Category Archives: Current Events

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).


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.

 


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).

 


Stumped by Shamrocks

I was going to do a rather straightforward post on the shamrock for St. Patrick’s Day, but it turns out that there is nothing straightforward about this plant, but rather an age-old confusion about what it actually is/was. The history of the shamrock and its association with Ireland is misty and murky: if indeed St. Patrick plucked a tender three-leaved (trefoil) sprig of some sprawling plant to illustrate the Holy Trinity we don’t know what that plant was, nor do we know precisely what plants Elizabethan authors like Edmund Campion and Edmund Spenser were referring to when they referenced the “wild” Irish eating shamrocks. The general consensus is that the word is derived from the gaelic seamróg, a diminutive form of seamair, meaning “clover”, but there is no botanical consensus that the shamrock is a clover variety: opinion seems to have been divided between various varieties of clover (trifolium) or wood sorrel (oxalis) for quite some time, with a weed called medic (medicago) mentioned occasionally as another candidate for the shamrock label. If you look at illustrations of the first two plants in one of the most lavishly illustrated medieval herbals, the Tractatus De Herbis (British Library MS Egerton 747), you can understand the confusion between these two look-alike, supposedly sacred plants.

Shamrock Egerton 747 Clover-001

Shamrock Egerton 747 Wood Sorrel-001

Clover (also called “Trinitas”) on the lower right and Wood Sorrel (also called “Alleluia”) on the upper left in BL MS. Egerton 747, c. 1280-1310.

The other source of confusion, much more modern and almost-exclusively American, I think, is between the shamrock (whatever it is) and the four-leaf clover. Both might be clovers, but if you embrace the trinitarian nature of the former, you can’t also have the secular charm of the latter–or can you? Americans seem to want it both ways, and consequently they fashion a St. Patrick’s Day holiday that combines a bit of faith and fortune, and much, much, much more fortification.

Shamrocks PC 1-001

Shamrocks PC 2-001

Shamrocks PC 3-001

St. Patrick’s Day postcards c. 1906-11 from the New York Public Library’s collection: a trefoil shamrock, four-leaf clovers, and both on one card.

There is much less confusion about how the shamrock (whatever it is) became inextricably identified with Ireland: this was much more a Victorian development than a medieval or early modern one. In the visual culture of the Great Britain, the Irish shamrock looms large, along with the English rose and the Scottish thistle (and occasionally the Welsh leek). These symbols appear together on all sorts of items–textiles, pottery, wallpapers–as both official “Arms” of the United Kingdom, decorations for royal palaces and personas, and patriotic embellishment.

The Rose, Thistle and Shamrock. The Floral Badges of England, Scotland and Ireland

Shamrock Curtain Border 1850s-001

Shamrock Garland Voysey-001

James King design for the National Arms of Great Britain, c. 1890; Norris & Company silk curtain border design for Windsor Castle, 1850s; C.F.A. Voysey textile design with garland of Tudor roses, thistles and shamrocks, c. 1915, Victoria & Albert Museum Collections.

These integrative designs are interesting aesthetically and politically, but you can’t beat a single shamrock (whatever it is), especially if it is made up of diamonds! Paired, perhaps, with a companion four-leaf clover brooch for extra luck. But even if there are no sparkling stones, a bright green shamrock (like the holiday it has come to represent) represents hopefulness and gaiety in the often murky month of March.

PicMonkey Collage

March Calendar Postcard with Little Girl Wearing Stole and Muff. 1906, March Calendar Postcard with Little Girl Wearing Stole and Muff

Diamond shamrock brooch, c. 1890, Victoria & Albert Museum; Art Deco platinum, diamond and jadeite clover brooch, c. 1935, Skinner Auctions; Ullman Manufacturing Co. calendar page for March, 1906.


