Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Queen Victoria, Trendsetter

When Prince Albert died of typhoid fever in 1861 — at the tender age of 42 — Queen Victoria went into a deep depression. Then she went into seclusion and a period of mourning that lasted the remaining 40 years of her reign.

Victoria and Albert   |   Richard Hough   |   St. Martin's Press, 1996

Obsessive in her mourning, Victoria had the Windsor blue room in which Albert died photographed so that servants could better preserve it just as it was at the moment of death. For the next 40 years, hot water was brought daily to Albert's shaving stand, as though he might return at the very next moment.
For the rest of her life, Queen Victoria wore black dresses and jet jewelry not unlike the handsome brooch above.

Rock and Gem   |   The Smithsonian, 2005
Jet is a form of high-carbon coal that occurs in water beds, and much of Victoria's jewelry was made from the jet found at the beach at Whitby, Yorkshire, England. For more information about jet and its interesting relationship to the Monkey Puzzle Tree, I encourage you to visit Where Five Valleys Meet and my blogging friend Rosemary's posting about Whitby, here.

The English public recognized that Victoria's mourning was excessive, and she went through periods of unpopularity because of her seclusion. The passage of time, several assassination attempts on the Queen's life, and the expansion of the British Empire under her reign softened that view.

In the process, Queen Victoria influenced the trend for long mourning periods and the wearing of black. Those unable to afford jet jewelry, or onyx, wore black glass.

I recently attended a convention of antique button collectors, where I purchased these 19th-century black glass buttons. These are all in part a natural outgrowth of Queen Victoria's mourning. They measure half an inch in diameter, or less, and all came from molds. While not as lustrous as their jet counterparts, I think the detail of their designs is exceptional.


Wednesday, March 21, 2012

My House: Becoming Neoclassic

This is how my house looked in 1950, two years after it was built. On the right is a garage, which makes the house appear as if it has two wings. Throughout the 1950s, the house was painted white, with a deep forest green trim — a common color scheme for the time.

When I bought the house in 1989, not much had changed. Most of the porch's jalousie windows had been switched out to screens, the trim had become a lighter green, and the shrubbery had grown tall and scraggly. But I looked at the place and thought that with a bit of work, it could become a little Neoclassic temple.

My first plan of action was to replace the porch window with a pair of French doors that had come from a salvage yard. The doors are immensely thick and heavy, and in fact their hinges are designed for bank vaults. I had to import the doors' hinges from out of state.

The next step was to remove all the old shrubbery, then all the porch screens and jalousie windows. When that deconstruction was complete, I repositioned a cinder block post, so that the eventual columns would be symmetrical.

Then it was time for the fun part — to create correctly proportioned columns and an entablature. Notice that at this point, the pediment and frieze are both comprised of slatted wood.

Throughout that delicious stage of imagining and planning, I was greatly inspired by Classical Architecture: Rule and Invention, by Thomas Gordon Smith. Smith's book is beautifully illustrated, and as good and succinct a summary of Classical architecture as you will ever find.

For more than a dozen years, my house had a Greek color scheme, to accentuate the Neoclassic look that I wanted to achieve.

It had always been my intention to have an inscription across the front of the building, but the spackle that covered the frieze's two boards continually cracked with the extremes of temperature. I would eventually resolve that problem by stuccoing both the frieze and the pediment.

Likewise, there were problems with the columns because I hadn't used pressure-treated wood! When they rotted from the bottom up, I decided to tear out the squared columns completely, and replace them.

Around this time, I also decided to give the house a more Roman flavor, in part because of interior projects which I'll be sharing with you at a later time.

click to enlarge
This is how the house looks today. The porch has been smoothly stuccoed to allow the painting of the pediment wreath and the inscription.

The wreath (the first photo of this posting) is painted to resemble the cast iron decorative wreathes that adorned New England houses of the 1840s.

The Latin inscription (I've provided you with a translation) is set in Palatino Bold, a typeface that Hermann Zapf designed in 1948, the same year my house was built. Zapf based the font on rubbings taken from actual inscriptions on ancient Roman buildings.

