Thursday, November 16, 2017

From Guangzhou to Boston: The Story of the Porcelain Vase

Pair of floor vases, Ch’ien Lung period (1736-1786), Canton. Gibson House Museum.

“As we pass up the Grand Staircase…we come to the Music Room, on our left with double doors of black walnut, …with the original portieres of pink and gold…; pink and blue floral pattern on a pale ground of pale yellow cream, in harmony with the Chinese porcelains.”

So begins Charles Gibson Jr.’s tour of the music room, written in 1939 soon after he started to think about his childhood home as a museum to Victorian culture and society in Boston.

Those Chinese porcelains that get top billing in his tour are a collection of eight matching pieces: two garden seats, two flowerpots, two jardinières (flower stands), and two floor vases. The pieces are decorated with floral designs and Chinese figures; the color palette, known as “famille rose,” is dominated by shades of pink and red. Over two feet tall, the floor vases, or palace vases, flank the fireplace. They are a focal point in a room filled with treasures.

The vases were made in the port city of Guangzhou, known in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as Canton. According to Charlie, they were made in the Ch’ien Lung period, 1736-1786. Emperor Ch’ien Lung was a patron of the ceramic arts, and during his reign, new color palettes were introduced, including the “famille rose” colors seen on these pieces.

Porcelain wares made in Canton were manufactured specifically for the export market. Chinese emperors had confined all western trade to this one city, which made it a bustling and international marketplace. The China trade was built on Chinese exports of tea and silk, but luxury goods, like porcelain “china,” were also a hit with American consumers. In fact, “chinoiserie,” or decorative arts inspired by Chinese artistic traditions, had been fashionable since the mid 1700s, and owning China trade pieces, especially ones as large (and therefore, expensive to ship) as these floor vases, continued to be a status symbol into the 1800s.

Charles Gibson, Jr. (Charlie), with his great-aunt, Mary Ann Palfrey Russell. 
The porcelain vases passed through Miss Russell to Charlie’s family.
In his tour, Charlie goes on to say he “inherited many of the Chinese porcelains in this room – these were brought over to this country from China about 1835 for Mr. Nathaniel P. Russell… .”  The China trade, which flourished in the United States between the end of the American Revolution and the First Opium War (1839-1842), made many Bostonians quite wealthy. One of those Bostonians was Charlie’s great uncle, Nathaniel Pope Russell. He was a prominent Boston citizen, and a leading China trade merchant and marine insurance broker. His son, Samuel Hammond Russell, eventually purchased the house at 135 Beacon Street, directly next door to the Gibson House. The families were quite close, and it was through this connection that Charlie ultimately came to own the collection of porcelains.

The music room was a formal sitting room, where family and guests would retire after meals to listen to music, of course, performed by the Gibson children or by friends and guests, and to socialize and spend time together. Because it was a public space, the room was decorated to show off the family’s wealth, taste, and social connections. And this is exactly what Charlie is reminding us of when he points out these once-trendy Chinese porcelain pieces.

Floor vases, before and after restoration.

In 2016, thanks to a gift from Robert Severy, a longtime benefactor of the Gibson House Museum, the floor vases were sent to the conservation lab at Trefler’s in Newton, Mass to be fully restored. (The vase that received conservation attention was damaged and then partially repaired in the 1970s. The second vase served as a model for the process.)  

The floor vases have been off view for over a year and we are so thrilled to have them back. Stop by the Gibson House to see the complete collection of Chinese porcelains that Charlie was so very proud of.

By Meghan Gelardi Holmes, Curator

To learn more:

“The Music Room, Written in 1939.”
The Gibson House Museum Archives. Accessible by appointment.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Boston Interconnected: Then and Now

Boston is small for a “big city.” This was certainly true for the Gibson family’s upper- class social circles in the nineteenth century. They married into their friends’ families and were business partners with their neighbors. It’s true for me, too, when I discover that a new friend went to my university, or I unexpectedly attend the same event as a colleague. The more time one spends here, the easier it becomes to recognize the interconnectedness of people and places. It’s also true for the Gibson House Museum in its many connections to other historic organizations throughout the greater-Boston area.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit John Singer Sargent
Image courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 

This well-known Sargent painting hangs in the new American Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA). The four girls pictured are the daughters of Edward and Isa Boit, as the title informs. The room is in their Paris apartment, which they moved into after leaving 110 Beacon Street, Boston—just three houses down from the Gibson family. In addition to being neighbors, Charles and Rosamond Gibson were friends of the Boits and both were members of their wedding party. 

