Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A Cold Day and a Head Cold

Well, after all that exalted Easter fare, a few days later Kid 2 and I are home with a cold - a really nasty sore throat runny nose exhasuting affair. A neighbor ferried Kid 1 to school, which was a mercy and a blessing. I am going back to Louis Auchincloss's stories in bed in a minute. I wanted to set Kid 2 up on Club Penguin in hopes of getting 45 minutes for reading and napping, but first a quick stop at the blog. Here's a video I took a couple of days ago - last Friday to be exact - to show what the second day of spring looked like here at the Last House. Husband emerged as I was filming and I also captured a little of the joys of married life after many years. I called it "A Scold in the Cold" on Youtube.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter Tidings from this Corner of the Land

The View From the Last House in America: My Church Ladies and Me

The link just above this (and below this beautiful painting) is to a post I wrote last year about my dear old Methodist heritage. In keeping with our theme today, and with my recent posts on Paul Mellon, the National Gallery of Art etc., here is a a beautiful resurrection painting for your enjoyment. (From the National Gallery of Art by a follower of Rogier van der Weyden Christ Appearing to the Virgin, c. 1475 Andrew W. Mellon Collection).

Happy Easter!

Can you hear the words to this grand old hymn in your head as he rings them out on the bells? (The Bell Ringer is Australian Laurence Alex). Here's some help:

Christ, the Lord, is risen today, Alleluia!
Sons of men and angels say, Alleluia!
Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia!
Sing, ye heavens, and earth, reply, Alleluia!

Love’s redeeming work is done, Alleluia!
Fought the fight, the battle won, Alleluia!
Lo! the Sun’s eclipse is over, Alleluia!
Lo! He sets in blood no more, Alleluia!

Vain the stone, the watch, the seal, Alleluia!
Christ hath burst the gates of hell, Alleluia!
Death in vain forbids His rise, Alleluia!
Christ hath opened paradise, Alleluia!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Louis Auchincloss at Dawn

Louis Auchincloss

The wind has howled for a full 24 hours. Good Friday here on the Vermont/Quebec border came and went in a blur of sideways snow. We barely left the house. School was cancelled. I started out in midmorning to Burlington for a meeting and turned back at Jay (about five miles down the road). Husband was supposed to go to Montreal (for some party at the Consulate or given by people from the Counsulate - I didn't get the whole picture). He turned back as well, though he hadn't attempted to leave until 3 PM.

The Last House is old and badly insulated so it is cold upstairs.With the exception of the bathroom the upstairs is "heated" only by rising hot air from the first floor - each bedroom has a hole in the floor covered by a register. The sun has just come up- the big pine tree in front of the house is tossing in the wind. In a few minutes the kids will be down and the task of feeding and occupying them for another long day with no school will begin. (Which will include a clamor for the computer).

In these quiet few minutes before they arrive I wanted to set down a few thoughts on Louis Auchincloss's Collected Stories, properly, The Collected Stories of Louis Auchincloss (Houghton Mifflin 1994). I picked up my copy, looking like new, at the booksale at the Waterbury Library this last summer. I thought I might give it as a present (a cheap one since it only cost a dollar). It has been taking up space around the house until last week when I was looking for something to read and stumbled over it. Strange coincidence. I had just read the profile of Auchincloss in The New Yorker a few weeks ago. Until then I had known nothing much about him - some connection to Jackie O as I recalled. I have had a chance to get through the first few stories. They are arranged chronologically and span Auchincloss's 50-year career. About an hour ago I finished the second story, "Greg's Peg." I am here to say, what a great story and what a wonderful writer. How odd that my own recent reading has plunged me again into the (lost) world of the eastern social establishment. Here's a link to an intelligent review of the book I just found on the web:

If I had been taking a course on the Literary Tradition of American Wasp Hegemony, I would have worked through the first quarter of the reading list in the last few weeks, between Wharton and Auchincloss. It was not by design but it is a happy coincidence. (Kid 2 has just emerged, sounding stuffed up, to ask about using the computer and coloring Easter eggs. I put him off by turning on Jimmy Neutron but there is not much time to write now!) I wanted to record a couple of the turns of phrase in "Greg's Peg" that struck me as particularly cogent. The story is about a social loser, an effeminate bachelor mama's boy, who attains a position in summer society for a season or two by making himself useful and amusing to a cluster of respectable but rapine women. This is Greg. His "peg" is a little dance he does when he is drunk. He is observed by a headmaster of an elite boarding school who has tried to lead him into a bigger world of thoughts, ideas, dignity. Greg figures the best he can do is to be a pet in society. The headmaster watches it all unfold.

It came over me gradually that Mrs. Bakewell [Greg's mother] was right. They were killing him. Their laughter was as cold and their acclaim as temporary as that of any audience in the arena of Rome or Constantinople. They could clap their hands and cheer, they could spoil their favorites, but they could turn their thumbs down, too, and could one doubt for a moment that at the first slight hint of deteriorating performance, they would?

Then one page later:

That he continued to drink too much when he went out, which was, of couse, all the time, did not, apparently, impair his social position. He was firmly entrenched, as I have said, in his chosen category of "character," and to these much is allowed.

Onto the business of the day.

Friday, March 21, 2008

More Art from the Woolfoot Collection

Here is another of my recent acquisitions. This is the original (!) art work for a poster which must have been printed in the early 1920s (dating based on the reference in the text to "Viscount Cave's report." More on that in a minute). It was painted by Frederick Hase-Hayden, who was best known as a glass painter. There must have been some estate-clearings recently over in the U.K.-- perhaps the painter's family and friends are dying off-- as a lot of his work has appeared on Ebay in the last few months. That's where I fetched this at a bargain price. I missed a fabulous original art poster for OXO. Darn. The sellers (I saw two) both referenced auctions in different parts of England as the source of their Hase-Hayden caches. A bunch of watercolors of rural England and Quebec also appeared. The prices they fetched were modest.

I bought a movie poster frame for this, et,voila it was ready to hang. (The picture shows it before it was framed). It is huge, 29 inches by 40. I'll admit I contacted a poster art gallery right after getting this home to see if it would pay off the mortgage. The owner said he thought it was nice but not "super valuable" and advised me to frame it archivally. One day... In a way that was lucky it wasn't "super valuable" because I love it and it adds great atmosphere to the house. It has a few tack holes in the corner and some minor paint loss - the outer dimensions of the printed poster are marked on the bottom of the sheet in pencil (a nice touch).

I have done some research on the fund-raising effort which this poster was designed to promote. (More joy of the internet). I learned the following from a book blurb for Philanthropy and the Hospitals of London: The King's Fund 1897-1990 by F.K. Prochaska (Oxford University Press 1992):

The King's Fund was the leading charitable institution for the support of the voluntary hospitals of London in the period before the creation of the National Health Service and today continues to seek to improve health continues to seek to improve health care and management. Prochaska's readable and scholarly study, with aforeword by the Prince of Wales, the Fund's patron, places the King's Fund in the wider context of the history of philanthropy and social provision. He provides an illuminating analysis of the evolution of the relationship between the voluntary and public sectors.

After I got this treasure home, I checked out the "King's Fund" website - the Fund is still up and running and quite an important institution. They dropped the reference to King Edward at some point. (He was the King in question, the son of Queen Victoria, who got the whole thing started). One of our recent visitors to the Last House works for the U.K. National Health. I showed her the poster, which she admired, perhaps even not just to be polite. She was well familiar with the King's Fund and had been to the offices on more than one occasion, chiefly, as I understood it, for meetings in what I understand to be a fabulous conference room. Of course, before they had a national health system in England they had to pay for health care somehow and voluntary hospitals were the mainstay. These didn't meet all the need, obviously, and after the first World War, in 1921, Viscount Cave was set to study the problem. This is, no doubt, the reference to Viscount Cave's Committee in the text here.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A Couple New Acquisitions

As promised in my last post, here are a couple of shots of the paintings I bought at the auction last Saturday at my beloved Degre Auction House in Westfield, just a few miles south of the Last House. I don't drink, smoke or gamble, but I have a weakness for auctions and for pictures - especially landscapes and almost any kind of print that looks like it dates from the 1920s or '30s. My taste is, I realize, arguably bad. I like a lot of contemporary art, but when it comes to things I actually buy for myself, I tend to the "chocolate box" end of the spectrum. I don't like the girly stuff - fields of flowers or turn of the century ladies in white dresses, shading their eyes against the glare of the sun. I like for my subjects animals, houses, buildings (e.g., churches,schools) boats, trees, occasionally kids, and an overall package (frame and picture) that looks old. These are my downfall. Total cost for these two paintings, both oil on board and unsigned as near as I can tell, was $50; I liked the one with the deer best but I bid $25 for choice and took the pair. The colors are very slightly garish. The blue of twilight tends to turquoise. I found a label, very old looking, on one frame identifying Kaufmann's Art Department. Kaufmann's started in 1877 in Pittsburgh but expanded throughout the northeast and eventually became part of the behemoth May Company. I got them home and hung them immediately. I was happy with the result. I bought another little watercolor of a house, very naive, but also dark with age and in uglyish frame and mat. I would like to get it cleaned someday. It has glass in front of it and wouldn't photograph well but if there is a mass clamor I'll try. In other news, there is the weather, toujours the weather. March went sunny and smiling for about 5 hours yesterday. We managed to get out into it with our friends who have a beautiful farm in Derby, Vermont. One must count one's blessings. Unfortunately, that changed overnight and it is as grim as grim can be right now - rain and wind and snow and sleet. Will this winter ever end? Spring, according to the calendar, arrives overnight tonight - along with six to 12 inches of snow. I am going to try and post a little video of our Derby farm visit yesterday. I have had mixed luck with the video function but, here goes.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

A Slow Sunday and A Sweet Boy

An Old Picture of Kid 2, but still one of my favorites.

March plods on here at the Northern Edge of the country. Mud season is upon us. My only outing today was to the Degre Auction House in Westfield - a place I should avoid given our current financial situation. The parking lot was mud to the hubcaps. I bought three pictures: a watercolor and two oils from the 20s, I would guess, for $75.00. I'll try to take some pictures so you can see these latest treasures.

Kids were home with Husband all day. Finally, at around 3 PM, Husband and Kid 2 suited up for a walk over the crusty snow. It was the first time the Husband had left the house today. Sunday dragged on and finally, at dusk, the Monopoly Board was pulled out. (A sure sign of a deadly dull day). The game did its trick, however. Husband, in his Monty Burns mode, played advisor to Kid 2, whose math and reading skills are not quite up to Monopoly. My strategy of building hotels on those cheap, light blue properties near the jail bombed. Husband and Kid 2 got the railroads and some houses on the second corner of the board. Long story short, the men in the family did me in. I got out of jail and landed, promptly, on St. James place - where three houses cost me more than my total net worth. As I was hamming it up, saying goodbye, Kid 2 couldn't stop himself from crying. What a sweetie.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The National Gallery of Art & Paul Mellon & Me

J.M.W. Turner:
British, 1775 - 1851
Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight, 1835
oil on canvas, 92.3 x 122.8 cm (36 3/8 x 48 3/8 in.)
Widener Collection
National Gallery of Art

Strange though it may sound, on this day alone in the Last House I managed to do a half decent job cleaning the kitchen while also viewing a film on my iPod. This wouldn't be possible with most movies, but this one was made last year under the auspices of the National Gallery of Art in tribute to Paul Mellon and it is mostly made up of still pictures. The pictures are of the life, times and masterpieces of art collected by the Mellon family, with narration of a text written by PM (though not read by him). That is to say, the pace is sufficiently leisurely that you don't need to look at the screen every second. You can clean a sink and watch a family photo or a masterpiece by Reynolds flit by. That isn't to say it was boring. Coming so close on my finishing listening to The House of Mirth, I seem to be continuing in the gilded age. I downloaded the film as part of my quest for free material for my iPod. It's amazing what the National Gallery has available at its website. I'll post a link. All the great museums of the word are doing the same and isn't that mindblowing in a fabulous way?

Anyway, back to Mellon. I am a little surprised to say that, although the film dwelled a bit too long on his race horsing career (buyer and breeder thereof), it was a moving sort of documentary. Mellon is dead (he died in 1999) and though I have been to the National Gallery a few times and knew his connection vaguely, I didn't know much of anything about him. His claim to fame was that he was the Son of a Very Rich Man. It was surprisingly interesting to hear from him what he made of this position.

He clearly recognized the strangeness of his place in the world and yet, made a good thing of it. He used his wealth to enjoy himself and indulge his passions, but the passions were informed and intelligent and (aside from the racing) did much to benefit his fellow Americans. He was also drawn to British art, sports, country life. I, as you few faithful readers know, have the same interest - although it plays itself out in a less fabulous fashion here at the last house. (No masterpieces or throughbreds anywhere in sight). So, though I am not a Mellon, I feel him to be a kind of kindred spirit if not, unfortunately, an actual blood relative.

Here's what the website says about this film:

This film celebrates the spirit and philosophy of Paul Mellon. The narration is comprised of his own words drawn from interviews, speeches and a variety of writings. He takes us on a gentle journey into his passions and interests in life including family, art, collecting, horses, and racing. The film captures the gentle nature and wisdom of an extraordinary man.

I take my hat off to the NGA for producing this, now that there is no point in sucking up to the benefactor.

Back down here on planet earth, the sun is shining beautifully today though it is very cold for March. I drove the kids to Morrisville this AM in the Camry (15 years old 216,000 miles and no snow tires - proof of the distance between the Mellon family and yours truly, if any were needed). The weather forecast yesterday had been for dry cold weather over night. Wrong. We spent the last 20 miles of the trip on roads on which one might have skated. Kids were 1/2 hour late to school. Almost time to go get them again. Yikes.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

"The House of Mirth" & The Last House in March

Edith Wharton and her home in Lennox, Mass.

I have been listening to the Recorded Books version (unabridged) of Edith Wharton's famous novel, The House of Mirth. It is read, very well and in an appropriately restrained fashion, by an actress called Barbara Caruso.

I don't know how I got this far without having read The House of Mirth but I am glad I didn't land on it until I was 43. I don't think I would have been quite ready for it much before now. I can see why it would be an agony for a high school student, or even a bright undergraduate. It travels slowly. My audio version is 14 hours long. The incidents are small, the humor wry and quiet. (One of my favorite lines in the book comes as Wharton is describing a rich, dull young man who is a marriage prospect for Lily. He inherited a fortune from his father, who had invented "a patent device for excluding fresh air from hotel rooms." LOL as they say). This kind of writing demands an educated reader as well as an intelligent one. Maybe most of all, as it is so famously a novel of manners, the topic is one which would, I think, bewilder the masses. Reading some commentary about the book on the web yesterday I came across this summary of Wharton's work, "a guy meets a woman and can't sleep with her for five years." Here is the Publisher's Summary (from the website):

Lily Bart, a beautiful, intelligent, but penniless young woman, lives on the outskirts of New York's high society, craving the luxurious lifestyle of her wealthy contacts. But while Lily possesses the grace, taste, and morality of the ideal turn-of-the-century lady, her delicate innocence threatens her survival in that very world. As she fights to maintain her newfound place among the aristocracy, Lily struggles mightily against what lurks beneath all the glitter and gold - greed, vulgarity, and ruthless competition. In her brilliantly perceptive novel, The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton, the peerless, Pulitzer Prize-winning chronicler of Old New York, provides yet another heartbreaking glimpse into the world of manners, privilege, betrayal, and shocking falls from grace.

Frankly, I think this summary is a little too generous to Lily. One of the things I love about the book is that Lily is a morally ambiguous character. She isn't good or bad - or, better,she is both good and bad, like most of us. She is false and dissembling, but she is also noble. She has chance after chance to simply marry a rich fool, which marriage would deliver her from her constant money problems (another way she is like us!) but doesn't take those chances. She has it in her power to destroy a social enemy when some compromising letters fall into her hands, but she doesn't use it. Still, she schemes unendingly, she evades, she feigns emotions she doesn't feel, she takes moral short cuts. Her inner life is so beautifully described and Wharton's powers to set a scene and to observe details are to me awe-inspiring.

About 10 years ago, I listened to the Recorded Books version of Henry James's "The Turn of the Screw." Wharton and James were friends, and anyone could see why. Both were bona fide literary geniuses whose time and place on earth happened to coincide. With Wharton, as with James, I have found myself enjoying the complexity of the language and the craft of the work. With the "Turn of the Screw", I remember thinking how no one writes like this now - with big words and long sentences - but everything so well bolted together and so carefully observed and plotted.

One other special thing about The House of Mirth for me was that I grew up in Upstate New York. The fragments, at least architecturally, of the world of Lily Bart live on in the Hudson and Mohawk Valley towns where I spent my childhood and early 20s. My mother remarried when I was 19 and she and her new husband bought a house in Schenectady, built in 1904 for the president of Schenectady Chemicals. It was a family home straight out of that gilded/industrial age (servants quarters, dressing rooms, 4 fireplaces). All over upstate, in all the rust-belt towns along the Erie Canal and the Hudson River are remains of the fancy neighborhoods of a hundred years ago. I loved that house and still think of that kind of place (big old house on the edge of an old city) as a kind ideal. As for the manners of those days, I saw them reflected in the petty bourgeois attitudes of my maternal grandmother. She grew up in the Catskills at the early part of the century. Her family never strived for an elite position of Lily Bart and her ilk but the moral code of those days, where rich people were expected to behave in an exemplary manner, was stamped on her as surely as it was on Wharton's characters. See my old post on "My Church Ladies and Me" for more on this topic.

