Monthly Archives: June 2014

Who Is James Renwick (and what are his plans)?

Who is James Renwick and What are His Plans?

by Jerry Leibowitz



Image Downloaded with permission from the Smithsonian Institution website

Who is James Renwick? This is not an Ayn Rand question about a fictional engineer. There was an engineer turned architect named James Renwick (1819-1895) who designed several of the most iconic structures built in America’s early years, including the Castle at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D. C., and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. While still a teen or a young adult, he graduated with a Master’s degree in Engineering from Columbia College, NYC, where his father with the same name was his professor. Not being the first Junior/Senior or Younger/Elder in this world, you would think that the two of them could be kept straight.

In 1853, probably as a result of a partial forced retirement, Columbia College commissioned a painting of its prestigious professor, James Renwick, Sr. to be done by John Whetten Ehninger. The painting is listed in Columbia’s current inventory, as well as an inventory from 1908, but to the best of anyone’s knowledge it has not been publicly displayed. As of this writing, the image on that painting remains a mystery. For years, if you googled James Renwick, Jr., the architect, you would eventually see the above copied image with an attribution that it was an Ehninger portrait from 1853. That was the attribution used by the Smithsonian Institution on its website.  Renwick designed two important Smithsonian buildings, the Castle and the suitably named Renwick Gallery. The attribution claimed Renwick was holding a plan of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

I noticed a few things about the portrait that made me wonder how it could be a portrait from 1853. The most glaring oddity was the age of the subject. In 1853, James Renwick Jr., was 34 years old. The subject of the painting seems much older than 34 years old. Even more significant was the drawing that Renwick was holding. Work did not begin on St. Patrick’s Cathedral until 1858. Could he have drawn a plan for St. Patrick’s Cathedral and then had his portrait done with that plan all by 1853? That would be news to anyone who studied the history of the Cathedral. Well anything is possible, I guess. But more on that later.

The plan of St. Patrick’s Cathedral displayed by Renwick in the image does not look much like St. Patrick’s Cathedral as constructed. In fact, it does look like an early unconstructed plan of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, similar to the beautiful rendering of a plan drawn and signed by James Renwick presently located in the Archbishop Hughes room of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The most distinct difference between the early plan and the Cathedral, as constructed, is that the early plan had two different spires while the Cathedral as built had two matching spires. But why would there be a painting of an older James Renwick (no longer Junior after his father died in 1863) holding a plan for a Cathedral that was not built? He seems to be deliberately showing us the plan, but why?

Before I addressed that question, I examined images of all other churches built by Renwick to see if the plan he was holding was for another building. Calvary Church, in lower Manhattan, once had two spires since removed, but it is clearly not as large as the Church in the drawing. Not only could I not find another structure that was close, but it occurred to me that if you were going to have your portrait taken and you were going to be holding a drawing of one of your works, you would have some reason for the drawing that you pick. Renwick was a man who left few clues to his motivations, so it was left to me to try to figure it out.

So what is it? Well, as usual, I have a theory.

The next time you are at St. Patrick’s Cathedral (after the monumental restoration), look up at the stained glass windows and among the incredibly beautiful religious symbols captured in the glass, done largely by Nicholas Lorin in France, you will see the very image of James Renwick, Jr. that is on the image copied above (although he is holding a different plan, see below). He is even wearing the same shirt and tie. How did he get up there????

The story that I understand is that Renwick, a Protestant, and Archbishop Hughes, the moving force behind the construction of the Cathedral, were incredibly simpatico on how St.  Patrick’s Cathedral should look. Both wanted a huge Cathedral that would be welcoming to Catholic immigrants and could be seen for miles around. It was a “spare no expense” project, even though the Catholic Church was small and cash-strapped in mid 19th century New York City. Begun in 1858, the project proceeded well through donations largely through the strong will of the Archbishop until the civil war broke out in 1861 when virtually all construction in the city was halted. Archbishop Hughes died in 1864 and his successor, Cardinal McCloskey, tinkered with the design before construction was restarted. It was probably he who nixed the idea of two different spires in favor of the more balanced similar spires that were ultimately constructed. Renwick did not like the several changes made to his original plan, and displayed his concern by giving the Cathedral a stained glass window in 1879 which tells the very story! He made it a part of the patron saint St. Patrick stained glass window as if to make sure that it would be installed and be noticed. In one of the most brilliant moves in architectural history, James Renwick placed himself and Archbishop Hughes and Cardinal McCloskey and Nicholas Lorin in a stained glass window with two plans to the Cathedral; the one he and Archbishop Hughes are excited about and the one held by Cardinal McCloskey that was ultimately built. Up there the revised plan is barely acknowledged. In big letters you can see below their images the immortal words… “FROM JAMES RENWICK”.

