“He Came into This World Drawing” Ernest A. Pickup (1887-1970)

by Beverly St. John.

In 1912 at age 25, my father, Ernest A. Pickup, set out on two journeys–marriage and a profession as a commercial artist. When he told his father about his career plans, his father responded, “Son, you go with my blessing, but if you don’t succeed, don’t come back to me looking for a job.” The family had moved to Nashville in 1902 and had established G.A. Pickup & Son, a rubber stamp business that is still in existence. While working for his father, in his spare time his mother allowed him to hide in the attic of their home, where he studied a correspondence course on the basics of art.

Block print of Nashville’s Parthenon by Ernest Pickup
(Courtesy of Beverly St. John)

The lessons paid off, and he became one of the first commercial artists in Nashville. He was so successful that he needed to keep an apprentice with him in his studio. The first was Herman Burns, who went on to become the Art Director at the Baptist Sunday School Board. Next came Lewis Akin, who became the Art Director for the Methodist Publishing House. Subsequent apprentices included Castner’s Department Store artist Mariah Ferris, Curtis Snell, and cartoonist Bill Wall. Even I was one of his apprentices during my high school and college days. I later worked for Mr. Burns at the BSSB until 1942.

In 1930, when the Great Depression devastated our nation, my father’s commercial work came to a halt. With time on his hands, he began honing the skills necessary to make woodblock prints, an ancient medium that he had long admired. With the encouragement of his artist friends, he submitted his work for an exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. His career as a wood engraver took off, resulting in about 65 woodblock prints made during the 1930s and early 1940s.

One of his greatest honors came in 1937, when the Society of American Etchers chose his print Finis–a Study in Finalities as one of The Best 100 Prints of American Artists, a collection selected to go on a tour of Europe, beginning at Stockholm, Sweden. My father was a very modest man, but when he saw his name listed in the exhibit catalogue next to Thomas Nason, his woodblock hero, he was ecstatic.

His most popular prints were of Nashville landmarks: the Capitol, the Parthenon, the Hermitage, Scarritt Tower, and the Battle of Nashville Monument. He also loved making prints of trees and rural scenes. He used boxwood, a very hard wood with no grain. Woodblocks were made up of two or more pieces of wood glued together. Whenever one would break, he made miniatures out of the pieces, and these are among my favorites. When the curator of the Graphic Arts Division of the Smithsonian saw my father’s work, he asked if we would donate the collection. Because he also wanted the blocks and tools, I turned him down. Some of his work, however, is archived in the Tennessee State Museum.

For over thirty years my father’s art studio was on the 5th floor of the old Cumberland Presbyterian Building, which was located on 4th Avenue about where the AT&T Building is now. When he decided to retire in 1963 at age 76, it was as if his life had come to an end. He could not envision life without his cluttered office, the smell of ink and paint thinner, the whir of the airbrush, or the occasional knock at the door: “Mr. Pickup, I have a job for you–do you think you could do it for us today?”

Then one day the phone rang. Mr. John Ambrose of Ambrose Printing Company called to ask my father if he was willing to join the company as an art consultant “whenever you feel like it.” He “felt like it” until he turned 80, when he announced his full retirement. From then on, he had little interest in anything but sharing stories about his years as an artist, a sometime farmer, a grandfather, and a Sunday School teacher. My father left us a quiet legacy of integrity as well as a collection of woodblock prints. His mother often said of him, “He came into this world drawing pictures on any piece of paper he could get his hands on!.” The year before he died, I found these words that he had written: “Things I want for myself: to be cheerful in the face of difficulties, to merit the esteem of my friends, to be grateful for all that other folks have done for me, and to know no heartache of my own making.”