Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Shipwreck found by accident in Gulf of Mexico

Thursday, May 30th, 2019

The wreck of a wooden ship from the mid-19th century has been discovered in the Gulf of Mexico entirely by accident. The crew of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Okeanos Explorer wasn’t looking for shipwrecks on the May 16th dive. They were testing Deep Discoverer, a new remotely operated vehicle, and it more than lived up to its name when its sonar detected something shaped like a shipwreck. That something was a shipwreck.

Unprepared for an impromptu archaeological survey, researchers called and emailed marine archaeologists to follow Deep Discoverer‘s exploration remotely via live stream video. The dive was extended an additional three hours to give the archaeologists an opportunity to get a more thorough look at the site.

Those who joined the live stream suspect that the wreck is that of a sailing vessel built sometime in the mid-19th century, perhaps a schooner or brig, measuring roughly 37.8 meters (124 feet) long. The vessel is wooden with copper sheathing covering the bottom of its hull. Experts were able to infer the time period of the vessel’s origination based on a number of construction features, including the form of the stem and bow, the body of the hull, and the remains of the windlass. However, this information does not indicate the age of the vessel at the time it was lost, which could have been decades later. Initial observations also noted copper and iron artifacts at the site, but no diagnostic artifacts reflecting the vessel’s rig, trade, nationality, or crew were identified during the dive.

The hull remains are more or less intact up to the water line, with its timber protected by the sheathing. Some of the sheathing has deteriorated and fallen off the hull, leaving only the edges of each copper plate where they were tacked or nailed to the hull. However, all structure above the waterline is missing, and during the initial observations of the dive, there did not appear to be many traces of the standing rigging. Furthermore, a number of timbers appeared charred and some of the fasteners were bent, which may be an indication of burning. While the evidence is still being assessed, it is possible that this sailing vessel caught fire and was nearly completely consumed before sinking. This may explain the lack of artifacts from the rigging, decks, and upper works, as well as the lack of personal possessions.

The surviving section of the rudder has copper numbers “2109” nailed to it as are the remains of the copper sheathing. Where the copper sheathing remains attached to the hull it is still doing the job it was intended to do: keeping marine life from setting up shop on the wood. The barnacles and shipworm that have attached themselves to the rest of the ship avoid the copper areas.

The ROV has recorded extensive high-definition video of the wreck. It will be used to create a photomosaic of the site in extremely high resolution that will allow experts around the world to examine the wreck in much greater detail. This is the low-res version, believe it or not:

A low-resolution photomosiac of the wreck site, produced by Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Marine Archaeologist Scott Sorset using the ROV video. Image courtesy of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

And here’s some of the footage of the wreck taken by Deep Discoverer:

Video courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research.
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Massive panorama restored in public

Monday, May 27th, 2019

Saint Louis Art Museum conservators are restoring Panorama of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley in public view for museum visitors. The massive scroll of painted fabric is being unrolled sections at a time in the southwest corner of Sculpture Hall so that conservators can repair it while museum visitors look on and ask questions.

It is 7.5 feet high and 348 feet long, an example of the hugely fashionable trend for massive panoramas that were installed in custom-built rotundas or played in temporary venues. Painted in vivid colors and displayed with spotlights and live music, the panorama would scroll through 25 distinct scenes before a viewing audience. An advertisement for one of these shows in Pennsylvania in 1851 announces in a bewildering proliferation of fonts that erudite lectures on the “ANQUITIES & CUSTOMS OF THE UNHISTORIED INDIAN TRIBES” will accompany the unfurling of the panorama “with all the aboriginal monuments of a large extent of the Country” covering more than 15,000 feet of canvas.  It was so huge and so difficult to roll that the morning show would feature the trip down the Mississippi, and then afternoon would just run it backwards, narrating a trip up the river.

What is truly extraordinary about this piece is how thoroughly it covers archaeological discoveries, depicting the excavation of ancient mounds and dinosaur fossils. It shows the digging being done by black slaves, under the command of two white men, an accurate capture of how these mounds were sectioned in the mid-19th century. Other Native American archaeological sites dot the vast Mississippi Valley landscape.

The reason for this unusually specific viewpoint for a panorama is that the work was commissioned by physician and natural scientist Montroville Wilson Dickeson who, by his own account excavated more than 1,000 mounds from which he recovered more than 40,000 artifacts. His field drawings became the basis of the archaeology scenes in the panorama. Dickeson hired artist John J. Egan to create a compelling backdrop for his lectures whose exhibition would help fund further excavations.

