Tag Archives: World War I

Stereo-typing

I have a lovely little portfolio in my possession—which long lay undetected and -appreciated underneath a tall stack of much bigger books–discovered joyfully just the other day: the French artist and illustrator Guy Arnoux’s Les caractères observés par un vieux Philosophe du haut de la fenêtre (1920). Here we have examples of visual caricatures transcending the centuries: a twentieth-century artist depicts an ancien regime “old philosopher’s” armchair observations of court life and characters. I looked up Arnoux and his works and quickly found this same book as a lot in an upcoming Swann auction, with an estimated value of $400-$600. My copy has some edge issues, so I’m sure it’s not worth that much, but it is charming nonetheless. My best guess as to its origins is my great-aunt Margaret, a high-school teacher who was quite the art aficionado, but it’s a bit simplistic for her tastes, I think.

Arnoux Characters 1

I happen to love this simplistic, neo-folkish and -primitive mid-twentieth-century style of illustration. Arnoux clearly reveled in it; I found an article about him in an arts periodical published during the Great War in which he tied his artistic aims to that epic event: Mr. Arnoux’s ambition it to be an artist of the people; to fix in their naive minds the memorable events of the greatest war humanity has ever know…..[his] theory of art is almost cubistic. “We must eliminate from artistic representation all that is secondary, all that is unnecessary,” he will tell you. “We can make good photographs; why, then, repeat them in art.” Thus, the Japanese and the Chinese are, in his opinion, the only great and true artists. [His focus is on] the simple reproductions dear to the people, hundreds of thousands of which are sold on the street corners for the modest sums of 12 sous each. Yet he regrets that he cannot make them even cheaper, for he would like to have them everywhere, especially in the hands of the children. Well now you see the inspiration for the cartoonish depictions, but Versailles is an odd setting for a “artist of the people”—I guess everyone was indulging in post-war escapism.

Arnoux Characters 4

Arnoux Characters 8

Arnoux Characters 5

Arnoux 5

Arnoux Characters 3

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Arnoux Characters 2

Arnoux Indifferent

Arnoux Cover

ArnouX Immortale

Simple images of the past, and Arnoux’s present.


Bullet-ridden Bibles

I have been treating the digital remnants of the first and apparently-last PEM exhibition focused on the holdings of the Phillips Library as a requiem; when I first saw Unbound: Treasures from the Phillips Library of PEM back in 2011, the same year that the library closed in Salem with promises to return two years later, I enjoyed it immensely, but did not return multiple times because I believed I would see these items again. Now I fear I never will, so I go back, again and again, and again, in search of memento mori. One exhibition item that attracted a lot of attention then was a bible with a bullet embedded in its cover belonging to Private Charles W. Merrill of the 19th Massachusetts Regiment who nearly lost his life at the Battle of Fredericksburg after coming in the line of fire of two bullets: one entered near his right eye and was extracted from his left ear. Another ball would have entered a vital part of his body had it not been arrested by a Testament, in which it lodged. When this safeguard was shown the President, he sent to the hospital a handsome pocket Bible, in which, as an evidence of his warm regard, he caused to be inscribed: “Charles W. Merrill, Co. A., 19th Massachusetts, from A. Lincoln.”  [Devens, Pictorial Book of Anecdotes of the Rebellion, 1887] Unfortunately Private Merrill succumbed to his wounds in the next year, and his family placed the “safeguard” bible into the care of the Essex Institute, one of the progenitors of the Peabody Essex Museum.

Bullet-ridden bible Merrill PhillipsCharles William Merrill Papers, Fam. Mss. 611, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.

There’s a bit of (urban) mythology surround bullet-stopping bibles, tales of which predate and postdate the American Civil War. After the English Civil War some 200 years earlier, the Puritan preacher Richard Baxter, who briefly served as chaplain to the Parliamentary army, recounted an anecdote in which one of the Souldiers Pocket Bibles issued to Cromwell’s soldiers saved a man’s life, but these were 9-page pamphlets, so I’m wondering about the veracity of the claim. This little bible seems to have established the precedent for military pocket bibles, however, and there are many references to them on both sides of the Atlantic in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They are much bigger in the nineteenth century–and presumably more bullet-proof: in addition to Merrill, I easily found references to seven Civil War soldiers whose lives were shielded by bulwark bibles—three union and four confederate—and I am sure there are more stories.

