Tag Archives: Maine

Falling for Folk Art

This week I’m focused on spectacular examples of folk art. On Sunday I was up in my hometown of York, Maine, where I heard a great talk at the Old York Historical Society by Karina Corrigan, the curator of Asian Export Art at the Peabody Essex Museum, and then wandered through the small Remick Gallery showcasing the Society’s collections. There were some very unique items on view, representing both “high” and more vernacular styles, and I was much more drawn to the latter, because, let’s face it, I have high style stuff all around me in Salem (the Maine girl in me would be annoyed at this snobby statement, but I think the Massachusetts woman has snuffed her out, as I have now resided in Massachusetts for longer than I lived in Maine). I was particularly struck by this coat-of-arms for the Sewall family of York, because it looks so very unheraldic to me! The bees have been on the Sewall coat of arms for several centuries—and we can see them on Nathaniel Hurd’s 1768 engraving of the Reverend Joseph Sewall (son of Salem Witch Trials Samuel Sewall because there’s always a Salem connection)—but who are those people, and what is that creature? My class was split between lion and bear when I showed it to them, although several thought it was the Devil.

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Sewall Family Coat-of-Arms, Old York Historical Society; Benjamin Hurd engraving of the Reverend Joseph Sewall, 1768, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

I don’t know if they qualify as art as they are really tools (for combing out flax fibers) but these hetchels looked very creative (and menacing) mounted on the wall; I have never seen them exhibited this way. There are a variety of spellings, but the name for one who  wields a hetchel came to be know as a heckler, and I think there is some sort of connection between the hetchel’s sharp (angry) “teeth” and the modern heckler’s sharp angry taunts. Most of the hetchels that I have seen have long handles, so they resemble brushes, and I always though they must have been the perfect tools for the ascetic practice of (self-) mortification of the flesh.

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But I am digressing……when I got home, despite a stack of papers awaiting me, I indulged in my favorite procrastination pastime of browsing through online catalogs of upcoming auctions, and when I got to Sotheby’s Sculptural Fantasy: The Important American Folk Art Collection of Stephen and Petra Levin I lingered over every lot. This auction is happening today, so we’ll see what prices these amazing objects fetch. I had an immediate, visceral reaction to the elephant, because pachyderms formed my very first “collection” accumulated from a very young age. I now have boxes in the basement and need no more elephants, but this particular “walking” or parading elephant, presumably Jumbo, has always enchanted me: I have it on placemats, notecards, and bookplates. The amazing painted eagle carved by John Haley Bellamy of Kittery Point, Maine, is surely as impressive as anything a Massachusetts craftsman could produce! A large pair of early 20th century dice—what more can I say? I dressed up with a childhood friend as a pair of dice for Halloween one year in York, and based on the estimates given, these are probably the only things I could afford in this auction. There are plenty of great trade and travel signs (along with weathervanes and whirligigs) so it was hard to choose, but I love the hats and the crocodile, and the “double” eye clock, of course.

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Folk Art Eagle

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Select lots from Sculptural Fantasy: The Important American Folk Art Collection of Stephen and Petra LevinSothebys.


The Burning Church

For the last month, it seems like whenever I engaged in any form of social media I found myself looking at a primitive painting of a burning church. This image, by the nineteenth-century British expat artist John Hilling (1822-1894), who worked in Massachusetts and Maine, was chosen to illustrate a Smithsonian Magazine piece on David Vermette’s book A Distinct Alien Race: the Untold Story of Franco-Americans. It appeared on my feeds again and again as I’m often researching Franco-American communities in New England: it’s a favorite topic of students in the research seminar I teach, as Salem had a large and influential community of resident French Canadians in the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries, just one labor force for the city’s then- bustling textile mills. This community still has representatives in Salem today, though it was profoundly impacted by the Great Salem Fire of June 1914 which struck right in the heart of its neighborhood. So obviously, research topics abound, and apart from those inquiries, there’s something about a church in flames, whether by accident or intent, that always captures one’s attention.

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So here’s the image which has followed me online for last month or so: John Hilling’s Burning of the Old South Church, Bath, Maine, 1854 from the collection of the National Gallery of Art. There are several very interesting things about this painting: it is not signed by Hilling, but only referred to as his work in contemporary records–as well as his obituary; Hilling was documenting an event, so it is part of a sequential series which he created in several sets–indicating demand for such images; and even though this inflamed church looks like the perfect New England Congregational house of worship, it is being attacked for its recent alien occupation by a Catholic parish by a Nativist mob of Know-Nothings, in that contentious summer of 1854. Hilling created a before scene in which this mob appears to be looting the Church, and then an after in which it is in flames, and while browsing through the lots of an upcoming Doyle auction this weekend I found another stage of this scene by Hilling: a peaceful scene of the Church pristine.

