Arthur P. Dickson
My grandmother had a brother who died relatively young — 15 years before I was even born. He’d been a commercial illustrator, and visiting her house growing up, I saw evidence of her brother’s former existence.
I remember she’d hung one his paintings in an upstairs bedroom — of a well dressed man with a very white collar. She said that he had painted it for an Arrow Shirt ad, but I never saw the advertisement. It would be interesting to find it, but I reckon it would be pretty hard. Since any online search would only yield the work of another, more celebrated illustrator: J. C. Leyendecker.
If you’re hoping to make a mark on the world, dying too soon can put you at a disadvantage. Leyendecker lived to the age of 77, but my great uncle, Arthur Parkinson Dickson was 51 when he died (of tuberculosis) in 1939.
As a result, he’s now widely unknown. So finding any information about his life and career online is difficult. Still, we have certain clues…
Like Albrecht Dürer, Arthur Dickson (sometimes) signed his work with an “AD” monogram. He actually used two different monograms. The first version, taken from his self portrait above, is shown here: a square mark with a circular AD carved out as negative space.
Arthur Dickson’s 1915 Silent Film Heralds
I found his “AD” monogram in this illustration of Theda Bara. The reproduction here isn’t so good. I had to do some image processing to make visible the faint “Vampire” type (and bat!) behind the figure. It would have been better, of course, to find the actual May 1915 issue of Exhibitors Bulletin (Fox Film’s “Lively Magazine for Theatre Owners”) depicted in the ad. Other issues of Exhibitors Bulletin (1917–1918) can be seen at Hathi Trust, but the May 1915 issue seems to be unavailable.
William Fox founded his Fox Film Corporation in 1915 and my great uncle appears to have been been there right from the start of the silent film era.
If we search for vintage Fox Film posters, we don’t find anything with this monogram. Search instead for “William Fox movie heralds,” however, and we find plenty. “Movie Heralds” were the inexpensively printed flyers that were given away at the box office to promote upcoming films.
The earliest commercial illustration by Dickson that I’ve found online is the one below. My great uncle would have been 27 at the time.
A Vamp There Was
It’s been pointed out, that this is not a good likeness of Theda Bara, and I don’t think it’s Dickson’s best work. He captured the Theda Bara vibe much better in his illustration for “The Vampire.” But “A Fool There Was” was a pivotal film for both William Fox and Theda Bara, launching the actress as a major silent film star and establishing her typecast “vamp” persona.
Although I’ve always understood the meaning of the term “vamp” (a seductive woman), I never realized that it derived from the word “vampire.” And, apparently, this was movie that coined the term for popular usage.
Clipping of vampire. From a character type developed first for silent film, notably for Theda Bara’s role in the 1915 film A Fool There Was.
Wiktionary: “vamp” (etymology 2)
(More about Arthur Dickson’s work for Fox Film Corporation: after the fold…)
All signed with Dickson’s “AD” monogram, I found most of these 1915 silent movie “heralds” at Heritage Auctions
The 1915 “Fox Exchange Men’s Convention”
I’ve only found one photograph of Dickson online: in this large group photo of the “Fox Exchange Men’s Convention” published in the July 17, 1915 issue of Motion Picture News. (Moving Picture World had also simultaneously published the same photo.)
William Fox held his 1915 convention in New York, which is where Dickson worked and where Fox Film Corporation had its home office at the time.
For a later convention in 1930, William Fox chartered a train from New York to Los Angeles. Arthur Dickson also attended that convention and was one of the passengers on that train.
So much of Arthur P. Dickson’s life is a big question mark. Why is there so much work from 1915? There’s much less to be found in the subsequent years. Of course, he probably did not bother signing everything that he did while working on staff for “20 years.”
In fact, there’s a lot of work that I suspect he may have done, but can’t say for certain. He most likely did his own hand-lettering on the 1915 heralds that he signed. How much of the typography in early Fox Film ads did he also have a hand in? Fox Film came out with innumerable versions of their logo, during his tenure. Did he design any of those?
In 1922, Arthur P. Dickson is mentioned in the in-house publication, Fox Folks.
Now working as the “incomparable director” of the Fox Film Publicity Department’s “Art Department,” Dickson was featured in a paragraph that summed up his job with the corny joke that:
“Art” certainly knows Art!
Over time, Arthur did use a number of name variations… Arthur Dickson… Arthur P. Dickson… A. P. Dickson. Some of his friends called him “Dick” — short for “Dickson”. And his nieces (my mom and my Aunt Mary) as young children used to call their playful uncle: “Rah-Rah”—baby-talk for “Arthur.”
But I’d never heard of anyone calling him ‘Art.’ I bet he hated that!
1927: A Demotion or Lateral Move ?
If Dickson was the “director” of the art department in 1922, things changed for him in 1927.
In several publications it was announced that Fox Films was “reorganizing” its publicity department. And that A. P. Dickson would now be “responsible for the production of lithographic posters.”
Starting around the same time we find a different Arthur Dickson monogram: an “A” contained within a triangular “D.” I like the center version where the “A” has been reduced to a triangular spiral, echoing the triangular spiral shape of the “D.”
So far I’ve only found these on six posters.
Dickson’s poster for Vampire a la Mode marks the cultural moment when “vamp” was being displaced by “flapper.” Here, as in some of the other posters, Dickson seemed to be emulating the cartoonish illustration style of John Held, Jr.
Exhibitors Herald and Moving Picture World published Dickson’s poster in their June 2, 1928 issue
How do I really know that this is the work of Arthur P. Dickson? Because Glendon Allvine (who was head of Fox’s publicity department at the time) tells us so in his letter to the editor of Exhibitors Herald and Moving Picture World archly commenting on the plagiarism of Dickson’s poster by Milwaukee theater artist, L. McDaniel.
Two Plagiarized Posters
While Dickson may have copied the style of John Held, Jr., McDaniel copied a bit more that just style…
… I do not know Mr. McDaniel, but I would be more impressed by what you quaintly term “his use of color, design, etc,” if he were less careless about the origins of his posters for the Alhambra theatre in Milwaukee.
I particularly like the two posters used for the Universal picture, “Jazz Mad.” I like them because they were originated in my office at Fox Films, one for “Dry Martini” and the other for “Vampire a la Mode.”
If Universal pictures can best be advertised in Universal theatres by the use of one sheets from any Fox Film Exchange, I personally have no objection and I am sure that Mr. Fox will be glad to make this gesture to Mr. Laemmle, through Mr. McDaniel.
Several people have been good enough to comment on the quality of the art work in the Annual Announcements of Fox products, published in the Exhibitors Herald-World of June 2.
If you will refer to the pages on “Dry Martini” and “Vampire a la Mode” (as Mr. McDaniel must have) you will see what I mean.
In fairness to the artists who did the original work, the color design for “Vampire a la Mode” was made by Arthur P. Dickson of the Fox art department and the design for “Dry Martini” as the Fox insert shows, was done by C. E. Millard, whose reputation as an artist is sufficiently well established by his poster designs displayed weekly at the Roxy theatre, New York.
— Glendon Allvine, director of advertising and publicity, Fox Film Corporation, New York City.
Milwaukee Exploitation Manager says: Plagiarism OK If Artist Is Too Busy
There was an answering letter the next month from John Meara, the “exploitation manager” for Milwaukee Theatre Circuit, Inc. (Note: although the word “exploitation” sounds like a distinctly bad thing to our ears today, it used to be more or less synonymous with “advertising” and “promotion.”)
In his letter, Meara defends the plagiarism of the Fox Film posters because, “there are weeks when heavy schedules do not allow an artist sufficient time to delve into purely original work.”
I didn’t find the ad above anywhere online. My cousin photographed it and sent it to me from my Aunt’s house in Indiana. (Thank you, Alice!) It shows that our great uncle Arthur must have also freelanced a bit.
Here A.C.A. stands for “American Cinema Association.” (Not the “Affordable Care Act.”)
Can’t find anything online about the actual film or the book that it was based on. ACA Pictures did promote “Be Yourself” and other upcoming movies in 1927 issues of Exhibitors Herald.
I could find no published ads for this film, although the item on the right mentions that ACA had “issued a 24-page booklet.” Perhaps Dickson’s ad for “Be Yourself” (above) was part of that publication.
The Movietone “Talkies”
Arthur Dickson also illustrated this 2-color ad for Mother Knows Best. It was Fox Film’s very first “talkie” (or “talker” as they called it here.)
Again, we see Dickson (by now 40 years old) using that cartoonish style that must have been deemed suitable for the roaring 20s youth market.
Note the duotone doctor quoted above saying, “Let flaming youth have its fling. Midnight joy rides and moonlight kisses are less dangerous to our jazzy generation than sex-starvation.”
