I had been wanting to write a post on Black Beauty, the first “real” book I ever read and one that shaped my childhood in several ways, for some time, and as today marks the birthday of its author, Anna Sewall, this seemed like the perfect time. So this weekend I brought out my old copy for inspiration but almost as soon as I opened it up I realized I could not read this book again, much less write about it. Don’t get me wrong: it’s still a wonderful book: I just don’t want to go through the horse’s painful journey again. Of course everything turns out all right for Black Beauty in the end, but Sewall gives him such a strong voice, and fills his story with so many harrowing, realistic details, that the moment I opened up the book (after decades) it all came rushing back. I can’t imagine how I had the courage to read this tome in the first place at age seven or eight: the fearfulness of youth, I suppose! But I’m not going back: the protective material side of me has surfaced, fortunately, and I’m going to focus on the decorative aspects of books today instead of their content.
Covers of Black Beauty: 1877 first edition, 1897, and 2011 Penguin Threads edition–with design by Jillian Tamaki.
Enough of suffering, compassion and sanctuary! Like anything that seems likely to go away, books have becoming more precious as objects for some time, both in their original form and in variations and adaptions. One company that seems to be bridging the gap between literature and art is Juniper Books, which offers ready-made and custom collections of books gathered around a particular author or theme with covers and spines designed to decorate the bookshelf. When they can’t find an appropriate set of books to house their designs–they just cover up odd volumes–and so we have an Ernest Hemingway set of elephant-embellished books and an anonymous set of elephant-embellished books, all ready for a pachyderm-themed study (like mine).
And if you’re just looking for book forms, there are a variety of options: ceramic books are my particular preference of this genre –book-shaped vases and flasks go way back, at least to the eighteenth century. A couple of years ago I bought up as many of the book candles below as I could obtain at Anthropologie (a store that will put candles in anything and everything): I didn’t particularly care for the candles (still intact); I just liked the “books”. They are long gone from the store now, but these more colorful book vases are still very much in stock. A bit more sophisticated examples from Seletti and Kim Marsh are available here and here, and I suspect I could gather much more.
I’m not bound to such designations, but as we’re almost running out of Women’s History Month and our mayor has declared March 29 Salem Women’s History Day I’ve decided to feature a notable Salem woman on this last weekend in March. After much deliberation–as there are many notable women in Salem’s history–I’ve settled on the author and entrepreneur Mary Harrod Northend (1850-1926). She has interested me for some time, and she’s popped up in several posts in the past, but she deserves her own. Northend was from old, old Massachusetts families on both sides, and this heritage is key to her life and work. Both parents were actually from northern Essex County, but moved south after their marriage: her father, William Dummer Northend, became a prominent attorney and a state senator for Salem. Mary was born at 17 Beckford Street, a side-to-street late Federal house, but the family moved over to Lynde Street, in the shadow of the Federal Street courthouses, in the later 1850s. Their grand Italianate double house, photographed for Mary’s books later, is now sadly chopped into 12 apartments by my count. The few biographical details I could gather refer to a childhood sickness; in fact by all accounts (or by no accounts) Mary led a quiet life in her childhood and adulthood, until she burst out in her 50s and started writing all about colonial Salem and colonial New England, necessitating regional travel, which she clearly embraced. Eleven books were published between 1904 and 1926, when she died in Salem from complications sustained from a car accident, and many, many articles for magazines such as Good Housekeeping, The Century and The House Beautiful: I haven’t had time to compile a proper bibliography. But she was an incredibly prolific woman: an acknowledged expert on New England architecture and antiquities, with a touch of Martha Stewart-esque domestic stature as well, forged by her publications on decorating and party-planning. Let us, she writes in a very Martha tone in The Art of Home Decoration: link the old and the new, working out entrancing combinations that are ideal, making our home joyous and bright through the right utilizing of great grandmother’s hoard.
