I had never heard of Grafton Tyler Brown before. I was just trying to develop a character for my historical novel-in-progress, The Relentless Harvest.
The Search for a Character
It all started with a desire to raise the level of conversation in the lumber camp scenes set in 19th century Albion, California. Much of the dialogue I had written for those scenes featured hardened men with little or no education, men who generally were aware of little else than life in camp. I considered tossing a writer into their midst but quickly discounted the idea. I needed someone who would interact with and leave an impression on the men, someone who would ignite their imaginations. A writer would only isolate himself and would be unable to share his work with the largely illiterate loggers. Then I remembered all the vintage lithographs and drawings I had examined for my San Francisco scenes. What if an artist came to the woods to chronicle the emerging lumber industry?
Combing Through Vintage Lithographs of San Francisco
I returned to those illustrations of San Francisco, looking for a name; any name would do. The first citation I found was for Britton & Rey. A brief investigation revealed that Jacques Rey was indeed an artist, but most of the artwork was produced by independent artists then printed by Britton & Rey. That wouldn’t do; I wanted someone who went out in the field, someone plausible.
As I searched for artists associated with Britton & Rey, I stumbled across the lithographs of Charles Kuchel, a German who had built his reputation in the east but later started a company in San Francisco with another German, Jacob Gundlach. Perfect, Kuchel would be a plausible person to have in the woods. But as I dug deeper, I discovered that he once had an apprentice, a man by the name of Grafton Tyler Brown. Kuchel would have served my purpose but I liked the idea of a hungry young artist trying to make his mark on the world, trying to establish his own reputation. An artist at that stage in his career would be willing to suffer the discomfort and abuse he was likely to experience in a lumber camp among men who would know or care little about art.
Grafton Tyler Brown: A Remarkable Man, A Remarkable Life
I soon learned that reliable information about Brown was difficult to find. I knew he was an African American, which surprised me for that time in history. He was the son of free parents and was reasonably well educated for that time, meaning a fairly complete high school education. And he migrated to California or Nevada when he was in his late teens, some time between 1852 and 1862. Those are the only facts that were consistent in the sketchy references I could find. I was about ready to give up on the research and invent my own story for Brown when I found a Google Books reference. The book provided a comprehensive biography and a thorough examination of Brown’s artwork. He had no formal training. He started as a servant in a Sacramento hotel. He moved to San Francisco, was apprenticed to Charles Kuchel, eventually opened his own shop, and became one of the most respected printers in San Francisco. In addition to his lithographs, he was a painter and produced an important body of work that chronicled not only life in various settlements, but the natural world of the Pacific Northwest as well.
I had read enough to know that Brown was the right artist to use. He had to be placed in Albion with another of my characters, an African American man who was a real person by the name of Nathaniel Smith. Smith and Brown were both resilient survivors in antebellum California. The Fugitive Slave Act had been passed in 1850 and free black men were in constant danger of being captured by bounty hunters and passed off as runaway slaves. Smith survived by moving to the Mendocino wilderness. Brown, who was very fair, survived by passing for white. Smith and Brown needed to encounter each other. They needed to have a conversation. I looked for the book I’d found in Google. For some reason, no one had it. Was it out of print? I’d found many such books online before. Then I checked the publication date. It was one week in the future. The book had yet to be released. I preordered it and had it in hand several weeks later.
Robert Chandler’s Brilliant Book
San Francisco Lithographer is really two books in one. In one sense, it’s a history of antebellum America, antebellum California, the racial tension that muddied the waters in which young Brown was forced to swim. In another sense, it’s Brown’s biography and a scholarly study of his extensive body of work. The raw material is riveting and even in less competent hands, Brown’s story would shine forth. But author Robert Chandler expertly weaves together these separate threads, helping the reader understand not only Brown’s achievement, but also to appreciate the historical context in which it occurs. History fans will savor the in-depth research. Art lovers will relish the drawings, lithographs and paintings, as well as the relevant background information about the work. People with no particular esthetic passion will find it reveals an inspiring story of conflict, courage and triumph.
Even if I wasn’t writing a novel, I would be grateful to Chandler for bringing this material to light. Grafton Tyler Brown deserves more time in the art and history spotlight. And more of us need to hear his story.