Charles Parker Dowler (January, 1841-January 24, 1931) By: Michelle Valletta, MA, Public Historian, Rhode Island College and Roger Williams University
At a glance, Charles Dowler’s life story portrays the rise of a British born working class immigrant in Rhode Island during the nineteenth century. Coming from a modest English background, Dowler traveled to America to begin a new life. Originally trained in the gunsmith trade, Dowler embraced the American dream and reinvented himself as a talented designer, sculptor, and modeler. Yet, his story reveals so much more. On one hand, his career depicts an artisan with abundant talent and an industrious mindset determined to build prosperous business. Despite his achievements, he struggled to obtain acceptance in the high culture community. On the other hand, his personal life demonstrates a commitment to civic engagement, strong traditional beliefs, and a deep pride for his English heritage that he never abandoned.
Charles Dowler was born in Birmingham, England in 1841, the third son of John Dowler (1813-1880) and Eliza (1817-1894) Brooks. In addition to his innate skills, the fertile cultural heritage of Dowler’s birthplace likely influenced his passion to become an artisan. He spent his formative years in a city defined by innovation and creativity. Public buildings and churches in Birmingham displayed impressive Victorian, Gothic, Baroque, and Neoclassical architecture. At the forefront of the Industrial Revolution in England, Birmingham prospered with an abundance of skilled craftsmen as well. An early 19th century chronicler of city once wrote, “It is no uncommon thing to see a man with green hair or a yellow wig, from his constant employment in brass.” Likewise, many of Dowler’s kin were artisan guild members specializing in gun making, metalwork, and carving.
In 1863, Charles Dowler immigrated to the United States. During this time, Americans fought a bloody civil war and the Rhode Island gun manufacturing industry boomed. Dowler settled in Rhode Island and worked as a gunsmith; a trade he learned from his father. Soon after, he married his childhood sweetheart Eliza Norton Dowler (1841-1930), a dressmaker who also immigrated from England. Reverend Herman Lincoln, pastor of the Central Baptist Church, married the couple on July 9, 1864. Charles and Eliza had four children; one daughter (Florence J. Dowler Harris) and three sons (Charles J., Julius E., and Ruben H.) and were married for 66 years.
When the Civil War ended, Dowler abandoned the gun trade and pursued a new career as a carver, modeler, and designer. As an industrious and innovative young entrepreneur, Dowler applied his creative skills in a wide variety of materials. He produced artistic works in wood, plaster, stone, bronze, and wax. He also designed chasing patterns for the jewelry industry. In 1867, Dowler ventured into architectural design. At the tender age of 26, Dowler designed and built his first home at 83 Camden Street. In 1869, he opened his first studio in Providence.
In a short time, Dowler’s reputation as a gifted designer and carver became known throughout the Rhode Island construction industry. Several prominent Rhode Islanders and businesses retained his services. William R. Walker and Sons, an architectural firm that completed many impressive buildings such as the Cranston Armory and Christ Episcopal Church, regularly subcontracted work to Dowler. Dowler also completed extensive carvings and decorations at Governor William Sprague’s famous mansion ‘Canonchet’ in Narragansett, RI and fashioned interior and exterior carvings for the luxurious Narragansett Hotel in Providence. He crafted wood and plaster carvings in the homes of cotton textile titans Benjamin Brayton Knight and Horace Daniels. While these locations no longer exist, his most revered woodwork remains at the Clouds Hill Victorian House Museum, Warwick, RI. At Clouds Hill, Dowler designed and carved decorative mantels in the reception room, library, and dining room, the newel post and corner posts on the main staircase and the bookcases in the library. In 1872, he designed another home for his family at 581 Smith Street that is adorned with ornate decorations and carvings. The Victorian cottage-style home was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. By 1878, Dowler’s decorative arts expertise became so well known, the Rhode Island School of Design purchased some of his flora designs as instructional models for drawing classes.
Personally, Dowler was a deeply religious man and enjoyed an active civic life that revealed his social and cultural beliefs. Dowler devoted much time to the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church and helped the less fortunate at the State Home and School for Children. He passionately supported the Temperance Movement since his arrival to America as well. While Dowler embraced the fruits of American capitalism, a part of him clung to his British roots. He was a long time member of the Order of the Alfredians. This fraternity venerated King Alfred of England and celebrated Shakespeare as the master of the English language. In Rhode Island, the organization provided relief and insurance for people of certain English heritage. Dowler held the positions of Chaplin and Deputy Protector in the Order of the Alfredians and officiated fraternity ceremonies throughout New England.
As Dowler approached midlife, his depth as an artist and support for cultural refinement expanded. He avidly supported arts and history associations maintaining memberships at the Rhode Island Historical Society and the Providence Art Club. In 1881, Dowler entered three engravings titled Ideal Head, Ice-Water Jar, and Garden Vase at the Providence Art Club Autumn Exhibition. In 1883, Dowler entered four watercolor paintings title The Seasons at the Providence Art Club’s Fourth Annual Exhibition. In addition, Dowler created large scale sculptor memorials. In the late 1880s, the Pawtucket Firefighters Association and the local community raised funds for a memorial to commemorate Pawtucket Fire Department Chief Engineer Samuel Smith Collyer who died after a tragic accident in 1884. For the sum of $2,500, Dowler designed and created the Samuel Collyer Memorial erected in 1890. The seven-foot tall bronze statue stands atop an eight-foot Westerly granite pedestal in Collyer Park at the corner of Main Street and Mineral Spring Avenue, Pawtucket, RI. Dowler also created the John C. Sparks (1841-1889) cemetery statue in the North Burial Ground in Bristol, RI. Perhaps Dowler pursued this type of work after his eldest son died at the age of eighteen in 1886. Or possibly it seemed to be the next step in his artistic development.
