Another dreamy Turner painting of Rome for sale

September 21st, 2014

In July of 2010, Los Angeles’ J. Paul Getty Museum bought Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino, a shimmering vista of the Roman Forum between the Capitoline and the Colosseum painted from memory by Joseph Mallord William Turner in 1839. The work had only had two previous owners and is in exceptional never-restored condition, so it far exceeded its pre-sale estimates and sold for $45 million, a new record for a Turner. The British government put a temporary export ban on the work to give UK museums a chance to match the price and keep the masterpiece in the country, but the ban expired before any museums could get anywhere near the sum and the Getty is now the proud owner of Turner’s glorious last painting of Rome.

Come December, the Getty will have an almost impossibly rare opportunity to secure another of Turner’s late Roman landscapes with the exact same provenance in the same untouched condition. Rome, from Mount Aventine will go up for auction at Sotheby’s Old Masters sale in London.

Alex Bell, joint international head and co-chairman of Sotheby’s Old Master Paintings Department, added: “There are fewer than ten major Turners in private hands known today and this work must rank as one of the very finest.

“This painting, which is nearly 200 years old, looks today as if it has come straight from the easel of the artist; never relined and never subject to restoration, the picture retains the freshness of the moment it was painted: the hairs from Turner’s brush, the drips of liquid paint which have run down the edge of the canvas, and every scrape of his palette knife have been preserved in incredible detail.”

Both paintings were commissioned by Scottish landowner and art collector Hugh Munro of Novar, one of Turner’s most important patrons. Turner painted Rome, from Mount Aventine in 1835, seven years after his last trip to Rome and one year before he and Munro traveled to Turin together. (Munro was the only patron of Turner’s ever to join him on a trip to Italy.) He based the painting on detailed sketches from the 1828 trip, sketchbooks that are now in the permanent collection of the Tate.

The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1836 and was a huge hit with critics. The Morning Post described it as “one of those amazing pictures by which Mr Turner dazzles the imagination and confounds all criticism: it is beyond praise.” Munro kept the work in his London home until he died in 1864. It was sold along with Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino, another of Munro’s commissions painted by Turner in 1839, at an 1878 auction of art from the Munro estate. Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery, bought them both, Campo Vaccino for £4,240 and Aventine for £6,142. The latter was a record for a Turner work at that time, but Primrose could afford it because he had just married Hannah de Rothschild, scion of the great banking family and the richest woman in Britain. That record held for 10 years even during a period when Turner’s growing popularity drove prices way up.

Both paintings remained in the Primrose family for four generations. Rome, from Mount Aventine has been on long-term loan to the National Galleries of Scotland for 36 years. The family has decided to sell this one for the same reason they sold the last one: to secure an endowment that will provide for the maintenance of the Rosebery estates. The NGS hasn’t commented on whether it will attempt to buy the painting at auction, but with a pre-sale estimate of £15-20 million ($24,530,000 – $32,707,000) that is likely to be left in the dust, the NGS is going to have to do a ton of fundraising to compete with the inky deep pockets institutions like the Getty.

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Skeletons holding hands found in lost chapel cemetery

September 20th, 2014

A team of archaeologists from the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) has unearthed the skeletal remains of an adult male and female who are still holding hands 700 years after they were buried side by side. The lovers were found along with nine other individual burials at the site of a cemetery on the north side of the Chapel of St Morrell in Hallaton, Leicestershire. They human remains have been radiocarbon dated to the 14th century.

Built on the side of a hill that appears to have had sacred structures on it at least since the Romans, the chapel was a site of pilgrimage in Middle Ages, in use from the 12th century to the 16th. The last documentary evidence of the chapel as an active pilgrimage site is the 1532 will of Frances Butler, a Hallaton priest. He left all his worldly goods to another priest, Edmund Oliver, with the stipulation that he travel to four shrines to ensure the ideal disposition of Butler’s soul. “St Mawrell of Hallaton” was one of the four.

