According to Jonathan Bayley, Hiram Powers (1805-1873), the most famous American sculptor of the nineteenth century, “spoke of his great wish to do a statue of Swedenborg, which he wanted to make somewhat worthy of its subject. At different times of his life he returned to this idea, but something occurred again and again causing it to be deferred.
“Fully aware of his father’s wishes and ideas, at last this wish was carried out by Mr. Preston Powers, so far as the beautiful and noble bust is concerned, which now stands in the Swedenborg Society’s large room” (Jonathan Bayley, New Church Worthies or Early but Little-known Disciples of the Lord in Diffusing the Truths of the New Church, 1884).
In 1865, Dr. John Spurgin, President of The Swedenborg Society, London, had written to Hiram Powers to see if he would be interested in executing a statue of Swedenborg. The Society had proposed the idea of having a statue of Swedenborg placed in some prominent place in order to increase public awareness of his name, and encourage further investigation into his works. In response to Spurgin’s letter, Powers expressed his willingness to undertake the project, indicating that it would take him about two years to complete. The letter has further importance because Powers states in no uncertain terms that he considers himself to be a New Churchman (Intellectual Repository, November 1865. In New Church Life 1941, 227-228). The plan was never carried out, for reasons unknown, but Hiram’s son, Preston, did finally execute a marble bust of Swedenborg in 1879.
Preston Powers was born in Florence in 1843, and trained under his father for six years. He spent his sculpting career in both Florence and America. In addition to sculpting a number of statesmen, he produced a well-known piece for Colorado titled “Closing Era.” This bronze statue, which was exhibited at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, depicts an American Indian leaning over a dying bison. Upon its return from Chicago it was placed on the east lawn of the State Capital building in Denver, where it remains to this day.
As for Preston Powers’ bust of Swedenborg, the editors of NewChurchHistory.org do not know who commissioned the sculpture, or what images of Swedenborg Powers might have drawn upon for inspiration. More than one bust was made. The Swedenborg Society’s bust mentioned by Jonathan Bayley in 1884 (see quote above) is still in the Society’s possession and on display in their London building (see photo, top). Another bust was purchased in 1880 by a Cincinnati New Church congregation, currently known as the New Church of Montgomery (Ohio). Another one was owned by a Boston New Church group (see photo, above) and was loaned for many years to the Massachusetts New Church Union. A reader of New Church Life wrote to the journal in 1941 and informed the editor that the pedestal of the Boston bust had the following engraving: “P. Powers, Sculp. 1879, Copyright.”
Any additional information our readers may have concerning these three busts, or others that might exist, would be greatly appreciated and may be sent to the editors at the email address below.
The editors of NewChurchHistory.org would like to thank the following individuals for their assistance with this Fun Fact: Richard Lines, Stephen McNeilly, and Stephen Morley.
Photos: The color photograph of The Swedenborg Society bust was taken by Stephen McNeilly. The black and white photograph of the Boston bust is in the collection of the Glencairn Museum Archives, Bryn Athyn, PA. On the back is written the following: “3/9/23, Bust of Swedenborg by Preston Powers son of Hiram Powers, Marble replica Swedenborg Society Boston, 2/12/23.”
Questions and comments may be addressed to the editors at [email protected].