“World’s greatest cat painting” sells for $826,000

November 5th, 2015

Images of cats have gone viral long before the Internet, or even the computer, was a thing. A 19th century painting of cats that drew crowds and critical accolades in the analog era sold at Sotheby’s Tuesday for $826,000, almost three times the high pre-sale estimate.

My Wife’s Lovers is a monumental 6-by-8.5-foot oil painting weighing 227 pounds, so heavy Sotheby’s had to construct a special wall to display it during the preview period. It was painted by Austrian artist Carl Kahler who specialized in horse racing scenes and had never painted a cat before he went to San Francisco in 1891. There he met Kate Birdsall Johnson, a wealthy philanthropist, art collector and animal lover who had begun buying fancy Angora cats during her travels in Europe in the 1880s and never stopped.

Mrs. Johnson invited Carl to Buena Vista, the Johnsons’ country estate near Sonoma and home of the oldest winery in California, still in operation today. (It wasn’t actually a working concern in the decade plus the Johnsons lived there as they had no interest in wine production, but as aficionados of art and architecture, they did ensure the preservation of the original press house and winery so the estate could return to its proverbial roots after World War II.) There she commissioned him to make a portrait of 42 of her cats and Kahler got to work. He spent close to two years sketching individual cats in their many and varied postures.

Lore has it that the painting was given its exquisite moniker by Kate’s husband Robert, but that can’t be true because he died in March of 1889 in Paris after a sudden illness struck him while he was traveling abroad. I imagine the name was Mrs. Johnson’s idea, a tribute to her beloved husband, doubtless inspired by something he had often said about her feline companions. It reads to me like an old inside joke between a long and happily married couple.

The painting was finished by the spring of 1893. Justifiably proud of her cat colony captured in all their dynamism and character by Kahler’s brush, Mrs. Johnson loaned My Wife’s Lovers for exhibition in the California Building of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. It went on display in the Women’s Department (yeah, I know) and was a smash hit with the crowds. From the Final Report of the California World’s Fair Commission

The pictures on the walls were numerous, and embraced novel and meritorious works of art. Probably the one that attracted the most attention was a large canvas painted by C. Kahler, and owned by the late Mrs. Kate E. Johnson of San Francisco, the title being “My Wife’s Lovers.” It contained figures of forty-two large Angora cats, being only a fraction of the total number in possession of the owner, and represented these household pets in every conceivable attitude of playfulness.

Kate Birdsall Johnson only had a few months to enjoy her pets’ fame as live art models. She died on December 3rd, 1893, of pneumonia. Sotheby’s lot information says she left $500,000 in her will for the care in perpetuity of her cats, but that’s not correct. Her will was published in the paper when it was filed for probate a week after her death, and there is no half million dollar bequest.

~ Tangent time! ~

Kate Johnson’s will opens with a sweet nod to her father-in-law:

Thanking God for his undeserved mercies and acknowledging my grateful affection for my friend and father-in-law, the late George C. Johnson, through whom I am enabled to make the following gifts, I ask all who may receive them to pray for the repose of his soul.

George C. Johnson’s soul may well have needed those prayers, primarily because of the way he made the fortune that Kate so graciously and devoutly bequeathed. A Norwegian immigrant, he first came to northern California in 1850 as captain of a ship carrying US Army food stores into the epicenter of the California Gold Rush of 1849. He sailed up the Sacramento River to its tributary the Feather River and stopped in Nicolaus, California, where he settled in waiting for further orders. Two years later, the army sent Major Richard Livingston Ogden, quartermaster of the Department of the Pacific, to track Johnson down. He found the ship permanently moored, draped with awnings, and Captain Johnson on deck swinging in a hammock while his wife rocked in a rocking chair.

Ogden inspected the cargo, consisting mainly of barrels of salt pork, and found it no longer suitable for army consumption, or human consumption, really. So naturally he ordered it sold at auction where it was bought for a dollar a barrel. By George C. Johnson. Johnson rinsed the rust and stink off the pork, repackaged it and sold it in Marysville, a Gold Rush boom town, for $16 a barrel. He used the profits to invest in a San Francisco hardware business which was hugely successful, soon becoming the largest hardware company on the Pacific Northwest coast. By the end of the decade he was consul for Norway and Sweden and acting-consul for Denmark to the Port of San Francisco.

George died in 1872, leaving his estate of an estimated $3 million to his only son Robert.

~ End Tangent ~

By the time it got to Kate, the estate was worth around $2 million, much of it in property. She willed that a third of it be donated to the Roman Catholic Church for the purpose of building a free hospital for “all sick women and children of the poor, without regard to religion, nationality or color.” Mary’s Help Hospital took years to get off the ground, then more years to get back on its feet after the 1906 earthquake, but eventually Kate’s legacy was honored and the hospital still exists today as Seton Medical Center.

There is no reference to Kate Johnson’s cats in her will. Apparently at the time cats had no legal designation — livestock qualified as personal property, but not pet cats — and therefore could not be explicitly provided for in her final will and testament. There is, however, a significant bequest of $20,000 to Helen Shellard “a maiden schoolteacher,” as the San Francisco Call describes her. Later articles note that Miss Shellard, a distant relative of Kate’s, had agreed while Kate was still alive to care for her cats after her death. Kate Johnson put the $20,000 bequest in her will specifically so Helen could afford to take on her many cats. Twenty thousand dollars in 1893 money is worth about $525,000 today, but that’s not where Sotheby’s got their spurious figure. They got it from an inaccurate 1949 article in the Shamokin News-Dispatch which also went wildly overboard with the total cat numbers. The papers at the time of her death claimed she had 200 cats; by 1949 that figure had grown to 350.