This reminds us that in 1928 the Motion Picture Code had not yet been adopted. That started a couple years later in 1930.
Was Working for Fox Shameful?
Nowadays, more than anything “Fox” is synonymous with Fox News. Dickson’s tenure, however, was decades before Rupert Murdoch’s 1985 acquisition of 20th Century Fox. Although there was such a thing as Fox News back then, but it was more of a Movietone newsreel thing. (I wonder if Arthur had anything to do with this ad?)
But I’ve been puzzling over this “social” item published in a 1924 issue of The Cincinnati Enquirer. By 1924, Arthur had been working employed by Fox Film Corporation for 9 years. Arthur may have been taking classes at Columbia along with his youngest sister, but why omit any mention of his employment? Unless his employment was not as continuous as we thought. Or was there something shameful about working for Fox?
William Fox and his Fox Film Corporation were known as “the whorehouse film company” and their titles exclusively consisted of pictures that well may have been designed for that type of society. Titles included The Family Stain, The Blindness of Devotion, The Broken Law, The Unfaithful Wife, Her Mother’s Secret and Destruction. The leading Fox star was Theda Bara, who appeared in A Fool There Was, Sin, and in the one Fox gesture toward culture, a version of Carmen…
Charles H. Tarbox, Lost films, 1895-1917
It’s certainly true that a lot of the early silent movies presented by William Fox contained purient themes. But was that the only reason for this particular nickname?
Upton Sinclair Presents William Fox
General Film Company revoked William Fox’s license on the grounds that he had shown some of their films in a whorehouse (which was a lie), Fox retaliated by bringing a lawsuit against the Patents Company [The Motion Picture Patents Company] for $6 million, saying the companies involved constituted a trust in restraint of trade, thereby violating the Sherman Antitrust Act. Fox was a bulldog yapping at the heels of an elephant.
Hollywood East: Louis B. Mayer and the Origins of the Studio System
Looking for more information about this showing-films-in-a-whorehouse “lie,” I found this:
They had a charge against W. F. [William Fox], whereby they justified their decision to cancel his license. They charged that he had permitted their motion pictures to be shown in a house of prostitution in Hoboken. W. F. tells a curious story about this which illustrates the method of monopolies, not merely in the moving picture industry, but in all others that I have investigated.
… [William Fox’s] concern was supplying pictures to an exhibitor [a movie theater] in Paterson, New Jersey, and after the show the operator would bring the films back to New York and get the material for the next day’s show. …the trust [The Motion Picture Patents Company] had bribed this operator to take the films each night after the show to a house of prostitution in Hoboken, and the trust had caused a projection machine to be set up in this place and had run the films.
from Upton Sinclair Presents Willam Fox, 1933
So the “lie” was about The Motion Picture Patents Company fabricating false evidence to complete their monopoly.
Although… others have suggest that Fox’s bribery story might, itself, be a lie…
This part of Fox’s tale is, in all probability, a fiction…
The social evil, the moral order and the melodramatic imagination, 1890-1915
Re: the Art Education of Arthur P. Dickson…
According to family lore, Arthur had attended the The Art Students League of New York. He may have done so, but I haven’t found any class rosters from the early 1900s, so I can’t say whether that’s correct.
There was the aforementioned “social” item published in 1924, stating that he was a student at Columbia University—even though we know for a fact that he was (at that time) directing the art department for Fox Film’s publicity department. He might have been taking classes at Columbia, but it seems an unlikely place for him to have studied art.
Recently, my mother found some some postcards that had been sent to Arthur at a Chicago address in 1910. They were addressed to 1725 Wilson Ave. That address turns out to be the YMCA.
Was he attending the Art Institute of Chicago and living at the Y before moving to NYC? My Mom has unearthed some additional (unused) postcards that seemed to confirm this. And his cityscape above certainly looks like Chicago in the early 1900s with trolley cars and horse-drawn carriages.
I have a portrait that Arthur painted of a child—a little girl. I’d always thought that it had been done at the Art Students League, but maybe that little girl lived in Chicago and posed for a painting class at the Art Institute of Chicago.
If so, then the official story that Arthur P. Dickson studied art in NYC, might be true enough. Although it would be nice to know for sure where and with whom he studied.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, Arthur P. Dickson died of tuberculosis. My mother had always told me that he had stayed at Saranac Lake, known for its “cure cottages.” Although, he was known to spend time there, that was not where he sought treatment in his final days.
