Saturday, May 20, 2017

Grinnell's Beatrix Potter...

Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) is justifiably famous for a series of delightful tales of tiny animals whose stories she illustrated with marvelous paintings of the heroes dressed in outfits borrowed from their human analogs. Peter Rabbit, first published in 1902, is probably the best-known story in which Potter's artistic skills depict a rabbit's encounter with Mr. McGregor. Other tales featured mice, cats, a squirrel, a hedge-hog and a duck, among others, all suitably attired in down-sized men's and women's clothes. Readers followed these stories in Tailor of Gloucester (1903), Squirrel Nutkin (1903), Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle (1905), Tom Kitten (1907) and another nineteen books.

Few Grinnellians are aware of our own Beatrix Potter, Cornelia Clarke (1884-1936), who produced similar tales with her own cats, using a camera instead of an artist's brush to illustrate the story. Like Potter, Clarke kept a small menagerie of pets upon whom she focused her imagination. Clarke trained her pets to wear the miniature suits and dresses she provided, posed them with remarkable small-scale furniture, and then photographed them to tell a story. And, just as Potter applied her artistic skills to scientific illustration, Clarke, too, having attracted attention for her skills with the camera, went on to a career as a widely-published nature photographer whose photographs appeared frequently in scientific journals, newspapers, and popular science magazines. Her fame cannot compare with Potter's, but was nevertheless enormous, reaching far beyond the boundaries of Grinnell. The remarkable life of Cornelia Clarke is the subject of this Grinnell Story.
"Polly Made a Fine Housekeeper"
Cornelia Clarke, , "Peter and Polly," Country Life in America, v. 19 (Jan 1911):213.
Cornelia was the only child born to Ray Alonzo Clarke and the former Cornelia Shepard, July 4, 1884. Sadly, her mother died within a few hours of the baby's birth, so Cornelia was "baptized over the coffin with her mother's name," as her mother's obituary described it. At the time, her father was farming north of Grinnell, and, except for her father's mother, who came to Iowa to keep house and care for the baby, Cornelia lived a fairly lonely life, occupying herself with the animals and plants she found around the farmstead. Because her father practiced photography as a hobby, a camera was familiar to her from an early age, and she soon developed great skill in using it.

Cornelia attended Grinnell schools, graduating from Grinnell High School in 1904, then enrolling at Grinnell College. Originally part of the class of 1908, Cornelia spent most of 1906-7 traveling in Europe with her father, all the while putting her camera to use. After returning to Iowa, she completed her Grinnell degree, graduating in June, 1909. Soon she and her father moved into town, occupying the four-square at 1322 West Street. Here Cornelia did most of her later photography.
Cornelia Clarke, 1909 Grinnell College Cyclone
When her photographs of Peter and Polly first appeared in print in early 1911, there was tremendous response among readers. Country Life in America, a journal then widely read in middle America, devoted two pages to Clarke's Potter-like photographs. Brief captions outlined a tale of two kittens, who grew up together, fell in love, married, had kittens of their own, did adult-like chores, and grew old together.
Cornelia Clarke, "Peter and Polly," Country Life in America, v. 19(Jan 1911):213.
Interest in Clarke's photographs was instantaneous, so that already in March of that year the journal, remarking on how many readers had expressed pleasure at seeing Clarke's images, published another handful of similar photographs that had not been used in the January issue.

Because of the favorable reception of Peter and Polly, Clarke soon made contact with Elizabeth Hays Wilkinson, a Pittsburgh college teacher who authored several children's books, and the two women collaborated to produce a book version of the story, published in New York in 1912 by Doubleday and Co. under the title Peter and Polly. Just 97 pages long and priced at 50 cents, the beautiful little volume told the story of "two cats who lived most interesting lives and did things just like humans," as Publishers Weekly described it.

