Near East Side resident’s goal: Salvage sculpture or bust

By  Allison Ward 
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH Friday March 29, 2013 10:52 AM

This article was copied directly from the Columbus Dispatch website: http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/life_and_entertainment/2013/03/29/his-goal-salvage-sculpture-or-bust.html

Amid pallets of smashed beer and soft-drink cans at an East Side scrap yard, the bronze bust looked out of place.
Daryl Traylor knew neither the subject nor the sculptor, but the part-time waiter and antiques “ picker” thought the piece would fit nicely with the antiques displayed in his Near East Side apartment.
So he bought it for $125.

“I felt it had more historical significance than scrap bronze,” said Traylor, 43.

He has learned that the patina-covered sculpture depicts vaudeville comic Ralph Bingham and was made in 1929 by Chicago artist Lorado Taft.

Taft, according to Melissa Wolfe of the Columbus Museum of Art, was “a pre-eminent American sculptor” known for large civic pieces.

He was born in 1860, studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris and at the University of Illinois, and rose to prominence during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

That city’s Washington Park is home to his Fountain of Time, a 110-foot-long grouping of statues. Taft died in 1936.

“He was central to the Chicago art world,” said Wolfe, museum curator of American art. “He was really well-thought-of as a teacher. He still has a national reputation, but he is thought of as conservative.”

Anyone who has walked through a big memorial park, she said, has probably seen a Taft work — perhaps without knowing who made it.

Indeed, Traylor has photos of himself outside the Art Institute of Chicago, in front of Fountain of the Great Lakes. Only recently did he discover that Taft designed the fountain.

Robert La France, curator of pre-modern art at the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois, knew of the Bingham bust but thought it was lost. He was heartened when Traylor called about it.“We were about to lose this piece of art,” he said. “I’m glad he saved it.”

La France, who inspected the 27-inch-tall sculpture during a recent visit to Columbus, was pleasantly surprised.

“It looks 100 percent right; it’s in very good condition.”

A friend of Traylor’s, Ryan Williams, found the sculpture at the scrap yard as he dropped off building materials.

“It was curious,” Williams said, “just the juxtaposition of it.”

He took photos and showed them to Traylor, who bought the sculpture from the person who had taken it to Sims Brothers Recycling and Processing. The scrap-yard manager declined to comment about the sculpture.

Traylor said the previous owner told him that the bust had been found in a crawlspace of an old house in Westerville.

“(He said) it was his drinking buddy — he put a cowboy hat on it,” Traylor recalled with a laugh. “He had it for years. His wife just got tired of looking at it.”

A plaque on the front of the sculpture reads: “Ralph Bingham, 1870-1925, Founder of the International Lyceum and Chautauqua Association.”

During the early 1900s, the association sponsored lectures, theater shows and other educational programs at which Bingham performed.

According to the Krannert Museum, the last known whereabouts of the bust was the International Platform Association in Westerville, a descendant of the Lyceum and Chautauqua Association.

Although she doesn’t recall the piece, Emily Warner — who now lives in Colorado Springs, Colo. — said it could have been in her father’s office at the Platform Association when he was the group’s executive secretary in the 1950s. The Westerville association disbanded about 1960. Traylor said he doesn’t know the value of the bust because Taft’s pieces are usually in public places and don’t often come up for auction.

La France said the Krannert Musuem has several Taft busts but that other museums might be interested in acquiring it.

If not, Traylor said, he’ll keep it on a pedestal in a corner of his living room.

“I just love it,” he said. “It makes me feel good I saved it.”

award@dispatch.com

 

The long and the short of Taft’s Longfellow bust

For fans of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, this is a busy time of year.  They can commemorate his birthday (February 27, 1807) or his death (March 24, 1882).  Or both!

That’s what the UI Class of 1907 did when they hired Lorado Taft to create a marble bust of Longfellow as their class gift to the University of Illinois.  Although it’s been moved around a few times within the university library, it’s still in the building, now in the Literature and Languages Library, Room 225.

W.P. Trent, who wrote an address for the dedication ceremony (printed in the July 1907 Alumni Quarterly), said:  “…no one will dispute the propriety of the presentation of this bust of Longfellow to an institution of learning. There are people who pretend that Longfellow is not a great poet, but I know of no one who contends that he is not in many ways a true and eminent representative of the culture a university exists to spread. Not only was he a teacher in two colleges for a period covering almost a quarter of a century, but was probably the most important link for two generations between the culture of the old world and that of the new. Merely, then, as a teacher, lecturer, critic, and translator, whose home was in New England from which emigrated so many of the pioneers of the Northwest that is honoring him today, Longfellow would be worthy of this bust which a distinguished sculptor, an alumnus of this University has fashioned, and which the class of 1907 is presenting as a tribute of its affection to its alma mater.”

