On Monuments

Eleanor Hughes

Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

This essay takes the invitation to give a position paper quite literally, by offering several perspectives on the topic that are informed not only by research but by geographic and institutional proximities. The first position is that of curator of Spreading Canvas: Eighteenth-Century British Marine Painting (2016) and editor of the accompanying publication, to which a number of participants in the Turner and the Whale symposium contributed.[1] Spreading Canvas extended beyond the first decade of the nineteenth century only to examine moments of retrospection, such as the foundation of the Naval Gallery at Greenwich. As the excellent publication accompanying Turner and the Whale quite rightly points out, nor was it able to encompass or do justice to art traditions in Bristol (beyond the career of Nicholas Pocock), Liverpool, Hull, Newcastle, and other maritime centers. Indeed, its aim was to outline an approach to eighteenth-century marine painting as a continuation of conversations begun by and with Geoff Quilley, Sarah Monks, Christine Riding, Richard Johns, in the hopes that others would respond, as this project does.

Figure 1

Fig. 1: John Ward, Isabella and Swan of Hull in the Arctic Regions, 19th century, Oil on canvas, 59.69 x 85.09 cm, Hull Trinity House Hull

So the unfamiliar works of the nineteenth-century Hull school provoke a paradoxical shock of recognition: while they demonstrate a new focus on the polar and on the subject of whaling, they also continue repetitive patterns established over the course of the long eighteenth century: the careful working-out of composition within a visual grammar of foreground, middle ground, background; the massing of skies; ships in various positions; and a considerable pleasure taken in variation on detail (Fig. 1).

This is very much the mold that J.M.W. Turner both emulated and broke with his radical re-imagining of the sea. Spreading Canvas aimed to recover for 21st-century viewers the pleasure and the repetition--and the pleasure in repetition--of eighteenth-century marine painting, asking why such patterns were so important to eighteenth-century artists and their patrons in telling the stories of their successes (in naval actions and battles, and voyages of exploration) and of the dangers of their profession (storms and shipwrecks).

As Jason Edwards and Martha Cattell demonstrate in their essays, paintings like those of John Ward and other Hull marine painters similarly celebrated the successes of the whaling industry–albeit victories of man over beast rather than human foes --and of the dangers of polar travel, of ice rather than storm. But in a later essay in this grouping, ‘Turner’s Dark Veganism’, Edwards also argues that these paintings prompt consideration of Turner in another context, that of the “circum-polar world,” an allusion to Joseph Roach's circum-Atlantic, an economic and cultural system that “entailed vast movements of people and commodities to experimental destinations, the consequences of which continue to visit themselves upon the material and human fabric of the cities inhabited by their successors.”[2] One of these commodities was the “human flesh” of enslaved people, and Edwards, while acknowledging the risk of making “what critical race and animal studies scholar Marjorie Spiegel calls the ‘dreaded comparison’ between people of color and animals,” argues that there is a comparison to be made between the so-called Black Atlantic and a circum-polar system in which the bodies of whales are the commodities that help to fuel the industrial revolution.[3] In this light, Edwards suggests, Turner's whaling pictures might be perceived as monuments akin to those that have been the focus of tensions in the United States: misguided in their celebration of heroism and ignoring legacies of violence, brutality, and systems of power that established and maintain white privilege.

Figure 2

Fig. 2: pedestal in Mount Vernon Place, Baltimore, formerly the location of William Henry Rinehart’s bronze sculpture, Roger B. Taney; Photograph: Eleanor Hughes

This comparison prompts my second position, which is one of geographic location and proximity. Fewer than a hundred yards (90 meters) from my desk at the Walters Art Museum, located in the heart of the Mount Vernon neighborhood in Baltimore, is an empty pedestal (Fig. 2). Until the night of August 15 2017, it was the location of a bronze sculpture of Roger B. Taney by the Baltimore sculptor William Henry Rinehart, one of four confederate monuments in Baltimore that have been the focus of local and national attention.[4] Taney, a native of Maryland, was the fifth Supreme Court justice of the United States and is remembered for delivering the majority opinion in the Dred Scott decision of 1857. Deeming citizenship for persons of African descent unconstitutional, Taney wrote that they “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever profit could be made by it”.[5]

Late-nineteenth-century guidebooks celebrated Baltimore as “The Monument City,” juxtaposing images of the Taney monument with others in Mount Vernon Place, including the bronze lion by Antoine-Louis Barye, given to the city in 1885 by William Walters. Waters acquired the spectacular collection of art that was expanded and bequeathed to the city of Baltimore by his son, Henry, “for the benefit of the public”.[6] He also commissioned the sculpture of Taney for Mount Vernon Place, which has placed the Walters Art Museum, which occupies much of the city block on the southwest side of the square, firmly in the debate over what should be done about Baltimore's four Confederate monuments (the other three commemorated Confederate soldiers and sailors; Confederate widows and orphans; and the parting of General Lee and Stonewall Jackson prior to the battle of Chancellorville, in 1863).[7] The complexities of the debate were aired at a series of public hearings in 2015-16 overseen by a commission appointed by then-mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, at which members of the public gave testimony and recommendations about the fate of the statues--to leave as they were, to re-interpret, to relocate, or to remove and destroy.[8] Their testimony confirmed the absolute immediacy of this history, whether from the perspective of the Sons of the Confederacy or of Baltimoreans of color who lived within sight of the Lee-Jackson memorial, erected and dedicated in 1948.[9]

