Monthly Archives: August 2011

Salem Scorchers

Salem is in the midst of a big bicycle week, with the Witches Cup race this past Wednesday and the Salem Seersucker Social this coming Sunday, both part of an extended schedule of Salem Heritage Days events.  So I thought it was time to showcase this vintage bicycle advertisement from the golden age of bicycling at the turn of the last century.  R.H. Robson, with two locations in Salem, was a major dealer in high-wheel (penny farthing) bicycles in the 1880s and quickly dominated the North Shore market for “safeties” in the next decade.  This ad promotes two of their most popular models, the “Salem Witch” and “Witch Scorcher”:

Apparently scorcher had two meanings in its contemporary context:  a really fast bicyclist, who menaced pedestrians and horses alike in what must have been very chaotic streets, and the actual bicycle on which this speed demon rode. After urban police departments began employing their own “scorcher squads”, the term became a lot less menacing and all sorts of cultural references began to appear, including the title of this popular march, yet another reminder that bicycles and women’s  liberation go hand in hand.

While the riders of Wednesday’s Witches Cup were scorchers, those that participate in  Sunday’s Seersucker Social will probably cycle along at a more leisurely place, in emulation of the genteel (anti-spandex) “tweed rides” that have been happening in urban centers all over the world in the last few years.  Salem is fortunate to have two bike shops, Salem Cycle and the Urbane Cyclist, and the latter is the sponsor of the Sunday event.  Those who want to ride along should convene at the shop (144 Washington Street) at 11:00 am, wearing “historically sporty” (non-spandex) attire, for the 7-mile ride.  With apologies to the Urbane Cyclists, I’ve reproduced their poster from last year (modified with my own very obvious corrections) just because I like it so much.

Edible Art

While up in York for a long weekend I went to the Stonewall Kitchen company store to get some ingredients for a recipe and ran into a huge crowd of people and some absolutely stunning display gardens.  The gardens are always beautiful at Stonewall, but this time they were particularly impressive:  unusual combinations of colors and textures, perennials and annuals, vegetables and flowers.  There were also screen-printed banners, indicating the tie-in between the Stonewall gardens and an ongoing art exhibit at the nearby George Marshall Store GalleryFrom the Garden to the Kitchen.  Part One of  the exhibit was on display earlier in the summer; Part Two is on view now.  So here we have another two-part (digital) exhibition:  first the gardens, then the gallery.

Lots of Clary Sage, a very under-utilized grey garden plant.

A close-up of one of the banners in the gardens, depicting “Purple Podded Peas”, an archival pigment print in Lynn Karlin’s Pedestal Series.  Below, more prints in the series, displayed at the George Marshall Store Gallery, and exterior and interior views of the Gallery.

The George Marshall Store is a Victorian building located on the York River, adjacent to the John Hancock Wharf and Warehouse.  Both properties belong to the Museums of Old York, though the Marshall Store functions as an independent art gallery.  I vaguely remember it operating as some sort of “ye olde” shop when I was a little girl, and today, the combination of river, old building and modern art makes the gallery a nice afternoon destination.  Here are a few of my favorites from the current exhibition, although I definitely could have included many more pieces.

  James Aponovich, Trasimeno Artichoke

  Tina Ingraham, Rainier Cherries and The Grocer

  Carey Armstrong-Ellis, When Vegetables Go Bad

  Susan Wahlrab, Unfolding Fiddleheads

  Rosalind Fedeli, Nine Bright Persimmons

Stonewall Kitchen Company Store gardens by JNL Inc. Landscaping:; George Marshall Store Gallery, 140 Lindsay Road, York, Maine 03909.  207.351.1083

Mr. Allen’s Amazonian Lily

In the summer of 1853, an Amazonian water-lily blossomed in Salem, the second to be cultivated in North America, under the careful watch of amateur botanist John Fisk Allen (1807-76).  Descended from several Salem shipping families, Allen had the means to pursue various horticultural pursuits, and he maintained a greenhouse on Flint Street (not far from his Chestnut Street residence) where he cultivated several varieties of grapes as well as tropical flowers.  He is part of what I am realizing was an active and influential botanical circle in nineteenth-century Salem, with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s uncle, Robert Manning, right in the center. Allen wanted to share his success with the world, or at least his world, so he commissioned America’s first chromolithographic printer, Boston-based William Sharp, to produce six detailed plates of the lily for inclusion in his account of  its cultivation, Victoria Regia; or The Great Water Lily of America (Boston, 1854).

I have seen a really nice edition of this volume in person, and the plates below (from the Internet Archive digital edition) do not do justice to the real thing.  They are really stunning, but apparently Sharp also took a bit of artistic license.  Allen’s text is interesting as well, as he follows the rules of strict scientific observation and tells his readers everything the lily was doing that Salem summer long ago, down to the minute.

The first two cycles of the plant’s growth:

From first flowering through full bloom:

Royal Roses

I am a very casual collector of early and mid-nineteenth-century pottery, and have gone through different phases of interest and intensity of interest over the years:  simple white ironstone, creamware, red (pink) transferware, children’s plates.  I still have some of the latter, but have sold or given away everything else.  Along the way, the one type of pottery that I have not tired of are painted pearlware pieces in the “King’s Rose” or “Queen’s Rose” pattern, made in England in the first half of the nineteenth century for the American market.  Another variation, red and green without the lustre band, is called “Adams Rose” after the manufacturer, and sometimes these patterns are referred to as “Gaudy Dutch” or “Gaudy Welsh” as well.  I like these pieces (mostly plates) because they are painted, as opposed to transfer-printed; this makes them somewhat less common, but much more difficult to preserve.  I rarely come across one with perfect paint and when I do its price is more than I am willing to pay.  In their day, however, I think that they were basic dinnerware:  when I was digging out an herb garden behind my kitchen ell a decade ago I uncovered shards of the same patterned plates I had in my china cabinet!

