Take It On Faith: A New Donation of Religious Art Created by Mary Workman, 1836-1844

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

It has been quite a windfall recently with donations of Workman and Temple family artifacts! From the large collection left to the museum by the estate of Josette Temple, whose grandfather Walter P. Temple owned the Homestead from 1917 to 1932 to the shocking suprise of the Madrid estate’s gift of photos and furniture from Josephine M. Workman, who was an early silent film star known as Princess Mona Darkfeather to a ring, letter and other items donated by Douglas McDonald, whose ancestor Ellen Temple Bancroft was the sister of F.P.F. Temple, we’ve been bestowed with a great diversity of material that will help us better tell a myriad of stories related to the families.

Yesterday, another stunning gift arrived, this time from Salem, Oregon, courtesy of Jonathan and Elaine Krebs, whose family descends from Elijah H. Workman (1835-1906), nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman. In 1884, “Lige,” as he was familiarly known, traveled from Los Angeles to Clifton, England to close the estate of the family after the death of his uncle Thomas, the last of his line in that long-time home of the Workmans.

Having disposed of the property, Elijah returned to the Angel City with a bevy of memorabilia, some of which has survived in the hands of the Krebs family through Elijah’s daughter, Laura, who married Conrad Krebs, Sr. in 1898. The couple’s only child, Conrad, Jr., then kept many of these items over the years, including his long residency in Albuquerque, New Mexico, not far south of Taos, where William Workman resided from the mid-1820s through the early 1840s before coming to Los Angeles.

Six years ago, Conrad Krebs III donated a truly rare artifact, being a letter written from Taos in February 1826 by William Workman to his brother David and which is said to be oldest surviving letter from an Anglo in New Mexico. Now, with the gift received from his brother and sister-in-law, another cache of unique materials add to our understanding of the Workman family in the 19th century.

What Jonathan and Elaine donated were a photo of Elijah Workman’s property in Los Angeles and a framed artwork and a portfolio of art and calligraphy from Mary Workman (1808-1868), the younger sister of William and David and aunt of Elijah. The Homestead collection includes a stereoscopic photograph, published by Henry T. Payne about 1872, of the Elijah Workman place on Main Street betwen 10th and 11th streets, but the one donated by the Krebs is a much-larger cabinet sized view of the original by William M. Godfrey, with his signature at the bottom left, and it has more details (including an outbuilding, clothes hanging on lines, and the outhouse) as the Payne image is cropped.

We knew something of the artistic abilities and prowess of Mary because the museum has her framed drawing of the family gravestone commissioned by William on his sole return home to England in 1851 and which still is in the St. Cuthbert’s Church yard in Clifton. Beautiful as that artifact is, nothing could prepare us for the jaw-dropping surprise that was revealed earlier today when the boxes were unpacked.

First is the stunningly beautiful rendering of the New Testament (Luke 15: 11-32) parable told by Christ of “The Prodigal Son,” a mixed-media framed piece with what looks to be pencil, watercolors and fabric pasted down on to the surface and comprised of what, at first glance, looks like gold leaf, while the gorgeous cloak in which the father shelters his wayward child seeking forgiveness and redemption is a rich red and with golden brown trimming. There are small vignettes at the lower corners and text, written by Mary, pertaining to the parable. The largest print includes the words:

Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. But the father said to his servants, bring forth the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring hither the fattet [sic] calf, and kill it, and let us eat and be merry. For this my son was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found.

In the background are walls, a classical column, and a remarkable depiction of ominous clouds with some blue sky almost seeking to press through. For an amateur woman artist living in a small village in the remote northernmost reaches of England, this is a staggering realization of talent and religious devotion.

Less imposing in scale is the portfolio, with contents dating from 1836 to 1844, but once the fragile item is opened, there is an array of remarkable art works and carefully inscribed mediations on religion, but also childhood and family. Among these latter is the early 18th century poem “A Dying Christian to His Soul” by the famed Alexander Pope, including a line that many still know well today:

The world recedes; it disappears!

Heaven opens my eyes! My ears

With sounds seraphic ring;

Lend, lend your wings! I mount! I fly!

O Grave! Where is thy victory?

O Death, where is thy sting?

Elsewhere there is a tender and touching scene of death as a brown-haired unshaven man lies in bed with women holding their hands and kerchiefs to their faces in grief and a gentleman in black formal wear gazing on the dying man while a pastor stands to the side looking toward heaven, where angels seem to have their arms open in anticipation of welcoming another saved soul.

Below the image is an extract from the poem, “The World in the Heart” by Jane Taylor, also a novelist and engraver who is best known for her words for “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and who died in 1824. The section chosen is:

Whatever passes as a cloud between

The mental eye of faith, and things unseen

Causing that brighter world to disappear

And seem less lovely, or its hopeless dear.

This is our world, our idol, tho’ it bear

Affection’s impress, or devotion’s air.

Added to this is “Behold your Idol,” which appears to have been added by Mary. Notably, she completed this work in March 1843, the month her father, Thomas, died. Elsewhere is “The Believer’s Triumph Over Death” and it is not known whether this two-page section are her own reflections following his passing or come from another source.

One wonders, as well, if her evocative passage on “Childhood” relates somehow to her own experience, as she wrote of “Time, hard rigid teacher;—reality rough stern reality! World cold hearted world!” and talked of the world’s “sombre truths, your withering sneers should scare those gentle spirits from their holy temple.” Life would, she added, replace confidence with caution and love with doubt, while fear poisons enjoyment and Mary referenced “that fruit which at first tasting in Eden is often dearly purchased.”

Yet, her tender image, from Christmas 1843, of a mother and daughter, perhaps depicting her and her own mother, Lucy Cook, who died in 1830, includes the statement:

How strong are the recollections of childhood! Here is an innocent symplicity [sic] and a pure warmth of feeling in all our emotions at that age—in our thoughts and opinions which makes us look back on them with a tenderness something akin to our feelings towards others.

Another portion of the book contains the transcription, completed on 3 March 1844, of the lat 18th century poem “The Fireside” by Nathaniel Cotton and which includes passages about the calm acceptance of life’s lot with such lines as “No borrow’d joys! they’re all our own / While to the world we live unknown, / Or by the world forgot; / Monarchs! we envy not your state, / We look with pity on the Great, / And bless our humble lot.”

The accompanying image shows a man sitting on his throne-like armchair with a placid, contented visage, while his wife holds a tray and gazes at two sons, barely higher than the edge of a round table. A young boy sits on the floor reading intently, while a girl is perched on a child’s chair and appears to hold a doll. This scene of domestic tranquility is illuminated by the calming glow of the fire to match the poem.

A couple of remarkable pages contain more passionate religious ruminations on Jesus Christ with one having a few vignettes of the infant in the manger, his death and his resurrection, while the other shows the lamb of God flanked by angels amid the clouds of heaven. After this is a powerful representation of Jesus with hands bound by rope and blood drippined from his crown of thorns as he gazes heaven-ward.

Unfortunately, though not surprising given the age and materials, there is a large crack that runs through his face, but the power of the representation is not dimmed. Perhaps something of a companion work at the end is a work that appears to be the Virgin Mary, also looking upward, with stars about her head. This piece, however, does not have damage as in the other/

The Homestead is grateful to Jonathan and Elaine Krebs for their donation as they are not only rare surviving artifacts from the Workman family, but represent a powerful portrait of the younger sister of William and David and her considerable artistic gifts and deep, abiding religious piety.

Leave a Reply