Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Leaning Tower of Bad Frankenhausen saved

Sunday, November 23rd, 2014

The funding cavalry has arrived to save the dangerously leaning tower of the Church of Our Dear Ladies on the Hill in the Thuringian spa town of Bad Frankenhausen. The 14th century bell tower, built on a chalk foundation over subterranean salt deposits that get washed out by the springs that put the Bad in Bad Frankenhausen, has been leaning precipitously since a 1908 landslide. It leans 15 feet eastward of the perpendicular, more than the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

The Protestant Church in Central Germany (EKM), owner of the church for most of its life, tried to stabilize it several times over the years, but to no avail. Finally in December of 2011, the EKM decided to demolish the roofless, structurally unsound church and its leaning tower. The only chance of reprieve was if the city could raise the funds necessary to restore the tower, the EKM would sell the Church of Our Dear Ladies to the city for a token sum of €1 and chip in the money they had planned to spend on demolition (about €150,000).

It was a close call. By a vote of nine votes for, seven against and three abstentions, the Bad Frankenhausen city council agreed to the acquisition of the church. The estimated total cost of restoration was €1 million. Subtracting the demolition funds, that left the city with €850,000 to scare up. They put €50,000 into immediate stabilization work in early 2012, and then went to work trying to secure government funding. Without it, the city would not be able to raise the €800,000 and Bad Frankenhausen’s most recognizable landmark, symbol of the town just as the Leaning Tower is of Pisa, would have to be demolished for safety reasons.

The city applied to the Thuringian Ministry of Construction for state funding, but were rejected. With time running out, Bad Frankenhausen threw a hail mary pass and applied to the National Urban Planning Projects, a new €50 million federal program to support city development projects of “national visibility, high quality, above-average investment volume or high potential for innovation.” The program received 271 applications, 24 from Thuringia alone, for a total of €900 million in requested funding.

A jury of members of parliament, academics and urban planning experts selected 21 applications for project funding. The Bad Frankenhausen tower was one of only two winners from Thuringia. The stabilization of the tower will now be funded to the tune of €950,000. Mayor Matthias Strejc was particularly pleased to note the tower was considered a historic landmark of national importance by the federal government because the state government had sent them yet another rejection letter just a few days before they heard their application had been accepted by the National Urban Planning Projects.

The next step for the tower is research into the movement of the soil underneath it. Three holes will be dug, one 400 meters (437 yards) deep and two 70 meters (77 yards), and sensors inserted into the holes. The sensor readings will be viewable in real time by visitors to the tower’s information pavilion. The data will be submitted in a new report due by December 31st. Structural engineers will use that information to fine tune the stabilization plan which as of now involves building a reinforced concrete core in the basement of the tower and creating a steel corset structure on the outside.

Share

Medal of Honor awarded to Gettysburg hero 151 years later

Saturday, November 22nd, 2014

Union Lieutenant Alonzo Hersford Cushing died at Gettysburg on July 3rd, 1863. On November 6th, 2014, he was awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest military decoration in the country, for his heroism on that field of battle that day. It has taken 151 years and a campaign of more than three decades for Cushing to get this richly deserved recognition. It’s the longest gap between the act of valor and the awarding of a Medal of Honor in history.

Alonzo Cushing was born in Delafield, Wisconsin, on January 19th, 1841. He was one of four brothers and his widowed mother struggled to make ends meet. The congressman who recommended Alonzo to West Point described her as “poor but highly committed and her son will do honor to the position.” He was appointed to West Point in 1857 and graduated in June 1861, two months after hostilities began at Fort Sumter, with a commission as first lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He was in the thick of all the most famous battles: Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and of course, the one that would claim his life, Gettysburg. At Chancellorsville Cushing was promoted to commander of Battery A, 4th U.S. Artillery of the Army of the Potomac II Corps.

He was in command of 126 men and six cannons on July 3rd, 1863, the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg. They were positioned inside a bend in the rock wall, known as the Bloody Angle, on Cemetery Ridge that was the center of the line General Robert E. Lee hoped to break through with a massive 13,000-person infantry attack known as Pickett’s Charge. After being pounded by Confederate artillery, Battery A was all but destroyed. All the officers and most of the soldiers were dead. Only two cannons were still functional.

Cushing himself had been grievously wounded during the artillery assault. A shell fragment hit him in the shoulder and shrapnel gutted him, tearing through his groin and abdomen. He refused categorically to move to the rear, saying he would “stay right here and fight it out or die in the attempt.” Instead, literally holding his intestines in one hand, Cushing ordered that the two remaining cannons be moved right up to the stone wall to shoot at the three Confederate divisions of infantry advancing in rows a mile wide towards the Angle.

Weak and unable to shout, Cushing was bodily supported by 1st Sergeant Frederick Füger who relayed his orders to his men. He observed the charge through a field glass, and ordered his men to fire double-shotted canister, deadly anti-personnel rounds. He used his own thumb to stop the cannon’s vent, burning his fingers to the bone. With the Confederate infantry less than 100 yards away, he yelled “I will give them one more shot.” A few seconds later a bullet hit Cushing in the mouth, exiting out the back of his skull and killing him. He was 22 years old.

Cushing had stood his ground for more than an hour and a half after his wounding, inflicting heavy casualties and opening gaps in the Confederate lines that played an important role in the Union’s repelling Pickett’s Charge. He was given a posthumous brevet promotion to lieutenant colonel for his service at the Battle of Gettysburg, but no medal. He was buried at West Point, a very high military honor, under a headstone inscribed “Faithful unto death.”

