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Architecture

The Newcomer Memorial Font: Art and Industry in Baltimore City

Figure 1

Newcomer Memorial Font, Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 811 Cathedral Street

Baltimore’s long history as “The Monumental City” and current art culture means that there is an abundance of outdoor sculpture available to see. Although these public sculptures make the city’s streets rich with decoration, artwork that is placed indoors is sometimes overlooked. One such sculpture is the Newcomer Memorial Font (1902-1904) inside the Emmanuel Episcopal Church in the Mount Vernon neighborhood.(1)

REFERENCE ONLY. MC6808-1

Emmanuel PE Church, seen from northwest, ca 1923
Hughes Co., MC6808-1, MdHS (Reference photo)

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, built in 1854, hosts a wealth of beautiful artworks that demonstrate the old glory of the church in its historic Baltimore neighborhood. The main nave is bordered by a multitude of vivid, mixed style, stained glass windows and pointed arches that lead to the church alter. Hidden at the end of that nave, in the baptistry, is the work that brings the luminescence of all those windows into solid sculptural form.

The Newcomer Memorial Font standing in the center of the octagonal baptistry shows a graceful marble angel kneeling over the baptismal basin. The angel’s youthful face tilts down towards the bowl as she stares at a cross in its depths, her arms gently grasping its exterior. Her petite, Grecian clad form is dwarfed by a large pair of wings with soft feathers that caress her back. Each detail of her form, from her wavy hair to the light curl of her toes, is set off with a backdrop of several exquisite stained glass windows.

Figure 3This remarkable sculpture was made in memory of Baltimore leader Benjamin F. Newcomer by the prestigious American sculptor Daniel Chester French. Its placement in Emmanuel Church is a microcosmic representation of Baltimore’s participation in the growth of American industry and culture during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The local elite who made their money from the ever-expanding railroad and merchant industries, like Benjamin F. Newcomer, William Walters, and many others, supported both the collection and creation of new forms of American art that helped the city enliven its cultural atmosphere. The Newcomer Memorial Font represents Newcomer’s contributions to the city through the lens of the great artist Daniel Chester French.

The Industry: Benjamin F. Newcomer

Benjamin Newcomer

Benjamin F. Newcomer
From “A biographical sketch of Benjamin Franklin Newcomer” by Waldo Newcomer, 1902

Benjamin F. Newcomer was born on April 28, 1827 in the small town of Beaver Creek in Washington County, Maryland. Of Swiss descent, the Newcomer family had built their wealth over several generations. His parents, John and Catherine Newcomer, provided the young Benjamin with a wealthy upbringing that helped guide his many future successes.(2)

John Newcomer was heavily involved in Washington County politics, serving as a sheriff, county commissioner, and eventually state senator. His most influential career endeavor, in relation to his son, was his formation of the flour and grain company Newcomer and Stonebreaker in Baltimore. Benjamin F. Newcomer forwent a formal academic education to support his father’s businesses in the city. This proved to be an excellent decision as, under the young man’s direction, the company reportedly grew to provide about one-tenth of the flour business in the city. He eventually bought out his father’s share and led the company for many successful years.

In 1848, Benjamin F. Newcomer married the young and wealthy Amelia Louisa Ehlen. This alliance influenced Newcomer’s eventual involvement in the railroad industry. Amelia’s father, John H. Ehlen, who worked with the Chesapeake Bank and Baltimore Fire Insurance Company, was a major railway stockholder.Newcomer was soon involved in several major railway lines. At different times, he served as the director of the Northern Central Railway Company, the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railway Company, and several other lines.

Newcomer used his experience in these companies to  guide his work on the Atlantic Coast Line System. He recognized the importance of reconnecting North and South railways following the devastating aftermath of the Civil War. Reforming these lines would help establish better trade, communication, and industry between the two tensely divided areas. Newcomer worked with William T. Walters to establish the Southern Railway Security Company. Although that railway company ultimately failed, it allowed Newcomer to form a lasting personal and professional relationship with Walters.

baltimore_1853

Maryland School for the Blind, 1853.
Postcard detail from http://www.aph.org/museum/programs/schools/18-maryland/

Benjamin F. Newcomer’s involvement in Baltimore industries did not stop there. He served on the boards of many merchant, financial, library, and educational institutions, and helped found the Maryland Institution for the Instruction of the Blind (later renamed as the Maryland School for the Blind). Newcomer also acted as an avid patron for the Maryland born sculptor William H. Rinehart. Newcomer worked with William T. Walters to establish a scholarship to help American artists study in Italy and France, known as the Rinehart Fund.(3)

Baltimore’s industry benefited from Newcomer’s hard work for several decades. His death on March 30, 1901 was deeply felt as, “his demise affected the entire community, and all the bodies with which he had been connected paid fervent tribute to his worth.”(4) In 1902, his son, Waldo Newcomer, wrote a biographical sketch to celebrate his father’s life.(5) Newcomer’s grave can be found in Green Mount Cemetery.

The Memorial Font and Baptistery in Emmanuel Episcopal Church was built from the benefit of Newcomer’s daughter, Hattie Newcomer Gilpin.(6) She commissioned the room sometime after her father’s death in 1902.(7) Each detail of the space was carefully designed and constructed by American artists. The dazzling windows behind the sculpture were made by John La Farge, who was well known for his innovations in stained glass. The ceiling and upper walls were painted by the muralist C.Y. Turner. The bright colors of the windows and space provide a perfect background for the soft white marble sculpture by Daniel Chester French. Although the sculpture and space do not directly reflect Benjamin F. Newcomer’s influential life and patronage, the beauty and solemnity of the space serve as a celebration of his major contributions to Baltimore industry.

