Anyone wishing to understand portraits in American mausolea must attentively study Laurel Glen mausoleum, the 1881 tomb of John P. Bowman (1816-1891), in Cuttingsville, VT. In this complex are five funerary portraits, all of which appear to have been commissioned by Bowman and put into place before his death.
Below is a general image of the interior (figure 1), the use of which I owe to the great courtesy of J.W. Ocker, who has offered a good, brief description of the complex in his recommended “Odd Things I’ve Seen” blog.
I am not interested in the tomb per se here, only the portraits. Still, I can offer you this statement of the extended site’s significance and I can also offer you the article published in the 1902 Monumental News, p. 23 (figure 2):
An obstructing granite door seen on the right in the Monumental News interior photograph and several mirrors, while they lighten the interior, make it harder to parse. Since the two largest mirrors face one another, they also have an effect of multiplying apparent space in the mausoleum into galleries of portrait busts. This undated stereograph from the architect, G. B. Croff, shows the interior with the obstructing granite door imagined away (figure 3):
The mausoleum’s design is much easier to read this way. It was a rectangular room deeper than wide. Two columns in antis, so to speak, divide an outer half of the room which forms a sort of porch for over half the year when the granite door is open from the penetralia in the rear. The porch holds a bust of Bowman; three family sculptures and the actual crypts are in the rear space: a full-length infant near the center rear, and two mature female portrait busts facing one another and backed by the large mirrors mentioned above, in a formal arrangement on built-in pedestals emerging from each rear sidewall.
The interior has not deviated much from the architect’s original design. The bust of Bowman has been moved to the wall on our left (as we look in) to make it visible when the granite door is open, and the statue of the baby has been shoved to the left out of the way of Bowman’s inscription.
In fact, the infant statue must inferably have been shifted twice: once when Bowman’s death date was incised and he was immured (1891, you’ll recall, in a mausoleum finished in 1881), and once between the time when the Monumental News photo was taken (about 1902) and when all of the modern photos we see on the interwebs were taken. Perhaps on one of those occasions the workers snapped several fingers and a toe off of the hands of the infant portrait while they were muscling it aside.
Taking the portraits in order of death, the first is Addie, who died a little over three months old (figure 4). All of the portraits were carved by Giovanni Turini of New York City in “Italian” marble. It looks like Carrara marble to me.
The portrait, in the round, is of an infant aged far more than three-ish months. It is able to sit up and alertly reaches out to be picked up. The face is swathed in baby fat and has the snub nose of a small child. the hair seems rather more developed than that of a three-month-old. It wears a child’s clothing, and the strap of the gown has fallen from the right shoulder as though she were a Venus figure.
The child sits on a cushion from which, in real life, she would instantly have tumbled. The cushion is carved with check-patterned cloth and made to look soft. Given the age discrepancy, this image is either generic, that is, out of a pattern book, or was summoned from the artist’s imagination, perhaps with the aid of a model. Hereinafter I will refer to it as a “portrait,” since it is meant to serve as one.
We turn now to the portrait on the left rear of the mausoleum as we look in (figures 5, 6). This is Ella (1856-1879), the dead elder daughter, as two lines of evidence suggest. First, the features, while none too visible in either of the details of the photo Mr. Ocker provided, appear youthful, with no obvious folds in the flesh around the nose mouth, or eyes. The hair is worn long, which might also signify youth. Secondly, there is a website, Vermont Deadline, which interests itself in ghostly manifestations. On a page devoted to Laurel Glen the author publishes photos of Ella, Jennie, and Bowman himself.
If you look at the Vermont Deadline photograph of Ella, you will see that it is none other than the photograph from which the portrait was (posthumously) carved. Besides the similarity of the facial features, there is the unmistakeable octopus of curls emerging from her forehead, the row of buttons down the right lapel of her coat, and the riffle of (I guess) lace at her neck. In figure 6 you can see some of Addie’s “portrait” and Ella’s portrait bust, both reversed because they are reflected in a mirror.
Comparing the photograph with the bust, you can also see that the sculptor Turini reproduced in marble the brocaded texture of Ella’s dress. He’s signed the cut under her right shoulder, but it’s not legible in any photograph I’ve seen.
Figure 7 offers a closer view of Ella’s bust, revealing another bust visible in the mirror behind her (see figure 7): the oblique reflection of the portrait bust of Bowman’s wife, Jennie (1824-1880).
The bust is notable for its crimped collar (see the row of short verticals running down the front). We are lucky that Croff published an entire set of stereographs of the tomb to publicize his work, for among them is a direct view of Jennie’s bust (figure 8). I am indebted to Historic New England for permission to use this photo.
