Francis Watts Lee

Francis Watts Lee (1867-1945) was a publisher and photographer based in Boston.  He is best known for publishing the Visionists’ journal The Knight Errant, helping to introduce a distinctive soft-focus lens that became associated with American pictorialism, and for his family’s role as friends and muses to several influential photographers.

Lee grew up in Roxbury, MA.  He attended the Chauncey School in Boston where he made friends with F. Holland Day.  He was married to Agnes Rand Lee, a poet and the daughter of William Henry Rand of Chicago, co-founder of Rand, McNally Company.

Lee was a staunch believer in Christian Socialism and a supporter of social justice-oriented Episcopalian organizations such the Order of the Holy Cross founded by hid friend Father James O. S. Huntington.  Like many of his fellow Visionists, he was also inspired by the Arts & Crafts movement.  Lee began a small press, Elzevir, committed to the fine art of print, like those of his friend Day and his hero William Morris.  Elzevir published The Knight Errant, a quarterly art and literature journal representing the perspectives of his friends Day, Ralph Adams Cram, Bertram Goodhue, Louise Imogen Guiney, and their circle.

Lee paid great attention to detail and the four issues of the “quarterly” took two years to release.  During this time he became a father and began a more reliable job running a printing press at the Boston Public Library, where he was Guiney’s co-worker.

Lee’s photography included sensitive portraits of his family and other women and children, and of Father Huntington.  Through Day he became part of a circle of pioneering photographers that included Gertrude Kasebier and Alvin Langdon Coburn, and Lee’s family became frequent models.  One of Kasebier’s best-known works, Blessed Art Thou Among Women, is an image of Agnes Rand Lee and daughter Peggy taken at their home in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston.

Lee was the most technically experimental of this circle, and worked with Henry Smith of Pinkham & Smith Company, prescription opticians and
photographic suppliers in Boston, to commission a special soft-focus lens for pictorialist photographers.  The first of its kind in the US, it was inspired by a lens Coburn purchased in England.

In 1910 Francis and Agnes Lee parted ways.  Francis married Marion Lewis Chamberlain, an MIT grad who worked in the fine arts department of the library.  They lived in Walpole, MA and Francis continued working at the library until he retired at the age of 70.

Source:

Patricia J. Fanning (2012) Francis Watts Lee: A Reintroduction, History of
Photography, 36:1, 15-32
 (requires academic access)

Further reading:

Patricia J. Fanning: Artful Lives: The Francis Watts Lee Family and Their Times, 2016

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Above: Portrait of Francis Watts Lee by Gertrude Kasebier.  Platinum print at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

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Above: Gertrude Kasebier: “Blessed Art Though Among Women.”  The models are Agnes Lee and daughter Peggy Lee at their home in Jamaica Plain.  A platinum print at The Met.

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Against an epoch

Men against an epoch; is it not that after all? One by one in this last night, the beautiful things have disappeared, until at last, in a world grown old and ugly, men, forced to find some excuse for the peculiarity of their environment, have discredited even beauty itself, finding it childish, unworthy, and unscientific: not only beauty in Art, but beauty in thought and motive, beauty in life and death, until the word has become but a memory and a reproach. This is the condition that demands the new chivalry. The fight against Paynims and dragons was the work of a carpet knight compared with this ; yet in this fact is there any cause for discouragement? God forbid! But whatever the issue, the Quest lies clear in sight, and he would be craven knight indeed, who would shrink from this new ‘siege perilous.’

From the editors’ introduction to the first issue of the journal The Knight Errant, published by Elsevir Press, 1892.

According to Ralph Adams Cram’s autobiography, the editors included Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, Francis Watts Lee, F. Holland Day, Herbert Copeland, and Cram.  “Paynims” means “pagans” in the medieval European sense. Text from Archive.org/JSTOR Early Journal Content.

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Above: “The Knight Errant” by British Pre-Raphelite painter John Everett Millais, 1870.  Oil painting at the Tate Britain.  The Pre-Raphaelites were favorites of the Visionists.