Sunday, October 30, 2011

Happy Halloween, Halloween Houses

The colors of Halloween are traditionally black and orange, the black to signify the dead whom we remember, and orange to signify the autumn and harvest of the year, and especially pumpkins.

Here in tropical Florida, people are much more inclined to paint their houses bright colors, but I'm still continually surprised by the number of houses in my community that are painted pure orange. In honor of Halloween, here's a collection of some (but not all) of the orange houses near me.

Would you paint your house orange?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Charming Antique Swiss Tin

My maternal grandparents came to the United States from Switzerland, and the few possessions left from them are dearly treasured. Above is a coffee canister that belonged to my great-grandmother. She, my grandmother, my mother and I have all used it to store coffee.

I'm guessing from the top that it dates between 1900-1910, though judging by the crackly lithographed surface of the sides, it could be earlier. The top depicts Mercury,  the name of the coffee brand and the god of commercial success — so appropriate for the Swiss! The sides depict the traditional dress of the various cantons (states) of Switzerland — I'll show them in pairs.

Bern   |   Graubünden
St. Gallen   |   Zürich
Genève   |   Tessin
Switzerland has four languages — German, French, Italian and Romansh. Romansh has strong roots in the everyday Latin used by early Roman occupiers of the region, and is spoken by approximately 9% of the Swiss population. It's represented by the second side of the canister, Graubünden. Switzerland has 26 cantons in all, so this canister represents just a few of the country's striking costumes.

Naturally, in a country that is so multilingual, labels are often in several languages. This is the bottom of the canister.

I don't know about you, but I'm ready for another cup of coffee.

Friday, October 21, 2011

An Advertising Breakthrough

As I mention in my sidebar page on the evolution of corporate identity, the longer one collects trade cards and related antique advertising, the more one sees that contemporary advertising gimmicks were first done long, long ago. Today's posting is a case in point.

You've probably watched television and seen the screen filled with a list of selling points. Then to your surprise, a car drives right through the statement! It's tiring after the 40th viewing, but that same gimmick was used with great charm more than a 100 years ago.


Wednesday, October 19, 2011

No Ordinary Leaf

I was doing yard work the other day and almost missed this handsome creature, so beautifully disguised as a leaf. He's known as a katydid. The katydid didn't appreciate my attention and tried to move behind the palm frond.

But I redirected him front and center to pose for this close-up. His legs had a lot of purple, a color that works very well with green (and a combination I use with great success in my own living room). It's also interesting to note that his antennae are segmented into varying purples and blues, almost like holiday beadwork. Nature has the most wonderful palettes!

I didn't mind the katydid enjoying a little snack — the palm fronds here are plentiful.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Chattaway, a St. Petersburg Landmark

One of St. Petersburg, Florida's oldest landmarks is a restaurant named Chattaway. The wooden structure was built in 1922 as Four Corners Grocery, though today we'd probably recognize it more as a general store. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the store reincarnated as Chattaway Drive-In. Lights were strung up outside and car-hops served beer and wine. In those days, Chattaway was surrounded by swampland and a nearby creek, and it was not unusual to see an alligator near the drive-in.

By the 1940s, Chattaway was selling hamburgers, and in 1951, Helen Lund became the owner. Today Chattaway is owned and operated by her daughter-in-law, Jillian Lund Frer, and is staffed with a fourth generation of the family.

Jillian Frer is a most charming lady, originally from England, and she's turned Chattaway into an appealing mixture of Florida and England.

Residents of St. Petersburg will immediately envision bathtubs when they think of Chattaway. Jillian installed six cast-iron tubs along the perimeter for decoration, and as a sort of traffic barrier, and soon people were dropping them off. Today there are 44, and Jillian says, "No more!"

Jillian has been a professional actress for 60 years, and performed at Q Theatre in Kew Gardens before coming to the States. Chattaway shows much evidence of that past, and of course there was a celebration at the restaurant when Prince William married Catherine Middleton.

In the dining room, a pitcher from the 1901 coronation of King Edward VII, and a frosted window with matching curtains.

Chattaway, home of the Chattaburger, in the early evening.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Woodcuts of Thomas Bewick

Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) remains England's foremost wood engraver. By all accounts, he had an idyllic childhood, romping about outdoors in Northumberland instead of attending to his lessons. His aptitude for drawing was noticed early (how could it not — he drew all over the steps to church), and he was apprenticed at 14 to a silver engraver. The engraver let Bewick handle orders from printers, who required woodcut images.

