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Artist, Sculptor, Inventor, Collector and Maker Of Violins

A newspaper article in the Gardiner Independent on February 24, 1900, depicts the life of a well-renown Gardiner Man.

Philip Henry Holmes, the subject of this short sketch, was born in Gardiner in the house in which he still lives, in the year 1848. He was the second son of Philip C. and Sarah A. (Davis) Holmes, and quite nearly related to the Bryants, Wadsworth and H. W. Longfellow. His father, Mr. P. C. Homes, came to Gardiner from Kingston, Mass. about 1830. Being an accomplished wood worker he was engaged as an instructor of carpentry in the old Gardiner Lyceum, then the only School of Technology in New England. After serving in this capacity for about two years this branch of the school was abandoned and Mr. Holmes, with Chas. A. Robbins, who was a practical machinist, started the machine shop and foundry of Homes & Robbins, and for fifty years, or until his death which occurred in 1882, he was intimately connected with the manufacturing interests of Gardiner.

Philip H. attended the city schools and finished a three years’ course at the High School in 1861, at the age of sixteen. He then bought out the gas piping business of Mr. James Andrews, which he conducted for about two years, selling out to Mr. Wm. B. Shaw. He had developed considerable skill in drawing and painting and wished to become an artist, but his more practical father discouraged his efforts in that direction and he entered his father’s shop and learned the trade of a pattern maker. He did not despair of eventually obtaining the object of his hopes, but kept diligently at work studying and painting whenever opportunity offered.

Mr. F. A. Butman, a former resident of Gardiner, and at one time a partner of the late James A. Jackson in the apothecary business, had dabbled considerably in art, and after leaving here went to California, where he acquired a fortune painting landscapes. About this time he sent one of his paintings as a present to Mrs. H. B. Haskins, and Philip having seen it, asked permission of Mrs. Haskins to copy it, which she granted, but afterward told him that Mr. Butman would be home in a few days and he had better wait and see him. On Mr. Butman’s arrival he refused Philip permission to copy his picture, much to his chagrin. He, however, offered to look over his sketches, and give his opinions in regard to Philip’s talent. The result of this was that he advised him to go to Boston and place himself under the instruction of Mr. F. L. Gerry, a noted artist at that time, and the next week found him a pupil of Mr. Gerry. He remained with him through that winter, and the next summer, wishing some instruction in painting from nature, and finding no artist who could take him as a pupil, he started alone for New Hampshire, where he proposed to acquire the art by sketching the rugged scenery of the White Mountains. Arriving at Jefferson, N. H., he went immediately to work, and as he expresses it, “I painted the whole town and surroundings in one large picture, and feeling satisfied that I had got all there was there I inquired where the next picturesque place was situated, and was directed to Shelburne.” On arriving at Shelburne he was introduced to Mr. Wm. H. Sonntag, a celebrated New York artist, who was spending the summer there, and became his pupil, and for several years they traveled and sketched together. It may be mentioned there that even in those early days Mr. Holmes had a notable gift for obtaining the “high lights” by the clever use of the palette knife, and that later in his career he dropped the brush, and used the palette knife exclusively.

Mr. Holmes’ fame as an artist rapidly increased, and in 1872 he had a canvas hung on the line of honor at the National Academy of Design in New York, and in 1876 he sent his large painting, called “The Adirondacks, from Saint Albans, Vermont”, to the Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia. This canvas, ten by twenty feet in size, was encased in an elaborately carved frame manufactured by himself, and it was the only painting accepted by the committee from the whole Maine contribution. After the exposition was closed his picture was hung in the permanent art exhibition of the centennial. Associated with this painting there is a romance which is exceedingly novel. Sometime prior to June 1882, the permanent art exhibition went into liquidation, and all the pictures were either sold or returned to their owners. Mr. Holmes went to Philadelphia to secure his painting, but when he arrived at the exposition grounds it was only to learn that his painting had suddenly disappeared. Inquiries as to its disposition and whereabouts revealed nothing, and he was obliged to return home with small hopes of ever seeing it again.

One evening in March 1893, Mr. W. R. Williams of New York, a former pupil of Mr. Holmes, being in Philadelphia, chanced to visit the Girard House, and in passing through the lobby of the hotel his gaze was attracted to a large oil painting on the wall of the corridor. On examining it closely he discovered it to be the work of his former tutor in art. On making known his discovery to some of the patrons of the house they assured him that he was mistaken, that the picture, instead of being “The Adirondacks, from St. Albans, Vt.,” was “The Shenandoah Valley,” and some old soldiers who were there went so far as to point out the exact spot where General Sheridan had delivered his now famous message, “Go early and avoid the rush.” Mr. Williams was not satisfied and wrote to Mr. Holmes that he had found his picture in the Girard House corridor. Mr. Holmes being in Philadelphia shortly after, visited the Girard House and at once recognized his work. Being unknown he made some inquiries of the employees of the house and found that the proprietor, Mr. Moore, had bought the painting at auction, that it had been executed in Germany by a celebrated artist, and that is was worth $3,000. Mr. Holmes then placed the matter in the hands of Mr. John Sparhawk, Jr. a celebrated Philadelphia attorney who immediately opened a suit in replevin to recover the picture. The matter has been in the Philadelphia courts ever since, until in the fall of 1899 Mr. Holmes received word from his attorney that the defendant would give up the contest if he would pay the costs of court which then amounted to about one hundred dollars. This Mr. Holmes gladly did, and the painting is now in his possession and he intends bringing it to Gardiner the coming of spring and placing it on exhibition after an absence of twenty-four years.

About 1874 his father’s health required his retiring from active business and much against his will Philip laid aside his brush and palette knife and assumed the management of the P. C. Holmes Co.’s. business. And now his wonderful genius as inventor began to show itself, and his fertile brain and skillful hand have turned out many new and useful machines during the last quarter of a century. Among the more important of those inventions are the Holmes patent water wheel, dry fibre pulp machine, self-lubricating graphite boxes for all kinds of machinery, graphite brushes for electric dynamos, pedryoid, au article that can be used in the manufacture of a thousand and one useful things in daily use, a developing cabinet for developing photographs in the full glare of the noonday sun without the use of a dark closet, drawing rolls for cotton mills, mailing sheet, letter files, sash lock, water faucet, Egyptian ink well, and many others which have never been brought to public attention. As an inventor he has attracted the attention of scientific men. Not only in the United States, but across the Atlantic.

In Philadelphia, through Dr. Colman Sellars and other distinguished scientists, Mr. Holmes was introduced to Prof. Unwin of London, who became deeply interested in his discoveries, and urged him to spend a part of each year in London. As a proof of their appreciation of his lubricant bearing patent, he was honored with the rarely bestowed Elliott Cresson gold medal, by the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia, and made a life member of that society for his fibre graphite boxes. The possession of this gold medal and life membership badge have given Mr. Holmes more pleasure than any other thing in connection with his inventions, as they can be won only by the highest merit and by the most strictly deserving.

In 1892 he received honorable mention in the Franklin Institute Journal, and besides three diplomas from the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics Association of Boston, he has received a silver medal for his water wheel, and another for his graphite brush, and a gold medal for the self-lubricating graphite boxes.

The cares incident to the management of the P. C. Holmes Co.’s large business, so infected his nervous system that he was unable to sleep, but a few hours each night, and to this is due many of his valuable inventions which were thought out in the silent hours of the night which should have been spent in sleep. As another means of diverting his mind from the cares of business he thought he would build a violin. He had a room fitted up as a workshop and here night after night he worked, wholly absorbed in his avocation and entirely oblivious to the cases and trials of his daily affairs.

Having an exceedingly sensitive musical ear, he was well able to judge of the merits of his work when completed, and was fully aware of the magnitude of the task he had attempted. Gladstone once wrote the following:--”To perfect that wonder of travel, the locomotive, has perhaps not required the expenditure of more mental strength than to perfect that wonder of music, the violin.”

