I have a particularly fond childhood memory of dancing around a Maypole wearing festive (alpine? Elizabethan?) dress at the hippie nursery school I attended in Vermont, and consequently I always celebrate May Day. I do not erect a Maypole in my backyard, but I been known to don the occasional flower wreath or sprig in my hair (especially if I don’t have to go anywhere) and I usually make May Wine, the traditional German spring spirit. May Wine (Maiwein) is simply sweet white wine infused with sweet woodruff (galium odoratum, or Waldmeister, “master of the woods”, in German), and there are lots of variations, both from the past and in the present. You can simply take a few sprigs of the herb, tie them together, and drop them in a bottle of Moselle to infuse for the afternoon in the refrigerator if you like, or you can make a May Punch, by adding sparkling water or wine and fruit. Have your own Happy Hour, or invite your neighbors and drink to the retreat of winter and the onset of spring, a universal sentiment but one that seems very apt this particular year!
A Health to all Good-Fellowes (c. 1615-40), British Library; German May Day postcard, c. 1900.
My “recipe” for May Wine is always evolving. Generally I take one bottle of Moselle and another of sparkling wine (Proseco, Cava, or if you can find it, German Sekt) and pour them into a glass pitcher to which I add the sweet woodruff (you must snip it before it flowers) and a few splashes of Italian sparkling lemon soda. I leave this concoction for most of the day, and then strain it and pour it into glasses filled with a few strawberries or raspberries. My sweet woodruff is definitely not ready for prime time this year (it is barely out of the ground), so I bought several potted plants, for the first time ever: even if my garden is not ready for May Day, I am.
Sweet Woodruff (Galium Odoratum, Asperula Odorata, the “master of the woods”, from Dietrich, A.G., Flora regni borussici (1833-1844); Kerner von Marilaun, A.J., Hansen, A., Pflanzenleben: Erster Band: Der Bau und die Eigenschaften der Pflanzen (1887-1891), and Bluestone Perennials.
At this time of year I crave two colors: green and purple, alone but especially together. This is one of my favorite color combinations, in all shades: lavender and spring green, purple and emerald, violet and chartreuse. I’ve never had a house that could carry off these colors either on its exterior or interior—I suppose I wouldn’t want to live with them–but they always catch my eye. I grew up in the Laura Ashley age, and two of my favorite prints (on a dress and a comforter) bore purple and green rather boldly, and my late spring wedding featured touches of these two colors, anchored by more neutral gray and ivory. The spectrum of green and purple can take you through the year if you’re so inclined: with paler shades for spring and summer and richer tones for fall and winter. So here is my palette, starting with a wonderful picture of the Elizabethan scholar, art and cultural historian, public intellectual, super gardener, and all-around Renaissance Man Sir Roy Strong, standing in the midst of his Laskett Gardens in Herefordshire.
Photograph of Sir Roy Strong by Clive Coursnell from Remaking a Garden: the Laskett Gardens Transformed (2014); “Royal Garden” and “Versailles Grand” wallpapers from Cole & Son; Bedroom at the 1716 Warner House, Portsmouth, New Hampshire (photograph by Geoffrey Gross for Antiques & Fine Art Magazine); two Salem houses on Oliver and Daniel Streets (the first one looks rather blue in this photo, but more purple in real life–love the chartreuse trim–and the plaque on the second house: Historic Salem’s plaques are not usually so informational).
