Monthly Archives: July 2012

Silver Substitute

I spent the latter part of the long July Fourth week with family in southern Maine, engaging in some leisurely antiquing along Route One.  Our first stop was one of my long-time favorite shops, R. Jorgensen Antiques in Wells, which is always a lovely place to visit:  amazing furniture, beautiful grounds, friendly owners.  Usually I’m exclusively focused on the big pieces at Jorgensens, particularly tables:  I really can’t imagine a better place to buy an antique dining table.  But while I was gazing longingly at a pedestal table that seats eight but could be magically transformed into a Pembroke table that you could push against the wall, my eye fell on several smaller items: a “silver” tea set that was really pottery in disguise.

I thought I was familiar with lustreware but apparently not.  Many of my pearlware pieces have copper lustre bands, and you see the pink lustreware everywhere, but I had never seen pieces completely dipped in silver or platinum glaze, in such an alchemical and egalitarian way.  Silver for everyone!  This particular tea set is Edwardian, but looking around I found items from the early nineteenth century onwards.  Here are some of my favorites, all dating from the decades immediately following the invention of the glazing process in Staffordshire around 1805:  two lead-glazed earthenware coffeepots with platinum lustre decoration from about 1810-1820, and a two-handed cup, two decorated jugs, and an urn from the same period and region.  I also checked out auction results for similar items over the past few years and found that they are surprising affordable: could there be a new collection in my future?

Silver lustreware from the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, with the exception of the last two pieces:  decorated jug at Appleby Antiques and urn at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

A Pioneering Photographer

As part of its year-long focus on photography, the Peabody Essex Museum here in Salem is currently showing an exhibition (through October 8) of Ansel Adams’ images called At the Water’s Edge. The pictures are striking, of course, but I think I’ve seen too many Ansel Adams photographs in my life:  there’s a familiarity that is dulling the artistry for me.  Nevertheless, the thematic focus on water, the juxtaposition of small and HUGE photographs, and the sheer number of images on view makes the exhibition well worth seeing.

Ansel Adams,  Reflections at Mono Lake, California, 1948.

There must be room for one more exhibition in this “year of photography” so I am wondering whose work the PEM will showcase next. With the Jerry Uelsmann exhibit in the spring and the Adams exhibit on view this summer, we have been exposed to the work of two eminent twentieth-century photographers; for the last exhibit of the year, I’d like to see some earlier work.  My suggestion:  Salem-born Samuel Masury (c 1818-1874), a pioneering American daguerreotypist and photographer whose studio produced one of the most celebrated photographic portraits of the nineteenth century:  the “Ultima Thule” portrait of Edgar Allen Poe, taken just days after the author’s failed suicide attempts and less than a year before his death.

Samuel Masury (as drawn by Winslow Homer) in 1859 and Edgar Allen Poe in 1848:  this image was taken at the studio of Masury and F.W. Hartshorn in Providence, Rhode Island by their camera operator, Edwin H. Manchester.  Courtesy American Antiquarian Society.

Masury had learned the new art from Boston daguerreotypist John Plumbe in Boston in the early 1840s and by 1843 he had established a studio on Essex Street in Salem, offering daguerreotype miniatures, “in a new and elegant style, and of larger sizes than are generally taken.  MINIATURES taken at this gallery are warranted to give perfect satisfaction, and not to fade or change appearance in any way, or for any number of years. As many persons suppose that Daguerreotype Miniatures can only be taken in fair weather, I beg leave to say that, by a recent discovery, I am prepared to take Miniatures in cloudy weather, and will warrant  as good pictures taken in cloudy, as in pleasant weather.” (Salem Gazette, June 1, 1847).  Masury was always “discovering”:  new processes and techniques, new locations, new subjects, and he seemed to have “pop-up” studios in several northeastern cities. After traveling to France to learn the latest glass negative process he returned to America and set up a large Boston studio in partnership with G.M. Silsbee, and proceeded to turn out a variety of images:  many carte-de-visite cards, which must have been the bread and butter of this fledgling industry, but also architectural and landscape views.  The versatility of his subject matter is represented by the images below:  an extraordinary pair of cdv cards of Francis L. Clayton/Clalin, a cross-dressing female solider who served in the Union Army under the name of “Jack Williams”, and an early landscape looking towards the water, taken at the Loring Estate in Beverly in 1859. Clearly the meeting of water and land was as inspirational to the first generation of photographers as it was to their successors.

