Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Charleston Renaissance Part 2B: The Japanese Drypoints of Elizabeth O'Neill Verner

In my last post, I discussed the life and career of the “Matriarch of the Charleston Renaissance,” Elizabeth O’Neill Verner, with an emphasis on her very brief sojourn into the field of woodblock printmaking.  That discussion, however, was intended primarily as background for another lengthy post on Verner, this time focusing on her 1937 trip to Japan, which ultimately yielded fifteen Japanese-themed drypoints.

Sample page from Elizabeth O'Neill Verner's diary
Courtesy of David Verner Hamilton

I'm not sure what the specific impetus was for Verner's trip to Japan, other than the fact that she had already visited Europe and had friends (Reynolds and Emily Brown) who were also going to be in Japan at the time.  Originally, the plan seems to have been to travel around the world with a stop in China, but the outbreak of the second Sino-Japanese War made travel from Japan to China impractical.  Certainly Verner had been exposed to both ukiyo-e and 20th century Japanese woodblock prints back in Charleston and, as I had discussed, even tried her own hand in that medium.  Whatever her motivations, she traveled to Japan via Los Angeles and Honolulu.   

Verner’s diary for the years 1936-1942 fortunately survives, giving us a contemporaneous account of her trip.   Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations are from Verner’s diary entries, as best as I could transcribe her microscopic handwriting.  (Rather than buying a new diary for each year, she would put entries for multiple years on the same day’s small diary page.) In the interest of space, I’ve selectively chosen passages that I thought would be of most interest to my readers, particularly as they relate to her prints.  Much more detail on what Verner did, what she saw, and who she met can be found elsewhere in her diary.

Torch Fishermen (c. 1923-1926) by Charles W. Bartlett
Courtesy of the Honolulu Museum of At
(handcolored etching)

June 20, 1937
[Honolulu]  I sat in the moonlight & looked at what must be my Bartlett print at home.”   [Charles W. Bartlett's only Hawaiian print that shows the moon is his Torch Fishermen etching, but Verner could be referring to any of Bartlett's Hawaiian beach prints.]

 Self-Portrait (September 1933) by Charles W. Bartlett
Personal Collection

June 25, 1937
“I can’t think of anything about today except meeting Bartlett.  Mrs. Campbell took us.  He is old & frail.  Both he & Mrs. Bartlett charming.  I longed to know some of his processes he says he’ll help me if I bring him some of the things I do.  I will have to work hard to get something to show him.  Terribly thrilled over meeting him.
Peking, Summer Palace (c. 1923-1927) by Charles W. Bartlett
Courtesy of the Honolulu Museum of Art
(handcolored etching)

June 25, 1937
I went to Treasure House to see Charles W. Bartlett’s work and bought lovely etching in color of Temple in Peking for $20.  [Verner is likely referring to either “Peking, Summer Palace.” or  “A Corner of The Forbidden City. Peking.”]

 Close-up from a larger portrait of Lilian Miller (c. 1940)
Courtesy of the Lilian Miller Collection, Scripps College

July 7, 1937
Today I went to Art Academy very early. . . .   I looked at Bartlett prints until time to go.  Have interview for the Honolulu Advertiser.  Hate interviews as much as having picture taken.  Went back to Academy & heard a Miss [Lilian May] Miller speak on Japanese brush strokes.  Most interesting.

August 4, 1937
In the afternoon Mrs. Poole took me to Charles W. Bartlett’s and then to John Kelly’s studio.  Lillian Miller met with us.  She is the one who lectured on oriental art.”  [Verner would leave Hawaii for Japan on August 7th.]

Elizabeth O'Neill Verner with Emily Perry Brown in Kyoto (Aug. 20, 1937)
Courtesy of David Verner Hamilton

August 20, 1937
Woke very early as engine stopped & peeked out of port hole & saw Japan.  Flat high mountains of silver, dark gray shore & black sanpan!  . . . [L]anded  at Kobe . . . . The drive to Kyoto is long through Osaka but interesting. . . .  Emily [Perry Brown, the granddaughter of Commodore Matthew Perry] & I  took Mr. Samson & a coolie and went on my first ricksha ride through narrow streets of Kyoto to Temple Chion-Jodo.  Biggest Jodo Temple in Japan.  Walked on sing[ing] floors to keep out robbers.  Perfectly lovely and very solemn.  Find Buddhist very like Catholics except frankly pay money to pray for dead.  Emily & I had picture taken.

