Henry Grant Plumb’s daughter, Margaret Plumb, lived in one of the first cooperative apartment buildings in New York City, at Gramercy Park East, in a magnificent 1880s building. Famous actors, writers, artists lived in that building and still do today. Margaret Plumb became a classicist scholar and associate head librarian at Hunter College. One of her friends in the apartment building was Margaret Hamilton, famous for her role as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. They enjoyed chatting over a good cup of coffee, perhaps Maxwell House. What a great story, shared by a family descendant.
Recently portraits of Isaac Plumb, Jr. and Anna Moore Plumb Smith were “repatriated” to the Sherburne Public Library by a generous family descendant. These portraits show the sitters as young adults. Of considerable interest is that Ikey Plumb is shown in his Civil War uniform, with an encampment of pitched tents in the background. The portraits are skillfully done by Tompkins Harrison Matteson, the probable mentor to Henry Grant Plumb. Matteson was a town VIP and he also was very friendly with Ikey as a letter in the collection of Princeton University’s Plumb Family Papers testifies.
The HGP adventure continues! Through this website, I have connected with the descendant of HGP’s boon companion in Paris during the 1870s and thereafter, until the end of his life, Calvin Rae Smith. Smith’s great grandson, Thomas Pratt, was researching CRS and came across this website. HGP mentions and sketches Smith often in his Paris letters and we know that he made a trip in the summer of 1909 to Smith’s Vermont/Lake Champlain vacation home, still owned by the descendants. Two lake paintings, at least one drawing, and photographs record this vacation. Tom Pratt and I are fellow Cornell grads and were even on campus at the same time!!! Very cool. I’ve been able to help Tom with info and images on CRS, which is very rewarding. HGP and CRS both taught art after returning from Paris, HGP at Cooper Union and CRS at CCNY.
In the large body of correspondence I now own as part of the Plumb art and archive collection are a smaller sub-group of letters written to Plumb from artists, arts organizations, publishing companies, dealers, and fellow artists. In separating these out and sorting them I was interested to see three letters on a business letterhead from a man with a distinctive name: Oliver H. Durrell. Reading them a story unfolded. Durrell was a very successful self-made Boston businessman who through hard work and relationship-building became president of the dry goods company Brown, Durrell, & Co of Boston. Letters record Durrell’s purchase of two pictures by Plumb, one an oil entitled Rover’s Greeting, showing a large dog licking the face of a delighted baby lying in bed and the other a watercolor of mice, perhaps Plumb’s favorite subject. From his warm and complimentary letters we see Durrell as the best sort of patron, kind, interested, supportive. Further work in Plumb’s own letters revealed that the well-known patron Thomas B. Clarke, who himself had bought one of Plumb’s most famous artworks and befriended him was a friend of Durrell and brought the latter to Plumb’s studio hoping to promote a sale for the artist. Idly playing on the internet one day, I typed in Durrell’s name thinking that since it was unusual perhaps an obituary would come up, and it did, in the New York Times. Imagine my surprise to see a second obituary for Oliver H. Durrell, III, in 2012. I thought “this must be his grandson or more likely a great-grandson” III had died in Plymouth, MA, and surely it couldn’t be a coincidence. Through information in the obituary, I was able to contact the widow of III which led to a new friend and the copy of an 1890s printed catalogue of the first Durrell’s art collection, focused largely on American art. The catalogue was privately printed and records art by luminaries like Chase, Harnett, Richards. Inness, Moeller, Enneking, and lesser lights like Plumb, LeGanger, Davis, and others. Each artist is represented by a photograph and a biographical sketch. It is clear that Durrell had great admiration for the artists and wanted to promote their careers by putting information out about them.
Thanks to this website (in part), WLVT channel 39 public television will run a segment on its popular “Focus” show interviewing me sharing some of my art discoveries and adventures. This will include Mr. Plumb. I’m very excited about this! Have no idea how much of the content will be on him. Airs in early November 2016, after the presidential election is completed. I am thrilled with this opportunity!!! January 2017: an update: the segment is accessible through YouTube if you search “Christine Oaklander Focus.” Enjoy!!!
Tompkins H. Matteson (1813-1884) was a nationally-known genre and portrait painter who lived and worked in Sherburne. He was a close associate of Henry Plumb’s father Isaac; they were both prominent in town and state politics. Highly regarded leaders/founders of the fire department, water board, school board, and other town organizations, both served a term in the state legislature, albeit at different times. The Plumb archives with me and at Princeton University refer to Matteson several times. I keep hoping to find a reference to Plumb having studied art under Matteson; we know that TM taught the prominent painter Elihu Vedder in Sherburne, for instance. Yet so far, no reference has been found to a young Henry studying with TM. Matteson is not mentioned in Plumb’s own biographical sketches nor is he mentioned in other biographical sources. Yet a number of Plumb’s earlier works show a debt to Matteson in their use of humor and multiple figures in motion, a sort of “crowd scene” as it were. Then also, their humorous content and slant toward illustration is also shared. Today, the main reading room at the Sherburne Public Library displays works by Matteson and Plumb. Will I be able to ascertain the exact nature of their relationship as my research progresses? I certainly hope so. It is a terrific coincidence that the second painting I bought for the Allentown Art Museum in 2001, when I was chief curator, was Tompkins Matteson’s Return of Rip Van Winkle. I even was in touch with the Sherburne Public Library at the time and ascertained that they owned and displayed a group of TM’s works. I hoped to visit and view those TM holdings but was too busy and it never happened. It is a total coincidence that I stumbled across Henry Grant Plumb 13 years later.
