Just back from a family vacation in the Dominican Republic, relishing the stark New England weather after so much bright sun! A beach resort is not my ideal destination, but I have family and friends who do enjoy all such amenities, so I suffered through it: drinking, reading, swimming, and sunbathing the days away. The particular resort at which we stayed is very popular with French tourists, and I was amused when one of the employees told me that activities were organized to appeal to two groups: the French and the “International” guests, which included Americans! I liked being classified that way, but still hung out in French territory for the most part, catching (or half-catching, as my French is very, very rusty) some interesting snippets about the upcoming election. I also became reaquainted with Europop and ashtrays. Resorts are funny little worlds, really. Since there was very little art or architecture to capture my attention (apart from the conspicuous “Madonna of the Resort” below), I became obsessed with the semi-feral cats that roamed the resort, all with very different personalities and very staked-out territories, so interspersed among my vacation pictures are those of my favorite Caribbean (resort) cats, on the job, so to speak.
A welcome snow day today, imposing calm on everyone–or at least me! I’ve always enjoyed winter, but the SuperWinter of two years ago, in which something like 11 feet of snow was dumped on us in February, tempered my appreciation for this particular season considerably. The snow was all around the house, the snow was in the house, and I plodded to work every day in tunnels of yellow snow. I felt a little vulnerable, especially when I woke up in the morning to see the latest damage inflicted on my plaster ceilings by ice dams. But all of that is fixed now, and we spent last year, with its relatively light winter, rebuilding our chimneys, sealing our windows, and putting on a new roof. Now I feel impenetrable, at least for this first snow storm. I’m sure hardly anyone agrees with me, but I think winter is Salem’s best season actually–I like to see the city return to a car-less state: it’s as close as you can come to seeing it in its glorious past. There’s a timeless quality to a snowy day, and the contrast of nature and structure is never more apparent. Here’s a few photographs I took as I walked around a very calm city this afternoon.
Chestnut Street, Essex Street, and the Common.
Two notable Salem houses in varying stages of restoration.
Gambrel roofs embellished by snow.
Some contrast; Trinity does not really care for snow.
I’m hosting Thanksgiving this year, an intimidating task for me, and I’ve been too busy with my various preparations to come up with a proper (thematic, colorful, aspirationally interesting?) post for the holiday, but I did want to say Happy Thanksgiving to everyone, however briefly. May we all have the calm and the company to reflect on what we are truly grateful for in this…..interestingyear. Back in a few days with something more substantive, and leaving you with a few images for the day: Trinity (helpfully) serving as a centerpiece until I came up with something more stable, the glittery squirrels I seem to be placing everywhere (tacky I know, but I just love them), and Governor Belcher’s 1730 Thanksgiving Proclamation for Massachusetts Bay. What were our predecessors thankful for? Peace, a good harvest, and the diminution of pirates and smallpox. The basics.
Courtesy Winterthur Museum Collections.
I have therefore thought fit, with the advice of His Majesty’s Council, to appoint THURSDAY the TWELFTH of NOVEMBER next, a day of Public THANKSGIVING throughout this Province, hereby exhorting both ministers and people in their several assemblies, religiously to solemnize the same by offering up their sincere and grateful PRAISES for the manifold blessings and favors which GOD of His undeserved goodness hath conferred upon us; PARTICULARLY, in continuing to us the invaluable life of Our Sovereign Lord the KING, with His Royal Consort Our Most Gracious QUEEN, His Royal Highness the PRINCE OF WALES, and the rest of the royal issue; In succeeding His Majesty’s wise councils FOR RESTORING and establishing the peace of EUROPE; In prolonging the ecclesiastical and civil privileges of this people; In granting his gracious conduct and assistance in the administration of the civil government of this Province; In restoring HEALTH to many of our towns lately visited with a contagious distemper [small pox], and preserving others from the infection thereof; In maintaining our PEACE with the Indian Natives, and granting us a plentiful HARVEST, in giving success to our MERCHANDISE AND FISHERY, and protecting it from the insults and ravages of PIRATES, with other numberless instances of the Divine beneficence: And all servile labor is prohibited on the said Day.