I suggest that the above googled image of James Renwick tells the same story. I believe there was a photograph taken of Renwick in the 1870’s holding a drawing of the Cathedral he and Archbishop Hughes wanted to construct. A copy of that photograph was given to Nicholas Lorin to model Renwick for inclusion in the infamous stained glass window.  I saw a copy of that photograph somewhere in the Renwick archives either at Columbia University or at the Smithsonian. As Renwick got older, he still ruminated about the plans for his masterpiece which were not built. From the 1870’s photograph, in 1929, an artistic family member named Howard Crosby Renwick produced the oil portrait of Renwick holding his best laid plans, to be seen for eternity. Unfortunately, that painting, as well as the Ehninger portrait of his father, is out of public view and were it not for the stained glass window, this story would remain largely untold. I did finally see the 1929 oil portrait of James Renwick holding the drawing of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It is in storage at the Avery Library of Columbia University, New York City.  Who is to say if the portrait or the photograph came first?  Somewhat at my urging the attribution of the portrait has changed, at least on the Smithsonian site, but who can correct such things in all of cyberspace, as if such a thing matters.

For history’s sake I suggest one further theory. I do not believe that Renwick produced any plan for St. Patrick’s Cathedral as early as 1853 or 1854. My research indicates that Renwick may have been approached about the commission earlier, but I doubt that any plan existed much before 1857 when Renwick’s plans were accepted by Archbishop Hughes and made public. I suspect that it is confusion with the Ehninger painting of Renwick, Sr. from 1853 which has led to the supposition that there was a plan for St. Patrick’s Cathedral at that early date. I would welcome seeing proof of the contrary.

I began my fascination with the life and work of James Renwick after discovering a Scrap Book purportedly belonging to Renwick amongst items belonging to my wife’s family. If you look closely at the blue portfolio belonging to Renwick in the infamous stained glass window below, perhaps you see a long book sticking out. Could it be? Why not? A Scrap Book for eternity.

Thoughts on Lord Mansfield, James Somersett and Dido Belle


Thoughts on Lord Mansfield, James Somersett and Dido Belle

by Jerry Leibowitz

To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better…

                                                                                                       Abraham Lincoln

 With the release of the wonderful movie Belle, there is another in what has been a periodic reassessment of Lord Mansfield (1705-1793) and his legal decisions. Were his decisions against slave traders and benefitting runaway slaves based on deeply held beliefs or narrow commercial law principles? Did his dark skinned niece Dido Elizabeth Belle’s presence in his house influence him in his decisions on the Zong, or perhaps the Somersett Case? Why did he provide for the manumission of Dido in his will if she was a free black woman? Did he appreciate the impact of his decisions or, as some believe, continually minimize their scope? Did he singlehandedly start the American Revolution through the Somersett decision? The numerous questions raised by his decisions and life require thoughtful analysis.[i] Here I skim the surface for a logical approach to this man and how his decisions affected his times.

Lord Mansfield had a brilliant legal mind. It would not be an exaggeration to say he is considered as one of the geniuses of legal thought. He is basically credited with codifying if not inventing Commercial Law.[ii] One must therefore begin with the assumption that he knew exactly what he was doing and said and wrote exactly what he meant. In the area of Commercial Law, fortunes are often made or lost as a result of a legal decision. It must be assumed that Lord Mansfield contemplated the consequences of his decisions, and to the degree that anyone can, knew full well of their ramifications.

The current reassessment as a result of the movie Belle focuses more on his role as a social justice. The Somersett Decision (1772), in which he freed an American slave who had been brought to England is often credited with jumpstarting the antislavery movement if not outright declaring slavery illegal, something that it did not do. The Zong decision (1783), difficult to address due to its horrible facts, is given great play in the movie when really I could have decided that case correctly. If bad facts make bad law, it must be said of the Zong decision that horrible facts can make no law at all. Still the questions about Lord Mansfield motives and objectives must be addressed if only to clarify and contextualize the liberties taken in the movie Belle.

