Saturday, December 31, 2011

Tricky Script: Finding Woolacombe Beach

One of the banes of an historian's existance is historic script. Especially in pencil, which fades and smudges. Reading it can be slow and involve a lot of guesswork and sighing. Thankfully, Alice Livingston had reasonably clear handwriting, like this:

"S.S. Rotterdam/Plymouth 24 June 1921" Nevertheless, when I come across a word I don't know (which seems to be all the time in the photo albums that involve travel and exotic place names), I honestly tend to skim over it unless it is vital to my research. I've been skimming over this word for a while: but today I guess I was feeling bold. I was pretty sure I could read W-O-O-L-A-C-O-(?)-(?)-E. Is that even a word? Well, thanks be to Google's autocomplete, because when I got halfway through typing, it finished the word for me: Woolacombe, a seaside resort on the north coast of North Devon, England. I even found their current tourism website.

Well, don't I feel smart?

From the dates on Alice's pictures, it looks as though the family got on their steamer (the S.S. Rotterdam, pictured at left) at the end of June in 1921 and steamed over to England, where they went to see John Henry's eldest daughter Katharine and then off all together for a seaside holiday to Woolacombe in July.
This would have been the first time that Honoria and Janet would meet their neice and nephew Theodore and Katharine (who were actually 6 and 8 years older than Honoria, respectively). They also met up with their niece and nephews along the way. In the picture at right, you can see Honoria and Janet with three other children, three of Katharine's children. They are all pictured again in the photograph below.

John Henry in his dignified suit looks a little out of place on a sunny beach, but his daughters have certainly made themselves comfortable; either Janet or Honoria has stripped off her shoes and flopped onto her back to soak up a little sun. You can just see her bare legs sticking out from behind his chair.

Woolacombe was just a short stop on their tour of England (which was of course just a piece of their six-years in Europe). From there they visited the sites: Wells, Clovelly (the photo at left shows them on the way to Clovelly), Fairford, even Stonehenge (and plenty of other places I haven't yet decoded the handwriting on). Photos show that they staid in England until about September, before heading south to Florence, Italy. Later trips back to England would take them to even more of England's countryside and cities.

Decoding Alice's handwriting can be tricky at times, but clearly it's worth the effort. We managed to fill out a travel itinerary for the first part of the Livingstons' European adventure! Three months exploring England before they were to find a longer-term home in Italy.

Now if only I can get better at reading John Henry's and Chancellor Livingston's dreadful scrawls, then I will feel accomplished...

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Roman Holiday

In 1921, Alice and John Henry Livingston decided their two daughters needed a cultural education--"Culture with a big 'C,' we called it," said Honoria of the trip. The family packed up and moved to Italy.

For six years, they lived in Florence, renting villas and traveling around Europe to see the sites (Seen at right, Villa Camerata was one of their homes. This villa still exists as a youth hostel, and there are lots of pictures of its historic rooms and veranda). "It was wonderful because we'd get in the car and drive," said Honoria much later, recalling road trips to famous Roman ruins, exotic landscapes, and historic and cultural sites. They even traveled to England to visit John Henry's oldest daughter, Katherine (you can see them at left in Stratford-on-Avon, long known as the home of Shakespeare).

The Livingstons did not completely abandon their beloved Clermont during this time. John Henry was overseeing major changes at a distance: the installation of electricity, the removal of the large Victorian veranda to make the house look more "Colonial." They made a few trips back to America, including one in 1923 aboard the Mauretania, a luxurious sister ship to the Lusitania. After two decades of use (including a stint as a troopship during WWI), the boat was an aging memory of a glamorous Edwardian age (the photo at left shows the Veranda Court, the cafe where guests could enjoy the sun, while being protected from the weather). At right, the girls can be see wrapped up against the chilly ocean breeze on their one-week trip across the Atlantic Ocean back to Euorpe.

I love looking at the photos of their trips--seeing familiar locations that I've seen a hundred other times in photographs, but this time seeing it through their eyes. For Honoria and Janet, who were still children this was a whole new continent previously seen only in books, a place to explore and learn.

But the girls' interests were not always just in the historic gravity of a famous European hotspot. Janet was perhaps not as enthusiastic as her sister. Honoria said of their trips, "I don't think Janet cared so much for it, but I loved it." In some ways, it reminds me of my trips to Civil War battlefields when I was young--more monuments and plaques than I cared to read. It would not be until years later that I grasped the importance of the places I had visited.