I don’t really have a theme or subject for today’s post: it is primarily comprised of photos I took here in Salem and up in York Harbor where I spent most of the weekend. But as I was walking along the Harbor cliff walk–a childhood path of mine that was allowed to be taken over by new home owners/builders along the way in past years but now seems to be in the process of being reclaimed by the public–I thought of how appropriate the bittersweet “decoration” that lined the walk was: contrasting and colorful, a last blast of bright before things get darker, so somehow all the more sweet. I’ve always thought November is one of our most beautiful months: the light is so clear, the earth not yet muddy brown or white. Of course since I’ve lived in Salem November has become particularly cherished as it marks Salem’s liberation from its Witch City identity, but I think everywhere that I have lived I have enjoyed November: in Vermont, and Maine, and Maryland, and Britain. I think it must be my second-favorite month, just behind May.
The first week of November in Salem: a blazing tree on Essex Street, the new Little Free Library on the Ropes Mansion Grounds, a house coming back to life, white shows the light, old tracks, a strange seating area at Harmony Grove cemetery (I think it is the pillows that I find somewhat odd), THE WITCH IS DEAD, one last fall photograph of my cat Trinity for a while, I promise!
In York Harbor, the first weekend of November: along the Cliff Walk: fortifications (several estates along the walk have castle-esque architectural attributes and CANNONS–who are they guarding against, the New York Yacht Club?), bittersweet, and a secret gate; fall back.
In GREAT anticipation of my visit to the Worcester Art Museum in order to see their big summer show, Meow: ACat–InspiredExhibition(featuring cats-in-residence!) I have curated my own little digital exhibition, as I have a very large (digital) folder full of cat paintings.I could feature fifty paintings here, but I have restricted myself to seven, ok maybe nine. In chronological order, with commentary:
HansSüssvonKulmbach (German, Kulmbachca. 1480–1522Nuremberg), Girl Making a Garland, c. 1508, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; John de Critz, the “Tower” Portrait of HenryWriothesley, 3rd EarlofSouthampton, imprisoned following the Essex Rebellion in 1601 with his cat Trixie. Buccleauch Collection, Boughton House.
Here we have enclosed portraits of remembrance and appeal: Southampton wants to get out of the Tower, and ultimately King James will release him. Cats are not pets in the pre-modern era, so typically they are depicted in the background, disassociated from humans and being cats: eyeing something to eat, chasing something, lying about. But here we have some very close-up, still, companion cats: unusual. The Southampton portrait and the significance of the cat has been dissected many, many times: my favorite analysis is here.
In the background and close-up: I just love “doorway” perspective paintings, the cat is kind of incidental in the Hoogstraten painting, but it does indicate how dogs are much more prominently portrayed before 1800! My favorite cats are neither white nor Persian, but somehow Psyche appeals to me. Maybe it is just the exemplary rendering of fur. The early Turner watercolor is just one example of the expansive subgenre of sleeping cats.
Unidentified Artist, GirlwithaGrayCat, c. 1840, Karolik Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Andrew L. von Wittkamp, BlackCatinaChair, 3rd quarter of the Nineteenth Century, Karolik Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Theophile Alexandre Steinlen, Cat in Summer, 1909, Worcester Art Museum; Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden in his Studio, 1930.
The nineteenth century is the golden age of cat paintings: cats move into the foreground, and even displace dogs in domestic settings (I think; but I could be biased). Certainly the American folk artists of the first half of the century loved cats–they are nearly omnipresent in the works of Zedidiah Belknap and Joseph H. Davis. Not only are they a fixture in the home, but also a subject of serious scrutiny, even preoccupation: so many Steinlen cats. I’m finishing up with another artist’s cat, featured in Eric Ravilious’s study of Edward Bawden in his Studio, from 1930. This is not the most aesthetically pleasing depiction of a cat, perhaps, but as every cat owner (companion? host? feeder?) knows, it is a very characteristic one.
