Published: April 18, 2023
The Splendid Disarray of Beauty, The Boys, the Tiles, the Joy of Cathedral Oaks – A Study in Arts and Crafts Community, recently written by University of Illinois-Urbana professor emeritus and author Richard D. Mohr and published by Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) Press, is the latest book – and in our opinion, a must-have – for aficionados and historians of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Called a “stunning coffee table book” in a recent e-newsletter from the Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement in St Petersburg, Fla., the book is more than purely decorative, with Mohr providing a lively read that accompanies his deep scholarly research, archival images and vibrant photographs of the few works that survive from the short-lived summer art school, Cathedral Oaks (1911-14). The school was tucked away in the eastern foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains above Los Gatos, Calif., and run by a couple, Frank Ingerson and George Dennison, who were known by their friends and in their community as “the Boys.” Once we could finally put the book down, we reached out to Mohr for some insights into what inspired his deep dive into this previously unwritten chapter in the history of California’s Arts and Crafts Movement.
Tell me about how and when you first heard about Cathedral Oaks and The Boys?
After the Boys’ deaths – George died at 93 in 1966, Frank two years later age 88 – the Boys, their work and their school were all lost to history. That anything at all is now known about them is the result of serendipity – a chance encounter at a 1990 Home Show in San Jose, Calif., between the wife of a person who knew the Boys firsthand, and a tile setter who was giving a demonstration of traditional art tile techniques. She said to him, “I have some old tiles you might be interested in.” The tile setter and a couple of other members of the Tile Heritage Foundation (Healdsburg, Calif.) then did a bit of research on the Boys, scouting the old Cathedral Oaks site, conducting interviews with the last people who knew the Boys, and mining such resources as were available pre-Internet. In 1996, that research culminated in a six-page article published in the foundation’s journal Tile Heritage. Through tile collecting, I knew both the tile setter and the author of the article, but at the time I was not researching pottery. So, a full-fledged project on the Boys had to await two things: 1) my shift to writing on ceramics after earlier having written books on Greek metaphysics and on gay legal issues and 2) the birth of newspapers.com and ancestry.com.
Cathedral Oaks adheres to the Arts and Crafts teachings of Arthur Wesley Dow, but appears singular in its presentation of that aesthetic. Is that correct?
Exactly. Dow has the artist start with grids and then manipulate their lines to form the equivalent of tesserae or patches in a mosaic. In the Dow landscapes, the grids still ‘read’ in the final designs, which, as a result, are a tad stiff. The Cathedral Oaks designs, while maintaining the flatness of Dow’s designs, are far more sinuous and vibrant. Their ‘bones’ don’t read through the flesh; the grids are a hidden armature of design, but not an element of it.
What is one of the most important surviving objects from Cathedral Oaks?
Hands down the Boys’ most important project is the Ark of the Covenant at San Francisco’s Reform Temple Emanu-el, installed there for the temple’s completion and dedication in early 1927. The 9-foot-tall, 3,000-pound bronze ‘jewel box’ holds the Temple’s Torah scrolls. So, we have two gay guys – who were atheists to boot – making a sacred Jewish object. That’s what I call Liberalism in action. Kudos to everyone involved.
A symphony of gilt, gesso and enamel décor, the ark’s tonnage soars high above the bimah or reader’s dais. Its radiant maximalism – spectacular, spectacular – is the focal point of a cavernous otherwise modernist space. A total success, it shows what you can do with an unlimited budget, well-honed skills, and exquisite taste.
The project took the Boys 14 months and was executed in London, because only there was a foundry capable of the refined bronze casting techniques the Boys insisted on using. The ark is studded with 600 sculpted enamel cabochons in imitation of rubies and sapphires and is crowned with a technical triumph – seven translucent medallions using at once both plique-a-jour and sculpted enamel techniques. Each technique on its own counts as a tour de force, the combination is stupendous.
What was it about the history of Cathedral Oaks that compelled you to dig deeper?
In this book, for the first time, two of my main research interests intersect and synthesize. I have written on art, specifically the American Arts and Crafts Movement, within that, especially on ceramics (for starters, see my Pottery, Politics, Art on George Ohr ). And ceramic art tiles are the main works that survive from the Boys’ honeymoon project, their summer art school (1911-14). I have also written extensively on gay marriage. The account I give of marriage in A More Perfect Union (1994) anticipates the line taken on gay marriage 20 years later by the Supreme Court, namely that gay marriage is primarily to be understood as an issue of liberty and privacy, not, as most gay commentators would have it, an issue of equality. It only took American law 105 years to catch up with the Boys’ 55-years of life and love together starting in 1910.
How much time did you spend immersed in this project?
