Magic House of Music

EmilyHouse

For two years my daughter has been taking piano lessons from the artistic and ever-cheerful Emily, whose birthday it is today. And so I post a sketch of Emily’s house, one of the secret magic places in the Federal City—a green and flowery bower even in the whiteness of winter, colorful with painting, sculpture, and pottery from her hand and her travels, cozy with paisley and pillows, and suitably furnished: baby grand in the corner, dog napping on his pillow, cat queening it on the windowsill. To repose here through the Wednesday lesson is to enjoy a brief weekly vacation from stress.

Now it’s time for some music: Happy birthday, dear Emileeee, happy birthday to you!

CakeMusicEmily


Last Glimpse of Erin

In honor of his birthday today, a poem by Thomas Moore (1779-1852), and a painting.

IrelandSea

Though the last glimpse of Erin with sorrow I see,
Yet wherever thou art shall seem Erin to me;
In exile thy bosom shall still be my home,
And thine eyes make my climate wherever we roam.

To the gloom of some desert or cold rocky shore,
Where the eye of the stranger can haunt us no more,
I will fly with my Coulin, and think the rough wind
Less rude than the foes we leave frowning behind.

And I’ll gaze on thy gold hair as graceful it wreathes,
And hang o’er thy soft harp, as wildly it breathes;
Nor dread that the cold-hearted Saxon will tear
One chord from that harp, or one lock from that hair.

—Thomas Moore
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CakeBerries2Kristen

Isadorable

In honor of the birthday of Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) I post this sketch of my daughter in her ballet costume, drawn about 7 years ago. I was surprised to see how many quick sketches I had made over the years of my daughter dancing, in various costumes, trailing scarves and capes and, in one case, a large feather duster. I don’t think Isadora Duncan made use of feather dusters. However, she really did have a troupe of students named the Isadorables.

EBallerina

CakeWeddingJana and Tom


To Ellen, At The South

A May bouquet from my sketchbook.

MayBouquet

Ellen, a poet herself, shares a birthday with Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) so it seemed appropriate to post this poem for the two of them today. Except that Ellen is actually At The North.

To Ellen, At The South

The green grass is growing,
The morning wind is in it,
‘Tis a tune worth the knowing,
Though it change every minute.

‘Tis a tune of the spring,
Every year plays it over,
To the robin on the wing,
To the pausing lover.

O’er ten thousand thousand acres
Goes light the nimble zephyr,
The flowers, tiny feet of shakers,
Worship him ever.

Hark to the winning sound!
They summon thee, dearest, Saying;
“We have drest for thee the ground,
Nor yet thou appearest.

“O hasten, ‘tis our time,
Ere yet the red summer
Scorch our delicate prime,
Loved of bee, the tawny hummer.

“O pride of thy race!
Sad in sooth it were to ours,
If our brief tribe miss thy face,—
We pour New England flowers.

“Fairest! choose the fairest members
Of our lithe society;
June’s glories and September’s
Show our love and piety.

“Thou shalt command us all,
April’s cowslip, summer’s clover
To the gentian in the fall,
Blue-eyed pet of blue-eyed lover.

“O come, then, quickly come,
We are budding, we are blowing,
And the wind which we perfume
Sings a tune that’s worth thy knowing.”

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

CakeDaisiesEllen

(Maybe by this time next year I can find one for Jeannie.)

CakeStarsJean

Prince of Binomial Nomenclature: Part 1

This is a drawing of Trifolium repens (Three leaves, creeping), otherwise known as white clover, from our Botany block. My daughter has been growing her very own patch of it in the garden, and it’s doing a lot better than the arugula.

I post this drawing because Trifolium repens was personally given its name by none other than…the Prince of Binomial Nomenclature.