Five panoramas of the Mississippi were made in the 1840s. Their great size and detailed depictions of the “Father of Waters” made them a hit with audiences, perhaps too much of a hit as none of them have survived. Egan’s later work is the only one of the trend to be extant. It too is endangered by its years of hard work. It was painted in distemper on cotton muslin and over time all the dismounting, mounting, scrolling and traveling damaged the textile and the paint.

When the museum acquired it in 1953, it was in bad condition. An ambitious program of restoration began in 2011. The old wooden rollers were replaced by metal drums and a motorized rolling system. Paint loss and damage to the muslin has been repaired on individual panels. Now the end of the long voyage down the Mississippi River is in sight, with only three remaining panels in the process of treatment.

Conservators will complete the extensive, nine-year project by treating and preserving the final three damaged scenes.  During this process, Museum visitors have the unique opportunity to observe and interact with the conservation team while they work. In addition, Museum docents, curators, and conservators will provide additional insights to visitors on scheduled weekdays in Sculpture Hall.

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“Forgotten Winchester” gets permanent display

Sunday, May 26th, 2019

Great Basin National Park has a new permanent exhibition dedicated to the “Forgotten Winchester,” the historic firearm found leaning against a Juniper tree by park archaeologist Eva Jensen in November of 2014. The Winchester Model 1873 Lever Action Rifle, already iconic as “the gun that won the West,” became a viral hit for its weather-beaten appearance and casual pose as if it were just hanging out for a minute waiting for its owner to return.

The park sent it to the Cody Firearms Museum in Cody, Wyoming where experts examined it. They were able to find its serial number in their extensive archive of Winchester records and identified it as having been made in February 1882.

Before beginning the conservation process, the Cody team needed to ascertain that the gun wasn’t loaded. First they employed the wooden dowel test: inserting a wooden dowel to measure the length of the barrel to the breach. The dowel encountered some kind of blockage, so curators took the rifle to the local hospital for an X-ray to find out what was inside.

There was no bullet inside the barrel. The blockage didn’t show up on the X-ray, so curators suspect it was compacted organic material. The X-ray did find there was a live cartridge inside the buttstock. The Winchester had a trapdoor and a little storage tunnel in the buttstock that was usually used to keep cleaning supplies. Experts were able to open the trapdoor and remove the cartridge. They found it was a .44-40 Winchester Center Fire round made between from 1887 and 1911 by the Union Metallic Cartridge Company.

The rifle was carefully disassembled so it could be conserved in the same awesomely weathered condition in which it was found. Corrosion was removed from the metal parts and the flaking wood bound with adhesive to keep it from further loss. The rifle was then put on public display briefly at the Cody Museum, at various gun shows and at Great Basin National Park’s Lehman Caves Visitor Center.

The new permanent Forgotten Winchester exhibition puts the rifle in a display case that positions it as it was when it was found with a life-sized image of the tree as the backdrop. The live round found in the buttstock is also on display.

The exhibit also highlights the role the Model 1873 — one of the most popular guns on the Western frontier — played in the history of the West.

“The exhibit is a showcase for visitors to discover the rifle’s mysterious story and become inspired to imagine, investigate and care about a piece of their American history,” said Nichole Andler, the park’s chief of interpretation. […]

“It has been a fun and inspiring project to work on with our park staff and our partners to complete this exhibit and give the Forgotten Winchester a permanent home,” Andler said.

The Juniper tree that was its home for so long alas is no longer with us. Just two years after the rifle was found, a wildfire burned the hillside above Strawberry Creek where the Forgotten Winchester had resided. Its comfy leaning tree was devastated in the conflagration. All that is left of it is a black stick. Had Eva Jensen’s keen powers of observation not spotted the rifle — which had weather to such a consistently grey color that it looked practically indistinguishable from the tree — than it would have burned to nothingness and nobody alive would have known it ever existed.

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Sword from 17th c. Dutch shipwreck found in stone

Thursday, May 23rd, 2019

A treasure hunter has discovered the remnants of a sword from a 335-year-old Dutch shipwreck off the coast of Cornwall. Robert Felce found the remains of the sword encased in thick concretion on the beach at Dollar Cove in Gunwalloe. Gunwalloe got its name from local legends of a Portuguese treasure ship sinking there in 1526 and a ship full of silver dollars sinking there 250 years later, but the rumored abundance of coin has never been found, nor has any other trace of the two fabled vessels.

