Once in a Lifetime Irish Silver Collection… and Opportunity.

The Republic of Ireland is in desperate need of a philanthropic angel to preserve an immensely important part of its history and cultural heritage.

The National Museum of Ireland currently has on exhibit a phenomenal collection of 107 choice pieces of Irish silver spanning the history of sterling craftsmanship on the Emerald Isle. On temporary loan from a private collection in Dublin, the exhibit details the evolution of style in silver wares from the dawn of the craft in the early 17th Century, to the Baroque and Rococo schools of the early 18th Century, through the Georgian period of the 18th to early 19th Centuries, to the Classical and Neo-Classical movements of the Regency, and Revival Periods of the 19th Century. The collection documents the work of Ireland’s most important silversmiths, and illustrates the many uses of silver in their historic social and economic contexts.

Earliest known Cork silver teapot, by Thomas Lilly, 1723. Part of the silver collection on exhibit at the National Museum of Ireland, in desperate need of a sponsor by the end of February.

Earliest known Cork silver teapot, by Thomas Lilly, 1723. Part of the silver collection on exhibit at the National Museum of Ireland, in desperate need of a sponsor by the end of February.

With the benefit of this collection, the Museum of Decorative Arts at the Collins Barracks in Dublin curates the premier collection of Irish Silver in the world, surpassing even that of the venerable Victoria and Albert Museum in London. As it should. But unfortunately, not for much longer.

The loan of this seminal private collection expires at the end of February, at which point it will be broken up and sold. The dispersal of this magnificent assembly will be a terrible loss for the Republic of Ireland, for the preservation and recognition of Irish culture, and for antique silver scholars, curators and collectors. This is a rare and wonderful opportunity for a philanthropist (or consortium of generous Irish Americans) to step forward and purchase the collection intact, and donate it to the National Museum. The lot is valued at approximately $2.4m, and can be viewed on the website of the Dublin and London silver dealers L and W Duvallier at antiqueirishsilver.com. What an amazing act of benevolence… and what an amazing tax deduction!

Pair of Cork silver Rococo salvers by George Hodder, circa 1745.

Pair of Cork silver Rococo salvers by George Hodder, circa 1745.

Antique Irish silver is among the finest in history, at the pinnacle of the silversmith’s art. Irish decorative arts benefited tremendously from the prevailing state of an exceptionally wealthy landed aristocracy, occupying a land with a fortuitously talented (and often very well educated) but impoverished population, thus yielding demand and wherewithal on the one hand, and ability and low wages on the other. Irish craftsmanship in the 18th and 19th Centuries was superb and arguably unsurpassed, as we see in the carved Chippendale furniture and the brilliant glassware and crystal of the period. Silversmiths were fewer in Dublin than in England or America, so their output was much smaller, and consequently today is much rarer and more valuable. The Irish provincial work from Cork, Galway, Limerick or Kinsale is much rarer still, and consequently even more dear.

A Cork silver toasting cup by John Warner, circa 1775.

A Cork silver toasting cup by John Warner, circa 1775.

Identifiable Irish silver dates back to the royal charter of the Company of Goldsmiths of Dublin in 1637. The earliest Irish silver was plain but well-fashioned, characterized by heavy gauge and relatively simple forms. Silver was originally used mostly in church wares (such as chalices, communion cups and plates, etc.), and did not appear in domestic household use until the end of the 17th Century when we begin to see candle sticks and two-handled cups. Huguenot silversmiths fleeing France after 1685 brought new ideas and refinement, preparing Irish silver to flourish in the approaching age of elegance.

Heavy pair of Dublin silver Candlesticks by Isaac Dolier, 1750.

Heavy pair of Dublin silver Candlesticks by Isaac Dolier, 1750.

Irish silversmiths embraced, even led, the exuberant aesthetic of the mid-18th Century Rococo style.  New lifestyles demanded new accoutrements, and domestic silver soon included tea and coffee pots, jugs, spoons and serving utensils, salvers, caddies, tureens, tankards and mugs. As the century passed and empires churned, they became masters of the refined Neo-Classical movement, before coming into their own with the socio-politically important Celtic Revival.

A Dublin silver baluster- shaped tankard by Joseph Jackson, 1775.

A Dublin silver baluster- shaped tankard by Joseph Jackson, 1775.

Irish silver developed outside of the close control of the English guilds, and so explored more freedom in their designs. Their spirit of independence seems to align them closer to American artists in style, than their British contemporaries. Their work is grander, ornate yet symmetrical, bold yet gracious. A connoisseur can, in fact, discern Irish from English silver from its style and design, before examining the hallmarks. Their work attained a quality and elegance which has never been surpassed. Their legacy remains a high point in the realm of antiques.

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All silver items illustrated are part of the collection on exhibit at The National Museum of Ireland, and can be viewed on the website of the Dublin and London silver dealers L and W Duvallier at antiqueirishsilver.com.

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The Remarkable ‘Time Capsule’ Apartment of Madame de Florian.

Aside

The Remarkable ‘Time Capsule’ Apartment of Madame de Florian.

Every once in an increasingly great while you chance upon a circumstance which puts a smile on your face and warms your very cockles. My day was certainly brightened when this story broke in 2010 about a forgotten pre-war apartment discovered untouched in Paris.

The apartment of Madame Marthe de Florian in the 9th Arondissement of Paris

The apartment of Madame Marthe de Florian in the 9th Arondissement of Paris

Imagine an affluent lady, an actress and demimondaine, living in a Grand Boulevard apartment near the old Opera House in Paris during the early years of the last century. A child of La belle Epoch, her home is a treasure trove, busy with fine furniture, artwork and

The eclectic taste of Madame de Florian: 18th Century furniture, 19th Century taxidermy, 20th Century art, and a pre-war Mickey.

The eclectic taste of Madame de Florian: 18th Century furniture, 19th Century taxidermy, 20th Century art, and a pre-war Mickey.

decorative furnishings. Her many admirers have been generous. She has an eye for quality and the wherewithal to indulge her taste. She lives with exquisite antiques spanning ages of French history, as well as select works informed by the latest artistic movements. Her apartment reflects the full and hectic life of an actress and a socialite during a golden age.

Abruptly, her life was interrupted as France, Europe, the whole world was torn by the madness of World War II. As the Nazi occupation engulfed Paris, Madame de Florian fled to the relative safety of the South of France. She left her apartment as it was, en dishabille, with even a collection of love letters neatly bundled with a blue ribbon. She simply turned the key in her apartment door and escaped to the distant countryside. But unlike all of her peers, when the war ended and the menace was gone, she did not return. Perhaps her sensitive artistic soul could not bear to revisit the scene of earlier horrors. Perhaps she dreaded the ruin and change wrought in her beloved Paris. Whatever her reason, she remained in the South and never returned to her apartment. But she continued to pay the rent for the rest of her life, and so none else ever returned to her apartment either… for over 70 years!

Portrait of Madame Marthe de Florian by Giovanni Boldini, circa 1898.

Portrait of Madame Marthe de Florian by Giovanni Boldini, circa 1898; previously unknown, found in the apartment and subsequently solds for $3.4 million.

When she passed away at the age of 91, her heirs discovered that she owned this lease in Paris.  Can you imagine setting foot in a home where no one has trod for a lifetime? Think of the thrill to experience what has been untouched and undisturbed for generations? The first person to enter after all those years described a ‘smell of old dust’… and then started to notice the treasures. They said they felt as if they had slipped into the private chambers of Sleeping Beauty. Madame de Florian’s home, with the exception of one painting, remains undusted and untouched to this day.

