Monday, April 18, 2016

A Budding Scarlett O’Hara in Richmond, Virginia

Richmond, Va. postmark from March 24, 1850.
Collecting old letters is fascinating because they allow a personal glimpse into the past. Moreover, in letters and diaries, people often reveal feelings and aspects of themselves not found in more formal kinds of writing.

Letters are valued for their combination of association and content. Examples of associations are letters by George Washington or about the Civil War. Content implies dramatic information, say a soldier's account of a battle, as well as letters written with flair and style. 

The first page of Nell's letter—excerpts below…
A letter with personality to spare was written in 1850 by sixteen year old Eleanor (Nell) Meade to her sister Charlotte at City Point, Virginia now part of Hopewell, about 20 miles southeast of Richmond. Written home from Nell's boarding school in Richmond, the letter is filled with charm, humor and irony, but at every moment one senses Nell's determined will, the iron fist within the velvet glove. 

Home School was a Young Ladies' boarding school run by a Mrs. Minor in Richmond.
Although no dire events were transpiring, the way Nell reports it, there was never a dull moment. The letter starts out recounting the apparently serious illness of a teacher, Miss Hayman. The problem comes with the substitute, the appropriately named Miss Grubb,

one of these dictatorial persons it is so hard to mind; as Miss Steward said she is a person of very limited education, in hearing us she counts the most insignificant things a miss, faults marks have been very common this week….I just escaped having one, and got seven in deportment, the first time I have had anything but nines since I came here. No mind, I will pay her for it, if I live.

"I will pay her for it if I live---"

"My other dress is going the way of all flesh"

"I have nothing on earth to wear"
The main part of the letter concerns Nell’s new wardrobe. While she states that she is content to make over her old clothes, she then goes on to specify her exact needs (“I want everything pink this summer”), underlining her requests with the sad story of her old bonnet:

…as for my walking bonnet, it got so covered with coal dust, that one evening I saw it, and thought most certainly it was some bodies old mourning bonnet…I thought a little blowing would help it, but at the first puff, the house was so full of clouds of dust, that everybody getting choked, came running to see what was the matter, and found me puffing and blowing at my bonnet. Two or three days after that the crown fell out, and there was an end of my lovely bonnet.

 end The end of the bonnet.

Eleanor softens her tone a bit with a request that her mother instead of Charlotte should come to visit her, as her mother needs a little vacation. However, if we wish to second-guess Nell’s motives, perhaps she was thinking that a shopping spree in Richmond was more likely to take place with Mother in tow than with Sister.

I had rather have Ma, because she stays at home so much, and it is my private opinion, publicly expressed, that after a while it will be impossible to move her, and a trip to Bolling Hall would be very beneficial.
A sharper tone returns to the letter with Nell’s characterization of Garnet, who

sits by me at table; whenever she gets almost enough to eat, she turns to me and says 'I’m almost happy.' It is a pretty hard matter to make her happy I can tell, she can devour more bread than any one I ever saw, it is wonderful how she escapes being choked.

It is wonderful how she escapes being choked.

Even today many boarding schools prescribe a Spartan regime as being good for developing character. At this point we can easily imagine Nell’s feeling on the subject:

I received a letter from Mildred day before yesterday, she is going to school in Staunton to Mr. Philips, who has thirty five boarders, and they make up their own beds, and sweep their floors every evening. I would not have to do it for a heap.

 I would not do it for a heap.

Nell intersperses her commands and tart observations with so much charm and wit that after a short while we feel as if we are part of her circle, enjoying her confidences. Her talent for writing raises her letter far above the ordinary, plodding letter home from school. She obviously added a lively element to the Home School crowd, and her sense of playfulness is nowhere more apparent than in her closing lines: 

“…believe believe me ever your loving, affectionate, attached, devoted, beautiful, lovely, intelligent, economical, tired--- sleepy--- Sister--- Nell.”
The Meades are a well-documented family, the bulk of their papers archived at the University of North Carolina. We can trace what happened to Nell, Charlotte and the others mentioned in this letter, but for now I would like to leave Nell as she was, a nascent Southern Belle on a Spring day in 1850.

