Drowne's Wooden Image
morning, in the good old times of the town of
Boston, a young carver in wood, well known by the name of Drowne,
stood contemplating a large oaken log, which it was his purpose
to convert into the figure-head of a vessel. And while he
discussed within his own mind what sort of shape or similitude it
were well to bestow upon this excellent piece of timber, there
came into Drowne's workshop a certain Captain Hunnewell, owner
and commander of the good brig called the Cynosure, which had
just returned from her first voyage to Fayal.
will do, Drowne, that will do!" cried the
jolly captain, tapping the log with his rattan. "I bespeak
this very piece of oak for the figure-head of the Cynosure. She
has shown herself the sweetest craft that ever floated, and I
mean to decorate her prow with the handsomest image that the
skill of man can cut out of timber. And, Drowne, you are the
fellow to execute it."
me more credit than I deserve, Captain
Hunnewell," said the carver, modestly, yet as one conscious
of eminence in his art. "But, for the sake of the good
brig, I stand
ready to do my best. And which of these designs
would you prefer? Here--" pointing to a staring, half
length figure, in a white wig and scarlet coat--"here is an
excellent model, the likeness of our gracious king. Here is the
valiant Admiral Vernon. Or, if you prefer a female figure, what
say you to Britannia with the trident?"
fine, Drowne; all very fine," answered the
mariner. "But as nothing like the brig ever swam the ocean,
so I am determined she shall have such a figure-head as old
Neptune never saw in his life. And what is more, as there is a
secret in the matter, you must pledge your credit not to betray
Drowne, marvelling, however, what
possible mystery there could be in reference to an affair so
open, of necessity, to the inspection of all the world, as the
figure-head of a vessel. "You may depend, captain, on my
being as secret as the nature of the case will permit."
Captain Hunnewell then took Drowne by the button, and
communicated his wishes in so low a tone, that it would be
unmannerly to repeat what was evidently intended for the carver's
private ear. We shall, therefore, take the opportunity to give
the reader a few desirable particulars about Drowne himself.
the first American who is known to have attempted,--in a
very humble line, it is true,--that art in which we can now
reckon so many names already distinguished, or rising to
distinction. From his earliest boyhood, he had exhibited a
knack--for it would be too proud a word to call it genius--a
knack, therefore, for the imitation of the human figure, in
whatever material came most readily to hand. The snows of a New
England winter had often supplied him with a species of marble as
dazzling white, at least, as the Parian or the Carrara, and if
less durable, yet sufficiently so to correspond with any claims
to permanent existence possessed by the
boy's frozen statues.
Yet they won admiration from maturer judges than his
schoolfellows, and were, indeed, remarkably clever, though
destitute of the native warmth that might have made the snow melt
beneath his hand. As he advanced in life, the young man adopted
pine and oak as eligible materials for the display of his skill,
which now began to bring him a return of solid silver, as well as
the empty praise that had been an apt reward enough for his
productions of evanescent snow. He became noted for carving
ornamental pump-heads, and wooden urns for gate-posts, and
decorations, more grotesque than fanciful, for mantel-pieces. No
apothecary would have deemed himself in the way of obtaining
custom, without setting up a gilded mortar, if not a head of
Galen or Hippocrates, from the skilful hand of Drowne. But the
great scope of his business lay in the manufacture of
figure-heads for vessels. Whether it were the monarch himself,
or some famous British admiral or general, or the governor of the
province, or perchance the favourite daughter of the shipowner,
there the image stood above the prow, decked out in gorgeous
colours, magnificently gilded, and staring the whole world out of
countenance, as if from an innate consciousness of its own
superiority. These specimens of native sculpture had crossed the
sea in all directions, and been not ignobly noticed among the
crowded shipping of the Thames, and wherever else the hardy
mariners of New England had pushed their adventures. It must be
confessed, that a family likeness pervaded these respectable
progeny of Drowne's skill--that the benign countenance of the
king resembled those of his subjects, and that Miss Peggy Hobart,
the merchant's daughter, bore a remarkable similitude to
Britannia, Victory, and other ladies of the allegoric sisterhood;
and, finally, that they had all had a kind of wooden aspect,
which proved an intimate relationship with the unshaped blocks of
timber in the carver's workshop. But, at least, there was no
inconsiderable skill of hand, nor a deficiency of any attribute
render them really works of art, except that deep quality, be
it of soul or intellect, which bestows life upon the lifeless,
and warmth upon the cold, and which, had it been present, would
have made Drowne's wooden image instinct with spirit.
of the Cynosure had now finished his instructions.
said he, impressively, "you must lay
aside all other business, and set about this forthwith. And as
to the price, only do the job in first rate style, and you shall
settle that point yourself."
captain," answered the carver, who looked
grave and somewhat perplexed, yet had a sort of smile upon his
visage. "Depend upon it, I'll do my utmost to satisfy
morning, the men of taste about Long Wharf and the Town
Dock, who were wont to show their love for the arts by frequent
visits to Drowne's workshop, and admiration of his wooden images,
began to be sensible of a mystery in the carver's conduct. Often
he was absent in the daytime. Sometimes, as might be judged by
gleams of light from the shop windows, he was at work until a
late hour of the evening; although neither knock nor voice, on
such occasions, could gain admittance for a visitor, or elicit
any word of response. Nothing remarkable, however, was observed
in the shop at those hours when it was thrown open. A fine piece
of timber, indeed, which Drowne was known to have reserved for
some work of especial dignity, was seen to be gradually assuming
shape. What shape it was destined ultimately to take, was a
problem to his friends, and a point on which the carver preserved
a rigid silence. But day after day, though Drowne was seldom
noticed in the act of working upon it, this rude form began to be
developed, until it became evident to all observers, that a
female figure was growing into mimic life. At each new visit
they beheld a larger pile of wooden chips, and a nearer
approximation to something beautiful. It seemed as if the
hamadryad of the oak had
sheltered herself from the unimaginative
world within the heart of her native tree, and that it was only
necessary to remove the strange shapelessness that had incrusted
her, and reveal the grace and loveliness of a divinity.
Imperfect as the design, the attitude, the costume, and
especially the face of the image, still remained, there was
already an effect that drew the eye from the wooden cleverness of
Drowne's earlier productions, and fixed it upon the tantalizing
mystery of this new project.
celebrated painter, then a young man, and a resident
of Boston, came one day to visit Drowne; for he had recognized so
much of moderate ability in the carver, as to induce him, in the
dearth of any professional sympathy, to cultivate his
acquaintance. On entering the shop, the artist glanced at the
inflexible images of king, commander, dame, and allegory, that
stood around; on the best of which might have been bestowed the
questionable praise, that it looked as if a living man had here
been changed to wood, and that not only the physical, but the
intellectual and spiritual part, partook of the stolid
transformation. But in not a single instance did it seem as if
the wood vvere imbibing the ethereal essence of humanity. What a
wide distinction is here, and how far would the slightest portion
of the latter merit have outvalued the utmost degree of the
Drowne," said Copley, smiling to himself,
but alluding to the mechanical and wooden cleverness that so
invariably distinguished the images, "you are really a
remarkable person! I have seldom met with a man, in your line of
business, that could do so much; for one other touch might make
this figure of General Wolfe, for instance, a breathing and
intelligent human creature."
have me think that you are praising me highly,
Mr. Gopley," answered Drowne, turning his back upon Wolfe's
image in apparent disgust. "But there has come a
my mind. I know, what you know as well, that the one touch,
which you speak of as deficient, is the only one that would be
truly valuable, and that, without it, these works of mine are no
better than worthless abortions. There is the same difference
between them and the works of an inspired artist, as between a
sign post daub and one of your best pictures."
strange!" cried Copley, looking him in the
face, which now, as the painter fancied, had a singular depth of
intelligence, though, hitherto, it had not given him greatly the
advantage over his own family of wooden images. "What has
come over you? How is it that, possessing the idea which you
have now uttered, you should produce only such works as
smiled, but made no reply. Copley turned again to the
images, conceiving that the sense of deficiency which Drowne had
just expressed, and which is so rare in a merely mechanical
character, must surely imply a genius, the tokens of which had
heretofore been overlooked. But no; there was not a trace of it.
He was about to withdraw, when his eyes chanced to fall upon a
half-developed figure which lay in a corner of the workshop,
surrounded by scattered chips of oak. It arrested him at once.
here? Who has done this?" he broke out, after
contemplating it in speechless astonishment for an instant.
"Here is the divine, the life-giving touch! What inspired
hand is beckoning this wood to arise and live? Whose work is
work," replied Drowne. "The figure lies
within that block of oak, and it is my business to find it."
the true artist, grasping the carver
fervently by the hand, "you are a man of genius!"
