In an excerpt from his forthcoming history book, Geoffrey Dunn cracks the mystery of talented local artist Lillian Howard
Each little plant has its purpose in living, and attends to that purpose with a single-hearted devotion beautiful to witness, if only we open our dull human eyes to see the marvels around us.
Beautiful Santa Cruz County, 1896
More than three decades ago—sometime in the late 1970s—I came across an absolutely amazing handcrafted booklet in the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, leather-bound and composed of little more than a handful of stunning images depicting California wild flowers and various natural landscapes from Santa Cruz County.
The oil-on-paper compositions were vibrant and delicately rendered—the luminescent orange of California poppies seemed to glow on the page—and touched something deep inside me. A pair of scenes—one of the coastline along West Cliff Drive and another of the San Lorenzo River carving through the Santa Cruz Mountains—provided images of the region’s past, the likes of which I had never before seen. To encounter these images was to fall back into Santa Cruz County history, to undergo a visceral connection with another time and place. It was an experience that I’ve never forgotten.
The title on the cover of the booklet was simply, “From California.” Inside was an introductory page, written in a fine calligraphy, which stated that the enclosed composition was a gift from Bart Burke to his “lifelong friend, Smith Griffith.” It was dated, “Santa Cruz, Calif., December 20, 1890.” The poetic verses that appeared inside were initialed by Burke, but several of the paintings themselves were signed “L.A.H,” with no further details.
Charles Prentiss, then the curator of the museum (and himself a masterful plein air artist), explained to me that the paintings in the booklet were those of Lillian A. Howard, a former Santa Cruz High School teacher and vice principal.
While Howard left behind a scattering of artistic footprints in the region, she left little concrete biographical evidence. Prentiss told me that she had reportedly been born in Maine, arrived in Santa Cruz sometime around 1895, and retired from teaching three decades later. She had contributed several pen-and-ink landscapes to Santa Cruz High School publications over the years, but he knew of no other watercolors or oil landscapes by her. What had happened to her after her retirement wasn’t known, nor where she had died. If she had left a collection of further work somewhere, it had been long forgotten.
Howard’s work as depicted in the museum’s booklet was so good, so professionally rendered, that it startled me that her biographical trail had turned into a dead-end. How could that have happened? How had she suddenly vanished from the cultural fabric of Santa Cruz? It was a historical mystery that perplexed, and, in some ways, haunted me for decades. What had happened to this remarkably talented woman? Who was she?
Anyone interested in early California art will eventually come into contact with Edan Milton Hughes, the Sherlock Holmes of California art history. His massive, two-volume opus, “Artists in California: 1786—1940” (the third edition was published in 2002), provides biographical information on more than 20,000 California artists, from the most famous to the equally obscure.
Hughes’ second edition contained a brief biographical sketch of Howard with roughly the same information that Prentiss had provided me. It included neither dates of birth nor death. But it contained one additional caveat: Howard had exhibited her work at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. This was stunning news. Santa Cruz painter Frank Heath, who had developed a national reputation, had also exhibited in Chicago. The fact that Howard had been selected to show her works there confirmed my initial assessment of her talent and prompted me to search further.
I contacted Hughes in San Francisco to see if I could look through his file on Howard; he graciously allowed me the opportunity. Sure enough, there was a mention of Howard in a list of artists having exhibited at the Columbian Exposition. Later on, Hughes provided me with another critical clue. He had discovered in a death index in Sacramento a notation that Howard had died in 1930, though not in California.
I spent months, and then years, trying to locate a death certificate for Howard in Maine, since that’s where she had reportedly been born. This was long before the advent of the Internet, when correspondence took place by mail and records had to be pored over by hand. I also spent time slogging through the microfilm of the local newspapers—The Daily Surf and Santa Cruz Sentinel—and through the pages of various Santa Cruz High School publications, The Trident and The Cardinal. Slowly, I began discovering bits and pieces about her life, along with a scattering of drawings.
