Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Classics in Washington History, Part 2

12th Session of the Washington State Legislature by the artist Alfred T. Renfro is one of the more endearing volumes in the Classics in Washington History digital collection (which I began exploring yesterday).

Renfro was a well-known commercial artist in turn-of-the-century Seattle. He was an architect as well as an artist, active in the Arts and Crafts movement and an important figure in creating the artists colony of Beaux Arts Village. (The massive timbers used in Craftsman style construction, Renfro noted, were "a good influence on the children.") His book, The Twelfth Session of the Washington State Legislature and State Official Caricatured by Alfred T. Renfro, is a set of humorous drawings and thumbnail biographies of the members of the Washington State House and Senate during the 12th session, from 1910-11. "I hope no one will be offended by anything which appears in this
book," Renfro writes, "We assure you no offense Is meant. Everything is given in good part and we hope It will be taken the same way."

The politicians are described in mildly colorful, mildly humorous ways. "Senator H. O. Fishback," we learn, "is the 'biggest man who ever sat in the senate,' for he weighs over the 300 pound mark. The big senator was chairman of the big committee on Roads and Bridges and was a member of ten other committees, but he is equal to the task. Even his enemies, if he has any, will tell you that he is an honest, sincere and capable man." Below we see the voluminous Fishback:

Each caricature follows the same format--jocular description, a head draw like a portrait, and the rest of the drawing a caricature of the individual. There are always some additional items in the drawing. For Fishback it is the "How Fat is He?" side and rear profiles, and also the cartoon cat (apparently a play on the fish in Fishback).

But we get ahead of ourselves. The first portrait in the volume is of Washington Governor Marion E. Hay (1909-1913), who Renfro portrays as a penny-pinching public servant:

The motto on the wall reads "Give the taxpayer a dollar's worth in return for every dollar they pay." In the lower corner a small figure (who Renfro dubs "my little friend Si Wash") mutters "No easy jobs around here now," as he carries a message to the legislature. Hays was an accidental governor who assumed the office on the untimely death of his successor and whose one term was marked by vigorous anti-corruption efforts.

And here, after the jump, are some more of my favorites from this collection:

"Fighting Dick" Hutchinson:

Puppet Master and Speaker of the House Howard Taylor:

This portrait of Yakima County representative Walter Moren has an interesting load of cultural baggage attached. Since Moran was southern born, Renfro makes him a colonel, and provides as backdrop a southern belle and a stereotyped black servant with a tray of mint juleps. Renfro even provides a poem in mock "darkie" dialect:

He was born in o1' Kentuck 'neath a bright and lucky star,
And of course he is a Kurnel and a member of de bar.
He's a jedge of good mint julips, in de land of tall blue grass,
Where dey grows de blooded horses and de women you can't surpass.

Perhaps the most curious portrait is of Representative William M. Beach of Mason County, dancing in somehow effeminate Indian outfit. Renfro notes that Beach comes from the "only squaw county in the state." I have no idea what "squaw county" was meant to imply, but they sure liked to dance:

Next post: The genial racism of Renfro.

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