What’s Inside the Traveling Studio of an 18th Century Miniature Portrait Artist?

Miniature Portrait Painter's Box. Probably United States ca. 1790s. Mahogany with brass fittings.

Miniature Portrait Painter’s Box. Probably United States ca. 1790s. Mahogany with brass fittings.

This late eighteenth century artist’s box is like a portable portrait studio. It’s believed to have belonged to an unknown American traveling artist and contains all the tools and materials they would need to paint portrait miniatures on ivory with either powdered color or watercolor. I came upon this treasure when I went to see the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection of portrait miniatures. It’s an area of the museum that isn’t very big, but I could spend a great deal of time there simply admiring the faces of the past.

Miniature Portrait Painter's Box

Inside this artist’s box are two palettes, one in ivory and one in porcelain. There are gums for binding pigments or glazing, and brushes that have quill ferrules and bone handles. Also housed within the drawers are slivers of ivory cut into ovals and squares, pieces of paper, a brush rest, sponges, chalk, and galipots for water. The box also contains drawing instruments for the artist to accurately measure the small panels; two pairs of compasses, a wood rule, styluses for tracing, and agate burnishers to seal the edges and backs. Some miniature portraits could be as small as 40mm x 30mm, so the artist also kept an eyepiece to magnify their work and help them create the intricate details.

Miniature Portrait Painter's Box Lid

Since the portraits were so small, the artist was able to use the lid of the box as an easel, which could be raised to an angle with brass struts. The ivory would have been secured on the baize with common pins, and a container of them can be found in this box. And finally, several completed ivory portraits were kept within the box to showcase the miniaturist’s skill to prospective sitters.

James Peale Painting a Miniature by Charles Wilson Peale, ca. 1785

A similar box is depicted in the portrait above. It is by the well-known American portrait painter Charles Wilson Peale (1741-1817) and shows his brother, the famous American miniaturist James Peale, at work (ca. 1785).

Resources:

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

A Shocking Way to Entertain Guests During the Regency Era

 

Electrifying Machine

When you’re entertaining, you want your guests to have a good time. While good conversation over a meal and then cocktails afterwards can be the makings of an ideal dinner party, sometimes we have an urge to do something a bit more memorable. Our Regency era counterparts were no different. And, in the early nineteenth century, you could make an impression on your guests with an electrifying machine.

Electricity was a hot topic in the Georgian and Regency eras. Benjamin Franklin completed his famous experiment with lightning, Luigi Galvani was studying the reactions of muscles to electricity. By the later half of the eighteenth century, friction machines were used for generating electric shocks to amuse spectators at public exhibitions. In England, popular interest in electricity led to arguments about the propriety of demonstrating these effects in public. A political controversy arose along party lines in Parliament, with the Whigs championing the scientific demonstrations and the High Tories claiming that it was blasphemy to expose God’s secret before an “ignorant populace.”

By the early nineteenth century, electrifying machines became hugely popular and eventually cheap enough to find their way into the homes of the gentry. Scientific experimentation was one of the few areas of Regency life in which women could participate on something approaching an equal footing with men. Therefore, using an electrifying machine was an ideal activity to entertain both the male and female guests during an evening at home.

The watercolor painting at the top of this post shows a fun glimpse of Regency life. It’s dated May 25th 1817 and was painted at Dynes Hall in Essex, England, by a young English woman named Diana Sperling. Diana enjoyed capturing scenes of everyday life. This painting depicts an evening after her brother-in-law, Henry Van Hagen, had purchased an electrifying machine, possibly to entertain his family and friends.

He is shown cranking the machine to create friction, which would carry an electric shock through the string. His wife is behind him, apparently having no desire to take part in the experiment. Henry’s mother starts the chain of guests and has the honor of holding the machine’s string. When enough friction was created, all the guests would receive a shock. I suppose this was considered a novel way to have fun. My favorite part of the painting shows Diana’s sister Isabella, leaning against the wall. It appears as if she is either swooning or cannot believe her family has convinced her to take part in this odd experiment.

I recently held a dinner party for a few friends and I think they would have been shocked if I suggested we have a go at running electrical current through our bodies for amusement. I think enjoying cocktails and amusing conversations, probably was entertaining enough.

References used include:

Longford, Elizabeth, Mrs. Hurst Dancing and Other Scenes from Regency Life 1812-1823, (c. 1981)

Jago, Lucy, Regency House Party (c. 2004)

 

The Ideal Georgian Writing Box for a British Officer

Campaign BoxTraveling over long distances during the Georgian era was a rough ride. If you were someone with the ability to write, you would have needed a well-made writing box that could withstand the poor road conditions. 

