Thursday, February 25, 2021

Fire up the grill! Spring is coming

My thoughts turned to warmer days ahead as I passed by this scene in Eaton on my way in to work today. When I got to the Conway Public Library's Henney History Room I began preparing for the upcoming season and looked up an 1833 poem by the "Eaton Poet" about the birth of spring and the death of winter from his book "The Farmer's Meditations." You can read it here. I see his poetry as a door to perceiving an earlier time at this place when most people were farmers.

There is evidence of the Mount Washington Valley's agricultural heritage all around us, if we learn to read the clues. This post is part of our ongoing effort to explore and document this part of our local history. If you find this approach to art, history and nature interesting we offer free outreach programs to schools and community groups on this and many other related subjects. Just give us a call. 

If you are looking to study old farm tools, you don't have to go far. Just north of the library, one passes this item below, seemingly cast off by the side of the road. Many would not know what it is, other than one's idea of a decorative yard sculpture.  

On the other hand, a practical and fiscally conservative Yankee farmer might think a light brushing to dust off the snow, a little WD-40, hitch it up to a horse, and you are ready to ride. As the poet James Hearst wrote in Country Men, "the plow is roused from rusty sleep."

This is a horse drawn sulky plow, one of the first implements that would have been used in the spring during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For more on this specific plow see our previous blog here.

Taken together with other roadside attractions, you can find a veritable encyclopedia of historic spring farm tools. Mix with a few White Mountain artworks, sprinkle in a little history, and a dash of hands-on farming experience and you can use these tools to explore stories of the ravages of Civil War, tragic demographic disruption, dramatic shifts in technology and the relationship between environmental and architectural continuity and change.

Let's continue our virtual field trip further north.

I love to look at paintings of national significance that feature local places. This is a view of Humphrey's Ledge looking across the Saco River from near Kearsarge Village by George Inness. You can read more about it at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston here

You can see a similar view today from the Intervale Scenic Vista see the map here.

The MFA credits John J. Henderson and Roger Belson, who run the website White Mountain Art, for help in identifying the location of the view.

While a perfectly valid, enjoyable and rewarding approach to the study of art, the MFA's description  of the artwork focuses mostly on the artist's style and use of color. It tells of the influence of the French Barbizon school on his brushwork, his use of blue and green, and his depiction of atmospheric phenomenon. 

However, it does not address the obvious issue of what is actually going on in the image. Let's look more closely at that brilliant bit of green that leads your eye into the painting.

I would suggest that this is a scene of plowing and manuring a field with oxen. However, none of those words are included in the description on the website.  How can you talk about this painting without using those words? The use of oxen to pull plows is an ancient tradition... seen in this small sculpture from the Metropolitan Museum of Art here

The Eaton Poet sang the praises of oxen in his book Shepherd's Song. You can read it here.

Over the years, we have used Winslow Homer's artworks at various working farm museums to help us understand historic farming. Homer provides us with a number of period examples to illustrate a plow chronology.

In this painting Homer depicts an early style wooden beam moldboard plow. You can read more about this image here and about that type of plow and how it relates to Thomas Jefferson here

Before Jefferson's improvements to the plow the device did not change much from the time depicted in these two sculptures of guys and their plows.

The one above in Cincinnati Ohio depicts an ancient Roman plow. 

This one below in Concord Massachusetts depicts a very similar plow in 1775.

But these are just statues of guys with plows. There are deep and meaningful stories that go with the statues. There is even a significant relationship between the two sculptures even through they are 870 miles and a thousand years apart. If you can guess the secret contact me at the library and you can win a prize!

Below is a Homer painting showing a barefoot boy sitting on a new improved steel plow. 

For more information about this type of plow and how it relates to John Deere follow this link here

It is important to note that just because a new and improved type plow technology was available, not all farmer's switched to the most modern version. They were often used simultaneously from one neighbor to the next. Sometimes it was a question of economics. Some could not afford the new capital investment. Others might have had the cash, but did not see the upgrade as worth the cost. Some people believed that a steel plow poisoned the soil. A number of historians argue that the steel plow led to the dust bowl that helped lead to the Great Depression.  

I believe that art historians need a better working understanding of historic farming forensics to more fully understand art. For example, look at the controversy of another farming tool in a Homer painting  here and mistaken reading of crop types in art from our previous blog here.

It is important to understand that artworks are not always an exact depiction of a specific scene. You can see this in the variety of sketches now at the Cooper Hewitt Museum showing the thought and work that Winslow Homer went in to constructing his imagery.  He played around with different arrangements to explore different ideas.