The story of Alonzo Cushing wasn’t widely known, but he was still beloved in his hometown of Delafield, Wisconsin. That’s where Margaret Zerwekh heard about it when she married her second husband and moved into his Delafield house that had once belonged to the Cushing family. An amateur historian, she researched Alonzo’s story and sometime in the 1980s (she doesn’t remember the exact date), wrote a letter to then-Sen. William Proxmire of Wisconsin recommending Cushing for a Medal of Honor. It would be the first of many, many letters sent to many, many members of Congress.

The procedure for awarding a Medal of Honor more than three years after the events being recognized are complex. First the branch of the military in which the would-be recipient served has to approve the nomination. In Cushing’s case, the U.S. Army approved his nomination in 2010. Then legislation had to be passed by both Houses of Congress to waive the three-year time limit. That took three years. Then the President has to approve the nomination. This August, the White House announced that Alonzo Cushing would be awarded the Medal of Honor.

The deed was done at a ceremony in the Roosevelt Room of the White House attended by more than two dozen Cushing family members and Margaret Zerwekh. Alonzo’s next of kin, cousin twice removed Helen Loring Ensign, accepted the medal on his behalf.

Share

Thomas Hart Benton’s epic America Today murals at the Met

Friday, November 21st, 2014

Before he become cover-of-Time-magazine famous as a muralist and leading light of the realist style inspired by local scenes known as Regionalism, Thomas Hart Benton’s first mural commission was a series of 10 murals for the boardroom of the New School for Social Research in New York City. Alvin Johnson, the school’s director and one of its co-founders, wanted its mission of unfettered inquiry and progressive thought to be reflected in the art and architecture as well. He commissioned Joseph Urban to design a new building in modernist International Style that stood out dramatically from the Greenwich Village town houses on West 12th Street. Benton collaborated with Urban to create murals that will flawlessly fit the walls of the third floor boardroom.

The new building opened on New Year’s Day 1931 with nine of the panels in place (Benton finished the tenth later) on the four walls of the 30-by-22-foot room. America Today depicts a wide view of American life in the 1920s: city and country, industry and farming, steel workers and bankers, coal miners and doctors, black and white, boxers and lovers, a hard day’s work and wild nights of dancing, north and south. Benton painted these murals, most of which are seven and a half feet high, referring to sketched studies he had made while traveling the country in the 1920s. Fun fact: his student Jackson Pollock posed for several of the figures.

Benton received no fee for this immense work, just expenses, but he got a whole lot of artistic recognition. The critical success of the cycle led directly to commissions for eight other murals, including the Indiana Murals which cemented his mainstream fame and put money in his pocket. His dynamic, fluid, colorful style was a major influence for the WPA artists that soon followed.

The murals saw some hard treatment over the years, as students leaned their chairs against them, smoked like chimneys, exhaled moisture and transmitted bacteria. Thomas Hart Benton returned to restore his murals twice, once in 1956, once in 1968. He died in 1975 and seven years later, the school decided to sell the murals to fund its endowment. The plan was not happily received in New York City. If the panels were sold to a dealer or auction, they could be scattered to the four winds. Mayor Edward I. Koch even expressed dismay at the prospect of the mural cycle being split up and/or leaving the city.

In May of 1982, the school sold the 10 murals to the Maurice Segoura Gallery. The gallery kept them for two years before selling them to the Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States (aka AXA) for $3.1 million. AXA agreed to always display America Today to the public and proudly sported the murals in the lobby of its corporate headquarters on Seventh Avenue for years before the company and artwork moved to a new building at 1290 Avenue of the Americas. In February of 2012, a building renovation saw the murals moved into storage.

With no prospect of a proper display site coming up any time soon, AXA decided to donate the murals to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met was more than happy to accept them. Before they could go on display, however, the museum had to create an appropriate space. As of September 30th, it has.

The keystone of the exhibition—the mural—will be installed in a reconstruction of the 30-by-22-foot boardroom as it existed at the New School in 1931, allowing viewers to experience the mural cycle as Benton conceived it. A highlight of this extraordinary opportunity to view the reconstructed mural in its nearly original setting is the incorporation of elements that were part of the architect Joseph Urban’s modernist aesthetic for the New School building, such as the black and red color scheme he used for the room. Among the mural’s most distinctive features are the aluminum-leaf wooden moldings, which not only frame the mural but also create inventive spatial breaks within each large panel. When the mural was installed at the New School, these moldings echoed the Art Deco details of Urban’s building design.

The exhibition also features Benton’s studies from this travels in the 20s and related works by other artists from the Met’s collection.

Share

Wreck of SS Ventnor, ship carrying 499 Chinese dead, found

Thursday, November 20th, 2014

The wreck of SS Ventnor, a ship that went down in 1902 carrying the remains of 499 Chinese gold miners from New Zealand back to their homes in China’s Guangdong province, has been found. The ship was discovered 21 kilometers (13 miles) west of Hokianga Harbour under 150 meters (492 feet) of water. The general area of the sinking was known, but it has taken 112 years to find the actual wreck.

The Ventnor Project Group, funded by Definitive Productions which is making a documentary about the shipwreck, first spotted the wreck in December of 2012 using echo sounding sonar. In January of 2013, they enlisted Keith Gordon, former president of the New Zealand Underwater Heritage Group, to investigate the site further. Using a remotely operated underwater vehicle, the team was able to photograph the wreck. The last step was sending divers to record the wreck on video. They confirmed that it was indeed the Ventnor.

