Adeline Harris’ masterpiece signature quilt

March 8th, 2018

The Metropolitan Museum of Art contains many marvels of history and art. The Adeline Harris Sears Tumbling Block with Signatures quilt stands up to any of them for its uniqueness, artistry and unparalleled capture of the history and society of mid-19th century America. Quilts incorporating signatures weren’t new when the teenaged Adeline began her project in 1856, but they were community works, the product of families and churches working together to create a piece for an event like a wedding or baptism. The Met has a lovely example of that type of quilt: an Album quilt by members of the Brown and Turner families of Baltimore, begun in 1846. Adeline’ quilt is something else entirely.

The signatures include congressmen (including Elihu Washburne of Illinois, John Sherman of Ohio), senators (including Solomon Foot of Vermont, Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and William H. Seward of New York, later Lincoln’s Secretary of State), governors (including Sam Houston of Texas, William Buckingham of Connecticut) Union Army generals (including Ambrose Burnside, George McClellan, Joseph Hooker and George Meade, victor of Gettysburg), an astonishing eight presidents of the United States (Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant) and two vice presidents (Schuyler Colfax and Henry Wilson).

There are also notable academics, university presidents, journalists and editors, actors, reformers, scientists, artists, poets, essayists, novelists, folklorists, clergymen from numerous denominantions. Rubbing shoulders on this extraordinary quilt are the autographs of Samuel Morse, Horace Greeley, Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Julia Ward Howe, Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Cullen Bryant, Alexandre Dumas, Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Dickens.

And that’s just scratching the surface. Adeline assembled a who’s who of 19th century society for her quilt, the majority of which are still very much luminaries of their fields, even when, as in the case of most of the clergymen, they are not as well known as they were in their lifetimes.

The tumbling blocks pattern is characterized by a trompe l’oeil that gives it a 3D cube effect. Adeline Harris showcased exceptional skill and mastery in her needlework and fabric choice, emphasizing the 3D effect with her arrangement of the varied patterns of silk pieces. The white pieces with autographs all serve as the top of the cubes, while the two visible sides, corner center, are formed by contrasting silk panels. To these she sewed black silk triangles, thereby creating a deep, velvety background to make the cubes pop.

There are 360 blocks with signatures and 10 signatureless partial blocks in the top border, arranged in 20 columns and 36 rows (plus a half row up top). Adeline first put together the blocks, then stitched them together as columns, then stitched the columns together to form the rows. There are 1,840 pieces of silk of 150 different patterns and colors in the entire quilt, most of them imported from Europe and first used in clothing, hats and ribbons before being reincarnated in the quilt. Even the black triangles are diverse, with five different kinds of silks used to create the background.

Adeline’s stitching is the peak of quilt craftsmanship. Look at how sharp and regular the blocks are, how flawlessly they are sewed together so all the corners meet. Then there’s the condition of the fabrics themselves. These scraps were lovingly preserved for who knows how long, and then the quilt itself was preserved in pristine condition by the family for another 140 years. The colors are still brilliant with only minimal fading on the more delicate pink shades.

The quilt also showcases its maker’s logical mind, mathematical precision and thorough engagement in the politics and literature of her time. She was the daughter of a prosperous Rhode Island textile mill owner and had received what was considered a proper education for a girl of her class (mostly from private tutors in her home, plus three years at private boarding schools). Her granddaughter described her as “a great scholar and student with a brilliant mind” and the quilt certainly doesn’t contradict that glowing report. She placed the autographs in categories — presidents and vice presidents in column seven, generals in columns two and three, authors arranged first by gender, then by prominence, then by genre, etc. It’s like a giant matrix of 19th century celebrities.

The quilt is also a testament to her persistence, stamina and focus. It took her 11 years to collect all of the autographs (1856-1867), and even more years to stitch them together. This is evidenced by her placement of President Grant who was not president when he signed her silk diamond and his vice presidents Colfax and Wilson who signed theirs in the late 1850s long before they reached their highest offices. That means she worked on this quilt for nigh on two decades.

