The Multiple-George Theory

From my office window in Cranbrook House, I have a great view of the motor court. I can see the comings and goings of the house: coworkers rushing to meetings, facilities moving tools and tables, the busy bees of the Cranbrook House and Gardens Auxiliary at work, and visitors to the campus exploring the house and grounds.

As guests walk around finding flowers, sculptures, and fountains, I always see them step up to the locked side entrance of the house and try and figure out one of the most unusual pieces of art at Cranbrook: George Washington brandishing a flyswatter over George Booth. DSC_0523The acrylic painting, set within a blind window, shows George Booth napping on the daybed in his Still Room (those guests who’ve been on a Cranbrook House tour know the Still Room’s daybed is literally right behind this wall). Behind him is the ghostly figure of Washington, holding a copy of the July 4, 1776, Philadelphia Gazette and his swatter. It is a (not-terribly-convincing) trompe-l’œil fitted within the existing window frame. The 47×22” painting was completed in 1976 by Academy student Gregory High (MFA, Painting, 1977). George and GeorgeHenry Scripps Booth commissioned the painting while he was serving as a Cranbrook Educational Community trustee and while he was using George’s office suite for his own offices. He told the alumni magazine, the window commemorates “the long list of founders who seized opportunities that have been bequeathed to them from those who have gone before.”

Further, Henry explained that “there is at least one fly in almost every organizational ointment as well as in many of our best dreams…Those pesky flys require a decisive swat by a person of intuition and experience of historical perspective. George Washington, in a haze of tradition, plays that part of this bit of symbolic fantasy.”

Henry commissioned the painting as part of the Bicentennial celebrations of 1976, and it was revealed on Cranbrook’s Founders Day by George and Ellen’s three-year-old great-great-granddaughter Stephanie Booth, who was dressed in an 1867 dress belonging to Ellen.

The Cranbrook Quarterly (Fall 1976) wrote, “[the painting] could be considered one of the more unusual commemorations of the Bicentennial because it…develops the ‘multiple-George theory’ of Cranbrook’s—and the nation’s—founding.” Henry told the Quarterly that he “hoped that this window will be enjoyed by the passerby as it would be by Cranbrook’s founders if they were suddenly to come upon it and discover one of them was being spoofed.”

I can certainly attest that the painting gets a lot of looks and begs a lot of questions from the viewer. It’s one of the strangest—and most accessible—works on campus.

Happy Fourth of July everyone!

– Kevin Adkisson, 2016-2019 Collections Fellow, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

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