Every single day this week Geoffrey Chaucer came up in discussion, and only once in class! So it seemed like no coincidence when an old textbook I was consulting for something else entirely reported that on this very day in 1397 he first read the Canterbury Tales at Richard II’s court. I’m not sure this is true, but as Chaucer was already on my mind I indulged myself a bit more. I use many of the Tales in my courses to illustrate various aspects of late medieval culture and society, but I read them for pleasure as well–and a few translated lines from The Knight’s Tale even made their way into my wedding ceremony. This is the tale that my students favor–even as I push the Pardoner and the Franklin on them, but of course their “veray parfit gentil knight” is Heath Ledger! I can’t blame them: I like that movie too, as its egalitarian spirit seems vaguely late medieval (and I prefer blatant anachronism to what passes for “accurate” historical dramas). But The Knight’s Tale and its companion stories were not rediscovered only in the 21st century: every generation seems to have their Chaucer, from the 80+ manuscript versions produced shortly after his death, to William Caxton’s printed versions, seventeenth-century theatrical productions, or the beautiful texts and images of William Blake and William Morris, for as Blake noted in 1809, Chaucer’s characters live age after age. Every age is a Canterbury Pilgrimage; we all pass on, each sustaining one of the characters; nor can a child be born who is not one or other of these characters of Chaucer.”
Cropped leaf from the “Ellesmere Chaucer” MS., c. 1400-1405, Huntington Library; page from William Caxton’s 1483 edition, British Library; 1561 edition printed by John Kingston for John Wight; a 1634 theatrical adaptation of the Knight’s Tale by John Fletcher and William Shakespeare; “Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims”, engraved and published by William Blake, 1810; Illustration by Edward Burne-Jones for the “Kelmscott Chaucer”: The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, now newly imprinted.Kelmscott Press, 1896; Illustration by William Clark Appleton from Percy Mackaye’s The Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer. A Modern Rendering in Prose, of the Prologue and Ten Tales, New York, 1904; Poster for the “bawdy” musical, 1968, Victoria & Albert Museum; Penguin Clothbound Classic cover by Coralie Bickford-Smith, 2013.
As the title of Beatrice K. Otto’s engaging book, Fools are Everywhere. The Court Jester Around the World, asserts, fools are a universal phenomenon in the pre-modern world. Still, maybe it’s just my Anglophilia, but it’s always seemed to me that fools were a particularly prominent feature of the court in early modern England, and one fool in particular: Will Somers, who appears in both “official” portraits and more casual ones, both from his own time, and well after: I wonder why?
The Family of Henry VIII, with Will Somers under the right arch and his counterpart, “Jane the Foole” (sometimes alternatively referred to as “Mother Jak”, Prince Edward’s nurse), on the left, c. 1545, Hampton Court Palace; Tudor family portrait from the Duke of Buccleauch’s Collection at Boughton House, c. 1650-1680–supposedly based on an earlier painting–featuring King Henry VIII, Will Somers, Edward, Mary and Elizabeth; King Henry and Will in an illustration from Henry’s Psalter, c. 1530-45; British Library Royal MS 2 A XVI, f. 63v.
The first reference to Will Somers is in 1525, as a man in his twenties, and he died about 1560. His presence at court is one of the few continuous aspects of the Tudor dynasty: he served, or entertained, King Henry VIII and all three of his children: Edward, Mary and Elizabeth for the opening years of her long reign. Clearly he and King Harry were close, literally in the pictures. This psalter image clearly has religious symbolism–Henry is a harp-playing King David, and Will the fool of Psalm 14 (the fool saith in his heart, there is no God)–but the Tudor family portraits point to a closer personal connection. Following the distinction first made by Robert Armin (an actor in Shakespeare’s company), in his Foole upon Foole (1605) and A Nest of Ninnies (1608), historians and literature scholars still seem most interested in assessing just what kind of fool Will was: “natural” or “licensed”/”artificial”: a natural fool was one with mental challenges or disabilities, an artificial fool was playing the part. There seems to be evidence for both types: in John Heywood’s Wit and Witless, Somers is among the latter while other sources refer to his wittiness. The discussion about the nature of Somers’ foolishness has lasted for centuries, and I think it makes him a rather more interesting character than his Elizabethan successors, Richard Tarlton and Will Kempe, who were obviously artificial, acting fools. Somers experiences a posthumous resurrection in the seventeenth century, which produced some charming portraits of his image and a lively biography entitled The Pleasant History of the Life and Death of Will Summers (1676): And how hee came first to be knowne at the court, and how he came up to London, and by what meanes hee got to be King Henry the eights jester. And over time, Will Somers seems to evolve into the both the wise fool and the full-fledged jester, keeping us guessing all the while.
