In a back corner of the Grolier Club’s library, a curly-bearded gentleman carved in creamy marble is perched atop a bookcase. This little noticed object, recent research has revealed, resulted from a meeting of Victorian global influencers. The portrait sitter revolutionized journalism, and the sculptor brought Australian art into the international limelight. The artifact’s back-story also connects improbably with catastrophic wilderness expeditions, Bronx swineherds, gold miners’ greed, and changing tastes in menswear.
Two rows of busts, with a headcount of four each, crown the clubhouse library’s bookcases. They reinforce the room’s resemblance to “the English university libraries,” the 1921 issue of the club’s Transactions explained. A wooden Shakespeare and a bronze Benjamin Franklin are interspersed with marble likenesses of the Italian Renaissance writers Ludovico Ariosto, Torquato Tasso, and Petrarch. Bronze portraits of two early club presidents, the printer and scholar Theodore Low De Vinne and the art dealer and Whistler expert Edward G. Kennedy, were cast around 1910 by prominent sculptors. De Vinne wore his signature velvet beret to pose for Chester Beach, and Kennedy’s bust by John Flanagan ranks as a rare image of a hatless, beardless fellow in the club’s art collection. The mysterious marble bearded gentleman has been identified as the New York printing tycoon Richard March Hoe (1812-1886). The sculptor, Charles Summers (1825-1878), signed the work and dated it 1872. Hoe may have been the only American who posed for Summers, a self-made Brit who made waves as he shuttled between continents.
Hoe was 20 years old when he—the oldest of three brothers in a clan of at least eight siblings—inherited his British-born father Robert’s printing company in lower Manhattan. In partnership with family members, Richard expanded R. Hoe & Co. into an industry powerhouse. He patented ever faster multi-cylinder presses, which enabled publishers to feed and stoke the public’s appetite for fresh news. Newspapermen of all political stances, and varied tolerances for shades of yellow journalism, sped up their print runs with the latest Hoe machines. His equipment “turns out the perfect newspaper,” trimmed and folded, The New York Times declared.
Known as Colonel Hoe (although it is not clear whether he served in the military), he created a sprawling family estate in the Bronx—modern-day Hoe Avenue and Aldus Street commemorate the printer’s presence. His first wife Lucy had died young, leaving him with two daughters, and his second wife Mary raised them while bearing four more daughters. The colonel imported prizewinning swine and cattle from Britain to the Bronx, and he acquired books by the thousands, focused on the history of printing. He joined the Grolier Club in 1884, when his nephew Robert Hoe became its first president. The Hoes vacationed often in Europe, and at some point in 1872, the colonel stopped by Summers’ studio in Rome crowded with work in progress.
Summers, like Hoe, was an oldest son (with at least six siblings) who supported his family from an early age. His ailing mother Ruth relied on him while his father George, a Somersetshire stonemason and candlemaker, traveled to seek work in hard times. Charles, while eking out a living paving streets and carving gateposts, caught the attention of London sculptors working on commissions including statues of noblemen for university campuses. By his mid-20s, Summers had enrolled at the Royal Academy in London and learned to sculpt busts, reliefs, and classical tableaus. As he received gold and silver medals for classwork, his more privileged classmates cheered on “the unassuming student from the country,” according to an 1879 biography by the artist and writer Margaret Thomas.
Summers soon set up his own London studio, creating portraits of relatives as well as politicians and other luminaries. In summer 1851, while his statue of a boy playing with a seashell was on view at London’s Crystal Palace exhibition, he married a Frenchwoman, Augustine Amiot (1822-1880). She had worked as a servant for a baronet, Sir William Molesworth, whose wife was a singer née Andalusia Carstairs. Summers overworked himself to the point of exhaustion, Thomas writes, and a physician warned, “the only means of preserving his life was a sea voyage.”
His widowered father and most of his siblings joined Charles and Augustine as they uprooted to Melbourne, Australia. Newly minted miners there were flaunting gold slabs. Charles and his brothers Eli and Albert headed to mines in central Victoria (Augustine apparently remained in town), digging at a claim called Poverty Reef. It yielded comfortable fortunes for Eli and Albert, while Charles returned to Melbourne to pursue his sculpture career. Local politicians and nouveaux riches were commissioning stone architectural elements and monuments. One goal was to show that culture had reached Melbourne’s shores—“that the pursuit of wealth is no longer considered the only object of colonial life that is worth pursuing,” as one newspaper observed.
Summers, a Royal Academy alum, became a very large fish in this pond. (He and Augustine had one child, Charles Francis Summers, whose likeness appears in some of his father’s sculptures.) His surviving Australian works include a fountain’s bearded river god; a bank façade’s festoons; and Parliament’s allegorical ceiling reliefs. Lesser artists widely copied his parapet sculptures for an insurance company, representing trustworthiness and plenty. For elite patrons’ busts, Summers could make a clay model in a few hours and chisel marble contours of the most outlandish beards. He also molded eerily realistic waxworks figures, electro-formed medals, and worked on a gold hilt figure symbolizing liberated Italy for a sword presented to Garibaldi. His studio not far from Parliament was used for exhibitions and art associations’ meetings, attracting colonists who “loved art in any way,” Thomas writes (she took classes there). He proposed a Shakespeare statue (foreshadowing his Hoe bust’s companion at the Grolier Club) for Melbourne’s library and carved a bust of the Shakespearean actor Gustavus Vaughn Brooke.
