Journal

Rustic Plant Supports

04.19.2018

Rustic garden ornaments naturally complement any home garden, whether or not the home itself has a rustic style or setting.

(from carolyneroehm.com)

While anticipating gardening season several springs ago, we posted a Journal article titled Rustic Garden Structures that featured mostly sizable, intricate outdoor rustic structures manufactured by furniture companies such as Old Hickory and Lincraft from the early 1900’s through the 1940’s.

Although that article did describe a pair of large, never-used 1920’s Old Hickory obelisks that we once owned, wooden rustic garden structures typically do not survive long enough to convey into the antiques trade.

(from archive.wiltonbulletin.com)

So to add time-honored rustic designs to your garden, a good option is to make your own simple rustic garden structures using natural, sustainably-harvested twigs, trunks, and branches. It is best to choose rot-resistant varieties such as cedar and black locust so that your handiwork will last longer than one season in the outdoors.

(from hydraz.club)

The following do-it-yourself instructions and design inspirations gleaned from the web focus on three kinds of simple rustic plant supports:  trellises, tuteurs, and wattle surrounds. These types of structures have imbued gardens around the world with a traditional rustic aesthetic since at least medieval times, and perhaps as far back as when humans first began cultivating crops.

 

A Rustic Trellis

(from sunset.com)

Flat trellises can support climbing plants, or be used simply as ornamental backdrops for garden beds or to add architectural interest to the side wall of a house or garden shed.

 

How to Make a Simple Trellis from Prunings
(adapted from sunset.com/garden/backyard-projects/make-rustic-trellis)

Tools and Materials:

12 straight branches, limbs or canes, each approximately 1″ in diameter:
– Three pieces, each 3 feet long (A)
– One piece, 6 feet long (B)
– Two pieces, each 5 feet long (C)
– Two pieces, each 25 inches long (D)
– Two pieces, each 221/2 inches long (E)
– Two pieces, each 391/2 inches long (F)

One box of one-and-three-quarter inch nails

Hammer

Spool of floral wire

Directions:

The finished structure is 7′ 4.5″  tall x 3′ wide.

1. Trim any side branches from the prunings.
2. Lay the crosspieces (A) horizontally on a flat surface, with two of them 18 inches apart, and the third 16 inches above the center one.
3. Lay the centerpiece (B) vertically across the crosspieces. The bottom end of the centerpiece should overlap the lowest crosspiece by 4 1/2 inches. Nail centerpiece to crosspieces at center joints.
4. Lay side pieces (C) vertically over crosspieces as shown, setting them about 3 1/2 inches in from the ends of the crosspieces. Nail to crosspieces at the joints.
5. Place D and E pieces diagonally between crosspieces, slightly overlapping the horizontal crosspieces as shown. Nail them to the horizontals at the joints.
6. Place top pieces (F) so they cross behind the centerpiece (B) and on top of the side pieces (C).
For additional stability, turn structure over and nail joints from the back side, then wrap wire several times around the main intersections.

 

Here is some additional inspiration for designing your own rustic trellises:

 

(from charlottemoss.com)

 

(from gardenfuzzgarden.com)

 

(from birdsandblooms.com)

 

A Rustic Tuteur

(from karmaperdiem.com)

Tuteur means “trainer” in French, thus tuteurs are traditionally used for training climbing plants. Similar free-standing garden structures are also called obelisks and teepees, depending on whether they are rectangular, pyramidial, or circular.


How to Make a Simple Branch and Twig Tuteur
(adapted from karmaperdiem.wordpress.com)

1. Obtain 3 cedar poles and cut them to a height of 6-7’

2. Tie the poles together at the top

3. Use the cut-offs from the cedar poles as horizontal supports for the structure. Secure them to the tall frame with wood screws.

4. Wrap shoots pruned from grape or honeysuckle vines or other thin twigs around the branch frame.

 

Here is some additional inspiration for designing your own rustic tuteurs:

 

(from sharesunday.com)

 

 

(from lovelygreens.com)

 

 

 

A Wattle Surround

Wattle is a panel, fence, or enclosure that is woven from pliable branches such as willow. Wattling has long been used as a fencing technique to contain livestock and protect pasture.

 

(from the 15th century French manuscript Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry)

 

But wattle also makes attractive, easy-to-construct smaller enclosures for individual garden plants and beds, as shown here.

 

How to Make a Wattle Plant Enclosure
(adapted from instructables.com and insteading.com/blog/wattle-fence/)

1. You will need both upright stakes for the “sales” and shoots or saplings for the “weavers.”

(from instructables.com)

For weavers it is easiest to work with freshly cut long, straight, slender (about ½” diameter) saplings such as willow, hazel, sweet chestnut, plum, or forsythia (or a mixture these—yellow willow and red dogwood twigs make nice color gradations in the final product). Dry willow can become pliable again by soaking it overnight in a stream, barrel, or bathtub.

(from instructables.com)

Hardwood or a rot-resistant wood such as cedar are good choices for the sales. The length of the sales will define the height of the wattle enclosure.

2. Pound the sales into the ground into a circle of whatever diameter you want your raised bed to be.

(from instructables.com)

3. Begin weaving the sapling rods around the sales like basketry, tucking ends into the weave as you add pieces to continue around the enclosure. Alternate the weaving so that each row is woven on the opposite side of the stake from the sapling below it. Firmly press down each sapling so it sits tightly against the previous row.

(from instructables.com)

4. Fill the finished wattle enclosure with soil and compost, and it is ready to plant with seeds, seedlings, or transplants.

(from gardenista.com)

 

Here is some additional inspiration for designing your own wattle enclosures:

 

(from babylonstoren.com)

 

(from thegardenglove.com)

 

(from jardinsalanglaise.com)

 

Rustic Resourcefulness

As with indoor rustic furniture, locally-sourced natural materials inspire the designs for rustic garden structures, even those as simple as plant supports. The impetus for making them may come from practical needs, but for generations they have also satisfied the aesthetic urge to accent our gardens with rustic adornments.

 

Gardens at Mohonk Mountain House, New Paltz, New York in the 19th century and today. (from prweb.com and theodysseyonline.com)

George Browne’s “A Bluebill Drake”

02.19.2018

When I look at a duck painting by George, I am immediately transferred there with the duck; I am on its level, whether it be a power stroke, setting wings, or a flight pattern.
To me that is the greatness of George.
(Sporting art dealer Robert Fraser, Ordeman & Schreiber, 20041)

 

The best sporting art—appreciative representations of game, fish, waterfowl, and upland birds, along with their landscape settings and sometimes sportsmen in the act of pursuing them—is interpretive rather than academic. Sporting artists strive to do more than accurately represent the physical features of an animal; they also seek to capture the ambiance of a moment in time, such as a misty trout stream at dawn, the startled flush of a covey in grasslands, or—as in this oil on canvas panel painting of a Greater Scaup by George Browne that we are now offering for sale (update: sold 2/19/18)—a duck alighting on an open patch of water.

Painting titled verso “A Bluebill Drake,” signed lower left George Browne. Untouched condition with light soiling and minor abrasions, in its original molded gilt frame. Canvas size is 16″ x 20″ and frame size is 20.75″ x 24.5″.

In the opinion of sporting art connoisseurs, George Browne (1918-1958) was not only a master at painting animals and their habitats, but also of that hard-to-capture essence of place, time, and the spirit of wildlife. Browne was as talented as, yet less well-known than, his sporting art predecessors and contemporaries—luminaries such as Frank Benson (1862-1951), Carl Rungius (1869-1959), Frances Lee Jacques (1887-1969), and Aiden Ripley (1896-1969). Although Browne was quite prolific as an artist, he produced a more limited body of work than these other sporting artists, and had less time to be promoted and appreciated, given the brevity of his professional career due to his untimely death in a shooting accident at the age of 40.

George Browne with his dog “Kelly” (from Ordeman & Schreiber, 2004)

Browne’s painting of a Greater Scaup, known colloquially as a “bluebill” or “broadbill,” exemplifies his expert ability to capture a bird’s shape, feather patterns, and posture.

Wildlife artists such as Browne must have superb observational acuity, a skill they have in common with both naturalists and sportsmen.

A Greater Scaup coming in for a landing (photo from gardenwalkgardentalk.com)

 

This label on the back of Browne’s painting reads “A Bluebill Drake” Canvas size: 16″ x 20″ “The bluebill or broad bill is the larger of the two scaups and generally inclined to salt water bays and estuaries of both coasts of this continent in winter.”

George Browne’s observational skills were honed during his many hours in the outdoors watching wildlife as well as hunting. His field notes, a sample of which follows (Ordeman & Schreiber, 2004), are not unlike those that a naturalist would write while observing birds, although Browne’s observations of the subtle plays of light are distinctly those of someone with an artistic eye and purpose:

Bird: Canada Geese 13
Background: Timbered Ridges
Lighting: Sun just set, Early twilight
Distance: 35 yrds over River
General Impressions: Birds noticeably flying fast. General color tone cold. Black areas noticeable lack of detail. Head and body unaffected by motion of wings, but base of neck and chest rise and fall alternately with wing beats. Chests cool whitish gray, check marks buckskin color. More light areas visible on geese in profile than when coming and going. Flock seemed dense, birds between 6 and 8 ft. apart on average.

