Making an Impression


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Trade card for Dorothy Mercier, Printseller and Stationer; Etching with engraved lettering below. Print by Jean Baptiste Chatelain after Gravelot. 1745-1770. British Museum, D,2.3396

Dorothy Mercier: widow of an artist (and a painter herself), Mercier went into business after the death of her husband, Philip, first as a printseller and stationer, and later as a purveyor of artists’ supplies. Some of what she sold is listed below the vignette of a shop, and includes ‘all Sorts of Papers for Drawing, &c./ The best Black Lead Pencils, Black, Red & White Chalk./ Variety of Water-Colours, and Camels Hair Pencils./…English, Dutch, & French Drawing Paper, Abortive Vellum for Drawing,/ Writing Vellum, the Silk Paper for Drawing.’ She also sold “Continental prints” and “paintings of flowers in her own hand,” a pursuit considered suitable for ladies in the mid-18th century.

Evidence of widows taking over a husband’s print shop in the American colonies in the 18th century is harder to come by–there seems to be less specialization of retail sales in the colonies, certainly compared to London, which is one factor–though printers’ widows did assume their trade in Newport and Williamsburg, among other places. If we imagine a print shop in the colonies, what would we find for sale?

Nicholas Brooks’ ad from the Pennsylvania Packet of June 21, 1773 provides an answer:

Mrs. Yates in the character of Electra; Venus blinding Cupid by Strange (that’s a print by Robert Strange after Titian, no matter what glorious oddity you may imagine), and portraits of George Whitefield, John Wesley, and other religious luminaries. Whitefield and Wesley were popular Methodist ministers: Whitefield, the peripatetic evangelist, was the primary force behind the Great Awakening, and Wesley, despite his loyalty to King and Church, was an inspiration to the Revolutionary movement in America.

John Wesley after Nathaniel Hone
mezzotint, published 1770
© National Portrait Gallery, London NPG D4740

This print of Wesley is one I have seen in person, in a period frame, with a period backboard inscribed “Capt. Wm Noyes 1st Conts” and to be fair, it is one I have spent some time researching, so the titles in that Nicholas Brooks ad– which I was reading for another purpose altogether– were exciting to find. When I think about visual or print culture in the Revolutionary era, I try to imagine the ways in which people encountered imagery, and how they understood it. Wesley– and print shops– are one way I begin to fill in a picture of the past.

The Work of Women


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International Women’s Day: I may have missed it online but I have spent this day– this entire week, in fact– working with a woman I greatly admire and like. I’ve written about her before, my 96-year-old friend who was in the OSS and married a man who had fought for Chiang Kai-shek in World War II and against the Communists after the war.

It has been a week of learning about my friend, her mother, her aunts and great aunts and grandmothers; of learning about her daughters (and son), and her friends and the work she did.

Tuesday night, we had dinner with one of her friends who lives in a little red house not far from where I lived before I left Rhode Island. The Little Red House, as we always call it, was cozy and warm, built in 1793 when the East Side of Providene was rural, and the north end of it occupied by the Dexters, Morrises, Sessions and Coles on their farms.

The parlor was small, and the five of us filled it (along with a silver standard poodle who shook hands with us all). We ate in what had been the kitchen of the house, with a fire in the fireplace that had been used for cooking (and was still set up for cooking, though that was not where our meal was cooked). We ate from antique transferware, drank wine poured from antique decanters, and sat on antique chairs at an antique table in a room lit by candles. I would be lying if I tried to deny the warm magic of the setting, the scene, and the storytelling.

But the point is not that I had a wonderful time: the point is that I learned that night, and this week, about the ways that women look out for each other (when they’re not competing with each other), and the ways that women shepherd the history of families and places as they maintain collections of furniture, textiles, paintings, and prints.

As I held my friend’s hand and lit her way with my phone flashlight down a stone path to a waiting Subaru, I might as well have been holding a lantern and guiding her down a path to a waiting carriage, where wooden and tin footwarmers would replace a heater and blower motor. Some things are timeless and placeless: friendship, love, and caring. The need (the aspiration) to always care for the people around you, to be gentle and giving when you can, and to take and ask for help when you must: Those “feminine” values are what makes the world go ‘round, and keeps it steady.

Cakes and Honey


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Watercolor cakes: first invented by William Reeves in 1766 and sold in an improved form in 1780, watercolor cakes made painting easier then before. Colors still had to be ground in water to be used (that’s what the rectangular depression is for in the ceramic palette), but that was a step ahead of grinding the pigments with gum arabic yourself. Each pigment (usually a mineral, sometimes not) requires a specific amount of gum arabic, and in the 18th and early 19th century, both gum arabic and gum tragacanth were both used. In this era of experimentation, even gum hedera (from Hedera helix, or English ivy) was used, both as a diluent for animal glue size and in egg white varnish. The variation in gum types and amounts found in watercolor cakes and cake remains gives us an idea of how much experimentation and variation happened in the pre-industrial era of color production.

