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Nancy L. Gustke’s “The Special Artist”

Note:  See the complementary Article about Frank H. Taylor in this issue: The Man from Shady Ledge written by Robert L.. Matthews

It is a Monday night in January and I have just spoken with Nancy L. Gustke, author of The Special Artist, in American Culture, A Biography of Frank Hamilton Taylor (1846-1927). Nancy could not hide her admiration for this wonderful artist who was, possibly, one of the region’s greatest promoters.

“I am so glad Taylor will get some press”, she said. “It is amazing how there are so many Taylor drawings which have been printed and reprinted over the past century – yet so little is known about the man.”

I called her to find out how her interest began and to tell her how much I enjoyed a recently-received Christmas present, a copy of her biography of Frank H. Taylor, and my wish to learn more about him.

Earlier in December I had asked Robert L. Matthews (Bob), if he would write an article on Taylor’s drawings. (The Man from Shady Ledge ) Bob and his wife Prudence started their collection of TI memorabilia soon after they were married. When Bob retired he turned to researching the early history of the Thousand Islands and two books followed. The latest, A History of the Thousand Islands Yacht Club, was published in 2009 and the first, Glimpses of St. Lawrence Summer Life: Souvenirs from the Robert and Prudence Matthews Collection captures their Collection which is now on loan, and display, at the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton. Bob Matthews has one of the most extensive collections of Taylor memorabilia in the region and we are grateful to have him share this with us. With Bob’s article, and Taylor’s biography, I was ready to learn more about his biographer.

In the late 1970s, or early 1980s, Nancy explained that, “a large ‘pile’ of drawings was retrieved from a “trash bin” in Philadelphia. Whoever found the material realized it might have some value as there were a dozen or more watercolors and wash drawings, a couple of engravings and some newspaper clippings. The works described a trip to Florida, Cuba and Mexico made by Ulysses S. Grant and Philip H. Sheridan and the artist was a Frank Hamilton Taylor.

The director of the University of Florida’s Gallery had purchased the “Trash Bin portfolio” and had turned it over to a graduate student, to catalogue. The student was Nancy, and she became completely engrossed in the material, and the artist’s life. Her quest for answers led to her Master’s topic and culminated in an exhibition and catalogue at the University of Florida entitled: A Stately Picturesque Dream…: Scenes of Florida, Cuba and Mexico in 1880.

When I asked Nancy about her first big “Taylor Find” Nancy told me about one of her visits to the University of Florida library.  “A librarian’s suggestion that I look in the National Union Catalog of Pre-1950 Imprints1, resulted in a significant number of catalog entries. Taylor wrote books, pamphlets, edited newspapers and suddenly it was not only a name on a painting, it was also a peek at a remarkable life.”


For Nancy, receiving her Master’s degree was only the beginning. She went on to complete her PhD at the University of New Hampshire. Her dissertation research was published by Lang Publishing Inc. under the title: The Special Artist in American Culture: A Biography of Frank Hamilton Taylor (1846-1927).

Nancy’s book, now out-of-print, contains the important aspects of Taylor’s life, and excursions. There are four chapters plus an informative introduction, and conclusion. The Notes, and Bibliography, provide hundreds of references about the artist, his life, his family, and links to the Thousand Islands.

Nancy thanks many people for her visit to the Islands to gather research material. “In particular I want to mention Verda Corbin, Mary Herrick and Jean Wells, who made the files of their Clayton/Taylor historian husbands, Lester J. Corbin, Harold E. Herrick, Jr. and William H. Wells, available to me.” She also credits the staff and volunteers of the Antique Boat Museum (then known as the Thousand Islands Shipyard Museum) who put her in touch with local Taylor historians who provided significant insight into his work in the Islands and helped her locate additional paintings.

We in turn, thank Nancy for allowing us to benefit from her research, and book.

Brief notes from: The Special Artist in American Culture: A Biography of Frank Hamilton Taylor

  • About Frank Taylor (1846-1927): Frank Hamilton Taylor was born in Rochester NY on April 21, 1846. In 1863 he joined the Rochester Grays Battery Light Artillery. He would later publish a book on the Civil War (Philadelphia in the Civil War 1860-65). He was married to Margaret “Maggie” Gilkenson Johnston in Philadelphia in 1870. Margaret died in 1920; they were married close to fifty years. Between 1878 and 1893 Taylor “travelled almost continually in the employment of New York Based companies including Leve & Alden, the American Bank Note Company, and Giles Company, all of which published tourist guidebooks”. His most celebrated trip was in 1880 accompanying Ulysses S. Grant and Philip H. Sheridan to Florida, Cuba and Mexico.
  • Special Artists: These were men and women who wrote, and illustrated, articles for the pictorial press which included Harpers’ Weekly and Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. Other well known artists were Winslow Homer, Howard Pyle and Frederic Remington. They captured news stories in pictures long before there was photography and they had to not only draw a realistic picture of an event, but they also had to do so in minutes. These in turn would be sent back to the print shop and then captured on wood or etched on metal for engravings. That process could take an engraver more than 36 hours to complete. Frank Taylor not only was a superb artist, he also was able to write about what he saw. Nowhere are his writings more important than in the Thousand Islands.
  • Discovering the Thousand Islands: “Hay fever and malaria, he said, forced him to slow down somewhat, prompting a trip to document the resort area of the Thousand Islands for Harper’s Weekly readers in 1881”. He was one of the first members of the Round Island Association and chose the Shady Ledge property for its location. It was no coincidence that the placement of the boathouse was ideal for an artist studio. “His work increasingly focused on tourist brochures, and his acceptance of the Philadelphia Ledger’s offer to head their newly created art department, effectively ended his Special Artist life of constant travel.”
  • His son F. Walter Taylor (1874-1931): Walter Taylor followed his father as an artist but tragically died at forty-seven from ptomaine poisoning from an appendicitis suffered while at Shady Ledge on Round Island in July 1921. Young Taylor had become one of the nation’s leading illustrators and was particularly remembered for his illustrations published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, now known as Scribner. Shortly before he died he was appointed Instructor of Illustration at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
  • “Ever–changing Philadelphia”: Taylor captured Philadelphia in more than 400 watercolors and wash drawings and several books and brochures. Dr. Gustke begins the chapter with the Taylor quote: Long after I am forgotten [my sketches] will remain to tell other generations that once lived and added something to help future Philadelphians to visualize our city of today. Frank H. Taylor, February 27, 1926. He donated 243 images of Philadelphia buildings to the Philadelphia Free Library in 1922.

By Susan W. Smith,

This is the second in a series introducing those historians who help to capture our Thousand Islands history.  The first was published in November: John Carter’s Prisoners in Van Diemen’s Land




The first page of the "Bibliographic Essay” lists the issue and pages relating to Frank H. Taylor found in the National Union Catalog.

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