Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

When Wharton Esherick (1887-1970) left Philadelphia for the countryside and heavily wooded hills near Valley Forge in 1913, he was a disillusioned painter struggling to find his artistic identity. By the time of his death nearly six decades later, he had not only discovered his identity but had become renowned for his sculptural furniture which earned for him the title “the dean of American crafts­men.” Esherick had successfully cultivated a love affair with wood and indulged his penchant for organic forms that blurred the distinction between art and craft.

Abrupt with unexpected visitors yet charming to friends, avant-garde in lifestyle but a devotee of classical music, Esherick the .individual was as complex as any piece of knotted, gnarled wood to which he brought chisel and hammer. Born into a well­-to-do Philadelphia family, Wharton Harris Esherick troubled his parents by wanting to pursue a career in art. He learned to work with wood and metal at Manual Training High School, enrolled in the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art (now the University of the Arts), and continued his studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts under William Merritt Chase and Cecilia Beaux (see “Artistic Ambitions: Cecilia Beaux in Philadelphia” by Tara Leigh Tappert in the Winter 1996 edition). Although technically competent, Esherick never felt comfortable with the constraints of painting in the style of his teachers. Two months before completing his studies he quit the Academy.

The twenty-three-year-old Esherick worked as an illustrator for two newspapers, then produced engravable portraits for advertising posters as resident artist for Victor Talking Machine, only to find himself unem­ployed in 1912 when the process of half-tone photographic reproduction made his position obsolete. The follow­ing year he and his wife Letty decided to leave the city and look for a private, rural location in which to live and raise a family. They wanted to live in harmony with nature, yet desired proximity to Philadelphia’s orchestra, museums, and a potential market for his paintings. One glance at a large cherry tree in the yard of a farmhouse near Paoli, in Chester County, being shown by a real estate agent, and the Eshericks knew they had found their new home.

When the United States entered World War I four years later, Esherick, even though he prided himself on being a pacifist and an active member of the World Peace Organization, offered to paint camouflage for the U.S. Army. His offer was declined, and officials told him to return home and raise wheat – at which he failed miserably.

Frustrated but persevering, Esherick continued painting in the American impressionist style he had learned at the Pennsylvania Academy. Then came the seemingly insignificant incident that would prove to be his artistic salvation. During the winter of 1919-1920, while in Fairhope, Alabama, home of an artists’ colony and the progressive Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education, Esherick acquired a set of wood chisels.

In hopes of making his canvases more desirable, he began carving frames with simple representational designs relating to their subjects, textures, and colors. While in Fairhope, Esherick met Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941), the American writer noted for his autobiographical 1919 Winesburg, Ohio, who became a close friend. “It was Sherwood who told Wharton his frames were better than his paintings,” recalls the artist’s daughter, Ruth Esherick Bascom. Perhaps Anderson’s bluntness stung, but he had recognized Esherick’s natural flair for working with wood. Within a few years Esherick produced nearly four hundred woodcuts and illustrated nine books, including two volumes of poetry by kindred spirit Walt Whitman (1819-1892).

Esherick’s excitement mounted as he turned from painting to three­-dimensional art forms, unwittingly happening upon the medium that had been eluding him. Unimpressed by the static tokens for a horse racing game he played shipboard on his trip to Fairhope, Esherick, then thirty-three years old, carved his own figures, somewhat abstract horse­-and-riders full of energy and motion. His creation, The Race, convinced him that he had finally discov­ered his artistic bent.

Wharton Esherick converted his barn into a studio where he created woodcuts and began to make furniture, heavy pieces embellished with surface carving characteris­tic of the popular Arts and Crafts movement. Exemplary of Esherick’s work during the twenties is a massive drop leaf desk. The bottom is decorated with carved trees, the middle with branches, and the top with birds in flight. Esherick worked on the joinery himself, only to realize that it took him “too damn long!” From then on he turned that work over to local cabinet­maker John Schmidt. Their collaboration endured for thirty years.

Esherick favored exotic woods, but he also used ceramic, stone and, to some extent, metal. It was not long, however, before he began to rely almost exclusively on wood readily available in his own backyard. “I think he stuck with wood for two reasons,” says Esherick’s son-in­-law Mansfield “Bob” Bascom. “One, it could be worked with quickly. The ideas were coming so rapidly. Second, he had an abundant supply of raw materials. You have to realize this was all done without the benefit of money.”