Mrs. Johnson didn’t have hundreds of them, though, not even close. On February 1st, 1894, when Helen was finally able to sort out the technicalities and rescue the by-then neglected cats from Buena Vista, there were 32 of them. Given that, I strongly suspect the 42 cats in Kahler’s painting were the full complement of Kate’s cats in 1893. Mind you, 32 was more than enough for Miss Shellard’s modest Telegraph Hill home to accommodate. She had to evict two tenants, screen in a porch and some of the yard to make room for the Johnson cats.

As for the painting, it led an exciting life after Mrs. Johnson left this one. It was purchased at her estate sale in 1894 by Ernest Haquette, a French-born art dealer who hung the painting in his Palace of Art gallery and cafe’, an innovative combination which made it a hot spot for the city’s social and business elite to enjoy elegant meals and cocktails for lunch and hugely expensive art any time. It was the best museum in the city before the de Young or SFMoMA were a twinkle in anyone’s eye.

In 1906, the Palace of Art burned to the ground in the raging inferno that leveled whatever parts of the city were still standing after the earthquake. My Wife’s Lovers was hanging in the gallery at the time, but it somehow survived the conflagration. It was acquired by another gallery owner and passed through several hands over the decades. In the 1940s it was owned by Mr. and Mrs. Julian of Julian Art Galleries who put it on tour culminating in a cat show at Madison Square Garden. Again Mrs. Johnson’s cats were a smash hit and more than 9,000 prints of the painting were sold spurring Cat Magazine to dub it “the world’s greatest painting of cats.”

The anonymous California buyer who just spent $826,000 to buy it was directly inspired by its past popularity: “I purchased My Wife’s Lovers by Carl Kahler based on my mother’s fond memories of the image. I bought a print of it for her, and it hung in her living room until she passed away at 91. Its California history made it all the better.”


Lost Oswald the Lucky Rabbit film found in BFI archive

November 4th, 2015

Not one to be outdone by the National Library of Norway, the British Film Institute has discovered a lost Walt Disney film starring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Unlike Empty Socks, the short found last year in NLN’s subarctic bunker archive of nitrate films, there wasn’t even a 25-clip of Sleigh Bells known to survive. No part of Sleigh Bells has been seen since it made its original release in 1928.

The six-minute animation was found in the BFI National Archive in Berkhamsted by a researcher searching the online catalogue. He recognized the name of the film as one thought lost. The print entered the BFI archive in 1981 as part of a collection of movies from a recently shuttered Soho film studio. It was titled and dated 1931, but had no references to Disney or Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. The title was generic enough to not ring any bells (pun intended) and the BFI doesn’t have the manpower to watch every one of the one million films in its archive, so it was just duly catalogued and socked away in storage.

In the movie Oswald skates and plays ice hockey on a lake accompanied by his interspecies lady friend, a cat named Ortensia who looks a little like Felix the Cat in a hat and skirt. It was drawn and animated by Ub Iwerks (Ub did all of the drawing for Disney’s early characters; Walt had limited artistic talent) and Walt Disney under contract with Universal Studios which had hired the pair to get a piece of the lucrative cartoon pie. The Oswald films were Universal’s first animated pictures and while Disney had had some success with the combination of live action and animation in the Alice Comedies series, Oswald was his first big hit.

Unfortunately for Disney, Oswald wasn’t really his, not by law. He belonged to Universal and once the character proved to be a success, Charles Mintz, the producer of the Oswald pictures, wasted no time in planning Disney’s ouster. He stealthily poached all of Disney’s employees except for Ub Iwerks who was loyal to Walt and refused the job offer. Iwerks warned Disney of Mintz’s machinations but Disney handwaved away his concerns. It was only in the spring of 1928 when Disney went to New York to renegotiate his contract that he finally realized Iwerks was right. Not only was Mintz not offering to increase Disney’s take on the popular cartoons, he told him he had to make more films for 20% less money. Mintz had no need to accommodate him since he had an experienced Oswald team ready to go without Disney.

Walt and Ub walked away and were all the better for it since the next idea they came up with was Mickey Mouse. Mintz’s production company took over making Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons for Universal until karma struck. The next year, Universal president Carl Laemmle fired the Mintz-Winkler studio and handed Oswald to Walter Lantz, a director Mintz had hired. Lantz produced Oswald cartoons until 1943 when the character was all but retired. He would go on to invent Woody Woodpecker.

In 2006, the Walt Disney company reacquired the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit property from NBC Universal. They were delighted, therefore, at the rediscovery of Sleigh Bells. Walt Disney Animation Studios restored the print and made a new film print of it as well as digital copies. The restored cartoon will be screened for the first time at BFI Southbank on December 12th, 2015, as part of It’s A Disney Christmas: Seasonal Shorts, a program of holiday-themed films from the late 1920s to the present.

Here’s a brief preview of Sleigh Bells released by the BFI:

Here’s a news story about the find that has some views of the film and its canister which look to be in surprisingly good condition.


Museo dell’Opera del Duomo reopens in Florence

November 3rd, 2015

After more than 20 years of planning and execution and 45 million euros spent, the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (the Museum of the Works of the Cathedral) in Florence reopened to the public on Thursday. More than 750 artworks — paintings, textiles, architectural models, sculptures — are on display in a completely redesigned space that finally allows the museum to exhibit monumental pieces from the exterior and interior of the Duomo, the Baptistery of San Giovanni and Giotto’s Campanile (bell tower). The Museum of the Works now houses the largest collection of Florentine sculptures from the Middle Ages and Renaissance in the world, statues and reliefs in marble, bronze and precious metals by such towering figures as Lorenzo Ghiberti, Donatello, Luca della Robbia, Antonio Pollaiolo, Andrea del Verrocchio, Antonio del Pollaiolo and Michelangelo Buonarotti.