The porch has been widened all around by a foot to accommodate columns that are made from resin and marble dust. I don't like anything on my house remotely plastic, and these columns have the look and feel of concrete. Each column supports 10,000 pounds.

Note that the inside of the porch is a slightly darker shade of the building. Essentially, I have painted the shadows, a conceit that adds interest to the horizontal thrust of the building, and makes the columns stand out better.

click to enlarge
My colors are muted. I wanted a color scheme that was fresh, but which also suggested the look of antiquity. The columns, for example, are a pretty close match to a sandstone color.
Some people have offered the unsolicited opinion that the placement of my door detracts from the rest of the building's symmetry. From the inside, the door's placement makes perfect sense, but I have to admit I'm a little bothered by the arrangement, too. 

And so I plan a delightful future project which will be the construction of a three-dimensional trompe l'oeil door. When completed, the house will look very much like the image above. I will of course do a posting on that project!

My Neoclassic transformation
has been a work in progress for more than 20 years,
and I am deeply indebted to two friends in particular 
for their help and talents —

Jesse E. Tucker, Jr. and Mel Schlegel.


Friday, March 16, 2012

Please Sign In, Mystery Guest

Mark D. Ruffner, 1971

My last posting on the very idealized likeness of Napoleon Bonaparte caused me to think about the man and his tremendous ego.

As I mentioned in my post about John Wanamaker, I am fascinated by graphology and have studied it extensively for years. To me, it makes perfect sense that the words we jot down are "brainwriting" rather than "handwriting." And as we look at our own writing, we can see subtle or not-so-subtle changes as our moods and circumstances shift.

The progressive signatures of Napoleon Bonaparte are a splendid example. Below, we see Napoleon on the rise:

Now Napoleon is in complete control and has proclaimed himself Emperor!

Alas, Napoleon's fortunes decline, and he is gradually resigned to defeat.

The last signature is from his will, written on St. Helena. All these signatures are from The Stein and Day Book of World Autographs, by Ray Rawlins, 1978.

.   .   .

Monday, March 12, 2012

Who Is He?

I recently bought this bust, which stands about 18" high. I was pretty sure that he was Caesar Augustus, emperor of Rome, 27 BC - 14 AD.

But after I got him home, I started to wonder whether he might be an idealized likeness of Napoleon Bonaparte, emperor of France, 1804 - 1815 (of course images of Caesar Augustus were idealized, too).

One clue is that the fellow parted his hair right down the middle, and I don't recall Napoleon having done that.

A second clue is this interesting garment, which as a religious vestment would be a stole. I wonder what it would signify in ancient Rome? Who do you think this is, and can you tell me anything about his apparel?   |
Since my original posting, Jim of Road to Parnassus has quickly identified my bust as a copy of a likeness of Napoleon, by Antoine-Denis Chaudet (1763-1810). Chaudet was noted for his Neoclassic sculptures, and made numerous portraits of Napoleon. Mine appears to be an even more idealized version of the right hand version. Thanks Jim, for your astute observation!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

This Car is One of a 100!

Last year, I introduced you to my brother René, and his billiards paintings. Now I'm featuring my other brother, Cliff, and his interesting car, the Corbin Sparrow. Cliff will be today's guest blogger, and I'll turn the reins over to him now ...

Thanks, Mark! My fascination with electric cars began in October 2003, while on vacation at our son’s home in Newburg, New York. I spotted a Comutacar on Ebay at what I considered a reasonable price and made an impulse bid. Much to my surprise (and my wife’s dismay) I won the auction and we trailered the car home from Staten Island, NY to St. Petersburg, Florida. I owned that car, Sparky, for about 5 years, and enjoyed driving it around town and displaying it at auto shows.

Sparky the Comutacar
In spite of my affection for the car, it had a short wheel base, drove like a milk truck, and when it reached 35 mph it felt distinctly like riding the “tilt-a-whirl” at a carnival.

