The juxtaposition of crowded academic and social calendars at this time of year always makes me a bit grumpy. I try to contain (or hide) my scrooge-like sentiments, but I’m generally too tired to make that much of an effort, and consequently they pop out periodically. This year I am taking comfort in a book that I received from a thoughtful friend last year: The Twelve Terrors of Christmas, a 1993 collaboration between iconic illustrator Edward Gorey and John Updike. These terrors (a too heavily-laden Christmas tree, the threat of electrocution from all the electronic games under said tree, fears of not giving enough, not receiving enough, and returning all the stuff you did receive) are not quite my terrors (fatigue, rampant commercialism, over-consumption of food, drink, and stuff) but I like the overall sentiment, or lack thereof. And then there are the illustrations. “Christmas” and “Gorey” are not words that naturally go together, but he had tread that terrain previously–with a series of not-too-macabre Christmas cards for the Albondaconi Press and other publishers from the 1970s on–and the success of Terrors inspired a second holiday book: The Haunted Tea-Cosy. A Dispirited and Distasteful Diversion for Christmas Dispirited (1997), a parody of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. All very merry images, in that distinctly Gorey style.
Author Archives: daseger
We are used to queens, princesses, duchesses and first ladies being scrutinized for their sartorial splendor (or lack thereof), but this is really nothing new: public women, deemed so by their proximity to power or in some cases their own power, have always been subject to the fashion police. Queen Elizabeth’s projected image seldom escaped the notice of her contemporaries, and so too did that of her successor’s wife, Anne of Denmark, who was born on this day in 1574. When I first started studying English history I formed a perception of the Queen Consort of James I as sort of an English version of Marie Antoinette, concerned more with her dresses, jewels, and court life than her subjects. This was the historical view, formed by generations of historians who no doubt (at first) disliked Anne’s conversion to Catholicism, and easily perceived her clear delight in the staging of elaborate masques at court during a time of intensifying scornful Puritanism. And then there are her portraits, projecting an image of a lady that was not particularly beautiful, but certainly very well-dressed, all the way up until her death in 1619.
Looking around for inspiration for our family Christmas card, which I desperately would like to evolve from the traditional “here we are in front of some natural (maritime or snowy) backdrop”, I have become quite taken–like many before me, and no doubt after–with the whimsical illustrations of Mela Koehler (1885-1960). Koehler was a conspicuous member of the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshop), an artistic collaboration for artists, artisans, designers and architects inspired by the British Arts and Crafts movement. In the first three decades of the twentieth century, the Workshop became incredibly influential due to the fact that it emphasized both the artistic and the entrepreneurial: marketing was clearly a priority and the postcards produced by its members were the primary marketing tool. Mela Koehler created about 150 postcards for the Workshop: typically fantasy fashion images which served not as advertisements for actual clothes but as inspiration for women to experiment with their own attire. Add a tree or some holly, or a muff (clearly her favorite accessory), and you have a winter/Christmas postcard, offered up just at the moment that these merry missives were taking off. Original Koehler postcards are quite valuable, but most seem to have been acquired by Leonard Lauder as part of his massive collection (commenced when he was 6 years old), which has been generously donated to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The MFA featured an exhibition of a sample of the Lauder postcards last year, and many have been digitized, fortunately for us and for posterity–because as artistic as these little cards are, they are still (or were), in essence, ephemera.
I found this past weekend’s annual Christmas in Salem house tour to be rather eccentric as compared with previous years: centered on Lafayette Street and its side streets, it included both Colonial Revival houses that were built in the decade after the Great Salem Fire of 1914 and Victorian houses located just outside the conflagration zone. The focus on the Fire was more implicit than explicit–except for one house which featured a mantle of Christmas decorations made out of Fire devastation scenes! I did visit the Gove House of my last post, which has been subdivided into condominiums which feature original architectural details: lots of woodwork, beautiful doors and windows, and an amazing coffered ceiling and conservatory in one unit. Every single home on this year’s tour had a distinctive personality, presented as much by its architecture as the collections and creations of its owners, which were featured quite prominently. There were three homes open on Fairfield Street, the most distinguished post-Fire street, including one that was decorated by a group of very tasteful ladies (including, I must unabashedly add, myself), for two very tasteful owners. So of course, from a completely biased perspective, this house was my favorite!
Six Fairfield Street a few years after it was built in 1915 (from Frank Cousins’ Colonial Architecture of Salem) and yesterday.
The first floor of the Gove House on Lafayette Street.
The colorful exterior of Seven Linden Street, built in 1855.
Nine Linden Street: where the Gove family’s servants lived in the later 19th century. The tile around this fireplace has a subtle Greek key design which you can’t quite make out in the photograph.
Sparkling Five Fairfield Street, built, solidly, in 1915.
