Wanderings of an artist in the trenches.

Howard Pyle and Oliver Wendell Holmes


 

Howard Pyle’s inscription within the pages of “The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table” by Oliver Wendell Holmes


 

Page 2 of Howard Pyle’s inscription within the pages of “The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table” by Oliver Wendell Holmes


 Years ago I was showing in the Jack Meier Gallery in Houston, Texas. Across the street from the gallery was one of the most enjoyable bookstores I’ve ever been to, The Detering Book Gallery. It was a wonderful place, as most old bookstores are, polished wooden floors, grand old wooden bookshelves, lots of nooks and crannies all filled with used and rare books. The smell alone was heaven. They had two floors and one could lose oneself in there quite easily for a whole day. Every time I visited Jack and Martha Meier I would walk across the street and become one of the lost for hours. On their shelves one could find original Robert Crumb art, books with original sketches and inscriptions by the likes of Bruce Bairnsfather (I can’t believe I let that one get away!) and Howard Pyle.

The Detering Book Gallery is gone now, but has been bought, renamed and relocated. It’s now called Graham Book Gallery and if you’re in Houston I suggest making the pilgrimage there.

The Howard Pyle I did not let get away and I thought I’d share it with you here. It is a two-volume set of “The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table” by Oliver Wendell Holmes, illustrated by Howard Pyle and inscribed by him. I figured this was as close as I would ever get to owning a Pyle original.

Pyle is considered the Father of American Illustration. He was a great writer and teacher as well, teaching the likes of NC Wyeth, Harvey Dunn, Frank Schoonover, etc. at his Brandywine school.

The books were published in 1893, originally copyrighted in 1858. In this particular edition, on the title page of the first volume is a superb inscription by Howard Pyle dated 1897 reminiscing about meeting Holmes and discussing his place in the world of American literature. I have tried to cipher all of Pyle’s handwriting, though some of it I could not figure out. Here is my attempt amended by Ian Schoenherr who I sent this to for possible inclusion on his Howard Pyle blog:

 

I did not know “the Autocrat” – (for so Dr Holmes loved to be called) until toward the close of his life. At that time he stood a prophetical exemplair of that poem he wrote away back in the thirties – “the Last Leaf”. Longfellow had gone, Lowell had gone[,] Emerson had gone, Whittier had just gone – “the Autocrat” was indeed the last leaf of that sturdy tree of literature that had for so long spread its branches over New England.

I had expected to find his loneliness weighing upon him with a burden, at least of gentle melancholy. Instead, I found him gay, chatty, debonair, almost boastful of being the last leaf upon the tree. He quoted the poem and plumed himself upon the fulfillment of his own prophecy. He felt that all the glory of that great generation of letters was now upborn, Atlas-like upon his individual shoulders.

Human nature is a queer thing; some wrap themselves in it as in a blanket. “The Autocrat” wore his with the jauntiness of an opera-cloak.

Howard Pyle

Wilmington Del

October 30th 1897

Howard Pyle from Ian Schoenherr’s Pyle blog


 

The Last Leaf

I saw him once before,
As he passed by the door;
  And again
The pavement-stones resound
As he totters o’er the ground
  With his cane.
 
They say that in his prime,
Ere the pruning-knife of time
  Cut him down,
Not a better man was found
By the crier on his round
  Through the town.
 
But now he walks the streets,
And he looks at all he meets
  So forlorn;
And he shakes his feeble head,
That it seems as if he said,
  “They are gone.”
 
The mossy marbles rest
On the lips that he has pressed
  In their bloom;
And the names he loved to hear
Have been carved for many a year
  On the tomb.
 
My grandmamma has said—
Poor old lady! she is dead
  Long ago—
That he had a Roman nose,
And his cheek was like a rose
  In the snow.
 
But now his nose is thin;
And it rests upon his chin
  Like a staff;
And a crook is in his back,
And a melancholy crack
  In his laugh.
 
I know it is a sin
For me to sit and grin
  At him here,
But the old three-cornered hat,
And the breeches, —and all that,
  Are so queer!
 
And if I should live to be
The last leaf upon the tree
  In the spring,
Let them smile, as I do now,
At the old forsaken bough
  Where I cling.
 
 
Oliver Wendell Holmes

 

I have forwarded scans of this inscription to Ian Schonhoerr for his exceptional blog on Howard Pyle which you would do well to visit. It’s a treasure trove of information and drawings and paintings about Pyle’s life. I highly recommend it.

Ian Schoenherr’s Howard Pyle blog


 

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