Monday, October 31, 2011

Columbus in the Bahamas

Some five hundred and sixty years ago today, or thereabouts, was born Christopher Columbus, probably the most famous explorer of all time. His voyages across the Atlantic brought much knowledge to Europe of the American continents, and also set in motion Spanish colonisation - a process which would have the most profound impact on the future of the world. Fortunately, Columbus kept detailed logs or diaries, and these are among the earliest of any surviving European diaries.

The eldest of five children, Columbus was born on (or around) 31 October 1451 in Genoa (there is some dispute about the place as well as the date) into a wool weaving family, possibly of Spanish Jewish descent. How he became a sailor is unclear, although it seems he may have worked first as a commercial agent in his home city, a busy port. He may also have been in the service of a pirate for a while. He made his first trading voyage to Khios in the Aegean Sea. On one early voyage, his vessel sank during a battle off the Portuguese coast, and it is thought he swam ashore. He then settled in Portugal, and married, in 1479, the daughter of the governor of the island of Porto Santo, who bore him one son.

In the belief that the world was smaller than thought, and round, and that Asia could be reached quickly by sailing west, Columbus petitioned the Portuguese court for funds, only to be rejected. He moved to Spain where his plans were more favourably received. Here, Beatriz Enriquez became his mistress and bore him a second son, Ferdinand Columbus. In 1492, Columbus set off on the first of four famous voyages. On the first one, he explored the Caribbean islands. On the second, he founded the first European town in the New World - on Hispaniola (the island now shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti).

During his third voyage, Columbus discovered the mainland of South America before returning to Hispaniola, where considerable discontent had arisen among the settlers; lobbying against him then led to his arrest. On returning to Spain, he regained his freedom, but at the cost of much prestige and the governorship of the Indies, a title and role he’d acquired after his first voyage. On his fourth and somewhat ill-fated journey, Columbus explored the coast of Central America, but was later stranded on Jamaica for a year. He returned to Spain in 1504, and, in 1506, died a wealthy man, though still in dispute with the Spanish crown over his share of the income from the new lands.

There is much information about Columbus available online, at Wikipedia, Royal Museums Greenwich, The Smithsonian, and in his famous journals which are all freely available at Internet Archive. Here is an extract describing the first sighting of land in the West Indies. It is taken from The Journal of Christopher Columbus (during his First Voyage, 1492-93), and Documents relating to the voyages of John Cabot and Gaspar Real, published by The Hakluyt Society in 1892 (on the 400th anniversary of the voyage).

11 October 1492 ‘The course was WSW, and there was more sea than there had been during the whole of the voyage. They saw sandpipers, and a green reed near the ship. Those of the caravel Pinta saw a cane and a pole, and they took up another small pole which appeared to have been worked with iron; also another bit of cane, a land-plant, and a small board. The crew of the caravel Niña also saw signs of land, and a small branch covered with berries. Everyone breathed afresh and rejoiced at these signs. The run until sunset was 26 leagues.

After sunset the Admiral returned to his original west course, and they went along at the rate of 12 miles an hour. Up to two hours after midnight they had gone 90 miles, equal to 22 1/2 leagues. As the caravel Pinta was a better sailer, and went ahead of the Admiral, she found the land, and made the signals ordered by the Admiral. The land was first seen by a sailor named Rodrigo de Triana. But the Admiral, at ten in the previous night, being on the castle of the poop, saw a light, though it was so uncertain that he could not affirm it was land. He called Pero Gutierrez, a gentleman of the Kings bed-chamber, and said that there seemed to be a light, and that he should look at it. He did so, and saw it. The Admiral said the same to Rodrigo Sanchez of Segovia, whom the King and Queen had sent with the fleet as inspector, but he could see nothing, because he was not in a place whence anything could be seen. After the Admiral had spoken he saw the light once or twice, and it was like a wax candle rising and falling. It seemed to few to be an indication of land; but the Admiral made certain that land was close.

When they said the Salve, which all the sailors were accustomed to sing in their way, the Admiral asked and admonished the men to keep a good look-out on the forecastle, and to watch well for land; and to him who should first cry out that he saw land, he would give a silk doublet, besides the other rewards promised by the Sovereigns, which were 10,000 maravedis to him who should first see it.

