Serving the Episcopal Community of Pacific Grove and the Monterey Peninsula since 1887


Bruce Porter - Idealist

 
Facts concerning the public life of Bruce Porter (1865 - 1953) may be read in biographical dictionaries--Who's Who in America (1910), Who's Who in California (1927-28). This short summary is rather intended to bring out certain personal traits, turns of character that would not normally receive comment.

 

Bruce Porter was an idealist.
 
Bruce Porter was a high-geared idealist. He was a turn-of-the-Century dreamer. Viewed from this angle, his paintings, his stained-glass designs, and his choice of Swedenborgianism in religion, all seem to make more sense. He likewise married a mystic-idealist, Margaret James, daughter of William James of Harvard. (The James family generally seems to have had mystic tendencies, what with the father of William and Henry having himself been a disciple of Swedenborg.)
 
Bruce Porter's father was of Yankee seafaring stock. He was a Contra Costa newspaper publisher, and he was twice elected to the State Legislature. He married Mary Williamson, an Irish Catholic woman who became a Protestant; but however she might have wavered and wandered from the True Faith, she ruled over her sons with that might and resolve known only to the fair daughters of Erin. She is described as "charming," and Bruce spoke of her with the highest praise during all of his life. She held such sway over her sons that they swore they would not marry until she had passed away, but Bruce did manage to break and marry at age 53, his brothers remaining unmarried and at home until after their mother's death.
 

Bruce Porter's idealism put him in tune with the "East Bay Socialists" of the period. Such a nature as Bruce Porter would easily be penetrated and led astray by the lofty humanitarian claims of Socialists. The strong Anglo-Saxonism, the strong pro-white, and the strong anti-colored raciality of Jack London is totally absent in Porter. He was genteel, high-minded; he was a kind of "limousine liberal." As the decades of the 20th Century lapsed, he began to view Communism as the answer.

Bruce Porter believed in Communism, and he was a convinced and persuaded believer. But the Asiatic and brutal aspects of Communism caused him finally to drop his hopes of finding a panacea in Communism, and he was quite disillusioned. His son Robert Bruce and his nephew Bruce Weber, a Rhodes Scholar, were also extreme leftists of the humanitarian, brotherly-love stripe.
 

Porter was friendly with Dora Williams, Virgil Williams' widow. Porter received an unsigned English watercolor from "my friend, Dora Williams," which is currently in possession of Porter's daughter-in-law, Paula Porter. This watercolor bears his holographic inscription that indicates his friendship with Dora Williams. It may have been Dora Williams who encouraged Porter's adulation of Robert Louis Stevenson, since she had been quite friendly with Stevenson.

He was likewise an aficionado of Henry James.
 
Porter seems to have come under the spell of the Eastern painter John LaFarge. I was told that they were personal friends, that they visited when Porter went East, and that they corresponded.
 
Porter was likewise friendly with the Piedmont painter Arthur Atkins. They saw each other in Paris, and the Porter and Atkins families remained friendly through the late 1940's, to my personal knowledge.
 

Bruce Porter was friendly with and apparently a strong influence on the sculptor Arthur Putnam. Putnam named his daughter after Bruce Porter, and Porter was one who was consulted in regard to the advisability of Putnam's ultimate "lobotomy."

Bruce Porter developed mental problems at about age 30. I found this subject a delicate one, and so I approached it with a circumspect distance. I was told "It was a long time age," and again, "I am sure you know about his nervous breakdown." I suspect it was rather late in the Century -- perhaps about 1895. The Brown family of medical doctors in San Francisco might provide information in this regard. This family maintained and Arequipa Sanitarium in Marin County. The Browns and Porters were hereditary friends, so I would be inclined to imagine treatment for his "breakdown" may have been at Arequipa.

I do not think this "nervous breakdown" was too extreme, since Porter resumed a regular life. (Remember that Porter was an idealist and a mystic. Talk of 'visions' is still a common word used to describe him.)
 
Frank Norris' relations to Bruce Porter have been carefully documented. Porter seems to have supplied the seminal inspiration for much of Norris' writing.
 