The Art of Drawing and Painting in Water-Colors, London: 1735.

Recipes (or receipts) were published beginning at least as early as 1730, with the promise of better, richer, and cheaper colors (qualities that did not always coexist easily). It’s not clear whether the watercolors sold in the American colonies were made locally or imported from Great Britain, but my best guess is that prepared watercolors (sold in shells and out of shells) were probably imported, if only because the sellers so often list many other goods.

Nicholas Brooks Ad, June 21, 1773 Pennsylvania Packet (Philadelphia).

How watercolors are sold evolves over time and varies by place: In 1771 Boston, John Gore, who specializes in artist’s materials at the Sign of the Painters Arms, offers “Water Colours ready prepar’d in Shells” in addition to a variety of artists’ pigments probably ground with different media to each artist’s specifications.

John Gore, Boston Evening Post, March 25, 1771.

Ten years later, Valentine Nutter, Stationer, offers “water colours in drops, shells, or galley pots,” suggesting that some cakes were prepared in ceramic pots or dishes (gallipots) and available in the United States by 1781. What the “drops, shells, or galley pots” looked like exactly is slightly conjectural: drop are probably corked bladders or bottles; shells are probably cockle shells (watercolor being concentrated means one wouldn’t need a cherrystone clam shell, let alone a quahog) but “galley pots” seem more elusive until you consider the Wedgwood paint chest.

blue and white jasper ware paint chest or box for moist watercolours: English, Staffordshire, Etruria, by Wedgwood, c. 1787. National Museum of Scotland, A.1893.84 A

The tiny pots that drop into the oval tray fall within the gallipot definition, and give us an idea of what Mr Nutter might have offered in his New York shop, filled with ground pigment, gum arabic, and a portion of honey to make the cakes re-wettable. Not every artist working in watercolor used honey, as recorded in a 1775 letter from John Singleton Copley to his mother, recording that “Mr. Humphrey tells me he uses no Shugar Candy in his colours.”

Kits, Boxes, Sticks, and All


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Jens Juel, Self portrait at an easel. Oil on canvas, 1766. Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Denmark.

Once again, I’m looking into artists’ materials and techniques, though instead of trying to kit myself out for the early Federal era, I’m digging into the last half (quarter) of the 18th century. It seems to be a time of rapid transitions in art materials as new pigments and media are developed. While Mr. Juel is beginning a work in oils, we still see some of the same tools that a watercolorist would use. Brushes, though his are shaped for working in oil; a shell, perhaps to combine pigment with medium, and bags of paint.

Before collapsible tubes were invented in 1841, artists scooped or scraped pigments mulled with medium into skin bags, secured them with twine or string, and then poked a hole in the bag to extrude pigment. Some more clever sorts would plug the hole with a cork– untying the bag would make more of a mess than a distribution system– but otherwise, you risked having your paint dry before you could use it up. Clearly there were some inefficiencies built into the system. (I think it also helps explain why “thick” paintings, that is, paintings using exuberant and textured layers of paint, do not appear until after collapsible tubes are invented and in wide use.)

Matthew Pratt, The American School. oil on canvas, 1765. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Samuel P. Avery, 1897, 97.29.3

In Pratt’s American School, we can see how small the palettes are, and how small the dots of paint are compared to the pools where colors have been mixed. The easel, presented from another angle, offers clues to the adjustable pegs and triangular/tripod shape of the main support. But what of watercolors?

Winsor & Newton Old Paints: note the tiny bags of paint.

To date, I’ve found conservation reports more helpful than anything else, especially those analyzing paint content for sugars and gums. (One of the keys to watercolors was the re-wettable aspect of the colors; gum arabic, gum tragacanth and honey or sugar were ingredients used in varying proportions to achieve what we now take for granted.) The first watercolor cakes or blocks are introduced in 1780 by William Reeves; often, these were very hard, and had to be agitated in water (ground on a surface) to be used, much like sumi-e ink. Once paint was ground with water, it could be dried in a dish or container for re-wetting and later use. The question of course is, what do dry it in? How do you mix and use the paint?