Finding he needed more space and even more solitude, Esherick built a twenty-four-foot-square fieldstone building in 1926. “Wharton didn’t like anyone around when he was working,” says Ruth Bascom. “One of the reasons he built the studio at the top of the hill was to get away from a growing family.” Wharton and Letty Esherick – who had three children, Mary, Ruth, and Peter – separated amicably in the thirties but never divorced.

The stone building was just the beginning of Wharton Esherick’s greatest masterpiece – his home and studio. Entered in the National Register of Historic Places and designated a National Historic Landmark, the structure was built in three stages over forty years, its parts mirroring Esherick’s aesthetic evolution. A preview of the organic nature of Esherick’s later work, the thick stone walls of this first phase of the studio taper like a tree trunk. The uphill half of the room had an earthen floor; the downhill side, over a basement kitchen and heater room, housed a workbench and a large bandsaw Esherick asked John Schmidt to make from bicycle wheels. A wood storage loft was above. The stone studio was eventually enlarged to include living space; the loft became a bedroom and sitting room accessed by a spiral staircase.

Less than a decade after he began working with wood, Esherick aban­doned surface decoration entirely to concentrate solely on form. In 1927, experimenting with formal expressionist architecture, he built an asymmetrical garage with storage loft, notable for its unusual roof – one side is concave, the other convex.

The artist’s works in a transitional period of the early 1930s are character­ized by bold angles and precise shapes. In 1931, he created an unusual faceted corner desk – best characterized as part cubist, part expressionist – with a hinged writing surface that closed to complete an asymmetrical prism. This early piece, which embodies the developmental stage of Esherick’s artistic thinking, showcases the clever use of space that provided an exciting challenge for him.

As Esherick’s reputation grew, so did commissions for furniture and interior designs. He began to incorporate the essential elements of Art Deco, gradually moving toward the sensuous style in which he worked for the rest of his life. One of his early interiors was for the residence of Judge Curtis Bok and his wife, Nellie Lee Bok, in Gulph Mills, Montgomery County. The Bok commission not only kept Esherick employed during the Great Depression but generated favorable publicity – both in print and by word of mouth. “My sculpture overflowed into my furniture,” Esherick said, and certainly this was true throughout the Bok house for which he crafted nearly everything: walls, ceilings, floors, stairs, storage units, furniture, sculpture, even an outdoor lamp post. The Bok house has been demolished, but Esherick’s interiors were removed first; its red oak library wall is installed in the American Wing of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

By the mid-1930s the warped surfaces, stacked blocks, reverse or “S” curves, and spirals that had fascinated Esherick dominated his work. The artist was fortunate that lumberman Ed Ray provided the twisted, highly grained wood which inspired his creativity.

Although Esherick shunned visitors during working hours, his studio was frequently a gathering place for musical and literary figures. Rather than a theatrical salon, the studio was a relaxed setting for both the famous and the not­-so-famous who felt comfortable in the presence of their unpretentious host. “Wharton got to know people in the [Philadelphia] orchestra,” says Ruth Bascom. “He knew [conductor Leopold] Stokowski, [concertmaster Alexander] Hilsberg, [principal flautist William] Kincaid and others,” all of whom were regular visitors, along with principal oboist Marcel Tabuteau.

English author Ford Madox Ford (1873-1939) and American writer and editor Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945), well known for his novel Sister Carrie, joined Sherwood Anderson in Esherick’s circle of friends. Dreiser worked on the stage version of An American Tragedy in Esherick’s kitchen. Esherick forged a friendship with Jasper Deeter, founder in 1923 of Hedgerow Theatre in Rose Valley, Delaware County. “Mutual friends introduced them,” says writer Susan Hinkel, who knew Esherick and is currently at work on his biography. “Hedgerow was a true repertory company, and Esherick was tremendously impressed with what they were doing and the superior quality of the performers. During their association he made woodcut posters for them, he designed and built some of the sets, he designed props, and as time went by he exhibited some of his sculptural works in the theater. Some of his patrons first saw his work at Hedgerow.” Esherick’s teal-painted carved horse, Cheeter, and its partner, Jeeter, stood at Hedgerow Theatre’s entrance for years. The theatre was destroyed by arson in 1985 and with it went Esherick’s well-known stairway to the stage. (The Hedgerow Theatre was rebuilt and
reopened in December 1990.) It was at Hedgerow Theatre that Esherick met actress Miriam Phillips, who became his long-time companion.