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Hilling Sothebys 2Doyle Auctions; Gibbes Museum of Art; Jeffrey Tillou Antiques; Sotheby’s Auctions.

We know that besides Bath, Hilling lived in Charlestown, Massachusetts, so I can’t help but wonder if his Church scenes were inspired by another notorious expression of anti-Catholicism twenty years before: the burning of the Ursuline Convent on St. Benedict (now in Somerville; then in Charlestown) in 1834. The “memory” of this epic event seems to have had a fast hold on all who witnessed or even heard of it, and I bet Hilling was no exception, even though he was only a boy and likely not even in this country when it happened.

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Harry Hazel, The nun of St. Ursula, or, The burning of the convent. A romance of Mount Benedict (1845).


Historical Habitation

A couple of months ago, I decided that this would be the Summer of The Secretary: I’ve been wanting to purchase an antique secretary for my front parlor for quite some time, and as “brown furniture” seems positioned for a revival after the mid-century modern mania we’ve been in for a while I think that prices will start to climb back to the level where they were when I first started to furnish my home. I have the perfect, slightly-recessed spot and I think a secretary will really complete that room, which I can never seem to get right. So I’ve been looking at all of the auction listings, and the other day I saw a piece that looked vaguely familiar in a Skinner Country Americana Auction. The description confirmed my suspicion: this secretary, along with several other pieces in the same auction, came from the colonial house in South Berwick, Maine which serves as the subject of Paula Bennett’s book Imagining Ichabod. My Journey into 18th Century America through History, Food, and a Georgian House.

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Imagining Ichabod Secretary

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Bennett and her husband owned the Goodwin house in South Berwick for over a decade, during which time she pursued every possible avenue to create an ambiance as historical as possible in their home: research into the textures, furnishings, food and events of the era in which the two Ichabod Goodwins lived (1740-1829), through primary and secondary sources, archaeology, and what I like to call “shopping research” ( in which I indulge often) via period houses, auctions, and antique shops. Imagining Ichabod details this very personal and material journey in words, pictures, and recipes, as Bennett is an enthusiastic cook—indeed, one gets the impression that she is enthusiastic about everything! After this complete immersion, it was off to a Boston condo for the Bennetts, which is why their Georgian furnishings ended up at Skinner.

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Imagining Ichabod Table Skinner

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Imagining Ichabod Entrance Table

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Imagining Ichabod Marble Table

The cumulative and intensive effort to create a perfect eighteenth-century (-esque) house, only to dismantle and leave it after a relatively short period, is interesting to me, as I wonder about the constraints of “period living”, and by that I mean aesthetic constraints rather than practical ones, as even the most passionate antiquarians have indoor plumbing! Everyone I know in Salem lives in an old house, mostly from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but no one furnishes their homes in an exclusively period style: it’s generally a melange of old and new, with some nods to the era in which the house was built and a lot more comfortable furniture. When I first purchased my current house, which was built in 1827, I went about it much like Paula Bennett: I wanted period furniture, period drapes, period plates, period lighting, period wallpaper, and period hardware; I was particularly obsessed with finding the correct switch plates, but of course no switch plate is “correct” in an 1827 house. After about a decade of that design philosophy, I grew tired of the constraints and loosened up considerably, and now my house is a mix of past and present, as it no doubt appeared in 1927, 1877, and even the year it was built. But I still want a secretary—and the Bennett’s Georgian one is too early.

Sandy Agrafiotis photographs in Paula Bennett’s Imagining Ichabod. My Journey into 18th Century America Through its History, Food, and a Georgian House (Bauer and Dean, 2016). I never attempted period cooking like Paula Bennett, but I’m always on the lookout for a good rum punch, and the idea of roasted oysters intrigues, as both my father and husband are oyster aficionados.