Members of the British military favored a specific type of writing box which was designed for durability. These portable writing boxes became known as military style or campaign boxes and were an important part of an officer’s campaign furniture. A soldier’s life revolved around his mail. Officers would use their campaign boxes to draft military documents and to write letters home. I think a campaign box was one of the most personal items a man took with him when he left for battle.  IMG_1999Campaign boxes made between 1780 and 1810 were rectangular in shape and constructed of solid mahogany, with a flat top. They measure approximately eight to twenty inches wide, seven inches tall, and are ten inches deep when closed. The outside of the box is usually finished with wax. Most have thick brass corners with steel screws which strengthens the joints and prevents the corners of the box from being damaged. This was an important feature for anyone traveling over rough roads, for extended amounts of time.

Georgian Military Campaign Writing Box The earliest boxes have drop down brass handles. In slightly later ones, like mine, the handles are set into the box. Georgian Military Campaign Writing Slope With Side Compartment Open Campaign boxes of this period have one or two side drawers to store writing materials and correspondence. The really interesting ones have secret smaller drawers. And each has a lock to ensure your secret papers are not read by prying eyes.

IMG_2156 Opening a man’s campaign box, would give you a very intimate glimpse into his private world. The top section would hold ink and sand wells, as well as a place to rest pens or a quill. My quill-rest is removable and has a small compartment underneath. In early boxes, the writing surface would have been covered in baize, and later ones in leather or velvet. Each side of the writing slope is hinged and folds to reveal compartments underneath. This allowed the owner to store personal items such as books, additional paper, military orders, letters from home, eyeglasses, a snuff box and portrait miniatures of loved ones.

Georgian Campaign Box
Georgian Military Campaign Writing Slope With Bottom Panel RaisedAlthough we associate campaign boxes with use by the military, members of the public who regularly ventured out on long journeys would have used these as well.

The photographs used in this post are of my English campaign box which was made between 1790 and 1810. It was reportedly own by a British Army officer. When it’s closed, it measures 18 inches wide by 10 inches deep. When the slope is open, it measures 18 inches by 21 1/2 inches.

Each time I browse an antique shop, I’m always on the lookout for the ever-elusive writing box that has an undiscovered secret drawer. If I ever find one, I hope it isn’t empty.

 

Source used:

Clarke, Antigone, Antique Boxes, Tea Caddies and Society 1700-1880

Antique Boxes in English Society 1760-1900: http://www.hygra.com/writing.html

 

How a Fashionable Lady Showed Her Status in Society

If you walk through any major city across the world, you’ll most likely see women dressed in the latest fashions with the most expensive accessories. The well-trained eye can spot them a half a block away, carrying that rare designer handbag that costs as much as a car or sauntering along wearing a pair of red-lacquered sole shoes. Wearing fashionable accessories like these carries a certain cachet and silently informs the world that you’re financially successful.

While this sounds like a twenty first century concept, in reality, it isn’t. Women throughout history have been using fashion and beauty accessories to announce their status in society. Only back then, many of these items would have been kept at home, displayed on or near a dressing table where visiting guests would see them. I recently attended the “Vanities: Art of the Dressing Table” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and thought you might be interested in seeing some of the lovely accessories they had on display.

British Toilet Service 1683-84

During the Renaissance, containers in various sizes and shapes were used store an array of beauty items. These containers were either laid out on a table that was designed solely for the toilette or one that was multifunctional. This is how the cosmetic box slowly gave way to the dressing table. The British toilet service pictured above is ca.1683  and is made of gilt silver and glass. The various items are decorated with chinoiserie scenes, which were popular at the time. This set would have been displayed in an aristocratic lady’s bedroom or in a smaller connecting room.

Wig Cabinet

I thought this item was fun. It’s a wig cabinet, ca. 1685. After Louis XIII began to wear a wig in 1624, elaborate cabinets were made to store and protect these hairpieces. This cabinet is embellished with marquetry of pewter and mother-of-pearl on horn over paint, simulating tortoiseshell. It contains drawers for combs, brushes, perfumed powder, powder bag, and pins.

By the early eighteenth century, the European elite sought out luxury goods that would proclaim their social status. One such item, intended more for display than any utilitarian purpose, was the nécessaire. It is a small box made of precious materials, designed to hold miniature implements and personal grooming tools. Based on paintings of the period, it most likely was displayed on a dressing table along with other precious objects. Here are three that the Metropolitan Museum of Art had one display:

German Necessaire ca. 1700-1725

German Necessaire ca. 1700-1725

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This German nécessaire dates from 1700-1725 and is made of wood, tortoiseshell, gold, glass, and ivory.

