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A Heightened Sense of Detail

It’s rather jarring to read the lines written by Salem’s chatty diarist, the Reverend William Bentley, about his encounter with the Salem artist George Ropes Jr. in 1804: “Paid G. Ropes’ Bill for head of Curwin, Salem, Minister, the painting by him. He is a dumb boy with Corné. Had receipt. $4.00”.  Bentley had commissioned a portrait copy of the Reverend Samuel Curwen from Ropes, who was then an apprentice of the Italian emigré artist Michel Felice Cornè. George Ropes, Jr. (1788-1819), the son of a Salem sea captain (how many times have I written than?) was indeed born deaf and was by all accounts speechless for all of his relatively short life, but Bentley’s notes upon his early death are more telling: Died of consumption, deaf and dumb, a painter, active, acute, circumspect, and esteemed.”  Ropes had to become the primary breadwinner for his family upon his father’s death at sea in 1807 and so he became a practical  painter of signs and such as well as an artist. While all art is evidence for the historian, I’ve always felt that Ropes’ works are more documentary in their detail, particularly two paintings in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum, Launching of the Ship Fame (1802) and Crowninshield’s Wharf (1806). I’ve shown it here several times, but I can’t post on Ropes without including his masterpiece, Salem Common on Training Day (1808), which is also in the collection of the PEM. Those poplars! I can never see this painting too many times.

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George Ropes, Jr.: The Launching of the Ship Fame, Crowninshield’s Wharf, and Salem Common on Training Day, all courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum.

My favorite story about Ropes comes from the Pickering Genealogythe source of endless interesting anecdotes about Salem people. In another testimony to his skill and eye for detail, it is noted that on one occasion when the parlor in the house of Jarathmeel Peirce was being papered, it was found that there was not enough, and it being imported paper, more could not be obtained. He undertook to finish it by painting, which he did so accurately that it was impossible to tell where his work began or where it ended. A decorating crisis averted!  Ropes is probably best known for his marine paintings, including a lovely “portrait” of George Crowninshield’s famous luxury yacht Cleopatra’s Barge, and several paintings of the USS Constitution in battle during the War of 1812.The US Constitution Museum has a series of four paintings painted by Ropes (after Corné) depicting the famous engagement with the HMS Guerriere in August of 1812 which earned the victorious American ship the nickname of “Old Ironsides”, and at the end of next month, a Ropes painting of the victory of the Constitution over the HMS Java in December of 1812 will be auctioned off at Dan Morphy Auctions in Pennsylvania. Artistic reportage, and some pretty bold titles, from this silent “signmaker”.

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George Ropes, Jr., the last of the Constitution and Guerriere paintings, USS Constitution Museum Collection; Constitution vs. Java, Morphy Auctions.


Why are there no WPA Murals in Salem?

The various initiatives of the Works Progress Administration made their mark on Salem during the Depression: substantive work on Greenlawn Cemetery and the Salem Armory was completed, Olde Salem Greens was carved out of Highland Park, and the Salem Maritime National Historic Site was created along Derby Street. Many historic structures in Salem were measured and photographed under the aegis of the Historic American Building Survey, for which I am grateful nearly every day. I’m sure there were more infrastructural improvements implemented with federal funds in Salem in the 1930s, but I don’t have the time or the inclination to lose myself in the massive archives of the New Deal!  There is a conspicuous absence of federally-funded art in Salem however: no murals in the Post Office or City Hall illustrating the city’s dynamic and dramatic history. This absence is conspicuous because Massachusetts in general, and the North Shore in particular, is home to some notable New Deal murals, commissioned by various Federal cultural agencies to embellish public spaces with uplifting, patriotic, accessible American scenes while simultaneously providing unemployement for artists. There are amazing murals in Boston, Worcester and Springfield, and in Natick, Lexington, and Arlington, and here in Essex County, in Gloucester City Hall, Abbot Hall in Marblehead, the Topsfield Public Library, and the Ipswich Post Office. Moreover, there were several Salem artists who painted murals for the WPA elsewhere–but not in the city of their birth or residence. Why?

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Umberto Romano, “Mr. Pynchon and the Settling of Springfield”, Commonwealth of Massachusetts State Office Building, formerly the US Post Office, Springfield, Massachusetts, photograph by David Stansbury, and Hollis Holbrook,” John Eliot Speaks to the Natick Indians”, US Post Office, Natick, photograph by Thomas Cortue, both part of the joint Smithsonian National Postal Museum and National Museum of the American Indian exhibition, “Indians at the Post Office: New Deal-Era Murals”; Aiden Lassell Ripley, “Paul Revere’s Ride”, US Post Office, Lexington; and Charles Allen Winter’s “Protection of the Fisheries”,  and “Education” , two of 6 murals in Gloucester City Hall that have been recently restored.

