Citizen Kane to be screened at Hearst Castle

January 16th, 2015

Hearst CastleThere must be some weird spinning noises coming from the Hearst mausoleum at Cypress Lawn Cemetery in Colma, California, because for the first time ever, Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ greatest masterpiece and William Randolph Hearst’s noirest bête noir, will be screened at Hearst Castle. It will be shown in the castle’s private theater on March 13th as part of the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival. The theater seats 50 people and tickets cost $1,000 a head, with all proceeds benefiting the film festival and The Friends of Hearst Castle, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of the property and its contents. The screening at Hearst Castle will be introduced by Ben Mankiewicz, grandson of Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz and my second-favorite Turner Classic Movies host. (Robert Osborne 4ever!)

The ice was broken in 2012 when Stephen Thompson Hearst, William Randolph’s great-grandson and vice president of the Hearst Corporation’s Western Properties, allowed the first showing of the film at the visitors center two miles from the castle. This time it will be screened in the castle itself, the lavish residence that so loomingly features in Citizen Kane as Xanadu.

Susan Alexander and Charles Foster Kane at XanaduThe depiction of the opulent, art-crammed, oppressive castle didn’t please William Randolph Hearst, but that wasn’t the main reason he hated Citizen Kane so much. It was the character of Susan Alexander, Charles Foster Kane’s mistress and second wife, who offended Hearst the most. She was widely thought to have been based on Marion Davies, the silent film comedienne and Hearst’s mistress of more than 30 years. Her depiction as a talentless, bitter, lonely drunk imprisoned by her husband in the vast mausoleum of Xanadu was deeply insulting to Hearst, and since Marion was in fact a very popular hostess with tons of friends in the Hollywood community, it earned Citizen Kane an indelible reputation for churlishness before the first showing.

Welles’ insistence that Susan Alexander was actually modeled after an entirely different mistress of an entirely different tycoon made little impression, nor did his insistence that the character of Charles Foster Kane wasn’t modeled after Hearst. There were many points of similarity in the biographies of Kane and Hearst, and bits of several of Hearst’s speeches wound up in Kane’s speeches. Hearst’s avid acquisition of art, including entire rooms exported from grand European historical structures, as well as real estate was also mimicked by Kane.

Welles knew from the time he and former journalist Herman Mankiewicz wrote the screenplay that Hearst would be on him like white on rice over this story, but because he had an unprecedented carte blanche contract with film studio RKO that allowed him complete creative control and final cut, he figured he could just brazen his way through Hearst’s opposition. He was wrong. The movie wasn’t even finished when Hearst’s campaign began. He had gotten an early look at the screenplay, and when gossip columnist Hedda Hopper caught an early screening of the incomplete movie on January 3rd, 1941, she went straight to Hearst with the poop.

Newspaper headline from Citizen Kane mocking Susan Alexander as a "singer"Hearst turned his Great Lidless Eye onto Citizen Kane and stared it all the way down. He deployed his newspapers, read by one in five Americans, to expose Welles’ personal and political peccadilloes. Mankiewicz’s DUI arrest got column inches too (although not the part about his acquittal on all charges). Influential Hearst gossip columnist Louella Parsons dressed Welles down repeatedly, mocking him as a “would-be genius” and portraying him as a New York brat swanning around the movie colony with barely disguised contempt. And that was the relatively clean game. Hearst also played dirty, securing the terrified support of studios by threatening to publish all the scabrous stories about their stars he had killed at their request. He also threatened to turn the harsh glare of his papers on something studio heads were even more desperate to keep quiet: how many of them were Jews, and German Jews at that.

Led by Louis B. Mayer, the studio brass passed around the collection plate and offered RKO $800,000 to buy the negative so they could burn it. The movie’s financial backers had a private screening at Radio City Music Hall that all the movie industry big shots attended in the hope they could persuade the shelving of the film for the good of the “industry.” Orson Welles gave a rousing speech at the event, extolling the virtues of free speech in a world increasingly threatened by tyranny. It was enough to keep the negative out of the bonfire, but it wasn’t enough to beat Hearst.

Orson Welles' Best Screenplay Oscar for Citizen Kane (sold at auction in 2011)Hearst’s next target was movie theaters. He told the theater chains that if they showed Citizen Kane, he would never allow them to advertise any other movies in one of his newspapers. That was brutally effective. Most theaters refused to show it. New York was the only place where it was widely seen, and it was showered with awards. At the 1942 Academy Awards, on the other hand, where Citizen Kane was nominated for nine awards, every time a nominee was mentioned there was booing in the audience. The movie did manage to win one Oscar for best screenplay, shared by Welles and Mankiewicz.

After all this mess, RKO put the film in the vault and left it there gathering dust for years. Citizen Kane came out of obscurity in 1956 when RKO sold its catalogue to television, the first studio to do so, and by the end of the decade it began its reign at the top of greatest movies of all time lists.

