Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Iron Age tunic found in Norway glacier recreated

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014

In 2011, archaeologists exploring the rapidly melting Lendbreen glacier in Norway’s Breheimen National Park discovered an intact woolen tunic dating to between 230 and 390 A.D. It is the oldest garment ever found in Norway, and it wasn’t new when for unknown reasons it was left on a glacier to freeze solid. There are several patches and the sleeves were sewn onto the tunic after the original manufacture. Although it could have been decades old, it was still entirely in wearable condition, and yet it was found bundled up and covered in horse manure. Archaeologists speculated that its 5’9″ wearer removed it believing himself to be hot, a common delusion caused by hypothermia, but it may also have been put to some other purpose rather than as clothing.

Its exceptional condition and the visible repairs afford researchers a unique chance to examine Iron Age wool, textile production and garment construction. To learn more about how the tunic was made, two museums — the University of Olso’s Museum of Cultural History and the Norwegian Mountain Museum in Lom — will create reproductions using traditional techniques. It’s going to be a highly detailed and complex process that enlists the labour of expert craftsmen.

First they have to source the proper wool. Ancient Norwegian sheep breeds had two kinds of wool: the long, stiff, water-resistant outer coat known as overhair, and the soft, fluffy inner layer known as underwool. The two layers were used to make different kinds of garments. The overhair was ideal for outerwear to protect from the elements, but the Lendbreen tunic was made almost entirely from underwool.

Wool from most modern sheep breeds is akin to the ancient underwool, but wild breeds still have the two layers. Researchers are therefore securing the wool of Norwegian wild sheep from a farmer at Hareid in northwestern Norway’s Sunnmøre region. Then traditional wool spinnery at Selbu Spinneri wll separate the overhair from the underwool by hand. They have no idea how long this painstaking work will take (my guess is a long damn time). Once the overhair has been plucked out, the spinners will spin some of the underwool on a hand spindle just as it would have been done in the Iron Age. (Spinning wheels were invented in the 18th century. EDIT: According to the linked release about the project, that is, but several erudite commenters below have corrected the contention. I suspect is a translation error and they were referring to mechanized spinning.) The project can’t afford to spin all the wool they need by hand, so some of it will be spun mechanically.

Because the tunic was woven in a diamond twill pattern, the Selbu Spinneri will sort the underwool into shades of grey so the darkest and lightest wool can be woven into this distinctive pattern. Once spun, the yard will be woven into the diamond twill textile on a vertical warp-weighted loom, an ancient machine that is simple, functional and slow.

Consisting of a simple upright frame with two horizontal beams, the loom is leant against a wall. The vertical warp threads hang freely from the upper beam. To keep the warp threads taut, stones or other heavy weights are hung from the bottom of bundles of warp threads. The weaving is done from the top of the loom downwards and every line of weft thread is beaten tightly in place with a sword beater.

The textiles will be woven by handweaver Lena Hammarlund from Gothenburg. Lena specializes in reconstructing prehistoric textiles.

Lena Hammarlund from Gothenburg, you are so cool.

After Ms. Hammarlund does her thing, the woven textile will be sewn into two tunics by traditional tailors from Heimen Husflid in Oslo. Once the tunics are completed, they will go on display, one at the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo, the other at the Lom museum. The latter is just six miles east of the Lendbreen glacier and has a large collection of artifacts recovered since the thaws began accelerating in 2006.

Marianne Vedeler, Associate Professor at the Museum of Cultural History at the University of Oslo, hopes the reconstruction won’t just give us a new understanding of the manufacture of ancient woollen clothing, but will also have an impact on Norwegian clothing design today.

“Clothes were not consumer items in the Iron Age. It was important to be able to re-use clothing, and in those days clothes lasted a long time. Today, we spend enormous resources on clothes. And modern clothes are not durable. If we can use local raw materials and create clothing of high quality, it will be good for us all. We are therefore hoping that designers will be inspired by this example of old, Norwegian design. If we can create modern textiles from a prehistoric design, we hope also to be able to give a boost to the Norwegian wool industry. Sadly, much of the wool from the old sheep breeds currently goes to waste.”

