Saturday, April 30, 2011

John Dare Howland

As part of my "western art" education, I have been reading up on a number of the artists who produced first-hand images of the trans-Mississippi region in the nineteenth century. I have recently come across the artist "Jack" Howland, who had a fascinating history.

John Dare Howland (1843-1914) was born in Zanesville, OH, leaving home at age fourteen to move to the West. There he hooked up to travel on one of the American Fur Company boats traveling up the Missouri to Fort Pierre. During this trip he he went on buffalo hunts and became a great favorite of the Sioux, especially as he made drawings for them on buffalo skins and their tepees.

He subsequently traveled to Fort Laramie, Wyoming, where he is believed to have painted some Indian portraits, then in 1858 to Colorado for the Pike’s Peak gold rush. He was unsuccessful as a gold seeker and it is said that he became so destitute "that he often had to earn a few pennies for food by dancing a jig for the entertainment-starved miners." Howland then briefly turned to trapping, but this too proved unprofitable.

This was all done by the age of 16(!), at which age he joined the First Colorado Cavalry and then was later active in the Indian Wars, eventually reaching the post of Captain of Scouts. He used his saved earnings to traveled to Paris to study painting, but returned to serve from 1867 to 1869 as Secretary to the Indian Peace Commission between the US and the Plains Indian tribes.

He returned briefly to Paris, but ended up settling in Denver, where he founded the short-lived Denver Art Club in 1886. He designed the Civil War monument at the Colorado State Capitol and became well known in particular for his paintings of buffalo.

He is said to have produced a number of drawings that were published in both Harper's Weekly and Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper but so far I have been able to track down only one of these, a drawing he made when involved with the Indian Peace Commmission.

The 1860s saw many Indian attacks on EuroAmericans moving through and into the Great Plains. In an attempt to resolve this conflict, the United States set up a Indian Peace Commission which set out in the autumn of 1867 to treat with a number of Plains Indian tribes, including the Kiowa, Comanche, Plains Apache, Cheyenne and Arapaho. They met at a sacred Indian site, Medicine Creek Lodge, and signed treaties which obliged the tribes to move to the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) in exchange for annual payments.

It was this Peace Commission for which Howland served as secretary and he made a number of drawings, two of which appeared in the print above from Harper’s Weekly, November 16, 1867. This is an excellent example of how the images in illustrated newspapers provide such an immediate and first-hand depiction on many of the events and personalities in the American West during the nineteenth century.

Friday, April 22, 2011

A Cabinet of Curiosities

In my last blog, I wrote about what I call “novelty prints.” These are prints that were not intended to present a straight-forward picture, but that are unusual in the way they were intended to be used or viewed. About a year ago I came across a web site for a fabulous collection of such prints, The Richard Balzer Collection.

Dick Balzar collects all sorts of novelty prints and this web site is what he calls his Wunderkabinett, that is, his cabinet of curiosities. As he says in the introduction to his site, “Nearly five hundred years ago European collectors arranged their pieces in cabinets of curiosities (Wunderkabinette) in an attempt to display their rare pieces. As collections grew, the more ambitious set aside rooms called Wunderkammern (Rooms of Wonder) for visitors to come and view their collections. These were the first museums. Today, the internet allows the possibility of visiting museums without leaving one’s home, and similarly, the possibility of constructing a virtual Wunderkabinett -- my cabinet of curiosities."

Dick calls the theme of his collection “visual entertainment” and his collection includes the types of novelty prints I have already discussed (perspective views and horizontoriums), as well as many others such as “magic lanterns, peepshows, shadows, transparencies, thaumatropes, phenakistascopes and a variety of other optical toys.” The site focuses on “the presentation and cataloguing of these wondrous devices and their representation in a variety of forms from scientific tomes to representations in the popular culture of the period.” I have spent many an hour browsing through the site and it really is a Wunderkabinette!

As I find this topic of great interest and as this is the best collection of these prints I know of, I asked Richard if he would consent to an interview, which he graciously agree to:

Can you describe the character of your collection?

