Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Gurney's Gallery, 349 Broadway.
Photograph by Victor Prevost.
New-York Historical Society.

"Papa..."  I can hear Martha's soft, insisting voice over the hushed bonhomie of men, many of them long gone to their graves.  I'm dreaming again, I know but I'm reluctant to leave this evening's celebration at the old studio on the corner of Broadway and Leonard and return to the home of my daughter, at the turn of the century in Coxsackie, New York.

"To our modern Prometheus!"  It's Anthony's voice, I hear.  As certain and clear as if he was sitting in a chair beside me, lazing in the warmth of the early spring afternoon in my daugther's sun porch.  My dear friend and merchant, Edward Anthony.  He's smiling across 40 years, across a candleabra festooned dining table and raising a glass of Verdelho to me!

"Gurney and Daguerre, you have stolen fire from the sun!  And rekindled fond affections flame."  Their voices resound in muffled, admiration and agreement.  Their crystal glassware twinkle with the glow and reflection of the room's oil lamps and candlelight.  Their smiles and shining faces, made red with a sumptuous meal and good cheer.  The oaky smell of wine and cigar hanging about the room.

They are all there, these...these ghosts.  The men whom I call my dearest of friends.  The ones who began it all with me.  There would come time for bitterness and envy and treachery, of course.  Are we not men???  Are we not mortal?  But tonite, in this long completed evening of December 21, 1853, we are the dearest of friends.  And I have the honor of their kind words and the humility of being their servant and host.

Professor Renwick offers a subdued opening speech and Mr. Bidwell, entertains us with a recounting of friend Edward Anthony's generous and inspiring idea which brought us all here!  A challenge!  A gentleman's participation in the discernment of what we are all endeavouring to raise up from it's infancy!  As the esteemed Mr. Anthony himself would display in asking Mr. Bidwell to speak on his behalf, modesty compelled us to pass on such an offer in years past.  With time and thought given rightly to posterity, it became evident that such a task to offer up the very best was a just, noble and solemn right.

The massive silver pitcher sits at the very center of the circular banquet table.  Near to it, two silver goblets for runners up.  Daguerre's face, etched into one side of the pitcher. His eyes looking on quizzically.  The candlelight gives him a warm tone.

It's my friend Wallace's voice, of the Mercantile Guide.  I've asked him to say a few words on my behalf.  I am feeling the most aghast at any further attention being directed to me and a sincere wish for this aspect of the evening to be completed.  To be thought of as more for what I am.  A partner in the evening's celebration for the industry we are all helping to build.  "Mr. Gurney entertains the most grateful feelings of all parties.  He presents his thanks for their kindness on this occasion..."

Letters are read from those who could not attend.  Professors Morse and Draper send their congratulations and regret at not being with us.  Samuel Dwight Humphrey, our nascent industry's editor and publisher rises to address the assembled with a remembrance of Daguerre.

On and on.  One after another.  Toast after toast until the spirit began to get the better of several of us.  Henry T. Anthony certainly being one of them.  Why Edward's brother thought the timing correct to relate the story of the Irishman and the rabbit trap, I still can't conceive of.  Especially with John Roach being in attendance.  My dear philosophical instrument maker did not suffer ill words towards his nativist brethren lightly.  Which is why, upon the closing of H.T.'s ridiculous tale, I arose and with glass in hand...

"My good friends!  Tonite you have honored me not with your words, though they are so gratefully and thankfully received but with your presence.  To look across this room and see so many who have contributed so earnestly, so devoutly to our mutual concern, truly fills my heart with admiration and happiness.  My only wish is that those who could not be here, Professors Morse and Draper who participated in the evaluation of all our entries and Mr. Brady, who has and no doubt will continue to lead us in the years to come, will, if God so desires be with us all next year when we shall convene once again!"

My modest attempt to summarize and offer a fitting end to an evening either went unrecognized or unaccepted for the good fellowship went on well into the following morning.  More off color stories about the Irish (Mr. Roach having left acrimoniously by this time) and more wine and tobacco.  Candles were extinguished and further subdued and the cast drew smaller and quieter.  More sincere.  And then it was left to dear old Snelling, Henry Hunt Snelling.  As fine a writer, photographer and friend as ever there was, to suggest to those left assembled that "unity of purpose be daguerreotyped upon our hearts and indelibly fixed by those golden attributes; friendship, charity and harmony."

"Papa..."  Martha's loving smile is before me, her hand soft on my shoulder.  I awake with a yawn, the sun's rays casting long shadows across our yard.  "Mattie, my dear, how long have I been asleep?"  I ask.  "Only a short while, papa.  I'm fixing a late lunch for us."  She kisses my forehead before walking out of the porch and back into the house, towards the kitchen and I'm left to think of her mother's reaction to that beautiful silver pitcher when I returned home to our house on Henry street in Brooklyn, in the early morning hours of December 22nd, 1853.

"Oh, Jeremiah!  What use does this family have for such vainglory!"

I pause for a moment before carefully rising out of the warm chair, my bones aching with age that only moments earlier were those of a young man's.  As I slowly walk to the voice of my daughter, humming an old hymnal in our little dining room, I wonder for the first time, what indeed did Phebe do with that beautiful silver pitcher.
Anthony Prize Silver Pitcher
engraving from Gleason's Pictorial, 1853

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