More than 200 of these works have never before been on public display before because exhibition space was so limited. The acquisition in 1998 of the Theater of the Intrepids, an 18th century playhouse built on the site of Renaissance artists’ workshops that had once belonged to the Opera, allowed the museum to more than double its space. Because the theater had long since been gutted and was being used as a parking lot, there was nothing of historical or architectural interest to preserve. This allowed the architects to restructure the old museum and the theater, fusing them together into a single logical space. There are now more than 6,000 square meters (64,600 square feet) of room for the masterpieces from the history of the construction of this great church to spread out and breathe in 25 rooms over three floors. To accommodate monumental pieces that were made to be viewed from afar, several large halls were created ranging in size from sixty to a hundred feet long with ceilings twenty to fifty feet high.

The flexibility afforded by the theater large, empty theater building solved the museum’s thorniest problem: how to properly exhibit the elements of the Duomo’s original facade designed by Arnolfo di Cambio in the late 13th, early 14th century. Arnolfo’s facade was incomplete at the time of his death (sometime between 1302 and 1310), covering only the bottom third of the church. Standing next to the multicolored marble facades of the Baptistery and Campanile, its whiteness where finished and roughness where unfinished were much criticized. Over the years various contests were launched to find a solution but they came to naught. Finally in 1587, the Medici Grand Duke ordered the court architect to demolish the facade and replace it with a brick veneer painted in Mannerist style. In 1688 that was repainted with fake columns and architectural details on the occasion of the wedding of Grand Duke Ferdinand to Violante Beatrice of Bavaria. That paint job was faded to all but nothingness by the mid-19th century. The white, green and red marble facade we know today is shockingly recent, designed by Emilio de Fabris to coordinate with the other striped structures in the complex and constructed between 1876 and 1886.

The Opera managed to keep most of the facade, despite the inexplicable lack of care taken to preserve the works during demolition, in its store rooms. It also kept in its archives the only surviving drawing of Arnolfo’s original facade: a 17th century copy of a sketch drawn by Bernardino Poccetti in 1587 just before demolition. When the Museo dell’Opera opened in 1891, the monumental figures from the facade couldn’t possibly fit. The best it could do was exhibit a little wooden maquette of the facade while more than 100 original pieces — 40 statues, 60+ architectural features — stagnated in storage.

The lofty spaces of the theater gave the museum the opportunity to do something extremely cool about the facade: reconstruct the whole damn thing indoors. Using the Poccetti sketch as a guide, architects recreated the 14th century facade along one wall of the 1,500-square-foot great hall. The sculptures and reliefs were positioned in their original locations, with a few select pieces of particular importance being brought down to the museum floor so visitors can actually see them while plaster copies were put in their original places.

Across from the reconstructed Arnolfo facade is another monumental installation: the Baptistery facade. The famous Gates of Paradise, Ghiberti’s gilded bronze panels depicting scenes from the Old Testament in high relief that once graced the east wall of the Baptistery, the north door, an earlier work by Ghiberti made to match the first doors by Andrea Pisano, and said Pisano doors, all extensively restored, are installed in the facade, topped by the monumental sculptures that topped them in the 16th century. (Copies of the doors now take the brunt of the weather and pollution in the Baptistery itself.)

Other rooms are dedicated to important works and history, like Donatello’s Penitent Magdalene (1455), Michelangelo’s unfinished and all the more beautiful for it Bandini Pietà (ca. 1547–1553), and the two intricately carved choir lofts that once stood above the doors of the sacristies inside the Duomo, one by Luca della Robbia (completed in 1438), the other by Donatello (completed in 1439). These masterpieces of early Renaissance sculpture were removed by order of groomzilla Grand Duke Ferdinand because he considered them too passe’ for his fashionable wedding. He replaced them with massive Baroque choir lofts.

The great dome of the cathedral designed and built by architect, artist, goldsmith and inventor Filippo Brunelleschi also get its own hall. It houses original wooden models of the cupola and lantern and, incredibly, some of the pulleys and gear Brunelleschi devised to get construction materials 170 feet off the ground. I haven’t been able to determine if the 9-foot scale model of the dome discovered under the floor of the theater during construction in 2012 has been integrated into the museum as was discussed at the time.

(Speaking of Brunelleschi’s dome, you have to watch this documentary about its construction. Master masons from the United States go to Florence and join in a project to build a scale model of the dome to see if they can figure out how he did it. It is absolutely riveting viewing. It’s fascinating to see Brunelleschi’s genius brought to life by masters who clearly feel the noble history of their craft with every brick they lay.)

Basically, this is a whole new museum. If you’ve been to the Museo dell’Opera before, you have all the reason you need to get back there stat because its previous incarnation bears no resemblance to its current splendor.


Royal Collection restorers find hidden pooper

November 2nd, 2015

A painting in the Royal Collection has been hiding a man captured in the moment of answering a call of nature for more than a hundred years. A Village Fair with a Church Behind by 17th century Dutch painter Isack van Ostade is a vibrant, bustling scene of peasants exploring market wares in a fictional village under the shadow of an unrealistically large church. Restorers were cleaning the oil-on-canvas work in preparation for an upcoming exhibition when they found that a shrub in the bottom right corner was a relatively recent overpainting. When they removed the bush, they found a man popping a proverbial squat, trousers down, head bent in concentration.

