Universal York

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Pennsylvania German Poet and York Artist Team Up

Pennsylvania German poet Henry L. Fisher at his attic writing desk
Some of my posts earlier this year on York County agriculture drew on the books written around 1880 by Henry Lee Fisher, York attorney and Pennsylvania German (Pennsylvania Dutch) dialect poet. Fisher fondly remembered the harvest times of his youth and decried the “modern” use of farm machinery.
The books were illustrated with engravings based on drawings by local artist and photographer Henry Barratt. See below for my previous York Sunday News column on Fisher and Barratt.

Pictures of the Past

Art has always been an important part of York County life. The York Art Association recently celebrated their 100th anniversary. YorkArts is going strong. Several new galleries have recently opened. A few months ago York made Money magazine’s list of the 100 best places to live in the U.S., in part because of a good rating in arts and culture.
A good portion of locally generated art of the past served a practical purpose, that of preserving images of people, places, and ways of life. This was especially true before photography was developed around 1840. Thanks to a set of 40 water colors created by engraver and banker William Wagner, we know precisely how York looked in 1830, down to the railings on the National House porches and the pulpit in the Episcopal church. Extremely prolific folk artist Lewis Miller stated his aim to chronicle York in his art, succeeding so well that York has been called the best illustrated American community of the nineteenth century.
Even after photography superseded portraiture in the latter 1800s, artists were still needed. By then photographs could be enlarged, but they lacked detail and needed enhancement. Artists stepped in and touched up the enlargements with charcoal and pastels. The results became known as crayon portraits. (That is why those large fragile pictures of great-grandma smear if touched.)
Henry Barratt was one of these crayon artists, but he also worked in other media to capture York people and scenes of over 100 years ago. Barratt was born in England in1817 and emigrated to America. He settled first in Maryland where he married his wife Margaret and where the first two of their five children were born. The Barratts moved north to York in 1858. Henry evidently pursued art as a career all his life. He is listed variously in York City directories as a photographer, an artist, a crayon artist, and as proprietor of his own drawing school. Census records consistently list Barratt as an artist. He died in York in 1891.
Barratt evidently did free lance work, and some of his best known drawings were created to illustrate York attorney and historian Henry Lee Fisher’s volume of local Pennsylvania German culture, ‘S alt Marki-haus mittes in d’r Schtadt (The Old Markethouse in the Middle of the Town) and Die Alte Zeite (The Olden Times). Both pieces were written in the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect. The Old Market House… was written as a centennial poem in 1876. The 100th anniversary of American independence was, as Fisher points out, when Americans began to be more interested in their history. It centers on the people and events in the York County during the previous 100 years. The 100-stanza-long poem was published in 1878 with Olden Times, which Fisher wrote as homage to the Pennsylvania German way of life of 50 years before. Olden Times consists of a collection of narrative poems, each addressing a specific Pennsylvania German occupation or custom, from harvesting to militia drills to courting. Fisher saw these old customs fast disappearing.
Fisher engaged Henry Barratt to create the illustrations for both sections of the book. Fisher states that he designed the illustrations and Barratt drew them. After all, since he was writing about the past, it was Fisher who was eyewitness to the events, but Barratt who had the talent to transfer the images to paper. In the English preface Fisher relates his dilemma in realizing the need of numerous illustrations (over 100) after he had already presold the book by $2 subscriptions, “entirely too low.” He says the engravings are, therefore, medium quality. This doesn’t seem to reflect on Barratt’s original pen and ink drawings, but on the cost of having them etched on printing plates. In fact, Fisher reused Barratt’s images in the 1888 English translation of Olden Times and also illustrated his sixty-page history of York County Pennsylvania Germans in Gibson’s 1886 History of York County with several of them.
Images of York County and its people are still being captured by the pen, pencil, and brush of the artist; by the clay of the sculptor; and by the camera of the photographer. They capture the immediacy of place and individuals. Future generations will owe these artists gratitude because of the legacy created by their talent and accuracy, just as we are indebted to the William Wagners, Lewis Millers, and Henry Barratts who came before.
Note: Thirty-nine of the original drawings have recently come into the collections of the York County Heritage Trust Library/Archives through donation. The whereabouts of the others is still being sought.

This link will take you to a previous post on Henry Lee Fisher, which has links to two more posts about Fisher and his poetry, originally written in the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect.