The Grand Old Man of the Overmantel

On a visit to Cranbrook House, Johannes Kirchmayer’s overmantel is one of the first things to catch your attention. Tours and blog posts have examined this chef d’œuvre and its iconography, and admirers tracing the quotation popping out from the carved eglantine find it a typical George Booth choice: art, nature, his love for both. The inscription reads: 

“Nature I loved and next to nature art”

Cranbrook is the Booths’ creation, brimming with art and nature and George Booth quotes, but who wrote this line, and how did it end up in such a prominent spot? 

Johannes Kirchmayer’s overmantel at Cranbrook House, 1918. The Walter Savage Landor quote is called out in gold leaf at the top of the overmantel. Photograph by PD Rearick, CAA ’10. Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

It comes from the pen of Walter Savage Landor.

Born into minor aristocratic wealth in Warwick, England, in 1775, Landor was a wild child, quite possibly because he was sent away to school at 4 ½ years old and was a wonderment to his parents who didn’t know what to do with a child who wrote Latin as well as he wrote English and showed remarkable talent for not obeying rules of any kind.

Walter Savage Landor in profile, from Walter Savage Landor: A Biography by John Forster, 1869. Courtesy Heritage Auctions.

Landor enjoyed such violent fights over political opinion that his parents banned him from the dinner table when guests were present. No school could hang onto him. Even Trinity College, Oxford had enough of his rebelliousness, his anti-government stance, his French Revolution republican garb. Landor fought back by writing nasty aphoristic poems about his critics in Latin and English, a practice he continued throughout his life. He was particularly vicious in Latin, partly because in England libel laws did not extend to texts in Latin. He was very clever and iconoclastic, favoring social reform and liberal nationalism. He felt himself superior to others and hated competition just in case it might prove him wrong. Hence his epigram, if not epitaph, written on his 74th birthday in 1849:

FINIS

I strove with none, for none was worth my strife:

Nature I loved, and, next to Nature, Art:

I warmed both hands before the fire of life;

It sinks; and I am ready to depart.

He may have been ready to depart, but it would be another fifteen years before he got around to it.

Much earlier, in 1805, Landor inherited a huge amount of money from his father and determined to set up an estate in Wales, restore an abandoned priory on the property, build a large mansion, and reform the peasantry. Impetuous as ever, he flew off to Spain in 1808 to fight in the Peninsular War against Napoleon’s generals, raising his own regiment. Unfortunately, Landor couldn’t stop himself from quarreling with hosts, commanding officers, and his own troops whereupon he fled back to Wales to find building materials for his hoped-for mansion had trickled away much as had his regiment.

Ruins of Llanthony Priory. Photograph copyright Gordon Hatton, reused by CC BY-SA 2.0.

Here we enter into the realm of coincidence. Landor, an Englishman, building in Wales, found upon his return from Spain that the locals had run off with a lot of his bricks. In an 1809 letter to the local bishop, Landor cursed the Welsh in his inimitable manner insisting that they would demolish the tomb of famed poet Taliesin if they could get away with it. For those readers who are architecture buffs, the name Taliesin can only conjure up one image, not that of the 5th or 6th century Welsh bard, but that of Welsh-connected Frank Lloyd Wright who thus named his east and west architectural compounds, citing the translation as “shining brow.”

But, back to Landor. Once restored to the throne, the king of Spain sent Landor a flock of sheep in recognition for his services. When the sheep arrived at the English docks, they were assumed to be a gift for the king (George III), and try as he might, Landor could not get them back, and one couldn’t sue the king. He had to wait until George IV died before publishing his opinion, one of his most famous attacks:

George the First was always reckoned

Vile, but viler George the Second.

And what mortal ever heard

A good word of George the Third,

But when from earth the Fourth descended

God be praised the Georges ended.

Alas, even though Landor was able to persuade a lovely young woman, 16 years his junior, to marry him in 1811, all was not well. Quarrelsome as always and with no business sense, Landor fled again from Wales to Fiesole outside Florence in Italy where he fared slightly better. In spite of money troubles and a wife who loved to taunt him about his age, this was the period of his great creativity, writing the totally invented Imaginary Conversations between two famous historical people. Poets such as Byron and Robert Southey loved his work, Byron even doing Landor the honor of stealing the Greek name chosen for a young Landor love to apply to the principal lady in his Child Harold. Readers struggled through these long obscure works (or didn’t) and praised a beautifully succinct passage or two, and those are the excerpts along with his crusty aphorisms that made him famous.

Walter Savage Landor’s two volume Pericles and Aspasia at Saarinen House, a gift from George G. Booth to Eliel Saarinen. Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

And here is the second coincidence. The inscription in Cranbrook House inspired this blog on Landor, who deserved some recognition. Yet it was while idling in Saarinen House waiting for a COVID-safe tour for Cranbrook students that I found myself looking at the beauty spots of the house. My eye fell on the table in the book room. Upon it lay a couple of tastefully placed little books from the Saarinen collection. I peered at the spine and saw in gold capitals the name LANDOR. They were volumes one and two of his Conversation Pericles and Aspasia, his best-known conversation, first published 1836. The flyleaf revealed the occasion for a gift to Saarinen upon his 60th birthday in 1933, wishing him a happy life, signed G. G. Booth.