(All photos and original documents property of the author.) 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Happy Monkey Year 2016!

Chinese New Year for 2016, which is a Monkey Year, starts this Monday, February 8th.  Monkeys in Chinese culture, as in Western culture, symbolize playfulness and mischief, and as such are found depicted in great variety, and in every branch of Chinese art. 

Monkeys can appear as natural animals or in the person of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King or Monkey God, from the classic story Journey to the West. In this story, one of Sun Wukong’s many adventures involves his stealing the Peaches of Immortality, when he was excluded from a feast of the gods. Even the naturalistic monkeys are usually depicted as holding, proffering, or reaching for a peach.

Is he offering you this Peach of Longevity, or keeping it for himself?
The above silver pendant shows a monkey among the peach branches, well-pleased with himself for taking one of the peaches. At the bottom are four holes for suspending small bells, or perhaps for the tools of a chatelaine. I especially like this piece of jewelry because of the balance of the design, and also the perfect toning of the silver. The airy openness of this pendant, which I gave to my sister, recalls some of the openwork jewelry from ancient Egypt. 
The back of the pendant—note the location of the unreadable hallmarks.

Above is a rather elaborate representation of the Monkey God, almost entirely covered in gold leaf, wearing a very detailed coat and sporting his characteristic salute. (In the recent post on the toddler statue, I mentioned the simplicity of his garment. The Monkey God’s outfit, on the other hand, is more intricate than is usual.) The octagonal base is interesting as well, with its plain top and plinth sandwiching a band of yet more detailed, gilded carving. 

The back of this statue features the tiger-skin skirt of his costume, but is more notable for the cautionary tale it tells. Those white dots are not original, but are the result of storing this in bubble-wrap, which has interacted with the painted surface. Bubble wrap is not a safe material in which to wrap antiques, especially those with a painted or otherwise delicate surface. Much better is to wrap the object with tissue paper first, preferably acid-free, then adding bubble-wrap if more padding is needed.

The following rather surreal furniture panel certainly plays with the sense of scale, showing either a very large monkey, or very small buildings. This monkey is hardly natural—besides the odd proportions, the artist employed a common convention to show fur, but which resembles eyelashes! In addition, he is reaching for some peaches still growing on the tree at the far left, to which our eye is led by his extended arm, so this may represent the banquet scene mentioned above from Journey to the West.

Among the more unusual handicrafts to be found in traditional Taiwan street fairs are leather animals, ranging from miniatures to full-sized horses. Almost every kind of animal can be found. The following pair of leather monkeys are rather old, gauging from their general appearance, and the fact that the eyes are of glass. With their menacing looks and present state of gentle decay, they seem more suitable to celebrate Halloween than New Year. With those sharp teeth and wiry fingers, I can't imagine that these looked too friendly even when new, and wonder why the original owner acquired them.

The above octagonal wooden bowl may be recalled from Goat Year's post last year, when the opposite panel was highlighted. The monkey carved on this side still has traces of gilding, and is surrounded by characters representing luck.

The last photo shows two of the ubiquitous Chinese cookie or cake molds, in the shape of monkeys holding peaches. The hatching of the fur, although still schematic, looks more natural here. While the poses at first seem similar, one of the monkeys is seated, and the other is striding, apparently wearing curled-toed shoes, no less.

Let me know if you have a favorite among these different monkeys. I hope that Monkey Year will arrive bringing a generous measure of the monkey’s playfulness and humor, as well as the longevity, health and abundance promised by his peaches. Happy Monkey Year!

(All photos and original objects, except as noted, property of the author.)

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Two Especially Appealing Chinese Statuettes

Budai wishes everyone a Happy 2016!

Often the objects I collect have a strange or outlandish quality to them, an edge that greatly appeals to me. Chinese antiques fall naturally into this category, with their numerous dragons, bats, demons, and intricate carvings that age has dimmed and transformed.  

