Washington’s garden restored from myth to reality

George Washington’s Upper Garden on his Mount Vernon estate has for many years been the province of English boxwood and formal rose gardens, but has now been returned to its original practical beauty. The experts had assumed that the boxwood, those scions of the classic English garden, were original to Washington’s time, and even the roses were if not fully original, at least close to it. In the 1980s, new research showed that the hybrid tea roses didn’t even exist until 1860; later tree-ring counts performed on deceased boxwoods proved they had been planted around the same time as the roses.

In 1985, the garden was redesigned to bring it closer into line with the authentic garden Washington enjoyed. The roses were removed and replaced with smaller plots of ornamental flowers. The boxwoods, however, remained, kept in place by their own mythology and the mythology they supported of Washington as American royalty. The boxwoods couldn’t live forever, though, and as they began to perish and get removed six years ago, Esther White, Mount Vernon’s director of archaeology, finally had the opportunity to excavate the garden. She discovered evidence of Washington’s first plantings: fruit trees in the 1760s.

Excavations continued over the next few years, the team finding multiple versions of the garden from different periods until they were able to pinpoint the layout of the 1780s garden. It was walled and bullet-shaped walled, with wide paths and fewer large, long beds instead of the small crescent beds that had characterized the garden for so many years.

Starting in August of last year, Dean Norton, Mount Vernon’s director of horticulture, and his team began a complete redesign of the Upper Garden to return it to as close to its 1780s landscaping as possible. No more mannered hedges and small groupings of pretty flowers. They used the layout they had discovered, originally designed by Samuel Vaughan, and turned to Washington’s own weekly gardener’s reports to see what he had planted. It wasn’t roses; it was crops.

Which raises the question: Why weren’t these detailed reports used earlier to fashion the Upper Garden? The answer, of course, is that while the new garden speaks to Washington the man, the previous, embroidered versions told of Washington the myth. (The Upper Garden’s twin, the Lower Garden, remains an idealized Colonial Revival fruit and vegetable garden.)

“The [Upper] Garden became a reflection of everything we in the 19th and 20th century think about Washington, this romanticized view of the 18th-century man, strolling his pleasure garden, taking in the colors, the fragrances,” White said. “It’s our projection. One of the things the project did was to make people wipe clean their idea of what the garden should be. We all started again.”

There’s an excellent example of that mythologizing at work in this fascinating blog entry about artist Howard Pyle. In 1896 he wrote a letter to future President Woodrow Wilson in which he describes a painting he wanted to make of Washington the gentleman farmer, the Cincinnatus figure who served his nation when called upon, only to return to his noble bucolic life as man of the earth as soon as possible. “I am informed that the box-walk at Mount Vernon is now very much as it was in Washington’s day. It is very picturesque, and it would be interesting to place Washington in it as a setting,” says Pyle.

The thing is the rows of vegetables rimmed with flowers and clusters of fruit trees would have been, if less picturesque, certainly impressive showings of wealth in Washington’s time. Just because it was practical doesn’t mean it wasn’t also indicative of the landowner’s wealth, available leisure time and large, in this case enslaved, labor force.

The restoration is now almost complete, and it sounds dreamy.

In rebuilding the garden — the construction took place between August and November — crews brought in 350 cubic yards of soil and compost. Bulbs were planted in late 2010, the remaining plantings this spring. Eight mature apple, pear and cherry trees were moved to the orchard bed.

In late spring, the beds of decorative plants feature a mixture of all sorts of heirloom plants — bulbs, annuals, perennials, biennials, shrubs and roses. The gardeners have planted vegetables in strict rows, including peas, beans, beets, lettuce, potatoes, spinach and lots of cabbage-family plants.

$5000 for the head of patron saint of genital diseases

The purported head of St. Vitalis of Assisi, a 14th century hermit and the patron saint of genital and urinary diseases, was sold at auction to an anonymous California phone bidder for €3,500 ($5,000). The estimated price range was between €800 (about $1,140) and €1,200 (about $1700), but as the news of the sale spread in the media — the words “patron saint of genital disease” have a lot of headline-making appeal — interest was piqued early. Auctioneer Damien Matthews received 100 bids before the sale even started, so the bidding opened well ahead of the top estimate at €2,400 (about $3,500). It took less than a minute for the Californian buyer to seal the deal at $5,000.