Felce has found shipwreck artifacts at Dollar Cove before: three 17th century hand grenades. No treasure in the monetary sense of the word, but interesting from an archaeological perspective. Like the grenades, his latest find also looked like a rock from the outside, the result of centuries of built-up sand, stone, shell and assorted marine debris hardening around the object. He found it in a gulley at low tide. It was broken in three pieces and looked very little like anybody’s idea of a sword.

Robert Felce:

“Because the shape of the concretion was rounded it looks like it has rolled into the site and then broken up on the protruding bedrock with the action of the waves. This may have been a relatively short time before being luckily spotted in a sandy gulley.

“As you would expect with such an item, likely to be from the Schiedam shipwreck in 1684, age and the action of the sea has taken its toll. Most of the blade is either corroded or missing.

“However there is enough of the original iron blade to indicate the shape of the blade in cross sectional profile near to the hilt. The width of the blade is approximately five centimetres, or two inches.

“The whole length of the blade could have been perhaps more than 60 centimetres or two feet long and would probably have been kept in good condition by its original owner who could have been either a sailor, a soldier or even a North African pirate.

“Looking at the void in the concretion and remaining ferrous corrosion, it looks indeed like the profile and length of a piece of forged blade, likely a sword or sabre as opposed to a knife, dagger or bayonet-type blade.

Originally a Dutch merchant vessel, the Schiedam became the rope in a maritime tug of war. First it was captured by Barbary pirates off the coast of Gibraltar in August of 1683. Then the Royal Navy captured it from the pirates and repurposed it as a transport vessel for the English colony at Tangiers. It was a bad time to get assigned to British Tangiers. Moroccan forces had been assaulting the city non-stop for three years and the cost of constantly having to send reinforcements and rebuild or strengthen defenses was increasingly prohibitive to the strapped King Charles II.

In 1683, Charles gave up on the colony. He gave secret orders to evacuate the city and destroy it on the way out the gate. Tangier’s civilian population was only 700 people; the garrison had almost 3,000 men. From October 1683 until February 1684, Admiral Lord Dartmouth (assisted by administrator and famed diarist Samuel Pepys) systematically razed the city, its defenses, ports and harbor wall. The last of the English forces evacuated on February 5th, 1684. Moroccan forces took control of the demolished city on February 7th.

The Schiedam, loaded with heavy armaments, civilians and soldiers, was part of the Tangiers evacuation fleet. It was caught in a gale off the coast of Cornwall in April of 1684 and sank. Some of its larger armaments were salvaged at the time.  It was soon forgotten — an armed transport ship doesn’t make for good gossip like a treasure ship does — until shifting sands briefly exposed the wreck on the seabed. The sands quickly covered it back up.

The brief exposure, documented by diver Anthony Randall, was enough to get it designated a protected wreck after the passage of the Protection of Wrecks Act in 1973. As such, it cannot be interfered with. Artifacts do wash up on the beach from time to time, which is where Robert Felce finds them. The sword has been registered, as required by law, with the Receiver of Wrecks (which is as excellent a title as it is a job).

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Stolen Alexander Hamilton letter found 80 years later

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2019

A letter by Alexander Hamilton to the Marquis de LaFayette that was stolen eight decades ago has been found. It was stolen from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Archives by clerk Harold E. Perry between 1937 and 1945. After he was caught, he claimed to have stolen the documents as a “collector,” but he just so happened to have made quite a career from trafficking in looted history. He also stole original papers of George Washington’s, Benjamin Franklin’s, Paul Revere’s and, fittingly, Benedict Arnold’s. The thefts weren’t found out for years.

The Archive was left with documentary evidence that it had once owned the letter — a notation on a 19th century index list and on a name and subject index — and a photostat copy done in the 1920s. (Actually, they only had a photostat of the 19th century index list, because the traitor had stolen the index too while he was looting the archive.)

Perry was arrested in 1950, but by then he’d sold documents to dealers all over the country. He removed Archive reference numbers to obscure their origins. The Massachusetts Attorney General sent letters to all the major dealers alerting them to thefts and seeking the return of any stolen materials. Some of them were recovered. The Hamilton letter was not.

It was rediscovered when the document was consigned for sale to an auction house in Alexandria, Virginia by a South Carolina family in November 2018. The letter was valued at $25,000-35,000, but it never went under the hammer because a researcher at the auction house discovered the letter was missing from the Massachusetts Archives. They alerted the MA which provided documentation of the theft and then the auction house called the FBI.