In April the divers returned and were able to retrieve artifacts that might aid in identification. They recovered the ship’s bell and a few other pieces (some plates, a porthole window) which have been cleaned and conserved, but nothing with a name that would clinch the deal. Authorities in China and New Zealand were notified of the discovery and the shipwreck was gazetted by New Zealand Heritage, which means no objects can be removed the site without permission. No coffins or human remains have been found yet. The Ventnor Project Group needs to raise another 400,000 New Zealand dollars to dive the wreck site more extensively. Meanwhile, the Royal New Zealand Navy is going forward with separate plans they made before the announcement of the find to search for the wreck next month.

The tragedy of the Ventnor is a window into the Chinese experience in New Zealand. The first Chinese immigrants were invited to New Zealand by the Otago Provincial Council who needed people willing to do backbreaking labour in the gold mines of Otago on the South Island. Gold had been found in Gabriel’s Gully in 1861, setting off the Otago gold rush. Five years later, the gold fields had been thoroughly picked over and the work of extracting gold, never easy, got so hard miners left for greener pastures. The population of European miners plummeted from 19,000 men in early 1864 to 6,000 in late 1865. That’s when they sent the call out to Guangdong province for miners to rework the area. Guangdong was suffering in the aftermath of the suppressed Taiping Rebellion, so thousands of men made their way to New Zealand in hope of making a decent living.

By 1869, there were more than 2,000 Chinese, most of them from the Guangzhou area, in New Zealand. By 1881, there were more than 5,000. That same year, the New Zealand government passed its version of the U.S. Exclusion Act, a poll tax that charged ever Chinese immigrant £10 to enter the country, and only allowed one Chinese immigrant for every 10 tons of cargo. In 1896 those numbers got a lot worse: the per head tax was raised to £100 and only one Chinese immigrant was allowed per 200 tons of cargo. The poll tax remained in force until 1934 when the Japanese invaded Manchuria.

Amid the simmering racial tensions and the regulatory aggression, the Chinese miners banded together to maintain their customs and support each other. In 1882, a year after the poll tax was enacted, men from Poon Yu and Fah Yuen counties of Guangdong Province founded the Cheong Sing Tong, a subscription association that allowed members to pool their resources so they could send the remains of the dead back to their hometowns in China. According to Chinese tradition, the dead must be buried in the ground of their homes so their descendants can properly tend to them to ensure a good afterlife for the deceased and good fortune for their survivors.

The leader of the Cheong Sing Tong was Choie Sew Hoy, a successful merchant who had arrived with the first wave of immigrants from Poon Yu. Just like in the American gold rushes, the most successful people were those who sold stuff to the miners rather than the guys panning in rivers. Choie Sew Hoy started off with a general store and eventually ran a dozen mining ventures of his own. He was a prominent community leader in Dunedin and well respected by Chinese and European alike.

In 1883, Hoy and the Cheong Sing Tong exhumed 230 bodies and successfully sent them back to China for reburial. In 1901, they began arrangements for a second shipment. From early 1901 to the September 1902, bodies of Chinese immigrants were exhumed from more than 40 cemeteries, most of them in the Otago area but also from elsewhere in the country. The remains were sent to Choie Sew Hoy’s farm where the bones were individually washed and each bone counted. The small bones were each wrapped in calico. The large bones placed in calico bag to which the small bones were added along with the name of the deceased. The bag was tied and put inside a coffin which was stored in a shed until all coffins were ready to be shipped.

While this process was taking place, Choie Sew Hoy died suddenly in July of 1901 at the age of 64. His son Choie Kum Poy took over the project and Choie Sew Hoy’s body was added to the others for return to China. The ship they chartered to carry this cargo was the SS Ventnor. The Glasgow-built cargo ship was only a year old in October of 1902 when the coffins were loaded and it left Wellington headed for Hong Kong. Along with the crew, there were nine or six (accounts vary) elderly Chinese men on board who were given free passage by the Cheong Sing Tong in exchange for looking after the coffins.

One day after leaving Wellington, the ship, which was apparently traveling too close to the shore, hit rocks near the coast of Taranaki. The captain decided the damage wasn’t so bad they should make for the nearby port of New Plymouth, and there was little point in turning back around to Wellington since they could go almost the same distance north to Auckland and be going in the right direction. His judgment was flawed. The Ventnor took on water and sank off the Hokianga Heads on October 28th, 1902, two days after setting sail. Four lifeboats were launched holding the crew and passengers. Three of them made it to safety. The one holding the captain, among others, did not. Thirteen people died.

The tragic fate of the Ventnor was big news at the time, spurring a magisterial inquiry into the cause of the sinking. The official finding, announced on November 21st, 1902, was that the striking of the rocks off Cape Egmont was due either to negligence or incompetence on the part of the captain. Drunkenness, while possible, could not be proven. No blame was assigned to the decision to keep going towards Auckland instead of turning back to Wellington.

The Cheong Sing Tong chartered the Auckland steamer Energy to search for the Ventnor and any of the remains, but most of the coffins, including that of Choie Sew Hoy, were lead-lined and ensconced in the hold. Some plain wooden coffins that were stored on the deck floated and washed ashore. Maori tribespeople from the Te Roroa and Te Rarawa tribes buried the remains with care. They too share the belief that the remains of their people must be buried in the soil of their home, an issue that has been at the forefront of requests for repatriation of Maori remains in anthropological collections around the world.

The disaster of the Ventnor led to the disbanding of the Cheong Sing Tong and the end of the practice of sending coffins back to China in bulk. Remains were still sent home, but on an individual basis. The ship’s manifest was lost with the ship, so we don’t even have a list of names of the 499. Only Choie Sew Hoy is known. Recovering remains from the wreck would be extremely meaningful to the descendants of the miners in New Zealand and China.

