The Saint-Gaudens Diana

When Stanford White designed the second Madison Square Garden at 26th Street and Madison Avenue in Manhattan, he commissioned the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to create a statue of the Roman goddess Diana, which would surmount the tower.

The venue opened in 1890 and Diana was installed the following year. Saint-Gaudens made several versions and casts of the sculpture. At eighteen feet and eighteen hundred pounds the original was deemed too large and was replaced. It went on to adorn the Women’s Pavilion at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago where it was ultimately destroyed by the fire that ravaged the fairgrounds eight month after the exhibition concluded.

A second version was installed at Madison Square Garden in November of 1893. A much lighter thirteen feet of hollow gilt copper, it functioned as a weathervane, turning on an orb plinth in the wind. This version became an iconic feature of the New York City skyline, lit at night by electric lights.

When Stanford White’s Madison Square Garden was demolished in 1925 the statue was moved to the Philadelphia Museum of Art where it remains today.

But at the same time that Saint-Gaudens made the second version he designed a half-sized copy for White, who displayed it at his summer home on Long Island.

Diana of the Tower still has a presence in New York, in the form of a 1928 cast of White’s version. It stands in pride of place in the courtyard of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in front of a fine Neoclassical facade, both pictured below.

The House That Sherlock Holmes Built

The Broadway actor-manager William Gillette was famous for playing Sherlock Holmes. His 1899 production was the first stage play authorized by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The image of the character with his deerstalker hat, magnifying glass, and curved meerschaum pipe is largely derived from Gillette’s stage persona.

A native of Connecticut, Gillette built a large and eccentric country house in Hadlyme near the mouth of the Connecticut River. The estate is now operated as a state park.

Gillette Castle re-opened this summer season after being closed for more than a year. I took the opportunity to visit on opening day back in May.

The exterior could pass for a gothic ruin weathered by centuries. The interior is Arts & Crafts. The walls are covered in woven rattan. Secret doors communicated between rooms so Gillette could surprise (or avoid) his guests.

While the house was being built he lived on a boat named Aunt Polly. It was later destroyed in a fire but a few details remain.

Upstairs in the tower is a collection of theatrical memorabilia, including sketches of Gillette in character by Pamela Colman Smith, who illustrated the Rider-Waite tarot.

A miniature railway once traversed the estate. Gillette housed his engines in a shed he called Grand Central Station. Walking trails now follow the route of the rails.

Gillette Castle is currently opened for tours through September 6, 2021.

The Unexpected Return of Dennis Severs

I wrote at length about Dennis Severs’ House in my book Victoriana. You can read the chapter in an earlier post. The house is an extraordinary creation that defies easy explanation. Is it a museum? Is it a work of theater? Is it an artwork that the viewer enters into? It is all of these things.

The Guardian reports that curators have recently discovered “hundreds of cassette tapes stuffed in cupboards” containing narration of the original house tour given by Severs, who died in 2000. The headline reads: “Dennis Severs’ House recreates his eccentric tours based on found tapes.”

These recordings “have been distilled down to create a new tour” by The Gentle Author who writes the Spitalfields Life blog. An actor will conduct the tours in place of Severs.

Dan Cruickshank is quoted as saying, “Dennis was an amazing character and his spirit does live on with these tapes. There is life after death, he is back from the grave … We have resurrected him. We’ve brought Dennis back, and he would love that.”

Nantucket Scrimshaw

If you watched my experiment with a whale oil lamp, you know that I have an interest in nineteenth century whaling. There are two fine museums dedicated to that bygone industry, located in the Massachusetts coastal towns that feature in Melville’s novel, Moby Dick: New Bedford and Nantucket. Having sailed out to Nantucket recently, I visited the museum on the island.

Pictured below are examples of scrimshaw from the collection—in this case whale teeth—laboriously engraved by sailors, as well as the once ubiquitous whalebone corset.

Salt Pond and the Sea

“When he descended the earth-cliff at some point a little north of Eastham village and its ‘salt pond,’ Thoreau found what he had come to see,” wrote Henry Beston in his introduction to the 1951 edition of Cape Cod by Henry David Thoreau. “There lay the unbroken miles which had stirred his interest when he had seen them on the map, there stood the outer beach.”

What Thoreau first called The Great Beach in Eastham, Massachussetts is now part of the Cape Cod National Seashore. I have been summering on the Cape and walking a great deal, a little ways in Thoreau’s footsteps. Below: Salt Pond and the Atlantic.

Napoleon’s March

Napoleon Bonaparte died two hundred years ago today. It is worth revisiting the amusing headlines that accompanied the Emperor’s return to France in 1815, following his first exile on Elba.

As reported in The Museum of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art, Volume XVIII,

The French newspapers which, in 1815, were subject to the censor, announced the departure of Bonaparte from Elba, his progress through France, and his entry into Paris in the following ingenious manner:

— 9th March, the Anthropophagus has quitted his den

— 10th, the Corsican Ogre has landed at Cape Juan

— 11th, the Tiger has arrived at Gap

— 12th, the Monster slept at Grenoble

— 13th, the Tyrant has passed through Lyons

— 14th, the Usurper is directing his steps towards Dijon, but the brave and loyal Burgundians have risen en masse and surrounded him on all sides

— 18th, Bonaparte is only sixty leagues from the capital; he has been fortunate enough to escape the hands of his pursuers

— 19th, Bonaparte is advancing with rapid steps, but he will never enter Paris

— 20th, Napoleon will, tomorrow, be under our ramparts

— 21st, the Emperor is at Fontainbleau

— 22nd, His Imperial and Royal Majesty, yesterday evening, arrived at the Tuileries, amidst the joyful acclamations of his devoted and faithful subjects.

Whale Oil from the 1890s

In Moby-Dick, Melville wrote, “But, though the world scouts at us whale hunters, yet does it unwittingly pay us the profoundest homage; yea, an all-abounding adoration! for almost all the tapers, lamps, and candles that burn round the globe, burn, as before so many shrines, to our glory!”

This weekend I opened up a 125-year old bottle of whale oil and used the oil to light a lamp. I filmed a short video of the process which you can watch below, or at YouTube.

A Letter in ‘Fortean Times’

Last year I posted anecdotes about Pre-Raphaelite painter William Holman Hunt encountering gnomes.

As I had never seen these stories discussed elsewhere I sent them in a letter to the editor of Fortean Times, the British periodical about strange phenomena, for the consideration of readers.

The letter is published in issue #402 (February 2021) which has just reached me on the American side of the Atlantic.

The Yale Club Bookplate

Howard Pyle was born on this day in 1853. He was the first of the golden age American illustrators, followed by his pupil N.C. Wyeth. Through Pyle a faint Pre-Raphaelite influence came to characterize the genre.

It interested me to discover a work by Pyle that I had seen many times before noticing his initials: the ex-libris of The Yale Club of New York City. Pyle’s design was commissioned in 1905. The plate was engraved by Edwin Davis French, whom Pyle described as “the best engraver in the world.” The ex-libris is affixed to every book in the clubhouse library.

Dickens at 209

“I always go to bed at eight o’clock, except when it is my birthday, and then I sit up to supper.”—Charles Dickens, letter to Hastings Hughes, December 12, 1838.

“This is my birthday. Many happy returns of the day to you and me. I took it into my head yesterday to get up an impromptu dinner on this auspicious occasion—only my own folks, Leigh Hunt, [Harrison] Ainsworth, and [John] Forster.”—Charles Dickens, letter to J. P. Harley, February 7, 1839.

The great Boz was born on this day in 1812. I commend to your attention the following excerpts from my book Victoriana:

Dickens and the Stage
A Ghost Story for Christmas

and assorted Dickensian posts:

London By Gaslight
A Map of Dickensian London
A Lost Portrait of Charles Dickens Rediscovered
A Portrait of Charles Dickens Returns Home
A Dickensian Shop Sign