Monthly Archives: March 2014

Anniversary History 1914

I used to disdain what I call “anniversary history”–the commemoration of historical events only on their centenaries, a temporary historical consciousness–as not serious and media-driven: a History Channel approach to history. I tried to engage in a bit of anniversary myself back in 2012, and the results were indeed a bit superficial! I still believe that “history” happens every day and everything is “historical” but I also realize that it’s impossible for the average person to go about their day (or their life) in a historical fog so the marking of anniversaries of events large and small, public and private, and global and local is important, and even necessary. They make people stop and think about the past–and its relation to the present–at least for a little while.

From my perspective(s), 1914 promises to be a big year for anniversary history:  this summer marks the centenary of both the Great Salem Fire and the beginning of World War I in Europe. Over there, commemoration of the latter has already begun in earnest and will intensify over this year; I expect American engagement will really commence in 2017, the centenary of our entry into the Great War (although President Obama visited Flanders Fields a few days ago). This coincidence of local and global  “Great” events is interesting to me because it mirrors historiographical and cultural trends, and because both events were so very disastrous, testing the mettle of men and women in myriad ways. Here in Salem, we began our commemoration of the 1914 fire last night with a presentation by the scholar Jacob Remes, author of the forthcoming Disaster Citizenship: Urban Disasters and the Formation of the North American Progressive State, to a standing-room-only crowd at the National Park Service Visitor Center (the former drill shed, or what remains of the Salem Armory, where the Fire relief efforts were based). Remes’ focus, on the aftermath of the fire both in the camps (where fire refugees were called “inmates”!) and the rebuilt factories a bit later, bridged the local and the global with its emphasis on labor, and started us off on a thoughtful and reverent note. There will be a centenary symposium in June, on the weekend before the date of the Fire (June 25) and just before the commemoration of the Great War really kicks off across the Atlantic.

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World War One Soldiers

Faces of the Great Fire and the Great War:  In Salem, after the Fire, unidentified men and Mrs. Henry Reed and her daughter Helen, from the Dionne Collection at the Salem State University Archives and Special Collections; Soldiers of the West Yorkshire Regiment sitting in a captured German pillbox awaiting their orders at the Battle of Polygon Wood, 1917, Ministry of Information First World War Official Collection, Imperial War Museums:  ©IWM (Q2903).

 


Monarchs and Monkeys

When you teach with a lot of images, as I do, you’ve got to be ready to answer all sorts of questions, because students will notice every little thing and be much more interested in the margins than the focal point. I have been rendered answer-less on more than one occasion, so I always try to be prepared. When discussing queenship in my Tudor-Stuart class, for example, I would never, never, never show them two of my favorite portraits of queens, Katherine of Aragon by Lucas Horenbout and Henrietta Maria by Anthony van Dyck, because I know that their attention would almost immediately move away from the women and turn to the monkeys. Why would these two dignified Queens have their portraits painted with monkeys? Well, it varies with the Queen, so let’s start with Katherine, the first wife of Henry VIII, whose miniature portrait by Lucas Horenbout was painted in 1525, just about the time that Henry began the long process of attempting to annul their marriage, a desire that would eventually result in the severing of ties with Rome and the English Reformation.

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Katherine panel

I’m featuring several versions of this image: the original miniature (from the Duke of Buccleauch Collection), doubled for effect, and a later and larger copy on wood panels, featuring a younger Katherine and a clearer view of her monkey and its message–because there is a pretty obvious message here. Like her father-in-law, Henry VII, and several other contemporary royals, Katherine probably enjoyed having a monkey as a pet (and it was said to hail from her native Spain), but the pet has a purpose in this image: he (or she?) holds a Tudor rose in one hand and is reaching for Katherine’s crucifix rather than the coin she is offering to him. While medieval monkeys could represent all sorts of negative things–the Devil himself, foolishness, vice–the monkey of Katherine’s time was more likely a symbol of exotic worldliness and an imitator of man. A tethered monkey, like Katherine’s, can therefore represent ascetic discipline, which is reinforced by his gesture towards the cross: faith over greed. This is the message Katherine is sending out there, just as (and after) Henry is replacing her.

