Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Victorian public urinal listed as historic building

Friday, December 19th, 2014

The Victorian-era public urinal atop Blackboy Hill in Bristol has been listed as Grade II historic structures of “more than special interest” by English Heritage.

A spokesman for the organisation said: “Historic elements of the public realm, including street furniture and public facilities, are particularly vulnerable to damage, alteration and removal and where they survive well, they will in some cases be given serious consideration for designation.

“In times of austerity, facilities and structures such as this set of urinals are under increasing threat, and where there are found to be deserving of protection English Heritage will recommend to the Secretary of State that they be added to the National Heritage List for England.”

He said the urinal was a “relatively rare surviving example of a once common type of building” and represented the “civic aspirations of the authorities in the Bristol suburbs in the late Victorian period”.

The ornate cast iron building was made by W MacFarlane & Co. Ltd’s Saracen Foundry in Glasgow, by order of the Bristol Sanitary Committee in the 1880s. It is a rectangular full height structure with intricate perforated designs in Moorish style on the iron walls and a glass roof. Inside, chest-high white porcelain urinals are inset in the iron framing with curved modesty screens dividing each unit. The tile floor is a modern replacement, but the rest is original. The facility is still in use today and is a little the worse for wear. Perhaps its listing will inspire renovations.

Public lavatories were a nexus of Victorian obsessions — sanitation, technology, decoration as a marker of respectability, social reform, class conflict, gender roles, avoiding the various grossnesses of human biology. The modern era of public toilets was ushered in by sanitary engineer George Jennings who built “commodious refreshment rooms, with the accompaniments usually connected with them at large railway stations” in the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851. The euphemistic description in the catalog was no deterrent to use. The first public flushing toilets were a hit, used 827,820 times by men and women during the five months of the Great Exhibition. The pay toilets raised £2,441 at a penny per usage, a fee that would remain standard for 150 years, inflation be damned. The idiom for urinating “spend a penny” is a legacy of Jennings’ innovation.

Spurred by the success of the Exhibition facilities and George Jennings’ ceaseless advocacy for public lavatories, the Society of Arts privately funded separate men and women’s toilets in 1852. They were as spectacular a failure as the ones in the Crystal Palace had been a success. Elegantly appointed and staffed by a supervisor and two attendants, these bathrooms were pricey at two pence per use or three pence for the basic plus a wash and brush (that’s right, you had to pay extra to wash your hands after using the public toilet). Perhaps deterred by the price or simply resistant to the very notion, only 58 men and 24 women used the lavatories over the course of a month. The facilities were promptly shut down.

The first public in both senses of the word — municipally funded and located on the public thoroughfare — lavatory was built outside the Royal Exchange in 1855. It was for men only and facilities would remain exclusively Gents for nearly 40 years. There was immense resistance from both men and women to the notion of public conveniences for the fairer sex. For some people, the notion of women peeing or pooping in close confines with other people of all walks of life was shockingly immodest, by its very design putting respectable middle and upper class women in the position of exposing their bodies and bodily functions in public much like prostitutes. The mixing of classes was seen as a danger in and of itself, the lady contaminated by rubbing shoulders with the flower girl.

The Ladies Sanitary Association began campaigning for public women’s facilities in 1878, demanding there be public restrooms (with one free water closet in every facility for poor women) to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of working women navigating the city. Eleven years later, the first municipal women’s facility opened in Piccadilly Circus.

The controversy was by no means over, however. In London’s civil parish of St Pancras, the first public latrines with accommodations for women were built on Kentish Town Road and St Pancras Road in the 1890s, but when the Vestry (the parish government) debated installing a women’s only facility at the intersection of Park Street and Camden High Street, it took five years, from 1900 to 1905, to get over all the snickering and dissembling from the governing body and protests from the residents and businesspeople. We have no less of a witness to this fracas than playwright George Bernard Shaw who was a Vestryman at St Pancras from 1897 to 1903.

In the March 1909 issue The Englishwoman, a journal advocating the extension of the franchise to women, Shaw published The Unmentionable Case for Woman’s Suffrage, an essay arguing that women in government were necessary to keep grown men from devolving into junior high nitwits whenever issues pertaining to women’s sanitation, public accommodations, etc. were discussed. He also revealed the sabotage and Catch 22s that kept the bathrooms from being built for five years.

For instance, the bus companies protested that the facility would be a dangerous traffic obstacle, even though there was a men’s room literally in the middle of the intersection across the street from the proposed ladies’ room. They put up a wooden model at the proposed location and indeed it was ploughed into no less than 45 times. Shaw pointed out in the essay that this statistic was not exactly bullet-proof.

[The wooden model] brought about all the power of the vestryman over the petty commerce and petty traffic of his district. In one day, every omnibus on the Camden Town route, every tradesman’s cart owned within a radius of two miles, and most of the rest of the passing vehicles, including private carriages driven to the spot on purpose, crashed into that obstruction with just violence enough to produce an accident without damage. The drivers who began the game were either tipped or under direct orders; but the joke soon caught on, and was kept up for fun by all and sundry.

