'Bust of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow'

Mary Edmonia Lewis (Greenbush, New York State or Newark, New Jersey, between 1843-5 - Rome after 1911) 1|

A marble bust carved with a  thin-face, long-hair and beard.

Artwork details

Medium and Support: Carved from white marble
Dimensions: height 65.5 cm x width 41 cm x depth 22 cm
Date: 1872
Signed: Signed and dated on the back: EDMONIA LEWIS / ROMA 1872
Accession No: WAG2004.5

The bust portrays one of American’s best-known writers, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), whose epic poem, the 'Song of Hiawatha|' (1855), a romance about Native American culture, propelled him to international fame when it sold over 30,000 copies in a few months. On his fourth and final visit to England in 1868 he was fêted by Queen Victoria, prime-minister Gladstone and fellow celebrated British poet, Alfred Tennyson, and was photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron. He was an impressive figure whose “long white silken hair and beard of patriarchal whiteness enclosed... fine-cut features and deep-sunken eyes, overshadowed by massive eyebrows”.2| These striking traits are well captured in Edmonia Lewis’s bust.

By the winter of 1868-69 Longfellow had moved to Rome where he became the focus of attention for American artists resident in the city. Particularly close to his hotel (above the Piazza Barberini) were the studios of a group of American women sculptors who specialised in creating white marble statues, figures and portrait busts in the then popular, idealised neo-classical style. They were later described jokily by the Anglo-American novelist Henry James as “that strange sisterhood of American ‘lady sculptors’ who at one time settled upon the seven hills [of Rome] in a white, marmorean flock.”3| Edmonia Lewis was one of the youngest and most ambitious of the ‘sisterhood’ of sculptors. She had arrived in Rome in January 1866, determined to prove and improve herself as a sculptor. On discovering that Longfellow was in Rome in 1869 she went to remarkable lengths to portray him, as described by Longfellow’s brother Samuel to another of Lewis’s sculptor colleagues the feminist Ann Whitney:

‘Miss Lewis has been making a bust of Mr. Long[fellow]. Her studio is near the Costanzi hotel where they are and she got glimpses of him here & there - went out to meet him & headed him off round corners (Saml. told us) & when he, Saml went in to her studio one day he found a respectable likeness of his brother. Then the rest of the family went in & the nose being a failing feature Mr. L sat to her & they think it now quite a creditable performance, better I think he said than many likenesses of him.'4|

Lewis’s portrait obviously gained the approval of Longfellow’s family and friends. It was in fact not unusual for her to rough-out portraits from memory, quick observations and sketches made in the street, only requesting a sitting once the portrait was fairly well established and needed merely minor corrections. She followed the same practice in 1877 when she portrayed the American Civil War General and American President Ulysses S Grant.5| The method helped ensure that a putative sitter would not rebuff her, as a woman sculptor, when she came to ask for a final sitting, as the fruits and quality of her work were already evident.

Lewis may have been spurred to portray Longfellow by rivalry with another ‘sister’ sculptor, Margaret Foley (1827-77), who had already brought back from America a cast of the poet, from which she hoped to gain potentially lucrative commissions for marble bust portraits of the famous author.6|

But Lewis also had personal reasons for admiring Longfellow and being inspired by his writings. Her portrait of him can be seen as the culmination of her appreciation for his poetry. She had already created two sculptures illustrating scenes from the 'Song of Hiawatha' by March 1866 and was to produce at least three other Hiawatha related busts and figures in the following years.7| Edmonia Lewis’s own Afro-American and Native American parentage would have strongly predisposed her to respect Longfellow and his work. Longfellow’s 'Song of Hiawatha', although providing a romanticised Anglo-American view of Native American culture, was based on solid ethnographical research and played a major role in promoting sympathy for Native American cultures. Its hero Hiawatha is from the same Chippewa (Ojibway) people, of the Great Lakes region bordering America and Canada, as Edmonia Lewis’s mother. Lewis was herself gushingly referred to by an admirer as a ‘descendant from Minnehaha’, Hiawatha’s beloved.8|

Longfellow’s earlier writings, such as his poem, ‘The Slave in the Dismal Swamp|’ (1842), describing the hunting down and ultimate escape of a fugitive slave in the American deep south, had also played a prominent part in the campaign for the abolition of slavery in America. Lewis’s father was of African American descent, probably from Haiti in the West Indies. Orphaned at an early age, her teenage education at Oberlin College, Ohio, where she had enrolled in 1859, was cut short in 1863 by a series of dramatic and brutal events. She was prevented from registering for her final term after a racist campaign over unfounded accusations. These concerned the supposed poisoning of two white female students and theft from an art master, that culminated in a court case and a vicious attack by a mob which left her unconscious.9| Lewis left in the wake of this to make her name as a sculptor in the abolitionist stronghold of Boston during the American Civil War (1861-65), with early works that showed her support for the abolitionist cause.

In Rome not only did her youth, ambition and sex make her stand out from the crowd but so did the colour of her skin (carte-de-visite photo, 1870). Indeed, Henry James claimed rather snidely that her skin colour, with its ‘picturesque contrast’ to the marble she worked was the main ‘pleading agent of her fame’.10| In Boston she had been particularly sensitive to patronising compliments made by the abolitionist community purely on account of her skin colour and due to her being of diverse heritage. Her move to Italy in 1865 was partly spurred by a wish to avoid that irritation. In Rome she smartly used her Native American parentage to gain herself attention and commissions in a crowded artistic market. In published interviews she liked to emphasise her 'wild' childhood among the Indians in the Great Lakes region rather than her membership of a 'much-injured' race, as she was described by one British commentator.11| By 1870 she had become so well known in artistic circles in Rome that an English sculptor, ‘Mrs. Cholmley’, had produced a portrait bust of her and Henry Wreford, a British art critic, was busy promoting Lewis’s work to British and American readers and patrons. 12|

Having modelled her Longfellow portrait in 1869, probably in clay, she set about trying to gain commissions for carved marble versions from suitable patrons.13| The first such commission came after a trip back to Boston in 1869, when a group of anonymous subscribers paid for a bust to be carved by Lewis in 1871 and placed in the library of Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Longfellow had taught modern languages between 1835 and 1854.14| The Walker’s narrower smaller marble bust was carved in the following year, 1872. Compared to the Harvard bust the Walker’s has a more severely truncated chest cut in a sharper geometric fashion. This focuses the viewer’s attention even more firmly on the poet’s striking features - his powerful forehead with its prominent veins, his thick moustache and luxuriantly wavy beard - reproduced by Lewis in undulating curves of deeply cut, crisp carving. The Walker’s bust is the only work by Edmonia Lewis in a British public collection. 

Interior of Hafodunos (1933)

Interior of Hafodunos (1933)

Later history

The bust was bought in Rome in February 1872 by the Liverpool merchant Henry Robertson Sandbach (1807-1895) and taken back to his country house in North Wales, Hafodunos|, at Llangernyw near Abergele. There it was displayed on a ‘revolving plinth’ with other neoclassical sculpture in the octagonal, domed top-lit billiard room, which he had incorporated into the recently built house designed in the neo-Gothic style in 1864-6 by Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878).15| From the 1950s onwards the house was turned successively into a private school, nursing home and hostel for the homeless, and eventually suffered a disastrous fire and burned down in October 2004.16|

Henry Sandbach was the son of the founder of one of Liverpool’s principal merchant firms, Sandbach, Tinne & Co., which traded with the West Indies for cotton, rum and sugar. He was also one of the country’s leading collectors of contemporary sculpture. He acquired probably the largest private collection of works by John Gibson (1790-1866), the foremost British neo-classical sculptor of the mid-nineteenth century.17| [Link illus? supposed portrait of Henry Sandbach on left side of Suffer the Little Children to come to me WAG7273 b&w]. Gibson had trained in Liverpool and his first most influential patron, who helped sponsor his studies in Rome, was William Roscoe, Liverpool’s great art patron (whose collections form the nucleus of the Walker) and the grandfather of Sandbach’s first wife, the poet Margaret (1812-1852). She in turn became a close admirer, friend and muse to the sculptor.18|