The would-be consigners had no idea they had attempted to fence stolen goods. They inherited it from a relative who collected documents. From what they know, he bought it in the 1940s from a rare book dealer in Syracuse, New York, named Elmer Heise.

The FBI in Boston is currently in possession of the letter. US Attorney Andrew Lelling has filed a civil forfeiture complaint, a legally necessary step in the process of returning the letter to the Archives. Once that goes through the court, the Hamilton letter will be back at the Massachusetts Archives.

Dated July 21, 1780, the letter was written at George Washington’s Preakness Valley Headquarters in New Jersey. Its recipient was in Danbury, Connecticut at the time.

My Dear Marquis
We have just received advice from New York through different channels that the enemy are making an embarkation with which they menace the French fleet and army. Fifty transports are said to have gone up the Sound to take in troops and proceed directly to Rhode Island.

The General is absent and may not return before evening. Though this may be only a demonstration yet as it may be serious, I think it best to forward it without waiting the Generals return.

We have different accounts from New York of an action in the West Indies in which the English lost several ships. I am inclined to credit them.

I am My Dear Marquis with the truest affection

Yr. Most Obedt

A Hamilton  Aide De Camp

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19th c. barracks unearthed in Ottawa

Tuesday, May 21st, 2019

An excavation of Ottawa’s Parliament Hill in advance of redevelopment has unearthed the remains of military barracks predating the founding of city. What would become Ottawa was known as Bytown then, named after Lieutenant Colonel John By, a British military engineer charged with building the Rideau Canal to link Montreal via the Ottawa River to the Saint Lawrence at Kingston, Ontario.

The mission had a military purpose. In the wake of the War of 1812, Canada feared the United States would persist in its attempts at invasion. Having a secure supply route connecting Montreal to the British naval base in Kingston instead of having to rely on the Saint Lawrence, with its treacherous rapids and section bordering New York, would provide an important tactical advantage.

Work began in 1826. It was not an easy job. The canal had to be dug out of the earth over a distance of 202 kilometers (125.5 miles). Much of the heavy work was done by contractors who employed Irish and French-Canadian labourers, but the Royal Sappers and Miners Regiment were deployed to work on the canal under By’s command. Those 150 soldiers and their wives and children had to be quartered in Bytown.

On the north side of the future Parliament Hill, three barracks, a guardhouse, stables and kitchens were built, as was Ottawa’s first jailhouse (a very petite one with just three cells). Also latrines, which of course make archaeologists rub their dirty hands together with glee.

The items uncovered so far include a range of military items: chin straps, tags, gorgets  — which officers often wore to hold their neckties in place — and other domestic items, like coins. […]

But there might be more left to uncover, in a somewhat unusual spot: the privies.

“It’s an excellent place to dispose of things,” said [excavation project manager Stephen] Jarrett. […]

With no modern-day plumbing, it doesn’t take much to imagine the odour.

“You need to keep the smell down from the human waste, and so you put fill layers on top in order to keep the smell down,” Jarrett said.

“So that comes with all the broken dishes and anything else that can help keep that smell down.”

The canal was completed in 1832. It was a remarkable feat of engineering but it never was used for military purposes. By the time it was done, the prospect of a US invasion was no longer a concern. The barracks remained on the hill for another 25 years. Ottawa was founded in 1855. In 1858 it was declared the capital of the newly-established United Province of Canada. The old Bytown barracks were demolished to make way for the parliament buildings of the new capital.

The excavation will continue until the fall. All recovered artifacts will be cleaned and conserved by Public Services and Procurement Canada experts. Once they are stabilized, the objects will be placed on public display

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French & Indian War battle drawing found inside wall of 17th c. home

Sunday, May 19th, 2019

Restorers have discovered a battle scene believed to be from the French and Indian War drawn on the wall of a 17th-century home in East Hartford, Connecticut. A crew from the Glastonbury Restoration Company, a firm that specializes in restoring historic structures, was removing old plaster to reach the original wooden frame of the house when he uncovered a much older plaster wall covered with a mural five feet wide drawn in primitive style.

