Monthly Archives: February 2012

Mirrors for Mantles

We have eight fireplaces and six mantles in our house, and because I seem to be inextricably tied to the rule that a mantle must have a mirror over it, I’m always on the hunt for the elusively perfect mirror.  It’s a rather casual hunt, as I have mirrors for all my mantels, just not the right mirrors. Right now, I’m on the lookout for a carved oval gilt mirror from the first half of the nineteenth century, a search that began when I spotted this Salem-made, circa 1820 mirror on ARTstor.

Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts

It’s a bit flamboyant but I love it and wish I could find out more about it; I think it would be a whimsical counter-piece to the more sedate and square mirrors that I already have.  But of course it’s not for sale, and if it were it would probably cost as much as the house.  There’s a somewhat similar oval mirror on 1stdibs from Jorgenson Antiques, but second mortgages must go towards structural necessities rather than decorative accessories!

Here are some other mirrors in the unattainable mirror files, starting with an elaborate oval overmantle mirror in the Cook-Oliver House here in Salem:  it takes a particularly impressive mirror to grace a McIntire-carved mantle.  And then, in no particular order, a Chippendale design for an overmantle mirror dated 1765, another design drawing for a horizontal oval mirror by James Wyatt from the same era (maybe all I want is drawing of a fancy mirror), and a watercolor of a Warwick Castle bedroom from a charming book of plates entitled Historic English Interiors (Hessling, New York, 1920).

HABS photograph by Arthur C. Haskell, 1939. Library of Congress

Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

I thought I was looking for an oval mirror until I came across this picture of Ben Bradlee’s and Sally Quinn’s Georgetown dining room:  the embellished rectangular mirror is really lovely, especially over that mantle and against that paper–reproduced from a pattern that was in Mr. Bradlee’s mother’s home in New England.  He descends from the Salem Crowninshields, which might be how and why he was in possession of 12 McIntire chairs.  What you see below are copies; he donated the originals to the White House.

Downton Abbey Double

I like Downton Abbey as much as the next person (woman), but I must admit that I tune in as much (or more) for the setting and costumes, the general ambiance, as I do for the plot and the acting.  The real star of the show for me, so impressive that it even upstages Maggie Smith, is the “abbey”, or Highclere Castle.  Highclere has been the seat of the Herbert Family, the Earls of Carnarvon, from the eighteenth century.  In the 1830s, the third Earl, Henry Herbert, commissioned Sir Charles Barry, the architect of the Houses of Parliament, to dramatically enlarge and remodel an existing Georgian house into the grand Elizabethan Revival castle that it is today.  It seems to me that the Herberts were a bit nouveau riche; their peerage was of relatively recent vintage and so was their house, so they hired the  neo-Gothic architect to build them a ne0-Elizabethan house.  It’s a very Victorian story.

Highclere Castle circa 1850s-70s by photographer Francis Frith. Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Sir Charles Barry’s 1842 Study for a Highclere tower from the Christies archives; Highclere Castle today.

Apparently Downton Abbey saved Highclere Castle.  In a 2009 Daily Mail article entitled “Can Highclere Castle be Saved? Historic Home is Verging on Ruin as Lord Carnarvon Reveals £12 million Repair Bill”, the 8th Earl reveals not only the imposing estimates for the repair of his ancestral home but the dilapidated (and moldy) rooms upstairs, which contrast sharply with the ground-floor state rooms that we see on Downton.  There was even talk of subdividing the Capability Brown-designed grounds (perhaps this is still on the table). Shortly after the article was published, Andrew Lloyd Webber offered to buy the castle to house his art collection but was rebuffed by the Earl and Countess.  Then the producers of Downton came in to save the day.

Highclere upstairs bedroom, downstairs saloon and library.

From an interesting “country life” publication entitled The Field, we can see Highclere’s silk-wrapped drawing room in Downton’s time, and contrast it with a photograph from the present. Like Downton, Highclere was used as a rehabilitation hospital during the First World War and here is Downton’s Lady Sybil in the same drawing room.  After the war, the Castle underwent a “modern” redecoration, but not too modern, apparently, if this “Highclere” Liberty fabric is any indication.

"Highclere" fabric by Liberty & Co., 1931. Victoria & Albert Museum, London

I particularly like the dining-room scenes on Downton Abbey, as we can get a glance at the 1633 equestrian portrait of King Charles I by Anthony van Dyck behind Lord Grantham’s head.  Below is the dining room as set, with the Van Dyck in the background, from the Highclere Castle website.  Finally, the weathered front doors of Highclere, which are really getting a workout these days, I should think.

