Seward Portraits Presented to Museum2

The evening of May 3, 2004 marked an exciting event for the Monroe County Historical Society and for the citizens of Monroe Co. as the descendants of Marilyn Seward Warden and her sister, Nancy Seward Kochery/Taylor, officially presented portraits of Austin Seward and his wife Jennett Seward to our county museum. Austin Seward is the blacksmith who is credited with producing the original fish weather vane for the 1826 courthouse. The portraits were painted in the early 1860s by a Bloomington portrait painter, Marion Blair. These portraits last hung in the home of Marilyn Warden who passed away in Feb. of this year. Marilyn was a long-time faithful volunteer at our museum and was especially proud to be a part of this nearly legendary founding family. May 3rd would have marked her 81st birthday, which is why her daughter Nancy Wrobleski chose that date to officially present these wonderful portraits.

Please visit the museum soon to see these outstanding paintings and the expanded Seward exhibit. We celebrate this significant addition to the museum's collection of Monroe County artifacts.

A Brief History of Austin Seward1

By Allison Lendman

Austin Seward was born in VA in ca 1797, grew up in Richmond, KY where he married Jennett "Jane" Irvin in 1817; and, in 1821, the small family followed relatives who had earlier moved to Monroe Co. Jane was from a prosperous family. She was well-educated and moved in the best society in Richmond. Austin's early education was limited, but by extensive reading and close observation, he became a man of great and varied information. He had been apprenticed at age 12 to learn blacksmithing and was permanently lamed while shoeing a vicious horse as a youth, but this did not injure his spirit. He soon was also apprenticed as an edge-tool maker.

Upon arriving in Monroe County in 1821, just three years after the founding of Monroe Co. and Bloomington, the family built a log home and blacksmith shop on the SW corner of 7th and Walnut. Austin immediately began to produce items that the young community's settlers desperately needed. Axes, adzes, scythes, knives and other articles were shaped on his anvil. Necessity led him to attempt things out of his line to accommodate neighbors. A list of things he could make eventually included nearly everything used in Indiana in which iron or steel was involved: bits, plows, wagon wheels, chains, bullet molds, bear and wolf traps, the metal parts of looms, spinning wheels, stoves, and skillets, to name just a few. He was also a master gunsmith and produced rifles that were in great demand for their workmanship and accuracy. He made them absolutely from scratch - lock, stock, and barrel. It is said that he could temper steel as well as the workmen from Birmingham and Sheffield, England. He trained numerous apprentices who were welcomed into his home and were cared for by Jane just as she cared for her growing family. Eventually there were 9 sons (two of whom died in infancy) and two daughters. By 1828 a larger shop had been built across the street to the east, and the family had built a brick house in place of the cabin on the original lot. This house was said to have been the most consequential house in the small settlement at that time.

Austin was also active in the community immediately. He taught Sunday school for the Presbyterian church in 1821 in his own cabin. He was hired to paint the under-construction 1828 brick courthouse and to provide numerous other services to the county - locks for the jail, handcuffs, and a stamp for the official weights and measures were just some of the items he provided. He is credited with producing the famous fish weather vane which originally adorned Monroe County's 1826 courthouse. In 1833 he was one of the incorporators of the Monroe County Female Seminary. He organized and led the 1st band ever active in Bloomington. All of his sons also participated in the band from time to time. During the Civil War, Seward made a bronze cannon for the Union Army. It was made from metal items donated by the citizens of Monroe Co. and melted down and forged by Seward free of charge. It was pulled to lndy by a team of six horses. He also provided large quantities of solid shot and bombshells for the Union effort.

During his life Austin counted as his intimate friends some of Bloomington's most influential citizens including Dr. David Maxwell, Baynard R. Hall, Dr. Andrew Wylie and Governors Whitcomb and Wright. He was also respected and loved by the common citizens of the area. He was never known to have turned away a person in need of his products - even if they could not pay. It is said that if two men came to him to buy a plow - one with money and one without - the latter man would get it. He reasoned that the man with the money would be able to get a plow somewhere else, while the poor man could not.

Baynard Hall, the first professor at the institution which was to become Indiana University, wrote of his friend Austin Seward in his allegorical tales in his book The New Purchase. In the book, Seward is named Vulcanus Allheart - Vulcanus after the Roman god of fire and metalworking, and Allheart because he was just that, all heart. Hall wrote: "Never have I so esteemed, ay, so loved anyone as Vulcanus Allheart. And who or what was he? He was by birth a Virginian, by trade a blacksmith, by nature a gentleman and by grace a Christian. If more be said, he was a genius."

Dr. Andrew Wylie, first president of the same institution, when he learned that Seward was dying, cried: "This community can better spare any man in it, or the college every professor than it can spare Mr. Seward. We can get other citizens and college professors to take their places without any trouble, but no man can take his place!"

Austin Seward died in 1872 and was buried in the Dunn Cemetery beside his wife Jane who had died in 1865. As the years went by, six generations of this founding family of Bloomington, grew and adapted the business to suit the community's changing needs - from blacksmith shop, to foundry, to machine shop, to industrial and plumbing suppliers. In 1967, Seward and Co. had the proud distinction of being the oldest business in Indiana run by the same family in the same name. The doors of the business finally closed in 1983 after 162 years of existence.

Marion Blair,1

Painter of the Seward Portraits

Taken from: Pioneer Painters of Indiana by Wilbur D. Peat, published in 1954

The man who made the strongest mark as a portrait painter in the village of Bloomington during the Civil War period was Marion Blair. A native of the town, he attended the university, married a local girl, and gradually came to be recognized as the community's resident painter. It appears that he was unschooled in the finer points of painting; if he received any instruction it was probably from itinerants passing through Bloomington or in the studio of one of the artists established in Indianapolis.

Blair was born in 1824, the son of Enos and Rachel Blair. When a young man he moved a few miles south of town to a spot called Blair Hollow. His strong inclination toward art, literature, and natural history, coupled with his antipathy for farming or manual labor of any kind, did not make him a good provider for his growing family. His wife, unable to cope with his habits, finally left him and moved to Kansas, taking their children with her.

Blair had a number of portrait commissions in Bloomington and apparently in Indianapolis also. Most of his paintings seem to have been made in the 50s and early 60s. During this period he did the portraits of Austin Seward and his wife. His last portrait is said to be of Abraham Lincoln painted after he viewed his body lying in state in the capitol building in Indianapolis. He died in 1901.

Seward Portrait Restorations3

The 150 year old portraits of Austin and Jennett Seward are being restored by Margaret Contompasis, painting conservator at the Indiana University Art Museum.

The oil portraits of Austin and Jennett are part of the History Center's permanent Seward Exhibit in the Cook Gallery. The portraits were painted in the early 1860s by Bloomingtonian Marion Blair. Now that the paintings have been cleaned, Blair's tiny signature is visible. Austin Seward was the blacksmith believed that to have made the fish weathervane that is atop the courthouse.

Thank you to the Seward family members, tea party benefit participants, and the United Commerce Bank for the donations that made the restoration possible. We expect to see the restored portraits back in the Cook Gallery by December 1.

restored portraits
Margaret Contompasis (left) shows the restored portrait of Jennett Seward to Nancy
Seward Taylor, great, great granddaughter of Jennett & Austin Seward.

1 This article appeared in the June-July 2004 issue of Monroe County Historian, a publication of the Monroe County Historical Society.
2 The presentation was reported in the 3 May 2004 edition of the Bloomington Herald-Times.
3 This article appeared in the October 2008 issue of Monroe County Historian.
This page was last updated 26 Mar 2012.