Monthly Archives: May 2014

Three Jacks and Fifteen Ladies

They’re back, thank goodness: the two most precious plants in my garden, Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) and yellow Lady’s Slippers (Cypripedium parviflorum). I had feared their demise because of our cold winter and their relatively late arrival, but the Jacks look as exotic as ever (though a bit shorter than usual) and the Lady Slippers are back with a vengeance: fifteen whereas last year there were only twelve. The garden is booming right now, despite some chilly nights–the night before last I think it was around 40 degrees. There are fewer bleeding hearts and Solomon’s seals, but those that survived are lovely, and the other ladies (mantle) are as vigorous as ever. I’ve had these slippers for over a decade now, and I’ve never seen any predators around them, but when I went out into the garden late last afternoon to take some more pictures (not quite satisfied with the first batch) there was a squirrel hovering dangerously close to them: he was up to something, I know it! I had the funny feeling that I had seen this scenario before, and I had, in a lovely illustration by the eighteenth-century British naturalist and illustrator Mark Catesby, who paired his yellow lady’s slipper with a black squirrel. My squirrel was the plain old garden variety gray kind, but just for a second, he appeared to be striking a similar pose.

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Catesby Lady Slipper and Squirrel

Jacks-in-the-Pulpit, Lady’s Slippers, Sweet Cicely, and Bleeding Hearts in my late May garden; page from Mark Catesby’s Natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands: containing the figures of birds, beasts, fishes, serpents, insects, and plants. Second Edition, Vol II. (1754), University of Wisconsin Digital Library for the Decorative Arts and Material Culture

These late spring plants are so magical I actually develop a temporary tolerance for late Victorian “flower literature”, which I generally find a bit too sweet (and simple). Inspired by their sisters who celebrated “Shakespeare’s flowers” across the pond, a generation of American lady poets wrote odes to American wildflowers, the Jack-in-the-Pulpit and Lady’s Slippers prominently among them. When you’re surrounded by these almost-anthropomorphic plants, you do feel like you’re amidst a kingdom of sorts! Here’s Sarah J. Day on the elfin origins of Lady’s Slippers, from her 1900 collection Mayflowers to Mistletoe: a Year with the Flower Folk: When the fairy Cinderellas/Tripping it before their Queen/Startled by the stroke of Midnight/Fled in haste the moonlit scene/They their gold and broidered slippers/Left behind them on the green/Straightaway then the elfin pages/Sent to clear with care away/Gathering all the scattered slippers/Hang them up in neat array/Just within the shadowed woodland/”Where they grow”, dull mortals say.

 


Willow Ware Redux

I am not fond of blue-and-white china (or anything blue, to tell you the truth), nor do I particularly like the Willow pattern, one of the most popular and replicated in the western world for several centuries. But I do love both the idea and the act of updating something that is classically familiar—even overly familiar–in a clever and creative way. So when I saw a little story about Calamityware, in which flying monkeys and flying saucers, along with robots and Renaissance sea creatures, are right there on the plate along with the traditional “Chinese” structures, figures, and landscapes, I went right to the source: artist Don Moyer’s site, on which his earlier drawings are coming to life (or pottery) on a Kickstarter-funded production line. So many things about these plates appeal to me (despite their color): they are blatantly anachronistic, purely whimsical, and perfect examples of my favorite fusion of past and present, traditional and modern, new and old. The flying monkeys were first off the line, and we may see kings and oligarchs later, though surely they won’t be as scary.

