A Woodcarver’s Legacy: The Work of Frank Jeck (Part One)

Glencairn Museum News | Number 8, 2019

Lachlan Pitcairn’s infant crib (1922) was carved for Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn by woodworker Frank Jeck, who worked at the Bryn Athyn Studios from the 1920s to the 1940s. The crib was exhibited by the Museum of Fine Arts Boston in 1987 (“The Art that is Life”: The Arts & Crafts Movement in America, 1875-1920) and by the American Craft Museum in 1993 (The Ideal Home: The History of Twentieth-Century American Craft, 1900-1920).

Figure 1: Raymond Pitcairn referred to his architectural philosophy—which includes the decorative arts—as building “in the Gothic way.”

What we know about Frank Jeck comes mostly from public records, and sadly we have no photographs of him. He was born in 1884 to a German-speaking family in Perjámos, a village in Hungary (now known as Periam, located in present-day Romania). According to his employment card on file with Raymond Pitcairn, Jeck’s education was limited to six years in public elementary school. He emigrated to the United States in 1903 when he was about 17 years old, and married a woman named Elizabeth, who, like Jeck, was born in Hungary. In 1918, on his World War One draft registration card, Jeck identified his employer as George E. Smith & Company in Philadelphia (a company specializing in interior construction). He listed his occupation as “woodcarving.” It is not known when Jeck left George W. Smith to work for Raymond Pitcairn.

Members of the Pitcairn family described Frank Jeck as a quiet, pleasant man, and a true artist, one who both designed and carved woodwork at Bryn Athyn Cathedral and Glencairn. Archival sources reveal that Jeck worked for Pitcairn in the 1920s and 30s, and his World War Two registration card shows that he was still working for Pitcairn as late as 1942. Pitcairn began closing down the various Bryn Athyn workshops during that year due to the war.

The five examples of Jeck’s work featured in our two-part issue of Glencairn Museum News were carved from two different types of wood—teak and cherry—and can be found on three different levels of Glencairn. On the fifth floor, in the family’s chapel, is a cherrywood Bible cabinet; on the third floor, in the master bedroom, are an elaborate infant’s crib, also carved from cherry, and the master bed, carved from teak; on the first floor, on the side of the entryway stairs, are four carved teak medallions depicting the Ages of Man, and in the Great Hall, in the inglenook on either side of the main fireplace, are teakwood benches.

Detailed archival materials do not exist showing the genesis of all five of these carving projects from conception to completion. However, the design principles that Raymond Pitcairn employed in his oversight of the production of these artworks are well known. Pitcairn referred to his architectural philosophy—which includes the decorative arts—as building “in the Gothic way.” He describes this philosophy in an unpublished manuscript:

“Artistic guidance applied continuously, and designers and craftsmen who work side by side, see eye to eye, and strive ever to build better and to produce work more beautiful, are needed for real building. The use of local materials, the study and development of designs by the aid of tri-dimensional models, the trial of materials in place before their final building in, and a determination to abandon even finished work, if this will lead to something better—all contribute toward building in the Gothic way” (Raymond Pitcairn, “Bryn Athyn Church: The Manner of the Building and a Defence Thereof,” book draft, 16, draft two).

 

Figure 2: Raymond Pitcairn directed Frank Jeck to carve this Bible cabinet for use in the family’s chapel around the year 1926, before construction had begun on Glencairn. The biblical imagery on the cabinet is repeated elsewhere in the chapel in stone and glass mosaic.

 

Figures 3-4: The top portion of Frank Jeck’s completed cherrywood Bible cabinet and an early model of it.

Figures 5-6: The bottom portion of Frank Jeck’s completed cherrywood Bible cabinet and an early model of it.

Pitcairn’s method may be observed by comparing Jeck’s completed cherrywood Bible cabinet with an early model of it (see Figures 3-6). Today the cabinet is the focal point of the east wall of Glencairn’s chapel. Pitcairn directed Jeck to carve it for use in the family’s chapel around the year 1926, before construction had begun on Glencairn. Interestingly, Pitcairn himself never did use the cabinet at Glencairn; upon its completion he decided to loan it to Bryn Athyn Cathedral for use in the council chamber, a space designed to hold meetings of the clergy. It was not placed in the Glencairn chapel, the space for which it was originally planned, until 2006.

