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.)