Monday, November 28, 2011

28 New Haven Days: Part 2

The picture you see here is a view from the kitchen window of my flat at the Taft Apartments. It's an interesting sight, showing bank towers, church towers, and Occupy New Haven tents on the lawn. The visual diminution from right to left is almost poetic; it says a lot about this city. I have to confess, I'm not fond of New Haven. I've been here a number of times, and while the Yale architecture and environment is beautiful in all its 19th-century glory, the rest of the city leaves much to be desired. Once you leave the university area, it's a shady city. The extremes of wealth and poverty are bizarre. Whenever I turn right to head to the (only!) grocery store in the entire city, I start moving into the "bad" side of town. It's a little nerve-wracking at times. People at the YCBA have said things like "Don't walk too far in that direction after dark!" and "There was a shooting a block away from the museum a few weeks ago!" It doesn't instill a sense of serenity, as you can imagine. I went back to the City (in other words, NYC!) over the weekend, and it amazes me how I can feel 100% safer there than I do here. Don't get wrong, I'm not paranoid. But what do you make of a city where you're sitting in Starbucks and you overhear two police officers telling people they have to order drinks or they'll get thrown out for loitering, and then telling the manager about how dangerous this neighborhood is? Or, better yet, I get off the train last night and while waiting for a cab only see a number of police cars just near the train station. Turns out there was another shooting in that area just before I returned. According to the local news, that was the 31st murder in New Haven this year. If you calculate that statistically, that means there's been a murder here approximately every 10 days. And this is Yale? It's bizarre, but what can you do? Stay within the university environment as much as possible apparently. Life is much more enjoyable when you're living in the proverbial ivory tower. As I mentioned, though, the campus area itself is lovely, as my previous post showed with some pictures, and there are some fun surprises at times. For instance, I was returning from the grocery store this evening and bumped into one of the YCBA curators and we chatted for a few minutes in the street. It occurred to me that this was one of the joys of small city living, just randomly bumping into people you know and having a chat. I also spent a lovely Thanksgiving with my friends, the JJK-SPs, who live near here, and they said they'd take me around so I can see more of the surrounding area too, so I'm looking forward to seeing more.

But of course I am here to research and network, and that I have been doing. I've met a number of people and have been surprised to discover that the YCBA is bigger than I thought, but they all seem to know one another. I attended a lecture given by visiting senior scholar Clarissa Campell Orr, a well-published historian who is writing a biography about Mary Delany (1700-1788), maker of fascinating paper cut-out botanical collages, about which the YCBA recently did an exhibition. I have a computer work station in the library and have already worked in the Rare Book Room, plus I have access to resources in other libraries on campus. I've also had the opportunity to examine more closely the John Gibson busts in the collection, and they've now actually brought 2 of them out for the public to see, which is great (one of them being the unknown young woman about whom I blogged).

