Francis W. Edmonds papers  1780-1917 (bulk 1825-1863)
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Biography

Francis Edmonds divided his life between the art and banking worlds and came to be well-known and respected in both. As his dual career developed, ties were formed between these two seemingly disparate arenas, as artist colleagues and New York art associations benefited from his business skills, and friends from the business world were inspired to become patrons of the arts. Although Edmonds at times expressed regret that the necessity of earning a living kept him from devoting his life to art, he applied himself to banking with an energy and ambition that would not have seemed possible if there had not been a genuine interest there, as well. He was a complex man who managed to make the most of his varied talents.

The seventh child of Samuel Edmonds and Lydia Worth Edmonds, Francis was born in Hudson, New York on November 23, 1806. His father, a store-keeper, served in the state assembly and as county sheriff, then became Paymaster-General of the New York State Militia during and after the war of 1812. The boy showed a precocious talent for drawing and devoted all his leisure time to it, improvising on art supplies and technique. Visitors to the household were impressed with his work and took him on sketching trips to the Catskills and Niagara Falls. His parents gave some thought to apprenticing young Francis to an engraver, but the fee was too high, and he went to work on a farm after school ended. In 1823 Edmonds' uncle Gorham Worth, cashier of the Trademen's Bank in New York City, offered him a position as under clerk. Except for a brief period in the insurance business, he worked in banking for the next 32 years.

For some time Edmonds had no time for drawing and painting, but in 1826 began to attend night classes at the newly established National Academy of Design (N.A.D.). His work was well-received and he began to make contacts in the New York art world, doing paid work for engravers. In 1830 Edmonds moved back to Hudson for a position as cashier at the Hudson River Bank. Here he married Martha Norman and became father of two children, then moved his family to New York City, where he became cashier for the Leather Manufacturers Bank. Once again Edmonds did professional engraving for bank note companies while working as a banker. His painting, however, had suffered from the lay-off of his busy years in Hudson. Between the demands of job and family Edmonds managed lessons with artist William Page, whose sense of color he admired. Encouraged by the results of his renewed efforts, he prepared a small painting, "Sammy the Tailor," for the 1836 N.A.D. exhibit -- but insecurity led him to enter the work under an assumed name. Much to his surprise it was a hit, and Edmonds' painting career revived. Each succeeding year he produced two or three works for exhibit, and in 1840 was named a full member of the Academy (he had been an associate member since 1829).

Meanwhile, life became even more complicated. In 1839 Edmonds changed jobs for a challenging position as cashier of the troubled Mechanics' Bank, became treasurer of the Apollo Association (a society for the popular promotion of art), and in 1840 served on a committee which untangled the affairs of the Manhattan Bank. In January of 1840 his wife died of consumption. By fall he had suffered a nervous breakdown, and at the advice of doctors left for an extended vacation in Europe. It turned out to be the experience of a lifetime. Traveling in Italy, France and England with artist friends Asher Durand, John Kensett, Thomas Rossiter, and John Casilear, Edmonds finally had the opportunity to devote himself to the study and practice of art. He visited public and private collections, sketched and painted from nature and models, copied from works of the old masters, visited artists' studios, and for seven months immersed himself in sightseeing and in the European art scene.

Returning to New York, Edmonds remarried, to Dorothea Lord, in fall of 1841. During the next fifteen years he became a senior member of both the art and banking worlds, forming new connections and extending personal influence in both. He served as director of several companies and lobbied for banking legislation in Albany while continuing in his position at Mechanics' Bank. With other banking leaders he established the New York Clearing House, a central agency for the settling of daily bank balances. In 1854 Edmonds was appointed New York City Chamberlain, a position which permitted his bank to use city funds in making loans without having to pay interest on the deposits.

Continuing to work for the promotion of art, he became a director of the American Art-Union, recast from the Apollo Association. Along with Samuel F.B. Morse and Asher Durand he served as executive of the N.A.D., which expanded its activities and ambitions. With a group of fellow New York artists he founded the Artists' Sketch Club as a spin-off of a larger group which also included authors and patrons of the arts in its membership. This organization led to the formation of the Century Club. With his friend Jonathan Sturges, merchant and artistic patron, Edmonds helped to establish the New-York Gallery of the Arts and exhibited paintings there. At the behest of publishers, he also wrote for newspapers and periodicals on art and art exhibitions, and at some point in his life produced an autobiography (unpublished) with many details of the early New York art scene.

Amid all this activity, and with a growing family, Edmonds continued producing 2 to 3 paintings a year. These were exhibited at Apollo and N.A.D. shows and one, The Image Pedlar, was shown at the Royal Academy in London through the efforts of Edmonds's friend George Putnam. In 1850 his painting The New Scholar was engraved and distributed to members of the Art-Union as a premium. That same year Edmonds moved his family to nearby Bronxville, N.Y., where he had constructed an elaborate Gothic cottage, "Crow's Nest."

In 1855 Edmonds' carefully arranged world collapsed. His banking and business activities had become so complex that the boundaries between personal and professional interests blurred. In the mid-nineteenth century banking world accounting methods were loose, the making of loans often a quasi-personal matter rather than a rigidly defined institutional one. In taking advantage of this kind of situation, Edmonds was apparently no different from other bankers of his time, and thought nothing of it. But he had the misfortune to get into a personal conflict with the bank president, and waiting in the wings was an assistant cashier who aspired to become cashier. Edmonds was charged with embezzlement and newspapers printed the accusation. Whether or not the charges could be substantiated, the publicity ruined his career, and he resigned his position, although continuing as a director of the bank.

After a brief withdrawal from professional life, Edmonds took up an old activity which had combined his business and artistic talents, the engraving of bank notes. With Alfred Jones and James Smillie he formed the Bank Note Engraving Company in 1857. The next year the American Bank Note Company began to absorb most of its competition, and the three men sold out under favorable terms. Edmonds became director and secretary of the larger company and contributed original drawings for engravings. This turned out to be the last stop in his professional career. All the while he continued painting and exhibiting. The American Art-Union had dissolved due to legal problems in 1852, but Edmonds' association with the N.A.D. continued until 1860, when he and Asher Durand withdrew from active involvement after becoming frustrated by internal politics. By this time a group of New York artists had organized the Artists' Fund Society and held exhibitions of their work, so Edmonds continued to have a regular public showing of his paintings. He died in Bronxville on February 7, 1863, probably of heart failure.