Author Archives: Donna Seger

Patched with Plastic

I was planning a post on tax collectors for this Tax Day, but it got too overwhelming and too depressing: as one of Lucifer’s Four Evangelists (with the usurer, the banker, and the miller (???), the tax man has been reviled for centuries, and depicted in images and prose in all sorts of unflattering ways. I don’t think anyone wants to see paintings of tax collectors on the day their returns are due, even if they are the creations of Renaissance artists (who seem to have a singular obsessions with tax farmers). So instead, I’m offering LEGO art!

T, The New York Times Style Magazine has some interesting features in its latest edition, despite a thematic focus on minimalism (not my favorite style). There is a lot of texture in the magazine, and one particular photograph stopped me in my tracks: an ancient, crumbling wall, patched with plastic. The close proximity of very new and very old is my favorite aesthetic, so I had to see more of the work of artist Jan Vormann.

Lego

Jan Vormann/© 2014 ARS, New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

At first glance, I thought the above image was photoshopped but no, as his website and this Daily Telegraph article make clear, Vormann travels the real world and places bright LEGO blocks in the midst of conspicuous decay, drawing attention to buildings and places as part of a “Repair Manifesto”. He wants onlookers to see the holes, question why they are there, and seek their repair–except perhaps where they serve as constant reminders, as in the case of the bullet and shrapnel destruction of Berlin. How I wish he would come to Salem! We need the colorful and constant reminders of our past, and the manifesto to repair.

Vormann Berlin-001

Vorrman NYC Bryant Park NYC-001

Vormann Venice

Vorrmann Bamberg

Lego “repairs” in Berlin, New York City, Venice and Vormann’s hometown of Bamberg, Germany: JAN VORMANN / BARCROFT USA and Dispatchwork.

 

 


Stroll with a Goal

I walk steadfastly to work, down Lafayette Street, nearly every day all semester long, but now that Spring has finally arrived in Salem I can stroll a bit in my own neighborhood. I did just that the other day when the sun was out, with a goal but looking for flowers along the way. Last week one of my favorite Essex Street houses came on the market: the Sprague-Peabody-Silsbee House, built in 1807 for Salem merchant Joseph Sprague (with interior carving attributed to Samuel McIntre), and later enlarged and remodeled by William G. Rantoul. This is a striking Federal house, cast in a fading yellow-painted brick, with one of Salem’s best carriage houses out back. I always smile when I see it, not only because it is pleasing to look at, but also because I remember the charming couple that lived there for many years.

Stroll 056

Stroll 014

Stroll 044

Along the way: a field of flowers on Chestnut, an “antler” on Federal, and a window on Essex.

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Stroll 035

Stroll 043

Sprague House

Stroll 033

The Sprague-Peabody-Sillsbee House, 1807: front and sides (the Rantoul additions are on the right side, I assume, and in the back–plus the balustrade?), carriage house and interior shots from the listing; exterior detail.


The Prince of Chintz under Pressure

The very first old house which enchanted me–and still does–is the Justin Smith Morrill Homestead in Strafford, Vermont, where I lived as a child. It’s a pink Gothic Revival confection, perfect in every way, and perfectly preserved. Here in Salem, we have several notable Gothic Revival houses, including conspicuous examples that were captured by Walker Evans when he passed through town and an Andrew Jackson Downing design that I walk by every day on the way to work. And then of course there is the gothicized Pickering House. All of these houses are very well-maintained: people who buy Gothic Revival houses really have to make a commitment to their preservation because the style is characterized by intricate exterior and interior detail and for the most part they do make this commitment, with the very notable apparent exception of Mario Buatta, the famous New York interior designer nicknamed the “Prince of Chintz”. In 1992, Mr Buatta purchased a very prominent Gothic Revival house located in a very prominent historic district:  the William H. Mason House (1845) in the midst of the Thompson Hill Historic District in Thompson, Connecticut. After some initial renovations he abandoned the project and the house, and its very prominent deterioration ensued. The Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation placed the property on its Most Endangered list in 2004, and last summer an online petition was launched. Things heated up last month: with the cancellation of a scheduled appearance by Buatta on March 6 by Historic New England and an article in the New York Times in which one Thompson neighbor called the designer a “New York interior desecrater” and Buatta threatened to sell the house to a funeral parlor if the complaints don’t cease and desist. Closer to the scenethe Hartford Courant has published an article today which discusses the legal remedies open to preservationists (very interesting–involving environmental laws). “Demolition by neglect” has always been incomprehensible to me, except in situations of hardship–which clearly this is not. This particular case is even more difficult to understand: surely this notoriety is bad for Mr. Buatta’s business as well as his reputation. And this is a man who has served, or continues to serve for all I know, on the board of New York City’s Historic House Trust. Let’s hope that he comes to the decision to sell or save the Mason house soon.

Demolition by Neglect

Demolition by Neglect 1986-001

Demolition by Neglect Buatta

The William H. Mason House today and in 1986 (Hartford Courant and Gregory Andrews for the National Registry of Historic Places, 1986; a watercolor sketch of Mr. Buatta lounging in a Gothic-esque bed, Konstantin Kakanias for the New York Times (pinched from this great post at the Down East Dilettante).


The Princes in the Tower

As today marks the accession of Edward V in 1483, I thought I would explore visual representations of one of the most popular mysteries in English history: the princes in the tower. My students certainly love this story: everything stops when we get to this moment, and I have to let them indulge in what if history, at least for a little while. The basic facts are these: the 12-year-old prince succeeded his father Edward IV on April 9, but his uncle Richard, the Duke of Gloucester and Lord Protector, assumed the head of a regency government. The boy king, along with his younger brother Richard, was placed in “protective custody” in the Tower of London (then more of a palace then a prison), from which they never left. The Regent Richard produced evidence of their father’s prior betrothal in June of 1483, invalidating their parents’ marriage, rendering them illegitimate and enabling his own succession; at some point in August or September they disappeared. Two years later, in the end game of the long dynastic struggle that was later romantically labeled the Wars of the Roses, Henry Tudor killed Richard III on the battlefield of Bosworth and proclaimed himself King. The Tudor Dynasty commenced and along with it, the demonization of Richard III, the murderer of the Princes in the Tower, his every own nephews. This was a campaign waged most effectively by Tudor apologists Sir Thomas More in the early part of the sixteenth century, and Shakespeare later on. The skeletal remains of two bodies found in the foundation of a Tower staircase in 1674 were interred in an urn designed by Sir Christopher Wren in Westminster Abbey, marked with the inscription proclaiming that the the young king and his brother were stifled with pillows…by the order of their perfidious uncle Richard the Usurper.

NPG 4980(11); King Edward V by Unknown artist

A Sixteenth-century Portrait of Edward V, National Portrait Gallery, London

And that’s been the standard story ever since, despite continuous Riccardian attempts to point out that there were other perfidious candidates, and other scenarios. And there are. The recent discovery of Richard III’s remains renewed interest in his most famous crime for a bit, but really, curiosity about the princes’ fate always seems to be simmering under the surface: there have been repeated calls for the testing of the urn’s remains which royal and church officials have repeatedly resisted, and Westminster Abbey’s official position is that the mortal remains of two young children widely believed since the 17th century to be the princes in the tower, should not be disturbed.  So that’s where we are with this story, and that is indeed what the princes in the tower has become:  a story about two young children confronted and overwhelmed by evil, close to home. A Grimm tale. While the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries certainly contributed to the outline and character development of this story, it was the nineteenth century that filled in all the details, especially in terms of the all-important visuals. It was actually a late eighteenth-century painting, James Northcote’s Murder of the Princes in the Tower (after Shakespeare’s Richard III) that set the scene which later artists recreated in variants over the next century: young, innocent, blue-eyed angelic boys, increasingly “real”, either sleeping unaware or clutching each other in fear and apprehension, helpless in the face of encroaching evil (which is always more ominous when it is not in the picture).

(c) National Trust, Petworth House; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Princes in the Tower Mordecai

(c) Paintings Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Princes in the Tower Delaroche

Princes in the Tower Ward

Princes in the Tower Millais

James Northcote, The Murder of the Princes in the Tower (from William Shakespeare’s “Richard III”), 1786, National Trust, Petworth House; Joseph Mordecai, The Murder of the Princes in the Tower, City of London Corporation, Guildhall Art Gallery; Charles Robert Leslie, The Two Princes in the Tower, 1837, Collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Paul Delaroche, The Princes in the Tower (Edward V and the Duke of York), mid-19th century, Tower of London; Henrietta Mary Ada Ward, The Princes in the Tower, 1861, Touchstones Rochdale; John Everett Millais, The Princes in the Tower, 1878, Royal Holloway, University of London. The work of Millais, setting the boys before the staircase where their supposed remains were later uncovered, has been a particularly influential image.