In January 2008, I was at Beach Battery Burnout, an electric car gathering in Florida, and got a chance to drive a Corbin Sparrow. I immediately fell in lust with this vehicle and bought one from a gentlemen in Eugene, Oregon. I’ve enjoyed the car ever since.

The Corbin Sparrow was the brainchild of Mike Corbin, and was born in Hollister, California in 1999. The first model of this vehicle (the one that I own) was nicknamed the “Jellybean” because of its bright jellybean colors.

100 of these vehicles were made before the body style was changed to the “Pizza Butt,” so named because a number of that model were bought by Dominoes Pizza to be used as delivery vehicles. 200 of the second-edition vehicles were manufactured before Corbin filed for bankruptcy and ceased manufacturing electric cars.

The power used to recharge the car is equivalent to keeping a radio turned on all night.

The Sparrow is an all-electric, single-passenger vehicle with a top speed of 70 mph and a driving range of 30-50 miles, depending on the terrain and how it is driven. It has 13 twelve volt batteries (156 volt system) and weighs a total of 1400 pounds. The rights to the car and all parts and equipment were sold to Myers Motors and the car renamed the NMG (No More Gas).

The Sparrow has interesting aesthetic details, from the dimpled fender to the elegant brake pedal, which Mark likes to point out.

I bought my car in non-running condition for about $7000. I turned it over to my friend Ron Anderson of Black Sheep Technologies ( He installed a new battery pack, upgraded the entire wiring system, and redesigned and rebuilt the controller. Because of these improvements I am able to enjoy carefree driving around our city.

Speaking of driving around the city, the Sparrow draws attention wherever it goes. It’s rare not to be approached about this car when I stop at coffee shops or the grocery store. The car is so unique that it creates a segue to discuss the future of transportation in the United States. A typical conversation about electric cars would run something like this:

Bystander: “How far will it go?”
Me: “I don’t know because I’ve never run out of electricity”.
Bystander:  “What’s the farthest you've ever gone?”
Me:  “Let’s see, out to the beach and back is about 18 miles.”
Bystander: “What would you do if you did run out of electricity?”
Me:  “What would you do if you ran out of gas?”
Bystander: “I’ll never run out of gas because I keep the tank full.”
Me:  “I’ll never run out of electricity because I only drive around town and I keep the batteries charged. I’ve never gotten low, but if I did, I could charge at the Dunkin Donuts on 4th Street, and very soon there will be charging stations at the malls.”
Bystander: “Um, well what would happen if you wanted to drive over the bay to Tampa?”
Me:  “I’d take my KIA van.”
Bystander: “Oh. Where did you say you got this?”

More information can be found about Sparrows


Friday, March 2, 2012

Victorian Die-Cut Advertising

Regular readers of this blog know that one of my passions is collecting 19th century advertising. I thought today I'd share some of my Victorian die-cut advertising. Sometimes the subject matter of the die cuts was appropriate for what was being sold, and sometimes, like the stove trade card above, there was no relationship whatsoever between the image and the product.

I'm not sure whether this was a real cigar brand but I love the imaginative design. Of course this would have been either a very large box or a very small cat!

China Hall, at 15 East King Street

These are the cards of E. C. Davis,
Penman & Card Writer
7 Weybasset Street, Providence

C. E. Poston School Books
Nelsonville, Ohio

This 1889 jelly roll actually advertised the "Happy Thought" Range. "You will make no mistake if you buy the 'Happy Thought'."

I feature this O.N.T. spool of thread in my short history of trade cards, found in the side bar or here.

This ad for china and glass is embossed to look and feel like a real saucer.

He-No Tea, a real life preserver!

H. J. Heinz took an active interest in all his promotions. I wouldn't be surprised if had personally approved this die-cut pickle.

from A Victorian Scrapbook  |  Cynthia Hart, John Grossman and Priscilla Dunhill

Die-cut advertising is not to be confused with the popular die cuts that were called "scraps." They came in sheets like the sample above, and could be separated into individual die cuts.