 

Figure 7: Angels with flaming swords stand guard at the entrance to the garden of Eden (Genesis 3:24). The door pulls emerge from a tree as if they are pieces of fruit.

 

The doors of the cabinet feature images of the angels who stood guard with flaming swords at the entrance to the garden of Eden (Genesis 3:24). The two small, wood-carved capitals on either side of the doors depict the four “living creatures” around the throne of God in heaven (Book of Revelation 4:7). Both of these biblical themes are repeated elsewhere in the chapel in stone and glass mosaic. Above the doors is a decorative feature Jeck had used previously in a baby crib he made for Pitcairn: a peaked roofline combined with a trefoil arch (three interlocking rings) beneath it (see Figures 11-12). The top of the cabinet includes carved towers reminiscent of Glencairn’s main tower. Cherry is a hardwood and difficult to carve; Jeck’s skill is evident in the small, finely carved details of this cabinet.

Figure 8: The top of the Bible cabinet includes carved towers reminiscent of Glencairn’s main tower.

Figure 9: The two small, wood-carved capitals on either side of the doors depict the “living creatures” around the throne of God in heaven: “The first living creature was like a lion, the second living creature like a calf, the third living creature had a face like a man, and the fourth living creature was like a flying eagle“ (Book of Revelation 4:7). This capital shows the calf and the eagle.

Figure 10: The capital on the right side of the doors depicts two of the “living creatures” around the throne of God in heaven: one with the face of a man, and the other a lion (Book of Revelation 4:7).

Figure 11: Above the doors of the Bible cabinet is a decorative feature Frank Jeck had used previously in a baby crib he made for Pitcairn (Figure 12): a peaked roofline combined with a trefoil arch (three interlocking rings) beneath it.

Figure 12: One end of the baby crib made by Frank Jeck with the decorative feature of a peaked roofline combined with a trefoil arch (three interlocking rings) beneath it (see also Figure 11).

Sometime during the summer of 1922, while pregnant with her sixth child, Mildred Pitcairn wrote the following note to her children, who were at the shore: “I am delighted with the dear little wooden bed Daddy is having made for me. The carpenters have cut and fitted the big pieces and Mr. Jeck is doing the carving. It takes a long time because it is made of cherry wood and that is very hard.” Lachlan Pitcairn was born on September 1, but it was a few months more before the crib was ready. When Raymond wrote to Jeck in October, he was still going over the details: 

“There were so many things to do before leaving that I did not look at your drawing until I was on the train. You will notice that on one of the gables I have indicated to use the two motifs which were already adopted. Indeed I would like all four of the little circles filled with ‘crullers’ as indicated. For the other large circle, please use the quatrefoil in plate tracery either with a small molding around the outside or just plain. I have endeavored to draw the two suggested forms while sitting in the train, without much success. I would try both forms on a piece of wood, making the molding about as I have it or a little larger, and adopt the one that you feel looks best. I look forward with much pleasure to seeing the bed finished” (Raymond Pitcairn. Letter to Frank Jeck. 23 October 1922).

Figure 13: A closeup of the richly carved top and bottom rail on one side of the infant’s crib carved by Frank Jeck. The top rail features Roman arches filled with a variety of decorative designs, some of which convey the effect of weaving. The central medallion on the bottom rail portrays a peacock on land, and a swan or duck on water, separated by what appears to be a small tree.

 

Figure 14: Archival photograph of Lachlan Pitcairn’s baby crib taken in one of the Bryn Athyn workshops. Some portions of the crib have been carved, while others are still unfinished. A closer look at some of the uncarved portions reveals the use of an adze to give the wood “irregularities similar to hand-hammered metal” (Cooke 1987, 315; see full quotation below).

 

The family was living at Cairnwood, the 1895 Carrère & Hastings country house beside Glencairn, when the crib was first used (all of the Pitcairn children were born before Glencairn was completed). Lachlan Pitcairn donated the crib to Glencairn Museum in 1992, where it is now exhibited in the master bedroom. 

