There is a relationship between the portrait reliefs of Ensign Charles Emerson Hovey (1885-1911) and Etheldreda Downing Hovey Klyce (1880-1917) both by family and by date. William W. Howells, the grandson of the celebrated novelist and editor, William Dean Howells, a good friend of Mark Twain, was married to Muriel Gurdon Seabury who was the daughter of the Portsmouth Rector Henry Emerson Hovey. Etheldreda and Charles were her aunt and uncle. Both reliefs were created in 1917-1918. Etheldreda had died in 1913 and Charles in 1911.
The Howells had bought a summer home in 1902 on the Piscataqua River in Kittery Point, Maine. The property was across the water from New Castle Island off the coast of Portsmouth and near the Isles of Shoals, both havens for the literati and artists of the Boston Brahmin social network. The Howells were benefactors of Portsmouth, NH. Muriel was very involved with Portsmouth’s historic Strawberry Banke and later with Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. “Muriel Howells fought her first battle for historic preservation in Portsmouth by relocating a fountain, dedicated to her uncle Charles Emerson Hovey, from a downtown location to here at Prescott Park.” (Strawberry Banke by J.Dennis Robinson, 2007, p. 198 and Portsmouth News, 6 Sept 1986)
Ensign Hovey was a war hero, born in Portsmouth and killed in the Philippines in 1911. He is portrayed proudly by his family in his dress uniform with two accompanying lettered commemorative plaques, all by F.W.Allen, whose signature appears at the bottom right corner of the portrait with the date it was made, “fecit 1918.” The dignified portrayal is on an uplifting fountain dedicated to him at the entrance to busy Prescott Park on the river where there are many tourists and residents to appreciate his sacrifice.
How the family came to hire Frederick Allen is unknown, but according to Muriel’s son Dean, by 1918 he was well known in art circles in Boston, New Castle, and North Haven, ME for creating accurate likenesses in a style like Augustus St. Gaudens and Bela Pratt. For that reason he would have been sought after for his work. Pratt had died in 1917, so the next best choice would have been Allen. One reviewer in a news article (date and publication unclear) says, “In refinement and closeness of characterization it is much in the same class with this artist’s very remarkable portrait in the present guild exhibition.” If this references the relief in the opening show of the Guild of Boston Artists, then the relief is that of Caleb Arnold Slade. (Also note that the reviewer published his name incorrectly. The subject is Charles Emerson Hovey, not Clarence F. Hovey.)
St. Gaudens was an innovator in the difficult art of the bas relief. It is clear that Allen studied his work carefully and used many of his techniques. With inspiration from St. Gaudens and Pratt combined with his own outstanding technical skill and innate aesthetic sense, Allen produced many wonderful portrait reliefs.
The memorial to Ensign Hovey in his Navy dress uniform is dignified as befits a hero. Allen believed it was important in times of war and remembering war casualties, to be uplifting. The setting in the park (moved here in 1980) overlooking the water of the Piscataqua River in Portsmouth and the historic gundalow cargo vessel beyond at the dock on the right highlights the history of the city as well as its hero. The Hovey Fountain with water spurting upward from the fish in the hand of a young man in his prime boosts the spirit.
An image from a newspaper article in the Archives of American Art (perhaps the original clay) shows more of the body in uniform and more width at the shoulders giving the illusion of looking up to him rather than directly at him. There are other subtle differences in the two faces. The bronze on the fountain is cut shorter at the bottom and narrower at the shoulders. There were two copies made, so the photo from 1918 may be one of the second bronze or more likely the original in clay.
Lively surface activity characterized St. Gaudens’ work and here you see Allen’s use of that aesthetic here not only in the groundwork behind the head, but also in the tactile quality of the coat and the details of the hair above his ear. Contrasting with the textural elements, the smoothness of the skin, which lifts his face out of the dark background into the light, gives the relief “color” and brightness.
St. Gaudens said “Remember that your background is your atmosphere, and part of the composition, and that the composition should extend from edge to edge of the frame.” (The Reminiscences of Augustus Saint-Gaudens (Vol.2) by Homer St.Gaudens, 1913) Compositionally, note here the technique of the horizontally tooled striations above the shoulders that extend out to the squared edge of the frame repeated in the vertical striations in the braid on his uniform. The technique suggests the brush strokes of a painting. The painter John La Farge encouraged his friend St. Gaudens to treat a bas-relief like a painting in clay. Note that the shoulders are a different texture from that of the ground surface layer and extend out beyond the side edges as if there were no boundaries to contain them. Bringing the body out beyond the frame brings the subject out to the viewer and the viewer into the art.
The anchor pins at the collar make a statement about Hovey’s status as well as his character. It is a detail without words that has a psychological impact. Here was a hero to be honored for his naval service to his country and to his seaside City of Portsmouth.
The lettering on the two plaques on either side of the fountain reads, “Ensign Hovey was graduated from the U. S. Naval Academy 1907 and ordered to the Philippines 1910. He was commanding a detachment of men from the U.S.S. ”Pampanga” in pursuit of outlaw Moros in the island of Basilan when his party was ambushed and he himself mortally wounded.” The second reads, “In memory of Charles Emerson Hovey Ensign, United States Navy Born in this city January 10, 1885 Killed in action Philippine Islands September 24, 1911 — Son of Reverend Henry Emerson Hovey and Louise Folsom Hovey”
Dimensions: 10 1/4″ W x 10″ H (three coordinated fountain plaques). Size of second portrait unknown.
Medium/Technique: portrait relief, two copies cast in bronze, dark patina. Two lettered plaques cast in bronze.
Signed bottom right corner F.W. Allen dated “fecit 1918”
Location: on the low brick wall of the fountain at the entrance to Prescott Park, Portsmouth, NH. The second is in a private collection. One recorded as sold for $100.
Publications: Portsmouth News, 6 Sep 1989