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The Imaginary Beasts of Royal Lacey Scoville

November 24, 2006 - January 7, 2007


The Arma-daffy-dillo, Jam-bo-reet, Trunc-o-phant and other fantastic creatures are the subjects of a special exhibition this holiday season at the Brandywine River Museum. The Imaginary Beasts of Royal Lacey Scoville features 38 whimsical watercolors that form an original narrative written and illustrated by Royal Lacey Scoville in 1915. The untitled story was never published because it was created solely for the amusement of his daughter. (right: Royal Lacey Scoville (ca.1871-1938), Untitled (ca. 1915), watercolor and ink on illustration board, collection of the Brandywine River Museum, gift of Jonathan Godfrey Wells, III and Peter Scoville Wells, Sr., 2005)

Scoville, a successful businessman and broker, spent his leisure hours painting and sculpting. His favorite theme was imaginary beasts, which feature prominently in the story he created. He drew inspiration from the nonsensical verse and humorous imagery in Edward Lear's Nonsense Book (1846) and from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1872). Scoville's contemporary, author and illustrator Peter Newell, may also have provided inspiration through The Hole Book (1908) and The Slant Book (1910), which tell stories through connected images. Building on these traditions, Scoville created his own untitled dream sequence. The museum has titled it The Dream of Tom Tompkins.

Ingeniously weaving poetic verse and colorful illustrations with fantastic creatures of his own invention, Scoville tells the tale of the lazy Tom Tompkins and the wizard, Tumblebug, who casts a spell on Tom. Startled from a mid-day nap, Tom stares at a gigantic snake with a multicolored head and gaping mouth. Trapped by the spell, he is unable to escape the snake's coils as they tighten around his legs.

Scoville's snake provides a consistent visual link throughout the story, appearing in every panel. Each new image, to the horror of Tom, introduces an imaginary beast ensnared by the snake's body. By the story's completion, the snake is an impressive 44 feet long and has seized 35 creatures, among them the amusing Arma-daffy-dillo, the wild Jam-bo-reet, and the indolent Trunc-o-phant.

Although these unique beasts sprang solely from Scoville's imagination, they are often fanciful combinations of real animals, household objects (such as parlor table legs), and geometric shapes. Scoville's creatures are not only boldly stripped and spotted, but are also plaid, starred, and marked with other vivid, interesting patterns. Scoville worked on his creatures for years, filling many sketchbooks with multiple versions of his snake story in colored pencil, graphite, and watercolors.

As he revised and clarified his story, Scoville shifted the order of his narrative verse and frequently changed the names and inherent qualities of his beasts. By the final rendition of the story, he solidified his ideas and developed the background. While his story begins with a densely wooded landscape, the background quickly dissolves into a desolate landscape with pink mountains punctuated by an occasional peculiar tree or strange shrub. The surreal landscape heightens the dream-like quality of the unfolding story.

Scoville continued to create fantasy animals throughout his life, and they constitute the bulk of his oeuvre. In addition to his works on paper, he crafted commemorative wooden boxes embellished with his imaginary beasts. He also carved fanciful creatures in wood.

On view November 24, 2006 through January 7, 2007, The Imaginary Beasts of Royal Lacey Scoville showcases the final version of Scoville's story as well as early drafts. The manuscript was donated to the Brandywine River Museum by Scoville's grandsons, Jonathan Godfrey Wells, III and Peter Scoville Wells, Sr. in memory of their mother, Eleanore Shannon Scoville Wells. The exhibition also includes other drawings, paintings, and carved objects. To celebrate Scoville's remarkable imagination and the Wells family's generous gift to the museum, the Brandywine River Museum has published Scoville's story as The Dream of Tom Tompkins in a new children's book. The book is available in the Museum Shop.

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Copyright 2006 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.