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

Old Chest, New Woman

In Rose Standish Nichols’ bedroom, positioned at the end of her bed, is a seventeenth century English dowry chest. In 1910, the Nichols family acquired this chest from the company “John Wilson & Son” while abroad in England. For a time, this chest was likely placed in the front entry hall between two of the carved chairs that are now located in the library. The chest would have given this space the atmosphere of an English country house and as evidenced by the pastoral motifs throughout her needlework, we know this is a style Rose favored.

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The dowry chest seen in Rose Standish Nichols’ bedroom, 1964.

The dowry chest dates back to the Middle Ages, spanning many continents and cultures. By the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the custom had reached American shores and become popular amongst the middle class.[1] At this time, the tradition was affectionately renamed a “hope chest” often beginning at pre-adolescence. Becoming an accepted part of the American marriage custom, young women would have filled their hope chests with personal items in anticipation of marriage.[2]

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Joined chest with drawer, 1699, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

 

This carved and paneled oak chest would have stored items belonging to a bride, transported from her father’s home to her new home with her husband; all personal wealth or inheritance attributed to a woman became her husband’s upon marriage. “Cupboards and textiles belonged to a category of household goods called ‘moveables.’ Unlike real estate, which was typically transmitted from father to son, moveables formed the core of female inheritance.”[3] The initials of the original owner, H.I., adorn the front of the chest. At this time, “to inscribe one’s name on a material object assured some sort of immortality.”[4] Further, since “barely a third of women in late-seventeenth-century Massachusetts could sign their own names, these [initials] signified both ownership and literacy.”[5] Perhaps more than any other piece in the Nichols House Museum, this dowry chest represents the strides women have made in having their rights and freedoms acknowledged.

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All three of the Nichols sisters were intrepid pioneers in the fight for women’s equality, embodying the spirit of the New Woman. Rose, Marian and Margaret were all active participants in the suffrage movement and as her father recalls, Rose hosted suffrage events at 55 Mount Vernon Street.

“Rose invited about 30 ladies to a conference about Women’s Suffrage. Remarks were made by Mrs. Chas. Park of the Suffrage League, Mrs. Stone of the Elizabeth Home, and Mrs. Glenny of the Municipal League.”

 Arthur Nichols’ diary entry, Sunday, February 11, 1912

“About 50 ladies and gentlemen filled our parlor this evening to hear a talk about Women’s Suffrage. The speakers were Mrs. Florence Kelley, and Mrs. Charles Park. Mrs. Dewey gave an account of a visit to the strikers at Lawrence. Mrs. Kelley and Miss Wiggin dined with us.”

Arthur Nichols’ diary entry, Monday, February 12, 1912

The Mrs. Charles Park named above is almost certainly Maude Wood Park, a key figure in the suffrage movement. Maude Wood Park also attended Radcliffe College, graduating in 1898 one year prior to Marian. Finally, on August 26, 1920, the Nichols sisters witnessed a pivotal moment in U.S. women’s history, the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which provided full voting rights for women nationally. After women’s right to vote was acknowledged, Maude Wood Park served as the first president of the League of Women Voters, an organization of which Marian Nichols was a member.

Just one month later, Marian Nichols launched her campaign as Independent Candidate for Ward 8. Although she did not win this election, she remained influential in local politics.

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Marian Nichols’ 1920 campaign poster

The turn of the twentieth century marked the first time in American history where marriage was no longer imperative for women, allowing both Rose and Marian to lead successful careers as an alternative to family life. Despite being married and a mother to six children, Margaret Nichols-Schurcliff was also lionhearted. The youngest of the Nichols sisters, Margaret ran a carpentry business out of the top floor of her home at 66 Mount Vernon Street; a feat unheard of for a woman of her time.

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Margaret Nichols Shurcliff’s business card from her carpentry business.

Today, women continue the fight for gender equality. Although we have not yet elected our first woman president, the undaunted spirit of the Nichols women brings hope that women will soon break the ultimate glass ceiling. This dowry chest sits at the base of Rose’s bed in bold confrontation of those who would discount women’s abilities and discourage them from leading active, engaged lives.