Francis. L. Clayton in uniform and a dress, 1863-64, Library of Congress; Early View from the Dell, 1859, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Salem on the Fourth: 2012

A dreamy Fourth for me as I was up half the night before due to random fireworks going off across the street.  I was half asleep when I woke up and for most of the day.  I missed the 9:00 reading of the Declaration of Independence on Salem Common (which was apparently moved to the ballroom of the Hawthorne Hotel because of our morning rain), but I did make the Horribles Parade in the Willows.  Horribles parades are old New England traditions, still very much alive in the towns and cities north of Boston:  here in Salem, Marblehead, Beverly, and Gloucester–maybe more.  The original idea behind the parades–which date back to the middle of the nineteenth century–was to mock inflated public figures, so politicians get a lot of play, along with anyone else in the news too much.

On the eve of the Fourth, all was quiet and peaceful on Chestnut Street (before the fireworks started) so I took a few pictures of flag-bearing houses.  I was particularly impressed by the efforts of my neighbors (in the blue house below), who are away: they had someone come over merely to put their flag out while I was snapping away.  I went a little crazy with our house this year; as the apartment is empty I draped my veteran ancestor’s coffin flag from its roof.

A completely different scene in the Willows the following morning as crowds came out for the Horribles Parade, which was a little heavy on the Penn State scandal so I’m not going to show you too many pictures. The residents of the Willows really embrace the holiday and the parade, so nearly every cottage is decorated for viewing parties.

We were all hot and tired after the parade, so it was back home to rest and watch old patriotic movies on TCM (Drums along the Mohawk is my absolute favorite, followed by 1776, not so much), have our own little barbecue, and then head back to the other side of town as it was our idea (not mine, actually) to take a flotilla of kayaks out into the middle of Salem Harbor to watch the fireworks. After much preparation, and a drink at our camp on the island, we did this, and it was an invigorating experience.  Unfortunately, none of my pictures came out, so I’ll have to give you a verbal picture: we’re in the middle of the harbor, surrounded by a panorama of light: threatening lightening, the fireworks on Derby Wharf in Salem, Marblehead fireworks to the east, Beverly fireworks to the north, those of some Cape Ann town to the far north, and several other towns to the south.  Then a strange, full, red moon rose, right in the middle of all this man-made light!  The heavens opened up, the rain poured down, and we went in, for one more drink and home. A happy, busy, sleepy Fourth.

Salem on the Fourth: a While Ago

Before there were fireworks, there were bonfires, BIG bonfires. 

The Fourth of July has always been celebrated enthusiastically in Salem, both in the present and in the past.  This very year, Salem’s Independence Day celebration made a national top ten list of best fireworks with recognition as “best historical fun”.  But before fireworks marked the Fourth in Salem, it was all about bonfires, reflecting English commemoration culture (ironically), as well as John Adams’ prescient remark that the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence would forever be celebrated as a “great anniversary festival” with “Pomp and Parade … Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other” (of course he was talking about July 2nd).  From at least the 1890s, as far as I can tell, Salem had the reputation for the biggest and most patriotic bonfire in the region, and its annual conflagrations received national coverage as late as 1950.