Clover

Wouldn’t Prince of Binomial Nomenclature be an awesome title for a work of sophisticated tween fantasy literature? An unknown yet gifted Swedish youth—the future Prince—ventures forth into the wilderness, despite the objections of his parents, to make discoveries that change thenceforth the way we look at relationships among all living things on Earth, and founds the Grand Kingdom of Binomial Nomenclature.

This is actually a TRUE story. Today is the birthday of Carl, or Carolus, Linnaeus (1707-1778), who grew up in Stenbrohult, Sweden, in a village surrounded by farmland, woods, and mountains, a made-to-order environment for a future naturalist. But his father and grandfather were both country pastors, and they expected little Carl would follow in their footsteps, so his parents hired a tutor for his pastor-preparatory education.

Carl, however, showed from an early age a distinct inclination to wander off looking at plants. Exasperated, his family sent him away at age nine to a school in town, where classes ran from 6 am to 5 pm and consisted of studying Latin, Greek, and the Bible. Astonishingly, this did nothing to increase Linnaeus’ passion for school (although the Latin came in handy later, as we shall see). Often he skipped class to explore the fields, examining flowers. The only subjects he liked were logic and physics, taught by the town doctor, who lent him books and persuaded Linnaeus’ parents to let him become a doctor instead of a clergyman—this was an age when almost all medicines were plant-based, so knowledge of them was extremely useful—and offered him anatomy and physiology studies until he was ready for University. A doctor! What a crushing disappointment! But they reluctantly agreed.

Linnaeus enrolled first at Lund University, where his father had studied. No one there taught his real interest, botany, but he was befriended by a professor with botany books in his personal library, from which Linnaeus taught himself. When Linnaeus transferred to the University at Uppsala for its botanical gardens, his parents withdrew their financial support. You’re on your own, you little botanist.

So poor that he suffered from malnutrition and patched his shoes with paper, Linnaeus would have withdrawn from school if not for a fortunate meeting with a theology professor who was so taken with Linnaeus’ botanical knowledge that he offered him room and board and found him tutoring work. Grateful, Linnaeus thanked him with the gift of a paper he had written on pollination. Not your typical present (“Happy birthday! I wrote you a paper on pollination!”), but I guess he knew his recipient.

Why pollination? Well, Linnaeus was troubled by the popular methods of plant classification and had begun to ponder a new system. Classification of organisms was hardly a new concept, dating back at least to Aristotle, but naturalists differed on how it ought to be done, and several different systems existed. Was it to be by form? By function? By environment? (One system grouped beavers with fish, because both live in water. For a while the Catholic church permitted beaver to be eaten on fast days. That must have made the Jesuits’ work easier in North America.) What about the problem of naming? The same plant or animal was given a multitude of names in different countries. And what about the absolute flood of new, unfamiliar flora and fauna arriving from expeditions to the Americas? It was overwhelming.

Linnaeus’ paper explained a theory he had developed about the roles of stamens and pistils in plants. The professor, impressed, had it read at the Swedish Royal Academy of Science, and, although Linnaeus was still a student, he was offered a position as a botanical lecturer. His talks drew hundreds of listeners, many times the usual number. This was partly due to the controversial nature of the subject of plant reproduction (a new, hot topic) and partly due to Linnaeus’ unusually poetic and anthropomorphic descriptions of his plant subjects’ structure and habits. “The actual petals of the flower contribute nothing to generation, serving only as bridal beds,” he said. And, “It is time for the bridegroom to embrace his beloved bride and surrender his gifts to her.” That’s my kind of botany class! No wonder he brought in the crowds. Nowadays we can usually mention stamens in public without causing a shiver of excitement. (Correct me if I am wrong here.)

Please see Prince of Binomial Nomenclature: Part 2

Secret potion

TomT

Here is friend and neighbor Tom, a brainy and funny guy who combines 21st century thinking with old-fashioned gentlemanly kindness. In honor of his birthday I am putting up this drawing of him from my sketchbook. Although it was drawn several years ago, Tom never seems to get any older. (What’s REALLY in that glass, anyway?) Happy Birthday, Tom. Perhaps you are already awake and having your morning Elixir of Youth.

CakeStarsTom


Birthday girl

In looking through my sketchbooks I came across this drawing made ten years ago (!!!) of the daughter of old friends (and now a grown-up friend herself)—the delightful, smart and multi-talented Hallie, whose birthday it is today. Here she is diligently, and characteristically, doing her homework. Happy Birthday, Hallie! I hope you have raspberries and whipped cream for breakfast.

Hallie00

CakeBerries2Hallie



Renaissance Man

In the middle of Italy, in the middle of the 15th century, a prosperous Florentine attorney had an assignation with a peasant girl who subsequently became pregnant. Having no intention of marrying out of his class, he nevertheless adopted the child (and married someone else). But it’s doubtful either suspected that their dalliance would produce one of the most extraordinary geniuses of an extraordinary era. Or perhaps of any era. Today is the birthday of that baby, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), and what can I say of this man that hasn’t already been said a thousand times, and much better too? But in respect I devote today’s post to him, along with a sketch I made at a Smithsonian Discovery Theater performance about his life (signed by the actor, Oran Sandel).

The period we call the Italian Renaissance stretched from the 14th to the 16th centuries, when the disposable wealth of a growing middle class helped to fund travel, trade, manufacture, learning and art, and the educated citizen reached back beyond a medieval sleep to rediscover the classical world and open his mind to earth and sky. Leonardo’s life-span fell at the heart of this era. He was not an isolated pheomenon; he was part of a continuum that stretched from Piero della Francesca and Donatello to Michelangelo and Raphael. And yet within this continuum he is remarkable.

Little Leonardo had no formal schooling, but apparently showed an early aptitude for mathematics, music, and drawing, and at fourteen was apprenticed to the artist Andrea del Verocchio. Now, “artist” is a label with a shifting interpretation, and in 15th-century Italy it did not mean a superstar who sat pouring out his heart and his genius before an easel or a block of marble. No, an artist was a bloke whom you hired to manage all sorts of practical and decorative tasks. Verrochio got his start as a goldsmith, and when his work sent him to Rome and he perceived the city’s appreciation of statuary, he said to himself, “Allora—I can do that!” And so he did, creating sculpture in plaster, marble, and bronze, with the occasional bell-casting to keep pasta on the table.

Leonardo was a gifted pupil who studied both artistic and technical skills, working in metal, plaster, leather, and wood as well as paint, and, the story goes, he quickly surpassed his master. At 20 he was admitted to a guild composed of artists, chemists, and physicians (perhaps this made it handy to study anatomy).

He began to receive commissions, and after a few years applied to the Duke of Milan for an appointment, writing that he could design bridges, canals, and buildings; make light and heavy weaponry; create sculpture; and paint. How’s that for a resume? He was hired, and his many tasks included not only those above but decorating palace rooms, creating pageants, and designing costumes for festivals. It seems like a waste of his talents, but one of the most striking and curious aspects of Leonardo was his apparently inexhaustible interest in everything and its effect on his limitless imagination.

The list of his interests is stunning. Of course he was interested in the human face and form in all its positions, moods, and stages of life, from the beautiful to the grotesque, from the skeleton to the fetus to the movement of blood. But he also loved animal life, and all of nature, not just its forms but its structures and functions. He was fascinated by the movement of water, by clouds, by astronomy. He explored the wonders of geometry, optics, color, light, heat, sound, magnetism, geology, fossils, the chemistry of pigments, the flight of birds. He filled thousands and thousands of journal pages with his observations and sketches. He designed (famously ahead of his time) predecessors of the armored tank, the helicopter, the hang-glider.

