Dictionary of Virginia Biography


John Woodburn Davies (12 March 1818–2 October 1883), music publisher and photographer, was born in Liverpool, England, of Welsh parentage. According to family stories, his father, also named John Woodburn Davies, was an artist. The name of his mother is unknown. Originally Davies apprenticed with a Lancashire stationer, but later he became a stonemason with some knowledge of civil engineering. As a young married man he immigrated to New York City, where he found employment with several public works projects, including improvements made to Fort Wood in 1844. He and his wife, Nancy P. Davies (maiden name unknown), had two sons and one daughter.

About 1850 Davies settled his family in Richmond, Virginia, where he may have assisted in constructing the granite pedestal in Capitol Square that awaited Thomas Crawford's bronze equestrian statue of George Washington. Davies established a brownstone, granite, and marble yard, and his finely carved monuments, often signed, and his stone and iron-railing enclosures decorated the major city burial grounds, including Hebrew Cemetery and Hollywood Cemetery. Advertisements boasted that his work had received first-place premiums awarded by the Virginia State Agricultural Society and the Virginia Mechanics' Institute. In addition to cutting stone, Davies engaged in other entrepreneurial activities. He spent five years working out improvements to the chimney cap and, after receiving a patent in November 1855, offered the state and county rights for sale.

To attract customers to his marble yard Davies often placed statues and paintings on temporary display at the neighboring Virginia Mechanics' Institute, including William Randolph Barbee's Coquette. Joel Tanner Hart's marble statue of Henry Clay, commissioned by Whig women to honor the Virginia-born statesman, stood in Davies's gallery in 1859 until its erection in Capitol Square. In December 1860 Davies exhibited Alexander Galt's recently completed marble statue of Thomas Jefferson, destined for the Rotunda at the University of Virginia, and early the next year he displayed portraits of John Marshall and John Randolph of Roanoke.

During the Civil War, Davies embraced the Confederate cause. He may have been the John W. Davies who gave evidence several times in 1861 in loyalty cases involving suspected Northern sympathizers. In December 1861 he completed a marble obelisk that the Powhatan County Court had commissioned in memory of a local Confederate captain killed at Rich Mountain and displayed the marker in his shop as a sample of his work.

On 19 March 1864 Davies's storage yard at the corner of Main and Ninth Streets suffered severe collateral damage from a blaze set by an arsonist. Davies lost approximately forty marble mantels and an unknown number of oil paintings valued at about $75,000. The next afternoon, while he was at Capitol Square distributing food to returned Confederate prisoners, burglars broke through the back door of his store and made off with about $1,500 worth of knives, razors, soap, pipes, playing cards, and other fancy goods.

After the disaster Davies shifted the focus of his business to lithography and publishing music. Operating as John W. Davies and Sons (and occasionally as the Richmond Musical Exchange), his store issued sheet music for such sentimental ballads as "Listen to the Mocking-Bird," "Lorena," and "The Vacant Chair," as well as such martial tunes as "Farewell to the Star Spangled Banner," "No Surrender," "Pickett's Charge March," and "We Conquer or Die." From engraving and printing, Davies and his family moved into a sideline in photography, perhaps in part for the purpose of securing likenesses to decorate their sheet music. In 1864 Davies photographed Robert Edward Lee, about the same time he published "The Lee Schottisch." His single bust-length image of Lee, showing a weary general with heavy bags under his eyes, a closely cropped beard, loose-fitting shirt collar, and sloppy, drooping tie, proved wildly popular. Lee and his wife often gave autographed copies in carte-de-visite size to admirers, and the United States Post Office used a reversed engraving of this likeness on the four-cent commemorative stamp in the Army Issue series of 1937. Another widely distributed photograph by Davies, also taken in 1864 and probably in conjunction with the issuing of sheet music entitled "You Can Never Win Us Back," showed the Confederate guerilla John Singleton Mosby with sixteen of his rangers. Davies continued to exhibit paintings as well, including three in March 1865 depicting the bombardment of Fort Sumter and, in December 1865, The Scout's Prize by John Adams Elder.

After the Civil War, Davies gradually abandoned music publication to concentrate on photography. Although after the death of his elder son in 1870 the business remained officially John W. Davies and Son, the upper story of the book and music shop on Main Street was designated the Lee Gallery to capitalize on Davies's most famous subject.

John Woodburn Davies died of apoplexy at his Richmond residence on 2 October 1883. The next day, after funeral services at Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church, he was buried in Hollywood Cemetery. William W. Davies continued to operate the Lee Gallery for almost a decade after his father's death, but the renowned Civil War photographer George Smith Cook eventually acquired the historic Davies negatives for his own studio.


Sources Consulted:
United States Census Schedules, Richmond Co., New York, 1850 (age thirty-five on 4 Sept. 1850), Henrico Co., 1860 (age forty-one on 14 Aug. 1860), and Richmond City, 1880 (age sixty-two on 7 June 1880), all in Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.; M. Ellyson, comp., The Richmond Directory and Business Register, for 1856 (1856), 83; Richmond Daily Dispatch, 4 Dec. 1861, 21, 22 Mar. 1864, 2 Jan., 3, 13 Mar. 1865; Roy Meredith, The Face of Robert E. Lee in Life and in Legend (1947), 54–57; Edward D. C. Campbell, Jr., "The Fabric of Command: R. E. Lee, Confederate Insignia, and the Perception of Rank," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 98 (1990): 271–273; John O. Peters, Richmond's Hollywood Cemetery (2010), esp. 32–37; Death Register, Richmond City (with age at death as sixty-two years, six months, thirteen days), Bureau of Vital Statistics, Record Group 36, Library of Virginia; obituaries in Richmond State, 2 Oct. 1883 (with birth date), and Richmond Daily Dispatch (with variant birth date of 12 Mar. 1816) and Richmond Daily Whig (with birth date), both 3 Oct. 1883; Hollywood Cemetery Burial Register, 2:139 (with age at death as sixty-two years, six months).


Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Sara B. Bearss.

How to cite this page:
Sara B. Bearss,"John Woodburn Davies (1818–1883)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2016 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Davies_John_Woodburn, accessed [today's date]).


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