Pennell family papers
Held at: University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts [Contact Us]3420 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6206
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The marriage of Joseph Pennell (1857-1926) and Elizabeth Robins Pennell (1855-1936) was one of equals and complements, bringing together two talented individuals with keen minds, ambition, and a love of work. Elizabeth Robins published her first essay, "Mischief in the Middle Ages," in the Atlantic Monthly in July 1881, and wrote travel books, biographies, a novel, art criticism, and essays up until the time of her death in 1936. Her first book, Life of Mary Wollstonecraft (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1884) was published the year she married. Joseph Pennell was an illustrator (as he said, "a born illustrator"), an etcher, lithographer, and a writer as well, noted for his ho nesty, invective, and sense of humor. They began their acquaintance in 1881 while collaborating on an article for The Century Magazine. She was assigned to write the text to accompany some of his etchings of Philadelphia sites; the result was "A Ramble in Old Philadelphia," published in the March 1882 issue. The collaboration continued throughout their marriage producing over 230 books as author, joint author, and/or illustrator, plus hundreds of essays and articles. See Free Library of Philadelphia. "Checklist of Books and Contributions to Books by Joseph and Elizabeth Robins Pennell, issued in connection with a Pennell exhibition in the Free Library of Philadelphia, June-August 1945," by Victor Egbert.
In his extremely productive career as an artist Joseph Pennell made over 1800 prints, many as illustrations for magazines and for the books of prominent authors including F. Marion Crawford, Andrew Lang, William Dean Howells, and Henry James.
Both Pennells were natives of Philadelphia. Elizabeth Robins was born to a prosperous banking and finance family. Her grandfather, Thomas Robins, whose family was originally from Virginia and the eastern shore of Maryland, was a trustee of the First Pennsylvania Bank and later president of the Philadelphia Bank at Fourth and Chestnut Streets. Her father, Edward Robins, worked as a broker on the Philadelphia Stock Exchange but lost money following the Civil War, leaving the family with limited resources. Elizabeth's mother died when she was very young, and she and her sister were sent by their father to the convent of the Sacred Heart in Torresdale, just north of Philadelphia. Their life at the school was documented by Elizabeth's classmate Agnes Repplier (1855-1950) in her book In Our Convent Days (1905). Elizabeth also wrote of the experience in Our Philadelphia (1914). Her father was a convert to Catholicism, and Elizabeth writes of how her convent experience and the class prejudice against Catholics in nineteenth-century Philadelphia made it difficult for her to become a part of Philadelphia society when she left the convent at age seventeen: "In France, in Louisiana, in Maryland, to be a Catholic was to be at the top of the social scale, approved by society; in Pennsylvania, it was to be at the bottom, despised by society," Our Philadelphia, 175).
She went to live in her father's home. By this time he had remarried and she had younger siblings. Elizabeth found inspiration in the work of her uncle, the author Charles Godfrey Leland (1824-1903), who was a stimulating companion, introducing her to other writers, including his friends Walt Whitman (1819-1892) and George H. Boker (1823-1890). Leland took her with him on his visits to gypsy encampments in New Jersey and Pennsylvania for his book The Gypsies. He encouraged her to write and gave her introductions in the offices of Philadelphia's newspapers. Elizabeth needed her own income and was excited by the challenge of work, which transformed her view of her world, up until then limited by what she calls "the social adventure."
Joseph Pennell was born in Philadelphia at 603 South 9th Street on 4 July 1857 but was raised on Lombard Street by his Quaker parents, Larkin Pennell and Rebecca A. Barton. He attended the Select Boys' School, now Friends Select School. In 1870 the family moved to Germantown, where he attended Germantown Friends Select School. He spent much time drawing, a skill not appreciated in his school, but he did receive some instruction in drawing there from James R. Lambdin. After graduating, he worked in an office of the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company. His application to the newly opened school of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts was rejected in 1876, and he attended the School of Industrial Arts at night. He was expelled from this school in 1879 (Pennell says for encouraging a mutiny among the students), but recognizing his ability, his professor, Charles M. Burns, gained admittance for Pennell to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he studied under Thomas Eakins and others. Pennell's talents lay in graphic arts, not in painting, and his abrupt personality contributed to some difficulties he experienced during uneasy years at the Academy. He was determined to work as an artist and opened his own studio (shared with Henry R. Poore) in 1880. Pennell also loved cycling and was captain of the Germantown Bicycle Club. Some of his early commissions as an illustrator were for articles on cycling. From the start he succeeded in landing many commissions for Harper's and Scribner's (later The Century Magazine) and then a host of other publications. In 1883 he was sent by Century to Italy to work on illustrations for a series of articles by William Dean Howells. In his letters to Elizabeth from Florence he used endearments from the gypsy cant they had both picked up while traveling with Charles Godfrey Leland; and Pennell expressed his desire that she join him in Italy.
