Researching Janet: Finding the Story of Arts and Crafts Metalsmith Janet Payne Bowles
by Kate Nixon
Perhaps the name is familiar to the experienced collector who so often reads this column, but I first saw the name Janet Payne Bowles pop up while I was researching for an article to be featured in the upcoming National Arts and Crafts Conference Catalog about remarkable women of the Arts and Crafts movement. I was desperately seeking the stories of women artisans who crafted their wares during both victorious and challenging life moments in the turn of the century, who blazed a path in their field where there was none, and who lived life unapologetically. I ticked all three boxes with Janet Payne Bowles: a metalsmith, goldsmith, student of psychology, business owner, novelist, musician, mother, and pottery teacher.
In the more glamorous portion of her career, Janet flourished in the art of goldsmithing in New York in the early 1900s, where she socialized with the likes of J. Piermont Morgan and Sir Caspar Purdon Clarke, the director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and additionally handcrafted jewelry for Broadway actresses. The moment, however, when my interest in her peaked was while I was reading a summary of her early start, describing her first exposure to metalworking from a young Russian metalworker she met while walking the streets of Boston and he taught her metalworking skills until he was arrested for trying to overthrow the United States Government. Sounds like a plot for an HBO or Showtime thriller television series to me. I found the life of Janet Payne Bowles to be provocative and intriguing, inspiring to anyone looking for a career change or ready to dip into the world of metalsmithing — or just looking for a good story.
Born and raised in Indianapolis, Janet Payne Bowles was a student of music and art, studying under arts and crafts artist and teacher Roda E. Selleck in her high school years; her influence would prove to be an important one later when Janet would dedicate her art to the arts and crafts philosophy. She additionally was taught piano and had a fondness for it. The end of her high school years, she met — and would eventually marry — Joseph Bowles, an art gallery owner and another influence on the local Arts and Crafts community in Indianapolis. An active member of the art community, he published the first issue of Modern Art, an early and later influential publication of the movement, which led to the new family moving to Boston. Janet’s post-school studies included additional piano studies in addition to psychology studies, but she found her future calling in the streets of Boston, where the sounds of hammering on an anvil led Janet to the studio of a young Russian metalsmith.
“One day I was walking along and heard an orchestral tone which was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. I traced it to a basement room and found a young Russian metalworker. I asked him a lot of questions and he said, ‘If you are so curious get me a pail of water, help me.’ Though scalded by the steam, I stayed and helped and watched. We made a bargain — I was to teach him psychology and he would teach me metalsmithing.” 1
Janet started to work and learn from him in his shop – she additionally set up a small studio in her home all while she was writing reviews for her husband’s publication. Unfortunately, the Russian metalsmith* was arrested for his anarchist views and charged with trying to overthrow the U.S. Goverment. Janet would go visit him in jail and continue to learn from him and eventually at his request, taking his abandoned tools and equipment to her apartment to use.
* the name of the Russian metalsmith is currently unknown.
First photo: Chalice by Janet Parker Bowles ca. 1925-28. Currently held at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons.
Second photo: The shopmark of Janet Parker Bowles, found underneath an earlier chalice made ca. 1916-1920. Photo: The Arts & Crafts Metalwork of Janet Payne Bowles, Indianapolis Museum of Art/Indiana University Press, 1993. p. 94.
Third photo: black and white photo of gold spoons made for J. Piermont Morgan. Photo: October 1924 issue of International Studio, p. 57.
In 1902, Janet and Joseph Bowles moved to Rye, New York so Joseph could take his position as art department manager for McClure’s Magazine, and Janet continued her studies in the metalwork methodology of ancient civilizations in addition to lectures in psychology at Columbia University. She gave birth to a daughter, Mira and moved from an artists’ community in Leonia, New Jersey to Helicon Hall in Englewood, New Jersey. After a fire destroyed the building, the Bowles family moved to New York City — and it was there that Janet opened her own shop and met the director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Sir Caspar Purdon Clarke. Clarke was impressed with her experience and became a frequent customer of her work, eventually introducing her to several art patrons in New York City, including J. Piermont Morgan. Morgan would be one of her most frequent supporters, ordering many commissions and often supplying gold to her and refusing to take any remaining unsused gold back.
In 1910, Janet was commissioned to make jewelry for the stage actress Maude Adams in the role of Rosalind in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. The time spent on the objects, which included a carved silver set with green onyx, was time well spent for her professional reputation as she gained plenty of attention and praise, but the time was also wearing down on her marriage as Joseph saw her commissions as distracting from the articles for his publication.
As a result, in 1912, Janet left New York City without her husband and returned to Indianapolis to live with her children and taking a position as an instructor in metalwork and jewelry at Shortridge High School, set her sights on a new chapter in her life.
For more reading on Janet Payne Bowles, The Arts & Crafts Metalwork of Janet Payne Bowles by Barry Shifman with contributions by W. Scott Braznell and Sharon S. Darling is recommended reading.
1. The Arts & Crafts Metalwork of Janet Payne Bowles, Indianapolis Museum of Art/Indiana University Press, 1993. p. 14.