Tag Archives: Antiques

Secret Weapons

Today I have another Victorian fad: sword canes or “sword sticks”: harmless-looking walking sticks with blades concealed inside, one of several variations of “novelty canes” produced in the nineteenth century. Yesterday I drove up to York to celebrate my father’s birthday accompanied by my stepson, who has long had a singular obsession on the sword cane (or cane sword) that has leaned in the mud room alongside more mundane umbrellas and tennis rackets since I was a little girl. It’s the first thing he went for when we got there–what? why? and most importantly, who will inherit it? I don’t know much–all I could think of was the recent Sherlock Holmes film, in which Jude Law’s Dr. Watson wields a sword stick, and John Steed in The Avengers, who utilizes the umbrella variation. I checked out some auction archives, and they don’t seem to be particularly valuable. I can imagine that it ceased to be respectable in genteel society to walk around with a sidearm in the nineteenth century and so sword sticks emerged, but they seem to have been more fashionable than utilitarian. Ours looks like a simple cane made with a curved handle, but the steel blade inside has interesting markings: I think I might take it to an appraisal event at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Sword Cane 046

Sword Cane 037

Sword Canes ATHM

Sword Cane Skinner Auctions

Our family’s sword stick (alternatively called swordstick, sword cane & cane sword) and 19th century examples from the American Textile History Museum and Skinner Auctioneers.

There are a few cultural references to sword canes and I’d be grateful for more! Besides Watson and Steed, there is Bob Dylan (Your grandpas cane, it turns into a sword, “On the Road Again”, 1965, thanks to Cheryl Beatty at the American Textile History Museum, which is also the source of the image above) and Lord Byron, who apparently used his sword stick for more than prop. The recent Byron exhibition at King’s College, London features several references to and images of swordsticks: no doubt they amplified his dashing demeanor.

Sword Cane

Byron

Sword Stick Byron

Jude Law as Dr. Watson with cane; drawing of Lord Byron, by Alfred Guillaume Gabriel dOrsay, 1823, Victoria & Albert Museum; Lord Byron’s sword stick, from the online exhibition Byron & Politics: ‘Born for Opposition’, King’s College, London

 

 


Fabric for the Fouth

I’ve been rather casually researching how the Fourth of July was commemorated on its Centennial in 1876, and while all the attention is generally focused on the great Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, I have come to appreciate all the special fabrics that were produced that year, material girl that I am. Textiles are key to this celebration: as the United States was in the midst of its industrial revolution, machine-made fabrics were featured prominently in the Exposition’s displays, and it also had a special focus on the “women’s sphere” and the domestic arts. Of course textiles are always a central feature of Independence Day celebrations: even more than fireworks, the Fourth is all about flags, swags, and bunting. As I write, I’m looking at the flag runner on my dining room table, a flag pillow on a nearby chair, and flags flying outside. In 1876, I think they were much more lavish–and much more creative–with patriotic displays of fabric. On the way home from my recent road trip, I passed through the northwest corner of Connecticut and the pretty town of Litchfield, where the Historical Society was featuring an exhibition on the Colonial Revival called “The Lure of the Litchfield Hills”. I enjoyed seeing all the items in the exhibition immensely, but was particularly taken by a child’s drummer costume for the Litchfield Centennial parade. So this would be the first item in my own little collection of Centennial textiles, followed by a banner made for Salem’s 1876 celebrations, a beautiful Centennial coverlet from the amazing inventory of Jeff. R. Bridgman, Antiques, and two Centennial quilts from the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. You can see the centrality of the Philadelphia Exposition; the custom of the time was to incorporate souvenir handkerchiefs into memento quilts, as Mary Stow and Esther Cooley evidently did. To round out my collection I must have one of these very handkerchiefs (from the Metropolitan Museum of Art), and of course, a Centennial Flag (from the New York Historical Society).

Fabric

Fabric Salem Banner

fabric coverlet

Fabric Quilt smithsonian stow

Fabric Centennial Quilt Smithsonian

Fabric handkerchief 1876 MET

Fabric Flag NYHS 1876

 


Emulating Salem

I’ve been trying for quite some time, in several posts, to place Salem squarely in the center of the Colonial Revival design movement of the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries–and not just the artistic and academic movement, but also its more popular expressions. This is a continuing exploration, and as I am trained not as an art historian, or even an American historian, but a plain old English historian, I’m not sure that I’m searching in the right places or looking at the right sources. Right now I’m particularly interested in the broader impact of the period rooms installed in several major American museums after George Sheldon (at Deerfield in the 1880s) and George Francis Dow (at Salem’s Essex Institute in 1907) created the first period-room displays. By the 1920s and 1930s period rooms seem to have been assembled in most of the major American art museums, among them distinct Salem rooms such as that established by architectural historian Fiske Kimball at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1923 and the South Bedroom/later “McIntire Room” at Winterthur.

