About the Collection
John B. Fairbanks
by Brian A. Warburton
John B. Fairbanks was born 27 December 1855 in Payson, Utah, to John Boylston Fairbanks and Sarah Van Wagoner. He was born with a bad left foot, but it developed well enough that he was able to walk and even run without much difficulty. John grew up working on his father’s farm and attending school when time permitted. On 14 May 1875 John’s father died of pneumonia and John was left to care for his mother and siblings.1
The year 1877 proved to be very eventful for John. In the spring of that year he developed a friendship with a young artist named John Hafen. He took great interest in Hafen’s work and Hafen challenged him to paint a picture. “He, seeing that I took great interest in his work, told me that if I would paint a picture he would furnish me paint and lend me brushes. I did not want to do this but he urged me until I accepted his proposition.”2 John worked on his first art project in secret, but when his sisters found it he made them promise not to tell their mother. When he had finished the project he showed his mother, who was a great lover of art, and she asked where he had gotten the picture. When he replied he had made it, she didn’t believe him, but his sisters assured her he had done it and his mother then threw her arms around him and said “Why, John, you are an artist!”3 From this time on John continued to paint and was even able to sell some of his work. On 24 June 1877 John was married to Lillie Annetta Huish in the home of their bishop in Payson, Utah. John and Lillie had two children in the next two years and in 1881 John was called to serve a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) to the Southern States. John left his home and young family 10 October 1881, traveling to Salt Lake City to be set apart as a missionary and then on to the Southern States Mission.
He arrived in Nashville, Tennessee, headquarters of the mission, on 15 October 1881 and was assigned to labor in Mississippi, where he and his companion spent most of their time traveling throughout Jones County, preaching the gospel. They traveled without purse or scrip so while preaching they also had to ask for food and a place to stay at night. All of the walking caused John much pain as the birth defect in his ankle made it very difficult for him to travel so much. After several weeks of intense pain he and his companion “Went into the woods to have prayer and to annoint my ankle for the purpose of having all deformities removed.”4 After this experience John never again had trouble with his ankle. John and his companions continued to preach in private homes and when allowed they would also preach in churches and school houses. The missionaries faced a great amount of persecution throughout the South at that time and John recorded that he often faced such difficulties, but that he also met many who listened to him and several were baptized. John was released from his mission September 1883 and left Chattanooga for Salt Lake on 21 September 1883, arriving home on the 26th of September.
Upon returning home John secured employment at his father-in-law’s store, painting furniture. Sometime later John received a letter from his old friend John Hafen, asking him to help in a business venture, creating crayon portraits.5 This business moved John and his family to Ogden, Logan and eventually back to Payson, Utah. In March 1890, John Hafen went to the leadership of the LDS church and asked if he and a few other men could be sent to France to formally study art and in return they would use their skills to adorn church buildings. After several months the church leaders approved the idea and John Fairbanks, John Hafen and Lorus Pratt were called as missionaries to go to France to study art. The men were set apart as missionaries on 3 June 1890 and on 24 June, John left his home and family to spend two years in France, traveling by train to New York and then boarding the S.S. Nevada for France. They arrived in Paris on 24 July 1890 and within a few days the men enrolled in the Academie Julian. While at Julian the men impressed many people because of their industry and morals. During the summer of 1891 John spent much of his time in the countryside learning landscape painting from a French artist named Rigolet. John returned home in the summer of 1892 and the following January he was employed in painting murals in the nearly completed Salt Lake Temple, namely the Garden of Eden and the ceiling of the World Room.6
After work was completed on the temple John gained employment teaching art at Brigham Young Academy in Provo, Utah, and he also operated a photography studio to gain extra income. On 12 May 1898 John’s wife Lillie died and shortly thereafter John moved his children to Ogden, Utah where he took a job as supervisor of art in the public schools. In 1900 John was asked to join an expedition to Central and South America led by the president of Brigham Young Academy, Benjamin Cluff. John was named director of art and photography and on 17 April 1900 they left Provo with mules and wagons and began their long journey southward. During the trip John made many sketches of landscapes and interesting sights along the way. On the return trip he stopped in New York where he visited many of the museums and made copies of many pieces of art.
After his return home John continued his career as an artist, spending much of his time in New York where he made copies of famous art work to sell to people back in Utah and throughout the country. In 1917 John traveled to Zion National Park to make sketches and while there he met Florence Gifford. John and Florence fell in love and were married in Salt Lake City on 21 September 1917. John continued his career as a painter until his death on 15 June 1940 at the age of 84. He left behind his wife Florence and a total of 13 children.
1 John B. Fairbanks, “Papers and biographies, 1891-1937.” MSS SC 841, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University. 9.
2 John B. Fairbanks, “Diaries, 1877-1914,” MSS 140, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University. 8 April, 1880.
3 Fairbanks, “Papers,” 10.
4 Fairbanks, “Diaries,” 20 November 1881.
5 Fairbanks, “Papers,” 63
6 Ibid., 75
Alter, Cecil J. Utah: The Storied Domain. Vol. 3. Chicago: The American Historical Society, 1932.
Bradley, Martha Sonntag. “John Hafen and the Art Missionaries.” Journal of Mormon History 12 (1985) : 91-105.
Carter, Kate B. Heart Throbs of the West. Vol. 2. Salt Lake City: Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 1940.
Cope, Rachel. “John B. Fairbanks: The Man Behind the Canvas.” M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, 2003.
Esshom, Frank. Pioneers and Prominent Men of Utah. Salt Lake City: Western Epics, 1966.
Fairbanks, John B. “Diaries, 1877-1914,” MSS 140, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University.
________. “Papers and Biographies, 1891-1937,” MSS SC 841, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University.
Horne, Alice Merrill. Devotees and Their Shrines: A Handbook of Utah Art. Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1914.
Kaysville Art Club, Pioneers of Utah Art. Logan, Utah: Educational Printing Service, 1968.
Seifrit, William C. “Letters from Paris.” Utah Historical Quarterly 54 (Spring, 1986) : 179-202.