The purported head of St. Vitalis in its Queen Anne display caseThe skull is housed in a glass-faced Queen Anne case and belonged to the Anglo-Irish family of Annesbrook House in Duleek, County Meath, Ireland. The history of this macabre artifact is nebulous, but the story is that ancestors of the sellers acquired it on a Grand Tour of Europe during the 19th century and proudly set it in the entrance hall of Annesbrook House for all to see. Once they had children, however, they moved the head into an outbuilding where it gathered dust for decades. That’s where it was when Matthews found it while appraising articles for the upcoming sale.

As for the head itself, I don’t think it’s possible to confirm that it belonged to Saint Vitalis of Assisi, and in fact I think it’s more likely that it does not. The case is labeled “S. Vitalis M.” The “M” stands for martyr, and although there are several Saint Vitalises who died martyrs, the Assisi monk is not one of them.

He was a wayward youth, prone to brigandage and sins of the flesh, who saw the error of his ways and undertook to expiate his naughtiness by going on pilgrimages to the most important Christian sites in Italy, France and Spain. When he returned to his home in central Italy, Saint Benedict appeared to him in a dream and told him to follow his rule. Saint Benedict also got more specific and told him exactly which hermitage he should serve in.

He did as the dream told him and became a Benedictine monk assigned to the hermitage of Santa Maria of Viole, near the Benedictine monastery on the slopes of Mount Subasio, on the outskirts of Assisi. Vitalis lived there for 20 years in seclusion and poverty until his death. He wore rags and lived off the land. His sole possession was said to be a basket he used to carry water from a nearby spring. After his death on May 31, 1370 at 75 years of age, his body was buried on the spot. His reputation for saintliness drew many visitors who attributed miraculous cures to him. When he was canonized, May 31st was declared his saint day and he was made patron of genital and urinary diseases, perhaps because he had been more than passingly familiar with them in his youth.

The 'Deposition' by Dono Doni over the altar of St. Vitalis, in the Cathedral of San RufinoA church was built in Viole over his burial. His body remained in that church’s crypt until 1586 when the bishop of Assisi had it moved to the Cathedral of San Rufino in Assisi. There an altar was dedicated to him in the right transept of the church, decorated with a painting of the Deposition from the Cross by Dono Doni (1562-3). The left transept has an altar dedicated to St. Rufino, decorated with Dono Doni’s Crucifixion. I suppose the bishop wanted to double up on local saint power. These chapels are on either side of the central altar of the cathedral, under which the remains of St. Rufino are interred. Saint Rufino brought Christianity to Assisi, was its first bishop and patron saint, and was martyred in 238 by having a stone tied to his neck and being thrown in the Chiascio river.

In 2001, the remains of Saint Vitalis were moved one more time, in a solemn procession from San Rufino back to the Cathedral of Viole where they were re-interred under the major altar. At no point in any of these moves was there any recorded comment on a missing head. That’s not to say it couldn’t have been snatched and sold to Anglo-Irish grand tourists, but as far as the locals are concerned, their saint is intact.

British art dealer breaks law to SAVE looted artifact

Gandharan Buddha statue, 2nd c.In a break from the usual pattern, an art dealer who has chosen to remain anonymous put his freedom and career on the line to rescue an ancient Buddha statue looted from the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul during the 1990s.

The rare 4-foot statue of Gandharan Buddha with flames coming off his shoulders and water flowing from his feet dates to the 2nd century A.D. It was stolen at some time during the civil wars after the fall of the Soviet-backed Najibullah regime in 1992 and had traveled the dark halls of the black market in antiquities until it was recently purchased by a Japanese private collector. A Japanese dealer sent our hero a picture of the statue and he immediately recognized it from his years of travel in Afghanistan. He even remembered exactly where it had been displayed in the National Museum.