Salem Room Philadelphia MA

Salem Room Winterthur McIntire Room

The Salem and McIntire Rooms at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Winterthur Museum.

I don’t think that it is a coincidence that you see advertisements for reproductions and adaptations of “Salem” furniture from this very same era, though the inspiration could be traced to many sources. Several major American furniture manufacturers, including Karpen Furniture and the Erskine-Danforth Corporation, produced entire lines of “Early American” reproductions. The latter’s Danersk line, advertised with accompanying Salem ships, seems like the very epitome of the popular Colonial Revival.

Salem Room

Salem Room 1928

The “Salem Room”: 1928 vignette by Edgar W. Jenney, who specialized in the depiction and reproduction of historical interiors and worked to preserved them–most notably on Nantucket.

Salem Room 1926p

Salem bed with border

1926 advertisements for Danersk Early American furniture, Erskine-Danforth Corporation.

It’s not really Salem-specific, but I can’t resist referencing the great 1948 Cary Grant/Myrna Loy film Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House here, because it both exemplifies and mocks the longstanding influence of the Colonial Revival in America. After an interior decorator (named Bunny Funkhouser!) sketches an over-the-top “Colonial” living-room redesign for the Blandings’ NYC apartment featuring a cobbler’s bench, pie safe, and spinning wheel, they decide to decamp for the real thing in Connecticut. When their authentic colonial is deemed unsound, they level it and build a neo-Colonial, a bit more refined than Funkhouser’s sketch certainly, but most definitely Colonial in inspiration and design. I can’t find a still of the Funkhouser room, but you’ve got to see it to believe it.

Blandings


In Praise of Massachusetts Chairs

Aficionados of antiques, decorative arts, and furniture, or simply admirers of artistry and design, can find plenty to see and learn at all of the events and exhibitions associated with Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture , a collaboration of eleven institutions designed to put the spotlight on Bay State craftsmanship. You may not have been aware that this past Tuesday, September 17th, was declared Massachusetts Furniture Day by our own Governor Deval Patrick!  The announcement was made at the State House with the chair of John Endecott, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, sitting prominently in the background–I assume this is a Salem chair as that is where Endecott landed and lived (it certainly couldn’t be the English chair which accompanied his successor John Winthrop on the Arbella  which is the subject and device of Hawthorne’s story “Grandfather’s Chair”).

Chair of Endecott at MSH

©Andrea Shea/WBUR

It’s really all about chairs for me, as even a casual reader of this blog would know. Just in my head, without going to Four Centuries’ great website or any of its events, I can immediately think of a chronological succession of great Massachusetts-made chairs–up to about 1830 or so:  after that, I’m lost. The nice thing about this initiative is its incredible time span, which must accommodate colonial craftsmen and Federal superstars like Samuel McIntire of Salem as well as industrial manufacturers in central and western Massachusetts, After all, Worcester held the title of “chair capital of the country” a century ago and Gardner is still proudly “the chair city”.

Biggest_Chair,_Gardner,_MA

Gardner’s Big Chair, c. 1910

So here we go:  my own Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture, taken from a variety of sources and certainly informed by the collections showcased on the Four Centuries’ sitea particular discovery for me is Boston furniture-maker Samuel Gragg–amazing!  Obviously there’s a bias here in favor of the early nineteenth century, but it was hard to choose favorites in general:  Massachusetts really produced a lot of great chairs (more than all of the other original 12 colonies put together apparently) and continues to do so.

