September 2021

New York City

Autobiographical Notes

Yardley of London moved their operations to New York City sometime around the outbreak of the Second World War. Thorton Gardner, the Managing Director was moved there along with other staff, including Reco and Katharine Capey. The precise date of the company move is unclear. Reco and Katharine appear on the passenger list for the SS Champlain (CGT French Line), on a voyage from Southampton to New York departing 17th September 1938, a year before the outbreak of war, but whether they returned to England after that, and settled in the US later, is not known. The understanding in Katharine’s family was that Reco and Katharine ‘got stuck’ in the United States because of the war, rather than that they had moved there as a result of the war in Europe.

Katharine’s surviving correspondence from New York to her family back home does not start until August 1940. Her early letters give her address as Yardley, 620 Fifth Ave, NYC, and then later as 400, East 53rd Street, where she and Reco lived.

There is very little in Katharine’s surviving correspondence about Yardley, apart from the occasional mention of Thorton and Mrs Gardner, and of Reco’s work there. However, in a letter to her brother, Richard, dated 1 March 1945, she alludes to some personal problems she has been experiencing and says:

“You know I have sufficient horse-sense to step out of it myself - these inward battles are terrible but there is an answer in work - & this I've realized & have taken a job as Reco's assistant again at Yardley. To be truthful I don't like it - for I've outgrown this kind of work - I've no longer the patience to think it an ardent necessity any longer - but it does keep me occupied.”

This suggests that Katharine may not have been working at Yardley herself for some time.  She was, however, very busy with her own art work, in particular her ‘appliqués’ as she called the paper paintings or collages that had become her speciality. The first mention of these comes in a letter dated September 1941, when she is telling her brother Richard about the work she and Reco have managed to do whilst resident at the MacDowell colony:

“I’m sorry I cannot show you the work Reco and I did at the Colony - for we did not bring our camera... There is only one snapshot I have of “self” which I can send (and will send when I have it enlarged) which was taken by friends of ours when we were up there (MacDowell Colony)... I did 6 paper appliqués when I was there (not bad for a month) & have ideas for 6 more.

In 1943 Katharine says she has been ‘amassing (her) appliqués’, and in a letter dated 1 December of that year, there is the first mention of a solo exhibition, and of the subjects she was working on:

“I expect you are wondering about my exhibition - well it’s all planned now, & I'm working like a beaver to get enough work done - its going to be in Philadelphia from February 26 to March 11 (1943), and I have to have 25 pieces - of which I have about 20 already.

I could do 5 easily in a month at the colony, but here if I do one a fortnight I'm extremely lucky for I have to do all the silly jobs like keeping the house respectable, washing, ironing & mending, doing odd entertaining etc which take up so much time & energy (& how wasteful I think time so spent is!).

I did think I had plenty of appliqués already for a small exhibition - that is to say they took up so much space up under the bed that I could have sworn I had hundreds! - so when Reco arranged for me to have the exhibition & explained how many I had to have, & I actually came down to counting them I really went into a flat spin, for I found that I only had 17 that were presentable.

I have done 4 this month, all of which I'm quite pleased with - a bouquet of flowers grasped in a pair of hands - a décor of Shelley's song "music when soft voices die vibrates in the memory" - the largest I've done here 2ft by 3ft) a decoration of the ballet - Haraquin (sic) & Colombine with Pierot behind seen through curtains* - & my latest from Walt Whitman's the mystic trumpeter. (You'd better get some poetry books out of the library to keep up with me!)

This last one I certainly would not have chosen as a subject myself - as it has no obvious tangible pictures in it (being nebulous and mystical) - but one of our friends here has set it to music for the most wonderful choral society in New York - his composition is having its first performance in February too - so he thought it would be wonderful to give Walt Whitman's really beautiful poem a real break & have it burst out in Philadelphia about the same time  - when you read it you'll see how hard it was for me in my medium & how comparatively easy it was for Norman** in his musical one. It is in W.W.'s Songs of Independence (or in his collected works).  Reco thinks I've been quite clever to keep the air of mystery & and yet to keep the 'blast of the trumpet' motive (sic) and yet make it readable!”

The Ballet, named erroneously as ‘Clown and Jester’

* This picture, named erroneously as ‘Clown and Jester’ was sold in an auction at the Stair Gallery in Hudson, New York, in October 2020 for $100!

** this would have been Norman Dello Joio, who composed such a setting to this poem around this time.  He was born in 1913 and became an eminent and prolific composer, winning the Pulitzer Prize and other prizes for music. He died in 2008.

Katharine was clearly having considerable success with her paper paintings in this period. She recounts having publicity photographs taken through the Art Alliance, an interview with ‘International News’ magazine, including a number of photos of her work, and a published feature in ‘Pic’ magazine, all in 1944. Katharine also refers to ‘3 of my appliqués (being) sent to Los Angeles’ to see if there is a market for them in that city.

September 12 1944

In 1945, Katharine’s work was clearly causing a stir in New York City. A letter from that year conveys some of this:

“...people have been egging me on to have an exhibition - Well, you know how half-witted I am about the practical economical side - like Mr Micawber I wait till something turns up - & something did. First an Art Contact man saw some of them & practically went berserk, which absolutely amazed me - it was like watching an unknown specimen from Mars because I cannot understand this enthusiasm for my work - then an Art Director from a big Advertising Firm saw it & has being (sic) ringing Reco up daily expressing his excitement (please note its Reco they deal with - my enthusiasm goes to other fields & has no voice in expressing delight in my own work which I know could be vastly improved & this dampens  their ardour - so they like to talk to Reco who after all can be impersonal). These two have arranged an exhibition for me, & all I have to do is produce the work.  Sounds like easy street doesn't it - but this enthusiasm is hard to live up to - making the Gallery people wild to cancel all their other exhibits & have mine in their stead - making the weeks get smaller & smaller to produce the other 10 appliqués which they demand. I do hope this letter doesn't make you as nervous as I feel...”

This apparently refers to Katharine’s solo exhibition at the Argent Galleries, New York City, which took place the following year, in 1946. The process of putting this together clearly caused a lot of excitement but also anxiety. She describes this in two letters home dated November 1945 and then January 1946. At this point there are clear indications that her relationship with Reco has broken down:

“First in importance (at least to me!) is my N.Y. Showing - At the Argent Galleries on 57th Street (the Gallery Street) Feb 18 - Mar 2. How I wish you'd be here for the ??? - how proud I'd feel!

At present I'm all of a do-dah about my exhibition. About the pictures themselves I have no particular feeling of cold feet - as they're the expression of myself the best I can do - & they live or die on that - but the business part of it - advertising - publicity - press notices etc is a nightmare to me. I'm already white-enough-haired & have put on an awful lot of weight - (dear old middle age spread!) - but this is getting me down. Having to do everything by myself does not agree with me! I try to work things out - & if something doesn't come out of it - I go into a flat spin & think to myself - what did I do or say wrong?  See what comes of being lonely!”

The Argent Gallery* exhibition seems to have been a moderate success. Of the 20 pictures listed in the catalogue, two are listed as ‘on loan’, ‘Ghost Flowers’ from F. de Paramo**, and ‘Music’ from John Borden. Ten of the remaining 18 returned to England with Katharine.  So one assumes that the other eight were sold as a result of the exhibition. 

*The Argent Gallery on 57th Street was opened in the 1930’s by the National Association of Women Artists and hosted exhibitions of many notable women artists, including Mary Cassatt.

**F de Paramo’s address is given as 620 5th Ave on an envelope containing a photograph of ‘Ghost Flowers’ in Katharine’s possessions.  620 5th Ave was the British Empire Building in the Rockefeller Center, where Yardley was based at this time. According to a newspaper (the Kingston Gleaner) article from Jamaica, dated 29 July, 1946, F. de Paramo was visiting on a business trip as a Yardley representative on that date.

Argent Galleries 1946

Argent Galleries 1946

Argent Galleries 1946

Ghostflowers

Ghostflowers

The Accordian Player

The Accordian Player (monochrome photograph)

The Trout - the Fish

The Trout - the Fish (monochrome photograph)

In April 1946, an article by Katharine Cannell*, ‘Paintings in Paper – Katharine Bertram Literally Captivates Light; Uses Unusual Media to Put It to Work’ appeared in ‘The Christian Science Monitor’. It is a long, complimentary and perceptive piece, which took Katharine’s art seriously, drew comparisons with modern French painters, and suggested that future designers and decorators would draw influence from Katharine’s style.

* this may have been none other than Kathleen Eaton Cannell (Kitty Cannell), who had been the dance critic of the Christian Science Monitor. She was also the Paris fashion correspondent of the ‘New Yorker’, during the War years. She was primarily based in Paris, so it is unclear if she was in NYC in 1946.  Intriguingly, she suggests in the article: “I would be amused to see Katharine try her hand at ballet settings” (something Katharine actually did subsequently), which does indicate that the author is indeed Kitty Cannell, whose background and main interest was dance.

Article about Katharine, the Christian Science Monitor, April 1946.

Article about Katharine, the Christian Science Monitor, April 1946.

Katharine’s next few letters mention some other publicity (an article in a Boston newspaper), and some sales. In August 1946, she mentions that Reco “should be back in England by now”, having set sail sometime in July. She then writes that her own passage is booked on the ‘Queen Mary’ for 24 September, 1946.

August 29th 1946:

“I've been appallingly busy since I arrived back from the MacDowell Colony. I've made two pictures - both good, I think... I want to come back here, for the future of my work lies in this country, I think.”