I’m picturing a Norwegian wild sheep overhair trench coat. I know I’d wear one.

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View restoration of della Francesca’s Resurrection by app

Monday, December 1st, 2014

The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca, a fresco judged by Aldous Huxley to be “the best picture in the world,” is receiving a much-needed restoration. A team from Florence’s conservation institute the Opificio delle Pietre Dure will spend a projected 18 months in the Upper Tiber Valley town of Sansepolcro, Tuscany, restoring the 15th century masterpiece and they will do it in plain view of the public thanks to a custom scaffolding bridge that will leave the painting visible while experts work on it. Public restorations are increasingly common these days, but this project will vastly expand the range of public view with an app that will allow people to follow the restoration from the comfort of their own smartphones. The app debuts in January.

Restoring The Resurrection is a complex problem. Piero della Francesca used different types of paint — fresco, tempera — and design techniques. Pigments like cinnabar red lacquer, malachite and white lead are typical of tempera. Because of the diverse materials, restorers will have to work on the painting inch by inch. The Opificio experts have studied the work using 20 non-invasive techniques — among them UV imaging, infrared imaging, careful visual examination of the surface — and found areas where the paint is discolored, flaking and cracking, and which of those are original, which past restorations. There are places where the fresco’s plaster is peeling off the wall. A 3D reconstruction of the work derived from the imaging data indicates that damage and dirt have obscured many of the painting’s unique perspectival elements.

The wall itself is in need of repair because multiple earthquakes over the centuries have caused structural problems. Although it adds another layer of difficulty to the project, treating the wall has an upside. Restorers are hoping it will answer questions about when the painting was moved to its current location. Della Francesca painted it for the Town Hall in the 1460s to celebrate Florence returning control of the building and some measure of political autonomy to Sansepolcro, but it was originally on the wall of another room in the building. The bottom-to-top perspective suggests it was once placed higher than it is now. It was thought to have been moved to its current room in the 16th century, but there are a lot of open questions about the history of the work.

In Huxley’s 1925 essay The Best Picture (pdf), he provides a whole other backstory:

The best picture in the world is painted in fresco on the wall of a room in the town hall. Some unwittingly beneficent vandal had it covered, some time after it was painted, with a thick layer of plaster, under which it lay hidden for a century or two, to be revealed at last in a state of preservation remarkably perfect for a fresco of its date. Thanks to the vandals, the visitor who now enters the Palazzo
dei Conservatori at Borgo San Sepolcro finds the stupendous Resurrection almost as Piero della Francesca left it. Its clear, yet subtly sober colours shine out from the wall with scarcely impaired freshness. Damp has blotted out nothing of the design, nor dirt obscured it. We need no imagination to help us figure forth its beauty; it stands there before us in entire and actual splendour, the greatest picture in the world.

If Huxley’s description is accurate, the condition of the work has degenerated precipitously in just 90 years.

The Resurrection has a profound connection to Sansepolcro. Piero della Francesca was a native son (the sleeping soldier in the brown armour underneath the staff of Jesus’ banner is thought to be a self-portrait). He incorporated the city’s symbolism into the painting. The rock in the bottom right depicts the stone from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that according to legend pilgrims Arcanus and Aegidius brought back from Jerusalem with them when they founded the town they then named after the church. The Christ figure from the painting is the central element of the city’s coat of arms.

Then there’s the more recent history when The Resurrection saved Sansepolcro from destruction in World War II. In 1944, Royal Horse Artillery captain Anthony Clarke was ordered shell the city in advance of Allied infantry troops. Clarke had seen the obliteration of the monastery at Monte Cassino as a result of Allied bombing, a destruction that turned out to be not just futile (the Germans weren’t occupying the monastery as the Allies believed) but counterproductive since German paratroopers moved into the ruins which gave them outstanding cover and made them very hard to dislodge. He had also read Huxley’s essay and remembered, even though he had never seen the painting, that The Resurrection was in Sansepolcro. Taking an enormous personal risk, Clarke did not relay the order to fire.

He later said his commanding officer had come on the radio urging him to get on with it so he had to stall for time, peering at the town through binoculars and assuring his commander that he could see no German targets to go after.

