Tag Archives: Nature

Where Angels Once Tread

We were so fortunate to be the recipients of an invitation to visit the vacation home of (very) close Salem neighbors and friends this weekend, and now we know why they’re always leaving town. Their house is located in Dublin, New Hampshire, overlooking the lake and at the foot of majestic Mount Monadnock—-which drew genteel and monied urbanites and scenery-seeking artists to its midst like a magnet in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, creating a summer colony which shaped Dublin to a great degree, both in terms of its materiality and its vitality (not to mention the preservation of vast acreage). Our friends’ house was built by one of the founders of this colony: Miss Mary Amory Green, a great-granddaughter of John Singleton Copley, who became so taken with local artist and instructor Abbott Handerson Thayer (1849-1921) that she offered to build him a cottage/studio on her property. He took her up on her offer, and because he was apparently as enticing an instructor as he was an artist, a succession of artistic pilgrimages to Dublin ensued. So here we were staying in the house that began it all, itself a beautiful creation, both enhanced by and reflective of its setting.

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Monadnock House Best Entrance Fernlea, early morning: designed by Russell Sturgis for Miss Mary Amory Greene, 1882-1883.

Unfortunately (for posterity but probably not for my friends), Thayer’s cottage was demolished around 1935. I began searching for images of it the moment I returned home, and as you can see below, it was more of a complex than a cottage as Thayer had some rather eccentric and austere ideas about living–and especially sleeping. Living in the age of that great “white plague”, tuberculosis, and losing his first wife to the dreaded disease, he came to believe that heat was a vehicle of its transition, a belief that his physician father apparently encouraged. The house that Miss Greene built for him was a summer house with no “conveniences”, and no alterations were made when he and his family took up year-round residence in 1901. Fires in the central house were allowed, but everyone had to retreat to open-air “sleeping huts” at the end of the day as Thayer believed that sleeping in the open, and in close communion with nature, was a particularly effective preventative against tuberculosis.

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Monadnock Thayer Studio

downloadThe Thayer cottage complex and studio, and Gladys Thayer (Abbott’s daughter) in her sleeping hut, circa 1900. Nancy Douglas Bowditch and Brush Family papers, circa 1860-1985, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution: cited in Susan Hobbs, “Nature into Art: the Landscapes of Abbott Handerson Thayer”, The Journal of American Art 14 (Summer 1982): 4-55.

And in this setting Thayer painted nature, portraits, and angels, who were not historical or theological figures but rather the characteristically-angelic women who crossed his path and touched his heart: all-the-more magnetic because of their humanity, and the wings that he gave them. You’ve got to be impressed by an artist who gave us both angels and camouflage!

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Thayer Angel 1903 MFA Abbott Handerson Thayer, Dublin Pond, New Hampshire, 1894, Smithsonian American Art Museum (painted as a gift for Stanford White); my early-morning view across from Fernlea; An Angel, 1903, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

I’ve got to leave Thayer territory and move on to Dublin at large: there are so many houses, so many stories, and I’m not even going to touch on the natural assets of the area. Probably one of the most famous public intellectuals and authors of the day (on a par with Mark Twain who also spent one summer in Dublin–is there anywhere Twain did not vacation?) was Thomas Wentworth Higginson from Cambridge, the so-called “Dean of Literary Boston” who built his Dublin cottage, the adorably-named “Glimpsewood” just down the Lake road from Fernlea in 1890. It’s now for sale. According to a very detailed 1899 article titled “Old Times and New in Dublin, New Hampshire (The New England Magazine, Volume 20) by George Willis Cooke, the colony was “complete” by about 1900, after several decades of steady cottage-building, although I think we should probably extend that up to World War One.

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Monadnock cottages

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“New” Shingle-style cottages, including a little gatehouse leading us up to the ruins of Pompelia, with its views of lake and mountain (torched by vandals in 1979), Our Lady of the Snows (1904), and a very charming boathouse; the “old” Eli Morse farmhouse, 1822, and the very new (1916) Colonial Revival “Skyfield” in nearby Harrisville, designed by Lois Lilley Howe, the founder of Boston’s first all-female architectural firm. This house apparently has several Salem mantels in it, and I need to determine from which house they were pulled.

The key to understanding Dublin is that it developed as one of several Gilded-Age alternatives to Newport: almost an anti-Newport. The “Old Times and New” article is very clear about this: the “summer resort” aims and methods have not found manifestation [in Dublin]. Almost exclusively the persons who have purchased and built in the town have sought a summer home for rest and recreation; they have not wished for society or fashion; and the life has been kept natural and simple. While there is a kindly interchange of social courtesies on the part of summer residents, any display of fashion or wealth has been discarded to a large degree and many interests bring persons together in a simple and unconventional manner. To keep to the ways of nature in yards, walks, roads and fields has been accepted as desirable; and an unwritten law has been adopted, that nature is to be interfered with as little as possible. Newport was shiny, marble grandeur for grandeur’s sake; Dublin was soft, shingled elegance for art’s (or nature’s) sake. I can completely relate to this aesthetic, having grown up in another anti-Newport, York Harbor, Maine, in a shingled summer cottage that was not quite winterized: I’m even wondering if my own father might have been exposed to the Thayer regimen!

