Tag Archives: Art

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.


A Bush Garden

Last week I spent a day in Kennebunkport, a town long associated with the Bush family because of Walker’s Point, which was purchased by President H.W. Bush’s maternal great- and grandfather after the turn of the last century. The usual congregation of onlookers was there, looking down on the Point compound: summer white house towns seem to have lasting appeal and Kennebunkport is a summer white house town x two. I was thrilled because the gate to St. Ann’s-by-the-Sea, a bit further down the coast, was open and so too was the church itself: I had never been inside and this was my chance! It did not disappoint: what a lovely seaside chapel that actually accentuates its setting, a great achievement as its setting is magnificent.

On the road that connects Kennebunkport harbor and downtown to the coast is a small park owned and maintained by the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust named River Green which is the site of a lovely little garden dedicated to former First Lady Barbara Pierce Bush. “Ganny’s Garden,” referring to the name she was called by her 17 grandchildren, was laid out in 2011 and became a memorial garden after Mrs. Bush’s death in 2018. It is completely charming, and also provides a good lesson about what one can do in a relatively small space. It is packed with plants, including some unusual ones (I was struck by the liberal use of mustardbut also personality and presence: bronze “statues” of Mrs. Bush’s gardening shoes and hat lie adjacent to that of an open book (her favorite Pride and Prejudice) as if she had just been there—or was still there.

The garden is overlooked by another statue dedicated to the seafaring forebears of Kennebunkport: Frank Handlen’s Our Forebears of the Coast, which was commissioned in 1994. Its presence made me wonder, in my compare-everything-to-Salem habit which I am trying to kick this summer: why no monument to Salem seafarers? If ever a settlement was made by the sea, it’s this one!


The Phillips House

I can’t believe that I’ve been blogging here for eleven+ years and have not featured 1) the only house museum; 2) the only house belonging to Historic New England; and 3) the only house which was (partially) moved to its site on the street where I live, Chestnut Street, before! There are two buildings which are open to the public on this famous street, Hamilton Hall and the Phillips House: the former is most definitely an assembly hall, while the latter is a home, and when you visit it, that will be one of your primary takeaways. Not only will you become familiar with multiple generations of the Phillips family, but also members of their staff (who were apparently never referred to as servants); not only will you see beautiful rooms “above,” but also working spaces “below.” The Phillips House has one of the best preserved historic working kitchens on the street (last used in 1962), which you will not see here, because I spent so much time and took so many pictures on my own personal tour with my former student Tom Miller that my camera was dead by the time I got there. So you must see it for yourself. The Phillips House opened for the season this past weekend: it is open every weekend through October but advance reservations are required.

The Phillips House on Chestnut Street is open! Great to see the flag flying. Tom Miller  opened the door for me on this past Friday, and we commenced a three-hour tour. Tom has been a associated with the house for 13 years, and knows everything about the Phillips house, its contents and inhabitants.

Because the house is a creation of many decades, families and styles, it has a lot to teach visitors, even though its interiors are presented as they were in 1919, several years after the Phillips family had taken possession and completed their renovations. Their fortune was based on Salem commerce, shrewd investments, and advantageous marriages, and they were well-traveled and engaged in society and civic affairs, so we can learn a lot from their stories as well. The story of the house begins with a maritime marriage and a messy divorce: between Elizabeth Derby, daughter of Salem’s wealthiest merchant, Elias Hasket Derby, and one of his ship captains, Nathaniel West. Mr. Derby did not approve of the marriage in 1783, but nevertheless he left his daughter an enormous inheritance in his 1799 will, which she used to to build a magnificent country estate just a few miles inland, commissioning the justly-famous Samuel McIntire to undertake much of the design and craftsmanship. After an important reform to Massachusetts divorce law in 1806 allowed women greater property rights in divorce cases involving infidelity on the part of the husband, Elizabeth Derby West sued for divorce and won, in a very public case involving a parade of prostitutes perhaps paid to give evidence against Captain West by her vengeful brothers, with whom he had engaged in fist-to-cuffs down on the docks. Elizabeth moved to Oak Hill permanently and continued to lavish material attention on it until her death in 1814, leaving it to her three daughters with the stipulation that they never let their father have a piece of it. The youngest West daughter, Sarah, died intestate five years later and consequently  her father did indeed inherit a third of the estate, despite his former wife’s wishes. He detached four rooms of the estate and had them moved to Chestnut Street: four miles in two days via teams of oxen and logs. After installing a central hall-connector with Palladian window and doors, he now had a slim but elegant (McIntire!) house. Over the nineteenth century the house doubled in size with a succession of owners, and the Phillips family acquired it in 1911. The cumulative composition is a bit Georgian, a bit Federal, a bit Victorian, and a lot of Colonial Revival, with just a pinch of Gothic.