The initial account I discovered about Howard, in the pages of the Santa Cruz Daily Surf on Dec. 27, 1890 (a week following the date appearing in the booklet that had originally captured my attention in the Natural History Museum), provided the first clear opening into Howard’s life and the prominent role she played in Santa Cruz’s early art scene. Under a small headline entitled simply “A Gem,” the article heralded the “Artistic Work of Miss Lillian A. Howard,” it says, “In the window of Scott & Ely’s furniture store [on Pacific Avenue] was seen yesterday an artistic piece of work from the brush of Miss Lillian A. Howard. It is a book of [eight] pages, … each page perfect in itself, all go to make a perfect whole … Mr. Bart Burke is the author of the poem which prettily names each flower, and the friend whom Mr. Burke remembers with this gift, will not receive a souvenir of lovelier conception and design than the one from Santa Cruz.”
I was a transcendent revelation. Fully a century before me, someone else had been so thoroughly taken with the booklet that they had composed a little news story around it in the Surf. Other discoveries ensued—about her contributions to the Columbian Exposition; about a trip to Alaska; about another to Egypt. And then came the biggest break of all. I discovered in a file at the Santa Cruz High Alumni office that she hadn’t been born in Maine, but rather in Indiana, and that she had died there, in Richmond, in April of 1930.
I sent for her death certificate. It provided a few additional clues. The cause of her death, at the age of 74, had been “bronchial pneumonia.” But an obituary in the Richmond Item, of April 6, 1930, and then another in the Santa Cruz Sentinel News on the same date began to fill out her life story. So did further research into the archives of several regional newspapers and publications. The Richmond Item article, in particular, noted, “When Miss Howard returned to Richmond she brought with her a great collection of watercolors depicting the flowers of California and the West, which were works of art of a high order and which also possess much botanical and historical value.” Surely these items could not have been discarded. Where were they?
In the spring of 1997, I decided to write a letter to the local paper, the Richmond Palladium-Item, requesting additional information on Howard in the hopes that there might be some surviving relative of hers in the vicinity. The editors kindly reprinted my letter as a news item.
A few weeks later, on my birthday, I received a type-written letter, addressed from Richmond, with an exciting bit of news:
Lillian A. Howard was my great-great aunt. I probably don’t know much about her than you do, but I was very surprised and pleased to see an inquiry about her.
We have several of her paintings. Most of them were painted in the late 1880’s in California, Oregon and Washington. However, there are also several painted in Alaska. Not all of her paintings are of wild flowers. There are many water scenes and landscapes…
The rest of my family and I would be very interested in hearing of your connection to our aunt. I hope we will hear from you in the future.
Sincerely, Barbara J. Eastman
This family connection in Indiana proved to be the Rosetta stone to the artist’s life. The mystery of Lillian Howard—and her amazing artistic oeuvre—had been solved. All of the disparate pieces of the puzzle finally came together.
Lillian Augusta Howard was born in Richmond, Ind., on Feb. 19, 1856. Both of her parents, Robert Anderson Howard and Eliza Wheeler Howard, were natives of Virginia and married there on Dec. 13, 1854. Because of their opposition to slavery, the Howards left Virginia the following year and settled in Richmond, where Robert Howard became city engineer in 1871.
By the time she reached her early twenties, the Howards’ eldest daughter, Lillian, had developed an independent and adventurous spirit. It’s uncertain precisely when she came west and settled in Santa Cruz—nor is it known what motivated her to do so—but one account has her leaving the family in Ohio and arriving here in 1881 at the age of 25. (Another has her arriving in 1882.) Soon thereafter she began teaching in the seventh grade at the old Mission Hill School, and later, at the newly constructed Santa Cruz High School (probably in the mid-1890s), where she taught a variety of courses, including botany, physics, geography, rhetoric, geometry, astronomy, English, and, eventually, art. In 1898, according to records kept by the Santa Cruz City Schools, she was paid an annual salary of $100.