Title page of William Sommers, engraved by R. Clamp, 1794; W.H. Ireland, Chalcographimania; or, the portrait-collector and printseller’s chronicle, with infatuations of every description. A humorous poem. In four books. With copious notes explanatory. By Satiricus Sculptor, Esq., 1814.
I had been wanting to write a post on Black Beauty, the first “real” book I ever read and one that shaped my childhood in several ways, for some time, and as today marks the birthday of its author, Anna Sewall, this seemed like the perfect time. So this weekend I brought out my old copy for inspiration but almost as soon as I opened it up I realized I could not read this book again, much less write about it. Don’t get me wrong: it’s still a wonderful book: I just don’t want to go through the horse’s painful journey again. Of course everything turns out all right for Black Beauty in the end, but Sewall gives him such a strong voice, and fills his story with so many harrowing, realistic details, that the moment I opened up the book (after decades) it all came rushing back. I can’t imagine how I had the courage to read this tome in the first place at age seven or eight: the fearfulness of youth, I suppose! But I’m not going back: the protective material side of me has surfaced, fortunately, and I’m going to focus on the decorative aspects of books today instead of their content.
Covers of Black Beauty: 1877 first edition, 1897, and 2011 Penguin Threads edition–with design by Jillian Tamaki.
Enough of suffering, compassion and sanctuary! Like anything that seems likely to go away, books have becoming more precious as objects for some time, both in their original form and in variations and adaptions. One company that seems to be bridging the gap between literature and art is Juniper Books, which offers ready-made and custom collections of books gathered around a particular author or theme with covers and spines designed to decorate the bookshelf. When they can’t find an appropriate set of books to house their designs–they just cover up odd volumes–and so we have an Ernest Hemingway set of elephant-embellished books and an anonymous set of elephant-embellished books, all ready for a pachyderm-themed study (like mine).
And if you’re just looking for book forms, there are a variety of options: ceramic books are my particular preference of this genre –book-shaped vases and flasks go way back, at least to the eighteenth century. A couple of years ago I bought up as many of the book candles below as I could obtain at Anthropologie (a store that will put candles in anything and everything): I didn’t particularly care for the candles (still intact); I just liked the “books”. They are long gone from the store now, but these more colorful book vases are still very much in stock. A bit more sophisticated examples from Seletti and Kim Marsh are available here and here, and I suspect I could gather much more.
I’m not bound to such designations, but as we’re almost running out of Women’s History Month and our mayor has declared March 29 Salem Women’s History Day I’ve decided to feature a notable Salem woman on this last weekend in March. After much deliberation–as there are many notable women in Salem’s history–I’ve settled on the author and entrepreneur Mary Harrod Northend (1850-1926). She has interested me for some time, and she’s popped up in several posts in the past, but she deserves her own. Northend was from old, old Massachusetts families on both sides, and this heritage is key to her life and work. Both parents were actually from northern Essex County, but moved south after their marriage: her father, William Dummer Northend, became a prominent attorney and a state senator for Salem. Mary was born at 17 Beckford Street, a side-to-street late Federal house, but the family moved over to Lynde Street, in the shadow of the Federal Street courthouses, in the later 1850s. Their grand Italianate double house, photographed for Mary’s books later, is now sadly chopped into 12 apartments by my count. The few biographical details I could gather refer to a childhood sickness; in fact by all accounts (or by no accounts) Mary led a quiet life in her childhood and adulthood, until she burst out in her 50s and started writing all about colonial Salem and colonial New England, necessitating regional travel, which she clearly embraced. Eleven books were published between 1904 and 1926, when she died in Salem from complications sustained from a car accident, and many, many articles for magazines such as Good Housekeeping, The Century and The House Beautiful: I haven’t had time to compile a proper bibliography. But she was an incredibly prolific woman: an acknowledged expert on New England architecture and antiquities, with a touch of Martha Stewart-esque domestic stature as well, forged by her publications on decorating and party-planning. Let us, she writes in a very Martha tone in The Art of Home Decoration: link the old and the new, working out entrancing combinations that are ideal, making our home joyous and bright through the right utilizing of great grandmother’s hoard.