I like the idea that a collection has a character as well as a theme. The theme of my collection is easier to describe; it is visual media and is almost exclusively pre-cinema (before 1895). The three biggest areas of concentration of the collection, and each encompasses a wide variety of materials from objects to ephemera, are magic lanterns, peepshows, and optical toys. As to the character, it’s a reflection of the collector, a bit chaotic and eclectic.

How did you get started with your collection and what inspired you to start?

I came to collecting rather accidently. I was living in Oxford, England on a research grant and one weekend I went to an auction, something I had never done before. I was drawn to a set of photographic magic lantern slides from the 1880s that depicted daily life in China. The slides came with a beautiful but rather beaten up mahogany lantern, which I knew nothing about. No one else at the auction seemed interested so for 50 pounds (about $80) I bought the slides and the lantern.

A month later a friend told me someone was giving a magic lantern show in Birmingham, about an hour and half drive from Oxford. I went to the show, not expecting much, and was overwhelmed by a magical menagerie of painted circus figures gliding across the screen. Mike Simkin, the showman, really started me on collecting. After the show he invited me back to his house, and once I saw the treasurers of his collection I was hooked.

How big is your collection?

The English have a lovely turn of a phrase which is, “I have a modest collection”, which doesn’t exactly do justice to its size.

When were the objects in your collection made?

The vast majority of my items come from the 18th and 19th centuries. I have a small number of pieces from the 20th century and a bit more from the 17th century, and even a couple of pieces from the 16th century.

In what countries were your objects produced?

Items in my collection come from a wide variety of countries. I have shadow puppets from China, India and Indonesia. I have several wonderful prints from Japan and some peepshow related material from Russia. The largest country, as a contributor to my collection, is America accounting for probably 60% of my collection, not because it is the place with the most material but because it is my home and there are fewer collectors here collecting what I collect. Europe has more material but it also has more collectors seeking the material. Over the years, having lived in England and traveled extensively in Europe I have been fortunate enough to find a lot of material, particularly in England and France, although I’ve also found things in Germany and the Netherlands. Once I was lucky enough to buy a collection of leather skinned shadow puppets from a street vendor in Beijing.

What are your favorite types of objects?

I hate this kind of question because it suggests that in any collection there should be favorite types of objects. It would be easier for me to tell you about twenty favorite objects than four. If you asked at this moment (and of course this could change tomorrow) some of my favorite types of objects, I would say: Anamorphoses, Thaumatropes, Peepshow Boxes and Magic Lantern Prints. Writing this down I recognize that I didn’t mention peepshow prints, something that I wrote about in my book, Peepshows A Visual History.

If you asked what the most distinctive part of my collection is I would have said prints. Both the magic lantern, and peepshows were important visual icons of the 18th and 19th century and new (old) images keep turning up, which is a wonderful thing for a collector.

You seem to be interested in prints about optical items as well as prints that are the optical items themselves. How important is this to you and are you also interested in books on the topics?

Actually I am not so interested in pictures of the items themselves, but I am very interested in images that contain the objects. This probably isn’t very clear so let me say there were a lot of political prints, especially at the end of the 18th and throughout the 19th century where the peepshow and the magic lantern were used by artists to poke fun at particular politicians, royals or the government. Some of my favorites show a peepshow and an unsuspecting person bent over looking at a view while his pocket is picked. The person depicted looking at the show represents “the people” and his pocket is being picked, depending on the image, by a politician or the state.

If I keep saying I am very interested in something it will soon become apparent that I am interested in a great many things. One of the real joys of collecting for thirty years is that as you learn more about a subject, you often find more things to collect. I think it was five years of collecting magic lanterns before I began collecting optical toys, a wonderful array of persistence of visions toys from the 19th century with delightful Greek derived endings of trope or scope (meaning viewer), to add a certain educational panache. So you have, for example, Thaumatropes, Phenakistoscopes, Zoetropes, and Praxinoscopes all offering a host of visual delights. It was another five years before I began collecting peepshows and several more years before I became interested in antiquarian books about the things I collect. I wish I were fluent in languages in addition to English because it would make owning books in many other languages a deeper pleasure.

