In 2009, Sally Pemberton came across a suitcase full of memorabilia from her grandfather, Murdock Pemberton, who was the first art critic for The New Yorker. In this memorabilia were published and unpublished writings, some of his columns as an art critic and photographs. At the time, Pemberton knew little about her grandfather’s professional life.
“He didn’t talk much about what he did…basically, all I knew was that he worked at The New Yorker,” Pemberton said. “It was really a revelation to read all his columns and learn what he was doing.”
Two years later, in late 2011, she published a book about her discoveries, titled “Portrait of Murdock Pemberton: The New Yorker’s First Art Critic.” She said 90 percent of what’s in the book is new information to her. The book, according to Roger Heineken, administrative officer for the Memorial Union, is a “scrapbook style coffee table” book.
“On one hand, I felt a sense of responsibility to share what I believed was newly discovered history,” Pemberton said. “And secondly, I wanted the experts to determine whether or not he knew what he was talking about, in hopes of establishing a legacy for him as an art critic.”
Pemberton found her grandfather had many connections to well-known names, including Georgia O’Keefe, Albert Stieglitz and even William Allen White. Heineken said he was a “change agent” by having one of the first periodical reviews of modern art.
But Murdock Pemberton also has strong ties to Emporia and Kansas, making him “a part of our world,” Heineken said. Murdock Pemberton worked for The Emporia Gazette, starting off delivering papers, and graduated from Emporia High School in 1906, according to an Emporia State press release.
Sally Pemberton will give a presentation for students at ESU at 3 p.m. Oct. 3 in Science Hall, room 72, which will focus more on Murdock Pemberton’s role as an art critic and advocate. In addition, she will be speaking at the Emporia Arts Center, 815 Commercial St., at 7 p.m the same day with a broader biography and history of his life and work.
This will be Sally Pemberton’s first time visiting Emporia – as well as Kansas itself.
“She’s very excited to come here for the first time (and) to understand the environment in which her grandfather grew up,” Heineken said.
In an interview with The New Yorker in February, Pemberton said one challenge in gathering information about her grandfather was that he didn’t date anything.
“I had to create a time line of people and events to figure out when things happened,” she said.
Heineken said Murdock Pemberton was an “unsung hero” who had no training in this style of writing and learned to grow an appreciation for the arts.
“I think he is a good example of someone who was given a challenge to write this column and actually grew to be effective doing it,” Heineken said. “Any one of our students (at ESU) may be given a challenge in their career to do something that they’ve never done before…Murdock is an example of someone who rose to the occasion.”