And, yes, he painted. Probably, although we are aware of his multi-faceted pursuits, we remember him best for his painting. The Mona Lisa. The Last Supper. The Virgin of the Rocks. He didn’t leave us many (and what he did leave is astonishing)—a mere handful of finished paintings and sculptures. Thousands of sketches. And a number of works that are unfinished, or deteriorating because of his use of experimental materials. When we gaze upon his people, living and breathing and thinking and feeling upon the canvas, we might wonder:

What was going on with this artist that he didn’t feel compelled to bring forth a few more amazing works of art?

Was he such a perfectionist that the energy for his approach was limited? (He was famous for—and exasperated his clients with—the preparation, the thought, the hundreds of studies that preceded any final work.)

Was the process more interesting to him than the product?

What’s with all the hobbies? Did he think he was going to live FOREVER, for heaven’s sake?

Near the end of his life, when he was working for the French king François I (designing canals, arranging pageants), he wrote despairingly in one of his notebooks, “I have wasted my hours.” But in another he wrote, “As a day well-spent makes it sweet to sleep, so a life well-spent makes it sweet to die.” I am hoping it is the latter thought that was with him at the end.

Wild About Harry

This picture is from our Local History and Geography lesson block.

Wardman

If you lived in Washington, DC in 1938, ONE out of every TEN of your neighbors was living in a house or apartment built by Harry Wardman (1872-1938), whose birthday it is today. Not bad for a guy born in Bradford, England who came to the United States at age 17 and started out as a department store floorwalker in New York. He moved on to a store in Philadelphia, then to Washington, DC in 1893, where he found carpentry work and learned to build staircases.

Wardman wasn’t satisfied with staircases, however. Washington suffered from housing shortages both after the Civil War and after World War I, and Wardman was poised and eager to fill the need. He moved on from staircases to building entire houses, and then larger structures: buying land, building on it and selling, then buying new land for another project. He built apartment buildings, office buildings, hotels, clubs, and whole neighborhoods of row houses renowned for the quality of their construction and materials.

Wardman built many of Washington’s grandest apartment buildings, the Hay-Adams Hotel, and the British Embassy, but his best-known project is probably the Wardman Park Hotel in Woodley Park. Wardman and his wife already had an impressive mansion in the neighborhood, at the intersection of the newly-extended Connecticut Avenue and Woodley Road. An iron bridge had only just been built in 1891 allowing easier travel across the ravine of Rock Creek Valley, and Wardman decided that Woodley Park would be a fine location for a hotel.

So in 1916, while his wife was overseeing their daughter’s schooling in Paris, Wardman ordered a crew to empty their house of its furnishings, and then he had the place torn down, to be replaced by the Wardman Park Hotel (now the Marriott Wardman Park). People called it “Wardman’s Folly.” Why, you ask? Supposedly because no one in his right mind would ever want to stay in a hotel soooo far away from downtown. But I’m trying to imagine returning from a trip to Paris and discovering that my husband has knocked down our house and replaced it with a hotel. “Folly” is certainly one word that would come to mind. Many other words, too, probably.

Wardman made a fortune. By 1929 he had amassed $30 million (which I understand was a lot of money in those days). Most of it was lost in the stock market crash, but he retained enough to continue some of his building projects and was on his way to a second fortune when he died, having spent years putting roofs of one sort or another over the heads of Washingtonians. Our family lives today in a Wardman neighborhood (our house turns 100 years old this year), and I definitely plan to put some candles in the dessert tonight and sing Happy Birthday to Harry.

CakeBalloons2Greg

My Heart Leaps Up

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky.
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
—William Wordsworth

Rainbow

(painting is a detail from a larger work, The Age of Reason)

Whenever someone in the family mentions a rainbow, my husband launches into this poem. (It’s now inevitably become a sort of family tradition—wait for it….) And today we celebrate the fortuitous birthday of its author, William Wordsworth (1770-1850), born in Cumberland, England.