Bruce Porter -- painter, poet, and general litterateur, was not without pet theories. Porter was convinced that Bacon, not Shakespeare, was the secret, under-cover author of our great Elizabethan dramas. Porter was so carried away with these dreams that he abandoned his work on the Pacific Union Club murals at midstream. He embarked for England for a two year search to find the lodestone of proof that Bacon, not old Will, was our man. His assistant finished the Pacific Union Club murals while Porter -- fighting destiny and accepted belief -- failed to gain credence for his theory. He painted over his assistant's efforts on his return.
 
Porter is described as "social minded," a euphemism for leftist, I think. He was fond of luncheons in downtown San Francisco with his friends, and often went on shopping sprees in old Chinatown. He was well spoken, fond of ghost stories and of relating his mystical experiences -- and he had many -- 'till the wee hours of the morning. He was well set financially. He built a house on Pacific Avenue for his mother, and maintained his own home on Chestnut Street where his son and daughter were raised. He also had a home in Santa Barbara, and another at Big Sur. His favorite tree was the poplar, and poplars were planted in his memory at Portsmouth Square by Phoebe Brown.
 
Porter's Probate is filed in the County of San Francisco under number 129950, and actions relating to it are listed in volume 260, page 450. Wayne Collins was his attorney. (Wayne Collins was raised in part at a Boys' Home established on Potrero Hill by Bruce Porter and the Rev. Worcester of the Church of New Jerusalem in San Francisco. The former Boys' Home is now the site of the Rudolph Schaefer School of Design.)
 

The Porter Probate record provides interesting reading, and offers a great understanding of Bruce Porter. He lived like a medieval bishop. Page after page enumerate his stock and bond holdings as well as real properties. It is difficult to reconcile personal wealth with Socialism, but it throws light on the lofty deception and shallow clichés used early in the Century to garner support for the Left among "intellectuals." Bruce Porter was one of those so deceived.

Porter also had a large art collection. It ran the gamut from China-town trinkets to Italian Baroque; prints, oils, Orientalia, Chippendale furniture, an Arthur Atkins view of Wales, some twenty oils done in his own hand, stained glass designs, and five "large landscapes" in his basement. I have been able to determine that one of these landscapes was a Virgil Williams, but the other four remain unidentified. There were some 1,500 books and pamphlets.

The Bancroft Library is in possession of much Bruce Porter paraphernalia.
 
Bruce Porter married a 27 year old woman at age 53. He was introduced to his bride-to-be at a dinner party at the Pacific Heights home of the Hooker family. His marriage was quite happy. (I understand that Bruce Porter's mother made Margaret uncomfortable, but otherwise it was a fine marriage.) Margaret pre-deceased her husband by some three years, dying of cancer. Porter had a hard time after Margaret's death. He suffered a modestly severe arthritis in later life, but I am told by Julia Porter, Bruce's sister-in-law, that Bruce Porter was lucid and clear right to the end.
 
Porter fiddled around a lot. His efforts as a painter were eclipsed by other enthusiasms. His spiritualism took precedence over all other aspects of his life. His wife Margaret was always first to visit a new clairvoyant or to attend a promising séance, so rather than put the brakes to his abstract trends, she journeyed along with him away from the work-a-day activities of a down-to-earth painter into the distracted realms of a dreamer. Eugen Neuhaus rightly complains of Porter's "fitful" dedication to painting and, hence, his small output. Some half a dozen oils by Porter can be seen at the rectory of the Swedenborg Church, Lyon Street, San Francisco, and others are on view at Filoli. Two stained glass windows by Porter likewise adorn the church.
 
Porter's "Presidio Cliffs," which is illustrated in Art in California and which was hailed as Bruce Porter's finest painting, is still in possession of descendents of Mrs. Julius Weber, Porter's sister; and Mrs. Julia Porter owns an extremely fine oil, a wedding present from her husband's brother Bruce.
 

Porter's paintings are usually initialed B.P., and they are generally dated.

Porter is barely known today as a painter, and it is interesting to speculate on the position that passage of time might assign to his work. Whatever that may be, Bruce Porter was a potent art personality.

 

Prepared by:
Tim Mason
P.O. Drawer X
Carmel, California
May, 1982

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