|Big Willie Thunder (JWB Photo, 2009)
And this our life exempt from public haunt
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones and good in every thing.
As You Like It Act 2, scene 1
Happy birthday, Big Willie Thunder. That’s what I used to call the greatest writer in history when I was bringing him to high school kids back in the day. Born into a world that was changing in huge ways with new lands over the horizon and printing presses to spread the word, he seemed to understand everything -- man and woman, old and young, rich and poor, humankind and the natural world -- in ways that were not for his age but for all time.
In Chicago we have a nice little piece of sculpture dedicated to Mr. Thunder just across the street from the Lincoln Park zoo.
It was dedicated on this date, April 23, 1891.
The sculpture was the gift of a Chicagoan, Samuel Johnston, who died in October of 1886 at his residence on Pine Street, today’s North Michigan Avenue. He was born in Cincinnati in 1833, attended Harvard University, and came immediately after his graduation to Chicago at a time when the city was growing from a small hamlet to the largest inland port in the country.
Little is known about what he did to accumulate $525,000 by the time he died although his obituary refers to the property that he managed and the proceedings of probate court indicate that all but $25,000 of his fortune was in real estate. He was at one time a major investor in Chicago’s first cable car system, the Chicago Surface Railway, and for a time served as its director. He never married and is buried in Cincinnati.
In his will he appointed John De Koven and William E. Furness as executors of the estate and indicated precisely how the money was to be spent. He left, for example $10,000 for the erection of a gate at the main entrance of the Harvard University college yard, another $10,000 to the Cincinnati Orphan Asylum, and $50,000 to St. Luke’s Hospital in Chicago. [Chicago Tribune, November 5, 1886]
He matched the grant to Harvard and the orphans in Cincinnati with another $10,000 to be used for “erection of a bronze statue of Shakespeare on a pedestal in Lincoln Park, Chicago.” Mr. De Koven and Mr. Furness were vigilant executors and by 1891 the statue was ready for dedication.
The sculptor was William Ordway Partridge, who was born in Paris to American parents, both of whom were descended from the Massachusetts Pilgrims. [http://scdb.swem.wm.edu] He left Paris as a young man for a college education at Adelphi Academy and Columbia University in New York City, after which he returned to Paris to study sculpture. It was there that he formed a close friendship with Ralph Adams Cram (Think Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago and much of the campus of Richmond University).
In 1893 eleven of his sculptures were exhibited in the Fine Arts building (now the Museum of Science and Industry) at the great Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition. One of those pieces was the “plaster replica of statue of Shakespeare for Lincoln Park, Chicago.” He divuded his time between Milton, Massachusetts and his studio on Thirty-Eighth Street in New York. One of his assistants at the New York studio was Lee Lawrie (Think Rockefeller Chapel in Chicago and Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan).
The sculptor was at the dedication ceremony for his sculpture at which “long lines of carriages were drawn up along the roadways, while for a radius of several hundred feet around the pedestal was grouped a solid mass of people.”
[Chicago Tribune, April 24, 1891]
First to speak was the Chairman of the Lincoln Park Commissioners, Franklin H. Head. His words were brief but on the mark . . .
Shakespeare was a man known and loved by the people. Shakespeare was the supreme poet of humanity. We grow wise with him as he becomes known to us. His thoughts become our thoughts, and the more we study him the more do we find him to be one of us. I congratulate the City of Chicago on receiving this superb creation of the genius of man.
Cornelia Williams, the grandniece of Samuel Johnston, then “pulled the cord that released the flag draped round the statue and it was revealed for the first time to the expectant hundreds.” The cheering died only when Mr. Partridge rose to make his remarks. His words to the crowd . . .
A sculptor speaks best in bronze and marble, yet it may please you to know how I have put three years of work on this statue. I cannot tell you the story of it; it was a labor of love. The study of Shakespeare has not been to me the study of an abstract science, but the study of humanity. He has humanized every one who has approached him. I find his life, like all great lives, one of industry, conscience, imagination . . . The large statue I worked out in Paris. I visited England, Stratford and London . . . I left no stone unturned, I walked with the poet, and dined in the old garden – in fact, I did my best to get at the spirit of the man, and after all how little we can put of this man’s personality in bronze. Whatever criticisms may be made upon the work, believe me, I have done for you my level best.
The ceremony ended with actor E. S. Willard reciting Algernon Swinburne’s Sonnet to England, ending with the lines
More than all deeds wrought of thy strong
Right hand, --
This praise keeps most thy fame’s memorial
That thou was head of all these streams of song,
And time bows down to thee as Shakespeare’s land.
Mr. Partridge vowed that he had done his level best. Big Willie Thunder did all that and much, much more. And he continues to do it. Do yourself a favor --make a friend of a sonnet.
|Not for an age but for all time (JWB Photo, 2009)