If you can imagine facing execution by the hands of a foreign entity at age twenty-one, then you might know how American patriot Nathan Hale felt in 1776. Christina L. Simms, Conservator of Objects, recently completed an outdoor bronze conservation treatment of a statue honoring Nathan Hale by Bela Lyon Pratt at the Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building in Washington, D.C.
While the figure of Nathan Hale standing on a pedestal of pink granite is not commanding in size, the quote by him inscribed into the base of the bronze is one that is memorable. Hale, having been captured after obtaining information against the British during the American Revolutionary War, supposedly said to his captors, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country”. He was hanged without trial the day after his capture. He is considered a hero of the American Revolutionary War.
The statue commemorating Hale is appropriately installed at the Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building along Constitution Avenue in Washington D.C. The figure of Hale stands erect with his gaze looking outward. His hands and feet are bound. He seems boyish, or arguably innocent in appearance despite the heavy espionage charges against him.
Overall, the previous wax coating was in good condition, but required renewal as part of an outdoor bronze conservation and maintenance treatment. The protective coating was failing as it had become dull and was beginning to wear on the upward facing surface. This exposed areas of corrosion, most notably the head of the figure. The metal surface had some color variations which had been toned in the past with pigmented wax.
Coins were found on the hands of the figure, but no galvanic corrosion was evident which can occur from contact of dissimilar metals. Due to the proximity of the landscaping, debris and insects were also found on the sculpture. There was also an overall layer of dirt, especially noticeable in the recesses and the base.
Conservator Christina L. Simms performed the outdoor bronze conservation of the sculpture. She first rinsed the sculpture to remove loose soils and debris. The surface was then washed with a dilute solution of a non-ionic detergent, and then rinsed thoroughly to remove all residues. Once dry, the surface was ready to receive a fresh coating of wax. The approach is a typical outdoor bronze conservation, and one that Conservator Simms recently completed for another outdoor bronze sculpture maintenance project in D.C. at the Ronald Reagan Federal Building and International Trade Center.
Simms heated the surface of the bronze and applied the wax with a brush and torch. The coating gradually saturated areas of a corrosion or areas where the wax had become worn completely. The surface was buffed upon cooling to achieve an even overall sheen. Unlike some protective coating applications, the visual change before and after the outdoor bronze conservation treatment of the Nathan Hale figure was not dramatic; however, the sculpture is now better protected from the elements. A detail of the base best demonstrates the condition after treatment. The coating should last three to five years, depending on weather conditions before another outdoor bronze conservation or maintenance treatment is required.
Another copy of the Nathan Hale sculpture by Bela Lyon Pratt exists at Yale University, who like Pratt, also graduated from Yale University. Pratt, like Hale, was also born in Connecticut, but of course many generations apart.
The sculptor Bela Lyon Pratt was born in 1867. Pratt studied at the Yale University School of Fine Arts and later the Art Students League in New York. He interacted with many great sculptors of the time, including Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who became a mentor to Pratt. He went on to study in Europe, only to return to the United States, eventually establishing himself as a successful sculptor and long-time teacher of modeling at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Pratt had a long and accomplished career, and he created a wide body of of work from busts to memorial tablets to fountain figures to large public monuments.
The sculpture of the American patriot Nathan Hale located at the Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building is installed on the side of the building. It can be viewed by the public from the sidewalk on Constitution Avenue.