Mary Harrod Northend (and dog), circa 1906, in the early phase of her writing career, Historic New England; her birthplace at 17 Beckford Street, Salem; her father William Dummer Northend, newly-elected State Senator from Salem, 1862, State Library of Massachusetts.
Her books and articles reveal Mary to be a fierce advocate for “Old-time” New England; she is at the forefront of that (second?) generation of strident Colonial Revivalists, fearful that the (changing) world around them hasn’t developed proper appreciation for colonial architecture and material culture. She is evangelical in her love of clapboards, mantles, arches, doorways, garden ornaments, pewter and seamless glass. The phrase “detail-oriented” doesn’t even come close to capturing Mary’s appreciation of the things that were built and made in the colonial past: these things are her life and her world. And like any good educator–which she was–Mary wanted her (growing) audience to see her world and so she spared no expense when it came to photography, first taking her own photographs and then “directing” commercial photographers in the manner of a cinematographer, according to Mary N. Woods’ Beyond the Architect’s Eye: Photographs and the American Built Environment (2011). The end result was a vast collection of still images (there are 6000 glass plate negatives in the collection of Historic New England alone, though the entry in the biographical dictionary Who’s Who in New England for 1915 indicates that Mary has “20,000 negatives and prints of American homes”) which she used to illustrate her own books, sold to other architectural writers, and colorized in the style of Wallace Nutting to sell directly to the public.
Two of Northend’s most popular titles, Historic Homes of New England (1914) and Historic Doorways of Old Salem (1926); the Cook-Oliver House on Federal Street in Salem, featured in Historic Homes and sold as an individual colorized print, “The Half Open Door”.
It’s relatively easy to research the work of Mary Harrod Northend: her books are still readily available in both print and digital form and prints from her photographic collection are at Historic New England and the WinterthurLibrary. But I wish I knew more about her business, the business of publishing books and photographs, writing, lecturing, collecting. I’m also curious about money: there’s definitely a bit of voyeurism in Northend’s books and I can’t discern why she remained in the family home on busy Lynde Street rather than move to the McIntire District just a few blocks away. In one of her most personal, yet still fictionalized, books, Memories of Old Salem: Drawn from the Letters of a Great-Grandmother (1917), the great-grandmother in the title lives on Chestnut Street, but Mary never did. This might have been a family matter: her widowed mother and sister lived right next door in the Italianate double house, which was also an appropriate “stage” for some of her photographs. I also think it was quite likely that Miss Northend was seldom at her own home, as she was so busy documenting those of others!
A very random sampling of Mary Harrod Northend photographs, mostly from Historic Homes and Colonial Homes and their Furnishing (1912), all from the Winterthur Digital Collections:
Three very different Salem houses: doorway at the House of the Seven Gables, entrance of 10 Chestnut, side view of the Robinson House on Summer Street.
Salem mantles: a pewter display, McIntire mantle at the Waters House (LOVE this louvred fire screen), Whipple and Pickman mantles.
Details & decor I love: hallway of 29 Washington Square, Salem, Ropes Mansion windowseat, entry hall at Saltonstall House, Haverhill, Attic and twin canopy beds on the Cape (from Remodeled Farmhouses, 1915–but all of Miss Northend’s books feature canopied beds! I would place them headboard to headboard.)
Flagrant displays of Colonial Revivalism: Spinning wheel and fire buckets at the Kate Sanborn House, and Miss Northend’s own house on Lynde Street, all dressed up for Spring.
