Category Archives: Culture

In Which I Try to Understand the Peabody Essex Museum’s Current Exhibition on the Salem Witch Trials

The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM), located here in Salem, deserves considerable credit for engaging in and with the history of the city’s trademark event, the Salem Witch Trials, in a series of exhibitions featuring authentic documents and objects beginning last year and continuing this year with The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming. For several decades prior, the PEM ignored the trials, and by association, the flocks of tourists who converged upon Salem because of their escalating exploitation. During this time, I always hoped that the PEM would offer some sort of exhibition to counter the commodified interpretations of the trials (or some essence thereof) which reign in Salem, and it has. Last year’s exhibition, The Salem Witch Trials 1692, was a little spare, but the authenticity of its items and the straightforward manner in which the story was told was striking, especially in the context of schlocky October Salem. But this year’s exhibition is……much more murky: I simply don’t understand what I’m supposed to take away from it, both in terms of “reckoning” and “reclaiming,” especially the former. Connecting the past to the present is a complex task, or maybe I’m just missing the links made, so I thought I would “write it out”.

Judge Jonathan Corwin’s Trunk: Corwin was a justice on the Court of Oyer and Terminer, which presided over the Salem Witch Trials, and his Salem house is now known as the “Witch House”.

I briefly visited this exhibition shortly after it opened in September, and returned yesterday with several students in my freshman seminar on the Trials: they are going to be writing reviews for our class, so we’ll see if they have grasped it better than I! There are three parts to Reckoning and Reclaiming. You enter into the world of seventeenth-century Salem, armed only with a map and a very brief panel introduction to the trials, and represented by objects or “material manifestations” belonging to people swept up in the trials: Judge Corwin’s trunk (above), victim John Proctor’s sundial, a loom belonging to one of the members of the accusing Putnam family, embellished with symbols of counter-magic, as well as documents related to the legal process of the Trials. The second part/room takes you, via a timeline on the wall and more primary-source documents, through the more focused prosecution of victim Elizabeth Howe of Ipswich and into the present, represented by a glittery black dress from her descendant Alexander McQueen’s Autumn/Winter 2007 collection entitled “In the Memory Of Elizabeth How, Salem 1692.” Still in the present, you (we) move on to the last part of the exhibition: photographs of modern witches by Frances F. Denny, who is also a descendant of a Trial participant, Judge Samuel Sewall, as well as a woman prosecuted for witchcraft in Boston in 1674, from her series Major Arcana: Portraits of Witches in America.

Edward Payson’s Testimony on behalf of Elizabeth How(e).

All the constituent parts of this exhibition are interesting and well worth your time, but how are they connected? And who is doing the reckoning and the reclaiming? The exhibition, or us? I discern responses on the part of descendants McQueen and Denny but I always though reckoning and reclaiming were a bit more intensive activities. I looked up both words in the Oxford English Dictionary in order to get some guidance.

Reckoning: The action or an act of giving or being required to give an account of something, esp. one’s conduct or actions; an account or statement so given. Also: an occasion of giving or being required to give such a statement; a calling to account. A calling to account! That’s it: so who is being called to account in this exhibition? The afflicted girls, the judges, the people of Salem? Nope, no reckoning on their parts is in evidence. Survivor Philip English’s 1710 statement “What a great Sufferer I have been in my Estate by reason of the Severe prosecution of me & my wife in that Dark Time”, as well as the 1712 petition for compensation by the daughters of victim Elizabeth Howe are included in the exhibition, but not the apologies issued by accuser Ann Putnam, members of the jury, and Judge Samuel Sewall. We can read the poignant testimonies of those who spoke up for the accused (and these are my favorite objects of the exhibition) but the swift, even jarring, movement into the present makes it seem as if redemption is not possible in the past. Before I saw this exhibition, the use of the word “reckoning” in its title was enticing to me as I thought we were going to be presented with an historical view of how people who lived through the Salem Witch Trials wrestled with what they had experienced in its aftermath, but we are not presented with a full accounting.

