No. 37 Robert Lee Eskridge
Robert Lee Eskridge, descended from a line of sea captains, has not been dilatory in this, his generation. With Chicago as fixed point of return and departure, he has made two or three voyages to Tahiti; voyages to Honolulu; to the Island of Mangareva (about which he wrote a book); to the island of Maupiti, in the Society group, where he “went native” and learned the language of the South Seas; to North Africa; Spain; and the Balearic Islands; besides to numerous points of the globe that sailors do not touch.
Just now he is back in Chicago, after spending a quiet summer in a miner’s cabin in his native Pennsylvania, cooking his own food, sketching in watercolor the habitat and the lives of the miners, and “recuperating,” as he says, from “too much tropics.” It is his first summer in many years that he hasn’t been somewhere or other in the exotic lands washed by the Pacific and near the equator, generally to the south.
Eskridge has become an artist-author. Besides “Mangareva,” which he illustrated as well as wrote, he has published “South Sea Playmates” for children, and is at work on “Umi,” which is to be the life and thrilling adventures of a conquering king of Hawaii of the 15th century. After finishing the “Umi” and seeing it through the press, he intends to set off for the West Indies to find out what is in the Atlantic to compare with the Pacific Islands.
Eskridge is of distinguished ancestry on both sides. It is his mother who was from the sea captains. She was born at Bethel, Del., a town founded by her grandfather, a Dutch clipper captain named Husten. The Husten’s were a seafaring people for generations back.
Eskridge’s remotest American ancestor on the male side was Colonial Colonel George Eskridge, who came to America in 1960, and settled at Sandy Point, Westmoreland County, Va. In addition to 24 children of his own, Col. George Eskridge was legal guardian of Mary Ball, who afterward became the mother of George Washington, pretty well known to most Americans as first president of the United States. She was reared on the Eskridge plantation, and when her son was born she named him, in gratitude, for Col. George.
The Eskridge’s, in those days in Virginia, had as neighbors the Lees, from whom came generals for both the Revolutionary and the Civil Wars; and the Fairfaxes, one of whom, in a later generation, became the patron of Edgar Allan Poe. The Eskridges, Lees and Fairfaxes inter-married, so that the present artist has so many distinguished ancestral relatives he feels quite swamped.
Before the advent of Robert Lee Eskridge, however, his father, Joshua Hargus Eskridge, following the close of the Civil War, emigrated to Pennsylvania from “the Old South,” and it was at Philipsburg, in the mining region on Nov. 22, 1891, the artist was born. Joshua Eskridge, though among “Yankees” retained his patriotism and named his son “Robert Lee.” The generation of Joshua Eskridge was an era when the Eskridge’s were sternly devotional. He and his brothers were named for Old Testament prophets. One of these brothers, Dr. Jeremiah Eskridge, became a noted brain specialist, a professor at John Hopkins.
Robert Lee Eskridge, something of a brooding boy, wandered about the mining region of Philipsburg, making pencil sketches. He was untutored in art. It was to this identical region this summer that he returned, with a mightily enhanced skill, to do his latest series of water colors, and to regain his American equilibrium in that stern, sober region, after the years of holiday life under topic moons.
When he was 17, his father removed the family to California, first Pasadena and then Coronado Beach, still the family residence.
Eskridge, while living at Pasadena, got his first formal art instruction in the art classes at the University of Southern California, whose head was Dr. Judson, a pupil of Bouguereau.
Eskridge, under the guidance of this instructor, went out into the open air and did water colors of vivid California landscapes.
His pictures were so complimented that his father sent him east to study – to the school of Art Institute in Chicago. He brought his watercolors along, and entered them in the Institute’s international show that very spring, the spring of 1911. Two of them were accepted, and Harriet Monroe, the poet, who was then art critic of the Tribune, singled them out for praise. This led to a meeting of artist and critic which ripened into a warm friendship, persisting to this day. It is, indeed, on the farm of Miss Monroe’s brother that Eskridge is now putting the finishing touches in his Hawaii warrior book, “Umi.”
