Category Archives: Culture

Spider Web Windows

Sitting on the huge back porch of my parents’ house in York Harbor the other day, I became fixated on the spider web design of the windows of the house next door. This house (unfortunately) blocks quite a bit of our view of the ocean, but is (fortunately) a magnificent creation: large and white and gleaming, with lots of architectural details. It has the appearance of a Colonial Revival house and I know it was built after our Shingle “cottage”, so the dates fit–but the spider web windows do not: they look a little whimsical for this classically-constrained house. I’ve been looking at these web windows my whole life but never really considered them before. Years ago my mother transformed a small window in the front of our house into a stained-glass mosaic in the design of a web; I doubt she was inspired by the web windows in front as a veritable forest existed between that house and ours at that time.

Spider Web Windows 4

Spider Web Windows York

Spider Web Windows 3

Apparently the spider web was a prominent design motif of the Arts and Crafts movement, along with the dragonfly, the firefly and the crane, all indicating the influence of Japanese visual culture in the later Victorian era on both sides of the Atlantic. Just a few minutes of web research brought me to the spider web windows in the famous Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, and more interestingly (to me) to the work of Chicago-era architect R. Harold Zook (1889-1949), who incorporated spider webs motifs in all of his houses and even as his trademark. I had never heard of Zook before: wow!  And just to illustrate how ageless and universal the spider web window can be I’ve included a charming little pane from the Zouche Chapel at York Minster, dating from the late medieval era and encased in a chapel panel in the sixteenth century.

Spider Web Windows Winchester Mystery House

Spider Web Window Zook House

Spider Web Window

Spider Web Zouche Chapel York Minster 16th century

A great site for R. Harold Zooks Houses, both lost and surviving.


Blue Moons

Today offers a great opportunity to widen my focus a bit and celebrate the appearance of the Blue Moon of 2015. These “extra” seasonal full months, the 13th full moon of a calendar year, happen about every three years: our last blue moon appeared in the summer of 2012 and we won’t see another one until 2018. These occasions are a perfect examples of how man and nature are seldom in sync: the creation of the calendar created the blue moon, which is apparently never really blue unless there some even more unusual astronomical conditions are present. It is always nice to wonder, and be reminded that Nature is our master and will not be boxed in by man’s organization of time. Cultural representations of the blue moon all focus on its rarity: “once in a blue moon” the earth is cast in a new/blue light and anything can happen.

Blue Moon Poster

Blue Moon Barbier 1928

Blue Moon Kingman MFA

Lunar Rocket Squires

Metropolitan Printing Co. poster c. 1906, Library of Congress; Ball Under the Blue Moon, Georges Barbier illustration for ‘Fetes Galantes’ by Paul Verlaine, 1928; “Blue Moon” by Dong Kingman, 1942, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Frank Ward, Blue Moon over Wolverhampton, 1958, Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage; “Lunar Rocket” furnishing fabric by Eddie Squires (amazing! celebrating Apollo 11), 1969, Victoria & Albert Museum.


Were Wigs on their Way Out?

During the Revolutionary War? Here in Salem? I’m curious about wigs: for two centuries, one in which I have some expertise (the 17th), and one in which I do not (the 18th), wigs were big. Yet I don’t know much about them, especially of the Anglo-American variety. I have long been curious about a gravestone here in Salem featuring a be-wigged soul effigy, and the other day I was searching through lots of an upcoming Skinner Auction and became enchanted with a portrait of a man with a very fitted wig from about the same time, and I thought: who is wearing wigs and who is not? I know that wigs were on their way out in Britain after the very consequential Hair Powder Act of 1795, but I thought that democratic sentiments might have hastened their departure decades before over here–but I think not. There was definitely a hierarchy of wigs ( long and full for lawyers, shorter and tied for merchants, “bob-wigs” for clerics) worn by men across the pond: did it apply over here? The gravestone effigy of John Crowninshield (d. 1777) in the Old Burying Point on Charter Street here in Salem is curious to me because of the very conspicuous wig, which is hardly ethereal and quite a contrast with the wings–but also because I had it in my mind that Salem merchants just didn’t wear wigs, even of the restrained variety. They were too manly, too daring, too independent, too busy. But then I came across a portrait of one of the most independent-minded of Salem merchants, John Derby, with a new American flag proudly waving in the background, and realized I was wrong. Wigs were still quite in, even while the British were out.

