Historical Markers
Abolition Hall [Thomas Hovendon] Historical Marker
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Abolition Hall [Thomas Hovendon]

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
4006 Butler Pike, Plymouth Meeting

Dedication Date:
November 18, 2000

Behind the Marker

This 1795 farm house, with a barn added in 1858, was a site where history was both made and then artistically documented. In 1833, Joseph and George Corson were two of the founders of the Plymouth Meeting Anti-Slavery Society. Until the Civil War George's farm, with the support of this quiet old Quaker community, served as a major station, on the Underground Railroad that conveyed African Americans escaping slavery further north. In 1858, Corson built the barn, known as "Abolition Hall," where local anti-slavery advocates met to plan strategy and rally support.

George Corson's daughter, Helen, was a talented artist who painted cats, birds, dogs, and other animals for their owners in the Philadelphia area. In 1881, she married well-known artist Thomas Hovenden. Born in Dunmanway, County Cork, Ireland, in 1840, Hovenden was only six when his parents died during the infamous potato famine.
Oil on canvas of the illuminated, beautiful Lady Elaine, lying lifeless in her bed, with her mourners gathered around her. From the legends of King Arthur.
Death of Elaine, by Thomas Hovenden, 1882.
Apprenticed to a wood carver, he showed early artistic talent and was sent to the Cork School of Design to learn decorative skills. Instead, he acquired a taste for heroic subjects and historical paintings that never left him.

In 1863, Hovenden moved to New York City, and then to Baltimore, where the prominent art collector William Walters sponsored him and then sent him to France. From 1874 to 1880, he lived in the artists' colony at Pont-Aven in Brittany, where he painted scenes from peasant life and two well-received images of farmers who resisted the tyranny of the French Revolution – "The Vendean Volunteer" (1878) and "In Hoc Signo Vinces" [In This Sign Conquer] (1880) where the cross appears to the revolting peasants. The latter work made him famous and when he returned that year to the United States collectors clamored for him to execute historical works. There, too, he met Helen Corson.

In 1881 Hovenden moved into his father-in-law's house in Plymouth Meeting, where he converted Abolition Hall into his studio. Claiming to hear "the voice of [abolitionists] markerLucretia Mott, Frederick Douglass, and many other famous people within its solid walls time and again," [Philadelphia Times, Feb. 23, 1891], he turned to painting scenes from American history. A modest man who lived simply and embraced his in-laws' Quaker faith, Hovenden became one of the nation's most famous artists. "The Last Moments of John Brown" (1884) –which he spent two years researching for accuracy–"In The Hands of the Enemy" (1889) -showing a Union family carefully tending the Confederate wounded at Gettysburg - and
Oil on canvas painting of a family gathered in the home saying goodbye to their departing son, who is leaving home to go earn a living. Mother and son are the central figures. Father's back faces the viewer as he heads to the doorway, while carrying the son's bag. Younger siblings appear melancholy, as does Grandmother, who sits at the family dining table. Even the expression of the family pet dog shows concern.
Breaking Home Ties, by Thomas Hovendon.
"Breaking Home Ties" (1893) - in which a young man leaves his mother to set out in the world–were all immensely popular, the latter being voted the favorite painting (of over a thousand) at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

In 1886, Hovenden succeeded markerThomas Eakins as the principal painting instructor at the markerPennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts after the latter was forced to resign for inappropriate use of nude models. The Academy had no worries with Hovenden, for he opposed the impressionist and modern art that did not have the morally edifying purpose he expected in art. Hovenden died suddenly in 1895, when he was run over by a train at Germantown while trying to rescue a small girl who had wandered onto the tracks. After his death, art critics and collectors for decades dismissed his work as old-fashioned. Only in 1995, the centenary of his death, did an exhibition and catalogue appear of the artist who, with fellow Pennsylvanian markerPeter Frederick Rothermel, was regarded the United States' best-known painter of heroic scenes in the Civil War era.
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