Tag Archives: Decorative Arts

Allegorical Arrows

Historical imagery often contains symbols and emblems that we don’t understand:  we must learn to read them; whereas a contemporary audience could simply see them and understand the message within. I enjoy teasing out the meanings behind images from the past both here and in class–though here I’ve got a bit more creative freedom, and can chart the evolution of images all the way up to the present, when they have often lost their associations and exist simply as images. A great case in point (literally) is the simple and straightforward arrow: once I’ve swept away my seasonal decorations at home I’m often left with a bunch of arrows here and there as they are seasonless, timeless, and largely meaningless: I simply like their form. This is an Americana week for several auction houses, and yesterday as I was perusing the digital catalog for an important auction of folk art at Sotheby’s (The History of Now: The Important American Folk Art Collection of David Teiger|Sold to Benefit Teiger Foundation for the Support of Contemporary Art) all I could see was arrows, which for the most part had assumed their modern directional meaning on myriad weathervanes.

artful arrows horse weathervane

artful arrows diana the huntress sothebys

artful arrows soaring bird sothebys

artful arrows goddess of liberty sothebysPrancing Horse, Diana the Huntress, Soaring Bird, and the Goddess of Liberty weathervanes from the Teiger collection, Sotheby’s.

Another lot in this same auction is an incredible later nineteenth-century Chinese wall plaque representing the Great Seal of the United States, with the emblazoned bald eagle clutching a cluster of arrows in his left talon—thirteen to be exact, representing the thirteen colonies, but also strength through unity. There is an explicit sense of martial strength on display as well, projected through the contrast with the olive branch in the eagle’s right talon. The Great Seal’s designer, Charles Thompson, was influenced in his use of arrows by other confederations such as the Iroquois (with their five nations) and the Dutch Republic (with its seven provinces) as well as by early modern emblem books such as Joachim Camerarius’s Symbola et Emblemata (1590-1604), merely substituting them for the more classical lightening bolts.

artful arrows chinese eagle sotheby's folk art auction 20 jan

Obverse Great Seal.tif

arrows symbols 16th c.The Chinese Great Seal and Charles Thompson’s original sketch, US National Archives; Joachim Camerarius, Symbola et Emblemata.

Emblem books are one of the rabbit holes of early modern literature, as you will see if you go here: but you can also find many arrows, representing not only military force, but also time and inevitable mortality, flight, children (Psalm 127), punishment, and of course love, when in one of the countless cupids’ bows. Medieval arrows are never ambiguous: they represent force and violent death in general, and martyrdom in particular. Saint Sebastian (died 288) and King Edmund the Martyr (d. 869) were both attacked by hordes of pagan/heathen archers, and so often depicted as shot so full of arrows they resemble porcupines; arrows remained their essential attributes as their cults developed over the medieval era. In the later medieval era, Sebastian re-emerged as the most popular plague saint, as the arrow came to symbolize the plague itself: the most dramatic expression of this motif is a fourteenth-century fresco on the wall of the former Benedictine Abbey of Saint-André-de-Lavauadieu in France, depicting a faceless woman armed with the arrows of plague and her pierced victims all around her.

arrow 2 collage

love removed

arrows of black death

arrows pub

Some early modern arrow emblems: “Ich fliehe sehr schnell”– Fly far and fast; “Vis nescia vinci”–force cannot be overcome with force; “Supplicio laus tuta semel”—he that was worthy of praise was one free from punishment; Cupid holds up the world: “Sublato Amore Omnia Ruunt“–When Love is Removed, All things tumble down; the Lavaudieu fresco, and a street sign in Bury St. Edmunds, bearing the three arrow-crossed crowns that have come to symbolize the Anglo-Saxon king Edmund the Martyr.

Back to the future: I guess arrows are just arrows, or mundane symbols telling us where to go, BUT who knew there was a hidden arrow in the FedEx logo? Not me.

arrows collage

arrow fed ex

Mid-century textile design by Tommi Parzinger, Cooper-Hewitt Museum.

 


It started in Salem for John Derian

I’ve been a fan of decoupage artist and entrepreneur John Derian forever or what seems like it: since I bought my first piece at a little Marblehead shop named C’est la Vie, which is still very much up and running. And then I bought more glass trays: most from this same shop but I also took pilgrimages to his stores in New York City and Provincetown. Thanks to his collaborations with Target, I was able to obtain even more of Derian’s rediscovered prints, covering utilitarian objects like storage crates, coffee cups, and jewelry boxes. Beautiful stationery that I can’t even bring myself to use. So now there’s probably something Derian in every room in the house (except for those inhabited exclusively by my husband and stepson) but despite his omnipresence in my life I somehow never knew that it all began in Salem for John Derian! I knew he was from Massachusetts, Watertown in particular, but not until I read the forward to an engagement diary which my parents gave me for my birthday last week did I realize that a few colorful prints found at the Canal Street Flea Market in Salem in 1983 inspired his whole brilliant career!

