I’ve been meaning to do a post on embroidery for a while. Needlecraft hardly seems new, or current, but I have students knitting in class, I follow a great twitter account (#womensart & also a great blog) which features amazing textile artists regularly, and the instagram hashtags #slowstitching and #needlepainting yield an abundance of extraordinary examples of embroidery art nearly every day. I think we’re in the midst of another “golden age” of embroidery—although I also think I’m late to this party, as usual (as this 2016 My Modern Met post will confirm). Certainly embroidery is not as central a part of society, or women’s lives, as it was during the early modern era when the Water Poet John Taylor published The Needles Excellency or the Federal era when Salem girls crafted samplers at Sarah Stivour’s famous school, but it is clearly a popular practice and a vibrant art form which often mixes traditional artistry with contemporary themes, in creations that are quite literally bursting out of the hoop.
Embroidery by the book and bursting outside of the book—and the frame— by Peruvian artist Ana TeresaBarboza.
ABOVE:More traditional pieces from Chloe Giordano: a pine marten and a fox. The Swedish textile artist Britta Margareta–Labba explores Sámi culture–and wildlife–in her creations; Moscow artist Roza Andreeva’s pieces are a bit more domesticated but no less intricate, and Lithuanian embroiderer AušraMerkelytė (@velvetmeadow) works with the hoop…and tulle, and dandelions, and Queen Anne’s Lace.
BELOW: just two of Paulina Bartnik’s embroidered birds at embirdery.com: she has also created a beautiful world on Instagram (@paulina.bart). And let’s go up in the air for the “aerial embroidery” of British artist Victoria Richards, depicting her Devon countryside in thread (I could teach the history of enclosure with these works!)
And finally, a few pieces by the popular and prolific New York artist Richard Saja, who takes his inspiration from traditional toile and then embellishes through embroidery to create completely new scenes: check out his blog Historically Inaccurate for much, much more. Always current: Love is Blind and George Washington.
One of the major themes of this blog has been how we remember history: what we choose to remember, what we choose to celebrate (or exploit), and what we choose to forget or ignore. This year promises to be very interesting in the realm of “anniversary history”, with two big commemorations crowding the calendar: the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower in Massachusetts and the 100th anniversary of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment enfranchising American women after a long, long struggle. I don’t think anything else—certainly not the 200th anniversary of the Missouri Compromise (1820) or the 300th anniversary of the South Sea Bubble (1720)— can compete with these epic events. Yet looking ahead at the succession of initiatives and events designed to commemorate these two markers, I am struck by one notable difference: the Suffrage Centennial seems to be a truly national movement, with major events in Washington, D.C., every single state, and many localities as well, while the Mayflower anniversary seems much more restricted: to Massachusetts, and even to the descendants of the Pilgrim passengers. This might just be my American perspective: the Mayflower commemoration certainly has a broader geographic scope, incorporating Great Britain, the Netherlands, and the Wampanoag Nation, encompassing the Aquinnah and Mashpee tribes. My perception might also shaped by the fact the Suffrage Centennial is already very much in full swing, so we shall see.
Plans for the Suffrage Centennial have clearly been in the works for years, and their most dramatic manifestation was three major exhibitions in Washington: Rightfully Hers: American Womenand theVote at the National Archives Museum (May 10, 2019- January 3, 2021), Shall Notbe Denied: Women Fightfor theVote at the Library of Congress (June 4, 2019-September, 2020), and Votes forWomen: a Portraitof Persistence at the National Portrait Gallery (March, 2019-January 5, 2020). As you can see, the last exhibition ends this weekend, but there is a companion catalog with wonderful essays and images. These exhibitions are just the beginning of a wave of suffrage remembrance and interpretation, washing over the nation: the website of the Women’s Vote Centennial Initiative is a great place to go for events and resources but every state seems to have its own central site as well, linking to institutional and local initiatives. Here in Massachusetts, Suffrage100MA, the Women’s Suffrage Celebration Coalition, sponsors features like the “Suffragist of the Month” at the Commonwealth Museum, but is hardly the extent of commemorative activity: the Massachusetts Historical Society had a very visual exhibit entitled “Can She Do It?” Massachusetts Debates a Woman’s Right to Vote up over last summer, the Boston Athenaeum has an ongoing “Eye of the Expert: (Anti) Suffrage program focused on items from its collection, the Schlesinger Library at Harvard will feature Seeing Citizens: Picturing American Women’s Fight for the Vote from March 23 to October 3, 2020, and there are local events all around me commencing next month. This very layered exploration of the coming of universal suffrage has been extremely comprehensive, examining the complexities of the struggle, divisions of class and race, and all sorts of attendant aspects (and materials!)—and there’s a lot more to learn and see.
