I Like Antiques

My grandmother’s stoneware mixing bowl.

My name is Margaret and I like antiques.

I’m not sitting at the monthly meeting of a help group, but if I were there would be a hatstand at the door, and a bowl and pitcher sitting on a sideboard in the center of the room, circled wagon train style by old wooden chairs of different sizes.

In recent years the “simplify” movement has hit us all.  I have downsized (really, kids) some of the things I’ve held on to for many years.  I was able to say “Goodbye” and thank them for the memories.  But there are other things that have a lot of meaning for me, connections to history, both mine and the world’s.  I need them.

For example, a few years ago at my aunt’s sale I was able to buy her grandmother’s, my great-grandmother’s, commode.  My mom said that as a little girl she remembered it in her bedroom.  Crafted of oak, it has carved acorn drawer pulls; I put it in our guest room.  Over it hangs a photo collage of the family farmhouse from which it came.

My great-aunt’s dishes are something else I will keep until it’s time to hand them to one of my daughters.  They are ivory bone china with a golden wheat pattern and rims.  If you haven’t read my book, “Folks on the Home Front,” this is the lady who was a single schoolteacher during World War 1, and who wrote letters to her brother, my grandfather, in the service.  I published many of them alongside his and my grandmother’s.  She was funny, feisty, and beautiful.  She battled rheumatoid arthritis all her life, and as far as I know it never conquered her spirit.  That’s what I see when I look through the glass of the dining room hutch doors at her plates, cups and saucers.

I’ve been able to get a few momentos which remind me of Theodore Roosevelt, whose life is deeply embedded in my love of history.  From eBay I bought a copy of the “Our Young Folks” magazine, which Teedie and his brother and sisters read during their childhood in Victorian America.  To think that a child read this at the same time he was reading his subscription just melts my heart.  And they are really good stories, too.  I wish somehow I could publicize it to kids today.  Hey, that’s a good idea.  I will work on it.

Personal possessions of my dad keep me in touch with him, although he has been gone for 35 years.  I have his push mower that I used to cut our grass with when I was 12.  I’m going to get it fixed up this summer and use it again.  It will be good exercise; I will remember him every minute I’m straining to move it across the yard.  The grass will have to be pretty dry, though.

I love jewelry but don’t wear much of it myself.  My aunt’s collection was immense.  I bought some pieces at her auction which she wore to work in her 55-year career as a secretary on Capitol Hill.  I wonder, which ones were she wearing when she “bumped” into General Eisenhower in an office doorway in the 40’s?  Or when young Jacqueline Bouvier stopped by Senator Jenner’s office with her Graflex camera one time during the McCarthy Hearings?

Old photos fill a large trunk in my house (I actually bought this one at my favorite store, Paper Moon, in Roanoke).  They represent a century and a half of photography.  Every time I look through them I see some in a new way.

I was once in the background of a televised appraisal at the Antiques Road Show (if you’re interested, I can tell you the episode number and digital time).  It was in Cincinnati in 2013, and of course the most valuable thing we brought was a little rocking chair my husband picked up at the last minute, a 75 year-old handmade Appalachian work of art that had belonged to his parents.  They appraised it at $800 to $1000, and we were very pleased to find out its value.

But…you probably already know the bottom line that’s coming…the value of my antiques cannot be put into numbers.  They are connections to the past, reminders of those I love and respect, tangible pieces to touch and look at.  I like them.  A lot.


Paint or Print?

Painted portrait of George Washington Image result for george washington photograph

 George Washington, left; and George Washington Parke Custis, right.  Technology changed the way we remember them.  National Portrait Gallery, arlingtoncemetery.net.

Try to imagine what it would like to meet George Washington.   Look at portraits painted in the late 18th Century (not hard to do each time you pay with a dollar bill) and read his diaries, details about his personality, upbringing, and military career; and his actions as president.  Surmise what he might have sounded like from accounts of dialect experts and those who knew him.

The most prominent visuals we have for getting to know him are portraits painted by Gilbert Stuart, Charles Willson Peale, Robert Edge Pine and others.  They used their gifts to preserve the man to his country and posterity.  Colors in the Pine portrait above show Washington’s resolve in his face, fist clenched on a walking stick, and dashing uniform.

Less than 50 years later, the camera emerged.

An early photographer recorded the image of George Washington Parke Custis on a glass plate.  Custis was Martha Washington’s grandson, whom George adopted.  He built Arlington House, the grounds of which would become our national cemetery, and his daughter would marry Robert E. Lee.

The contrast between the painting and photo is striking.

The Washington Family

A scene too early to photograph: George Washington and George Washington Parke Custis  as a boy, with Nelly Custis and Martha Washington.  Painting by Edward Savage, National Gallery of Art.

'Washington Crossing the Delaware'


Several years ago I walked into a room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and stood looking at the famous Washington Crossing the Delaware.  It was the size of a school bus.

If Emanuel Leutze had had a camera available and was able to follow the troops on their way to New Jersey, what would the photos have looked like?  A bunch of ice and fog?  He probably would have lost his grip and dropped it in the river.  We’ll never know.

Lieutenant John F. Kennedy’s PT-59 in the South Pacific in the Second World War.  It’s pretty hard to capture the determination in their faces from a live shot, as opposed to the soldiers in the painting of Washington’s boat.  archives.gov.

I remember seeing a photo of Charles Francis Adams, son of John Quincy Adams, in his old age.  He was sitting outside near his wife, Louisa.  Why, that looks like it could be an picture of my great-grandparents!  Paintings must be of legends, photographic prints for real people,  I thought.

Timothy O’Sullivan captured this Harper’s Weekly artist sketching on a hill overlooking Gettysburg.

The Civil War was the first to be recorded by camera equipment (which required its own caisson).  It is reported that sometimes photographers moved bodies in the battlefield to enhance composition or purpose.

There are those who would dismiss photography as an art form.  And those who scorn oil paintings as reality.  I think they can be both.  If, while looking at a photograph or a painting, you ask yourself questions about the subjects, the landscapes, the furniture, or the architecture, how can you not learn about what was?

photography…a subject of enormous social relevance…not a pitiable craft.  –Osip Brik, 1926.

Related image

The iconic Migrant Mother by tells the story of a  woman and her seven children during Depression in California.  fineartamerica.com

Who sees the human face correctly: the photographer, the mirror, or the painter?  –Pablo Picasso

A student once said that when she looked at a painting, she liked to think about what was going on in the world as the artist worked.  That’s critical thinking: cause/effect.  That’s key to trying to get to the bottom of things.  It is both concrete and abstract.

Paintings and photographs are irreplacable primary sources.   People can debate about their worth in the art world, but why choose between them as a teacher?  Each has a purpose.  The medium itself reveals part of history.