A Matter of Time

Simon Willard was the most successful in a long line of Willard clockmakers who became renowned craftsmen of New England. Their pieces were found in many a Boston home, including the Nichols’ house. Arthur wrote in his diaries about the “Willard clocks of authentic make” that the family owned. These included three improved timepieces, a tall case clock, and a shelf clock [1]. One improved timepiece that the Nichols family owned now hangs in the Library. The clock itself has a mahogany base with eglomise glass panels along the front of the neck and case. Painted on the case panel is a young woman in a countryside setting.

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Mahogany wall clock, American, 19th century.

In 1802, a patent was granted to Simon Willard for his improved timepiece, or banjo clock, as it came to be known due to its shape. The patent, written by Willard himself, is notably vague in its terms, as compared to the usual rigid detailing found in patents [2]. Willard writes that the size of the clock is usually around 2 feet tall but this can vary, the clock is powered by weight instead of spring, that the pendulum falls in front of the weights for easy access, and that the case would be made of thick glass [3]. Because these terms were so broad, any attempt to replicate would fall under the patent, and as a result, so many banjo clocks that remain have a patent reference somewhere on their glass. Simon’s family, apprentices, and friends carried on producing his patented banjo clock with success. Arthur included this clock in his list of authentic Willard clocks the family owned [4]. Due to its detailed painting, it is possible that this clock was made by Aaron Willard, Simon’s brother, as his clocks often were painted and gilded ornately [5].

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Portrait of Simon Willard, courtesy of the Willard House and Clock Museum.

The banjo clock on display at the Nichols House Museum possesses the most common patent reference, with a simple “Patent” painted onto the neck of the clock. There were many variations of the patent references, and they often varied in placement as well. Some were adorned with “S. Willard’s Patent,” or “Willard’s Patent,” while some went as far as “S. Willard’s Patent E Pluribus Unum.” The longer patent references would have been displayed on the bottom glass, though a shorter reference on the throat was most common [6].

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Detail from mahogany wall clock, American, 19th century.

Like many surviving Willard School banjo clocks, the Nichols’ clock has a replacement finial [7]. At some point, the original finial was replaced with a federal style brass ball. The timepiece also has brass bracket ornamentation alongside the neck. Brass is similarly present in the clock’s face. Though obviously still present, brass was used less frequently in improved timepieces, making them slightly more affordable than many clocks of a similar size, like shelf clocks.

The Willard Patent Timepiece was an immediate success. The clocks appealed to people because of their compact size, their low price when compared to tall case clocks and shelf clocks, their simple handling, and their sturdiness, as these clocks would be attached to the wall while other clocks were freestanding and easily broken [8]. Unlike many clockmaking innovations, no one was ever able to make any improvements to Willard’s design [9]. On top of its practical improvements, the banjo clock was one of the first innovations to establish American clockmaking as an independent entity from European clockmaking [10].

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Detail from mahogany wall clock, American, 19th century.

This piece would have appealed to the Nichols family due to their interest in collecting fine art and antiques from the American federal period. It still hangs where Rose placed it in the library, and it is a highlight of the Nichols House Museum collection.

By Kara Wasilauski, Fall 2017 Collections Intern

[1] Nichols House Museum records. 

[2] Willard, John Ware. Simon Willard and His Clocks, Mineola: Dover Publications: 2004. 14.

[3] Willard, John Ware. Simon Willard and His Clocks, Mineola: Dover Publications: 2004. 14.

[4] Nichols House Museum records. 

[5] “A Banjo Clock.” National Museum of American History, http://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_1203266.

[6] Perlman, Richard. “An Early Willard School Improved Timepiece win an Unusual “Patent” Glass.” NAWCC Clock and Watch Bulletin, September/October 2014. 521.

[7] Perlman, Richard. “An Early Willard School Improved Timepiece win an Unusual “Patent” Glass.” NAWCC Clock and Watch Bulletin, September/October 2014. 521.

[8] Willard, John Ware. Simon Willard and His Clocks, Mineola: Dover Publications: 2004.13.

[9] Willard, John Ware. Simon Willard and His Clocks, Mineola: Dover Publications: 2004.13.

[10] “A Banjo Clock.” National Museum of American History, http://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_1203266.

 

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Reading with Rose: Tea Time

If you’ve ever visited the Nichols House Museum, you will already know that Rose Standish Nichols was an avid tea drinker. This is not only reflected in the museum’s physical collection but in its history. For years, Rose hosted salon-style tea parties, attended by a carefully cultivated group of influential society members with a connection to the host herself or the topic of the day. For our December blog post, we will examine the relationship between tea and our matriarch, Rose.

