Saturday, September 3, 2011

Thomas Hill (1829 - 1908) - Famous Painter

Thomas Hill

Plot 36, Lot 261

Thomas Hill was a native of Birmingham, England and arrived in Massachusetts with his family at the age of fifteen.  The son of a poor tailor,  Thomas worked briefly in a cotton factory before he was apprenticed to a carriage painter.  In 1847 he joined an interior decoration firm in Boston and by 1851 he had  married and was the father of the first of his nine children.

His interest turned to painting and he enrolled in evening art classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1853.  The next year he started his career as a landscape painter by painting  several scenes in the White Mountains, but it was not until 1861 when he settled in San Francisco, where he advertised as a portrait painter, that he was able to devote significant time to his painting.  By 1864 he was exhibiting scenes he had painted in Napa and the Sierra, and in 1865 he made what may have been his first visit to Yosemite, the site that was to become the subject of many of his most famous paintings.

Thomas Hill's Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite
Despite the enthusiastic reception his Yosemite paintings received, Hill left in 1866 for the east  coast and then Paris.  In Paris he studied with Paul Meyerheim before he returned to the United States in 1867, settled in Boston where he produced the first of his monumental views of Yosemite Valley.  The two 6’ x 10’ paintings he did of Yosemite were both purchased by Californians - Charles and Edwin B. Crocker.  (Edwin B. Crocker, brother of Charles, was appointed to the state supreme court by Governor Leland Stanford in the 1860’s).  Hill found the art market in the east to be far from vigorous, and this, combined with his rather poor health, provided the impetus for his permanent return to California in 1872.

Hill was a leader in the growing art community in Northern California, active in the San Francisco Art Association and the Bohemian Club.  His “oil sketches,” usually 16”x 20” paintings, are a significant number of his remaining works.  These fully-realized compositions were often brought back to his studio to use as reference as he created his monumental works.  The scenes of  his oil sketches ranged from the White Mountains and Newport, Rhode Island to Lake Tahoe, Mount Shasta, and the Pacific Northwest, in addition to Yosemite.

Thomas Hill's The Last Spike
In a major departure from pure landscapes, Hill painted a famous, fanciful commemoration of “The Driving of the Last Spike,” ostensibly on  commission from Leland Stanford.  Hill understood Stanford to say he would pay him $50,000, but after four years’ work, Stanford refused to buy it, and even denied ordering it. He stated his objection to the inclusion of many railroad officials in the painting when they had not actually been present at the ceremony.

Much of the above material was extracted from “Direct From Nature, The Oil Sketches of Thomas Hill” by   Janice Driesbach in the 1997 Supplement of California History, published by  the California Historical Society.

Isaiah West Taber (1830-1912) - Pioneer California Photographer

Taber's plot is the enclosed grassy area, not the mausoleum

Plot 14B, Lot 116

After spending some of his teenage years on whaling ships at sea, Isaiah West Taber, a native of New Bedford, Massachusetts, arrived in California in 1850 hoping to find gold.  Like most of his fellow gold-seekers, he didn’t find his fortune in the hills, and returned home in 1854.  In New Bedford he tried his hand at dentistry, but lost interest and turned to photography, and in 1856 he settled in Syracuse, New York where he established a portrait business.

In 1864 he returned to California where he worked for San Francisco photographers William Herman Rulofson and Henry Bradley, and around 1871, went out on his own.  In 1878 he established a large gallery at 8 Montgomery Street, and in 1893 moved to 121 Post Street.  According to the introduction to “Taber: A Photographic Legacy” (Windgate Press, 2003), “Portraiture established his reputation and created an outlet for taking and acquiring landscape views and experimenting with different forms of photography.”  Photographers of that period made their living by taking portraits.

Taber photograph of a boy from his Montgomery St. studio

 In the annals of photography, Taber ranks as one of California’s and the West’s premier pioneer photographers, and perhaps no other early California photographer achieved such fame during hislifetime. 

Taber photographed Ulysses S. Grant and six other U.S. presidents, the royal family of Hawaii, Queen Victoria (he was invited to photograph her Diamond Jubilee in 1897), and Edward VII.  His success in London led him to open a studio there.  In San Francisco Taber was commissioned to photograph the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition.  His albums remain a fine documentary of that major event.

Taber's famous photo of Yosemite
In 1876 he acquired Carleton E. Watkins’ vast collection of negatives (Watkins had suffered economic reverses) and published some of Watkins’ views under his own name, for which he was criticized.

