Monthly Archives: June 2013

Merchant Princesses

I recently found another Salem painting in the Christie’s Auctions archive that captured my attention and fancy: “Portrait possibly of a Girl of the Derby Family” by C.L. Carter, early nineteenth century (she actually looks more eighteenth-century to me). She’s a lovely girl, but I think she entranced me not only because of her Salem connection, but because she reminds me of another “merchant princess” from long ago and far away: Bia Medici, the illegitimate daughter of Cosimo I de’ Medici, as envisioned by Bronzino.  I say “envisioned” because while the portrait of the Salem girl captured the fullness of life (I think), the Bronzino portrait is a memorial image of the recently deceased girl. In life and death and in these paintings, both girls represent the privileged positions their respective families held in two mercantile oligarchies, centuries and an ocean apart.

Merchant Princess CL Carter Christies

Merchant Princesses  Bronzino

C.L. Carter, Portrait Possibly of a Girl of the Derby Family, Christie‘s; Angelo Bronzino, Untitled, known as Portrait of Bia Medici, Daughter of Cosimo I or Portrait of Bia, illegitimate daughter of Cosimo I de’ Medici, Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Bronzino’s Medici princess has become iconic I think; I use her in my Renaissance classes to illustrate contemporary themes of family, death and remembrance, and Medici power and the students are always very taken with her, perhaps because of the angelic quality Bronzino (working from a death mask) gave her. Joseph Cornell was apparently taken with her as well, as she is the featured image of his 1948 collage sculpture that was part of the Navigating the Imagination exhibition originating at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and shown here in Salem at the Peabody Essex Museum. Another artist who seems to have been inspired by the portraits of these and other merchant princesses is the Australian photographer Bill Gekas, who has posed his very alive 5-year-old daughter in a series of  “reimagined” scenes, with adorable, and engaging, results.

Merchant Princess Cornell

Merchant's Daughter

Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Medici Princess), c. 1948, Private Collection; Bill Gekas, The Merchant’s Daughter, © Bill Gekas.


Burning Times

My title is not a reference to the early modern witch trials, but quite literally to some of the larger urban fires in history: London, Boston, Chicago, Portland, Maine. I am trying to put the Salem Fire of 1914 in a larger context, and I also wanted a place/post to showcase a painting I found recently while auction archive-stalking (a major pastime of mine, along with realestalking). By an anonymous artist of the “American School”, The Burning of Treadwell’s Mill, Salem, Massachusetts shows what must have been the constant threat of fire in the densely-settled urban environment of a nineteenth-century Salem. I’m not sure exactly where Treadwell’s Mill was or what it produced (shoes? cotton? jute?) but the artist (C.C.R.?) certainly captures a striking scene.

Burning Times Treadwell Mill Christies

I’m also unsure as to when this fire occurred, but it appears contemporaneous with the Great urban fires in Chicago (1871) and Boston (1872). I imagine that these two huge conflagrations, happening in such quick succession and causing acres and acres of devastation, much have really raised the specter of fire in the public consciousness in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and incited intensive discussions about fire prevention, water systems, insurance, and city planning. Much of the historical analysis of these fires and their impact focuses on the modern cities that emerged after the flames died down, almost as if fire was a (re-)generative force rather than a destructive one. These dramatic fires clearly inspired contemporary artists as well, who seem to focus on either the unbridled force of nature or more human perspectives. Painted several decades after the fire, Julia Lemos’s Memories of the Chicago Fire (1912) is all about the fire’s refugees, while the popular Currier & Ives lithograph of the Boston Fire shows the totality of destruction.

Burning Times Chicago

Burning Times Boston

Portland has always been one of my favorite little cities, but every time I go there I think something’s missing. Compared to other old New England ports like Providence, Boston, Salem, Newburyport, and Portsmouth, it seems  relatively new and very Victorian. Its urban landscape was shaped dramatically by the large fire of July 4, 1866, in which the joyous fireworks celebrating the first post-Civil War Independence Day triggered an inflammation that consumed much of downtown and presumably many colonial and Federal-era structures. Yet a new city emerged that took advantage of  the considerable charms of its geographic location. I like the transformation charted by the digital exhibition of the University of Southern Maine’s Osher Map Library:  from a “Blackened City, Laid in Ruins” to a “Green City, Reborn in Parks”. The environmental impact of the fire is emphasized by two contemporary images by Portland artist J.B. Hudson of Elms, Locust Street before and after the Fire of July 4, 1866. No mention of the charred remains of the built structures in the titles of these lithographs, just the trees!

