Just Up the Road: Henry James’s Cousin Minny Temple

1874 Map of Pelham and New Rochelle, Pelham Manor and Huguenot Heights Association

Map Showing Location of Lands of the Pelham Manor and Huguenot Heights Association (detail). Stephens Brothers & Co., New York City, publisher, 1874. Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library. This 1874 map shows the location of the house that belonged to Minny Temple’s brother-in-law Richard Stockton Emmet on Weyman Avenue and Pelham Road in New Rochelle. Properties where his siblings Lydia Hubley Emmet and William Jenkins Emmet and the Emmets’ relative Robert White Edgar lived are also depicted. R. S. Emmet’s estate was near the steamboat landing, which was on a little island in the Sound that was also the location of the Neptune House, a popular resort hotel with beautiful grounds and superb water views.

About two miles up the road from the Bartow mansion—near the border of Pelham and New Rochelle, New York—24-year-old Mary “Minny” Temple (1845–1870) died of tuberculosis on March 8, 1870. Her first cousin the novelist Henry James (1843–1916) received the sad tidings at the English spa town of Malvern in a letter from his mother, “news more strange & painful than I can find words to express,” he replied.

Mary Temple Houghton Library

Mary “Minny” Temple (1845–1870), ca. 1870. Houghton Library, Harvard College Library

Minny was full of life and energy. She was unaffected, an independent thinker, a lively and opinionated conversationalist, at times an irreverent rebel, and—sometimes—a dreamer. Her brilliant smile lit up a room. At 16, she cropped off all of her hair to half an inch and had a photograph taken. Minny enjoyed going to balls and to the opera. She liked to “knock about all day in a sleigh” in “the fresh air and sunshine,” as she wrote to her friend John Chipman Gray. She also fantasized about joining Henry James in Europe despite her illness, and she had a deep longing to meet the author George Eliot—whom she greatly admired as both a person and a writer—as her literary cousin did. Her close friends and contemporaries were intellectual and often artistic, and her social circle included the artist Helena de Kay, the painter Lizzie Boott (who married the artist Frank Duveneck), the future Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., and Henry’s brother, the philosopher and psychologist William James. Minny’s luminous personality—bursting with intelligence and vitality—was magnetic.

HJ ca. 1863-4 Houghton

Henry James (1843–1916), ca. 1863–64. Houghton Library, Harvard College Library

James writes about Minny at length in his autobiography Notes of a Son and Brother. “She was absolutely afraid of nothing she might come to by living with enough sincerity and enough wonder,” he wrote. She was “an asker of endless questions.” In a letter to his mother dated March 26, 1870, James remembers his cousin’s “wonderful ethereal brightness of presence which was so peculiarly her own.” He mourns her early death and wistfully confides: “It comes home to me with irresistible power, the sense how much I knew her & how much I loved her.” Now “she is dead—silent—absent forever.”

James brought his cousin back to life in several of his most important novels. Minny appears loosely as a free-spirited American abroad in Daisy Miller (1878). Later, in The Portrait of a Lady (1881), she is resurrected as Isabel Archer, the unforgettable, headstrong heroine of what is perhaps the author’s finest novel. Finally, Minny Temple inspired the character of Milly Theale—the doomed protagonist of James’s late novel The Wings of the Dove (1902)—whose poignant struggle and premature death from a long illness recalls Minny’s own life cut short.

Minny Temple was born on December 7, 1845, to Colonel Robert Emmet Temple and his wife, Catherine James Temple, of Albany, New York. (Minny’s mother was the sister of Henry James Sr.) In 1854, when the couple died of tuberculosis, their six surviving children—two boys and four girls—went to live with relatives, spending time in Albany, Newport, Cambridge, and Pelham/New Rochelle, among other places.

The Temple and James families were both related to the Emmet family of New Rochelle. Today New Rochelle is a densely populated suburban city, but in the 19th century, country estates dotted the area. These properties were owned by wealthy New Yorkers, such as the Emmets, who enjoyed being away from the city but close to the metropolis and near Long Island Sound. The Emmets were descended from the Irish patriot and lawyer Thomas Addis Emmet, an Anglo-Irish protestant who was imprisoned and exiled after taking up the nationalist cause. He immigrated to the United States in 1804. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, several Emmet women had careers as well-known artists.

Christ Church, Pelham

William Rickarby Miller (1818–1893). Christ Church, Pelham, 1856. Watercolor on paper. Collection of Catherine Boericke. This was the Emmet family church in Pelham. It is where Kitty Temple and Richard Stockton Emmet were married in 1868, and where Minny Temple’s funeral took place in 1870. The Reverend Robert Bolton and his sons built the church on the grounds of their home and school, the Pelham Priory.

1874 map detail

This is another detail from the 1874 map of Pelham and New Rochelle, which shows the homes of Richard Stockton Emmet, Lydia Hubley Emmet, William Jenkins Emmet, and Robert White Edgar, as well as Frederic Prime’s house, the Bolton Priory, and Christ Church.

The three families—James, Temple, and Emmet—became even more entwined when the eldest Temple sister, Katherine (“Kitty”), married Richard “Dick” Stockton Emmet at Christ Church, Pelham, on September 29, 1868. The middle-aged bridegroom was more than 20 years older than the bride. As Lyndall Gordon writes in A Private Life of Henry James, “the marriage would enable Kitty to provide a home for her sisters.” A year later, another sister, Ellen (“Elly”) James Temple, married the groom’s brother, Christopher Temple Emmet. Minny wrote to Henry James about her sister’s “startling” engagement in a letter from Pelham dated August 15, 1869, now in the Houghton Library at Harvard University. “He is 28 years older than Elly—being forty-seven. We were all a good deal astonished by her engagement. . . . She is very happy, & they are both, apparently, very much in love with each other. . . . Kitty’s little venture in the way of marrying one’s grandfather has turned out so well, that I ought to feel quite safe about Elly.” Shortly after the wedding, Henry James wrote to his father, “I don’t a bit like Elly marrying that Methusaleh [sic].” (Methuselah was the Biblical patriarch who lived to be 969 years old, according to Genesis.)

Although Minny wrote to her various correspondents from her sister Kitty’s home in “Pelham,” the house was almost certainly the one that belonged to Kitty’s husband in the contiguous town of New Rochelle. This is a distinction that James scholars have overlooked, but it is of special interest for those of us who know the area well. The confusion is understandable because four Emmet family houses stood along a half-mile stretch in Pelham and New Rochelle on today’s Shore Road/Pelham Road. (The street name changes at the border.)

Edgewood, Frederick Prime house, 1860s

Edgewood, the country seat of Frederick Prime (1807–1887), New Rochelle, New York. Photograph, 1860s. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Gift of Mrs. E. Chester Peet, 2003. Frederick Prime’s estate was next door to that of Richard Stockton Emmet. This is one of two large photographs of Prime’s house that were given to Bartow-Pell by one of his descendants. Here, Mr. Prime is likely posing with his second wife and some of his daughters. It appears that two young ladies have driven over in a buggy to pay them a visit (one holds a whip). Minny Temple wrote to Henry James on November 17, 1869, that “John Gray made us a little visit, at Pelham. . . . I took him out in a pony-wagon between the showers, & shook him up, & splashed his clothes.”

Pelham-N Rochelle border, 1851

Map of West Chester County, New York (detail), 1851. Newell S. Brown, White Plains, publisher. Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library. The circled structure on this 1851 map is unidentified but appears to be the same house that was later occupied by Richard Stockton Emmet on Weyman Avenue and Pelham Road in New Rochelle.

The house that once stood at 197 Weyman Avenue and Pelham Road in New Rochelle belonged to Richard Stockton Emmet, Kitty Temple’s husband and Minny’s brother-in-law. Some maps indicate that his acreage may have extended to what is today part of the Pelham Country Club golf course. There are no known images of the house, and its date of construction is unknown, but according to the Emmet family website, the house was built by Richard S. Emmet’s father, Robert Emmet, as a country house in the 1830s. This is presumably where Minny died while living with her sister Kitty.

1923_04_07_Kemble_House_145_Shore_Rd_by_Wm_Montgomery

Kemble House (Emmet Cottage), 145 Shore Road, Pelham and New Rochelle, New York. Courtesy of the Office of the Historian of the Town of Pelham. William R. Montgomery, former Historian of the Town of Pelham, took this photograph in 1923. The Emmet family owned the home for a number of years in the 19th century.

Three additional Emmet family houses were very closely situated to each other and appear consecutively on the 1870 New Rochelle census. The so-called Kemble House (also known as “Emmet Cottage”) still stands today at 145 Shore Road; the Pelham-New Rochelle border cuts directly through it. The original section of the home was built before the American Revolution. By 1870, the year of Minny’s death, ownership had passed to Lydia Hubley Emmet (Kitty and Elly’s unmarried sister-in-law), and at that time, the household included a number of Emmets, including C. Temple Emmet and his young wife, Elly (Minny’s sister). A few years later, it was the site of a notorious robbery by a gang of masked bandits. Early in the morning of December 23, 1873, the robbers handcuffed and gagged several members of the Emmet family and their servants before ransacking the house and breaking into the safe. The burglars were soon captured by the police and brought to trial.

Sheffield Island, New Rochelle, 1868

Map of New Rochelle, Westchester Co., N.Y. (detail). Atlas of New York and Vicinity, plate 38, F. W. Beers, cartographer, 1868. Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library. The families of William Jenkins Emmet and his relative Robert White Edgar lived on Sheffield Island, which is now known as Travers Island and is the summer location of the New York Athletic Club. However, the water near the shore has been filled in, and it is no longer an island.

