At this time of year I’m in back-to-school mode and absolutely exhausted by keeping up with the garden, so my focus shifts to the inside. I think I’ll get back outside when it gets cooler in September, as I want to rearrange some things and prolong life and time in my garden as long as I can, but right now I’m focused on interior adornment and projects (this is one way to ignore all of the academic duties that are piling on about now). Leafing through a bunch of magazines this past weekend, I found some objects of adoration in, of all places, WSJ, the magazine of the Wall Street Journal: plates adorned with colorful parrots, infused with old-world elegance through a hand-painted process involving sixteen layers. The 12-piece collection is the collaboration of Gucci Creative Director Alexandro Michele and porcelain manufacturer Richard Ginori. I want them all, but at $295 a plate, it will be difficult to justify just one, I’m afraid! The article identifies Michele’s inspiration as “one rare French volume from 1801 on specimen birds”, which was all the cue I needed to identify Jacques Barraband (1767-1809), a French zoological and botanical illustrator whose work inspired imitators even in his own day. While Barraband’s work must have struck his contemporaries as “new” in their colorful realism, Michele was inspired by their antiquated aesthetic, as am I.
I like several varieties of plants in the large mallow (malvaceae) family, most particularly the older common varieties rather than the showy hollyhocks and hibiscus which are really too big for my garden. There are musk mallows and malva sylvestris at the front of one border, but in the back is my very favorite: marsh mallow, or althaea officinalis. This is an old, fabled plant which is tall and velvety, with soft pink flowers, appearing just about now. Like all plants which officinalis status, marsh mallow was an important medicinal plant in the ancient, medieval, and early modern eras, the basis of soothing syrups and balms for throats, stomachs, skin–even teeth. The marsh mallow plant had edible uses in the past too: its sap was extracted and mixed with nuts and honey (and later sugar and corn syrup) to make a confection, and its root was boiled for use in both sweets and “sallets”. Modern marshmallows have no marsh mallow in them, but several “organic” skin creams do. I looked in vain through my sixteenth-sources for a sweet marsh mallow recipe, but found it as a principal ingredient in one of the recipes to cure lovesickness in Jacques Ferrand’s classic seventeenth-century treatise. So there you are: a plant that is both utilitarian and beautiful.
Above: my marsh mallows. Below, hollyhocks in the Ropes Mansion Garden–I’m showing you close-ups rather than the entire plants because they seem to be stricken with some sort of rusty disease. My other mallows have this too–not very attractive–but the marsh mallows seem immune!
Salem-born Fidelia Bridges’ Marsh Mallows, produced for Prang in the 1880s, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.
A very full weekend in more ways than one: eating, drinking, shopping, gardening, sailing, events all around me. The weather has been nothing short of perfect: sunny in the low to mid-80s without a trace of humidity. We will pay later if we don’t get some rain, but at this point green still reigns, with lots of other colors competing–a veritable rainbow for Pride parade weekend, which was also Cancer Walk weekend and the occasion of countless outdoor activities. I spent much of Saturday at a large outdoor market up in Salisbury and Sunday afternoon sailing with friends, and in between I managed to do tons of yard and deck work (still cleaning up after chimney, roof, and carpentry projects–I think I’ll be picking up shavings of shingles all summer long, maybe for years) effortlessly just because it was so beautiful outside. This Monday morning, I’m sunburned and sore, which are always signs of a good Summer weekend.
The Last Weekend in June, 2016: at the Vintage Bazaar at Pettengill Farm, Salisbury, Massachusetts:
Back in Salem, more colorful than usual:
One color to avoid while in Salem is RED: the newly-painted red line does NOT take you to historical sites but rather to sites like the Witch Dungeon Museum on Lynde Street, which occupies neither the structure or the location of the original Salem Gaol. Do you think the Red Line is there for the (also newly-painted and looking great) Rufus Choate and Mary Harrod Northend Houses next door? It is not.
Back to more pleasant sites and colors: a beautiful Sunday afternoon sail (with another sailboat passing by VERY closely!), and sunset at the Willows.
