Tag Archives: Christies

Salem on Canvas: the 1920s

Exactly 90 and 91 years ago today the American artist Felicie Waldo Howell (1897-1968) opened successive exhibitions at the Macbeth Gallery in New York City, where all the best “modern” American artists showed.  Both exhibitions featured Salem scenes prominently, indeed, very prominently.  The first, Old Salem Doorways (January 3-17, 1921), was exclusively devoted to the architecture of Salem, while the second, New England Streets (January 3-23,1922), featured the streets of Salem alongside those of other New England towns and cities.  Here are two reproduction images of paintings in the first show, depicting the entrances to the Assembly House and the Ropes Mansion.

I don’t know a great deal about Howell but from what I could ascertain she had a rich and interesting life, occupied by her art throughout. She was born in Hawaii, but spent most of her life on the east coast.  Her first marriage, to the wealthy yachtsman (and navigator) George Mixter, enabled her to travel widely (and in very advantageous circles) and paint many maritime scenes.  She seems to have had a penchant for coastlines (Maine and Atlantic islands, the White Cliffs of Dover), bridges (the Golden Gate, Brooklyn) and street scenes (New York, Gloucester, Salem).  A few years after her seemingly-successful exhibitions at the Macbeth Gallery, she returned to Salem to paint several views of the city’s Tercentennial celebrations, including the celebratory scene on Chestnut Street below (from the digital archives of Christies, where it sold in 2006 for $7200).  Seldom do you see such a colorful, impressionistic view of The Street.

Felicie Waldo Howell (1897-1968), Salem’s 300th Anniversary, Chestnut Street, June 1926.

Salem Chests

I’m finishing up my Tudor-Stuart course this week at Salem State, and while doing the course prep for a class on the reign of William and Mary (1689-94/1702) I became bored with the rather mundane political narrative (at least compared with the Tudors!) and turned to the style of the eraThen I became a lot more interested, particularly in following the transmission of material culture traditions and motifs from the Continent to England and ultimately to Salem. 

Like its maritime heritage and architecture, the furniture of colonial and Federal Salem serves as a powerful counterweight to its Witch City reputation.  There seems to be two periods of Salem furniture production that are particularly prized by collectors and scholars:  the late seventeenth-century William & Mary era as represented by the Symonds Shops in Salem (c. 1670-1700) and the Federal era, when Salem had some sixty cabinetmakers working to produce furniture for both the domestic and export markets.

The Symonds business was established by joiner John Symonds (c. 1595-1671) who emigrated to Massachusetts from Norfolk, England in the 1630s and carried on by his sons James and Samuel. A Salem street is named after the family.  Their chests have done very well at auction in the past decade or so, with the Pope  “valuables cabinet” selling for 2.42 million dollars in 2000 (and back to Salem it came, to the Peabody Essex Museum).  This chest is pictured below in a photograph from Christies, along with another Symonds cabinet from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The initials of the married couples who owned these chests (Joseph and Bathsheba Pope of Salem Village and Ephraim and Mary Herrick of Beverly), interwoven with the year (1679) of their creation, is carved on the front in the midst of the characteristic Symonds sunburst.

Another Salem Symonds chest, the “Putnam Family Cupboard”, was photographed by Salem’s famed photographer-entrepreneur Frank Cousins and sketched by Edwin Foley in a fanciful “colonial” environment a century ago.  Both images are below, along with one of a so-called “Witch Bureau”, from the Pageant of America series, with the accompanying caption “from the middle drawer of which one of the witches jumped out who was hung at Gallows Hill in Salem.”

The "Witch Bureau", NYPL Digital Gallery

I’m not quite sure about this piece–very square legs compared to the other examples of the era—(and what a provenance!) although somewhat similar to the most recent Symonds piece to be auctioned off, at Sotheby’s this past January, the 1690 “Trask Chest”.

As I finish up my course with Queen Anne, the last of the Stuarts, I can’t help but dwell on the dramatic change in furniture style (again, because the narrative history is pretty boring, and all about the War of Spanish Succession):  from solid squares to graceful curves.  Edwin Foley, the author-illustrator of The Book of Decorative Furniture (1909-11), made his way right into the Queen’s bedroom so he could capture her colorful bedhangings and “Queen Anne” highboy and one of Frank Cousin’s interior photographs of the Peirce-Nichols house from the 1890s captured a similar chest.

Frank Cousins and the other advocates of Salem and its colonial architecture, furniture, and decorative arts created a brand that was almost as strong as “Witch City” in the early and mid-twentieth century.  As proof, I offer two advertisements for newer models of Salem chests.


The Six-Hundred-Thousand-Dollar Chair

Actually, the Samuel McIntire chair below is worth $662,500, its realized price (against an estimate of $30,000-$50,000) at a January 21 auction at Christie’s in New York.  As reported in yesterday’s Salem News by staff reporter Matthew Roy, the chair, or its buyer, set a world record.

When you compare the winning bid on this chair to that of other McIntire pieces in completed auctions on the Christies’ website, you see a  divergence.  Its comparatively greater value is apparently due to its “possibly original” finish and its commission by Elias Hasket Derby (whom Nathaniel Hawthorne referred to as “”King Derby” in the Scarlet Letter) for the grand mansion that he erected between 1795-99 in the midst of an elevated and landscaped prospect from which he could survey his wharves, ships, and goods-in-transit.  This legendary, short-lived house is referred to as the Derby Mansion to distinguish it from the Georgian brick Derby House which is presently part of the Salem Maritime Historic site on Derby Street.

Robert Gilmor, Derby Mansion (1797), Boston Public Library


Derby House, Historic American Buildings Survey (1933), Library of Congress

Elias and Elizabeth Crowninshield Derby lived in their new mansion only a few months after its completion in 1799; they both died before the new century turned, and the house and its specially-commissioned contents were disbursed to their seven children.  Given the mansion’s central location and the fact that there were many Derby houses on the North Shore, the mansion was not long for this world; it was demolished in 1815 and the new (now “old”) Town Hall was erected in its place.  The $662,500 chair was part of a set of eight, and companion pieces are in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Winterthur Museum.  For some semblance of how the chairs might have looked in the Derby mansion, the newly-reinstalled Oak Hill parlor period room in the MFA’s Art of the Americas Wing should suffice, after all it was also the creation of  McIntire and a member of the Derby family, in this case Elias and Elizabeth’s daughter Elizabeth Derby West.

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