Grace Turnbull: an artful life Art: Baltimore Museum of Art will exhibit paintings and sculpture by Baltimore's multitalented artist.

May 26, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

When Baltimorean Grace Turnbull was in her 20s and already had considerable experience as an artist, she felt strongly that she should take a life class -- that is, study from the nude model -- in order to gain an understanding of the human body. But this was in the first decade of the century, and she knew it would upset her parents.

"Mother's objection I felt I could overcome," she wrote years later. "But she told me solemnly that if I carried out my intention of working in a life class it would kill Father."

She hesitated, but went ahead.

"I decided that I must take my life into my own hands then or never. As a matter of fact, my joining the life class appeared to have no malignant effect whatever upon my father."

Born in 1880 to a cultured, local family of wealth "where law, order and tradition reigned supreme," as she later remembered, Turnbull spurned convention to carve a career in art when that was a daring thing for a woman to do.

She led a highly original life as painter, sculptor and author. A small exhibit of her works, titled "Baltimore's Grace Turnbull," opens Wednesday at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

It shows that at her best Turnbull was the creator of accomplished and engaging works, especially in sculpture. It also reflects the fact that, despite her modern leanings in many ways, Turnbull, curiously enough, never embraced the leading movements in the art of her century and remained an essentially conservative artist.

As late as 1953, in her autobiography "Chips from My Chisel," she objected to the Baltimore Museum of Art's showing Matisse's "Blue Nude" of 1907 because in it "the human face and form have been subjected to such indignities with no compensatory gain in pure design or color."

By that time, she was in her 70s, destined to live two more decades, and well known locally for her opinions as well as her work.

As committed to abstinence as to art, she was fiercely opposed to alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea and cola drinks, and never served anything stronger than apple juice. An inveterate writer of letters to the newspapers, she once declared in a letter to The Sun that alcohol was responsible for 70 percent of crime.

She never married but loved children and young people, welcoming them often to the Guilford house and studio her architect brother Bayard designed to her requirements.

When she was 90, she wrote in another letter to The Sun: "We hear a great deal nowadays about the questionable doings of our young people, about the unbridgeable generation gap, etc. Most of my intimates are of college age or a bit older. I am conscious of no generation gap with them, for they have what most appeals to me, vital interest in some science or the arts, a zest for living and a goal in life too often lacking in the older generation."

She was not only generous with her hospitality, but also with her money. Painter Bennard Perlman, who knew her for the last 20 years of her life, recalls that she helped many young artists and musicians financially.

Charitable gifts

She gave to many charities as well. "The IRS called her in," recalls her niece, Frances Kidder, "because she gave away so much of her income they wouldn't believe it."

That part of her activity was as little known, however, as her crusade for abstinence was advertised, because she refused to discuss her generosity. Perlman once interviewed her on the radio, and brought up the subject, but she cut him short. "I'm not going to talk about that," she said. "You don't give assistance to talk about it."

Her personal life was frugal. She wore old clothes, owned one car -- a 1937 Ford that she drove into the 1960s -- and traveled, her niece says, "in a most unluxurious fashion."

A believer in civil rights, she opposed segregation and lent her support to educational efforts for African Americans.

She was intensely curious about the world's religions. A Christian herself, she studied the scriptures of non-Christian religions and published an anthology of them in 1929, titled "Tongues of Fire." Her niece recalls that at meals at her own house, instead of saying a conventional grace, she would quote a passage from one scripture or another. "She wanted us to think," Kidder says.

An accomplished linguist, Turnbull on a trip to Europe in 1902 kept a diary. In France she wrote it in French, in Germany she wrote it in German, in Italy she wrote it in Italian. Although her parents thought "Latin wasn't necessary for girls," she agitated for lessons until they permitted it.

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