The documentary The Lost Voyage of the 499 aired on Maori TV just Monday before the news of the discovery was announced. It’s a moving look at the history of the Ventnor as seen through the eyes of Choie Sew Hoy’s living descendants who travel to the Maori burial sites and to Hoy’s home village to see the first home he built in the 1860s and to pay their respects at his proxy grave.

Share

Scaffholding for Capitol Dome restoration finished

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014

Scaffolding around the cast iron Dome of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., has been completed so that the full restoration of the Dome can begin. The construction of the scaffolding system is an impressive project in its own right. More than 52 miles of metal piping and two miles of wood planking form 25 tiers of platforms that surround the Dome from the skirt up to the base of the Statue of Freedom. The total weight of the scaffolding materials is 1.1 million pounds. Work is expected to take about two years and will be done mainly at night so as to minimize the disruption of Congressional business.

It’s been 150 years since the Dome was constructed, and although it was refurbished once in 1960, it’s in dire need of extensive repairs. Age and weathering have caused almost 1,300 cracks and breaks, 12,800 inches worth, in the exterior skin. There are pits and voids, rusted areas, missing and loose ornaments. So far workers have collected more than 100 ornaments that had either fallen off or were just about to fall off. Water leaks in through the cracks and pinholes in the Statue of Freedom causing rust and damage to the protective paint and corrosion in the interstitial space between the Dome and the Rotunda.

These are critical condition issues that need immediate attention lest the artwork in the Rotunda, the Apotheosis of Washington in the oculus of the Dome and the Frieze of American History underneath the windows, are at great risk of damage due to water leaks. There are already noticeable water stains on the coffers at the first visitors’ gallery. Further damage could cause things to start breaking off onto visitors in the Rotunda. A white donut-shaped catenary system was installed above the Frieze to protect visitors and the floor from construction debris while leaving the Apotheosis and Frieze still viewable.

Now that the scaffolding is up, the next stage is paint abatement and removal. Workers will sand blast eight layers of paint, some of it lead paint, some of it dating to 1866 when the first paint was applied to the completed Dome. To do this safely, the paint will sucked into large tubes that will run from the scaffolding to specialized trucks parked on the lower West Front of the Capitol. During this process, workers will also remove all loose ornaments and anything else precarious. Conservators will restore whatever pieces they can and recast the ones that are too damaged to repair.

As soon as the paint is removed, a primer coat will be applied. Cast iron is subject to “flash rusting,” meaning it starts to oxidize instantly as soon as it’s exposed to oxygen. To prevent flash rusting, the Dome will have to be primed within eight hours of paint removal. After the entire Dome is primed, the cracks in the cast iron will be repaired. Welding doesn’t work with cast iron unless you disassemble the object and bake it an oven at 1000 degrees Fahrenheit, a technique that obviously doesn’t apply to a giant dome. Of the 12,800 crack inches, 8,200 of them will be repaired using a technique called “lock and stitch” in which each crack is filled by hand with metal pins (that’s the stitching part) and then the edges brought together across the width with steel locks. The rest of the cracks will be filled with the “Dutchman” technique wherein large pieces are replaced with parts of the same shape. The restored or recast ornamentation will then be readded and damaged windows replaced and repaired.

All of that work will be done from the boiler plate at the bottom of the Dome to the base of the Statue of Freedom. The next phases will be done from top to bottom so the scaffolding can be removed as work is completed. Cast iron filler will be applied to any areas in need of it, then the Dome will be repainted in three layers. The top coat will be, appropriately enough, Dome White. Next fall protection and bird deterrent systems will be installed. After that, all that will be left is the clean-up. Everything should be shiny and new for the 2017 Presidential Inauguration.

The Architect of the Capitol has made tons of fascinating photographs of the Capitol dome available on its Flickr page. The main photostream has current pictures, plus there are photo albums dedicated to subjects like the original construction of the iron dome in the 1850s and 60s, the 1960 restoration, the restoration of the Brumidi frescos inside the Capitol and a set of almost 300 images of the restoration that began this month. The there are all the pictures of various events, holidays, seasons and oh man, the Capitol artwork. It’s seriously one of the greatest Flickr accounts I’ve ever seen.

Share

Earliest officially licensed Batmobile for sale

Sunday, November 16th, 2014

The Batmobile made for the 1966 TV show from a 1955 Lincoln Futura concept car by legendary car customizer George Barris may be the one we think of as the first Batmobile, but that’s just because the TV show was such a smash hit (pow! bam!) and the car so damn cool that it became an instant icon. Its iconic status garnered it $4.62 million including buyer’s premium when it sold at auction in January of 2013, and I myself repeatedly referred to it as the first Batmobile.

I was wrong. It’s the first of a long line of sublime to ridiculous television and film custom Batmobiles (the 1940s serials used a black Cadillac, a limo and a Mercury Eight, all off the line), but National Periodic Publications, owners of DC Comics, officially licensed a Batmobile built years before the TV show for promotional purposes. Its design comes straight from the comic book, a particularly great one at that, a product of the vision of artist Dick Sprang.

Dated February 1950, Detective Comics #156 hit the newsstands in December 1949 (spanning two decades!) and introduced a new Batmobile for a new decade. The story is that Batman is chasing mobster Smiley Dix when the bridge he’s driving over collapses. Batman breaks his leg and the Batmobile is totalled. Our hero takes advantage of his convalescence to build a new Batmobile — stronger, faster, and full of new bells and whistles. The “Batmobile of 1950″ was high-tech marvel with a radar antenna in the tail fin and a forensic laboratory in place of a back seat. It made an indelible impression on Batman fans, many of whom consider it the definitive design to this day.

