Reading with Rose: The Delusion in Salem

“Hallowe’en Festivites. From an Old English Print.” From The Book of Hallowe’en (1919) by Ruth Edna Kelley.

This time of year, the streets of Beacon Hill are whimsically decorated with skeletons, pumpkins, gourds, and cobwebs in anticipation of that ever-popular holiday, Halloween. Based on the dearth of references to this occasion in the Nichols family’s papers, we don’t know how much–if at all–the family celebrated. This might explain why Rose’s book collection features very few spooky tales–Macbeth being perhaps the most well-known. During this time of year, when Edgar Allan Poe and Gothic tales reign supreme, we thought it would be fun to see exactly what kinds of spooky tales Rose collected. (She actually did collect Poe’s works, too!)

This Nichols House Museum recently hosted the first event in our new series, Nichols after Dark, in which we delivered a special tour focused on Victorian spiritualism and Salem witchcraft. For this month’s blog, we will take a look at some books that were featured during our special Hallowe’en tour. Along with Poe’s works, William de Morgan’s cheekily titled novel When Ghost Meets Ghost (1914), and the works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (who wrote extensively on her experiences with spiritualism), we wanted to call everyone’s attention to one particular book with ties to the Nichols family: Charles Wentworth Upham’s Lectures on Witchcraft Comprising a History of the Delusion in Salem, in 1692 (1831).

Inscription from Rose Standish Nichols’ copy of Lectures on Witchcraft Comprising a History of the Delusion in Salem, in 1692 (1831).


Charles Wentworth Upham was a Canadian-born (Unitarian) clergyman, congressman, and the seventh mayor of Salem, MA. Born in St. John, New Brunswick to Joshua and Mary Upham, Charles was the son of a Loyalist who fought for the British during the American Revolution. After the Revolution, Joshua emigrated to Canada, where Charles lived until 1816, when he was sent to Massachusetts to apprentice with a merchant cousin. In 1817, after his cousin perceived Charles’ real interest was in studying, not business, Charles was sent to Harvard College, where he placed second in his class. Having done well, Charles spent another three years studying at Cambridge Divinity School; he was finally ordained as an associate pastor of the First Church (Unitarian) of Salem in December of 1824. He retired twenty years later. [1]

Charles Wentworth Upham.

Charles’ political life gathered momentum in 1848, when he aligned himself with the Whig party. From 1849 to 1850, he was a member of the state House of Representatives; 1850-1851, a member of the state Senate; 1853-1855, a member of the 33rd Congress. In 1857, he began a two-year term as the presiding officer of the Massachusetts state Senate, and in 1859 began another two-year term as a member of the state House of Representatives. [2] Throughout his professional career, he became known as a historian of the Salem witch trials, writing multiple volumes on the subject. In Lectures (p. 6-7), he describes his reason for publishing this volume:

“In the hope that they may contribute, in combination with the great variety of other means now employed, to diffuse the blessings of knowledge, to check the prevalence of fanaticism, to accelerate the decay of superstition, to prevent an unrestrained exercise of imagination and passion in the individual or in societies of men, and to establish the effectual dominion of true religion and sound philosophy, they are now presented to the public.” [3]

“Witchcraft at Salem Village,” 1876.

We aren’t quite sure why Rose collected this book on witchcraft, but we do have our theories. It’s possible she wanted to study more about her paternal great-grandmother, Susannah Towne Nichols, whose portrait hangs in the Nichols House dining room. Susannah was a descendant of Rebecca (Towne) Nurse, who was famously persecuted during the Salem “delusion.” Whatever the reason, the inclusion of Upham’s book is an certainly a welcome–and appropriate–companion to the portrait of Susannah Nichols.


[1] “Charles Wentworth Upham.” Dictionary of American Biography, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1936. Biography in Context.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Upham, Charles Wentworth. Lectures on Witchcraft Comprising a History of the Delusion in Salem, in 1692. Boston, Carter, Hendee and Babcock, 1831.

By Victoria Johnson, Visitor Services and Research Associate



Reading with Rose: The “Poet Laureate of Hope End”

Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning might today be known to popular readers as one half of a grand literary couple. While her love story is certainly one for the ages, Barrett Browning was in her time one of the most successful and lauded poets in Europe. Her works were widely read, controversial enough to ruffle some (mostly male) feathers, and good enough to propel her name onto the lips of everyone in England as they debated who should be named the next Poet Laureate upon William Wordsworth’s death (an honor which ultimately went to Alfred, Lord Tennyson). While some still debate the various nuances of her work, upon examination we can understand why Rose Standish Nichols would have collected the works of this brilliant woman.

The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1898.

EBB, or “Ba,” as she was called as a child, was born in 1806 in Durham, England. She would go on to have eleven younger siblings, sharing her father’s new property at Hope End with them. Both of her parents came from families who owned land and plantation in Jamaica, a fact which led EBB to believe there was a curse upon her family–a curse caused by being complicit in profiting from slavery. As such, EBB was against slavery, and was “glad” when slavery was abolished in the British colonies with the Emancipation Act of 1833. [1] Her poem, “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point,” explores the themes of slavery that EBB was concerned with.

Inscription in Rose’s edition of The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. “Frank [illegible] 1882.”
EBB began writing in her childhood. Her mother, who educated her, and father, who called her “the Poet Laureate of Hope End,” were her earliest supporters. She studied the typical poets of her day–Shakespeare, Homer, Milton, etc.–but was besotted with Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a feminist work whose themes EBB would return to again and again in her own compositions. Today it is known that EBB spent much of her life afflicted with various illnesses; the first of these struck when she was a teenager. As a woman with limited opportunity, she continued her education on her own, culminating with the first publication of her poems in 1821. [2]

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning, n.d.

By the 1830s the Barretts moved to London, where EBB met and mingled with John Kenyon, the highly successful and influential Mary Russell Mitford, and William Wordsworth. After suffering from further illnesses, EBB confined herself to her home on Wimpole Street. During her confinement she wrote and was published so prolifically that fan Edgar Allan Poe, who read her Poems published in America in 1844, dedicated  The Raven and Other Poems (1845) to EBB, “the noblest of her sex.” [3]

Florence. Postcard from Rose Nichols Postcard Collection.
“Villa Gamberaia Settignano Florence,” back of postcard.

Her relationship with fellow poet Robert Browning began in 1845, when Browning wrote to EBB after she expressed her admiration for his works in one of hers. They wrote to each other for months, until she finally agreed to his proposal of calling on her at Wimpole Street. After roughly 90 visits, EBB agreed to marry Browning, setting of a chain of events which led to great happiness and great sorrow. Her father, and consequently her siblings, did not approve of her marrying out of the family, cut her off from any further funding. In Italy, where EBB and Browning had made their way so that she could live in a better climate, EBB experienced four miscarriages and one successful pregnancy, giving birth to a son known as Pen. It was during these married years traveling between Rome, Paris, and London that the Brownings became part of a literary circle which consisted of many  lauded writers, including themselves. [4]

Title page of Aurora Leigh from Rose’s edition of The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

In 1856 EBB’s most enduring (and controversial) work was published: Aurora Leigh.
An epic poem written in blank verse, Aurora Leigh is arguably EBB’s most overtly feminist–and therefore controversial– work, because of its focus on the woman question and the Victorian fallen woman. Today, this work is remembered as Barrett Browning’s crowning  achievement; it is hardly a wonder that Rose Standish Nichols collected the works of this champion for female empowerment.


[1] Marjorie Stone, ‘Browning , Elizabeth Barrett (1806–1861)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2008.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

By Victoria Johnson, Visitor Services and Research Associate.


Three Japanese Woodblock Prints

While there is very little blank space on Rose’s Mount Vernon Street bedroom walls, there are three Japanese woodblock prints that stand out. Two of the prints are by Andō Hiroshige (1797-1858). The first is entitled “Cherry Blossoms on the Bank of the Sumida River” and pictures the hundreds of cherry blossom trees on the Sumida River where many festivals are held. The second is “Scene of Yedo” which is believed to picture Edo (now modern Tokyo) and also celebrates the cherry blossoms, which only bloom for two weeks a year. The other print is by Utagawa Toyokuni (1769-1825) and is entitled “Mare Sankura Portrait” and features the 18th century Kabuki actor Mare Sankura.

