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last update: Febr. 2014

Trotsky sculptors
– Survey –

This chapter of TrotskyanaNet contains:


A feature about Duncan P. Ferguson –
 sculptor and Trotskyist (1901-1974)

[Alan M. Wald (b. 1946), professor in the English Literature Department at the University of Michigan, renowned historian of American Trotskyism and writer on the U.S. cultural left, provided an excellent and rich essay on the life and fate of Duncan Pomeroy Ferguson (Jan. 1, 1901 - Apr. 29, 1974) some years ago:
Wald, Alan: Sculptor on the left : Duncan Ferguson's search for wholeness, in: Pembroke Magazine, 19.1987, pp. 32-56. Reprinted in: Wald, Alan M.: The responsibility of intellectuals : selected essays on Marxist traditions in cultural commitment, Atlantic Highlands, NJ., 1992, pp. 3-38.
Our short biographical sketch is chiefly based upon Wald's article.]

Duncan P. Ferguson (1901-1974)

Duncan Ferguson was born on January 1, 1901 in Shanghai, China, as son of American citizen John Calvin Ferguson (1866-1945) and his second wife Mary who died in 1938. J.C. Ferguson had taken a degree in theology from Boston University before he went to China in 1887 on behalf of the Methodist Episcopal Church to establish Nanking University of which he became the first president. He soon became an expert on Chinese art, too, and the owner and publisher of two Shanghai newspapers, Sin Wan Pao and the Shanghai Times, while his career extended into the area of Chinese government service. From 1907 the Ferguson family — besides his younger brother Peter there were six elder brothers and sisters — partly lived in various cities in China, partly in Newton, USA.

Duncan Ferguson was educated at colleges in Rhode Island and Massuchusetts; he did some studies in economics and English literature at Harvard University but soon became addicted to classical music before discovering a tremendous longing to become a sculptor. Thus he began to study clay modeling and plaster casting with A.H. Atkins and R. Laurent in Rhode Island and New York. He left Brown University where he had received a teaching appointment in the English Department and instead took a position in Harvard's Fine Arts Department. In the meanwhile Ferguson had married Mary Manley; they separated in 1926.

Following a psychological crisis (in 1924 he attempted suicide and was hospitalized; in his later life he sometimes should exhibit suicidal behaviour and threaten suicide, too) he eventually became established as a sculptor of distinction, creating a large number of works of sculpture always remarkable for their classical serenity and great individuality. He settled in New York, his accomodations were poor. His works were displayed at various galleries and museums, e.g. the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum. In 1929 a one-man art show at Halpert's Downtown Gallery marked the zenith of his New York period. In 1931 he married his second wife, Alice Decker; this marriage, however, ended when Alice left him in 1936.

In the mid-1930s, he began an academic career joining Louisiana State University, becoming instructor first, then assistant professor (sculpture, wood carving, stone cutting). At that time he also received a series of commissions occupying him with architectural sculpture such as reliefs. In 1939 Duncan Ferguson, under the strong influence by social psychologist Richard Louis Schanck, underwent some fundamental transformations in political thinking, social behaviour and personal habits. He got radicalized and soon called himself a Trotskyist. He left New Orleans, where he had married his third wife, Demila Sanders (1911-2006), and went to Gambier, Ohio, where Schanck owned a house.

At the end of 1941 Demila went to New York, shortly thereafter Duncan Ferguson also arrived there, and they took a loft at West 21st Street. Demila and Duncan Ferguson met with Socialist Workers Party leaders J.P. Cannon, A. Goldman and F. Morrow and soon became active members of the SWP. After having rejected the offer to become chairman of the Arts Department of Queens College, he found employment at Crucible Steel plant where he worked as a lathe operator (according to Demila, Ferguson was "the best goddamned lathe hand that Crucible Steel ever had") and could win the respect of many co-workers as well as of SWP party members. Thus, he became a shop steward at Crucible Steel and a delegate to SWP's national conventions.