Forrest Robinson was 13 years old when Detective Comics #156 was issued, and it certainly made an impression on him. For years he sketched ideas for a real Batmobile in his notebook. Ten years later, he bought a 1956 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 and designed a new look for it inspired by Sprang’s Batmobile. It took Robinson and his friend Len Perham three years of work in the Robinson family barn in New Hampshire to replace the Oldsmobile body with a custom fiberglass body 17 feet long and seven feet wide with the iconic single giant dorsal fin, an upturned bat-nose front, quad headlights, horizontal tailfins and doors that slide into pockets on the rear fenders. In 1963 the car was done. Robinson painted it space-age silver and drove it as his personal ride.

In 1966, the popularity of the Batman television program caused a Batmania throughout the land. The All Star Dairy Association, a national dairy co-op, spent $3 million to tap into this groundswell, licensing Batman, Robin and the Batmobile from National Periodic Publications for use in dairy-based promotional campaigns. They sold Batnog that Christmas and a variety of fruit drinks, ice cream, cones, sandwiches, etc. with Batman and Robin on the packaging. (Slam Bang Vanilla Ice Cream with Banana Marshmallow needs to make a comeback, by the way. It should never have left us.) It worked like a charm. By early 1967, sales on Batman-packaged ice creams increased 300%.

All Star’s New Hampshire affiliate, Green Acres Ice Cream, leased Robinson’s car to play to make personal appearances as the Batmobile. They repainted it in Batman black, put the Batman Dairy Foods logo on the doors and under the dorsal fin, and drove it around three northeastern states promoting Batman & Robin ice cream products. This was the first ever officially licensed touring Batmobile. George Barris’ Batmobiles, the Futura and its fiberglass-on-Ford-Galaxie copies, didn’t start touring until 1967.

After its turn selling ice cream to the kiddies, Forrest Robinson sold the car for $200 to a friend of his in 1967. The friend didn’t show the car much love, I’m afraid, and it spent decades rusting in a New Hampshire field before passing through several hands until it was acquired in 2011 by Florida car collector George Albright. He researched its history, contacting Robinson, Perham and dairy executives who remembered its service as the Batmobile. Not having the time and resources to dedicate to a proper restoration of the vehicle, in 2013, a month after the Barris Batmobile made such a splash at auction, he put it up for sale on eBay with a minimum bid of $19,800. He wound up pulling it and doing a private deal, selling it for an undisclosed amount to Toy Car Exchange LLC who have spent the past year restoring it to pristine condition. Thanks to the addition of red accents, it looks more Batmanny than it ever did.

Toy Car Exchange has now put the restored 1963 Batmobile for sale at Heritage Auctions’ Entertainment & Music Memorabilia auction on December 6th. The opening bid is $90,000.



Share

Howard Carter the artist

Sunday, November 9th, 2014

Before Howard Carter became the world-famous archaeologist who discovered the tomb of King Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings, he was an artist. In fact, it was pretty much all he knew how to do. Howard, the youngest of 11 children of Samuel and Martha Carter, was sick a lot in his youth. The many and varied miasmas of London were considered injurious to his health, so he was sent to live with his aunts in Swaffham, Norfolk, where his father and grandfather had been gamekeepers on the Hamond family estate.

Because of his sickliness he was never enrolled in school. His father, an artist who carved out a successful niche for himself painting portraits of the gentry and their pets, tutored Howard on regular trips to Swaffham, teaching him how to draw and paint. One of Samuel Carter’s patrons was William Amherst Tyssen-Amherst of Didlington Hall, an estate eight miles from Swaffham. As a boy, Howard visited Didlington Hall when his father painted Lord Amherst’s portrait, and this is where he first became exposed to Egyptology.

Amherst was an avid collector of Egyptian antiquities. He, his wife Margaret Mitford (whose father had a passion for all things Egyptian as well) and their seven daughters traveled frequently to Egypt, constantly acquiring new artifacts. A whole wing of Didlington Hall was dedicated to housing his vast collection. Seven statues of the lion-headed warrior goddess Sekhmet guarded the door of the museum, one for each of the Amherst daughters. Those statues are now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Amherst family didn’t just give Howard Carter the chance to explore Egyptian art through their extensive collection. It was their recommendation and contacts that secured him his first job in Egypt. He was just 17 years old when he was hired as a tracer — someone who copies inscriptions and art work found in excavations onto paper for later study — for the Egyptian Exploration Fund (EEF) in 1891. This was an essential job in the age before color photography. Watercolors were the only accurate recreations of tomb decorations available.

Carter’s first assignment was the Beni Hasan excavation where the princes of Middle Egypt were buried. He immediately distinguished himself with his artistic ability and dedication, often working all day and then spending the night in the tomb. Carter began to learn archaeology on his next assignment at El-Amarna under pioneering Egyptologist Flinders Petrie in 1892. He was still an artist, recording artifacts as they were discovered, but Petrie allowed him to dig too, and Carter made some signficant finds.

In 1894, Carter was appointed Principle Artist of the EEF’s excavation of the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahari. For five years Carter made drawings and watercolors of the wall reliefs in the temple. One of his watercolors from this period, The Temple of Hatshepsut (1899), is going up for auction at Bonhams’ Travel, Exploration and Natural History Sale in London on December 3rd.

Carter also joined in the excavation of the temple and learned restoration techniques as well. He did such a fine job that in 1899 the Egyptian Antiquities Service offered him the job of First Chief Inspector General of Monuments for Upper Egypt. He was 25 years old, had no formal education, and was now the supervisor of all archaeological excavations in the Upper Nile Valley. Carter did great work, installing the first electric lights in six Valley of the Kings tombs and at the temples in Abu Simbel.

