Saturday, December 6, 2014

Newport Holiday Decorations 2014

Instead of any major travels, this season we are taking some shorter trips closer to home. More and more sites are promoting their holiday decor, so this week we spend a couple days in the Newport, Rhode Island area.

Our first stop was Blithewold, in Bristol, Rhode Island. This home, while grand, is much smaller and homelike than the Newport mansions. The volunteers decorated throughout, with different themes. Some of these were clever interpretations, and all were lovely. The centerpiece, however, was the tree that was tall enough to reach the second floor in the stair hall.

The next day we toured three of the Newport mansions: The Breakers, Marble House and The Elms.

If you have never been to visit these mansions, you will probably have a hard time grasping the size and grandeur. These "palaces" were only intended for the summer season, so any holiday decor is a modern interpretation. Photography is not normally permitted, but during this season they do allow photographs of the main decorated areas in the three houses. Frankly, most of the decorating looked pretty much like what you would see an any upscale shopping mall or grand hotel lobby. It does seem like an uphill battle: Do you do simple designs that will be lost among the house's architecture, or try to match or out do it? 

The "Poinsettia Tree" under the watchful eye of a Breakers staff member.

The most intriguing aspect for me was the use of LED candles, which provided a lifelike, flickering flame effect. These are perfect for house museums, and also for people who don't want live flames around.

Marble House and The Breakers are both so over the top, that the floral decorations didn't have a chance (I didn't even have the heart to take a picture of the main hall at Marble House - even with a wreath of enormous size on the marble wall, it still looked just sad. The Elms, more restrained in its elegance, seemed like better coordination of color and theme.

A decorated mantelpiece at The Elms

The Elms grand holiday tree
But all was not lost. We had breakfast and lunch at Annie's restaurant on Bellevue Avenue - where the kitchen staff puts up the ceiling decorations. Apparently there will be a contest to guess the number of ornaments.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Vermeer and the Camera

Vermeer's "The Music Lesson"
The other evening I finally got to see the film "Tim'sVermeer". In short, this is the story of Tim Jenison, an inventor and entrepreneur who became interested in the "photographic" quality of  the Dutch painter Johanne Vermeer's work, and wanted to see if technology aided the artist. His theory is that a primitive (by our standards) optical device, the "camera obscura", which was well known at that time, was used for drawing. He did not understand, however, how this would have aided in the color. Bit of a spoiler, a mirror was also required.

Jenison, an art novice, finds he can make an almost perfect replica of a photograph using his technique. He then moves on to the next step, working as he believed Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675)  did.

The film takes us through the process of recreating the physical setup of the studio arrangement, including replicating the items appearing in the painting "The Music Lesson".

There are two art experts and authors appearing in the film.

Philip Steadman, author of  Vermeer’s Camera, examined the paintings of Vermeer and through geometry believes he has proof that the painter used a camera obscura to create the drawing/composition.
Artist David Hockney wrote Secret Knowledge, where he is convinced the use of technology (in terms of lenses, etc.) was in use by a number of artists, and earlier than believed.

I found this all intriguing, and like any modern person, found myself "googling" into the night to learn more.

As contrasted with the "Vermeer" replica in the film, it doesn't seem that these two authors actually put their theories to the test to create a painting. There were also some interesting comments in some of the reviews and articles below. The film comments that there was no underpainting or drawing in Vermeer's work - but this is contradicted by critics, as there is evidence of underpainting, and the fact that drawing done in chalk would be obliterated during the painting process. The film oddly enough shows Jenison's painting having a drawing marked on the canvas.

Another quibble was the selection of the work; probably for dramatic effect, the work selected is in the Queen of England's collection, and much was made of the fact that it was not available, but that Jenison was given an opportunity to see it privately, when in fact, the work is on view for special exhibitions, including the National Gallery.

So, still not conclusive. Did Vermeer rely on this technology? Use it in portions of paintings or only certain paintings? Or did he simply have a unique "eye" and a repertoire of artistic "tricks" to create illusions. When I look at images of  all the known Vermeers, they seem to vary in their "photographic" appearance, with some looking decidedly "painterly".

Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, ca. 1662. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Marquand Collection, Gift of Henry G. Marquand, 1889 (89.15.21)
Study of a Young Woman, ca. 1665–67, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, in memory of Theodore Rousseau, Jr., 1979 (1979.396.1)

Perhaps more people will be inspired to experiment with these theories (or maybe Vermeer's equipment will turn up at a yard sale) and we will have a more conclusive ending to this story.

