By Jim Rosenthal
James Swann was born on a ranch near Merkel, Texas on July 31, 1905. He attended Sul Ross College in Alpine, Texas and graduated in 1927. After graduation, he worked for an engraving company in Amarillo and Fort Worth. By 1931 he had completed his first etching and had moved to Dallas.
In 1933 he visited the Century of Progress Exposition (World’s Fair) in Chicago where he met Bertha Jaques, Secretary of the Chicago Society of Etchers, and Morris Henry Hobbs, a well known artist and etcher. Both became good friends. In 1936, he moved to Chicago to apprentice with Hobbs and never left. Chicago became his adopted home and he embraced everything the big city had to offer.
He lived in a series of apartments until 1952 when he purchased a house in the Mid-North area of Chicago which he named “Swann Acres.” The “Acres” part of the name was a figment of his vivid imagination (and sense of humor). At best, it is 1/4th of an acre and sits on a corner lot in this now upscale community.
This neighborhood was perfect for Swann. Everything he needed on a daily basis was in easy walking distance. The houses were spacious and comfortable. Many were in less than perfect condition. Housing prices were low – especially if you were willing to put in some “sweat equity.” Many young, community minded people were moving into the area. And the “new” people were eager to meet other “new” people which created a great environment for making friends. And friends were always an important part of James “Jimmie” Swann’s life.
Several years ago while on a business meeting to Chicago, I visited “Swann Acres.” The address of 400 Webster Avenue is mentioned in the Joseph Czestochowski book “James Swann In Quest of a Printmaker.”
James Swann enjoyed everything about his new home and he quickly set about transforming it into a showpiece. He remodeled every room in the house and converted the basement into a gallery where he sold his and other artists’ prints. At one point, he had 20,000 prints in his inventory. He was very proud of the fact that he always made his living from the sale of prints – either his or those of other artists.
He was helped by the fact that he served as the secretary-treasurer of the Chicago Society of Etchers from 1937-1946 and then held the same position with the Prairie Print Makers from 1947-1966. He was friends with many of the leading print makers of this era and represented their work.
His living room with its wall of bookshelves, fireplace and fine art was his favorite room in the house and where he spent most of his time. He was an avid reader as can be judged by his book collection. Unlike some home libraries, his books were chosen for content – not for gold embossed leather covers.
The house had a small backyard (patio) which Swann converted into a “Japanese Garden.” He spent many hours enjoying it. Swann’s Japanese Garden was well known in this community – not only because many of his neighbors were welcome visitors – but also because it was featured in the Chicago Daily News and was a frequent stop on the Mid-North Garden Walk.
The garden was a masterpiece in its use of limited space to create a comfortable and elegant environment. One of Swann’s favorite activities was entertaining friends with a Japanese tea party.
A comment from an earlier post on this blog http://www.inpraiseofprints.com/james-swanns-views-of-chicago-then-and-now/ from Elizabeth Porch gives an idea of the Swann hospitality:
“Jimmie Swann was a family friend. I spent a number of afternoons in his Japanese garden while my parents, Jim (another Chicago artist) and Muriel Hvale, and Jimmie Swann visited. I loved reading your short biography. As a child, there were many things I did not know about him.”
(For a more detailed description of Swann’s love for trees and their inclusion in most of his etchings see the article by Dr. Victoria Cummins – James Swann in West Texas: An Artist in the Making at Sul Ross in the West Texas Historical Association Year Book – October 2012)
Swann Acres is close to the “Old Town” area of Chicago. In 1950 a group of Old Town residents started the Old Town Art Fair. The Fair is still thriving. In 2018 it was selected as the “#1 Art Fair in America” for the fourth straight year. Jimmie Swann was an early and constant participant in the event. This is not surprising since it included three of the elements that were most important in his life – 1. art, 2. involvement/participation and 3. neighborhood (friends).
Probably as a result of his participation in the Old Town Art Fair, he created several etchings with an “Old Town” theme. (After all, what would sell better to Fair goers than etchings of their own neighborhood?) Three of his best were Lincoln Park West (1963), 1828 Lincoln Park West (Date unknown) and Old Town Street (1969).