If you want one for yourself, the one below is available for sale here

For those not familiar with plow anatomy, here is a helpful diagram.  

Below are two different watercolors that Homer did to explore different aspects of light and color for a scene. 

After plowing the field, the farmer would enrich the soil. Before modern fertilizers, this would mean manure. And our manure spreader is almost ready to be filled for action.

Here are several views of the business end of the manure spreader. 

For more on the art of manure spreading see our previous blog here. Of course if you don't have a modern mechanized horse drawn manure spreader like the one above, you can still use an old fashioned ox powered dump cart like the one below and an pitchfork.

Like plows and manure spreaders, harrows changed over time. Even after more modern types of harrows had been developed, it was still common to see more rustic versions like this one in Winslow Homer's painting The Brush Harrow.

This painting is a good example of how a work of art can function on many multiple levels at the same time. This image can be seen both as window through which we peer at a simple historic farming scene, seemingly capturing a single moment in time as if caught by a casual candid photograph, and at the same time act as a mirror that reveals deeper layers of meaning from both that time, our time, and the changes between.

In writing about this painting in their book on Winslow Homer (available at the Conway Public Library), Cikovsky and Kelly conclude that "The Brush Harrow is perhaps the most tenderly sensitive and perceptive of all of Homer's paintings of the Civil War." 

Civil War? How did we make the imaginative leap from that painting to the Civil War? 

This interpretation of this farming painting as expressing issues about the Civil War is also seen on the gallery text website for this painting at the Harvard Art Museum. You can read it here

"In The Brush Harrow, one of Homer’s most sensitive and poignant post–Civil War paintings, two boys prepare a field for spring planting. Unlike other nineteenth-century genre scenes, which celebrate the whimsical spirit of childhood, this work has a tragic cast. The boys do the work of men in the absence of men. Indirectly acknowledging the carnage of the war, Homer implies that the older farmhands — the boys’ fathers, uncles, and older brothers — have not returned from the battlefield."

"At the end of the Civil War, Americans mourned the dead and at the same time looked forward to the nation’s economic, political, and spiritual rebirth. Invoking agrarian cycles and the promise of a new generation even as it acknowledges loss, The Brush Harrow perfectly captures the mixture of hope and sadness that defined the national psyche."
On another website, Harvard conservation fellow Anne Schaffer reveals that part of their interpretation has to do with the horse's hind end (which was recently cleaned up).

You can read about that here

Wellesley art historian Rebecca Bedell adds to this interpretive narrative in her book Moved to Tears: Rethinking the Art of the Sentimental in the United States. Bedell's insightful analysis can be seen in this snippet view (pp. 113-116) here.  You can also get this book through the Conway Public Library's interlibrary loan system.  She suggests we “linger over the details and take in their meanings.”

She examines the flora to deduce the season. “The fully leafed-out trees and their slightly rusty tones suggest that the boys are coming very late to the task of spring planting, or, perhaps, that the scene represents not spring planting, but rather the early fall planting of winter wheat, which usually took place in September of early October.”

She suggests we consider this painting with Homer’s Veteran in a New Field (see our previous blog on that here). She points out they are the same size and format and were both created in the months immediately following Appomattox. “We might think of them as companion pieces, as a Reconstruction diptych.”

“The Brush Harrow represents a field to which no veteran has returned. More than 600,000 men, possibly as many as 750,000, died in the Civil War, at least one in five of those who served. Hundreds of thousands of families were shattered by the loss of husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers, and many of those families consequently slid into destitution. In The Brush Harrow, Homer follows the convulsive aftershocks of the war into the countryside, subtly and poignantly materializing the suffering endured far from the battlefield."

And now our virtual field has been tilled and planted we just wait for the seed to sprout

What is next for the future of agriculture? perhaps plowing by drone? or robot?  and what changes in art and landscape will we face?

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Presidential Prospects

In honor of President's Day, the caption for this image could also read "Looking Presidential." Of course I am talking about the landscape not the librarian.

The Mount Washington Valley is blessed with numerous views of the White Mountain's Presidential Range. 

Let's do a quick virtual armchair "presidential traverse" around the valley and up to the summit. 

The one above from North Conway's Sunset Hill features Mounts Washington and Adams and is an enlargement of a print by James Smillie based on a painting by John Frederick Kensett seen below.

For more details about this vista and it's history see our previous blog here

While you can't see the Presidential Range from Tamworth, there is an interesting and "apt" memorial there honoring President Grover Cleveland. See our previous blog here

Coming into Conway Village from the south the first view of Mount Washington can be seen after crossing the railroad tracks.