The one Vestrywoman, Mrs. Miall-Smith, tried to get her colleagues to take the issue seriously because the thousands of women flocking to Camden Town to work in its factories needed to pee every once in a while, but with the class-mixing paranoia that accompanied the public toilet issue, her argument wasn’t likely to persuade the opposition.

Shaw noted that there was one highly relevant woman staff member who should have weighed in on the issue: a female sanitation inspector hired to examine the sanitary accommodations for women factory workers. She had an enormous task of inspecting work sites to see if they even had any facilities for women at all (many of them did not) and checking the ones that did have women’s lavatories multiple times a week for cleanliness. Shaw’s comment on her is a fascinating window into the complexities of communication across class and gender lines in Victorian Britain.

The exclusion of women from the Borough Council left the inspectress in a difficult position. The barrier of the unmentionable arose between her and members of the Health Committee. It was all the higher because the inspectress was generally an educated woman of university rank, not at all conversant with the sort of local tradesman who regards the subject of sanitary accommodation as one to which no lady should allude in the presence of a gentleman.

Finally in December of 1905, the debate ended. After more prodding from Mrs. Miall-Smith and a report from the Highways, Sewers and Public Works Committee, the borough agreed to build the Park Street women’s lavatory.

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Freer, Sackler to release entire collections online

Thursday, December 18th, 2014

The Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery have completed a digitization project whose scope is unprecedented in the United States. Come January 1st, 2015, their entire collections, more than 40,000 works of Asian and American art, will be released online. Most of these works have never been on display so they will be seen by the public for the first time as high resolution images.

In the initial release, each work will be represented by one or more stunningly detailed images at the highest possible resolution, with complex items such as albums and manuscripts showing the most important pages. In addition, some of the most popular images will also be available for download as free computer, smartphone and social media backgrounds. Future iterations plan to offer additional functionality like sharing, curation and community-based research.

“The depth of the data we’re releasing illuminates each object’s unique history, from its original creator to how it arrived at the Smithsonian,” said Courtney O’Callaghan, director of digital media and technology at the Freer and Sackler galleries. “Now, a new generation can not only appreciate these works on their own terms, but remix this content in ways we have yet to imagine.”

The museum’s masterpieces range in time from the Neolithic to the present day, featuring especially fine groupings of Chinese jades and bronzes, Islamic art, Chinese paintings and masterworks from ancient Persia. Currently, the collection boasts 1,806 American art objects, 1,176 ancient Egyptian objects, 2,076 ancient Near Eastern objects, 10,424 Chinese objects, 2,683 Islamic objects, 1,213 South and Southeast Asian objects and smaller groupings of Korean, Armenian, Byzantine, Greek and Roman works. In addition, the Freer Study Collection — more than 10,000 objects used by scholars around the world for scientific research and reference — will be viewable for the first time.

To enable the widest possible usage, fully 90% of the images will be free of any copyright restrictions for noncommercial use. The museums hope this will engender wider study of Asian art as well as new artworks inspired by the pieces in their galleries and archives.

Very few museums in the US have digitized their entire collections, and none of them are museums specializing in Asian art. The Freer and Sackler are also the first of the Smithsonian museums to have complete online collections. It’s not surprising that they would be pioneers in this area. The Freer and Sackler are the only museums to have been in on the ground floor of both the Google Art Project digitization initiative and the Google Cultural Institute. Google did the heavy lifting on those, though. The Smithsonian staff spent nearly 6,000 work hours this year photographing and digitizing the Freer/Sackler collections.

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Paul Revere time capsule retrieved in Boston

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

A time capsule buried in cornerstone of the Massachusetts Statehouse in Boston by Paul Revere and Samuel Adams in 1795 was recovered last Thursday. There’s been a longstanding water leak problem affecting the corner where the time capsule was sealed in plaster, so workers removed the cornerstone and called in conservators from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to dig out the box. They propped it up on blocks so conservator Pamela Hatchfield could carefully chisel out the time capsule from the underside of the cornerstone. Lying on her back in the snow and wind (she didn’t want to flip the cornerstone because it might damage the artifacts), she chipped away at the plaster from 10:30 A.M. to 4:30 P.M. Finally she dislodged the box and it was taken to the Museum of Fine Arts under State Police escort.

Historical records indicate the time capsule was first installed in the cornerstone when construction on the Statehouse began. Silversmith, printmaker and Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere, William Scollay, a militia Colonel and the future great-uncle of author Herman Melville, and Samuel Adams, maltster (the family business was the production of malt used in brewing, not brewing per se) and fourth governor of Massachusetts, placed the time capsule. The original container was made of cowhide and is thought to have contained some 17th century coins, newspapers, the seal of the Commonwealth, a page from the Massachusetts Colony Records and an engraved silver plate, possibly the work of Revere himself.

