basement scrounging

I have been scrounging around in my basement this week, not to reorganize my fabric, or re-evaluate my need for all my saved yarn, but to find something my son asked for:  the silhouettes cut by my great-grandmother. Somewhere in the mess, I knew I had a box of her silhouettes saved and preserved in a special paper. I found them. I also found four notebooks carefully assembled by an aunt of my great-grandmother’s work, including a short description of how she cut the silhouettes and what she did with them. I put away most of the notebooks when the Otterbees arrived. I left out one book of her work and the write-up done by my aunt. I thought the ladies might be interested. I was surprised and amazed when they showed more than a brief interest.

My aunt wrote a brief description of her grandmother at work. It is worth reproducing here as silhouette cutting is an old art and rarely seen, though I have seen the traditional profile silhouettes of family members. These were different. 

          She wrote: My grandmother told me that her art teacher made his students learn the names of all the bones in the body; the origin, insertion. and action of every muscle, and practice endlessly drawing every part of the whole body from all angles. This must account for the  grace, the motion, the poise, and the spirit shown in her charming figures which we call “fairies”.

          Sitting in a sunny corner of her living room on Cape Cod, she would spend the morning stretching white paper on glass, drawing from fresh-cut sprigs of pine, sprays of woodbine, prickly bits of scotch thistle, oak or brier, and add the charming fairy figures.

          This was the day of oil lamps, and sitting down to read, she was annoyed by the glare of the lamp frame which showed below the lamp shade. So on a small wire rectangle, covered both sides with white batiste, she pasted her fairy silhouettes, covered both sides with china silk, attached two pieces of copper spring wire, and then hung this “shade” to the edge of the lamp shade to block the glare. The light shone through and the fairies danced. As one interested in starting a library in this small town, she made these shades and sold them to benefit a new library. She later made four, six, and eight sided lamp shades.

I have samples here of the shades and the silhouettes, carefully preserved in wax paper. We are not sure this method of preserving them is the best, but this was how my aunt saved them 50 years ago. The family is searching out a better way now available and as well as trying to decide how to share these treasures among members.

I used the silhouettes to create a quilt.

Nobody in the current family has tried to cut silhouettes but the artistic talent has shown up in various family members in woodworking, drawing, fairy dolls, quilts or stained glass making. I am sure there will more talent in the generations to come.

There was more to this talented woman. She wrote stories for a publication called Saint Nicholas magazine. She also published two books: The Chezzles (1888) (including tiny sketches as chapter headings) and Rachel Stanwood (1893).  I have both copies and am currently reading them.

Her silhouettes were published in a book called The Breezes but most people looking at the pages fail to understand that she actually cut the shapes as they  just look like an ink painting.
This is a photo of my great-grandmother: Lucy Gibbons Morse.

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11 Responses to basement scrounging

  1. Linda Baie says:

    Your story is so interesting, and the photos of the work are lovely. Your great grandmother sounds like someone who needs to be written about in depth. What an amazing talent, in more ways than the silhouettes. I’m glad you shared this today.

    • Don Papson says:

      I have just learned about Lucy Gibbons Morse’s having made silhouettes. I am researching a man named Louis Napoleon who is in her novel, Rachel Stanwood. I have a copy of the book, but it does not have any illustrations in it. Can you scan the illustrations from your copy and send them to me? Louis Napoleon was an Underground Railroad conductor and Lucy’s mother, Abigail Hopper Gibbons worked with him.

      We have no image of Louis Napoleon, and I am wondering if Lucy Gibbons Morse made a silhouette of him.

      Thank you.

      Don Papson

  2. Deb Day says:

    Wow—she was amazing! These are beautiful! And thanks heavens you are all smart enough to preserve them.

  3. Ruth says:

    Wow…thank you for this post. I love that you shared her words. I love that she wrote and now, so many years later, you are finding them as a treasure. Thanks for sharing her art and yours.

  4. the other ruth says:

    This is so interesting–I’m amazed by the patience and skill this work must have taken! The other impressive part is the fact that the family has continued to save the art, the writing and the stories. Beautiful!

  5. Diana Martin says:

    This is amazing artwork and so interesting to learn about the artist herself. Your quilt is also stunning. Your fabric choices make my eyes move all over the piece. The only thing more fun than playing with fabric is playing with paper. I enjoyed reading your slice very much. Just wonderful. 🙂

  6. Hope says:

    I have been very lucky to spend lots of time at the Red House. There are indeed papercuts on the walls in the carriage house. They are beautiful and unique.

  7. Kate Stacy says:

    My Grandmother gave me a lampshade that was made by your Great Grandmother. She used it all the time and I remember staring at it in amazement. I currently have it in storage as it is a bit to fragile to use. I would love to have it restored. Would you happen to know of anyone trustworthy enough for the task?

  8. Fred Kelso says:

    I have been lucky enough to find a set of 5 of these wonderful lamp shade panels, although they are rectangular, and need a bit of fabric restoration. Would you have other photos to share of any of the full lampshades? I’d like to get an idea of how they were constructed, and also what style lamp bases may have been used with them. Thank you for sharing this part of your family history!

    • otterlanding says:

      Hello Fred, this is Amelia, eldest daughter of Fran. I am the editor of her blog and so have sent your note on to her. What fun to read of your connection to our family handiwork.

      • Fred Kelso says:

        Thank you Amelia! I have received the photos and shared my own with your mother. The other interesting connection for us is that my wife and I both have Pennsylvania Quaker heritage, so the story of Lucy and her mother’s Quaker activities is quite intriguing to us. Are you familiar with the silhouette artist Augustin Edouart? He travelled extensively in America in the 1840’s and evidently did quite a bit of business among the Quaker community – silhouette images were not considered “vain,” as painted portraits may have been. I believe at least one folio of his work (he made duplicates of all his silhouettes) resides at the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College, and that the sitters are named, with date and location – I have not yet had the opportunity to pursue this further, but perhaps one or more of Lucy’s ancestors is included…

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