Update: A New Photo by Lillian Baynes Griffin Surfaces
Guest Post by Eve M. Kahn
Virtually no papers have surfaced for the photographer Lillian Baynes Griffin (1871-1916), the subject of a spring 2018 profile in FB&C, and a handful of her pictures of celebrities have survived at institutions or on the market. This spring, evidence of one of her forgotten professional feats turned up at the Boston Athenaeum: her snapshot of the artist Winslow Homer (1836-1910), taken in 1907 at the doorway of his studio in Prout's Neck, Maine.
The image came to light when Frank Goodyear, the co-director of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, visited the Athenaeum for a study day in late March. He was finishing preparations for an exhibition that opens on June 23: Winslow Homer and the Camera: Photography and the Art of Painting. A few dozen photos of Homer, by photographers as prominent as Simon Towle and Napoleon Sarony, have long been known to exist. Goodyear said that when Athenaeum assistant curator Casey Riley told him about the collection's Homer portrait, he expected to see a version of one of the well-known examples. When she brought out Griffin's shot, he said, "My jaw dropped."
It depicts dapper Homer in a straw hat, striped pants, and white bucks, perhaps heading out for a painting jaunt at the rocky shoreline. Homer signed the verso, and different handwriting on the recto credits the image to "Mrs. Walter Griffin." Goodyear described the photo as "exquisitely beautiful and interesting," and he added that he had no idea until recently who the Griffins were.
Lillian Baynes Griffin was British-born and largely self-taught. Her father John Baynes, an inventor, managed to bankrupt a series of textile and metalwork companies in England, India, and New York. Lillian grew up in genteel poverty in Connecticut and spent her early career writing articles about art, gardening, medical treatments, and other topics for publications including The Art Amateur and the Los Angeles Times. In 1899, she married the landscape painter Walter Griffin, a Maine native. By 1905 the couple had separated, and she began supporting herself as a photographer in New York.
Among her subjects were Bulgarian and Spanish noblewomen, the travelogue writer and lecturer E. Burton Holmes, Grover Cleveland's family, and John Jacob Astor VI (a millionaire toddler born four months after his father was killed in the Titanic sinking). She also took photos of American plutocrats' interiors, as well as modern dancers in garden settings. She exhibited her work at camera clubs, museums, and expositions from Budapest to Portland, Maine.
It is not clear whether Homer commissioned her to photograph him in mid-stride at his doorstep. In the 1970s, the photo arrived at the Athenaeum with donated papers from William Howe Downes, Homer's first biographer.
Further research in Walter Griffin's records at the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art may eventually yield insights into his Homer connections and perhaps even mentions of Lillian maneuvering her camera at Prout's Neck. Goodyear said he hopes to incorporate her snapshot into upcoming studies of New England's first generations of female photographers.
--Eve M. Kahn, who wrote the Antiques column for the New York Times from 2008 to 2016, is finishing a biography of the forgotten artist Mary Rogers Williams for Wesleyan University Press.
Images courtesy of the Boston Athenaeum