What major institutions are there that have significant collections similar to yours?

Sadly there is no major institution in the US with an extensive collection of the material I am interested in. The Getty Museum in LA has some great pieces and the MOMI (Museum of the Moving Image) in Queens, NY has some material. There are a number of museums with large collections of these materials in Europe. The two most impressive are probably the collections at Cinematheque Francaise in Paris, and the Film Museum in Turin.

Are there other private collectors in your field?

There are many private collectors in my field and each one has a different emphasis. In the US the biggest collector of magic lantern materials is Jack Judson and his collection is exhibited in his museum in San Antonio,Texas. In Europe there are numerous significant collectors. Three with the most spectacular collections are Werner Neke in Mulheim, Germany, Francois Binetruy in Versailles, France and Lester Smith, in London.

Is there a collectors' group or society related to your collection?

Wherever there are collectors there is a collector’s group. I belong to two:
The Magic Lantern Society of the US and Canada, and the Magic Lantern Society of Great Britain. Both are terrific organizations. They publish materials and hold conventions and are always looking for new members.

I have written about vue d’optique or perspective prints in this blog. What can you tell us about them?

These prints were primarily meant to entertain and educate. Travel in the 18th and for a good part of the 19th century was quite limited and any person could buy images of the world’s great cities and view them at their leisure at home. One could also educate their children about the wonders of the world with such images. They were very popular and were certainly collected at the time. The vue d’optiques are still readily available.

How did the market for these change over time?

Although originally intended as parlour entertainment, these prints were soon taken by showmen and displayed in peepshows in public spaces for a viewing public who would pay “a penny for a peep”. Soon the vue d’optiques were joined by more elaborate prints made specifically for viewing in a peepshow and I am very interested in these. The innovation was to pierce the image either with pin-pricks or cut-outs and to lay down colored paper on the back, so that when light came from the back the image could appear to be the same scene at night, with a star filled sky, lights in windows, silhouetted figures in windows, or fireworks. All this allowed a simple print to be transformed into a day/ night view. The craftsmanship required to make these views was impressive and the views are quite spectacular.

Are there any more recent types of optical objects which are not very valuable now but which might be in the future?

I am sure the answer is yes, but I don’t which ones to suggest. First, I don’t collect 20th century optical objects nor 21st century objects. Secondly, like many collectors, I collect with my heart and have not given much thought to which things would appreciate in value. What I have learned, often from mistakes, is that if you are interested in objects becoming more valuable it is usually a good idea to buy things in really good condition. This has not been a rule I have always followed. I like the items too much and have rarely let condition be the deciding factor in whether or not to buy something.

The Richard Balzar Collection is a wonderful collection and the web site is wonderful. As Richard says "Take a look. Perhaps you will see things you have not previously seen, learn something new. If you have more information on an item you see, sharing it will be a gift to me. Enjoy your visit!"

Monday, April 18, 2011

Novelty Prints

As I have mentioned before, I am primarily interested in prints as historic artifacts, that is as objects which are part of our past, not as objects d’art. I like to study how they were made, why they were made, to whom they were sold, how they were used, what kind of impact they had on society and history, and so forth. Thus it is not surprising that I would be interested in what I will call (for lack of a better term) “novelty prints.”

I will use “novelty prints” to refer to prints that are not intended to present a straight-forward picture, but that are unusual in the way they were intended to be used or viewed. This includes perspective views (already written about in another blog), multi-view prints, and (to quote Richard Balzar) “magic lanterns, peepshows, shadows, transparencies, thaumatropes, phenakistascopes and a variety of other optical toys.” These prints have some “trick” or special character that lets them be viewed or used in a novel way. Novelty prints have a long history but are quite rare and not a whole lot is written about them. Richard Balzar, who I just quoted, has a huge collection of such prints and I will post an interview with him later this month, but today I will discuss one type of novelty prints which I find particularly interesting.

One of my favorite novelty prints is an unusual perspective view of a Philadelphia building which goes by the title of “Horizontorium.” A horizontorium is a type of print which, according to a letter published in Mechanics’ Magazine on March 28, 1835, was invented in 1821 by a British mathematical tutor named William Shires. According to Shires, his invention (illustrated above) was very much in demand throughout Europe and it was soon copied by others, who claimed the invention for themselves.