The house in 1916, with lines marking the original McIntire rooms moved to Chestnut Street. An oxen team moving a structure along State Street in Newburyport for comparison, and the house in the later nineteenth century, all collections of Historic New England.

As you move through the house you are aware that you are entering another architectural era, especially as you move from McIntire front to Colonial Revival rear—somewhat of a pale imitation with an expanded scale. But you’re also busy looking at all the things that tie everything together, the personal belongings of a very grounded though worldly family.

Colonial Revival-ized houses always seem to have or side stairs: the front hall must be wide and open; I seem to recall that this side doorway (the “carriage entrance”) was once in front and is McIntire.

Dinner is set for a small party on the evening of July 30, 1919 in the expansive dining room: part of the extensive additions to the back of the house. No McIntire mantel, but lots of movable decorative detail in the form of serving ware, and one of my very favorite paintings which I somehow forgot was here: Thomas Badger’s Portrait of Thomas Mason (with a squirrel). It was a delight to see it: you can have your Copley boy and squirrel painting, I prefer this Badger.

As I am writing this it is very hot, so I want some ORANGE FAIRY FLUFF. The amazing pantry at the Phillips House, and the Badger!

Upstairs, things are a bit more intimate: bedrooms and bathrooms and Mrs. Phillips’ day room for keeping the household accounts. On the third floor there are guestrooms and staff rooms: a rear staircase descends from the latter to the kitchen. There are really wonderful windows throughout the house, in all shapes and sizes, with great views of Chestnut Street, and more McIntire detail in the front two rooms on the second floor.

Another major painting which “surprised” me in residence at the Phillips House was Marblehead folk artist J.O.J. Frost’s Massey’s Cove ( The Hardships and Sacrifice, Massey’s Cove, Salem 1626) depicting the first European settlement of Salem. It was just wonderful to see it there, hanging in Stevie Phillip’s light-filled, McIntire embellished bedroom with the best views of Chestnut Street in either direction. A less happy surprise, in this most Salem of houses, was a crumpled-up sign for the James Duncan Phillips Library, a library which is, of course, no longer in Salem.

I think I had professorial privilege as Tom showed me EVERYTHING and the standard tour can’t be quite as expansive due to time constraints, but the interpretation of the Phillips House definitely emphasizes the close personal connections between the generations that lived in the house and their staff and this is highlighted by one of the special tours at the house, “The Irish Experience at the Phillips House,” which will be offered on August 5. An annual must-attend event which we all missed last year is the antique car meet, which is on August 8. Vintage cars line the length of Chestnut Street, and the juxtaposition of cars and houses is more than instagram-worthy, believe me!


Decorating the “Little Room”

Happy June! I’m going to transition into a summer of lighter fare here: houses, gardens, non-academic books, events with people! In my contrary fashion, I’m going to start this transition with a spooky short story: one of the spookiest and shortest stories I’ve ever read. Madeline Yale Wynne’s “The Little Room” was first published in the August 1895 issue of Harper’s Magazine and then in The Little Room and Other Stories (1906). It’s a story about memories and perceptions, with a lot of ambiguity balanced by (in contrary fashion) very precise details, material details.

I’ll let you read it for yourself (it’s right here), but the basic problem is whether a certain space in an old Vermont farmhouse inhabited by two old maids was in fact a china cupboard or a “little room” complete with a green Dutch door exiting to the outside and a couch “covered with blue chintz—Indian chintz—some that had been brought over by an old Salem sea-captain as a ‘venture'” and given to one of the ladies when she was at school in Salem (yes, there is always a Salem connection). This chintz was described in more detail by those who saw the little room, and not the cupboard: it was “the regular blue stamped chintz, with the peacock figure on it. The head and body of the bird were in profile, while the tail was full front view behind it.” There were also hanging shelves with leather-bound books in the room, from which one bright red volume stood out, titled the Ladies’ Album, which “made a bright break between the other thicker books.” On the lowest shelf was a pink seashell, “lying on a mat of made of balls of red shaded worsted.” Not just a mat: a mat made of balls of red shaded worsted! Can we have any doubt that such a room, such a couch, such a shell, such a mat existed? Yes, we can. The room also contained several bright brass objects, a braided rag rug, and was wallpapered with “a beautiful flowered paper—roses and morning glories in a wreath on light blue ground.” How can this room not have existed? Wynne ensures that we will never know whether it did or not, but at least it can exist in some digital form with a bit of foraging and filtering.

The green Dutch door:

On the walls: I couldn’t find the wallpaper so precisely described by Wynne so I altered the color a bit from a 1960s floral paper on Etsy (which is the best place to find vintage wallpaper) and a watercolor possibly by John Hancock from the Carnegie Museum of Art (this is a lovely painting and I’ve really mucked it up with my filtering so make sure you see the original).

On the Settee: this first fabric looks very “stamped” but it’s really going to clash with my wallpaper, the second is softer but would still make for a very vibrant room!

On the Shelves: Wynne refers to hanging shelves very particularly, not a bookcase. I think of hanging shelves as more contemporary, but there are examples from the 18th and 19th century: the shelves below look appropriate to me, although with everything on them I think they would have to be bigger. These Waverly novels look weighty, but you can see how a slim red Ladies’ Album might pop out: perhaps it was Ladies Home Journal (which used red extravagantly) rather than Ladies Album? I’ve got lots of brass objects for this digital shelf/room (although maybe I should have polished them), and I stole the ultimate shell from my husband’s study. No mat though: I looked far and wide for a mat made of balls of shaded red worsted with no success, so the shell is sitting on a throw (but I used a “faded” filter). And finally, an amazing braided rag rug, which (hopefully) will pull this very interesting room together.

So that’s my “little room,” which was fun to put together. While this little story of a little room is an amusing diversion, it’s really not just about material stuff: it’s about the truth, and that awful scenario when two people, or three or four, or more, cannot decide or agree on what the truth is. This little story is a lot more timely now than when I first read it, maybe twenty years ago: then I think we all knew what the truth was.


Fair Ladies

Columbus is persona non grata these days, of course, but a hundred years ago and more his day was big in Salem and elsewhere, and the Columbian Exposition of 1893 was even bigger. The Essex Institute was charged with furnishing an entire room in the Massachusetts State building, a first-floor reception room no less, and so a committee was formed (led by two women, Mrs. Grace A. Oliver and Mrs. H.M. Brooks) to choose the Salem items which would go to Chicago: the complete catalogue of their choices is here. (How cool would it be to reproduce this room? I bet it would be a classic expression of Colonial Revivalism.) While I as looking through it (for probably the 100th time!), I noticed that Salem items were included in other exhibits as well, including the Education, Transportation, Liberal Arts, Fine Arts, Government, and Justice buildings, and the “Woman’s Building” of which I had never heard! So I read all about it.

Prints and Postcards of the Woman’s Building, Smithsonian and University of Maryland Digital Collections.

After the organizers of the Exposition agreed to a separate woman’s building (and not to an African-American one), a Board of Lady Managers was created to choose its design, content and programs. Bertha Palmer, the president of said board, insisted that the building be designed by a female architect, and Sophia Hayden, a new graduate of MIT’s pioneering architectural program, was chosen, based on the conformity of her design to the overall aesthetics of the  “White City”. Poor Miss Hayden: this would turn out to be her first and last commission, as she experienced some sort of mental breakdown during the accelerated construction process. The official program lists the exhibits, which follow the general fair’s lead in their mix of handicraft and fine arts, but were made exclusively by women. Large murals were commissioned for the interior “Gallery of Honor”, including Mary Cassatt’s “Modern Women” triptych which was destroyed at some point in the deconstruction of the fair, and thus only exists in photographs. Lucia Fairchild Fuller’s Women of Plymouth, seen below in a photograph by Amanda Brewster Sewall, has survived, fortunately: it was “lost” for a century or so, but “discovered” on the walls of the Blow Me Down Grange Hall & The Attic Antique Shoppe in Plainfield, New Hampshire, where Fuller and her family lived.

Lost Cassatt and “found” Fuller: from the Blow Me Down Grange Hall and Attic Antique Shoppe facebook page.

Somewhere in that cavernous Gallery of Honor were the three works of Salem artist Harriet Frances Osborne (1846-1913), including her etching of Chestnut Street, below. I zoomed in on as many photos as I could find and could not find them. She also had a portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne in the Massachusetts Building, making her one of the most exhibited Salem artists in Chicago—-I think only Ross Turner had more. I’ve been meaning to get to Harriet’s diaries in the Phillips Library for a while, but the pandemic and the book have made that impossible. So I don’t have much to tell you other than that she was an art teacher at Miss Cleveland’s School in the famed “Studio” on lower Chestnut Street: on the right in her etching. This must have been a major highlight in her life, and I wish I could say more to illustrate or confirm that hypothesis, but I’m at a loss for now: Harriet, part II in 2021, I promise! I’m not even sure if she made it to Chicago, but I hope she did.

Miss Osborne’s Chestnut Street, courtesy Historic New England; Maud Howe Elliott’s Art and Handicraft in the Woman’s Building (1894) from its Alice Morse Earle-esque cover, really conveys the “spirit” of the Woman’s Building; a few more recent books on the Woman’s Building.