Ace of Spades card (verso and recto) from a c. 1915 deck published by the National Woman Suffrage Publishing Co., Boston Athenaeum.
By contrast, the coming commemoration of the Mayflower’s arrival doesn’t seem very layered or very national: there are no events in Washington that I could find. The official US website for the commemoration is Plymouth400, Inc., which reports that the April 24 Opening Ceremony will be a two-hour event of historical content, musical headliners, interpretive readings, choreographed movement, original productions, and visual narratives to create a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle. The Plymouth 400 Legacy Time Capsule will be introduced, and the first items will be placed inside by special guests. Honoring the past and celebrating the future, each of the commemoration themes – exploration, innovation, self-governance, religious expression, immigration, and thanksgiving – will be presented in creative ways. Invited participants include state and federal officials, representatives of the UK, The Netherlands, colony partners, and many more. Besides this extravaganza, it’s all about the ship: the Mayflower II (1957), which has been under repair in Mystic, Connecticut for several years. The newly-restored ship will sail to Boston for a maritime festival in May (docking right next to the Constitution, which should look cool), and then proceed home to Plymouth via Provincetown for more festivities in both ports. I do see references to attendant exhibitions on Pilgrim women and the Wampanoags on the Plymouth400 site, but nothing like the diffusion of inspired initiatives associated with the commemoration of suffrage.
The Mayflower II seemed to be more of a national story in 1957; on the stop in Provincetownfrom Boston to Plymouth, there will be a “reenactment of the signing of the Mayflower Compact and VIP reception”.
The Plymouth400 website might not be comprehensive but it is all we have to go on; it is also, very decidedly, not a resource, with minimal effort toward edification. When compared to the much more impressive official British commemoration website Mayflower400 it is exposed for just what it is: a Chamber of Commerce production. After watching all of the poignant expressions of remembrance associated with the commemoration of each and every phase of World War One over the past few years, I am not surprised to see the sophistication, earnestness, and creativity of the British commemoration of the Mayflower voyage, which will include the opening of a Mayflower Trail through and outside Plymouth, multiple exhibits, public art and music projects, living history events, a muster, festivals, illuminations, a religious history conference, and even sporting events. The website links to resources and is itself a resource, with digital maps exploring the sites associated with the Mayflower itself and every single passenger and crew member. It brings all these people to Plymouth and then to America ( some via Leiden): why can’t we have something similar that shows where they went once they got here? As I am not a Mayflower descendant, I am forming the opinion that if I want to feel a real connection to those who left England in 1620 I had better make my way to Plymouth in Devon rather than Plymouth in Bristol County.
The official British program and interactive maps on the Mayflower400 website, which also includes artwork that has been seldom seen (over here, at least), like Anthony Thompson’s 1938 painting The ‘Mayflower’ Leaving Plymouth, 1620 @Essex County Council.
What are you wearing on New Year’s Eve? I’m still dealing with this bum leg, so it will likely be sweatpants for me, unfortunately, but I have to say that some version of “domestic attire” has been the norm for the last decade or so. I had much more festive New Year’s Eves when I was younger, but family celebrations at home seem to be the rule for now. I remember spending New Year’s in Rome when I was 20, dancing in some sort of tunnel wearing a dress I had just bought in Florence! There were lots of fancy country club/hotel parties later, but frankly those can be a boring. I don’t really need a fancy party, but I would like to be a bit better dressed. I did manage to hobble around Hamilton Hall at the annual Christmas Dance a few weeks ago in a drop-waisted sequin dress, so I already had that silhouette on my mind, but I decided to browse through some digital fashion collections to see what women might have been wearing a century ago as they ushered in the New Year—-the year they would become fully enfranchised citizens here in the US.
Fashion plate from La Moda Elegante Ilustrada, December 6, 1919, Fashion Institute of Technology; Georges Barbier’s “les belles Sauvagesses de 1920” from Le BonheurduJour, ou, LesGracesàlaMode, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts; Vogue covers and sketches from December 1919.
