White Report

Oh the indignity! All day long yesterday (and still) the Skinner’s site reported that Frank Weston Benson’s Figure in White, recently deaccessioned by the Salem Public Library so that funds could be raised to fix a fountain, went unsold, but now the Salem News is reporting that BENTON’s painting went for $300,000, far below its estimate. And in other news, we had our first snow storm, which cast everything in white–more, much more apparently, to come on Tuesday. Winter has arrived rather later here in eastern New England, but it appears to be making an entrance!

Benson Figure in White

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Frank Weston BENSON’s Figure in White, and more white outside.

 

 


Ralegh’s Cloak

By all accounts he was a charming and handsome man, but how has Sir Walter Ralegh (I’m using the preferred historical spelling), born today in 1552 or 1554, emerged as the most enduring of Queen Elizabeth’s many accomplished courtiers? He was a Renaissance man by our estimation (soldier, explorer, poet, historian, colonizer, seeker of gold) but not of his own time, when you had to do not only a lot of things and look good doing a lot of things, but also succeed at doing a lot of things. Sir Walter was an erratic explorer, he did not find gold, and his conspiratorial plotting led to his imprisonment and eventual beheading in 1618. His writings, most prominently the Historie of the World, and the Discoverie of Guiana, definitely crafted and sustained his historical reputation as the ultimate dashing Elizabethan adventurer, but I think Ralegh is also the recipient (and the product) of two cultural tendencies:  our love for what Tennyson called the many-sided man, and the attention that we pay to anecdotal history.

Raleigh Historie World

Ralegh Bookplate TM Brushfield

Ralegh Bookplates UNC

Ralegh’s Historie of the World (1614), and later examples of “Raleighana”: bookplates belonging to T.M Brushfield, St. John’s College, Oxford University–with the Tennyson line— and the University of North Carolina’s Wilson Library, which maintains collections relating to the man “who personified the national ambitions of England in the ‘Age of Discovery'”.

Ralegh’s “many sides”, his daring and his intellect, his actions and his words, his strengths and his weaknesses, captured the attention of his contemporaries and held, but I also think that it is the little things that made the man. Anyone who has ever taught history at any level knows the power of the anecdote, and Ralegh’s depicted life is rich with them. Seventeenth-century sources credit him with introducing two transformative commodities to England: the potato and tobacco. Knowledge of both probably preceded Raleigh, but he is ever-linked to them anyway, particularly the latter: it’s difficult to find an illustration of him from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries in which he is not in close proximity to smoke. But the characterization of Ralegh as the gallant, who dropped his “plush” cloak on the mud before Queen Elizabeth so that she would not sully her slippers, is even more pervasive/persuasive. Here is the first appearance of this anecdote, in Bishop Thomas Fuller’s gossipy Worthies of England (1662): this captain Raleigh coming out of Ireland to the English court in good habit (his clothes being then a considerable part of his estate) found the Queen walking, till, meeting with a plashy place, she seemed to scruple going thereon. Presently Raleigh cast and spread his new plush cloak on the ground; where the queen trod gently, rewarding him afterwards with many suits, for his so free and seasonable tender of so far a foot cloth. Thus an advantageous admission into the first notice of a prince is more than half a degree to preferment.”  Whether this little story is true or not, we will never know, but it hardly matters: the power of repetition and illustration has made it so. Ralegh did indeed receive many material favors from Queen Elizabeth, but the dramatic rise depicted here was followed but an equally-dramatic fall during the reign of her successor. And that’s another reason why Ralegh endures.

Raleigh Meets Queen

Ralegh Kenilworth NYPL

Raleigh's Cloak Victoria BM

Raleigh 1909 Selfridges Ad

Raleigh's cloak Marshall 1914

Ralegh Cigarette Cards

A portfolio of images of Ralegh, his cloak, and the Queen:  the iconic event in several editions of Sir Walter Scott’s Kenilworth, New York Public Library Digital Images’ A Victorian variation, 1886, British Museum; an Edwardian advertisement, Victoria & Albert Museum collections; the scene in Beatrice Marshall’s Sir Walter Raleigh, 1914; Churchman’s and Will’s cigarette cards from the 1930s; NYPL Digital Images. Just a sample of a wide assortment!