It was rediscovered in 1855 during work on the building’s foundations. In classic 19th century style, they thought it was an awesome call to do some light cleaning before replacing the time capsule. The coins were dipped in acid and then the artifacts were put in a new container, a copper box slightly smaller than a cigar box, which was plastered onto the underside of the cornerstone. Officials threw some contemporary coins in the plaster for luck (five of them fell onto Pamela Hatchfield’s face during her long day of chiseling) and added a few things from their own time — more coins, newspapers, documents — to the box. It was a humid day in 1855, so between the acid cleaning, the moisture in the air during the transfer and the 30-year water leak from which it was rescued last week, conservators aren’t sure what condition the artifacts are in.

“Hopefully there will be no damage and we will be able to observe the artifacts that trace us back to the history not only just of this building, but of our Commonwealth and our country,” said Secretary of State William Galvin, who was on hand for the capsule’s first appearance in more than 150 years.

The time capsule was sent to the Museum of Fine Arts to be X-rayed. That will give conservators an idea of what’s inside and hopefully what condition the artifacts are in before they open the box. The contents will be examined and any necessary interventions done; they will be on public display for a short time. The Massachusetts Secretary of State’s office has not determined whether they too will chip in something to record to the march of time before the capsule is returned to the cornerstone next year.

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Lost 1927 Disney short found in Norway

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

Okay I’m just going to say it: the National Library of Norway is the POMPEII OF FILM. And thus I too succumb to the irresistible urge to call Pompeii on a discovery that is nothing like Pompeii except insofar as something thought to have been destroyed, possibly in an apocalyptic firestorm, was actually found to have survived. Earlier this year the library made the news for its discovery of the only known copy of the 1927 Chinese silent epic Pan Si Dong (The Cave of the Silken Web). Now they’ve identified another silent treasure: Empty Socks, a 1927 Disney short starring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, that was thought lost except for a 25-second clip in the care of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The short was discovered in 2008 during a review of the National Library’s archive of nitrate films. The two reels were not clearly labelled so archivists didn’t know which film it was. The reels had once belonged to Norwegian collector Tor Eide who gave them to the Norwegian Film Institute. The NFI gave its collection of nitrate films to the National Library in 2007, and ever since then archivists have been going through the nitrate films to identify, restore, copy and digitize them.

This is a dangerous vocation. The nitrate film archives are kept in a custom-built climate-and-moisture controlled secure bunker near rock caves in the subarctic town of Mo i Rana. The high security bunker in a remote, cold location is a necessary precaution because the nitrocellulose compound used to make most motion pictures from the late 1880s through 1951 is insanely flammable. A little warmth or pressure and it explodes with more force than gunpowder. It doesn’t even need oxygen to burn because it produces its own oxygen during combustion. It also burns under water. The powder it biodegrades into spontaneously ignites even harder than the intact film. Handling nitrate films is therefore a highly regulated process with extensive security measures to protect the people and facilities from deadly consequences. The Mo i Rana bunker is partitioned into cells with fireproof walls to ensure that if there is a fire, it will be limited in scope. Every time a nitrate movie is taken out of the warehouse for study, it has to be left to temper for at least a day so the sudden increase in temperature won’t set it off.

Library film archivists Kvale Sørenssen and Tone Føreland didn’t recognize the story at first glance, but they wrote a detailed summary of the action. Føreland noted in the description that he thought it might be a Felix the Cat picture because one of the characters resembled Otto Messmer’s iconic feline. In March of this year, comic writer, illustrator, animation historian and former Disney archivist David Gerstein contacted the National Library after coming across some documents that suggested there could be lost Disney films in the library’s archives. He had already had success in Norway, discovering the 1928 Oswald the Lucy Rabbit short Tall Timber in the archives of the Norwegian Film Institute in 2007. The library sent him a list of film titles, but it was Føreland’s description of the untitled possible Felix the Cat short that caught his eye. Gerstein recognized the action as the plot of Empty Socks.

The first Christmas movie ever made by Disney, Empty Socks features Oswald the Lucky Rabbit playing Santa to some orphans, but his good intentions can’t save him from youthful rapscallionry. The little terrors set fire to a chair and the fire spreads through the home. When Oswald tries to douse the flames with a hose connected to the fire hydrant, the orphans connect the hose to a fuel tank instead and the orphanage blows up. The National Library’s film is missing between 30 seconds and a minute in the middle of the short (the sequence when Oswald hands out the presents ending up when the kids light the chair on fire) for a total running time of five minutes and 30 seconds.

On December 17th, the National Library in Oslo will do a viewing of the restored short and Tall Timber. Tall Timber wasn’t lost, but it is very rare, and it’s notable for being the last surviving Oswald picture directed by Walt Disney. Film archivist Kjetil Kvale Sørenssen and animated film historian Gunnar Strøm will introduce the shorts which will be shown with live piano accompaniment as is proper for the live silent movie viewing experience. The event is already fully booked.

No word on a wider release of the film. The National Library sent a digital copy of the restored film to the Walt Disney Company, The original nitrate will stay safe in National Library’s subarctic bunker.

