Bookshelf

Bookshelf provides descriptions and notices of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects.

The Devil and Dr. Barnes

by Howard Greenfeld
Viking, 1987 (306 pages, cloth, $19.95)

The colorful and bizarre­ – not to mention egotistical, irascible and eccentric – Alfred C. Barnes was a visionary individual whose collection formed the unusual and con­troversial Barnes Foundation in Merion. Born into an impover­ished Philadelphia family, Barnes helped invent a popu­lar medicine called Argyrol, which earned him a fortune. With that fortune he single­handedly amassed a trove of primarily impressionist and post-impressionist artworks and is credited with helping to “discover” artists Chaim Sou­tine and Amedeo Modigliani. This biography, subtitled Por­trait of an American Art Collector, chronicles the life – and acquisitions – of the ambitious doctor who, on his death in 1951, not only left behind one of the world’s finest privately owned collections, but accord­ing to the New York Herald Tribune, “more ill wiU than any other single figure in Ameri­can art.” During his lifetime, Barnes acquired hundreds of important works by Renoir, Matisse, Cezanne, Picasso and their contemporaries. In his zealous quest, Barnes befriended-and irritated, alienated and outraged -many of the luminaries of his day. Among his friends and ene­mies were John Dewey, Leo Stein, William Glackens, Bertrand Russell and Henri Matisse. In Paris, where he avidly collected, he was the consummate Ugly American; in the United States his taste and ideas about art were often misunderstood and ridiculed. Vitriolic and embittered, he limited access to the Barnes Foundation, an unusual mu­seum and school, still adminis­tered according to his rigid and controversial principles. His idiosyncratic temper, dis­played throughout his vituper­ative newspaper and letter campaigns, obscured his bril­liant, early recognition of the principles of modern art and his fanatic commitment to art education. The author brings both sides of this controversial character to life, and provides, as well, a unique portrait of a transitional age in art and in American artistic sensibilities. Sixteen pages of rare photo­graphs capture Barnes, some of his well known contempo­raries and works in his oft­-inaccessible collection.

 

Decorated Furniture of the Mahantongo Valley

by Henry M. Reed
Center Gallery of Bucknell University, 1987 (95 pages, cloth, $29.95)

The exuberantly painted and decorated furniture made during the first half of the nineteenth century in the Mahantongo Valley of south­eastern Pennsylvania is the subject of this striking cata­logue. This furniture stands distinctly apart from the painted pieces usually associ­ated with the Pennsylvania Germans of the region. The German immigrants who settled the Mahantongo Valley, about twenty-five miles north of Harrisburg, formed a tiny, isolated pocket of civilization and created their own distinct culture, from which this highly unusual furniture originated. Decorated Furniture provides a historical perspective to the settlement of the valley, in­cluding a look at past and present cultural and social factors, and describes various pieces, furniture makers and decorators, history of owner­ship, and the inspiration for various decorative motifs. The author has unravelled many mysteries and attributed anon­ymous pieces to specific makers and decorators. In addition to numerous photo­graphs, the book features an essay by Don Yoder which examines life in the Mahan­tongo Valley and an analysis of the account book of cabinet­maker Johannes Haas (1814-1856); a checklist of all known pieces of painted Mahantongo Valley furniture; and extensive bibliography. The book was originally published to accom­pany the first public exhibition devoted exclusively to Mahan­tongo Valley furniture, held at Bucknell University’s Center Gallery last year.

 

Two Hundred Years of Chairs and Chairmaking

by Margaret Bleecker Blades
Chester County Historical Society, 1987 (31 pages, paper, $6.50)

This catalogue, which origi­nally accompanied an exhibi­tion showcasing the breadth of the Chester County Historical Society’s rich Delaware Valley collections, documents and reveals much about the tastes and preferences of early local residents. Research for this publication called for the min­ute examination and painstak­ing analysis of more than two hundred and fifty chairs, set­tees and benches in the histori­cal society’s holdings. As a result, the author was able to document that the design of the individual pieces reflects the owner’s tastes, as well as the maker’s understanding of contemporary styles. The majority of chairs found in southeastern Pennsylvania in the eighteenth century were either imported from England or were based directly on Eng­lish prototypes. During the nineteenth century, diverse styles began to emerge. Mass production techniques and newspaper advertising served to homogenize the pro­nounced differences in re­gional design and construction characteristics typical of earlier eras. The author uses the furniture owned by the society to illustrate the evolution and trends in furniture styles and construction, graphically sub­stantiating her theories with excellent illustrations of se­lected pieces. Where appropri­ate, the author supplemented these photographs with illus­trations of details to support her contentions, and relied on county records, such and probates and wills, diaries, letters, advertisements and business ledgers to explore the history of chair production and use in Chester County. Two Hundred Years of Chairs and Chairmaking also features end­notes and an excellent cata­logue of the exhibit, which included examples by Samuel Moon, East Caln Township; John Letchworth, East Fallow­field Township; Joseph Jones, West Chester; and members of the Foreman family, Jenners­ville. This book offers – as did the exhibit – invaluable insight on consumers’ tastes and crafts­men’s skills in Chester County throughout two centuries.

