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The Collation

Creating John Gregory’s Bas Reliefs at the Folger

Who carved the John Gregory’s bas reliefs on the facade of the Folger? Readers of last week’s Collation post will know that the apparently obvious answer—John Gregory—is incorrect. Sculptor John Gregory (1879–1958) definitely created the works of art, but professional stone cutters chiselled away the marble until it exactly matched the plaster casts of Gregory’s full-size clay models.

Carver on site at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 1931. Photo from the Theodor Horydczak Collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

I’ll return to this photo later. First, some background.

Contract negotiations show that John Gregory intended to work as he usually did, beginning with small-scale three-dimensional “sketches” (1/8 actual size). Each sketch would be followed by a “working model” at 1/3 or 1/2 of actual size. Finally, each working model would be developed into a “full size model” and then cast in plaster.1

We know that architect Paul Philippe Cret (1876–1945) already had an idea of the aesthetic for the bas reliefs. The place-holder designs in his final scale drawing of the facade show an uncanny resemblance to John Gregory’s finished works, even though four of the nine plays are different.2 The drawing is dated Sepember 19, 1929, before John Gregory had been chosen as the artist, but the resemblance is more than coincidence. It shows that Gregory was able to provide exactly what Cret was looking for.

Detail from the final study for the East Capitol Street facade. Folger Archives. See full image here.

Consulting architect Alexander Trowbridge (1868–1950) gives a nice summary of the style that was required in a letter to Paul Cret. When strategizing on how best they could “side-track” Mr. Folger’s interest in commissioning Frederick William MacMonnies (1863–1937) for the bas reliefs, Trowbridge wrote:

I do not think that MacMonnies’ type of work would be at all suited to the classic simplicity of your design… …his work belongs with gay, Renaissance architecture… …it will be very nearly impossible to get from him the kind of thing which we feel is absolutely essential to this problem.3

John Gregory definitely understood that the sculpture needed to suit the building. Instead of being guided by drawings of the facade, he insisted on a 1/8 scale plaster model, sized so that he could fit his 1/8 scale sketches in place. While waiting for the architectural modellers to finish the reduced-size facade, Gregory decided that he would “reverse the usual process” and begin with a full-size model of the first panel (and of its immediate architectural surroundings) in order to work out the height of the figures, depth of the design, and so on. After satisfying himself that he had come up with something that would work at full size, he would scale it down to a 1/8 size version in plastilina “for trial in the plaster model,” which would by then be finished.4

Although no one could have known it at the time, Gregory’s decision to start with a full-size model for the first panel meant that Mr. Folger knew the project was in good hands before his unexpected death on June 11, 1930 (from complications following surgery). He had visited Gregory’s studio on May 8, and wrote to Paul Cret the next day “I will confess I had been much worried, fearing that he might not be equal to the task put upon him, but I was satisfied that you had, once more, made a successful choice in your assistant.”5

Carving sheds outside the Folger Shakespeare Library, 1931. Folger Archives.

Normally, plaster casts of John Gregory’s final full-size models would have been sent to a carving studio, where highly trained artisans would have replicated the design in marble. The finished marble pieces would then have been shipped to the building site and installed.6 Because the Folger bas reliefs are integral with the building, though, the plaster casts went directly to the Folger instead. The carvers worked on site, sheltered by mobile “carving sheds” that could be rolled from one blank slab of marble to another. Each of the two carvings sheds that were built had large windows that provided natural light, and opened up for ventilation.

Carver on site at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 1931. Photo from the Theodor Horydczak Collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Now, to return to the teaser picture from the beginning of this post! Who carved the John Gregory Bas reliefs? They are the work of Piccirilli Brothers of New York, a then-famous family business of six brothers, all trained in Italy. We don’t know how many or which of the brothers came to DC to work on the project, but the man in the photo looks like he must be one of the younger ones, perhaps Horace (1872–1954) or Getulio (1874–1945).7 He’s posed holding a pneumatic chisel, so the work must have been noisy as well as dusty. The plaster cast of John Gregory’s full-size model is just visible on the right. Tempting as it is to believe the apocryphal story that Michelangelo looked at a block of marble, then chipped away anything that didn’t look like David, classically-trained carvers do not work freehand in stone except to rough out the initial shape. Rather, they use measuring devices to “take a point” on the plaster model by recording its exact location and depth, then they mark the equivalent location on the marble, and lastly they chisel down until that point matches the depth recorded from the model. Then they do it again. And again. And again….

Measuring and transferring points can be done with calipers, rulers, and plumb-bobs (and today can be done with laser beams), but Piccirilli Brothers presumably used a macchinetta di punta (or “pointing machine”) like the one demonstrated in this video.8

The plaster casts remained on site, in the basement of the Folger, for twenty years. By the early 1950s, though, storage space in the building had become extremely tight, and the Folger administration decided it was time to find a good home for them. Julius Caesar went to Amherst College, Amherst, Massachussets.9 The other eight plaster casts went to Scripps College, Claremont, California, where they can still be seen in Sycamore Court, Balch Hall.10

Sycamore Court, Balch Hall, Scripps College, Claremont, California. Image courtesy of Scripps College.
  1. The contract with Brenda Putnam for the “Fountain figure” now known as Puck, signed May 26, 1930, specified the same three-step process, with payment linked to each step: small sketches, then a working model, and finally a plaster cast of a full-size model.
  2. Cret’s drawing includes As You Like It, Twelfth Night, Taming of the Shrew, and Othello. It omits Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth, Richard III, and Henry IV pt. 1.
  3. Letter dated October 8, 1929, Folger Archives.
  4. Letter from Gregory to Cret, January 31, 1930. Folger Archives.
  5. Letter from Folger to Cret, May 9, 1930. Folger archives.
  6. This was the case with Brenda Putnam’s Puck, for example, which was carved by Robert A. Baillie (1880–1961) in his New Jersey studio, then sent to the Folger and installed above the fountain in the west garden.
  7. We can be fairly certain it wasn’t Furio (1868–1949), since he moved back to Italy in 1926. That leaves Ferruccio (1864–1945), Atillio (1866–1945), and Thomas (1870–1951), who would all have been in their 60s at the time the photograph was taken.
  8. I’m one of those people who prefers to use “macchinetta di punta” as the device’s English name. I’d feel differently if the accepted English version had been “point device” or something that more accurately conveys the “doohicky” meaning of “machine” and the “dot” meaning of “point”.
  9. The Folger was placed in trust of Amherst College, Henry Folger’s alma mater, upon his death in 1930. Although the Folger has had its own independent Board of Governors since 2005, it is still administered under the auspices of Amherst.
  10. Frederick Hard, president of Scripps College at the time, was a Shakespeare scholar and a friend of Folger director Louis B. Wright. I wish I had details of the arrangement at hand, but the Folger Archives are inaccessible for the duration of the current building project.