Though it looks exceedingly strange, according to Shires, “The horizontorium has nothing beyond common about it, the only peculiarity being that the view is projected on a horizontal plane, in lieu of a vertical one.” Shires' print shows a crenelated tower which appears to be misshapen, but which takes on its normal perspective when viewed from a particular angle. One was supposed to view the print by keeping the paper on a horizontal plane and looking at it with one eye from a position just above the spot marked at the bottom of the print. This can be facilitated by the cut-out eye piece shown above, which can be placed in the correct spot, and then the viewer looks through the eye hole.

Shires was probably spurred to write his letter of 1835—which was reprinted in the Journal of the Franklin Institute that same year—by the appearance of copy-cat horizontoriums. One of these was published in Philadelphia in 1832. This print is also entitled “Horizontorium” and it is the only known American example of this type of print.

This print was drawn by William Mason, a local artist who specialized in Philadelphia architectural prints. It shows the Philadelphia Bank building, which was designed by Benjamin Latrobe and stood at the corner of Fourth and Chestnut from 1808 until 1836. There were only two prints done of the Philadelphia Bank (which was the first Gothic Revival building in Philadelphia), the other being a print by William Birch published in 1809. It is fascinating to compare this view, which shows a rather squat building, to Mason's image, which makes the bank seem almost a skyscraper.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The start of the Civil War and Flag Mania

One hundred and fifty years ago today, the first battle of the Civil War began, launching a conflict which would consume four years, over 600,000 human lives, and millions of dollars of resources. It is one of the defining events of American history and, not surprising, was well documented in contemporary prints (I have created a special section on our web site on this topic, A Nation Divided).

The Civil War began with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in April of 1861. The Confederates demanded the surrender of this fort in the mouth of the harbor at Charleston, S.C., but they were refused by the Union commander Major Robert Anderson. The Confederates opened fire on the fort on April 12, 1861, continuing to hail canon balls on Fort Sumter for 34 hours straight. The besieged garrison proudly flew the American flag over the fort throughout, until Anderson was forced to surrender at 2:30 on the 13th. The Union forces evacuated the fort, but Anderson saluted the flag as it was lowered and carried it with him as he left. It was later hoisted to the mast of their ship as they returned defeated, but unbowed to the North.

This attack on the United States and its flag caused a swell of patriotic fervor in the North which tended to focus on the flag as a symbol of the Union. As the editor of Harper's Weekly put it, "the flag of the United States is the symbol of the Government which secures and protects him in all his rights and interests..." (May 4, 1861, p. 274) Henry Ward Beecher gave a famous talk glorifying "The National Flag," in which he stated that "The stars upon it were to the pining nations like the bright morning stars of God, and the stripes upon it were beams of morning light." This image was taken up by American artist Frederic Edwin Church, who painted a small oil entitled "Our Banner in the Sky." In that oil, the American flag was formed by a field of stars in the evening sky, the colors of the sunset forming the stripes, and a tree trunk forming an apparent staff for the celestial banner. This painting was soon turned into a chromolithograph by Goupil & Co.

As copyright laws tended to be ignored, and as "flag mania" was raging, publisher William Schaus had artist William Bauly modify Church's image somewhat in order to make his own chromolithograph, entitled "Our Heaven Born Banner." The print was accompanied by the text of Joseph Rodman Drake's poem, "The American Flag," which describes the stars and stripes formed in the sky. In this print, a Zouave sentry looks out towards the celestial banner dawning over the hills, near which is seen Fort Sumter lying before Charleston. The sentry's rifle and bayonet form the flag's staff.

Printmakers in the North were quick to take advantage of these popular feelings by issuing a number of stirring patriotic prints featuring the flag. One of the earliest prints of this sort was issued by the Kellogg firm of Hartford. Their print shows the "brave volunteer" before an encampment and holding a rifle and the American flag. The volunteer is shown trampling on the flag of South Carolina. That flag was first adopted on January 28, 1861 and the focus on the flag of the first seceding state shows that this print was issued probably shortly thereafter.

