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

“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

“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.

Happy Birthday Rose!

Today marks Rose Standish Nichols’ 145th birthday. To celebrate this day we are looking back at a likeness of Rose created shortly after her eighteenth birthday: an oil painting showing Rose with a powerful gaze and a pink dress. This painting represents Rose during a time of her life when most women her age were expected to focus on attracting a male suitor. Whether or not Rose was interested in finding a husband is open for interpretation. A few letters suggest an interest in romance yet her posture and tone in this painting of her as a young adult illustrates a fiercely independent and assertive woman.

There are some very attractive people at this hotel.  Next [to] me at [a] table is one of the handsomest and swellest looking men I have ever seen…How I wish you could see this kind of perfection at dinner in a dress-suit with his moustache waxed to an inimitable points…Now I suppose you can’t help wondering if I am not deeply in love for once in my life. 

Rose to Marian, 1896.

Rose lived 88 years independently but was rarely alone. She had a large network of friends and colleagues from all walks of life, both at home and internationally. One of her friends, Margarita “Daisy” Pumpelly, was the artist that painted her portrait in 1890. Daisy was born in 1873, one year after Rose, and died in 1959, one year before Rose. Their families, both from Boston, vacationed in Cornish and Dublin, active artist communities in New Hampshire. Rose and Daisy were both artistically gifted, apprenticing with local artists in New Hampshire and continuing their studies in Europe. [1] Despite all the parallels in the lives of the two women, one thing set them apart: Daisy was married.

Daisy Pumpelly married Henry “Harry” Lloyd Smyth in November 1894, when she was 21 years old. Despite her marriage to Harry, a geologist at Harvard University, and their four children, Daisy maintained an independent lifestyle. [2] In September of 1894, two months before Daisy and Harry’s wedding, Daisy’s sister wrote to Rose’s sister, Marian about Daisy’s travels in Paris:

“Daisy writes glowing accounts of Paris they had several adventures on the way. I should think that she would be excited at the thought of seeing Harry so soon, but to all appearances she does not show it.”

Elise Pumpelly to Marian, September 6, 1894.

Throughout Daisy and Harry’s marriage, they often traveled independently. In the Nichols family’s correspondence, mentions of Daisy and Harry in the same place are infrequent. She even traveled out West in 1920 with her father and two siblings, while Harry remained in New England. [3]

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“Sunrise near Agua Caliente, From a water-color by Margarita Pumpelly Smyth” [4].
Harry and Daisy had residences in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, but Daisy also had a presence in New York City. In the 1940s, Daisy rented a brownstone at 48 West 10th Street in Greenwich Village where she lived with Juliet Thompson, also a fine artist. The two painters spent many years there, working in their studios and entertaining guests. [5] 

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Daisy Pumpelly Smyth (left) and Juliet Thompson (right)

 

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Like Rose, Daisy and Juliet were followers of the Baha’i faith. This photograph shows the interior of Juliet and Daisy’s house, complete with a portrait of Abdu’l-Baha painted by Juliet [6].

 

The link between Rose Nichols and Daisy Pumpelly Smyth is deeper than friend to friend or artist to sitter. Rose and Daisy both represent independent and artistic women at the turn of the twentieth century, committed to their careers and artistic practices despite societal expectations. On Rose’s 145th birthday we celebrate a portrait, connecting the lives of two female friends through art and social progress.

[1] Quirk, Lisa. “Margarita Pumpelly Smyth.” A Circle of Friends: Art Colonies of Cornish and Dublin. Durham: University Art Galleries, University of New Hampshire, 1985. 117.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid

[4] Pumpelly, Raphael. My Reminiscences. New York: Henry Holt, 1918. 779. Print.

[5] Thompson, Juliet, and Marzieh Gail. “At 48th West Tenth.” The Diary of Juliet Thompson. Los Angeles: Kalimát, 1983. X.

[6] Parsons, Agnes. Abdu’l-Bahá in America, Agnes Parsons’ Diary, April 11 1912 – November 11, 1912. Los Angeles: Kalimát, 1996. 154.

 

By Emma Welty, Head of Collections and Administration.

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.

1961-190-1
Italian wooden bust, 18th century, possibly used as a reliquary.
1961-72
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.