Monthly Archives: February 2014

Alice for the Ages

I’m a devoted aficionado of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which means I’m a fan not only of Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), but also of the illustrator John Tenniel, whose Alice is Alice: we cannot think of the story apart from his images–the words and the pictures are an inseparable whole. Tenniel produced illustrations for many, many more publications besides Alice and Through the Looking Glass during his long life (1820-1914), but his illustrations for Carroll are the ultimate examples of what book illustration should accomplish: the creation of a tangible world in which the text’s characters dwell. And don’t we all want to live in Wonderland, at least for a little while? As today marks Tenniel’s birthday, I thought I’d share some of his beautiful hand-colored proofs from the collection of the Morgan Library & Museum. These are for the 1889 abridged “Nursery Edition” of Alice, which, ironically, has a cover illustration by a different artist: Emily Gertrude Thomson. As you can see, Thomson’s Alice looks very much like Tenniel’s: she is Alice, after all.

Tenniel Nursery Alice

tenniel_2005.203

tenniel_2005.197

tenniel_2005.199

tenniel_2005.191

Sir John Tenniel’s hand-colored proofs for the “Nursery” edition of Alice, c. 1889; Morgan Library & Museum, Gift of Arthur A. Houghton, Jr., 1987.


Resistance and Retreat in Salem, 1775

The American Revolution did not, of course, begin with a single “shot heard round the world” but was rather the result of a simmering opposition developing in Massachusetts from at least 1770. A singular event in this intensifying insurgence occurred here in Salem on this day in 1775: while referred to alternatively by historians as the “Salem Alarm” or the “Salem Gunpowder Raid” (the subtitle of Peter Charles Hoffer’s recently-released book, Prelude to Revolution), its more popular designation is “Leslie’s Retreat”.

The reference is to the British Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Leslie, who was dispatched by General Thomas Gage–who had proclaimed Massachusetts in “open rebellion” just weeks earlier–to Salem in search of the cannons and powder he suspected was there. Indeed, there were 17 cannons in the shop of blacksmith Robert Foster, who had been commissioned by Colonel David Mason of the Massachusetts Committee of Public Safety to affix them to carriages in preparation for the inevitable conflict. On a chilly Sunday, Leslie and his men (about 240 fusiliers from the 64th Regiment) disembarked from their ship in Marblehead and commenced the 5-mile march to Salem towards Foster’s foundry, located on the bank of the North River just across what was then a drawbridge. The alarm went out, and by the time they got to Salem Leslie and his men faced a large, angry, armed crowd and a raised drawbridge. A tense standoff of several hours ended with a compromise which was really both a defeat and a retreat for the British: the bridge was lowered, enabling Leslie to fulfill his orders and inspect the foundry, but he went no further–and the cannons were long gone. No blood was shed, with the exception of that of one Joseph Whicher, pricked by a British bayonet. There are many indications that this was considered a momentous moment–in its own time and after. A few months later–and across the water, The Gentleman’s Magazine reported that the Americans have hoisted their standard of liberty at Salem.

Leslies Retreat Repulse of Leslie feb 26 1775 Bridgman

Leslies Retreat map EIHC

PicMonkey Collage

Lewis Jesse Bridgman, “The Repulse of Leslie at the North Bridge, Sunday, February 26, 1775” and sketch of the scene, from Robert Rantoul, “The Affair at the North Bridge, Salem, February 26, 1775”, Historical Collections of the Essex Institute 38 (1902); Some of the major players:  Colonel David Mason on right, a Gainsborough portrait of Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Leslie upper left, and the Reverend Thomas Barnard of Salem, lower left, who by all accounts negotiated the retreat.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Leslie’s Retreat was a heralded historical event, marked by addresses, commemorations, and compilations of source materials that we draw from now, including  Charles Moses Endicott’s Account of Leslie’s Retreat at the North Bridge on Sunday Feb’y 26, 1775 (1856) and Rantoul’s 1902 article, cited above. Such interesting characters (and large crowds) emerge from these accounts:  Sarah Tarrant, a Salem woman who openly mocked the British troops, the equally rebellious militia captain John Felt, and the “Paul Revere” of the event, Major John Pedrick of Marblehead, whose role seems a bit mythological to say the least (see much more about this particular gentleman and his role here). Pedrick’s role in carrying the alarm to Salem was certainly romanticized by the Marblehead folk artist J.O.J. Frost in his 1920s (?) painting, Major Pedrick. To the Town of Salem, to Give the Alarm, which went up for auction at Skinner a couple of years ago. I can’t resist adding a photograph from the collection of the New York Historical Society Museum & Library of the original enlarged painting in the hands of a gentleman identified as “Colonel Leslie” but whom I suspect is the artist.

