Monday, 14 May 2012

How Are the Mighty Fallen

                         I would bet £10 that you couldn’t name the richest, most famous painter of the mid-19th century. And another £10 that you haven’t seen any of his works. Let’s return to panoramas, which I touched on here

When Daniel Banvard, a building contractor from New York, suffered a stroke, his ‘indiscrete’ business partner ran off with the company assets. Daniel died shortly afterwards, leaving his family bankrupt and homeless. His fifteen-year-old son, John, left for Kentucky, finding work where he could and barely surviving. He painted scenery for a travelling theatre company on a showboat, sold some panoramic paintings and got by as an itinerant dry-goods trader. John worked his way to the Mississippi river, where he invested what little money he had on a small skiff and began his ambition to paint a grand panorama of the river. Over the next two years he worked on his painting and hawked whatever would sell up and down the river to fund himself. He devised, and patented, a tracked system of grommets that kept his painting from sagging, and eventually, in June 1846, he was ready to display his magnificent, completed panorama. He rented a hall in Louisville, advertised in the local newspaper, and prepared his entertainment. On his opening night, no one came.

John Banvard

 Banvard handed out free tickets to the river-boat crews, on the understanding that they recommended his performance to their passengers. Slowly, word began to spread and audiences began to swell. He added more sections to the painting and embellished his narrative, telling tall tales of brigands, shipwrecks and pirates, extending the whole show to over two hours. The fifty cents per head entry money began to pour in, and John moved his ‘Three Mile Painting’ to the big city, opening in Boston’s Armory Hall with creative lighting, piano accompaniment and a hidden crank mechanism. It was an immediate success. In the next few months over a quarter of a million people came to the performance, including state representatives, politicians and Boston’s intellectual elite. Banvard wrote a book and published sheet music of his Mississippi waltzes, adding to his fortune. 

Title Page of Banvard's Panorama

With over $100,000 in profits, the show moved on to New York and greater acclaim and riches. In 1848, Banvard headed for Europe, travelling across England before opening at London’s Egyptian Hall. In the next twenty months over 600,000 people saw the ‘Three Mile Painting’, including a command performance at Windsor Castle for Queen Victoria and her court. Banvard went back to the studio, painted another version of the Mississippi, contracted out his London show, and went on tour with his new painting. In 1852, he returned to America, with an enormous fortune. He bought a 60-acre plot on Long Island and began to build a replica of Windsor Castle there, which he called Glenada, after his daughter Ada, and which locals called ‘Banvard’s Folly’. 

Press Testimonials of Banvard's Panorama

The castle housed Banvard’s growing collection of antiquities and curiosities, and Banvard used his phenomenal wealth to build a museum in Manhattan, a colossal forty-thousand-square-foot building, in direct competition to P T Barnham’s nearby museum. Unfortunately, Banvard did not register his business or stocks with New York state, and the share certificates he issued to pay contractors and investors were worthless. Barnham was far too shrewd a showman for Banvard to cross, and he out-did Banvard at every turn. In a mere ten weeks Banvard’s museum was forced to close – he tried to reopen it as an opera house, but the damage had been done. Banvard had outstretched himself, his attempts with plays, concerts and entertainments all failed, and his quickly-made millions began to disappear just as quickly. His reputation had been irreparably damaged with the share certificate debacle, no one would invest or back his ventures, and pursued by creditors, Banvard descended into penury. He tried to write his way out of his difficulties, but when his works were exposed as plagarism his reputation fell further. He moved to Watertown, now in South Dakota, lodging with his wife in his son’s back room. He tried again with panoramas, but the novelty of them had passed, and the frontier towns did not have sufficient population to justify showing them. The richest, most famous artist of the mid-19th century died penniless in 1891. His works were lost – some in shipwrecks and fires, some cut into sections for theatrical backdrops, which eventually wore out through constant touring, and some, it is rumoured, shredded for insulation in the walls of Watertown’s buildings. A few small panels remain, in minor American galleries, but that is all.

Banvard’s story features in Paul Collin’s wonderful book Banvard’s Folly. A recommended read.

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