Reader praises artist Selma Burke, asks about James Sword
Friday at Auction Finds is readers’ questions day. I try to guide readers to resources for them to determine the value of their items. I’m not able to appraise their treasures, but I can do some preliminary research to get them started. So, these are market values based on prices I find on the web, not appraisal for insurance purposes that I suggest for items that have been determined to be of great value.
Today’s question is from a reader who was a student of African American artist Selma Burke and is a great-great grandchild of artist James Brade Sword.
Thank you for your piece on Ms. Burke. I was honored to be one of her students when she taught at the Solebury School, 67-68. I helped work on her studio as she began to establish her legacy in New Hope. …
Ms. Selma was a force to be reckoned with and a true original. She had a gentle touch but was firm in her feelings. She had that gift to help you find your expressive self. You could sense she had experienced a great deal as one could imagine during these times, yet she would use these tempered feelings to fuel her drive to create. I would later find out she had been awarded the Distinguished Daughters of Pennsylvania Award in 1993 and the Theodore L. Hazlett Memorial Award for Excellence in the Arts in 1981.
P.S. I am looking for assistance regarding the paintings of James Brady Sword. He was from Germantown and was very active in the Philadelphia art community in the late 1800s. We have a few of his paintings and are very interested in his history because he was our great-great-grandfather. Any guidance would be greatly appreciated.
Let’s start with Selma Hortense Burke, who was indeed a wonderful sculptor, and apparently a good teacher and person as well. Burke sculpted the bust of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945, an image that may be the one on the dimes we carry in our pockets or purses. The bust on the dime is credited to U.S. Mint engraver John Sinnock, but Burke and others were convinced that he used her image as inspiration – which he denied. A bas relief of Roosevelt done by Burke in 1945 hangs in the Recorder of Deeds Office in Washington, DC.
She was never acknowledged as the creator of the image on the dime.
I wrote about Burke in a blog post two years ago after the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts announced that a scholarship would be given annually in her name. I love hearing the stories of people’s lives, and I was happy to hear the reader’s memories of his time in the presence of the artist.
Burke was born into a large family in North Carolina in 1900, and she must have had the stirrings of an artist early on. She would take clay from a river near where she lived and formed images from it. She didn’t initially follow her heart, though; instead, she took her mother’s advice and chose a practical career in nursing.
She was a sculptor’s model during the heady years of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s while working on her own art. She attended art schools in the States and traveled to Europe to further her studies.
Burke moved to Solebury Township in Bucks County, PA, in 1947, and taught art at schools and universities in the area. She was head of the art department at the private Solebury School in 1967. Burke died in 1995 at age 94.
As for James Brady Sword, I was initially unable to find anything about him on the web except for two watercolors that had been sold at auction in Massachusetts in 2008 for $550 and $500.
Google helped me out by asking if I were looking for James Brade Sword. I clicked on that name and found that it was the same artist. I was then able to find out more about him under the Brade spelling of his middle name.
Several sites told similar stories of Sword, a white artist who was very much involved in the art scene in Philadelphia during the late 1800s. He was born in Philadelphia in 1839 but moved with his family to Macao, China, in 1840 where his father was a silk and tea merchant. Returning to Philadelphia some nine years later, he attended public schools, and after graduating from high school, worked as a civil engineer on a canal project in Pennsylvania and others such projects over the next few years.
Sword took classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which is said to have some of his works. He was active in several local arts clubs in the late 1800s, including the Philadelphia Society of Artists and the Arts Club of Philadelphia, of which he was one of the founders.
He painted landscapes, portraits, children, animals, and hunting and fishing scenes. He scoured Mid-Atlantic, New England and the Adirondacks for subjects and places to capture. Here are some of his works.
Sword’s paintings are also in the collections of the University of Pennsylvania, the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in Hagerstown, MD, and the Yale Art Gallery. He painted a portrait of U.S. House Speaker John W. Jones in 1911 that hangs in the U.S. Capitol in Washington.
Sword apparently exhibited at the World Columbian Exposition (the Chicago World’s Fair) in 1893.
Several of his works have come up for auction over the past few years, including an oil titled “Autumn on the Wissahickon (1897),” which sold at Bonhams in New York in 2009 for $3,050. An oil painting of two dogs titled “Best Friends” (it seemed to be circa 1885) sold for $6,875 at Christie’s in New York in 2011.
If the reader would like to find out more about Sword, I’d suggest the Academy of the Fine Arts and galleries that sell or have sold some of his paintings. There are several listed on the web.