War Games

It’s not just contemporary video games that engage our children (boys) in virtual warfare: their paper predecessors had the very same focus. The majestic monarchs and large professional armies and navies of the eighteenth century inspired the transformation of traditional games of the goose into more strategic games of fortifications and war, and nineteenth-century manufacturing and marketing techniques intensified this shift, along with contemporary ideas about nationalism and education. Four things inspired me to dig into this topic:  André Hellé’s Alphabet de la Grande Guerre, which I featured in my last post, the discovery of a board game dating from and “playing” the Crimean War of 1853-56 (too topical), a recent New York Times “Opinionator” column about “The Myriopticon”, a Civil-War parlor game which was “immensely popular with boys”, and an advertisement for Salem’s own Parker Brothers’ Spanish-American War games, The War in Cuba and The Battle of Manila. And then I discovered the Victoria & Albert’s Museum of Childhood “War Games” exhibit, which is closing at the end of the week.

ABC Great War Games

War Games Crimea V and A

War Games

War Games Parker Brothers

I find these games a little disarming. I understand that the ABC was intended for “the children of our soldiers”, but do these children really need to see pictures of trenches and tanks (no gas masks, thankfully)? I’m just nervous about the Crimea. And Milton Bradley produced the Myriopticon during the Civil War (or Great Rebellion), a tactic that was followed by Parker Brothers at the end of the century. Both World War I and World War II challenged the glorification of war in many ways, but they did not put an end to war games; if anything, the intensifying competitive nationalism and focus on propaganda made them even more popular. The latter are of the bombs away variety, but games of the Great War seem particularly and personally destructive: German children targeted Britain with their toy u-boats, while the object of British children was to get rid of the Huns.

War Games U Boat

War Games Sink the Huns

Get Rid of Huns Maze Puzzle, c. 1916, Victoria & Albert Museum of Childhood.


Soviet Scenery

Despite all the unsettling things about the Sochi Olympics (“urban renewal”, intolerance, dead dogs, slushy snow), I’ve been trying to watch the events pretty consistently–especially skiing and speed skating, which I really enjoy. In general, I prefer the Winter Olympics to the Summer (watching swimming is boring), but there are several things that are really bothering me about these particular games. Actually the first thing is more general than specific: NBC’s coverage, which always annoys me–and they have broadcast the Olympics for as long as I can remember. In prime time, there are far too many commercials, personal stories, and muttering commentators, and not enough consistent coverage of single events–except, of course, figure skating and ice dancing, which I’m not convinced is even a sport (if we have ice dancing in the Winter Olympics shouldn’t we have other types of dancing in the Summer games?)  And by the time I tune in, I know much of what has already happened anyway–this strikes me as an odd way to broadcast a global event in this internet age. The second thing that troubles me about Sochi is its subtropical climate: I still don’t understand why (besides Putin’s will) we are having the Winter games in a city with an average winter temperature of 52 degrees. The mild temperatures and fog seem to have affected the events and the athletes in myriad ways, and obviously Russia has many more winter-appropriate locations.

But what troubles me most of all about these games is the increasing dissonance between the activities in Sochi and what is happening to the north–in the same general Black Sea region–in Ukraine. The juxtaposition between the ringing cattle bells in Sochi and blood in the streets of Kiev is striking, all the more so because of the relative physical proximity and recent historical context. I had been planning to feature some mid-century Winter Olympics posters here, but instead I’m going for posters issued by Intourist, the official Soviet travel agency, which beckoned tourists to Ukraine and its surrounding regions just a few years after (or even during?) the dreadful Soviet-induced Ukrainian Famine (Holodomor) of 1932-33, which caused the death of over 6 million people (the estimates of mortality vary widely according to source). Such striking, cheerful graphic images: dissonance indeed.

PicMonkey Collage

Soviet Poster Armenia

Soviet Poster Georgia

Soviet Poster Caucusus

Soviet Hunting Poster BPL

Soviet Poster Winter BPL

Soviet Intourist posters from the 1930s from Radio Free Europe; the “See USSR” exhibit at the Gallery of Russian Arts and Design, London; and the Boston Public Library.