Mary Harrod Northend’s birthplace at 17 Beckford Street, Salem; her father William Dummer Northend, newly-elected State Senator from Salem, 1862, State Library of Massachusetts.
Her books and articles reveal Mary to be a fierce advocate for “Old-time” New England; she is at the forefront of that (second?) generation of strident Colonial Revivalists, fearful that the (changing) world around them hasn’t developed proper appreciation for colonial architecture and material culture. She is evangelical in her love of clapboards, mantles, arches, doorways, garden ornaments, pewter and seamless glass. The phrase “detail-oriented” doesn’t even come close to capturing Mary’s appreciation of the things that were built and made in the colonial past: these things are her life and her world. And like any good educator–which she was–Mary wanted her (growing) audience to see her world and so she spared no expense when it came to photography, first taking her own photographs and then “directing” commercial photographers in the manner of a cinematographer, according to Mary N. Woods’ Beyond the Architect’s Eye: Photographs and the American Built Environment (2011). The end result was a vast collection of still images (there are 6000 glass plate negatives in the collection of Historic New England alone, though the entry in the biographical dictionary Who’s Who in New England for 1915 indicates that Mary has “20,000 negatives and prints of American homes”) which she used to illustrate her own books, sold to other architectural writers, and colorized in the style of Wallace Nutting to sell directly to the public.
Two of Northend’s most popular titles, Historic Homes of New England (1914) and Historic Doorways of Old Salem (1926); the Cook-Oliver House on Federal Street in Salem, featured in Historic Homes and sold as an individual colorized print, “The Half Open Door”.
It’s relatively easy to research the work of Mary Harrod Northend: her books are still readily available in both print and digital form and prints from her photographic collection are at Historic New England and the WinterthurLibrary. But I wish I knew more about her business, the business of publishing books and photographs, writing, lecturing, collecting. I’m also curious about money: there’s definitely a bit of voyeurism in Northend’s books and I can’t discern why she remained in the family home on busy Lynde Street rather than move to the McIntire District just a few blocks away. In one of her most personal, yet still fictionalized, books, Memories of Old Salem: Drawn from the Letters of a Great-Grandmother (1917), the great-grandmother in the title lives on Chestnut Street, but Mary never did. This might have been a family matter: her widowed mother and sister lived right next door in the Italianate double house, which was also an appropriate “stage” for some of her photographs. I also think it was quite likely that Miss Northend was seldom at her own home, as she was so busy documenting those of others!
A very random sampling of Mary Harrod Northend photographs, mostly from Historic Homes and Colonial Homes and their Furnishing (1912), all from the Winterthur Digital Collections:
Three very different Salem houses: doorway at the House of the Seven Gables, entrance of 10 Chestnut, side view of the Robinson House on Summer Street.
Salem mantles: a pewter display, McIntire mantle at the Waters House (LOVE this louvred fire screen), Whipple and Pickman mantles.
Details & decor I love: hallway of 29 Washington Square, Salem, Ropes Mansion windowseat, entry hall at Saltonstall House, Haverhill, Attic and twin canopy beds on the Cape (from Remodeled Farmhouses, 1915–but all of Miss Northend’s books feature canopied beds! I would place them headboard to headboard.)
Flagrant displays of Colonial Revivalism: Spinning wheel and fire buckets at the Kate Sanborn House, and Miss Northend’s own house on Lynde Street, all dressed up for Spring.