Burning Times Portland 1

Burning Times Portland 2

It’s a big jump, back almost exactly two centuries, to the Great London Fire of 1666, but I’m going there. This was a fire that was truly “great”, both in terms of its devastation (some 13,000 buildings) and its impact, which included a rapid rebuilding response through what was one of the first examples of centralized urban planning–a model for disaster-devastated cities in the future. Very shortly after the Fire, King Charles II established a Commission for rebuilding the city, which proceeded with plans for wider streets, squares, and larger brick buildings. Not everything worked out as planned, but a new London emerged from the ashes fairly quickly, with 6000 structures built by 1670. Five years later, Commissioner Christopher Wren (ably assisted in the rebuilding process by the more-than-able Robert Hooke, the “English Leonardo” and the “man who measured London”) began work on his St. Paul’s Cathedral, which more than any other structure emerged at the triumphant symbol of the new and eternal London.

cropped to image, recto, unframed

Burning Times St Paul's

Old St. Paul’s and “New” St. Paul’s, in the midst of fire: unknown artist of the “British School”,  The Great Fire of London, with Ludgate and Old St. Paul’s, 17th Century, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection; Herbert Mason’s iconic photograph of Christopher Wren’s St. Paul’s during the Blitz, 1940.


Remembering the Fire

Another anniversary today, though one not nearly as festive as that of the nativity of St. John. On June 25, 1914, 99 years ago today, the Great Salem Fire devastated large sections of our city, engulfing over 1300 buildings and 250 acres. The French neighborhood of Salem, including its centerpiece, the newly-built St. Joseph’s Church, was consumed (and that church’s eventual replacement was dismantled by human hands earlier this year). A lot has been written about the Fire, and I expect that many more words and images will be presented over this next Centennial year. I have just begun working with our university archivist on a digital exhibition on the Fire and its aftermath, and we hope to have it completed by the beginning of 2014.

Fire Panorama LC

Panoramic photograph of the Fire by C.H. Phinney, 1914, Library of Congress.

There are many contemporary images to choose from, including the hundred of postcards of the Fire aftermath which I wrote about in an earlier post. I don’t really understand the compulsion to make/send postcards from the scene of a human disaster but it was certainly done in this case! We are looking for more unusual and less commercial images of both the fire and its aftermath, so if you know of any private collections please let me know. We also want to focus on the greater impact: on both the neighborhoods directly affected and the city at large. The photographs below, all from the Boston Public Library, capture both the moment and the morning after in particularly compelling ways.

Salem Fire at its Height, BPL

Salem Fire Old Steamer

The Salem Fire at its height, from the Railroad Crossing” and “the Famous Old Steamer on its Way to the Salem Fire”. Note the man in the first picture, more captivated by the photographer than the fire behind him. His view is blocked by the railroad car, but still!

Salem Fire Ruins 1 BPL

Salem Fire Ruins 2 BPL

Salem Fire Ruins 3 BPL

Ruins on the morning after. There are many similar images; we’re going to have to be much more resourceful and creative in our efforts to source images of the Fire’s long-term aftermath.

Salem Fire Feed Tent

Feed Tent, Forest River Park. Photograph by M.E. Robb from Arthur B. Jones’ The Salem Fire (1914).


St. John’s Wort

Today marks the anniversary of the nativity (as opposed to the death by beheading, or decollation) of one of the most important medieval saints, St. John the Baptist. The devout veneration of the Saint determined the observation of his feast day, which was “summer Christmas”, with fire in the fields (the pre-Christian holdover), three masses, and garlands and wreaths made of golden flowers, including those from the Saint’s own namesake herb, St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum), which seems to have survived, even flourished in this modern world. In the past it was first and foremost a protective herb, hung over doors, windows, and religious images (its Latin genus name–Hypericum–means “above a picture”) to keep evil away, but it was also used medicinally. I consulted my two favorite (post-medieval) herbalists, William Turner and Nicholas Culpepper for their take. Turner’s New Herball (1551) deems the great herb (as opposed to the more common St. John’s grass) good for sciatica, heartburn, and the purging of “choloric humors”, while Culpepper’s Complete Herbal (1653) is more forthcoming:  it is a singular wound herb; boiled in wine and drank, it heals inward hurts or bruises; made into an ointment, it open obstructions, dissolves swellings, and closes up the lips of wounds. The decoction of the herb and flowers, especially of the seed, being drank in wine, with the juice of knot-grass, helps all manner of vomiting and spitting of blood, is good for those that are bitten or stung by any venomous creature, and for those that cannot make water. Two drams of the seed of St. John’s Wort made into powder, and drank in a little broth, doth gently expel choler or congealed blood in the stomach. The decoction of the leaves and seeds drank somewhat warm before the fits of agues, whether they be tertains or quartans, alters the fits, and, by often using, doth take them quite away. The seed is much commended, being drank for forty days together, to help the sciatica, the falling sickness, and the palsy. No mention of the anti-depressant virtues attributed to St. John’s Wort today–but also no mention of the magical protective qualities previously attributed to the plant.