One of the disastrous losses incurred curing the 1906 earthquake and fire was the destruction of the entire collection of Taber’s glass negatives….80 tons of portrait negatives and 12 tons of view negatives were consumed.  Fortunately, Taber had published many popular albums, insuring that his work would remain available, but the earthquake signaled the end of his career.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Art Lym (Lin Fuyuan 林福元) 1890-1962 - First Chinese Aviator

Art Lym

Garden Mausoleum

Art Lym, was a pilot who trained under the Wright brothers* and helped pioneer aviation in China. According to the July 15, 1913 issue of the Washington Post, he was China’s first aviator. He later headed the Chinese Air Force.

Lym was born in San Francisco on December 27, 1890. After the 1906 earthquake he moved to across the Bay to Oakland with his sister and her husband. He began his career in the newspaper business, writing and managing the Chinese World (Sai Gai Yat Po) newspaper.

In 1913 Lym was sent to the Curtiss Aviation School in San Diego financed by wealthy Chinatown benefactors. He earned his license with the Aero Club of America becoming one of the first two Chinese-Americans to obtain a license. Concern for his own safety led Lym to install a Sperry gyroscope stabilizer, which the U.S. Navy subsequently adopted.

Lym accepted a commission from Chinese President Yuan Shu-kai and set off to China. He became the director of the Pukou Flight School where he gave demonstrations in bomb-dropping and air scouting. Lin’s appointment was due as much to his political affiliations with the Baohuanghui as it did with his skill as a pilot. Lym would later go on to become director of the Aviation Board of the Ministry of War.

With his childhood friend Tom Gunn he organized the Canton Air Corps and launched an aerial assault on bandit strongholds on Hainan Island, recapturing the area for Guangdong. In 1920 he led the first ever aerial bombing raid on the City of Canton, targeting the Kwangsi invaders.

* Needs secondary attribution

George Dornin (1830-1907) Daguerreotypist; Author; Successful Insurance Man

Dornin Gravesite (Photo by Michael Colbruno)


George Dornin was one of the first successful daguerreotypists in California, as well as a successful insurance executive. He also wrote an account for his children entitled “Thirty Year Ago,” which was such a great description of the 49er days that it was later published in book form.

Dornin was born in New York City on December 30, 1830 and beginning at the age of 13 worked as a clerk on Wall Street. In January 1849, after hearing endless cries of “Ho, for California!,” he paid $135 for a ticket on the Panama and sailed for the gold fields of a distant California. The trip was difficult and he became homesick, writing that he cried “often and bitterly” over a daguerreotype of his mother.

He arrived penniless in San Francisco and slept aboard the Panama while looking for work. One of his jobs was painting memorial markers for Yerba Buena Cemetery (at the site of the new City Hall). This led to him becoming a sign painter and carpenter, but the ever enterprising Dornin also became a restaurateur and retail/wholesale grocer.  His accounts of his time in San Francisco also includes a vivid description of the Vigilance Committee of 1851, of which he was not a member, but supportive of their cause.

Nevada City daguerreotype by George Dornin

In 1852, he moved to Nevada City arriving via boat and stage coach.  Upon arriving in the gold fields he worked a number of odd jobs, including launderer, sign painter, baker and wallpaper hanger. That same year, he also took one of the first known pictures of Nevada City. He settled down for 18 years and worked as a merchant in Nevada City and San Juan, where he also got married and raised his children

In 1856, he helped form a Rocky Mountain Club, a Republican club set up during the Presidential campaign of John C. Fremont. The club was jeered with taunts of “Negro Worshipper” and “Black Republicans” because of their opposition to slavery.  In the 1860s, Dornin served four years in the State Legislature while simultaneously working as an express agent, telegraph operator, bookkeeper and stage line operator.

In 1867, he began work as an insurance agent, at which he became highly successful. By 1873, he had already become a vice-president at Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company. A 1906 article in the Oakland Tribune announced the resignation of Dornin from the National Fire Insurance Company when he disagreed with the company’s method of discounting claims from the 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco.

Dornin’s grandson was John D. Eldredge, who had a fairly successful career as a supporting actor on television and on stage.

George Dornin’s obituary aptly described him as “the oldest insurance man in the State, and a pioneer of ’49.”

[Original bio by Michael Colbruno, based on "Thirty Years Ago" and Oakland Tribune articles]