In January 1944 the Fergusons went to Mexico on behalf of the SWP in order to take care for Leon Trotsky's widow, Natal'ia Sedova, who continued to live in the house at Coyoacán, a suburb of Mexico City, where Leon Trotsky had been assassinated in August 1940. While Duncan never complained about the conditions in Coyoacán, Demila did so and thus she left Mexico at the end of 1944; Duncan followed her to New York some months later and continued his party work in the New York branch of the SWP. For many years he was indeed a very active party member, writing articles under his party name 'Duncan Conway' or 'Donn and De' [a pseudonym used by Duncan and Demila], did translations from the French and on several occasions he carried out full-time party assignments. In the 1940s he was member of the National Committee of the Civil Rights Committee, for several years he ran Pioneer Publishers (the SWP publishing house) and from 1956 to 1958 he was managing editor of International Socialist Review, the theoretical journal of the SWP. Later he was a member of the National Control Commission of the SWP.

Among the few pieces of sculpture which Duncan Ferguson completed after becoming chiefly a party worker, was a bust of James P. Cannon and the plaster head of Leon Trotsky. Since tensions in their marriage had intensified dramatically, Demila left her husband as did his first two wives before. After a period of depression following Demila's departure, Duncan related with Laura Slobe (1909-1958), an artist and like himself a member of the SWP (party name: Laura Gray), but the affair with her already ended after a few years, long before she died in 1958. By the mid-1950s Duncan Ferguson's health condition, both mentally and physically, worsened, so that he had to abandon his job as carpenter, living chiefly on money which was provided by his family including dividends from stock left to him by his father who had died in 1945.

He married once again, Cleo Bell, a ceramist, and became committed to making some artistic comeback. In the meanwhile he had settled in Cleveland where he advanced to a new and final stage in his effort to unify his political and artistic lives. Troubles in his personal life continued and his relationship with Cleo followed the same trajectory as had his previous marriages. In the 1960s he suffered a large stroke followed by some small ones, causing severe neurological problems. He spent his last years of life partly in Cleveland, partly in Southern California. By the end of 1971 he knew that his time was running out. In 1973 he discovered that he had advanced cancer. He definitively went to California for treatment but it was too late. Filled with a sense of almost total frustration of his life in his final years, he slipped into a coma and died in a nursing home at Santa Monica, Cal., on April 29, 1974.

"The name of Duncan Ferguson does not appear in any recent histories of American sculpture. His works now sit shrouded in the basements of the Whitney and other museums that once displayed them. To some, Ferguson's search for wholeness in his political and artistic lives may seem but a footnote to contemporary cultural history. Yet his struggle and fate were shared by a number of artists and intellectuals who had been transformed by the social struggles of the 1930s. His troubled life also embodies important issues still faced by artistic and intellectual rebels who seek to fuse their cultural practice with political radicalism. In that sense he left a lifetime of activities well worth consideration. Also left is a personality aura that will live as long as those who knew him have memory" [Wald, Alan: Sculptor on the left, in: Wald, Alan: The responsibility of intellectuals, Atlantic Highlands, NJ, 1992, p.36]

The Duncan Ferguson papers are held in the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution (Washington, DC). They comprise some 6 linear ft. of correspondence with his wives, friends and family, as well as photographs of himself, the Ferguson family, his sculptures and reliefs, and last not least printed material from the SWP, the Civil Rights Committee etc.

A feature about Clare Consuelo Sheridan –
 sculptress, novelist, journalist, traveller (1885-1970)
Short biographical sketch

Clare Sheridan (1885-1970), photograph from 1920

Clare Consuelo Sheridan was a renowned sculptress, novelist, newspaper correspondent, career women and traveller, always leading an adventurous and tempestuous life.

Her maiden name was Frewen. She was born in London on September 9, 1885 as daughter of a British nobleman, Moreton Frewen, and his wife Clara Jerome, one of three daughters of an American milllionaire. One of Clara Jerome's sisters, and thus Clare Frewen's aunts, was Lady Randolph Churchill, mother of Sir Winston Spencer Churchill, who later became Britain's famous World War II prime minister, so that Clare Frewen was his cousin. Growing up with her two brothers in a wealthy family, she spent her childhood and youth primarily in Inishannon, Ireland, where her father was owner of inherited estates; he was owner of a large London house in Chesham Place and of a 14th century house in Sussex, too. It was said, that Clare Sheridan (Frewen) always considered herself Irish. She was educated in England, Ireland, at the Convent of the Assumption, Paris, and at Darmstadt, Germany.