Derian

Derian Collage

Colorful nineteenth-century floral prints found in a box of broken-up antique books and loose papers at a flea market in Salem, Massachusetts. I’m pretty sure this was the Canal Street Flea Market, which was before my time: I checked with Salem’s chronicler of record, Jim McAllister, to see if he had an image but no luck. This was a rather famous flea market though—I can remember hearing about it when I started poking around in markets a bit later than this—so I can understand how it might have drawn Derian up from Watertown. His description of how he was struck by the “power” of these particular images resonates with me completely—I’ve felt that power time and time again on my hunts. How impressive to be able to turn that reaction and appreciation into a decorative arts empire—and how neat that I can add this empire to the increasingly-long list of things that started in Salem.

John Derian around the house–not an exhaustive portfolio!

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Darien Sheep


A Turnkey Homestead

I’m using the expression “turnkey” in typical contrary fashion here: it’s a real estate term which generally means a house that requires no repairs or refurbishment, just turn the key and you are home in your new purchase. The Rundlet-May house in Portsmouth struck me as a turnkey house in another sense: Ralph May, the fourth of his generation to live in the house, donated it to Historic New England (then the Society for the Preservation for New England Antiquities) in 1971 and now when you enter the house (or turn the key, in a sense) it seems as if you are within a space that he just left. This is an imposing Federal, made less so by the lived-in ambiance of a home to four generations of the same family.

Rundlett May 11

Rundlett May 14

Rundlett May 18The Rundlet-May House (1807) and views out back from its second and third floors.

Even though the house itself is an extravagant construction on large urban acreage, everything about its interior speaks to Yankee thrift: from the original peach damask wallpaper in one of the front parlors to the original Edison light bulb in a fixture on the second-floor landing–which is turned on once a year. It’s the perfect old-money house. John Rundlet, the self-made man who built (and apparently designed?) the house purchased and commissioned the best of everything (including a Rumford Roaster and a Rumford Range) and his descendants seem to have changed very little other than altering the use of its rooms to suit their activities and professions.

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Rundlett May 13

Rundlett May 10

Rundlett May 8

Rundlett May 9First-floor parlors, hall and kitchen (with Rumford Roaster) and fire buckets, of course. I found several early 20th-century postcards of the house which referred to Samuel McIntire as the carver of the right parlor’s mantle (above), but I think this is just an illustration of the Salem architect and woodcarver’s fame in the midst of the Colonial Revival era.

There’s probably too much furniture–beautiful as it all is—in the house: tables and dressers and painted chairs. Should a beautiful card table be situated just inches away facing an even more beautiful Portsmouth bureau in a narrow window nook of an upstairs bedroom? No necessarily, but this placement allows us to see both of these pieces. There’s also a lot of stuff. But it’s their stuff and their home, and we are all privileged to be able to enter within!

Rundlett May

Rundlett May 5

Rundlett May 15

Rundlett May 4

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Ralph MaySecond and Third Floors, including Ralph May’s 3rd floor study, with all of his stuff. Below: this “musical” decorative motif ran through the house—it caught my eye because the same motif is on one of my Fancy chairs. (the last photograph).

Rundlett May 16

Rundlett May 17

Fancy Chair


Georgian Grandeur in Portsmouth

Portsmouth always struck me as a Georgian town, even from a young age, when I first developed an appreciation for historic houses at Strawbery Banke and first spotted what is still one of my very favorite houses nearby. There are Federal houses too, but it doesn’t feel as Federal as its sister seaports to the south, Newburyport and Salem. There is a range of Georgian houses in Portsmouth, from relatively simple to absolutely grand: on this past weekend I revisited three of the latter varieties: the Warner House (1716) the Moffatt-Ladd House (1763),  and the Governor John Langdon House (1784). Each house has a different owner, and a different………style, but all are exquisite representations of their era. The combination of the entirety of their construction with all the crafted details within—including the wonderful Portsmouth furniture in each house—is hard to capture: you’ll just have to visit each one yourself.

