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.

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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.

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

The Original Yellow Drawing Pencil

One of the most asked about objects in the Nichols House Museum’s collection is a small blue box filled with yellow pencils. While it sounds like a simple set of objects, these pencils have been puzzling visitors and guides alike for years. It is the size of these small pencils that make them so unique. At one and a half inches each, these pencils would simply be too small to comfortably hold and write with. Each wooden pencil has a brass screw fitting on the back, making it clear that these small pencils were designed to attach into a larger drawing tool. The box originally held twelve pencils (or as the box reads “1 douz.”) but only nine remain.

The brand on the pencil box is L&C Hardtmuth Koh-I-Noor. L&C Hardtmuth is a pencil manufacturer that was founded at the turn of the nineteenth century in Vienna. At the end of the century the company adopted the name Koh-I-Noor [1] after a famous diamond discovered in India that is now part of the crown jewels of the United Kingdom [2]. Koh-I-Noor is credited with designing the “original yellow drawing pencil” and appealed to artists with a range of seventeen grades of graphite. [3]

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Queen Elizabeth at her coronation, 1953. The Koh-I-Noor diamond is at the base of her crown. National Media Museum, United Kingdom

To find out more about these tiny pencils we reached out to Caroline Weaver, a self-described “lifelong pencil lover” and founder of CW Pencil Enterprise. She informed us that these pencils were a refill for pencil holders that were fashionable in the early 1900s. Usually made of sterling silver or brass, these pencil holders would often have a small ring attached to them so that they could be carried on a chain.

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Brass pencil holder, L&C Hardtmuth, late 19th century, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Knowing where these pencils were from and what they were designed for, the question is which member of the Nichols family may have carried the fashionable little accessory that held them. With no such pencil holder in the collection, we are relying on photos and letters in the archives to tell the rest of the story.

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Elizabeth Nichols possibly wearing a chatelaine

A photo in the Nichols family’s collection shows Elizabeth Nichols standing in the garden in their New Hampshire summer home, wearing a rope belt around her waist that appears to have a silver object hanging from a chain. Chatelaines, decorative chains that were attached to a woman’s belt and held objects such as sewing scissors, button hooks, smelling salts and pencils, were a women’s accessory in the mid to late nineteenth century [4].

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Cut steel chatelaine, English, nineteenth century, Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Chatelaines became popular as a result of the lack of pockets in Victorian fashion [5]. While they had largely fallen out of fashion by the time the Koh-I-Noor pencils were manufactured, the photo of Elizabeth wearing a chain from her belt most likely dates from the early 20th century, after these pencils were available.

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Postcards from Rose Nichols’ collection showing women wearing chatelaines

There are also a few references to pencils in the family letters.

“Having spent about all the time I have to write to you in looking for a pen I am afraid you will have to content yourself with pencil.”–March 14, 1898, Margaret to Rose

“Papa is fixing the soles of my feet and that is why I have to write in pencil.” –February 2, 1902, Margaret to Marian

“I left my pencil watch key in the upper, left hand waistcoat pocket, the same garment in which you found the bank-notes. Please bring it to me, and you may possibly find also a lead pencil.” –November 30, 1902, Arthur to Elizabeth

While Margaret’s letters suggest that pencils are not her favorite writing instrument (even if her reasoning is a bit strange), Arthur seems to prefer using a pencil. His “pencil watch key” was most likely a small pencil holder attached to the chain of his pocket watch, that is seen in an image of Arthur from the photo collection.

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Arthur Nichols wearing a chain that most likely held his “pencil watch key”

His interest in pencils is also documented by on another object in the collection. A little red pencil sharpened on both ends is labeled with a tag in Arthur’s handwriting that reads,“Bought at the manufactory / Nürnberg / Anno, 1868. / Used 1885-1891. / A. H. N.”

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1961.819

Arthur visited the Faber manufacturer in 1868, while he was studying medicine in Vienna. His detailed record of this little red pencil that was in his possession for over fifty years, along with his use of a “pencil watch key” suggests that he was the “lifelong pencil lover” of the family and the likely owner of our small box of yellow Koh-I-Noor pencils.

 

[1]“History.” Koh-I-Noor Hardtmuth. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Aug. 2016.

[2] Tarshis, Dena K. “THE KOH-I-NOOR DIAMOND AND ITS GLASS REPLICA AT THE CRYSTAL PALACE EXHIBITION.” Journal of Glass Studies 42 (2000): 133-43. Web.

[3]”Back Matter.” Art Education 6.5 (1953): 40. Web.

[4] “Chatelaine.” The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art Terms. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 20 Aug. 2016.

[5] Matthews, Christopher Todd. “Form and Deformity: The Trouble with Victorian Pockets.” Victorian Studies 52.4 (2010): 572-3. Web.

By Emma Welty, Head of Collections and Administration.