Dating My Wardrobe: Interior Desires, Henry Davis Sleeper’s Beauport

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Beauport, Sleeper-McCann House

Sometimes love is forbidden. You have to contain it, house it in an interior world of desire and expectation, where only those who have been invited into the sanctum of the self get to see it. In my humble view, Henry Davis Sleeper’s gorgeous summer home, Beauport, located on the Eastern Point of Gloucester, MA, is a metaphor for his own life. The rich evolution of identity unfolds as you tour each room of the house, but it remains hidden to those who have not have not received access into the space (in this case, you can purchase a ticket from the friendly museum staff, hanging out in a booth on the edge of the property). As one of the very first super-stars of American interior design, Sleeper had a national reputation for taste and decor for which he was widely recognized. However, his life as a gay man during the Edwardian era had to be interred, hidden away. For this reason, when I visited Beauport in June, during Pride month, I decided to take my loudest, proudest 1970s crop top and palazzo pants suit on a date to the National Historic Landmark. Unlike Sleeper, I don’t have to hide my affection for my love: my vintage wardrobe.

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Let me just say, when you take your neon pink and green floral palazzo pants from the 1970s on a date to a historic site, people notice. My conspicuous darling caught the eye of many-a-museum patron as we stood outside of Sleeper’s home, which he purchased as an Arts and Crafts Cottage in 1906, and expanded into a architectural fruit cocktail of Medieval, Gothic and Colonial styles. (Although, in retrospect, I may have just been confused for a clown who lost her circus troupe somewhere in Ipswich). Regardless, my possible identity as an escaped circus performer was soon forgotten once my little tour group and I entered the house. The interior is all consuming. You forget that there is an outer world, a 2018, a cell phone bill to pay just on the other side of the Beauport walls. You hover in that fantasy world designed by Sleeper, which begins somewhere in 1910, and then gets lost in time and space. I like to dwell here.

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Left: Indian Room, housing collection of Antique carved Native Americans

Below: Belfry Chamber, featuring sliced and reconfigured French Decor Chinois wallpaper

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The tour begins in rooms which were inspired by Americana, like the Colonial-esque Pine Kitchen, complete with a dusty rifle hanging on the wall above the hearth. As you move from room to room, Sleeper often leaves a little clue, indicating to the observer which room you’re about to enter next. For example, before you proceed into the functional kitchen of the home, you find a rolling pin, seemingly out of place in the hallway, leading to the kitchen. But, the rolling pin has a purpose– all part of a little tantalizing trail of design breadcrumbs which leads you to a mural of George Washington, commanding a speech over the breakfast table. Good old George pops-up all over the home, functioning as a buck-skin-breeched and powdered Where’s Waldo, of sorts. One of my favorite rooms was the Golden Step Room. A veritable green heaven, with a trestle table set for house guests, and majolica and Wedgewood glassware shining like treasure from a frothy set of seafoam green cabinets.

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The Golden Step Room

As I peered over his lemon yellow and vegetal green table settings, and into Gloucester Harbor, I felt as if Sleeper had prepared for a grand party, and was currently out– getting the oysters and champagne– and would return shortly. A feeling of occupation pervades the house. As I rounded every corner, I half expected to see Sleeper standing in a three-piece suit by the doorway, greeting me as he would have greeted frequent house guest, Isabella Stewart Gardner.

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Overhead view of table settings in the Golden Step Room,

overlooking Gloucester Harbor

In stark contrast to the breezy sea views of the Golden Step Room, the adjoining Octagon Room hungrily soaks light-up into its dark aubergine walls, offsetting the bright red antique toleware and glassware which Sleeper collected on his trip to France. Designing his rooms around curious objects and collections which appealed to him, Sleeper offers the visitor no rhyme or reason, only discovery.

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Octagon Room

For example, an antique Connecticut River Valley Door which Sleeper acquired becomes a showcase for his artfully arranged amber glassware collection. And what is good design without even better lighting? Sleeper seemed to realize this entirely, and cleverly installed a skylight and a mirror behind the amber glass, giving his interior space the dimension of a holy temple. It’s like entering his Spiritual center.

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Amber Glassware, housed in Antique Connecticut River Valley Door

But, just as you think you’re getting to know Sleeper, you’re thrown for a loop by the unexpected: an ordinary looking doorway which opens-up to reveal a full-length mirror, an impossibly small writing nook, secret staircases, and a wall which features butterfly-splayed specimens of books.

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Book Specimens

Another acquisition– hand-painted 18th century wallpaper, featuring varying scenes from China’s landscape– acted as the inspirational backdrop to Sleeper’s China Trade Room. The wallpaper, originally ordered by long-forgotten signer of the Declaration of Independence, Robert Morris, completes the evolution of historical and geographical dreamscapes. The fusion of culturally constructed ideas– East, West, Old-World, New-World–are deconstructed. In the end, it’s all just a blur.

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China Trade Room

 

And that brings me back to the interior life of Henry Davis Sleeper. In 1906, Sleeper discovered the beauty of Eastern Point, in Gloucester, MA through Abram Piatt Andrew, who lived there in his home called “Red Roof.” Soon after, Sleeper purchased a neighboring lot, converting the resident cottage into the amalgam architectural gem that it is today. The blurred definitions of his life, repeated throughout his interior design, are suggested between the lines of 60 extant letters, exchanged between Sleeper and his dashing neighbor, Andrew, and confirmed by the oral histories of friends who knew the couple personally. Other evidence of their romantic relationship remains secreted away. Personal papers, listed in inventories of Beauport’s holdings taken after Sleeper’s death on September 22, 1934, disappeared by the time the historic home was opened to the public in 1942. This was most likely done to protect the reputation of Sleeper during a time when homosexuality was certainly not something that one aired out in the open. That wasn’t safe. Constructing a fantasy world of walls, filled with objects of beauty, was safe. The people invited to cross-over the threshold of that protective fortress, and enter the interior world were lucky. So many decades later, wearing fluorescent florals and a sun hat from the 70s, I consider myself lucky. I get to take a peek into the internalized romances of Sleeper’s life.

Henry Davis Sleeper

Henry Davis Sleeper

Before I ended my date with my vintage duds, I decided to treat my palazzo pants to a quick dip in the Atlantic Ocean, on Pebble Beach, MA. This view was much different than that of Beauport. Before me, the whole world was open. Unbridled Love, laid out before me like an oyster in there half-shell.

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The Victorian Bathing Suit of Winslow Homer’s “High Tide”

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Winslow Homer’s Eagle Head, Manchester, Massachusetts (High Tide), which is exhibited in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, represents a transitional period in American art, clothing and society. Embedded within the appearance of the three young women on the seashore, rendered with lively brush-strokes, is a cultural cocktail of change and modernization. When Homer displayed this particular work at the National Academy of Design in 1870, critics reacted with uncertain, if not hostile remarks about his treatment of his female subjects and his overall painting technique. What Homer captured so aptly in this painting was a cultural undercurrent that was traveling just below the surface of Victorian mainstream ideals of “modesty, moral integrity, self-control, sober earnestness and industriousness.”Under the veneer of Victorian society, a natural world was pulsing.

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Homer was an American-born genre painter, who depicted every-day American life with sensitivity and vigor. Unlike his romantic predecessors who depicted highly polished interior scenes or grandiose landscapes which echoed the sanctity of a holy church, Homer turned his attention to the home-spun American scene, with a “native and personal” naturalism. His illustrations and oil paintings of Americans participating in outdoor leisure sports was a new theme in painting, and for which he produced a prolific number of examples. The fact that he was painting during the height of the Hudson River School Movement was quite influential to his work, since the Hudson River School stressed that artists should go outside of the studio to capture natural light.

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However, Homer’s summary hand, and the “unfinished” look of his antebellum paintings was a departure from the Hudson River School tradition, which subsequently drew much criticism from contemporaries. Harper’s Weekly commented on Winslow Homer’s High Tide exhibited at the 1870 Academy show, stating: “The pictures are not wholly pleasing; perhaps the bathing scene—like another he has in the East Room—is not quite refined. But this picture shows a fresh eye and a wholesome independence of conventions with spirit and vigor…If the critics must gibe, it must not be at such work, however faulty, but at the hopeless, conventional, dead and buried commonplace of many of the pictures, but suggest nothing but that the painter has seen nature only in very namby-pamby engravings. In the works of Homer…you are very sure that the painter has really seen what he paints, and really tries to represent it. When he fails, he is therefore a hopeful failure.” Homer was, in fact, just painting ahead of the curve. He is considered to be one of the forerunners to Impressionism, along with Boudin in France and Fattori in Italy.