I’ve been wondering about this for a while, but this weekend I was engaging in my semi-regular weekend fantasy-shopping-on-1stdibs session and I came across a study painting by Dunbar Beck for a mural entitled The Return of Timothy Pickering which eventually embellished the interior of the Danvers Post Office, where it remains to this day. And I thought to myself: why the hell was the mural commissioned for DANVERSWhy didn’t it come to Salem? Timothy Pickering is one of the most famous native sons of Salem, his house is here, and his mural should be here too. Danvers is the former Salem Village, and was long part of Salem, but still this mural clearly portrays Salem Town and harbor.

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Dunbar Beck, Study Painting for the Danvers Post Office mural “The Return of Timothy Pickering”, currently available from Renaissance Man Antiques on 1stdibs.

So, why no murals of Salem’s earliest settlements, famous vessels, lively port, sea captains’ mansions, or Witch Trials on the walls of public building downtown?  Well there would have had to be some visual reference to 1692, and that was hardly an uplifting American episode that could be used to raise spirits during the Depression. That’s the curse of 1692, which manifests itself time and time again. Or maybe there was no place for one in Salem’s relatively new Post Office or venerable City Hall. But I for one would like to see a simplistic scene of North America’s first elephant stepping on Salem soil somewhere around town.


Royal Recommendations

As we move into a new era (“reign”?) here in the United States I am quite determined to keep my blog as apolitical as possible but some events and occurrences will no doubt be provocative and/or inspirational. At those times I’ll probably have to delve in, but I will strive for a relatively detached perspective by placing these events and occurrences in as wide an historical and/or cultural context as possible. Here is a first attempt. The other day, our President-elect tweeted his endorsement of L.L. Bean based on a significant contribution on the part of one its family owners, the granddaughter of L.L. Bean himself. I immediately felt and heard the indignation and desire for retribution of seemingly-everyone in my adopted state of Massachusetts focused on one of the largest businesses in my home state of Maine. The employees of this venerable company are probably trembling in their boots: did they ask for this? And are we now entering an era of presidential commercial endorsements akin to the “Royal Warrant of Approval” system in Britain and other European countries which still have monarchies? Imagine the presidential seal of approval where the Royal Arms are below (along with very different entities) provoking an equal measure of purchases and boycotts across the nation.

Royal Warrants of Appointment granted to some of my favorite purveyors: Penhaligon’s (represented by my “Juniper Sling” perfume–which smells a lot like a gin & tonic!), Barbour, and Hatchards Bookshop in London. I’m sure there are a lot more royally-approved goods around the house, including the Twinings tea and Carr’s crackers in my cupboard and the Hunter boots in my closet. Apparently there are approximately 800 Royal Warrant Holders in Great Britain, representing myriad goods and services, everything from movers to jewelers.

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Royal Warrant Holders past and present: Eighteenth-century trade card for Maydwell and Windles, glass manufacturers, British Museum; Carter’s garden seeds, 1897; Pears soap advertisements from 1902 and 1911;  a Daimler ad from the 1930s, and a Colman’s Mustard label from 1887: this company is a particularly proud bearer of the royal arms; Sanderson Fabrics, a warrant holder since 1923, pays homage to Queen Elizabeth II during her Diamond Jubilee in 2012.

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The Weekend before Christmas

A very Salem weekend before Christmas highlighted by the Christmas Dance (now called the Holiday Dance) at Hamilton Hall, preceded by pre-parties at gloriously-decorated houses, and followed by shopping downtown on Sunday. I was supposed to wrap all my presents last night but fell asleep on the couch while watching the 1970 version of Scrooge (not as good as the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol, but it had to do, yet even a musical could not keep my eyes open; in particular this musical).We had terrible weather on Saturday–sludgy snow/rain–but Sunday was unseasonably warm until a wind whipped up in the later afternoon. Not picture-perfect “Christmas Weather” but lots of people were out and about anyway.

Saturday: the Hall next door before the big dance and showing our ephemeral cover of snow–now gone. I took a few pictures of one very stylishly-decorated Dutch Colonial during one pre-party, but then misplaced my camera–magically it appeared at the very end of the evening when we ended up at the Merchant. No matter, because I can never take good pictures at the Dance. I hope you can make out the wonderful Christmas tree below–lit from within by a lady offering up a gift!

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Sunday: shopping at the Christmas Market at Old Town Hall, Waite & Peirce, Joe’s Fresh Fish Prints, Wicked Good Books, and Modern Millie’s, the always-impressive windows at Emporium 32, and the Poinsettia Tree at the Hawthorne Hotel.

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And some online shopping: LOVE these “Windows of Salem”  hand-drawn digitally-designed cards by EVArtandDesign: you can buy individual cards or a curated-collection with partial proceeds donated to Historic Salem, Inc.

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Imag(in)ing Authors

I don’t think that there is any doubt that we used to glorify authors much more in the past than in the present: while the written word is still alive and well (for now) its producers are not the focal points of our popular culture that Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, and F. Scott Fitzgerald once were, except for those long-dead but seemingly eternal celebrity scribes like Will and Jane. There is so much material evidence of author adoration from a century and more ago : portraits, pilgrimages to literary “shrines”, biographies, the various Victorian “Authors” games–first produced right here in Salem— designed to develop literary familiarity and appreciation from an early age.But that is not the literary or the material culture that we live in now, so I was kind of surprised to encounter two “Odes to Authors” prints while I was browsing around the website of Anthropologie, of all places. These are the work of artist Valerie Suter, who is apparently a voracious reader of twentieth-century fiction.

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Odes to Authors Virginia Woolf and Djuna Barnes by Valerie Suter, available here.

I went over to Suter’s website and found lots more authors: clearly they are her primary inspiration at this point in her life/career. She works in various mediums (including animation and clothing) and portrays her literary subjects in accessible and whimsical ways, occasionally doing something or in each other’s company, like the familiar subjects of A Moveable Feast  and Mark Twain playing pool, below. Lots of color, patterned backgrounds, interesting scale, and an almost complete absence of any formality or pretense bring these authors to life. I really want Josephine Tey, author of one of my very favorite books, The Daughter of Time (1951).

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Paintings by Valerie Suter: Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce and F. Scott Fitzgerald in A Moveable Feast; John Steinbeck among chrysanthemums, Mark Twain playing pool, E.B. White, Joan Didion & Josephine Tey; Penguin Classic cover of The Daughter of Time. 


You are what you do/like

I was in an antique shop several weeks ago when I spotted some framed prints published by J.N. Toy and W.R.Lucas in Baltimore in the early 1830s. They were that odd kind of anthropomorphic mixture of human, creature, plant and/or materials that always appeals to me, so they instantly captured my attention. I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to purchase them, so I snapped some pictures, but the combination of glass and lighting did not capture them very well–later I searched for some better images and fortunately found them, or most of them (The Botanist below is under glass). These lithographs are the products of a short-lived partnership between two Massachusetts-born printers, George Endicott and Moses Swett, both of whom had worked at the Pendleton Firm in Boston. I’ve admired Pendleton prints  for a while, so that’s probably another reason why these odd little prints appealed to me. Apparently these are political caricatures, illustrating an increasing (threatening) feminine presence in these endeavors, but I think this is lost in the translation of time. To me, they just look like ladies who are enthusiastic about their various pursuits (except for maybe the fish lady).

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Lithographs by George Endicott & Moses Swett, published by J.N. Toy and W.R. Lucas, Baltimore, 1831-33, Collections of Winterthur Library and the Library of Conress.


Seasonal Spider (webs)

Well, Halloween is less than a week away so I suppose I should post on something seasonal: my October avoidance of downtown Salem has actually made me less aware of this holiday, although yesterday it dawned on me that I was not prepared for trick-or-treating and should start accumulating all of the candy I will need. It seems as if I always run out, no matter how much I buy. In my neighborhood there is a range of Halloween/Fall decorations:  some completely over the top, others more subtle. My favorite seasonal decoration preferences run more to the natural than the macabre: I’ve always thought that bats are wonderful, and I have developed a healthy appreciation for spiders over the last few years. There are quite a few spiders, with webs and without, around Salem these days, but today’s post is really more inspired by interior decoration than exterior embellishment, and specifically by a New York Times article from a few weeks ago about the restoration/redecoration of two historic “literary shrines”: the Connecticut houses of Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe. In the parlor of Twain’s house, workers are installing a reproduction 1880s wallpaper with spiderwebs designed by Candace Wheeler, an absolutely amazing artist who, along with her design colleagues in her firm Associated Artists, was primarily responsible for the original decoration of the house. Just one look at the wallpaper started me down both a Candace Wheeler path and a spider/web path–so here’s the latter, beginning with the Mark Twain’s parlor paper and proceeding back and forth through the ages and back to Salem.

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Candace Wheeler wallpaper, Metropolitan Museum of Art: Contemporary spiderweb wallpaper in two tones, Walls Republic; Japanese silk embroidered spiderweb textile, early Meijii era, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; English “Spider Print” Textile Length, 2004, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the best “natural” Halloween vignette ever: Bat and a Spider Web, 1782, Philadelphia Museum of Art; my favorite medieval spider, British Library MS Sloane 4016; a Salem spider.


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