Category Archives: History

The Knight’s Tale

Every single day this week Geoffrey Chaucer came up in discussion, and only once in class! So it seemed like no coincidence when an old textbook I was consulting for something else entirely reported that on this very day in 1397 he first read the Canterbury Tales at Richard II’s court. I’m not sure this is true, but as Chaucer was already on my mind I indulged myself a bit more. I use many of the Tales in my courses to illustrate various aspects of late medieval culture and society, but I read them for pleasure as well–and a few translated lines from The Knight’s Tale even made their way into my wedding ceremony. This is the tale that my students favor–even as I push the Pardoner and the Franklin on them, but of course their “veray parfit gentil knight” is Heath Ledger! I can’t blame them: I like that movie too, as its egalitarian spirit seems vaguely late medieval (and I prefer blatant anachronism to what passes for “accurate” historical dramas). But The Knight’s Tale and its companion stories were not rediscovered only in the 21st century: every generation seems to have their Chaucer, from the 80+ manuscript versions produced shortly after his death, to William Caxton’s printed versions, seventeenth-century theatrical productions, or the beautiful texts and images of William Blake and William Morris, for as Blake noted in 1809, Chaucer’s characters live age after age. Every age is a Canterbury Pilgrimage; we all pass on, each sustaining one of the characters; nor can a child be born who is not one or other of these characters of Chaucer.”

Knight's Tale Ellesmere

Knight's Tale Caxton BL

Knights Tale Kyngston

Two_Noble_Kinsmen_by_John_Fletcher_William_Shakespeare_1634

William_Blake_-_Chaucer's_Canterbury_Pilgrims 1810

Knight's Tale Kelmscot

Knights Tale 19th

Canterbury Tales 1968

Canterbury Tales 2013 Penguin

Cropped leaf from the  “Ellesmere Chaucer” MS., c. 1400-1405, Huntington Library; page from William Caxton’s 1483 edition, British Library; 1561 edition printed by John Kingston for John Wight; a 1634 theatrical adaptation of the Knight’s Tale by John Fletcher and William Shakespeare; “Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims”, engraved and published by William Blake, 1810; Illustration by Edward Burne-Jones for the “Kelmscott Chaucer”: The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, now newly imprinted. Kelmscott Press, 1896; Illustration by William Clark Appleton from Percy Mackaye’s The Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer. A Modern Rendering in Prose, of the Prologue and Ten Tales, New York, 1904; Poster for the “bawdy” musical, 1968, Victoria & Albert Museum; Penguin Clothbound Classic cover by Coralie Bickford-Smith, 2013.


The Historiscope

I’m fascinated by a visual device produced by Milton Bradley in the later nineteenth century called “The Historiscope:  A Panorama and History of America”. Swann Auction Galleries has one for sale in their upcoming auction. Here’s the description and an image: Printed hand-colored box, 5 1/4 inches tall, 8 1/4 inches wide, 2 1/4 inches deep, with long paper scroll on two spindles within, and mounted on a later(?) painted board; lacking wooden crank pieces and rear cover with caption information, otherwise moderate wear to exterior. The scroll is difficult to turn and has not been examined in full; sold as is. (MRS) [Springfield, MA?]: [Milton Bradley & Co.], circa 1870.

Historiscope Swann Auctions April 14

What fascinates me about this panorama is the early attempt to introduce some interaction into history instruction, although Jennifer Lynn Peterson (in “The Historiscope and the Milton Bradley Company:  Art and Commerce in Nineteenth-century Aesthetic Education, Getty Research Journal, No. 6 (2014): 175-184) informs me that each box came with a script, an “eight-page dramatic description of all the images in the moving panorama, characterized by a lively tone and filled with numerous attempts at humor”. So maybe it was a rather one-way “show”. The other thing that interests me is what the selective/reflective nature of this lens: any historiscope much necessarily reflect the society which produces it rather than the “history” which it purports to reveal. If we could turn the scroll of this Swann lot, we would see 25 iconic images of early American history, including the landing of Columbus in the West Indies, Pocahontas and John Smith, the Pilgrims’ arrival in Massachusetts, and Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown. (Another contemporary Milton Bradley product, the Myriopticon, focuses solely on scenes from the Civil War, or “Rebellion”). Would the same scenes have been chosen in 1920, or 1950, or 2000, or now? I’m fairly certain that Columbus would not make it into our 2015 historiscope, at least not in his circa 1870 characterization.