Henry James by Ellen Rand NPG DC

Ellen Emmet Rand (American, 1875–1941). Henry James, 1900. Oil on canvas. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Marjorie Edel in memory of Leon Edel. The artist Ellen Emmet Rand was the daughter of Minny Temple’s sister Elly and her husband, C. Temple Emmet. Henry James was her mother’s first cousin. In addition, Ellen Emmet Rand’s first cousins were the artists Rosina Emmet Sherwood, Lydia Field Emmet, and Jane Emmet de Glehn, the daughters of William Jenkins Emmet and his artist-wife Julia, who lived on Sheffield (Travers) Island in New Rochelle.

The next household on the 1870 New Rochelle census was that of another Emmet brother, William Jenkins Emmet, his wife and children, and their servants. They lived on Sheffield Island (known today as Travers Island), which was at that time connected to Shore Road by a short causeway. An 1868 map shows two dwellings on Sheffield Island. “Sedgemere,” the house on the south side, is labeled “W. J. Emmet.” (William Jenkins Emmet and his wife, the painter Julia Colt Pierson Emmet, were the parents of the artists Rosina Emmet Sherwood, Lydia Field Emmet, and Jane Erin Emmet de Glehn. Emmet’s Sedgemere Diary has been digitized by the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.) The house on the north side is labeled “R. W. Edgar,” which refers to the third Emmet household on the 1870 census, that of Robert White Edgar and his wife, Jane Emmet LeRoy Edgar, an Emmet cousin. In addition, the Edgars were the niece and nephew of Herman LeRoy Jr. and his wife, Juliet Edgar LeRoy, from whom in 1836, Robert and Maria Bartow purchased the estate that had belonged to Bartow’s grandfather.

Minny frequently corresponded with her good friend, the Harvard legal scholar John Chipman Gray. In a letter to him from Pelham dated January 27, 1869 (now in the Houghton Library at Harvard), she wrote: Kitty “takes good care of me & all the Emmets are so good & kind, that I found, when it came to the point, that there was a good deal that made life attractive, & that if the choice were given to me, I would a good deal rather stay up here, on the solid earth, in the air and sunshine . . . than to be put down, under the earth, and say good bye forever to humanity—with all its laughter and its sadness.” In a letter to Gray written on January 7, she told him: “I like to be out here in the country, and Kitty likes to have me with her. This being the case, her husband makes such a clamor when I propose to leave, that I am easily persuaded by his kindness and my own want of energy, to stay where I am. It is great fun living out here.”

Minny also enjoyed going in to New York City. “We are so near the town, that we go in very often, for the day, & do a little shopping, lunch with some of our numerous friends, and come out again, with a double relish for the country. We all went in, on a spree, the other night, & stayed at the Everett House, from which, as a starting point, we poured in in strong force, upon Mrs. Gracie King’s ball, a very grand affair, given for a very pretty Miss King, at Del Monico’s [sic]. On this occasion the raiding party consisted of thirteen Emmets & a moderate supply of Temples.” (Letter from Minny Temple to John Chipman Gray, January 7, 1869, Houghton Library, Harvard University)

In February 1869, about a year before her death, Henry James visited Minny on his way to an extended stay in Europe. In Notes of a Son and Brother, he describes seeing “her again, in the old-time Pelham parlours, ever so erectly slight and . . . so transparently, fair (I fatuously took this for ‘becoming’), glide as swiftly, toss her head as characteristically, laugh to as free a disclosure of the handsome largeish teeth that made her mouth almost the main fact of her face. . . . The house was quiet and spacious for the day, after the manner of all American houses of that age at those hours, and yet spoke of such a possible muster at need of generous, gregarious, neighbouring, sympathising Emmets.” Is James describing the Emmet house on Weyman Avenue in New Rochelle?

Pelham Priory rear resized

William Rickarby Miller. Pelham Priory, 1856. Watercolor on paper. Collection of Catherine Boericke. The youngest Temple sister, Henrietta, attended the Pelham Priory School, which was affiliated with Christ Church, Pelham.

Henrietta Temple, the youngest sister of Minny, Kitty, and Elly, was not far away. In 1870, she was a boarder at the Pelham Priory school, which was run by Nanette and Adele Bolton, the daughters of the Reverend Robert Bolton, an Episcopal minister who founded the school and was the first rector of Christ Church, Pelham. Christ Church archives reveal that in 1872 the Emmet family sat in pews 10 and 13, and Henrietta Temple shared pew 16 with the Bolton sisters. Today, a large stained-glass window in the sanctuary memorializes Katharine Temple Emmet and Richard Stockton Emmet.

Emmet Window, Christ Church, Pelham

Sarah Purser (Irish, 1848–1943), An Túr Gloine (Tower of Glass) studio, Dublin. Jesus Blesses the Children, Katharine Temple Emmet and Richard Stockton Emmet Memorial Window, Christ Church, Pelham, 1913. Photo courtesy of Arthur Scinta

As the hemorrhaging in her lungs worsened, Minny was examined by the doctors, who at times gave her contradictory and confusing reports. “The problem still bothers me,” she confided to John Chipman Gray on March 4, 1869, after being told that her lungs were “a pair that a prize-fighter might covet,” while being ordered to stay in the country and “not to get excited, nor to listen to music, nor to speak to anybody.” “Either sound lungs are a very dangerous things to possess, or there is a foul conspiracy on foot to oppress me.” Despite the many physical and mental setbacks that she describes in her letters, Minny faced her illness with bravery, humor, and hope.

On the day of Minny’s death, Tuesday, March 8, 1870, the ground was covered with about eight inches of snow, and the New York Times reported that hundreds of people went ice skating in the city after the previous night’s storm had passed. As for Minny, her struggle was finally over. The funeral was on March 11 at Christ Church, the beautiful little stone building in Pelham with stained-glass windows designed by William Jay Bolton. According to the church register, Minny was buried in Beechwoods Cemetery, New Rochelle, where her sister Kitty and other Emmets were later interred. Henry James wrote his mother on March 26, “I resent their having buried her at N. Rochelle. She ought to be among her own people.” In 1910, Minny was moved to Albany Rural Cemetery, where she now lies with the Temple and James families.

In March 2020, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of her death, we remember the promise of Minny Temple’s short life and recognize the inspiration that she provided for one of our finest American authors.

Margaret Highland, Historian

Posted in Mansion Musings | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Multitasking Furniture: A Ladies’ Writing Fire Screen

Ladies' Writing Fire Screen, front and back

Attributed to Duncan Phyfe & Son (or Duncan Phyfe & Sons). Ladies’ writing fire screen, 1837–42. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Stuart P. Feld, 2012.02

Ladies, take your pick. Writing desks, worktables, dressing tables, and even a writing fire screen. All made just for you. Some pieces can even multitask.

Starting in the 18th century, task-specific furniture—some made especially for women—appeared increasingly on the market. Why? First, the Industrial Revolution led to more profitable production methods, such as machine manufacturing, in England, France, and the United States. Economic growth followed, which meant that more and more people—including a burgeoning bourgeoisie—had the means to purchase a wider selection of fine home furnishings and other items. Enterprising makers, designers, and manufacturers seized the moment to produce a varied array of goods and novelties to tempt eager consumers, many of whom were women. While the “domestic sphere” encouraged them to become purchasers of task-specific furniture forms related to their duties in the home, advances in female education helped drive a demand for objects such as ladies’ writing desks.

A ladies’ writing fire-screen desk—which combines the functions of fire screen and fall-front desk—was given to Bartow-Pell in 2012 by Mr. and Mrs. Stuart P. Feld. The piece dates to about 1837–42 and is attributed to Duncan Phyfe & Sons (or Duncan Phyfe & Son). In 1837, Duncan Phyfe (1770–1854) made two of his sons his business partners—James D. and William. After William left the firm for other opportunities in 1841, James remained as his father’s sole partner.

Ladies' Writing Fire Screen

Attributed to Duncan Phyfe & Son. Ladies’ writing fire screen, ca. 1840. Photo courtesy of Carswell Rush Berlin, Inc., New York City. This piece—which is similar to the one at Bartow-Pell—is now in the collection of the Classical American Homes Preservation Trust and is on display at Millford Plantation in Pinewood, South Carolina. It is the same design as a writing fire screen (now in a private collection) that was listed on a bill of lading to John L. Manning, the original owner of Millford.

BPMM’s mahogany writing fire screen is similar to a documented piece that was made by D. Phyfe & Son and listed on a bill of lading dated June 2, 1841, for goods delivered to John L. Manning (1816–1889) in what is now Sumter County, South Carolina. At this time, he and his wife, Susan Hampton Manning (1816–1845), were in the midst of buying furnishings for their newly built home, Millford Plantation, a Greek Revival house that now belongs to the Classical American Homes Preservation Trust. (Although the Manning writing fire screen is now in a private collection, the Trust has purchased an identical example for Millford.) In 2012, Susan Manning’s writing fire screen was on view in Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker in New York, an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which was co-curated by Peter M. Kenny and Michael K. Brown. Mrs. Manning’s writing fire screen was part of a large shipment of furniture sent from D. Phyfe & Son in New York to her husband’s agent in Charleston. Many of these pieces were made in the so-called Grecian Plain style popularized by Phyfe, which featured architectonic forms, restrained classical elements, and figured veneers. The Manning writing fire screen and the one that was given to Bartow-Pell are both made in this plain style. The use of decorative fabric panels—seen on both of these pieces—was a common feature of fire screens.