 Image courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

A more tangible connection between the Gibsons and the MFA lies within the MFA’s jewelry collection. A beautiful pink brooch once belonging to Rosamond Warren Gibson was purchased by the museum in 2010. Although it is not currently on display, it is a fine example of Bostonian material culture. 

Peabody Essex Museum
 Image courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum.

Another Gibson family object that has made its way into the collection of a large museum is the Warren family dollhouse. As a young girl, Rosamond played with it at her parents’ home on Beacon Hill. The extravagant, five-foot tall dollhouse was also a childhood favorite of her daughters, who played with it on the fifth floor of the Gibson House. After they had grown, Rosamond donated it to what is now the Peabody Essex Museum in 1926.

Royall House & Slave Quarters
“Historic exterior with orchard.” Image courtesy of the  Royall House & Slave Quarters.

Just a fifteen-minute drive away (by contemporary vehicle) in Medford lies the Royall House & Slave Quarters. Starting in 1810, the house was occupied as a summer home by local rum distiller Jacob Tidd and his wife Ruth Dawes Tidd. Ruth was the sister of Sara Dawes Hammond, Catherine Hammond Gibson’s mother. As a child, Catherine played in her aunt’s courtyard and gardens. Ruth lived in that house until she died in 1861, just two years after Catherine moved into her new home at 137 Beacon Street. Today, the museum is interpreted for the previous century, when the Royall family, as well as enslaved men, women, and children, lived on the estate.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
“Entryway in the Gardner Residence at 152 Beacon Street, Boston. about 1882.”
Image courtesy of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

After Isabella Stewart married Jack Gardner in 1860, they moved into 152 Beacon Street. Although we cannot say for sure, it is very likely that Isabella attended dinner parties just down the street at the Gibson House. Her museum in the Fenway was opened to the public a little more than forty years later. 

Boston Athenaeum
 Image courtesy of the Boston Athenaeum.

Edward Clarke Cabot is the architect of both 137 Beacon Street and the Boston Athenaeum at 10 ½ Beacon Street. The Athenaeum opened in 1849, ten years before the Gibsons moved into their own Cabot-designed building. Many of Cabot’s artistic works, including this painting of Beacon Street in 1880, are held within the Athenaeum today. 

Beacon Street, Edward Clarke Cabot. 
Image courtesy of the Boston Athenaeum.

The more one dives into the personal and material histories at 137 Beacon Street, the more one discovers such connections. The Gibson House Museum is lucky to enjoy all of its fantastic neighboring institutions and a history rich in complexity. Maybe you will run into a neighbor or friend while visiting one of them and be reminded of this city’s deep interconnectivity. If Boston ever feels like a small-big-city to you, imagine all of the connections you are yet still unaware of.

By Barbara Callahan, Museum Assistant

References (in order of mention):

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit. Artwork: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Accessed September 3, 2017.

"Gem set brooch with pendant drop." Artwork: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Accessed September 3, 2017.

“The Pink Brooch.” The Gibson House Museum. Accessed September 8, 2017.

“The Warren Dollhouse.” The Gibson House Museum. Accessed September 8, 2017.

"Historic exterior with orchard." Royall House & Slave Quarters. Accessed September 8, 2017.

"Mansion House." Royall House & Slave Quarters. Accessed September 8, 2017.

 “Entryway in the Gardner Residence at 152 Beacon Street, Boston, About 1882. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Accessed September 8, 2017.

"About Isabella Stewart Gardner. Marriage." Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Accessed September 8, 2017.

"About: Mission & History." The Boston Athenaeum. Accessed September 8, 2017. 

"Edward Clarke Cabot." The Boston Athenaeum. Accessed September 8, 2017.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Lithophane: Narrative Encased in Porcelain

The lithophane lamp in the Music Room is a hidden gem of tours at the Gibson House. In fact, while opening up the museum for the day and turning on all the lights in the house, I make it a point to leave this particular lamp off. This, of course, can sometimes lead to visitors being puzzled as to why I have gathered them in one corner of the Music Room to look at a small, seemingly simple lamp. However, the theatrics of pulling the metal chain with a dramatic flourish and waiting for the visitors to express their surprise continues to be one of my favorite parts of giving tours.

