THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Like for many, the lockdown has given me more time than I really know what to do with. Aside from the 9 to 5, I have roughly 3 extra hours each day to fill thanks to the absense of a commute, and in those other hours during the evenings and weekends, being at home all the time makes the traditional indoor entertainment activities somewhat less captivating. Searching for another way to engage my brain, I recently stumbled across the news that earlier this year, the Smithsonian launched a massive open access project, allowing users to browse nearly 3 million items from their collections. When you reach the Smithsonian Open Access homepage, it asks the question - "What will you create?". I knew that was a question I wanted to find an answer to, and so I started browsing some of the items in hope for finding the hook on which to place a project.
At first, I input some broader search terms; London, Britain, United Kingdom and so forth. I quickly noticed that the Smithsonian's collections include some fascinating paintings and artworks of the UK. I realized that many of these were available via the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and on closer inspection, many have been painted by American artists. So in answer to the question, "What will you create?", I answer, I've created an article for The American about several American artists who have put their impressions of Britain to the canvas, in the hope of offering some interesting insights into the life and work of just a few of the Americans who have looked to the UK as their artistic muse.
A quick caveat, there is more on the Smithsonian Open Access project than I can put into words, so this isn't a complete project, just a brief insight into what you can discover by using the many digital repositories that exist online for history and heritage. I hope you find this interesting!
The first artist that took my notice was Cass Gilbert, an American architect who was born in Zanesville, Ohio. The painting above of Compton Castle in Devon is one of six works by Gilbert that I've picked out from the Smithsonian Open Access collection - you can see them all below. Cass, born on November 24, 1859, was named after his uncle, the US Senator Lewis Cass. At the age of nine, the Gilbert family moved to Minneapolis, and in 1876, Cass became employed as an apprentice in the office of the architect Abraham Radcliffe. Two years later, he enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, studying architecture. According to the Cass Gilbert Society, on "January 3, 1880, Cass Gilbert left New York City for Liverpool, England, with $420.00. For almost a year he made his way through the countrysides and cities of picturesque England, France, and Italy. He sketched architectural features that he would later use in many of his designs. Disappointed that he could not secure employment in London, Cass Gilbert returned to New York in September 1880 and went to work for the prestigious architecture firm of McKim, Mead and White, serving as Stanford White’s assistant." One of the paintings below, a watercolor of St Peters Church in Cambridge, is dated 1880.
In the following years, Gilbert worked on a number of projects, building residences, churches, offices and railroad stations across Minnesota, Wisconsin, North and South Dakota and Montana. Towards the end of the 1800s, Gilbert moved to New York, where he developed designs for some of the city's most iconic buildings, including "West Street Building, the New York Life Insurance Company Building, the New York County Lawyers Association Building, the Brooklyn Army Terminal, and the US Courthouse." In 1913, he completed the Woolworth building, which stood as the world's tallest construction for over a decade.
Throughout his tenure in New York, the Cass Gilbert Society say he "took annual trips to Europe" with his wife Julia ... "In 1925, during one of their European trips, they were granted an audience with the British Royal Family."
The paintings I found via the Smithsonian Open Access project range in date from 1880 to 1931, suggesting British architecture as something of a long term interest for Gilbert. The works below feature watercolors of iconic British buildings, including Durham Cathedral, Winsdor Castle, Wells Cathedral and Battle Abbey. Sadly, Gilbert passed away in 1934 whilst on a trip to the UK. An excerpt from Time magazine from May 28, 1934, wrote "Death, as it must to all men, came last week to Cass Gilbert, 74, architect, in Brockenhurst, England. Had not a sudden heart attack laid him low in a bedroom of pleasant, rambling Balmer Lawn Hotel, he, his wife and daughter would have left in two days for Southampton and the US. Behind him Cass Gilbert left many a great building to keep his memory alive through many a long year."
Quite the contrast to the work of Cass Gilbert, my eye was then drawn to the British coastal drawings of the American artist Winslow Homer. Homer, best known as a landscape artist and printmaker, was born in Boston, Massachusetts on February 24, 1836. After graduating high school, and a short stint as a commercial lithographer, Homer turned to freelance illustration, working for magazines including Ballou's Pictorial and Harper's Weekly.
