Anti Fashion

statue of George Washington Houdon

"The heresy of one age becomes the orthodoxy of the next."
Helen Keller

Sometimes you just have to make a break from convention. The other day I was reading an account of how Europe's top sculptor in the 18th Century was commissioned to make a life sized marble statue of the American War of Independence - George Washington. The general who became America's first president of the new republic.

Houdon travelled to America from France, leaving behind royal commissions from France and Russia to model Washington from life in terracotta and plaster. It was a high profile gig. After all the upstart American rebels had just defeated one of the world's superpowers of the day. European royalty would have to wait.

It is interesting to read the correspondence of the day between Thomas Jefferson and Washington about whether the statue should be completed with Washington in modern dress or dressed in a Roman style. Houdon preferred the fashion of the day - which, ironically was wasn't the fashion of the day. The sculptor wanted to portray the great man in a senatorial style. He imagined the subject as if he was the Roman consul Cincinatus - the protector of agriculture and, like Washington himself a military comander who became a peacetime leader.

The sculptor said:"every person of taste in Europe would be for the Roman, the effect of which undoubtedly of a different order. Our boots and regimentals have a very puny effect."

In the end Washington himself expressed a veto. Plain costume of the day it was. The result, hardly startling to us today was one of the most admired works of its time and expressed the American verison of Liberty, Fratenity and Equality. I think Washington's intuition was correct and influential.

It is the sort of conversation I think would never happen today. I remember when Peter Blake fell in a random act of piracy in South America, and more recently Ed Hilary of well lived old age, the discussions about how these iconic New Zealanders should be commemorated. Their families, reading and reflecting the mood of the rest of us, preferred to avoid bombast and unnecessary exaggeration. It is a kiwi trait I admire.

Sir Ed Hilary portrait


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