This weekend’s (35th) annual Christmas in Salem house tour is centered on South Salem and the neighborhoods along Lafayette Street which were rebuilt after the catastrophic Great Salem Fire of 1914. This seems like a very appropriate architectural focus for this commemorative year, and the tour poster really conjures up the era as well. All the tour information can be found here; it’s too late to buy advance tickets but they will be available on Saturday and Sunday at the tour headquarters, the Saltonstall School on Lafayette Street. Christmas in Salem is the most important annual fundraising event for Historic Salem, Inc., Salem’s venerable preservation organization which was formed in the 1940s to save the 17th century Corwin House (now unfortunately called the “Witch House”) from destruction. Generally the tour focuses on the downtown neighborhoods and Salem’s colonial and federal architecture, but occasionally it ventures out to the more outlying sections of town, including North Salem, the Willows, and now South Salem.
I’m looking forward to the tour because it will feature several (predominately Colonial Revival) homes on Fairfield Street, which I’ve featured on this blog several times. Now we get to go inside! Just after the fire, the property owners of this street commissioned the most renown Boston-area architects to rebuild their homes, with pretty impressive results. I have served as a tour guide for Christmas in Salem for many years, and I’m still not sure whether the majority of tour (ists? -goers?) are enchanted more by the architecture or the decorations, but for me it’s definitely the former. I walk to work along Lafayette Street two or three times a week, and there are several houses along my route that I examine in detail as I walk by–one of which is also on the tour. This is the William H. Gove house, an imposing Queen Anne mansion that survived the 1914 conflagration. Built by Salem attorney William H. Gove (who entered his profession through an apprenticeship, then went to Harvard College and Harvard Law School) in 1888, this mansion really dominates the streetscape and has a myriad of details that capture my attention every time I walk by. It was transformed into condominiums several years ago, and a ground-floor unit is on the tour. I know that Gove was a successful and wealthy man, but I can’t help wondering if some of his wife’s family fortune went into the construction of this house, as his mother-in-law was the one and only Lydia Pinkham, whose famous over-the-counter herbal remedy, Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, made her the most successful female entrepreneur of the nineteenth century. Perhaps Mr. Gove would not be pleased with this suggestion.
The William H. Gove House (1888) today, in 1984 & 1918; Trade Card for Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, 1880s, Baker Library, Harvard University; Lafayette Street facades.
In honor of Napoleon’s coronation as Emperor of the French (not Emperor of France, an important distinction and consequence of the French Revolution) on this day in 1804 I thought I would explore his adoption of bee symbolism in greater detail than my first attempt a few years ago. Napoleon had to pay tribute to tradition in order to legitimize what was essentially a military coup d’etat–and bees go way back, not as far back as the Roman laurels and eagles which he also adopted, but way back in French history. In my previous post, I identified Charlemagne as the source of Napoleon’s bees, but actually it was Childeric, a Frankish king who was the father of Clovis, who converted to Christianity and unified all the Frankish tribes under his sacred kingship after 496, the first of the Merovingian line. Childeric’s grave was accidentally discovered in Tournai in 1653, and inside his tomb was a treasure of coins, jewelry, iron, and 300 bees (sometimes referred to as “fleurons” or cicadas but they look like bees to me, and apparently also to Napoleon). The governor of the Spanish Netherlands commissioned his personal physician, Jean-Jacques Chifflet, to catalog and study the finds, which were published in one of the first archeological works in European history, Anastasis Childerici I Francorum regis, sive thesaurus sepulchralis Tornaci Neviorum effossus et commentario illustratus (1655). One hundred and fifty years later, when Napoleon was looking for a “French” symbol that was not a Bourbon Fleur-de-lis, the bee seemed to fit the bill, and it was lavishly utilized in his coronation–and after–essentially becoming the “Napoleonic bee”.
King Childeric in British Library MS. Royal 16 G VI f. 9; Childeric’s bees in Chifflet (1655); a Napoleonic bee from his 1804 coronation robe; tapestry portrait and detail of the coronation robe after a painting by Baron François Gérard, 1805, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Napoleon’s half-American nieces, “The Sisters Zénaïde and Charlotte Bonaparte”, sitting on a bee-upholstered couch, Jacques-Louis David, 1821, Getty Museum; the full Napoleonic regalia, bees and all, Sèvres plate, 19th century, Victoria & Albert Museum.
We spent Thanksgiving up in my hometown of York Harbor, Maine, which is only about an hour north of Salem. When we arrived York looked very different than still-green Salem, coated in icy snow. Many people in the southern counties of Maine and adjacent counties of New Hampshire lost their power due to a Thanksgiving-eve snowstorm, but we were fortunate to have light and heat and lots of food and drink. While waiting to eat on Thanksgiving Day, we took a drive around the grey town: York (encompassing York Harbor, York Village, York Beach and Cape Neddick) is a summer town and it always looks strikingly stark to me in the winter. I’ve also got some pictures of my stepmother’s Thanksgiving table here–before we messed it up. When we returned to Salem, all was icy and white but today is forecasted for the 50s so the terrain is returning to that golden brownish-green hue so characteristic of November.
This cat o’nine tail exploded before we left; the rest burst while we were away (just one day and night!) Impossible to clean up all this fluff.
Thanksgiving table: Della Robbia plates and Shaker chairs.
Fifty shades of grey off Nubble Light.
White on white: one of my favorite houses in York, and the gargoyle outside my parents’ house.
My favorite childhood painting.
Back home; sunny Sunday.