In those days, images and frames for advertising tended to be rather crude, and they were usually cut from the face of a board. Bewick instead used the end grain of the wood. The end grain was a much harder surface, which allowed for fine detail and many more printing impressions. Some of Bewick's blocks have been printed as many as 900,000 times!

When Bewick's apprenticeship was finished, he sought work in London, but finding it too crowded and unfriendly, he moved back to Northumberland, where through his great talent, he had a very successful career.

He printed a number of books, including the General History of Quadrupeds, the History of British Birds, the Cries of London  (images of street criers),  Aesop's Fables, and the Poetry of Robert Burns.

His images of animals are not only correct, but portraits of individual personalities. Looking at the scope of Bewick's work, it's clear that he observed wildlife with a very keen eye. His settings and backdrops are equally elegant. Notice how grass overlaps the boundary of the sod above, and how Bewick brings life to the rat by having its tail overlap the sod as well.

Bewick's most popular work was the History of British Birds. Scores of birds were depicted with accuracy and in his inimitable style. The bark on the tree above, and its shadowing, are typical of Bewick's illustrations.

Bewick's fame spread (John James Audubon was just one who called on him), and as demand for his work grew work, Bewick taught and employed other wood engravers to assist him.

 Illustrations from Aesop's Fables

I want to point your attention to this ad for the druggist J. Garnett. It was probably a lesser job for Bewick, but look at the beauty and care with which it's done. Smaller, delicate marks achieve a sense of distance, and the illusion of a reflection on the water is very convincing.

I'll end with this handsome frontispiece by Thomas Bewick. It has all the earmarks of his genius — stylized and densely detailed foliage; an elegant allusion to simpler, genteel times; a beautiful animal captured in a natural moment; and perfect shadowing executed in a completely black and white line format.

Thomas Bewick's work was so popular that he revitalized the art form of wood engraving for six decades beyond his death. A host of engravers closely imitated him, including his talented employees, and therefore it's not always easy to know authorship. I've carefully selected these images from a book of Bewick's work, believing them by sheer virtuosity to be the "real deal."

P. S. This posting's header is a detail of this beautiful woodcut. Be sure to read my blogging friend Rosemary's comment below, which gives some interesting backgound on this image.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Billiards Paintings of René B. Ruffner

Though I am the only one in my family who made a career in art, I do in fact come from a family of artists. René, an older brother, today works steadily as an artist, painting fine still lifes and landscapes. He also plays in local and regional billiards tournaments, and has painted a number of pieces depicting that very mathematical passion. Today, I'm turning the blog over to René, who will be telling the stories behind his own paintings:

Old School High Roll  |  © René B. Ruffner 2011 
Thanks, Mark. Old School High Roll is a very large oil on canvas, mounted on panel. If you were to approach a pool player and propose, say, a race to 10 for $20, and he responded with "How about a race to 10 for $200?" then you could say you'd been "high-rolled." So there are sharks, but sharks can be divided into pelagic and littoral sharks. The subject matter would measure about 8" wide on the front plane, yet has the feeling of both spaciousness and compression in the canvas' 40" width. Doing this oil, I discovered the odd fact that Payne's grey mixed with white produces a close semblance of dollar-bill-green. This is called Old School High Roll because everything in the painting is an antique,
from the cylindrical Brunswick chalk to the old "Clay" balls, to the Gold Certificate.

Two Rails for the Two  |  © René B. Ruffner 2011 
This is the earliest of my large pool oils. The player posed for me at a "Super Seven" tournament in Baltimore Maryland. The dynamics of his posture and the shaved head appealed to me, as it was a pose Bellows might like. As my paintings progressed, I got more patient with background details, to which I'd simply allot sessions, rather than try to hurry through.

A Dame Takes the Cheese While Jaybird Watches  |  © René B. Ruffner 2011 
This very small oil on panel was based on a single vintage photo of a solitary woman shooting behind her back. I spliced her with an image of me (in the Stetson), and my old "Fortress America" pool table to complete the scene. The background character is "Jaybird," a habitué of Breaktime Billiards in Front Royal, Virginia, who always hectored me to play for cash ("cheese," in pool parlance). The sign on the back wall, which isn't legible at low resolution, is a deco warning that "Absolutely No Gambling is Allowed." Because I took my reference photographs in a small enclosure, getting the perspective on the floor and table was a challenge.