After spending time living in New York, traveling to France and developing himself as an artist, Homer moved to England in 1881. According to Tony Harrison, author of Winslow Homer in England, "In March 1881, Winslow Homer, already well established as one of the foremost American artists of his time, travelled to England in search of new subjects for his brush. He found his way to the small, remote, wind-swept fishing village of Cullercoats in Northumberland on the North East coast where he lived for a year and a half, making numerous sketches, drawings, watercolours and oil paintings. He was ten miles from the large city of Newcastle upon Tyne, and about two miles from the fashionable Victorian resort of Tynemouth."
The Smithsonian's collection include a number of drawings from Homer's time in Cullercoats, illustrating the life of an English fishing community during the late 1800s. I've always been fascinated by the coast, and Homer's work offers an array of scenes from a traditional English fishing village; lifeboat excursions on rugged waves, fishermen hard at work, women and children enjoying the beach. The full variety of life on the English coast has been captured so eloquently by Homer in these works. Many of these images in the Smithsonian collection are charcoal drawings on paper, rather than the watercolors he is famous for, so this selection offers a particularly intimate sketch of life in the village. There's also a wonderful painting of the Houses of Parliament included in the Smithsonian Collection which I've added for good measure.
After his time in England, Homer returned to America in 1882, and later settled in Prout's Neck, Maine, in 1884, where he passed away in 1910.
Bertha Evelyn Jaques was a huge name in etching. Born in Covington, Ohio in 1863, Jaques is credited with reviving an art form which, at the time, was considered out of fashion in America.
The Cedar Rapids Museum of Arts has a collection dedicated to Jaques, who lived in Cedar Rapids between 1885 and 1889. According to the Museum, Jaques "did not come to printmaking until she was in her 30's when, in 1893, she attended the Chicago Columbian Exposition where she saw prints by such notable artists as James Abbott McNeill Whistler, James Tissot, and Anders Zorn. She became immediately interested in the etching technique and her surgeon husband, William K. Jaques (an 1883 graduate of Cornell Collge whom she met in Mount Vernon, Iowa) fashioned tools out of surgical instruments so that she could etch copper plates. With the purchase of a printing press, Jaques made her first etching in Chicago in 1894."
The Museum's article goes on to say that "As one of the first American etchers to popularize the medium in the United States, Jaques approached the art of etching with a keenly scientific mind by recording the details of every step in her printmaking process." The Smithsonian Open Access Project has several etchings produced by Jaques during trips to the UK in the 1910s. Among the images are some intricate etchings of the Thames, including one featuring Tower Bridge and another featuring the Sphinx that sits at Victoria Embankment, and other views of London. I've also selected a Jaques etching of Musselburgh Bridge in Edinburgh.
Jaques famously went on to help found the Chicago Society of Etchers, and she is also well known for her hand drawn botanical artworks. Having become a key figure in the US etching movement, she passed away in 1941 in Chicago.
Another American known for his etches, George Elbert Burr's work is synonymous with scenes of the deserts and mountain ranges of America. Born in Monroe Falls, Ohio, on April 14, 1859, Burr worked as an illustrator for magazines including Harper's, Cosmopolitan, and Frank Leslie's Weekly Newspaper, the latter of which gave him the opportunity to travel from coast to coast caputuring images of the United States. Although his later works centred on the American Southwest, he traveled to Europe in 1896, where he spent almost 5 years painting landscapes.
Among some of the wonderful paintings which are featured in the Smithsonian's collection are watercolors of the Welsh countryside and coast. For an artist who is perhaps better known for his later works of American landscapes, the many paintings of Wales are a treat to browse. Many of the paintings found in the Smithsonian's collection are dated 1899, and portray a variety of Welsh scenes from the coast to valleys to castles, including a pencil drawing of Caernarvon Castle.
I've included 6 images below, but there are quite a lot more on the Smithsonian Open Access website. According to the National Gallery of Art, after returning from Europe, "Burr achieved recognition for his paintings of the Rocky Mountains, but when ill health forced him to spend time in Arizona, the desert's harsh beauty became his special subject. He moved to Phoenix in 1924." Although understandably recognized for his US scenes, I think these paintings of Wales show the breadth and the capacity of Burr's skills. Burr spent the remainder of his life in Phoenix, and passed away in 1939.
Whilst the work of George Elbert Burr beautifully portrays Wales, another artist featured in the Smithsonian's Open Access project is Robert S Duncanson, who offers an equally sublime perspective on Scotland. Duncanson was born in Seneca County, New York, in 1821. What stands out about Duncanson's work is how his illustrations of Scotland echo the style of the English-born American artist Thomas Cole, whose paintings of rural America sought to reveal the romantic qualities of nature. According to the Smithsonian's biography of Duncanson, "Robert Scott Duncanson aspired to greatness as a landscape painter. By the 1860s the American press proclaimed him the "best landscape painter in the West," while London newspapers hailed him as the equal of his British contemporaries. Both then and now he rivaled the achievements of American landscape painters such as Thomas Cole, Asher Brown Durand, and John Frederick Kensett, who shaped the country's early landscape tradition in the Hudson River Valley style."
Described as "perhaps the most accomplished African-American painter in the United States from 1850 to 1860", the Smithsonian's biography notes that Scotland had a special place in Duncanson's life, "probably inspired by his father's Scottish heritage. He created romantic wilderness views that may have been influenced by the novels and poems of Sir Walter Scott." After his final trip to Scotland in 1870/1871, he returned to the US and "exhibited his Scottish paintings with remarkable success. By all indications Duncanson's career was flourishing, and his paintings commanded up to five hundred dollars each, a very high sum for the time."
The story of Duncanson's life has a sad ending. According to the Smithsonian, "Unfortunately, when his career seemed brightest, he succumbed to emotional illness. His mental collapse occurred during the summer of 1872 while the artist was arranging an exhibition of his works in Detroit. He was hospitalized for three months at the Michigan State Retreat, and on December 21, 1872, he died. Duncanson's obituary in The Detroit Tribune of December 29, 1872, stated that, "He had acquired the idea that in all his artistic efforts he was aided by the spirits of the great masters." The problems of a biracial person in pre- and post-Civil War America, as well as his concern for his status as an artist, may have contributed to Duncanson's breakdown. So too may have Duncanson's seemingly irreconcilable conflicts between the romantic and realistic tendencies in his paintings. Perhaps it was the romantic realm in which Duncanson sought to escape from the harsh realities of prejudice."
I think the background of Duncanson's life makes his paintings of Scotland even more fascinating to look at, and more beautiful to behold.
One American artist in Britain who definitely doesn't require much of an introduction is James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Whistler's time in the UK needs little investigation, as it's already been so well discussed and highlighted through art academia. Nevertheless, there's a wide selection of Whistler's etches depicting London, and it's fascinating to browse through the drawings and see the capital through the eyes of a great American artist who made the UK his home. If you'd like to find out more, the Smithsonian Magazine has a great article on Whistler's time in London.
There are also some lovely paintings of the English coast, which I also selected from the Smithsonian's collection below.
Browsing through the Smithsonian's Open Access website, you'll find all sorts of paintings, drawings, photographs and pictures of different objects, places and people. As I had already started to browse for American artists who had depicted Britain, I found several other paintings which, whilst not part of a notable collection, were themselves notable for offering a unique, American perspective on the United Kingdom. Here, I selected three images which stood out to me; of Harlech Castle in North Wales, of London and of the Cornish coast.
When I began this article, I was inspired by the Smithsonian's words - "What will you create?". With access to the Smithsonian's open access archives, and with lots of other museums, cultural establishments and institutions opening up their own documents, artefacts and materials for all to enjoy, I now ask you - what will you create?
You can visit the Smithsonian's Open Access website by going to https://www.si.edu/openaccess
Essential Weekly Reads for Overseas Americans. Free