To my untrained eye, it looks like the “1920s silhouette” emerges immediately with 1920! Or maybe that’s just what I was looking for—and these lovely Lanvin dresses from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art seem almost timeless. For more on the House of Lanvin’s long run, check out this cool online presentation. I think most people have heard of Lanvin, but what about Clara Becht and Jacqueline Kasselman, the designers of some very stylish evening ensembles in the collection of the Cincinnati Museum of Art? I certainly hadn’t. With a very dynamic fashion periodical press in these days, I imagine that the practice of knocking off was already prevalent, so midwestern ladies could have “French” frocks for their big nights out. Whatever the source or inspiration for their evening dresses, women in 1920 did not confine themselves to the palette I am featuring here (for some reason): various shades of green and blue seem to have been popular, and there were also pops of universally-festive red. Happy New Year! I’ll see you on the other side.
House of Lanvin evening dresses, 1920, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Lanvin advertisement in the Gazette du Bon Ton, fall, 1920; Dresses by Clara Becht and (2) Jacqueline Kasselman at the Cincinnati Museum of Art; Fashion plates of gowns by Jeanne Paquin and Madeleine Wallis with an American silk-satin dress from an unknown designer, Victoria and Albert Museum. Yet another “Robe du soir”, from the Gazette du Bon Ton, 1920.
The twentieth-century American artist Walter Ernest Tittle (1883-1966) was sought after on both sides of the Atlantic for his etchings, illustrations, and contemporary portraits. Among his diverse works are magazine covers, presidential portraits, and a whole series of drypoint “international dignatories” rendered in the 1920s, but also two slim volumes—advertised as “gift books”— in which he merged both original and historical texts and images to create a “lost” world of colonial holidays: The First Nantucket Tea Party (1907) and Colonial Holidays (1910).
These books are gorgeous, even though the images inside are a bit…….overwrought. I’m willing to leaf past some of the colorful colonial “belles” just so I can see Tittle’s fonts and illuminations: everything works together. As its subtitle reveals, Colonial Holidays is a compilation of historical references to Christmas and other holidays, embedded in Tittle’s gilded pages. He wishes the Puritans were more joyous in their celebrations, but “time brings change” and William Pynchon’s diary reveals some holiday merrymaking in Salem during the Revolutionary War. The new Assembly Room seems to have been very busy during the extended Christmas season with concerts and dances; “the elders shake their heads with, What are we coming to?” And so many sleds in the streets of Salem!
Tory that he is, Pynchon is not interested in George Washington’s Christmas, but patriot that he is, Tittle shows us Mount Vernon at Christmas—-no Valley Forge for his illuminated pages, but rather Christmas with the President and Mrs. Washington in 1795 and another reference to 1799–though Washington would have just died so certainly that was no festive occasion. The First Nantucket Tea Party does not have a Christmas setting perse but is also all about Colonial festivity, on the particular occasion of the return of Captain Nathaniel Starbuck Jr. from his “late long” voyage to China supplied with a chest of Chinese tea. Everyone is very excited about the tea, but for me it’s all about the amazing font used throughout the text. Merry Christmas!
I was researching the major tea importers and purveyors in Salem in light of the upcoming anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, but another commodity kept popping up in the sources: turkey figs. I didn’t look at any customs records, but newspaper adverts both before and after the Revolution provide evidence of large imports of Turkey figs in Salem, and presumably a corresponding demand. I’m wondering if this is a by-product of what we now know was a very vibrant trade in fish and wine between Salem and the Iberian peninsula? It’s clear that figs were used for both medicinal and culinary purposes, although some purveyors favored one utility over the other. The very entrepreneurial apothecary Philip Godfrid Kast, for example, who had prosperous businesses in Boston, Salem, and Haverhill, clearly marketed them as a medicine in the 1770s and 1780s (though it also looks like he is providing Salem cooks with many of the ingredients for a Christmas “figgy pudding”). This was nothing new to me—I’ve spent the last year reading early modern medical manuals for the book I’m working on and figs are always listed as one of the few “useful” fruits by Elizabethan authors—and the prescription of figs for various cough syrups and digestive tonics continued into the twentieth century. I presume New Englanders were eating lots of figs too but I can’t find any recipes in the early American cookbooks, and apparently Thomas Jefferson brought back a cutting of this particular variety, now called Brown Turkey Figs, only when he returned from Paris in 1789.
Philip Godfrid Kast’s advertisements for Turkey figs in the 1770s and his 1774 trade card, American Antiquarian Society; Figs for sale in Salem, 1804-1829.