By Laura Cunningham, Archival Intern

[1] Otto, Herbert A., and Robert B. Andersen. “The Hope Chest and Dowry: American Custom?” The Family Life Coordinator 16, no. 1/2 (1967): 15-19. doi:10.2307/581576.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. The age of homespun: objects and stories in the creation of an American myth. n.p.: New York : Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 2001.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

Unitarian in the Winter and Episcopalian in Summer

In Rose Standish Nichols’ parlor, a room that was home to much intellectual, political, and religious discourse, hangs a painting depicting Mary, Jesus and Saint John the Baptist. The oil painting is a nineteenth century interpretation of a common scene in religious art during the Renaissance, the rural landscape featuring the Holy Family in the foreground and a shepherd with his flock in the background. The work is unsigned and the artist is unknown, though the nineteenth century painter was likely studying similar scenes by Raphael, Leonardo, Giorgione and Titian in the sixteenth century. 

 

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Leonardo, The Virgin and Child with Saint Ann, c. 1503, The Louvre.

 

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Titian, Madonna and Child with Female Saint Ann and Saint John the Baptist, c. 1530s, Kimbell Art Museum.

Rose’s belief system has often been the subject of discussion, especially with such a religiously charged painting displayed in a very public room in her home. However, by all accounts Rose Standish Nichols was not a traditionally religious person. Her friend Southard Menzel wrote, in an article entitled Sketches of the Life and Character of Rose Standish Nichols, Artist, Collector, Social Reformer, Museum Founder, that Rose considered herself, “Unitarian in the winter and Episcopalian in summer” simply based on the fact that King’s Chapel, the family’s local Boston church, was Unitarian and the neighborhood congregation close to their summer home in New Hampshire was Episcopalian. [1] The Nichols family attended King’s Chapel when the girls were young and according to Margaret, the family had their own pew “in the front row of the balcony near the choir.” [2]

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Interior of King’s Chapel, Emmet Collection of Manuscrips Etc. Relating to American History, New York Public Library.

Later in her life, however, Rose became interested in the principles of the Bahai, a faith system that advocates for peace and unity, which resonated with Rose, a committed pacifist.

“To be a Bahá’í simply means to love all the world; to love humanity and try to serve it; to work for universal peace and universal brotherhood.” –Abdu’l-Bahá [3]

Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of the religion’s founder, was an acquaintance of Rose’s and according to Southard Menzel, he visited her home and was “given a platform at her house to introduce his doctrine (‘In that corner between the fireplace and the window’).” [4]

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Abdu’l-Bahá

Despite Rose’s personal belief system, she was still fascinated by the culture and iconography of the Catholic church. Her travel through Europe often included visits to churches and cathedrals where she was very taken with the traditions as well as the aesthetics.

“We have seen larger picture galleries, but no paintings as beautiful as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and those of Raphael, called his Stanze.  We took a last look at them today on our way to the Pope’s auto-chamber, where Margaret and I left a rosary for Bridget with the chamberlain to be blessed by the Pope.  We inquired our way of the Swiss guard, who seem to be everywhere in the Vatican, their orange and black costumes are striking if not picturesque.”

Rose writing to her father Arthur from Rome, November 18, 1891.

Rose also took a specific interest in Catholic monasteries while researching her book, Italian Pleasure Gardens. Her 1928 book includes an entire chapter on “The Cloister Garth”where she explores the horticulture and ornamentation of Italian monasteries.

“The outer walls of the cloister, back of the columns, were covered with paintings…Scenes suggested by descriptions in the Old and New Testaments, or episodes in the lives of saints were chosen as affording religious inspiration to the monks, who would have turned away their eyes in horror from the flippant representations that amused the pleasure-loving Pompeians.” [5]  

Several objects in her collection also suggest her fascination with religious objects including , books, postcards, tiles and even a bust believed to be a reliquary.

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Italian wooden bust, 18th century, possibly used as a reliquary.
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Dutch earthenware tile, 19th century, showing the story of Matthew 9, “Jesus Forgives and Heals a Paralyzed Man.”

She collected dozens of postcards with Catholic iconography, including twenty-five that depict the Holy Family.

Over thirty titles in her library reflect her curiosity in the church, including books of poetry, theology, stories of the saints and the Bible given to her by her father with both their names inscribed in their own handwriting:

“Arthur H. Nichols Boston Jan. 1, 1852 A present from his Mother

Rose S. Nichols from her Father Arthur H. Nichols”

 

Rose Standish Nichols may not have been a conventionally religious person but she was thoughtful about religion both in aesthetics and in theology. Her collecting practices and her proud display of religious art show her affinity for Christian iconography, but it was in her discussions with people she met throughout her life where her fascination with faith becomes clear. Southard Menzel told a story of Rose’s experience encountering a Cardinal on a steamer ship on his way to Rome:

“After much talk and no conviction, Rose had said to him: ‘I suppose you think I am going to Hell.’