British necessaire by John, Barbot ca. 1760.

This nécessaire is one of a pair made by the British craftsman John Barbot around1760. It is made of gold, agate, diamonds, rubies, wood with gold piqué ornaments; and gilt-brass mounts.

French necessaire 1775-1800

And finally, this French nécessaire dates from 1775-1800 and is made of shagreen on wood; gold, porcelain, glass, and steel fittings. This portable nécessaire holds numerous personal grooming items, from tweezers and an ear spoon to scent bottles.

Sources used include:

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Vanities: Art of the Dressing Table Exhibition (2013-2014)

Adlin, Jane, Vanities Art of the Dressing Table (2013)

The History of the Dressing Table

Madame du Pompadour at Her Toilette

Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour by François Boucher 1750

I fully admit to being, what you might consider, a girly girl. I love lotions and potions. A venture into Sephora will never take me less than twenty minutes, even if I just need mascara. And I begin and end each day, seated at my antique dressing table.

Recently, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, had an exhibition entitled  “Vanities: Art of the Dressing Table.” It showcased beautiful pieces and provided great information. I thought I’d share some of the highlights from the exhibition with you.

The history of the vanity begins with decorative wooden boxes used by the Egyptians to hold cosmetics and grooming implements. In Europe, the shift from these portable cases to the tabletop began with the evolution of the toilette. This term refers to the process of dressing and attending to personal grooming. The origins of the word toilette can be traced to the Middle Ages. People began spreading a toile (French for cloth, or toilettes, as they became known) onto a table when they were serving meals, addressing correspondence, and applying cosmetics. For the purposes of dressing, the table would typically be draped with a simple cloth that reached the floor, and a more refined cloth or even a piece of leather was placed on top.

The dressing table, as we know it today, was developed in Europe in the beginning of the seventeenth century. By the eighteenth century, it became known as a mark of social standing as well as an object of fine design and craftsmanship. Two French women, in particular, helped to make the dressing table fashionable. The first was Madame de Pompadour (1721-1764), the highly influential mistress of King Louis XV. She popularized the once-private morning ritual of the toilette by sitting at her grand dressing table to receive guests. The other woman was Marie Antoinette (1755-1793), wife of King Louis XVI, who set the tone for matters of fashion, art and design.

Here are examples of some dressing tables from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries:

American Dressing Table. ca. 1710-30.

American Dressing Table 1710-1730

This dressing table was made in Connecticut and is characteristic of early American furniture. It is based on the Jacobean style prevalent in England during the reign of James II. It relies on the wood turning rather than elaborate carving for decorative effect.

Combination Table. ca. 1775.

This combination table was designed by Martin Carlin, a German-born cabinet-maker who lived in Paris and made luxury pieces. It was made specifically to accommodate the needs of an aristocratic woman who might receive visitors while seated at her dressing table. This table features a removable upper section that could serve as a bed table, an adjustable mirror that could be reversed to form a bookrest, and lidded compartments in the shallow front drawer for storing toilette items. The lower section is a full-size table, complete with shelves that pull out in front and back. It has drawers on both ends that can hold equipment for dressing, taking breakfast and/or writing.

Work Table Attributed to Duncan Phyfe. ca. 1805-1815.

Work Table Attributed to Duncan Phyfe 1805-1815

During the early nineteenth century, worktables were made for ladies. This example takes the form of American Neoclassical furniture, derived from the English Sheraton and Hepplewhite styles. It could serve as a sewing table, a writing desk, or a dressing table. The hinged top opens to reveal an adjustable writing panel covered in baize. You can convert the writing desk to a dressing table by lifting a small leather tab behind the writing panel, and pulling up a framed looking-glass. There are also two removable half-round compartmentalized trays at each end of the table that might hold knitting or needlework. The front drawers and space underneath the inner surface were designed to hold toiletries.

Oval Dressing Table and Dressing Glass. ca. 1883.

Oval Dressing Table  George A. Schastey and Company ca. 1883

In 1881, Arabella Yarrington Worsham, mistress of the railroad tycoon Collis P. Huntington, hired George A. Schastey and Company to design and decorate her bedroom and dressing room in her New York City home. Schastey was one of several firms that created sumptuous custom-designed rooms and furnishings for wealthy American clientele. This oval dressing table was designed by Schastey for Arabella and features a removable mirror.