Summer has come to Salem over the last few days and everything is very green–and white, the perfect colors of renewal. The viburnum is so dominant this time of year, but so are spirea and white dogwoods, along with azaleas, deutzias and lilacs. And those are just the shrubs and trees: you can look up, down, and over and see a trail of white just about everywhere at this time of year. The Peirce-Nichols garden has a field of pink bleeding-hearts, but just a few steps away at the Ropes Mansion are my favorite white ones (my own, sadly, did not come back this year), along with beautiful border of white irises. I’m off to replace my bleeding hearts (if I can find the white ones–pink are far more plentiful) and look for some new shrubs for the perimeter of my garden, as I am very tired of my boring forsythias as well as a sad espaliered crab-apple tree. I am open to suggestions: not just for white-flowering shrubs, but no pink please!
Green, (black) and white around Salem, late May 2016.
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.
The 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.
John 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 falsecaterpillars 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!), InsectorumsiveMinimorumanimaliumtheatrum (posthumously published in 1634), is more focused on metamorphosis than munching.
Thomas Moffett’s Insectorum sive Minimorum animalium theatrium (1634–but largely based on Thomas Penny’s 500-page manuscript from the 1590s).
I was fortunate to be at the House of the Seven Gables on this past Thursday, which really felt the first day of Spring in Salem: sunny, breezy, glorious. The Gables garden is always lovely, but on this day it looked stunning, and Mrs. Emmerton’s favorite lilacs and the wisteria arbor hadn’t even popped yet! The setting helps–the stark buildings of the Gables campus and Salem Harbor make perfect backdrops–but I think the structure makes this garden: I’m a sucker for raised beds and diagonal paths. This was the essential design that architect Joseph Everett Chandler laid out during the Gables’ restoration/recreation at the beginning of the twentieth century, although this structure seems overwhelmed by vibrant plantings in the many “garden view” postcards of the House published in the first half of the twentieth century. In any case, the garden is much more the creation of noted landscape architect and Salem native (and lifelong resident) Daniel J. Foley, a 1935 graduate of the University of Massachusetts who went on to become the editor of Horticulture magazine, the author of scores of books and articles on various aspect of gardening, a broadcaster, and long-time steward of the Gables garden, which is a living memorial to his life and work. From the 1960s, Foley enhanced the structure of the garden with mature boxwoods, and reinforced its colonial ambiance with period plants. In several of his writings, Foley reveals the inspiration that “old Salem gardens” had on his craft and his career: when I first began to explore the plant realm, I remember a visit I made one warm afternoon in June was to an old Salem garden where sweet William and foxgloves, delphiniums and Canterbury bells, ferns and sweet rocket and a host of other plants flourished in a series of meandering borders (1933). This is exactly the sense of time and place that pervades the Gables garden today.
The Gables Garden c. 1900, before Chandler’s raised beds, and in the 1950s, before Mr. Foley’s stewardship; Mr. Foley in a 1955 photograph and the first of his bestselling garden books–this one seems to have been constantly in print for over 20 years!
And the garden on this past Thursday: tulips just going out, lilacs just coming in, wisteria arbor, amazing Solomon’s Seal which the camera can’t quite capture……
The house and the view of the garden from the house, resident cat, on the way out…
I had a pear-oriented day yesterday. I was trying to work on the syllabus for my upcoming graduate course on Elizabethan England as well as the three-semester schedule for our department’s course offerings. Both are rather tedious tasks so I was taking regular breaks and roaming (both digitally and literally) away for bouts of time. I always like to have an “inspirational image” on my syllabi, and under the pretense of looking for one I spent hours examining Elizabethan portraits. Hours. Who is this, where are they, what are they holding, why are they dressed that way? Then I would feel guilty and go back to the syllabus and the schedule. Then I would take another break and go outside and see what’s popped up in my garden, ride my bike, play with my cats, and come inside and scope out lots in upcoming auctions, between loads of laundry and stabs at my syllabus and schedule. So you see the rhythm of my day, and by the end of this day of searching for Elizabethan images and secreting away from my schedule I ended up fixated on a pair of pears (or two pairs of pears really).