I've been asked to give a presentation on Dec. 16th about my research (yikes!). Fortunately, I've already uncovered some new interesting little tidbits of information, so that should help. For instance, Yale has digitized a travel diary written by Susan Horner (1816-1900). In 1847-48, she accompanied her sister Frances and newlywed brother-in-law Charles (later Sir Charles James Fox Bunbury, 8th Baronet, and Lady Bunbury) on a trip to France and Italy. An artist and historian, Horner later authored books such as Walks in Florence: Churches, Street and Palaces (1877) and Greek Vases: Historical and Descriptive (1897). In the 1850s and 1860s, she carried on a regular correspondence with Gibson and they saw one another socially in London and Rome on future visits, but it appears she first met him while on this trip with her family. Gibson had been living in Rome for 30 years at this time, so he was well-acquainted with everything the city had to offer, and he delighted in acting as a tour guide when it came to art. Ever the classicist, he always looked to ancient Greece and Rome for inspiration. The drawing you see here is but one of many examples of his sketches in which he explored Greco-Roman subjects. The drawing is from the Greek playwright Euripides and shows Antigone Discovered over the Dead Body of Her Brother (image: Royal Academy). I thought it would be interesting to share one of Horner's encounters with Gibson. On this occasion they visited the Vatican Museum, much like you or I have done in the past, traipsing through the same corridors she mentions as well. The only difference then was that there was no electricity, just natural light and maybe gas lanterns or candles for evening visits. Their particular visit together took place on April 10, 1848--exactly 122 years before I was born.
At three we called for Mr Gibson at his studio. He showed us a beautiful drawing he is making, and also some engravings from his works, very well executed; he then accompanied us to the Vatican, where Charles and Frances walked through the Gallery together, and Mr Gibson showed me its wonders. The galleries are very beautiful and very rich, and as we walked along, he stopped me at the most remarkable among its treasures. We entered the Braccio Nuovo which has been added of late years. Mr Gibson pointed out to me the statue of Minerva as the best time of Greek art. ... As Mr Gibson is occupied making a drawing for a bas relief of Hyppolitus, he examined these well, and satisfied himself as to the legitimacy of adding ears or horns to his creatures. I asked him, why it was necessary to confine himself to an imitation of the ancients, to which he replied, that when treating a Greek subject, it ought to be treated as a Greek artist would have conceived it, whereas, in Christian subjects the master is free to use what models he may please. (fol. 51v-52r)

Friday, November 25, 2011

Books of 2011

It’s that time again! The annual “best” lists have begun. They seem to be happening earlier and earlier each year, including The New York Times’s 100 Notable Books of 2011, which was published today on their website. As I’ve noted in the past, I rarely read these books as they’re published, but their potential sustainability appeals to me. After all, a good book (song, movie, etc.) needs to transcend its momentary popularity. If you read it years later and you can still feel its impact, then the author has proven him/herself. The NYT list is divided into fiction/short-stories (no poems this year) and non-fiction, although they haven’t yet published their usual explanation for how they came up with their list. Only 5 of the titles on Amazon’s Top 10 Fiction & Literature Books of  2011 made it onto the NYT list, which once again seems strange to me. In any case, based on the NYT recommendations, I’m adding to my wish list the novels The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka (sounds like a Japanese twist on The Joy Luck Club) and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child (must catch up on his earlier books too). In biography I’m going for Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie. I’m also tempted by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s Van Gogh: The Life, but another Vincent van Gogh biography? (Try Judy Sund’s Van Gogh [2002], which people I've told about always seem to love.) Of course, you can’t always trust lists like these, as I discovered this past year. In 2010 the NYT had Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists (stories about people working at an English-language newspaper in Rome) on their list, but I read it and I wasn’t nearly as thrilled by it as they seemed to be (I’m convinced there’s some journalististic nepotism at work here).

Since last year’s post on this topic, I’ve read 29 books. This is down a bit from the 44 of last year, but 2010 was an exceptionally intense year studying for my PhD Oral Exam. Among my noteworthy art historical reads were Alex Potts’s Flesh and the Ideal: Winckelmann and the Origins of Art History (1994) and Henry Fuseli by Martin Myrone (2001). One of my favorite non-fiction books was The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: Or, The Murder at Road Hill House by Kate Summerscale (2008), an 1860s true-crime murder mystery which every mystery buff should read. I also couldn’t resist reading Betty White’s memoir If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won’t) (2011). Between her comedic sense of living and her devotion to the proper care of animals, how could you not love Betty White?

Last year at this time I was reading Howards End (1910) by E.M. Forster. The Schlegel sisters are divine, but it was even more fascinating how Forster was able to anthropomorphize the homes themselves so that even they became characters in the novel. I was sitting in a coffee shop reading one afternoon and a non-descript gray-haired woman saw me and squealed in delight because it was one of her favorite books and I had now saved her from the despair of thinking no one ever read Forster anymore. Among some of the other novels I read, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones (2002) was thought-provoking and worth reading, but The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (English ed. 2008) was an incredibly smart, witty, tour de force of a novel (thank you, PR, for the gift). Shermania has more than one blog post about this book, so that should tell you how good it is. My big fiction discovery this year was British novelist Barbara Pym (thanks to TC giving a paper at the Barbara Pym Society earlier this year). Excellent Women (1952) will have you chuckling aloud as you pour a cup of tea and join the witty, thirtysomething spinster Mildred Lathbury through another seemingly boring day with her fellow church ladies and her high-strung neighbors. Another must-read. Since I’ve been here in New Haven, I’m reading The Night Watch (2006) by Sarah Waters. It’s a World War II-themed story and includes both a lesbian and gay male couple, both living under the radar since it was illegal then. Curiously, the story moves backwards through time, which should prove interesting, although I have to confess right now it’s moving a bit slowly. Waters is great storyteller though, as bklynbiblio readers will recall me saying not too long ago.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

28 New Haven Days: Part 1

I've been in New Haven for approximately 55 hours, and while I'm more settled now than when I first arrived, so far it's been a relatively quiet start. Friday night I was staying at the Graduate Club, and I spent that afternoon getting my Yale ID, then touching base with the YCBA staff and getting acquainted in more detail with the Library itself. Because yesterday was the annual Harvard-Yale game (I presume that's football?), plus with Thanksgiving coming up, I'm arriving here during an unusual time when many things are shut down for the week, including some of the Libraries. Nevertheless, I managed to keep myself entertained a bit this weekend. On Saturday, I moved into the Taft Apartments, which you see here. They were built in 1912 and named for Pres. Taft, who after his presidency taught at Yale and lived here. The apartments, however, are perhaps more famous because they're next to the Shubert Theater, which historically has been a testing ground for plays before heading to Broadway, but these days seem to be stuck doing revivals and seasonal works like A Christmas Carol in early December. The Taft has made an appearance in more than one film too, like All About Eve (1950), when Eve (Anne Baxter) is performing at the Shubert and she is confronted in her Taft apartment about her own past. (If you haven't seen this movie, get it's one of Bette Davis's best films with her classic line "Fasten your seat belts--it's gonna be a bumpy night!") As for my apartment, so far so good, although my previous occupant wasn't exactly the cleanest person, leaving behind half-dirty dishes and her long black hair on more than one towel, including (shockingly) the kitchen dish towels which, alas, I did not discover until after I cooked my dinner and found hair in my food. (Yes...very gross.)

Shermania had written me about an exhibition at Artspace called Library Science, and I'm so glad he told me. It's the perfect combination of contemporary art and librarianship coming together in a way that would satisfy any bibliophile or library nerd. Candida Höfer was of course included, showcasing one of her large-scale photographs of libraries, but a number of other artists in the show were new to me and had some interesting ideas about libraries, books, and cataloging. Mickey Smith rephotographs found photos of people posing with faux libraries as backdrops, calling into question what the library is meant to suggest when it is not real. He also laid out an entire collection of hundreds of volumes of the Federal Reserve in a way that one quite literally walks over the books in order to look at his photographs. Considering this entire series is now available through online databases, Smith makes us rethink the evolution of information and the gradual disappearance of books in the e-publishing world as we walk all over them and what they historically have represented. Reynard Loki reenvisions the idea of cataloging with an ongoing project in which he indexes on paper his entire library by the first and last lines of each book he owns, and Erica Baum's large-scale photographs of subject heading cards from old card catalogs suddenly makes words like "Power" take on a whole new visual sensibility. This was an interesting exhibition for sure.