His extraordinary run of success came to a halt in 1905 when a group of drunk and belligerent French tourists became violent towards the Egyptian guards at Saqqara. Carter told the guards they could defend themselves. The tourists complained to people in high places and the diplomatic hotshots insisted Carter apologize. He refused. In retaliation, Carter was shipped off to an obscure site with not much in the way of archaeology. Rather than twiddle his thumbs in exile, Carter resigned.

For the next two years, Howard Carter had something of a hard scrabble existence. He sold his watercolors or guided tours to make a living. Then he hit the jackpot. French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero, Director of the Egyptian Antiquities Service who had given Carter the Chief Inspector General job, introduced him to George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon. Carnarvon had deep pockets and was keen to fund archaeological excavations. He got the necessary licenses and made Carter the Supervisor of Excavations in Thebes.

During this time, Carter painted Under the Protection of the Gods (1908), a composite fantasy that depicts a vulture — representing the goddess Nekhebet, protector of Upper Egypt — above a solar disc wrapped in a cobra — representing the goddess Wadjet, protector of Lower Egypt. It’s likely that the iconography of the watercolor was inspired by some of Carter’s finds in Thebes, including the 18th Dynasty Tomb of Tetaki and a 15th Dynasty tomb with nine coffins.

The Carter-Carnarvon partnership was very successful. By the time World War I began in 1914, Carnarvon had amassed a hugely important collection of Egyptian antiquities. That same year he secured a 15-year license to excavate the Valley of the Kings and Carter got to work. He painted The Valley of the Kings (1914) the first year of excavations. Excavations were disrupted by war, but Carter still managed to dig in 1915 and 1917.

In 1918 excavations restarted in earnest. For the next four years, Carter scoured the Valley of the Kings for the tomb of a previously unknown pharaoh whose name he had discovered. It became something of an obsession with him, but in 1922 when the tomb continued to be elusive, Carnarvon got sick of funding what seemed like a fool’s errand and told Carter that he had one digging season left. Three days after the last excavation began in November of 1922, Carter’s diggers found the top of a staircase. Three weeks later, Carter peered in through a small hole in the doorway and saw the “wonderful things,” that would take the world by storm and make him immortal.

Carter never forgot the people who helped him overcome his humble beginnings. His connection with the Amherst family continued throughout his life. William and Margaret Amherst’s eldest daughter Mary, known as May, wife of Lord William Cecil, took her family’s fascination with Egypt to even greater heights. Between 1901 and 1904, she personally funded and ran excavations at Qubbet el-Hawa in Aswan. Howard Carter was Chief Inspector for Antiquities then, and he helped advise her.

In 1906, the family was left financially devastated when their solicitor and land agent, Charles Cheston, was found to have embezzled hundreds of thousand of pounds to support his gambling habit. Cheston committed suicide. Lord Amherst was forced to sell the collections he had spent decades building into some of the greatest private holdings in the country. His library went first, auctioned by Sotheby’s in 1908 and 1909. William Amherst died two months before the second sale.

May, heir to her father’s estate and title, had no choice but to continue the sell-off. In 1910, the estate itself, home and park, was sold to Colonel Herbert Francis Smith. May refused to sell her father’s Egyptian collection, however. She held on to that resolutely for a decade until her death from breast cancer in 1919. Only after May was gone was the legendary Amherst collection of Egyptian papyri, statues and other artifacts put up for sale at Sotheby’s in 1921. It was Howard Carter who catalogued the collection that had first inspired his great vocation. At the time of the sale, even though some individual objects had been sold piecemeal before then, the Amherst Egyptian collection was the third largest private collection in England.

In 1950, Didlington Hall, broken and neglected after requisition during World War II, was stripped of its last valuables when the interior fittings were sold at auction. The house was demolished and thus what had once been one of Norfolk’s greatest treasures was lost forever.


Share

HMS Erebus ship’s bell recovered

Thursday, November 6th, 2014

After the wreck of explorer Sir John Franklin’s flagship, the HMS Erebus, was found in September, Parks Canada researchers had only two days to explore the site before temperatures plunged below zero making diving impossible. The team made seven dives during those two days, filming, photographing and measuring the wreck as extensively as possible, but they didn’t want to disturb the interior so they only sent cameras inside and did not recover artifacts.

They were holding out on us, though, because one object was removed from the sea floor: the ship’s bronze bell.

The bell was found on the deck adjacent to the ship’s displaced windlass (a form of anchor winch), above which it was originally mounted. Since then, the bell has been undergoing conservation stabilization and additional research.

The bell is intact and generally in very good condition. Two embossed markings – introduced when the bronze bell was first cast – are evident on the artifact: a Royal Navy “broad arrow” indicating property of the British Government, as well as the date “1845.”

Ship’s bells hold a great deal of meaning. In addition to their practical purpose — they struck the half-hour day and night, and signalled the change of the watch — bells are symbolic incarnations of the ship. There’s a tradition in the Royal Navy that upside down bells are used as baptismal founts for sailors’ babies. The names of the baptized children are then engraved under the bell’s lip.

Given its symbolic and archaeological value, Parks Canada decided it would be more prudent to recover the bell instead of subjecting it to another long, frigid winter in the Queen Maud Gulf. It could conceivably be damaged by ice scraping the seabed, although it has survived 168 winters thus far without serious damage. Besides, a ship’s bell can provide essential confirmation of the wreck’s identity, and on a PR note, is an iconic symbol that makes a far more immediate rallying point than sonar scans.

