Reading with Rose: Three Queens for BB

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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.

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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.

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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)

 

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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.

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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] 

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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.
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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]  

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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.

Reading with Rose: Defoe’s Crusoe

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The Wonderful Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.

We have a special treat to explore in this month’s Reading with Rose: Robinson Crusoe. Considered by some to be the first modern novel [1], Daniel Defoe’s isolation epic is a touchstone of childhood reading the world over. That was certainly the case in New England in 1809, as evidenced by this month’s special book from Rose’s library. This object is special not only for its physicality, but perhaps even more so for its home: the Nichols House Museum’s archives. This book, part of Rose’s collection left to the museum at our matriarch’s behest, is so precious that it must be housed in our archives in order to ensure its preservation.

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Interior of Robinson Crusoe.
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Child’s primer, 1806.

This edition of Robinson Crusoe looks very similar to children’s primary schoolbooks of the early nineteenth-century. We can compare this edition of Crusoe to one of those schoolbooks–called primers–thanks to their shared ownership. Both of these books belonged to Charles Nichols.

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Charles Nichols’ signature inside of his schoolbook.
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Charles Nichols’ signature inside of his edition of Robinson Crusoe.

Charles Nichols (1808-1885) was Rose’s great-uncle; Arthur Howard Nichols’ uncle. Both of these books are dated within the first few years of Charles’ life, lending to the probability that they were used to teach him literacy. Coincidentally, Robinson Crusoe could have done more than merely teach Charles to read.

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Charles Nichols, n.d.

After working as a painter and furniture maker, and in daguerreotype galleries, Charles gave up his work and devoted his life to the study of religion and became a missionary. While Robinson Crusoe is today remembered as an adventure story, Daniel Defoe imbued his classic with his own fervent religious sentiments–a fact which can be said about most of his works.

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Daniel Defoe, from a 1900 edition of Robinson Crusoe.

Daniel Defoe (1660?-1731) was not merely an expert at writing fictional adventures–he lived them, too. When Robinson Crusoe was first published in 1719, Defoe was fifty-nine. In the years between Defoe’s birth and the birth of his legendary literary figure, the author had been involved in numerous altercations with the law. Defoe was a known dissenter, which would have earned him a reputation even without his writing religious pamphlets arguing for religious freedom. He knew the dangers of writing such works, which were confirmed when the anonymous author of the pamphlets was caught. Defoe was arrested for seditious libel, put in the pillory and subsequently imprisoned for his writings. Upon his release, he was endlessly threatened with arrests, and eventually became a “master spy” for the government. Continuing his writing career, Defoe authored novels, conduct books, and geographical books; he also raised corn and bred cattle. Defoe’s final years were full of debts and debt-collectors. He died in 1731. [2]

While Charles Nichols did not spend decades marooned on an island, he did write down his inner most thoughts. Nichols kept a diary from 1861-1878; he wrote about his thoughts on the Civil War, his religious sentiments, and his daily activities. Today, this diary lives next to his schoolbook edition of Robinson Crusoe–which may have inspired many of his own adventures.

Notes

[1] Allen, Walter Ernest. Six Great Novelists. H. Hamilton, 1955.

[2] Paula R. Backscheider, ‘Defoe, Daniel (1660?–1731)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edition, Jan. 2008.

 

By Victoria Johnson

Visitor Services and Research Associate

 

Of Ivory Mice and Men

Tucked away in Rose Standish Nichols’ parlor is a tiny, impish presence that often goes unobserved. Here, an ivory netsuke depicting a seated male figure has made his home on the top shelf of Rose’s Hepplewhite secretary. This nineteenth century Japanese figurine is clad in a robe or kimono, holding an unidentifiable object over his shoulder. Flowers and leaves adorn his head and backside. His expressive face and the sinuous folds of his robe evidence the rich tradition of skilled craftsmanship and culture at play in the art of netsuke.

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Netsuke, 19th Century, Ivory, Nichols House Museum.

Netsuke became prolific in the late seventeenth century during Japan’s Edo period (1603-1867) when kimonos were universal dress for both men and women. Devoid of pockets, men carried items of daily use (such as writing instruments) in tobacco-pouches and pipecases called inro which hung from their kimono sashes, or obi, by a double silk cord.[1] At the opposite end of the cord, the netsuke firmly anchored the hanging inro in the kimono sash, much like a toggle or button. Evidencing this practice, two holes pierce the backside of the museum’s netsuke where the cord would have been threaded through. One might imagine a nineteenth century Japanese dandy accessorizing with this figurine.

