by Eric Merrell, CAC Historian
It is a rare opportunity to engage in conversation with a living link to the California Art Club’s past. I had just such an opportunity when I met Daphne Huntington on a number of occasions, each of which I remember fondly. She recalled stories of her time with the CAC, both as an exhibiting member as well as the club’s Vice President. My wife Ramona and I took Daphne to the CAC’s 98th Annual Gold Medal Juried Exhibition in 2009, held that year at the Pasadena Museum of California Art (PMCA). Although just shy of her 99th birthday, and with more than one-hundred artworks to be seen, she was so happy to take in the entire exhibit and talk about the art that she never stopped for a break. We had lunch with her afterwards, where we heard stories about her life in Los Angeles, the film and animation industry, and the artistic personalities with whom she and her sister, Venetia Epler, worked.
Daphne Huntington, born October 24, 1910 in Ketchikan, Alaska to Franklin Epler (1891-c.1920s) and Anne Farrer Epler (1892-1994), was the eldest of three children, including sister Venetia Epler (1912-2005) and brother, Richard Epler (1913-2002). (1) Throughout their lives Daphne and Venetia were inseparable, and their friends often referred to them collectively as “The Girls.” It would be nearly impossible to describe one without including the other.
Daphne at her birth was christened Florence Daphne Epler, while Venetia was named Louise Van Ingen Epler. Neither sister liked their given names, so they often changed them; in their youth several different last names can be found on their work, including Peyton, Farrer, Quintain, and McLane (all but Quintain were family names). (2) The family resided in Hollywood, but they also for a time lived in Seattle and Colorado, and around 1921 travelled overseas from New York to England on The Turrialba, spending nearly a year with an aunt in Dunsfold, Surrey. (3)
The girls’ great-great-grandfather was the English artist Thomas Charles “T.C.” Farrer (1838-1891), a student of Pre-Raphaelite philosopher and artist John Ruskin (1819-1900) at the Working Men’s College in London. T.C. emigrated from London to New York City in 1858, and began exhibiting there and in Philadelphia. T.C.’s brother Henry Farrer (1843-1903), also an artist, joined his brother stateside in 1861. There the younger Henry became a founding member, along with William Trost Richards (1833-1905) and a handful of others on January 27, 1863, of the Association of Advancement of Truth in Art, which was based on the principles of Ruskin. (4) With their background, the Farrer brothers became leading American Ruskinians and an integral part of the Pre-Raphaelite movement in the United States (c.1860s-1880s). (5)
Other artists of note in the family include the English portrait painter Dominick Elwes (pronounced “el-wez”) (1931-1975) and his sons, painter Damian Elwes (b.1960) and actor Cary Elwes (b.1962). The girls are also related by marriage to English artist Walter Sickert (1860-1942). (6)
On another trip to England (after 1934 (7)) the girls, along with their brother Richard and one of their British cousins, Geoffrey Alexander Farrer Kennedy (1908-1996) took part in a play titled “Spring Leaves,” which had been written by their father, Franklin Epler, a prolific poet, writer, and editor. The gala opening of the play was performed at the Court Theatre in London, with the Duke of Kent, Prince George (1902-1942) in attendance. The three siblings took to the stage in London again for the performance of another play written by their father, titled “Kept Woman,” presented at the Theatre Royal. (8)
In London, presumably on the same trip, Daphne and Venetia studied mural painting, stained glass, and mosaic at the Slade School of Fine Art and the London School of Arts and Crafts. They also took time to learn techniques of the Old Masters at the École du Louvre in Paris. (9)
The girls’ first stained glass window design was developed in England of “The Good Shepherd” for the Child’s Chapel in the Old Crusader’s Church in Compton, Surrey. Later, and in the U.S. they would create stained glass windows for churches in Beverly Hills and East Los Angeles. (10)
Back in California and living under the same roof with their mother and brother (Richard began to go blind at about age thirty, and their father had died mysteriously when the children were just teenagers), the girls continued their art studies with several well-known California artists, including Percy Gray (1869-1952), Sam Hyde Harris (1889-1977), Frank Tenney Johnson (1874-1939), and Claude Parsons (1895-1972). Percy Gray reportedly adored Venetia, and called her “Vanilla;” his watercolours became a big influence on the girls’ landscape work.
Along with their works of fine paintings, the multi-talented sisters designed public murals, wrote poetry, illustrated books, such as The Fables of Moronia, 1953, by Brigadier General Herbert C. Holdridge (1892-1974), and began working for Hollywood studios, including Hanna-Barbera and Warner Brothers, creating background animation artwork for early popular children’s TV programs, Bucky and Pepito (1959) and Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse (1960, Trans-Artists Productions). Later in 1973 the sisters worked together for Paramount Pictures on the highly successful full-length feature animation, Charlotte’s Web. (11) Although Venetia is usually credited for her animation work, Daphne often assisted her anonymously.