An amazing situation, but not unique. Many people have enjoyed, or at least know of family summer homes that have changed little over the years. I was lucky as a child to spend time in the summers at an Adirondack period cottage on a lake in Maine, still pristine with hand-pumped water from the well, outdoor privy in the woodshed, and minimal electricity just encroaching on the oil lamps. The craftsman’s architectural style was beautiful and comforting, with clean wainscoting, built-in corner cabinets, semi-open staircase, and exposed beams. My grandfather’s room had a pine wash stand with pitcher of water and basin, and the chamber pot in the cubby below. I still love all those kitchen gadgets and ware: the wire baskets, racks and skewers for cooking on wood fires, stoneware, and lovingly dinged enameled tinware. The built-in cabinets held a mystery of toys and games from a much earlier time. We ate, worked and relaxed on the wide screened porch with wicker and rockers, plank tables and benches.

Antique lakefront cottage in Maine.

Antique lakefront cottage in Maine.

I have been very lucky on Nantucket to have been welcomed over the years into many homes that were truly time capsules, barely touched by the passing of time. I am still moved by an historic home in the center of town, where the clock stopped at the turn of the century. The furniture remains in their exact spots, the art original, the knickknacks and personal mementos are those of the former owner, the very books on the bedside shelf are those chosen and placed there nearly a hundred years ago! The house is a home, yet also a shrine. In a different house, with different people and a different history, this could verge on the creepy. In this case however, it is more akin to a brilliant installation, a tableau vivant.

Along upper Main Street on Nantucket: one never knows what waits behind those walls.

Along upper Main Street on Nantucket: one never knows what waits behind those walls.

There is another house, a Main Street dowager, where the furnishings have remained intact through generations of the same family for over 200 years. One sits in the same chair, at the same table on the same hand knotted carpet as did the Captain when he returned from whaling voyages before America won its independence. One looks about at the paintings and porcelains chosen and cherished by the first generation. The closets and attic hold all the family correspondence, hand written copies of letters sent, bills and invoices, complete and intact dating back from the first settlers. A nod to modern change and progress: the cabled bells to summon a particular servant from their attic quarters.

The beauty and thrill of these ‘time capsules’ is not just the great collections of period antiques. It is not just a matter of being amazed at the rare circumstance. It is more the breathless wonder of stepping physically into the past. You are not a spectator viewing antiques in a museum. You are a privileged guest, alive and well in the distant past, able this once to see and feel how life was lived. This rare trick of fate brings you into the reality of the past, rather than just imagining history as one tries through books, films and museums. It is the beauty and magic of antiques.

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The photographs of the de Forian apartment have been published widely on the web: sources include Drouot Auctions, Urban Archeology, Home and Garden, Inspirationsdeco, and the Huffington Post.

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Christmas in Ireland: The Christmas Panto!

Christmas in Ireland: The Christmas Panto.

I admit it: I look forward to the annual Christmas Pantomime every year. I had heard about them in old Christmas books, but of course had never been to one. We just don’t have these in the States. When I first came over to Ireland for Christmas , I was thrilled to hear that there were not one, but two different pantomimes held in Cork during December and January. Brilliant! At last!  I was psyched to go, but then was told “No way! The Pantos are for children. An adult can’t go… everyone would think you were a nutter!”  I was crushed.

"Alice in Wonderland" at the Cork Opera House last year.

“Alice in Wonderland” at the Cork Opera House last year.

Determined to see this Christmas tradition, it didn’t take me long to figure out I could invite my young niece and nephew. I could get to see my panto by using little Jack and Orla as camouflage! Twenty years later I still go to the panto every year. We pretend we’re taking the young ones, our Christmas present to our nieces and nephew (now four of them), but we all know they’re really chaperoning me.

The annual Christmas Pantomime is a hugely popular, eagerly attended part of the Christmas season throughout Ireland and the UK.  The Panto is a deliberately campy, over-the-top  stageshow that incorporates ham acting, singing and dancing, corny humor, men in drag, audience participation, topical references, and double entendres…  all aimed for children… but not-so-secretely loved by adults.  Picture a children’s theatre, crossed with a vaudeville music hall, the Rocky Horror Picture Show, MTV, and a touch of Jim Henson. A slice of old fashioned entertainment!

Traditional Harlequin and Columbine.

Traditional Harlequin and Columbine.

What are pantos? How did they begin? The Pantomime (which today  luckily has Nothing to do with Mime) is descended from the Harlequin and Columbina plays of the Commedia dell’arte dating back as far as the 16th Century. Simple sketch plays featuring stock characters depicting typical types of people, with bawdy humor, improvisation, and props: kind of a Punch & Judy Show with live actors.

London theatres in the 18th Century carried on this tradition, first as silent performances with only dancing and gestures (thus “pantomime”). Following nicely in the footsteps laid by the Medieval Mummer’s Plays associated especially with Twelfth Night, the Pantomimes quickly became a popular entertainment during the Christmas season. By the mid 19th Century the shows became more elaborate, with witty and topical dialogue, slapstick, and often spectacular and elaborate theatrical effects. The plots evolved from simple skits to a small repertoire based on nursery rhymes and folk tales. We’re talking twisted fairy tales here, with little resemblance and very little regard for the original tales.

Antique poster for a Christmas Pantomime.

Antique poster for a Christmas Pantomime.

There is usually little or no reference to Christmas; the basic subject is adopted from a children’s story such as from Cinderella, Aladdin, Jack & the Bean Stalk, Snow White or other such chestnut, and freely borrows characters and features from other tales, or invents wholly new bits you’ve never heard of nor dreamt. It is assumed that the audience is so familiar with the original story that there is little effort to develop the plot which is instead adapted for comic or satirical effect.*

Hurry! The curtain rises in five minutes! Cork opera House 2013.

Hurry! The curtain rises in five minutes! Cork opera House 2013.

The curtain rises. Enter the hero: “Hello boys and girls! I said HELLO BOYS AND GIRLS!!!”  and repeated yet again until the audience responds loud enough.

The mad performance follows a stereotyped routine with a love triangle that includes the hero and heroine, a comic lead played by a man in drag (the Panto Dame), an evil menace, a friendly godmother sort, and a lowly servant or other character who befriends the audience, is menaced by the villain and is besotted with the heroine. Every production includes a scary scene of dark menace, and a slapstick grand chase. And then there’s the famous banter with the audience. The Dame “recognizes” people in the audience:

“Is that Mary? Mary dear, you’re looking wonderful! In this light ye can’t tell you had Botox at all!”

And the audience does indeed participate, with the enthusiasm you would expect of children at Christmas. Not just booing and hissing the villain, or sympathizing “Ahhhhh” with the lowly friend. The cast will prompt the audience, but It’s just a formality… everyone knows the score.  The packed theatre will warn the hero (“Look behind you!”), and argue with the villain (“Oh no they don’t!” “Oh yes they do!” Oh no they don’t!”) You get the idea.

The brilliant cast of this year's panto at the Cork Opera House.

The brilliant cast of this year’s panto at the Cork Opera House.

