Tag Archives: books

Perennial Patterns

There were several Christmas gifts that I gave to people that I wanted for myself–all books. It was very frustrating to me that two of these particular books were shrink-wrapped, so I couldn’t even leaf through them before I wrapped them up! One was even in its own impenetrable (without leaving a trace of attempts at opening) box. On Christmas Day, as soon as I saw my brother-in-law open up a beautiful book by Peter Koepke entitled Patterns. Inside the Design Library I knew I had to have one for myself–and now I do.

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This stunning book is an exploration of a small fraction of the vast collection of The Design Library, a collection which includes seven million samples and fragments of pattern design embellishing fabrics, embroideries, yarns and wallpaper, all stored (appropriately) in a converted fabric mill in Wappingers Falls, New York. The book features a representative sampling of patterns and a very interesting concluding section on how design professionals, including designers at such diverse companies as Calvin Klein, Colefax and Fowler,and Pottery Barn, have used the library for inspiration. This is probably just a coffee-table book for my brother-in-law, who has long worked with textiles, but for me, it’s almost like a beautiful textbook, as each pattern is classified according to four main families of design–Floral, Geometric, Ethnic, and Conversational–and myriad subcategories under these categories. I quickly learned that I’m not crazy about abstract, chaos, exotica, jazzy, jungle, kaleidoscope, or modernist patterns (much less “x-rated” or “yummy”), but I LOVE distressed, gothic, and quotidian ones, and REALLY love feathers and insects. This was not a surprise to me, but I love finding classifications for my preferences.

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From Patterns: Inside the Design Library: French hand-painted feather paper, mid- to late-20th century; French hand-painted insect paper, early 20th century; French distressed woodblock-printed wallpaper, 1770 & “gothic” printed fabric, also from France, late 19th century (these look like the characters in a 17th-century witch trial!).

I also like the patterns labelled “Oberkampf”, after the eighteenth-century textile manufacturing company Oberkampt & Cie, which produced fabrics with a revolutionary “rolling block press”. They seem timeless, somehow, as did several of the samples in the book–patterns that looked old, but were in fact quite modern, and that looked modern, but were in fact rather old. Those old sayings that “nothing is every really new” and “everything comes back again” are not always true, but they often are, a point that was really driven home in the last section of the book, “The Creatives”, in which designers reworked Design Library-sourced patterns for products as diverse as Lulemon leggings, Clinique packaging, and the chartreuse velvet coat which Mrs. Obama wore to accompany the President to Norway to receive his Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.

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Eighteenth-century Oberkampf designs from Patterns; the development of  Mrs. Obama’s coat by Francisco Costa, then creative director for Calvin Klein, based on velvets he found in the Design Library. 


Luther, the Great Disruptor

Was it just me or was the word disruption used intensively in the closing months of 2016? It seems like every time I turned on the radio or picked up the newspaper I was confronted with that word. Now that the year has turned to 2017, my attention has definitely turned to the ultimate change agent, Martin Luther, who sparked a religious/political/social/cultural disruption that divided western Christendom with the “publication” of his Ninety-five Theses in October of 1517. I’m trying to work my way through a stack of recent Luther publications so that I can update the content of both the undergraduate and graduate courses on the Reformation that I’m teaching this semester, and taking breaks to check out (digitally, because I don’t think I’m going to make it in reality) the several American exhibitions that are ending this month: Word and Image: Martin Luther’s Reformation at the Morgan Library & Museum, Martin Luther: Art and the Reformation at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and Law and Grace 2016Martin Luther, Lucas Cranach, and the Promise of Salvation at the Pitts Theology Library at Emory University in Atlanta.These three concurrent exhibitions are connected through German sponsorship and the Here I Stand: Luther Exhibitions USA 2016 project website and catalogs, which will be useful resources for both myself and my students, though the former is oriented more towards the secondary-school level I think (and oddly fails to acknowledge or even reference Luther’s anti-semitism). There have already been some notable Luther exhibitions in German institutions as we are in the midst of a Luther anniversary decade, but everything shifts back to the homeland for this anniversary year under the aegis of the In the Beginning was the Word: Luther 2017 project.