I hope that mariners all over the world are celebrating the birthday of one of Salem’s most eminent native sons, the nautical scientist Nathaniel Bowditch, who was born on this day in 1773. The author of the encyclopedic, and still authoritative, New American Practical Navigator, I like to think of Bowditch as one of the last self-taught, “practical” scientists: he was forced by family necessity to abandon his academic studies at a young age and taught himself classical and modern languages, algebra, calculus and astronomy while working as an apprentice at a ship chandlery in his teens. Here we have a perfect example of the determinative role of birthplace: Bowditch is clearly a product of worldly Salem in its golden age, when opportunities were many and limitations few, for men that applied themselves–and had connections and resources, of course. Even an apprentice ship’s chandler accountant, Bowditch had access to the 116-volume library of Irish scientist Richard Kirwan (1733-1812). Acquired by a Beverly privateer during the Revolutionary War and auctioned off in Salem in 1781, it is one of the foundational collections of the Salem Athenaeum. Armed with his self-education from books, Bowditch went to sea following the completion of his apprenticeship and in the course of seven voyages gained the empirical experience and data that enabled him to correct some 8000 errors in the then-authoritative navigational manual, John Hamilton Moore’s Practical Navigator and eventually issue his own American Practical Navigator in 1802. Thereafter his life was one of choices (except, of course, for his unfortunate death from cancer in 1838) and he chose the more practical role of insurance-company financial statistician rather than the academic offers that came his way, first in Salem and after 1823 in Boston: the laudatory speeches given at his farewell dinner at Hamilton Hall are still ringing in the eaves!
Nathaniel Bowditch’s birthplace on Kimball Court in Salem; Bowditch as role-model apprentice in Jean Lee Latham’s influential Carry On, Mr. Bowditch (1956); The Title Pages of the first edition of The New American Practical Navigator (1802); Artist Pattie Belle Hastings’ take on the Practical Navigator, from the Smithsonian Institution’s 1995 exhibition “Science and the Artist’s Book”; Engraving of Bowditch by J. Gorss from a drawing by J.B. Longacre, Smithsonian Institution Libraries.
I have recently discovered the work of prolific Boston-area photographer Arthur Griffin (1903-2001), who was the exclusive photographer for the Boston Globe Rotogravure Magazine and photojournalist for Life and Time magazines for a good part of the twentieth century. There’s an entire museum in Winchester, Massachusetts dedicated to his work, and thousands of images have been digitized at the Digital Commonwealth. Griffin was a pioneer in the use of color film, but I love his black-and-white but still very bright pictures of Salem in the 1940s and 1950s because they depict a place that was decidedly not Witch City. There’s not a witch to be found in his photographs of the perfect Pickering House, the various house museums of the then-Essex Institute (now Peabody Essex Museum) and the House of the Seven Gables: instead we see well-dressed tourists and guides garbed, for the most part, in “colonial” dress. I always like to see occasions of colonial dress-up, and these photographs depict a decidedly mid-century display.
Visiting the Pickering House; Pioneer Village with the extant Arbella; the Retire Becket House at the House of the Seven Gables; inspecting the hearth and bed hangings at the John Ward House; a nice shot of the Solomon Chaplin House on Monroe Street.
The other day I came across a cache of historic photographs of Boston and its surrounding communities at the turn of the last century among the digitized collections of the Boston Public Library. The Salem scenes caught my attention but as I had seen most of them I moved on and examined the rest of the 320+ photographs: sepia scenes of lost Boston, lost Chelsea, lost Arlington, lost Medford….lots has been lost but some of the structures in these photographs still remain. I had to check on each and every one, of course, and so hours passed, maybe even days….I lost track. These photographs remind me of those taken by Frank Cousins in Salem around the same time; he may even be one of the photographers as no credits are given. There is an explicit reverence and respect for the pre-Revolutionary structures and streets captured, and an implicit message that they not be there for long. The collection was commissioned by the Daughters of the American Revolution, then quite a young organization, founded in 1890. Certainly the DAR has not been the most progressive of institutions over its history, but historic preservation was absolutely central to its mission then, and it remains so today. I certainly get that as I gaze at these photographs, and I am reminded of just how many early preservationists were women: Ann Pamela Cunningham and the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, Margot Gayle, the savior of Soho, fierce urban renewal opponents Jane Jacobs and Ada Louise Huxtable. Certainly we have had our share here in Salem: those avid advocates of “Old Salem” culture and architecture, Mary Parker Saltonstall and Mary Harrod Northend, Louise Crowninshield, an influential board member of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now Historic New England) who facilitated the acquisition of the Richard Derby House by the new Salem Maritime National Historic Site in the 1930s, and many of my own contemporaries who have contributed much to the preservation of Salem’s existing fabric in this challenging environment.
