Monthly Archives: April 2013

Alphabet Books

A blog post by the British Library on their 15th century “Macclesfield Alphabet Book” set me off on a quest for more of these essential (and decorative) educational texts:  I figured that I could assemble a sample chronological collection that would span the centuries, and I was right: this is one literary genre that never went out of style, until now, I think. My portfolio of pages was gleaned from books produced both for learning the alphabet (primers) and learning to write, not necessarily the same thing but I make the rules! The Macclesfield text, for example, was written for professional scribes (or their prospective patrons) rather than children; centuries later the two types of texts merged a bit but still had somewhat different aims. For a better basis for comparison and evolution, I chose the letter D, my first initial.

Alphabet Sample BL Macclesfield

Alphabet Book Sloane 1448 15thC

Alphabet Book BL Harley MS 16thc

Alphabet samplers from British Library Add MS 88887, the “Macclesfield Psalter” (c. 1475-1525) and Sloane MS 1448a (later 15th century), and the embellished capital D in BL Harley MS 3885, sixteenth century. I love that the D in the Sloane MS takes the shape of a Tudor Rose.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, alphabet books, or ABCs, are pretty distinct from penmanship or “copy” books; the former were often a religious texts, as in ABC with Catechism, and the latter were strictly secular and far more aesthetically pleasing. Only towards the last part of the eighteenth century do we see more decorative alphabet books, and they get ever more whimsical over the next century, as children’s literature becomes a distinct and profitable publishing category.

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Alphabet 1775 collage USC

Thomas Watson, A Copy Book Enriched with Great Variety of the Most Useful and Modish Hands (1700);William Chinnery, et. al., Writing and drawing made easy, amusing and instructive: containing the whole alphabet in all the characters now us’d, both in printing and penmanship: each illustrated by emblematic devices and moral copies: calculated for the user of schools and curiously engraved by the best hands … (1750); William Tringham, publisher, The alphabet rendered instructive and entertaining (c. 1775), University of South Carolina Libraries’ Digital Collections.

In the nineteenth century, alphabet books were in the capable and creative hands of such prolific illustrators as Kate Greenaway and Walter Crane, publishers like the McLoughlin Brothers of New York issued very specialized versions, and ultimately Man Ray produced an adult variation. Suddenly the alphabet book is a work of art–or was it always?

Alphabet D Greenaway V and A

Alphabet Crane 1909

Alphabet Baseball Book McLoughlin Brothers 1885

Alphabet Book of Country Scenes

Alphabet Book Man Ray 1970

Pages from from Kate Greenaway’s Alphabet Book (1885), Walter Crane’ Song of Sixpence Picture Book (1909), McLoughlin Brothers & Company’s Baseball ABC Book (1885), and Alphabet Country Scenes Book (1900), as well as the French version of Man Ray’s limited edition Alphabet for Adults (1970).


Pikemen on Salem Common

The annual muster on Salem Common was amplified this year because of Salem’s recent designation as the Birthplace of the National Guard  based on the First Muster of 1637, when all able-bodied men between the ages of 16 and 60 were called to arms on the Common to begin their regular training as a citizens’ militia.  So on Saturday there were not only current members of the Massachusetts Guard marching about, but also representative re-enactors of past regiments, including those from the Revolutionary War and the “East Regiment” from 1637. There was a lot of waiting around for everything to begin (and it was freezing, literally) so I passed my time talking to the seventeenth-century guys. After all, you seldom see pikemen on Salem Common. They were enthusiastic and knowledgeable members of the Salem Trayned Band, whose motto is it’s all about the hats.

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Commemoration of the First Muster this past weekend in Salem: Members of  the Danvers Alarm List and Massachusetts National Guard Regiments enter St. Peter’s Church for a memorial service; The Salem Trayned Band on the Common, the National Lancers on horseback; all in formation, though I wish they were aligned in chronological order!