Browne often captured the finer details of feather colors and patterns of the birds he had shot by creating small oil sketches that he then kept in his studio for reference. His wife Tibby once wrote:

Fishing and shooting were his relaxation, inspiration and spiritual refreshment…George prided himself in deriving the multi-faceted satisfaction from the hunt: the bird in the hand, the sketch of the same, the meal of the same, and finally the use of the feathers of the same for fly tying. (Ordeman & Schreiber, 2004)

Browne’s total immersion in his subject matter comes forth in the insightful representation of a Greater Scaup in this painting.

 

Signature in lower left of “A Bluebill Drake”

Fortunately, Browne was as fastidious in keeping records about his art production as he was about the accuracy of his paintings, which allows us to trace the creation of this painting to 1945, and its original sale to 1950. Before exploring this painting’s history, however, let’s first put it into the context of Browne’s life and career.


George Browne’s Early Development as an Artist

The life story of George Browne must begin with his father, Belmore Browne (1880-1954), an accomplished artist, author, explorer, mountaineer, hunter, all-around outdoorsman, and widely respected man of integrity. Belmore was arguably the most important influence on George, who followed remarkably closely in his father’s footsteps.

Belmore Browne in his studio (from Ordeman & Schreiber, 2004)

Belmore Browne grew up in privilege, but by the time he was a young man his father’s lumber business in Tacoma, Washington was failing. In the early 1920s Belmore’s love for the western frontier led him, together with his wife Agnes and their two small children (George and his sister Evelyn), to move to a one-room cabin at the conjunction of two rivers near the then remote village of Banff, Alberta.

Settling into the Rocky Mountain countryside resulted for the Browne children in what their mother called an “idyllic existence.” Over the next decade the family took summer trips on horseback with pack mules into the Alberta wilderness to explore, camp, hunt, and fish. In 1922, when Evelyn was 6 and George was just 4, Agnes wrote about her children:

I’m very proud of them, I must say. They’ve seen magnificent country and have learned to love it and appreciate it. Because they walked, they’ve learned the deer, bear, goat and sheep tracks and many of the wild flowers. They’ve learned the discipline of keeping up and bearing fatigue, hunger and even cold from the rain. They’ve learned to be good sports, to cast a fly, and no one can ever take from George an interest in fishing that has been awakened on this trip. He has been a constant source of amazement to Belmore and me. This ability to travel—the way the trip has developed him and roused him, and with it all his sweetness to all of us. (Ordeman & Schreiber, 2004)

During these camping excursions Belmore would often sketch, which is when George first became interested in drawing.

George Browne watching his father sketch (from Ordeman & Schreiber, 2004)

George reflected on his father’s ongoing influence on his development as an artist and a person in a letter to his mother in the 1940s: “He represents (the wilderness life) and has presented it to me in his paintings and in his tolerance and patience with my feeble efforts to follow in his footstep as an artist and out door man.”

Indeed, George was much more drawn to learning through an active outdoor life than he was to passive school learning. He struggled with dyslexia, and simply did not like school. A headmistress in Banff said “his mind goes on private exploring expeditions” during school hours. A teacher in Santa Barbara, CA where the family later lived during winters said “George resisted formal education with greater ferocity than any student I have had.”

At age 15 when George was in 8th grade, his request to quit school and devote his time to drawing and painting was granted by his parents. He thus became his father’s apprentice as well as receiving formal instruction for the next five years at the California School of Fine Arts.

Belmore and George Browne (from Ordeman & Schreiber, 2004)

George’s artistic training was interrupted in the early 1940s when he was drafted to serve in the U.S. Army Air Corps during WWII. He was assigned to a U.S.-based unit that tested survival equipment being developed for aircrews whose planes might be shot down. In his capacity as an equipment tester he survived for three weeks without food or water adrift in a small inflated life raft in the Gulf of Mexico. He was also the first person to survive a parachute jump from over 40,000 feet, an assignment for which he eagerly volunteered.

But painting remained his central passion throughout his years in the service, as he expressed in one letter home:

I can no longer continue life without a paint brush in my hand, and when I get paid…I will go into town and purchase a small oil paint kit. Then when Sunday rolls around, I will rise at dark and go out and get some duck skies for future reference and to keep in practice. I will also get some sketches of water with both lakes and streams with reflections of trees, grass and mud banks. The dead grass and autumn trees will provide me with valuable sketches for bird pictures, and after the war I will be as good and probably better a painter than if I just let it go.  (Ordeman & Schreiber, 2004)

In a subsequent letter he wrote:

I am learning a lot from my Sunday painting, and it means a lot to me…Painting is my biggest form of recreation and takes all my days off. For the first time I am beginning to know a little about water and reflections. I have been painting a lot along the river and the lake, and this practice is just as valuable to me as painting in the Rocky Mountains, but not so much fun.  (Ordeman & Schreiber, 2004)

While in the army George also went hunting on his free days. In a letter he recounted one adventure in which his gun went over the side of his boat one pre-dawn morning while he was setting up decoys for waterfowling. He dove in the water while it was still pitch dark and followed a decoy line downward for seven dives before realizing the gun had sunk into the mud. So he dove again to search more deeply on the bottom, where on this eighth dive he found and recovered the gun from a foot of mud. This episode reveals his perseverance, stamina, daring, and strength of mind and body—characteristics that people noted about George throughout his life.

When George came back home following his discharge at the end of the war, he and his father did much bird hunting while George concentrated on painting waterfowl and other gamebirds. His mother commented in 1947:

George was developing fast—the grouse picture, a beauty—the groups of pintails on the marshes in the early morning. The bluebills around his decoys. And he often worked into the late hours by electric light.  (Ordeman & Schreiber, 2004)

Study of Ruffed Grouse by George Browne (from artnet.com)

 

(from mutualart.com)

 

(from bartfield.com)

Browne painted our “A Bluebill Drake” in 1945, so it was completed during the period from the early to the late-1940s when George was focusing on perfecting his painting of waterfowl. The late 1940s is also when his career started to take off as his work began to be more widely shown and promoted.


George Browne’s Early Professional Career and Gallery Representation

Prior to going into the military George had sold a dozen or so paintings for $10-$50 each, and while in the army a New York art dealer sold three of his paintings for $25-$45. In 1947 a more prestigious gallery in Manhattan that had been handling Belmore Browne’s paintings, the Grand Central Art Galleries, agreed to exhibit George’s work. They sold ten of his paintings from 1947-1949 in prices ranging from a few hundred dollars up to $750, a marked increase over his former earnings.

George became increasingly focused on the amount of money he was able to earn as a painter after marrying Isabel “Tibby” MacGregor in 1948, and eventually having two children to support as well. As his parents had done before him, he and Tibby moved to a small cabin in the Canadian Rockies of Alberta where George focused fulltime on producing art.

Although George admitted that he became a painter of wildlife in part to spend a lot of time outdoors, he became a disciplined artist in his studio as well. He was devoted to the life of painting, working between 12-14 hours a day which according to Tibby allowed “scant time for sleeping and eating and still it gave him a solid sense of fulfillment.”

His concern about providing for his family by selling paintings came through in the detailed records he kept of every painting he completed, how large it was, how long it took him to paint it, and how much the painting sold for—he even calculated a “Square Inch of Canvas to Sale Price Ratio” and broke down his yearly income as gross income per picture, profit per days worked, and income per day, week, and month.

We were able to locate our 16” x 20” bluebill painting on several pages of his log books (reproduced in Ordeman & Schreiber, 2004). In one book it appears as the 103rd painting he had sold since 1934.

Another log page shows the “Blue Bill Drake” as the 11th and final painting he produced in 1945, the prior ten of which he had sold for a total of $220.

He did not sell “A Bluebill Drake” however, until 1950 when Grand Central Art Galleries (abbreviated as “G.C.G.” in Browne’s logs) mounted a one-man show of Browne’s paintings at their Manhattan gallery.

George Browne during his show at Grand Central Art Galleries in 1950 (from Ordeman & Schreiber, 2004)

“A Bluebill Drake” was included in the Grand Central Art Galleries 1950 show, and the gallery’s label is still intact on the back of the painting.

When this painting sold at the show, George went back to his 1945 record book and added the information “Exhibition G.C.G 1950,” and in the Remarks column he noted that the painting sold to “Cousin Elizabeth” for $175, which is the price that is on the label still present on the back of the painting.


Browne’s Upward Career Trajectory, Move East, and Tragic Death

George Browne’s solo exhibition at Grand Central Art Galleries in 1950 provided a substantial boost to his career, helping him sell 22 paintings that year. But an even more significant opportunity came in 1952 when George made a connection with Ralph Terrill, the director of the a New York gallery specializing in sporting art, the Crossroads of Sport Gallery. From 1952-1958 Crossroads sold half of the paintings Browne produced.

Based on Terrill’s advice that “People seem to like to buy something which reminds them of their favorite shooting terrain,” Browne accepted invitations from Terrill’s clients to hunt with them and then paint their favored eastern terrain around the Chesapeake Bay, Georgia, and the Carolinas, as well as the birds they hunted there.

Pheasant painting by George Browne (from bartfield.com)

 

Mallard painting by George Browne (from mutualart.com)

Crossroads gallery sold George Browne’s paintings through their annual catalogs from 1952 until his death in 1958. Sporting art collectors across America could thus purchase Browne’s work along with that of Pleissner, Rungius, and Jacques whose paintings appeared in the same Crossroads catalogs.

As Browne was gaining success selling paintings of upland game birds and waterfowl to eastern sportsmen, his patrons convinced him to move closer to New York which was the center of the sporting art business. So George and Tibby Browne eventually sold their house in Alberta and in 1956 they moved into a home they had built in Norfolk, Connecticut.