It’s a rudimentary drawing that is nonetheless incredibly active and detailed. In different colors of charcoal and chalk, it depicts a complex battle scene with soldiers in different colored uniforms, complete with winter coats and hats, cannon being moved on carts, Native Americans wielding bows and arrows and dead bodies with arrows protruding from them. There’s even a mysterious red tree-like creature in the middle of the scene who appears to have some human facial features and is waving his thick branchy “hair” in the wind. Where was the Whomping Willow in the 1700s? (I demand a cut of any prequel JK Rowling writes based on this idea.)

Glastonbury Restoration Company owner Steve Bielitz has found plenty of graffiti in the many houses he’s worked on over the years, but nothing even remotely like this. He showed the work to art experts in Connecticut and other states, among them University of Delaware architectural historian Michael Emmons Jr. who described it as an extremely rare 18th century “architectural sketch”

Emmons said he has documented thousands of graffiti and wall markings across the country. He said a vast majority were created by young males — ages 10 to 30 — but mostly by teenagers. He said although the drawing looks like it may have been created by a child, that’s not the case.

“Rudimentary drawings and less literate writings often reveal younger people’s handiwork, but admittedly, these things can also be misinterpreted because it “looks” like it’s done by a young person, when in reality it was done by someone who just couldn’t write or draw well,” he said.

Emmons said he believes the drawing could have been made by a family member after being told the story of the battle. […]

“My gut sense here is that these images were created by a younger person, rather than even a young soldier who has fought in a war. This does not preclude the possibility of these images being drawn by someone who actually participated in a war, which is definitely possible, but my instinct is that this is a younger person drawing a scene they’ve read about or heard about, or maybe even recreating an event that a family member experienced,” he said.

There certainly would have been a myriad opportunities for that kind of transmission. The home is the oldest surviving house in East Hartford, dating to the Colonial era around 1693. Its first owner was Jonathan Hills, the youngest son of William Hills who was one of the founders of Hartford. William Hills had emigrated to what was then the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1632, and moved to Hartford four years later. He accrued significant property in a very short time, including more than 500 acres in land in an area of Hartford called Hockanum on the east bank of the Connecticut River. Hockanum would become East Hartford in 1783.

William Hills was a captain in the Hartford militia. His son William, Jr., died in King Philip’s war in 1675, shot by an Indian arrow. The family’s military tradition continued for generations. Jonathan was a lieutenant in the colonial regiments, as was his son David Ensign Hills and his son David. The latter is known to have to fought in the French and Indian War (1754–1763).

The artwork was made on the wall in situ, perhaps by a family member to entertain and educate the children. We know a renovation after 1850 covered the wall with another plaster wall because some of the figures in the mural were found behind a stud. The date hasn’t been able to be narrowed down any further than that yet. The drawing will be studied further by Michael Emmons at the University of Delaware. It will be analyzed with infrared photography and reflectance transformation imaging which may reveal details invisible the naked eye.

As for its final disposition, that is up in the air at the moment. The house is still owned by descendants of the Hills family. They have are having it dismantled piece by piece and moved to South Carolina. They own the mural, of course, as it is literally a piece of their house. They might put it back on the wall where it was discovered.

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Sarsen core returns to Stonehenge after US sojourn

Tuesday, May 14th, 2019

A core drilled out of one of Stonehenge’s massive sarsen stones has been returned to its homeland after decades in the US. It wasn’t smuggled out or looted; it was legitimately removed and nobody even remembered it existed other than the person who had it.

In 1958, archaeologists working at Stonehenge endeavored to raise a fallen trilithon. When cracks were found in one of the vertical stones, Basingstoke diamond cutting firm Van Moppes was brought in to drill out three cores so that metal rods could be inserted to reinforce the post and allow it to bear the weight of the lintel.

Roger Phillips was one of the Van Moppes employees who bored three horizontal holes through the stone using an annular drilling machine. The three cores removed were 25mm (approximately one inch) in diameter and one meter, the full thickness of the stone, long. After the metal reinforcements were installed, the openings were plugged with fragments of sarsen stones unearthed in excavations. It was a highly effective intervention and today the repairs are all but invisible.

The cores were considered waste material and there are no known records documenting their fate. As it turns out, Phillips kept one of them. For years he displayed the 108cm (3’6″) long cylinder in a protective acrylic sleeve in his Basingstoke office.  Robert Phillips left Van Moppes in 1976 and moved to the US. He crossed the country, living in Rochester, New York, Chicago, Illinois, Ventura, California and lastly Aventura, Florida, carrying his trusty sarsen core with him on every move.