As Copley departed,
happening to glance backward from the
threshold, he beheld Drowne bending over the half
and stretching forth his arms as if he would have embraced and
drawn it to his heart; while, had such a miracle been possible,
his countenance expressed passion enough to communicate warmth
and sensibility to the lifeless oak.
said the artist to himself.
"Who would have looked for a modern Pygmalion in the person
of a Yankee mechanic!"
the image was but vague in its outward presentment; so
that, as in the cloud-shapes around the western sun, the observer
rather felt, or was led to imagine, than really saw what was
intended by it. Day by day, however, the work assumed greater
precision, and settled its irregular and misty outline into
distincter grace and beauty. The general design was now obvious
to the common eye. It was a female figure, in what appeared to
be a foreign dress; the gown being laced over the bosom, and
opening in front, so as to disclose a skirt or petticoat, the
folds and inequalities of which were admirably represented in the
oaken substance. She wore a hat of singular gracefulness, and
abundantly laden with flowers, such as never grew in the rude
soil of New England, but which, with all their fanciful
luxuriance, had a natural truth that it seemed impossible for the
most fertile imagination to have attained without copying from
real prototypes. There were several little appendages to this
dress, such as a fan, a pair of ear-rings, a chain about the neck
a watch in the bosom, and a ring upon the finger, all of which
would have been deemed beneath the dignity of sculpture. They
were put on, however, with as much taste as a lovely woman might
have shown in her attire, and could therefore have shocked none
but a judgment spoiled by artistic rules.
was still imperfect; but, gradually, by a magic touch,
intelligence and sensibility brightened through the features,
with all the effect of light gleaming forth from
within the solid
oak. The face became alive. It was a beautiful, though not
precisely regular, and somewhat haughty aspect, but with a
certain piquancy about the eyes and mouth which, of all
expressions, would have seemed the most impossible to throw over
a wooden countenance. And now, so far as carving went, this
wonderful production was complete.
Copley, who had hardly missed a single
day in his visits to the carver's workshop, "if this work
were in marble, it would make you famous at once; nay, I would
almost affirm that it would make an era in the art. It is as
ideal as an antique statue, and yet as real as any lovely woman
whom one meets at a fireside or in the street. But I trust you
do not mean to desecrate this exquisite creature with paint, like
those staring kings and admirals yonder?"
her?" exclaimed Captain Hunnewell, who stood
by;--"not paint the figure-head of the Cynosure! And what
sort of a figure should I cut in a foreign port, with such an
unpainted oaken stick as this over my prow? She must, and she
shall, be painted to the life, from the topmost flower in her hat
down to the silver spangles on her slippers."
said Drowne, quietly, "I know
nothing of marble statuary, and nothing of a sculptor's rules of
art. But of this wooden image--this work of my hands--this
creature of my heart--" and here his voice faltered and
choked, in a very singular manner--"of this--of her--I may
say that I know something. A well-spring of inward wisdom gushed
within me, as I wrought upon the oak with my whole strength, and
soul, and faith! Let others do what they may with marble, and
adopt what rules they choose. If I can produce my desired effect
by painted wood, those rules are not for me, and I have a right
to disregard them."
spirit of genius!" muttered Copley to
himself. "How otherwise should this carver feel himself
entitled to transcend all rules, and make me ashamed of quoting
earnestly at Drowne, and again saw that expression of
human love which, in a spiritual sense, as the artist could not
help imagining, was the secret of the life that had been breathed
into this block of wood.
still in the same secrecy that marked all his
operations upon this mysterious image, proceeded to paint the
habiliments in their proper colours, and the countenance with
nature's red and white. When all was finished, he threw open his
workshop, and admitted the townspeople to behold what he had
done. Most persons, at their first entrance, felt impelled to
remove their hats, and pay such reverence as was due to the
richly dressed and beautiful young lady, who seemed to stand in a
corner of the room, with oaken chips and shavings scattered at
her feet. Then came a sensation of fear; as if, not being
actually human, yet so like humanity, she must therefore be
something preternatural. There was, in truth, an indefinable air
and expression that might reasonably induce the query--who and
from what sphere this daughter of the oak should be. The strange
rich flowers of Eden on her head; the complexion, so much deeper
and more brilliant than those of our native beauties; the
foreign, as it seemed, and fantastic garb, yet not too fantastic
to be worn decorously in the street; the delicately wrought
embroidery of the skirt; the broad gold chain about her neck; the
curious ring upon her finger; the fan, so exquisitely sculptured
in open work, and painted to resemble pearl and ebony;--where
could Drowne, in his sober walk of life, have beheld the vision
here so matchlessly embodied! And then her face! In the dark
eyes, and around the voluptuous mouth, there played a look made
up of pride, coquetry, and a gleam of mirthfulness, which
impressed Copley with the idea that the image was secretly
enjoying the perplexed admiration of himself and all other
you," said he to the carver, "permit
this masterpiece to become the figure-head of a vessel? Give the
captain yonder figure of Britannia--it will answer his
purpose far better,--and send this fairy queen to England, where,
for aught I know, it may bring you a thousand pounds."
not wrought it for money," said Drowne.
of a fellow is this!" thought Copley.