One of the personages Adeline wrote to soliciting her autograph was Sarah J. Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book. She explained her project in a letter that so impressed Hale that she wrote a two-part article about the quilt, describing its ambitious reach and design and complimenting its creator for her ingenunity and needlework abilities. Hale saw this quilt as both “intellectual” and “moral” endeavour, as it required brain power and taste to piece together the riot of color and pattern into a matched and pleasing geometry, and a virtuous understanding of “the fitness of things” to pick celebrities whose deeds and talents would make them worthy of being cast in this silken firmament.

In the April 1864 issue of Godey’s Lady Book, Hale wrote in “Autograph Bedquilt”, the first part of the article:

Notwithstanding the comprehensive design we are attempting to describe, we have no doubt of its successful termination. The letter of the young lady bears such internal evidence of her capability, that we feel certain she has the power to complete her work if her life is spared. And when we say that she has been nearly eight years engaged on this quilt, and seems to feel now all the enthusiasm of a poetical temperament working out a grand invention that is to be a new pleasure and blessing to the world, we are sure all our readers will wish her success. Who knows but in future ages, her work may be looked at like the Bayeux Tapestry, not only as a marvel of woman’s ingenious and intellectual industry; but as affording an idea of the civilization of our times, and giving a notion of the persons as estimated in history.

You called it, Ms. Hale.

Adeline’s daughter Sophie and her daughters in turn recognized what a masterpiece their mother and grandmother had created. It does not appear to have been used as a bedspread, but rather was treasured and preserved most careful. There is evidence that it was hung for display at some point.

Even so, close examination of the back of the quilt found an amusing interlude of censorship in its history. The last diamond was covered up at some point by a patch. The needle holes are still visible even though the patch had been removed by the time the Met acquired the quilt. Apparently the poem written on that piece, thought to be by Nathaniel P. Willis whose signature appears in column 18, caused some pearls to be clutched resulting in the application of a quilted fig leaf which thankfully did not endure. I hope your blushing eyes can handle it.

Miss Addie pray excuse
My disobliging Muse,
She contemplates with dread
So many in a Bed.

EDIT: I considered including a full list of the signatures in this post, but it is very long and my only source is a pdf of a 1998 journal article from the Met so formatting it for posting is a bit of a nightmare. Instead, I’m attaching the article with the appendix that lists all the signatures, complete with greetings and brief biographical line identifying the signers, by column. The appendix begins on page 277 (page 15 of the pdf). (But read the whole article because it’s awesome.)

“A Marvel of Woman’s Ingenious and Intellectual Industry”: The Adeline Harris Sears Autograph Quilt, by Amelia Peck, Associate Curator, American Decorative Arts, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Metropolitan Museum Journal issue 33, 1998.


Hong Kong’s only dragon kiln in danger

March 7th, 2018

Hong Kong’s only complete dragon kiln is in danger of fatal damage, even demolition, from a plan to build public housing on its lot. Built in the 1940s, the Castle Peak Pottery Kiln in the city of Tuen Mun is designated by the Antiquities Advisory Board a grade three historic building, but that status is not sufficient to enforce its preservation. According to the grading standards, if a grade three site cannot be preserve due to practical considerations, “alternative means” are acceptable. Alternative means apparently include destruction, which makes the whole the designation something of a bad joke.

The brick dragon kiln has a firing chamber 20 meters long that slowly slopes upward. It’s a traditional form that has been in use for thousands of years and is the reason China was able to produce stoneware and porcelain since distant antiquity that eluded the West until the 18th century. Dragon kilns are named after their long, tunnel form reminiscent of the body of a Chinese dragon. The shape dates back to the Shang dynasty (ca. 1600-1046 B.C.) when stoneware first began to be fired. It requires very high heat (1200C or higher), and the elongated, slender domed shape of the dragon kiln, built on a slope to capture rising heat, made it possible to achieve such high temperatures as well as to fire multiple pieces at once. Those early kilns were more modestly sized at between five and 12 meters, but over the centuries they grew to enormous dimensions, as much as 60 meters in length, dwarfing the one in Hong Kong.