Daphne and Venetia also created ceramics and jewellery, including earrings, brooches, and various wearable adornments, and sold the work through companies bearing their brother’s name. The Richard Epler Novelty Company and Richard Epler Studios—Venetia’s Creations as well as Designs by Venetia of California are recognized today as collectible labels. Their line of Aztec-inspired turquoise ceramic-ware won them awards and publicity. (12)
Following their mother’s lead in social circles, Daphne and Venetia became closely involved with many southern California women’s and arts organizations, including the Hollywood Association of Artists, the National League of American Pen Women, National Society of Arts and Letters (Daphne served as president), the American Institute of Fine Arts (AIFA) (Daphne served as president and on the board of directors), the Women’s Club of Hollywood, San Gabriel Fine Arts Association, Artists of the Southwest, The Ebell, and the California Art Club (CAC) (Daphne served as exhibition chairman in 1960 and 1961, and vice president in 1967), among others. (13)
Daphne often assumed the role of mother hen, taking on the responsibilities of the household; this only increased when their mother fell ill. During this time it appears that Daphne’s selfless generosity, well known within her community, allowed a gypsy and his “relatives” to take advantage of the Epler family. The gypsy convinced Daphne that they needed money to aid their terminally ill child. After loaning the gypsies nearly all they had, Daphne was confronted with the sharp realization that not everyone possessed her sense of integrity.
As a member of the CAC, Daphne was the first of the two sisters to exhibit with the organization, submitting her painting, The Emerald Hour, to the 50th Annual Gold Medal Juried Exhibition held in 1959 at the Greek Theater in Griffith Park. She exhibited as an “Invited Guest Artist,” a category that year that included other established names such as Joe Duncan Gleason (1881-1959) and Conrad Buff (1886-1975). (14) The following year, in 1960 Daphne was elected California Art Club’s Exhibition Chairman, and re-elected for a second term in 1961.
In addition to her demanding work as a volunteer exhibition organizer, she managed to exhibit her own work at The Rancho Club and the Friday Morning Club in Los Angeles, where she won first place for a landscape painting. Along with fellow CAC members, Elsie Palmer Payne (1884-1971) and CAC President Horace Edmund “H. E.” Huey (1895-1963), Daphne presented painting demonstrations at the Duncan Vail Gallery. (15)
In 1964, Daphne’s work was included in an exhibition of five California artists showing at The Waldorf-Astoria in New York City along with her mentor, Claude Parsons, and CAC artists Orpha Mae Klinker (1891-1964), Paul Lauritz (1889-1975), and Edgar Payne (1883-1947). (16)
Daphne exhibited again with the CAC in 1967 at the 58th Annual Gold Medal. In the exhibition materials, she is listed as not only an exhibiting artist, but also as the Club’s Vice President. The following year at the 59th Annual Gold Medal Juried Exhibition (1968), Daphne won a 1st place award in the Marine category for her painting, Emerald Sea.
In four of the subsequent CAC Gold Medal exhibitions, including the 60th Annual (1969), 62nd Annual (1971), 64th Annual (1973), and the 66th Annual (1975), Venetia exhibited alongside Daphne in all but the 64th Annual (1973).
Venetia created many portraits—her most famous was commissioned by President Richard Nixon (1913-1994) of President Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969). The painting hung in the White House during the Nixon presidency (1969-74). The Eisenhower portrait garnered Venetia another dignitary portrait commission, this one of Peter J. Valez de Silva, the Ambassador from Malta to Guatemala, where Venetia and Daphne were invited for the unveiling. (17)
A few years later, after their brother Richard had passed away in 2002, “the girls” somehow again become the victims of a scheme by a vagrant to rob them of their house. This person had moved into the upstairs portion of their house that wasn’t in use. Cousin Christopher Kennedy declared that although the girls at times seemed almost “incapable of understanding that a human being could be even remotely dishonest,” there were clues that they might have slightly enjoyed a sense of intrigue! Daphne related to Christopher once—with a twinkle in her eye—that when the vagrant and his friends were watching movies on an ill-gotten TV in her living room, she would drink beer out of a can. During this colorful period, the girls also learned how to fire a handgun in the backyard and “how not to BBQ a steak (quite so close to the garage).” (18)
The girls have two massive mosaic murals in their oeuvre; although each bears the title “The Life of Christ,” the two mosaics are different. The earlier and larger of the two, dedicated on June 22, 1975, resides at Forest Lawn Memorial-Parks and Mortuaries in Covina Hills, California. The second, dedicated on April 9 (Good Friday) in 1993, is located at Woodlawn Memorial Park & Funeral Home in Orlando, Florida. (19)
