Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Livingstons and the Arts and Crafts

I've gotten so many hits on the recent mention of Craftsman influences in Clermont's Library that I thought I would do a post about the Morris chair that is hunkered in the corner of Alice Livingston's bedroom....
Morris chairs were an early form of reclining chair, named for William Morris, founder of the English Art and Crafts Movement during the second half of the 19th century. An eventual emblem of this artisitc movement, the chair had a reclining back, moderately high arm rests, and large rectangular cushions on the seat and back.

Put quite simply, these were the "comfy chairs" of their day, a humble alternative to the many ornate styles of the Vicotorian era (for instance, consider the stiff-backed Belter-style sofa that was the vogue, held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art).
You can recognize these features in the Morris chair that sits in the corner of Alice's bedroom at Clermont. With its back tilted ever-so-slightly, it looks like a tempting place for an aging woman like Alice to rest.

Introduced initially in 1866, the chair's popularity, and that of other Arts and Crafts objects, increased slowly as part of the English movement. Eventually, American artists like Gustav Stickley and Elbert Hubbard began to further the movement in the US. Sometimes perceived as a reactionary style, Morris chairs and other furniture included in the Craftsman style featured clean, rusticated look that struck a chord with manyturn of the century Americans.

So then we come to Clermont and the Arts & Crafts.

In the early 20th century Alice and John Henry Livingston showed some evidence of being influenced by Craftsman interiors and arts, as was discussed in earlier blogs. The ceilings in the library and drawing room are probably the most notable instances of this.
But their primary interests were oriented towards the more distant past, as was shown by their zealous display of Federal and Empire era furnishings (see the Duncan Phyfe vanity at left) handed down to them through inheritance. Their decorative style and renovations to the house spoke mostly to the Colonial Revival.

Which might be why this comfortable Morris chair is tucked away in Alice's bedroom, where it would not interfere with her decorative motife.
To many people on my tour, the chair sticks out like a soar thumb, its modern look giving them a moment's pause.
Nevertheless, Alice did make some attempts to get this piece of furniture to blend in with her decor. The large rectangular cushions have been covered witht he same purpley-brown velvet as most other upholstered furnishings at Clermont. You also might notice that it has some differences from the earlier Stickley example posted at the top of the page--most importantly, those curvey front legs and simplified hairy paw feet . These features may have helped Alice to accept it visually into her personal scheme, as they could be considered remesiscent of Empire furniture features.

Apparently, many other consumers had similar reservations about the highly-simplified features of the earlier Morris chairs. Soon mass-produced and offered through major furniture sellers, these chairs began to exhibit more decorative features that separated them from the Arts and Crafts style. Turned spindles and carved accents found their way in. I found a chair almost identical top Alice's in the 1908 Sears catalog--flattened hairy paw feet and all. And an enthusiasts website futures several chairs with similarly-elaborated features (pictured at right).
So were the Livingstons Arts and Crafts consumers? I would have to say, no not really. The evidence that we have speaks more to the highly-influencial nature of the Craftsman style than to the Livingstons' intentional aquisition of pieces that would reflect it. The fact that the Morris chair, our only piece of furniture closely related to the style, is hidden away in a private space suggests that Alice may have aquired it for its utilitarian value, rather than its artistic associations. That she further mitigated the visual affects of the Arts and Crafts by purchasing a chair with suggestions of earlier stylistic qualities also points away from Alice's interest in the style.
Nevertheless, the Arts and Crafts movement crept into the lives of the Livingstons through sheer force of will. The ceilings in the library and drawing room, aquisition of Kate Greenaway books (a major illustrator with links to the movement), and the eventual purchase of this chair are all ways in which it gained entry to Clermont and the Livingston's lives.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

America's River

This is the fourth in a series on Tourism on the Hudson...

In order to have a tourism industry, you need three things: a population with enough wealth that they can take time off to go see things, a transportation network to take them to the things they want to see and, of course, something to see.