Because the kilns required a slope to fire pieces along their full length, almost all of them were built on hilly land in the countryside. City dragon kilns are rare, which makes Hong Kong’s sole example all the more worth preserving. The kiln is on a 1.7 acre lot that is one of five properties that the government wants to use to built 10,700 public housing apartments. Just over 1,000 of them would be built in a 40-storey high-rise at the kiln site on Hin Fat Lane. There’s a residential home for people with intellectual disabilities on the site that would have to be rebuilt elsewhere.

The Planning Department doesn’t seem to care about the kiln or the facility or about the wishes of the district council, for that matter. It’s all pretty shady.

[Tuen Mun district councilor Tam Chun-yin] said the district council vetoed the redevelopment plan involving five pieces of land in Tuen Mun last September and November, citing concern about transport with an influx of over 10,000 households.

“But the Planning Department went on to submit its plans to the Town Planning Board, and nothing could stop them after the board held a public forum in April,” he added.[…]

In a preliminary development review published last September, the Civil Engineering and Development Department anticipated that “ground-borne vibration, ground settlement and tilting due to construction works” might affect the kiln’s structural integrity.

The department recommended “a detailed geotechnical assessment and a condition survey” of the kiln before the work began.

[Wan Chai district councilor Clarisse Yeung Suet-ying] said: “So far we haven’t seen a detailed preservation plan for the kiln. Therefore we would like to urge the Town Planning Board to reconsider the plan submitted by the Planning Department to guarantee a full preservation.”

Yeung is the co-founder of the Hong Kong Dragon Kiln Concern Group, an organization of ceramic enthusiasts who have been working for a year to save the kiln from development. They launched an online petition on Tuesday, hoping to scrounge up enough signatures to give the Town Planning Commission pause before the period of public consultation ended. They got 1,815 in less than 24 hours, which is a testament to how meaningful the dragon kiln is to Hong Kong’s cultural heritage.


Album with earliest Harriet Tubman picture digitized

March 6th, 2018

The Library of Congress, ever on the ball, has completed the digitization of abolitionist Emily Howland’s carte-de-visite album. The 48 pictures date to the 1860s and include the earliest extant portrait of Harriet Tubman. The Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture pooled their resources and bought the album at auction a year ago for $162,500 (including fees).

Since then, the album has been thoroughly conserved by LoC experts. Its damaged cover was reattached, the leather was conditioned and treated and each picture was cleaned. Researchers have scoured records and identified all but three of the sitters. Digitization specialists from the Library and the Smithsonian, both of which have been at the forefont of efforts to digitize their collections, have scanned the portraits in high resolution and uploaded them to the LoC website.

There are a number of prominent abolitionists, both people she knew personally (Colonel Charles W. Folsom, Charles Sumner) and celebrities (Charles Dickens, Princess Dagmar, Empress of Russia). Harriet Tubman’s photograph depicts her as a stylish woman in her 40s just after the Civil War, not with the care-worn visage of her older years that is usually associated with her.

Also in the Howland album is the only known photograph of John Willis Menard, the first African American man elected to the United States House of Representatives. He was never seated because his opponent contested the election results even though Menard had won a clear majority of the vote and the House denied him his seat based solely on the color of his skin. Future president James Garfield, then a Representative from Ohio’s 19th district, and a strident abolitionist who was pro-Reconstruction and pro-universal male suffrage, stated so outright when he said “it was too early to admit a Person of Color to the U.S. Congress.” Menard delivered a speech advocating he be seated, making him the first African American to address Congress. Even though his opponent Caleb Hunt did not address the chamber, when it came time for the House to vote on which candidate to seat, neither one of them got close to the necessary majority.

Not all of Emily Howland’s friends and colleagues in the album were pioneers, heroes and icons. Poor Susie Bruce was one of her protéges, a student who lived with her for the school year and whom she arranged to send to Oberlin College to continue her education. Howland insisted that her mentees work to pay for their room and board, however, so that they wouldn’t be distracted by boys and pretty clothes, and Susan was sickly — she suffered from a chronic “side ache” — and neither a great student nor capable of accomplishing all the tasks set to her in her off-hours. Also she liked pretty clothes.

