A Memorial to Gwendolen Batchelder

On September 18, 1919, The Loomis School dedicated the Gwendolen Sedgwick Batchelder Memorial and Gwendolen Hall, the original home of the memorial and the school’s first infirmary. A ceremony held in Founders Chapel featured an address by Nathaniel Horton Batchelder, Gwendolen’s widower and the school’s first headmaster. His words told of her joyful engagement with the young school, and he added, “We come not to mourn a spirit, but to … unveil a portrait the surpassing loveliness of which shall serve to keep alive for all time a gracious and inspiring personality.”

A more intimate dedication took place the same day at the infirmary. The four recipients of the Gwendolen Sedgwick Batchelder Prize for Industry, Loyalty, and Manliness (renamed the Nathaniel Horton Batchelder Prize in the 1950s) removed a curtain to reveal the elegant marble bas relief profile portrait of Mrs. Batchelder. A seraph’s face appeared below her image, perhaps denoting the school’s grief over Gwendolen’s unexpected passing in February 1917, just two weeks after the birth of her first child. The bas relief was installed in a graceful vaulted alcove, designed by Murphy and Dana, the school’s original architects. The alcove walls, painted white, provided a feeling of respite and subtle contrast with the marble’s smooth gray surface. Festoons, cast from marble dust and plaster set onto the walls and painted white, flanked the memorial and decorated the facing wall. Mr. Batchelder referred to this as “our little sacred spot.”

A series of letters written by Mr. Batchelder and the memorial’s artist, Evelyn Longman, offer a rare glimpse into the process of designing a work of art. Begun in May 1918, the letters span a year and are, at times, business correspondence and, at others, more a conversation about art, architecture, and memorialization. Longman’s friends and colleagues; architect Henry Bacon, known for his work on the Lincoln Memorial; and marble carvers from the highly regarded Picirilli family consulted on the project and are mentioned in the letters.

Mr. Batchelder began by sending Longman photos of the school, noting that the chapel, the garden, and Memorial Hall in Founders “were very particularly Mrs. Batchelder’s creation. … I think you will feel [her] personality, and know what to do.” As Longman and the headmaster forged plans for the details of the memorial, the artist worked up pencil sketches, a plaster maquette, and a large scale model. John E. Barss, in whose Lakeville, Connecticut, living room Nathaniel and Gwendolen had courted, submitted two suggested inscriptions. Mr. B was satisfied with neither, saying “Th[ese words are] all true, and it is said in choice language, but it is not at all Mrs. Batchelder. Her gift was a buoyant and overflowing spirit, and this language is notable only for its care and restraint.” In the end, the memorial bears only Gwendolen’s name. A studio photograph of Gwendolen served as inspiration for the portrait with Longman adding a lily and the seraph to the composition.

The school’s Trustees approved one of Longman’s more restrained designs and agreed to spend $3,900 on the memorial (an amount equivalent to more than $61,000 in today’s money). This expenditure was not without discussion. Mr. B wrote to Longman, “I wish I could go into it without regard for expense; I’d mortgage my soul to have it just right, but … in this time of insistent calls from the Red Cross and other war charities, I can’t possibly justify such an expenditure as [the more] complete treatment would necessitate.”

Over the course of their letters, Batchelder and Longman accomplished what they set out to do in designing the memorial. But they also discovered a shared fondness that transcended their project. Mr. B wrote to Evelyn on May 1, 1919, (the final letter in the series): “There! — I haven’t taken a deep breath all day. It’s near midnight and I’m still surrounded by litter, with a gorged waste basket spilling over onto the floor, but I’m going to have a quiet moment with you about the tablet. I’m glad you feel that the effect is improved by the slight changes I suggested. Most critics would have considered it already perfect.” Batchelder and Longman exchanged wedding vows in June of 1920, forging a creative, productive marriage of two successful careers. The memorial was the first of many collaborative design projects that grace the campus today.

In April 2015, art conservator Adam Jenkins and a team of art handlers removed the memorial from its original alcove in preparation for the demolition of Gwendolen Hall. After cleaning the object in his Philadelphia studio, Mr. Jenkins and the team returned in August to reinstall the memorial in the new Gwendolen Health Center, located on the lower level of Richmond Hall.