So here are some of my pieces, which are generally tucked away on shelves and in corners; these plates are yet another floral motif that my husband only tolerates.

And here are some pieces that I do not possess but would like to:  two coffee pots, one in the King’s Rose pattern (which sold at Christies several years ago) and another in the more delicate Queen’s Rose pattern, along with a very exuberant teabowl and saucer from Patrician Antiques.


Given that my garden is bordered by a high brick wall–the backside of Hamilton Hall–someone in its past began training a pair of yews to grow up alongside it espalier-style.  I’m grateful that this happened.  I’m not a big yew fan, but the espaliered yews soften the edges of the wall and are relatively low-maintenance.  We normally trim them once a year, and the rest of the year (all seasons) they look pretty good.  Obviously their design is quite informal; a couple of years ago while Hamilton Hall was getting a new roof a cornerstone fell on the top one (narrowly avoiding me, actually), taking out several branches, so they don’t quite match.

Espalier techniques go back several centuries, maybe even to the Romans.  I’ve read that they were utilized in the enclosed gardens of the medieval era, which makes perfect sense but is apparently not true.  The keeper of the gardens at the Cloisters Museum maintains that espalier was a Renaissance invention (or revival), which makes even more sense given the contemporary quest for the mastery of nature.  With espalier, you are literally bending nature to your will, and it is also a perfect combination of aesthetics and practicality.  In the Renaissance and after, fruit trees were the primary objects of the technique, but today you see all sorts of trained shrubs, including yews.

Below is an illustration of espalier from a late seventeenth-century Dutch gardening manual in the collection of the New York Public Library, and two photographs of George Washington’s garden at Mt. Vernon; apparently our first president had a preference for “live fences”, and trained trees for walls and borders.  Finally, Charlotte Moss‘s “Espalier” china pattern for Pickard.

The Very Image of Empire?

I’m finishing up my graduate course this month with the British Empire, quite a bit late for my expertise (and comfort) but very essential to understanding our course topic: the expansion of Europe in the early modern and modern eras.  Since I’m not that comfortable in the nineteenth century, I naturally looked for some visual materials to help fill in the gaps.  When searching for photographs of India in the early days of the Raj in the collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum, I came across this amazing image by Samuel Bourne:

Wow! I though to myself:  this guy is the very image of the multicultural  British Empire:  he’s in India, in some sort of Scottish regiment of the British military, wearing a turban!  But appearances can be deceiving.  It turns out that Colonel Alexander Gardner, the subject of this photograph, is not British at all, but American, born on the shores of Lake Superior in the (now-Wisconsin) wilderness in the late eighteenth century to a Scottish father and Anglo-Spanish mother. He traveled to central Asia in his teens and never looked back, serving successively the Tsar of Russia and rulers of the Sikh Empire, hence the turban.  I can’t explain the plaid suit.  The notation on Bourne’s photograph indicates that Gardner was 79 years old when he sat for this portrait in the 1860s, near the end of what must have been an amazing life, led on the fringes of the British Empire in both the western and eastern hemispheres.  He’s a novel or a movie waiting to happen, and his sensationalistic, posthumously-published memoirs, Soldier and Traveller:  Memoirs of Alexander Gardner, Colonel of Artillery in the Service of the Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1898), could provide excellent source material. Very Flashman.

Tiny Street People

I’ve received quite a few emails about a photograph of an installation of bronze bathers in the Hartley Mason Park in my hometown of York Harbor in a post from about a month ago, and I’ve been thinking (and looking) at those figures quite a bit myself.  Here are a few more images as a reminder.

One of the reasons I’ve been thinking about these little figures is that I neglected to mention the artist, Sumner Weinbaum, who has been active in the Seacoast arts scene for some time.  Another reason is that they remind me of a photograph I purchased about a decade ago of another little bronze figure, placed on a McIntire fence here in Salem.  The artist (who was local and whose name I cannot remember!  It is nowhere to be found on the photograph; if anyone knows please tell me) cast the figure, took the photograph, and (of course) made the placement.  Here’s an image, not very good, because it is a photograph of a photograph.

There’s something about really small human figures placed in real-sized settings that is quite captivating.  I like the York Harbor bathers both because they are small and active, engaged in familiar human activities, but the little Salem figure (not quite as detailed) also look alive even though he’s not doing anything.  This piece is also interesting because it’s kind of the reverse of the Renaissance man-is-the-measure-of-all-things ideal.

Two London-based artists have really run with the little-people-in-a-big-world theme.  An anonymous artist who goes by the name of  Slinkachu creates images of sequenced street scenarios with the miniature figures used in architectural models, and Isaac Cordal places his cement street figures on streets all over Europe.  Here is a sample of Slinkachu’s work entitled Boys Own Adventures; you can find lots more at The Little People Project (Abandoning little people on the streets since 2006).

Cordal’s work has a strong environmental theme, as illustrated by these images (Remembrances  from Nature) from his recent book, Cement Eclipses:  Small Interventions in the Big City.

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