Monthly Archives: March 2013

Wait a Minute

There is an oftquoted saying attributed to Mark Twain: if you don’t like the weather in New England, wait a minute.  Like most oftquoted sayings, this is a paraphrase of his more longwinded observation, made before the annual meeting of the New England Society in December, 1876:  I reverently believe that the Maker who made us all makes everything in New England but the weather.  I don’t know who makes that, but I think it must be raw apprentices in the weather-clerk’s factory who experiment and learn how, in New England, for board and clothes, and then are promoted to make weather for countries that require a good article, and will take their custom elsewhere if they don’t get it.  There is a sumptuous variety about the New England weather that compels the stranger’s admiration — and regret.  The weather is always doing something there; always attending strictly to business; always getting up new designs and trying them on the people to see how they will go.  But it gets through more business in SPRING [emphasis mine] than in any other season.  In the spring I have counted one hundred and thirty-six different kinds of weather inside of four-and-twenty hours…

March is certainly the cruelest month in terms of changeability, and to make my case I’ve got a series of photographs taken on Wednesday and Friday last week: a rather sleepless night was rewarded with a beautiful sunrise over Chestnut Street at midweek, and then two days later an unexpected (at least by me) storm dumped 14 inches of wet snow on the same landscape. As I’m writing this several days later, it is 50 degrees out and much of the snow is gone. And what will tomorrow bring?  Rain, of course!

Weather before

Weather 033

Weather 032

Weather before 2

Weather after 2

Weather after 3

Weather 047

Weather 012

Oz Everlasting

Even before the big new Oz prequel movie debuted this weekend, I was already thinking about the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, as yet another candidate for the Salem Athenaeum’s Adopt-a-Book program this year is the fourth title in L. Frank Baum’s series, Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz (1908). Like the new film (which doesn’t seem to be garnering the best reviews), this book features a wizard who plays a much larger role than in the first book and classic 1939 film. In fact, the Wonderful Wizard is really the star of the story, defending Dorothy and her companions (including a cat named Eureka rather than a dog named Toto) from fierce vegetables, invisible people and bears,  gargoyles and “dragonettes”:  all in an underground world which swallowed them up following an earthquake. The Wizard is so exhausted after his labors that he decides to remain in the Emerald City permanently at the book’s end, and so he becomes the Wonderful Wizard of Oz forever.


Oz 2

In his Preface, Baum as much admits that he was reluctant to keep writing about Oz:  It’s no use; no use at all. The children won’t let me stop telling tales of the Land of Oz.  I know lots of other stories, and I hope to tell them, some time or another; but just now my loving tyrants won’t allow me.  They cry “Oz–Oz!  More about Oz, Mr. Baum!” and what can I do but obey their commands?  He also admits that his “tyrant” readers wanted to know more about the “humbug” Wizard who blew off in a balloon, and so he brought him to earth–or below the earth–again.  Not only does the storyline of Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz focus on the latter’s heroics, the majority of illustrations in the book–both black-and-white sketches and watercolor paintings by John R. Neill, feature the Wizard, who does indeed enter the story in a balloon. Towards the end of the book, when everyone returns to the Emerald City, the Wizard reveals his and its origins, and this backstory seems to provide some of the plot for the current movie:  a humble circus performer from Nebraska whose appellation was Oscar Zoroaster (and many other names) Diggs, he emblazoned the initials “O.Z.” on all of his possessions, including his balloon, and was blown away to a strange land of rival witches whose inhabitants took him for a wizard. And so he became one.

Wizard in Balloon 1901

Wizard fightin Gargoyles

Wizard fighting Gargoyles 2

Oz Portrait of the Wizard

baum-poster 1901

A decade of the Wizard:  up and away in a W.W. Denslow illustration from the first book, 1901; fighting gargoyles in two watercolor illustrations from Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz and a “portrait” (“From the Wizard’s latest photograph taken by the Royal Photographer of Oz”) by John R. Neill, 1908; the real Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum, featured with his best-selling titles on a contemporary  poster issued by his publishers, Library of Congress.

Salem Film Fest 2013

Despite some very nasty weather, the sixth annual Salem Film Fest opened yesterday, bringing 32 documentary films to town for screenings at the Peabody Essex Museum, Cinema Salem, and the Visitors  Center of the National Park Service. This festival gets bigger and better every year; I can tell because (it’s all about me) I always make a list of films I want to see and each year the list gets longer and more of my choices sell out. This year, I had The Ghost Army on the top of my list, and it sold out immediately. They’ve added another show next week, but I’m sure it’s selling out as I write. This film, by award-winning documentarian Rick Beyer, tells the incredible story of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, a World War II Army unit whose job was to deceive the Germans by staging fake battlefield maneuvers, often very close to the front lines. They staged more than 200 “performances” between D-Day and V-E day, using inflatable tanks and a variety of sound effects. Can you imagine a better subject for a documentary?  While its premiere was right here in Salem last night, it will be broadcast later this Spring on PBS, so look for it.

Inflatable Tank

Bill Blass Jeep

Pictures from the Ghost Army website: an inflatable tank an a smiling Bill Blass, a member of the unit. Yes, THAT Bill Blass, the future fashion designer.

Next on my list is another World War II-related film, Andrew Shea’s Portrait of Wally, about a Nazi-plundered painting, Egon Schiele’s Portrait of Wally (1912), its acquisition by Austria’s Leopold Museum and subsequent discovery in a 1997 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and the long legal struggle which followed.


The Missing Piece: The Truth about the Man who Stole the Mona Lisa considers the motivation behind Vincenzo Peruggia’s daring theft of Leonardo’s masterpiece in 1911. Apparently Peruggia’s 84-year-old daughter believes it was a patriotic action on the part of her father, a former worker at the Louvre who committed the “art theft of the century” (actually, I think the 1990 robbery at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum takes that prize) in order to return the painting to its “homeland”. This might explain the fact that Peruggia was sentenced to a mere 15 days for his crime by an Italian court in 1914 and never served a day; no doubt a French court would have come up with a stiffer sentence.

Missing Piece

After these three, I am a little torn:  Big Easy Express, about a musical train journey from California to New Orleans, looks great, as does Radio Unnameable, about a pioneering 1960s disc jockey. Town of Runners, about a small Ethiopian town that produces more Olympic gold medalists per capita (by far) than any other place in the world, looks interesting, as does The World before Her, which takes us to a beauty boot camp for 20 aspiring Miss Indias (you can see why the festival’s tagline is “come to Salem, see the world”).  There is no question that my own award for Best Title goes to Furever, a film about the remembrance of pets past.


Horse and Carriage Days in Salem

Until relatively recently, a friend and near-neighbor of mine operated a horse and carriage business here in Salem, catering to the tourists and brides and grooms; in fact she transported my new husband and myself from the church to the House of the Seven Gables for our reception several years ago. She and her husband have now moved to Maine, where I hope they enjoy peace and quiet and land, but I’m going to miss the sight of her in her formal driving attire and the sound of her horse’s hooves clattering down the street. There really is no better sound to take you back, while you’re sitting in your double parlor on your Duncan Phyfish sofa!  Maybe another carriage (or two) will come to town, but I suspect this is a business which looks a lot more romantic than it actually is.

It is increasingly difficult for me to be romantic about cars; in fact, the older I get, the more I wish they would all go away. Of course that is easy for me to say, indeed very easy for me to say, as I live in a small city which is connected to other cities by rail, and I walk to work. So I really could do without a car, but of course I don’t. But when I look at certain historic images of Salem, particularly art and ephemera as opposed to photographs (which show the grittier reality of streets filled with horses), I always think I want to live in that world, a world without cars. The painting that conjures up this world most directly for me shows a man driving a rather dashing horse and carriage (accompanied by an almost equally dashing dog) through the vacant, spotless streets of Salem with no encumbrances in sight. It’s a mid-nineteenth century view that hardly presents reality, and so all the more evocative of days gone by; it also reminds me of a trade card I have from a bit later in the century.

