The Civil War had barely ended when, on December 11th, 1867, Sarah Victoria Whittlesey Pratt, age 36, gave birth in Norwich Connecticut to her fourth child, Bela Lyon Pratt. Sarah’s father, Oramel Whittlesey, had founded the first conservatory of music in New England, Music Vale Seminary in Salem, Connecticut. Her husband, George Pratt, a graduate of Yale University and a lawyer, was the son of the first Bela Lyon Pratt of East Weymouth, Massachusetts.
As Sarah Victoria held her infant boy, Bela Lyon Pratt, in her arms, it is doubtful she had any inkling that, by the turn of the century, he would already have carved out a strong artistic reputation for himself. However, given that she herself had been raised in an artistic atmosphere surrounded by music and art, it was likely that she might indeed encourage her child to follow such a path. By the time Bela was five years old, she had recorded on a little piece of notepaper:
One day after Bela had passed his 5th birthday our family physician chanced to be at our house. On the stand in my mother’s room stood some tiny models of a cat, dog, horse, a deer and other animals. The doctor picked them up and exclaimed: ‘Who made these?’ My mother, rather impatiently said ‘Bela pinches them out of beeswax. I can’t keep a bit of wax in my workbasket. He always plays with it.’
‘Why! Don’t you realize that child is a genius? He is a born sculptor!’ announced the physician, greatly to my mother’s astonishment.
I distinctly remember hearing her discussing the matter with my father in the evening. Thereafter, Bela was allowed to ‘play’ with beeswax to his great delight. As soon as he could use a knife, he began to carve various objects, which were much admired by his playmates. There happened to be a neighbor on the next street who heard of Bela’s talent. She had taken some lessons in modeling and sent word to Bela by one of the children saying she would give him some clay if he would come see her. He went, received the clay and at once modeled a lion’s head!
Bela Lyon Pratt was a quiet, unassuming family man. According to all reports, he was renowned for his generosity, humor and kindness. His love of music lead him to play cello, guitar and oboe much to his family’s delight. He had a wry sense of humor which often carried him through times of “blues” and anxieties over finances. Life for this busy man, who created more than 180 pieces of sculpture in less than fifty hears, circled around his home in Jamaica Plain MA, his studio, his professorship as head of the Sculpture Department at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. He frequently lunched at Boston’s exclusive Tavern Club. He golfed, fished, played billiards and even established the N.E archery club, all this with his colleagues and wide circle of friends. His extended family often included brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews, who spent summers on North Haven Island, Maine, where, at his closest friend, Frank Weston Benson’s recommendation, he purchased property in 1903 on Bartlett’s Harbor, a short walk through the woods to Benson’s home and studio. To round out this New England Yankee’s very full life of work and play, he eventually owned a sizeable farm and several houses on and around the old family residence in Salem CT. There he enjoyed farming activities such as raising chickens and cows. He even, as a cash flow enterprise, planted pear and apple trees as well as vast crops of potatoes!
His early death on May 18th, 1917, at age 49, sealed shut the solid reputation he had built as a Beaux Arts, deeply American sculptor. He had helped form and become a vital part of the Boston School of Art, but it had to move ahead without his shining light.
Neither exotic nor scandalous, Pratt’s life cannot be characterized as “titillating” as can be said of many of his contemporaries. His death came at a time when the art scene was shifting away from European influence to a truly American School. Although his sculptures reflected little of the more “modern” cubist school, the character of his pieces was always clearly American in their demeanor.
Pratt’s wife, Helen Lugarda Pray Pratt, also a fine sculptor herself, carefully preserved quantities of photographs of his works, numerous articles referring to his work, as well as historic letters and documents. Most fortunately for us, she refrained from chucking his weekly personal hand-written letters, unselfconsciousness in their nature, which he had obligatorily written to his mother, Sarah Victoria Whittlesey Pratt over the years. Within these letters are snapshots of the Beaux Art period in Paris France and in America.. They tell of his colleagues, his family, his struggles and successes, all the while defining what is now referred to as “The Boston School of Art.” They are a veritable treasure trove of information, carved from his own hand.
It’s been a long time coming, but finally, Bela Lyon Pratt, eminent American sculptor enters the 21st century!
Take your time. Delve in. Follow the transformation of a work of sculpture from the initial idea to reality. Learn about the craft of modeling in clay. Discover history on the way. Get to know the players. And finally, connect this amazing, unpretentious man to his works, all 180 of them! And, don’t forget, there are multitudes of “unfinished” or “uncommissioned” works to consider too!!
Cynthia (Pratt) Kennedy Sam
May 18th, 2011 - 94 years to the day after my grandfather passed.
This article and photograph provided courtesy of the Bela Lyon Pratt Historical Society. Copyright 2011, Bela Lyon Pratt Historical Society, All Rights Reserved. For more information, please visit the Bela Lyon Pratt Historical Society web site at: http://www.belalyonpratt.com/