Not only do I not know what is happening to all those cases of figs being sold in Salem in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; figs are also difficult to identify as a culinary commodity in English cooking before the twentieth century. The classic “figgy pudding” seldom has any figs in it as the word was just a synonym for “plum”, denoting any dried fruit. Figgy pudding originated as a steamed savory potage and evolved into its sweeter, more Dickensian ideal over the early modern era and into the nineteenth century. Of course the Victorians invented Christmas as we know it, and the recipe for figgy pudding of Queen Victoria’s own chef, Charles Francatelli, contains no figs at all. In America, fig cultivation seems to have become centered on the South and California (particularly the valley surrounding Fresno) and so growers marketed a variety of fig recipes, encompassing everything from ices to jams to whips to “pickles”, and the use of figs in syrups for coughs and constipation continued into the twentieth century.
It’s been a long time since I featured one of my Renaissance crushes, but today is Sir Philip Sidney’s birthday so time to indulge. Sidney of course was a wonderful poet, but for me he is much more than that: he is the perfect Elizabethan Renaissance Man, multi-faceted, adept at both words and action, on the spot in all the key settings. He is one of those people whose lives can represent an age, albeit a rarefied experience. And he died young, on the battlefield, so that just makes him more: more elusive, more martyr-like, more crush-worthy. His notable contemporaries who lived longer had more layered lives in which both their attributes and their flaws were manifested, but Sidney seems flawless. His biographers note his proficiency in all the subjects in the studia humanitatis, but he himself asserted that one should aim for “well-doing, and not of well-knowing only” in The Defence of Poesy (published posthumously in 1595).
The Sensational Sidney brothers as boys: Sir Philip and Sir Robert, from a painting by Mark Garrard at the Sidney’s ancestral home Penshurst Palace, Kent.
Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586) was always connected: He was the eldest son of Sir Henry Sidney, the Lord Deputy of Ireland, the nephew of Queen Elizabeth’s favorite, Robert Dudley, and the godson of King Philip of Spain. I’m not sure he would have been happy about this latter affiliation given that he became a relatively strident Protestant later on, which was perhaps a flaw in Queen Elizabeth’s estimation as she preferred a more moderate public religious stance and must have been very annoyed when Sidney opposed her marriage to Francis, the Duke of Alençon and Anjou, in 1579 on religious grounds. His principled Protestantism is not a problem for me, however: it makes him look like less of a dilettante courtier. Sidney was educated at Oxford but left for a “Grand Tour” on the Continent before taking his degree: clearly he was ahead of his time as this custom did not become popular among the English aristocracy until a century later. He returned to England to the life of a courtier (when he pleased Elizabeth), patron and poet, but clearly longed for some kind of serious placement, which he eventually received in the form of various official diplomatic missions on the Continent. In between, he commenced writing his corpus of poetry, invested in overseas expeditions, and spent time at the estate of his beloved sister, Mary, the Countess of Pembroke, to whom he dedicated his most ambitious work, The Arcadia, and who established a reputation as both a literary patron and poet(ess) herself.
Sir Philip Sidney, 1577-78, courtesy the Marquess of Bath, Longleat House; A trio of Sidney copied portraits from the sixteenth, eighteenth, and twentieth centuries: National Portrait Gallery, London; an 18th century copy, NPG, London, and a 20th century version attributed to Frederick Hawkesworth Sinclair, Pembroke College, Oxford University.
All of the Sidneys are so interwoven with Elizabeth, most conspicuously Philip and Mary’s mother Mary Dudley Sidney (also a writer!) who served and nursed the Queen during her smallpox seclusion, contracting the disease herself and marring her beauty permanently. There is a theme of sacrifice that connects mother to son: Philip accompanied his uncle the Earl of Leicester’s expedition to the Netherlands in 1586 to fight England’s now arch-enemy Spain, and reportedly urged Leicester to push harder, eventually falling on the battlefield himself at the Battle of Zutphen. He was shot in the thigh, but took 21 days to die—likely of gangrene. He then becomes larger than life, memorialized by an ostentatious public funeral (paid for by his father-in-law Francis Walsingham), elegies, biographies and posthumous portraits. He is forever young and bold in imagery, and ever eloquent in text.
Sir Philip Sidney, early 17th century, National Trust @Knole; by John de Critz the Elder, c. 1620; by John de Critz the Elder, 17th century; by George Knapton, 1739.
