Moonlight and Mouse

The Mouse, the Moon, and the Mosquito Photograph c Alex Badyaev, 2014The Natural History Museum in London has just announced the winners of their Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. The mammal category goes to Alex Badyaev for his stunning picture of a deer mouse and a mosquito backlit by the moon.

Badyaev is an evolutionary biologist, and like numerous scientists and naturalists who have preceded him, the art and the science go hand in hand. “My career as a scientist and a nature photographer gives me a way to learn and convey the fascinating complexity and diversity of the biological world,” he told BBC Wildlife, after winning an earlier photography award—a list of prizes he’s received that keeps growing.[1] “I have always spent a long time observing animals. That’s when I think, get inspired, learn, come up with my best scientific ideas,” he said.[2]

For centuries wildlife artists with their closely observed, highly detailed illustrations informed us humans of the natural world, much of which was out of reach and out of sight. Before John James Audubon painted portraits of birds as well as quadrupeds, there was Maria Sibylla Merian, at the turn of the 18th century, traipsing through the Dutch colony of Surinam, capturing in brilliant colors insects’ metamorphoses. And before her there was Leonardo da Vinci, filling his notebooks with studies of wild cats and crabs, feathers and wings. The camera’s invention, however, was a boon to the animals; they no longer had to die and be stuffed in order for their likenesses to be rendered.

Badyaev was hiking through Montana’s Blackfoot Valley when he came across a giant puffball—an amazing mushroom that can inflate to more than a foot in diameter—which piqued the curiosity of a coterie of small animals. Running across the mushroom’s surface, the chipmunks and squirrels, like ancient travelers, made hieroglyphs with their tiny toes. The photographer lay on the ground, observing the nocturnal activity, patiently waiting for the right moment.[3] In an email he said that although he was in the midst of another research project, which included photographing mountain lions and beavers, “It was just hard to resist the combination of inquisitive mice, full moon and a giant mushroom that looked like a planet surface when a mouse stood on it.”[4]

One deer mouse hesitated. A mosquito had caught his attention. In an instant, an ephemeral, faraway moment was captured for the world to see.

 

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[1] BBC Wildlife, July 21, 2011, Alex Badyaev’s website.

[2] Interview with Neil Losin, “Meet Biologist/ Photographer Alex Badyaev,” October 2011.

[3] London, England, Natural History Museum, “Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2014.”

[4] Email with photographer.

(Image: copyright Alex Badyaev, 2014, courtesy of the photographer.)


A Virtual Feast

Rachel Lee Hovnanian, In Loco Parentis, 2014In Rachel Lee Hovnanian’s installation In Loco Parentis, a gigantic white mouse stands in front of an open refrigerator, stuffing his face, while a toddler sits in a high chair looking down at her iPad; mounds of Cheerios cover the floor. But there’s a twist to this: the child is a video image on a LCD tablet-like screen and the white mouse is but a video projection.

Asked about the work, which was shown recently in her solo show “Plastic Perfect” in New York, Hovnanian told the interviewer that when she was growing up in Texas, she had two pet white mice. She said, “[The albino mouse] was a very rare animal. But through technology we created all these white mice to do testing on. So for me it represents technology itself. Even if you think you can get away from technology, you can’t. …The lab mouse has total freedom; that’s why it’s eating out of the refrigerator. It’s like the white elephant in the room—it’s so big and we’re not even aware it’s there because we naturally accept it.” [1] And because everyone has forgotten about the mouse, being preoccupied with all their gadgets.

In Loco Parentis along with Hovnanian’s other multi-media installations Dinner for Two: Wedding Cake and New Year’s Feast: Beijing 2014—each of which also features a virtual mouse, munching away on a festive cake set in the center of a table at which sits a digitally-produced couple or a family—effectively evoke a discussion about how our gadgets have changed the way we communicate, how our obsession with them has given rise to a preference for interacting with those farthest away over those who are near, casting a chilly spell over intimacy as well as parenting.

