For many years, a ghostly black and white photograph of William Ellery Channing (1780-1842) looked down from over the fireplace in the Parish Hall of Channing Memorial Church. The image of the Unitarian minister reminded the congregation of our unique connection to the Newport native who defined American Unitarianism in the early nineteenth century. However, whenever I looked into his face, I could not help but think he looked sad and weary.
Last year, I was approached by the Rev. Dr. Carl Scovel who inquired if our church had a Channing portrait by Spiriodione Gambardella. When I told him about our photograph, Carl explained that he had a copy of the painting that he would like to entrust to the care of a congregation bearing Channing’s name.
I took the opportunity pay a visit to Rev. Scovel and see the painting first hand. How refreshing to see William Ellery Channing in color! I was delighted to discover Channing had blue eyes. The portrait has a vibrancy that our photo did not convey.
In fact, this was the one likeness with which Channing himself was satisfied. In a letter to his son, dated 1835, Channing complained of existing paintings of him by Gilbert Stuart, Chester Harding and Charles C. Ingham, as well as a pencil sketch by Edward G. Malbone and a bust by Persico: “I am certainly not vain of my exterior. My countenance would not make me many friends, I fear. What has troubled me in my different portraits is, not that they have not given me a more intellectual expression, but that so little benevolence has beamed from my features. I have learned with the Apostle, to prefer charity to all knowledge; and if I am to be handed down to posterity, I should be pleased to speak from the stone or canvass, or rather to breathe from it, good-will to mankind.”
Channing wrote to his son in 1838, “Mr. Gambardella has succeeded in his work. My friends are entirely satisfied with the picture. It is not only a good likeness, but a meritorious work of art. After so many unsuccessful attempts, this poor face is faithfully transferred to canvas, and, on the whole, is better worth looking at than I supposed.”
Two copies were made of the original by Gambardella, which is owned by Harvard Divinity School. One copy was made in 1867 by Darius Cobb (1834-1903) and Cyrius Cobb (1834-1919) twin brothers who often worked together is owned by Arlington Street Church in Boston, the congregation William Ellery Channing served for his entire ministry.
The artist of the second copy was a contemporary of the Cobb brothers but remains unknown. However the painting holds a special place in the history of liberal religion as it hung in the study of the Rev. Dr. Dana McLean Greeley who was the first President of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Dana Greeley was also Carl Scovel’s father-in-law. Since Carl inherited the painting, he felt that it should be hung in a church dedicated to Channing. The painting was cleaned and the gilt frame restored by Peter Williams’ Museum Services in Boston who also happens to be a Unitarian Universalist.
It is truly an honor to receive a painting that holds such an important place in the history of our liberal religious movement. As a part of the service on Sunday, November 4th, the Rev. Dr. Carl Scovel will preach and the portrait of William Ellery Channing will be dedicated and hung in our Sanctuary. All are welcome to this historic and meaningful event!