History for Sale

Today Bonhams Auctions in New York is selling off over 300 items from one of the largest private collections of historical emphemera in the world: “Treasures from the Caren Collection. How History Unfolds” includes printed and manuscript items dating from the sixteenth century to the near-present, and every single one represents its moment in an intimate way. That’s the power of paper, and Bonham’s digital catalog–with zoomable images–really brings you into the picture. Even though I had tons of stuff to do yesterday (and it was a sunny spring day), I couldn’t resist perusing the items, including beautiful contemporary prints of the Spanish Armada and Sir Francis Drake, broadsides covering everything from Charles I’s trial to the Great London Fire to the Salem Witch Trials and all the big events of the American Revolution, Civil War daguerreotypes, baseball ephemera, and assorted letters, maps, photographs, tickets and posters from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There are beautiful, touching photographs of Native American chiefs from the later nineteenth century, as well as not-so-beautiful –but equally haunting–images of victims of war and lynching. Lots of little slips of paper that you wouldn’t think would be “historical”, but most definitely are. Below is a sampling of items that appealed to me, but really, I could have put every single lot into this post!

Ephemera at Auction1.

London Burning crop2.

Ephemera at Auction 3-001 3. Balloon and Parachute-0014.

Washington and Lee crop5.

Ephemera at Auction 5-0016.

ephemera at auction 8-001 7

Congress-001 8.

March 1969-001 9.

1. The Spanish Armada, 1588/ 2. The “Deplorable” Fire of London, after 1666/ 3. The first British edition of Cotton Mather’s Wonders of the Invisible World, 1693/4. Garnerin’s balloon and parachute, 1802/5. Drawing of Generals Washington and Lee by Arathusa Graves, 1802/ 6. Photograph of Corinth, Mississippi in 1862/7. A UFO appearance in 1897/8. What Congress has Done, 1900/9. March on Washington, 1969.

 


A New Storefront in Salem

If you’ve read this blog for any time at all you know that I am a traditionalist when it comes to architecture, and a committed preservationist, but there’s a new storefront on Essex Street, Salem’s main thoroughfare since its foundation, which has definitely caught my eye–and it is very sleek and very modern. As a main street, for nearly four centuries, Essex Street has had to change with the times, and this particular block lost its really old structures long ago–in the past century it was home to two adjacent movie theaters, one which looks like it was a real palace (the Empire), and another which was a more modest mid-century construction (the Salem). The building with the bold new storefront was built in 1929 in a Colonial Revival style, complete with urns on top–like a McIntire fence! Its shiny new facade actually  has a bit more integrity, I think, and hopefully draws a great new tenant.

Storefront 008

Storefront 009

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Storefront Essex

Storefront MACRIS 299

Storefront Empire

The 390s block of Essex Street, present and past.

 


Thinking about Pink

Just the other day I heard my fellow Salemite Michelle Finamore, the Curator of Fashion Arts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, talking about her ongoing exhibition Think Pink on NPR, a nice reminder that I haven’t seen it yet! The exhibition opened in October (heralded by pink spotlights on the Museum marking Breast Cancer Awareness Month), but I’m glad that I have inadvertently waited until now, because for me pink is more of a spring color, and definitely a happy one. About a decade ago, I had endured the most miserable winter (even more miserable than this past one), a prolonged period of heartache and anxiety about nearly aspect of my life. And then one day in mid-March I spotted a bubblegum pink spring coat at a vintage store in Boston, bought it, put it on, and everything just got better! It was the perfect sixties pink, not too “hot” and not too light, in the perfect Audrey Hepburn silhouette with a little Doris Day collar, and (of course) three-quarter sleeves, and I wore that coat every day through that Spring, no matter what I had on under it, until the day (or rather, night) that it was stolen from a restaurant coat room while I was eating dinner. No matter, it had worked its magic, and I truly hope that it did the same for whoever took it home. The color pink cannot fail to bring a smile to my face, whether I’m thinking about my long-lost coat, or the Diana Vreeland-esque character played by Kay Thompson in the classic Audrey (and Fred Astaire) film Funny Face, who also encourages us all to “Think Pink!”

pink MFA Boston

Pink Doll's Dress

Pink

The MFA in October and a silk taffeta 18th century doll’s dress from the Exhibition (Elizabeth Day McCormick Collection), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; still image of Kay Thompson’s “Think Pink” number in Funny Face (1957).

