The Becker Collection

by Fred Ray on September 11, 2009 · 0 comments

Another most amazing Civil War resource has recently become available at Boston College—The Becker Archive, an extensive collection of the original drawings of the special artists working for Frank Leslie’s Weekly. There’s a long article about in Boston College magazine. It is

… an extraordinary cache of previously undocumented eyewitness depictions from the second half of the 19th century. Included are the original sketches of 14 known artist-reporters employed by Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, along with the work of many other hands, some known, some still to be identified. One hundred and twenty-five drawings from the Becker Collection (Joseph Becker gathered and preserved all 650) will have their first public viewing in an exhibition titled First Hand: Civil War Era Drawings from the Becker Collection, at the McMullen Museum, September 5 through December 13.

A long-term employee of Frank Leslie’s pioneering paper—he started as an 18-year-old errand boy in 1859 and went on to become art department supervisor—Joseph Becker was in a unique position to preserve original drawings sent in by artists from the field. Some of these works would likely have been destroyed after serving as the basis for engravings published in the paper; many were never chosen for publication and would have vanished, unrecorded. Instead, they were passed down through Becker’s family for several generations—a family that includes great-great-granddaughter Sheila Gallagher, an assistant professor of fine arts at Boston College. …. The archive that survives, says Harry Katz, former curator of prints and photographs at the Library of Congress, is a “treasure trove . . . a great boon to scholarship.”

I’ll say. As the article explains, what the reader saw in the paper was not always what the artist saw—the finished product was often a combination of what the editor wanted to portray along with what he thought the public wanted to see.

Camp Pope Publishing

Disparities between the drawings and engravings were partly a function of a fragmented, time-pressured reproduction process, driven by the commercial need to mass-produce images while events were still topical. They were also the result of editorial judgments—aesthetic and, in a sense, political. Art superintendents chose the sketches from the field to be translated into engravings, and artists in the office drew new, outline versions on paper, often changing the composition to fit the printed page. The outline drawing was then rubbed down in reverse on a block of polished and lightly whitewashed Turkish boxwood cut across the grain, the preferred material for wood engraving. Since boxwood rarely grew more than six inches in diameter, to create full-page and double-page illustrations, the standard practice was to glue small blocks together to make larger surfaces.

Thus, to the historian, the original sketch usually shows more accurate detail (and often has the artist’s field notes as well). It’s like looking at something you’ve seen many times before with a completely fresh perspective. For example, this is a not very good screenshot of E. F. Mullen’s depiction of the Union skirmish line near Fort Stevens (just outside Washington) on July 12, 1864.

Stevens

The original has been published before, but this has much more detail of interest to the military historian. The men lounge around their rifle pits, which are just piles of rail. They seem to be divided into sections of three to four men as specified in skirmish drill regulations. They have a fire with coffee on behind them. Probably these are the men of the veteran Union VI Corps, which arrived just in the nick of time.

Anyone interested in the Civil War, and especially in the mundane details of camp and battle, will find this archive well worth detailed study. While you look say a word of thanks to Joseph Becker and his descendants. Wish I could get up to take a look at it.

PS> Another one I think was never published is a sketch of General Sedgwick’s remains lying in state after his death.

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