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.

Larkin.jpg

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.     

dwinell.jpg

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.