199 : Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907), American sculptor in England.

A host of website pages give considerable and sometimes conflicting information on Mary Edmonia Lewis, a black sculptor who achieved fame in late 19th century America and died in London in September 1907. The flat stone grave marker in St Mary’s Catholic Cemetery in west London’s Kensal Green was recently marked by a black marble slab, after Professor Marilyn Richardson located the grave (plot number C350). Documenting the sculptor in British records has revealed some dilemmas – including her origins in ‘India’ according to the British census of 1901: Store Street.

Lewis claimed to be of Native American (Chippewa) descent on her mother’s side, and of African Caribbean (possibly Haitian) through her father, raised in upstate New York and then among her mother’s people. In the 1860s she migrated to Italy and was well known in Rome, where she studied neoclassical sculpture and had her work shown in several American exhibitions. The application for her US passport made in 1865 when she was living in Boston, Massachusetts described her complexion as ‘Black’ and that she had been born on 4 July 1844 in New York state. The document also states that she was 4ft high – that is 1.2 metres – a very slight person. The US census of 1850 lists her in Massachusetts, one of six children of a clergyman born in New York state although this now (late January 2019) seems to be a different family. Photographs confirm her dark complexion.

Having lived at 7 via Gregoriana, in central Rome, she relocated to London by 1901. The census enumerators in March 1901 may have taken details from a landlord, neighbours, or associates and from that and her claim to be of Chippewa descent explained the ‘India’. She was aged 59, an ‘artist (modeller)’ which suggests she sculpted figures for sale to the public in Britain, possibly assisting sculptors with their work. She relocated to 4a Earls Court Road and then to 154 Blythe Road, in the Brook Green district of west London’s Hammersmith.

Jan Marsh, editor of Black Victorians: Black People in British Art 1800-1900 (2005) page 14 noted ‘the famous works of sculptor Edmonia Lewis (c.1843-1911 [sic]) were not seen in Britain’. Lewis’s will and her street addresses provide hints which may lead energetic sleuths to discoveries. The painter and occasional sculptor Frederic Leighton had his studio in Holland Park Road, where he died in 1896. Leighton House became a museum and Leighton’s neoclassical life-size bronze ‘An Athlete Wrestling with a Python’ of 1877 had considerable impact in British art circles. A younger sculptor was Hamo Thornycroft who lived in Melbury Road. He moved away from neoclassical to the ‘new sculpture’. His statues can be seen in many public locations including that of Oliver Cromwell outside parliament in Westminster, unveiled in 1899.

There is the question of her African heritage. Whilst the Chippewa descent seems to have led her to sculpt the leading figures in Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha (which inspired in 1899-1901 the choral work of black Londoner Samuel Coleridge-Taylor) there had been an accumulation of African artefacts in museums and collections in southern England – the Pitt Rivers collection in Oxford opened in 1892, Percy Powell-Cotton’s Kent home was established in the 1890s, and the Benin bronzes taken from Africa in 1897 were at the British Museum. All were accessible: as were those in the colonial museum near Brussels (Belgium) opened in 1897, and Herbert Ward’s collection was in Paris until it was shipped to the USA.

Edmonia Lewis was a staunch Catholic and she lived within easy walking distance of a major Catholic church, Our Lady of Victories. Until the Catholic cathedral in Westminster was completed in 1903 this was the major Catholic church in England. It was destroyed in a bombing raid in 1940. Its curate was the Revd Charles Cox, who was the person granted probate after Lewis died, according to her will made in November 1905 (which also requested news of her death was to be published in the Tablet, a major Catholic weekly newspaper). One has to ask if any Lewis sculptures are in Westminster Cathedral?

In her will Edmonia Lewis stated that she had no living relatives. Her estate was valued at £489 and one penny. She died in hospital in Hammersmith’s Goldhawk Road on 17 September 1907.

There is one more dilemma: the flat black marble slab that is now on her grave seems quite at odds with the monumental neoclassical sculptures which mark many of the 165,000 graves in that cemetery.

The assistance of Konrad Nowakowski has been very much appreciated.


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