One interesting theory is that Lord Mansfield did singlehandedly start, or at least made inevitable, the American Revolution.[iii] In 1772, he issued the decision in Somersett’s Case where he freed the slave James Somersett solely because Somersett had been brought to the free soil of England by his slave master.  It is unclear if there was a written decision or if the oral decision was transcribed and reported. What is not in doubt is the fact that as a high judge of British Courts he called the practice of slavery “odious”. He did not have to use that word or any pejorative term to get to his result. He could have found some way to decide the case under Commercial Law principles without diving into the merits of controversial social topic whose survival was of great concern to the commercial interests of 18th century Great Britain. Whether the decision freed one slave, as Benjamin Franklin suggested, or was intended to be the basis for freedom of all slaves in England and perhaps all of Great Britain has been debated. I suppose that was purposely left murky by Lord Mansfield. What is not in doubt was that Lord Mansfield sent a message to slave holders. He told proud men like Patrick Henry and George Washington and Thomas Jefferson that their practice of owning slaves was odious and by extension, they were barbarians. Lord Mansfield was more stating the obvious than providing a revelation. How could the decision not have impacted wealthy slaveholders who were British subjects operating under British Laws when a great judge of Great Britain called them odious? One would think that there must have been a reasonable fear that the existence of the institution of slavery would eventually be terminated by the same tribunal. Hence, the theory goes, the American Revolution or at least the southern participation in the War became inevitable to protect the institution of slavery. All from one word in one decision that had nothing to do with slavery on the American continent. The problem with the theory is that in the thousands of documents written by and about American patriots in the 1770’s, there is nary a mention of the decision in Somersett’s Case. While some thoughts are better left unsaid or at least unwritten, it seems unlikely that the decision in that case could be so important yet not have crept into some contemporary documents. There was a lot going on in America then as loyal British subjects were moved to become revolutionaries. The role of the Somersett decision in that process clearly deserves to be considered as a motivational theory, even as the reported facts of the time tend towards minimizing its significance absent better proof.

Let me backtrack. Even as great a mind as Lord Mansfield could not know the ultimate consequences his decision in Somersett’s Case might have. In 1772, he could not guess that instead of searching for practical ways to address the slavery issue, by 1775 the Americans would unite against British rule and start a revolution. He could not know that the Americans would be victorious in the War and therefore successful in promulgating “positive law” that would continue the institution of slavery well into the 19th century. He could not know (well maybe he could!) that the hearts of men could be so cold that they would double down in their odious practices. All he could know is that in 1772 slavery in America and the slave trade of Great Britain seemed intractable; he could not score his goal, he could only move the ball. I do not think anyone can contemplate the word “odious” and not know where his heart stood. Lord Mansfield was categorically against the institution of slavery and of that there can be no doubt.

Lord Mansfield had tremendous respect for the law and not only did he want his decisions to make sense, he wanted Commercial Law to be codified under consistent principles. His Commercial Law decisions provided great certainty to the mercantile interests of Great Britain. No matter what his personal feelings about slavery were, he still had to apply consistent principles to the cases before him. But where did slavery fit into Commercial Law? If slaves were chattel they could be treated as any other property, subject to the whims of the owners. But what other chattel could become free? By 1772, London was a city with a sizable population of former slaves who were living as free persons. One such person, Dido Elizabeth Belle, was related to him, she lived in his house, and by many accounts was cherished by him. These free people owned things…and ownership is the bedrock of Commercial Law. Chattel cannot own chattel. What if someone claimed to own someone living as a free man, much as Charles Stewart claimed to own James Somersett in 1772? How could Commercial Law deal with this oddity? The simple answer is that it could not! There really was no way of including slavery into any system of Commercial Law that would truly make sense. To Lord Mansfield, two important principles intersected. The first was that slavery and anything connected to slavery was “odious”. The second was that there could be no consistent rules of Commercial Law in the murky areas relating to slave ownership. The cases involving slavery existed in their own universe; a place where humans could be compared to horses. It was a place where Lord Mansfield could use words like “odious” to convey his heartfelt opinion that such a universe should not exist. So yes, it is most likely that Dido Belle’s presence in his home influenced his decisions, but not more so than the world influences the decisions of all of us, each and every day.

I have a special interest and expertise in the somewhat controversial area of adverse possession, where the ownership of real property changes based on possession. Lord Mansfield invented the term “adverse possession” and helped change the notion of adverse interests from a negative approach to a positive one. Before this approach the title to abandoned property was forfeited by the old owner but no new title was created in the hands of the possessor. Lord Mansfield helped create the new notion of good title by possession and thereby cleared up many of England’s longstanding title issues. Think now of Dido Belle. Under the Somersett decision by her great uncle she was a free woman as long as she lived in England. Right? Well not if you read the Treaty of Paris. The Americans who spouted about liberty and independence wanted all of their slaves back as a spoil of winning their war. After 1781 and the surrender of Cornwallis, the former slaves in England, their children and their children’s children were considered by the victorious Americans to be slaves again, subjected to return to America. They became a subject of treaty negotiations in 1783 and again in 1794.[iv] These negotiations did not go well for the (former) slaves. Lord Mansfield had no claim of ownership of Dido Bell through any purchase, so by what right could he confirm her freedom in his will? Adverse Possession, of course, or at least the similar principle as applied to chattel. Arguably Lord Mansfield’s work in codifying adverse possession of chattel freed more slaves than his Somersett decision…quite a trick for work in commercial law.

