Thursday, February 25, 2010

They Got Lincoln . . . Again and Again

Months ago I wrote of my surprise at seeing an exact replica of Chicago’s Standing Lincoln across the street from The Houses of Parliament. No altruistic act is simple, straightforward or without conflict, but the partnership that was formed between England and the United States to place Lincoln’s statue on London’s Parliament Square would have made Basil Fawlty and his crew look like five-star innkeepers.

By way of review . . . way, way outside the empire, back in provincial Chicago, old Eli Bates kicked off in 1881 and left enough money behind to erect a statue of Abraham Lincoln. Augustus Saint-Gaudens, an Irish immigrant and the foremost sculptor of his day, conceived and executed the work, which was dedicated in 1887 and which still stands at the head of Dearborn Street in Lincoln Park.

To get to London, though, we have to go by way of Cincinnati, a city that had a fair shot at becoming the mid-continental superstar, if only the City with the Big Shoulders hadn’t muscled all the other players out of the way by getting the canal built first, hogging the title of Stacker of Wheat and Player with Railroads.

Just as old Eli Bates had done in Chicago, a wealthy Cincinnati department store and hotel owner, Frederick H. Alms, left a $100,000 legacy to place a statue of Lincoln in a place of prominence to honor the centennial of Lincoln’s birth n 1809. Mrs. Alms established a committee of five influential Cincinnati citizens to choose a sculptor.

Everyone agreed on George Grey Barnard – except for Mrs. Alms, who wanted her husband’s gift to underwrite the work of Gutzon Borglum. But what does a woman, especially a woman stricken with grief, know about such things? Borglum only went on to wrest Mount Rushmore from the Dakota badlands.

As The New York Times reported on December 17, 1910 . . . “Rather than have any further wrangling over who should give to the City of Cincinnati a monument to Abraham Lincoln, Mr. and Mrs. Charles P. Taft, the former a brother of President Taft, volunteered on Thursday to give the $100,000 necessary for that purpose.”

Barnard, the beneficiary of Taft’s generosity, was born in Kankakee, trained at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Ecole de Beaux-Arts in Paris and, like Saint-Gaudens 20 years earlier, had found success in a conspicuous space, having finished the sculptural work for the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg.

Once chosen to execute the important work, Barnard’s plan was to sculpt Lincoln in a way that portrayed the president as a workingman who had risen to greatness. In a sense the work was to be about the country as much as it was the president – a country in which even a farm boy from the hinterlands of Illinois could become the head of state. So the statue, necessarily, was as much prairie farm boy as it was savior of the union.

It wasn’t until March of 1917 that the benefactor’s brother, the former President of the United States, William Howard Taft, unveiled the statue in Cincinnati. In the elation that ensued Charles Taft made an announcement that he would pay for a replica of Barnard’s Lincoln, that statue to be sent to London where it would stand outside the Houses of Parliament.

The former President’s brother had reason to believe that his gift would be accepted. Some years earlier the American Peace Centenary Committee had been established to figure out ways in which the hundred years of peace between the United States and Britain, formalized in the Treaty of Ghent in 1814, could be celebrated.

Anticipating that the love you take is equal to the love you make, the American and British Peace Centenary Committees agreed to mark the century long love-in by exchanging statues. Saint-Gaudens’ Standing Lincoln, the work of Augustus Saint Gaudens, was chosen for America’s gift, and the British government agreed to provide a site in Parliament Square between Westminster Abbey and the House of Parliament. For its placement. []

But World War I interrupted the plans, and Standing Lincoln didn’t make it across the pond. And this is where the last and most amazing part of They Got Lincoln, Again and Again begins.

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