At two hours after midnight the land was sighted at a distance of two leagues. They shortened sail, and lay by under the mainsail without the bonnets. The vessels were hove to, waiting for daylight; and on Friday they arrived at a small island of the Lucayos, called, in the language of the Indians, Guanahani [Watling Island, named San Salvador by Columbus]. Presently they saw naked people. The Admiral went on shore in the armed boat, and Martin Alonso Pinzon, and Vicente Yañez, his brother, who was captain of the Niña. The Admiral took the royal standard, and the captains went with two banners of the green cross, which the Admiral took in all the ships as a sign, with an F and a Y and a crown over each letter, one on one side of the cross and the other on the other.

Having landed, they saw trees very green, and much water, and fruits of diverse kinds. The Admiral called to the two captains, and to the others who leaped on shore, and to Rodrigo Escovedo, secretary of the whole fleet, and to Rodrigo Sanchez of Segovia, and said that they should bear faithful testimony that he, in presence of all, had taken, as he now took, possession of the said island for the King and for the Queen, his Lords making the declarations that are required, as is more largely set forth in the testimonies which were then made in writing.

Presently many inhabitants of the island assembled. What follows is in the actual words of the Admiral in his book of the first navigation and discovery of the Indies. “I,” he says, “that we might form great friendship, for I knew that they were a people who could be more easily freed and converted to our holy faith by love than by force, gave to some of them red caps, and glass beads to put round their necks, and many other things of little value, which gave them great pleasure, and made them so much our friends that it was a marvel to see. They afterwards came to the ship’s boats where we were, swimming and bringing us parrots, cotton threads in skeins, darts, and many other things; and we exchanged them for other things that we gave them, such as glass beads and small bells. In fine, they took all, and gave what they had with good will. It appeared to me to be a race of people very poor in everything. They go as naked as when their mothers bore them, and so do the women, although I did not see more than one young girl. All I saw were youths, none more than thirty years of age. They are very well made, with very handsome bodies, and very good countenances. Their hair is short and coarse, almost like the hairs of a horse’s tail. They wear the hairs brought down to the eyebrows, except a few locks behind, which they wear long and never cut. They paint themselves black, and they are the colour of the Canarians, neither black nor white. Some paint themselves white, others red, and others of what colour they find. Some paint their faces, others the whole body, some only round the eyes, others only on the nose. They neither carry nor know anything of arms, for I showed them swords, and they took them by the blade and cut themselves through ignorance. They have no iron, their darts being wands without iron, some of them having a fish’s tooth at the end, and others being pointed in various ways. They are all of fair stature and size, with good faces, and well made. I saw some with marks of wounds on their bodies, and I made signs to ask what it was, and they gave me to understand that people from other adjacent islands came with the intention of seizing them, and that they defended themselves. I believed, and still believe, that they come here from the mainland to take them prisoners. They should be good servants and intelligent, for I observed that they quickly took in what was said to them, and I believe that they would easily be made Christians, as it appeared to me that they had no religion. I, our Lord being pleased, will take hence, at the time of my departure, six natives for your Highnesses, that they may learn to speak. I saw no beast of any kind except parrots, on this island.” The above is in the words of the Admiral.’

Friday, October 21, 2011

Arthur Schnitzler whistling

Arthur Schnitzler, the Austrian author who wrote sexy plays and stream-of-consciousness short stories long before they were fashionable, died 80 years ago today. He was also a committed diarist, documenting some parts of his life - not least his sexual activity - in meticulous detail. The diaries have only been published in German, in ten volumes; and even English-language biographies, which rely on the diary material, provide few verbatim quotes.

Schnitzler was born in Vienna in 1862, the son of a prominent Hungarian-Jewish doctor. He studied medicine at the city’s university until 1885, thereafter working at the city’s general hospital. He had a strong interest in psychiatry and was a friend of Sigmund Freud; but it was writing that attracted him most.

Schnitzler’s early literary reputation was largely gained through his plays, starting with Anatol in 1893, and then, in 1900, the now-popular Der Reigen (Hands Around, also known as La Ronde). This play - in which ten pairs of characters are shown before and after sex - was not actually performed until 1920, but led to the author being branded as a pornographer.

Encyclopedia Britannica summarises Schnitzler’s literary style: ‘Most at home in creating a single, precisely shaded mood for a one-act play or short story, [he] often evoked the atmosphere of the corrupt self-deception he saw in the last years of the Habsburg empire. He explored human psychology, portraying egotism in love, fear of death, the complexities of the erotic life, and the morbidity of spirit induced by a weary introspection.’ He also criticised the military code of conduct in various works, not least in his most well-known novel, Lieutenant Gustl, published at the turn of the century. This latter is considered one of the first German-language works of fiction to rely on stream-of-consciousness writing.

