Robert Webb

Article from a 1999 Ring-a-Ling. This article was scanned in and then developed into this digital form through OCR. It might therefore contain spelling mistakes, because of optical misreadings.

Thelma Webb Wright is a new Volunteer who has old and very special connections with the Ringling museum. Her father, Robert Webb, was the artist who painted the wall panels, ceilings and decorative elements in Ca'd'Zan. He, his wife, Rosa and daughters, Hannah and Thelma lived for a while in the Ringling's garage-during the construction of Ca'd'Zan.

Robert Webb, at age fifteen, began his apprenticeship to F. M. Lamb in Massachusetts. Lamb and John Singer Sargent had studied together in Paris. When Sargent returned to this Country for a commission to paint murals for the Boston Library, Lamb introduced his talented young student to him. While working on the murals and training with John Singer Sargent, Robert Webb mastered gold leafing and mural painting. During WWI he designed and painted ship camouflage for the Navy. After the war he moved with his family to the East Coast Florida to work for Addison Misncr. Dwight Baum saw his work and hired him, 1924 -1926, for the interior decorative painting of Ca'd'Zan.

Robert Webb painted the wonderful ceiling in Ca'd'Zan's dining room with its inlay appearance. The designs were taken from Mable Ringling's jewelry, some of which were from the Gavet Collection and included maset cameos and combs. He did stencil painting on the pecky cypress coffered ceiling in the Great Room and painted designs on the ceiling under the balcony. In John Ringling's bedroom, he extended the painting on the ceiling, "The Muses," by adding clouds and cherubs. Mable Ringling directed him to paint the inside of closet doors to surprise her guests. These designs were Mable's personal touch and were adapted from her favorite postcards. Webb surprised Mable Ringling by painting the inside of her medicine cabinet. She was so delighted with it, she had him paint others.

Both John Ringling and Robert Webb were strong individuals who sometimes had spirited
exchanges. John Ringling was immensely proud of his Sienna marble bathroom. One day while Robert Webb was marbleizing the toilet (which couldn't be made of marble) to match the real Sienna marble furnishings, John Ringling strolled in and said, "Just think, Webb, I'll be the first man in the United States to have a bath in a tub made of solid marble with gold fixtures." Robert Webb replied, "The hell you are. I've been taking a bath in that tub every day for five weeks!" When relating the experience, Robert Webb commented that although John Ringling stormed out of the room, he wasn't one to hold a grudge. He said, "John Ringling was a big man and just as big in principle as he was in size." Another amusing incident happened when Robert Webb was painting a grape leaf design on the last panel in the foyer. John Ringling commented, "Webb, Hurry up I'm running out of time and money!" At this, Robert Webb promptly put down the brush and declared, "I'm finished!" The panel remained as he left it only partially completed.

Robert Webb adored Mable Ringling who was so kind to his family. She was concerned that his girls receive milk daily because the estate at that time was far a store. She had a cow brought to the grounds and milked by the gardener for the "Webb Girls." Mable Ringling also had a load of sand delivered for Thelma and Hannah to use as a play pile. After Robert Webb killed a rattlesnake in the sand, she had a protective mesh fence with a gate installed around it.

Later Robert Webb also painted in the E1 Vernona Hotel ("Ringling Towers) and felt it was some of his best work. Fortunately when"The Towers" were recently demolished his painted beams were dismantled and are now stored in the garage at the Circus Museum. Robert Webb's association with Dwight Baum continued in the 1930's with projects in other parts of the Country - a church in Montelair, New Jersey and a Newport R.I. mansion. From 1939-1962 he worked for Colonial Williamsburg. He did the coat-of-arms for River Road Baptist Church in Richmond Virginia and decorating on Walter-Chysler's Virginia estate.

While visiting Sarasota in 1960, Thelma was disturbed to discover a local artist claiming credit for her father's art. She wrote the Governor of Florida sharing her concern for the attribution of her father's work. After the Governor responded to her, he invited her father to participate in the restoration of Ca'd'Zan. While Robert Webb and Rosa wintered in Sarasota, 1960-1972, he worked on Ca'd'Zan's restoration. One project was to restore Mable Ringling's delft parrot cage. He also removed the painting he had added in John Ringling's bedroom and replaced it with an oval flame around "The Muses" In the Music Room, he cleaned Willy Pogany's canvas ceiling paintings, "Dancers of the Nations" and restored the flamework. Ironically, during his long involvement in the restoration, Robert Webb never finished the -.. foyer panel he had suddenly left incomplete so many years before.

Thelma Webb Wright has written a biography (unpublished) about her talented and amusing father titled, Tramp Artist, a term Robert Webb used to describe himself. Information for this article was adapted from her manuscript.