Gentleman's fig. 1 and Lady's fig. 2 writing fire screens 1788, pl. 18

Gentleman’s Writing Fire Screen (left) and Lady’s Writing Fire Screen (right). Illustration from The Cabinet-Maker’s London Book of Prices, plate 18, figs.1 and 2, 1788

An early reference to a writing fire screen is found in The Cabinet-Makers London Book of Prices (1788), which lists two versions, one for a gentleman and one for a lady. The description of the latter reads: “A lady’s writing fire screen, all solid, the corners beaded, the inside fitted up for ink, sand, and wafers [for sealing letters], and a hollow for pens [quills], with 2 sliders [stacked dividers] for paper, no doors below.” Veneer and inlays (crossbanding and stringing) cost extra.

Screen table, Sheraton, plate 43

Thomas Sheraton (British, 1751–1806). A Screen Table. Illustration from The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing-Book, 1793, plate 43. American cabinetmakers were familiar with this important pattern book by the influential British designer Thomas Sheraton.

A few years later, in 1793, Thomas Sheraton included a design for a screen-table in The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing-Book. “This table is intended for a lady to write or work at near the fire; the screen part behind securing her face from its injuries.” Carswell Rush Berlin, decorative arts expert and BPMM Curatorial Committee chair, has identified the inspiration for Bartow-Pell’s writing fire screen as an écran-pupitre (screen-desk) in Pierre de La Mésangère’s Meubles et Objets de Goût, published in 1831.

Ecran-pupitre - detail

Ecran-pupitre (screen-desk). Illustration from Pierre de La Mésangère, editor, Meubles et Objets de Goût 4 (1831): plate 708. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1951. Pierre de La Mésangère’s 1831 design for an écran-pupitre is clearly the inspiration for Duncan Phyfe’s ladies’ writing fire screens, which were made about 1840 and are almost identical to the one shown in this engraving.

These desks are not very deep because they also function as fire screens, but the hinged fall-front provides a generous writing surface, and tiered compartments in the interior space behind it offer storage for desk supplies and papers. “Let us, therefore, open the writing-desk, and examine its contents,” writes Thomas Griffiths in The Writing-Desk and Its Contents (London, 1844). “First there are two glasses, the one full of ink, the other full of pounce; here is a bundle of quill pens; here are some steel pens, several quires of writing paper, a few sheets of blotting paper; here, again, are sticks of red and black sealing wax, and plenty of wafers; here a penknife, a hone, a strop, a paper knife, a wafer stamp, a pen wiper, a round ruler, a black lead pencil, a piece of India-rubber, a box of lucifers [matches], and a white wax taper.” In 1836, Godey’s reported: “It appears to us that much benefit has been produced by the inventors and professors of the new modes of forming the hand-writing, for the letters of almost every lady of these days are neat, elegant and legible.”

George Smith, The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide, 1826, plate 83

George Smith (British, active London 1808–33). Ladies Drawing Table and Ladies Screen Writing Table. Illustration from The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide, 1826, plate 83. “The first subject in this plate is intended for the use of female artists, as well as to answer the purpose of a pier table. . . . The second subject in this plate exhibits a design for a writing table with a sliding screen at the back, which may be raised up or lowered at pleasure, and should be filled with plate glass.” These two inventive designs allowed women to use the same piece of furniture for more than one purpose.

A writing desk—from a small lap desk to a full-sized piece of furniture—was often highly personal. This is where private letters, valuables, and other items could be kept under lock and key. “The day before yesterday, accidentally hunting about in her bed-chamber for a letter I had mislaid, I found that the key of my bureau equally fitted her writing-desk; I mechanically opened it, and in a private drawer found several of Le Pelletier’s letters,” confided a husband to his doctor in “The Consultation,” an 1840 short story in The Ladies’ Cabinet of Fashion, Music, and Romance. “The devil you did,” his interlocutor replied, “but permit me to ask how you came to pry about your wife’s writing-desk? eh!” Although the desk in this story from a women’s magazine is likely a portable writing slope with a secret drawer—unlike Bartow-Pell’s writing fire-screen desk—the idea of the personal nature of a lady’s writing desk applies to both.

1976.01

This 1820s worktable at Bartow-Pell has a workbag underneath for sewing materials and a writing slope and compartments for writing supplies in the top drawer. “Work” refers to needlework (such as embroidery), which was also called “fancy work.” This contrasts to “plain sewing,” meaning tasks like darning socks.

Bartow-Pell’s ladies’ writing fire screen—one of several objects in our collection made for women’s activities—is a useful and elegant example of furniture designed for more than one function. In addition, it was made at a date when Maria Lorillard Bartow would have been selecting furnishings for the family’s new mansion, which was completed in 1842. Perhaps, like the Mannings, she even shopped at D. Phyfe & Son.

Margaret Highland, Historian

Posted in Mansion Musings | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Pleasure of Your Company (but No Gaucheries, Please!): Dinner Parties in 19th-Century America

Let’s say that you wanted to give a dinner party in the 19th century. Or maybe you were invited to one. What were these dinners like? And how did you avoid making ghastly faux pas?

BPMM dining table setting for fruit and nuts

The dining table at Bartow-Pell has been set for the fruit and nut course. “The . . . general custom is to remove the cloth before dessert,” wrote Mrs. William Parkes in the 1829 American edition of Domestic Duties. Larger dinner parties at the Bartow mansion would have been held in one of the double parlors.

A selection of at least 32 kinds of wine was offered at John Hunter’s sumptuous dinner for his friend President Martin Van Buren on July 10, 1839. The lavish event for about 24 guests took place on Hunter’s private island in Long Island Sound and was given in honor of the president during his summer tour of New York. A multi-course menu—in French, of course—included dishes served at Van Buren’s state dinners in Washington, such as potage de tortue (turtle soup); saumon, sauce d’anchois (salmon in anchovy sauce); calf brains au suprême; and gelée au champagne rosé, all served on “gold and silver plate.”

By five o’clock the whole of the company arrived and were ushered into the drawing room; the ladies discussed fashion and dresses, and parties and soirées, and music, and poetry, and painting, and wisely eschewed dirty, trashy politics. The gentlemen very wisely listened to the ladies, and a few strolled round the room to admire the paintings. [John Hunter had a well-known and extensive collection of Old Masters.] . . . About six o’clock the dinner was on the table.A Day with His Democratic Majesty amongst the Old Noblesse,” Morning Herald (New York), July 12, 1839

Dinner Dress, 1839

Dinner Dress, 1839. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. This British fashion plate illustrates a stylish dinner dress from 1839. “Take off your gloves and put them in your lap, under the napkin,” Mrs. John Farrar reminded young ladies in 1837.

The extravagant private affair was unabashedly regal. And Hunter’s country estate—which was modeled on those of the British aristocracy—was the perfect setting for entertaining Van Buren, “His Republican Highness,” as the Herald reporter called him. The neighbors would have discussed it all around their own dining tables, including Robert and Maria Bartow, who lived a mere half-mile from Hunter Island. It wasn’t every day that people entertained a head of state at their home. Obviously, not all dinner parties were over the top, like this one, which was not unlike dining at Buckingham Palace.

Hunter Mansion 1882

John Hunter mansion, 1882. Albumen print. From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York. The mansion—which stood on a private island in what is today Pelham Bay Park—was the setting for a dinner in honor of President Martin Van Buren on July 10, 1839. According to the Morning Herald, the dwelling was on a summit and had “a glorious view of Long Island Sound. A sloping lawn of great beauty, interspersed with flower borders, leads from the east front steps to the water’s edge.” The building was demolished in the 1930s, when Robert Moses was New York City Parks Commissioner. Today, a forest of oak trees covers the former site of the 19th-century mansion, lawns, and gardens, while birdsong and the quiet of nature have replaced dinner-party chatter.

Nineteenth-century American etiquette guides agree that one reason for a dinner party was to honor a person or an occasion.

Sometimes it is the birthday of the honored guest, the return of a bridal party, a reentrance into society after an illness, or following a sorrowful retirement from gayety; or it may be the celebration of an achievement, literary, artistic, political, or financial. Social Etiquette of New York (1880)

In planning a dinner, the first thing that the hosts had to do was decide on the guest list. “Those invited should be of the same standing in society,” writes John H. Young in Our Deportment (1882). “Good talkers are invaluable at a dinner party—people who have fresh ideas and plenty of warm words to clothe them in; but good listeners are equally invaluable.” In the Ladies’ Book of Etiquette (1872), Florence Hartley agrees that good conversation is an absolute must. “Conversation will be the sole entertainment for several hours, and if your guests are not well chosen, your dinner, no matter how perfect or costly the viands, will prove a failure.”

George Cruikshank, The Fall of the Leaf, Comic Almanac, 1845

George Cruikshank (British, 1792–1878). The Fall of the Leaf. Illustration from The Comic Almanack for 1845. Depictions of waterfalls line the walls in this satirical scene of a dinner-party disaster prompted by the collapse of a table leaf. A copy of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire has fallen on the floor, providing a sharp comment on the excesses of dinner parties.

The number of guests varied, “but certainly more than ten or twelve in number is not desirable,” Mrs. William Parkes instructs in the American edition of Domestic Duties, or Instructions to Young Married Ladies (1831). The numbers should allow “all the guests to engage in a common conversation,” Florence Hartley advises. And the author of The Habits of Good Society (1872) writes that “there is another reason for limiting the number, namely, that to give a good dinner, your means, your establishment, your dining-room, the capacities of the table, and so forth, must all be taken into consideration. . . . One cook, for instance, cannot serve up properly for more than a dozen people; three men cannot wait properly on more than ten.” A favorite rule of thumb in the 19th century was that guests should number “neither less than the graces, nor more than the muses.” Nevertheless, some dinners accommodated larger numbers of guests, such as the two dozen at John Hunter’s party.

Dinner invitation, 1882

Dinner invitation form from Our Deportment, 1882. “The invitations should be written on small note paper, which may have the initial letter or monogram stamped upon it, but good taste forbids anything more.”

