Collection 35 - H. O. Kelly Collection

Identity elements

Reference code


Name and location of repository

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H. O. Kelly Collection


  • 1948-1990 (Creation)


2 boxes

Name of creator


Biographical history

Born March 6, 1884 in Bucyrus, Ohio, but lured out West as a youth, Harold Osman Kelly (1884-1955) traveled a long, hard road before turning his hand to painting as a means of support. Kelly's father was a Lancaster County, Pennsylvaniarailroader and his mother an Ohio born German. In Kelly's own words he loved animals and felt a desire to work with them from his earliest years, leaving school at 16 to work in stables around his home. H.O. Kelly's great American dream, however, was to own Western land and raise fine stock, particularly horses. For nearly 40 years of his life he worked in thirty states as a muleskinner, farmer, logger, bull-whacker, mill hand, sheepherder, freighter, and rancher. With the help of family, H.O. and his wife Jessie, whom he met and married in Arkansas, finally bought a farm in the Texas Panhandle in 1921. By 1939, however, the Dust Bowl swirled H.O. Kelly's dream into a bank foreclosure. Health broken after years of hard outdoor work, Kelly and his wife settled in Blanket, Texas, where he turned more and more to his painting, first with watercolors, then in oils by 1947, not only to occupy his mind and time, but to provide a modest supplementary means of support for himself and Jessie. His first one-man show was held at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts in 1950 at the invitation of Jerry Bywaters, the museum director and Kelly's early champion. Kelly died in Blanket, Texas December 12, 1955.

Content and structure elements

Scope and content

The bulk of the collection is a group of 171 watercolor illustrated letters by H. O. Kelly, written to his close friend and biographer, William Weber Johnson, his wife Elizabeth Ann Johnson, and their family, between 1948 and 1955. These letters formed the basis for William Weber Johnson's research for Kelly Blue, a biography of Kelly, first published by Doubleday in 1960, with a foreword by Western writer Tom Lea. Kelly Blue was later published in 1979 in a revised, illustrated edition by Texas A & M University Press. The illustrations for the second edition of Kelly Blue are reproductions of paintings from various private and public collections, including that of Texas A & M University, six of which were donated along with the letters to Texas A & M University in 1979, and are now on display in the J. Wayne Stark University Center Galleries.

A smaller group of fifteen letters by H. O. Kelly, and two in pencil by his wife Jessie Kelly, are addressed to another art collector and friend, Dallas lawyer, Rudolph Johnson. Seventeen additional letters by Rudolph Johnson, typewritten on yellow paper between 1955 and 1958 are included, adressed to H.O. Kelly, or, after the artist's death, to his wife, Jessie Kelly.

Of interest too is a letter to H. O. Kelly by Otto Kallir of the Galerie St. Etienne in New York City, requesting some of Kelly's works to be displayed in an exhibition of American primitive artists to be mounted at the Galerie early in 1952. Included is Kelly's letter to Mrs. Daniel Longwell asking permission to refer Kallir to her in order to view the painting she had just purchased from Elizabeth Ann McMurray, William Weber Johnson's wife. Also of note is letter written by John L. Paxton of Fort Worth, Tex., in reply to Rudolph Johnson soon after Kelly's death in 1955. Attached to Paxton's reply is a list of all the known owners of H.O. Kelly artworks at that time, whom Paxton has written to in the interest of collecting funds to aid in supporting the then destitute Jessie Kelly.

Also present are photocopies of the fifteen H. O. Kelly illustrated letters and two Jessie Kelly letters donated by Rudoph Johnson, accompanied by photocopies of transcripts of them made later under the auspices of Catherine A. Hastedt, Registrar/Curator of the Texas A & M University Office of University Art and Exhibitions. Two letters concern the transfer of H. O. Kelly letters and artwork to Texas A & M University collections. Four additional letters relate to: an art exhibit at the Memorial Student Center; a color slide of the painting "Penning Goats," and plans by Texas A & M University Press to publish an illustrated editon of Kelly Blue.

The tiny colored drawings found on H.O. Kelly's letters and cards to friends and family are a foreshadowing of the lovingly detailed scenes in his oil paintings. As a significant primitive artist, Kelly's paintings present a world of rolling, green pastures, tranquil blue skies, and solid farms and farming towns, also populated by a thick dusting of livestock, including wily goats, unpredictable donkeys, fine mules and lively horses. The robust folk are reminiscent of Kelly's mother's German ancestors in Ohio, similar to those living in Fredericksburg, Texas, a town Kelly often visited for inspiration. As these letters so vividly attest, when Kelly sold a painting, it was the buyer's initiation into a warm friendship with the raconteur artist, not a mere business transaction.

System of arrangement

Organization of the Papers

This collection is organized into three series: Series 1. Correspondence, 1948-1990 and undated (bulk 1948-1958); Series 2. Photocopies and transcripts, 1952-1955 and undated; Series 3. Exhibition catalogs, 1958 and undated.

Arrangement of the Papers

This collection is arranged chronologically.

Conditions of access and use elements

Conditions governing access

No restrictions.

Physical access

These materials are stored offsite and require additional time for retrieval.

Technical access

Conditions governing reproduction

Copyright is retained by the authors of items in these papers, or their descendants, as stipulated by United States copyright law.

Languages of the material

  • English

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Finding aids

Acquisition and appraisal elements

Custodial history

Immediate source of acquisition

Custody of a group of 171 letters written and illustrated by H.O. Kelly was transferred to the Texas A & M Library as of 6 March 1979, by Wayne Stark, Director of the Memorial Student Center. The 171 Kelly letters were a gift to the Memorial Student Center by Mr. And Mrs. William Weber Johnson, along with six H.O. Kelly paintings. Other Kelly letters, donated to Texas A & M University by Rudolph Johnson of Dallas, Tex., however, were not transferred to Special Collections in Sterling C. Evans Library until soon after 5 February 1990, by Catherine A Hastedt, Registrar/Curator of the Texas A & M Office of University Art Collections & Exhibits. Apparently, the latter office had kept these letters in order to make copies and transcriptions, with a view to possible publication of the letters. Eventually, Hastedt sent these photocopies and transcriptions, as well as all the original letters Rudolph Johnson donated, to Special Collections. It is unclear, however, exactly when the Rudolph Johnson letters were originally donated to Texas A & M University.


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Archivist's note

© Copyright 2019 Cushing Library. All rights reserved.

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