I am unabashed in my praise of Lord Mansfield and the first Four Dukes of Northumberland, of whom I have written about elsewhere. If the definition of greatness is when one rises above their circumstances, then these are all great men. Born into an entrenched system which they benefited from greatly, they worked to change that system at its core. None of them ended slavery in America but each in their own way moved the ball forward towards that end. That is more than I can say for some American “heroes”, who elegantly wrote of and fought for liberty yet did nothing to help the millions of people that they ultimately helped oppress.



[i] A great place to start is the recent biography by Professor Norman Poser entitled Lord Mansfield, Justice in the Age of Reason (McGill-Queen’s University Press, Canada 2013. The book provides a complete and balanced context for any discussion of Lord Mansfield and his times. I would also like to personally thank Professor Poser for his emails which helped me clarify some thoughts appearing herein.


[ii] Bernard L. Shientag, Lord Mansfield Revisited– A Modern Assessment, 10 Fordham L. Rev. 345 (1941).


Available at: Accessed June 17,2014


[iii] See Alfred W. Blumrosen and Ruth G. Blumrosen, Slave Nation, How Slavery United the Colonies & Sparked the American Revolution (Sourcebooks Inc., Naperville Illinois 2005).


[iv]  The Autobiography of Colonel John Trumbull, Edited by Theodore Sizer for the Library of American Art (Kennedy Graphics, Inc.-Da Capo Press New York 1970) Page 180.



Bust of a Man…Alternate version

See Bust of Bill Richmond?  at for the primary version…and The Sequel…Bill Richmond Fights Back

Bust of a Man…Alternate version

My inquiry into the sculpture known as Bust of a Man begins with the known facts. There are two similar sculptures known a Bust of a (Black) Man. One is unsigned and is at the Yale Center for British Art. A lesser one, to my eye,  is at the Getty Museum and is signed “Francis Harwood fecit.”, meaning “I did that!”. The latter is dated 1758. Francis Harwood was a British sculptor who worked in England and Italy from the mid 18th century to his death in 1783. It appears that he was quite adept at making copies of the great sculptures of the world. He did not make his works to deceive, rather he made his living fulfilling the wishes of patrons who wanted copies of the great classical sculptors for their private collection. He was more craftsman than artist, and any assumption that he did the original work located now at the Yale Center because he signed a copy  must be addressed in the context of the reality that he was not that talented. The Yale Center at some point changed its attribution from “Francis Harwood” to “Studio of Francis Harwood” perhaps due to the conflict between the signed and dated lesser work and the realization that it had an unsigned copy by a better sculptor who, they may have surmised, must have worked with Francis Harwood. I suggest otherwise.

What if the signature and/or date of the Getty sculpture is wrong? Since the Getty bust seems most likely a reworked copy of the Yale bust, it seems quite plausible that Francis Harwood created the Getty sculpture, not from a live sitting, but from the existing Yale bust. That is what Francis Harwood did for a living. The date is quite another story. If the Yale bust was created prior to 1858, the identity of the sitter and the sculptor would remain a mystery. I submit that the date on the Harwood copy may be wrong, purposefully wrong. If the two sculptures were actually of a later date, some progress could be made as to the identity of the sitter and the sculptor.