Each of these mice in her works, though hardly alive, is ironically the liveliest element within the domestic tableaux. Thus inasmuch as the tiny fellow may be intended to represent technology—genetically engineered in the case of the lab mouse—to my mind the tiny insatiable rodent could just as easily be regarded as the age-old symbol of a ceaselessly gnawing entropy.

Today Hovnanian keeps two mice in a cage in her studio, “her sometimes-actors,” her collaborators.

 

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_______________

[1] Rachel Small, “Rachel Lee Hovnanian Versus the Future,” Interview, September 3, 2014.

Additional sources: Artist’s website; Robin Peckham, “Dining Partners: Beyond Weak Ties,” New Year’s Feast Beijing 2014, Rachel Lee Hovnanian, catalogue.

(In Loco Parentis, 2014, installation with rear projection video, HD video, acrylic, Cheerios, refrigerator, high chair, metal, diamond dust; dimensions variable, reproduced for non-commercial purpose only.)

 


Southern Comfort

The Surprize, 1871, William Aiken WalkerIn 1871 a mouse ran onto the palette of William Aiken Walker and posed at the edge in front of dabs of lead white, Van Dyke Brown and vermillion. Witnessing the tiny creature’s bustle was the painter himself. Now inspired, Walker picked up his brush and transformed the moment into oil on board, measuring 12 x 16 inches. The Surprize [sic] is complete with the small rodent’s tail colored red from his shortcut through the vermillion.[1] Walker would go on to paint Old Shoe with Mice, in which a handful of critters gnaw holes in the footwear’s leather. And in 1872, Walker showed more mice, this time on a tabletop, joyfully devouring fruit and crackers; he called that painting A Free Lunch. Four years later, hungry mice still seemed to be on Walker’s mind when he painted another group feasting on a generous wedge of cheese, fruit and nuts. Still Life with Cheese, Bottle and Mouse—with the cheese, a common symbol for longevity, now half-eaten—ostensibly sounds like the stuff of a vanitas, an homage perhaps to the seventeenth century Dutch artists as Walker had recently spent time in Europe visiting artists studios, galleries and museums, looking at works “on which he based [several of] his own still-life paintings.”[2] But from all appearances the rodents of this Charleston, South Carolina-born painter were not, as they were in Holland, reminders of the impermanence of earthly life as much as they were reminders of the mouse’s sybaritic nature.

But why, we might ask, would the quintessential artist of the South—allegedly a bit of a dandy who became recognized as one of the most important Southern genre painters with his oft-controversial homey depictions of African-American sharecroppers[3]—take time to portray over and over the tiny rodent?

His preoccupation with mice appears to be a perpetuation of the subject matter that he painted in his teens and his early twenties prior to the Civil War, when he exhibited works of animals, fish and fowl, chickens and cows, and portraits of dogs. The artist’s biographers note that Walker’s visual narratives of mice “reflect his interest in the insignificant as well as his quiet sense of humor.”[4]

On the other hand, inasmuch as he was an artist, he was also a savvy businessman ready to meet his clients’ demands. From Baltimore to Alabama, New Orleans to North Carolina, Tallahassee to Tennessee he roamed the South, painting “postcards” with scenes of everyday life. And so it was almost inevitable he would find a market for his mice. A Free Lunch was turned into a lithograph by the famed printers Currier & Ives, speaking to the image’s immense popularity. In the meantime The Surprize sold to a private collector for $15.00.

 

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[1] August P. Trovaioli, Roulhac Toledana, William Aiken Walker: Southern Genre Painter, 2nd edition, Pelican Press, 2008. (1st edition, University of Louisiana Press, 1972).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Criticism revolves around the absence in Walker’s plantation paintings of any signs of the injustices that the sharecroppers had to endure. The laborers appear as happy as the skies under which they pick cotton. John Michael Vlach, “Perpetuating the Past: Plantation Landscape Paintings Then and Now,” in Landscape of Slavery: The Plantation in American Art, eds. Angela D. Mack, Stephen G. Hoffius, University of South Carolina Press, 2008.

