For many years, the department has had a portrait (oil on canvas) of a young man. Word was that he was Allan Brown, a former chair of the department, but information about the painting and its subject was scant. From time to time the portrait has hung some place in the front office; at other times, it’s been in storage. More or less just to do something with it, a while ago I hung it in the small office in our front-office area that we use for visiting faculty. It turns out, by good luck that was appropriate.
Recently more information about the painting has come to light (thanks to our longtime colleague Maurice Duke and thanks to Margret Schluer, who tracked down records going back to her first years here, and thanks to Ray Bonis, VCU Archival Assistant in Cabell Library). We now can piece together a good story. That small office is now the E. Allan Brown Guest Faculty Office, with a handsome office name-card designed by Lily Dunning. In time we’ll have a plate made for the portrait itself giving information about Brown and his role in establishing our department.
Here’s a summary of the information. Below it is the information from Ray.
The portrait was made by artist Cecil Fields in 1948, when Brown (1919–1985) was 29 years old. At that time, he had completed his MA and was about to begin his PhD. The painting hung for years in his home, about two blocks west of Hibbs Hall at 1112 Grove Avenue. The house is still there—Ann Woodlief says it’s the smallish one in the middle of the block on the right, in the second block west of Harrison.
When Brown died, his family made a gift of the portrait to the department in August 1985. For some reason, the painting was badly damaged by a huge gash down the center. Margret’s records include photos of the damaged portrait; the department saw to it that the painting was restored and now it looks fine. But if you look carefully, you can see where the slash was.
From the information provided by Maurice and Ray, it seems that Brown applied to Richmond Professional Institute in his penultimate year as a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina in 1951. His area was 18th century British literature. Henry Hibbs, as provost of RPI, appointed Brown to the English department faculty and at the same time to the position of chair as well, since, as Hibbs said, Brown was the only PhD in the English department at that time and therefore the most appropriate person to be chair (actually Brown didn’t quite have his PhD yet—he received it the next year).
Brown remained chair from 1951 to 1970, almost the whole time he was here. This means that he was the first chair of our department, the VCU English department. He bridged the transition from RPI to VCU in 1968. He retired a few years after he stepped down as chair.
In 1984 he established the E. Allan Brown Scholarship. We’ve learned that Brown’s idea was to have the endowment provide a substantial amount of a year’s tuition for a meritorious rising senior English major (perhaps he had in mind the one he himself had received when he was in college at Chapel Hill). The first award was given to Melanie Jennings on April 5, 1984. The family was invited to a department tea at 4pm and to the college convocation at 7:45pm.
Each year since 1984 we have recognized an outstanding rising senior English major with the Brown award. Faculty members nominate students who are in the spring semester of their junior year and who have superior GPAs. Margaret has suggested that we place a plaque in the Brown Office with the names of all the recipients of this award year by year. A wonderful idea, I think, and very appropriate. As it happens, Ginny has turned up just such a plaque—with the names of the first two winners already entered, for 1984 and 1985 (Susan Preville won the second year), but with nothing added since. So we already have a beginning on making Margaret’s idea a reality.
Thanks to all who contributed to his narrative. Some in the department know most of this story already and probably have still more details to add, but I think for many this is an interesting bit of history about the beginning of our department.
FROM Ray Bonis, University Archives
E. Allan Brown
Ernest Allan Brown (1919-1985) was born in Charleston, South Carolina and raised in Durham, North Carolina. He attended the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, receiving an A.B. in English in 1941 and was Phi Beta Kappa.
Brown’s education was interrupted by World War II. He served in the United States Army from 1942-1946 in a variety of positions (historical editor, training officer in an anti-aircraft artillery regiment, prepared and published command directives and as a Military Intelligence Aerial Photograph Interpreter) rising in rank from private to major in four years, the last two of which were spent in London, England.
Brown returned to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and received his M.A. in English in 1947 and his Ph.D. in 1952 (Eighteenth Century English Literature and Middle English Literature). He was a part-time instructor in English at the University of North Carolina, 1947-1952. Brown served as chairman of the English Department at Richmond Professional Institute/Virginia Commonwealth University from 1951-1970. He remained as professor of English at VCU until his retirement in the 1970s. He died in 1985.
by Terry Oggel
Department of English Chair 2006–2012
E. Allan Brown portrait photo by Patrick Scott Vickers