Monthly Archives: May 2013

Mother Shipton

Rather contrarily, my offering for Mother’s Day weekend is not a warm, loving, and lovely caregiver but a prophesying crone:  Mother Shipton, who most likely never existed.  Supposedly born in the first years of the new Tudor dynasty in a Yorkshire cave (the product of  a union between a poor wretch named Agatha and the Devil), Ursula Southeil or “Mother Shipton” rose to fame in the mid-seventeenth century, long after her supposed death. Just before the English Civil War, a time of high anxiety indeed, a series of Mother Shipton pamphlets suddenly appeared, containing predictions of things that, for the most part, had already happened, along with dire warnings of war and destruction.

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The first prophecy on the second 1642 pamphlet is typical Mother Shipton: Joane Waller should live to heare of Wars within this Kingdome but not to see them. The Civil War broke out in the same year of as the tract was published, but of course Waller had died the year before. A similar assertion regarding Henry VIII’s chief minister, Cardinal Wolsey, that he would see York but never get there, was one of Mother Shipton’s most famous “predictions”.  Her published prophecies continued through the Civil War (closely tied to current events) and after, and she joined the ranks of such legendary magicians as Merlin.

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Shipton Prophecies from 1648 & 1661

In the later seventeenth century, Mother Shipton’s biography and predictions were embellished rather vastly by a series of publications entitled The Life and Death of Mother Shipton, and her story was adapted for entertainment purposes, thus cementing her now-legendary character. The transition from ominous witch-soothsayer to stock character is emblematic of the emergence of a collective rationalist mentality in the seventeenth century, with a corresponding decline in belief in magic and “wonder”, now assuming its more modern meaning.

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Mother Shipton Life and Death

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And that would probably be the end of Mother Shipton, consigned to a relatively minor character in the long history of sibyls and soothsayers, if she was not resurrected in the Victorian era. It’s always the Victorians! Charles Dickens first referenced her in a 1856 story, and then the entrepreneurial bookseller Charles Hindley published a new set of rhymed and timely prophecies that were supposedly based on a newly-discovered manuscript in the British Museum (he later confessed to making them up). Now Mother Shipton was predicting railroads, ships made of iron, wireless communication and all sorts of industrial innovations, as well as the ominous warning that the world then to an end shall come/ In Eighteen Hundred and Eighty-One, which was changed to 1991 in early-twentieth-century reprints. By that time, she had evolved yet again, into a fairy-tale character and (later) a tourist attraction.

Mother Shipton 1800 BM

PicMonkey Collage

Mother Shipton's Cave Yorkshire

Charles Townley print of Mother Shipton and her familiar, 1800, British Museum, Linley Sanbourne and W. Heath Robinson illustrations of Mother Shipton on her broomstick for Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies. A Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby (1888 & 1915); the entrance to Mother Shipton’s Cave in Knaresborough, “England’s Oldest Tourist Attraction” (shades of Salem!).


Early May Meander

May is my absolute favorite month but also the busiest time of the year for me, with grading and other end-of-the-semester obligations, annual meetings for every single Salem organization to which I belong, and lots of stuff to attend to in the house and, of course, the garden. Frenzied activity and frustration, and lots of running around. This past week we have had absolutely beautiful weather: in typical New England fashion, everything just burst. So I took sporadic breaks from grading, not my favorite activity, and meandered about town. I did not have to go very far, as my neighborhood is particularly beautiful this time of year, and sometimes (often, after every other one) I can just raise my head up from the pile of blue books before me and look out the window and see something beautiful or interesting.

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A photo shoot on Chestnut Street last weekend, involving quite a lot of people, and a single artist painting the park on the same day.

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Admiring one neighbor’s lush yard, and another’s “spiderweb” window.

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My jack-in-the-pulpits (Arisaema triphyllum) have arrived!!! Four this year!!!

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Sorry this cardinal is a little blurry, but I chased him all around the neighborhood, determined to get his picture, and this is as close as I could get.


Period Rooms

The “period rooms” installed in many museums are always the first place I go, but as I often find myself wandering about alone, I’m not surprised that there are efforts afoot to instill a bit more life into them. Our major museum here in Salem, the Peabody Essex Museum, doesn’t even have period rooms even though I believe that its predecessor, the Essex Institute, pioneered such installations with its George Francis Dow-designed rooms from a century ago. The PEM owns entire historic houses, however, so one can certainly understand the reluctance to consign precious exhibition space to static rooms. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston retains its period rooms, and has just added a seventeenth-century English drawing room to their assemblage of suites.

