Larkin Mead & The Goddess

Excerpt from Intimate Grandeur Vermont’s State House*
Nancy Price Graff with David Schutz, State Curator

*Click here to order a copy.

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If not for the cold and deep snow on the last day of December, 1855, Larkin Mead might have spent his life selling paint and nails. Larkin Goldsmith Mead, Jr., was the twenty-year-old son of a prominent Brattleboro lawyer when two friends cajoled him into carving a snow sculpture to greet their neighbors on the first morning of the New Year. In the morning, the residents of Brattleboro were astonished. An 8-foot-tall Recording Angel, sculpted in exquisite detail with dramatic wings and a ledger and pen in her hands to record the year’s events, drew spectators from across the countryside. Cold weather kept the sculpture from melting long enough for reporters to arrive from Boston, and for the story of the enigmatic angel to reach newspapers halfway across the country.

            Mead’s work had been noticed even before he sculpted Recording Angel. Two years earlier the sculptor Henry Kirke Brown, famous for his equestrian statues, had been impressed with the young artist. Mead followed Brown to New York City, where he spent two years as an assistant before returning to the cultural backwater of Brattleboro and an uncertain future in the arts. Over the next two years, Mead struggled to make a name for himself. Then he carved Recording Angel. News of the winter wonder caught Nicholas Longworth’s eye, a prominent Cincinnati patron of the arts, and Mead’s life changed.  Longworth requested a duplicate of Recording Angel in marble. Commissions also came for busts, and with each success, Mead’s reputation spread.

In 1858 he received a $400 commission to execute, in wood, a statue representing agriculture to cap the dome of the third Vermont State House, then under construction. The figure was never meant to be one of the immortals, and Vermont’s harsh weather eventually proved that. Mead referred to the allegorical figure simply as “Agriculture.” After completing a plaster of paris model, a German woodcarver from the Estey Organ Company in Brattleboro replicated the model’s classic pose, the graceful drape of her clothing, and her timeless, inscrutable expression.

Completed and raised into place in pieces, the statue was 19 feet tall, a conceptually complex work requiring Mead to adjust the proportions of the figure to accommodate the perspective of viewers standing 150 feet below. The project involved more than Mead had anticipated, but the legislature was so pleased with the statue that it voted to double Mead’s pay and to allocate more money to position the figure as the finial atop the dome.

Almost immediately, people started referring to the figure as Ceres, the Roman goddess of plenty, but Mead had more in mind than a reference to a pagan goddess. His figure carried a scroll in her right hand and cradled a sheaf of wheat in her left arm. In the rough-and-tumble culture of mid-nineteenth-century America, she was a neoclassical ideal, a manifestation of a peaceful agrarian society governed by laws.     

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By the 1930s Agriculture was riddled with dry rot. The legislature voted to replace the statue on the dome, but eighty-three-year-old sergeant at arms Dwight Dwinell balked at the cost. So did the frugal governor, George D. Aiken (1937-1941). Trained years earlier in woodworking, Dwinell agreed to carve the head of a new Agriculture himself. The new statue is not a replica. The head Dwinell carved is too small for the body. The formerly delicate drapery hangs heavily, and the face lacks refinement. It is folk art, not fine art, and yet it reigns over the State House, as the original did, a steadfast symbol of Vermont’s agrarian roots.

             

The History of the Golden Dome

from Intimate Grandeur Vermont’s State House*
Nancy Price Graff with David Schutz, State Curator

Click here to order a copy of the book.

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In 1906 the legislature appropriated $1,500 to gild the State House dome. The original dome, installed in 1860, was clad in copper, although it had been painted red for many decades. The plan was to sheath the copper with a skin of gold leaf so thin that a quarter of a million sheets of it would make a pile barely an inch high. Despite its fragile quality, the gilt would outlast many coats of paint. Mortensen & Holdensen Co., of Boston, won the bid and did the work during the summer of 1906 even after C. H. Ferrin, sergeant at arms, forbade the firm from constructing unattractive staging around the dome to safeguard the workers. An article that summer in the Vermont Watchman ran the headline, “Workmen Hang on Like Spiders 150 Feet in the Air,” suggesting how entertaining the project was to spectators on the ground as two men worked their way around the dome on short, precariously balanced ladders. Even C. H. Ferrin had to cover his face once when one gilder’s ladder slipped 2 feet to the right.

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Gilding the dome was a laborious process with no margin for error. First the copper was sandpapered and covered with two layers of oil and lead paint. More sandpapering followed, then sizing. Each day the men unrolled a whisper-thin sheet of 23-44 karat gold leaf measuring 30 by 2 1/2 feet and pressed it into place, using both hands. The paints made fire an ever-present danger. Consequently, the dome was well stocked with fire extinguishers, and the workmen were not allowed to smoke. The job took forty-two days, and the gilders were each paid $3 per day. By the time it was completed, Mortensen & Holdensen Co. had lost money. The engineer who had calculated the area of the dome by measuring its interior had failed to take into account the prominent ribs that needed to be covered on the exterior of the dome. But the gilding brilliantly revived the appearance of the State House, which one reporter implied had paled over the years. A Vermont Watchman reporter wrote that the gilding “increases the beauty of the granite structure and is the object of admiration to visitors from away who come to see Vermont’s capitol.”

The gilded dome became such a dominant feature of the State House that it has been kept brilliant through the years by regular regilding in 1921, 1938, 1953-1955, 1962-1963, and 1976. Skyline Engineers, Inc., of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, is the most recent company to gild the dome, but the work has not changed substantially after more than a century. Daniel Quinn, president and founder of Skyline Engineers, still depended on ropes, ladders, safety harnesses, and bosun’s chairs that were tied to the balustrade at the foot of the statue Agriculture to protect his gilders. “This is the kind of job you pray for,” Quinn said for a September 26, 1976, article in the Sunday Rutland Herald and the Sunday Times Argus. “I have never worked on a finer state capitol.”

Journalism Symposium Update: Cartoons and Video

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On October 24, the Friends of the Vermont State House with the Vermont Humanities Council and other supporters, hosted a day-long journalism symposium. More than 200 symposium attendees filled the House of Representatives chamber and galleries for the event. Videos of the entire program can be accessed here.

One of the symposium's backers was The Center for Cartoon Studies, a school based in White River Junction that teaches the art of graphic narration and cartooning in all its many forms. They graciously contributed the services of Eva Sturm Gross, who provided these graphic notes of the day's events. They were done at the State House during the program and posted in the cafeteria during the day.