I suspect most of the audience is there for the song and dance (including the dreaded audience participation bit at the end). The best of the panto for me is the topical humor. Beyond the winks and nods at pop culture, hit songs and celebrities, there are plenty of razor barbs aimed at politics and current events, and naughty double entendres galore. Clever and witty, these bits are played for the adults in the house, but still enjoyed by the children on their own level.

After all these years I’d hate to think of celebrating Christmas without this tradition. The first niece we took, Orla, is now an adult close to setting off for college; nephew Jack… well he’s as tall as the beanstalk, and little Amy and Rachel are growing as fast as they can. They all grow up too fast, and soon I fear will probably be too old for this tradition. On the other hand, so far even Orla still loves going to the Panto with us, and we’ve just gained a new nephew less than a year old… I think my Christmas celebrations are safe for years to come!

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A Festival of Christmas Trees.

A Festival of Christmas Trees.

Christmas! That most wonderful time of year! The holidays start early here on Nantucket Island, with our annual Christmas stroll celebrated on the first weekend of December. To get us all in the mood, and start the season off with the right festive bang, we have the Nantucket Historical Association’s magical Festival of Trees. Now in its 20th year, the Festival presents over 90 Christmas trees designed and decorated by a wide variety of people and organizations from our community, nestled and overflowing throughout our historic Whaling Museum. Holiday magic indeed!

The Antiques Depot's "Magic of Christmas", NHA Festival of Trees 2009.

The Antiques Depot’s “Magic of Christmas”, NHA Festival of Trees 2009.

I am completely crazy about Christmas Trees (it’s a German thing), so of course I am a huge fan of this festival … in fact my wife and I Chaired the event for the last two years and remain on the committee. The Antiques Depot has been putting up a tree in the museum for about ten years now, each one telling a specific tale. Of course Christmas trees weren’t always this expansive… not even in my family where we used to put up seven different trees… and more decorated outside!

Christmas trees began rather simply, as far as we can tell, long before Christmas itself. No one appreciates nature and greenery like the pagans: the ancient Romans used evergreen boughs to decorate their temples during the feast of Saturnalia; the druids worshiped under oak trees and favored mistletoe; and the Germanic tribes and Scandinavians brought pine and fir branches and trees into their homes for a little life during the winter solstice.

The Antiques Depot at Christmas Time.

The Antiques Depot at Christmas Time.

During the Middle Ages clergymen, and later traveling bands of minstrels, performed Mystery or Miracle Plays to illustrate simple tales from the Bible: those telling about Adam and Eve, their fall from grace, and the promise of a coming savior became associated with Advent. In Germany and France these plays often employed a Paradise Tree decorated with apples, and perhaps holy wafers. In fact the first documented use of a tree at Christmas and New Year celebrations was around 1510 in the far northern Germanic territory around Riga or Tallinn. This was most likely a Paradise Tree rather than a proper Christmas Tree, and after a ceremony it was burnt (like a forerunner of a Yule Log). By the end of the century Germans were parading a festive tree through the streets, often followed by a man on horseback dressed a bishop… good old St. Nicholas we presume.

Steel engraving of Martin Luther's Christmas Tree, from Sartain's Magazine, circa 1860

Steel engraving of Martin Luther’s Christmas Tree, from Sartain’s Magazine, circa 1860

The first proper Christmas Tree, where a fir was brought inside a house and lit with candles, we attribute to Martin Luther in the mid 16th Century, who was said to have likened the tree to the heavenly sky from whence the Christ Child came down to earth on Christmas Eve. Germans love a party, and Luther’s simple tree soon came to be decorated with gold covered apples, sugared plums, cherries and pears, nuts, dates, pretzels, paper flowers, gingerbread figures and dough fashioned into the likeness of various animals. Atop the early trees were at first a Christ Child, and in time the angel which brought forth good tidings, or the star which led the Wise men. And once the glass makers got involved, we were well and truly off and running!

Woodblock Engraving of "The Christmas Tree" by Winslow Homer, from Harper's Weekly, 1858

Woodblock Engraving of “The Christmas Tree” by Winslow Homer, from Harper’s Weekly, 1858.

Christmas trees (even Christmas in general) had a rough time taking route in America. The Protestant establishment throughout the colonies had a grim view of Christmas, and the Puritans banned the holiday outright in New England. Hessian soldiers are believed to have celebrated with Christmas trees during the American Revolutionary War, and certainly German immigrants brought the custom with them to Pennsylvania, Ohio, and wherever else they settled. But the custom spread slowly. Even by the mid 19th Century America still wasn’t in the Christmas spirit: schools stayed open on Christmas Day, and ministers wouldn’t allow any such “pagan” trappings within their churches.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert's Christmas Tree

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s Christmas Tree.

The Christmas Tree didn’t become popular in Great Britain until Queen Victoria’s German husband Prince Albert decorated a Christmas Tree in Windsor Castle.A drawing of the event published in the Illustrated London News in 1848, and republished in Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1850 (with the Queen’s crown and the Prince’s mustache removed to appear more “American”) went a long way in popularizing Christmas Trees in both the UK and the US. When a generous dash of Dickens was added to the punch… well, Christmas was here to stay.

Christmas Trees are now every-where, even in households that don’t celebrate Christmas.  Artificial trees have come to rival natural trees in popularity and over the last century their ornamentation has continued to evolve, reflecting the times in which they live. And there is perhaps no better place to see this in all its wonder and glory, than in the Festival of Trees on Nantucket.

The Night After Christmas (Festival of Trees 2010)

The Night After Christmas (Festival of Trees 2010)

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Antiques Depot 2013 Writing Contest Winner (Age 6 to 12)

The second annual “Antiques Depot Writing Contest… with an Antiques Twist” was a great success. We are amazed at the many terrific stories that were submitted by our young authors. Here is this year’s winning story in the Under Twelve age group, submitted by Sophie Manning, age eleven, who was inspired by a very unusual Victorian whimsey: A Pair of Lady’s Gloves Compressed inside a Walnut Shell. Incidentally, Sophie wasn’t tempted by modern electronic gadgetry (an ereader), and instead chose the Walnut Shell and gloves for her prize.

The Manning sisters searching the Antiques Depot for their inspiration.

The Manning sisters searching the Antiques Depot for their inspiration.

In a Nutshell

By Sophie Manning

Mrs. Diana Coe

    I shiver as I stand on the deck of the RMS Queen Mary, leaning over the rail. It’s especially cold for March, but the sea spray feels good on my face. Suddenly, I’m aware that I’m completely alone on the rocking deck; no one else had dared to venture outside on such a cold day as this. I wonder where my son is. He’s supposed to be my escort, but so far, I’ve only glimpsed him once or twice, much less actually had him escort me anywhere! It’s not considered proper for a lady to be venturing outside her quarters alone on a ship of this size, but what choice do I have when my husband is home in London, and Thomas is nowhere in  sight. Besides, I get terribly seasick in my room with no cool air circulating. My cousin Victoria had been the one to suggest travelling to France to attend a piano recital performed by Franz Liszt, a popular composer in Europe. She said that I simply must see him in Paris (even though he is coming to perform in England in a short while), because it is supposed to be his best recital yet. So, after much coaxing, I had to agree.

    Originally, it was supposed to be my husband and I voyaging to France together, but, two days before the time of departure, a very important business opportunity came up that he couldn’t ignore. All of my close relatives live nearby each other in London, save my sister, her daughter and her late husband, who died recently of a terrible sickness. They now live on a faraway island called Nantucket to  which they have just moved barely a year before now.   It  would be impossible for me to cancel my voyage without causing uproar among my family, who are all incredibly excited to hear about the performance.

