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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Some Things Never Change

With Valentine's Day just two weeks away and the unseasonably warm weather at the beginning of this week lifting our spirits, we've been getting ready for some romance at the Rosenbach. We've reinstalled the dining room as a romantic dinner for two, changed the highlights in the partner deck to a more romantic theme, and are gearing up for a series of docent-led romance tours and some love letters hands-on tours. Check out our newly redesigned website for details on the goings on.

As an antidote to all the romantic drama, my colleague Karen is also launching a new hands-on tour she's affectionately nicknamed the "bad girls tour" and I was really amused by one of the pieces she's selected that could also have fit in nicely with the romance theme. It is a group photo of ten girls, including Rebecca Rosenbach, the sister of Philip and A.S.W. Rosenbach.

H.C. Phillips, group photograph. Philadelphia, 5 April 1882. 2006.1549

The amusing part of the photo is the reverse, which features a penciled list of the girls in the photograph, along with ratings of their looks--"pretty," "beautiful,""very ugly". Beckie Rosenbach was apparently"beautiful + pretty". A note at the bottom warns "the above is the unanimous verdict of three young gentlemen of Philadelphia and don't you forget it.”

H.C. Phillips, group photograph. Philadelphia, 5 April 1882. 2006.1549

In an age of websites like Hot or Not and Rate My Professor, where you can give your prof a chili pepper for "hotness," these kind of artifacts remind me that there is nothing new under the sun.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Italian Assassin: A Rosenbach Collections Mystery

This is a guest post by Rosenbach Collections Intern Jessica Walthew

George Cruikshank, The Italian Assassin. London, probably 1810. 1954.74a

Even the most industrious researcher can be waylaid by a red herring. Today we’ll relate the tale of “The Italian Assassin” and the clues that led (and misled) the collections and library staff at the Rosenbach to discover the story behind this George Cruikshank print. The print in question shows a man brandishing a saber at a man in bed, and the catalog record records the inscription at the bottom as “S. ELLIS/ The Italian Assassin”. The rest of the inscription is cut in half vertically and is hard to make out. There is also an enticing handwritten note “not known to Reid, extremely rare,” which is guaranteed to ignite the imagination of a researcher. This hand-colored etching is part of the large collection of Cruikshank illustrations here at the Rosenbach, which Kathy discussed in her last post. It fell to me, as a collections intern, to see what I could find about the subject and date of this lovely little print.

Some cursory research on Cruikshank reveals that he published a book called Italian Tales in 1824, but it contained 16 full page woodcuts, not etchings. Though there are several good catalogues, looking into all known Cruikshank illustrations would be a huge task, as he was incredibly prolific. As an aside, Dr. Rosenbach himself wrote a guide to the Cruikshank materials in the Widener Collection, now at Harvard. In order to narrow down my focus, I tried searching for a connection between “S. Ellis” and Cruikshank, which led me to an author named Sarah Stickney Ellis. But what connection could there be between Mrs. Ellis, author of The Women of England: their social duties and domestic habits and The Italian Assassin? Cruikshank may have illustrated her book My brother, or The man of many friends (1855), but this somewhat promising lead turned out to be a dead end. I thought it was time to put this mystery into my ever-growing pile of unsolved cases, but luckily, Elizabeth, the Rosenbach’s librarian, thought to quickly try searching for “Sellis” rather than S. Ellis, to see if anything might turn up—and turn up it did!

Joseph Sellis was a valet of Ernest Augustus, Duke of Cumberland (later King of Hanover). On May 31st, 1810, the Duke was awoken by some stirrings in his chamber and found himself under attack. The would-be assassin, intent on chopping off the Duke’s head, somehow managed to hit the Duke’s sword instead and fled upon realizing his failure. (What the sword was doing so near to the sleeping Duke is another question.) The Duke called in one of his servants and had him go to fetch Sellis, who was found lying dead on his bed. The official story was that Sellis had attempted to kill the Duke and had committed suicide after returning to his room, but rumors abounded. Suspicions arose because Sellis was found nearly decapitated in his room, his wounds a little extreme to be self-inflicted. The washbasin in Sellis’ room was also tainted with bloody water, and it’s quite unlikely that Sellis would have slit his own throat, washed his hands, and only then settled down to die. As the Duke was fairly unpopular, naturally, many people suspected him of offing his own servant and then inventing the botched assassination as a cover. Among the rumors was that the Duke had had an affair with Sellis’ wife, or was having an affair with his other valet (the one who discovered Sellis’ dead body). He was also later accused of siring a son by his sister. The Duke had, in fact, married his first cousin in typical royal fashion, but most of these rumors were attributed to political maneuverings and even his quarrels with Queen Victoria didn’t prevent him from living happily as King of Hanover until his death in 1851.

And to think, this interesting story might never have come to our attention had Elizabeth not noticed the potential mis-transcription of S.ELLIS for SELLIS. Armed with our knowledge of the backstory, the full inscription can be made out as "SELLIS/ The Italian Assassin Attempting to Murder H.R.H. The Duke of Cumberland." What a difference one little period can make!

* the Duke successfully won a libel suit against one of the publishers of the scandalous rumors

P.S. (From Kathy) Click here to see another interesting Cruikshank print involving Sellis and the Duke.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

All the Prints That are Fit to Print

Quick quiz: who is the most-represented illustrator in the Rosenbach collections? If you guessed Maurice Sendak, you are right--our Sendak collections are not fully cataloged, but the number we like to toss around for him is 10,000 books, drawings, and pieces of ephemera. Here's a slightly harder quiz: who is the second-most-represented illustrator? It is George Cruikshank, clocking in at just about 4000 prints and illustrations (plus more from his father and brother). Believe me, we have a lot of Cruikshank material; several years ago I thought I had finally managed to plow my way through cataloging our entire print collection, only to find out that there were 14 more volumes, containing THOUSANDS of Cruikshank prints lurking in another storage location. But they're all cataloged now and you can see them for yourself in our online catalog.