Chair 17th c MFA

Chair Chippendale Boston MFA

Chair Lolling Skinner

PicMonkey Collage

Salem Fancy Chair

Chairs 1825

Chair regency winterthur

Richardson Chair

Apartment Therapy

Chair Plycraft

Char by Jay Stanger 1994 Fuller Craft

Made in Massachusetts:  Leather “Great Chair“, 1665-80, Boston (a near-contemporary of the Endecott chair), and Chippendale side chair, about 1770, Boston, both Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Federal “Lolling” Chair made by Joseph Short of Newburyport, c. 1795; Federal armchairs made by Samuel McIntire for the Peirce-Nichols House in Salem, 1801, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and in situ; “Fancy” side chair, probably Salem, c. 1800-1820, American Folk Art Museum, New York; Pair of decorated fancy chairs, attributed to Samuel Gragg, Boston, c. 1825, Skinner Auctions; Boston “Grecian” side chair, c. 1815-25, Winterthur Museum, Gallery & Library; Armchair designed by H.H. Richardson for the Woburn Public Library, Boston, 1878, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Shaker chairs at the Hancock Shaker Village near Pittsfield, Massachusetts, courtesy of Apartment Therapy; Armchair by Norman Lerner for Plycraft, Lawrence, Massachusetts, c. 1955, Skinner Auctions; “Arched and Animated” chair by Jay Stanger, Fuller Craft Museum, Brockton, Massachusetts.

Mass Furniture Haverhill Chairs

Another great line-up:  chairs in the snow, c. 1910, Haverhill, Massachusetts. Smithsonian Institution.


Ship America of Salem

For this evolving-memorial day of sorts, a thoroughly patriotic post on one of Salem’s illustrious ships from days gone by, the aptly-named America, which one source describes as “the largest, the fastest, the most fortunate and the most famous of all the privateers which at any time sailed out of Salem Harbor” (Old-Time Ships of Salem, Essex Institute, 1922). This is saying a lot, as Salem sent out 40 privateers during the War of 1812 alone. Built as an East Indiaman by famed Salem shipbuilder Retire Becket for Crowninshield & Sons in 1803-4, the America had an illustrious commercial career even before it (she) was transformed into a private-armed corvette for the War of 1812. Its entire voyaging history reads like a novel by C.S. Forester or Patrick O’Brian.

America of Salem Old Time Ships

America Model Addison Gallery of American Art

Anton Roux, The Ship America at anchor in Marseilles, 1806, Peabody Essex Museum; Model of the America by Captain H. Percy Ashley, Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts.

The conversion of the America from merchant to naval vessel involved removing her top deck and lengthening her masts and spars to support an enormous spread of sail–she was fast before by all accounts, but after she was “razeed”, she became even faster, a ship of prey. To me, she looks like she’s very low in the water, but obviously also very light in the water. The America was armed with 20 guns and a crew of 150 sailors for her five war-time “cruises”, during which she captured 27 British vessels, valued at more than a million dollars with their cargoes. After the war, the America languished in Salem and was finally dismantled in 1831, outlasting the famous luxury yacht modeled after her, George Crowninshield’s Cleopatra’s Barge, by several years.

America EIHC

America EIHC2

America Princess Elizabeth 1815 Ropes

The America under full sail, in a series of illustrations from B.B. Crowninshield’s “Account of the Private Armed Ship ‘America’ of Salem”, Historical Collections of the Essex Institute, January 1901): the first is from a painting by Edward J. Russell, and the last is from a painting by George Ropes of the America chasing down the British Ship ‘Princess Elizabeth’ in 1815, both are in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem.

I’ve been looking, looking, looking, but I can’t find an America plate or jug (though many Friendship and Grand Turk ones are out there), though I did find the hooked rug below, a lot in Northeast Auctions’ recent Annual Marine, China Trade & Historical Americana auction.

America of Salem


A Victorian Firehouse

With all the new development going on in Salem there is, happily, also news of an upcoming preservation project: the city just received a matching grant from the Massachusetts Historical Commission to restore the masonry and windows of its oldest firehouse, an 1881 structure very much in service. All the newspaper stories reporting the grant referred to Station #2 as the third oldest continually operating firehouse in the United States, but I found a few more that were older:  it is the fifth or sixth by my count. Everyone seems to agree that the oldest operating station is a charming Greek Revival structure in Madison, Indiana, built in 1850.

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Fire Station 2

PicMonkey Collage

Salem’s Station no. 2 (1881) and Washington Fire Company no. 2 (1850), Madison, Indiana.

There are many people who know much, much, much more about the history of firefighting in Salem than I do, so I’m not going to provide too much historical context here, but a few interesting facts did surface in my very brief foray into this field. From almost the date of its founding, Salem’s government seems to have been focused on fire prevention, indicated by some rather notable initiatives: in the 1640s Salem’s residents were compelled to have ladders in their homes (presumably to stop chimney and roof fires before they got out of control), and a century later, Salem was one of the first American colonial towns to import a Newsham hand-pump fire engine, the cutting-edge firefighting technology of the eighteenth century, from Britain. At the same time, and  into the next century, Salem’s firefighting clubs or companies were established, leaving their material legacy of decorated–and much sought-after– leather fire buckets. There were certainly firehouses in Salem before Station no. 2, built both before and after the acquisition of  steam engines by the city, as there are several references in the municipal records to the “accommodations” made to transform them into “steam houses”.