Caroline Schetky Richardson’s Paint Box
about 1820–30. MFA Boston. 1995.156.1

Mixing is simpler to solve: a palette, of course. The small, dirty-looking oval in the image above is the ivory palette used by Caroline Schetky Richardson; while her box is 1820-1830, it’s still very similar to box in Charles Willson Peale’s portrait of his brother James (below). The box is 21 inches wide, 10 inches high, and 13 inches deep. That makes the palette something like 3 inches wide, if we take a drawer as five inches wide.

James Peale painting a miniature. Oil on canvas by Charles Willson Peale, 1795. Meade Art Museum, Amherst, MA

In the CWP portrait of JP, the slightly open drawer of the painting stand may be giving us a peek at his palette; the simple tumbler of water helps confirm that he is working in watercolor on ivory, and give us a sense of what kind of water container artists used– which, happily, can be more easily sourced than Mr Peale’s box.

Wrap it up, I’ll take it


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To be honest, I would love to wrap my self up and take this silk, but it is for a museum to display, so instead the box is wrapped and ready to ship.

I was lucky to be included in a message group started by a friend asking if any of us had a banyan or wrapping gown to loan. Well, no… but I can make one!

So I did.

My version is based on this 1750-1760 example at the Victoria and Albert Museum, of silk designed by Anna Maria Garthwaite ca. 1740-1750. To be honest, this is one of my favorite gowns, despite the fact that it bears no practical relationship to any part of my daily or living history life. A girl can dream, though…

Just a little bit scary, despite being able to get more silk if I really messed up.

In particular, I like the way the style combines the t-shape of a basic banyan with the pleats used to shape European women’s gowns. Tricky, right?

Ann Shippen Willing, oil on canvas by Robert Feke, 1746. Winterthur Museum Museum purchase with funds provided by Alfred E. Bissell in memory of Henry Francis du Pont. 1969.0134 A

I made a pattern in muslin (it took two) primarily by draping, reading the V&A description, and looking at the original images as large as I could get them. By the time I had a pattern, I was mostly convinced, but still intimidated by the silk. I’ve had my eye on this ever since I saw at the local store, for it reminded me strongly of the Anna Maria Garthwaite silk worn by Ann Shippen Willing (Mrs. Charles Willing) of Philadelphia in this portrait by Robert Feke.

In the interest of economy, I machine sewed the long seams and the interior (lining) pleats, though I would not if I wear to make this for myself. Once the main seams were done, I pleated and pinned again.

Then it was time for my one of my favorite activities, hand-stitching pleats. It’s impressive how the look of a garment changes (and improves) as you continue to work on it. The fullness of the gown with the inserted pleats is pretty impressive and very satisfying to wear. It sounds fabulous as it moves with your body.

Once the gown is fully dressed on a mannequin (that is, over a shift and petticoat), I know it will assume the more correct shape of the green gown at the V&A– it looks better even on me, although it is too small, being made for a mannequin representing an 18th century woman.

Portrait of a Woman Artist, c. 1735
Oil on canvas
40 x 32 5/16 in. (101.7 x 82 cm)
Restricted gift of Mrs. Harold T. Martin in honor of Patrice Marandel, 1981.66
Art Institute of Chicago

Along the way, I found another green silk wrapping gown or banyan, this time worn by a French artist.I can guarantee you I would never wear silk to paint in, but your mileage may vary, and if I had a maidservant and unlimited cash in 1760, perhaps I would emulate the Mademoiselle at left.

Night Clubbing


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Mountebanks at night. watercolor by Paul Sandby, 1758 Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014

Mountebanks and miscreants: how we love them. I have found myself in a situation of late that feels altogether too much like high school, and as a means of understanding it, I have a story to tell. It will, sadly, confirm what my parents thought was happening, but hoped was not.

Let’s step back to the time when I was known as the Rat, when I spoke truth to adolescents and paid the price of ostracism and harassment. I was already largely outside whatever cliques there were in high school, for I’m not certain you can call an assemblage of despised literary hopefuls in a hallway window seat a clique, so the harassment hurt more than the exclusion. Harassment these days comes not in the form of people chanting at you in person, but rather in online trolling, which can be deleted, unless people take the energy to rise to doxing or swatting, and few in the living history world seem to– and that’s not a challenge, kids.

So, operating within a loose-knit band of misfits more Donnie Darko than Ferris Bueller, I began breaking the rules, taking films back to the public library for my teachers and spending the rest of the day at the art museum or bookstore, or combing thrift shops for my nearly-all-vintage wardrobe. I could not find a place to be, so I stepped out.