Mary Florence Denton (second from left) on her 80th Birthday (1937)
Courtesy of  Doshisha Women's College of Liberal Arts

August 21, 1937

Miss Mary Denton of Doshisha College had dinner with us.  [An] older woman who is a real power.  Elizabeth Keith lived with her & did lots of her prints in her home.  I saw Lady & little girl on the street so lovely I asked J. Sohn if I might get them  to pose. . . .  [T]hey came to the [Miyako] hotel at two o’clock & I sketched her on copper but she would take no money.”  [Verner would visit with Miss Denton several times during her stay in Kyoto.]

Mother and Daughter (1938), #4/10 by Elizabeth O'Neill Verner
Personal Collection

August 24, 1937
Such a day.  One of the big days of my life.  I went in car with J. Sohn to get Mrs. Denton to go to see Rakusan Tsuchiya . . . .  We took a gentleman from the Doshisha School as interpreter.  Miss Denton made me come all the way back for my etchings.  The gentleman looked me up in Who’s Who. . . .  [After showing Rakusan her etchings, Rakusan] bowed low and said his master [Seiho Takeuchi] would etch as I etch if he saw my country.  I start lessons tomorrow from him.

Dedicated Title Page of Shinto and Its Architecture (1936) by Aisaburo Akiyama
Personal Collection

August 25, 1937
Took off shoes, bowed, & was ushered upstairs by lady sat at low table.  Tried to ask for bathroom but nobody spoke English so used vase when all were out of room.  Terrible but necessary.  Felt very stupid about strokes.  Started with squash.  16 strokes with one brush  5 with wide brush for green leaves.  Long trip home.  Mr. Akiyama a Japanese gentleman friend of Emily’s took us to a private garden in rickishas in afternoon.  I bought his book he autographed it.”  [This book contains 12 woodblock prints by Kawase Hasui.]

Green Woodpecker (c. 1930) by Rakusan Tsuchiya
Courtesy of the Japan Print Gallery
(colored woodblock print)

August 26, 1937
This morning decided rickishaw too slow so I took taxis to go to lesson.  Didn’t pay when I arrived  so that taxis would come back at 12 o’clock.  Never could make woman understand Benjo so couldn’t go to bathroom.  Did my all at lesson.   Bamboo, maple, morning glory leaf.  Very hard not to be able to say a word.  Saw Japanese printing blocks.  When I at last got home in taxis found Rakusan had paid.  Asked at the desk about this.  Nobody knows.  Emily thinks I’m wasting time going to lessons. It’s so hot. 
Verner described the encounter with Rakusan in greater detail in her book Other Places (1946):

            Just as I studied in London years before and learned the craft of printing etchings so, now that I had the opportunity, I decided to study Oriental art.  Rakusan Tsuchiya (a disciple of the Kyoto School) was my instructor.  It was all so very different and so very difficult.

Since I was going through this ordeal, I decided to learn as much as I could, as quickly as I could.  Sitting on a matting rug before a low table was especially trying.  My knees protested violently – neither they nor my spine cared a bit about Oriental art.  My hands were more sympathetic – they have always been my obedient servants. . . .

My preceptor spoke no English and I no Japanese, except “Benjo dozo” (which is what every woman should know for her comfort).  I decided to try simply to imitate my master’s every movement.  When he picked up his brush, I picked mine up too.  I watched carefully his manner of holding the flexible point straight up on end and then his dexterous twist as he flattened the brush for width of line or for shading.

            Of course he started with bamboo.  I learned the formula – he saw that I grasped it, and then he slipped away, leaving me with sheaves of rough paper on which to practice.  I painted bamboo that morning until I could paint no more.  The matting rugs were strewn with my efforts.  When he returned he bowed very low indeed, smiled broadly, and said many mysterious things.  He pointed at last to the word “good” in a Japanese-English dictionary, and so I felt that my efforts were worthwhile and that my first lesson had been successful.

The next day I was advanced to the maple leaf.  That was easier, as one started at each point and the leaf almost painted itself, with a bit of practice.   Then came the lotus, and the morning-glory, and the squash.
August 27, 1937
The other two went with me this morning to tell Rakusan I had to stop.  I took note from hotel.  We could never make him understand.

