Adelaide Hanscom Leeson

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Adelaide Hanscom Leeson
Photo of Adelaide Hanscom Leeson
Born Adelaide Marquand Hanscom
(1875-11-25)November 25, 1875
Empire City (now Coos Bay, Oregon)
Died November 19, 1931(1931-11-19) (aged 55)
Pasadena, California
Nationality American
Education Mark Hopkins Institute of Art
Notable work Published some of the first books using photography to illustrate literary works, including the first edition of The Rubaiyat
Spouse(s) Arthur Gerald Leeson

Adelaide Hanscom Leeson (25 November 1875 – 19 November 1931) was an early 20th-century artist and photographer who published some of the first books using photography to illustrate literary works.


Early years

The Eternal Saki, by Adelaide Hanscom. Published in The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, 1905.

Adelaide Marquand Hanscom was born in Empire City (now Coos Bay, Oregon) in 1875, the fourth of six surviving children born to Meldon LeRoy (1843–1919) and Louisa Hyde Hanscom (1845–1923). She was one of a set of twins, but the other child was still-born. Hanscom was named after Adelaide Marquand, an early proponent of universal suffrage. Marquand's husband, Henry, was a business associate of Meldon Hanscom, and later published the Berkeley Advocate. Adelaide Marquand was co-editor of the Advocate with her husband, and she remained a family friend and influence on Hanscom for many years.[1]

When Hanscom was six, her family returned to their previous home city of Berkeley, California, in order to obtain a better education for the children. Her father was a Harvard University-educated businessman who later became the city auditor of Berkeley.[2]

Hanscom began creating art when she was a teenager and later studied art and design at the University of California and at the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art (now the San Francisco Art Institute).[3] Her classmates at the Institute were photographers Emily Pitchford and Laura Adams, who had recently established their own studio, and Hanscom expanded what she learned about photography in school by working with her classmates.[1] She also is known to have frequented the home of photographer Anne Brigman and is thought to have learned some of her printing technique from Brigman.[4]

In 1902 she set up a commercial studio in San Francisco with fellow photographer Blanche Cummings, and soon they were accepting commissions for portraits and commercial work. At the Third Photographic Salon in San Francisco in 1903 Hanscom exhibited five prints, including a highly acclaimed study called Mother and Child. One critic said her showing in this exhibition "secured her a place among the foremost pictorialists of the Pacific Coast."[5] This show was also important to Hanscom because it was the first place she would have seen prints by Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen and Gertrude Käsebier, who were the leaders of the pictorial photography movement in New York. As a result of her recent acclaim, her artistry was in high demand. She was so successful that when a newspaper critic asked her if her profession financially rewarded her, she replied "Handsomely".[6]

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

In late 1903 she began working on a series of photographs to illustrate the classic selection of poems, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The concept of illustrating a literary work with fine art photographs was new at that time, and The Rubaiyat was one of the very first American books in this genre.[7] She solicited some then well-known California literary figures, including Joaquin Miller, George Sterling and George Wharton James, as models for the project.[8] She saw the project as both a classic literary publication and as a metaphor for her times. In a newspaper interview she said decided to illustrate The Rubaiyat because it presented "an expression of the struggle of the human soul after the truth, and against the narrowing influence of the dogmatic religions of our time."[9]

In 1905 she published the first edition of The Rubaiyat, and it became a national sensation. Her hometown newspaper proclaimed "The Berkeley Girl whose 'Omar' photos startle the literary critics."[10] Due to the high demand several more editions followed, including a 1914 volume with full-page color plates. The early editions of the book credited only Leeson as the photographer, while later editions said "photographic illustrations by Adelaide Hanscom and Blanche Cummings". Today the work is recognized for its lush beauty and because the first edition is thought to be one of the first publications in America depicting male nudity in photographs.[2]

Her success was cut short by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. Hanscom's studio was completely destroyed, and with it all of the negatives for The Rubaiyat. A small number of prints survived in a safe, but otherwise the only remaining images from this project are in the books themselves.[1] She had to completely start her business and life anew, and since the area where she lived and worked was now mostly uninhabitable she packed her few remaining belongings and moved to Seattle. She soon set up a new studio there with another photographer, Gertrude Wilson, and for the next five years she did commercial portrait works for prominent families in the area. Her photographs often filled the society pages of Seattle's newspaper.[11]

That same year Alfred Stieglitz listed Hanscom as an Associate Member of his Photo-Secession. It is not known how he became aware of her work, and there is no record of the two meeting. Nonetheless, in December 1906 and into early 1907, Stieglitz included two of Hanscom's prints in the Photo-Secession members exhibit in his Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession in New York.[1]

Hanscom's creativity did not suffer from the loss of her work or her move to a different city. She immediately began working on a new project, illustrations for Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese. Work on the project was interrupted several times, and it would take many years for her to complete it.

The Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition emblem

Emblem of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, designed by Adelaide Hanscom, 1907

In 1907 it was announced that Seattle was to be the site of the great Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, an enormous world's fair-type exhibition to be held in 1909. The organizers of the Exposition decided to hold a competition for a logo to represent the event, and more than 150 of America's best artists and designers entered the contest. By unanimous vote, the publicity committee selected Hanscom's design as the winner. The design, in a colorful Arts and Crafts movement style, portrayed three women representing Seattle (right), Alaska (middle) and "the Orient" (left) all extending their hands to each other while holding representations of each area's economic strengths (respectively, railroad commerce, mineral resources and ship-going commerce).[11]

On 1 January 1908 Hanscom married British mining engineer and ex-Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer Arthur Gerald Leeson. Soon after they moved to the area near Douglas, Alaska, for her husband's work on the Treadwell gold mine. They remained there for the next three years, although both Hansom and her husband made yearly trips to Seattle and other areas outside of Alaska. In 1909 she spent several months in San Francisco after giving birth to a son, also named Gerald. During this period her photography all but ceased while she sacrificed her needs for her husband's career.[1] In 1911 they moved to Danville, California, where her husband took up farming. She was able to once again set up a darkroom and soon resumed her work.

Later years

In 1912 she had a daughter, Catherine. She continued to work on her photography while caring for her two children and, at times, running their farm by herself. In 1914 the family moved briefly to Kellogg, Idaho, when Gerald once again worked on a mining project. Adelaide and the children returned to Danville by the end of the year, and Gerald remained in Kellogg for most of 1915.

In 1916 she was finally able to publish The Sonnets of the Portuguese. The first edition included twenty tipped-in photogravures and was followed by two more editions due to its popularity.

Soon after she began a new series of photographs, using her children as models, for illustrations of nursery rhymes and other children's poems, but due to unforeseen events she never completed the project.[12]

That same year her husband Gerald enlisted in the Canadian Army in order to fight in World War I, and he left for Europe with very little notice to his family. Within a few weeks he was killed in action. The combination of this loss and that of her father three years later caused her to fall into a deep depression. She became irrational at times and was admitted more than once to mental institutions.[2] She never resumed her photographic work, and, as one writer noted, "the remaining sixteen years of her life seem to have been a feckless series of wanderings with her children in tow."[1] She moved briefly to England to be near her dead husband's relatives, but she eventually returned to California and lived with her daughter.

In November 1931, Leeson was killed by a hit-and-run driver while getting off of a trolley in Pasadena, California. For many years her artistry was forgotten, but as of 2008 her work is once again being recognized for its creativity, beauty and grace.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Indvik, Gail Marie; Dimitri Shipounoff (1981). Adelaide Hanscom Leeson: Pictorlialist Photographer 1876-1932. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University. pp. 1–18.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Sarah C. Yeo. "A Different Slant of Light: The Life and Art of Adelaide Hanscom Leeson". Archived from the original on 7 January 2009. Retrieved 2009-01-24.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. "How Joaquin Miller Posed for Pictures in Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat". Seattle Post Intelligencer. 30 September 1906.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Oakland Museum of Art. "The Friends of Anne Brigman: Bay Area Pictorialists 1900-1925". Archived from the original on 10 December 2008. Retrieved 2009-01-25.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. unsigned (December 1903). "'Mother and Child' by Adelaide Hanscom". Camera Craft: unpaged.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Breck, Henrietta (February 1904). "California Women and Artistic Photography". Overland Monthly. XLIII (2): unpaged.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Martin, David (2002). Pioneer Women Photographers. Seattle: Frye Art Museum. p. 8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Herney, Ed; Shelley Rideout; Katie Wadell (2008). Berkeley Bohemia: Artists and Visionaries of the Early 20th Century. Gibbs Smith.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Seattle Post-Intelligencer. 30 September 1906. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Berkeley Daily Gazette. 19 March 1906. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. 11.0 11.1 Lawrence Kreisman; Glenn Mason (2007). The Arts and Crafts Movement in the Pacific Northwest. Portland: Timberline Press. p. 319.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Mann, Margery (1975). Women of Photography: An Historical Survey. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. p. unpaged.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

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