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Francis Speight

By Walker Hancock

Francis Speight and I were fellow students at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and fellow instructors there for more than thirty years. I remember well my first impression of him: tall, straight, and dignified, with just enough of a southern accent to distinguish him from the Philadelphians and Midwesterners who made up most of the classes. He spoke softly, often joking, and never became involved in the heated discussions about theories that are still such a time-consuming occupation of art students.

Those traits carried over into his years as an instructor. His criticisms were given in the same gentle but very firm voice. He knew the value of brevity. Our faculty meetings usually had to do with judging students’ work and awarding prizes. Naturally there was a good deal of disputation among the members, each inclined to favor his own pupils. But when Francis spoke every one listened; some were persuaded.

A similar continuity marked his painting. He never deviated from his chosen path in search of “new directions.” The progress from the restrained, rather muted studies of his early days to the free, vibrant landscapes of his developed style was uninterrupted. The choice of his subject matter was the only sudden departure from the influence of Daniel Garber, his teacher. Whereas Garber was always attracted by landscapes and figures that were intrinsically beautiful, Speight chose the Pennsylvania coal country and the sprawling working-class neighborhood of Manayunk that clings to the banks of the Schuylkill River. He discovered the poetry in these industrial places.

Francis was a born poet. His first expression in the arts was in the form of written verse, and he planned to continue as a writer. Born on a farm in Bertie County, North Carolina, in 1896, he was the youngest of a large family. One of his sisters encouraged him to seek some instruction in art for the purpose of furthering his ambition to illustrate his own writings. His art studies began while attending Wake Forest College. He spent a term at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1920. While there he saw an exhibition of the work of Daniel Garber, and was so attracted to it that he moved on to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts where Garber was an instructor. There he won two Cresson traveling scholarships which took him to Europe at a time when Cubism and Futurism were vying with Dada and Surrealism, and with each other. But he was not tempted to experiment. Garber’s influence remained dominant; his well-ordered, tapestry-like, harmonious compositions had a lasting appeal for Speight. It was the choice of radically different subject matter that led the way to a style which was quite his own—“a kind of hurried realism” Royal Cortissoz called it. Later he spoke of its “tingling vitality.” This style, with its almost violent brush work, was not unrelated in spirit to the abstract explorations of the day.

Speight said: “I have stood out in the street, the vacant lot and the countryside, and painted. The street is not too comfortable a place to work on a painting, but in the street I am constantly reminded of how things are. The countryside as subject matter is more for dreaming and for distant vision…. My interest has been in painting recognizable objects with realistic colors, or colors that suit my purpose, often with dramatic light and shadow. Somewhere along the way I was made aware of eroding earth and of smoke crowding in on man’s dwelling places. But eroding earth affords opportunity for grasping the drawing and molding of the forms of the earth, and smoke may make a deep-toned background to accent the light on houses, the fruit trees, and the people themselves.”

In 1936 he married Sarah Blakeslee, a former student and gifted painter. After living briefly in Philadelphia and New Hope they moved to Manayunk, which was Speight’s true love and where most of his painting was done. “There,” he said, “it was always stimulating to stand look across the valley and the rich mosaic of houses on the distant hill, the river, and foreground sloping toward the river, or turn and look up at the houses and trees, so often seen against the blue sky and white clouds.” They lived in Manayunk until 1943, when they moved to Doylestown, Pennsylvania, to raise their two children.

Those were the years in which many painters were reformers at heart. But to Speight the industrial setting had a different interest. Referring to one of his Church Street pictures, he remarked: “They said I had no social content. I don’t know. I tried to make that rock sort of leaning out, threatening the houses.” And of one of his Coaldale pictures he said: “At first I could see nothing picturesque in the great piles of dark slag. They one day I saw a house against the black hillside. A little later, in March, I think, I saw a row of houses against a mountain, fragile frame houses that were somehow pathetic. The picture stayed in my mind all winter, and the next summer I went up there to paint it.”

In 1961 Speight returned to his native state to join the faculty of East Carolina College. But, though he painted there during the winter, when summer came he returned to the Pennsylvania Academy and his beloved and inexhaustible Manayunk to teach and paint.

Like many artists, especially in the thirties, Francis Speight had his financial struggles. He said: “When the Depression came I didn’t know it had arrived.” But he finally had his full share of recognition. It is unnecessary here to recite the long list of his awards. His work tells more. I find it moving in a way that few landscapes are. But still more moving to me is the memory of the modest, generous man who painted them, and his genial good humor so expressive of deep faith in his fellow men.

Read by Jack Levine at the Institute Dinner Meeting on April 3, 1990.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters