Berkeleyan Torrey owned Duchamp’s most famous painting

Daniella Thompson

2 February 2009

Torrey House
Torrey house, 1 Canyon Road (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2005)

He was only one of three partners, and the last of them to join the San Francisco firm of Vickery, Atkins & Torrey, purveyors of paintings in oil and water color, fine prints, objects of art, and picture frames.

First came William Kingston Vickery (1851–1925), who immigrated from Ireland in 1876. He settled in Piedmont when the latter was a sleepy Oakland suburb and was instrumental in bringing about its incorporation as a municipality in 1907.

Second came Vickery’s nephew Henry Atkins (1867–1920s), one of nine children, who arrived from England in 1888 and made his home near his uncle in Piedmont. The two founded a gallery at 236 Post Street in San Francisco.

Frederic Cheever Torrey (1864–1935) did not begin working for Vickery and Atkins until 1891 or so, but he was the first of the three to arrive in California. His father, the Boston wholesale grocer James Morrell Torrey, moved the family to Oakland before 1875. Frederic is said to have made the journey in a side-wheeler at the age of seven.

In Oakland, James established the successful grocery firm of Torrey, Whitman & Gardiner, which operated for many years on 11th Street near Broadway. In addition to Frederic, James and Elizabeth Torrey raised Arthur, an accountant; Harry Beal, a professor of zoology; and Janet, who married rancher Adolph Edward de Fremery.

In his mid-twenties, Frederic worked as a salesman for Sam C. Partridge, who operated the West Coast’s largest photographic supply house at 226 Bush St. in San Francisco. Partridge was well-known for his artistic photographs of Chinatown’s residents. For Torrey, the switch from selling photographs to selling paintings for Vickery and Atkins was a natural one. His prospects looked bright, and in July 1892 he married Alice Bayley of Oakland.

Ad in The House Beautiful, 1901

Vickery made Torrey partner in 1900. By then, the firm had branched out into Japanese woodblock prints, with an emphasis on the work of Hiroshige and other Ukiyo-e artists. They also sold artistic photographs. In his memoir, As I Remember, the pioneer Pictorialist photographer Arnold Genthe recalled his dealings with the gallery:

The art arbiter of San Francisco at that time was Mr. Vickery, the founder of Vickery, Atkins and Torrey, an art firm that has been a far-reaching influence in the development of taste and appreciation in the West. I took portraits I had made to Mr. Vickery and asked him to criticize them.

He looked them over carefully. “They are very interesting indeed,” he said. “But what are they? Mezzotints?”

“No, they are photographs.”

“They certainly don’t look it,” was his response. “Who took them?”

“I did.”

“I can’t believe it,” he said.

Up to that time I had had no criticism from a professional photographer. Now I took my pictures to the man with the most fashionable clientele in the city. When he had gone rapidly through them he said,“ Well, they may be art, but you’ll never be able to sell them. Take it from me, I’ve been in business here for twenty years and I know what I am talking about.” Within a year he was saying to his clients, “What kind of pictures do you want? Carbons or platinum? Or perhaps you want the new Genthe style. I can do that, too.”

Although he was the firm’s junior partner, Torrey’s taste and judgment were so highly trusted that he was the one who traveled annually to Europe on buying trips for the gallery. On 18 April 1906, he was in Berlin on such a trip when the San Andreas Fault ruptured. Eight days later, Henry Atkins sent him a 12-page letter describing the trying days of the great San Francisco earthquake and fire in minute detail. Atkins had been “almost shaken out of bed at 5:13” of the 18th to see “my house and uncle Will’s racking themselves about horribly and all the chimneys tumbling about in bricks and dust.”

From the deck of the ferry to San Francisco, Atkins saw “sheets of clear flames along the waterfront, under the great curtain of smoke and dust that overhung the city. Nearer, we could see fires along Market Street—and Wellman Peck’s big new building was flaming high.”

Letter from Henry Atkins to Frederic Torrey, 26 April 1906 (California Historical Society)

Having worked his way to Post Street, Atkins found little damage and the store intact. Setting about with the firm’s employees to board up “broken places in walls and skylights for fear of rain,” he observed the Call Building burst into flames. “At five,” he wrote to Torrey, “I realized that if anything was to be saved in case we were burned (and it didn’t look likely even then) prompt action was needed, so I hunted up John and sent him for the wagon. I got ready three loads of things [...] and as we drove off the third trip, at midnight, we were cleared off the scene at bayonet point practically—then the whole neighborhood was doomed.”

Looking ahead, Atkins remarked, “No one will want jades or Japanese prints here for a long time—and I think we should ship them to Portland and open there [...] I don’t even think a framing shop would pay yet.”

