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.

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.)