Within short order, a print copied from the Kellogg's image was issued by the New York competitor to the that firm, Currier & Ives. This print has a similar title and is much the same image, though their print has the soldier stepping on the Confederate "Stars & Bars," an indication was issued a bit later when the focus was more on the Confederacy as a whole rather than just South Carolina.

Within little over a month, Currier & Ives were able to merge the flag theme with an image of the first Civil War hero to die for the Union cause. On May 24th, when Union troops were sent into Alexandria, Virginia, Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth went to the roof of the Marshall House Inn to remove the large Confederate flag which had been flying there, well within sight of the White House. The owner of the inn, James Jackson, who was a avid slavery supporter, took exception to this and shot Ellsworth with a shot gun, killing him instantly. Currier & Ives issued this dramatic print which further raised patriotic feelings and prolonged the nation's "flag mania."

Though the Ellsworth print showed a tragic event, most of the flag prints were positive and intended to be inspiring. These prints were wide spread and popular, but they were all issued early in the war. As the Civil War stretched on and its true horror became apparent, these prints lost their appeal and printmakers turned to other themes.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Value of Frames

Most people who have antique prints have them in frames and many of the prints you run into at auction or in shops are framed. My focus is always on the value of the prints themselves, but surely the frames for these prints add value to the prints, right? Well, that question is actually fairly complex.

First off, as a rule our shop does not usually add any cost onto a print we have framed versus one that is unframed. So if we happen to have two examples of the same print, one framed and one unframed, they will usually be priced the same way. The main reason for this is that a lot of times someone wants a print that is in a frame but doesn't want the frame. If we added on for the value of the frame, then we would be obliged to knock off that cost if we sold the print unframed and we would end up with an empty frame that was not of a lot of use to us. The way we do it, you can take the print in the frame or out of the frame for the same price, and most people take the print framed and so we are not left with a lot of empty, relatively useless frames.

There are, of course, exceptions to this. If the frame is a really nice "period" frame (perhaps original) or if the frame is particularly wonderful (like the tramp art frame on our Custer's Last Stand print), then we do add onto the price of the print. However, this is the exception rather than the rule.

What this means is that we also do not pay extra for the frames when we buy the items. A number of people will bring us a print and expect to get extra for their frame, but as we won't charge more, we won't pay more. We also tell people they are welcome to keep their frames, but usually the people selling just want to get rid of the whole thing.

This can be very disappointing to people and it seems like it is unfair. As anyone who has had a print framed in the last decade or so knows, framing (especially museum standard framing) is very expensive. The frame for a moderately priced print is often more than the print itself, so how can it be that when you go to sell the print in the frame, you get nothing for the frame?

Well, there is a big difference between buying something "as is" and going out and having something made exactly as you want. If you are selling a print in a frame, the potential buyer has to take that frame or nothing. It is likely not the style, size, color or whatever they might have chosen; it just is what it is. People will usually not pay as much for something like that both because it probably isn't exactly what they want but also because it is a take-it-of-leave-it fait accompli. If someone is ordering a frame, they get just want they want and are having someone make it specially for them. It is much like buying an off-the-rack jacket vs. having a tailor make one specially for you. An existing frame just doesn't have that much value to buyers in the market.

And there is the other issue of whether the framing is "museum quality." A large majority of the antique prints framed today are in frames that are actually causing them harm (this is discussed in another blog). Not only is a buyer of such prints getting a frame that they didn't choose, but the frame needs to be taken apart and put back together to preserve the print.

Now it is true, as I said above, that there are frames which do add to the value of prints, but generally it is wise not to pay extra for a frame. If you really like the frame, ok, but it is also important to see if the framing is museum quality, for if it is not, you will be adding quite a bit of expense to the cost of the print (assuming you want to preserve it) and need to factor that in. There are actually a lot of cases where the framing can actually cause the print to be worth less! And finally, if you are looking to sell framed prints, don't expect to get extra for the frames. It just isn't the way things work.