Sometime after that it fell into disuse. Eventually the chapel crumbled and its location was lost to memory. The hillside became the locus of an annual Easter custom called the Hare Pie Scramble and Bottle Kicking in which hardy men from Hallaton and the neighboring village Medbourne chase a wooden canteen down the hill and over a stream. The event begins on Hare Pie Bank, so named because that’s where the hare pie gets eaten before the bottle kicking begins.

A decade or so ago, local historian John Morison found a reference in a 1606 Glebe Terrier (a survey of parish lands that were income-generating parts of a clergyman’s benefice) that the “Chapel of St Morrill” was on or around Hare Pie Bank. The Hallaton Fieldwork Group (HFWG) did a geophysical survey of the site which found a square perimeter about 120 feet across with various architectural features inside. Together with ULAS and some local volunteers, they began excavating Hare Pie Bank.

This is the fourth year of excavations on the site. The tiled floor of the chapel has been unearthed, along with the remains of walls and lead from the windows. Coins were found dating to between the 12th and 16th centuries, confirming the documented period of activity. Underneath the chapel remains archaeologists found Roman remains, among them a square ditch that may be evidence there was a temple on the site. Given that the vast Hallaton Treasure of more than 5,500 Roman and British coins, a silver bowl, ingots, jewelry, the complete skeletons of three dogs, the bones of more than 300 pigs consumed in a feast and an exceptional Roman cavalry parade helmet were discovered just a few hundred yards from Hare Pie Bank, it seems likely that this area has held ritual significance since before the Roman conquest.

So it makes sense, considering the hill’s long sacred history, that there would be a chapel built on the site. It’s not clear, however, why the small chapel had its own cemetery.

Vicki Score, ULAS project manager, said: “We have seen similar skeletons before from Leicester where a couple has been buried together in a single grave. The main question we find ourselves asking is why were they buried up there? There is a perfectly good church in Hallaton. This leads us to wonder if the chapel could have served as some sort of special place of burial at the time.”

The team believe the chapel may have been an area of pilgrimage. Alternatively, the bodies might have been refused burial in the main church, perhaps because they were criminals, foreigners or sick.

Further study of the skeletal remains might help explain their burial. So far, in addition to the lovers, one older male has been found with a wound from a sharp weapon like a pole axe on his skull that was probably what killed him. The teeth of a young man who was buried with his legs raised to his chest indicate that he experienced trauma as a little boy. He’s likely to have been felled by illness, and in fact there is a reference by a 17th century historian to Hallaton having been a holy place visited by flocks of sick people.

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17th c. Codex Chimalpahin returned to Mexico

September 19th, 2014

The Codex Chimalpahin, a seminal three-volume handwritten indigenous history of pre-Hispanic and 16th century Mexico, has returned to Mexico after almost 200 in the archives of the British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS). The codex was slated to be sold at a Christie’s auction in London on May 21st of this year. Before the sale, Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) contacted Christie’s in the hope they could acquire the codex privately. The BFBS was glad to work with them so that this founding document of national significance could go home.

The day before the auction, INAH became the delighted new owner of the Codex Chimalpahin. The three volumes arrived in Mexico on August 18th, 2014, where they were secured in the vault of the National Library of Anthropology and History. On September 17th, the Codex Chimalpahin was welcomed home in an official ceremony attended by officials from the government, INAH and the National Museum of Anthropology (MNA). The next day the Codex Chimalpahin went on display in the Mexican Codices: Memories and Knowledge exhibition at the MNA along with 43 other codices from the National Library vault that have never been exhibited to the public before.

