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.

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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.

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.

Reading with Rose: Defoe’s Crusoe

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.

Interior of Robinson Crusoe.
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.
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.

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.

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.


[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.
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]

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,

[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