Not surprisingly, it took little time for the Eshericks to acquire a reputation as bohemian. They were markedly unconventional: the children called their parents by their first names, and were at various times home-schooled or enrolled in progressive schools. Ruth Bascom remembers the kind of questions she faced when she entered public school in fourth grade. “I would be asked, ‘Oh, do you come from that nudist colony up on the hill?'”

Featured in exhibitions mounted by New York’s Whitney Museum in 1924 and 1934, Esherick was becoming widely known as a sculptor, designer, and craftsman. He was selected by socially prominent Philadelphia architect George Howe to create a room for the “America at Home” pavilion at the New York World’s Fair of 1939-1940, billed as “The World of Tomorrow” (see “Currents” in the Fall 1993 issue). Howe designed a room around the furnish­ings that Esherick had readily available at his studio for the installation the pair named “A Pennsylvania Hill House.” Esherick included the studio’s spiral staircase, a curved, upholstered sofa originally made for the Bok house, and a five-sided asymmetrical table with a black phenol (plastic insulating material) top set in a hickory frame, along with a sideboard, chairs, and lamps. He created these pieces with efficiency, durability, and beauty in mind: storage space was plentiful, the tabletop was easy to clean, the couch served as a room divider, and all embodied his trademark organic “tree forms.” Ordinarily, commissions would have poured in after such visibility but, unfortunately, looming on the horizon of “The World of Tomorrow” as World War II.

“He looked at each commission not as a source of income but as a chal­lenge,” says Bob Bascom. Esherick never grew wealthy selling his work­ even though one of his tables sold recently for twenty-four thousand dollars – and many believe he could surely have made more money had he been willing to market his pieces aggressively. “He did not want to go out and sell or advertise,” says Esherick’s son Peter. “‘If people want Esherick, they will come to Esherick’ was his philosophy.”

He sometimes became so enamored of his creations that he couldn’t bear to part with them. “When people wanted to buy some of his sculpture,” says Ruth Bascom, “he got reluctant to see some of his old friends go. He’d say ‘I’ll sell it to you if I can have a casting of it.'”

In 1940, the fifty-four­-year-old artist added to the studio; a two-story wooden wing housed a dining room with a high­-sheen floor of applewood and walnut scraps, and a second bedroom above. The view of the forest from the large windows in the dining room brings the outdoors in, seamlessly meshing the structure with its surroundings. Esherick’s daughter Mary was grown and gone; his estranged wife Letty and younger daughter, Ruth, lived at Hedgerow Theatre. That left fourteen-year-old Peter at home with his father.

“My room was the top floor of the addition,” Peter Esherick says. “I lived there with him, the two of us as bachelors, until I went into the service in 1944. Our relationship for the most part was pretty good. Wharton wanted to be alone when he was doing his work. He insisted on that with his family, with his friends, curiosity seekers. Once he got that signal through to me, why, I didn’t bother him and he didn’t bother me.”

From a1l accounts, Wharton Esherick was always working. “He’d wake up in the middle of the night and get out his drawing pad, to draw or sketch an idea he had,” remembers the artist’s son. “The Actress [a cherry sculpture of an actress gazing into a hand mirror] used to have a lipstick. One night Wharton woke up, two or three o’clock in the morning. ‘It’s not right,’ he said. He went downstairs, took a saw, cut off the arm with the lipstick, and went back to bed.”

Esherick loved to draw, and enjoyed driving back roads and country lanes to study and sketch Pennsylvania German farmsteads. “He always had a stub of a pencil and scrap paper with him,” recalls Peter Esherick. “I remember one time we saw a barn that he wanted to draw, but Wharton had forgotten his pencil. So we sat there, and he looked at it and he looked at it. We drove home and he drew it exactly. I think that came from his painting training.”

Esherick believed in organic architec­ture, which emphasizes the harmonious relationship between structures and their environment. Because of this philosophy, inevitable parallels have been drawn between Esherick and master architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1869-1959), comparisons that Esherick might not have appreciated. According to Bob Bascom, his father-in-law thought he was much truer to the principles of organic architecture than was the better-known Wright. “Wharton liked what Wright wrote but not what Wright wrought,” Bascom quips. “He didn’t think that Wright’s work was all that organic. He felt that Wright ought to go back and read his own books.”