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While critics picked apart the “homeliness” of his subject matter and the lack of refinement in his painting surfaces, the American public embraced his work, and the National Academy elected him an Academician when he was a young man. At least one critic had this generous statement to make about Homer’s work, “Mr. Homer goes in, as the phrase is, for perfect realism, and cares not for such fantastic hairsplitting as the distinction between beauty and ugliness. He is a genuine painter; that is to see, and reproduce what he sees.”

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The swimsuits that appear in Homer’s painting, High Tide, are the result of a compromise between Victorian social mores, fashion and function. While it was considered immodest to expose the shape of the female leg, even when it was covered with stockings, weighty swathes of material made it physically impossible and dangerous for women to swim. The bathing suits popular from the mid-nineteenth century to around 1870 were a sartorial settlement between modesty and function, and were typically made of serge (a wool fabric) or flannel. The weighty material was fashioned into a paletot dress, which had a cinched bodice and short skirt that stopped at the knee. Underneath the paletot dress were ‘Turkish’ trousers, or bloomer-style pants.

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Around 1848, dress reformers introduced the ‘Turkish trowser’ to lady’s fashion, in an attempt to free the female body up for engaging in more physical activities like popular “water cures”, or, in the case of Amelia Jenks Bloomer, bike riding. Just a few years prior to 1848, bifurcated undergarments had been slowly incorporated into middle-class women’s wardrobe. Such controversial undergarments made headway for bloomers or Turkish trousers.

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However, the look of women wearing trousers in the nineteenth-century did not catch on with mainstream fashion, and magazines like Punch often poked fun at women who wore such emancipated attire.  The satirical cartoons in Punch magazine were a more humorous reaction to male fear that women were “appropriating male dress, and, by association, male privilege and power.” Because the trouser for women threatened the foundational gender codes of the Victorian era, bloomers and Turkish trousers were typically only worn when pursuing genteel pursuits of recreation, and were made less threatening to the male sartorial sphere by incorporating current female fashionable silhouettes and details into the overall look of the sportswear.

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Apart from the main body of the bathing dress, oiled linen caps were worn to protects the hair, while straw or sunhats hats were worn to guard the face against sunlight. In addition, lisle gloves were shown in fashion plates of the time to protect the hands from the sun, and gum shoes to protect the feet. While historians and mid-nineteenth century fashion magazines imagined Victorian women in bathing suits which covered them from head to toe, complete with black stockings, gum shoes, a linen cap, sunhats hat, gloves, bloomers or Turkish trousers and a shirt dress over a short dress, an illustration by Winslow Homer, which appeared in Harper’s Weekly in 1858, gives us another glimpse into the world of Victorian sea bathing. Women appear swimming alongside men, and bare feet, naked calves and arms and elbows can be observed bobbing out of the waters in the illustration. Although ladies wear straw hats on the shore, the women swimming in the ocean only wear their linen caps.

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Patricia C. Warner uses this particular illustration by Homer to argue that contrary to some historian’s beliefs about mid-nineteenth-century sea bathing, women did not always wear every article of clothing prescribed by fashion plates from the time.  Homer, with his tradition as a genre painter and his acute eye for detail, captured the actual way in which women wore bathing suits, unencumbered by excessive articles of clothing and material, like gloves, straw hats, shoes and trousers. Furthermore, Homer was hired to record what he saw for the magazine, not reinterpret.  The fashions for bathing suits scarcely changed between the 1858 and 1870, so his illustrations of sea bathers for Harper’s Weekly and oil painting, High Tide, reaffirmed this image of young women swimming at the seaside with their bare legs exposed. Victorian art critics, viewing paintings from terra firma, may have been shocked by Homer’s realist rendering of “exceedingly red-legged and ungainly,” young women, but for enthusiast sea bathers, such opinions about the immodesty of bare skin might not have mattered. While the wearing of black stockings with a bathing suit was popular for American women from the mid-nineteenth-century and into the twentieth-century, it is highly likely that some more forward thinking or active women saw fit to remove their stockings while sea bathing.

