The varied portraits of Sir Walter Raleigh has been on our minds recently. Earlier this month we played host to Raleigh-scholar Mark Nichols, co-author of the recently published Sir Walter Raleigh: In Life & Legend. Nichol’s talk inspired a few of us to wonder how Raleigh has been depicted over time.
Francis Vandeveer Kughler placed Raleigh at the center of one of his murals at the School of Government on the UNC campus. Dean Cornwell, a renowned illustrator of the mid 20th century, also depicted Raleigh. Twice.
As part of the New Deal efforts to create jobs for artists, the federal government commissioned Cornwell to create murals for the U.S. Post Office in Morganton. And, in 1938, the artist completed Sir Walter Raleigh and First Landing on North Carolina Shore. The murals covered the walls over the door to the postmaster’s office. Sadly, Cornwell’s works were destroyed during renovations of the post office in 1963.
Cornwell’s work in Morganton followed on the heels of a project in New York City in 1937. Publisher William Randolph Hearst hired the artist to create murals for the Raleigh Room, a restaurant in the Hearst-financed Warwick Hotel. Cornwell painted scenes of Raleigh receiving his charter from Elizabeth I in 1584 and Raleigh landing at Roanoke Island (clearly a case of artistic license). The murals were not quite complete when Hearst and Cornwell quarreled, most likely over the artist’s pay. Angered, Cornwell changed his paintings to include a man urinating on Elizabeth I, another man urinating on Sir Walter Raleigh and a Native American with his bare backside facing the viewer.
After the dispute was resolved, Cornwell altered one of the objectionable images, but he kept the others as they were. His decision prompted management to keep parts of the murals covered for 40 years. In 2004 the restaurant was remodeled and re-opened under a new name. Murals on 54 gives prominent play to Cornwell’s works. The restaurant’s promotional literature mentions the dispute between Hearst and Cornwell and the recent remodeling. But it’s unclear whether the work in 2004 included giving the murals a G-rating. It’s hard to tell from the photos. Perhaps an NC Miscellany field trip to New York City is in order.