In the summer of 1884, following their wedding which took place on June 4 in the parlor of Elizabeth's grandfather's house at 1110 Spruce St. in Philadelphia, Life and Letters of Joseph Pennell, v. 1, p. 114.
The Pennells moved to London, remaining there for thirty years. They traveled throughout Europe in the summers by tricycle, by bicycle, and on foot, writing and illustrating a large number of travel books together. Both agreed from the start not to let their marriage interfere with their work. As Elizabeth wrote: "After Canterbury [the publication of their first book, A Canterbury Pilgrimage in 1885] the opportunity came to test the resolution reached before our marriage, not to allow anything to interfere with his drawing and my writing. Should they call us in different directions, each must go his or her way." Life and Letters of Joseph Pennell, v. 1, p. 123. And while they spent a great deal of time traveling together, Joseph Pennell pursued his work wherever it took him, writing long letters to Elizabeth, who sent him the same. In London they became friends with Robert Louis Stevenson, Andrew Lang, Edmund Gosse, Dr. Frederick James Furnivall, and Walter Crane. Their relationships with William Morris, John Galsworthy, James McNeill Whistler, Henry James, George Bernard Shaw, Aubrey Beardsley, William Heinemann, John Lane, Fisher Unwin, and a number of other writers, artists, and publishers are documented in their books, particularly in Elizabeth Robins Pennell's Nights: Rome, Venice in the Aesthetic Eighties; London, Paris in the Fighting Nineties (1916), an account of the lively Thursday night salon they hosted.
In 1887 Joseph Pennell began writing a column of art criticism for the Star in London, a column started by George Bernard Shaw, who had abandoned it to write a column on music. Pennell was outspoken, upsetting both the academy and artists; soon the editor H. W. Massingham engaged Elizabeth R. Pennell to do the work as understudy and thus she began a career writing art criticism.
James McNeill Whistler had a profound influence on Joseph Pennell. They met in London in 1884. When Whistler moved to Paris in 1892, Pennell followed in 1893 and spent a period working with Whistler in his studio. The Adventures of an Illustrator, p. 242.
The Pennells began collecting materials for an authorized biography of Whistler's life, first published in 1908. The biography generated a lawsuit over the issue of whether in fact it had been authorized by Whistler, and whether the Pennells had the right to use the Whistler letters they had collected. The Pennells won the lawsuit but not the rights to publish the letters.
Joseph Pennell's books, particularly the earliest, were written as he dictated them to his wife Elizabeth, Life and Letters of Joseph Pennell , v. 1, pp. 191-192. It was she who polished the writing and went over the proofs with him. They included Pen Drawing and Pen Draughtsmen (1889), The Illustration of Books (1895), The Work of Charles Keene (1897), Joseph Pennell's Pictures of War Work in America (1918), Etchers and Etching (1920), and The Graphic Arts (1920), among others.
After spending part of 1914 in Berlin, Joseph Pennell managed to get to London just as the war was declared. He drew and sketched munitions factories and other war works for the British Government and then was invited to do the same for France. What Pe nnell experienced in France horrified him. As a Quaker, he abhorred the war and the destruction of cities, towns, and ways of life he had known. Through H.-D. Davray he had been given a French government permit to go to Verdun to illustrate the war at the front lines. He traveled there as part of a press corp but could not bear to remain, returned to England, and shortly afterwards to the United States, writing "I had had my sight of War and felt and knew the wreck and ruin of War, the wreck of my life and my home-and that has never left me since." The Adventures of an Illustrator, pp. 356-357.
The Pennells spent time in Philadelphia but never settled there. Joseph Pennell traveled, lectured, and worked in Washington, D.C., organizing his Whistler collection for the Library of Congress. In 1921 the couple moved to Brooklyn, New York.
Near the end of his life Joseph Pennell recognized that his 40-year career had coincided with "The Golden Age of Illustration" at one of the leading illustrated magazines in the United States, Century Magazine. The magazine's art editor, A. W. Drake, and editor, R. U. Johnson, remained close friends of the Pennells. In her letters to Emily Robins, Elizabeth describes birthday parties and Christmases at the Johnson's home in New York.
