The House that Mrs Jack Built

“Years ago I decided that the greatest need in our Country was Art… We were a very young country and had very few opportunities of seeing beautiful things, works of art… So, I determined to make it my life’s work if I could.” Isabella Stewart Gardner, 1917.

One of the loveliest and most interesting art museums that I have ever visited is just a few stops on the ‘T’ from downtown Boston.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is currently undergoing change. Not too sure what Mrs Jack Gardner would make of that but there you go. We’re told on the audio guide that she planned the whole place herself from the building to the purchase of the works of art themselves to where she meant them to hang and then left strict instructions that that was how it was to stay.

Isabella Stewart was born in 1840 in New York and married John (‘Jack’) Gardner in 1860. They travelled widely and ‘Mrs Jack’ developed an interest in art which turned into a passion for collecting after her father left her his entire fortune when he died in 1891. Jack died in 1898 and she continued to collect, purchasing some land on Fenway and designing and planning the museum just as it is today. It opened to the public in 1903. She died in 1924.

Photo from ISGM website

The Museum centres on the dramatic Japanese-style courtyard full of greenery and mosaic tiles which is in such great contrast to the darker rooms through which you approach it. On three floors each room has a theme of its own from The Titian Room to the Blue Room and the Yellow Room through to a Tapestry Room and a Gothic Room. Due to the work going on just now some of the rooms were closed and others had items removed.

My favourite room was the Dutch Room where an early Rembrandt self portrait hangs.

Photo from ISGM website

But when you enter the Dutch Room you are also in for a shock. There on the wall hangs an empty frame – where once Rembrandt’s ‘Storm on the Sea of Galilee’ was hanging. In 1990 the ISGM was victim of the largest single property theft in the world. None of the works of art has yet been recovered.

Also due to all the building works going on the shop and cafe are both closed. There were just two books for sale:

The Yale Guide, by H. T. Goldfarb and a biography of Mrs Jack by Louise Hall Tharp. No fridge magnets, no rubbers, no pens and not even one postcard!

Then, from the sublime to the ridiculous, I fulfilled a long term wish of mine since first seeing it in 1995 – I went on DUCK TOUR!

There we are reflected in office windows on Copley Square!

My Historic Maine Coast 2

The Wedding Cake House in Kennebunk is said to be one of the most photographed houses in Maine and you can certainly see why!

The local myth is that it was built by a sea captain for his bride as an apology for leaving for his ship before the ceremony reached the cutting-the-cake stage! It’s a private home so not open to the public at all but I understand that a fund-raising event was held a few years back in aid of Hurricane Katrina victims.

The Ogunquit Museum of American Art is the least historic of my selection of Historic Maine Coast visits. The Museum first opened in 1953 but has been extended since. Artist Henry Strater founded the Museum at 543 Shore Road, Ogunquit by first buying the Ocean facing plot of land on which it stands in 1950. Ogunquit and the Maine Coast area had long been the haunt of artists – an Ogunquit Art Colony was founded here in 1898.

In 2009 we visited The Portland Museum of Art and it was an exhibition there “Call of the Coast: exploring art colonies of New England” that drew my attention to the significant contribution of the Ogunquit colony to the American art scene in the 20th century.

The Museum is surrounded by beautiful sculpture gardens with a wonderful view of the Ocean. The Museum and Gardens are a delight to visit during the Summer months and it is no surprise that it rates as one of the finest small art museums in the United States.

My Historic Maine Coast 1


” The last day of October in 1777, Colonel Jonathan Hamilton came out of his high house on the river bank with a handsome, impatient company of guests, all Berwick gentlemen. They stood on the flagstones, watching a coming boat that was just within sight under the shadow of the pines of the farther shore, and eagerly passed from hand to hand a spyglass covered with worn red morocco leather

‘The Tory Lover’ by Sarah Orne Jewett (1901)

Hamilton House is another property of Historic New England. This beautiful house is situated overlooking a peaceful and very wide stretch of the Salmon Falls River, just a couple of miles outside the town of South Berwick, Maine. It wasn’t always like this. When it was built in 1785 Jonathan Hamilton’s graceful Georgian home overlooked his busy shipping and ship building business and quayside.

The decor of the house today reflects the more recent ownership of Emily Tyson and her stepdaughter Elise. The Tysons made it their summer retreat during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This “Colonial Revival” style characterises the house today. Again no photography is allowed inside but it’s a large, light and airy summer house with breathtaking painted murals on the walls of the downstairs reception rooms. There are antiques, hooked rugs and other handcrafted decorative arts in all rooms.

The house has limited opening hours but the beautiful garden is free for all to visit and admire daily from dawn to dusk.

