When I first saw Leon Dabo's crepuscular canvas Moor Park I was curious. I had seen his work at the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey and was familiar with the Hudson River views he often painted, but I couldn't figure out where Moor Park was. How the artist Dabo came to paint this picture in 1909is a tale of trans-Atlantic friendships. Unjustly neglected, as are most tonalist painters today, Leon Dabo (1864-1960) was much admired as a painter in the vein of James McNeill Whistler. His mentors were John La Farge, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, and Edmond Aman-Jean. Dabo married an Englishwoman in 1889 but it was through his friendship with photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn that Dabo fell under the spell an old Hertfordshire estate.
A Palladian style country house, with landscaping by Capability Brown, Moor Park had been built in the 18th century.
Coburn gave a folder of snapshots he made at Moor Park (now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, NYC) to Dabo to show how he had re-photographed certain subjects using notan, a method he learned from print maker Arthur Wesley Dow. The influence on the printed versions shows in the flattened spaces that increase the contrast between light and shadow. As described poetically by Mike Wevear, of Oxford University, "The gap between is an imaginative space that causes the trees to rhyme with each other across the space and leads us to meditate on the relation of the natural to the artificial." It was not until 1915 that Coburn published his rarest book Moor Park Rickmansworth.
Coburn had met Henry James in New York in 1905 and the next year James introduced him to his friend Lady Ebury. James had often visited Moor Park and his admiration was the seed of his novel The Spoils Of Poynton (1897), in which a woman is forced to leave her country home to make way for her son and his fiancée. In real life, Lady Ebury left Moor Park because she had to sell it. But first she, became Coburn's pupil, and collaborator on Moor Park Rickmansworth.
The photographs Coburn took at Moor Park led to his collaboration on the New York edition of James's collected works. Coburn's images served as frontispieces to each volume. Coburn's published photos of Moor Park are soft-focus parkland vistas, cropped studies of garden statuary, and shots of empty marble interiors. The images have an elegiac quality, whether because of Coburn's pictorialist style or Lady Ebury's personal situation, who can say.
Leon Dabo - Moor Park, 1909, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
Alvin Langdon Coburn - A Vista, The Deer At Moor Park, The Edge Of The Park, c. 1906, from Moor Park Rickmansworth , 1915, Elkins Mathews, London.