The pikeman’s role in the so-called “early modern military revolution” is a central but transitional one. Medieval mounted knights and archers were replaced by musketeers and pikemen in the sixteenth century; the slow rate of fire of muskets necessitated that the musketeers be defended from sudden cavalry attack by pikemen, generally the strongest men in the regiment  given that their weapons were a sturdy 18 feet long. The invention of the bayonet in the later seventeenth century effectively made each musketeer his own pikeman, and the latter history. I don’t generally pay much attention to military matters in my courses (consigning weapons and tactics to the realm of “boys’ history” and concentrating more on the impact of war), but I do put up a few images from some contemporary military manuals, including Jacob de Gheyn’s Wapenhandelinghe (1607), the “Exercise of Arms”. I’ve also included images of a band of Dutch pikemen from about a century before below, wearing very fancy (but  considerably less protective) hats, and pikes and pikemen in their heyday, the English Civil War.

Pikeman Gheyn

Pikemen 1520s

Pikemen Nealle BM 1657-8

Jacob de Gheyn, Wapenhandelinghe van Roers, Musquetten ende Spiessen (The Exercise of Armes for Calivres, Muskettes, and Pikes), The Hague, 1607; Pikemen in the 1520s in a print by Jan Wellens de Cock (attributed)and in a 1657-8 print by Thomas Nealle, all British Museum, London.

Such a nice day, mixing past and present in the guise of commemorations and military uniforms. The planned flyover by the Massachusetts Air National Guard was canceled due to the budget sequestration, but I think there was enough going on, on the ground.

Pikemen Fogg

Pikemen 029

Groups of Pikemen, past and present:  Stefana Della Bella etching, mid- seventeenth century, Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gray Collection of Engravings Fund, and this past Saturday.


Panoramic Papers

Last night there was a “scholarly soirée” here in Salem, during which the amazing pictorial woodblock-printed wallpapers of the French manufacturer Zuber et Cie were presented from a variety of perspectives. I learned a lot:  certainly too much to put in one blog post! So consider this a mere synopsis. The event, which was co-sponsored by the French American Intercultural Relations and Exchanges (FAIRE), The Bowditch Institute, and Salem Maritime National Historic Site and held at the latter’s Visitors’ Center, featured an array of speakers, who introduced the large audience to Zuber et Cie wallpapers in general and the “Views of North America” (1834) in particular. There were actually lots of introductions, including a very succinct survey of the potential market for these expensive French wallpapers in mid-nineteenth century Salem by SMNHS Historian Emily Murphy and the charming observation of the French Consul General for Boston that the panoramic Zuber wallpaper installed in the dining room of his official residence in Cambridge facilitated conversation (and I suppose diplomacy). Then the soirée was turned over to three panelists, Isabelle DuboisBrinkmann, Curator of the Musée du Papier Peint, Joanna Gohmann, Doctoral Candidate in Art History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and James A. Abbott, Curator of  the Johns Hopkins University Evergreen Museum & Library , who examined, in succession, the early history of the Zuber firm and its manufacturing processes, the idealized images they produced, and the revitalized interest in their panoramic designs sparked by Jackie Kennedy’s redecoration of the White House in the early 1960s. This last topic is obviously the most accessible: most people would recognize at least the general image of these landscapes from official White House pictures of the Diplomatic Reception Room, in which antique panels (rescued from a doomed Maryland house) of Zuber’s idealized North American panorama were hung with great care.

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Zuber White House

Zuber Boston diplomatic-room-wallpaper

Pictures of the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House with its Zuber et Cie panoramic wallpaper, 2010 & 1963, and a detail of “Boston Harbor”, White House Museum.

All of the panelists had very interesting things to say, but I was particularly impressed by Ms. Gohmann’s analysis of the idealized images of these manufactured “views” of North America in the 1830s. She pointed out that they were created for the French market more so than the American one, and crafted to portray a perfect American Republic–characterized by the equality, prosperity, and inter-connectivity of all of its citizens–just as French Liberals were trying to create their own ideal Republic. America had to be the model, the way forward, and so things that weren’t so perfect, like SLAVERY, were “whitewashed”, as African-Americans are shown freely intermingling with European-Americans, even in depictions of the South. You see American prosperity in the depiction of Boston Harbor above, and equality and inter-connectivity in the detail from “West Point” below.

