The following biography was researched, compiled, and written by Geoffrey K. Fleming, Director, Southold Historical Society, Southold, NY.
HELEN WELLS SEYMOUR (December 17, 1878 - October 27, 1937)
Painter, print-maker, craftsperson, lecturer. Born in Washington, DC, the daughter of patent attorney Henry Albert Seymour (1847-1921) and his wife Mary Marilla Leggett (1853-1914). The family resided in northwest Washington on Connecticut Avenue.
Though from an early age she traveled the globe (In 1896 to Belgium; in 1901 to Egypt; in 1906 and 1907 to Italy; and in 1909 to England) her artistic training is not clear. One possible location for her training may have been Teachers College in New York City (as indicated indirectly in one source). Her earliest recorded public exhibition occurred at the Society of Independent Artists in 1918. She also may have had an affiliation with the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
At the time she exhibited at the Society in 1918 she indicated a New York City address. Until recently it was unclear whether she was living in the City at that time or if she was using the address of a dealer or other representative. Further research has yielded information that reveals her residency there and her participation in an art education program created for hospitals that was developed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the fall of 1919 her work related to this project which encompassed "creating watercolor and crayon studies in the museum" was mentioned in the Met's bulletin.
At the end of 1919 she traveled to China, Japan, and Korea to study art and while on this trip she had her first teaching experience in Japan. She returned to America in 1921. In Washington, DC she was a member of the Washington Handicraft Guild and Art Center where she exhibited beginning in the early 1920's. In 1922 she traveled back to Japan to serve as a teacher & faculty member at Doshisha Christian University (in the Doshisha Women's College) where she was hired to teach in the art department.
Upon her arrival in 1922 she wrote in her now famous diary "I have my lovely studio to myself and am extremely comfortable & happy." Not long after her return to Japan, she began studying the art of Ukiyo-e (Japanese wood block printmaking) at the Yamanaka Collection of color prints. Also that year she began collecting Japanese textiles both large and small. Her extensive collection of oriental textiles eventually became part of the collection of the Joslyn Memorial Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska.
In 1923 she began teaching her students wood block printing, having fully submerged herself in the topic. She also started selling fans and wood block prints that were created in her own studio. In November of that year she was invited to exhibit at The Osaka Art Exhibition, where she displayed a work entitled "Sketch of Mt. Fuji." It was in the later part of 1923 that Seymour traveled to China to vacation. While there, she was invited to take the position of "Head Executive" at the Institute of Arts in Peking. Though intrigued by the possibility, she rejected the offer.
By 1924 she had been teaching for four years overseas. In December of that year the Japanese Empress, Teimei (1884-1951), made an official visit to the Doshisha Christian University. During the visit the Empress toured Seymour's classroom where she complimented on her artistic creations. The Empresses favorable comments were heavily reported by the press.
The following year, in 1925, Seymour began studying with Kamisaka Sekka (1866-1942), Japan's foremost textile designer and painter. During that year she also began to lecture upon Japanese textiles, first for the Kobe Women's Club and then for the Recreation Club of Kyoto. She noted in her diary that she expected to continue to lecture upon the topic when she returned to America.
She finally left Japan in 1926 and traveled to Egypt, Italy, and France before returning to the United States. She continued to travel, returning to both England and France in 1929. She traveled very extensively during her lifetime, including to the following countries, territories, and cities: Belgium; England; Cuba; Panama; Salvador (El Salvador); Guatemala; California; Hawaii; Japan; Indochina (Vietnam); Cambodia; Ceylon (Sri Lanka); India; Siam (Thailand); Java; Hong Kong; China; Formosa (Taiwan); Singapore; Philippines; Egypt; Italy; and France.
Outside of her time in New York City, Seymour continued to reside for the greater part of her life in her native Washington, DC (In 1930 she still resided on Connecticut Avenue). Helen Wells Seymour died on October 27, 1937 and was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her parents and older sister, Rae (1877-1933). Many years after her death her remaining sister, Laura Seymour Doolittle (1874-1957), had her Japanese travel diaries published under the title A Japanese Diary (1956).