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An Art Book Prologue with an Italian Twist

Life and Times of Artist Thaddeus Welch


The moment I finished reading Helen Reid’s biography: Thad Welch, Pioneer and Painter, I felt inspired to write something about this determined and gifted artist. One thing that caught my attention were the many talented people Thad Welch had encountered and befriended during his career—forgotten names and accomplishments that need to be reintroduced to new generations of Californians and frankly, the world.

Driving through Marin County today, you can still see and experience a diversity of rural scenes that endeared Welch and his colleagues to so many people that are now lost in the past. We are fortunate today to have these visual images on canvas. Many of these landscapes include a myriad of natural splendors that abound throughout Marin County and northern California. Unfortunately, many of the names and stories behind these paintings have been forgotten.

But what exactly was left to write? The Welch biography by Helen V. Reid was thoroughly informative and published in Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine in 1924. Reid, a close friend of Thad Welch’s wife Ludmilla, was privy to many insights. She covered Welch’s early life, his painting scholarship in Europe, his two marriages and his outstanding painting career. The article was visibly enriched with examples of his work by the book’s publisher, the Oakland Museum, and supported by San Francisco’s Bohemian Club in 1966.

What more could I accomplish? I realized then that I possessed stories about Thad Welch that were told to me by my late step-father, esteemed San Francisco art dealer and conservator Joseph V. Toschi. But before I begin writing anything about Thaddeus Welch, I must first pay homage to a man I had known for fifty years.

Joseph Valentino Toschi was born on February 12, 1915 in Maglia, a suburb of Lucca, in the Italian region of Tuscany. He arrived in San Francisco in 1928 at the age of thirteen. It was during those early years during the Great Depression, that Toschi determined that his vocation would be best served in the world of fine art. As a boy in Tuscany, Joe’s budding interest in fine arts was nurtured by his mother’s frequent visits to the area’s magnificent museums. In America, the perceptive young man had quickly noticed that many young artists were poor. He concluded that rather than create beauty and starve, he would surround himself with the best of creative expressions of others by restoring and selling works of art. Thus was born a distinguished career that would span more than a half century.

While preparing for his vocation, Toschi still had to make a living. In that pursuit, he rose to the top of his field by owning and operating several very successful cocktail lounges in San Francisco. Among those enterprises was the nationally-known Shadow Box Lounge, with its piano bar and blind celebrity pianist, Glen Hurlbult 1, who also hosted a popular local radio program. Ever the innovator, Toschi added a new ingredient of distinctiveness, displays of striking 19th and 20th century oil paintings by artists, many of whom had flourished in the San Francisco area.

By 1948, he was known as a collector and had his restoration studio in San Francisco, where he developed and expanded his abilities and reputation for recognizing authenticity and quality. In 1952, Joe set up his fine arts gallery at Sutter and Polk Streets in the city, where he bought, sold and restored oil paintings by California as well as European artists. He was located around the corner from his popular Via Vai cocktail lounge and a block from Butterfields Auction House, an epicenter for the sale of fine art. Butterfield and Butterfield was established in 1865 by William Butterfield in San Francisco. In 2002, Butterfields was acquired by British auctioneer Bonhams Fine Arts Auctioneers and Appraisal.

As business prospered, so did Joe Toschi’s reputation as a fine arts dealer and gifted oil painting conservator. In time, Joe moved his art gallery and restoration workshop to 521 Sutter Street at Powell. In 1960, he took on a business partner, Howard Willoughby, recently retired from Sunset Magazine and a respected member of San Francisco’s Bohemian Club 2.

On December 29, 1965, the San Francisco Chronicle announced that the first painting by Sir Winston Churchill to be sold in the United States went on public display at the Willoughby-Toschi Fine Arts Gallery. The painting’s new owner, 1 - “Cable Car Concerto" 1947 historic San Francisco (Glen Hurlburt, Greg McRitchie Orchestra ")

2 - The Bohemian Club is a private club with two locations: a city clubhouse in the Union Square district of San Francisco, California, and the Bohemian Grove, a retreat north of the city in Sonoma County. Founded in 1872 from a regular meeting of journalists, artists and musicians, it soon began to accept businessmen and entrepreneurs as permanent members, as well as offering temporary membership to university presidents and military commanders who were serving in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Joseph V. Toschi subsequently sold, The Coast Near Antibes (1925) sight unseen to a Beverly Hills collector for $25,000. He had purchased the painting from Winston Churchill’s former bodyguard, retired Scotland Yard officer Ronald Golding, who was visiting San Francisco from his present home in New Zealand. When asked about the 24-by-30-inch oil painting, Toschi remarked that, “Sir Winston would have become a famous painter, had he decided to make a career of it. And even as a part-time artist, he was absolutely brilliant”.

