The Brocklebank Fraktur Collection

. May 12, 2008

The Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, has acquired the outstanding fraktur collection Joy and David Brocklebank. Having focused on western Pennsylvania fraktur for 38 years, the Brocklebanks’ collection consists of more than 200 hand-drawn and printed fraktur from Westmoreland County and other western Pennsylvania counties. It was assembled by a dedicated scholar who was interested in the artistry and genealogy of these works on paper. First published by the Brocklebank’s daughter in “Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, Fraktur, An Initial Survey” in The Magazine ANTIQUES in 1986, the collection has grown substantially and was featured in the 2007 exhibition at The Westermoreland titled “Made in Pennsylvania: A Folk Art Tradition.”

Judith H. O’Toole, Director/CEO, states, “The acquisition of this major collection of western Pennsylvania fraktur strengthens The Westmoreland’s already significant regional folk art collection, which contains important examples of furniture including painted furniture from Soap Hollow, textiles including samplers and coverlets, redware and decorated stoneware, and paintings.”

The fraktur tradition in western Pennsylvania flourished primarily in Westmoreland County for more than one hundred years, where nine artists have been identified by surviving work dated as early as 1788. The collection also contains fraktur from Allegheny, Bedford, Indiana, McKean, Somerset, and Washington counties. The Brocklebank fraktur join more than a dozen important Westmoreland County fraktur collected by the Museum since its founding in 1959, making the Westmoreland’s collection of western Pennsylvania fraktur the most important public or private collection known.

The work fraktur comes from the Latin word meaning “broken” – the same as our word “fracture.” From an article in the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition, “Made In Pennsylvania: A Folk Art Tradition,” by R. David Brocklebank and Barbara L. Jones, comes this definition of the word fraktur, “The term is used today to describe a wide variety of Pennsylvania German folk-art documents. For the present purposes, embellishment “beyond necessity” seems to be an adequate definition of folk art.” They continue, “The work fraktur has its origin in the presentation of text in discrete letters as opposed to a cursive hand. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the vast influx of immigrants from what is now Germany and Switzerland brought the tradition to Pennsylvania, where it underwent considerable evolution. Schoolteachers in the rural areas made a very large percentage of the fraktur that survives today.”

Most early fraktur were executed by hand, while printed text became increasingly common in later examples. Typical artistic motifs in fraktur include birds, hearts, and tulips. Schoolmasters made fraktur early in the history of American fraktur, from around 1750 to 1820, whereas professional scriveners using printed forms dominated the fraktur market from about 1810 to 1900. However, there are considerable overlaps in these dates.

“The most common form of fraktur,” say Brocklebank and Jones, “consists of birth and baptismal records (geburts and taufschein – often simply referred to as taufschein) – essentially serious religious pieces with colorful, exuberant additions to delight the eye.” “House blessings (haus segen), writing examples (vorschriften), and narratives (such as the parable of the prodigal son) are also included among the many varieties of fraktur that one encounters in Pennsylvania. Typically created with ink and watercolor on paper, most of these documents are approximately sixteen by thirteen inches.”

Today, most major American museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art include fraktur in their collections.

In last year’s Westmoreland exhibition “Made in Pennsylvania: A Folk Art Tradition,” fraktur from western Pennsylvania artists were contrasted with those made in the eastern part of the state. In fact, they were hung on opposite walls to give visitors the best vantage point for comparing the “East/West” aspects, and see not only the similarities, but also the differences. According to Barbara Jones there is a huge difference in style. She pointed out the contrast this way: “You look at the ‘West’ side of the room and see that the colors were more limited, the designs much more complex,” she states. “Then you look at the ‘East’ and can see the bigger motifs, more angels, people, big hearts in the center…something bolder.”

The Brocklebank fraktur collection consists primarily of the following artists known by name (In many cases, the actual name of the artist remains unknown and “tag” names based on motifs used in the pieces, or other “clues” are used to refer to a body of work attributed to one individual.): Johann Carl Scheibeler (active in Westmoreland County 1784-1793); W. Loos (active 1800?-1820); Johann Andreas von Alms (active 1817-1819); Johann Georg Busyaeger (active 1805-1841); Henry Haines (active circa 1850); George Gottfried Ephraim Burger (active 1820?-1846); Friederich Hagemeister (active late 1820’s); and Thomas Johnston (active late 1860’s – early 1870’s.)

In the 2007 exhibition, five extraordinary examples of Johann Karl Scheibeler’s fraktur were all displayed in a grouping, allowing viewers to note the characteristics and wide range of his work. In contrast, there were six John George Busyaeger fraktur hanging nearby so as to allow study of these two often-misattributed artists. Busyaeger, a school teacher who was active between 1809 and 1841, was, by far, the most prolific of the fraktur artists in Westmoreland County with at least thirty-five percent of the known local works attributed to him. One example on view used a colorful motif made of pinwheel lilies, thistles and berries, created as a birth and baptism certificate for Elisabeth Barbara Wagner, born April 18, 1855, baptized May 18, 1855. Like nearly all of artist’s works, it is signed “Made by J.G. Busyaeger.”

W. Loos’s work indicates that he was active during the first twenty years of the nineteenth century. Formerly referred to as the “Sober” artist, his identification hinged on the single signed example included in the Westmoreland Museum’s permanent collection.

There are three fraktur by Alms in the collection.

Fraktur artist Henry Haines was also a maker of gravestones, and one can find stones inscribed “HH” in Westmoreland County’s Hempfield Township. Some of his stonework demonstrates a familiarity with fraktur motifs.

Georg Gottfried Ephraim Burger’s fraktur (rarely signed) are often confused with those make by Busyaeger. Burger’s work is usually more detailed and generally displays a more intense palette. Included in the Brocklebank collection is an outstanding example that he made for one of his daughters.

Frank Hagemeister’s work – a few examples of which are signed and dated – is almost always in German and in a horizontal format.

The Thomas Johnston fraktur in the Westmoreland’s new collection was created for Elisabeth Baker who was born January 9, 1852. It’s the only example of his work that identifies Johnston as a teacher.

The definitive text on Pennsylvania fraktur is widely considered to be The Fraktur-Writings or Illuminated Manuscripts of the Pennsylvania Germans, written by Dr. Donald A. Shelley and published by the Pennsylvania German Society in 1961. The number of articles and books published on fraktur has grown, especially in the past twenty years or so. Curators have capitalized on what appears to be an ever-growing appetite on the part of the public to learn more about these jewels of eighteenth and nineteenth century manuscript art. According to The Westermoreland Board of Trustees President Bruce Wolf, “The acquisition of the Joy and David Brocklebank preeminent collection of regional fraktur places The Westmoreland at the forefront of Pennsylvania folk art. We are deeply appreciative of the Brocklebank’s decision to entrust us with their lifetime collection and extensive fraktur research library.”

The Westmoreland’s permanent collection exemplifies many different important themes from the body of American art – including Decorative Arts, Sculpture, Paintings, Works on Paper, Objects with Images – even Toys.

The Museum is located in the southwestern Pennsylvania town of Greensburg (35 miles east of Pittsburgh). It’s open every day but Monday and Tuesday. For more information, visit online at www.museumaa.org or phone (724) 837-1500.

Category: Antiques News

Comments are closed.