He contacted the collector and told him that the piece had been stolen, begging him to return it to the museum. Appeals to giving a damn about the cultural heritage of a war-torn nation fell on deaf ears. The collector refused to give it up. Under Japanese law, owners cannot be prosecuted for purchasing a stolen artifact even if there’s concrete proof that the item was looted.

The UK, on the other hand, has laws against buying stolen goods, but faced with the prospect of this precious piece of Afghan heritage disappearing into a private collection forever, the British art dealer (heretofore known as BAD, like in BADASS) decided he had to take the risk of being arrested to save the Buddha and return it to Kabul where it belonged. He offered to buy the statue from the Japanese collector.

He told two people of his plan: Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum and St John Simpson, a curator. They sought legal counsel only to receive confirmation that there was nothing they could do to protect themselves. Getting mixed up in this deal was illegal and they could get in big trouble, despite their best intentions. They decided the public good was more important than holding to the letter of the law, so they supported BAD’s attempt to buy the statue. He spent a year negotiating with the collector, and finally he was able to secure the sale using only his own money.

There are no details in the article about how the artifact was imported, possibly because said import was technically smuggling, but whatever they did worked.

The taller (180 ft) Buddha of Bamiyan before (1963) and after (2008) destruction by the TalibanSimpson described the rescue as “terribly appropriate”, coming as it did on the 10th anniversary of the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan: “They’re gone forever. But one very important piece can be returned. This is a very important and stunningly beautiful piece.”

Omara Khan Massoudi, director of the National Museum of Afghanistan, described it as “one of our most treasured objects”. One source put the sculpture’s value at £600,000, but the British Museum said it is “without value, given its provenance”.

The Buddha is now safe in the hands of the British Museum where it will go on display Wednesday as part of its hugely successful Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World, which has been so popular the museum extended its run through July 17. The Gandharan Buddha will be returned to the National Museum in Kabul along with the rest of the exhibits.

Detailed van Gogh restoration performed in public

'Undergrowth with Two Figures' by Vincent van Gogh, 1890

Cincinnati Art Museum is restoring Vincent van Gogh’s 1890 masterpiece “Undergrowth with Two Figures” in view of the public. At first glance the painting looks to be in good condition. The colors and contrasts appear to be strong with none of the oxidization problem that has recently been discovered as the cause of so many of Van Gogh’s light, bright yellows turning brown over time.

What’s wrong with this painting is solely the result of a 1975 restoration done by Cincinnati Art Museum conservators. They didn’t botch it, exactly. It’s just that the technique they employed, considered a best practice at the time, to keep the paint from flaking and make it less susceptible to variations in ambient temperature and humidity ends up sucking the life out of it instead. Using a wax resin, conservators affixed a second canvas to the back of the original one. Over time, that wax penetrated the canvas, collected in the brushwork crevasses and then turned from clear to milky white. That white resin coating is like a veil obscuring the bright color and textures of the painting.

Per Knutas restores 'Undergrowth with Two Figures' at Cincinnati Art Museum“Undergrowth with Two Figures” will be going on loan to the Philadelphia Museum of Art next year, so to stabilize it for the trip and ensure its long-term health, the Cincinnati Art Museum’s chief conservator, Per Knutas, is undertaking an in-depth restoration to remove the well-intentioned disasters of past conservators. He views the painting through a high powered microscope, and although past restorations have been done in public, this is the first time the microscope is being connected to a 42″ HDTV so that visitors to the museum can see what he sees instead of just watching a guy make tiny movements on a painting on a table.

Knutas uses a soft brush dipped in solvent to soften the wax, then a soft bamboo stick to scrape off the wax without harming the paint.

He also will be removing varnish, a clear protective top coat, which past conservators had applied to the painting. While varnish can protect a painting, it also can alter its composition, hardening once-soft transitions and deepening colors. Research has shown that van Gogh did not varnish his paintings, Knutas said.

Watching Knutas work last week, museum director Aaron Betsky compared the painting’s amorphous, magnified forms appearing on the TV screen to contemporary video art and said it was a revelation to watch the conservation process happen.

“It’s going to make the quality of the painting come alive so much more,” he said. “One of the joys to me is when we clean our great works of art, and so much comes out that has remained hidden. It’s quite often as if you’re seeing them for the first time.”