The Worldly Remonds of Salem

Great news on this Martin Luther King Day weekend: the Mayor of Salem has announced that a rather barren strip of waterfront land adjacent to the Salem-Beverly bridge will be reconstituted as Remond Park, after the prominent pair of African-American Abolitionist advocates and natives of Salem, Charles Lenox Remond (1810-1873) and Sarah Parker Remond (1824-1894). The announcement refers only to these famous siblings, but I prefer to think of the new park as a tribute to the entire Remond family, as the Remond parents, John and Nancy, created the material and cultural foundation that supported their children’s full-time advocacy against slavery. All at the same time, the Remond narrative is a great African-American, American, and Salem story, and it all began when the ten-year-old John “Vonremon” arrived in Salem in the summer of 1798–very much alone. He had been sent north from his native Curacao by his mother “for schooling” apparently, and the owners of the brig that transported him (the Six Brothers, John and Isaac Needham) employed him in the family bakery almost immediately upon his arrival. By his late teens he was in Boston, learning some of the “traditional” trades for freemen of color in the north, hairdressing, wig-making, and catering, and becoming acquainted with his future wife Nancy Lenox, by all accounts an excellent cook herself. In 1805 he returned to Salem and took up residence in the newly-built Hamilton Hall, working as its “Colored Restaurateur” for several decades, always referred to as Mr. Remond. Nancy and he married and had ten children between 1809-1824, all the while building their hair-dressing, culinary, and food provisions businesses. Two of these children died in infancy, Charles (b. 1810) and Sarah (b. 1824) became anti-slavery orators for the local, state, and national conventions while in their twenties, and the rest carried on–and expanded the family businesses in Salem.

The Remond American story started with John–and the Remond Salem story really started right next door at Hamilton Hall. I often think of John and Nancy as I work in my garden and look at its eastern wall, knowing that right on the other side was their home, their workplace, the birthplace of their children. I was stirring my tea this afternoon thinking about all that activity over there, and how great that the family name is now (or will shortly be) a place.

Remond portrait

Remond Hamilton Hall

Remond Park

John Remond (1786-1874) later in life, Library of Congress; the wall of Hamilton Hall from my kitchen; the soon-to-be Remond Park in Salem, courtesy Salem News.

Charles and Sarah became forceful advocates for Abolition because they had a secure Salem base but they were not grounded by Salem: after he built a reputation as an effective orator for the cause in Massachusetts in the 1830s he became a paid lecturer for the American Anti-Slavery Society and attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London with William Lloyd Garrison in 1840, after which he lectured throughout Britain. He continued his advocacy upon his return to the U.S., though was eclipsed in the national realm by the man whom he once mentored, Frederick Douglass. (They seemed to have been rivals, yet Douglass named his son Charles Remond Douglass). Once the Civil War began, Charles became a fierce proponent of African-American engagement, and a major recruiter for the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. Sarah was even more worldly than her brother: after her first speaking tour for the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1856, she left for Britain and never came back. She continued her advocacy (now for the Northern cause), but combined lecturing with studies at the Bedford College for Ladies (now part of the University of London) and after the Civil War she left Britain for Italy, where she graduated from medical school, married an Italian, and remained for the rest of her life.

Remonds

Remond Poster MHS

Remond broadside MHS

Charles Lenox Remond and Sarah Parker Remond; Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society Broadsides from the 1850s, Massachusetts Historical Society.

