Tag Archives: Art

Procuring Pepper

In my last post I decried the dehumanization of microhistory in favor of “commodity history” but truth to tell there is definitely some value in the latter, particularly in reference to the big three global commodities: salt, sugar and pepper. When it comes to Salem’s history, pepper is big: Salem merchants established trading contacts in Sumatra in the 1790s which gave them a near monopoly on the lucrative trade for nearly fifty years, during which 179 Salem ships sailed to the Aceh Province, bringing back millions of pounds of pepper, much of which was re-exported to Europe. The immense profits from pepper–black gold–built the street on which I live and made Salem Salem: whenever I get depressed about living in “Witch City”, all I have to do is look at the city seal, emblazoned with the motto “to the farthest points of the rich East”, the source of all that pepper. At the intersection of global history and local history is national history, and here, too, pepper plays a big role:  when the crew of the Friendship were massacred by natives of the chiefdom of Kuala Batu in February of 1831 while their captain, Charles Endicott, was ashore securing his cargo of pepper, the United States Navy responded with at retaliatory expedition a year later: Salem’s trade was apparently “too big to fail” at the time.

As daring and entrepreneurial as Salem’s pepper merchants were, they were just the latest purveyors of an eastern commodity that had long been desired in the West. Alexander the Great supposedly developed a liking and a name for it, and centuries later Pliny the Elder observed that “its fruit or berry are neither acceptable to the tongue nor delectable to the eye: and yet for the biting pungency it has, we are pleased with it and must have it set forth from as far as India.” Marco Polo presented pepper as one of his wonders of the world, and it was so valuable in the Middle Ages that it was accepted as currency, collateral, and a very appropriate gift for a King. Pepper was a prominent motivation for the discovery of a sea route to the East, which would effectively bypass Muslim middlemen, and consequently Portuguese, Dutch, and British ships became the major European suppliers in the early modern era. What is so interesting to me about the Salem re-export trade in pepper is that the Americans replayed the European role a few centuries later: in seeking to cut out intermediaries, they became the intermediaries themselves (for a while).

Pepper Marco Polo

L0006013 Indigenous people collecting pepper grains.

Pepper WH BM

pepper - lg

Joseph Peabody by Frothingham

Procuring Pepper:  harvesting and presenting pepper in Marco Polo’s Livre des Merveilles du Monde, MS Français 2810 , Bibliothèque Nationale de France; more harvesting in Les oeuvres d’Ambroise Pare … / Diuisees en vingt sept liures, auec les figures et portraicts, tant de l’anatomie que des instruments de chirurgie, et de plusieurs monstres, 1579 (Welcome Library Images); pepper varieties in Johannes Nieuhof’s ‘An Embassy from the East-India Company of the United Provinces, to the Grand Tartar Cham Emperor of China’ (London: 1669, British Museum); An East India Company catalog from 1704, British Library; James Frothingham, Portrait of Captain Joseph Peabody (1757-1844), privateer, shipowner, and Salem’s richest pepper importer.

 

 


Blending Past and Present

Thought the first examples of the technique date back to the nineteenth century, composite photographs of past and present have become quite the thing in this internet age. For at least the last decade photographers have been blending vintage images with contemporary views to create captivating–and attention-grabbing– results. I think modern “rephotography” can be dated to the 2004 History Channel “Know Where you Stand” campaign based on the photographs of Seth Taras, but recent composite creations have focused more on locations than events, bringing historic preservation (or the lack thereof) into focus. Just this past weekend in Newport, I saw Past Meets Present: an Exhibit of Composite Photographs at the Newport Historical Society, an exhibit timed to coincide with the city’s 375th anniversary. Photographer (and preservationist) Lew Keen believes that his images “promote appreciation of Newport’s historic streetscapes” and “suggests that our role as caretakers of these remarkable treasures has not been without some losses—and encourages us to do better for the future.”

thames-now-and-then

Thames Street [Newport], Now and Then, Lew Keen

I’m inspired and wish I could create similar images for Salem, but neither my photography or photo-shopping skills are up to the challenge. I did play around with some of my favorite photos of Norman Street in the 1890s and today (you can see the original, individual images here and here), but they’re not quite right: I’m more of a contraster than a blender, so hopefully someone more skillful will create some better composite creations of Salem scenes past and present.

Composite Norman

Norman Street composite

Until that happens, we have lots of composite photographs of other urban streetscapes to amaze and inspire, including Marc Herman‘s New York images (The Daily News On-Scene, Then and Now), Shawn Clover‘s amazing images of San Francisco in the wake of its 1906 earthquake and today, Paris in 1900 fused with contemporary images by Golem13, Harry Enchin‘s Toronto “timescapes”, and the haunting images of old and new London generated by the Museum of London’s Streetmuseum app. Perfect matter for social media, these images have given natives, visitors, and distant admirers of these cities a lot to think about:  in a word, change.

