Researching the history of the Form plaques is a fascinating process, and the archives at SPS has yielded some interesting artifacts. Among these materials are a few of the original concept sketches for the Form plaques, this one from the 1861 plaque described in this earlier post.
These concept sketches, among some of the original letters written in 1922 between the first Form plaque carver, John Gregory Wiggins, and the Rector at that time, Samuel S. Drury, illustrate a surprising detail of the early plans for the project. This excerpt from the October 11th letter by Wiggins describes part of his vision for the project:
. . . that when the line of head panels have strung out to a sufficient extent the molding around them, and the panels themselves, are to be picked out in color. I feel sure that this will give a bully “band of color” eventually, though if it were done before a large portion of the room were paneled, it would look very queer and startling. That is the reason I am against putting in any color as yet.
Drury’s response in his November 16th letter supports this plan:
Personally, as you know, I like a bit of color or gilt in these decorations. I think that the effect of a long row of decorations, heavily carved, without some lighting up is apt to be like monastic choir stalls, rather dusty.
And in the November 30th edition of the Horae Scholasticae from that same year Wiggins reinforces that plan in print:
The primary object of these panels is to designate the Forms whose names are carved in the panels below. The carving around the numerals is of distinctly minor importance and its purpose is to frame the Form numbers, and eventually to form a band of color and carving running around the entire length of the wainscoting.
Anyone who has seen the original plaques that are in place in the Upper Dining Hall will find this a little surprising because there isn’t even a hint of color on any of the plaques displayed there. The entire group of plaques are stained with a dark oak wood stain matching the rest of the woodwork and paneling of the room, which would appear to be the opposite of Wiggins original intent. It will be interesting to see if the reason for this change of plan emerges with further research.
John Gregory Wiggins was able to express his vision of color for the plaques eventually. The hallway leading to the Upper Dining Hall displays the last series of plaques he carved, ending in 1953. The next time you are heading to the dining hall for a meal, take a moment to look at these painted plaques and then imagine what that “bully band of color” would have looked like if Wiggins had been able to paint those plaques as he had originally planned.