In late 1861, soon after bushland search parties found the starved corpses of the cross-continental explorers Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills, the government commissioned a memorial monument. Summers modeled figures of Burke standing alongside Wills seated and holding a spyglass. Crowds of dignitaries watched Summers fabricate the bronzes (using locally mined ores), pouring tons of spattering molten metal into explorer-shaped molds. The monument’s granite pedestal is trimmed in bronze castings of Australian flora. Bas reliefs depict expedition scenes, from the Melburnians’ departure on camels amid fanfare to their deathbeds tended by kindly aboriginals. Summers spent weeks sketching aboriginals, studying “details as might render the work perfect,” Thomas writes.
By spring of 1867, while his busts of aboriginals were shown at Paris’s Exposition Universelle, Summers decided to try his luck in Europe. He set up a studio in Rome, on a byway near the Villa Borghese, and taught his son the trade. American expat neighbors included the artists Edmonia Lewis, Elihu Vedder, William Wetmore Story, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Tourists and potential customers stopped by, even as Italian independence battles broke out. Summers became known for, among other skills, rendering clothing as graceful, unobtrusive drapery. The Grolier’s Hoe bust, typifying Summers’ work, has meticulous facial details but only a suggestion of a toga around the neck—“void of buttons and shirt-collars,” as Summers described his preferences in an 1869 speech. Australian journalists exulted over his successes as he kept traveling to England, bringing home “a pocket-book full of commissions,” Melbourne’s The Age noted in 1872.
In mid-March 1878, an Age correspondent visited the Rome workshop. Colossal marble statues were in progress for Melbourne’s library: Queen Victoria, her husband Albert, her heir apparent Edward, and her daughter-in-law Alexandra. The Age praised the seated figures’ “exceedingly rich and beautiful” clothing, with no sign of “uninteresting detail.” Statues of doomed lovers (Samson and Delilah, the Greek deities Lynceus and Hypermnestra that had appeared at Philadelphia’s 1876 centennial exhibition) were juxtaposed with statues of children playing with pets. The writer listed funerary monuments on hand as well and busts of living celebrities such as Prince Alfred, the Queen’s second son, and “Colonel Hoe, an American inventor.”
Summers was busy but in poor health—he suffered from a goiter, attributed to drinking magnesia-laced waters from Roman aqueducts. That fall, en route to London for medical care (he planned to head from there to install the royal quartet in Melbourne), he stopped in Paris. Found unconscious at his hotel, he died after an emergency tracheal operation. He is buried in a Protestant cemetery in Rome, alongside Augustine and a baby grandson and not far from Vedder, Story, John Keats, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. (Charles Francis Summers, after selling some workshop inventory, kept the business going for decades—and then returned to Australia, where among other pursuits he quarried marble, served as a librarian, and tried to establish an art school.)
It is not clear when Summers’ Hoe portrait was shipped to New York. In 1886, during a family trip to Italy, the colonel suffered sudden fatal heart failure. His library was auctioned a year later. In 1890, his brother Peter donated the bust to the New York Typothetae, a master printers’ organization. Perhaps the colonel’s nephew Robert Hoe, who died in 1909, later retrieved it for the clubhouse. It appears in a 1918 photo of the then-new building on 60th Street, on an eye-level pedestal at the back of the library. The colonel’s grandson Richard Hoe Lawrence, the Grolier Club’s president from 1906 to 1908, gave permission by 1922 for its shoulders to be trimmed back into a squared-off pier capital form. Later images of the room muddy the waters about when the colonel’s likeness was hoisted onto which bookcase, but I risk digressing into granularity here.
After the Covid-19 lockdown, I will pore through Hoe records at Columbia and New York Public Library for insights into the bust’s wanderings. (Around 1970, the company went bankrupt, and part of its archive was rescued from its crumbling Bronx factory.) I will make pilgrimages to one of his former Manhattan facilities, at 165-171 Grand Street; a Bronx mansion built for his brother Peter, at 812 Faile Street; and Printers Park, near Richard Hoe’s vanished French Second Empire mansion, where a new playground structure’s undulating roof is modeled after printing press cylinders in action.
Summers’ trail is now being avidly traced by British and Australian historians. In the mid-20th-century, as neoclassical sculpture was widely despised, institutions offloaded and scattered dozens of works by Charles and his son. (Queen Victoria and her husband remain together in Melbourne, but their son and daughter-in-law are alone and separated from each other by more than 100 miles. Burke and Wills have been moved many times and are currently in storage.) Jennie Maggs, a Summers descendant in Australia, has been researching family history and tracking artworks. She had wondered where the bust of “Colonel Hoe” mentioned in the 1878 newspaper article might be, she told me by email. She added that she owns part of Charles Francis Summers’ extensive library, including books on sculpture, architecture, Freemasonry, Greek mythology, and Rome: “I think he would have loved the Grolier!”
I look forward to reporting on further discoveries about how two now-underappreciated innovators from opposite ends of the earth spent some productive hours together amid marble dust in Rome.
By Eve M. Kahn, Council member (email@example.com)
*This post has been updated May 8
Emails with Jennie Maggs, tireless researcher and Summers descendant.
Transactions of the Grolier Club, Part IV, 1921, 64.
“Richard March Hoe,” The New York Times, June 9, 1886, 5.
Richard M. Hoe, The Literature of Printing (London: Chiswick Press, 1877).
Margaret Thomas, A Hero of the Workshop and a Somersetshire Worthy, Charles Summers, Sculptor (London: Hamilton, Adams & Co., 1879). Thomas painted and sculpted portraits of Summers, which Australian scholar Elena Taylor has recently analyzed.
Scholarly website beforefelton.com.