The world of Poe scholarship has produced countless books, papers, and scholarly articles; but rarely has it produced a work of art. While the written works of Poe scholars like Burton Pollin (1916-2009) and Thomas Ollive Mabbott (1898-1968) have contributed greatly to our understanding of Poe’s life and work, the sculpture of Richmond schoolteacher Edith Ragland (1890-1989) has provided posterity an invaluable resource for understanding Poe’s life in Richmond. As meticulously researched as some academic papers, Ragland’s model reconstructs the city Poe knew in a way words alone cannot. That is why the model is the Poe Museum’s Object of the Month for March 2015.
According to an undated manuscript written by Poe Foundation co-founder Annie Boyd Jones (d. 1947), the sculptor Edward Valentine (1838-1930) proposed the project. Valentine studied sculpture with August Kiss in Germany before enjoying a celebrated career in Richmond. In addition to sculpting the statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis for Richmond’s Monument Avenue and the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee for the National Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol, Valentine produced “The Recumbent Lee” for Washington and Lee University. Valentine was also a historian with a special interest in Edgar Allan Poe. In 1875, he became one of the privileged few to be able to interview Poe’s last fiancée Elmira Royster Shelton. In 1898, he and his brother, Mann S. Valentine II, founded the Valentine Museum, which owned a number of Edgar Allan Poe letters in addition to a portrait of Poe’s foster mother Frances Allan. After retiring from sculpting in 1910, he devoted much of his remaining years to the study of Richmond history and the presidency of the Valentine Museum. By 1922, the eighty-four-year-old Valentine took an interest in the newly opened Edgar Allan Poe Museum, speaking at its opening ceremony as well as donating a portrait of Poe’s foster mother to the Museum’s collection.
One evening in 1924 or 1925, Mrs. Jones spent several hours talking about old Richmond in Mr. Valentine’s parlor. He told her he had spent the last sixty years researching a book about Richmond history but had accumulated so much information he could not edit it sufficiently to publish it. As she was leaving, he pointed out a photograph of a photograph of a model of old Paris and exclaimed, “Wait a minute girl; here’s what you do. Make a model of Richmond in Poe’s Time and place it in the [Poe Museum’s] Old Stone House!”
Mrs. Jones offered to manage the project if he would sculpt it, but he replied, “Oh go away girl, you know I can’t work anymore, but you are an enthusiast—you will get it done…Now go ‘long and make it.”
As soon as she returned home, she told her husband, Archer G. Jones, who enthusiastically supported the idea. She later recounted, “I could see his inventive mood creeping into his eyes.”
The first obstacle to constructing the model was finding an artist to do the work. The solution came one day when Gutzon Borglum (1867-1941) visited the Poe Museum. Borglum was an accomplished sculptor who would later rise to fame for his carving of the presidential monument at Mount Rushmore. The party accompanying Borglum to the Poe Museum included Julia Sully (1870-1948, granddaughter of Poe’s friend, the painter Robert Matthew Sully, 1803-1855) and the young teacher Edith Ragland. During the course of the afternoon, Mrs. Jones mentioned her idea for the model of Richmond to Sully, who recommended Ragland for the project. Jones asked Ragland to build the model, but Ragland replied, “I would not know the first or the remotest way to go about.”
“Nonsense,” Sully answered, “You model beautifully. None of us knows how to go about it, so will all learn together.”
In this spirit of collaboration, Edward Valentine and City Hall supplied Ragland Photostats of maps at no charge, and the Poe Museum paid the Virginia State Library for Photostats of more maps. Valentine provided his notes on Richmond history, city directories, and Virginia Mutual Insurance records. Ragland also consulted Samuel Mordecai’s (1786-1865) 1856 book Richmond in By-Gone Days, an account of life in the city during the first half of the nineteenth century.
Archer Jones insisted that a model of Richmond needed to accurately reflect the city’s hills, so he suggested carving the topography out of wood. According to the Poe Foundation board minutes for March 18, 1925, “Miss Ragland found that she needed some knowledge of engineering in order to make the correct elevations in her model so she set to work to study that subject.” She built the model on three connected stretcher tables covered with blocks of wood nine inches thick. With the assistance of surveyors, she chiseled those blocks into the hills and valleys of 1840s Richmond.
She also wrote to artists to determine which materials to use. Because she had been advised the technique would waterproof the model, Ragland covered the piece with asphaltum, a substance similar to tar. To this, she added a thin layer of plaster. When the plaster dried, she applied a layer of lead white gesso. She modeled the houses and churches from clay and let them air dry rather than firing them. She fashioned trees from pieces of sponge and wire. She then colored them with oil paint.
Ragland built the model in the Poe Museum’s Old Stone House. Upon completion, the model measured approximately eighteen feet wide and six feet deep and represented the city from about Fifth Street to Twenty-Eighth Street and from the James River to Marshall Street. This includes depictions of such sites as Poe’s boyhood home Moldavia, Poe’s mother’s grave at St. John’s Church, and the Virginia State Capitol. The most impressive aspect of the model’s creation is that it was constructed in a room measuring only nine feet wide, leaving the artist about one and a half feet of clearance on each side. Ragland, herself, was self-deprecating when speaking of her accomplishment. In a 1976 interview with Denise Bethel, Ragland humbly recalled that the work was fairly easy because the insurance records and maps told her exactly what structures to place on each block. She boasted that some old-timers told her she had even reproduced the correct trees in the right places.