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Vast archive of kimono stencils found in Dresden museum

Sunday, December 14th, 2014

The Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Decorative Arts) in Dresden has rediscovered an unparalleled archive of Japanese kimono stencils in its storage depot. More than 15,000 katagami stencils, elaborately carved paper stencils used to print patterns on kimono fabric, had slumbered uninterrupted by curatorial interest in 92 neatly stacked and numbered cases for 125 years. This is the largest collection of katagami in the world. The museum is making up for lost time now and has put 140 of the stencils on display along with historic kimonos in the Elbe Wing of the Japanisches Palais.

From the wealth of motifs in the Kunstgewerbemuseum’s collection, those depicting aspects of rain, which has a particularly significant cultural and spiritual role in a country exposed to monsoon winds and dependent on rice cultivation, have been specially chosen. The uniformity of tiny falling raindrops also seems to be reflected in the aesthetic logic of the repetitive structural designs of the printed pattern repeats. The Designs became more and more refined as the fabrics for which they were created were increasingly being produced for use by the samurai nobility for prestige and ceremonial purposes.

When the first katagami prints arrived in Europe in the 19th century, the highly sophisticated art of Japanese pattern design had a powerful influence on ornament in western fine arts, craftworks, and on the emerging discipline of industrial design.

The Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum in New York City has one of the biggest collections of katagami in the United States with almost 400 examples. You can browse a selection of them in the museum’s collection database. You can see how the esthetic inspired western textile prints beyond the deliberate references of say, Art Nouveau’s Japonisme trend (compare this flying bat katagami in the Cooper-Hewitt collection to the Verneuil bats and poppies wallpaper in this post, for example). This water pattern could easily be a mod print from the 60s.

It’s an ancient art, at least 1,000 years old. Katagami are made by layering three sheets of washi, paper handmade from the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree, and pasting them together with a persimmon juice lacquer. The final product is a flexible but strong paper browned by the tannins in the juice. Then the design is cut out of the paper using tools specific to the art. There are four cutting skills — Hiki-bori (long stripes cut towards the artist), Dogu-bori, (figurative carving using a number of cutting tools), Kiri-bori (circular holes) and Tsuki-bori (shaped punches) — that each artisan must master. The process is painstaking and requires intense focus of mind and hand.

Once cut, the stencil is backed with a delicate interlacing net, the oldest of which were made from human hair strands but they were eventually replaced by stronger and more stable silk fibers. It can then be used in the katazome technique of resist-dyeing which entails spreading rice paste over the stencil onto the fabric. That’s repeated over and over again, each placement of the stencil carefully aligned to get an even print pattern throughout the textile. When the fabric is dyed, the areas with rice paste will not change color. Traditionally one katagami is used for one kimono, although that doesn’t mean each pattern is one of a kind since it’s possible for artisans to cut several katagami at the same time by stacking the prepared sheets.

Also known as Ise-Katagami because for centuries the Ise Province (modern-day Mie Prefecture) was the center of production. Artisans would create stencils that were used all over the country. The art, expensive, time-consuming and deeply connected to traditional Japanese clothing, declined after World War II. There are few masters still working today, most of them in the town of Suzuka where you can find the Ise Katagami Stencil Museum in an Edo Period historical landmark home. Perhaps the success of this great Gucci bag with the company’s trademark double-G logo applied using katagami and lacquer on deer leather is a harbinger of new life for the art form.

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Rijksmuseum acquires Adriaen de Vries bronze

Friday, December 12th, 2014

I love it when a museum wins an auction bidding war. The institution in question is the Rijksmuseum which has just bought Bacchic Figure Supporting the Globe, a bronze statue by Adriaen de Vries, for $27,885,000 including buyer’s premium at The Exceptional Sale in Christie’s New York saleroom. Three phone bidders engaged in a four-minute battle for the Mannerist masterpiece and the Rijksmuseum came out victorious thanks to generous funding from private and public donors.

The price sets a new record for de Vries, eclipsing the previous record that was set in 1989 when The Dancing Fawn sold for £6.8 million ($10,687,560). That was the last time a major work by the artist went up for auction, so if the Rijksmuseum hadn’t committed to this purchase, who knows when the next opportunity would present itself to acquire a work by one of the greatest Dutch sculptors for the Netherlands Collection. The museum owns a small bronze relief Bacchus Finding Ariadne on Naxos (c. 1611) by de Vries, and it has a larger sculpture, Triton Blowing a Conch Shell (c. 1615 – c. 1618), on loan from the National Museum in Stockholm. Bacchic Figure Supporting the Globe, which the museum is calling simply Atlas, is the first major piece by de Vries in a public Dutch collection.

It’s a particularly fine specimen as well.

Dated 1626 and probably the last autograph work by De Vries the bronze represents the mythological figure of Atlas, a nude man supporting the globe. It displays the virtuoso and highly individual modelling style for which the sculptor was celebrated during his lifetime. This exceptionally sketchy, free and tactile style reached its apogee in the final years of his life and shows him as a true artistic innovator, centuries ahead of his time.