Here is the painting before cleaning:

Here it is after cleaning:

The canvas entered the Royal Collection in 1810 when it was acquired by the future King George IV, then the Prince of Wales. It hung in Carlton House, the Prince’s London home. Exhibition curator and surveyor of The Queen’s Pictures Desmond Shawe-Taylor notes that the notoriously dissipated “George IV loved that kind of thing … Being a man of the world, [he didn't] mind a few rude jokes.” His successors were not quite so enamored of toilet humor. Restorers believe the rustic pooping fellow was probably painted over the last time the canvas was restored in 1903, after it was moved to the Picture Gallery at Buckingham Palace.

The modification took place two years into the reign of Queen Victoria’s son, Edward VII, who was himself was no stranger to bawdiness. Dubbed Edward the Caresser by Henry James, he was a regular at a number of exclusive Parisian brothels, particularly Le Chabanais where he kept his custom-made sex chair. He wouldn’t have had any direct involvement in the pooper cover-up. It was likely a curatorial decision to bring the painting in line with the proprieties of a time when the mere discussion of a much-needed women’s public lavoratory took five years because council members couldn’t even talk about bodily functions without terminal monocle popping. Displaying a painting of a man dropping a deuce next to a church, no less, would have been cause for great consternation. Another ribald Dutch painting bought by George IV, A Village Revel by Jan Steen (1673), was altered around the same time when a man’s naked buttocks on the tavern sign were covered with a bull’s head.

Desmond Shawe-Taylor again:

“Dutch artists often include people or animals answering the call of nature partly as a joke and partly to remind viewers of that crucial word ‘nature’, the inspiration for their art. Queen Victoria thought the Dutch pictures in her collection were painted in a ‘low style’; two years after her death perhaps a royal advisor felt similarly.”

The painter of A Village Fair with a Church Behind, Isack van Ostade, was born in Haarlem in 1621. He was trained by his older brother Adriaen who had a strong influence on his early works. Once he struck out on his own in 1642, Isack shifted his focus from the rustic interiors that characterized his brother’s work to peasant genre works set in a detailed but fictional landscape. He specialized in winter scenes and crowded exteriors, like the series of paintings he did of people milling about outside roadside inns. His signature touch in these busy scenes full of people and animals was a white horse, unmissably luminescent in the center left of A Village Fair with a Church Behind. Isack died at the tragically young age of 28. His short life was a prolific one; he completed about 400 paintings in the decade he had.

The painting is one of 27 Dutch 17th and 18th century works from the Royal Collection that will be on display in Masters of the Everyday: Dutch Artists in the Age of Vermeer, an exhibition exploring the quotidian captured in rich detail by artists like Jan Steen and Johannes Vermeer. The exhibition runs from November 13th, 2015, to February 14th, 2016, in the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace.


Bejeweled, gilded silver Tiffany bike on display

November 1st, 2015

The summer the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History opened a new wing dedicated to business and innovation. One section of it, the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation Object Project, explores how certain consumer goods — clocks, ready-to-wear clothes, refrigerators — both drove and embodied social change in the US. Bicycles, for instance, gave women a whole new independence of movement and helped support the Victorian dress reform movement which sought to liberate women from the restrictive fashions of the day and advocated less binding, less bulky, more practical garments for use in sports and activities like swimming or bicycling.

One of the pieces on display is a sparkling example of the roles innovation and fashion played in the bicycling craze of the late 19th century. It’s a Ladies Columbia Bicycle made in 1896 by the Pope Manufacturing Company at its Hartford, Connecticut, factory, then the largest bicycle factory in the world. It was a safety bicycle, so-called because unlike its predecessor the penny-farthing, it put pedals close to the ground for easier balance and stopping and had a chain-drive that allowed for much smaller wheels. By 1896 those wheels were inflatable pneumatic tires which gave a much smoother, faster ride than the boneshaker of yore with its hard rubber tires.

What makes this particular Ladies Columbia Bicycle stand out among the 60 bicycles in the Smithsonian collection is what happened to it after it came off the line at the Hartford factory: it was decorated with silver, gold, diamonds and emeralds by Tiffany & Co. Introduced in late 1895 for the Christmas shopping season, the Pope Manufacturing Company’s glamorous Tiffany Bicycle was more of a marketing tool than a big seller, and no wonder since it cost a prohibitive $500 before customization. In its newspaper ads to Tiffany Bike was used as a lure to induce potential buyers to visit the company’s local branch where a wide array of affordable models were available for purchase.

The Tiffany Bicycle in the Smithsonian belonged to Mary Noble Wiley of Montgomery, Alabama, wife of Spanish-American War veteran and United States Representative from the state of Alabama Ariosto Appling Wiley. The nickel-plated steel frame was decorated by Tiffany with floral and filigree designs in sterling silver covered with a thin layer of gold. The handlebars have ivory grips with silver bands and gold embossed designs. The lamp is sterling silver with a rock crystal lens. The wheel rims are made of bird’s eye maple. To keep Mrs. Wiley’s skirts from getting caught in the chain and wheel spokes, twine was tautly threaded over them. Mrs. Wiley’s initials — MNW — were monogrammed onto the front tube in gold and studded with 12 small diamonds and eight small emeralds.

Unfortunately we know very little about its creation and acquisition. Mary, known as Wiley gave it to her son Noble Wiley in 1915 to keep for his then-infant daughter Hulit to enjoy when she was old enough. Noble packed it away in a special bicycle trunk where it remained for 15 years until he had cause to unpack it and recall how awesome it was. He wrote a letter to Tiffany & Co in New York City asking for more information about it. That letter has survived, but alas any response he may have received has not. In 1950 he donated it to the Smithsonian Institution.