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Luther on the cover of Time for his last big anniversary, in 1967, and this year’s anniversary logos.

I haven’t made it through all of these materials yet, but there seems to be a strong emphasis on the dissemination of Luther’s critique of church teachings and practice, through the means of both words, particularly printed words, and images.The connection between the new medium of printing and the success of the Reformation has long been acknowledged by historians, but the focus on Reformation art is a more recent development. I’m using two books in my courses that represent both approaches well: Andrew Pettegree’s Brand Luther and Steven Ozment’s Serpent and the Lamb, which explores the creative and mutually-beneficial relationship of Luther and Philip Cranach the Elder. The latter furthered the Reformation cause with both painted and printed images, while still, remarkably, maintaining his Catholic patrons! The Morgan exhibition features two beautiful contrasting Cranach paintings of the Virgin and Child/ Jesus and Mary: one very traditional the other strikingly humanistic in which we encounter Christ in a completely unmediated way, a reformed perspective that was also the product of the Renaissance.

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Lucas Cranach the Elder, Virgin and Child with St. John as a Boy, about 1514. Oil and tempera on panel. Federal Republic of Germany (on permanent loan to Veste Coburg Kunstsammlungen) & Christ and Mary, ca. 1516–1520. Oil on parchment on panel. Foundation Schloss Friedenstein, Gotha.

One review of the Morgan exhibit asked if Luther was history’s first “tweeter”, sending out cheap flugschriften (“flying pamphlets) to the masses. If we want to push the social media comparison farther, then Cranach ran the Lutheran Instagram account, by providing his friend with a steady supply of anti-papal illustrations for these pamphlets. When you gaze upon Cranach’s famous “papal-ass”, which went viral, you can appreciate the disruption that Luther made.

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Lutheran disruption via Cranach’s cartoons: the “papal-ass” and clerical wolves, devouring their prey (the sheep=Christian believers), Heimatmuseum Osterwieck, British Museum and Universitätsbibliothek Bern, Zentralbibliothek , Switzerland, Call No. ZB AD 357.


The Golden Age of Gift-Giving

Before the Victorians and the twentieth century transformed Christmas into the extravaganza that it is today, New Year’s Day–in the midst of an extended Christmastide– was the occasion for offering and receiving gifts. We know a lot about the meaning and materiality of gifts in Tudor England because of some extraordinary records, and several recent works which have transcribed and interpreted them for all of us, most notably Jane Lawson’s momentous transcription of 24 surviving Gift Rolls from Elizabeth’s reign, The Elizabethan New Year’s Gift Exchanges (2013) and Felicity Heal’s The Power of Gifts: Gift-Exchange in Early Modern England (2015). These two complementary volumes are really interesting and useful (though expensive–fortunately I received one as a gift!). I’m sure you can imagine how valuable and variable these sources are–as Elizabeth received a lot of stuff from her courtiers: pounds of gold coins in little bags made of luxurious fabrics and embroidered, beaded and embellished, books, jewels, articles of clothing, as well as more unique items. Let’s just look at one year’s haul, recorded in the roll from 1578-79 entitled New Yer’s Guiftes giuen to the QUENE’S MAIESTIE at her Highnes Manor of Richmond, by these Persons whose Names hereafter do ensue, the First of January, the Yere abouesaid, which has been digitized by the Folger Shakespeare Library.

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Our sources: the gift rolls are quite literally ROLLS.

It’s a long roll, organized by the titles of the gift-bearers, from Earls to Gentlemen, and the value of their gifts, a perfect illustration of currying favor. Elizabeth’s long-time favorite, the Earl of Leicester, offered up a very fair jewel of gold, being a clock fully furnished with small diamonds pointed, and a pendant of gold, diamonds, and rubies, very small; and upon each a lozenge diamond, and an apple of green and russet enamel. From the Earl of Ormond, a very fair jewel of gold, wherein are three large emeralds set in which and red roses, one bigger than the other two, all the rest of the same jewel garnished with enameled roses and flowers, furnished with very small diamonds and rubies; about the edge very small pearls; and in the bottom is part of a flower-de-luce garnished with small diamonds, rubies, and one sapphire, with three mean pendant pearls, two of them small; the backside a green-enameled flower-de-luce. More jewels, lots of gold coin, and embellished apparel, including girdles and kirtles, mantles, “forepartes”,”scarfs”, petticoats, caps, mufflers, gloves and handkerchiefs  in cloth of gold, satin and velvet. Very detailed descriptions: you can easily see why these rolls are so valuable to historians of clothing and accessories, as well as to those attempting to piece together the intricate and dynamic relationships that formed the Elizabethan Court.