When Susie got sicker and Emily received reports from her host that she wasn’t working at all hard, Howland had her withdraw from college before her freshman year was over. She returned to Washington, now very seriously ill, and four months later she was dead, felled by an undiagnosed “disease in her bowels” that was had been the source of her mysterious side ache. Emily wrote this rather faint praise about Susie after her death: “So all is over, hopes, fears and plans, the grave ends all. I think she would not have disappointed me could she have lived.”

She was doubtless happier with another of her protéges pictured in the album, Sidney Taliaferro. She was the daughter of freedman Benjamin Taliaferro whose extended family Emily had settled on a large parcel of land she bought in Northumberland County, Virginia. This was her way of keeping the broken “40 acres and a mule” promises. If the government wouldn’t acquire land for freedmen, then she would. She had a school built there, the Howland Chapel School, to educate their children. (The building is still standing today largely unaltered and on the National Register of Historic Places.) Sidney did so well that Emily brought her up north to attend a secondary school run by a relative of hers in New York state and then onto college. She became a school teacher too, and after a few years in Maryland, returned to Virginia and taught at the Howland School. When Emily was in advanced age, she gave the teacher’s cottage she had built and 14 acres of land to Sidney and her husband Chester Boyer.

“Now people in our nation’s capital and around the world can see these important figures from American history and learn more about their lives,” said Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden. “We are proud this historic collaboration with the Smithsonian has made these pictures of history available to the public online.”

The public will have a chance to view the rare album for the first time in person at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in a special exhibit later this year. The digital images also will be presented through the museum’s website.

“This photo album allows us to see Harriet Tubman in a riveting, new way; other iconic portraits present her as either stern or frail. This new photograph shows her relaxed and very stylish. Sitting with her arm casually draped across the back of a parlor chair, she’s wearing an elegant bodice and a full skirt with a fitted waist. Her posture and facial expression remind us that historical figures are far more complex than most people realize. This adds significantly to what we know about this fierce abolitionist. And that’s a good thing,” said Lonnie G. Bunch III, the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.


Bought for $20, little teapot with big history sells huge

March 5th, 2018

The little white and blue porcelain teapot, just three inches high, was cracked, chipped, the handle had broken off and been glued back together in several places and it was missing its lid. Still, one man’s trash is another’s treasure, and one man (who has chosen to remain anonymous) thought there was something unusual about it. He figured what the hell, and submitted an online bid of £15 for it at a 2016 auction in Lincolnshire, England, making him 20 dollars poorer and one somewhat busted old teapot richer. The buyer consigned it to auctioneers Woolley & Wallis in Salisbury and their experts began to research in the hope of identifying the cracked, lidless teapot.

They discovered that it is one of only seven known extant pieces of porcelain produced by John Bartlam of Cain Hoy, South Carolina, in the late 1760s. All six of the other Bartlam porcelains were also found and sold in England. They are believed to be part of a complete set that was sent to England for promotional purposes shortly after its manufacture. The teapot is Chinoiserie, employing Chinese motifs like two men in a sampan, cranes standing beneath trees, the Man on the Bridge pattern, and islands with pagodas.

The two cranes vignette proved key to the identification. They are Sandhill Cranes, native not to China but to South Carolina, and they stand alongside Salbas Palmetto trees, not the traditional pine trees of Chinese design. The Salbas Palmetto is the state tree of South Carolina. It seems that the printmaker was inspired by a Chinese design but then replaced the far eastern species with native flora and fauna. John Bartlam, who was born in England and trained as a potter in Staffordshire, moved to South Carolina in the 1760s to set up shop taking advantage of its plentiful supply of kaolin clay and its wealthy, fashionable clientele willing to spend big money on porcelain, at this point all of it imported.

In the past 10 years or so, following archaeological excavations at the site of his factory, scholars have recognized that Bartlam’s porcelain was the first to be produced in America, predating the better-known Bonnin and Morris wares made in Philadelphia from 1770 to 1772. This Salisbury auction house was therefore offering what is thought to be the oldest known American porcelain teapot.