    Sighing, I head back inside, knowing that I have to get ready for the luncheon with the family with the cabin next to ours. We are to meet them in the Grand Dining room in an hours time.  As I walked back to my room, I wonder if the recital will be worth all this.

    It is just after we finish eating when we hear the foghorn signifying that we have arrived at last. Bidding goodbye to the kind family, Thomas brings me back to our cabin to change into my traveling clothes and to pack my trunks. I’m more than anxious to get off the ship, (even though it’s one of the finest in the world), so I hurry  onto the deck to watch it pull in with the others. An automobile is waiting for us just outside the harbor gates, and we soon find our luggage. Before long, we’re driving to our hotel.

    As much as Thomas is trying to make today as enjoyable as possible, so far the word I would use to describe it is: Hectic.  It’s taking us longer than seems necessary to find our seats because the hall is so crowded and noisy, but when Liszt sits down at the elegant, black piano, the silence is complete. Sound seems to almost flow from his fingers as he performs his compositions one after another. He easily keeps the attention on him as he plays with such movement and feeling that clearly nobody could tear their eyes away from. He plays a series of songs that I later find out are called: “Robert le Diable.”

    “Oh cousin Victoria, you were right to make me come,” I silently think. My only worry is that I won’t ever be able to describe it accurately  to my family back home.

    After an hour, the performance ends and the audience rises for a standing ovation, Thomas and I included. But before long the crowd begins to get rowdy, pushing their way up closer towards the stage, and almost trying to pull Liszt off it! And that’s when Thomas decides it’s a good time to leave.

    Back on the streets, it’s only mildly busy, which I’m sure is normal for Paris. I decide that it’s the perfect time to purchase souvenirs for some of my closest relatives. Thomas leads me to a small, and frankly very dusty souvenir shop that he had spotted on the way to the hotel. Almost as soon as we enter the store, Thomas disappears into the back in search of some cigars, while I browse around the entrance.

    It doesn’t take long for me to find a gift for cousin Victoria. She absolutely adores the opera, and really any other recital or show there is, so I buy her a beautiful pair of mother of pearl opera glasses.  For my girls, I get two matching blue silk hair ribbons that are the exact color of their eyes. As for my husband, I’d put Thomas in charge of finding that gift.

    I’m intrigued by all the other merchandise as well, so I decide to just look around before we leave. I walk along rows and rows of brown shelves, my eyes skimming all the objects there. Books, hair bonnets, jewelry boxes, paintings of Paris, walnut shells… Walnut shells? I look closer, my curiosity piqued Something was folded and stuffed into them! I practically jog to the man standing behind his desk, and hold them out in front in front of me. “What are they, sir?” I ask, pushing them towards him. “Ah, yes.” He says, taking off his spectacles. He takes  one from me gently. “They’re white leather lady’s gloves, folded so tiny that they may be stuffed into a walnut shell,” he answers, examining them carefully. “I could’ve taken them out for display, but they were so I interesting that I couldn’t resist keeping them like this.” He looked up at me. “Would you like to buy them?” he asks. Suddenly I remember my poor niece. Living on a remote island with nobody but her mother to keep her company, her father (and my brother in law) dead and the rest of her family in London. I imagine how much joy she would find in taking out the little gloves and marveling over who could possibly fold them so tiny. And I hear myself reply: “Yes, I’ll take them.” I would send them to my tragic little niece.

A Whimsical Victorian Souvenier: A Pair of Lady's Gloves Compressed into a Beribboned Walnut Shell case.

A Whimsical Victorian Souvenier: A Pair of Lady’s Gloves Compressed into a Beribboned Walnut Shell case.

Elizabeth Coe

    I’m in the middle of chopping up a bluefish when my mother steps into in fish shop, holding a letter in her hand. Without speaking, she hands it to me. I haven’t seen a letter so fine since we’d moved to Nantucket. It is on thick, beige paper with elegant cursive writing addressed to me. I stare at the D  engraved on the crimson seal; it is  big with lots of curlicues, Aunt Diana’s seal. “Oh, yes,” my mother says quietly, “this came with the letter.” She hands me a small package. I place it on the clean part of the counter and slide open the envelope with a butter knife. But then I notice my hands. They’re covered in fish blood and scales; my fingernails are caked with dirt. Feeling  ashamed, I move to the sink and rinse my hands. After drying them with a loose dishtowel, I go back to the letter:

My Darling Niece, Elizabeth,

I have recently visited Paris to attend a wonderful performance by Franz Liszt.

In my travels, I couldn’t help but think of you. Nearly all alone in a strange island, your father deceased and your mother devastated. And when I saw these nutshells containing tiny lady’s gloves, I knew how much it would mean to you to have a new pair of leather gloves all the way from France. To remind you that you’ll always be a British young lady at heart.

Your loving Aunt,

Diana Coe

Reading the letter, I feel a sudden pang of sadness deep in my chest, in one way, I don’t  want to open the package, for fear that it would hurt me too much to remember how things used to be. But in another, I am incredibly curious. My curiosity  wins over and I rip off the packaging eagerly, looking up every so often to make sure that the owner of the shop isn’t paying attention. Inside, as promised on the letter, are two  hard halves of a walnut shell tied together with  a piece  of blue ribbon. Each one is stuffed with some kind of white cloth (according to the letter, the gloves) with a piece of tissue paper covering each one. Eagerly, I pry one glove out of a shell and hold it up to the light to examine it. It looks so much like those  I used to wear in London: Same clean white leather, same slight, slim finger slots and even the same seam running from the heel of the hand to the palm. I used to wear gloves to parties and teas, and  I never dreamed that I would be wearing one  like it on in a dirty fish shop in downtown Nantucket.

Everything had seemed to be getting better here, I made a few friends, attended ladies’ meetings, and went shopping  for gowns.  It  was almost like home, and then my father died. It all happened so fast that for a while I thought I had dreamed it all. He went to work in his bank one morning, kissing me on the forehead and promising to be home for luncheon. He never did come back. I remember the butler opening the door for  one of father’s co-workers and frantically  calling mother to greet him. I later found out that the man had been calling about my father.  Father had keeled over dead of a heart attack after he  received the news of an enormous financial crash that had just occurred almost everywhere, including Nantucket.  The possibility of a financial ruin had been a shock to all of the bankers,  but Father  had probably been  the first on the island to hear of  the crash, so therefore it was all the more severe. Mother had always said that he was too worried about his money, and that one day it would be the death of him.  I can hardly bear to think of how right she had been.They brought his body in later that day, the financial forecast for the island still in his grasp.

As soon as she received the tragic news,  Mother had crumpled to a heap at his feet, screaming and sobbing and beating the floor with her fists until she was too exhausted to move any longer. Nobody knew what to do, all the staff just stood there, frozen with the shock of the news until I finally  pulled my mother into a standing position and gently guided her into her bedchamber. Then, unable to hold my grief in any longer,I  ran sobbing into my own room to mourn in peace. My sadness was somehow more reserved and ladylike than my mother’s, although she had always been the lady of the family. I simply had cried until I had no more tears to shed, and then put away every object that was my father’s, every memory that could trigger that pain again.  