On a Canal, Kyoto (1938), #9/10 by Elizabeth O'Neill Verner
Personal Collection

August 28, 1937
Got up at 6:30 had coffee in my room & started out with my man to sketch on the little canal I started yesterday.  Borrowed a little stool and got off the street where nobody could distract me."

Residence of Chion-In Priests, Kyoto (1938), #6/10 by Elizabeth O'Neill Verner
Personal Collection

August 29, 1937
Got up early & went to same place for a while.  Came home & started out to draw Temple gate.  Very hot.  Went back to the Temple gate about four, still terribly hot but I got in the shade by taking of my shoes.

August 31, 1937
I started pencil sketch of canal this morning. 

[Young Woman with Child on Her Back] (c. 1938), unnumbered copy, 
possibly never editioned by Elizabeth O'Neill Verner
Courtesy of David Verner Hamilton

September 1, 1937
Decided to take plate direct to the spot and work it but free my drawing up.  Blocked it off from pencil drawing & then to the amusement of the inhabitants drew direct on copper.  In the afternoon got a woman & Baby to pose on the bridge & also put Uji in and the rickshaw!

The White Stream (1938), #8/10 by Elizabeth O'Neill Verner
Personal Collection

September 2, 1937
Started out about 8 . . . and worked in the canal for about three hours. . . .  After lunch I worked for another hour on canal and then played bridge.  

Woman of Yase [Flower Seller Woman] (1937), unnumbered copy 
outside the formal edition of 10 by Elizabeth O'Neill Verner
Courtesy of the Gibbes Museum of Art

Note:  The formal edition was printed in 1938.

September 3, 1937
There’s nothing to do but draw running water! - Well I etched running water!  The plate I almost finished.  Then I drew a flower woman!  K . San fanning me & all his friends fanning me very close.  It was terrific.  I could have done better all alone, then I decided to work over Lady & little girl etching, putting in my lovely potted pine & screen. 

September 4, 1937
I found big plates and decided to put Temple Gate on 10 x 10 plate.  All morning blocked it in from drawing and after lunch went there in my rickshaw and drew on the plate. . . .  I had hotel girl pose a little while for kimono on lady with little girl.  Failed to get it, put in screen & tree.

September 5, 1937
I worked on Temple gate.   Hot decided not to keep riksha all the time.  Waited all morning for vegetable or flower woman, she never turned up although she promised to come.  

September 6, 1937
I went to the Temple gate and worked a long time on details I would find it hard to remember.

Komuso Priests (1938), #2/10 by Elizabeth O'Neill Verner
 Personal Collection

September 8, 1937
I decided I must get models.  Told my boy what I wanted.  Decided I’d go look for models down on canal & finish my etchings there.  Tried old pilgrim, vegetable woman but neither would pose.  Then my boy caught on that I meant business he went off & got me 2 monks with big baskets on their heads.  I asked Thomas Handforth if he wanted to draw too.  We took them up to some garden.  It poured but we sketched away anyhow.  Paid them 5 yen.  Emily thinks I better stay here & draw & not go around the world.  I am considering doing it, then going to Boston and having prints made & a show there.”  [Vernor had met the etcher Thomas Handforth a few days earlier when she dined with the wife of U.S. Ambassador to China, Mrs. Nelson T. Johnson.]

Thomas Handford (Jan. 27, 1936) by Carl Van Vechten
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

September 9, 1937
Have 7 plates nearly finished and 3 in hand.  

September 10, 1937
Today so rainy can’t draw vegetable woman and one man.
Woman of Yase [Farmer Woman] (1938), #3/10 
by Elizabeth O'Neill Verner
Personal Collection

September 12, 1937
“I had a priest in a big hat to draw.  Took him way up hotel road and then the riksha man came to take me.  I had also a flower woman waiting!  Insisted on having lunch before I did her.  Stupidly made her very like the last one.  I had gotten up at 6:30 and walked by myself over to Temple gates & sketched . . . .”

