Thursday, June 29, 2017

Looking Backwards & Forwards at History at Valley Forge

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Susan reporting,

The perception of the historical past is always changing. Each new generation looks at history with fresh eyes, and fresh ideas, too.

Nowhere is this more evident than in how we Americans have treated our historically important buildings. In the years following the American Revolution, many of the place we now venerate most were simply old buildings, allowed to grow more shabby by the year.

Portions of Independence Hall in Philadelphia - the site of the signing of the Declaration of Independence - had already fallen into such disrepair that they were torn down in 1812. Federal Hall in New York City - home of the first Congress as well as where George Washington was inaugurated as the first president - was also demolished barely a generation later in 1812. Built in 1713, the Old State House in Boston witnessed the Boston Massacre, but was later cut up into shops and businesses, and finally suffered the ultimate indignity of having a subway station built into its basement.

But the Centennial celebrations of 1876 brought a new interest in preserving the past. Older buildings were finally beginning to be recognized and preserved for their historical importance. Sometimes, however, these early preservationists often relied on a romanticized version of the 18thc, with some interesting  results.

The present-day Valley Forge National Historical Park in Pennsylvania first became recognized as a state park focused on history in 1893. Then, as now, the centerpiece of the park was the stone farm house used by General George Washington as his headquarters during the Continental Army's winter encampment of 1777-78. Also known as the Isaac Potts House for the original owner, the Headquarters was occupied not only General Washington, but by his wife Martha Washington, seven aides-de-camp, servants, and occasional visitors.  The house is not large, especially not considering how many people were squeezed inside it, and from contemporary reports, quarters were cramped, and tempers often ran short.

But you'd never guess it from the way the house was decorated and presented to the public in the early 20thc. The photo, right, on display in the information center near the Headquarters, shows the parlor as a genteel, white-washed room decorated in the best Colonial Revival style, complete with a spinning wheel and yarn-winder for processing homespun fibers (no mention of whom was doing all that spinning.) The original caption declares it to be a view of the "parlor and secret passage." But as the modern caption in the information center dryly notes:

"When [the house] opened as a museum, explanations of the way the house had been used as a military headquarters were fanciful. The hallway identified here as a 'Secret Passage' was, in fact, an entrance used by those arriving by carriage in the 18thc."

Based on research, archeology, and paint-sampling, the same room is interpreted today, upper and lower left, as the busy hub of the military camp. There are chairs, tables, and desks strewn with letters, pens, and books, with charts and maps pinned to the walls. The white dishes on the shelves are reproductions of what was used in the house in 1777. It's a lively room, and has the distinct feeling that the occupants have only stepped out for a moment, soon to return. To 2017 eyes, it feels authentic.

But I wonder if those young officers stationed here in 1777 would agree. Would they feel at home in this modern recreation? Or would aspects of it appear as peculiar to them as the spinning wheel now does to us in the early 20thc picture? And I wonder, too, how this same room will be presented in 2117....

Middle photo: Valley Forge NHP.
Photos upper & lower left: ©2017 Susan Holloway Scott.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Churchill War Rooms

Tuesday, June 27, 2017
Loretta reports from London:

Fairly early on in our time in London, we visited the Churchill War Rooms. This happened a few days after the attack at London Bridge, and made perfectly clear, in case we hadn't already realized, what it really means to be a "city under siege." As in, when bombs are falling and invasion is a definite possibility.

"The story of the Churchill War Rooms is ... one of brilliant improvisation in the face of deadly necessity," according to the guidebook. You can read a short history of its creation here, and learn more about it on the website. I'm going to do my usual while abroad with extremely low speed internet and alien computer technology, and offer pictures.

What I will point out is, not until you get down into this claustrophobic space, think about the numbers of people working here every day and night in secret, read the signs, see the working conditions, and so on, do you have the beginnings of a clue about what it might have been like to get through that war. I choked up more than once, thinking about the courage and endurance of these heroes.






Sunday, June 25, 2017

What Story Is This 18thc Painting Telling?

Sunday, June 25, 2017
Susan reporting,

Earlier in the year, I posted this painting on Instagram along with close-ups of various details. The painting is so intriguing that I'm going to assemble my rambling observations here as a blog post as well - please feel free to offer your own interpretations! (And, as always, click on the images to enlarge them.)

The artist is Louis Rolland Trinquesse (c1746-1800), a Frenchman who specialized in creating titillating scenes like this that his wealthy patrons craved. With that in mind, I doubt that the title the painting has now - An Elegant Interior with Two Ladies and a Gentleman - was what it was originally called. I'm sure it went by something much more suggestive and saucy; that's just the kind of picture it is.

The gentleman is clearly a good "friend," and has been granted the intimacy of being here in the boudoir of the woman in pink while she dresses. We'll call her the mistress of the house, and I'd guess that she may be (or has been) his mistress as well. This could be an expensively appointed room in their love-nest, or it could be the house she shares with an absent husband. She's wearing a sheer white dressing robe to protect her gown as she arranges her hair and make-up - another sign of intimacy.