It was selected for display in the Object Project and earlier this year conservator Diana Galante cleaned and restored it to make it ready for its closeup. She found that years of polishing had eroded some of the gilding, exposing the silver beneath to tarnish. The original rubber tires, whose sulfurous fumes played a part in the tarnishing process, were cracked and misshapen, a decay that is all but unavoidable in the life cycle of century-old natural rubber.

After an initial cleaning to remove grime and old wax, the bicycle’s tarnish problem needed to be addressed. Galante used gentle abrasives to remove the corrosion returning the silver to its original shine. She coated the gilded areas were resin to keep them from tarnishing while on display. Visitors can see it now on display at the National Museum of American History in a custom enclosed display case (which will also help prevent tarnish while keeping this literal jewel of a bike safe), suspended in a mount specially designed to keep the rubber wheels from having to bear the weight of the bike.


New named pipe found at Jamestown

October 31st, 2015

Archaeologists at Historic Jamestown have discovered the tenth Virginia-made pipe with a name inscribed on the stem. It’s the first new named pipe found at the site since 2009, and in contrast to most of the earlier discoveries, the name is complete: William Faldo.

The stockholders of the Virginia Company were expecting to make a quick profit from their investment in the Jamestown settlement, but the struggling colonists could barely keep themselves alive, never mind send back the riches in minerals and trade goods the company had envisioned. They weren’t even self-sufficient, having clashed with the Powhatan tribes weeks after their arrival and being saddled with a surfeit of soft-handed gentlemen rather than farmers and laborers who could have been of practical use.

In January of 1608, eight months after the founding of Jamestown, the Virginia Company sent a supply mission that was woefully short of necessary provisions but long on new colonists. At least this time there were more laborers and tradesmen than gentlemen on board. Pipemaker Robert Cotton was one of them.

Tobacco was introduced to Europe by the Spanish in the 16th century but it was Sir Walter Raleigh who popularized it in England after Ralph Lane, first governor of Virginia, gave him a long-stemmed pipe and Virginia tobacco in 1586. By the time John Rolfe, future husband of Pocahontas, planted Virginia’s first commercial tobacco crop in Jamestown in 1612, smoking was widespread in England. Rolfe’s first crop was sold in London in 1614. Five years later, Jamestown was exporting 10 tons of tobacco to England a year. By 1639 it was 750 tons.

When Robert Cotton first arrived at Jamestown, there was no tobacco cash crop. His brief was to seek out new sources of clay and pipe production methods that would give the Virginia Company consumer goods they could actually make some money selling in England. The London pipemaking industry was supplied exclusively by Dorset white clay. If Virginia clay could supply a colonial pipemaking enterprise, the Virginia Company could break the Dorset monopoly.

While there are no surviving documents mentioning Robert Cotton other than the passenger list of the First Supply mission, archaeological evidence of his work has survived. Since 2006, archaeologists have unearthed more than 1,550 fragments of pipes made by Robert Cotton. They were found in a well, probably discards that failed during the manufacturing process. Cotton combined the tulip-shaped bowl of Virginia Indian pipes with English technology and decorative elements to create a unique design not found in any other early Virginia colonies. The Virginia clay wasn’t the pristine white of Dorset’s or fired at the same high heat, but Cotton’s handmade work (he did not use molds to make these pipes) was appealing and saleable.

Many were stamped with a diamond shape maker’s mark and fleurs-de-lis. A few of them were inscribed with the names of influential people stamped into the clay with printer’s type. Nine pipes were found with names or enough of a name to be identifiable, all of them officials of the Virginia Company or high-powered courtiers: Sir Charles Howard, lord high admiral of the English Navy, famed explorer and smoking trend-setter Sir Walter Raleigh, the Earl of Southampton, Virginia Company official and patron of Shakespeare whose name appears on two pipes, Lord De La Warr, owner of a huge quantity of Virginia Company stock and first resident governor of Virginia, Captain Samuel Argall, ship’s captain and lieutenant governor of Virginia, Captain Francis Nelson, ship’s captain of the Second Supply mission, Sir Walter Cope, antiquarian and Virginia Company official, Robert Cecil, Lord Salisbury, Virginia Company investor and King James’ secretary of state.

It’s unlikely these luminaries commissioned a Virginia pipe. Archaeologists believe the name stamping was a marketing device, a gift for investors to assuage their concerns attending Jamestown’s financial prospects. William Faldo, however, was not so illustrious a personage. He may have gotten his own named pipe because he was friends with the maker. His pipe was also found in a different location, a cellar rather than a well.

Faldo was a Swiss German member of the Society of Mines Royal who persuaded the Virginia Company that he could find silver mines in the colony. He arrived along with a group of German and Polish craftsmen in October of 1608 and quickly set out to find the mines. He was believed to have found a silver mine upstream of the falls of the James River, but before thoroughly exploring it he went back to England to secure an exclusive contract to work the mine. He returned with Governor De La Warr in 1610 after the Starving Time had driven the few survivors to abandon the Jamestown fort. De La Warr was very keen on securing that silver, so he ordered the settlers to stay put and rebuild Jamestown. The silver was never found and Faldo was killed by Appomattox Indians that same year.


The King Is Dead at Versailles

October 30th, 2015

The long, drawn-out, painful death of King Louis XIV of France was thoroughly documented and published in the memoirs of some of the men who witnessed it. It was so slow that the king himself took the opportunity to plan it out thoroughly, concerned about the state of his soul and the future of his realm which he had so materially damaged with endless warfare and extravagant spending. After he finally breathed his last, the elaborate funerary traditions of the monarchy kicked in, and the political ramifications of the succession — Louis outlived his legitimate sons and grandsons leaving his five-year-old great-grandson Louis, Duke of Anjou, as heir to the throne — had to be addressed. The death of any king was of great national and international import; the death of the Sun King more so that most.