All this drama was water under the bridge, as far as Steve Hearst was concerned. He has seen the movie repeatedly, the first time in junior high, so he hadn’t inherited his great-grandfather’s sensitivity to the subject matter.

Hearst recalled that he first saw “Kane” at school as a seventh grader when he was 11 and was told by his parents that it wasn’t accurate depiction. He’s seen it five other times and believes that it gives the incorrect impression on two fronts — Davies being portrayed as talent-free (“That was a pretty sharp blade”) and Xanadu being a dark, forbidding locale (“It’s where I had fun in the summer, swimming in the Neptune pool”).

Yes I bet you did have fun swimming in the Neptune Pool.

A few years ago HBO made a movie, RKO 281, about the battle between Hearst and Welles over Citizen Kane. The actors are all top-notch (James Cromwell makes a remarkably sympathetic Hearst even with all his control freakery), but the story is fictionalized in key points. It’s only available on DVD, although you can watch a crappy pixellated version with Portuguese subtitles on YouTube.

For the non-fiction version, PBS’ always excellent American Experience dedicated an episode to The Battle Over Citizen Kane. It debuted years ago and it’s not available to watch online on the PBS website. It is on YouTube, but only split up into 12 10-minute videos. That’s a bit too much embedding even for me, so I’ll just get you hooked on the first dose.

 

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132-year-old Winchester ’73 found leaning against tree

January 15th, 2015

Eva Jensen, Cultural Resource Program Manager at Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada’s Snake mountain range, was exploring the park with the archaeology team looking for Native American artifacts on November 6th, 2014, when she spotted an object leaning against a Juniper tree. Upon closer examination, she saw that it was a rifle so cracked and weathered that it was perfectly camouflaged by the cracked and weathered tree behind it.

The grayed wood stock was embedded in the dirt, leaves and rocks at the base of the tree. Eva Jensen had to carefully dig away the debris in order to liberate the rifle. Once able to examine the whole thing, the team spied “Model 1873″ engraved on the iron gun body, the classic imprimatur of the Winchester ’73, “the gun that won the West.” Its characteristic crescent-shaped buttstock identified it as the lever-action repeating rifle form (Winchester also made carbine and musket forms of the Model 1873). The octagonal barrel is chambered for .44-40 cartridges, the original caliber that was manufactured from 1873 until production stopped on the model in 1916, but the rifle was found uncharged.

The team then wrapped the stock in non-adhesive orange flagging to keep it from falling apart. They then placed the rifle on a clean white cloth and in a gun case and transported it to the park’s museum storage. Jensen began researching the weapon starting with looking up the serial number on the lower tang. She turned to the Cody Firearms Museum‘s records office in Cody, Wyoming, which has original factory data for select Winchester serial numbers. The Great Basin Winchester’s serial number identifies it as having been manufactured and shipped from the Connecticut warehouse in 1882, but there was no further information, nothing about who ordered it or where it was shipped to.

So Jensen consulted newspapers of the day — the Ward Reflex and White Pine County Record — that chronicled the then-thriving mining industry in northern Nevada. She found tantalizing tidbits, including ads from dry goods stores selling Winchester rifles, even the name of a gunsmith in the area.

But there were no stories of any gun battle or outlaw search that might have put a history to the gun. She found a picture of a member of a prominent family holding a Winchester, but it was the wrong model.

Jensen and the cultural resource staff will continue to search periodicals and family archives in the likely vain attempt to pinpoint the history of this found rifle, one of the 720,610 the company manufactured during the model’s incredibly successful run. The year this Winchester 73 was made was particularly fruitful thanks to a price drop from $50 to $25 engendered by the decline in the iron and steel industries that ushered in a recession that would last three years; more than 25,000 Winchester Model 1873s were made in 1882.

The rifle will be on display Friday from 11:00 AM to 1:00 PM at the Great Basin Visitor Center classroom, and at the Old Sheepherders Gathering at the Border Inn in Baker on Saturday, January 17th, from 2:30 until 5:00 PM. These brief glimpses are all we’ll get for a while. The rifle’s wood needs to be stabilized and conserved for future display. They will not be restoring it, thankfully. The aim of conservation will be to keep it in the condition in which is was found because it’s cool. Once conservation is complete, it will go on display at the Great Basin National Park as part of the celebrations of its 30th anniversary and the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary in 2016.

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Museum acquires Anglo-Saxon St. Peter carving used as cat grave marker

January 14th, 2015


The Museum of Somerset in Taunton has acquired a medieval carving of Saint Peter that for years was used as a marker for a pet cat’s grave. The 18 by 17-inch stone is carved with the tonsured and clean-shaved saint with his head turned slightly to the right and two fingers of his right hand raised to his chest in benediction. A partial inscription on the top left — SC (S) (PE)TRVS — identifies the figure as Saint Peter.