For the first post in 2016, I decided to present two small statuettes that are outstanding instead for their visual charm. Chinese statues form a large field, and while museums feature those made of bronze, stone or polished hardwoods, I am most attracted to those made from painted wood.

The slightly muted colors of red, orange, yellow and green, often accented with gold, are familiar on these statues, the colors becoming even more subdued as the figures stand on altars and are exposed to the smoke of burning incense. The two statues below are small, about three or four inches high, and carved from fragrant softwood, perhaps some form of cedar.

(As always, click on images to enlarge.)
Above is a diminutive figure of Budai, often known as the Laughing Buddha. This fat, bald, smiling character is often shown with many small children upon him, and as such is one of the mainstays of Chinese decoration. Because of his name and appearance he is often confused or combined with a number of Buddhist deities. 

The carving in this piece has a naïve, folk-like style. His back is straight, but he is also leaning at an odd angle, making him difficult to photograph effectively. Chinese statues often have decorated bases, but the simple band, as seen from the side, evokes the tree branch from which it is carved, and is appropriate for the simple monk's life led by the original Budai.

The name Budai literally means Cloth Bag, and this bag containing his few possessions is typically shown at his side, as it is here, highlighted in swirled red and yellow.

The back of the figurine features Budai’s bald head and yellow robe.

The bottom of the statuette, showing the texture of the soft wood.

The appeal of the following statue of a child derives from the skill and sophistication of its carving. Children are common subjects in Chinese art, although it is unusual to find a free-standing figure of a baby or toddler. Children are often represented as attendants for various deities, especially for Guan Yin, the goddess of compassion and mercy. 
This child is depicted with a forward stance, wearing only an apron-like garment. If you look closely, he has little hair, except for a circular tuft in the middle. This was the traditional style for small children, and even today this haircut can occasionally be seen, especially as Chinese New Year approaches. The simplicity of the gilded apron contrasts strongly with the elaborate patterns and embroidery on most of the clothing found in Chinese art.

Child attendants are often depicted with various offerings, such as food, drink, yuan bao (gold ingots), or other lucky objects, but here the gesturing hands are empty and not intended to hold anything. The side view emphasizes the plumpness of the young child, in his limbs, his stomach—even the creases where the apron is tied at the middle. The base is a simple black band, very similar to the Budai, although it is dressed up a bit by the offset red platform on which the child stands.

The back of the figure features very little in the way of clothing, reminding us of the extreme youth of this attendant. The plainness also emphasizes the expert carving of the tied bows. These are the only intricate details on this piece, serving to remind us of its overall simplicity and gentle curves.

I hope you have enjoyed these two statuettes, which while probably not of great significance in the broader sense, I feel are two of the highlights of my collection. Accurate depictions of babies or toddlers are rare, and this one is suffused with a special personality and charm. The Budai, likewise, has a happy, simple aura which reminds us in an increasingly complex world that enlightenment and contentment come from within.

(All photographs and original objects property of the author.)

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Mystery Object Revealed: Muyu, or Wooden Temple Bells

Those who have visited Buddhist or Taoist temples surely have seen Chinese temple blocks, called muyu (木魚, literally wooden fish). These hollow blocks are struck with a mallet to produce a sharp sound, used to accompany chanting or religious recitation. 

The Mystery Object, a muyu carved with facing dragons. 

Part of a very old tradition, muyu are still found in every Chinese temple, usually elaborately carved and resting on a cushion. The temple versions can be quite large, from a foot or so across to some monsters wider than a meter, although size seems to have little to do with the volume or tone produced.

This side view makes its musical function more readily apparent.

The above two-dragon muyu is exceptional for the appeal of its conception and the quality of its carving. Muyu traditionally feature a motif of two fish centering a pearl, a common theme in Chinese art, previously seen in this rock-crystal paperweight/brush rest.

Here are some more muyu, showing a variety of forms:

This muyu of traditional form, also painted red, clearly shows the traditional two fish motif.

The fish motif here has become very rudimentary, but oddly the pearl is sharply and clearly defined.

The carving here has been reduced to two simple scaly patches. Notice the beveled striking surface. 