The Codex Chimalpahin is considered the first history of Mexico. It’s a collection of several chronicles, calendars, lists of rulers, locations, accounts of the Spanish conquest and more written in Nahuatl and Spanish. Prominent in the first two volumes are the writings of Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl (b. between 1568 and 1580 – d. 1648), a direct descendant of Ixtlilxochitl I and Ixtlilxochitl II, rulers of Texococo, and of Cuitláhuac, the penultimate ruler of Tenochtitlan. He was heir to their titles and property, but unfortunately there wasn’t much of the latter. Educated in Nahuatl and Spanish, Alva Ixtlilxochitl had a profound knowledge of his ancestors’ oral histories, songs and traditions. He worked his whole life for the people who ruled the land his fathers had ruled as a translator and historian. He died in poverty.

The Historia Chichimeca. a history of the Nahua peoples through the Spanish conquest from the Texoca perspective, is Alva Ixtlilxochitl’s most enduring work. It’s in the Codex along with several other of his writings. They are the only surviving copies of his histories in his own handwriting. Volume One even has his signature.

Most of Volume Three was written by Domingo Francisco de San Antón Muñón Chimalpahin Quauhtlehuanitzin (b. 1579 — d. 1660), a Nahuatl historian who also claimed to be a descendant of Aztec rulers. His Nahuatl names mean “Runs Swiftly with a Shield” (Chimalpahin) and “Rises Like an Eagle” (Quauhtlehuanitzin), and the first of them gives the codex its name. His writings were not commissioned by the Spanish viceroys, unlike Alva Ixtlilxochitl’s. They were written in Nahuatl for Nahuatl readers. There are only six of his works extant in his own handwriting. The other five were already in public institutions and now this last one is as well.

The manuscripts were compiled and bound into three volumes by Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora (b. 1645 – d. 1700), a poet, historian, former Jesuit, philosopher and all-around intellectual born in Mexico City of Spanish parents. He had a particular interest in the indigenous cultures and created a legendary library of native documents, including manuscripts by Chimalpahin and Alva Ixtlilxochitl. He in fact became good friends with Don Juan, the son of Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl, who gifted him many of his father’s works to thank him for his help in a lawsuit against Spanish settlers trying to steal his property near the great pyramids at San Juan Teotihuacan. After Don Juan died, he bequeathed the rest of his collection to Sigüenza.

Much of Sigüenza’s famed library was acquired by Italian-born antiquary and ethnographer Lorenzo Boturini Benaduci (b. ca. 1702 – d. ca. 1753). Benaduci fell afoul of the Spanish viceroy and in 1743 he was arrested and his collection impounded. Although eventually Benaduci was absolved and the King ruled his collection should be returned to him, it never was. During the years it was kept in the office of the viceroyalty, it was horribly neglected and many items disappeared. Parts of the collection can be found in the Berlin State Library, the National Library in Paris and the National Museum of Anthropology.

The Codex Chimalpahin fell into the hands of priest, politician, historian José María Luis Mora Lamadrid (b. 1794 – d. 1850). One of his favored political causes was national literacy. To further that aim, in 1827 he made what seems like a completely insane deal with James Thomsen of the British and Foreign Bible Society: already rare original handwritten works by Alva Ixtlilxochitl and Chimalpahin in return for a bunch of Protestant Bibles to be used in a national literacy campaign.

The codex was never published or even studied. Once it left Mexico, scholars who would seek out such a source had no idea where it was. It was considered lost until it showed up like magic in the Christie’s sale. Now it’s on display in Mexico and, once the exhibition ends in January, it will be made available to researchers at the National Library of Anthropology and History.

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Body found near a previously-found one in Rossan Bog

September 18th, 2014

Workers for Ireland’s semi-state peat harvesting company Bord Na Móna discovered an ancient bog body in Rossan Bog last Saturday, September 13th. As per protocol, when the remains were found, work stopped and the gardai (police) were called. When the gardai determined that it was not a contemporary crime scene, they quickly informed the National Museum of Ireland which has the largest collection of bog bodies of any museum in the world.

