Richmond sculptor Frederick William Sievers described his Matthew Fontaine Maury monument, unveiled on Nov. 11, 1929, as "an allegory of the sphere of Maury's mind, which was nothing less than the entire universe."
Maury, descended from the Huguenots and raised in Franklin, Tenn., established oceanography, laid the groundwork for the National Weather Service and founded the agricultural school that became Virginia Tech. He was known as the "Pathfinder of the Seas," an honorific he earned for demystifying and standardizing navigation.
The artist Sievers, born a year before Maury's 1873 death, was raised in Georgia and trained in Europe. He loved "matter and structure," observed a reporter, and was unsatisfied with the way others built things.
In a keynote address for the University of the South on Nov. 30, 1860, Maury said, "The Bible is true and science is true, and therefore each, if truly read, but proves the truth of the other." He considered himself "a truth-loving, knowledge-seeking man" who rejoiced in science reflecting the beauty of creation.
Maury's older brother, John, returned from a Navy hitch with exotic tales of the Pacific and a fatal case of yellow fever. When Maury entertained the idea of going, too, his father forbade it. His father didn't say goodbye when he left.
While sailing around the world, Maury used chalk to solve spherical trigonometry equations on cannonballs. But an 1836 coach accident left him lame and unfit for shipboard work. He instead made maximum use of his analytical skills while heading the Navy's neglected Depot of Charts and Instruments. There, he and his staff mined the moldering logbooks of ships dating from the American Revolution onward, producing data that revolutionized navigational principles.
In 1893, Sievers came to Richmond to visit relatives and decided to stay, finding employment with the Frank Brothers, who made ornamental picture frames. At night, he studied at the Virginia Mechanics Institute and soon taught there.
But Sievers, along with the nation, was caught in the middle of the "fearful depression" of 1893 to 1897. Fancy frames weren't selling. Sievers said he starved himself to save money to live in Rome and study art.
He returned to Richmond to live with his wife, Elise, and two children at 1208 W. 43rd St., where he constructed a backyard studio. He recalled in 1963, "When I built it, people said a crazy man was going to live there." There, he prepared casts for his Virginia State Monument at Gettysburg battlefield (1917), topped with a Gen. Robert E. Lee figure that resembles Sievers' martial Stonewall Jackson (1919) at Boulevard and Monument.
Once, a deliveryman entering the studio walked straight into a pistol; he yelped and turned to flee, then realized it was a sculpted weapon pointed by a plaster soldier.
The movement to honor Maury began in 1906 after Richmond businessman Gaston Lichtenstein visited a naval museum in Hamburg, Germany, where Maury was praised.The United States, and particularly Virginia, seemed remiss in not memorializing Maury.
Among his many accomplishments, Maury's charts of wind and ocean currents reduced seaborne travel time and expense; in 1851, the clipper ship Flying Cloud cut its four-to-five-month New York-to-San Francisco voyage to a mere 89 days and 21 hours.
His legacy was clouded, however, by his choice of the Confederacy over the U. S. Navy. Neither an owner of slaves nor a slavery advocate, Maury nonetheless would not fight against Virginia. Given the glamorous title of "commodore" and few resources, he was charged with protecting harbors and inland waterways. In Richmond, at 1105 E. Clay St., he devised what was called "the electric torpedo," a precursor to the contact mine.
Maury spent most of the war overseas secretly endeavoring to acquire raider vessels for the South. After the war, he tried to set up a mini-Confederacy in Mexico, but fled with his wife, Ann, and their six children to England. A 1868 U.S. government pardon brought him home to teach meteorology at the Virginia Military Institute. He died during a lecture tour on Feb. 1, 1873.
Sievers received the commission for the Maury monument in 1926. The tempest-tossed figures surrounding the globe represent the forces of water and wind, as well as Maury's efforts to predict and prepare for stormy weather. His identification of currents and early ocean-floor mapping are represented by intaglio images of creatures of the sea and air among them, pike, eels, jellyfish and bats.
Maury's daughter, Mary Maury Werth, said around the time of the unveiling of the Maury figure, "I feel as if I am sitting in the presence of my father in flesh, blood and spirit; I feel as if I could put my arms around his neck as I did when I was a little girl."
The Armistice Day unveiling of the statue at the intersection of Monument and Belmont avenues was significant, as it was a national remembrance, rather than a Confederate one. Polar explorer Richard Evelyn Byrd, resplendent in Navy dress whites, placed a wreath at the base.
Sievers died at age 93, on July 4, 1966, and the studio that annoyed and confused city inspectors was soon demolished.