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From Meat Packer to Cultural Ambassador, Frederick Layton Gave Art to Milwaukee

Dedra Walls, Milwaukee Art Museum

His name may be common on Milwaukee street signs and in neighborhoods, but many people today really don't know Frederick Layton's importance to the cultural landscape of the city.

That will change, if two Milwaukee authors have anything to say about it.

Milwaukee historian John Eastberg and Layton Art Collection President Eric Vogel spent years researching and writing the new book, Layton’s Legacy: A Historic American Art Collection 1888-2013. It's out just in time to celebrate the Layton Gallery's 125th anniversary this year.

The book argues that Layton, who was a butcher and English immigrant, was one of the city’s most important early patrons of the arts, and in his day was considered a cultural ambassador for Milwaukee.

Yet, until recently, Layton’s biography was not well-known.

"The original biographies, the short biographies that we had portrayed him as a bit of a provincial meat-packer, and not really understanding how he could launch this collection, and where he might have been taught about art," Eastberg says.

The authors hope their comprehensive biography will fill in many gaps.

Cold calls

Credit Boswell Books
A new biography of Frederick Layton shows how a humble meat packer became a cultural ambassador for Milwaukee.

While researching in the Milwaukee Art Museum’s library, the authors came across photographed pages of a travel diary bearing the last name "Bem." When the librarian didn't know the reference, the pair turned to the phone book and cold-called all the Bems they could find in the area.

They found Robert Bem in Fox Point. He was the holder of many historical documents and papers of the Layton family. Since the Laytons did not have any children, the family papers were passed down to Frederick Layton's favorite niece.

The documents revealed a caring, giving employer. Layton was a meat packer who emigrated from England in 1843, building himself from the ground up with what Milwaukee had to offer.

Once he became established in his profession, he made almost 100 trips back to Europe, mainly to England for business, but he also picked up some art along the way. He tried to acquire art from different European countries to reflect the ethnicities of his employees in Milwaukee.

“There was a sense that Layton really wanted to reflect in the gallery the diversity of ethnic groups that were living at that time in Milwaukee,” Vogel says. “By the early 20th century, there were over 18 nations represented on the gallery walls.”

The Gallery

Layton created a gallery, which once stood at the corner of Jefferson and Mason, with the art work he collected in his travels. But he didn't want it to be just a stuffy museum for the elite.

“It was a thing you do almost like shopping,” says architectural historian Vogel. “You would stop in, look around, be inspired, a place of reflection. It wasn’t in a park, it wasn’t a grandiose structure….Frederick Layton wanted it to be a part of everyday life.”

The Layton School of Art was in the gallery’s basement. After Layton’s death, Charlotte Partridge, the curator, brought the gallery and the school into the 20th century by updating the displayed collection and the school’s teaching methods.

The building was demolished in the 1950s. The Layton School of Art was moved to a location on Prospect Avenue and the collection was acquired by MIAD in 1982, where it is now housed.

Authors Eastberg and Vogel will be signing books at Boswell Books on September 29 at 3 PM.

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Bonnie North
Bonnie joined WUWM in March 2006 as the Arts Producer of the locally produced weekday magazine program Lake Effect.