan Johannes van ‘t Hoff

[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]

van ‘t HOFF, Adrianus Johannes [1893–1939]

“Achter de Duinen” [“Behind the Dunes”]

ca1930

etching / 7.8 inches by 11.6 inches (image) / #6 of 100

Adrianus (sometimes Adriaan) van ‘t Hoff  was a well known Dutch Arts and Crafts artist, famous especially for his travel posters and drawings and etchings of animals, particularly birds. He studied at the Academy of Figurative Art in the Hague and became one of the best loved and famed artists in the beginning of the 20th century. His work was strongly influenced by Art Deco and Jugendstil motifs, but shows none of that here. This example of his work came to the Community Collection from the van der Rijn family, owners of de Bijenkorf Department Store, who were themselves native to the Hague.

Platonic Solids

Passing platonic solids isn’t as painful as it might sound.

The “Shingle Style” is a design idiom relatively easy to assimilate, based as it is on the manipulation of platonic shapes such as those propounded by German educator Friedrich Fröbel. [I know, enough about Fröbel already!] Though the German died mid-century and didn’t live to see the impact his educational theories would have on American architecture in particular, he’d be surprised to find familiar shapes in Oak Park, Illinois, for example: The Walter Gale house of 1893 is a classic case in point.

The juxtaposition of three primary geometric solids, the prism, cylinder, and rectangular slab in that hierarchy of importance, all wrapped in narrow horizontal clapboard and shingled roofs were a stunning achievement for the very young Frank Lloyd Wright (twenty-six at the time), still employed by the Adler & Sullivan firm. It was work like this that caught Sullivan’s attention and resulted in the angry scene where phrases like “You can’t fire me; I just quit!” are hurled about. Design like this isn’t produced by people trying to hide.

Not wanting to beat a flagging horse, I won’t invoke the C. T. Mott house referenced several times in the past week, except to say that comparably reductive geometries were quite easy to interpret as a plan. Once you’ve looked at as many houses from the years 1885-1915 as I have, it takes little effort to imagine the two unillustrated sides of the house and the interior plan arrangement.

It’s really too bad there is so little market for this sort of shit, ’cause I’m damnably good at it.

Trickle-down Aesthetics

“Provenance” in art is the unbroken sequence of ownership from the artist’s studio or gallery to the auction house floor. It is usually taken as proof of authenticity, not unlike the chain of evidence in prosecuting a crime. Works of art attributed to renowned artists — Picasso, for example, or Whistler — can command significantly higher prices when they come with an unblemished provenance.

An architectural idea can leave a similar record; its trajectory, so to speak, from a supposed point of origin, a “smoking gun”, to a second iteration and to the next and the next, often exhibiting evolutionary change along the way — like the passing on of a rumor. In the case of Chester Motte’s modest home imagined on West Avenue — an exceptionally skillful exercise in platonic geometry, if you ask me — its antecedents are reasonably easy to trace. The most likely candidate for “smoking gun” (or “patient zero” in the realm of epidemiology) might be the 1886 William Kent cottage at Tuxedo Park, New York, by architect Bruce Price.

While Price is hardly a household name, one of its earliest offspring was the first suburban home of the recently-married Frank Lloyd Wright, whose notoriety is sufficient for him to become a question on “Jeopardy”. The Kent cottage was widely published but not the sole Shingle Style example, surely, to have crossed Wight’s line of sight. The young Wright was, if nothing else, a stylistic sponge, absorbing and making over in his own evolving idiom a phenomenal amount of current architectural work.

For the twenty-two year old Wright, someone inculcated with the educational methods of 19th century German educator Friedrich Fröbel, the Shingle Style was a cake walk; Wright’s personal touch was the stylized Palladian window motif in the front gable. So when the C. T. Mott’s “Country Cottage” came along, I knew its family tree at least two generations back. In fact the sequence here isn’t 1, 2, 3, that is, Price-Wright-Mott, because the dates put Mott between the other two. The provenance of an idea is an ever broadening tree, not a single knotted rope.

This simple (simplistic?) case is even less predictable, because the Mott and Price designs are so close in date that an even earlier expression of that platonic composition may yet to be found lurking in the shadows.

 

The Fennimore County Agricultural and Mechanical Society

Three substantial components of the project’s physical form have eluded me: #1) the pair of public spaces at Agincourt’s core—The Commons and The Square—and their respective character, the estrogen and testosterone of civic life; #2) the cemeteries at the east edge of the Original Townsite—The Shades (non-denominational), St Ahab’s (Roman Catholic consecrated space), and the Hebrew Burial Ground; and #3) the Fennimore County Fairgrounds. Of these, the most enticing is the third, because I can at least identify with midway carnival rides, cotton candy, and images of Pope Francis crafted from peas, beans, and pasta.

Two students have approached me about imagining this space at the west edge of town on the far side of the Mighty Muskrat. Understanding this site is not the most user-friendly on the web, I’ve gathered some of the miscellaneous references to the fairgrounds for them—and for you as well.

  • The Fennimore County Agricultural Association may have been my first serious consideration of the topic. And Improving the Gene Pool dealt with the fundamental purpose of such cultural institutions in the 19th century.
  • The Fennimore County Fair [2017.12.12] was an early observation of the topic. As was Brigg Fair, a romantic reference to a folk song orchestrated by Frederick Delius. See also: American Passtime (which has one too many “s”s but I prefer it that way) and Chautauqua (part 1) and Chautauqua (part 2) about another 19th century cultural institution often linked with fairgrounds but operating independently.
  • “Meet me at the Fair” [2018.01.03] was one of several attempts at linking the problem with parallels in my own experience. Here I wrote about William A. Wells, an early Oklahoma architect of my acquaintance who had designed several features at an amusement grounds in suburban Oklahoma City at the time of statehood.
  • The Northwest Iowa Traction Co. served the fairgrounds after about 1911 with seasonal service, which required a trestle over the Muskrat for access. And Infrastructure is yet a further inquiry into the fairgrounds’ connectivity with other parts of the community.
  • Romantic allusions to the fair brought me to write about Lover’s Leap, while “Sumer is icumen in…” attempted to integrate the fairgrounds with the river that borders its east edge.

Never having considered what all these musings may mean when taken together, I leave it to the two intrepid student volunteers who’ve elected to take this issue head on.

Little Gifts

“Real Photo Postcards” (RPPCs) are simply what they claim to be: actual photographs, rather than printed by offset lithography or some other process. For that reason alone, it is difficult to gauge how many of them there may be; perhaps as few as one. Which is why they are so expensive. This beauty is priced at $75, a very good reason why it won’t be added to the Agincourt Project collection. And yet…

Gifts like this don’t come along as often as I might like. Agincourt’s principle bank, the F+M+M or Farmers, Mechanics & Merchants Bank, came about through the merging of two earlier institutions on shaky financial grounds. I’m only slight bothered that the sign behind these gentlemen reads “Farmers and Merchants”, rather than “Farmers and Mechanics”, which would mesh more readily with the story line. It will take little time, however, to adjust that story to fit the evidence we see before us. The bonus, of course, is the group standing in front of the bank, four of them named, who could easily be connected with the bank in some way. Sure, I could photoshop their names, but why look a gift horse in the mouth. How are you at reading old handwriting? I see “Nelson” and “Grandfather Haugh” and “Carl” on the far right, but having trouble with Mr T.

BTW, “Haugh” is an English surname and is pronounced haw. And wouldn’t you like to know who was giving a lecture. That sort of detail doesn’t show up in a printed card.