Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Portrait of the Campus in 1910

Arthur John Elder (painter) and W.T. Littig & Co. NY (publisher), University of Missouri, 1910, hand-tinted sepia photogravure, Gift of the estate of Gay McDonnell Bumgarner and James Bumgarner , & the children of Gay and Richard Carson McDonnell: Stephen Carson McDonnell, Patrick Chuck McDonnell, and Sharon Mae McDonnell. Photo credit: Emeka Anyanwu.
Our collection is already growing! The Unions were recently gifted a really charming hand-tinted gravure print from 1910 (just two years after the Journalism school opened) that shows a panoramic, birds-eye view of Mizzou’s campus! What’s a gravure print, you ask? Gravure is a photographic process of transferring an image (in our case a watercolor painting) to a stone or zinc plate used to mass produce the original image. Our gravure boasts some of the University’s most recognizable landmarks like a moss-covered Jesse Hall and the columns. Perhaps equally interesting, however, is what we can’t see here: Memorial Union, Ellis Library, and (of course) the new J School building were all built later. Moreover, the location of Peace Park (created in the aftermath of the Kent State killings), is here a yet-to-be-cultivated bit of forest! You might also look out for some of the sweeter details in the print such as students strolling along and lounging on the steps of Pickard:

Pickard Hall
Jesse Hall

The artist of our new print, Arthur John Elder, was born in London in 1874, but spent the majority of his career in various parts of the United States. In London, Elder studied with Walter Sickert, a dark and rather notorious Impressionist painter who, rumor has it, may have even been Jack the Ripper! Like his teacher (in aesthetics not in dubious reputation), Elder’s early painting trended toward Impressionism. His work was fairly successful. In fact, before leaving his motherland, Elder was awarded an artist medal at the famous cast-iron and glass exhibition hall, the Crystal Palace, which had been relocated from its original site in Hyde Park, London to Sydenham Hill.

In 1905 Elder left London, made a transatlantic move to San Francisco, and established both his home and studio on Lombard Street: San Francisco’s most beloved—and sometimes despised—thoroughfare. In the spring of 1906 his art went on exhibit at Mark Hopkins Institute (now San Francisco Art Institute). In April, just as his career was taking off, the great San Francisco earthquake hit and devastated both the Institute and the homes of Lombard Street. It is very likely that Elder would have lost most of his artwork and possessions in the fires that ensued. Understandably—to say the least—Elder left San Francisco after residing there for only a year.

In the wake of this tragedy Elder floated around a bit, visiting several parts of the Midwest (he was even a member of the St. Louis Watercolor Club). During this period the artist was employed by a publisher, W.T. Littig & Co., to create aerial renderings of American campuses and urban landmarks. W.T. Littig & Co., a New York publisher, employed several artists and is best known for these bird’s-eye urban views. Eventually, in 1925 Elder settled in Westport, CT where he became the director of the Westport School of Art, proving himself to be a man of many professional hats. Elder died there in 1948.

Printed aerial views, like the one in the Unions’ collection, were popular even before the Civil War. Because flight was not commercially offered to the general public until the 30s, these illustrations provided views otherwise unavailable to most Americans, allowing them perceive their environment in new ways. While viewmakers often varied on the degree of accuracy they achieved in their renderings, none wavered from the common goal of producing images that were pleasing to viewers. Venders often sold these images through bookstores or door to door canvassers and sometimes avid customers even subscribed to a given publisher’s views. In 1910 (when our print was made) it would have cost you somewhere around $5.00 to purchase it, and you might have seen versions of it hanging in local offices, home parlors, bank and hotel lobbies, and retail shops. These prints were seen as wall decoration rather than fine art; therefore, most were eventually destroyed. Only recently museums and collectors have started to recognize the historical significance of these prints and have begun to preserve the relative few that still exist.

In the early 20th century the popularity of these views rapidly declined. This decline happened for two main reasons: (1) The urban sprawls became too large to profitably render, and (2) the new-found ability to take panoramic photographs from the air made these prints look rather antiquated. The aviation advancements made during the First World War (a watershed moment in the development of flight) were met by increasingly improved methods of photography. Consequently, aerial photography soon dominated the bird’s-eye-market and captivated the American cultural imagination. To check out some great early aerial photographs of Mizzou’s campus check out the University Archive’s website: http://muarchives.missouri.edu/aerial.html


Authored by Niki Eaton, PhD Student, Art History and Archaeology

Bibliography

Falk, Peter Hastings, Ed. Who Was Who in American Art. Madison, CN: Sound View Press, 1985.

Jacobsen, Anita, Ed. Jacobsen’s Biographical Index of American Artists. Carrollton, TX: A.J. Publications, 2002.

Reps, John W. Views and Viewmakers of Urban America: Lithographs of Towns and Cities in the United States and Canada, Notes on the Artists and Publishers, and a Union Catalog of Their Work, 1825-1925. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1984.

***Special thanks goes out to Dr. Alex Barker and University Affairs in Jesse Hall for bringing this print to our attention!!! Thanks!