 

Seeing Souderton

by Phil Johnson Ruth
Published by the Author, 1987 (190 pages, cloth, $29.95)

Seeing Souderton is a photo­graphic journey through one hundred years of this Mont­gomery County community’s last century; the book brims with with more than three hundred black and white im­ages, fifty color prints and the author’s chronological narra­tive, leading the reader through this rich pictorial gallery. The pictures tell the saga of the town at the head­waters of the Skippack Creek that was once the winter hunt­ing ground for the Lenni­-Lenape. Settled in the mid-eighteenth century by German-speaking Mennonite farmers, Souderton (then Souder’s Station) grew into an industrial center for Franconia Township with the arrival of well-traveled turnpikes and the North Penn Railroad a century later. A wealth of carefully chosen and skillfully reproduced photographs doc­ument aspects of this phenom­enal growth, which included the burgeoning of the textile and tobacco industries, the emergence of the Union Na­tional Bank and the advent of a trolley system. Photographs of more recent decades bear dramatic witness to a town transfigured by new peoples and new ways of life: spacious new churches built by the founding Mennonite, Lu­theran and Reformed congre­gations; houses standing side by side, where corn once grew; and mammoth com­puter and printing houses performing tasks inconceivable to earlier generations. Seeing Souderton is a visual history of a small Pennsylvania commu­nity, one that typifies the hun­dreds of small towns throughout the Common­wealth which, too, have re­flected what social historians and sociologists have called the “American Dream.”

 

Amish Country

by Ruth Hoover Seitz and Blair Seitz
Crescent Books, 1987 (120 pages, cloth, $9.95)

The poignant photographs of Blair Seitz capture the way of life for Lancaster County’s Amish. With his keen eye for graphic detail and arresting light, the photographer, through nearly two hundred images, all of which are in striking color, not only records the every day life of the area’s residents, but showcases the poetic richness of eastern Pennsylvania’s lush landscape. Working from before dawn to sunset, he photographed many magic moments in a day’s routine, offering an intimate look at the Amish and their traditional activities, such as barn raising, canning, har­vesting, gardening and cook­ing. Complementing these stunning photographs is the sensitive and insightful text of Ruth Hoover Seitz, who char­acterizes the lifestyle of the Amish from childhood through old age. Drawing from numerous interviews with the Amish, as well as non-Amish observers, she weaves the elements and val­ues of the culture into factually-based episodes. The author also describes commu­nal events, including the gath­ering of a “supper gang,” a worship service, a wedding and a funeral. Her writing keeps the details of Amish distinctiveness secondary to the spirit of their faith and culture. Amish Country also includes segments of a diary of a teacher in an Amish­-Mennonite school. The book reaches far beyond an enlight­ening portrayal of the Amish; it is a visual celebration of a celebrated people.

 

Henry Chap­man Mercer and the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works

by Cleota Reed
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987 (255 pages, cloth, $49.95)

The definitive book on one of the leading figures of the Arts and Crafts movement in America and his contributions to the fields of archaeology, folklore, art, architecture and museum design, Henry Chap­man Mercer and the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works both explores and celebrates Mer­cer’s early twentieth century ceramic murals, paving and sculptural reliefs. Henry Chap­man Mercer (1856-1930), a native of Doylestown, Bucks County, established the works renowned for its distinctive art pottery tiles. Between 1910 and 1930, he transformed the art of the ceramic tile in America, elevating it from a prosaic form of decoration to a medium of plastic expression capable of conveying original and com­plex ideas. His work as a ce­ramist was one of the most distinctive products of the American Arts and Crafts movement and its advocacy of handcrafted decorative objects. His unusual tile pavements, murals and sculptural reliefs represented an unprecedented approach to architectural deco­ration in the United States and had no counterpart in Europe. Henry Chapman Mercer exam­ines not only the potter’s ex­tensive output, but his philosophy and artistic sensi­bilities. It discusses his signifi­cant commissions, including the tile pavement in the State Capitol at Harrisburg, his various exhibitions and awards, and his publications, such as Guide to the Pavement in Capitol of Pennsylvania, Novem­ber Night Tales and The Bible in Iron. Most importantly, Mer­cer’s accomplishments are examined within the context of the history of ceramics, the Arts and Crafts movement in the United States and the artist’s own milieu. Drawing from an immense selection of business and personal papers, drawings, molds, tools and photography, the author ana­lyzes Mercer’s education, his work and the social and cul­tural influences of his life in Doylestown. She also traces the development of his styles and the autobiographical, cultural and historical mean­ings of his tiles. Henry Chap­man Mercer‘s elaborate appendices document his catalogued tile designs, as well as his art pottery and the sub­jects of his major themes. The book features numerous color illustrations, chronology and an exhaustive bibliography.