‘Not necessarily so Miss Nichols,’ said O’Connell.

‘How can that be?’ asked Rose.

‘Well God may possibly pardon you on the basis of “invincible ignorance,”’ was his reply. 

Rose was charmed with this decisions, and apparently thought the term was invented for her. She loved to think that some day, because of, or in spite of, her ‘invincible ignorance,’ she might continue the pleasant discussion with his Eminence in Heaven.” [6]

 

[1] Menzel, Southard. Sketches of the Life and Character of Rose Standish Nichols, Artist, Collector, Social Reformer, Museum Founder, 1975. Unpublished work.

[2] Shurcliff, Margaret Homer Nichols. Lively Days: Some Memoirs of Margaret Homer Shurcliff. Taipei: Literature House, 1965. 25.

[3] Esslemont, J. E. Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era; an Introduction to the Bahá’í Faith. Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Pub. Trust, 1970.

[4] Menzel, Southard. Sketches of the Life and Character of Rose Standish Nichols, Artist, Collector, Social Reformer, Museum Founder, 1975. Unpublished work.

[5] Nichols, Rose Standish. “The Cloister Garth.” Italian Pleasure Gardens. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1928. 25.

[6] Menzel, Southard. Sketches of the Life and Character of Rose Standish Nichols, Artist, Collector, Social Reformer, Museum Founder, 1975. Unpublished work.

By Emma Welty, Head of Collections and Administration.

 

Makers Marks: A Call for Artists

The “Object of the Month” blog has been a place for staff and interns from the Nichols House Museum to share research and insights about our favorite objects in the collection. Several of the featured objects have been more than just collection objects but were actually made by Rose Standish Nichols herself.

This fall, the Nichols House Museum is seeking art makers who are interested in showing their work alongside the objects in Rose’s collection.

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Detail of Rose Standish Nichols’ hand-embroidered bed hangings. Read more about this object in our October 2015 post.

The three Nichols sisters, Rose, Marian and Margaret, came of age during a critical time in American craft history: the Arts and Crafts movement, active from 1880ー1910. Following the Industrial Revolution and widespread abandonment of cottage industries, champions of the Arts and Crafts movement William Morris and John Ruskin, were calling for a return to handcrafts for the sake of beauty, quality and social progress. The values maintained and taught by members of the Arts and Crafts movement impacted the educations, careers and politics of the Nichols sisters.

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Detail of an oak chair with carved decoration by Rose Standish Nichols. Read more about this object in our July 2015 post.

The Nichols sisters were instructed in handcrafts from a young age. Letters, memoirs, and objects in the museum’s collection tell the story of their work with sewing, pottery and woodworking.

“Once a week we had clay modeling with Mrs. Holland, Any creations we wished to take home were baked for up and transformed from a soft mass of dark damp clay to firm white objects of beauty.”–Margaret Nichols Shurcliff, Lively Days.

“She has taken up carving again and is making some frames. Not having you to get up the designs she expects me to do it and I am helping her all I can.”–Elizabeth Nichols to Rose Nichols about Margaret Nichols, November 30, 1896.

“This is a most delightful morning. Margaret and I are writing on the piazza and Marian sewing in the garden.”–Elizabeth Nichols writing to Rose Nichols, June 5, 1901.

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Margaret Nichols Shurcliff knitting, ca. 1905.

The Nichols House Museum is inviting emerging and student artists working in craft disciplines (textiles, ceramics or woodworking) to submit proposals for site-specific works to be installed in the museum for an exhibit that will be on view from March to August 2017. The exhibit is part of a series of programs entitled “Makers Marks: Art, Craft and the Fiber of Change.” The Nichols House Museum aims to position the history of the Nichols family in dialogue with a wide range of contemporary perspectives to create new and mindful interpretations of the house, collection and family.

Applications are due no later than January 16, 2017. Click here to download the prospectus and application form.

Capturing the Captivating Robert Louis Stevenson

Hidden in plain sight in the halls of the Nichols House Museum is a depiction of one of Victorian literature’s most enduring authors: Robert Louis Stevenson. Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ plaque of Stevenson became one of his most popular works, first modeled in 1887, with copies of it selling well after Saint-Gaudens’ death in 1907. [1] In fact, the plaque was so memorable that Saint-Gaudens was commissioned to create a copy that would serve as Stevenson’s memorial in Edinburgh. This plaque, completed in 1904 and residing in St. Giles Cathedral, remains the only memorial of Stevenson in his native country. The story of how Gaudens’ Robert Louis Stevenson plaque came to be echoes the travels and international friendships that Rose Nichols so appreciated.