According to the Blair Museum of Lithophanes, lithophane is a Greek word that combines litho, meaning stone, and phainen, meaning to cause to appear. However, despite its deceptive name, lithophane is actually made of etched porcelain that is usually backlit either by natural sunlight or electricity. The first lithophanes were made in European factories in the 1820s by modeling a waxen image on a backlit glass panel. Craftsmen molded and etched the lithophanes so that they would appear translucent in the light; indeed, the thinner the porcelain, the more brightly light could shine through. This attention to detail is, in fact, part of what makes images illustrated in lithophane come to life in a way that no other artistic medium can imitate. They are unlike scenes you would see in stained glass, for example, because they are completely three-dimensional and depict images in off-white and gray tones as opposed to full color. 

The lithophane lamp in the Music Room features six engraved porcelain panels, a rope column, and a square marble base. Although we are unaware of the exact date when the lamp was made, it is, according to our records, an original family piece. The lamp was originally gas operated and later altered to accommodate electricity. One of the panels depicts what we believe is Saint Hedwig, the patron saint of Silesia, a region in Poland. She was canonized by the Catholic Church in 1267 and was known for her joint effort with her husband, Henry I of Silesia, to found several monasteries across Europe. The lamp’s other panels illustrate scenes featuring a girl and three dogs, two lovers, a wistful woman next to a cage filled with birds, a young boy and old man entering a river, and a man who seems to be teasing a sleeping maiden with a feather.
Rosamond Warren Gibson may have used the lithophane lamp to create stories for her children. Rotating the piece to transition from one panel to another, she could introduce them to new worlds and narratives. Little did she know, the lamp would continue to enchant visitors young and old to the Gibson House for many years to come.

by Tiara Sharma, museum guide and intern 

Blair Museum of Lithophanes. “What Is a Lithophane?” Accessed 3 August 2017.

Carney, Margaret. “Lithophanes ... Not a Dead Art Form.” Ceramics Art and Perception, no. 87 Mar. 2012.

Kirsch, Johann Peter. “St. Hedwig.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. Accessed 3 August 2017.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

A Study in Contrasts: Renaissance Revival and Aesthetic Design under One Roof

Part of why the Gibson House Museum serves as such an integral part of Boston’s historical landscape is its ability to capture, under one roof, the shifts in decorative and sociopolitical trends in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Upon visiting the museum, you will likely notice a distinct change in decorative moods depending on which room you are in. The entrance hall, for example, is primarily decorated in the 1860s Renaissance Revival style that would have been popular in Gibson matriarch Catherine Hammond Gibson’s time. The console table and matching mirror to your left as you walk into the museum are both carved in ebonized black walnut, which would have been an expensive and highly desirable material. Placed in the first room the Gibsons’ guests would see, this Renaissance Revival furniture would have showcased the family’s knowledge of, and appreciation for, an older, revered age of artistic innovation and achievement.

After Catherine Gibson’s death in 1888, her son Charles and his wife Rosamond Warren Gibson began to redecorate and modernize parts of the house, including the entrance hall. The beautiful Japanese “leather” wallpaper, one of the highlights of the house, was Rosamond’s choice and serves as a rather bright contrast to the room’s darker, more authoritative palette. The wallpaper, gilded and embossed with gold flowers and fruits, adds an airier feel to the entrance hall that resists the severity of Catherine’s Renaissance Revival style. The Aesthetic Movement that appeared in America during the 1870s heavily influenced this design choice and others like it in the house. It rose to popularity under the motto “Art for art’s sake” and called into question the notion that art had to convey a concrete sociopolitical message. Instead, Aestheticism, as its name might suggest, placed value on the craftsmanship and detail of decorative art.  It prided itself on delicacy, prioritizing lighter colors and fabrics over the heavier and darker Victorian materials.
The 1876 Centennial International Exhibition, held in Philadelphia, was absolutely integral to the rise of the Aesthetic Movement. It hosted manufacturers and dealers from thirty-eight nations and was the first world fair of its kind to be hosted in the United States. While the exhibition succeeded in showcasing America’s growing industrial and economic might, it also introduced the country as being a hub for artistic innovation and creativity. The sheer number of the exhibition’s East-Asian manufacturers combined with the recent opening of trade between Japan and the western world in 1854 also triggered a sort of obsession for Japanese ceramics, prints, and designs. At the Gibson House, this design interest is reflected in both the dining room and the music room. The Centennial Exhibition and the Aesthetic Movement it fostered were nothing short of revolutionary in that they allowed the general public, including families like the Gibsons, to invest in a type of cross-cultural exchange, as well as to blur the line between domestic and artistic space.