The Covina Hills mosaic, one of the largest of its kind, (20) immediately strikes the viewer as they drive through the front gates at the memorial. Originally designed and painted in oil by Daphne and Venetia, the mural features twenty-six scenes from the life of Jesus, including a rendering of “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) as the centerpiece. The 3-story mural was created out of 13 million pieces of hand-crafted, multi-coloured Venetian glass, tesserae, painstakingly copied from the original painting by the workshop of Italian master mosaicists, Ferrari e Bacci di Bacci Enzo e Bertellotti Aldo S.n.c (Ferrari & Bacci), in Pietrasanta, Italy. The project took six years to complete while being overseen by the two sisters; when completed, the monumental mosaic measured 172 feet long, 34 feet high and contained 460 figures. (21)
The Orlando mural features twenty-three scenes from the life of Christ and includes another rendering of Da Vinci’s famous work. Ferrari & Bacci returned for their second project with the sisters, where master mosaicist Aldo Bertolotti and his son Manrico began assembling the mural using 11 million tesserae in their studio in Italy in 1989. Taking four years to complete, the mosaic measured 78 feet long by 20 feet high. (22)
The mammoth mosaic at Covina Hills carries no mention of or credit to its creators. A small inscription to be placed on the sisters’ crypt, located inside the mausoleum that bears the mosaic, will be the only visible sign. (23)
When Venetia passed away in 2005, Daphne went to her bedside and just sat holding her sister’s hand. It was one of those rare periods that the two weren’t together. Though her production slowed, Daphne continued to create artwork and write poetry in these later years, always full on energy and smiles. When she joined her sister on October 2, 2012, she was just shy of her 102nd birthday.
The following is one of the earliest poems written by Daphne Huntington. It was read at her memorial service.
By Florence McLane Peyton (a.k.a. Daphne) at age 12-ish
Free, free, free
With limbs of ecstasy
I shall leap from crag to crag
Like a bounding stag
On the lightning light of morning
I shall aspire
Where that star
With a golden light adorning
Through the air
I shall spring
Of crescent moons
And climb a star vine
That glows with an iridescent shine
Until I reach
A golden beach
That the waves from the Sea of Happiness kiss
I will sail
On the sea in a pale
Rose cloud boat
In infinite bliss (24)
Notes: To learn more about the artwork and lives of Daphne Huntington and Venetia Epler, visit daphnehuntington.com
1 Christopher Kennedy, “Daphne Huntington and Venetia Epler, Career Notes,” p.1
2 Christopher Kennedy email to author, Oct. 23, 2012
3 Kennedy, “Career Notes,” op. cit.
5 Andrew Melville-Smith, on AskART.com (retrieved Oct. 15, 2012) http://www.askart.com/askart/artist.aspx?artist=27198&GUID=CA95E6C1-8093-4A92-A3EC-2A7E6C101E75
6 Kennedy, “Career Notes,” op. cit.
7 Prior to Prince George becoming Duke of Kent in 1934, the title had not been used for some time. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duke_of_Kent (retrieved Oct. 25, 2012)
8 “Duke of Kent Attends Opening Performance of Charity Play,” newspaper clipping, n.d.; “Charming Americans Thrill London Audiences,” newspaper clipping, n.d.
9 Famed Artist-Sisters Hold Exhibition of Their Work, Walter A. Bailey, South Pasadena Review, Dec. 14, 1977, p5
10 Christopher Kennedy, text for Daphne’s eulogy, email to author, Oct. 22, 2012; http://www.askart.com/askart/h/daphne_huntington/daphne_huntington.aspx (retrieved Oct. 24, 2012)
11 http://www.bcdb.com/cartoons/Other_Studios/T/Trans-Artists_Productions/index.html (retrieved Oct. 23, 2012); also Filmation Associates, TV shows, late 1960s; Hanna-Barbera, Warner Brothers, Churchill/Wexler Productions
12 Kennedy, “Career Notes,” op. cit.
13 Famed Artist-Sisters, op. cit.
14 California Art Club Archives
15 “Exhibition Chairman,” “Demonstrators,” June 1960 CAC Bulletin; “Award Winners,” March 1961 CAC Bulletin; “Committees, July 1961 CAC Bulletin, CAC Archives
16 Kennedy, p.10
17 Famed Artist-Sisters, op. cit.
18 Kennedy, op. cit.
19 It Took the Patience of Job To Create Life of Christ Mosaic, Adelle M. Banks, Orlando Sentinel, Apr. 4, 1993; ‘Life of Christ’ Mosaic Dedicated, The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, June 23, 1975
20 Though not in the world: “The largest mosaic in the world is in the central library of the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico in Mexico City. Two of the four walls are each 12, 949 square feet.” Ibid.
21 ‘Life of Christ’ Mosaic Dedicated, Herald-Examiner, op. cit.
22 Banks, Orlando Sentinal, op. cit.
23 Daphne Huntington memorial pamphlet, CAC Archives
24 Huntington memorial pamphlet, op. cit.