Like several summers in the past, this was supposed to be my “Historic New England Summer” in which I made a determined attempt to visit and write about as many HNE houses as possible. I started out very close to home at the Phillips House, and then was supposed to go on from there, but other plans and places interfered, and so I’m just now getting back to the “plan.” Yesterday I spent a delightful hour or so at Cogswell’s Grant, an expansive eighteenth-century farm which was long the summer house of two prominent collectors of Americana, Bertram and Nina Fletcher Little. The house is in the midst of glorious farmland surrounded by river and bays in Essex: a New England home in the midst of “Constable country” has always been my impression, reinforced by the golden early-September ambiance. I was so fortunate to have been given a tour by the site manager, Kristen Weiss, who knows the collections, and the family, so well. And that’s the key to Cogswell’s Grant: it is full to overflowing with the Littles’ collections, but also the stories of the things they collected as well as their own stories as collectors. The collections and the stories are inseparable and integral to the story of the house, from the 1930s until today.
A front parlor and Mrs. Little’s charming closet office.
My perspective on the Littles was far too Salem-centric, as Bertram Little was the son of Salem Mayor (as well as naval architect, photographer, silversmith, military officer, bank director, and the last collector of the Custom House) David Mason Little and grew up on Chestnut Street in the midst of other Littles. But his purview, along with that of his wife and and collecting partner, Nina Fletcher of Brookline, was regional rather than parochial. They were New Englanders, who lived in Brookline during most of the year and at Cogswell’s Grant during the summers, from the late 1930s. I did not appreciate the professionalism of their collecting activities to the extent that I should have, or their partnership, or her scholarship: I returned home with just a few of her many books. Generally, when I visit a historic house I feel that I can sum it up in a somewhat representative way pretty quickly, but there’s just too many stories at Cogswell’s Grant: I’ve got to go back for more. It’s probably best to approach the vast collection through categories, which Mrs. Little does in her narrative of how their collection grew, Little by Little. Six Decades of Collecting American Decorative Arts (although as Kristen pointed out, this very accessible book employs a chronological framework as well). Again, so many stories: she was collecting stories as well as objects. Beginning with her first piece of blue and white Staffordshire she leads us through fireplace accessories, hooked rugs, clocks, “useful wares,” furniture, maritime art (the collection of which was tied to her husband’s Salem heritage), decoys, textiles, pictorial panels, all manner of portraits and paintings, and interesting miscellaneous items, like the engraved ostrich eggs the Littles purchased at a North Shore auction on the eve of World War II: they had to use a good amount of their precious gas ration to attend, but it was worth it! The portraits stand out in my photographs, just as they do in the house, but they are only part of a much larger story.
The open hearth kitchen/dining room and various halls of objects. An anonymous couple in their finery by Royall Brewster Smith, c. 1830.
With so much visual stimulation, you can either get overwhelmed or adopt a very personal perspective on what you are seeing: I always try to do the latter. Of all the portraits at Cogswell’s Grant, the one that I had the most immediate reaction to was of eighty-four-year-old Jacob Gould [Jacop Goold] by Benjamin Greenleaf, painted in 1803. He has an open book and a conspicuously-pointed finger, but all I could see was his red cap! I had just been proofing the copy edits to my forthcoming book the day before, and one chapter has a section on Renaissance suggestions for better sleep: wear a red cap!
Mr. Gould in his red cap; second-floor parlor and bedrooms; an amazing pictorial collage of the arrival of the first Oddfellows in America (there they are in the bottom left corner!); the BIG barn.