Crowninshield Photo

Wig Crowninshield Gravestone

Wigs 1773 LWL

Skinner Portrait

John Derby Portrait Skinner

The be-wigged effigy of John Crowninshield, 1777, Old Burying Point, Salem; Wigs by Occupation, print by M. Darley of London, 1773, Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University; C.F.C. Brandt Portrait, c. 1778, Skinner Auctions; American School, Late 18th Century Portrait of a Ship Captain, with Distant Ship Flying an American Flag (presumed to be John Derby), Skinner Auctions. Also see several posts of wigs–including one on Salem wigmaker William Lang–by J.L. Bell at Boston 1775.


Event-fully Salem

There is so much going on in Salem this summer that I’m a bit overwhelmed, and have taken to hiding in my garden! This was my strategy this past weekend, which was hot and sunny and jam-packed with things to do: sadly I inadvertently missed PEM Curator Dean Lahikainen’s lecture on the recent renovation of the Ropes House and the Salem Garden Club’s seaside garden tour, along with the “Paddle for Plummer” fundraiser for the Plummer Home, though I deliberately missed the Salem Willows Seafood Festival, which is not a community “festival” at all but a corporate event held in a (roped-off) public park. There’s still plenty of time to see the Thomas Hart Benton exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum and the exhibit on the alchemical activities of John Winthrop at the Witch House is just opening today. In a metaphor for this “close to home” summer, I also missed this weekend’s pop-up installation of giant inflatable rabbits down in Boston (Intrude by Australian artist Amanda Parer), but spent Saturday weeding with (three? four? rabbits) hopping (and napping) right in my backyard! On Sunday however, I could not avoid another event which happened right in my (de facto) front yard: Salem’s 4th annual Diner En Blanc pop-up picnic, which was held in the Chestnut Street park. You may be familiar with this……movement? (this sounds like too strong a word) in which people dressed in white “spontaneously” set up a picnic (with more white stuff, including food) in some secretive (right up to the afternoon of the event) location and dine together in pristine magnificence–it started in Paris nearly 30 years ago and now has spread to over 40 cities around the world, probably more, including Salem. As elsewhere, the dinner gets bigger every year as friends invite friends who invite friends….I wasn’t going to post on this happening (better word) as I thought it might seem a bit exclusive, almost as if we’re in Marblehead or Manchester-by-the Sea, but then I thought: what’s exclusive about this? Anyone can come, and they don’t have to pay for the privilege, like the Salem Willows Seafood “Festival”. Plus there was a great hat in attendance, which you simply have to see, and I am proud of my own blanc arrangement, made up exclusively from flowers from my garden.

Mid-July Weekend in Salem (and Boston–“Intrude” Rabbits courtesy of Mark Favermann):

Exclusive Events2

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Exclusive Events

Intrude Mark Favermann July 12

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Exclusive Events 106

Diner et Blanc

Exclusive Events 090

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All that’s left is my ghost-like chair this morning.


Salem’s Very Own Wallace Nutting

I have a little gallery wall of Salem images I’ve collected over the years in my downstairs hall, mostly prints, but a few photographs–among them a faded hand-tinted image of an ethereally-dressed woman descending the steps of the Andrew Safford house which I long-presumed was by Wallace Nutting. It has all the Nutting touches: the hand-coloring, the colonial-esque setting, the dreamlike character, and of course there are thousands of Nuttings out there, maybe more. But when I actually took it off the wall the other day to see the signature, the attribution was to “Florence Thompson” rather than Nutting:  Florence Thompson of Salem, a “Nutting-like” photographer of the early twentieth century. It didn’t take long to find more Florence Thompsons in auction listings, particularly those of the Nutting and “Nutting-like” expert Michael Ivankovich, but I haven’t been able to flesh out her life here in Salem or any of the details of her background or business. There were so many women entrepreneurs in this little city at this time–and then there was Frank Cousins, who must have shared her Colonial Revival leanings if not her predilection for fanciful settings. I wonder if she learned her craft from the master, and was one of the many women who worked for Nutting at his Framingham studio. I wonder where she produced her works—and where she sold them. I’ve got a lot of questions about Florence Thompson, but for now, just a few examples of her Nutting-like work from the 1910s and 1920s: more evidence of the seemingly-insatiable demand for calm and crafted antiquarian images in an age of dynamic change. When I look at these “compositions”, I can’t help but think how radically our artistic sensibilities have changed over a relatively short amount of time, a mere century.