Historiscope Cover Yale

Historiscope Native AMericans Getty

Historiscope Christopher Columbus

Box cover and scenes (Native Americans in full regalia before the arrival of Columbus and the man himself) from Milton Bradley’s Historiscope, c. 1870, Beinecke Library, Yale University and Getty Museum.

So I guess the theatre-guise of the Milton Bradley Historiscope is appropriate: it projects as well as reflects. Even modern historiscopes function this way, literally: my case in point is the Historoscope de Saint-Laurent project in Montreal, which utilizes architectural projection to tell the story of a neighborhood. I love it, and I think it’s probably the best we can do with this genre while we wait (forever) for the development of a real historiscope, a time-traveling telescope which can reveal the past rather than just scroll or screen it.

P.S. Another Milton Bradley Historiscope is available here, mounted on cute little legs!


My Favorite Portsmouth House

I was running early for Easter dinner in York Harbor, and by myself because of a sick husband, so I decided to take a detour off 95 into Portsmouth to take a look at my very favorite house. As I grew up just over the bridge and down the road apiece in southern Maine, Portsmouth was our go-to town for pretty much everything, and its downtown became my ideal setting: small New England seaport with plenty of historic housing. There’s no question I settled in Salem in large part because Portsmouth was just too far away from Boston. There are several Portsmouth streets to which I return to time and time again, but only one favorite house:  the Tobias Lear House on Hunking Street, which to my untrained eye looks like the purest of Georgian structures. I think I first saw it when I was maybe 16, and it’s been part of my life ever since.

Lear House 004

Lear House 015

Lear House 008

The Lear House, built in 1740, was home to several generations of a Portsmouth family including Tobias Lear, one of George Washington’s personal secretaries. After it passed out of the family in the later nineteenth century it descended into multi-family tenement status (along with much of Portsmouth’s South End), only to be rescued by Wallace Nutting, who purchased the Lear and neighboring Wentworth-Gardner House in 1917. Both properties were eventually transferred to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA–the forerunner of Historic New England) and then to the newly-formed Wentworth-Gardner and Tobias Lear Houses Association in 1940, in whose possession they remain. It seems to me that the Lear House has always been overshadowed by the High-Georgian Wentworth-Gardner, which Nutting restored in the Colonial Revival style he preferred for his ghostly photographs. Here is the sentiment of the SPNEA directors in 1919 that captures this “underappreciation” perfectly: the Society was urged to buy this house, which came on the market in 1917 for $1500, a price considerably higher for which it eventually sold. While considerably out of repair, it was a house but little altered since the days when Tobias Lear, private secretary to Washington, was its owner. Although a house we would have gladly preserved, it lacked the distinction worthy of a campaign for its purchase. It was bought by Mr. Wallace Nutting, whose famous Wentworth-Gardner house adjoins it. [Old-Time New England, 1919] It appears that the present-day restoration of the Lear House will have to wait, once again, until the Wentworth-Gardner houses is put to rights; nevertheless, when President Washington visited Portsmouth in 1789 (just a few days after he left Salem and this house), it was the “best parlor” of the Tobias Lear House to which he came.

Lear House 1917 SPNEA Old-Time New England

Lear House 009

Lear House 021

Lear House 022

The Tobias Lear House on Hunking Street in 1917 and today, and adjacent Wentworth-Gardner House on Mechanic Street.


Hatching Hostilities

Well this is not really a post that speaks to the spirit of Easter, but it does involve eggs…..I think I’ve written about all of the usual Easter topics over the years, including rabbits, the White House Easter Egg Roll, and Swedish Easter witches, but never war, until today. The minute I saw some egg-themed postcards from the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), I knew I had to write about them, and this seems like an (oddly) appropriate time. Even though it was a relatively short war, this cross-cultural conflict was nevertheless a major turning-point in Russian history, Japanese history, and world history, and it anticipated the truly global nature and coverage that would characterize World War I in the next decade. A good part of this coverage was pictorial: photographs, editorial images, and postcards–the latter was new media at the turn of the last century, and producers and artists in the west and the east embraced them as a multi-national form of war reportage. Cards produced for domestic audiences tend to be more propagandistic and jingoistic, obviously (you can see a sampling at MIT’s “Asia Rising” online exhibit), but those oriented towards an international market tend to be more symbolic, allegorical, and (above-all) humorous. Because of the universal symbolism of the egg and its all-too-apparent nature, these egg-themed cards, all from the vast Leonard A. Lauder Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, are not too difficult to understand: an “Easter Egg of the War” is about to hatch hostilities in Manchuria, a Russian soldier cracks opens a “boiled egg” filled with his enemy, and the theater of war is played out in two postcards from the “Easter Eggs of the Mikado” series.

Japan Easter Egg of the War

Boiled Egg

Japan PC 1 MFA

Japanese PC 2 MFA

A.F. Delamarre, “The Easter Egg of War”, 1904-1905; Fernet, “Boiled Egg”, 1904-1905; and unidentified artist, “The Easter Eggs of the Mikado” series, 1904-1905, all from the Leonard A. Lauder Collection of Japanese Postcards, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The meaning behind these next four postcards is even easier to grasp: an egg fight, in which eggs are broken, and scrambled (leaving behind a big mess!):

Egg Battle 1 Fact to Face

Egg Battle 2 Start the Fire

Egg Battle 3 Fire at Will

Egg Battle 4 Body to body

Egg Battle 5 After

Unidentified (Japanese?) artist, The Egg Battle series: face to face, start the fire, fire at will, body to body, after the battle, 1904-1905, Leonard A. Lauder Collection of Japanese Postcards, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.


The Consummate Fool

As the title of Beatrice K. Otto’s engaging book, Fools are Everywhere. The Court Jester Around the World, asserts, fools are a universal phenomenon in the pre-modern world. Still, maybe it’s just my Anglophilia, but it’s always seemed to me that fools were a particularly prominent feature of the court in early modern England, and one fool in particular:  Will Somers, who appears in both “official” portraits and more casual ones, both from his own time, and well after: I wonder why?

Family_of_Henry_VIII_c_1545

Tudor Family Portrait

henrypsalter_lg

The Family of Henry VIII, with Will Somers under the right arch and his counterpart, “Jane the Foole” (sometimes alternatively referred to as “Mother Jak”, Prince Edward’s nurse), on the left, c. 1545, Hampton Court Palace; Tudor family portrait from the Duke of Buccleauch’s Collection at Boughton House, c. 1650-1680–supposedly based on an earlier painting–featuring King Henry VIII, Will Somers, Edward, Mary and Elizabeth; King Henry and Will in an illustration from Henry’s Psalter, c. 1530-45; British Library Royal MS 2 A XVI, f. 63v.

The first reference to Will Somers is in 1525, as a man in his twenties, and he died about 1560. His presence at court is one of the few continuous aspects of the Tudor dynasty: he served, or entertained, King Henry VIII and all three of his children: Edward, Mary and Elizabeth for the opening years of her long reign. Clearly he and King Harry were close, literally in the pictures. This psalter image clearly has religious symbolism–Henry is a harp-playing King David, and Will the fool of Psalm 14 (the fool saith in his heart, there is no God)–but the Tudor family portraits point to a closer personal connection. Following the distinction first made by Robert Armin (an actor in Shakespeare’s company), in his Foole upon Foole (1605) and A Nest of Ninnies (1608), historians and literature scholars still seem most interested in assessing just what kind of fool Will was: “natural” or “licensed”/”artificial”: a natural fool was one with mental challenges or disabilities, an artificial fool was playing the part. There seems to be evidence for both types: in John Heywood’s Wit and Witless, Somers is among the latter while other sources refer to his wittiness. The discussion about the nature of Somers’ foolishness has lasted for centuries, and I think it makes him a rather more interesting character than his Elizabethan successors, Richard Tarlton and Will Kempe, who were obviously artificial, acting fools. Somers experiences a posthumous resurrection in the seventeenth century, which produced some charming portraits of his image and a lively biography entitled The Pleasant History of the Life and Death of Will Summers (1676): And how hee came first to be knowne at the court, and how he came up to London, and by what meanes hee got to be King Henry the eights jester. And over time, Will Somers seems to evolve into the both the wise fool and the full-fledged jester, keeping us guessing all the while.

STC 23434.5, D2v

Will Somers 1620

Will Somers 1798

Will Somers 1814

Title page of  William Sommers, engraved by R. Clamp, 1794; W.H. Ireland, Chalcographimania; or, the portrait-collector and printseller’s chronicle, with infatuations of every description. A humorous poem. In four books. With copious notes explanatory. By Satiricus Sculptor, Esq., 1814.


Hardcovers

I had been wanting to write a post on Black Beauty, the first “real” book I ever read and one that shaped my childhood in several ways, for some time, and as today marks the birthday of its author, Anna Sewall, this seemed like the perfect time. So this weekend I brought out my old copy for inspiration but almost as soon as I opened it up I realized I could not read this book again, much less write about it. Don’t get me wrong: it’s still a wonderful book:  I just don’t want to go through the horse’s painful journey again. Of course everything turns out all right for Black Beauty in the end, but Sewall gives him such a strong voice, and fills his story with so many harrowing, realistic details, that the moment I opened up the book (after decades) it all came rushing back. I can’t imagine how I had the courage to read this tome in the first place at age seven or eight: the fearfulness of youth, I suppose! But I’m not going back: the protective material side of me has surfaced, fortunately, and I’m going to focus on the decorative aspects of books today instead of their content.

Black Beauty 1st ed.

Black Beauty 1897

Black Beauty 2011

Covers of Black Beauty:  1877 first edition, 1897, and 2011 Penguin Threads edition–with design by Jillian Tamaki.

Enough of suffering, compassion and sanctuary! Like anything that seems likely to go away, books have becoming more precious as objects for some time, both in their original form and in variations and adaptions. One company that seems to be bridging the gap between literature and art is Juniper Books, which offers ready-made and custom collections of books gathered around a particular author or theme with covers and spines designed to decorate the bookshelf. When they can’t find an appropriate set of books to house their designs–they just cover up odd volumes–and so we have an Ernest Hemingway set of elephant-embellished books and an anonymous set of elephant-embellished books, all ready for a pachyderm-themed study (like mine).

Hardovers Juniper Books Hemingway Set

Hardcovers Elephant Book Set

And if you’re just looking for book forms, there are a variety of options: ceramic books are my particular preference of this genre –book-shaped vases and flasks go way back, at least to the eighteenth century. A couple of years ago I bought up as many of the book candles below as I could obtain at Anthropologie (a store that will put candles in anything and everything): I didn’t particularly care for the candles (still intact); I just liked the “books”. They are long gone from the store now, but these more colorful book vases are still very much in stock. A bit more sophisticated examples from Seletti and Kim Marsh are available here and here, and I suspect I could gather much more.

Hardcovers 030

Anthropologie ceramic book vases

Book Vases

Hardcovers Kim Marsh


Mary Harrod Northend

I’m not bound to such designations, but as we’re almost running out of Women’s History Month and our mayor has declared March 29 Salem Women’s History Day I’ve decided to feature a notable Salem woman on this last weekend in March. After much deliberation–as there are many notable women in Salem’s history–I’ve settled on the author and entrepreneur Mary Harrod Northend (1850-1926). She has interested me for some time, and she’s popped up in several posts in the past, but she deserves her own. Northend was from old, old Massachusetts families on both sides, and this heritage is key to her life and work. Both parents were actually from northern Essex County, but moved south after their marriage: her father, William Dummer Northend, became a prominent attorney and a state senator for Salem. Mary was born at 17 Beckford Street, a side-to-street late Federal house, but the family moved over to Lynde Street, in the shadow of the Federal Street courthouses, in the later 1850s. Their grand Italianate double house, photographed for Mary’s books later, is now sadly chopped into 12 apartments by my count. The few biographical details I could gather refer to a childhood sickness; in fact by all accounts (or by no accounts) Mary led a quiet life in her childhood and adulthood, until she burst out in her 50s and started writing all about colonial Salem and colonial New England, necessitating regional travel, which she clearly embraced. Eleven books were published between 1904 and 1926, when she died in Salem from complications sustained from a car accident, and many, many articles for magazines such as Good Housekeeping, The Century and The House Beautiful: I haven’t had time to compile a proper bibliography. But she was an incredibly prolific woman: an acknowledged expert on New England architecture and antiquities, with a touch of Martha Stewart-esque domestic stature as well, forged by her publications on decorating and party-planning. Let us, she writes in a very Martha tone in The Art of Home Decoration: link the old and the new, working out entrancing combinations that are ideal, making our home joyous and bright through the right utilizing of great grandmother’s hoard.

Northend Portrait 1904 HNE

Northend Birthplace Beckford Street Salem

Northend 1862 Portrait

Mary Harrod Northend (and dog), circa 1906, in the early phase of her writing career, Historic New England; her birthplace at 17 Beckford Street, Salem; her father William Dummer Northend, newly-elected State Senator from Salem, 1862, State Library of Massachusetts.

Her books and articles reveal Mary to be a fierce advocate for “Old-time” New England; she is at the forefront of that (second?) generation of strident Colonial Revivalists, fearful that the (changing) world around them hasn’t developed proper appreciation for colonial architecture and material culture. She is evangelical in her love of clapboards, mantles, arches, doorways, garden ornaments, pewter and seamless glass. The phrase “detail-oriented” doesn’t even come close to capturing Mary’s appreciation of the things that were built and made in the colonial past: these things are her life and her world. And like any good educator–which she was–Mary wanted her (growing) audience to see her world and so she spared no expense when it came to photography, first taking her own photographs and then “directing” commercial photographers in the manner of a cinematographer, according to Mary N. Woods’ Beyond the Architect’s Eye: Photographs and the American Built Environment (2011). The end result was a vast collection of still images (there are 6000 glass plate negatives in the collection of Historic New England alone, though the entry in the biographical dictionary Who’s Who in New England for 1915 indicates that Mary has “20,000 negatives and prints of American homes”) which she used to illustrate her own books, sold to other architectural writers, and colorized in the style of  Wallace Nutting to sell directly to the public.

Northend Historic Homes 1914

Northend Doorways 1926

Northend Cook Oliver

Northend Framed Photo Cook Oliver

Two of Northend’s most popular titles, Historic Homes of New England (1914) and Historic Doorways of Old Salem (1926); the Cook-Oliver House on Federal Street in Salem, featured in Historic Homes and sold as an individual colorized print, “The Half Open Door”.

It’s relatively easy to research the work of Mary Harrod Northend: her books are still readily available in both print and digital form and prints from her photographic collection are at Historic New England and the Winterthur Library. But I wish I knew more about her business, the business of publishing books and photographs, writing, lecturing, collecting. I’m also curious about money: there’s definitely a bit of voyeurism in Northend’s books and I can’t discern why she remained in the family home on busy Lynde Street rather than move to the McIntire District just a few blocks away. In one of her most personal, yet still fictionalized, books, Memories of Old Salem: Drawn from the Letters of a Great-Grandmother (1917), the great-grandmother in the title lives on Chestnut Street, but Mary never did. This might have been a family matter: her widowed mother and sister lived right next door in the Italianate double house, which was also an appropriate “stage” for some of her photographs. I also think it was quite likely that Miss Northend was seldom at her own home, as she was so busy documenting those of others!

A very random sampling of Mary Harrod Northend photographs, mostly from Historic Homes and Colonial Homes and their Furnishing (1912), all from the Winterthur Digital Collections:

northend-gables-door1

Northend 10 Chestnut Door

Northend Robinson House Summer Street

Three very different Salem houses:  doorway at the House of the Seven Gables, entrance of 10 Chestnut, side view of the Robinson House on Summer Street.

Northend Pewter Mantle

Northend Waters House Mantle

Northend Mantles

Salem mantles: a pewter display, McIntire mantle at the Waters House (LOVE this louvred fire screen), Whipple and Pickman mantles.

Northend 29 Washington Square Hallway

Northend Ropes Windowseat

Northend Saltonstall House Haverhill Hall

Northend Kittredge House Yarmouth Remodeled Farmhouses Cape

Northend Bright House Beds

Details & decor I love:  hallway of 29 Washington Square, Salem, Ropes Mansion windowseat, entry hall at Saltonstall House, Haverhill, Attic and twin canopy beds on the Cape (from Remodeled Farmhouses, 1915–but all of Miss Northend’s books feature canopied beds! I would place them headboard to headboard.)

Northend Kate Sanborn House Spinning Wheel

Northend House Winterthur

Flagrant displays of Colonial Revivalism: Spinning wheel and fire buckets at the Kate Sanborn House, and Miss Northend’s own house on Lynde Street, all dressed up for Spring.


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