John W. Forney monument. West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Bala Cynwyd, PA. Photo: author.

Here, in his Sunday best, is John W. Forney (1817-1881), a Lincoln republican who served twice as Clerk of the House and once as Secretary of the Senate of the United States. His day job was as a successful newspaper publisher. If you had asked someone then, they would have told you Forney’s paper was a proxy for one party as though it were Lincoln’s Fox News (or MSNBC, if you prefer).

We may compare his portrait in stone against one in the collection of the Library of Congress which was photographed by Matthew Brady and Levin Corbin Handy in the decade before Forney died. First, drop everything and see that the man in the photo is wearing a lorgnette. Or maybe a monocle. And he looks like a mix between Wagner, Asimov, and Gladstone. Thank you for looking.

The bas relief portrait has a similar coat, tie, and collar; one wonders if it was carved from a profile taken by Brady and Handy on the same day. The rectangular face with prominent chin boss, high forehead, and large, straight nose has inset eyes. The hair recedes over the temple, and falls in long curled locks. The mutton chops are astounding and leonine, and are made to look like locks of hair more than the fuzzy patches in the photograph. But I guess you can’t carve that. Signs of age mark the face: naso-labial fold, sagging cheek, pouch under the eye, jowl sagging with adipose. The area between the lip and chin seems articulated in a mannered way, but this may be due to the Col. Sanders beard he bore in the photograph.

George Washington, U.S. Postage issue of 1847. A nice picture breaks up large blocks of text. Wikimedia Commons.

The gaze on the bas relief is intent, with contracted brow. I suppose it’s meant to be penetrating. The gaze in the photograph seems kindly or benevolent. If the Pedia of Wiki is anything to judge by, the man was well liked and prone to symbolic gestures like reading George Washington’s Farewell Address once a year in Congress, which got picked up from occasion to custom.

Circling back to the main point, Forney’s realistic funerary portrait is an integral part of his free-standing monument. The question I always have in these cases is not whether the portrait was made for specifically funerary purposes—obviously it was—but whether it was “pre-need” self-commemoration arranged by him in person or in his will, on the one hand, or whether it was created spontaneously, as a tribute by his heirs and commemorators.

Sometimes wills are preserved and available on-line if they’ve gone to probate: to firmly establish a category of “self-commemorating integral portrait” I think I’m going to need to luck out and find one belonging to the subject of one of these portraits that mentions the portrait. Laurel Glen, of course, proves by chronology that “pre-need” portraiture existed, but that monumental complex is such an eccentric, one-off landmark that I’m reluctant to make it stand as a proxy for the large number of more run-of-the-mill portraits on tombs. Well, I’ve got my eyes open.

Published by gsb03632

A college professor living in Arlington, VA

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