Work of people’s sculptor lives on after conservation
September 15, 1994
By Pamela J. Cressey
A popular plaster cast by John Rogers, The Council of War, is currently on exhibit at the Fort Ward Museum. The excellent detail was due to his bronze master models from which the molds were made. A sales plan, mail orders, and even touch-up paint for chips assured wide distribution for Rogers' plaster statuettes.
Digging archaeological sites in Alexandria brings you face to face with the past. While it is generally known that the industrial revolution churned out many more materials than the slower hand-made methods, you do not fully appreciate what this means until you dig from one time period into the another.
The numbers of artifacts discarded in the late 19th century are greater than those of the 18th century. Factories in England and America produced more ceramic and glass objects for every day use than the small potteries and glass blowing establishments of earlier eras.
Ceramics and glass once reserved for the elite began to proliferate for middle class and laboring families. Art also was mass produced and came into the average home. One of the popular artists of statuary was John Rogers. He achieved national recognition with his Civil War theme statuary groups. He was acclaimed as the "Artist of the Common People". He aspired to create sculpture for the average person. Rogers' motto was "Large Sales and Small Profits", and he sold the plaster casts for $5 to $20.
The Fort Ward Collection includes a Rogers plaster-cast statuary group entitled The Council of War dated 1868. He was a strong Unionist, and his early career centered upon Federal subjects. The piece is currently on exhibit at Fort Ward Museum, 4301 West Braddock Road, just off I-395. This two fall high piece is one of his most popular and expensive casts, $25.
The Council of War depicts General Ulysses S. Grant discussing the military situation in Virginia with President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. Rogers was able to portray his subjects with an honest realism, since he worked from photographs and personal interviews. Robert Todd Lincoln thought that Rogers' depiction of his father in this piece was the most lifelike of any sculpture.
Due to their mass appeal, an item like this was kept in a Victorian drawing room and handed down for generations. A few bumps over the years might produce breaks and eager attempts at repair. Before conservation and restoration, the Fort Ward cast had many such love bumps. Lincoln's back was damaged, as well as Grant's pointing finger, torso, neck, coat lapel, shirt and sleeve. It had been repainted in a high gloss cream color.
After stripping, sanding, smoothing new putty, and repainting with a historically accurate formulation, the three men are once again discussing the Virginia operations in the form that Rogers intended. To sign up for the Fort Ward Museum lecture series in home care of your paper, textile, photograph, and furniture heirlooms and collectibles, call 703-838-4848 soon. Seating is limited for this popular series starting October 15.
Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.