Oh, before I forget: an award

A couple of weeks ago The Handy Book of Artistic Printing (a showcase of nineteenth century decorative printing of which I am co-author and -designer with Doug Clouse) was honored with a publication award from the Victorian Society in America. We were thrilled that it was recognized for content rather than just for design (though that's nice too...). 

The evening ceremony was held at the glorious Eldridge Street Museum which was built in 1887 as the first synagogue by East European Jews in New York. An opulent jewel detailed with Moorish and Orientalist touches, it is plunked in the midst of dumpling shops and other Chinese storefronts deep in the Lower East Side, and was a complete surprise to me.
If you haven't already, please take a little tour of the book.

We were one of several award-winners that evening. One author I chatted with, David Freeland, was recognized for Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan's Lost Places of Leisure, a picaresque narrative of New York's forgotten amusements which I am thoroughly enjoying right now. A full post on it when I've finished!


Impulse ebay purchase: a blow by blow

I saw it on the effortlessly addictive Anonymous Works. It had a very appealing awkwardness and was quite ambitious. While clearly beyond the capabilities of the painter, this piece was very earnestly striving for something big.
On an impulse, I went over to ebay and put in a bid even though it appeared to have a rather arbitrarily high price. Now I am a very infrequent ebayer— an umbrella here, an Austrian deer antler trophy there. A few times I've had someone swoop in at the last minute or two and snatch the sale. Perhaps I expected to be 'saved' by another such kamikaze bidder. But no.
Know that I tend to have buyer's remorse about virtually everything ('I should have gotten the cinnamon Freshen Up!') and need to just keep moving. Happily, the seller was a Brooklyn resident and my transaction could be completed without intervening mail delay. So yesterday, on an inordinately sultry afternoon I walked over to Carroll Gardens, had a chat with the seller's wife (very nice), picked up my prize, and got some exercise (3.6 miles door to door and back).
A little bit of educated Googling just moments ago finds that the original model for my purchase was François Boucher's The Toilet of Venus, in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Commissioned by Madame de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV, for the Château de Bellevue near Paris, the painting was completed in 1751. Madame de Pompadour had played the title role in La Toilette de Vénus staged at Versailles in 1750. 
Relatively speaking, I'd say my copy is not too bad after all.



Sunset and afterglow, November, 1883
November 9, 1883
Sunset, May 10, 1884
Sunset, May 10, 1884
Amber afterglow with crepuscular rays, September, 1885
Sustained light after sunset, July 12, 1886
Sunset and noctilucent cloud, July 6, 1885

I mentioned the British artist William Ascroft (1832-1914) at the end of the last post about volcanoes. I thought his remarkable, almost eerie series of sketches documenting the atmospheric effects of Krakatoa's eruption upon London's sunsets warranted a bit more attention. In the years after the 1883 explosion, Ascroft's rapidly drawn sketches recorded details that would have been otherwise ephemeral or merely described before the invention of color photography.
In a thoughtful April 15th New York Times Op Ed piece that I only just now saw, Simon Winchester, author of “Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded,” creates a wonderful image of Ascroft laboring to capture the "magic" in the sky:
An obscure Londoner named William Ascroft, astonished by the nightly light show along the Thames, turned out a watercolor [sic, they appear to all be pastels, not watercolors] every 10 minutes, night after night, working like a human camera. More than 500 Krakatoa paintings survive him. “Blood afterglow,” he jotted down on one canvas, noting the magic done by refractive crystals of dust; “Amber afterglow,” on another.
When The Eruption of Krakatoa, and Subsequent Phenomena, Report of the Krakatoa Committee of the Royal Society was printed in 1888, several chromolithographic prints of Ascroft's sunsets were painstakingly reproduced and included, having been deemed to have exceptional scientific import. Printed to the artist’s directions by the Lithographic Department of the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company, the job required ten different 'stones' or printing plates.

As an aside, I found this photograph of "noctilucent clouds" over Hungary taken in 2006. Originally recognized as a polar atmospheric occurance, the clouds have now been spotted in much lower latitudes in recent years. It is thought that global climate change may be the cause.


Volcano notes

April 17, 2010. (REUTERS/Ingolfur Juliusson)
April 17 and April 19, 2010. Örvar Atli Þorgeirsson

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguished, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went -and came, and brought no day,
Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea,
And their masts fell down piecemeal; as they dropped
They slept on the abyss without a surge—
The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,
The Moon, their mistress, had expired before;
The winds were withered in the stagnant air,
And the clouds perished! Darkness had no need
Of aid from them—She was the Universe!

In July of 1816, Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Mary's stepsister Claire, and Byron's physician, John Polidori, were spending their days indoors at the Diodati Villa, on a sojourn in Geneva, Switzerland. They were taking shelter from the inexplicable cold, "incessant rain" and mysterious fogs. "There was a celebrated dark day," Byron recalled, "on which the fowls went to roost at noon, and the candles were lighted as at midnight." Held captive by the weather, Mary drafted what would become her novel, Frankenstein, Dr. Polidori wrote The Vampyre, and Byron wrote "Darkness" (excerpt above), their creative energies sympathetic with the brooding elements.

Strange weather, lengthy periods of darkness and record-cold temperatures swept across Europe and North America that summer. Prolonged, brilliant sunsets and twilights were frequently seen. On June 6, snow fell in Albany, New York, and Dennysville, Maine. Nearly a foot of snow fell in Quebec City. Lake and river ice were reported as far south as Pennsylvania.The resulting crop failures and livestock loss forced up prices, created panic and produced famine in many parts of the world. Some historians point to the weather conditions in New York and the Northeast of 1816 and '17 as spurring an early westward migration.

