A Sawyer Image - a "Thing of Beauty"
by Carol Begley Gray,
Michael Ivankovich, and John Peters
Charles H. Sawyer was born on March 24, 1868, probably
in Norridgewock, Maine. In the 1890’s, Charles began his art career as
a portrait artist, a painter, and then, as a photographer in Providence,
RI. He also worked as a pencil artist for the New York Tribune and worked
with the well-known Wallace Nutting. Here, Charles Sawyer learned the painting
and coloring techniques that would move his black and white photographic
art to another level. He created watercolor, pastel, and crayon portraits
on commission. Ultimately, however, his fortune and reputation were built
on his dramatic American landscapes.
His was a short stay in Providence, and then a return to Norridgewock to concentrate on his scenic, mostly local photographs. Soon after a fire in 1904, Charles, his wife Mary and son Harold settled in Farmington, ME. Coincidentally, it was the same year that Wallace Nutting opened his first studio in New York City.
Using watercolor paints, Sawyer began transforming his black and white photographs into images of glowing landscapes, in many ways reminiscent of the Hudson River School of oil painters.
All of Sawyer’s negatives were black and white. Color film was not available during Sawyer most productive phase.
From his black and white glass negatives, Sawyer would print black and white photographs, some of which were sold as black and white photographs; or he would develop and print them with a sepia tone (these are his brownish prints); or he could take black and white printed images and hand paint and color them, according to nature's palette.
The sepia-stained images did not sell as well as the hand-colored images. Some do show up here and there, and a good example of this is "Birches, Wilton" which appears to be an early image of a bucolic community in Wilton, Maine; Wilton bordered Farmington. The popular "Ausable Chasm, New York" was also done in sepia, as well as a set of greeting cards labeled "Greetings from the White Mountains of New Hampshire," where Echo Lake and Mt. Washington appear.
Until the 1950’s, most of Sawyer’s images were matted; if not, it is likely the image was framed outside the studio by an individual or a company, like Jordan Marsh in Boston, or Wannamakers in Philadelphia, which ordered numbers of images. The earliest mattings, those done while Charles worked out of Farmington, were an off-white originally; but with age, they now appear as wheat-colored. The image itself was usually framed by a separate, thin grey mat, although some from the Farmington era were set on depressed mats also. More often than not, these images were pencil-signed, most likely by Charles himself.
Later images of the 1920s -1930s were matted with the image centered on a rectangular depressed area. Most of these are ink-signed and titled in a neat, graceful script. About this same time period and continuing for subsequent years, finished images appeared matted on the off-white paper, but centered on a pre-printed brown border. The miniature brown-bordered mattings were the same size as the greeting cards and, in most cases, exactly the same except for the printed "Season_s Greetings" etc. A few images also have been found with a gold paper border or a separate brown matting. Generally speaking, those with separate gold or brown borders around the image date the image most likely in the early 1930’s.
Unless framed outside the studio, all "Sawyers" contain a label or stamp on the back. We have found as many as 8 different labels, 4 different ones from the Farmington studio, and 4 different ones from Concord. Many images framed by stationers have a fold-down "place specific" label on the back of the image identifying the subject of the image. Since Charles kept meticulous notes on his photo excursions, it is assumed that he is responsible for the informative labels on the reverse side of his works.
From the 1950’s on, the mattings disappeared, although a few prior to this were unmatted. The images were covered with glass only, and the signature was usually done directly on the image itself, most often in white ink. These signatures are most likely Harold’s. Then the title was usually written on the back of the work, usually above the Sawyer stamp or label. Eventually the glass disappeared too, and a lacquered image became the preferred product. Whether the new lacquered image was preferred on artistic grounds, or for reasons of "cost control" and marketplace competition, it is unknown.
A white ink "Sawyer" signature was applied directly to the image after the lacquer, and this has sometimes pealed off. Still "newer" lithograph "prints," done after 1970, do not have the aesthetic appeal of the original hand-painted images; but like Wallace Nutting_s machine-manufactured prints, they are considered desirable by many.
All original matted Sawyer images contain a title, and except for the "Art" titles, many of the studies are titled in a manner showing exactly where they were made. This, we believe, adds to the interest of the scene, even though the title is a plain one. Here in his 1924 catalogue, Sawyer seems to be telling his reader that he realizes his contemporaries did make a special effort to create the perfect, catchy title, but he did not find this necessary. In most cases, this makes it easy to identify the locality of the image, if one’s geography knowledge is good!
Sawyer took liberties to adapt his titles to the size of the image; for instance, on a miniature of approximately 2’ x 3’, the title reads "Mohawk Trail." Larger images of the same subject might read "Along the Deerfield, Mohawk Trail" or just "Along the Deerfield River." We have also seen at least three totally different scenes all titled "Mt. Chocorua." One scene is mainly birches with the mountain in the far background; another is a lake scene with a small green rowboat beached on a rocky shore, and the last depicts the mountain and its reflection in a lake with large, heavy pines in the right foreground. In addition, it should be noted that Sawyer sometimes used a different title for the same print; examples of this are: "The Hudson River at the Highlands" and "The Storm King Highway."
Another example is the popular Cape Cod title "Joseph Lincoln’s Garden, Cape Cod," which condenses to just "Cape Cod" on the miniature.
Several Sawyer titles are close to or exactly the same as some of Sawyer’s contemporaries. It is well known that both Sawyer and Nutting sold the "Original Dennison Plant, Brunswick, Maine," the only title difference being that Sawyer’s title began with "The." They both used the titles "A New England Road in May ‘ and "The Swimming Pool," but their photographic shots are entirely different. As another example, "Homeward Bound" is the title of a print of a multi-masted schooner used by both Burrows and Sawyer.
The Sawyer signature looks about the same on all original works. The "S" is distinctive, the "y" is distinctive, and there is usually a fancy line below the name. Many of the early signatures have to be Charles’, but the majority of them were done for years by Ms. Etabelle Evans, Gladys Towle ‘s aunt. Some of the later unmatted works contained a reversed-out "Sawyer" written directly on the image in either black, brown, or white. If Etabelle were not there, Gladys copied her signature, and apparently Harold Sawyer did too. These artists often personalized their painting and coloring by initialing the back of the image in pencil. If the ink were not ready, the mat would be signed with pencil. Note, that if a photograph was matted at the studio, as most were, the Sawyer signature will not appear on the image itself.
Besides the developing, painting, and coloring of the images in the studio, much of the framing was done there too. Framing shows up as a regular expense in Charles’ ledger of the mid-1920’s; over $500 a month went to the Indiana Manufacturing and Frame Company on a pretty regular basis. Many of the frames were once produced by the Cherokee Indians in North Carolina. Many of the frames are gilded, and some contain touches of green or blue paint to match the predominant colors of the particular image. The grey frames used on some of the lacquered images indicate a later date, 1950’s through the 1970’s. Art stores, department stores and jewelry stores also did their own framing. Framing done in the Sawyer studio will show a label on the back or a triangular stamp saying "The Sawyer Pictures."
A two line stamp, "The Sawyer Pictures, Concord, N.H.", not the common triangular logo, has also been seen. This might indicate that the photo was not taken by Sawyer, but it was hand-colored by the Studio. One such example is a large hand-colored photo of the Cannon Mt. Tramway with a skier in the fore-ground; this photo is attributed to R.E. Peabody and may have been done for a travel agency or tourist bureau.
Some Sawyer works carry a Concord label that includes a space for the work’s number, and now and then one finds a penciled-in number. The ever popular image "Echo Lake" is number 666, whether the title is just "Echo Lake" or whether it is "Echo Lake, Franconia Notch." This number most likely corresponds to a negative number, and does match the number of the image in the 1924 catalogue. Sawyer’s numerous files were also numbered, and besides his rural landscapes, he had a special file for ‘special work and miscellaneous ‘ which included some private houses. One such image is an acquisition titled "Philbrook Farm ‘ a rambling farmhouse in Shelburne, N.H., nestled amongst trees with dirt roads leading to and from the farm.
At one time the negative file of The Sawyer Pictures contained some 2,500 different images, and at least 1,000 of these were numbered. These glass negatives were 18’x24’ and were used before an enlarger came into use. Many of the glass negatives were sold, but many of the "best" or working negatives are kept safely in private hands.
Ed. Note: This article is an excerpt from a newly released book, "The
Hand-Painted Photographs of Charles Henry Sawyer", written by Carol
Begley Gray, Michael Ivankovich and John Peters. We can highly recommend
this handsome book to our readers. It is without a doubt the most comprehensive
biography of Charles Henry Sawyer, to date and provides a collector's course
in the grading and purchasing of Sawyer’s hand-painted photographs, along
with how to detect fakes. Also included is a catalogue of Sawyer’s hand-painted
photographs with current Value Guide, price lists from the 1920’s as well
as from Carol Gray’s 1995 book. The price escalation between 1995 and 2002
suggests that the fine art of hand-painted photography is just being discovered.
"The Hand-Painted Photographs of Charles Henry Sawyer" is available at
many Amherst, NH antique shops; through Vintage Values Books of Derry,
NH - call 603-432-9096; from Michael Ivankovich’s website at www.wnutting.com;
from Jack Moon Antiques in Ipswich, MA, or by mail from author Carol
B. Gray for $18.95 (which includes shipping) - write 15 Lisa Drive, Nashua,