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Failed Farmer Becomes Sculptor for Oval Office

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Things used to be easier for amateurs. An example is William Marshall Swayne, a self-taught Chester County sculptor who, with a few good references and an amiable manner, got an opportunity to make a bust of the president of the United States.

Swayne spent hours in private with Abraham Lincoln. They talked politics. Lincoln recited poetry and stories, reminding Swayne of his late father. The often-weary president told the 35-year-old failed farmer that he found their sittings “restful.”

Today? Well, just imagine an artist trying to get into the Oval Office without a portfolio and a commission of experts—to say nothing of the security checks. Nelson Shanks, who painted Bill Clinton, had decades of experience. He’d first painted Princess Diana and Pope John Paul II. Everett Kinstler, who made a portrait of Ronald Reagan, had a long résumé as a painter of Hollywood stars. “He inquired about the bust,” Swayne wrote to his wife, after shaking hands with Lincoln at the second inaugural ball the next year. “[He] told me he had sat several times since, but he liked mine better than any of them.”

In truth, though, Swayne’s work probably wasn’t very good.

Born in Pennsbury Township, Swayne was the son of William and Mary Ann Swayne whose farm was on Street Road.
I
t wasn’t far from the limestone quarry that would later provide material for his busts. Swayne attended the Westtown School briefly, but withdrew after a bout of dysentery and was educated at Unionville Academy. 

Swayne’s father died when the boy was 10. After that, the family lived with the boy’s paternal grandfather, Benjamin, in East Marlborough.

Having finished his education, Swayne worked briefly in a country store and taught school for a year or so. During the course of this, he came to know William Darlington, local physician, president of the National Bank of Chester County, and a former U.S. congressman. The relationship would later prove important.

Benjamin Swayne died in 1848, leaving the farm—which had been in the family since 1711—to Swayne and his brother. The 20-year-old bought out his sibling. 

Swayne married in 1850, and, as kids arrived, his financial situation deteriorated. In 1859, he sold the farm, and the Swaynes moved to West Chester.

Swayne wanted to sculpt, though no accounts of his life indicate where he got such an idea. It’s unlikely that he ever received any formal training. It wasn’t in the curriculum at Westtown or Unionville, but both schools did teach Greek and Latin, so it’s possible he saw a bust. In any case, Swayne was spending “every spare moment” on sculpture by 1850, according to biographer Henry Pleasants.

In particular, Swayne admired the work of Antonio Canova, a Venetian sculptor best known for marble embellishments to papal tombs. With an enthusiasm born, most likely, from studying photographs, he named his son Antonio Canova Swayne. What his wife thought of this can only be imagined.

In 1850, Swayne made his debut, entering a bust of a “Dr. Worth” in a local competition, where he actually received an honorable mention. All was quiet until 1858, when he created plaster busts of Darlington and local congressman John Hickman. The former was sufficiently impressed, recommending Swayne to architect Thomas U. Walter, who had designed the Chester County Courthouse in 1846 and was then working on an expansion of the U.S. Capitol. “The lumps of clay that he handled look more like us, if possible, than our own heads do,” Darlington wrote to Walter.

Given a day job clerking at the Treasury Department, Swayne was soon commissioned to create a bust of Sam Houston, a U.S. senator from Texas. Houston whittled small figures while Swayne worked, giving him two when the bust was finished. So, it appears the sitting was something of a trade.

By Swayne’s account, Houston said that if he “made a good likeness, he would never sit again. And as he has told me since finishing he would not, I take it for granted he is pleased.” 

Next came busts of Ohio Sen. Joshua Giddings and Delaware Sen. James A. Bayard. Swayne picked up quickly that artists make more money selling copies than from the original pieces. In 1860, the Delaware Gazette reported on Swayne’s visit to its Wilmington office to promote a plaster copy of the Bayard bust. The story in the paper pronounced it “a splendid specimen of art” and “the perfect likeness,” helpfully mentioning that it was only $10.

In the spring of 1861, Swayne sculpted Salmon P. Chase, who’d just been appointed treasury secretary by Lincoln. “He has the most winning smile I ever saw on a great man’s face,” Swayne wrote to his wife. “[It was] almost that of a sleeping infant when it ‘is talking with the angels.’” 

