Tuesday

Ralph Letton RARE Silhouette Artist




Most information cited about LETTON, whether genealogical or as an artist, mention that he was born in 1778, at Rockville, Maryland and give the year 1825 for his death in Kentucky. If this is correct, then this LETTON married Sarah with marriage taking place in 1798 in Maryland. He moved to Kentucky in 1814, built a horse racetrack, and called it Latonia. In the Bourbon County Church records, it is mentioned that in “1822, RALPH LETTON and wife Sarah, dismissed by certificate” probably a contemporary way of saying “divorced.” At any rate, this RALPH LETTON may not be our traveling showman.

We know LETTON liked wax figures! From this single “link,” we may be able to pursue another R. LETTON, a LETTON of Ohio connection. In Henry Howe’s Historical Collections of Ohio, 1898, there is an account “Deluge of Ohio River 1832" in which Howe writes, “Mr. R. Letton, proprietor of the museum, appropriated the entire proceeds of their houses...for the relief of the sufferers.” The following account was taken from the writings of Cincinnati Art Museum, “Automated organ with moveable wax figures....This piece, commissioned by Ralph Letton, proprietor of a small private museum (Cincinnati, Ohio)....Letton and Joseph Dorfeuille, owner of the Western Museum, competed not only for local recognition as proprietors of the greatest museums in the city....” Furthermore, from the Cincinnati Enquirer dated March 9, 1998, “Ralph Letton, proprietor of Cincinnati’s Western Museum, found a spring south of Covington and called it Lettonia Springs. Either that evolved into Latonia, or the town was named for a Roman Water Goddess, Latona.” It is interesting to note that Latonia/Cincinnati area is just north of Kentucky border!

LETTON was an itinerant showman who exhibited his wax figures and as with other profilists of his time, he obtained a tracing device for making profiles to offset his business for a while. In the American Antiquarian Society, there is a trade card, “R. Letton taker of profile likeness.” This is undated. Carrick illustrates a fine broadside of LETTON, ca.1808. The silhouettes on this broadside were likely cut as an example only, for advertising, as to my knowledge, there are no identical bust form located anywhere. We know that he was in Albany, New York, with his museum of natural curiosities and wax figures, ca.1810. Price charged was a quarter for a pair of cuttings but the ones in color were $1.50. LETTON does not mention whether his colored profiles were wholly painted, like miniature portraits, or hollow-cut with some colors added. For $1.50 apiece, it was probably the latter. In either case, there must have been not very many takers for those colored profiles, as none seems to have survived. What is even odder is that even his hollow-cuts are not located. Since we know he used a machine to trace profiles, his works were predominantly that of hollow-cuts. There are no records of his blind stamp so he must not have embossed or marked any of his works.

Aside from the “shades” on his broadside, we do not know anything about his bust line, I thought. Then I found Letton or at least I think I did. These two silhouettes have uncanny resemblance to the broadside Carrick illustrates. It is almost by an accident that I found this pair. This pair sat in my unattributed lot for quite a spell. This may sound corny but I had a dream, and in that dream, someone told me that this pair is by Letton. I am quite confident of the attribution. Does anyone out there own a similar pointy bust? With Letton’s blindstamp?

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