Fire Engine Newshams NYPL

Fire Buckets Northeast Auctions

Fire Engine 1880-90 NYPL

Player’s Cigarettes Fire Engine Series cards, New York Public Library Digital Gallery, and a pair of McIntire family fire buckets from 1833, which sold at a Northeast auction for $52,000 in 2007!

I do wonder if any accommodations were made to Station #2, particularly its entrance bay, for modern fire trucks. It was built to house steam engines–both horse-drawn and self-propelled–that were much smaller than the big red engine that is in there now. Again, Salem seems to have been an early adopter of fire engine technology in the second half of the nineteenth century, and owned several Amoskeag engines, which were manufactured in Manchester, New Hampshire from 1859 to 1913 and shipped worldwide. These replaced the  earlier “handtubs” in service, but the latter did not go away: they became the vehicles of intensely competitive fireman’s musters, at which crews would compete to see who could pump out the longest stream of water. In Salem and other New England towns (and elsewhere???), this tradition continues, creating events which mix athleticism and engineering, civic pride and historic preservation.

Firehouse Interior 1887

PicMonkey CollageThe interior of a New York City engine house, c. 1887, New York Public Library Digital Gallery, and Salem’s victorious White Angel handtub, c. 1894.


Patriotic Patterns

Given my armchair observance of Patriots’ Day, and then everything that happened on that sad day (and is still happening), I thought I’d retreat into a safe material world and examine some of the patriotic products that were produced in the decades after the American Revolution, some in the new country and some for the new country. It seems appropriate to continue exploring expressions of patriotism; after all, the real anniversary of Lexington and Concord is today. Right after the Revolution (literally) home furnishings which reflected the revolutionary spirit were produced both in this country and oddly enough, in Britain. Maybe it’s not odd:  Britain was in the midst of the Industrial Revolution which was initiated by what I’ve always considered a uniquely pragmatic entrepreneurial attitude. I wish I could see the imagery more clearly in this first woodblock-printed wallpaper, but obviously it has deteriorated with time. Here is the catalog description from the Cooper Hewitt Museum: perhaps it will help you make out the Lexington Minuteman and his associates: Beside an Indian maiden, representing America, a patriot tramples British laws underfoot and extends the declarations of July 4, 1776, to Britannia, who weeps over a pedestal containing an urn, or a tomb. The whole is contained within a curtained arch. Printed in black, white and gray on a light colorless ground.

Patriotic pattern Minuteman

This paper was produced in America in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the same time as the textiles below, which are obviously in much better condition: The Apotheosis of Benjamin Franklin and George Washington  is a copperplate-printed toile fabric produced in several colorways in Britain between 1785-1800, right after the first big defeat of the British Empire. I love George Washington’s leopard-driven carriage!

Patriotic pattern Apotheosis Winterthur 2

Patriotic Pattern Apotheosis

Patriotic Pattern Apotheosis Bed Valence Dumbarton

Apotheosis of  Benjamin Franklin and George Washington fabrics in black and red colorways, collections of the Winterthur Museum and the Society of the Cincinnati; bed valence at Dumbarton House/National Society of the Colonial Dames of America.

British pottery manufacturers were also quick to take advantage of the newly-independent emerging American market. Even if you’re just a casual picker, I’m sure that you have run into some of the blue-and-white transferware of the Clews Brothers, James and Ralph, decorated with American scenes and symbols at their factory in Cobridge, England in the 1820s and 1830s. You see it everywhere, in all sorts of forms.

Patriotic Patterns  Clews at Skinner Auctions

Patriotic Patterns Clews Platter Skinner

“American” transferware, including a “States Design” platter below,  made by James and Ralph Clews in England,c. 1819-36, Skinner Auctioneers Archives.

And how many gilt mirrors emblazoned with eagles were produced in the Federal era (or reproduced afterwards)? So many, and again, produced in all shapes and sizes in both America and England. Below is a particularly nice eglomise (reverse-painted) example featuring the USS Constitution made in Providence by Peter Grinnell & Son right after the War of 1812. And from the next decade, a beautiful “patriotic overmantle painting” from a Rockport, Massachusetts home. It is tempera on plaster (I’m wondering how they took it off the wall???), and sold for $61,ooo at a Christie’s auction in 2008.