Esherick’s reaction to his work being mistaken for Wright’s was no more apparent than the evening he invited Peter’s future wife Helen and her two older sisters to dinner. “It was in 1942. We walked into the studio and saw the staircase,” Helen Esherick recalls. “My middle sister, Frances, said, ‘Oh, I’ve seen that before. Was that something Frank Lloyd Wright did?’ So Wharton hit the ceiling, as you can imagine, and came back down. And then we realized that we actually had seen the staircase in 1940 at the New York World’s Fair. We had seen ‘A Pennsylvania Hill House.’ We had a very nice evening after we got past that little problem.”

No matter the project, painstaking finishing was a must. The process began with several days of sanding by hand, alternately wetting down the wood and sanding repeatedly until the grain no longer stood up, then continuing with boiled linseed oil, using increasingly finer grades of sandpaper. Esherick rubbed extreme­ly fine pumice into the wood with his bare hands, until the surface was as smooth as satin. Because of this process, Esherick’s pieces appear not to age, but to rather to mellow beautifully with minimal maintenance.

Esherick added a bathroom and kitchen to the wooden section of the studio in 1947. His inimitable touches included a green marble sculpture, aptly titled Bird in Rain, embedded in the shower wall. The next structural change took place in 1956, when Esherick wanted to build a woodshop separate from the studio. Unlike the old days, he discovered he needed a building permit, so he turned to his friend, Estonian-born American architect Louis I. Kahn (1901-1974), for design collaboration. Their starkly different styles required a medley of compromises, and the result was a beehive-like building that each individ­ual regarded as the other’s creation: three joined hexagons, each with three diamond-shaped roof planes and sloping eaves. The unusual structure, with nary a right angle to be found, is now the home of the Bascoms.

With the completion of this new, larger studio, the earthen floor in the older building was excavated to create a gallery well for tall sculp­tures, and former work space was converted into a sitting room and study. A free-form deck is accessed from the dining room. In 1966, a curvilinear stucco silo-tinted like a tree in full autumn color-enlarged the kitchen, added a bath, and completed the building.

Wharton Esherick died at nearly eighty-three in 1970. (In the spirit of utility that typified his entire life, he left his body to medical science.) A year later, friends and family found­ed the Wharton Esherick Museum to preserve his place in American art history. Under the directorship of Bob Bascom, the museum opened its doors to the public in 1972.

For a half century, Wharton Esherick paid passionate homage to wood by respecting its inherent characteristics – grain, expansive and contractive nature, twists and turns­ – and bringing out the best it had to offer. Today, a visit to the studio provides the ultimate venue for seeing, firsthand, just how deeply wood repays the compliment. Together with woodcuts, sculpture, and furniture, the museum houses small household items Esherick designed and used, including a pepper mill, bread board, salad servers, and honey spoon. No domestic tool or household device could be considered mundane after Esherick worked on it. It is little wonder that during his lifetime his work was shown at the Art Institute of Chicago, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Philadelphia Art Alliance, and major museums in Boston, Rochester, Indianapolis, St. Paul, Seattle, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Milwaukee, Chattanooga, and Atlanta. His works have been added to the collections of the American Crafts Museum in New York, the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. In 1949, the Fairmount Park Art Association acquired Reverence, a piece the artist submitted to the Third Sculpture International Exhibition, and described in a review for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin by Walter Emerson Baum (see “Painting a Sense of Place: Walter Emerson Baum and the Lehigh Valley” by Martha Hutson-Saxton in the Spring 1997 edition).

“Local interest, of course,” wrote the Sellersville painter and columnist, “will be centered in the purchase of Wharton Esherick’s strange figure called Reverence. Here the simplest elements of the human form are used to invest a longish piece of black walnut with something of human dignity. Esherick, known for his carved furniture as well as figure pieces, is a sculptor of great originali­ty and here again the selection will be put down as an excellent choice.” The Fairmount Park Art Association cast its vote at a cost of fifteen hundred dollars.

Even before a visitor enters the studio, the marriage of form and function with which Esherick infused his work is obvious. A rosewood latch on the studio door has none of metal’s cold, forbidding qualities; one can grasp it barehanded in the middle of winter and not experience unwelcome iciness. He took care, too, to make the handle equally comfortable for both right- and left-handed guests.