N0023138 Hypericum androsaemum (Tutsan)

St Johns Wort Egerton 747 BL

St Johns Wort V and A 19th c

The “great” St. John’s Wort, which I use as a groundcover in partial shade, and common (British Library MS Egerton 747) and Chinese varieties (painting, c. 1770-90,Victoria & Albert Museum, London).

This day is a charmed day, with hidden treasures hiding in plain sight, so keep your eyes open! As St. John’s Day coincided with the first day of summer, all of nature’s bounty was displayed  in abundance. The days are not quite in synch now, but close enough, as is evident (at least here in the northeast US) by the bloom of other golden-flowered plants like Lady’s Mantle and another one of my favorites, Rue, which was also classified as one of Johanneskraut (St. John’s herbs). For best results in protection and healing, I should have plucked off some of these flowers last night, on St. John’s Eve; I think it’s too late this morning.

St. Johns Wort 011

St. Johns Wort 18th

Rue in my garden, and common St. John’s Wort in Giorgio Bonelli’s Hortus Romanus, 1772, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

My very favorite artistic depictions of  St. John’s Wort (and other plants) are those of Mary Delany, who started making paper flower “mosaics” in her 70s, at the end of the eighteenth century. With precise, almost scientific, detail, Mrs. Delany pasted flower parts onto black backgrounds, creating a whole new genre of botanical art. You can see more of her collages at the British Museum, and in Mary Peacock’s book:  The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 (2012).

St Johns Wort Delany 2 1770

St Johns Wort Delany 1780

Two of Mary Delany’s St. John’s Wort collages, 1777 & 1780, British Museum, London.


Summer Solstice

So now we come to the longest day of the year, celebrated in the medieval era (anywhere from June 21 to 25) as Midsummer and the nativity of St. John the Baptist, as well as a bonfire and quarter day. It’s a perfect example of the assimilation of pagan and Christian traditions, and the triumph of nature over both. We know that everything is blooming now and that the days are long, and people in the past did too. This is a day that is much more important in Scandinavian cultures than those of the rest of Europe or here in America; its characterization and secularization as the mere “longest day” definitely robbed it of some of its magic. The best thing to do is just enjoy the day—all of it.

Different perspectives on the longest day and the onset of Summer:

Summer Solstice Crane NYPL

Summer Solstice BM 18th C

“Longest Day set off westward in beautiful crimson & gold”, from Walter Crane‘s Masque of Days (1901);  “Summer” hand-colored mezzotint published by John Fairburn, 1796.

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Global views of Summer in 18th-century astronomical charts from the Wellcome Library, London–and you can buy your own here.

Summer Solstice Etsy

Morning, midday & evening in Salem, Summer Solstice eve:

Summer Solstice 008

Summer Solstice 030

Summer Solstice 034

Summer Solstice evening


Most Endangered 2013

My affection for history was fostered by places and buildings; it’s very material. And while I appreciate and am often awed by nature, I find the built landscape more accessible–and instructive. I’ve been an ardent preservationist since my teens, and am just passionate (geeky) enough to actually anticipate the release of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual Most Endangered Places list every year. Yesterday brought the big announcement of this year’s list, which includes two New England properties with which I am familiar and nine more which I’m eager to see (most of them anyway, before they disappear). I have helped to create similar lists for our local preservation organization, Historic Salem, Inc., and if our deliberations are any indication, this list is the result of an intensive process:  you have to choose places that are threatened but are not too far gone, that possess the potential for recovery, there are always political factors involved, and historical and/or cultural significance has to be readily apparent. I’m sure the National Trust also has to take into account regional representation, as their Most Endangered Places are generally spread all over the U.S. map.

New England Most Endangered Places: Gay Head Lighthouse, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, and the Abyssinian Meeting House, Portland Maine.