The book came about lightning quick. It was my Covid project. Originally, I conceived of it as an article, but it grew. Starting New Years of 2021, I sat at my computer trying to shut out the world by doing nothing but searches and scribbles, until the manuscript was ready to submit for publication, just 10 months later. The academic peer-review process, revisions and book production added a year and a bit to the process, but overall, the book set something of a land record for a university press volume, especially one so heavily illustrated. That I had an ideal target for the project in RIT Press’ just launched Arts and Crafts book series helped a lot, as did having interested ‘research buddies’ whose search skills are way better than mine. Thank you, Sharon Darling and Peggy Conaway.
Where does the title – Splendid Disarray of Beauty come from?
It is a newspaper reporter’s description of the Boy’s gloriously cluttered studio space printed in a feature article on Olivia de Havilland based on an interview with her conducted in that very space. The year is 1952. With two Academy Awards under her belt, she – with her 3-year-old son, Ben, two publicists, and a nurse in tow – spends a week with the Boys. It is her first vacation in years and years. Upstairs with a private entrance, the Boys have a guest suite where Olivia and Ben stay.
The Boys had life-long friendships with oodles of famous people, including de Havilland’s sister and fellow Academy Award winner, Joan Fontaine. The two sisters, even in the press, referred to the Boys as their “uncles.” The men were also life-long friends with child prodigy, later baron, the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, the dance legends Ruth St Denis and Loie Fuller, and the opera divinity Lotte Lehmann. When in England, they hung out with the Peerage.
Aside from a work bench, the Boys’ studio housed willy-nilly the detritus of their long artistic career, including sketches of all sorts, paintings from their school period, and from their later career in interior design, hooked rugs, dried flower arrangements, and, most eye popping of all, elaborate enamel and gilt garnitures set on gold mirrors. A specialty of the Boys, these were made for Hollywood weddings. Takes your breath away.
What were some of the challenges you faced along the way?
There were four: First, the Boys’ home and studio burnt to the ground five years into their relationship, so almost nothing survives of their work prior to 1915.
Second, no letters between them survive. Maybe there weren’t any to begin with: they bonded quickly and after 1910, until George’s death in 1966, they were almost continuously in each other’s presence.
Third, 95 percent of what we know of them comes from newspapers. In their later decades, they were in the local press almost weekly. The trick is to sort out the facts from the boosterism. Finally, ‘presentism’ – the tendency of everyone to project their own views and feelings onto the past. One of the main reasons the book is so heavily documented is to show that as fantastical and yet ‘now’ the Boys’ life seems to be, ‘I’m not making this up, you know.’
What were some of the biggest surprises you learned in the course of your research?
There are two. First, it turns out that, as amazing as the tiles are, all of them were made within a period of just two or three months – made no earlier than mid-July and no later than mid-October of 1912.
Second, it turns out that George was in a 10-year-long marital arrangement with another man before elective affinities oscillated and he ended up with Frank for 55 years. It wasn’t exactly like Frank was a home wrecker, rather it was a case of phototropic George shifting bearings from the moon to the sun. He didn’t have much choice in the matter. This earlier relationship is historically super important because it documents gay marriage in California going back to 1900, the very point at which according to current academic thinking, it first became possible for society to conceive of gay folk as a demographic, a ‘species,’ as it were.
Even though Cathedral Oaks was itself short-lived, were there students who picked up its aesthetic torch, as it were, and carried the legacy forward?
Yes, and the school had even wider influences – affecting institutions as well as individuals. But first individuals: It was at the school in 1912 that Pedro Lemos learned art printing. Within months, he went on to co-found the California Society of Etchers and was well on his way to becoming one of California’s major woodblock artists, but in addition under the school’s influence, he became an important arts administrator.
The School also worked a double transformation on the ‘student’ who was most involved in the tile making. Her name was Calthea Campbell Vivian. She should be better known than she is. For nearly two decades before coming to Cathedral Oaks, she had been the head of the art department at the teachers’ college in San Jose, while, on the side, painting in the California impressionist style. But her encounter with the energetic Boys caused her to give up arts administration and devote all her energies to painting and prints. In addition, she shifted from the plein-air to the Arts and Crafts style.
Institutions: In its final year, 1914, Cathedral Oaks prompted the founding of three other summers-only arts schools in northern California – William Merritt Chase’s school at Carmel, a School of Craft and Design at Pacific Grove, and, for the first time within the San Francisco Art Institute, a summers-only program established by none other than Cathedral Oaks ‘graduate’ Pedro Lemos, who went on to become the president of the institute.
The Cathedral Oaks school was a victim of its own success.
Is there a single take-away from this you want readers to have?
An aspirational one, I fear: Though at the end of their life together, the men ran out of money, for half a century they radiated the message that just by being yourself you can attain all the things worth having – ‘Freedom, Beauty, Truth and Love,’ or so Moulin Rouge! would have them.
– Madelia Hickman Ring
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