October 28, 2020 10:00 EST

The Pennsylvania Sale featuring The Hedgerow Theatre Collection

Lot 140


Wharton Esherick (1887-1970)
Staircase for Hedgerow Theatre, circa 1935

Comprising thirteen stairs Painted pine.

H: 107, W: 34, D: 77 in. (overall)

Provenance: Made by the artist for the Hedgerow Theatre, Rose Valley, Pennsylvania, circa 1935
The Hedgerow Theatre Collection

Sold for $81,250
Estimated at $20,000 - $30,000


Comprising thirteen stairs Painted pine.

H: 107, W: 34, D: 77 in. (overall)

Provenance: Made by the artist for the Hedgerow Theatre, Rose Valley, Pennsylvania, circa 1935
The Hedgerow Theatre Collection


Wharton Esherick, Studio & Collection, Eisenhauer, pp. 17, 32, 35-36 and 38 (for a discussion of Hedgerow Theatre)
Wharton Esherick, The Journey of a Creative Mind, Bascom, pp. 59-60, 106, 108-109, 120, 123, 131-136, 162-164 and 239 (for a discussion of Hedgerow Theatre and illustrations of related works)
Wharton Esherick and the Birth of the American Modern, Eisenhauer and Farrington, pp. 30-35, 112-127 (for a discussion of Hedgerow Theatre and illustrations of related works)
Drawings by Wharton Esherick, Rochberg, introduction (for a discussion of Hedgerow Theatre), nos. 56-61, 66-78, and 98-105 (for drawings related to Hedgerow Theatre)


Wharton Esherick's staircase designs are among his most recognizable and celebrated works, perhaps none more than the spiral staircase constructed for his hand-made studio in 1929 on the hill overlooking his farmhouse on Diamond Rock Hill in Paoli, Pennsylvania. That staircase, famously selected by Philadelphia architect George Howe to be showcased among an exhibition of Wharton's work entitled "A Pennsylvania Hill House" at the 1939-40 New York World's Fair, was removed for the occasion. Exposure to the audience of over 200,000 visitors gave Esherick well-deserved recognition. Esherick built only a handful of staircases for select clients, most notably the staircase he created for the Curtis Bok residence in Gulph Mills, Pennsylvania with fanning stairs similar to the present lot. Wharton Esherick crafted two spiraling staircases for Hedgerow Theatre. One set, made in 1934, was completely destroyed in a fire at the Theatre in 1985. The present lot, also built for Hedgerow Theatre in the mid-1930s remains extant. It replaced an existing set of Arts and Crafts stairs in the Theatre's lobby in order to create more room for the box office. Esherick salvaged pine timber from a covered bridge that spanned the Delaware River for its construction. He subsequently sculpted and stacked the stairs, fanning them out from a two-foot central column. The stairs lead to the theatre's balcony, where Esherick spent countless hours sketching actors on the stage. Because of the idiosyncratic and experimental design, the stairs have never adhered to local fire code. As a result, he was tasked with creating a "do not enter" sign to keep the Theatre's patrons at bay. A figural statuette, emblazoned with the word "NO" in large letters, sat at the foot of the present lot for many years.

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Wharton Esherick

Wharton Esherick—the master wood craftsman of Paoli, Pennsylvania—was born and raised in Philadelphia, where he was educated in many artistic specialties. Esherick learned woodworking at Manual Training High School, drawing and printmaking at the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art, and painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art.

As Philadelphia’s auction house, Freeman’s is a popular choice for consignors wishing to auction their Esherick works, making Freeman’s a market leader in the sale of his work. Recent successes include the 2020 sale of an important “Thunder Table” for Hedgerow Theatre in Paoli, Pennsylvania for $187,500, the 2014 sale of an important cocobolo sculpture, Essie/Rebecca, for $123,750, and the 2020 sale of a staircase for Hedgerow Theatre, which achieved $81,250.

Esherick began his career as a painter, swapping his Philadelphian surroundings for the Paoli countryside. He and his wife Leticia settled down in an old farmhouse, where they grew their own food—essential when the sales of his paintings became quiet, a frequent issue. It wasn’t until 1920 that Esherick began to use the woodworking skills he’d learned at Manual High School; he began to craft frames for his paintings, create woodcut prints, carve designs in furniture, and finally, craft sculptures. The wooden frames were Esherick’s attempt to increase the salability of his paintings, but it quickly became clear that prospective buyers were more interested in the unique frames than the paintings themselves. Despite his initial displeasure, Esherick understood this indication that he would have a more successful career in woodworking than in painting. He began to focus on sculpting wood, eventually completely abandoning the idea of carving designs into furniture, believing that the sculpting of the items themselves was art in a purer form, standing on shape and design alone. The freeform designs for which he is now best known can find their origins in the influences of his early work, namely Rudolf Steiner, German Expressionism, and Cubism.

Just as Esherick found his calling as a woodworker, unfortunately, the market for such handcrafted items dropped off dramatically. Furthermore, Esherick and his wife separated in the 1930s; he led a lonely existence, constantly chased by the threat of debt. However, the market did eventually gain momentum, particularly in the 1960s, as a result of the postwar baby boom. Esherick’s work became widely recognized as a significant contributing factor to the resurgence of the Arts and Crafts movement—so much so that he was named “Dean of American Craftsmen” shortly before his death in 1970.