Bible collage

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Bullet Bible Kelley

Bible Hall VT

The Souldiers Pocket Bible, 1643, British Museum; Francis Merrifield’s “Bunker Hill Bible”, Bonhams Auctions; the bibles of Corporal John Hicks Kelley of South Carolina (Darlington County Historical Commission) and Edwin Hall of Vermont, Heritage Auctions.

But it is in the twentieth century (ironically, as so many new weapons surpassed the rifle) that the bullet-proof bible became the bullet-proof bible. The onset of World War I centennial commemoration in 1914 has brought lots of interesting war stories and souvenirs to light, including several bullet-ridden bibles. The story of handsome British soldier Leonard Knight, who enlisted at 17 armed with a bible gifted to him by his Aunt Minnie, has been particularly resonant. There are more tales, including several harrowing ones involving ANZAC soldiers at Gallipoli. And all of these bespoke bibles culminate with the steel-plated “heart-shield bibles” that were the preferred gift for every soldier shipping off to the fronts of World War II: May this keep you safe from harm.

Bible Knight

Heart-shield BibleBritish soldier Leonard Knight and the bullet-ridden bible that has been passed down to five generations of his family; a heart-shield bible from World War II.


Art vs. History: a False Dichotomy

Over the last three weeks, as I have listened to the public discourse surrounding the Peabody Essex Museum’s reluctant announcement that it was planning to house the Salem-dominant collections of its research arm, the Phillips Library, in a vast collections center (encompassing both archives and objects) in Rowley, I have heard a constant refrain: the PEM doesn’t want to be a history museum. They are only interested in art (That’s why they are taking/hiding our history away). I’m not sure this is entirely true, but if it is, it is a stance that is based on a false dichotomy, because these two disciplines are not incompatible or in competition: art is history and if done well, history is an art.

Art and History Vermeer.jpg Vermeer’s Art/Allegory of Painting, Kunsthistorisches Museum: featuring Clio, the Muse of History. 

Several PEM exhibitions in recent memory have featured historical components, from the wonderful Samuel McIntire: Carving an American Style (2008) to Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age (2015) and even the Victoria & Albert traveling show, Shoes: Pleasure and Pain (2016-2107) featured a few placards on the regional shoe industry when it made its pitstop at the PEM. But I can understand why my fellow Salemites feel that their history is being ignored by the very institution that has the responsibility of stewarding it. The Museum seems to have an ever-increasing appetite for gallery space, always justified by its large collections, yet we seem to see more of other Museum’s collections in these showy spaces. The Phillips print and manuscript collections, along with all of those unseen objects, are now on a slow boat to Rowley: one wonders if it was possible to move the historic houses also entrusted to the museum whether they would be on their way too. I don’t really think so, but I like to force the connection between textual and material history.

ropes-renovMoving the Ropes Mansion back a few feet in the 1890s.

As I looked back at PEM exhibitions over the past fifteen years or so, all of which I have seen and enjoyed, I gradually came to an awareness that the PEM does indeed “like” history, just not local history. There has been a great emphasis on Asian history certainly, and European history, and Native American history, but local history, not so much. I wonder why this is so, given the museum’s focus on connections: doesn’t it want to connect with its local audience? All of its engagement initiatives seem to have been focused on entertainment rather than exhibits: the monthly Thursday PEM/PM events, free to all Salem residents, but ending this very month. Everyone says: I enjoyed it [insert exhibition, particularly blockbuster variety] for an hour or so, but that’s it. No need to go back again. I myself clung to just one poster in the recent Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed and Style exhibitionBoston-published, depicting the watery grave of Lusitania victims.

pem-enlist-loc Library of Congress.

So let’s work with this image–its meaning and its power. We are in the midst of the centenary of World War I, a major turning point in world and American history. Museums across the country (and across the Atlantic, of course) have produced exhibitions focused on this epic event, including art museums like the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The latter’s World War I and the Visual Arts encompasses all artistic mediums to present a cultural history of the conflict drawn from their own collection, while the MFA’s show focused on propaganda and recruiting posters similar to Fred Spear’s evocative Enlist above. Despite 18 boxes of World War materials in the collection of the Phillips Library (processed with the support of a federal grant from the National Historic Publications and Records Commission but currently inaccessible and undigitized), the PEM offered up shoes, wearable art, horror movie posters and ocean liners in the centennial year of 2017: all fun and visually-stimulating exhibitions, but can we really engage in a thoughtful exploration of the human experience through these topics?

Art and History HassamChilde Hassam, Avenue of the Allies, Great Britain, 1918, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I see the PEM’s reluctance to delve into local heritage as tragic for Salem, which is left to the devices of market-driven Halloween “history”, but also for the museum itself, which is losing out on an obvious way to connect to its local audience on which its future is surely dependent at least in part—it can’t be all about big donors, can it? (Maybe it is). In its rationale for not reopening the Phillips Library in Salem, the PEM pointed to declining patronage by Salem residents, but this was surely a self-fulfilling prophecy fueled by declining hours and programming based on the library’s collections. A reopened and revitalized Phillips Library reading room, serving as a nexus for introspective examinations of greater Salem’s experiences in the contexts of global, national, and local history, could serve as a draw for both locals and tourists. Even though history may seem “dusty” to some, the public’s interest in heritage is both universal and increasing: with many state and local history museums reporting upswings in attendance all over the country in the last few years and record-setting crowds flocking to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in just its first year. And here in Massachusetts, with a statewide celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Plymouth landing in the works for 2020, the Museum–and its Library– in the midst of the other prominent Puritan colony will find itself very much in demand.

MA400-Mayor-Panel A panel of mayors, including Kim Driscoll of Salem, at the Massachusetts 400 Forum in 2016.


Memorial Trees

I’ve been thinking a lot about memorialization lately: the process and purpose, as well as its vehicles. Like most historians, I’ve always found public/collective memory fascinating (mostly in terms of what is remembered and what is not) but I think the combination of the pulling down of Confederate statues and our upcoming symposium on the Salem Witch Trials as well as the imminent dedication of the new Proctor’s Ledge memorial site to its victims has shifted my interest into overdrive at this moment. Given my penchant for the built landscape, it should be no surprise that my favorite (this word seems odd in this context) memorials are artistic and architectural: images of the Korean War Memorial in Washington and the “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” ceramic poppies installation at the The Tower of London in 2014 are forever etched in my mind. But last year, there was an even more moving memorial in Britain which piqued my interest in “living” memorials: the “we’re here because we’re here” commemoration of the centenary of the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 2016, during which thousands of volunteers played the part of “ghost soldiers” in remembrance of the 19,240 men killed on just that first day of the battle.

Memorial‘we are here because we are here’, conceived and created by Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller in collaboration with Rufus Norris, photo by Topher McGrilli.

The Great War inspired (again, the word seems wrong) all sorts of memorialization on this side of the Atlantic, primarily in its immediate aftermath and into the 1920s. I don’t see Americans yearning for a poignant remembrance of the doughboys now, but maybe next year? In any case, one of the most national initiatives of remembrance following World War I was the planting of trees, another form of “living” memorial. Across the United States, from 1918 over the next decade or so, communities planted trees in memoriam of their lost loved ones. This was not a spontaneous movement, but rather one that was vigorously encouraged by the American Forestry Association, which asserted that the The Memorial Tree, “the tree that looks at God all day and lifts her leafy arms to pray”, has become the tribute of the people of the nation to those who offered their lives to their country in the Great War for Civilization” and placed the article below in a parade of papers in January 1919.

Trees Memorial

Maybe there was some spontaneity in this campaign, or at the very least it catered to ingrained instincts; trees had long been symbols of personal mourning in American culture—think of Andrew Jackson’s White House magnolias, planted for his beloved wife Rachel, and all those weeping willow samplers. But I think World War I marks a moment when tree memorials became something more collective and more public. In Europe, trees had been utilized as memorials of collective achievement, not loss: the French were so inspired by Boston’s Liberty Tree (later stump) that they planted their own, “perpetuating the memory of Liberty” in 1789.

Tree Englands Deliverance

Tree of Liberty 1789England’s Memorial of the Glorious Revolution, or of ” its Wonderfull deliverance, from French tirany and Popish oppression. Performed Through Allmighty Gods infinite goodness and Mercy By His Highness, William Henry of Nassau The High & Mighty Prince of Orange 1688′, British Museum; The French Liberty Tree, Lesueur Brothers, (18th century); French. Medium: gouache on paper. Date: 18th Century. Perpetuating the memory of Liberty; plantation d’un arbre de la liberte; Provenance: Musee de la Ville de Paris, Musee Carnavalet, Paris, France / Giraudon. 

