Nathaniel Bowditch Statue

December 1, 2011

The Nathaniel Bowditch Statue, created by R. Ball Hughes, is regarded as one of the sculptor’s best works.

When Nathaniel Bowditch (1773-1838) died, the passing of the noted mathematician, astronomer, and navigator was mourned around the world. “As long as ships shall sail, the needle point to the north, and the stars go through their wonted courses in the heavens, the name of DR. BOWDITCH will be revered,” the Salem Marine Society wrote (Salem Marine Society Eulogy, On the Death of Nathaniel Bowditch, 1838). A celebrated scientist, Bowditch was the author of The New American Practical Navigator. The Guide, published in 1802 and printed in over 70 editions, made sea travel far safer, and ships, including U.S. commissioned naval vessels, still carry it today.

In 1843 Boston leaders, whose trading ventures to the East Indies and Africa had greatly benefitted from Bowditch’s perfection of navigation techniques, formed an association to build a monument in honor of the Salem native. “The public gratitude is raising an appropriate monument to his memory, at Mount Auburn, expressive of the simple grandeur of his genius and fame, which will arrest the attention of every traveler to that sacred and beautiful retreat of the dead,” Daniel White said in his eulogy of Bowditch (Daniel Appleton White, An Eulogy on the Life and Character of Nathaniel Bowditch, p. 55).

In 1847 the statue was completed by Robert Ball Hughes (1806-1868), the distinguished English-born sculptor, and cast by the Boston Foundry Gooding and Gavette. The first life-size bronze cast in the United States, the commanding statue depicts Bowditch seated on a granite Egyptian-style pedestal, a globe and a sexton on his left, and Mechanique Celeste, the book he translated, resting on his right knee.

“Nathaniel Bowditch was a self-made man and exemplary New England citizen, just the kind of character that Mount Auburn’s founders hoped to celebrate in their new Cemetery,” according to Meg L. Winslow, Mount Auburn’s Curator of Historical Collections. Nathaniel Bowditch is buried in his family lot at Mount Auburn on Tulip Path. Regarded as one of R. Ball Hughes’ best works, the statue is a cenotaph.

Mount Auburn placed the statue on the rise of the first hill just above the Cemetery entrance and surrounded it with an iron fence and plantings that created a protected, ornamental space for the majestic piece. “It was by far the most elaborate form attempted to date for an individual in any American funerary setting,” historian Blanche Linden-Ward explains (Silent City on a Hill: Landscapes of Memory and Boston’s Mount Auburn Cemetery, p. 237).

By the 1880s severe weathering had caused cracks to appear in the bronze and the metal to begin to scale off. The Bowditch family sent the statue to be recast at the Gruet Foundry in Paris in 1886. Over time, the surface of the second casting had become streaked with a light green and black copper sulfate and carbonate corrosion. The protective coating was exhibiting an ashy flat brown appearance and the tones and textures of these accretions were beginning to obscure the details of the sculpture.

Before conservation.

After conservation.

Conservation treatment during the summer of 2011 included filling in cracks and pits, removing the build-up of coatings and corrosion, and cleaning the bronze, which uncovered a striking green color. The treatment, undertaken by one of the leading art conservation firms in the country, Daedalus, Inc., of Watertown, Mass., has not only preserved the magnificent memorial, but also brought to light the original color and details of the life-size bronze cast. Early photographs in the Cemetery’s Historical Collections Department provided clues about the statue’s original condition and helped to determine the final patination color as did other casts known to the conservators that came out of the Gruet foundry in Paris. Conservators heated the bronze, applied patinating chemicals, covered the statue with an acrylic coating, and then waxed and buffed the bronze, which now exhibits a lovely deep brown color.

The treatment enables future visitors to appreciate the fine details of the cenotaph-from Bowditch’s pensive gaze to the soft folds in his robe-and ensure the long-term preservation of the statue and sensitive depiction of the man of science described as “a guide to [his fellow-men] over the pathless ocean, and as one who forwarded the great interests of mankind.” (Salem Marine Society, 1838).

Daedalus, Inc., also worked on the life-size plaster cast of Nathaniel Bowditch in the collection of the Boston Athenaeum. (See: Boston Athenaeum E-newsletter: November 2010, Volume 4, Issue 11 “The Conservation of a Historic American Masterpiece.”)

Adapted from the “Preservation Highlight” written by Melissa Banta for the September 2011 issue of the Friends of Mount Auburn electronic newsletter. Melissa Banta is a Historical Collections Consultant for Mount Auburn Cemetery.

About the Author: Melissa Banta

Consulting Curator, Historical Collections View all posts by Melissa Banta →


  1. Judi says:

    I have gone by this piece of beauty all of my 61 years going to family graves and always wondered about it. Thank you for you writing I has gained so much by reading it . My family has long roots with the Mt Auburn ,my grandfather was a gardener there now over a 100 years ago. Many of the ponds and trees are a piece of his life work and family pride.

    • Jennifer Johnston says:

      Thank you Judi! So wonderful that you have a family connection to Mount Auburn and that you continue to enjoy coming here six decades on.

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