In the early 19th century, the new country was starting to provide the first, Robert Fulton's new steamship was providing the second, but what about the third? England had long had its “Grand Tour,” a trek through France and Italy to see the great historical and cultural treasures of Europe. But culture and history were still thin on the ground in this new country.

The fact that the first tourist attraction was a medical retreat shows just how limited the resources were. But perhaps because America didn't have the kinds of things that they were supposed to be seeing, the tourists began to appreciate what they were seeing already: the landscape itself.

The Hudson River and the surrounding wilderness became tourist destinations in their own right. The Catskills in particular became the American idea of the picturesque wilderness. Soon American had its own “Fashionable Tour,” the heart of which was a trip through the Catskills and a cruise up the Hudson.

Since people were now seeing the landscape, they wanted to see more. In 1820, the artist William Guy Wall produced the Hudson River Port Folio, a set of twenty engravings that matched the sights seen by tourists. These were the Hudson in pretty and pastoral tones, and it sold slowly but well for an expensive production.

But tastes were changing. In 1825, a young artist by the name of Thomas Cole left New York City in a steamboat headed north. From the sketches he produced, we can see that he took the main trunk of the “Fashionable Tour,” heading north of Albany then back down through the Catskills. The paintings he produced upon his return mark the beginning of the Hudson River School of Art.

Rather than pretty, this was picturesque: twisted tree trunks, jagged rocky ledges and the power of the Kaaterskill Falls. This was the landscape pictured as wilderness, closer to nature than previous works, but with a hint of the romantic. It was the landscape, powerful in and of itself, valued in its own right rather that for what humanity had worked from it.

As America expanded, its idea of what constituted wilderness would shift to the plains, the deserts and the Rocky Mountains. But it never lost its attachment to the Hudson. It's no accident that some of the first organized attempts to protect the landscape began here.

The court battle between Scenic Hudson and Con Edison over the fate of Stormking was a landmark moment in Environmentalism, and it produced a legal framework that now protects lands throughout the country. The Hudson has also seen Pete Seeger's Sloop Clearwater, the Riverkeepers and other early citizen movements to protect the river.

So the simple engine of tourism changed the way that Americans viewed their country. From the deck of Fulton's North River Steamboat, Americans began to see their wilderness as something other than vast stretches of useless emptiness. The land became something valuable to be preserved.

This process that Fulton inadvertently began is continued by Clermont, Olana and all the rest of the historic sites and parks, along the Hudson and throughout New York. We change the way that people perceive their landscape, their history and through those, themselves. It's a legacy that I feel is worth continuing. But whatever happens, it's a legacy that I'm proud to be a part of.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Where Do the Children Play?: Closures in New York Museums and Parks

These are difficult economic times. In addition to the many other industries facing troubling decisions, historic and cultural institutions across the country are facing cutbacks and even closures.

Today New York State released information about numerous closures within its 125-year-old State Park system. Many have already published the press release and various reactions. Advocacy group Parks & Trails New York, our local Public Radio, the Albany Times Union, and even fellow New York History blogger John Warren have all carried the news.

Now is an important time for you to let your voice be heard on the subject as well. We hope that you will share your support for all of New York State's Parks and Historic Sites.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Was Robert Livingston a Scoundrel?

