Tag Archives: Auctions

Falling for Folk Art

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.

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Folk Art Hurd MFA

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.

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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.

Elephants Walking sign Sothebys

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Folk Art Eagle

Dice

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Crocodile

Eye Clock

Select lots from Sculptural Fantasy: The Important American Folk Art Collection of Stephen and Petra LevinSothebys.


A County in Crisis, 1692

The twitter tagline for Hub History’s podcast on the Boston witch trials in the mid-seventeenth century was a bit on the edge for me: The Salem Witch Trials? So mainstream. Boston was hanging women for imaginary crimes BEFORE it was cool. Yet I think I will forgive them (not that they need my forgiveness, as they offer up wonderful and popular podcasts on Boston history prolifically) because this expanded geographical perspective is something that the interpretation of the Salem Witch Trials needs, always. When I came to Salem with my newly-minted Ph.D. in early modern European history, I was astounded that so few people knew that thousands of people had been tried and executed for witchcraft in that era: now that awareness seems much improved as far as I can tell, but because Salem’s history is so commodified, the Salem story still seems to dominate even though the town was very much in the center of a county-wide storm in 1692. Academic historians have told the larger story for years—from Richard Godbeer’s Devil’s Dominion to Marybeth Norton’s In the Devil’s Snare to my colleague Tad Baker’s Storm of Witchcraft—but I am wondering if the regional approach has any bearing on how the tale is told in Salem today. I’ll look—and listen—around, and try to find out.

Essex County Witch VictimsThe names of just one day’s (September 22) victims of the Salem Witch Trials reveal some extent of the regional impact, but the University of Virginia’s site has a dynamic regional map here.

When I saw the preview for one of those cheesy cable paranormal shows on “haunted” Salem that appear with increasing frequency, especially at this time of year, advertising an ” immersive, multi-platform event [which] will investigate ghostly activity at three historic locations tied to the infamous Salem Witch Trials of the late 17th century: the Ipswich Gaol, the Proctor House and Rockafellas” [restaurant in Salem, the site of the first meeting house where interrogations occurred], I was impressed with the regional scope for about a second, until I realized that the show’s producers seemed not to know or care that neither the “haunted” Ipswich Jail or the Proctor House in Peabody were built until well after the trials, and that the building identified as the “old Ipswich Gaol” was not in fact the Old Ipswich Gaol. In this article, Ipswich Town Historian Gordon Harris expressed proper disgust at the “hype and fabrication” of it all, especially given the fact that Ipswich had a real role to play in the Salem Witch Trials, “a mass systematic state-sponsored killing of innocent people [which] should not be used for mindless entertainment.” I did not hear or read a similar expression of condemnation in Salem, but then again I did not read anything at all about this show in Salem, which is great. Perhaps the producers can blame their ignorance on one of the “local historians” they featured, who appears to be a professional actor.

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Well, enough of this: there are far better choices out there, this very month, for those that are interested in truly historical and regional perspectives on the Salem Witch Trials. Just this week, Curator Kelly Daniel of the Peabody Historical Society & Museum will be speaking about a local family that emerged from the Trials unscathed despite that fact that they were very much in the midst of it all: “We Do Testefy : The Felton Family & Salem Witch Trials,” Smith Barn @Brooksby Farm in Peabody, Massachusetts, Wednesday, October 9 at 1:00 pm. And in the following week, another promising presentation, at the Rebecca Nurse Homestead in Danvers: “Skeletons in the Closet: The Memorialization of George Jacobs Sr. and Rebecca Nurse after the 1692 Witch Trials” by Dan Gagnon. For a more creative (and clearly labeled as such!) yet equally regional perspective on the trials, this play about Nathaniel Saltonstall of Haverhill, whose resignation from the specially-commissioned Court of Oyer and Terminer has made him a perennial (and rare) judicial hero of the Trials, looks interesting: Saltonstall’s Trial, with multiple performances at Beverly’s Larcom Theater from October 17-27. I have always wondered why Saltonstall has not been featured more prominently in creative depictions of the Trials: in The Crucible, for example, Samuel Sewall seems to stand in for him in the play and the Reverend Hale in the film. He deserves a starring role, and he will have it in Beverly.

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Nathaniel Saltonstall 4 Perley History

Saltonstall CrestI can’t find a single contemporary (or later) image of Saltonstall–only mistaken images of his grandfather and son, but Sidney Perley included his autograph in his History of Salem (1924); Saltonstall family crest, Cowan’s Auctions.

Last year when this play debuted in Haverhill, the local paper wrote a feature with the title “Stay away from the freak show in Salem and head to the witch trials in Haverhill”: this year’s Beverly production seems more focused on presenting a substantive combination of drama with post-production “conversations” with people who do not have to act as if they have expertise, including Tad Baker, Danvers archivist Richard Trask, author Marilynne Roach, the new Head Librarian of PEM’s Phillips Library, Dan Lipcan, and Curator of the Wenham Museum Jane Bowers. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the view from Wenham before!