Cherry Blossoms on the Bank of the Sumida River, 1840-1858, Andō Hiroshige. 

The three woodblock (nishiki-e) prints were made during the Edo period, which is characterized by peace and prosperity. There was a strict hierarchical class structure during this time. Samurais protected the emperor and Zen Buddhism and Confucianism emerged as powerful societal influences.[1] Japanese citizens became more intellectually engaged and the arts flourished. Making one woodblock print required work from many different people. Each print required a designer, engraver, printer, and publisher.[2] The prints are done in the ukiyo-e style, which translated from Japanese means “pictures of the floating world” and is a Buddhist concept that represents the transience of life.[3] Woodblock printing was popular because once the woodblock was engraved the prints could be mass-produced. It makes sense that this would be true since the ukiyo-e movement was characterized by its widespread appeal because it made portraits of the famous more accessible to many classes.[4]

Scenes of Yedo, 1840-1858, Andō Hiroshige.

Toyokuni was from Edo and helped to popularize the ukiyo-e style. He specialized in prints of theater actors and women, just like the one we see here in Rose’s room featuring a Kabuki actor. Here, a theater actor, Mare Sankura, bears two scabbards with two swords protruding from his kimono sash, or obi. 

Mare Sankura Portrait, late 19th century, Utagawa Toyokuni

Toyokuni’s vivid and dramatic work really represented the foundations of the style, as he was an earlier member of the movement.[5] In fact, Hiroshige wished to be his student but as not accepted into his school. Instead, Hiroshige, also born in Edo, worked with Utagawa Toyohiro who took his work in a different direction. Instead of bringing Japan’s beautiful women and actors to the masses, Hiroshige wanted to cover Japan’s beauty and show everyday life through landscapes.[6] Hiroshige reached a higher level of popularity than Toyokuni did and his works inspired the likes of Vincent Van Gogh and Claude Monet.[7] He represented the back half of the ukiyo-e movement, which met its demise with the modernization of Japan.[8]

Rose acquired these prints from a Japanese friend, R. Kita, in 1934 although the current display of the three prints dates to 1947. In Rose’s records only the two Hiroshige prints are specified and there is a third unnamed print. A previous museum caretaker at the Nichols House Museum, William Pear, did some investigation into the framing of these three prints and found that the framer, Carl E. Nelson, framed all three of these prints and was out of business by 1947. This is the year we have records of the current arrangement of the prints and so it is likely that the third unnamed print in Rose’s records is the Toyokuni print since all three prints were framed by Nelson.

Rose Standish Nichols’ bedroom, 1965.

While Rose’s set of Japanese wood block prints is limited to three, there are more prints to be seen in Boston this month. The MFA’s exhibition of ukiyo-e prints from the Edo Period entitled “Showdown! Kuniyoshi vs. Kunisada” has just opened.

By Olivia Reed, Summer 2017 Administrative Intern

[1] “The Edo Period in Japanese History.” Victoria and Albert Museum. 2016.

[2] Department of Asian Art. “Woodblock Prints in the Ukiyo-e Style.” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. October 2003.

[3] Department of Asian Art. “Art of the Pleasure Quarters and the Ukiyo-e Style.” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. October 2004.

[4] Department of Asian Art. “Art of the Pleasure Quarters…”

[5] “Utagawa Toyokuni.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Nov 01, 2007.

6] “Hiroshige.” Ronin Gallery. Accessed August 15, 2017.

[7] William H. Pear II, Museum Inventory Memo, Nichols House Museum.

[8] Department of Asian Art. “Art of the Pleasure Quarters…”

Reading with Rose, Romeo, and Rosalind

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

Shakespeare’s Sonnets

NPG 1; William Shakespeare attributed to John Taylor
William Shakespeare, associated with John Taylor. National Portrait Gallery, London. One of few portraits claimed to be painted from life.

Whether you’ve been to see Commonwealth Shakespeare’s production of Romeo & Juliet on the Common, or threw away your high school copy of that legendary tragedy, chances are you are familiar with the Bard. This month’s Reading with Rose blog post explores the Bard through his works in Rose Standish Nichols’ library: As You Like It, Hamlet, Macbeth, and Romeo & Juliet.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was the author of at least 38 plays and 150 poems. In the centuries following his death, he became one of–if not the–most revered writer in the English language. Shakespeare wrote As You Like It between 1599 and 1600; he followed up with Hamlet; Romeo & Juliet some four or five years prior. [1] Rose Nichols’ copies of these plays can be seen in the upper right corner of the bookshelf on the third floor landing, not far from Rose’s bedroom.

Front of postcard showing Shakespeare’s garden from Rose Standish Nichols’ postcard collection.
Back of postcard showing Shakespeare’s garden from Rose Standish Nichols’ postcard collection. The handwritten notes appear to describe the landscape design of the garden.

Although these works are grouped together on the third-floor landing, they are quite different thematically. As You Like It is a comedy featuring one of Shakespeare’s most enduring heroines, Rosalind, who wins the heart of her beloved while disguised in men’s clothes. Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play, ultimately about a son grieving the loss of his father. Romeo & Juliet, perhaps his most well-known play, presents the romantic tragedy of two star-crossed lovers whose families are bitter enemies. Of these three plays, only As You Like It was first published in the First Folio in 1623. Hamlet first appeared as a quarto in 1603; Romeo & Juliet as a quarto in 1597. Rose also owned a copy of Macbeth–about witchcraft, murder, and prophecies–inscribed 1887; it is stored in the museum’s archives as it is too fragile to sit on an open shelf. Along with As You Like It, Macbeth was first published in the First Folio. [2]


Detail from RSN’s copy of Macbeth. Handwritten notes.




Rose’s copies of these four plays are inscribed between 1887 and 1899. They were published in New York by Harper & Brothers Publishers in 1887, and edited by William J. Rolfe, a former headmaster of “the high school, Cambridge, Mass.” Given that Rose’s copies of these plays have handwritten notes in them, it is possible to conjecture that Rose studied these plays while in high school. Rose and her sisters attended Mrs. Shaw’s School, which, according to her sister Margaret Nichols Shurcliff, had the capacity to teach enrolled students at all levels: “the boys and girls who attended could be carried from the kindergarten age straight through to college.”[3]

Rose kept a diary from 1896 to 1922, now housed in Harvard’s Houghton Library. In one entry, the writer reminisces on seeing Hamlet performed in London. It is unclear whether Rose herself is the writer, or if it was a friend or relative; Rose transcribed family correspondence in her diary. Whether Rose or a friend, the writer fondly remembers seeing the play: “as I grow older the
greatness of Shakespeare looms higher and higher every word every line is so deep, so true […].”[4]

Ethel Barrymore by Burr McIntosh, 1901.

If you’ve visited the museum, you know that our matriarch Rose was a very studious and intellectual woman. We spend our time in the second-floor parlor discussing her numerous discussion-based activities, most of which were tea parties attended by some well-known local and international figures. This week, while researching Shurcliff family history (Rose’s youngest sister Margaret married Arthur Shurcliff in 1905), I came across a fortuitous nugget of information. In an oral history interview, Rose’s niece Elizabeth Lowell (Mrs. Francis Cabot Lowell) reminisces on some of “Aunt Rose’s” famous tea parties, including some famous guests. According to Elizabeth, actress Ethel Barrymore attended one of these parties. [5] An Academy Award nominee in 1944, Barrymore portrayed Juliet on stage in 1922; years before this production, Barrymore was offered a job by Ellen Terry, the leading Shakespearean actress of her time.[6]

Postcard of Shakespeare’s Garden from Rose Standish Nichols’ postcard collection.

Be it by school, personal preference, or coincidental celebrity, the connection between the Bard and one Miss Rose Standish Nichols is an unexpected pleasure.