'Puck', Harriet Goodhue Hosmer

'Puck|', Harriet Goodhue Hosmer

Gibson died in Rome in January 1866, speechless after a stroke, in the month of Lewis’s arrival in the city. One of his female protégés, Harriet Hosmer (1830-1908), was the leading light of the American sculpting ‘sisterhood’ in Rome. Hosmer had done much to persuade Lewis to seek to improve her sculpture by moving from Boston to Rome. She and her work served as a role model for Lewis, who emulated not only her unconventional, often male, clothes but also her independence of mind and some of her sculptural motifs. Lewis’s cupid-like figures, 'Asleep' (1871), 'Awake' (1872, both San Jose Public Library) and 'Cupid Caught' recall Hosmer’s 'Puck|' (1856). It was almost certainly through Hosmer that Henry Sandbach came to know Lewis and her work. He definitely knew Hosmer as his personal diary for 1872 mentions several visits to her studio in Rome and negotiations to acquire from her Gibson’s small model for his final unfinished sculpture, 'Theseus and the Robber'.19| On the afternoon of 8 February, having earlier visited Hosmer, who was ‘suffering from a cold and could hardly speak for coughing’, he visited the studio of: ‘Miss Edmonia Lewis’s a Chippeway Indian Sculptor a simple little creature of undoubted talent. She has made the bust portrait of Longfellow colossal, for Harvard University. I ordered a copy of him natural size for 500 Piastres! and she said “the Good Spirit always sends me friends”.’20| On February 23, shortly before Sandbach and his family left Rome for home, he visited Lewis’s studio again this time to pay her.

In 1872 Sandbach admired Lewis’s work enough not only to buy a 'Bust of Longfellow' but also a 'Hiawatha & Minnehaha' (location unknown), which remained in the family until at least 1933, when it was listed as being at Hafodunos.21| As the son of a West Indies trader and the husband of the granddaughter of William Roscoe, one of England’s leading anti-slavery campaigners, Henry Sandbach may have been particularly inspired to buy a work from Edmonia Lewis, the first African-American female professional sculptor, especially a portrait bust of Longfellow, one of the most internationally renowned poets of the era.

Provenance

Bought in Rome in 1872 by Henry Robertson Sandbach (1807-1895) of Liverpool and Hafodounos, Llangernyw, North Wales; put up for auction at Brown & Co., Chester, 9 May 1933, lot 181 but not sold; passed by family descent from Samuel Sandbach (d.1928) to Geraldine P. V. Sandbach; Mrs. GPV Mackeson-Sandbach, of Llangernyw, died 2001; accepted by H.M. Government in lieu of inheritance tax and allocated to National Museums Liverpool, for display at the Walker Art Gallery, 2003.

Versions

  • Harvard University (Portrait Collection) no. S52, Cambridge, Massachusetts, dated 1871
  • terracotta version presumably modelled in 1869 and supposedly shown in Philadelphia Centennial 1876, present location unknown.