For Alice and John Henry, the experience would have been much different. Both of them had been to Europe on their 1906 honeymoon (and John Henry on several ocassions before that), but that was before World War I. Many things had changed, buildings damaged and destroyed, country borders entirely moved.

The Livingstons' years in Europe would prove to be the source of many important memories and the last they were to have with John Henry. It was within a few weeks of their final return to America that John Henry passed away at the age of 79. Italy continued to have an influence on Alice in particular for years to come, visible in the prominent display of her favorite souvenirs and the Italian look she incorporated into her large gardens at Clermont, especially the Walled Garden. What effect it had on Honoria and Janet is not so visible, but I can only imagine that the memories they carried of the trip were as important to them as to their mother.

Years later, Honoria would return to Europe, though to though this time to Ireland, not Italy. In 1931 she married Reginald (Rex) McVitty, and went with him to see meet his family there. Another week on an ocean liner, this time as a newlywed, is captured in this photograph of the couple playing foosball.

Monday, December 5, 2011

New Acquisitions

Clermont is a museum dedicated to the long history of the Livingston family. But the Livingstons aren't gone; many of their descendants can still be found in the Hudson Valley and beyond. In fact, hundreds of descendants have come to our family reunions held every five years or so (photographed at right in the Livingston tartan are some of our Livingston descendant friends).

Like many families, they have been the recipients of treasured family heirlooms: books from Chancellor Livingston's library, silver spoons from their table, or portraits of a great, great uncle. It just so happens that their great, great uncle was Chancellor Livingston.

It's important to remember these pieces in this light when a Livingston family member agrees to donate a Livingston artifact to Clermont. It is not just some beautiful old thing their house, it carries with it their family pride and often childhood memories. Just as I fondly remember opening presents Christmas morning while my grandfather was propped in his red leather arm chair, these Livingston descendants often have close personal ties to the upholstered arm chair that sat in the corner of the living room and they were not allowed to put their feet on.

So when a Livingston family member called to offer us a grouping of nineteenth century parlor furniture in December, we were excited. But we also needed to remember that this furniture held more than just its financial value for its owners and historic value for the museum; it also held all those family memories.

The grouping consisted of two chairs and a sofa, re-upholstered in blue to match one another in the 1960s or '70s, though the furniture itself was not a set. All three had been photographed in Clermont's Drawing Room by Alice Livingston in a set of photos taken in 1928. The furniture was given to the donor's mother by Janet Livingston just before Clermont became a museum in 1965.

To a curator, this is exciting stuff.

The sofa (pictured at left and again below) was a mid-nineteenth century transitional piece, not as bulky or Classical looking as the earlier period, but not as curvacious and ornate as the later Belter or Roccoco Revival styles that dominated American furniture after the Civil War.

The chairs were slightly later--both being simple examples of the Rococo Revival. Although they also did not match, the smaller held the exciting surprise of being a match for the curved-back chair that we currently have in the Drawing Room (photographed at right). To be honest, I'd never seen the 1928 photos, which are stored at our conservation center on Peebles Island, and had no knowledge of this furniture's existence (incidentally, those photographs also show a second floral wallpaper--different from the 1880s image--and heavy drapes on the windows. Hopefully I can get some copies scanned to share with you one of these days).

So when will you see these exciting new acquisitions? We know the sofa and two chairs were in the Drawing Room in 1928. But Alice had a tendancy to rearrange her furniture periodically (don't we all start messing with the house when the winter blues start getting us down?), and the current arrangement of the Drawing Room reflects photographs taken in the mid 1930s and 40s. Which one is correct? Both are. So in order to display the "new" trio of furniture appropriatly, we can't just combine it all but instead will have to do some thinking about which arrangement to go with, which set of pictures to go with, etc. By using the pictures, we know for sure that this is the way that Alice wanted it (not the way that we think looks right,; it's not a museum to us).

While we are thinking about that, the furniture is being conserved. The later upholstery will be removed and replaced with something similar to what we see in the photographs (or, if we are lucky, we will find more of the same damask on other furniture we already own so we can know we are really close).

But while we are recreating Alice's world, we have to remember to stop and thank the Livingston descendants who parted with it in the first place. What family memories of Christmas morning or afternoons with iced tea or bored children with their feet sticking off the edge did they part with?

I guess there's only so much musing I can do about that, and instead will just have to say a hearty "Thank you!"