Reclaiming:  Wow, this is a word that has many meanings and forms! Everything from falconry to recycling. I think the meaning that is relevant here is this one: To reassert a relationship or connection with, or a moral right to; (now frequently) to re-evaluate or reinterpret (a term, concept, etc., esp. one relating to one’s own demographic group) in a more positive or suitable way; to reappropriate. Clearly the exhibition is emphasizing the reappropriation of the word “witch” in our time through the creations of Alexander McQueen and the photographs of Frances F. Denny (along with the words of Denny’s subjects, who are all very expressive and assertive). But what does this reappropriation have to do with the victims of 1692 who were not, of course, witches? Again, the shift from past to present seems jarring, and the connective thread very thin, essentially McQueen’s and Denny’s lineage (and there about a million descendants of Witch Trial victims out there). Denny’s portraits are compelling for sure, so much so that they seem to constitute another, separate exhibition, tied to the first only through a word (and a dress?).

The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming is on view at the Peabody Essex Museum until March 20.


The Spectre Ship of Salem

Despite the Salem marketing memo, Halloween is the time for ghosts, not witches, who already have their Walpurgis eve. I don’t think any ghost story could be more appropriate for a Salem Halloween than that of the legendary “Spectre Ship of Salem” which was supposedly reported by Cotton Mather in his Magnalia Christi Americana, according to all the internet “sources” and their sources. I can’t find the original reference, however, only one nineteenth-century gothic tale which asserts that it is embellishing Mather and indeed provides its readers with all sorts of romantic detail: a young couple bound for Old England set sail from Salem sometime in the later seventeenth century aboard the Noah’s Dove only to be presumably shipwrecked and perpetually cast adrift, their ship (and themselves) appearing periodically as an “apparition in the air” to the startled souls of Old Salem (always just before sunset, of course). The story of the “Spectre-Ship of Salem” first appears in print in Blackwoods Magazine in the spring of 1830, is transformed into one of the poetic Legends of New England by John Greenleaf Whittier, and then reappears in prose form in American periodicals over the next twenty years or so: with its repeated references to the elusive Mather, it is actually a ghost story about a ghost story! Mather does write about a ghost ship in his grand New England history, and cites a near-contemporary letter as evidence, but it is a ship out of New Haven rather than Salem, wrecked in 1647 and “perpetually sailing against the wind” thereafter.

Cotton Mather (including map embellished by me, 1702), John Greenleaf Whittier (1831) and Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion (1851).

Although his poem was penned early in his career, I suspect Whittier is responsible for the periodical popularity of the Salem spectre ship “legend” in the mid-nineteenth century, along with the fact that it could be linked to another spectral story increasing in appearances at the time, that of the Salem “witches”. It’s also so Hawthornesque. George Francis Dow commissioned the printing of a stand-alone edition of the Whittier poem in 1907, an act that was definitely in keeping with his other efforts to preserve/showcase/create colonial traditions. Ghost ships are the most global of eternal apparitions, so why shouldn’t Salem have one?

The Dow edition of the Spectre Ship of Salem, published in Salem in 1907; J. Flora illustration of a ghost ship from A Red Skelton in Your Closet: Ghost Stories Gay and Grim (1965).


Teaching with Holbein

A new exhibition featuring the works of Hans Holbein the Younger opened at the J. Paul Getty Museum this week, and it will be traveling to the Morgan Library and Museum after the new year. It happens that this very week Holbein was very much on my mind: various of his works had popped up, as they always do, in several of my classes, and he appears in reference and image in the proofs for my forthcoming book as well. I have always depended on Holbein: his images have enabled me to illustrate so many aspects and avenues of my teaching fields, from the Renaissance to the Reformation to the Scientific Revolution and everything in between. His 1533 masterpiece The Ambassadors is a visual key to all three topics, and I generally devote an entire class to it.

National Gallery, London.

I’m not that special: anyone armed with the essential knowledge of the era’s cultural history could turn The Ambassadors into a class: there’s just so much in it and to it! This particular painting is not included in the Getty exhibition, but each and every Holbein painting has a tale to tell, even if it’s just a singular portrait with (deceptively) little embellishment. I suppose Holbein is best known for his paintings of the Tudor Court, and the exhibition includes the portraits of Thomas Cromwell and Richard Southwell as well as one of my favorites, that of Mary, Lady Guildford, the wife of Henry VIII’s comptroller, Sir Henry Guildford. Holbein was a great painter of women in general, and “capturing their character” (the subtitle of the exhibition) in particular, but I do wonder why he chose the stern Lady Guildford rather than the more amused one captured in one of the studies for the portrait. In either case, you can easily see that both Lady Guildfords are far from the serene Renaissance ladies we generally see: they are feisty and fun.

Frick Collection, St. Louis Art Museum and Kunstmuseum Basel; The Getty Exhibition.

Of course, students love the gossipy history of Henry VIII and his six wives, of which at least two were painted by Holbein. Students love anecdotes, and Holbein allows you to illustrate them. But you’ve got to be careful: an anecdote can be a dangerous thing, remembered better than the larger issue/trend/event it is designed to illustrate. A case in point is the “story” behind Holbein’s portrait of Anne of Cleves, painted when he was dispatched to Germany to render a likeness as Henry was considering the Protestant princess for his fourth bride in 1539. The story goes that Holbein was so charmed by Anne that he made her more attractive than she really was, thereby convincing Henry to go along with the marriage by proxy only to declare “I like her not!” and seek an annulment the moment he laid eyes on her in England. I don’t think Holbein had time to be charmed by Anne, and we can see that he lavished more attention on her dress than her face in the portrait. In any case, Thomas Cromwell the courtier, diplomat, and by now manifest Protestant had far more influence over the German marriage, and he lost his head over it in the next year.

Jane Seymour (Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien), Anne of Cleves (The Louvre), and (perhaps) Katherine Howard (Royal Collection Trust).

The royal portraits are not included in the Getty exhibition, but there are several striking portraits of Tudor courtiers that I’m looking forward to seeing in person, including that of Southwell and an anonymous falconer or Portrait of a Gentleman with a Hawk. I also love Holbein’s portraits of merchants, who characterize his era in so many ways, and there are several in the exhibition though not my favorite, the Portrait of Georg Giese. It’s all in the details: Holbein enables us to grasp the practice of various endeavors with his little slips of papers, instruments and objects. He amplified the importance of literacy in his age as well as the ars nova of printing by including so many words in his paintings (so perfectly rendered: see Bonifacius Amerbach in the exhibition), engaging in printmaking himself, and designing printers’ devices and ornamental title pages. With Holbein we can also explore the roles of the Renaissance public intellectuals like Thomas More and Erasmus of Rotterdam, the latter represented in the exhibition by both Holbein’s portrait and the title page engraving by Albrecht Dürer based on it. All of this is fairly straightforward stuff: I haven’t even delved into the next layer of Renaissance symbolism, in lavish display in many of Holbein’s works. Layers and layers of images, words, and meanings.

Portrait of a Gentleman with a Hawk, Mauritshuis; Portrait of Georg Giese, Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin; Bonifacius Amerbach and device of printer Johannes Froben, Kunstmuseum Basel; the exhibition catalog, Holbein: Capturing Character, edited by Anne T. Woollett.


The Rebecca Nurse Homestead

As I write this on a sunny warm Saturday afternoon, there’s a line of cars extending down my entire street which has been continuous since about 10:00 this morning; I’m sure every other entry road into Salem is the same. My windows are open so I can hear and smell the exhaust as well as booming radio music; the situation has been much the same over the past three weekends and it will be the same for the next two. Salem in October! Of course we’re all supposed to grin and bear it because it’s good for local businesses, and we do. Generally I make plans to get away but that hasn’t been the case this year for some reason: a big mistake. Last week I didn’t even provision properly before the weekend: an even bigger mistake! This week, I provisioned properly and went on a lovely twilight tour of the Rebecca Nurse Homestead in Danvers, a town which approaches its Witch Trial history with far more reverence than Salem. So today I am not only better-provisioned but also considerably calmer than a week ago: the cars are annoying but really I just feel sorry for their passengers.

A Tale of Two October “Salems”: Salem Town and Salem Village, part of what is now Danvers.