The bell-like structure of the above three muyu is clearly visible in this bottom view. These three are about 4-5 inches across, slightly smaller than the dragon model.

Usually the original mallets are lost, but with a little searching, old examples can turn up.

This black-painted example is a larger, table-top model, with a carved fish below, supporting the sounding block, in turn carved with scenes of leaping fish. The top has the Chinese characters, 阿彌陀佛 (Emituofo, or  Amitabha), one of the names of the Buddha, indicating its religious use.

The reverse side shows a similar level of carving.

A good way to keep the muyu and beater together is to tie them with a strip of red cloth. The stick-mounted block shown below is another favorite, for its sharp black and red color scheme, its matching beater, and the gem-like knobs on the handles.

Most of these muyu are still quite functional. There is no way to tell from the size or appearance how they will sound, you simply have to try them out. One miniature two-inch version, made of boxwood, is so loud that it practically hurts your ears.

Muyu are especially appealing to me because of my general interest in musical instruments. Like many Chinese antiques, they are decorative, surprisingly functional, and full of traditional symbolism. They embody that essential Chinese character, built up from centuries of tradition, that makes them so visually arresting and rewarding to study.

PS: I found this demonstration of the sound of the muyu on Youtube. Of course, older ones may sound different because of age, use or cracking, but many are still perfect.

All photos and original objects property of the author.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Chinese Mystery Object with Kissing Dragons

It's time for a new Mystery Object. Although I have often acquired items mainly because of their historical interest and without considering their looks, this piece is one of my favorites because of its tremendous eye appeal. 

These utilitarian objects are still in common use, and typically have a characteristic decoration, although rarely featuring dragons. The form of the dragons here, however, does have a symbolic significance appropriate to this type of object.

This is made out of wood and is about six inches long, but others range from considerably smaller to much larger. While other types of these can be found, this is the most common general shape.

If you know or can guess what this is, please let me know in the comments. As usual, Comment Moderation will be turned on for Mystery Objects posts. If your solution is correct, I will withhold it until the end, to allow others a chance to guess.

The answer will be revealed in a few days. Good luck!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Happy Birthday Sigrid Arnoldson, plus a cautionary tale

My last trip to Cleveland, I was going through a box of old photographs and came across the following dramatic portrait, obviously a singer or actress. Although the features seemed familiar, I couldn't recall whose portrait this was, so I looked at the back, only to be confronted with a blank expanse. 

Mystery portrait: Who is she???

The identity was known when I obtained it, but nothing was written on this large photo, which was likewise dissociated from any receipts or catalog entries. In other words, an orphan photograph. However, luck was watching out for me, for later a small album yielded this late 19th century trade card of singer Sigrid Arnoldson, advertising Lorillard tobacco:

This certainly looked like the photo, and now that I had a name it was a matter of minutes to look on the internet and confirm the identification with other Arnoldson photos from the same session, such as this one on the website. 

Sigrid Arnoldson, a famous Swedish singer with an international career who lived from 1861 to 1943, was an important part of the music scene in the late Nineteenth century. In a manner reminiscent of Adelina Patti, Arnoldson combined the high status of classical singers with the relentless merchandising of the period to enter the realm of popular culture. Her face and name appear often in relics of the period, frequently in sets of trade cards issued by tobacco and other companies.

Luckily, Arnoldson lived into the era of early phonograph recordings, so her voice was preserved for the future.  That same visit, I opened a box of old 78-RPM records stored in a cabinet, and miraculously there was Arnoldson's 1906 Berlin rendition of the Swiss Echo Song, a popular Victorian display piece. (You may hear this recording, although not from my copy, on Youtube.) 

The important lesson here is that we are the custodians of the objects we collect, and there is no excuse to allow identifying information to be lost. Names and locations should be written on the backs of photographs with pencil (but please avoid ink or felt tips, which over the years will bleed through). 