I know of a several projects aimed at revitalizing period rooms from the past few years, but there must be many more. Just recently, the “All America House” exhibit at Woodlawn Plantation in Alexandria, Virginia opened, the result of a collaboration between the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Woodlawn’s owner, and MADE: In America, a nonprofit organization, in which teams of students from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, George Washington University and the Corcoran College of Art + Design were charged with creating a home for a modern family in the historic rooms at Woodlawn, working with the Woodlawn staff and mingling antiques from the collection with new furniture designed and manufactured in the United States. The goal was the creation of rooms which “referenced the many layers of history embodied at Woodlawn over the last 210 years”. Below are before and after pictures from the National Trust’s blog, with the pristine period parlor above and the “All-American” parlor below.

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Woodlawn Plantation and its front parlor, before (National Trust for Historic Preservation photograph) and after (David Wilson).

I love the All America parlor designed by the students (and how great that students were recruited for this project rather than Big Famous Designers): it’s a similar aesthetic to my own house (or at least a style I’m striving for) but clearly it represents a historic era–say the heyday of Woodlawn as a working plantation–less than it does our own time. Nevertheless, people love the contrast of past and present, and such approaches can encourage engagement–the goal of every history educator or interpreter.

Another interesting attempt to revitalize period rooms was the Brooklyn Museum’s Playing Houseactivation” from a year ago, in which modern artists working in various genres (Ann Agee, Anne Chu, Mary Lucier and Betty Woodman) were invited to place site-specific artworks in eight of the Museum’s 23 period rooms. Again, the goal was the merging and juxtaposition of past and present, creating new perspectives on both.

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The Brooklyn Museum’s Cane Acres Plantation period room (late 18th century) with abstract pottery “placemats” and sculptures by Betty Woodman and textile “flowers” and cloths by Anne Chu; video installation by Mary Lucier in the dining room of the seventeenth-century Jan Martense Schenk house.

I wish I had gone to the exhibition in person because the pictures seem to present the period rooms as mere backdrop for the modern art and I’m sure the real experience was much more interactive. One last attempt to inject life into a dusty period room was the recent Supper with Shakespeare collaboration between the Minneapolis Institute of  Arts and British food historian Ivan Day. Mr. Day created a desert display for the Institute’s c. 1600 Tudor Room which featured a sugar castle centerpiece and tarts made from period recipes, placed on a table set with period cutlery and serving ware from the Institute’s collection, so people could see how these still things–table, chairs, plates, knives–were used in their own time.

MIA Tudor Event

Supper with Shakespeare display at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts; photograph by Ariana Lindquist for the New York Times.


Modernizing the Monarchs

Playing with history, even manipulating it, is amusing in my off-time (which includes the blog), so naturally these images captured my attention: they were commissioned by a British television channel named Yesterday for their tabloid series entitled The Secret Life Of… and are the results of “digital artists working closely with history experts to ensure the portraits gave a real sense of how historical characters would look if they were alive in the 21st Century”. I don’t know how this could be “ensured”, but interesting choices were made in the updating process. For example, Henry VIII was by all accounts a vain man, so he would have maintained his athletic figure through middle age and cloaked it in a bespoke suit–but the jewelry? I don’t think so. I also think he was a traditionalist, so he would have worn a tie, especially for an important portrait-sitting.

History People

Henry’s daughter Elizabeth is described as “the overthe-top queen with the powdered white face, unnaturally high forehead, and a wardrobe that made her the Lady Gaga of the 16th century” .  Why then such a boring pantsuit? This modern Elizabeth has been robbed of her femininity, which was an essential feature of her projected character. I would have clothed her in something much more high fashion:  she looks like a Dolce & Gabbana girl to me, and the ensemble below (from their Fall 2012 collection) reads royal.