[4] Trovaioli, Toledana, op. cit.

Additional source: Cynthia Seibels, The Sunny South: The Life and Art of William Aiken Walker, Saraland Press, 1995.

(Image: The Surprize, 1871, oil on board, 12 x 16 in., private collection.)


Breaking Muse!

Mouse Muse by Lorna Owen

 

Today I’m taking a detour from our art-inspiring rodent to share a bit of exciting news: a book based on this blog will soon be published!

Mouse Muse: The Mouse in Art — is due out this November 2014.

The idea began to form several years ago when I caught my first deer mouse in an old farmhouse into which my husband and I had just moved. While I saw mice, with their talent to shoot out from the shadows, simply as critters who made my heart race, the minuscule mammal with huge eyes and ears, sitting in the no-kill trap staring back at me, I admit sparked a re-thinking of the entire species. In that mouse, I instantly thought of Beatrix Potter’s watercolors of mice and I couldn’t help wondering how the mouse has been interpreted in art beyond the pages of children’s illustrated stories.

The white-footed fellow propelled me on this unexpected journey both to learn about the tiny creature and to understand just who were those artists who were compelled to use mice in their work. And in the course of my undertaking I found—and continue to find—that the reasons behind the mouse’s role as muse are as revealing as they are surprising. That the otherwise lowly, misunderstood mouse, nature’s most humble creature, has indeed left an astonishing and gigantic legacy in visual art.

 

***

 A few facts:

Title: MOUSE MUSE: The Mouse in Art

Publisher: The Monacelli Press

On-sale: November 18, 2014

Available for pre-order: Amazon; B&N; Powell’s; Chapters Indigo, Canada; Amazon UK; Random House Australia (and many others)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Did you ever see such a sight in your life?

Winslow Homer, 1858, engraving, Eventful History of Three Little Mice“Three blind mice/ see how they run/ they all ran after the farmer’s wife/ who cut off their tails with a carving knife…” A horrifying image dressed in a child’s verse. The English it seems gave the German Brothers Grimm a run for their money. This familiar nursery rhyme was allegedly scribbled in honor of Her Royal Highness, Queen Mary I, who also happens to be called Bloody Mary because she had an unquenchable thirst for the blood of Protestants; she, the “farmer’s wife,” who so generously had three noblemen—the eponymous mice—burned at the stake rather than their eyes poked out.

Taken out of context of 16th century England in which they originated, the unseeing mice today are but a trio of unfortunate tiny rodents, without sight and without tails. And the ambiguity of the lyrics leaves us speculating about the sequence of events—whether the mice were running after or running away from their mutilator when she slashed their tails. The celebrated poet Billy Collins, however, turns our attention to an even more pertinent question: why were the mice blind in the first place? The former Poet Laureate guesses at the answers as empathy sneaks up on him, sneaks into the lines of his “I Chop Some Parsley While Listening to Art Blakey’s Version of ‘Three Blind Mice’”:

…If it was congenital, they could be brothers and sister,
and I think of the poor mother
brooding over her sightless young triplets.


 
Or was it a common accident, all three caught
in a searing explosion, a firework perhaps?
 
…the thought of them without eyes

and now without tails to trail through the moist grass

 

or slip around the corner of a baseboard

has the cynic who always lounges within me

up off his couch and at the window

trying to hide the rising softness that he feels.


 
By now I am on to dicing an onion

which might account for the wet stinging

in my own eyes, though Freddie Hubbard’s

mournful trumpet on “Blue Moon,”


 
which happens to be the next cut,

cannot be said to be making matters any better.[1]

But long before the three blind mice softened a cynic’s heart, America’s greatest nineteenth century painter got caught up in the nursery rhyme as well. In his early years as an artist, Winslow Homer earned his keep as a commercial illustrator. In 1858, a Boston publisher hired Homer to contribute seventeen illustrations to a children’s book. Titled Eventful History of Three Little Mice and How They Became Blind, it could almost be read as a direct response to the question Collin’s would one day pose. And like Collins, Homer and the tale’s anonymous author treat the mice sympathetically, showing us that their lamentable fate wasn’t because they were naughty but because they were mice simply being mice—in the pantry of the farmer’s wife looking for food.

