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Sketchbook Drawing: The Letter Doodles

Sketchbook The Letter Doodles
Sketchbook The Letter Doodles

Helen Ives Schermerhorn

Helen's 1925
Passport Photo

Woodward and Helen met sometime in 1900 as classmates at the Union Classical Institute (UCI) of Schenectady, New York. UCI was a private elementary school program run by Union College. Their letters begin in November of 1901 with her apologizing to him for not properly saying goodbye at the train station because she got distracted by another acquaintance at the station heading to New York City. She ends the letter saying, "We shall miss you very much at school, and I hope that we may have the opportunity of hearing from you some time..."

The letters never ended. Rob and Helen would remain life long friends (and she had enough sense to save many of the letters for our enjoyment). In this particular letter, from between 1912 to 1917, he is offering Helen design ideas for a book plate. Bookplates are merely a vanity card type label one would glue to the inside covers of one's book collection. It was all the rage at the time much like social media today. It is hard to tell if he is teasing her or not. We suspect Helen might have been the sort of modest women who may find such a vanity nothing more than pretentious.

We do not believe the book plate was ever made because we are sure Helen would have saved it to be given to RSW's cousin Florence Haeberle after her death - like their letters. Florence would later donate a number of items, including Helen's letters, to the Smithsonian Institute for their collections. And as far as we know RSW never had a bookplate of his own made. However, maybe we need an asterisk next to that because he did have TWO fires before coming to his Southwick Studio. It is possible that the bookplate could have been lost in one or both of the fires. Especially the Hiram Woodward fire. We have never found any evidence RSW had a bookplate of his own.

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Additional Notes

RSW bookplate doodle
Woodward's own sample of his
bookplate emblem

This first doodle by Woodward is a sample of what his bookplate might look like. He tells Helen, "The blossoming fruit branch has always been of great attraction to me." (Note the word "Snail!" in parentheses to the left of the branch.) He also says, "...with possibly snail upon it, with the Latin of "slow but sure," and my name in fine lettering."

It is important to note the 5 triangles in a trapezoidal form in the dooble. We have seen this symbol in the Love Leaf, also sent to Helen 8 months after his accident. We do not know its importance. We can say its symbolism is a powerful statement.

RSW's suggestions to Helen
RSW's suggestions to Helen, a rose? Or creatures?

RSW's letters to Helen are informal and holds the vernacular only found between two people who know each other well. Meaning, it is conversational and not particularly correct in terms of grammar, especially punctuation. He goes on to suggest a number of ideas and starts with this, "What I want to get at is would you care for anything so simple as a mere flower? How about a Rose? And say do you like darning needles?" It is obvious RSW is referring to dragon flies but we had to look this up. It took several searches but we have confirmed dragon flies can also be referred to as darning needles. RSW contunues, "They are terribly decorative little creatures, almost any way you can put them with their gauzy wings, there huge eyes and their segmented bodies... A rose and a darning needle. I'm sure the idea would not be likely to imitated in another book plate any way."

Helen who lives the wind and clouds
"Helen who lives the wind and clouds..."

Woodward follows that up with something more personal. How he sees her, "Then how do you like, perchance a windblown tree, with the huge cloud back of it - Helen, who lives the wind and clouds and the outdoor fields? And a girl with the wind blown skirt, holding a book and standing under the tree with her hand up to her hat? 'Wind blown' skirts are attractive in their lives."

This is really sweet. It is obvious he admires her. Wind holds an important symbolism in RSW's catalogue of work. Think, the solitary, wind blown Beech Tree in Heath. There are also a number of paintings featuring wind - From Wind'll Blow Hill, Wind on the Hill (oil), and Aeolus: Home of the Winds (1929). Standing steadfast in the face of the blowing winds of change is a clear sign of strength to him but having the wind at her back suggest that change is her ally.

The Aste House
Finally, because Helen is a teacher,
RSW offered her a portrait of a group of kids.

Woodward started his proposal of book plate ideas to Helen, first by asking her what her the preferred use of her name. He then mentions, "Now for subject matter - me in my mind a number of ideas but would you tell me what to make. I spoke of a group of little old-fashioned children, reading a book together..." The last doodle he makes for Helen, he decribes it now as, "The group of youngsters I had in mind are grouped like this. One boy with a hoop, one reading, one listening only, and a little fashion girl with the baby on her arm and a bird in a rust cage over head."

Helen is teaching at this time, thus the kids theme. What is odd, is the girl holding the baby. It would probably be seen as inappropriate today but at that time not so much. What is interesting is that Helen chose a career over marriage and children. She was, however, a key figure in the start the night school system serving those who for whatever reason could not finish their schooling during normal day hours. It is possible that the girl holding the baby could represent this segment of the night school system.


October 20, 2020: We have recently learned Woodward did indeed design a bookplate for Helen. We were contacted by a collector who happened upon the bookplate from an art dealer in Europe. The collector, searching for information on Helen, found us and reached out including an image of the bookplate.

What stuck us almost immediately is how much the bookplate design resembles and contains many of the features that would become synonymous with his popular window paintings after 1936 when he moved to Southwick. Especially the "little East Window" he so frequently painted. The only thing to survive his original suggestions to her was the girl with the wind blowing her hair. Also, instead of "Ex Libris" (meaning, "from the library of...") Helen went with her family crest and motto, "Industria Semper Creseam." oyed. For more see...