I was working on a different review today, but by lunchtime I decided I needed to get some air so I took a long stroll and wound up, oddly enough, in the Grove Street Cemetery. Yes, I admit, I'm a cemetery stroller. I find cemeteries to be very peaceful places where you can commune with nature (loved the birds and squirrels), but also look at the sculpture of the tomb stones and learn about people with whom I have no connection but who were important to someone at some time enough that a marker still exists to mark their remains. A number of the oldest tombstones here date from the 1700s and are now in very bad shape, but a number of 19th-century stones are still intact. I was pleasantly surprised to discover the grave for Eli Whitney (inventor of the cotton gin), but of all the plots I saw the one that caught my eye was that of Edward Elbridge Salisbury (1814-1901), which you see in the foreground of the image above. It's not that the sculpture is of great significance, but when you read the accomplishments of this man, most notably his becoming Yale's first Professor of Arabic and Sanskrit during a period when hardly anyone knew a thing about these languages, you realize he was an important academic figure. I had to look up more about him and discovered that his entire collection of books and manuscripts was donated to the Libraries and are the foundation for the Near East Collection. Looking in WorldCat, however, I was surprised to see what he had authored. While he did publish a few tracts on things like the Persian cuneiform alphabet (1849), he also wrote about Michelangelo (1861), and published a number of books about genealogy and his own family history. It makes you realize how specialized we've become in academia today, and it reminds me of the importance of making sure I don't get too pigeon-holed in my own work.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

DW: Christmas 2011

The trailer for the annual Doctor Who Christmas special has been released. Entitled The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, you can imagine that it definitely is taking as its inspiration C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but with an alien twist, I'm sure. It takes place during World War II, so the added historical element will make it an even more enjoyable Christmas, as last year's did, inspired by Charles Dickens but successfully mingling the futuristic with the past. From the new trailer, it looks like Amy and Rory are both absent from the episode, which is a refreshing change. It will be good to see Doctor Matt have his own adventure without having to rescue those two. Here's the trailer, but if YouTube breaks the link, you can view it here, or keep up with all things Doctor Who on their BBC America website.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Gibson and the YCBA

I'm off to New Haven to begin my Visiting Scholar Award at the Yale Center for British Art, about which I posted back in April. This is not to be confused with the "Artist's Studio in Britain" seminar I attended there back in June (which I posted about here, here, here, and here). You'd think with all my traveling I would have packing down to a science, but it's not easy coordinating a wardrobe when the weather is moving from temperately chilly to cold but could warm up at any time. In any case, the fellowship is in support of my dissertation on John Gibson. The bust of an unknown young woman that you see here is by Gibson and from the YCBA collection. They date the marble bust to the late 1820s, which seems reasonable based on her hair style, but her identity is a mystery. One of my many goals for this trip is to identify her. I would like to think that it is a bust of Emily d'Aguilar Robinson from Liverpool. She was one of Gibson's earliest supporters. She was married, but she and Gibson may have had a bit of a love affair. She died in 1829 while he was in Rome, and he designed her funerary monument which is now in the Oratory at St. James's Cemetery in Liverpool. Of course, it's very possible the bust is of someone else, so that and many other Gibson mysteries await me as I spend some time doing research.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Autumn Leaves 2011

Word is out that this coming weekend is the last chance we'll have in NYC to see beautifully colored fall foliage on the trees. Soon the leaves will all be brown and dropping to the ground. I took a lovely walk in Central Park today during my lunch break. The sun was shining and there was a cool breeze blowing. Here are a few pictures I took, all in the vicinity of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. To see more pictures from my walk, click here. Enjoy!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Random Musings 9

This morning I received an email from Sladmore Gallery announcing the current exhibition at their Jermyn Street location in London, and I so wish I could go see this in person before it closes next month. The picture you see here should give you a clue. Yes, they’re doing The Dog Show. Now, in the world of art history, animals have never been taken too seriously. Think “dog” and “art” and the first think that comes to mind is the ridiculous picture of dogs playing poker. To some extent, Victorians like Edwin Landseer perhaps did make animals in art seem trite with paintings like Trial by Jury where dogs hold court, but Landseer also was enormously famous for Monarch of the Glen, a beautiful picture of a stag in the highlands which came to be seen as an icon of national pride. Dogs, however, have been faithful companions for centuries and frequently appear in art, such as in just some of these important paintings at The Metropolitan Museum of Art by Anthony van Dyke and Jean-Honoré Fragonard. The exhibition at Sladmore Gallery focuses on 19th- and 20th-century paintings and sculptures, which is another reason to see the show since combining these two media in one show is so infrequently done. And if you’re wondering why I chose this particular image of a West Highland Terrier by the British artist Lilian Cheviot, it is an homage to the memory of my own adorable little Westie named Duchess, who died in 2003.