As the Honourable Leona Aglukkaq, Minister of the Environment and Minister responsible for Parks Canada, puts it:

“The bell of HMS Erebus provides a tangible and compelling connection to the Franklin ships and is an important part of naval and Canadian history. The recovery of this important artifact is the crowning achievement for an incredibly successful 2014 search campaign that has captivated Canadians and the entire world.”

Still, the marketing coup had to wait. Parks Canada archaeologists wanted to examine the bell without public scrutiny and begin the process of stabilizing the find before making the announcement, which is why we’re only hearing about it six weeks after the bell was recovered. At first, the bell had to remain damp to keep it from corroding when exposed to the air. It was wrapped in bubble-wrap and kept humid during transportation to Ottawa.

The bell is now sealed in a tank of distilled water in an environmetally-controlled secure location at the Parks Canada conservation laboratory. The water is being tested daily to detect any changes in the artifact. Over the course of months, perhaps as many as 18 or more, the bell will transition from fresh water baths to chemical baths that will leach all the salt from its surface and protect it from corrosion.

One the bell is cleaned and stabilized, it may reveal additional clues that are currently not visible. It will eventually go on public display at a location yet to be determined.


Share

Witchmarks to protect James I after Gunpowder Plot found at Knole House

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014

Building archaeologists from the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) surveying Knole House, the stately Kent seat of the Sackville family, have discovered protective witchmarks carved on the beams of a room built to house King James I. The marks, checkerboard lines known as demon traps because the evil ones would follow the lines and get caught in them, and interlocking Vs that stand for Virgo Virginum and invoke the protection of the Virgin Mary, were carved by craftsmen in the beams and joists under the floor and on the oak fireplace surrounds in the Upper King’s Room.

Thanks to tree-ring dating, we know exactly when the marks were carved. The oak timber was felled in the winter of 1605-06 and was used while it was still green, which means the beams were in place by the summer of 1606 at the latest. Guy Fawkes and seven other conspirators in the plot to blow up the House of Lords during the Opening of Parliament on November 5th, 1605, were hanged, drawn and quartered on January 31st, 1606. Fawkes had been arrested tending to 36 barrels of powder in the undercroft of the House of Lords just 12 hours before the explosion was set to go off, so the King and the entire ruling hierarchy of Britain came very close to annhilation and the memory of it was very fresh when the work was done at Knole.

The discovery answers a long-debated question about witchmarks. Some historians contend that they are carpenters’ marks used for practical purposes as installation guides, but the Knole timbers have both standard carpenters’ marks and witchmarks. Add to that the remodeling in anticipation of the King’s visit and the precise date in the looming shadow of the Gunpowder Plot, and the Knole marks are strong evidence that they were intended to play a supernatural protective role.

Their power never did get tested. All the construction, refurbishment and witchmarking was for nought as King James didn’t go through with his planned visit to Knole. Thomas Sackvillle, 1st Earl of Dorset, Lord High Treasurer and cousin of Queen Elizabeth I on her mother’s side, died in 1608 before the King’s visit, and his son didn’t have the clout in court to motivate James to keep Knole on the schedule.

Sackville acquired Knole House in 1566. His descendants (including his grandson Richard Sackville, 3rd Earl of Dorset, whom you might recall as Lady Anne Clifford‘s no-good first husband) have lived there ever since. They are still part owners of the estate, sharing it with the National Trust. The Trust is currently in the midst of the largest conservation project in Knole’s history, a multi-year $30 million restoration that is repairing and documenting the structure down to the individual beams. The MOLA team is recording the timber frame structure on behalf of the National Trust to provide essential information necessary to make the proper decisions on the conservation of the estate.

The showrooms are closed during the restoration, but the King’s Room will be open to the public for a special showing on November 20th and 21st. Visitors will have the chance to see the witchmarks before they are covered back up.

Speaking of the Gunpowder Plot, the earliest written report of the arrest and interrogation of Guy Fawkes is coming up for auction at Sotheby’s English Literature, History, Children’s Books and Illustrations sale on December 9th. It’s a letter written by Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, James I’s Secretary of State and spymaster, to Ralph Winwood, the English ambassador to the Hague.

Dated November 9th, just four days after the plot was discovered, it appears to have been written earlier as it still refers to Fawkes as John Johnson, the alias he had used when posing as co-conspirator Thomas Percy’s servant in order to rent a house next to the House of Lords. Fawkes insisted he was Johnson and had acted entirely on his own for the first two days of interrogations before escalating torture got him to confess his real name on November 7th, and the names of his co-conspirators on November 8th and 9th.

Cecil notes in the letter that despite the threat of the torture, “Johnson” insisted he acted alone and confessed solely to his own crimes from illegal practices of Catholicism to planning the destruction of the entire political hierarchy. They only got him to admit Percy was involved by claiming he’d already been captured and confessed. From the letter:

[Y]et could no threatening of torture draw from him any other language than this, that he is ready to die, and rather wisheth ten thousand deaths, than willingly to accuse his master or any other ; until by often reiterating examinations, we pretending to him that his master was apprehended, he hath come to plain confession, that his master kept the key of that cellar whilst he was abroad ; had been in it since the powder was laid there, and inclusive confessed him a principal actor in the same.

Robert Cecil sent copies of this letter to a number of ambassadors in Europe to enlist them in rumor control and to recommend they deploy a few men-at-arms in countries where the conspirators’ supporters might have been preparing military aid. You can read the full text of the letter to Sir Charles Cornwallis, British ambassador to Spain, in this 1905 book about the Gunpowder Plot. Spoiler: author Philip Sidney is no Robert Cecil fan. Check the footnote).

