“Lady in Rose Colored Robe”

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

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

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

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

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

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Receipt from 1941 purchase of eglomisé painting

 

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

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Chinese export porcelain slop bowl, ca. 1780-1800

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

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

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

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Nichols House Museum library, ca. 1940-1960.

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

[2] Ibid, 11.

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

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

By Laura Cunningham, Collections Inventory Associate

A Crane, a Goat, a Lizard

The Nichols family’s love of travel is well documented through letters, diaries, postcards, and photographs. Rose Nichols visited Europe more than thirty times to visit friends, see museum collections, attend conferences, and study gardens for her many articles and books about European landscape architecture. Evidence of the family’s many tours through Europe is found throughout the house in the form of paintings, furniture, textiles, and other souvenirs. 

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Postcard from Rose Standish Nichols’ collection.

One piece in particular stands out as a fascinating example of the renewed interest in ancient Roman furnishing styles during the 19th century. This bronze oil lamp features a crane that is perched on a budding oak tree surrounded by a wreath of acanthus leaves. The tree emerges from a stand held up by three animal legs with cloven hooves and a small lizard meandering along the base.  The crane holds a wire form in its beak that holds two small vessels on chains along with a pair of tweezers. These small vessels would have provided the lamp’s light. They would have been filled with olive oil, which was used as the lamp’s fuel source. Wicks would be inserted into the vessels using the lamp’s tweezers [1]. As this lamp was manufactured in Italy in the late 19th century, it was most likely never used in the traditional fashion as a light source.

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Oil lamp, 1961.128

 

In During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, archaeological discoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum caused a renewed interest in ancient Roman art throughout Europe and the United States, and reproductions of ancient artifacts became common [2]. Rose Nichols was aware of this trend in her home decor, as well as her garden scholarship and design. In her 1928 book Italian Pleasure Gardens she writes:

“For centuries Herculaneum and Pompeii lay smothered under masses of lava and ashes. Finally in 1748, skillful archaeologists began to remove this heavy mantle and discovered a wealth of artistic treasures buried in the buildings and gardens. These works are now scattered in various museums all over the world, but many of the finest objects have been claimed by the National Museum at Naples. Here we can study a superb collection of bronze and marble statuary, wall paintings, mosaics, furniture and household utensils. Even the humblest articles often show the hand of a skilled designer.” [3]

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The oil lamp in its current location on the second floor landing in the 1920s.

 

Etruria, an ancient civilization that spanned the geography north of the city of Rome from roughly 500-700 BC, was also a source of inspiration for eighteenth and nineteenth century designers [4]. This piece employs the characteristics of an ancient Etruscan lantern, including the traditional round hanging lamps and its tripod base, but this object’s strong relationship to ancient Roman and Etruscan history is also found in its symbolic representation of animals.

The main figure featured in this lamp is the crane.  The crane is rich with symbolism in the ancient world. The crane represented seasonal change, as the migration patterns were well observed by early Greeks and Romans [5]. The crane’s circular style of movement or “dance” was associated by the ancients with the seasonal movement of the sun [6]. The relationship to the changing of the seasons and the cycle of the sun’s movement have a clear connection to light, making the crane an appropriate figure to be holding up the oil vessels that provided the lamp’s glow.

 

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Bronze lampstand from the Etruscan period, British Museum.

The base is supported by three animal legs with cloven hooves. Three-legged lamp stands with hooves seemed to be common in Etruria, as examples of these footed lamps are found in museum collections in the British Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The three hooves seen on this lamp appear to be representative of the feet of goats: ancient Greek and Roman mythology included the god Pan, who represented the power of nature and was fabled to be able to control the weather by playing his flute [8].  As images of Pan often showed a man with the horns and legs of  a goat, the isolated goat legs of this lamp could be a reference to Pan and his connection to the natural world.

 

 

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Statue of Pan, Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Greece.

 

The lizard crawling across the lamp’s base is a very small feature that is difficult to notice on first glance. But its symbolism throughout Etruscan and Roman history is fascinating in reference to the function of this object. The ancient Romans saw lizards as a symbol of death and rebirth, due to a belief that the animals hibernated in the winter months and reappeared in the spring. In Etruscan tradition, people also believed that lizards went blind as they aged but could regain their sight by bathing in bright sunlight [9]. This belief caused lizards to become symbolic of light and heat, making them a perfect image to adorn an oil lamp.

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Detail of oil lamp base

This small bronze oil lamp is representative of ancient Roman and Etruscan civilization and the resurgence of their decorative tradition in the 19th century. The three animal seen on this small oil lamp – the crane, goat, and lizard – suggest the ancient understanding of light. Through referencing daily cycles of the sun, the shifting of the seasons, or by the changing of the weather, the animals that decorate this bronze lamp all give meaning to the lamp’s traditional function: to illuminate dark spaces.

 

[1]Haines, T. L. Museum of Antiquity; a Description of Ancient Life. By L. W. Yaggy. Chicago: Western House, 1884. 287-95.

[2]Wilton-Ely, John. “Pompeian and Etruscan Tastes in the Neo-Classical Country-House Interior.” Studies in the History of Art 25 (1989): 51.

[3]Nichols, Rose Standish. “Pompeian Peristyles.” Italian Pleasure Gardens. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1931. 5.

[4]Wilton-Ely, John. “Pompeian and Etruscan Tastes in the Neo-Classical Country-House Interior.” Studies in the History of Art 25 (1989): 51.

[5]Johnsgard, Paul A., “Cranes of the World: 8. Cranes in Myth and Legent” (1983). Cranes of the World, by Paul Johnsgard. Paper 11. 70.

[6]Ibid. 73.

[7]Fox, William Sherwood. The Mythology of All Races: Greek and Roman. Vol. 1. Boston: Marshall Jones, 1916. 268.

[8]Leland, Charles Godfrey. Etruscan Roman Remains in Popular Tradition. London: T. F. Unwin, 1892. 267-68.

By Emma Welty, Curatorial and Administrative Specialist

A Partridge and a Palm Tree

“Please have the door to Margaret’s room kept closed and the curtain down; as there are so many things on the bed there the sun should not shine on them and fade them.”–Elizabeth Nichols writing to her daughter, Rose, May 30, 1896 [1].

Elizabeth Nichols understood the effect of bright, sunny windows on textiles. Dyed and printed cloth are incredibly vulnerable to light damage, which is why many of the window dressings in the Nichols’ home have been taken down and archived in order to preserve their colors and patterns. One set of curtains in the museum’s collection, that previously furnished Rose Nichols’ guest bedroom windows, have now been in storage for over almost two decades. Research into this colorful pattern revealed that it is an iconic pattern in British and American furnishings of the 19th and 20th centuries.

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The curtains on display in the guest bedroom, 1971.
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Detail of the pattern on the curtains from Rose Nichols’ collection.

This printed cloth was designed and produced by Bannister Hall Printworks, a company that was active in Preston, Lancashire, England in the early 19th century [2]. The colorful pattern, featuring palm trees, game birds, and flowers, arranged in dense columns, is known as “Partridge,” although the birds featured are more often described as pheasants. The design is attributed to printer, Charles Swainson, who first produced it in 1815 [3]. Bannister Hall Printworks specialized in fabrics for interior decor and quilting and many of the fabrics manufactured there were chintzes, glazed cotton textiles usually printed with images of fruit, flowers, or birds. [4]

In the 1890s, Bannister Hall Printworks was acquired by their competitor Stead-McAlpin, who took ownership of their machinery, printing blocks and original designs [5]. Stead-McAlpin, still in business to this day, reprinted this pattern in 1907 and 1908 with the original block printing technique. In 1926 and 1937 they reproduced the pattern by copper roller, a much more efficient method of production [6]. Rose Nichols, who lived in her home from 1885-1960, most likely purchased a version of the pattern that had been printed during the early 20th century.

 

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Two versions of the 1815 pattern. Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, New York.

