Finding Grafton Tyler Brown, African American Artist

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 twoSF Lithographer Cover 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.


5 Replies to “Finding Grafton Tyler Brown, African American Artist”

  1. Why are you calling Mr. Brown “African American” when he was predominately European in ancestry and (like nearly all Americans) European-American in culture as well? The man made it clear that he considered himself white – and rightfully so. Calling him “African American” and not good enough to be white (which is what “passing” means) is morally similar to calling a Jew a non-Aryan.

    • For the record, Ms. Powell, I am not the author of the book so that designation didn’t originate with me. I believe it to be appropriate, however, based on the research I’ve seen on Mr. Brown. It’s likely that people in San Francisco, perhaps the census worker who interviewed him, ASSUMED he was white since he was well dressed and well spoken. That was common. Brown was recorded as black when he was younger and living in Sacramento.

      I address you as Ms. Powell because I’ve seen your interactions on other websites and have seen your picture. You appear to be female and, using your own rule of thumb of race and applying it to gender, if you look female, you are female. Of course, you may well identify as a male or as asexual or almost any other permutation. You may physically be a male and present as a female. I could only know for sure if I knew you and you chose to disclose it. Unless you have source material unknown to me, I find it difficult to believe you could really know if Brown identified as an African American or white or something else. I think there’s merit to your argument that some multiracial people may be pressured into identifying with their African heritage, no matter what percentage of the whole that might represent. That said, your position that I’m implying Brown isn’t “good enough” to be white by labeling him as African American seems more likely to promote racism than neutralize it. From my research and personal experience, the reason many people chose to pass was to survive, to avoid enslavement, and/or to have an equal chance at prosperity. The need to pass came from the prevailing attitude from those with authority that white was best and, therefore, the most prudent thing for a person of color to do, if he/she could, was to pass. Your statement reinforces the misguided notion that white is best. What is ironic is this posting probably came to your attention on the Mixed Race Studies website and their goal is to eliminate race as a factor in evaluating individuals. That doesn’t mean people can’t take pride in their whiteness or blackness or whatever other racial/ethnic identification they might choose.

      But I’m not an ethnicity or sociology scholar, I’m a writer. As a writer, a black man who overcame the prejudice of antebellum California, when the Fugitive Slave Act was in play and pro-slavery Democrats were wielding power in the courts and Legislature, and became one of the most respected printers in San Francisco, a celebrated lithographer, a chronicler of life in the mines and in the city, and a noted landscape painter, is of great interest. It is an American dream story because of the adversity he overcame. Now make him a white man. It’s just not interesting. Where’s the struggle? So as a historical novelist, given reasonable proof, I would always choose to recognize Grafton Tyler Brown as an African American. It gives hope to the other marginalized people in the world, even if their predicament has nothing to do with race.

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  3. Thanks, Keith, for the kind words.

    Brown was a good hiker, cause he went everywhere to get ideas for his oil paintings.


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