Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Scene, Setting and Structure: A Rockstar’s View of the White Mountain Notch

In the collection of the Conway Public Library’s Henney History Room is a slim, somewhat nondescript, volume shelved in our section on earth sciences and geology of North America, (Dewey Decimal 557.42 Jac HR).

As an artifact, the book itself is interesting. It has a scuffed marbled paper cover with a torn and broken leather spine and frayed corners.  

The names of two different owners are written on the foxed wove paper inside the cover and includes a notation of $2.00, perhaps the purchase price of the book at one time. (click on images to enlarge them).

The book is entitled, “Final Report on the Geology and Mineralogy of the State of New Hampshire; with Contributions Towards the Improvements of Agriculture and Metallurgy” by Charles T. Jackson, M.D. who served as the State's first official geologist.

Published in 1844, it is housed within the larger Dewey Decimal number 500 series for science. 

Wikipedia tells us that the Dewey Decimal system is intended to structure the entire world of knowledge into ten hierarchical divisions, each having ten sections of increasing specificity.

The entire book can be read online at this site.

Subjects covered include everything from blast furnaces to seed and soil analysis, to theories about thrust faulting, erosion and glaciation.

Within this framework of science and technology, it is unlikely that an art connoisseur or art history student would think to look in these bound pages for anything of interest to their field. They would be wrong.

There are in fact two views, that when studied together, serve as a key to unlocking an accidental case of mistaken identity unintentionally perpetuated by the art history establishment for almost fifty years.

Facing the title page is a lithographic view seen above entitled “White Mountain Notch.” A better scanned version can be seen below. (click on any image to enlarge them). 

Facing page 78 is another lithographic view seen below entitled “Slide at the Willey House - White Mts.”

While the topographic profiles of the central mountain peak and the flanking slopes on either side of a central notch are very similar in both prints, the architecture is strikingly different. The Notch House on the left was two stories while the Willey House on the right was one story. 

In future blogs, we will explore the significance of this simple difference in these two structures as well as the structure of the scenic setting, but for now, turn your attention to another detail in the Notch print and notice the two figures walking towards the opening known as the “gate” of the notch.

The old saying “Two’s Company” seems appropriate as we use this common artistic convention to represent wonder as we wander into the notch. 

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Scene from Sunset Hill

In a previous blog we introduced three versions of a single view of Mount Washington from Sunset Hill in North Conway, now the location of the Red Jacket Hotel.

I mentioned then that the scene had been enlarged for easy study and can be found on the stair hall leading down to the Henney History Room at the Conway Public Library.

Recently, the original Kensett painting from which the print was made was featured in two interesting exhibits at the Currier Museum in Manchester, NH and the Davis Museum at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. One great thing about the Currier show (below) was that you could compare the original painting, the Smillie print and the Currier and Ives version side by side.

At the Davis Museum they took another approach.

They hung the Kensett next to English painter John Constable’s “Dedham Lock and Mill.” As they say on their website this “pairing creates the enviable opportunity for close side-by-side analysis of the multivalent influences and philosophical convictions that informed British and American landscape painting in the 19th century.”

These exhibits show that contrasts and comparisons can provide unique and interesting perspectives on these views, especially when placed within their historical framework.

To learn more about the view and the viewpoint as well as the content and context for this scene from Sunset Hill contact us at the Conway Public Library’s Henney History Room and keep tuned into our forthcoming blogs as we continue to explore the
Sunset Hill vista

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Chatoque follow up

In an earlier blog, I suggested that the building seen in this woodcut “View of Chocorua mountain from Chatoque corner, Conway” looks a lot like the current White Mountains Hostel on Washington Street not far from the Conway Public Library. 

The print was published in Charles Thomas Jackson’s 1844 book on New Hampshire Geology.
Below is a photograph of the White Mountains Hostel I took recently.

If you look closely at the area then known as Chatoque corner in Conway on a map and try to line up the geographical features in the background of the print, that leads you to this spot.

One of the things that struck me about the woodcut was the curious case of the triple chimneys seen in the print (you can click on the images to enlarge them).

This possible clue led me in two different directions, first back into the recesses of our archives and secondly back out into the field. 

On display near the circulation desk of the Conway Public Library can be found an 1896 Bird’s Eye View of Conway.