Joseph Pennell worked, teaching students at the Art Students League, up until a week before his death. He contracted influenza which developed into pneumonia and he died at home in the Hotel Margaret in Brooklyn Heights on 23 April 1926. Edward L. Tinker reports that "just before he died he begged to be carried to his window for one last look at the view of Manhattan that he loved and had often sketched and painted. The doctor thought it unwise, but I have always regretted that Mr. Pennell was deprived of this last pleasure." Edward Larocque Tinker, The Pennells, p. 24
Elizabeth moved into Manhattan in October 1926, to an address at 449 Park Avenue where the Pennells' friends, Edward L. and Frances Tinker lived downstairs. She remained there for the rest of her life, maintaining her friendship with dozens of artists including her husband's students. Always true to her interest in dinners and dining, she entertained at home with her famous "little dinners." Childe Hassam, Ernest Lawson, and the sculptor John Flanagan were among her guests. She died on Friday, 14 February 1936, at her apartment in New York City.
The Pennell Family Papers at the University of Pennsylvania Library contain scores of tributes to Joseph Pennell written after his death in April 1926. This letter written by artist Gifford Beal and published in the Hartford Courant, 12 June 1926, is also a tribute to Elizabeth R. Pennell and to the Pennells' marriage:
The keynote of his life was service to the cause of art and the clearing out of dark corners where sham and pretense lurked in the guise of beauty. His kindness to those around him in everyday life was unbounded and I will mention but one instance that I know of: At the exhibition of his students' work at the Anderson Galleries, he bought more than half of the exhibit just to encourage them.... But I often think that the greatest things in life spring from that harmony known only to those who have live d lives like Mr. and Mrs. Pennell--a husband and wife equally great in different ways with a mutual love and understanding until the end.
Elizabeth Pennell's life inspired affection and tributes as well. Included in this collection are two letters written by British author Violet Hunt (1862-1942) in 1939. Hunt was suffering from illness and distressed not to hear from her friend Elizabeth, whom she had known for many years in London. After learning of Elizabeth Pennell's death, she wrote to Frances Tinker:
I loved Elizabeth as I am sure I told you. (No harm in telling you again) and I feel as if I should soon join her if [it] were permitted. I loved her.
26 February 1939
The Joseph and Elizabeth Robins Pennell Papers at the University of Pennsylvania are the integration of several gifts and deposits made during the 1950s by Edward Larocque Tinker and Elizabeth Pennell's sister-in-law, Emily Jewell Robins, augmented by a few later donations and purchases. Received separately, the papers are here combined for better access by researchers.
The Pennells bequeathed their collection of Whistleriana to the Library of Congress in 1917 although the papers remained in storage in London until the end of the war. Upon his death in 1926, Joseph Pennell bequeathed his own prints, papers, and estate to the Library of Congress, subject to provision made for Elizabeth's use of the estate until she died. Elizabeth was the manager of the couple's finances and kept the estate intact and growing even through the Depression. Upon her death the couple's papers, including Elizabeth's collection of cookery books and some papers of Charles Godfrey Leland, were transferred to the Library of Congress. Elizabeth left her personal papers and literary rights to her friends Edward L. and Frances Tinker, who donated some of these papers to the University of Pennsylvania in 1951 and later made a donation to the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin in 1961.
The papers at the University of Pennsylvania Library comprise personal correspondence of both Pennells, drafts and galleys for some of their publications; contracts; royalty statements; trust fund account statements; copies of wills; publicity materials; photographs; newspaper clippings; memorabilia; exhibition catalogs, awards, original sketches, watercolors, and prints by Joseph Pennell; in addition to a few works by other artists.
There also are some letters and other materials about the Pennells generated by the two donors, who researched and wrote about the Pennells and actively promoted the granting of a posthumous doctorate to Joseph Pennell by the University of Pennsylvania in 1951.
Joseph Pennell's correspondence includes letters from the Art Club of Philadelphia, related to his resignation from that organization in 1918; correspondence with the Art Institute of Chicago where he lectured in 1919 and 1920; letters he wrote to fell ow artist John McLure Hamilton, many concerning work they did for world art expositions including the Louisiana Purchase Exposition at St. Louis in 1904; and letters he wrote to artist C. B. Falls while teaching at the Art Students League in the 1920s (th ese were a donation from Mrs. Falls in 1979). Also included is Pennell's correspondence with the Library of Congress in 1917 regarding his donation of Whistler manuscripts to the Library; correspondence with officials of the British government regarding P ennell's access to military sites in 1916-1917; and correspondence and royalty statements from his publishers.