De Vries was born in The Hague around 1555 where he trained as a goldsmith before moving to Florence and working in the studio of Mannerist sculptor Giambologna, the Medici court sculptor, in 1581. In 1589, de Vries went to Prague by request of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, the greatest patron of the arts on the continent. In this first period of work for the emperor, he made two large bronze statues, Mercury Abducting Psyche, now in the Louvre, and Psyche Borne by Cupids, now in the Nationalmuseum Stockholm.

He then traveled back to Italy to study antiquities in Rome and on his way back made two monumental multi-figure fountains in Augsburg, Germany. In 1601 he was back in Prague where he worked for Rudolf II until the emperor’s death in 1612. Although he was still technically employed at court, Rudolf’s successor, his brother Matthias, does not appear to have commissioned any work from de Vries. The artist found other royal patrons in Germany, Austria and Denmark and continued to produce work until his death in 1626.

De Vries’ innovative approach to bronze casting, modelling and the use of patina to convey differences in color as well as texture made him hugely famous in his time. He created Atlas using the direct lost wax method which models a central wax core with the features of the final sculpture before wrapping it in a fire-resistant casing and heating it so the wax melts. Bronze is then poured into the casing and once it cools, the casing is broken off to reveal the sculpture. Naturally the process results in areas that need additional work — extra blobs of bronze to file off, holes filled, details enhanced — but Atlas appears to have been barely touched. Even the details in the vines on the base and the figure’s head are as de Vries designed them on the wax.

His talents earned Adriaen de Vries the sobriquet the Dutch Michelangelo, but the upheaval of the Thirty Years’ War and subsequent conflicts saw his works widely plundered and the memory of him in his homeland faded. The largest single collection of de Vries’ sculptures is in the Museum De Vries at Drottningholm Palace outside of Stockholm. They were all pillaged, most of them from Rudolf II’s collection by Swedish troops in the second Sack of Prague, the last battle of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, others from the Frederiksborg Palace in Denmark in 1659 during the Dano-Swedish War.

Atlas is one of few works by de Vries to have stayed put for 300 years or so, unpublished and unknown. Since it was one of the last sculptures he ever made, experts believe it was sold by his heirs after his death. The first time it appears in the record is in an engraving from around 1700 of the gardens of the Saint Martin Castle in Graz, Austria. Its path from Prague to Austria is unknown, but the sellers have among their illustrious line an ancestor named Margarethe Leopoldine, Countess Colonna von Fels, who married into the family. Her great-grandfather was Leonhard, Freiherr Colonna von Fels, a prominent Bohemian noble who had actually been present and involved in the famous 1618 Defenestration of Prague when two pro-Catholic Regents and a secretary were tossed out of a window by Bohemian Protestant nobles who justifiably feared the concessions granted them by HRE Matthias would be revoked. Margarethe was born many years later and married in 1693. By then statue would have been a family heirloom of several generations that she brought with her to Austria, perhaps as part of her dowry. She installed it in the courtyard of the family castle where it remained perched on a column until 2010.

For a long time Adriaen de Vries was one of the secrets of art-history, a highly original genius, only know by a handful of insiders. The successful international exhibition devoted to the sculptor that the Rijksmuseum organised together with the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles in 1998-2000, has led to a wider appreciation of his bronzes and a revaluation of his reputation; nowadays he is considered as one of the most important sculptors of the early Baroque.

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Wreck of San Francisco’s worst maritime disaster found

Wednesday, December 10th, 2014

When the SS City of Rio de Janeiro struck the shoals of Fort Point in San Francisco Bay early morning on February 22, 1901, 128 of the 210 souls aboard perished. It was 5:00 AM and the Bay was wrapped in one of those blinding fogs that are its trademark. Visibility was literally zero. Captain William Ward tried to steer the 345-foot steamer through the Golden Gate but with no visible landmarks, he veered slightly too far south and the ship ground onto the jagged rocks. The underside of the vessel was torn open almost from stem to stern, and when the ebb tide pushed the ship off the shoals, the cargo holds and engine room flooded. Built in 1878 before the era of watertight bulkheads, City of Rio was under the waves in 10 minutes.

Passengers, many of them Chinese and Japanese immigrants, crowded the deck, fighting for life jackets and seats on the lifeboats. The ship had 11 lifeboats, enough to save everyone aboard, but in the chaos of the sinking, only three of them were lowered and passengers overloaded two of them so they sank too. It all happened so quickly that the Fort Point Lifesaving Station had no idea there was a ship going down yards away from them. They only realized they’d missed a shipwreck when the one surviving lifeboat was spotted emerging from a fog bank two hours later. Italian fishermen who were heading out of the Bay for the day’s work when City of Rio went down and rescue ships eventually sent from Fort Point collected a few survivors clinging to wreckage in the water. Captain Ward was not among them. His body was found more than a year later on July 12, 1902, when the wooden pilothouse detached from the wreckage and floated to Fort Baker. Ward’s remains were identified by the serial number on his watch and its unusual fob made from a Chinese silver coin.