The attention to personal appearance has never been restricted to women and men had their own requirements as time went on. During the second half of the eighteenth century, men were shaving at home, aided by instructional manuals. Specialized dressing tables and shaving stands were developed to meet men’s needs.

Shaving Stand. English. ca. 1700-1730.

English Shaving Stand ca. 1700-1730

This shaving stand, or toilet mirror, would rest on a table. It’s made out of maple, oak, beech and spruce.

Men’s Dressing Table. English. ca. 1790-1795.

Seddon, Sons and Shackle London 1790-1795

This dressing table, was made by Seddon, Sons and Shackleton of London, one of the foremost furniture makers of their time. It is in the British Sheraton style, popular in the 1790s and early 1800s. Since men generally attended to their grooming while standing, this dressing table is higher than a ladies dressing table would be.

Seddon, Sons and Shackleton Dressing Table 1790-1795

It contains four fitted wood boxes for the storage of shaving supplies and other implements. Within a semicircular glazed compartment the maker’s proud name has been inlaid in wood. The design of the dressing table also provides space for a basin and water. The mirror is placed at a height appropriate for a man who is standing.

With pieces this beautiful, it’s hard not to want to primp. Next week I’ll show you what a lady kept on her dressing table.

Sources used include:

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Vanities: Art of the Dressing Table Exhibition (2013-2014)

Adlin, Jane, Vanities Art of the Dressing Table (2013)

 

Museum Exhibitions to Explore This Spring

Spring is finally here and with it comes those rainy days. One way to beat those rainy day blues is a visit to a museum.  These are my picks for fun and interesting exhibits this spring:

Boston, Massachusetts

Exhibition:  Think Pink – Explore the Changing Meaning of Pink in Art and Fashion

Dates:  Now until May 26, 2014

Location:  The Museum of Fine Arts

Think Pink, MFA, Boston

Do you have a penchant for pink? The “Think Pink” exhibition explores the history of the color pink in fashion and visual culture from the 18th century to the present day. It showcases clothing, accessories, graphic illustrations, jewelry, and paintings to shed light on changes in style, the evolution of pink for girls, and advances in color technology. “Think Pink” includes a selection of dresses and accessories from the collection of the late Evelyn Lauder, who was instrumental in creating an awareness of breast cancer by choosing the color as a visual reference.

London, England

Exhibition: Chocolate Kitchens at Hampton Court Palace

Dates: Ongoing

Location: Hampton Court Palace

Choc-kitchen-HCP

This is a fun exhibition for chocolate lovers. The curators of Hampton Court Palace recently uncovered the precise location of the building’s Chocolate Kitchens. They were remarkably well preserved with the original charcoal braziers and much of the equipment and furniture still intact. The 18th century Chocolate Kitchens were once the domain of Thomas Tosier, personal chocolatier to King George I. This exhibit shows the very rooms where Tosier and his staff prepared the special chocolate drink for George I’s most intimate dinners and entertainment. Throughout the year, the historic chefs will be in the Chocolate Kitchens hosting Georgian chocolate making sessions. Visitors can learn more about the elaborate and complex process used to create the King’s luxurious chocolate drink.

Exhibition: William Kent Designing Georgian Britain

Dates: Now until July 13, 2014

Location: Victoria and Albert Museum

William Kent Table

I recently viewed this exhibit when it was at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City and I really enjoyed it. It focuses on the vast talent of William Kent (1685-1748), who was one of the most prominent architects and designers in early Georgian Britain. He was skilled in painting and designing sculpture, architecture, interior decoration, furniture, metalwork, book illustration, theatrical design, costume and landscape design. His life coincided with a major turning point in British history—the accession of the new Hanoverian Royal Family in 1714. This exhibition reveals how William Kent came to play a leading role in establishing a new design aesthetic for this crucial period when Britain defined itself as a new nation. The exhibition brings together over 200 objects including architectural drawings, furniture and decorative items.

Los Angeles, California

Exhibition: A Royal Passion – Queen Victoria and Photography

Dates: Now until June 8, 2014

Location: The Getty Center

476f3eda03d352122ecbd13f20d23309

If you are into photography and/or have a soft spot for Queen Victoria, you might find this exhibition interesting. In 1839, just two years after Victoria became queen of Great Britain and Ireland, the medium of photography was announced to the world. This exhibition explores the relationship between the new art and the young queen, whose passion for collecting photographs began in the 1840s. With important loans from the Royal Collection shown alongside masterpieces from the Getty Museum, the exhibition displays rare daguerreotypes, private portraits of the Royal Family, and a selection of prints by early masters such as William Henry Fox Talbot, Roger Fenton, and Julia Margaret Cameron.