Calamityware

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New Willow Ware Calamity 3

Calamityware is not the first variation on the Blue Willow pattern; in fact it was inspirational almost from its inception–and wildly popular. I’ve got a bowl full of Willow shards uncovered in my back yard when I was digging out my herb garden. Willow ware was first produced in the late eighteenth century by Thomas Minton, an English potter who adapted designs featured on Chinese export porcelain for domestic production. There was no patent protection, and his competitors–Wedgwood, Royal Worcester, Spode–began producing their own Blue Willow, and continued to do so for the next two centuries. In an early stroke of advertising genius, a story was composed to sell the dishes: when a powerful Chinese lord discovers that his daughter has fallen in love with his lowly clerk, he locks her up in a secluded pagoda behind a fence and betrothes her to a rich and elderly duke. The young couple flee before the wedding, but are hunted down and killed (there are different versions of their deaths). True love prevails, however, as the gods transform the lovers into a pair of lovebirds which remain together forever, hovering above the willow tree that once shaded their clandestine meetings. The story expanded the reach of Blue Willow–beyond the pottery business and into popular culture: poems, books, textiles, and pictures told the Blue Willow love story over and over again in the Victorian era, and after.

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Spode Blue Willow plate, c. 1800-1820, Victoria & Albert Museum; Joyce Mercer (1896-1965) illustration, 1920s.

And now, Willow ware seems to be having a moment, once again. In fact, this “moment” seems to encompass the past decade or so, or perhaps the pattern, in all of its variations (and colors–I could go for the red), is always having a moment. And that, of course, is the definition of classic. In 2005 ceramicist Robert Dawson digitally-designed a line of “After Willow” dishes for Wedgwood, and more recently we have Pokemon Willow by Olly Moss (note the lovebirds, still flying above!) and there are more calamities to come.

Willow Ware Dawson V and A-001

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A Decoration Day Divided

The holiday which we now commemorate as Memorial Day has its origins in the immediate years after the Civil War, when late-May rituals of remembrance and decoration of veterans’ graves emerged and evolved spontaneously and separately in both the North and the South. Given the prominent role played by the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) in the official adoption of the holiday in the North in the later 19th century, a rather divided commemoration continued all the way up to World War I, which united the nation in remembrance, and widened its circle to encompass American veterans of all conflicts. In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress and placed on the last Month of May. And thus we have our national commemoration and commencement of summer (although weather-wise, the latter might apply only to the North). When tracing the earlier history of Decoration Day through paper, which is easy to do as it corresponds to the “golden age” of penny postcards and advertising inserts, the divided focus is readily apparent. The cards below are from a great archive of postcards produced by the famous British firm Raphael Tuck & Sons, which supplied both North and South with their commemorative cards.

Decoration Day Tuck North Flag

Decoration Day Tuck South Flag 1907

Raphael Tuck Grant 1911

Decoration Day Tuck Lee 1911

Decoration Day Tuck 1910

Decoration Day Tuck 1911 Blue and Gray

Decoration Day Tuck all wars

Flags unfurled, North and South, c. 1907; Remembering Generals Grant and Lee (with the U.S. flag sneaking into the latter scene), c. 1911; In a northern Attic, c. 1910; The Blue and the Gray come together just before the Great War; all veterans after (this last card is not a Tuck–you can probably see the difference in quality–and also unlike all the Tuck cards, it was not produced in then-hostile Germany).


One, two, three, four, five……….

GABLES. Before I knew anything about historic architecture (and I still really don’t know all that much, to be honest), I always thought the gables (generally one, occasionally two or three) that seem to burst out of the roofs of mid-19th century houses were rather radical departures from the more straightforward colonial and Federal styles. Radical for American architecture, that is: obviously gables are a long-standing feature of European structures. But now I know they are just another revived element, derived not only from much older European elements but also 17th century “medieval” houses built in America (I know that term is widely used by architectural historians, but I find it awkward, as the 17th century is decidedly not medieval). Just the word gables in Salem is a reference to the House of the Seven Gables, which is more early nineteenth-century creation than seventeenth-century survival: when philanthropist Caroline O. Emmerton acquired the fabled mansion it had three gables rather than seven and she hired Boston architect Joseph Everett Chandler in 1909 to “restore” the “missing” gables and transform the house into Hawthorne’s inspiration. Chandler was more of Colonial Revival architect than a restoration architect, and he writes about the “development” of the House of the Seven Gables in his 1916 book The Colonial House, citing other first-period gabled structures in Salem and Boston as his inspiration. Hawthorne scholars believe that the author was also inspired by Boston gabled houses in his conception of the House of the Seven Gables, including Captain John Turner’s mansion on Beacon Street and the famous  “Old Feather Store” at Dock Square. Certainly there were gables aplenty to choose from in Hawthorne’s time, both new and old.