In 1903, Schnitzler married the actress Olga Gussman, with whom he had two children. His later years were largely spent in a villa overlooking Vienna where he devoted most of his time to writing fiction. His 1926 novella Traumnovelle (Dream Story) was turned into a major film by Stanley Kubrick in 1999 (Eyes Wide Shut). Schnitzler’s married daughter committed suicide in 1930, and he himself died on 21 October 1931. His works were banned by the Nazi party in Germany, and then also in Austria - indeed, they were among those thrown into the flames when Joseph Goebbels organized book burnings. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia or Encyclopaedia Britannica.

In addition to his other writing, Schnitzler meticulously kept a diary from the age of 17 until two days before his death. The manuscript, which runs to almost 8,000 pages, is considered among the most significant of German and European diary literature. Long before his death, Schnitzler stipulated that the volumes of the diaries to the year 1899 should not be published for twenty years after his death, and the remainder not for forty years. In fact, it was not until around 1980 that the Austrian Academy of Sciences began a long-term project to publish the diary, in ten volumes (the last appeared in 2000), with the title, Arthur Schnitzler - Tagebuch.

I can find no extracts or verbatim examples from Schnitzler’s diaries in English on the internet. However, an academic article about them, written by Andrew C Wisely (a Schnitzler specialist and associate professor of German at Baylor University) is freely available online at Googlebooks. The article - The Task of Memory: The Diary Project - takes up one chapter in Wisely’s Arthur Schnitzler and Twentieth-Century Criticism, published by Camden House in 2004. Wisely says the diaries are ‘most notable for Schnitzler’s casual descriptions of sexual conquests - he was often in relationships with several women at once, and for a period of some years he kept a record of every orgasm.’

Schnitzler’s Century, by Peter Gay and published by W W Norton & Co in 2001, relies extensively on extracts from Schnitzler’s diaries, however it only quotes verbatim extracts rarely. Here is one, dated 4 July 1887: ‘In the early morning, I passed her room, whistling. The second time she appeared, I, quickly into the room, lock the door and take her.’ Some pages can be viewed on the Amazon website. See also The Guardian for a review by Nicholas Lezard.

Lezard draws attention to an early moment in Schnitzler’s life: ‘The incident with which [Gay] kicks off his history, and which he makes a kind of focal epiphany, is the moment when Schnitzler’s doctor father finds his 16-year-old son’s diary. Arthur, his father discovered, had been indulging in some precocious sexual exploits. Schnitzler senior marches the young man off to his study and forces him to read ‘Moritz Kaposi’s three-volume standard treatise on syphilis and skin diseases complete with explicit and repellent illustrations’. ’

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Thomas Edison’s diary

Thomas Edison, one of the most famous and prolific inventors of all time, died 80 years ago today. The distribution of electricity and the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph, and the motion picture camera are all counted among his contributions to, what is often called, ‘modern life’. Although not known as a diarist, he did - for a few days in the summer of 1885 - keep a journal; and this document is considered to be the only document he left behind with thoughts and feelings of a personal nature.

Edison was born in Milan, Ohio, in 1847, but the family moved to Port Huron, Michigan, when he was seven, where he spent the rest of his childhood. At some point, he suffered from a disease which left him hard of hearing for the rest of his life. While still a young teenager, he sold sweets and newspapers on trains, and then became a roving telegraph operator. In 1868, he was employed as a night operator for Western Union; and, by the following year, he had moved to New York City, where, in his spare time, he worked on inventions. After repairing the telegraphic gold price indicator for Western Union, it then commissioned him to improve the stock ticker, which led to the Edison Universal Stock Printer.

In 1871, Edison married Mary Stilwell, only 16 at the time, and they had three children, before she died in 1884. With the proceeds from the sale of his patents to Western Union, he set up his own company, manufacturing stock tickers and printing telegraphs. By 1876, though, he had sold the company so as to have funds to build an industrial research laboratory, the first of its kind, at Menlo Park, New Jersey.