Over the years, this patterned cloth became popular in England and the United States and was printed in many colors and used for interior furnishing purposes, including curtains and bedding. This pattern, among other prints from Bannister Hall Printworks, was frequently used in the 19th century for for quilting. The makers would either use the complete pattern to make “wholecloth” quilts, or delicately cut apart elements of the pattern for appliqué on a neutral background cloth [7].  Rose used this printed textile  for both curtains and bedding in her home. A coverlet in her collection boasts the same “Partridge” pattern but in a different color palette than the curtains.

 

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Quilt, 1825-35, including the bird and palm tree from the pattern, seen in the bottom corners of the composition. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania.
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Detail of the pattern on a coverlet from Rose Nichols’ collection.

These vibrant patterns align perfectly with Rose’s ideas about furnishing a room with curtains. In her 1910 House Beautiful article “Individuality in Interior Decoration” Rose advocates for this style of fabric when she writes,

“Curtains seem almost to form part of the walls, and their choice does much to make or mar a room. … Reproductions of old chintzes are valuable for giving a room distinctive curtains, and will harmonize with almost any color scheme.”[8]

A current project of the museum is the conservation and possible reproduction of these curtains to be installed in the guest bedroom.

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The curtains on display in the guest bedroom, 1971.

 

 

[1]Nichols and Shurtleff Family Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

[2]Blum, Dilys, and Jack L. Lindsey. “Nineteenth-Century Applique Quilts.”Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin 85.363/364 (1989): 12. Web.

[3]”Textile, Printed.” Winterthur Museum Collection. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.

[4]Blum, Dilys, and Jack L. Lindsey. “Nineteenth-Century Applique Quilts.”Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin 85.363/364 (1989): 12. Web.

[5]”Our History.” Stead McAlpin. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.

[6]From East to West: Textiles from G.P. & J. Baker ; Victoria & Albert Museum, 9 May – 14 October 1984. Victoria & Albert Museum, 1984. 345. Print.

[7]Blum, Dilys, and Jack L. Lindsey. “Nineteenth-Century Applique Quilts.”Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin 85.363/364 (1989): 12-14. Web.

[8]Nichols, Rose Standish, “Individuality in Interior Decoration.” House Beautiful. June, 1910. 9-10.

By Emma Welty, Curatorial and Administrative Specialist

Steeped in History

At first glance, this small object appears to be a fairly simple silver teapot. On closer inspection, however, this little teapot reveals its place in a craft history that spans over a thousand years: lusterware pottery. This teapot is not shaped from sterling silver as it appears, but is instead a molded ceramic vessel that has been coated with a “lustre” glaze made from metal oxides to create a shiny silver finish. [1] The object was created in Staffordshire, England by the pottery company, Fieldings Crown Devon, in the early 20th century although the tradition of lustre glazing dates back much further.

The earliest known examples of lustre appear on ancient Egyptian glassware. The invention of lustre decoration offered an inexpensive alternative to gilded ornamentation [2]. While these early glass pieces date back to the third and fourth centuries, lustre fired earthenware did not make an appearance until the eleventh century in Egypt [3]. Early Egyptian lustreware was very opulent, with a range of colors and motifs including animals and scenes of daily life including fishing in the Nile and working in the fields [4].

The popularity of lustreware ceramics in Mesopotamia in the 13th century caused many to believe that the technique of lustre firing ceramics originated in Persia. Many of the pieces that survive today have designs and inscriptions that suggest Persian makers, even those objects that were discovered in Egypt [5]. Despite the presence of these apparently Persian ceramics, a traveler’s diary from the 11th century led ceramic scholars to the conclusion that the home of the ornate glazing technique was, in fact, Cairo. Nâsir-i-Khusrau was a well-known Persian traveler and writer visited Old Cairo (then known as Fustât) in 1047 A.D and described his first experience seeing lustre decoration on ceramics. He compared the appearance ornate decoration to a type of Egyptian silk fabric called bukalimun, or “chameleon fabric” which is called that because it “changes every hour of the day” [6]. The fact that a well-traveled Persian writer had never seen lustreware suggests that this technique was not yet practiced by Persian artisans. This account, combined with the presence of a ceramics school in Cairo led scholars to believe that Persian students later traveled the school in Cairo to learn the trade [7].

