"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 28 – A Gap and a Gift

Bishop’s letter of 10 January 1957 appears to have been the last she wrote to Grace until September (at least none in the interim have survived). The reason for this gap was the trip Bishop mentioned she and Lota were going to take to the United States. As Brett Millier records, this trip was primarily to shepherd the translation of Mina Vida de Menia (The Diary of ‘Helena Morley’) through publication with Farrar, Straus and Cudahy. (p. 289)

Perhaps Grace wrote a letter to Bishop before they left for the US, on Bishop’s urging. She hoped she would hear from her aunt: “maybe I’ll get more [letters] if you keep working nights.” And closed by saying she hoped to see her “in 1957.”

They arrived in New York on 31 March. The visit lasted six months and included side trips to Maine, Massachusetts and Florida. It was a whirlwind of reconnecting with many friends, of onerous work with the publisher on page proofs, and witnessing the changes that had happened in America since she left in 1951. Grace was nursing in New England and as a result she and Bishop managed to catch what Bishop called a “glimpse” of each other, their first direct meeting in a decade. During this stretch, however, it seems that Grace returned to Nova Scotia (indeed, Grace seemed to be far more nomadic than Bishop in the 1950s). It is evident from Bishop’s next letter, however, that Grace continued to write to her niece during this stretch of time.

Bishop’s next extant letter to Grace is dated 16 September 1957, and was written in New York at the apartment she and Lota rented at 115 East 67th Street. Bishop had recently returned from a week-long stay with Marjorie Stevens in Florida. She told Grace, “I took your letter down to Key West with me and then never did get a chance to answer it, and while I was away your postcard came.” At some point, either during their brief visit or in subsequent correspondence, Grace offered her niece a precious gift: two family portraits, one of Bishop’s mother, Gertrude Bulmer Bishop, and one of her uncle, Arthur Bridges Bulmer, painted sometime in the late 1880s, one in Grace’s possession and the other in Mabel Bulmer’s (Arthur’s wife) possession.
(Gertrude Bulmer, circa late 1880s. Painter unknown.)
Bishop opens her letter unequivocally, “I’d love to have that portrait of my mother — I’ve wanted it, as you know, for years.” Much of their discussion about this subject related to the logistics of getting the paintings to Bishop: how much the postage would be, how much to insure them for, and what the customs duty might be. Bishop stated strongly that she would be willing to pay whatever the cost, and added, “Thank Aunt Mabel for me. It seems a shame to break the pair … and tell her I do appreciate it.”
(Arthur Bridges Bulmer, circa late 1880s. Painter unknown.)
These portraits reached Bishop before she and Lota left the US in early October (“Our freighter is now sailing on … the 8th.” As Millier writes, they accompanied “the seven trunks, four wooden boxes, four large crates, three barrels, and twenty-six pieces of luggage that Elizabeth and Lota” took back to Brazil. (p. 293) These portraits triggered one of Bishop’s most detailed word portraits of a member of her maternal family, her memoir “Memories of Uncle Neddy.” She re-framed the paintings and hung them in the house at Samambaia. She brought them back when she left Brazil in the late 1960s.

During their brief meeting, Grace gave Bishop another gift: “I like that little photograph you gave me so much.” Since both knew the content of the photo, it of course did not need to be described (how frustrating!). Lota liked it, too, because Bishop notes that she “found a very pretty oval gold frame for it — well, brass with some gold wash, but it looks very nice!”

These family mementos meant a great deal to Bishop. The portraits would have hung initially in her grandparents’ home, though by the time she came along, the one of Arthur perhaps had already migrated across the road to her uncle’s house. The memoir she wrote focused on her uncle because she had already written and published “In the Village,” a powerful word portrait of her mother. “Memories of Uncle Neddy” is full to the brim of vivid memories and details of this man and his family, of the village itself.

What happened to these portraits?
When Bishop died in 1979, Alice Methfessel inherited the bulk of Bishop’s estate, including the portraits, which she kept for the rest of her life. When Alice died in 2009, her partner Angela Leap inherited Alice’s estate, including the Bishop materials she retained (part of which was a filing cabinet with a cache of letters, some of Bishop’s own paintings, a George W. Hutchinson painting, which triggered “Poem,” and the portraits). Leap sold the contents of the filing cabinet to Vassar College. She commissioned rare book dealer James Jaffe to help her sell all the artwork. I spent well over a year trying to raise awareness and funds to repatriate the portraits and the “Poem” painting. Regretfully, I failed.

In December 2011, the Tybor de Nagy gallery in New York City opened an exhibition of Bishop paintings and memorabilia, “Objects and Apparitions.” It included the portraits and the “Poem” painting. The latter sold. But the portraits did not. Frustratingly, I have now lost track of where they are.

The next post will be pressed for time.

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