Wednesday, July 4, 2012

King Derby's Plenty

On a recent visit to Salem I happened upon a stunning sculpture by an 18th-century carver, Simeon Skillen, Jr., who is also represented in the Fenimore Art Museum collection. He has always fascinated me because of the sheer sophistication of his work, most of which was done in the 1790s. There would have been no opportunities for formal training then, so Skillen must have learned his trade in his family's carving shop, which was widely known at the time. I think his sculptures of the human form are as good as anything being done in America. You can find more information on the family workshop in Boston's North End here.

The piece I saw in the galleries of the Peabody Essex Museum was a large, standing figure of Plenty, a nymph in Roman mythology but for this occasion dressed in an 18th-century gown and holding an overflowing cornucopia. It was carved in 1793 for Elias Hasket Derby of Salem (whose portrait by James Frothingham, also at PEM, is seen above), a very wealthy shipowner who made his money in international trade and privateering during the Revolutionary War. He is referred to as "King Derby" in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and is sometimes (erroneously) called "America's first millionaire."

The figure of Plenty reportedly stood in Derby's formal garden at his summer farm in Salem. The garden is famous for its summer house designed by Samuel McIntire, the architect and carver for whom one of Salem's Historic Districts is now named. McIntire designed a number of homes for Derby, but this summer house is one of his most elegant creations.

Which makes it interesting to me that the summer house is adorned with two life size sculptures by Simeon Skillen, a milkmaid and a reaper. It was in this illustrious company that the figure of Plenty found herself. By contrast, our sculpture by Skillen is more modest but still superb, a bust of the Apollo as god of the sun (note the sunrise on his chest).

Two notes of interest: Derby, despite deriving all of his wealth and influence from the maritime trade, never went to sea himself; and lastly, Hawthorne got his inspiration for The Scarlet Letter from a couple of years working as a customs officer at the Custom House in Salem where, hour after endless hour, he looked out over Derby Wharf.
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