Rossen Bog straddles two counties. The partial remains — only the lower leg, foot bones and some flesh were recovered — were found close to the border with County Westmeath, two miles from the town of Kinnegad where another bog body was found in December of 2012. Later named Moydrum Man, the 2012 body was radiocarbon dated to 700 – 300 B.C.

Maeve Sikora of the Irish Antiquities Division, who led the Museum’s fieldwork team said the fact that two bodies were unearthed in such close proximity to each other makes the find even more exciting.

“A lower leg of an individual was discovered. We don’t yet know how old it dates back to or whether it was male or female. We will be carrying out tests over the coming months to determine more information about this body but because it was the lower leg this could prove difficult,” Ms Sikora told the Westmeath Examiner today.

“Because it was found at the site where another bog body was found two years ago it makes it all the more interesting,” she continued. “The 2012 find dates back to at least 700 – 300 BC, so it was prehistoric. That’s why it’s unusual to find two in the one place extremely close together and it makes it all the more exciting because it shows that it was an area where a lot of activity took place.”

National Museum of Ireland archaeologists and conservators excavated the find site over the weekend and the removed the bog body to its conservation laboratory at Collins Barracks, Dublin. Even though little remains of the body, the oxygen-free environment of peat uniquely preserves organic materials that decay rapidly in other contexts. Thus, the bones and tissues that have been recovered may prove a rich source of information about the deceased. Having another body discovered nearby to compare it to will shed rare light on he Bronze Age life and religious practices in the area.

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Peabody Essex Museum acquires gorgeous 18th c. Indian textile collection

September 17th, 2014

The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts has acquired a rare collection of 18th century Indian textiles that are in such spectacular condition that you’d be forgiven for thinking they were made yesterday. Made in the early 1700s for export to the Netherlands, the cotton chintz textiles include jackets, men’s dressing gowns (banyans), women’s dressing gowns (wentkes), children’s caps and bed coverlets known as palampores both hand-painted and embroidered.

Woman's jacket, mid-18th century India. Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum
Cotton, mordant- and resist-dyed, and painted. Jacket, pieced from three patterns of chintz: sleeves from a chintz with a red background and large pink flowers and leaves (lined with a European floral print), and the bodice from an Indian chintz with a white background and red flowers and vines, and a European printed cotton with small floral vines. The bodice is lined and padded with cotton. The jacket is trimmed with silk velvet and Dutch weft-patterned tape (langetband), stitched with silk thread, and fitted with brass hook-and-eye fasteners. Veldman-Eecen Collection. Image and description courtesy the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem.

There are about 170 textiles in the collection, all assembled by historian Alida Eecen-van Setten between 1927 and 1969. Some she bought from antiques dealers, others she scavenged from the trash, documenting every acquisition in her “chintz book.” She shared her collection with fabric designers who used the patterns in their creations and with other historians, keeping the chintz book current as new research suggested different dates. After her death, her granddaughter Lieke Veldman-Planten took charge of the textiles and the book. The collection is named after both women: the Veldman-Eecen Collection.

Woman’s dressing gown (Wentke), Coromandel Coast, India, ca. 1740
Constructed in Hindeloopen, The Netherlands, mid-18th century. Cotton, resist-dyed and painted; gown, lined with linen, trimmed with Dutch weft-patterned tape (langetband). Veldman-Eecen Collection. Image and description courtesy the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem.

The textiles are decorated with vibrantly colored floral motifs that began as naturalistic garden scenes commissioned by Babur, the first Mughal emperor of India, in the 16th century but had become stylized botanicals by the reign of Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal, in the 17th century. They were hand-painted and fixed using mordant and resist dying techniques that ensured the bright colors of natural dyes like red madder and blue indigo held fast without fading. Nothing in Europe could compare to the intensity and durability of Indian colors.

Portuguese traders began exporting Indian textiles in the 1500s, but it was the Dutch East India Company (VOC) that began large scale exports in the 17th century. It started out as a branch of the spice trade since Indian cloth was used as currency in Indonesia and the Spice Islands. Merchants would buy textiles with European bullion, trade some of them for spices and then sell both the cloth and the spices in Europe. By the late 17th century, England, France and the Dutch Republic each imported more than a million pieces of chintz a year.