I am recovering from my second bad cold of the year, and have spent much time over the past few days watching television just like I did during my summer sickness. At that time, I made the dreadful mistake of watching Netflix’s The Last Czars (with dawning and intensifying horror) but this time I went for classic horror and watched a succession of Poe adaptations, perfect for this time of year. I really fell for the The Fall of the HouseofUsher and streamed every version I could access: the Vincent Price/ Roger Corman version from 1960, the 1950 British film directed (and produced, and shot) by Ivan Burnett, and two very avant-garde silent versions from 1928, a short film produced by James Sibley Watson Jr. and Melville Webber in the US, and a longer French version directed by Jean Epstein entitled La Chute de la maison Usher (The Fall of the House of Usher). Then I read the short story again, read critiques of both the films and the story, and chased down all of the illustrations of the HOUSE that I could find: I assure you I seldom do this much preparation for a blog post but I was in a full sick-bed-induced Usher fever!
1931 Cheshire House edition with illustrations by Abner Epstein; 1950 British film version.
I can understand why this story has resonance with readers, filmmakers and illustrators; it’s enthralling on different levels, both in terms of its relationships and its setting. The central characters, Roderick and Madeline Usher (siblings in the original story and most film adaptations; spouses in Epstein’s film) are a very odd pair indeed and one could dwell on them for a while, but I agree with the appraisal of the narrator of the 1950 British film, who tells us that it all centers on the house. The Fall of the House of Usher has a double meaning: it’s the end of the line and the end of the house and we readers and/or watchers witness the destruction of both, mirroring each other. I’m so fixated on houses that I often think of them as sentient, so it’s almost reassuring to see one depicted that way.
The house exterior in the 1928 American film, the 1950 British Film, and the 1960 Roger Corman film; Jean Epstein’s 1928 film prefers to focus on its baronial interior.
As you can see, these are all Gothic/Victorian structures, characteristic of the haunted-house trope but not the decrepit old relics of Poe’s day: The Fall of the House of Usher was first published in 1839. When looking around for a spooky house, Poe, like Hawthorne, would probably have fixated on a seventeenth-century house, sometimes also called “medieval” here in America but never in Britain. There seems to be some consensus that the house which might have inspired Poe was the Hezekiah Usher House in Boston, built on Tremont Street in the 1680s by the namesake son of British America’s first bookseller. Hezekiah Jr. was also accused of witchcraft during the 1692 trials (of course–because there is always a Salem connection) but was apparently connected enough to avoid formal proceedings. When the Usher house was torn down around 1800, two skeletons were found in the basement, and that story might have caught Poe’s attention even though he never saw the house. And thus the haunted house trope is connected to another (or sub?) trope, someone/something is buried in the basement, in the story of The Fall of the House of Usher. It seems like a pretty straight line from Usher to Henry James’ Turn of the Screw to Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House to Sarah Waters’ Little Stranger (with many more titles in between) though I suppose the Castle of Otranto might have started the thread.
The House: illustrations by Robert Swain Gifford (1884); Daniel Walper (1922), Albert Dubout (1948), Arthur Rackham (1935) and Gris Grimly (2004).
Confronting a GEORGIAN haunted house: The Little Stranger (2018). Talk about a house-centered story! In both the film and the book, the house is a MAJOR character, even more so than in Usher. The juxtaposition of the airy (though decayed) Georgian and the “presence” heightens the tension, and you realize that possession has multiple meanings.
I love twentieth-century magazine art, especially early twentieth-century cover illustrations, for various reasons: the accessible aesthetics, the creativity and artistry, the cultural representation. Then as now, magazine publishers and editors wanted to represent their time and place with their covers, and also send messages, or signals, to their readership as well as the people who might glance at them as they walked by a street (or airport) stand. The difference between then and now, though, is that more artists were called upon to create these covers in the first half of the twentieth century than photographers. So we have have less realism and more ambiance, color, symbols and impressions. I was looking at a succession of covers of one of my favorite shelter magazines (which had several reincarnations and which I wish would be reincarnated yet again), House and Garden, and it was obvious that its editors deliberately veered away from the realistic renderings featured on covers in the first decade of the twentieth century towards more artistic and impressionistic images in the second and third. Here’s a succession of October covers with the messages that I am receiving, all from the Condé Nast Library, which I’m fortunate to be able to access via Artstor: the alternative themes of “fall planting” and “furnishing for the fall bride” predominate for these “numbers”, but I think there are other messages too.
The Aughts: we are so Sturdy! (and such good builders, 1908-11).