In 1987 the crib was exhibited by the Museum of Fine Arts Boston (“The Art that is Life”: The Arts & Crafts Movement in America, 1875-1920), and by the American Craft Museum in 1993 (The Ideal Home: The History of Twentieth-Century American Craft, 1900-1920). Interestingly, Pitcairn’s “building in the Gothic way” did not entail an exact duplication of medieval methods. Edward S. Cooke, Jr., an art historian and contributor to The Art that is Life, made the following observations about Jeck’s work on the crib:

“The present piece offers clear evidence of the difference between what Samuel Yellin referred to as natural texture and disfigurement. Even in the medieval period, small timbers such as the posts and rails of the crib would have been sawed or rived to approximate dimensions and then finished with jack and smoothing planes. Only on larger architectural beams was it appropriate to prepare the stock with broad axes or adzes. For the posts of this crib, Jeck used an adze to shape the timbers, endowing them with irregularities similar to hand-hammered metal. Emphasizing appearance and effect rather than process, his method shows how the romanticism of the reform movement could draw upon historically inappropriate technology to produce a desired aesthetic” (1987, 315).

 

Figure 15: One of the four posts on Lachlan’s crib with a tower-like structure reminiscent of Glencairn’s main tower.

 

Figure 16: Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn’s master bed, carved from teakwood by Frank Jeck. The date of 1931 is incised on one of the bed rails (see Figure 17).

 

Figure 17: A quotation taken from the wedding ceremony of Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn is carved around three sides of the base of their bed. Here a ram and ewe, a symbol for husband and wife, are enclosed by the initial letter “U” beginning the quotation. The date of the bed’s completion—1931—is incised below the ram and ewe.

 

Lachlan’s crib rests against the south wall of Glencairn’s third-floor master bedroom. In the center of the room is the master bed. The teakwood bed, completed by Jeck in 1931, includes several symbolic elements chosen by the Pitcairns. Raymond and Mildred shared a belief in New Church (Swedenborgian Christian) ideas about marriage. A pair of doves was carved on each one of the bedposts; in the works of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), a pair of doves symbolizes the love that exists between married partners. In accordance with their New Church faith, the Pitcairns believed that a loving marriage can bring both partners closer to God, and that married couples who truly love each other are reunited in heaven. Inscribed around the bed is an adaptation of a passage used in their 1910 wedding ceremony: “Unite our hearts in love to one another and to Thee. Give us one heart, one mind, one way. Grant us knowledge to see Thy way and power to do Thy will.”

 

Figure 18: Pairs of doves are carved on all four bedposts of the master bed. In the works of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) these symbolize the love that exists between married partners.

 

Figure 19: A corner of the master bed showing the intricate carving of the quotation around three sides.

 

Figure 20: On the headboard of the master bed (on the right) is a carving of the motto and emblem for Raymond Pitcairn’s 1905 graduating class at the Academy of the New Church.

 
 

Figure 21: On the headboard of the master bed (on the left) is a carving of an eagle brooding over her young, which may be intended to represent the Girls School at the Academy of the New Church.

 

Jeck carved two motifs in small medallions on the upper section of the bed’s headboard: on the left (presumably Mildred’s side) a stylized eagle tending to her young in the nest, and on the right (presumably Raymond’s side) the Greek words ginou pistos (“be faithful”), inscribed inside a laurel wreath. These Greek words, taken from the New Testament, were the motto of Raymond’s 1905 senior graduating class at the Academy of the New Church—the senior class banner features the same words and wreath. Raymond quoted the full biblical passage in his Academy valedictory speech that year: “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give to thee the crown of life” (Book of Revelation 2:10). The Greek word for crown, stephanos, may also be translated as “laurel wreath,” such as the ones placed on the heads of victors in ancient athletic games. 

The eagle brooding over her young seems to represent the Academy’s Girls School, from which Mildred graduated in 1906. The Academy of the New Church seal, first developed in 1877, used this image to symbolize the instruction of young people. In later years the brooding eagle came to symbolize the Girls School itself.

To be continued in the next issue of Glencairn Museum News: “A Woodcarver’s Legacy: The Work of Frank Jeck (Part Two).”

Individuals with information about—or photographs of—Frank Jeck are welcome to contact the editor of Glencairn Museum News at ed.gyllenhaal@glencairnmuseum.org.

A complete archive of past issues of Glencairn Museum News is available online here.