Rieber, Hutchinson, and Torrey houses, left to right, on Canyon Road, 1910. Behind the Torrey house is the Mouser house. (BAHA archives)

While Torrey was in Europe, his new house at the foot of Panoramic Hill was nearing completion. It was designed by Ernest Coxhead, who two years earlier had built a residence on the same block for Professor Charles H. Rieber. Torrey, Alice, and their daughter Dorothea had lived in Berkeley since 1898; first at 2222 Dana Street and later at 2329 College Avenue. According to Dorothea, their new home at 1 Canyon Road was due to be completed on 18 April 1906. After being jolted awake that morning, she and her mother went up the hill to inspect the damage and found the solid redwood building standing unharmed.

Like several other prominent Coxhead residential commissions, the Torrey house combined a rural shingled exterior with an opulent urban interior. Henry Atkins was responsible for the latter, which has been described as “baronial.”

An early photograph of the Torrey house (BAHA archives)

In 1908, Julia Morgan built a house for Prof. Lincoln Hutchinson between the Rieber and Torrey residences, and soon more newcomers were attracted by the beauty of the hill, occasionally creating friction.

A notable fracas arose in November 1909, when Edward Taylor Parsons and his wife, Marion Randall Parsons—both key figures in the Sierra Club—sought to buy a lot adjoining the properties of Torrey and his Canyon Road neighbors. Like much of Panoramic Hill, the land had been owned by Dr. Silas Mercer Mouser, a San Francisco surgeon and professor of bacteriology, who built his country house on the hill in 1888. Dr. Mouser died in September 1909, and his son, Dr. Benjamin Mouser, offered the land to the highest bidder.

A short while earlier, Torrey, Rieber, Hutchinson, and Prof. Albert W. Whitney had asked the city council for permission to build a parkway and ornamental roadway to Canyon Road, which the council granted. While the newspaper accounts of the time were vague as to the exact location of the land intended for the parkway, the lot sought by Parsons apparently stood in the way. The four gentlemen consulted an attorney and determined that possession was nine-tenths of the law. They seized the lot and built a stockade around it, hiring three men to stand guard.

Dr. Mouser sued the interlopers, but the jury decided in their favor. The upshot was that Parsons bought the Mouser house and moved it further north on Mosswood Road. The approach to Torrey’s and Hutchinson’s properties was beautified with an elegant concrete staircase designed by Henry Atkins, who also created Orchard Lane and the Bancroft Steps. The old location of the Mouser house above Torrey and Hutchinson remained unimproved until 1929, when Julia Morgan built a house on that knoll for botanist Willis Jepson.

San Francisco Call, 14 Nov. 1909

The elegant stairway designed by Henry Atkins leads to the Torrey house. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2005)

After the 1906 earthquake, Vickery, Atkins & Torrey erected a new building on a lot they owned at 550 Sutter St. Atkins designed the interiors, which received considerable press coverage. He also took charge of designing the interior of the reading room at Berkeley’s Doe Library.

Vickery, Atkins & Torrey, 550 Sutter Street, San Francisco

Exhibitions in the new gallery space featured local artists such as William Keith, Eugen Neuhaus, Ralph Stackpole, Mary Curtis Richardson, Sydney Yard, and Francis McComas, as well as fashionable 19th-century painters and big names like Turner, Hokusai, and Piranesi.

The interiors were designed by Henry Atkins

    Torrey, ever on the lookout for the dernier cri in art, purchased the most ballyhooed painting of the 1913 Armory Show in New York, Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. He hung it in the stairwell of his own house, where it caused no end of comment. One of the Nude’s most frequent observers was a straggly-looking boy of 16 who lived close by at 2350 Prospect Street and often entered the house without knocking, selecting a book from the shelves and settling down to read. His name was Thornton Wilder.

Torrey kept the painting for six years. In 1919, he wrote to art critic and dealer Walter Pach:

Counting the present high price of gasoline do you think that any one would pay a thousand dollars for the Nu Descendant? Walter Arensberg wrote to me about purchasing it that year I met him in NY, but I was not in a selling mood.

Arensberg was, in fact, eager to buy, and Torrey thanked Pach for acting as a go-between, concluding:

When I received your first telegram I did not tell Mrs. T. to whom I have not confided my intention to part with the painting if occasion offered; and I imagined more or less shamefacedly if she would object if I parted with it. The explosive nature of her reply “I SHOULD NOT!!!” requires probably small caps italicized if there are such things! You had hardly turned eastward before she bundled the Matisses off into a closet, and she looks upon the departure of the Nu Descendant as a red-letter day on the hill. And yet we live happily together! Matrimony certainly requires a sense of humor to confront certain of its aspects.

Alice Torrey’s joy was premature. Her husband had a large sepia photograph made to the exact size of the original, and it occupied the same place in the stairwell for decades to come.

The International House and Memorial Stadium figure in the sweeping vista commanded from the Torrey house. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2005)

This article was published in the Berkeley Daily Planet on 4 February 2009.


Copyright © 2009–2019 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.