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There were two imperatives for preserving the social status of middle-class beach-going women: safeguarding white skin against sun exposure and conserving one’s modesty, by way of concealing the body’s supple contours beneath ample clothing. The breach of these two precepts in High Tide caused negative reactions in critics after he displayed the piece. In this painting, the maintenance the young lady’s lily-white skin is in jeopardy while the two figures in the foreground expose their bare legs and faces to the sun. White skin was a marker a nineteenth-century beauty and class, indicative of a life spent indoors in the domestic sphere, and also of a woman’s delicacy and refinement. Milky-white skin was preferable.  Evidence of this preference for white skin during the Victorian era can be surmised by looking at the cosmetics which were on the market during the mid-nineteenth-century, such as “Rowland’s Kalydor,” which claimed in its advertisement that it had power to “cool and refresh the face and hands of ladies and all exposed to the hot sun. It removes freckles, tan, sunburn, redness and roughness.” This Victorian beauty ideal for white skin, and a subsequent rejection of tan and red skin, explains the negative reaction one critic had to the exposed red skin of the young woman in Homer’s painting, High Tide, calling one of the figures “exceedingly red legged and ungainly.”

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There is one more cultural aspect that can be ascertained from the appearance of the young ladies on the beach: the mid-nineteenth-century development of the idea of leisure time and recreation, in the wake of urbanization and an expanding middle-class. Urbanization and industrialization began to replace agrarian life in America, and thus the way in which time was spent moved away from the rhythms of the natural seasons, and became more in-tune to the rhythms of capitalist industry. The stress from “unnatural” modern life, formed by a shift from an outdoor existence to an indoor existence, created a need for leisure and recreation for the middle-class, and “natural” spaces where the bourgeoisie could retreat to became a necessity.

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By 1840, there was a boom in the creation of mountain and maritime resorts to meet the demand for recreation and leisure. It was also during the mid-nineteenth century that public parks were being constructed to better the lives of urban dwellers, as in the case of Central Park, in New York City, which was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1857. Aside from creating a demand for “green spaces” and retreats to seaside resorts, modernization and industry also made it possible for more Americans to travel and visit remote wilderness areas like mountains and beaches. By 1841, an expanded national railway system enabled the American middle-class to travel to natural havens, like the seaside, in large numbers. These presumably middle-class girls which appear in Homer’s painting, High Tide, occupy the space of a beach in Massachusetts because of new middle-class concepts of leisure and recreation, and because of innovative industry and technology which allowed for extensive travel.

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These three young ladies represent a number of changes occurring in America during the mid-nineteenth-century. Hidden in the contours of their bodies lies a message about the advent of impressionist painting, the introduction of active-wear for women, and the emergence of leisure and travel for a burgeoning middle-class.

 

References

 

Lois W, Banner. American Beauty. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1983.

 

Deitz, Paula. “Parks and Public Places,” Of Gardens. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.

 

Downing, Sarah Jayne. Beauty and Cosmetics: 1550-1950. Shire Publications, Oxford, 2016.

 

Fischer, Gayle V. “Pantalets and Turkish Trowsers: Designing Freedom in the mid-nineteenth-century United States.” Feminist Studies, Vol. 23, No. 1. Feminist Studies, Inc. 1997.

 

Goodrich, Lloyd. Winslow Homer Essay. George Braziller, Inc., 1959.

 

Goodrich, Lloyd. “Winslow Homer.” Published for the Whitney Museum of Art by MacMillan Co., New York. 1944.

 

Kushner, Marilyn S. and Barbara Dayer Gallati, Linda S. Ferber. Winslow Homer: Illustrating America. Brooklyn Museum of Art, George Braziller Publisher, NY, 2000.

 

Sandiford, Keith A.P. “The Victorians at Play: The Problems in Historiographical Methodology,” Journal of Social History, Vol. 15, No. 2. Oxford University Press, 1981.

 

Shrimpton, Jayne. Victorian Fashion. Bloomsbury Publishing, Oxford, 2016.

 

Sloan, John. “The Origin, Growth and Transformation of Maritime Resorts Since 1840,” Built Environment. Vol. 18, No.1. Alexandrine Press, 1992.

 

Patricia Campbell Warner, When Girls Came Out to Play: The Birth of American Sportswear. University of Massachusetts Press, Boston, 2006.

 

“Eagle Head, Manchester, Massachusetts (High Tide),” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.

 

“The Hudson River School”. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art and History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/hurs/hd_hurs.htm)

 

Winslow Homer. “The Bath at Newport,” Harper’s Weekly, September 4, 1858. Courtesy of Mount Holyoke College Special Collections and Archive.

 

 

 

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