The comparatively large loss of life and circumstances of the disaster inspired some historians to dub City of Rio the Bay Area’s Titanic. News accounts at the time reported gossip that the steamer went down carrying a fortune in “Chinese silver” (the bill of lading lists the cargo as 923 rolls of matting, but why let facts get in the way?) so treasure hunters have long sought the wreck site. In 1987 one group thought they had found it, but their remotely operated submersible was carried away in the currents and the coordinates they shared didn’t match any wrecks.

Last month, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) set out to find the City of Rio as part of a study of the shipwrecks in the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. Equipped with a powerful remotely operated vehicle, a 3D sonar and experts to run them, the team was able to identify the City of Rio 287 feet under the surface just outside the Golden Gate inside the main ship channel.

The 3-D model generated by the Coda Octopus “Echoscope” sonar also gave researchers an entirely new perspective on the condition of the wreck site. What they found was a crumpled, scarcely recognizable iron hulk encased in more than a century worth of mud and sediment, lending support to the narrative that the ship sank quickly before many of its passengers could escape.

While they were in the area, the research team also used the 3D sonar to remap the wreck of the City of Chester that was found in 2013. The Echoscope found that the City of Chester is in far better condition, with the ship’s frame and propulsion machinery still well preserved. It went down in a collision with another ship and unlike the City of Rio, its engine room didn’t explode after it sank.

The NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries Maritime Heritage Program will continue the map the wrecks in the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. So far they’ve documented nine of them. Almost 200 ships have gone down in San Francisco Bay, so there are plenty more to be found. None of them will be interfered with beyond the mapping of them as they are maritime graves.

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Six gold torcs found in Jersey Celtic coin hoard

Monday, December 8th, 2014

The massive hoard of Celtic coins that was raised in a single block from a field on the Channel Island of Jersey in 2012 is proving to be even more precious a treasure trove than was immediately obvious, and that’s saying a lot since the Le Catillon II treasure is the largest Celtic coin hoard ever discovered. The original estimate of the number of coins by volume was 30,000 to 50,000. As the Jersey Museum’s conservator Neil Mahrer has worked his way down the hoard, unsticking the corroded coin cluster, the estimated number has increased to 70,000.

Finders Richard Miles and Reg Mead first began to search for the hoard when a woman told them a story 30 years ago about a pot of silver coins found when her father uprooted a tree on their farm in Grouville parish. She didn’t know exactly where this fabled discovery had happened but she knew the general area and Miles and Mead secured permission from the current landowner to search the field with metal detectors during the brief window between harvest and planting. Over the decades they scanned the property with no success until in February of 2012 they found 60 Celtic coins. They dug a little deeper and encountered a large solid object. Mead grabbed a handful of the soil on top and found a few silver coins inside. Being extremely responsible and awesome people, they immediately filled in the hole and alerted Jersey Heritage to the find.

It’s because of their dogged determination spanning three decades and their respect for the archaeological context that the Le Catillon II hoard was archaeologically excavated from the site and is now being archaeologically excavated in an extremely cool glass-walled laboratory in public view at the Jersey Museum. Richard Miles and Reg Mead are part of the conservation team. They’ve been particularly helpful in coin identification, classification and cleaning, and of course they’re superstars to museum visitors.

The first gold peeked through the vertical face of the hoard in July of 2012. When the green corrosion from the silver and silver alloy coins was washed away, a thin sheet of flattened and twisted gold that had once been a torc was revealed. Later that month, conservators found another gold torc above and to the left of the first one. Only a couple of inches of it were visible at first, but the curve looked proper to the original curve around the neck and there was no evidence of twisting or flattening. This tendered the exciting prospect that there might be an intact gold torc amidst the layers of packed coins.

It has been two and a half years since the first glimpses of torc, and only now have conservators gotten down to the layers where they are nestled. It took close to two years to get all the permits and funding sorted. During that time, Mahrer and the conservation team removed 2,000 loose coins from the surface and cleaned them. This summer, they were finally able to start work on taking apart the coin block, laser scanning each coin in the mass and after its removal to ensure they have as detailed a record of the block and coins at every possible stage. The hoard is too big and dense for X-rays to give conservators an excavation road map, so they’re only discovering what’s in there as they go along.

In the beginning the finds were coins and organic material. To preserve the organic material (mainly peat and plant stalks), the team had to move very slowly during the unsticking process. They found that, as expected, most of the coins in the hoard were staters and quarter staters of the Coriosolitae tribe. Unexpectedly, they regularly encountered petit billons, a small denomination that is so rare a few tens of them were known before this hoard. They’re so rare that nobody knows what tribe made them or when. Other numismatic surprises are two coins from the Osismii tribe, the Coriosolitae’s western neighbors: one a five-sided stater that contains some gold, one is a solid gold quarter stater of the Bull Standard type.

In November, they reached the torc area. The solid gold torc was first revealed to have a join in the back, a hole through which a pin would be inserted to close the piece around the neck. Then they found another much larger torc.

