Welcome to Agincourt, Iowa

Home » 2019 » November

Monthly Archives: November 2019

M. J. Hamblin Smith [1871-1936]

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

HAMBLIN SMITH, M. J. (1871–1936; British)

“On the Move”

four-color woodcut / 6 inches by 7.5 inches / #6 of 50

ca1920

Hamblin Smith is one of the collection’s mystery artists, attested by the paucity of biographical information available. It is possible he was the son of James Hamblin Smith, a life-long Cambridge tutor and author of texts on mathematics. Among Smith’s four children is a son named Maurice—who is plausibly the “M” in M. J.—though the latter’s career was spent in criminal justice as the superintendent of England’s Dartmoor Prison. It is tempting to imagine the administrator of a notorious detention facility like Dartmoor relaxing with chisels and a piece of soft wood—a hobby that would have been denied his inmates.

The pace of village life such as he might have encountered in Devon a hundred years ago is convincingly portrayed here with muted tones and stark contrast. We hear the whiney of a horse near retirement. We feel the weight of the teamster’s load. All is calm. It simply requires the arrival of Miss Marple.

Oleg Denisenko [born 1961]

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

DENISENKO, Oleg (born 1961; Oleh Denysenko / Олег Денисенко)

“Old Vine”

2009

etching / 8.5 inches by 6.25 inches / #79 of 100

“Sebastian”

2006

etching / 8.5 inches by 6.25 inches / #93 of 100

“The etchings of Ukrainian print artist, Oleg Denisenko, delight the imagination with their fantastical themes and complex, intricate detail. The fineness of line and rich imagery reflect the very strong and active print tradition of Eastern Europe and Russia.”

Another on-line blog waxes about Denisenko with even more enthusiasm:

“Sometimes artists can be self-consciously quirky in an attempt to be ‘different’ and carve a niche for themselves. Other times, though, artists are simply quirky because the are. I think Ukrainian artist Oleg Denisenko falls into the latter category.

“His delightfully bizarre prints of fantastical figures in elaborate armor, often sporting wings and accompanied by armored horses, arcane astrolabes, strange musical instruments, wheels, levers, charts and diagrams are filled with wonderful bits of texture and line. The monochromatic prints have a remarkable sense of being colorful because the variety of textures and line-filled areas have some of the same space-defining feeling as areas of color might in a painting.

“Though the images carry a sense of medieval times, Denisenko was born in 1961. [Another source gives 1959.]

“His images spill over with objects from his mental and emotional attic. Wheeled toys, wind-up keys, jester hats, and Da Vinci-like diagrams for nonsensical Renaissance machinery mix with textured amalgams of dragons and birds.

“Through it all is a wonderful graphic exuberance that makes you think that as soon as he stopped on one image, he would immediately begin the next just because he was having so much fun.”

These two delightful prints came to Agincourt as an exchange between Denisenko and NIN art faculty member Mason Glore, who has graciously placed them with us on extended loan. Though the scale is vastly different, in content they compare favorably with the lithographs and drawings of Robert A. Nelson.

Abel Kane

Six or seven years ago someone recommended that I get an external hard drive to replace the garland of miscellaneous jump drives around my neck. So I did. And within three weeks it died a horrible and irretrievable death, and with it so did most of the early files from the Agincourt Project. Revisiting a blog entry from 2011, I was surprised to be reacquainted with Abel Kane, who I see now, with ten years’ hindsight, was shaped by my recollection of an old friend.

Like Gaudeamus Tennant, who had a virgin birth, Kane’s mother E. G. Fromm became a mother without benefit of marriage. Agincourt seems built on a deep vein of illegitimacy, which I frankly can’t explain. Until further notice, it is what it is.

ABEL KANE

His name is an obvious contradiction in terms, similar in a way to Agincourt’s palindromatic grave digger Neil Klien, but Neil’s case was a very sad one. Kane, I suspect, had a more fundamental and long lasting influence on the community.

Like Frank Lloyd Wright who had a dominant mother figure during his formative years, in addition to being surrounded with sisters, Kane’s father was never identified—his mother picked the surname out of thin air—and his mother E. G. Fromm presented a gender-neutral public face to the world, at least through the name she used as a writer. Abel must have got his voracious reading habits from her. And that fits with the people we know he kept as close friends—people like Hal Holt. It’s a good bet he was a member of The Why and hung out in their repurposed water tower.

One wonders if he had a correspondence beyond Agincourt, perhaps even internationally.

The Place of Houses

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” — Robert Frost

HOME

I can attest that building types vary in their degree of difficulty, and that in my case the more problematic are 1) structures for religious use and 2) single-family houses. The first because a “church” is supposed to look like the one we knew as children; the second because “home” is identified with our own, to the extent that we may have lived at one address for some length of time. A criticism of either is personal affront.

Through the years, I’ve learned that over-familiarity with the single-family house also stands in our way as designers because buildings fit us like an old shoe, soft and comfortable and put on with ease and little forethought. It accommodates every bone and bunion, as do our homes, and “functions” with the same unconscience ease: things are simply where they ought to be; they’re at hand without thinking, like walking into a dark room and reaching for the light switch.

