Sawtell’s “Most Famous Pupil”

Hand-painted ceramic plate attributed to Laura Tissot, held in the collection of the Southern Lorain County Historical Society, "The Spirit of '76" Museum. Photo by author.

Hand-painted ceramic plate attributed to Laura Tissot, held in the collection of the Southern Lorain County Historical Society, “The Spirit of ’76” Museum. Photo by author.

“While in the hospital [Sawtell] took up china painting as a diversion and has followed this line of work at intervals, and when in fair health, since. With his fine artistic taste he soon acquired wonderful proficiency in this line. He never offered his work for sale, but many homes are adorned by his beautiful workmanship in china, given by him in token of friendship” (The Wellington Enterprise, 4-28-1909, pg. 7).

In my last post, I gave a brief biographical sketch of Wellington photographer William F. Sawtell. One element that I did not touch on in that account, because I wanted to give it a fuller treatment, was Sawtell’s artistic pursuits. According to his obituary, quoted above, he first took up painting while in a voluntary, two-year commitment at the Newburgh State Hospital.

I do not know the dates of his stay, but his obituary seems to suggest that his time in the hospital occurred after he discontinued the photography business in 1888. Either I am misreading the obituary or else it is incorrect. I have found several notices in the Enterprise dated much earlier than 1888 that mention Sawtell’s painting. Here, for example, is part of a small piece entitled, “Ceramics at Home,” from January 15, 1880: “Mrs. W. R. Santley, who has for years done a good deal of creditable work with pencil and brush, and Mr. W. F. Sawtell, our photographer, who is an artist in a larger sense than in the skillful use of camera and chemicals, we find have each learned the different methods of painting upon chinaware and porcelain at a school in Cleveland, and have done some handsome decorating of single pieces and sets, the annealing or burning in of the colors being done at Rice & Burnett’s, Cleveland” (pg. 3).

And this, from three months later: “W. F. Sawtell frequently changes off from his regular art work for a diversion in color painting and silk, satin, leather, tin, everything ministers to his decorative skill” (4-29-1880, pg. 3). It may be coincidental, but I also located an advertisement for a Miss Watkins offering “lessons in charcoal, sketching and crayon drawing” from her studio “in front of Sawtell’s gallery” in 1882.

Local historian Robert Walden published several columns that mention Sawtell, and two in particular discuss his work as a painter. He wrote, “In photography, Mr. Sawtelle [sic] excelled and was prominent in that field, but it was in the decoration of china that he did his finest work. He was successful as an instructor in this media. His most famous pupil was Miss Laura Tissot, so proficient and prolific in her art that scores of homes still have and cherish the sets of china dishes she decorated for them. Mr. Sawtelle [sic] signed all of his china decorated dishes with his initials, WFS, on the back of each piece” (Robert Walden Notebook, #B16).

This was the first mention I ever read about Laura E. Tissot (1863-1943) but Walden helpfully provided more detail about her in a separate column. Tissot was “an institution in herself. She has never had and will never have a duplicate here,” he gushed. He dubbed her one of the “unique personalities who have helped in shaping the mentality of this town” (Notebook, #B35). Walden places her studio on the second floor of the Wells Insurance Building, on the east side of South Main Street, next to the Herrick Memorial Library. I have also seen an image of a now-demolished wood-frame structure on the west side of South Main Street, currently the parking lot of Farm & Home Hardware, identified as “Miss Tissot’s shop in the ’30s.” Perhaps both are correct.

Laura Tissot was one of the organizers of the Wellington Cemetery Association, and was passionately committed to the preservation of both the “Pioneer” and Greenwood Cemeteries. Interestingly, William Sawtell’s obituary notes, “He was deeply interested in the beautifying and improving of our cemeteries, and the present cemetery organization really owes its existence to his untiring efforts” (The Wellington Enterprise, 4-28-1909, pg. 7). Walden never mentions Sawtell in his description of the launch of the cemetery association; it is impossible to know which painter developed the interest first or whether s/he influenced the opinions of the other.

The Tissot family headstone in Greenwood Cemetery, Wellington, Ohio. Photo by author.

The Tissot family headstone in Greenwood Cemetery, Wellington, Ohio. Photo by author.

Around the turn of the century, Laura and her brother, Will H. Tissot, purchased a painting from local milliner Mary Cady. It was a pretty street scene of the town and some Wellington residents believed that Miss Cady herself had painted it. It was, however, the work of artist Archibald Willard, now called simply “Village of Wellington.” After Laura Tissot died in 1943, her estate made a gift of the painting to the Herrick Memorial Library. It hangs there still.

So, gentle readers, check your china cabinets and attics. Look for anything with the initials “WFS” on the base, or any ceramics hand-painted with bright, floral motifs. Without even realizing it, you may hold a small piece of nineteenth-century Wellington history in your hands.

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