The next step was to prepare the invitations. “Cards for a dinner party should be issued a fortnight, three weeks, or even a month beforehand,” Mrs. Parkes writes. However, Sarah Annie Frost notes in her Laws and By-Laws of American Society (1869) that “for a small company, and when gayety is not at its height, a week’s notice is sufficient.” “Printed cards of invitation are not en règle,” she adds, “excepting for public occasions. A small note paper is the only appropriate one, and may have the initial letter or monogram stamped upon it, and the envelope. Any more fanciful decoration is in excessively bad taste.” On the other hand, in 1880, Social Etiquette of New York offers another option: “It is the customary style of those who give frequent dinner-parties to order their cards engraved with a blank left for the written insertion of the name of the guests” and for the date. The author also includes the following advice (take note, social climbers of New York!):

Until very recently, the initials R. S. V. P. (Répondez s’il vous plait) have been engraved upon all formal cards, but they are less and less frequently seen. To thus ask, or even remind, a lady or gentleman that an invitation should be answered is, to say the least, a faint reproach upon their breeding. All refined people who are accustomed to the best social forms are fully aware that it would be an unpardonable negligence to omit replying to such an invitation for a single day.

The hard work was now up to the servants, under the direction of the lady of the house. “The preparations for a dinner party should be commenced the day before. The waiter should have a bill of fare given to him in time, that he may know what arrangements to make,” Eliza Leslie advises in her 1840 Lady’s House-Book. (The cook, of course, would have started to prepare days before.) In 1827, Robert Roberts—an African-American butler in Boston—writes in The House Servant’s Directory that “there is not any part of a servant’s business that requires greater attention and systematical neatness, than setting out his dinner table.” He goes on to discuss in precise detail how to set the table, lay out the sideboard and side table, and serve at the dinner. The sideboard, he reminds us, is where “splendid and costly articles” are to be “seen and set out to the best advantage,” where “your glasses should form a crescent, or half circle, as this looks most sublime.” Announce dinner with “a graceful motion of your head,” he suggests.

The Modern Dinner-Table, Sherwood Frontispiece

The Modern Dinner-Table. Frontispiece to Manners and Social Usages by Mrs. John Sherwood, 1887. “The service is à la Russe; that is, everything is handed by the servants. Nothing is seen on the table except the wines (and only a few of these), the bon-bons, and the fruit. No greasy dishes are allowed.”

In Our Deportment, John H. Young describes the ideal table of 1882:

A snow-white cloth of the finest damask, beautiful china, glistening or finely engraved glass, and polished plate are considered essential to a grand dinner. Choice flowers, ferns and mosses tastefully arranged, add much to the beauty of the table. A salt-cellar should be within the reach of every guest. Napkins should be folded square and placed with a roll of bread upon each plate. . . . An epergne, or a low dish of flowers, graces the center.

By 1869, place cards were becoming popular, according to Sarah Annie Frost.

Dinner dress, 1884–86

Dinner dress, 1884–86. Silk. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. J. Randall Creel, 1963. In Henry James’s novel Washington Square (1880), Catherine Sloper wears a red satin gown to her father’s dinner party.

The day of the party finally arrives. “The lady of the house should be in her drawing-room, ready to receive her guests, ten or fifteen minutes before the hour fixed,” states Frost’s Laws. Oh, and by the way, her husband “should also be present.” Dinner is announced by the chief waiter. “Before all the guests have arrived, the lady should have made her arrangements as to what gentleman and lady are to go in to dinner together.” The host should offer his left arm to his dinner partner. The “most distinguished” gentleman escorts the hostess, and the other paired couples follow to the dining room.

A Little Dinner in Bachelordom

A Little Dinner in Bachelordom. Illustration from “Luxurious Bachelordom,” in Munsey’s Magazine, January 1899. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. The etiquette expert and author Mrs. John Sherwood describes a dinner party hosted by a blueblood bachelor in her 1882 novel about New York society and manners, A Transplanted Rose. As the young heroine is entertained by her dinner partner with gossip and “all the mots from the club,” she admires the table setting. “Real old blue, the best of Lowestoft, Worcester, and real Dresden, not bought yesterday either; fine Queen Anne silver . . . and beautiful rich damask. . . . And his wines! Each wine was a rarity, good, sound, and, if proper, ancient.”

Once seated, guests had better be up on the fine points of etiquette and how to avoid gaucheries. Here is a taste of (many) pointers from Frost’s 1869 treatise:

Never take a long, deep breath after you finish eating, as if the exercise had fatigued you.

Never, even with cheese, put your knife into your mouth.

When you are helped, begin to eat, without regard to those who have already, or have not yet, been helped. (Who knew?)

To affect an air of mystery or secrecy at a dinner-table is an insult to your companion and company assembled.

Any gentleman propounding a conundrum at the dinner-table deserves to be taken away by the police.

None but a low-bred clown will ever carry fruit or bons bons away from the table.

Never touch fruit with your fingers.

Henry Sargent, The Dinner Party, ca. 1821

Henry Sargent (American, 1770–1845). The Dinner Party, ca. 1821. Oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Gift of Mrs. Horatio Appleton Lamb in memory of Mr. and Mrs. Winthrop Sargent. www.mfa.org. Some dinner parties were for men only, like this one in Boston in 1821. Here, the table cloth has been removed for the final course, and the gentlemen enjoy fruit, nuts, and wine at the end of the repast. A married host for such a dinner might ask his wife to be on hand. “If the dinner is for the gentlemen guests alone, and the lady of house presides, her duties are over when she rises after dessert. . . . In this case, cigars may be served with the coffee,” declares Frost’s Laws and By-Laws of American Society (1869).

The butler Robert Roberts advises servants to ensure that the lamps and chandeliers in the drawing room are lighted in good time “as the ladies never stop long in the dining room after the dessert is over.” After this final course, Frost instructs hostesses to catch “the eye of the principal” of her lady friends. “An interchange of ocular telegraphing takes place, the hostess rises,” and the ladies “retire to the drawing-room and occupy themselves until the gentlemen again join them. It is well for the hostess to have a reserve force for this interval, of photographic albums, stereoscopes, annuals, new music, in fact, all the ammunition she can provide to make this often tedious interval pass pleasantly.” As for the gentlemen, those “who smoke light their cigars. . . . Their absence from the drawing room should not be a prolonged one,” declares Social Etiquette of New York. If coffee was not served at the table after dessert, it was offered to guests in the drawing room. “After coffee, any guest may take leave, and it is not expected that the latest lingerer will remain longer than two hours after dinner.”

John Hunter was a member of the “old noblesse” who “had chosen his guests most admirably” for the dinner party in honor of President Martin Van Buren in 1839. The ladies were “all remarkable for elegance of manners,” and the gentlemen had “superior sense and erudition” and “sound judgment.” Would you have passed the test?

Margaret Highland, Historian

Posted in Mansion Musings | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Fantasy at the Ball: Fancy Dress, Masquerades, and Tableaux Vivants in the 19th Century

Moon dress, details

Fancy-Dress Costume (details), ca. 1889. American. Wool, velvet, glass beads, and faux pearls. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Gift of Mrs. Edward G. O’Brien TC2012.47a,b. This ivory dress trimmed with velvet half-moons probably included a headpiece and other accessories signifying its allegorical lunar theme.

It was the ball of the century. The red carpet in spades. The event was Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt’s fancy-dress ball on March 26, 1883, when 1,200 elite guests danced the night away in extravagant costumes at the Vanderbilts’ newly completed mock French chateau on Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street.

Isaac Bell

José Maria Mora (1849–1926). Isaac Bell (1846–1889) in costume for the Vanderbilts’ fancy-dress ball. Cabinet card, 1883. Museum of the City of New York, F2012.58.1275

The mansion dazzled “in a blaze of light,” and police officers were on hand to keep throngs of curious onlookers in order. Newspapers recounted every thrilling detail for their enraptured readers. “The Vanderbilt ball has agitated New-York society more than any social event that has occurred here in many years. . . . It has disturbed the sleep and occupied the waking hours of social butterflies, both male and female, for over six weeks.”

At 11 o’clock the maskers began to arrive in numbers. . . . Handsome women and dignified men were assisted from the carriage in their fanciful costumes. . . . Pretty and excited girls and young men who made desperate attempts to appear blasé were seen to descend and run up the steps into the brilliantly lighted hall. Club men who looked bored arrived . . . in hired cabs, and whole families drove up in elegant equipages with livried [sic] coachmen and footmen. New York Times, March 27, 1883

The fête was a spectacular Gilded Age triumph and a personal victory for the social-climbing Alva Vanderbilt.

Catharine Lorillard Kernochan

José Maria Mora. Mrs. James P. Kernochan, née Catherine Lorillard. Cabinet card, 1883. Museum of the City of New York, F2012.58.1300. Several members of the Lorillard family—relatives of Maria Lorillard Bartow—attended the Vanderbilt ball.

Another legendary ball was given by Mr. and Mrs. Henry Brevoort in 1840. “Dancing was kept up all night, mingled with eating, drinking, flirting, courting, sighing, and sweating,” the Morning Herald reported on March 2, 1840. Washington Irving was there, “in the dress of a Chargee,” accompanied by his nieces, who “looked very beautiful.” There was an “abundance of female domestics in attendance for the belles,” and “frizzeurs [friseurs, i.e., hairdressers], valets, etc., . . . for the beaux.” Tongues wagged when Matilda Barclay eloped from the ball in her mogul princess costume with Mr. Burgwyne of South Carolina. It was said that the couple—still dressed as the lovers in Thomas Moore’s bestselling 1817 narrative poem Lalla Rookh—were married before breakfast. This “beautiful belle . . . made havoc with many hearts at the Ball . . . and is now playing the fancy dress character of a married lady,” the Herald tattled with a sarcastic twist. The scandalous episode cast a moral shadow over society’s love affair with costume balls.