New York, New York

Exhibition: Trend-ology

Dates: now until April 30, 2014

Location: Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology

Trendology Exhibit FIT

Do you have a passion for fashion? “Trend-ology” examines the vast array of sources from which fashion trends have developed over the past 250 years. Trends have emerged from high fashion runways and urban street style, but they have also derived from art, music, novels and socio-political movements. The exhibition features over 100 objects from the Museum’s costume, accessory, and textile collections. Themes highlighted include 18th century court dress, the rise of the couturier in 19th century Paris, hip-hop fashion, and more recent developments. It’s a fun exhibit to explore.

Exhibition: Metropolitan Vanities – The History of the Dressing Table

Dates: now until April 13, 2014

Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Vanities - MET

This exhibit combines my love of antique furniture with my affinity to beauty products. “Metropolitan Vanities” focuses on the history of the dressing table, or vanity, exploring the historical background of the modern vanity—beginning with ancient Egyptian decorative boxes used the hold cosmetic ephemera and Asian cosmetic carriers. The dressing table as we know it today originated in Europe in the late 17th century, specifically in England and France where high society patrons began commissioning luxurious specialized furniture from craftsman and furniture makers. Few types of furniture have revealed more about changing social customs, leisure pursuits, and popular taste of the past several centuries than the dressing table.

Winterthur, Delaware

Exhibition: Costumes of Downton Abbey

Dates: Now until January 4, 2015

Location: Winterthur Museum

Downton

Are you a fan of Downton Abbey or costume dramas in general? “Costumes of Downton Abbey” is an original exhibition of exquisite designs from the award-winning television series. Forty historically inspired costumes from the television show are displayed and supplemented by photographs and vignettes inspired by the fictional program and by real life at Winterthur. Visitors have a chance to step into and experience the world of Downton Abbey and the contrasting world of Winterthur founder Henry Francis du Pont and his contemporaries in the first half of the 20th century.

These exhibitions are so good, you might not even want to wait for a rainy day to pay them a visit. To find out more information about any of these exhibitions or museums, click on the following links:

The Getty Center: http://www.getty.edu/visit/calendar/days/03222014.html

Hampton Court Palace: http://www.hrp.org.uk/HamptonCourtPalace/stories/palacehighlights/chocolate-kitchen

Metropolitan Museum of Art: http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2013/metropolitan-vanities

Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology: http://www.fitnyc.edu/336.asp

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: http://www.mfa.org/exhibitions/think-pink

Victoria and Albert Museum: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/william-kent-designing-georgian-britain/

Winterthur Museum: http://www.winterthur.org/downtonabbey?src=home-slider1

Fabulous Paintings at the 2014 Winter Antiques Show

So, this last post on the Winter Antiques Show concentrates on antique portraits. Here is a glimpse of some of the amazing portraits that were exhibited at this year’s show.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

The first painting that caught my eye was this one of the American author, Nathaniel Hawthorne. It was painted in 1840, when Hawthorne was 36 years old, by the American artist Charles Osgood. If I had known that Nathaniel Hawthorne was this good looking, I might have been more eager to read The Scarlet Letter when I was in high school. Since this painting was showcased in the Peabody Essex Museum’s stand, it was not for sale.

Memorial Painting

This memorial painting was exhibited at the Nathan Liverant and Son’s stand and was dated 1807. The inscription under the urn reads:

To the Memory of the Rev. Enoch Pond Who departed this life August 6, 1807, Aged 51 Years.

Portrait of Samuel Neave (1785-1841) Lewis

This oil portrait on mahogany board of Philadelphia merchant Samuel Neave Lewis (1785-1841) was offered by the charming antiques dealer, Christopher T. Rebollo. Christopher is someone who is so knowledgeable and passionate about antiques, that you want to spend an afternoon talking with him over coffee. This painting was done by the American portrait painter Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860) and is circa 1805-1808. Peale was born in Bucks County, PA in 1778 and is especially known for his painting of George Washington.

Portrait of Mr. Thomas Eakins

And finally, this smaller portrait of Mr. Thomas Eakins of Botetourt County, Virginia is attributed to the American artist Raphaelle Peale (1774-1825), brother of Robert Peale. The painting is a watercolor on paper and is circa 1805. It is in the original frame and has the original glass panel.