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No. 72 Timothy Cole


Timothy Cole fiddled while Chicago burned! Moreover, it was long past midnight — indeed, a brief hour before the dawn. Mrs. O’Leary’s cow had done her work. The red flames were mounting higher and higher, sweeping on and on. And here was Timothy Cole, young artist, watching through a window, fiddling, fiddling. How the angels must have wept, looking down on this modern Nero, and so young!


Well, it’s not so lurid as all that, when you come to know the facts behind the facts. Attempts have been made to whitewash even Nero.


Timothy Cole, young man from England, well on his way to learning the wood engravers’ trade that was to make his famous, was playing his violin and his piano right enough that early morning in October 1871 when Chicago was on fire. But it was in his father’s house on the outskirts of Chicago, and the boy was “practicing.”


He was apprenticed to Bond and Chandler, wood engravers. He worked long hours at his trade, which fascnated him, but he was equally determined to be a musician.


He made a violin out of an old packing case with pieces of strong cord for strings and had so tuned the cords he could actually play it. Thereupon his father, far from rich, scraped together enough money to buy him a cheap violin. Timothy had got a job, too, pumping a church organ, in exchange for which he was allowed to practice on the organ when there were no services. After a while, he managed to get an old piano into the Cole house.

Timothy would get up sometimes as early as 2:00 in the morning, dash cold water over his face and head, and start practicing. His father and the neighbors must have been long-suffering.


Be that as it may, that’s why Timothy was fiddling that early morning in October when Chicago was burning. His father, awakened by the melodious strains, looked out of the window and saw the red light. He pointed out the glare in the distant sky to young Timothy, who “lowed” maybe there was a big fire somewhere, but went on with his music.


After a while, however, the Cole household realized something unusual was meant by the glare. Timothy put aside his music and went out to investigate. By the time he got back, thoroughly frightened at the swift oncoming of the fire, he found his father and the neighbors digging a deep hole for the burying of household treasures. He put hand to spade. His violin was among the articles buried and saved. But the piano perished. The Cole house was the last in that vicinity to burn. A drenching rain came in time to save some of the homes of neighbors.


The Coles, who had been in Chicago only two years, didn’t have the pioneer urge to rebuild a bigger and better Chicago on the noble ruins. They went back, consequently, to their first American settling place, Hoboken, where they had landed on coming over from England shortly before the Civil War.


But Timothy Cole had been here long enough to learn the trade or, if I may, the “art” whose chief American practitioner he was to become.


His father had been a hatter in Chamberwell, London, the birthplace of Robert Browning, and here in 1852 Timothy was born. He was one of 12 sons. Next door lived a carpenter who had 12 daughters.


“I have heard my father remark on the irony of fate that allotted him the boys, who should have had the girls (he being a milliner), and the carpenter the lassies, who should have been blessed with laddies,” writes Cole in an autobiographical fragment, “Recollections of My Childhood,” which is incorporated in a book recently published, “Timothy Cole: Wood Engraver.” The book is by his son, Alphaeus P. Cole, who followed in his profession, and a daughter, Margaret Ward Cole. From it is taken most of the material for this article.


In 1857 when Timothy was 5, the Coles came to America in search of a better market for hats, finding rooms in Hoboken “above an apartment occupied by colored gentry.” There, the mother died giving birth to her 12th son. The family scattered, the children being placed in orphanages and some adopted. Timothy ultimately found his way back to his father, whose hat business had been further shattered by the Civil War, when so many people went hatless.


A friend of the elder Cole advised him to go to Chicago, where fortunes were being made. Timothy meanwhile had developed a precocious talent for drawing, exhibited in his making of maps in school. The schoolmaster had urged the boy’s father to make of him a lithographer.


On arrival in Chicago, the two set out to find a lithographer’s establishment where Timothy might learn his trade. Instead, they saw a sign, “Bond & Chandler, Wood Engravers.”


“How would you like to be a wood engraver?” asked the elder Cole.


“All right,” replied “tiny Tim,” and a wood engraver (instead of a lithographer) he became, Bond & Chandler accepting him right off as an apprentice.


There were eight engravers. Timothy was found promising but slow. Being sensitive to criticism, when he heard that, he got the habit of wriggling over the transom on Sundays, working at his block and finishing it on time with the others.


However slow he may have been, he developed an accuracy so extraordinary that he was given special work to do, making designs without the use of instruments of precision.


The great fire, which destroyed the establishment of Bond & Chandler, released him automatically from his apprenticeship, which was becoming irksome, and Timothy welcomed the idea of returning to New York.


He got a job almost immediately with Hearth and Home, a magazine, at $12 a week, and a little later with Scientific American at $30. It was Scientific American that utilized best the perfection of his drawing.


However, machinery was the chief concern of this magazine, and Cole wanted to do “pictures.” He engraved, in spare moments, “May Blossoms” from a painting by Ludwig Knaus, which he sold to Illustrated Christian Weekly. That publication then commissioned a portrait of Henry Ward Beecher. Scribner’s and Century were soon having him engrave work by various painters, among them, in 1883, Fromentin’s “The Hawker.”


“Why don’t you have me do these things from the original pictures instead of from photographs?” he asked the art editor of Century, on delivering the Fromentin block.


The editor took up the matter with his superiors, with the result Cole was sent to France for a year to engrave European masterpieces. He stayed 27 years.


The first block he sent back from Paris was Botticelli’s “Madonna and Child.” Years later, he thought this cutting did not live up to his others of the great painting series, which was numbering in the hundreds, and he re-engraved it. But his early Botticelli, along with Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa,” established his reputation internationally. The “Mona Lisa” occupied him 14 days.


Cole was recipient of many honors in Europe and America for his work and numbered among his friends the principal artists of both continents. In 1910, he came back to America, making first a prolonged stay with a son in Philadelphia, then going to New York and finally in 1917 settling permanently in the outskirts of Poughkeepsie.


But wood engraving as a practical art for the magazines was on the decline, being succeeded by photo processes. Cole turned to the making of portraits of celebrities. A wood engraving of John D. Rockefeller after the portrait by Sargent, which is on view this summer at Cleveland in the Great Lakes exposition, was among the most notable. He did Mrs. Mary Baker Eddy and Henry C. Frick from photographs.


The vanishing age of Cole’s wood engraving was projected oddly into the new era when the old master’s 75th birthday was announced over the radio.


Cole died four years later, May 17, 1931. On the day of his funeral, the flag atop the town hall of Poughkeepsie was lowered to half-mast.

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