- Historic Sites
THE STRANGE FORGOTTEN LIFE OF AMERICA’S OTHER BEN FRANKLIN, BY AN AUTHOR SO FASCINATED HE’S WRITING A NOVEL ABOUT HIM
September 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 5
“‘My principal design,’ he said, ‘is to fix the attention of my readers on a subject which is highly interesting and deserving of the most serious consideration. I wish to inspire cooks with a just idea of the importance of their art. In what other art could improvements be made that would more powerfully contribute to the enjoyments of mankind?”
We have no indication, however, that Rumford liked to eat. He wrote precise instructions on how best to consume a pudding but was himself abstemious, indifferent to food. A peculiar blend of the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries—the enlightened and the romantic spirit—informs his life and work. He was vainglorious in the extreme yet took out no patents and wanted no payment for his inventions; a self-made man and social climber, he upheld established order with real zeal. He loved to live near royalty and gloried in their favor, yet his labors were unceasing for the “improvement” of the poor.
Further, and for all his individual attainments, Thompson represents a kind of eighteenth-century man—the willing tinkerer, the autodidact, and the polymath—not easy to reconstitute in our present age. Though his career seems the stuff of romance, his approach to adventure was matter-of-fact. A solitary searcher in the mode of Goethe’s Faustus, he moved from court to court. Only with the advent of the Romantics did we turn introspective or self-searching; this lifelong wanderer appears to have spent nearly no time at all looking back over his shoulder at what he left behind. So his legacies (to a college he did not attend, an army he betrayed, and a daughter he abandoned) may have entailed neither self-awareness nor an attempt at restitution; he was persuaded of his own merit and the gratitude deserved. He died long before the photograph, in a time when those who wished to represent their circumstance and to register importance would commission a portrait in oil. In the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts, we have one enduring image of the man and the face.
He sits for Thomas Gainsborough in Schomberg House, Pall Mall. It is 1783; the artist is fifty-six years old, near the end of his career. Thompson—at thirty—wears his white cravat and red coat and holds his black hat balanced in the crook of his left elbow. His wig is gray and thick on top, brushed straight back from his forehead, then curling at his ears.
It is not a full-length portrait. The canvas is rectangular, and within that rectangle the painter sets an oval. Within this framed interior Thompson’s face and chest emerge—so that the effect is of a cameo, the head its own medallion. The background wall is russet, the oval darker brown. They both have been painted lightly, in advance. There is no attempt at furniture or landscape, no secondary figure in the scene. Gainsborough provides Rumford with no hands or lap or legs. It is faster that way, and cheaper. He draws no horse or hunting dogs or cannon or flowering tree.
At the two sides of the canvas, however, in addition to the lower edge, the oval is truncate. This suggests a space beyond. It is as though the king’s dragoon might burst into the world outside the frame’s perimeter—a trick of composition so that, lifelike, he escapes confinement. Had the canvas been three inches larger, the secondary form of the medallion that contains him would itself have been contained. Perspective renders circular the slope of his shoulders, the arc of the lapel and corner of his hat. His buttons too are circles, and they echo the motif. The perpendicular bisector of the canvas is a plumb line dropping from his nose to mouth to chin.
What the painter saw and captured is a man no longer young. The king’s dragoon displays his costume well. He bears himself erect. The nose and chin are strong. The gaze is clear, unwinking yet abstracted; a half-smile—as of some private joke, some inner rumination—plays about the lips. He is resting, not irresolute; he waits for the impulse and then for permission to move. The forehead high and white, the lines about the mouth, the hint in the texture of the skin of hardships weathered—all these the painter caught. He fashioned of impermanence its opposite, a permanence, a dissolution stayed.