     Unlike my mother, I  wanted to continue living, to  at least try to make somethings like they were before. But since then, mother has been living in a trance, flitting from room to room without any real purpose,  seldom talking and softly when she does. I once walked into her room at night to check on her, and she was curled up on the bed, clutching one of my father’s old dress shirts and mumbling “why, why, why” over and over again until morning. It seemed as if our places in the family were reversed. I cared for her and gently prompted her just as she had done when I was younger. And she just lay there and let me feed and cleanse her as if she was a still a small  baby. Life was terrible as it was, and then the money ran out.

    I suppose I should have known even before mother told me. A  window broke and was never fixed.  The  maids left.  But  I’d honestly never thought about it before. After all, I had more things on my mind. One night during  the meager dinner I had managed to prepare, she told me that all the money in our savings had run out and that we were moving into a smaller and cheaper house that we could afford. And even worse, I,  once  a British lady, was going to work in a fish shop.

    I never needed to ask her why we couldn’t just write to our wealthy family and borrow some money or move back to England until we could get back on our feet. I guess that I already knew the answer. In lots of ways, foolish, impractical ways actually, I am much like my mother:  we’re  both very proud. We would rather work for every scrap of food we get and live in a very non-sanitary home than beg off money from our relative We would hate if people thought that now the man of the family is gone, we are unable to support and take care of ourselves.

Putting my gloved hand on the counter to admire it, I marvel at how someone could have fit a glove this size into a shell as small as this. It seems impossible! And then all of a sudden I remember that I need to sell this for the family. It would be far too cruel to allow my mother to work herself ragged to keep the house for us while I had something in the pocket of my apron that would pay for at least several month’s rent. At once, I hurriedly stuff the glove back into it’s shell. And grabbing my worn shawl off the hook, I run out into the street in search of the curiosity shop where I could pawn it.

When I arrive, it’s hard to fight back the memories that spring up. My father and I used to come here, merely for pleasure. To investigate the new treasures that had arrived. But I try to put on a neutral face, and stride purposefully toward the front desk. Then, my heart sinking, I place my gift on the counter, and except the money that is handed to me.

Mrs. Dorothea Coe

I know that Elizabeth doesn’t like me to hover over her, but when I heard my daughter gasp with amazement, I just had to see what had been in that package. I suppose that I should have known Diana would give her something like that. So lavish and impractical. It’s just like her to have expensive taste. Deep down I knew that Elizabeth would never dare keep such a gift in secret. But  I admit that for a moment I almost expected her to slip the package into her pocket and continue with her work as  if nothing had happened. When she left the shop, clearly in search of somewhere to pawn it by the expression on her face, I felt a sense of pride that she was so mature. It is something she’d never have done before my beloved husband died. She was too spoiled then, too silly and frivolous. And then I did something I’d never done  before: I followed her.

    Peering through the window of the curiosity shop, I could see the regret she was feeling at having to give up her gift,  I felt a certain regret myself. Regret that I wasn’t there for her all those months I was depressed. Regret that I hadn’t been there for her grief, but that she had been there for mine. Regret that I had been no more useful than a lifeless corpse after my husband’s heart attack. Guilt floods through me. So as my daughter  leaves the shop, I hide in a nearby alley, I knew one way that  I could make it up to her.

    I wait until she is out of sight to sneak into the curiosity store. Heart thumping, I walk swiftly to the counter. “The shelled gloves, please, the ones the girl just brought in,” I say, laying my month’s wages on the desk before the shop keeper. “Of course, here they are,” he agrees and sweeps the money off the counter, while I reach for the walnut shells. I know that we will suffer for the loss of that money, but we’ll survive, I had to make this right.

    Back in the fish shop, I hurry behind the counter where my daughter stands wiping up the mess on the floor, her face filled with disappointment. I don’t waste any time. Kneeling next to her on the floor, I pull her face up to mine. “I brought you something,” I say softly. She stares at me “What?” she asks eagerly. I pull out the walnut halves. Her face lights up. “But I pawned them!” she says, confused. “We need the money.”  “Not as much as I need you,” I answer. “You took care of me all those weeks,  it’s my turn now.” And for the first time in three months, I pull her to me for a hug.

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Antiques Depot 2013 Writing Contest Winner (Age 13 to 18).

The second annual “Antiques Depot Writing Contest… with an Antiques Twist” was a great success. We are amazed at the many terrific stories that were submitted by our young authors. Here is this year’s winning story in the Over Twelve age group, submitted by Grace Manning who is “almost 14 years old”. She wrote a fictional biography of a Victorian girl named Kathleen Jenkins, inspired by a Victorian Shell-Covered Box in the form of a Miniature Armoire.

The Manning sisters searching the Antiques Depot for their inspiration.

The Manning sisters searching the Antiques Depot for their inspiration.

The Hope Chest
By Grace Manning

I stand at the edge of the pier in the pouring rain. My two sisters and my mother stand next to me, squinting into the downpour, hoping to catch a last glimpse of the whaleboat Kathleen as she leaves Nantucket harbor. All I can see of the ship are its great, white sails, like outstretched wings, eager to meet the wind. I can imagine my papa, though, standing at the prow of the boat and tipping his navy blue hat to the nearly invisible onlookers. We stay on the pier until The Kathleen is long out of sight. My mother grabs Olive and Ann by the arms and steers them away from the water. “Come along, now,” she says, in a harsh manner. I smile to myself. This is Mother’s way of hiding her fear and sadness. “Come along, Kathleen!” mother orders. I take one last look at the churning, gray sea and grudgingly follow them.

Papa grew up farming, deep in the countryside of Vermont, so he was no stranger to hardship and physical work. He loved nature and the outdoors but, he was restless on his family’s farm and he longed for adventure. When news of the whaling industry passed through, Papa seized his chance and he left Vermont for Nantucket. He has been a whaler ever since. He used to tell me how much he loved the sea. The rolling motion of the waves, the salty, stale smell that hangs on your clothes. “There’s nowhere I’d rather be,” he would say, his bright blue eyes misty in thought. When I was young I used to sit on his wide lap and pretend his knees were the wooden planks of some huge ship. He would bounce me up and down until I begged for him to stop. When he left on his whaling trips, I would watch the sea for hours, hoping that his boat would reappear.

Mother, on the other hand, has been a lady all her life. She was born to a very wealthy family and grew up in the center of Boston. She’s always been firm about manners and attending her society meetings. She occupies herself with charity work, as ladies of her station must do.