But in the midst of his budding success, Eskridge received a severe financial jolt. Those were trying times – the lean days the preceded the World War – and Joshua Eskridge, out at Coronado Beach, lost his money and had to cut off his son’s allowance.
Robert Lee Eskridge decided, however, to “tough it out” in Chicago. He got a job as usher at the Auditorium Theater, then the home of grand opera. He had as usher companions a number of other art students – they, indeed, had suggested the job. With these students, too, he got work in a cafeteria for his meals. With the wages at the theater covering room rent and incidentals, he was able to exist and continue his studies. But, just as important, as he looks back, was the education in music he got, listening every night at the opera.
This was his life for three years, and then he went back to California. There he met Robert Henri, who was conducting a class, and Henri soon was taking special interest in him, including the arranging of a show for him in San Diego. At the San Diego exposition in 1915, Eskridge was awarded a bronze medal on one of the watercolors that had been singled out for praise by Miss Monroe in his Chicago debut.
Presently “homesick,” Eskridge returned to Chicago, but the United States was entering into the World War. Eskridge joined up, and was sent to Camp Jackson, near Columbia, S.C. Next to his bunk was another young artist who has since acquired high distinction, Charles Burchfield. The two got occasional leave to go into Columbia on sketching expeditions.
America, besides being in the war, was becoming “camouflage” conscious, and Eskridge and Burchfield soon had their art talents put to military use. They became sergeants in the command of Lieut. William Yarrow. They devised hills and hedges of painted burlap to hide cannon and marching men from both air raiders and enemies on the ground. Eskridge’s specialty was tree trunks of paper mache.
Mustered out after the Armistice, Eskridge came back to Chicago, and by 1923 amassed a “fortune” of $1,000. With the aid of a banker friend he went abroad, where he remained for two years and a half, studying with Andre Lhote. A trip to North Africa and the Balearie Islands, the first of his extensive wanderings, supplied him with pictures for a one-man show in Paris at the Galerie Simonsen, which was well received.
Returning to Chicago, he went to work for the Charles A. Stevens store doing their art designs, their books and pamphlets, and adding to his income with occasional jobs for the Marshall Field and other stores.
A turning point came when John Root, architect, commissioned him to paint four murals illustrating the voyages of Marco Polo for the new Palmer house. Those murals you can still see in the hotel’s main lobby. Eskridge dived into 14th century watercolors and illuminated manuscripts for the “spirit” of his pictures.
Other mural commissions followed, putting him into funds, and in 1927, dreaming as all artists do at some period, of the romantic adventures of Paul Gauguin, he set out for Tahiti.
There, in pursuit of his idol, as well as making sketches of his own, Eskridge encountered Emil Gauguin, natural son of Paul and his brown mistress, Tehura. (Another son of Gauguin by his legal wife is named Emil also.) Inquiring of Emil, son of Tehura, if he was an artist, the half-breed answered in the negative but drew himself up proudly and said he was a “catcher of fish.” Tehura was still alive, a wrinkled old woman, but Eskridge didn’t get to see her. Emil, according to Eskridge, had the nose and the arch of eyebrow of his illustrious father. Otherwise his features were Maori.
Eskridge heard many stories of Gauguin, and talked with the owner of the house in which Gauguin died. Gauguin was behind in his rent. The man, Oscar Nordman offered the 30 canvases the artist had left and Gauguin’s sketchbook at auction. But nobody would bid so much as a shilling. Then Nordman burned the “trash.”
Since 1927, Tahiti and other islands of the Pacific have claimed Eskridge, now an incorrigible wanderer. On his journey to Maupiti he had as companions the author Robert D. Frisbie and Frisbie’s native wife. It was Frisbie’s example that inspired Eskridge to do his own first book, “Mangareva.”
In Honolulu last year, Eskridge, finding himself “broke” – his normal state, he says – got a government job doing two murals for the new sports pavilion on the waterfront. For this work, he did a great amount of research and is prouder of the resulting pictures than anything he has ever done.
He found the ancient Hawaiians had 22 games, of which only two survive in a big way: surf riding, and canoe racing. Eskridge worked out designs, partially abstract, depicting the glories of the historic sports and celebrating the ancient god Lono, patron of the national games.