Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Joseph Boggs Beale

Joseph Boggs Beale’s artistic work might not have seemed significant to me were it not for the fact that a large part of his career was spent in the employ of the firm of C.W. Briggs (lantern slide makers) producing drawings to be reproduced as lantern slides. I had a number of Beale slides but only one of his drawings, a romanticized scene seemingly extolling the virtues of capitalism with a prosperous boss and his busy workers. I had the lantern slide produced from the drawing and I liked having both the original drawing and the slide. I did not know until last year when I had the opportunity to buy some other Beale drawings that this drawing was from a temperance series called “A Drunkard’s Reform”. The drawing was not meant, as I had formerly imagined, to be about the rewards of capitalism but rather the return to honest labor and promotion to foreman of a man almost ruined by drink. I have grown in my appreciation of Beale’s work and been fortunate enough to add several pieces to my collection in the last two years.
Who was Joseph Boggs Beale (1841-1926)?  He was, a largely unremembered Philadelphia artist who worked in the last half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.  He worked for a variety of publications including Frank Leslie's Weekly, Harper's, and the Daily Graphic before going on to work for C.W. Briggs. Between 1881-1915 he made more than 2000 drawings which were reproduced as magic lantern slides. His drawings, and the slides that were produced from them, covered an amazingly wide view of American life. His work included Bible Stories, Popular Literature, History, Temperance, Folk Tales and Comic Scenes.  A partial list of his work would include Pilgrim’s Progress, Marley’s Ghost, Paul Revere’s Ride, The Life of Lincoln, Yankee Doodle, The Star Spangled Banner The Raven, Hiawatha, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, A Christmas Carol and The Night Before Christmas.
In 1940 Life magazine did a piece on Beale that served to mark a slight resurgence of interest in his work. The article referred to Beale as America’s foremost magic lantern painter, not that there was much competition or recognition for such a title. Terry Borton, the proprietor of the American Magic-Lantern Theater, has for the past twenty years tirelessly promoted Beale’s work and used slides based on Beale’s drawings for his magic lantern shows. Terry and his wife Debbie have finished the manuscript of a soon to be published book about Beale and his work entitled Before The Movies which will undoubtedly add greatly to the awareness of Beale as an artist of American life and history.
Although Beale worked well into the 20th century his artistic style is firmly planted in the 19th century with a kind of heroic grandiosity and unbridled optimism.  Some of Beale’s drawings seem overly sweet and others sadly capture a stereotyping common at the end of the 19th century. The best of Beale’s drawings catch grand figures  caught in melodramatic moments and are packed with detail. They are worth a look and my collection of Beale material is now up on my site.