Henry Lavender Adolphus Culmer

First published: October 2014

For my birthday a few years ago, my friend Mark Graham gave me a gift. It was a 1965 art exhibition catalog from the Salt Lake Art Center titled, 100 Years of Utah Painting. Some of the names in the book were familiar to me, but I’d never heard of others. For somebody like me who lives far away from public art collections that feature these regional painters, one way to learn more about early Utah artists is to follow their names in American auction house websites. I set up a watch list on liveauctioneers.com using the exhibition checklist of 100 Years of Utah Painting.

Every few weeks, I get a hit on the watch list. I found one offering particularly intriguing: Henry Lavender Adolphus Culmer. Cool name, but who was he? My old catalog had very little to say about him—three sentences in the body of the text and a short biography at the back—and the 1965 show included only one work attributed to him. Still, I responded strongly to the small watercolor being offered. The bidding started at $150, and so I decided to go for it. 

The auction took place in Renton, Washington. The description in the auction catalog was short:

Henry Lavender Adolphus Culmer (1854-1914) California River Scene Watercolor on paper 8.5” x 5.25”. Initialed in pencil "H.L.A.C.” lower right and directly from family member’s estate.

Cut to the chase: I won the watercolor, and it’s hanging in my apartment. But that’s only the beginning of the story.

Culmer was born in Kent, England on March 25, 1854 and worked as an errand boy in a print shop in London. His family joined the LDS Church, and they immigrated to Utah in 1868. He was an amateur painter in an era when serious Utah artists were heading to Paris to study. Harry Culmer (as he was known) did manage to take some instruction in California with Julian Rix and in New York, but he was essentially self-taught; he was a weekend artist.

The crazy thing about Culmer is his industriousness. He was the editor of the following publications: Utah Miner, Utah Gazette, Salt Lake Daily Times, Salt Lake Journal of Commerce, and the Provo Enquirer. He was the first president of Salt Lake Rotary, and he was a member of the Commercial Club, the Home Dramatic Club at the Salt Lake Theatre. He was everywhere. Although some artists looked down on him as a mere hobbyist, he was also the first president of the Utah Art Institute.

The Culmers were shopkeepers, and Harry was a brilliant bookkeeper. His immersion into the business community led to his audacious publication—are you ready for this title?— Utah Directory and Gazetteer for 1879-80: Containing the Name and Occupation of Every Resident in the Towns and Cities of Salt Lake, Utah, Weber, and David Counties: and a Very Complete List of the Merchants, Manufacturers, Professional Men and Officials; Together with a Full Gazetteer Information Statistics, Distances, Data, History, Population, Area, Valuation, Resources, Facts, Figures, Etc., Etc., of Every County, City, Town and Hamlet in Utah Territory (price: $3.00) compiled and edited by HLA Culmer. That’s a pretty long title. But what a fun book to read!

The publication is available online  and it’s a hoot. It literally attempts to document every resident in the state in 1880. It’s kind of like a cross between the Yellow Pages, a census, and a Chamber of Commerce brochure. Out of curiosity, I skipped through the pages to find Cedar City, Utah. And sure enough, there is a listing for my great-great-grandfather, “B. Nelson, bricklayer.” If you want a fascinating peek at Utah life in the period, flip through these pages. And the advertisements? More coffee and cigar ads than you can count.

In 1894, Culmer published a lively book for visitors to the state, and again, it is full of insight and wonder, The Resources and Attractions of Utah as They Exist Today (1894). It’s also available online.

Culmer was gradually exhibiting his paintings in national expositions and galleries. And he became popular enough in the early 20th century to paint full-time. (He’s currently represented at the Springville Museum, the Museum of Art at BYU, Utah Capitol building, Utah State Historical Society, and at Alderwood Fine Art gallery in Salt Lake.) His specialty was documenting unexplored wilderness, and in American Art history this is where he made the biggest impact. He was the first professional painter to travel to the interior of Alaska to document its landscape. He also traveled to remote places in Southern Utah to map and capture geological and archeological wonders. 

In 1905, as a member of the Commercial Club, he was selected to lead an expedition into San Juan County in Southeastern Utah in order to discover and explore ancient Puebloan dwellings, slot canyons, caves, and natural arches. One of the great unwritten chapters of Mormon Art is the influence of early painters on the creation and preservation of the landscape. In this, Culmer excelled. He was an artist, but also an amateur geologist and naturalist.

Culmer and two other men started off on their San Juan County expedition. They were later joined by four additional men (packers, guides, and cook) as well as mules and horses. Fortunately, Culmer kept a vivid journal of the trip. He also created numerous artworks, took photographs, and surveyed the arches with scientific instruments. It is a delightful document—full of humor, storytelling, poetic description, and adventure. Their objective was White Canyon (now part of Canyonlands National Park). In 1972, Culmer’s journal was published in the Utah Historical Quarterly, which is available online. It is an exceptional document. Here is one entry:

Apr 12. We "plunged" and had 25 miles of life in the mountains with a pack train, Starting (at [crossed out]) (not before) 9.30 owing to the labor of saddling and packing 20 animals, we certainly made a startling effect as we passed thro the town of Bluff and most of the populace turned out to see us depart.