History People Elizabeth

Dolce and Gabbana fall 2012

Elizabeth’s contemporary William Shakespeare fares better, I think, but then who really knows? The receding hairline that you see in some historical images (we’re not quite sure what Shakespeare actually looked like) has been “corrected” with a modern hair transplanting process, resulting in abundant curls, and his ruff is replaced by a hipster shirt and vest. The facial hair remains the same, as it does with Henry VIII. Timeless, I guess.

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Filming on Federal

Lots of movies have been filmed here in Salem; at some point, I’ve got to make a comprehensive list and write up a mega-post! In my own time here, I have been kept up two entire nights by film crews outside my bedroom window on two occasions, in two different houses: filming is not a quiet, or small, or particularly energetic operation. This week, a David O. Russell film entitled “American Hustle”, starring Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, is being filmed in and around the courthouses on Federal Street, and the whole city is abuzz. Yesterday, in particular, there were Cooper sightings being tweeted and whispered about, but I have seen no movie stars: only trucks, cameras, crowds, and cars. Here’s the description of the movie from IMDb: the 1970sset true story of a con artist and his partner in crime, who were forced to work with a federal agent to turn the tables on other cons, mobsters, and politiciansnamely, the volatile mayor of impoverished Camden, New Jersey. So you can imagine what the cars looked like.

Yesterday, they were obviously filming inside the courthouses (abandoned by the state for our newly-built Stalinesque building that is adjacent to the classical revival, Romanesque, and Greek Revival buildings that you see here) but on Tuesday, it was all about the cars. While I saw some seventies-garbed extras milling about the cars, no Cooper or Bale sightings for me.

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Huge cars lining the street on Tuesday:

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Just around the corner, all was calm on the other side of the courthouses. Quite the contrast.

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May Day

Thanks to fond childhood memories (which I wrote about in last year’s May Day post) and my own rather whimsical penchant for the past, the first of May is one of my favorite days of the year. This year it is even better than usual because it marks the end of classes (yes, professors look forward to this just as much as students, perhaps more). There is lots of age-old advice about May Day, which, combined with artistic representations of bringing in the May–feasting, dancing, and processions (all while wearing garlands)– leads me to believe that it was once a much more important holiday than the non-event it is today. This is just a small list of things that you are supposed to do or not do in May, culled from a variety of sources, most from the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries:  take off your “flannels”, organize a parade (especially if you are a milkmaid or a chimney sweep), cut down trees and greenery and deck the halls, dance, pick a May Queen, move house (???), but do not get married (unfortunately my anniversary is in May) or sleep with a blooming Hawthorn branch in your bedroom.

For my own May Day observance, I’ve collected a few flowery images from the past–where May Day is depicted with a strong undertone of liberation on at least this first day of the merry month of May–and my own present-day Salem. I think everyone feels a bit more liberated in the springtime, and students and professors at semester’s end.

May Day 1820

Thomas Lord Busby, Costumes of the Lower Orders of London, 1820 (New York Public Library Digital Gallery).

Here is a rather fanciful depiction of  milkmaids and chimney sweeps in their May Day costumes, with the traditional Jack in the Green in the center, covered by a more masculine version of the traditional garland. Quite elaborate costume for the “lower orders”! This is one of 24 hand-colored etched plates “engraved from nature’ by Thomas Lord Busby in 1820: a rather voyeuristic, and expensive, collection that is brand new to me. Both milkmaids and chimney sweeps (but no Jack in the Green) are the central subjects of Francis Hayman’s earlier (and even more romanticized) painting, The Milkmaids Garland, or Humours of May Day (1741-42), below.

May Day Garland

Victoria & Albert Museum, London

More than a century later, Walter Crane’s images of May Day are both romantic and relevant: as devoted to the cause of the “lower orders” as he was to his art, he created the iconic Garland for May Day, 1895 which grounded politics in the same traditional imagery that is evident in his later illustration for Charles Lamb’s A Masque of Days (London: Cassell & Company, 1901).

May Day Garland 1895

May Day Masque of Days Walter Crane

Rather than a full-floral display, there are pops of color around town this morning:  it’s still early Spring in Salem. In my own garden, my perfect pulmonaria (lungwort) was in full flourish, and the boring forsythia a little past. Elsewhere in Salem, there was a lot to see on this May Day morning on my brief run around before (the last day of) classes.  I particularly like the last little striped flowers in the herb garden behind the Richard Derby House at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site–some type of tulip?

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