Trimmed Out

I grew up a few towns over from the famous “Wedding Cake House” in Kennebunk, Maine, more formerly known as the George W. Bourne house, and so it’s always been a part of my life. But it’s been a few years, so I drove by last weekend and was saddened to see some of its famous “icing”, or Gothic trim, in poor condition due to a succession of harsh Maine winters. Really it’s a miracle that all that confection has lasted as long as it has in the New England climate: certainly its survival must be a testament to the fact that it remained in the Bourne family for three generations and only left the family’s ownership in 1983. I can’t imagine a Bourne failing to honor the personal craftsmanship and labor of Mr. Bourne, who utilized his ship-building skills after a trip to Europe brought him to gaze upon Milan Cathedral and inspired his construction of an elaborate Carpenter Gothic frame around his spare Federal house, by not taking very special care of all that trim.

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The Wedding Cake House, Kennebunk, Maine My pedestrian pictures, and a stunning photograph by Carol Highsmith in the 1980s, Library of Congress.

As you can see, everything was “Gothicized” in the 1850s: the main house, built in 1825 as a classic two-story late Federal, new barn with connector, and fence. There’s a few little Gothic outbuildings too. I remember always being absolutely awed by this house, every time I saw it, and after I went to Italy and saw the Milan Cathedral for myself I drove up to see if I could “see” Bourne’s inspiration upon my return. And I could! I still can, but this last time I saw the house I had a heretical thought: I wonder if it would look better without all that trim? 

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Trimmed out 1965 barn

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The George W. Bourne House and Barn in 1965, HABS, Library of Congress; the Duomo in Milan in 1846 by British photographer Calvert Richard Jones, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m a big fan of the Gothic Revival, but after looking at lots of houses and house plans over the years I think I prefer those structures that were designed in this style from the outset rather than adapted to conform to ideals (and instructions!) offered up by Andrew Jackson Downing and others. Indeed, The Horticulturalist, a periodical edited by Downing from 1846 until his death in 1852, published an illustration of a “common country house” transformed and “improved” by the addition of gable, porch and trim in July of 1846. I have to admit: I prefer the “before”.

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But then again: Americans are (were?) ever in search of “improvement” and I can’t think of anything more American than George W. Bourne rushing home from Europe to transform–by hand–his “common country house” into a mini Milan Cathedral! I don’t think it happened quite like that, but I love that story, and I also love the ultimate Gothic conversion on the next street over: the Pickering House (although I must admit that I would really like to see an image of it in its original seventeenth-century form).

Trimmed Out Pickering


Uncovering a Shipwreck

Our recent nor’easter uncovered a skeletal shipwreck on Short Sands Beach in my hometown of York, Maine, and I dispatched my parents to take pictures almost as soon as the skies cleared, knowing that our mercurial weather could result in its resubmergence at any time. This particular shipwreck has actually appeared several times over the last fifty years or so, but this time it attracted a lot of attention, both locally and nationally. Many of the stories referred to it as the remains of a “revolutionary era” ship, but the most recent report, based on empirical mapping and sampling by an archaeologist for the Maine Historic Preservation Commission and past research, indicates that the ship might have been a pre-revolutionary “pinky” sloop named the Industry, which ran aground in York with a southbound cargo of lumber in October or November of 1769. The source for this information is a retired York police officer named Barry Higgins, who became curious about the shipwreck after its appearance in the 1980s. And where did Mr. Higgins go to research this wreck? Why the Phillips Library of course, which was/is not only the major repository of local and family history in our city and region, but also of maritime history. At that time, it was open and accessible, and Mr. Higgins found the reference to the Industry in the journal of York notary public Daniel Moulton: for which we can all see a description in the digitized catalog, but not much more than that.

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Shipwreck SS3The Short Sands Shipwreck last week.

First impressions are of the remains of a relatively small ship, yet the national reports immediately went naval: the Washington Post consulted with a Naval History and Heritage Command official who consulted a database of 2,500 shipwrecks but was unable to find any records indicating it was an American sloop. But Mr. Higgins knew just where to go thirty years ago, to Salem’s Phillips Library, a well-known repository of maritime history. All of these records are now removed from their natural foundation, en route to Rowley (or perhaps already there in their boxes), and hopefully the state of Maine will have enough sway to gain access so that the identity of this slippery sloop can be verified, again and once and for all.

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Shipwreck gone The Short Sands Shipwreck yesterday–gone but not forgotten.

