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Southern Allegory, circa 1940-1950
Cramer Swords (1915-1981)

View Artist Bio
Oil on canvas
40 x 30 inches
Status: Greenville County Museum of Art, Greenville, South Carolina

Cramer Swords was born near Athens, Georgia, in the eponymous town of Swords, a community founded in 1906 by his grandfather, John Buchanon Swords. Though the details of his life are not well documented, in the late 1930s, he studied art at the University of Florida under Hollis Holbrook and, presumably, artist-in-residence Fletcher Martin. As both artists were strongly influenced by the American Scene murals of Thomas Hart Benton, it is reasonable to assume that Benton’s work had an impact on Swords’ developing style. Following graduation in 1939, Swords worked briefly as a graduate assistant and then established a studio in Gainesville, Florida, where he painted portraits and taught art for more than twenty years. A confirmed bachelor, Swords resided with his parents and sisters in the historic area of Gainesville. In 1962, he became a part-time instructor at Central Florida College in Ocala and worked there until his retirement in 1980.

Southern Allegory and a related work entitled The Meeting (Wolf’s Auction House, April 20, 1991) were probably painted in the early 1940s, shortly after the artist’s return to his native Swords to attend the funeral of his grandfather. Embedded in both scenes are a series of allusions to this remarkable man and to the town he built out of the Georgia red clay. 

Born in Carroll City in 1859, John “Buck” Swords first settled in Madison, Georgia, where he was in the distillery business. In 1895, he began buying land in the Blue Springs area; by 1900 he had acquired more than three thousand acres. Over the next ten year, he literally built himself a town. An early attraction was the clear water provided by the Blue Springs located just behind his home, a necessary resource for the Swords Distillery. Later, he built a large brick building to house the Swords Supply Company, the J. B. Swords Bank, and the Swords Post Office. Across the street, he built a two-story warehouse. Swords also operated a gristmill and a cotton gin, the first in Morgan County powered by a diesel engine. The gin processed over sixteen hundred bales of cotton annually, more than half of which was processed by Swords himself. 

In 1910, Swords persuaded the Georgia Railroad to construct the Swords Depot, along with a six-car siding, providing him with a facility for shipping timber and cotton, as well as the liquor produced at his distillery. In 1912, he built the Swords Methodist Church. When his grandchildren came of school age, he constructed a two-room schoolhouse. The community also had two blacksmith shops, a jail, and houses for sharecroppers and tenant farmers. Swords built a bridge over the Apalachee River in 1913, linking Greene and Morgan Counties. By 1916, he had been elected to the Georgia State House of Representatives, and, three years later, he became a Morgan County Commissioner. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, John Swords’ gross income was in excess of $200,000 annually.

The demise of the town of Swords came quickly. The 1919 ratification of the eighteenth amendment prohibiting the manufacturing, sale, or transport of intoxicating liquors ended Swords lucrative distillery business. The 1921 arrival of the boll weevil destroyed two-thirds of the cotton crop. In 1924, the Swords cotton gin was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Many of the residents of Swords left at that time, an exodus which probably included young Cramer Swords and his family. Notwithstanding these and other adversities, J. B. Swords, surrounded by a few family members and friends, continued to live a comfortable life in the town until his death in 1940. (See Wright, pp. 47-49, for further information on John Swords and the town of Swords.)  

Cramer Swords composed his painted autobiography in the manner of Thomas Hart Benton, inserting vignettes that recalled his own childhood, along with references to his enterprising ancestor—iron swords, sacks of corn, black sharecroppers draped in cotton—all juxtaposed against the zigzagging rhythms and undulating forms of the Georgia landscape.  Likewise in the tradition of Benton, Swords incorporated his muscular self-image into the scene, dressed in a white cotton shirt and a floppy straw hat. 

Nancy Rivard Shaw

 

Artist files, Cramer Swords. Charleston Renaissance Gallery.  Author unknown.

www.artnet.com/ Past Auction Results, Cramer Swords.

www.afn.org/ Dom and Maureen’s New House, p. 4 of 13.

Wright, John W.  Summer Visits to Buckhead, Georgia and Swords, Georgia.  Buckhead, Georgia: Parkway Publishers, Inc., 2005.   

For more information on this artist and work, please contact us.

This essay is copyrighted by Robert M. Hicklin Jr., Inc. and may not be reproduced or transmitted without written permission.

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