I told myself I was going to update this thing months ago, and then I didn't. It's been a strange, strange year. I guess you could say I've been a little distracted- Some pretty big perception shifts occurred in my personal life, so I've taken on a sort of monastic existence. (Not that I've had much choice, with the pandemic still ravaging the country unchecked and the Delta variant threatening any attempts at a social life for the remainder of the year.) It's been an intense period of reflecting, unpacking, questioning, and healing.
Something that artist David Wojnarowicz said in the newest documentary about his life and work ("Wojnarowicz: F*ck You F*ggot F*cker," 2021) really stuck with me- "Once your economics are taken care of and you no longer have to struggle to pay rent or eat, any shit that's underneath... Goes to the surface." That's about where I'm at. In 2019, most of the factors that were making my life miserable disappeared all at once. It took nearly two years of being able to run my business full time, but I finally feel like I am rediscovering who I am at my best, what is really important to me in life, and what I would like my life to look like going forward.
David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (Face in Dirt), 1991.
The upshot is, I've found a way to be creative again, after many years of having no time, energy, or confidence to create anything at all. For about three or four years now, I've been stockpiling Victorian paper, periodicals, and salvaged books with a view to making Max Ernst-style collages. I'm very lucky and grateful that I have the ability and the freedom to begin this work at last, and this is what I've spent a good chunk of my free time doing. I've been very quiet about it so far- And I can count the number of friends to whom I've shown my work on one hand. But I'm looking forward to completing more, and I think when I have about a dozen or so finished, I will release them to the world. It's important to me that I'm doing this because it feels like a necessity- Not because I need the work to be well-received or because I have hopes for where this could go. But as an aesthete and a perfectionist who is very hard on herself, naturally, I want the work to be good.
I feel very positive about this- Working with found, 19th century materials feels like a natural extension of what I already do as a dealer and curator of antiques. Keep your eyes on this space- I'll be sure to share when I'm ready. But buckle up, because this shit is going to be dark.
As I slowly unearth my creative side, I have a nagging sense that I really ought to put out more "content." I ought to update THIS GOT DANG BLOG more regularly, for one thing. I struggle to talk myself out of the notion that I have nothing interesting to say, or that whatever I do have to say has been said already and much better by too many other people. So I set myself an easy assignment- Let's chat about my favorite new additions to my collection this year.
I can't tell whether it's been an incredibly slow year for buying, I care less about accumulating, or I'm just much pickier than I used to be... Probably a cross section of all three. Goods continue to change hands in the antiques world, but turnover has certainly been slower: Dealer attendance has been low at fleamarkets and my usual go-to spots have grown very stale. Hell, even online auctions have been spotty. Industry wide, dealers have had to work much harder, pivot quickly, and think outside the box to get those great finds and keep followers engaged. That said, I've also reached a point where I feel very satisfied with my collection, so I'm not too inclined to add to it unless a piece is really special.
When I was a new collector, I was very young, and I had zero money for antiques. And I mean ZERO- I don't even think I had $100 to spend on my first trip to Brimfield. I still remember the days when I thought that all cased Victorian photos were "expensive" and wondered if someday I would be able to own any. So, in the beginning, I just bought whatever 19th century stuff I could afford. If you're a new collector, I don't recommend this. I know you're probably anxious to see your walls and shelves filled, but in the long run, it's better to buy the BEST of what you can afford, rather than WHATEVER you can afford. When I say "best," I don't necessarily mean "high end" or "valuable," I mean you should only buy what really makes you happy. Don't settle for something you feel lukewarm about just because it's there, you can afford it, and you don't want to go home empty-handed. I want to GASP when I see something- that's where I'm setting the bar these days.
Likewise, I realized I'm just not the kind of collector who wants to have multiples of the same thing. Clutter makes me anxious, firstly. Every surface and shelf in my space used to be packed. I woke up one morning and couldn't stand it anymore. I remain very inspired by the way Evan Michaelson curates her collection and appoints her home: Every piece feels significant; she gives things room to breath. Victorian decorative objects are so extravagant and ornate that if you take the kind of maximalist approach to interior design that was popular at the time, rooms can very quickly become suffocating and overwhelming. My M.O. since I reached my 30s has been "fewer, better pieces."
So here are a few things I acquired this year that made my heart beat faster.
Madonna and Child Retablo on Tin
This was probably my first exciting score of 2021. It had sat at one of my favorite haunts for quite a few months, and I was able to negotiate an excellent price during a post-holiday sale. These devotional paintings on tin appear wherever Catholics are found, but as the name suggests, they are most common in Spain, Mexico, and South America. This piece dates to around the 1840s and at 14" tall, is on the larger side.
Blanche Mercredy as an "Escrimeuse," photo by James Arthur, 1900.
I have been obsessed for years with these women's fencing costumes, because... Well, look at them! Forget leather jackets and high heels- Surely, this must be the true Hard Femme uniform. I'm not quite sure whether or not these costumes were actually worn to compete, but they were extremely popular in depictions of female fencers ("escrimeuses") right through the 1940s. They are always black and white with a blood- red, heart- shaped target over the breast. The look reminds me of a favorite line from a Dorothy Parker poem- "I wore my heart like a red, wet stain on the breast of a velvet gown." The oldest photo of a woman in this kind of costume I have seen is from the early 1900s, and I know she was a real fencer because the woman's descendant told me!
