Tag Archives: Decorative Accessories

Posters (and More) @ the PEM

In my recent post on the Phillips Library, I deliberately excluded any commentary on the Peabody Essex Museum, but most of the commenters did not. Any large expansive institution inserting and asserting itself in the midst of a small city like Salem is going to incur a lot of commentary, and the Peabody Essex Museum is not an exception. I wanted my post to focus on Salem’s material heritage, so I excluded its enveloping institution, but in fact my feelings towards the Peabody Essex are mixed. I understand that in order to be successful, the 1992 merger of the former Essex Institute and the Peabody Museum of Salem had to result in a completely new museum, rather than a Frankenstein-esque amalgamation of the two former institutions. That has happened: the Peabody Essex is new, and dynamic, and thriving. I do miss the dusty Essex Institute a bit, just because I like those sorts of institutions, and I think Salem needs a historical society/museum run by professionals for passion and preservation, rather than profit. But I know it is never coming back. However, its archive, the Phillips Museum, must come back. And meanwhile, the Peabody Essex is here, and expanding like a force of nature: one must embrace it. I appreciate many things about the PEM: its collections, its community programming, even its shop. It is a constant resource for me as both a curious individual and a teacher. But just as I want to see more of its historical records, I want to see more of its collections–and it seems to me that the showcase, display, and interpretation of the PEM’s permanent collections are deemed secondary to the mounting of blockbuster exhibitions time and time again: DRESSES, HATS, SHOES. The first great expansion of the relatively new PEM over a decade ago was explained in terms of the need to have more exhibition space to display the Museum’s collections, as is its current project, but in the interim we have seen lots of DRESSES, HATS and SHOES (and several months of McIntire and Gould, to be fair).

At present, the PEM has two blockbuster exhibitions on view coincidentally: the summer-long exhibition Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed and Style and It’s Alive, a showcase of classic horror and science fiction movie posters from the collection of Kirk Hammett. When I first heard about both, I thought, oh no, posters and posters taking up precious gallery space (away from the permanent collections): ephemera. But I have visited Ocean Liners several times over the summer and I think it comes very close to the “glocal” vision first expressed at the time of the merger of the Essex Institute and Peabody Museum: local history with an enhanced global context. It is maritime history ramped up several notches, encompassing art, history, culture, and style. There are posters, of course, but wow, several of them speak volumes in terms of their impact and message. It’s Alive just seems like a collection of movie posters to me, not really an exhibition, but if I were a curator at the PEM with October hordes passing by my door, I wouldn’t have turned them down either!

PEM ExhibitionsPortholes and eyes at the PEM.

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PEM Exhibitions 4

PEM Clyde

PEM Exhibition LinersPEM Exhibitions 7

PEM Exhibitions 5

PEM Murals

PEM Fashion

PEM Luggage

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PEM Enlist

PEM Enlist LOCJust a few items from Ocean Liners, which also includes some amazing ship models of which I don’t seem to be able to take a good photograph. Stanley Spencer’s Shipbuilders on the Clyde: Riveters (1941) is amazing! The panel from the Titanic’s sister ship Olympic is displayed in full majesty, altar-style, in the midst of renderings from other pre-World War I ships–this was an era in which the interiors were certainly not streamlined. I never knew there was Titanic “recreation diorama” for tourists just a couple of years after the disaster! This Fred Spear Enlist poster from 1915, showing victims of the Lusitania sinking, really stopped me in my tracks–the last image is from the Library of Congress. 

PEM EX CATS

PEM EX Wallpaper

PEM Exhibitions KarloffMy favorite posters from It’s Alive, on either side of some very atmospheric wallpaper.


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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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.


Elizabethan Caterpillars

Oddly enough, I was thinking about caterpillars before the big Tudor revelation of last week: the confirmation that a lavishly embroidered cloth-of-silver altar cloth in a small church in Herefordshire was fashioned from a dress which might have belonged to Elizabeth I. The cloth was discovered by Historic Royal Palaces Joint Chief Curator Tracy Borman, who has included it in her newly-released book, The Private Lives of the Tudors. Uncovering the Secrets of Britain’s Greatest Dynasty. Apparently Elizabeth had a reputation for casting-off her clothing to favorites, and her faithful servant Blanche Parry hailed from Bracton, the small village where this luxurious cloth has been hanging for over 400 years. The photographs of the cloth, particularly close-ups, show familiar Elizabethan flora and fauna (in a pattern that does indeed look very familiar to that of the dress which Elizabeth wears in the famous “Rainbow” portrait), including a rather conspicuous caterpillar hovering over a bear.

Caterpillar Cloth HRP

Jacobean Jacket METThe Herefordshire altar cloth (@Historic Royal Palaces) and a fitted jacked from a bit later (c. 1616) featuring a caterpillar among a world of flora and fauna, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

So why was I thinking about caterpillars in general and Elizabethan caterpillars in particular? For the usual mix of scholarly/materialistic reasons. I am prepping for my summer graduate course on Elizabethan England, while at the same time spring cleaning the house and indulging in a bit of seasonal decoration, which for me means swapping out Spring rabbits for Summer bugs and snails: I had just replaced a John Derian glass tray featuring a card-dealing rabbit with one bearing a colorful caterpillar when I read the news about the Herefordshire discovery. And I’m rereading one of my favorite books, Deborah Harkness’s The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution which captures perfectly the dynamic world of fledgling naturalists and “scientists” in later-sixteenth century London. Harkness is probably better known for her fictional bestsellers of the past few years but for me, this is her jewel. I really had a hard time conveying to my students just how focused Elizabethans were on the natural world before it was published; certainly you can see–they can see– this preoccupation in Tudor decorative arts, and most particularly textiles, but I’m hoping that Harkness will really bring it home to them.

Caterpillar Tray John Derian

Jewel House Cover HarknessJohn Derian’s caterpillar tray & Deborah Harkness’s The Jewel House.

So back to the caterpillar, which is such a distinctive creature in terms of both appearance and activity: it transforms and consumes, dramatically. Which quality determined their metaphorical characterization in Elizabethan England? Definitely the latter: when Shakespeare writes of a commonwealth of caterpillars in Richard II, he is referring to devouring parasites whom Bolingbroke has sworn “to weed and pluck away”. Another Shakespearian reference is to false caterpillars in Henry IV, Part 2: a rebellious group of “scholars, lawyers, courtiers, gentleman” who (once again) are preying on the people: prey, “pill”, pillage: the caterpillar is hardly the wondrous creature of the first British entomologists Thomas Penny and Thomas Moffett, who maintained a more empirical perspective. The latter’s great work (which is largely based on the former!), Insectorum sive Minimorum animalium theatrum (posthumously published in 1634), is more focused on metamorphosis than munching.

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Thomas Moffett’s Insectorum sive Minimorum animalium theatrium (1634–but largely based on Thomas Penny’s 500-page manuscript from the 1590s).


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