Frost Pedrick

Leslie and Frost Painting

At present, I do not think Leslie’s Retreat is either revered or even remembered: perhaps Professor Hoffer’s book will bring it back into our civic consciousness. Many of the streets in the vicinity of the standoff are named for its participants: Mason, Felt, Foster (no Tarrant), but the widening of North Street, the multiple replacements of the bridge, and the damming of the river have created a landscape that would be unrecognizable to any of these people–and not a particularly reverent one. What remains to remind us of Leslie’s Retreat? A weathered memorial, a dog park, and a restaurant.

Leslies Retreat 004

Leslies Retreat 001


Double Faux

For some time I’ve been captivated by a covered cup and saucer in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston: the pieces were made by the Niderviller Manufactory in France just before the Revolution but somehow the combination of two illusory design motifs–faux bois and trompe l’oeil–make them seem very modern to me. I love everything about them and want to learn more and see more.

Faux Bois MFA

It was relatively easy to find more faience from the Niderviller Manufactory: below are a plate dated 1774 in a French private collection and another at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, along with a tray and teapot dated the very same year in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum. Look at the little nail on the teapot, “tacking” the print to its surface–amazing! The Niderviller Factory was a rare pre-revolutionary aristocratic-owned operation situated in the Duchy of Lorraine where it was exempt from French laws protecting the royal monopoly of the Sèvres porcelain factory. Production at Niderviller commenced by 1750, but I seem to like the more whimsical creations of the 1773-93 period when the factory was owned by the Count de Custine. The Minneapolis plate below is signed by “J. Deutsch” which is a rather imprecise name–I wonder if this almost-anonymous artist was responsible for the other trompe l’oeil pieces? The signatures look similar on the Victoria & Albert tray and teapot. Despite the Count de Custine’s sympathy for both the American and French Revolutions, he was guillotined in 1793, but the Niderville Factory survived both the Revolution and the ensuing Napoleonic Wars and continues to operate today. Trompe l’oeil decoration was wildly popular in the eighteenth century, but the combination of “wood” and “paper” and ceramics is a little more unusual–though I did find a few more examples beyond Niderviller: an early nineteenth-century plate produced at the Imperial Vienna Porcelain Factory and a very rare “solitaire” set, also made in Vienna. I’m not as taken with these Vienna pieces: they lack the whimsy and detail (folded edges) of the Niderviller pieces.

faience-de-nidervillerDSC08907_medium

Faux Bois Minneapolis 1774

Faux Bois Tray V and A

Faux Bois Teapot V and A

Faux Bois Teapot V and A focus

Faux Bois Vienna Plate c. 1810 Victoria and Albert Museum

Faux Bois Trompe

This faux bois/faux papier decoration doesn’t have to be confined to ceramics, of course: we can and should go back–and forward. Both the faux bois and trompe l’oeil techniques seem to have been perfected in the seventeenth-century paintings of still-life artists like Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts (c. 1630-after 1683) and Edwaert Colyer (or Collier, 1642-1708), which must have influenced the ceramic artists of the next century. The “wooden” background and affixed objects certainly seem very real in the former’s Trompe l’Oeil with Riding Whip and Letter Bag (1872), one of many “paneled” and “cabinet” paintings at the National Gallery of Denmark, and Colyer’s letter racks and “portraits” often have faux bois backgrounds (and folded corners).

Faux Bois Gijsbrechts Riding Whip 1872

Trompe l'Oeil Portrait of a Lady (oil on canvas)

Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts, Trompe l’Oeil with Riding Whip and Letter Barg, National Gallery of Denmark; Edwaert Colyer, Trompe l’Oeil Portrait of a Lady, Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery.

Both faux bois and trompe l’oeil techniques continue to be expressed and adapted up to the present day, with varying degrees of detail and in various mediums–but combinations are a bit more rare. In the realm of ceramics, I have yet to see anything as appealing as the Niderviller pieces, but I’m always looking. ….so far the closest I’ve come–not too close at all, really—are plates in the “Texquite” pattern from Bongenre, made in that most modern of materials: melanine.

