Whenever someone asks me how I go about collecting early Utah art, I tell them my three rules: 1) I must like the particular artwork, 2) I must admire the artist and 3) (optional) an interesting story or provenance connected to the particular work of art will strengthen my decision to purchase it. My interest in early Utah art began when I was a child in the 1950s. My parents took me to the annual Spring Salon at the Springville Museum of Art where we would take in the wonderful shows of Utah’s current crop of strong art talent. Mom routinely stopped by some of her favorites from the permanent collection. I became familiar with Dallin, Harwood, Stewart, Barkdull and others.
Another art memory from my childhood was a large still life of peonies by Lewis Ramsey that hung above the overstuffed couch in the living room. It was a charming work, and, as a child, I was very taken with the stylish “L A Ramsey” signature and the date, “1912,” accompanying it. The peonies were of various brilliant colors and were arranged in a vase situated on a marble-topped table. My young mind focused on each peony bloom and I remember that each one reminded me of something particular. The brilliant red-violet reminded me of my great aunt Gert’s hat. The pale, off white petal that had fallen to the table looked exactly like a pear section. The back of one flower had an elongation that looked just like the nose on some cartoon character I had seen. I’m sure my mom told me about the painting and Ramsey a number of times, but I don’t remember. I do remember, in 1959, walking down our long driveway in Cottonwood to get the mail one June afternoon. In the mailbox was a small package wrapped in brown paper. My eyes were on the stamp. I had taken up collecting and was anxious to ask mom if I could have it. Running the length of the driveway (about two blocks), I burst into our house and showed the curious package to mom, asking, no, telling her that I wanted the stamp. “Sure,” she said, as she carefully slipped off the string and opened the package. To our surprise, the tissue inside yielded a diamond ring. Mom was very quiet as she looked the ring over and said that it was her mother’s; I’m sure she gave me some kind of explanation, but it fell on deaf ears as I surgically removed the stamp and dashed off to find the space in my stamp book. The year was 1959.
I collected many stamps and attended many Spring Salons until one day, in the late 1960s, I found myself listening to a story from my mom about the Ramsey painting. When she was very young, she told me, her mother passed away, and her father and aunt saw to it that she and her brother were to be educated in the “city” schools and therefore, during the school year, they would all live in an apartment on the avenues in Salt Lake to facilitate attending school at the old Lowell Elementary School. In the summer, they would move back to the wonderful Cottonwood house located on 6200 South just west of Holladay Blvd. The house, built in a chalet style, was designed by Taylor Woolley, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright who became an eminent local architect. Mom had friends in both the Avenues and Cottonwood. While attending school, she befriended “Fran,” the granddaughter of a president of the LDS Church. Fran’s mother was a patron of the arts. She was married to a prominent Salt Lake businessman. When he abandoned her for a younger woman, Fran’s mother kept her dignity and continued to attend social functions and offer support to some of Utah’s artists. According to my mom, Fran’s mother knew that Lewis Ramsey was, like most of Utah’s 1st and 2nd generation artists, struggling financially, so she asked him to come to their home and paint a bouquet of peonies, freshly picked from her garden. They were placed on a marble-topped table, which my mom recalls seeing in Fran’s home.
Fran and mom, who were both wild girls, became good friends. They remained close, even when mom married my father in 1927 and later moved to a cottage on the Cottonwood estate. The magnificent Moyle Chalet had burned down in 1929, and with it almost all of the family’s possessions; my grandfather refurbished the estate’s large, detached garage into a summer home, complete with indoor plumbing, planning to live there while the home was rebuilt. Before the project was started, though, my grandfather suffered a stroke and died. The home was never re-built, but the garage/summer home remained. My parents rented it to people they knew, including at one point, Fran. Mom said that Fran used to walk up the driveway to our home and stay all day, sometimes sitting at Mom’s makeup table, trying on makeup and putting on some of Mom’s costume jewelry. They had much fun. One day, Fran brought a painting by and asked if Mom would keep it for a while. In order to keep the painting from being damaged in a closet or sitting on the floor, Mom decided to hang it. Later, after one of Fran’s many visits to the home, she said her usual, “See you later, Becky” but was never seen by my mom again. A few days after Fran vanished, Mom was putting on some makeup and noticed that her mother’s beautiful wedding ring that she kept with the other jewelry was missing. She looked everywhere for it, refusing to believe that Fran would have taken it. Finally, realizing that her close, childhood friend had taken the ring, mom felt very disappointed. She had lost her mother, her good friend, and now one of the few evidences of her mother had disappeared, too. Fran never picked up the 36″ X 24″ painting of peonies, so mom kept it hanging above the couch. It did not fill the loss she felt, but it was a beautiful still life.
Almost twenty years later, as mysteriously as it disappeared, the ring had reappeared, Mom told me. She had kept the brown paper that covered the small package. When I asked her why she had hung on to it all these years, she said she had had notions of perhaps having the government postal inspector examine it, in case there was any hope of tracing it back to Fran. Mom was very forgiving and had never done any investigating.
I returned home from an LDS mission in the early 1970s and within months of my arrival, as Mom read the obituaries one day, one of the listings jumped off the page at her. It was Fran’s. She had married, had several children and had been living somewhere along the Wasatch Front. Mom attended the viewing and met Fran’s son. He was a wonderful man who had fond memories of his mother and was gratified to know that his mom and Becky had been childhood friends. As Mom gazed into the casket, she was interested to see Fran, clothed in Mormon Temple ceremonial clothes. When she returned from the service, she told me that her theory was that “wild” Fran had run off with someone and gotten married. The ring had either served as her wedding ring or as security for a loan in order for them to marry. Then, some years later, Fran had become active in the LDS Church and, perhaps as part of her repentance in preparation for entering the Temple, decided to send back the ring to its rightful owner and clear her conscience. It was interesting to see and feel the closure that Mom felt. She chose not to return the painting, partly because it had filled the gap for the missing ring and partly because she did not want to disclose the story to any of Fran’s family. Besides, by this time the Ramsey painting had become a very familiar and valued part of our family history.
Later, Mom, her health waning and knowing my connection and love for the Ramsey painting, asked if I would take it and care for it. The painting was showing signs of age and the frame had warped, thus putting fatigue on the canvas. I excitedly accepted the gift and had it carefully cleaned, restored and re-framed. Mom and I continued to admire the painting for her remaining years, discussing the story of Fran, the ring and the painting. The Lewis A. Ramsey, 1912 painting hangs in a prominent place above the sideboard in the dining room of our home, located, maybe appropriately, in the Avenues. I have enjoyed telling the story of this painting dozens of times, sometimes as a strong example of my third requirement for owning a work of art—that it have an interesting background or provenance.
Tom Alder is a banker whose passion is early Utah art. He is on the board of the Museum of Utah Art and History and a member of the “Art Nurdz” and is currently working on a thesis on Utah artist Henri Moser. Tom will be contributing a regular feature to 15 Bytes entitled “Alder’s Accounts” which will examine, expose and expunge urban, suburban and rural legends about Utah artists and art. Have a legend to share?