And while their children spread their wings, John and Nancy Remond remained in Salem, minding to their varied, expanding businesses. John appears so entrepreneurial that I can’t quite grasp the full range of his activities: the catering operation was moved out of Hamilton Hall in the mid-1820s to a series of locales in Derby and Higginson Squares, on Front Street, and on Derby Street. According to advertisements placed in the Salem Gazette in the later 1820s, he became a purveyor of fine wines and oysters, lots and lots of oysters, along with curry powder, East Indian soy sauce, pickled nuts, Virginia hams, and “catsup” (a very early use of this word, surely?). He operated both a wholesale business and several retail establishments, including an oyster bar and an ice cream parlor. He evolved from caterer to “trader”, although Nancy seems to have continued her culinary activities, and offered lunches and dinners at 5 Higginson Square in downtown Salem, “at the sign of the big lantern”, above which they also lived. The 1850 census values John’s assets at $3600; in 1870 the man who is identified as a “dealer in wines” has $19,400 worth of real estate in Salem and $2000 in personal assets. Though he seldom left Salem after his childhood arrival, John was not only a wealthy but a worldly merchant, in the Salem tradition, with stores of exotic goods ready to “ship to any market.” I’m impressed by the ambition and achievements of both John and Nancy, but I don’t want to depict them as singularly focused on the family economy: both were members of anti-slavery societies and active in abolitionist circles. Their primary focus was on education: they actually left Salem, and their many businesses, when Sarah was denied entrance into Salem High School in 1835 and only returned six years later after the Salem schools were desegregated, in no small part to their efforts from Rhode Island. They opened their (busy!) home up to the young Charlotte Forten, the first African-American woman to graduate from my university, when her father sent her north from Philadelphia to attend Salem’s desegregated schools in the 1850s. They provided for their children, and changed the world.

*Sources: Sarah Parker Remond has received a lot of attention from historians; her brother and family less so, but I found Willi Coleman’s “Like Hot Lead to Pour on the Americans….Sarah Parker Remond—from Salem, Mass. to the British Isles”, in Kathy Kish Sklar & James Brewer Stewart’s Women’s Rights and Transatlantic Anti-Slavery in the Era of Emancipation (Yale, 2007) to be particularly helpful; there’s a podcast by Julie Winch with a very promising title here, but the link doesn’t seem to be working!


Deaccessioning Salem

The vast wealth accumulated by Salem entrepreneurs in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries created a cultural landscape that still characterizes the city to some extent, encompassing institutions that inherited this wealth in the form of both currency and treasures. When the former runs out, the latter are tapped, and priorities shift over time: such is the pattern of deaccessioning. The First Church of Salem sold 14 pieces of colonial silver nearly a decade ago, and built an addition with the profits. The Trustees of the Salem Athenaeum have considered the sale of their 1629 Massachusetts Bay Charter, sealed with the signature of King Charles I, from time to time, with the earnest approval of some and the deep disdain of others. Sometimes a deaccessioning will enhance Salem’s heritage rather than take it away: such was the case of the Richard Derby House, which was donated to the City by the Society of the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now Historic New England) in 1937 to serve as a cornerstone of the new Salem Maritime National Historic Site. When it comes to smaller treasures, I think more things have left Salem than remained, and apparently another prize is about to depart: this week the Salem Public Library announced that it had consigned a painting by Salem’s most notable modern artist, Frank Weston Benson (1862-1951), to Skinner Auctions for its January 23 auction of European and American Works of Art. The painting, entitled Figure in White, apparently depicts Benson’s older sister, Georgiana, and was completed about 1890: he retained it throughout his life, and after his death his children bequeathed it to the Library, for which Benson had served as a Trustee from 1912 until his death.

Benson Figure in White

Benson plaque Figure in White

Benson Photograph Phillips Library Collections

Figure in White (1890), by Frank Weston Benson, and frame plaque, Skinner Auctions; Benson c. 1907-1908, Benson Family Papers, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum.

I am very torn on this one: obviously this man demonstrated a life-long commitment to the Library and his heirs wanted to honor that commitment in both a personal and generous way. When you approach the sale from that perspective it looks rather cold and cavalier. On the other hand, I’ve never seen this painting: its value (it has an estimate of $350,000-$550,000) has necessitated its securement behind closed doors. The Trustees of the Library, the successors of Benson, have a duty to the public as well as to the institution, and there must a long list of wants and needs that could be funded by the proceeds from the sale: one project that has been mentioned is the restoration of the Victorian cast-iron garden fountain adjacent to the Library building. The painting is one bequest, the entire library complex (building and fountain) another: it was donated to the City by the family of Salem’s most eminent philanthropist, Captain John Bertram, in 1887. Should one be “sacrificed” for the other? I’m just glad that I didn’t have to make this decision!