The design is distinctly Anglo-Saxon, with a close parallel found in the figure of Peter the Deacon on the St. Cuthbert stole and maniple, a richly embroidered vestment made in Winchester between 906 and 916. It is a piece of a larger object, possibly a section of a shaft from a free-standing cross or larger relief panel that was later recycled as a building material. It’s made out of oolitic limestone, a stone that’s native to the south Somerset area where it was discovered. There are several religious institutions nearby that could have been the original source: Muchelney Abbey, a Benedictine monastery dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul, was just 10 miles away from Dowlish Wake, while Glastonbury Abbey is 25 miles away.

Knowing the exact location where it was found might answer some of the questions about its original configuration, but it was only recognized as a rare surviving pre-Conquest carving after the stonemason, Johnny Beeston, who first rediscovered it had died. Beeston brought it home and installed it in his garden rockery in Dowlish Wake where it marked the grave of the dearly departed Winkles, a stray cat he had adopted. The person who recognized it was potter and local historian Chris Brewchorne who had a pottery shop across the road. It caught his eye in 2004. By then Johnny had joined Winkles over the rainbow bridge and Mrs. Beeston was willing to sell the piece.

They offered it to the Museum of Somerset for what would turn out to be a bargain price, but the museum didn’t have the funding at the time and declined the offer. So instead it was sold at a Sotheby’s auction in December of 2004 to Milwaukee native, timber and oil heir, art collector and all-around eccentric Stanley J. Seeger for £201,600 ($386,628).

Seeger died in 2011. His extensive collection of art was sold at auction, Sotheby’s again, in March of 2014 and the Peter stone sold for a far more modest £68,500 ($114,532) the second time around. That lower price was good news for the museum who could now arrange to buy it for £150,000 thanks to grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund (who chipped in the largest chunk at £78,600), Art Fund, the Arts Council England/V&A Purchase Grant Fund, the Fairfield Trust, the Friends of the Museum of Somerset and other donors.

The stone will go on public display in the Museum of Somerset, which occupies the great hall and inner ward of Taunton Castle, starting this Saturday, January 17th.

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4,000-year-old copper crown found in India

January 13th, 2015

This past August, kiln workers discovered human skeletal remains while digging for clay to make bricks in the village of Chandayan, Uttar Pradesh, northern India. The skeleton was wearing a crown, a copper strip with two copper leaves attached to it decorated with a tubular carnelian bead and a faience one. They also found a redware (terracotta) bowl with a collared rim, a miniature pot and a clay sling ball. The local residents were so excited by the discovery that they, along with the police, protected the site, stopping further clay digging.

Word of the find spread over the region, eventually catching the interest of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) which dispatched an archaeological team to Chandayan. They excavated the burial site and found more of the skeleton — a pelvic bone, the left femur — as well as another piece of th crown, potsherds and 21 earthenware pots including storage jars and dish-on-stands. Most of them are plain redware, but there is a grey vessel and some lightly decorated pieces.

About 65 feet away from the burial at the same depth, the team discovered animal bones and more earthenware pots. Archaeologists believe the animal may have been sacrificed during the funerary rites for the crowned person. Another 150 feet from the burial they found evidence of an ancient home: a compacted earth floor, mud walls and postholes.

Carnelian, glazed faience, sling balls and collared pots are artifacts typical of the late Indus Valley (also known as Harappan after the type site discovered in the 1920s) civilization. In fact, work in carnelian and copper metallurgy were innovations introduced in the Indus Valley civilization. The late Indus Valley phase was from 1900 to 1600 B.C., and although burial sites from this period have been found in Uttar Pradesh, this is the first evidence of a habitation site. The crown is also a unique piece. A silver crown from the late Indus Valley period has been found before, but not a copper one.

The crown suggests that the skeleton belonged to someone of importance, perhaps the village chieftain or local leader of some kind. The crudeness of the pottery and the local flavor of the decoration (none of them decorated with the precision and elaborate geometries that make Indus Valley pottery so popular in museums) suggest he was a big fish in a small pond rather than a ruler of a large territory who would have had access to more expensive trade goods. The crown could have had another function or perhaps was merely decorative, so the deceased may have been someone with extravagant taste in jewelry rather than a dominant political figure.

Although with a range of 930,000 square miles it covered far more area than the other great Bronze Age civilizations (Egypt, Mesopotamia and China), the Indus script has yet to be deciphered so there’s still so much we don’t know about the Indus Valley civilization. The large urban centers that have been unearthed are impressive in their meticulous planning, water delivery and drainage systems, public baths, public buildings, residential areas distinct from administrative and/or religious compounds. More than a thousand towns from major cities like Harappa and Mohenjo-daro to small settlements have been found but only about a hundred of them have been excavated. The Chandayan settlement is the easternmost one found yet.

