Finding Adèle …
As the Virginia Historical Society’s registrar, I am responsible for loans, traveling exhibitions, and storage of collections. In addition, I help with research and cataloging collections.
In May 2012, I located a collection of unframed canvases and several boxes and drawers of artwork by two Richmond artists, Adèle Goodman Clark (1882–1983) and her best friend, Eleanora “Nora” Houston (1883–1942). Adèle was educated at Miss Virginia Randolph Ellett’s School (now St. Catherine’s) and started teaching at the Art Club of Richmond in the early 1900s where she met Nora. In 1916 they established The Atelier, located at 2nd and Franklin Streets, which became a training ground for a generation of artists. In 1919 they founded the Virginia League of Fine Arts and Handicrafts. They were instrumental in the art community and the women’s suffrage movement in Richmond, being in the group of women who formed the Equal Suffrage League of Richmond in 1909. The league claimed more than 20,000 members by 1919 and was the predecessor of the League of Women Voters.
While looking at these works of art, I felt a connection with Adèle, because I used to paint in high school and college, and I still hold my first art teachers from high school in high regard. My teachers from Douglas S. Freeman High School in Richmond, Rita D’Amico and Susan Bright, taught me to appreciate the process of creating art. We can appreciate the artist through their preliminary drawings, sketches, and studies that precede the finished artwork. Because there isn’t an abundance of finished artwork in the “Adèle Clark collection,” it offers insight into the artist’s process.
The collection numbers more than 500 pieces and was given to the VHS between 1979 and 1991 by three different donors. Unraveling the donation histories and determining which pieces belonged with which donor was part of the cataloging process. In order for the general public to access a museum collection in an online database, there is a process of research and work that must occur for the information to become publicly accessible. The cataloging process includes organizing the collection; recording the number, description, medium, dimensions, noting titles or additional information; and taking a research photograph of each piece.
We started with the thirty unframed canvases and many flat canvases, then located boxes and drawers of drawings, sketches, and studies in charcoal, pencil, pen and ink, gouache and pastels, including some sketchbooks. We were fortunate to find that each piece of art was marked with a unique number. We placed every item in a folder with its number. By mid 2013, I anticipate that all the artwork will be cataloged and ready for more detailed work before it gets entered into the online catalog.
In 1979, Adèle Clark gave the VHS a collection of papers and objects associated with her career and that of Nora Houston. The collections were quite large and the VHS archives staff processed the manuscript collections in two groups—the Adèle Clark Papers and the Nora Houston Papers. The objects and artwork that were not included in the manuscript collections came to the VHS museum department in May and July of 1986. After Adèle’s death in 1983, her niece gave the society more artwork from Clark and Houston’s studio located on Chamberlayne Avenue in the north side of Richmond. These pieces were marked with “ACE” or “AC” numbers and are believed to be primarily works by Adèle Clark. In August 1979, the Maymont Foundation received from Adèle Clark a crate of artwork and a collection of papers attributed to her friend Miss Nora Houston.
Nora was the niece of Maj. James H. Dooley, who put her through art school in New York. Because the works would not have been displayed in the Dooley’s residence, Maymont, the foundation decided to loan the artwork to the Pre-Conservation Program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s art history department from 1984 to 1990 for use as a study collection. The students were able to catalog the pieces, write condition reports, and practice various treatments.
Each piece of this collection was marked with an “SC.84” number, which made isolating the Maymont donation very easy. We believe the letters stand for “Study Collection.” When the Pre-Conservation Program closed, the Maymont Foundation offered this collection as a donation to the VHS in 1991.
Although Adèle Clark and Nora Houston did not always sign their works, because they were studies and sketches, the women did identify some of the subjects in their study pieces, and we are excited about the prospect of matching up and identifying subjects in the artwork we have in the collection. Through the continued efforts of staff and interns, we hope to complete the collection in 2013. We will post updates on the collection through the VHS blog and hope you will follow us online.
You can also help us with our research. We are looking for other institutions or individuals who have artwork by Adèle Clark or Nora Houston. We are interested in talking to any former art students of Adèle and Nora, as well as any former Pre-Conservation Program students who may have worked with the study collection between 1984 and 1990. We are working with Maymont staff to identify subjects and locations of Nora Houston’s artwork.
This collection, by offering a unique glimpse of the clothing and styles that span three-quarters of the twentieth century, will provide many research opportunities and serve as a valuable resource for studying Virginia history.