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Netsuke, 19th Century, Ivory, Nichols House Museum.
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Nomura Chōkei, Case (Inrō) with Design of Grasshopper on Stalk of Flowering Lily, 18th-19th Century, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Netsuke are highly decorative, miniature works of art carved from wood, ivory, stag-antler, lacquer and other materials that suggested the wearer’s social status and level of wealth.[2] Netsuke take on a variety of forms, allowing wearers to accessorize according to season, occasion or mood. Themes of Japanese life and art are captured in the netsuke, such as nature, mythical beings, animals, the zodiac, theatrical masks and even the mundane. The Nichols House Museum’s netsuke exemplifies the personality they often possess; sometimes they are humorous or even erotic. Carvings of human figures fall into a category of netsuke called Katabori.[3]

Netsuke embodied craft, cultural tradition and self-expression. While we unfortunately don’t have any information on how Rose Standish Nichols came to acquire this object, netsuke collecting was prolific in the early twentieth century and was again popularized during the US Occupation of Japan during WWII. At the turn-of-the-century, Boston was home to two well-respected dealers of Asian art, Bunkio Matsuki and Yamanaka Sadajirō. Archived receipts tell us that Rose was a customer of Yamanaka’s shop on Boylston Street, where she purchased the four Chinese export panels that adorn the walls of her library. The Detroit collector Charles Freer declared Yamanaka one of the most experienced critics of Japanese art in this country.[4]

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Receipt from 1941 purchase of Chinese export panels.

Women collectors like Rose Standish Nichols played an important role in locating Asian art in its proper art historical context. During Rose’s lifetime, women’s cultural aspirations were often relegated to the decorative arts—the domestic interior—while men dominated the arena of “fine art.” Because Eurocentric taxonomies marginalized Asian art as decorative art, women had increased access to it. Recognizing this, “[b]oth Yamanaka and Matsuki made a point of forging close relationships with female clients by offering them a broad spectrum of goods, from miniature gardens made of coral, ivory and precious gems, to large Buddhist icons from China.”[5] At a time when the city’s cultural prowess was being eclipsed by New York, collecting Asian art was a way for Boston make its own cultural reach tangible.[6] While there is no concrete evidence that suggests Rose purchased this Netsuke from Yamanaka’s shop, it is certainly pleasing for us to imagine this transaction taking place there.

By WWII, netsuke were being collected as souvenirs by US soldiers stationed in Japan. In 1951, the Japan Travel Bureau issued a guide on netsuke, which records “valuable help given by Rear Admiral Benton W. Dekker, former commander of the US Fleet Activities at Yokosuka, Japan and a most devoted connoisseur of Netsuke.”[7] Ostensibly, US soldiers were delighted by the pocketsize charm of netsuke; outsiders who could not fully appreciate the rich cultural history that they embody, nor the stories these tiny objects carry with them.

Edmund de Waal (b. 1964) is a world-famous contemporary ceramicist who inherited a collection of 264 netsuke. In his family memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes, de Waal reconstructs the history behind his family’s netsuke collection, exposing the many secret lives of these objects. For example, in an effort to carve a netsuke of a deer, a nineteenth century carver named Tomokazu disappeared into the mountains for days to observe the behavior of these animals; it was not rare for two months to be spent making a single netsuke.[8]

Begun by a nineteenth century banking dynasty, de Waal’s netsuke collection was later hidden from the Nazis in Vienna. De Waal describes both the beauty and traumatic past of his netsuke, writing:

Netsuke are small and hard. They are hard to chip, hard to break: each one is made to be knocked around in the world…They hold themselves inward: a deer tucking its legs beneath its body; the barrel-maker crouching inside his half-finished barrel; the rats a tumble around the hazelnut. Or my favourite [sic], a monk asleep over his alms bowl; one continuous line of back. They can be painful: the end of an ivory bean-pod is sharp as a knife. I think of them [hidden] inside a mattress, a strange mattress where boxwood and ivory from Japan meet Austrian horsehair.[9]

De Waal’s story proves the lasting endurance of these tiny objects, which are still being carved by contemporary craftsmen today.

Reflecting on our museum’s netsuke, there is no telling whose hands it fell into prior to Rose’s, nor the many lives it may have lead before arriving at 55 Mount Vernon Street. One thing is for sure, however, as much as it may evince the past, this netsuke holds onto a bright future.

[1] Madeline Tollner, Netuske: The Life and Legend of Japan in Miniature, (San Francisco: Fearon Publishers, Inc., 1960): 64.

[2] Michael Dunn, “Netsuke: Delicate Treats for the Dandies of Edo,” The Japan Times, April 24, 2009, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2009/04/24/arts/netsuke-delicate-treats-for-the-dandies-of-edo/#.WOaacRLyuCR.

[3] Tollner, 81.

[4] Christine M.E. Guth, “Asia by Design: Women and the Collecting and Display of Oriental Art,” in Journeys East, Isabella Stewart Gardner and Asia, (Boston: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum): 55.

[5] Guth, 55.

[6] Guth, 53.

