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Figuring History

Lincoln will be the subject of artist George Stuart's talk at museum.

November 16, 2000|BILL LOCEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The latest George Stuart display of historical figurines will be considerably energized by a talk from their creator and famed monologuist Friday at the Ventura County Museum of History and Art.

The current display, titled "Union and Disunion: Founding the American Republic," features about 40 leading figures of the first 80 or so years of our nation's history, from George Washington through Abraham Lincoln. Stuart's talk will deal with the life of Lincoln, arguably our nation's greatest president.

Since 1953, Stuart has demonstrated his love for the past by painstakingly creating more than 300 historical figurines. His creations are divided into specific time periods, such as the Restoration and the Reformation. A student of royalty, Stuart also has created figurines depicting the Tudors, Stuarts, Hanovers and the Romanoffs.

Stuart's creations, constructed through a laborious process, end up at one-quarter scale. The figurines are clothed in period dress, sartorially splendid down to the smallest detail.

Half the display is dedicated to the Revolutionary War, one of the most far-reaching events in history. Wars throughout history had been fought for conquest or for loot, but this revolution was different--it was fought for the ideas of freedom and justice for all and that all men are created equal. The great experiment tried to prove that man could live free without the petty dictates of kings and despots.

The founders of the United States are represented by several presidents and some of their significant others, including George and Martha Washington, John and Abigail Adams, James and Dolly Madison, James Monroe and John Quincy Adams. There are two figurines of Washington, one depicting his presidential years and another as the vigorous commander of the chilly Continental Army during the awful winter of 1777-78 at Valley Forge. Truly an amazing fellow, Washington lost most of the battles he was involved in, but he had the tenacity and foresight to hold on and win the war.

Patriots are represented by a familiar cast that includes Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry and Ben Franklin. There's a classic figurine of Tom Paine, the author of "Common Sense," quill in hand, searching pensively for just that right adjective.

There's a telling figurine of Alexander Hamilton, pistol in hand, about to make a bad career move with Aaron Burr. Even the British--or "the lobsterbacks," as the Americans referred to them--are represented by two of their noted generals, Sir Henry Clinton and Sir John Burgoyne, the latter forever immortalized by Sir Laurence Olivier in the film version of the George Bernard Shaw play, "The Devil's Disciple."

Perhaps the most poignant figurine of the American Revolution was Benedict Arnold, whose name has become a synonym for traitor. Arnold was actually the Continentals' most daring and able battlefield commander, combining all the aggressive qualities of Stonewall Jackson, George Custer and George Patton. Arnold personally saved the fledging nation by his actions in Quebec and later at Saratoga, the battle that turned the tide for the Americans.

But broke after spending his own money to finance the war, Congress let the debt remain unpaid for years while Arnold was repeatedly ignored as inferior while generals such as Horatio Gates and Benjamin Lincoln were promoted over him. Recuperating from a battle wound, Arnold married Peggy Shippen, the daughter of a prominent Philadelphia Tory, who persuaded him to betray the cause. Arnold barely escaped with his life and died unhappily in exile in England.

About 80 years later, the nation was faced with the most momentous event in its history, a cataclysmic civil war that killed more than 600,000 Americans. And as is the case with most civil wars, the fighting was particularly brutal and bloody as one horrific battle followed another. The war may have begun over states' rights, but it ended up being about freedom, much as the Revolution had been. Blacks were slaves when the war began; when it was over, they were free and more than 180,000 of them had fought for that freedom.

The leading player in this scenario was the kindly, passionate Lincoln, who was charged with not only saving the nation but winning the war. Fortunately, he was probably the most astute politician of his time, yet the weight on his shoulders is readily apparent in the year-by-year portraits of his presidency.

Stuart has created three Abes for this display. The first is the young, gangly, rail-splitting Abe, looking as if he just realized he was to be one of those who has to survive by using his head, not his hands. There's also a figurine of the alluring Ann Rutledge, said to be the love of Lincoln's life, who died of a fever when she was only 22.

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