Today Clark Mills is practically forgotten in Charleston, in spite of the fact that his studio at 51 Broad St. has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. As a self-taught sculptor, Mills pioneered new techniques in bronze casting, built his own foundry and succeeded in an area where he had no formal training. His meteoric rise to national prominence started on the streets of Charleston.
Mills was born in Onondaga County, New York in 1810. When his father died, young Mills was sent to live with his uncle. Because of harsh treatment, he ran away at the age of 13 and wandered to cities as far-flung as Syracuse and New Orleans. He worked as a teamster, lumberjack, farmhand, carpenter and millwright. After getting frostbite from cutting timber in a swamp, in 1837 Mills moved to Charleston and vowed never to work again as a common laborer.
Charleston was noted for its wealth, sophistication and patronage of the fine arts. Many of its prominent citizens had traveled abroad and wanted to replicate what they saw in their homes and churches. To take advantage of those desires, Mills trained first as a cabinetmaker and then as an ornamental plasterer. He lived in relative obscurity until a chance encounter with a phrenologist changed the course of his life.
Contemporary readers are unaware of the influence phrenology exerted on American society in Victorian times; in impact it could reasonably be compared to the influence of psychology in modern times. Roughly defined, phrenology is a psychological theory or analytical method based on the belief that certain mental faculties and character traits are indicated by configurations of the skull.
Mills’ remarkable story has been preserved because of an interview that was published more than 100 years ago. As Mills told it, he was employed as a plasterer who supplemented his income with bearbaiting. While walking to work one morning, Mills passed a phrenologist’s shop. Outside was a sign that promised skeptics would not be charged for an examination of their heads. Intrigued, he decided to investigate.
After the examination, the phrenologist told Mills that he had the organ of sculpture in an eminent degree and if he were to cultivate his rare and valuable talent, he would be a very distinguished artist. To which Mills replied, “I never had any confidence in your pretend science, but if I did, your account of my head would utterly destroy it. Sir, I am a house plasterer and know nothing about sculpture whatsoever.”
But the phrenologist’s words haunted him night and day. Mills had never thought of trying sculpture and did not know how to begin. One day he saw an Italian carrying a plaster bust of Napoleon and asked him to show him how it was molded. The Italian obliged and Mills was hooked. First, he created a plaster likeness of his father-in-law. Everyone who saw it thought it was a wonder.
Mills kept on casting and soon opened a studio on Broad Street. The building had been designed as a double tenement, once occupied by Mrs. C. P. Huard and Mr. Erastus Bulkley. When Mrs. Huard moved, Mills rented the vacant space. Mr. Bulkley next door was a marble agent who kept some of his supplies in a vacant yard behind the house. With a ready supply of material nearby, in 1845, Mills attempted a marble bust of John C. Calhoun. (The bust is now in Charleston's City Hall Museum and a bronze version is in the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)
By the time Mills had done a score of plaster busts, his Charleston patrons were so impressed that they agreed to finance his studying in Rome and asked him to view the public sculpture in Washington and Richmond. While in Richmond, Mills saw Houdon’s life-size sculpture of President Washington, the second such statue he had ever seen.
Coincidentally, in the late 1840s the nation’s leaders were yearning for a native American who could create a monumental equestrian statue for the capitol city. Quite by chance, in Washington Mills met the Honorable Cave Johnson, postmaster general and chairman of the Jackson Memorial Committee. Johnson persuaded Mills to submit a design for the statue. The committee approved it and the surprised Mills was off and running. He had never tried a full-length figure, but despite the engineering limitations, he was about to create the United States’ first large equestrian bronze casting.
In 1849, Mills moved to Washington and erected a furnace and studio near Lafayette Square. After numerous failed attempts, the sixth recasting succeeded with Andrew Jackson mounted on a bronze horse rearing up on its hind legs. By loading the rump of the horse so that it outweighed the weight of the foreparts, Mills had created an engineering marvel that had confounded many great artists and engineers before him.
The statue was dedicated on the 38th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans, on January 8, 1853. President Franklin Pierce, the entire cabinet and 15,000 spectators listened to Stephen A. Douglas deliver the dedicatory address and saw Mills unveil the 15-ton bronze on its granite pedestal. Mills went on to cast replicas for New Orleans and Nashville.
Due to the popularity of the Jackson statue, in 1860 Congress commissioned Mills to create an equestrian statue of General George Washington. War started shortly thereafter and the original design for Washington Circle was not executed because of economic considerations.
During the early war years, Mills’ foundry also cast Thomas Crawford’s statue for the Capitol dome. Interestingly, when Mills had moved to Washington, he brought with him an enslaved apprentice named Phillip Reid. He was responsible for casting the statue and for loading its five sections onto wagons that transported them from Bladensburg, Maryland to the Capitol. The statue was placed above the Capitol Dome in 1863. In 1928, Reid was posthumously praised on the floor of the House of Representatives “for his faithful and intelligent services rendered in modeling and casting America's superb Statue of Freedom.”
Mills continued to make history. On February 11, 1865, about two months before his death, Abraham Lincoln permitted him to make a life mask of his face. This was the second and last life mask made of Lincoln.
After the war, the prolific sculptor continued to work until his death in January 1883. In the 20th century, he was honored for his achievements when the U.S. named the liberty ship (cargo) SS Clark Mills during the Second World War. In Charleston, his studio at 51 Broad St. was named a National Historic Landmark on October 15, 1966 and was listed on the National Register. A modest maker commemorates the honor.
51 Broad St. continued to make history in the 20th century when it was the law office of Charleston Mayor Thomas P. Stoney, but that is another story.
My appreciation goes to Bob Stockton, architectural historian and author of “Do You Know Your Charleston,” and Richard Donohoe for contributing to this article.