Market Square Samuel Chamberlain 1855-60

Horse and Carriage Trade Card

Samuel Chamberlain in Market Square, Salem. 1855-60 (pastel on paper). American School (19th century), Peabody Essex Museum, Salem.

Period representations of Salem streets, as opposed to photographs, seem to show horses either dashing about, like those above, or standing still, like the drawing of an apothecary shop below. Again:  spotless streets and a loyal dog, in this case standing by. The charming drawing below of James Emerton’s apothecary shop at 123 Essex Street was rendered by his brother William Henry Emmerton (I have no idea why they spelled their names differently, but they did), who was a prominent architect working in Salem, Providence, and Portland, Maine. (According to his family history, Materials towards a Genealogy of the Emmerton Family, William would fall prey to the newest transportation technology in 1871, when, coming to spend Sunday with his family, who were on a summer visit to Salem, he was one of the ill-fated occupants of the last car in the accommodation train at Revere, when it was ‘telescoped’ by the engine of the express train overtaking it. Though not mangled in the collision, he received such injuries from the steam that he survived, mostly unconscious, but a few hours.) The published advertisement for James Emerton’s shop follows, along with a circa 1900 postcard of the buildings of the old Essex Institute which shows the actual building (in the background, with the awnings, now all gone) and images of more Essex Street businesses in the 1850s.


Emerton Apothecary

Horse and Carriage Essex Institute Salem

Horse and Carriage ads

William Henry Emmerton, Apothecary shop of James Emerton in Salem, c. 1850 (pen & ink and sepia wash on paper), Peabody Essex Museum; advertisements from the 1851 and 1857 Salem Directory.

The more I examined the romanticized images of Salem streets scenes with horse-drawn carriages in my digital files, the more I realized that most of them were from the 1850s, the decade by which most of Massachusetts had been linked together with railroad tracks. Clearly there was an emerging awareness of how the “iron horse” was going to change town and country, but it was far too soon to envision the coming of the car.

Horse and Train meet in Salem 1851

Horse and train meet in Salem:  Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion, 1851.

Fennec Foxes (and a Scottish Explorer)

Begging your collective indulgence for one more fox post, I want to showcase another title from the rich collections of the Salem Athenaeum that is a candidate for the annual Adopt-a-Book program:  James Bruce’s Select Specimens of Natural History Collected in Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, in Egypt, Arabia, Abyssinia, and Nubia, the last volume of his five-volume work Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile in the Years 1768-1773 (1790).  This book had me at hello when I laid eyes on just one of Bruce’s “select specimens”, a nocturnal Egyptian desert fox with very large ears called a “Fennec”.

Fennec from James Bruce Select Speciments of Natural History Collected in Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile

Wow! You can’t get any cuter than this. I’m hardly the first person to be entranced by this desert fox; fennecs caught the eyes of several visitors to Africa after Bruce, including the French aviator and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who based the wise fox character in The Little Prince (1943) on this particular species. I don’t remember noticing these ears in my childhood, but how could I have missed them?

Fennec Fox in Little Prince 1943

Fennec Foxes Tower by Joachim S. Muller

The Little Prince and the Fox, 1943; a “tower” of Fennec Foxes by photographer Joachim S. Müller.

I am so enraptured with the illustrations of the Fennec and other African animals in Bruce’s Select Specimens that the explorer himself has become the backstory for me. But the Scottish explorer and scientist James Bruce (1730-94) is very notable for being among the first modern European explorers of Africa and seekers of the source of the Nile, preceding the great Victorian expeditions by almost a century. He is generally credited with tracing the course of the Blue Nile, one of the Nile’s tributaries, and rediscovering and reintroducing Ethiopia to Europeans. Apparently his descriptions of African lands and life were viewed as so fantastic by his peers that his credibility was questioned, but his accounts were verified by later explorers. I just love his fauna, which he drew himself:  the bat-like fennec, the expected hyena and rhinoceros, a long-legged, long-tailed mouse called the “Jerboa”, a tail-less guinea pig-like creature called the “Ashkoko”, even his African insects and reptiles (though not the scary snake).

Bruce Rhinocerous croppped

Bruce Mouse Cropped

Bruce Ashkoko cropped

Bruce illustrations cropped

Illustrations from James Bruce, Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, in the Years 1768, 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772, and 1773. Edinburgh: J. Ruthven, for G.G.J. and J. Robinson, 1790.

Reynard the Fox

That fox pulling the papal tiara off Celestine V’s head in my last post reminded me of Reynard the Fox, a very popular medieval fable which developed in the later twelfth and thirteen centuries in France and Germany, from where it spread throughout western Europe:  the many “branches” of Reynard verse are generally grouped together as the Roman de Renart cycle. Reynard is an anthropomorphic fox who is always up to no good, a cunning trickster whose escapades are both entertaining and illuminating. He is the animal representative of the medieval outlaw, far less benevolent than Robin Hood, and utilized by medieval scribes (who were of course, monks) as a form of satirical and whimsical criticism.  But Reynard is also a fox, and like all sly foxes, quite capable of feigning vulnerability (and piety) in order to elude capture and capture his next meal. One of the most common images in medieval manuscripts is of Reynard preaching, to an audience of birds whom he intends to eat.

Royal 10 E.IV, f.49v

Fox Preaching Stowe

British Library MS  Royal 10 E IV, late 13th/early 14th century, and MS Stowe 17, “The Maastricht Hours”, early 14th century.

In every Reynard tale, the fox is summoned before a court of his animal peers, headed by a lion, of course, and called to task for his bad behavior. He always manages to outfox his judges by his cunning. He feigns remorse, confesses his sins, and sets off on a holy pilgrimage of atonement, only to get into more trouble. A death sentence leads to more displays of cunning, exploits and opportunities, and consequently he becomes the sympathetic “hero”, the one for whom we root.

Reynard the Fox Bod MS Douce 360

Reynard Bod Ms Douce Reynard Dead

Reynard as a “pious” pilgrim and on the cart of a fishmonger who has presumed him dead–meanwhile, the fox is working his way through the stock of fish:  Bodleian MS Douce 360, “The Romance of Reynard and Isengrin”, 1339.

I definitely think Reynard’s popularity increased in the late medieval era along with anticlericalism and lay piety, and he makes it into print relatively early. In England, William Caxton published his own translation in 1481, and the “history” was reprinted regularly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There followed all sorts of literary adaptations, as Reynard, like any outlaw, is readily adaptable. The most famous modern adaptation is Reneike Fuchs, an epic poem produced by Johann Wolfgang von Geothe in 1794, supposedly influenced by the events of the French Revolution. The editions of this text issued from the mid-nineteenth century, illustrated by Wilhelm von Kaulbach and Joseph Wolfe, must have been extremely popular as they were constantly in print. There were also a succession of children’s versions of the fable issued in the nineteenth century, and really beautiful artistic editions published by William Morris’s Kelmscott Press in 1892 (a reprint of Caxton) and the Insel Verlag Press in 1913.

V0023068EL A fox in a monk's habit is apparently deeply engrossed in pr

Reynard the Pilgrim

Reynard Kelmscott Press 1892

Reinke Voss 1913

Reynard posing as a monk in order to access the chicken coop of a monastery, and as a pilgrim being blessed by a ram-priest, Wolfe and von Klaubach illustrations from 1853 & 1846; first page of the Kelmscott Press Caxton edition, 1892; Cover of first edition of Reinke Voss, 1913.

Reynard lives on in a variety of forms and formats in the twentieth century, and today can be found on everything from pillows to china to chess sets. He seems to have shed a lot of the satirical and moralistic messages of his medieval origins, but he was never that moral a character to begin with so I guess it doesn’t matter!

Reynard the Fox Coffee Service

Reynard the Fox Etsy

Two Reynards that I covet:  a Royal Doulton coffee service from 1935, and pencil illustration of Reynard the Fox Detective.

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