Some additional resources.

You can find just about everything we know of Vermeer here. See a page of this website dealing with Vermeer's possible use of a camera obscura here.

Some additional reviews, commentary and interesting stuff:

Sunday, October 19, 2014

We Visit Watershed

While in Maine for the Columbus Day weekend, we visited the Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts. Now, we have been going to Maine for the past 20 or so summers, but somehow never got over to see this, but during Wiscasset's Art Walk, they had a display in the storefront next door to us, and announced a "pop up sale" at the center. After looking up the address, it was slightly embarrassing to notice that it was only a three minute drive away.
The main workshop building is bigger than it looks from this end.

The site of the center was originally occupied by a brick manufacturer, using local clays. When this business no longer made sense, the owners wanted to do something with the property, and the Watershed Center came into being. While visiting, we were given a tour of the facilities.

Some of the original facility including a brick kiln large enough to walk in is still in place, they have upgraded and added, with a variety of kilns and equipment.

The glazing area
One of the kiln rooms
The outdoor kiln area
While they offer workshops and classes, the summer program for visiting artists is totally unstructured. Ceramic artists come to the center to work, network, and gain inspiration through camaraderie with like minded people.

As part of their outreach, they have the "Mudmobile" to travel off site for educational programs.

Ready to hit the road

During the summer, they host a benefit called "Salad Days", where you buy a plate, have a salad luncheon, then take your plate home. We'll make sure to check this out next summer.

The shard pile for pots that didn't turn out well

Monday, September 22, 2014

Lilly 2001-2014

Miss Lilly 2001 - 2014

We can so clearly remember bringing Lilly home from New Jersey as a pup, it is hard to believe that it was almost 14 years ago.

On the way to her new home she didn't want to drink, eat or even go outside on the grass. She certainly made up for all of these during her time with us. Whenever people visited, invariably they would helpfully take the roll of toilet paper from whatever high location it occupied, and put it on the holder, not realizing that we had learned long ago that Lilly could not resist this supply of soft, chewable paper. If she couldn't locate that, she would steal tissues from pockets, napkins off the table, and paper towels from wherever she could.

As she aged, she could no longer hear, we were worrying about her eyesight, and finally, in the past months she began a decline in her mobility (although sometimes still the milk disappeared from your morning cereal bowl if you left it unattended on the table).

As with some of the others before her, she had her last trip to Maine. She appeared fine when taken out in the morning, but declined her breakfast. For a dog who was obsessed with food, this was alarming. She lay down, and never regained the strength to get up again. We rushed for home, making her comfortable as we could on a bed of pillows and blankets, but she left us sometime during the ride home from Maine.

As demanding as she was, and yes, often times as annoying as anything, her end was graceful and peaceful. And as with the others, we will miss her greatly.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Things We Leave Behind Deserve Stories

Being involved in the antique trade you see many items come to the market that would seem to have a story behind them (or perhaps I just want there to be a story). Valuable jewels and works of art make you wonder if a family has fallen on hard times, or if they need to be sold to satisfy the needs of heirs; or maybe they simply lost interest in the item and want the money to do something else.

When household furnishings are sold at auction you wonder: are the people downsizing, redecorating, moving, divorcing, or in many cases, simply deceased? These types of sales seem to be understandable. But oftentimes, whether in with these lots of goods, or offered individually, there will be items that would seem to have far more sentimental rather than intrinsic value, and I can't help but wonder how these came to be sold.

Many years ago I went to an auction where what appeared to be an entire household was put in storage before 1920, and not disposed of until the mid 1970s. From the nature of the items, and the fact that the storage bill was apparently paid all those years, the family was well to do. I suspect many of the items were wedding gifts, as they were lovely examples of glass, china and silver. But there were also many everyday items, from clothing, to children's toys to holiday items. It still remains with me to this day, wondering what could have happened, and while they simply may have moved to another country and never bothered to retrieve these things, why hold on through the many years when they would have had little practical or  antique value? I am sure sentiment was involved, and so I conjure more dramatic and tragic scenarios, such as the family being lost in a ship sinking or other disaster, where the surviving family simply packed up the evidence of their lives so the could "deal with it later".