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A crop of Elizabeth and the Three Goddesses by Hans Eworth (1569), ©Royal Collection Trust: a rare image of the Elizabeth wearing gloves, a common New Year’s Day gift. A fragment of Elizabethan blackwork, often referred to in the Gift Rolls, ©National Trust; Elizabeth received at least one “swete bag” to fill with sweet-smelling herbs to guard her from the plague in 1579–this embroidered example is from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Rather than additions to Elizabeth’s vast and well-studied wardrobe, I tend to look for more unusual items in these records, especially household furnishings.The Earl of Hertford gifted the queen with a small pair of writing tables enameled with a grasshopper, all of gold, enameled green on the backside, and a pin of gold having a small pearl at the end thereof.  From Lady Thockmorton, a large bag to put a pillow in or moire satin, allover embroidered with gold, silver, and silk of sundry colors, with 4 tassels of green silk and gold; and a cushion cloth of network, flourished over with flowers of gold, silver and silk of sundry colors, lined with white satin. Elizabeth also received  contemporary examples of things we might receive today (on Christmas Day): books, stationery, sweets, flora and fauna, including eighteen larks in a cage from one Morris Watkins, on New Year’s Day of 1579.

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Elizabethan Cushion Cover, Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Toasts and Toadstools

There are myriad good luck charms associated with the New Year, and I’ve featured many of them already, including the Scottish “First Footing” ritual and the pig and chimney sweep traditions of continental Europe. I really can’t speak to the southern traditions of eating Hoppin’ John and collard greens, and horseshoes and clover seem to be universally lucky at all times of the year, so I think I’m going to go with toadstools this particular New Year. Very prominently featured on the New Year’s postcards produced and disseminated in large quantities a century or so ago are red-and-white-capped toadstools scattered about—these are “red fly” mushrooms called Fliegenpilze in Germany (which produced most of these same postcards) and they are very lucky indeed. If you’ve ever seen one of these (the proper Latin name is amanita muscaria) out in the wild, you would understand why it is such a storied plant: it looks not quite real, wondrous, and is said to have both insecticide and hallucinogenic qualities. Despite the fact that one of my favorite King Penguin books classifies this mushroom as poisonous, it was apparently a stroke of luck to encounter one: in doing so you becomes a Glückspilz (literally a lucky mushroom; metaphorically a lucky person).  It is no wonder these ‘shrooms ended up in both Alice and Wonderland and on all those New Years’ postcards, and on this particular year, on the mantle in my front parlor: I am taking no chances with 2017!

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An assortment of New Year’s postcards from my own collection and the Digital Collections of the New York Public Library; the holly and the……..mushrooms on a Mela Koehler Christmas card from the Lauder Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Amanita muscaria in John Ramsbottom’s Poisonous Fungi (1945).

I was just down in Rhinebeck, New York for Christmas at my brother’s house, and I had about twenty minutes in one of my favorite stores anywhere: Paper Trail. There were mushrooms in the window, and the most beautiful toadstool/mushroom (I must admit that I don’t know the difference) ornaments. So inspired, I switched up my own mushrooms (+ some hourglasses–very subtle) for the deer on the front mantle almost as soon as I got home. I think I have a pig somewhere in the basement so I might pop him on there too. And a horseshoe.

