Ephemeral Elms

Every day, I’m thankful to live on my street because of its amazing architecture: I wake up in the morning, look out the window, and feel both wowed and grateful. But I’m also thankful because about halfway down Chestnut Street there is an elm tree: a graceful survivor, one of a handful in Salem. I walk down and touch it every day. Elm trees are touchstones for us now because they are so rare, of course, but I think it is useful to remember that even before the dreaded Dutch Elm Disease elms were always BIG: majestic, legendary, historical. I have a particular Massachusetts point of view here–the American elm is our state tree–but elms seem to have been held in high esteem wherever they have flourished and perished. Massachusetts had several George Washington elms and an assortment of “Great” elms and it was duly noted whenever they came down—in storms of 1876, 1923 or 1938–well before the tree plague came to our shores. The archives are full of stories about these trees, as well as prints and photographs: I particularly like those captured by international plant hunter Ernest Wilson on his Sanderson camera in the 1920s, part of the collection of the Arnold Arboretum. The first picture below is relatively rare; Wilson preferred to take pictures in the late fall or winter to reveal the trees’ “architecture”, and often posed his wife and/or car–or some nearby boy–in proximity so we can see their great scale.

Ephemeral Elms Lancaster EW AA

Elm Holliston EW AA

Elm Hingham Wilson AA

Elm Hingham sign AA

Elm Framingham EW AA

Great Elms in Lancaster, Holliston, Hingham (+sign) and Framingham, Ernest Wilson, Arnold Arboretum Collection.

There were two notable “George Washington Elms” in Massachusetts, one in Cambridge and the other in Palmer. Both were captured by Wilson as well as many other photographers: these were famous trees, even though there does not seem to be much verifiable truth behind their legends (particularly the Cambridge tree–whose remains or “relics” were scattered about after its death in 1923: you can read much more about it here). The Palmer tree came down in the Hurricane of 1938.

Elm Palmer GW EW AA

Elm Cambridge Wilson AA

Elm Cambridge destruction 1938 Leslie Jones

“George Washington” elm trees in Palmer and Cambridge by Ernest Wilson; the remains of the latter, Leslie Jones Collection, Boston Public Library.

An elm tree didn’t have to have Washington or Revolutionary connections to become “great” in Massachusetts: every town seems to have its beloved tree with an “ancient” name or association: the great “Queen Elm” in Lancaster (a town famous for its elms), the “Gulliver Elm” in Milton, the “Winning Elm” in Chelmsford and many “big” and “old” elms, like the stately elm on Boston Common which came down in 1876. In Salem we had the old “Bertram Elm” in front of the Salem Public Library (the former home of John Bertram) and many, many, more–now sadly gone, except for a few singular survivors, like our Chestnut Street tree. I believe there were a few new elms planted this summer, though–so things are looking up.

Elm Boston Common DC card 1876

Elm Salem Bertram postcard

Chestnut Street Elm


Clarissa Lawrence of Salem

The intertwined histories of Salem’s African-American community and Abolitionist movement in the mid-nineteenth century are often referenced and represented by the work of two strong women, Charlotte Forten Grimké (1837-1914) and Sarah Parker Remond (1824-1894), both born into families that were free, prosperous, and ardent advocates of abolition. Charlotte was a Philadelphia girl who came north to receive an integrated education in Salem: she graduated from the Higginson and Salem Normal Schools and became the first African-American to be hired to teach white students in a Salem public school when she accepted an appointment at the Epes School on Aborn Street. While in Salem she lived with the Remonds and became an active member of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society, and thereafter her continued advocacy for abolition was expressed primarily through her writing and her teaching, especially during her experience as a teacher of formerly enslaved children on the Union-occupied Sea Islands of South Carolina during the Civil War. Sarah Remond was a Salem native who followed in her parents’ and brother Charles’ footsteps in her dedication to the cause of abolition: she gave her first public speech for the cause when she was a teenager and was appointed a traveling lecturer for the American Anti-Slavery Society when she was twenty. In late 1858 she sailed for Britain to expose the horrors of slavery to a country which had close economic ties to the South, and delivered 45 lectures in the next few years, all of which attracted considerable crowds and press coverage–both abroad in the United States. Sarah never returned to Salem: after her citizenship status was questioned by the United States government upon her departure for Paris, she decided, in effect, to renounce it: she remained in Britain for several years, lecturing and taking classes at the Bedford College for Women, and then left for Italy after the Civil War.There she remained for the rest of her life, completing her medical degree, marrying, and entertaining family and friends from home.