So now let’s look at two other depictions of royals and their monkeys: Daniel Mytens’ posthumous portrait of Katherine’s sister-in-law, Margaret Tudor, the Queen Consort of Scotland (Royal Collection), and Anthony Van Dyck’s portrait of Charles I’s Queen, Henrietta Maria, with “her” dwarf Jeffrey Hudson and a monkey (National Gallery of Art). What a contrast between these two royal portraits, which were painted at about the same time (1620s-1630s, though Mytens’ painting harkens back to an earlier era). The monkeys have lost their message and been reduced to mere exotic pets, especially in the extravagant depiction of Henrietta Maria: here the monkey is still tethered, but to the dwarf rather than the Queen. This is a woman whose extravagance (and Catholicism) would contribute to the intensifying division between the King and Parliament, a division that would soon lead to the English Revolution. So perhaps I can teach with these particular portraits–if the depictions of monkeys can open up a larger discussion of events as significant as the English Reformation and the English Revolution, why not?

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Monkey and Henrietta Maria Van Dyck

 

 


Ghost Signs

Salem doesn’t have many “ghost signs” of commerce past–I think sandblasting was part of its urban renewal experience–but it does have one of the most famous and most-photographed, marking the former Newmark’s Department Store on Essex Street. As you can see from my photographs from yesterday and the postcard from a century ago, this is actually the second sign (at least) on the side of this building. With the adjacent two-story building below, it’s an urban billboard.

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Ghost Signs 1907

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The F.W. Webb plumbing supplies building on Bridge Street, probably Salem’s most prominent “industrial” building, is a billboard on all four sides. When you’re coming into Salem on 114 over the North Street bypass bridge, you can’t help but notice it on the right, mostly because of its retro lettering and its sharp contrast with the nearby Peirce-Nichols house. You can “read” the history of this building through its surviving signage: I particularly like its rear wall where only shadows remain.

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My last ghost sign is on Peabody Street in Salem, a street of  brick multi-story residential buildings built just after the great fire of 1914. There’s very little room between them, so this is not a great streetscape for signage, but one has managed to survive:  for Beeman’s Pepsin Gum, a nationally-sold product marketed primarily as an aid to digestion. Few people probably notice this sign today, but for decades it was right on one of the major pedestrian paths to Salem’s largest employer, Pequot Mills.

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A Willows Cottage

I was sad to see a request for a waiver of our city’s Demolition Delay ordinance on the agenda of the Salem Historic Commission this week, sad but not surprised. The request was made by owners of a beautifully-sited cottage in the Juniper Point neighborhood of Salem Willows. This is a neighborhood of once-seasonal Victorian cottages that were  occupied only in the summer, but are now primarily homes to year-round residents. This transition has been hard on the architecture:  people need more room if they are living in a house year-round, and they need more amenities. Given the neighborhood’s proximity to the water, people also want their homes to facilitate better views, thus they build them up and out. I’ve seen some terrible things done to Willows cottages: complete demolition, not-very-sensitive additions, and roof dormer windows filled in to create a top-heavy house that looks like it might topple over at any moment. But in the case of this cottage the culprit was a late-summer fire: it has looked forlorn ever since.

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The house was built about 1885 according to the inventory on MACRIS, and due to its location–on a corner lot adjacent to beach, park, and ocean, it features prominently in many turn-of-the-century postcards: the beginning of the residential Willows. Its basic outline remains unchanged–until the fire.

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Location, location, location. The sun was struggling to come out when I took these pictures the other day in the park just beside the cottage. You can see its views: of the Willows park with the ocean and Cape Ann beyond. Bakers Island, ostensibly part of Salem but quite a separate world altogether, is “glistening” in the fragile sun offshore.

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Beautiful Ruins

I have featured many abandoned or seemingly-abandoned buildings in varying stages of decline and disrepair on this blog–houses here in Salem, nearby and far away. Ruins stop me in my tracks as I’m driving down the road, like a car crash from which you can’t turn away. So when I read about a new exhibition at Tate Britain called Ruin Lust I went there (digitally) in a flash. My limited view from afar did not allow me to see the full sweep of the exhibition, of course, but I came away a bit disappointed by the preponderance of painting–beautiful as Turner’s Tintern Abbey ruins are, they’re soft, not stark. What draws us to the ruin is the stark contrast between what once was and what remains: to capture that, only photography will do. Picture John Armstrong’s Coggeshall Church, Essex as a crumbling stone ruin, perhaps with creeping greenery engulfing it, like the “feral houses” of Detroit (which you can see here and on the great blog Sweet Juniper).