But I think I’m digressing a bit, let’s get to the pictures, starting with a few long-long scenes of Boston: Webster Avenue (Alley!), and Hull and Henchman Streets.
A bit further out, the Dillaway House in Roxbury, built by the Reverend Oliver Peabody who dies in 1752. The headquarters of General John Thomas at the time of the siege of Boston. The Dillaway House about a century later, and at present, at the center of the Roxbury Heritage State Park.
Three seventeenth-century houses that survive to this day: the Pierce House in Dorchester, the Cradock House in Medford (more properly known as the Peter Tufts House, one of the oldest, if not the oldest, all-brick structures in the U.S.), and the Deane Winthrop House in Winthrop:
As I said above, most of the Salem photographs were familiar to me and I’ve posted them before: with a few exceptions. Clearly the DAR was looking for Revolutionary-related sites, so their photographer captured the much-changed locale of Leslie’s Retreat on North Street, along with a few other predictable sites like the Pickering House. Two houses identified as “Salem” in this collection are unfamiliar to me: the first (in the middle below) is–or was–obviously situated downtown, but I don’t recognize it: maybe someone out there will, or maybe it is gone. The second looks like it was located on a country lane: not very Salem-like, even a century or more ago, but it could be North Salem, or possibly even Salem, New Hampshire?
North Bridge, Salem, “Old House” Salem, and a country house in Salem, c. 1890-1905, from the DAR-commissioned Archive of Photographic Documentation of Early Massachusetts Architecture at the Boston Public Library, also available here.
On the third Thursday of every month, Salem’s thriving and always-in-motion Peabody Essex Museum stays open until 9:00 pm and hosts an interactive party in its vast atrium around a particular theme: in the past there have been Steampunk, La Vie Bohème, and “I’m a Lumberjack” evenings; last night was “Artopia”, focusing on arts in the community and of the everyday. Admission is free for all Salem residents and museum members, and a mere $10 for those who are neither: a great value as much is offered: music, installations, food and drink, activities, presentations, the omnipresent photo booth, and eclectic company. It’s always a mixed crowd in terms of age (one of the things I like best about Salem: continuous age diversity), but last night seemed both particularly family friendly and interactive: not only were people eating, drinking and talking, but (occasionally simultaneously): sketching, painting, knitting, and making meatballs. My friend Adeline Myers has just published her first cookbook, Global Meatballs, and she gave two interactive gallery presentations ably assisted by her friend Andy Varela of Maitland MountainFarm here in Salem (producer of amazing pickles). These two were quite engaging in their discussion of the production and processing of food in general, and Addie is quite evangelical in her assertions of the global and historical qualities of meatballs in particular; in fact, I’m inspired to dig into some of my Renaissance cookbooks as soon as I finish this post!
Artopia at the Peabody Essex Museum: the progress of events (and light) in the atrium; artwork by students at Beverly High School; activities in the Maker Lounge; Andy Varela and Addie Myers making middle eastern and Spanish meatballs. The evening was supported by the Lowell Institute and sponsored by the Salem Arts Festival (held every June), and presented in partnership with TheScarlet Letter Press & Gallery and Creative Salem.
When I was assembling my portfolio of Renaissance “green” merchants, I came across a Lorenzo Lotto portrait that I had seen long ago and then forgotten: I remember being perplexed by it then and remain so now. It is Man with a Golden Paw, dated 1527, featuring a man leaning forward and slightly to the side with a (embellished, sincere) hand on his heart and a lion’s paw in his other hand. When I first saw the portrait in my early 20s I remember being struck by his appearance (is he wearing earmuffs?), now I’m more interested in the lion’s paw.
