|The Annual Report of the Board of Commissioners of the Central Park in 1868 included the above photograph (copyright expired)|
In 1858 Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux began work on the 843 acres of city land that would become The Central Park. Their ambitious “Greensward Plan” encompassed formal promenades, rustic lanes, romantic buildings and ornamental lakes and lawns.
A year later construction began on the dramatic Bethesda Terrace and Fountain. The panels of the Terrace were covered in intricate carving, organized in motifs of the Seasons, the Ages of Mankind, and the Times of Day. A team of sculptors was hired to work on these panels and the men were given unexpected independence in their carving. Among them was Scottish-born Robert Thompson.
Thompson was responsible for a great deal of the carving on the Terrace and Mall. And when he was not carving birds and foliage in Central Park, he was working on a sculptural grouping of his own. Every Victorian Scotsman was intimately familiar with the works of Robert Burns and, especially, his most famous poem, “Auld Lang Syne.”
The sculptor created Burns’ two characters, Tam O’Shanter and Souter Johnnie, out of soft yellow sandstone. Much in the style of the popular contemporary sculptor John Rogers, whose work graced the parlors of middle class homes across the nation as plaster casts, “Auld Lang Syne” was a snapshot of everyday life. The grouping made no attempt at Victorian formality or propriety—it depicted two old acquaintances raising a glass in the company of a faithful dog.
|A stereopticon slide captured the life-like group mid-century -- NYPL Collection|
The day before New Years Eve in 1862 the sculpture was completed. It was temporarily displayed at the corner of 4th Street and Broadway. The New York Times said that Thompson “feeling a desire to give an expression, in his own peculiar way, to the words of Burns in ‘Auld Lang Syne’ And here’s a hand, my trusty friend, and gie’s a hand o’thine has succeeded in his attempt to the entire satisfaction of his friends and those who have had opportunity to witness his production.”
The article described the piece, “Each of the men holds in his hand a glass of beer, while a foaming tankard is on the table between them. A dog is nearby, and the entire group gives a good idea of Scottish hospitality and of the familiar lines of the plowman poet.”
Thompson’s hours of work were not merely to satisfy a reminiscence for his homeland. He apparently could use some extra money. The Times remarked “We may add that the work is for sale for the benefit of the artist, and commends itself to the attention of the sons of ‘Auld Scotia,’ who may possess the means and the desire to help him by purchasing it.”
Indeed, there were “sons of Auld Scotia” who would purchase the group, although not until 1866. The New York Star Almanac later reported that “A committee of gentlemen representing the Scotch residents of this city presented…the life-size group of ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ illustrative of the characters of Burns’ celebrated song." The group of Scotsmen presented the sculpture as a gift to the City to adorn the new park.
|A hand-colored stereopticon slide shows a rare rear view of the sculpture with the Casino in the background.|
Thompson’s work was placed along a winding path off Fifth Avenue, very near the Casino. Designed by Vaux, the Casino was a refreshment spot where hot or weary strollers could rest and enjoy a cool beverage. The theme of the sculpture was, therefore, somewhat appropriate—albeit the realistic representation of the two beer-drinking cronies may have been a bit offensive to some of the proper Victorian ladies.
If “Auld Lang Syne” offended some ladies, it was adored by other groups. For the Scottish immigrants, it was a reminder of home. When a new arrival landed, he was almost immediately taken to Central Park to see the statue; or at least given directions to its location. Stereopticon views of the work were sold by the thousands nationwide.
But rapidly the statue began deteriorating. The sandstone, called “New Brunswick stone” by the New York Star Almanac, was easily eroded by the elements and only a few years after its placement the statue was noticeably disintegrating.
|The Manual of the City of New York included this handsome lithograph in 1868 -- NYPL Collection|
To save the work it was removed to the Art Hall of Mount St. Vincent. When Central Park was first laid out the Convent and Academy of Mount Saint Vincent had already stood near 5th Avenue and 105th Street for more than a decade. It was here that Frederick Law Olmsted and his family lived from 1859 to 1863 while he directed the landscaping of the Park. During the Civil War it was used as a soldiers’ hospital.
|The deteriorating group was removed to Mount St. Vincent in the early 1870s -- NYPL Collection|
By now, however, the former convent and academy buildings had been converted to a tavern, a sculpture hall and a parks department depot. Here, in the former brick chapel where it was protected from rain, wind and the effects of severe heat and cold, “Auld Lang Syne” would survive for ages.
Or so it seemed.
In an ironic twist of fate, on New Years Day in 1881 a fire broke out at 1:30 in the morning. By the time workers who lived in the buildings awoke, the flames were bursting through the first floor windows and were spreading to the art gallery that was filled with what The Times called “a valuable collection of statues.”
Horse-drawn fire engines galloped to the scene only to find the two hydrants nearby frozen solid. They were thawed by the use of steam from the engines; but it was discovered that the couplings of the hoses were not compatible with the hydrants. By the time the problems were overcome, the fire was well under way. Around 9:00 the ceiling of the former chapel fell in. All the buildings of the Mount St. Vincent compound were destroyed.
“Fifth-avenue was crowded with men and boys watching the conflagration, and sleighing parties, with which the avenue was lined, swept past the burning pile, and obtained a fine view of the picture,” reported The Times the following day. The works of art that were not completely destroyed were heavily damaged. Among these was “Auld Lang Syne.”
“Auld Lang Syne, a massive piece, and valued at $1,000, suffered the loss of an arm and a foot, which can probably be restored,” reported The Times. “Twenty men were put to the work of removing it from the burning gallery, but their efforts were unavailing.”
Although the newspaper gave hope of restoring Thompson’s endearing group, it never came to be. There are rumors that the damaged work still exists, stored away somewhere within Central Park. Yet even if the rumors are true, hope is slim that the sculpture, one of the most unusual and engaging ever to grace the Park, will ever be seen by the public again.