Stall Of Great Gate Of Nanzinji  (1938), unnumbered copy 
outside the formal edition of 10 by Elizabeth O'Neill Verner
Personal Collection

September 13, 1937
“This morning I got up at 6:30 and . . .walked up to the gates of Nanzanji [sic: Nanzinji] Temple.  A family put up a stall right by the gate & I started work frantically -- no, all that happened yesterday -- Today I have another priest and took him up in the garden & invited Nancy Molinari to sketch him with me.”    

Buddhist Monk (1938),
unnumbered copy outside the formal edition of 10
by Elizabeth O'Neill Verner
Personal Collection

September 14, 1937
I got up very early & started out with my plate.  It was simply lovely.  The family take me for granted and I hope to get a very good etching.

Riksha Boy  (1938), #6/10 by Elizabeth O'Neill Verner
Personal Collection

September 17, 1937
We (6 of us) went in rikshas to two marvelous Temples, indescribably beautiful.  In afternoon Nancy Molinari & I drew riksha boy Tomi way up on top of hotel.
Samurai Warriors (1938), unnumbered copy outside the formal edition of 10
by Elizabeth O'Neill Verner
Personal Collection

September 25, 1937
Got up very early and went to Temple Gate.  Screwed up courage & asked old man & woman to pose for me.  Samurai movie players came again.  I gave cigarettes, they watched & admired.  I worked well. . . .  I asked K. San to get me Samurai.  He went to Temple where they were working came back said picture all over if I got there can have 1 hour. . . .  We dashed up to Temple, crowds watching.  K. San hopeless, can’t talk to big man at hand - I see him & show him plate.  After long talk we drive off with 2 Samurai.  Draw hard for 2 hours.  Can't finish.  Samurai must come back.

Pilgrim  (1938), #3/10 by Elizabeth O'Neill Verner
Personal Collection

September 26, 1937
Got up very early walked to my gate and think I finished it.  Got old man to pose again. . . .  Found Temple Gate background for Samurai.  Decided to take models there and I did but K. San very upset.  Nancy & Samurais didn’t want to go.  Crowds gathered. . . .  Came back to hotel.  Finished sketch here.

September 28, 1937
Kyoto - last day.  Morning cloudy but took Uno and went in rickisha down our canal to finish the little plate I started. . . .   My last trip to Shinmonzen St. and along the white streams where the children all know me.  I have loved it here.

While staying in Kyoto, Verner also took day trips to cities of Nara, Kobe, and Ise.

[Japanese Woman and Child] (c. 1938) unnumbered copy, possibly never editioned
by Elizabeth O'Neill Verner
Courtesy of the Gibbes Museum of Art

September 29, 1937 I took the train at 8:40.  Miss Sakai came down to see me off.   I sketched a woman & sick child all the way to Nagoya.  
Mother and Children (aka Mother and Children of Okazaki) (1938), #10/10
by Elizabeth O'Neill Verner
Personal Collection

September 30, 1937
[Okazaki] Very ugly and forlorn place after Kyoto. . .   Matsu got me a mother & two children to draw and with children screeching and nobody really posing I drew as best I could.

October 1, 1937
Vernon wrote out very thoughtfully for me “I want to go to Numatzu.”  “I want to go to Hakone.”  “I want to go to Miyanoshita.” in Japanese.  I was the only English speaking person on the train.  I left Okazaki in the rain & all day it  was drippy and gray  - mountains lonely on on side & sea on the other but couldn’t see Fujisan at all!

October 2, 1937
Day so gray couldn’t see Fuji at all. . . .  When we got to Gotemba the bus ride ended.  I engaged car for 10 yen to bring me here & Fujita asked if he might come too and I let him - just about then Fuji started peeping over the clouds, unbelievably beautiful! 

October 3, 1937
Decided to check out & go on to Tokio . . . .  I told Fuji goodbye.

Verner seems to have spent most of her time in Toyko sightseeing, shopping, and going to parties, rather than working on her prints.  During her time in Tokyo, she went to the kabuki theatre and took a drive to Hayama, where the Emperor's summer palace was located.

October 6, 1937
Got up very late and at 11 a reporter came from [Japan] Advertiser & he had interview with me that lasted 3 hours.  He was such a funny youth!  Asked innumerable questions.  If I stayed in Japan 10 years could I do better work. . . .  [H]e had press for me, have decided I must try out prints now.

October 9, 1937
Then we started for Nikko and it was the most perfect weather.  I’ve found in Japan.  First autumn day!  Maples just turning.  Chauffeur good, car comfortable. 