Anyone who has an interest in history is certainly familiar with the ultimate UK statesman, Sir Winston Spencer Churchill 3 (November 30, 1874 – January 24, 1965). Many historians rate Sir Winston as the number one world leader of the 20th century. Had it not been for Churchill’s leadership in the early months of World War II, who knows what would have unfolded if Britain had been invaded and taken by the Nazis?

Churchill discovered the therapeutic qualities of painting at the age of forty. In the years that followed, he created over 500 paintings, the majority being impressionistic landscapes. His painting mentor and lifelong friend, Paul Lucien Maze (1887-1979), was an Anglo-French painter who art historians label as “The last of the great Post Impressionists".

The Willoughby-Toschi Fine Arts Gallery went on to become one of the leading art galleries west of the Mississippi. For the next eighteen years, Toschi was the conservator/consultant for San Francisco’s prestigious Bohemian Club, under the direction of Bohemian George Hart.

Semi-retiring from the art business in the mid-1970s, Toschi sold his gallery to the internationally-renowned Corinthian Studios. Though consistently successful in everything he did, Joseph V. Toschi was low-key, humble, and never forgot a friend in need. He had the ability to disarm the rich and powerful by simply being himself. Many of the Bay Area art-loving business titans would look forward to being invited into Toschi’s restoration workshop for Italian cold-cuts, a slice of Asiago cheese, a glass of wine, and a supply of scintillating art related conversation. There, Toschi often conducted classes on the finer points of oil painting restoration to his mesmerized audience. His humility and kind spirit is the legacy that will always be remembered.

3 - In 1953, Churchill won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his lifetime body of work. The Nobel committee cited Churchill for "his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values".

One of my favorite Joe Toschi stories begins in 1961 and concerns artists Thad and Ludmilla Welch. As he recounted, it was a typical San Francisco Fall day; windy, wet, and damp, when Toschi answered the gallery phone. He quickly recognized the gravel-toned voice of Joe Rainy, an art scout who frequently found relevant artwork to offer at the gallery. Rainy told Toschi that he had purchased a cache of one hundred and five oil painting canvasses earlier that morning from a janitor. The man had told Rainy that the canvasses had been long abandoned in a basement of an apartment building south of Market Street. Toschi asked who the artist was and how much he had paid. Rainy answered that he had given the man one hundred dollars for the lot. He went on to say that the canvasses were old, very moldy and that he could not make out any signatures because of the mold. “Well,” Toschi responded, “bring them to the gallery and I’ll look at them.”

Within the hour, Joe Rainy arrived at the basement workshop on Sutter Street and placed one of three canvass sacks on a work table. Toschi looked through one of the bags and told Rainy that he would first have to figure out a way to rid the canvasses of mold. If the artist was noteworthy, he would consider relining them (putting the original canvass onto a new canvas). Rainy asked Toschi if he would give him two hundred dollars for the cache. Toschi agreed.

In the next few weeks, Toschi figured out a way to remove the mold without damaging the paintings. His method was to take several sheets of newspaper and lay them on the cement floor of his basement workshop, place a moldy canvass on top of the newspapers, followed by several more sheets on top of the canvass. Taking a can of kerosene, he carefully poured the flammable liquid onto the newspaper. The next day, he found that the kerosene had killed off the mold without damaging the oil painting. With the mold gone, he could now see the name of the artist. As he examined the paintings, he found that most had a single name, T. Welch. Others had L.P.W. or L.P.Welch. Still others had both names L.P. Welch and T. Welch on either side of the painting. He realized immediately that the artists were husband and wife Thaddeus and Ludmilla Pilat Welch. Both had sterling reputations for painting California landscapes. Their work spanned a period covering the last quarter of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th century. For the next forty years, Toschi sold off his newly-discovered supply of Northern California treasures, with the majority being Marin County pastoral scenes.

An interesting sidebar that I remember as a youngster was that Mr. Rainy, a transplant Chicagoan, often told people that he was the lone survivor of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre that occurred in Chicago on February 14, 1929. That was the incident where four of Al Capone’s hitmen, disguised as Chicago police officers, lined up seven of gangster Bugs Moran’s associates in a North Side Chicago garage, and machine-gunned them all to death. If you saw Joe Rainy as I did, a perfect example of a Dashiell Hammett novel ‘bad guy,’ and dared to dispute his claim, he would show you three long healed scars that looked like bullet wounds.

Thinking about Mr. Rainy years later, I recalled an Old Italian proverb that advised that it is good to be brave, but it is also good to be careful. If you are careful, you will not get into situations that require you to be brave. I think the American version is: Discretion is the better part of valor.


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