Austin heroine Angelina Eberly: forever frozen in a bronze nightgown
Angelina Eberly makes me smile.
Not the Austin historical figure, but the fanciful statue of that historical figure perched on the western side of Congress Avenue between Sixth and Seventh streets.
On reflection, the historical Eberly makes me smile as well. The namesake for the modern Eberly eatery on South Lamar Boulevard, as well as the annual Eberly Luncheon that benefits the Austin History Center Association, was, as I like to say, a firecracker.
If you are new to town, twice-widowed Angelina Bell Peyton Eberly (1798-1860) served as the innkeeper at Eberly House beginning during Austin's earliest days.
One night in late December 1842, a militia party, led by Thomas I. Smith and Eli Chandler, absconded with the archives of the Texas Republic, thus stripping our city of a key remnant from its recent status as national capital, which President Sam Houston, never a big fan of Austin, had moved briefly to Washington-on-the-Brazos.
Eberly rose, supposedly in her bedclothes, then lighted a 6-pound cannon loaded with grapeshot, thus alerting the town to the kidnapped records, without which a government could not govern. No mere cache of yellowing papers, the official archives, then as now, tell us who owns what land, who paid which taxes, who was given a government salary, and who served in the military, along with the details of all laws passed by the legislature, and judicial responses to those laws, and so much more.
Eberly’s blast brought out an Austin posse, which tracked down the archive thieves to Kenney’s Fort, located at what is today Round Rock. After a few shots were exchanged, the Austin crew brought back the invaluable papers.
The Archives Wars ended with no injuries or deaths. The papers, national and state, have remained unmolested in Austin ever since.
We can thank a private group called Capital Area Statues Inc. (CAST) for planting the $300,000 bronze memento of Eberly on Congress in 2004. An unusual and amusing mix of cultural and artistic leaders, this group is also responsible for the Philosopher’s Rock at Barton Springs Pool and the Willie Nelson statue at the W Austin Hotel.
From almost any direction, the first thing one sees of the Congress Avenue statue is the large, spoked wheels of the cannon’s carriage. As one approaches, the barefoot, animated figure of Eberly, her back arched and her bedclothes flying, takes over. And no wonder, since she is taller at 7 feet than most of the passersby strolling down the wide sidewalk alongside One American Center.
One reason that this 2,200-pound grouping of pedestal, carriage, cannon and outraged cannoneer makes me smile is because it was meant to do so. Australian-born political cartoonist Pat Oliphant designed it, so the loopy exaggerations and spackled surfaces are intended.
For some time after its unveiling, Eberly stood in frozen open-mouthed alarm with no explanatory plaque. I can only imagine what tourists or even longtime locals thought of her placement near the social nexus of downtown Austin. Was her unexplained cannon pointed at the boozy crowds emerging from East Sixth Street?
When she was made public, someone complained that Eberly was practically bare-chested, or at least we could plainly view her lingerie. Others disliked the crude shapes and surfaces of Oliphant's fantastical portrait. Oh my, how public art brings out the critics!
When CAST started out, Austin could not boast a great deal of significant public art outside the state Capitol grounds, University of Texas campus, museums, parks, and older churches and cemeteries, which contain an enormous number of undervalued sculptures. Cultural leaders are taking care of that. Our population of admirable murals and installed pieces — figurative, abstract, conceptual and historical — as well as architectural and landscaping elements that double as art, has boomed.
And at least one of those statues booms silently in the middle of town without taking itself too seriously.
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You Gotta See This is a recurring series about art around Austin that we think deserves a look.