by Tiara Sharma, museum guide and intern

The 1876 Centennial Exhibition. Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, 1997. Accessed 19 July 2017.

Burke, Doreen Bolger. In Pursuit of Beauty: Americans and the Aesthetic Movement. New York: Rizzoli, 1987.

MacCarthy, Fiona. “The Aesthetic Movement.” The Guardian, 25 Mar. 2011. Accessed 19 July 2017.

Wolf, Stephanie Grauman. “Centennial Exhibition (1876).” Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, Rutgers University, 2013, Accessed 28 July 2017.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Boys in White Dresses: Childhood Gender Expression in the Nineteenth Century

Based on today’s norms, the children in the above photographs might appear to be girls. Even early museum records reference the drawing on the right as “Portrait of Two Young Girls” and the painting on the left as “Little Girl with Dog.” Many visitors are surprised to hear, however, that two of the three children pictured above are boys.

The hyper-gendering of young children’s clothing in the U.S. today is a recent phenomenon, not common before the 1940s. Previously, little boys wore dresses and long hair until the age of six or seven. White dresses, since they could be bleached clean, were the most functional clothing option for all children.

Once thought to be Marion Hammond, “Little Girl with Dog” is Marion’s brother Mason Hammond (1868–1899) and his dog Fluffy, as marked on the back of the frame (image below). Mason was Rosamond Warren Gibson’s nephew, the son of her sister Mary and Mary’s husband Samuel Hammond. (Samuel Hammond was also Catherine Hammond Gibson’s nephew.) This portrait from the 1870s hangs next to the fireplace, watching over guests in the dining room.

The second portrait hangs in the library along with similar renderings of other members of the Gibson family. The charcoal image does not depict Rosamond and Charles Gibson’s two daughters as previously believed, but rather young Mary Ethel (the eldest daughter) on the left and Charles Jr. (the museum’s founder) on the right.

Recent research tells us that the concept of gender only begins to emerge in the minds of children around age three or four and is not more fully grasped until six or seven. Coincidentally or not, this is about the same time little boys would switch to wearing pants in the nineteenth century.

Gender-neutral clothing is making a strong comeback as gender norms and assumptions are being called into question. Perhaps we are cycling back to an age where the gender of many young children once again becomes indistinguishable by their appearance.

By Barbara Callahan, Museum Assistant


Maglaty, Jeanne. "When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink?", April 07, 2011. Accessed May 12, 2017.

Paoletti, Jo B. "Dresses are for Girls and Boys." In Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America, 19–41. Indiana University Press, 2012.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

A Housekeeper's Scrapbook

Domestic life of the mid-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries is illuminated at the Gibson House through its authentically preserved rooms and collections. One item that provides insight into the house’s history of domestic service is a paperback entitled “A Housekeeper’s Scrapbook.” Located in the kitchen pantry on the ground floor, the volume contains a collection of printed recipes, as well as loose clippings of other recipes and home remedies.
This scrapbook is a simple encapsulation of one aspect of servant activity—kitchen work—and is instrumental to the telling of the story of servant life during this time period. The meticulously detailed recipes reflect the specificity and accuracy required of a household cook.  
Many house museums like the Gibson House are constantly trying to discover more information about their domestic staff and making efforts to incorporate their stories into the site’s larger narrative. The history of servants, many of whom were Irish, is a significant part of not just the Gibson House story, but of Boston’s history. The wave of Irish immigration in the nineteenth century helped make Boston the city it is today.

By Emma Rose Cunningham, museum intern