Corporate Interiors

I like reading contemporary shelter magazines, but they seldom offer any advice for one of my central decorating dilemmas:  how to integrate the front Federal part of my home with the rear Victorian addition (never mind the kitchen from the 1920s and other architectural details from that “renovation” scattered around the house).  So I thought I’d browse (digitally) through some “house beautiful” books from the later nineteenth century, to see if they could offer any tips or inspiration.  There are lots available on the Internet Archive, but (apart from Edith Wharton’s writing style) I didn’t find them very inspiring, or nearly as interesting as the trade catalogs of the same era.  It seems like much of the Winterthur Library’s collection of these publications is now available in digital formal.  These catalogs range from mere brochures to actual decorating books, published by wallpaper, fabric, paint, carpet, and furniture companies for both wholesale and retail customers, I suppose.  I’m sure that I’m far from the first to recognize that they must be an extremely valuable resource for charting changing styles.

Below are a couple of plates from Suggestions for Modern Interior Decoration, published by the Henry Bosch wallpaper company of Chicago and New York in 1906.  The entire book consists of plates of interior vignettes, followed by appropriate wallpaper samples; here’s a very Arts & Crafts sitting room with entrance hall in the background.

Next, the cover and “Boston Room” of the 1917 Home Decorations Book published by the Star Peerless Wallpaper Mills, manufacturers of “Black Cat Wallpapers” for the home.  The Boston Room is of course in an understated “colonial” style.  For a stark contrast, I’ve jumped forward several decades, to the eve of World War II, and a very dynamic bedroom in the 1939 catalog of the Celotex Corporation, Interiors with Beauty, Comfort and Quiet. Quite an interesting combination of colors there; not very quiet.

Paint companies, including Sherwin-Williams and Glidden,  really ran with the “decorating catalog” concept before and after World War One.  A 1910 billiard room demonstrated “handicrafted effects” from Sherwin-Williams Your Home and its Decoration, and (again for contrast) two decades later a very bright (and much less crafty) living room appears in The Home of To-Day (1930).  For a post-war view, I’ve also included a colorful bathroom from Glidden’s 1946 catalog, The Key to Color Harmony in Your Home.  This book really recommends the color combination of aqua, pink and brown, and not only for bathrooms.

Back to a browner age. My last two images don’t really fit in with those above–rather than interior vignettes offering decorating advice as well as goods they are examples of more standard advertising–but the lithography is so striking I wanted to include them.  Below are two pages from the undated Album of Maine’s Atkinson House Furnishing Company, established in 1884 and “the only in the US doing business under a special contract system and Installment Plan”:  the exterior of its main Portland store and the interior sales floor, an actual corporate interior.

Herrick’s Holiday

February 2:  whether it is Candlemass in the past or Groundhog Day in the present, people are craving change and hope at this time of year.  I think it is interesting how the very secular Groundhog Day replaced a Christian holy day which probably replaced an earlier pagan festival day.  In the end, the weather and the season are the constant variables, and people’s desire for Spring, in every era.  One thing is for sure:  you must take your Christmas decorations down by Candlemass/Groundhog Day:  Valentine’s Day is just too late.  This has been determined by custom and expressed best, I think, by the seventeenth-century English poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674).

Herrick’s major work was Hesperides; or the Works both Human and Divine of Robert Herrick, published in 1648 in the midst of the English Civil War but revealing no sense of a troubled time.  It is full of little odes and ditties, to women (Julia, Chloris, Anthea, Electra; most are judged fictional by scholars), flowers, and the changing seasons.  Herrick seems to exemplify the gather ye rosebuds while ye may mentality that he first expressed.  He also provides a guide to seasonal decorating in his poem Ceremonies for Candlemasse Eve:

                                   Down with the Rosemary and Bays, Down with the Mistletoe; Instead of  Holly, no up-raise the Box (for show.)

                                   The Holly hitherto did sway; Let Box now domineer; Until the dancing Easter-day, or Easter’s eve appear.

                                    Then youthful Box which now has grace, Your house to renew; Grown old, surrender must his place, Unto the crisped Yew.

                                               When Yew is out, then Birch comes in, and many flowers beside:  Both of a fresh and fragrant kin To honour Whitsuntide.

                                    Green rushes then, and sweetest bents, with cooler Oaken boughs; Come in for comely ornaments, To re-adorn the house. Thus times do shift; each thing his turn do’s hold; new things succeed, as former things grow old.

Times do shift, and former things grow old.  I’m sure that Herrick poems were quite old in the eighteenth century, but they seem to have experienced a revival in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, resulting in the production of  some beautiful editions of his collected works.  I have one illustrated by Edwin Abbey and published by Harper Brothers in 1882.

The 1903 edition issued by the Elscot Press (in only 260 copies) looks really beautiful too; the first page contains Herrick’s philosophy of life and poetry:  Times trans-shifting.

A more timely greeting for the Day:

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