There is a large body of folk art painted on tin utilitarian wares, chiefly the document boxes and platters that were brightly decorated by painters employed by tinshops in the id-19th century. We have these aplenty in the Fenimore Art Museum collection (currently on view at The Farmers' Museum), but it is another piece that caught my eye the other day that I wanted to write about. It is a piece that is ornamental not only in its painted decoration but also in the working and shaping of the tin itself. Our squirrel cage, from about 1885, is one of the most outstanding examples of its kind known. It speaks to the Victorian fascination with unusual household pets and highly ornate interior furnishings.
Squirrels were not completely unknown as pets in the 19 century, or even the 18th. Perhaps owing to my teaching a graduate course in American painting, our squirrel cage always reminds me of the famous John Singleton Copley portrait of the half-brother Henry Pelham, better known as “Boy with a Squirrel.” This painting was done in 1765 and shows the young Henry at a table with his pet squirrel on a “leash” that is actually a gold chain. This always seemed risky to me -- squirrels bite, don’t they? -- but it must have been commonplace for the time. Other Copley portraits from this time also show squirrels on leashes.
The cage seems like a better idea, at least from the owner’s perspective. These contraptions follow the popular literature of the late 19th century extolling the virtues of pet ownership, particularly for teaching responsibility to children, and go so far as to specify the type of segmented cage,with separate areas for eating, sleeping, and exercise, that was preferred.
Our cage fits this latter standard, but also goes much further in design. It is actually a miniature rendition of a steepled church, with a wheel attached at one end for the exercise area. The windows, which in other cages are merely small openings punched through the tin in some decorative design, are here realized as Gothic windows!
While the shape of the cage is fascinating the paint decoration really makes it special. The tinsmith must have had an experienced decorator in his employ, since the landscapes that grace the sides of the roof are done in a style closely associated with ornamented furniture. I take particular note of the Japanese style bridge in one of these landscapes, perhaps reflecting the influence of japanese design brought to America in the Centennial exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. Other painted flourishes like the swirls in the steeple contribute to the overall effect.
This piece was obviously made for a wealthy family, and so one could question the extent to which it reflects the lives of the folk. But it does showcase artisanship of the kind that furnished America with a rich and vibrant ornamental tradition with which to enhance our daily lives.