The Think Pink exhibition is not just about showing off pretty dresses, but also an exploration of “the changing meaning of pink in art and fashion”. It seems that pink perceptions are particularly interesting when relative to gender: the headline of Michelle’s NPR interview the other day was her statement that pink as a girl’s color was “a post-World War II phenomenon”–New York magazine proclaimed that Pink was Formerly a Bro Shade in response. A great example of looking back at masculine pre-war pink is the Ralph Lauren suit worn by Robert Redford in the 1974 version of the Great Gatsby, which is pictured in the exhibition along side a man’s formal suit in deep pink silk from several centuries earlier (which you can read more about here). This certainly rings true for me: while I don’t see a lot of men in pink in my period (the sixteenth century), there are not hard to find a bit later. Pink strikes me as a very cavalier color, and men in the eighteenth century were certainly not afraid to wear it–even Prime Ministers.

Pink Suits MFA

Benedict in Pink MET-001

Pink Pitt Victoria & Albert Museum

The Ralph Lauren “Gatsby” Suit and a Man’s formal suit, France, 1770-1780, silk satin with silk embroidery, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Portrait of Benedikt von Hertenstein by Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1517, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Miniature Portrait of  William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham by Jean André Rouquet, 1740s, Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Appendix:  Because it is her 90th birthday today, and because the coat she is wearing is quite similar to my perfect pink coat (except mine was made of a thin wool weave, not satin), I’ve got to include this picture of the perfect pink girl, Doris Day (from the blog Cinema Style).

Doris Day (1960s)

 



April Fish

Frankly I find fools a little scary (especially after they evolve from faithless to court jesters) and I’m not clever enough to pull off a tricky April Fool’s Day post, so I will just offer up some French fish for the day. For whatever reason—new calendar or perennial fish-hatching season–French-speaking parts of Europe (and Italy) have recognized the first of April as Le Poisson d’Avril for several centuries, and postcards past serve as cheerful evidence of this interesting cultural tradition. The recipient of an April Fool’s Day prank gets a paper fish pinned to his back, or a colorful card in the mail. And in the words of this first card, from 1906, if you receive it with a good heart, it will bring you luck. I’m craving lucklightheartedness, and color after March 2014, surely the longest and coldest month in the history of the world!

'If you receive it with a good heart, it will bring you luck', an April Fool's Day postcard, sent in 1906 (mixed media)

April Flower Fish card

April Fool's Day (coloured photo)

April Fish-001

April Fabric panel

April First Poisson cards from the first decade of the twentieth century and the Bridgeman Art Library; Fabric panel from Etsy seller Confectionique.

 


Anniversary History 1914

I used to disdain what I call “anniversary history”–the commemoration of historical events only on their centenaries, a temporary historical consciousness–as not serious and media-driven: a History Channel approach to history. I tried to engage in a bit of anniversary myself back in 2012, and the results were indeed a bit superficial! I still believe that “history” happens every day and everything is “historical” but I also realize that it’s impossible for the average person to go about their day (or their life) in a historical fog so the marking of anniversaries of events large and small, public and private, and global and local is important, and even necessary. They make people stop and think about the past–and its relation to the present–at least for a little while.