[1] Folger Shakespeare Library. “Shakespeare’s Work’s.” Folger Shakespeare Library. n.d. Web. 6 August 2017.                                                                                                                           [2] Ibid.                                                                                                                                                 [3] Shurcliff, Margaret Homer. Lively Days: Some Memoirs of Margaret Homer Shurcliff. Literature House, Ltd., 1965.                                                                                              [4] Rose Standish Nichols Papers, 1877-1922 (MS Am 2656). Houghton Library, Harvard University.                                                                                                                                            [5] “Conversation with Mrs. Francis Cabot Lowell,” Nichols House Museum Archives.      [6] “Obituary: Ethel Barrymore is Dead at 79,” 19 June 1959, New York Times. and Michael R. Booth, ‘Terry, Dame Ellen Alice (1847–1928)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2011.

By Victoria Johnson, Visitor Services and Research Associate.



Collecting and Connecting: The Nichols Family Photo Albums



Bound in aging, embossed leather are three photograph albums owned by Elizabeth Fisher (Homer) Nichols, her husband Arthur Howard Nichols, and his uncle Charles Nichols.  Collectively they contain nearly 150 photographs, dating as far back as 1862, though it’s possible some are older.  These albums both preserve the Nichols’ families social connections and their participation in album-making, a craft that exploded in the U.S. and Europe with the commercialization of photography through the cartes-de-visite and cabinet cards.[i]

The majority of the photographs in the Nichols family’s albums are cartes-de-visite or cabinet cards. Cartes-de-visite, first patented in France by Adolphe Eugène Disdéri in 1854, were small photographs printed on paper and mounted on thick stock cards.  Generally small, a finished carte-de-visite was usually 2.5-by-4 inches.  Within 15 years, cartes-de-visite were replaced in popularity by cabinet cards, which were of similar construction but slightly larger (4.25-by-6.5 inches).  They were cheap to make and buy, easy to mail, and easy to collect.[ii]

Photograph of Mrs. R. H. Howes, taken at the studio of J. T. Silva in San Francisco, CA.  Hers is the 41st photograph in Charles Nichols’ photograph album.


With the popularization of cartes and cabinet cards came the advent of the photograph album.  Though albums were commonly used to collect, organize, and store letters and trinkets prior to the advent of photography, the standardization of photograph sizes and their widespread availability led to the manufacturing of albums specifically made to hold cartes and cabinet cards.  Photograph albums were usually leather-bound, embossed, with metal clasps and gold leaf on the pages.  Their structure mimicked those of Bibles since, in large part, they began to function in much the way that the family Bible once did: as a central record of a family’s history and social connections.[iii]


For the Nichols family, having their photographs taken was a part of the process of maintaining their place as members of Boston society.  Cartes and cabinet photographs were pointedly uniform in style and subject positioning.  They were almost always of one or two people, positioned at the center of the photograph and against a plain background, and turned slightly to the side.  This style was meant to imitate traditional portraiture, and it was important to the subjects of the photographs that they did; having one’s portrait taken was a way of signaling one’s financial and social success, as well as the quality of one’s intellect and character.[iv]

Many of the photographs in the three albums were taken at the studios of John Adams Whipple (pioneer of astronomical and night photography) on Winter Street, and George K. Warren, the inventor of the photo-illustrated year-book.[v]  Arthur Howard Nichols’ photo album is likely one of these early yearbooks.  The album holds 58 photographs of Harvard College students and professors, most of which were taken at George K. Warren’s Cambridgeport studio.  Those that are dated are all from 1862, the year he graduated.


John Adams Whipple’s studio on the corner of Temple and Washington Streets, Boston, MA.


Inscription written on the first page of Arthur Nichols’ photograph album.

“Album belonging to Arthur Howard Nichols (Grandfather of Sarah S. Ingelfinger and of her 5 sibling Shurcliffs) AHN graduated from Harvard College and from the Harvard Medical School.  He was the only surviving child (son) of John Perkins Nichols and Marian Clarke Nichols.  AHN (MD) married Elizabeth Fisher Homer.  They had 4 children! Rose Standish Nichols, Marian Clarke Nichols, Sidney Nichols (died at age 5) and Margaret Homer Nichols (married Arthur Shurcliff in 1905). “

