A free hand;The big picture

21st May 1999 at 01:00
(Photograph) - It began, as it always does, with a vision. It ended as perhaps the best-known statue in the world, a symbol of new beginnings and a tourist attraction visited by 4.2 million people each year. The 225-ton, 152-foot high Statue of Liberty dominates the entrance to New York's harbour as it has since 1886. But how did it get there?

A group of French intellectuals eating dinner in 1865 wanted to show the world that America and France were countries dedicated to the love of human liberty. It was a big idea; it called for a big monument to have "far-reaching moral effect".

One of the guests at that party, Frederic-August Bartholdi, was a successful sculptor. In 1871, following the disastrous Franco-Prussian War, Bartholdi travelled to America to "excite public enthusiasm" for the project. Bartholdi found the ideal spot, he found enthusiasm for a statue of "Liberty Enlightening the World" - but he did not find funding.

Through the early 1870s, Bartholdi and the brilliant engineer Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel (of the tower) worked on the structure. Using the repousse technique of hammering metal inside a plaster mould, a team of workers laboured to complete the statue, riveting 125 tons of steel struts to support 452 copper sheets. They got the head and the raised arm with the torch ready for a Philadelphia exhibition in 1878, but it was not until the French government organised a lottery that Bartholdi could finish "my daughter Liberty". So, in 1884, the first statue with steps inside (354) rose above the Paris skyline.

It was two more years before the statue was dismantled and the 350 pieces shipped across the Atlantic to be reassembled in her new home. But in 1886 President Grover Cleveland welcomed Liberty to her "chosen altar". Emma Lazarus' poem "The New Colossus" was inscribed on the base. Its closing lines, "Give me your tired your poor, your huddled masses of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost, to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door" became the most powerful invocation in the modern world, calling refugees to the promise of a new world.

Victoria Neumark

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