Remarking on George’s artistic development, especially during his time in Connecticut, one critic wrote the following in the magazine Sporting Classics:

Almost daily his work grew stronger, richer, more poetic. Not only did he have the gift for breathing life into his birds and mammals, he knew how to arrange them in a composition for maximum dramatic effect. Few artists have been better at crafting the illusion of space, of three dimensionality; perhaps it was because of Browne’s own lack of depth perception,* a function of his monocular vision, forced him to pay extra attention to perspective. (*He had sustained an eye injury when he was 10 from the ricochet of a shotgun pellet.)

Likewise, his sister Evelyn once wrote about George’s deep knowledge of habitats and the individual qualities of each species he painted:

George knew what he was painting with scientific accuracy, and he had the transcendent ability to render what he saw, in paintings of unparalleled and arresting beauty.

It is all the more tragic then, that this artist of great accomplishment and even greater promise, was accidentally killed in 1958 by an acquaintance who was inexperienced with guns.

They were in the Adirondacks attending a March outing of sportsmen who served on the Camp Fire Club of America’s Conservation Committee. They were target practicing by shooting balloons blowing across a frozen lake when one of the men mishandled a gun’s hang-fire; the delayed discharge of the bullet then struck Browne in the neck. Thus George Browne, who by the age of 40 had survived parachute jumps, weeks alone in a life raft, an expedition up Mount McKinley, Rocky Mountain wilderness excursions, and countless hunting adventures, died within an hour being shot.

His family and friends lost a gem of a man that day, and the world lost a talented artist. Through his work George had attained what he once predicted and aspired to, as written in a letter to his parents:

“I believe I will gain an individuality and originality found in the work of men who are inspired by their subject rather than by themselves.”

George Browne painting on Mount McKinley in 1947 (from Ordeman & Schreiber, 2004)

Fortunately, photos of Browne, his personal records and letters, and descriptions of him as a gifted man of integrity written largely by the women who loved him—his mother, sister, and wife—remain for posterity, as do the images of landscapes and wildlife he so deftly captured on canvas.

 

1 Background information, images, and page references throughout this article are drawn from the book Artists of the North American Wilderness: George and Belmore Browne (2004) by J. T. Ordeman and M. M. Schreiber. Toronto: Warwick Publishing.

Nature is a Happy Pill

01.16.2018

Let’s face it – stress and unhealthy habits are ubiquitous in modern society. Equally ubiquitous (in affluent cultures) are self-help books, diet plans, personal trainers, and by-the-hour therapists to help people achieve and maintain their best selves. But what if one of the most potent fixes for our woes is as basic as spending more time outdoors, in nature?

That is the idea that Florence Williams explores in The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative (2017, NY: W.W. Norton). As a journalist (and contributing editor to Outside magazine), Williams delves into the topic by taking a participatory journalism approach in which her experiences are part of the story. She becomes an insider in the scientific research she seeks to summarize about nature’s effects on the human mind, body, and spirit, both by becoming a research subject herself and by probing the thinking of leading scientists in the field.

She explains the impetus for writing the book succinctly: “Scientists are quantifying nature’s effects not only on mood and well-being, but also on our ability to think, to remember things, to plan, to create, to daydream and to focus—as well as on our social skills.” This work has such important implications for all of us that Williams makes an impressive effort to summarize the many avenues of this research being done around the world.

Forest bathing in Japan (hikingresearch.wordpress.com)

Williams reports on her experiences traveling to research sites in seven countries where scientists and practitioners are doing cutting-edge work on nature’s effects on people’s well-being. She participates in “forest bathing” in Japan and Korea; attends a hiking retreat with neuroscientists in Utah; wears a portable EEG device on her head to explore the physiological effects of noise pollution in the U.S.; participates in a nature virtual reality lab experiment in Canada; walks along “health nature trails” in Finland; participates in outdoor adventure therapy and meditative walking in urban parks in Scotland; observes horticultural therapy in a garden in Sweden; becomes a research subject for a Canadian scientist studying the mental health effects of sustained (30 minutes a day for 30 days) outdoor walking; goes on a camping trip with psychology graduate students in Utah and on a rafting trip in Idaho with female veterans suffering from PTSD to explore the effects of longer-term immersion in nature within social groups; visits a summer camp in North Carolina for kids with ADD and learning disabilities; and explores green spaces in densely populated Singapore. She is ambitious and energetic, and those qualities permeate the book.

Hammock in an urban therapeutic garden in Sweden (landscapeinstitute.org)

Although the scientists Williams visits are focusing on different aspects of nature’s effects on humans, and are using a wide range of clever measurement tools to do so, an underlying theoretical tenet of all the research is evolution. Since we, Homo sapiens, evolved in nature, we still have deep, automatic, physiological reactions to environmental stimuli. The idea is to recognize, understand, and then use those reactions for beneficial outcomes in our modern lives.

Some Fascinating Research Findings

Japanese and Korean scientists have documented positive changes in physiological responses such as pulse rate, variable heart rate, and salivary cortisol after people have taken sensory walks in forested National Parks. In one study in Korea, spending two days in nature lowered the cortisol levels of 11-12 year old “technology addicts,” and those effects lasted two weeks after the kids had nature immersion experiences.

Another avenue of this “forest bathing” (i.e., walking in the woods) research found that “nice tree smells”—specifically the aromatic substances that cedar and pine trees emit—boost natural killer (NK) white blood cells that strengthen our immune systems. Even a month after people walked in piney woods a few hours a day for three days, their NK cells were 15% higher than those of people who walked the same amount of time on urban streets.

(hikingresearch.wordpress.com)

In addition to affecting us through our sense of smell, nature also triggers profound effects through our visual system. One of the reasons that spending time in peaceful natural settings can improve our ability to think effectively and creatively is that we don’t have to use up as much precious cognitive fuel (specifically oxygenated glucose) filtering out distractions. Our inherent “soft fascination” with natural scenes gives our brains a rest so we have the potential to become better at higher order thinking.

Even brief views of nature, such as seeing green trees out a window, can have positive effects on our bodies and minds. One hypothesis is that visually processing nature scenes triggers natural opiates in the brain and “happy molecules” flow. Indeed, studies have shown that nature views outside hospital windows reduce patient stress and lead to better clinical outcomes. In schools, office buildings, and housing projects touches of nature visible from windows have been shown to support increased worker productivity, less job stress, higher academic grades and test scores, and less aggressive behaviors. Scientists propose that this is due in part to congruence in how nature scenes (“natural fractal patterns”) are fluently processed by our neurons, setting off a cascade of positive physiological effects.

In short, Frederick Law Olmstead (the father of landscape architecture and designer of urban parks such as New York’s Central Park) seems to have had it right back in 1865 when he wrote that viewing nature “employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it; tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it; and thus, through the influence of the mind over the body, gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration to the whole system.”

(centralparknyc.org)

Our sense of hearing also has deep evolutionary roots, so ambient nature sounds trigger very different automatic responses in our bodies than industrial noise. Our sympathetic nervous system (the coordinator of our “fight or flight” responses) reacts dramatically to threatening sounds by elevating heart rates, blood pressure, and respiration. Those are stress responses, and when we’re constantly subjected to annoying noises, everything from airplanes and jack hammers to cell phone ringers and lawn mowers, those frequent stress responses can accumulate to the level of chronic stress within our bodies.

Given that there are fewer than a dozen sites in the continental U.S. where you can’t hear human-made noise for a span of at least 15 minutes (according to research conducted by an acoustic ecologist), this lack of respite from industrial noise can become a major health issue. For instance, every 10-decibel increase in nighttime noise is linked to a 14 % rise in hypertension. In primary schools located near major airports, every 5-decibel increase in aircraft background noise is linked to a drop in reading scores equivalent to a two-month delay in progress.

(fastcompany.com)

There are individual differences in people’s noise sensitivity, and Williams found that she is among the most sensitive. She wore EEG headgear to measure her brain wavelengths in different settings to see which places put her brainwaves in the desirable, meditative-like state of “calm alert.” In places where human-made sound is constantly in the background, our brains have to work hard to ignore the irrelevant soundscapes, stealing physiological resources and constantly creating undesirable small side effects. So it is hard for someone with noise sensitivity (like Williams) to unwind in an urban park. After numerous forays outside, Williams finally attained Zen-like brain wavelength tranquility one early morning while kayaking alone on a lake in Maine. The take-home message is that when you’re feeling stressed, go to a quiet place to reset your mind and body to a calmer mode.

(adventuremaine.us)

In addition to documenting nature’s profound influence on our physiology, Williams also reports on how it can affect our emotional well-being. A researcher in Finland recommends that to elevate mood and stave off depression, people should spend a minimum of five hours per month in nature, and that 10 hours per month yields even more positive results on emotional stability.

(visitfinland.com)

While the work in Finland applies primarily to educated middle class people who are mildly stressed by everyday life, Williams also visited scientists in Scotland who looked at data on nature’s effects on the urban poor. One statistical finding was that death rates were lower for everyone in greener neighborhoods after adjusting for income, and that poor people in non-green neighborhoods fared worse than richer people who also live in non-green neighborhoods. While urban parks helped the poorest people the most, access to them is an obstacle. Williams describes some programs in Glasgow that provide brief forays into urban parks for “bushcraft” adventure and “ecotherapy” activities, but those are small efforts to address the large problem of inequitable access to restorative green resources.

