The Americanization of Edward Bok/Chapter 22

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The Americanization of Edward Bok by Edward W. Bok
Chapter 22: An Adventure in Civic and Private Art

EDWARD BOK now turned his attention to those influences of a more public nature which he felt could contribute to elevate the standard of public taste.

He was surprised, on talking with furnishers of homes, to learn to what extent women whose husbands had recently acquired means would refer to certain styles of decoration and hangings which they had seen in the Pullman parlor-cars. He had never seriously regarded the influence of the furnishing of these cars upon the travelling public; now he realized that, in a decorative sense, they were a distinct factor and a very unfortunate one.

For in those days, twenty years ago, the decoration of the Pullman parlor-car was atrocious. Colors were in riotous discord; every foot of wood-panelling was carved and ornamented, nothing being left of the grain of even the most beautiful woods; gilt was recklessly laid on everywhere regardless of its fitness or relation. The hangings in the cars were not only in bad taste, but distinctly unsanitary; the heaviest velvets and showiest plushes were used; mirrors with bronzed and redplushed frames were the order of the day; cord portières, lambrequins, and tasselled fringes were still in vogue in these cars. It was a veritable riot of the worst conceivable ideas; and it was this standard that these women of the new-money class were accepting and introducing into their homes!

Bok wrote an editorial calling attention to these facts. The Pullman Company paid no attention to it, but the railroad journals did. With one accord they seized the cudgel which Bok had raised, and a series of hammerings began. The Pullman conductors began to report to their division chiefs that the passengers were criticising the cars, and the company at last woke up. It issued a cynical rejoinder; whereupon Bok wrote another editorial, and the railroad journals once more joined in the chorus.

The president of a large Western railroad wrote to Bok that he agreed absolutely with his position, and asked whether he had any definite suggestions to offer for the improvement of some new cars which they were about to order. Bok engaged two of the best architects and decorators in the country, and submitted the results to the officials of the railroad company, who approved of them heartily. The Pullman Company did not take very kindly, however, to suggestions thus brought to them. But a current had been started; the attention of the travelling public had been drawn for the first time to the wretched decoration of the cars; and public sentiment was beginning to be vocal.

The first change came when a new dining-car on the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad suddenly appeared. It was an artistically treated Flemish-oak-panelled car with longitudinal beams and cross-beams, giving the impression of a ceiling-beamed room. Between the “beams” was a quiet tone of deep yellow. The sides of the car were wainscoting of plain surface done in a Flemish stain rubbed down to a dull finish. The grain of the wood was allowed to serve as decoration; there was no carving. The whole tone of the car was that of the rich color of the sunflower. The effect upon the travelling public was instantaneous. Every passenger commented favorably on the car.

The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fé Railroad now followed suit by introducing a new Pullman chair-car. The hideous and germ-laden plush or velvet curtains were gone, and leather hangings of a rich tone took their place. All the grill-work of a bygone age was missing; likewise the rope curtains. The woods were left to show the grain; no carving was visible anywhere. The car was a relief to the eye, beautiful and simple, and easy to keep clean. Again the public observed, and expressed its pleasure.

The Pullman people now saw the drift, and wisely reorganized their decorative department. Only those who remember the Pullman parlor-car of twenty years ago can realize how long a step it is from the atrociously decorated, unsanitary vehicle of that day to the simple car of to-day.

It was only a step from the Pullman car to the landscape outside, and Bok next decided to see what he could do toward eliminating the hideous bill-board advertisements which defaced the landscape along the lines of the principal roads. He found a willing ally in this idea in Mr. J. Horace McFarland, of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, one of the most skilful photographers in the country, and the president of The American Civic Association. McFarland and Bok worked together; they took innumerable photographs, and began to publish them, calling public attention to the intrusion upon the public eye.

Page after page appeared in the magazine, and after a few months these roused public discussion as to legal control of this class of advertising. Bok meanwhile called the attention of women’s clubs and other civic organizations to the question, and urged that they clean their towns of the obnoxious bill-boards. Legislative measures regulating the size, character, and location of bill-boards were introduced in various States, a tax on each bill-board was suggested in other States, and the agitation began to bear fruit.

Bok now called upon his readers in general to help by offering a series of prizes totalling several thousands of dollars for two photographs, one showing a fence, barn, or outbuilding painted with an advertisement or having a bill-board attached to it, or a field with a bill-board in it, and a second photograph of the same spot showing the advertisement removed, with an accompanying affidavit of the owner of the property, legally attested, asserting that the advertisement had been permanently removed. Hundreds of photographs poured in, scores of prizes were awarded, the results were published, and requests came in for a second series of prizes, which were duly awarded.