This viewpoint was noted by none other than Henry David Thoreau. See our previous blog here

A few miles north another favorite view is from the Saco Valley overlook as you head into North Conway near "bowling alley" hill.

You can read more about this roadside pullover here and here.

At the very north end of Conway you can see this prospect from the Intervale scenic vista captured here in a painting by Benjamin Champney. 

Winslow Homer created this fascinating combination of a portrait with a landscape, featuring the felsenmeer or "sea of rock" on the summit of Mount Washington. 

Homer's employed an interesting homophone in the title of this painting. You can read about it here

Winter views from the summit of Mount Washington were explored in our previous blog here.

We end our short trip with a scene of the summit's Tip Top House here where hotel guests are welcoming us with waves and flags.

The painting above and many others of the Presidentials can be on the White Mountain Art website here.

Monday, February 8, 2021

Seeing Double and Zooming to the Summit of Mount Washington

With the recent snow blanketing the landscape and creating a picture perfect winter wonderland, I thought it would be fun to zoom back in time to the summit of Mount Washington 150 winters ago. 

You will have an opportunity to zoom to the summit tomorrow night thanks to our friends at the Mount Washington Observatory. I announced the program in our previous blog from last week here.

In case you miss it, I understand the program will be recorded and posted on the MWOBS website here.

This blog helps prepare for (or follow up from) the event and focuses on the stereoviews from the expedition. 

Many of the views have been published in Robert W. Averill's book In Search of Amos Clough in high resolution format suitable for viewing with a stereoviewer (coincidentally one is included with the book). Thanks to the generosity of the author, this book is available for checkout at the Conway Public Library and other libraries throughout the state.

 Averill's book includes a list of forty-six stereoviews from the Mount Washington expedition.

Here is a link to some of the stereoviews that you can view on your cell phone here.

On page viii Averill shows some of the options for viewing the stereocards. A Lorgnette is included with the book. 

They say the more things change the more they stay the same. For over 150 years, you have been able to see stereo ... with a hand held viewer such as that pictured above. 

But things do change. Kids grow up and technology creates more options. Now you can view stereo images on your cell phone with a wonderful new viewer that folds flat known at the "Owl." 

Designed by Brian May, astrophysicist and lead guitarist for the rock band Queen, the Owl viewer can be purchased through his London Stereoscopic Company here.  

It can be used in books of views such as Averill.

Of course the owl also works with the original stereo views as well. 

We have many original stereo cards in our collections at the Conway Public Library's Henney History Room and the Conway Historical Society. 

You can find high quality public domain images at various online sources such as the Boston Public Library, J. Paul Getty Museum,  and the New York Public Library. 

This blog is part of our ongoing project of digitally mapping out area history. It includes a number of online cell phone tours we have developed including guides to the Abenaki Intervale site and the Redstone quarry. 

In addition to the 1870-1871 expedition to Mount Washington, Averill explores the previous winter's expedition to Mount Moosilauke in 1869-1870 that served as kind of a field test for Mount Washington.


For more virtual history experiences, head over to the Conway Public Library's virtual library webpage here. To find the Henney History Room click on the globe. Until then, this is "Virtual Bob" signing off, see you at the summit!

Monday, February 1, 2021

A Dream-Picture from 150 years ago today

With all the buzz about the coming snow storm, I thought I would read up on the winter expedition of 1870-1871 in advance of Dr. Peter Crane's zoom program next week (click on images to enlarge them). 


The expedition resulted in a number of published works including this book that we have at the Conway Public Library's Henney History Room.

If tomorrow ends up being a snow day, you can read the the book online through this link.

Part of the story is written in a diary-like format and it is to the entry for February 1, 1871 (found on pages 179-180) that we now draw our attention. Here are the relevant pages.

The text begins rather pithy and prosaic (wind speed, thermometer readings, etc.) but then rises poetically to the sublime describing the sunset and ending with "... mark this as a day never to be forgotten. As I write it seems like a dream-picture." 

Note that February 2 by contrast was one of those "indifferent days."

One of the aspects of this book and early science in general that attracts me is the way in which they combined art and science. In that respect, this work does not disappoint. 

As the saying goes "from the sublime to the ridiculous." There is also a lot of silly humor added into the book. Starting on page 351 there is a parody of the antics of "The Mad Mount Washington Philosophers" and their experiments at the summit with whiskey, water, cigars, and lemon.

We will have more on this expedition in future blogs.