From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia
Artist/Maker: Anthony Simmons (d. 1808) and Samuel Alexander (D. 1847)
Created: Model: 1798; Silver: 1801
Materials: wood and silver
Dimensions: Model: 17.8 x 23.2 x 12.4 (7 x 9 1/8 x 4 7/8 in.); Silver: 20.3 x 23.2 x 12.4 (8 x 9 1/8 x 4 7/8 in.) Wt: 1217 g. (39 oz. 2 dwt. 13 gr.)
Location: Monticello's Visitor Center
Owner: Thomas Jefferson Foundation
Accession Number: 1974-20; 1957-29
Historical Notes: Thomas Jefferson's lifelong interest in architecture may have been inspired in Williamsburg when in 1760 he purchased a work (not now identified) on the subject from an individual referred to only as "an old cabinet maker near the William and Mary gate." One might question the veracity of his inspiration but never his devotion to the pursuit of one of his favorite "amusements," the art of "putting up and pulling down." It may be safely stated that he seldom failed to alter in varying degrees, every building, rented or otherwise, in which he lived. Situated far above these architectural alterations stands the Capitol of Virginia, a special creation in which Jefferson blended his affections for the virtues of Republican Rome in a modern usable structure.
Less well-known among Jefferson's architectural endeavors is the story of a bronze askos excavated near the ruins of the Maison Carrée at Nîsmes, and a wooden copy that he caused to be made of this by a craftsman known only as Souche.
Jefferson was instrumental in the political process that effected the removal of the seat of government from Williamsburg to Richmond and he contributed to the design of the structure that would house the Commonwealth's law making bodies. The plan called for a rectangular form native to classical design and one adaptive for practical use. Thus was created a new form for sheltering an American legislative assembly, done prior to Jefferson's exposure to the scene of Europe.
Once in Europe, however, Jefferson sought out the distinguished architect, Charles Louis Clérisseau, whose Antiquities de la France later found a place in his library. Their consultations produced the decision to use the Maison Carrée, a pure classic form, still standing at Nîsmes. From this decision evolved a model from which would emerge the new capitol in Richmond. Clérisseau drafted the plans and arranged for the model's construction, but with typical Gallic magnanimity stated that be wanted nothing for his services. Jefferson wished to recognize his contributions with a gift and persisted silently to find something suitable.
When in the south of France in 1787, Jefferson saw and admired a "beautifully designed bronze vessel later described as an 'antique vase'," which was in a collection of items excavated from the Maison Carrée by François Séguier (1703-1784). Its handsome classic shape and association with the Maison Carrée caused Jefferson to have Souche execute a copy for presentation to Clérisseau.
A wooden model was made and subsequently lost. A second was ordered, but for unclear reasons was not completed until 1789. By then, Jefferson appears to have abandoned this idea for something else. He had designed a silver urn modeled on one of the Graeco-Roman forms dug up at Herculaneum and Pompeii. The urn was subsequently executed in silver by Jean-Baptiste-Claude Odiot, a celebrated Parisian smith. Jefferson, who was awaiting recall to America, delayed presenting the urn to Clérisseau for several months. During this period Jefferson asked Odiot to make a second urn. Meanwhile Souche had sent his model of the askos to Jefferson on 10 May 1789. By this time Jefferson had definitely decided to send Clérisseau one of the silver urns instead of the askos. With the creation of the askos so near at hand, one wonders why Jefferson did not follow his original gift idea.
In attempting to explain Jefferson's decision, several reasons may be advanced with the following probably outstanding. At some point, Jefferson became aware that a model of such an ancient vessel, however excellent its proportions, might not be an appropriate gift for Clérisseau. Scholars have paid more attention to the vessel's form as an uncommon one, than to its use as an askos. The duck shape should have suggested a use, as does the Greek root, askos, meaning bag, wineskin or bladder. Thus the form "seems to have been employed for the toilet alone."
Hidden among the contents of the eighty six packing cases so carefully boxed by Grevin, the master Paris boxmaker, was Souche's second wooden model. Its whereabouts remained a mystery until 1801 when Jefferson turned it over to Thomas Claxton, an early nineteenth century Philadelphia interior decorator, and instructed him to have a silver copy made. This was done by Simmons and Alexander who, by design or otherwise, quite characteristically departed from the original concept. The degree of departure may be noticed by comparing photographs of the two items. The silver copy remained in the Monticello family until presented to Monticello in 1957 by the late Thomas Jefferson Coolidge of Boston, to whom it descended from Ellen Randolph Coolidge, a favored Monticello grandchild.
The wooden model remained at Monticello until 1821 when Thomas Sully was there to delineate Mr. Jefferson. The subject presented the model to Sully out of appreciation and deep respect for his work. Sully, no doubt flattered at such attention, duly inscribed on the base: "Presented by/ Ex- Pres. Thos./ Jefferson to Thos./ Sully." The model departed from Monticello in Sully's bags and fell from public view until 1972. It was at an auction sale of an estate in Bucks County, Pennsylvania where it turned up in a lot of oddments that were purchased by Mrs. Raymond Porter of nearby Elkins Park. Mrs. Porter presented the model to Dr. Julian P. Boyd, editor of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, who has given it to Monticello.
- ↑ This article was based on James A. Bear, Jr., "The Roman Askos of Nismes", Monticello Keepsake, April 14, 1974.