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42 mastodon bones found in Michigan backyard

January 12th, 2015

Contractor Daniel LaPoint Jr. was digging a poind with an excavator on his neighbor Eric Witzke’s property in Bellevue Township, southern Michigan, last November when he noticed a large bone jutting out of the pile of displaced soil. He pulled it out of the pile and saw it was a curved bone four feet long. Over the next four days, LaPoint and Witzke dug up the yard and unearthed 41 more large bones which at the time they assumed were dinosaur bones due to their impressive dimensions.

They enlisted the aid of Daniel Fisher, director of the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology, who examined the bones and determined they were from a mastodon, not a dinosaur, and are between 10,000 and 14,000 years old.

LaPoint and Witzke’s collection includes several rib bones, leg, shoulder and hip bones, the base of a tusk and pieces of the animal’s vertebrae.

Fisher has spent several hours looking through what they found and believes the mastodon was a 37-year-old male.

“Preliminary examination indicates that the animal may have been butchered by humans,” said Fisher. Bones show what look like tool marks, in places.

Only 330 confirmed mastodon bones have been found in Michigan, so the discovery of 42 in one place is exceptional. Fisher believes there may be more bones to be found in Witzke’s yard, but the wet earth was already difficult to excavate in November. It’s probably close to impenetrable in full winter.

The finders could make a few thousand dollars off the bones if they sold them, but they are awesome people so they’ve decided to keep a few bones as mementos and donate the rest to the museum. The bones will go to the museum at the end of the month. Once they’re there, researchers will radiocarbon date them to narrow down the date range to within a few hundred years.

In further evidence of LaPoint and Witzke’s awesomeness, the pair took the bones to the local middle school so the kids could get the hands-on experience before they disappear into the museum’s stores.

“Once these things go to the museum and get crated up, you’re not going to get to touch them again. It’s over with and I was that kid who wanted to touch that thing on the other side of the glass,” said LaPoint. “All the kids got to pick them up and hold them. Some kids, it was life-changing for them. To change one kid’s life because they got to touch it, I think, is an incredible opportunity.”

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Canada museum buys world’s oldest hockey stick

January 11th, 2015


The Canadian Museum of History has acquired the oldest known hockey stick for $300,000. The seller was social worker Mark Presley who saw it mounted on the wall of a barbershop and bought it from barber George Ferneyhough in 2008 for $1,000. Fascinated by the small, clearly old hockey stick, Presley traced its ownership history and had it tested extensively to determine its age. (You can read the documentation of his research here.) He discovered that the stick was hand-carved out of a single piece of (what else?) sugar maple between 1835 and 1838 in North Sydney along the northeastern coast of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. The original owners were the Moffatt family, scions of Loyalist shipbuilder Captain James Moffatt, born in Dumfriesshire, Scotland, in 1737, who was one of the first settlers of Upper North Sydney’s Pottle Lake area.

It was a Moffatt, Charlie Moffatt, who had given George Ferneyhough the stick thirty years earlier. Presley tracked Charlie Moffatt down. Then 92 years old, Moffatt told Presley that while he never used it himself, he remembered the old handmade stick hanging on the porch of the family’s homestead on Pottle Lake until the farm with its two acres of waterfront property was expropriated by the government in the 1960s when the lake watershed became the protected potable water source for surrounding municipalities. Charlie’s father Warren told him he and his father Thomas had used the stick to play on Pottle Lake when they were young, and Thomas was born in 1837, so Presley realized this stick could well be very old indeed.

Initials “WM” carved into the blade of the stick when it was still new before any of the many layers of paint were applied indicate that the first owner was William “Dilly” Moffatt, Thomas Moffatt’s brother and Charlie’s great-uncle. Thomas and Dilly’s father John Mumford Moffatt probably carved the stick for his sons, and he did an outstanding job of it, starting with the lumber selection. Experts at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, studied the wood and found the direction of the pith indicates it was taken from a small tree growing outward and upward from a cliff or creek bank. This growth pattern gave the tree’s lumber a natural J-shaped curve. That made the stick easy and fast to carve and extremely strong since the blade was part of the natural sweep of the wood.

The Mount Allison researchers were also able to date the stick by its tree rings. No other antique hockey stick has been able to be dendrochronologically dated because you need a certain number of rings to establish a pattern that can be matched with a previously known chronology and hockey sticks don’t generally have usable ring groups. The experts determined the minimum number of rings they would need was 30. The butt of the Moffatt stick turned out to have 43 rings, a remarkable number for the small diameter of a hockey stick. Matched against a sugar maple chronology established from Pottle Lake trees and adjusted for additional rings and knots, the date the wood was cut determined to be between 1835 and 1838. The paint evidence supported that conclusion, with the first of the five layers being a natural “red earth” pigment based on iron oxides ground up with charcoal that was in common use in Cape Breton between 1800 and 1850.

