Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Grafton Tyler Brown: African American Artist

Grafton Tyler Brown 

By Dr. Robert J. Chandler

Grafton Tyler Brown was born February 22, 1841, an artist. Incidentally, he was African American. His parents Thomas and Wilhelmina Brown, were, according to the census, free blacks from Maryland. His father’s free status, however, is questionable. One of Grafton’s brothers stated firmly, Dad came from that hotbed of secession, South Carolina!

Grafton grew up in Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania, during the 1850s. The decade before the Civil War was one of the darkest ones for African Americans in our history. The Compromise of 1850 brought California into the Union came with an enforced Fugitive Slave Law that actively encouraged kidnappers. President James Buchanan, a Pennsylvanian like Brown, encouraged the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision that effectively declared that a black man had no rights a white man was bound to respect. Controlled by the same Southern slavery-supporting Democratic Party, California’s laws mandated segregation and denied black testimony in the courts of justice.

Grafton Tyler Brown

The Browns wanted a future for their eldest son, and in 1858, dispatched him by steamer to California. Grafton went from one state capital to another, working at a steward in a Sacramento hotel. Within a year, Brown proved that talent, not color was destiny.

In 1859, the Sacramento Union, California’s paper of record, noticed an “excellent painting” when the St. George Hotel displayed the self-taught Brown’s drawing of a steamship. The 1860 state fair remarked similarly about his railroad locomotive.

Virginia City, Nevada Territory, 1861; drawn by Grafton T. Brown, lithograph by Charles Conrad Kuchel. 

The optimistic and aggressive Brown confidently promoted himself through life, forever seizing opportunity. In the late 1850s, the lithographic firm of Charles Kuchel and Emil Dresel dissolved. They had produced over 50 magnificent views of California towns and cities. When Dresel left to become a noted Sonoma winemaker, Kuchel fell on hard times. He hired young Grafton Brown to be his traveling sketch artist and salesman, the man who convinced townsfolk to buy his view and pay more for border vignettes of their businesses.

What was the racial status of Kuchel’s new employee? In Sacramento, by the 1860 U.S. Census and city directory, Grafton Tyler Brown was African American. Likewise, in the early 1870s, that census, a credit report, and years later, a former employee knew Brown’s racial background. Few cared. In the 1861 San Francisco directory, which designated “colored” residents, Brown was white. He steamed down river and “passed” into the majority. Brown carried on businesses successfully for 55 years.

In the spring of 1861, our self-assured 20-year old was in boomtown Virginia City, Nevada Territory, sketching the town and selling border views. In 1864, he returned to draw the second view of that great Comstock Lode town. It appeared in two versions, each with different border views. In between, Brown sketched Portland, Oregon, and Santa Rosa, California.

Bird’s Eye View of Santa Clara, California, (transaction date 1869)
California Historical Society; X57-88-1-2 

As talent triumphed, Brown took cover within the racist Democratic Party. Befitting any man, Brown probably voted at age 21 in 1862. In 1864, he lithographed a portrait of the Democratic presidential candidate, and later quickly registered under California’s new 1866 registry law.

Following Kuchel’s death in December 1864, Brown purchased the business from his widow. His Democratic Party contacts aided him to become the state’s first African American contractor. In 1870-1871, he lithographed 7 tideland sale maps for commission chairman Benjamin Franklin Washington. Who was Washington? The publicly racist editor of the San Francisco Examiner, the Democratic Party newspaper.

Lithography—drawings and etchings on fine-grained limestone—came into prominence in the 1870s. Its versatility for curves and drawings supplanted letter-press work for invoices and stock certificates. The use of large stones made “stone printing” ideal for tinted city views, chromolithographic posters, membership certificates, sheet music, and especially real estate maps. Brown’s small job office of 4 people in 1870 and 8 people in 1878 excelled at this job work and Brown installed a steam press to do it.

Brown out-designed his competitors, whether letter press printers or other lithographers. He went head to head with the much larger, older, and most reputable firm, Britton & Rey, founded in 1852. Joseph Britton and Jacques Rey did quality work for decades, as holdings in the California Historical Society’s Kemble Printing Collection show. An artistic feast lays in the stock certificates by these two completing firms during Nevada’s 1870s mining boom. There were no other challengers.

As the 1870s closed, Brown transformed into an artist. He sold his lithographic firm and drew views for the San Mateo County history (1878) and Nevada (1881). In 1882, Brown stepped into being a landscape oil painter, with fine oils of Lake Tahoe, followed by sojourn in Victoria, British Columbia. This month, the University of Victoria puts on the first show of Brown’s work since he displayed 20 scenes in 1882.

View of Lake Okanogan, B.C., 1883
Oil on canvas
The Center for African American Decorative Arts 

Brown’s artistic career lasted until 1891, as he followed the Northern Pacific Railroad, painting landmarks around Tacoma, Washington and Portland, Oregon. In 1886, Brown found his scenic home at splendiferous Yellowstone National Park. Then in 1892, those rails carried him eastward to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he and wife Albertine settled. A stint as a draftsman for the Army Corps of Engineers led to longtime work in St. Paul’s public works office.

African American born Grafton Tyler Brown knew he was an artist. He faced the world confident he would succeed. He did.


Dr. Robert Chandler worked for Wells Fargo Bank for 32 years as a historian and is past president of the Book Club of California. He has written many articles about California history on the period from 1850-1880. His book on Grafton Tyler Brown was published by Oklahoma University Press in 2014.
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