There’s a lot more to say, and a lot more has been said, about both Charlette Forten Grimké and Sarah Parker Remond, but I’m interested in another African-American woman from Salem today: older, much lesser-known, but also an educator and an abolitionist: Clarissa Lawrence, also known as Chloe Minns, or “Mrs. Minns”. Her origins are obscure: we hear of her only in the Reverend William Bentley’s chatty diary when she is hired to run Salem’s first black public school in 1807. A “mulattoe” woman who could read but not write at the time of her appointment, Bentley is increasingly impressed with her as time goes by: every time he visits the “African School” on “Roast Meat Hill” he notes its “good order”. After he and Salem’s treasurer conducted a tour of all of Salem’s public schools in 1809 he observed that “In south Salem we found 40 children not provided with the best instruction. The African School by Mrs. Minns, 30 blacks, was better kept & several blacks repeated their hymns with great ease and propriety.” After the Reverend officiated at Mrs. Minns’ marriage to Schuyler Lawrence (her third, his second) in 1817 he commented that she “has acquitted herself with great honour, as to her manners & as to her instructions” and opined that the Lawrences were “the first grade of Africans in all our New England towns”. They settled on High Street, 8 High Street to be precise, where his seemingly-successful chimney-sweeping business was also located. She continued to teach (until 1823) and also held leadership positions in both the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society and the Colored Female Religious and Moral Society of Salem. She cast off “Chloe Minns” (a name given to her in slavery?) and became Clarissa Lawrence, or Mrs. Lawrence. Like Charlotte Forten, she combined the causes of free education for blacks and abolition into an engaging appeal, and (two years after Forten was born in Philadelphia) traveled to that city to address the third national convention of the Women’s Anti-Slavery Society, asking her mostly white audience to “place yourselves, dear friends, in our stead”, and observing that “We meet the monster prejudice everywhere….We cannot elevate ourselves….We want light; we ask it, and it is denied us, Why are we thus treated? Prejudice is the cause.”

And that’s all I know about Clarissa Lawrence, which is just not enough. Compared to the well-charted lives of Forten and Remond, hers is relatively marker-less, especially her early life. The divergent circumstances of birth, wealth, and family created different paths for these three women, but the existence of slavery led them to a common place. I am writing about Clarissa today because I unexpectedly came upon a fruit of her labors yesterday, a beautiful sampler produced by one of her students in the collection of Colonial Williamsburg. Sarrah Ann Pollard’s sampler, produced at the “Clarrisa Lawrence School” in 1818, bears the inscription: virtue the [the] chief beauty of the ornament mind the nob/lest virtue of the female kind beauty without virtu[e] is [no value]. And now I’m wondering if I’ve even spelled “Clarissa” Lawrence’s name correctly, the way she would have wanted it.

Clarissa Lawrence School Sampler CWC

Clarrisa Lawrence School Sampler detail CWC

High StreetFramed Sampler by Sarrah [Sarah] Ann Pollard, 1818, Salem, Massachusetts. Collections of Colonial Williamsburg. 8 High Street, Salem: the former home of Mr. and Mrs. Schuyler Lawrence.


The Lollipop Cemetery

Such an undignified name for such a solemn place: the Shaker cemetery in Harvard, Massachusetts, one remnant of the industrious community of Shaker non-genealogical families that resided in this beautiful Massachusetts town from 1769 until the First World War. But that’s what people call it. I had a hankering to see it the other day, and so I drove to Harvard and asked for directions, because it’s a bit off the beaten path (I never use my phone for navigational purposes on a road trip; that would defeat the whole point for me–it’s either wander or inquire): oh, the Lollipop Cemetery? Just drive towards Ayer and take a right on South Shaker Road. And so I did and there it was.

Shaker Cemetery Sign

Shaker Cemetery Stone

Shaker Cemetery markers crop

Shaker Cemetery Markers

The gate was locked, and I didn’t want to trespass on this sacred ground, but I think you can comprehend the lollipop characterization of these cast iron markers, which replaced the original stones from 1879. Here is a close-up of an individual marker from a wonderful site where you can research both the cemetery and its inhabitants, as well as a rather haunting photograph from Clara Endicott Sears’ Gleanings from Old Shaker Journals (1916). The Harvard Shaker community closed down in the following year, and the cemetery was deeded to the town of Harvard in 1945.