“It’s extraordinarily important for many, many reasons,” said Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, the Anthony W. and Lulu C. Wang curator of American decorative arts in the American Wing of the Met. The teapot’s use of local clays “represents the entrepreneurial spirit of 18th-century America,” Ms. Frelinghuysen said.

“It proclaims Bartlam’s success in mastering the medium,” she added. “Porcelain was the holy grail of ceramics.”

And so what may well be the oldest porcelain teapot made in America went up for auction in Salisbury, England, with a modest pre-sale estimate of £10,000 to £20,000 (ca. $14,000-28,000). Interest in this exceptionally rare piece was high and after the last two bidders duked it out, the teapot sold for a hammer price of £460,000 (about $637,000). Once you add the fees, the $20 find cost the new owner £575,000, about $806,000. The winning bid was made by London art dealer Rod Jellicoe, beating out an American private collector for the coveted prize. The film of the lot being sold is downright gripping, the way the bids skyrocket while the auctioneer tries to keep a handle on her own excitement.

Jellicoe turns out to have been representing the Metropolitan Museum of Art, so the piece is homeward bound, assuming there are no contretemps securing an export license. It would be an interesting argument for the Culture Minister to make, that the teapot made in what was then a British colony is of national significance and British museums should be given the chance to acquire it even though that would prevent its return to its native land. I doubt it would happen. Britain is lousy with historic teapots. This one’s significance is specific to its origin in what is now the US.


Girl with a Pearl Earring and a macro-XRF scan

March 4th, 2018

Johannes Vermeer’s 1665 masterpiece Girl with a Pearl Earring will be introduced to the latest and greatest technologies in a new study that will take place in the glorious Golden Room of the Mauritshuis in full view of the public. The Girl in the Spotlight project will examine Vermeer’s iconic bejeweled maiden using state-of-the-art scientific tools and methodologies. It’s the first time the painting has been examined since it was last conserved in 1994, and while no new conservation needs have developed in the 25 years since then, researchers want to take advantage of the great leaps forward in technology to learn more about how Vermeer painted the work and the materials he used.

The project began on February 26th and runs through March 11th. The research team includes experts from the Rijksmuseum, the Delft University of Technology, the University of Antwerp and Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE) as well other international institutions and the Mauritshuis’ own researchers. The first step is an intensively detailed scan over the course of several days with a macro-X-ray fluorescence scanner. The MA-XRF machine scans the painting one millimeter at a time creating a detailed map beyond anything that could have been conceived in 1994.

Because Girl will not be in her usual place in the gallery during the two weeks of the study, the Mauritshuis created a glass-walled studio within its Golden Room so that visitors could still catch a glimpse of her. She will be difficult to see at times, depending on what analysis she’s being subjected to, so museum staff put a 3D reproduction of the painting up in her regular spot to give visitors something interesting to view up close and capture in pictures even as they enjoy the unique opportunity to see the real Girl with a Pearl Earring undergoing examination with all kinds of bells and whistles. The company that created the repro, Océ, used a proprietary system they call “elevated printing” which layers ink on the surface to create a dead-on accurate impression of the impasto, texture and brushstrokes, not just a flattened image of the original.

The Girl with a Pearl Earring will go back on display in Room 15 on March 12th. Two days before then, on March 10th, the museum will offer public lectures by conservator and head researcher Abbie Vandivere and curator Lea van der Vinde that will explain everything we know about the painting and the study taking place in the Golden Room.

The information they’ll be able to convey is limited because it’s going to take a while to analyze all the data. The final results will be published when the analysis is complete. Meanwhile, you can follow along with the research, which will be taking place 24 hours a day, not just during museum hours, on Abbie Vandivere’s outstanding blog. She posts daily updates on the work they’re doing, the tech they’re using, sharing her conservator’s eye view with fascinating photos of what she sees in the microscope, the painting’s history at the museum from acquisition through multiple restorations and tons more. If you’ve ever wanted to know what the job of painting conservator at one of the greatest museums in the world entails, then this blog will kick raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens right off the list and be your new favorite thing.