It was a brave action. Had Allied infantry been ambushed as they advanced on Sansepolcro, his court martial would have been brutal.

But, for the love of art, he kept the guns silent. The Germans fled and the town was liberated the following day without any damage to the 500-year-old work of art.

There’s a street named after Tony Clarke in Sansepolcro now.

The restoration is estimated to cost 200,000 euros ($250,000). The town council has scared up 40,000 euros from its threadbare budget. Former Buitoni pasta and sauce executive Also Osti has pleged 100,000 euros. A friend convinced him to donate, and he was easily persuaded because he although he now lives in Switzerland, he lived in Sansepolcro, headquarters of the Buitoni company, for many years. His son was born there. The city is working on raising the remaining 60,000 euros from other private donors. Meanwhile they have enough to get started and keep going for a while.

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Lost avant-garde painting found in Stuart Little’s living room

Sunday, November 30th, 2014

Art historian Gergely Barki was watching Stuart Little with his daughter Lola on Christmas Day 2008 when he recognized a painting above the living room fireplace as Sleeping Lady with a Black Vase, a lost masterpiece by Hungarian Avant-Garde painter Róbert Berény. Berény painted Sleeping Lady with a Black Vase at the turn of 1927/1928. The model was his second wife, cellist Eta Breuer who posed for several of her husband’s post-Impressionist works, often with her cello even though she had stopped playing professionally when she married Berény. Barki, a researcher at the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest, is writing a biography of the artist and recognized the painting from the last known record of it: a black and white photograph taken at an exhibition in Hungary in 1928. It was bought at that exhibition by an unknown person, perhaps someone Jewish who fled the country before or during World War II. In the chaos of war and its aftermath, Sleeping Lady with a Black Vase disappeared.

After he beheld the work in living color casually hanging behind Hugh Laurie, Geena Davis and a stylishly attired CGI mouse 90 years after its disappearance, Barki barraged Sony Pictures, Columbia Pictures, cameramen, propmasters, directors, anyone connected with the movie that might have some information about the painting, with emails, but nobody knew where the piece was. It was no longer on Sony’s books because at some point between 1999 and 2002 it had been loaned to the CBS drama Family Law and was removed from the warehouse inventory at that time.

Two years later, he heard from Lisa S., an assistant set designer on Stuart Little. She had bought the painting for $500 from an antiques store in Pasadena specifically for the movie because she thought its cool elegance was perfectly suited for the Little’s New York City apartment. Lisa S. had tracked it down in another warehouse and purchased it from Sony just because she liked it so much. When she contacted Barki, she had no idea of the history of the painting hanging on her bedroom wall.

After Barki visited the painting in person and confirmed its identity, Lisa sold it to a private collector. That collector has now been persuaded to sell it in Hungary. It will go up for auction at the Virag Judit Art Gallery in Budapest on December 13th with a starting price of 110,000 euros ($160,000). Gergely Barki won’t make a dime off of his discovery, but he will have a great story to tell in his biography of the artist.

Róbert Berény’s fame today is centered around his being one of The Eight, a group of artists who introduced the Post-Impressionist avant-garde to Hungary in 1909. He had studied art in Paris starting when he was 17 years old in 1904, exhibiting with the French Fauvists and then incorporating the influence of Cezanne and Matisse into his work with The Eight. The Eight had a profound influence on Hungarian culture, literature and music as well as the visual arts.

In addition to his work in painting and other graphic arts (he designed a well known propaganda poster entitled To Arms! To Arms! for Béla Kun’s Hungarian Revolution of 1919), Berény was also a writer, violinist, pianist, composer and inventor who experimented with moving film and even made an early version of 3D glasses. He and his first wife Ilona Somló, nicknamed Léni, were also close friends with pioneering psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi and were involved in early psychoanalysis experiments including ones on telepathy.

In his personal life, Berény was a notorious lothario. Among his lovers are numbered Marlene Dietrich and a so-called “Russian princess” who may actually have been Anna Anderson, the Polish factor worker who for decades claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra and magical survivor of the firing squad that slaughtered the Romanovs in 1918.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.



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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.


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