Herman Brooklyn 1961

Clover

Paris1900-golem13-Bourse

Enchin Queen Street

Bow Lane London

A Brooklyn Gas Explosion in 1961 and today, Marc Herman/ San Francisco 1906 and today, Shawn Clover/Place de la Bourse, Paris, 1910 and today, Golem13/Queen Street, Toronto, past and present, Harry Enchin/Bow Lane, London, Museum of London

 

 

 

 


September Spread

I love to read old cookbooks–I mean really old cookbooks, from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and of course these texts reflect a culinary culture that is far more tied to the land than that of the present: farm to table was the rule rather than the trend. From a pre-modern culinary standpoint, September is the month of feasting, the time when all manner of meats and fruits are now in their proper vigor and perfection in the opinion of Richard Saunders (Apollo Anglicus: The English Apollo, 1665). September was not only the time of the harvest, but the commencement of both Oyster and Partridge seasons, so it was truly the time of plenty. One of the most popular cookbooks of the seventeenth century, reprinted time and time again, was Robert May’s The accomplisht cook or, The art & mystery of cookery, which contains a bill of fare for an extravagant September feast–beginning with an “Olio”, a stew of beef, lamb, veal and poultry mixed with herbs and vegetables and proceeding through many dishes. Even though May claimed to be writing for the “greater good” and “meaner expenses” in his preface, this particular menu definitely reflects more aristocratic tastes and pockets.

Robert May’s September Feast (1665)

FIRST COURSE:

OYSTERS/ An Olio/Breast of Veal in stoffado/ Twelve Partridge hashed/Grand Sallet/Chaldron Pie/Custard

SECOND COURSE:

Rabbits/Two Hearns, one larded/Florentine of tongues/ 8 Pigeons roasted, 4 larded/ Pheasant Pouts, 2 larded/ A cold hare pie/Selsey cockles broil’d after

There is certainly no sentiment of saving or storing for the lean months ahead here, but rather fattening up for the winter. I just love the language of these dishes:  Florentine of tongues, Pheasant pouts! Essentially there are lots of baked stews and pies on this menu: “sallet” is the seventeenth-century spelling for “salad”, chaldron refers to a measure of coal, but there is a traditional recipe for calf’s foot chaldron pie, so I assume that is what May is referencing, and “hearns” are herons. The Sussex seaside town of Selsey had definitely earned a reputation for its catches of cockles by this time, so May is using that term in much the same way we would say “Maine lobster”.

September Fare

Claesz-turkey-pie-large

Title page of Robert May’s The Accomplisht cook (1671 edition), British Library; Pieter Claesz, Still Life with Turkey-Pie (and Oysters!), 1627, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

 

 

 


Sunshine and Shadow

It seems appropriate to focus on sundials in these waning days of Summer. I know, I know–there are technically several more weeks–but I am a college professor, so for me Fall definitely begins on Tuesday. There is just no question; it’s the least transitional of the seasons. Sundials have a long history and are aesthetically pleasing, but the main reason I like them is for their representation of another transition:  from the technological and practical to the simply decorative. A sundial sits right in the middle of my Colonial Revival garden but there is also one (in more portable form) front and center in one of my favorite Renaissance paintings, The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger.

Sundials 006

Sundial Holbein

Hans Holbein the Younger, Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve (‘The Ambassadors’), 1533, The National Gallery, London | Photograph ©The National Gallery, London

There’s a lot going on in The Ambassadors, but if you can get past the anamorphic skull and focus on the instruments on the table, your eye (at least my eye) focuses on the sundial, right in the middle of these two handsome Renaissance men. In their time, the sundial was already almost anachronistic with the coming of the mechanical clock, but still, there it is. Obviously, like the other instruments on the table, it had come to symbolize more abstract things: the ability to harness time and (conversely) the limited amount of time that is available to man, any man (or woman), even men as magnificent as these. This sentiment is very evident in a print from about a century later, Stefano della Bella’s cartouche for the funeral of Francesco de Medici, with the central image of a sundial and the emblem Umbrae Transitus Tempus Nostrum: “Our Time is the Passing Away of a Shadow”.

Sundials Medici

Stefano della Bella, A cartouche with a sundial, a skull with feathers on its head at top, from ‘Eight Emblems for the Funeral of Francesco de Medici’ (Huit emblèmes pour les funérailles du prince François de Médicis), c. 1640-1660, Metropolitan Museum of Art

These words, this sentiment, are expressed in multiple variations on sundials over the next centuries: shadows we are, like shadows depart, as a shadow, so is life, man fleeth as a shadow. When they were not strictly utilitarian, sundial inscriptions expressing morose mortality seem to peak in the Victorian era and then shift to the light, rather than the shadow: Robert Browning’s popular plea to Grow Old along with Me; the Best is yet to Be is certainly a more hopeful (and trite) inscription. Visually, sundials cease to be macabre and become romantic, associated not with death but with the pleasures of life and with a world that was slower-paced and less technological: the perfect symbol for taking time away from that busy world, in the garden.