Kelvingrove Park Glasgow (thousandwonders.net)

Toward the end of the book, Williams considers the effects of more sustained immersion in nature within social groups. She joins a river trip in Idaho with female veterans who were experiencing PTSD, some of whom also had severe physical injuries. They traveled downriver 81 miles in six days. While it was just a small group and the results were anecdotal, some of the participants found the experience to be life-changing, giving them confidence to continue to pursue outdoor activities such as cycling, camping, and rock climbing to boost their physical and mental health.

(oars.com)

The take-home message Williams gleans from all of the research she reviews is that “Basically, we need hits from a full spectrum of doses of nature.” Think of the recommended exposure to nature like the food pyramid wherein small, daily glimpses of even a single tree outside a window provide the biggest dosage at the base of the pyramid, to occasional walks in a park and slightly longer excursions for 5-10 hours a month forming the middle of the pyramid, and finally with multi-day getaways into the wild on a yearly or biyearly basis at the tip of the pyramid.

 The Author’s Style

One thing that is especially valuable about the book is that it provides subtle insights into the often messy process of doing science, especially of imagining, planning, doing, and refining research projects. For instance, Williams reports the discussions among a group of neuroscientists whom she joined on a hiking retreat in southern Utah as they generated ideas for new studies, and then followed up with one of them to learn about the promising preliminary results of a project whose design he had hatched at the retreat.

(discovermoab.com)

She also reports on some of the many challenges involved in devising effective scientific experiments. For instance, while trying out a laboratory test of a virtual reality video in which she was supposed to experience a relaxing tropical island including a dip underwater and viewing a rainbow and a waterfall, she got motion sick. The researcher admitted that the system needed some tweaking. In another university basement laboratory she questioned some of the judgments a prototype phone app was making about the therapeutic potential of different nature scenes, the researcher commented “I’m not saying it’s perfect.” Another scientist admitted that the technology he used for a study of people walking on a treadmill while watching nature videos was so loud and cumbersome that the whole study was “a bit of a bust.” Thus is the trial and error process of doing science.

In addition to relaying first-hand reports of science-in-the-making, Williams also personalizes the book throughout with details of her own background and current life—growing up in an urban apartment building, but taking frequent nature excursions with her father; her father’s later stroke and rehabilitation in a hospital room where a view of trees enhanced his recovery; her move from an outdoor-oriented lifestyle in Boulder, Colorado to a noisy neighborhood near an airport in Washington DC; and how she is acting on the research she summarizes in the book in ways as simple as how and where she takes walks in the city.

Throughout the book Williams accents straight-forward reporting with comments made in a casually trendy linguistic style. For instance, she describes the long, untamed hair of a physicist she interviews by concluding, “Come to think of it, my high school physics teacher had exactly this hairstyle. Must be a thing.” She punctuates the factual statement that in 1858 Frederick Law Olmstead ordered 300,000 trees for planting in Central Park’s 800 acres with the comment that his extravagance was “effectively freaking out his budgetary overlords.” Commenting on the challenges one scientist was having with delivering nature scenes via high-tech videos she says “Perhaps it’s time to admit it people: nature just does the elements better.” After reporting research results showing that walking outdoors can quiet the brain circuitry governing self-wallowing that leads to depression, anxiety, withdrawal, and ill-humor, Williams concludes “The world is bigger than you, nature says. Get over yourself.”

(discovermoab.com)

Williams’ voice and style make the book enjoyable to read, but not necessarily easy to absorb its contents—it takes concentrated effort to process the well-researched details of current science that she presents on every page, as well as the background facts that contextualize why the research is important. While this book would be a welcome respite from dry textbooks if it was assigned in a college course, it might not be as appealing a choice for leisure reading in an easy chair by the fire.

Yet the book exposes readers to many facts and ideas that, while not really surprising, are good to know that scientists are documenting. As Williams notes, if we value things like access to parks to promote the well-being of urban dwellers across the socioeconomic spectrum, measurements and data about nature’s benefits are crucial ammunition against the daily assaults that are turning living, leafy green spaces into inanimate, concrete gray ones by the minute. There is hope, as Williams says, that with the right “governing vision” in place such losses can be reversed as they have been in Singapore where the population grew by 2 million between 1986 and 2007, yet green space increased during the same period from 36% to 47% coverage.

Singapore (businessinsider.com)

Taking the Message Home

One of the joys of dealing in rustic antiques is that you, our customers with whom the rustic aesthetic resonates, are people who feel a kinship with the outdoors and want reminders of it in your indoor lives.

You would likely also be an especially receptive audience to the data this book presents on the benefits of nature immersion. While it is good to know the scientific evidence that is amassing across studies with lots of participants, luckily we can also be our own research subjects and perhaps see the results just as clearly—just try it (for free!) and compare how you feel with and without regular doses of nature.

Just maybe the world would abound with healthier, less stressed, and more creative people if we all heeded the advice that Williams quotes from American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892):

“To you, clerk, literary man, sedentary person, man of fortune, idler, the same advice—Up! The world (perhaps you now look upon it with pallid and disgusted eyes) is full of zest and beauty for you if you approach it in the right spirit! Out in the morning!”

 

A Wildlife Woodcut

11.17.2017

In all of the years that we’ve admired the book illustrations of outdoor and natural history artist Henry B. Kane, we had never seen a stand-alone piece of his artwork on the market until recently finding this woodcut (now sold).

mouse woodcut by Henry B. Kane

It is a portrait of a mouse (likely a white-footed mouse, Peromyscus leucopus), rendered in a small scale befitting its subject (frame size: 8.5” wide x 9” high; woodcut size: 4” square). The crisp black and white contrasts that comprise the image of the mouse nestled on a small branch of a red pine in its woodsy home habitat, are the distinctive attributes of woodcuts. The artist was able to achieve great clarity of detail by carving a block of wood so that when inked and pressed onto paper the portions of the woodblock that were raised in relief join with those that were gouged away to create a stunning black-and-white image.

mouse woodcut by Henry B. Kane

This woodcut is one of a limited edition, number 16 of 100, and is signed by the artist in pencil in the lower right.

mouse woodcut by Henry B. Kane

The artwork was matted and framed in Boston, not far Lincoln, Massachusetts where Kane lived for many years with his wife, two daughters, and a son.

mouse woodcut by Henry B. Kane

mouse woodcut by Henry B. Kane

While Kane’s personal and professional lives were rooted in the Boston area, his artistic abilities and book projects allowed him to travel in his mind’s eye, by immersing himself in the variety of habitats and settings that his collaborating authors explored. He was a rare individual who was equally drawn to and adept at science and art, as well as skilled in administration. What else do we know about this accomplished man?

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Robotiquing: The Future Could be Closer than We Think

10.23.2017

 “Name an occupation, and there’s somebody considering a robot to take it over.”

(David Pogue, cbsnews.com, August 2017)

In all of our contemplations aimed at anticipating the next waves of the antiques business, the possibility of our job sector being taken over by robots or computers programmed with artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms had never occurred to us. Yet given our technologically innovative economy, predictions are that nearly 40% of jobs currently held by real people in the U.S. could be lost to robots and artificial intelligent systems by 2030 (PwC’s Global Artificial Intelligence Study, pwc.com). So perhaps we should worry about our job security.

robot cartoon

While it is easy to envision robots zipping around an Amazon warehouse plucking merchandise from shelves to fulfill orders,

warehouse robots

(from cnet.com)

it is a stretch to imagine them galloping around the fields of an antiques market such as Brimfield in Massachusetts or Round Top in Texas to find antique treasures.

robotic horse

(from dreamstime.com)

Yet robots are not only taking over manual jobs in many sectors of the economy, they are also encroaching on jobs that rely more heavily on cognitive expertise. Collecting and analyzing data in insurance and financial industries, drawing up standard contracts in the legal field, and doing routine health assessments or disease diagnoses as general practitioners and pathologists now do in the medical field, can all potentially be accomplished better and more efficiently by intelligent non-humans.

Even those higher order job skills, however, still seem more codifiable into computer algorithms than the uncertain processes of buying and selling antiques. Experts in artificial intelligence acknowledge that computers still don’t succeed very well when trying to accomplish tasks that require flexibility and non-routine procedures. Since a course in Antiquing 101 would have as its first lesson how to be versatile, intuitive, and adaptable, our profession may still have some time remaining in the human realm before computers catch up with us.

But perhaps not much time. Researchers on the cutting edge of AI are working diligently to program computers to master abstract reasoning, learning, creativity, problem-solving, and cognitive flexibility. A major goal of this work is for AI to mimic intuitive judgment so that a computer will be able to make good decisions on the basis of uncertain and incomplete information, just as humans do every day.

One challenge of this research is to understand and then codify how irrationality enters into decision making. If researchers crack the irrational, emotion-laden dimensions of how professionals make decisions in their day-to-day work, then perhaps they are getting closer than we realize to building robots that could become antiques dealers.

(from nytimes.com)

So to determine how likely it is that we’ll have antiquing robots in the not-too-distant future, let’s get analytical by breaking down the various components of the antiques dealer’s profession, and then rate each dimension from 1 (low) to 5 (high) on an automatization likelihood scale, which is a computer takeover Threat-O-Meter of sorts.

