Arts & Leisure

Henry Who? Exploring Sheldon’s life in pictures

KARI, I HAVE a feeling that we are not alone...

Really? Henry L. Sheldon collected cartoons over 120 years ago? Yes! Last winter, in the midst of the pandemic, the Sheldon Museum was contacted by a known New Yorker cartoonist, Ed Koren. He explained that he was in possession of two bound volumes of Sunday supplements from the New York World, one of the first newspapers in the U.S. that published comic strips. The two huge bound volumes (19 inches x 22 inches), which bear Henry L. Sheldon’s name, contained the “Sunday funnies” — as cartoons were then known — published between 1898 and 1902. They represent the early days of cartooning with drawings by such genre pioneers as Richard F. Outcault. We do not know how years ago these volumes made their way out of the Museum and into the hands of Mr. Koren. But thanks to his generosity, they were recently repatriated and now are a permanent part of the Sheldon’s archive.

This coming Aug. 15, we will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Henry Luther Sheldon (1821-1907), the Museum’s founder. While working on upcoming exhibits to commemorate this special occasion, we, the staff, are continuously amazed at the richness and diversity of the collections amassed by him. Although Mr. Sheldon largely devoted his life to documenting local history, he also kept a sharp eye on what mattered in the larger world. Clearly, he recognized the novelty of cartoons as valuable historical documents worthy of collecting. One day while brainstorming about new ways of bringing Henry’s achievement to public attention during this important year, an idea sparked: Why not present Henry as a hero of his own cartoon strip? But who could execute such an idea?

Several years ago, while reading to my then young son, I developed a particular fondness for the witty children’s book author and vivid illustrator, “Jolly” Roger Bradfield. Coincidentally, he also worked as a newspaper cartoonist, one among many of his artistic careers. Sometime later, I discovered that my new neighbor and now dear friend, Kari Hansen, was his daughter. Hansen has worked professionally for many years as an architectural wood designer. She is also an artist in her own right and a wonderfully creative person whose talents and sense of humor were nourished by her artistic family. During this past year’s seclusion, Hansen furthered her drawing skills by making each day a sketch of her experiences — a project that now forms a full year’s visual calendar of her life during the pandemic, an intimate document of what mattered to her during this trying time.

Undoubtedly, Hansen was the right person for this cartooning project. Many brainstorming sessions followed, and the result of our collaboration will be published for the next six weeks in the calendar section of Arts+Leisure of this newspaper (see page 6). Henry’s life will unfold in a weekly three-panel cartoon drawn by Hansen and accompanied by my captions. 

Few of us know much about Henry L. Sheldon, a somewhat eccentric man, who amassed one of the richest, but little known and under-appreciated historical collections in all New England, rendering Middlebury perhaps one of the best documented towns in the entire region. Recently passed and deeply missed National Geographic photographer, Jim P. Blair, recognized this amazing wealth of materials and used to call the Sheldon Museum a “Little Smithsonian.” It is our hope that this visual homage to Henry L. Sheldon will increase public awareness of and appreciation for his contributions to Addison County and beyond. Visit the Henry Sheldon Museum — your community museum — which will reopen on July 13 with exciting exhibits and programming.  And be sure to attend Henry’s birthday celebrations on Aug. 15.

Contributed by Eva Garcelon-Hart, Sheldon Museum’s Stewart-Swift Research Center Archivist.

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