Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Folk Art In Situ: The County Atlas

I’ve done a number of posts on those great late nineteenth-century weathervanes manufactured by companies in New England and New York and sold via catalogues throughout the United States. These commercially produced sculptures are some of the most elaborate and highly prized Americana items today. Unlike the more humble, hand-made weathervanes done by tinsmiths, carpenters, or farmers, these high-end vanes are difficult to truly classify as folk art, but they have associated with folk art for decades. And no one from the fine art world has ever moved in to take up the slack.

Viewing some of these weathervanes on exhibition in a museum is a terrific close-up experience; bear in mind that one was never meant to see them except from a distance. It is difficult to imagine how they must have looked in their original sites. Photographs of period weathervanes in situ are rare.

But not so rare are the many county atlases that you can find in almost any local library. These volumes, often done in the 1870s by large publishers and sold locally, contain scores of fantastic full-page engravings of some of the more prominent residences in each county. These plates were made from drawings done on site by artists hired by the publisher to solicit this business.

The detail in the engravings is incredible, as it had to be to please the property owner. Leafing through these old books one day some years ago, I noticed that they were a great source of period visual information on the placement of weathervanes in the late nineteenth century. Here are some fine examples.

The residence of Mr. and Mrs. James Slade (above, detail at top) shows not only their lovely brick house, but also their barns at the left. The barn in the back sports a large weathervane of a long horned bull, strikingly similar to the cows on the hillside adjacent. Owners of large scale farms often used weathervanes to signal the type of livestock housed within each barn. The residence of W. D. Boyden (second image from top) show three barns, two with cow vanes and one with a horse. Other vanes are more broadly symbolic of the owner’s life and work; one residence, that of Erie Railroad builder N. H. Decker (below), has a weathervane of a locomotive atop one barn.

Perhaps the most curious vane I found in these volumes came from the residence of Mr. and Mrs. W. Birdsall (below). This is a fantastic estate, complete with two houses, several barns, and a large multi-tiered fountain on the front lawn! But what caught my eye was the weathervane on the barn at the right. Not a horse or a cow or a rooster, but an elephant.

I have never seen a period weathervane of an elephant surviving from the period. It made me wonder whether t his gentleman was somehow involved with a traveling circus. This seems more likely than housing real elephants in that barn. But you never know. These vanes and their owners were so linked that the decorative capstone of one’s home often reflected the lives and ambitions within.

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