Last year, at the age of 90, Phillips decided his beloved piece of Stonehenge should go home. He asked his sons Robin and Lewis, both of whom live in England, to return it to English Heritage, and so they did. In a repatriation ceremony at Stonehenge, The Phillipses handed over the cylinder to English Heritage curator Heather Sebire.

The core is an invaluable source of information on the source of the sarsen stones. Modern technology makes it possible to analyze their origin in a way that wasn’t even a glint in anyone’s eye back in 1958.

This recently returned piece of Stonehenge, which looks incongruously pristine next to the weathered stone from where it came, may now help locate the original location of the sarsen stones. Stonehenge’s smaller bluestones were famously brought from the Preseli Hills in south-west Wales but the precise origin of the much larger sarsens is unknown. A British Academy and Leverhulme Trust project, led by Professor David Nash of the University of Brighton, is investigating the chemical composition of the sarsen stones at Stonehenge in order to pinpoint their source. The project team have already used a handheld portable spectrometer to investigate the chemistry of the sarsen stones at Stonehenge using x-ray fluorescence, a non-destructive technique. The core presents the team with a unique opportunity to analyse the unweathered interior of a stone. […]

Professor David Nash, Brighton University, said: “Archaeologists and geologists have been debating where the stones used to build Stonehenge came from for years. The bluestones have attracted a lot of attention recently, but in contrast little has been done to look at the sources of the larger sarsen stones. Conventional wisdom suggests that they all came from the relatively nearby Marlborough Downs but initial results from our analysis suggest that in fact the sarsens may come from more than one location.  Our geochemical fingerprinting of the sarsens in situ at Stonehenge, and of the core itself, when compared with samples from areas across southern England will hopefully tell us where the different stones came from.”

English Heritage would love to get their mitts on the other two cores, if they still exist out there. Anybody with any information about the Stonehenge cores should email stonehenge.core@english-heritage.org.uk.

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Maurice Sendak: set & costume designer

Thursday, May 2nd, 2019

Maurice Sendak became famous as an illustrator and author of children’s books, most notably the all-time classic 1963’s Where the Wild Things Are, but his artistic abilities and interests lent themselves to much larger formats. The most wonderful mural a children’s room ever had, hand-painted by Sendak for his close friends two years before the publication of Where the Wild Things Are made him a household name, hints at what he was capable on a grand scale. Now housed in the Free Library of Philadelphia’s South Philly branch, it is Sendak’s only known mural.

Almost 20 years would pass before he expanded beyond the dimensions of the page and began a second career as a designer of theatrical sets and costumes. Sendak was a great opera fan. In the late 1970s, he began creating designs for operas and ballets

A new exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City opens this summer to explore this little-known aspect of Sendak’s extraordinary artistry. Drawing the Curtain: Maurice Sendak’s Designs for Opera and Ballet exhibits 150 drawings from the Morgan’s collection of nearly 1,000 Sendak drawings focusing on his five most important stage productions: Mozart’s Magic Flute, Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen, Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, and an opera based on Where the Wild Things Are. The works include early sketches and studies, storyboards, watercolors, and painted dioramas. The exhibition also includes earlier pieces on loan from The Maurice Sendak Foundation’s collection of 10,000 Sendak works, and some surviving props and costumes from the productions.

A selection of eighteenth and nineteenth-century works from the Morgan’s collection by artists who influenced Sendak will be displayed alongside his designs. Throughout his career, Sendak drew inspiration from his visits to the Morgan, particularly his encounters with the compositions of Mozart, and the drawings of William Blake and Giambattista and Domenico Tiepolo. The Morgan’s diverse holdings of music manuscripts, autograph letters, printed books, and Old Master drawings mirrored Sendak’s own wide-ranging passion for music, art, and literature. […]

“Few people know that Maurice Sendak had a long and productive relationship with the Morgan. It is exciting to focus on his work as a theater designer, which is an often overlooked but important aspect of his career as an artist,” said Director of the museum, Colin B. Bailey. […]

“This exhibition will be a wonderful surprise to those who are familiar with Sendak primarily through his beloved books,” said Rachel Federman, Assistant Curator in the Modern and Contemporary Drawings Department and the curator of the exhibition. “His designs for opera and ballet have all the beauty, humor, and complexity of his picture books and illustrations, but they also put on full display his passion for art, art history, and music.”

The exhibition opens June 14th and runs through October 6th, 2019.