The view has been cunningly staged so that the mirrors reveal all three of the adult portraits (the hideous baby being mercifully covered up). So important was it to the photographer to show all three in the play of mirrors that he’s been forced to show his hand by revealing his camera in reflection. He has directed light into the mausoleum and its reflection in the mirrors diffuses it: you can see it directly hitting Ella’s bust in the large mirror and the side of Bowman’s bust; a stray sliver of light is reflected onto the marble base under Jennie’s bust, too.
Figure 8 therefore gives an excellent feel for the effect intended by the architect, as was clearly the point. Unfortunately, the Historic New England view is either overexposed or has faded with time; I cannot make out any features of the face too well, but I do see the crimped collar of her coat and the short, close hairdo with curls extending out from a central part. This, too, is seen in the photograph of her published in Vermont Deadline from which the portrait was carved.
Bowman’s two portraits, one the portrait bust we saw in the photographs above (figures 9, 10), the other a full-length and life-sized (figure 11), are fittingly similar to one another in their features. The interior portrait, like such portraits in general, is carved without any great animating emotion. We can infer something about the carving of the two women from the fine treatment of his bust, again by Turini.
His hair is swept forward from the back of his head. Hair from his temples is combed back so that that it meets the hair coming forward from the rear over his ear in a tangle of textured riffles. There is a puff of hair over the forehead in center. The bushy mustache terminates in like riffles. The adipose of the face disguises signs of aging, though he has a prominent sagging jowl, double chin, and pouches under his eyes and small crow’s feet under them. The nose is straight and has a large bulb at the tip. His tall collar tidies up his neck. The ears have a vertical character and are not prominent. The eyebrows are detailed with a little riffle appropriate to such small patches of hair.
Bowman wears a coat in thick, soft cloth. He also wears a bow tie. Looking to the exterior statue for a moment (figure 11), it allows us to see that there is a vest under the coat.
The exterior portrait face (figure 11) manifestly bears the features of the one inside. However the outside one has many applied signs of aging on the rectangular face. There are very prominent naso-labial folds, sagging jowls and cheeks, pouches under the eyes, creases on the forehead, clenched brow, and sunken eyes with now quite prominent crows’ feet.
The figure is portrayed rising up the final steps to the door of the mausoleum, key in right hand, top hat cradled in the crook of his arm, overcoat clutched in his left. Not unexpectedly, the expression is one of sadness.
The statement of the mausoleum’s significance I mentioned above asserts that it was built between 1880 and 1882, and that the mausoleum was begun in July 1880. The interior bust of Bowman has, like Ella’s, an inscription under the right shoulder:
This means that his bust, as Croff’s Interior perspective already suggests, was part of the original design of the tomb. Certainly the exterior portrait, which is integral to the tomb, was. A fortiori, the portraits of the women (and child) must have been, since they actually represented inhabitants of the tomb, which in 1881 he was not.
Already in the summer of 1881 we’re told that 10,000 visitors came to see the tomb. They came, I think, to see a marvel that had been finished, not a chamber without busts. By the time Bowman died, in 1891, the tomb had been standing for about ten years, and ten years after that The Monumental News still found the tomb remarkable enough to do a feature on it.
What I think we can say, then, is that here is an unequivocal, landmark example of American funerary portraits which were consciously carved for funerary purposes both ante- and post mortem. The posthumous portraits were sculpted from photographs, and likely the two of Bowman were, as well. Visitors were encouraged, and in warmer months the tomb was open for viewing. These busts and portraits were conspicuous tokens of mourning and, given the $75,000 (1880 dollars) Bowman spent on the mausoleum and the house across the road, tokens of conspicuous consumption.
Of course, we always knew that some portraits were created specifically for the tomb, because they literally form part of it. Bowman’s exterior portrait is one. We know that at least one company perceived sufficient demand for portraits specifically made for funerary purposes that they paid money to advertise them as a service provided. But busts that you just find in a mausoleum, because of their portability, have some ambiguity about them.
Laurel Glen firmly establishes a category of funerary portrait busts deliberately made for the tomb, as opposed to other possible scenarios such as domestic portrait busts consciously repurposed to funerary use, or family busts that have been “de-accessioned” and dumped in the family crypt to get them out of the way.
I would want to get some mileage out of a costly bust by displaying it publicly in my house while I was still alive before it got relegated to posthumous duty in the tomb. But for John P. Bowman, the mausoleum itself—through its portraits— was a theater of conspicuous mourning and consumption, and that gives us a peek into the later nineteenth-century American psyche.
The cover photo is by J.W. Ocker and used with his kind permission.