Sundial Crane

Sundials Crane

Sundials Earle Cover

Sundial Lee

Back cover of Walter Crane’s A Floral Fantasy in an Old English Garden (1899), available here; Front cover of Alice Morse Earle’s Sun-Dials and Roses of Yesterday (1902), available here. One of my favorite sundials, in the sunken garden of the Jeremiah Lee Mansion in Marblehead, Massachusetts.


Big Dogs on Bartlett Mall

I am not really a dog person, but as I was driving into Newburyport the other day I spotted some BIG dogs that stopped me in my tracks. They were “gathered” on the Bartlett Mall, Newburyport’s Common, overlooking the Frog Pond and Essex County Superior Courthouse (the country’s longest-serving, I believe), as one recognition of the city’s 250th anniversary. [Newburyport is so young--compared to its sister port cities to the north (Portsmouth, est. 1653) and south (Salem, which is over 380 years old)-- because it split off from the greater Newbury in 1764]. They are traveling dogs, the work of Haverhill artist Dale Rogers, who is a big believer in public art and strives to craft works that become “mental postcards”. These dogs will only be on the Mall until the 24th, so if you’re in the area stop by and see them; if not, here are some real postcards to remember them by.

Big Dogs 032

Big Dogs 017

Big Dogs 008

Big Dogs 033

Big Dogs 025

Big Dogs 6

Big Dogs 7

 


Under the Spell of the Poppies

Back to World War I remembrance; I can’t help myself: I’m under the spell of the poppies–not real poppies (which I really don’t care for all that much) or the intoxicating poppies alluded to in the captivating Strobridge Wizard of Oz poster below, but the thousands of ceramic poppies that are now literally spilling out of the Tower of London in remembrance of British lives lost during the Great War. Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, the vision of ceramic artist Paul Cummins and stage designer Tom Piper, opened yesterday–the day on which Britain entered the war–and will expand over the fall, until there are 888,246 flowers in total, one for each soldier from Britain and its empire killed during the war. The final porcelain poppy will be “planted” on November 11, Remembrance Day, a day which has long been symbolized by the poppies of Flanders fields. The images of this installation are so striking that I can’t wait to see the real thing; I’m planning on heading over to the UK in October, which should be just in time.

Poppies oz Cincinnatti

Poppies at Tower

Poppies Tower

Poppies close up

(c) BRIDGEMAN; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Strobridge Wizard of Oz poster, Virtual Library/Public Library of Cincinnatti and Hamilton County; photographs of Blood Swept Land and Seas of Red, Historic Royal Palaces; Christopher Nevinson, A Front Line near St Quentin (1918), Manchester City Galleries; The Tower of London Remembers/#TowerPoppies


Illustrating August

August is probably one of my least favorite months, but I’m trying to adopt a different attitude this year. As I’ve either been in school or teaching school for my entire life (except one year) it is generally the last, fleeting, month of freedom before the resumption of academic responsibilities (I know everyone is really feeling sorry for me now): the first part of the month is really hot and the last part is all about completing my syllabi. But since I’ve been chair of my department, my perspective has changed, because the administrative responsibilities lighten, but do not cease, in June and they definitely intensify in August. So there really is no going back; and consequently there is no fleeting end of the summer. Chairs also teach less, so there are fewer syllabi to complete and more time to enjoy September, which is truly one of the most glorious months of the year. While there is a general perception that August is a transitional “back to school” time for everyone today; this was not always the case. Calendar pages, seeking to characterize each month according to activities, originally focus on work (the ever-present scythe, threshing) and later on leisure (tennis, boating, wandering among the flowers) but always in a lush landscape. August, for the most part, is all about abundance, until we get to the more-stark present.

August MS KL

August MS KB

August Bening V and AM

August Fruits Detail 1732

August Fruits 1732

 

August Grasset 2p

August Mucha crop

August 1969 Marchbanks

August 2012 DV

Illustrating August in three Renaissance Books of Hours ( The Hague KB 76 F 14, Paris, c. 1490-1500; The Hague KB 133 D 11, Liège, c. 1500-1525; Simon Bening, 1510-60, Victoria and Albert Museum); details from the August page of  Robert Furber’s Twelve Months of Fruit, by John Clark et. al. after Peiter Casteels, 1732, Rooke Books; two art nouveau Augusts (Eugene Grasset, La Belle JardiniereAugust, 1896; Alphonse Maria Mucha, 1899, Mucha Foundation); modern Augusts–a bit more stark–by Harry Cimino and Dione Verulam


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