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Restoration of the Nathaniel Bowditch Statue

Tuesday, November 15, 2011 - 6:00pm - 8:00pm
This event is open to the public.

The Curious History of Robert Ball Hughes’s Monument to Nathaniel BowditchRobert Ball Hughes (1806-1868) Nathaniel Bowditch, ca. 1839 Plaster. Collection of the Boston Athenæum; deposited by William Thaddeus Harris, 1851.

The sculptor Robert Ball Hughes (1806-1868) was born and trained in England and, in the early 1830s, immigrated to America and settled in New York. But by the end of the decade, he had moved to Boston. The main impetus for that relocation was to fulfill a commission that he received from Mount Auburn Cemetery for a monument to the pioneering mathematician, astronomer, navigator—and recently deceased—Nathaniel Bowditch (1773-1838). The resulting sculpture was the first large-scale bronze sculpture cast in the United States. Its creation was a milestone in the history of American Art.

This lecture, by curator and art historian David Dearinger, will detail the rather convoluted but fascinating history of this important moment in the history of American culture. It will also celebrate the long-delayed and much-needed restoration of the full-scale original plaster model of Hughes’s Bowditch, which has long been a major feature of the Athenæum’s art collection. Following its use in the creation of the bronze for Mount Auburn, Hughes gave the plaster model to his friend Edward Brinley, who had made substantial contributions to the commission, so substantial, in fact, that Brinley was forced to give the plaster to William Thaddeus Harris in payment for debts. In 1851, Dr. Harris deposited the plaster at the Athenæum where, it has remained on view since. On 6 October 2010, it left the Athenæum’s building at 10½ Beacon Street for the first time in almost 160 years, headed for Watertown, Massachusetts, where it has undergone extensive conservation treatment by Daedalus, Inc., one of the leading sculpture conservation firms in the country. Join us in reliving the history, including the recent travels, of this important American monument.

David B. Dearinger is the Susan Morse Hilles Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Boston Athenæum.

Robert Ball Hughes's Nathaniel Bowditch (1844) Returns to Athenæum 

Robert Ball Hughes's Nathaniel Bowditch (1844) Returns to Athenæum

On 30 May 2012, one of the Boston Athenæum's most important nineteenth-century American sculptures returned to the

Athenæum following a thorough, eighteen-month conservation treatment. Created in the 1840s by Anglo-American sculptor Robert Ball Hughes (1806-1868), the life-size seated portrait of the famous navigator, astronomer, and mathematician Nathaniel Bowditch (1773-1838) was conserved at Dædalus, Inc., one of this country's leading sculpture conservation firms. (Dædalus has conserved a number of sculptures in the Athenæum's collection, including Francesco Cecchi's 1847 copy of Jean-Antoine Houdon's George Washington, which is on view on the Athenæum's first floor, and Robert Ball Hughes's sculpture of Charles Dickens's Little Nell, ca. 1851, which can be seen on the second floor.)
Hughes was born and trained in England and came to the United States in the early 1830s, settling first in New York and then, around 1840, in Boston. Following the death of the esteemed Nathaniel Bowditch in Boston in 1838, a committee was formed to plan and fund a monument to him. It took the committee several years to decide on the appropriate form and material for the sculpture and to raise what it thought would be enough money to have it made. Finally, in 1843, the committee awarded the commission for the monument to Ball Hughes.
Within a year, Hughes produced the large plaster, which is now in the Athenæum's collection and it was approved by the committee for use in creating a final bronze version. A long period of bickering, negotiating, and just plain procrastination by both the committee and the artist followed. Part of the problem was that, at the time, there were no American bronze foundries with any experience at making sculpture. In the end, the figure of Bowditch was cast in bronze by the Boston firm of Gooding & Gavett, specialists in brass lamps and chandeliers. The bronze was erected at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which had donated land for that purpose, and the original plaster passed to William Thaddeus Harris (1826-1854), a Harvard-trained historian and antiquarian. In 1851, Harris deposited the plaster at the Athenæum and it has been a major part of the institution's art collection ever since. (The bronze version of the sculpture that is now at Mount Auburn was cast in France in the 1880s to replace the flawed and, by then, badly deteriorated original.)
During the third quarter of the nineteenth century, the large plaster Nathaniel Bowditch was exhibited at the Athenæum, first, in what was then the Sculpture Gallery and is now the Henry Long Room, and then in the building's entry hall. Since 2002, the sculpture has been a major feature of the Athenæum's magisterial Long Room on the fifth floor, to which it will return after a brief public debut on the first floor.
David B. Dearinger
Susan Morse Hilles Curator of Paintings & Sculpture
Caption for Image above: Professional art handlers from Artex, Inc., upload Robert Ball Hughes's Nathanial Bowditch into the Athenæum, 30 May 2012. (Hina Hirayama, 2012.)  

last update 9/28/2012
For noncommercial use, Copyright David E. Brown 2008-2012