Zuber West Point

Detail from Zuber et Cie’s “West Point”, Myers Fine Art & Antiques Auction Gallery.

Just fascinating. It’s almost Utopian wallpaper, but still projecting a “historical” image. I must brush up on my July Monarchy. And then we jumped forward a century and more to the Kennedy White House, Mrs. Kennedy’s aspirational redecoration, and the key role played by Zuber wallpaper, which was installed not only in the Diplomatic Reception Room but also in the First Family’s private dining room. What was designed as a French galvanizing image become an American one.

The Zuber firm is alive and well, still manufacturing its pictorial and panoramic wallpapers. It’s interesting to see them in a modern setting, emphasizing their timeless style. And for other designs, there is a large digitized collection at the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt Museum (including the very popular “El Dorado”, if you want to see an idealized image of South America) and the Down East Dilettante has a nicely-illustrated post on the “Decor Chinois” pattern. There is at least one Salem dining room papered with Zuber panels:  the White Silsbee House (1811) at 33 Washington Square, which just happens to be for sale at the moment (so we can take a peek inside).

Zuber David Netto 2005 Elle Decor

Zuber et Cie 33 Washington

Zuber Les Zones Terrestres detail

A more recent print of “Views of North America” in a bedroom, Elle Decor, 2005; The dining room at 33 Washington Square with its Zuber “Les Zones Terrestres” paper, and a detail.


Tracing my Tracks

Not being a local historian or an art historian, one of the consistent pleasures of writing (and curating) this blog has been the discovery of local artists:  I knew of a few well-known Salem painters like Frank Benson before I started blogging, but had no idea there was such a dynamic artistic community on the North Shore during his time, before and after. The vitality of the early twentieth century is particularly notable, given the long-held view that Salem’s “golden age” was a century before. One artist from this era was Charles H. Woodbury (1864-1940), who led his long and productive life in the same general setting that I seem to be living mine, painting scenes that are both familiar and not-so-familiar to me. He was born just south of Salem in Lynn, painted scenes all along the North Shore of Massachusetts into southern Maine (where I was brought up), where he ran a popular and influential art school in Ogunquit (where I held all my summer jobs).

I’m always looking around for Salem scenes, and after I found a few of Woodbury’s etchings of Salem, a search began that opened up his whole world (also my world, a century ago). It wasn’t a difficult search, as the Boston Public Library has a large collection of Woodbury’s prints, many of which it has digitized, and the Ogunquit Museum of American Art has also embraced him:  there is a general recognition that Woodbury’s long-running (1898-1940) summer school of painting established the village as one of the preeminent art colonies on the east coast.

Old Creek Salem 1886

Woodbury Derby Wharf 1889

Woodbury Old Salem 1889

Charles H. Woodbury, Old Creek, Salem (MIT Museum Collections), Derby Wharf, Salem (Northeast Auctions Archive), and Old Salem, Boston Public Library, all dated 1889.

Woodbury entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as an engineering student but also took courses with Ross. S. Turner, a Salem-based artist who was an instructor in architecture, and after his graduation in 1886 he became a full-time artist and educator, working in all mediums and teaching at Wellesley, Dartmouth, and the Art Institute of Chicago in addition to his summer school. He was also an author, an illustrator, and a commercial artist, producing beautiful posters for various periodicals and the government during World War I. While he is generally identified as a marine or shore artist, I love his images of the built environment:  he seems to be trying to capture the old wharves, bridges and buildings, before they disappear, but he also recorded the “new”:  a particularly poignant images below is that of the New Bridge in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, which was torn down just last year. He clearly loved animals, and drew many dogs in detail, cats in considerably less detail, and even elephants!

Woodbury Newburyport

Woodbury Bridge at York Harbor 1919

Woodbury New Bridge 1925 BPL

Woodbury elephant BPL

Charles H. Woodbury, Newburyport Wharves (1889), York Harbor Bridge (1919), the “New Bridge” at Portsmouth (1925), and Elephant (1889), all Boston Public Library.