Many textile words in English are imports from India. Bandanas were Bengal handkerchiefs sold as neck cloths to sailors and laborers; chintz comes from the word “chitra” meaning “spotted.” Calico, khaki, gingham, dungarees, pyjamas, and my personal favorite, seersucker, are all Indian words for textiles and garments that became ubiquitous in Europe during the heyday of the textile trade.

Woman's breast yoke, ca. 1750, India. Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum
Cotton, mordant- and resist-dyed, and painted. The front and back of the yoke are constructed from large, vibrant pieces of the same chintz in red, blue, purple, yellow, and green. The shoulders are pieced from several smaller fragments of a different chintz pattern. The yoke is lined with linen, fitted with cotton tape ties and brass rings, and possibly decorated with gold thread. Veldman-Eecen Collection. Image and description courtesy the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem.

The explosion of popularity of imported textiles sent local cotton producers into a tailspin. France prohibited the import of chintz in 1686; England followed suit in 1720, prohibiting not just its import but also its use in furniture, bedding and clothing. Demand remained high, however, and as inevitably happens with prohibitions of pretty much any kind, making the importation of Indian chintz illegal just created a burgeoning black market.

Ultimately it was duplication and industrialization starting in the late 18th century that killed the Indian export textile trade. Machine-printing and synthetic dyes made possible the speedy manufacture of large quantities of cheap fabrics. Expensive imports couldn’t compete.

Palampore, mid-18th century
Cotton, mordant- and resist-dyed, and painted. Veldman-Eecen Collection. Image and description courtesy the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem.

Alida Eecen-van Setten’s interest in collecting and documenting these textiles was unusual at the time. Formerly fashionable consumer goods weren’t popular subjects for historians, and keeping 200-year-old organic fabrics from decaying is not an easy thing. There are very few 18th century chintzes available on the antiquities market (or in dumpsters) today. Her taste, persistence and dedication saved these exquisite textiles for a time when they could be appreciated as the museum pieces they are. She collected in such depth that the collection today is pretty much ideal for museum display. There are 15 chintz baby caps, for example, so the museum will be able to rotate them in and out of public view to keep them all in optimal condition.

In 2015, the Peabody Essex Museum will partner with no less illustrious an institution than the Rijksmuseum for an exhibition about the Dutch East India Company’s vast and influential trade in Asian imports. The Veldman-Eecen Collection will feature prominently in the Asia in Amsterdam exhibition that will run in Amsterdam from October 16th, 2015 until January 17th, 2016, after which it will travel to the Peabody Essex.

Embroidered Palempore, early 18th century
Cotton, embroidered with silk and gold-wrapped threads. Veldman-Eecen Collection. Image and description courtesy the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem.

 

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Archaeology students find Roman fort on the Rhine

September 16th, 2014

An educational dig by the Goethe University Institute of Archaeology in the city of Gernsheim on the east bank of the Rhine in Hesse, Germany, has unearthed the remains of a Roman fort. Supported by professional archaeologists from the university and Hessian State Office for the Preservation of Historical Monuments, 15 students spent five weeks excavating a small double lot in the middle of a residential neighborhood that was one of the last pieces of undeveloped property in the town. They found the first evidence of a late 1st century, early 2nd century fort.

Although Roman artifacts have been discovered in Gernsheim since the 19th century, construction exploded in the 20th century leaving few sites unmolested for a proper excavation. Archaeologists weren’t even certain what kind of Roman settlement was on the site. The artifacts indicated that there was at least a vicus, a small village, in Gernsheim, which often served as the civilian settlement for the families and support staff of a military fort. Actual physical remains proving the presence of a fort had yet to be discovered.

The student dig hit paydirt. They found two V-shaped trenches (fossae) used in Roman fort construction as obstacles to approach and the base of ramparts formed by the dug-up soil. They also found postholes from one of the wooden watchtowers placed along the fort walls, and a few stones from the lowest layer of a foundation that once supported a structure pillaged in the post-Roman period for its masonry.

The trenches turned out to be a motherlode not just because they’re evidence of the fort, but because of what they contained.

An unusually large number of finds were made. This is because the Roman troops dismantled the fort and filled in the ditches when they left. In the process they disposed of a lot of waste, especially in the inner ditch. “A bonanza for us,” according to Prof. Dr. Hans-Markus von Kaenel from the Goethe University Institute of Archaeology. “We filled box after box with shards of fine, coarse and transport ceramics; dating them will allow us to determine when the fort was abandoned with greater accuracy than was possible before.”

One of the artifacts recovered was nothing short of a struck of luck: it’s a brick fragment stamped with the name and number of a legion: Legio XXII Primigenia Pia Fidelis, an elite legion named after and dedicated to the goddess of fortune, Fortuna Primigenia. Finding an artifact that announces the precise legion that once occupied the fort seems like Primigenia is still looking out for her guys.

Caligula first sent Legio XXII to Germany in 39 A.D. It garrisoned the fort in Mainz (Mogontiacum) which was one of a series of forts charged with guarding the Rhine border of the Roman province of Germania Superior. The fort in Gernsheim was also part of the Limes Germanicus, and served as a strategically significance launching pad for missions east of the Rhine. Its central location between two important Roman cities — Mainz 30 miles to the northwest and Ladenburg 30 miles south — made it an important link in the infrastructure chain. The cohort (500 soldiers) of Legio XXII was stationed at Gernsheim between 70/80 and 110/120 A.D.

Another artifact found suggests a cavalry presence in the fort as well. It’s a large (about five inches wide by three inches high) bronze pendant that Roman cavalry used to decorate their horses’ harnesses. The pendant indicates that there was a mounted squadron (cohors equitata) attached to the cohort or maybe even a pure cavalry unit (ala) at the Gernsheimer fort.

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Neolithic necropolis with 20 monumental tombs found in France

September 15th, 2014

A team of archaeologists from the National Institute for Preventative Archaeological Research (INRAP) has unearthed a vast Middle Neolithic necropolis with 20 monumental tombs in Fleury-sur-Orne, in the northwestern French state of Lower Normandy. Dating to around 4,500 B.C., the tombs are of the Passy kind, named after the municipality in Burgundy 70 miles southeast of Paris where the these long funerary structures were found and radiocarbon dated for the first time.

The Fleury-sur-Orne monuments range in length from 40 feet to 985 feet and are enclosed on both sides by ditches 8 inches to 50 feet wide. The ditches may have contained palisades made from trees felled by stone adzes. The earth from the ditches was piled up in the center of the structure forming a mound that housed one or more graves of important people. Many of these mounds have eroded away or been destroyed by agriculture, development or war. One of the 20 structures excavated at Fleury, however, is intact and in excellent condition. The original walls of stacked grass turf are extant if somewhat reduced. Archaeologists believe they were at least six and a half feet high originally.

As with all Passy-type tombs, archaeologists have found few grave goods interred with the human remains: arrowheads that were originally attached to full arrows but the shafts have decayed into nothingness and the skeletal remains of whole sheep that were buried as sacrifices with deceased. In one of the tombs, 200-foot-long Monument 19, archaeologists found a single grave of a man buried with an impressive seven sheep. A grave in Monument 26 was found to contain a pelvis with a sharp arrowhead embedded in it.

