Guest post by Steven D. Branting
Institutional Historian, Lewis-Clark State College, Lewsiton, Idaho
“Never Think You’ve Seen the Last of Anything”Eudora Welty
Final answers may work in game show formats, but historical research evolves with new information and serendipitous discoveries. And so it has been with the marble rondels created by American sculptor Madison Colby and reported in “Mystery Solved: Marble Sculptures Available,” Sculpture Digest, 6 August 2020.
That which was assumed turned out not to be the truth. What was deemed impossible to uncover found the light of day. Storylines that lose some features invariably gain others, often more substantial than previously imagined.
A year ago, the evidence pointed to a photograph as being the work of Silas Selleck, who is clearly documented as taking two images of a widely-acclaimed Colby bust of American short-story writer Bret Harte. Happenstance struck down that assumption. The bust in the photograph dated from̶ almost 40 years later. A forgotten sidebar in a 1912 New York newspaper clarified everything.
The small loss to Colby’s legacy was more than balanced by what persistence revealed.
A personal letter from Colby to the famed sculptor Hiram Powers surfaced in the National Archives. Colby was asking for a three-month advance on his salary to pay the rent on a Florence, Italy, studio. A letter from Rev. Dr. Nathan Lord, president of Dartmouth College, appeared in the 20 May 1868 issue of the Vermont Watchman & State Journal. Among his comments, Lord mentioned that he had attended services at the American Church in Florence, noting that “the sculptors Powers, Mead and Colby ̶ names known and to be known worldwide ̶ were there.”
And then the pièce de resistance.
Alerted by a keyword hit in the collection at Winterthur Library, Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera (Winterhthur, Delaware), curators examined an old album of images collected by a young woman taking the Grand Tour in 1868-1869. And there he was, Madison Colby, along with a photograph of his marble “Evening.” Almost 150 years to the day after his death from tuberculosis in February 1871, a face now matched a name. The rondels were confirmed as being produced in Florence and framed in San Francisco.
Only one bit of information still eludes us ̶ when Colby was finally buried in Mt. Feake Cemetery, Waltham, Massachusetts. The records at Piedmont Funeral Services & Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, California, indicate that the company held his body in storage for later shipment. But for how long?
Seemingly insignificant records often cough up crucial data. A cemetery receipt lists his wife Annie as purchasing the family plot at Mt. Feake in November 1872. For several years, local newspapers printed the lists of Civil war graves to be adorned on Decoration Day (now Memorial Day). A search for the Waltham issues leading up to 30 May 1873 may hold the answer to this final question.
And so, we come back to the marbles. After consultation with experts in nineteenth-century American sculpture, preservation and restoration, an asking price has been set at $35,000 – $40,000 USD as they are in their original frames, unaltered.
Proceeds from the sale of the rondels will endow student scholarships at Lewis-Clark State College, in Lewiston, Idaho, and support the work of the Nez Perce County Historical Society, which unknowingly preserved a valuable piece of America’s art history.
Interested parties, fine art collectors, galleries and museums should contact:
Lewis-Clark State College
Quote from Eudora Welty, American short story writer, novelist and photographer (April 13, 1909 – July 23, 2001). Her novel, The Optimist’s Daughter won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973.
Vermont Watchman & State Journal, Volume 63-Number 30, May 20, 1868 Letters of Rev. Dr. Lord, Written to His Family, may be read at Newspapers.com (subscription required) Letters begin on page 1 and continue on page 2. Because these letters may be of interest to our readers, both sculptors and sculpture lovers, they can also be viewed as pdfs: Page 1, Page 2.
Madison Colby, 1868-1869. Unknown photographer. Courtesy of Winterthur Library, Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera
“Evening,” 1869-1869. Unknown photographer. Winterthur Library, Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera