Category Archives: Culture

Casting Dice

The sheer beauty of the Chestnut Street park this spring–just outside my bedroom window–combined with the solicitousness of my neighbors in picking up after their dogs (newly allowed this year) has got me thinking about lawn games, played, of course, on a perfect summer day (or early evening), g&t in hand. There is always croquet or bocce, but somehow three pictures of lawn dice popped up on my computer screen in the last few days, so right now that’s my focus: I’m not quite sure what you do with these jumbo dice, but I like the concept. When looking around for some game possibilities, I fell down the rabbit hole that is the history of dice–back to antiquity. What we think of as a simple game certainly had some weighty symbolism attached to it in the past: the die is cast for Julius Caesar, Roman soldiers casting dice to determine who would get the bloodstained garments of Jesus after the crucifixion, dice games played with Death Personified during the Middle Ages, vice, vice, and more vice. Think about the evolution of the verbs associated with dice: casting is somewhat suspicious, but once it evolves into a game of throwing, it becomes an increasingly harmless activity. And tumbling dice are clearly even more innocuous.

Park 002

Lawn Dice

Dice Smithfield Decretals BL

Dice Players Walters Art Gallery

DES94132 Fashion textile design depicting tumbling dice, French, c.1930s (gouache on paper) by French School, (20th century); © The Design Library, New York, USA; French,  it is possible that some works by this artist may be protected by third party rights in some territories

Jumbo Wooden Dice sets from Paper Source, Crate and Barrel, and The Grommet; lazy (half-naked!) dice players in the Middle Ages and Renaissance (The Smithfield Decretals, British Library MS Royal MS 10 E IV; Walters Art Gallery MS W4492V by Master Jean de Mauléon, c. 1542); the modern design motif: tumbling dice fabric from the 1930s, ©The Design Library, New York.


Old Masters Outside

I love the aesthetics and idea of the ambitious public art project, or “global participation project”, initiated by French artist and filmmaker Julien de Casabianca even if it is somewhat at odds with my respect for private property. The Outings project encourages people around the world to go to their local museum, snap a photograph of an overlooked old (or not-so-old) painting, make a print and affix it to a neglected building or wall in their city, and then take a picture of the image in its new locale. There are galleries of these pictures from all over the world on the Outings website, and exhibitions to come. There is definitely a spirit of subtle outlawry here: the “process” section reads: No photography allowed in a museum ? If you do it fast and discrete you will be able to take photos before they ask you to stop. You can try your “mistake” again in another room ; generally they don’t follow you and they don’t share the information about you. (But what am I complaining about? I do this all the time!). As for the tagging, participants are urged to use only abandoned or neglected walls, and if the wall has been recently repainted, try to respect the energy that people put into that, respect their freedom to have nothing on it. When taking a picture of the new juxtaposition, de Casabianca urges his participants to include passersby, as the “heart” of the project is an encounter, as anonymous people from paintings meeting anonymous people from the street. The Renaissance historian in me, and the educator, wants the captured paintings to NOT be anonymous in terms of both subject and artist, but at the same time, I realize that there is a lot to admire in this project, particularly the mix of local and global: residents of a city are “liberating” little-seen treasures in their museums, and bringing them into the streets, and the world. I’m wondering if I should walk over to the Peabody Essex Museum and pick out my prey……

Outings NY 1

Outings NY 21

Outings London 1

Outings Paris 1

Outings NO 1

Outings Dallas 1

Outings Warsaw 1

Outings Installations in New York City (Metropolitan Museum of Art), London (National Gallery), Paris (the Louvre), New Orleans (The New Orleans Museum of Art), Dallas (The Dallas Museum of Art), and Warsaw (Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie):  more cities at the Outings Project.


The ABCs of Slavery

I’ve always been a hunter and gatherer of old stuff, and the first “collection” I assembled while still in my early 20s was of nineteenth-century pearlware children’s plates, primarily ABC and nursery plates intended for instruction and edification: I had quite a few of Franklin’s Maxims, a few domestic scenes, animals, and lots of Robinson Crusoe: I still have the latter, one elephant plate, and a fortune-telling scene, but I sold off the rest a decade or so, along with all of my transferware. When I was hunting around for these little plates, I remember seeing some that were a bit political, and wondering: why would children care about free trade? But slavery was a far more passionate and accessible topic, and quite a few abolitionist ABC plates appeared in the mid nineteenth-century, especially after the production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. These plates were produced primarily in Britain for the northern American market, and the Staffordshire potteries had the dual motivation of meeting (and perhaps creating) demand in America while presenting themselves as morally superior to their cousins across the Atlantic: there is an amazing transfer-printed jug in the collection of the Winterthur Museum which advertises all the available patterns along with one scene in which showing “Britannia Protecting the Africans”. The British were so very clever at catering to both sides in the struggle over slavery in America: preaching to the North while buying cotton from the South! The Winterthur collection also contains an anti-slavery ABC plate based on the work of Mary Belson Elliot, “blending sound Christian principles with cheerful cultivation”, and a popular children’s mug first sold at the 1846 Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Fair, along with the wonderful Anti-Slavery Alphabet produced by the Townsend sisters.

