Eminent Victorians

Large or small, each dome protects its interior world of meticulous Victorian craftsmanship. Some house extraordinary arrangements of wax flowers or fruit or bird and flower arrangements in wool­work, silk, shellwork, cut paper, even seeds. One dome contains an arrangement of sailing ships in spun glass, another an intimate historical scene: Elizabeth I bestowing the Order of the Garter on the Earl of Essex, both figures with tinted wax heads and hands. "We bought this about twenty years ago from an antiques dealer on Cape Cod who had hand-carried it back from London," Whitenight explains. "It had been deaccessioned by a children's museum along with a complete collection of domes containing English monarchs from William the Conqueror to Victoria. And I still keep asking where the rest of that collection went."

Other domes contain taxidermy: exotic birds naturalistically perched on branches. Else­where in the room a glazed carved oval fire screen is filled with an arrangement of stuffed birds (Fig. 11). "Most fire screens of this type are rectan­gular or square," Whitenight says, "which makes this one of the most unusual pieces in the collection." More important historically, however, it was made by Henry Ward, whose family constituted one of the most prominent taxi­dermy firms in London. "In the 1820s or 1830s, when Ward was a young taxidermist, he met John James Audubon, who invited him to join his expedition to Florida," Whitenight explains. "Most people don't realize that Audubon did not paint his birds from life but from taxidermy. And Ward helped preserve and wire the birds for Audubon to paint." Although most of the domes have required some refreshing and cleaning, which Whitenight does himself, he reports that "more than ninety-nine percent of them are original to their contents."

On the floor above the Belter parlor is the "Belter bedroom," which contains a further collection of handiwork-needlework, woolwork, papier maché, hairwork (Figs. 14, 16). But the centerpiece here is the curvaceous bed patented by Belter in 1856. Its beautifully figured surfaces are formed of twenty-one layers of laminated rosewood bent by steam. Nearby is an associated Belter dresser, and the room's chief rarity, a Belter armoire. "We only know of one other example, with two doors," Whitenight says. "Ours has a single door."

At the other end of the hall, presided over by an English neo-Gothic armoire possibly by Gillows of Lancaster, according to LaValley, is the "aesthetic bedroom," where a wonderfully lively neo-Gothic walnut bed, pos­sibly by Allen and Brother of Philadelphia, lies invitingly beneath the multicolor shades of an aes­thetic movement gasolier (Figs. 13, 15). There are also several elabo­rately carved pieces of Cincinnati art furniture here, including a Canterbury, or music cabinet, with the name "Mozart" in uncial letters carved into the foliage. "I love these Cincinnati pieces," Whitenight exclaims, "because as an art teacher I admire the fact that the firm's art school taught women the craft of carving for cabinetry constructed by men." To ensure that all this elabo­rate neo-Gothicism is not too overwhelming in its architectonic sobriety, a Wenzel Friedrich horn chair lends a Wild West touch.

Similarly, the "aesthetic parlor" down on the second floor is LaValley's lair. Near the door is a marble sculpture of a sleeping child by William Henry Rinehart (1825-1874), whose marble Latona and Her Children, Apollo and Diana is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's American Wing. As in the Belter parlor, red is the chief color here, and the aura cast by American pieces, some by Kimbel and Cabus, some Pottier and Stymus, some unattributed, evokes the era and American setting of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's first Sherlock Hol­mes novel, A Study in Scarlet.

Over the sofa, Walter Mason Oddie's 1852 painting The Susquehanna River, near Bingham­ton imparts a soft amber hue. An ebonized center table inlaid with amboyna wood and bone displays a grand-tour marble copy of the ancient group The Wrestlers in the Galleria degli Uffizi (see Fig. 18). Attributed to Bruce J. Talbert, the table was purchased from the eminent London dealer Paul Reeves. Between the windows is a cabinet filled with more than one hundred bird specimens that was made on the Isle of Jersey in 1855 and signed by cabinetmakers Jean Luce and J. Chapelle (Fig. 19). 

In addition to other examples of natural his­tory, this parlor contains choice automata, among them a large automaton of a young Renaissance nobleman playing a mandolin. Made in Paris about 1880 to 1885 by Leopold Lambert, it could represent either Méphistophélès in Charles Gounod's Faust or Mozart's Don Giovanni (both of whom famously serenade a lady this way). When wound, he strums his mandolin while, concealed in the base, the Swiss music box by Charles Reuge plays four tunes-none are from either opera, but one tune is definitely "Win­terstürme" from Wagner's Die Walkure. "I became interested in automata in 1990," Whitenight says, "and acquired my first one in 1994." Of the nine in the present collection, several are monkeys-this was the age of Dar­win, after all. Among these is Le singe fumeur, the smoking monkey, made by Gustave Vichy of Paris, 1875 to 1885. Dressed as a pompous Directoire-era dandy, he contains no music box. But insert a lighted cigarette in his ivory holder, wind him up, and the monkey lifts his lorgnette to peer haughtily at onlookers while puffing on the cigarette and exhaling clouds of smoke through his mouth and nose.

As the final touch, LaValley draws attention to the "biggest of all their toys," an 1861 Chickering and Sons upright piano, its polished marquetry, decorative copper plaques, and carvings redolent of President Lincoln's day. But it is a Lincoln-era piano with an Obama-era twist: after having it lightly restored, Whitenight and LaValley sent it to a firm called QRS, which installed Pianomation, a computerized playing mechanism controlled by special CDs. Whitenight inserts a CD into a player concealed in an adja­cent cabinet and the ivories begin to tickle themselves. The outward effect is just like that of an early twentieth-century player piano, except that instead of piano rolls, the controls are digi­tal. "So," Whitenight says as the music plays, "we come up here many nights, set the Chickering to play Stephen Foster, and suddenly the blood pressure goes down, the neck relaxes, and it's like meditation."

LaValley sums up the effect of the house by saying that "time has stopped for a short while here, and like Mark Twain, we feel our house is a living entity. We have a wonderful symbiosis with it. Though we are making plans for certain objects, who can tell what the future will bring after we are gone? Nev­ertheless, it has been a privilege to be the custodian of such wonderful things for our lifetimes." 

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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