Perhaps time travel is possible, after all.

It certainly seemed so yesterday at Belmont, as guests enjoyed seeing the Falmouth estate's South Lawn restored to its appearance of long ago.

The landscape looked beautiful in the late afternoon light. But all eyes were on a chubby little boy who has taken up residence at the former home of Gari Melchers and his wife, Corinne.

People were drawn to him like bees to honey, gathering close for a good look or to touch a limb.

Drawing folks' attention is just what the Melcherses had in mind when they placed a similar young fellow here in 1927.

He is, of course, not flesh and blood, however real he seems. He is a garden ornament.

Artistically, he's a putto (the plural is putti), a pudgy nude boy from ancient Greek and Roman times.

"Putti acted as messengers or as harbingers of profane love, say, for Cupid or Venus, or to accompany the pagan soul of a man to the next world," Joanna D. Catron, curator of the Gari Melchers Home and Studio, explained yesterday. "In early Christian art, they served in the same capacity as winged cherubs, that is, as infant angelic messengers or attendants to the divine."

The Melcherses brought one--made of a soft wood such as spruce or pine--back from their travels in Europe, though it's not known where they found him or how old he was then. They gave him a prominent spot in the garden of their home in the village of Egmond-ann-Zee, Holland, where Melchers and fellow artist George Hitchcock founded an art colony.

Melchers included the putto in at least one work, "Crimson Rambler." The painting, produced in 1914-15, depicts a rose-covered arbor in his garden in Holland. The statue also appears in a photo of Corinne Melchers and a puppy in the same garden.

The couple brought him back to the States and by 1927 had installed him on a stone pedestal at one end of their main garden at Belmont, overlooking the Rappahannock River. The putto was nicknamed "Johnnie Boy" by a caretaker employed by the couple.

That year, the pioneering landscape photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston recorded the scene, preserving it among many details from her visit to the estate.

The image was part of the Stafford museum's recent exhibition "Belmont through a Lens: Photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnston." A reprint of it is still on view at the Melchers Studio.

Belmont and the Garden Club of Virginia relied on Johnston's imagery, among other archival material, to re-create the garden scene that the Melcherses saw out their sunroom windows.

Yesterday, club members--including President Kim Nash and the Restoration Committee--came to Falmouth from all across Virginia to celebrate completion of the yearlong effort.

Reproducing the putto was no small job. Time and weather had split the wooden original's belly and rotted off the boy's feet.

Working with the club's landscape architect, William Rieley of Charlottesville, the committee opted to reproduce the putto in bronze so that its doppelgänger would last for centuries. It retained Richmond sculptor Ross Caudill, an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Caudill carved new feet for the statue, modeling them on his nephew's, right down to the rolls of baby fat around the ankles.

He then made molds of each part of the putto, cast them in wax, made ceramic molds around the wax, baked them to melt the wax, filled the ceramic shells with bronze, and welded those pieces together. The basic process, called "lost wax" or cire perdue, is more than 4,000 years old.

Giving Caudill's statue a firm foundation wasn't simple, either. The 1927 base had deteriorated, so local mason Richard Crickenberger and Briar Hill Stone Co. of Glenmont, Ohio, labored to fashion an exact copy.

"As we have seen at Belmont, landscape restoration is not an event as much as it is a process," Rieley told Garden Club members yesterday as he described the painstaking endeavor.

The end result, he said, puts a visual "exclamation mark" right back where the Melcherses intended it, at one end of the long axis of Belmont's South Lawn.


Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029


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