I’ve been researching Henry’s older brother, Isaac Plumb, Jr. (1842-1864), and have uncovered a fascinating Civil War scandal. Plumb enlisted as a private in the Astor Guards, which wound up being folded into the 61st New York Infantry, Army of the Potomac. He served with great distinction under Francis Barlow and Nelson Miles, prominent and heroic officers. Around 1863, Jervis Cooke joined the regiment and became a captain beside Ikey Plumb. He seemed fragile and terrified of the violence and battles, having nightmares and crying fits. Ikey, who was remarkably optimistic and courageous under fast and furious warfare, took “Jerv” under his wing befriended him and calmed him down; Jerv attached himself to Ikey with a devotion that turns out to have been compulsive and unhealthy. Jerv repaid him by stealing his money as Ikey lay dying in a Civil War hospital, and stole money from the privates under him, withholding their paychecks. He also “borrowed” money from various members of the extended Plumb family and stole items from Ikey’s valise, which was detained from being sent home to his family after his death in July 1864. The younger brother of a manager in Tiffany & Company, New York City, Cook was court-martialed for his misdeeds and drummed out of the Army in 1865.
The Plumb trove includes five certificates of course completion from Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. The first lists courses in Algebra and Drawing From Copy for the academic year 1864-1865. It is signed by Joseph Wood, principal and Peter Cooper, president. Plumb enrolled at “Coopers” or “Cooper Institute” as he refers to it in his letters home, at age 17. Cooper Union was established in 1858 by the wealthy Scottish inventor, engineer, and industrialist Peter Cooper, sharing his wealth by making a practical education available to men and women who did not have the means to pay for a college or university course. Offering classes in engineering, architecture, and fine and applied arts, the school was highly competitive. Plumb attended for five terms and four of five times earned a “Certificate of the First Class.”. An inscription at the bottom of the certificate remarks that: “A Certificate of the First Class is granted for superior ability and diligent attention, a Certificate of the Second Class for ability and diligent attention, and a Certificate of the Third Class for attention and good conduct.” Interestingly, Plumb’s lone “Certificate of the Second Class” was given for coursework in perspective, a skill manifested to a high degree in his subsequent drawings and watercolors. In his letters home, Plumb mentions attending the courses after a full day of work at Hatch & Co lithography and engraving firm, and enjoying the Institute’s world-class free library. After returning home from four years of study in Paris, Plumb began teaching freehand drawing at Cooper Union, where he remained for thirty-four years. The collection includes a silver medal with its original note of appreciation bestowed on Plumb by Peter Cooper’s daughter.
Henry’s oldest sibling, Isaac, known as “Ikey” (1842-1864) was a true Civil War hero. Family correspondence (many letters written home by Ikey) chronicle in detail his initial desire to enlist, which he did at age 19 in the 61st New York Infantry of the Army of the Potomac. He served under Francis C. Barlow and Nelson Miles, two of the leading Union officers (Barlow became a general and was famous for his courage and strictness toward his men). Enlisting as a private, Ikey’s courage, generosity, intelligence, high ethics, and leadership skills led to a series of promotions; at the end of his life he had reached the rank of captain. Offered the honorary post of aide-de-camp to Colonel Nelson Miles, he turned it down because he felt it would lead to corruption and he felt he had a leadership role to play. His papers record the fate of the soldiers fighting with him who came from his home town of Sherburne and the surrounding county. It is clear that he felt a sense of responsibility and genuine concern for them. Until he was wounded twice by a sharpshooter at Gaines Mills in June 1864, Ikey was seemingly protected by divine intervention, surviving unscathed Antietam, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg. Although initially deemed not life-threatening, following an operation on one of the two wounds he sustained, he died coming out of anaesthesia on July 4th, 1864 in Campbell Hospital in Washington, DC. His body was sent home to a hero’s memorial and his family paid for an impressive monument with the names engraved of the various battles in which he fought.. Ikey’s close childhood friend, Charles Fuller, who lost a leg at Gettysburg and survived into the 1900s, wrote about his war experiences in a privately-printed book in which he mentioned his admiration and affection for Ikey. Henry painted Ikey and Charles in their Civil War uniforms and the portraits hang side by side at the Sherburne Public Library, united in death as they were in life. I’m told that Civil War buffs make pilgrimages to view the paintings, both gifts of Henry Grant Plumb.