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Lost botanical manuscript by Mary Shelley’s aunt found

Wednesday, May 1st, 2019

A manuscript filled with brightly colored and realistic drawings of Cuban flora lost for nearly two centuries has been found in the Cornell University Library. Written by Nancy Anne Kingsbury Wollstonecraft during a trip to Cuba in 1826, the three-volume manuscript contains 121 vivid illustrations accompanied by 220 pages of detailed descriptions of the plants she encountered.

Born in New Hampshire, Wollstonecraft was married to Charles Wollstonecraft, brother of pioneering women’s rights advocate Mary Wollstonecraft and uncle of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley. Charles died in 1817 and Nancy moved to Matanzas, Cuba, where there was a community of American expatriates seeking to improve their health in the sunny climes. In 1826, she compiled a manuscript whose handwritten title page read Specimens of the Plants & Fruits of the Island of Cuba by Mrs. A.K. Wollstonecraft.

The work was known only from third party references, just two of them contemporary and the second of those a report of the first one. The April 1828 issue of New York Farmer described the compendium glowingly.

Introductory work on the Botany of Cuba. — A Lady has occupied herself for several years in deleniating [sic] and describing the more select vegetables growing on this interesting island. Three quarto volumes of descriptions and drawings have been sent to New York, by Nathaniel H. Carter, Esq. corresponding secretary of our Horticultural Society, from Havana. The figures are carefully colored from the living specimens ; and they appear to have been executed not with correctness merely, but elegance. The history which accompanies each is brief, but sententious and comprehensive; containing the leading facts and circumstances relative to the production. The author of this beautiful and instructive performance, is MRS. WOLSTONCRAFT ; and it may be safely said that it is fully equal to the plates which embellish the celebrated book on the insects of Surinam and the plants they feed upon, by SYBELLA MERIAN. Mrs. Wolstoncraft’s work differs from the other by a total omission of the entomology ; but it is incomparably more scientific. The class, order, genus, and species are distinctly and skilfully [sic] noted, both according to the systems of Linnaeus and Jussieu, with frequently the Spanish or aboriginal synonym or common name. It is intended to publish this splendid work, if an adequate subscription can be procured ; and after the successful efforts in bringing forward the superb publications of WILSON and BONAPARTE on ornithology, it may be reasonably expected that such a charming addition to botany, will find abundant patronage. The attention of the fair sex is earnestly invited to this subject.

She included more information than just the common name. Wollstoncraft wrote detailed notes on traditional indigenous uses for plants, for example recording that roots of the soursop tree were used to make an antidote for fish poisoning and that its leaves were used to fight parasites and seizures.

Unfortunately that adequate subscription never was procured and the manuscript remained unpublished. Nancy Wollstoncraft died in 1828. She was 46 years old and her life’s work wasn’t quite complete yet. There were some unfinished illustrations, unidentified specimens, notes and draft pages inside the volumes. The manuscript remained in the family, a cherished heirloom, for almost a century.

Its importance was recognized but only by reputation. Later scholars included Specimens of the Plants & Fruits of the Island of Cuba in their publications as a significant work based on that original 1828 reference, but none of them ever laid eyes on it.

Emilio Cueto, a retired attorney, collector and scholar of Cuban history, set out to track it down. It took two decades for his dogged chase to find its quarry. The diverse spellings of the author’s last name, the occasional use of her maiden name and her first name being recorded as both Anne and Nancy, made searching through catalogues challenging, and there is very little extant information about her life to enable a trace through historical and genealogical records.

In 2018, he hit paydirt. Cueto found a catalogue entry that matched the manuscript at Cornell University Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections (RMC). Nancy’s last name was spelled “Wollstonecroft” in the entry, a reasonable interpretation of the cursive script on the title page, which is why it hadn’t been recognized earlier. Cueto flew up to Ithaca, New York, with collaborator Judy Russell, dean of university libraries at the University of Florida, and at long last put eyes on Specimens of the Plants & Fruits of the Island of Cuba. It turns out to have been safely ensconced in the RMC since 1923 when Benjamin Freeman Kingsbury, a descendant of Wollstonecraft’s and Cornell professor, donated it to the library.

Now Nancy Wollstonecraft’s masterpiece has finally been published, not on paper but in pixels. Instead of the modest subscription run that was the best she could have hoped for, everyone in the world can see the fruits of her labours in high resolution. All three volumes have been digitized and uploaded to HathiTrust: Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3. You can browse every page online, or download entire volumes in pdf form.

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