Art, Life, and Legacy: The Story of Stella Elkins Tyler
Pictured Above: Stella Elkins Tyler and George Frederick Tyler. Photo Credit: Library of Bucks County Community College
Arts News Now contributor Amy Masgay takes a deep historical dive into the legacy and artistic brilliance of Stella Elkins Tyler
By: Amy Masgay
Her obituary called her “patron of the arts,” as if that phrase can truly encapsulate all that was Stella Elkins Tyler (1884-1963). Roberta A. Mayer, art historian and faculty member at Bucks County Community College (BCCC), calls her “an heiress of Gilded-Age fortune,” and certainly that’s where Stella’s story starts.
Stella Von Tuyl Elkins was born into wealth and married into wealth, raised in Elkins Park, the first true suburb of Philadelphia, which was owned by and named after her grandfather, William Lukens Elkins (1832-1903). The town’s namesake made his fortune as one of the original partners of Standard Oil, then as a shareholder in Philadelphia’s street railroads.
William Elkins not only passed on his name and fortune to his granddaughter, Stella, but also a seemingly hereditary passion for the arts. He was an avid fan of opera and a founder of the Philadelphia Orchestra. European paintings that once belonged to his private collection now hang in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Considering all this, the path for Stella seems almost inevitable.
Pictured Above: Portrait of Stella VanTuyl Elkins by Robert Vonnoh (1897) which currently hangs at Tyler Mansion at the Bucks County Community College, Newtown, PA Campus, donated by Sidney and Betsey Tyler. Photo Credit: Amy Masgay for Arts News Now
Although the majority of her education was received through private tutoring at home, her two years of study in France kept a firm hold on Stella for the rest of her life, reflected largely in her and her husband’s contributions to the war effort in France and in the design and decor of their Bucks County home many years later.
On April 27, 1905, at the age of 21, Stella Elkins married George Frederick Tyler (1883-1947), whose stepmother, Ida Amelia Elkins Tyler, was Stella’s aunt. George Tyler was a banker in Philadelphia whose family roots can be traced back to The Mayflower. For their wedding, Stella’s parents gifted the design and construction of a colonial revival mansion, known as Georgian Terrace, in Elkins Park, where the couple lived for 27 years and raised their three children, Sidney F. Tyler, Molly Elkins Tyler, and George F. Tyler, Jr. In this home, Stella nurtured her devotion to the piano, and a love of theater and opera, and to her eldest son’s recollections, spoke French almost exclusively at home unless the family was entertaining.
Pictured Above: The former home of Stella Elkins Tyler. Photo Credit: Library of Bucks County Community College
Following World War I, during which the Tylers were heavily involved in the war effort for France and suffered personal loss in the fighting abroad, George and Stella longed for a private retreat away from the city. They began to purchase small farms and patches of land in and around Newtown, Bucks County. By 1928, they owned approximately 2,000 acres of land and employed the local farmers to work the land, raise poultry, and manage a dairy and riding stable, all of which became known as Neshaminy Farms.
This country estate, the George F. Tyler Mansion, also known as the Residence at Indian Council Rock and now Tyler Hall on the campus of BCCC, debuted to the world in April 1934 in Country Life, displaying 60 rooms, formal gardens, an orangery, a greenhouse, a swimming pool, a ten-car garage with a crank turntable, and four separate cottages for staff housing.
In 1935, the Tylers’ opened the estate to the general public for an art exhibition to benefit Abington Memorial Hospital, which had been established by Stella’s father and opened in 1914, and where Stella would later volunteer as a nurse with the Red Cross during World War II.
Today, Tyler Mansion is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and for obvious reason.
Pictured Above, the interior of Tyler Mansion. Photo Credit: Country Life Magazine, 1934
In his 1990 memoir, A Joyful Odyssey, Stella’s eldest son, Sidney Tyler, speculates that his mother might have suffered from schizophrenia, manic depression, or possibly lead poisoning in her middle age, as he recalled her mood swings in the extreme. Sidney writes that in 1924, Stella began to receive treatment and spent some time in a private sanatorium in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, although any official diagnosis for Stella by medical professionals remains a mystery.
Enter Boris Blai. Blai (July 24, 1893-June 28, 1985) was born in Rovno, Russia, and was himself a student of Auguste Rodin, the French sculptor known for his most famous piece, The Thinker. Blai was an artist who spent 18 months in the trenches of France during the first World War. Following the war, he spoke openly and often on how he controlled his fear during the violence by filing shrapnel pieces into figurines and busts. This became a transformative epiphany for Blai on how using one’s hands in the act of creation can calm an anxious mind, and even preserve one’s sanity.
