The Grand Old Man of the Overmantel

On a visit to Cranbrook House, Johannes Kirchmayer’s overmantel is one of the first things to catch your attention. Tours and blog posts have examined this chef d’œuvre and its iconography, and admirers tracing the quotation popping out from the carved eglantine find it a typical George Booth choice: art, nature, his love for both. The inscription reads: 

“Nature I loved and next to nature art”

Cranbrook is the Booths’ creation, brimming with art and nature and George Booth quotes, but who wrote this line, and how did it end up in such a prominent spot? 

Johannes Kirchmayer’s overmantel at Cranbrook House, 1918. The Walter Savage Landor quote is called out in gold leaf at the top of the overmantel. Photograph by PD Rearick, CAA ’10. Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

It comes from the pen of Walter Savage Landor.

Born into minor aristocratic wealth in Warwick, England, in 1775, Landor was a wild child, quite possibly because he was sent away to school at 4 ½ years old and was a wonderment to his parents who didn’t know what to do with a child who wrote Latin as well as he wrote English and showed remarkable talent for not obeying rules of any kind.

Walter Savage Landor in profile, from Walter Savage Landor: A Biography by John Forster, 1869. Courtesy Heritage Auctions.

Landor enjoyed such violent fights over political opinion that his parents banned him from the dinner table when guests were present. No school could hang onto him. Even Trinity College, Oxford had enough of his rebelliousness, his anti-government stance, his French Revolution republican garb. Landor fought back by writing nasty aphoristic poems about his critics in Latin and English, a practice he continued throughout his life. He was particularly vicious in Latin, partly because in England libel laws did not extend to texts in Latin. He was very clever and iconoclastic, favoring social reform and liberal nationalism. He felt himself superior to others and hated competition just in case it might prove him wrong. Hence his epigram, if not epitaph, written on his 74th birthday in 1849:

FINIS

I strove with none, for none was worth my strife:

Nature I loved, and, next to Nature, Art:

I warmed both hands before the fire of life;

It sinks; and I am ready to depart.

He may have been ready to depart, but it would be another fifteen years before he got around to it.

Much earlier, in 1805, Landor inherited a huge amount of money from his father and determined to set up an estate in Wales, restore an abandoned priory on the property, build a large mansion, and reform the peasantry. Impetuous as ever, he flew off to Spain in 1808 to fight in the Peninsular War against Napoleon’s generals, raising his own regiment. Unfortunately, Landor couldn’t stop himself from quarreling with hosts, commanding officers, and his own troops whereupon he fled back to Wales to find building materials for his hoped-for mansion had trickled away much as had his regiment.

Ruins of Llanthony Priory. Photograph copyright Gordon Hatton, reused by CC BY-SA 2.0.

Here we enter into the realm of coincidence. Landor, an Englishman, building in Wales, found upon his return from Spain that the locals had run off with a lot of his bricks. In an 1809 letter to the local bishop, Landor cursed the Welsh in his inimitable manner insisting that they would demolish the tomb of famed poet Taliesin if they could get away with it. For those readers who are architecture buffs, the name Taliesin can only conjure up one image, not that of the 5th or 6th century Welsh bard, but that of Welsh-connected Frank Lloyd Wright who thus named his east and west architectural compounds, citing the translation as “shining brow.”

But, back to Landor. Once restored to the throne, the king of Spain sent Landor a flock of sheep in recognition for his services. When the sheep arrived at the English docks, they were assumed to be a gift for the king (George III), and try as he might, Landor could not get them back, and one couldn’t sue the king. He had to wait until George IV died before publishing his opinion, one of his most famous attacks:

George the First was always reckoned

Vile, but viler George the Second.

And what mortal ever heard

A good word of George the Third,

But when from earth the Fourth descended

God be praised the Georges ended.

Alas, even though Landor was able to persuade a lovely young woman, 16 years his junior, to marry him in 1811, all was not well. Quarrelsome as always and with no business sense, Landor fled again from Wales to Fiesole outside Florence in Italy where he fared slightly better. In spite of money troubles and a wife who loved to taunt him about his age, this was the period of his great creativity, writing the totally invented Imaginary Conversations between two famous historical people. Poets such as Byron and Robert Southey loved his work, Byron even doing Landor the honor of stealing the Greek name chosen for a young Landor love to apply to the principal lady in his Child Harold. Readers struggled through these long obscure works (or didn’t) and praised a beautifully succinct passage or two, and those are the excerpts along with his crusty aphorisms that made him famous.

Walter Savage Landor’s two volume Pericles and Aspasia at Saarinen House, a gift from George G. Booth to Eliel Saarinen. Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

And here is the second coincidence. The inscription in Cranbrook House inspired this blog on Landor, who deserved some recognition. Yet it was while idling in Saarinen House waiting for a COVID-safe tour for Cranbrook students that I found myself looking at the beauty spots of the house. My eye fell on the table in the book room. Upon it lay a couple of tastefully placed little books from the Saarinen collection. I peered at the spine and saw in gold capitals the name LANDOR. They were volumes one and two of his Conversation Pericles and Aspasia, his best-known conversation, first published 1836. The flyleaf revealed the occasion for a gift to Saarinen upon his 60th birthday in 1933, wishing him a happy life, signed G. G. Booth.

Inscribed flyleaf of Pericles and Aspasia from Booth to Saarinen on the latter’s 60th birthday, August 20, 1933. Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Pericles was the great Athenian general of the 5th century BCE Peloponnesian wars, and Aspasia his female companion. Their conversation by Landor is a series of letters between the lovers and their immediate companions with walk-on roles for Aeschylus, Pindar, Socrates, and Alcibiades.

First page of Landor’s Pericles and Aspasia. Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

The language is high-flown and not all that accessible; no wonder Landor is hardly known today.

He continued to quarrel with everyone, finally getting thrown out of his own house in 1835 at age 60 by wife, daughter and one son, and fled Italy after scurrilous Latin verses excited the authorities. Back in England, as irascible as ever, Landor continued to write conversations and poems and found himself the grand old man of letters as his fame grew. Carlyle, Tennyson, Browning, Trollope, and Dickens (Landor appears in Bleak House as Lawrence Boythorn) were admiring dinner companions when Landor wasn’t in too bad a temper.

Villa La Torraccia, or Villa Landor, in Fiesole, Italy. Photograph by Sailko, reused by CC BY 3.0.

His last six years were spent back in Italy. He died, escaping as usual, in a hotel in Florence in 1864. The villa was later bought by explorer Willard Fiske and renamed Villa Landor. The villa, altered over the years, is now the Fiesole School of Music, echoing no doubt to the rages and laughter of its most prominent owner. Llanthony Priory continued to decay until protected by the Welsh government cultural group, Cadw.

Even though Landor’s life can hardly have met his approval, it is not surprising, perhaps, that George Booth found a quote from the grand old man of the previous century to adorn his own masterpiece, though one might find the use of the word “strife” ambiguous. Just as well Booth chose only the line that suited his purpose: “Nature I loved, and, next to Nature, Art.” The grand old man has come to rest.

–Lynette Mayman, Collections Interpreter

Inside the Booth Library

For all of us who are confined to quarters and find ourselves condemned to read from our own library, let me invite you into George and Ellen Booth’s ample domain. Those of you who know Cranbrook House, the Booths’ Albert Kahn mansion, will have visited the library or attended events there. Perhaps your attention was more taken up by the Herter tapestry or the Kirchmeyer overmantel than by what is on the actual shelves, but art aside, let’s look at the books.

George Booth may well have had a jobber buying books for him to fill those shelves, and he certainly would have been aware of the 1909 Collier’s Harvard Classics, consisting of all the books Harvard President Charles Eliot deemed essential background reading for an educated man of substance.

Cranbrook House library, 1920.

View of the south end of the Cranbrook House library, 1920. Photo by John Wallace Gillies. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

So, books to impress and accessorize, yes, but now we need to read: we want to be lost in a book that takes us away from this turbulent world. What’s on offer? We will skip Dante’s Inferno, however much we may feel it appropriate, and pick some things at random which you can read either through your e-reader or your library access to Hoopla! and which may do the trick.

Nonfiction: Sven Hedin’s Through Asia. Remember Sven Hedin from Carl Milles’s sculpture at the Institute of Science?

Carl Milles's "Sven Hedin" sculpture, which sits beside the reflecting pool at the Cranbrook Institute of Science.

Carl Milles’s “Sven Hedin” (1932), which sits beside the reflecting pool at the Cranbrook Institute of Science. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Hedin was a Swedish explorer of Central Asia in the 1920s. His accounts are absorbing and illustrated copiously by Hedin himself. Read Hedlin here.

Who doesn’t love the memoirs of a spy? Here comes Bruce Lockhart’s best-selling Memoirs of a British Agent, his 1932 account of diplomatic shenanigans in Moscow, trying to keep Russia in the war against Germany in 1918. This was the book to be reading in 1933. Purchase Lockhart here.

British Agent from Booth Library

Memoirs of a British Agent in the Booth Library, 11th Printing, 1933. Courtesy of Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

This next one is really quite a story and a book I knew nothing about. On the Booth shelves it is called A German Prince and His Victim, but in Google Play you will find it as Memoirs of a Young Greek Lady. This is no novel but the autobiographical account of a 14-year-old girl and her abduction by Prince Ernest of Saxe-Coburg. The Coburgs, though minor princelings in theory, ended up marrying into all the royal families of Europe including Russia. This good duke was the philandering father of Queen Victoria’s Albert, and not at all of the same character. If you have watched the PBS series, Victoria, you will remember that the brothers Ernest and Albert were embarrassed that their father was their father. The writing is histrionic, to say the least, but the story is riveting, the duke dreadful, the girl tenacious: the forerunner to reports you will find in newspapers today. I have to say I was mesmerized by this story and gobbled it up. Read the memoirs here.

Ernst_I,_Duke_of_Saxe-Coburg_and_Gotha_-_Dawe_1818-19

Portrait of Ernest I, Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, by George Dawe, 1819.  Courtesy of The Royal Collection.

And novels: I was glad to see that the Booths have a copy of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.  I am told there is a great TV serialization of this comédie humaine, but the book contains everything you will ever need to know about human nature, told with humor and restraint. The writers of the TV serialization of Sanditon, the would-be adaptation of the Jane Austen tale, have certainly borrowed from this novel. Read Thackeray here.

Vanity Fair from Booth Library

Vanity Fair title page in the Booth Library, from The Works of William Makepeace Thackeray Vol. I, 1878. Courtesy of Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

If you have never read these books, you should; the stories are magnificent and the nineteenth century novelistic version of the action movie, and quite possibly the archetype of swashbuckling in movies or anywhere else: The Three Musketeers series by Alexandre Dumas. They are a great read for young adults too. Read Dumas here.

One of the twenty-one illustrations of "The Three Musketeers" by A. J. Lalauze in the Collection of the Cranbrook Art Museum (CAM 1955.360.15).

One of the twenty-one illustrations of “The Three Musketeers” by A. J. Lalauze in the Collection of the Cranbrook Art Museum (CAM 1955.360.15).

Family time. Try reading Sheridan’s The Rivals out loud. It’s a challenge but very funny. This play has the great Mrs. Malaprop who manages to misuse words in a most perplexing fashion. Your reading out loud will improve immeasurably, and you may even find that some of the expressions find their way in your life. Read Sheridan here.

Malapropism from GRE Word of the Day

A malapropism courtesy of GRE Word of the Day.

There are lots of great reads in the Booth library, whether intentionally collected or not.  We are just scratching the surface here!

Just a note: the books remaining on the library shelves today represent only a portion of the Booth collection, many of the more notable volumes being housed in the Academy of Art Library or Cranbrook Archives.

If you want to know what happened to the “victim” of the German prince after the period in question, reply in the comments and we can fill you in.

–Lynette Mayman, Collections Interpreter

Editor’s Note: Happy National Library Week, everyone!

Library Gets [New] Historic Look

Recently, after years of research and investigation, the carpeting in the Cranbrook House Library was restored to its original appearance.

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The previous rugs were donated to Cranbrook House in the 1990s but were not historically accurate.

By studying images of the Library in Cranbrook Archives, we could determine that in George and Ellen Booth’s lifetimes there was a large, solid carpet on the floor, not the oriental rugs seen in recent years.

A review of the Cranbrook House 1921, 1933, 1937, and 1949 inventories (itemized lists of the house’s contents for insurance purposes), as well receipts and historic images, revealed the style and color of the rug: Axminster mottled brown or taupe. This may sound boring, but monochromatic rugs were chosen by the Booths to draw visitors attention up to the furnishings, books, elaborate carvings, and tapestries in the Library.

Axminster was both a brand name and specific type of carpet. Axminster is cut pile carpet (a style of carpet where the woven loops are cut leaving straight tufts of carpet). It derives its name from the small town in England where the process of weaving its distinctive style was created. Looking for a modern, cost-effective equivalent, made in the same fashion as the original Axminster, led us to Bloomsburg Carpet Industries, Inc. They have woven wool broadloom Aximinster and Wilton carpets in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania using traditional methods since 1976. With the help of interior designer (and Cranbrook Academy of Art Board of Governor) Lynda Charfoos, we were able to select a color that both closely matched the description “‘mottled’ brown or taupe” and also looked great with the tones and colors of the Library.

On April 30, we cleared the Library so that on May 1, the rugs could be installed by Carpet Design Group, LLC.

KDA_0278

Workmen from Carpet Design Group fusing together the four sections of the carpet.

The Library was reinstalled the next day with a new floor plan based on careful examination of historic photographs and itemized lists of what sat where. Watch the slideshow to compare historic images to the reinstalled room:

We feel guests and staff alike will enjoy this return of the original look to the Library. It will allow the carvings to pop, the colors in the tapestries to appear stronger, and make for a more historically accurate room. Continuing to keep the Booth house looking its best is all part of helping to tell the Cranbrook story to guests from the neighborhood and around the world.

Cranbrook House_5-14-18 Jim Haefner

Photograph by Jim Haefner. Courtesy of Jim Haefner and Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

The Center would like to thank the following, without whom this project would not have been possible: Cranbrook Educational Community, Cranbrook House and Gardens Auxiliary, Lynda Charfoos, Bloomberg Carpet, Carpet Design Group, and Chet’s Cleaning Service. Special thanks also to Jim Haefner for photographing the Library.

Come see the new look of the Cranbrook House Library this summer on a Cranbrook House and Gardens Auxiliary house tour.

– Leslie Mio, Associate Registrar

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