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Overlooked No More: Granville Redmond, Painter, Actor, Friend

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This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.

In the opening scene of the classic silent film “City Lights” (1931), Charlie Chaplin’s character, the Little Tramp, dangles comically from a statue while its sculptor watches in horror, raising his hand to his mouth in surprise and wiping his brow in distress.

The actor portraying the sculptor, Granville Redmond, appeared in seven Chaplin films, recognizable by his wild mane of hair. Redmond was deaf, and his performances were early examples of deaf representation in Hollywood. Some believe Redmond even taught Chaplin, famous as a pantomime, how to use sign language.

But Redmond was first and foremost an artist, one who inspired Chaplin with paintings of California’s natural beauty: quiet, brown tonal scenes; lonely rock monuments jutting off an island peninsula; tree-dotted meadows lit by a warm sun; blue nocturnal marshes under the dramatic glow of the moon. His paintings are considered today among the best examples of California Impressionism.

Image“California Poppy Field” — Redmond  was admired for his landscapes depicting golden poppies, the state’s official flower. 
“California Poppy Field” — Redmond  was admired for his landscapes depicting golden poppies, the state’s official flower. Credit…California School for the Deaf, Fremont, Gift of Edith Redmond

The Los Angeles Times art critic Arthur Millier wrote in 1931 that Redmond was “unrivaled in the realistic depiction of California’s landscape.” Yet his style was never uniform: Some paintings left sections of the canvas exposed and chunky deposits of pigment, while others took on a smoother look.

Above all he was known for his paintings of golden poppies, the state’s official flower. His poppies accented his renditions of the rolling meadows of the San Gabriel Valley, often accompanied by purple lupines. Sometimes they complemented a coastal scene with bursts of yellow highlights.

“He painted them better than anyone else; I don’t think that can be argued,” said Scott A. Shields, who curated a show of Redmond’s work last year at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento. “You can feel the seasons. You can feel when it’s spring, you can feel when it’s winter, and you can feel when it starts to become summer.”

His paintings of poppies became a popular keepsake for tourists, to Redmond’s chagrin; he preferred painting scenes of solitude.

“Alas, people will not buy them,” he told The Los Angeles Times. “They all seem to want poppies.”

Chaplin supported Redmond’s painting career, offering him a room to paint in the loft of an unused building on his studio lot. On breaks, Chaplin would visit Redmond there and quietly watch him work.

“Redmond paints solitude, and yet by some strange paradox the solitude is never loneliness,” Chaplin told Alice T. Terry in a 1920 article for The Jewish Deaf, a magazine.

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Redmond in his studio in 1917. Chaplin would sometimes visit him and quietly watch him work.Credit…Collection of Paula and Terry Trotter

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He had such an appreciation for Redmond’s paintings that he took down the photographs of film celebrities from his walls so as not to detract from the Redmond work that he placed over his mantel.

“You know, something puzzles me about Redmond’s pictures,” Chaplin was quoted as saying in 1925 in The Silent Worker, a newspaper for the deaf community. “There’s a wonderful joyousness about them all.”

“Look at the gladness in that sky, the riot of color in those flowers,” he continued. “Sometimes I think that the silence in which he lives has developed in him some sense, some great capacity for happiness in which we others are lacking.”

Grenville Richard Seymour Redmond was born in Philadelphia, Pa., on March 9, 1871, the oldest of five children of Charles and Elizabeth (Buck) Redmond. (He changed the spelling of his name to Granville in 1898 to differentiate himself from an uncle.) His father was a Civil War veteran in the Union Army and a laborer who worked across several trades.

Redmond lost his ability to hear when he was 2, after coming down with scarlet fever. The next year his family moved to San Jose, Calif., to live near a family member who owned a ranch.

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“Moonlight on the Marsh” Credit…Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas B. Stiles II

In 1879, he enrolled in the California Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb, and the Blind (now the California School for the Deaf) in Berkeley. It was there Redmond found an affinity for drawing under the instruction of another deaf artist, Theophilus Hope d’Estrella, who introduced him to a Saturday art class at the California School of Design. He went on to enroll in the school. In 1893, he was selected by the faculty to create a drawing for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Redmond communicated through sign language and writing, but because of his focus on art he never mastered written English, a gap in his education that he came to regret. “In my early days in school I was always drawing, drawing,” he wrote.

After graduation, he studied in Paris at the Académie Julian. In 1895, his painting “Matin d’Hiver” (“Winter Morning”), depicting a barge on a bank of the Seine, was admitted to the Paris Salon, a high honor for an artist at the time. He painted in France for a few more years, hoping to enter another painting at the Salon and win a medal, but he struggled financially and returned to California, depressed, in 1898.

He married Carrie Ann Jean, who was from Indiana and also deaf, in 1899, and they had three children.

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Redmond’s paintings of poppies became popular among tourists — much to his chagrin. He preferred painting scenes of solitude. “Alas, people will not buy them,” he said. “They all seem to want poppies.”Credit…Collection of Thomas Gianetto

Redmond’s early works were Tonalist in nature, a nod to his training in San Francisco as well as to the artists of the 19th-century Barbizon school, whose landscape paintings he had come to know in France. Many of his paintings are scenes from Terminal Island, Catalina Island and Laguna Beach in Southern California. He returned to Northern California in 1908, living and painting in Monterey, San Mateo and Marin Counties.

“A lot of newspapers would write that he could see more than the average person because his sense of vision was heightened,” Shields, the Crocker museum curator, said in a phone interview. “Redmond kind of believed that himself.”

Redmond’s work was well received, but a lack of funds — partly because of an economic downturn at the beginning of World War I — led him to move back to Los Angeles and try his hand at acting.

In the silent-movie era Redmond’s disability, coupled with his artistic inclination, worked to his advantage. Chaplin saw him as a natural for small parts in his films because Redmond expressed himself through gestures, Shields said. The two men communicated on the set by signing to each other.

Sometimes Redmond’s deafness worked its way into plotlines. In Arthur Rosson’s “You’d Be Surprised” (1926), Redmond played a coroner pretending to be a deaf valet. Only viewers who knew sign language could follow the conversation.

The movies also provided him with a new market for his art; buyers included the Hollywood elite, like Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.

Redmond died of complications of a heart condition on May 24, 1935. He was 64. (Chaplin died at 88 in 1977.)

Alice Terry, the writer for The Jewish Deaf magazine, saw artistic commonalities in the two friends.

“For more than two years now, these two have worked side by side,” she wrote in 1920, “Chaplin, silently and dramatically, by his ingenious trivialities, creating mirth and sunshine for millions of tired people; and Redmond, silently and none the less effectively, brightening the lives of all, by his radiant, appealing pictures on canvas.”

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