 

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______________________

[1] Billy Collins, “I Chop Some Parsley While Listening to Art Blakey’s Version of ‘Three Blind Mice,’” (excerpted), Picnic, Lightning, 1998.

Additional sources: Maurice Sendak, “Introduction” in Eventful History of Three Little Mice and How They Became Blind, 1996 edition, Oxford University Press; Garth Stein, “Billy Collins’s ‘I Chop Some Parsley….’,” Shambhala Sun, July 2010, p. 96.

(Image: Winslow Homer, from Eventful History of Three Little Mice and How They Became Blind, 1858, hand colored engraving, publisher: E. O. Libby & Co., Boston, Massachusetts.)

 

 


unSwept Away

Detail of Heraclitus's MosaicBones of fish and fowl and stones of fruit, shells of crustaceans and oysters and a walnut or two, as well as capers and olives—these, the remnants of a very large Mediterranean meal. As for the cleanup it was all the more onerous—at least for the minions if not for the mice—since the guests had cavalierly tossed the leavings on the floor. How barbaric! Yet this was not the aftermath of a feast of a band of hungry Neanderthals some sixty thousand years ago but that of a banquet of the powerful and wealthy and educated in Ancient Rome. Perhaps their actions boiled down to what the philosopher Epictetus had to say back then in the first century, essentially that feeding the stomach should be secondary to feeding the mind.[1] If food had to take a backseat to discourse and Homeric declamations then it only stood to reason that keeping your place at the table neat would have been a triviality considered best ignored. Or perhaps the Roman elite were entitled slobs. In any case, the leftovers strewn across the floors of formal dining rooms inspired mosaic artists; they turned them into a trick-of-the-eye motif, using tiny tiles of colored marble and glass, specially cut and arranged.

Aptly called asàrotos òikos, or “unswept room,” it became a genre of its own. The earliest example, according to Pliny the Elder’s oft-cited mention in his Natural History appeared in the 2nd century BCE—about the time wealthy Greeks took a shine to mosaic ornamentation, which superseded decoratively painted wood in their villas. “[T]he most famous exponent [of the style] was Sosus, who at Pergamum laid the floor, [and] represented refuse from the dinner table and other sweepings, making them appear as if they had been left there,” Pliny wrote, identifying the only mosaicist from the cradle of Western civilization known by name.[2]

Three centuries later, the Romans copied the Greeks, filling their residences with mosaic wall and floor decorations. Asàrotos òikos was in demand. They cropped up in posh, private homes in Tunisia and in Pompeii, and in Hadrian’s villa in Tivoli. And in another villa atop Aventine Hill in Rome—that one signed by Heraclitus and said to be a replica of Sosus’s. Like Sosus, Heraclitus saw to include both a mouse and his shadow as he nibbles on a walnut shell.

 

 

.

 

[1] Epictetus, Enchiridon, 41.

[2] Pliny, Natural History, xxxvi, 184, translated by D. E. Eichholz, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, reprint, 2001.

Additional sources: Niki Holmes Kantzios, “Edible Imagery in Roman Dining Room Floor Mosaics”; A Companion to Greek Art, Tyler Jo Smith and Dimitris Plantzos, eds; Roger Ling, Ancient Mosaics, Princeton University Press, 1998.

(Image: Heraclitus, Unswept Room, detail, Gregoriano Profano Museum, Vatican Museums)

 


Tiny Dancer

Charles Hermann-Léon, published 1891Some one hundred years ago “waltzing” mice were a sought-after pet, a novelty bred solely for their quickstep ability. Despite what this print of mice might charm us into believing, the real-live diminutive creatures danced on all four legs, never on two. Sometimes they spun around an invisible vertical axis or in a figure eight as they twitched their heads about. Sometimes two mice danced together in a synchronized fashion. And sometimes two mice danced like a planet orbited by its moon—while one spun in a wide circle, the other circled the spinner.