The Teens: we’re so Whimsical! (1916-1920).
The Twenties: we are so industrious (and America is truly the land of plenty; 1921-29).
The Thirties: we’re so confused! We are so very 1) Sleek (1936); 2) Acquisitive (1937-38: House & Garden certainly seems a bit out of touch with the DEPRESSION; 3) Rococo (1938-41).
1949: We’re Going Places (and we can have it all).
This week I’m focused on spectacular examples of folk art. On Sunday I was up in my hometown of York, Maine, where I heard a great talk at the Old York Historical Society by Karina Corrigan, the curator of Asian Export Art at the Peabody Essex Museum, and then wandered through the small Remick Gallery showcasing the Society’s collections. There were some very unique items on view, representing both “high” and more vernacular styles, and I was much more drawn to the latter, because, let’s face it, I have high style stuff all around me in Salem (the Maine girl in me would be annoyed at this snobby statement, but I think the Massachusetts woman has snuffed her out, as I have now resided in Massachusetts for longer than I lived in Maine). I was particularly struck by this coat-of-arms for the Sewall family of York, because it looks so very unheraldic to me! The bees have been on the Sewall coat of arms for several centuries—and we can see them on Nathaniel Hurd’s 1768 engraving of the Reverend Joseph Sewall (son of Salem Witch Trials Samuel Sewall because there’s always a Salem connection)—but who are those people, and what is that creature? My class was split between lion and bear when I showed it to them, although several thought it was the Devil.
Sewall Family Coat-of-Arms, Old York Historical Society; Benjamin Hurd engraving of the Reverend Joseph Sewall, 1768, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
I don’t know if they qualify as art as they are really tools (for combing out flax fibers) but these hetchels looked very creative (and menacing) mounted on the wall; I have never seen them exhibited this way. There are a variety of spellings, but the name for one who wields a hetchel came to be know as a heckler, and I think there is some sort of connection between the hetchel’s sharp (angry) “teeth” and the modern heckler’s sharp angry taunts. Most of the hetchels that I have seen have long handles, so they resemble brushes, and I always though they must have been the perfect tools for the ascetic practice of (self-) mortification of the flesh.
But I am digressing……when I got home, despite a stack of papers awaiting me, I indulged in my favorite procrastination pastime of browsing through online catalogs of upcoming auctions, and when I got to Sotheby’s Sculptural Fantasy: The Important American Folk Art Collection of Stephen and Petra Levin I lingered over every lot. This auction is happening today, so we’ll see what prices these amazing objects fetch. I had an immediate, visceral reaction to the elephant, because pachyderms formed my very first “collection” accumulated from a very young age. I now have boxes in the basement and need no more elephants, but this particular “walking” or parading elephant, presumably Jumbo, has always enchanted me: I have it on placemats, notecards, and bookplates. The amazing painted eagle carved by John Haley Bellamy of Kittery Point, Maine, is surely as impressive as anything a Massachusetts craftsman could produce! A large pair of early 20th century dice—what more can I say? I dressed up with a childhood friend as a pair of dice for Halloween one year in York, and based on the estimates given, these are probably the only things I could afford in this auction. There are plenty of great trade and travel signs (along with weathervanes and whirligigs) so it was hard to choose, but I love the hats and the crocodile, and the “double” eye clock, of course.
Select lots from Sculptural Fantasy: The Important American Folk Art Collection of Stephen and Petra Levin @ Sothebys.
An amazing weekend in Salem, for the city, objectively and collectively, and for me, personally. I’m writing at the end of a long day, which will be yesterday, during which I gave a morning presentation on the Remond Family of Salem, an African-American family who operated many successful businesses in the mid-nineteenth century while simultaneously supporting every social justice cause it was possible to support (which were many) next door at Hamilton Hall, and then made my way to the long-heralded opening of the new wing of the Peabody Essex Museum. Both were really important events for me: I’ve been focused on the Remonds since I moved next door to Hamilton Hall, and in attendance at my talk was George Ford from California, a Remond descendant who is so dedicated to his family’s story and memory that he just want to be where they were. And except for a few professional events I had to attend at the Peabody Essex, I have not visited the museum since December of 2017, when the non-announcement was made that its Phillips Library, encompassing the majority of Salem’s written history, would be removed to a new Collection Center in Rowley, Massachusetts. Over time I realized that I was only hurting myself, as the Peabody Essex is indeed a treasure house, and the historical references of new Director Brian Kennedy and media reviews of the new wing and the #newpem infused me with hope, and so I was excited to return, but also a bit anxious. (There was also a big food truck festival in Salem but don’t expect me to report on that!)
The Remonds in the morning, and the new PEM Wing in the afternoon!
As exasperated as I can often get with Salem, you must know that it is an entirely engaging city and place to live, always, but this weekend was particularly intense. If the famous PEM neuroscientist Dr. Tedi Asher had affixed monitoring devices to me I would have given her readings off the charts, I am sure! I was nervous about going into an institution which I have been so critical of over these past few years–not to exaggerate my influence, it was just an internal feeling. I have friends and acquaintances who work at the museum and it never felt good to criticize the place where they worked. Everything seems different now, with the new Director, Brian Kennedy, acknowledging Salem, community, founders, even slavery (i.e. historical realities rather than cultural idealizations, and potential engagement or even interest in historical interpretation!) with every passing press report. Expectations can make you anxious too though, and I was anxious to see what role the new dedicated Phillips Library gallery in the new wing would play, as an expression of priorities, as an indication of respect for the old (dry) texts which always require a bit more effort to make them shine. So here I go into the PEM, heading straight for the new wing, with all of my anxieties and expectations. What do I see first?
A wall! And an amazing N.C. Wyeth mural titled Peace, Commerce, Prosperity–both of which I loved. Before I looked at anything, I was struck by that wall: the side of the East India Marine Hall which I had never really seen; it must have been alongside the former Japanese garden but I never noticed it for some reason. Maybe I was just focused in my mind on the back wall of Hamilton Hall which borders my own garden, which I stare at all the time and think of the Remonds working on the other side, but all I could see when I entered the new wing was this wall. It might also have been my admiration for the Georgian Pickman House, which formerly stood in the same spot I was standing in—-maybe I was trying to conjure up its orientation—but for whatever reason, I stood staring at that wall for quite some time. (Yes, Salem’s history is weighing on me, just a bit). Then I snapped out of it, spent some time looking at the lovely Wyeth mural, and moved into the new Maritime gallery, where I was caught. There’s no other word for it, caught. I was transfixed by everything, and as soon as I got to the trio of paintings of ships in various stages of “tragedy and loss” by the Salem deaf-mute artist George Ropes, I realized that I wanted–or needed– to come back to this very intimate gallery every day, or as often as possible. Such a clever installation with its angled walls, ensuring that you discover something new around every corner, and everything so very evocative of the perils and promise of the sea. And such a thoughtful mix of old exhibits and new, including the venerable glass-encased ships’ models we can see in all the old photographs of the Peabody Museum. I saw many things that I had only seen in pictures before, but also “old friends”. There were texts, not just paintings and objects. Stunning, substantive, respectful: I was very impressed.
The treasures of the new Maritime Gallery: the George Ropes paintings are STUNNING; I can’t possibly capture their beauty here. Lovely to see many East India Marine Co. artifacts plus texts and sketchbooks; Ange-Joseph Antoine Roux, Ship America at Marseille, 1806; a reverse glass painting by Carolus Cornelius Weytz, c. 1870; Ship Models and dashing Salem Sea Captains John Carnes and Benjamin Carpenter by William Verstille; Vases by Pierre Louis Dagoty, c. 1817.
The Asian Export Gallery on the second floor of the new wing was extremely well-designed as well, with an entrance “foyer” covered entirely in c. 1800 Chinese wallpaper from a Scottish castle showing us just how cherished, and integrated, products from Asia were in the west. This opened up into a spacious gallery, providing a vista for what can only be called a “Great Wall of China”! This space was delightful aesthetically, but it was also a teacher’s toolbox for me: all of our introductory history courses are focused on global connections and trade, so I was able to photograph about three PowerPoint’s worth of photographs, for which I am very grateful. Then it was upstairs to the new wing’s third floor, where Fashion and Design reigned—particularly the former, so many mannequins. I have to say that compared to the other two galleries, this one left me cold, but I’m sure that I’m in a minority as it was the most crowded space of my afternoon. We all respond to different materials in different ways of course, but I was struck by the contrast of the rather “old-fashioned” display of Iris Apfel’s ensembles with the modernity of the actual clothing: draped sheets à la eighteenth century with bespectacled mannequins in front? To me it looked inartful, kind of like a throwaway installation, but maybe I’m supposed to notice the juxtaposition? I’m not sure: there were just too many mannequins—it was a crowd for me. There was a readily apparent flow, or connection, between the objects in the Maritime and Asian Export galleries below, but here I could not link the fashion and non-fashion items into any semblance of a story. But again: it was crowded, so I’ll have to go back and try again.
Perfect place to text, no? LOVED this painting of Two English Boys in Asian Clothing, c. 1780 by Tilly Kettle, “the first prominent British artist to work extensively in India”; the “Great Wall” in its partial entirety and detail; the Fashion and Design gallery on the third floor of the new wing.
By this time, I was running out of time (chiefly because I spent so much time in Maritime World) but I wanted to see how some older spaces were impacted by the addition of the new wing—namely the adjacent East India Marine Hall—as well as the heralded dedicated Phillips Library gallery. Here disappointment began to kick in, so read no further if you want a fluffy, disengaged appraisal: that’s not what I do here. The old hall, so stunning and so missed by me, was all dark, reduced to background for artist Charles Sandison’s digital projections of words and phrases from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ship captains’ logs. I had seen this before, as PEM’s first “FreePort” installation a decade or so ago, so I was surprised to see it again. I really liked it before: it was definitely immersive. It was not what I wanted to see now; I was hungry for real words and texts after their authentic integration in the Maritime gallery and so these fleeting, ephemeral images felt fleeting and ephemeral. But this is a temporary installation so I’m not going to go on and on about it; I’m looking forward to what’s next for East India Marine Hall.
Charles Sandison: Figurehead 2.0.
On to the new Phillips Library dedicated gallery space! I was anxious, so maybe I wasn’t thinking clearly, but it actually took quite a while to find it. My very handy Visitor Map, which was handed out to everyone as we entered the PEM, indicated that it was right behind East India Marine Hall on the same floor, but because the circular staircase in the rear of the building was blocked off you couldn’t quite get there from where I was without going up, down and all around for some reason. Again, it might have been me, I was going by sheer sensation here, but the difficulty of access seemed to combine with the closet-like room I eventually found to give me a profound impression that the Peabody Essex Museum really didn’t want to showcase the collections of the Phillips Library. Here was an afterthought, thrown in behind the restrooms. I hate to rain on this parade, but that is what I felt. The “Creative Legacy of Hawthorne” exhibit seemed uninspired to me as well, but to be honest, I couldn’t really take it in, I was so disappointed by this sad space. I’ll have to go back and look at it again, if I can muster the willpower. I know that the new Phillips Librarian is happy to have this space, and I’m sure he and his staff will do as much with it as they possibly can, but there’s no way that I can say that it was anything other than a great disappointment to me, right now. The contrast between this disposable space, and all of the wonderful, powerful, thoughtful and spaciousgalleries I had just seen was almost unbearable: I just had to walk away. There was a large panel which gave a brief history and description of the Library and an introduction to its new reading room in Rowley which I couldn’t quite capture with my camera so I made a collage of different sections: there was no filter with tears, “broken” and “recoil” didn’t look quite right, so I settled for worn.
Well let’s try to end on a high note, shall we? No one likes a killjoy. The whole opening of the new wing was handled wonderfully by the curators and staff of the PEM: everyone was on hand, all weekend long, to help, and guide, and answer questions. The Visitor Map (and these cute buttons for all of the new galleries, except, of course, for the Phillips Library) is great. There was a wonderful spirit about the place. Not only is the new wing impressive architecturally: it offers some interesting views of Salem from its upper stories. The new garden is a thoughtful space: I’m looking forward to seeing how the plant material fills in. It was good to be back in the Peabody Essex Museum after my long absence. Salem’s mayor, Kimberley Driscoll, shared her reactions to the opening of the new wing on social media and someone forwarded her post to me. She was clearly as excited as the rest of us and why not: it was, again, a big weekend for Salem. Mayor Driscoll wrote that As we enter these doors we’ll know more about 16-year old sea captains who sailed around the globe and brought back treasures and trinkets to their hometown. Humankind is amazing when it comes to rising up to challenges. We tell those accounts, see those treasures, wonder what it was like and how it came about, marvel at the possibilities….we do all that here. In this space. In our city. Yes in our city, in Salem: but we can’t tell those accounts if we don’t have our history: trinkets and treasures are not enough. And we don’t have to wonder, we could actually learn and know, if we had our history, but we don’t: it’s not here, in our city, in Salem.
The Phillips Library Gallery is #206 on the Visitor Map + adorable buttons; the new garden; view from the third floor of the new wing.