That makes the Moffatt stick a good 20 years older than any other hockey stick known to survive. The stick previously thought to be the oldest was made between 1852 and 1856 by Glasgow-born Alexander Rutherford who carved it out of hickory at his farm outside Lindsay, Ontario. His son, Alexander Rutherford Jr., played with it before handing it down to his own son Melville Rutherford. Melville gave to his nine-year-old grand-nephew Gord Sharpe who kept it for three decades before putting it on display at Wayne Gretsky’s Toronto restaurant for a few years and then auctioning it off on eBay in 2006. It sold for $2.2 million Canadian. Sharpe gave the profits to a charity he founded and the buyer put the Rutherford stick on display at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

Given that enticing precedent and needing money to fund his return to college, Mark Presley chose to follow in Sharpe’s footsteps and put the Moffatt stick up for sale on eBay in March of 2014. Excitement was rife with talk of millions of dollars (Mr. Ferneyhough was pretty disgruntled at the prospect) but the highest bid was $118,000 Canadian which failed to meet the reserve.

The Canadian Museum of History, provisioned with moneys from the donor-supported National Collection Fund, was able to make a deal with Presley to secure the world’s oldest known hockey stick for the nation, and boy are they happy about it.

“Hockey is Canada’s game — we developed it and we cherish it like no other country in the world,” said Mark O’Neill, President and CEO of the Canadian Museum of History. “The Moffatt stick is a unique and powerful link to the sport’s earliest days in this country, and is an example of the national treasures Canadians will see in their new national museum of history.”

“Our Government is proud that the Canadian Museum of History has acquired this important part of our history,” said the Honourable Shelly Glover, Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages. “Through its acquisitions, the Canadian Museum of History provides Canadians with greater access to our rich and diverse history. As we approach Canada’s 150th anniversary in 2017, this is an opportunity for all of us to appreciate our great heritage.”

The Moffatt stick will go on display in the museum’s new Canadian History Hall on the 150th anniversary, Canada Day (July 1st) of 2017.

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The Mauritshuis at a movie theater near you

January 10th, 2015

When the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague, Netherlands, closed for two years so the 17th century palace that houses the exceptional collection of Dutch Golden Age masterpieces could be restored and expanded, a selection of the museum’s most famous pieces went on tour. The Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis exhibition kicked off in Japan with 48 works and it was a smash hit. The show at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum was the world’s most visited exhibition of 2012 with 758,724 total visitors.

When it moved on to the US in 2013, the traveling exhibition stopped at the de Young in San Francisco, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and The Frick Collection in New York City where hundreds of thousands of people went to see Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, Rembrandt van Rijn’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, Paulus Potter’s The Bull and Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch, among other treasures. Early last year the show moved to Italy for its last stop at the Palazzo Fava in Bologna and then returned home to The Hague. Over the year and a half the exhibition was on the road, more than 2.2 million people in Japan, the US and Italy saw Girl with a Pearl Earring and friends.

On June 27th, 2014, King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands officially reopened the Mauritshuis with much pomp and ceremony, including a living human Girl with a Pearl Earring’s symbolic return to the museum accompanied by six cavalrymen from the Cavalry Escort of Honour. The renovation doubled the museum’s space, thanks to the acquisition of the Sociëteit de Witte building, an Art Deco building across the street, and the construction of an underground tunnel between the old building and the new. The new building, unfortunately named the Royal Dutch Shell Wing after its sponsor, has a new restaurant, gift shop, educational workshop and will host temporary exhibitions. The original museum, built in 1641 as the residence of count John Maurice of Nassau, was extensively refurbished with new systems installed to secure and conserve the paintings in the collection.

So now the collection of almost 850 objects, mainly paintings, is up and running again after two years when 50 of the most prized pieces were traveling and only 100 of the other works in the collection were on display in a temporary Highlights Mauritshuis exhibition
at the Gemeentemuseum modern art museum. For those of us who haven’t had a chance to see the refurbished museum and its superstar with a pearl earring, the fine folks at Exhibition on Screen have made a movie about Girl with a Pearl Earring and the restored Mauritshuis.

Enjoying unparalleled exclusive access to this historical exhibition, the film takes the audience on a journey as it seeks to answer many of the questions surrounding this enigmatic painting and its mysterious creator, Vermeer. Using the recently completed and highly complex makeover of the museum as its starting point, the film goes on a behind the scenes detective journey to seek out the answers that lie within the other masterpieces housed in the collection.

To find a theater screening the movie near you, check this list. Showings begin on January 13th. Until then, here’s a quick preview. (Keep your eyes peeled at the 42 second mark for a quick glimpse of The Goldfinch, the small 1654 panel painting that became the surprise break-out star of the exhibition’s last American leg at the The Frick thanks to the success of the Donna Tartt novel named after and starring the wee bird portrait.)

