Rooster Redux

rooster_restoredI just came across a letter in the SPS archives collection about the rooster carving I repaired this spring. The letter was part of a larger collection of papers newly acquired by the archives.  It was written by carver John Gregory Wiggins to Henry Crocker Kittredge and is dated February 12th, 1939.  Kittredge was at that time the sitting Rector of SPS, following the death of Samuel Smitth Drury, Fourth Rector, and in 1947 would become the Sixth Rector of SPS. Here’s an excerpt from the letter:

Dear Henry:

I’ve just shipped off a rooster to you. The last one was broken and sent me by SSD [Samuel Smith Drury]. He’s a finial for the choir room.  I’ve left the extra base on for ease in packing. These finials were all put on the pew ends by SPS labor, and the staining was done the same way. So I guess there’ll be no trouble about that. This is a ruggeder rooster and ought to stand up to ordinary wear + tare [sp.].”

This indicates that the rooster carving that is now located in the Choir Room is not the original one carved in 1930, but the replacement carved in 1939.  It is also interesting to learn from this letter that the mounting and staining was done  by workers at the School to match the finish on the pews – it explains the sort of rough way the rooster was attached to the pew end, which likely led to the split in the base.

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Carving History

The most recent edition of the SPS Alumni magazine, the Alumni Horae, includes an in-depth article on the history of Form plaques at SPS.  Expertly written by Jana Brown, it includes information on how the tradition of the plaques began, a look at the first carver, J. Gregory Wiggins, and details of how the tradition is being carried on today.

Click the thumbnail to read the article:

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Form Plaque Online Exhibit

The Ohrstrom Library Digital Archives website is now offering an online exhibit of  photographs of Form plaques from the SPS Archives entitled:  The Form Plaques of St. Paul’s School: John Gregory Wiggins.   The exhibit is described on Ohrstrom Blog:

Eighteen images have been selected as the focus of the exhibit. Each image includes a description of the symbols employed in the plaque design and is written by the carver of the plaques, John Gregory Wiggins.  In addition to the individual entries in the exhibit you can take a quick overview of the plaques by viewing a slideshow of the images. The exhibit offers a great introduction to this School tradition, and helps to decipher some of the interesting imagery used to depict aspects of St. Paul’s School history.

There are a total of forty-two Form plaque images now on OLDA which can all be seen by clicking HERE.

A more detailed description of the history of the Form plaques and the work of John Gregory Wiggins can be found HERE.

Both of these links provide a great introduction to the types of imagery used in the early Form plaque designs, and browsing through the exhibit as well as the individual entries will be a helpful reference source for students in developing themes and design concepts for future plaque designs.

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A Bully Band of Color

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.

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Anatomy of a Form Plaque

Each of the SPS Form plaques has a particular story to tell about the history of the School. John Gregory Wiggins, who briefly taught at SPS, began carving the Form plaques in the early 1920s – carving plaques for all the previous Forms back to 1859 (the first year of graduates) and then continuing until 1953.  The styles since then have changed according to the carver, but the concept has been the same.  In the Winter 1923 edition of the  Alumni Horae it is described this way:

These Medallions are distinguished for their charm of execution and their sympathetic treatment, each one of them being connected with some  episode in the history of the school, or of the Country.

Shown above is an example of one of the early plaques carved by Wiggins.  The description below (from the same Horae article), likely written by Wiggins himself, describes the events of the year represented in the plaque:

1861—-The outbreak of the Civil War is suggested by Fort Sumter  and an old-time cannon, the sort which was raised and lowered by using wooden  wedges under the breech. The lower half of the panel shows the schoolboys drilling, and in the corners are a tragic and a comic mask to indicate the  charades which were very popular as school entertainments at the time.

All of the plaques from 1859 through 1990 (the last Form a plaque was completed for) have followed this same basic theme – incorporating symbols from the SPS microcosm with major events from U.S. and world history.  Collectively they form a visual history of the School, and the experiences of its students in the wider world.  It will be interesting to see what transpires during this school year that will add another page to this unique history.

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