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Small cup, terracotta, lustre decoration, opacified glaze, overglaze painted. Fatimid Egypt, 11-12th century. Louvre Museum. Paris, France

From Egypt and Persia, lustreware moved to Spain where it was adopted by the Moors, and Italy, where the technique was further developed by sixteenth century artisan, Maestro Giorgio Andreoli at Gubbio [8]. Giorgio mastered a technique called maiolica, also known as tin-glazed pottery, where he used an extra layer of glaze in order to enrich the colors of a detailed painted scene with red or gold metallic lustre [9].

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Maiolica plate with Jupiter, Juno, and Io transformed into a cow, lustered in workshop of Maestro Giorgio Andreoli, Gubbio, or Vincenzo Andreoli, Urbino, c.1535-1540, National Gallery of Art, Washington

All of the potters that had utilized the technique up to this point had used it for ornamentation and not to glaze an object in its entirety. This changed somewhat when lustreware became popular in England during the late 18th century. While the tradition of using lustre techniques to embellish and combine multiple colors and patterns still existed, the British artisans also used it to create faux-silver pieces. Ceramic artisans began using traditional silversmith molds to create objects, specifically teapots and sugar bowls that could be lustre-fired completely to look like silver [10]. The teapot in the Nichols House Museum’s collection falls into that category, having been designed to look like a Georgian period silver teapot.

 

[1]Campbell, Gordon. “Lustre.” Grove Art OnlineOxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 4 Mar. 2016.

[2]Martin, F. R. “The Origin of Lustre Ware.” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 53.305 (1928): 91-92. JSTOR. Web. 04 Mar. 2016.

[3]Butler, A. J. “The Origin of Lustre Ware.” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 16.79 (1909): n. pag. JSTOR. Web. 04 Mar. 2016.

[4]Martin, F. R. “Lustred Pottery in Egypt.” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 17.85 (1910): n. pag. JSTOR. Web. 04 Mar. 2016.

[5]Butler, A. J. “The Origin of Lustre Ware.”

[6]Butler, A. J. “Egypt and the Ceramic Art of the Nearer East.” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 11.52 (1907): 221-26. JSTOR. Web. 04 Mar. 2016.

[7]Butler, A. J. “The Origin of Lustre Ware.

[8]”The Buckingham Collection of Old English Lustre.” Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago (1907-1951) 16.1 (1922): 2-5. JSTOR. Web. 04 Mar. 2016.

[9]”National Gallery of Art.” Andreoli of Gubbio, Giorgio, Maestro. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Mar. 2016.

[10]”The Buckingham Collection of Old English Lustre.”

By Emma Welty, Curatorial and Administrative Specialist

 

 

“Please return to R S Nichols”

In the 20th century, postcards had a fascinating role in the culture of travel, correspondence and personal record keeping. In the 2012 MFA publication, The Postcard Age, collector, Leonard A. Lauder writes, “Postcards did not just record or represent this dynamic era–they also participated actively in it.” [1] Postcards were simultaneously a popular means of communication, as well as an inexpensive and accessible type of image collecting. Before the invention of cellphones with cameras and the ease of communication and research created by the internet, postcards were a way of keeping visual records of things that you had seen in your travels and either sending them to your friends and family, or developing a collection of small, mass-produced artworks. The practice of collecting and sending postcards became very popular at the turn of the 20th century. In 1895 an estimated 314 million postcards were mailed, compared to the 880 million postcards sent in 1914. [2] 

Along with her house and furnishings, Rose Nichols left her collection of over 1,200 postcards to the Nichols House Museum. Some of the postcards were sent by friends and relatives, some were mailed home by Rose to keep in her own collection, and most of the cards acquired by Rose never saw a mail-box at all. The collection includes images of natural landscapes, architecture, interior design, and artworks including paintings, sculptures, mosaics, and tapestries. The variety of subjects offers some perspective into Rose’s interests and travel experience, ranging from Egypt to the American Southwest.

Left: Postcard, “The 2nd Pyramid of Cheefren, Cairo.”
Right: Postcard, “CAMEL BACK MOUNTAIN AND DESERT.”