This 29-inch-tall bust was probably begun early in Taft’s career, perhaps while he was studying at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts or while a student in Urbana.  The finished marble piece was exhibited at the Art Institute in 1908 and then, many years later, at the 1983 retrospective exhibition at the Krannert Art Museum.  According to Allen Weller (who wrote the catalog for this show): “Taft exhibited a plaster portrait bust of Longfellow in the so-called First Champaign Salon of 1884, which he organized on his return from Paris….  It is not known whether [the finished bust] is a reworking of the portrait made 24 years earlier, but the broad style and simple surfaces make this seem unlikely….  Taft never saw the American poet and obviously worked from photographs, but the turn of the head, the largeness of treatment, and the vividness of the expression give it a vital quality” (page 18).

For some reason, Muriel Scheinman, who assembled a guide to art at the University of Illinois, omitted this bust from her book.  However, in her dissertation she wrote: “Longfellow, self-confident, with a piercing and perhaps visionary gaze, is rendered in a dry, generalized manner…” (page 51).

I’m more inclined to agree with Scheinman than with Weller.  For me, Taft’s bust of Thomas Gilbert from 1895 shows much more personality and energy.  But then, Longfellow was described as a “gentle, placid, poetic soul: an image perpetuated by his brother Samuel Longfellow, who wrote an early biography that specifically emphasized these points. As James Russell Lowell said, Longfellow had an “absolute sweetness, simplicity, and modesty” (Wikipedia biography, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Wadsworth_Longfellow).

Here is an amazing albumen print of Longfellow by British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.  No image could have captured his spirit more vividly, and he certainly doesn’t look gentle and placid to me!

The Wikipedia biography also points out that, although Longfellow was the most popular poet of his day and is generally regarded as the most distinguished poet the country had produced, his popularity rapidly declined, beginning shortly after his death and into the 20th century as academics began to appreciate poets like Walt Whitman, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and Robert Frost. In the 20th century, literary scholar Kermit Vanderbilt noted, “Increasingly rare is the scholar who braves ridicule to justify the art of Longfellow’s popular rhymings.”  20th century poet Lewis Putnam Turco concluded “Longfellow was minor and derivative in every way throughout his career… nothing more than a hack imitator of the English Romantics.” Could it be that Taft was one of those people who was not that impressed with Longfellow and gave the project only cursory focus?

Following Longfellow’s death, numerous statues emerged.  Here’s a stunning one by Sir Thomas Brock, K.C.B., R.A., that sits in the Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey (1884). (Photograph by Jacqueline Banerjee, 2011)

Here’s one by Edmonia Lewis from when Longfellow was still alive, 1872, from the National Museum in Liverpool.  She not only designed it but sculpted it herself. Another version, also by Lewis, is in the collection of Harvard University.  (Harvard has another bust of Longfellow, by Hiram Powers, from 1869.)

Portland, Maine, which is Longfellow’s birthplace, has a full-sized piece that stands in Longfellow Square.  This is much more the quality I would have expected from Taft.  (But then, the Class of 1907 commissioned only a bust, and probably had very little money to pay, at that.)  The Portland piece was designed by Maine sculptor Franklin Simmons (1839-1913) shortly after the poet’s death and was installed in September of 1888.  Here we see an academically robed and bearded Longfellow seated and facing the downtown with his right arm resting on the back of the chair and a scroll in his left.  Three bronze books are placed under his chair.  The sculpture was funded by pennies, nickels, and dimes donated by New England children.  Every year as the holidays approach, Longfellow can be found wearing a long red scarf and holding a wrapped present.

Interestingly, Taft included Simmons in his History of American Sculpture, Supplementary Chapter: 1923.  He wrote: “New men have appeared, men of just as convincing talent and ever-increasing skill.  The world grows old and grows young again!”  He went on to refer to Simmons’ “almost legendary career.”  (page 538)

My visit to the Taft archives to read correspondence regarding the Class of 1907 commission was not successful.  The file contains only a bill in the amount of $300 from the Piccirilli Brothers of New York “for the carving in Italian statuary marble of the Longfellow bust.”  I hope you can visit the bust yourselves and make your own impression.  I’d love to hear your thoughts!