I’ve been to the Nurse Homestead before, but I wanted to return this year as I’ve been teaching a course on the trials, and Rebecca’s experience has been the most impactful on my somewhat jaded freshmen, who are taking a required “first year seminar” rather than a course (and a subject) of their particular interest. They are cool customers, all majoring in business or criminal justice or nursing or something “practical”, and I’m not sure they know what to think of hyper-historical me, perpetually indulging my curiosity! But I’m making them read all sort of primary sources, and I can tell that Rebecca’s trial moved them: this well-respected grandmother, supported by her Salem Village neighbors and exonerated first by a jury, only to indict herself because she couldn’t hear a second round of questions clearly, one of three Towne sisters to be accused in 1692 and two to die. This year marks the 500th anniversary of her birth, in Yarmouth, England. Rebecca and her husband Francis spent most of their married life in Salem town, citizens of good standing, but moved out to the Village when they were in their fifties along with their married children, creating a family compound, in the center of which was and is the c. 1678 house now under the stewardship of the Danvers Alarm List Company. Not far from the house is a family graveyard, where Rebecca is supposedly buried, along with another accused and executed “witch”, George Jacobs. In its midst is the very first memorial to a victim of 1692, erected by her descendants in 1885.

I was among descendants on the tour, making a regular pilgrimage to this sacred site, happy to be on familiar and familial territory on such a beautiful October evening. The young guide was great, eager and happy to answer as many questions as we could direct her way. Not a single reference to ghosts! The only discordant element of the entire evening was a woman wearing a frilly witch hat, the only one among us so adorned, of course. How odd to see someone snapping a photo of a memorial to someone who was falsely accused of witchcraft, a martyr, in that hat, a party hat, from the other Salem.

No flash allowed inside, and as you can see it was quite dark, but this is believed to be the very “great” room in which Rebecca Nurse was arrested in the spring of 1692.


A Picky Guide to October in Salem

I think this might be the first time I’ve written up a “things to do” in Salem for Halloween, a holiday that lasts for at least two months here and seems to be on the way to becoming a year-long “celebration” with perhaps a month break for Christmas. I’m the ultimate Halloween Scrooge, I’ll never be able to get past the opportunistic exploitation of tragedy issue, and Salem has enough boosters already. BUT, this year is a bit different as I am teaching the Salem Witch Trials for the very first time, in a couple of seminars for freshmen designed not only the explore the historical event and its impact but also to introduce them to the requisite skills of critical thinking and effective discourse. None of my students are from Salem, so I want to introduce them to the city as well. They are excited to be here and the last thing they need is a Halloween Scrooge: every Thursday after our last class of the week they ask for weekend recommendations and it would terribly wrong for me to simply say LEAVE. They should form their own impressions about Salem in general and Salem in October, so here is my guide to helping them do that. It’s not just for students and those new to Salem: I get emails about October every year so I’m trying to address general queries as well.

Get the story straight and the lay of the land. Where to go for general orientation when there is no Salem Museum? The only option is the Salem Visitor Center on Essex Street, right in the midst of the sprawling Peabody Essex Museum campus. The Center is a collaboration between the National Park Service and Essex Heritage: at present there’s not much there besides flyers, books for sale, banners, and restrooms, but you can purchase tickets and view the best introduction to the trials: Salem Witch Hunt: Examine the Evidence. We’ve spent the last month in class doing just that, but I still recommend this documentary to my students and anyone visiting Salem with the goal of learning more about the trials.

The Salem Armory Visitor Center and the Peabody Essex Museum’s Plummer Hall and Daland House adjacent: empty in the midst of much activity!

Choose your tour carefully. Walking tours are the best way, and really the only means, for the student/visitor to get both the lay of the land and the Salem story, but it’s important to know which Salem story you want to hear. I have no idea how many walking tours are offered now: I was walking down Charter Street the other afternoon (a relatively short street) and I encountered six, encompassing amplified guides each surrounded by 30+ tourists. It felt like a gauntlet. It’s impossible not to hear what guides are saying as you walk down the street, and they are spinning very different tales. So this is an opportunity for consumer research. Use the crowd-sourced tourism review sites: they are very illuminating. I’m taking my seminar students on their own walking tour in November, but I’m sure many of them want to go on ghost tours now and are are too afraid to ask for recommendations from me: I have none, so I would just tell them (and any visitor so-inclined) to do their research. There are a few below-the-radar historical and architectural tours that I’d like to mention here, however. Dr. Donald Friary, the former executive director of Historic Deerfield who now lives in Salem, is giving two focused tours of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site sponsored by Essex Heritage, and you can also book tours with him (and other guides) here. Two other tour companies which seem to be offering more intimate and focused (cultural and architectural) experiences are here and here.