Anonymous follow of William Larkin, Three Young Girls, c. 1620, Berger Collection, Denver Art Museum; Donald Sultan, Pears screenprint from Fruit, Flowers and a Fish, 1989-91, published by Parasol Press, Ltd., New York, Skinner Auctions.
The painting of the three girls is not even Elizabethan–it dates from a bit later. But look at these girls, so beautiful and so ready, but for what? To greet an eminent visitor? To assume command of the household upon the death of their mother? The ripe fruit held by the older two might represent their maturity (and fecundity) while the younger girl is still “playing” with dolls–is this one a representation of Queen Elizabeth? I’m quite preoccupied with this painting: apparently lots of research remains to be done on both its projection(s) and its painter. Sultan’s pears appeal to me aesthetically, though I don’t have any questions about them (such is my reaction to much modern art). In their craftsmanship and detail they do, however, remind me of a very famous Salem pear: Samuel McIntire’s carving of an exemplar pear grown in Ipswich first captured by his contemporary, artist Michele Felice Corné.
Pear model by Samuel McIntire, 1802-1811, after a painting by MicheleFelice Corné, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem.
I don’t feel like I have to draw Salem connections to every topic I write about here, but sometimes I can’t help it! Salem actually plays a very big role in pomological history as it prospered at a time when pears were much, much, much more important than mere apples, or any other tree fruit. More generally, Salem’s horticultural history is another example of its heritage that gets completely overshadowed by the giant Witch Trials. From Governor Endecott’s pear tree, planted around 1630 and still standing in nearby Danvers (then Salem–read a very complete history here), to the nearly as old and much commented-upon orange pear tree on the Hardy Street property of Captain William Allen, to the popular colonial pear cider, or “perry” made from Salem fruit, to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s grandfather Robert Manning’s vast “Pomological Garden” in North Salem, it is very evident that pears were popular, and perceived as representative of both Salem’s productivity and longevity. In a report on the Horticultural Exhibition held at the Essex Institute in 1850, the Horticultural Review and Botantical Magazine noted that this Salem must be a wonderful place for longevity. While we are boasting of our pears that begin to bear on bushes, three or four years old, these Salemites claim nearly as many centuries for some of theirs.
1910 postcard of the Endecott Pear Tree, Danvers; a pair of Buffum pears, one of the hundreds of varieties grown at Robert Manning’s “Pomological Garden” on Dearborn Street in the mid-19th century, from D.M. Dewey’s The nurseryman’s pocket specimen book : colored from nature : fruits, flowers, ornamental trees, shrubs, roses, &c (1872).
P.S. I did finish the syllabus, but not the schedule.
This is not to complain–I know lots of good Salem people are working on this–but rather to offer some perspective: Salem’s grand boulevard Lafayette Street needs some trees (and some love). This is the route on which I walk to work nearly every day, and I crave the protective canopy it once had. I’m also tired of picking up trash, and hoping that the commitment to the future that tree plantings represent would also instill a bit more stewardship for this once-grand street. Lafayette Street was laid out a bit later than the rest of Salem: over the course of the nineteenth century following the erection of a bridge to Marblehead and the partition of the vast farm of Ezekiel Hersey Derby. The earliest photographs I have seen are from the 1870s: they show a boulevard of mansions, and trees: elms of course, but also other varieties. We have very precise dating for the planting of the elms of upper Lafayette Street from a wonderful book, John Robinson’s OurTrees.APopularAccountoftheTreesintheStreetsandGardensofSalem,andoftheNativeTreesofEssexCounty,Massachusetts,withtheLocationsofTrees,andHistoricalandBotanicalNotes(1891): It has been said that the trees on the upper portion of Lafayette Street were planted within the line of the Derby estate, on account of some opposition to placing them in the street itself. The street was laid out in its present magnificent width at the suggestion of Mr. E. Hersey Derby in 1808. Mr. David Waters informs me that his father, but a short time before his death, while passing these trees, said that when a boy he was called by Mr. Derby to assist at planting them, holding the samplings while the workers filled the earth in about them. Mr. Waters, Senior, was born in 1796 and would have been twelve years of age when the street was laid out. The date of the planting of these elms, thus corroborated, may, therefore, safely be placed at 1808. In addition to a few images of the entire tree-lined street, we also have several photographs of the “wooded estates and pleasure gardens” (a phrase from an 1873 guidebook to greater Boston) of Lafayette Street before the Great Salem Fire of 1914. When you compare these lush images with those taken in the days after the Fire, it’s painful.