I hope that mariners all over the world are celebrating the birthday of one of Salem’s most eminent native sons, the nautical scientist Nathaniel Bowditch, who was born on this day in 1773. The author of the encyclopedic, and still authoritative, New American Practical Navigator, I like to think of Bowditch as one of the last self-taught, “practical” scientists: he was forced by family necessity to abandon his academic studies at a young age and taught himself classical and modern languages, algebra, calculus and astronomy while working as an apprentice at a ship chandlery in his teens. Here we have a perfect example of the determinative role of birthplace: Bowditch is clearly a product of worldly Salem in its golden age, when opportunities were many and limitations few, for men that applied themselves–and had connections and resources, of course. Even an apprentice ship’s chandler accountant, Bowditch had access to the 116-volume library of Irish scientist Richard Kirwan (1733-1812). Acquired by a Beverly privateer during the Revolutionary War and auctioned off in Salem in 1781, it is one of the foundational collections of the Salem Athenaeum. Armed with his self-education from books, Bowditch went to sea following the completion of his apprenticeship and in the course of seven voyages gained the empirical experience and data that enabled him to correct some 8000 errors in the then-authoritative navigational manual, John Hamilton Moore’s Practical Navigator and eventually issue his own American Practical Navigator in 1802. Thereafter his life was one of choices (except, of course, for his unfortunate death from cancer in 1838) and he chose the more practical role of insurance-company financial statistician rather than the academic offers that came his way, first in Salem and after 1823 in Boston: the laudatory speeches given at his farewell dinner at Hamilton Hall are still ringing in the eaves!
Nathaniel Bowditch’s birthplace on Kimball Court in Salem; Bowditch as role-model apprentice in Jean Lee Latham’s influential Carry On, Mr. Bowditch (1956); The Title Pages of the first edition of The New American Practical Navigator (1802); Artist Pattie Belle Hastings’ take on the Practical Navigator, from the Smithsonian Institution’s 1995 exhibition “Science and the Artist’s Book”; Engraving of Bowditch by J. Gorss from a drawing by J.B. Longacre, Smithsonian Institution Libraries.
It’s not a hard-fast Renaissance rule, but mutable green was often associated with those who worked or lived in the world of money, as opposed to those who were born into privilege or manual labor. Artists loved to experiment with their greens–verdigris, terre verte, malachite–and so you see emerald backdrops for a variety of subjects, but nearly every time a merchant or a moneylender was in the picture, he is in close proximity to green. Green was not yet of the earth, but still in the realm of humans, and attached to the more dynamic middle of society rather than the more steadfast upper or lower levels. That vibrant green, also attached to youth and fertility, adorned the merchant Arnolfini’s wife, and dominated the settings of his commercial successors, who appear to have dwelled in a world of green and gold, inside. Look at all these merchants from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, beginning with Jan Gossaert’s confidant man of business, who appears to have been given a green halo of sorts.
Jan Gossaert, Portrait of a Merchant, c. 1530, National Gallery of Art; Adriaen Isenbrant, Man Weighing Gold, c. 1515-1520, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of a Member of the Wedigh Family, probably Hermann Wedigh, c. 1530, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of a Young Merchant, probably Hans von Muffel, c. 1541, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
There is always a bright green cloth on which the money, or its instruments, rests. While the men above look like honest brokers, green was also used as the color of greed in the more satirical compositions of Northern Renaissance artists like Marinus Roymerswaele and Quentin Massys, which retain the setting but distort the faces or avert the gazes of bourgeois money-changers, scary tax collectors, and lawyers.
Quentin Massys, The Tax Collectors, first quarter of the 16th century, Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein; Marinus Roymerswaele, The Lawyer’s Office, 1545, New Orleans Museum of Art.
I’m not sure that merchants and bankers and bureaucrats were aware of such color associations, but there is ample evidence of clothing consciousness in the Renaissance. A perfect example of self-fashioning through clothing choice is the amazing “Book of Clothes” by aspirational accountant Matthäus Schwarz of Augsburg, who commissioned 137 watercolors depicting outfits he wore for each stage and event of his life, from infancy to death. Discussed at length in Ulinka Rublack’s wonderful book, Dressing Up: Cultural Identity in Renaissance Europe (2010), Schwarz’s Klaidungsbüchlein seems strikingly modern to me–like a blog or a selfie–and is a great visual reminder of just how modernly materialistic this era really was. And while he was in his still-slim youth, Schwarz wore several striking green outfits.
What’s wrong with Fridays that fall on the 13th day of the month? I thought I might try to uncover the foundations of this supposedly long-held western superstition but as is generally the case, all I found was a mishmash of “biblical”, “medieval”, and mostly-Victorian assertions. The biblical basis is the Last Supper, at which there were thirteen attendees including Jesus of Nazareth and his betrayer, Judas Iscariot, followed by the fateful/fatal Friday on which Jesus was crucified. Somehow, somewhere (the story goes) the gathering of 13 and the Friday execution are assimilated to create a dreadful day on which evil or (in Chaucer’s middle English verse) “mischance” can occur: And on a Friday fil al this mischaunce (The Nun’s Priest’ Tale).
There is an entire book about the number 13 and its associations are easily discerned, both negative (the antithesis of the perfect 12; 13 steps to the hangman’s noose; the 13th tarot card represents death; Apollo 13) and positive (a baker’s dozen; thirteen colonies, the thirteenth amendment), but the customary connection between the number and the day is a bit more elusive. One particular Friday the 13th that is often mentioned is Friday, October 13, 1307, the date on which the Order of the Knights Templar in France were formally indicted by King Philip IV “the Fair”, so that he might confiscate their vast wealth during the first years of the Avignon Papacy which rendered them defenseless. Certainly the Templars have resurfaced in the last decade or so with the publication of Dan Brown’s incredibly popular Da Vinci Code, but the Victorian era–a golden age of fraternalism–was also intensely interested in this suppressed and secretive order, and the fates of its members.
British Library MS Royal 20 C VII, f. 4v: Templars being burnt at the stake; Tarot Cards no. XIII, representing Death, from the later 15th century (Victoria and Albert Museum Collection) and the later 19th century (see here for the full deck).
In the first decades of the twentieth century, this particular Black Friday (preceding our own commercial one) seems to have been become firmly established. There was the bestselling novel of Thomas William F. Lawson about a plot to bring down Wall Street on Friday the 13th (by sheer coincidence [?], the author’s namesake 7-masted schooner sunk on Friday the 13th) and then, in an obvious nod to the general acceptance of the day, Miss Rose Cade was crowned Queen of the Lemons on Friday, February 13, 1920.
Miss Rose Cade as Queen of the Lemons in California, February 13, 1920, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
I am certainly saddened by the end of Downton Abbey’s season last week, but I am devastated by the conclusion of its lead-in, The Great British Baking Show, to which I became positively addicted. Everything about this show drew me in: the amiable (never snarky) contestants, the chatty hosts, the authoritative judges, and (most of all) the setting: a turreted tent in the midst of a perfect green English field dotted with sheep and bordered by blooming perennials. Under the tent, all is pastel perfection: the set designers seem to have taken their cues from the classic 1903 Book of Cakes by T. Percy Lewis and A.G. Bromley (which was reissued in 1991 as The Victorian Book of Cakes).
Great British Baking Show (Bake-Off in Britain) judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, this past season’s contestants under the tent, and a page from Lewis & Bromley’s Book of Cakes (1903).
I never knew baking was so difficult, requiring so much precision and patience! The weekly technical and “showstopper” challenges make those on Top Chef look like cakewalks. And all for the title of “star baker” and (the ultimate prize) an engraved cake plate. Victoria sponge cakes, Farthing biscuits, Swedish Princess cake, twenty-layer Schichttorte: these British bakers can do it all. I learned a lot (not that I will ever really use this knowledge) and really enjoyed being plunged into this cozy world on a weekly basis. I’ll miss all the people and all the pastry, and most especially all those beautiful Gorenje refrigerators on set, so much so that I might have to buy one for my own kitchen!
THE refrigerator; Berry and Hollywood with this season’s best baker, Nancy Birtwhistle.