American (Rhode Island), 19th Century, Drawing Celebrating a Marriage, pen and brown ink on cream-colored card, 9 3/4″ x 12″ (248 x 305 mm), dated 1854: “Hope, Love, and Faith; Lavinia and Wesley; AFFECTION; Presented to Mr. and Mrs. Hill by A. S.” with roundels containing the Lord’s Prayer in Latin and in English. Museum of Fine Arts Boston.
The late art critic Philip Isaacson in the catalogue to the exhibition Records of Passage: New England Manuscripts in the Fraktur Tradition,1 rightly raises the question of just what one should call works like the present one. On the analogy of function he considers these works to be in the Fraktur tradition, although the style typically belongs to the English manner practiced in New England, and not to the German tradition of Pennsylvania. The present object is a family record, bringing together letter-forms, decorative motifs, as well as represented and symbolic forms. The strongest element in this particular design is decorative, combining verbal and visual expressions into a complex but unified symbolic whole, in which the human and the cruciform is combined. In this way, it goes beyond the scope of a merely ornamented family record and provides a warm, personal tribute to the married couple, to marriage, and to Christian belief and values. In keeping with its importance, the card support on which it was drawn and written suggests that it was intended for display in a frame, rather than pasted as a sheet into a family album.
The work was presented to Lavinia Bayley (1830-1912), a native of Rhode Island, and Wesley Wilson Hill (1828-1867) on the occasion of their marriage in 1854 by “A. S.” who presumably commissioned it. (The Hills are recorded in East Greenwich, Rhode Island since the early eighteenth century, and it appears that Wesley was born there.). They had one daughter, Lydia Lavinia Hill, born in 1856. After Wesley’s death Lavinia lived with Lydia and her husband, Joseph Gough, in Providence until her own demise. The couple were reunited in their grave in Mineral Spring Cemetery in Pawtucket.2
The ornate design, as far from the representational as it is, betrays no religious scruples towards the graven image or ornament—a strong belief among the early Baptist and Quaker settlers of East Greenwich. This and the groom’s Christian name, Wesley, suggest a Methodist origin. The Methodist church of East Greenwich was first built in 1831, and the vigorous growth of the congregation called for an enlargement of the building in 1850.3 The principal private school of East Greenwich and the surrounding Kent County, Kent Academy (later renamed East Greenwich Academy) was taken over by the Providence Conference of the Episcopal Methodist Church in 1841,4 making East Greenwich something of a Methodist stronghold.
In this image, an abstract humanoid shape is fused with an ornate cross, the beams of which intersect at a central region suggesting the heart, occupied by the word “LOVE.” The Theological Virtues, first mentioned by St. Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians, 13:13 (“And now abideth faith, hope, and love, even these three: but the chiefest of these is love.” —Geneva Bible, 1560). In the drawing HOPE dwells in the head-like form, FAITH in the solar plexus, with LOVE at the heart and the center of the cross. The figure is balanced atop an arch, formed by the word AFFECTION in fanciful letters, which rests on spheres, resting in turn on pedestals decorated by coats of arms. In human anatomical terms this suggests legs and feet. Below the horizontal beam of the cross two hearts, linked by a circular chain that pierces them, appear in ornate fields, Wesley’s filled with solid reserved crosses, and Lavinia’s by delicate, wildflower-like cruciform lines. The word “AND” appears just below the chain, linked to the word “FAITH” by a winged face, resembling the image of the human spirit shown on colonial gravestones. Above the beam, the Lord’s Prayer is written out in a minute hand within two dime-sized circles, in Latin on the left and in English on the right.
(The writing of the Lord’s Prayer in different languages, above all Latin, was a topos of nineteenth century calligraphy. Presumably the calligraphers wanted to impress actual and potential customers and pupils with their knowledge of foreign tongues, as well as their ability to write in an extremely small hand. The Hungarian polymath and confidence man, Gabor Naphegyi,5 carried this to an extreme in his Lord’s Prayer in Fifty-four Languages.) A profusion of branches and leaves grows out of the form, conveying the fruitfulness of the marriage, both in progeny and in the propagation of the Christian values expressed within it.
The design as a whole embodies a horror vacui, with ornamental patterns filling every space. If the spaces themselves are symmetrical in form, the ornamental designs within them are not, creating a pervading instability and liveliness in the image, which brings vigor to the the solid, symmetrical overall design. The letter-forms of the principal concepts imitate print, like those of many similar designs of the time. The lettering of “AFFECTION” is purely fanciful, while the dedication below is written in a partly gothicized Spencerian cursive.
The basic elements of the design are familiar from similar efforts of the period, not least Naphegyi’s, with the symmetrically organized fields, filled with commonplaces or pious truths written with print-like or fanciful letters, and a central dedication section written in cursive. For similar use of circular fields, one might compare the well-known sheet by Araunah Judd, who lived in Coventry, Connecticut,6 only a day’s travel west of East Greenwich and Providence. The execution of the present drawing is, however, quite different, and the coherence and ambition of its meaning and intent set it apart from the main body of nineteenth-century American calligraphic work. It is an exceptionally important example of the powerful ways visual and verbal symbolism worked on the American mind of the mid-century.
|Hill Grave, Mineral Spring Cemetery, Pawtucket, RI||Lords’ Prayer, watercolor, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Museum, Williamsburg, VA|
- Philip Isaacson, “Records of Passage: New England Illuminated Manuscripts in the Fraktur Tradition,” Clarion, Winter 1981, pp. 30ff., exh. cat. American Folk Art Museum, RISD ↩
- From public records accessed through Ancestry.com and findagrave.com ↩
- D. H. Greene, History of the Town of East Greenwich and Adjacent Territory from 1677 to 1877, Providence, 1877, pp. 149f.; Historic Images of East Greenwich, East Greenwich Free Library: http://www.eastgreenwichlibrary.org/about/historic-images-east-greenwich ↩
- Greene, op. cit., pp. 202ff., 218ff. ↩
- Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, online catalogue, Gabor Naphegyi, Calligraphic Picture, 1852: http://emuseum.history.org/view/objects/asitem/People@6788/0?t:state:flow=9cb529a7-12f8-4e49-a334-cc0fc97c288a ↩
- Isaacson, loc. cit., Fig. 1 ↩