Gail Spilsbury, a former and occasional Washingtonian, is preparing to publish her second historical book about the District of Columbia. The first, from 2003, was Rock Creek Park (Johns Hopkins University Press), an illustrated history of the large urban wilderness that runs through the District.
Her newest, scheduled for publication in October by the Chesapeake Book Co., is A Washington Sketchbook: Drawings by R. L. Dickinson, 1917-18. Almost entirely forgotten today, Dickinson was an early-20th-century ob-gyn who spent a number of years in government service in Washington. During that time, he appears to have spent most of his non-working hours sketching the city’s natural and man-made sights, leaving a time capsule of what the nation’s capital looked like a century ago.
When City Paper last interviewed Spilsbury about Rock Creek Park, she was living in Tenleytown and working as an editor at the Freer and Sackler Galleries. Later, after her sons went to college, she sold her house and moved to Italy, where she wrote, edited, and made olive oil in the hills outside Rome. A collection of her stories, Sabina Quartet, is scheduled to be published in Italy next year.
She works as a freelance book editor, working from D.C., New York, and Boston. When in Washington, she lives with her son in Petworth.
I interviewed Spilsbury by email in mid-April.
Washington City Paper: How did you stumble upon the works by Dickinson?
Gail Spilsbury: While researching Rock Creek Park, my first book—-which was about the famous landscaping family, the Olmsteds, having a role in Rock Creek Park’s natural state—-I found a reference to Dickinson’s drawings in the Olmsted files at the Library of Congress. His notes for a Washington Walk Book were there, with a few paragraphs about Rock Creek Park. I spent a great deal of time—-weeks—-trying to find the drawings, not only at the library, but at other archives associated with Dickinson’s papers. Nothing turned up and I gave up. One day, months later, I was looking at a “collections list” in the Prints and Photographs division at the Library of Congress, and there, typed before my eyes was Dickinson’s drawings of Washington. I let out a yelp, maybe a scream, and the librarian rushed over, read the line I pointed to, and went and got from the shelf a regular school binder with Dickinson’s precious drawings inside. They had not been touched from the day he donated them 60 years before. These drawings are now properly cataloged at the library.
WCP: How long did he spend here, and why did he end up here?
GS: Dickinson came from a well-to-do New York family and became a prominent gynecologist and obstetrician. He and other prominent doctors (including the Mayo brothers) were called to Washington as part of the medical preparedness during World War I. His tireless energy—-maybe he rarely slept—-allowed him to perform his government work outstandingly. The records are all there—-meticulous work—-while also covering D.C.’s metropolitan area with his sketchbook and joyful spirit.
WCP: What makes these works so unusual—-and important?
GS: He captured a way of life that is gone entirely. It had no technological distractions, which also increase our pace and style of living and working. Canoes were in, not kayaks. If you think about it, the intense way we live now demands kayaking. Our aggression levels seem so high because of our intense way of living—-we have to get it out through pounding the pavement or fighting the whitewater. Dickinson added a romantic touch to his pictures, and along the C&O Canal and the Potomac, this quality persists. It relieves us from the strife five miles down the river where the city steams. We have to preserve it, keep money pouring into its care. It’s the antidote to going crazy in today’s world.
WCP: Was he a talented artist, in your view?
GS: Definitely. The work speaks for itself. I have a copy of his New York Walk Book and the drawings of those city and natural landscapes are mind-boggling—-examples of excellent draftsmanship—-but they’re not as free and romantic as the D.C. pictures. He let his hand loose for our oeuvre. His spirit was free when he rendered D.C.
WCP: What do you hope the book will accomplish?
GS: Several things—-first, bring inspiration and a smile of joy to Washingtonians who discover the lovely drawings of our town by Dickinson. Then, share nuggets of history behind the pictures, some of it delightfully arcane. Finally, build awareness about preserving and treasuring D.C.’s natural and architectural treasures, which are truly amazing. The C&O Canal is an incomparable landscape gifted to the public.
WCP: What are some of the surprising aspects of his work?
GS: For me, as the researcher, finding out about his pictures that presented something lost—-Burnt Mills, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and the Justice Department. History is a slew of stories, and it was delightful to follow leads, talk to people, and eventually find answers. For instance, not even the historian at Arlington Cemetery who talked to me could answer why Dickinson’s Unknown Soldier Tomb didn’t look anything like the one there today. After a long chain of searching, a D.C. tour guide immediately had the answer: after Dickinson sketched the picture and left D.C., today’s fancy sarcophagus was placed over the grave he had depicted. So easy!
WCP: What looks different today and what looks the same?
GS: The Potomac and C&O pictures look much the same—-you can compare Widewater to his two drawings of it. And that is what we must always take care to preserve—-his record of such evanescent beauty. We’ve done it so far for almost 100 years, but maintenance has always been a struggle—-the Virginia side was lost to housing development. Also, the landscape may remain more or less intact, but the way of life in those places is gone. The C&O Canal section of the book goes into this.
WCP: Which are some of your favorite images and why?
GS: I love the shrouded Justice Department image and the romantic Widewater drawing. Cherries on the Tidal Basin. Tossing Water at Great Falls. All of Dickinson’s pictures stir up feelings in my heart for what I have seen and loved about D.C. Also, Dickinson left behind a huge, hand-drawn map of the Potomac and all the special places to visit along it, all the watering holes and picnic spots, including dotted lines for trails. We are reproducing the map and including it in a back pocket of the book—-a special treasure for Washingtonians.
WCP: In the draft of the book, you reference newspaper columns by someone known as “The Rambler.” What was his importance to your project?
GS: The Rambler rambled all over the Potomac landscape and into the Maryland and Virginia hinterlands describing places and genealogy. Dickinson could find out how to get to Prospect Rock from him and likely other places. He was a good source. His columns today are decent, probably sometimes erroneous, research material for D.C. historians. He should not be forgotten, and thus I give him space in the book by reprinting excerpts from his columns that relate to Dickinson’s sketches.
WCP: How long have you been working on the book, and what is the status?
GS: I finished the book in 2005, and the Library of Congress planned to publish it. With the downturn in the economy, they gave up the project in 2009. It took me about a year to find a fiscal sponsor. The C&O Canal Trust, headed by Matt Logan, embraced the project out of sheer love for the same natural landscape and its preservation that Dickinson’s work conveys. Since gaining the Trust’s support, we’ve raised $16,500 for the design and printing, but still need $23,000 to go to press in June, which would make the book available for holiday shopping. This is a coffee table book with about 80 high-quality reproductions that will surely get Washingtonians out to see the places Dickinson sketched, which in turn will increase awareness for historic and natural preservation.
Anyone interested in supporting the book’s printing can contact Matt Logan at the C&O Canal Trust, (301) 920-0383 and email@example.com.