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Cover. The Book of Tea (1906).

The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo was published in 1906. Kakuzo was an influential art critic who eventually became curator of the Oriental art department at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Born in Yokohama in 1863, he attended Tokyo Imperial University, where he met a fellow art critic who strove to defend traditional Japanese art against westernization. Kakuzo became an outspoken defender of the traditional Japanese art forms, co-founding and later becoming head of Tokyo Fine Arts School. He later founded the Japan Academy of Fine Arts. It was toward the turn of the century that he came to the Boston MFA, where he continued to assert the importance of traditional Oriental art. His books, including The Book of Tea, were published in English so that even Westerners would be able to understand his ideas and opinions on Oriental art. Kakuzo died in Japan in 1913. [1]

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Front. Postcard from RSN collection.
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Back. Postcard from RSN collection.

In Kakuzo’s book he mentions tea in connection with three major Chinese dynasties: Tang (618-906), Sung (960-1279), and Ming (1368-1644). Tea became the “undisputed national drink of China” under the Tang Dynasty; began to be “powdered and whisked” under the Sung Dynasty; and began to be sipped from porcelain instead of wooden bowls under the Ming Dynasty [2].Rose Nichols’ extensive postcard collection features several images attributed to these dynasties.

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Postcard from RSN collection.

 

In addition to The Book of Tea, Rose also collected many books that could have easily been featured in her reading club. Her salon-style discussion were known to push the boundaries of what some might consider traditional tea-time talk. As Rose was keen on world peace, many of the books she collected reflect her interests in global affairs. It’s quite possible she used these books to draw attention to events and governments her guests were unaware of. An extensive traveler, Rose collected such broad topics as covered in books like the ones you see below, including George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1946) and Olive Schreiner’s Woman and Labor (1911).

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Some books from Rose Standish Nichols’ library collection. Featured here in the parlor where she held weekly discussions.

The relationship between Rose Standish Nichols and tea has continued to influence the museum. Our interpretation of this independent, accomplished woman’s house would be incomplete without calling attention to how and why Rose hosted lively discussions over tea in the parlor of her home for decades. If you have yet to visit the museum, come by before February 3rd, 2018 to see our pop-up exhibit, Peace and Prosperity: Rose Standish Nichols and Tea, which includes special items that showcase the relationship we’ve examined here today.

Notes

[1] Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Okakura Kakuzo.” 16 March, 2016.  Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.

[2] Moxham, Roy. Tea: Addiction, Exploitation, and Empire. Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003.

By Victoria Johnson, Visitor Services and Research Associate

 

 

 

 

A Tale of Two Sideboards

‘Tis the holiday season and at the Nichols House Museum we have visions of more than just sugar plums. The museum is now decorated for the holidays and we invite you to visit 55 Mount Vernon Street to both experience and imagine Christmastime in the City over 100 years ago.

In the late nineteenth century, the house would have been decorated with bows of evergreen and other festoons during the month of December. This fell under the purview of Elizabeth Nichols, the family’s matriarch, who choreographed the holiday decorating. In 1881, London based Cassell’s Family Magazine instructed the lady of the house: “To bring about a general feeling of enjoyment, much depends on the surroundings… It is worth while [sic] to bestow some little trouble on the decoration of the rooms.” [1]

The dining room in particular was a space for merry-making and festivities centered on food and drink. This month’s Object Spotlight features two pieces of furniture that operated as a backdrop for dining culture during this historical era. The dining room at 55 Mount Vernon is home to two sideboards which face one another on opposite sides of the room, making them ripe for comparison.

The American Empire style sideboard shown below dates to 1830-1845. It has cherry case and a tiger maple top that is backed by a curved gallery and upper shelf, also in cherry, allowing for the display of silver, glass, ceramics and other costly wears (now, Rose Nichols’ Irish silver teapot and English lusterwear teapot along with a pair of glass lamps). Two drawers with pressed glass knobs sit atop two cabinets, all made from a striking bird’s eye maple. The cabinets are flanked by two rounded columns, in tiger maple, which culminate in molded capitals and plinths. The block and ogee feet feature subtle leaf carving and the brass work is limited to small escutcheons around the cabinet keyholes. All in all, the contrasting woods at play make this sideboard an impressive piece and a visitor favorite.

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Cherry and maple sideboard, American, 1830-1845.

