Quarantine: A Collector’s Story

Stuart P. Embury, MD

I’ve come to believe that the members of the Manuscript Society might have an advantage during these trying times. This hiatus has given collectors the opportunity to devote additional attention to their holdings.

Just before the onset of the pandemic, I purchased a wonderful archive on the artist Robert Lee Eskridge (1891–1975). The archive consisted of 70 letters (400-plus pages), exhibition catalogs, and several of the books that Eskridge had written and illustrated. He was corresponding with his patrons, John and Carolyn Fryberger. Mr. Fryberger was a bank president, and the couple lived in Philipsburg, Pennsylvania. After Mr. Fryberger died in 1927 (at age 57), his widow continued the patronage. The correspondence with the Frybergers and their relatives spanned a period from 1923 until 1963.

Robert Lee Eskridge was born in 1891, perhaps not coincidentally in Philipsburg, Pennsylvania. He studied art at several institutions in California and at the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as with André Lhote in Paris.

Eskridge apparently suffered from a case of wanderlust, as the letters to the Frybergers were written from many locations around the world. He became known as a South Seas painter, and his work reflected the time he spent in Tahiti, Bora Bora, and Hawaii. Briefly, before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he taught at the University of Hawaii. He authored and illustrated many books, including Manga Reva and Umi, the Hawaiian Boy Who Became a King.

Crhistmas Card from Eskridge - Embury article

Robert Lee Eskridge ANS Christmas card, December 4, 1946. From the collection of Stuart P. Embury.

How I Proceeded

Some of my time in quarantine went to researching this archive and learning more about the artist. Initially, I scanned and printed the letters, and then I used Dragon speech recognition software to transcribe them. (Thankfully, Eskridge had very legible handwriting.)

Next I compiled several indexes of the letters. The first was a spreadsheet of information about each letter: date written, to whom addressed, artist’s location, number of pages, etc. Creating an index of the letters’ contents was a more complex task. As you can imagine, these activities consumed considerable time, so my involuntary confinement was anything but boring.

I spent many delightful hours studying his letters. He talked very freely about his life, feelings, and struggles. He was financially insecure much of the time, but that did not keep him from a rewarding and exciting life. The Frybergers supported him in part all of those years, and he frequently expressed his gratitude to them.

Undertaking this project gave me rare opportunity for a glimpse into the innermost feelings of this artist. This archive is a marvelous treasure. I plan to donate it the Archives of American Art in Washington, where it will be digitized and available for researchers and art lovers to enjoy.

Dr. Embury’s article is one of the many interesting items to be found in the Manuscript Society News publication.  Become a member now.