From an early date, Howard merged her love of the outdoors, and, specifically, her love of botany with her artistic endeavors. Her earliest sketches here, dating back to 1883 in Boulder Creek, reveal a particular affinity for the varied wild flowers, coastal oak and redwood trees that populated the coastal plains and mountains of Santa Cruz County. She also took an interest in the region’s history, documenting many early architectural manifestations of Spanish, Mexican and Yankee rule. From the time of her composition of the California booklet in 1890, Howard, then 34 years old, was a prominent figure in the Santa Cruz artistic, educational and intellectual milieu.
While the epicenters of California’s bourgeoning plein air art movement were located in San Francisco and on the Monterey Peninsula, Santa Cruz was influenced by the gravities of both and eventually developed a satellite art scene of its own. The two leading figures in Santa Cruz were Frank L. Heath, the son of a prominent Santa Cruz businessman and politician; and Lorenzo Palmer Latimer, a native of the Sierra foothills and the son of a federal judge. Heath and Latimer had studied together at the San Francisco School of Design and both began teaching art classes in Santa Cruz, forming a coterie of students who became known as “The Jolly Daubers.”
Howard was a student of both Heath and Latimer and worked closely with each of her mentors; she also began teaching art classes of her own, in addition to her high school teaching duties, at her home on Highland Avenue. In a matter of a few years, she would achieve regional, statewide, and even national acclaim.
For the historic Santa Cruz visit of President Benjamin Harrison and his wife, Caroline, in May 1891, Howard had been selected to paint on a polished slab of redwood burl “redwood and cliff scenes and a bunch of eschscholzias [California poppies]” as a souvenir gift to the First Lady. The Surf noted that Howard’s work was “very finely done.”
Beginning as early as July 1883, Howard began work on a magnificent series of watercolors depicting western wild flowers native to the Pacific Rim—ranging from San Diego to the south all the way to Glacier Bay, Alaska, to the north. By the time of the celebrated World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, she had completed more than 400 of them, the vast majority (305) from California and many of them depicting plants found in Santa Cruz County.
The drawings were done in an almost scientific manner, yet Howard’s application of color, along with her artistic presentation and titling, rendered them far more attractive than most botanical sketches. Her collection was selected not only for the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, but also for a “dress rehearsal” in San Francisco. She was awarded a second-place medal in San Francisco and a “medal of merit” in Chicago, and afterward received recognition for her efforts from the California State Legislature.
In an article heralding her accomplishment headlined “A Floral Four Hundred,” the Surf declared Howard’s collection “magnificent,” while another in the San Francisco Call noted that “Miss Howard has done a great work in giving a birdseye view, so to speak, of the wonderful flowers of this coast. No one can fail to be as much struck with her industry as with her skill.”
Howard’s broad interests found her involved not only in art, but in a wide array of civic, educational and scientific endeavors. In the early 1890s she participated in the annual convention of the State Board of Agriculture, making a solo presentation entitled “Floral Culture, Wild Flowers and Ornamental Plants.”
In 1895, Howard was selected to design the ribbon for the annual Venetian Water Carnival that graced the San Lorenzo River. Again, Howard received recognition in the San Francisco Call for her work, which noted that Howard had “designed a very dainty and pretty badge, which has been accepted. The design is a gondola, with the natural bridge as a background, and will be printed in gold on a white ribbon.”
Howard also advocated before the State Board of Agriculture that the California Golden Poppy (Eschscholzia californica) be named the official state flower. She had brought one of her sketches of the Golden Poppy to Sacramento, a brilliantly colored and detailed rendition of the flower, dated May 1888, and composed in Santa Cruz. A motion was made on the floor in support of Howard’s position and adopted unanimously that the Golden Poppy be designated as the state flower.
Where Howard obtained her original college education remains uncertain. There are no records of her attending Mt. Holyoke, as previously speculated, or Earlham College, located in Richmond. Wherever she originally studied, Howard continued her education throughout her life. In addition to her artistic studies under Heath and Latimer, during the summer of 1894, she attended courses at the Leland Stanford Junior University Hopkins Marine Laboratory, located in Pacific Grove, enrolling in a program designed “for teachers or others who desire to become acquainted with marine animals and plants, and to learn the practical methods of their study.”