The Art: Daniel Chester French

220px-Daniel_Chester_French_1902_crop

Daniel Chester French.
From Wikipedia

Daniel Chester French (1850-1931) rose swiftly to prominence as one of America’s most respected memorial sculptors during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.(8) Although his most iconic work is the colossal Abraham Lincoln statue in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. (commissioned in 1914 and installed in the memorial in 1922), French spent much of his career sculpting memorial angels that can be seen in major cities throughout the east coast. French’s contemporaries lauded his poignant portrayal of the angel figure in the Newcomer Memorial Font as “one of the most beautiful figures of our time.”(9)

French began his career as an artist during a transitional period in American sculpture. Most American sculptors of the day traveled to Italy and France to study, since there were very few opportunities to learn the trade in the United States. Although travel provided French and other artists the opportunity to refine their abilities, the process proved to be unsatisfactory. Many American artists sought to create their own approach to sculpture by combining aspects of European stylistic tradition with new American subject matter.

Figure 7This “American subject matter” was frequently found through the creation of memorial art. In the early 1870’s there was a resurgence of public interest in commemorative art and sculpture after the Civil War, and as the country prepared for the 100th anniversary of the Revolutionary War. French contributed to this effort through his stylistic and conceptual innovations in public and private memorial sculpture.

Angels and angelic figures permeate Daniel Chester French’s long legacy in American memorial art. In early and mid-nineteenth-century America, angels were a staple figure in memorial art because they successfully demonstrated Christian sentiment and spirituality, without strictly adhering to Christian theology. French’s interest in angels, however, may have come from even more personal origins. Before he experienced any formal training in art, French enjoyed sculpting small animals out of wood. Among these wooden sculptures, French amassed a large collection of birds with carefully carved feathers and wings. His early interest in carving small birds is reflected in the large and exquisitely designed wings in all his angels, and specifically in the Newcomer Memorial Font.

Figure 8

Milmore Memorial, Forest Hills Cemetery, Boston

French managed to successfully reuse the same angel form while conceptually reinventing it every time. Some of his best figures, and variations of angels, can be seen in the Milmore Memorial (1893) in Forest Hills Cemetery, Boston, and the George Robert White Memorial (1924) in the Boston Public Garden. These works differ from each other, and from the Newcomer Memorial Font, in their portrayal of the emotional quality of the angels. French used the figure in the Milmore Memorial to show a kindly personification of Death as a graceful female angel gently touching the hand of a youthful sculptor calmly halting his work. The more spirited figure in the George Robert White Memorial brightens the city garden as it allegorically enacts a Biblical verse.

George Robert White Memorial, Boston Public Garden

George Robert White Memorial, Boston Public Garden

The quite solitude of the Newcomer angel demonstrates yet another stylistic presentation of the figure. Her peaceful presence encourages tranquil contemplation as she stands shining in the decorated room and church. The modeling of her pure form shows off some of Daniel Chester French’s best skills.  The Newcomer Memorial Font is a Baltimore treasure as the entire state of Maryland plays host to only two of his public works.

The Newcomer Memorial Font in Emmanuel Episcopal Church should be held in special regard among the impressive array of public sculpture in Baltimore. The angel stands as a celebration of the dual legacies of its maker and honoree. Newcomer’s contributions to Baltimore helped the city’s commerce and institutions grow, while French memorialized some of America’s greatest figures with innovative sculpture.  The angel font serves as a beautiful representation of the thriving growth of Baltimore culture and industry in the early-twentieth century.

(Eileen Donovan)

You can view the Newcomer Memorial Font by visiting Emmanuel Episcopal Church during their non-service hours. Offices open Monday- Friday, 9am-4pm. 811 Cathedral Street, Baltimore, MD 21201, (410) 685-1130, https://www.emmanueldowntown.org/

Eileen Donovan is the Education Programs Assistant at the Maryland Historical Society. Her personal academic scholarship focused on Daniel Chester French’s figure of the Angel of Death in memorial sculpture and the American rural cemetery.

Sources and Further Reading:

(1) Emmanuel Episcopal Church, https://www.emmanueldowntown.org/architecture

(2)  Newcomer, Waldo, A Biographical Sketch of Benjamin Franklin Newcomer. Baltimore, [s.n.], 1902. In the collection of the Maryland Historical Society

(3) Gardner, Albert Ten Eyck American Sculpture: A Catalogue of the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1965, P. 24.

(4) Hall, Clayton Coleman, Baltimore: Its History and Its People, Vol 2.  New York: Lewis Historical Pub. Co. 1912, 169. https://archive.org/details/baltimoreitshist02hall

(5) Newcomer, A Biographical Sketch of Benjamin Franklin Newcomer.

(6) More can be found in the Hattie Newcomer Gilpin letters, 1901-1904, Smithsonian Archives of American Art.

(7) Rusk, William Sener, “The Newcomer Memorial Font” in The American Magazine of Art, Vol. 17, No. 7, July 1926, p 347-49.

(8) Biographical information can be found in the from books published by French’s wife and daughter. French, Mary Adams French. Memories of a Sculptor’s Wife. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1928. And Cresson, Margaret French. Journey into Fame; The Life of Daniel Chester French. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1947.

(9) Rusk, “The Newcomer Memorial Font.”

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