I designed a house once for an elderly couple in Breckenridge, Minnesota, in their early sixties. [I am much older now than they were then, you should know.] Visiting them once, gathering information about what they wanted (often at the expense of what they might need), I observed her answer the phone in her kitchen, bowl of cookie batter in hand, and without a hitch in her motion, answer it, place the receiver betwixt ear and shoulder, sit with her hip on the kitchen counter, reach for a pencil and jot down a number for Joe to call when he got home, all without ever setting down the bowl. In those few seconds she told me more about what her new home should be than hours of interview and shoeboxes of magazine clippings.

As you might imagine, housing accounts for the clear majority of building stock in any community, varying perhaps with decade and region in the United States. And, as I’ve written before, our houses come from a wider range of sources than you might imagine: yes, architects design them, but those are often not worth our notice. Others come from stock plans through builder-contractors or the lumber yard. But as a kid I was a devotee of plan books available at news counters and magazine racks; today those are likely to be found on-line. And material manufacturers and suppliers were inclined to suggest plans which specified their products. While other collections of plans were responsive to one or another of the issues of the day. All told, you’d really have to work at avoiding all house plans and allowing your new home to spring forth full-blown from the brow of Zeus. It simply doesn’t happen.¹

Considering the evolution of Agincourt, I have a good idea which neighbords developed a particular character; who lived where and why. And since the town plan is divided in symmetrical quadrants those neighborhoods developed with a measure of independence. The north-east, for example, had the highest elevation, was least flood prone and likely to have attracted greater wealth and socio-economic status. By contrast, the southwest came to be called “Mesopotamia” and was inclined to flood from both the Mighty Muskrat and Crispin Creek. They might as well have been on different planets.

What follows are — in no particular order and hardly inclusive — reference to several other blog entries where I’ve rambled about the house as a general architectural matter and one particular to Agincourt. I hope they might be helpful to the would-be designer of a memorable house in this imaginery place.

Your Solar House

The Place of Houses

Aidan & Cordelia Archer

G+B+D

¹ Having just written this, I’m reminded of something once said about architect Bruce Goff: that he designed each of his homes as though it were the first one in the world. Looking at them, you might think so. And in many cases you’d be mistaken.

bavinger.jpg

Gordon Hope Grant [1875-1962]

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

GRANT, Gordon Hope (1875-1962)

“Reflection”

undated (ca1940)

lithograph / 9 inches by 12 inches (image) / edition of 250

Best known for his marine paintings, watercolors, and etchings, Gordon Hope Grant was born in San Francisco and educated in Scotland. He then studied at the Heatherly and Lambeth Art School in London and returned to San Francisco where he worked as an illustrator for local newspapers until 1896, when he moved to New York as an illustrator for both the World and Journal. In 1899 Grant was sent as an artist-correspondent to South Africa by Harper’s Weekly to cover the Boer War. From 1901 to 1909, he was an illustrator for Puck.

In the years following service during World War I, Grant concentrated on marine subjects, producing paintings and etchings, and illustrating books with nautical themes. He also created a series of highly regarded views of Manhattan. A member of numerous professional societies, his work is held in important collections nationwide, including the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gordon Hope Grant died in New York.

“Reflection” is one of several seascapes in the Collection. The oblique three-quarter profile of the larger boat compares favorably with both the John Edgar Platt prints.

Chicken Shit

Chicken Shit

Chicago industrialist John J. Glessner approached the renowned Boston architect H. H. Richardson with the commission for a house. Glessner had done it modestly, almost appologetically, since Richardson’s other Chicago buildings were both large and prominent. Why Glessner imagined his own home would be less noted or notable is anyone’s guess.

At any rate, Richardson’s reply has become legend, attesting his own humility as well as setting the bar for the “worthiness” of a client or commission. He wrote: “I’ll plan anything a man wants, from a cathedral to a chicken coop. That’s what I do to make a living.” Not an ounce of Calatrava or Gehry hubris there. And, though Richardson designed an unbuilt cathedral project for Albany, New York, that coop commission eluded his all too brief forty-eight years with us.

I’ve wanted for some time to assign a studio project in the spirit of Richardson’s light hearted “jest”-ure, but time’s awasting ’cause there aren’t many semesters left to me.

For those who know the traditional ARCH 272 design project (a birdhouse in the styles of renowned architects, most of which have little to do with the starchitects in question), I’d propose a slight variant: a chicken coop, say, in the style of C.F.A. Voysey or Adolf Loos. Now there’s a scary notion: Loos and chickens. Loos would certainly appreciate the “modernity” of the egg’s shape [read “Ornament and Crime” sometime] but I can’t imagine him handling the thing that made it. It’s far easier to conceive Karl Friederich Schinkel’s response.

So last night during reruns of the impeachment hearings [must-see TV], I googled some information on coop-itecture and, then, this morning for a half hour or so this is what I concocted. The vehicle is supposed to be William Halsey Wood, largely because I’ve begun to know his work pretty well, while most others haven’t a clue who he was. Gives me a slight advantage. It’s a long way from completion but I thought you might enjoy a peek.