William Etty, Preparing for a Fancy Dress Ball

William Etty (English, 1787–1849). Preparing for a Fancy Dress Ball (Charlotte and Mary William-Wynn), 1833. Oil on canvas. Image courtesy of York Museums Trust, https://yorkmuseumstrust.org.uk, public domain. William Etty also painted the portraits of the Bartows’ neighbors Anne Jay and Robert Bolton when they lived in England.

Public balls and subscription balls were alternatives to parties held in private homes. For example, fancy-dress balls sometimes took place at summer resorts and mineral-spring spas. On August 5, 1851, the New York Herald published “The Grand Costume Ball at Cape May,” which described “the first grand fashionable fête of the season at the watering places.” A Highland lassie, a jockey, the Lady of the Lake, “Night,” Charles I, a French fop, and a Swiss peasant girl were among the many costumed guests at the New Jersey seaside resort. A few party-poopers wore ball gowns. And on August 12, 1848, the Herald reported on a “Grand Fancy Dress Ball at Saratoga [Springs].” (Levin R. Marshall, a Bartow neighbor, was one of the organizers.) This festive gathering had a few rules. “No person shall be admitted without costume, except heads of families entering with their children or wards in costume. . . . Masks of every description excluded [more on that later]. Ladies and gentlemen are particularly requested to name their costumes to the Director.”

1996-19-11a--c-pma

Man’s Fancy Dress Ensemble in Eighteenth-Century Style: Coat, Breeches, and Waistcoat, late 19th century. Satin, silk, sequins, ribbon, metallic trim, glass buttons. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of the heirs of Charlotte Hope Binney Tyler Montgomery, 1996

Did people wear masks at 19th-century American fancy-dress balls? Not usually. They did, however, use their imagination (and money) to create lavish costumes based on historical, literary, multicultural, and allegorical figures. Newspaper accounts of the period describe these ensembles in great detail. We can also learn more in Fancy Dresses Described, or What to Wear at Fancy Balls by Ardern Holt. “But what are we to wear?” the author asks in the introduction. He provides the answer with several hundred costume ideas for “Fancy-ball-goers,” including Charlotte Corday, Queen of the Butterflies, Dresden China, Air, Photography, Pompeiian Lady, and Victor Hugo’s Esmeralda, to name a few. He also has tips for children, sisters, blondes and brunettes, elderly ladies, and hairdressing and powdering.

The Grand Ball at the Tuileries, Harper's Weekly, March 28, 1863

The Grand Ball at the Tuileries—The Bees Quadrille. Illustration from Harper’s Weekly, March 28, 1863. Fancy-dress balls often took place around Lent, a custom that can be traced to pre-Lenten Carnival celebrations in Italy. A number of Americans were guests at a pre-Lenten costume ball given by Empress Eugénie and Napoleon III in the Tuileries Palace in 1863. “At twelve o’clock several large bee-hives were carried in by villagers in the costumes of Watteau’s pictures, and from them issued a charming and graceful swarm of bees . . . dressed in golden corsage [bodice] and shining wings, and who at once proceeded to dance the quadrille.”

“A marked feature at most Fancy Balls is a specially-arranged quadrille [similar to a square dance or contredanse],” Ardern Holt wrote. At the Vanderbilt ball, there were six of these dances “comprising in all nearly a hundred ladies and gentlemen,” who moved “in a glittering processional pageant down the grand stairway and through the hall,” according to the Times. The ball began with the “Hobby-horse Quadrille,” which featured realistic horse costumes “attached to the waists of the wearers.” Gentlemen wore white satin vests and yellow satin knee breeches, and the ladies donned embroidered white satin skirts in the style of Louis XIV. Men and women also wore red hunting coats.

Masked Ball at the Opera

Masqued Ball at the Opera, Paris. Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library

Fancy-dress balls were not to be confused with masked balls. In general, masked events were considered degenerate, because partygoers were in disguise—or even anonymous—which was thought to encourage improper behavior or worse (although there were exceptions, such as celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Purim). In fact, masked balls were sometimes illegal in the United States. But it was a different story in Europe.

Paris, as everybody knows, abounds with masked balls during the brief season which intervenes between the commencement of the year and the first days of Lent. . . . It has been calculated that an experienced ball-goer might spend every night of January and February at a masked ball without going twice to the same place. “Musard and the Paris Masked Balls,” Harper’s Weekly, April 10, 1858

Tableaux vivants were another excuse to dress up in costume and indulge in some amateur theatricals. An 1884 edition of Webster’s dictionary defined a tableau vivant as “The representation of some scene by means of persons grouped in appropriate postures, and remaining silent and motionless.” These “living pictures” depicted scenes from art, history, literature, or other genres and were popular entertainment in parlors and at evening parties.

1956.11.58_1

Unknown artist. Copy after Sir Joshua Reynolds (English, 1723–1792). Mrs. Lloyd, 18th century. Oil on canvas. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of Mabel Johnson Langhorne

In Edith Wharton’s Gilded Age novel The House of Mirth, “a dozen fashionable women” are asked to perform at an evening reception in tableaux vivants based on Old Master paintings. Wharton’s protagonist, the beautiful Lily Bart, “was in her element on such occasions” and played the part of Mrs. Lloyd in the portrait painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds. “The unanimous ‘Oh!’ of the spectators was a tribute, not to the brush-work of Reynolds . . . but to the flesh and blood loveliness of Lily Bart.”

It was as though she had stepped, not out of, but into, Reynolds’s canvas. . . . Her pale draperies and the background of foliage against which she stood, served only to relieve the long dryad-like curves that swept upward from her poised foot to her lifted arm.

“That experienced connoisseur, Mr. Ned Van Alstyne,” remarked: “‘Deuced bold thing to show herself in that get-up; but, gad, there isn’t a break in the lines anywhere, and I suppose she wanted us to know it!’”

Tableaux were also performed in schools, where they were regarded as instructional. In 1865, for example, the Prospectus of the Vassar Female College noted that “under proper instruction, [tableaux may] be made to conduce to far higher ends than those of mere amusement.” How-to books such as School and Parlor Tableaux, Suitable for Schools, the Drawing-room, Church Entertainments, etc. (1879) provided suggestions for costumes and tips on staging and lighting.

Assisted by His Daughters, Mr. Pipp, 1899

Charles Dana Gibson (1867–1944). Assisted by His Daughters: Mr. Pipp Enters into the Spirit of the Paris Carnival, 1899

Why was dressing up in costumes a popular pastime? In the 19th century, there was an enormous interest in history, which was expressed through literature, art, architecture, collecting, and even fashion. This included dressing in historical fancy dress. Or rather, interpretations of historical dress. In addition, advances in the publishing industry and education meant that people read a lot more—works of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry—on all kinds of subjects. Furthermore, modern transportation networks increased travel and global awareness. All of these things sparked people’s imaginations when the time came to give a party or choose a costume. Hostesses like Mrs. Vanderbilt took advantage of the novelty of fancy-dress balls to enhance their social status.

Katharine Graham and Truman Capote

Host of the Year. Photograph by Mel Finkelstein for the World Journal Tribune. Katharine Graham and Truman Capote at the Black and White Ball, Plaza Hotel, New York City, November 28, 1966. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

In the 20th century, the legacy of costume balls lived on in Truman Capote’s fabled Black and White Ball. The glamorous masked party was held in the Grand Ballroom at the Plaza Hotel—a few blocks away from the site of the 1883 Vanderbilt ball—on November 28, 1966, in honor of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham. But this time, revelers wore masks. Capote’s black-and-white dress code was inspired by Cecil Beaton’s costumes in the Ascot scenes of the motion picture My Fair Lady (1964). Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow were there. So were some of the Vanderbilts, the poet Marianne Moore, Claudette Colbert, William F. Buckley, and a young Candice Bergen, who wore a fur-trimmed strapless black velvet gown and a bunny mask. They joined “540 diplomats, politicians, scientists, painters, writers, composers, actors, producers, dress designers, social figures, tycoons, and what Mr. Capote called ‘international types, lots of beautiful women and ravishing little things,’” the New York Times reported.

These magical evenings were full of fantasy, but eventually it was time to call it a night (or make that, call it a morning).

Margaret Highland, Historian

Posted in Mansion Musings | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fit for a Lord of the Manor: A Tester Bedstead Attributed to Duncan Phyfe

On November 29, 1955, Justine Bayard Erving—an unmarried descendent of the Van Rensselaer lords of the manor—died in a New York nursing home at the age of 73. The following year, a classical tester bedstead—later attributed to the influential cabinetmaker Duncan Phyfe (1770–1854)—was given to Bartow-Pell from her estate. Did it once belong to the donor’s great-grandparents Stephen Van Rensselaer III, the “last patroon” of Rensselaerswyck, and his wife Cornelia Paterson?

Bedstead

Attributed to Duncan Phyfe (1770–1854). Bedstead, ca. 1815–25. Mahogany. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Gift of Justine Bayard Erving, 1956.05

The Van Rensselaers were early Dutch settlers in New York and powerful landowners in the Albany area whose vast estate was known as Rensselaerswyck. The family amassed enormous wealth through a feudal-based system overseen by the patroon (the Dutch term for lord of the manor). The Van Rensselaers intermarried with other dynastic New York families such as the Schuylers, Bayards, Livingstons, and Van Cortlandts.