In addition to Dr. Friary’s tours, the Salem Maritime National Historic Site offers several audio and digital tours of their site; The tour group in Derby Square above is about the average Salem size in October: this particular guide was doing a great job explaining the changing coastline of Salem while keeping their rapt attention: I’m sure I couldn’t do that!

Salem museums are not created equal. Salem has only two museums which are accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, whose core standards are available here: the Peabody Essex Museum and Historic New England’s Phillips and Gedney Houses. Actually the small museum administered by Essex Heritage out at Bakers Island is also accredited, but I doubt that very many October visitors are going to make it out there and it is closed for the season. The word museum is used very loosely in Salem, so beware: this is another realm for which online reviews will be helpful. Last year, the Peabody Essex Museum decided to engage with the Witch Trials by offering its first exhibition on the events of 1692 in quite some time, and it was truly wonderful to see objects and texts which I had only read about for the first time. This year, the PEM is continuing its engagement with The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming. I’m a bit confused by this exhibition so I’m going to go back again myself as well as with my students, but I will say that, once again, the authenticity of the objects and texts is striking when contrasted with so much faux in Salem, and I know from reading all these reviews that authenticity is something that very many Salem visitors are seeking. Historic New England offers a bit of specialty programming for both of its Salem properties in October: just the other day I went to a stirring presentation of Poe poems at the Gedney House, and the Phillips House is presenting Wicked Wednesdays for children.

Poe at Gedney House by Theater in the Open: these performance are over but remember, remember for next year. They use the house really well.

The Salem Witch Trials Memorial and Charter Street Cemetery. A big change here in terms of stewardship, so I can recommend a visit to these important, sacred sites. In past years, they were both overrun, but a partnership between the Peabody Essex Museum and the City of Salem has created a more protected and interpretive environment, based at the adjacent first-period Pickman House. The cemetery has been restored very carefully, and it’s really one of the most poignant places in Salem. Unfortunately the tackiest attractions in Salem are adjacent, literally blowing smoke into the cemetery, but that’s the reality of Salem in October: poignant and tacky.

FilmsThere are many opportunities to see timely films in Salem during October: on the Common, at the recently-revived Cinema Salem, on the patio of the East Regiment Beer Company. I’m looking forward to a screening of the animated House of the Seven Gables at Cinema Salem on the 28th in an evening sponsored by the Gables which will also feature a Q and A with the creator/director, Ben Wickey.

Just walk around: I suspect that my students just want to walk around in the midst of the packed Instagram crush that is downtown Salem, although a few of them did express concerns about the density of the crowds last weekend. So for them, and any visitor seeking a bit more space, I would recommend just walking around the neighborhoods: in the McIntire District, adjacent to the Common, along  and off Derby Street. There’s lots of beautiful houses to see, many decorated for the season, and lovely gardens behind the Ropes Mansion and Derby House. I’m hearing that the Haunted Happenings Marketplace, now on Salem Common, is a bit more carefully curated than in years past, so I might even venture over there today (a Saturday!) on foot, of course: opinions may differ about the character and impact of Salem’s Halloween, but the one thing everyone agrees on is the need to discourage driving dramatically: traffic and parking are just too scary.

Derby and Ropes Gardens, Federal Court, and WAY further afield on Lafayette Street.

 


A British & Bucolic Gaze on Salem

I adore the venerable and very traditional British magazine Country Life, which has been showcasing stately homes, lush gardens, and rural pursuits since 1897. I’ve had indulgent subscriptions and purchased my share of back issues: there can never be enough manors, fields, and drawing rooms for me! Despite my obsession, I had no idea that Country Life featured Salem in a 1972 issue with Salisbury Cathedral on the cover until just last week, and as soon as I saw the table of contents I searched for a copy and snapped it up. The timing is interesting to me: 1972, as Salem’s long struggle with urban renewal was coming to a close, or at least one phase. Of course, the editors at Country Living were not at all interested in anything new: they were seeking what survived.

