Thanks to Grace Bedell’s suggestion, Abraham Lincoln began growing his whiskers in the fall of 1860. These were difficult days for Lincoln. South Carolina took the first step toward secession. Georgia quickly followed suit. While the president-elect pondered the growing crisis, people streamed into Springfield to ask Lincoln for federal jobs and contracts.
One Lincoln visitor was distinguished sculptor Thomas D. Jones of Cincinnati. Several prominent Ohio Republicans had commissioned him to make a bust of the president-elect. Jones arrived by train on Christmas Day of 1860, and met Lincoln the following morning.
The two men had much in common. Both were self-educated, well-read and possessed of great senses of humor. A bond was formed and Lincoln agreed to pose for Jones. Jones secured a room on the top floor of the St. Nicholas Hotel, which proved beneficial for sculptor and subject alike. Lincoln needed a refuge from the patronage seekers and well-wishers. Jones needed a quiet room with ample light. The St. Nicholas met these needs.
Lincoln agreed to pose for at least an hour each morning. Those sessions gave him an opportunity to read correspondence and draft replies. He also used the time to prepare a number of speeches he intended to deliver at major cities during his train trip from Springfield to Washington, D.C.
Over the weeks, Jones gained a rare insight into our 16th president. He watched Lincoln work and saw him fall into somber periods of contemplation. He evoked laughter from Lincoln by relating humorous stories and, in turn, listened as Lincoln shared his own tales.
Jones sought to capture Lincoln’s complex nature, something photographers could not achieve and painters failed to do. “None of the artists or pictures have caught the deep, though subtle and indirect expression of this man’s face,” Walt Whitman wrote of the those who tried to portray Lincoln. “There is something else there.”
Jones achieved what had eluded others. The sculptor’s work presents a man in the prime of his life. The face is strong, reflecting inner strength. There is a slight smile that conveys personal warmth. This is no cold sculpture, but a warm portrayal of one of history’s greatest men.
Lincoln’s contemporaries believed Jones’ work captured the essence of the great man. Even Lincoln approved: “I think it looks very much like the critter.” (“The Eloquent President” by Ronald C. White, Jr.)
First crafted in clay, Jones then cast the bust in white plaster. It was publicly displayed in Springfield in August 1861. Only a few castings of this bust were ever made. One eventually went on permanent display in the lobby of the St. Nicholas Hotel. Jones also created a bronze bust of Lincoln in 1864.
Jones won a commission to produce a larger-than-life version of the plaster bust. Sculpted in Carrara marble, this piece holds a place of honor in the Ohio State Capitol in Columbus. Ironically, Illinois never purchased a Lincoln bust from Jones, nor was he commissioned to create any other image of Lincoln for the state. Jones was invited to submit a design proposal for Lincoln’s tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery by Gov. Richard Oglesby. Though experts now generally agree that Jones’ proposal was superior in every respect, the design offered by Larkin G. Mead, Jr. was selected.
Jones died on Feb. 27, 1881 at a boarding house in Columbus, Ohio. His grave in the Welsh Hills Cemetery at Granville, Ohio, is marked by a red granite field stone with this simple inscription: T.D. Jones, sculptor, 12-12-1811; 2-27-1881.
Though Jones is largely forgotten, his representation of Lincoln continues to inspire those who gaze upon it.