Speaking of the Met, the Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia opened to the public on Tuesday. I had an opportunity to preview them the week beforehand, and they are simply magnificent. The image you see here is of the restored Damascus Room, which is but one of the many galleries that have been reinstalled after an 8-year renovation. The room showcasing a number of exquisite carpets is just stunning, but my personal favorite sections showcase objects from the Ottoman Empire and India. Considering that cultural relations between the U.S. and various Islamic nations and peoples have been precarious to say the least, these galleries can only help in educating about the fascinating culture of Islam and its exquisite works of art from so many parts of its world for over a millennium. You can read from The New York Times a full review and description of the galleries by Holland Carter, who describes them as being “beyond fabulous,” which they are.

In case you haven’t heard the news, the world population is now at over 7 billion. That number alone is staggering to say the least, but the rate of growth is even more disturbing. At the current rate of population growth, it is estimated that by the year 2080 we will have 10 billion people on the planet. Whatever happened to those futuristic modules of living in underwater colonies or outer space? Someone needs to start working fast to accommodate our ever-increasing population. But did you ever wonder what number you were at your birth? Turns out, I was person number 3,678,956,784. I’m also the 77,803,200,647th person who’s ever lived on the planet. Go to the BBC population calculator app to find out your numbers and learn more about population growth around the world. You may be surprised by what you find out.

Finally, whenever I report on the British royal family, I always get scolded by a number of my friends for being a royal follower.’s part of history, and I love it. (Besides, I recently made a lovely visit to Hampton Court Palace, and without the royal family, that place probably wouldn't exist right now.) Parliament made history this week by reforming the rules for the royal family’s line of succession. It has always been that daughters are passed over in favor of sons, even when they are born first. Henry VIII had two daughters before he got his son, who became Edward VI. Only because Edward died young and childless did Mary and Elizabeth subsequently become rulers. This change means that if the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (Will & Kate) have a daughter, she will automatically be the heir to the throne regardless if a son is born afterwards. Interestingly, this law now automatically changes the current line of succession. It had been Charles, William, Harry, Andrew (Charles’s brother) and his daughters Beatrice and Eugenia, then brother Edward, then Anne and her children. But with this change, Princess Anne now has moved to 4th and her son and daughter are higher in the line of succession now too. The Guardian had an interesting report on all this, and they pointed out a few important historical turns that could have made British history very different if this law had been changes ages ago. One of the more interesting possibilities from modern history relates to Queen Victoria’s first-born, Princess Vicky (1840-1901), whom you see here. She was married to the Crown Prince of Prussia and eventually became Empress of Germany when that country was united. Her son eventually rose to power and took over the imperial throne as Emperor Wilhelm II, ruling Germany during World War I. But technically speaking Vicky would still have been heir to the throne of England, so upon the death of her mother she would have been named Queen Victoria II but remained Dowager Empress of Germany. When she died 7 months after her mother, her son Kaiser Wilhelm II then would have become King of England and thus united England and Germany into one imperial nation. Can you imagine if that had happened? World War I may never have happened...or we all would be speaking German right now.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

All a-Twitter

I've moved another step forward in social networking and I now have a Twitter account (finally). You can follow my tweets by going to @bklynbiblio. I'm not sure yet how much activity we'll have, but in just following some of my friends (and a celebrity or two) it looks like it's going to be another obsessive virtual world worth exploring. I'll be tweeting (and retweeting) shorter posts and link that I don't always get to on the blog, where I can write more substantial posts than the 140 word limit. So stay tuned, because this "bert" is ready to start "tweeting"!