Recently, my mother found some letters, photos, press clippings and a death certificate among my grandmother’s papers. These tell us that, in November of 1939 as his condition worsened, A. P. Dickson traveled to North Carolina and admitted into the Pinehurst Sanatorium. There he died the following month. Seeing his death certificate, I was surprised to read under “date of onset” that he’d had pulmonary tuberculosis for “20 yrs.” This means that he first got sick 1919 when he was 31 years old.
DICKSON, ARTHUR PARKINSON (1888–c.1940), was born in Dayton, Montgomery County. He studied art in New York City and for more than 20 years was art director of Fox Films. His writings include a novel published posthumously: Death for the Corners, Boston, .
The title of the book is incorrect here. The book is actually entitled Death Bids For Corners. We also know that the date of Dickson’s death was 1939 rather than 1940, although, I guess that “c.” stands for “circa” which means: sometime around 1940.
My Mom found the 1941 publishing contract for the book, which appeared to have been signed by Arthur P. Dickson. I was skeptical about this signature. (On account of him already being dead and all.) So I checked it against a letter Arthur had signed in 1905, and the “A” and the “D” were completely different. They matched the handwriting of his mother, Augusta P. Dickson. (There’s more to tell about Arthur’s mother and father, but I shouldn’t digress.)
I had no idea that Arthur wrote a book, so I texted my brother (whose middle name is Dickson) and he was like, “I have a copy, not so good, fair, I guess. Also read an unpublished one of his I liked better.”
So maybe I’ll get to read those books at some point. Meanwhile, I found a photo of the book on Worthpoint from a 2013 ebay auction. I don’t think Dickson designed this cover, posthumously or otherwise.
I’ve never been a big reader of mysteries, but those that do would call Death Bids for Corners a “locked-room mystery.”
Several newspapers reviewed the book. The Baltimore Sun reviewed the book in 1941 and the Salt Lake Tribune reviewed it 1942.
The New York Times on Death Bids for Corners
The New York Times also weighed in on Dickson’s book. In 1941, they ran a scathingly bad review, concluding with, “To call this a second-rate mystery would be gross flattery.”
Seeing as how it was not even his choice to publish, but his mother’s, I guess it’s some consolation that Arthur, at least never had to read that.
The New York Public Library and “The Estate of Arthur P. Dickson”
After his death, someone in his family donated: “a collection of more than two thousand photographs of motion picture productions from the Estate of Arthur P. Dickson, Art Director for Fox Films, 1914–1934” to the New York Public Library.
The NYPL mentioned these donations in their 1942, 1943 & 1944 Bulletins.
I contacted the Library about viewing his collection and they told me:
Though I can’t trace anything in our catalog to the estate, I did find what appears to be the collection of colored sketches you’re referencing, under call number *T-Vim 2010-039. This collection is held onsite at the Library for the Performing Arts, and can be accessed on the 3rd floor by making a request at the Theatre reference desk.
I also enquired about the “three original paintings” (for Pilgrimage, Sea Wolf and Shanghai Madness) and learned:
Unfortunately, record keeping and material classification has evolved over the yeas, and sometimes it can be very difficult to trace these things. If this donation happened now, we would undoubtedly create an Arthur P. Dickson archival collection, but that wasn’t procedure 75 years ago. I’ll let you know if I find out anything more.
So even though Dickson was credited as the source of the collection in the 1940s, since then, his name has basically been expunged from the record. And you won’t find any of the collection by searching for “Arthur P. Dickson.”
Last month I took the subway up to the Library for the Performing Arts to see the “colored sketches.” I expected to find his “AD” monogram(s) on some of the artwork. But, although I definitely found some of the items mentioned above (“sketches for Merely Mary Ann, Gold and the Woman, The Unfaithful Wife, Fighting Blood, The Regeneration, The Power and the Glory“), they were all signed by other illustrators. (Gil Spear, Louis Fancher & George Hood)
Thinking about what it means to be an “art director,” it dawned on me that much of Dickson’s job would have been to direct other artists to create these posters. Moreover, whoever donated the collection (perhaps his sister, Sarah Augusta Dickson who worked for NYPL) would have likely kept Arthur’s own artworks as momentos of his life for the family.
A heartfelt thanks to my mom, my Aunt Mary and Cousin Alice for their help in researching our not-so-famous relative. So much of his work is online, but unattributed. Hopefully, we can make him a little less unknown.