Rome Metro construction reveals centurion’s villa

March 3rd, 2018

Archaeologists have unearthed the large, luxuriously appointed 2nd century domus of a Hadrianic military commander at the Amba Aradam station on Rome’s future Metro C line. This is the same site where the military barracks were discovered in 2016, and in fact the villa is connected to the barracks dormitory via a corridor with a staircase. The villa was found 12 meters (40 feet) below the surface, three meters beneath the barracks. This is the first villa of a military commander ever discovered in Rome.

The domus is an imposing 300 square meters (3,230 square feet) in area over least 14 rooms. They are lavishly decorated with black and white mosaic floors with floral motifs, animals (a very smart-faced owl among them) and a scene of a satyr and a winged Cupid either fighting or frolicking. The villa also boasts marble tiles in contrasting colors and frescoed walls. One of the rooms was heated, likely a private bath, as evidenced by the telltale piles of bricks under the flooring that allowed the heated air to circulate. As was typical of the Roman villa, the rooms were arranged around the atrium, a square courtyard in the middle of the house in which archaeologists found the remains of a fountain.

On the other side of the barracks is another structure built later than the barracks and commander’s house. Replete with brick pavements, water conduits and tubs, the building appears to have been a service area where supplies were stored and kept as cool as possible. There archaeologists also discovered surviving wood objects, mainly construction tools like the forms used to build the foundations and discarded carpenter’s beams. The team has also found everyday use objects, gold rings, the carved ivory handle of a dagger, amulets and bullae that have helped archaeologists create a timeline of the remains and identify numerous reconstructions of the compound over the years.

Like the barracks, the domus and service area were abandoned and, the second half of the 3rd century, they were destroyed, their walls cut down to four-foot stumps. This likely took place in 271 A.D. when the Aurelian Walls were being fortified and anything outside of the perimeter that could provide refuge and access to the enemy was demolished.

The black and white mosaics, marble floors, fountain and frescoed walls that remain are too fragile to be left in situ while the new station is built underneath it. Therefore the entire site be dismantled, moved to a temporary location and then returned to their original location.

You can see some excellent footage of the excavators at work and of the villa in this video:


Slavery Museum acquires painting of abolition icon

March 2nd, 2018

You’d think paintings of an enchained slave asking “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” would be plentiful. The image of a kneeling enslaved African appealing to our shared humanity appeared on everything from jewelry to snuff boxes to broadsides since its inception as the seal of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in England in 1787. Potter and member Josiah Wedgwood had the idea of making jasperware cameos of that image and slogan as medallions to promote the Society’s goal of abolishing the slave the trade. He manufactured hundreds of them and gave them to his fellow members to distribute. They had an immediate impact, creating one of the first wildly successful political logos and slogans with worldwide reach.

Society co-founder Thomas Clarkson wrote in the second volume of his History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade (published in 1807):

“Wedgwood took the seal of the committee, … for his model; and he produced a beautiful cameo, of a less size, of which the ground was a most delicate white, but the Negro, who was seen imploring compassion in the middle of it, was in his own native colour. Mr. Wedgwood made a liberal donation of these, when finished, among his friends. I received from him no less than five hundred of them myself. They, to whom they were sent, did not lay them up in their cabinets, but gave them away likewise. They were soon, like The Negro’s Complaint, in different parts of the kingdom. Some had them inlaid in gold on the lid of their snuff-boxes. Of the ladies, several wore them in bracelets, and others had them fitted up in an ornamental manner as pins for their hair. At length, the taste for wearing them became general; and thus fashion, which usually confines itself to worthless things, was seen for once in the honourable office of promoting the cause of justice, humanity, and freedom.”

Even after the trade and slavery itself were abolished in Britain, the abolitionist icon continued to thrive in countries like the US where ending slavery was still a distant prospect. And yet, the symbol was converted into an actual painted subject surprisingly seldom. In the UK, there are only two known. One is in the Wilberforce House Museum in Hull. The other was in a private collection but has now been acquired by the National Museums Liverpool for the International Slavery Museum.

Am Not I A Man and A Brother was painted around 1800 and depicts the enslaved man kneeling against a background of a Caribbean sugar plantation. It was purchased for £50,000 funded by grants from the Art Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Collecting Cultures program.