"A Yankee, and throw away the chance of making his fortune!
He has gone mad; and thence has come this gleam of genius."
still further proof of Drowne's lunacy, if credit were
due to the rumour that he had been seen kneeling at the feet of
the oaken lady, and gazing with a lover's passionate ardour into
the face that his own hands had created. The bigots of the day
hinted that it would be no matter of surprise if an evil spirit
were allowed to enter this beautiful form, and seduce the carver
of the image spread far and wide. The inhabitants
visited it so universally, that, after a few days of exhibition,
there was hardly an old man or a child who had not become
minutely familiar with its aspect. Even had the story of
Drowne's wooden image ended here, its celebrity might have been
prolonged for many years, by the reminiscences of those who
looked upon it in their childhood, and saw nothing else so
beautiful in after life. But the town was now astounded by an
event, the narrative of which has formed itself into one of the
most singular legends that are yet to be met with in the
traditionary chimney-corners of the New England metropolis, where
old men and women sit dreaming of the past, and wag their heads
at the dreamers of the present and the future.
morning, just before the departure of the Cynosure on
her second voyage to Fayal, the commander of that gallant vessel
was seen to issue from his residence in Hanover street. He was
stylishly dressed in a blue broadcloth coat, with gold lace at
the seams and button-holes, an embroidered scarlet waistcoat, a
triangular hat, with a loop and broad binding of gold, and wore a
silver-hilled hanger at his side.
But the good captain might
have been arrayed in the robes of a prince or the rags of a
beggar, without in either case attracting notice, while obscured
by such a companion as now leaned on his arm. The people in the
street started, rubbed their eyes, and either leaped aside from
their path, or stood as if transfixed to wood or marble in
see it?--do you see it?" cried one, with
tremulous eagerness. "It is the very same!"
answered another, who had arrived in town
only the night before. "What do you mean? I see only a
sea-captain in his shore-going clothes, and a young lady in a
foreign habit, with a bunch of beautiful flowers in her hat. On
my word, she is as fair and bright a damsel as my eyes have
looked on this many a day!"
same!--the very same!" repeated the other.
"Drowne's wooden image has come to life!"
a miracle indeed! Yet, illuminated by the sunshine, or
darkened by the alternate shade of the houses, and with its
garments fluttering lightly in the morning breeze, there passed
the image along the street. It was exactly and minutely the
shape, the garb, and the face, which the towns-people had so
recently thronged to see and admire. Not a rich flower upon her
head, not a single leaf, but had had its prototype in Drowne's
wooden workmanship, although now their fragile grace had become
flexible, and was shaken by every footstep that the wearer made.
The broad gold chain upon the neck was identical with the one
represented on the image, and glistened with the motion imparted
by the rise and fall of the bosom which it decorated. A real
diamond sparkled on her finger. In her right hand she bore a
pearl and ebony fan, which she flourished with a fantastic and
bewitching coquetry, that was likewise expressed in all her
movements, as well as in the style of her beauty and the attire
that so well harmonized with it. The face, with its brilliant
depth of complexion, had the same piquancy of
that was fixed upon the countenance of the image, but which was
here varied and continually shifting, yet always essentially the
same, like the sunny gleam upon a bubbling fountain. On the
whole, there was something so airy and yet so real in the figure,
and withal so perfectly did it represent Drowne's image, that
people knew not whether to suppose the magic wood etherealized
into a spirit, or warmed and softened into an actual woman.
is certain," muttered a Puritan of the old
stamp. "Drowne has sold himself to the devil; and doubtless
this gay Captain Hunnewell is a party to the bargain."
said a young man who overheard him,
"would almost consent to be the third victim, for the
liberty of saluting those lovely lips."
would I," said Copley, the painter, "for
the privilege of taking her picture."
or the apparition, whichever it might be, still
escorted by the bold captain, proceeded from Hanover street
through some of the cross-lanes that make this portion of the
town so intricate, to Ann street, thence into Dock-square, and so
downward to Drowne's shop, which stood just on the water's edge.
