Op-ed column: Lawrence the Indian proves to be example of ship carver’s art

The Sunday Gazette’s evocative article showcasing the restoration of the remarkable Starin Estate, o

The Sunday Gazette’s evocative article (May 20, 2012) showcasing the restoration of the remarkable Starin Estate, overlooking Fultonville and the Mohawk Valley, provided a much-needed bit of information about the arrival of Lawrence, the Indian, in Schenectady’s Historic Stockade District.

After recently restoring the base of the Stockade’s beloved monument, Legere Restorations carefully lowered the venerable zinc sculpture back onto its newly painted cast-iron base and bolted it tight. According to the article, Mr. Starin had brought Lawrence to the Mohawk Valley probably as a bronzed garden ornament for his “San Simeonesque” estate. Reputedly generous and civic-minded, he, at some point, must have donated the Indian to the city of Schenectady.

Story in reverse

And so begins the story of Lawrence, in reverse. After some fascinating digging, I discovered that this 5-foot-7-inch statue represents a refined high point in the evolution of the art of American ship carvers of the 19th century.

Lawrence came from the J.L. Mott Iron Works on the Harlem River in the Bronx. The statue — a multi-pieced zinc casting assemblage — came, probably, with a cast-iron base that included a fountain with basins for horses to drink from. The foundry, which made fountains, statues and civic monuments, had purchased the molds from wholesale tobacconist William Demuth in 1873 and listed Lawrence in the Mott Statuary catalog as No. 53 Indian Chief for $500. There is a reference to the Indian’s sale in 1887, which may have been the Starin purchase.

The No. 53 Indian Chief proved to be a hot item. One source references nine “Lawrences” still on view. A more fully researched inventory lists 25, including one in Peru. The Indian Chief came in two sizes: 5 feet 7 inches and 6 feet 7 inches. For extra money you could purchase him with a bronze finish.

According to Carol Grissom, author of “Zinc Sculpture in America 1850-1950,” the model for the statue has been identified as an almost identical wooden carving of similar dimensions by Samuel Robb (1851-1928), which is now in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Erroneous timeline

But wait a minute! Something is wrong with this chronology.

Robb’s carving is dated 1889 in the inscribed address of S. Robb’s New York City sculpture studio. As one of the country’s most prominent ship-carver shops in the second half of the 19th century, Mr. Robb’s studio had already begun carving statues for William Demuth and Co. some 20 years earlier.

It was Demuth (who sold cigar store Indians and meerschaum pipes) who copyrighted our Indian in 1872 and listed him in his catalog, before selling him to the Mott Foundry. During that productive period, the resident master sculptor at Robb’s studio was a German immigrant, Frederick Fried, who reportedly did most of the modeling for Demuth and other clients.

So, whether the original artist, envious plagiarist or artful businessman, Samuel Robb came from the rich tradition of ship carvers along the Eastern Seaboard and Great Lakes.

During the age of sailing ships, figurehead-carving families using the master apprenticeship method of training created a host of wooden figures for shipbuilders and all manner of land-side stores. Between 1840 and 1880 in downtowns across the country, carved shop figures were everywhere. It was the popular way for storekeepers to attract the buying public.

Popular forms

The figures, usually 1/4 scale, carved in the round and brightly painted, took on many popular forms. There were famous politicians and celebrities — George Washington, Buffalo Bill — sports figures, dogs, elegant ladies and city slickers. And, because of the association of the American Indian with tobacco, innumerable cigar store Indians.

Romantic depictions of Native Americans as “noble savages” scanning the horizon in the convention of the earlier figureheads were very popular. And within that genre, No. 53 Indian Chief is considered a distinguished work of art because of his naturalistic rendering and dramatic contrapposto (twisting of the torso).

Each county or municipality, after erecting one, would weave the exalted image into an important character in local history. For example, the closest Lawrence wannabe, in Mount Kisco, Westchester County, is Chief Kisco, a fictitious character indeed.

By the end of the Civil War, ship carvers were sculpting life-size figures from white pine mast sections purchased at spar yards, with increased sophistication. Many of the figures were commissioned as casting molds for war memorials, civic monuments and religious statues. The affordability of cast zinc figures allowed small municipalities and individuals to acquire artistic sculptures seen at industrial fairs and major national expositions.

Ship carvers were also employed to embellish architecture. St. Joseph’s, the now-empty but still magnificent Irish church in Arbor Hill in Albany, was structured with an English medieval-style hammerbeam trussed ceiling. The grand archangels that seem to fly off the ends of the horizontal bottom beams of the truss framework were reportedly carved at the Port of Albany by ship carvers.

Much of the interior carved woodwork of 19th century churches was undoubtedly created by American carvers. Although by no means a unique work of art, Lawrence is a distinguished example of the ship carver’s craft.

Frank F. Gilmore, a partner in SRG Architects, lives in Schenectady’s Historic Stockade District.

Categories: Opinion

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