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Toledo Museum of Art scores Napoleon’s brother’s spiral chandelier

January 9th, 2015

Ohio’s Toledo Museum of Art was looking for a Neoclassical chandelier to adorn Gallery 31, a room in which paintings from the period, like Napoleon on the Battlefield of Eylau made by Antoine-Jean Gros in 1807 and a smaller 1786 version of Jacques-Louis David’s famous Oath of the Horatii, one of the works that launched the Neoclassical movement, feature prominently. They were able to acquire a chandelier from a Hamburg art dealer, Frank C. Möller Fine Arts, that fit the bill most perfectly because not only is it inspired by classical architecture, it was made for Napoleon’s youngest brother, Jérôme Bonaparte.

The Spiral Chandelier, made by Berlin luxury craftsmen Werner & Mieth, has a skeleton of gilded bronze hung with glass pendants. It is about five-and-a-half feet tall by three feet wide and is in exceptional condition, with the metal armature and almost all of the pendants original to the piece. The white glass pieces are replacements created from a photograph of another Werner & Mieth chandelier ordered by Jérôme Bonaparte for one of his palaces that was sadly destroyed by bombs during World War II.

Werner & Mieth spiral chandelier now in the collection of the Toledo Museum of Art
Werner & Mieth (maker), Berlin, active 1792–1819. Spiral Chandelier for Jérôme Bonaparte, 1810–1811. Cast, chased and fire-gilded bronze (ormolu); cut and polished glass (H. 175 cm; W. 101 cm). Toledo Museum of Art. Purchase with funds from the Florence Scott Libbey Bequest in memory of her father, Maurice A. Scott. 2014. Photo courtesy of Frank C. Möller Fine Arts, Hamburg, Germany.

The Werner & Mieth company, founded in 1792 by Christian Gottlob Werner, Gottfried Mieth and Friedrich Luckau the Younger, was for more than four decades the most important Berlin manufacturer of handcrafted luxury decorative items in gilded bronze, including chandeliers, table centerpieces and candelabras. Their specialty was ormolu, a gilding technique that applied a finely ground mixture of gold and mercury to mercury-treated bronze, copper or brass and then fired the object at a temperature high enough to evaporate mercury, leaving only the gold bonded to the metal. The result was a shiny, bright gilded surface and, importantly for mantel clocks, fireplace tools and chandeliers, non-oxidizing even when exposed to high heat.

The company was immediately successful. In 1794, just two years after opening their doors, Werner & Mieth were given a Royal Appointment. Their chandeliers appeared in all the Hohenzollerns’ great palaces — the Monbijou Palace and Crown Prince’s Palace in Berlin, the Japanese Palace in Dresden, Sans-Souci in Potsdam. King Frederick William II of Prussia, grandson of Frederick William I, nephew and heir to the childless Frederick the Great, in 1797 had 12 Werner & Mieth chandeliers installed in the east wing of Charlottenburg Palace, six in his winter chamber upstairs and six in his summer apartments on the ground floor.

The nobility and aristocracy of other countries followed suit. Even during the upheavals of the Napoleonic wars (Frederick William III was defeated by Napoleon’s armies at the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt in 1806, after which Prussia was carved up and occupied by French troops; its territories and autonomy were fully restored after Waterloo), Werner & Mieth thrived. France, long culturally dominant in the ormolu crafts, imported the Prussian company’s luxury goods. Various members of the Bonaparte family were clients, among them the Empress Josephine herself. In 1810, Werner & Mieth exported chandeliers to capitals of Europe — Paris, London, Stockholm, St. Petersburg, Copenhagen — and as far as Constantinople.

Portrait of Jérôme Bonaparte, King of Westphalia, and Queen Catharina, by Sebastian Weygandt, 1810Jérôme Bonaparte got on the chandelier bandwagon that year too. Napoleon had made his youngest brother King of Westphalia, a conglomeration of a bunch of northwestern German states, in 1807. One of those statelets was the principality of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel whose seat was Brunswick Palace in the city of Brunswick. In 1810, Jérôme Bonaparte ordered a Werner & Mieth chandelier inspired by the volutes of the Greek Ionic order of columns (see the swirls on the capital). The company thought this particular model, designed by artist and self-taught architect and archaeologist Hans Christian Genelli, was the most beautiful in their catalogue. Genelli wrote notes on Vitruvius’s De Architectura and drew sections of the Ionic volutes from a much-studied passage in which the great Roman architectural theorist discusses the design of the spirals.

The top ring of the object has six spirals evenly spaced around its perimeter, densely hung with glass drops, which terminate in small suspended rings with glass drops. Curtains of faceted circular beads obscure the central spine, terminating in an opaque white glass receiver bowl. Each of six downward spiraling loops has a candle arm with a pair of candle sockets. [...]

“The design is based on a logarithmic spiral that is moving downwards. The concept of an upside-down, hanging column is a remarkable one — the curling forms of the chandelier are particularly noticeable from below,” [Toledo Museum of Art curator of glass and decorative arts Jutta-Annette] Page said.