Along with their kin fancy mice—varieties of house mice who earned the fancy in their name having been selectively bred and prized for their exceptional coat colors, such as blue and yellow and albino—the waltzing, commonly piebald, mice were domesticated in 18th century Japan. Scientists speculated that they resulted from a natural mutation that occurred centuries earlier in a mouse who was once indigenous to the plateaus and plains of Central Asia—a tiny dancer was mentioned as early as 80 B.C. in the annals of the Han Dynasty. China by way of Japan, the now-called Japanese waltzers arrived in Europe with the help of European traders throughout the nineteenth century, and by the late 1890s these nimble-footed individuals began to appear in the United States.[1]

From 1903 to 1907, Robert Yerkes, a behavioral psychologist and a professor at Harvard University observed from two to one hundred “graceful and dexterous” little dancers and published the results in an aptly titled book The Dancing Mouse.[2] In addition to his probe into their development and their physiology, looking for deviations from ordinary mouse species, he broke down their dance steps, whirling to the left or whirling to the right or whirling back and forth to the left and right. The left whirlers, who were mainly female, outnumbered the right whirlers, who were mainly male. Both sexes, however, whirled more and more as day turned to dusk.

The Japanese waltzing mice, as it turned out, were not dancing because they heard songs in their heads. In fact when they were born they hardly heard anything at all, and by the time the mice were one-week old the majority of the dancers were completely deaf. Most scientists concurred that both the deafness and the unusual behavior were probably due to a hereditary structural abnormality of the inner ear. While they disagreed as to the precise location—the ear canals or the cochleae or the ligaments of the cochlear ducts—and pointed fingers at one another, claiming carelessness in their methods, they agreed that the mice’s twirling was nothing but their lifelong quest to stay upright.[3] Alas.

The tiny waltzers no longer exist. Perhaps because almost the second after the mice had reached our shores, scientists nabbed them and crossbred them, over and over, with a number of other strains. One thing that can be said, any dancing mice are better left to the imagination of artists.

This print is by the 19th century French artist Charles Hermann-Léon, highly esteemed for his paintings of animals. Published in 1891 its caption reads: Quand les chats n’y sont pas…,[4] taken from the well-known French proverb, “When the cats aren’t there…” (or the English version “When the cat’s away…”) We all know what comes next: The mice will dance!

 

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[1] William H. Gates, “The Japanese Waltzing Mouse, Its Origin and Genetics,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Volume 11, 1925.

[2]Robert M. Yerkes, The Dancing Mouse: A Study in Animal Behavior, 1907.

[3] In the 1930s, a leading mammalogist Lee Dice of the University of Michigan discovered the same dancing behavior and ear defects in four strains of deer mice, Lee R. Dice, “Inheritance of Waltzing and of Epilepsy in Mice of the Genus Peromyscus,Journal of Mammalogy, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Feb., 1935)

[4]The source of the print is unknown.

(Image: Quand les chats n’y sont pas…” by Charles Hermann-Léon, photogravure print, 6 ¼ x 4 7/8 in., published 1891.)

 


Hadaka no tsukiai

1 Utagawa Kunisada III, Kōshi Bath, 1882This communal bathhouse just happens to be filled with mice—but they are patrons not pests, mind you.

Like any good citizen of 19th century Tokyo, these anthropomorphic mice, as seen in this whimsical “popular” woodblock print by the artist Utagawa Kunisada III,[1] went to a public bathhouse to keep themselves clean. Although in certain quarters bathhouses often masqueraded as brothels, with indoor plumbing in the home a thing of the future, frequenting the neighborhood sento or onsen was a common activity, one that was social as well as practical, catching up on the gossip as well as removing the dirt. A culture of hadaka no tsukiai, naked communion, they called it. The bathhouse was a place that the whole family could enjoy, fathers and mothers and children all sudsing together—that is until around 1890 when a law was passed that doused the fun, calling for separate sections for men and women.