But while the man is doing his best to press his advantage - he's leaning into her, his foot nearly touches hers, and his hand is almost on her knee - the  mistress doesn't seem entirely pleased that he's there. She's paying more attention to repairing her somewhat mussed hair and cap than to him. Her tiny feet in seductively high-heeled mules do point towards him, but her legs are firmly crossed at the knee.

Meanwhile, the maidservant (and despite the painting's current title, she is definitely a servant from her dress) seems to be watching the other two with sly interest. She definitely Knows Things, and has probably Seen Things, too, and she'd be perfectly happy to tell them. Note how familiarly she's leaning on the back of her mistress's chair. She's probably wearing her cast-off clothing, as was a common practice among lady's maids, and her cap is nearly as impressive as the one her mistress is wearing. But the front of the maid's pinner apron seems loose, even rumpled, and without that flat, straight front that 18thc stays gave to every woman's torso. Has she left off her stays? Is her body uncorseted, and agreeable available beneath her gown? Maybe she's plotting to take her mistress's place in the man's attentions and his bed - or perhaps she already has.

Outside the window, the sun is either setting, or rising. Does it signify the beginning of an affair, or the end of it? Is the the aftermath of a nigh-long dalliance that the mistress is already regretting, or is she wrestling with her consciences, and wondering whether to give in to the man's persuasive seduction? Consider how she's holding that elaborate cap on her equally elaborate hair with one hand, while taking a pin from the pin cushion with the other (she would have used ordinary straight pins to anchor the cap to her hair.) Would she use one of those pins to jab his wrist if his hand creeps too close?

The fluttering pages of the open book in the background imply an unfinished story. It also appears as if the green drape around the mistress's looking glass on her dressing table has been pulled to cover the glass entirely. Is her conscience so unsettled that she doesn't want to confront her own reflection?

One final thing to note: the large incense burner (the peculiar item on the tripod stand in the foreground) is smoking: richly, luxuriantly, fragrantly. And where's there's smoke....

So what story do you see when you look at this painting?

Above: An Elegant Interior with Two Ladies and a Gentleman by Louise Rolland Trinquess, 1776, The Wadsworth Atheneum.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Breakfast Links: Week of June 18, 2017

Saturday, June 24, 2017
Breakfast Links are served - our weekly round-up of fav links to other web sites, articles, blogs, and images via Twitter.
Kate Warne, the first female detective in the United States.
Jane Austen, war novelist and worldly businesswoman.
• A rare deposition from the Salem Witch trials that helped sentence an elderly widow to death is to be sold.
Image: Stunning 1856 photo of Queen Victoria with George III's daughter Princess Mary (Minnie.)
• Changes on the land: 19th American photography east of the Mississippi.
• An 18thc tartan frock coat that may have been worn by Bonnie Prince Charlie himself.
• How a fragment of Chinese wallpaper at Uppark can be a piece in a continent-wide puzzle.
Image: An early 19thc view of Sadler's Wells Theatre.
Spy techniques of the American Revolution.
• Protection and punishment: beliefs about angels in Tudor & Stuart England.
• The painted leg: liquid stockings of the 1940s.
• Mud, sweat, and fears: the making of a Japanese kimono.
• Architect Mary Colter was "a surly woman who cursed with abandon" - and designed pioneering National Park structures that blended into the environment.
• Striking portraits of ancient people in this collection of Fayum portraits.
Image: Surely this "Mosco Silk" shawl was unusual in 1804 Portland, Maine.
• How Tories used money and influence to win an election...in 1816.
Rayon, an epidemic of insanity, and the woman who fought to expose it.
• The comforts of home on the battlefield: an 18thc folding camp bed used by General George Washington.
Umbrella etiquette and manners in the 19thc.
• Remembering Bingo, a trench dog and mascot of World War One.
Mary Katherine Goddard, the printer of the first broadside of the Declaration of Independence to list signers.
Image: Just for fun: Civil status, according to Jane Austen. And while we're at it, how about these hints on achieving a Regency Beach Body.
Hungry for more? Follow us on Twitter @2nerdyhistgirls for fresh updates daily.
Above: At Breakfast by Laurits Andersen Ring. Private collection

Friday, June 23, 2017

Friday Video: Behind the Scenes at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Friday, June 23, 2017

Susan reporting,

Consider this both a Friday Video, and a super-duper Breakfast Links.

Recently Google launched a new project through their Arts & Culture program. Called "We Wear Culture: The Stories Behind What We Wear" - the landing-page link is here - the program features scores of links to videos, articles, and on-line exhibitions that highlight fashion, material culture, and clothing, both past and present. Links will lead to museums, collections, and institutions from all over the world, and cover everything from modern fashion trendsetters to the most ancient of textile crafts. There is so much to explore - be prepared to spend some time!

The video, above, is a taste of what you'll find. This is a short behind-the-scenes look at the Conservation Laboratory of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute, and features several garments that presented special challenges. A hint for viewing this video (and it took me a few tries to figure this out!): use the navigation tool in the upper corner to go right and reach each new segment. I remember seeing the Worth gown on display as part of last year's "Masterpieces" exhibition, and the solution to the gown's issues was wonderfully unobtrusive, and a sympathetic way to present a still-beautiful, if damaged, garment.

If you receive this post via email, you may be seeing an empty space or black box where the video should be. Click here to go directly to the video.
 
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