Action at the Blue Fox  |  © René B. Ruffner 2011
That's "Mr. Barnes" playing 9-ball at the Blue Fox in Winchester, Virginia. Conrad, sitting against the "Absolutely No Gambling" sign on the back wall, owns the Blue Fox, and I disingenuously placed him in this painting hoping he'd pop for another pool oil; he's bought a few. This is another large painting that posed challenges — balancing color and lighting and components, I brought together literally dozens of reference photos. Mr. Barnes, incidentally, is a master of safety play or defensive pool, "punting" the cue ball around so that when it's your turn to shoot, you're hidden behind a wall of balls, a mile away from your object ball.

Champions at Midnight  |  © René B. Ruffner 2011
The title of this painting is a play on words, as it is loosely based on reference photos I took at Champions Billiards in Laurel Maryland. I took the liberty of painting myself as the bartender. This scene typifies the drama, tension, and lighting in pool halls. I think that if Caravaggio were alive, he'd head for the nearest pool hall with his easel. By contrast I was examining a nice gallery photo of a Civil War reenactment; lots of smoke, blazing muskets, and yet the posture of the reenactors was that of people watching a tire being changed. In billiards, the action is avid, all attention is focused on a single thing, and the body language shows it. I like the figure of the woman looking over her shoulder — she reminds me of Piper Laurie. I perhaps unfairly got the reference shot for her by getting into position with my camera, and saying "hey!" I think the figure of the man in the upper right background was a success because he looks "Tooker-esque." 

Willie Morton, 1999 APA National Amateur Champion  |  © R. B. Ruffner 2011
Willie Morton posed for me in 2003 at Atomic Billiards in Washington, D.C.  I played him at a tournament in Champions Billiards in Laurel the same year. He said he was down because his eyesight was failing, but he may have just been laying the groundwork for a more remunerative game. After he won the National Championship in 1999, Morton began going by the nickname "Jackie," because, as he said, he'd earned the right to use it. His lifelong hero was Jackie Robinson, whom I inserted in the background of the painting, wearing his 1946 Montreal Royals uniform.

Cicero Murphy  |  © René B. Ruffner 2011
This is a painting of Cicero Murphy, a player of great repute who was eventually inducted into the Billiard Congress of America Hall of Fame. I met Cicero (James) Murphy in Chicago in 1969, where I'd been sent to a government school, but played hooky to shoot at a pool hall with near-shrine status, Bensingers Billiard Academy. Bensingers had been Walter Trevis' model for the "Ames" Pool Hall in his book The Hustler and the movie of the same name. I didn't know it at the time, but Bensingers would shortly close its doors forever. I would meet Murphy twice more in different venues before his death in 1996. While he looks fierce in this depiction, I saw him as a modest, quiet person. Cicero Murphy had a very jazzy, snappy "slip stroke," meaning when the cue came forward as he prepared to strike the cue ball, it actually slid through both of his hands until he caught it with his right hand at the last moment. He was the consummate position player.

This is Mark again. I'll end this guest posting by showing a view of René's Virginia studio. A landscape is in progress, and Cicero Murphy perpetually looks over the artist's shoulder.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Greek Keys No. 5

Photo by Lubomir Pořizka  |  The Palaces of Prague, Zdeněk Hojda and Jiří Pešek  |  1994

This handsome key is from the ceiling of Villa Lanna, in Prague. The villa was built in the 1860s and today houses the Academy of Sciences.

Pavlovsk Palace  |  Wikipedia Image
This key comes from a frieze in the Pavlovsk Palace, built by Paul I of Russia in the 1780s, near St. Petersburg.

Photo: Erich Lessing  |  Karl Friedrich Schinkel, An Architect for Prussia  | Barry Bergdoll, 1994

This is a detail of a bronze door designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel for the entrance to the Bauakademie (architectural academy), in Berlin. The academy was built 1831-36, and was demolished in the 1960s, however the door was saved. Below you can see how closely the door compares to its corresponding part in Schinkel's original design.

Photo: Erich Lessing  |  Karl Friedrich Schinkel, An Architect for Prussia  | Barry Bergdoll, 1994

A chair of leather and brass from Williams-Sonoma incorporates the Greek key.

The Oxford History of Classical Art  |  John Boardman, 1993

This complicated key is Etruscan, and comes from the pediment of a temple at Pyrgi. Pyrgi was an ancient Etruscan port in central Italy, now Santa Severa. Stare at the key that I've reconstructed, and five square diamonds will appear.