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It is inconceivable that the Albert Memorial in London and the illustrations to the novels of Charles Dickens novels might have been the work of the same man. But while such a state of affairs was unimaginable in England, it was perfectly plausible in nineteenth-century America, as the peculiar career of Hammatt Billings demonstrates. For Billings not only provided the celebrated illustrations for Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but also designed the National Monument to the Forefathers at Plymouth, America’s most ambitious piece of public sculpture prior to the Statue of Liberty. But if Billings did not observe the boundaries between the various genres of art, modern historians do, and his reputation has fallen between the cracks that divide architecture, book illustration, and design. Billings’s very versatility has contributed to his near total historical oblivion.
This is a situation that James F. O’Gorman remedies in Accomplished in all Departments of Art: Hammatt Billings of Boston, 1818-1874, written in his characteristically eloquent prose. In the process he not only restores Billings’s reputation but suggests a different way of looking at art and architecture in the decades immediately preceding the American Renaissance.
Hammatt Billings was a product of the artistic culture of Boston. After attending local schools he was apprenticed to wood engraver Abel Bowen, later entering the office of Asher Benjamin, the Boston architect. Benjamin was America’s first author of architectural pattern books, and presumably Billings was hired as a draftsman to help with the engraving of plates. Later he worked with Ammi B. Young, helping prepare the drawings for the Boston Custom House. After four years with Young he complained in 1841 that he was tired of being “second officer” and resigned to found his own firm. He was then twenty-three.
Working in partnership with his brother, J. E. Billings, Billings built the Boston Museum (1845-46) on Tremont Street, a sober and austere four-story palazzo in granite. With no other detail than robustly molded round-arched windows, a tough corbel cornice and three wrought iron balconies running across the facade, it was among the first buildings to adopt Boston’s lithic granite style to the forms of the Renaissance. It was also an exceptionally resourceful essay in planning, placing storefronts beneath a vast open museum gallery, while a two-thousand-seat theater was thrust to the rear of the site. O’Gorman suggests that the official designation as “museum” was a sop to a puritanical Boston, which still suspected the worst about public playhouses; he cites an English visitor to the effect that the building was only "tolerated under the name of a ‘Museum.’ " To invest it with this illusory character, its spacious vestibule was environed with cases of dried snakes, stuffed birds, and other curiosities, which nobody . . . took the trouble to look at." In any event, the building secured Billings’s reputation, and there followed a stream of churches, residences, and cast iron storefronts, in a variety of eclectic styles. But never again did Billings design so important a building as his Boston Museum, although O’Gorman shows that his long demolished College Hall at Wellesley College (1871-75) was a landmark in the architecture of women’s colleges.
Parallel to Billings’s practice as architect ran his career as a book illustrator, which itself is a history of popular American literature. In 1845 he was handpicked by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to illustrate his Evangeline, but his procrastination cost him the job. By 1852, however, he had hit his stride, becoming a national figure with his highly sentimental illustrations for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The most splendid section of O’Gorman’s book is his discussion of these illustrations. Here he conveniently finds a perfect foil in George Cruikshank, Dickens’s favorite illustrator, who contributed the illustrations for the English edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. O’Gorman shows how Billings was adept at simplifying his compositions to underscore the moral issues at hand, providing illustrations that were sermons in miniature, while Cruikshank’s overheated imagination was poured out in cluttered compositions and excessive anecdotal detail that weakened the moral allegory; the result was “more bombast, but less effect.”
During the ensuing decades Billings was one of America’s foremost commercial illustrators, serving as a principal artist for such journals as Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion. O’Gorman does much to reconstruct this nearly invisible career, which he generously illustrates with specimens of Billings’s engravings as well as original pencil work. There is also a comprehensive listing of books illustrated by Billings, a labor of love which is the result of two decades of O’Gorman’s careful sifting. Fortunately, the author does not plead too strongly for his picturesque subject whose misadventures he clearly enjoys as much as his triumphs. For example, we see Louisa May Alcott’s repeated tribulations over Billings’s efforts to depict the characters of Little Women (1869): “Oh, Betsey! such trials as I have had with that Billings no mortal creter knows! He went and drew Amy a fat girl with a pug of hair, sitting among weedy shrubbery with a light-house under her nose. . . .” In the end, spurred by Alcott’s relentless criticism, he created some of the most effective images of his career.
The crowning achievement of Billings’s life should have been the National Monument to the Forefathers, built overlooking the site of the landing of the Mayflower at Plymouth. Designed in 1853, but not completed until 1889, it depicts a colossal figure of Faith astride a mighty granite pedestal, bristling with subsidiary figures, reliefs, and inscriptions. Much of the civic energy promoting the monument came from the Abolitionist cause, which gave its iconographic program immediate application to the social concerns of the present, and which suggested that the sectarian story of the Pilgrims might serve as a collective allegory for the nation. During the 1850s a number of such colossal monuments were proposed, including one to the signers of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, but the Civil War put an end to most of them. Only Billings’s monument survives to testify of this brief period when monumental architecture and sculpture were enlisted in the cause of Abolition.
Working within a Puritan tradition that was quite weak in the arts, Billings worked in a style that might be called the Puritan Baroque. Here it served as a run-off valve for the kind of religious imagery not permitted in Puritan meeting houses, but which was nevertheless of intense interest to artists whose formal ideas were provided by Italian art and architecture of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In good Baroque fashion, Billings subordinated a series of didactic vignettes to a central emblem, placing seated figures of Liberty, Law, Education, and Morality at the salients of the pedestal, surrounded by further allegorical devices. Billing’s monument attached more importance to didactic lucidity than to the making of sensuous forms, and his figures suffer from a certain melodramatic staginess, but this is nothing more than the moralizing taste common to American art in the middle of the nineteenth century. It is the same moral impulse that governs the illustrations to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but now executed in granite in colossal sculpture, and with little adjustment to the change in scale or material.
Billings’s monument was not built in the form he intended. Intended to be 153 feet tall, it was repeatedly scaled back to its final height of 81 feet. Its crowning figure was also botched in execution. Although restudied by the visionary sculptor William Rimmer, it was woefully modeled, losing all of the grace of Billings’s original steel engraving, which was widely distributed.
In the end, the National Monument to the Forefathers embodies all the strengths of Billings’s work, and his limitations. In the end, he was a graphic designer more than an architect; his imagination was pictorial, not plastic and not architectonic. His works are invariably competent and well organized, but lack a sense of punctuation. He saw form in schematic terms, in outline and contour, but had little sense of how to render form in terms of the material in which it was executed. Of course, this reflected his education, which was rooted in woodcutting and engraving and not in the building trades.
On the other hand, his chronic tendency to think in terms of line suited him for a practice in mid-Victorian America, which demanded clearly drawn allegories and sentimental vignettes untroubled by ambiguity. At the peak of his career he was one of the principal figures of Boston’s artistic world, and it is easy to see how the young Winslow Homer was shaped by his example. O’Gorman deserves our gratitude for rehabilitating this enigmatic figure who fits comfortably into none of our academic criteria and who challenges us to revise our understanding of the complex relationship between art and architecture in America in those turbulent years immediately before and after the Civil War.
Michael J. Lewis
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