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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Forays in Metalwork: Cranbrook and Fairhope, AL

Women’s History month always gives us a good excuse (not that we need one!) to spotlight the accomplishments of some of Cranbrook’s lesser-known but equally important women. They may not have been famous artists or designers, but rather women who educated scores of students, worked tirelessly behind the scenes to catalog thousands of scientific specimens, or played a role in documenting the history and heritage of the Cranbrook community. So this month we have chosen to make each post about a Cranbrook woman – the work she accomplished, an artwork she created, or some other notable fact that we find interesting.

Margaret Elleanor Biggar (1906-1992) was born in Detroit, and became interested in silverwork when she attended spent her senior year in high school at Marietta Johnson’s experimental School of Organic Education in Fairhope, Alabama. After graduation, Biggar returned home to Detroit, where she attended the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts school. In November 1929, renowned British silversmith Arthur Nevill Kirk (who headed the silver department at Cranbrook), called Biggar and asked if she would like to come and be his student apprentice. She worked for Kirk in the Arts and Crafts Studio until 1931, where she made thirty cents an hour executing and polishing Kirk’s designs.

Silver Teapot, 1929. Designed and executed by Margaret Biggar. Image Courtesy Cranbrook Art Museum (CAM 1933.45).

Silver Teapot, 1929. Designed and executed by Margaret Biggar. Image Courtesy Cranbrook Art Museum (CAM 1933.45).

In 1931, Biggar returned to Fairhope, Alabama in where she taught metals at the Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education and formed a lasting relationship with Elise Hooker (1895-1977), who was head of the school’s craft department. In 1938, the two women left the school to open their own studio where they taught metalcraft classes in silver, copper, and brass. Generous and hard-working, their primary objective was not to make money but rather to teach others the craft they loved. In 1946, they only charged fifty cents for a two-hour lesson!

Biggar and Hooker’s home on Magnolia Avenue, Fairhope, AL. The studio was called “Metalcraft Studio.” Photo courtesy Margaret Elleanor Biggar Scrapbook, Cranbrook Archives.

Biggar and Hooker’s home on Magnolia Avenue, Fairhope, AL. The studio was called “Metalcraft Studio.” Photo courtesy Cranbrook Archives, Margaret Elleanor Biggar Scrapbook.

The studio was successful and works of their students were shown in local exhibitions. People came from around the country to take classes, and the studio became a part of local crafts tours in Fairhope.

Hooker (left) and Biggar at an exhibition in Pensacola, Florida. Photo courtesy Cranbrook Archives, Margaret Elleanor Biggar Scrapbook, U.S. Navy photographer.

Hooker (left) and Biggar at an exhibition in Pensacola, Florida. Photo courtesy Cranbrook Archives, Margaret Elleanor Biggar Scrapbook, U.S. Navy photographer.

Metalwork was not Biggar’s only interest. In 1943, she spearheaded the “War Dog Fund” effort in Fairhope. This was a project organized to enlist the help of dogs on the “home front” to secure funds through the donations of their owners. Dogs could be enrolled as a Sergeant ($1) or Lieutenant ($5) all the way up to General ($100). The funds were then used to help feed and care for the dogs in WWII combat zones.

Leslie S. Edwards, Head Archivist

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