At first it appeared to be a thick, tightly curved gold torc but when cleaned back a bit it was revealed as a pair of solid gold “wheels” at the end of a thick, curved, gold torc collar. The wheels are about 4cm accross and the collar part about 15mm thick. We’ve now cleaned back enough coins to see that the torc appears to be constructed from two semi circular parts which would have fitted together to be worn. We’ve think we’ve exposed about 90% of the first part with the wheels and about 50% of the second. We don’t know what the other ends of both are like yet. The sheer size of this piece is amazing in comparison to everything else we’ve seen yet and the torc surface appears to be in good condition and of a very pure gold.

And then they found even more:

In the same way that we found the large torc while clearing around another one, we have continued to find more new pieces as we cleared around it. We’ve found another of the sheet gold objects long visible on the hoard’s side. This new one seems very similar but is possibly in better condition. We have also partially uncovered two other smaller diameter possibly solid gold torc sections, one towards the rear of the hoard and another towards its centre. As such we just don’t know how far the rich area of jewellery extends throughout the hoard’s body, but it’s certainly further than we initially thought. What we are going to do over the next few months therefore is to extend the coin removal out from the torc area to a 5cm depth over the whole surface and see what we find.

That makes a total of six torcs — five gold, one gold-plated — found so far in an area the size of a shoebox. For more about the history of the coins, the hoard and its discovery, check out the Treasure Island page on the Jersey Heritage website. Keep your eye on Neil Mahrer’s Treasure Island Blog to follow the exciting developments as the conservation continues.

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1927 washroom from Orient Express for sale

Sunday, December 7th, 2014

A marquetry inlaid mahogany corner washroom complete with all of its ceramic and steel interior fittings made for a sleeping car of the Simplon Orient Express around 1927 is going up for auction next week at Bonhams’ 20th Century Decorative Arts sale. This gem of architectural and iconic Art Deco geometric floral design has a pre-sale estimate of $10,000-$15,000 which is really quite reasonable when you consider that a double cabin on the Paris-Istanbul run of the Orient Express today will set you back $9,270 per person, double occupancy, or $17,840 for a single traveler.

The washroom was created by René Prou, a design pioneer who helped midwife the birth of Art Deco in France. Born in Nantes and educated in Paris, by the time he was 23 in 1912, he was chief designer of furniture company Maison Gouffé and had earned a reputation as a visionary, a decorator for the “goût moderne” (modern taste). He exhibited at the 1925 Paris show of International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts that launched and named the Art Deco style and after that became the head of the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs. Prou became famous for creating the most luxurious train, hotel and ocean liner interiors of the interwar years.

His signature touches were the lacquered panels carved with geometric flower accents. Between 1926 and 1929, Prou designed six different carriages for the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, the hotel and luxury travel company that operated the original Orient Express before World War I and the Simplon Orient Express after the war in its Art Deco heyday. His engraved panels were soon recognized as the quintessence of the “Orient Express Style,” sumptuous in material but with the streamlined elegance and smooth lines of the machine age.

He worked with masters like architect Paul Nelson and glassmaking genius René Lalique on the interior decoration of the Orient Express. Lalique carried the decorative motifs Prou engraved and inlaid on the mahogany and Finnish burr birch paneling into his glass panels. Prou also designed the polished bronze Art Deco lamps in the train and the armchairs that were soon widely copied for home use.

This particular washroom was made around 1927 from a model designed around 1926. A maquette, a scale model 24 inches tall and wide, of the sleeper car with the mahogany corner washroom is included in the auction lot. The washroom is 78.5 inches high, 36 inches wide (closed) and 29 inches deep. It is made of lacquered and marquetry inlaid Honduran and Cuban mahogany and opens to reveal a ceramic wash basin, round shaving mirror, four built-in holders for toiletries, one half-length mirror in each door and multiple compartments in the bottom for trash and accessories.

The provenance is unbeatable: the washroom and maquette come directly from the corporate archives of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits.

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Wolsey’s Angels need rescuing and fast

Friday, December 5th, 2014

Four bronze angels created for the never-completed tomb of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, lost for centuries, could be scattered again if we can’t raise £1,540,247 by December 31st. As of right now, £3,459,753 has been raised, thanks to a £2 million grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, £500,000 from the Art Fund and donations from individuals through the Victoria & Albert museum’s Wolsey Angels Appeal. I really cannot emphasize enough how much of a monstrous travesty losing the Wolsey Angels would be.

It was Cardinal Wolsey himself, at the peak of his power in 1524, 10 years after he was appointed Cardinal Archbishop of York, on his ninth year as Lord Chancellor to King Henry VIII, who commissioned the angels from Florentine sculptor and architect Benedetto da Rovezzano. Benedetto was famous by then as a builder of tombs for the notables of the short-lived Florentine Republic, church reliefs, statues for sepulchral monuments to saints. His Republican sympathies and wholesale loss of patrons after the re-establishment of the Medici rule ultimately drove him out of Florence. In 1519 he moved to London and remained there for 24 years, making sculptures and tombs for the royal court.

