Monthly Archives: December 2011

Pine Cone Time

(Having spent more time than I have trying to determine whether “pinecone/ pine cone” is one word or two, I’m opting for two).  Along with the Christmas tree, there is no more omnipresent natural motif at Christmas time than the pine cone, which is rather ironic, given its decidedly pagan roots.  In classical mythology, the pine cone is most prominently featured on the thyrsus, the staff held by Dionysus and his bacchanalian cohorts.  The thyrsus is made from a stalk of fennel topped by a pine cone, representing the farm, the forest, and all sorts of fertility; in both classical and more modern imagery it is more representative of revelry than religion.

A.E. Becher, Bacchanal Scene (with pine cone-topped thyrsus leading the way, in left-hand corner),1903

With the coming of Christianity, the pine cone fades into the background as a natural motif and a way to bring some “life” indoors during the long winter.  I’ve seen pine cones in medieval manuscripts, but I think they become more apparent in early modern decorative arts.  Pine cone knobs are common features of eighteenth-century porcelain, like this beautiful coffee pot from the 1730s.  Fabrics and wallpapers also featured pine cones in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, as they do today.

Mulhouse Fabric, 1830s, Victoria and Albert Museum

Cotton Pine Cone fabric from the Whispering Pines Catalog.

Even if pedestrian pine cones don’t make it into the final product, they often served as objects of study for artists.  The two charming studies (made between 1950-75) by Samuel Chamberlain (also a brilliant photographer, whose Salem Interiors remains one of my favorite books) in the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art illustrate his composition process.  The pine cone comes into its own in the recent drypoint by Jake Muirhead, from the Old Print Gallery.

Pine cones remain a popular element of seasonal decor because they’re so affordable (free!), accessible and flexible:  you can make ornaments, garlands, swags, topiaries, tablescapes, and wreaths out of pine cones, or just scatter them around.  And when the holidays are over and the glitter goes away, the pine cones can remain until the Spring, when more signs of life begin to appear.  Here are a few pine cone items that transcend holiday decor, and could (I think) be made at home (relatively) easily.

Pine cone garland from Anthropologie, map “pine cone” ornament from Turtles and Tails, and rustic pine cone mirror from Wisteria.

Oh Christmas Tree

We just put our tree up, and it’s beautiful, but almost too beautiful.  For the first time ever, we got a Scotch Pine tree rather than the usual fir, and it is so full and fluffy and perfectly shaped that it looks fake.  Everywhere there are needles that testify to its reality, but at a glance, it looks fake.  Here are a few pictures:  for some reason, my cat Moneypenny had to be in every shot.

Every year, when I am decorating my tree, I have two thoughts:  Prince Albert and Halifax.  Queen Victoria’s beloved consort-husband and the Nova Scotia port city are connected in my mind through Christmas trees.  I think of Prince Albert because he is generally credited with introducing the German/central European custom of decorating evergreen trees at Christmas time to Britain, and consequently America.  Given her Hanover roots, Victoria was probably well aware of this custom before she met and married Albert, but their Christmas trees were revealed to the public in an unprecedented manner, and so the Prince probably does deserve some credit.  A particularly influential print of the royal Christmas tree was published in the Illustrated London News in 1848, and the American periodical Godey’s Lady Book two years later. And about a decade after that, Brtish Christmas cards (also a novelty) prominently featured the Christmas tree.

Why do I think of Halifax when I’m trimming my tree?  Ironically, because of a really tragic event:  the harbor explosion of December 6, 1917.  On that day, in the crowded wartime harbor, a French cargo ship loaded with munitions collided with a Norwegian ship, causing a fire, explosion, and tsunami that leveled over 2 acres of the port and killed 2000 people.  In the ensuing rescue effort, a well-supplied Massachusetts delegation was among the first to arrive in Halifax and the last to leave.  The next year, the still-struggling city of Halifax thanked the people of Boston by sending them a 46 foot fir Christmas tree, a tradition that was revived in the 1970s and continues today.

House Plates

I picked up a desert plate at a flea market last week with an image of the Richard Derby House of Salem on it,  part of a series of 13 “Colonial Heritage” plates produced in 1976 by the Ridgewood Fine China Company in association with the Early America Society.  The artist Robert Franke was commissioned to paint a historic house for each of the 13 colonies in that bicentennial year, and the Derby House represented Massachusetts.  I have cabinets full of plates, even after selling off the transferware of my early collecting days, but this plate was cute, $7, and associated with Salem, so I did not hesitate very long.  Now that I have it, I’m thinking I need two more, as I always like to have three of everything, if possible.  I like Connecticut’s Webb House (center), and the Moffatt-Ladd House in Portsmouth, New Hampshire was quite important to me growing up nearby, so maybe I should have that too.

But then again, what would I do with these plates?  They are a bit cutesy/ye oldey; I better refrain and just stick with my one Salem plate.  Of course, this big decision got me thinking about houses on plates in general, and in history, as I remembered that most of my “romantic” transferware plates had houses on them, generally famous or fantasy houses, in bucolic settings, similar (but not nearly as nice) as these two examples from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Both plates were produced around 1830 by Job and John Jackson in the English Midlands for the American market:  nineteenth-century Americans loved  their house plates, if survivals are any indication.  I guess the English did too.  Below is a delftware plate made in Bristol in the 1760s and an early nineteenth-century French plate made for the British market, both clearly presenting houses, simple and grand.