Was Robert the Founder, the patriarch of the Livingston family, a scoundrel? A quick glance at his history would seem to confirm it. Robert is infamous for his “interpretation” of his land patent which allowed him to take an extra 150,000+ acres for his estate. He's also famous for failing to provide food for the Palatine workers after he didn't get paid by Britain, allowing the workers to go hungry.
Robert was unpopular among many of his contemporaries because of his moneymaking ways. According to one British source, Livingston "pinched a fortune out of the soldier's bellies," as the provider of food and supplies for the British army. That was more polite that Governor Fletcher's verdict, "Beginning as a little bookkeeper, [Livingston] has screwed himself into one of the considerable estates in the province."
But judging Robert by the verdict of his political opponents and financial rivals has some obvious problems. Even greater than that, however, is the problem looking at Robert in isolation. As the historian Sung Bok Kim reminds us in his essay, “Robert Livingston and Moral Judgment,” Livingston operated in a community of cut-throat merchants and ambitious young politicians. The former New Netherlands, and particularly Albany, were home to speculators and money-makers of every type.
The Dutch had founded the New Netherlands as a merchant colony – in other words, to make a buck. Livingston was one of its true sons, but only one of many. He was simply more successful at it than most. As Kim reminds us, Livingston's famous play with the wording of his patent was extreme, but nearly every other patent from this period was being liberally interpreted as well.
If you've read Richard Zacks' history of Captain William Kidd, The Pirate Hunter, you're probably familiar with idea of Livingston, "the spider," as a schemer and a double crosser. As one of his illustrations of “the moral character of Kidd's future business partner, Robert Livingston,” Zacks describes a case where it appears that Livingston – a British citizen - was involved in a venture that smuggled goods to a French port.
England and France were warring at the time, and those goods probably helped to support a French invasion of a British port in Jamaica. If Zacks is right, Livingston was aiding the enemy during a time of war. But if Livingston did so, he was not the only one.
In fact, as Thomas Truxes demonstrates in his recent work Defying Empire, New York merchants continued to trade with the French right up to and during the French and Indian War. Even while French troops were threatening the colonies, New York businessmen were using various schemes to sell goods to the French ports in the Caribbean. One of these merchants was Phillip L. Livingston, grandson of the founder and signer of the Declaration of Independence.
And so we're stuck trying to judge a man who was likely little better or worse than his contemporaries. By our standards, Livingston was a scoundrel, but that simply means he fit in with Colonial New York. Clermont is here today because Robert Livingston was more effective at being a scoundrel that his competitors.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Paper Hearts: More About Silhouettes

I've written about silhouettes a bit before around Halloween, but today my interest was piqued by a more traditional application...

I've been up to my old tricks again while decorating for Clermont's annual Valentine's Day fundraiser. I just can't pass up an opportunity to make a paper chandelier.

Once again, paper silhouettes provided me with a convient and inexpensive decoration to suspend from them (I have used them extensively during past Halloweens). Hearts were an obvious necessity, but I've been getting more adept with cutting, and this time I also put some serious concentration into some ornate puti or Cupids.

But silhouettes have a much longer and more interesting history than just serving as convenient party decorations, and I thought today would be a good time to pay some homage to that. I took a little time to gather up what information I could find about them.
Beginning in the 18th century, the term "Silhouette" was applied to a profile portrait cut from black paper or card and often affixed to a white background (at right you can see Jane Austin's silhouette made circa 1810-1815). Though cut paper was the most common, the images could also be created by painting or drawing, and in 1802 painter Charles Wilson Peale even invented a machine that would assist with the creation of precise silhouettes. However, most continued to be made using the human eye and deft use of a pair of shears.

As a form of portrait art, the silhouette quickly gained popularity as a novelty among the wealthy. Even Catherine the Great had her's done. Since it was also inexpensive and very quick to produce, the silhoutte soon began to find a home among less wealthy individuals as well throughout the 19th century.

Robert L. Livingston, Margaret Maria's husband and a resident of Arryl House, may have dabbled in creating silhouette art himself. Shown in A Portrait of Livingston Manor (from a 1986 exhibition held at Clermont) are two beautiful silhouettes of Robert Fulton and his wife Harriet Livingston Fulton.

At Clermont, we have two silhouettes currently on display in the study. Displayed in oval frames on little stands like egg cups, the two men's heads depicted are not more than an inch or two tall. At left you can see the head of Edward Philip Livingston, who lived at Clermont during the beginning of the 19th century. It's not that Edward couldn't afford a more elaborate portrait. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least two others and a handsome bust of the man (though oddly enough, we have no images of his wife Betsy).

Instead, he went searching for this specific art form. Silhouettes had developed a life of their own. They continued to be popular well into the 20th century, when photography offered a cheaper and more accessible solution for preserving one's likeness. I can't help but think of the little 6" silhouettes of my mother and her sister as children in the late 1950s that hang on my grandmother's bedroom wall. My guess is that it was probably much easier to find a camera at that point than a silhouette artist, but the charm and nostalgia of the silhouette had been sealed in the public imagination.

Today silhouettes continue to hold our fascination. They have developed their own following of collectors (I got lost on this gentleman's blog for about half an hour while writing my entry). They have become the subject of a very lovely book called Silhouette: The Art of the Shadow, and silhouette artists continue to create amazing art. If you are feeling adventurous you might try cutting your own silhouettes according to these directions on But with a quick search of the internet, I even found a few artists in New York and Rhode Island, as well as more distant locations. (Pictured right are works by artist Deborah O'Connor. A local artist also contacted me recently about my October silhouette post, though I have to apologize for misplacing her information, and I hope that she will post it in the comments for this blog).

After making my own decorative silhouettes for a few years now, I can say that I've come appreciate the expressiveness that an artist can coax out of a flat piece of paper. Whether it is the unmistakable lump in Harriet Livingston Fulton's nose or a child's pouty lips and curling hair, the dependance on outline only is a difficult artist challenge to meet succesfully. While I was biting my tongue in concentration and trimming around the feathered wings of that Cupid, I was feeling that appreciation even more acutely.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

What Style is it?

To a lot of people, Clermont can be a confusing building. When I first got here, fresh from classes about how to identify architectural styles, even I was confused. What style is it? Well, it's a bit of a hodgepodge.

Clermont was first built in the 1740s, a typical Georgian-style mansion. But seven generations of Livingstons occupied it over about 210 years. Although they generally had a lot of respect for the herritage and family pride that it represented, each generation strove to keep their home up-to-date with recent fashions and to make it meet their ever-changing needs. They added on. They re-decorated. They changed things.

Taken together, they have added up to make Clermont a combination of styles with details everywhere that are as varied in their history as the rest of the collections.
The bones of the Georgian era are still there. Many people are thrown off track by the fact that you enter through the back side (seen above). The front side actually faces the river, the major avenue for travel during the 18th century. From the front though, we can see the classic features of a Georgian facade: it's a big box. Five windows across, counting the door in the middle. Inside there's a hall down the center, and two rooms on either side. You have to take off the pointy roof and towering dormers in your imagination; those are a later addition.

The building probably looked very much like the illustration above when it was built--very spare and square, very fashionable for 1740 when Robert the Builder and Margaret Howarden Livingston were there.

Her granddaughter Betsy needed some changes though. After a generation or two, the house was apparently getting a little small and out-of-date. With the Federal era in full swing by the time she and her husband inherrited the house in 1800, it was time for some changes. The look was finer and dantier than her grandmother's time. Federal style was reaching for something approacing ancient Greece or Rome--the perfect model for a country working towards a new Republic. The first-floor fireplaces apparently needed updating. Written records show that the lovely marble surround (and the black marble in the dining room) were purchased by Edward P. Livingston (Betsy's husband). You cand see similar columns featured around the fireplace in this Salem, MA house's 1805 fireplace.

Books were also becoming a larger part of people's lives in the early 19th century, and Edward P. aparently felt this keenly. To accomodate his growing library, he built these bookcases in what is now our study sometime in the 1830s.

Edward P. also added two wings to the house, which make a big visual impression, but not a big style one. The real force for stylistic change later on at Clermontwas John Henry Livingston about 60 years later. His updates made the biggest impact on Clermont for generations to come.

The pointy roof that defines Clermont's current sillhouette is a Chateausque feature added in 1893. It's what makes us look a little bit like a French castle. Those tall, skinny windows in the dormers are also a dead giveaway for late 19th cenury style. Many stylish houses got a very vertical look to them during this era, as oposed to that kind of substantial, square look of the Georgian period. For instance, compare them with the lofty style of our neighbor Wilderstein, whose external appearance reflects the 1888 construction.