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Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial. St. Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, Scotland. Saint-Gaudens’ original plaque depicted Stevenson holding a cigarette in his hand. For the church memorial, Saint-Gaudens changed the cigarette to a quill. [2]
Stevenson, one of Scotland’s greatest literary treasures, belongs to an elite group of writers who can claim success beyond their own lifetimes. His writing inspired even those who seldom read to pick up his stories. One man who falls into this category is none other than “God-like sculptor” Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

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Augustus Saint-Gaudens in 1905. Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, Cornish, New Hampshire.

Saint-Gaudens had little taste in literature until his friend Mr. Wells introduced him to a work entitled “New Arabian Nights,” which “set [him] aflame as have few things in literature.” [3] He was instantly impressed, and when the opportunity presented itself for him to meet the author of these stories, he jumped at the chance. The American painter Will H. Low, a mutual friend of both Stevenson and Saint-Gaudens, arranged for the two to meet in the autumn of 1887, when Stevenson (an avid traveler) was on his way to the Adirondacks. He accepted Saint-Gaudens’ offer to “make his portrait” and first sat for the sculptor at the Hotel Albert on Eleventh Street. [4] The original portrait took five sittings which consisted of two to three hours each. Shortly after this initial meeting, however, Saint-Gaudens decided to expand the portrait to include the author’s hands. He began this expansion by using his own wife Augusta’s hands before realizing that they did not serve the task. [5]

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Self Portrait at Montigny, Will H. Low, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.

Arrangements were made for a second meeting between the sculptor and the author. Upon Stevenson’s move to Manasquan, New Jersey, he once again met with Saint-Gaudens to sit for his portrait. It was this sitting which gave Saint-Gaudens a lasting impression of Stevenson. Because it was decided that the author looked too stiff simply sitting in no useful occupation, Saint-Gaudens suggested he should pose in his natural state: writing. To this Stevenson not only agreed, but took the suggestion to heart by writing a letter to Homer Saint-Gaudens, Augustus’ son. [6]

Once the plaque was completed, the author and the sculptor never met in person again, but did maintain a friendship as evidenced by the exchange of several letters. Stevenson referred to Saint-Gaudens as his “God-like sculptor,” [7] and Saint-Gaudens was pleased to consider the author who captivated his literary attention a friend. After the original rectangular plaque was completed, Saint-Gaudens began casting smaller, circular editions of his work in 1898, including the one that hangs in the hallway of the Nichols House Museum, just outside the parlor—which is inscribed “To Rose Nichols,” his niece. As a tribute to the mutual friend who introduced them, the plaque features the words of Stevenson’s poem “To Will H. Low:”

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Detail of plaque including title, inscription and first stanza of “To Will H. Low”

Youth now flees on feathered foot
Faint and fainter sounds the flute,
Rarer songs of gods; and still
Somewhere on the sunny hill,
Or along the winding stream,
Through the willows, flits a dream;
Flits but shows a smiling face,
Flees but with so quaint a grace,
None can choose to stay at home,
All must follow, all must roam.

This is unborn beauty: she
Now in air floats high and free,
Takes the sun and breaks the blue;—
Late with stooping pinion flew
Raking hedgerow trees, and wet
Her wing in silver streams, and set
Shining foot on temple roof:
Now again she flies aloof,
Coasting mountain clouds and kiss’t
By the evening’s amethyst.

In wet wood and miry lane,
Still we pant and pound in vain;
Still with leaden foot we chase
Waning pinion, fainting face;
Still with gray hair we stumble on,
Till, behold, the vision gone!

Where hath fleeting beauty led?
To the doorway of the dead.
Life is over, life was gay:
We have come the primrose way.

Even though the Nichols family had their own Stevenson plaque to admire, Marian took the opportunity to visit the memorial in St. Giles- a testament to how much the family admired the work of their ‘Uncle Gus.’

“This morning we are going to St. Giles to see the Stevenson monument, and this afternoon we are to drive to Rosalyn. You remember that we couldn’t get into the Chapel before, as it was Sunday so I shall have a chance to see that.”- Marian Nichols to Arthur Nichols, August 30, 1904.

[1] Augustus Saint-Gaudens 1848-1907: A Master of American Sculpture. Toulouse: Musèe des Augustins, 1999.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Saint-Gaudens, Homer. The Reminiscences of Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Vol  1. London: Andrew Melrose, 1913: 367-389.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

By Victoria Johnson, Visitor Services and Research 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.