October is National American Archives Month! To celebrate, we are highlighting the Wharton Esherick Museum’s rich archival collections. These include the newly processed Wharton Esherick and Mansfield Bascom Collection, the Wharton Esherick Family Papers, and the Oral History Collection. Within these archival troves are a number of letters that Wharton Esherick wrote and mailed to family, friends, and patrons, and which were later donated to WEM.
An artifact of an era before communication was instantaneous, Wharton Esherick’s personal correspondence shows the joy that he took in the art of letter writing. Often, he tucked whimsical illustrations into his letters—visual storytelling to delight the recipient, which today reveals much about who he was as a person.
A Sense of Home
A letter to his daughter Mary, written while she was away at boarding school in 1931, brings to life a sense of home. In the same blue pen as he used to write to her, he sketched an image of his Studio at daybreak.
In the drawing, the Studio nestles into the south-facing slope of Valley Forge Mountain. A patchwork of farms and fields is visible in the valley below, illuminated by the rising sun. This was a view that Mary would have known well, as its vantage was the path that connected her father’s Studio to the farmhouse where she had grown up. A further touch of home exists in the woodblock printed letterhead that Wharton used at the top of the letter’s first page.
In the letterhead, the words, “Esherick Paoli Pennsylvania,” encircle a sun motif. The emblem recalls the name that Wharton and his wife, Letty Esherick had given to their home: “Sunekrest” (pronounced sunny-crest). By the 1930s, the Eshericks were separating and Wharton was in the process of making the Studio his full-time residence. In the midst of this transition, he remained grounded in a sense of home on his sun-warmed, south-facing hillside.
The Esherick Twist
As a furniture designer, Wharton Esherick is known for putting his unique twist on familiar forms, defying convention and expectations. This was also true of his take on holidays, as shown in correspondence to his dear friends and steady patrons, Elin and Olaf Rove. On several instances, Wharton sent the Roves hand-drawn holiday invitations that divulged an impish side to his personality.
In an invite for Easter, 1959, Wharton sketches two versions of the occasion. The first—a typical greeting card image with bunnies, flowers, a bird, and a basket of eggs—he strikes through in pencil with an “x”. The second illustrates the Biblical Easter, picturing Christ risen from the grave. In the latter scene, the dumbfounded expressions of the men gathered around the empty crypt bring an unexpected twist of humor to the scene.
Wharton Esherick had multiple nicknames for Miriam Phillips, his beloved life partner from the 1940s on. He addressed her as “Mima,” “Miryasha,” and, in his letters, “Hello, Darling” or “Hi, Dearie.” Miriam was an actor who traveled often for her career. Wharton typically did not accompany her, remaining in his Studio to work. The letters that the two of them exchanged during these periods of extended separation show the sparks of love and affection that kept them connected across the miles. In one of these, he writes “recognize me?” next to a crayon drawing of a person carrying an enormous bouquet.
Another drawing that Wharton mailed to Miriam is a cartoon showing two of his wood sculptures, the horses Jeeter and Cheeter, having a conversation. Cheeter is in the Studio main gallery, whereas Jeeter is exiting the building through the large double doors. “So long, I’m off to New York.”
This caricature relates to real life events. In 1958, Cheeter stayed in the Studio while Jeeter traveled to New York for the exhibition, The Furniture and Sculpture of Wharton Esherick at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts. Furthermore, the temporary parting of a matched pair was a frequent happening for Wharton and Miriam.
Written by Director of Interpretation and Associate Curator of Special Collections Holly Gore