My garden is peaking now: next week I will shear off flowers and get another full-flowering in late August or early September. In between a few flowers will light up the back but it will mostly be a sea of green. This is fine with me; I have chosen plants as much for their leaves as their flowers. In my little garden, Midsummer is signaled by the flowering of meadowsweet, one of my very favorite perennials. I have a double-blooming variety (Filipendula vulgaris ‘Flore Plena’) which I purchased from Perennial Pleasures up in northern Vermont long ago: it is very dependable and very showy, and probably much too big for my small garden. Meadowsweet is commonly referred to as the “Queen of the Meadow” (in its native Europe) or the “Queen of the Prairie” (in the U.S.) but I think of it as the Queen of my garden! Like most of my plants, it is more of an ancient wild flower than a proper “Garden Flower” (determined, like most things, by the Victorians I believe): if a plant does not have a proper medieval “wort” name and quasi-mythological medicinal heritage, it doesn’t find its way into my garden. Meadowsweet was alternatively known as dropwort, bridewort, and meadwort in the pre-modern past, and was used as a strewing and flavoring herb, as well as a painkiller and digestive. In the nineteenth century, salicylic acid was isolated from meadowsweet, a key event in the development of aspirin, which was named after the plant’s previous Latin name, Spiraea ulmaria. Though not named as one of the nine sacred herbs in the Anglo-Saxon Lacnuga (“Remedies”) manuscript, this particular Queen has ruled for quite some time.
July 2016 garden: I’ll let my cat Trinity lead us to the Meadowsweet in a meandering way.
I love my lungworts–another important medieval plant that looks lovely from May through September. Trinity wasn’t really interested in the meadowsweet, but here they are, for several different angles: I would love to see a prairie/meadow full!
I have been paying very little attention to my garden as I’ve been busy, and we are getting a new roof, which involves flying shingles, tarps and ladders and the trampling of plants. I don’t want to look! After the roofers are gone I will assess the damage and dig in, but for now I just gaze out the window or walk quickly through the garden, as if I have blinders on. Then it suddenly occurred to me the other day that I had not seen my lady’s slippers, which are fortunately in the back, out of harm’s way. It’s always a guessing game as to how many slippers this one plant (now about 15 years old) will produce: generally there is an increase of one slipper per year, but last year (perhaps because of our historic winter) their number actually decreased, to thirteen. So with some trepidation, I walked slowly to the back of the garden, behind the ferns, and there they were in full bloom and glory: seventeen lady’s slippers, four more than last year. Amazing! Glorious! Wondrous! And above all, inspiring: now I must get out there to tend to the rest of my (less spectacular) plants.
CATS, architecture, the Renaissance (or pseudo-Renaissance)…all my favorite topics are featured in documentary films screening at this year’s Salem Film Fest, which opened last night with Curious Worlds: the Art & Imagination of [miniaturist] David Beck. The festival is now a Salem tradition, in its ninth year, and of course a welcome addition to the non-witchy/kitschy calendar. I usually go to one or two films, and regret not seeing more. Even though the slogan of the festival is Come to Salem, See the World, its organizers always include some local productions, so the entire experience has a “glocal” feel to it, which seems appropriate for our city, our time, and this particular medium. This evening we will see Concrete Love: the Böhm Family, which purportedly “paints an intimate and pointed portrait of the complexity and inseparability of life, love, faith and architecture” through its examination of the life and work of German architect Gottfried Böhm, the patriarch of an architectural dynasty which includes his three sons. This weekend, I’ve got my eye on Projections of America, featuring 26 short propaganda films about America: the people produced for European audiences following the liberation of France in 1944, Kedi, all about the hundreds of thousands of cats that roam the streets of Istanbul, American Renaissance, a short on Renaissance-faire culture (I can’t miss this, as hopefully it will give me all sorts of insights into my students), and The Million Dollar Duck, (not to be confused with the 1971 Disney film of the same name) about the fierce competition among six artists to win the Federal Duck Stamp Contest, the only juried art competition sponsored by the U.S. government. I feel honor-bound to see this last movie, as one of Salem’s most illustrious artists, Frank Benson, was actually one of the competition’s first victors!