In 1910 she married stockbroker Wilfred Sheridan from Dorset who was a direct descendent of the famous dramatist Richard Brinsley Sheridan (author e.g. of The school for scandal). They got three children, but the second daughter, Elizabeth, died of meningitis only after a few months of life. Clare Sheridan is said to have taken up sculpting shortly after the death of Elizabeth, discovering her talent as a sculptress when modelling a weeping angel for the Elizabeth's grave. Since her husband was killed as soldier in France in September 1915, war-widow Clare Sheridan had to support herself, her young daughter Margaret and her son Richard Brinsley. who was born just a few days before his father's death. She moved to London and soon turned professional, i.e. to the execution of portrait busts after having taken lessons from sculptors John Tweed and Prof. Edouard Lanteri.

At the end of the First World War, she had established herself as a distinguished sculptress of excellent portrait busts. Among her sitters were such prominent men and women like Guglielmo Marconi, Lord Asquith, Gladys Cooper, H.G. Wells and of course her cousin Winston Churchill (she again sculpted a bust of her cousin in 1942/43, replica of which can be admired at various places all over England), Mahatma Gandhi (in 1931), Lord Birkenhead, and Marie of Roumania. When in Summer 1920 a Soviet Russian trade delegation, consisting of L. Krassin, G. Litvinov and others, visited London she got an invitation to Moscow in order to make busts of some of the leading Russian revolutionaries. Although her family was upset — quite understandable taking into consideration Sir Winston Churchill's eminent rôle as an anti-Bolshevik crusader — Clare Sheridan traveled to Moscow in autumn 1920, and among her sitters there were Trotsky, Lenin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Dzherzhinskii. In London she had done a head of Krassin, too. [Read more about her Trotsky bust]

One year before her Moscow trip she held her first exhibition at Grosvenor Gallery, London. A series of other exhibitions followed. Her Lenin bronze head was even displayed at the Royal Academy, in 1924. Clare Sheridan was not only a talented sculptress but in 1922 became European correspondent of the American newspaper New York World. Furthermore she became a tireless traveller — often her journeys were accomplished by motor bicycle with sidecar — and an author of many books about these travels and about her adventurous and eventful life. She made interviews with statesmen and dictators like for example Mussolini, Mustafa Kemal, Primo de Rivera, Stamboulski, Obregón; she lived with Indian tribes in Canada and in the U.S. for several months, she camped with Charlie Chaplin in California, she travelled Turkey, Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Germany and so on.

In 1921 a narrative of her trip to Soviet Russia appeared with title Russian portraits, followed by a considerable number of other more or less autobiographical books (see our Selective list below). One of her books, To the four winds, ran as a best seller.

Clare Sheridan maintained several homes, one in Galway (Irish Republic), one in London and one called Brede Place in Sussex; during the 1920s and 1930s she spent altogether 8 years near Biskra, an oasis town in French Algeria, where she returned to once again in 1954.

During World War II she began woodcarving and devoted her art more and more to religious themes (e.g. Archangel Michael, Head of Mary, Madonna and Holy Child). During a journey to Italy shortly after the end of the War, she converted to Catholicizm. In 1960 she took up residence in the guest house lodge of the Franciscan Convent, Hope Castle at Castleblayney.

Clare Sheridan died at 84 on May 31, 1970 and was buried near Brede Place, Sussex.
An obituary in The Times summarized: "She was a woman of varied talents which throughout a long life she developed with uninhibited zest and success" (The Times, June 2, 1970).