Elizabeth Robins Pennell's correspondence includes letters from Edmund Gosse (1849-1928) and J. M. Barrie (1860-1937) regarding her war novel The Lovers (1917), plus a number of other letters in response to the novel. A lon g letter from Mary Franklin (Mrs. Daniel) Garber in 1925 discusses the education of women, the difficulties of domestic life, and artistic taste in America. Letters from Howard Coppuck Levis discuss wine and the collecting of cookery books. A number of le tters from Agnes Repplier (1855-1950) attest to the lifelong friendship between the two women. Letters from Dora Esther Yates (b. 1879) relate to the Gypsy Lore Society which Elizabeth R. Pennell served as honorary president in 1931. Correspondence to Edward Larocque Tinker spans the years of their friendship from 1922 to 1935. There is also correspondence with the Pennells' publishers regarding both Joseph and Elizabeth's books.
The bulk of the Elizabeth R. Pennell correspondence, however, comprises her letters to her brother Edward Robins, plus, in particular, her bi-weekly letters to her sister-in-law Emily Jewell Robins which span the years from 1922 to February 1936. In th ese letters Elizabeth discusses artists and the art world in New York and Philadelphia, plus news and gossip from Europe. Artists, art dealers and collectors, and writers mentioned in these letters include Wayman Adams, Clifford Addams, Paul Wayland Bartl ett, Gifford Beal, Irving Clark, Royal Cortissoz, John Flanagan, John Galsworthy, Ellen Glasgow, John McLure Hamilton, Childe Hassam, Arthur Mayger Hind, Violet Hunt, R. U. Johnson, Edward G. Kennedy, Emmet Kennedy, Ernest Lawson, John Frederick Lewis, Belloc Lowndes, Harrison S. Morris, Laurent Oppenheim, Agnes Repplier, R. H. Sauter, John Charles Van Dyke, H. G. Wells, Cadwallader Washburn, H. Devitt Welsh, James McNeill Whistler, Owen Wister, Catharine Morris Wright, and Sydney Longstreth Wright.
Elizabeth Robins Pennell's observations on people she had known well are often humorous, as she wrote to Emily:
Bernard Shaw seems to have a distressing fancy to exhibit his nakedness to the world. It was bad enough when he was young and posed as Rodin's Penseur but in his old age it is simply loathsome. He looks like one of those ho rrible holy men of India who spend most of their lives staring at their navel.
15 September 1928
She remained energetic and interested in world events until the end of her life. Her letters comment on United States politics, the music of Leopold Stokowski, the Catholic church and birth control, and world events, as in this example from a letter written when she was 78 years old:
Dear Emily, Isn't this a beautiful morning? It quite wakes me up, despite the fact that Hitler's last performance seems to bring us all to the verge of chaos. When he spoke over the radio yesterday. It's hard just to hear his voice and judge him by it, meaning to turn him off after a few minutes as I understand so little German nowadays that I felt there was no use to linger longer. But I could not stop listening. I never heard such rage and fury -- "hell, fire and damnation" sort of thing -- in a voice before. It was amazing and horribly alarming. Did you listen in by chance, and if you did, how did it strike you? If he has his way the whole world will be in a war within the next year or so, if not sooner.
15 October 1933
The Papers at the University of Pennsylvania include many of the photographs, proof sheets and some publicity for Joseph Pennell's memoirs, The Adventures of an Illustrator (1925). This was Pennell's last book before his death, although he planned and worked on the Catalogues of his etchings and lithographs. Of interest to historians of the Society of Friends in Philadelphia are the eight daguerreotypes of Joseph Pennell and his family in Quaker dress, ca. 1860. Some of the images were used to illustrate Joseph Pennell's memoirs.
Also included are approximately 150 works of art by Joseph Pennell, most are etchings and lithographs, with a few sketches and watercolors. Subjects include historic sites and contemporary construction in Philadelphia, New York City, Washington, D.C., and some from Pennell's work in Europe. Portraits of Joseph Pennell include signed etchings by H. Devitt Welsh and Levon West, and reliefs by sculptors John Flanagan and R. Tait McKenzie, plus photographs by a number of noted photographers.
Related collections at the Library of the University of Pennsylvania are the Carl Zigrosser Papers, Ms. Coll. 6, and the Agnes Repplier Papers, Ms. Coll. 18, both of which include Pennell letters. Related collections of Joseph and Elizabeth Pennell let ters in the Philadelphia area may be found at the Free Library of Philadelphia, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Rosenbach Library. Many of these items were microfilmed by the Smithsonian Institution for its Archives of American Art project in 1984-1989 and are cataloged in both WorldCat and Franklin.
Gift of Edward Larocque Tinker, Emily Jewell Robins, and Mrs. C. B. Falls, 1951-1952, with purchased additions.
For a complete listing of correspondents, do the following title search in Franklin: Pennell Family Papers.
- University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts
- Finding Aid Author
- Maggie Kruesi
- Finding Aid Date
- The processing of the Pennell family papers and the preparation of this register were made possible by a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.
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