Shaker Marker

Shaker Cemetery gleaningsfromold00sear_0375

Boston patrician (with Salem roots) Clara Endicott Sears (1863-1960) became devoted to preserving the memory and material of the Harvard Shakers as their numbers dwindled to single digits. She had already established one of America’s first outdoor museums adjacent to her summer home on Prospect Hill a few miles down the road after she realized that a farmhouse on her property had been the site of Bronson Alcott’s short-lived Transcendentalist experiment when the few remaining Shakers in Harvard began selling their buildings.Clara bought the original 1794 office building and moved it to her hilltop museum, uniting Transcendentalist and Shaker visions (and later those of Native Americans and Hudson River Valley artists). Following this path, I drove over to the Fruitlands Museum, passing a few more Shaker structures along the way.

Shaker Old Stone Barn

Shaker Building Harvard Ruins of the Old Stone Barn and the South Family Building, Harvard Shaker Village.

The interpreters at Fruitlands emphasized “community” as the theme tying Transcendentalists and Shakers together rather than any Utopian dream, which seems appropriate to me, especially as the latter were entrepreneurial workers and the former were idealistic intellectuals. The relocated Shaker office is a testament to the aesthetic and industrious pursuits of the brothers and sisters; I came away overwhelmed by the sheer drive of young seedsman Elisha Myrick, who left the Harvard community, like many of his brethren, around the time of the Civil War. I just felt sorry for the Alcott children, who had to endure a cold and hungry 6 months in the farmhouse just down the road.

Shaker Boxes

Shaker Ads

Shaker Cloak

Shaker Industry

Fruitlands Farmhouse

Fruitlands Fruit

At Fruitlands: Shaker artistry and industry, the Alcott Farmhouse, and artist-in-residence Carolyn Wirth’s 3D take on Shaker gift drawings, installed in a grape arbor.

Driving out past the town common, I was waylaid by some beautiful houses: Harvard is really gorgeous, and calm. I drove back to Salem thinking (not for the first time) that perhaps it was a little too busy (and loud!). I hope I’m not turning into my great-great-great? grandfather, who sold everything (including a beautiful Tudor house), and left his family and friends in England for America, and the Shaker community of New Lebanon, New York.

Harvard Tavern

Harvard Colonial House

Harvard Brick House

Just a few Harvard houses: this first one was once a tavern, I presume.


Cabin in the Sky

The evening before last I was incredibly privileged to be able to attend a gathering in a ship’s cabin at the top of the Hawthorne Hotel. Not an actual cabin of course, but a rather convincing model, built for the Salem Marine Society in the 1920s as a condition of the sale of their building to the developers of the hotel. The Society, which was founded in 1766, had met continually at this location since 1830, and while its members do not seem to have been particularly attached to their Italianate Franklin Building (which replaced the earlier McIntire Archer Block, destroyed by fire in 1860), they were very attached to the site. And so the new hotel opened in 1925 featuring not only six stories and the latest accouterments, but also a rooftop cabin room, inspired by the actual captain’s cabin of one of the last great Salem East Indiamen, the barque Taria Topan. This cabin in the sky also represents the fruitful collaboration between the barque’s one-time commander, Captain Edward Trumbull, and the architect of the Hawthorne, Philip Horton Smith. It remains the private meeting room of the Salem Marine Society and their occasional guests, of which I was fortunate to be one.

Salem Marine Society Cabin HH

Cabin Room HH

SMS Cabin Interior

Hawthorne Hotel Buildings Collage

Cabin HH Exterior

Nathaniel Bowditch presides over the Salem Marine Society’s cabin at the top of the Hawthorne Hotel, the evolution of construction on the spot, from Samuel McIntire’s Archer Block (completed by 1810) to the Franklin Building (built after 1860) to the Hawthorne Hotel (built in 1925); X marks the spot of the rooftop cabin.

I was so excited to be in this space that I was a bit frenzied and not very good company, I’m afraid. I just wanted to see and capture everything. My skittishness was compounded by the fact that it was an absolutely beautiful early evening, and the ship’s cabin opens up onto an equally enticing (on such a day) ship’s deck, affording amazing views of Salem in every direction. Up in the air, surrounded by water on three sides, Salem’s original maritime orientation is all too apparent: the next time someone complains to me about how inaccessible is, I’m going to tell them to take a boat.