I never enjoyed myself better than today. It was cloudy and threatening but did not rain until about 4 pm. A local photographer named Goodman — a very skilful man — took the cavalcade on our departure and again as we splashed thro the swollen waters of Cottonwood Creek. The first adventure was 6 miles further in crossing Butler Wash. I took (photos of) the party coming down the trail — then stopped to renew my films. By the time I came to the wash, the others were all a cross [sic], but my handsome horse, (Misnamed Dobbin), dashed down into the quicksand and rushing torrent and up the impossible rocks with a speed that took my breath away. I had an audience that was scarcely over the excitement of crossing and I guess they concluded that I was no tenderfoot the way Dobbin carried me through. The next adventure was 2 miles later crossing Navajo Pass. This is over Comb Ridge into Comb Wash. This ridge is about 500 feet high and runs N &S. 30 miles with only this place to cross it, and it is one of the dizziest things on earth, — Narrow, steep and rocky, But at the foot is Navajo Spring, a cold, clear, sweet and never failing supply that is famous for its excellence. Here we took lunch. Then up Comb Wash, fording a fierce stream a number of times, then up rocky steeps to the cedar mesas above. We were at a high altitude, and the view in every direction was superb; rocky canyons, breaks and cliffs, the Blues to the North East, the Elks to the N.W. where we were heading, and swooping swirling thunderclouds everywhere. Then the rain overtook us and every rock and cliff glistened in the rainshine. Among the sand and cedars, in a land where the sheep have never browsed, for none have been permitted to pass Navajo trail. Grass and flowers and an abundance of sweet water at this season.

Then as evening approached we entered Cascade Gorge with a hundred merry waterfalls swelling the stream, and around among the pines and cedars by a dizzy trail to a huge cave discovered by the cow boys a year or two ago. They asked us to name it and we called it Cascade Cave[.] The day was not without mishaps. Among other things, 2 of the 3 mules gave out right after lunch and they lay in the sand by the river as forlorn a sight as one might wish to see. But they dissimulated. As their loads were released, one of them turned loose with his business end and sent some of our food over into the Navajo Reservation, A fine shot at a can of Bents Crackers filled the air with dust and sent the larger pieces out into Monument Park 20 miles away. So they say."

I was so curious about Culmer and his fascinating life that I decided to continue research about him in my spare time. His papers are deposited at the Marriott Library at the University of Utah, and I noticed a strange reference in the catalog of his papers. I knew that he was associated with the Salt Lake Theatre because I am in the middle of researching a book on Mormon composers, and the Theatre is an important part of the history of Mormon music, and I have come across his name in the records of the Theatre. But among his papers was a reference to his original music.

Was Culmer—a chameleon if ever there was one—a composer, too?

I am lucky to have a friend who is a historian and musician named Joanne Rowland, and she went to the library for me to investigate Culmer’s music. I received an excited phone call from Joanne one afternoon. She was at the library and had just discovered that Culmer had written not only a few works for piano and voice, but also served as the lyricist for music by Arthur Shepherd and Evan Stephens. I’m well acquainted with these pivotal figures of Mormon music having documented all of their surviving music recently—nearly 1,000 works between them. And these Culmer collaborations are nowhere in their catalogs.

So now it gets interesting.

Arthur Shepherd was the conductor at the Salt Lake Theatre at the turn of the century for six years, having just finished his degree at the New England School of Music. Many people consider him to be the first great Mormon composer. It is unclear how Shepherd and Culmer became collaborators, but both had ties to the Theatre. At the time, Shepherd was active as a conductor, composer, and accompanist in Salt Lake City. H.L.A. Culmer wrote the lyrics for a 7-page Easter choral work composed by Shepherd. It is scored for chorus and organ. I don’t know whether it was ever performed. The manuscript is written in Shepherd’s elegant cursive hand. I have found no reference to it elsewhere in Shepherd scholarship.

In 1896, Culmer wrote a dramatization of the Sir Walter Scott novel, The Legend of Montrose for the Grand Theater. The Salt Lake Herald wrote about the upcoming production, “A genuine Scottish chorus will take part in the singing, rendering the music that has been composed especially for the piece by Mr. Evan Stephens. These songs have been written by Mr. Culmer.” (Salt Lake Herald, March 22, 1896) The Culmer papers include two works written for the Montrose production with music by Stephens, “Hunter’s Song” and “Battle Song.”

Ada J. Culmer (Harry’s niece) wrote the lyrics for two other songs that Culmer set to music, “Lost Melodies” and “Tell Me, My Soul.” Culmer penned the lyrics and music for the song, “Be Forever Mine,” and he wrote two piano solo works, “March” and “Catherine Waltz.” None of the above manuscripts have dates on them. Copies of these scores arrived in the mail last Friday. I’m digging into them now.

Isn’t it curious in life how one discovery leads to another, how a seemingly insignificant footnote can open the pathway to entirely new adventures? One of the most rewarding consequences of my dabbling with art connoisseurship is the way these disparate artists gradually come together to tell an exciting, integrated, and untold story of Mormon art.