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Tom and Jerry for Christmas

I spent a lot of time last weekend de-stressing in front of and around the television watching Turner Classic Movies, to which my little set is almost permanently tuned. There were old Christmas movies on, and it seemed like every time I looked up from whatever I was doing various characters were getting tipsy on a seasonal drink called a “Tom and Jerry”. It appeared to be an eggnog-like concoction but I had never heard of it: what was it and where did it go? I did a little Google research, and turned up multiple recipes, images of vintage Tom and Jerry punch bowls and cups (which got me even more curious and excited), and some nice sentimental articles about this “all-American” drink’s survival in the upper Midwest. Tom and Jerry is a lighter eggnog variant, which utilizes many eggs but milk (or even water, see below) instead of cream, sugar and spices and rum and brandy, and is typically served warm. Based on the sheer survival of all the punch sets on the second-hand market alone, it must have been very popular in the middle decades of the twentieth century.

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Just one of many Tom & Jerry bowls on Etsy, Vintage mid-century Fire King.

This old drink has nothing to do with the cat and mouse cartoon: according to my (exclusively internet, I must admit) sources, its origins can be traced to either an extraordinary 1821 book by a British journalist, Pierce Egan, titled Life in London, or, The day and night scenes of Jerry Hawthorn, esq., and his elegant friend, Corinthian Tom, accompanied by Bob Logic, the Oxonian, in their rambles and sprees through the metropolis or to a legendary nineteenth-century American bartender named Jerry Thomas whose pioneering 1862 mixologist tome How to Mix Drinks, or the Bon-Vivant’s Companion featured a recipe for the Tom and Jerry. No one seems to have connected all the dots between the popular British Tom and Jerry characters and the American drink, but the recipe seems very British to me, reminiscent of all the frothy “lambswool”- like drinks of centuries past. And no matter, I’m always more interested in the search for the source rather than the actual commodity/consumable, and the research into the drink’s origins led me to Egan’s text, featuring his Tom and Jerry characters exploring the highs and lows of London society with delightful illustrations by the Cruikshank brothers. Alcohol was definitely a major part of their exploits.

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Illustrations/scenes from Pierce Egan’s Life in London, British Library.

And I also discovered Jerry Thomas’s Bon-Vivant’s Companion which is available in many reprint editions as well as here. I could spend some time with this book, but for now, and for the holidays, here is his Tom and Jerry recipe (for a crowd):

To make the batter:  5 lbs sugar/ 12 eggs/ a half glass Jamaica rum/ 1 ½ tsp. ground cinnamon/ ½ tsp. ground cloves/ ½ tsp. allspice. Beat the whites of the eggs to a stiff froth, and the yolks until they are as thin as water, then mix together and add the spices and rum, thicken with sugar until the mixture attains the consistence of a light batter.

To deal out Tom and Jerry to customers: Take a small bar glass, and to one tablespoon of the batter, add one wine-glass of brandy, and fill the glass with boiling water, then grate a little nutmeg on top.


Pomanders and the Plague

Early December is busy for any academic, so just about the only handcrafted Christmas decoration/gift I can manage is the humble pomander. I wrap rubber bands and ribbons around oranges and lemons as Martha Stewart advises, and then stick in the cloves. But it doesn’t matter how many beautiful photographs of Martha’s Christmas vignettes I peruse for pomander-inspiration, I’m always going to think about the plague when I make these things. Given the contemporary belief in the spread of the pestilence through a fog-like miasma of foul air, a corollary faith in the preventative pomander was equally long-held over the late medieval and early modern eras. If you could not smell the plague, you could not contract it. Sweet-smelling herbs, encased in little silver balls which were also called pomanders if you were rather rich, never left your side, indoors or out. Paintings of patrons with pomander in hand became almost conventional–these little balls were the symbol of an infectious age.

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Hanneman, Adriaen, c.1601-1671; John Evelyn (1620-1706)

Perfect Pomanders present and past: the portrait of seventeenth-century diarist John Evelyn (©Shakespeare Birthplace Trust) by a follower of Adriaen Hanneman features one of the most modern pomanders I have ever seen!