By this point, Stella was looking for a professional instructor to help her develop her own skill. Stella and Blai joined forces, and the pair enjoyed a long, fruitful partnership, with Blai’s theories of art therapy having a profound impact on Stella’s mental wellness.
A 1942 issue of Parade featured a piece entitled “Philadelphia Art School: It Teaches that Busy Hands Help Develop Steady Nerves,” which served as a profile of Blai’s conviction in this kind of work, and featured a bold reference to Stella’s own experience as proof of its credibility. “Mrs. Tyler felt that Blai’s instruction helped save her from a nervous breakdown.”
Pictured Above: Sculptor Boris Blai. Photo Credit: Roberthaller.com
In the 1940s, such a confession regarding mental health would have been almost unthinkable, but Stella did not shy away from shedding light on the healing power of creating art. However, due to her high-status position of privilege and wealth, Stella also would have been guaranteed a certain level of protection in her disclosure that others may not have in similar circumstances.
Stella did not start her work in sculpture until she reached her late forties. Her first two pieces of sculpture were cast by the Roman Bronze Works in Corona, New York in May of 1932. Cats represent her earliest known work and were inspired by the cats featured on the Tyler family crest. These figures were once featured as presiding over the grounds from the second-story balcony of Tyler Mansion, but they have since been moved. Instead, two bronze cat masks, which were cast in 1937, can still be viewed as details on the fountains of Tyler Gardens.
Stella’s focus then turned to the human figure, particularly female nudes. Early in her career, Stella focused on figures of cherubs and fairies, which naturally transitioned into memorial sculptures, honoring the many personal losses she experienced, including the death of loved ones during the sinking of Titanic, and in the horrors of World War I and II. She took inspiration from figures such as Joan of Arc, whose image at the time was used in political propaganda to encourage the purchase of war bonds.
Pictured Above: Stella Elkins Tyler “Celebration”. 34′ on base, bronze, brown and green patina. Height: 11 3/4 in. Photo Credit: Freeman’s Auctions
Once Stella made the decision to devote herself more regularly to her artwork, she took over a structure on the Newtown property called Cooper Homestead, an eighteenth century farmhouse that remains a highly-trafficked building on the BCCC campus. Stella used the space as her studio, meeting Boris Blai and her models there to work. Between 1932 and 1935, Stella completed more than 60 individual sculptures.
Stella worked in clay, creating plaster molds to cast the bronze, which would then be colorized with a patina, providing a protective layer to the pieces that corrosion and weathering would jeopardize. The records of the Roman Bronze Works provided much insight into the steady flow of work Stella was producing during this time.
Stella would create smaller sculptural pieces called sketches, measuring roughly six to twelve inches in height, or slightly larger statuettes, measuring between two to three feet. A wide collection of these smaller pieces remain on display at BCCC in what was once Tyler Mansion and is now Tyler Hall, where the administrative offices of the BCCC Foundation are housed. Stella’s larger works, many available for viewing in Tyler Gardens, also on the College campus, reach between four and six feet in height.
As an artist, Stella seemed to not wish to bother with the restraints of realism in her figures. Rather, her sculptures offer an emotional liberation of the body, as well as the spirit contained within, a gentle, more lenient exploration of the human form. Stella made her solo debut at the age of 51 with an exhibition at Grand Central Arts Galleries in New York City in April 1935.
Photo Credit: Ella Lathan for Arts News Now
Blai provided the introduction in Stella’s exhibition catalog, commenting that Stella was “…not concerned with any formal school of the arts…,” which can now be considered a bit ironic, as her generosity and passion for the arts led to the founding of not one, but two institutions of higher learning, with particular focus on the arts and historic preservation.
By the summer of 1935, once they were officially settled at Tyler Mansion in Newtown, the Tylers’ had donated their Elkins Park home of Georgian Terrace. The property became the site of the Stella Elkins Tyler School of Fine Arts of Temple University, now the Tyler School of Art and Architecture, and Blai was appointed as the founding dean. In 1940, Temple University awarded Stella the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters.
That same year, Stella saw her second solo exhibition, this time held at the Sullivan Memorial Library at Temple University. She was 56 years old. Stella borrowed inspiration from a wide range of other artforms, including music, dance, and cinema, as well as mythology and literature. Global affairs and politics, in addition to her personal faith, all informed her range of work. The threads can be traced quite clearly, and show the information Stella was absorbing at various points, all illustrated in how she approached her art, her priorities referenced none too subtly in her sculptures.
This second solo exhibition included Stella’s piece, Prayer for Poland, which served as a clear reference to the invasion of Poland by the Nazies, well before the United States had entered the fray of World War II.