One-shop Stopping

The Station-Store

There’s a joke about a Scot and a Spaniard.

Discussing differences in their languages, the Spaniard inquired: “We have a word in my country —”mañana”— which means tomorrow or some unspecified time in the future. In practical terms, though, it means whenever we get around to it. Do you have anything like that in Scotland?” After considerable introspection, the Scot responded in a thick Glaswegian accent: “No. We dunna have a word that quite describes that degree of urgency.” I learned firsthand about the Scots sense of time on my first visit to the Isle of Skye.

The train from Glasgow dropped me at a miniscule depot that marked the end of the line for our two-car train. From there I could see the ferry ticket office, which would get me across the strait to Skye, innermost of the Hebrides; I could just see the island through the morning mists. Trundling those few yards with one large bag, I inquired of Charybdis the Ferryman when the boat would leave for the island. His reply, delivered straight-faced and without a second’s hesitation — “Oh, about ten minutes after it gets here” — then turned to resume his morning tea.

Time in the Highlands and Islands moves with less regularity than it does elsewhere. Notions of timeliness or punctuality are foreign to the northern disposition. Tapping your foot achieves nothing. All things happen in their own good time. And, indeed, the ferry did depart about ten minutes after its arrival.

For the next two weeks I learned to appreciate the joke about the Spaniard and the Scot.

Summer service on the NITC line ran from the trackside shelter at Fahnstock to the Station-Store on Sturm und Drang between Memorial and Labor day. And some weekends before and after. That’s about eight miles, not accounting several curves and swerves which lengthened the trip to just over eleven. But the fifteen-to-twenty minute ride could take a bit longer when the driver was inclined to honor unofficial flag stops along the way. NITC was “user friendly.”

The end of the line was a loose accumulation of buildings of muddled character and mixed (which it to say miscellaneous) use. The station-store was a story-and-a-half wood farmhouse, gable end toward the water. The former living room had become a grocery-cum-hardware emporium; the dining room, a restaurant seating no more than eight on mismatched furniture that had seen better days; kitchen with wood-burning stove; and an office that was home to a taxidermed menagerie. Upstairs, three hotel rooms, strictly “European Plan”. Wash basins were provided, but the toilet was downstairs, as was the shower —  bracingly cold for free; hot water ran an extra fifteen cents. Homemade lye soap could strip paint. Your hosts, the Prikleighs, Edith and son Ivor, had run the operation since the death of Mr P some time in the mid-Eighties.

Widow Prikleigh stood barely four feet tall, which was also her circumference, but Ivor was a lanky lad and must have taken after his dad. Edith was also postmistress for the area — named “Resort” — and Ivor ran a launch that served the lake’s other hostelries, Bagby’s, Moody’s, and Smith’s, the latter approximating a hotel in the accepted sense. Their limited conversational exchanges were delivered in a friendly Down East accent which hinted at New England origins; I never asked. But the food was hearty, farm fixin’s and seasonal fare, depending on what was in the garden or in Ivor’s traps; you could never quite identify the principal ingredient in her stew, though it stuck to the ribs and left you wondering why your mother hadn’t cooked like that. Herbs and spices came from just outside the kitchen door and were rumored to’ve been fertilized with night soil — if you know what I mean.

The bench on the lakeside porch arrayed a changing cast of characters, though conversation rarely strayed from a limited range of topics: 1) the weather, 2) whatever war had just concluded, or 3) a catch-all category I’d call “Back in the Day”. Politics were off limits, and any attack on persons not there to defend themselves would get you sent packing. If Mr Zuckerberg had some of Edith Prikleigh’s common sense, social media would be a good deal less contentious.

Three months of The Season couldn’t have been enough to keep the Prikleighs through the winter. So Edith wove rag rugs and did a brisk mail order business year round. Ivor tanned the hides of those critters in the stew and fashioned them into the most durable gloves you’ve ever worn. And folks drove out or came by trolley for the Friday fish extravaganza set up under a canvas awning along the hotel’s south side, served family-style on trestle tables and benches borrowed from Saint Ferreolus chapel. [Now that I think about it, it may have been the chapel that borrowed Edith’s benches.] Whatever way it was, you were guaranteed a full stomach and a good time. The coffee was strong and her iced tea hinted of an ingredient restricted by Prohibition. The pies were made by one of the Borogove sisters —  I forget which one, but she went to Chicago and opened a pretty fine restaurant.

Fidgety young folks could always fish or go for a swim; teenagers could borrow a boat and spoon. But it didn’t take much persuasion for Ivor to get down his guitar. Before long, it all seemed like camp meeting without the exhortation and personal testimony — no bad thing on a Friday evening — and lasted long past sunset. The NITC ran a special late car on those days — kind of a “designated driver” —  so the party continued on into the Agincourt depot as people drifted homeward.

Those were simpler days. You could slow time and even wind back the clock to relive life’s better moments. Just like I’m doing here.