Howard was a featured contributor to the 1896 publication, “Beautiful Santa Cruz County,” by Phil Francis. She authored a popularly written article on what was clearly her favorite subject: “The Wild-flowers of the Hills and Dales of Santa Cruz County,” which noted that westward expansion and development in the County was beginning to have an impact.
“The surface of our county is so diversified that almost every genus of wild-flower common to our State may find a representative within its borders. The beaches, hillsides, swampy lands, mountains, and forests have been appropriated for ages by these early floral settlers. They have had their day of prosperity and increase, and must now, like other aborigines, make way for a new race. But their going is a slow one: They retire before the plow to nestle near the rocks, the streams, the fence corners of our fields.”
The “true joy” of the botanist, Howard asserted, comes to those who wander “day after day” in search of rare species. “Have you found a yellow columbine?” she asked. “Do you know the ‘snowy campion’? Have you seen the rhododendron growing on its native heath?…They may not be the rarest, but they will repay the enthusiast who takes time to live a few hours among things that know nothing but the free air and the heavens.”
Howard clearly brought this “true joy” of nature to all of her artistic and intellectual endeavors. She painted on a variety of surfaces—paper, leather, canvas and even shells. One of my favorite pieces in the Howard archive, rendered in a similar style and composition as the Natural History Museum notebook and which I purchased many years ago at a local antique shop, is a lovely miniature, on the interior surface of a large cockle of Fall Creek, painted some time near the turn of the century.
As I previously noted, the advent of the Internet has changed the terms of engagement in respect to historical research. Roughly a decade ago, I came across a collection of photographs for sale at auction that were being sold by the estate of Lorenzo Latimer. The collection, which I purchased, included numerous photographs from Santa Cruz and several from Yosemite. A letter tucked inside provided a clue to the source:
Dear Mr. Latimer:
Here is the new book of photographs. I have been rather slow about it because I wished to pick up some artistic bits that were around the town. I hope that you and Mrs. Latimer will enjoy them very much. The Yosemite views I put in because they are new views and I thought them good….I hope you had a pleasant summer.
Sincerely, Lillian A. Howard
During the 1890s, Howard had photographed an extensive series of landscapes and historical sites, carefully captioned them, and then bound them all together in a leather-covered book for her artistic mentor. The collection revealed that in addition to teaching, painting and writing, Howard was also a skilled and talented photographer. I later purchased a second collection of Howard’s photographs—also discovered for sale on Internet auction—similarly captioned, mounted and bound in leather, that also included some rare images of artists at work in Northern California during the 1890s.
The volumes contain several previously unseen views of Santa Cruz: an oxen team at Pogonip; several images from Big Creek and the North Coast; old barns; a lime kiln; several surf studies off West Cliff Drive; and a lovely portrait at sea of the SS Corona, which went aground off the coast of Eureka in 1907.
Howard’s photographs manifest a similar aesthetic found in several of her pen-and-ink sketches and small landscape watercolors—a medium-range perspective of natural settings and a fascination with old buildings and deteriorating infrastructure (adobe buildings, Chinatown, bridges, boat houses, flumes and kilns). It is because of her artistic vision and sensibilities that we can imagine what many aspects of 19th century Santa Cruz County actually looked like.
Throughout the first quarter of the 20th century, Howard continued her teaching work at Santa Cruz High School (eventually being named vice principal some time before 1909) and her varied artistic endeavors. Many of her sketches began appearing in both the Santa Cruz High Trident (then a bound monthly publication) and the annual yearbook, The Cardinal.
According to records at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., Howard applied for her first passport in January 1907. She listed her occupation as “teacher and artist.” She was 51 years old. She was listed as 5’ 6” tall, with “gray” eyes, a “straight” nose, a “round” face, “brown and gray” hair, a “medium” complexion, and a mouth that was “wide and full.”
In 1912 Howard embarked on a trip to Egypt, navigating along the River Nile and, once again, making a visual record of her journey. On her return to Santa Cruz, she made a presentation to a group called the King’s Messengers at the local Congregational Church. The Surf noted that she sketched frequently along her journey and took photographs of the pyramids, tombs and other Egyptian temples. She also traveled to Norway, Italy and Switzerland.