From my perspective(s), 1914 promises to be a big year for anniversary history:  this summer marks the centenary of both the Great Salem Fire and the beginning of World War I in Europe. Over there, commemoration of the latter has already begun in earnest and will intensify over this year; I expect American engagement will really commence in 2017, the centenary of our entry into the Great War (although President Obama visited Flanders Fields a few days ago). This coincidence of local and global  “Great” events is interesting to me because it mirrors historiographical and cultural trends, and because both events were so very disastrous, testing the mettle of men and women in myriad ways. Here in Salem, we began our commemoration of the 1914 fire last night with a presentation by the scholar Jacob Remes, author of the forthcoming Disaster Citizenship: Urban Disasters and the Formation of the North American Progressive State, to a standing-room-only crowd at the National Park Service Visitor Center (the former drill shed, or what remains of the Salem Armory, where the Fire relief efforts were based). Remes’ focus, on the aftermath of the fire both in the camps (where fire refugees were called “inmates”!) and the rebuilt factories a bit later, bridged the local and the global with its emphasis on labor, and started us off on a thoughtful and reverent note. There will be a centenary symposium in June, on the weekend before the date of the Fire (June 25) and just before the commemoration of the Great War really kicks off across the Atlantic.

Salem Fire-001

salemfire093

World War One Soldiers

Faces of the Great Fire and the Great War:  In Salem, after the Fire, unidentified men and Mrs. Henry Reed and her daughter Helen, from the Dionne Collection at the Salem State University Archives and Special Collections; Soldiers of the West Yorkshire Regiment sitting in a captured German pillbox awaiting their orders at the Battle of Polygon Wood, 1917, Ministry of Information First World War Official Collection, Imperial War Museums:  ©IWM (Q2903).

 


Monarchs and Monkeys

When you teach with a lot of images, as I do, you’ve got to be ready to answer all sorts of questions, because students will notice every little thing and be much more interested in the margins than the focal point. I have been rendered answer-less on more than one occasion, so I always try to be prepared. When discussing queenship in my Tudor-Stuart class, for example, I would never, never, never show them two of my favorite portraits of queens, Katherine of Aragon by Lucas Horenbout and Henrietta Maria by Anthony van Dyck, because I know that their attention would almost immediately move away from the women and turn to the monkeys. Why would these two dignified Queens have their portraits painted with monkeys? Well, it varies with the Queen, so let’s start with Katherine, the first wife of Henry VIII, whose miniature portrait by Lucas Horenbout was painted in 1525, just about the time that Henry began the long process of attempting to annul their marriage, a desire that would eventually result in the severing of ties with Rome and the English Reformation.

PicMonkey Collage

Katherine panel

I’m featuring several versions of this image: the original miniature (from the Duke of Buccleauch Collection), doubled for effect, and a later and larger copy on wood panels, featuring a younger Katherine and a clearer view of her monkey and its message–because there is a pretty obvious message here. Like her father-in-law, Henry VII, and several other contemporary royals, Katherine probably enjoyed having a monkey as a pet (and it was said to hail from her native Spain), but the pet has a purpose in this image: he (or she?) holds a Tudor rose in one hand and is reaching for Katherine’s crucifix rather than the coin she is offering to him. While medieval monkeys could represent all sorts of negative things–the Devil himself, foolishness, vice–the monkey of Katherine’s time was more likely a symbol of exotic worldliness and an imitator of man. A tethered monkey, like Katherine’s, can therefore represent ascetic discipline, which is reinforced by his gesture towards the cross: faith over greed. This is the message Katherine is sending out there, just as (and after) Henry is replacing her.

So now let’s look at two other depictions of royals and their monkeys: Daniel Mytens’ posthumous portrait of Katherine’s sister-in-law, Margaret Tudor, the Queen Consort of Scotland (Royal Collection), and Anthony Van Dyck’s portrait of Charles I’s Queen, Henrietta Maria, with “her” dwarf Jeffrey Hudson and a monkey (National Gallery of Art). What a contrast between these two royal portraits, which were painted at about the same time (1620s-1630s, though Mytens’ painting harkens back to an earlier era). The monkeys have lost their message and been reduced to mere exotic pets, especially in the extravagant depiction of Henrietta Maria: here the monkey is still tethered, but to the dwarf rather than the Queen. This is a woman whose extravagance (and Catholicism) would contribute to the intensifying division between the King and Parliament, a division that would soon lead to the English Revolution. So perhaps I can teach with these particular portraits–if the depictions of monkeys can open up a larger discussion of events as significant as the English Reformation and the English Revolution, why not?

Margaret_Tudor_-_Daniel_Mytens_-_1620-38

Monkey and Henrietta Maria Van Dyck

 

 


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