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Artful Liaisons

An exhibit connecting painters Grace Carpenter, Edward Espey and Grafton Tyler Brown

Grace Hudson Museum

431 S. Main St., Ukiah

Admission: $4 individuals, $3 students and seniors, $10 families

Hours: Wednesday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Sunday noon to 4:30 p.m.

Ends Feb. 17

There is a reunion of old friends and lovers in Ukiah this holiday season.

An exhibit called “Artful Liaisons,” at the Grace Hudson Museum (until Feb. 17) tells the intriguing century-old life stories of three artists, what connects them to each other and what contributions they made to 19th century American art.

It won’t surprise you to learn that Mendocino County artist Grace Carpenter Hudson, whose portraits of her Native American Pomo neighbors won her national acclaim, is one of the three.

Her seldom-seen early work, from the first years of her artistic training in the 1870s, is the beginning of the story.

The artist in the middle, the fulcrum, if you please, is Edward Lincoln Espey, whose short life produced vivid landscapes. His early romance with young Grace Carpenter provides not only the reason for the show but the “might-have-been” that makes it almost as much love story as art.

And, finally, a talented multimedia artist named Grafton Tyler Brown brings it all to a kind of conclusion. But not really.

The definitive end of the story belongs to Karen Holmes, curator of the museum/Sun House complex that is a center for Mendocino County’s history and ethnography as well as its premier art venue.

It was Holmes’ article in a Maine art and antique digest that began a five-year correspondence with Portland gallery owner Mark Humpal which put all the pieces of this painterly puzzle in place.

The trail is too long and steep to follow here, but I can tell you that it is awash in happenstance and serendipity and ends triumphantly with the current exhibit.

Let us begin.

...

In 1878, Grace Carpenter graduated from Ukiah Grammar School. Because there was no high school in town, she was sent off for further education to San Francisco by her parents, Aurelius O. and Helen McCowan Carpenter, who were among the literati of the frontier community.

Grace’s early interest in art brought her to the San Francisco School of Design before her 14th birthday. That’s where she met Ed Espey from Eugene, Oregon, who, following his artistic inclinations, was also a student at what was deemed the best art school on the West Coast (precursor of today’s SF Art Institute).

Before long Grace and Ed became — in the language of those gentler times — “sweethearts,” a relationship that would last for the next four years.

Both explored the depth of their talent in a range of artistic disciplines. But Espy went to study in France and, while the love letters between them continued, Grace had caught the attention of an older man, a widower named William Davis. Against the wishes of her family, she eloped with him in 1884. She was 19. He was 34. It was a brief marriage. The divorce was finalized in 1886. Grace’s formal art education ceased and she returned to Ukiah to work with her parents in the photo studio and give art lessons. Her artwork from this period — what little there is — is signed “Grace Davis” and lacks the quality of her earlier and later work.

The three-year “down period” ended when John Hudson came to town.

Artful Liaisons

An exhibit connecting painters Grace Carpenter, Edward Espey and Grafton Tyler Brown

Grace Hudson Museum

431 S. Main St., Ukiah

Admission: $4 individuals, $3 students and seniors, $10 families

Hours: Wednesday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Sunday noon to 4:30 p.m.

Ends Feb. 17

Hudson was a physician, sent to Ukiah as the “railroad doctor” when the San Francisco and North Pacific line reached Mendocino County. He was also an ethnographer, interested in the Pomo population of this frontier town.

The love story of Grace and John Hudson which would result in a marriage that lasted well into the new century. It produced not only a new and important form of California art — Grace’s Pomo portraits — but also John’s contributions to the ethnography and anthropology of the region. Both disciplines are well told in permanent exhibits at the museum and the adjoining Sun House, where they lived and worked.

...

Meanwhile Grace’s first love, Edward Espey, having achieved a degree of success in exhibitions at the Academie des Beaux-Arts, returned to Portland in 1887 along with his Parisian girlfriend, Albertine Legendre, and set up his studio, painting landscapes and seascapes on the Oregon Coast. He was active in the Portland Art Club, which he helped to establish, along with his friend, Oregon newcomer Grafton Tyler Brown

But Espey’s energy and ambition and his promising career were cut brutally short when he took ill with Hodgkin lymphoma, the first case of this disease ever diagnosed in the area. He wed Albertine in January 1889 and died six weeks later. He was 28 years old.

...

Grafton Brown was already well established on the West Coast by the time Ed Espey came back to Portland. This African-American adventurer from Pennsylvania had come west as a teenager in 1858, worked as a hotel steward in Sacramento and taught himself enough about art to win praise at the State Fair in 1860.

He was hired by San Francisco’s pioneer lithographer, Charles Kuchel, who needed a sketch artist to assist with the big bird’s-eye views of California towns popular in the day. (Interestingly, the sketcher that Brown replaced was a German immigrant named Emil Dresel, who forsook art to explore the potential of California wine and earned an honored place, along with Jacob Gundlach, among the Sonoma Valley’s pioneer vintners.)

Brown continued lithography after Kuchel’s death. By the 1870s, he employed a staff of eight working his steam-press magic, a skill that carried him into the “mug book” fad of the period when county histories were financed by the sale of biographies and portraits (“mugs”) to wealthy citizens for inclusion in the “official” historical records. (Sonoma and Mendocino counties have their fair share of “mug books” dating into the mid-1900s.)

By the 1880s, Brown had left both lithography and printing behind and devoted himself to landscape painting, taking his salable skills as a plein air artist on geological expeditions into British Columbia, back to Washington Territory and finally in 1885, to Portland — where he met Ed Espey as well as his lover and later-wife, Albertine.

That “friendship” continued after Espey’s death and, in 1896, Grafton Brown and Albertine Espey were wed.

Marriage ended his artistic travels and he went back to map-making, opening a studio that included his new interest, photography, in St. Paul, Minnesota. But he and Albertine worked to keep Espey’s artistry alive. In 1910 they financed a formal exhibition of 20 Espey paintings in St. Paul.

Brown died in 1918 and Albertine, the sole inheritor of both Espey and Brown’s work, moved back to California to live in a Los Angeles boarding house for French expatriates.

The owner of the boarding house, himself a French ex-pat, was Albertine’s executor when she died in 1926. He inherited her artistic archive.

The disposition of those paintings and lithographs and photos is complicated, as well as partly unknown. We do know that Portland’s Mark Humpal bought 12 paintings in 2007 that had been donated to a church in Los Angeles in 2001. Edward Espey had signed eight of them. The rest were unsigned.

Investigation by a forensic document examiner attributed the unsigned works to Grafton Tyler Brown.

The world of art is a small one; particularly the kind of 19th century works that are no longer “fashionable” but still greatly respected When Humpal wrote an online essay about his purchases, historian Robert J. Chandler saw it. Chandler was finishing a book on Grafton Tyler Brown and a path from the granddaughter of Albertine’s 1920s landlord to the present day, was established. Chandler’s book was published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 2014 but not before Karen Holmes’ essay mentioning Grace Carpenter’s teenage love, Ed Espey, brought it all together.

Humpal, Chandler and Holmes formed a trio of curators for the show at the Ukiah museum, each teaching the others more of the story.

So, you see, it is not your usual art exhibit. Rather it is a multifaceted story illustrated by very interesting art.

Some, looking at the landscapes may think of the “Westward Ho!” effect — the influence of all the 19th century artists who helped to populate the American West.

But others would consider it a love story — or two or three.

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