In the early 1960’s the bi-weekly magazine – Scene: A Critical Guide to Leisure and the Arts in Chicago – did a feature story on Jimmie Swann. The article begins with the statement that he had never sold a print for more than $18. Of course, he made many prints from the same etched plate. The point was that making and selling etchings was not a lucrative endeavor. However, Swann made enough money to be able to travel extensively. He visited most of the countries of Europe, China, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Peru and Chile. He was also able to visit Japan many times and see the art and the gardens he admired and recreated in Chicago.
(I would like to thank Sean Ulmer, Executive Director, of the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art for allowing me to work with the James Swann Archives. The Museum is an excellent steward of the Swann papers, records and photographs. Their assistance is much appreciated.)
Morris Matson says
Jim, I’m totally impressed with your scholarship and ability to write interesting biographical material. Keep it up. Let’s get together. Been too long.
Jim Rosenthal says
Thanks. I am glad you enjoyed the piece. There are lots of good stories of the print makers of this era. It is fun to be able to tell them and a bonus that you find them interesting. Thanks for the support and encouragement. Jim
Victoria Cummins says
I very much enjoyed this blog posting on James Swann. He did a 1934 PWAP mural which still hangs today in the Red River Historical Museum in Sherman, Texas. I have written several historical articles about the PWAP which note his participation in that program. My husband and I have been collecting Jimmie Swann prints for quite a while, having loaned some to Sul Ross several years ago for a retrospective exhibit there. I appreciate your citing my article on James Swann in West Texas. I’m currently working an article on the prints of Caddo Lake artist Don Brown. As someone interested in historical prints, I am very impressed with your website — Victoria H. Cummins, A. M. Pate Professor of History, Austin College.
Jim Rosenthal says
Thanks. I am glad you enjoyed the article. Jimmie Swann was a friend of my father and grandfather. When he moved to Chicago, he worked with Morris Henry Hobbs at Tree Studios. Swann and Hobbs were in studio 21. My grandfather’s studio was across the hall in studio 20. We are also collectors of Jimmie Swann prints. All of the prints shown on this website are from our collection. Your article on Swann and Sul Ross is excellent and gives a great perspective on his early art career. I look forward to reading your article on Don Brown. Thanks again, Jim
Staci Lawrence says
I have the etching, “Swann Acres”. It was a gift my mother received from a friend when she lived in Chicago. Thank you for sharing about this man and his work.
Jim Rosenthal says
According to the Joseph Czestochowski book on James Swann and his work entitled “In Quest of a Printmaker” the Drypoint “Swann Acres” was produced in a small edition of 26. The plate was then steel faced and reissued as a Christmas card. There was no record of the number of Christmas cards Swann produced. I saw one of the “originals” at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. I think the one I own is one of the Christmas cards. Both are excellent prints printed by Swann. I know you will continue to enjoy the print that you received from your mother and am glad that the article provided the back story for you.
Adria Hall says
I enjoyed the article and the comments. I have a very sad James Swann story to tell you and anyone who may read this post.
My husband and I married in 1992 and moved to Lincoln Park. Sadly, we just missed crossing paths with Mr. Swann.
My mother owned an etching called “Swann Acres” I always admired. One day while walking on Webster, it struck me that a row house I loved was in fact “Swann Acres.” After that, we started looking for and acquiring any James Swann etching we found.
After almost 30 years of marriage, we own 56 James Swann etchings. They hung in the long hall entryway of our condominium. All of our family and friends really enjoyed them. We loved seeing them every day.
Last February, we rented our large condo and moved to the shores of Lake Michigan in Indiana. We carefully wrapped and stored all of our art work including our James Swann collection. We stored our better furniture and our artwork at an indoor, temperature controlled, staffed storage facility in Evanston, IL. We already had a storage locker there on the first floor but we requested the 2nd floor for the more valuable belongings.