Wolsey’s commission was for a monumental tomb in Renaissance style with an angel standing on pillars nine feet tall in each of the four corners, but his end would come before the tomb was completed and in any case his circumstances had changed, to put it mildly. When Wolsey was unable to secure an annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, he wasn’t just fired; he was arrested. In 1529, Henry confiscated Wolsey’s property, including the residence of Hampton Court thenceforth known as Hampton Court Palace and Benedetto da Rovezzano’s four bronze angels and other finished parts of the tomb including the striking black marble sarcophagus. Wolsey died on his way to London to answer to charges of treason in November of 1530.

Henry VIII decided he would use the elements of Wolsey’s tomb to make an even grander tomb for himself, and who better to commission than Benedetto da Rovezzano? Benedetto set up a workshop and foundry at Westminster and set to work on the king’s tomb. By 1543, the tomb still wasn’t finished and Benedetto’s health was suffering so he returned to Italy. According to Vasari, Benedetto experienced vertigo and sight impairment as a result of “standing too long over the fire in the founding of metals, or by some other reasons,” and eventually went completely blind. He died around 1554.

Henry VIII died in 1547 with the tomb incomplete. He was buried with his third wife and mother of his son, Jane Seymour, in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. His three children — Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I — each said they’d have the tomb completed and Henry interred in it, but it never happened. In 1565, Elizabeth moved the tomb parts to Windsor where they were still being kept 80 years later when the dislocation of Civil War struck them. With the Parliamentarian victories in 1645, most of the tomb was sold off. Only the black sarcophagus remained at Windsor. Charles I wanted to buried in it at Westminster Abbey, but the 59 Commissioners who found him guilty of high treason against himself refused permission. Instead he was buried in Henry VIII’s vault in St. George’s Chapel on February 9th, 1649. A suitable use was eventually found for the black coffin: in 1805, King George III gifted the Wolsey-Henry-Charles sarcophagus to serve as a final resting place for Admiral Lord Nelson’s body in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

As for the angels, they disappeared after the Civil War fire sale. It took 350 years for them to turn up again. Unmoored from their illustrious history and unrecognized by appraisal exports, two of the angels came up for auction at Sotheby’s in 1994. The catalogue described them as bronze angels “in the Renaissance style,” not realizing they were originals of major historical significance by a name artist. They didn’t even include a photograph accompanying the entry in the catalogue. The pair sold for £12,000. A few years ago, the auction pair were finally recognized. Italian art historian Francesco Caglioti came across them in the possession of a Paris antiques dealer. He researched the angels and found an exact description of them in a 1530 inventory of Wolsey’s property.

Caglioti didn’t stop there. He went on a quest to find the other two angels, and against every conceivable odds, he found them in 2008 at Harrowden Hall, a Northamptonshire estate that was acquired by the Wellingborough Golf Club in the 1970s. Nobody knows when the angels got there; they were already in place when the stately home became a clubhouse. All four of them were there, as a matter of fact, because the two that were sold at Sotheby’s in 1994 had actually been stolen from the Wellingborough Golf Club in 1988. The angels were standing on posts flanking the entrance gates back then. The golf club people just figured one pair had been stolen for their lead value (they had no idea the angels were even bronze) so they moved the surviving pair indoors and wrote off the loss. As soon as they found out they had Wolsey’s Angels, the club lent them to the V&A for safekeeping.

Now here is the crux of the travesty. Because of the statute of limitations and the many hands and countries with varying applicable laws the stolen angels have passed through, the Wellingborough Gold Club cannot get the angels back from the Paris dealer. Instead, he’s going to sell his pair to the Victoria & Albert for £2.5 million. He may donate some portion of his filthy lucre to the Golf Club, but then again he may not. The Wellingborough has made the same offer for its pair of angels (they can’t be sold to the highest bidder because they are part of the heritage listing of Harrowden Hall) which is why it will cost £5 million to save the four Wolsey Angels for the nation.

Hilary Mantel, author of the Tudor-era historical novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, had this to say about the rediscovery of the Wolsey Angels:

“Thanks to the discovery of Wolsey’s angels, a great Englishman we have forgotten may have his monument at last. The recovery of Wolsey’s angels is one of those miracles that historians pray for; something that seems irrevocably lost has been there all the time. To claim the angels for the nation would connect us to one of the liveliest eras of our history and one of its most remarkable men.”

I asked Brodie Lyon, the V&A’s Annual Fund and Appeals Manager, if there was another large grant in the works to make up for the alarming shortfall and there was none that he could announce publicly, which I hope means there are arrangements going on in the background but could just as well mean that there is no plan B. We need a last minute fundraising push because if this sale doesn’t go through, it looks like those two Paris angels could wind up anywhere in the world and there isn’t a damn thing the law can do about it even though there is no dispute about the fact that they’re stolen goods of immense cultural significance to Britain.

Save the Wolsey Angels!

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