It is a fascinating coincidence that Margaret Plumb graduated from the very special girl’s school Hunter College High School, in the first decade of the 1900s. I graduated there in 1977 and my sister in 1976. Eve Kahn, who kindly wrote on my project for the New York Times, currently has a daughter enrolled at HCHS. Margaret went on to have a career as a librarian at Hunter College. Seems like this material was meant to fall into my hands. Too bad that I didn’t know in the 1980s, when I was living in NYC after graduating college, while Margaret was still alive…..
For some inexplicable reason, three generations of Plumb family members were inveterate recorders of family history, and they kept hundreds of letters and an incalculable number of items of historical interest. Their obsession with recording family events both mundane and noteworthy seems to have been shared by everyone in the first two generations and (thank God!) Margaret in the third generation. Margaret was a classicist scholar who attended the American Academy in Rome and in addition to research and writing, pursued a long career as assistant librarian at Hunter College, in New York City. She never married nor had any children hence the family material was not dispersed–instead she saved boxes of family history and hundreds of artworks large and small, then passed most of that material on to her dear friend and principal heir, Nicholas Pavlik. Thus, we have the incredibly rare ability to reconstitute much of the long life and career of artist Henry Grant Plumb while shedding new light on the experience of the American expatriate artist in Paris during the post-Commune and post-Civil War period.. All of the stars have aligned and Plumb’s cursive handwriting is extremely legible under magnification. I feel like my many years of archival research on other projects have been honed or developed, like a muscle, to culminate in this monumental and fascinating project.
I’m delighted to share that thus far three museum directors have stopped by to view the HGPlumb material. What an affirmation of its significance! Doesn’t get much better.
The Isaac Plumb family moved to Sherburne from New York City in 1842, because of business reasons. Henry was born and grew up in this tiny but remarkable town. To put the puzzle pieces back together and re-constitute his life story, it has been and will continue to be, essential for me to do research on site. I’ve just finished my fourth trip to Sherburne, and each time have found magic in the air. People have invariably been fascinated with my project and very eager to help in whatever way they can. Nancy Simerl, director of the Sherburne Public Library (itself a gem), has become a kindred spirit and so has her assistant, Kathleen Erath. Mike Mettler, Julian Button, the extended McDaniel family and their relatives, have all been delightful. I feel like an honorary Sherburne citizen. My adrenaline pumps up as my car approaches the main intersection in town and I see the monument to Sherburne’s Civil War soldiers, one of them “Ikey” Plumb, Henry’s older brother, who lost his life on July 4, 1864, in Campbell Hospital, Washington, D.C. The family are buried in the West Hill cemetery and descendants of Henry’s sister Anna come back to be buried, down to the current generation. It is important to me that I do right by the material that has fallen into my hands and I have already “repatriated” several of Henry’s artworks and some relevant archival material.
I am in the midst of transcribing Plumb’s letters; there are several hundred beginning in the 1850s and running until close to the end of his life. Fortunately the handwriting is very neat as one would expect from a crack draftsman who was trained as an engraver and lithographer. He writes in script so I scan the letters and then magnify them to transcribe. His humorous and creative self emerges full-blown in the letters, from his early years in New York City starting in 1864 as an apprentice to Hatch & Co. then come to a remarkable climax when he is studying art in Paris from 1874-1878. The collection includes about 80 European letters, more than half of them profusely illustrated with vignettes depicting Paris street life, the interior of the ateliers at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and Carolus Duran’s independent atelier, and his summer visits to the art colonies at Pont-Aven and Moret-sur-Loing. In 1875 he travelled from Paris to Geneva, Switzerland by train, then took the lake boat to close to the Swiss-Italian border where he ran out of money. He then hiked over the Alps into Italy, barely missing spending one night alone on a mountain in a ditch wrapped in his cloak. He was mugged twice but takes this in and with his seemingly endless verve continues along the way, running into one adventure after another. He narrates and depicts his various adventures in Switzerland and Italy not only in his letters but in pocket sketchbooks and a series of watercolors. What’s amazing is that these materials, all on thin paper, have survived in relatively good condition given that they are 140 years old!