German poster for Concrete Love: the Böhm Family; Projections of America poster; character cats inKedi; a “Renaissance” plague doctor in American Renaissance, poster for The Million Dollar Duck, and Frank Benson’s winning design from 1935.
Even though we have all lived together for several months, we are still adjusting to our newest cat, Trinity, and she to us. She’s either in constant motion or a state of complete collapse, like a youngster, which she is. She had a litter out in the wild before she was even a year old, and they were all rescued by our local shelter: the kittens were adopted first and then she came to us in late June, newly-fixed, and still very much a mother, in nesting mode. Not a scrap of fabric was safe in the house all summer–clothing, dishtowels, throws, even pillows—were carried up to my husband’s closet. If the door was closed, she would simply make a pile until it was open. Her beloved pink blanket, brought with her from the shelter, was always in close proximity. About a month ago, the fixation on fabric seemed to dissipate, but now she has a new focus: pumpkins. Not real pumpkins, velvet ones, which I have been collecting for some time (before they became fashionable). Large or small, wherever they happen to be situated, she pounces on them, tears at them, carries them upstairs and then drops them from the second-floor landing to the entrance hall below, and scatters their insides (rice) on the floor, furniture, and even the dining-room table. At least she’s moved on from her fabric/kitten fixation (either that or she was a very bad mother).
Pyewacket: lots of cats named “Pye”, why? If you’re of a certain age (born in the 60s at the very least) you might associate this name with the 1958 Jimmy Stewart/Kim Novak film Bell, Book and Candle, in which the modern sexy witch Novak had a Siamese familiar named Pye OR the children’s book by Rosemary Weir titled Pyewacket published a decade later. The origin of this name goes way back to the seventeenth century, when the notorious and self-proclaimed “Witchfinder-General” Matthew Hopkins tried several women for witchcraft (among many others) who claimed to have a number of “imps” or familiars in their service, including Holt, Ilemauzar, Pyewackett, Pecke in the Crowne, Grizzedl Greedigutt, Jarmara, Sacke & Sugar, Newes, and Vinegar Tom. All of Hopkins’ “discoveries” are proudly proclaimed in the 1647 pamphlet THE Discovery of Witches: IN Answer to severall QUERIES, LATELY Delivered to the Judges of Assize for the County of NORFOLK. And now published By MATTHEVV HOPKINS, Witch-finder. FOR The Benefit of the whole KINGDOME.
The pamphlet reports that in March 1644 there were some seven or eight of that horrible sect of Witches living in …. a Towne in Essex called Maningtree, with divers other adjacent Witches of other towns, who every six weeks in the night (being alwayes on the Friday night) had their meeting close by his house, and had their severall solemne sacrifices there offered to the Devill, one of which this discoverer heard speaking to her Imps one night, and bid them goe to another Witch, who was thereupon apprehended, and searched by women who had for many yeares knowne the Devills marks, and found to have three teats about her, which honest women have not: so upon command from the Justice, they were to keep her from sleep two or three nights, expecting in that time to see her familiars, which the fourth night she called in by their severall names, and told them what shapes, a quarter of an houre before they came in, there being ten of us in the roome. Holt appeared “like a white kitling”, then Jarmara, “who came in like a fat Spaniel without any legs at all, she said she kept him fat, for she clapt her hand on her belly, and said he suckt good blood from her body”. Next was Vinegar Tom, “who was like a long-legg’d Greyhound, with an head like an Oxe, with a long taile and broad eyes, who when this discoverer spoke to, and bade him goe to the place provided for him and his Angels, immediately transformed himselfe into the shape of a child of foure yeeres old without a head, and gave halfe a dozen turnes about the house, and vanished at the doore”. Sacke & Sugar appears like a black rabbit and Newes, a polecat, and the rest of the imps, including Pyewacket, are not identified, so among them we only have one cat, Holt (kitling is an old form of kitten). I have searched in vain for Pyewacket references in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and found none: the author of the 1950 play on which Bell, Book and Candle was based, the English playwright John van Druten, must have plucked Pyewacket out of semi-obscurity and associated the name with a cat, because by that time, everyone knew that familiars were feline.