Salem Public LIbrary 1910

Salem Heraldry Paintings Coles

Captain John Bertram’s House (and a bit of his fountain), built in 1855 and donated to the City of Salem by his heirs in 1887–now the Salem Public Library, Detroit Publishing Company, 1910; Let’s bring some Salem back! Beautiful heraldry paintings for the Vincent and Cogswell Families by Salem artist John Coles, c. 1794, from another upcoming Americana auction @ Christie’s.


A Coronation Copy

On this day in 1559 (or perhaps the day before?) Queen Elizabeth I left her court for the Tower of London, commencing the three days of festivities which would culminate in her coronation. It strikes me as a good day, therefore, to (re-)examine the most famous symbol of that event, and one of her most iconic images, the so-called Coronation Portrait. I suspect that this painting has even more resonance in our own time because of the film and poster for the 1998 Elizabeth film, in which Cate Blanchett evokes a more approachable, yet also more vulnerable, version of the Virgin Queen, but it’s also important to note that the painting is not quite of her time. When I’m teaching Elizabethan or Tudor history, I always include one class in which we look at all of Elizabeth’s portraits in chronological order, so that we might grasp both the evolution of her image–and the craftsmanship behind it. My students are always surprised when we come to the Coronation Portrait–near the end of the class rather than the beginning. My observation of strict chronological order mandates this, as the Coronation Portrait is actually a copy, produced in the last years of Elizabeth’s reign–and perhaps even upon the occasion of her funeral, after the original painting was lost.

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Elizabeth I Poster 1998

The Coronation Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, Unknown English Artist, c. 1600, © National Portrait Gallery, London; 1998 Elizabeth poster.

Most experts seem to agree that whoever painted the Coronation Portrait had seen a contemporary depiction, as there is another c. 1600 image–a miniature by Nicholas Hilliard–that also features the distinguishing characteristics: the long hair, denoting Elizabeth’s unmarried state and virginity, the cloth-of-gold dress tying her to her Tudor predecessors, the royal ermine, crown, scepter and orb. There are literary descriptions of the coronation festivities as well–reprinted at about the same time that these images were reproduced. There’s obviously an effort at commemoration and memorialization at this time of transition, and perhaps even to project a more youthful (human?) image of Elizabeth—she had become essentially ageless by the end of her reign.

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British Library- c.33.e.7.(11) c2104_08_0231+001

 Nicholas Hilliard Coronation Miniature, c. 1600, Private Collection; The Royall Passage of her Maiesty from the Tower of London, to her Palace of White-hall, with al the Speaches and Deuices, both of the Pageants and otherwise, together with her Maiesties seuerall Answers, and most pleasing Speaches to them all, London, 1604, British Library.

If so, the Coronation portrait publicists failed, as another image produced (and reproduced and reproduced….) around the time of her death proved to be far more influential: the engraving by Crispin van de Passe the Elder (after an earlier drawing by Isaac Oliver) projecting a more mature and much more worldly queen, an Imperial Elizabeth. This is the Elizabeth of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the heyday of the British Empire. Even when an intensifying focus on the personal life of the Virgin Queen commenced in the later nineteenth century (culminating in the 1998 Elizabeth film) commenced, she still looks rather Passe-ive!

Elizabeth de Passe V and A

Elizabeth 19th century Oliver de Passe

Elizabeth 20th century coronation portrait

Memorial print of Crispin van de Passe etching of Elizabeth after Isaac Oliver drawing, 1603, Victoria & Albert Museum; Charles Turner print after van de Passe after Oliver, 1816, British Museum, and the early 20th century historical illustrator Fortunino Matania’s coronation portrait of Elizabeth, c. 1920.


Masterpiece Memories

I was at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston with my family yesterday, a precious place that I visit about once a year but to which none of them, oddly, have ever been. Wandering around the eclectic rooms of the first floor, my brother remarked to me: it’s as if all of these paintings were in the Masterpiece game that we played as children. Now he is a well-educated, worldly New Yorker, so this was hardly his first exposure to these genres, but he was right: as soon as he said it I was plunged back into the late 1970s as well. There was something about the placement of these paintings that reminded us of that old art auction board game!