Once we reach our tall, red brick house, Mother shakes the water from her parasol and hands it to Gretchen, our housemaid. Olive and Ann peel off their mackintoshes and simply leave them on the floor, but I hang mine up silently and climb the stairs to my room. Mother always says how important it is for one to have one’s private space, so she insists that each of us have our own room. Olive’s is closest to the staircase, Ann’s is right next to Mother and Papa’s and mine is down the hall a little ways. My room looks out over the bay which is no place I’d like to be today. The whitecaps on top of the waves are enormous and growing every second. A storm is on the way. I can smell dinner wafting up through the floorboards, but my stomach just lurches and I know I couldn’t possibly eat. Instead, I stare out the window and daydream about what Papa will bring back for me. Each trip he takes, Papa brings a souvenir back for each of his daughters and for his wife. Mine sit lined up on the mantel over the fireplace in my room. A piece of whalebone covered with the intricate drawing of a boat: a scrimshaw. A pair of shell earrings woven together with wire. I look sadly at all the treasures my papa has brought back for me over the years.
Every night after dinner, my sisters and I sit in the parlor to study or sew. But tonight, I can’t concentrate on bible verses and when I try to sew a button on my blouse, I prick my finger. Tears well up in my eyes, but I fight them down and hurry up to my room. I dig around in the wooden chest where I keep most of my belongings until I find a small, half-finished jewelry box. I had started making the jewelry box last year, when Mother showed Ann, Olive and I how it was done. My sisters finished theirs but mine never really amounted to anything. I take out the box and turn it over in my hands. I think of my papa, out in the middle of the ocean, maybe in the midst of a whale hunt, or deciding what presents he will bring back for each of us. I carry the jewelry box and a pile of supplies downstairs.
“You’re starting that again?” Olive asks, unable to keep the jeering laugh out of her voice, “You didn’t get very far last time!” I choose to ignore her and instead, I sit at our round dining table and begin to glue a few pieces of wood together. It won’t be a very sturdy box, but it will be a pretty one. Ann’s shadow falls across my face and I look up. In her outstretched hands are a few weather-beaten shells. “Here,” she says softly, “You can glue these around the edges. Papa would like that.” I smile and take them from her. I work on the jewelry box every night for a week. Between going to school and helping mother at home, I write letters to Papa and mail them to whichever place The Kathleen stops at next to get provisions. First the barque stopped at the Western Islands, then at the Peak of Tennereif and then at the coast of Africa. I write to tell him about the goings-on around town and whatever else might be worth talking about. It cheers me up as well as I hope it does him.

Dearest Papa,

I miss you so much already. It’s only been a few weeks, but life just isn’t the same without you. I hope you’ve been busy and that you’ve caught a few whales because the more whales you catch, the sooner you’ll be home. Mother misses you dreadfully, although she never shows it. Olive and Ann do too, but they’re busy with school and friends.I run down to the dock every morning before sunup to see if I can spot any ships on the horizon. I’ve seen quite a few ships, Papa, but none of them were yours.

With love, Kathleen

Months pass and finally, a whole year has gone by since papa left. I’m glad this is Papa’s last journey, for although he loves the adventure of it all, I’d sooner have him safe at home. Besides, Mother thinks Papa is getting too old to be doing such demanding work. Mother keeps all of us busy. I suppose it’s to keep our minds off Papa. I finish the jewelry box and place it in the center of the mantel in my bedroom beside all the other treasures from Papa. It really has turned out quite beautiful. Ann and Olive were clearly jealous when I showed it to them. The box is coated on all sides in yellow paper mâché and mirrors cover the two tiny doors in the front. The bottom drawer is lined with soft, red velvet and shells border the edges. It stands on thick legs so that it doesn’t fall over and the top ends in a glorious arc. Whenever I look at it, I am reminded of Papa.

Victorian Shell Decorated Box in the form of a Miniature Mirrored Armoire.

Victorian Shell Decorated Box in the form of a Miniature Mirrored Armoire.

Dear Papa,

It’s been two years, now, and there’s no sign of you or The Kathleen. The weather here is awful and Mother says there will be a storm for sure. I pray you’re far enough away that the storm won’t reach you. Ann and Olive hardly ever talk about you anymore. I don’t try to bring you up because that just makes Mother leave the table and Olive shoots me dirty looks. Don’t worry; I’m sure they miss you terribly in their own ways. I’ve been busy making a jewelry box, Papa. You know, the kind all the girls in town like to make for fun. It really is nice looking actually. I finished it last week and it sits patiently, waiting for your return. I still miss you and am thinking of you everyday.

Your daughter, Kathleen

We’re all named after boats. Papa thought of the idea when Olive was born. He wanted to name her after the barque, The Olive Frances, and after that, he decided to name all of his daughters after famous vessels. Ann is named after The Ann Alexander and I’m named after Papa’s last ship, The Kathleen. Mother went along with the plan quite happily, especially since most boats have beautiful names. Papa wasn’t captain of either The Ann Alexander or The Olive Frances for those boats sailed many years before he was born. Today Mother, Olive and Ann went to pick up a new dress for Olive that mother had ordered. I went down to the bay to pick up a few more shells for my jewelry box. A few of the shells that I glued on had fallen off and I needed to replace them. The days are getting shorter and much colder. It has been two years since Papa sailed out of Nantucket harbor and I am becoming steadily more anxious for his return. I can hardly wait to see his weathered, tanned face and his eyes twinkling as he spots us standing on the docks.

Dear Papa,

I am so, so ready for you to be here again. Mother will make your favorite pumpkin pie and maybe roast turkey, since you’ve missed three thanksgivings. I can’t help hoping that you’ll make it home for Christmas. I don’t know if you’ve been getting my letters, but if you have, please write back. I would so love to hear from you, as would Ann, Olive and Mother. Have you seen any other boats while you’ve been out there on the sea? You’ll be back within the year, won’t you, Papa? We’ll all be terribly worried if you aren’t.

Love, Kathleen

One of our fishing boats sailed into port today. The Edith Rose. I run down to the dock in case the fishermen have news of the whale ship The Kathleen. Olive and Ann come right behind me with Mother close at our heels. At the dock, the fishermen are unloading the fish, but without their usual laughter and rude jokes. Mother warns me not to get too close to the clumsy fishermen, for they could easily drop a box of fish or an anchor. I run right into the scuffle anyway, and call for a man who would tell me of news. The men stop working and look at me with pity. Only one man steps forward. It is Charles Baker who lives on Nantucket when he isn’t out at sea. “Kathleen,” he says gravely, “I don’t know where your father is, but one of the fishermen found this floating off the coast of Barbados.” Charles rummages around in one of the crates for a moment, before producing a piece of splintered wood. He hands it to me and I run my fingers over the faded letters on it. Kathlee. It’s missing the n but there’s no doubt about it. This piece of wood was once part of my father’s ship. I can’t feel anything but the wood under my hand. I stare unseeing up at Charles and then hand the wood back to him. He pushes it gently back at me. “Keep it,” he says and tries to smile. The men begin to work again. Unloading The Edith Rose. I stand in the middle of it all, trapped by thoughts. Ann shakes me out of my stupor. “What are you doing?” she hisses, looking anxiously at the rough men around us. I let her pull me through the crowd to reach mother and Olive standing near the post office. Olive is crying softly into mother’s sleeve. Ann slumps dejectedly against the brick wall and lets her chin fall onto her chest. Mother and I stare at each other for what seems like forever, before she breaks away and we walk slowly home.

Dear Papa,

Where are you? The Edith Rose came into port today and Charles Baker had a piece of The Kathleen to show me. Are you really shipwrecked? I don’t believe it. You’re a survivor, Papa. And if there’s anyone who deserves to live, it’s you. I’ll never lose hope even if everyone else does. I’m still waiting for you, Papa. We all are.

Love, Kathleen

Instead of mailing this letter, I roll it up neatly and slide it into an empty medicine bottle that I rescued from the trash barrel behind the apothecary’s shop. From the dock, I throw the bottle as far out into the water as I can. I watch it bob away. A tiny speck of brown in an ocean of green and blue. I then stoop down to the dock and pick up the shard of wood that Charles gave to me. I look at it one last time, and then hurl it into the sea.