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Drawing of “Julien’s Restorator” in Boston, taken down in 1824, from James Henry Stark, Antique Views of Ye Towne of Boston, 1901, and center-gabled houses in Danvers and Salem; a two-gabled house in Danvers, and two adjacent three-gabled houses in Salem; The “Old Feather Store” in Boston, c. 1680-1860, shortly before it was taken down, Boston Public Library.


Worts and All

When I first planted my garden, I was studying horticultural texts from the late medieval and early modern eras, and determined to have the same plants that I was reading about in my own backyard. In particular, I sought out plants that ended with the suffix wort, Old English and German for “plant” or “root”, believing that these ancient plants would connect me to the past–no matter what they looked like! And so, for the past decade or so, I’ve had some rather straggly plants in my garden just because of their heritage–or supposed heritage. Actually some “wort plants” are quite commonly used in modern gardens: varieties of stachys (woundwort), epimedium (barrenwort–containing an aphrodisiac essence), St. John’s Wort, pulmonaria (lungwort), the indestructible groundcover herniaria glabra (rupturewort, sometime called “burstwort”), saponaria (soapwort), astrantia major (masterwort). According to the Doctrine of Signatures and their appearance, the vernacular names of these plants reflect their uses. I have all of these plants in my garden still:  they survived our tough winter. However, it seems that some of my lesser-know wort plants did not: I seem to have lost my motherwort (leonurus cardiaca, of which Nicholas Culpepper commented in 1653, there is no better herb to take melancholy vapours from the heart … and make a merry, cheerful, blithe soul for mothers and everyone else), the variety of campanula that is called “throatwort” is gone, as are many of my ferns, including a maidenhair variety referred to as “spleenwort” in the medieval herbals. Actually the motherwort was much too big for my garden, so I don’t think I’m going to miss it, or the very common mugwort (artemesia) which seems to be gone as well.  I ripped out my spiderwort (tradescantia) long ago because it was so ungainly, and I’m not convinced it was even that old: from the 17th century on, the word wort seems to be rather liberally applied to plants of all kind, even those from the New World.

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Wort Fuchs Hazelwort-001

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Bloodwort and Hazelwort from Leonhard Fuchs’ New Herbal of 1543 (all plates available here; a great resource!); my surviving soapwort, lungwort, and barrrenwort.


The Death of Nathaniel Hawthorne

150 years ago today Nathaniel Hawthorne died, far from either his native city of Salem or his adopted town of Concord, in the company not of his beloved family but that of his devoted friend, former President Franklin Pierce. Really he died alone (as Pierce reported), very peacefully, in his sleep. I don’t think there are any plans to mark this memorial here in Salem (remember, we are Witch City, not Hawthorne city, and Nathaniel doesn’t seem to have cared much for Salem anyway), but (as usual) there will be events in Concord. It appears that Hawthorne had been unhappy and unsettled for some time before his death (just shy of 60; his birthday is July 4): there were money worries, health issues, the separation from his family, and of course the war–he doesn’t seem to have been enough of an Abolitionist or enough of a Yankee for his friends and neighbors– but at least his passing was peaceful, very peaceful according to President Pierce. I did a quick search of newspaper front pages for the week after May 19–and Hawthorne’s death was on the front page of every single newspaper I scanned, even in the South, although generally it was just a line or two in the midst of all the war news. He was famous in his own time, and has become even more so with time. There are many compelling and contradictory things about the work and the character of Nathaniel Hawthorne–he was both intensely shy and so handsome that people would stop him in the street– but for me, he’s always been the ultimate New Englander, and that is how and why I am thinking about him today.