Photographs were not simply a quick replacement for traditional portraits; rather, they helped friends and family stay connected in an era of rapid economic and technological change.  Improvements in technologies related to long-distance travel, especially the steam engine, stretched families across the globe and often made face-to-face contact impossible.  Photographs, however, could help bridge the gap.[vi]

A number of photographs in the Nichols family collection originate from far-flung locations.  Multiple photographs of Mrs. Caroline Davenport and Mrs. Mary Ann Estabrook, for example, were taken in William M. Shews’ studio in San Francisco, CA.  Another photograph, this one of Elizabeth Ridgeway, was taken in Munich, Germany.  One photograph, of a Mrs. Sissy R. Drake, was taken in Boston but is inscribed with a brief sketch of Mrs. Drake’s life, a story that takes her all the way to Bombay, India, as a missionary.



“Miꝭs Sissy R. Drake 31.  Received Nov 9th, 1875.  

Sailed Nov. 6th Sat. Steamer.  City of Berlin–[illegible] line for Liverpool

England on her to Bombay India–

Direct to the care of Rev. Charles Harding Bombay India–Via Brindisi–Faith mission

Home Stoughton Maꝭs. Deaconess at Dr. Chas. Cultis’ [illegible] Home at Grove Hall – Boston Mass.

Married to Rev. Osborn Nov. 22 1879 Bombay India”

The albums as whole objects likewise demonstrate this connectivity.  The album belonging to Charles Nichols, for example, was given to him as a gift by the Pleasant Street Church in New Bedford, N.H.  Charles Nichols, who himself had worked in several daguerreotype galleries, ultimately devoted his life to religious study and missionary work, though it is unclear what his precise connection to the Pleasant Street Church was.

Inscription on the second page of Charles Nichol’s photograph album.

“A Present to Chas. Nichols by the converts of the Pleasant St. Church New Bedford.  Jany 2, 1865.”

Eventually, the three albums were passed down to Margaret Homer Nichols, youngest daughter of Elizabeth and Arthur Nichols, and from her it went to one of her daughters, who ultimately gifted the albums to the Nichols House Museum.  The albums acted, for the family members who owned them, as physical proofs of their connections to friends and family, and still serve to preserve those social connections to this day.

[i]Patrizia Di Bello, Women’s Albums and Photography in Victorian England: Ladies, Mothers, and Flirts (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016): 29-35.

[ii]  Geoffrey Batchen, “Chapter 5: Dreams of ordinary life: Cartes-de-visite and the bourgeois imagination,” in Photography: Theoretical Shots, edited by J.J. Long, Andrea Noble, Edward Welch (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009): 80-85.

[iii] Risto Sarvas and David M. Frohlich, From Snapshots to Social Media – The Changing Picture of Domestic Photography (London: Springer Science & Business Media, 2011): 36-38

[iv] Batchen, “Dreams of ordinary life,” 81-82.

[v] “John Adams Whipple,” Smithsonian American Art Museum, accessed July 15, 2017,; “George K. Warren,” University of South Carolina, accessed July 15, 2017,

[vi] Sarvas and Frohlich, From Snapshots to Social Media, 40-42.


By Jasmine Bonanca, Intern at the Nichols House Museum.

Reading with Rose: Three Queens for BB

Bernard Berenson in 1887 courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London.

Bernard Berenson (1865-1959) was an art critic and historian whom some believe was the definitive art historian in America during the 20th century. Born in Lithuania, Berenson and his family moved to Boston in 1875. Bernard, or BB, as he was later called, attended many of this city’s most enduring schools: Boston Latin School, Boston University, and Harvard University. Upon his graduation, patrons such as Isabella Stewart Gardner supported his definitive Grand Tour of Europe. Berenson continued to travel throughout his life, learning and observing art on an international scale. Eventually, patrons solicited his opinion on Renaissance art in particular–his area of expertise. Today, Berenson is considered (by some) a controversial figure for his secret partnership with Joseph Duveen (1869-1939), an international art dealer. Upon his death, Berenson bequeathed his estate and works to Harvard University. (1)



Less renowned for her art collecting than her impressive activism, landscape architect and fellow world traveler Rose Standish Nichols became friends with the legendary art connoisseur. The two Bostonians shared an admiration for the Italian Renaissance in particular.

Raphael’s “Madonna of the Tower;” postcard from Rose Standish Nichols’ collection.

As a friend and an admirer of his work, Rose’s library at the Nichols House Museum contains no less than four books by the art historian: Lorenzo Lotto; An Essay in Constructive Art Criticism, The Venetian Painters of the Renaissance (1894), The Venetian Painters of the Renaissance (1897), and Echi E Riflessioni (Diario 1941-1944); the last of which Berenson personally inscribed to Rose.

Box 2 F17 2.jpg
Letter from Bernard Berenson  to Rose Standish Nichols, December 7, 1954.


Another friend of Rose’s provides us with a particularly humorous glimpse into Rose and Bernard’s friendship. In 1995, Polly Thayer Starr–whose portrait of Rose, you might recall, hangs in the Nichols House Museum library–gave an interview to Robert Brown for the Archives of American Art. Starr was the daughter of Rose’s friend Ethel Thayer. In 1927, Rose reluctantly agreed to sit as Starr’s subject, which she writes about here. With no shortage of anecdotes about Miss Rose Standish Nichols, Starr tells Brown one story about our matriarch which has become a favorite among the museum’s staff:

“There was one other story of Miss Nichols, that interested me because she had the Crown Princess of Greece come and stay with me. She was great friends with Bernard Berenson, the critic and writer, and one day she took a carriage out from Florence to see him, and the servant came to the door. She said she wanted to see Bernard Berenson, and the servant said she was very sorry, but Berenson was indisposed and couldn’t get up–wasn’t feeling well. “Well,” she said, “tell him I have three queens that have come to see him,” and wrote it on her card. The servant, quite impressed, took it up to Berenson, who looked out the window, and there he saw Queen Sophie of Greece, the Queen of Italy–Margarita, I believe her name was–and the Queen of Yugoslavia. So he said he’d be right down. [laughter] But she knew all the politicians, crowned heads and prime ministers that she could contact, and they were all amused by her. So when I went to Spain I went with her, and it was great fun.” (2)


IMG_0015 copy.jpg
Letter to Rose Nichols from Queen Sophie.

*A note about the queens: if the Queen of Italy Thayer is referring to is Queen Margarita (reigned 1878-1900), she would likely not have been Queen at the time of this story. The above photograph, part of the Nichols Family Photograph Collection, shows Queen [H]elena, daughter-in-law of Queen Margarita, wife of Victor Emmanuel III, with whom she reigned from 1900 and 1946. Queen Sophia of Greece served from 1913 to 1917, then again from 1920 to 1922. Queen Maria of Yugoslavia reigned from 1922 and 1934. The photograph of Queen Olga Constantinovna of Russia shows that Rose was fascinated by many queens!

(1) Margaret Moore Booker“Berenson, Bernard.” Grove Art OnlineOxford Art OnlineOxford University PressWeb18 Jul. 2017.

(2) Oral history interview with Polly Thayer, 1995 May 12-1996 February 1. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Come Home to Roost

Rose Standish Nichols published her third book, Italian Pleasure Gardens, in 1931. In preparation for this book, as well as at least twelve magazine articles that she wrote about Italian garden design and tradition, she took many trips abroad. Evidence of her travels through Italy can be found in letters, postcards, and dozens of objects in her collection of fine and decorative art. Her collection of Italian objects includes paintings, marquetry furniture, and even a reliquary. However, many of the objects that she collected from Italy are ceramic.

Postcard of Sorrento, Italy from Rose Standish Nichols’ postcard collection

Included in her collection of Italian pottery are three majolica busts, including a copy of Andrea della Robbia’s “Bust of a Boy.”

Tin-glazed pottery, or majolica has a uniquely opaque and glossy finish, which allowed artists to create a pure white ground for brightly colored patterns that would be dulled on the natural surface of clay.[1] Luca della Robbia (1399/1400-1482) [2] was one of the Italian ceramicists who is credited with popularizing majolica during the Renaissance in his home city of Florence. While the technique of created tin-glazed ceramics was known before his time, Luca della Robbia’s elevated enameled terracotta to a fine art material, as he was considered a “sculptor first, and a potter afterwards.”[3] Luca della Robbia instructed his nephew, Andrea della Robbia, in the techniques he used to create his signature brilliant white and blue glazes and the subsequent della Robbia family workshop operated for close to a century. [4] 

Andrea della Robbia, Bust of a Boy, ca. 1475. Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence.  Featured in the exhibition, “Della Robbia: Sculpting with Color in Renaissance Florence” organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, now on view at the National Gallery of Art.