Coggeshall Church

John Armstrong, Coggeshall Church, Essex, 1940. Tate Britain

There are several houses in Salem to which I return again and again if I want to behold beautiful ruins, most prominently the long-abandoned but still-stately c. 1810 brick house bordering the Ropes Mansion garden, built for Captain Jonathan Porter Felt around 1810 and occupied by his descendants until nearly 1970. Things are (slowly) starting to happen at this house, so I’m wondering if its ruinous days will one day be over. Walking by a month or so ago I noticed that some window replacement is going on, and it really startled me, and last summer someone mowed the lawn. Who knows what will happen next? It’s like the house is slowly “waking up”.

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There are books that I also turn to again and again for regular doses of beautiful ruins. When I wrote my first post on the house above, several of the commentators mentioned the work of Brian Vanden Brink, and I’m so glad they did! Amazing, and again: images you can’t turn away from–or look at just once. I also admire the work of photographers Susan Daley and Steve Gross, especially their interior shots. They don’t just do ruins, in fact their latest book is about revival, but their Old Houses is pretty much always by my bedside, and the images in their 2008 book Time Wearing Out Memory: Schoharie County (NY) define the term weathered.

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Images from Susan Daley’s and Steve Gross’s Time Wearing Out Memory: Scoharie County (2008).


Stumped by Shamrocks

I was going to do a rather straightforward post on the shamrock for St. Patrick’s Day, but it turns out that there is nothing straightforward about this plant, but rather an age-old confusion about what it actually is/was. The history of the shamrock and its association with Ireland is misty and murky: if indeed St. Patrick plucked a tender three-leaved (trefoil) sprig of some sprawling plant to illustrate the Holy Trinity we don’t know what that plant was, nor do we know precisely what plants Elizabethan authors like Edmund Campion and Edmund Spenser were referring to when they referenced the “wild” Irish eating shamrocks. The general consensus is that the word is derived from the gaelic seamróg, a diminutive form of seamair, meaning “clover”, but there is no botanical consensus that the shamrock is a clover variety: opinion seems to have been divided between various varieties of clover (trifolium) or wood sorrel (oxalis) for quite some time, with a weed called medic (medicago) mentioned occasionally as another candidate for the shamrock label. If you look at illustrations of the first two plants in one of the most lavishly illustrated medieval herbals, the Tractatus De Herbis (British Library MS Egerton 747), you can understand the confusion between these two look-alike, supposedly sacred plants.

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Clover (also called “Trinitas”) on the lower right and Wood Sorrel (also called “Alleluia”) on the upper left in BL MS. Egerton 747, c. 1280-1310.

The other source of confusion, much more modern and almost-exclusively American, I think, is between the shamrock (whatever it is) and the four-leaf clover. Both might be clovers, but if you embrace the trinitarian nature of the former, you can’t also have the secular charm of the latter–or can you? Americans seem to want it both ways, and consequently they fashion a St. Patrick’s Day holiday that combines a bit of faith and fortune, and much, much, much more fortification.

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St. Patrick’s Day postcards c. 1906-11 from the New York Public Library’s collection: a trefoil shamrock, four-leaf clovers, and both on one card.

There is much less confusion about how the shamrock (whatever it is) became inextricably identified with Ireland: this was much more a Victorian development than a medieval or early modern one. In the visual culture of the Great Britain, the Irish shamrock looms large, along with the English rose and the Scottish thistle (and occasionally the Welsh leek). These symbols appear together on all sorts of items–textiles, pottery, wallpapers–as both official “Arms” of the United Kingdom, decorations for royal palaces and personas, and patriotic embellishment.