The following year Edison invented the phonograph, the first machine that could record the sound of someone’s voice and play it back. And the year after that, he began work on the idea of a light bulb, and he launched the Edison Electric Light Company. He demonstrated his carbon filament lamp in 1879. By the mid-1880s, Menlo Park had expanded to occupy two city blocks, and Edison and his team had invented, among other things, a system for electricity distribution and a carbon microphone. After the death of Mary, Edison met and married Mina Miller (with whom he would have three more children) and moved to Llewellyn Park in West Orange. Here he built a new laboratory, far larger than the facility at Menlo Park.

Edison was always much engaged with commercialising his products. Chief among these was electricity and its delivery - by 1887, there were well over 100 Edison power stations delivering direct current (DC) electricity. But he also became increasingly engaged in a very public battle with George Westinghouse who was promoting the distribution of alternating current (AC), which was more efficient to distribute. Edison continued working until his death on 18 October 1931. Among many other achievements, his organisation made major developments with the phonograph, x-rays, storage batteries, and motion pictures. Further information is available from The Library of Congress,, and The Thomas Edison Papers.

Edison is not known to have kept a diary through his life, but for one short period, in July 1885, he did write one - indeed, this manuscript is the only known volume kept by him specifically to record thoughts and feelings of a personal nature. It includes observations on art, literature, and religion, along with comments about his dreams, his health, and his feelings toward his future wife, Mina Miller. It was first edited by Dagobert Runes and published by the Philosophical Library, New York, in 1948, as The Diary and Sundry observations of T A Edison. In 1971, The Chatham Press published The Diary of Thomas A Edison with an introduction By Kathleen L McGuirk.

Photographs of the diary’s pages (46 images) can be viewed online at The Thomas Edison Papers website (which currently has 175,000 of Edison’s papers digitalised), hosted by Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey; and the transcribed text can be read at the Ayn Rand Institute website. Here is one full day’s entry.

19 July 1885
‘Slept as sound as a bug in a barrel of morphine. Donned a boiled and starched emblem of respectability. Eat food for breakfast. Weather delightful. Canary seed orchestra started up with same old tune, ancestor of this bird sang the self same tune 6,000 years ago to Adam down on the Euphrates, way back when Abel got a situation as the first angel. Read Sunday Herald, learned of John Roach’s failure - am sorry - he has been pursued with great malignity by newspapers and others, from ignorance I think. Americans ought to be proud of Roach, who started in life as a day laborer and became giant of industry and the greatest shipbuilder in the United States, employing thousands of men and feeding innumerable families. What has he now for this 40 years of incessant work and worry. People who hound such men as these I would invent a special Hades, I would stricken them with the chronic sciatic neuralgia and cause them to wander forever stark naked within the arctic circle.

Saw in same paper account of base ball match. This struck me as something unusual. Read more about that immeasurable immensity of tact and beauty Madame Recamier. I would like to see such a woman. Nature seems to be running her factory on another style of goods nowdays and won’t switch back until long after I’m baldheaded. Damon went out to assist the tide in. Daisy told me something about a man who kept livery stable in Venice. In afternoon went out in yacht. On first trip all our folks, and lot of smaller people, sailed around for an hour. Returned and landed the abbreviated people. Started for Cottage Park where we took on board the charming Mrs Roberts brevet Recamier, and a large lady friend whose name has twice got up and jumped out of my mind. Then sailed away for Rock buoy, and for some occult reason Damon didn’t stop and change his mind but headed for Liverpool. Went out two miles in ocean, undulations threatened to disturb the stability of the dinner of divers persons, returned at 7 p.m. Then Damon took out a boat load of slaves of the kitchen.

Damon and I after his return study plans for our Floridian bower in the lowlands of the peninsular Eden, within that charmed zone of beauty, where wafted from the table lands of the Oronoco and the dark Carib sea, perfumed zephyrs forever kiss the gorgeous flora. Rats! Damon took the plans to Boston to place them into the hands of an archetectualist to be reduced to a paper reality. Damon promised to ascertain probable cost chartering schooner to plough the Spanish main loaded with our hen coops. Dot came in and gave us a lot of girlish philosophy which amused us greatly. Oh dear, this celestial mud ball has made another revolution and no photograph yet received from the Chataquain Paragon of Perfection. How much longer will Hope dance on my intellect? Miss Igoe told me of a picture she had taken on a rock at Panama NY. There were several others in the group, interpolated so as to dilute the effect of Mina’s beauty. As she stated the picture was taken on a rock I immediately brought my scientific imagination to work to ascertain how the artist could have flowed collodion over a rock and put so many people inside his camera. Miss Igoe kindly corrected her explanation by stating that a picture was taken by a camera of a group on a rock. Thus my mind was brought back from a suspicion of her verbal integrity to a belief in the honesty of her narrative.

After supper Mrs G, Daisy and Louise with myself as an incidental appendage walked over to the town of Ocean Spray, went into a drug store and bought some alleged candy, asked the gilded youth with the usual vacuous expression, if he had any nitric peroxide, he gave a wild stare of incomhensability. Then I simplified the name to nitric acid, which I hoped was within the scope of his understanding. A faint gleam of intelligence crept over his face whereupon he went into another room from which he returned with the remark that he didn’t keep nitric acid. Fancy a drug store without nitric acid. A drug store nowdays seems to consist of a frontage of red, blue and green demijohns, a soda fountain, case with candy and toothbrushes, a lot of almost empty bottles with death and stomachatic destruction written in Latin on them, all in charge of a young man with a hatchet shaped head, hair laid out by a civil engineer, and a blank stare of mediocrity on his face that by comparison would cause a gum indian in the Eden Musée [to] look intellectual. On our return I carried the terrealbian gum drops.

Moon was shining brightly. Girls called my attention several times to beauty of the light from said moon shining upon the waters, couldn’t appreciate it, was so busy taking a mental triangleation of the moon, the two sides of said triangle meeting the base line of the earth at Woodside and Akron Ohio. Miss Igoe told us about her love of ancient literature, how she loved to read Latin, but couldn’t. I told her I was so fond of Greek that I always rushed for the comedies of Aristophanes to read whenever I had the jumping toothache. Bed - Mina, morning.’

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Farington on Dance

Nathaniel Dance Holland, a painter of some distinction and a founder member of the Royal Academy, died 200 years ago today. Although he didn’t keep a diary himself, he is mentioned many times in Joseph Farington’s diary, one of the most important sources of historical information about the London art world in the period.

The third son of architect George Dance the Elder, Nathaniel was born in 1735. He studied art under Francis Hayman, a painter and illustrator, and then, in 1754, went to live in Italy, where he developed a considerable reputation as a portrait painter. In 1760, he was commissioned to paint four versions of a now famous conversation piece (an informal group portrait) in front of the Colosseum. Soon after, he was also commissioned for a full-length portrait of Edward, Duke of York.

On his return to England in 1766, Dance continued working as a successful portrait painter. With Hayman and his architect brother George Dance the Younger, he was one of the founder members of the Royal Academy in 1768. Among his notable portraits were those of King George IIICaptain James Cook and actor David Garrick.

In 1773, both Dance and Thomas Gainsborough refused to exhibit at the Royal Academy after a disagreement with the president, Sir Joshua Reynolds, but Dance returned to the Academy exhibition in 1774, showing Orpheus Lamenting the Loss of Eurydice, and, in 1776, The Death of Mark Anthony. In 1782 he moved to Cranbury Park, Hampshire, the home of a widow, Mrs Harriet Dummer, who he married the following year.

Dance resigned from the Royal Academy in 1790, the year of his election to Parliament, but he did continue to exhibit as an amateur. He was made a baronet in 1800, and the same year took the name Holland by royal decree. He died on 15 October 1811. A little further information is available at Wikipedia, though the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (which requires login) has a much better article.

There is no evidence that Dance kept a diary. However, Joseph Farington mentions Dance in his diary quite often. Farington was born in 1747 in Leigh, Lancashire, the second of seven sons of the local vicar. After studying in Manchester, he went to train with Richard Wilson in London and won several prizes, awarded by the Society of Artists, for landscape drawings. He joined the Royal Academy when it was founded, and remained an active member for most of his life. Although he produced some important artistic books - Views of the Lakes of Cumberland and Westmorland and History of the River Thames - he is much better remembered for his diary, with its vivid portrayals of the London art scene in the late 18th century and early 19th century. Farington’s diary was first published by Hutchinson in the 1920s, in four volumes, and these are all freely available at Internet Archive.

Here are a few entries about Nathaniel Dance from Farington’s diary.

11 October 1793 ‘The Prince of Wales has desired N[athaniel] Dance to paint his portrait, which has much embarrassed the latter, who is very unwilling to do it.’