Reminiscent to vertical landscape scroll paintings, Kōshi Bath is divided into four separate planes, arranged bottom to top, depicting the mice’s progression through the bathhouse from the entrance to the soaking, from earth to the heavens you might say. The woodblock print was published in 1882, during the Meiji era, when Edo became Tokyo, when a more egalitarian Japan opened its doors to foreign influences. Along with forms of western industrialization came the introduction of synthetic aniline dyes to the Japanese printmaking process, which allowed for prints to be produced in brilliant colors—unlike the muted tones of the preceding period. “Vibrant red and purple in particular—the ‘colors of progress’—became emblematic of the Meiji era,” one curator wrote, “vividly expressing the pursuit of ‘enlightenment and civilization,’ the watch-words of the Meiji leaders.”[2]

While Kunisada III was a trained master artist in his own right—having been the apprentice of the apprentice of the apprentice of the master Toyokuni who had founded the celebrated Utagawa school—his print of bathhouse mice wasn’t fine art made for the elite, using the best quality of paper but, according to artist and author Rebecca Salter, most likely created for the amusement of the burgeoning working class, dashed off on thin, sometimes recycled paper and sold inexpensively[3] to the thousands of people who had scurried, like mice, into the cities.

 

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[1] Utagawa Kunisada III also named himself professionally Kunimasa IV and Baido Hosai, and Toyokuni IV—as per the elaborate Eastern tradition.

[2] Donald Jenkins, Curator, “Meiji Woodblock Print Exhibition,” Portland Art Museum, 2002.

[3] Rebecca Salter, Japanese Popular Prints: From Votive Slips to Playing Cards, University of Hawaii Press, 2006.

Additional source: Scott Clark, Japan, a View from the Bath, University of Hawaii Press, 1994.

(Image: Utagawa Kunisada III, Kōshi Bath, woodblock print, 1882.)

 


Apologia pro vita sua

George Grosz Mouse sketchbook, 1950-1952Mice as subject matter may have been light-years away from the artist’s early, caustic vision of his native Germany between the wars. Yet in the years, 1950-1951, he drew sixteen rodents in the pages of what he called his “Mäusezeichbuch,” his mice drawing book. Several are pinned in the once ubiquitous snap traps—regrettable blows of reality—that have left art historians guessing. Did the artist discover in the mouse a “discourse on nature and the past?” Or did he, now a naturalized American, revel in the post-WWII political irony of the trap’s trademark name, Victor?[1]

Considered “one of the twentieth century’s greatest satirists,” a Hogarth by way of Goya, George Grosz was shaped by both the obscene death and destruction he witnessed serving in the Kaiser’s war and the corrosive contradictions of the subsequent Weimar Republic. He portrayed lust and violence, at once ribald and revolting, as political power’s helpmates; his caricatures lacerated German society: the Church, the Military and the Bourgeoisie. Obese and porcine. Mere gatherings of empirical evidence. “I spared no one…I considered myself a natural scientist,” he wrote in his autobiography.[2] Yet he recognized that he was but both sides of the same proverbial coin. “I was everybody I depicted: the rich, gorging, champagne-guzzling man favored by fate, as well as the one out there holding out his hand in the pouring rain.”[3] While the streets of Berlin simmered, Grosz’s art soon made his name in America, the land of his boyhood dreams, the land of James Fenimore Cooper’s Mohicans; a hair’s breadth before the Reichstag went up in flames, Grosz accepted an invitation to teach in New York, arriving in 1933.

Sought-after at the Art Students League, however, wasn’t a balm to the realization that his satiric work was now viewed as outdated and depressing, crowded out by abstract expressionism. Like a wind-up toy he shuffled around, looking for his artistic soul. He turned back to the works of the old masters, Pisanello and Dürer, studying the way they painted animals, a duck, a young hare, a couple of squirrels… Later, in his acceptance speech for a gold medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Grosz spoke about “the limitations of satire and desire to be an artist of nature.” The writer Ian Buruma describes Grosz’s talk: “It is a cry from the heart, a desperate apologia pro vita sua, but the audience thinks he is clowning, and interrupts his speech with howls of laughter….”[4]

To the mice, nature morte, Grosz applied the unvarnished truth, much as he did in his earlier illustrations. The creatures are meticulously rendered, “life-size”—their fur defined by each hair, their tiny paws rigid, their eyes unseeing.