An Antiques Dealer Has to Know Stuff

Despite a trend towards melding the antiques business with the world of design in which what matters most is an object’s visual appeal rather than its age and historical authenticity, we still believe that it is essential for antiques dealers to focus on objects that are original products of a past era. Understanding an antique’s origin requires contextual knowledge of historical periods and their artistic or stylistic movements, who was making what kinds of things during that era (whether individuals, collectives or manufacturing companies), variations of forms by geographic locations (continents, countries, regions), typical materials and assembly or creation techniques used, and so forth.

(from robohub.org)

All of this factual background information is supremely suited to becoming a massive database that could anchor object identification algorithms. So this dimension of our professional skill set merits a score of 5 on the takeover likelihood scale.

Likelihood of Robot/AI Takeover:

Low                                         High

1          2          3          4          5

An Antiques Dealer Has to Find Stuff

A huge part of an antiques dealer’s job is seeking and finding antiques that are worthy of buying and selling. Computers are much better at certain kinds of searching (i.e., querying databases) than humans. But those searches will only be productive if the raw information being searched is high quality.

Most sellers, other than high-end auction houses that employ specialists in various subfields of antiques or specialist dealers who post their goods online, write sketchy or inaccurate descriptions of antiques which could pose a challenge for search algorithms that lack the wisdom to a) filter out worthless keyword hits, b) dig for unlikely labels and associations, and c) fill in the blanks of what isn’t said about an object. Then there is the challenge of following up on potential leads; will the antiques dealing “bot” chat with the auction house bot to get its questions answered?

friendly robot

(from jonvilma.com)

Beyond these challenges to an intelligent robot scanning through antiques online, many antiques—in fact, most of what we purchase—never appear online. Robots finding antiques anywhere other than through a database search is highly unlikely (unless home monitoring security cameras that are becoming increasingly popular begin to automatically upload photos or video of the insides of homes, garages, barns, and storage units as searchable, pictorial data—yikes!). Since AI systems have high potential to search databases, but low potential to search physical nooks and crannies, this dimension of antiques dealing merits a score of 3 on the takeover likelihood scale.

Likelihood of Robot/AI Takeover:

Low                                         High

1          2          3         4          5

An Antiques Dealer Has to Evaluate Stuff

Evaluating the merits of an object is where the first two dimensions of an antiques dealer’s repertoire—knowing stuff and finding stuff—interact. It is not enough just to know facts or to find an object; it is essential to be able to retrieve and apply knowledge in reference to a particular object that is in front of you. Is it real or fake? Is it old or new? Is it intact or broken? Is it solid or wobbly? Is it in original or modified condition? Is it rare or common? Is it aesthetically pleasing or unappealing? Is it a desirable or undesirable form in the eyes of potential buyers? Is it appropriate for our specialty niche within the vast universe of antiques? More often than not a dealer has to do all of this evaluation under time pressure to make a decision to buy or not to buy something before another interested party comes along.

thinking

It is hard to envision an AI system, robotic or otherwise, evaluating antiques. Even with hand-like appendages that have enough dexterity to get a physical feel for an object, and eye-like fixtures that can home in on and even magnify an object’s features, the robot would have to be able to integrate the visual and tactile information it was accumulating with a cognitive database that includes not just facts, but also a storehouse of subtle experiential knowledge such as human dealers have accumulated over years of handling antiques.

To be successful as an antiques dealer, it is crucial to acquire antiques that meet a certain standard of quality and have an intrinsic value based on features such as craftsmanship, aesthetic appeal, rarity, or historical importance. The likelihood that this complex evaluative dimension of an antique dealer’s skill set could be programmed into computer algorithms is low, meriting a score of 2 on the takeover likelihood scale. (It scores 2 rather than 1 because cutting edge work within the field of AI is aimed at developing systems that can learn through experience.)

Likelihood of Robot/AI Takeover:

Low                                         High

1          2         3          4          5

An Antiques Dealer Has to Buy Stuff

Once an antique passes a dealer’s evaluation of its intrinsic value, the decision to buy it requires a judgment of its economic value: is there room for advancement? Answering that question requires experiential, marketplace knowledge that differs from factual knowledge about antiques. It also requires a certain emotional investment in the ultimate economic outcome of a transaction; will a robot care if it makes or loses money?

There is also often an emotional dimension to an antiques dealer’s decision to purchase an object beyond caring about the economics of the outcome—falling in love with an old thing can often eclipse rational decision making. Many times dealers justify a purchase by saying “It had to be bought,” meaning that the object has a special quality or historical importance that retail buyers may never recognize or care about, so technically it is not a good investment but it is emotionally satisfying.

Beyond loving something, there are other types of gut feelings that can lead to an aesthetic snap-judgement acquisition that is difficult to rationalize based on facts—luckily these purchases often turn out to be objects that also resonate with retail buyers. It is fair to say that such decisions are intuitive, and intuition is an ongoing bugaboo of artificial intelligence.

The actual mechanics of making a purchase on the other hand, are ripe for automatization—since even now you can make one-click purchases online, or can just wave a cell phone in front of something in a store and ta-da! you own it, then it won’t be much of a stretch for a robot to employ the same purchasing methods without any verbal interchange with a seller. In summary, since economic data could be programmed into an algorithm, AI systems might become more intuitive, and the mechanics of making purchases is getting increasingly automatized, this dimension of an antique dealer’s repertoire earns a score of 3 on the takeover likelihood scale.

Likelihood of Robot/AI Takeover:

Low                                         High

1          2          3         4          5

An Antiques Dealer (Often) Has to Restore Stuff

Anyone who has ever attempted to fix something that is old—while renovating a historic home, for instance—knows that it is essential to be good at solving novel problems that endlessly crop up. When we purchase the parts of a rustic hickory bed frame, for instance, whose multiple mattress support poles must fit into specific holes that may have shrunk or enlarged over time, we know that it will likely require hours to get the parts properly fitting back together. And that’s just one example of many tasks required to make antiques usable again, or to revive their former luster—sofa cushions need to be remade or reupholstered, a tear in a painting’s canvas has to be patched, a broken mirror in a great frame needs to be replaced, water rings in a table top need to be removed, and so on.

Given that even state-of-the-art robots that currently work on assembly lines lack fine motor skills and are unable to deal with parts they’ve not encountered before, along with the trial-and-error and case-by-case specificity necessary to restore an antique, the restoration dimension of the antiques business earns the lowest possible score of 1 on the automatization likelihood scale.

Likelihood of Robot/AI Takeover:

Low                                         High

     1         2          3          4          5

An Antiques Dealer Has to Sell Stuff

There are two aspects to selling any object—finding buyers and making the case for the worthiness of your product. As we all discover each time we open an internet browser, tech wizards are getting increasingly better, and seemingly more insidious and devious, at figuring out our consumer preferences and habits to pitch products to us. So targeting audiences and crafting advertising pitches is something that AI systems are already much better at doing than human antiques dealers, who usually have no background in marketing whatsoever.

But the second aspect of selling something, compassionately communicating the merits of what you’re offering, requires a certain degree of empathy. We have to believe in, and even love what we sell in order to be successful. In the antiques business, a commercial transaction involves some degree of an emotional connection between buyer and seller that is mediated by an object that speaks to both parties.

empathy bot

(from its-interesting.com)

While a robot or AI system does not have its own emotions, it can simulate empathy. Customer service “chatbots” are getting increasingly better at anticipating and interpreting human emotions and adapting its responses accordingly. Given the hegemony of algorithm-driven marketing techniques, along with advances in emotional simulation and conversational interaction on the frontiers of artificial intelligence, the selling dimension of dealing in antiques surprisingly earns a score of 4 on the takeover likelihood scale.

Likelihood of Robot/AI Takeover:

Low                                         High

1          2          3          4         5

An Antiques Dealer Has to Be Good at Non-Stuff

While old objects (i.e., “stuff”) are the indispensable core elements of the antiques business, there are also necessary daily tasks that have little to do with objects. Running any small business involves chores such as bill paying, bookkeeping, and banking; maintaining buildings and vehicles; and handling mail and email, to name just a few.

It is also essential to maintain networks of people who play key roles in the business, such as delivery and restoration specialists, as well as other dealers, pickers, and clients. Given the complexity and range of tasks involved in running a small business, and the necessity of social interaction to accomplish most of them, the non-stuff aspects of dealing in antiques receives a fairly low score of 2 on the automatization likelihood scale.

Likelihood of Robot/AI Takeover:

Low                                         High

1          2         3          4          5

AI: From Job Security Threat to Job Opportunity Enhancer

The average score for the likelihood of robotic takeover of the seven dimensions of an antique’s dealer’s job that we’ve described is 2.8 on a scale of 5, so if our ratings are accurate it seems unlikely that human dealers will be usurped by intelligent robots within our lifetime. Phew.

But what might be the role of AI in the near future of our profession? We’re intrigued that one of the huge challenges to AI advancement is the need to catalog “commonsense knowledge.” Not only do humans know a massive number of facts that can be expressed through language, they also possess a huge range ofnon-conscious and sub-symbolic intuitions” (see Malcolm Gladwell’s 2005 book Blink). These intuitions are difficult to articulate, yet play a crucial supporting role for rational thought. How can those foundational building blocks of expertise in any field be programmed into computer algorithms?

The answer is to start figuring out and capturing what experts know—on both explicit and implicit levels. So a new job opportunity for seasoned antiques dealers could be to work with computer scientists who are interested in cataloging what we know and how we make decisions. It could be argued that if we knew what we were doing well enough to tell a computer what we do, then we would actually know what we’re doing, and sometimes we’re not so sure of that. But we’d be game to give it a go.