28 January 1794
‘Went this morning with G. Dance to N. Dances in Mortimer Street. The landscape the latter has painted is very ably executed, and very clear. He remarked on the custom of painters observing the foreground objects in masses of brown. His parts in shade are as much made out as those in light.’

18 March 1794
‘Dance recommended the painting clear skies with Ultramarine and White alone and then to use Ivory Black, with White for the cloud tints; adding in some cases a little vermilion or Naples yellow. He said Sir Joshua Reynolds recommended the using Black for his cloud tint, which he said would always be in harmony with the Blue and White.’

30 April 1794
‘News to-day of a victory over the French, near Cambray. The general opinion is that Lawrence this year is inferior to Hoppner. Jones and Hearne think the handling in Dances landscape poor and thorny: that the colouring has too much sameness: and that the greens are not of a true colour. Jones particularly objected to it. They both said how much the subject would gain by being differently coloured.’

26 May 1796
‘N, Dance I met & Sir George Beaumont joined us. Dance told us He had this day paid the Duke of Dorset £4,000 for his seat in the new parliament, and a treat there [East Grinstead] cost him £50 more. I asked him [how] He wd. be circumstanced if a new parliament shd. be called in a year or two. He said He had no agreement, it was all upon honor; but He should think himself very ill used, if required to pay again at the end of so short a time.’

21 April 1807
‘At Eleven o’Clock I called on Sir Nathaniel Holland [Dance had changed his name by this time to Dance-Holland]. We talked of the sale of Barry’s pictures. He said Barry’s Birth of Pandora was a very incompetent attempt to do something great. It was deficient both in design, in form, & in colouring. Jupiter was a Huge figure in the upper parts but the lower limbs were so small in proportion that such a figure could not stand. It was the case with several other figures in that picture; and many of the limbs appeared to have been executed in imitation of parts which He had looked at in the antique, but these limbs were not of the same character with the other parts of the figure to which He had attached them. What attempt there was at colouring was as bad as possible, He seemed to have no sense of it. On the whole He sd. Barry Had talked & bullied people into a belief of His being a great artist. He said His Venus rising from the Sea was His best performance. In that He had the Venus of Medicis in his eye, & made something of it, but He had spoilt the picture by rubbing a brick dust colour over the upper part of the figure.

He spoke of the Bacchus & Ariadne by Titian belonging to Lord Kinnaird. He said it was impossible that Titian could have left the Sky in the state it is, almost pure Ultramarine, like a Lapis Lazuli stone, while another part of the sky is quite Hot. He did not like the figure of Bacchus leaping from His Car, nor that of Ariadne. In some parts there is fine colour, but on the whole it is a picture more fit for an Artist to examine for the purpose of studying what is good in it, than desireable to hang up in a room for general admiration. He thought the picture had been in the hands of bungling picture menders.

He mentioned Wilkie with great approbation, saying that His merit was of the right sort, so true in all respects.

He complained of not having a good painting room at His House in the Country. He had no light good to paint by but what faced the South & He had been much embarassed by it.’

6 June 1807
‘[George] Dance I dined with. We dined a little before 5 and had Port, Madeira, & Red Champaigne. Drinking was spoken of. Dance told me I knew a person who never in his life was intoxicated; it was Sir Nathl. Holland, His Brother. He added that Sir Nathl. always objected to wine; and, when alone, He believed did not drink any; but in company passes the bottle so as to keep up an appearance of drinking some wine. Sir Nathl. has a strong prejudice against wine & thinks it a kind of poison. To Tea He has no objection.’

2 November 1807
‘Sir Nathl. is said to posess £24,000 a year, but does not expend more than £5,000 a year. He lives very handsomely however, both in His House & equipage; Has a man Cook, & when He gives dinners they are sumptuous. He is extremely fond of a young girl, the daughter of His Butler, and just emerging from Childhood. She sits at His table while Her father waits at it . . . and is taken by them [Sir Nathaniel & Lady Holland] when they pay visits, which causes some difficulty in others to know how to receive her. He makes sketches & occasionally paints, but complained of His eyes when speaking to Owen. Though He is considered a singular man in His manner, He is on the whole very well liked by the neighbouring gentry.’

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Broncho Buster

Frederic Remington, a leading figure in American art of the Wild West, was born a century and a half ago today. His paintings and sculptures - such as The Broncho Buster - remain much sought after today. Thanks to a bequest by his wife, Eva, the Frederic Remington Art Museum, located in Ogdensburg, New York, has a large collection of Remington art and artefacts, including his (somewhat scanty) diaries.

Remington was an only child, born on 4 October 1861 in Canton, New York. His father was a colonel in the Civil War, and a newspaper editor. The family moved to Ogdensburg when Ferederic was eleven. Even at an early age, he was noted for drawing soldiers and cowboys. He attended art school at Yale, but left to look after his ailing father who died when only 46.

Thereafter, Remington tried various jobs but devoted himself primarily to illustration. He married Eva Caten in 1884. By this time, demand for his Western illustrations from Harper’s Weekly and other New York magazines had begun to take off. He held his first one-man show in 1890 at the American Art Galleries, and, in the same year, moved to live in New Rochelle. Travelling widely, he spent a lot of time west of the Mississippi River, drawing aspects of the frontier, and loving the life.

Remington’s pictures, Wikipedia says, ‘brought visual information to the eastern public accompanying both factual accounts and fiction of the Old West’. He was praised and trusted for the accuracy of detail in his work. In 1888, two of his paintings were used for US stamps; his first book, Pony Tracks, was published in 1895, and others followed, not least an illustrated novel The Way of an Indian. Around this time, he also branched out into sculpture, producing some now-famous works, such as The Broncho Buster and Big Cowboy.

Remington briefly interrupted his work on Western subjects when, in 1898, he went to Cuba to act as a war correspondent and illustrator during the Spanish Civil War. He came back disillusioned by the realities of war. Near the end of his life, he moved to Ridgefield, Connecticut, but he was very obese by this time, and ill-health dogged him until his death in 1909. Further biographical information can be found at the Frederic Remington Art Museum website, and PBS American Masters.

The Frederic Remington Art Museum, located in Ogdensburg, says ‘the depth and breadth’ of its Remington holdings is ‘unmatched’. The museum is located in a property lived in by Eva Remington (though not Frederic) towards the end of her life; and its holding - including Frederic Remington’s diaries - originated through a bequest by Eva on her death in 1918. It does not appear that the diaries have been published, though authors have used them as source material for research, and a few extracts can be found on the Museum’s website.

2 April 1907
‘Left New York on Central with Henry Smith on Limited 3:30 - for south western trip.’

5 April 1907
‘Got out a Tucumcari N, Mexico. 6:00 AM country green as a leek drove out but country uninteresting slept at hotel all afternoon. Local train late. Went to bed woked up at midnight, no train, back to bed . . .’

6 April 1907
‘Out of here at 5o’c. Got to El Paso at 6. couldn’t get room at Sheldon and barely got room at St Regis. . . First bath in a week . . .’

7 April 1907
‘Tired and loafed - short walk wondering when we will go or what we will do.’

9 April 1907 ‘Came up 900 ft. to Cloudcroft all pines and not very paintable. Horrible dinner. Something must be done . . .’

10 April 1907
‘Sketched all day - Mountain and horses beautiful weather fine sunsets on pine tress. Picture ‘The dead cow boy and outlaw horse’ . . . Henry wants to go Grand Canyon.’

11 April 1907
‘We can no longer stand the altitudes. My heart nearly stopped when I took a bath this morning. We are overcome by altitude. Went down to Alamagordo - engineer pulled the air on us and nearly killed half dozen people in caboose by shock. I sketched bluffs at sunset and had terrible ride home across irrigating ditches.’

23 April 1907
‘Sketched Rio Grand river - wonderful red color. Lunched with Terry. . . Left El Paso at night met army officer Powell at station.’

15 April 1907
‘Got to Canyon. El Dover Hotel. Sketched at evening. Canyon bigger than I was led to expect by descriptions or pictures. Met Artist A Keer.’

In 1996, the museum also acquired Eva’s diaries. It says: ‘[These] raise quite a few questions about the composition of our holdings. For instance, on Friday, June 27th, 1913, she writes, “In the P.M. I washed Frederic’s paintings and varnished them and made a great improvement.” Museums and private collectors are now working to remove such old yellow varnish from Remington’s paintings. On Thursday, March 18th, 1915, she records, “Went over things in Frederic’s desk & burned a lot of photos, etc.” We may never know what she deleted from the historic record, or, just as compelling - why she did it. Clearly our holdings were not preserved in a time capsule before they came to us, and sometimes not after they were here.’