Stephen Carl-Lokko, Curator, International Slavery Museum said:

“This acquisition represents the first painting ever to be acquired by National Museums Liverpool to depict the powerful and resonant iconography of abolition and we are very pleased to add it to our collection.

“Resistance is a key part of the history we bring to life in the International Slavery Museum and abolition is a very important part of this wider narrative.

“The painting is a remarkable surviving product of the early phase of the British movement to abolish the Transatlantic Slave Trade during the 18th and 19th century.”

The work is not going on display yet. It needs to undergo conservation first. Conservators expect it will be cleaned up and ready for exhibition by the end of the year.


Oldest known figural tattoos found on Gebelein Mummies

March 1st, 2018

Ötzi the Iceman has competition for the world’s oldest tattoos from two pre-dynastic Egyptian mummies in the British Museum. Gebelein Man A and Gebelein Woman are two of six mummies unearthed in 1896 by British Museum Egyptologist Wallis Budge from their shallow sandy graves near modern-day Naga el-Gherira in southern Egypt. Covered in warm desert sand at the time of their burial, the six natural mummies were very well-preserved and the first complete predynastic bodies ever found. They were acquired by the British Museum in 1900.

They’ve been on display for more than a century, but nobody realized Gebelein Man A and Gebelein Woman had tattoos until a recent infrared examination. All that’s visible to the naked eye on Gebelein Man is a faint smudge on his upper right arm. Infrared photography revealed the smudge is actually a tattoo, and a figural one at that. It depicts two horned animals, one with a long tail and elaborate horns identifying it as a wild bull, the other with the curving horns and a shoulder hump characteristic of a Barbary sheep. The iconographic references are recognizable because they come up regularly in the art of Predynastic Egypt. This is just the first time they’ve come up in body art. The animal figures are thought to symbolize strength, still today an immensely popular motif in tattoo art.

Gebelein Woman’s tattoos at first glance do not appear to be figural. IR revealed the presence of four S-shaped figures running over her right shoulder and a bent line a little further down her right arm. Again, both of these motifs are found on predynastic painted pottery. However, the linear piece may not be an abstract design. It is similar to objects held in the hands of figures believed to be participating in religious rituals. Researchers think they may be clappers used in ceremonial dance. It could also be a staff symbolizing her holding high office. It’s possible they and the s shapes served a spiritual function on her body as well, marking her as a woman of status, advanced cult knowledge or singling her out for protection.

Dating to between 3351 and 3017 B.C. (Ötzi died around 5,300 years ago, so the Iceman and the sand people are roughly the same age when accounting for margins of error), the Gebelein mummies can each claim new records in the history of tattooing. Gebelein Man has the earliest figural art; Gebelein Woman is the oldest known tattooed woman in the world. Ötzi’s tattoos are patterns of dots and lines.

The results of the study have been published in the latest issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science, but the issue is in progress and the article is not yet available online.

Daniel Antoine, one of the lead authors of the research paper and the British Museum’s Curator of Physical Anthropology said:

“The use of the latest scientific methods, including CT scanning, radiocarbon dating and infrared imaging, has transformed our understanding of the Gebelein mummies. Only now are we gaining new insights into the lives of these remarkably preserved individuals. Incredibly, at over five thousand years of age, they push back the evidence for tattooing in Africa by a millennium.”


Richard III’s Cornwall accounts for fiscal year 1483 found in 1930s royal souvenir trinket box

March 1st, 2018

An antiques dealer has discovered the yearly income records for the Duchy of Cornwall under King Richard III in a box of 1930s royal memorabilia he acquired as a single lot in an estate sale. The compotus rolls, the accounts of the monarchical estates in the Duchy of Cornwall under King Richard III (and for a brief window nominally under his nephew Edward V who was never crowned and whom Richard deposed two months after his ascension), were drawn up for Richard after he took the throne and covered the period from Michaelmas (September 29) 1482 until Michaelmas 1483.

Written in Latin on 11 thin parchment membranes by a scribe with an elegant hand for calligraphy initials, the rolls record that profits were handsome in the Duchy of Cornwall in 1483. The annual income from the Cornish manors, burghs, courts and tin mines, plus a handful of Devon manors totalled around £500. A labourer made about £2 a year.