Werner & Mieth spiral chandelier seen from the bottom
Werner & Mieth (maker), Berlin, active 1792–1819. Spiral Chandelier for Jérôme Bonaparte, 1810–1811. Cast, chased and fire-gilded bronze (ormolu); cut and polished glass (H. 175 cm; W. 101 cm). Toledo Museum of Art. Purchase with funds from the Florence Scott Libbey Bequest in memory of her father, Maurice A. Scott. 2014. Photo courtesy of Frank C. Möller Fine Arts, Hamburg, Germany.

Unfortunately for him, Jérôme Bonaparte would never get the chance to enjoy his beautiful spiral chandelier. It was delivered to Brunswick Castle but never installed because he was off fighting with his brother in Russia in 1812, and in 1813 allied Prussian and Russian troops took Kassel, the capital, and dissolved the cobbled-together Kingdom of Westphalia. Jérôme and his wife fled to France. The chandelier became property of the city, along with everything else in the castle, and was sold in the mid-1930s to a Hamburg family. That family has now sold it to the Toledo Museum of Art.

Spiral chandelier hanging in Gallery 31, seen from below with gallery lights shining through it
Image courtesy the Toledo Museum of Art.

 

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Large chariot, horse burial found in China

January 8th, 2015

Archaeologists excavating a tomb complex in Zaoyang in the central Chinese province of Hubei have unearthed 28 chariots and 49 pairs of horses dating to the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 B.C.). The chariots and horses were buried separately. The chariot pit, an impressive 33 meters (108 feet) long and four meters (13 feet) wide, was discovered first. Unlike other ancient chariot burials which feature the vehicles positioned vertically as if ready for use (see this tomb, for instance, discovered in 2011 in Luoyang, about 200 miles north of Zaoyang), the chariots in this pit were dismantled, the wheels laid along the edges and the rest of the parts placed carefully one-by-one between them. Along with the large wooden sections of the chariot, archaeologists found beautifully engraved bronze artifacts. The smaller ones are chariot fittings and parts; long cylindrical pieces were probably axles.

The large square horse pit was found 15 or so feet away. The skeletal remains showed no sign of a struggle, so the beasts were not buried alive. They were killed and then buried on their sides back-to-back in pairs, just as they would have drawn the chariots.

The Spring and Autumn Period was an era in which the power of the Zhou kings was collapsing. In 771 B.C., King You of Zhou, last king of the Wester Zhou, was killed when his father-in-law the Marquess of Shen allied with the northern nomadic Quanrong tribe to overthrow the king who had exiled his daughter and disinherited his grandson in favor of one of his concubines. The Marquess and his supporters put the formerly dispossessed Crown Prince Yijiu on the throne. He took the name King Ping and moved his capital east to Luoyang, away from marauding barbarians, thus kicking off the Eastern Zhou period.

The relatives and favorites who had received territories from the Zhou kings as vassals stepped into the power vacuum and became vassals in name only. The feudal system broke down into smaller and smaller statelets controlled by warlords, some of them the size of a single village or city. This is known as the Spring and Autumn Period after the Spring and Autumn Annals, a chronicle documenting the history of the state of Lu from 722 to 481 B.C. that was once thought to have been edited by Confucius and as such is held to be the first of the Five Classics of Chinese Literature.

The tomb found in Zaoyang must have belonged to one of these local lords. Chariots were very expensive, sophisticated technology that came to their apex of importance in the Spring and Autumn Period. Someone who could afford to be buried with dozens of chariots and their horses was demonstrating great military (and consequently political) power.

Not all of the 30 tombs so far uncovered are this large. There are a variety of sizes and a large number of grave goods. So far archaeologists have excavated only some of the complex but they’ve already unearthed more than 400 bronze and pottery artifacts, including a mystery item that could have been part of a farming implement or chariot fixture that is inscribed with Old Chinese characters. They’ve also discovered the remains of two important musical instruments. One is a Se, a 25-string zither-like instrument, that is the earliest ever recovered. Only half of it still survives, but you can see the holes where the strings were threaded through.

The other is part of a bianzhong set, arrays of bronze chimes mounted on lacquered beams and played by teams of musicians striking the sides and centers with wooden mallets. Although only seven fragments of the bases of the bells and one beam have survived, they indicate this was an extremely important set. The beam is 4.7 meters (15.4 feet) long and the chimes are decorated with dragons and phoenixes, symbols of royalty in Chinese iconography. (Some news stories are reporting it as the longest bianzhong beam ever found, but the long side of the exceptional 64-bell set discovered intact in the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng in 1978 is 7.48 meters (24.5 feet) long. I think the archaeologists meant they had personally never excavated one this size before and it got lost in translation.)

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Boston time capsule from 1795 (and 1855) opened

January 7th, 2015

The time capsule excavated out of the cornerstone of the Massachusetts Statehouse in Boston last month was opened on Tuesday in front of dignitaries and press at the Museum of Fine Arts. Before the assembled audience including members of the press, Governor Deval Patrick and Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin, MFA conservator Pam Hatchfield and Michael Comeau, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Archives, carefully pried open the lid of the 5-1/2 x 7-1/2 x 1-1/2″ box against the fitting backdrop of Thomas Sully’s monumental 1819 painting of George Washington and his ragtag army crossing the frozen Delaware River, The Passage of the Delaware, in the museum’s Art of Americas wing.