Stephen Van Rensselaer III

John Wesley Jarvis (1780–1840). Stephen Van Rensselaer III, ca. 1825–35. Oil on canvas. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. This portrait was owned by the sitter’s great-granddaughter Justine Bayard Erving. She also inherited Portrait of a Child as Cupid: William Paterson Van Rensselaer Jr., 1836–37, which she donated to the Albany Institute of History & Art.

Stephen Van Rensselaer III (1764–1839) was a baby when his father began construction on a grand new manor house near the Hudson River in what is now the city of Albany. When the patroon died prematurely in 1769, his young son inherited the newly completed mansion, along with the entire estate. After the death of Stephen Van Rensselaer III in 1839, the house was extensively remodeled in the early 1840s by the architect Richard Upjohn. But in 1893, when railroad tracks and industrialization encroached on the property, the building was taken apart and partially reassembled at Williams College, where it housed a fraternity, among other things, until it was torn down for good in 1973. Today, the original entrance hall survives as a period room in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Van Rensselaer manor house entry hall

Woodwork and Wallpaper from the Great Hall of Van Rensselaer Manor House, 1765–69. Made in Albany, New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. William Bayard Van Rensselaer, in memory of her husband, 1928

Justine Bayard Erving

Justine Bayard Erving (1881–1955) in 1924

At the time of her death, Justine Bayard Erving (1881–1955), the bedstead’s donor, was a recent past president of the International Garden Club (IGC)—now the Bartow-Pell Conservancy—the organization that maintained the Bartow mansion as a historic house museum. (It is interesting to note that her relative Florence Van Rensselaer [1865–1957], who wrote a family history, served as IGC president during most of the 1940s.)

Because the details of the donor’s genealogy were not recorded when the bedstead was given to Bartow-Pell, the Van Rensselaer connection was forgotten until recently, when BPMM board member and Curatorial Committee Chairperson Carswell Rush Berlin—an expert in classical decorative arts who suspected that the bedstead was likely made by Phyfe— looked into Justine Bayard Erving’s ancestry. The provenance is particularly significant because her ancestor Stephen Van Rensselaer III was a patron of Phyfe’s. We know, for example that in 1811, Stephen III commissioned a library chair from the cabinetmaker. In addition, a portrait of him by the American painter John Wesley Jarvis (1780–1840) was also owned by Justine Bayard Erving at the time of her death and has a similar provenance. Carswell Berlin notes, however, that “while we know that Stephen III patronized Phyfe, the bed could also have come in through his wife’s family (the Patersons) or the family of their son’s wife, Sarah Bayard Roger, who we also know were Phyfe clients. The quality of the bed indicates the caliber of its maker, narrowing the possibilities to Phyfe and only a tiny group of his contemporaries, and the provenance linking the bed to such important families known to have patronized Phyfe strongly reinforces the likelihood that Phyfe was the maker, so that an attribution can be made with some confidence.”

Bartow-Pell’s bedstead dates from about 1815 to 1825 and is very similar to one that Nancy McClelland identifies in her book Duncan Phyfe and the English Regency (1939) as descending in the family of Duncan Phyfe’s daughter Eliza Phyfe Vail (1801–1890). In Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker in New York, Peter Kenny writes: “However, based on the style of its ornament, as well as some tangential documentation, it seems just as likely that it was originally made for her parents.” Both bedsteads feature highly figured mahogany footboards with elaborate turned and carved posts consisting of leaves, rope spirals, and carved paw feet. However, the Phyfe family bedstead (illustrated on p. 225 of Kenny’s book) is more richly ornamented and has small Doric columns with gilded brass capitals on the footboard and carving on all four posts. (Headposts on tester bedsteads were usually plain because they were covered by bed hangings.) It makes sense that Phyfe would add special touches to a piece that he made for his own family. The late Berry Tracy, a curator in the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum, gave a lecture at Bartow-Pell in 1966 and was the first scholar to attribute our bedstead to Duncan Phyfe.

The Phyfe and Van Rensselaer family bedsteads were made in a traditional English four-post form. The Scottish-born Phyfe presumably chose this style to suit himself and his wife, Rachel. As for Stephen Van Rensselaer III, his character was described as “conservative” by his biographer Daniel B. Barnard in 1839. “He was temperate in all things; in his personal indulgencies; in his personal predilections or prejudices; . . . in his new opinions or feelings, whenever he acquired them; in his love of the world.” It makes sense that his household furnishings would be traditional, even a tad old-fashioned.

Sheraton Bed

Thomas Sheraton (1751–1806). Design for a Bed. Hand-colored engraving from The Cabinet Dictionary, 1803. Courtesy of Carswell Rush Berlin, Inc., New York City

Such high-post bedsteads—which follow the Anglo-American aesthetic of designers such as Thomas Sheraton (1751–1806)—contrast with contemporaneous “French” beds, which were modeled on ancient Roman day beds with scrolled ends. These were meant to be viewed from the side with the other side against a wall, like the one in Bartow-Pell’s collection that was made in New York City by Phyfe’s competitor Charles-Honoré Lannuier (1779–1819) between 1812 and 1819 for the merchant Isaac Bell and his wife, Mary Ellis Bell. Lannuier was a sophisticated interpreter of the Greco-Roman style, which had been popular in France since the French Revolution and was a powerful symbol of the ancient democratic ideals that were embraced by the new French and American republics. In fact, much attention has been given to a superb French bedstead made by Lannuier for Stephen Van Rensselaer III’s son Stephen IV (1789–1868) and his wife, Harriet Bayard (1799–1875)—also in the French (or “Grecian”) taste—which is now in the Albany Institute of History & Art.

_MG_5519masterbedcropped

Charles-Honoré Lannuier. French Bedstead, 1812–19. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Gift of Henry S. Peltz and Mary Nevius, 1985.06. Photo: Richard Warren

Stephen Van Rensselaer III, 1797

Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin (1770–1852). Stephen Van Rensselaer III, 1797. Engraving on paper. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon. The prolific French émigré portraitist Saint-Mémin engraved this profile of Stephen Van Rensselaer III in 1797. That same year, the artist captured the likeness of Isaac Bell, who was a client of both Phyfe and Lannuier (from whom Bell commissioned the superb French bedstead now at Bartow-Pell).

Phyfe and Lannuier vied for many of the same clients and were important leaders of a large cabinetmaking industry in New York City. Their patrons—who lived all along the East Coast—consisted of both landowning families and members of a burgeoning merchant class who were eager to furnish their houses with expensive objects of the highest quality, often as a means to display their wealth and taste. The two cabinetmakers initially produced pieces in opposing English and French styles but later influenced each other’s work. “Sheraton’s second book of designs, The Cabinet Dictionary (1803), and Thomas Hope’s Household Furniture (1807) introduce the new Grecian styles coming out of France. However, some clients preferred the more traditional English style (the style they were used to), and some the newer French or Grecian style,” notes Carswell Berlin. “The Phyfe bed represents Robert Adam’s neo-classicism and the Lannuier bed represents archaeological classicism. Thomas Hope, the most influential designer and arbiter of taste of the English Regency after the King himself, represented a rejection of Adam classicism in England, but not everyone adopted the Grecian style. Sheraton style continued to be influential for at least twenty years.” (Click here to see Berlin’s article on the design sources of American classical furniture.)

Bed Curtains

Illustration from An Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy by Thomas Webster and Mrs. Parkes (American edition, 1845). “Bed-curtains are made of various materials, as silk, damask, moreen, chints [sic], or dimity. . . . Chints [sic] is generally preferred, being more easily washed; and curtains of it are usually lined with a thin glazed cotton, generally dyed plain.”

Bed hangings were among the most expensive items in a well-to-do household. For example, four-post bedsteads required “a top, a back, two head curtains, two foot curtains, one top outer and one top inner valance, one bottom valance, and sometimes extra drapery laid on the back of the bed,” according to The Workwoman’s Guide (1840). Sumptuous bed draperies required many yards of fine fabric. Catharine Beecher advised readers of A Treatise on Domestic Economy (1841): “High-post bedsteads are best, as it is often important to hang . . . curtains to protect from cold currents of air. It is in good taste to have the [bed] curtains, bedquilt, valance, and window-curtains of similar materials.” In the 1828 American edition of Domestic Duties, or Instructions to Young Married Ladies, Mrs. William Parkes wrote that “bed-hangings are now, generally, either of moreen [a strong cotton or wool fabric], or of chintz lined with coloured calico. Moreen is very serviceable, and is well suited to cold situations; it requires no lining, and therefore, is less expensive than chintz, though not so pretty.” Bartow-Pell’s reproduction bed hangings are made of glazed cotton chintz in the Oriole pattern from Brunschwig & Fils, a historic design based on an example in the collection of the Winterthur Museum.

Clarina's Chamber

According to the custom of the period, Bartow-Pell’s bed hangings and window treatments are made of the same fabric. “In general, the material and colour of window curtains should be the same as that of other drapery in the room; for example, as . . . bed curtains in bed-rooms.” John Claudius Loudon, 1835

Our tester bedstead has been slumbering quietly in an upstairs bedchamber at the museum since 1956. But it has a story to tell—one with ties to the Van Rensselaer family and to an important furniture maker. Besides, how fitting that such an object would end up at Bartow-Pell, a property that once belonged to another legendary family, the Pells—the lords of the manor of Pelham—and their descendent Robert Bartow.

Margaret Highland, Historian

Posted in Mansion Musings | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Reimagined: A 19th-Century American Apple Orchard

Proposed view of BPMM orchard

Proposed view of visitors enjoying Bartow-Pell’s new orchard. Mark K. Morrison Landscape Architecture PC, Ms. Erica Koh, Landscape Designer

Americans loved apple orchards in the 19th century (and we still do!). Apple blossoms in the spring, apple picking in the fall, cider making, and apples served every which way have all helped to make the American apple orchard a cultural phenomenon. It’s no wonder that Robert and Maria Bartow had an orchard on their country estate. Now, Bartow-Pell has a new one, reimagined for the 21st century.

