Not much is known about the relationship between artist Hollis H. Holbrook and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. What is known is Holbrook was ten years older than Ferlinghetti and both served in the US Navy during WWII. In 1970 Holbrook sent Ferlinghetti a portrait of the poet with these words on the back of the canvas, “To Lawrence, from Hollis Holbrook, with his best regards. Aug, 1970.” For decades the painting resided in Ferlinghetti’s North Beach apartment in San Francisco and in 2017 Ferlinghetti selected that image to be the cover of his last book of poetry, Ferlinghetti’s Greatest Poems.
Holbrook was born in 1909 in Natick, Massachusetts. He graduated high school in 1927, studied art and later advertising in Boston and worked for a number of corporations prior to the stock market crash of 1929. During the Great Depression he studied art again at the Massachusetts College of Art and later Yale School of Fine Art. His big break came in 1937, when he won 2nd place in a Depression-era program designed to pay artists for their work. His assignment was to paint a mural in the Natick, MA Post Office. Holbrook purposefully chose a dark time in Natick’s history, a time in the 1670s when the Indian Village was being taken over by the new settlers, and it depicts the Puritan missionary John Eliot as the local Indians are being relocated against their will in chains to Deer Island, where many would eventually die an early death. The painting is titled “John Eliot Speaks to the Natick Indians” and it still stands to this day.
Holbrook later went on to great things, becoming an artist of landscapes and portraits, a sculptor, and also an art teacher of significant renown. Today his works are in private art collections, museums and universities around the country and even the Smithsonian Institution.