The health of Louis XIV had been in decline for the last year of his life. Rumors abounded in the hothouse environment of the royal court at Versailles that his legs were dangerously swollen. In London wagers were laid on how long he would live. Head physician Guy-Crescent Fagon, who despite having basically bled to death Louis’ beloved grandson, granddaughter-in-law and great-grandson when they were struck with measles still held the full confidence of the king and his secret wife Madame de Maintenon, insisted there was nothing seriously wrong with Louis. The king’s head surgeon was not so complacent, but his appeals to Fagon and Mme de Maintenon went unheeded.

On August 11th, 1715, Louis felt a sudden intense pain in his left leg. Fagon chalked it up to sciatica and prescribed a purgative, but when the pain increased to the point where he couldn’t even walk the short distance to Mme de Maintenon’s chambers, Fagon was finally persuaded to call in consulting physicians. Mareschal was able to assuage the king’s pain by rubbing the leg with hot cloths, but the relief was temporary. The physicians arrived from Paris on August 14th. They felt the king’s pulse and after much discussion prescribed asses’ milk which they then unprescribed because in the hours they spent yammering the king’s pain had abated.

Mareschal continued to massage the leg because it was the only thing that made him feel better even if just for an hour, and on August 17th he saw that a red spot on the leg had developed into a sore. The surgeon now realized the king had gangrene, that only amputation could save his life. Fagon kept his head firmly embedded in the sand. More doctors’ consultations, more asses’ milk, a bath in spiced Burgundy wine and other useless treatments ensued until the leg’s blackened and swollen condition made it impossible for Fagon to deny that this was a surgeon’s issue and Mareschal took the lead.

He had a team of consulting surgeons brought in on August 25th. They took one look at the leg and knew it was just a matter of time. It was too late to amputate. Louis himself realized that he wasn’t bouncing back from this one. He asked Mareschal how long he had left to live and the surgeon told him he had maybe two days. The king began to put his affairs in order. He received the last rites from the Cardinal of Rohan, had the entire court pass before his bed to give their last farewells and brought the young dauphin in to give him the benefit of his final counsel. Reportedly Louis XIV told the soon-to-be Louis XV that he had loved war too much, that it was the ruination of the people, that he should not imitate his taste for expensive construction, that he should spend money alleviating the suffering of his people instead.

The Sun King died on September 1st, 1715, having reigned 72 years (54 if you subtract the regency) of his 77 years of life.

The next day his body was autopsied, a long-standing custom for members of the royal family. L’Ouverture (the opening), as the procedure was called, was performed on the state dining table before an array of courtiers and doctors. Mareschal did the honors. From the autopsy report:

The exterior of the left side was found gangrenous from the extremity of the foot to the top of the head; the skin peeling every where, but less on the right than on the left; the body extremely distended and bloated; the bowels much altered with inflammation, especially those on the left side; the large intestines extraordinarily dilated. The kidneys were fairly normal and natural; but in the left one was found a small stone similar to those the King had several times passed without pain while in health. The liver, spleen and stomach were in a normal condition, both externally and internally. The lungs, as well as the chest, normal; the heart in very good condition, of ordinary size; the terminals of the great vessels ossified. All the muscles of the throat gangrenous. On opening the head, the dura mater was found adherent to the cranium, and the pia mater marked with black areas along the falx; the brain sound, in natural condition, outside and within. The interior of the left thigh, where the King’s disease began was completely gangrenous in every part; all the blood in all the vessels totally disorganized, and very scanty in amount.

The opening concluded, Mareschal embalmed the body. As per a tradition begun with the death of Capetian monarch Philip the Fair in 1314, Louis’ body was divided in three parts, like ancient France had been under Caesar. His viscera were removed and placed in one reliquary, his heart in another and his body in a double coffin of lead and oak. The coffin was displayed for a week in Versailles’ Mercury Room. It left Versailles for Paris the evening of September 8th, arriving at Saint-Denis at dawn the next morning. The coffin was placed in the Bourbon tomb. The entrails were entombed at Notre-Dame. The heart went to the Church of the Jesuits.

The royal tombs and reliquaries of France were desecrated and destroyed during the French Revolution. Louis XIV’s heart was sold to an artist to use in the production of prized glaze called “mummie” made by macerating an embalmed human heart in alcohol and herbs. The artist, Saint-Martin, kept a chunk of the heart and returned it to the state after the restoration of the monarchy.

In honor of the 300th anniversary of Louis XIV’s death, the Palace of Versailles is putting on an exhibition dedicated to his final days, autopsy, funeral and the continuing significance of the ritual in the context of Revolution and Restoration. The King is Dead is the first exhibition dedicated to the monarch’s death.

The exhibition will bring together works of art and historical documents of major importance from the largest French and foreign collections, including ceremonial portraits, funeral statues and effigies, gravestones, the manuscript for the account of the autopsy of the king, coins from the Saint-Denis Treasury, gold medals, emblems and ornaments, and furniture of funeral liturgy. Some of the pieces on display have never been exhibited in public.

Exhibiting these masterpieces has required grand scenography effects. Scenographer Pier Luigi Pizzi was asked by Béatrix Saule, the exhibition’s Head Curator, to design the layout for this great Baroque show. Across the nine sections, visitors will discover a veritable funeral opera conducted by the artist.


Don’t panic! It’s just The War of the Worlds.