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Hawthorne on the Move

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Manuscript copy of The Dolliver Romance, which Hawthorne was working on before his death, New York Public Library; Newspaper reports from The (Washington, D.C.) Evening Star and The Daily State Sentinel (Indianapolis), May 20, 1864, Library of Congress Historic Newspapers Collection; Hawthorne’s birthplace in its original location on Union Street in Salem and its journey to the House of the Seven Gables campus in 1958; Hawthorne’s Concord milieu, from Samuel Adams Drake, Our World’s Greatest Benefactors (1884); The Pemigewasset House in Plymouth, NH: where Hawthorne died on May 19, 1864, Library of Congress

 


Gothic Visions, Realized

I have posted on Salem’s Gothic Revival structures before, but I didn’t really delve into the sources or inspiration for this mid-19th century romantic style, other than to reference Andrew Jackson Downing. While Downing and other outside influences were no doubt important, it is now clear to me (thanks to two scholarly papers* by Arthur Krim) that Salem had its own Gothic promoter, Colonel Francis Peabody (1801-1867). The second son of Salem’s most illustrious merchant prince at the time, the Colonel’s life and work mark Salem’s transition from Federal city built on maritime trade to “Victorian” city sustained by industry: he even had a statue of Queen Victoria installed in the truly Gothic “Banqueting Room” of the family’s Essex Street mansion. But it is important to note that Peabody was an energetic entrepreneur and philanthropist, not just a dilettante dabbling in design. He was colonel of the 1st Regiment, 1st Brigade, 2nd Division of Massachusetts Militia, the founder of the Forest River Lead Company (the subject of my last post), and the first president of the Essex Institute. He clearly had two passions, which seem very different but perhaps are related: technology including all of its potential applications and the public awareness thereof, and the Gothic style, interpreted quite conservatively–and widely. The colonel seems to have craved a Gothic environment not only for himself (encompassing the interior of the family home on Essex Street and Kernwood, his “country” estate in North Salem) but for much of Salem: he was the driving force behind the design of the First Unitarian (North) Church on Essex Street in the Gothic style by Boston architect Gridley J.F. Bryant as well as the foundation structures of Salem’s picturesquely-planned cemetery, Harmony Grove, for which he designed the “rustic arch” himself in 1839. Certainly it was not an impartial publication, but the successive editions of the Essex Institute’s Visitor’s Guide to Salem in the later nineteenth century proclaim that Peabody’s love of the beautiful in architecture has left a good influence in Salem in many way. His two pursuits, technological innovation focusing on the future and a design aesthetic focused on the “medieval” past are not incompatible: in moments of dynamic change like mid-19th century Salem (or Britain), reverence for the past, especially the rural past, seems perfectly understandable to me.

Colonel Francis Peabody’s Gothic Salem:

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Gothic Banqueting Hall Francis Peabody House 134 Essex 1850-1908

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Gothic funeral 1870

The Peabody House, 134-36 Essex Street Salem, c. 1890, and its “Banqueting Hall”: photographs by Frank Cousins, Duke University Urban Landscape digital collection (the house was taken down in 1908 and replaced by the Salem Armory headhouse); Photograph of Kernwood, Peabody’s North Salem estate built on 66 acres, by Walker Evans, c. 1931, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Harmony Grove Arch, designed by Peabody in 1839 and taken down in 1960, quatrefoil, and Kernwood Gate and Gatehouse, Frank Cousins photographs, c. 1890, via Krim (1992); Harmony Grove chapel door and Peabody Family Funeral Monument; The gathering for the Colonel’s funeral, Harper’s Weekly, February 1870.

 

* Arthur J. Krim, “An Early Rustic Arch in Salem”, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 51, No. 3 ( 1992), pp. 315-317, and “Francis Peabody and Gothic Salem”, Essex Institute Historical Collections, Volume 130, no. 1 (1994), 18-35.


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