While Bok did not solve the problem of bill-board advertising, and while in some parts of the country it is a more flagrant nuisance to-day than ever before, he had started the first serious agitation against bill-board advertising of bad design, detrimental, from its location, to landscape beauty. He succeeded in getting rid of a huge bill-board which had been placed at the most picturesque spot at Niagara Falls; and hearing of “the largest advertisement sign in the world” to be placed on the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, he notified the advertisers that a photograph of the sign, if it was erected, would be immediately published in the magazine and the attention of the women of America called to the defacement of one of the most impressive and beautiful scenes in the world. The article to be advertised was a household commodity, purchased by women; and the owners realized that the proposed advertisement would not be to the benefit of their product. The sign was abandoned.

Of course the advertisers whose signs were shown in the magazine immediately threatened the withdrawal of their accounts from The Ladies’ Home Journal, and the proposed advertiser at the Grand Canyon, whose business was conspicuous in each number of the magazine, became actively threatening. But Bok contended that the one proposition had absolutely no relation to the other, and that if concerns advertised in the magazine simply on the basis of his editorial policy toward bill-board advertising, it was, to say the least, not a sound basis for advertising. No advertising account was ever actually withdrawn.

In their travels about, Mr. McFarland and Bok began to note the disreputably untidy spots which various municipalities allowed in the closest proximity to the centre of their business life, in the most desirable residential sections, and often adjacent to the most important municipal buildings and parks. It was decided to select a dozen cities, pick out the most flagrant instances of spots which were not only an eyesore and a disgrace from a municipal standpoint, but a menace to health and meant a depreciation of real-estate value.

Lynn, Massachusetts, was the initial city chosen, a number of photographs were taken, and the first of a series of “Dirty Cities” was begun in the magazine. The effect was instantaneous. The people of Lynn rose in protest, and the municipal authorities threatened suit against the magazine; the local newspapers were virulent in their attacks. Without warning, they argued, Bok had held up their city to disgrace before the entire country; the attack was unwarranted; in bad taste; every citizen in Lynn should thereafter cease to buy the magazine, and so the criticisms ran. In answer Bok merely pointed to the photographs; to the fact that the camera could not lie, and that if he had misrepresented conditions he was ready to make amends.

Of course the facts could not be gainsaid; local pride was aroused, and as a result not only were the advertised “dirty spots” cleaned up, but the municipal authorities went out and hunted around for other spots in the city, not knowing what other photographs Bok might have had taken.

Trenton, New Jersey, was the next example, and the same storm of public resentment broke loose—with exactly the same beneficial results in the end to the city. Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, was the third one of America’s “dirty cities.” Here public anger rose particularly high, the magazine practically being barred from the news-stands. But again the result was to the lasting benefit of the community.

Memphis, Tennessee, came next, but here a different spirit was met. Although some resentment was expressed, the general feeling was that a service had been rendered the city, and that the only wise and practical solution was for the city to meet the situation. The result here was a group of municipal buildings costing millions of dollars, photographs of which The Ladies’ Home Journal subsequently published with gratification to itself and to the people of Memphis.

Cities throughout the country now began to look around to see whether they had dirty spots within their limits, not knowing when the McFarland photographers might visit them. Bok received letters from various municipalities calling his attention to the fact that they were cognizant of spots in their cities and were cleaning up, and asking that, if he had photographs of these spots, they should not be published.

It happened that in two such instances Bok had already prepared sets of photographs for publication. These he sent to the mayors of the respective cities, stating that if they would return them with an additional set showing the spots cleaned up there would be no occasion for their publication. In both cases this was done. Atlanta, Georgia; New Haven, Connecticut; Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and finally Bok’s own city of Philadelphia were duly chronicled in the magazine; local storms broke and calmed down—with the spots in every instance improved.

It was an interesting experiment in photographic civics. The pity of it is that more has not been done along this and similar lines.

The time now came when Bok could demonstrate the willingness of his own publishing company to do what it could to elevate the public taste in art. With the increasing circulation of The Ladies’ Home Journal and of The Saturday Evening Post the business of the company had grown to such dimensions that in 1908 plans for a new building were started. For purposes of air and light the vicinity of Independence Square was selected. Mr. Curtis purchased an entire city block facing the square, and the present huge but beautiful publication building was conceived.

Bok strongly believed that good art should find a place in public buildings where large numbers of persons might find easy access to it. The proximity of the proposed new structure to historic Independence Hall and the adjacent buildings would make it a focal point for visitors from all parts of the country and the world. The opportunity presented itself to put good art, within the comprehension of a large public, into the new building, and Bok asked permission of Mr. Curtis to introduce a strong note of mural decoration. The idea commended itself to Mr. Curtis as adding an attraction to the building and a contribution to public art.

The great public dining-room, seating over seven hundred persons, on the top floor of the building, affording unusual lighting facilities, was first selected; and Maxfield Parrish was engaged to paint a series of seventeen panels to fill the large spaces between the windows and an unusually large wall space at the end of the room. Parrish contracted to give up all other work and devote himself to the commission which attracted him greatly.

For over a year he made sketches, and finally the theme was decided upon: a bevy of youths and maidens in gala costume, on their way through gardens and along terraces to a great fête, with pierrots and dancers and musicians on the main wall space. It was to be a picture of happy youth and sunny gladness. Five years after the conception of the idea the final panel was finished and installed in the dining-room, where the series has since been admired by the thirty to fifty thousand visitors who come to the Curtis Building each year from foreign lands and from every State in America. No other scheme of mural decoration was ever planned on so large a scale for a commercial building, or so successfully carried out.

The great wall space of over one thousand square feet, unobstructed by a single column, in the main foyer of the building was decided upon as the place for the pivotal note to be struck by some mural artist. After looking carefully over the field, Bok finally decided upon Edwin A. Abbey. He took a steamer and visited Abbey in his English home. The artist was working on his canvases for the State capitol at Harrisburg, and it was agreed that the commission for the Curtis Building was to follow the completion of the State work.

“What subject have you in mind?” asked Abbey.

“None,” replied Bok. “That is left entirely to you.”

The artist and his wife looked at each other in bewilderment.

“Rather unusual,” commented Abbey. “You have nothing in mind at all?”

“Nothing, except to get the best piece of work you have ever done,” was the assurance.

Poor Abbey! His life had been made so tortuous by suggestions, ideas, yes, demands made upon him in the work of the Harrisburg panels upon which he was engaged, that a commission in which he was to have free scope, his brush full leeway, with no one making suggestions but himself and Mrs. Abbey, seemed like a dream. When he explained this, Bok assured him that was exactly what he was offering him: a piece of work, the subject to be his own selection, with the assurance of absolute liberty to carry out his own ideas. Never was an artist more elated.

“Then, I’ll give you the best piece of work of my life,” said Abbey.

“Perhaps there is some subject which you have long wished to paint rather than any other,” asked Bok, “that might fit our purpose admirably?”

There was: a theme that he had started as a fresco for Mrs. Abbey’s bedroom. But it would not answer this purpose at all, although he confessed he would rather paint it than any subject in the realm of all literature and art.

“And the subject?” asked Bok.

“The Grove of Academe,” replied Abbey, and the eyes of the artist and his wife were riveted on the editor.

“With Plato and his disciples?” asked Bok.

“The same,” said Abbey. “But you see it wouldn’t fit.”

“Wouldn’t fit?” echoed Bok. “Why, it’s the very thing.”

Abbey and his wife were now like two happy children. Mrs. Abbey fetched the sketches which her husband had begun years ago, and when Bok saw them he was delighted. He realized at once that conditions and choice would conspire to produce Abbey’s greatest piece of mural work.

The arrangements were quickly settled; the Curtis architect had accompanied Bok to explain the architectural possibilities to Abbey, and when the artist bade good-by to the two at the railroad station, his last words were:

“Bok, you are going to get the best Abbey in the world.”

And Mrs. Abbey echoed the prophecy!

But Fate intervened. On the day after Abbey had stretched his great canvas in Sargent’s studio in London, expecting to begin his work the following week, he suddenly passed away, and what would, in all likelihood, have been Edwin Abbey’s mural masterpiece was lost to the world.

Assured of Mrs. Abbey’s willingness to have another artist take the theme of the Grove of Academe and carry it out as a mural decoration, Bok turned to Howard Pyle. He knew Pyle had made a study of Plato, and believed that, with his knowledge and love of the work of the Athenian philosopher, a good decoration would result. Pyle was then in Italy; Bok telephoned the painter’s home in Wilmington, Delaware, to get his address, only to be told that an hour earlier word had been received by the family that Pyle had been fatally stricken the day before.