Cecil’s letter to Winwood was bought by the Harcourt family in the 19th century. They are now selling it. The presale estimate is £40,000 to £60,000 ($64,000 – $96,000).

Share

Madison’s Montpelier gets $10 million donation

Tuesday, November 4th, 2014

Montpelier, the Virginia estate of fourth President of the United States and Father of the Constitution James Madison, went through some tough times after his widow Dolley Madison sold it in 1844. Later owners, most prominently the du Pont family who bought it in 1901 and built on it extensively, developing it into a prominent equestrian facility. Marion du Pont Scott willed Montpelier to the National Trust for Historical Preservation upon her death in 1983. The Trust established The Montpelier Foundation, an independent non-profit organization dedicated to the management of the historic estate, and in 2003 the Foundation undertook a massive architectural restoration to return the mansion to the condition it was in when Madison retired there after the end of his second term as president in 1817.

The restoration was officially concluded on Constitution Day, September 17th, 2008, and was celebrated as one of the most ambitious, authentic restorations ever done in the United States. That was just the beginning, however. There was still a great deal more to be done to return the estate to its historical condition. James and Dolley Madison’s original furnishings were long gone, sold under the financial duress of Dolley’s widowhood or dispersed through the family and then out into the market. There are more Montpelier pieces in museums and private collections scattered around the country than there are in the historic mansion.

In the five years since the architectural restoration was completed, The Montpelier Foundation has dedicated itself to locating furniture, wallpaper, paint colors, accessories and any other relevant objects that if not the actual original pieces, at the very least are authentic to the period and similar or identical to things that would have been in the home in the 1820s, like the 18th century ivory chess set model on which Madison and Thomas Jefferson played their marathon games.

The goal is to restore everything, mansion and landscape, including the dwellings of the domestic slaves, to their appearance in Madison’s time. It’s a massive research project, requiring punctilious examination of the physical space — for example analyzing the window casings for hints of how the treatments were hung and excavating the grounds for evidence of the period landscaping — as well as documentary analysis. Researchers are going through tens of thousands of pages of documents, from letters to visitor descriptions to receipts to estate financial records and so much more, to get the full picture of what was in the house and how the estate as a whole functioned in the 19th century.

About $6.5 million have already been invested in the project. Several rooms are now furnished and excavations in the South Yard have found the footprints of the six structures where Montpelier’s slaves lived and worked. To get the project into the endzone, private equity billionaire, philanthropist and committed history buff David Rubenstein has donated $10 million to The Montpelier Foundation.

Rubenstein is deeply committed to preserving history for the nation and he puts his money where his mouth is. Last year he purchased the Bay Psalm Book for $14,165,000 to loan it to libraries all over the country before settling on one library to be the recipient of a long-term loan of the book. The year before that he donated $7.5 million to restore the Washington Monument when it was damaged by a 2011 earthquake. After buying the only privately owned copy of the Magna Carta for $21.3 million, he loaned it to the National Archives and then gave them $13.5 million to build it a new custom display case.

Most of the donation, $6.5 million will go to the furnishing and restoration of the mansion’s interior. The priority areas are the South Passage entry hall, James’ mother Nelly Madison’s sitting and dining rooms, several upstairs bedrooms and their closet spaces, plus the cellar kitchens and work areas.

The South Hall used to be central hall of the original Georgian home from the 1760s. In Madison’s day, it was used as a secondary parlor and gallery space with an impressive array of art on the walls. It’s completely bare now, despite being the first stop on the daily tour. Nelly’s rooms are off the South Passage. The upstairs bedrooms are the Madisons’ primary bedchamber, guest and family bedchambers that once furnished will show visitors what a bustling, busy, active home it was. The closets will be stocked with linens and clothing, and the rooms furnished from bedding to seating to artwork to window treatments.

The cellar, which covers the entire footprint of the mansion, was the domain of Montpelier’s enslaved domestic staff. The space includes two kitchens, a wine cellar and multiple storage and work areas. The whole space is empty (the modern mechanical systems were moved to an underground vault during the architectural restoration). With Rubenstein’s donation, the Foundation will add interpretative elements that bring attention to the individual slaves who worked there, highlighting their personal histories and family links, their daily work on the plantation, how they traveled, their influence on Montpelier.

The rest of the donation, $3.5 million, will be dedicated to the reconstruction of the South Yard adjacent to the mansion. In Madison’s time, the South Yard had three duplex slave quarters (relatively comfortable housing for house slaves; the field hands lived in log and mud shacks next to the fields), two smokehouses and a detached kitchen. The kitchen, one of the duplexes and the smokehouses will be reconstructed and fully furnished to give visitors the chance to see where and how Montpelier’s enslaved community lived. The second duplex will be used as a classroom for student programs, the third for exhibition space on the slaves, field, house and skilled craftsmen, who kept Montpelier going.

Rubenstein wants to help make the estate more authentic. Montpelier could draw more visitors to learn about history, he said, if the house is fully restored and its slave quarters built out. It currently draws about 125,000 visitors a year. Last year, Rubenstein gave money to recreate slave quarters on Thomas Jefferson’s plantation.

“It’s this dichotomy. You have people who were extraordinarily intelligent, well-informed, educated; they created this incredible country — Jefferson, Washington, Madison — yet they lived with this system of slavery. Jefferson, Washington and Madison all abhorred slavery, but they didn’t do, they couldn’t do, much about it,” he said. “We shouldn’t deify our Founding Fathers without recognizing that they did participate in a system that had its terrible flaws.”

Share