The Burning Church

For the last month, it seems like whenever I engaged in any form of social media I found myself looking at a primitive painting of a burning church. This image, by the nineteenth-century British expat artist John Hilling (1822-1894), who worked in Massachusetts and Maine, was chosen to illustrate a Smithsonian Magazine piece on David Vermette’s book A Distinct Alien Race: the Untold Story of Franco-Americans. It appeared on my feeds again and again as I’m often researching Franco-American communities in New England: it’s a favorite topic of students in the research seminar I teach, as Salem had a large and influential community of resident French Canadians in the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries, just one labor force for the city’s then- bustling textile mills. This community still has representatives in Salem today, though it was profoundly impacted by the Great Salem Fire of June 1914 which struck right in the heart of its neighborhood. So obviously, research topics abound, and apart from those inquiries, there’s something about a church in flames, whether by accident or intent, that always captures one’s attention.

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So here’s the image which has followed me online for last month or so: John Hilling’s Burning of the Old South Church, Bath, Maine, 1854 from the collection of the National Gallery of Art. There are several very interesting things about this painting: it is not signed by Hilling, but only referred to as his work in contemporary records–as well as his obituary; Hilling was documenting an event, so it is part of a sequential series which he created in several sets–indicating demand for such images; and even though this inflamed church looks like the perfect New England Congregational house of worship, it is being attacked for its recent alien occupation by a Catholic parish by a Nativist mob of Know-Nothings, in that contentious summer of 1854. Hilling created a before scene in which this mob appears to be looting the Church, and then an after in which it is in flames, and while browsing through the lots of an upcoming Doyle auction this weekend I found another stage of this scene by Hilling: a peaceful scene of the Church pristine.

CHurch Hilling Before Doyle

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Hilling Sotheby's

Hilling Sothebys 2Doyle Auctions; Gibbes Museum of Art; Jeffrey Tillou Antiques; Sotheby’s Auctions.

We know that besides Bath, Hilling lived in Charlestown, Massachusetts, so I can’t help but wonder if his Church scenes were inspired by another notorious expression of anti-Catholicism twenty years before: the burning of the Ursuline Convent on St. Benedict (now in Somerville; then in Charlestown) in 1834. The “memory” of this epic event seems to have had a fast hold on all who witnessed or even heard of it, and I bet Hilling was no exception, even though he was only a boy and likely not even in this country when it happened.

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Harry Hazel, The nun of St. Ursula, or, The burning of the convent. A romance of Mount Benedict (1845).


Historical Habitation

A couple of months ago, I decided that this would be the Summer of The Secretary: I’ve been wanting to purchase an antique secretary for my front parlor for quite some time, and as “brown furniture” seems positioned for a revival after the mid-century modern mania we’ve been in for a while I think that prices will start to climb back to the level where they were when I first started to furnish my home. I have the perfect, slightly-recessed spot and I think a secretary will really complete that room, which I can never seem to get right. So I’ve been looking at all of the auction listings, and the other day I saw a piece that looked vaguely familiar in a Skinner Country Americana Auction. The description confirmed my suspicion: this secretary, along with several other pieces in the same auction, came from the colonial house in South Berwick, Maine which serves as the subject of Paula Bennett’s book Imagining Ichabod. My Journey into 18th Century America through History, Food, and a Georgian House.

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Imagining Ichabod Secretary

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Bennett and her husband owned the Goodwin house in South Berwick for over a decade, during which time she pursued every possible avenue to create an ambiance as historical as possible in their home: research into the textures, furnishings, food and events of the era in which the two Ichabod Goodwins lived (1740-1829), through primary and secondary sources, archaeology, and what I like to call “shopping research” ( in which I indulge often) via period houses, auctions, and antique shops. Imagining Ichabod details this very personal and material journey in words, pictures, and recipes, as Bennett is an enthusiastic cook—indeed, one gets the impression that she is enthusiastic about everything! After this complete immersion, it was off to a Boston condo for the Bennetts, which is why their Georgian furnishings ended up at Skinner.

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Imagining Ichabod Table Skinner

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Imagining Ichabod Entrance Table

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Imagining Ichabod Marble Table

The cumulative and intensive effort to create a perfect eighteenth-century (-esque) house, only to dismantle and leave it after a relatively short period, is interesting to me, as I wonder about the constraints of “period living”, and by that I mean aesthetic constraints rather than practical ones, as even the most passionate antiquarians have indoor plumbing! Everyone I know in Salem lives in an old house, mostly from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but no one furnishes their homes in an exclusively period style: it’s generally a melange of old and new, with some nods to the era in which the house was built and a lot more comfortable furniture. When I first purchased my current house, which was built in 1827, I went about it much like Paula Bennett: I wanted period furniture, period drapes, period plates, period lighting, period wallpaper, and period hardware; I was particularly obsessed with finding the correct switch plates, but of course no switch plate is “correct” in an 1827 house. After about a decade of that design philosophy, I grew tired of the constraints and loosened up considerably, and now my house is a mix of past and present, as it no doubt appeared in 1927, 1877, and even the year it was built. But I still want a secretary—and the Bennett’s Georgian one is too early.

Sandy Agrafiotis photographs in Paula Bennett’s Imagining Ichabod. My Journey into 18th Century America Through its History, Food, and a Georgian House (Bauer and Dean, 2016). I never attempted period cooking like Paula Bennett, but I’m always on the lookout for a good rum punch, and the idea of roasted oysters intrigues, as both my father and husband are oyster aficionados.


Really Rubbish Royal Relics

Sometimes, no all the time, I think that I’m devoting too much time to social media, but occasionally you find yourself in the middle of some very interesting exchanges. The other day a really funny thread about the sheer dreadfulness of English delftware coronation plates from the late Stuart era unravelled on Twitter, and I couldn’t help but jump in, as I had just seen this William & Mary plate in a Sotheby’s auction and I needed some context and “conversation”!

William and Mary Sotheby's 2

Oh no, poor William, and even poorer Mary, with so much exposed. Neither looks very happy–or dignified. These crude plates started to appear with the Restoration, when people apparently sought them as symbols of a revived and “colorful” monarchy after years of dour Cromwellian rule. Many of the images of King Charles II in his coronation robes appear naive but charming, but by the time his niece and nephew were crowned, it looks like aesthetic standards have deteriorated quite a bit—or perhaps the potteries could not keep up with demand. When we look at these items now, they look comical, rather than reverential. The curatorial contributors to our Twitter exchange labeled these plates “Really Rubbish 17th-century Royal Memorabilia” so I am following suit, but I can’t help but also notice a distinct differentiation of display by gender in these plates: after Queen Mary’s untimely death (from smallpox, at the age of 32 in 1694), King William is depicted in a more stately fashion alone, and after he is succeeded by (poor) Queen Anne, we once again see the return of extensive decolletage. Why such excessive immodesty?

Coronation Plate Collage

William and Mary Charger BM

William and Mary Winterthur

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Queen Anne V and A

Delftware Queen Anne Ashmolean

William and Mary Coronation plates, c. 1690-94 from (clockwise): Samuel Herrup Antiques; Sotheby’s; and the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum; Queen Mary does come off a bit better (or at least more covered up) in SOME of the coronation plates in which she and William are standing, but it varies, as these two examples from the British Museum and Winterthur illustrate (and occasionally he is handing her the orb, which is good). It’s hard to make Queen Anne look good, but I don’t understand why she has to display such extravagant cleavage in these delftware plates from the Victoria and Albert collections and the Ashmolean Museum of Oxford University.


Allegorical Arrows

Historical imagery often contains symbols and emblems that we don’t understand:  we must learn to read them; whereas a contemporary audience could simply see them and understand the message within. I enjoy teasing out the meanings behind images from the past both here and in class–though here I’ve got a bit more creative freedom, and can chart the evolution of images all the way up to the present, when they have often lost their associations and exist simply as images. A great case in point (literally) is the simple and straightforward arrow: once I’ve swept away my seasonal decorations at home I’m often left with a bunch of arrows here and there as they are seasonless, timeless, and largely meaningless: I simply like their form. This is an Americana week for several auction houses, and yesterday as I was perusing the digital catalog for an important auction of folk art at Sotheby’s (The History of Now: The Important American Folk Art Collection of David Teiger|Sold to Benefit Teiger Foundation for the Support of Contemporary Art) all I could see was arrows, which for the most part had assumed their modern directional meaning on myriad weathervanes.

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artful arrows diana the huntress sothebys

artful arrows soaring bird sothebys

artful arrows goddess of liberty sothebysPrancing Horse, Diana the Huntress, Soaring Bird, and the Goddess of Liberty weathervanes from the Teiger collection, Sotheby’s.

Another lot in this same auction is an incredible later nineteenth-century Chinese wall plaque representing the Great Seal of the United States, with the emblazoned bald eagle clutching a cluster of arrows in his left talon—thirteen to be exact, representing the thirteen colonies, but also strength through unity. There is an explicit sense of martial strength on display as well, projected through the contrast with the olive branch in the eagle’s right talon. The Great Seal’s designer, Charles Thompson, was influenced in his use of arrows by other confederations such as the Iroquois (with their five nations) and the Dutch Republic (with its seven provinces) as well as by early modern emblem books such as Joachim Camerarius’s Symbola et Emblemata (1590-1604), merely substituting them for the more classical lightening bolts.

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arrows symbols 16th c.The Chinese Great Seal and Charles Thompson’s original sketch, US National Archives; Joachim Camerarius, Symbola et Emblemata.

Emblem books are one of the rabbit holes of early modern literature, as you will see if you go here: but you can also find many arrows, representing not only military force, but also time and inevitable mortality, flight, children (Psalm 127), punishment, and of course love, when in one of the countless cupids’ bows. Medieval arrows are never ambiguous: they represent force and violent death in general, and martyrdom in particular. Saint Sebastian (died 288) and King Edmund the Martyr (d. 869) were both attacked by hordes of pagan/heathen archers, and so often depicted as shot so full of arrows they resemble porcupines; arrows remained their essential attributes as their cults developed over the medieval era. In the later medieval era, Sebastian re-emerged as the most popular plague saint, as the arrow came to symbolize the plague itself: the most dramatic expression of this motif is a fourteenth-century fresco on the wall of the former Benedictine Abbey of Saint-André-de-Lavauadieu in France, depicting a faceless woman armed with the arrows of plague and her pierced victims all around her.

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Some early modern arrow emblems: “Ich fliehe sehr schnell”– Fly far and fast; “Vis nescia vinci”–force cannot be overcome with force; “Supplicio laus tuta semel”—he that was worthy of praise was one free from punishment; Cupid holds up the world: “Sublato Amore Omnia Ruunt“–When Love is Removed, All things tumble down; the Lavaudieu fresco, and a street sign in Bury St. Edmunds, bearing the three arrow-crossed crowns that have come to symbolize the Anglo-Saxon king Edmund the Martyr.

Back to the future: I guess arrows are just arrows, or mundane symbols telling us where to go, BUT who knew there was a hidden arrow in the FedEx logo? Not me.

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Mid-century textile design by Tommi Parzinger, Cooper-Hewitt Museum.

 


August Anglo-Americana at Auction

August is high season for antique shows and auctions in New England: generally featuring Americana items with global goods mixed in, as our Yankee forebears, particularly those who dwelled in regional seaports like Salem and Portsmouth, were very worldly, of course, and lived with things that came from other parts of the world. A decade or so ago I was in full-court hunting mode during this season; now I’m an armchair/laptop peruser, although next weekend’s sale at Northeast Auctions looks so good I’m certainly going to attend a preview, at the very least. Such interesting wares! All my picks are from the two (or one long) auctions which will be held on August 18-19: the “Lifelong Collection of Susan MacKay and Peter Field” on Saturday with a general auction following, into the next day. There is no rhyme or reason to these selections: they just caught my fancy.

Auction GlobeAmerican Terrestrial Pocket Globe made in Wethersfield, CT, c. 1850. A pocket globe is surely better than a pocket atlas.

 

Auction Stumpwork 2English Stumpwork Profile Portrait of King Charles I of England, 1646.  How amazing is this—and there are more seventeenth-century lots in the MacKay/Field collection as well, including two more representations of King Charles I during the Civil War, or perhaps even after his execution! Royalist relics–from either side of the Atlantic.

 

Auction Silk Needlwork Silk Needlework Picture of a Gentleman wearing a Tricorn Hat, c. 1770. I like this guy from the next century too.

 

AUction Highboy

English William and Mary Japanned Pine and Hardwood Highboy. I do not have a highboy, or a William and Mary piece, and I would really like both: this doesn’t really suit my present house but who knows where we might end up? I like the subtle Japanning and it has a very low estimate!

 

Auction Chairs

Set of Eight American Sheraton Fancy Red Painted and Decorated Side Chairs. Do I need chairs? No, absolutely not. But these are RED fancy chairs. Hard to resist.

 

Andres JournalAndre’s Journal: an Authentic Record of the Movements and Engagements of the British Army in America from June 1777 to November 1778 as recorded from day to day by Major John Andre,” Edited by Henry Cabot Lodge, Boston: The Bibliophile Society, 1903. This is a beautiful two-volume book which was limited to 487 copies for Bibliophile Society members: I continue to be fascinated by how fascinated Americans were (are?) with Major Andre!

 

Auction Lady LibertyLady Liberty Standing on the Head of Great Britain underneath the Great Seal of the United States, American School, War of 1812. LOTS of War of 1812 items in this auction: this is my favorite.

 

Arbella NortheastThe Frigate “Arbella” of Salem. American School, early 19th Century. I guess I have to have a Salem item–this is a lovely ink & watercolor painting of a ship with which I am not familiar: the original Arbella brough John Winthrop to Salem in 1630, but I don’t know anything about this Arbella. Only the Phillips Library can tell us, I’m sure!

 

Auction Young SailorThe Young Sailor. American School, 4th quarter, 19th century, Mrs. Mary Ide Spencer/Artist. I just love this painting: I know it would make me happy every day if it were mine.


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