Sir Walter and His Lewd Friends

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.

The Elizabethan courtier has shilled for tobacco, sold cars and appeared on book covers. Of course, Raleigh has also served–mostly with distinction–as a subject for a few artists.

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.

2 thoughts on “Sir Walter and His Lewd Friends”

  1. Interesting post, John. I’m sure the Miscellany front office will be eager to underwrite that New York field trip….

    In 1939 federal art consultant Helen Appleton Read managed to report disapprovingly not only on Morganton’s post office mural but also on local artistic tastes: “A competent enlarged illustration such as Dean Cornwell’s ‘Sir Walter Raleigh’ is cold and lacking in appeal when compared with murals in which the artist tries to give a personal interpretation of life or history as related to the community… [But] the townspeople admired Cornwell’s illustration.”

    According to art historian Karal Ann Marling, author of “Wall-to-Wall America” (2000), Cornwell was a critically ignored magazine illustrator who, after winning a mural competition held by the Los Angeles Public Library, had to visit England to learn how to paint one. The Treasury Department’s art program shunted him off to North Carolina where “whatever bombastic indiscretion he might see fit to commit in the local post office could be forgotten or chalked up to defective Southern tastebuds.”

    Cornwell’s surviving portfolio also includes “Laying of the Cornerstone of Old East” in the Chapel Hill post office (1941). He must’ve been satisfied with his $1,550 fee — no urinating or mooning is apparent, at least digitally.

  2. Thanks for adding these additional bits of information, Lew. Your post reminds me that I failed to mention Anita Price Davis’s book “New Deal Art in North Carolina” (2009). Davis documents many of the federal art projects in N.C. during the Depression. And there’s plenty about Cornwell and his works in Morganton, New York AND Chapel Hill.

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