Inscribed flyleaf of Pericles and Aspasia from Booth to Saarinen on the latter’s 60th birthday, August 20, 1933. Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Pericles was the great Athenian general of the 5th century BCE Peloponnesian wars, and Aspasia his female companion. Their conversation by Landor is a series of letters between the lovers and their immediate companions with walk-on roles for Aeschylus, Pindar, Socrates, and Alcibiades.

First page of Landor’s Pericles and Aspasia. Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

The language is high-flown and not all that accessible; no wonder Landor is hardly known today.

He continued to quarrel with everyone, finally getting thrown out of his own house in 1835 at age 60 by wife, daughter and one son, and fled Italy after scurrilous Latin verses excited the authorities. Back in England, as irascible as ever, Landor continued to write conversations and poems and found himself the grand old man of letters as his fame grew. Carlyle, Tennyson, Browning, Trollope, and Dickens (Landor appears in Bleak House as Lawrence Boythorn) were admiring dinner companions when Landor wasn’t in too bad a temper.

Villa La Torraccia, or Villa Landor, in Fiesole, Italy. Photograph by Sailko, reused by CC BY 3.0.

His last six years were spent back in Italy. He died, escaping as usual, in a hotel in Florence in 1864. The villa was later bought by explorer Willard Fiske and renamed Villa Landor. The villa, altered over the years, is now the Fiesole School of Music, echoing no doubt to the rages and laughter of its most prominent owner. Llanthony Priory continued to decay until protected by the Welsh government cultural group, Cadw.

Even though Landor’s life can hardly have met his approval, it is not surprising, perhaps, that George Booth found a quote from the grand old man of the previous century to adorn his own masterpiece, though one might find the use of the word “strife” ambiguous. Just as well Booth chose only the line that suited his purpose: “Nature I loved, and, next to Nature, Art.” The grand old man has come to rest.

–Lynette Mayman, Collections Interpreter

All’s well that ends well

This is a story about a wonderful discovery and a trial of patience. A few years ago, I processed the F. Shirley Prouty Collection on Johannes Kirchmayer, which documents the life and work of her great uncle and contains many years of meticulous research. It was a wonderful collection to work with, and a trove of information on architects and craftsmen of the American gothic revival.

Two of the most outstanding of these are architect Ralph Adams Cram and woodcarver Johannes Kirchmayer, who worked together on many projects. This week I made a wonderful new discovery of another product of their hearts, minds, and hands: a silver and gilt portable font initially commissioned as a gift for the Detroit Museum of Art (now the Detroit Institute of Arts) by George Booth. Cram designed it and Kirchmayer created the sculpture models and chasings for it; then, the piece was executed by silversmith James T. Woolley and decorated by enamellist Elizabeth Copeland.

Silver gilt font completed in 1920 for Detroit Museum of Art. Ralph Adams Cram, Johannes Kirchmayer, James T. Woolley, and Elizabeth Copeland. Cranbrook Archives.

In February 1918, Cram designed the font, which George Booth hoped to have ready for display at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, to be held in Detroit for the first time in October of 1919.

The making of the font did not follow the anticipated timeline, but rather than a story of delay and disappointment, it becomes a story of patience and its reward.

During the spring, Booth visited Boston and left the Cram blueprint with Woolley. On May 1st, he enquired to know Woolley’s interest in executing the design and an estimate of cost, to which Woolley replied positively, quoting $450 excluding the enamel parts. Giving the commission to Woolley, Booth advised him to confer with Cram or his assistant, Mr. Cleveland, and that Copeland will complete the enameling work.

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“His Heart and Soul into each Madonna, Saint, Commoner, or Angel”

Johannes Kirchmayer, also known as John Kirchmayer, was born March 31, 1860, in Oberammergau, Bavaria. Oberammergau is known for its Passion Play, something the whole town participates in every year it is performed. As a young man, Kirchmayer had the role of Joseph (of many-colored-coat fame) in the play. “We have the statement from John, himself, that the ‘Passion Play’ was a great influence in his early life.” (Prouty, p. 18). It meant Kirchmayer was well versed in biblical history, which would serve him well later in life.

The village of Oberammergau is also known for its long tradition of woodcarving. After he learned to carve from his grandfather, and later his Uncle Georg, a professional carver, Kirchmayer spent a number of years taking classes in Augsburg and Munich, Germany, and in London and Paris perfecting his craft. In 1880, at the age of 20, Kirchmayer moved to Boston, Massachusetts. There, he found work creating mantels, stairways, home decorations, and furniture. However, his greatest passion seems to have been ecclesiastical works, perhaps influenced by the Oberammergau Passion Plays of his youth.

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Undated portrait of Johannes Kirchmayer (1860-1930). Courtesy Cranbrook Archives

Kirchmayer’s friend Stanford White, an architect, introduced him to a number of other architects. He soon found work with cabinetmaking and decorating firms that were working on commissions in churches, businesses, institutions, and private homes. Kirchmayer had close working relations with a number of prominent architects and artisans and was, in 1907, a founding member of the Society of Arts and Crafts, Boston.

After 1898, working for the Boston furniture and architectural woodworking firm Irving and Casson, Kirchmayer worked on the buildings of the noted American Gothic-revivalist Ralph Adams Cram, a prolific architect of collegiate and ecclesiastical buildings.

Kirchmayer’s notable work around Boston include carvings in The Church of the Advent; All Saints’ Church; the Second Church; and Unity Church. He also designed part of the Anderson Memorial Bridge over the Charles River.

His work outside the Boston area includes carvings in Christ Church Cathedral, Springfield, MA; the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, West 46th Street, New York City; St. Mary’s Anglican Church, Windsor, Ontario; the Church of the Saviour, Syracuse, New York; and the James J. Hill House, St. Paul, Minnesota.

Shirley Prouty, his biographer, wrote that “John Kirchmayer did not use drawings, charts, or schematics to immortalize his saints; He studied and planned and started with a block of wood. On this piece of oak, mahogany, boxwood, cherry (he used many kinds of wood), he would draw the nude figure. He had studied anatomy as a student in Augsburg, thereby learning to proportion arms and hands, legs and feet, and an overall balanced subject. This preliminary sketch on wood was in charcoal. Then he would draw the draperies in color as they would appear in the final rendition.” (p. 27)

George G. Booth made Kirchmayer’s acquaintance through their Arts and Crafts activities and soon became one of his most ardent patrons. Booth commissioned Kirchmayer to produce carvings for Christ Church Cranbrook, Cranbrook House, and the Booth Collection of decorative arts at the Detroit Museum of Art.

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1918 carved portrait of George G. Booth, in Cranbrook House Library, by Kirchmayer. Courtesy Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

It is said that Kirchmayer “put his heart and soul into each Madonna, saint, commoner, or angel he was carving.” (Prouty, p. 29). He also followed the old Bavarian custom of leaving one’s visage somewhere in your work.

At Christ Church Cranbrook, Kirchmayer’s works include the “Doubting Thomas Door,” which features images of the craftsmen who worked on the church, including Kirchmayer; the ornamental screen covering the wall at the back above high altar with “Triumphant Christ” at the top; the Lectern; the Chapel Doors and Lectern in the Resurrection Chapel; and a Madonna in Parish House.

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“Doubting Thomas Door,” Christ Church Cranbrook. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

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Kirchmayer left his visage as the woodcarver on the “Doubting Thomas Door”. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

At Brookside School, Kirchmayer created corbels (projections jutting out from a wall) of the four Evangelists.

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Corbel representing St. John the Evangelist at Brookside School. Courtesy Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

At Cranbrook House, Kirchmayer carved many works. The largest commission was the impressive paneling of the Library, including the “Personification of the Arts (Religion Inspiring the Arts)” overmantel, which featured Kirchmayer as the woodcarver.

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Kirchmayer’s “Personification of the Arts (Religion Inspiring the Arts)”over-mantel in Cranbrook House Library. Photograph by P.D. Rearick, Courtesy Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

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Detail of Kirchmayer’s “Personification of the Arts (Religion Inspiring the Arts)” over-mantel in Cranbrook House Library. Note that the woodcarver (behind the bishop) is depicted as Kirchmayer himself. Photograph by P.D. Rearick, Courtesy Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

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Detail of Kirchmayer’s “Personification of the Arts (Religion Inspiring the Arts)” over-mantel in Cranbrook House Library. Photograph by P.D. Rearick, Courtesy Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

He also created items like a reading desk and bench; linen-fold paneling in Oak Room; a blanket chest; four carved Gothic finials in the corners of the Library; and a small figure of himself for the Booths. George G. Booth particularly enjoyed his reading desk and bench, which Kirchmayer created for the Booths’ library in 1919 from a sketch that Booth had supplied. (Prouty, p 100).

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Snapshot of Johannes Kirchmayer in front of the New Silver Beach Hotel in North Falmouth, MA, circa 1928. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Kirchmayer’s work can be found in many prominent cities: from Minneapolis-St Paul, to Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Columbus and Quincy, Ohio, Baltimore, Washington D.C., New Haven, New York City, Providence, Boston, Concord and Peterborough, New Hampshire, Portland, Maine, as well as in The American Church in Manila and in Walkerville, Ontario, Canada. Perhaps his prolific work across the globe is the reason why, shortly before his death, Kirchmayer received the “Craftsmanship Medal for Distinguished Achievement in Wood Carving” by the American Institute of Architects. It is the only time the award has been given for woodcarving.

Johannes Kirchmayer died at his Cambridge, Massachusetts home in 1930.

– Leslie S. Mio, Associate Registrar

Sources:

Johannes Kirchmayer from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johannes_Kirchmayer

Mark A. Coir, Cranbrook Art Museum: 100 Treasures (Bloomfield Hills, MI: Cranbrook Art Museum, 2004)

Shirley Prouty, Master Carver, Johannes Kirchmayer, 1860-1930: From Germany’s Passion Play Village to America’s Finest Sanctuaries (Portsmouth, N.H. : Peter Randall Publishers, 2007

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