1816, The Year Without Summer or the Poverty Year, it was later determined, was the result of a volcano, erupting the previous year, thousands of miles away.

On Wednesday, April 10, 1815, Mount Tambora, a volcano in the Dutch East Indies, thought to have been dormant for 5,000 years, had begun a series of eruptions. On April 15th the final and largest blast spewed sulphur dioxide nearly 27 miles into the stratosphere. The finer ash particles stayed in the atmosphere up to a few years causing global climate changes. The pyroclastic flow killed over 10,000 local people immediately and another 70,000 or more were killed on neighboring islands in the aftermath of tsunamis, ash blanketing and the resulting agricultural devastation. Tambora was the largest volcanic eruption in at least 1,600 years— ten times the size of Mt. Vesuvius

Decades later John Ruskin gave a lecture at the London Institute on another meteorological anomaly. In a semi-apocalyptic conflation of atmospheric and psychological disturbance, Ruskin railed about ominous clouds:
For the sky is covered with gray cloud;—not rain-cloud, but a dry black veil, which no ray of sunshine can pierce; partly diffused in mist, feeble mist, enough to make distant objects unintelligible, yet without any substance, or wreathing, or color of its own. And everywhere the leaves of the trees are shaking fitfully, as they do before a thunder-storm; only not violently, but enough to show the passing to and fro of a strange, bitter, blighting wind.... It is a wind of darkness...It is a malignant quality of wind, unconnected with any one quarter of the compass; it blows indifferently from all, attaching its own bitterness and malice to the worst characters of the proper winds of each quarter....
This was a year after the famous 1883 Krakatoa eruption. //

Following the August 27th Krakatoa eruption, artist William Ascroft documented eerily brilliant sunsets and other optical phenomena over England, attributed to the volcano's after-effects, until 1886. For a selection of his uncanny sketches, see the Science and Society Picture Library/
Twilight and after glow effects at Chelsea, London, Nov. 26, 1883


yesterday's purchases

There is something so poignant about this card— the "new" Grand Central Terminal, the heartfelt emotion about a missed visit and a bad connection. But it was the apostrophe before " 'phone " that sealed the sale for me.
I can almost hear, "Hello Central, get me Miss Ida Mayer on Long Island."

New Grand Central Terminal, New York.
postmarked: August 16, 1913
Grand Central Station

to: Miss Ida Mayer, Jamaica, LI, NY

     I was so glad to know that you were at the other end of that 'phone– even though I could not understand more than one word out of five– but why will people always make important calls just at the wrong time– I long to see you so much, but we will just have to write to one another still– and hope to see one another sometime.
     Ever and ever so much love to your dear ones and your own dear self–
I don't exactly approve of the effect Paddy's was trying for here on this card but I applaud the boldness of it. That is some daring airbrushing. It puts me in mind of some of my postcards of questionable merit.


Shadows in living color

Images from top: Pearl Street and Peck Slip, October 7, 1942
Drink cart near the Battery, October, 1942
Wartime salvage, October 4, 1942
58 Mulberry Street
South East corner of First Street and the Bowery (and the same corner today in a desultory view from Google maps)
Charles Weever Cushman (1896–1972), dedicated amateur photographer, bequeathed approximately 14,500 Kodachrome color slides to his alma mater, Indiana University. The resulting Charles W. Cushman Photograph Collection of the Indiana University Archives is a meticulously documented online repository (you can read the grant proposal, peruse online scans of Cushman's notebooks, find out about Charles, or read about the color restoration process).
Amassed by Cushman during a thirty-two year period from 1938 to 1969, the slides document a dizzying array of subjects, in part: fires, floods, train wrecks, train yards, harbors, street vendors, street scenes, churches, synagogues, saloons, advertisements, the steel industry, mining, ghost towns, farms, urban slums, mule auctions, and the filming of B movies. What particularly interested me were the shots of New York, many of which are from the early forties. Nearly all the images are preserved in uncanny, vivid color.
Kodachrome, the first modern color film, was introduced in 35mm still camera format in 1936. It reproduced a more natural color than earlier color processes, and nothing like it in photography had been seen before. Revolutionary as it was, Kodachrome would not come into popular use until after World War II. Cushman, however, began shooting with Kodachrome as early as 1938. In 1938 there were still Civil War veterans alive. In the 1942 of the Pearl Street image at top, the nineteenth century was only as distant in time as the Summer of Love (1967) is to us. It was still hanging on—in buildings not yet cleared by urban redevelopment, in horse-drawn work carts—and Cushman captured it's last shadows in color.
ADDENDUM  I've come across Dino's NYC in which the author seeks to update the Charles Cushman views of New York (there are only 150 or so)! He's got some great information about the Pearl Street image in particular and it's definitely worth a visit. Be prepared, though, that it's a dirge-like procession of former streetscapes— however trash-strewn or gritty— turned to parking lots, off-ramps and highrises.

In an old post I featured this detail of a 1912 photograph of Elizabeth Street, which I colorized in Photoshop. I think one reason the past becomes so foreign, so removed, is that we so often see it in black and white. As if the past were a different dimension. The Past: some time disconnected from my existence. The monochrome abstracts the subject, creates an artistic chiaroscuro— but leaches the immediacy from the scene. How I wish I could see the nineteenth century in full color!


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