An impromptu visit to Rock Creek Cemetery yesterday turned up an unexpected treasure: the double-portrait monument of the Thompson and Harding families (figures 1, 2). This rich, rich monument deserves every moment of a close look.

The monument itself, best seen in figure 1, is a tall rustic cross notionally set upon irregularly massed rustic blocks. On the east half, however, the rustic stone has been cut down into a series of three high steps. For scale, the portraits are life-sized. Both figures stand on the top step.

A rough cubic block on the west side bears the names of the two families, Thompson on the male figure’s side, and Harding on the female figure’s. Both names are carved in relief in rustic log font. Close examination shows that they were cut by different hands (figures 3, 4). The letters of the Thompson cutter are less rough-hewn, and have bark that is more scaly.

The male figure is presumably the patriarch of the Thompson family, N. Elbridge Thompson (1843-1904: figure 6). His wife was Ellen J. Thompson (1852-1905: figure 5). They both have markers in front of the Thompson (south) side of the monument.

The Harding (north) side of the monument has the markers of William H. Harding (1846-1898: figure 7), and Lillie May Harding (1871-1897: figure 8) daughter of William H. and S. Elizabeth Harding. Lillie May’s real name appears to have been Mary L. Harding; she became Mary L. Cooley at marriage. All the markers, by the way, are cylindrical and have rolled off of their bases and been carelessly replaced.

I did not see a marker for S. Elizabeth Harding; nor is it perfectly clear what the connection between the two families was. A guess (and no more) is that she was a sister of Ellen J. Thompson. For example, on the second step on the north face of the monument there is the inscription, “Erected by Ellen J. Thompson and S. Elizabeth Harding.” These two outlived all the others (even if only by a year in one case) and pooled their resources to craft a monument to their lost family members.

I propose, therefore, that the youthful female figure on the north side is a portrait of Lillie May Harding. Late 1904 or early 1905 would make sense for the commissioning of the monument, since Ellen J. died in the latter year. S. Elizabeth’s year of death is given as 1921 here. Ellen chose to portray her husband, lost the year before, Elizabeth her daughter, lost about 8 years before.

Figure 9. N. Elbridge Thompson portrait, Thompson-Harding monument. Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C. Photo: author.

The Thompson portrait looks like it was either created about 10 years before he died at about age 61, or was created after his death for this monument from a suitable photograph. The hand resting on the bible points to a funerary intent in, and thus posthumous creation of, the portrait. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The male portrait is freestanding, life-sized, in white marble. The statue is mortared to the granite fabric of the monument. The figure stands next to a short, rough-hewn stone pillar; the figure’s left hand rests slightly closed on an open book which sits upon the pillar. The statue is badly weathered.

Figure 12. N. Elbridge Thompson portrait. Detail: face. Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C. Photo: author.
Figure 13. Eastman Johnson, posthumous portrait of Chester A. Arthur (1887). Public domain (published before 1924). Wikimedia Commons.

Thanks to its whiskers, the face has a square outline (figure 12). The mutton chops with bare chin remind one of Chester A. Arthur (figure 13), which might point to the 1880s as a likely decade for the original of the image. The face is unfortunately marred by lichen on the west side. A strong brow ridge is reinforced by deep undercutting that throws the area into shadow. The eyes work with the play of light because the irises are sunken and shadowed while the pupils stand out. The gaze is slightly averted to the left; the forehead is smooth.

The hair is receding up the forehead and visibly at the left temple. The right temple is masked by a lock of hair. The treatment of the hair is generally impressionistic, as the locks are rendered into puffy, ill-defined outlines. Further, the articulation of the hair into locks is effectively confined to those areas visible to the casual viewer from the front. The rest of the head has only very sketchy indications of any sort of texture.

The face is thin, and the neck lacks signs of adipose. There do not seem to be prominent signs of age, though the face is bony (see the cheek bones and the boss of the chin, besides the heavy brows). The nose is of medium length, and has a slight outward “ski-jump” at the end. The root of the nose is lightly sunk below the level of the surface of the forehead.

The head, like the eyes within it, is averted slightly to the left. The body rests its weight on the left leg, with the right slightly flexed. The right arm is brought up sharply and the right hand made into a loose fist at the level of the mid-lapel, which is grasped between the palm and the last three fingers.

The body is not corpulent and thinness is emphasized everywhere by prominent loose folds in the heavy yet pliant cloth of the coat, the vest, and the pants. The coat is so thick that the lapel rolls outward. It is daringly thin because it is undercut. The seams in the garments are visible. The thin right forearm and hand extend from loose cuffs of the coat and the shirt. The arm is deeply cut into the sleeve giving the illusion of depth, whereas the hand itself reveals its sinews.

Figure 14. Thompson-Harding monument. Detail: torso of male figure. Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C. Photo: author.

The buttons of the coat and the vest are covered with cloth; the vest has a shawl lapel, and a watch chain is prominently visible. The lapel button hole is empty, and the slender gorgets sit high. The collar of the shirt is turned down and is visibly loose around the neck. The bow tie is loose and flops down. The left arm falls in a graceful arc and the hand rests, as mentioned, on an open Bible. The pants have a strong break over the shoes and nearly hit the ground behind the heel. The man appears to have dressed to the left. The toe of the shoe is square, and the leather has gentle folds that look like cordovan.

