Salem Sketches

It’s been difficult to focus on Salem these past few weeks with so much going on in the historical world:  the potential discovery of King Richard’s skeleton, the raising of a plague ship, a wife for Jesus (or maybe not)!  Then again, I’m not a fan of a parochial perspective; I’ve always felt that the present and the past and places are best viewed in the broadest context possible, so Salem is the world.  That said, occasionally I just want to act like a Victorian antiquarian and stay local. Today, I’ve got some very random sketches of Salem gathered from a variety of sources:  guide books, auction archives, historical societies, old books. Most are very vernacular and commercial, though a few are the works of well-know artists. They’ve been gathering virtual dust in my digital files for a while, so it is time to get them out there.

The sketches appear in chronological order, beginning with two charming drawings by the early nineteenth-century artist Michele Felice Cornè  (1752–1845), a Neapolitan who emigrated to the United States in 1800 and lived in Boston, Salem, and Newport. These drawings date from around 1810, when Cornè was living in Salem, enjoying the patronage of the Derby family. It takes a sketch to reveal little details like the toddler’s bassinet (cage?) below, details that would never appear in one of Cornè’s formal paintings of ships or houses. That’s what I like about sketches, as opposed to more formal compositions:  they give forth a seemingly-casual, and often more intimate, impression of daily life.

Cornè sketches, c. 1810, courtesy Newport Historical Society.

Lots of later nineteenth-century drawings of Salem exist, when both the city and its residents began to market “olde Salem”, first featuring architecture, and then (unfortunately) witchcraft. The sketches in Historical Sketches of the Old Houses of Salem (1870) display a bit of  (sometimes black) humor, as in Six Witches Will be Hung To-Day.  Come One! Come All! and our “Four Fathers”.  The decision to back the Witch City brand had not been made yet, in fact; this early guidebook looks like it is trying to offer up all of Salem’s attractions (including very big chimneys) at the same time.

The accomplished artist Eliza Pratt Greatorex (1819-1897), who was renown for her pen-and-ink sketches of American and European streetscapes, came to Salem to sketch (of course) the “Witch House” (more formally and correctly known as the Jonathan Corwin House) which she portrays as The Last of the Old Witch House.  Little did she know that it would endure as one of the centerpieces of the Witch City.

Eliza Pratt Greatorex, The Last of the Old Witch House, Salem, Massachusetts.  New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

More simplistic (and cheerful) sketches of Salem are in Lydia Louise Very’s Old Fashioned-Garden (1900) and What to See in Salem (1915), both published by the Salem Press Company. Very was part of the very interesting Very family of Salem, and sister of the transcendental poet Jones Very, for whom she cared during his long struggle with mental illness. Moving forward into the twentieth century, there is a pen-and-ink sketch of Chestnut Street that was published in several national newspapers in 1930.

No witches:  sketched views of Salem in 1900, 1915 & 1930.

Sketching continues, it just takes different forms in the present, like these characters from the new Salem video game by Ten Ton Hammer, featuring : Puritans, Permadeath, and Open PvP in a Fantastical New England. These guys remind me a bit of the “four fathers” of past sketches.

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