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Hamilton House

While I was up in York Harbor for the weekend I took the opportunity to visit Historic New England’s Hamilton House on Saturday afternoon while everyone else was at the beach. I’ve been on a historic-house museum kick this summer, and while I’ve been to Hamilton House (in neighboring South Berwick) before, it merits repeated visits if only for its setting and gardens. It’s the perfect Colonial/Colonial Revival House, built in the earlier period (c. 1785) by new money and “restored” with not-quite-old Boston money at the turn of the last century. In between, it was a working farm, with hay in the attic and tenants on the first floor. After it was acquired by Historic New England in 1946, it was returned to its original appearance on the exterior, but the Colonial Revival summer house interiors were retained.

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Hamilton House

Hamilton House Woodbury

Hamilton House today and in John Mead Howells’ classic Architectural Heritage of the Piscataqua (1937)+ a Charles Woodbury illustration of the house, the setting for Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Tory Lover (1901). South Berwick native Jewett apparently convinced her friends Emily and Elise Tyson (Vaughan) to buy the derelict house for their summer retreat. The Tysons had sold their former summer house in Pride’s Crossing, Massachusetts to Henry Clay Frick, who promptly knocked it down. 

Because it was a summer house, there’s more than a bit of incongruity between the furnishings and the architecture: the former is genteel “shabby chic”, early twentieth-century style, and the latter is quite grand, especially the large central hall. The straw matting running through the house contributes quite a bit to this rambling mix. While obviously I am a Philistine when it comes to the interior of Hamilton House, it is much appreciated by others, and was also quite influential in its own time, as explained in this great post over at the Down East Dilettante. I did appreciate how its interiors related to its setting, poised as it is over the Salmon Falls River with gardens, fields and forest also in view, and the rather charming Zuber-esque murals of Portsmouth artist George Fernald Porter.

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First floor parlor, murals and dining room, and the requisite open hearth in the kitchen.

The summer furnishings also make the house feel very airy, particularly on the second floor. If the Tyson ladies found anything remotely Victorian in the house when they took possession, I am certain that it was banished immediately! As we ascended upstairs, we could see an exposed beam which was repurposed by the house’s builder, Captain Jonathan Hamilton: when he didn’t need it for one of his ships, it was used for his new house.

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Hamilton Dolls

Just three of Elise Tyson Vaughan’s vast collection of dolls: apparently the remainder are in the Peabody Essex Museum. It’s impossible to search its vast collections so who knows?

The Tysons moved an adjacent barn and laid out an enclosed garden of “colonial” flowers surrounding a sundial and fountain and extending to a garden cottage composed of salvaged doors and planks from a first-period house across the river: a shady respite from the summer sun but at the same time open to its environs. As you can see, it’s the season for phlox, which surely must be the perfect Colonial Revival perennial.

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Hamilton Garden Cottage

Hamilton Garden


Of Pumpkins and Politics

I’ve spent the last few days up in York, far away from the maddening crowds in Salem. This strategy of exiling myself from Witch City in October as much as possible is working well so far. Do not be fearful of my title: I’m certainly not going to weigh in on this terrible election. But I do like to discuss politics as a historical and social phenomenon occasionally, and this weekend the consequences of our long national nightmare weighed heavily on me. It was a beautiful, golden weekend, with harvest festivals everywhere I went in southern Maine. In York, the entire spectrum of the community was assembled with tents and tables on the green before the First Church and Town Hall: representatives of local businesses, nonprofits and civic groups mingled with with colonial reenactors and festival attendees. The happy Democrats were there, but the Republicans, either due to embarrassment or division, were nowhere to be found. Their absence made me very sad, not for the sake of partisanship but for community: I grew up in a world where the important standards and goals were engagement and civility and discourse, and I fear that world is no more. I remember the Democrats’ table and the Republicans’ table being side by side, prompting a healthy, happy exchange; I remember holding a sign for my candidate and that of his opponent, while my neighboring, “opposing” signholder went for coffee for both of us.

Of course these sentimental/sad thoughts did not stop me from taking in the local color, which was very autumn-hued, and it’s always comforting to look at beautiful old houses, which have seen worse than this (maybe?)

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York Village Pumpkin Patch and Marketfest this weekend, and some of the open houses of Museums of Old York:  Jefferds’ Tavern (c. 1750), the Emerson-Wilcox House (exterior and interior, c. 1742) and some militiamen in front of the Old Gaol (c. 1720). Below:  a bit further out: Hancock’s Warehouse on the River, a favorite house on Pine Hill Road heading towards Ogunquit, the McIntire Garrison (c. 1707) on Route 91, and two Historic New England properties, the beautiful Hamilton House (c. 1785)  and Sarah Orne Jewett  (c. 1774) House, both in South Berwick.

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