Notwithstanding presidential tweets expressing sadness at seeing “the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments”, the least part of the public debate centered on consideration of the monuments as works of public art. There is, of course, an extensive art-historical literature on civil war monuments, much of which focuses on those made by better-known artists in more solidly southern states.[10] But, to return in a more specific way to our comparison with those whaling pictures, the observation has percolated up even into popular media that a similar repetition of form is at play in communicating narratives of heroism and loss. As a Washington Post article pointed out, many of the civil war monuments, Union and Confederate, were made by the Monumental Bronze Company, of Bridgeport, CT; the figures of Union and Confederate soldiers are nearly identical, forged from the same molds.[11] In much the same way that whaling pictures reinforce heroism and efface violence, these monuments employ a vocabulary that at once reinforces ideologies and effaces histories.

We do not yet know exactly why William T. Walters commissioned the Taney monument for Mount Vernon Place. It was unveiled in 1887 at a ceremony reported in the Baltimore Sun, attended by Taney's great grandson (Taney died on the day that slavery was abolished in the state of Maryland) and by Walters, who received three cheers “given with hearty good will” for his munificent gift to the people of Baltimore.[12] Among the crowds, listed in the Sun, were members of the Thomas family, who built and were the first residents of One West Mount Vernon Place, the magnificent mid-nineteenth-century townhouse (visible in Fig. 2 to the right of the Washington monument) overlooking both Mount Vernon Place and the Taney monument, and located next door but one to the residence of Walters. Since the late 1980s, One West has been in the care of the Walters Art Museum, and it is that building that offers a third perspective on the topic of whaling pictures.

For twenty-five years, One West housed the museum’s extraordinary collections of Asian art amassed by Waters and Henry, his son. In 2014, the house had to be closed for structural reasons, and the opportunity was taken to de-install the Asian collection and rethink the use and interpretation of the house. As part of developing this program, we have conducted extensive research into its history and those of the people who designed, built, decorated, inhabited, and worked in it. We consider and present the house, on the one hand, as an object, worthy of the same kinds of interrogation we bring to works of art in the collection, and, on the other, as a micro-history of Baltimore and the nation over a period of 170 years.

Early on in this research, we were made aware, for the first time, of the existence of Sybby Grant, the enslaved cook owned by the Thomas family, a discovery that completely shifted the focus of research and the stories we would tell about the house. John Hanson Thomas, who built the house, was like William T. Walters a confederate sympathizer. While Walters spent much of the civil war in Paris, Thomas was imprisoned in 1861 for his secessionist activities. On December 1 of that year, he wrote to his wife from Fort Warren, in Boston Harbor, asking her to send him Sir Walter Raleigh’s The History of the World (1614) and “a jar of your terrapins” : “I have been several days on our mess committee superintending the cooking, waiting on tables, & such other interesting occupations. I think I shall be able to instruct Sybby – tell her I hope she is well – in making omelets”.[13]A few days later, Grant wrote back, addressing him as “My Friend”, giving him news of the household, and letting him know that she prayed for him in his captivity. She added: “Those terrapins I cooked – I done them in style, for you know nobody can do them like I can”.[14]

The Walters was able to acquire Grant’s letter; we were initially puzzled by the fact that the acquisition included a copy, on the same family letterhead but in a different hand. Further research uncovered the framing letters at the Maryland Historical Society, including the one from Dr Thomas quoted above. Among them was a letter from Mrs. Thomas that had accompanied Grant’s letter, explaining that Grant had brought her the original in a sealed envelope, which Mrs. Thomas saw fit to unseal and to make a copy in the hopes of perhaps publishing it in one of the Baltimore newspapers: “No abolitionist can be made to believe that a woman who has been your slave for 22 years could have the feelings of kindness towards all of us, which her simple letter indicates. I wish they could see our household, how happy & affectionate they are to us”.[15] On Christmas Eve, Doctor Thomas wrote back: “Tonight we shall eat the terrapins. Tell Sibby [sic] I expect them to beat all creation”.[16]

Wealthy households in nineteenth-century Baltimore often had built-in, brick bins for holding live terrapins, the key ingredient in terrapin soup or stew, a Maryland delicacy. Indeed, terrapins were as central to elite nineteenth-century culinary culture in the mid-Atlantic states as were lobsters in Victorian England. In his essay, Edwards pauses on contemporary criticism of Turner’s Whalers as resembling lobster salad, noting the predominance of the lobster in mid-Victorian visual and literary culture. But whereas a comparison to lobster salad was a way of digging at Turner’s working-class origins, terrapin soup had very different associations. It gave rise, for example, to a tradition of specialized tableware, often made in silver, that included tureens, bowls, and a specialized utensil, the “terrapin spoon”.

