This lovely garden sculpture and fountain honors the well-known children’s book author Frances Eliza Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924). Designed by Parks’ Chief Consulting Architect Aymar Embury II (1880-1966), with statues by Bessie Potter Vonnoh (1872-1955), the memorial was created in 1936.
Burnett was born Frances Eliza Hodgson in Manchester, England, moved to the United States, and settled in Knoxville, Tennesee in 1865. She married Dr. Swan Moses Burnett in 1873. She went on to have a highly successful literary career, which included such novels as That Lass o’ Lowrie’s (1877), Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886), A Little Princess (1905) and Secret Garden (1910).
Two years after her death in 1924, friends and admirers of Burnett formed a memorial committee to honor her not with a portrait sculpture, but an intimate garden setting and work of art. It wasn’t until a decade later, that the memorial found a home in the horticultural wonder in Central Park, known as Conservatory Garden. This area of the park, between 103rd Street and 106th Streets, along the eastern perimeter of Fifth Avenue, was from 1899 to 1934 the site of lavish greenhouses—and a popular tourist attraction—known as the Conservatory.
When the Conservatory was demolished in the first year of the administration of Parks Commissioner Robert Moses (1888-1981), a landscape plan of formal gardens, lawns, allees of trees, and an arbor, was developed by chief landscape architect Gilmore Clarke (1892-1982) and Betty Sprout (1906-1962; later married to Clarke). Though Conservatory Garden was not officially opened until September 18, 1937, the Burnett Fountain was completed in 1936, and dedicated in the spring of 1937.
Sculptor Bessie Potter Vonnoh was an accomplished and prolific artist. Born in Saint Louis, Missouri, on August 17, 1872. At age 19 she left to study art with Loredo Taft at the Art Institute of Chicago, and helped made sculptures for the façade of the Horticultural Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. There she saw statuettes by Paul Troubetzkoy, which inspired her to develop a style of intimate, impressionistic genre subjects, such as her Girl Reading, The Dance, and A Young Mother. Rather than mimic a stiff classicism, she strove to capture, in her words, “the joy and swing of everyday life.”
In the 1890s Vonnoh traveled and studied in Florence and Paris—taking time to visit the studio of the famous French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). In 1899 she married painter Robert Vonnoh, and lived with him in New York City, Connecticut and southern France. Her work was frequently exhibited, and today may be found in numerous public and public collections. Her sculptural talent gained her prizes from many professional arts organizations, including the Watrous Gold Medal from the National Academy of Design in 1921.
In 1925 Vonnoh sculpted a grouping of children for a fountain at the Roosevelt Bird Sanctuary at Oyster Bay, Long Island. Her similar conception for the Burnett Memorial depicts in bronze a standing girl holding a bowl, a boy playing a flute reclining beside her, and swallows. Based on the characters of Mary and Dickon from Burnett’s Secret Garden, the figures relate to several other versions of the subject in private collections. At the dedication of the memorial on May 28, 1937, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (1882-1947) was reported to look “a little rueful” as he recalled that as a child his mother made him wear a “Lord Fauntleroy suit” when he played in the local orchestra.
In 1980 missing portions of the sculpture were modeled, cast and reinstalled. In 1994 the Central Park Conservancy again recast missing sculptural details; conserved and patined the surface of the statuary, and replaced the plumbing so that the fountain, long inactive, was again functional. Today the restored fountain beautifully complements the well-maintained seasonal floral displays.
Burnett Memorial Fountain Details
- Sculptor: Bessie (Onahotema) Potter Vonnoh
- Architect: Aymar Embury II
- Description: Standing girl figure and reclining boy figure on pedestal; tablet in pavement
- Materials: Figures--bronze; Pedestal---Milford pink granite; Tablet--slate
- Dimensions: Group H: 6'5" W: 3'8" D: 1' 11''; Pedestal H: 2'11" W: 3'6" D: 1' 11"
- Cast: 1926
- Dedicated: 1936
- Foundry: Roman Bronze Works
- Donor: Frances Hodgson Burnett Memorial Committee
- Inscription: FOUNTAIN GROUP GIVEN TO / THE CHILDREN OF THE CITY / IN THE NAME OF / FRANCES HODGSON BURNETT / 1849-1824.
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