This is a charming picture of a small bonfire on Salem Harbor in the 1890s, but in no way representative of Salem’s major bonfire, which was always held at Gallows Hill at midnight.  Rather than the five or six tiers you see here, the Gallows Hill bonfires featured as many as forty, and were quite elaborately “wired” (but they still had the American flag at the top; I’m not sure why burning the American flag wasn’t a bit more controversial).  The best description I could find of the Gallows Hill bonfires is in a little article by the Reverend James L. Hill, in a compilation entitled Holydays and holidays: a treasury of historical material, sermons in full and in brief, suggestive thoughts, and poetry, relating to holy days and holidays by Edward Mark Deems, published in several editions in the 1890s and after.  In a 1908 edition, Reverend Hill writes:  Come to Salem, all of you who lament the absence of great gatherings with noise and music and banners on Independence Day and believe that pure clean patriotism is no longer powerful enough to give us the ardent celebrations which were once the joy and glory of our nation’s natal morning.  Just as the clock is striking twelve, thus adding another year to the era of American independence, your eyes will be drawn irresistibly to a towering monument of hogsheads and barrels and casks that raises its huge form 135 feet high and bulks against the midnight sky. This topgallant monticle is stacked as symmetrically as a church steeple.

The best images I could find of this cathedralesque creation date from nearly a half-century later, as part of a Life magazine article on the Gallows Hill Bonfire Association and its patriotic work published in 1949. This was the last era of the Gallows Hill bonfires, which seem to have tapered out in the 1960s. The images create a picture of serious effort, a big bonfire, and a huge crowd in attendance:  just like the fireworks display occurring tonight.

Playing with Fire

Francis Bacon heralded the compass, printing, and gunpowder as the three European (really Chinese) inventions that changed the world, but he also had words of praise for another Renaissance (Chinese) innovation:  fireworks. Like gunpowder, fireworks represented the Promethean feat of his age:  stealing fire from heaven, and in both his Essays (1612; “On Masques”) and The New Atlantis (1627) he references the achievement:  we represent also ordinance and instruments of war, and engines of all kinds: and likewise new mixtures and compositions of gunpowder, wildfires burning in water, and unquenchable. Also fireworks of all variety both for pleasure and use.

I’m not sure what the recommended use of fireworks was besides pleasure, but I thought I’d indulge in a brief (and very Eurocentric) illustrated history of fireworks for the beginning of our July 4th week.  As always, when I compare the past and present, I’m struck by the artfulness of the former:  fireworks displays from the Renaissance through the nineteenth century seem to have been as much focused on a flagrant display of machines on the ground as light in the sky. As evidence, look at the elaborate seventeenth-century (Italian, of course) creation below, and an illustration from John Babington’s Pyrotechnia.

Engraving by Lodovico Ottavio Burnacini (1636-1707), courtesy Victoria & Albert Museum, London; John Babington, Pyrotechnia (1635), courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library.

Fireworks demonstrations in Europe are first recorded in the fifteenth century, so two centuries later they are not quite the marvel they once were and the “pyrotechnists” had to stage ever-more elaborate displays in order to impress at every royal and national event:  weddings, coronation, victories in battles and wars. Views of London fireworks celebrating the English victory at the Battle of Boyne in Ireland in 1690 and the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in April of 1749 are below;  the latter celebration definitely had its highs and lows. The high was the first performance of Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, while the “low” was a firework-sparked fire which burned the central pavilion to the ground, accompanied by a swordfight between the pyrotechnist-architect of the performance, Giovanni Niccolo Servandoni, and the organizer of the event, the Duke of Montagu.

Night-time fireworks celebrating William III’s victory at the Battle of Boyne, 1690, British Museum; two views of the fireworks and fireworks pavilion celebrating the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, April 27, 1749, British Library and Victoria & Albert Museum.

In the nineteenth century, fireworks celebrations look a bit more recognizable (boring), so I’m going to shift to ephemera and fireworks-related items.  From either end of the century, some great British trade cards and a beautiful cover of Lippincott’s Magazine by Will Carqueville.

Trade cards from the British Museum and British Library; Lippincott’s cover from July 1895, Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Back to the art of fireworks for the last century:  Eric Revilious’ amazing fireworks design for Wedgwood, commemorating the 1937 coronation of King George VI on a coffee cup, and a recent photograph by Sarah Anne Johnson.

Eric Revilious mug for Wedgwood, 1937, Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Chromogenic print with applied photospotting ink, acrylic ink, gouache, and india ink by Sarah Anne Johnson, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

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