The One Key to It All

Faux Bois Texquite

Otis Kaye (1885-1974), The One Key to It All, 20th Century, Private Collection, photo © Christie’s Images / The Bridgeman Art Library; Melanine plate in the “Texquite” pattern, Bongenre.


Where Washington’s Ancestors Slept

For George Washington’s real birthday, I’m featuring his ancestral home:  Sulgrave Manor, in Northamptonshire. The early Tudor building still stands, and marks the point of departure for our first President’s great-great grandfather for America in the seventeenth century. On the eve of the First World War (and in commemoration of the War of 1812), the British Peace Centenary Committee bought the Manor and presented it jointly to the peoples of Britain and the United States in celebration of the hundred years of peace between their two nations. The Manor was endowed by funds raised by the National Society of The Colonial Dames of America a decade later, and it also maintains itself as an event and educational venue. I visited the Manor years ago, when it seemed to me to be in excellent condition, but it has recently been placed on the watch list of the most endangered heritage sites in the world by the World Monuments Fund. On the website, statements by the Sulgrave Manor Trust note that Sulgrave Manor has suffered from a lack of investment and is struggling to cope with the repairs and on-going maintenance this Tudor house and its associated buildings desperately need and reveal the intent to establish archive and exhibit space for its large collection of George Washington memorabilia.

Sulgrave Manor WMF

Sulgrave Manor Detroit LC

Sulgrave Manor PC Blomfield

Sulgrave Poster Wilkinson

Sulgrave Manor wallpaper V and A and PRO

Sulgrave Manor Entrance pc

Sulgrave Manor today and in vintage postcards by Reginald Blomfield (who designed its Arts and Crafts gardens) and the Detroit Publishing Company, c. 1910 (Library of Congress); reproduction of a Norman Wilkinson poster of the Great Dining Hall after its restoration, and wallpaper fragment which is identical to one from Sulgrave in the UK National Archives depicting Charles II and Queen Catherine–the Washingtons were LOYAL Royalists in the seventeenth century! (Collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum); flags at Sulgrave’s entrance, 1930s.


Soviet Scenery

Despite all the unsettling things about the Sochi Olympics (“urban renewal”, intolerance, dead dogs, slushy snow), I’ve been trying to watch the events pretty consistently–especially skiing and speed skating, which I really enjoy. In general, I prefer the Winter Olympics to the Summer (watching swimming is boring), but there are several things that are really bothering me about these particular games. Actually the first thing is more general than specific: NBC’s coverage, which always annoys me–and they have broadcast the Olympics for as long as I can remember. In prime time, there are far too many commercials, personal stories, and muttering commentators, and not enough consistent coverage of single events–except, of course, figure skating and ice dancing, which I’m not convinced is even a sport (if we have ice dancing in the Winter Olympics shouldn’t we have other types of dancing in the Summer games?)  And by the time I tune in, I know much of what has already happened anyway–this strikes me as an odd way to broadcast a global event in this internet age. The second thing that troubles me about Sochi is its subtropical climate: I still don’t understand why (besides Putin’s will) we are having the Winter games in a city with an average winter temperature of 52 degrees. The mild temperatures and fog seem to have affected the events and the athletes in myriad ways, and obviously Russia has many more winter-appropriate locations.

But what troubles me most of all about these games is the increasing dissonance between the activities in Sochi and what is happening to the north–in the same general Black Sea region–in Ukraine. The juxtaposition between the ringing cattle bells in Sochi and blood in the streets of Kiev is striking, all the more so because of the relative physical proximity and recent historical context. I had been planning to feature some mid-century Winter Olympics posters here, but instead I’m going for posters issued by Intourist, the official Soviet travel agency, which beckoned tourists to Ukraine and its surrounding regions just a few years after (or even during?) the dreadful Soviet-induced Ukrainian Famine (Holodomor) of 1932-33, which caused the death of over 6 million people (the estimates of mortality vary widely according to source). Such striking, cheerful graphic images: dissonance indeed.

