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Posts Tagged ‘Living History’

The allure of time travel — which century would you choose?

In antiques, art, beauty, behavior, culture, design, education, entertainment, History, life, men, Style, the military, travel, US, war, women on August 24, 2013 at 12:34 am

By Caitlin Kelly

I haven’t yet read this book, by an American author who spent time with some hard-core historical re-enactors who re-make the Civil War on a regular basis.

But we recently had New York City photographer Mike Falco over for dinner. He’s obsessed by the Civil War — an odd pursuit for a Yankee from Staten Island — and has been traveling the U.S. to photograph Civil War battlefields, using a pinhole camera he made himself. 

A pinhole camera requires making long exposures, so that movement is blurred, giving the images a ghostly, timeless feeling.  I love his passion, and his artisanal way of moving backwards in time. He even wears period clothing, and people have greeted him by name as Mathew Brady, the legendary Civil War photographer.

He’s met hundreds of re-enactors, some of them the descendants of the men who fought those battles.

English: American Civil War re-enactors, 1997,...

English: American Civil War re-enactors, 1997, by Rick Dikeman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was extraordinary hearing him describe some of these people and how emotional these encounters and re-enactments are. In the same landscapes, unchanged two centuries on, they’re re-making history, lost in time.

I read a lot of history, for pleasure, hungry to know how we got where we are, politically, economically, philosophically. So I  understand this impulse to try and feel what it might have been like to live 100, 200 or 500 years ago.

I’m intensely curious about what other lives are like — although there is a very large gap between a temporary dress-up fantasy of 19th or 18th century life and living it as it was — without anesthesia, antibiotics or a woman’s right to vote or own property.

I once owned, and wore, a Victorian combing jacket, with its own internal cotton corset. Paisley wool, with drifts of lace and ribbon, it was a glorious garment and I walked very differently when I wore it: more slowly, more deliberately. It was an intimate encounter with the woman who might have worn it then.

For my first wedding, I wore a cotton dress from about 1905, complete with a eyelet underskirt. My maid of honor wore a Victorian dress. I wasn’t trying to be anything or re-create a moment, but had hated every contemporary wedding dress I tried on.

Surprisingly, I felt completely comfortable, and we married in this rivers’s edge chapel from 1840 with no electricity, just a huge chandelier lit with candles.

Here’s a link to the most recent Victorian ball held in Nahant, Massachusetts a week ago, at which guests wore period clothing, much of which they made themselves.

I bet this is part of the fascination with the HBO television series Game of Thrones, which I occasionally watch. And steampunk. I love the Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films with Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law and Canadian actress Rachel McAdams, for their stylish re-creation of period London. The films Moulin Rouge and Ana Karenina did this well, too, although the jewelry worn by Keira Knightley, (Chanel, carefully placed) was entirely wrong for the period. If you’re a historical accuracy maven, it’s fun to see when they get it wrong, or right.

I’ve had two experiences that moved me back in time to the 18th and 19th centuries. One was riding in, and driving, a horse-drawn sleigh through the woods of Quebec, much tougher than it looks!

The other, best week ever, was crewing aboard Endeavour, an Australian replica of a Tall Ship. We slept in narrow, swaying hammocks, climbed the rough rope rigging dozens of times a day to furl enormous, heavy square canvas sails while standing 100 feet in the air on a narrow footrope (just as it sounds.) We handled lines (ropes) so heavy and thick that two of them filled my forearm. I’ve never been more cut, more exhausted or more empathetic to the lives of the men who worked aboard whaling ships and other marine craft. Dangerous as hell!

I fantasize about living in Paris in the 1920s, England in the 1600s, with Elizabeth I on the throne and turn of the 20th century Vienna, when some of my favorite artists — Secessionists like Klimt, Kokoschka and Schiele — were alive.

I’d also like to have been a British or American or Canadian woman in the 1940s, when women first poured into the workforce en masse, although the loss of loved ones to WW II would have been terrible to bear.

Red Ensign (pre-1965 Canadian flag)

Red Ensign (pre-1965 Canadian flag) (Photo credit: Lone Primate)

I’m also somehow drawn to Edwardian England. (Hello, Downton Abbey and Parade’s End) but above stairs, please!

Do you ever wish you could time-travel back in history?

Where would you go — and why?

Which eyes do you see with?

In antiques, art, beauty, behavior, culture, design, History, life on April 16, 2012 at 12:14 am

In 1988, I took a class on connoisseurship, to learn about antiques, at Historic Deerfield, in Massachusetts, led by its young, enthusiastic director. Five women showed up for the class and our first session showed us a battered, ugly, brown shell of a chair. And a bright blue, very pretty Bible stand.

Which one, he asked us, was authentic — i.e. of the period — and which was a reproduction?

Of course, the repro was the blue box. To our, then 20th century, gaze it was small, neat, tidy. And so pretty!

But not at all the right size or shape to be true to its time. Inevitably and until then unconsciously, we were seeing it through a contemporary lens, thinking how it fit into a 20th century home and life.

The hideous chair, of course, was the real thing, and terribly valuable.

That class taught us some indelible and powerful lessons:

not to make snap judgments

not to be beguiled by the externally soothing

not to be seduced by mere aesthetics

Whenever I see an early painting or building or use an early textile, (like this one, in the photo above, that covers my desk, sitting beneath my Mac, a 19th century woolen paisley shawl), I wonder about the people who made it and used it. They didn’t have electricity or television or computers or cars or effective anesthesia or antibiotics.

I know my love of old things is some powerful desire to time-travel, to place myself, even safely and temporarily, inside the lives and minds of those long gone. I often start my mornings, if I wake up before sunrise, by lighting several candles. The illumination is gentle and makes me ponder how the world appeared when that was the only source of light.

Imagine how different everything looked!

Having studied interior design, I’m passionate about interior (and exterior) beauty, whether in materials, colors, use of space. I live in suburban New York, but I often buy and read design magazines from France, England and my native Canada to see how differently their homes are created. I find them inspiring and often much more adventurous than the looks offered by American publications. The light is different, the use of historical allusion easier and colors often much richer and more muddled.

Not to mention I live and work in a one-bedroom apartment. The bathrooms and kitchens featured in American magazine are sometimes bigger than my living room! Europeans are more accustomed to designing well and intelligently for much small(er) spaces.

I love that elegant European homes often mix very modern and very old objects, as our does ours; a Tizio lamp and 18th century engravings of a South Seas voyage, to name two. For inspiration, check out Elle Decoration, Marie-Claire Maison, every version of Cote Sud/Ouest. etc.; my absolute favorite is British magazine,  The World of Interiors.

Having lived in Canada, England, France and Mexico — each of which has distinct aesthetic styles that also vary by region, in materials, colors, scale, proportion — I see design with an eye that adores the brilliant pinks and blues of Mexico, the deep black-green of Canadian forests, the gentle tones of a William Morris print, the impossible elegance of a Parisian maison particulier.

This afternoon I walked the cobble-stoned streets of old Philadelphia, looking at homes built in 1752. How did those streets appear then to the first residents?

On Saturday we visited a show of van Gogh’s paintings and I was most moved by one image, of a field in a downpour, the view through his hospital window. If you click that link above, the painting I love is in it!

How did his physical and mental state affect how he saw?

How do you see things?

What has influenced your eye?

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