Is it obligatory for English poets to have had unhappy childhoods? Wordsworth’s was no exception—his father, mysteriously, lived apart from the family, and when the children’s mother died, instead of taking them in, he parcelled them out between boarding schools and a series of unpleasant misery-inducing relatives. Wordsworth wasn’t reunited with his beloved favorite sister Dorothy for years. The highlight of his dismal schooling (besides introducing him to his future wife) was the holidays, which he consistently spent going long walks in nature and writing poetry.

At twenty Wordsworth set off on a walking tour of Italy, Switzerland, and post-Revolutionary France, where he became a passionate advocate of the republican cause. In France he formed a liaison with a local girl, but the relationship was discouraged by her parents (despite his having fathered a daughter whom he visited and supported rather erratically over the years). He returned home alone, disillusioned by the increasing violence of the revolution and England’s violent response to it, aimless, without profession, depressed.

This dark period was finally relieved by a legacy from Raisley Calvert, a sculptor and loyal former classmate, that allowed Wordsworth to support himself while writing poetry. May we all be so fortunate in our old school friends! With a steady income, he was able to form a household with Dorothy and their mutual friend Samuel Coleridge that Dorothy termed “three persons with one soul.”

It was a creative partnership that marked the birth of English Romanticism. Inspired by one another, Wordsworth and Coleridge produced innovative, experimental, controversial poetry, and Dorothy’s letters (luckily for literary historians) documented the process. Wordsworth defined poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” but his rapture was borne within measured frameworks, among them the sonnet form, which Wordsworth reawakened after its long disuse. In 1798 they published Lyrical Ballads (“Tintern Abbey,” “The Idiot Boy,” “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”) and Romanticism was up and running.

The Romantic movement emphasized the value of individual experience, the contributions of ethnic traditions and folklore, the primal power of wild landscape and the wonders of nature, a consciousness of the infinite, and the use of imagination and the senses as a path to spiritual truth. It was a break from the formal elegance, polish, dignity and conservative restraint that characterized the formerly hot movement, Neoclassicism. Instead of, say, a series of elevated dramatic couplets on the epic semi-divine hero of ancient tragedy, we have a lyrical meditation on the soul-response to a sea of daffodils, or to the loss of a much-loved child. A personal perspective on life, the natural world, and mortality.

Yes…quite a break! taken up by Blake, Scott, and Göethe, followed by a whole string of younger Romantic poets and writers (Byron, Shelley, Keats, Hugo, Dumas, Pushkin) and the Transcendentalists (Emerson, Thoreau) and later the Victorians (Browning, Tennyson). Where would it end?? Culture as well as politics seems to be an ongoing struggle between the poles of head and heart, with adherents of each movement certain of having achieved a universally valid means of expression. But that is a subject for another post.

The partnership foundered on a falling-out with Coleridge, a pretty gloomy fellow, as one would expect of someone who writes a lengthy baffling poem about a curse-bearing dead albatross. Wordsworth and Dorothy moved on, settling eventually in the beautiful Lake District, that region abundant in literary inspiration and indomitable tourists. Joined by Robert Southey, the two became known as the “Lake Poets,” and Wordsworth married and proceeded to have five children. A sizable household. But a household that, as any other, had its share of suffering, with the drowning of William and Dorothy’s brother, and the deaths of three of the children. Wordsworth’s poetry grew more sober, restrained, and elegiac. In fact in his later years, while serving as England’s poet laureate, he was criticized by younger writers for his increasing conservatism. Suffering and loss does shade and temper youthful abandon.

Even if you can’t recite a Romantic poem in entirety, you know that your head is filled with lovely memorable fragments (“Dear God! the very houses seem asleep; And all that mighty heart is lying still…” “I wandered lonely as a cloud That floats on high o’er vales and hills…” “The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star, Hath had elsewhere its setting, And cometh from afar…”) that are part of our literary legacy and that emerge in moments of wonder and joy. For the fragments, for the poetry, for the consciousness that shaped them, and for my husband’s regular recital of the rainbow poem, thank you, William Wordsworth, and Happy Birthday.