.


[1] See Beeke Sell Tower’s essay “Of Mice and Manhattan: Sketchbook 1950/7 in the Fogg Art Museum,” The Sketchbooks of George Grosz, ed. Peter Nisbet (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Art Museums, 1993), 122-126.

[2] George Grosz, George Grosz: An Autobiography, trans. Nora Hodges (New York: Macmillan, 1983), 125.

[3] Ibid., p. 125.

[4] Ian Buruma, “George Grosz’s Amerika,” The New York Review of Books, July 13, 1995, 25.

(Image: Two Dead Mice; verso: blank page, 1950-1951; Drawing, Sketchbook Page; Graphite on off-white wove paper, 6 x 9 3/16 in., Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Anonymous gift in gratitude for the friendship and kindness of Dean Wilbur Joseph Bender, 1955.95.21, for non-commercial purposes only.)

 


Misericords Love Company

Robert Thompson, on furniture made for Leeds Girls' High School Library, 1933A wooden bookend or a bowl or a cheese board that features a carved mouse sounds like a mere novelty, yet there are warnings on, of all places, eBay, cautioning potential bidders against frauds, fakes and forgeries. And one begins to understand the value of the object’s possible legacy. Robert Thompson was an original, the only Mouseman, a consummate artist-craftsman of North Yorkshire, England, who came of age in the last decade of the nineteenth century, who snubbed the machine-age in favor of the arts-and-crafts movement, who decided to make the mouse his logo by carving him onto almost every piece of his furniture.

Thompson’s mouse debuted sometime around 1920. “I and another carver were carving a huge cornice for a screen,” Thompson would later write, “and he happened to say something about being as poor as a church mouse. I said I’ll carve a mouse here and did so, then it struck me what a lovely trade mark.”[1] And thus the first of Thompson’s mice was born, the genesis of his moniker “the Mouseman of Kilburn.” His work was of the ecclesiastical nature, woodwork for humble churches and noble cathedrals, across the towns and villages of northern England.

At age fifteen he apprenticed to an engineer about sixty miles southeast of Kilburn, the country village where he was born and raised and where he would return after five years to join his father’s joinery shop. According to Patricia Lennon—author of a small, quirky book that is at once a short biography of Thompson and a travel guide with driving tours to see Thompson’s mice—his trips to and fro during his apprenticeship took him through Ripon and he would frequently stop and admire its cathedral’s 15th century misericords—carvings, often fanciful, found on the underside Robert Mouseman Thompsonof the seats in the choir stall—exquisitely produced by William Bromflet. It was Bromflet’s work that helped Thompson to see how woodworking could be turned into art. Following in the footsteps of his medieval forebears, Kilburn’s Mouseman worked solely with English oak, cured it naturally not in a kiln, and colored the wood with the fuming process—the honeyed tint that is achieved when ammonia interacts with the wood’s tannin. He snubbed nails and screws, eschewed the clackety-clack of mechanized lathes for the opportunity to work his knuckles to the bone. He chose the adze to define his craftsmanship in the soft ripples the shaping tool made in the wood, resulting in furniture that was in equal parts graceful and rustic. By 1930 his small shop was filled with ten apprentices of his own. He considered each one “to be fully trained once they could carve the mouse to his exacting standards.”[2]

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[1] Patricia Lennon, The Tale of the Mouse: The Life and work of Robert Thompson the Mouseman of Kilburn, Great Northern Books, 2001, p. 13.

[2] Ibid., p. 15.

Also, see Robert Thompson’s Craftsmen.

Images: Photograph of Robert Thompson at work; Mouse on one of the pieces of furniture that he made for the Leeds Girls’ High School library, 1933.


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