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Georgian ML

Georgian Langdon HouseThe Warner House, owned and operated by the Warner House Association from the early 1930s, The MoffattLadd House, owned and operated by the National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in the State of New Hampshire, and the Governor Langdon House, a property of Historic New England.

I loved the colors of the Warner House: rich jewel tones throughout. It’s not too pristine: you do get the feeling that you are imposing on the past (although there is quite a lot of plastic fruit). Those wild murals! The textures are wonderful too—especially of the smalted rooms upstairs. This is the oldest urban brick house in North America and it feels that way: both old and urban. You look out its windows and see a bustling city—this would not have been the case in the 1930s when it was rescued or even later: the Warner guide, like all the Portsmouth guides I encountered last weekend, stressed the fact that the city’s current vibrance contrasts with its more depreciated state in the 1970s—and I remember that to be the case.

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Warner 3collageParlors and bedrooms at the Warner House, a scary squirrel, and always the threat of fire (the tool is to take apart your very valuable bed).

The Moffatt-Ladd House has been very much in the thick of things from its construction; once it faced the wharves of prosperous Portsmouth, but now the horse chestnut tree planted in 1776 by General William Whipple upon his return from signing the Declaration of Independence still stands guard at the entrance to its courtyard. It’s a very airy house inside due to its elevated situation as well as its large entrance parlor—and its beautiful rear parlor, now in the midst of restoration, runs parallel to the wonderful terraced garden outside.

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Moffatt-Ladd Stairs

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Georgian Portsmouth 13Moffatt-Ladd parlors and stairs, front parlor original wallpaper and the parlor-in-process with its amazing mantle and Chinese Chippendale chairs; I always brake for fire buckets! The amazing garden.

I think Georgian houses have to be pre-revolutionary, but I’m the only one who thinks that, so I am including the Governor Langdon House, which was built the year after the American Revolution concluded. The scale is even larger here than Moffatt-Ladd, and the house reflects the passage of time, with Greek and Colonial Revival rooms as well as a dining room designed by Stanford White. It seems both national in inspiration but also very much a crafted Portsmouth house, as illustrated by those distinctive staircase balusters, contrasted below with those of Moffatt-Ladd (on the left).

baluster collage

Langdon Hallway

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Langdon Mantle

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Georgian Portsmouth Details

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Georgian Portsmouth 2Those Rococo mantles! And all that beautiful Portsmouth furniture. As you move back through the house, you move up in time, into Greek and Colonial Revival rooms.

While I was looking around for images of the houses in their earlier situations, I came across the works of two women artists among the digital collections of the Portsmouth Public Library: Sarah Haven Foster (1827-1900) and Helen Pearson (1870-1949). Both Portsmouth women clearly loved the architecture of their native city, and rendered it in series of charming vignettes, which were incorporated in their successive guidebooks. Wonderful discoveries: Foster’s naivete and Pearson’s detail both capture Portsmouth’s charm, past and (fortunately) present.

Georgian Warner Haven

Georgian Warner Pearson

Georgian Ladd Pearson

Langdon DoorVignettes by Sarah Haven Foster (the Warner House) and Helen Pearson (Warner, Moffatt-Ladd garden, Langdon doorway), Portsmouth Public Library Digitized Collections.


August Anglo-Americana at Auction

August is high season for antique shows and auctions in New England: generally featuring Americana items with global goods mixed in, as our Yankee forebears, particularly those who dwelled in regional seaports like Salem and Portsmouth, were very worldly, of course, and lived with things that came from other parts of the world. A decade or so ago I was in full-court hunting mode during this season; now I’m an armchair/laptop peruser, although next weekend’s sale at Northeast Auctions looks so good I’m certainly going to attend a preview, at the very least. Such interesting wares! All my picks are from the two (or one long) auctions which will be held on August 18-19: the “Lifelong Collection of Susan MacKay and Peter Field” on Saturday with a general auction following, into the next day. There is no rhyme or reason to these selections: they just caught my fancy.

Auction GlobeAmerican Terrestrial Pocket Globe made in Wethersfield, CT, c. 1850. A pocket globe is surely better than a pocket atlas.

 

Auction Stumpwork 2English Stumpwork Profile Portrait of King Charles I of England, 1646.  How amazing is this—and there are more seventeenth-century lots in the MacKay/Field collection as well, including two more representations of King Charles I during the Civil War, or perhaps even after his execution! Royalist relics–from either side of the Atlantic.

 

Auction Silk Needlwork Silk Needlework Picture of a Gentleman wearing a Tricorn Hat, c. 1770. I like this guy from the next century too.