Anti-slavery plate Winterthur Collection

Anti-slavery Mug Winterthur Collection

anti-slavery alphabet primer 1846 Letters A and B

anti-slavery alphabet primer 1846 Letters M and N

From the Winterthur Museum Collections:  Staffordshire pearlware jug made by Christopher Whitehead, c. 1817-1819, ABC plate, c. 1800-1830, and child’s mug, c. 1795-1865; Pages from the Anti-Slavery Alphabet of Philadelphia sisters Hannah and Mary Townsend, 1846.

The particular plate that returned my attention to ABC plates in general and anti-slavery ABC products in particular is a lot in the upcoming Memorial Day Auction at Northeast Auctions: “Gathering Cotton”. This is a Staffordshire plate as well, but produced later than the Winterthur pieces (between 1850 and 1865) and its meaning/purpose is far less straightforward:  I can’t tell if it’s for or against slavery! With children front and center, I assume it is anti-, but it projects a far less strident message than other plates that were produced at this time, primarily based on  Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with scenes such as “The Buyer and Seller of the Human Article” and  “Uncle Tom Whipped to Death” depicted. Once the Civil War began, the messaging of ABC plates became even more straightforward, with simple depictions of Union generals produced, of course, in Great Britain.

ABC Plate Gathering Cotton

ABC Plate Human Article

ABC Uncle Tom plate

General McClellan Plate Cowan's Auctions

“Gathering Cotton” and other mid-nineteenth century Staffordshire ABC plates, from the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center and the University of Wisconsin-Madison Decorative Arts Database, referenced in two great articles: Louise L. Stevenson’s “Virtue Displayed: the Tie-Ins of Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (available here), and Jill Weitzman Fenichell’s “Fragile Lessons: Ceramic and Porcelain Representations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (available here). “The Arrival of General McClellan” Staffordshire ABC plate, Cowan’s Auctions.


The First Preservationist

It’s time to return to the life and work of the Salem photographer Frank W. Cousins (1851-1925), whose camera created a reverence for colonial architecture in his native city and elsewhere at a crucial time. He has popped up here in many a post, including one devoted exclusively to his work and business, but I’m still assessing the reach of his influence: in the years between then and now I have seen his photographs in countless books on Colonial and Colonial Revival architecture, architectural libraries and archives, contemporary periodicals about architecture and photography, and newspaper articles. He was clearly identified as Salem’s “First Preservationist” a century ago and he should be acknowledged as such now:  before Rantoul and Northend and Historic Salem, Inc. and Ada Louise Huxtable, there was Frank Cousins. As May is Preservation Month, this seems like a good time to bring him back into the spotlight–though I’m still in the early stages of assessing his impact. Clearly there needs to be a proper inventory taken of his printed photographs, both in collections and in publications, and a serious assessment of his life’s work; last summer I was contacted by a young woman in Germany working on a dissertation focused on Cousins so I have hope. And I did find a (little) photograph of the man himself!

Cousins Collage and Picture

Cousins Birthplace

Cousins Salem Cemetery

Cousins 1893 Door

Features on Frank Cousins from Country Life in America (1913) and some of my favorite Cousins photographs of Salem: his own birthplace on English Street, previously part of the Old Sun Tavern, the Charter Street cemetery, a Derby Street house with a “double door”, one of several plates he exhibited at the Columbian Exposition in 1893.

The little biographical blurb in Country Life in America is charming and revealing: “That old scrub, Cousins of Salem,” is the genial way her announces  his arrival to his many friends in the architectural fraternity. They  welcome his coming, for few men know and appreciate Colonial architecture as he does, and none can talk more interestingly and enthusiastically about it. A native of Salem, Mass., Mr. Cousins has studied her notable early architecture all his life, and during the past thirty years he has made thousands of architectural photographs in Salem and the neighboring towns, and in Portsmouth, Boston, Philadelphia, Germantown, and Baltimore.  Mr. Cousins in the author of “Fifty Salem Doorways”, the first of a notable series of books on “Colonial Architecture” and is much sought after by art societies and other bodies for the lecture on “Old Architectural Salem” which he has delivered many times. Of late Mr. Cousins has been extending his efforts to the furniture and garden features of Colonial houses, and we expect occasionally to publish the cream of his labors.”  Old Scrub! This narrative does seem to confirm what I had gleaned elsewhere: that it was the appreciation of Salem’s architecture that came first, and that inspired him to pick up the camera, around 1888. His membership in the “architectural fraternity” of the era is a testament to the detailed examination (and preservation) of architectural details captured by his camera, rendering him not only a preservation pioneer but also one in the fledgling field of architectural photography.