Some biographical sketches as well as comprehensive biographies about Clare Sheridan have been published, see our Selective list below. One of the booklength biographies was written by Anita Leslie, a granddaughter of Leonie Jerome, a sister of Clare Sheridan's mother; the book describes Sheridan's life intimately and with much understanding and humour. The flap of the biography [Leslie, Anita: Clare Sheridan, New York, 1977] sums up about Clare Sheridan:

"She was beautiful, fearsome, an English aristocrat, a communist spy, a loose woman, a doting mother, an impossible parent, an inspired artist, a respected professional journalist, and a middling novelist. She was also imperious (if often penniless), restless, reckless, and liable to pop up anytime, anywhere and anyone — often trailing ominous whiffs of scandal behind her — infuriating, rude, lovable, brave and vulnerable. To those who came to know Clare Sheridan she was certain to be regarded, in time, as at least one of the above. And to herself? 'What am I but a human being? A widow struggling to support her children'".
The 'Bolshevik cousin'

In recent years there appeared some articles in the British press according to which Clare Sheridan had given information to Russian agents. Thus for example The Independent published an article on November 28, 2002 (p.3) titled Churchill's Bolshevik cousin was Soviet informer in which one can read the following:

"Clare Sheridan also passed on conversations with Churchill and other politicians to William Ewer, who was a key figure in Soviet intelligence [...] MI5 viewed her as a 'consistently anti-British person who should be treated with extreme caution' [...] MI5 recorded that she preached Bolshevism in Rome in 1922 and two years later, her files state, she 'conducted herself in a disloyal manner in various countries, adopting a consistently anti-British attitude'. She was still being monitored in 1942".

Another version, however, was offered by The Herald (Glasgow), Nov. 28, 2002:

"It's possible that Churchill hoped to use his cousin as part of some intelligence operation since her personal contacts offered a channel to top bolsheviks, but the episode is still wrapped in some degree of mystery".
The Trotsky bust

Clare Sheridan gave some lively narratives of her trip to Moscow (autumn 1920) in some of her partly autobiographical books, primarily in Russian portraits (London, 1921) and in Ich, meine Kinder und die Grossmächte der Welt — ein Lebensbuch unserer Zeit (Leipzig, 1928). On the pages of these books Sheridan gave a detailed report about the making of the Trotsky bust (October 1920), about her long conversations with War Commissar and Red Army chief Leon Trotsky during the sessions and about certain peculiarities of his facial expression, physiognomy etc. as viewed by a sculptress who did not at all hide her admiration and affection. She nearly went with Trotsky to the Southern front. Here's a short quotation from her recollections:

"I asked him to take off his pince-nez, as they hampered me. He hates doing this, he says he feels désarmé and absolutely lost without them. It seemed akin to physical pain taking them off - they have become part of him and the loss of them completely changes his individuality. It is a pity, as they rather spoil an otherwise classical head." [Sheridan, Clare: Russian portraits, London, 1921, p. 140].

By the way, Jean Van Heijenoort, who had spent seven years with Trotsky as a secretary and guard and several decades later published his recollections of Trotsky, didn't think it impossible that there was a love affair:

"I am inclined to believe that he had had a number of affairs in the course of his life. In 1920, while Clare Sheridan was modeling a portrait bust of Trotsky in his office in the Kremlin, there had been an element of flirtation in Trotsky's conversation with her and in his general attitude towards her". [Van Heijenoort, Jean: With Trotsky in exile. Cambridge, Mass., 1978, p.114]

In a letter addressed to her cousin Shane Leslie (dated Oct. 23, 1920) Sheridan wrote about her encounter with Trotsky:

"He is a charming personality with a keen forceful sensitive face and a particularly delightful voice — we have discussed everything from Shakespeare, Shelley & Sheridan to international politics, to mutual personalities! He has the subtle mind of a Latin, who can convey anything without actually expressing it. His talk is full of imagination and imagery. Of course this place has spoilt one for brains, everyone is so brilliant, but Trotski is perhaps the most delightful to talk to that I have met yet" [Clare Sheridan to Shane Leslie, Sir Shane Leslie Papers, ALS 10/23/1920, Special Collections Division, Lauinger Library, Georgetown University, Washington, DC]
Selective list of writings by Clare Sheridan
Selective list of writings about Clare Sheridan
Wolfgang and Petra Lubitz, 2004
slightly rev. Febr. 2014
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