View of the Harbor from HH

View of Salem Common

View of Essex Street from Rooftop

But all those dashing sea captains were back inside, hanging from the teak-paneled walls in the form of portraits (alongside navigational instruments and paintings of ships) and encased in the Society’s registry of masters, a vast compendium of faces from 1766 to the present. I could have spent hours with this volume, gazing at all these drawings, paintings, silhouettes, and photographs of men and (finally!) women. There are so many ways you could use this source: it’s not just a record of maritime history, but also genealogy, social history, military history, even fashion history. Hats, no hats, hats, no hats.

Captain Abbot

Captain Fisk of Salem

Captain Collage

Captains Collage

Captain Fillebrownp.

Captains Abbot, Fiske, Chipman, Millet, Ward (clockwise), Tucker (right) and Webb, masters and members of the Salem Marine Society; a 20th century portrait of Captain John Fillebrown, who served in the War of 1812 and died a prisoner of war at Dartmoor Prison in England, along with 270 other Americans.

There were stories to be found in the cabin as well. The most apparent and dramatic one concerned the status of the Society’s very first honorary member, Matthew Fontaine Maury, Commander in the U.S. Navy and the first superintendent of the U.S. Naval Observatory. Despite his maritime magnificence, Maury was a Virginian and so not eligible for membership in the Society, but its membership honored his achievements by bestowing an honorary membership on him in 1859 and hanging his portrait on the wall of their original rooms.Two years later, after Maury resigned his commission and joined the Confederacy upon the start of the Civil War, the Salem mariners rescinded his membership, condemned him as a traitor, and placed his portrait head down and against the wall. This “reverse orientation” remains to this day, though a visiting delegation of the Mary Washington Branch of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities gifted the Society with another image of Commander Maury in 2008, which hangs alongside the reversed portrait. And so now, in the words of the southern Commander, “All is Well”.

Salem Marine Society Cabin Interior

Sticken from our rolls


Window Boxes & Wooden Boats

This past weekend was very busy in Salem, with the monthly Derby Square FSA market and the annual Jazz and Soul Festival, the Antique and Classic Boat Festival, and the New England Kayak Fishing Tournament all happening. My husband participates in the latter so I seldom saw him–kayak fishing is serious business! I wandered around on my own not really wanting to commit to a crowd, but as we missed the antique car meet last week I knew I had to see the boats. This summer’s very hot and humid weather seems to have finally lifted, so I took the long way there and back and snapped some photographs of window boxes, which are overflowing just about now. I love this first one, it’s a basement window box on Botts Court: a perfect adornment for an urban old house! Great shutters too.

Windowbox

windowbox 3

window box 6

window box 7

window box 8

On to the boats. Usually I go for the Chris Craft, but there wasn’t one this year. A Wagemaker runabout came closest to that standard, but my favorite boat of the festival was something a bit more exotic: a Norwegian sailboat, or “Bindel Faering Nordland” built in the 1960s and named Kanin, after the Norse god of cute and fluffy rabbits. With its carved bow and stern, it reminded me of a Viking ship, and I’m sure I’m not alone. The biggest boat was a 62′ foot “Commuter” built in 1923: it was rather difficult Miss Asia in one photograph. Boats such as these were utilized by their wealthy owners to commute from New York or Boston to their summer cottages in Newport or some other “gold coast”, and then down to Florida for the winter. An amazing display of craftsmanship, restoration effort, and wood on the water by Miss Asia and all of her fellow festival boats.

wooden boat 20

wooden boat 17

wooden boat 12

wooden boat 13

wooden boat 14

wooden boat 16

wooden boat 7

wooden boat 8

wooden boat2

wooden boat 11

wooden boat

wooden boat 19

Kanin, Miss Asia, and their dockside neighbors at the 34th annual Antique & Classic Boat Festival.