October 10, 1937
Nikko.. . . .  This has been the biggest sightseeing day of all.  Without seeing Nikko I would not have seen the glory of Japan’s most elaborate period.  We took the car & drove up cryptomeria avenue to step of first temple.  Stones too magnificent to take it all in.  Very brilliant in color.. . .Then we drove up to Choshenji [sic: Chuzenji].  The gorgeous lake and the mountain where the diplomats spend the summer.

The Horse Turnback at Umagaeshi (1923) by Hiroshi Yoshida
Personal Collection
(colored woodblock print)

October 11, 1937
Tokio . . . .Yoshida!  I had seen his prints and bought six or 4 at Imperial Hotel.  He is the greatest of the moderns.  House terrible!  Musty but he & wife charming.  I asked him how he got certain effects & he got very excited at my appreciating his cleverness so brought out sketch books & proofs & told me so much that my brain went mushy with all that can be done with block printing.  15 years in all he’s worked at them.  He invited me back but I haven’t the time.  He is writing a book on all this.  I gave him some words he needed like texture, temporary etc. . .  I can’t put Yoshida out of my thoughts, I want to do & be something.”

Japanese Woodblock Printing by Hiroshi Yoshida (Sanseido 1939)
Courtesy of the Japanese Art Open DataBase

October 13, 1937
Last Day In Japan.  When we turned our car around at the Embassy I started home!  What an end to my Japanese visit.  I walked into Jane’s party & knew practically everybody there!  Diplomats & refugee diplomats.. . .  Took them in car to embassy & left from there for Yokohama.

By November 26th, Verner is back in Charleston.  She is interviewed a few days later about her trip to Japan, which results in “a very nice write up in the morning paper” on December 1st.  Verner starts to make tryout proofs on December 7th, but finds that her press wasn’t working properly.  It becomes clear that her “diamond was very dull” and that she’ll “have to delay my Boston show as it will take a long time to work up these etchings.”  By mid-December, she has nearly four prints done, but she continues to have problems with her press.  After a long hiatus, she writes on May 12, 1938 that she “printed 12 proofs of Jap. etchings first time since Dec.”  She would continue to work “steadily but slowly” on her Japanese plates, printing on and off through at least July 20th, the date on which she “printed for the last time at 84 Church St. but I am not sure am finished the Jap. prints.”

On September 30, 1938, Verner writes “Whether to put my etchings into the 2nd State or not is the question,” but it is unclear if she is referring to her Japanese prints or to reworking and/or reprinting older Charleston designs which she was also working on throughout the fall of 1938.  Although there are diary entries about printing plates up through November 3rd, only the entry for October 19th (“2 Jap. etchings not quite as good as I wish”) expressly refers to her Japanese drypoints.

Sadly, this series of Japanese drypoints would turn out to be Verner’s swan song in that field.  As noted in my last post, by this time Verner no longer needed to be a full time commercial printmaker to support her family and, between difficulties she was having with her press and her new found interest in making pastels on silk, it was time for a change.  Other that reworking and reprinting some older designs and one final commission of her intaglio work, she would make no more original prints.

These Japanese drypoints were featured in an exhibition of her work in Boston from January 11-19, 1939, and she was “[v]ery happy” with the Boston write up that said she was “considered by some [the] finest woman etcher in America!”  However, while critical reaction may have been positive, sales of these drypoints were dismal, no doubt another factor in her decision to give up printmaking.  Although Pearl Harbor was still three years away, Verner had herself ominously noted in her December 2, 1938 diary entry that “People hate Japan so much.”  Moreover, the last thing that tourists visiting Charleston in the late 1930s  and early 1940s were looking to buy were Japanese-themed drypoints.  Despite the small edition size of 10, almost none of these drypoints sold during Verner’s lifetime.  

Elizabeth O'Neill Verner in the courtyard of her studio (c. 1940s?)
Courtesy of the South Carolina Historical Society

I was lucky enough to purchase eleven of Verner’s fifteen Japanese drypoints from Verner's grandson, who runs the Verner Gallery, and picked up a twelfth design at an auction.  They are the work of a printmaker at the height of her talent, and would be worthy additions to anyone’s print collection.

If a comment box does not appear below, click on this link instead: