Nathan Hale Homestead’s Great Pyramid – George’s Folly?

When guests exit the visitor’s center at Nathan Hale Homestead, they invariably ask, “What’s that big stone thing over there?” and “Why do you have Thomas Hooker’s bones?” (Thomas Hooker being a founder of CT.) The short answers are, “A memorial pyramid” and “We don’t, it only looks that way.” Wait a minute, a pyramid in Coventry, CT?

Memorial pyramids have a lengthy history, particularly in England, where they, along with various other odd structures, are often referred to as “follies.” The Hale pyramid was constructed in 1938 by the man who restored the house and property of Nathan Hale’s family, George Dudley Seymour. A patent attorney from New Haven, Seymour devoted his life to historic preservation, and while he owned Hale Homestead, he usually summered there, a gentleman farmer reforesting the area and tending to his animals. Among the latter was a cow named Octavia, after a Hale daughter-in-law; for a brief time Seymour ran a small cheese-making business, presumably in partnership with Octavia. His favorite animal companion, however, was a retired war horse named Thomas Hooker Bones. Seymour is pictured above, proudly astride Bones in front of the Hale house. TH Bones undoubtedly enjoyed his peaceful life following his WWI military service, and when his noble, courageous spirit departed this earth in 1937, Seymour decided that Bones was too fine a character to warrant a final trip to the knacker’s. He interred THB right on the historic property, immediately behind the house, no easy task, as a horse is much larger than a dog or cat. And he set about memorializing Bones in a way that not even Nathan Hale received. A few years later, the black dog that can be seen in front of horse and rider is Sheba, and when she died, she was also buried there.

There is a precedent to the story of George’s folly on Farley Down, west of Winchester, England. Erected in 1740 by Sir Paulet St John, this much older pyramid commemorates St John’s horse, who survived a horrific fall into a 25 foot chalk pit while fox-hunting. The horse might have had second thoughts about his good fortune when St John renamed him “Beware Chalk Pit”, but that’s another story. At any rate, Beware’s exploit is commemorated in the shape of a 30 foot high pyramid that still stands today. TH Bone’s pyramid is only half that height, but in the hills of rural New England, is no less a marvel.

TH Bones’ Latin epitaph, extolling his exemplary character:

Post revised 9/29/14.

Medieval Art: February in Les Tres Riches Heures

Medieval art is my favorite genre in the visual arts, and one of the most interesting forms is the illuminated book of hours. Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (literally: “the very rich hours of the duke of Berry”) is the most renowned book of hours ever produced. It is often referred to as le roi des manuscrits enluminés (“the king of illuminated manuscripts”), and it is one of the most important pieces of artwork in history. In terms of historical and cultural importance, it is certainly equal to more famous works such as the Mona Lisa, marking the pinnacle of the art of manuscript illumination. Today it is located at the Musee Conde in Chantilly, France.

Like most books of hours, the Très Riches Heures depicts numerous biblical scenes and saints, and the initial capital letters and line endings are lavishly decorated. But unlike most books of hours, this work includes landscapes (most well-known are the twelve miniatures for the months of the year), as well as unusual subject matter like the “anatomical man,” the garden of Eden, the fall of the rebel angels, and even a plan of Rome. To what extent the artists had a say in the subject matter, and how much was determined by the patrons, is unclear.

Desolate winter is dazzling in this landscape for the month of February. Snow blankets the countryside and chills a peasant bringing his wares to town with the aid of a donkey, while a farm family warms themselves in a wooden house. Pale light from a wan sky falls onto the whitened countryside. The starkness of the snow underlines planes and accentuates details, giving the landscape a particular sharpness. In the distance a village hides its snow-covered roofs between two hills. In the foreground, a farm is represented, its every element executed with meticulous care: the dovecote, heehives, cart, casks, sheepfold, a hare tree, the house and the wattled enclosure. Near the farm a young man cuts wood; in front of the dovecote a benumbed figure clutching a wool coat over his head and shoulders hurries home. A large fire shines from the wooden house in which two peasants immodestly warm their legs; looking more closely, it is possible to observe that they do not wear undergarments, a detail of interest to textile historians! The mistress of the house, elegant in a lovely blue dress, warms herself with more decorum. Linen has heen hung to dry on rods along the walls, and smoke curls from the chimney. The severity of winter is further emphasized by the birds huddled near the house, scratching for food which the snow makes it impossible to find elsewhere.

Additional information about this glorious masterpiece can be found at http://www.christusrex.org/www2/berry/berry1.html

and http://historymedren.about.com/od/booksofhours/p/riches_heures.htm , from which these excerpts were taken.

Nonfiction Worth Reading: Strangely Wrought Creatures of Life & Death, by Gary R. Varner

Strangely Wrought Creatures of Life & Death: Ancient Symbolism in European and American Architecture

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Strangely Wrought Creatures is subtitled Ancient Symbolism in European and American Architecture. The first half of this slim volume (157 pages) discussing those two iconic figures, the gargoyle and the green man, which have been a feature in ecclesiastical architecture for more than a millennium. Quoting from his own research and that of others, Gary Varner speculates about the reasons for the inclusion of these “pagan” figures in most of Europe’s great churches and cathedrals, and about what they might symbolize (there are five times more green men in one English cathedral than images of Jesus!) He does the same in the book’s second half, where he covers such enigmatic creatures as dragons, unicorns, mermaids, and griffins, and others. The upshot of his study is that there is much disagreement about what these image “mean”, and why prelates would allow such carvings in a place of Christian worship.