Federal Mirror Eglomise Providence

Patriotic Overmantle painting Rockport MA

This last painting does not really qualify as a commercially-produced product or a pattern, but it is so beautiful I wanted to include it. My last item–a handmade woven wool and linen coverlet with patriotic themes and symbols–dates from the mid-nineteenth century (1851 to be precise), just before patriotism becomes divided and divisive with the coming of the Civil War. Actually, even before 1850 the Abolitionist and Temperance movements produced their own patriotic/promotional objects. This lovely coverlet expresses a more personal patriotism, but also one in keeping with the functions of these other objects:  Americans wanted the symbols and imagery of their new nation on their walls, on their tables, and on their beds.

Patriotic Woven Wool and Linen Coverlet 1851 Skinnersp

Addendum:  Last night on Salem Common: thousands walking, running, praying in support of Boston.

Salem News David Le Staff Photo

Salem News:  David Le/Staff Photo.


Spring Fancy (Chairs)

The combination of the Metropolitan Museum’s current exhibition, Plain or Fancy? Restraint and Exuberance in the Decorative Arts and the onset of Spring (even though it looks very much like winter here) got my thinking about “fancy” chairs. I use this term very liberally, probably too liberally, to refer to any decorated chair with a vaguely  Sheraton and/or Empire profile produced in America in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. I have maybe 7 of these chairs, which represent the full spectrum of fanciness, from basic Hitchcock models with stenciling to hand-painted examples which I think are a bit more special. I have had more, I could buy more–they’re everywhere and I love them. I can’t imagine how many of these chairs were made:  certainly Lambert Hitchcock started the trend with his Riverton (then Hitchcockville), Connecticut factory in the 1820s, but he must have had many imitators because there are so many fancy chairs out there. Several of my fancy chairs  (the ones that are less fancy) have cushions which I had custom-made, and it’s a spring ritual to take the cushions off for the warmer seasons, exposing the rush seats, just as I put slipcovers on some of my upholstered chairs.

The (English) Sheraton inspiration and some of my chairs, the American interpretation: from fancy to plain.

Fancy Chairs Sheraton

Fancy Chair Green2

Fancy Chair music

PicMonkey Collage

Fancy Hitchcock Chairs

You still see fancy chairs in Salem dining rooms today, but the photograph below shows a room from 1916 (not sure in which house; it’s from an article in the long-defunct Mentor magazine), well after the fancy craze was over. These chairs endured and became classic, and their style was revived multiple times in the twentieth century. Back in their heyday, the prolific New England folk artist Joseph H. Davis (active 1832-37) featured very fancy chairs in many of his parlor portraits, like that of Mr. Demeritt below.

Fancy Chairs Mentor 1916

Fancy Chair Joseph H. Davis

Joseph H. Davis, John F. Demeritt, probably Barrington, New Hampshire, 1836, American Folk Art Museum, New York.

Because of a number of factors–the sheer number of chairs that were made, both in the “fancy” period and after, the great variety of chairs, and the range of imperfections on their painted surfaces–you can find these chairs pretty easily in New England, and often for a very good price. I was looking through the sold lots of several auctions at Skinner this month, and found the groups of chairs below: the entire first lot, a set of 6 chairs made in Newburyport in 1825, went for a little over $1000, while the pair of grain-painted and gilt-stenciled chairs went for $615.

987293

987293_view 02_02

Fancy chairs grain painted and gilt stenciled 1825 Skinner 615

Then again, these are rather restrained examples of the “Fancy” style, which encompassed not only furniture but all of the decorative arts in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. One of my very favorite exhibitions at the Peabody Essex Museum here in Salem was American Fancy: Exuberance in the Arts, 1790-1840, on view in 2004 (curated by Virginia antiques dealer Sumpter T. Priddy III, who appears to have made the study and appreciation of “Fancy” his life’s work and who wrote the beautiful companion volume). Talk about exuberance! Chairs and settees were a big part of this exhibition, and it was clear to me that the most fancy chairs were not made in New England but in the mid-Atlantic, in Baltimore to be precise. The “Baltimore Fancy Chair” makes all others pale in comparison (and fetches prices that indicate its enduring appreciation) but I think I prefer my own chairs–less perfect, less brilliant, less valuable, but still fancy.

