Joseph Pennell and Elizabeth Robins Pennell

A bicycle built for two

Deirdre Pirro
May 10, 2012

There is a charming drawing, Leaving Montepulciano, in the current exhibition, Americans in Florence: Sargent and the American Impressionists, at Palazzo Strozzi (see TF 159). One of the eight works in the show by American printmaker, illustrator and writer Joseph Pennell, it depicts the artist and his wife, writer Elizabeth Robins Pennell, riding out of the town mounted on their tandem tricycle, greeting a fellow cyclist riding a penny-farthing bicycle. Pioneers in cycling tourism throughout Europe, the Pennells cleverly used their hobby as a way to make a living. In fact, soon after their marriage in Philadelphia in 1884, the couple moved to England, where they lived for over 30 years, making frequent visits to the Continent.


Fulfilling their first joint commission for an American magazine, they honeymooned by making a cycling trip from London to Canterbury. A year later they published a book in homage to Chaucer, entitled A Canterbury Pilgrimage, which they described as having ‘ridden, written and illustrated.' Next came An Italian Pilgrimage (1887), which recounted their fascinating journey on three wheels from Florence to Rome. Other books ensued, among them Our Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1888), which chronicled their expedition tracing the path of Laurence Sterne's famous 1768 travel novel, and Over the Alps on a Bicycle (1898). Joseph Pennell went to Italy to illustrate Maurice Hewlett's The Road in Tuscany in 1901 and Henry James's Italian Hours in 1909. Until they returned to America, the couple not only pedalled throughout the British Isles but even ventured into Eastern Europe to document their adventures.


Both Joseph Pennell and Elizabeth Robins were born in Philadelphia, Joseph into a Quaker family on July 4, 1857, and Elizabeth into a well-to-do Catholic family two years earlier, on February 21, 1855. Joseph trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and went to night school at the Pennsylvania School of Industrial Art. His first successful commission illustrating a series of articles by George W. Cable on New Orleans led the Century magazine to ask him, in 1883, to go to Italy to illustrate articles by William Dean Howells, published in 1886 as Tuscan Cities. Elizabeth, who lost her mother at an early age, was greatly influenced by her folklorist uncle Charles Godfrey Leland, later the subject of one of her biographies. Independent, she always knew she wanted to be a writer. Her first book, Life of Mary Wollstonecraft, was published the year she married Joseph, whom she had met in 1881 whilst collaborating with him on a magazine article.


During the 1880s, the Pennells made many friends among the Anglo-American community in Florence, including writer Vernon Lee, Pre-Raphaelite painter Evelyn Pickering De Morgan and poet Agnes Mary Frances Robinson. In London, their Thursday evening salons were frequented by such artists and writers as Aubrey Beardsley, James McNeil Whistler, Henry James, Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. Joseph's friendship with Whistler (1834-1903) whom he admired and emulated, led Joseph and Elizabeth to published a long biography about him in 1911, after they won a court case brought against them by the Whistler's sister and executrix, who tried to stop its publication. Joseph Pennell later left his considerable collection of Whistler-related material to the US Library of Congress.


Another important Pennell collection was also bequeathed to the same library: 433 of Elizabeth Pennell's cookbooks. Not only did she regularly write on art criticism for the Star of London but she also had a food column called ‘The Wares of Autolycus' in the Pall Mall Gazette. Not a cook herself, she used these books in researching her articles. At one point her collection numbered over 1,000 books, and, as she once said, she realised she took her collecting seriously when she purchased a rare first edition of ‘good old Hannah Glasse' instead of a new dress.


 When World War I broke out, Joseph sketched munitions factories for the British government in both England and France. He went to Verdun, but as a Quaker he was horrified by the carnage and destruction he saw there. This led the couple to decide, in 1917, to return to live in the United States. By 1921, they had settled in Brooklyn, New York, where Joseph taught at the Art Students League up until a week before he died of pneumonia on April 23, 1926. After his death, Elizabeth Pennell moved to Manhattan. She went on writing and giving her ‘little dinners' until she died a decade later, on February 14, 1936.


During their long and happy marriage, built on mutual respect and companionship, the Pennells produced over 230 books and hundreds of essays and articles together. Joseph Pennell left a legacy of 900 etched and mezzotint plates, many featuring cities, monuments and industrial plants; and a series of drawings of the building of the Panama Canal; 621 lithographs; and countless drawings and watercolours. Today, their family papers are preserved at the University of Pennsylvania Library, in Philadelphia.



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