In 1926, tragedy struck when Annie Jones’s husband committed suicide for financial reasons. Mrs. Jones decided that, once complete, the model would be presented to the Museum in his memory.
When Ragland completed her model in 1927, the Poe Foundation’s president, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and journalist Douglas S. Freemen reported to the Foundation’s board, “This is undoubtedly a work of charm, art and beauty. It is the creation and expression of experts—in invention, engineering, research and execution—but as a map of Richmond complete accuracy is most desirable.” He stressed that the gift would not be accepted by the Poe Foundation “until its accuracy at every point is beyond question.”
The minutes of the January 1928 meeting of the Poe Foundation’s board state that the model’s “accuracy is now vouched for by City engineers and surveyors, by Mr. E. V. Valentine, Dr. Stanard [editor of The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography] and other authorities, and that it ties up with Mordecai—except where he himself is inaccurate.” Dr. Freeman moved that the board formally accept the model into the Poe Museum’s collection, and the motion passed. So accurate was the model that Richmond historian Mary Wingfield Scott was able to create a key that identified most of the houses and buildings. In all, the model contains twenty-two identifiable taverns and hotels, fifteen churches, at least twelve public buildings, and the homes of several “distinguished citizens.”
The model was on continuous display in the room of it construction for forty years. In 1963, the Poe Museum renovated a neighboring building for the display of the model. In order to move the model, city workmen cut it into three pieces. Then six off-duty Richmond policemen, five off-duty firemen, and four other city employees volunteered to move the pieces to their new exhibit space. Several buildings and trees detached from the model in the six-hour process.
Ragland returned to the work on her model, reconnecting the three segments and reattaching the fallen houses. The Poe Foundation agreed to pay her $600 for her work in addition to cab fare from her home to the Museum three days a week for three months. Mrs. R. S. Reynolds donated a custom-built glass case for the model. The work was complete (for a second time) by December 6, 1964 when she appeared in a Richmond Times-Dispatch photograph (below) with her freshly restored masterpiece nearly four decades after she began work on it. To protect the work from further damage, Mrs. R. S. Reynolds donated a large glass case to protect it.
The model’s story continued well after Ragland completed her work. In 1981, an anonymous donor concerned by the object’s apparent state of deterioration offered to pay for its restoration. President of the Richmond Jaycees and graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts, Sergei Troubetzkoy conducted the repairs and repainting. Because the model remained on display during this process, he was only able to work on it while the Museum was closed and when he was not working at his day job. As a friend of Edith Ragland’s, Troubetzkoy knew of some details she had intended to include if time had allowed, so he added fences and other buildings he could document. Although he planned to do so, he was unable to add the fence around Capitol Square.
In 1999, the model was almost lost when a fire started in the room housing it. In fact, much of the room was destroyed. The tables underneath the piece were severely damaged, and firemen shattered its glass case. Smoke and water caused additional harm. In the wake of the fire, the Museum called conservators to assess the damage. The wood and paint had cracked. Several houses had again become detached. Additionally, a thick layer of dust and spiders had built up on the model in the years before the fire.
In consultation with 1717 Design Group, the Museum decided to reinstall the model in a new case facing the opposite direction. In order to rotate the model, a volunteer cut it into two pieces using the 1964 cuts as a guide.
With the guidance of historic object conservation specialist Russell Bernabo, artist Chris Semtner and art historian Michelle Dell’Aria cleaned and repaired the model over the course of six months. They first divided the surface into a grid of twelve-inch squares. Each square was carefully dusted into a tiny vacuum attachment. Pieces of rubber sponge were then used to remove grime that was not loosened by the dusting. Only when needed and when it could be performed without damaging the paint layer, wet cleaning was performed using a mixture of alcohol and water. In the course of their work, the conservators found that the original paint was often too unstable to clean but that a previous restorer’s applications of acrylic paint could be cleaned without damaging the surface. Additionally, they observed that the base layer of asphaltum had bled through the plaster and paint to discolor the topcoat. They glued houses back in place and reattached flaking paint and plaster using a solution of B-72 and xylene. In painting was conducted only sparingly. When this work was complete, they reattached the two halves of the model and filled and in-painted the seam.
Carpenters carefully removed the model from its damaged original tables and attached it to a new custom-made table and built a new case around it. In order to make the piece easier for guests to view, the Museum enlisted a team of volunteers from Open High to tilt the model to a twenty degree angle while the carpenters secured it in place. The model was then displayed with one side against the wall. Because the long ends of the model were not perpendicular, the Museum added extensions to allow the long end to sit flush against the back wall.
Museum guests were able to watch the entire conservation process through a large window in the gallery and to ask the conservators questions. Seeing a large dead spider perched atop one of the houses, a guest commented, “If the spiders were that big in Poe’s time, no wonder he wrote the kind of stories he did.”
After this major conservation project, the model received occasional cleanings using soft brushes and vacuums. The most notable of these was conducted in 2008 with the help of volunteers from Hampton Hotels’ Save-a-Landmark program.
Over ninety years after Edith Ragland began her masterpiece, this model of Poe’s Richmond remains a highlight of the Poe Museum’s collection—a resource to visiting historians as well as a favorite with the Museum’s youngest visitors. Like few other historical documents, Ragland’s model helps the viewer visualize the city, its topography, and its structures as Poe would have known them.