When a bookbinder with a penchant for conservation is the 17th grandson of an inventor, interesting things can happen. Robin Ashby’s grandfather, Chester County industrialist Harry E. Cann, who, in 1927, patented an innovative cooling unit that kept milk’s temperature below 52 degrees for as long as possible.
Cann’s company, ESCO, was incorporated in West Chester. By 1939, its cooling cabinet was on display at the World’s Fair. The company reached $40 million in sales in 1944, an era when egg prices were still posted on the front page of the daily newspaper. That same year, Cann picked up a paintbrush on doctor’s orders. The frenzy of growing his business was taking its toll on his health. ESCO was sold in 1967. (Its building is now Sharpless Works apartment complex in downtown West Chester.) Shortly after, Cann retired. He kept painting until 1974.
Ashby has 40 of his grandfather’s paintings. His extended family has another 100, and 60 are missing. His efforts to track down the works has reconnected him with Harry Cann, his 82-year-old cousin, who worked at ESCO. That journey has culminated in Ashby’s new book, The Industrialist’s Brush: Watercolors of Harry E. Cann.
A lot of the buildings his grandfather captured in his 200 numbered and indexed paintings have since been razed. “Sometimes art is the only way we can look back through history,” says Randell Spackman, president of the Chadds Ford Historical Society. “From multiple years of paintings, we can tell where different roofs, additions, plants and trees were—to a degree.”
Spackman’s family has 300-year-old roots in Thornbury, the farm historically linked to the Battle of Brandywine. The property dates to 1709, and the Spackmans have artwork that predates photographs. “We’ve used it to see where the trees or stone walls were that are gone today,” he says. “It’s an echo of what once was.”
Author Berenise Ball highlighted Cann’s work in Barns of Chester County and Chester County & Its Day, referring to the paintings of “Harry Cann country”—meeting houses, bridges and viewsheds around West Chester, Chadds Ford and Marshallton that no longer exist. A friend of Red Sox legend Ted Williams, Cann has work hanging in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. You can also find a few of his paintings at Chester County Hospital.
As for Ashby, he grew up in Marshallton near his grandfather and a neighbor who restored the house and mill at Andrew Wyeth’s estate. Ashby was a young laborer on that project, which inspired his lifetime love of art. “Andy was a wonderful guy,” Ashby recalls. “And the passion of an artist—where does it come from?”
Ashby’s own inclination for artistic expression went the literary route. He learned his craft at the School of Bookbinding Arts in Winchester, Virginia. After years as a technical writer and software auditor, Ashby was soon spending all his free time studying bookbinding. He now teaches classes in it.
Ashby is self-publishing 50 copies of The Industrialist’s Brush, more for the historical merit of the 200 detailed paintings than as an homage to his grandfather’s artistic skills. He also plans to sell prints of his Cann’s work. “Remembering the past returns some normalcy to a frenetic life,” Ashby notes. “The project has opened doors for me that were unbelievably rewarding. The story of ESCO will be next.”
In the meantime, Ashby is hand-binding his own copy of The Industrialist’s Brush. “It’ll be really special,” he says.