Monthly Archives: November 2016

St. Andrew’s Cross

I’ve been writing posts on various saints days over the years and yesterday I realized I had never posted about St. Andrew on his feast day, a notable omission both in general and for me, in particular, as I was fortunate to spend my junior year at St. Andrew’s University, and the town remains one of my very favorite places on earth. Though I think most people associate St. Andrew exclusively with Scotland, he is venerated widely: in much of eastern Europe, in the Caribbean and even South America. Andrew was the first Apostle, the brother of Peter, and an ardent missionary: it is said that he continued to spread the gospel during much of his crucifixion, on an x-shaped cross forever associated with his name: the saltire or St. Andrew’s Cross. Such a powerful symbol of assertion, both against a field of blue as the Scottish flag, or as the southern cross on the Confederate flag. The connotations of the former are all positive as compared with the latter, of course, and St. Andrew’s Day has been a bank holiday in Scotland since 2006.

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st-andrews-the-saltire-flag Late medieval manuscript images of St. Andrew from the British and St. Andrew’s University Libraries; Juan Correa de Vivar, Crucifixion of St. Andrew, c. 1540, University of St. Andrew’s Special Collections; the saltire unfurled.

Scotland’s claim to St. Andrew has always struck me as a little convoluted, but it became official, and lasting, with the Declaration of Arbroath (1320), a letter written by the barons of Scotland to Pope John XXII asking for recognition of the country’s independence and acknowledgment of Robert the Bruce as its rightful king. Scotland’s “Declaration of Independence” incorporated the esteemed St. Andrew as part of its plea, for “The high qualities and deserts of these people, were they not otherwise manifest, gain glory enough from this: that the King of kings and Lord of lords, our Lord Jesus Christ, after his Passion and Resurrection, called them, even though settled in the uttermost parts of the earth, almost the first to His most holy faith. Nor would He have them confirmed in that faith by merely anyone but by the first of His Apostles – by calling, though second or third rank – the most gentle Saint Andrew, the Blessed Peter’s brother, and desired him to keep them under his protection as their patron for ever.”  Another very powerful assertion, as St. Andrew certainly outranked the emerging patron saint George of Scotland’s perennial enemy, England. Combined with a classical origins story, language, literature, Presbyterianism, the “auld alliance” with France, and myriad other claims and customs, St. Andrew helped Scotland preserve a very distinct national identity even after it became part of Great Britain. And then, in that golden age of romantic nationalism that was the nineteenth century, the Saint and his cross seem to be emblazoned on all forms of material culture associated with Scotland, transforming him into a more secular patron and ensuring his survival into the modern age.

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The symbolic British Empire in glass, c. 1840: stained glass panels by C.E. Gwilt representing St. Andrew of Scotland, St. Patrick of Ireland, and St. George of England; a Minton tile, c. 1875; Walter Crane’s “National” wallpaper, 1890s, all collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum; St. Andrew’s Day 2013 in Edinburgh.


Footcandy in Salem

And now for the shoes. While I didn’t find the latest PEM blockbuster material exhibition Shoes: Pleasure and Pain to be particularly probing, it was definitely aesthetically pleasing, and I enjoyed the insights into the production and collection of shoes. For me, the other exhibition themes of transformation, status and seduction did not seem quite as well-developed as those of creation and obsession. The cumulative presentation focuses on the extreme rather than the mundane, and on the colorful rather than the neutral, and thus is tailor (cobbler?)-made for social media. I kept thinking that I had seen it before, and then I realized I just missed it at the Victoria & Albert Museum when I was in London last winter, but must have absorbed a lot of the publicity when planning my trip. Two minor comments: 1) I was really happy to see a high-heeled King Charles II rather than the usual Louis XIV, Sun/Shoe king (after all, Charles II was a tall man whose shoes were a choice of fashion while the much-shorter Louis XIV’s heels were partly an invention of necessity); and 2) Loved the creative use of shoe boxes, and our opportunity to “peak” into the closets of some local collectors.So what’s next?  We have seen myriad garments, hats and now shoes: perhaps purses or gloves? Since the PEM seems to follow in line with the Victoria & Albert Museum with these types of exhibitions I went to the latter’s website to look for upcoming events, and my bet is on lingerie based on their spring showUndressed: A Brief History of Underwear.

My highlights from Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, beginning with perspectives on Charles II’s coronation portrait by John Michael Wright, Sebastian Errazuriz’s “Heart Breaker” shoe and iconic heels from Christian Laboutin and Manolo Blahnik. 

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An assortment of heels, one of several Latchet shoes in the exhibition, North Shore shoes, and myriad embellishments: feathers, polka dots, pom poms, laces………………

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The last part of the exhibit, on collection/obsession, was probably the most introspective, if only because it featured the collections of some local shoe lovers–and insights into how they wear/store/display their shoes. Love the last shoe “box”, which I suppose can double as an ottoman in the dressing room.

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Cabinets on Canvas

After stuffing ourselves with Thanksgiving dinner the day before, and Thanksgiving breakfast pie yesterday morning, we walked downtown to the Peabody Essex Museum to see their latest blockbuster exhibition, Shoes: Pleasure and PainIt is a fine visual feast for sure, but not exactly thought-provoking for me (and I’m not really a shoe girl–but I did get some great pictures for another post), so I wandered next door to another current exhibition, Samuel F.B. Morses Gallery at the Louvreand the Art of InventionThis traveling exhibition focuses on Morse the artist and “copyist” rather than Morse the inventor: his 1831-33 painting of an imagined exhibition of 40 artworks at the Musée du Louvre in Paris, combined with his role as the “father of American photography” based on his early experimentation with the daguerreotype process, is the inspiration for a complementary display of over 65 photographs from the PEM’s extensive collection. I must admit I didn’t quite grasp the connection between the painting and the photographs—“the spirit of curation, storytelling, and cross-cultural affinities”—but I was happy to see both, and I spent some time trying to find my own connections, which is the very best impact any exhibition can have.

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Samuel F.B. Morse’s Gallery at the Louvre (Terra Foundation for American Art) in the PEM show, along with his copy of Titian’s portrait of François I and a crop of the artist/inventor instructing his daughter in the center of the painting from a blog post by Shoshana Resnikoff on the PEM blog Connected.

After a bit of thought and browsing around, ultimately I think I made one of the connections the curators of this exhibition wanted me to make by comparing Morse’s “gallery painting” with the original examples of this genre from the seventeenth century. The whole idea of collecting and creating a “cabinet” of curiosities, wonders, or magnificent works of art is so very early modern, and best expressed by Francis Bacon who prescribed that every Renaissance Man should have a goodly huge cabinet, wherein whatsoever the hand of man by exquisite art or engine hath made rare in stuff, form or motion; whatsoever singularity chance and the shuffle of things hath produced; whatsoever Nature hath wrought in things that want life and may be kept; shall be sorted and included. In idealized ways, these cabinets were depicted by a succession of artists, and most ardently by Flemish and Dutch Golden Age painters such as members of the multi-generational Francken dynasty and David Teniers the Younger. There are notable differences between gallery paintings of the seventeenth century and Morse’s painting (besides the fact that the earlier paintings are obviously much better): the people depicted in the former are engaged with the art on the walls and tables through collection and admiration, not replication. As (old) Europeans living in an age of confidence–they probably thought they would always be surrounded by art: the gallery of Archduke Wilhelm, in the Teniers painting below, was newly-assembled following a bout of Swedish looting during the Thirty Years’ War (and many of these same painting came from the estates of English Royalists confiscated by Oliver Cromwell!). Morse’s painting seems more about capturing and transmitting art and culture–by whatever means possible– from the Old World to the New, which seems very appropriate for the inventor of his namesake code.