In the mid to late-nineteenth century, a revival of Renaissance styles in architecture and decorative arts swept through America and Europe,[5] prompting ceramic studios to begin making majolica pottery once again, including Cantagalli.

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Cantagalli’s inscription seen on the majolica bust from Rose Standish Nichols’ collection.

Ulisse Cantagalli inherited a Florentine pottery studio from his father in 1878. Cantagalli took over his family’s business that had focused on functional earthenware, and began creating terracotta reproductions of Italian masterworks. These reproductions were moderately priced, making them more readily available.[6] Cantagalli’s maker’s mark is a gestural drawing of a rooster.[7] This inscription is found on Rose Standish Nichols’ copy of della Robbia’s majolica bust.

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1961.86 Majolica bust from Rose Standish Nichols’ collection.

In Rose Standish Nichols’ collection are two other majolica busts, possibly from Cantagalli’s workshop, including a reproduction of a Verrochio sculpture depicting Piero de Medici.

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1961.556 Majolica bust from Rose Standish Nichols’ collection.
Bust of Bust of Piero de’ Medici by Andrea Verrocchio, ca. 1488, Museo del Bargello.

As Rose Standish Nichols was collecting these reproduction ceramics, she was also becoming familiar with the originals. Della Robbia’s Bust of a Boy, as well as Verrochio’s likeness of Piero de Medici, are both part of the collection of the Museo Nazionale Bargello in Florence. In her 1931 book, Italian Pleasure Gardens, she describes works now found in the Bargello as they were displayed in their original location at the Palazzo Medici in Florence.

To the fondness for art of Piero, Cosimo’s son and successor, and to the encouragement of his wife, Lucrezia Tornabuoni, the palace owed many of the famous works of art contained there…Of Piero’s own careworn appearance, however, we can obtain a more accurate idea from his bust by Mino da Fiesole now in the Bargello.

In the days of Lorenzo the Magnificent, the palace was a museum, overflowing with the paintings and sculptures he had added to the previous collections. Verrochio’s little David, now in the Bargello, stood in the centre of the court, while the Boy with the Dolphin above a fountain-basin, now transferred to the Palazzo Vecchio, seems to have ornamented the garden at the rear, and Judith with the head of Holofernes also stood there.[8]  

Postcard of the Bargello from Rose Standish Nichols’ postcard collection

Rose Standish Nichols’ knowledge of Italian Renaissance artists and patrons clearly impacted her own collecting practice as well as her scholarship. The three majolica busts found on shelves and mantles throughout her home signify her interest in the influential collectors of the Renaissance and are reminiscent of her many travels through Italy.


[1]Solon, L. M. A History and Description of Italian Majolica. London: Cassell and, Limited, 1907. 76. Print.

[2]“Della Robbia.” Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. N.p., 08 May 2017. Web. 12 May 2017.

[3]Elliott, Charles Wyllys. “Italian Majolica.” The Art Journal (1875-1887) 3 (1877): 244. Web. 16 May 2017.

[4]”Della Robbia.” Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. N.p., 08 May 2017. Web. 12 May 2017. 

[5] Victoria and Albert Museum, “Style Guide: Classical and Renaissance Revival.” Victoria and Albert Museum. London, 31 Jan. 2013. Web. 12 May 2017.

[6] Solon, L. M. A History and Description of Italian Majolica. London: Cassell and, Limited, 1907. 53-54. Print.

[7] Cushion, J. P., and W. B. Honey. Handbook of Pottery and Porcelain Marks. London: Faber and Faber, 1980. 171. Print.

[8] Nichols, Rose Standish. Italian Pleasure Gardens. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1931. 67. Print.


By Emma Welty, Head of Collections and Education.