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An array of famous Americans at London's National Portrait Gallery gives a memorable insight into the lives of the men and women who shaped the political and cultural destiny of a nation. (Delight).

In 1886, the English painter Sir Hubert von Herkomer painted a portrait of H. H. Richardson, the most admired American architect of his day. Boston Trinity Church, completed just under 10 years earlier, was a key building in the Romanesque revival for which Richardson had become justly famous. Completed in nine hours over three sittings, Herkomer's portrait depicts an expansive, genial figure at the height of his powers with a prominent Toby Belch-like girth. Herkomer noted in his diary that Richardson was 'as solid in his friendship as in his figure. Big-brained, big-hearted, large-minded; full-brained, loving as he is pugnacious'. In payment for the picture, Richardson drew up designs for a house for the artist that was subsequently built in the 1890s.

Herkomer's portrait of Richardson is just one of a recent exhibition of 70 paintings and 58 photographs depicting famous Americans who have shaped the nation's history. Drawn from the archives of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, the collection is currently on show at its sister institution, London's National Portrait Gallery. Sitters range from statesmen to strippers (Benjamin Franklin to Gypsy Rose Lee), with in-between, a wealth of writers, inventors, musicians, outlaws, patrons, philosophers, clergymen, entertainers, soldiers, inventors, artists, scientists and, of course, architects. Apart from the jovial H. H. Richardson there is Berenice Abbott's 1950 photograph of an elderly Frank Lloyd Wright (looking rather aloof) and an atmospheric shot of Stanford White, of Mead and White, taken in 1903 by Gertrude Kasebier, one of the first female photographers and a founding member of Alfred Stieglitz's Photo-Secession whose members sought to elevate photography to the highest form of art.

Some faces and poses are familiar -- Hemingway out hunting pheasant, Pollock splattering a canvas, Peggy Guggenheim preening in a sumptuous Poiret gown (and turban designed by Stravinsky's wife), George Washington looking stern and statesmanlike, an image repeated on a squillion dollar bills. Some are less well known, such as Anne Green, the eighteenth-century publisher of the Marylond Gazette (one of the very few women in the trade in colonial America) and Sequoyah, a Cherokee, who invented a Cherokee alphabet so that his people could learn to read and write; he also gave his name to the giant redwood tree. One of the most intriguing pictures is a tableau entitled 'Men of Progress', featuring, as a description of the time ran, 'the most distinguished inventors of this country, whose improvements have changed the aspect of modern society and caused the present age to be designated as an age of progress'. Artist Christian Schussele's 1862 line up includes James Bogardus (cast iron frames), Samuel Morse (electr ic telegraph), Elias Howe (sewing machine), Charles Goodyear (vulcanization of rubber) and Joseph Saxton (hydrometer and a perpetually-pointed pencil). From frontier pioneers to avant-garde artists, these are the men and women who made America, giving shape to the ideals and identity of a mighty yet still formative nation.
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Author:Slessor, Catherine
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Nov 1, 2002
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