Lorenzo Lotto, Man with a Golden Paw, 1527, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
The meaning and placement of this particular paw has not been established with great certainty, but most art historians seem to think it offers a clue about the name or occupation of the sitter: a Leo-like name, a goldsmith? Lions in general, and pieces of lions in particular, are so often utilized in art forms throughout history that context is all-important. In medieval and Renaissance Europe, the lion had myriad religious and secular associations: as the long-reigning King of Beasts, he represents strength, majesty, courage and fortitude, even Resurrection. Conversely, but still expressions of his power, the lion could represent pride or vengeful wrath. In religious iconography he is associated most strongly with St. Mark and St. Jerome, who removed a painful thorn from a lion’s paw and received a friend and servant for life in return: any possibilities for our painting in this particular story? In various poses, the lion represents a range of attributes in heraldic devices as well, always kingship, bravery, fierceness, and more subtle watchfulness (as it was a medieval belief that lions slept with their eyes open). Lotto’s paw-holding man holds my interest because at this point in time (again, 1527) the lion reference could mean anything: a rather mundane association to family name or profession, a testimony to skill, strength, or power, an expression of faith. But not long after this moment, his prized paw will be reduced to a mere decorative motif, shorn of its long-held symbolism and so commonly featured in the decorative arts from the eighteenth century onwards that it becomes almost invisible–certainly not the focal point of the piece.
Detached (literally and symbolically) lion’s paws, 17th- 21st centuries:
Gilt Bronze Lion’s paw furniture mount, French, late 17th-early 18th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Sketches of Raphael Cartoons by Sir James Thornhill, c. 1729-1731, Victoria and Albert Museum; Excavated Lion’s Paw from the Victorian conservatory at Tyntesfield, Archaeology National Trust SW; Lion’s Paw bookends, Restoration Hardware.
It’s not a hard-fast Renaissance rule, but mutable green was often associated with those who worked or lived in the world of money, as opposed to those who were born into privilege or manual labor. Artists loved to experiment with their greens–verdigris, terre verte, malachite–and so you see emerald backdrops for a variety of subjects, but nearly every time a merchant or a moneylender was in the picture, he is in close proximity to green. Green was not yet of the earth, but still in the realm of humans, and attached to the more dynamic middle of society rather than the more steadfast upper or lower levels. That vibrant green, also attached to youth and fertility, adorned the merchant Arnolfini’s wife, and dominated the settings of his commercial successors, who appear to have dwelled in a world of green and gold, inside. Look at all these merchants from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, beginning with Jan Gossaert’s confidant man of business, who appears to have been given a green halo of sorts.
Jan Gossaert, Portrait of a Merchant, c. 1530, National Gallery of Art; Adriaen Isenbrant, Man Weighing Gold, c. 1515-1520, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of a Member of the Wedigh Family, probably Hermann Wedigh, c. 1530, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of a Young Merchant, probably Hans von Muffel, c. 1541, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
There is always a bright green cloth on which the money, or its instruments, rests. While the men above look like honest brokers, green was also used as the color of greed in the more satirical compositions of Northern Renaissance artists like Marinus Roymerswaele and Quentin Massys, which retain the setting but distort the faces or avert the gazes of bourgeois money-changers, scary tax collectors, and lawyers.
Quentin Massys, The Tax Collectors, first quarter of the 16th century, Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein; Marinus Roymerswaele, The Lawyer’s Office, 1545, New Orleans Museum of Art.
I’m not sure that merchants and bankers and bureaucrats were aware of such color associations, but there is ample evidence of clothing consciousness in the Renaissance. A perfect example of self-fashioning through clothing choice is the amazing “Book of Clothes” by aspirational accountant Matthäus Schwarz of Augsburg, who commissioned 137 watercolors depicting outfits he wore for each stage and event of his life, from infancy to death. Discussed at length in Ulinka Rublack’s wonderful book, Dressing Up: Cultural Identity in Renaissance Europe (2010), Schwarz’s Klaidungsbüchlein seems strikingly modern to me–like a blog or a selfie–and is a great visual reminder of just how modernly materialistic this era really was. And while he was in his still-slim youth, Schwarz wore several striking green outfits.
