Friday, March 7, 2014

I spy a patriot: the art and espionage of Patience Lovell Wright

Keep your eyes open in the remarkable colonial community of Bordentown, and you'll find the intersection of art and patriotism. Standing directly across the street from the home of composer, poet, satirist and statesman Francis Hopkinson is the former dwelling of America's first native-born sculptor, Patience Lovell Wright. Justifiably admired for her artwork, she's also rumored to have been a spy during the Revolutionary War.

Like Hopkinson, Wright wasn't born in New Jersey, but the then-colony was important to her formative years. A few years after her 1725 birth in Oyster Bay, Long Island, her family settled near the Delaware River in a community that would later be named Bordentown. Strict Quakers, her parents adhered to a rather hard-core lifestyle, demanding that Patience and her sister Rachel wear white in public and conform to a strict vegetarian diet. Nonetheless, the girls found an outlet for their creativity by molding forms from clay they made from flour and water.

Patience is said to have been a headstrong young woman, leaving her parents' home at the age of 16 to live in Philadelphia. Several years later, she married the much older Joseph Wright and returned to Bordentown. Though she later observed that her husband had "nothing but age and money to recommend himself," the couple had four children; a fifth was born not long after Joseph's death in 1769.

Left with the family house but no other allowances from Joseph's estate to support her children, Patience turned to the craft that brought her so much pleasure as a child: sculpting. The fashionable medium of the day was wax, and with the endorsement of her neighbor Hopkinson, she soon became well known for her extraordinarily accurate, life-sized renditions of human subjects.

She and Rachel opened waxworks in New York and Philadelphia, and Patience in particular drew attention for her particularly earthy work practices. One could say that she set the standard early for the quirkier American artists to come. Given the properties of wax, the medium had to be kept warm to be pliable, an especially important detail for Patience's lifelike renditions. She'd cradle the large blocks of wax under a cloth in her lap, engaging in frank conversation with her subjects as they sat for her. When she finished sculpting a bust, she'd unveil it dramatically, as if she were giving birth to it.

Following a fire at her New York studio, Wright left the colonies for London in 1771 at the recommendation of Benjamin Franklin's sister Jane Mecom. The Franklin connection was her entre to the upper classes of English society, who were fascinated by her talent and her plain-spoken, egalitarian ways, as much as they were taken by the flattery she lavished on them. It's said that King George III and his wife Charlotte even allowed her to address them by name rather than honorific. She knew how to work her audience.

All the while, revolutionary sentiment was growing in the colonies, and Wright was an ardent supporter, even going as far as reprimanding the king for refusing to granting independence. She quickly recognized that the warm relationships she'd cultivated with members of Parliament gave her access to information her fellow patriots would find useful. Using sculpted heads and busts as cover, she sent several messages to Franklin, detailing her conjecture on which influential British leaders might be persuaded to take up the patriot cause.

Wright's candor and relentlessness seem to have backfired on her after the events of Lexington and Concord in 1775. While her egalitarian manner of relating to her patrons might have been endearing to nobles and the king in the past, her strident refusal to stop talking about the Revolution made her persona non grata in society. Left without her pipeline of sources, she became less useful as a spy, even as she reportedly pleaded with Franklin to support a British rebellion against the crown.

It's not clear how she made a living during the first years of the Revolution, but a move to Paris in 1780 was largely unsuccessful. Returning to England two years later, she continued beseeching her former patrons in America for opportunities to sculpt the Founding Fathers. Some sources say that only George Washington responded favorably, but Wright died before they could arrange a sitting.

Interestingly, the only work of Patience Lovell Wright's that survives is of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, a supporter of American independence. And despite her reported desire to be buried in her beloved United States, she rests somewhere in London. Rachel had pleaded with both Congress and her sister's former supporters in America for funding to bring her remains back; her requests went unanswered.



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