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david_teniers_el_joven_-_el_archiduque_leopoldo_guillermo_en_su_galeria_de_bruselas_kunsthistorisches_museum_de_viena_1650-52-_oleo_sobre_lienzo_123_x_163_cmHieronymus Francken II, The Cabinet of an Art Collector, 1621, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels; Frans Francken II, Chamber of Art and Curiosities, 1636, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna; David Teniers the Younger, The Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in His Gallery at Brussels, c. 1650, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.


Happy Thanksgiving

I’m hosting Thanksgiving this year, an intimidating task for me, and I’ve been too busy with my various preparations to come up with a proper (thematic, colorful, aspirationally interesting?) post for the holiday, but I did want to say Happy Thanksgiving to everyone, however briefly. May we all have the calm and the company to reflect on what we are truly grateful for in this…..interesting year. Back in a few days with something more substantive, and leaving you with a few images for the day: Trinity (helpfully) serving as a centerpiece until I came up with something more stable, the glittery squirrels I seem to be placing everywhere (tacky I know, but I just love them), and Governor Belcher’s 1730 Thanksgiving Proclamation for Massachusetts Bay. What were our predecessors thankful for? Peace, a good harvest, and the diminution of pirates and smallpox. The basics.

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Courtesy Winterthur Museum Collections.

    I have therefore thought fit, with the advice of His Majesty’s Council, to appoint THURSDAY the TWELFTH of NOVEMBER next, a day of Public THANKSGIVING throughout this Province, hereby exhorting both ministers and people in their several assemblies, religiously to solemnize the same by offering up their sincere and grateful PRAISES for the manifold blessings and favors which GOD of His undeserved goodness hath conferred upon us; PARTICULARLY, in continuing to us the invaluable life of Our Sovereign Lord the KING, with His Royal Consort Our Most Gracious QUEEN, His Royal Highness the PRINCE OF WALES, and the rest of the royal issue; In succeeding His Majesty’s wise councils FOR RESTORING and establishing the peace of EUROPE; In prolonging the ecclesiastical and civil privileges of this people; In granting his gracious conduct and assistance in the administration of the civil government of this Province; In restoring HEALTH to many of our towns lately visited with a contagious distemper [small pox], and preserving others from the infection thereof; In maintaining our PEACE with the Indian Natives, and granting us a plentiful HARVEST, in giving success to our MERCHANDISE AND FISHERY, and protecting it from the insults and ravages of PIRATES, with other numberless instances of the Divine beneficence: And all servile labor is prohibited on the said Day.


Fantastic Beasts (and where to find them)

When I need to find fantastic beasts I know precisely where to go: straight to Conrad Gessner’s five-volume Historiae animalium (1551-1558) or to its English variant, Edward Topsell’s History of FourFooted Beasts and Serpents (1658), both of which are illustrated extensively and digitized. Why do I need fantastic beasts? Principally for teaching purposes: there’s nothing better to illustrate the sense of the wonder of discovery in the early modern era along with a fledgling (in Topsell’s case very fledgling) scientific empiricism. Both authors describe what they have seen or heard about these beasts, and that is the difference between the early modern approach and the modern one: hearing about things seems to be just as valid as seeing them in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Consequently a unicorn can be just as real as a rhinoceros, as neither had actually been seen. What I generally do with the images and descriptions of these texts is examine very real, even mundane animals side by side with more exotic, fantastic ones, and compare the details of their descriptions: a more scientific empiricism is evident in descriptions of dogs, horses and sheep, while the much shorter chapters on camels and lions and tigers–and their more mysterious but fellow four-footed beasts–rely on ancient “authorities” and “sundry learned” authors. We do not see the hearsay purged from natural history texts until the later seventeenth and eighteenth century, and thereafter fantastic beasts roam into the realm of the imagination.

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You can see how dependent Topsell (bottom) was on Gessner (top) in their comparative illustrations of camels, along with many of the other beasts–both common and exotic–featured in both books. Gesner’s peacock is particularly beautiful, and he also includes a North American turkey.

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Beavers are very interesting to both Gessner and Topsell, as the European beaver had become very scarce, if not extinct, in the region and its American counterparts were the source of both valuable fur and a musk-like substance called castoreum, which is secreted by both male and female beavers every spring. Gessner and Topsell both feature rather ferocious beavers, and the latter added an alternate view exposing the supposed source of castoreum.

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Now for some truly fantastic beasts: the unicorns of Gessner and Topsell, a satyr from Gessner, along with some sea monsters and a seven-headed hydra.

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Topsell’s Baboon looks rather wondrous/monstrous, but his manticore, a composite beast of ancient Persian origin, and the legendary lamia, a vampire-like siren, represent a more threatening form of hybrid monster. Here be dragons and sea serpents too, as well as beast from the New World (where wonders abound) called the Su, all part of God’s plan.

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topsell-su1 Illustrations from Conrad Gessner’s  Historiae animalium (1551-1558) and Edward Topsell’s History of FourFooted Beasts and Serpents (1658), National Library of Medicine and University of Houston.


House Cards

I’m in the midst of cleaning, painting, and rearranging in advance of the Holidays, and yesterday I took a dusty and hastily-constructed collage of cards off the wall: the thank-you notes and invitations that I have received from my friends and neighbors over the years, delivered in the form of ivory cards with their houses emblazoned on the front. I’ve kept them, ostensibly “collecting” them, but they definitely deserve a more curatorial presentation–I really regret all those thumbtack holes. Many people in Salem are house-proud, and justifiably so: the stewardship of old houses is an engaging and continual preoccupation. When I look at my collection of houses cards–now reduced to an undignified stack–I don’t just think about architecture, I think about people: the people that gave me the card, the various artists who rendered these houses so distinctly, including a lovely gentleman, now deceased, who was often seen with his easel on the sidewalks of Salem. These cards also remind me of the illustrations in several of the Salem guidebooks published in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries–most particularly my favorite, Streets & Homes in Old Salem, which I think was last issues in 1953: time for a new edition?

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houses-4 Some illustrations from Streets & Homes in Old Salem (1953) and a selection of my house cards, featuring homes on Chestnut, Summer, Flint, Essex, Federal, North and Broad Streets in the McIntire Historic District.


Imag(in)ing Authors

I don’t think that there is any doubt that we used to glorify authors much more in the past than in the present: while the written word is still alive and well (for now) its producers are not the focal points of our popular culture that Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, and F. Scott Fitzgerald once were, except for those long-dead but seemingly eternal celebrity scribes like Will and Jane. There is so much material evidence of author adoration from a century and more ago : portraits, pilgrimages to literary “shrines”, biographies, the various Victorian “Authors” games–first produced right here in Salem— designed to develop literary familiarity and appreciation from an early age.But that is not the literary or the material culture that we live in now, so I was kind of surprised to encounter two “Odes to Authors” prints while I was browsing around the website of Anthropologie, of all places. These are the work of artist Valerie Suter, who is apparently a voracious reader of twentieth-century fiction.

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Odes to Authors Virginia Woolf and Djuna Barnes by Valerie Suter, available here.

I went over to Suter’s website and found lots more authors: clearly they are her primary inspiration at this point in her life/career. She works in various mediums (including animation and clothing) and portrays her literary subjects in accessible and whimsical ways, occasionally doing something or in each other’s company, like the familiar subjects of A Moveable Feast  and Mark Twain playing pool, below. Lots of color, patterned backgrounds, interesting scale, and an almost complete absence of any formality or pretense bring these authors to life. I really want Josephine Tey, author of one of my very favorite books, The Daughter of Time (1951).

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Paintings by Valerie Suter: Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce and F. Scott Fitzgerald in A Moveable Feast; John Steinbeck among chrysanthemums, Mark Twain playing pool, E.B. White, Joan Didion & Josephine Tey; Penguin Classic cover of The Daughter of Time. 


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