Contributing to AI databases could be the most viable way for the old guard in the antiques business to transfer their wisdom given that very few young people are coming into the antiques profession as apprentices, which for centuries has been the most effective way to pass along difficult-to-articulate knowledge and practices.

While waiting for a scientist from MIT to come knocking at our door with money in hand to hire us as consultants, we will look to the burgeoning developments in artificial intelligence fields for other professional benefits. Rather than worrying about robots as our replacements, we will regard intelligent computer systems as our pals.

robot and human hands

(from shadowrobot.com)

The following vision statement about artificial intelligence from a recent article in The Atlantic (“Our Bots, Ourselves” by Matthew Hutson, March 2017) is hopeful:

 (AI) will also work with us, taking over mundane personal tasks and enhancing our cognitive capabilities. As AI continues to improve, digital assistants—often in the form of disembodied voices—will become our helpers and collaborators, managing our schedules, guiding us through decisions, and making us better at our jobs.

So perhaps we can look forward in the near future to carrying a digital assistant with us (no, not just our current smartphones) on antiques buying trips to weigh in with facts and even some wisdom about potential purchases. Or perhaps our professional assistant bot might be more useful back in the office managing our paperwork so that we can be out on the road. Either way, we look forward to meeting our new, smarter-than-humans antiques dealing brethren.

(from dnainfo.com)

 

 

 

Pyrography Center Table

09.26.2017

pyrography center table

This graceful center table (30″ wide, 21.75″ deep, 30″ high) is a stellar example of a decorative technique called pyrography, literally meaning fire writing, but better known as wood burning (a.k.a. “burnt wood etching” and “pokerwork”). The table dates from circa 1910, so was created during the late 19th-early 20th century time period when pyrography reached peak popularity with artists and crafters.

pyrography on birch bark

Before describing this table in more detail, it is worth recounting a bit of the fascinating background of pyrography which includes pieces of history from the domains of art, science, society, and commerce.

A Brief History of Pyrography

Burning designs into wood, leather, and bone for artistic expression dates back to at least the 1st century AD. In early times designs were etched with hot implements that needed to be constantly reheated as the artwork progressed.

That inconvenient and tiresome technique changed radically in 1889 when an artist named François Manuel-Perier introduced a “pyrography machine” at the International Exposition in Paris. He had adapted a medical instrument that a French physician had invented in 1875 for cauterizing wounds. The tool had an insulated handle with a sharp tip made of platinum, a metal which was uniquely able to absorb a certain gaseous mixture that could keep the tip hot. 

Within a year, a compact version of Manuel-Perier’s thermo-pyrography tool, made by Abbott Brothers Manufacturing, was being sold in England within a kit called “The Vulcan Wood Etching Machine.”

The basic necessities included in the kit were pencils with varying size platinum tips, an alcohol spirit lamp, a jar of liquid benzene, and two lengths of rubber tubing – one connected to a bellows and the other connected to the hollow platinum pencil tip.

The artist would initially heat the sharp platinum tip of the pencil in the flame of the spirit lamp, then extinguish the lamp. While using the pencil tip to burn a design into wood with one hand, the artist would then constantly pump the bellows with their other hand which transmitted benzene vapor through the tube to the platinum point which then absorbed the gas to keep the tip glowing hot.

Conveniently, in 1891, a year after Abbott Brothers introduced its pyrography kits, a book titled A Handbook on Pyrography written by a Mrs. Maud Maude was published in England, declaring that “the art has lately attracted considerable attention and is now a most fashionable art with enthusiastic feminine amateurs.”

The book, along with a series of articles Mrs. Maude penned for the U.S. magazine The Delineator in 1892, gave explicit instructions for producing pyrographic art using the Vulcan kit, thereby helping the art form became a fad as a home craft, particularly among women. It turns out that Mrs. Maud Maude was a pseudonym for Ann Maud Abbott Freeman, a sister of the Abbott Brothers who manufactured the Vulcan pyrography kit. Savvy marketing, indeed.

Additional publications encouraging the craft of pyrography as a “delightful and profitable pastime” for women followed, including the 1894  Fancy Work for Pleasure and Profit by Addie E. Heron which detailed how women could make decorative objects for their own homes or to sell, and the 1903 book 300 Things a Bright Girl Can Do by Lilla Elizabeth Kelley which had a chapter devoted to pyrography filled with detailed instructions as well as encouragements such as, “If the point does not work well at once do not feel vexed.” Thus began the popular trend of adorning household objects such as small boxes, mirrors, frames, and wall plaques with pyrographic art.

 

Riding the wave of pyrography as a popular home craft, the Flemish Art Company was established in Brooklyn, NY around 1900 to began producing pyrographic objects commercially.

Flemish Art Company

(from pyromuse.org)

The company manufactured its own wooden objects – wastebaskets, hand mirrors, tabourettes, handkerchief boxes, wall plaques and the like – largely from basswood that they sourced “in the cold climates of  Michigan, Minnesota, and Canada” which the company believed produced superior, whiter wood. Their artistic employees, many of whom were women, then hand-decorated the objects with pyrographic designs. The company’s artists also engraved metal plates that were heated and pressed onto wood to decorate some of their commercial products.

Flemish Art Company

A Flemish Art Company production room (from pyromuse.org)

 

A Flemish Art Company artist at work (from pyromuse.org)

This frame (which we owned and sold several years ago), depicting a sporting woman with a tennis racket and bag of golf clubs, was likely handmade by a Flemish Art Company artist.

pyrography frame

(cherrygallery.com archives)

The Flemish Art Company also sold pyrography kits that included paints, stains, waxes and varnishes, instruction booklets, and other handy tools for do-it-yourself pyrographers.

(from pyromuse.org)

One particularly interesting accessory was the “Flemish Art non-explosive absorbent – a cotton-like substance called asbestos” which crafters were encouraged to “place in the benzene bottle to absorb the volatile fluid make it safe and non-explosive should the bottle break.”  

Although pyrography instruction books included some ominous warnings such as: “You should always have a fire extinguisher at the ready and preferably another person nearby who could help in case of an accident,” and “If a red flame issues from your vent hole, your benzene is too strong,” no one at the time understood the carcinogenic hazards of working with these materials.

Pyrography and the Rustic Aesthetic

The era of mass popularity of pyrography as a crafting activity, roughly 1890 through the 1920s, coincided with the rusticator era when city folk sought not only experiences in the wilderness, but also decorative reminders of nature and adventures in the outdoors. Not surprisingly, then, pyrographic designs have appeared on antique rustic accessories that we’ve handled over the years.

Sometimes the pyrographic designs have been simple floral or geometric etchings, such as on the edges of this frame and canoe:

pyrography frame

(from cherrygallery.com archives)

The etchings surrounding a circa 1900 painting of an Indian princess (who looks very much like a Caucasian Victorian lady) on this wall plaque are more pictorial and elaborate:

pyrography plaque

(from cherrygallery.com archives)

 

Canoe paddles, both model and full-sizes, were often decorated with Native American themes.

This set of four canoe paddles included a Gibson girl etching along with the Native American portraits, which seems incongruous but was entirely typical of designs favored during the turn-of-the-20th-century era.

pyrography canoe paddles

 

This set of model paddles incorporated colors in stylized Native American motifs, as well as portraits.

pyrography canoe paddles pyrography canoe paddles pyrography canoe paddles

These souvenir model canoe paddles illustrate a specific lake landscape in New Hampshire:

pyrography canoe paddles pyrography canoe paddles pyrography canoe paddles

 

This pyrography landscape scene was a large wall panel surrounded with a twig frame:

pyrography landscape

 

This fish is another large piece of pyrography wall art from our past inventory. Most of the wood burning work is in the geometric mosaic background texture, with some lighter pyrography details delineating the features of the fish itself:

pyrography fish

 

The vast majority of pyrographic art we’ve owned have been wood, but one of the most unique pieces we’ve had was a birch bark wastebasket decorated with different pictorial pyrography etchings on all four sides:

pyrography on birch bark

Although the pyrography designs on these smaller accessories were likely executed by women, pyrography on larger furniture pieces were more likely done by men. There is direct evidence of this on a full-size blanket chest we once owned which was inscribed and signed beneath the lid by its maker, Thomas F. Hurton:

pyrography blanket box

pyrography blanket box

 

Pyrography-Decorated Furniture: The Center Table

pyrography table at Cherry Gallery

This center table that we are now offering for sale is the largest piece of pyrographic work we have owned to date. It is made of tulip or yellow poplar. The clean joinery, turned stretchers, and shaping of the curved legs and apron all indicate that the maker was an experienced cabinet maker.

 

 

pyrography table

The table is signed (via wood burning) by its maker, H. A. Frey, in an unusual location – on the bottoms of each of its four feet.

pyrography center table

 

The table is fully decorated with pyrography designs. Most of the surface is wood-burned with shading strokes that create a stippled background texture.

 

 

Standing out from the black-stained background are vivid red wild roses complete with dark green leaves and rosehips. Natural motifs such as flowers, vines, and fruits are emblematic designs of the Art Noveau era during which this table, and most antique pyrography, was created. A simple gold scallop delineating the center portion of the table adds a subdued color element that complements the striking red-on-black design.

 

 

In addition to the four wild roses on the outer edges of the table top, each of the table legs have the etched and painted rose designs on both sides of the legs so they are visible from all viewing angles.

 

This table’s combination of a refined furniture design with nature-themed, pyrographic embellishments echos the eclectic rustic decor that was characteristic of classic Adirondack Great Camp interiors around the turn of the 20th century. The table also creates a striking black contrast against white walls in more modern interiors that are infused with rustic elements.