What’s wrong with Fridays that fall on the 13th day of the month? I thought I might try to uncover the foundations of this supposedly long-held western superstition but as is generally the case, all I found was a mishmash of “biblical”, “medieval”, and mostly-Victorian assertions. The biblical basis is the Last Supper, at which there were thirteen attendees including Jesus of Nazareth and his betrayer, Judas Iscariot, followed by the fateful/fatal Friday on which Jesus was crucified. Somehow, somewhere (the story goes) the gathering of 13 and the Friday execution are assimilated to create a dreadful day on which evil or (in Chaucer’s middle English verse) “mischance” can occur: And on a Friday fil al this mischaunce (The Nun’s Priest’ Tale).
There is an entire book about the number 13 and its associations are easily discerned, both negative (the antithesis of the perfect 12; 13 steps to the hangman’s noose; the 13th tarot card represents death; Apollo 13) and positive (a baker’s dozen; thirteen colonies, the thirteenth amendment), but the customary connection between the number and the day is a bit more elusive. One particular Friday the 13th that is often mentioned is Friday, October 13, 1307, the date on which the Order of the Knights Templar in France were formally indicted by King Philip IV “the Fair”, so that he might confiscate their vast wealth during the first years of the Avignon Papacy which rendered them defenseless. Certainly the Templars have resurfaced in the last decade or so with the publication of Dan Brown’s incredibly popular Da Vinci Code, but the Victorian era–a golden age of fraternalism–was also intensely interested in this suppressed and secretive order, and the fates of its members.
British Library MS Royal 20 C VII, f. 4v: Templars being burnt at the stake; Tarot Cards no. XIII, representing Death, from the later 15th century (Victoria and Albert Museum Collection) and the later 19th century (see here for the full deck).
In the first decades of the twentieth century, this particular Black Friday (preceding our own commercial one) seems to have been become firmly established. There was the bestselling novel of Thomas William F. Lawson about a plot to bring down Wall Street on Friday the 13th (by sheer coincidence [?], the author’s namesake 7-masted schooner sunk on Friday the 13th) and then, in an obvious nod to the general acceptance of the day, Miss Rose Cade was crowned Queen of the Lemons on Friday, February 13, 1920.
Miss Rose Cade as Queen of the Lemons in California, February 13, 1920, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
I am certainly saddened by the end of Downton Abbey’s season last week, but I am devastated by the conclusion of its lead-in, The Great British Baking Show, to which I became positively addicted. Everything about this show drew me in: the amiable (never snarky) contestants, the chatty hosts, the authoritative judges, and (most of all) the setting: a turreted tent in the midst of a perfect green English field dotted with sheep and bordered by blooming perennials. Under the tent, all is pastel perfection: the set designers seem to have taken their cues from the classic 1903 Book of Cakes by T. Percy Lewis and A.G. Bromley (which was reissued in 1991 as The Victorian Book of Cakes).
Great British Baking Show (Bake-Off in Britain) judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, this past season’s contestants under the tent, and a page from Lewis & Bromley’s Book of Cakes (1903).
I never knew baking was so difficult, requiring so much precision and patience! The weekly technical and “showstopper” challenges make those on Top Chef look like cakewalks. And all for the title of “star baker” and (the ultimate prize) an engraved cake plate. Victoria sponge cakes, Farthing biscuits, Swedish Princess cake, twenty-layer Schichttorte: these British bakers can do it all. I learned a lot (not that I will ever really use this knowledge) and really enjoyed being plunged into this cozy world on a weekly basis. I’ll miss all the people and all the pastry, and most especially all those beautiful Gorenje refrigerators on set, so much so that I might have to buy one for my own kitchen!
THE refrigerator; Berry and Hollywood with this season’s best baker, Nancy Birtwhistle.