Old Valentines And Silhouettes
( Originally Published 1919 )
Like Pendennis, I have fallen in love. Not with the Venus of Milo, as he did, but with a gracious French lady, dressed in soft blues and pearly whites, and with the nicest smiling-serious face in the world. I want her more than I do anything else, I think, unless it is to have had Goya paint my portrait, and so have been made forever interesting, or to own Jane Austen's desk which, though I have never seen it, must be good because it was built at a time when furniture just could n't be bad. I want her to hang against the grays of my parlor-walls and adorn them with her beauty. She would look as lovely there as in some old Perigord chateau, such is the universality of her charm. I shan't have her, though, for David's study of my incomparable Madame de Seriziat lives in a sumptuous Fifth Avenue Gallery, and all I can do is to go occasionally to look and Iong. Oh, well, all of us should have these 'spiritual Carcassones. They are good for our souls.
But to have known her is a liberal education. "Universality of her charm" I like that phrase even if I did write it, because it shows that I am developing a picture sense, and the feeling for walls and what should be on them is, almost invariably, the wisdom that lingers. What I mean I've gained is that instinct which preserves you from putting the oversentimentally sweet Psyche at Nature's Mirror against a dark paneled oak background, or hanging The Study in Anatomy in a boudoir. Which bit of philosophizing brings me to these old valentines and silhouettes. Three distinct values they have: they are very well suited to a "middling house,"and most of us have "middling houses," I fancy, they are redolent of time's enchantment, and they do not throw out of key a room where you are trying for an old-fashioned effect, an ensemble of quaint, rested-looking furniture, as even a very good photograph of a very great masterpiece oftentimes will do.
They have a fourth dimension of merit, too: they are very inexpensive. Not that they did not lead me into ways of extravagance, because, after I had discovered them in a delightful shop, I found such an engaging engraving of the Duchess of Marlborough that I simply had to have it. It is from an early portrait, one of the few interesting pieces of work done by "that stupid, vaporing Kneller," and below, in faded brown ink, are the words, "13 July 1710, Paid in full, S. Marlborough." Sarah before she had cut off her curls in a tantrum and flung them at the Great, Duke; Sarah while she was still dominating Anne and governing England. This isn't valentines, but I had to tell you about it.
As for valentines, perhaps they have been sent ever since the early Church Fathers turned the Lupercalia into a Christian festival: but the earliest record I have been able to find is when Pepys, writing on the fourteenth of February, 1667, says, "This morning came up to my wife's bedside, I being up dressing myself, little Will Mercer to be her Valentine; and brought her name writ upon blue paper in gold letters, done by himself, very pretty; and we were both well pleased with it. But I am also this year my wife's Valentine, and it will cost me five pounds; but that I must have laid out had we not been Valentines."
Nowadays there are n't any of these seventeenth-century paper posies left except in the lovely verse of those days: Waller's and Donne's and Drayton's; and even eighteenth-century ones are very rare. As for mine, they are all frankly nineteenth-century, London-made: one pair dating back almost to Water-loo; the others, for the most part, early Victorian. The first pair they hang in the "Prettiest Room" are the oldest; the dress, the despair, the attitude of that melancholy gentleman, all are Byronic; and, as for the languishing lady, if you look close I am sure you can see the towers of Udolpho in the distance. They are charmingly colored in pinks and blues, and the first border, just inside the heavier embossed edge, is delicately tinted in the same shades. The damsel sitting in a bower of roses (on page 112), with the ten-der missive pressed to her heart, and a symbolic birdcage hanging on the trellis, is a little later. I have seen similar costumes dated 1831. She, too, wears rose-pink, and I cannot imagine a happier note of color for the walls of a simple bedroom. The feeling of this valentine is so gratifyingly of the tunes, also, that I am convinced that the lady adored "Childe Harold" and wept over "Lalla Rookh."
The Soldier and Sailor pair are more vivid in color; they have more stamina; in their rather crude reds and blues and yellows and greens they need the sup-porting strength of a black frame, just as the others are more suitably done in gilt. They are quite as naive, however, and the one bit of mental superiority is the verse. I am quoting the sailor stanzas be-cause, while they are very characteristic of this sentimental epoch, earmarked by sensibility, they are, nevertheless, unusually good for a valentine. Tom Moore might have written them on an off day.
My fond one, my true one ere yet from the shore The sails shall be filled and the tars ply the oar, Ere the sails of your vessel be spread to the wind, Bethink thee the true heart thou leavest behind.
I will pray for thy welfare by day and by night In the darkness of storm and the perils of fight. And all I would ask in my fondness for thee,
Is that sometimes thy thoughts may be wandering on me.
Farewell! gallant sailor! dear Child of the wave,
In the storm none more active in the battle more brave. My spirit goes with thee all faithful and true,
Adoring and loving my gallant True Blue!
The other pair, the second sailor and the pensive gentleman, both tone on the brown shades, and suit admirably their plain mahogany frames. Indeed, with a little care in the selection of these valentines, they can be adapted to almost any simple roomI do not pretend that they have any of the qualifications of grandeur I Dave found them even in a "languid violet delightful color for experiment.
Did you ever know that silhouettes were sent as valentines? I did not until I saw the one in the old gilt frame (on page 107), a most personal tribute of affection, don't you think? It would appeal to me far more than the prettiest valentine to be bought; for, to quote Mrs. Ethel Stanwood Bolton's opinion, which is precisely my own, "a silhouette at its best is a thing of real beauty and cleverness; at its worst it is a quaint handicraft, which at least shows the dress and the manners of the day." I know a collector, an amateur of really lovely things, whose judgments are valuable, and her theory is that,, unless silhouettes have sonic real reason for being, intimate family pictures, for instance, or because they were the work of one of the mastercraftsmen of this art, they had better not be used. She dislikes "rooms full of black profiles, all welcomed because old." Now, to me, partly she is right and partly she is wrong. Silhouettes should be hung most sparingly a very few, even in a large room; and, of course, every one of us would like to have authentic copies of the best work done in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But, as far as I am concerned, a silhouette, whether cut by Mrs. Pyburg in William and Mary's reign; done by Miers and Field of London; a creation of either of those talented youths, Master Hubard or Master Hanks; achieved by that delightful emigre Monsieur Edouart; or by our own American genius, William Henry Brown; or, on the other hand, just the humble production of some forgotten artist traveling through the countryside; a silhouette, I maintain, will to me always have the unique charm of distant days. I love those dignified gentlemen with their austerely aquiline pro-files; those little ladies and their tip-tilted, flower-petal noses. Just such a one I saw recently in a Maine antique shop, and although she was hanging between a very good Constitution mirror and a hooded highboy, most excellent company, I feel that I ought to send for her and give her a more domestic milieu. Of course, you can't adopt every one that attracts you, though two orphans did appeal to me so much the other day that only an empty pocketbook stood between me and my maternal instincts. Both wore long pantalettes; one little black figure carried a whip, the other a reticule, and the dress of this last little girl was not black at all, but an inserted strip of quaint purple silk. A fairly unusual type this is, but then, one of the beginning mistakes of a collector is to imagine that a silhouette is only a profile cut out of black paper and pasted on a white background, or must the reverse. On the contrary, there were many kinds: done with brush and India ink on ivory, plaster, or card the little Directoire silhouette with its rippled profile is an in-stance of this style; painted on glass, sometimes with a mixture of pine-soot and beer to give an in-tenser blackness, and touched delicately with gilt; the charming color silhouettes; and the rarest and loveliest type of all according to connoisseurs thus described by Mrs. Bolton: "The likeness painted on convex glass in such a way that one did not look directly at the painted face to see the silhouette, but upon a white card behind upon which the shadow was cast."
Both Edouart and Brown became so popular that they had made a set of lithographed backgrounds for what might be called their "Great Men Series." John Randolph of Roanoke is shown standing against a characteristic background, one which he might well have chosen himself. To me this is one of the most revealing, actual silhouettes I know. Look at it, and see if it is not like what one of his personal observers I will not say admirers wrote of this whimsical, bad-tempered, witty old aristocrat. "His long, thin legs, about as thick as a stout walking cane, and of much such a shape, were encased in a pair of tight small-clothes, so tight that they seemed part and parcel of the limbs of the wearer." Standing severely there, you can almost hear him rebuking his opponent, the watch-maker Congressman. "Sir, you can mend my watch, but not, my motions. You understand tictics, sir, but not tactics." Perhaps I am like Monsieur Poirier: it may be that I like my pictures at least to suggest a story. That is why I am so fond of silhouettes; each one has its little legend, whether you have heard it or not. Certainly all that I am showing you have, but there is room for only one more, the tender tale of Millie Blake. When the nineteenth century was very young indeed her sea-captain husband sailed away on a long, long voyage, a voyage from which he never came back. Be-fore he left she promised that every night a candle should burn at the window to welcome him home; and, every night, that candle burned, not only during Millie's life, but for generations, until the family died out, and the old house was sold to strangers.
And so my advice is to have your profiled forebears if you can; and, if you cannot, be very happy to hang some other body's ancestors, snipped by nimble, long-ago scissors, against your walls, to give them charm and character.