by Ron Petrou
Longtime Chestnut Hill artist Edward Sargent, 72, a graduate of Chestnut Hill Academy and relative of John Singer Sargent, arguably the most famous portrait painter in American history, currently has his own art on display at the Mt. Airy Art Garage, 11 West Mt. Airy Ave. until the end of the year. About his collages, Edward said, “Nostalgia, like everything these days, is filtered through ironic knowingness. My collages are ‘windows’ through which you see the past without so much ironic knowingness.”
Edward, who attended the Tyler School of Fine Arts in the early 1960s, has been inspired by two Philadelphia area artists, Jerry Crimmins, who lived in Glenside, and Frieda Fehrenbacher, who lived in Mount Airy. Both were teachers at Moore College of Art in center city.
Edward, who was married twice and has two daughters and a son, said, “In terms of class, I guess my background is upper-class. Digby Baltzell, the Philadelphia sociologist, would’ve called it old WASP stock: Boston and Philadelphia-based. Once upon a time there was lots of money. In the summers when I was a very little kid, I would spend the summers at one of the grandparents’ places. At their summer house there was a live-in chauffeur, a live-in maid, a live-in cook, with groundskeepers and gardeners who commuted to look after the place. . .
“I met people who meant nothing to me. They were just people my grandmother knew. They included (the writer) SJ Perelman and (movie star) Lillian Gish. I was eight years old at the time. Lillian Gish and I went out collecting shells on the beach. We each had a bucket and I showed her where the good stuff was. When I met S.J Perelman, he was sitting on the dunes in front of (playwright) Moss Hart’s house.
“This old, WASPy guy seemed to be a lot of fun and laughed a lot. He wanted to know what I was learning in school. I told him I hated school, and he said, ‘So did I.’ The whole world they represented was unknown to me. I found out who they actually were only when I was in my 40s, and my grandmother would reminisce. My grandmother had been a stage actress, and she had tiny parts in a handful of silent movies. She left all that around 1924. She had two daughters to bring up.”
John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) considered the “leading portrait painter of his generation” for his evocations of Edwardian era luxury, was Edward’s great grandfather’s first cousin. “My father and my uncle both had stories about him. Once my grandmother had dressed them up to the nines when they were two little boys and brought them to meet John Singer Sargent in the hope that he would find them so irresistible that he would do their portraits. And John Singer Sargent said in effect, ‘Oh, get those brats out of here.’
“That was in 1922 when John Singer Sargent was painting murals in the Boston Public Library. His legend was passed down.” (John Singer Sargent’s parents were American, but he was trained in Paris. His father, FitzWilliam, was an eye surgeon at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia for 10 years.)
Edward attended Episcopal Academy until he was kicked out in the 9th grade for “not being with the program.” While there, he and three other classmates were close friends. One of them was Peter von Starck, who later with Georges Perrier founded the French restaurant Le Panetiere and helped jumpstart the city’s Restaurant Renaissance in the 1960s, but at Episcopal these close pals were known by the headmaster as the “Four Horsemen” (named for the dreaded Four Horseman in the Apocalypse: Conquest, War, Famine and Death).
After being refused entry in various other private schools in the region, Edward was finally accepted at CHA. Edward prospered there because Robert A. Kingsley, the school’s headmaster, let the boys be themselves. For many years as a youngster, Edward went with his grandmother, who had a subscription to the Philadelphia Orchestra, to hear concerts at the Academy of Music. He collected autographs and would write to composers.
“I knew where Eugene Ormandy’s box was, and usually the composer, whose work was being played, would sit with Ormandy’s wife, Gretel, so I would go down with the program and ask for an autograph. And when Shostakovich was in town in 1959, I brought a record album with me. My grandfather asked the orchestra manager, Joe Santalarski, ‘Could you take this back and ask Shostakovich to autograph it for my grandson?’ Santalarski came back and said, ‘Better than that, why doesn’t the boy take it back? I’ll take him there.’
“And so that’s how I met Shostakovich, who autographed it for me. We had a brief conversation in high school French, the only language we had in common. Also I met Stravinsky and the American composers Roy Harris and David Diamond. During my high school years I probably went to half of the Friday concerts. It was wonderful.”
Edward had a close relationship with the legendary CHA music teacher, Albert C. Conkey. “We had long talks. It was a disappointment we shared that I didn’t play an instrument. We would listen to music in our respective homes, to New York Philharmonic broadcasts, and then talk about it at lunch on Monday. I understood that this was not how most of my classmates operated, but it seemed perfectly normal to me.”
The best story about Edward involves his encounter as a curious 10th grader with the world-famous, notorious American poet, Ezra Pound (1885-1972). In 1958, being an avid student of history, Edward, as an editor for CHA’s literary magazine, learned about Ezra Pound, author of the famous “Cantos” and enthusiastic promoter in the 1920s of Ernest Hemingway and T. S. Eliot. During the Second World War, Pound, living in Italy, became an advocate of Mussolini’s fascist government and made frequent radio broadcasts denouncing the Allies. After the war he could have been tried as a traitor, but because of his status as a highly respected poet, he was confined instead in a federal mental institution in Washington D.C.
Edward decided to interview Pound, so without asking permission from his parents or his teachers, he made arrangements with a Congressman, Usher Burdock, from North Dakota, to visit the mental institution where Pound resided. Edward played hooky, rode the train to Washington and had a long conversation with the infamous author. When he returned home, he told his parents nothing about his adventure until the Congressman called his home and asked how Edward’s visit with Ezra Pound had gone. My father was “really pleased.” When Edward returned to school the next day, Headmaster Kingsley called him to his office and reprimanded him for playing hooky but added, “You probably learned more by doing what you did than if you had gone to class.”
More information about Edward’s exhibit at 215-242-5074 or www.mtairyartgarage.org.