Most Endangered

The Gay Head Light, Aquinnah, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, is threatened by erosion: it’s about 10 feet away from falling over the cliff. It’s wooden predecessor was faced with the same threat in 1844, and this brick structure, outfitted with a first-order Fresnel lens, dates from the 1850s.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Abyssinian Meeting House in Portland, Maine was built in 1828 to serve as a school and assembly house for Portland’s African-American community, and it also served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. It is the third oldest African-American meeting house in the country, which is amazing to me given its northern location. If you visit the Abyssinian Restoration Project website, you will see that an intensive preservation effort is ongoing; all they lack is resources.

Properties threatened by Development: The Village of Mariemont, Ohio, and the James River, Virginia.

Mariemont_619x350

The Village of Mariemont  in Ohio, a Tudor Revival planned community built in the 1920s, is threatened by highway construction. Of all the threats to historic structures, infrastructure development bothers me the most, because it is often short-sighted. Salem was faced with the threat of a road running down its historic center in the 1960s which was fortunately averted; I thought Urban Renewal had ended.

Most Endangered

The historic places that line its shores–Jamestown, Williamsburg, and a host of plantations–have given the James River the name “America’s Founding River”. Apparently “inappropriate development” threatens this region now. I’ll take the National Trust’s word on this, but I wish they were a bit more specific about the threat.

Most of the places on the list are quite modern, including Houston’s Astrodome, the Worldport at JFK Airport in New York, and several mid-twentieth-century buildings–all of which face demolition. By contrast, the oldest building on the list and one of the oldest buildings in North America, the San José Church (1523) in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, is threatened by the deterioration that comes with time. The notes on its Historic American Buildings Survey record indicate that it was “in need of extensive repairs” in 1935, so you can imagine its condition now.

Endangered Historic P1341341

Church

Church 2

The Church of San José in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, built by the Dominican Order in 1523. Black and white photographs from the Historic American Buildings Survey (1935), Library of Congress.


Battlefield Bystanders

With two big battle anniversaries converging–that of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775 and Waterloo on June 18, 1815–I was looking at contemporary and commemorative images of both contests and noticed the preponderance of bystanders, observers, and public reaction perspectives. These two battles seem very public, but of course all battles are, and these two were particularly epic, marking the commencement of the American Revolution and the defeat, finally, of Napoleon.

Bunker Hill

Waterloo Sketch

View of the attack on Bunker’s Hill (really Breed’s Hill), with the Burning of Charles Town, June 17,1775, drawn by Mr. Millar, engraved by Lodge (1775), Library of Congress; Print of an anonymous etching of the Battle of Waterloo with the key officers (c. 1815), British Museum.

Both battles were followed pretty quickly by reports from “near observers” for audiences hungry for results, and details: the deaths of Major Pitcairn and Dr. Joseph Warren at Bunker Hill, dashing displays of bravery in both battles, the capture of Napoleon (finally) several weeks after Waterloo. With time, as both events become part of history and national memory, the people get more involved with the emphasis on observation and reception, which is particularly apparent in composed  images of the battles.  I particularly like the “watching from the rooftops” images of Bunker Hill, which began with Winslow Homer’s 1875 engraving for Harper’s, and continued through a series of popular postcards published by Raphael Tuck & Sons.

Bunker Hill Harpers

EdwinHowlandBlashfield--Suspense-TheBostonpeoplewatchingfromthehousetopsthefiringatBunkerHill

Battlefield Bystanters Raphael Tuck

Battlefield Bystanders Tuck

Battlefield Bystanders Tuck 1910

Winslow Homer, The Battle of Bunker Hill–Watching the Fight from Cobb’s Hill in Boston, Harpers Weekly, June 26, 1875; Edwin Howland Bashfield, Suspense: The Boston people watching from the house tops the firing at Bunker Hill (1882); Raphael Tuck & Sons postcards, circa 1910.

I remember reading the sections on the Battle of Waterloo in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and thinking: it seems like they’ve gone right from the ballroom to the battlefield (which they did) and what is Becky doing there? This was a strange battle, but certainly a momentous one. You can certainly ascertain the intense interest of civilians both in the vicinity of the battle and on the homefront in two striking images: the first, from William Mudford’s Historical Account of  the Campaign in the Netherlands in 1815 (1817), is of the observatory tower commissioned by the King of the Netherlands, erected so all of those people at the ball could see the battle. The second is David Wilkie’s Chelsea Pensioners (1822), in which a very inclusive British public receive news of the big victory at Waterloo.

Battlefield Bystanders Waterloo Mugford

oeurart046p4

James Rouse painting, from Mudford’s Historical Account (1817);  Sir David Wilkie, Chelsea Pensioners Receiving the London Gazette Extraordinary of Thursday, June 22 1815, Announcing the Battle of Waterloo (1822), Dulwich Picture Gallery.


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