In the decades following the birth of the new nation, surging populations and increased American territory created widespread, lucrative markets for craftsmen. [2] With democracy came a renewed interest in ancient Greece and Rome which was compounded by the archaeological excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum in the previous century. Classicism dominated all aspects of American society including the furnishings of the period. The Empire style, termed after the First French Empire and characterized by monumental scale and architectonic motifs, is a later manifestation of the neoclassical revival. These key features can be observed in the Empire sideboard along with other objects on display in the Nichols House Museum, including the Isaac, Vose & Co. fall front desk (secrétaire à abbatant).

The sideboard is noticeably missing from both Arthur Nichols and Elizabeth Nichols’ individual inventories of the house suggesting that it was acquired by Rose, likely after her inheritance of 55 Mount Vernon, although there are no surviving records relating to Rose’s purchase of it either. However, the sideboard did occupy its current location prior to Rose Nichols’ death in 1960.

If the neoclassical taste of the early nineteenth century represented cool-headed rational thought, then the dramatic ornamentation of the late nineteenth century represented an excitement that could not be contained. Overlapping revival styles typified the century, including the Renaissance Revival which played a prominent role from the 1850s to 1880s. The second sideboard this essay will discuss dates to the late nineteenth century and blends elements of the Renaissance Revival with the Rococo Revival of the 1840s-60s. [3]

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Walnut sideboard, American, late 19th century.

The period of economic prosperity and industrial growth that followed the Civil War gave rise to a thriving upper middle class to which the Nichols family belonged. In his 1992 book, Death in the Dining Room, scholar Ken Ames defends the fashions of the late Victorian culture, which are often dismissed upon first glance as being heavy-handed in their approach and explains the significant role sideboards played in dining culture of the period. Ames writes,

These sideboards represented a highly visible cultural phenomenon around the middle years of the nineteenth century…While they induce in us a certain degree of awe, we tend to see them as alien, foreign, decidedly odd. On one level they are fascinating; on another, slightly repulsive. Today it is difficult for us to believe that normal, well-socialized people in Victorian America voluntarily put these boldly expressive objects in their dining room and ate daily in their presence (67).

This sideboard is made of walnut (a popular wood used in Renaissance Revival furniture) and features a dramatic grapevine crestrail with Bacchus at the center. Its serpentine shelving is supported by twisted, carved columns and features a mirrored back panel. As with the Empire sideboard, two drawers sit atop two cabinet doors yet the undulating, serpentine lower case is in stark contrast with clean lines of its earlier counterpart. Grapevine and rosette carved knobs feature prominently on the lower case.

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Walnut sideboard, American, late 19th century.

It’s interesting to observe that this rather ostentatious sideboard was contemporary to the modern modes of science, technology and education that were taking shape in the late nineteenth century; Arthur Nichols himself was a physician, a man of science, and a public health advocate. The end of the nineteenth century opened a door for a more secular society and yet the furnishings of the period often still had one foot rooted in myth.

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Detail from walnut sideboard.

The opportunity for displays of highly civilized behavior that dining provided would appear to be in direct conflict with the chaotic, bacchanalian and pagan iconography seen in this sideboard. Instead, the classical underpinnings reinforced claims of a civilized society all while providing a theatrical backdrop for the nineteenth century rituals of dining which were glorified in holiday festivities.

Ken Ames suggests a link between sideboards and holiday dining writing, “…the similarities and differences between sideboards and the holiday are illuminating. Both were products of a value system that pervaded the West in the nineteenth century” (88). Ames posits that the same nationalism that is observed in design motifs of the nineteenth century also allowed holidays such as Thanksgiving to become a codified part of American society. [4] Further, the food and drink iconography seen in sideboards of the mid-to-late nineteenth century made these pieces of furniture especially relevant to holiday festivities such as Christmas dinner.  

To those of us at the Nichols House Museum, these sideboards evidence the evolution of objects over time. The flamboyant ornamentation of the 1890s sideboard is a wild departure from the clean lines and sensical proportions of its counterpart made just 60 years earlier in the Empire style. Notes titled “Evolution of Furniture” from Rose Nichols’ manuscript collection at Historic New England reveal that she was keenly interested in this:

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Courtesy of Historic New England.

The title of this essay is a play on A Tale of Two Cities which was published in 1859 by Charles Dickens. Both Dickens and Rose Standish Nichols were regular visitors to the Omni Parker House where Dickens even took up residence for five months (1867-1868). Dickens first recited A Christmas Carol for The Saturday Club at the Parker House. Rose Nichols’ library does not include any works by Dickens but a Dickensian spirit is certainly alive in the Nichols House Museum’s dining room this time of year. The Nichols House Museum wishes you the Happiest of Holidays and we hope you’ll visit the museum soon.

By Laura Cunningham, Programs and Collections Coordinator


[1] “Victorian Christmas – History of Christmas.” BBC, 2014. http://www.bbc.co.uk/victorianchristmas/history.shtml.