Masterpiece V & A 1970

Masterpiece Game 1970 board

The 1970 Parker Brothers’ Masterpiece Game, Museum of Childhood, Victoria & Albert Museum Collection and for sale here (for a while; I might need to snatch it up).

The game contained 24 art cards which became emblazoned in our minds: I remember when I first saw one of the original paintings in real life it seemed…………BIG. My brother’s memories was jostled by a Degas-like painting by Louis Kornberg titled In the Dressing Room (1920) in the Yellow Room, while the facing Whistleresque Lady in Yellow (1888) by Thomas Wilmer Dewing looked vaguely familiar to me. I was absolutely certain that Carlo Crivelli’s St. George Slaying the Dragon (1470) upstairs in the Raphael room was a game card, as well as Rembrandt’s 1629 Self-Portrait, in the Dutch Room. But when I returned home to look up the game on various vintage board game sites, I quickly realized that our memories were false: all the paintings including in the Masterpiece game are apparently from the National Gallery in London. Mrs. Gardner’s ladies, saint, and Rembrandt were not our Masterpiece ladies, saint, and Rembrandt, but nevertheless it was good to see them (again).

Lady in Yellow Thomas Wilmer Dewing

Crivelli Saint George Slaying The Dragon 1470

Rembrandt Self Portrait 1629

All Images courtesy of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

 


Time Capsules

Greater Boston has been all abuzz this week about the opening of what has been called “the nation’s oldest time capsule”, a brass box deposited by Samuel Adams and Paul Revere in the cornerstone of the Massachusetts State House in 1795. The box was opened by a conservator from the Museum of Fine Arts on Tuesday, in the company of the Executive Director of the Commonwealth’s Archives and before flashing cameras. Inside were items that our founding fathers wanted us (or someone in the future) to see: a silver plaque engraved by Revere, a copper medal depicting George Washington, two dozen coins dating from 1652 (before the colonists were allowed to coin their own money), and a title page from the Massachusetts Colony Records. The box was not a big surprise: it had been discovered in 1855, and a few items (mainly newspapers) from that time had been placed within–so we have two generations from the past communicating to us through objects that they chose to represent their times.

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Photographs of the Revere plaque by Jessica Rinaldi @ Boston Globe and conservator Pam Hatchfield by Brian Snyder @ Reuters.

As I read the various accounts of the Boston time capsule’s contents and saw the face of the very excited conservator’s face (above) on television, several thoughts ran through my mind. The first was empathy: every historian (at least historians who work on periods before the twentieth century) has felt that feeling of sheer excitement as they see and touch (through gloves!) crusty old documents from their period for the very first time–or again and again. Working with manuscripts is often difficult but always intimate–much more so than with printed matter. But obviously there’s a difference between an archive of documents and a time capsule: the former is not a “composition”, in that the historian is crafting the interpretation and presentation rather than the historical subjects. And this (rather obvious) realization led me to my second thought, which I’m still considering:  the difference between “accidental” time capsules like Pompeii and Herculaneum and very intentional ones, like the “Crypt of Civilization” in Atlanta, sealed in 1940 and scheduled to be opened in the year 8113. Actually, according to the reigning time capsule expert, William E. Jarvis (author of the 2002 book Time Capsules: A Cultural History and one of the founders of the International Time Capsule Society), the Boston box is not really a time capsule, which much have a specified opening date like the Crypt of Civilization, but rather a “foundation deposit”, a practice that goes way, way back—to Mesopotamia. So I guess there are three forms of object messaging from the past to the present: the intentional time capsule, which Jarvis credits as an innovation of the nineteenth century, the foundation deposit–which is still an attempt on the part of contemporaries to shape the future’s perception of their era–and accidental entities like Pompeii, the uncovered Anglo-Saxon ship burial mound at Sutton Hoo, or the abandoned Antarctic buildings of Carsten Borchgrevink and Ernest Shackleton. Which, I wonder, is more revealing about these past people?

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Sutton Hoo Belt Buckle BM

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The dedication of the “Crypt of Civilization” door in Atlanta, 1938, Oglethorpe University Archives; a royal belt buckle from the Sutton Hoo burial ship, British Museum; Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds, Antarctica, ©Nigel McCall for the Antarctic Heritage Trust.


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