Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The Sculpture of Lee Lawrie, 1877-1963

I was recently delighted to hear from a reader, Gregory Paul Harm, who brought to my notice the work of Lee Lawrie, a sculptor who died in 1963, a pioneer of the art deco style in the US. This style, which I imagine many will be familiar with, is a 20th-century incarnation of neoclassical sculpture, also influenced by Egyptian art. In this sense, it similar in inspiration to the Beuronese art of the 19th century. I can find no direct connection between the two styles, but wonder if the painting in some way inspired the later sculptors. The article Mr Harm refers to about the architect Ralph Adams Cram is here. (Lee Lawrie, incidentally, should not be confused with the writer of Cider With Rosie, Laurie Lee!)

Lawrie seems to have been able to create works in a more conventional neo-classical style, as well as work for neo-Gothic Episcopalian churches. Here, for example, is his reredos at St Thomas Church in Manhattan, also designed by Cram.

Mr Harm writes: I read an older post you had on the Nashua, New Hampshire, Library done by Cram. Cram was partners with Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue and another architect named Ferguson.

A German-American immigrant named Hugo Belling was raised in Chicago, and eventually changed his name to Lee Lawrie, sometime in his youth.

Lawrie worked with Goodhue from 1895 until 1924, when Goodhue died suddenly of heart failure at age 54. Lawrie went on working as an architectural sculptor for other architects and independently, up until his death at age 85, in 1963.

Lawrie created a great deal of sacred art. He created at least 2 angels at St John the Divine, in which Cram was involved, but also all of Goodhue’s churches in New York City and across the nation. They worked on more than a hundred buildings together, including many opulent homes and many commercial and military buildings. These include buildings at West Point, and in Manhattan, Goodhue built St Bart’s, St Thomas Episcopal on Fifth Avenue, St Vincent Ferrer, Grace Church (of whose location I’m not sure,) the Church of the Intercession, in which he was interred in a tomb designed by Lawrie, dedicated in 1929.

I’ve written a book about Lawrie’s work at the Nebraska Capitol, which turns out to have been the largest sculptural commission in his seven-plus-decades long career as a sculptor.

By and large, Lawrie’s work served to honor God and Country. He created many war memorials, in addition to his secular work.

He taught sculpture at Yale from 1908-18, and I theorize that this influenced a major swing in his career, away from the mostly secular, to becoming one of the nation’s chief pioneers and practitioners of Moderne-styling, which we now know as Art Deco. Lawrie created the mighty Atlas at Rockefeller Center and sculpted the highly dramatic facade of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, as well as about a dozen or so more works in that area.

I have added numerous examples of Lawrie’s work to the Smithsonian Institute’s Catalog of American Painting and Sculpture, of which the Institute had no previous knowledge. (Courtesy of Gregory Paul Harm, M.A and LeeLawrie.com.)

Here are some more photos of the reredos above and then as a selection of his art deco work from the Nebraska Capitol.

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