The Emperor's Bridge Campaign

to honor the life + advance the legacy of Emperor Norton

Emperor Norton at Ease

One of the most arresting and enigmatic images of Emperor Norton is this watercolor of him that hung in the library of the Bohemian Club, in San Francisco. 
 

Portrait of Emperor Norton, c.1870s, by Virgil Williams (1830-1886). Collection of the Bancroft Library at the University of California Berkeley. Source: Calisphere.

Portrait of Emperor Norton, c.1870s, by Virgil Williams (1830-1886). Collection of the Bancroft Library at the University of California Berkeley. Source: Calisphere.


The portrait was painted by Virgil Macey Williams (1830-1886). Born in Maine, raised in Massachusetts and educated at Brown University, Williams began his art training in New York and continued his training in Rome before returning to Boston around 1860, where — except for a brief stint designing and installing a gallery in San Francisco — he remained for the next decade, maintaining his studio as well as teaching at Harvard and elsewhere in Boston.

Photograph of Virgil Williams, 1886. Collection of the Bancroft Library at the University of California Berkeley. Source: Calisphere.

Photograph of Virgil Williams, 1886. Collection of the Bancroft Library at the University of California Berkeley. Source: Calisphere.

Williams moved from Boston to San Francisco in 1871 and shortly thereafter co-founded the San Francisco Art Association. In 1874, the Association hired Williams as the first director of its new California School of Design — a position that he held until his death in 1886.

During this same period, Williams co-founded the Bohemian Club in 1872 and was one of the Club's first presidents, in 1874-75.

So it was, presumably, that Williams's unusual portrait of Emperor Norton came to grace the walls of the Club's library. 

There is no evidence, as yet, that the Emperor actually sat for this undated portrait. But the painting does appear to have been completed and hung at the Bohemian Club during the Emperor's lifetime, perhaps sometime shortly after the founding of the Club.

According to Andrew G. Jameson's article, "San Francisco's Emperor Norton I," in the Summer 2002  (Number 119) edition of the Bohemian Club Library Notes, both the Williams portrait and Benoni Irwin's portrait of the Emperor (which hung in the Club's chess room) were lost in the earthquake and fires of 1906.


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In his 1986 biography of Emperor Norton, William Drury spoke to the significance of the Williams portrait:

It has been said that the Emperor was a member [of the Bohemian Club], but that seems rather doubtful since he lacked the qualifications necessary for membership, being neither an artist nor a writer (or, rather, he was not recognized as a writer despite the hundreds of proclamations that he composed for publication in the press). There is, however, a strong possibility that he was permitted to use the club’s library.

[...]

And if anyone else had protested His Majesty’s presence, a word from the artist who had painted the portrait should have been enough to soothe the complainant and smooth the Emperor’s ruffled feathers. Virgil Williams, a founder and former president of the Bohemian Club, wielded considerable influence in all of its affairs.

There was something rather curious about that portrait, by the way. Williams had refused to emphasize his sitter’s eccentricity by painting him in his feathers and uniform, as other artists did, but posed him in a slouch hat and a civilian suit. This was remarkable, for without his plumes and epaulets there was nothing to distinguish His Majesty from the common herd. Here, in fact, was a perfectly ordinary man in his fifties, thoughtfully smoking a pipe and looking very much like the merchant that Joseph Eastland and Hall McAllister had known in Gold Rush days. The odd thing is that Emperor Norton was never known to smoke a pipe or to wear anything but a Kossuth, a kepi, or a white beaver hat. It may be that the artist painted him that way to tell the world that Joshua Norton was not the clown that everyone supposed.

Had he wished to use the club’s library, it’s fairly certain that Virgil Williams would have arranged it, just as he arranged it for another nonmember, Robert Louis Stevenson, who was not nearly so well-known as Emperor Norton when he arrived in San Francisco to marry Fanny Osbourne, whom he had met in France.

Drury's mention of Stevenson in this particular context is more resonant than he lets on — if, indeed, he was aware of the resonance at all.

Here's how Stevenson's connection to the William's portrait — such as the connection is — traces out.

Stevenson married Fanny Osbourne in May 1880, shortly after arriving in San Francisco. Osbourne had two children, Isobel and Lloyd, from her previous (unhappy) marriage to Samuel Osbourne, whom she had left in 1875. Their third child, Hervey, had died of tuberculosis in 1876.

In her 1938 memoir, This Life I've Loved, Osbourne's daughter and Stevenson's stepdaughter, Isobel — the late Isobel Osbourne Field (1858-1953) — recalled seeing Emperor Norton on the ferry from East Oakland to San Francisco (pp.67-71) when she was a 14-year-old girl.

Whether by coincidence or for narrative effect, she claimed to have met — on that same ferry ride — a young artist named Joseph Dwight Strong (1853-1899). Seven years later, in 1879, Isobel and Joseph were married. 

Joseph went on to become a painter of some note. Alas, he was unable to control his appetites for drink and other women, and Isobel divorced him in 1892.

That same year, Joseph's younger brother, Nathan Bixby Strong (b. 1860), went into business with Jefferson D. Bolton, offering photo engraving services under the name Bolton & Strong.

The new firm's first directory listing, in 1892, shows it at 430 Pine Street.
 

Listing for Bolton & Strong's in Langley's Directory of San Francisco, 1892, p. 266. Source: Internet Archive.

Listing for Bolton & Strong's in Langley's Directory of San Francisco, 1892, p. 266. Source: Internet Archive.


By 1896, as this ad shows, Bolton & Strong had moved to 510 Montgomery Street.

Advertisement for Bolton & Strong's in Western Journal of Education, volume 2, number 1, June 1896. Source: Google Books.

Advertisement for Bolton & Strong's in Western Journal of Education, volume 2, number 1, June 1896. Source: Google Books.


But it appears that one of Bolton & Strong's very first jobs was the following photo engraving of the Virgil Williams portrait of Emperor Norton. The engraving appeared as an illustration for an article — "Street Characters of San Francisco," by Francis E. Sheldon — that was published in the May 1892 issue of The Overland Monthly, the noted San Francisco literary and cultural journal launched by Bret Harte. 

This was perhaps the only published version of the Williams portrait.
 

Photo engraving, by Bolton & Strong, of original portrait of Emperor Norton by Virgil Williams (1830-1886). Illustration in Francis E. Sheldon, "Street Characters of San Francisco," The Overland Monthly, May 1892, pp. 449-459. Source: Google Books. 

Photo engraving, by Bolton & Strong, of original portrait of Emperor Norton by Virgil Williams (1830-1886). Illustration in Francis E. Sheldon, "Street Characters of San Francisco," The Overland Monthly, May 1892, pp. 449-459. Source: Google Books


Surprising, even shocking, as it is to see Emperor Norton portrayed without his regalia, Sheldon, in his Overland article, includes the following poignant observation suggesting the debt that we may owe to Virgil Williams for showing us the Emperor in his full humanity:

He was a genial companion and a good story-teller. With a select coterie he would lay aside the imperial dignity, and mingle with his subjects on terms of absolute equality. It was in this Bohemian undress that the famous portrait by Virgil Williams was painted.

The Bolton & Strong mark is visible at the bottom right corner of the Overland illustration.

What's not visible in the Bolton & Strong image — but what is visible in the image of the Williams portrait at the top of this piece, especially if you click to enlarge...

A capital "W" painted into the bottom of the Emperor's tie.

A Virgil Williams trademark? Mayhaps.

 

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