Henry Chapman Ford
“It is a perhaps a little humiliating to us that we should have to wait till a stranger should come across the continent to reveal to us the beauties that lie at our door,” said the Reverend J.W. Hough at the library soiree in the Odd Fellows Building on State Street in September 1875.
He was referring to the library’s showing of eminent Chicago artist Henry Chapman Ford’s landscape paintings and sketches of the area. Hough was pleased that Ford had said that nowhere in the Adirondacks nor the White Mountains of New England had he found “so rich a field for his pencil” as in the canyons that indented the mountains and foothills from Rincon to Gaviota.
After the Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed Ford’s studio and the bulk of his work, Ford, who suffered from tuberculosis, had headed west to pursue his art and restore his health. In the spring of 1875, he landed in Santa Barbara and proceeded to make forays along the coast and into the mountains to paint. After the results were displayed in the new library, Reverend Hough commented that he hoped Ford would set up his easel more permanently in Santa Barbara; and, indeed, that is what he did.
In November, Ford opened a studio in the Odd Fellows building where, in addition to his sketches and paintings, he displayed shells and fossils and archeological items found on his camping trips up the coast and to the Channel Islands. He purchased five acres of land in Carpinteria and set about building a cottage and transforming his property into a botanical wonderland. Ford’s place afforded a feast of views of mountain and sea, valley and foothills, as well as Santa Barbara to the west and a distant Casitas Pass to the east. “Mr. Ford has evinced the artist’s judgment and appreciation in deciding to make his home in this beautiful valley,” opined the press.
Ford took to Santa Barbara with fervor, and Santa Barbara was taken with him. He became a founder of both the Santa Barbara Horticultural Society and the Santa Barbara Society of Natural History. In 1879, he originated a Rose Festival for his wife’s birthday, which evolved into an enormous and popular horticultural event for many springs to come. In 1876, Ford had displayed his work at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition and was gone several months. His absence in Santa Barbara was keenly felt. When he still hadn’t returned by early November, the newspaper felt compelled to publish a letter from him explaining his delay.
Readers were happy to learn on November 17, that Ford, his wife and friends would arrive by steamer the following day, and his friends started planning a welcome home reception. Afterwards, the Morning Press reported, “The utmost cordiality and good-feeling prevailed, and it was evidenced on all sides that our artist-friend and his excellent lady hold a high place in the esteem and friendship of the community.”
Ford continued to travel east to display his work at various expositions, including the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. He also continued to take sketching excursions, often camping out for weeks and months at a time. At times, his wife would bring along her pet owl, which she had raised from a chick.
After a few years, Ford began to search for inspiration for his landscapes beyond Santa Barbara. In 1878 he took his sketchpad to Yosemite and painted the valley from Glacier Point. On the journey to and from Yosemite, he visited several missions and made a few oil sketches. Then, in the summer of 1880, he began to record the missions in oil and pencil. Becoming ever more aware of their precarious condition, he wanted to preserve them, at least in pictorial form. By 1883 he went to New York to prepare the copper plates for Etchings of the Franciscan Missions of California. These etchings would become his most enduring work, but he also painted many oils and watercolors of the missions in California and of the adobe buildings in Santa Barbara.
One of those adobes was the Aguirre Adobe, which once stood on Carrillo Street. Built by Don Jose Antonio Aguirre in the early 1800s, it was considered to be the largest and most beautiful home in the Santa Barbara of its day. Hand-carved pillars, cornices, and casements were surmounted by frescoed dados and friezes. Shaped as a quadrangle, it had 19 spacious rooms surrounding a courtyard and wide covered porches. The Aguirres were known for their hospitality, as were subsequent owners. Later, the home was used as a center for public entertainments, a school for the Sisters of Charities, a temporary church when the Catholic church burned, the post office, a practice room for Lobero’s band, and a polling place for all elections. Understanding its historic importance, Henry Chapman Ford tried valiantly to have the house preserved by the city, but he was not successful.
Ford’s contributions to the civic life of the city included serving on the Committee for Planting Trees along the boulevard near the beach in 1891. Joseph J. Perkins, a prominent realtor, and Hugh D. Vail, a retired math professor and local cattle rancher, also served. Civic leaders had announced plans to create Plaza del Mar, a grand boulevard lined by trees and a wide promenade. Ford presented the Street Improvement Society and the City with a list of nearly 50 various trees he felt would be suitable for the project. He also painted a watercolor rendering that represented the plan for West Beach. The newspaper said, “Mr. Ford has made several excellent suggestions in his picture regarding the kinds of trees to be planted and the style of architecture for the bath houses that will give the whole picturesque effect.” The large painting was put on display for the public to see in a store window on State Street.
When it came time to decide, Vail insisted elms would be best and Perkins wanted Fan palms; Ford refused to express a preference. A compromise was reached, and the north side of Cabrillo Boulevard was planted in elms and the ocean side in fan palms. Perkins, who had cautioned against using elms, was proven correct when seawater intrusion and sandy soil killed off the elms within three years. They were then replaced with Fan palms.
Tuberculosis took Henry Chapman Ford in 1894. He was the first professional artist to make Santa Barbara home. His popularity and the esteem in which he was held created an open and welcoming environment for those who would follow, thereby enabling a thriving, dynamic artist’s colony to develop by the early 1920s. Ford’s work in horticulture, natural science, preservation, and civic improvement laid the groundwork for many of the institutions we have today.
Henry Chapman Ford Exhibit at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum
The West Beach rendering, along with historic etchings and many beautiful oil paintings of local scenes by Henry Chapman Ford, are now on exhibit at the Santa Barbara Historic Museum. There is also a display of ephemera and photos from Ford’s life and times in Santa Barbara. The exhibit features several landscapes whose rich colors and play of light immerse the viewer immediately in the scene. His paintings and etchings of the Santa Barbara Mission place the historic institution in a peaceful landscape and his images of adobes reveal what has been lost. In his day, reviewers of his work always mention the “truthfulness” of his images. His work truly and accurately takes us to that past.
The Henry Chapman Ford exhibit and opening reception on December 11 was generously sponsored by board trustee Sharon and David Bradford, the Hutton Parker Foundation, and former trustee John C. Woodward. The Santa Barbara Historical Museum is located at 136 East De la Guerra and has on-site parking. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 am to 5 pm; Sunday from 12 pm to 5 pm.
(Sources: dozens of contemporary Morning Press articles, especially 18 July 1891 and 12 June 1915; ancestry.com sources; “Henry Chapman Ford: Painter of Early California” by Dr. Norman Neuerburg, Noticias Occasional Papers, No. 13, 2007; files of the Gledhill Library at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum.)