(American, born 1808)
View of St. John’s Cathedral, Antigua
Oil on canvas
30 x 26 inches (76.2 x 91.4 cm)
Inscribed on stretcher bar: “St. John…Cathedral…Antigua / Bisbee” and
“Robert Hollberton Archdeacon + Rector.”
Inscribed on verso: Painted by E[?] Bisbee / July 1841
Suida-Manning Collection, New York
The present painting depicts Old St. John’s Cathedral on the island of Antigua. The church was erected in the 1720s on designs of the architect Robert Cullen. It measured 130 feet by 50 feet with north and south porches 23 x 20 ½ feet. The tower, 50 feet high with its cupola, was added in 1789. The church was elevated to the status of a Cathedral, but disaster struck in the form of an earthquake which destroyed the building on February 8, 1843. A memorandum of that date, reproduced in the Church of England Magazine, volume 14 (Jan.-June 1843), p. 38, relates the event.
On Wednesday, 8th February, 1843, this island was visited by a most terrific and destructive earthquake. At twenty minutes before eleven o'clock in the forenoon, while the bell was ringing for prayers, and the venerable Robert Holberton was in the vestry-room, awaiting the arrival of persons to have their marriage solemnized, before the commencement of the morning service, the whole edifice, from one end to the other, was suddenly and violently agitated. Every one within the church, alter the first shock, was compelled to escape for his life. The tower was rent from the top to the bottom; the north dial of the clock precipitated to the ground with a dreadful crash; the east parapet wall of the tower thrown upon the roof of the church; almost the whole of the north-west wall by the north gallery fell out in a mass; the north-east wall was protruded beyond the perpendicular; the altar-piece, the public monument erected to the memory of lord Lavington, and the private monuments, hearing the names of Kelsick, Warner, Otley, and Atkinson, fell down piecemeal inside; a large portion of the top of the east wall fell, and the whole of the south-east wall was precipitated into the churchyard, carrying along with it two of the cast-iron windows, while the other six remained projecting from the walls in which they had been originally inserted; a large pile of heavy cut stones and masses of brick fell down at the south and at the north doors; seven of the large frontpipes of the organ were thrown out by the violence of the shock, and many of the metal and wooden pipes within displaced; the massive basin of the font was tossed from the pedestal on which it rested, and pitched upon the pavement beneath uninjured. Thus, within the space of three minutes, this church was reduced to a pile of crumbling ruins; the walls that were left standing being rent in every part, the main roof only remaining sound, being supported by the hard wood pillars.
The entrance iron gate from the southern side into the cathedral, which was erected 1789, depicts two imposing bronze statues, one of St. John the Divine and the other of St. John the Baptist in flowing robes. It is said that these statues were confiscated by the British navy from the French ship HMS Temple in Martinique waters in 1756 during the “Seven Years’ War” and moved to this church. They survive and can be seen today, much as they appeared in Bisbee’s painting, but with the new Cathedral in the background.
Little is known of the career of Ezra Bisbee. He appears to have had a career as a political cartoonist as well as a printmaker. His handsome Portrait of President Andrew Jackson is dated 1833 and political lithographs concerning the Jackson presidency are of this date; the include Political Quixotism (1833) and The Vision (1834), both in the Library of Congress). Bisbee drew and produced a lithograph of the First Unitarian Congregational Church 9n Brooklyn (Church of the Saviour), an example of which is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Portraits of William Hawley and his wife (Private Collection) of Ridgefield are dated 1843 and one of Joseph Starbuck, 1847.
How long Bisbee spent in Antigua is unknown, but his return to the United States was duly recorded in passenger and immigration lists. Ezra Bisbee, described as a “portrait painter” arrived from Antigua in New York on the British Brig Quadruple on April 18, 1842, nine months after having painted the St. John’s Cathedral and barely ten months before the earthquake which would destroy it.