[2] Gerald W. R. Ward, Nonie Gadsden, and Kelly H. L’Ecuyer, MFA highlights: American decorative arts & sculpture (Boston: MFA Publications, 2006), 56.

[3] The rococo revival is epitomized in this exquisite example in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston collection which is referenced in Ames’ book. According to Ken Ames, this MFA Houston sideboard has more carving per square inch than any other mid-nineteenth-century sideboard in the public domain and features a synopsis of all of the major iconography of Victorian dining culture.

[4] Kenneth L. Ames, Death in the Dining Room and Other Tales of Victorian Culture (Philadelphia PA: Temple University Press, 1995), 92.

 

Reading with Rose: Second Star to the Right

 

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“The child’s map of Kensington Gardens,” from The Little White Bird, or Adventures in Kensington Gardens, 1920.

This November marks the 115th anniversary of the publication of J.M. Barrie’s The Little White Bird. Less known today than the idea it gave birth to, this novel was the world’s introduction to one of the most popular literary and cultural figures to date: Peter Pan. This month we will take a look at three books by Sir James Matthew Barrie held by Rose Standish Nichols in her library collection.

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Sir James Matthew Barrie, 1892.

James Matthew Barrie was born May 9, 1860 in Kirriemuir, Scotland. The ninth child of David and Margaret, Barrie’s academic aptitude was identified and nurtured early in his life. He began his academic career in 1868 as his brother Alexander’s pupil at Glasgow Academy. Throughout the next several years, Barrie continued to follow his brother to various schools, including Dumfries Academy, where he composed his first play for the drama society. In 1878 Barrie enrolled at Edinburgh University, where he received his MA in 1882. With his education complete, Barrie began work almost immediately as a journalist. His literary career coincided with his journalistic one–he wrote six novels while contributing to fifteen journals. [1]

Rose Standish Nichols owned three of Barrie’s works:  two story-collections, When a Man’s Single (1888) and Auld Licht Idylls (1888), and the novel The Little White Bird, or Adventures in Kensington Gardens (1902;1920). The former are widely regarded as autobiographical fictions, while the latter is mainly remembered as the work that introduced the world to the boy who wouldn’t grow up. The Peter Pan in The Little White Bird only slightly resembles the one we have come to know through various film and stage adaptations, but his life began here.

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Title page.

Rose’s copy of The Little White Bird, or Adventures in Kensington Gardens was published in 1920 by Charles Scribner’s Sons, the owners of Scribner’s Magazine in which the tale first appeared in America. This version of Peter Pan’s story was revised to include the earlier tales from both The Little White Bird and Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, a children’s book published in 1906 that expanded the mythology of Peter. Her copy of When a Man’s Single dates to 1890; Auld Licht Idylls to 1891. Rose would have been twenty years old and already traveling through the United Kingdom.

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Inscription from Rose Standish Nichols’ copy of Auld Licht Idylls. 

Barrie’s works gained widespread attention and admiration during the 1890’s, when many of his plays were put on. He continued to write (mostly plays) throughout his life, but it was undoubtedly Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up that became his most endearing and successful work. In 1913 King George V made Barrie a Baronet, and in 1922 Barrie was awarded the Order of Merit. Barrie’s plays continued to be produced on stage–to varying degrees of success– until his death in 1937. He is buried alongside his family in Kirriemuir. [2]

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J.M. Barrie’s London residence, near Kensington Gardens, is marked as a member of London’s Blue Plaque Heritage landmarks.       [Victoria Johnson, 2014.]
Notes

[1] R. D. S. Jack, ‘Barrie, Sir James Matthew, baronet (1860–1937)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Sept 2014.

[2] Ibid.

By Victoria Johnson, Visitor Services and Research Associate

 

 

 

 

Reading with Rose: The Delusion in Salem

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“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).

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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]

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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]

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“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.

Notes

[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”

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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.

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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.

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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]

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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]

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Florence. Postcard from Rose Nichols Postcard Collection.
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“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]

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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.


Notes

[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.

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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]

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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. 

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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.

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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. http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/t/the-edo-period-in-japanese-history/.

[2] Department of Asian Art. “Woodblock Prints in the Ukiyo-e Style.” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. October 2003. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/ukiy/hd_ukiy.htm.

[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. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/plea/hd_plea.htm.

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

[5] “Utagawa Toyokuni.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Nov 01, 2007. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Utagawa-Toyokuni.

6] “Hiroshige.” Ronin Gallery. Accessed August 15, 2017. http://www.roningallery.com/artists/hiroshige?p=2.

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

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