 

pyrography center table

 

(Historic illustrations and much of the background information on pyrography in this article were sourced from pyromuse.org.)

Glamping: 21st Century Rusticating

08.21.2017

As summer nears its Labor Day finale, I am already wistful for opportunities to spend warm days and starry nights in peaceful, outdoor surroundings. Recently watching a movie filmed on the steppes of Mongolia (The Eagle Huntress – the best, albeit the only, G-rated movie I’ve seen in a long time) got me thinking about one way to live with just a fabric’s (or sheep’s hide) width of separation from nature: in a semi-permanent shelter such as a traditional Mongolian ger (more familiarly known as a yurt).

(from jcreore.wordpress.com)

Having stayed as a guest in several back-to-the-lander friends’ yurts over the years, as well as having spent part of a college semester living in an oceanside tipi (free housing!), I can attest to how sleeping in a white-walled, round shelter somehow feels spiritually uplifting. Or perhaps it is the lack of clutter, the simplicity of lifestyle, the gorgeous setting, or the combination of all these things that feeds the soul more robustly than dwelling within the squared walls of a solid house.

Reinvigorating the spirit with a return to simplicity was the same motivation that impelled 19th and early 20th century rusticators to flock away from cities into the wilds.

(from newyorkhistoryblog.com)

 

(Camping on Lake George, NY in 1919 – from newyorkupstate.com)

Yet the rusticators of yore also wanted their creature comforts at the end of a day exploring the wilderness, which gave rise to the elegant Great Camp style that we still appreciate in lodges, inns, and private homes today.

Dining room in an Adirondack Great Camp on Upper Saranac Lake, circa 1903 (archives of The Adirondack Museum)

The recent rise in popularity of “glamping” (glamorous camping), in which resort-style amenities are paired with overnights in simple structures such as yurts and tents, reveals that not much has changed in the desires of the rusticator demographic. Glamping proprietors proudly advertise tents provisioned with queen beds, sheets, blankets, pillows, towels, mini-fridges, coolers, fans, heaters, electric lights, bath amenities, and lounge chairs. Flush toilets, hot showers, and sometimes gourmet meals are available just a short walk beyond the tent flaps.

(from sandypinescamping.com)

 

(from lakedale.com)

At a certain point one has to wonder, why not just stay at a luxury inn that is situated in a gorgeous, isolated setting?

(fogoislandinn.ca)

I suppose novelty is one motivation for choosing glamping over a traditional luxury inn – experiencing how it feels to sleep in a traditional Adirondack guide tent, for instance.

(from poshprimitive.com)

Another motivation could be the opportunity to sleep in relative luxury in a remote area where inns aren’t feasible to construct and maintain. The traditional means of accessing backcountry locations that require more than a day’s walk from civilization by carrying in a small tent on your back, crawling into it at the end of a long day and crawling out of it at as soon as possible in the morning, is not for everyone, and is certainly less glamorous than sleeping in a tent outfitted with beds and fresh linens.

Starting to set up our decidedly non-luxurious backpacking tent on a June camping excursion into the mountains of Maine.

I’ve learned, however, that accessing the hinterlands is not glamping’s only appeal, as illustrated by an Australian rental on the rooftop of the Melbourne Central Train Station advertised as providing “an outdoor urban glamping experience” in luxury-style tents “fitted with thick quilts, carpet, heating and other interior design quirks.”

(from thenewdaily.com.au)

Clearly, the burgeoning glamping industry offers a diversity of options to suit many individual tastes.

(from camporenda.com)

My personal preference is for a platform tent nestled beneath tall pines or positioned beside a lake or rushing stream, far from wafting diesel fumes and urban traffic noise, thank-you-very-much.

Platform tent camping on Lake George, NY in 1924 (from newyorkupstate.com)

Glamping tents are more spacious versions of the canvas tents used by 19th century outdoorsmen, from loggers to trappers to rusticators.

(from collections of the Maine Historical Society)

State-of-the art glamping tents are not unlike ones I resided in at summer camps, both as a camper and a counselor, but the modern tents are brighter, and presumably less leaky and mildewed, than the canvas tents I grew up with.

(from firelightcamps.com)

The décor of glamping tents also sets them apart from the orange-crate, cot, and clothesline bedecked interiors of summer camp platform tents. Interior design options for upscale tenting range from a bohemian style based on traditional Mongolian yurt interiors, filled with colorful rugs and textiles,

(from greenevelien.com)

to Euro-sleek, safari-style tent interiors that can include collapsable campaign furniture,

(from wedshed.com.au)

to an American rustic style in which bark-on hickory furniture mirrors the look of tree saplings thriving just beyond the tent walls.

(from housebeautiful.com)

I find the synergistic combination of a lovely outdoor setting with a simple, tastefully-appointed, white fabric structure that is open to the sights, sounds, and scents of the outdoors so compelling that I have started to nurture a scheme to create my own glamping destination – at home. Putting an elegant, safari-style tent on our property would allow not only glamping, but also “staycations” (another portmanteau term) right here in Vacationland (it even says so on our license plates).

There are lots of good options for purchasing high quality tents that include features such as tight-fitting, rain-shedding roofs, that are a vast improvement over the baggy canvas tents that I slept in at summer camps.

(from gr8lakescamper.blogspot.com)

We’ve had lots of practice putting up large tents from years doing outdoor antiques shows, so erecting and taking down a tent seasonally should be no problem.

I even have the “bathroom” figured out. My favorite privy design is one encountered on campsites in Algonquin Park, Ontario – simple boxes with a hinged lid set over a hole in the ground and surrounded by lush screening vegetation, which avoids the shadowy, cobwebby, smelly interior of a walled outhouse (just keep a big umbrella in the tent for visits to the privy on rainy nights).

Although the pleasures of at-home glamping can be enjoyed by placing a luxury tent just outside one’s door,

(from housebeautiful.com)

we are fortunate to have a location on our land that feels a bit more like wilderness – a salt marsh that is a brief walk through the woods from our house.

A wooded hummock overlooking the marsh is the perfect spot for an airy canvas platform tent.

Waking up to a misty sunrise over the marsh will provide a dose of nature’s tonic to begin the day.

Walking back towards civilization along a woodsy path will be a soothing way to ease into the routines of daily life and work.

I’m convinced that backyard glamping will be a way to renew the spirit by sleeping closer to nature – in relative comfort – just as rusticators did over 100 years ago. I have a whole winter ahead to refine the plan. Stay tuned!

Rare Rustic Hickory Armoire

06.23.2017

Rustic Hickory Furniture Company armoire wardrobe cabinet

Discovering new forms within a familiar genre of antiques is always a thrill for dealers on the hunt for quality pieces. This rustic armoire qualifies as one of those rare finds that expands the horizons of known hickory furniture types, so the discovery is satisfying from both scholarly and aesthetic perspectives.

Antique hickory case pieces appear on the market less frequently than hickory tables and seating because far fewer of them were produced by the six or so original Indiana hickory furniture companies during their manufacturing heyday from the early to mid-1900s.

Rustic Hickory Furniture Company armoire wardrobe cabinet

We know that this armoire was made by Rustic Hickory Furniture Company of LaPorte, Indiana because it retains that company’s attractive magenta and green paper label intact on the back.

Rustic Hickory Furniture Company paper label

Rustic Hickory produced furniture from 1902-1934. The armoire does not appear in their catalogs and we have never seen one on the market, so we suspect it was available only as a special order or perhaps was made in a limited production run. The 1920s Rustic Hickory catalogs did feature bedroom suites (beds, dressers, and costumers) described as “Up-to-date bedroom equipment for the summer home, in typical Rustic Hickory Construction.” Although complementary in style, the armoire was not part of the company’s catalog line of bedroom furniture.

Rustic Hickory Furniture Company catalog

Two pages of bedroom furniture from the 1926 Rustic Hickory Furniture Company catalog.

We are able to date the armoire to circa 1925 because it came directly from an Arts-and-Crafts bungalow-style lakeside summer home that was built in the southern sector of the Adirondack Park around that date. Upon completion of the home, the owners furnished it throughout with quality Rustic Hickory and Old Hickory furniture. The armoire had been in the house since it was built.

Although the house was relatively large with spacious bedrooms on a full-story second floor, closet space was limited. Armoires have provided a storage solution in rooms without closets since medieval times when they held everything from armor (hence the derivation of the French word armoire) to tapestries, rugs, linens, and clothing. Up until the early 1900s, most homes were built with few or no closets, so movable, free-standing wardrobe cabinets were common.

Armoire styles have changed throughout the centuries as storage needs and decorative trends evolved. This unique, rustic-style armoire has four doors, and hickory pole trim along the abutting edges of each door, between the sets of doors, and around the front, sides, and top edges of the whole case.

Rustic Hickory Furniture Company armoire

Rustic Hickory Furniture Company armoire wardrobe cabinet

Rustic Hickory Furniture Company armoire wardrobe cabinet
There are different storage features inside the left and right pairs of doors.

Rustic Hickory Furniture Company armoire wardrobe cabinet
The doors on the left open to an empty space for hanging clothes from a hickory pole closet rod.

Rustic Hickory Furniture Company armoire wardrobe cabinet

The doors on the right open to two shelves and four drawers for folded garments. The shelves and drawer fronts are made of pine.

