Julian Garnsey: Artist and Architectural Collaborator

Central Docents, Central Library,
Julian Garnsey
Portrait of Julian Ellsworth Garnsey 1887-1969

Our free docent-led art and architecture tour of the Los Angeles Central Library always includes a stop in the International Languages Department, through which visitors can find the library's original 1926 Children's Department, with its decorated ceiling and Ivanhoe-themed murals.

Julian Garnsey designed the Ivanhoe murals for the Children’s Department,
now part of  International Languages

Garnsey’s Ceiling in the Grand Rotunda

Julian Garnsey painted that ceiling and designed the Ivanhoe murals—and he's responsible for the all the other wonderful painted ceilings in the original 1926 library, including the ceiling in the dome of the Rotunda.

Son of an Artist

Garnsey was born in New York in 1887. His father was artist, painter and muralist Elmer Ellsworth Garnsey. Elmer Garnsey's work can be found in the Library of Congress, Boston Public Library, and the U.S. Customs House in New York City.

Elmer Garnsey’s Ceiling in Thomas Jefferson Building, Library of Congress

The older Garnsey was the son of a New Jersey carpenter. At age eighteen he went to New York and he took a job as one of the painters on the Brooklyn Bridge, which was then under construction. But he spent his nights studying at Cooper Union, because he was determined to become an artist.

His son Julian was involved in art early on. When he was only fourteen, he was up on the scaffolding at the Minnesota State Capitol, assisting to his father on a mural project. Julian studied architecture at Harvard (Phi Beta Kappa, class of 09) and after graduation, studied at the Art Students League in New York, then in Paris. When he went back to New York, he spent several years working with his father and was president of the Art Students League from 1915 to 1917. He served in the Army during the last months of World War I, and was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the government of France.

Some time after his discharge, Garnsey moved to Southern California. In 1921, he was the art director on two movies, The Idle Rich (which filmed in Hollywood), and A Trip to Paradise (which was shot in Coney Island). One of his college roommates, Robert Middlemass, had become an actor and moved to Los Angeles, where he appeared in over 100 movies. We can only speculate that the presence of this old friend might have influenced Garnsey's move west. 

In Los Angeles, Garnsey studied at the Chouinard Art School and was an active part of the Los Angeles arts community, furthering his interests in art and architecture. In 1925, he was president of the Los Angeles Architectural Club, and in 1929; he was president of the California Water Color Society. In 1926, he gave a lecture at USC on the subject of color in architecture, and was made an honorary member of Alpa Rho Chi, a fraternity for students of architecture. In 1930 and 1931, he served as the eleventh president of the California Arts Club, then headquartered in Barnsdall Park.

In the twenties and thirties, Garnsey worked on projects as diverse as the decorated ceilings in Mudd Hall at U.S.C., a bas-relief of Texas history for the Texas Centennial Exhibition, murals for Union Depot in Ogden, Utah, and for the Hawaiian Electrical Company building in Honolulu. 

Garnsey’s History Mural for the Texas Centennial Exhibition, Dallas TX

For our Central Library, Garnsey used stencils to apply paint directly onto the ceilings, creating geometric designs with a sophisticated color palette. He admired Goodhue's design for the Library, calling it "honest, straightforward design," and wanted to create decorative design to live up to Goodhue's  strong, visible structural components.

Sensitivity to architecture was a characteristic of Garnsey's work. In 1930, when he won an award from the Southern California Chapter of the American Institute of Architects for his work at Royce Hall at UCLA, (his work at the Central Library received a similar award), the Alpha Ro Chi newsletter wrote that Garnsey's work "is noted for its studious and harmonious character, with color as the dominant note," and that "It has been a cardinal principle of Garnsey's practice that the mission of the mural painter is to maintain, at all costs, an unbroken harmony between his own work and the other elements of the building…Painted decoration is to him not a skin to be imposed upon various surfaces, but an outgrowth and an integral part of the architecture." The newsletter also noted that Garnesy had a keen, ready mind, a splendid sense of humor, and a winning personality.

Garnsey’s Ceiling in the main reading room, Powell Library UCLA

Admirers of Garnsey's work at the Central Library might want to take a trip to UCLA, to see his work at Royce Hall and Powell Library, the first two buildings on UCLA's Westwood campus.

In the Powell Library, Garnsey painted the ceiling of the main reading room with the emblems of forty 14th and 15th Century printers and symbols of truth, wisdom, and knowledge, including the caduceus, the serpent, and Aladdin's lamp: and symbols of the elements of the earth (a lion), air (birds), fire (a salamander), and water (sea horses).

Garnsey’s murals, Royce Hall Loggia

At Royce Hall, after planning his work in cooperation with architect David Allison, Garnsey painted the ceilings in the upper and lower loggia with great figures in the history of learning and philosophy including Abelard, Kant, Eliot, and Ignatius Loyola—the ceiling in the upper loggia is titled "The Instruction of the World." (Sadly, the upper loggia is accessible only through an academic conference room, and is not generally open to the public.)

Garnsey moved back to the east coast in the 1940s. He was for a time director of the Beaux Arts Institute of Design in New York City, founded in 1916 for the training of American architects, sculptors and mural painters; and was involved with the Inter-Society Color Council, founded in 1931 to advance the knowledge of color as it relates to art, science, and industry.  He lectured on the subject of color in architecture at Columbia University and New York University. In 1942, he was appointed associate professor of architecture at Princeton, and lectured at architecture schools on the subject of color in architecture. 

Julian Garnsey died in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1969. This portrait of him, by Kenneth Condit, is found in the Princeton University Art Gallery.

Julian Ellsworth Garnsey 1887-1969

Please join us for a docent-led tour of the Central Library.

—Written by docent Kate Kaplan