Naked Raygun at the Metro (not the club in question)

Along the way, I met some very interesting people: punk musicians, artists, dancers, and students who introduced me to a very different world than the one my classmates lived in. It was a kind of mid-western Desperately Seeking Susan, or perhaps Something Wild, only I suppose I was Susan seeking myself. I saw great bands and terrible bands, and continued my forays even after I’d left the city for college, which leads me to a moment that resonates fiercely with me in light of the past few days of highly localized re-enactor drama.

portrait of a wanna-be-artist

I had a sometime-boyfriend who was ahead of me in college, at a different university, who worked as a DJ in northside night clubs. On one summer trip to the city, I found myself walking out of a nightclub where I’d been dancing, eager for some fresh air. At the door were two of my former classmates– too much acquaintances to be called frenemies– trying, and failing, to get in. I caught their eyes, agog, as I walked out.

“You come here?” one asked. “How’d you get in?“
“I know a guy,” I said. “I’ve been coming here all summer,” and walked up the street to catch the bus to the next party.

Compare and Contrast


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Boston Massacre planning is underway for everyone involved at every level, including me.

I’ve made changes to what I plan to wear, in part because I have a newer gown that fits better and keeps me warmer, and because I have learned more, and looked at more, in the intervening time. Since 2016, I’ve made/upgraded a quilted petticoat (in a bronze silk, a color documented to Rhode Island quilted ‘coats), settled in to wearing my cap tied under my chin, and made both a new apron and a new bonnet.

Cap and bonnet shape and shoes help make time period distinctions between 1777 and 1770; if I could find the wool I made the gown from, I would add the cuffs it desperately needs. The heeled shoes skew earlier than 1770, but they are the only heeled shoes I have….if the weather is wretched, I will wear the flats for safety and comfort.

The bonnet, which I affectionately call “Lampshade,” is meant to have the shape of pre-1770 bonnets as seen in Sandby’s illustrations, and which I have been working on for a while.

Martha Collins, Thomas Sandby’s Cook. watercolor on paper by Paul Sandby, 1770-1780. RCIN 914339

I know from reading the standards that the understanding of mitt material has evolved, and my time this morning looking for an elusive apron shape raises questions for me as well. Here’s Martha Collins, painted by Paul Sandby. What’s that black thing on her arm? A mitt? An arm warmer? Is it knit, or woven? There’s always more to figure out, and more to make.

Cuffs on my gown don’t seem like a big enough deal to warrant buying wool for a whole new gown (with only six weeks to go), so my choices are live with no cuffs, alter the red gown of 2016’s event to fit properly, or initiate an extensive search for the scraps left over from the green gown…which may or may not be buried in storage. Tick tock.

Where You Come From


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A selection from the box, mostly documenting the first two decades of my mother’s life

Mumblety-odd years ago, my first museum job was in a photograph and print collection, working as a photo researcher both finding and processing collections. There was a voyeuristic quality to the work, sometimes when going through a photographer’s more personal images, but especially when working on a family collection.

As I continued to work in the field, I started meeting with donors, and learned to talk them into giving their collections to the museum. It was easy enough to talk to them about making their memories tangible, creating and preserving a legacy of their lives so that others could understand the past and the contribution they, in particular, had made. How they typified an important part of a state or region’s history.

Susie the Cat makes many appearances

Sporadically, I organized my own photos and ask my mother for images of our family. I certainly took plenty of photos of my own son, but as time went on– and whether this is due to smartphones or trying to live in the moment, or not wanting to break the magical spell of an experience– I stopped taking pictures. I could still talk people into donations, and still enjoyed going through their family albums, but recording my own life didn’t make much sense to me, and I began to consider pitching images and letters and postcards, especially as I packed to move south. Keeping photographs for myself didn’t make sense.

Federal furniture: always central in my family

Sitting in bed on Friday night, Drunk Tailor and I looked through a box of snapshots my mother keeps in a fabric-covered box. He said, “Photographs are what you use to show people what you used to look like,” and to a degree that’s true. They are also proof that you had a life before this moment (think Blade Runner) and proof– perhaps– that you are who you think you are (think Blade Runner 2049). But even more like the Blade Runner movies, photographs of your past, or your family’s past, tell you where you come from, and where you might belong. Love them or leave them, you fit in somewhere in a larger story of people, and that shapes your identity, what you do, who you love, and how you live.

1936: My grandmother’s wedding.

As every year ends, I look back with some sadness at things I wish I had done differently, people I wish I had not hurt, people I wish I’d hugged more. The box of snapshots reminds me that I’m all too common, all too normal. Everyone has those pangs of nostalgia, the words they wish they’d said, the loss they feel as they lose the people they love.

Saint Lucia Day ca 1947

And that’s the point, I suppose: love one another. Be excellent to each other. Take the photos, label them (in pencil, on the back, listen to your archivist), and look at them when you can’t remember who you are, where you came from, or why you matter.