The collection, originally in a cowhide pouch, was first placed at the cornerstone by then-Governor of Massachusetts Samuel Adams, silversmith patriot Paul Revere and militia Colonel William Scollay at the dedication of the building in 1795. It was rediscovered during repair work on the Statehouse foundations in 1855 after which officials added a few pieces of their own before sealing the artifacts in a new metal box that was mortared into the underside of the cornerstone.

Technically, it’s not a time capsule because they are deliberately intended to be reopened at some point in the future. This was a foundational offering, part of an ancient tradition of depositing ritually significant objects under new buildings. The original deposit was made at the culmination of a Masonic ceremony celebrating the laying of the cornerstone held on July 4th, 1795. That’s why Paul Revere and William Scollay were so prominently involved: Revere was the “Most Worshipful Grand Master” and Scollay the “Right Worshipful Deputy Grand Master” of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts. Governor Adams invited the Grand Lodge to perform the cornerstone ceremony, a traditional Masonic ritual that has been performed for hundreds of years, one of only two Masonic rituals that is performed in public (the other is a funeral).

The massive granite cornerstone was transported in a procession from the Old State House to the site of the new one on a wagon drawn by 15 white horses, one for each of the states in the Union. When it arrived, a troop of fusiliers gave a 15-gun salute and Governor Adams, Paul Revere and William Scollay lay the pouch between two sheets of lead under the cornerstone. Adams declared the building to be constructed upon this stone should be “fixed, unimpaired, in full vigor, till time shall be no more” and Revere gave a supermasonic speech linking the foundation of the new statehouse to the founding of the nation.

Worshipful Brethren, I congratulate you on this auspicious day: — when the Arts and Sciences are establishing themselves in our happy Country, a Country distinguished from the rest of the World, by being a Government of Laws. — Where Liberty has found a Safe and Secure abode, — and where her Sons are determined to support and protect her.

Brethren, we are called this day by our Venerable + patriotic Governor, his Excellency Samuel Adams, to Assist him in laying the Corner Stone of a Building to be erected for the use of the Legislature and Executive branches of Government of this Commonwealth. May we my Brethren, so Square our Actions thro life as to shew to the World of Mankind, that we mean to live within the Compass of Good Citizens that we wish to Stand upon a Level with them that when we part we may be admitted into that Temple where Reigns Silence & peace.

When the artifacts were recovered and reburied in 1855, the Grand Master of the Lodge was asked to do the honors again.

The metal box has been in the MFA laboratory for the past three weeks being examined with non-invasive techniques so conservators had an idea of what to expect when they opened it. X-rays revealed that, as expected, there were coins, a metal plaque and papers inside. X-ray fluorescence determined that the box itself was not copper but rather brass, as are all eight of the screws keeping the capsule shut.

Pam Hatchfield, who had spent six hours on her back in the snow chiseling out the box from the cornerstone, then had more chiseling to do. She removed chunks of plaster from the top of the box and carefully dug away at the plaster around the heads of the screws. A little solvent was applied to help loosen the screws as well. Hatchfield turned her attention to the lead solder sealing the edges of the lid to the box, chiseling it away so the box would actually be openable at the press conference.

When the lid was removed, the first artifacts they found were five folded newspapers from the 19th century. Under them were 23 silver and copper coins dating from 1652 to 1855, a copper medal depicting George Washington, a title page from the Massachusetts Colony Records, a number of calling cards, the seal of the Commonwealth and lastly, a silver plaque inscribed by Paul Revere marking the cornerstone ceremony that still has visible fingerprints on it.

(The 1652 coin is a rare and significant pine tree schilling which may not have been minted in 1652. John Hull and Robert Sanderson established the Boston mint in 1652 by permission of the General Court of Massachusetts and continued to strike pine tree schillings until 1682, but every coin no matter what the production year was stamped with the 1652 date. Some say this was done to commemorate the founding of the first mint in Massachusetts. Others think it was a tricksy way of giving them plausible deniability should the monarch, restored to the throne after the interregnum of the Protectorate, take issue with his colony minting its own currency without his permission. “Oh these coins? Oh yeah those were struck during the late unpleasantness. Nothing to see here, Your Majesty.”)

The artifacts and brass box will go on display at the museum after conservation, but only for a short time. The objects will be returned to the cornerstone. Officials haven’t decided yet whether they’ll add yet another round of mementos to the box. Space is tight in there and Governor Patrick said at the opening that he didn’t want to “taint” the historical nature of the capsule with modern geegaws.

There’s a nice video of the excavation, X-ray and conservator Pam Hatchfield getting the box opened here. Fair warning: it autoplays. Below is film of the entire opening:

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