Thursday, January 1, 2009

Hello! Palmer: The graphic correspondence of Fred H. Given

My family used to summer in Maine, where my grandfather built a cabin. Sometime in the mid-'90s, I visited an auction in Fryeburg or Lovell with my mom. We didn't know much about anything being auctioned. It was mostly antiques and old art, but the mystery of the unknown made everything felt historically important. I think my mom may have won some furniture or old woven rugs. Towards the end, they were auctioning off a pack of original pencil-drawings that seemed to attract little interest. 

"Should we bid on them?" my Mom asked. 

Given 1919.10.24 Norway-a
Given 1919.10.24 Norway-b

We did, and we won, since no seemed to care or know anything about them. They were a set of drawings on postcards and notecards spanning from 1917 to 1923, from the artist Fred H. Givens to Palmer Straw of Portland, Maine. 

Their correspondence offered a few small mysteries, since we only had one half of the correspondence, most of which detailed Givens' visiting and cleaning up an old farm and camp in South Paris, Maine. When Givens isn't detailing his work on the farm, he's apologizing for the "rather poor" sketches he's turning out. Who were these two? What was their relationship that Frank cared enough to document his travels in sketch and mail them?

Given 1919.11.07 SouthParis-a
Given 1919.11.07 SouthParis-b

Givens' postcards document a few locations beyond his vacationing in Maine, including one from France as early as 1917, others from South Boston and Norfolk, Virginia, and a final sketch from Southampton dated 1923. This last date helps us confirm a few things about Givens.

Given 1917.11.12 SouthParis.Nantes-a
Given 1923 Southampton-a

A passenger list of the Atlantic ship Leviathan on Ancestry.com notes that Givens returned from Southampton on October 15, 1923, in sync with the date of his final postcard. The same document notes that he lived at 61 Smith Ave, Bay Shore, Long Island, was born June 12, 1891 in Auburn, New York and was married. 

Given 1919.11.08 SouthParis-a
Given 1919.11.05 SouthParis-a

Palmer Straw is enshrined in the folds of collegiate history. The General Catalogue of Bowdoin College, 1794-1916, lists Straw as a Portland, Maine residence, born July 5, 1887 in Gorham, Maine, and a graduate of the Class of 1911. Another document on Ancestry.com notes that he was "tall, of medium build with brown eyes and dark hair," was listed as a clerk in the Portland City Directory of 1915, and claimed exemption from World War I as "not fit for service" by doctor's orders. He never married, apparently stayed home as a caretaker for his mother, and died young at 57 in June of 1945.

Given 1919.10.26 SouthParis-1a
Given 1919.10.29 SouthParis-a

No great revelations from their history, but their incomplete correspondence makes me wonder how they met, why they kept in touch, what Givens did with his artistic skills and if his work ever took a more ambitious form. His postcards offer the equivalent of an iPhoto library today, except each took great deliberation, even if they were dashed off. Where we shoot prolifically, if pointlessly, with our digital lenses, each of Givens' drawings were thoughtfully composed and carefully rendered by hand. Is there more Givens material out there? I'll post more if and when I discover any. See the complete set here.

Given 1919.12.08 Boston.Baltimore-a
Given 1919 Norfolk-a

3 comments:

Debra Woodward said...

These are fabulous Rob. I love them. I keep sketchbooks with drawings that I do similar to these--little snapshots in time of places I visit. What a treasure to find this lot. I hope you find more!

rob getzschman said...

Thanks Debra - do you have a Flickr stream for them? I'd love to see them sometime.

le narrateur said...

no way.

no way!

fascinating.