A Russian Alphabet Book

I thought the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics was absolutely captivating last Friday: it’s always interesting to see how a country and a people perceive themselves in terms of their history, although this particular presentation was probably more official than popular. There was certainly a strong imperial focus, I thought, and a bit less emphasis on the 20th century–except for the big red train! There was a lot of effort and energy out there but actually my favorite part of the whole presentation was the very beginning: the introductory video that prepared us for the live whimsy to follow as well as the Cyrillic alphabet. This impressed me both in terms of pedagogy and aesthetics, and of course if you paid attention you were prepared for the out-of-(western) order parade of nations that followed. I quickly learned that the images in the video were based on the Alphabet in Pictures book of Alexandre Benois (1870-1960), a Russian artist, set and costume designer (most famously for the Ballets Russes), historic preservationist, and art historian who was the Curator of Painting at the Hermitage Museum from 1918 to 1925, after which he left Russia: the Stalinist era clearly didn’t suit this Renaissance man, who perhaps inspired the Sochi spectacular in more ways than one (and he was the great-uncle of actor Peter Ustinov)!

Benois’ ABC book was published in a lavish 1904 edition by a Russian art publisher; it encompasses 35 chromolithographic plates illustrating each letter with scenes and figures from traditional folkloric, religious, and historical sources. Each page is a whimsical work of art and you can see all the images here and here; I’m glad that it has been digitized but would really like to spend some time with a real volume. It’s highly collectible (the last copy I could find at auction went for nearly $10,000), and I bet that it’s appearance at Sochi will drive its price up even higher. Much more accessible is Benois’ Russian School of Painting (1916), with its sad (in retrospect–knowing what would soon be his fate) portrait of Tsar Nicholas II on the frontispiece and entire chapter devoted to history and folklore.

ABC Cover 2

ABC Cp

ABC 3p

Abc Lastp

Digitized pages from Alexandre Benois’ Alphabet in Pictures, St. Petersburg: Expedition of State Papers, 1904.

The Alphabet book made me curious to see more of Benois’s work, and there is a lifetime of it! Watercolors, set designs, costumes, magazine illustrations. Apparently there was an 2006 exhibition at the Boston Public Library, which holds some of his papers, but he was not on my radar screen at that time. The paintings and sketches for sets and costumes evoke some of what we saw the other night, but the BIG HEADS must have come from somewhere else: Pushkin, perhaps?

Alexander-Benois-xx-Parade-under-Paul-I-1907-xx-The-State-Russian-Museum

ABC Nutcracker 1938

Pushkin 2

Alexandre Benois, Parade under Paul I, 1907, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow; Nutcracker Costume for La Scala, 1938, Victoria & Albert Museum; Illustration in Pushkin’s Lyudmila and Ruslan by Nikolai Kochergin (1897-1974).


Sun and Ice in Salem

A beautiful winter weekend for the 12th annual Salem’s So Sweet Chocolate & Ice Sculpture Festival.

There were lots of people downtown: I have no doubt that this Salem Main Streets event helps the restaurants at a quiet time of year (although Salem’s restaurant scene seems to be flourishing anyway); I really hope that it helps the shops too. The wine and chocolate tasting that kicks off the weekend is always such a crush that I skip it, but I would never miss the ice sculptures.

Ice 013

Ice 017

Ice 045

Seeing yellow:  this tree was full of fat yellow-breasted birds–finches? Mr. and Mrs. Pac-man; the Miles Ward looked especially lovely to me today.

Ice 023

Ice 019

Ice 026

Ice 034

Ice 038

Ice 048

It’s rather difficult to photograph ice, especially if there’s no background….my favorite sculpture is definitely that of the Salem Diner, acquired by Salem State University last summer and newly-reopened. On the way back home, I noticed that the Joshua Ward house is for sale: this is where George Washington slept when he visited Salem in 1789.

Ice 049


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,922 other followers

%d bloggers like this: