Tag Archives: Art

The Power of Juxtaposition

The Peabody Essex Museum has opened a new integrated exhibit of items from its American and Native American collections entitled On This Ground: Being and Belonging in America and I made my first visit last weekend. This is an “ongoing” exhibition, which I guess means permanent, and I’m glad it is going to be on view for some time as it offers quite a lot to take in and think about: there are new things to see but even familiar items are cast in a new light through their arrangement. While the exhibition explores various themes relating to “being and belonging in America” its overall curation is what captivated me on this first viewing: it seemed as if there were a succession of cascading vignettes crafted from the artful juxtaposition of both like and unlike objects. Juxtaposition is a powerful way to engage and to teach: I use contrast and comparison quite a bit in class but I wouldn’t call my efforts artful. In contrast, On This Ground’s presentations cross genres and time very fluidly, right from the beginning when a video featuring Elizabeth Solomon, a member of the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag, is contrasted with the original Massachusetts Bay Charter of 1628-29 through which King Charles I claimed the land of her ancestors (I have to say that the Charter actually belongs to the Salem Athenaeum, which placed it in storage at the Essex Institute long ago; the PEM seemed to develop an interest in exhibiting the Charter only when the Athenaeum was seriously considering selling it in 2006, so it’s great to see it as one of the opening exhibits of this important new exhibition.)

The juxtapositions are not always so jarring: each culture gets the opportunity to tell its own stories as they cycle through history, as exhibit text proclaims that “history is not linear” repeatedly. Then there is convergence, but there are intra-cultural juxtapositions too: I particularly liked the contrast of proximity between the works of two of Salem’s most well-known sculptors, William Wetmore Story (Marguerite) and Louise Lander (Evangeline), as the latter was explicitly slandered by the former. And the Hawthornes are in close proximity, as they also shut their doors to Miss Lander. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a work of Salem’s even more famous “people’s sculptor,” John Rogers, in real life (clay), so it was great to see The Wounded Scout: its sentimentality was a good match for what I think is a new acquisition by the PEM (in honor of recently-retired curator Dean Lahikainen), Tompkins Harrison Matteson’s The Pillory Scene from The Scarlet Letter (chap. 12, p. 185-188), 1860.

But there are also some starker contrasts which are illuminating: with context but also aesthetically, including two “political teapots” placed side by side (“Stamp Act Repeal’d, 1760s & Nuclear Nuts Teapot Variation #13 by Richard T. Notkin, 2001), a very fancy dressing table paired with some equally fancy boots, and so many aligned portraits. The internal “windows” of the gallery space open up some interesting juxtapositions as well.

There were two aspects of the exhibition that remain rather “unsettled” in my mind, one very general and the other very particular. So of course I have to go back and settle them! It seemed to me as if the Native American objects came from a much broader geographic region, but that just might be my parochial perspective. And once again (for the 99,000th time) I am troubled by the Salem Witch Trials. I was really excited when I read the thematic label for the “Heroes & Histories” section of the exhibit, especially the opening line if the same stories are repeatedly told, whose stories are we missing? That’s Salem in a nutshell: we just keep telling the same story! So I kept going, and there’s the same old story of the Salem Witch Trials in (very familiar; TOO familiar) images, objects and texts. I just don’t understand how a(nother) Tompkins Harrison Matteson painting represents a “new way of looking at the past.” The most recent historiography of the Salem Witch Trials has focused on Salem as a “frontier” society: wouldn’t this be a relevant perspective to explore here?

This was just one discordant corner of this sweeping exhibition, which otherwise struck a pitch-perfect balance of the familiar and the new for me. The two paintings which captured my attention for the longest time were one which I was quite familiar with (Alvan Fisher’s Salem from Gallows Hill, 1818) and one which was brand-new to me (Bahareh and Farzaneh Safarani’s Twilight Reincarnation, 2018). I like to orient myself in the past through the former, while the latter simply delighted me with its fleeting window shadows, so much so that I forgot to contextualize the painting altogether.

On This Ground: Being and Belonging in America: ongoing at the Peabody Essex Museum.


When Nixon went to China and Life Magazine came to Salem

For some reason, I’ve been going through the archives of Life magazine over the last month or so: it started with the photographs, and then I had to read the stories too. Life seems like it was a perfect mix of news and popular culture: we don’t have the like now, do we? And I doubt we ever will again with our very diffused and digital media. I’m no twentieth-century historian, but it also seems to represent the collective mindsets of its changing times: it really excels at representing wartime America, of course, but the later decades too. So far my favorite issue bears a beautiful Elizabeth Taylor on the cover on the occasion of her fortieth birthday: but inside the focus is on President Nixon’s imminent trip to China. It was fifty years ago this very month, and a very big deal. For some historical context, Life went to Salem, which emerges as kind of cultural intermediary between the United States and China, as it was the first American city to become thoroughly acquainted with the East. And so we get to read about Elias Hasket Derby and his ships, and see Derby Wharf, and all sorts of “exotic souvenirs” brought back from China by Salem’s daring merchants and later installed in the old Peabody Museum of Salem. It’s all great, but the best photograph is an aerial view of Chestnut Street where nothing much has changed in fifty years.

“When the US Sailed to China,” Life magazine, 25 February 1972. Photographs by Henry Groskinsky.

I think that the Peabody Essex Museum is still playing that intermediary “West meets East” role, although now the perspective is far more global than western. I know that I fault the PEM often for its displaced library and limited local offerings, but their East Asian and China Trade galleries are beyond impressive. I find myself teaching the first half of World History this semester for the first time in a decade, and I really had to do a lot of preparation before I stepped into the classroom (well, first it was on the screen as we had a “staggered” opening). China is the star of pre-1500 world history, and all my “color” comes from the PEM! Its collections are much stronger in later-dynasty objects, but there’s still some wonderful things on display from earlier eras. Much has happened in the past half-century: the Cold War is over, and Life magazine has also concluded its run, but Salem’s “China Cabinet” not only endures, but has been expanded considerably (and we no longer refer to its contents as souvenirs). In fact, aside from Salem’s built landscape, PEM’s East Asian collections constitute one of the largest and most lasting material legacies of “its” history in situ: this seems like an odd statement, but I think it is true.

Yichengyong Picture Workshop, Tianjin. Family celebrating the New Year and welcoming wealth from all directions, 1908-11, reproduction of detail from a woodblock print; Standing official with tablet, Jin dynasty, early 13th century; Guangzhou artists, Tea packer and porter, about 1803; Guangzhou artists, Wu Bingjian, Known as Houqua, about 1835; George Chinnery, detail from Dr. Thomas Richardson Colledge and His Assistant Afun in Their Opthalmic Hospital, Macau, 1833. There’s an emphasis on people and their relationships in PEM’s present galleries, but there’s also the “Great Wall of China” and a transplanted 18th-century Chinese house, Yin Yu Tang, to see.


Salem’s Spider Man

Obviously I am shamelessly exploiting both popular culture and alliteration with my title, but nevertheless James Henry Emerton (1847-1931), one of Salem’s most successful commercial artists, did indeed love spiders. He was a self-proclaimed “zoological and botanical draughtsman” who illustrated some of the most popular natural history publications of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Emerton was of that generation of Salem boys (and maybe Salem girls, I’m just not sure) who could and would flourish in the natural history network of the city, where and when both the Essex Institute and the Peabody Museum (which was the Peabody Academy of Science until 1915) had missions of advancing scientific understanding as much as cultural appreciation. The son of a prominent Salem apothecary, he was a self-taught artist and naturalist, beginning his collection of his favorite object of study, spiders, in his teens and expanding it right up until his death. He was not university-educated, though he did spend a year in Germany at several universities, at the same time as his younger brother Ephraim, who became a very prominent medieval historian and professor at Harvard. James returned to Salem in 1876, and was employed as a curator and instructor in natural history at the Peabody Academy, all the while collecting his spiders and illustrating the natural world around him. Throughout his career, he seemed to operate in three different intersecting worlds, working with prominent naturalists to illustrate their research in publications and exhibitions, as a creative artist, and as an active arachnologist. The illustrations in one of the most beautiful and authoritative botanical books of the later nineteenth century, Daniel Cady Eaton’s Ferns of North America, first published in Salem in 1879 by the prolific Samuel E. Cassino, placed him very confidently on the first path.

Emerton had several productive and lengthy academic collaborations which inspired him to expand his creative and reproductive skills from illustration to modeling with papier mache and plaster: consequently he is sometimes referred to as both a sculptor and an illustrator. Following the Ferns book, he began to work with Yale professor Addison Verrill, who was also employed by the U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries and the Smithsonian. After some hardy Newfoundland fisherman hauled up a giant squid in 1873, Verrill and Emerton worked together to produce the first illustrated scientific study of that wondrous creature, and the latter produced a 40-foot-long model that was displayed with great fanfare at the International Fisheries Exhibition in 1883. A decade later, Emerton made a life-sized model of a giant octopus for the World’s Fair in Chicago, and both creatures were showcased in the Smithsonian afterwards.

Emerton’s giant squid on paper and at the London International Fisheries Exhibition, 1883; The giant octopus at the World’s Fair in 1893 (from Photographs of the World’s Fair, 1893), in the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building and the Field Museum, Chicago (present); Crab and lobster from George Brown Good’s Fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States: Section I, Natural History of Useful Aquatic Animals, Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.

I’m not sure if the marine modeling took Emerton away from his preferred entomological illustration, but while working with Verrill in New Haven he met his wife, Mary, and they moved to Boston in 1885: this remained his residence for the rest of his life, though he traveled continuously and of course I’m still claiming him for Salem! In the 1890s he branched out, yet again, to produce anatomical models for Harvard Medical School Parkman Professor of Anatomy Thomas Dwight: apparently these models were used at the school throughout the twentieth century. Throughout this busy period Emerton was still collecting spider specimens and also engaging in some pastime painting, mostly of coastal landscapes. He supplemented his first spider book, The Structures and Habits of Spiders (1878) with numerous academic papers and also a more general (and obviously more popular) book entitled The Common Spiders of the United States (1902) and also turned his attention to butterflies and wasps. Both before and after his death in 1931, James H. Emerton received the highest honors for any naturalist: several taxa are named after him, including Agelenopsis emertoni, Emerton’s Funnelweb Spider.

Emerton’s Common Spiders, and illustrations from Wasps Social and Solitary by George W. and Elizabeth G. Peckham (1905); the great naturalist on one of his many travels.


Books for Christmas/Break

Classes have just ended and after grading I will attack the big pile of books by my bedside: I’ve already dipped into one or two but I have a full month with very few obligations ahead of me to really indulge. As I’ve been consumed with writing my own book (out in February) over the past few years, along with teaching and everything else, I haven’t had much time to read generally and broadly, so I’m really looking forward to the next few weeks. My list below is about as general and broad as I get: when I don’t have to read history for scholarship or teaching I tend to read histories of periods and places which I do not write or teach about. I’d love to read more fiction over the next month, but nothing has caught my attention except for the sole work of historical fiction below—and only because it’s related tangentially to my next project.

So here we go, beginning with two books that fall into the category of personal history:

Mr. Atkinson’s Rum Contract is an amazing personal history of Richard Atkinson’s own family, including his namesake forebear, a British merchant with considerable interests in the West Indies in the late 18th century who acquired the lucrative contract to supply the British army in North America with rum and other essentials during the American Revolution. This is a “warts and all” family history, as the family fortune was based as much on slavery as it was on sugar and land, of course, and one told in a truly captivating manner. Lotharingia is the last of Simon Winder’s surveys of central European travelogue history, following Germania and Danubia. I liked both of these books: they are rather breezy but still engaging and it’s easy to skip over the occasional boring bits. Lotharingia is the “land in between” established by the terms of the Treaty of Verdun in 843, which divided Charlemagne’s empire between his three grandsons: younger brothers Louis the German and Charles the Bald received lands east of the Rhone River and West Francia, respectively, while the eldest brother Lothar received the imperial title and “Francia Media”, a long strip of territory encompassing the Low Countries, parts of modern Germany and France, Switzerland, and much of northern Italy. A place of shifting boundaries and perspectives, for sure.

Since we are back in the early middle ages, I must admit that I have to do some work over the break: I’m teaching our early world civilization survey for the first time in a decade or so, so I must delve into some global history: Silk Road scholar Valerie Hansen’s The Year 1000 will be very helpful, and I’m hoping that Gary Paul Nabhan’s Cumin, Camels and Caravans, written from a more personal and cultural perspective, will provide me with some great “spicy” anecdotes.

And speaking of spices, I also want to use this break between semesters to do some background reading on my next project: a history of saffron in medieval and early modern England. A storied spice, a wonder drug, used in medical and culinary recipes and as a dyestuff, saffron has many threads to follow—through economic, social, cultural and even political history. I’m going to start with its most obvious attribute, its color, and then expand into some textile history. I’m not sure whether or not Atlantic sericulture will have much bearing on my understanding of saffron cultivation, but I’ve met Ben Marsh so I want to read his magisterial book (and you might know him too, from his family’s viral pandemic rendition of “One Day More”—he’s a Renaissance Man!) And then there is A Net for Small Fishes, Lucy Rago’s fictional account of the “Overbury Affair” in which Mrs. Anne Turner, she of the conspicuous yellow ruff, was implicated in the murder by poisoning of courtier Thomas Overbury and executed in 1615. There’s even a fictional Salem connection, as Nathaniel Hawthorne includes Anne Turner in The Scarlet Letter as a friend of suspected witch Mistress Hibbins, even teaching her how to color her ruffs yellow. Anne Somerset’s Unnatural Murder is a more straightforward account of the murder of Overbury set against the backdrop of poisonous Jacobean court culture.

I think I always include books about gardening on my lists, and this one is no exception. I like whimsical, personal books about gardening as an activity, but also cultural histories of evolving landscapes and horticulture: The Morville Hours is a perfect example of the former, and The Acadian Friends of the latter. It would be nice if someone would buy me the forthcoming Architects of the American Landscape and Nature and its Symbols, a reference book from Lucia Impelluso and the Getty Museum.

Finally, two texts focused on the interpretation of history for the general public, a constant concern and interest of mine. The United States is in the midst of a real reckoning (as opposed to a pandering PEM-esque reckoning) about its history and understanding of slavery, and Clint Smith’s bestselling How the Word is Passed is the very next book I want to read about this important process. Here in Salem, there’s very little reckoning; just an increasing amount of ghosts! All summer long, I was hearing ghost stories on the streets of Salem and I feel like I’m surrounded by their professional proponents. This fall, I went to a talk by a very prominent head of interpretation at a very prominent New England heritage organization and in the Q and A I asked him about ghost stories as history and he replied that ghost stories are history. While I understand and agree with that statement to a point, I’ve gone beyond my comfort level and so want to read up a bit more on dark or “paranormal tourism”: Haunted Heritage is about the scene in York, known as Great Britain’s most “haunted” city, so it should be just the ticket.


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.


Salem in (water)color, 1939

Salem set the style standard in the first half of the century when Colonial Revival ruled, ruled, and continued to rule: right up to World War II and then beyond, according to the dictates of shelter magazines. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, you can find photos of Salem houses and house parts in issues of The House Beautiful and House & Garden from nearly every year: after that Salem is not quite as “present” but still around. Much of the attention shed on Salem is a result of two people I’ve written about here time and time again, Mary Harrod Northend and Frank Cousins, and after their deaths in the mid-1920s a Salem publicist-successor did not appear, yet “Old Salem” (rather than the “Witch City”) endured as the quintessential New England seaport. I’ve shared every Salem feature in these two particular periodicals from the teens and twenties in past posts, but not too many from the 1930s. A few weeks ago I came across some Salem images from a 1939 issue of House & Garden which were so striking that I knew I had to track down the original copy rather than rely on a digital version, and when it arrived I was not disappointed. This was an issue devoted to New England in all its glory, and Salem plays a central role. There is an interesting architectural introduction by Frank Chouteau Brown, some charming infographics that indicate that the Federal style had not yet been identified (???) but was rather referred to as the “Late Georgian,” and then some lovely watercolor vignettes of the interiors of several Chestnut Street Houses, the Gardner Pingree House, and the House of the Salem Gables by students at the New York School of Fine and Applied Art, which is now the Parsons School of Design.

Cover and illustrations from the June 1939 special New England issue of House & Garden. No Federal?

 

The Barstow West and Pickering Dodge Shreve Houses on Chestnut Street.

 

Parlors and Bedrooms of the Gardner-Pingree House of the Peabody Essex Museum.

 

Parlor and Dining Room of the House of the Seven Gables.

 

These rooms look so lively in these images: the interpretations really emphasize color and texture over pristine period perfection. There are some black and white photographs in the issue as well, like the one of the John Ward house below, but I don’t think they can compete with color. The magazine also aims to be a resource, so there’s a listing of all the historic houses in Salem and their hours of operation, which were far more extensive than today. You could go into the Peirce-Nichols House every afternoon from Wednesday to Saturday all year long, and the Gardner-Pingree and Derby houses every day!

The Ward House and notice for the Second Chestnut Street Day, 1939.


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.

 


Merrimack Meandering: the Whitefield Project, part II

I’ve got a lot of gardening and exterior house projects to do, but we’re in the midst of a stretch of rainy, foggy and soggy weather, so I can’t trim my hedges or paint my scraped and sanded deck (especially the latter). After last year’s summer of writing, I am more focused on activity this year, but we’ve had too few days of that perfect dry and sunny New England weather: it’s either wet or hot! I know I shouldn’t complain, as many parts of our country have it far worse, but I seem to be doing it anyway. Tuesday seemed particularly gray, so I threw Edwin Whitefield in the car and drove off in search of greener pastures: to the Merrimack River Valley. It was lush, lush, lush, a benefit of this icky weather for sure, and I really didn’t get very far: I went for more byways than highways and consequently just covered a southeastern corner of a much larger area. Whitefield was not a great guide, frankly: he missed a lot of Homes of our Forefathers in Amesbury, and West Newbury, and even the major metropolis of the region, Haverhill (I didn’t make it as far west as Lawrence or Lowell). Here’s my route (well, sort of):

Obviously I did not follow a thought-out or straightforward path, which explains why I didn’t cover much ground: one place led to another and these are large towns with lots of great houses to be found on nearly every road, requiring many stops. I don’t know Haverhill as well as some of the other towns in the valley, and it is large and diverse with lots to see: I really could have spent the entire day there. I drove up to the river on route 97 through Beverly, Topsfield, Boxford, Georgetown and Groveland, and searched for the one little house Whitefield sketched in the last town: not sure I found it but below are my top candidates. The bottom house is the wonderful George Hopkinson House on the National Register: unfortunately it faces the river rather than backing up to it, as in Whitefield’s sketch. Then it was across the river into Saltonstall country: like Salem and several other Massachusetts towns, the storied Saltonstall family looms large in Haverhill. But there is no Saltonstall house standing: the first one, the so-called “Saltonstall Seat” overlooking the river, burned down in the early 18th century, and a Georgian house later relocated to the shores of Lake Saltonstall was taken down in 1920. The Buttonwoods Museum (which really should update its hours) is home to the Haverhill Historical Society and the Duncan and Ward Houses, situated on the site of the Saltonstall Seat. Behind the Museum are historic cemeteries and the Highlands neighborhood, full of amazing houses in every conceivable architectural style. And then lakes! Haverhill really has a lot going for it, including a pretty vibrant downtown.

Groveland houses; Haverhill and the Merrimack in the 1880s; Whitefield’s Haverhill houses; the Duncan and Ward Houses of the Buttonwoods Museum.

After exploring the Highlands for a while I wanted to see if I could find a vista similar to the one in the print above, so I crossed the river over into Bradford, which is actually part of Haverhill. It is home to the charming campus of the now defunct Bradford College which originated as an academy at the seventeenth-century Kimball Tavern, now for sale. As I looked at this building, built in 1692, I began thinking about Haverhill’s famous captive, Hannah Dustin, who has been in the news recently as there is discussion about the appropriateness of her statue, given that she killed and scalped ten members of the Abenaki family holding her hostage after the raid on Haverhill in 1697. Her statue is scary, so I decided to cross the river again and go in search of the garrison house which her husband Thomas was building at the time of the raid. It now sits rather oddly next to a modern house and across from a golf course, but still intact. Then I got back on Whitefield track and went in search of the birthplace of another famous Haverhillian, John Greenleaf Whittier. From Whittier’s birthplace, now open, I naturally wanted to visit the house in which he resided later in life, in nearby Amesbury.

The Kimball Tavern, Dustin Garrison House and Whittier’s birthplace in Haverhill, and Whitter Homestead, Macy-Colby House, and a private 17th century house in Amesbury.

I took a very indirect route to Amesbury via Rocks Village, yet another village of sprawling Haverhill! Its bridge brings you across the river into West Newbury, which is full of eighteenth-century houses, and then I drove east into Newburyport and across the old chain bridge into Amesbury, also home to many early houses and ignored by Whitefield. As the day progressed towards the golden hour, things got a bit brighter, but it was also time to drive south towards home along route 1A. As is the case with Salem, the two houses which Whitefield chose to sketch in Newburyport are no longer standing: the Toppan and Pillsbury-Rawson Houses, which were both on High Street, I believe. But all of the first period houses he sketched in “Old” Newbury have survived, including the Noyes and Coffin Houses. The former is one of my very favorite old houses in Essex County, if only for its situation: it takes you right back to the seventeenth century. The latter is a Historic New England house, and open on Saturdays over the summer. Newbury and Rowley to the south are North Shore towns that link the Merrimack River Valley to Cape Ann, which Whitefield sketched a bit more actively, but I’ll have to leave that for another day trip.

The Noyes and Coffin Houses in Newbury.


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.