Despite his efforts, some members of high society refused to recognize him as a true artist. For example, in 1891, members of the Order of St. George and the Order of the Alfredians in Providence formed the Shakespeare Monument Committee and Dowler served as secretary. The committee requisitioned proposals for a Shakespeare Monument at Roger Williams Park. Dowler’s submitted his proposal titled Shakespeare, the Bard of Avon and competed against some of the best sculptors known at the time such as Theodora Alice Ruggles Kitson, Henry Augustus Lukeman, Victorio Ciani, Max Bachmann, Johannes Gelert, T.C. Poat Treleaven, and George E. Bissell. Leith & Danforth of 163 Westminister Street held a public exhibit of the proposed models in July. On August 3, 1891, the committee unanimously chose Dowler’s proposal. However, the exclusivity and the nonartistic background of many of the committee members, as well as doubts raised about Dowler’s expertise as a sculptor, came into question. One newspaper article mocked Dowler’s humble beginnings reporting he was once a “mill worker.” Another newspaper retorted that
Dowler was “not yet a sculptor.” Yet another article claimed that the Dowler submission was “poor, weak and stuffy.” In the end, the statue did not come to fruition and thwarted Dowler’s chance of gaining recognition as a professional sculptor. Setting aside disappointment, Dowler maintained a prosperous business and continued to enter his work in competitions. In 1892, Dowler presented two works titled Before the Bath and After the Bath for exhibition at the Eighteenth Triennial Exhibition of the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association in Boston, Massachusetts. In 1898, he secured copyright for his work titled Meet me at the fountain. However, it appears that Dowler did not produce more large-scale sculptures.
Later in Dowler’s career, his scope of creations ranged from high end furniture reproductions to cigar shop figures. The Rhode Island School of Design publication titled American Furniture in Pendleton House distinguishes Dowler as one of the “key personalities who dominated the field of reproduction and restoration cabinetry work in Providence.” Along with Morlock & Bayer and R. H. Breitenstein and Sons, Dowler completed a pair of Chippendale settees reproductions for renowned Rhode Island art collector Charles L. Pendleton. At the other end of the spectrum, Dowler carved figures depicting ‘sporting dudes’ or Race Track Touts. While in his day, the toy-like figures were viewed as primitive art, today his touts have become prized folk art collectables. In January 1979, The Museum of American Folk Art exhibited a Dowler Race Track Tout. Later that month, it sold for $29,000 at Sotheby Parke-Bernet Gallery in New York. Sixteen months later, it sold for $53,000 at the same gallery. In 2013, a Dowler Tout sold for $390,000 at the American Furniture & Decorative Arts Auction in Boston. Although these small woodcarvings represent only a fraction of Dowler’s artistic skills, the Folk Art community praises him in the Artists Biographical Index and the American Folk Art journal.
In the beginning of the twentieth century, Dowler became more focused on political pursuits. In 1903 and 1906, he ran as the Prohibition Party’s 11th District Representative candidate in Providence. In 1912, he was an alternative representative for the Atlantic City Prohibitionist Convention. In 1914, Dowler ran again as the Prohibition Party candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives Third District. In this campaign, Dowler suffered a humiliating defeat and he never ran for political office again.
In 1919, Dowler closed his business and retired, however he continued to paint as a hobby. Dowler and his wife spend their golden years in their Smith Street home enjoying their children and grandchildren. After 66 years of marriage, Eliza passed away on April 26, 1930. Nine months later, Charles passed away on January 24, 1931. Like many artists, distinction and appreciation came after death. Dowler’s obituary dramatically stated “Charles Dowler, Sculptor, Dead.”
Throughout his life, Dowler remained committed to his beliefs, strove to be the best in his industrial profession and garner acceptance from the fine arts community. While he is revered for his creations that remain, so much of his work has been lost as a result of fate. If the Canonchet Mansion did not burned to the ground 1909 and the Narragansett Hotel was not demolished in 1960, perhaps some of his great works would still be accessible today. On the other hand, the backbiting press coverage of the Shakespeare Statue demonstrates the challenges Dowler faced in obtaining recognition among art elitists in his day.
Nonetheless, while few outside of the art and architecture community remember Dowler or his work, his significance in the nineteenth century Rhode Island artistic history may be still appreciated today. His works at the Smith Street home, Clouds Hill, the Collyer Monument, the Sparks Memorial, and the Race Track Touts have survived the test of time.
Of all the Dowler research compiled, perhaps the illustration of his studio and its contents in1904 defines Dowler best. The photo which features a collection of sculptures, relief plaques, paintings, busts, and the prized Pendleton settee exhibits a sampling of his life’s work and sums up this artist’s multidimensional talent.
The Dowler family headstone remains in respectable shape at the North Burial Ground