On Dec 29, 2021 the storage locker was burgled. The thieves broke into 24 lockers by renting a locker on line and receiving an access code giving them after office hours access. Along with three oil paintings and 8 Moses Harris botanicals, all of our James Swann etchings are gone.
We are sick. It’s like a death. If you or an of your readers come across someone selling a large group of James Swann etchings for sale, please alert me. All the pieces were professionally cleaned (stabilized not bleached), matted and framed in various versions of black and silver leaf. The frames all have Joel Oppenheimer framers on the back of the framed etchings.
I have photos as well. Truly, we feel like someone died.
Jim Rosenthal says
This is indeed a sad story. I have “James Swann” in my searches for all auctions and ebay. I have seen nothing that matches your description. However, I will look for any pieces that might have been stolen from you and your husband. Hopefully, other print collectors will do the same. It would be great if the print collector community could help you recover your art.
Jim Rosenthal says
This “Stolen Swann Etchings” story has a relatively happy ending. Through some pretty impressive detective work, all but one of the missing etchings are now back with the original owner. Nice Work!
Adria Hall says
Thanks so much Jim. As soon as I complete my insurance claim, I will try to set up a link and post photos of what I hope to recover.
I am so confused by this theft. Art is so personal. Why would anyone the art that means something to my husband and me? I appreciate other peoples’ art but I don’t want it. And where would they sell it? Pawn shop? For what? Pennies on the dollar.
Thanks again for the support!
Peter Magee says
Jim….I knew Swann…Mr Swann…Jim….in the 70s and 80s while a young Chicago exec.. from Swann and his friends Bunny & Dan Korbelac I acquired about 22 of his self framed etchings. I am now retired and trimming down. Sadly most have left the long gallery in my chicago brownstone and are in my Palm Springs garage dreaming of a new life. Your writer who lost her collection to G.D. thieves caught my eye. I’d be interested in chatting with you in that regard.
Peter Magee (760)218-4441…
Joanne Gajentan says
Enjoyed reading the story of James Swann!
We inherited a few etchings that were for my husband’s Aunt and Uncle. They lived in Itasca, Ill. According to my husband, Uncle Jimmy was at their home during many Christmas holidays. I’m trying to research what we have, so our children understand the importance of these vintage etchings.
The “Willow” is signed by James Swann to Tom and Gertrude. We have a Christmas card, an “Itasca Church”, also signed for the Aunt and Uncle. Plus, their Itasca house in the winter, again to Tom and Gertrude. And one more.
*When etchings are dedicated to someone, how does that change the value?
We also have “Monday Morning-Chicago” by Morris Henry Hobbs.
Stow Wengenroth x3, Robert Von Neumann x2, Anna Sandhills Ray x4, “Going Home” by Leslie Cope, “Jonathan” by Margaret Ann Gaug, and “Banks Fisherman” by Gordon Grant. We enjoy them all!
We’d so appreciate your thoughts. We’re in the Tampa Bay Area. I will send pictures if you need them.
Thank you so much..
Jim Rosenthal says
I am glad you enjoyed the article on James Swann. I can tell you quite a bit about the prints you own. Most of it comes from the excellent book on Swann by Joseph Czestochowski.
It is so interesting that your husband grew up in Itasca. So did I. My Dad owned Metcalf Printers. I went to school in the Itasca Public Schools and Lake Park High School. (1966) Swann’s print of the “Itasca Church” captures this well-known landmark.
Most of the prints you have are from an organization called the Prairie Print Makers. Swann was the Secretary-Treasurer of the organization for a number of years. Willow is the Presentation Print for 1953. The Wengenroths, Von Neumanns, Cope, Gaug and Grant are also Presentation Prints. There is another article in my blog on this group.
Morris Henry Hobbs was in a business partnership with my Grandfather. Your piece was printed in 1935. It is very possible that my Grandfather printed it.
I urge you to read other articles in this Blog. There are a number of articles that will give you some additional background information on your prints.
A dedication on a print normally does not add value.
I would like to hear more about your husband’s connection to Itasca.
Thanks again for the comment.