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Henry Humphrey Moore [1844-1926]

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

MOORE, Henry “Harry” Humphrey [1844–1926]

“Pandora’s Box”

1918

oil on canvas / 21 inches by 16 inches

Were it not for its late date, “Pandora’s Box” might be considered an example of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, whose subjects tended toward the medieval or the mythological. Here, Pandora’s curiosity will open the box containing all the evils of the world.

Henry (“Harry”) Moore is of interest beyond his abilities as a painter. Born deaf in New York City, he studied art at Philadelphia with Samuel Waugh, father of Frederick Waugh — yet another link between our collection and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art — and with Jean-Léon Gérôme at the École des Beaux Arts. Moore then spent several years painting in both Morocco and Japan. Moore died in Paris, which the Doyle auction house biography accounts for his lack of reputation.

“Pandora’s Box” is on long-term loan to the Collection from Agincourt’s own locksmith, Pandora Lock & Key, through the generosity of the proprietors.

Charles B. Keeler [1882–1964]

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

KEELER, Charles Butler [1882–1964]

“Cogollos-Vega, Spain”

ca1929

aquatint on laid paper / 11 3/8 inches x 14 7/8 inches / #14 of 75

Iowa native Charles B. Keller was born at Cedar Rapids in 1882. Keeler received his Bachelor of Arts at Harvard in 1905 and continued studies at the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as printmaking with Bertha Jacques and B.J.O. Nordfeldt. A Keeler aquatint received honorable mention at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco.

“Cogollos-Vega, Spain” represents one of several European trips made by Keeler. It was acquired from the decorating department of J. L. Brandeis and Sons in Omaha some time during the early 1930s.

Edward L. Palmer [1877-1952]

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

PALMER, Edward Livingston, Jr [1877–1952]

“August”

two-color wood cut on paper / 8.2 inches by 6.5 inches

1930

E. L. Palmer was a well known architect and city planner in Baltimore who also produced a remarkable number of woodcut prints such as “August”, a work from the 1930s. Neither the extent of Palmer’s output nor the time he may have devoted to printmaking are known.

There was a time when the boundaries between artist and architect were indistinct; in academe, students of architecture often crossed disciplinary lines to take courses in various artistic media. Because “draughting” was an integral part of the architectural design process — apparently no one “draughts” any more — print media were particularly appropriate. Indeed, Palmer’s first academic degree was a B.A. earned at Johns Hopkins in 1899, followed by a B.S. Arch in 1903. Curiously, Palmer’s Wikipedia bio says nothing about his work as an artist.

 

One Score and Then…

A Brief History of the Community Collection

by Ellen Weise, PhD

with an Afterword by R.H.L.M. Ramsay

From its inception as the G.A.R. Exhibit of 1912, Agincourt’s civic art collection has been a small but vital part of our community history and cultural life. Organized by Amity Burroughs Flynn as a one-time event — a showing of just twenty works gathered from private homes and local business — what has become the Community Collection boasts more than two hundred pieces and hosts an annual event of considerable pride and more than local interest.

The 1912 exhibit and social events connected with it proved so successful that another show was held two years later, and by 1915 participation had grown to such a degree that space was allocated in the new public library program for a permanent gallery and reception room. Whether the Community Collection was its intended occupant can be inferred from the festivities surrounding the library’s opening in September 1915. That show in the new Tennant Memorial Gallery (dedicated as a testament to its young architect Anson Tennant) displayed forty works, double the number shown just three years previous; but here, too, the pieces were borrowed from local sources, what today we would call a “grass roots” expression of Agincourt’s cultural life.

It’s clear that by 1919 a permanent collection had evolved, though records from those early years are incomplete. Local lore hints that Mrs Flynn, still the guiding spirit, had cajoled a few of the early lenders to donate their art from a compound sense of civic pride, vanity, and guilt; she seems to have understood the definition of diplomacy as “the art of letting others have your way.” Whatever the underlying motives, a unique civic enterprise had been born, identified at the 1920 exhibition as the “Community Collection” and officially housed at the Public Library. Mrs Flynn’s guidance for nine critical years shifted to an oversight committee and remained a collective effort until 1950, when Ruth Arbogast became the first official Keeper of the Community Collection, a role and responsibility I have tried to fulfill since 2010.

In addition to the annual exhibit, the Keeper’s responsibilities have evolved to include collection care and record-keeping, adding new works and researching those with incomplete documentation. When conservation is required, museums in Des Moines, Omaha, or Sioux City have provided those professional services, paid from an endowment that has kept pace with the collection’s numbers, growing at an average of just over two acquisitions per year since 1912.

When the new Fennimore County Public Library facility opened in 1970, the Collection became a 501(c)(3) charitable trust and negotiated a permanent home in the old library, a good neighbor to the commercial and professional activities elsewhere in the building. And beyond its use as a gallery for traveling exhibits and the Collection itself, the Tennant Memorial serves as a venue for weddings, receptions, meetings and other events compatible with its higher calling, exceeding the Founders intentions more than a century ago.

The Collection

At an event several years ago, someone (presumably unfamiliar with the collection) described it as “landscapes and livestock”, superficial but true enough, because there are so many bucolic pastoral scenes, many with “safely-grazing sheep and cows, content ‘neath puffy clouds.” We, especially here in Iowa, are an agricultural people, so a philosophic and artistic connection with the land is natural. But why, then, in a place a thousand miles from an ocean, do seascapes constitute such a prominent type? One, so close, so familiar; the other, a faint recollection for the earliest settlers and others, even today, who’ve been to neither coast.

The breadth of genre (land-, sea-, and city-scapes, still lifes, portraits, and abstractions), of media (paintings in oil and watercolor; pastel, ink, and pencil drawings; photographs and prints, but most of it two-dimensional); and of age and, therefore, of style are remarkable for a collection so unintentional. And that may be its greatest strength and source of interest: the Community Collection has had no single guiding vision, no articulate editorial point of view. The nearest approximation may be a form of Japanese poetry called renga, probably unknown in the Edwardian Midwest of 1912:

renga (連歌, collaborative poetry) is a genre of Japanese collaborative poetry — poetry written by more than one author working together. A renga consists of at least two ku (句) or stanzas. The opening stanza of the renga, called the hokku (発句), became the basis for the modern haiku form of poetry.

Each new line of the poem is dependent upon, grows naturally from, what precedes it. And it is that spirit of organic growth which may have been the unintended pattern underlying our collection: each individual work may be considered in isolation, out of context, but it is the relationship between and among works that bring the collection to life. And because the entire collection can no longer be displayed at one time, our ability to choose, combine, and juxtapose works in various ways reveals something fresh each time they are shown. The curator’s compositional skills complement those of the artists.

BREADTH vs. DEPTH: It’s difficult for a collection of modest size (200-plus pieces) to enjoy both breadth and depth. Yet there are clusters of works here comparable in medium or subject which enable the sort of comparison revealed within the collections of far larger institutions. Multiple examples of woodblock prints, for example, in the Japanese style called ukiyo-e or “floating world” were created in the 1920s by both native Japanese artists and by Europeans, especially British artists, who imitated Japanese style. Seeing them side-by-side explains much about our cultural differences and the ways that diverse societies interact and culture transmitted.

By remarkable coincidence, there are also pairs of works by artists who not only knew but were friendly with one another. Exploring their biographies and the circumstances which brought them together offers insight to the very process of creativity and illustrates that who an artist is may link intimately with what an artist produces or how they go about their work. It was American artist-craftsman Elbert Hubbard who observed, “Art is not a thing, it is a way.”

SIMPLE vs. COMPLEX: Simple is not simplistic; neither is a complex thing convoluted or chaotic. Both have their proper place as characteristics in works of art and our appreciation for them. It is pattern and its detection which are common to these opposing ideas.

“If we cannot tell a story about what happened to us, nothing has happened to us.”
― James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games

ART TELLS A TALE: Each work of art is a story. It may have been intended by the artist. It may have been inferred by another, a critic, an authority, or art historian. But equally valid and probably more important, the story will develop within the viewer herself. Something about the actors or their actions within the work resonate, conjure, arouse reaction from the observer, bringing to mind …

TALISMAN, TOUCHSTONE, METAPHOR, MEME: The fundamental questions remain: When does a bunch of art become a collection? What could possibly be the purpose behind its accumulation and how does that differ from the manifold ways it might be used?

<a work in progress / come back again soon>

An Afterword

Ronald H.L.M. Ramsay

As a member of the Permanent Collection Committee of another art institution, concerned with its maintenance and development at the core of the museum’s mission, I’ve become acquainted with Agincourt’s “Community Collection” during the last few years and marveled that a community of Agincourt’s size even possesses such a resource. Important personal collections exist in places like Agincourt, driven by an informed personal sensibility for what might be called “art” and enabled by not inconsiderable personal wealth, and those collections are often gifted to the public intact with a hope that they will be embraced by their community and become a seed, the core of something greater. But there is little, if any, precedent for what has developed in this small community in rural Iowa. Its organic process is as unusual as its beginning: It has no overarching “mission”, no single guiding hand. Indeed, the ad hoc-ness of it all seems to move the collection forward and to integrate it with Agincourt’s public life.