But whatever the reasons, the artifacts of our lives will often live on after us, and pass through other hands. When I go to auction previews (I often think of them as the place "where old wedding presents go to die") and see the wide range of items put out for display and ultimate sale. This week, at one preview, there was a large (and I mean really large) lot of miscellany. These  types of lots include the entire contents of a room or rooms, swept up into one group and sold for one price. There are usually no particularly interesting items in these lots, just "stuff" such as we all have in the back of the kitchen cabinets or in the cellar, but this lot had one particularly eye catching item. It was a large photographic portrait of a couple, most likely taken at a major event in their lives, probably an anniversary. While it didn't look that much different from the typical family photo, the large size (approximately 2 x 3 feet), and the elaborate frame would make this the focal point of any room, and implied that someone, at some point placed great importance on this image.

As an artifact, it was arresting, and seemed to have a "Diane Arbus" quality to it. And the more I looked at it, the more I wondered what led it to wind up for sale in this lot of household detritus. It did not appear to be that old (perhaps 1970s or 80s); was there truly no family left who remembered these people? Or at least cared enough for their dignity to remove the photo from the frame before sale, lest their family members wind up looking out from the wall of some flea market or second hand store for years?

Or will someone just dismantle this because "I can use the frame for something"?

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Monhegan Ghost Trees

This summer in Maine I finally managed to make the ferry trip to Monhegan Island, about 10 miles off the mainland. Well known for its scenic beauty, including harbor, cliffs and a lighthouse, it was also been famous for the painters who worked there, and of course, for the art lovers who make the pilgrimage to try their own hand, or at least soak up the atmosphere.

Monhegan pretty much lived up to my expectations, and while I certainly took many photos of the village and shoreline (I'll post some of those later), I was not expecting forest, and was intrigued with the dead trees. The forest in the center of the island was, to use a cliche, like a cathedral, quiet and serene. Along the coast, high above the cliffs, many of the trees were kept to almost a bonsai version by the wind and weather. Trees once dead had their skeletal remains dried and whitened by the winds, in some places forming almost a "ghost forest".

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Shell Game: Another "Finished" Project

When working on a restoration project, part of the decision-making is "how far to go" and what to replace. Will you return to pristine condition, "looks good", or just keep it from falling apart further?

With this mirror (see earlier post),  the most glaring defects where the missing shell ornaments, and the unappealing, and badly deteriorated scenic panel. Aside from these issues, it was mostly intact and original.

I cast replicas of the shells, gilded them and then put them in their corners. These were originally placed in beds of compo material, and they probably detached as the material dried over the years. Mine were bedded with an epoxy putty.

Since the reverse painting was not that attractive, I did not want to make a replica. I put in a plain mirror plate, and since the mirror frame is so ornate, I find this a more elegant, restrained solution. At some point, if I find a design I like, I may replace with a reverse painting.

There are still numerous small losses and chipping, particularly around the edges. These have been tinted to make them less obtrusive. If a more pristine look is desired, they can be repaired as well, but the age of this mirror, combined with it's edge construction makes it naturally prone to this type of damage and decay.

Compo bedding that held (or didn't hold) the original shell.

Replacements,and new bedding material in corner.

New shells installed

Replacement shell toned to match.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Summer at Old Sturbridge Village

Since I had an errand to run in the area, we stopped in to Old Sturbridge Village for a visit. This weekend they had a variety of textile-related activities being demonstrated.

Bedding being aired on the fence at the Small House

Dying wool with natural materials.

The Freeman Farmhouse and barns

Baking time at the farm kitchen; no fly control here.

Dairy room at the farm.

Shoemaker at work.

Towne House barns.

Towne House with all blinds closed.

Friday, August 15, 2014


While at the Maine Antiques Festival in Union Maine last week, an impending rainstorm made for some dramatic skies. (The ones in the first picture are real, even though they look like something from Pixar!)

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Painting on Southport Island

Robert Wilson came by for the second time this summer, and on the recommendation of another artist suggested we visit Southport Island on the Boothbay peninsula.

It was another picture perfect day, and surprisingly, there was a parking spot and few people about on the dock. This location was the next best thing to going out on a boat (and probably a lot steadier).

We had a good view of the Cuckolds lighthouse, softened just a bit with the haze. So much to paint we could have spent even more time. I was able to do three quick watercolor paintings.

Cuckolds Light watercolor by Joseph Rice

Moored Dinghys watercolor by Joseph Rice

Southport Shore watercolor by Joseph Rice