The crowd still followed, gathering volume as it rolled along.
Never had a modern miracle occurred in such broad daylight, nor
in the presence of such a multitude of witnesses. The airy
image, as if conscious that she was the object of the murmurs and
disturbance that swelled behind her, appeared slightly vexed and
flustered, yet still in a manner consistent with the light
vivacity and sportive mischief that were written in her
countenance. She was observed to flutter her fan with such
vehement rapidity, that the elaborate delicacy of its workmanship
gave way, and it remained broken in her hand.
Drowne's door, while the captain threw it open, the
marvellous apparition paused an instant on the threshold,
assuming the very attitude of the image, and casting over the
crowd that glance of sunny coquetry which all remembered on the
face of the oaken lady. She and her cavalier then disappeared.
the crowd, drawing a deep breath, as
with one vast pair of lungs.
looks darker, now that she has vanished,"
said some of the young men.
aged, whose recollections dated as far back as
witchtimes, shook their heads, and hinted that our forefathers
would have thought it a pious deed to burn the daughter of the
oak with fire.
be other than a bubble of the elements,"
exclaimed Copley, "I must look upon her face again!"
entered the shop; and there, in her usual corner,
stood the image, gazing at him, as it might seem, with the very
same expression of mirthful mischief that had been the farewell
look of the apparition when, but a moment before, she turned her
face towards the crowd. The carver stood beside his creation,
mending the beautiful fan, which by some accident was broken in
her hand. But there was no longer any motion in the life-like
image, nor any real woman in the workshop, nor even the
witchcraft of a sunny shadow, that might have deluded people's
eyes as it flitted along the street. Captain Hunnewell, too, had
vanished. His hoarse, sea-breezy tones, however, were audible on
the other side of a door that opened upon the water.
in the stern sheets, my lady," said the
gallant captain. "Come, bear a hand, you lubbers, and set
us on board in the turning of a minute-glass."
was heard the stroke of oars.
Copley, with a smile of intelligence,
"you have been a truly fortunate man. What painter or
statuary ever had such a subject! No wonder that she inspired a
into you, and first created the artist who afterwards
created her image."
at him with a visage that bore the traces of tears,
but from which the light of imagination and sensibility, so
recently illuminating it, had departed. He was again the
mechanical carver that he had been known to be all his lifetime.
understand what you mean, Mr. Copley," said
he, putting his hand to his brow. "This image! Can it have
been my work? Well--I have wrought it in a kind of dream; and
now that I am broad awake, I must set about finishing yonder
figure of Admiral Vernon."
he employed himself on the stolid countenance of
one of his wooden progeny, and completed it in his own mechanical
style, from which he was never known afterwards to deviate. He
followed his business industriously for many years, acquired a
competence, and, in the latter part of his life, attained to a
dignified station in the church, being remembered in records and
traditions as Deacon Drowne, the carver. One of his productions,
an Indian chief, gilded all over, stood during the better part of
a century on the cupola of the Province House, bedazzling the
eyes of those who looked upward, like an angel of the sun.
Another work of the good deacon's hand--a reduced likeness of his
friend Captain Hunnewell, holding a telescope and quadrant--may
be seen, to this day, at the corner of Broad and State streets,
serving in the useful capacity of sign to the shop of a nautical
instrument maker. We know not how to account for the inferiority
of this quaint old figure, as compared with the recorded
excellence of the Oaken Lady, unless on the supposition, that in
every human spirit there is imagination, sensibility, creative
power, genius, which, according to circumstances, may either be
developed in this world, or shrouded in
a mask of dulness until
another state of being. To our friend Drowne, there came a brief
season of excitement, kindled by love. It rendered him a genius
for that one occasion, but, quenched in disappointment, left him
again the mechanical carver in wood, without the power even of
appreciating the work that his own hands had wrought. Yet who
can doubt, that the very highest state to which a human spirit
can attain, in its loftiest aspirations, is its truest and most
natural state, and that Drowne was more consistent with himself
when he wrought the admirable figure of the mysterious lady, than
when he perpetrated a whole progeny of blockheads?
a rumor in Boston, about this period, that a young
Portuguese lady of rank, on some occasion of political or
domestic disquietude, had fled from her home in Fayal, and put
herself under the protection of Captain Hunnewell, on board of
whose vessel, and at whose residence, she was sheltered until a
change of affairs. This fair stranger must have been the
original of Drowne's Wooden Image.
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