By this time Clarke was using her camera to record many other images, including, for example, photographs that Grinnell College commissioned of the campus and its buildings. But the broader public was fascinated with Clarke's ability to lure animals into poses that seemed very human, if most unlikely. In September, 1922 the Des Moines Register gave a full page of its Sunday magazine to explaining how "the wonder woman of the camera...gets animals to pose."
Des Moines Register, September 10, 1922, p. 13
The Register's correspondent noted that Clarke's success depended upon many factors, not least her brain. Explaining one of her most famous photographs, "Two cats kissing," Clarke observed that there was really no way to train cats to kiss, for cats feel no natural desire to kiss. However, cats do enjoy milk, a dab of which she put on the nose of one cat—voila! Clarke had her picture.
Cornelia Clarke, "Kissing Cats," Des Moines Register, September 10, 1922
By this time Clarke's photography had reached well beyond her pets, increasingly depicting the natural world. Nevertheless, to produce the images she wanted, Clarke routinely brought her subjects back home—often inside her West Street home. As she pointed out to the Register's correspondent, "It is impossible to get a good flower picture out of doors, because there is bound to be some motion, and the petals are so delicate that they move with the slightest breeze." Therefore, Clarke regularly removed the objects of her camera's gaze from their natural  habitat, and, with the assistance of her careful study of their natural environment, she reconstructed the context on her living room rug, where she could photograph the flowers without fear of any movement. Her success in this endeavor brought her to publish an entire essay on the subject for The Guide to Nature in May, 1924.

Wild animals proved less easy to pose than flowers, but Clarke explained that patience and careful planning could overcome most difficulties. To illustrate, she told the background of another of her well-known photographs, "Twenty froggies at school." The idea of such a picture must come first, of course, and Clarke explained that she had conceived of the photograph long before she began preparations. She then set about finding tadpoles whose progress she watched carefully until she thought them ready for her experiment. She brought the tadpoles and one bull frog home, sank a dishpan into the back yard, and provided nearby rushes. But this is where patience proved decisive.
This picture caused me more trouble than any picture I ever made, [she told the Des Moines Register]. Just as soon as I would get them all lined up nicely, they would play leap-frog and jump off into the rushes. Or the old frog would jump down and they would climb on his back.... But finally I got the picture.
As she confessed when showing this image to a 1927 audience at Grinnell College, it took her four hours to achieve the picture she wanted (Scarlet and Black, December 14, 1927).
Cornelia Clarke, "Twenty Froggies Went to School," Photo-Era Magazine, vol. 50(1923):247
But if many of Clarke's early photographs required an imaginative story as context, over time she became a serious nature photographer whose pictures appeared regularly in publications like Nature magazine (at least 62 photographs between 1925 and 1939) and Science News-Letter, the latter often using Clarke photos for its covers (at least 24 cover photos between 1930 and 1937). No longer relying upon clever or cute photographs, Clarke used her growing camera skills to reveal the secrets of biological process, as when she documented the life history of the mosquito or the stages of butterfly generation. Collaborating with Grinnell College professors like Henry Conard gave her occasion to produce images—often enlarged many times over natural scale—of great scientific accuracy and value, confirmed by the Grinnell College herbarium of local plants of which she became the volunteer curator (Scarlet and Black, February 4, 1928).

Without demeaning in any way the scientific importance of Clarke's photography, even a casual observer recognizes that some of these photographs went well beyond the boundaries of science, and still today strike the eye powerfully, invoking art as much as science.
Cornelia Clarke "Dandelion Fruits," in Bertha Stevens, Child and Universe (NY: John Day Company, 1931), p. 64

Cornelia Clarke, "Land Snail Shell," in Bertha Stevens, Nature: The Child Goes Forth (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1936), p. 255.
At the  height of her talents, Clarke was publishing photographs regularly in the Des Moines Register (by my count more than 100 photos between 1921 and 1933), and periodically in the Detroit Free Press, Los Angeles Times, and St. Louis Post-Dispatch, among other newspapers. Specialty journals such as American Photography regularly published her images in the 1920s. She also provided photographs for a series of children's books written by Edith M. PatchHoliday Meadow (1930); Holiday Pond (1930)and Holiday Hill (1931)—and did the same for three of Bertha Stevens's nature books aimed at children (Child and Universe [1931], The Child Goes Forth [1936], and How Miracles Abound [1941]). For Insect People, an introduction to insects written by Eleanor King and Wellmer Pessels (1937), Clarke authored nine photographs of grasshoppers, bees, dung beetles and other bugs. William Morton Barrows included seventeen of  Clarke's pictures in his Science of Animal Life: An Introduction to Zoology (1927), and Robert William Hegner, who published several zoology textbooks, used 76 Clarke photos in his Parade of the Animal Kingdom (1935).

Although not so well-known as her specialist, much-enlarged photographs of animals and plants, Clarke's images of natural vistas also won her praise. For example, Clarke won first prize in a 1922 competition hosted by Photo-Era Magazine for "After the Storm," which depicts lake and mountains caught in the dim light of evening.  Her skill in this genre of photography recommended her to authors like Seldon Lincoln Whitcomb (1866-1930), who, composing a volume devoted to Iowa's natural landscape (Autumn Notes in Iowa [1914]), had Clarke supply photographs of evocative scenes such as "The Skunk River at Lynnville" or "A Country Road Near Newburg."  Even long after her death, an early photograph of "Stacked Grain," evidently taken around 1910, appeared on the pages of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, the photo having been rescued from the effects of Clarke's heir, C. J. Turner.
Cedar Rapids Gazette, August 1, 1965
Without the archive of Clarke's photography, it is impossible to know the exact dimensions of her work, but even with what can be known through the public record it is clear that Cornelia Clarke was prodigiously productive, her work valued at both a popular and scientific level.
Despite all her success, Clarke's last years were not happy. Difficulties began when in May, 1929, she and her father were involved in an automobile accident. Ray Clarke and his daughter were riding their Ford roadster about a mile east of Grinnell when they decided to turn around. Backing out onto the road, Clarke did not see another vehicle approaching over a slight rise. Mrs. Elmer Wolfe of LaSalle, IL, who was driving the other car, could not avoid Clarke's Ford, and the collision destroyed the Wolfes' Buick and instantly killed Mrs. Wolfe. Although the original newspaper story did not mention injuries to the Clarkes, both suffered from the collision, and Ray, who was also dogged by threats of litigation long after the accident, "slowly but steadily failed until the end came peacefully," March 21, 1932. Cornelia carried on, and continued to publish her photographs, but soon after her father's death she was diagnosed with cancer, for which she sought treatment at Iowa City, Newton, Rochester [MN], Grinnell and Iowa City. Death, attributed to breast cancer, came to Cornelia Clarke September 29, 1936,
Last Will and Testament of Cornelia Clarke, August 10, 1936
Poweshiek County Probate Court Records, 1850-1954, District Court Will Record, 1923-1954, Vol. F, p. 36
When she died, Clarke seemed almost as lonely as she had been as a child on her father's farm. Her will assigned small sums to several Grinnell women, the Grinnell Congregational Church, Professor Henry Conard (to whom she also willed her camera equipment and all her glass negatives and lantern slides), and a few others. "All the rest, residue and remainder of my estate, both real and personal...I give, devise and bequeath, share and share alike, to Dr. and Mrs. C. J. Turner," her will announced to the surprise of some. As the 1930 U.S. Census confirms, the Turners lived in Clarke's house (as renters, perhaps?), and evidently proved themselves helpful during Clarke's last illness. But the fact that these people should inherit the bulk of Clarke's estate—which turned out to be $20,000, a sizable sum in 1936—seemed suspicious to Mildred Fuller, who claimed to be Clarke's cousin. In mid-October 1936, both the Grinnell newspaper and the Cedar Rapids Gazette reported that Fuller was filing suit to forestall probate, contending that Clarke, at the time she composed her will—August 10, about seven weeks before her death—had not been mentally competent. Whether the suit ever went to trial I cannot say, as I found no record of it. In any event, Fuller's objection was not sustained, as Clarke's will entered probate November 30, 1936, just two months after her death.
Grinnell Herald-Register, October 15, 1936, p. 1 
As news of her death traveled around Grinnell on the heels of her published obituary (Grinnell Herald-Register, October 1, 1936), the editor of the local newspaper added what he titled "A Belated Tribute." Regretting how little Grinnell knew of her fame, the editorial emphasized how much Clarke loved beauty, visible not only in her photography but also in the wonderful gardens she maintained at her West Street home. "Miss Clarke should be remembered here," the paper remarked, "not only as a photographer of superb attainments, but as a humble and unassuming lover of beauty...No more beautiful flower beds have existed anywhere. Her lawn was always lovely with fragrant blossoms and her greatest pleasure was in showing her treasures to those who came to admire." Like the flowers she loved and photographed so successfully, "hers was a shy and retiring nature, full of beauty and charm, ... ready to expand and spread its petals at every friendly touch...." Indeed, as surviving photographs confirm, Cornelia Clarke used her camera to share her love of nature and all its beauty, making us all beneficiaries of Grinnell's own Beatrix Potter.
"More Pictures of Peter and Polly," Country Life in America, March, 1911, p. cdxviii

1 comment:

  1. She grew up in a time of gracious living and demure sensibilities but our Beatrix, Cornelia, was a rose in a garden of sensitive passions. She continued to work through the Great Depression and passed on a love of beauty and simple delight to her generation and now to ours.