Tag Archives: Decorative Arts

Salem Interiors, 1896

I came across a book I had never seen before the other day at the wonderful Digital Library for the Decorative Arts and Material Culture (beware, serious rabbit-hole potential here) at the University of Wisconsin, Madison: Newton Elwell’s Colonial Furniture and Interiors, published in 1896. I was doing something rather tedious so of course I put that aside and dug in. The book is not great in terms of information, and there were some pretty serious flaws that even an mere buff such as myself could spot immediately (such as referring to Samuel McIntire as James) but it is a treasure trove of plates, including many photographs of Salem interiors I had never seen before. These photographs are fascinating to me because many of them feature rooms decorated in a mishmash style that preceded the pure period room. Look at the east parlor of the Peirce-Nichols house below, for example: looking quite cluttered and Victorian rather than serenely Federal, with the exception of that beautiful fireside chair. Elwell wants to focus on the period furniture, but his photographs can’t always hide all the contemporary details of its setting.

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The sheer (and quite casual) display of Salem furniture from the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is a little overwhelming: some of the pictures seem to be taking us into attics (or the storage area of the Essex Institute) where tables and sideboards are lined up in a random fashion. The chair that is featured in the second photograph above, of the mantel of the west parlor of the Peirce-Nichols house, is one from a set of eight crafted by McIntire, one of which sold at a Christie’s auction last week for $15,000 (which seems like a bargain to me, no?) But the 1890s was a key decade in the development of a Colonial Revival consciousness that was both very national and very local: a key decade for the identification of  “Olde Salem”. Consequently along with the eclectic vignettes which mix periods and styles, there are also some “typical colonial” Salem rooms in Elwell’s book, forerunners of the period rooms of the next decades.

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Plates from Newton Elwell’s Colonial Furniture and Interiors, 1896.


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. 


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.


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.


Christmas in Salem 2016

stellar Christmas in Salem tour around Salem Common this past weekend, featuring all the things that I love about Salem houses and Salem people. The combination of generous and creative homeowners, perfect clear and crisp December weather, and myriad magical details made for a very special experience. Here’s just a short list of attractions (I really could go on and on): a McIntire spiral staircase, beautiful views of the Common (as seen through very clean windows–the first thing I noticed when I got home was how dirty mine are), an artist’s atelier/bedroom, an alpine-decorated deck, kitchens extraordinaire, an architectural dollhouse, exceptional artwork and collections. To be honest, I barely noticed the Christmas decorations as I was so focused on the architecture and interior design. I was a bit pressed for time, so I skipped the three institutional stops on the tour–the PEM’s Andrew Safford House, the Bertram House, and St. Peter’s Church–and went right for the private homes, all along the Common and a few adjacent side streets. It seemed to me that the tour was curated for contrast: of scale (larger institutional or single-family homes contrasted with smaller structures and condominiums), of architectural style (everything was built in the nineteenth century but what a difference between the Federal, Greek Revival, Victorian and Colonial Revival!), of design (very modern and more traditional), of embellishment (very decorated and more minimalistic), and above all, of expression: the homeowners expressed themselves in various ways: through their own art or design, or through their collections, or both!

I was fortunate to obtain a press pass so I could take photographs of the houses, but 1) I am not a professional photographer and 2) I got completely overwhelmed by all I had to see/ “capture”, so please go on over to Creative Salem  or to Historic Salem for more polished and comprehensive portfolios: it was really all too much for me, in the best possible way!

Let’s start with a sampling of beautiful rooms, and then I’ll try to present some of the details that caught my eye–just some, because there was so much to see.

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Let there be light! This  was a very enlightened tour, in more ways than one:

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Myriad Mantles……..

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Dazzling Details…….of collections, an amazing restoration, and all sorts of embellishment, including an historic Salem gallery wall, an exterior Christmas tablescape (set up by the homeowner of a beautiful condo, who felt that she need to offer a “bit more”), and the ultimate dollhouse.

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It was impossible for me to capture the complete creativity of Salem artist Thomas Darsney’s stunning home/gallery: his canvases were luminous but the entire home was in fact a canvas, with no surface or detail unconsidered. 

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Just a few exterior shots because again, the light was so beautiful on Sunday……

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Why not tie everything up with a big red bow?

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St. Andrew’s Cross

I’ve been writing posts on various saints days over the years and yesterday I realized I had never posted about St. Andrew on his feast day, a notable omission both in general and for me, in particular, as I was fortunate to spend my junior year at St. Andrew’s University, and the town remains one of my very favorite places on earth. Though I think most people associate St. Andrew exclusively with Scotland, he is venerated widely: in much of eastern Europe, in the Caribbean and even South America. Andrew was the first Apostle, the brother of Peter, and an ardent missionary: it is said that he continued to spread the gospel during much of his crucifixion, on an x-shaped cross forever associated with his name: the saltire or St. Andrew’s Cross. Such a powerful symbol of assertion, both against a field of blue as the Scottish flag, or as the southern cross on the Confederate flag. The connotations of the former are all positive as compared with the latter, of course, and St. Andrew’s Day has been a bank holiday in Scotland since 2006.

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st-andrews-the-saltire-flag Late medieval manuscript images of St. Andrew from the British and St. Andrew’s University Libraries; Juan Correa de Vivar, Crucifixion of St. Andrew, c. 1540, University of St. Andrew’s Special Collections; the saltire unfurled.

Scotland’s claim to St. Andrew has always struck me as a little convoluted, but it became official, and lasting, with the Declaration of Arbroath (1320), a letter written by the barons of Scotland to Pope John XXII asking for recognition of the country’s independence and acknowledgment of Robert the Bruce as its rightful king. Scotland’s “Declaration of Independence” incorporated the esteemed St. Andrew as part of its plea, for “The high qualities and deserts of these people, were they not otherwise manifest, gain glory enough from this: that the King of kings and Lord of lords, our Lord Jesus Christ, after his Passion and Resurrection, called them, even though settled in the uttermost parts of the earth, almost the first to His most holy faith. Nor would He have them confirmed in that faith by merely anyone but by the first of His Apostles – by calling, though second or third rank – the most gentle Saint Andrew, the Blessed Peter’s brother, and desired him to keep them under his protection as their patron for ever.”  Another very powerful assertion, as St. Andrew certainly outranked the emerging patron saint George of Scotland’s perennial enemy, England. Combined with a classical origins story, language, literature, Presbyterianism, the “auld alliance” with France, and myriad other claims and customs, St. Andrew helped Scotland preserve a very distinct national identity even after it became part of Great Britain. And then, in that golden age of romantic nationalism that was the nineteenth century, the Saint and his cross seem to be emblazoned on all forms of material culture associated with Scotland, transforming him into a more secular patron and ensuring his survival into the modern age.

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The symbolic British Empire in glass, c. 1840: stained glass panels by C.E. Gwilt representing St. Andrew of Scotland, St. Patrick of Ireland, and St. George of England; a Minton tile, c. 1875; Walter Crane’s “National” wallpaper, 1890s, all collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum; St. Andrew’s Day 2013 in Edinburgh.


What became of the Pineapple House?

There was a large Georgian house in Salem referred to by all as the “Pineapple House” for its prominent door decoration. It was built by Captain Thomas Poynton at some point between 1740 and 1750 on Brown Street near Salem Common, and later moved to an adjacent court off the main street. Today neither the house or the court exist: I’ve been trying to determine what happened to both with little success! According to the Genealogical Memoir of the Driver Family (1889), the frame of the house was brought from England by Captain Thomas Poynton, husband of Mrs. Hannah Poynton (Bray), in one of his own ships as early as 1740. This house still stands in 1887, in a most excellent condition, but not on its original site, having been moved some hundred feet to make room for a house built for Mr. Stephen Ives (no. 40 Brown Street) whose heirs are the present owners of the Pine Apple House. My hero, the photographer-preservationist Frank Cousins, took several photographs of the house and its famous doorframe in the 1890s and 1910s, and I can find references to its existence as late as 1923. It came down sometime after that, and after the door frame (with pineapple) was donated to the Essex Institute, where it was installed in the Phillips Library.

pineapple-house-cousins-duke-ulThe Captain Thomas Poynton House, 7 Brown Street Court, Salem. Photograph by Frank Cousins, Urban Landscape Digital Collection, Duke University Library.

Captain Poynton was a Loyalist, proudly whitewashing his chimneys and incurring the wrath of an angry mob which attacked his house in 1775, breaking many windows and inspiring him to depart for England. He left his wife behind (this happened so many times in Salem! What a great dissertation topic), and never returned to America. Mrs. Poynton seems to have been everyone’s favorite aunt, and she was devoted to the upkeep of the pineapple atop her front door, which apparently also came from England, painting and regilding it annually and ensuring that the curtains of her second-floor window never obscured its profile.

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Two views of the Pineapple/Poynton House doorway by Cousins; as illustrated in the Essex Institute’s Visitors’ Guide to Salem, 1895;  the door frame and pineapple in the Phillips Library of the Essex Institute, Detroit Publishing Company postcard, after 1912.

The pineapple continued to be well maintained until its detachment and donation, but the rest of the house was expanded considerably in the rear (see above), enabling its transition into “tenement” status in the later nineteenth century. As indicated above, it was moved, and then sometime (1920s or 1930s?) it disappeared, leaving only its famous pedimented doorway and Cousins’ photographs behind.

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Brown Street Court (just below #49) on a map in an undated Essex Institute brochure titled “A Tour of Salem”; Brown Street  Court today (I think!)–looking towards the Church of St. John the Baptist on St. Peter Street.


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