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Marion Dorn - a Bay City Belle

Updated: Feb 3, 2022

Portrait of Miss D... Henry Varnum Poor

Marion Dorn - A Bay City Belle

Marion Victoria Dorn (1896 - 1964) was one of the most outstanding designers of the twentieth century. In this post I want to share my discovery of a formative portrait of Marion Dorn painted by Henry Varnum Poor, and give a snapshot insight to her early life in San Francisco.

Marion Dorn came from a wealthy family, growing up in San Francisco, with a country home at Menlo Park, at that time an exclusive place to have a holiday home. Once referred to as a "Bay City Belle", articles about Marion Dorn and her sister frequently appeared in local newspapers, generally reporting on their beauty and their leisure activities. One1912 headline on the ‘Woman’s World’ page of the San Francisco Call newspaper states: “Popular Girls Return to City with Parents for Gayeties”. A large photograph of the 15-year old Marion Dorn, framed in a decorative cartouche, with the caption: “Miss Marion Dorn, a talented musician"

“Stanford Student Will Delay Her Debut” is a headline in the June 1912 issue of the San Francisco Examiner. “Miss Marion Dorn has postponed her coming-out until she has earned her degree at Stanford. She graduated at Miss Hamlin’s School a few weeks ago, but unlike some of the graduates, has chosen to remain in school for a few years more before taking up a social career. Meanwhile, Miss Dorn is enjoying a busy vacation, at house parties and other diversions to which the season seems dedicated”.

Her potential career as a musician appeared to fall by the wayside when she took art classes at Stanford and later at the San Francisco Art Institute. Here, it seems, she fell under the spell of her tutor, Henry Varnum Poor, who was assistant professor from 1913 – 1916 at Stanford before taking up a post at the San Francisco Art Institute. Still married to his first wife Poor contributed a portrait, coyly titled “Miss D...”, to be included in a book, Art in California, edited and published by R.L Bernier, San Francisco, 1916.

In 1918 Poor was drafted into the U. S. Army, and went to France with the 115th Regiment of Engineers. He was later appointed the regimental artist and also served as an interpreter. Discharged in 1919 this is how his return to San Francisco was announced in the Oakland Tribune newspaper.

They took off, driving across the country, heading for New York. Poor purchased some land a few miles north of Manhattan where he built his own house and studio. Turning to all manner of crafts he specialised in a distinctive ceramic style. I have seen two other portraits of Marion Dorn by Poor, one in which Dorn looks decidedly unhappy, but lastly I will show this rather splendid hand-thrown plate by Poor, sold at an auction about 14 years ago. Not dated but presumably from 1920 /1921.

It was in New York Marion Dorn first met McKnight Kauffer who had been invited to the city to mount an exhibition of his work which he saw as an opportunity to make business contacts and gather sufficient commercial design commissions enabling him to return to America. He was unsuccessful in these aims and returned to England, but met Marion Dorn again in Paris in 1923 who was now divorced from Henry Poor.

Marion Dorn came to live in London with McKnight Kauffer. The rest is history.

1 comment

1 Comment

Mary Casserley
Mary Casserley
Oct 26, 2021

another fine piece of sleuthing...

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