PicMonkey Collage

Soviet Poster Armenia

Soviet Poster Georgia

Soviet Poster Caucusus

Soviet Hunting Poster BPL

Soviet Poster Winter BPL

Soviet Intourist posters from the 1930s from Radio Free Europe; the “See USSR” exhibit at the Gallery of Russian Arts and Design, London; and the Boston Public Library.


Endless Winter

I promised to embrace winter at the beginning of this year but it is only mid-February and I am willing to let go! This particular winter has had a Chinese water torture quality; we’ve had more snow in the past but this year it seems like it is always snowing–just enough to make a mess and disrupt everything. Winter can be tough in the city, and even though Salem is a small city it is still most definitely a city. The momentarily-pristine snow soon turns brown (and other colors) quite quickly and you are dependent on your neighbors and fellow residents to shovel their sidewalks–and often they let you down. Right now we have compacted ice under the latest coat of snow on the sidewalks. Parking has been a nightmare. Whenever the city declares a snow emergency (every other day it seems) all cars must be removed from the streets:  we’re lucky to have parking but I feel terribly for my tenant–whose car has been consigned to a public parking lot on Gallow’s Hill on more than one occasion (there are only two public garages). On another note, I must admit to smiling just a bit when the annoying Accura that has been continually parked in front of our house was towed away during our last snow emergency……see how mean Winter has made me!

Chilly scenes of winter…the view from my bedroom window during last Saturday’s storm, and from my office window Tuesday afternoon:

Endless Winter 004

Endless Winter 027

Walking around town, very carefully:

Endless Winter 19

Endless Winter 35

Endless Winter 042

Endless Winter 044

Endless Winter 046


Presidents at Play

I was going to try to do a combined Presidents Day/Olympics post but our commanders in chief seem to prefer fishing, shooting, golf and tennis to winter sports: I found a few images of Vermonter Calvin Coolidge on skis, but on the snow-less White House lawn! We want our presidents to be sportsmen now, and so there are countless photographs of President Obama shooting hoops, President Bush (43) chopping wood, President Clinton running, President Bush (41) on his cigarette boat (an image I grew up with in southern Maine) and all of the above playing golf. Every twentieth century president seem to be an avid golfer with the exception of Teddy Roosevelt, who considered golf a sissy sport. Teddy is often considered the transitional president by “presidential historians” (I hate that media made-up term): his aggressive and very public sportsmanship made it not only acceptable but nearly necessary for his successors to be as athletic and outdoorsy as possible. I think the President as Sportsman ideal precedes Teddy by about a decade, and is illustrated nicely by an 1892 New York Times Article which compares the two candidates in the forthcoming election on their “sporting tastes” (basically hunting and fishing).

Presidents as Sportsmen

This article (published on September 11, 1892) is quite hilarious, and for the most part praises the athletic pursuits of not only Cleveland and Harrison but also presidents past, with the exception (I think) of Andrew Jackson: There is no word to show that he ever fished, and it is highly improbable that he did so. Fishing is a pastime that requires patience, and if there was one quality in the world that Andrew Jackson did not possess it was the quality of patience. With shooting it was different. That is, killing violently, and Jackson must have found excitement in it.”  Two presidents in particular, John Quincy Adams and Chester A. Arthur, are singled out for their sportsmanship:  Adams is “the great swimming president” as well as “the great pedestrian president”, while Arthur is “one of the most thorough sportsmen that has ever been in the White House.” This is the view of 1892, but there is ample evidence that both presidents were criticized for their pastimes in their own times: Adams’ fondness for billiards was an issue in the 1828 election, and Arthur the Sportsmen was the object of constant caricature a half-century later.

Presidents at Play 1884 Arthur

Presidents at Play Arthur 1885 LC

Chester A. Arthur, the sportsman President, at bat in “The Great National Game”, 1884 (Macbrair & Sons) and “The Great National Fishing Match/The Result”, 1885 (Courier Lithograph Co.), Library of Congress.

After Arthur, and just before Roosevelt, it is President William Howard Taft who seems to have been portrayed most often as avid sportsman by the press: the sight of his imposing presence on the field–or on the slopes– must have been irresistible. Teddy’s exploits must have changed the perceptions of the presidency quite radically, in much the same way that JFK’s public passion for sport did later on:  for both men, sport was a matter of both policy and perceptions.

Presidents at Play Taft LC

Presidents at Play Taft Skies LC

Presidents at Play TR Puck

Presidents as Play


%d bloggers like this: