Bonds Between Frank Salisbury and the Henry Folgers

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Frank O. and Mrs. Salisbury on board the S.S. Olympic, 1932. Courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library

Frank O. and Mrs. Salisbury on board the S.S. Olympic, 1932. Courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library

In 1926, the reserved Henry Clay Folger (1857–1930), CEO at Standard Oil Company of New York, uncharacteristically resolved to have large twin oil portraits made of him and his wife, Emily Jordan Folger (1858–1936). The paintings would hang in the Folger Shakespeare Library to be built in Washington DC to house the greatest collection of the Bard’s works in the world. Folger picked the best, Frank O. Salisbury (1874–1962), known as Britain’s Painter Laureate, who would paint 25 members of the Royal House of Windsor and six American presidents. Folger’s private secretary, Alexander G. Welsh, made the initial appointment, confiding that the subject was a modest man who wanted to avoid publicity.

Henry Clay Folger, painted by Frank O. Salisbury, 1927. Courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Salisbury was delighted when the Folgers agreed to pose in their colorful academic robes: Amherst purple hood for Henry, Vassar pink for Emily. The painter abhorred subjects who showed up for a sitting in a dark suit. Salisbury’s passion for vibrant color came from his teenage years as apprentice in a stained glass company.  For his sitting on January 29, 1927, Salisbury beseeched Folger to bring something to hold in his hands. He arrived with a stout book from his collection, the first attempt at a collected edition of the Bard’s works called the Pavier quartos, printed in 1619. The seventeenth-century bookbuyer, Edward Gwynn, had stamped his name on the original binding. Folger came to the sitting alone by subway, with the precious volume wrapped up in a newspaper!

The Folgers were happy with the resulting three-quarter-length paintings. Folger wrote Salisbury, “we have heard nothing but unqualified praise of the portraits. I am, naturally, a poor judge of my own, but think Mrs. Folger’s a marvelous piece of work, not only as a portrait but as a painting. I am inclined to think that long after we are, as individuals, forgotten, it will be admired as a work of art. The fan must be all right, as it is Shakespearean.” Emily had brought to her sitting on February 24 a fan from their collection depicting a scene from Henry V. After visiting the Salisbury exhibit at the Anderson Galleries in New York, Folger wrote Salisbury, “I overheard two men chatting, ‘Can it be that we have been living with these distinguished men and women without recognizing them as such?’” Henry Folger died in 1930 before his Shakespeare library was built on prime real estate two blocks from the U. S. Capitol.

Emily Jordan Folger, painted by Frank O. Salisbury, 1927. Courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library

The painter was delighted with how his portraits were displayed at the east end of the reading room of the Folger. Salisbury wrote to Emily Folger: “We have just returned from Washington where we have been to see the Folger Shakespeare Library, and although Mr. Folger and you showed me the plans and I was able to build it in my imagination, yet in reality the actual thing has far surpassed my best imaginative dream. The whole structure is perfectly wonderful. I should like to congratulate you most heartily for the realization of yours and Mr. Folger’s magnificent conception: it is truly a great heritage to mankind and it will forever shed its supreme influence of culture and refinement upon all who look upon its structural beauty and study its exhibited treasures.”

The tone embodied in the Folger-Salisbury relationship goes beyond Victorian distance and courtesy. The artist-client bonds established initially transcend into an unusually warm and sincere mutual admiration over five years of the Gilded Age. Folger and Salisbury were enormously successful at what they did. Folger went to the top of two distinct fields: the petroleum industry and collecting Shakespeare. Salisbury the portraitist made a fortune on both sides of the Atlantic, investing his gains in America to avoid being double-taxed by transferring them to the UK. Both men had business sense, they were modest, they were teetotalers. They both empathized with Emily Folger who had developed writer’s cramp due to her having catalogued hundreds of thousands of items of their Shakespeare collection.

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Author:Stephen Grant

Independent scholar Stephen H. Grant is the author of the first biography of Henry and Emily Folger, COLLECTING SHAKESPEARE (Johns Hopkins, 2014), which describes how the Brooklyn couple founded and endowed the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC in 1932.

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