It was a source of great pleasure to him therefore that his first violin was a success, and he had derived so much real pleasure and benefit in its construction that he has continued the making of violins, as a recreation ever since, and now has fifty instruments of his own make beautifully finished and pronounced by musicians to be fully equal in tone and finish to any modern instruments even those of the celebrated foreign makers, and only need age to give them the mellowness of the great masters.

He also has four rare old violins of great value which he has secured from different sources in the last ten years, the most precious of which is a Guarnerius (1780) embellished with a coat of arms, which Mr. Holmes purchased at a high figure from the son of Mr. A. J. Albert of Philadelphia after that gentleman had been in possession of it for twenty-five years. “This special instrument,” Miss Kate Vannah says in the Bangor Commercial of January 20, “is as rare and difficult to find as the exquisite Alpine flower, beloved of the poets, the Edilweiss”. It is valued as high as $10,000. The next in value is a Duiffoprugcar (1521) which was in the possession of a noble German family for more than 100 years, but reverses came which necessitated its sacrifice and it eventually fell into the hands of a Philadelphia connoisseur. After his death his widow was forced to pawn it for a handsome sum, on which she paid interest for seven years in hopes to redeem it. Then for three years she did not put in appearance and at this time Mr. Holmes secured it. This valued at $4,000 to $5,000. The next in interest is a Nicholi Amati, (1660) which was brought to this country by the leader of a Parisian orchestra which came over to the Centennial in 1876.

While in Philadelphia he received a telegram that his wife was dying in Paris. In order to raise money to return to his family he was obliged to sacrifice his beloved Amati. It was purchased by a well-known dealer in that city and kept by him until his death which occurred some ten or twelve years later and in 1892 Mr. Holmes secured it for his rare collection. This Amati has a market value of from $1,000 to $1,500.

The last of this collection is a Gagliano (1727) which although not so rare or valuable as the others, has a beautiful rich tone and compares favorably with them both in mellowness and sonority. It’s value is set at $700 or $1,000. There is probably not in New England so fine, or so valuable a private collection of violins as that of Mr. Holmes.

For the past four or five years Mr. Homes has been a great sufferer from neuralgia, and he has done but little in the line of painting, but the past year his health having somewhat improved he has again resumed the palette knife and brush and as a result he has now on exhibition at his studio, some eighty beautiful pictures, mostly landscapes, sketches of sea and wood made around Old Orchard and Southport, Maine.

Among the most notable of these are three beautiful sketches called:

A Wild Day at Old Orchard

A Storm at Old Orchard

Morning After the Storm

Also, Moonlight at Old Orchard

The Beach at Old Orchard

Old Pine at Old Orchard

Belle of Old Orchard in ‘98

View from Jefferson, N. H.

Mountain Mist

Sunshine and Shadow

View at Southport, ME

Mountain Lake, morning


The Old Fisherman


Only A Dream

And many more of rare merit. All of these paintings have been executed with a palette knife as Mr. Holmes discarded the paint brush many years ago. All his paintings are done on pedryoid, which he finds much superior to the canvas, stretched on a frame, commonly used by artists.

He has several beautiful frames also made from the same material and in fact his studio is filled with beautiful and useful things made from this same article, Pedryoid.

These paintings will be on exhibition and sale at Mr. Holmes’ Studio for about two weeks longer, when they will be sent to the Art Stores in New York, Boston and Philadelphia.

Williams & Everett of Boston are very anxious to secure the entire collection. In the meantime Mr. Holmes will be greatly pleased to meet his friends or any others interested in art, at his studio and it is well worth one’s while to spend a few hours at this place, and look over the many novel inventions and beautiful models of utility and art that have originated in this fertile brain and been fashioned by his skillful hand. And to listen to his vivid descriptions of their conception and materialization and the many obstacles encountered and overcome on his way to success. May he live long to enjoy the fruit of his labor and may his declining years be exempt from all the care and worry of business complications. In the society of congenial spirits, surrounded by family and friends, enraptured by the music of his beloved violins, may his rare talents have full scope, and may a long and happy future be his reward.

Source: The Gardiner Independent, Gardiner ME, Sat. February 24, 1900; Vol. 5, No. 49, Pg. 1; published by Wm. J. Landers  (Typed exactly as article)



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