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Camden 175th Anniversary

Camden County Historical Society

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Mayor's Office and Historical Society Act to Preserve Historic Portrait

By Hoag Levins ...| ...Oct 22, 2003

CAMDEN, N.J. -- Lord Camden, one of the most curious American heros produced by the Revolutionary War, has come to live forever at the Camden County Historical Society.
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Photo: Hoag Levins
Nearly seven feet high, the painting of Lord Camden rests in its new home, awaiting repair and restoration. See larger photo.

A portrait of the 18th-century British nobleman and jurist who backed the colonial cause was delivered to the Society's headquarters by the City of Camden last Friday. It was officially transferred on permanent loan to the Society in a public ceremony on Sunday.

Save Lord Camden
"This painting and the threads of local history it weaves together are important pieces of our culture," Society president Richard Pillatt told the gathering. "As we accept this on permanent loan from the City of Camden, we are launching a 'Save Lord Camden' drive to raise the funds needed to restore and preserve this for future generations."

The towering painting was originally created in 1928 as the city celebrated its 100th anniversary; it remained a dominant visual in the City Council Chambers until the late 1980s. Then, in an advanced state of deterioration, the full-length portrait was removed to a 4th floor hallway where it languished until early this year.

"This painting is of historic significance because of the person who is in it -- the man for whom Camden was named -- as well as the local artist who did it -- Collingswood painter Raphael Senseman," explained Rev. Tony C. Evans Sr., executive assistant to Camden Mayor Gwendolyn A. Faison and head of the city's 175th Anniversary program.

Camden's 175th Anniversary
Rev. Evans, who is also pastor of Camden's Tenth Street Missionary
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Photo: Hoag Levins
Rev. Tony C. Evans, Sr., heads the city's 175th Anniversary effort.

See Camden Events Schedule

Baptist Church, said he is counting on the Society to repair and restore the painting in time for an unveiling as part of the city's ongoing anniversary celebration which runs until February.

He recounted how he was walking down a City Hall corridor earlier this year when he stopped to study the forlorn painting propped against the wall.

"It was in bad shape but there was something about it -- I asked Robert Thompson if he knew its story," said Rev. Evans. Thompson is the City's Historic Review Specialist as well as a trustee of the Historical Society.

'A lightbulb went on'
"Thompson told me the story of Lord Camden and a lightbulb went on in my mind," said Evans. "I said this has to be part of the 175th Anniversary. We have to get this picture properly restored."

The Mayor's Office and the Historical Society devised the plan under which the city could put the painting on permanent loan and the Society would undertake the approximately $5,000 worth of specialized work required to repair and restore it.

The Society has retained Bertolino Arts, a Medford-based art conservation firm to assess the damage. Andrew Bertolino, on hand at the Sunday's event in the
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Camden City workers carefully carry the painting into the Historical Society on Friday. See larger photo.

Society's Boyer Auditorium, said the deterioration of the painting was serious but within the bounds of what can normally be fully restored.

Lord Camden's story
Program speaker Edward Fox, who is director of smart growth at the Camden County Improvement Authority in Cherry Hill and a former president of the Historical Society, laid out the details of why Lord Camden became such a hero to Colonial Americans.

Lord Camden was the title held by Charles Pratt, the highest-ranking British government official who publicly and persistently protested the Crown's actions against the Colonies. By the end of the late 1700s, he was held in such esteem on this side of the Atlantic that 26 American cities and towns were named in his honor. Camden, N.J., is the largest of those (See full text of Fox presentation).

Collingswood artist
Peter Childs, director of the Collingswood Public Library, presented an overview of the life and works of the artist who painted the Lord Camden portrait, Raphael Senseman.

Senseman was born in 1870 in Philadelphia, son of a harness maker. When he was young, his family moved to Camden and then to Collingwood. A self-taught artist,
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Photo: Hoag Levins
Peter Childs, director of the Collingswoood Library, has written a booklet about the life of Raphael Senseman. More about Senseman booklet.

he was, in his demeanor and artistic tastes, a man totally of the Victorian Age.

Senseman lived and worked in a Collingswood that was then still surrounded by large expanses of wild woodlands and streams -- his favorite subject matter. His moody paintings of bucolic landscapes (that have long since disappeared beneath the parking lots and strip malls throughout Camden County) are now his most collected and valuable works.

Childs, who has written a booklet on Senseman's life for the Historical Society, explained that the artist supported himself and his five children by painting watercolor scenes four days a week and spending two days selling his paintings door to door in the surrounding towns.

His methodology of door-to-door sales may sound quaintly strange to many modern-day readers who don't know that in the early 20th century art reproductions were not widely available. It was fashionable for even the most modest home to have one or two pieces of original art work on the walls. Senseman met a community need -- and made a living -- by cranking out large quantities of original woodland landscapes and selling them for very low prices.

"On Sundays," Childs said, "Mr. Senseman never painted. Many people remembered
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Image: CCHS
Collingswood artist Raphael Senseman at 30 years of age at the turn of the 20th century. See a typical Senseman landscape.

seeing him and his wife walking up Haddon Avenue to the Seventh Day Adventist Church every Sunday, their five children trailing behind them. He was a very religious person."

Senseman took commissions for larger works and is known to have painted wall murals for his church and portraits which he executed in oils.

The portrait of Lord Camden was one of his larger commissions. "His children -- they are still alive and in their nineties -- remembered him painting it," said Childs. "He was not a very tall man and they said he stood on a chair in his studio to do much of this painting because it was so tall."

Although not a household name, Senseman is well known across the U.S. where his realistic scenes bring modest but increasing prices.

"At the library, I get more questions about Raphael Senseman than about anybody else who has anything to do with Collingswood, including Eugene Orowitz," said Childs, using the original name of Collingswood native and actor Michael Landon."

"I get calls from everywhere, including Alaska," said Childs. "Most are from people who have purchased a Senseman at an auction or estate sale and are trying to find out more about him."

Childs said that all of Senseman's five children achieved professional success and moved away to live in locations from Massachusetts to California and, after his wife died, their father would spend much of his time visiting them. While he stayed at each location, he would continue his lifelong habit of painting local scenes four days a week and selling them door to door two days a week. Thus, large numbers of his works continue to turn up across the country.

The Senseman children estimate that during his lifetime, their father painted as many as 50,000 original works, ranging from miniature watercolors to soaring wall murals.

Senseman, who never drove a car or had a bank account during his entire life, died in 1966 at the age of 96.

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