An artistic windfall for College of Idaho

A book of hundreds of sketches, paintings and photos reveals more about a pioneering Boise artist

awebb@idahostatesman.comMay 7, 2014 


    Irvin arrived in Boise at the end of the 19th century to visit her father, the city engineer.

    As noted in the Boise Art Museum's book, "100 Years of Idaho Art," the area's "frontier atmosphere" and "rising Boise foothills" captivated Irvin after her train trip from New York City. She stayed. Her sister Fanny also relocated to Boise.

    In addition to her interior design work, Irvin was the first art instructor at St. Margaret's School for Girls in Downtown Boise. Irvin was a peer of Cornelia Hart Farrer, who helped found what became the Boise Art Museum.

    After Fanny died in 1928, Irvin took over her job as state law librarian.

    Irvin died in 1932 in a Boise traffic accident. She is buried with the rest of her family in Pioneer Cemetery on Warm Springs.

    A 1968 Idaho Statesman noted that Irvin "brought to many pioneer women their first knowledge and appreciation of art."

Artist, designer and instructor Marie Isabella Duffield Irvin - a woman so elegant and self-possessed that some people used all four names when referring to her - was born in the East in 1863, the same year pioneers platted Boise's original 10 blocks.

She arrived in Boise as a young woman in 1898. She became an influential figure who helped form the city's cultural character. She inhabited and enhanced a place rife with garden parties, street car trips and society columns.

Irvin taught art and art history and was an authority on antique furniture. She offered her considerable design skills honed at institutions such as Cooper Union, Harvard and the Chicago Art Institute to well-heeled Boiseans. Some say Irvin was Boise's first professional interior decorator. She designed the syringa-themed china for Boise's Owyhee Hotel and the flatware for the USS Boise.

Her personal art collection, mostly engravings from the 17th and 18th centuries, forms the core of the College of Idaho's permanent art collection. Dale Walden, a C of I graduate and student of Irvin's, donated the engravings in the 1960s, as well as several of Irvin's own drawings.

Carol Ann Henson, a woman with her own deep roots in Boise, recently donated another tangible remnant to The Robert E. Smylie Archives at the College of Idaho: Irvin's design scrapbook.

The scrapbook is big, 18 inches by 12, bound with a cloth cover, 115 pages, and full of Irvin's intricate paintings and studies.

It contains her design for a Persian carpet, watercolored with what must have been a miniscule brush, infinite patience and long, long work days. It contains her design for a ladies' fan, all metallic gold and ivory, a microscopic mesh of perfectly articulated vines and leaves.

Irvin organized her scrapbook by historic periods, from early Egypt to the Renaissance.


Irvin had stashed other ephemera between the pages of the scrapbook. It's all still there: her designs on tissue paper; a holiday greeting with fat cherubs painted on silk; a scattering of photographs; letters; a brochure on the thinnest of onion skin advertising her professional services (including painting family crests and book plates); and a design for an urban apartment, complete with a Murphy bed, or what she called a "shut in" bed.

Irvin apparently wasted little paper. Several of the drawings in the book are on envelopes, with postage stamps still attached. The book includes designs made by cyanotype, an early blueprinting process.

"The book took my breath away when I first saw it," said Jan Boles, the college archivist.

Any mention of Irvin's name gets Boles' attention.

"The gift of her scrapbook affords a deeper understanding of Marie as an artist, as well as an art collector," he said.

"She went from a name of a person who had given a gift to the college to someone I feel that I know."

In effect, the scrapbook contains hundreds of original works by Irvin that no one knew existed. Boles believes the oldest pieces in the book date to Irvin's student days.


Carol Ann Henson inherited the scrapbook from her mother, Helene Belsher.

Belsher was born in 1910, a Boise boom year that saw construction of the Owyhee Hotel and the Idaho Building. She lived a couple of doors down from Irvin on East Jefferson Street. Belsher became a student and friend of the woman she called "Miss Marie."

"It's not clear when my mother got the book," said Henson. "I was born in 1941. The book was always something I knew about, tucked away in a closet in our house."

Henson was interested in art as a child. She remembers that her mother let her page through the scrapbook.

"It wasn't until recently I thought that if something happened to me, no one would know what the scrapbook was," said Henson.

She doesn't know the monetary value of the scrapbook. She never had it appraised because money wasn't her first consideration, she said.

"The intrinsic value is what it says about early Boise culture and Marie's own history," said Henson.


Getting the book was a thrill, said Boles.

"As an archivist, there are things I know about that are out there, on their way to our collection one day. The scrapbook was different. One day we didn't even know about it. The next day, it was ours," he said.

College of Idaho junior Megan Mizuta is cataloging the items.

Henson's family fortunately kept the book in a dry, dark place (ideal archival conditions, when paired with the Valley's natural dry climate), but many items are fragile, said Boles. They're not good candidates for a traditional exhibition. He said he plans to create an online exhibition of Irvin's scrapbook that will be available at all times to the public.

Anna Webb: 377-6431

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