October 29th, 2015

Seventy-seven years ago, Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater broadcast a radio play of H.G. Wells’ alien invasion classic The War of the Worlds. The next day was Halloween and the newspapers dutifully scaremongered, splashing sensationalized headlines on their front pages about the mass hysteria the radio program had provoked in the listening audience. There were reports of suicides, people being hospitalized for shock, heart attacks and thousands of terrified callers clogging the radio station’s phone lines. Almost all of those reports have proven unfounded, although it is true that more people than usual called the station, some complaining about the show being too scary, others complimenting the show for being so scary, still others wanting to know how they could help the victims of Martian violence.

One of the frightened listeners sued CBS for “nervous shock”, but the suit was dismissed. One man wrote to CBS claiming he had spent $3.25 of his savings for a bus ticket to flee the Martians and only heard it was play 60 miles later. He was saving up to buy a new pair of shoes, so he asked CBS to send him a pair of black men’s shoes, size 9-B. Welles sent him his new shoes, against the advice of CBS’ lawyer.

Orson Welles had already had success on radio in 1937 as the voice of The Shadow and on the stage with his innovative Mercury Theater company when CBS offered him a one-hour anthology series debuting in July 1938. This was prestige listening, adaptations of the great works of literature written and performed by a professional troupe of the New York theater. The introduction emphasized this pedigree, noting it was radio’s “first presentation of a complete theatrical producing company.” Welles and his Mercury Theater cast and crew put on the works of William Shakespeare (Julius Caesar), Alexandre Dumas (The Count of Monte Cristo), Charles Dickens (Pickwick Papers) and Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island), among many others.

It is true that Welles deliberately set out to give his version of The War of the Worlds a realistic news story staging complete with expert commentary, witness interviews and fake reports from military honchos. It wasn’t a hoax, though; just a way of giving the show a fresh, dynamic immediacy and give the audience a nice little scare for Halloween. Still, CBS was concerned that people might confuse it with real news, so they made sure there were disclaimers not just before the opening of the program, but also at the 40 and 55 minute marks.

The show opened with what sounded like standard radio programming — a weather report followed by an orchestra playing music in a hotel ballroom — that was suddenly interrupted by a special new bulletin reporting explosions of hydrogen gas on Mars. Then it was back to the sleepy dance music, then another special bulletin, then back to the orchestra, then another break away to an astronomer describing what he saw on Mars. The tension grew from there as reports got more and more dramatic and the regular programming of music kept getting cut off after a few bars.

The other Mercury Theater broadcasts were more traditional radio plays. Welles’ twist for The War of the Worlds was to use radio conventions to convey the confusion and terror of the original story. He had the cast listen to WLS radio reporter Herbert Morrison’s real-time description of the Hindenburg disaster, still famous today for its “Oh the humanity!” anguish, to get that genuine feeling of a newsman’s increasing horror as tragedy unfolds before him. Cast member Frank Readick played that role to perfection.

The Halloween headlines condemned Orson Welles as a hoaxster and instigator of widespread panic. It was enough to scare CBS into calling a hasty press conference at which Welles expressed his deep regret, insisting he had no idea anybody would take it seriously.

He may or may not have been genuinely contrite (his expression around the 5:35 mark reminds me of Puss in Boots’ big-eyed hat-in-hand look from Shrek), but the story vaulted him to national fame, secured a sponsor (Campbell’s Soup) and another two years of the radio show. It’s also the reason RKO Studios gave Orson Welles an unprecedented two-movie contract granting him complete artistic control of his pictures. Without The War of the Worlds, there would have been no Citizen Kane.

The broadcast still holds up, even though reporters don’t talk like that anymore. The sound effects — especially the panicked crowd noises — are great and the adaptation remains one of exceptional dexterity and verve. Listen for yourself and see what you think. Would have spent all your shoe money on a ticket out of town if you had heard this 77 years ago?


1000-year-old silver hoard found on Danish island

October 28th, 2015

Robert Hemming Poulsen lays fiber-optic cable for a living. For fun, he takes his metal detector with him on assignments and explores new places in his downtime. Last month Poulsen was installing a fiber-optic network on the Danish island of Omø when he struck up conversation with farmer Hans Peder Tofte. Tofte told him that as a boy he had found a silver ring on his property. Intrigued, Robert took his metal detector to the field and discovered several silver fragments and silver coins.

An experienced and responsible amateur, Poulsen stopped the search and alerted the Zealand Museum to his finds. With funding from the Danish Agency for Culture, the museum arranged for a more thorough exploration of the field. Last weekend museum experts joined Robert Poulsen and three of his experienced metal detecting friends to search the site. They discovered more than 550 silver fragments, silver coins, cuttings from silver coins and silver jewelry from the 10th century. This was an all-silver hoard.

All of the artifacts were unearthed in an area about 100 feet in diameter suggesting they were originally buried in a single hoard. The field has been ploughed for hundreds of years, however, so if there was a container, it has long since been destroyed and/or rotted away. The team dug beneath the ploughed soil just in case, but all they found was clean sand. There are no indications of an individual house or settlement in the area. It appears that the treasure was simply buried in a field.

While most of the hoard is composed of fragments of hacksilver as small as .1 grams, including tiny cuttings of Arabic coins called dirham clips, it has a number of rare and important pieces. There are multiple coins from the reign of Harald Bluetooth. Minted between 975 and 980 A.D, the Harald Bluetooth cross-coins are considered the first Danish coins. They are so thin that the design on one side shows through on the other, and the silver content and weight are so low that metal detectors can’t detect them. Any find of Bluetooth coins, therefore, is always archaeologically significant.

