By Kelly Sowell, Elmwood Historian
Many who have visited or toured Elmwood will recognize the Snowden angel. This bronze angel stands and grieves over a stone sarcophagus on the Snowden family lot in the Miller section. Few know that the angel was created by American sculptor William Couper. Couper’s father founded Couper Marble Works in Norfolk, VA a few years before William was born in 1853. Growing up Couper watched the artisans carve and create sculptures for monuments and buildings which inspired him to train to do the same. He began his professional training when he was 19 at the Cooper Art Institute in New York City. At 21 he went to Munich to attend both the Academy of Fine Arts and the Royal College of Surgery. The following year, in 1872, he moved to Florence where he met prominent Boston sculptor Thomas Ball. He trained under and later worked with Ball at the Couper-Ball studio specializing in portraiture, busts and bas-reliefs. Couper eventually married Thomas Ball’s daughter, Eliza Chickering Ball, in 1878. He exhibited his pieces in London and Paris, and shipped many statues to the United States where they were exclusively sold though Tiffany & Company in New York. In 1897 Couper and his family returned to the United States, built a home in Montclair, New Jersey, and Couper opened a studio in New York City with his father-in-law. Most of Couper’s known sculptures done in the U.S. are large bronze monuments in public places including a statue of Captain John Smith at Jamestown, a statue of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in Washington D.C. and a series of monuments for the National Military Park in Vicksburg, MS.
Couper was privately commissioned to sculpt several angels and even designed an angel to memorialize his mother which stands in Elmwood Cemetery in Norfolk, VA. Couper was fascinated by angels. He was inspired by the cemetery monuments he had seen created at his father’s marble works and later saw in Italian churches. In creating his own angels, he did not copy examples he had seen. He believed angels should exhibit both male and female characteristics and achieved an androgynous look in angels he sculpted, with both strong and soft features. Couper retired from sculpting in 1913, by which time he had sculpted more than 150 works. The Snowden memorial angel was the last winged figure that Couper sculpted.
Couper, Greta Elana. William Couper: The Man Who Captured Angels.