We don’t now a great deal about the people who built Passy-type funerary monuments. They were the descendants of the Danubian culture, first agrarian society in central and eastern Europe who migrated to France in around 5,500 B.C. and mixed with the local hunter-gatherers to produce the monument-builders known as the Cerny culture. These monumental necropolises were the first of their kind, not just in Europe but anywhere that we know of, predating the pyramids of Egypt by thousands of years. Since they required an exceptional amount of labour to benefit very few people, they may be indications of a burgeoning hierarchical society, but it’s unlikely that it would have been so developed as to have a massive captive workforce. This was a community effort, and it’s possible therefore that the monuments served a community purpose as well, perhaps as a locus of religious rituals and/or feasts.

INRAP researchers plan to examine the skeletal remains in the lab. DNA analysis, stable isotope analysis and parasitological analysis should fill in a great many blanks about who was buried in this necropolis: whether they’re related, what they ate, if they were local or were born and raised elsewhere, any diseases or injuries they may have been afflicted with.

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The Roosevelts: An Intimate History debuts tonight

September 14th, 2014

Ken Burns’ documentary The Roosevelts: An Intimate History premieres tonight at 8:00 EST on your local PBS station. It’s a seven episode, 14-hour series that covers the life and times of three Roosevelts — Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor — from 1858 (the year Teddy was born) to 1962 (the year Eleanor died). Tonight’s episode follows the family from 1858 to 1901, the births and childhoods of all three of the main players and the early travails and successes of Teddy Roosevelt through his ascension to the presidency after the death of President William McKinley on September 14th, 1901, 113 years to the day ago.

I loves me some do-rag-era TR, so I’m looking forward to tonight’s show. The next episode is sure to deal with another of my favorite TR stories, the time he got shot in the chest but refused to get treatment until he finished the speech he had been scheduled to give.

A later episode will include the extremely rare footage of Franklin Delano Roosevelt walking on his iron leg braces filmed by Jimmie DeShong, the Washington Senators pitcher who recorded the president with his 8mm home movie camera at the All-Star Game in Griffith Stadium, Washington, D.C., on July 7, 1937.

PBS has made a half-hour preview of the first episode available if you want a sneak peek. There are lots of short clips on the website already, and the full episodes will be uploaded after they air.

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Save the Wedgwood Collection

September 13th, 2014

The Wedgwood Collection isn’t just one of the largest and most complete collections of ceramic in the world with more than 8,000 pieces from Josiah Wedgwood I’s early experiments on materials and glazes to examples of every design manufactured from 1950 through the present. It’s a vast archive of art, industrial design, business records, pattern books, photographs, correspondence, more than 80,000 documents that cover the history of the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the English Enlightenment, the anti-slavery movement, commissions from the crowned heads of Europe, trade, politics, science, and so much more. It’s no wonder the collection was inscribed on UNESCO’s UK Memory of the World Register in 2011.

Josiah Wedgwood himself, founder of the pottery company that would become the first industrially manufactured ceramic producer om the world, started the collection in 1774. He wrote his business partner Thomas Bentley:

“I have often wish’d I had saved a single specimen of all the new articles I have made, and would now give 20 times the original value for such a collection. For 10 years past I have omitted doing this because I did not begin it 10 years sooner. I am now, from thinking and talking a little more upon this subject … resolv’d to make a beginning.”

And so he did, going far beyond just saving examples of his ceramics ensuring that his already impressive legacy would include one of the most important industrial archives the world has ever known. In 1906, collection was put on permanent public display at Etruria, the Staffordshire estate that had served as both Wedgwood family home and factory site since Josiah bought it in 1766. It was moved in 1940 to keep it safe during the war, and reopened in a new gallery in 1952. Since then it has expanded into a vast purpose-built museum complex with picture gallery to display the Wedgwood family’s extensive collection of paintings, a ceramics gallery, screening room and visitors center. It has a great website too, with a searchable database of objects complete with nice big pictures.

Although the Wedgwood family planned to completely separate the Wedgwood Museum Trust from the company in 1961, for some reason they never were fully severed. This oversight became a catastrophe when Waterford Wedgwood went into administration in January of 2009. The company carried a £134 million ($218,000,000) pensions liability which was transferred to the solvent museum because five of its employees participated in the shared pension plan. Even the trust going into administration could not stop its assets from being targeted to repay the pension fund debt. A 2011 High Court ruling held that the Wedgwood Collection was an asset of the Wedgwood Museum and therefore could be sold to repay the pension fund. In 2012 the attorney general upheld the decision.

To prevent the breakup of this historic and irreplaceable collection and its piecemeal sale to the highest bidder, the Art Fund determined that it must raise the money to acquire the entire Wedgwood Collection to keep it intact and on display. The price tag is a whopping £15.75 million ($25,617,000), an impressive £13.1 million of which has already been raised thanks to contributions from the Art Fund, the Heritage Lottery Fund, and other private trusts and foundations.

The outstanding £2.74 million has to be raised by the end of November or the Wedgwood Collection will be sold off. The Art Fund has started a campaign asking for donations from the public to cover this last bit of ground. You can donate online here. That page also has information for donations by mail, text or phone. Every donation will be matched by private donors, so whatever you can give is worth double. To find out more about the collection and keep up with campaign news, bookmark the Art Fund’s Save the Wedgwood Collection website.

If the money is raised on time, the Art Fund will gift the collection to the Victoria & Albert Museum. The V&A will then return it to the Wedgwood Museum on permanent long-term loan. Nary a vase will be moved from its current location. The transfer will be a legal one, not a physical one, and it will ensure that the entire Wedgwood Collection is safe and sound in public hands and on public display in perpetuity.

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Smithsonian traces pieces of Star-Spangled Banner

September 12th, 2014

Sunday, Saturday 14th, is the 200th anniversary of Francis Scott Key’s penning of the poem that would become the national anthem of the United States. Fort McHenry, target of the British bombardment during the Battle of Baltimore that inspired Key’s poem, is hosting a panoply of commemorative events this weekend, culminating in the Dawn’s Early Light Flag-Raising Ceremony at 8:30 Sunday morning. The historically accurate replica of Mary Pickersgill’s flag made by Maryland Historical Society volunteers last year will be hoisted at the ceremony, a stand-in for the original flag. If you’re not going to be in Baltimore this weekend, you can enjoy some of the rockets’ red glare, air shows, flag-raising and fireworks via webcam.

The original Star-Spangled Banner is in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. It’s so delicate it is kept in perpetual semi-darkness (no more than one foot-candle of light) in a custom display case that cost $30 million dollars to make. The two-storey chamber is climate controlled and keeps the flag free of oxygen and vibrations. The flag is angled at 10 degrees, enough so people can view it without subjecting the banner to the drag of gravity.

One of the reasons the flag is in such a delicate condition is that for years people snipped off souvenirs from it. The Smithsonian has a number of snippets in storage, including a red and white fragment that was once on display at the U.S. Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis, Maryland. Other fragments may be out there in the hands of people who don’t know what they have. The Smithsonian can examine these fragments to help identify them.

With Maryland celebrating its Defenders’ Day on Friday and America’s victory over the British 200 years ago Sunday, at least two families recently inquired whether their fragments might have historical value.

Museum conservators are using microscopes, x-rays and other equipment to analyze their weaves, stains and soils to see if they match. Family histories and documents also help prove provenance.

Since the flag came to the Smithsonian in 1907, about 17 pieces have been donated or bought at auction. The museum last acquired pieces in 2003 but has no plans to try to recover them all or reattach them to the original flag.

It would be impossible to reattach most of the pieces. How could you tell where a postage-stamp sized piece of white, for example, originally fit on the flag? Curators would love to see one particular fragment reappear, however. There were 15 stars on the flag when Mary Pickersgill’s team made the flag. One of them was cut out before June 21st, 1873 when the flag was photographed on display at the Boston Navy Yard.

“We’d love to have that back,” said the flag’s chief conservator Suzanne Thomassen-Krauss. “That one I might put back on.”

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