Knutas will also take questions from museum visitors as he works. What a magnificent opportunity to see Van Gogh’s work in the minutest of detail and to learn about the art and science of conservation. For those of us outside of Cincinnati range, we must be content to see him at work in this video:


Another Blackbeard anchor retrieved from wreck

Third largest anchor retrieved from Queen Anne's RevengeCrews from the Cape Fear Community College and the University of North Carolina Wilmington recovered a 2,500- to 3,000-pound anchor from the wreckage of Blackbeard’s flagship the Queen Anne’s Revenge Friday. It’s 11 feet, 4 inches long with arms that are 7 feet, 7 inches wide, but believe it or not, that’s only the third largest anchor on the site. The ship had multiple anchors ranging from wee 160-pound grapnels like the one retrieved in October 2009 to emergency behemoths deployed during storms. This one was probably the ship’s everyday anchor.

The team originally planned to recover the second largest, which is 13 feet long with arms that are 8 feet across and weighs at least 3,000 pounds, on Thursday, only to encounter adverse weather that forced them to postpone the attempt for a day. They figured the larger one would be the easiest to retrieve since it’s on top of the ballast pile, but it was too deeply embedded in the objects used for ballast so they decided to go for the number three which was perched on the side. Given the configuration of the remaining parts of the ship, it’s likely that future dives will recover artifacts from the side of the ballast pile as well.

The only remaining parts of the ship — the wooden hull structure, ribs and a plank — are at the bottom of the pile, protected by ballast that kept the ship upright. Six cannon and three other anchors are also in the pile.

Wendy Welsh, field conservator and QAR lab manager, and archaeologist Chris Southerly dived in the Atlantic to hook up the anchor for its lift to the ocean surface. “It lifted great,” said Welsh, who has worked with the project for nine years. “I didn’t think I’d see this day so soon.”

Southerly compared the retrieval to the child’s game of Pick-Up-Sticks, where players toss plastic sticks on a hard surface and then remove them one at a time without disturbing the ones underneath. “It’s really satisfying that I’ve had privilege of seeing it,” he said.

The anchor is now in the North Carolina Maritime Museum artifact repository where it will undergo years of conservation. The small grapnel is two years into conservation and is still not display-ready. This much larger anchor with far more extensive concretion (the hardened concrete-like coating of ocean debris that forms around the leaching wrought iron) will require an estimated four years of painstaking attention before it’s stabilized.

The N.C. Maritime Museum in Beaufort is the official repository for all artifacts recovered from the Queen Anne’s Revenge. They’ve had a small exhibit dedicated to Blackbeard’s flagship, but on June 11th a new permanent exhibit opens to the public featuring a newly renovated 1200-square-foot space, a third of the space in the entire museum, to showcase as many of the 250,000 artifacts recovered from the wreck site as they can.

Engraving of Blackbeard, hair woven with flaming fuses, ca. 1715The Queen Anne’s Revenge ran aground off the coast of North Carolina in June 1718. The 300-ton British man-of-war was built in 1710. It was captured by the French in 1711, and they used it as a slaving vessel. It was captured again only by pirates this time in 1717. Pirate captain Benjamin Hornigold gave the ship to one of his crewmen, a certain Edward Teach or Thatch who would become famous under his nom-de-guerre, Blackbeard. He renamed it from La Concorde de Nantes to Queen Anne’s Revenge, packed it with cannon instead of slaves, and with it laid waste to British, Dutch, French and Portuguese shipping from west Africa to the Caribbean.

There’s some speculation that Blackbeard intentionally grounded the ship so he could thin out his crew and keep the lion’s share of booty once he accepted the pardon of North Carolina governor Charles Eden. Not that it would do him much good. Five months later, he had already gone back to piracy and was defeated and decapitated by Lieutenant Robert Maynard of the Royal Navy.

If you’d like to read more about the challenges and delights of the Queen Anne’s Revenge wreck, there’s an excellent article from a couple of months ago on the QAR salvage operations on the Smithsonian Magazine site. The Queen Anne’s Revenge recovery and conservation project has a website of its own very much worth perusing.