PicMonkey Collage

More variations on the fancy chair:  a Baltimore chair by the Finlay Brothers, c. 1815-20, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Portrait of Mrs. Edgar Paschall (Martha Eliza Stevens) by unidentified artist, 1823, National Gallery of Art.


Variations on Blue and White

I’ve never been a blue person; there is no blue in my house except for my turquoise dining room which I think of as green.  When I went through my transferware phase, I collected red (pink) and white rather than the more attainable blue and white, and in the summer time, when it seems like all of my favorite shelter magazines feature blue and white portfolios, I leaf quickly through.  That said, I have been quite taken by the latest installation of the Peabody Essex Museum”s ongoing “FreePort” exhibitions, through which contemporary artists engage with and respond to the museum’s collections, creating completely new works in the process.  FreePort [No.005]:  Michael Lin takes the traditional blue and white of Chinese export ware and runs with it, as Mr. Lin has emblazoned the armorial and heraldic crests of porcelain produced in China for the European market on the staircase walls and floors of the Museum’s Asian Export galleries.  The effect is modern and baroque at the same time.

And then, as  if these vibrant blue-and white walls and floors were not enough to make us look at plates in a completely different way, Lin also produces a mass of “Mr. Nobodys”, the first Chinese representations of Europeans, with their anonymity enhanced by the massing, and their commercial qualities (we are talking about the Chinese export trade here) enhanced by the fact that you can buy one in the PEM Museum Shop.

For comparison’s sake, another Mr. Nobody from the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.  This one, however, was produced in England in the later seventeenth century.

The motifs and the figurines are interesting examples of cross-cultural exchange, an important dynamic in world history.  I can’t imagine a better way to (literally) illustrate it.  The Lin installation reminds me of another artistic expression, Blue and White by the Silk Road Ensemble, a multimedia performance that traces the migration of blue-and-white porcelain around the world.

This is a big task, because there are a lot of varieties of Asian-influenced blue and white porcelain and pottery:  delftware, fritware, transferware, just to name a few. Blue and white earthenware is everywhere, crafted in very diverse forms, over many centuries.  Here are two particularly disparate examples:  Iranian rasps in the form of shoes from the eighteenth century, and an image of omnipresent “oriental” planters from Victorian England.  Because I was so inspired by Lin, I tried my hand at my own blue and white Salem fabric design via Spoonflower with limited success:  Samuel McIntire’s sheaths of wheat look a bit too tropical in blue!  Obviously Christopher Dresser’s stenciled ceiling (a nice counterpart for Lin’s walls and floors) is much better.

Fritware and late 19th century songsheet, Victoria & Albert Museum, London; design for a stenciled ceiling, Christopher Dresser, Studies in Design, 1876.


Dolphin Decoration

In my ongoing quest for the perfect mirror, and more mirrors, I came across this Carvers’ Guild mirror embellished with intertwined dolphins, gracing a San Francisco house designed by Benjamin Dhong in the current issue of House Beautiful.  It caught my eye because I have two very similar mirrors in my “mirror files”:  another reproduction one from Mecox Gardens, and a Regency example from the blog Paisley Curtain.  All similar and all beautiful, I think.

As you can see, the “dolphins” embellishing these mirrors are not your typical Flipperesque variety.  The first English explorers named the large fish they observed patrolling the waters off the eastern coast of North America “dolphins”, thus causing centuries of confusion with the better-known marine mammal.  This confusion finally cleared for me just last year, when I wrote a post about the Lady Pepperell House in Kittery Point, Maine, which features dolphin-fish decoration on its exterior, and the commentators cleared it up for me.  I’m not completely certain, but I think the source of this confusion is John White, who accompanied both Richard Grenville and Walter Ralegh on exploratory tours of the New World in the 1580s, charting and illustrating what he saw along the way.  White’s “Duratho” became Dolphin in common Elizabethan English, and endured.  The Dolphin fish later became known as “dorado”, and later still as “mahi-mahi”.

Dolphin fish seem to have been popular decorative motifs in furniture of the English Regency and American Federal and Empire periods, carved in relief or in part on sofas and tables as well as mirrors. There are lots of dolphin feet, as illustrated by the sofa (circa 1820), Lannuier pier table (1815), and Indian tilt-top table (made for the British market after 1825) below.  The American examples generally come from Philadelphia or New York, not New England, where no doubt the almighty cod was still golden.

Mahogany sofa and rosewood pier table by Charles-Honoré Lannuier, Detroit Institute of Arts via ARTstor; Indian tilt-top table, Walters Art Gallery via ARTstor.


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