Rustic Hickory Furniture Company armoire wardrobe cabinet

The interior dimensions of each half of the armoire are 23” wide x 21” deep x 52” wide (the overall exterior dimensions are 51.5” wide x 24.75” deep x 61” high), so it is roomy enough to hold an array of clothing.

Rustic Hickory Furniture Company armoire wardrobe cabinet
Beyond its functionality, this armoire’s grand scale, warm finish, and bark-on hickory poles make it a handsome anchor piece for a rustic room’s decor. It also evokes nostalgia for the simple lifestyle that early 20th-century rusticators enjoyed at their vacation home retreats.

A Captured Moment of Tennis History

04.20.2017

This month our musings on antique sporting goods continue, but as the season gradually progresses towards summer our focus shifts from ice skates (our February posting) to tennis antiques.

 

full plate tennis tintype

 

We recently acquired and sold this rare tennis tintype. Tintypes were a photography innovation introduced in 1856 and used into the 1880s, in which images were printed on thin metal plates. The size of tintypes range from large full plates (6.5” x 8.5”), which are the most desirable to collectors, to small 1/16th plates (1.375” x 1.625”). This tennis photograph is a full plate tintype.

 

tennis tintype

 

Tennis antiques do not fit exactly within the genre of rustic antiques so it may seem surprising to see this tintype featured here, yet there are some interesting areas of overlap. One connection between tennis and rustic antiques is that tennis was a popular sport enjoyed by genteel rusticators in places such as summer colonies near the turn of the 20th century.

 

squirrel island tennis match

A circa 1905 women’s tennis match on Squirrel Island, a summer colony off the coast of Boothbay Harbor, Maine, where tennis was a popular island activity. (from the Stanley Museum)

 

Another connection is that early sporting accoutrements make intriguing accessories within present-day rustic décor, especially in vacation homes where enjoying leisure sporting activities has been a long tradition.

 

rusticators with tennis rackets Lake George

Rusticators with rackets on the porch of a Lake George, NY home, circa 1890 (from Tennis Antiques & Collectibles)

 

So the occurrence of an antique tennis tintype in our recent inventory is not completely anomalous. Also, like most antiques dealers we occasionally step outside of our main specialty area to buy and sell other types of antiques. Jeff has learned about tennis antiques over the years thanks in large part to the expertise and enthusiasm of his mother Jeanne Cherry, author of the 1995 book Tennis Antiques & Collectibles (the source for much of the historical information included here).

 

While the flourishing of tennis in the United States coincides with the height of the rusticator era, from the mid-1870s through the first decades of the 1900s, it is a game with a much longer history—the precursors of the modern game of tennis date back to the 12th century. By 1750 a game called court tennis had evolved in Europe, and although players (members of royalty and other elite classes) used a racket similar to the shape of the rackets used today, they played in a walled court using rules that were very different from those of modern tennis.

 

early tennis

Major Walter Clopton Wingfield of Wales who, beginning in 1873, was among the first to play and popularize lawn tennis as a social activity among Great Britain’s Victorian gentry (from Tennis Antiques & Collectibles)

 

It was not until the 1800’s that tennis started to be played outdoors on lawns, giving rise to the game of lawn tennis which is the game we refer to simply as “tennis” today, whether it is played on grass, clay, or hard courts. The year 1877 marked the start of tournament tennis at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in Wimbledon, and by the 1880s lawn tennis had “supplanted croquet as a social garden party activity in which men and women could participate together” (Cherry, 1995).

 

tennis tintype

 

Indeed, the seven women and four men shown in this tintype were most likely participating in just such a garden party. Based on some limited information we received with the tintype, we think the photograph was taken in the outskirts of New York City, which is plausible because one of the earliest lawn tennis courts in the U.S. was established in Staten Island, NY, thereby introducing people in that region to the game. In 1874 a young socialite named Mary Ewing Outerbridge had just returned from Bermuda where she had played tennis and acquired a boxed set of tennis equipment. When she returned home she convinced her local club, the Staten Island Cricket and Baseball Club, to mark lines and set up nets to create lawn tennis courts so that she could introduce tennis to her friends.

 

webstatenislandclub

An 1885 photo of tennis courts and players at the Staten Island Cricket and Tennis Club (aliceausten.org). By 1895 there were over 100 tennis clubs in in the United States.

 

The men and women in our tintype are holding lopsided tennis rackets, which is the earliest form of lawn tennis rackets.

 

lopsided tennis racket
Lopsided rackets had a relatively brief period of production and use, lasting from 1874 to the mid-1880s when flat-top rackets were introduced and quickly became more popular. So knowing the dates of lopsided racket use along with the dates of tintype photography makes it easy to date this full plate tintype to circa 1880.

 

Tennis racket head shapes, 1874 to present (from Tennis Antiques & Collectibles, 1995)

Tennis rackets from 1874 to the 1930s showing the evolution of head shapes (from Tennis Antiques & Collectibles)

 

Lopsided rackets have an asymmetrical head and are based on the shape of the court tennis rackets used in the 1750s which also had lopsided heads, thick gut stringing, and long handles. That shape was particularly suited to scooping balls out of the corners of walled courts, as well as for putting spin on the ball.

 

A d from American Lawn Tennis, 1917 contrasting 1882 rackets with 1917 rackets (from Tennis Antiques & Collectibles, 1995)

A 1917 ad appearing in American Lawn Tennis contrasting 1882 rackets shapes with more modern 1917 oval-head rackets (from Tennis Antiques & Collectibles)

 

In addition to their tennis rackets, the other main feature of interest in the tintype is the clothing that the men and women are wearing. The men wear what they would also have worn for participating in sports such as cricket: white shirts, white or cream flannel trousers or knickers, and jaunty caps.

 

1880 men's tennis attire

 

The women, however, did not have such sporting attire. Instead they wore outfits for playing tennis that were very similar to the proper Victorian clothing they wore to garden parties: long dresses or skirts, corsets, petticoats, belts, bustles, and elaborate hats.

 

tennis tintype

 

lady's tennis attire

An 1881 Harper’s Bazar ad for a lawn tennis costume pattern (from Tennis Antiques & Collectibles)

 

Even as tennis became as much an athletic as a social event for women, the attire was slow to change. As late as 1905 May Sutton, a southern Californian who won that year’s Ladies Singles Championship at Wimbledon “created a small scandal by wearing her skirts a little above the ankle and rolling her sleeves up to the elbow” (Cherry, 1995).

 

maysutton

May Sutton Bundy (1887-1975) (cemeteryguide.com)

 

Tennis attire and tennis equipment (including rackets, presses, balls, ball containers, and tennis court marking and maintenance equipment) are just two categories of tennis antiques and collectibles. Other areas of collecting include decorative arts with tennis themes (jewelry, silver, and ceramics), fine art, books, prints and other ephemera, and photography. What we appreciate about tennis-related photography in particular is that its images immediately convey the context of early tennis culture, while individual objects convey smaller pieces of the larger tennis story.

 

One of our most rewarding roles as antiques dealers is enabling people to live with historical objects that speak to them in some way. Incorporating antiques into home decor is one way to assure that their aesthetic appeal is present in everyday environments. Many sporting antiques, including tennis equipment, are eminently suited to decorative display, and with a bit of creativity can blend well with rustic décor.

 

tennis decor

(tenniscanada.com)

 

Birding with Bookends

03.20.2017

Bradley & Hubbard bird bookends

Like many people, we adore wild birds. Jeff in particular is an avid bird watcher and observer of the ecology and natural history of bird life. So it is fun to occasionally mesh this leisure interest with a business pursuit, as in the case of offering these antique bird bookends for sale. The two pursuits are not so dissimilar as they might seem, as both require a keen eye for detail and the ability to pick out beauty and salient features from a crowded field.

This pair of handsome, circa 1920 cast iron bookends features accurate portrayals of two eastern songbirds: a Blue Jay and an Eastern Towhee. Each bird is accurately rendered and painted to represent how the birds appear in their full-feathered glory.

bradley and Hubbard bird bookends

Blue Jay

(from larkwire.com)

Bradley and Hubbard bird bookend

Eastern Towhee

(from surfbirds.com)

Each bookend is 5″ wide x 3″ deep x 5.75″ high, and has a brass nameplate stating the bird’s name.

Bradley and Hubbard bird bookends

Bradley and Hubbard bird bookends

Note that the Eastern Towhee bookend is labeled with the name “Chewink.” This is the former common name for this species, representing the onomatopoeic version of its call. This bird has gone through several name changes in the past decades, from Chewink, to Rufus-sided Towhee, to its current common name, Eastern Towhee.

The plants pictured along with the birds on the bookends are also northeastern species, accurately rendered and appropriate for the habitats of these two birds. The Blue Jay is shown on a branch of flowering dogwood.

Bradley and Hubbard bird bookends

 

The Eastern Towhee is on an American hazelnut branch.

 and the EasternTowhee is on a

The quality of the bookends is evident not only in the fine casting and detailed paint decoration, but also in the iron’s solidity and heft. Yet at the same time the shape of the bookends is delicate and balanced, having a simple scalloped edge along the top that is echoed on the base.

It will come as no surprise to those familiar with antique metalwork that these bookends were made by Bradley & Hubbard (B & H) Manufacturing Company. B & H cast iron accessories, from bookends to call bells to doorstops to doorknockers, are desirable to collectors of cast iron because of their quality and aesthetic appeal.

These bookends are each stamped with the logo that B & H used on the smaller accessories it produced:

Bradley and Hubbard bird bookends

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