So popular was the dish that the diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin) --like the right whale--was brought nearly to extinction. Terrapins had to be cooked alive so that their skin and toenails could be more easily removed, in a rendering process akin in brutality and precision to those employed on whales. The Thomas family cookbook, now at Virginia Tech, includes recipes ascribed to Grant; one for terrapin soup gives a sense of the labor and skill required to prepare them: “Put the Terrapins alive in boiling water where they must remain until they are quite dead. You then divest them of their outer skin and toenails; and after washing them in warm water boil them again until they become quite tender adding a handful of salt to the water. Having satisfied yourself of their being perfectly tender[,] take off the shells and clean the terrapins very carefully removing the sand bag & gall without breaking them”.[17] The addition of salt, pepper, cayenne, a quarter of a pound of butter per terrapin, flour, cream, and Madeira no doubt improved the flavor.

So we may be firmly back in the territory of Turner’s--and others’--whaling pictures, contemplating animal death and dismemberment for the benefit of an economy that trades in flesh. But in closing I want to offer the possibility for consideration of further complexities. An emergent theme in the discourse around slavery is recognition of the skills and abilities of enslaved people as a way of re-attributing agency, for example as a focus of the presentation of slavery at the new Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, DC. In summer 2017, the writer Fawn Weaver brought national attention to the role of Nathan Nearest Green, an enslaved person, in teaching Jack Daniels how to make whiskey, a history that had been locally “known” in Tennessee but “forgotten” in a larger context.[18] And likewise the Harriet Tubman Visitor Center, which opened on Maryland’s Eastern Shore earlier in 2017, complicates a “known” figure--celebrated for her liberating of enslaved people via the Underground Railroad--by revealing, among other things, her business acumen and role in the suffragette movement. By the same token, Grant reminds Thomas of her skill: “you know nobody can do them like I can”. Along with her profession of affection—“My Friend”— even if genuine, her boast must be seen as a strategic move at a perilous moment for an enslaved person in a border state, in other words, an example, perhaps, of the kind of tactic that Sarah Monks discusses in her essay in this grouping. In contemplating whaling pictures on the one hand, and the story of Grant on the other, how are we to balance the ethical complexities of survival, skill, and slaughter?


  1. Eleanor Hughes, ed. Spreading Canvas: Eighteenth-Century British Marine Painting (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2016).

  2. Joseph Roach, Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), xi, 4, cited in Jason Edwards, ‘Turner’s Dark Veganism’, essay in this grouping.

  3. Edwards, ‘Turner’s Day Veganism’, x.

  4. The Baltimore monument was a copy of the original, cast in 1871, which was located outside the Maryland State House in Annapolis until it was removed during the night of August 17, 2017.

  5. Dred Scott v. Sandford (60 U.S. 393, 407).

  6. For more, see William R. Johnston, William and Henry Walters, The Reticent Collectors (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 221.

  7. For more, see Corey M. Brooks, ‘Sculpting Memories of the Slavery Conflict: Commemorating Roger Taney in Washington, D.C., Annapolis, and Baltimore, 1864-1997’, Maryland Historical Magazine 112. 1 (Spring/Summer 2017).

  8. http://baltimoreplanning.wixsite.com/monumentcommission Date of access: November 17, 2017.

  9. While the Taney monument was dedicated in 1887, five further Confederate monuments (three of them on private property and not under review by the commission) were erected between 1902 and 1917, and the Lee-Jackson in 1948. The Baltimore monuments thus reflect a national pattern: the majority were erected decades after the end of the Civil war in 1865, during the period ‘in which states were enacting Jim Crow laws to disenfranchise the newly freed African Americans and re-segregate society’. Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2016), 9. Accessible at https://www.splcenter.org/sites/default/files/whoseheritage_splc.pdf

  10. For example, Kirk Savage, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997); Kirk Savage, ed. The Civil War in Art and Memory (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2016).

  11. Marc Fisher, ‘Why those Confederate Soldier Statues Look A Lot Like Their Union Counterparts’, Washington Post (August 18 2017).

  12. The Sun (November 14 1887), 5.

  13. John Hanson Thomas to Annie Campbell Gordon Thomas, December 1 1861, Maryland Historical Society, Letter #28.

  14. Sybby Grant to John Hanson Thomas, December 6 1861,The Walters Art Museum, 15.34.1.

  15. Annie Campbell Gordon Thomas to John Hanson Thomas, December 7 1861, Maryland Historical Society, Letter #42.

  16. John Hanson Thomas to Annie Campbell Gordon Thomas, December 24 1861. Maryland Historical Society, Letter #39. The spelling of Grant’s forename in this essay follows her signature. I am deeply grateful to Joanna Gohmann, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow at the Walters, for her work in locating this correspondence and her related research on One West Mount Vernon Place.

  17. Thomas Family Recipe Books, Ms2013-030, Special Collections, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA.

  18. www.nearestgreen.com