The article is interesting and the photographs are great—but rather dated: they had been published by Samuel Chamberlain in several publications prior. Perhaps British readers would not have seen his New England views before but they might have appreciated Salem in color! The author, Helen Hall, observes that “the architectural richness of Salem is not so immediately apparent as it is in Deerfield or Marblehead,” so I assume this article is part of a series. She is not very complimentary about most of the city, actually, noting that “you are not especially aware of being in a town that was once so dependent on the sea for its existence” (I think you might be more aware of that now, but maybe not) and that certain parts “give the impression of never really having recovered from the decline of the Depression years.” She does note the recent renewal but also that “the results so far have been negative, with extensive demolition of often potentially restorable buildings, mostly in the central shopping district, creating blitz-like (!!!!!!) spaces that have become, inevitably, parking lots.” But she does love the Essex Institute and its houses, the Custom and Derby houses of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, the Common, and Chestnut Street. The latter is still elm-lined when she visited, and while she finds American elms “much more graceful” than their European counterparts, they also hindered her views of the houses.

Samuel Chamberlain photographs of Salem in the August 31, 1972 edition of Country Life.


Venus Rising

As we enter/endure that season where hordes of tourists come to the Witch City for ghost tours, I’d like to celebrate some dynamic local history initiatives: over the past five years or so, there’s been a virtual Renaissance of African-American history, and consequently we know much more about how some REAL people lived and worked in Salem. Charlotte Forten, our city’s first African-American public school teacher, remains the focus of continuing commemoration at her alma mater, Salem State University, and is now the namesake of a relatively new city park. Her hosts in Salem, the Remond Family of Hamilton Hall, also have a park named after them, and a variety of real and digital resources documenting their entrepreneurial and advocacy activities is available at both the Hall and its website. Hamilton Hall was also the site of an exhibition on African-American enfranchisement by Salem United, Inc. this summer (soon to be on view at the Lynn Museum). The Salem Maritime National Historic Site has made a substantive commitment to regional African-American history in its recent interpretive initiatives, which include a general “History of Slavery in Salem” walking tour as well as more focused “Pathways in Freedom” and “Business of Slavery” digital tours.

The West India Goods Store, one of the “stops” on the “Business of Slavery” tour of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site.

This is all very exciting; such cross-institutional initiatives almost compensate for Salem’s lack of a historical museum, at least in reference to this one aspect of the city’s history. With so much focus on African-History in general, and in the immediate pre- and post-emancipation periods in particular, discoveries will doubtless be forthcoming. Another initiative is both a literal and metaphorical expression of this rising interest in African-American history: the restoration of several graves long neglected in the Howard Street Cemetery. The graves of Prince Farmer and his wife Mary, Samuel Payne, and Venus Chew have been lifted up and repaired, so that the lives of these three distinguished Salem African-American residents are once again marked. This important work was a pro bono, close-to-the-heart project of the two gravestone conservators who make up Epoch Preservation, Rachel Meyer and Joshua Gerloff. As far as I know, the only thing that the Farmers, Mr. Payne, and Mrs. Chew have in common besides their final (segregated) resting place is the fact that they all died in the 1850s. Farmer and Payne were both respected businessmen and by all accounts quite wealthy; Chew died in the Salem Almshouse at the very end of 1852, despite a life of hard work. She was the victim of marital misfortune, despite her very public attempts to defend herself and her property. Venus Thomas Chew was born in nearby Lynn to Peter Thomas, “a free Negro man” and Lavinia/Lucretia Trevet, “a mulatto girl,” in 1779 (The Marblehead Museum has a wonderful history of her famous tavern-keeping sister and brother-in-law here). She married Henry Chew, a mariner, in 1801 and they had at least three children before they separated, by her account, in 1819. They never lived together again, but remained married and thus entangled: this was problematic for Venus as she was clearly the most consistent wage earner. She “declared her independence” in September of 1841 but lost a legal case brought on my her husband’s creditors’ attempts to empty her bank account a year later. She wouldn’t be free of Henry until his death in 1848, and over the next few years her moves from Lemon to Dearborn Street and finally to the Salem Almshouse indicate that she was never completely free.

Notices in the Salem Gazette, 28 September 1841; the segregated listing in the Salem Directory, 1842; “Caleb M. Ames vs. Henry Chew & Trustee, November 1842, in Reports of Cases Argued and Determined by the Supreme Judicial Court in Massachusetts, ed. Theron Metcalf, Volume V (1858); Salem houses associated with Venus: 198 North Street, built for Henry Chew and apparently financed by Venus, 15 Dearborn St. and 18 Lemon Street; Massachusetts Report of the Commissioners of Alien Passengers and Foreign Paupers (1852; I have no idea why Venus was considered “Alien” or “Foreign”).

I went over to see Rachel and Josh of Epoch Preservation and a few other history-minded people on this rainy afternoon for a toast to Venus, and the Farmers, and Samuel Payne (“once a slave, but the last 17 years a resident of Salem. He was an industrious, honest man, and by strict attention to business had acquired a good estate, and a full share of the confidence of the citizens of Salem” in the words of his touching obituary) upon the completion of the restoration of their graves. We toasted with Joe Froggers, the famous molasses, rum and seawater cookie invented by Venus’s sister Lucretia for visitors to the Marblehead tavern which she and her husband Joseph Brown operated for many years. Cheers to these hardworking people that came before us, as well as to the historians, educators, preservationists and restorers whose hard work sustains their memory and memorials.

Venus T. Chew, Died December 31, 1852, Aged 73. Josh Gerloff and Rachel Meyer stand behind their work. Joe Froggers (made by Josh!)


Cogswell’s Grant

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.


Mushroom Summer

The combination of my absence and the tropical weather has turned my garden into a wild jungle: I tried to tame it the other day but succeeded merely in clearing out all the mushrooms. I’ve never seen so many in my small patch, and pretty much everywhere I go. Mushrooms are endlessly fascinating, whether approached through a scientific, artistic, culinary, psychotic, folkloric, or toxic focus, or all of the above. Like many natural phenomena, mushrooms can dwell at the intersection of science and art, along with their greener companions in the forest and garden. And as is the case with other botanical categories, mycology is a field where women were able to make their mark before they could ever be considered proper and professional scientists. The most celebrated example of a female mycologist is Beatrix Potter, who illustrated over 350 species of fungi in the 1890s, before she turned to Peter Rabbit. Potter included cross-sections and even experimented with germination, and presented a paper (through a gentleman proxy) to the Linnean Society of London a decade before women scientists were admitted into membership.

Beatrix Potter’s drawings of Hygrophorus puniceus and Hygrocybe coccinea, Armitt Museum and Library.

I wonder if Miss Potter was influenced by the mysterious Miss M.F. Lewis, who produced three beautiful volumes of mushroom illustrations entitled Fungi collected in Shropshire and other neighborhoods beginning in the 1870s? You can check them all out at the Biodiversity Heritage Library, along with the bestselling Mushroom Book. A Popular Guide to the Identification and Study of our Commoner Fungi, with Special Emphasis on the Edible Varieties by the American mycologist, or mycological compiler, Nina Lovering Marshall.

Just across the Hudson River from Kingston, the birthplace of Miss Marshall, is the beautiful Montgomery Place, which is visited last week. In the first few decades of the twentieth century, Violetta White Delafield lived in the mansion and utilized its beautiful river-front grounds (supplemented by foraging trips throughout the Northeast)  to study mushrooms, producing several scholarly works and a portfolio of lovely annotated drawings.

Delafield, Violetta White (botanist, mycologist, and garden designer, 1875-1949), “Boletus spectabilis [?],” and “Clitocybe virens,” Stevenson Library Digital Collections, accessed August 30, 2021, https://omekalib.bard.edu/items/show/2483, 2346. Bard College, which now owns Montgomery Place, digitized a selection of Delafield’s mushroom renderings for the exhibit “Fruiting Bodies: the Mycological Passions of John Cage (1912-1992) and Violetta White Delafield (1875-1949).”

There seem to have been so many women enchanted by mushrooms in the early part of the twentieth century, I thought: there MUST be a Salem woman mycologist! And indeed I found one, at the very least a mushroom enthusiast and a long-time member of the Mycological Club of America, Eliza Philbrick. Miss Philbrick lived with her sister on Orne Street in North Salem, and she was extremely active in several organizations, including the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, the Samaritan Society, and the Daughters of the American Revolution. She even exhibited a painting at the Essex Institute, so I know there must be one of her mushroom illustrations out there somewhere, but I can’t find one. She is memorialized by the homemade period dress she made for a DAR anniversary dinner, which was bequeathed to the Peabody Essex Museum and featured in Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Age of Homespun, rather than her mushrooms. So in lieu of a Salem mycologist, I’ll just offer up some of my own mushrooms, found or assembled rather than discovered and drawn: material mushrooms, of the seasonless variety.

Mushrooms in the dining room and kitchen: I just bought this cutting board at my very favorite Rhinebeck shop, Paper Trail.

 


Renaissance Refresh in Worcester

This past Wednesday was my stepson’s 20th birthday and lo and behold, instead of all the outdoorsy things we have done on birthdays past he wanted to go see the collection of armor and arms at the Worcester Art Museum, which absorbed the John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection in 2014. This is the second largest arms and armor collection in the US, and I have been speaking about it to my stepson for a decade or so, so I was thrilled that he wanted to dedicate his birthday to this little trip: Salem is all about the coast and the sea for him in the summer, so going “inland” was quite a change. I hadn’t been to the Worcester Museum for quite some time, but I remembered it as a treasure, and so it remains: it’s just the right size, you don’t get overwhelmed, and you can see a curated timeline of western art from the classical era to the present. Taking their cue from the Renaissance court at its entrance, the galleries are humanistic in their proportions and colors, so the whole experience is rather intimate. We started with the medieval galleries on the first floor, and worked our way to the top: I lingered in the Renaissance rooms, but also really enjoyed those that featured art from Colonial and 19th century America, as it was nice to see some familiar favorites in “person”.

Wednesday at the Worcester Art Museum: the Renaissance Court with These Days of Maiuma by Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison on the wall; Chapter House of the Benedictine priory of St. John Le Bas-Nueil, later 12th century, installed in 1927; armor & weaponry are clustered in the Medieval galleries but spread about in the Renaissance and early modern galleries upstairs; Christ Carrying the Cross, 1401-4, by Taddeo di Bartolo; Vision of Saint Gregory, 1480-90, a FRENCH Renaissance painting; Jan Gossaert, Portrait of Queen Eleanor of Austria, c. 1516 (I was quite taken with this portrait, but the photograph doesn’t really capture it very well–her fur glistened!); Steven van der Meulen, Portrait of John Farnham, 1563. Follower of Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Giovanna Chevara and Giovanni Montalvo, early 1560s.

While Queen Eleanor above was captivating, I am obsessed with the “Madonna of Humility” by Stefano da Verona, a painter with whom I was not familiar. She dates from about 1430, and I think this painting is the essential Renaissance encapsulated: I stared at it for a good half hour, and could have spent hours before/with her.

There was a “Women at WAM” theme running through the galleries, perhaps a holdover from the suffrage centenary last year, and I did find myself focusing on the ladies, both familiar and “new,” from near and far.

Women at WAM: Mrs John Freake and Baby Mary, 1670s; Joseph Badger, Rebecca Orne (of Salem!), 1757; Thomas Gainsborough, Portrait of the Artist’s Daughters, 1760s; Philippe Jacques Van Brée, crop of The Studio of the Flower Painter Van Dael at the Sorbonne, 1816; Att. to John Samuel Blunt or Edward Plummer, An Unidentified Lady Wearing a Green Dress with Jewelry, about 1831; Winslow Homer, The School Mistress, about 1871; Frank Weston Benson (from Salem), Girl Playing Solitaire, 1909.

And then there are those charming “primitives” in the collection, including the very familiar Peaceable Kingdom of Edward Hicks with its odd animals and the Savage family portrait with its odd people! I looked at the latter every which way to try to perfect their proportions, but it’s just not possible.

Edward Hicks’ Peaceable Kingdom, 1833; the big-headed Savage family by Edward Savage, about 1779 (the artist is on the far left–“Savage’s initial struggles with perspective and anatomical proportions are evident in this work”).

As I said above, the Worcester Art Museum dedicates the majority of its space to its own collections, but there are two very special—and very different—temporary exhibitions on now: one on baseball jerseys, as Worcester is enjoying its first year as home to the Triple A WooSox who have relocated from Pawtucket, and a very poignant display of the processes of theft and retrieval of Austrian collector Richard Neumann’s paintings, the target of Nazi plunder. The story told was fascinating and the pictures presented lovely, but what really caught my attention were their backs, displaying the numbers by which they were added to the “Reichsliste,” the Nazis’ centralized inventory of cultural treasures, and considered for inclusion in Hitler’s Führermuseum. So chilling to see these mundane Nazi numbers.

Baseball jerseys and Nazi numbers at the Worcester Art Museum.


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