Arnoldson's birthday is March 20th, which makes this an especially appropriate time to review her story. I must have had a premonition that I would one day be called on to celebrate her birthday: I was all prepared with this c.1890 box of Sigrid Arnoldson Birthday Candles! That is the pleasure of collecting—once someone like Arnoldson registers on your mental radar, locating an insignificant object like these candles becomes an occasion of great excitement and amusement.

Still filled with the original candles!

The spirit of Sigrid Arnoldson must have been at my elbow last summer, protecting her image from neglect. Although most of my things are packed away in deep storage, it seems that every time I opened a box I found an object related to her. A few days before I left, one last very beautiful portrait from 1894 virtually materialized in a folder of architectural photographs. She looks very relaxed now that I have labeled her picture, and order has been restored!

Sigrid Arnoldson, March 20, 1861 – February 7, 1943

All photographs and original items, except as noted, property of the author.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Taipei Lantern Festival for Goat Year, 2015

(Note: Lots of colorful photos, so please be patient while they load.)

This pig driving a banana is welcoming you to Lantern Festival!
Lantern Festival comes at the end of Chinese New Year, a time when handmade lanterns in incredible shapes are built to celebrate the special themes for the year, or for that matter any subject, charming or strange, that comes into the maker's head. (I last reported on Lantern Festival during Dragon Year.)

The way it works is that different schools, groups, and even companies enter their lanterns in various categories, and at some point winners are chosen. This post has only still photos, but many of the lanterns were mechanized, having various moving parts, and sometimes even steam issuing forth.

Since this is Goat Year, many of the lanterns are goat themed, and this arrangement of two goats with the Taipei 101 Tower was one of the best.

As you leaf through these photos, note your favorites, and let me know at the end. It is a difficult choice; even these here were weeded out with difficulty from over five hundred photographs! (How could we ever have existed before digital cameras?) 

The festival was spread out over a large park, as seen from one vantage point.

This one was looks like a slug with its tail in a bowl—perhaps a genie-like creature coming out? I saw many local people who seemed equally bewildered.

A set of horse lanterns was particularly finely made.

Pegasus, or at least some flying horse, was the centerpiece.

The makers couldn't resist adding this charming pony.

Although this traditional house is a larger complex, I'm sure you can identify all the same features as on the Chinese House Bank.

This sea creature tableau, composed of turtle, sea urchin, clam with pearl, crab, and adorable smiling shrimp, is supposedly made by an elementary school, but I somehow detect the hand of the art teacher.

This lantern does look like it was actually made by elementary school student, which to me gives it an extra charm. Although somewhat crude, it is still much better than I could do were I to try my own hand at it.

One problem with recent lantern festivals is the increased use of Christmas-type lights, which I feel is cheating. However, in this scene both types appear combined to good effect.

This tufted elephant is a very well crafted lantern.

Stunning is the only word that can describe this eagle on a rock.

Off to the circus, starting with this delightful carousel.

…a Ferris Wheel…

It is always a mystery whether clown figures are deliberately meant to be scary, or just come out that way. This huge clown’s head coming out of the ground is many times larger than the surrounding acrobat lanterns.

The reason that Taiwanese children behave is because their parents tell them that otherwise this giant clown lantern will come to get them!


It’s a little hard to see in the picture, but this tree lantern was a real tour de force.

A pumpkin coach right out of a fairytale.

Astonishing quality, both design and construction-wise, in these dancing elephants.

I always like to see lanterns depicting traditional Chinese scenes.

Every year there is a main lantern with the theme of the current zodiac animal. This metallic, twinkling goat on a mountain top was about five stories high. There were lights playing, music blaring, and the mountains grew and changed shape!

One problem with the giant goat lantern was the ultra-bright, moving yellow and purple lights at the base, which played over the crowds, blinding people and making photography difficult.

Here is one final overview picture of the Goat Year Lantern Festival. The creativity and quality of these huge lanterns (the average height was probably six to ten feet) is amazing, especially for something so ephemeral. It is sad to think of all these being dismantled next week.

Again, let me know your favorites, and if looking at these has given you any ideas, tell me what design of lantern you might submit for a future festival. 

An elevated walkway made a convenient spot to take this photograph.