Plaster soldier calls attention to race and the Revolutionary War

Plaster soldier calls attention to race and the Revolutionary War

Matthew Theorgood had worked at the Museum of the American Revolution for two years when a curator approached him with a chance to — quite literally — become part of an exhibition. Theorgood agreed, and with that, the journey to create a life-size replica of his figure began.

After a months-long process, Theorgood’s plaster clone was installed in the museum’s exhibition “Cost of Revolution: The Life and Death of an Irish Soldier,” now on display through March 17. Included within a tableau that focuses on Irish soldier Richard St. George, the figure calls attention to the enslaved men and women of African descent who eschewed the Continental Army to fight alongside the British in hopes of gaining freedom during the Revolutionary War.

Tableau from "Cost of Revolution: The Life and Death of an Irish Soldier" at the Museum of the American Revolution.
Tableau from “Cost of Revolution: The Life and Death of an Irish Soldier” at the Museum of the American Revolution.

Donning a red uniform, Theorgood’s figure stands with his gun ready next to St. George, whose story of personal anguish lends the exhibition context to the emotional consequences of war. While it is unknown what happened to the soldier bearing Theorgood’s likeness after a battle wound removed St. George from the front line, the tableau aims to present a more nuanced sense of the Revolutionary War and its complexities.

The figure was created by StudioEIS through a process called “lifecasting,” which takes molds from real people to exact life-like sculptures made of plaster, foam and steel. The labor-intensive process takes several steps that can require hundreds of hours to finish.

ALL ARTS spoke with the Museum of the American Revolution’s associate curator Matthew Skic about the historical significance of the soldier and the goal of the tableau. Read more about the exhibition below, and check out a behind-the-scenes look into the journey of Theorgood’s lifecast here.

What does the tableau represent?

The tableau recreates the opening moments of the Battle of Germantown, which took place on Oct. 4, 1777. The scene focuses on Richard St. George — an Irish officer in the British Army’s light infantry and the main character in the museum’s special exhibition “Cost of Revolution” — who is rallying the soldiers under his command to counter an early morning attack by General George Washington’s army.

St. George is accompanied by one of two men of African descent who ran away from slavery to seek their freedom with the British Army and followed St. George as servants. Wearing a British Army uniform and carrying a captured American rifle provided by St. George, the man of African descent is poised ready to fight alongside St. George. Soon after the Battle of Germantown began, St. George was shot in the head. He was carried off the battle with a fractured skull and survived a surgery in Philadelphia. It is unknown what happen to St. George’s servants of African descent after the battle.

What is its significance?

This tableau, which is based on a primary source description of Richard St. George, highlights a little known aspect of the Revolutionary War. Thousands of enslaved men and women of African descent viewed the British Army, instead of the Continental Army, as a path to freedom. They took action in the midst of a war to choose a side in the hopes of changing their lives and their futures.

What do you hope it achieves?

We hope the tableau encourages visitors to “Cost of Revolution” to consider the complexity of the American Revolution and think about who was “revolutionary” during the era. How “revolutionary” were enslaved men and women who took action and cast off the chains of slavery to seek their freedom? How “revolutionary” were the people who supported the Declaration of Independence but also owned enslaved people? How “revolutionary” were members of the British Army who fought to protect liberty within the British Empire? The tableau scene helps to bring to life the many sides of the American Revolution.