Noe Valley Voice July-August 2009

A Painted Lady and Her Paintings

By Tim Innes

"It was like a marvelously overstuffed antique shop,'' Dexter Garnier says of the Dolores Heights Victorian that San Francisco artist Frank Brown left Garnier and his wife, Judith, when he died in 2000.

In many ways, it still is.

Though the clutter of furniture, tapestries, sculpture, and taxidermy the Garniers found in the house has been thinned, an eclectic mix of Victorian and Arts and Crafts furnishings remains.

And then there's the art. Scores of paintings by Brown and his longtime partner, William Campbell, cover the walls. Hundreds more have been stowed away but are available for viewing.

The paintings--the remarkable legacy of two prolific 20th-century artists--are what visitors see when they enter the bright yellow Italianate house at 3733 21st Street, which went on the market in mid-June.

"This house didn't need to be staged,'' says Zephyr Real Estate's Harry Clark, one of the agents showing the 124-year-old property.

Artists Campbell and Brown purchased the six-room house for $9,500 in 1955. They restored the front of the house, which is pictured in Painted Ladies: San Francisco's Resplendent Victorians. Perched behind a wrought-iron fence and a curtain of trees and shrubs, the house is open and bright, with high ceilings and large windows. An upstairs studio looks out on a verdant, sheltered back yard.

While none of the art or furnishings is included in the home's $1,975,000 price, each piece can be purchased separately, says Garnier, a retired postal worker.

The paintings--more than half of Campbell and Brown's 793 known works--have been painstakingly and beautifully catalogued by Garnier in the Brown and Campbell Collection Catalog (Stonehopper, San Francisco), published in late June.

Born in New York City, Campbell studied at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) in the 1930s. From then until he enlisted in the Navy in 1943, he exhibited his work in several one-man shows, taught at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, and was briefly married.

After his discharge from the Navy in 1945, Campbell returned to the college, where he taught Brown, another Navy veteran, originally from Portland, Ore. The men briefly shared an apartment in North Beach, then spent the rest of the decade in Mexico. There they painted mostly landscapes and village scenes, though they also did a number of portraits. Two--Brown's "Woman Grooming Her Daughter,'' which evokes Diego Rivera, and Campbell's "Brother and Sister with Green Socks''--hang in the house.

Returning to San Francisco, both artists dabbled at nonfigurative painting, but neither really embraced the abstract expressionism flourishing at the time. Nor did the local artistic establishment embrace their work; a dispute with a critic led both men to withdraw from the Bay Area art scene.

Campbell stopped painting in 1950 and went to work for the Internal Revenue Service. Thirty years passed before he picked up a brush again. Brown, a quiet and private man, continued to paint.

Aside from donating paintings for KQED's fundraising auctions, Campbell and Brown held on to their work. Not until shortly before his death did Brown consent to a show, at the Antique Mall on Bayshore Boulevard. About a dozen of his canvases were sold.

The Garniers met Campbell and Brown in 1971, when they rented a flat near Mission Dolores from the artists. They later purchased the property and raised sons Jesse and Jonah there.

When the Garniers took occupancy of the 21st Street property after Brown's death, they found a house stuffed with artifacts and personal belongings--items collected from a lifetime of haunting thrift shops and flea markets. Some, including a stuffed parrot in a Victorian cage, bronze sculpture, and Art Nouveau vases and lamps, now grace a front parlor.

They also found more than 400 paintings--on the walls, in the upstairs studio, and tucked into every nook and cranny of the attic.

"About 70 paintings, 50 from the Mexico period of the late '40s, were found rolled up, 10 to 20 paintings to a roll," notes Garnier. "In the upstairs studio, where they painted, overlooking their garden, there were paintings everywhere, just everywhere."

In addition, the couple found a house in disrepair; Brown had let things go after his partner's death in 1985.

A new roof went on in 2001, followed by a new foundation, new patio and sun room, and new wiring and plumbing.

Garnier, who has sold a handful of his friends' paintings since Brown's death, hopes his catalog will help them finally find their place in the sun. And he has reason to be optimistic: a number of open house visitors, while not ready to bid on the property, have made offers for some of the works.

For more information about the artists, and a survey of their works, go to