In a sense, the story of Frederick Layton is the story of art in Milwaukee.
Not only was the English immigrant meat-packer one of Milwaukee’s first serious art collectors, he was also among the first to pony up to build a civic art gallery – the Layton Art Gallery on Jefferson Street – to allow the public access to his collection.
That gallery also had an important local art school attached and, while the gallery morphed into the Milwaukee Art Museum, strands of the school are woven into the history of Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.
Layton’s profound influence here is captured in the elaborate 480-page tome, "Layton’s Legacy: A Historic American Art Collection, 1888–2013," written by John Eastberg and Eric Vogel, and with forewords by Dianne Macleod and Giles Waterfield.
Distributed by University of Wisconsin Press, the book – originally due in May – has finally landed in hardcover for $75. Its arrival is timed to coincide with a series of 125th anniversary exhibitions at Milwaukee Art Museum.
The book draws heavily on a recently uncovered trove of Layton documents, including travel journals, family papers and old photographs.
In a sense, says Eastberg – who is The Pabst Mansion's director of development and senior historian (his co-author is a professor of architecture/design at MIAD and an architectural historian with a degree in art and architectural history from Harvard University and an MA in architecture from SCI-Arc) – the entire legacy is the result of something Layton blurted out, likely without considering the full ramifications, at an event.
"The one thing that I was always trying to figure out was where did this whole idea come from to create this art gallery? It turns out that a man by the name of William Metcalfe – Bradley Metcalfe was a shoe and boot company here in Milwaukee, and he was a junior partner – in March of 1883, offered to build Milwaukee an art gallery. This has been completely forgotten," recalls Eastberg.
"Metcalfe had a lot of conditions: he’d be able to choose the site, the art, it would have to be named after him … there were like five conditions for the gift, all of them very much for the benefit of the benefactor. So, by May, Metcalfe pulled the plug and said the offer is off of the table – Milwaukee was not ready for this. I assume that he couldn’t get enough people to get behind him to help the finances thing, even though he was going to pay for the building."
It is at this point that Frederick Layton steps, perhaps unwittingly, into the frame.
"The story which Frederick Layton always relayed was that there was a dinner at the Milwaukee Club. It was a going away dinner for Alexander Mitchell and Layton. They were both going on separate trips, but it was kind of a ‘have a good time’ sendoff.
"At the end of the meal, Layton responded to a toast and said that at some point he thought that he should do something about this building of an art gallery in Milwaukee; totally off the cuff and feeling happy and glad, and saying we should really do something about this. Within 36 hours ... the very next (Sentinel newspaper) had ‘Layton Intends to Build Art Gallery for Milwaukee.’"
But, Layton didn’t just up and leave town and hope Milwaukee would forget. Instead, he set off on his voyage and immediately got to work fulfilling his promise.
"The thing about it was that he didn’t shirk it off and he did it really well," says Eastberg. "He spent five years making this whole thing happen. He met the brother of the architect on board a ship when he went over to England – he was a Liverpool architect."
"Layton’s Legacy" tells this story and more, tracing Layton’s biographical background – he was born in England in 1827 and arrived in Racine in 1843 and Milwaukee two years later – and the story of his gallery, including a detailed and fully illustrated look at the 125-year history of Layton’s personal art collection, which was the foundation of the gallery and remains a major patrimony of the Milwaukee Art Museum.
"I really have to struggle to think of a similar work on an American art collection," says Eastberg of the new book. "Eric and I put it together, but there are 30 other scholars who contributed essays on works in the collection. I wrote the history, which is why I was brought on board. There’s a lot more to it than that, as they selected five works from each of the six main periods of the collection. Each one is beautifully photographed. It’s going to be a really luscious presentation.
"We’ve just been trolling through archives and pulled up some amazing photographs not only of Frederick Layton, because we found a descendant that is living in the area that had all sorts of photographs that nobody knew ever existed, like his travel photographs. Layton’s niece had kept diaries. They really provided a lot of depth and texture to the story."
Eastberg has also found a lot over overlap in his work at The Pabst Mansion and in his research for "Layton’s Legacy."
"It’s been a fascinating project with some crossover between – actually, a lot of crossover – just because Captain Pabst was on the (Layton) trustee board shortly before he died," says Eastberg.
"He was a backer of Layton early on as far as the gallery, and there is a painting in our grand staircase of Christopher Columbus that Captain Pabst had actually loaned to the Layton Art Gallery on its opening day in 1888. I think of Frederick Layton and people like Captain Pabst, who was very much interested in arts and culture in Milwaukee, as well, bringing polish to these frontier towns."
What’s clear from talking to Eastberg is that the book is the result of a labor of love. It’s the kind of perfect amalgam of history, biography, art and architecture that seems to appeal to folks like Eastberg and Vogel, and also makes the volume an important addition to the recording of Milwaukee history.
"I like being a booster of Milwaukee’s history," says Eastberg, in one of the elaborately ornate second floor rooms in The Pabst Mansion.
"These stories are heroic stories. I think the Layton story is a really powerful one. This guy lived in a modest clapboard house from 1864 to his death in 1914. He never moved on to a mansion. To me that speaks volumes about somebody who … was the executor of his own estate, because he kept giving money away. When he died he only had $100,000 left, which at the time was a lot of money, but not for the career for he had had. Captain Pabst, who would’ve been wealthier, had an estate of $10 million when he died. Alexander Mitchell died in 1887 had an estate of $20 million.
"What Layton had left would’ve been basically, maybe a little more than one man’s entire lifetime of earnings, which was still substantial, but he doled it out to, like, 20 cousins and relatives, and gave the gallery $10,000 checks. He went to England and back and 99 times. He stayed in very nice hotels. So you can see where he enjoyed spending his time: vacations and art."
Layton lived the kind of life we might aspire to lead. The legacy he left Milwaukee, on the other hand, is an example of the kind of generosity to which we all ought to aspire.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.