A Harrisville appendix: driving to the town next door (in my host’s ’56 Morgan) and there we are in another archetypal New England setting: the small mill town, perfectly preserved.

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Harrisville collage


Change in the Weather

The weather actually did change very perceptibly here, at about 9:30 or 10:00 yesterday morning, from muggy late summer into breezy crisp fall. In about a half hour: I felt it, and everyone I ran into yesterday felt it too. But I still have weather history on the brain, so my title is referring to a volume by the amazing antiquarian of a century ago, Sidney Perley: Historic storms of New England : its gales, hurricanes, tornadoes, showers with thunder and lightning, great snow storms, rains, freshets, floods, droughts, cold winters, hot summers, avalanches, earthquakes, dark days, comets, aurora-borealis, phenomena in the heavens, wrecks along the coast, with incidents and anecdotes, amusing and pathetic (1891). What a title! And it does not disappoint.

Weather Historic Storms of NE

I have written about Sidney Perley many, many times here before as his works are the starting place for anyone interested in Salem history and culture—and often the culmination of inquiries as well: that’s how good he was. Perley (1858-1928) was lawyer by profession but an historian by passion—I’ve met many people like this over my career but Perley managed to somehow excel at both pursuits simultaneously, publishing a steady stream of books (History of Boxford, 1880, Poets of Essex County, 1889, History of Salem, 1924, and all those invaluable articles in his Essex Antiquarian along with many texts on probate law) over the course of his career. Quite logically he was an expert in utilizing the will and the deed as a historical source, but he clearly mined any and every source he could find for essential “anecdotes”. When I begin to delve into the history of a Salem house I always start with Perley, a practice that began long ago when I first moved here and started researching house histories for Historic Salem, Incorporated. He remains an essential guide to the history of Salem for me, and I thought about him a lot last summer, when Proctor’s Ledge was formally recognized and memorialized as the execution site of the victims of the Salem Witch Trials—culminating a process that began in the 1920s with his advocacy for this site. With the inaccessibility and closure of the Phillips Library it is apparent to me that his works are probably our best connection to Salem’s early history. The other day I found an old copy of his Historic Storms on my bookshelf, opened it up, and just like that, several hours went by in what seemed like a minute. It’s one of those books that is quite easily read intermittently but I had lots of other less interesting stuff to avoid so I just settled in and read about the weather.

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Because the book is focused on weather events, you come away with a perception of very dramatic weather, and maybe it is just because the crisp coming-of-October breeze was coming through the windows of my study while I was reading, but it seemed to me, anecdotally, that October had the most changeable weather of all: severe drought and rain, snow, thunder, lightning, shipwrecks, earthquakes, Indian Summers, and above all, excessive winds. The first of the famous “Dark Days” (of 1716 and 1780, now attributed to forest fires in the north, then very mysterious and perhaps the wrath of God), occurred in October, the second in May, another very changeable month. During the “great” Dark Day of 1780 in Salem, the Reverend Nathaniel Whittaker’s congregation heard that the gloom was divine judgement of their cumulative sin, while out in the streets, [drunken?] sailors paraded about, “crying out to ladies who passed them by, ‘now you may off your rolls and high caps'”. A bit over a century later, Perley serves as his own source in his account of the less famous “Yellow Day” of September 6, 1881: On the morning of “the yellow day” there was no apparent gathering of clouds, such as occurred on the dark day 0f 1780 but early in the morning the sun and sky appeared red, and towards noon every part of the sky assumed a yellow cast, which tinged everything, buildings, ground, foliage and verdure, with its peculiar novel shade. All things were beautiful, strange and weird, and it seemed as if nature was passing into an enchanted state. It was at first intensely interesting, but as the hours dragged on, and but slight change occurred the sight became oppressive. The wonderful spectacle will never be forgotten by those who witnessed it. Love that line, all things were beautiful, strange and weird. Perley was also, it should be acknowledged, a very good writer.

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Nocturne: Black and Gold - The Fire Wheel 1875 by James Abbott McNeill Whistler 1834-1903

Scenes from the first crisp Autumn day of 2017 in Salem cast in darker, yellowish hues—as preparations for our annual neighborhood party were ongoing across the street in the Chestnut Street park + James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne: Black and Gold – The Fire Wheel (1875, Tate Museum), just because.


Late August in Salem

My calendar version of the photographic “golden hour” is late August: everything seems warmer and softer, yet somehow more vivid. It’s not as hot and humid and you can feel a touch of fall in the evening breezes. Cotton-sweater-weather. The days seem precious because they are numbered, not so much by the end of summer (I firmly believe that the end of the summer comes in late September–especially now) but by the beginning of the fall semester, which I have experienced my entire life except for one year. It’s been such a busy summer for me that these last few slow days of August are especially welcome–I’m not doing much with them except for existing really: casual deadheading, aimless walks, leafing through magazines, cocktails. That’s about it. Because I was so busy this summer, fall is going to seem tame by comparison, so maybe the golden hour will be a bit longer than usual.

Late August in Salem:

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Late August Trinity

My August garden is basically white at this time of year…Trinity outside and in….the peaking Ropes Garden……………

Late August butterfly

Late August Ropes

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The real Golden Hour, out in Salem Harbor….and off Marblehead….

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Late August Harbor

whimsical posters for the Salem Farmers’ Market by Jesse Ciarmataro of H5P Creative Studio….and one of Marice Prendergast’s Salem paintings, which capture the spirit of this time of year.

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Late August Farmers Market

Prendergast Salem Cove

Farmers’ Market posters, Jesse Ciarmataro/ H5P Creative Studio: Maurice Prendergast, Salem Cove, 1916, National Gallery of Art.


Ice Melt

Yesterday was one of those wonderful winter days when it wasn’t too cold, all of the old dirty snow was coated with a fresh dusting of new, and the sun occasionally peeked out of the light gray sky to transform the trees into glistening statues. Against the light-gray and white backdrop, contrasts were everywhere: I love the contrast of warm brick and cool snow/ice especially, and that can be found anywhere and everywhere in Salem. That dark, gothic, “colonial brown/black” and white looks pretty cool too. The light was so changeable: a bright vignette one moment could be a stark one in the next.

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In the middle of the afternoon, you could see and hear ice melting everywhere, including the ice sculptures assembled for the annual “Salem’s So Sweet ” chocolate and ice sculpture festival last weekend–a record 25 this year. Winnie the Pooh looked so woeful, melted and forlorn in front of the Museum Place Mall, that I couldn’t even take his photograph (you can see a portfolio of all the ice sculptures, in the day and night, here). Some of the hardier statues were still holding their shape, but alas, not poor Pooh.

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A February Day in Salem, 2017.


Toasts and Toadstools

There are myriad good luck charms associated with the New Year, and I’ve featured many of them already, including the Scottish “First Footing” ritual and the pig and chimney sweep traditions of continental Europe. I really can’t speak to the southern traditions of eating Hoppin’ John and collard greens, and horseshoes and clover seem to be universally lucky at all times of the year, so I think I’m going to go with toadstools this particular New Year. Very prominently featured on the New Year’s postcards produced and disseminated in large quantities a century or so ago are red-and-white-capped toadstools scattered about—these are “red fly” mushrooms called Fliegenpilze in Germany (which produced most of these same postcards) and they are very lucky indeed. If you’ve ever seen one of these (the proper Latin name is amanita muscaria) out in the wild, you would understand why it is such a storied plant: it looks not quite real, wondrous, and is said to have both insecticide and hallucinogenic qualities. Despite the fact that one of my favorite King Penguin books classifies this mushroom as poisonous, it was apparently a stroke of luck to encounter one: in doing so you becomes a Glückspilz (literally a lucky mushroom; metaphorically a lucky person).  It is no wonder these ‘shrooms ended up in both Alice and Wonderland and on all those New Years’ postcards, and on this particular year, on the mantle in my front parlor: I am taking no chances with 2017!

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An assortment of New Year’s postcards from my own collection and the Digital Collections of the New York Public Library; the holly and the……..mushrooms on a Mela Koehler Christmas card from the Lauder Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Amanita muscaria in John Ramsbottom’s Poisonous Fungi (1945).

I was just down in Rhinebeck, New York for Christmas at my brother’s house, and I had about twenty minutes in one of my favorite stores anywhere: Paper Trail. There were mushrooms in the window, and the most beautiful toadstool/mushroom (I must admit that I don’t know the difference) ornaments. So inspired, I switched up my own mushrooms (+ some hourglasses–very subtle) for the deer on the front mantle almost as soon as I got home. I think I have a pig somewhere in the basement so I might pop him on there too. And a horseshoe.

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Drawing down the Moon

One artist whose work I have admired for quite a while but never really knew how to contextualize in a topical or thematic way is Samuel Palmer (1805-1881). He seems to be one of those people who was not of his time. I guess you would call him a Victorian artist, but he reacted against his dynamic age by creating rather romanticized, even primitivized (if that is a word) landscapes and pastoral scenes, in several mediums. I find much of his work–particularly his early work– very appealing yet hard to pin down: some of his paintings look and feel as if they could date from either the early seventeenth century or the late nineteenth. The monochromatic drawings which he called “blacks” (the first two images below) look strikingly modern to me, and deliberately designed to illustrate the effects of moonlight. I was looking and thinking about the Harvest Moon over the past few nights and suddenly one of these popped into my mind. So I looked up his works at the Tate, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a few other places, and found that my memory was correct: this was a man who could really draw (down) the full moon–and its crescent counterparts as well. The then-nineteen-year-old’s biblical inscription on the last drawing below is both timeless and timely: The / moon / also to / rule by night / for his mercy / endureth / for ever. Thou crownest / the year / with thy / goodness.

The Harvest Moon: Drawing for 'A Pastoral Scene' c.1831-2 by Samuel Palmer 1805-1881

Samuel Palmer, The Harvest Moon: Drawing for ‘A Pastoral Scene’ c.1831. Tate Britain

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Samuel Palmer, Nocturnal Landscape with Full Moon and Deer, c. 1829-30. Victoria & Albert Museum

 

Coming from Evening Church 1830 by Samuel Palmer 1805-1881

Samuel Palmer, Coming from Evening Church,  1830. Tate Britain

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Samuel Palmer, A Cornfield by Moonlight with the Evening Star,1830.  British Museum

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Samuel Palmer, Harvest Moon, 1833. Yale Center for British Art

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Samuel Palmer,Christmas, or Folding the Last Sheep, 1850( Etching; second state of five). Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Samuel Palmer, Harvest Celebration, c. 1824 (Leaf 20, ink drawing from a sketchbook). Victoria & Albert Museum


Searching for a Spring Wine

May–my favorite month of the year, representing the end of the school year, high time for gardening, that perfect shade of soft spring green, my anniversary, and a kind of wistful merriment which is actually more academic than experiential–because I’m generally too busy in May to engage in such merriment. But I always feel like the need to find a celebratory drink to toast to the spring, and the summer to follow. The traditional beverage is May Wine (Maiwein), which I have made on several occasions: a sweet white wine infused with sweet woodruff and a few other additions. My sweet woodruff has yet to really appear, much less bloom, so I don’t think that’s going to work this year. So I went backwards in time and beverage books looking for something new/old, beginning with George Edwin Roberts’ Cups and their Customs (1863), which has a fantastic title page but not much else.

Spring Wine Cups and Their Customs

Then I went way back to the sixteenth century and a favorite “receipt” book, Thomas Dawson’s The Good Huswife’s Jewell (parts one and two): here there are medicinal waters but nothing to accompany May merriment. In the Elizabethan age, that would be left to a host of imported wines, I think: malmsey, sack, claret, canary, brandy. Heavy, sweet wines which are not appropriate for Spring in any case. Jump forward to the mid-seventeenth century and a trio of popular “celebrity” cookbooks featuring the recipes of Charles I’s exiled and widowed Queen Henrietta Maria, ostensibly penned by her personal chef: The Queens Closet Opened. Being Incomparable Secrets in Physick, Chyrurgery, Preserving, Candying, and Cookery, A Queen’s Delight; or, the Art of Preserving, Candying and Cookery, and The Compleat Cook, all first appearing in 1655. I looked through a later, lovely digitized edition of A Queen’s Delight at the Beinecke Library at Yale and found several fruity “country wines”: raspberry looks good, “water of time for the passion of the heart” interesting.

Queens Delight Yale Bodleian Cover

Queens Delight Yale Bodleain

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Queens Delight 5 Yale

Over the course of the seventeenth century, Englishmen (and women too, I assume) were realizing that their dependence on imported foreign wines was not in their personal or national interests and searching for domestic substitutes. A succession of tracts appeared encouraging the planting of orchards and providing recipes for cider, perry, and a host of fruit wines. One of the most influential of these publications was John Worlidge’s Vinetum Britannicum: Or, a Treatise of Cider, and Such other Wines and Drinks that are extracted from all manner of Fruits Growing in this Kingdom (1676). As its title page illustration suggests, this is a rather practical publication: I really don’t have the inclination to make cider but perhaps I could buy some and doctor it up?

Spring Wine Folger

Worlidge

So that idea brought me to one of my favorite modern books:  Amy Stewart’s The Drunken Botanist. The Plants that create the World’s Great Drinks. Two of Stewart’s recipes could be candidates for my “toast to spring” drink: cider cup, an adapted version of medieval dépense made by combining hard cider with fruits and ginger beer (or ale), and Kir Normand, in which crème de cassis is mixed with cider. Or I could just pick up one of Salem’s own Far from the Tree ‘s seasonal ciders and leave it at that!

Drunken Botanist

Cider Collage

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