We begin with the assumption, supported in the literature, that the sitter was associated with a Duke of Northumberland, one  of the richest men in the world.  Famously, an American slave who was to take the name “Bill Richmond”, was brought to England around 1777 by Hugh Percy, who was to become the Second Duke of Northumberland. Percy was a General in the British Army who participated in several of the early conflicts of the American War For Independence, including the Battles of Lexington and Concord. He quickly grew fed up with the war and due to disagreements with his Commander, he returned to England while the war was still in its early stages. The slave Bill, of somewhat indeterminate age, impressed the General with his quick wit and his ability to defend himself with his fists. It was not uncommon for British officers to return to England with former slaves who attached themselves to British units as a means of escaping from their horrors. At certain points in the War, both sides promised freedom to slaves who served as soldiers in their army. To the degree that some of these men were runaway slaves or not classified as soldiers, their status after the war was uncertain. In 1772, a lower court judge in England issued an opinion in the matter of Somersett’s Case, which held that since slavery was abhorrent to British law, any slave who is on actual British soil is a free man while on British soil. With the protections afforded by this precedential decision and those provided by the wealthy Duke of Northumberland, Bill Richmond now in England, became educated, acquired a trade, and otherwise seemingly  took his place as a free British subject . Later in life, he revolutionized the sport of boxing and once fought for the title of Champion of England. I suspect that the Yale sculpture was carved at the time Bill Richmond was growing into his adult self, possibly 1781. The scar above the eye and the sculpture’s physique speak to Bill Richmond’s past as a slave or fighter. In the latter part of the 18th century there were several sculptors who could produce such a masterwork and the Dukes of Northumberland were famous for their discerning eye and willingness to spend considerable money on their art. With the surrender of Cornwallis in 1781, Britain and France, while technically still at war over the American conflict, were able to resume a certain amount of trade. The great sculptors of France, most specifically Jean Antoine Houdon, were exploring the issue of slavery in their works. In 1781, Houdon carved a bust of a black woman, thought to be a study for the “attendant” in a fountain sculpture of a bather, of which only the head remains and is located at the Musee municipale Ancienne Abbaye, Saint-Leger, Soissons. This sculpture was later used by Houdon in an allegory of slavery and freedom. As can be seen from the recast sculpture, now in the Musee Nissim de Camondo, Paris, this sculpture is the spiritual kin to the Bust of a Man at Yale and may well have been done by the same sculptor at approximately the same time.

The American victory in its War for Independence led to another adventure in the life of Bill Richmond. The darndest thing happened…the victorious Americans who were all about freedom wanted their slaves back. In the years between the British surrender of 1781 and the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the status of slaves under the control of the British was uncertain. The British insisted on honoring their commitment to those slaves who fought as soldiers in their army and papers were issued on their behalf. Yet in the confusing time, even some freed blacks with papers were re-enslaved. Bill Richmond had not been a soldier and had no papers, but at least he was in Britain where he had some security. Yet there was well reasoned apprehension on the part of many in Britain that in any treaty which would ultimately be signed, Britain might agree to relinquish its  former slaves who had no papers. I presume that neither the (soon to be) Duke nor Bill Richmond was keen on seeing slave Bill returned to slavery in America. As wealthy as the Northumberlands were, Lord Percy was politically and socially vulnerable because of his quick exit from the war theater. It would not look good for a British General to violate the terms of a treaty. Bill Richmond needed an identity that would protect him from deportation just in case the worst political result was negotiated. Enter Francis Harwood.

Francis Harwood had spent his life providing reasonable facsimiles of classical sculptures. Now, in the early 1780’s he was near the end of his life and was about to produce his greatest work. Much was at stake. I suggest, with absolutely no proof, that Francis Harwood copied the masterwork Bust of a Man and signed it, verified it, and falsely dated it. It gave Bill Richmond a false ID. I admit that the date of 1758 was farfetched, as the subject was a man who clearly was younger than that, but the concepts involved in providing a false ID had not yet been perfected. The scar above the eye and impressive physique would testify to the fact that it was Bill Richmond. The year 1758 may have been picked because it predated any American conflict and would therefore provide an unassailable cover. It also may have been inserted to establish a twenty year absence from America, which is often a statutory period for the abandonment of property. Thankfully, we know of no attempt to “repatriate”  and re-enslave Bill Richmond. However, we do know that the Treaty of Paris of 1783 is a convoluted document which many believe required all British officers to return their slaves to their “rightful” owner.


To sum up, I believe that the Yale Center for British Art has a sculpture entitled Bust of a Man, which depicts the bust of a former slave who came to be known as Bill Richmond. It is an important piece of American History as well as a sculptural masterpiece. It was probably created in the late 1770’s or early 1780’s and just might be(sorry YCBA) French. The Getty Art Museum has a copy of that sculpture, probably created in 1782 or 1783, created and signed by the lesser British sculptor, Francis Harwood. It was purposely misdated. The Getty sculpture is less of a sculptural masterpiece, yet quite possibly it is one of the most important pieces of art in American History if for no other reason that it is one of the first examples of what was to become an American institution…the phony ID. The spiritual sisters of these sculptures are located at the Musee municipale Ancienne Abbaye, Saint-Leger, Soissons  and the Musee Nissim de Camondo, in Paris. Further investigation should be undertaken to determine if they were created by the same hand.

Below: The Francis Harwood Bust of a Man at the Getty, The recast Houdon, the original Houdon and the YCBA Bust of a Man