Once inside the studio, it’s easy to understand why Jack Lenor Larsen, a long-time president of the American Crafts Council, called Wharton Esherick “the most important furniture designer of the twentieth century.” Esherick’s creations realize the artist’s goal: “I was impatient with the contemporary furniture being made – straight lines, sharp edges, and right angles – and I conceived free angles and free forms; making the edges of my tables flow so that they would be attractive to feel or caress.” Indeed, the museum’s “please touch” rule is an invitation to do the inevitable (and, in most museums, the unthinkable).

Wharton Esherick’s masterpiece, the famous and highly photographed red oak spiral staircase, rises dramatically upward through the studio. The consummate combination of beauty and utility, the magnificent free-form staircase resembles a bifurcated tree with one limb leading to the bedroom loft, the other to the dining room and kitchen. The railing may be the world’s most inventive use of a mastodon tusk. Functional and elegant, the staircase is proof that there need be no separation between practicality and aesthetics.

Although driven and ambitious, Esherick was playful nonetheless. Many of the light pulls and small sculptures mimic monkeys or, perhaps, primate-like people. Workers who helped build the studio arrived one morning to find their caricatures carved into wooden coat pegs near the door. “Wharton had a great sense of humor,” says Bob Bascom, “and that’s one of the things that has prevailed through the present generation of woodworkers­ – the joy of creativity.”

Wharton Esherick’s studio remains virtually unchanged since his death. His belongings, including clothes, books, and papers, remind visitors of his worldly presence, but his indelible spirit permeates the flowing walls, floors, sculptures, and household utensils. And pervasive is his philosophy: “If it isn’t fun, it isn’t worth doing.”


The Wharton Esherick Museum and Studio is on Horseshoe Trail, off Diamond Rock Road, near Paoli. Visiting hours are Saturday, from 10 A.M. to 5 P.M.; and Sunday, from 1 to 5 P.M. Group tours are available by advance reservation on weekdays between 10 A.M. and 4 P.M. The museum is closed d11ring the months of January and February. Reservations are required, and admission is charged. To obtain more infor­mation or to make reservations, write: Wharton Esherick Museum and Studio, Post Office Box 595, Paoli, PA 19301-0595; or telephone (610) 644-5822. To preserve the original flooring, visitors are required to wear low-heeled shoes.

The Wharton Esherick Museum and Studio has conducted its fourth annual woodwork­ing competition and has recently opened an exhibition entitled “Toying with Wood.” A juried show of toys by contemporary wood­workers, “Toying with Wood” features toys made primarily of wood and as expressions of nontraditional, imaginative, and new design. Through these annual theme competitions and exhibitions, the Wharton Esherick Museum and Studio seeks to encourage cre­ative thinking and the development of imagi­native new forms for ordinary, everyday functions. Yearly themes are based on utili­tarian objects such as those to which Wharton Esherick applied his innovative sense of design and craftsmanship. “Toying with Wood” continues through Wednesday, December 31 [1997].


For Further Reading

Balch, Penny Balkin. Public Art in Philadelphia. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992.

Conway, Patricia. Art for Everyday. New York: Clarkson Potter, 1990.

Dormer, Peter. The New Furniture: Trends and Traditions. London: Thames and Hudson, 1987.

Nordness, Lee. Objects: USA. New York: Viking Press, 1970.

Stone, Michael. Contemporary American Woodworkers. Layton, Utah: Peregrine Smith Books/Gibbs M. Smith, Inc., 1986.

Wainwright, Nicholas B., ed. Sculpture of a City: Philadelphia’s Treasures in Bronze and Stone. New York: Walker Publishing Company, Inc., 1974.

Wallance, Don. Shaping America’s Products. New York: Reinhold, 1956.


The author thanks Ruth and Bob Bascom, Peter and Helen Esherick, Susan Hinkel, Wendell Castle, and Rob Leonard, director of the Wharton Esherick Museum and Studio since 1990, for their assistance, espe­cially for sharing their perspec­tives and insights.


Sharon Hernes Silverman of West Chester, Chester County, is an award­-winning travel and feature writer. More than one hundred of her articles have appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout North America, including the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Mid-Atlantic Country. She is the author of Going Underground: Your Guide to Caves in the Mid-Atlantic (1991).