Cousins Well-Meek House 1918 BAC

Cousins Peirce Nichols Mantle

Doorway of Well-Meeks House in Salem, 1918 and Mantle of Peirce-Nichols House, “the best Adams mantle in the U.S.A, 1913.

Cousins disseminated his thousands of prints in a variety of ways, transcending artistic and editorial photography into the commercial realm. He sold them in his own Salem shop on Essex Street, the Bee-Hive, and through his own publishing company, the Frank Cousins Art Co., he published them in his aforementioned “Colonial Architecture” series and later in several books (Wood Carver of Salem: Samuel McIntire, His Life and Work, 1916 and The Colonial Architecture of Salem, 1919, both co-authored with Phil Riley), he formed partnerships with regional and national photographic publishers, and he donated them to scores of cultural institutions and publications. Given the size of his market share and his focus on Salem, you can imagine just how influential the “Cousins Colonial Salem House” would become in shaping the national image of colonial architecture in the early part of the twentieth century. Yet even though he identified himself as “Cousins of Salem”, he also transcended his native city and was recognized for his preservation and photographic expertise up and down the Eastern seaboard. In 1913 he was commissioned by the Art Commission of New York City to document buildings that were in danger of imminent demolition in the rapidly-expanding city, and effort that was recognized by a prominently-placed article in the New York Times in May 2014:  “The Camera to Preserve New York’s Old Buildings”. Cousins’ New York photographs are stunning:  equally as reverential as his Salem shots but somehow more poignant because of their context, the city that never sleeps, and ascends ever upwards. But surprise: the 61st Street building below, known in the nineteenth-century as “Smith’s Folly”, survives to this day as the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden, owned and operated by the Colonial Dames of America (and I’m sure it’s all due to Frank Cousins)!

Cousins NYT Article May 1914

House on 86th Street Between Park and Madison Avenues. Red brick house on north side of street.

photographic print (7.5 x 9.5 in.), mount (9.5 x 11.5 in.)

Mount Vernon Hotel Museum

Houses at 86th Street and 421 East 61st Street (“Smith’s Folly”) in New York City, photographed by Frank Cousins in 1913, and the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden today.

Repositories of Frank Cousins’ photographs: the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum; Duke University Library; the New York Public Library Digital Collections; Archives of the Art Commission of the City of New York.


Bawdy Ballads

One of my favorite tweeters posted an image of a rather racy seventeenth-century ballad yesterday which prompted me to take a break from all the boring administrative things I have to do at this time of the year to search out some more examples of bawdiness for my last English history class. This was a much more pleasant activity than scheduling and it’s always good to end on a high note! Virginity grown troublesome is just one of many later seventeenth century ballads–drinking songs, working songs, walking songs–focused on human relations in general and maids who are either too chaste or too wild in particular: another of my favorites is The wandring virgin; or, The coy lass well fitted; or, the answer to the wand’ring maiden (1672). Every title which refers to ladies from London is an almost certain reference to their looseness, as in the case of The ansvver to the London lasses folly, or, The new-found father discoverd at the camp (1685). Country girls don’t get off easy either, but generally (not always) they are duped and remorseful. Poor Celia, the subject of the 0ft-printed (and apparently sung) ballad Celia’s Complaint (1678-95?) who was “quickly won” by a rogue’s fair words and is now, forever, “quite undone” and an example to all:  My Spotless Virgins Fort, thou strongly didst assault/ My Favor thou didst Court, and this was my great fault/ So soon to yield, to thee the Field, which did my Honour stain/ And now I cry, continually, poor Celia Loved in Vain.

Virginity Troublesome

Virginity Troublesome cropped

London Lasses Beineke

Kentish Maiden crop

Celia's Complaint cropped

Later seventeenth-century ballads from the Houghton Library at Harvard, the Beineke Library at Yale, and a great database for English broadside ballads: The University of California at Santa Barbara’s Broadside Ballad Archive. You can actually hear variations on these ballads performed, including the classic “Maid’s Complaint for want of a Dil Doul”, on the City Waites’ album Bawdy Ballads of Old England.


Botanical Sisters

My garden looks like it might have survived our harsh winter so I’m starting to turn my thoughts outward–slowly, and in a rather detached manner. There’s still quite a bit to do inside as the end-of-semester end game is pretty busy, and once I get fixated on the garden I become less productive in the interior realm! The other day I was showing my students a beautiful painting of a famous Royalist family, the Capels, whose prominent garden is featured in the background. While my eyes were lingering on the garden, their questions were about the children in the foreground: what were their fates after their father followed King Charles I to the execution block in 1649? I couldn’t account for every Capel child in the picture at the time (now I can) but I could relay the horticultural history of the two Capel girls on the right, Elizabeth and Mary. I don’t think this kind of information was what my students were looking for, but they were quite polite about it.

NPG 4759; The Capel Family by Cornelius Johnson

Mary and Elizabeth Capel Lely

Cornelius Johnson, The Capel Family, c. 1640, National Portrait Gallery, London; Peter Lely, Mary Capel, later Duchess of Beaufort, and her sister Elizabeth, Countess of Carnarvon, c. 1658, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

As you can see in both paintings, the youngest Capel sister, Elizabeth (who is on the left of her elder sister Mary in the Johnson portrait and the right in the Lely) is associated with flowers in both her childhood and her adulthood. She is extending a rose to her baby brother Henry above, and below she holds one of her own flower paintings–a noted personal preoccupation during her relatively short life (1633-1678). Around 1653 she married Charles Dormer, the 2nd Earl of Carnarvon, with whom she had four children. During their marriage she maintained the Dormer residence at Ascott House in Buckinghamshire, and continued to explore her interest in flowers through both gardening and painting. One of her botanical compositions, a Dutch-inspired still life, is in the Royal Collection. Mary Capel, later Seymour, then Somerset and the first Duchess of Beaufort (1630-1715), moved well beyond her sister’s aesthetic interest in plants into the realm of scientific botany, becoming an avid collector and cataloger of the vast collection of worldly plants she assembled for the Beaufort gardens and conservatories at Badminton House in Gloucestershire and Beaufort House in Chelsea. She commissioned both a 12-volume Hortus Siccus, comprised of dried specimens of her plants, many “pressed by the Duchess herself”, and a two-volume florilegium to document her collection, ensuring her reputation in the long line of notable British plantswomen.

Elizabeth Carnarvon Painting RC

Duchess of Beauforts Hortus

Vase of Flowers by Elizabeth, the Countess of Carnarvon, 1662, Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014; Specimens from the Duchess of Beaufort’s Hortus Siccus, Natural History Museum, London.


Why I like Wolf Hall

How many times have I read this story, taught this story, seen this story? Countless, yet I’ve been watching Masterpiece’s Wolf Hall faithfully and fervently these past two Sundays, despite some stiff competition. For reasons I don’t quite understand, Hilary Mantel’s novels have focused a trans-Atlantic public attention on the juicy story of Henry’s “great matter” yet again, resulting in adaptations on both the small screen and the stage right now. I like the language, the characterizations, and the details of the books–and these attributes carry over onto the screen as well, but the latter also gives us both more and less. So this is what I like about Wolf Hall:

1) Cromwell-centrism: as the Protestant product of a Catholic-Episcopalian union, I have admired Thomas Cromwell since I was a teenager, so Mantel’s “revisionist” perspective pleased me in the books and continues to do so on screen, especially as presented by the amazing actor Mark Rylance. It’s a timely corrective, after years of the reign of the heroic heretic-hunter Thomas More, whom Mantel depicts as a pompous prude.

2) Stillness: everything is so quiet, in stark contrast to all of the other recent Tudor films with their booming soundtracks. Too often contemporary music is utilized to strengthen a film that has weak dialogue or transitions–this is not the case here. You can hear every well-chosen word, the papers crackling and the birds singing.

3) Naturalism: though the Tudors admired material embellishment, for the most part it was based on nature, and this was a time in which people were much, much closer to nature than we can ever realize. Wolf Hall takes place primarily indoors, but nature is always present. So many animals! Just in episode #2 alone, we see just-born kittens, greyhounds black and white, Thomas More walking around with a white rabbit which he passes to our hero Thomas Cromwell, a monkey on the More table, and of course lots of horses. Cromwell pinches a flower as he walks to a stable-conference with yet another Thomas, Cranmer.

4) Spareness: of words, of spaces, of “action”. Restraint (and dim light) rules, and each excess points to a consequential problem.

5) We are spared Henry and Anne Boleyn together: of course, I’ve only watched the first two episodes, so this will change, but the Cromwellian perspective places the two “central” characters in this oft-told story on the margins for quite awhile. This is refreshing, and spares us all the “romance” and bodice-ripping of more predictable and commercial versions of this tale. Quite literally, the change in perspective enables us to see things in an entirely new light.

Mark Rylance Thomas Cromwell Wolf Hall

Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell during filming for the BBC/ PBS adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall. Photograph: Ed Miller/BBC/Company Productions Ltd.


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