The rear of the statue has been finished so as to mate it with mortar to the rough stone of the granite cross. The cross has been lightly shaped to receive the back of the head, torso, and left arm: see figures 10 and 11.

Figure 15. Thompson-Harding monument. Female figure, frontal. Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C. Photo: author.

The wonderful female figure on the Harding side of the monument (figure 15) was unfortunately facing in the wrong direction for the light when I visited. Further, it is badly weathered and desperately needs a cleaning. Still, I think some progress can be made.

The pose is a contrapposto with the weight on the left leg. The torso is turned a bit to the right, the head more so and inclined downward. The arms are held away from the body at shallow angles, the left hand holding a stalk of lilies, the right a blooming lily flower. The figure’s gaze appears to be fixed on the flower.

Numerous signs point to the youth of the figure. The cloth of the flowing gown gives the impression of heaviness yet has been carved to reveal a supple, thin female figure underneath. The clinging treatment of the cloth around the breasts as though it were wet is an old trick to emphasize their youthfulness. Belly, hips, hands and shoulders are likewise evident and signify youth.

Figure 18. Thompson-Harding monument, north (female) figure, torso and long lock of hair. Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C. Photo: author.

The hair, in extravagently long curls, cascades over the shoulders, and one lock falls on the front right as far as the top of the thigh. It’s mannered, since hair that long would be heavy enough to pull the corkscrew curls out. The twist of the curl echoes the turn of the figure.

The long face emerges from the mass of hair. It is thin and conventionally attractive, but the dirt, wear, and lichen make it difficult to say much beyond that it is a youthful face. Some sense of the face’s delicate features can be made out in profile (figure 19).

Figure 19. Thompson-Harding monument, north (female) figure, left profile. Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C. Photo: author.

The long, mannered treatment of the figure’s curls is, as I noted above, echoed in the turn of the figure. The gown similarly contributes to this energy through two prominent twisting folds, one coming up from the left hip under the left breast, the other up from between the knees, past the groin, to the end of the lock on the right (figures 15, 19).

The most notable effect of the statue, however, is the long, long train of the dress that falls nearly a meter beyond her feet on the top step and cascades down onto the next step and laps over it onto the riser (figure 15). This treatment seems to me to suggest a couple of different effects. First, it is not a practical dress. Any attempt at movement would send her tripping. The notion, I guess, is that she is in a place now where such practical considerations no longer hold.

Yet evidently the otherworld does have a liking for rich fabrics and embroidered flowers, for not only above the bodice but at the bottom hemline the cutter has sketched in a rich embroidery pattern (figures 20-22). On top of that, the sculptor selected a marble with streaks that give the broad expanses of cloth coloristic effects (figure 23). To be sure, no real dress of 1905 would have been patterned with marble-streak coloration! But that kind of pragmatic thinking spoils this deliberate effect.

To return to my point, the other effect that the long train seems to me to produce is to free the figure from the ground. The long train visually anchors the statue on step two, so to speak, and the logic of the human figure dictates that it is standing on the third step (figure 15). Yet we have no indication of the lower legs or feet behind the voluminous folds, with the result that the figure seems to float, or rise above the ground level. This makes sense in the Christian setting of the monument.

The lilies (figures 16, 17) are stock Christian symbols of Easter and resurrection. Here I’m pretty sure they allude to Lillie, the name of the portrait’s subject, too. Further, if we read into the statue’s pose, there is a little story in that she’s got a lily stalk from which she’s plucked a fresh flower. This sort of thing—plucked flowers, or a broken stem—are common ways of expressing an early death in the freshness of youth. Lillie May Harding died at the age of 26 (figure 8), which makes the identification of her as the subject of this portrait irresistible to me.

A final observation. The statue of Lillie and that of N. Elbridge appear to be from the same hand, which would support the idea that they were created together in about 1905. See the resemblance in the impressionistic, puffy treatment of the hair (cf. figures 12, 18, 19) and the thin cutting of the drapes of cloth (cf. figures 14, 17), for example.

The Thompson-Harding monument therefore has two funerary portraits which were created specifically for the monument and were not, it seems, repurposed from a domestic setting. It seems possible to date the commissioning (if not necessarily the completion) of the monument to 1904-1905, a year after one of the persons commemorated died and seven years after the other one did. The monument was the product of two families whose survivors may have been a sister to the survivor or one of the other people buried in the plot. My inclination, as I stated above, is to see Ellen J. Thompson and S. Elizabeth Harding as sisters; but that needn’t be the case: maybe they were best pals.

Bibliographical note. Many of the conclusions reached here were already proposed by James M. Goode in his indispensable Washington Sculpture (2008, Johns Hopkins Press: Baltimore), p. 422. The Smithsonian’s catalog of public art derives from Goode’s first edition of 1974, and all the other sites (e.g., Wikipedia, Find-a-grave) derive from Goode or the Smithsonian.

Published by gsb03632

A college professor living in Arlington, VA

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: