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In search of the missing bust of Moncure Conway

Documentary film to tell story of missing piece of art

10 February, 2017 — By Dan Carrier

The bronze bust by celebrated artist Theodore Spicer Simpson

IT is the type of tale that crime writers in the 1920s would have used as pulp novel titles – the Mystery of Moncure Conway’s Missing Head, based on a bizarre tale about the radical free thinker whose name graces the home of the South Place Ethical Society in Red Lion Square, Holborn.

And now the Society has produced a documentary film, The Empty Niche, to tell a story about a piece of art that was made to grace their home.

The item in question is a bronze bust by celebrated artist Theodore Spicer Simpson, which has been missing from a custom-made niche in their home since they moved in more than nine decades ago.

When the South Place Ethical Society decamped from a chapel in Finsbury Circus to a purpose-built centre in 1927, the architects created a space in the entrance hall for a bronze of the philosopher. But it appears the likeness, made by Conway’s great friend Spicer Simpson, never made it to its new home – and its whereabouts for the past 90 years has become a mystery for the society to solve.

Film-maker Ginny Smith has presented a documentary that tells the story and the detective work by Conway Hall to track down the bust’s whereabouts.

For those who do not know of Dr Moncure Conway, he was a celebrated American anti-slavery campaigner, civil rights advocate, writer, free thinker and political philosopher. He wrote the first biography of Tom Paine, and counted among his friends the likes of Charles Darwin, Abraham Lincoln and William Morris.

He was a radical feminist, calling for complete equality for all, and before he moved to Europe he had been at the forefront of the abolitionist movement. He was never afraid to act on his principles – one example was how he had travelled south to help free 30 people from slavery, pretending as they walked through the Southern states to be the vicious head of a slave gang.

Dr Moncure Conway

When he moved to London he became a key figure in progressive politics, speaking as a minister at the South Place Ethical Society.

The society’s Dr Jim Walsh said they first heard of the bust by accident.

“We were skimming through our archives and when we got to 1904 we heard of the Bust Committee – we had no clue what that was,” he recalls.

Further research found other references to it – but no sign of the work.

“We wondered where our bust was, and where was it meant to be,” he adds. Ginny says she was immediately intrigued by the mystery.

“We know they had the niche built to house it, but it never was put in situ. There is no record of what happened to the bust, which was meant, it seems, to have pride of place when the new hall opened,” she says.

With a film crew in tow, she set out to try to discover what had happened. The film describes how Conway moved to Paris at the turn of the 1900s, where Spicer Simpson lived, and it was there the bust was first made.

He asked Conway to sit for him and then a plaster version was offered to the society, but they decided they wanted to honour him with something a little more fitting for a man of his stature.

The Bust Committee was formed to raise £40 to have it cast in bronze and plans were laid to display it alongside similar works of Tom Paine and WJ Fox. Looking through the society’s archives, Ginny found photographs showing the bust in place in the society’s former library but not at Conway Hall.

“The strange thing is they have comprehensive records of the society, including the Bust Committee, but then it simply disappears,” she says.

Her attempts to find it took her from Holborn to Paris to New York. During the travels, she discovered that two others were made – one for Conway’s old university, Dickinson College in Pennsylvania and there she found one of three in existence.

Ginny Smith

“We discovered that the Conway bronze was not the only one made – Spicer Simpson doesn’t mass produce them, but research showed he made two more, which are identical,” she adds.

One had been placed at the Thomas Paine National Historical Society in New Rochelle, New York State – but as the film reveals, bizarrely that too went missing for time. When the society home’s roof collapsed, items were stored under a tarpaulin – and the bust disappeared. It came to light decades later when a private art collector bought it at an auction and registered it with the Smithsonian Institute in Washington.

But Holborn’s is still missing, and the society urge anyone who may have come across the work to get in touch. Meanwhile, they took detailed pictures of the Dickinson version and using a 3D printer have a new one cast.

“It is a fascinating tale, and I like to think Conway, who loved science, would be happy a replacement has ben made using 21st-century technology,” says Ginny.

“But it is still very strange when the South Place Chapel closed its doors and moved to Conway Hall, why didn’t anyone say ‘Why is the niche for Conway empty?’

“Some of the items were taken away to be stored while work was being completed, but they were brought back – items like the plaster bust of Paine arrived. Why did no one look at, and say ‘Where is it?’”

To watch The Empty Niche: The Long Lost Bust Of Moncure Conway, go to: www.youtube.com/watch?v=48oyu8FSUv0&feature=youtu.be

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