“No words can describe the beauty of an American apple-orchard,” wrote the Bartows’ neighbor James Bolton in his delightful 1859 memoir Brook Farm: The Amusing and Memorable of American Country Life. “The trees, some old and gnarled, some young and dandified, stood in rows as straight as a street.” The Bolton family had two orchards: “Each had its share of hill and valley, each its home and distant landscape; the nearest overlooked the farmhouse and buildings, the furthest, the river meadows.”

Bartow-Pell’s new orchard is situated in a woodland clearing between the mansion and Bartow Creek. The neatly planted rows recall the estate’s 19th-century orchard, which bordered the road on the north side and was catty-cornered from the new one. (Long-term changes in the landscape required planting the trees in a different location.)

Detail of Bartow estate, 1885

William J. Haskins and Otto S. Jaffe. Map Showing Topographical Survey of Land to Be Taken for Pelham Bay Park (detail), 1885. Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library. This map detail shows the Bartow estate in 1885. The orchard, with its neat rows of trees, can be seen on the left near the road. That area is now woodland, and today’s orchard has been planted on the other side of the property near Bartow Creek. Click here to see the full map and the locations of nearby orchards.

We can see a snapshot of orchards belonging to the Bartow family and their neighbors in 1885 on a map in the New York Public Library. Twenty years later—after the City of New York had converted the former private estates into parkland—another map shows that the local orchards were starting to disappear. Eventually, none were left.

New trees

Bartow-Pell’s newly planted orchard

In spring 2019, landscape architect Mark K. Morrison—who oversaw Bartow-Pell’s formal garden restoration in 2013—planted thirteen apple trees and two pear trees. Heirloom varieties are Malus Stayman and Malus Baldwin apples and Bartlett (or Williams’ Bon Chrétien) pears. Other cultivars were selected for a number of reasons, including availability, flavor, and cost, so that the project would stay within budget. “We chose the Granny Smith (first grown in Australia in 1868) because it’s well known for making pies,” explains Morrison. “The Rome is a great cooking apple, which originated in Rome township, Ohio, in the early 19th century, and the Liberty is a hybrid apple developed in New York State.” Suncrisp, Mutsu, and Honeycrisp apples—which were all introduced in the 20th century—round out the group. “These three varieties are absolutely delicious eating apples and are more readily available if someone wants to purchase a tree for their own property.” Some trees will bear fruit this year.

Martin Johnson Heade, Hummingbird and Apple Blossoms

Martin Johnson Heade (American, 1819–1904) Hummingbird and Apple Blossoms, 1875. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. J. Augustus Barnard, 1979. The Bartows’ neighbor James Bolton, in a description of his family’s blossom-covered orchard, wrote: “Occasionally lovely little humming-birds, with their white bosoms and emerald necks, might be seen; now darting hither and thither quick as lightning; now hovering, spirit-like, whilst they thrust their long tongues into the flower cup; now resting an instant on a twig, and uttering a sharp, whisking kind of squeak.”

Apple blossoms transform orchards into a sensory feast. “About the middle of May they [the apple trees] were in full blossom,” James Bolton recalled. “We compared them to a large bridal party promenading whilst the bells rang merry peals; or a crowd of white-dressed girls dancing on the village green. Then every sniff of air was heavy with honied odors.” Naturally, spring orchards were the perfect setting for romance. The blooms also inspired poetry, prose, and songs in the 19th century, when Americans enjoyed works such as Apple Blossoms: A Novel (1886), poems like “Apple-Blossom Time” (1878), and songs like “Down among the Apple Blossoms” (1872).

NY Daily Tribune 3.6.1851

Two Farms for Sale. Advertisement in the New-York Daily Tribune, March 6, 1851. Orchards were on the wish list of every would-be farm purchaser. The sellers of these farms in Eastchester, New York, make sure to mention that the properties include “large apple orchards in full bearing.”

During fall apple-picking season in October 1884, gossipmongers thrilled when the Bartow orchard apparently played a part in a peculiar episode that involved Mary Grote, a young German servant, “about 20 years of age,” who went missing from a nearby farm and was later found unharmed in a hayloft. The New York Times followed the story:

Yesterday morning she went to the apple orchard, three-quarters of a mile from the farmhouse and across the track of the Harlem River branch of the New-Haven Railroad, with Ben, a son of Mr. May, and a farm hand named George. They all returned to the house at noon with a load of apples. After dinner Mary . . . left, as all supposed, for the orchard. . . . When the boys reached the orchard . . . Mary was not there. It was thought that she had gone for chestnuts, but when the boys returned to the house at dusk, with their fragrant load, she was not there.

Apple basket and apple pickers

Vintage apple basket full of fruit pickers. From the private collection of Mark K. Morrison

Pomologists have recorded that in the 19th century there were thousands of North American apple varieties that came in many sizes, shapes, and colors. However, only a fraction of those are grown today. A favorite 19th-century apple—the Newtown Pippin—has become somewhat hard to find, but in 1845, it was a different story. “The American or Newtown Pippin is now pretty generally admitted to be the finest apple in the world,” wrote Andrew Jackson Downing in The Fruits and Fruit Trees of America. “On the Hudson, thousands of barrels of the fairest and richest Newtown pippins are constantly produced.” This variety was first grown during Colonial times in Newtown—now Elmhurst—in present-day Queens and was highly valued for its delectable flavor. Even Queen Victoria was a big fan. However, as unblemished fruit has become more important to producers and consumers, Pippins—with skin that is prone to russeting—have been largely pushed aside for varieties such as Granny Smith.

1992.19

John George Brown (born England 1831–died New York 1913). The Cider Mill, 1880. Oil on canvas. Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.19

New York State has long been known for its hard cider, which was especially popular with the working classes in the 19th century and is now making a resurgence. (Like today, it was also used to make cider vinegar.) Not surprisingly, the temperance movement disapproved. “Intemperance is a dreadful evil, and even wine and cider are dangerous,” warns a character in Hard Cider: A Temperance Sketch (1880). Sweet (non-alcoholic) cider was even considered taboo by some followers of the movement because “it is impossible to tell the exact point when fermentation commences,” cautioned one of the essayists in the Centennial Temperance Volume (1876). They didn’t take any chances, did they?

Currier and Ives, Apples

Currier & Ives. Apples, 1868. Lithograph. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Apples appeared on the family table in many different forms. For example, dessert apples—such as the Newtown Pippin—were often enjoyed as fresh fruit at the end of a meal. According to Andrew Jackson Downing, “The finest sorts [of apples] are much esteemed for the dessert. . . . As the earliest sorts ripen about the last of June, and the latest can be preserved until that season, it may be considered as a fruit in perfection the whole year.”  He went on: “Besides its merits for the dessert, the value of the apple is still greater for the kitchen, and in sauces, pies, tarts, preserves, and jellies, and roasted and boiled, this fruit is the constant and invaluable resource of the kitchen.” Period cookbooks abound with “receipts” for apple dumplings, apple jelly, apple pancakes, apple fool, apple fritters, pork apple pie, apple à la Turque, and on and on.

“An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” runs the old adage. And, indeed, the health benefits of the apple were highly valued in the 19th century. A. J. Downing got right to the point: “It is exceedingly wholesome, and, medicinally, is considered cooling, and laxative, and useful in all inflammatory diseases.” In December 1860, the Health Department column in Arthur’s Home Magazine encouraged families to eat apples:

If taken freely at breakfast with coarse bread and butter . . . it has an admirable effect on the general system . . . more effectually than the most approved medicines. If families could be induced to substitute the apple, sound, ripe, and luscious, for the pies, cakes, candies, and other sweetmeats with which their children are too often indiscreetly stuffed, there would be a diminution in the sum total of doctors’ bills in a single year, sufficient to lay in a stock of this delicious fruit for a whole season’s use.

The columnist mused, “Why every farmer in the nation has not an apple-orchard where the trees will grow at all, is one of the mysteries.”

Cecropia moth

Cecropia Emperor Moth. Illustration from Insects Injurious to Fruits by William Saunders (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1883). The cecropia moth is the largest in North America, and its eggs are found on the leaves and stems of various plants, including apple trees. The author of this comprehensive reference work notes that information for fruit growers on how to deal with harmful pests was scattered amongst “a large number of voluminous State and Departmental reports and books on scientific entomology” before the publication of his book, which is illustrated with 440 wood engravings.

People were not the only ones to enjoy eating apples. Downing wrote:

The recent practice of fattening hogs, horses, and other animals upon sweet apples accounts for the much greater number of varieties. . . . In fact, so excellent has the saccharine matter of the apple been found for this purpose, that whole orchards of sweet apples are frequently planted here for the purposes of fattening swine and cattle, which are allowed to run at large in them (1855).

James Bolton paints a vivid picture of a barnyard dash with apples as the trophy. “As the fruit ripens, the pigs are turned in to eat up the windfalls. The geese and turkeys, too, are fond of a peck at them. . . . When an apple drops, ears are pricked, and they race off, pigs, geese and turkeys, pell-mell towards the spot. The first in has the prize—that is, if he can keep it.”

We are very excited about sharing our 21st-century orchard with Bartow-Pell’s visitors. What better way to promote sustainability, healthy eating, history, and the beauty of nature than through the simple pleasures of the orchard?

Margaret Highland, Historian

Posted in Garden Musings, Mansion Musings | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Alice Vaughan-Williams Martineau: An Englishwoman’s Crusade to Cultivate American Gardeners

On September 24, 1913, the British writer and garden designer Alice Martineau (ca. 1865–1956) set sail from Southampton for New York on the White Star Line’s legendary RMS Olympic, the enormous luxury ocean liner that was the sister ship of the ill-fated Titanic.