As far as I can tell, the mania for this costume began in the late 19th century with a painting by Jean Béraud of the actress Marguerita Sylvia, who was learning to fence in Paris when she caught the painter's eye. Following the portrait's debut, her look became a sensation, and was even copied by Florenz Ziegfeld for his stage shows.
The particular photo I acquired is of the actress Blanche Mercredy, taken by James Arthur and dated 1900. As you can see, she is emulating Sylvia's original pose. Although this image was widely reproduced in a variety of formats throughout the early 20th century, they are hard to find, and I consider myself very lucky to have landed a large, framed example.
Victorian Mourning Needlework
"He is not dead but sleepeth." I never really pegged myself for a cross stitch person- What I covet are Georgian silk embroideries. But oh man, when I stumbled upon this, it was truly love at first sight. A friend who is a little more well-versed in fiber arts explained that it's a needlepoint done in the traditional cross stitch, with "double" stitching to make the piece more durable. It doesn't look like what you'd typically call a "cross stitch," which gives me "hearth & home" vibes and therefore does not speak to me. It's dated 1866 and features my favorite memorial motif, the weeping willow, along with a broken column, which represents a life cut short too soon. As an added bonus, the man for whom this memorial was made lived in Rowley, MA, the town where I have been attending fleamarkets since I was a baby.
Victorian Erotic Painting on Tin
This was one of those completely unexpected finds I just had to have. I was having a very unfruitful day at a small, multi-dealer shop that I frequent and spotted the dealer adding this to his case on my second pass. Who among us doesn't like a little Victorian erotica? Hm?
Came entirely without information, alas. I'd place it in the last quarter of the 19th century, and it depicts a classical-style bath scene. The incense burner is a nice touch- it gives the thing some witchy vibes that I appreciate. It would be nice if she had nipples but I guess you can't have everything.
Sleeping Beauty - Illustrated by Arthur Rackham
Arthur Rackham seems to be beloved of just about everyone who collects illustrated books, but he holds a very special place in my heart because he was one of the first great illustrators I learned about when I was a little girl. Sleeping Beauty is my favorite fairy tale (John Mulaney- "We don't have time to unpack ALL of that."), so this particular book has been on my wish list for quite some time. I love the juxtaposition of the delicate pastels with the somber black silhouettes... and those thorns! Like the last one, this was something I stumbled on when I wasn't expecting it- my favorite sort of find.
Schafer & Vater Egyptian Revival Container
Okay, full disclosure: I didn't know what the hell this was when I bought it. All I knew was-
- It was a lot older than the "vintage" date estimate on the price tag.
- I love Egyptian revival stuff.
- It was $9.
And THIS is why we take the time to sift through junk shops where it looks like nothing good is to be found! Following a small amount of research, I learned that this is, indeed an early 20th century Egyptian revival piece by Schafer & Vater. They were a German company that produced novelty ceramics from 1890-1962, so this is a very early piece. Turns out I had seen Schafer & Vater ceramics before, I just hadn't ever seen any I liked. Kovels describes them as being "best known for their amusing figurals," which I think is... generous. I understand I'm extremely amusing in person, but when it comes to aesthetics, I'm afraid I have absolutely no sense of humor at all. Really, can you imagine something like this sitting on one of my shelves?
Nope, me neither. But Egyptian revival is a style I can always get behind. The container is made of pink jasperware with a headpiece that serves as a lid. It turns out these pieces are rather rare, but I look forward to finding more for both myself and for the shop.
Victorian Memorial Card
These elaborately die cut and embossed, black and white mourning cards from the 19th century remain my favorite kind of memorial ephemera. They are increasingly hard to find in America these days, and for some reason prices have skyrocketed. I bought an entire lot of paper just to get this one card- it's a size and shape I did not yet have in my collection. Happily, I had a suitable Victorian frame (contemporary to the card) ready for it when it arrived home.
Antique P.N. Company Photo, 1914. "Kaloma"
You've probably seen this photo before: For years it was misattributed as Josephine Earp, common law wife of the legendary Tombstone gunfighter Wyatt Earp. It appeared on the cover of the memoir I Married Wyatt Earp: The Recollections of Josephine Sara Marcus, published by University of Arizona Press in 1976. In subsequent years, this work- which had supposedly been compiled from a manuscript written by Josie- was dismissed as mostly bunk. The photo turned out to be bunk, too. Its date is 1914, so Josie would have been *checks notes* 53 when she took it. (I mean... I HOPE I look that good at 53. I would settle for looking half as good as Gillian Anderson or J. Lo.) The photo was published by Pastime Novelty Company of New York, who sold inexpensive, if rather naughty photos like this. So basically, one of the most famous and reproduced images from the early 20th century is nothing more than a stock photo! But a beautiful photo it is, and she looks glorious alongside the other femme fatales that adorn my home.