The book is liberally illustrated with photos of strange creatures located on buildings old and new, primarily in England, France, and America. Why do twenty and twenty-first century folks find these images so compelling? Perhaps, Varner believes, because we long for connections to our distant past, and are influence by our embedded archetypal memories. This is a good overview for readers new to the topic, but for those with broader knowledge about it, there’s little new to be found in its pages.

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Historical Fiction: The Caves of Perigord, by Martin Walker

The Caves of Perigord

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Major Phillip Manners has just buried his father, and his inheritance included a small piece of paleolithic wall art depicting a bull. He takes the painting to Lydia Dean, expert in the preclassical department of a London auction house, for valuation. Astounded by what she sees, she identifies the work as characteristic of the wall paintings found in the caves of the Dordogne, and warns Manners that it probably qualifies as a stolen artifact. Manners informs her that his father brought it home from France after WWII, when he was stationed there to assist the Resistance forces. Lydia, taking that as her jumping off point, stores the stone securely and agrees to research its provenance. The very next day, it’s stolen yet again. A reward is posted, and Manners convinces Lydia to travel to the Perigord region with him, in hopes of locating the cave in which the painting was originally made.

The Caves of Perigord has a three-fold plot. Author Walker, an NPR commentator, relates Lydia’s quest in the present time, and intersperses into her tale two back stories from this region, one from the Ice Age and the other from the second world war. In doing so, Walker show off his research, descriptive, and creative skills to good advantage, recreating the Ice Age and bringing to life humankind’s earliest visual artists and their milieu. The animals, customs, societal hierarchy, and painting techniques are all vividly portrayed, mainly through the experiences of Deer, a young artist in training. Taylor does an equally impressive job writing about the role of the Brits and Americans who trained and supplied the French Resistors in 1944, centering upon Manners’ father, the Capitaine. These chapters are truly harrowing; the region is a minefield, literally and figuratively, militarily and politically, and Walker evokes the brutality of the struggle much as Leon Uris did in his war novels. He knows how to tell a gripping story and make his readers care about his characters, empathizing with their joys and struggles.

If the book has flaws, they are minor, and lie in the absence of a map, and some extraneous detail that interrupted the action. Some photos or diagrams of the cave art wouldn’t have gone amiss either.

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Edward Hopper: Provincetown Then and Now

We’ve just returned from a vacation on Cape Cod, and our annual visit to P-town. A few years ago, this feature was presented in the New York Times. It’s about a series of views painted by celebrated artist Edward Hopper. The iconic American artist spent nearly half the summers of his life painting isolated buildings in broad vistas. See how some of these landscapes have changed and hear what they mean to the people who live there. Here’s the link to this article, narrated by members of the families associated with each of the buildings depicted. Very evocative.

A Modern Take on Some Historical Figures

This is great fun! Yesterday, the UK’s The Telegraph posted an article about the  images of five historical figures, and modernized their apparel, hair, and accessories to see how the changes would affect our perceptions of them. The difference is, first, amusing, and then surprising. I guess clothes do make the man and woman, after all, or at least their image….

Check it out.

Famous faces from history including William Shakespeare, Henry VIII and Horatio Nelson have been given a modern makeover to see how they would look if they were alive today.The project, comissioned by history TV channel Yesterday to celebrate its new series, the Secret Life Of..., saw digital artists working closely with history experts to ensure the portraits gave a real sense of how historical characters would look if they were alive in the 21st Century. ABOVE: ADMIRAL LORD NELSONA Vice Admiral and dedicated navy officer Nelson is dressed in a modern naval uniform.In today's Navy, Nelson would spend more time deskbound and as such he would have gained a little weight which is reflected in the portrait.To replace the right arm lost after being wounded in battle, he has been given a prosthetic to wear.The Victoria Cross wasn't available during his time but had they been in existence, he would have qualified.Admiral Nelson, photo by Yesterday.

It’s a Mystery: The Art Forger, by B. A. Shapiro

The Art Forger

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The New York Times estimated “that forty percent of all the artworks presented for sale in any given year are forgeries.” The Art Forger provides some intriguing glimpses into this world, from the complicated mechanics of painting both originals and forgeries, to the meticulous process of authentication, to the hidden agendas and secrets of the great museums. The now infamous Gardner Museum art heist has been much in the news lately, and Barbara Shapiro has crafted an intriguing novel around it.

Clair Roth is a talented painter, eking out a living in Boston by painting reproductions of masterpieces commissioned by an internet company. Before his death, Clair’s ex-boyfriend gained his fame by passing off one of her paintings as his own; when she attempted to take credit, she was thoroughly and publicly discredited, and is now something of a pariah. Imagine her shock when Boston’s premier art dealer, Aiden Markel, approaches her with a tempting proposition – to make a copy of one of the missing Gardner paintings, a Degas that is now, somehow, in Markel’s possession. In return, she’ll receive a substantial payment and a show of her own at his high end gallery.

The plot is inventive, the first half following Clair at work, and the second her relationship with Markel, the marketing of the painting, and the hooplah that follows. Inserted between Clair’s chapters are fictional “letters” written by Isabella Stewart Gardner, telling how she acquired the Degas. She was an original, a true eccentric, and her story is as fascinating as Clair’s. It’s a ripping good story, built upon questions of ethics, and building to a satisfying revelation at the end.