William & Mary’s Sir Christopher Wren Building has a storied past. It is the oldest college building in the country and remains a vital part of the campus community hosting classes and campus events like last week’s Yule Log ceremony.
A hundred and fifty years ago as the Civil War raged in Williamsburg the Wren played a different role. Battles were waged on its grounds; the building served as a field hospital and was later gutted by a fire set by union soldiers.
Recently, the Special Collections Research Center at the Earl Gregg Swem Library acquired an image of the Sir Christopher Wren Building from this time period – one of just a few in its collection. Archivists were aware of the Civil War-era image, a two-sided drawing from August 1862, but knew it was privately held.
“Swem’s Special Collections include innumerable paintings, drawings, glass plate negatives, photographs, and digital images of campus, but only a handful of those images date from the time of the Civil War or earlier. The drawing provides William & Mary with an added dimension to our view of the Wren Building,” said Amy Schindler, university archivist.
The image made its way to the College through the Becker Collection housed at Boston College. As their web site notes, the Becker Collection contains otherwise unexhibited and undocumented drawings by Joseph Becker and his colleagues who worked as artist-reporters for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly Newspaper in the 19th Century. The Wren image is by James Taylor.
Initially Special Collections sought a color reproduction of the drawing, Schindler said. But the Becker Collection had other ideas.
Sheila Gallagher, associate professor of fine arts and co-director of the Becker Collection and the owner of the collection - Natalie Gallagher, Joseph Becker's great-granddaughter - decided the image deserved to come home and gifted it to the College’s Archives.
“Our feeling is that it would be best appreciated by the community at William and Mary where we hope that it would, at least some of the time, be publicly displayed,” said Sheila Gallagher in an email.
“It’s a wonderful ending to the story to have this image of the Sir Christopher Wren Building at the College almost 150 years after it was drawn,” added Schindler.
The pencil drawing depicts the rear view of the Sir Christopher Wren Building on one side and the fortifications at Yorktown on the other side. During the Civil War it was common for events to be chronicled by artists through drawings and paintings.
“You don’t often see institutions donating items from their collections to other institutions,” said Louise Kale, director of the historic campus. “This is a gesture of extraordinary generosity.”
The image is particularly special because it depicts the Wren prior to it being gutted by fire in late 1862. The Wren only looked the way it is depicted in the Taylor image for a little less than three years, noted Kale.
“It’s exciting to have this depiction of the Wren Building, directly from the artist’s hand, in our collections.” Kale said. I had seen prints of this image, but having the original is very special.”