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NSG Visit January 16, 1999

Art and Artifacts at

Rochester's Memorial Art Gallery


Donovan A. Shilling

Despite Alp-like mountains of snow, sixteen hardy members of the New Society of the Genesee gathered at the Memorial Art Gallery on University Avenue in Rochester on January 16, 1999. Members met to view a special gallery presentation called "Rochester Collects."

As soon as one entered the rooms holding the art treasures, it was evident that a large number of Rochester's citizens are lovers and avid collectors of art and artifacts. Walls held paintings, drawings, prints and a Caucasian dragon carpet. Stands displayed art glass, silver tableware and two unusual pieces of furniture, one an artistically crafted wooden bench, the other, an old oak cabinet.

We wandered about feasting our eyes on several million dollars worth of privately held art treasures that would make any museum exceedingly rapturous to own. Albert Paley's beaux arts sculpture by Chapa was one exmple. The graceful, high-relief bronze called "Youth Offering an Olive Branch," was truly remarkable. In another area a huge, cadmium yellow, sea-shell-shaped creation of art glass was spot-lighted. The glamorous glass assortment created by Seattle artist, Dale Chihuly, was labeled "Seafoam Set with Red Lip Wraps."

Equally unusual was former Congressman Barber Conable's four trading tomakawks fashioned in England as peace offerings for native Americans. One of our party pointed out that the handy hatchets were cleverly made to also serve as tobacco pipes. Further on, a modest frame held a carefully-drawn map of the area between Lake Erie and the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers showing the location of French forts. A notation beginning "N. B." strongly urged that a fort be built where the two rivers met to form the Ohio. The sketcher and writer? George Washington. The site? Pittsburgh.

Society member John Topham displayed his 1940-vintage camel saddle carrying tasseled bags woven of red and orange henna-dyed yarns. The warp threads of an accompanying rifle sling were slim strips of leather interwoven with bright colored camel-hair yarn and metal beads. The saddle and bags had been a gift of Saudi Arabia's King Ibn Saud to an American geologist. It was displayed atop a "camel" cutout of plywood. Below, as though spread out on the desert sand were Bedouin utensils that John had collected during his years in Arabia. Included was an 1830 "Hoffuff style" coffee pot, a rare wooden bowl for camel's milk, and a mortar and pestle for grinding coffee and cardamon beans. These and other items of John's Arabic collection traveled to museums on a national tour. The long curved spouts of the pots were to hold palm leaf fibers that filtered the coffee/cardamon brew as it was poured. John told us of Arab hospitality toward strangers, and the requirements of their code of desert chivalry toward strangers and even hapless blood-feud enemies.

Next John Topham introduced us to another "Rochester Collects" exhibitor, his friend, Grant Bernhardt Romer, a director at the George Eastman Museum of Photography. Grant took us to see his cabinet of curiosities called a "Wunderkammer" that was filled with unusual and even whimsical items saved and gathered since he was a small boy. In it were bizarre objects: head masks, an old bill spike once used to hold invoices and tickets, now supporting a doll-sized skull with white wings protruding outward from either side; a rubber "Froggy the Gremlin" of the 1940s radio show sponsored by Buster Brown Shoes now resting inside a bell jar that sat atop the cabinet. There were several Daguerrotypes, representing Grant's photographic specialty. He had also included tiny bits from the Acropolis, the Coliseum, even dust from the coffer in the King's chamber of the Great Pyramid-mementoes of the great past.

Another of Grant Romer's interests is phrenology, and he had several busts in his cabinet with the cranial areas mapped on them. One was from Italy and one from France. The theory that facets of a person's character are related to the development of areas of their brain and are revealed in the shape of their brain case grew out of the classification, by a German physician, Dr. Franz Josef Gall, in Vienna in the 1790s, of human mental faculties and the identification of the specific portion of the brain that controlled each.

When he was banned from lecturing on this subject by ecclesiastical authorities, he moved to Paris. There Gall worked with another German doctor, Johannes Spurzheim, to promote phrenology-the science of the mind. Spurzheim brought phrenology to America.

In this country Orson and Lorenzo Fowler and their sister Charlotte, all originally from Cohocton, New York, lectured and wrote books on phrenology. They practised head "readings" at their offices in New York and, at different times, in Boston, Philadelphia, and London and on tours. The Fowlers always championed the self-help movement and supported health regimens: vegetarianism, the water cure, vigorous physical exercize, deep breathing, and they opposed using tobacco, alcohol and tight-laced corsets. (For more on the Fowlers see CLR #7, October, 1988.)

Mr. Romer gave us a demonstration of a phrenological "reading" by assessing Bob Koch's head. Propriety doesn't allow us to go into his observations of Bob's head shape with corresponding indications of his character but we thought Grant very quickly recognized Bob's great qualities. He did tell us that the saying, "You should have your head examined!" did come from the time when phrenology was popular.

© 1999, Donovan A. Shilling
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