 

AUction Highboy

English William and Mary Japanned Pine and Hardwood Highboy. I do not have a highboy, or a William and Mary piece, and I would really like both: this doesn’t really suit my present house but who knows where we might end up? I like the subtle Japanning and it has a very low estimate!

 

Auction Chairs

Set of Eight American Sheraton Fancy Red Painted and Decorated Side Chairs. Do I need chairs? No, absolutely not. But these are RED fancy chairs. Hard to resist.

 

Andres JournalAndre’s Journal: an Authentic Record of the Movements and Engagements of the British Army in America from June 1777 to November 1778 as recorded from day to day by Major John Andre,” Edited by Henry Cabot Lodge, Boston: The Bibliophile Society, 1903. This is a beautiful two-volume book which was limited to 487 copies for Bibliophile Society members: I continue to be fascinated by how fascinated Americans were (are?) with Major Andre!

 

Auction Lady LibertyLady Liberty Standing on the Head of Great Britain underneath the Great Seal of the United States, American School, War of 1812. LOTS of War of 1812 items in this auction: this is my favorite.

 

Arbella NortheastThe Frigate “Arbella” of Salem. American School, early 19th Century. I guess I have to have a Salem item–this is a lovely ink & watercolor painting of a ship with which I am not familiar: the original Arbella brough John Winthrop to Salem in 1630, but I don’t know anything about this Arbella. Only the Phillips Library can tell us, I’m sure!

 

Auction Young SailorThe Young Sailor. American School, 4th quarter, 19th century, Mrs. Mary Ide Spencer/Artist. I just love this painting: I know it would make me happy every day if it were mine.


Home, Hearth & History

I’m really looking forward to an upcoming exhibition at the Concord Museum: Fresh Goods: Shopping for Goods in a New England Town, 1750-1900, offered as part of a state-wide MASS Fashion collaborative project which will include a fall exhibition at the Massachusetts Historical Society guest-curated by my Salem State colleague Kimberly AlexanderFashioning the New England Family. I thought I had fashion fatigue, because there have been so many clothing-based exhibitions over the past few years, but these exhibitions look a bit different to me—there’s something more active and engaging about the words shopping and furnishing. Instead of just being wowed by the artifacts, we can learn how and why they came to be created and acquired, processes that involved not just cultural considerations, but also economic and social factors. If I were a curator, I think I would like to create a similar exhibition focusing on home furnishings, because that could offer up insights into so many crafts, industries, and distributors—especially over the nineteenth century as households were affected increasingly by market forces. Recapturing and representing colonial “hearths and homes” and “daily life” were Colonial Revival preoccupations over a century ago; I think we could do with a refresh–and an expanded chronological focus.

Home Furnishings BA 1869

373 Essex Street Joseph Ropes©Boston Athenaeum and Phillips Library, Timothy Ropes Papers (MSS 365).

I imagine there are two approaches to researching the history of household furnishing: presume by utilizing prescriptive materials like trade catalogs and books on contemporary home decoration, or establish through receipts, diaries, and accounts. There are certainly lots of collections of the former, at the Smithsonian, here, and the Winterthur Library, to name just a few sources. Individual household accounts are more decentralized, of course, and for Salem we would be quite dependant on the collections of the Phillips Library: the marvelous hand-drawn sketch by Joseph Ropes of his bedroom at 373 Essex Street above was included in a blog post published by the library which is no longer available, but I was so taken with it I snipped it right up, fortunately. Imagine researching the furnishing of just this one room: that odd stove, so many chairs, the textiles on the bedspread and chair? Wherever they end up, and hopefully digitized, all those family papers in the Phillips have such a wealth of information within—capable of tracing the history of decades of the China Trade and a single year in the material life of one Salem household. But until they see the light of day, we have some other sources: the Winterthur Library’s digital collection of ephemera will not enable me to source Joseph Ropes’ room, but it can give us a few glimpses into Salem’s material past.

Home Furnishings 1801

Liverpool War NA 2

Home Furnishing Waters

Waters

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Home Furnishings 2

Printed_bill 1862

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Home Funishings

A crate of Liverpool Ware for Mr. Nathaniel Burnham (?), 1801; perhaps a pattern such as this (Northeast Auctions)? Andirons and a Kettle for Captain John Waters and the Captain himself (Northeast Auctions); furniture for another Mr. Waters, 1861; 14 yards of black silk for Mr. Goodhue; pillow and furniture manufacturers in the 1880s, Winterthur Library.


