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Unveiling of Conway’s Bust

Transcript of the speech given by Dr Jim Walsh, CEO, on 28 October 2016 at the unveiling ceremony of the 3D printed ‘bronze’ bust of Dr Moncure Conway:

Colleagues, Trustees, Patrons, Friends – welcome to this unique moment in Conway Hall’s history. We are here to celebrate something that should have happened on 23rd September 1929, when the building was originally opened. We’re about to unveil a remarkable artwork made possible only by the advances in technology over the last few years. In a sense, technology is enhancing heritage, because without the spectacular achievements of 3D printing we would continue to have an empty niche in the foyer of Conway Hall. A bust of Moncure Conway fills the niche and, as you aware, we are in the building named after him. I promise we will unveil it in a few minutes. However, please indulge me and allow me to say a few words before asking our Chair, Liz Lutgendorff, to pull the chord and unveil our amazing new/old bust of Dr Moncure Conway.

In some ways it might be seen that we are celebrating yet another old dead white male, albeit a lost or forgotten Victorian. However, I do think there is relevance today of this particular old dead white male, if we look briefly at what he stood for and maybe even ask ourselves if we stand for similar things?

In my opinion, he was special for six reasons:

1. He championed intellectual freedom and rational inquiry. This he learned from Ralph Waldo Emerson. And this lifelong stance came
off the page in the tragic circumstances of his infant son’s death when he asked “How could a benevolent deity allow my son to die?” He was thirty-one and had just moved to England from America with his wife Ellen. The motivation for genuine intellectual freedom and rational inquiry doesn’t really come rawer than that.

2. His curiosity. Combined with his intellectual endeavours, his curiosity enabled him to converse with scientists, such as Thomas Henry
Huxley (known as Darwin’s Bulldog), Charles Darwin himself, Charles Lyell, a Fellow of the Royal Society, who gave the first proper account of earthquakes and volcanoes. Poets such as Robert and Elizabeth Browning. Writers, such as Tennyson, George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) and George Henry Lewes (George Eliot’s husband) and Charles Dickens. Politicians such as Gladstone. He was also  effectively the British literary agent for both Mark Twain and Walt Whitman. His intellectual thirst and curiosity seemed to know no bounds.

3. His advocacy for the abolition of slavery. As a young man he witnessed a slave being beaten and this gave him a lifelong hatred of slavery and cruelty. And so during the American civil war, it’s no real surprise that he went against his family’s wishes and helped his father’s slaves to achieve freedom and promoted the abolition cause wherever he felt he could lend his voice and thoughts to give good effect.

4. He established a culture of intellectual stimulation, which challenged traditional social practices, if he saw them as harmful to individuals. With others, he set up the Discussion Society at South Place Chapel and the Conference of Liberal Thinkers, so that from 1873 speakers such as Max Muller (philologist and orientalist), W. K. Clifford (Mathematician & Philosopher) and John Stuart Mill could come and give lectures to his congregation. The South Place Institute was also set up under his watch in 1879 and had lectures and discussions on a wide variety of topics by leading Victorian thinkers and social changers. As he put it in 1893, “We tried to keep abreast of the growing knowledge of the world.”

5. His dedication to women’s rights and suffrage – as brought to his attention by his wife Ellen Dana. In 1871, at Hackney town hall, 47 years before the first women (who being over 30 and meeting the minimum property requirements) could vote, he spoke on the need for equality between men and women. Before that, in 1869, Conway initiated the “appearance of women in our pulpit at the South Place Chapel”. So, Ernestine Rose, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Julia Ward Howe (prominent abolitionist), Helen Taylor (feminist author and actor and step daughter of John Stuart Mill), and Annie Besant, among others, all had a platform to speak from.

6. Finally, his advocacy for peace. In 1870 he was the New York World and Daily News front line reporter in the Franco-Prussian war. The atrocities he witnessed churned within him and made him a lifelong champion for peace. He met with the International League of Peace and Freedom and also freethinkers and working men who wanted a United States of Europe. And, in 1899, he attended the first Hague Conference for Peace. So, I don’t think he is just another old dead white male.
Last year – Sophie Hawkey-Edwards and I were leafing through old Ethical Records when trying to assess how we would digitise them, when we came across the phrase “Bust Committee” in a 1904 issue. Neither of us knew what that referred to and, intrigued, we started to do a little digging. It turned out that the “Bust Committee” was convened to raise money to purchase a bronze version of the bust of
Moncure Conway presented to the Society in its plaster form by sculptor Theodore Spicer-Simson.

On further digging, we discovered that although we managed to raise the required funds and, in due course, received a bronze bust of Conway, it was now nowhere to be found. So, a process of detection ensued. The archives were devoid of photographic evidence, save one
photo of it installed in South Place Chapel in 1927. Then, Sophie made another discovery in the Ethical Record, this time from January 1928, where in relation to the proposed building of Conway Hall, the then committee reported the following:

The scheme comprises a Large Hall, with Artists’ and Lecturers’ Rooms a small hall with servery adjoining, a Library, Club Room
and Caretakers Flat. Also the necessary Cloak Rooms, Lavatories, Boiler House. etc. The Principle entrance will be in Red Lion Square.
In a niche opposite the door will be a bust of Dr Moncure Conway. [Italics mine]”

So, we had an empty niche, in the foyer, behind me, but no bust. Without wishing to spoil the documentary we’re making – the last scene being shot as I speak – two other busts of Moncure Conway were discovered: both in the United States. Dickinson College, Pennsylvania, have one and this is the one we have had photographed over 750 times from every conceivable angle and turned into a 3D print.

The bust behind me is a resin and bronze powdered cast made from that 3D print by the wonderful and talented team at iMakr, on  Clerkenwell Road, and they have applied antiquing effects to try and match the look and feel precisely of the Dickinson Bust. However, just before asking Liz to pull the curtain, may I thank Sophie, Carl Harrison, Trunkman Productions, and the Trustees for believing in
the project and of course everyone here today for showing their support.

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