Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Harrison S. Morris | His memories of Abbott H. Thayer

Harrison S. Morris
Above Photograph of Harrison S. Morris (1856-1948), a writer, editor, and arts administrator. From 1893-1905, he was the managing director of the Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts, the nation’s oldest art school. In 1896, he married Anna Wharton, whose father was Joseph Wharton, a prominent industrialist who co-founded Bethlehem Steel, as well as Swarthmore College. Morris was the editor of Lippincott’s Magazine, and the art editor of the Ladies Home Journal. A prolific writer, he was the author of poetry, fiction, and essays. He was in frequent contact with artistic and literary figures of his time, including (as described below) Abbott Handerson Thayer and George de Forest Brush.


Harrison S. Morris, Confessions in Art. New York: Sears Publishing, 1930, pp. 142-144—

It was he [Abbott H. Thayer] and George de Forest Brush who, I believe, first thought of camouflage for ships at sea. They had pondered much and experimented much over the scientific problems of light and color, even outside the uses of pigment. They were among those to whom art brings ripened intellect, like Morse and Fulton, inventors who revolutionized the world's methods of contact.

So when we were in the war with Spain, Brush and Thayer disinterestedly went to Washington and offered their services and discoveries to the Secretary of the Navy. Of course, he was skeptical, as official life always is of change. He wanted to know, you know, and all that sort of thing. But while he was deliberating, and telling perhaps why the scheme was no good, one of the painters stuck in the ground a slender stick which he held in his hand, painted after their theory of protective coloration. Then Brush alluded and pointed in the course of conversation to the stick before them. To the Secretary of the Navy, there was no stick in sight. He went on speaking his conventional thought. But quietly and as if accidentally one of the painters turned the slender stick around in its place, so that the sun touched it another way, and, would you believe it, there was the stick which the Secretary could not see.

I rather think nothing came of the offer in the day of the Spanish War. But we know vividly enough what came of it later, and what ships and lives were saved by the wisdom of the two incomparable artists who thus could coordinate their art to the uses of life.

Thayer holding one of his duck decoys upsidedown

And another time, so Brush tells me, Thayer was invited to lecture on his theories of color before a Royal Institution of Science in London. He had before him on the platform a table on which was visible a decoy duck of wood such as sportsmen use in gunning. In his address, he alluded much to these ducks before him, and as well before the audience. At last, the patience of one of the English pundits could stand this no longer. He got up in some irritation at the offense to his intellect of speaking of ducks when there was only one duck in view. Would the learned gentleman be pleased to explain why he referred to ducks, thus plural, when there was only one duck in sight? He sat down well satisfied with exposing an American impostor who didn't know how to use the English language.

Thayer then gave a quick twist to a wooden duck, made invisible by his coloring, and the second bird was exposed in all its solidity. So was the English skeptic.