The Rose, Thistle and Shamrock. The Floral Badges of England, Scotland and Ireland

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James King design for the National Arms of Great Britain, c. 1890; Norris & Company silk curtain border design for Windsor Castle, 1850s; C.F.A. Voysey textile design with garland of Tudor roses, thistles and shamrocks, c. 1915, Victoria & Albert Museum Collections.

These integrative designs are interesting aesthetically and politically, but you can’t beat a single shamrock (whatever it is), especially if it is made up of diamonds! Paired, perhaps, with a companion four-leaf clover brooch for extra luck. But even if there are no sparkling stones, a bright green shamrock (like the holiday it has come to represent) represents hopefulness and gaiety in the often murky month of March.

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March Calendar Postcard with Little Girl Wearing Stole and Muff. 1906, March Calendar Postcard with Little Girl Wearing Stole and Muff

Diamond shamrock brooch, c. 1890, Victoria & Albert Museum; Art Deco platinum, diamond and jadeite clover brooch, c. 1935, Skinner Auctions; Ullman Manufacturing Co. calendar page for March, 1906.


The Ides of March

Supposedly the word “ides” refers to the middle of the month, any month, but we never hear about the “Ides of July” or the “Ides of October”. We only hear of the Ides of March in reference to the assassination of Julius Caesar on March 15 in the year 44 B.C., a conspicuous date because of Shakespeare and his sources (primarily Plutarch). Beware the Ides of March says the soothsayer to Caesar, but he did not, or could not. In somewhat of the same way as we would use the phrase 9/11, the phrase was used afterwards to refer to the cataclysmic event and its impact: Caesar’s murder and the consequential (though short-lived) restoration of the Roman Republic. But Julius Caesar was also remembered as a martyr by some, and a brilliant commander and conqueror by all (I do not remember him fondly in this capacity, having struggled for so many years with Latin lessons based on Caesar’s Gallic Wars). I always find it interesting to see lavish medieval manuscripts devoted to Caesar’s life and death. There is a noticeable emphasis on his birth (giving rise to the myth that he was the product of the first “Caesarean section”) as well as to his military exploits: like Alexander the Great, he becomes an “acceptable” pre-Christian hero. A bit later, he is always found among the “three worthy pagans” or “three heroic heathens’ of Renaissance histories.

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Ides of March Hopfer

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The medieval Ides of March, from British Library MS Royal 16 G VII, 14th Century(Les anciennes hystoires rommaines (A compilation of ancient history in two parts); and the Renaissance Caesar in Daniel Hopfer’s “Three Worthy Pagans: Hector, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar”, c. 1516, and Hans Burgkmair’s “Three Heroic Heathens”(also on the right), c. 1516, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

And then there’s Shakespeare, whose tragedy of Julius Caesar inextricably linked the iconic man with his assassination–and the date thereof. When you read histories of England from his era, the same histories that Shakespeare would have read, you can see why he would have wanted to add a play about Caesar to his English history plays: for the Elizabethans, English history begins with the Roman invasions of 55 and 54 BC, and this would be the framework for several centuries. And during this time Britain would become an Empire, like Rome, with democratic ideals, like Rome: the life and death of Julius Caesar could serve as reference points for the emerging pax Britannica.

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A 1684 edition of Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Julius Caesar; William Sharp print of the death scene of the play, with an avenging Antony kneeling over Caesar’s slain body, 1785, British Museum.

Ultimately it is the mutability or adaptability of Caesar (and his death) that explains his (ever-) lasting appeal: he represents triumph and tragedy, power and corruption, reach and over-reach. There are many romantic contradictions in Caesar’s story, which is why I think the French classical painters of the nineteenth century depict him most effectively–they certainly had their Caesars! But a Caesar could appear at any time, in any place, bringing forth another Ides of March.

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Ideas of March Death of Caesar Gerome 1867

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Alexandre Denis Abel de Pujol, Julius Caesar Proceeding to the Senate on the Ides of March, 19th century, Musee des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes; Jean-Leon Gerome, Death of Caesar & sketch, 1859-67, Walters Art Museum; Puck cover from June, 1908 with a Caesar-like Theodore Roosevelt rejecting the crown of 1908 while that of 1912 hovers nearby, Library of Congress.


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