A few years ago I was wandering through my local Goodwill on one of my periodic searches for a gilded oval picture frame. It was something I did on a semi-regular basis, based on my sick belief that eventually some old person’s house would be purged of its treasures (and gilded oval mirrors) just in time for me to snatch up and paint irritatingly bold colors under the guise of “repurposing”.
On this particular visit I found nothing of the sort. (Although surprisingly after years of searching, Goodwill DID eventually stock up on an old person treasure trove, which DID include gilded oval mirrors of which I repurposed with a shiny new coat of paint. But, that’s a story for a later date.) The trip that day turned up the usual cache of framed N’sync and motivational posters, the same posters that had in fact been sitting there on my last visit. But, there was one particular new framed picture which drew my eye. There was something a bit off-putting about it. The frame was hanging slightly off. The nails holding it together were splintering the wood just enough to keep me from attempting to pick it up. Inside was a sepia toned black and white picture of a young woman looking down at a baby lying in a cradle in front of her. It’s eyes were clear as glass and trained on the camera. The copyright in the corner revealed it was taken in 1906.
It was a cool picture, sure, but that wasn’t enough to convince me to buy it. The last thing I needed was a picture of some long-dead lady and her probably-dead baby looking down at me from my bedroom wall. That’s when it hit me; The baby’s eyes were so clear, the gaze so penetrating. How had the photographer gotten the baby to stay so complacent and still for what appeared to be a low-light, long exposure picture?
I had been fascinated with memento mori photography ever since becoming familiar with the Burns Archive in my early days of exploring photography. The level of comfort Victorians had with death compelled and at the same time disturbed me. In my study of funeral photography I had come to notice that the price of original memento mori photographs was roughly equivalent to that of my car.
I wasn’t sure what I was really looking at and I didn’t really care. I had dollar signs on my mind and for the low Goodwill price of $5.38, I was willing to take a chance on it, even though I knew the chances of it being a funeral photograph were slim.
Well, after a couple hours of internet searching, I was disappointed with what I found. The photographer, James Arthur, was not a well-known or collected memento mori photographer. As far as google could tell me, he wasn’t a photographer at all. I lost interest in calculating what worth it had, if any at all, once I realized just how far down the rabbit hole I would have to go. I propped it up on my dresser where it continued to sit for the next two years.
But, as time passed I found myself looking at the picture more and more. Unlike most wall art which seems to be specially crafted to fade into the visual white noise of the room it’s placed in, I found myself fascinated with the crispness of the woman’s dress, the unique use of one source lighting from a lit fireplace, and the faint shadowy outlines of what appeared to be the home of a well-to-do Victorian family. I wanted to know who they were and why they were photographed. So, I began searching.
When using google to search for information on James Arthur, three things become glaringly apparent:
- There are a lot of people named James Arthur, none of whom seem particularly photographically inclined.
- No one seems quite sure which James Arthur of the many James Arthurs is responsible for the photograph their grandmother gave them.
- No one seems quite sure how to go about selling a seemingly important photograph from an artist no one has heard of.
“I have a print of woman sitting at spinning wheel with a man standing in front of her with hat in hand. Copywrited 1907.” Reads one post on the askart discussion boards under James Arthur,”I would love to know the value of this or how to find its valu (sic).”
Another reads, “I have 2 of his prints. One is of a woman with hair pulled back. She is looking down. Has dress and is holding flowers that encircle the bodice of the dress and is stamped: Copyrighted By: James Arthur 1907. It is in an oval shaped glass 7″ wide x 9″ tall with delicate gold chains for hanging and beautiful scrolled gold filigree pieces on both the top and bottom. Back is old wood. Would like to know its value.”
It appears that most everyone agrees the work is astoundingly beautiful, and they for whatever reason are desperate to know where and how to get rid of it.
The only problem facing these curious Arthur owners?
They, for the most part believe they have work by the wrong James Arthur. Adding to the already confusing and difficult task of identifying the value of a James Arthur piece, around the time of the photographer James Arthur’s death in 1912, another James Arthur, an illustrator working in Illinois and Pennsylvania, was gaining traction in the world of calendar art and advertisement. In fact, even many reputable auctioneers market the photographer James Arthur’s work as “early works from the famous Chicagoan illustrator.” Most famous for his paintings of Native American maidens, this James Arthur lived well into at least the 1920s. But, much like the earlier Arthur, while his works seems to achieve a decent sum in auction, little is known about the man responsible for them.
The Life of James Arthur
On January 12, 1912, James Arthur died a successful and prominent photographer in his Detroit home. He had moved to the city in 1881, collaborating with photographers such as JE Watson, and striking up a partner business with notable early female photographer Helen M Philbric. In 1901, Arthur had received national awards for his photography and enough notoriety to open his own studio, aptly named Arthur Studios.
Ten years after his death in a book detailing the early history of Detroit, Arthur was described as one the foremost photographers in the United States. His work, indescribably beautiful. When he died, he left behind three children, a wife, and a photographic legacy far easier to erase than anyone at the time could have imagined.
Most of the information we can find on the photographer is compiled from sources published during his lifetime and shortly after his death. He was born May 27, 1855 in Montreal. His parents were both immigrants from Scotland who were financially well off. Arthur attended prestigious private schools where it is implied that he developed the artistic eye that would influence his photographic work that followed. Following his father’s death, Arthur began working J. and J. W. Notman and in 1881 moved to Detroit. In 1882 Arthur married Clara Blanche Peters, a notable suffragist who in her lifetime also came to be held in high regard in turn-of-the-century Detroit society. You can read a brief profile on her here.Their three children were named Kenneth, Nathalie, and Muriel.
The Library of Congress lists copyrights claimed by James Arthur for 1899 and 1906, although information for the years in between could not be found. For those interested in dating or identifying possible titles of James Arthur prints, these copyrights are listed below.
In January 1910, The Art Museum Fund located in Detroit was reported to have spent $14.40 on James Arthur photographs, but after that little is known.
The Production of Prints
After much searching and keeping tabs on auction sites, I was able to identify even more prints and the titles of them. I came to learn that each print originally had a title hand written on the back of their frame, making it easy to identify original frames and reproduction frames.
As for the actual age of the prints? It’s anyone’s guess. Online auctions have listed tiny versions of the prints as “salesman postcards”, which are believed to have been used for selling prints door to door. One seller claimed the cards were produced in 1910, which would date the mass production of these prints, but I have yet to find a corroborative source on this. Works between 1900 and 1906 have striking similarities in their framing which leads me to believe they were likely mass produced at some point following this period. Own owner claimed a James Arthur print was given to her grandparents as a wedding gift in 1913, which if it is to be believed, could limit the period of the prints production to around Arthur’s lifetime.
Another theory on the origins of these prints is that they were produced following James Arthur’s death. James Arthur was still relevant in the Detroit area well into at least the 1920′s and these prints could have served as a posthumous printing of his life works. Until more information can be found on the production of these prints though, it is hard to determine the exact nature and purpose of them.
In my research-heavy stroll through the life of James Arthur, I saw one word repeated more than any other: value. What is the worth of an original James Arthur print? Where can I sell this to a person interested in collecting obscure turn of the century photographers? The more I saw it, the less I cared. In my research I saw prints selling for anywhere from 30 to 500 dollars, many of them being the same prints. But what does it really matter?
I recently purchased my second lot of James Arthur prints from 1904 for fifty dollars. Am I wasting my money on an artist doomed to pointless obscurity? I don’t know. Am I investing in a rare collection of art that will perhaps rise in value after a rediscovery of James Arthur’s works? Probably not. In the end it doesn’t matter. Value is attached by ordinary people, not by a standard set by some value committee. James Arthur was a capable and talented photographer who just so happened to fall victim to time and the changing availability of art on a wide scale.
Updates, Sources, and Additional Info
JANUARY 2014: It’s been a while, but I’ve been in the middle of switching domains and so this is now being hosted on wordpress. If you have information, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, rather than my old site email.
MAY 2013: UPDATE FINALLY HERE. With pictures! You’re truly missing out on life until you’ve seen Arthur’s turn of the century ‘stache…
MARCH 2013:I’m currently still researching James Arthur in order to put together a more comprehensive overview of his life using sources interloaned to me through our lovely library system. Updates and changes will continue to be made as this research is done. If you have questions about James Arthur or would like to submit information, please email me at
email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org. I am specifically interested in biographical information, new prints to add to the online gallery, and titles of works that are unknown.
1899:”Good Friends”, “Solitude”, “Consecration”, “Blossom Time”, “Contentment”, “The Debut”, “A Butterfly”, “Chicks”, “Divinely Fair”, “Dorothy”, “Folly”, “Elaine”, “Frivolity”, “Evangeline”, “Evening Prayer”, “Grace”, “Her Pet”, “A Lady in Waiting”, “A Lady of Quality”, Invited Out, Lillias, “Love’s Offering”, Lygia, Nydia, The Old Tryst Place, Meditation, Mother’s Treasures, Playmates,The Puritan, Sabbath Morning, A Tale of Chivalry, “Tender Strains”, “An Uninvited Guest”, Wanderers, Milady.
June 3, 1906: “Across the Sea”, “Camp Fire”, “Coaxing”, “Coming Events Cast Their Shadow”, “Dolly’s Prayer”, “First lesson”, “Mother’s duty”, “Pretty well worn” “Trysting place” “Xmas dream”, “wood nymph”, “Young fisherman”
November 5 1906: “Friday-sweep day” “Monday-wash day” “Tuesday-receiving day” “Tuesday-ironing day” “Saturday-Baking day” “Sunday-Church” “Wednesday-mending day”