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Footnotes

  1. Edmonia Lewis’s place of birth and death are unclear. Romare Bearden & Harry Henderson 'A History of African-American Artists from 1792 to the Present', 1993, p.54, cite American and Canadian documents to suggest that she was born in 1845 in the village of Greenbush across the Hudson river from Albany, New York State, and that her mother’s family were based on Lake Ontario near Toronto, Canada. M. Richardson’s research has placed Lewis’s older brother Samuel (born 1832) and her parents in Newark, New Jersey in 1840, see JM Holland, ‘Mary Edmonia Lewis’s 'Minnehaha': Gender, Race & the “Indian Maid”’, 'Bulletin of Detroit Institute of Arts', vol.69, No.1/2, 1995, p.27. Edmonia’s own selective recall further confused the issue by claiming in interviews in 1866 ('The Athenaeum', 3 March p.302 and 'The Art-Journal' p.177) to have been born in 1843 in Greenhigh, Ohio. According to the 1911 'American Catholic Who’s Who' Lewis was still living in Rome then, but her exact place and date of death remain unknown.
  2. A description of him at his honorary degree ceremony in Cambridge University on 16 June 1868 quoted by Samuel Longfellow, editor, 'Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow', 1886, vol. II, p.442.
  3. Henry James, 'William Wetmore Story and his Friends: From Letters, Diaries and Recollections', vol. 1, 1903, p.257.
  4. Anne Whitney to her family, 7-18 February 1869, Anne Whitney Papers, Wellesley College Archives, Margaret Clapp Library, Wellesley College, quoted in Timothy Anglin Burgard, 'Edmonia Lewis and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Images and Identities', Harvard University Art Museum Gallery Series no.14, exhibition booklet for Fogg Art Museum, 1995, p.2.
  5. Bearden & Henderson, as above, p.75.
  6. A suggestion made by Ivan Gaskell in the text of an unpublished lecture about the Harvard University Library bust, ‘Edmonia Lewis, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and a Marble Bust: A Case Study in Sculpture’, given at Case Western University, Cleveland, Ohio, March 2005, p.28, kindly provided for the Walker’s files by Gaskell. For Lewis’s supposed animosity towards Margaret Foley see Anne Whitney letter 7-18 February 1869, as above.
  7. Two groups “from Longfellow’s Minnehaha”, presumably ‘Hiawatha’s Wooing’ and ‘Hiawatha’s Wedding’, are mentioned in March 1866 by Henry Wreford in ‘Lady-Artists in Rome’, 'The Art Journal', p.177.
  8. Phebe Hanaford, 'Daughters of America; or Women of the Century', 1883, p.298, quoting from an anonymous article about Lewis probably written by Elizabeth Peabody in 1869.
  9. Geoffrey Blodgett, ‘John Mercer Langston and the Case of Edmonia Lewis’, 'Journal of Negro History' 53 (1968), pp.201-18.
  10. James, 'William Wetmore Story', as above, p.258.
  11. Henry Wreford, ‘A Negro Sculptress’, 'The Athenaeum', March 3, 1866, p.302.
  12. ‘The Studios of Rome’, 'The Art Journal', 1870, pp. 77, 141.
  13. A terracotta bust of Longfellow (location now unknown) was exhibited by Edmonia Lewis at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition/Exposition in 1876, official catalogue p. 59, no. 1409.
  14. Harvard University Library (Portrait Collection) no.S52, 73 x 40.5x 31cm. Burgard, 'Edmonia Lewis and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Images and Identities', as above, p.6, p.11, no.48.
  15. Sale catalogue of Hafodunos contents, Brown & Co., Chester, 9 May 1933, lot 181, states that it was ‘on revolving plinth, with Mosaic Marble Square Pedestal’.
  16. Report by Helen Carter, The Guardian, 8 November, 2004, p.10 illustrated with photograph by Dale Dishon, North Wales Victorian Society.
  17. Amongst the works Sandbach had commissioned were full size marbles of 'Aurora', 'Mother & Child', 'The Wounded Amazon' (all in the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff) a relief portrait of 'Margaret Sandbach', reliefs of 'Cupid Pursuing Psyche', and ‘Suffer the Little Children to Come Unto Me’ (all in the Walker Art Gallery) and Henry Sandbach’s favourite, 'A Hunter and His Dog'. See Martin Greenwood essay, ‘Victorian Ideal Sculpture 1830-1870: Merseyside Sculptors and Collectors‘ in Penelope Curtis ed. 'Patronage and Practice: Sculpture on Merseyside', 1989, pp. 52-53.
  18. T Matthews, 'The Biography of John Gibson R.A. Sculptor, Rome', 1911, pp.224, 229, 239.
  19. Powys County Archives, M/D/SAND/1/19, Henry Robertson Sandbach Diary, 1872, entries for 3, 24 January and 1, 8, 16, 20, 28 February. Henry Sandbach and his family also paid many visits to the studio of Margaret Foley, Lewis’s rival expatriate sculptor; Matthews, 'Biography of John Gibson', as above, p. 243.
  20. Powys County Archives, M/D/SAND/1/19, as above, entries for 8 and 23 February. Quoted with kind permission of the owner of the papers, which are on closed access at Powys County Archives. The papers also include a copy of the five-page pamphlet entitled 'How Edmonia Lewis became an Artist', which Sandbach seems to have acquired in Rome in 1871, M/D/SAND/8/1174.
  21. Handwritten list sent from Hafodunos dated 15/2/1933 in the Walker’s files.