These four-by-six inch images, some in color, some in black and white, gave Rose a way to keep a record of things she saw in museums, or gardens that would inspire her own work in the landscape architecture field.

Left: Postcard, “Hampton Court Garden Tudor Palace”
Right: Postcard showing a garden designed by Rose Standish Nichols, “E.L. Ryerson, Lake Forest, ILL.”

Her postcards even kept a record of some of her political activism. One example shows six members of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom at the 1919 Peace Conference in Zurich, Switzerland. While Rose is not among the six photographed here, she was in attendance at the conference and was a long-time member of the WILPF.

PC150Above: Postcard, “Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom Second Conference, Zurich, 1919”

While many of the postcards show elements of Rose’s life outside her house, they also give some insight into what is inside her residence at 55 Mount Vernon Street. Rose’s postcards that illustrate examples of objects create a fascinating parallel with her own collection of furniture and fine art. Some of the images show objects that are similar in style or almost identical to many or Rose’s belongings. Whether she collected them as a wish-list, as a way to remember home when she was far away, or as a record that her own home was furnished with objects of considerable status, there are dozens of examples on display at the Nichols House Museum that bring Rose’s postcard collection to life.

Left: Postcard, “MUSÉE DES ARTS DÉCORATIFS -Bergere, Tapsserie au point, fin du XVII siecle-ND”
Right: Hepplewhite armchair with modern upholstery in rose-colored silk damask,[probably New England, United States of America], 1790-1805

Left: Postcard, “NAPOLI – Museo Nazionale DIONISIO (Narciso)- Pompei”
Right: Cast bronze figure of Narcissus, [European], 19th century

Left: Postcard: “GARRISON HOUSE, Exeter, N.H. ‘Daniel Webster’ Desk”
Right: Queen Anne style maple corner chair, [probably New England, United States of America], ca. 1740

Left: Postcard, “American embroidery, 18th century”
Right: Framed needlepoint fragment, likely English, late 17th-18th century

Left: Postcard, “TALL CLOCK, SIGNED BY BARTHOLOMEW BARWELL, WORKING IN NEW YORK ABOUT 1760. MUSEUM OF THE CITY OF NEW YORK”
Right: Mahogany tall case clock, made by Elnathan Taber, Roxbury, Massachusetts, United States of America and Birmingham, England, ca. 1790

Left: Postcard,”BED-CURTIN Cotton, embroidered with coloured wools, English; second half of the 17th century, VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM. Produced by W.F. Sedgwick, Limited”
Right: Crewelwork bed hangings made by Rose Standish Nichols,  ca. 1890

Left: Postcard: “ARM-CHAIR Walnut; said to have belonged to Neil Gwynn. English; Period of Charles II. H. 4ft. 3 in.; W. 2ft. Given by Sir George Donaldson. VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM.
Right: Reproduction Jacobean style armchairs with carved decoration by Rose Standish Nichols, made by Irving & Casson-A. H. Davenport Co. Boston, Massachusetts, United States of America, 1910-1940

Left: Postcard: “Ivory Figure of a Gazelle Egyptian, About 1375 B.C. (XVIII Dynasty) The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Collotype by Maz Jaffé, Vienna Austria.
Right: Standing animal figure, possibly an ibex, signed by artist Giorgio Sommer; Naples, Italy, late 19th to early 20th century

[1]Klich, Lynda, Leonard A. Lauder, and Benjamin Weiss. The Postcard Age: Selections from the Leonard A. Lauder Collection. Boston, MA: MFA Publications, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2012. Print.

[2]Elliott, Brent. “A Brief Guide to the Use of Picture Postcards in Garden History”. Garden History 31.2 (2003): 218–224. Web.

