No. 46 J. Jeffery Grant
Jeffery Grant started life literally on the royal road to art renown. His father was a japanner in Aberdeen, Scotland, of such accomplishment that he was commissioned to do lacquer work Queen Victoria fancied. One of the proudest of Jeffery Grant’s possessions is a gold medal awarded his father in 1892 for designing the diploma of the Aberdeen Industrial Exhibition, and one of his best stores relates the adventure of George Grant and Queen Victoria’s “plate warmer.”
“There was always a certain amount of excitement when some work had to be done for Balmoral Castle,” he wrote the story down for me. “But when this plate warmer, which looked like a huge safe, arrived with orders from her majesty to have it enameled black with the royal coat of arms emblazoned on each door, there was the opportunity to do a real piece of craftsmanship. When finished, the plate warmer was a thing of beauty and the coats of arms on the doors, a work of art.
“My father made his own colors and varnishes, and had at this time some varnish he had made a long time ago, but no job had come along worthy of it. This was the chance, so the job was varnished and put in the oven to bake.
“Next morning it was removed. It looked perfect until placed in a strong light where instead of the beautiful black, it had a bottle green appearance.
“Nothing could be done about it at this hour, so it was placed in the shade where it looked black, and there it remained until about 20 men came and packed it for its journey to Balmoral.
The next few weeks were very uneasy ones for my father. The climax came when the head of the plumbing firm cam to our place. He had a peculiar look on his face, and my father figured there would be some tall explaining to do.
“He said, ‘George, what color did you do that plate warmer?’
“Getting no answer, he took a letter from his pocket, saying, ‘This is a letter from her majesty’s secretary, which says: Her majesty wishes to express her appreciation of the fine work on the royal coat of arms, and to compliment the artist on his selection of the beautiful olive green background. It is so much better than the black!
“’George, did you really paint it an olive green?’
“My father says, ‘Naw, I jist put a wee touchie o’color tae taka ff the hardness o’ the black. Let’s gae out an git a drink!’”
It was into George Grant’s japanning shop that Jeffery Grant was born — “japanning” since respectably adopted into the English language, being a slang term for the arts of lacquer and enamel, imported from the yellow men of the Orient.
But besides being a “japanner,” his father was an easel artist of no mean attainment and from almost babyhood Jeffery accompanied him on his Sunday sketching trips in the picturesque sea-fishing regions around.
And as he grew up the instruction he got from his father was supplemented by seven or eight years’ attendance in Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen.
“And my schooling didn’t cost me a cent,” says Mr. Grant, with a Scotch wink.
Always he was on some sort of a scholarship at Gray’s school partly endowed by the wealthy rounder whose name it bears and partly supported by funds from the city of Aberdeen and from the royal treasury. Grant was there first on city scholarships he had won in competitions locally, but for the last three years on a scholarship granted from London.
He was in line for promotion to the Royal Academy, London, when his father died, and at 19, he had to assume charge of the japanning business. The same year his mother, too, died. For two more years he “carried on,” and then at 21, he decided to come to America and make his way as a painter.
He already was quite “professional.” At 14, he had sold his first picture to Sir David Stewart, a wealthy nobleman who saw him sketching one day with some other boys. Sir David, liking his sketch, “commissioned” him to do a view of the bend of the river, with his castle in the distance, ordering him to bring the picture to him when it was finished.
The boy delivered it with a quaking heart. Whatever may have been Sir David’s real opinion, he gallantly accepted the picture and asked the price. Jeffrey left that to his lordship.
“He gave me a gold half-sovereign and another shilling for car fare so I wouldn’t have to break the gold piece before I got home. Then he ordered the butler to see that the boy got something to eat. The butler seated me alone at a long table in a huge dining room where figures in medieval armor guarded the corners. Half a dozen liveried servants waited on me silently and politely as became Sir David’s guest. On the journey home, I took the gold coin out of my pocket several times to make sure I was not dreaming. I really had sold my first painting.”
The first picture he publicly exhibited was accepted by the jury of the Aberdeen Art Gallery. It was called “Harvesting.” On “varnishing day,” he went proudly to see his painting hanging. He couldn’t find it. A guard helped him and kindly offered him a ladder if he wanted to inspect it more closely and “touch it up.” It had been hung next to the sky, fourth row from the floor. But there it was and that’s what most mattered.
At Gray’s hang proudly for public approval and for inspiration of the students a series of paintings by Robert Brough, the school’s most distinguished graduate. Brough was Sargent’s assistant, and painted so like Sargent, Mr. Grant says, it’s impossible to tell their pictures apart. Sargent, it would seem, was on his way to founding a workshop like Rembrandt’s or Rubens’ where the student disciples helped out the master.
Coming to America at 21, Jeffery Grant went first to Toronto. His funds exhausted by the trip, he earned his food and keep the first five weeks as a sign painter. He then got a job with the Toronto Engraving Company, where he worked for two years.
After another year or so in Winnipeg, same occupation, and a visit back home, he came to Chicago and ha been here ever since.
He was first in Chicago an engraver and then an advertising designer. Ultimately, in 1920, he established a painter’s studio, attaining his boyhood ambition.
He has been an exhibitor locally and nationally, as in the National Academy shows the last five years; in the Pennsylvania Academy shows; at the Corcoran Gallery; and elsewhere.
He made his first financial success as a painter with landscapes with small figures.
Then, becoming interested in the nude, he went to Munich for two years (1926-27), painting with the “academic” Prof. Herrmann, but sometimes stealing away nights to the atelier of Prof. Hoffmann who, since the Hitler coup, has come to America where the “modernists” abounded. He got enough of the “modern” slant to pep up his work, he says, but a trained “japanner,” he adheres closely to traditional draftsmanship.
Besides landscapes and nudes, Grant specialized for a time in marines. The sea is in his blood, from his infancy in Aberdeen, but it was on the Maine coast and at Gloucester after a long sojourn inland — Toronto, Winnipeg, Chicago — that he was tempted to take a fresh look at the ocean.
In 1910, he married (in Chicago) Miss Carrie Kreivanek, a Bohemian girl — not an artist “but a darned good critic,” he says, with a shrug of shoulders on which critical hands may have descended tellingly. He has taken her back to Bohemia on sketching tours, and she has gone with him to Aberdeen. They have visited, too, Italy, Brittany, and many other beauty spots of Europe, from which he has brought back pictorial souvenirs.
Grant retains a Scotch accent and he tells Scotch stories, but they are of an epic kind. He tells, for instance, of the rich Aberdeen monument maker and owner of granite quarries there, lover and collector of art, who liked to entertain painters in his home, making them houseguests weeks at a time. When the visit was out and the artist asked “what he could do,” the granite chiseler requested only a small self-portrait of dimensions he specified. The artists were glad to comply. When he died, the rich man left as chief legacy to the city of Aberdeen 60 little portraits, uniform in size, uniformly framed — a collection Aberdeen regards as priceless. It didn’t cost anybody much in the making.