One of Howard’s students during her tenure at Santa Cruz High School, the late Harold Van Gorder, recalled that she was “authoritarian.” When classes let out, Van Gorder, who was a member of the class of 1921, remembered that Howard made her presence felt in the halls, “and she could make you feel guilty, even if you weren’t doing anything. She scared a lot of kids.” Once, however, when Van Gorder had a toothache, he recalled, “She put her arm around me. She had a heart.”
In 1919, Howard participated in the founding of the Santa Cruz Art League, which selected Howard’s early mentor, Frank Heath as its founding president. By then, Howard was 63, and the Art League’s dominant energy belonged to Margaret Rogers, then 47, who had also studied under Heath and Latimer, and who held sway over a small nucleus that would come to include several local painters, most notably Cor de Gavere, a recent immigrant from Holland, and Leonora Penniman, of the prominent local title company.
A 1921 inaugural Art League exhibit at the Seabright Gallery gave top billing to Rogers, whose work, according to the Santa Cruz Evening News, “show universal strength with a delicate blending of form and color,” while “Miss Howard has several charming pencil sketches in black and white.”
A few years later a retrospective look at Howard’s florals was held at both the Art League and at the Public Library, where “approximately 150 watercolors of native Pacific coast wild flowers” were on display at each venue. The “Society” column of the Santa Cruz Evening News made the following observation:
“Miss Howard’s work, always very perfect, is here shown at its best, as far as flowers go. She has, of course, done much beautiful work of a more imaginative nature. The present work has added value from the fact that she has been not only an instructor in art but in botany.”
In August 1925, as she approached her 70th birthday, Howard announced her resignation from Santa Cruz High School. It was noted in the Santa Cruz Evening News that “many of the best teachers of this locality and others received their preparation for teachers’ examinations from her.” The News went on to acknowledge her professionalism and acclaim as an artist as well, then noted “is understood that she will remain here, at least a part of the time, enjoying the leisure which she has so fully earned.”
Howard continued on as Secretary of the Art League into 1926, taking precise notes in an elegant hand and perfectly composed. Late in 1926, however, Howard returned to Richmond, for reasons which are uncertain, where she moved in with the family of her sister Isabel (“Belle”) Howard Horton and her. By then, her niece, Agnes Horton, had become an accomplished stage actress on Broadway. It is likely that Howard was not in good health. While her death certificate listed pneumonia as the “immediate cause of death,” it also recorded that she had been suffering from “senility & exhaustion.” Another account said she had been ill “for some time.”
Her death in the spring of 1930 resulted in front page headlines in both Santa Cruz and Richmond, reflecting the respect and admiration that she had earned over the years in both communities. The Richmond Item noted that Howard had won many “honors for the beauty and merit of her pictures,” while the Santa Cruz Sentinel heralded her teaching career in the city schools and her various contributions to art and scientific organizations in the region. “Her quiet demeanor, purity of life, gracious personality, intellectual greatness, pleasant smile and interest in her pupils and friends,” the paper concluded, “will never be forgotten by the many hundreds who knew her here as teacher and friend.”
Bits and pieces of Howard’s biography—and of her artwork—continue to emerge. That is the nature of historical research. It never arrives neatly bundled, wrapped in a bow. Persistence usually pays off. Patience, too. Only recently, while going through some catalogs of the statewide exhibits hosted by the Santa Cruz Art League during the late 1920s and early 1930s, I discovered that, for a brief period, the annual First Prize Award in watercolors had been named in Howard’s honor. By 1934, however, the practice had been abandoned, and the memory of Lillian Augusta Howard gradually faded from the local historical canvas.
Excerpted from the forthcoming “Santa Cruz Is in the Heart: Volume II,” by Geoffrey Dunn, to be published by the Capitola Book Company. An earlier version of this article appeared in the Museum of Art and History Journal, No. 6, edited by Joan Martin.