Saturday, December 7, 2013

"The Falconer" -- Central Park

photo by Alice Lum

In 1875, two years after Central Park was officially completed, British sculptor George Blackall Simonds exhibited his The Falconer at the Royal Academy Exhibition.  Simonds was the son of a wealthy family of British brewers; but he was currently living in Rome.  His statue, which was intended for Trieste, Italy, was seen by George Kemp.  The New York merchant was impressed.

Born in Ireland, Kemp had made a fortune in New York and he approached the artist about reproducing the bronze as a gift to Central Park.  Simonds had a second statue cast by Clemente Papi of Florence, Italy, using the lost-wax method which the artist preferred.

The rapid-fire chain of events resulted in The Falconer being nearly ready to unveil only a few months later.  On May 22, 1875 Frederick Law Olmsted inspected the park with the Park Commissioners.  “The lake, walks, drives, rambles, and other features of the landscape were viewed in turn, after which the party proceeded to the site of the new statue of ‘The Falconer,’ near the south bay of the lake,” reported The New York Times the following day.

The site that Olmsted and the commissioners inspected had been somewhat of a thorny problem.  The Times later noted that “Mr. Kemp had some difficulty in obtaining from the Park Commissioners what he deemed a suitable location for the statue,” and the newspaper added its own opinion.  “We certainly do not think that the site on which it now stands is by any means the best that could have been chosen.  Conspicuous enough it certainly is, but it stands so far above the line of sight of the spectators beneath, that all the details, and even the expression of the face, are entirely lost.”

Appleton’s Dictionary of New York would diplomatically say it was “placed on a high bluff.”
Critics grumbled about the lofty positioning of the statue -- stereoscope photo by Augustus Hepp from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York,

The statue was dedicated on May 31, 1875 to general critical acclaim.  The Times said “Among the few really artistic statues that have been placed in the Central Park is that of ‘The Falconer,’ the work of Mr. George Simonds, of Rome, a young English sculptor.”

The newspaper described the 12-foot bronze.  “The figure represents a young falconer in the costume of the fifteenth of sixteenth century  The bird is perched on his left hand, and, with out-spread wings, is about to take flight, the leash, however, being as yet firmly held.  In the right hand is the hood which has just been removed from the bird’s head.  The man’s figure rests almost entirely on the right foot, and is well-balanced and gracefully posted.  The head is thrown back and the face raised toward the bird that is about to soar away skyward.  The attitude of the figure certainly expresses all the eager anticipation and interest that a keen hunter may be supposed to feel at so exciting a moment; but the upturned face is a blank so far as the spectator beneath is able to see.”

The Times again lamented the site.  “The statue should most certainly have been placed at least fifteen feet lower than it is.”

The Magazine of Art found technical fault in Simonds’ depiction of the hunting costume—somewhat surprising considering that the sculptor himself was an avid falconer.  “In ‘The Falconer’…a medieval design, the falcon, well modelled, is properly carried upon the upraised gloved hand, the attitude of the falconer, who has the hood in his right hand, indicating that he is in the act of what is technically termed ‘hooding off.’  The general effect is good, but would be better if the costume were more in accordance with the requirements of the sport.”

from the collection of the New York Public Library
Sixty years after the statue’s unveiling natural growth had nearly obscured it.  In 1937 the entire monument was dangerously close to toppling over.  The Parks Department shored it up and repatined the bronze.

But 1930s taste in art did not fare well for the piece either.  On January 17, 1937 Ruth Green Harris got a critical jab in as she described “the sculptural mélange that is Central Park” in an article for The New York Times.

“Those who know their park can find the ‘Falconer’ a little northwest, on a rise above the path, almost hidden among the trees.  It is advisable to remain standing on the Esplanade and to look at the memory of this engaging boy rather than at the bronze itself, for critical examination might destroy a shrine."

It was not critical examination that nearly destroyed the statue; but malicious vandalism.  In 1957 the falcon was sawed off and stolen.  A new falcon was cast and reattached.  But that, too, would not last.

The 1970s were a dark period in New York City.  As the city teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, crime was at an all-time high and Central Park became synonymous with muggings and rapes.  Monuments and statues were defiled by unrestrained vandals.

Thieves not only broke off the falcon, but the entire arm that held it aloft.  Finally on December 23, 1977 The Times noted that “The Falconer, formerly of Central Park, is now in storage in a dark basement in Washington Heights, minus his falcon.”

The much abused sculpture was resurrected in 1982.  A new arm and falcon were cast and attached and the restored statue was reinstalled in the park.  In 1995 The Falconer was again conserved and repatined.
The statue, with its replaced arm and falcon, are back at home in Central Park -- photo by Alice Lum


  1. Was it reinstalled in the same place or a new location?

  2. Very beautiful and I think the lofty location is magnificent, but the repaired arm and falcon look very different from the old photo, more arm extension horizontally than vertically and the birds perch seems different too. Did they alter the missing pieces?

    1. There do appear to be slight differences. Since the art and falcon were lost, I assume they were reproduced using photographs; so variations would be expected.