One set of John Henry's dormers on the south wing caught my eye yesterday (while I was photographing the sunny weather) because of an Eastlake sunburst. What? Architect Charles Eastlake left his atractive mark on plenty of American homes, but not really at Clermont.

The spindly, ornate style you can see on this Buffalo, NY porch is classis Eastlake style, but bears little similarity to Clermont. You have to look closer at the sunburst feature above the porch to recognize it. The little sunburst in the top in the top of our dormer is an elemnent commonly spotted in Eastlake style homes like the one pictured at left. It's an unexpected thing to find here.

Other features inside the house reflect Arts and Crafts influence. John Henry paneled his gentleman's retreat in oak, a wood that was finally beginning to be recognized as part of the Arts and Crafts movement in the late 19th and early 20th century. The dark, wood-paneled environment was a hallmark of later Arts and Crafts or Craftsman style home. The return to a geometric, simplified motife also suggests a appreciation for this style (period illustration at right by Gustav Stickley).
Even the ceiling in the Colonial Revival drawing room draws surprising paralells to the Arts and Crafts. The division of the ceiling by large beams (not so much the smaller coffers in between) was a decorative feature favored in Arts and Crafts interiors.

We talk about the Colonial Revival a lot at Clermont because it played a huge part in John Herny's later revisions, especially beginning in the 1910s and 20s. John Henry's biggest architectural was, without doubt, the Colonial Revival so finding these earlier spatters of other architectural styles is always a bit of a surprise. Other remain from even earlier generations, dating back to the Federal era and even the house's rebuild after the 1777 fire.
Together all of these various elements create an unusual--even unique--amalgamation of styles. So the next time you are standing in front of Clermont (hopefully with your Fieldguide to American Houses in hand), try your luck with discerning some of the different architectural eras that make up the whole pretty picture.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Archival Treasures: The First News of Peace

One of the joys of working in a historic house is finding creative uses for the existing space. Right now, the archives are in a modest walk-in closet on the second floor. Most of our collection comes from the last John Henry and Alice, including a stunning number of pictures from their travels. However, we do have a fair amount of material that is much older, with some dating back to the days of Robert the Founder.

As I'm trying to get better acquainted with the archives, I thought it might be nice to transcribe some of the more interesting documents and post them here. Here's a letter from Chancellor Livingston, acting as the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, announcing the first news of a peace treaty ending the Revolutionary War. It's addressed to the Governor of Georgia, a state that had seen it's share of fighting during the war.

Office, Foreign Affairs
24 March 1783

The Honorable Governor of the State of Georgia,


I have the honor to enclose an abstract of the preliminary articles for a generous peace, signed the 20th January 1783. They were brought by the vessel that arrived last night from Cadiz, dispatched by Count d' Estaing to recall the cruisers and privateers of his most Christian Majesty and his subjects. Tho' not official, they leave no room to doubt this happy event, on which I sincerely congratulate Your Excellency. When the wisdom of the United States shall have reestablished their credit and strengthened their bond of union, which will doubtless be the first work of peace, we shall have

every reason to hope that this will be a happy and flourishing country.

I have the honor to be,

With great respect,

Your Excellency's

Most obedient & humble servant

RR Livingston

The “Count d' Estaing” mentioned is Charles Hector, comte d'Estaing, the French admiral. He led the French fleet to the aid of the Americans after the French entry into the war in 1778. His efforts in the siege of Savannah failed, however, and he returned to France.

Three years later, Hector was placed in command of a new French-Spanish fleet assembled in Cadiz, on the coast of Spain, with the intention of sailing to once again aid the Revolution. However, peace was declared before he could sail. In this letter, it appears that Hector sent word to his ships in American waters to return home, and that this was the first word of the peace that the Americans in the New World heard.