Dear Papa,

There was a funeral for you today. Not just for you, of course, but for all the men that were on The Kathleen. Mother, Ann and Olive cried during the ceremony, but I saved my tears for afterwards, when I was alone in my room. What’s funny is that everybody in town believes you’re dead. Not one person hopes that you’re still alive and waiting to be rescued. I don’t show my hope outwardly, but inside I’m hoping, Papa. You have to come back.

Love, Kathleen

I wear a beautiful dress to the funeral although nobody is paying attention to my clothes. Olive and Ann have new dresses, too, but Mother has had hers for a while. I’ve seen it before, hanging in her closet. I know she hoped she would never have the need to wear it. We sit upright in pews that are full to bursting. Even people who didn’t know anyone on The Kathleen are there. A lost whaleboat on Nantucket is no small thing. When the priest begins to speak, men take off their hats and ladies bow their heads in prayer. I dip my head, but I peer out from under my curtain of hair and I watch. I watch tears falling and mouths turning down in agonized and silent screams as the priest begins to talk about each of the men. I listen when Papa’s name is announced. He’s last, because he was the captain.

“We remember Thomas H. Jenkins as one thing in particular. A leader. Many times he has lead men through huge storms and dangerous circumstances. He was a well respected man throughout our community and he will be greatly missed by all.”
Outside the chapel, mother talks quietly with the other women in mourning while Ann, Olive and I stand off to the side. I watch the seagulls circling overhead and take deep breaths of the salty air. Calming myself.

Dear Papa,

Another boat came in today, but this time, a foreign one. It was called The Borderer. Do you remember this boat, Papa? Because it rescued nearly all of your crew. Not everyone was dead, after all. You weren’t on this boat, Papa. Will you be on the next one? Will there even be a next one? I felt a pang inside when I saw so many wives seeing their husbands and so many children hugging their fathers. There were tears again, but these were happy tears. Mother doesn’t smile anymore, Papa. She has already given up hope. Our house is so quiet, now. Come home, Papa.

Love, Kathleen

My heart leaps when I hear the news that a foreign boat is in the harbor. Perhaps they have news of Papa! We hurry down to the docks to find men from The Kathleen leaping down from the steamer to embrace their family members. Mother’s hand flies up to her mouth and she trembles. I craned my neck as more and more men file off the ship to meet their loved ones. Twenty-eight of my papa’s crewmembers are on the ship and not one of them is Papa. I think we all lost a little hope after that. Mother won’t even look at us anymore. I can’t feel anything. Just a steady numbness that makes me feel quiet inside. I keep writing letters to Papa and throwing them into the sea. That’s how I remind myself of Papa. Right after The Borderer leaves, I carry my jewelry box into the attic and lock it in a chest along with everything else that reminds me of what might have been, should Papa have returned. All the treasures he brought back for me from foreign places, locked in the attic.

Dear Papa,

Should I give in to everyone who says you’re dead? Should I stop trusting my instincts and just let you go? I tell myself to hold on and to wait. I tell myself that you’ll be home soon. But I’m getting tired of waiting, Papa. I’m not sure that I can convince myself much longer. Half a year has passed since The Borderer brought some of your men home. Are you coming home at all?

Love, Kathleen

Mother sends us back to school. She says we can’t stay home all day and do nothing. I would feel angry if she had said that two years ago, but now I feel nothing but emptiness. So we walk to school and walk home. Hardly talking. I look at my sisters and I remember what they used to look like. So vibrant and alive. Now they just look tired. Like they can’t wait until the end of the day. I suppose I must look like that too. Charles Baker used to stop by almost every day after school with cookies from his wife and cards from his small children, but now my papa is a person from the past. Nothing more than a memory.

Dear Papa,

I have to think about you hard now, just to remember what you look like. I think I’m forgetting you, Papa. I don’t want to, but it’s hard to remember someone who nobody even mentions anymore. Mother is worried about the money running out. There are no more new dresses or fancy dinners at restaurants. I don’t miss that so much. People look at us differently now. With a sad, soft look in their eyes. They grasp my hands and tell me how truly, truly sorry they are.

Love, Kathleen

I’m down on the beach, looking out into the waves, when something catches my eye. It’s no bigger than my fingertip, but I can tell that it’s headed for Nantucket. The tentative hopefulness that bubbles up in me is warm and unexpected, like an old friend. I wade out into the water until my clothes are soaked through. I can see now that the small speck is a ship. I can see it’s tall masts and it’s white sails like the wings of some great bird. When I can stay no longer on the beach, I rush to the docks. They are desolate, not a single fisherman or whaler is to be seen. When the men come back from voyages, they tend to want to be as far from the water as possible. They prefer to be at home, spending time with their families and getting used to the solidity of land. I can see the ship clearly now and a great weight of disappointment falls into my stomach, replacing the hopefulness. It is not Papa’s ship. It is not The Kathleen. I sink down into a crouch and look at my reflection in the water. A small face stares back at me, whose eyes quickly fill with tears. It hurts to see Papa’s face in my own. I angrily splash my reflection out of the water and get up to leave. The boat is in the harbor. I see the men jumping and hugging each other, so happy to be home again. None of them were really sure that they’d survive the trip at all. Their voices become sharper. “Hey, Jenkins,” a fisherman yells, “ Isn’t that your lass on the docks there?” I lift my face towards the salty spray that the nearing boat flings onto me and I catch the first glimpse of Papa that I have seen in over six years. What comes next is all a blur. Papa crosses the gangplank in three long strides and lifts me in his arms. He hugs me and spins me around and when he finally puts me down, I can see tears in his blue eyes.

“This was your great, great grandmother’s house,” my Mom explains in the car on the way into to town, “She lived here with her Mom and Dad and her two sisters. What were they named, Jack? Something long and fancy.” She pauses for a moment and looks out the window into the pouring rain. “Her Dad was a whaler. Remember? Like from the whaling museum?” My sister Sarah nods furiously, mouth agape. “Anyway,” Mom continues, “They were pretty wealthy and well-known around here. I’ll bet if you mentioned her name to a couple of islanders, they’d recognize her as a friend of their grandparents!”

“What was great, great grandma’s name, Mommy?” Sarah asks.

“Kathleen, honey, her name was Kathleen,”my Mom replies.

The house is damp and a cold when my Dad finally gets the front door open and we pile inside. It’s mostly empty which disappoints Sarah a little. I think she was hoping there would be some paintings or old dolls that the girls used to play with. A grand staircase spirals up to the second floor and I leave my parents and Sarah downstairs, so I can investigate. Mom was right. There were three girls. Each one must’ve had their own bedroom. Lucky. I have to share a bedroom with Sarah back home in New York. The first three rooms are all empty but the fourth has the skeleton of a four-poster bed in it. The view from the fourth bedroom is amazing. My breath catches in my throat when I see it. It’s almost as if I’m flying above the bay. The house is set high on the cliffs so when I look out the window, all I can see is the water below. I rest my elbows on the dusty windowsill and gaze out at the sea. I try to imagine my great, great grandmother looking out this same window, wondering when her Dad will be home. I shake my head and smile at my own craziness.
Mom is buried in boxes and cobwebs when I finally find her up in the attic. It’s more of a crawl-space than an attic, really. “Can you believe this?” she asks, gesturing to the piles of junk around her, “ Kathleen must’ve never thrown anything out!” I nod in wonder and sneeze. “Bless you,” Mom mutters, sticking her entire head in an old box, “You can look around if you want.” I wade over to a corner and spot a big trunk that is half-buried under all the empty boxes and old clothes. It takes awhile for me to pry it open but when I do, I can hardly bear to look in. My eyes water uncontrollably at the dust and scraps of old paper that flutter out. Blindly, I stick my hand into the trunk and grope around until I hit something solid. A box. I pull it out and wipe it off with a corner of my shirt. It’s a small box that looks like it was meant for jewelry but when I pull open one of the tiny drawers, all that’s inside are a few holes and tattered red velvet. The two mirrors on the front are cloudy and battered shells line the edges. The sides are made of some kind of ripped paper and it seems fragile. I gently turn it over. On the bottom, some words are written in a spidery script. Kathleen Jenkins. I can hardly believe my eyes. This box had belonged to my great, great grandmother! I start to yell for my mom, but stop. Somehow, I want to keep this a secret. A secret between me and a young girl named Kathleen Jenkins.