Frankly, I couldn’t have imagined anything so offbeat, so out of step with the orthodoxy of high culture. Neither can I recommend it to you more highly.

An aside regarding postcards…

Many of my research interests would be crippled without the world of postcards. You might be surprised, shocked even, to realize that as I write this entry there are 3,725,395 postcard offers at “the on-line auction site that dare not speak its name”. And several of those offers are for multiple cards, so we can safely assume that there are more than four million cards up for auction right now.

Given the number of postcards available, there simply isn’t enough time to review all that might be of interest, so I’ve had to develop search skills that hone the number down to something remotely manageable. But even within those limits, the range is daunting. Consider this group of offers showing an urban fire on Wabash Avenue in Chicago:

And these aren’t all of them. But they do represent several things: the differences in presentation and card quality, but particularly the vast difference in price related to quality.

The prices of these five range from $3.97 to $19.95, for essentially the same card.

See what I’m up against?

And PS: I can’t even estimate the number of times I’ve walked that block of North Wabash. the Morris Book shop was at #24 and I think it was Colby Furnishings next door. The storefront on the far right says “Remington”, as in typewriters.

 

 

Lawrence Buck at Cedar Rapids

John M. Ely Sr residence, Cedar Rapids, IA / Lawrence Buck, architect / demolished

Among the unsung contributors to early 20th century residential design — overshadowed by his near contemporary Frank Lloyd Wright — Lawrence Buck may have had as much public recognition during the years 1900-1920 as his more renowned Chicago colleague. Born just two years apart, Buck died in 1929, while Wright lived another thirty years, sufficient time to add considerable luster to his reputation. I’m a Chicagoan, too, and inclined to honor the also-rans of architectural history — not those who finished as win, place, or show, but who simply finished the race — and find considerable interest in Buck.

Born in New Orleans in 1865, Buck studied art with his father, a well-known painter of romantic moss-draped landscapes, but entered the architectural profession when his mother was widowed. Following a few years of early practice in Birmingham, Alabama, Buck and his employer-partner John Sutcliffe relocated to Chicago during the late 1890s, where he maintained a small office and supplemented his income as the delineator-for-hire for other architects. I became aware of his work when a house of Buck’s design showed up in a survey of pre-WWI North Dakota buildings. By what means did a Chicago practitioner get a commission at the edge of the known universe? Answering that question has led me a merry chase.

Followers of the Agincourt blog will know that Buck designed three houses in the community, each of them plausible and an opportunity for me to play in the design sandbox of history:

  • the substantial home for Aidan and Cordelia Archer at 108 N.E. Agincourt Avenue
  • a far more modest home for school principal Miss Rose Kavana, and
  • an actual Buck design replicated from his Ladies Home Journal scheme of about April 1908

Two of these are my effort to “channel” Buck’s design idiom. But their inspiration has come from a survey of Buck work in Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kansas, California, both Dakotas, and, most significantly, in Iowa. I present for your consideration the substantial home in Cedar Rapids for John Ely (above) — sadly destroyed several years ago to make room for an apartment complex.

If memory serves (which it does far less reliably these days), there were six Lawrence Buck houses in Iowa at one time, all of them dating from about 1905-1910, three in Cedar Rapids and another three in Dubuque. Of those, the house called “Four Mounds” at Dubuque was even larger.

George Burden residence, “Four Mounds” / L. Buck, architect / ca1909

I’m not, by the way, trying to make a case that Lawrence Buck was an architect of comparable talent to Mr Wright; his work is far more modest and of a decidedly more English Arts & Crafts character. But for those very reasons, I find him a wonderful case study in the nature of residential design a hundred years ago and also the mechanisms for regional architectural practice.

Aidan and Cordelia Archer residence, Agincourt, IA / ca1908

Metropolitan Metrics

Among the most useful historical sources, in my experience, is the city directory. During the 19th century they were published with regularity — annually, sometimes every other year — a snapshot of the community, as much as the U.S. Census, though preserving different information. I’ve wanted to produce an Agincourt directory, not all of it, but just enough to illustrate my point. For several reasons I chose 1912, the first year that Anson Tennant would have advertised his services as the community’s resident architect.

Many of you may know that the U.S. Census for 1890 was stored at the Library of Congress, but unfortunately most of it was destroyed by fire. Because the census is so important in genealogical work, companies like Ancestry.com began to compensate by microfilming city directories between 1880 and 1900 to compensate. Initially, only large cities like Chicago were scanned but gradually other cities and towns  were added to that database. I think it may be safe to say that for a state like Iowa, most published directories are available.

So, I consulted the 1915 directory for Fort Dodge (a city I mistakenly thought to be representative) and found it to have been published by the R.L. Polk Co., established in 1870 and still active; their format became the model for the Midwest and beyond. I’d prefer that Agincourt’s be a local production, however, so I’ll have to check other Iowa cities to find how pervasive the Polk presence may have been.

Here is a fairly typical page from the classified section, showing the several architects serving Fort Dodge and its hinterlands. Presumably they’d have poached in Agincourt, as well. “architects & Superintendents”, by the way, represented a wide variety of professional ability, ranging from services we’d recognize today as “architectural”, but it would also have included skills more akin to contracting and construction supervision; Iowa didn’t require professional licensure until 1926.

Using Fort Dodge as a template is problematic because the city’s population increased dramatically between 1900 and 1910, perhaps representing the untypical presence of the U.S. Army. So I may have to find another city like Storm Lake. More as the story develops, including a company profile for N&H and the identities of its management.

Conspicuous Consumption

McMansionland

“In suburban communities, McMansion is a pejorative term for a large ‘mass-produced’ dwelling, constructed with low-quality materials and craftsmanship, using a mishmash of architectural symbols to invoke connotations of wealth or taste, executed via poorly imagined exterior and interior design.” — Wikipedia

Somewhere on the edge of Agincourt, perhaps within sight of the urban fringe, there is likely to be an example of the late 20th century species called the McMansion. The southern outskirts of my own city has several, most of them interchangeable with their cousins across America. Products of the housing boom of the ’80s and ’90s, fewer were built after the market crash around 2008. Several websites are watching as these architectural dinosaurs reach an age when normal deferred maintenance will require a new roof, re-windowing, or energy updating. Let the fun begin.

To learn more, I recommend a visit to McMansion Hell or Homes of the Rich; the latter currently features a 24,000 monstrosity in Indiana. Here is one of my favorites, simply because it is the “weekend” home of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (annotated for your amusement):

I’ve been reminiscing this week about the trip a friend and I made of the British Isles last year. Yes, we necessarily visited a few houses of the 19th and early 20th century rich-and-famous, places like “Blackwell” on the shore of Lake Windermere or “Hillhouse” in the distant Glasgow suburb of Helensburgh. And, yes, these homes are almost obscenely large for single-family occupancy. Their redemption lies in one simple characteristic: each is an architecturally distinguished design that has stood the test of a century’s critical attention; they are worthy of our attention despite their size. Their craftsmanship was generally impeccable; the cohesiveness of home and furnishings, the product of a single designer’s mind.

Wealth, however, has not always equated with size; the height of the front door or the number of dormers and turrets are not a barometer of your stock portfolio. And the example (again from our 2018 trip) that came to mind is the home of W. J. Bassett-Lowke at Northampton, better known by its address, #78 Derngate.

If the Bassett-Lowke name seems familiar it may be that your hobby is model railroading, because the family manufactured trains, model ships, and other similar “toys”, in quotation marks because they aren’t always bought by or even for children. The home at #78 was bought for W. J. and his new wife as a wedding present, a nondescript house of 1815 remodeled during 1916-1917 by Scottish architect C. R. Mackintosh.

From the street, the only clue to the hand of “Toshie”, as he was known, is the front door, which merely hints at the wonders awaiting within. And despite the family’s probable wealth, the interior volumes are modest, indeed, and not simply because the project was undertaken during the height of Britain’s involvement with the World War.

The modesty of its interior space is more than compensated in two ways: 1) the inventive manipulation of those spaces within such cramped dimensions (the house is barely twenty feet wide) and #2) the enrichment of practically every surface with paneling, stenciling, stained glass (for borrowed light), light fixtures themselves, and carpets.

The degree of the designer’s attention is comparable to large homes by Frank Lloyd Wright from the same years — say the nearly contemporary house in Los Angeles for Aline Barnsdall — but the similarity ends there. For this is an exercise in proto-Art Deco hardly known in the United States. But what struck me in hindsight is simply this: to the casual passerby, #78 Derngate belies its qualitative attention to detail, content to be something unknown today, an example of inconspicuous consumption.

Take that, Thorsten Veblen.