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Robert Tait McKenzie

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Robert Tait McKenzie
Sculptor-athletic figure
Robert Tait McKenzie was born in 1867 Almonte, Ontario, Canada to William McKenzie, a minister of the Free Church of Scotland, and Catherine Shiells McKenzie. His father died when McKenzie was a young boy of nine years. After spending his entire youth in Almonte, at the age of eighteen he entered McGill University where he stayed nearly twenty years. His childhood friend was James Naismith, the inventor of basketball, who also attended McGill University with McKenzie.

He entered McGill in 1885 and worked his way through college and the medical school on his own resources. While an undergraduate at McGill, McKenzie showed his promise when he won the All-round Gymnastic Championship. He was the Canadian Intercollegiate Champion in the high jump, a good hurdler, a first-rate boxer, and a member of the varsity football team. His two athletic specialties were swimming and fencing.

McKenzie received his undergraduate degree and medical degree from McGill. He eventually became the Medical Director of Physical Training, a lecturer in Anatomy, and a specialist in orthopedic surgery. It was as an undergraduate that his interests in physical education and art first developed.

Dr. McKenzie became Head of the new Department of Physical Education at the University of Pennsylvania in 1904, and as a full professor on the medical faculty. McKenzie was attracted to Pennsylvania by the newly constructed gymnasium at Franklin Field, and viewed this as an opportunity to test his theory of physcial education as a vehicle of preventative medicine. He persuaded the University to medically examine all athletes before participation in sports.

McKenzie's first efforts at sculpture resulted from his inability to find sculptured pieces that demonstrated points in lectures on anatomy. His series of four Masks of Facial Expressions (Violent Effort, Breathlessness, Fatigue and Exhaustion) (1902) was his first public endeavor in sculpture. In 1903, excited by the direction of the Society of College Gymnasium Directors and recognizing a need for illustrative art, he proceeded down the career path for which he would be best known, that of sculptor. His Sprinter (1902) and Athlete (1903) were initially inspired by the short lived, but internationally popular movement of anthropometry, the scientific study of the measurements and proportions of the body. The art world soon found much to criticize in this style , and McKenzie turned his attention to the study of European masters. By this time, however, his earlier interest in anthropometry was well known and his formal training in medicine was viewed as an unorthodox, if not unsuitable preparation for the practice of fine art. The result was that many art critics viewed his early work unfavorbly. McKenzie travelled to Europe for study in an attempt to adress there criticisms.

During the summer of 1907 while on a voyage to England, McKenzie met the musician and poet Ethel O'Neil of Hamilton, Ontario. They were married in 1907 in the Capel Royal in Dublin, while both were guests of Lord and Lady Aberdeen. Mrs. McKenzie was a source of encouragement and inspiration to him through the next thirty years, when he achieved world acclaim in fields of art, medicine, physical education, and rehabilitation.

As his sculpture begain to receive recognition, his work in relief also received notice. McKenzie mastered the art of the medallion, creating both memorial pieces and awards. At the 1912 Olympics, his most accalimed medallion, Joy of Effort, was set into the wall of the stadium at Stockholm. He received the King's Medal from the King of Sweden for this work.

His relief entitled, Passing the Baton, was inspired by the Relay Carnival at the University of Pennsylvania. He produced medals for the Intercollegiate Conference Athletic Association to commemorate tennis, swimming, track and field, gymnastics, fencing, and gold as well as dozens of medals of other academic and athletic organizations.

Dr. McKenzie served England, the United States, and Canada during World War I, as a pioneer in the physical-mental rehabilitation of the severely wounded. He traveled to England in 1915 to join the Canadian Army, but there was a delay due to misfiled paperwork. He applied to the Royal Army Medical Corps in which he was granted a commission first as a lieutenant and later as a major. McKenzie served as the medical officer in charge of Heaton Park, Manchester, England during the war. His involvement in the war remained that of physician, and in 1918, he published two books, Reclaiming the Maimed and A Handbook of Physical Therapy. The latter was adopted by British, Canadian, and American armed forces as the official manual of hospital rehabilitation. He applied for attachment to the Physical Training Headquarters Staff, but he was sent to take a course in physical education. On his superior officer's discovery that McKenzie wrote the textbooks for the course, he was sent on a tour of inspection of training camps and hospitals.

McKenzie's only sculpture completed during this period was Blightly, a representation of a young Seaforth Highlander on leave in France. After the war, McKenzie was commissioned to do a number of memorials, including The Call, the central figure of the Scottish-American war memorial; The Volunteer, in Almonte; Alma Mater, the Girard College memorial; and Homecoming, the Cambridge memorial.

It was in this post-war period that McKenzie's great reputation was achieved. His work was displayed at several major exhibitions, including a show at Gump's Gallery in San Francisco (1923); Grand Central Art Galleries in New York (1924);

Georges Petit Galleris in Paris (1924) and New York (1927); Toronto (1928); the London Fine Arts Society (1930); at the Los Angeles Olympic Games (1932) (won prize for his Shield of Athletes); the Grand Central Art Galleries in New York (1934); and the Olympic Games in Berlin (1936).

A solo sculpture exhibition was held at the Fine Arts Society, London (1921) and toured to Feragil Galleries, New York the following year.

His works on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania include the Youthful Franklin, commissioned in 1911 by the Class of 1904. To model Franklin's face and head, McKenzie studied the portraits and busts of Franklin produced later in Franklin's life. McKenzie, using these works of art as a basis, composed what Franklin may have looked like before age left his face wrinkled and swollen. It took a model one week of walking around nude in McKenzie's studio before McKenzie found a position which he felt would be suitable for the statue which would be titled Young Franklin. The sculpture depicts the Founding Father as a young man, when he first arrived in Philadelphia in 1723, without fame or prospect; the intent was to inspire new students.

R. Tait McKenzie was active in organizing the first Philadelphia chapter of the Boy Scouts in 1908. He was a personal friend scouting's founder, Sir Robert Baden-Powell, and they shared the belief in the program of Scouting. McKenzie was commissioned to create the statue known as The Boy Scout of The Ideal Scout; it remains his most beloved work. A 1938 cast of the 1914 original stands outside the Boy Scouts Headquarters in Philadelphia.

During his later years, he purchased a historic mill near Almonte, Ontario, close to his boyhood home. With his wife's help, they converted the mill into a summer home and studio, where they collected and placed many of his dearest possessions and originals of some of his most famous works. It was renamed the Mill of Kintail and today stands as the Robert Tait McKenzie Memorial Museum. McKenzie died in Philadelphia of a heart atteck in April 1938.

In 1931, he asked to be relieved of his duties at the University to devote more time to his sculpturing. However, he continued to lecture at Pennsylvania. His medical achievements are impressive. He was one of a group of five who founded the American Academy of Physical Education, and he served continuously as its president from 1927 until his death in 1938. He was an officer of many other institutions and societies, including president, the American Physical Education Association; president, the American Association for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation; and president, the Society of Directors of Physical Education in Colleges.

Equally impressive is his artistic output. Creating more than 200 works in his lifetime, most are in public institutions throughout the world including at the University of Pennsylvania; the Red Cross Building, Washington D.C.; Girard College War Memorial, Philadelphia; Woodbury, New Jersey; Cambridge, England; Edinburg, Scotland; and Ottawa, Canada. The largest collections of his work are held at the McKenzie Memorial Museum in Almonte and at the Joseph B. Wolffe Collection of R. Tait McKenzie Sculpture of Athletes at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

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