Kat Murrell

Preserving the legacy of Frederick Layton

Eric Vogel and John C. Eastberg spent five years researching Frederick Layton and the innovative public art gallery he opened in 1888 for their new book.

By - Sep 27th, 2013 01:16 pm
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Historians John C. Eastberg and Eric Vogel will speak about their extensive new book detailing the extraordinary legacy of the Frederick Layton Collection.

Historians John C. Eastberg and Eric Vogel will speak about their extensive new book detailing the extraordinary legacy of the Frederick Layton Collection.

Historians Eric Vogel and John C. Eastberg spent five years meticulously researching early Milwaukee industrialist Frederick Layton, the art he collected, and the public gallery he opened in 1888. The gallery is notable as the second single-patron art gallery in the United States. Layton’s Legacy: A Historic American Art Collection, 1888-2013 is the result: a richly illustrated, 480-page tome which includes essays about the collection during Layton’s day, the innovative modern approach of the Layton School of Art, and the history of the collection up to the present.

The project wasn’t always easy—or certain. “The book developed over time; we didn’t anticipate something quite so monumental,” Vogel said. “The Layton Collection trustees sponsored the first three years of research. It is a luxury that most authors don’t get. During those first three years of research, we did a feasibility study to start, to see if there was enough information on Frederick Layton to do a comprehensive 125-year history. We realized there wasn’t.”

Four boxes of information at the Wisconsin Historical Society offered scant leads, with only two boxes of non-business-related materials. However, there were just enough clues to recreate Layton’s story. “There were two things we found,” Vogel said. “The original leather bound meeting minute books from from 1888-1939. Then we found this cache of photographs, travel diaries, and other documents that really revealed his personality. We couldn’t have done the book without making those two discoveries. At that point we knew we had something.”

Any characterization of Layton as provincial can be dismissed thanks to recently unearthed histories of his travels, and the acumen of his business agents overseas, who were knowledgeable in art collecting. Layton worked with the innovative British architect, George Audsley, to build a gallery to house his collection in downtown Milwaukee, insisting that it be accessible to all of the community. The gallery was open on Sundays, which was significant in the 1890s when that was the only day off for many working people, as well as a holy day of rest. Eastberg claims that Layton’s insistence on the gallery’s availability was due to the moral edification that could be gained by viewing art as means of refreshing one’s eyes and spirit.

Eastberg notes, “There was public enthusiasm, and what’s interesting is that it came from the middle and working-class groups, which were Layton’s target. There were so many people excited that such an important collection of 19th-century paintings was being collected and displayed in a Milwaukee art gallery.”

Frederic Leighton, 1st Baron Leighton of Stretton (English, 1830–1896). At the Fountain, probably 1891–1892. Photo credit John R. Glembin.

Frederic Leighton, 1st Baron Leighton of Stretton (English, 1830–1896). At the Fountain, probably 1891–1892. Photo credit: John R. Glembin.

The support of Milwaukee’s citizens manifested itself in monetary contributions which went toward the purchase of a painting as a gift of the people. It was left to Layton to select the most appropriate one. He chose an absolute jewel of a painting: At the Fountain by the president of London’s Royal Academy of Arts, Lord Frederic Leighton. During his many trips to London, Layton and Leighton became acquaintances, and even joked over the similarity of their names.

The art collection lived on after Layton’s death in 1919, entering expansive phases with the establishment of an art school and a more contemporary direction under new leadership. “Then we have Charlotte Partridge who is the modernist,” says Eric. The school began in the basement of the Layton Gallery, but later relocated to a dedicated space on Milwaukee’s East Side. “Charlotte Partridge was incredible. The Layton School of Art on Prospect Avenue, built in 1952, was the first truly modernist cultural building in the city. She brought the idea of modernism and culture to the lakefront.”

While the collection is now owned by the Layton Art Collection and housed at the Milwaukee Art Museum,  the architectural history of the gallery and school have been lost. The Layton Gallery at Jefferson and Mason streets was razed in 1957, and a parking lot was erected in its place. The second location at Prospect and Ogden was demolished in 1970 for the ill-advised and never-completed Park Freeway. Despite these physical absences, the history of Frederick Layton and his collection are reclaimed for posterity in this rich publication.

Eric Vogel and John C. Eastberg will hold a book signing at Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Avenue, this Sunday at 3 p.m. 

10/2/13: This article has been updated to note the Layton School of Art’s location on the East Side, and for clarification of the Collection’s ownership while housed at the Milwaukee Art Museum. 

Categories: Art

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