The accounts show detailed showing totals for rents, sales and court receipts for manors within the Duchy and in Devon.

Also detailed are the names of bailiffs who supervised work on the each manor and would act as a link between the serfs and their feudal lord. The amounts raised from each manorial lord amounted to between £12 and £30 per annum.

Overall, the Duchy of Cornwall’s seigneurial records have survived unusually well, retained for generations by manorial archives, county archives and by duchy management. Today almost all of the accounts between 1300 and 1500 and beyond can be found in the county Public Records and the Duchy of Cornwall Office. This scroll is one of only a handful to survive in private hands.

The owner didn’t know exactly what was now in his private hands until a medieval manuscripts expert from Bonhams examined the parchment. He has now put it up for auction in Bonhams upcoming Fine Books and Manuscripts auction on March 21st in London. The pre-sale estimate is $5,500 – 8,300.

Peter Hammond, president of the Richard III society, said: “It is a very important record and we don’t know how many of these 15th century documents still exist.

“It gives us a handle on the kind of income that was coming in to keep the country running. The bureaucracy was alive and well in the 15th century – they kept amazing records.”

Historian hope the document will remain in Britain following the sale and be made available for public research.

Mr Hammond said: “It would be good if it was bought by the Cornwall Record office or the National Archives and it would be great if people were then able to see it.”


Discovering the British Library’s medieval literature

February 27th, 2018

The British Library’s Discovering Literature project, a website with selections of exceptional works from its collections digitized, explicated by experts with multimedia aides and resources for teachers, has added a new subsection dedicated to its medieval literary treasures. Discovering Literature: Medieval submits for your approval/devouring 50 digitized manuscripts and early printed books dating from the 8th to 16th centuries. These rare volumes are some of the most influential works in the history of English literature.

There’s The Wycliffite Bible, the first complete translation of the Bible into English, Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich, the first work written by a woman in English, the first autobiography in English (The Book of Margery Kempe) and the only surviving Old English manuscript of Beowulf which somehow avoided the fate of so many priceless works of literature in the Robert Cotton collection that burned to ashes in a devastating October 23rd, 1731, conflagration at the aptly named Ashburnham House. William Caxton’s illustrated early print edition of The Canterbury Tales may not have the color and beauty of the hand-illuminated The Book of the Queen by Christine de Pizan (the first woman author to actually make a living on the income from her writing), but it was a groundbreaking advance for the dissemination of literature and literacy.

Digital technology puts all of these rare or unique masterpieces, some of which aren’t even available to scholars, at our fingertips. The sole surviving manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for example, one of the greatest works of Middle English poetry, is so fragile after having barely escaped the same fire that almost incinerated Beowulf, that our grubby hands wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near it. Now we can enjoy its glories while smearing inches of caked Cheeto dust on our mice without a care in the world.

If your ability to read manuscripts and early print of Old and Middle English is a bit rusty, allow the more than 20 articles written by academics, poets, authors in their own right, to help you understand what you’re seeing and the impact it had on its time and ours. Or rifle through the associated collection items. There are some fantastic maps. The Beatus World Map with its remarkably modern abstract graphic is a particular favorite of mine.

When you’re done getting your Gawain and Beowulf on, you can lose more hours, days, weeks of your life perusing the Romantics and Victorians section. It features more than 1,200 items from the BL’s collection from first edition published books to diaries, advertisements, penny dreadfuls, illustrations, manuscripts, pamphlets, letters and so much more. On top of the period items, you can enjoy more than 150 articles written by scholars about the works in the collection and 25 documentary films. For the educators among us, there are 30 teachers’ notes good to go. It’s like college, seriously.

Discovering Literature is an unparalleled resource, a way of making an enormous collection like the British Library’s, a feast beyond any normal individual’s ability to ingest, never mind digest, accessible to everyone. It’s not dumbed down or meager. It’s just curated carefully to convey a wealth of information in concentrated form. Already so successful in its aims, this project is still just revving up. More content is added all the time.





March 2018
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