The San Francisco Portraits of Walter Cox
2011/05/18 § Leave a comment
Walter Ignatius Cox
San Francisco Portrait Painter
by Jeffrey Morseburg
Walter Ignatius Cox (1867-1930) was an English-born California painter who seems to have thus far escaped scholarly notice. While he painted the garden scenes and domesticated landscapes that are more frequently seen today, during his lifetime he was primarily known for his formal portraits. His tranquil landscapes show an awareness of Impressionism and a brighter palette, but maintain a solid sense of construction that is academic in origin. His landscapes, usually of gardens, front porches, parks and scenes of al fresco dining, have an innocent, almost naïve quality.
Cox was born in Broxwood Court, Hertsfordshire in England, on May 4, 1867 to Richard Snead Cox (1820-1899) and Maria Teresa Weld Cox (1828-1886). He came from an old English family who were descendants of the Plantagenet Kings. The Cox family was part of the Catholic minority and young Walter was educated at St. Gregory’s College, a Catholic boarding school in Somerset, in Southwest England. Because of his artistic talent, after completing his secondary education he moved to Paris. In the French capital he studied at the private Academie Julian under the grand history painters Jean-Paul Laurens (1838-1921), Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant (1845-1902) and Jules-Joseph Lefebvre (1836-1911), as well as the titan of the French Academy, William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905).
After the completion of his studies, Cox established himself as portrait painter in London, opening a studio in fashionable Chelsea. A number of prominent British subjects sat for him, including Cardinal Herbert Alfred Vaughn of London (1832-1903), who may have preferred a painter with a Catholic background. For the remainder of his career Cox would maintain good relations with the Catholic hierarchy, and he painted the official portraits of a number of Archbishops and Cardinals.
Cox married Lavina Carton Millet (1869-1933) of Hampshire in 1897. The couple immigrated to the United States in 1904, settling in San Francisco, where Cox opened a portrait studio on Van Ness Avenue. He and his wife resided on Jackson Street. In San Francisco he became part of the downtown milieu of bohemian artists and writers. He also established a relationship with the Catholic Church, and painted Archbishop Patrick William Riordan (1841-1914) and Archbishop George Montgomery (1847-1907), who came to the aid of the city and rebuilt the local parishes after the San Francisco Earthquake.
Cox traveled to Victoria, British Columbia in 1905, where he painted Archbishop Bertram Orth (in office 1903-1908) and a number of judges and other public officials. His San Francisco studio was frequently in the papers and he was well known for painting fashionable women. He completed society portraits of Mrs. Maria Inez Shorb White (1868-1933) of San Gabriel, Miss Sarah Bell Collier and Miss Betsy Angus (later Mrs. St. George Holden) of San Francisco and other members of California’s elite who were well known in those days.
Because of his French academic training, Cox had the ambitions to be a “history painter” like his instructors at the Academie Julian. In Paris and London he had also come under the spell of the Orientalist movement, and he painted compositions drawn from biblical history. According to contemporary accounts, soon after his arrival he began working on an ambitious painting of the notables of San Francisco that was nine feet high by twelve feet wide, with hundreds of figures. Another work in progress was a scene of the Crucifixion of Christ, a grand history painting in the French manner, with the dramatic event depicted at the moment when darkness enveloped Jerusalem. Cox also painted a large composition of Gregory the Great in the Roman slave market.
Unfortunately, just as Cox was establishing himself in the Bay Area, the 1906 earthquake struck, followed by the conflagration, and like most of the other residents he lost almost everything, including the major works described above. His small cottage, located on Sacramento, street, near the intersection of Franklin and Van Ness, was one of the last to be consumed by the out-of-control fire. The loss of an artist’s production meant that not only was his inventory gone, but also his creative history, his sketches, studies, and sample portraits. The Oakland Tribune dramatized the situation of the artists and sculptors for its readers, who had watched the catastrophe from across the bay with horror:
A palace razed to the ground may be reconstructed within a few months. An immense emporium with its contents may be utterly effaced, but a thousand hands and machines without number, within a comparatively short time can rebuild the one more beautifully and restock the other as it never had been stocked before.
Such however is not a possibility in the world of art. The studios of San Francisco which were destroyed – and they were all laid in common ruin – represented the work of years not only of the owners, but also of the kindred souls possessed of genius and the restoration of them and their contents can be accomplished only by hand.
After the disaster, some painters fled south to Carmel, while others, like Cox, crossed the water and set up new studios in the East Bay. The portrait painter leased a new studio in the El Granada, at the intersection of Bancroft Way and Telegraph in Berkeley, and his wife set up their new living quarters in an adjacent apartment. In Berkeley, the artist began painting portraits to replace those lost in the great earthquake and also opened art classes for local residents, but Cox and his wife soon returned to San Francisco, establishing another studio on Van Ness Avenue.
Walter and Lavina Cox were frequently in the society pages of the San Francisco and East Bay newspapers. The papers noted that the couple was dressed smartly at the opera or was seen at the Tea Room of the St. Francis Hotel, which was frequented by the “smart set.” The painter was successful enough to have a summer studio in the Easton neighborhood of Burlingame, where he painted landscapes and attempted to take a break from his portrait commissions. Cox concentrated on portraits during the fall and winter months so that he could make sketching trips during the spring and summer months. He took trips to his native England and Scotland, bringing back watercolors and landscape studies which he sold to collectors in the Bay Area. Cox also made trips to Mexico, stopping in Los Angeles along the way, where he had portrait clients.
In 1912 Cox painted the famous novelist Gertrude Atherton (1857-1948), which resulted in a bounty of publicity for the artist. The large portrait was reproduced in the San Francisco papers, exhibited in his studio and hung in the Tea Room of the St. Francis Hotel for a high society reception. He completed a life-size portrait of the socialite Miss Hazel King and portraits of Miss Julia Langhorne, Mrs. Tom Williams and her daughters and William Ronaldson, all well-known social figures of the era. Cox sold most of his work from his own well-appointed studio, but he also exhibited at Kilbey’s in San Francisco and had an exhibition at the Palace Hotel in 1914.
There is no record that Cox exhibited at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, the San Francisco World’s Fair. This may be because Cox was still considered a British painter and thus not eligible for inclusion, but it is probable that by the time of the exposition he and his wife had already left San Francisco for New York, where they lived for a number of years. In the east, he continued painting portraits for the Catholic Church as well as of political figures. His last studio was in the Washington D.C. suburb of Alexandria, where he did portraits of important Washingtonians. Lavina Cox, the painter’s wife, returned to England to care for an aunt in the 1920s and never returned to her husband in America, remaining there until she passed away in 1933.
Like many society painters, he was described as “genial and gentlemanly” and having the “faculty for making friends by his personality as well as creating admirers by his brush.” Cox was known for achieving a good likeness and many of his commissions were for full-length portraits in the grand manner. His upbringing and education gave him a scholarly air which gave his sitter’s confidence in his taste as well as his artistic ability. Those who sat for portraits by Cox included President Warren J. Harding (1865-1923) and former President and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court William Taft (1857-1930). Copyright 2011, Jeffrey Morseburg, not to be reproduced without author’s specific written permission.