John H. Geiszel

John H. Geiszel came to Philadelphia from the war. In the Great War he was an Army lieutenant serving in the cavalry under Douglas MacArthur, who at the time was not yet a general. John was wounded in action in France, which was made plainly obvious for it left him with a distinguishable scar. A part of the back of his head and neck were missing, yet despite the seeming extent of the wound, it remarkably did not hamper him in any activity.

In Philadelphia, John studied art at the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art. Upon completing his studies under Thornton Oakley, he joined the Illustration Department, teaching Mediums and Reproduction at the very same school, a career lasting thirty-five years. Our own Bill Campbell was a student of his in 1934 and it was to Bill Campbell I went for much of the information gathered here [1].

John was born 31st October 1892 in Akron, Colorado and grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania before going off to war. Arriving afterwards to Philadelphia and graduating from school, he joined our Club in 1924. He served a short spell as the Club’s Librarian, but resigned in favor of Otis W. Walter, a more serious and almost silent member. In time John would sit on the Board and eventually even serve as our Club’s President. Besides teaching, he was a free-lance illustrator for books and catalogues, a watercolorist, a landscape artist, and he painted murals for the Mastbaum Vocational-Technical School and for the Capitol building in Alaska [2].

From the beginning he was a participant in the Club’s plays and pantomimes, he sang, and he danced on the once well-waxed gallery floor. He was also the costume designer for the Club, for which he had professional experience. He had interrupted his art education to work in Hollywood where he created costumes for the likes of John Barrymore, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Mae Murray, and Norma Talmadge.

Wounded in war, so was he also wounded in play. This other injury took place at the “Outing” of 1934, during the battle of Branch Creek on the Telford, Pennsylvania estate of Walter Lynn. An account of his heroism has been dutifully recorded by Sidney Lomas: “John Geiszel in his mad effort to recover the swiftly moving volley ball, knocked out of bounds by Jim McKell, slipped on the wet grass, skidded violently onto the cemented pavement and lacerated the right side of his face and skinned his right knee joint. First aid treatment was applied for his quick recovery.”

To his fellow artists, some words of advice from John H. Geiszel. “It’s your paint, your canvas, and your brushes, but you have no right to make a bad painting if you can make a good one.” And, “The human eye resents monotony, just as the human ear does. Therefore, the painter must try to avoid it…. Irregularity is human. Maybe that’s why the human eye finds it more pleasing than monotony.” These are words from a lecture he gave at the Lancaster County Art Association.

When John died at the age of eighty-one years [3], his wife, Margaret (Peggy) Malpass, contacted the Club, wanting to do something for the Club in John’s memory. Mrs Geiszel was also an illustrator and worked for Curtis Publishing as the Art Editor of Jack & Jill Magazine.
“John always loved the Club,” she said, and astutely added, “but I thought it was a dirty old place.” However, through her generosity[3], we have established the John Geiszel Award and received a collection of John’s works.

What must not be overlooked is that John loved the Club and was the most beloved member of the Club. Bill Campbell remembers how John was at the Grub Club five days a week. And, like John Nemeth, John H. Geiszel is another spirit that haunts our rooms. Atop the library bookcase, next to the vase holding the ashes of John Nemeth, John Geiszel’s ashes reside in a brass box.

– – – – – – –

[1] It is fortunate that we have Bill Campbell. I searched the internet and books for information about John H. Geiszel and there is very little in extant. I’ve checked the “Artists File” in the art department of the main library of Philadelphia. They had nothing on John Geiszel. Talented he might have been, and good enough to teach and earn the respect of his colleagues, but he has so far failed the test of time. I eventually did find him in an old and dilapidated volume of Who’s Who in American Art, but he has left no obvious trail that I might follow. Should I be angry with him for having not been more ambitious?

[2] Evidence for these murals is to be found in a newspaper obituary filed away in our archives. It reads, “He created murals for such institutions as the Mastbaum Vocational School and the Capitol in Nome, Alaska.” The Mastbaum Vocational-Technical School still exists on Frankford Avenue and I would have visited it to see the mural had I more time. I found no mention or image of the murals on the internet.

The Capitol building in Alaska is, as to be expected, found in Juneau, the State capital, and not Nome. I could find no further mention of these murals and wish I had more time to have a friend find them and photograph them. I might still do this so as to be able to contribute the images to our archives.

[3] The newspaper clipping in our archives does not include the name of the newspaper from which it is taken, nor the date of the issue, it only tell us that John died on a previous Wednesday. I can determine the year because John was 81, so it was a Wednesday in 1973 or 1974.