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Antiques on Film: A Visit to Downton Abbey.

A period drama is a right proper feast of antiques. The proper choice, use and display of period antiques are as important to the production as the dialogue, costuming and historical accuracy. When the research is done right, the period set of a film is a work of art in its own right. The set can also be quite educational, showing antiquated objects as they were used or appreciated during their original period.

The famously successful Downton Abbey provides a beautiful illustration of using antiques correctly… of getting it spot on. Sure the choices are correct, the assemblages make sense, and every room we see has been furnished entirely appropriate to the time period. But decorating the set is the easy part.

More subtle and more important is how the antiques are used, how they feature in the daily life of the characters. Close attention eventually shows how the antiques actually go a long way to molding the characters themselves. They are part and parcel to the fundamental lifestyle we are observing, including their manners and morals, their work and leisure, the very fabric of their daily lives. The plot itself, upon reflection, could not develop independent of the antiques. In other words, there’s no mistaking which character belongs where: Lord Grantham lives in the Gothic Revival manor house, Mr Taylor resides in the room over the carriage house, and someone squatting in an East End dosshouse just wouldn’t be allowed on the property at all.

Look at life below stairs: how most of the long day’s hours are spent in the use and maintenance of the antiques. Never an idle moment for Daisy Mason, the house maids and footmen! There is at hand an implement or device for nearly every activity or want in the period life, and nearly each piece calls for an endless cycle of cleaning and oiling, buffing and polishing, waxing and mending… you can understand vividly now the sweat and tears that went into that deep patina so prized today!

Life above stairs is likewise intimately tied to a never-ending series of actions, almost rituals, which form the daily routine, all dependent upon the physical culture (in other words the antiques). Just the basic maintenance of life, the needs of room and board and attire, is so time-consuming and one expects exhausting for the toffs, let alone the poor valet and lady’s maid. One wonders whose time is more consumed by all this: the master’s or the servants. It’s a wonder anything ever got done in business or empire, aside from dressing and eating!

19th C. Rosewood Gentleman's Traveling Toiletry Case, with Mother-of-Pearl Inlay and fitted interior.

19th C. Rosewood Gentleman’s Traveling Toiletry Case, with Mother-of-Pearl Inlay and fitted interior.

Think back on all those scenes with the family arising and preparing for their day: all the fuss and bother with an elaborate morning toilet and attire. Remember the bachelor chests and linen presses? The layers upon layers of clothing whose names we can’t even remember? The detachable cuffs and collars, and the special fitted boxes to hold them? The sad irons and goffering irons, skirt lifters (we actually have one at the shop patented by the Duchess of Windsor!), pins and brushes beyond description, and all those other clever little gadgets and devices we no longer recognize… the fundamentals of daily life just a few generations past.  Never mind  all the bits and bobs a lady uses for her cosmetic needs, think about just how many different sized and styled brushes a gentleman required to become presentable!

The same bustle of activity (pardon the pun) is repeated for the afternoon, evening, every special engagement, and of course retiring. The sheer volume and variety of clothing, dressing implements and accessories is boggling, let alone the specialized furniture to enclose them all, the caddies and etui to organize them, the tools and devices to care for them, mend them and keep them serviceable and pristine. The very lifestyle not only utilizes, but is in fact dependent upon and in many cases the result of the antique accoutrements.  It would be hard for us today to even imagine such a routine of daily life, were it not for the surviving antiques which quite literally provide a first-hand glimpse into our history.  It’s hard enough for us today to just learn the vocabulary that was required… one would never make it to the ball on time if you kept stumbling along with “I say Jeeves, have you seen that thing-a-ma-jig for straightening the whats-it on my do-hickey?”

And then there’s the dining! No wonder such a large staff was needed to prepare, serve and clean-up after the daily series of breakfast, tea, dinner, tea, supper, brandy and port, tea, and whiskey (the nightcap of course).  Remember that even a humble lower middle class or artisan’s home would keep at least a cook, a maid and perhaps a manservant.  I’ll leave this discussion of dining for another blog (or series of blogs), and just mention one example here: something simple and self-contained, a matter of just one course and minimal cooking… how about tea for instance.

Gorgeous George III Sterling Teapot by Peter & William Bateman, London, 1813.

Gorgeous George III Sterling Teapot by Peter & William Bateman, London, 1813.

Right then: the cook has to boil up the kettle and the second kettle; the butler has to unlock the tea caddy or poi, select and blend the tea leaves requested or appropriate for the time of day and the nature of the guests; the cook or trusted assistant (no doubt having served at least ten years in intense understudy of the tea process) now must spoon precisely the correct amount of loose leaves into the tea pot and fill with water near but not quite boiling; the butler or senior maid gathers the tea pot, hot water kettle on hinged stand, covered sugar bowl (filled with the precious sugar just nipped off the sugar cone kept in its locked caddy), milk pitcher (most likely warmed to just above body temperature), and slop bowl (to receive the spills of cold tea prior to refilling a cup), plus various utensils including a tea strainer and under-plate, sugar tongs, and stirring spoon, arrange neatly on a matching tray and deliver to the morning room (or dining room or study or library or madam’s sitting room or master’s sitting room or the conservatory or the solarium or… you get the idea); since we all realize it would be simply barbaric to take tea without at least a digestive, there must also be a second tray with biscuits, scones, cakes or sandwiches (depending upon the time of day and the inclination of the host) arranged on appropriate plates, with the necessary serving slice, knife, fork and tongs; meanwhile a junior maid has laid the tea table with the necessary tea cups and saucers, cup plates, tea cake dishes, dessert knives and  forks, demi-tasse or tea spoons, serviettes… have I forgotten anything? No doubt. The actual pouring and serving, refilling of the pot, spilling and refilling of cups, will be done by a junior maid, senior maid, valet, housekeeper, butler, or even the hostess herself, depending upon the social status of any guests; then the whole caboodle need be taken away to the kitchen, cleaned, dried and polished bright in ready for the next call for tea. This might be in just five minutes time. No wonder the Japanese evolved their ever so simple tea ceremony.

As we examine and appreciate period antiques, and contemplate their place in period lives, it becomes clear that such a standard of living could not be kept up. In fact at Downton Abbey we are witnessing the last gasp of this Victorian excess, as the Edwardian period fades and the world hurtles into the modern era. The new demands of modern life require efficiency and speed. Convenience and haste come to rule over style and elegance.  Some would call it progress…