Preparing to Paint

Is there anything more engaging than an artist’s sketchbook? Or even a notebook with a few sketches in it? I suppose the end product doesn’t have to be visual, it’s the insight into that conception/creation/ working it out process that I’m interested in, but imagery tends to be far more accessible, of course. I use Leonardo’s notebooks extensively in my Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, and early modern courses, and students are immediately engaged, entranced even, far more than they are when I show them the finished product. It’s interesting to see the wanderings of a very fertile mind in his case, what inspired him and what he also had to work out: perspective, motion, hands. Most of Leonardo’s sketches never made it onto canvas; once a particular challenge was overcome he moved on to the next one, but the sketchbooks of more (focused, disciplined, on-task???? it’s hard to compare Leonardo negatively to anyone) artists illustrate the progress from page to paint: those of Claude Monet immediately comes to mind. But again, it doesn’t have to be about images. The sketchbooks of  Massachusetts artist Alvan Fisher (1792-1863), a pioneer in American landscape, genre, and “view” paintings, gives us insights into his preparation for one of the first views of Salem from “Gallows Hill”, a scene that would be imitated time and time again over the course of the nineteenth century. Fisher jotted down notes about the Salem Witch Trials in his sketchbook, indicating that his inspiration for the Salem painting was not just the view he saw before him, but the events that brought him to this particular place.

Fisher View of Salem from Gallows Hill

Fisher Sketchbook no 5 1824

Alvan Fisher’s View of Salem from Gallows Hill (1818), Collection of the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, and Sketchbook no. 5, containing notes about the Salem Witch Trials, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. With the recent validation of Proctor’s Ledge below rather than Gallows Hill above as the 1692 execution site, it occurs to me that the inspiration for this famous “view” is based on a falsehood! Indeed, I think that the figures in the foreground are sitting on THE ledge. But clearly a perspective from that point would not be as revealing of the city below.

From what I can see, most of the sketches in Fisher’s notebooks in the Museum of Fine Arts contain more conventional preparatory sketches: houses, hills, streams, animals. Creatures, particularly creatures in motion and even more particularly birds, seem to captivate artists for centuries, from Leonardo to Salem’s most famous artist, Frank Benson. Browsing around sketchbooks which have been digitized (especially those included in this archived exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art), I can’t tell which is more captivating to me: individual sketches or the entire sketchbook, the works themselves or the works in progress. 

Fisher Notebook 1

Benson Sketchbook 1882

Bird Collage

Sketchbook Rockport

Sketchbook Porter

Page from Alvan Fisher’s Sketchbook no. 1, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Autographed sketch by Frank Benson, 1882, Skinner Auctions; Leonardo’s sketches from the Codex on the Flight of Birds and one of Benson’s bird sketches, Northeast Auctions; Covers of sketchbooks of Harrison Cady (1943) and Fairfield Porter  (1950) from the Archives of American Art.


Perroquet Plates

At this time of year I’m in back-to-school mode and absolutely exhausted by keeping up with the garden, so my focus shifts to the inside. I think I’ll get back outside when it gets cooler in September, as I want to rearrange some things and prolong life and time in my garden as long as I can, but right now I’m focused on interior adornment and projects (this is one way to ignore all of the academic duties that are piling on about now). Leafing through a bunch of magazines this past weekend, I found some objects of adoration in, of all places, WSJthe magazine of the Wall Street Journal: plates adorned with colorful parrots, infused with old-world elegance through a hand-painted process involving sixteen layers. The 12-piece collection is the collaboration of Gucci Creative Director Alexandro Michele and porcelain manufacturer Richard Ginori. I want them all, but at $295 a plate, it will be difficult to justify just one, I’m afraid! The article identifies Michele’s inspiration as “one rare French volume from 1801 on specimen birds”, which was all the cue I needed to identify Jacques Barraband (1767-1809), a French zoological and botanical illustrator whose work inspired imitators even in his own day. While Barraband’s work must have struck his contemporaries as “new” in their colorful realism, Michele was inspired by their antiquated aesthetic, as am I.

Perroquet red

Parrot Barraband 2

Perroquet Plate Design Boom

Perroquet Plates WSJ

Perroquet Plates WSJ 2

Perroquet Plates WSJ4

Derian Parrots

Original Jacques Barraband parrot prints from Levaillant’s “Histoire Naturelle des Perroquets” , Ursus Books & Prints, and Shapero Rare Books. The Michele/Ginori plates from designboom (image ©designboom) and the WSJ magazine (photographs by Martyn Thompson). John Derian has ample antique-inspired parrots among his offerings too, including a 12-piece set of wall trays (works and photographs © John Derian).


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