The Evelyn portrait above is very unusual: I suspect this was a hollowed-out orange filled with the usual plague herbs but it looks like one of my little pomanders! Much more common in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were images of sitters with silver and gold pomanders in hand, chained, ever-present: a display of wealth and fortitude. The Flemish sitters below were far more typical in their presentation: the plague was endemic, it could strike at any time, so you must be ever ready with your “preservatives”. They might as well be encased in a spectacular piece of jewelry.

de Vos, Cornelis, c.1584-1651; Portrait of a Lady

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Cornelis de Vos, Portrait of a Lady, ©The Wallace Collection; Heinrich vom Rhein zum Mohren, a Copy after Conrad Faber von Creuznach, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

So what was inside those little chalices (or “swete” bags if you were less wealthy)? There are lots of “recipes”, with many constants and some variation. Here are a couple of concoctions from the Certain Necessary Directions ; As well for the Cure of the Plague As for Preventing the Infection approved and offered up by the College of Physicians in 1665, a terrible plague year. For the common sort: angelica, rue, zedoary (a type of tumeric), myrrh, camphor, labdanum (most of these don’t actually sound very common–I think most people just grabbed some rue when they went outside). For the “richer sort”: “citron pilles”, angelica, zedoary, red rose petals, sandlewood, lignum aloes, gallic moschat, stozar benzoin, camphor, labdanum, gum tragacanth, and rosewater.

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Pomander recipes with a seventeenth-century skull pomander, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Well, of course, none of these things actually worked to preserve the body from plague. Yet despite their ineffectiveness, the major plague “preservatives” survived through evolution into much less serious substances: vinegar–a major plague fighter–evolves into vinaigrette, theriac, the most powerful supposed plague antidote, into sweet treacle, and pomanders into perfume and sachets and various forms of aromatherapy, as well as Christmas decorations.

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Diptyque Paris Pomander Candle.


Fantastic Beasts (and where to find them)

When I need to find fantastic beasts I know precisely where to go: straight to Conrad Gessner’s five-volume Historiae animalium (1551-1558) or to its English variant, Edward Topsell’s History of FourFooted Beasts and Serpents (1658), both of which are illustrated extensively and digitized. Why do I need fantastic beasts? Principally for teaching purposes: there’s nothing better to illustrate the sense of the wonder of discovery in the early modern era along with a fledgling (in Topsell’s case very fledgling) scientific empiricism. Both authors describe what they have seen or heard about these beasts, and that is the difference between the early modern approach and the modern one: hearing about things seems to be just as valid as seeing them in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Consequently a unicorn can be just as real as a rhinoceros, as neither had actually been seen. What I generally do with the images and descriptions of these texts is examine very real, even mundane animals side by side with more exotic, fantastic ones, and compare the details of their descriptions: a more scientific empiricism is evident in descriptions of dogs, horses and sheep, while the much shorter chapters on camels and lions and tigers–and their more mysterious but fellow four-footed beasts–rely on ancient “authorities” and “sundry learned” authors. We do not see the hearsay purged from natural history texts until the later seventeenth and eighteenth century, and thereafter fantastic beasts roam into the realm of the imagination.

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You can see how dependent Topsell (bottom) was on Gessner (top) in their comparative illustrations of camels, along with many of the other beasts–both common and exotic–featured in both books. Gesner’s peacock is particularly beautiful, and he also includes a North American turkey.

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Beavers are very interesting to both Gessner and Topsell, as the European beaver had become very scarce, if not extinct, in the region and its American counterparts were the source of both valuable fur and a musk-like substance called castoreum, which is secreted by both male and female beavers every spring. Gessner and Topsell both feature rather ferocious beavers, and the latter added an alternate view exposing the supposed source of castoreum.

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Now for some truly fantastic beasts: the unicorns of Gessner and Topsell, a satyr from Gessner, along with some sea monsters and a seven-headed hydra.

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Topsell’s Baboon looks rather wondrous/monstrous, but his manticore, a composite beast of ancient Persian origin, and the legendary lamia, a vampire-like siren, represent a more threatening form of hybrid monster. Here be dragons and sea serpents too, as well as beast from the New World (where wonders abound) called the Su, all part of God’s plan.

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topsell-su1 Illustrations from Conrad Gessner’s  Historiae animalium (1551-1558) and Edward Topsell’s History of FourFooted Beasts and Serpents (1658), National Library of Medicine and University of Houston.


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