A comparison of Woodbury’s oeuvre with the bare details of his timeline leaves one with the impression of a very busy man:  it is difficult to see how he juggled painting and teaching and what appears to have been a steady stream of commercial commissions. From the 1890s through World War I, he produced lots of ephemeral images–posters, exhibition programs, magazine covers–which fortunately have proved to be not-so-ephemeral.

Woodbury July Century Magazine 1890s

Woodbury Exhibition catalog 1890s

Woodbury poster 1890s

Charles Woodbury’s posters from the later 1890s, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

Woodbury’s oil and watercolor paintings predominately feature coastal and ocean scenes:  there are many subtle images of rolling and crashing waves, sea spray, the meeting of ocean and rock, crests: the movement of water. There are also landscapes, of Ogunquit, the Netherlands, and the Caribbean, where he spent considerable time. Again, given my preference for the built landscape and local scenes, I think my favorite Woodbury oil (so far) is Victory Parade, Boston 1919, which displays a bright April morning in Boston on Tremont Street (???), and the celebration of the end of the Great War. I am almost embarrassed to be discovering Woodbury just now, as from all I’ve seen and read he was quite eminent in his own time. Certainly the fact that he was a subject of a portrait by John Singer Sargent is a testament to his artistic reputation, or at the very least their personal relationship.

Woodbury High Seas Bonhams

Woodbury Sunken Ledges 1933 Watercolor MFA

Woodbury Victory Parade Boston 1919

Woodbury 1921 Sargent National Portrait Gallery

Charles H. Woodbury, High Seas and Sunken Ledges, both 1930s, Bonhams Auction Archives and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Victory Parade, April 25, 1919, Boston, Private Collection; Portrait of Charles H. Woodbury by John Singer Sargent, 1921, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.


Fool’s Parsley

My scholarly, botanical and materialistic interests intersected the other day when I came across a beautiful Arts and Crafts wallpaper print by Charles Francis Annesley Voysey named “Fool’s Parsley”, first produced in 1907. Even though it’s not really appropriate for my 1820s house, I love art nouveau and Arts and Crafts wallpapers in general, and Voysey’s designs in particular. The more I looked at the design, the more it reminded me of Sweet Cicely, one of my favorite plants in the garden, and so it was no surprise to learn that these two plants are in the same family. Though they have a very similar appearance, these herbs have very different natures:  while Sweet Cicely “is so harmless you cannot use it amiss” according to the old herbalists, Fool’s Parsley is very, very poisonous. Beauty can be deceiving.

Fool's Parsely Voysey 1907 V and A

Fool's Parsley 1856 Herbal

L0013947 L. Fuchs, De historia stirpium commentarii

“Fool’s Parsley”, or Aethusa cynapium, in a 1907 wallpaper pattern by Charles Voysey, Victoria & Albert Museum, London and 1856 and 1542 herbals by Constantin von Ettingshausen and Leonhart Fuchs, respectively, Wellcome Library, London.

Fool’s Parsley is often called “Lesser Hemlock” in herbals from the Renaissance onwards, emphasizing its Socratic connection and toxic qualities rather than the evergreen tree. Along with Sweet Cicely, it belongs to the large Umbelliferae plant family, named for and distinguished by its lacy, umbrella-like flowers and including such beneficial vegetables and herbs as carrots, celery, dill, chervil, parsnips, and, of course, parsley. Besides the deprecating designation, there are many stories and anecdotes of poor fools who mistook the poisonous parsley for the passive one and ended up with severe nausea, headaches, and worse. But for CFA Voysey, this lethal plant was as beautiful as a rose, and by all accounts, his very best birds embellish the design.

PicMonkey Collage

Fools Parsley 1893

Trustworth Studios has reproduced Voysey’s design in light and dark colorways; Fool’s Parsley page from an 1893 German herbal, Etsy seller CabinetOfTreasures.


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