Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Beyond his engravings of Philadelphia views

Birch's garden designs and satirical pieces.

In the "5 Under 40" show at Sande Webster Gallery, Claes Gabriel's work is inspired by masks and statues of the Taino people, of the island of Hispaniola.
In the "5 Under 40" show at Sande Webster Gallery, Claes Gabriel's work is inspired by masks and statues of the Taino people, of the island of Hispaniola.Read more

We've been selling William R. Birch short. True, his greatest claim to fame is a series of 28 stunning large-format engravings of Philadelphia views he published in 1800. Wildly popular as the first series of images of an American city, they started a trend. And Birch never lost his desire to make picturesque views based upon the American experience.

Yet there's more, much more, we're now able to savor about his life and work thanks to a highly informative exhibit, "William R. Birch: Picturing the American Scene," at the Athenaeum. Included are rarities on loan and from the permanent collection.

Arriving in Philadelphia in 1794 from England, family in tow, with a letter of introduction from Pennsylvania expatriate painter Benjamin West, Birch (1755-1834) was active as an enamel painter, portrait painter, watercolorist, and printmaker, and soon found himself hired to create the town plan for Burlington. He indulged his liking for garden design upon settling in a picturesque home, Springland, near Neshaminy Falls, Bucks County. Birch also liked to paint other waterfalls. (Can anyone recognize where he might have painted an especially puzzling one in this show?)

Certainly, Birch had embarked on his most public form of self-definition with his 1800 book of Philadelphia views. But there are plenty of examples of his artwork in other media here to broaden our understanding of what this son of an English obstetric surgeon achieved in the arts, both before and after he left England.

Highlighted from his pre-emigration period are four small, never-before-displayed, hand-colored satirical engravings. As William Hogarth so often masterfully did, these contain both harsh satire and delicacy of color.

Birch had his setbacks; he lost his beloved Neshaminy property for seven years (due to slow sales of his 1808 book, Country Seats of the United States of North America), but regained it. This exhibit is so painstakingly felt and fluidly presented that it must be recommended as the best sort of renewal for a historical figure from America's past. Five papers presented at the Birch symposium that launched this display Dec. 3 will be published in a journal about gardens and designed landscape edited by John Dixon Hunt, University of Pennsylvania emeritus professor of the history and theory of landscape.

Zoo parade

You really have to hand it to this Pittsburgh businessman, given the lengths to which he went in his pre-TV spare time to amuse a child by developing ideas for a story in a series of small sketchbooks. Two years passed before he finalized it with full-scale watercolor paintings in 1915. Set end to end and linked by nonsense verse, these panels form a 44-foot installation, part of the "Brandywine Christmas" celebration at Chadds Ford's Brandywine River Museum.

Royal Lacey Scoville was the self-taught artist who undertook this project for his daughter, Eleanore, age 8. He told the humorous tale of Tom Tompkins and the wizard who casts a spell on him. Tom awakens from a midday nap to see a slithering snake entangling three dozen colorful imaginary beasts.

The passion that drove this homage to the imagination seems genuine, if a bit narrow-gauge. Scoville provided his child with the raw material for a charged life of the mind that could console her for whatever was lacking in her real world.

Youthful feel

"5 Under 40," an all-Philadelphia group show at Sande Webster Gallery, has a decidedly youthful feel, reflecting its artists' 25-to-35 age range. Dissimilar as their work is, these artists all make art about life rather than just art about art.

Showing the refined skill of an architectural draftsman, Amze Emmons wants our eyes to linger over what otherwise might have been throwaway images of various shanty towns where homeless people live on the edge. Quebec-born Phillippe Jean discovers another form of subtlety in his enlargements of the patterned linings from confidential mailing envelopes that have found their way into his abstract prints. (Jean is the show's organizer.)

Brimming over with commentary and with sly, impertinent observations about life in his immediate graduate-school surroundings, Jayson Musson does it all with quick posters. By contrast, Israeli-born Doron Langberg pontificates with large black-and-white abstract-expressionist paintings that set forth both himself and his history emphatically, winningly.

Claes Gabriel, a native of Haiti drawn to working with shaped canvas, uses that skill to good advantage in work inspired by masks and statues of the Taino people, a culture native to the island of Hispaniola. His pieces have absorbed from that rich culture not only the power of those native works, but also the pure strength inherent in them.