Bristol delftware plate produced by Richard Frank and Creil pottery factory plate, both from the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Back to the present, some “modern toile” plates with houses by the great Scottish design firm Timorous Beasties, who make amazing wallpaper and fabrics, but also china.  Their “London Toile” pattern, while not exactly centered on a single house, certainly focuses on structures.  Somehow it reminds me more of the eighteenth-century delftware than the nineteenth-century toile-like transferware, as does the Juliska “Country Estate” charger below.

And here’s one last merging of architecture and ceramics, by Esther Coombs, a British illustrator who often uses vintage tableware for her canvases, always with charming results.

Scenes from the Tour

Unseasonably warm weather and enticing houses created crowds in my neighborhood this past weekend, as the 32nd annual Christmas in Salem holiday house tour transpired.  I took a short walk along most of the tour route in the virtual footsteps of Boston (and Salem) architect William G. Rantoul (1867-1949), whose work was showcased on this year’s tour.

This Federal house was Rantoul’s residence from 1907 to 1939.  According to Bryant F. Tolles’ Architecture in Salem, he added the entry himself, based on the period design of that of the house two doors down.  The colonial and Federal houses of Salem must have been a constant source of inspiration for Rantoul, who worked primarily in the Colonial Revival style.  The Christmas in Salem Committee placed these red flags on sites associated with Rantoul.

Lines on either side of Chestnut Street.  Around the time of World War One, Rantoul made significant additions and alterations to the Phillips House (above), which is now owned by Historic New England.

This great gambrel-roofed house at the end of Chestnut Street appears to be Georgian but is in fact the newest house on the street, built in 1909 by Rantoul for philanthropist Caroline Emmerton.  It is an adaptation of the eighteenth-century Richard Derby House on Derby Street.

Walking, walking…the top house has nothing to do with Rantoul and was not on this year’s tour, but is great nonetheless and this particular shot shows how fall-like the weekend was.

Rantoul’s major institutional commission in Salem:  the Salem Athenaeum, built in 1907, this weekend and in a 1910 postcard.

A great triple house designed by Rantoul and built in 1918 after the great Salem Fire . The decorated entrance, and 1918 Christmas cards displayed on a 1918 mantle.

Prang of Boston

Last month, the Peabody Essex Museum here in Salem opened a year-long exhibition of seldom-seen treasures from its Phillips Library entitled Unbound, Treasures from the Phillips Library at PEM.  Even though the exhibit includes a leaf from the Gutenberg Bible and original transcripts from the Salem Witch Trials (which, pardon my rant, are public records and should be more generally accessible), the most compelling visual images in the exhibition are the progressive proofs for a lithographic portrait of Ludwig von Beethoven produced by Louis Prang  & Company of Boston in 1870.  The collective image is very modern in its repetition and perspective, and also illustrates the intensity of the chromolithographic process.

Progressive Proofs from the Phillips Library, PEM, and the finished portrait from the New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

Prang & Company was the color printer for most of the second half of the nineteenth century.  Louis Prang learned the art of color lithography in Germany and perfected it in Boston, where he produced reproductions of great works in the spirit of “the democracy of art”.  He was a also a practical printer who produced thousands of cards, calendars, and advertisements for his always expanding market. Prang’s “views”, whether artistic, historical, or scenic, seem to have a strong American  theme; he had fled Europe right after the tumultuous revolutions of 1848 and clearly valued American democracy as well as cultural democracy.  Here are some of my favorite Prang prints from the Library of Congress and New York Public Library; given the business locale, the Boston Public Library also has a large collection of Prang prints.

A very diverse assortment from the Library of Congress:  the popular bird’s eye view of Boston (1877), a kitchen view  from Prang’s Aids for Object Teaching (1874), a baseball game(1887), and an undated still-life.

I find Prang’s advertising posters even more appealing than the products they are peddling, especially as we get closer to the turn of the century and art nouveau imagery.  Here are a few advertisements from the New York Public Library Digital Gallery, both from the 1890s.

Prang is also an important figure in the history of ephemera, quite apart from chromolithography, because of his pioneering role in the emerging greeting card industry.  I’ve seen him referred to as the “father” of the Christmas card (and the Valentine’s Day card, and the Easter card, etc…) more than once.  I’ll post some Prang cards a bit later in the season, but for now, just a preview.


If you’ve followed this blog for any time at all you know I love old photographs, so I’ve been enjoying Historypin, a (relatively) new website from Britain on which people post/pin their old photographs for locations around the world.  By “old”, I mean nineteenth century or 1999.  You can search by location and even see old photographs superimposed on contemporary street scenes.  What is particularly interesting about this site–about the entire project—is the range of photographs:  from public and event-oriented to private and family-oriented.  It’s always interesting to get a more intimate view of the past, and Historypin has the potential to do just that.  There are audio and video clips as well, and “tours” that you can take through various visual histories.

You can also make your own collections, from photographs that are already on the site as well as your own.  Here’s a photograph of a stylish couple at Royal Ascot in 1936 from the “Fabulous Fashion” collection:

There are not very many Salem photographs pinned to this digital map yet, but there was one I had never seen before, of an unidentified church near the House of the Seven Gables in 1929, from the collection of the Boston Public Library.  The site looks unrecognizable to me, but the Gables has a very large parking lot.

There’s a very nice collection of historic photographs of Marblehead, the town next door, pinned by an obviously enthusiastic collector.  I particularly like this one:  four girls and their bicycles on State Street, summer of 1898.

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