I know that Wharton's home in the Berkshires is open to the public and I have been thinking that I would go visit this summer when I am back in Albany visting my family. (See the picture at the beginning of this post). I checked out the website for "the Mount" and saw that there is an imminent panic there that the place will be foreclosed upon and closed to the public. What a shame that would be. I, for one, would be disappointed to miss it, now that I have made Wharton's acquaintance. (Unfortunately Lily and I share a similar financial situation or I would write them a check). Anyone who wants to help out should check on the website. The link is posted here in the sidebar.

On a More Homely Note

March has been grinding away on us here on the Vermont/Quebec border. Yesterday (Saturday) it was a mix of rain and freezing rain all day long. At about 6 PM, the power went out. We had just daylight enough to light candles and lanterns. Kids and I took bets about when the power would come back on. Kid 2 won (a Canadian dollar). He guessed 8:30 PM(the latest guess). In fact, it was about 10:30 PM and we were all in bed and asleep by then. I only knew it had come back on because I was laying down in Kid 2's room and his lava lamp came on, waking me up.

After the power went out, the kids and I passed the time listening to Philip Pullman reading The Golden Compass on the laptop (another fabulous recorded book) til the laptop battery died. We then played two games of Clue by candlelight. Then kids and I piled into bed together with a lantern. I was just starting to read to them from Peter and Iona Opie's collection of classic fairy tales when the lantern sputtered and died. The timing was good. Kid 2 was already asleep and I told Kid 1 a story of my own making. Once she was asleep I migrated to Kid 2's empty bed (hence, the lava lamp). Kid 1 is downstairs now, still in her pajamas. She just said, "I hope the power goes out again tonight!" The way the wind is blowing and the the snow falling, it just might.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

In Rolls March And Some More Gladys Peto Pictures

We were cozy in the dining room at the Last House on the first of March on the day after another walloping snow storm, having dinner in what felt a little like a Salon with our friends from England. (R and A, and R's daughter S with S's boyfriend T)It is always a lot of fun to see the couples from England who have bought places here in darkest Vermont. We met one set when we shared a babysitter a couple summers ago and they introduced us to their friends who first brought them here.

My family, and the husband's, really don't get why we would live here, in the cold middle of nowhere in an old house with one bathroom and substandard everything. They persist in sending us smoke alarms and fire escape ladders for presents. My mother often wonders what we would do if the whole place fell into the cellar, which she seems to believe is imminent (she may be right, too). My brothers-in-law have not darkened our doors in years - too cold, and one summer years ago, too many mosquitoes. Given this steady current of low-level disapproval it's nice to be with people who get the attraction of this area and who actually seem to think this old falling-down house is a great place. I don't think they're faking out of politeness either. Really, the fact that they are willing to travel across the wide ocean and drive from the nearest international airport to be here suggests a genuine enthusiasm. As for the house, the first time the male half of this couple was here last summer, he and his 30-something daughter - who was along on that trip - fairly gushed about how they loved the place. (She owns a children's bookshop in London - another must-see for the Great Woolfoot UK Expedition of April 2008). Of course, by virtue of having made such a choice and come such a long way they are bound to be interesting. Kid 1 and I will be visiting them in Oxford next month in the famous trip to England- he's a pediatrician with an international reputation in adolescent health, and she's something to do with the National Health Service. They couldn't be nicer.

Other than this spot of entertaining the Last House has been quiet this weekend. Kids are still home from school on what may be the worst-used school vacation in history. Today was a jewel of a day, blue skies and new snow, but we made little use of it. I did take them to Wendy's (again) and skating, but only briefly. Kid 2 refused to wear the mittens that one of Kid 1's friends had left behind and they were the only pair we had in the car for him. (He wouldn't wear a girl's mittens and not those belonging to someone else). So, we left. Home again to Harry Potter marathon on ABC family and microwav popcorn. See what I mean by worst-used vacation?

Peto Pics

There seems to have been an uptick in interest in my old friend the artist Gladys Emma Peto. I Googled her again tonight and found a reference on another blog (de minimus, but there) and Juliet Doyle has noted in her blog, "Musings from a Muddy Island", that her Peto posting has been one of the most landed-on that she has done. I see a London art dealer is selling the original of the cover of Peto's book "Summer Days" for 1,450 pounds. I remember when the last owner had that book cover. He contacted me about it to get some Peto info. (I think I still had the website then). He was a dealer of some sort and was taking it around to some book shows as I recall. Well, perhaps it has begun. (Her rediscovery by people whose opinion matters in these things). In looking through my scans I found some that I don't think I have posted.