A Tale of Two Sideboards

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

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

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

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

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Cherry and maple sideboard, American, 1830-1845.

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

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

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

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Walnut sideboard, American, late 19th century.

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

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

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

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Walnut sideboard, American, late 19th century.

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

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Detail from walnut sideboard.

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

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

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

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Courtesy of Historic New England.

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

By Laura Cunningham, Programs and Collections Coordinator


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

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

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

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

 

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“No Pleasanter Place”: Reading with Rose

As many of our readers know, January 11th, 2016 marked Rose Standish Nichols’ 145th birthday. In celebration of this fiercely intelligent, independent woman, we will take a look at one of her own published books in this month’s ‘Reading with Rose:’ Italian Pleasure Gardens.

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Rose Standish Nichols in her garden in Cornish, New Hampshire. Courtesy Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

Rose Standish Nichols was not only a distinguished landscape architect, but a world traveler, too. She did not travel merely for pleasure, but conducted thorough research during her trips to Europe so that she could supplement her landscape commissions with firsthand experience in sprawling estate gardens. In 1931, Rose published her third book, this time focusing on Italian gardens in the aptly-titled Italian Pleasure Gardens.

In her book, Rose details the histories and contemporary features of gardens throughout Italy, including villas in Tuscany, Siena, Perugia, Florence, the Riviera, and the Lake District. We can trace Rose’s experiences within these cities through numerous letters she sent home during her many trips to the country. At times, she was accompanied by friends; she writes to Margaret below:

“This morning Frances Arnold Anita Dible and I have been to the Villa Papa Giulio, which is about ten minutes walk beyond the Porto del Popolo.  We had a very good time and took lots of photographs.”

Rose Nichols to Margaret Nichols [Shurcliff]- February 4, 1899

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One of the many images of Italian villas Rose included in Italian Pleasure Gardens.

After “Italian Pleasure Gardens” was published, Rose continued to enjoy travelling to the country where she conducted her research. Indeed, we can read Rose’s words with sincerity when she writes “to those travellers who are weary of cities and who love both art and nature I can recommend these gardens as a joy to the eye and a balm to the soul.”

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“It is cold and rainy here and I feel rather swallowed up by the immensity of this old city – after the cozy intimate atmosphere of Florence.  Before leaving there I spent a week in Mrs. Davis’ pleasant old villa where I had a suite of three rooms.”

Rose to Marian Nichols- March 4, 1931

“I am to spend tomorrow night at the heavenly Villa Sante and shall push on the following afternoon to Florence where Mrs. Lathrop is expecting me at the Villa Tomegiani.  From there I shall go to visit the Tomegianis at their handsome Lucca villa, at least it is four or five miles outside Lucca on a hill with a beautiful view.  After that I shall go to Venice to stay until the last of June.”

Rose to Marian- June 5, 1931

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An illustration from Italian Pleasure Gardens.

It is clear that Rose imbues into her writing the firsthand experience of traveling through these Italian pleasure gardens. Before the close of the book, she includes a “Garden Itinerary” that guides readers through their own tours of the country, through the very cities and gardens she herself visited. The book, as a whole, serves as simultaneously as a history lesson, as Rose takes us through the history of the  gardens in view of the country’s political and social cultures; a  guidebook; and a testament to the love Rose had for the career she devoted her life to: the garden, in all its splendor.

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Rose concludes her book with many tips and suggestions for readers seeking to visit Italian villas and their gardens.

Bibliography

Nichols, Rose Standish. Italian Pleasure Gardens. Dodd, Mead & Company, 1931.

 

By Victoria Johnson, Visitor Services and Research Associate.

“Unvegetative Ornaments”

 

In the late seventeenth century, garden statues, obelisks, dials, and other ‘unvegetative’ ornaments seemed to take the place of flowers. [1]

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Illustrations from Rose Standish Nichols’ first book “English Pleasure Gardens”

Rose Standish Nichols was a landscape architect by trade. She designed dozens of gardens on large plots of land, including her parents’ estate in Cornish, New Hampshire, but she never had much of a garden at her home at 55 Mount Vernon Street.

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The Nichols family garden in Cornish, New Hampshire

In her article, How to Make a Small Garden she classifies a “small” garden as one that “covers from about 1200 to 2500 square feet of ground.”[2] Since her Beacon Hill garden is little more than a stretch of grass that frames her brick walkway, she needed to be creative when bringing her passion for gardens home.  Her house is richly furnished with floral and horticultural imagery, from tapestries, to prints, to small needlework pictures. However, it is an object in the entrance of her home that references the style and scale of gardens she loved to visit and design.


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A nearly life-size sandstone statue of a young woman adorned with an empire revival dress and a brimmed hat stands in the portico between the house’s two front doors. The statue is English and dates to the 19th century but Rose understood the history of outdoor sculpture dating back much further. In her first book, English Pleasure Gardens, published in 1902, she explores garden design dating back to the classic tradition of ancient Italy and Greece to modern English gardens (at this point “modern gardens” refers to late 19th century). Rose suggests that some of the most successful gardens are those that blend a range of styles.

In some of the best modern English gardens there is a combination of classic statuary, Renaissance fountains, French perspectives, Dutch topiary work and flowers from all over the world. But in such a garden, when there is breadth given to the masses of colour and a proper regard to scale and proportion, the effect is not always incongruous.[3]

While Rose was not displaying “classic statuary,” she placed her statue in the portico, which not only referenced the outdoors, but also connected it to classic architecture, as the entry hall is the only part of the Federal townhouse that was designed in the Greek Revival style.

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The statue in the portico

Throughout her garden design and scholarship Rose suggested that outdoor sculpture was at its best in the Baroque period in Italy. She even utilized Baroque Italian figurative statues in one of her Illinois garden commissions.

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Garden designed by Rose Nichols in Lake Forest, Illinois

In her 1925 article, Rhythm and Punctuation in Design, she argued that when the original foliage of Baroque gardens has faded, there is still beauty in the skeleton of the garden’s architecture and ornamentation,

Badly kept up as are many of these 17th and 18th century gardens they might have appealed to us less in their palmy days than in their present decadence. Still, however, walls, balustrades, fountains, and statuary of stone, mellowed by age, pattern an ancient pleasuance. And even if the former flowers have disappeared, clipped laurels, oleanders and potted orange trees accent the parapets and the parterre. Here poets will again and again find inspiration and garden-lovers delight. [4]

This sentiment suggests that even without a full, lush garden behind them, the sculptures that are associated with pleasure grounds can still inspire a “garden-lover” like Rose.

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The walkway at 55 Mount Vernon Street in 1959, with the statue showing through the portico window

 

[1] Nichols, Rose Standish. “Gardens of the Stuarts.” English Pleasure Gardens. Boston: David R. Godine, 2003. 163.

[2] Nichols, Rose Standish. “How to Make a Small Garden.” House Beautiful 1912: 88.

[3] Nichols, Rose Standish. “Modern Gardens.” English Pleasure Gardens. Boston: David R. Godine, 2003. 252.

[4]Nichols, Rose Standish. “Rhythm and Punctuation in Design.” Horticulture Feb. 1925: 49.

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