Next came a bust of Secretary of War Simon Cameron.

In the Civil War, the U.S. military had few resources to care for wounded and ill soldiers, or to provide any sort of social or recreational outlets. Volunteer groups rose to fill the vast need. One, the U.S. Christian Commission, provided troops with supplies, medical services and religious literature—all paid for by donations and occasional fundraising “fairs.”

When Swayne learned that such an event was scheduled for June 1864 in Philadelphia, he lobbied for a commission to create a bust of Lincoln. Fair organizers wanted a large turnout, so any draw was appreciated. An organizer lobbied Chase, who, in turn, asked Lincoln. “His object is certainly a good one,” wrote Chase. “And  if you will give him a sitting or two to enable him to accomplish it, you will help it and, at the same time, gratify a very worthy gentleman.”

The 16th president was remarkably savvy about his public image. According to Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer, he’d come to see his famed homeliness as part of the brand and wanted it widely shared. “At Mathew Brady’s plush (New York) gallery, he posed for a brilliantly arranged portrait that softened the harsh lines in his face and emphasized his powerful frame against the evocative backdrop of a classical pillar and a pile of thick books,” wrote Holzer. “Brady transformed the prairie politician into a statesman.”

Brady’s 1859 photos helped elect Lincoln. So, throughout his presidency, he made time for painters, photographers and sculptors. Lincoln gave Francis Carpenter the run of the White House for six months while he worked on a monumental painting of the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. He also let sculptor Leonard Wells Volk cover his face with wet plaster, then held still for an hour while it hardened into a life mask—a process he declared “anything but agreeable.” 

“Why did he submit to the process?” posed Holzer. “Only because he harbored the dream that he might someday inspire heroic sculpture himself.”

Taking all that into account, granting a sitting to Swayne wasn’t so special a favor.

The sculptor set up a temporary studio in the Treasury Building, adjacent to the White House. When Lincoln felt he needed a break from weighty business, he simply walked next door. “I have had two sittings from the president and think I have a recognizable likeness of him,” Swayne wrote to his wife in February 1864. “I remarked that I wished to model the left side of his face, and that the right was turned toward the light. He thought if the left side of his head was right, the other must be also.”

At a March sitting, Swayne reported, Lincoln stayed an hour and a quarter, “and was withal very entertaining, reminding me very much of Father in his most jovial domestic moods, telling stories and reciting poetry.” 

The conversation focused on poet William Knox’s “Mortality”: 

Oh! Why should the spirit of mortal be proud? / Like a swift-fleeting meteor, a fast-flying cloud, / A flash of the lightning, a break of the wave / Man passeth from life to his rest in the grave.

Lincoln loved the poem. He’d memorized all 56 lines and recited it so often that he was widely credited as its author. That’s what Swayne had believed, but Lincoln disabused him.

“I told him I had been thinking of it the evening before and intended asking about the authorship,” wrote Swayne. “He seemed to think it quite a coincidence that he had been reciting it to Mr. Carpenter the evening before, about 9 o’clock, at the same time it occurred to me.”

The work was finished in June and Swayne didn’t see Lincoln again until March 1865, when they met in a reception line at the inaugural ball. “He did not recognize me at first, so I merely shook his hand and turned away quite crestfallen,” wrote Swayne. “As I did so, I glanced toward Mr. Lincoln. He was looking intently at me and motioned me back to him and whispered, ‘You’re the man that made a mud head of me.’”

After the war, Swayne returned to West Chester and largely gave up sculpture. He did an equestrian likeness of Gen. George Meade and made an appearance at the 1876 Centennial, where his title was “Inspector of Marbles.” Upon his death in 1918, the local paper remembered him as “genial” and “interesting.”

As for the Lincoln bust, it was bronzed and now belongs to the Smithsonian Institution, where it’s not on display. The Chester County Historical Society has copies put away. In a country where Lincoln’s image is ubiquitous, Swayne’s particular attempt has “not remained well known into our own century,” as Holzer diplomatically put it in 1995.

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