Once more Bok went over the field of mural art and decided this time that he would go far afield, and present his idea to Boutet de Monvel, the French decorative artist. Bok had been much impressed with some decorative work by De Monvel which had just been exhibited in New York. By letter he laid the proposition in detail before the artist, asked for a subject, and stipulated that if the details could be arranged the artist should visit the building and see the place and surroundings for himself. After a lengthy correspondence, and sketches submitted and corrected, a plan for what promised to be a most unusual and artistically decorative panel was arrived at.

The date for M. de Monvel’s visit to Philadelphia was fixed, a final letter from the artist reached Bok on a Monday morning, in which a few remaining details were satisfactorily cleared up, and a cable was sent assuring De Monvel of the entire satisfaction of the company with his final sketches and arrangements. The following morning Bok picked up his newspaper to read that Boutet de Monvel had suddenly passed away in Paris the previous evening!

Bok, thoroughly bewildered, began to feel as if some fatal star hung over his cherished decoration. Three times in succession he had met the same decree of fate.

He consulted six of the leading mural decorators in America, asking whether they would consent, not in competition, to submit each a finished full-color sketch of the subject which he believed fitted for the place in mind; they could take the Grove of Academe or not, as they chose; the subject was to be of their own selection. Each artist was to receive a generous fee for his sketch, whether accepted or rejected. In due time, the six sketches were received; impartial judges were selected, no names were attached to the sketches, several conferences were held, and all the sketches were rejected!

Bok was still exactly where he started, while the building was nearly complete, with no mural for the large place so insistently demanding it.

He now recalled a marvellous stage-curtain entirely of glass mosaic executed by Louis C. Tiffany, of New York, for the Municipal Theatre at Mexico City. The work had attracted universal attention at its exhibition, art critics and connoisseurs had praised it unstintingly, and Bok decided to experiment in that direction.

Just as the ancient Egyptians and Persians had used glazed brick and tile, set in cement, as their form of wall decoration, so Mr. Tiffany had used favrile glass, set in cement. The luminosity was marvellous; the effect of light upon the glass was unbelievably beautiful, and the colorings obtained were a joy to the senses.

Here was not only a new method in wall decoration, but one that was entirely practicable. Glass would not craze like tiles or mosaic; it would not crinkle as will canvas; it needed no varnish. It would retain its color, freshness, and beauty, and water would readily cleanse it from dust.

He sought Mr. Tiffany, who was enthusiastic over the idea of making an example of his mosaic glass of such dimensions which should remain in this country, and gladly offered to co-operate. But, try as he might, Bok could not secure an adequate sketch for Mr. Tiffany to carry out. Then he recalled that one day while at Maxfield Parrish’s summer home in New Hampshire the artist had told him of a dream garden which he would like to construct, not on canvas but in reality. Bok suggested to Parrish that he come to New York. He asked him if he could put his dream garden on canvas. The artist thought he could; in fact, was greatly attracted to the idea; but he knew nothing of mosaic work, and was not particularly attracted by the idea of having his work rendered in that medium.

Bok took Parrish to Mr. Tiffany’s studio; the two artists talked together, the glass-worker showed the canvas-painter his work, with the result that the two became enthusiastic to co-operate in trying the experiment. Parrish agreed to make a sketch for Mr. Tiffany’s approval, and within six months, after a number of conferences and an equal number of sketches, they were ready to begin the work. Bok only hoped that this time both artists would outlive their commissions!

It was a huge picture to be done in glass mosaic. The space to be filled called for over a million pieces of glass, and for a year the services of thirty of the most skilled artisans would be required. The work had to be done from a series of bromide photographs enlarged to a size hitherto unattempted. But at last the decoration was completed; the finished art piece was placed on exhibition in New York and over seven thousand persons came to see it. The leading art critics pronounced the result to be the most amazing instance of the tone capacity of glass-work ever achieved. It was a veritable wonder-piece, far exceeding the utmost expression of paint and canvas.

For six months a group of skilled artisans worked to take the picture apart in New York, transport it and set it into its place in Philadelphia. But at last it was in place: the wonder-picture in glass of which painters have declared that “mere words are only aggravating in describing this amazing picture.” Since that day over one hundred thousand visitors to the building have sat in admiration before it.

The Grove of Academe was to become a Dream Garden, but it was only after six years of incessant effort, with obstacles and interventions almost insurmountable, that the dream became true.