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Engrossing tale of area artist

P.W. Costello created masterpieces honoring local celebrities

The O’Neill and Harris portraits were both drawn and brushed by hand. O’Neill’s is so well executed it looks like a monochrome photograph.

This is a copy of the Harris engrossing. The original which was in color with gold leaf lettering has not been found.

Artist P.W. Costello

After managing the Washington Senators to the franchise’s only World Championship, while playing second base fulltime, Bucky Harris was hailed like royalty, the king of baseball, when he came home to Pittston on October 29, 1924.

He was paraded through Pittston by a police escort as thousands of his fans lined the streets. At Gilmartin Park hundreds of school kids, who were let out of school for the occasion, broke a police line for a chance to touch him.

But the most kingly treatment he got was when he was presented with a Patrick W. Costello “engrossing” at a banquet that evening.

Costello, a Scranton artist, created the elaborate 18 x 25 pen and ink drawing as a commemorative document. Inscribed with calligraphic gold-leafed lettering and framed in gold, it likely cost its sponsors $1,500, the equivalent of $20,000 today.

It was worth every penny as Costello was hailed as a master among the hundreds of professional artists working nationwide creating engrossings for captains of industry, labor leaders, educators, politicians, war heroes, clergymen and sports figures to commemorate birthdays, retirements, promotions, championships and other special achievements during the heyday of American Engrossing from 1875 to 1925.

Though Costello was well-known in Scranton in his day as a city clerk, Lackawanna County Auditor, city controller, founder of the precursor to the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick and a popular restaurant owner, his engrossings were – according to his great-grandson Thomas W. “Tom” Costello, a Hill Section native living in New Jersey – so beautifully appointed and meticulously detailed they were doomed to obscurity.

“Ironically,” Tom said in an email, “the art is unknown to most people in Scranton. Once presented to the individuals they honored, Costello’s resolutions became cherished family heirlooms rather than objects for public display.”

That’s something Tom is trying to remedy. He presented an exhibition of his great-grandfather’s work in the Hope Horn Gallery at the University of Scranton in October and November of 2009. Now he is working on a book about P.W. ,as he was known, and his art.

A breaker boy turned artist, P. W. was the only son of poor Irish immigrants. He was born in Minooka in 1866. His mother died when he was two and for a time his father – looking for mine work with a depression on here – took P.W. to Birmingham, England, where, Tom believes, young Patrick first dabbled in pen and ink. At the time, Birmingham was the world manufacturing center of steel pen nibs, sharpened metal points which were dipped in ink and used for writing and drawing.

In 1877, when P. W. was eleven, he and his father returned to Scranton where P.W. got a job as a breaker boy at the Bellevue Colliery in West Scranton. He used what little free time he had practicing penmanship and drawing sometimes on slabs of slate.

It was with some irony then, and likely satisfaction, that years later he used those self-taught skills to engross an “Address Read by Master Bennie Phillips, a Slatepicker at the Pine Brook Colliery, Representing the Breaker Boys of the Anthracite Region, to Mr. John Mitchell, President of the United Mine Workers of America.”

While he worked as a clerk, in his spare time P. W. continued to practice lettering and engrossing and portrait drawing, working from a studios in the Odd Fellows Hall and later the Traders’ Bank on Wyoming Avenue in downtown Scranton. His first engrossing job brought him $25. He eventually gave up politics to become a full-time artist.

In addition to the Harris engrossing P. W. created resolutions of appreciation for Minooka’s Steve O’Neill, and Pittston’s Hugh Jennings, both of whom, like Harris, are in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Tom Costello searched for the Harris and Jennings engrossings through family members, but in vain. The O’Neill engrossing is still in the possession of his descendants.

An interview with O’Neill in Sporting News in January of 1949 illustrates the quality of Costello’s work and the reverence the recipients had for the engrossings.

From the story:

The interviewer started to leave, but O’Neill detained him. “Wait,” he said, “there are a few things I want you to see. Here’s the parchment the people of Minooka gave me when I went home after the 1920 Series. It’s all handpainted, gold leaf and all. I’ll bet you couldn’t have work like that done today.”

O’Neill’s youngest daughter, Olive Webb Corbett, told Tom that the engrossing was prominently displayed in their house in Cleveland for decades.

Tom said O’Neill’s description of the engrossing as a “parchment” indicates it was done on vellum (calfskin). “Usually P.W. engrossed documents on white Bristol board and reserved vellum for special projects like U.S. presidents and foreign heads of state. His choice of vellum says a lot about the high level of esteem he and the community had for Steve O’Neill.”

In 1890, P.W. Costello married Mary Agnes Mahon, a Bellevue resident, and the daughter of Patrick J. Mahon, a former Scranton City Treasurer and Alderman. They raised eight children. In 1908 the family moved from Bellevue to a new home near Nay Aug Park in Scranton.

In the late 1890s, P. W. co-owned Costello and Fleming’s Arbor Café, a popular downtown restaurant located in the heart of Scranton’s theatre district where his portraits of local and national figures lined the walls.

Patrick W. Costello died on May 20, 1935. He was 69. He was eulogized in an editorial in the Scrantonian Tribune:

“Mr. Costello was possessed of the soul of the poet and the artist. He was a great artist, a lover of beautiful things – but better still, he was a lover of his fellow man, and hundreds of them, who treasure his work and who admire his character, will mourn his departure.”

For more information go to www.zanerian.com and look in “The Master Penman Archives” for more biographical information and samples of Costello’s

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