Phlox and Hollyhock

Margaret Waterfield, illustrator (1860–1950). Phlox and Hollyhock at Milton Court, Dorking. Illustration from The Herbaceous Garden by Alice Martineau (1913). The author used the term “herbaceous” in a loose sense to include “annual, biennial, and perennial plants . . . and boldly decide to include the best of everything in our border.”

Mrs. Philip Martineau (as the press referred to her) was not well known in America, but she was traveling stateside to deliver a series of lectures on gardening to Yankee bluebloods. Furthermore, she had recently published The Herbaceous Garden—a book that was rooted in her experiences planning and planting her own gardens—which she wanted to promote to an American audience. The upper-class self-professed amateur had also been hired by her old friends John and Mary Beecher Longyear to design the gardens at their estate in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Mrs. Charles Frederick Hoffman Jr. in the Garden at Armsea Hall

William W. Ernst. Mrs. Charles Frederick Hoffman Jr. in the Garden at Armsea Hall, 1909 or later. The Preservation Society of Newport County. Zelia Hoffman dances around a fountain in her gardens.

Somewhere along the way, Martineau met Zelia (Mrs. Charles F.) Hoffman (1867–1929), a wealthy American Anglophile, society hostess, and gardening enthusiast, and suggested to Mrs. Hoffman that she form an organization in the United States modeled after Britain’s Royal Horticultural Society. Hoffman quickly embraced the idea, and in March 1914, only a few months after Martineau’s 1913 visit, the new International Garden Club was formed. Zelia Hoffman led the organization, which soon leased the old Bartow estate from the City of New York to use as its headquarters and embarked on an ambitious to-do list. In short order, they recruited an impressive membership roster that included Nicholas Murray Butler (the president of Columbia University who was the IGC’s honorary president) and names such as Astor, Pell, and Vanderbilt. In addition, successful fundraising paid for the white-shoe architectural firm Delano & Aldrich to restore and update the Bartow mansion and create a beautiful formal walled garden. The IGC also published a journal, formed a horticultural library, and organized flower shows and other public events. Let’s not forget that the early 20th century was a golden age for the creation of garden clubs, such as the Garden Club of America, which was founded in 1913. “There never was a time when interest in gardening was so enthusiastic and widespread as at present. The International Garden Club is the result of this enthusiasm, given direction by Mrs. Philip Martineau.” (The Evening Post [New York], May 8, 1914)

Bartow Mansion, Fall 1915

Frances Benjamin Johnston and Mattie Edwards Hewitt. Terrace Fountain, Bartow Mansion, International Garden Club, fall 1915. Hand-colored glass-lantern slide. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Johnston and Hewitt were well known for their photographs of architecture, historic buildings, and gardens. The two women ended their partnership in 1917 but continued to work independently.

Thanks to Martineau and Hoffman’s vision, Bartow-Pell was almost certainly saved from the wrecking ball in the 1930s, when Parks Commissioner Robert Moses ordered the demolition of the other remaining 19th-century country-estate mansions in Pelham Bay Park, which were in various states of disrepair. Today, Bartow-Pell is operated by the Bartow-Pell Conservancy and is a member of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation’s Historic House Trust.

Frontispiece Herbaceous Garden

Isabel Forrest, illustrator. A Mixed Border in the Garden of the Hon. Mrs. Edward Lyttleton at Overstrand. Frontispiece to The Herbaceous Garden. “What an ugly name!,” Martineau exclaimed in Chapter XIII regarding the book’s title. “But would ‘My Perennial Garden,’ even if correct, sound any better, or ‘My Hardy Plant Garden’? So I must just leave it.”

Alice Margaret Vaughan-Williams Martineau was born in Wales around 1865 to Robert Vaughan-Williams and Sarah Jane Reid. Her father was a judge. In 1888, she married Philip Hubert Martineau (1862–1944), a solicitor and cricketer, and the couple had two sons. When her husband was knighted in 1933, she became Lady Alice. In the preface to The Herbaceous Gardener, Martineau wrote that she “grew up in a garden, and inherited doubtless the love for it.” She went on to write more books and articles on gardening, as well as several cookbooks (with wonderful titles such as Cantaloup to Cabbage and Caviare to Candy). Martineau, who moved in aristocratic circles, was also the author of Reminiscences of Hunting and Horses by a Fox-Hunting Woman and Roumania and Her Rulers. She had close ties to the Romanian royal family and dedicated The Secrets of Many Gardens to Romania’s Queen Marie, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria.

On September 21, 1913, the New York Times proclaimed: “Friend of Queen Coming as Gardener” to “give a course of drawing-room lectures.” Interestingly, Martineau was not the only foreigner to cross the Atlantic for speaking engagements in the heady days before the start of World War I. That same issue of the Times announced the arrival of the groundbreaking French couturier Paul Poiret (1879–1944)—known for his lampshade tunics, harem pantaloons, and hobble skirts—for an American lecture tour.

NY Tribune 9.21.1913

New-York Tribune, September 21, 1913. This is one of the newspaper headlines from Alice Martineau’s visit to the United States in the fall of 1913 when she was just starting her professional career but still considered herself an amateur.

“I have been in America twice on social visits. I am one Englishwoman who is simply in love with the country. I never hear the steamboat whistle but long for New York and the Hudson, where the air is like champagne,” gushed Martineau in the Times. But the feeling was not always mutual, at least after a controversial article entitled “Our Apathy to Gardens Astounds English Expert” appeared in the same newspaper on November 9, 1913.

But while she admits that a certain class in America is showing a really remarkable interest in gardens, she is even more impressed by the apparent apathy of the people in general. The almost total absence of cottage gardens astonishes her.

She went on to say that the “greatest mistake people make over here is in leaving things too much in the hands of the gardener,” accusing him of “atrocities” in the choice of flower colors, for example. Was Martineau merely a know-it-all aristo-dilettante? Or did she just need a lesson in tact? Maybe a bit of both, at least at the beginning of her professional career.

Martineau’s condescending—and ignorant—views ignited a tempest in a teapot and inspired snarky letters to the editor. Some American gardening experts bristled. For example, Martin C. Ebel, Secretary of the National Association of Gardeners, wrote: “This lady from abroad, with her mission to teach us, shows herself to be quite uninformed on American horticultural conditions.” He criticized her arrogance and lack of experience, complaining that she “comes to this country to undertake to advise against practical men whose experiences in gardening have been lifelong.” Some letters, however, praised the British visitor, such as one from “C.” of Tuxedo Park. Was this anonymous rebuttal penned by one of her society friends?

Mrs. Wharton in Her Garden

Mrs. Wharton in Her Garden (Sainte Claire du Chateau). Illustration from Gardening in Sunny Lands: The Riviera, California, Australia by Alice Martineau (1924). Introduction by Edith Wharton. In her foreword, the British author thanked her American friend: “Lastly, my special thanks are due to Mrs. Wharton, but for whose steady encouragement and practical help this book would never have been written.”

Although some American experts were offended by Martineau’s comments in the press in 1913, she had important connections in the gardening world. The influential British gardener and writer William Robinson (1838–1935), a proponent of the English cottage garden, was an important inspiration for Martineau and agreed to write an introduction to The Herbaceous Garden, which he did “with pleasure in the hope of helping the movement.” And the American writer Edith Wharton (1862–1937), a friend and fellow gardener, contributed an introduction to Martineau’s book Gardening in Sunny Lands (1924). Wharton wrote, “The author’s spoken counsels have already been so helpful in the making of my own garden that I feel sure my fellow-gardeners, and even those far more experienced than I, will welcome the appearance of such a book and find help in one or another of its stimulating suggestions.” At this time, Wharton was planting splendid gardens at Sainte-Claire du Château, the charming villa on the French Riviera that she was renting and would soon buy.

Roses at Armsea Hall, Newport

Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864–1952) and Mattie Edwards Hewitt (1869–1956). Sundial in Rose Garden at Armsea Hall, Charles Frederick Hoffman Jr. House, Narragansett Bay, Newport, Rhode Island, summer 1914. Hand-colored glass-lantern slide. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. In the summer of 1914, around the time when Alice Martineau visited Zelia Hoffman in Newport, the American photographers Johnston and Hewitt produced glass-lantern slides of Zelia’s renowned rose garden. Johnston later took pictures of Alice Martineau’s garden at Wellsbridge Cottage near Ascot.

In May 1914, Alice Martineau returned to the United States to give more lectures and plan more gardens for wealthy American clients. “Mrs. Philip Martineau, of Hurst Court, England, . . . intends to spread the garden gospel still further in her present tour of the country,” declared the New York Tribune on May 10 in “Women Are Gardeners on Own Estates: Bloomer-Clad They Supplant Gardeners.” The article included an interview with Martineau and buzz about the new International Garden Club and its impact. At the end of June, Alice paid a visit to her friend Zelia at the Hoffmans’ Newport estate, Armsea Hall, a superb Beaux Arts mansion with spectacular gardens on Narragansett Bay.

Wellsbridge Cottage

Frances Benjamin Johnston. Garden Doorway, Wellsbridge Cottage, Philip Hubert Martineau House, Wellsbridge (near Ascot), England, summer 1925. Hand-colored glass-lantern slide. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Alice Martineau died in London at the age of ninety in 1956. Her bestselling book was her first one, The Herbaceous Garden, which ran into multiple editions in Britain and America but is now out of print. Thanks to the idea she planted with Zelia Hoffman, one of her most lasting legacies is still flourishing—the historic house and gardens at Bartow-Pell.

Margaret Highland, Historian

Posted in Garden Musings, Mansion Musings | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment