Category Archives: Culture

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!


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.

NPG 5175; Queen Elizabeth I by Unknown artist

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.

Elizabeth_I_Coronation_Miniature

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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2015-01-07T005701Z_1766387718_GM1EB170OI601_RTRMADP_3_USA-MASSACHUSETTS-TIME-CAPSULE

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?

dedication-of-crypt-door 1938

Sutton Hoo Belt Buckle BM

cape-royds-credit-aht-and-nigel-mccall

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.


Bearded Days

I listened to a great program on National Public Radio’s On Point show with Tom Ashbrook yesterday about the return of the beard which featured a historian and a style expert:  the perfect combination! Here is Mr. Ashbrook’s introduction to the broadcast: Maybe you saw it at your house over the holidays.  At your New Year’s Eve party.  Men’s facial hair all over the place.  Beards have been growing back into fashion for a while.  From the hip streets of Brooklyn to the Hollywood red carpet.  Now they’re everywhere.  And not just a little scruff.  Beards that have grown for a year.  “Yeards,” they’re called.  Beards worthy of a Civil War general or Paul Bunyan.  Of a lumberjack.  “Lumbersexual” is the funny, hot term of art.  This hour On Point:  What is it in the air, in the culture, in the minds of men, that’s brought back the beard? The topic resonated with me immediately:  I did look around my holiday table and see beards, including one that could be called a “yeard”! And I’ve definitely noticed more beards among my students over the past year or so. I must admit, however, that I had never heard the word “lumbersexual” before yesterday.

The historian on the program, Dr. Stephen Mihm from the University of Georgia, talked primarily about the rise and fall of beards over the past century or so, in reference to his recent New York Times article, “Why CEOs are growing Beards”. I’d like to go back a bit further with this topic, to the Renaissance, which is always the beginning/big break for me. I remember distinctly reading a journal article in graduate school about one of the lesser-known cultural consequences of the Discoveries:  European men, upon their realization that the newly-discovered Amerindians were decidedly less hairy than they, decided to emphasize their “superior” masculinity by letting their facial hair grow. The Reformation also celebrated the beard, even though its spiritual leader, Martin Luther, remained steadfastly clean-shaven. The lavish beard of the leader of the Reformation movement, John Calvin, is absolutely integral to his image. It’s actually quite shocking to examine the first century of oil portraits, say from 1450 to 155o, and view the shift from the clean-shaven Renaissance men, apparently eager to separate themselves from the shaggy Middle Ages and emulate their classical forebears, to the much more hirsute men of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Bearded Age Memling 1471

Bearded Age Ghirlandaio

Bearded Reformers

Clean-shaven Renaissance Men and (mostly-) Bearded Reformers:  Hans Memling, Portrait of a Man with a Roman Coin, 1471-72, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp / © Lukas—Art in Flanders VZW; David Ghirlandaio, Portrait of a Young Man, c. 1490; Detroit Institute of Arts/ Bridgeman Art Gallery; Luther in the Circle of Reformers, German School, c. 1625-50, Deutsches Historisches Museum.

I think that the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries must be golden ages for the beard, with the resolutely beardless eighteenth century in between: Dr. Mihm commented yesterday that he didn’t think there was a bearded signer of the Declaration of Independence. Certainly facial hair was the mark of success and power in the seventeenth century: it’s hard to find a notable man who was not so adorned, at least before 1650. In the second half of the century, the mustache and goatee are more common–it’s almost as if a beard would be too much competition for the long luxuriant locks of later-seventeenth-century cavaliers. And after that, very little facial hair is visible among the minority segment of western society who would or could sit for portraits until the second half of the nineteenth century. We are all familiar with images of bearded Civil War Generals and Robber Barons, but at the same time they became symbols of working-class radicalism, encouraging members of respectable society to pick up their (safety) razors–for a century or so.

PicMonkey Collage

Goya Sebastian Martinez y Perez 1792

Degas Collector of Prints 1866

PicMonkey Collage

Two kings of the very hairy seventeenth century: King Charles I, c. 1640 by Anthony van Dyck (Parliamentary Collection), and King Charles II, c. 1670 by Peter Lely (Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II). A representative of the clean-shaven eighteenth century: Sebastián Martínez y Pérez, painted by Goya in 1792 (Metropolitan Museum of Art). Beards are back in the nineteenth century: A Collector of Prints by Edgar Degas, 1866 (Metropolitan Museum of Art), and the two iconic bearded robber barons, Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, painted by society portraitist Theobald Chartran in 1895 and 1896, the last days of the beard (apparently until now!)


Puritan Winter

Two images which I first saw long ago established an everlasting, though certainly ideal, image of New England Puritans in my mind, and I am certain that I am not the only one for which this is true: these are illustrations by the nineteenth-century Anglo-American artist George Henry Boughton (1833-1905) of Pilgrims walking to church in the winter–steadfast souls in a harsh landscape. The first painting is the well-known and widely-disseminated Pilgrims Going to Church (1867) and the second is an engraving of two particular Pilgrims, John and Priscilla Alden, presumably also on their way to services in the snow, she with bible in hand and he with gun. Both paintings emphasize the vulnerability of the Puritans by presenting them in a barren seasonal landscape, yet clearly they are armed with both their faith and their relationships, as well as their muskets.

Puritan Winter Boughton

Puritan Winter John and Priscilla Engraving

George Henry Boughton, Early Puritans of New England Going to Church (1867), Collection of the New-York Historical Society; Puritan couple on their way to Sunday worship, engraved by Thomas Gold Appleton (1885).

Boughton became one of the most influential crafters of the Puritan image through both his own paintings (The New York Times predicted that his iconic 1871 painting The Return of the Mayflower would “live as long as the memory of the Mayflower itself lasts”) and reproductions thereof, many commissioned by the entrepreneurial publisher Alfred S. Burbank of Plymouth, who owned and operated his “Pilgrim Bookshop” from 1872 from 1932. Boughton’s Puritans appeared on trade and post cards, diverse souvenirs, and as individual prints for decades. Below is his favorite Priscilla Alden, even more vulnerable in the absence of John, in both the original 1879 painting and a turn-of-the-century trade card.

PicMonkey Collage

Boughton’s Puritan paintings reveal a reverence for the origins of the country of his childhood, but his work and life should be viewed in an Atlantic context: he was born in Britain and lived in his native country for most of his adulthood. He traveled widely on the Continent, studied in France, and was clearly just as influenced by western European artists and scenes as American history. But I think his American paintings also influenced his life’s work: looking over his cumulative oeuvre, I noticed a penchant for depicting Priscilla-like women in winter, often alone, seemingly and simultaneously both vulnerable and strong in their purposes and thoughtful in their gazes. Even when one of Boughton’s winter women is dressed in the more elaborate attire of his own era (as in The Lady of the Snows below) she still bears traces of the Puritan Priscilla.

(c) Glasgow Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Boughton Puritan Maiden

Boughton Gathering Firewood in the Winter

Boughton Watercolor Illustration to Love in Winter 1890s

Boughton Lady of the Snows

George Henry Boughton, Girl with a Muff, Glasgow Museums Resource Centre (GMRC); A Puritan Maiden (1875), Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute; Gathering Firewood in the Winter, Christies; Watercolor illustration to ‘Love in Winter’, Christies; The Lady of the Snows (1896), Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.


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