We Need Louise!

If you haven’t noticed, I’ve become a bit obsessed with the prospect of an exiled and extracted Phillips Library; even though I’m living through it, it’s still difficult for me to grasp how this could happen to a city with as rich a heritage as Salem—-to any community really. I just don’t understand how or why the Trustees of the Peabody Essex Museum could acquiesce to such a radical policy, but then again, I don’t have many insights into the role(s) of contemporary trustees: I am governed more by characterizations from the past than present examples. I can suppress thoughts of Salem losing nearly all of its material history for a day or two, but then they come raging back: in dreams (or nightmares), first thoughts upon waking, and last thoughts at the end of the day. Lately I’ve found myself conjuring up people from the past and asking (myself–not them!) what they would think or do in this situation: Dr. Henry Wheatland, who devoted his life to the Essex Institute by all accounts, or James Duncan Phillips, the great Salem historian after which the Library is named. These men would not be happy, and they would make their unhappiness known, no doubt. But I think this particular crisis calls for another Essex Institute trustee from the more recent past: the pioneering preservationist Louise du Pont Crowninshield (1877-1958). I just know she would never let this happen.

Louise 1900 wedding

Francis & Louise du Pont Crowninshield and bridesmaids (+dog) on their wedding day, 1900 (Hagley Museum & Library)

Louise was a Gilded-Age princess: the heiress to the du Pont industrial fortune, raised at Winterthur, and married to Boston Brahmin (with Salem roots) Francis Boardman Crowninshield in 1900. She mixed in all the right circles but was obviously not content to just play and party: like her brother Henry, she was an energetic student and collector of early American material culture, and this passion brought her into the early preservationist movement. After restoring her family’s original homestead, Eleutherian Mills, she became involved with the rebuilding and restoration of two historic Virginia properties related to George Washington: Wakefield, his birthplace, and Kenmore, the Fredericksburg plantation that was home to his sister and her family. Crowninshield then worked her way up the east coast, participating in a succession of preservation initiatives, including Independence Hall in Philadelphia and several Massachusetts properties: Gore Place in Waltham, the Lee Mansion in Marblehead (where she and her husband summered at a beautiful estate on Peaches Point), the Wayside Inn in Sudbury, the Mission House in Stockbridge, and two Essex Institute houses: Peirce-Nichols and Gardner-Pingree. Her interest and investment in another Salem house, the Derby House, was integral to the establishment of the Salem National Historic Site as the first national historic site in the NPS. She was one of the founding trustees of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1949 and is the namesake of its most prestigious award.

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Louise du Pont Crowninshield in the center of the “Kenmore Ladies”, 1930s.

Louise du Pont Crowninshield was a powerful woman: so powerful that the substantial contributions she made towards the restoration of the Gardner-Pingree house in the 1930s entitled her to dictate (apparently–I’m relying on written hearsay here) that no mention be made of her relative-by-marriage’s key role in the savage murder of Captain Thomas White in the house in 1830 when it was opened for tours a century later, and to place furniture in the Derby House that was perhaps a bit “old” for its period. But her capital and connections were utilized overwhelmingly for the public good rather than vanity or recognition. She was committed: to her belief that Americans will be better for having around them some visible remains of their past, as well as to the importance of place in general and Salem in particular. She served on the boards of both the Essex Institute and Peabody Museum, and as President of the Salem Maritime Trust as well. If Mrs. Crowninshield was alive today I have no doubt that she would spare no expense of her cultural capital (telling her Marblehead neighbors and fellow trustees: we are not going to do this to Salem), and perhaps also her capital, to ensure that the Phillips Library was returned to Salem, adjacent to the buildings in which she invested so much of herself, and which bear her name. We need her now.

Louise Collage

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Helen Comstock’s influential 1958 coffee-table book 100 Most Beautiful Rooms in America was a veritable memorial to Louise du Pont Crowninshield in the year of her death, with pictures of Winterthur, Kenmore, and (above), a Peirce-Nichols bedroom, the Crowninshield Memorial bedroom in the Gardner-Pingree House, and the Lee Mansion parlor. A true memorial is the Crowninshield-Bentley house, which was removed to the Essex Institute campus from its original location further along Essex Street and restored by subscription in 1959-60 in tribute to Mrs. Crowninshield. (Love these historic house pamphlets published by the Essex Institute in 1976-78—scoop them up if you can find them).

P.S. And of course there are Crowninshield papers in the Phillips Library deposited by Mrs. Crowninshield, as well as other purchased and donated in her memory.


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