by Louise E. Wright
Fortunate is the individual who, at the age of 87, can look back and say, “I’ve had a very happy life.” Chester County painter Philip Jamison is one of the lucky few. Best known for his watercolors, Jamison is also a discerning collector with a particular eye for local artists. Two upcoming exhibitions at the Woodmere Art Museum celebrate his work, both as collector and creator.
The larger of the exhibitions, The Philip Jamison Collection, presents over 100 works, most of which the collector has promised to bequeath to the Woodmere. Dating as far back as the early-20th century, they include prints and paintings by such renowned Philadelphia artists as Arthur B. Carles, Earl Horter and Benton Spruance.
Jamison began collecting in the 1980s, buying what he liked while keeping investment potential in mind. Over the years he has sold some things in order to buy others. Four or five loose leaf binders filled with details of the transactions speak to the quantity of works that have passed through his hands.
Describing Carles as “America’s most exciting painter,” Jamison recalls his first encounter with the Chestnut Hill artist’s work. At the Janet Fleisher Gallery, where he himself was having “a one-man show,” he spotted an oil and, unfamiliar with Carles, asked Fleisher, “Who is he?” Still intrigued two weeks later, he took the painting home, paying for it out of the proceeds of his own sales. Later on, profit from the sale of a house netted Jamison four more Carles. “I wasn’t going to invest in stocks,” he declares. “I was going to invest in something I knew about.”
On viewing Jamison’s collection, Woodmere director and CEO William R. Valerio immediately recognized its significance. “It tells the story of the development of art in Philadelphia through the eyes of an artist,” he emphasizes.
Convinced of the importance of preserving the collection, Valerio urged Jamison to consider making such a provision. Ultimately the collector decided on a “promised gift” of 84 works to the museum. “I want them to remain as a collection,” Jamison explains, “and the Woodmere collects what I collect.”
Included in the “promised gift” is a 1969 Jamison self-portrait, an exciting addition to the large number of self-portraits the Woodmere owns. “Self-portraits say so much about artists,” Valerio observes, “and how the artist sees himself in relation to the world.” The portrait forms part of the exhibition of Jamison’s own work, “Philip Jamison Watercolors: The Spirit of Chester County.”
More a survey than a retrospective, a word the artist shies away from, the two dozen paintings on display span more than five decades. The earliest date to Jamison’s student days at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art (now part of the University of the Arts) and include his only commercial job, a cover design for Lillian Budd’s novel “April Snow.” When Lippincott Publishing rejected it, Jamison recalls, “I got disgusted.” The research required for such work, he declares, “bored the hell out of me. I couldn’t spend my life doing that. Instead, I turned to painting.”
And paint he did. Since 1958, Jamison has supported himself as a full-time artist. He attributes his success to a combination of talent, luck and demand. “An artist has to have ability,” he acknowledges, “but there are little tiny things that change your entire life, and they have with me.”
In the late 1950s, for example, friend and fellow Chester County artist Barclay Rubincam asked Jamison if he planned to send any work to an art show in Wilmington’s Hotel du Pont. Only on second thought did Jamison submit two watercolors. They sold before he returned home, and he was asked for more; in one weekend, he sold almost two dozen paintings.
The artist also owes his association with Hirschl and Adler Galleries of New York City to a “little tiny thing.” Delivering a painting to another of the artist’s friends, Norman S. Hirschl noticed one of Jamison’s watercolors and suggested Jamison get in touch with him. As a result, the gallery represented Jamison for about 25 years, hosting nine of his solo exhibitions and selling all but 11 of the paintings he sent it.
For almost six decades, the artist’s subject matter has remained essentially the same: the landscapes and flowers of Pennsylvania, especially the West Chester area, and of Maine, where he and his family spent summers on the island of Vinalhaven.
Raised in West Chester, Jamison married former first-grade classmate Jane Gray in 1950. The couple raised their family in the area, settling first in an old stone house outside of town before moving back to West Chester proper. “We’ve been here all our lives,” he says. “I don’t like to travel.” In fact, it was only last March that he ventured outside the U.S. for the first time, staying with a friend near Guadalajara, Mexico.
Jamison’s watercolors of the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz launch are a notable exception to his usual subject matter. Approached by NASA, he accepted the commission because, as he puts it, “it was a job.” Arriving at the Kennedy Space Center, however, he saw nothing he wanted to paint. “I kept looking around for daisies,” he chuckles, alluding to the flower that, he admits, “is kind of what I’m known for.” Ultimately, Jamison found the project fascinating. The enthusiasm of the scientists was infectious, and he recognized they were as involved in their work as he was in his.
Jamison attributes the appeal of the daisy — coincidentally his mother’s first name — to its simplicity, a concept he considers the cornerstone of all artistic endeavor. “To be good,” he maintains, a work of art, “no matter how complex, has to have simplicity to it.” He gravitates toward a muted palette and prefers to paint “the landscape in winter.”
Valerio describes Jamison as “one of the great artists of Chester County,” a county that boasts the Wyeth family as part of its artistic heritage. He also considers Jamison “one of the great watercolorists of the 20th century,” an assessment he may have to reword, for the artist continues to create. “I don’t do the big watercolors I used to,” Jamison admits, “but I’ve been working on a lot of smaller paintings.”
Both exhibitions run from January 26 through May 5. On Saturday the 26th, Woodmere Art Museum hosts a free open house from 1 to 4 p.m. More information at www.woodmereartmuseum.org
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