Knight, portrait of George Cruikshank. London, 1865. 1954.426

Cruikshank has been on my mind recently for a couple of reasons. First, our amazing collections intern Jessica Walthew was working this week on tracking down information on some of our Cruikshank "mystery prints"--piece for which we didn't have a date or explanatory info. More on her fascinating findings, involving murder and intrigue and royalty, next week. Secondly, our Cruikshank holdings are at the heart of our upcoming Philagrafika 2010 project; contemporary printmaker Enrique Chagoya came to the Rosenbach in the fall and made his own piece inspired by Cruikshank. We'll be displaying Chagoya's and Cruikshank's work together as part of a program February 18-20.

By now, you may be wondering, who the heck is George Cruikshank. He was born in 1792 and was raised in the print-making business. His father, Isaac Cruikshank, was a noted caricaturist and George started out his career in the 1810s doing politically satirical prints, many of which revolve around Napoleon, or around the foppery and incompetency of George IV, who was then serving as regent. (That's another reason Cruikshank has been on my mind--2010 marks the 200th anniversary of George III being declared insane, which paved the way for the regency, which began in early 1811). In fact, in 1820 Cruikshank actually received a 100 pounds from the crown in exchange for a pledge "not to caricature his Majesty in any immoral situation" Here are a couple of examples of his George IV satires:

George Cruikshank, Saluting the Regent's Bomb uncovered on his birth Day...London, 1816. 1954.1880.711

George Cruikshank, Royal Hobby's or The Hertfordshire Cock-Horse! London, 1819. 1954.1880.1128

In the 1820s and 1830s the fashion for full-sheet caricatures waned somewhat and Cruikshank turned to book and comic magazine illustrations as his main line of business. His most famous illustrations are undoubtedly those he did for Charles Dickens's Sketches by Boz and Oliver Twist.

George Cruikshank, Oliver Asking for More. 1837. 1954.898

In the 1840s Cruikshank became increasingly involved with the temperance movement and his fanaticism somewhat damaged his professional career (including his relationship with Dickens). However he turned his talents towards creating temperance art, including two wonderful series of images entitled The Bottle and The Drunkard's Children which trace the woes of a family when first the father and then the other family members succumb to dissipation. Many people are rather critical of the artistic merits of his morality tales, but I think some of them are quite striking; take, for example, plate VII of The Drunkard's Children in which "The Poor Girl, Homeless, Friendless, Deserted, Destitute,and Gin-Mad Commits Self Murder"

George Cruikshank, The Drunkard's Children: Plate VII. London, 1848. 1954.493

Interestingly, Cruikshank produced these series of prints as glyphographs, which is a fairly uncommon print-making process in which a wax ground is laid down on a metal plate, the design is drawn through the wax, and then an electrotype is made, from which the final prints are produced.

Cruikshank died in 1878 after a long, productive, and illustrious career as a caricaturist, illustrator and printmaker in which he created something on the order of 10,000 images (no, despite our wealth of holdings, we don't have them all). I'll end this post with an unusual Cruikshank volume which was donated to us a couple of years back. It's entitled Comic Multiplication and I haven't been able to track down any information on this publication (although I know Cruikshank published a Comic Alphabet in 1836). Even more oddly, the illustrations (not the printed text) are printed in reverse, which is clear in illustrations containing words or numbers, and I can't for the life of me figure out how that happened. If anyone has any answers to this mystery, I'm all ears.

George Cruikshank, Comic Multiplication. Gift of S. Oakley VanderPoel, by his grandson Horace Andrews

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Friend or Faux: Paintings

I would like to devote this week's blog post to putting in a plug for the second in our series of Friend or Faux seminars, which takes place this Saturday at noon. The event is free with admission but reservations are requested. This session will focus on paintings, looking at how experts go about trying to understand the history of an object and the physical aspects of it that relate to its potential intellectual or market value. Our fearless leader will be Dr. Anne Verplanck, whom I can tell you from personal experience is an excellent teacher. I had the pleasure of studying with her when I was a graduate student at Winterthur and I also did an internship with her in Winterthur's prints department, so I know what I am talking about! She is also no stranger to the Rosenbach and has published on miniaturist John Henry Brown, whose account book we own.

Although when we hear the word "paintings" most people tend to think only of oil on canvas, Anne is an expert on all kinds of "flat art" and so we'll also be looking at other types of painting, such as watercolor and miniatures. It should be lots of fun!

To get you geared up for Saturday, I thought I'd share some random interesting websites that deal with questions of authenticity and paintings. The website of Don Shelton, a long-time collector of miniatures has a nice section about various types of copies that exist in the world of miniatures and also devotes many posts to talking about items offered for sale in the market that he believes are not what they purport to be (go here, and scroll down, for example). In addition to observation and connoisseurship, chemistry can also be employed in paintings analysis and this article from Discover magazine highlights some techniques that can be used to identify pigments. I'm also fascinated by some attempts to develop computer programs that can help analyze paintings--this article describes a team at Dartmouth which has developed such a program, while this article deals with a Dutch program with a similar aim. And although it's not actually paintings-related, I thought you might enjoy this brief article by Anne Verplanck on fake Peale's Museum silhouettes. Hope that's enough to keep you busy.