Before Midnight, Bonaventure and the Bird Girl Exhibition Guide
Telfair Museums presents Sylvia Shaw Judson’s iconic sculpture Bird Girl within the context of the history and art of Bonaventure Cemetery. Made famous by Jack Leigh‘s photograph for the cover of John Berendt’s bestselling novel of Savannah, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Judson’s sculpture was removed from the cemetery to Telfair Museums where it has been enjoyed by visitors for decades.
This exhibition will connect visitors to the history of Bonaventure, from Mary Telfair’s visits to the cemetery in the 19th century to the present day. The exhibition includes Henry Cleenewerck’s 1860 romantic painting of the cemetery on the eve of the Civil War as well as twentieth-century impressionist and realist paintings by Emma Wilkins and Louis Bouche. Bonaventure’s beautiful natural and sculptural environment are represented in photographs from 19th-century stereographs to twentieth-century images by Edward Weston and Jack Leigh. The exhibition will include works from Telfair’s permanent collection as well as ongoing loans from the city of Savannah and local private collections.
Henry Cleenewerck (Belgian, 1818–1901), Bonaventure Cemetery, 1860, oil on canvas, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Gordon Washburn in memory of Mrs. James Cary Evans, 1967.10
Henry Cleenewerck is best known for Romantic landscape paintings created during his wide travels from the jungles of Cuba to the American West. Cleenewerck studied art in his native Belgium before traveling to the United States in the 1850s. He arrived in Savannah in 1860 or earlier and opened a studio on Broughton Street. A March 1860 Savannah Morning News article stated that Cleenewerck had completed two paintings of Bonaventure, praising him as one of the country’s finest landscape painters. He exhibited the paintings at Savannah’s Armory Hall that same May. Cleenewerck’s time in Savannah was short, possibly due to the outbreak of the Civil War. The same year he completed the Bonaventure paintings, the artist made a drawing, reproduced as a print, showing crowds raising the flag of secession in Savannah’s Johnson Square.
In this painting, Cleenewerck depicts a romanticized view of Bonaventure. As in T. A. Richards’ earlier painting, well-to-do white Savannahians are shown enjoying the cemetery’s moss-draped arcades of oaks. A well-dressed couple strolls in the foreground while two others ride past in a carriage followed by a likely enslaved African American nursemaid holding a small, white child by the hand. Recognizable features include the Clinch tomb and original rustic entrance gate on the far right, older obelisks on the left, and a view to the Wilmington River in the background. Cleenewerck exercised artistic license, rearranging these features to appear in the same view.
Thomas Addison Richards (American, b. England, 1820–1900), Entrance to Bonaventure Cemetery and Bonaventure, from Harper’s Weekly, December 1, 1860, engraving on paper, Telfair Museums
Thomas Addison Richards illustrated and wrote numerous travel guidebooks, his volumes dealing with the South frequently including Savannah and Bonaventure in suggested itineraries. Richards also contributed writing and illustrations to major publications such as Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, including expanded illustrated essays such as “The Rice Lands of the South,” which mentions Bonaventure. Two illustrations of Bonaventure appeared in the December 1, 1860 issue of Harper’s Weekly. One image, signed “T. A. Richards,” depicts the original entrance to Bonaventure, a rustic arch made from whole trees. The companion image on this page shows various figures visiting the cemetery by carriage and on foot. The latter composition is nearly identical to Henry Cleenewerck’s 1860 oil painting of Bonaventure, suggesting that either Richards or an engraver based the image on Cleenewerck’s painting or that Cleenewerck was working from an earlier sketch by Richards.
John B. Hogg (American, c. 1823–1888), Map of Evergreen Cemetery of Bonaventure, n.d., actual-size reproduction of original drawing, courtesy of the City of Savannah, Municipal Archives
This reproduction shows Bonaventure’s layout after its establishment as a privately managed public cemetery known as the Evergreen Cemetery at Bonaventure. In 1846, Peter Wiltberger purchased Bonaventure from Commodore Josiah Tattnall III, planning to develop 70 acres as a cemetery and maintain the original Tattnall family cemetery. After Wiltberger passed away in 1853, development of the cemetery and sale of lots was conducted by Wiltberger’s son, William, who formed the Evergreen Cemetery Company in 1868.
The finely drawn map was made by John Hogg, Savannah’s City Surveyor, who may have created this document for the Evergreen Company rather than in his official capacity. Hogg was born in South Carolina and is first listed in a Savannah census in 1860 as a peddler. By the following year he is recorded as a surveyor, and by 1867 he appears on a list of City Officers as City Surveyor. Hogg changed his last name to Howard around 1879 and continued to appear in City reports until 1887. Hogg’s map of Bonaventure, with its numerous hand-drawn trees, exemplifies the landscaped setting essential to a garden cemetery. The ox-eye shape in the plan’s center is thought to be the site of the original plantation house.
Stereographs of Bonaventure
Stereographs are a form of three-dimensional photography popular from the mid-19th century until the 1920s. Stereo views are made by taking photographs with a special camera with two side-by-side lenses. The photographs are taken at slightly different angles, printed and mounted next to each other on cards. When you look through the lenses of a stereopticon viewer, your brain blends the two photographs together into one 3D image.
Many stereo views were made of Savannah in the late 19th century, and Bonaventure was one of the most popular subjects, appearing on hundreds of cards. Photographers who made stereographs in Savannah included Daniel J. Ryan, Jerome N. Wilson and O. Pierre Havens, and many other card makers outside of Savannah printed and reprinted stereo views of Bonaventure.
Unknown Maker, Iron Gate Fragment from Bonaventure, 19th century, on loan from the City of Savannah, Department of Cemeteries
Bonaventure, like Laurel Grove and Catholic Cemeteries in Savannah, is a repository of beautiful wrought iron and Victorian cast iron. This ironwork reflects designs from local and Northern foundries that supplied fencing and gates for Bonaventure plots in the mid-to-late 19th century. Sadly, some ironwork from Bonaventure and other cemeteries has been stolen over time, underscoring the need to preserve and protect these artistic elements that contribute to the beauty of Savannah’s cemeteries.
Unknown Makers, Victorian Garden Tiles, 19th century, on loan from the City of Savannah, Department of Cemeteries
Bonaventure and Laurel Grove contained large numbers of decorative ceramic bricks and tiles used as edging for cemetery plots. Sometimes mistakenly called “slave tiles,” the source of some of these ceramics is still not firmly documented, but large numbers of them are found in Savannah. Some may have been made in Milledgeville or elsewhere in middle and north Georgia. Others were clearly imported from England, including the rope border tile seen at the far right of this group. Frequently found designs include crosshatch, sunburst, rope knot, and rope border motifs. Like ironwork, ceramic tiles have been subject to theft over time, but public awareness of these historic artifacts and their importance to the cemetery’s historic environment has grown in recent years.