Besides the Arabic and Danish coins, the hoard also contains silver coins from England, Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic. Some coins have yet to be identified. Three unidentified coins were found in an unusual configuration: one coin folded over the other two. Similar pieces have been found before in England, but they’re from later in the Middle Ages and the they have one complete coin folded over a half coin thereby created a one-and-a-half denomination. All three of Omø coins in this configuration are complete.

The jewelry is all in pieces. Among the fragments of bracelets, rings and pendants are two objects of particular interest: a cross and pendant that are decorated in the same style as an important hoard of jewelry discovered on the German Baltic Sea island of Hiddensee in 1873. The Hiddensee treasure dates to the 10th century and is believed to have belonged to the family of Harald Bluetooth himself. The difference is the Hiddensee jewelry is all made of gold, while the pieces found on Omø are silver. That makes them unique. No other silver Hiddensee-type jewelry has been found before.

By Danish law, historical finds are treasure trove and property of the state. The Zealand Museum will thoroughly document and photograph every piece before sending them to the National Museum for valuation by experts. Finder Robert Poulsen will receive a reward based on the value of the hoard. The Zealand Museum hopes they will then get the hoard back for exhibition, but that depends on whether the National Museum deems its security measures sufficient to protect the find.


Bronze Age tomb groaning with riches found in Greece

October 27th, 2015

Archaeologists digging near the ancient city of Pylos in the Peloponnese region of southwestern Greece have unearthed a richly laden tomb dating to around 1,500 B.C. Led by University of Cincinnati archaeologists Jack Davis and Sharon Stocker, the international team was excavating a previously unexplored field next to the Palace of Nestor. They chose to dig in a place where three stones were visible on the ground, thinking they were the remains of a Bronze Age house. They soon realized those stones were the top of a shaft tomb. After two weeks of digging, archaeologists hit gold, figuratively, that is. Literally they hit bronze, but that was just the beginning.

Inside a shaft tomb about five feet deep, four feet wide and eight feet long was the skeleton of an adult male and an eye-popping collection of grave goods. To the left of his chest was a sword three feet long with an ivory hilt overlaid with gold. Underneath the sword was a dagger with a gold hilt in the same embroidery-like technique found on the long sword. To his right were jewels, among them a hoard of more than 1,000 beads of carnelian, amethyst, gold, agate, jasper and gold, most of them drilled through so they could be strung together. Small fragments of a cross-woven textile suggests some of the beads decorated a burial shroud. Near the beads were four solid gold rings, the most that have ever been discovered in a single burial in Greece, plus six silver cups and an assortment of bronze vessels, some with gold or silver trim.

On his chest were two squashed gold cups and a silver cup with a gold rim. By his neck was a unique gold necklace 30-inches long with a box weave chain and finials in a sacral ivy pattern. At his legs and feet were more bronze weapons, including a sword and spearhead, and thin bronze strips likely to be the remains of a suit of armor on top of his body. (Many of the grave goods were placed on top of his coffin when he was buried. When the wood of the coffin decayed, those goods settled on and around the warrior.

Other assorted finds include: a bronze mirror with an ivory handle, more than 50 seal stones intricately carved with Minoan designs of deities, lions, bulls and bull dancers vaulting over the animal’s horns, carved ivory pieces including a griffon and a lion attacking a griffon and six ivory combs.

Before this find, graves this rich were only found in the archaeological site of Mycenae, one of the great military centers of early Greece after which the period (1600 – 1100 B.C.) of its dominance is named. Pylos was thought to be a bit of a backwater compared to the grand city of 30,000, but the ultra-rich graves of Mycenae were multiple burials. The discovery of the wealthiest single burial in ever found in Greece in Pylos means historians may have to revise their understanding of the town’s ancient importance.

Another archaeological boon from this discovery is that we know all the grave goods belong to this one man. The multiple burials made it difficult for archaeologists to identify which artifacts belonged to which person. One hypothesis was that the grave goods could be divided by gender — men get the weapons, women get the combs and beads — but this discovery shows that a gender division doesn’t work because the man was buried with every kind of artifact under the sun.

There was no name or identifying information in the grave, but the burial is older than the palace of Nestor which was destroyed in 1,180 B.C., so these are not the remains of a Homeric hero.

Explains Stocker, “This latest find is not the grave of the legendary King Nestor, who headed a contingent of Greek forces at Troy in Homer’s Iliad. Nor is it the grave of his father, Neleus. This find may be even more important because the warrior pre-dates the time of Nestor and Neleus by, perhaps, 200 or 300 years. That means he was likely an important figure at a time when this part of Greece was being indelibly shaped by close contact with Crete, Europe’s first advanced civilization.”

Thus, the tomb may have held a powerful warrior or king — or even a trader or a raider — who died at about 30 to 35 years of age but who helped to lay the foundations of the Mycenaean culture that later flourished in the region.

Davis speculates, “Whoever he was, he seems to have been celebrated for his trading or fighting in nearby island of Crete and for his appreciation of the more-sophisticated and delicate are of the Minoan civilization (found on Crete), with which he was buried.”

The team found the tomb in May, but the discovery was kept under wraps until Monday when the Greek Culture Ministry announced it to the world as “the most important prehistoric funerary monument to have come to light on mainland Greece in the last 65 years”

The more than 1,400 artifacts recovered from the grave are now at the Archaeological Museum of Chora where they will be conserved and analyzed. Because so many of the pieces seem to have originated in Minoan Crete, archaeologists are hoping the study of the grave goods will give them a new understanding of the trade networks connecting ancient Crete and Mycenaean Greece.





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