And back across the Atlantic we go, a century and more later. President Warren G. Harding responded to the Memorial Tree campaign with a statement in May of 1919, in which he offered his approval and encouragement (“I can hardly think of a more fitting testimonial of our gratitude and affection than this”) and noted that these plantings were “one of the useful and beautiful ideas which our soldiers brought back from France. The splendid avenues of France have been among the great delights and attractions to travelers there, and a similar development would equally add to the beauty and attraction of our country”. And so it began: judging by the photographs at the Library of Congress, Mrs. Harding (Florence) spent a lot of time planting trees, as did both Coolidges after her.

Tree Planting 1924 Boy Scouts LC

Tree Planting Mrs. Harding 1921

Tree Planting 1923 Mrs Harding LOC

Tree Planting Coolidge 1922

Tree Planting Mrs. Coolidge 1929Memorial Tree planting, 1919-1920: Boy Scouts, Mrs. Harding (2), President Coolidge, Mrs. Coolidge and Girl Scouts, Library of Congress.

As you can see very clearly in the Calvin Coolidge photograph, memorial trees were supposed to be registered with the American Forestry Association and have tags attached, but this didn’t happen everywhere and all the time: consequently there are memorial trees out there–“silent sentinels” in the words of the National Park Service–which are not recognized as memorials. Maybe someone remembers when they look at one of these tag-less trees, but a family memory does not a monument make!

Memorial Tree Badge LC American Forestry Association tree badge, Library of Congress.

I don’t know if any World War I memorial trees were planted here in Salem, but both memorials to the victims of 1692, the tercentenary memorial downtown and the soon-to-be-dedicated (I think July 19?) Proctor’s Ledge Memorial feature trees as integral features of their design and symbolism: black locust trees (on which the accused witches were purportedly hanged) for the tercentenary memorial and a single oak tree at Proctor’s Ledge. These trees are marked and will not be forgotten–nor will those they represent.

Memorial Tree collageThe Salem Witch Trials Memorial off Charter Street in downtown Salem, and the design for the new Proctor’s Ledge Memorial, Martha Lyon Landscape Architecture.


She Wears the Green

I looked back through my posts of St. Patrick’s Days past and found: green cards, green plants, greenbacks, green fairies, and green men. Lots of men, in fact, but very few women, unless they were representing (rather negatively) envy or absinthe! So on this particular St. Patrick’s Day, I’m featuring only women, in more positive (though also rather frivolous) displays. I’ve recently discovered the short-lived and absolutely amazing Gazette du bon ton, a French fashion magazine packed with artistic illustrations which was published from 1912 to 1925. Was there a war in there somewhere? You wouldn’t know it leafing through these whimsical pages. The Gazette features lots of seasonal green, and it was also a favorite color of one of my favorite graphic artists from this same period, Mela Koehler. Perhaps these early twentieth-century representations of lively, festive green are meant to counteract the color’s toxic associations of the previous century? I am opening and closing my portfolio with two more serious real females, both anonymous: a folk art portrait from the mid-nineteenth century (featuring a woman who is hopefully not wearing an arsenic-dyed dress–though I fear for the anonymous artist), and a photograph of a (Salem?) girl taken by a Salem photography studio with which I have taken some liberties: I love her jacket so much I wanted to highlight it by “greening” it up a bit for the holiday.

Green Dress Folk Art MFA 1838

Green dress 19th C MET

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Green Dress Clover Girl Kirchner 1899

Green Dress MK 1910 3 MFA

Green Dress Koehler collage

Green Dress Philip Coles NYPL 1912

Green dress Gazette de BonTon Worth 1912

Green Dress Gazettedubonton00B_0355 1914

Green Dress Gazettedubonton00A_0303 1920 Poiret

Girl in Green

Portrait by unidentified artist, 1838-40, M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Watercolors and Drawings, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Dress and Coat, Costume Institute Collection of Fashion Plates, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Raphael Kirchner and Mela Koehler cards, c. 1910, Lauder Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Coles Phillips, Woman in green dress sitting beside tulips, 1912, New York Public Library Digital Collections; Illustrations from Gazette du Bon Ton, 1913-1920, Smithsonian Libraries; undated Salem, MA photograph.


Puritan Princess

Today I have the story of the Salem girl who probably came closest to the Gilded Age “dollar princess” stereotype and scenario, whereby American money was wedded to English aristocracy. Yet Mary Crowninshield Endicott (1864-1957) did not really come that close at all: she was in fact quite wealthy but did not need to bail out either of her English non-aristocratic English husbands. Nonetheless, there was definitely something regal, if not royal, about her: of ancestry, of marriage, and definitely of bearing. I must admit that I’ve developed quite a girl-crush on her, and she obviously had scores of admirers in her own time, among them John Everett Millais, John Singer Sargent, and even Queen Victoria. I think she might be the ultimate Anglo-American, or at least Salem Anglo-American.

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NPG Ax36327; Mary Chamberlain (nÈe Endicott) by Eveleen Myers (nÈe Tennant)

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The Millais portrait (1890-91,© Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery); photograph by Eveleen Myers (née Tennant, 1890s, © National Portrait Gallery); and Sargent portrait (1902, National Gallery of Art) of Salem-born and -bred Mary Crowninshield Endicott Chamberlain.

Mary was born in the Tontine block on Warren Street in Salem to William Crowninshield Endicott, a direct descendant of John Endecott, the first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, and Ellen Peabody Endicott, granddaughter of one of the richest men in the United States, Captain Joseph Peabody. She was as close to “American aristocracy” as you could get at the time; in fact when she married the prominent British politician and statesman Joseph Chamberlain in 1888, her brother remarked that he was a bit too middle class. She was raised in Salem and Danvers: living in the Georgian Cabot-Endicott-Low house on Essex Street “in town” during most of the year and at the Peabody family’s Danvers estate, Glen Magna, during the summers.While her father served as Secretary of War during Grover Cleveland’s first administration in the later 1880s, the entire family moved to Washington, D.C., where she met Chamberlain, who was twice-widowed, more than twice her age and in the midst of a spectacular political career exemplified by parliamentary leadership and intense advocacy for progressive reform of both British social welfare policy and the British Empire. Clearly they were in the midst of an intense courtship over most of 1888, but come summer their engagement was vehemently denied in the press by “Miss Endicott’s family”: apparently her political father thought Mr. Chamberlain’s opposition to Irish Home Rule would be unpopular in America, but later, once the engagement was confirmed, the reasons for the denials were attributed to Miss Endicott’s “tact”, “reserve”, and desire for a quiet wedding. She would not get her wish: that fall, with the nuptials approaching in November, there was feverish anticipation on both sides of the Atlantic and a succession of newspaper articles offering up every little detail. My favorite piece is from the Boston Weekly Globe, dated November 14, 1888: it emphasizes the bride’s pedigree, the bridegoom’s wealth (an annual income of £150,000! Lavish estates in Birmingham and London!), her trousseau (7 “very costly” Worth dresses!), their wedding gifts (including a very big check from her maternal grandparents), and the fact that President and Mrs. Cleveland will be attending the wedding, to be held at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Lafayette Square, across from the White House.

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In this article, and all the others, there is as much fascination with Miss Endicott’s “lineage” as with the material details of the upcoming wedding. A characteristic observation: Miss Endicott is truly of a sufficiently high lineage for peerage [insert catty remark that her future husband is not, in fact, a peer]. She comes of Puritan stock that cannot be excelled. Her father, Hon. William E. Endicott, the present Secretary of War, is a lineal descendant of John Endicott, the first colonial governor of Massachusetts, and he has in his possession the famous sword with which Governor Endicott cut the cross from the king’s colors on March 4, 1635. Her great-grandfather, Jacob Crowninshield, was Secretary of the Navy during President Jefferson’s administration. Her mother is the daughter of George Peabody, the well-known merchant, philanthropist and poet. Through both her paternal and maternal ancestry Miss Endicott is descended from the same Puritan families from which came the illustrious hero of the Revolution, General Israel Putnam…….and on and on her ancestry goes. Another theme is Miss Endicott’s (again, “Puritan”–“Yankee” is never used; it’s too early for “Brahmin” and far too early for  “WASP”) reserve and discretion: after the wedding it is pointed out by EVERYONE that she wore a simple gray silk “traveling” dress for the ceremony rather than an elaborate gown. Still, there were all those Worth dresses: I could not find any pieces from the 1888 trousseau, but I did find the gray dress Mrs. Chamberlain wore in her Millais portrait a few years later, as well as a 1902 afternoon dress from her wardrobe, which was featured in the National Gallery of Australia’s 2004 exhibitionThe Edwardians: Secrets and Desires.

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Mrs. Endicott’s Worth gowns from 1890 and 1902, Fashion Museum, Bath and National Gallery of Australia.

After a brief honeymoon on the French Riviera, Mr.and Mrs. Chamberlain took up residence in England, both in London and at Highbury Hall, his stately home in Birmingham. Mary assumed social duties but seems also to have shared her new husband’s political ones, especially after he became Colonial Secretary in 1895. Secretary Chamberlain’s desire to reform the commercial structure of the British Empire has revived his reputation recently, as the free-trading block he envisioned seems to provide somewhat of a model for post-Brexit Britain. Mary traveled with him extensively over much of the next decade, and was often referred to as the Chamberlain’s “best and truest counsellor”. At home in England, Mary seems also to have become a favorite of the Queen. The American papers attest her royal approval to be tied, once again, to her “discretion”, of both dress and decorum: she disavowed the low-cut “decollete” gowns in favor of more modest apparel and stayed away from the Prince of Wales’s racy set. The British papers are not as forthcoming, but she did receive a rare gold (not silver) Diamond Jubilee medal from the Queen in 1897. Contrary to the 1904 Washington Times article below, however, Mary did not become the Countess of Highbury and the “first American peeress”: I’m not sure where this story came from, but it does illustrate the continuing interest in Mary Endicott Chamberlain. In the articles about Joseph Chamberlain’s death in 1914 (he had suffered a debilitating stroke in 1906), Mary, the “Puritan Aristocrat” remained the main focus of the American newspapers.

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The bride and bridegroom with Mr. Chamberlain’s children at Highbury in 1889: Back row, left to right: Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940), Austen Chamberlain (1863-1937) and Joseph Chamberlain (1836-1914). Front row, left to right: Miss H. Chamberlain and Mrs Mary Chamberlain (nee Endicott); “The Reception of the Right Honourable Joseph Chamberlain, MP, and his American Bride, at the Town Hall, Birmingham”, The Graphic, January, 1989; The dashing Colonial Secretary in 1895; Mr. and Mrs. Chamberlain in 1903; the Washington Times, 1904, and Boston Globe, 1914.

In late spring of 1916, Mrs. Chamberlain became engaged to another older, widowed, English gentleman: the Reverend William Hartley Carnegie, a Canon and Sub-Dean of Westminster Cathedral. They were married in August in the Henry VII Chapel at the Cathedral, with her stepsons Austen, future Cabinet Minister and Nobel Laureate, walking her down the aisle and Neville, future Prime Minister, in attendance. The announcements in the Boston papers read: Salem Woman, Widow of Chamberlain, marries Canon of Westminster Abbey. This was the beginning of a much more private life for Mary Endicott, and after the Reverend Canon’s death in 1936, it became even more “quiet”, at least from the perspective of newspaper coverage. She would live for another twenty years, during which she did not make much news. There is extensive documentary evidence of her correspondence and close relationships with her two Chamberlain stepsons, but she survived them both. She is interred alongside her second husband in Westminster Abbey, with a simple inscription of “Mary Endicott” and a memorial bust of her first husband nearby.

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John Singer Sargent’s pencil study of Mrs. Joseph Chamberlain, 1902, Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum.


Face-based History

I am a longtime admirer of Simon Schama, as both historian and art historian, presenter and public intellectual. For me, his study of the Dutch Golden Age, The Embarrassment of Riches: An interpretation of Dutch culture in the Golden Age (1987) is a classic of cultural history, illustrating a masterful engagement of textual and material sources, almost Burckhardtian in its scope. I always have it close at hand. Even though Schama is not principally an English historian, I show bits and pieces of his History of Britain series in class, just because he is such a good communicator–and teacher. As any reader of this blog (or former student) knows, I’m always utilizing (I think of it as playing with, actually, as I am not trained) art in class, in large part due to Schama, even though I am far less knowledgeable and adept than he. Schama’s latest project focuses on British portraits in the National Portrait Gallery, probably my very favorite museum in the world: The Face of Britain is a multi-media history of Britain through its portraits, rather than a history of British portraits. Through an exhibition last year at the NPG, and an accompanying book and television series, Schama examines Britain’s relatively modern history (after all, the portrait is a Renaissance creation) through portraits of individuals which represent both precise historical moments and dynamic trends. A very representative, and compelling, vignette relates the creation of a famous (or infamous) portrait of Winston Churchill, commissioned for the Prime Minister’s 80th birthday by Parliament. There was quite a bit of push-and-pull between Churchill and the commissioned artist, Graham Sunderland, resulting in a portrait that is described by Schama as a “beautiful ruin” detested by the subject, the humiliation of the artist at its public unveiling in 1954, and its eventual  destruction by Lady Churchill or one of her delegates. All we have are studies and photographs of the painting that captured this particular historical moment.

NPG 5332; Winston Churchill by Graham Vivian Sutherland

Preparatory Study for Winston Churchill’s 1954 portrait by Graham Vivian Sunderland, National Portrait Gallery.

The making of Churchill’s portrait is a study in power dynamics, and Schama explores other kinds of relationships in his exhibition/presentation/narrative: “The Face of Power” is accompanied by “Faces of the People”, “The Face of Fame”, “The Look of Love”, and “The Face of the Mirror”. The essential relationship in all of these categories, however, is between the artist and the subject, and consequently it is a bit difficult to string along an entire collective history. I didn’t see the exhibition, but I heard from friends that it was confusing because of its conceptual-rather-than-chronological structure. I do have the book and I’ve seen several episodes of the series, and (once again) Schama’s superior communication skills do seem to carry us along, especially as we move among variant genres: “portable portraits”, miniatures, statues, engravings, photographs. I didn’t learn too much from his analysis of the Tudor and Stuart portraits–I’ve heard all that virgin and martyr stuff before–though I do appreciate the inclusion of Oliver Cromwell’s “warts and all” portrait and the “mourning portraits” Kenelm Digby commissioned of his beloved Venetia. I got a little lost in the later seventeenth century, but thought he made effective arguments for the representational value of portraits from the eighteenth century up through much of the twentieth, and I LOVED his “faces of the mirror”: I always though of self-portraits as being exclusively individualistic and not particularly dependent on context, but no longer! As is often the case with Schama, his transitions were subtle and his connections convincing, so in the end I found myself agreeing with his assertion that”portraits bring you into their company”.

Historical faces from Schama’s Face of Britain: Sir Francis Drake, whom Schama calls “the first genuine heroic famous Englishman”, principally because he is a “man of action”; Two very different portraits by William Hogarth: David Garrick as Richard III and the convicted murderess Sarah Malcolm in prison; Two earnest expressions of love by Thomas Gainsborough (for his daughters) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (for Jane Morris, the wife of his William), and some amazing artists’ self-portraits, for which Schama provides plenty of context: Gerlach Flicke (cropped), an imprisoned sixteenth-century artist who painted the first English self-portrait so that his “dear friends….might have something by which to remember him after his death.”, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and William Orpen, “Ready to Start” fighing (?) in the Great War. Apparently Orpen later regretted his trivializing accouterments.

NPG 4032; Sir Francis Drake by Unknown artistSir Francis Drake by an unknown artist, c. 1580, ©National Portrait Gallery

british-faces-800_hogarth_davidgarrick_as_richardiii David Garrick as Richard III, William Hogarth, © Walker Art Gallery

british-faces-hogarth-sarah-malcolm-in-prison Sarah Malcolm by William Hogarth, Sarah Malcolm © Scottish National Gallery

british-faces-gainsborough-daughters-npgThe Painter’s Daughters chasing a Butterfly, Thomas Gainsborough ©National Gallery

Rossetti, Dante Gabriel, 1828-1882; Blue Silk Dress (Jane Morris)Blue Silk Dress (Jane Morris) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ©Society of Antiquaries of London

british-faces-gerlach_flicke_by_gerlach_flicke_crop Gerlach Flicke, ©National Portrait Gallery

British Faces Self-portrait_c.1747-9_by_Joshua_Reynolds_(2).jpgSir Joshua Reynolds, ©National Portrait Gallery

british-faces-498px-william_orpen-ready_to_start-1917 William Orpen, Ready to Start, ©Imperial War Museum


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