The figure lifting the Polish peasant woman above her head is thought to be modeled after the modern dancer Martha Graham. Graham was vocal in her opposition to the persecution taking place under the Nazi Party and publicly refused an invitation to perform in Germany at the International Dance Festival in 1936. While Graham used her art, or rather the withholding of her art, as a form of protest, Stella also employed her own medium to make her political opinions clear.
As founding dean at the Tyler School, Blai too was provided an even wider opportunity to share his theories of art therapy, particularly during the second World War. The Tyler School held weekly classes at Fort Dix in New Jersey for veterans returning from battle. In 1945, an exhibition called “Fort Dix Army Arts” was displayed in Trenton at the New Jersey State Museum.
Stella’s third and final solo exhibition would take place at Woodmere Art Gallery in Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia in 1959. Seventy of her sculptures would be included in the presentation.
Over the course of 25 years, Stella displayed roughly 150 of her pieces, most of which were single castings, meaning her bronzes were one of a kind. The majority of Tyler’s collected works live at BCCC and include 29 bronze sculptures, 2 plaster models, and other plaster fragments. Additional pieces are housed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey, as well as in private collections, and by Tyler family descendants and friends. Despite dedicated sleuthing, many pieces remain unidentified and the locations of others are currently unknown.
Two pieces that remain in the Tyler Gardens on public display are Sunset and Sunrise, and together they form a complementary duo, showcasing the grief (the original title of Sunset) that Stella undoubtedly felt experiencing loss after loss, and the promise in Sunrise that a new dawn will lift our spirits, just as the figure’s head lifts toward the sky.
As Roberta A. Mayer writes, “Thus, Stella Tyler’s bronze figures also tell the story of an older woman finding new meaning in life by fully embracing the creation of art. The process of making sculpture brought contentment. Ironically, with all of her inherited wealth, this was a state of mind that she could not simply buy. She had to do the work for herself.”
George Tyler died in 1947, and following Stella’s death on November 2, 1963, Tyler Mansion and its grounds were donated to Temple University. The property was then sold and became Bucks County Community College. The remaining land, more than 1,700 acres, became Tyler State Park.
Historic restoration and preservation became an essential component of BCCC. Andrew States, of the Bucks County Community College Foundation and the Tyler Historic Preservation Committee says of Stella, “We are honored to be the caretakers of the magnificent home she built with her husband, George, and her sculptures which grace its gardens. We are inspired by Stella and her choice to take up sculpting later in life as a passion project and we see embodied in her the spirit of lifelong learning that is a tenet of Bucks County Community College.”
Indeed, the influence of Stella is everywhere, in estates and museums spread across multiple counties in eastern Pennsylvania, and within every graduate and beneficiary of her generosity to academia. That so much of her work is available to the masses on public grounds remains vital to the accessibility that Stella valued so much during her life.
“Stella Elkins Tyler’s passion for the arts extends beyond her personal practice to building a platform that generously gives others the opportunity to create art,” says sculptor Jennifer Rubin Garey, Gallery Coordinator at Art@Bainbridge. “Her contributions to the community have marked a turning point in the region’s art scenes; she has laid the foundations for the growth of a robust academic and public art forum not only in Philadelphia and Bucks County but as far-reaching as Rome. Her allegorical figure sculptures bring depth to and enhance the experience of the Bucks County Community College Campus for visitors and students by weaving art into daily lives.”
In addition to her sculptures, Tyler Mansion and the Tyler Formal Gardens must be considered works of art in and of themselves, with Stella’s influence present at every turn. It seems fitting that so much of her work continues to live in these spaces where they were first constructed by her hand. The space has become a living museum, a testament to a life dedicated to finding peace through creation, which becomes stronger with every visitor and every student that walks those pathways.
Stella was more than a “patron of the arts.” She was a woman who clung to the lifeboat of art as a steadying force in a privileged, but tempestuous, life, and made the most of her ability, artistically and financially, to make room in that lifeboat for others. In doing so, Stella Elkins Tyler’s story will continue on for generations.
For readers who have a passion for either sculpture, history, gardening, and more and want enjoy experiencing Stella Tyler firsthand, the following events are upcoming this April:
April 17th, 6:30 – 9 p.m.
George F. Tyler: A Synergy of Being and Doing; Including and Architectural History and Behind the Scenes Tour of the Tyler Mansion. Hosted by the Newtown Historic Association and presented by Daniel Tyler, grandson of George and Stella Tyler. More info and tickets can be found at the Newtown Historic Society’s webpage HERE
April 28th, 1 p.m. – 3 p.m.
A Salute to Mothers Scholarship Tea, A tented affair within Tyler Gardens at Tyler Mansion, Bucks County Community College’s Newtown Campus. Tickets include tea, gourmet sandwiches and desserts. Proceeds benefit student mothers enrolled at BCCC. More information and tickets at SaluteToMothers.net