Thompson 2 002

Thompson 003

Florence Thompson Clarks Door Salem

Florence Thompson Cushing Door

Florence Thompson Hillside Pasture Auction Listing

Florence Thompson Annisquam Auction Listing

Wallace Nutting Salem Dignity aUCTION lISTING

My Florence Thompson print, “The Safford Door” (which looks very similar to the popular Nutting print, “The Sea Captain’s Daughter”, which you can see here); “The Clarks’ Door”, 1911, Etsy seller Bittersweet 13; (same model?  Maybe Thompson just moved her from door to door); “The Cushing Door”; “Hillside Pasture”; “Annisquam”, all from Ivankovich Auctions, along with Wallace Nutting’s own “Salem Dignity”, a bit more dignified without the waif. Its title was based on the Alice Morse Earle quote: Salem houses present to you a serene and dignified front, gracious yet reserved, not thrusting forward their choicest treasures to the eyes of passing strangers; but behind the walls of the houses, enclosed from public view, lie cherished gardens, full of the beauty of life.


American Girls

Countless cards were inserted in countless packs of cigarettes for decades starting in the later nineteenth century, for product (to avoid crushing the cigarettes inside), advertising, and revenue purposes (encouraging the formation of collections) and consequently cigarette cards form a huge category of ephemera. This is not really my category, but I do find some of the collections to be really interesting expressions of their era. A case in point are the several series of “State Girls” or “State Belles” offered by various publishers in the first decade of the twentieth century: the girls (or young women) are portrayed in a way that supposedly characterized their state, accompanied by other state symbols, and sometimes situated in representative settings. I became acquainted with these particular cards, which I have seen in both cigarette and postcard forms, through a flea market discovery of a Massachusetts girl, wearing academic dress while standing out on some North Shore rocky coast. This find occurred just several days after I received my Ph.D., and so this girl had a particular appeal to me: here I am, I thought, Scholar Girl, a Bay State Belle!

MA Girls Collage

As you can see, not all Massachusetts girls walked around in academic gowns, books in hand. The Raphael Tuck (on the rocks), Langsdorf (schoolmarmish) and National Art Company (sans glasses) girls do, but not those on the Platinachrome Company’s “alphabet” cards, which focus more on the letter and the state seal and flower, or the Fatima Turkish Cigarettes cards, which are all about the elaborate hats which adorn the heads of rather indistinct state girls. The ladies from all 45-48 states (depending on when these cards were published, and sometimes including the District of Columbia) get more detailed characterizations on some cards while on others they are simply idealized lovely-but-generic belles. Miss Pennsylvania is portrayed in colonial dress, armed with a musket and adorned with a tricorner hat, on the National Art Co. and Langsdorf cards below, while the “Keystone Belle” stands before the bustling factories of what I presume is Pittsburgh on the Tuck Card: the past and the present. Not yet quite a golden girl, Miss California is identified with her steamship and her oranges. The “Lone Star Girl” of Texas has her bluebonnets, and the “Opera Belle” of New York comes equipped with a skyscraper. There are girls equipped with fishing poles (Wisconsin, Washington, Oregon and Maine), swords (Maryland), paddles (Virginia), riding crops (New Jersey) and locomotives (Illinois), but the majority of young women are pictured with farming equipment or produce, a reflection of our then still-agrarian nation. A 21st century update on these cartophilic characterizations would be quite interesting.

PA State Girl Collage

State Girls CA collage

State Girls TX Collage

State Girls NY Collage

(Just click on the collages to enlarge)


Flagg-Waving

The prolific illustrator James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960) is responsible for some of our most iconic patriotic images, crafted to bolster support for World Wars I and II on both the home and battle fronts. These images are only a small part of his vast body of work–and a career that was well on its way by age 15 when he was appointed staff artist at Life and Judge magazines–but are nonetheless illustrative of his creativity and his tendency to focus the visual message on people rather than objects or events: he personified patriotism. Even though it is clearly based on the equally-iconic Lord Kitchener poster by Alfred Leete, his Uncle Sam (literally–he served as his own model) will forever be our Uncle Sam and though Miss Columbia looks a bit more ephemeral she certainly served her time in the first decades of the twentieth century. My favorites are the more whimsical, pre-war “Flagg girls” dressed up in red, white and blue, but all make for a patriotic display as we head into this July 4th weekend.

Flagg Judge July 1915

Flagg Girls 3 Cheers for the Red White and Blue 1918

Flagg I LC

Flagg 1941 LC

Flagg Columbia Collage

Flagg Marines

Flagg Forest Photograph 37

Flagg’s cover for the July 3, 1915 edition of Judge magazine; original Uncle Sam “I Want You” poster from 1917 and its reissue in 1941 (see a short article here); a collage of Columbias, 1917-1918; “Tell that to the Marines!”, 1917-1918; and Flagg (left) & FDR with his anti-Forest Fire poster, 1937, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Library of Congress. Just a few years ago, the owner of Flagg’s 1910 summer house in Biddeford Pool, Maine, received permission to demolish it, but somehow save the land- and seascape murals he had painted on its interior walls. I think it’s gone now.


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