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Olive Percival, Artist in the Arroyo

This is the second in a 3-part series in which @LAHistory explores the life and achievements of Olive Percival, forgotten character of the Arroyo Seco. Read Part 1 here and Part 3 here.

"Yesterday morning, bright and early, we [Olive and her mother] chose the site for our new house. It was foggy as we started down to the arroyo but, as we reached the place, the sun shone forth propitiously. I signed the contract Friday Night. We will be under our own roof-tree (at last) on my 31st birthday." - Olive Percival, May 9, 1899

Down-hyl Claim. Photo taken from The Children's Garden Book (Huntington Library, 2005)With her earnings as an insurance clerk, Percival built a modest home in the Arroyo and named it Down-hyl Claim. The home didn't have electricity, yet she filled it with her own energizing creative force. And this force was a magnet that drew her kindred spirits - gardeners, artists and book collectors. Her friend the poet Hildegarde Flanner described Miss Percival as a "thoughtful and generous hostess who welcomed and entertained all who came to the green door in the arroyo..."

Among those knocking on Olive's green door were her Arroyo neighbors as well as those visiting from the East and abroad. Her Arroyo neighbors included Amanda Matthews Chase (author), Idah Meecham Strobridge (author and proprietor of the Artemisia Bindery), and the two Mrs. Charles Lummises. She did not get on with Charles Lummis, but was good friends with Hector Alliot, director of the Southwest Museum, and his wife.

Neighbors mingled with book collectors (George and Alice Millard), artists (Carl Oscar Borg, the William Wendts) and writers (George Wharton James) at Percival's moon-viewing parties and "at-homes." Julia Bracken Wendt was an especially good friend (Wendt's sculpture Three Muses stands in the historic rotunda of the Natural History Museum). Percival saw Los Angeles Times art critic Antony Anderson often, as he was a suitor and frequent escort in spite of her reservations. In anticipation of a party in June 1907, she wrote, "Going with Mr. Antony Anderson, The Times critic, and I am bored in advance."
Olive's Garden with her cat. Photo taken from the The Children's Garden Book (Huntington Library, 2005)
Lucky were those invited to her garden parties as they found whimsy hanging from the tree or posted along the path. "Miss Percival enjoyed bringing a hint of the Orient to the Arroyo," wrote her biographer Jane Apostol. "Festival cloth koi floated above the garden. Japanese poems fluttered from windbells and colored lanterns hung like blossoms in the trees." For another garden party, Percival hung her hats on the tree, which she wrote in her diary, "made many laughs."

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Her fame as an inspired gardener spread across the pond. The British author and equally enthusiastic gardener Vita Sackville-West visited Percival's garden on her 1933 trip to America with husband Harold Nicholson. As a lover of hats, Percival bought a new one for the visit of this famous author. In 1909 she wrote, "This is the year of the century for 'collecting' hats for future costume-parties; hats were never quainter, uglier, or more vulgarly conspicuous!" While she sometimes shopped at Collins Millinery in downtown Los Angeles, for this occasion she purchased one "crowded with a tumult of pansies" at the May Co. She noted in her diary that she gave Sackville-West a carton of Billbergia corms to plant in the gardens at Sissinghurst.

An Olive Percival bookplate, featuring Down-hyl ClaimIn Percival's time, any serious bibliophile (of means) had a personalized bookplate. "A taste in books may be easily whitewashed but a taste in a book-plate flares its owner's heart right into the eyes of the demurest damsel or the simplest swain," wrote Wilbur Macy Stone in his 1902 book "Book-Plates of To-Day." Not only a collector, Percival loved to design bookplates for herself and her friends. In 1911, she curated the first exhibition of bookplates in Southern California, confiding to her diary that "The village still regards Bookplates as a 'fad,' if at all." One of her original designs won an award in the 1926 bookplate exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science and Art.

There are many ways to interpret Percival's collections of dolls, valentines, and toys, but one is obvious: She loved children. She would never have children of her own, much to her regret, but her collections reflect her ease in immersing herself in playful imaginative worlds. Her guests were especially fascinated by her numerous original (and fashionable) paper dolls. It was Wilbur Macy Stone, the New Jersey collector of bookplates as well as children's books and toys, who encouraged Percival to create her own paper dolls. Her stunning collection, along with hand-written and typed lists of the categories, is now carefully preserved at the Denison Library at Scripps College. A sampling of the paper doll categories she created to order her collection reflect her whimsical attention to detail: "dancers, stylish stouts, star-pointing elocutionists, large-sized perfect ladies, and wee wee ones." Some of the dolls even have clothes with hats and matching handbags!

Sampling of Olive's miniature dolls hats, each one different. Percival collection, Ella Strong Denison Library, Scripps College In addition to paper dolls, she collected (and built) toys, each stored in its Olive-designed box. For Percival, beauty was meant for the mundane, whether she dressed up a tiny dull toy box or designed hundreds of hats to liven up her doll collection. Yes, she designed doll hats. Boxes of doll hats. She once listed "doll milliner" among her ideal professions. Doubtless she would have been successful because she created exquisite miniature hats, now preserved at Scripps and pictured here.

As if that was not enough, she was an accomplished photographer, using her camera to document local scenes, including Chinatown and San Pedro as well as the changing flower displays in her garden. Her photographs illustrated her own articles in the Los Angeles Times and other publications, as well as illustrating the work of other writers.

Percival was very active in Los Angeles social circles, yet her Arroyo home and garden is where she found the most inspiration. "After a hard, slanting shower yesterday, I went home to find everything enchanting and enchanted, all sparkling with crystals!" (Diary, April 1915)


Top photo: A Valentine created by Olive Percival complete with her own paper doll creations. Percival collection, Ella Strong Denison Library, Scripps College.

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Acknowledgments:

Special thanks to Librarian Judy Harvey Sahak and the staff of the Ella Strong Denison Library at Scripps College in Claremont, CA, as they enthusiastically shared their wonderful Olive Percival archives with us. A thank you to the Huntington Library's Reader Services Department for their always amiable and expeditious response to our requests. We are grateful to Ingrid Johnson for recording and sharing information about Olive Percival's life and collections.

Selected Sources:

  • Olive Percival diaries, transcribed, Ella Strong Denison Library, Scripps College

  • Guide to the Olive Percival Collections (unpublished) in the Ella Strong Denison Library, Scripps College, processed by Ingrid Johnson

  • Apostol, Jane, Olive Percival: Los Angeles Author and Bibliophile (Dept of Special Collections, University Research Library, University of California, Los Angeles, 1992)

  • Flanner, Hildegarde, "My Late Miss Percival: A Different Image" in Different Images: Portraits of Remembered People (John Daniel, Publisher, Santa Barbara, 1987)

  • Percival, Olive, The Children's Garden Book: Instructions, Plans & Stories: A Voice from a Gentle Age, Huntington Library Press, San Marino, 2005

  • DiBiase, Linda Popp, "Forgotten Woman of the Arroyo," Southern California Quarterly, 66 (1984)

  • Johnson, Ingrid, "Book Collector Extraordinaire: The Life and Times of Olive Percival"

  • Johnson, Ingrid: Olive Percival - Scripps College podcast

  • Los Angeles Times, various articles and editorials, 1899-1985

  • About the Author

    The LAhistory Twitter project is a mother-daughter effort. From 1960s-80s, the mother wrote about Los Angeles for Sunset Magazine, followed by a 25-year career at the Huntington Library. The daughter didn't appreciate the history ...
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