If you look at the area on the view where the line of sight would be you can in fact find only one building that faces the street at the same direction and according to this print did indeed have three or even four tall narrow chimneys.

At this level you can see Washington Street in relation to the covered bridges, both of which remain to this day.

At this level you can see more of the architectural details of the buildings on the street.

You may notice that most of the other buildings in that area could be eliminated as their gable end instead of their eaves side face the street. Let’s zoom in to different points.

Notice the “connected buildings” on the bird’s eye view where the main house is connected to an ell and then to the barn. Thomas Hubka wrote a great book we have here at the library about this phenomenon called “Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn. He maps out this 19th century architectural process and explains that is limited to a small area in New England, including Conway.

Hubka will be offering a series of lecture programs in the area later this year thanks to the New Hampshire Humanities Program.

Another great resource for understanding historic buildings is James Garvin’s book, “A Building History of Northern New England” and the many reports on his website

Hubka and Garvin describe the changes over time of both style and technology that would help solve our mystery of the curious case of the missing chimneys and the migrating barn.
A close look at the roof suggests there may have been two or even three chimneys here.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Amphitheaters and Uva Ursi

A number of years ago I came across an interesting reference in Thoreau’s journal about a scenic view he described as he entered Conway village in July 1858. You can read it at this link.

On July 6, he wrote that “The scenery in Conway and onward to North Conway is surprisingly grand. You are steadily advancing into an amphitheatre of mountains."

I love the idea of comparing an ancient amphitheater with the horseshoe shaped mountain ranges that enframe Conway starting on the west from Chocorua to the Moats, the Presidentials, Kearsarge, Green Hills and ending on the east with Redstone ledge. These mountains frame the spot Thoreau paused that now overlook the sports fields of Kennett Middle School.

It later became a popular spot for White Mountain Artists.

This literary metaphor of an amphitheater shape is even more interesting when you realize Thoreau, a transcendental philosopher, poet and man of letters got the imagery from a geologist, Charles Thomas Jackson. A giant of literature basically plagiarized an almost forgotten and discredited scientist. Oh yeah, and Thoreau migrated the reference about 35 miles northeast of where Jackson coined it.  

So let’s explore some comparisons between Thoreau and Jackson besides the fact that they both knew how to rock the then popular under the chin neckbeard with the totally clean shaven face (no mustache) look.

They both wrote in a very folksy intimate way with lots of personal anecdotes. 

For example, in his journal, Thoreau goes on to write that “I do not know exactly how long we had seen one of the highest peaks before us in the extreme northwest, with snow on its side just below the summit, but a little beyond Conway a boy called it Mt. Washington. I think it was visible just before entering Conway village.”

You can see this snow in the pictures above.

I find it fascinating that Thoreau had to ask a little local boy for the name of the mountain that crowns New England.

So how do we know that Thoreau got the amphitheater idea from a geologist? Well it takes a bit of sleuthing because Thoreau did not directly cite his source about the amphitheater, but we do know that he had read Jackson, because, just the day before Thoreau wrote in his journal about his visit to Red Hill. He said that “Dr. Jackson says that Red Hill is so called from the uva-ursi on it turning red in the fall.” Uva Ursi is also known as bearberry.

You can see the Jackson wording if you come to the Conway Public Library's Henney History Room or you can read it here and now at this link.

Both Jackson and Cole described the aesthetics of climbing Red Hill as well as the scientific and economic aspects of the landscape. Jackson’s reference to an amphitheatre which Thoreau then took as his own was on the next page as the bearberry comment. 

“This mountain is covered with soil and is wooded nearly to the summit. It owes its name to the circumstance of the leaves Uva Ursa with which it is covered, changing to a brilliant red in the autumn. Great numbers of visitors ascend this mountain, attracted by the unrivalled beauty of the scenery of the country bordering on Lakes Winnipissiogee and Squam. On a clear day, the view from its summit is of great extent. The lofty peaks of Kearsarge, Sandwich, Whiteface, Conway, Pigwacket and Ossipee mountains, seem to enclose, in an amphitheatre, the lakes with their numerous the spruce and pine, forming the most beautiful mountain view which this country affords.”

Jackson included a view from Red Hill.

By the way, the views from the top of Red Hill also became popular in White Mountain art and is a great hike today.