Shades of pre-fire Lafayette Street: a very popular postcard c. 1910; Frank Cousins’ photographs of the very verdant street (1876) and the Old Derby Mansion (1891), demolished in 1898, Duke University Library; Gothic Revival and Victorian houses on upper Lafayette, still standing, while the McIntire-designed Josiah Dow House (built 1809) in the lower-right hand corner is gone (Smithsonian Institution collections and Cornell University Library); rendering for the Lafayette Street Methodist Church, American Architecture and Building News, 1884.
The Fire laid waste to half of the street (from Derby to Holly and Leach Streets), and later on many of the surviving mansions of the other half–rather massive Victorians, Queen Annes, and Italianates–became subdivided and commercialized. After the replacement of some of these structures by some truly terrible mid-century apartment buildings, the Lafayette Street Historic District was created in 1985. Trees will really help Lafayette Street, but other challenges remain: chiefly the constant traffic which seems to grow worse and worse with every passing year and the incremental though persistent expansion of Salem State University (my employer) at its upper end. Students and staff have turned this end of Lafayette into one big parking lot, a trend that has not been mediated by the construction of a large campus parking lot in my estimation. I think a new South Salem train stop would help with the parking, but I’m not sure about the traffic: I watch it every day on my way to and from work and the majority of it does not seem to be university-related: this is also the only route to Marblehead, after all.
Traffic is tough, but more trees will shield and shade Lafayette Streets residents…and walkers. And as I said at the top, there are plans for more trees, and better maintenance of existing trees, throughout Salem. Just last week the City Council formed the Leaf-oriented Resiliency and Arboricultural Expansion Taskforce with its associated acronym, LORAX, for just that purpose (yes, you read that correctly: LORAX). The plans for the major new development at the corner of Lafayette and Loring Streets also have lots of provisions for trees. I’m not really a fan of the new building (which will totally dominate the view from my office) but I’m really happy to see plans for all these new trees, including some disease-resistant elms (there is one Elm still alive on Lafayette–I think? See below!)
Upper Lafayette in 1908 and today; the 1914 fire was so devastating, in so many ways, and all of the reports reference the lost trees almost as much as the lost buildings: the Rebuilding Commission Report specified many trees–some of which are visible in the 1917 photograph above: if trees were a priority then, they should be a priority now! Lafayette’s surviving Elm, near the corner of Fairfield Street.
I suspect that most of my colleagues who teach American history dislike Thomas Jefferson. I don’t really get into it with them; I prefer to play naive and impressionistic when it comes to American history (because I am), but I have heard and seen disparaging words and glances on more than one occasion. Their opinion was shared by Salem’s Federalists over two centuries ago, who cast Jefferson as a licentious Jacobin even before the disastrous Embargo Act of 1807. But there was one Jeffersonian “policy” that was popular in Salem, at least for a while: the planting of (Lombardy) Poplar trees on the Common and along several streets. Jefferson loved these stately trees, and had them planted not only at Monticello but also in Washington, along Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House. His poplar advocacy spread north, and in one of my favorite Salem paintings (actually it’s everyone’s favorite Salem painting), George Ropes’ Salem Common on Training Day, the newly-planted poplars are very prominent. Apparently they were also planted along the Newburyport “turnpike”, now Highland Avenue, and a few other new streets.
Poplars lining Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C., early nineteenth century, Library of Congress; Poplars in Rufus Porter’s “Boston Harbor” wall mural from the Prescott Tavern in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; George Ropes, Jr., SalemCommon onTrainingDay, 1808, Peabody Essex Museum.
As attractive as they were (or as Ropes made them), the Common poplars would soon be gone, replaced by maples and elms and more pedestrian trees. Was their disappearance due to nature (the “Great September Gale” of 1815 or their unsuitability to Salem’s climate and/or soil) or politics? I ask this question because of a provocative little passage in one of Sidney Perley’s early articles in the Essex Antiquarian (1911): Political feeling was so strong in the old Jeffersonian days that these poplars were condemned by the Federalists on account of Jefferson having been instrumental in producing them. Some of the Republicans planted these trees in front of their residences to show their allegiance to Jeffersonian principles, and the enraged Federalists were guilty of injuring and destroying them. This was true in Salem in 1801 in several instances, the mischief being of course done under cover of darkness. Captain Samuel Very, who lived at Buffum’s Corner, offered a reward of twenty dollars for the conviction of the person or persons who injured the trees before his house. Very interesting! It sounds like poplars were conspicuous targets, and the grove on the Common must have been offensive to Salem’s Federalists: did they mount an attack? To answer this question, I turned to one of Perley’s contemporaries and the authority on horticultural Salem a century ago, John Robinson, who wrote a great little book on Salem’s trees titled Our trees : a popular account of the trees in the streets and gardens of Salem, and of the native trees of Essex County, Massachusetts : with the location of trees, and historical and botanical notes (1891). A man of science, Robinson discounts political explanations for the disappearance of Salem’s poplars in favor of botanical ones: The stiff Lombardy Poplar (Populus dilatata) once grown everywhere, is now but rarely seen except in a state of decay. Our Common was originally planted with these trees in 1802 from nurseries on the northern side, in the vicinity of Winter Street. But, fifteen years later, the trees were found to be of little value for ornament and they were replaced by elms. There are wrecks of Lombardy poplars on Loring Avenue, beyond the Marblehead branch railroad crossing, near the Willows, and on the Newburyport turnpike in various places……….it turns out that Lombardy Poplars just didn’t “take” in Salem’s soil. There are certainly no Poplar “wrecks” on the Common today, but I think I found a few relics in the Howard Street cemetery, still standing guard.
Apparently NOT a poplar, but an upright English oak!
I show a lot of art in my classes but most of the time the images are serving as mere backdrops for the era or issue I am discussing rather than the focus of our collective attention. This is due to the fact that I am historian, rather than an art historian, so art is primarily illustrative for me, and I also find that many paintings (apart from portraits) require a great deal of explanation and elaboration–time that I just don’t have–so I use them to evoke the past rather than explain it. When I do focus in on a painting, and spend some time with it and on it, it’s usually the details on which I dwell. For this reason, I am absolutely enraptured with this amazing high-resolution zoomable “interactivedocumentary” of TheGardenofEarthlyDelights (c. 1490-1510) by Hieronymus Bosch. You can–I did–spend hours zooming in on every little detail: strange and familiar animals, birds big and small, large strawberries and tempting apples, grotesque figures, wanton entanglements, horrific punishments, bewildering vignettes. You can acquire an intimate knowledge of the painting, much more intimate than could ever be possible any other way (even by examining it in person at the Prado where the whole overwhelms the parts). You can “take” an audiovisual tour if you like, or just wander around on your own in silence, zooming and opening up helpful notes as you move from place to place. And you can go back, again and again and again. As the Garden of Earthly Delights is a triptych, so too is this particular presentation: it is part of a “transmedia triptych” which also includes a documentary film, “Hieronymus Bosch, Touched by the Devil” and the “virtual reality documentary” “Hieronymus Bosch, the Eyes of the Owl'”. You can check out all three projects here.
A few bits of Bosch, starting with my own triptych of his favorite owls: an elephant, mouse in a tube, hedgehogs or porcupines, coupling in a mussel shell and moving into hell, the dreaded knife between the ears, strange music, the mirror reveals all, hanging through a key.