[7] Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes, (New York: Picador): 314.

[8] De Waal, 327.

[9] de Waal, 279.

By Laura Cunningham, Collections Associate

Reading with Rose: In the Valley of Wharton

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Edith Wharton. Courtesy The Mount.

On Wednesday, March  8th, 2017, the Nichols House Museum joined the world in celebrating International Women’s Day–a day devoted to celebrating women and affirming our intention to further their progress. This year,  the theme was “Be Bold for Change.” In honor of celebrating women’s history, this month’s book blog will take a look at Rose Nichols’ Edith Wharton collection, which consists of three novels and one non-fiction work.

Edith Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones in New York in 1862. As a child, she traveled Europe with her parents and two brothers, which cultivated a lifelong passion for literature, architecture, and art. In 1885, at the ‘old’ age of 23, she married Edward Robbins Wharton, thirteen years her senior. Their unconventional marriage ended in divorce in 1913. Her experience during this time led to her therapist suggesting that she focus on fiction writing as a way to cope with stress. In 1902, Wharton and her husband settled in Lenox, Massachusetts. Today, their estate, known as The Mount, is open to visitors.[1]

Today, Edith Wharton’s is remembered as the first woman to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and as the quintessential author of American high society. [2] What is less well-known is that Wharton’s first love was not fiction, but architecture. Her first novel explored a theme my regular readers might recognize: Italian villas.

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Cover of Edith Wharton’s Italian Villas and Their Gardens.

Italian Villas and Their Gardens was first published in 1897. Rose’s 1904 edition features illustrations by Maxfield Parrish, a renowned American illustrator. The illustrations (examples below) featured in this book make up for the fact that the other three Wharton novels in Rose’s library do not include illustrations.

The three novels in Rose’s library are eclectic. The Valley of Decision (1902) pays homage to her fascination with eighteenth-century Italy. Next to this novel in Rose’s library is Hudson River Bracketed (1929), a lesser-known novel featuring protagonist Vance Weston, a writer, and his lover, Halo Spear. Critics believe this novel divulges Wharton’s own personal and professional experiences. [3] The third Wharton novel in Rose’s library is notable as one of Wharton’s most popular and enduring works. Ethan Frome (1911) features the longing and desire explored in many of Wharton’s novels, as well as a Massachusetts setting—forging another connection between Wharton and our matriarch Rose Standish Nichols.

 

Notes

[1] The Mount. Edith Wharton: A Biography. http://www.edithwharton.org/discover/edith-wharton/

[2] Dwight, Eleanor. Edith Wharton: An Extraordinary Life. Abrams, 1994.

[3] Ibid.

By Victoria Johnson. Visitor Services and Research Associate.

 

 

 

 

Roses of Remembrance: Celebrating John Keats

John Keats, by Joseph Severn, 1819 - NPG 1605 - © National Portrait Gallery, London
John Keats by Joseph Severn. Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London.

The month of February brings with it not only Valentine’s Day, but also the anniversary of the death of one of the most beloved and celebrated poets of Romanticism: John Keats. In honor of this, we will take a look at Keats’ life through one of the books in Rose’s personal collection, titled, “Roses of Romance: from the poems of John Keats.”

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The cover of Roses of Romance.

John Keats was born in October 1795 in London, England; he became the eldest of five children to Thomas and Franny Keats. From an early age, Keats appreciated literature, but he studied and earned a license in medicine in July of 1816, the month after his first published poem appeared in Examiner’s magazine. Keats befriended many of his literary idols before and during the six years he took up writing as his livelihood. While Keats’ poetry was ill-received during his lifetime; his fame and celebrated status arose during the Victorian era, thanks to the praises of such figures as Alfred, Lord Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites. [1]

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Illustration featured in Roses of Romance.

In 1820, Keats began to suffer episodes of blood-spitting and heart palpitations, knowing that he likely had the same tuberculosis that killed his mother, brother, and uncle, his doctor ordered him to Italy. An ill Keats left England on October 2, 1820, arrived in Naples on October 21st, and reached his final destination of Rome on November 15, 1820. Keats succumbed to his illness on February 23, 1821. He is buried at the protestant cemetery in Rome. [2]

Roses of Romance was published by Roberts Brothers in Boston in 1891. This edition of Keats poems features poems “selected and illustrated by” Edmund Henry Garrett. Garrett was a prolific illustrator of famous poems, novels, stories, and song books, creating bookplates and illustrations for works by major authors. [3]

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Illustration from Roses of Romance.

Garrett was also an artist, and his work can be seen in local institutions such as the Boston Public Library, the Winchester Public Library, and the Massachusetts State House. Thus, this book in Rose’s collection contains the work of two notable artists.

Roses of Romance features four of Keats’ most notable narrative poems, written between 1817 and 1819. La Belle Dame Sans Merci‘ is the shortest of the four poems featured in this book. ‘Lamia,’ ‘The Eve of St. Agnes,’ and ‘Isabella‘ are of a length more typical of narrative poetry. All four feature Keats’ distinct poetic style.

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Roma- Piazza di Spagna. Postcard from Rose Standish Nichols’ collection. 
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“Rome. March 7th. It was good of you to write me when you were so ill.”

As we explored in last month’s blog, Rose traveled to Italy rather frequently gathering research for her own gardens and book. These postcards above are from Rose’s astounding postcard collection. They show the Piazza di Spagna, where Keats lodged during his short stay in Italy, and a temple in Rome, the city where Keats was laid to rest. [4]

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Excerpt of a stanza from ‘Isabella; or, the Pot of Basil.’

Notes

[1] “Keats, John (1795–1821),” Kelvin Everest in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, eee ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: OUP, 2004); online ed., ed. David Cannadine, May 2006.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Edmund Henry Garrett.” In Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1936. Biography in Context.

[4] “Keats, John (1795–1821),” Kelvin Everest in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, eee ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: OUP, 2004); online ed., ed. David Cannadine, May 2006.

 

By Victoria Johnson, Visitor Services and Research Associate.

 

 

“Lady in Rose Colored Robe”

In celebration of the Chinese New Year, we are exploring a set of four Chinese export paintings which adorn the walls of Rose Standish Nichols’ library. Often asked about by visitors, these eglomisé panels are popular objects in the Nichols House Museum. Eglomisé is a French term for the decorative technique of reverse painting on glass. These early nineteenth paintings are remnants of the Ch’ien-lung period (Ch’ing Dynasty, 1644-1912) produced for western export trade.

Direct trade between Europe and China began in 1517 when Manuel I of Portugal dispatched an embassy to Peking.[1] Commercial interests in China spread throughout Europe and by the nineteenth century, America had surpassed Europe in trade.[2] A cross-pollination of art and ideas across continents occurred and as a result, Asian export art became popularized.

Much of the art being produced in China at this time was intended for export. Chinese artists and makers anticipated the aesthetic values of European and American consumers. Both the anglicized faces of the women in these paintings and the eglomisé technique evidence this approach to selling Asian art on a western buyer’s market. This was, in essence, art for the foreigner:“Meeting the enthusiastic demand for colorful paintings, numerous studios were set up in Canton where foreign trade flourished and businessmen and merchants from around the world converged.”[3]

The luxurious dress and flirtatious smiles of these women would have been considered highly suggestive when the paintings were first created. Physical allure has been a central focus in depicting women in art across all cultures. In China, the visual culture of the region produced varying images of women in accordance with the fashions, aesthetics and concepts of beauty.[4]

Rose Standish Nichols purchased these paintings in 1941 from Yamanaka and Company Inc., a Japanese firm located at 424 Boylston Street, Boston. These paintings ranged in price from $17.50 to $35.00 at the time of their purchase.

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Receipt from 1941 purchase of eglomisé painting

 

Although she was extremely well-traveled, Rose never visited any Asian countries. Even still, her appreciation for Asian culture is evident throughout the Nichols House. Chinese export porcelain was incredibly prolific during the 18th and 19th centuries and the museum houses some beautiful pieces. The porcelain “slop” bowl shown here (ca. 1780-1800) is an excellent example of Chinese export porcelain in the Nichols House collection.

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Chinese export porcelain slop bowl, ca. 1780-1800

A slop bowl was a component of the traditional tea set. Early uses included emptying undrunk cold tea into the slop bowl before refilling the cup with fresh, hot tea. This slop bowl depicts a European scene of three children fishing against a background of trees and a parish church. Like the eglomisé paintings, the imagery demonstrates how Chinese artists were assimilating western culture in their work.

Rose’s postcard collection also reveals her interests in Chinese culture.

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Rose’s collection of over 1200 postcards speaks to her love of travel and curious personality. Born in 1872 under the Year of the Monkey, Rose is characterized as curious, quick-witted and intelligent. Happy Chinese New Year from the Nichols House Museum, Year of the Rooster!

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Nichols House Museum library, ca. 1940-1960.

[1] Palmer, Arlene M. 1976. A Winterthur guide to Chinese export porcelain. n.p.: New York : Crown, 1976: 10.

[2] Ibid, 11.

[3] Till, Barry and Paula Swart. “Art for the Foreigner: 19th Century Chinese Export Paintings from the Collection of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.” Arts Of Asia 45, no. 4 (n.d.):, 111.

[4] “Court Ladies or Pin-Up Girls?” Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. March 09, 2015. Accessed February 02, 2017. http://www.mfa.org/exhibitions/court-ladies-or-pin-up-girls.

By Laura Cunningham, Collections Inventory Associate