Sayward-Wheeler House is in York Harbor and like The Hamilton House stands on a bank above a wide river – in this case the York River.

On the obligatory house tour we are told that this house is unique amongst all 36 Historic New England properties in that it is the least changed over the centuries with virtually all its original furnishings, including wall coverings, in tact. The most curious room in the house is the Parlour where the larger items of furniture (that can be dated back to when the house was built) never fitted properly! A clock has had its finials removed, a cabinet, too tall for the room, had its pediment removed and it’s always been a mystery as to how the sideboard ever got into the room in the first place – by its dimensions it could not fit through any of the room’s doorways in any direction!

In The Country of The Pointed Firs

Just before leaving for my trip to New England I discovered the existence of an organisation that sounded like just my cup of tea: Historic New England. A close study of the website lead me to list 3 properties within easy reach of places where I’d be staying AND that would be open on a day or days when I would be able to visit.  I was especially happy to discover an author’s home just a 30 minute drive from our lodgings (The Dunes on the Waterfront) in Ogunquit, Maine.

Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909) lived much of her life in the town of South Berwick, Maine. She was born in this house at 5, Portland Street when it belonged to her shipbuilding grandfather but soon the family built a home of their own next door (now the town’s public library).

Sarah and her sister moved back to the original house in 1887. She spent much of her time in Boston and travelling but this house was always home. No photography is allowed  in the house but it was fascinating to see the decor is still the same as Sarah and her sister Mary chose for it. Following their deaths a lot of the furniture was distributed to members of the family but Historic New England have bought back many original pieces at auction.

Having discovered the existence of the house I was anxious to read one of her books in advance of my visit. I chose a good one! A Country Doctor was first published in 1884. Like most of Jewett’s writing it is concerned with the everyday lives of the people living in the countryside of Maine. In particular Doctor Leslie is based on her beloved father, Dr Jewett.

My friend Marion kindly gave me an illustrated copy of what is probably Jewett’s best known work The Country of The Pointed Firs. Her (Jewett’s) Deephaven is still in print in the USA and is set in the coastal Maine area around Ogunquit. Her books (those still in print) and other related works are available in the shop (where photography was allowed!).

There is a small garden around the house where today a gardener still carefully tends many of the herbs of the types that the Jewett sisters grew there during the nineteenth century.

On my way back to Ogunquit I sought out Sarah Orne Jewett’s grave on Agamenticus Road just outside South Berwick. I had been given instructions as to where to find it by the guide at the house. I expected a well-tended grave and was sorry that I hadn’t brought my own flowers. The tombstone was just about legible and the area filled with weeds. Sarah lies peacefully surrounded by various relatives including her sister. On the following Sunday a special ‘party’ was planned at the house in celebration of her birthday but sadly her grave is rather a forgotten memorial.

“Until the day breaks and the shadows flee away”

Don’t call me Ishmael

I have never read Herman Melville’s classic fictional work ‘Moby Dick’. That is, if you don’t count the numerous extracts from it that we had to read for English comprehension tests at school. I always marvelled that so much could be written on the subject of a whaling expedition – the Penguin Classics edition fills 720 pages.

On a recent trip to Cape Cod I spent a day with my friend Marion who lives on the other side of Buzzards Bay. She knew just what I would be interested to see  – A Chart of the Whale Coast of New England.  M had chanced upon a newspaper report telling about a mural that had lately been removed from a seaside (bayside) home, had been carefully renovated and was now hanging proudly in the local museum. After lunch we drove to the Mattapoisett Historical Museum housed in a former Baptist church.

The icing on the cake for us was that we were welcomed to the Museum and shown in detail the Ashley Mural (as it is called) by Mr Seth Mendell himself, President of the Historical Society and a primer mover in the preservation of this wonderful piece of local whaling history for the community.

Mr Mendell explained all the intricacies involved in the creation, removal, renovation and final re-hanging of the Mural via the photo proofs for his book which is due to be published this autumn.

In addition to the Mural we were introduced to various forms of whaling harpoon.

And we were delighted to inspect some very fine examples of Whaling Journals. After pages and pages of seemingly undecipherable handwriting there suddenly appear ink stamp prints of whale tails (indicating sightings/attempted harpoonings) and full whales (indicating capture). One of the museum copies was also decorated with beautiful drawings of full-masted ships.

Later we went off to find the house where the Mural had hung for 90 years. It was discovered hanging at an angle from the ceiling in the conservatory at the front of the house (20, Water Street, Mattapoisett) overlooking the bay.

Yet, even after all this new-found whaling knowledge I was still not tempted to take a Whale Watch Cruise out into the Atlantic Ocean! And will I read the book? ….. probably not.