By Emma Welty, Curatorial and Administrative Specialist

Tall Case Clock by Elnathan Taber (1768-1854)

Made: c. 1790 in Roxbury, Massachusetts; Birmingham, England

Materials: Mahogany, eastern white pine, brass, metals, paint

To see this object in the Nichols House Museum online collection, search for 1961.371a-d at http://www.nicholshousemuseum.org/collection.php

Currently On Display at the Nichols House Museum

Before watches or cellphones, a long case (or tall case)[i] clock was a functioning piece of home technology signifying status and wealth. Not only were clocks expensive (costing upwards of a few thousand dollars today), but in the agrarian past when time was based on the sun and the seasons, a clock signaled that its town-dwelling owner valued punctuality in an increasingly regimented world.[ii] But such a device had to be cared for. A clock had to be wound every so many hours or days (depending on the model) so it would continue to keep time. Its chimes could be heard throughout the house, interrupting household activities.  This clock, made by Elnathan Taber about 1790 in the Nichols House Museum collection, is an eight-day model, a top-of-the-line piece with the newest technology of the eighteenth century. The brass gears inside the wooden case did not need to be rewound for eight whole days…. failure to do so would silence the clock. [iii]

How a clock moves

Within a mechanical clock, the pull of gravity moves the weight down with each pendulum swing, which also moves the hands around the clock’s face. [iv] In a grandfather clock, the weight slowly (in this model, over the course of eight days) dropped the length of the clock’s trunk, and combined with the precise and (ideally) frictionless swing of the pendulum, the clock kept more accurate time than smaller clocks of the period. Numerous factors could slow a clock down, from dust in the gears to seasonal changes of humidity, all which minutely affected a clock’s meticulously created movement. Making sure the clock functioned properly was part of the art of clock making. Not only did the piece have to look nice, its gears had to function well, too. In the collection of Old Sturbridge Village, one of their Elnathan Taber clocks has hand-written instructions inside describing how to wind and care for the clock.[v]

The men behind the clock

This clock was made by Elnathan Taber (1768-1854), a clockmaker based in Roxbury, Massachusetts who was said to be the best apprentice in the shop to renowned clockmaker Simon Willard (1753-1848).[vi] These two men lived and breathed clocks. Although many artisans made pieces for clocks including mechanics, artists, forgers, and cabinetmakers, it was the clockmaker who had the knowledge to coordinate the ordering and assemble the pieces. For example, Elnathan probably ordered clock cases from a local cabinet maker, while the gears came from a factory in Birmingham, England. Elnathan apprenticed under Simon Willard after Simon made a name for himself in the Boston area for his fine clocks.[vii] Simon made household clocks and also installed large clocks in public buildings, including Old South Meeting House and the US Senate.  Elnathan worked with Simon for years and later bought the business and, in a marketing strategy, also acquired the right to label his clocks “Simon Willard.” Simon was well known for producing quality clocks, so his name carried the public’s trust in its quality. The clock in the museum collection, however, bears Elnathan’s name but dates from a period when he would have been working alongside Simon at his shop. The clock features a patriotic eagle over the hood, and an allegorical image painted in the lunette, the arched top part of the dial. Tall clocks were investments in the eighteenth century, a sign of the growing social importance of accurate time-keeping.

By Ashley Jahrling, Assistant to the Director

[i] Grandfather clocks were known as long case or tall case clocks before an 1876 song “Grandfather’s Clock” by Henry Clay Work popularized the new term http://www.songwritershalloffame.org/index.php/exhibits/bio/C198. Listen here: https://archive.org/details/MyGrandfathersClock.

[ii] Philip Zea, “Timekeeping: The Lifestyle of Accuracy- An Interpretive Essay for the J. Cheney Wells Collection of New England Clocks at Old Sturbridge Village.” 1986.

[iii] Jessica Chappell, “The Long Case Clock: Engineering Behind a Grandfather Clock.” Illumin, Vol. 1 Iss. IV. University of Southern California, 2001. https://illumin.usc.edu/184/the-long-case-clock-engineering-behind-a-grandfather-clock/

[v] Old Sturbridge Village, Tall Clock by Elnathan Taber. 57.1.2. http://resources.osv.org/explore_learn/collection_viewer.php?N=57.1.2

[vi] Walter A. Dyer, “The Willards and Their Clocks.” Country Life in America, June 1915, pg 47.

[vii] For more information about the Willard family of clockmakers, see: Joseph Downs, “Three American Clocks,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin. Vol. 32, No. 5, May 1937. 129-137; The Willard House and Clock Museum at http://www.willardhouse.org/.