Thursday, April 26, 2012

I recall early on, a visit to my studio of a wild pack of young jackals.  Young men from Long Island who had taken the ferry across to Peck Slip and on up into Broadway.  There were three or four of them, the loudest being the smallest of course.  I don't remember his name but I do remember the lad whose image I captured that day.

His name was Caleb Edwards.  I remember it perfectly as he hailed from Jamaica, New York.  My beautiful Phebe had family not too far from there and when I laid eyes on him, I could see something of her in him.  Or maybe it was his resemblance to my brother Jacob.  He was the quietest of them.

The lot were a rowdy bunch and I heard them coming before they bounded into my rooms.  Quieting down as they surveyed my establishment, the pipsqueak wondered as to "how's a person goes about gettin' their p'rtrait taken."

I was myself, a young man once.  I realized that there were those who's heritage had much to be allotted for.  While my own familiar and religious upraising had provided me the means to converse in a more Christian manner, I displayed no ill will in repsonding to his crass choice of words.  I merely replied that the sitter should consider his pose, see that his personage was as he would like it captured and, once formalities had been arranged, the process would begin.

Pipsqueak continued to speak on behalf of the lot.  "See here" acknowledging the young Edwards with a nod of the head, "this hard case is Caleb Edwards.  Caleb's going to be the next champion of fisticuffs in America!  We're in town from over east across the river on Long Island.  We've scraped up enough money to pay for his portrait."

Needless to say, I was only too happy to oblige them.  Upon conducting the necessary items of business, I suggested the party take a seat while I conferred with the young pugilist.  It was difficult to get much out of him, including a display of emotion.  He was a cautious young man.  Slowly, I gained his confidence and he began to tell me of his personal life.

A mutual decision among the group had been to position the sitter in the formal pose of a bare knuckler.  The years of disciplined labor had certainly hardened Mr. Edwards.  His strength was unquestionable.  Arms taut, wrists and hands like steel cables.  Neck and head tanned from the sun's rays.  I offered him use of my comb to smoothen his hair and he kindly accepted.  It was only then that his countenance eased and a smile appeared across his handsome face.

While we explored various positionings, he offered me a glimpse into his world.

The son of a farmer, he had only the most rudimentary of schooling.  His father had no use for such matters and made it clear to young Caleb that he and his younger brother were needed on the fields rather than filling their minds with letters and numbers.  From the age of 10 he knew nothing of life other than tending the potatoes, corn and other sundry vegetables they managed to grow.

I thought of my own early years on my father's farm and how differently our circumstances had gone.  His escape from the drudgery would rely entirely on his fists.  I had hoped for his sake he could see himself through.

Once the mercury had settled on his daguerreotype, the lot of them were off.  I caught Caleb's eye as he was walking towards the stairs that would lead him out of my life.  There were thousands of them in the years to come.  A nod and a polite thank you crossed his lips and I never saw or heard from him again.

©The J. Paul Getty Museum

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

All throughout the winter of 1840 and in fact for the following two winters, I kept open my watch and jewelry repair shoppe on Maiden Lane while little by little, requests for portraitures began to pick up.  My neighbors, Mr. Bagley and Mr. Booth were both extremely kind as were all of the merchants on our block and they along with others were quick to offer their customers a recommendation to venture up to my studio to see for themselves, this new form of capturing ones likeness.

I was met with all forms of curious questions.  "Will it hurt?"  "Will I lose my soul?"  "Can the box see under my clothing?"  I dare say the least eager to sit were, at first, the ladies and the wealthy.  The former as they considered it too immodest and the latter as it seemed too vulgar!  Both would come around rather quickly though and in short order they became my very best clients.

These were difficult, long days.  Keeping both businesses open, not knowing whether to shutter one for the other or if either would survive to flourish!  In due time however, the decision would be made for me.  The little jewelry shoppe was failing.

It stung me to have to see it go.  A sentimental attachment that men of business should never entertain most assuredly, but it did sting.  While my father was the first to see the ambition in me, my mother saw the depth of emotion.  It wasn't so much a sense of failure that I felt in the spring of 1842 when I made arrangements to close business at that wonderful little establishment on Maiden Lane.  It was that I was saying goodbye for the very last time to a dear old friend.  A port who had provided safe harbor for myself and my family.

The unknown loomed ahead.

April 1842, NY Evening Post

New York City Hall April 24, 1865.  Photograph by J. Gurney & Son

Thirty years!

It is at once impossible to believe and yet all too easy to gain comfort from the fact, that it is almost thirty years to the day when Ben and I walked together up those steps and into City Hall.  We weren't alone of course.

On that particular morning thousands waited to gain entrance to the building.  Throngs milling about and soldiers everywhere!  Everywhere the eyes looked there was humanity.  All waiting to pay their respects to our dear, departed president.

I remember it all.  I remember how it had rained in the early morning hours on the day following his assassination.  How, when the news of his passing reached me that morning, the clouds had parted and rays of sunlight had come filtering across Broadway.  Church bells peeling the saddest of news.  Abraham Lincoln had been struck down by J. Wilkes Booth!  Booth!

It was Easter.  The first Easter of peace in four years.  Four years of murder and misery.  Our country laid exhausted, weakend by four long years of agony.  The prospect of a true and everlasting peace after all of the destruction and horrors we had experienced made our nation grateful and optimistic for the future.

Our leader, Father Abraham, as the negroes and children called him, admonished us when talk of punishment and retribution arose in those final months and weeks of the war.  He told us to embrace our brothers who had fought against us.  To lay away our differences once and for all time and return to a nation united.  His kindness seemed fathomless.

And all at once, shattered!  One last monumental orgy of death cast upon the very man who sought to forestall it.  By a New York actor!  My mind reels as it did the day the news reached me.

Walking to my studio that morning, I saw their faces.  People I passed were to a man, woman and child, stricken.  As if we were all in some crazy dream where the promise of a better future had been taken from us.  Snatched back!  We would return to a never ending battle of destruction and death.  I saw men in top hats and coats with the worry of the unknown about them.  Women, already weeping, children with their look of silent solemnity.  Negroes throwing themselves to the ground in abject despair.  All around me, the world had gone insane once more.

I recall it all as if it were this morning and yet I find myself thankfull that it isn't.  April of 1865 was a long, horrible affair.