3 October 1996
The Preservation Society of Newport County, in Newport, Rhode Island, has an album of clippings regarding the decoration of "Vinland," a country house on the ocean (or "cottage" as they were called in Newport) that was designed for Miss Catharine Wolfe around the theme of the Viking settlement of North America. Local legend was that a circular stone tower in Newport was built by Vikings (this is not accepted by modern archaeologists, who think the tower might have been built as a windmill by English colonists). Longfellow wrote a poem called "The Skeleton in Armor" about the Newport Vikings, and this served as the inspiration for the architectural design and decorations of the house.
The first letter from Morris was apparently written to the decorator, identified in the newspapers as "Codman, of Boston" (addressed as "Dear Sir" and not directly to Miss Wolfe) and is dated Merton Abbey, Surrey, April 11th, 1883. Morris discusses appropriate figures from the old Norse sagas for the windows, which were to be drawn by Burne-Jones.
Upper Mall Hammersmith
[the above is crossed out]
Merton Abbey, Surrey
April 11th, 1883
I have been talking over the matter of Miss Wolfes window with Mr. Burne-Jones, and he quite agrees to the sort of subjects. On reading over the sagas again, I find that Ericke Rau_i [Erick the Red] was never in America, and that all the people who had to do with Vinland Thofinn Karlsefne seemed to be closes connected with it: I should suggest the representing of him and his wife Gudridr instead of the old man and Freydis: which latter was a horrible wretch according to the Leifs' saga whereas Gudridr has something pleasing and womanly about her. It is true that in Thofinn Karsefnes' saga Freydis is softened into a courageous amazon; but that story is visibly untrustworthy compared with that of Lief Heppin and is very late in composition. I propose Odin Thor and Frey the 3 great Gods above the adventurers of Vinland; & in the small lights, a ship the middle, & on each side a scroll, with the passages from Hávamál (Edda) about undying fame on it: proper enough on this occasion since the poor fishermen & sheep farmers of Greenland & Iceland have so curiously found a place among the worthies connected with the great modern commonwealth [America]. Over leaf I make a diagram of the window.
May I ask as a matter of business if we may consider the window ordered and go on with it: I am vexed that any delay sould have taken place, but it has not been owing to any neglect of ours.
A second letter of 1885 to Miss Catharine Wolfe was written in reply to inquiries about the text of the inscriptions.
Morris & Company.
Painted Glass,"Arras" Tapestry,
Damasks, &c., &c.
April 15th 1885
The two inscriptions on the scrolls are translations from the passages in Hávámal beginning Deyr fé Deyr fraendr &tc. [This stanza reads in English: Cattle die, kinsfolk die, even to us ourselves will death come. But the good fame which a man has won for himself will never die.] The translation of course is mine, and is necessarily a little free. I think one translator translates fé by cante: this is absurd although it is the primary meaning like pecinnia in Latin.
The inscriptions to the Gods are out of my own head.
Gudrinn is holding a rune-staff because in the Thorfinns saga in the part about the 'little vala' it says that Gudrinn was wise in ancient lore and incantation (sei_i-frie_r). The background to the heroes is a conventional representation of the sea.
The inscription on Gudrinns' rune-staff is only pictorial & can't be read. I believe we can have photos of the designs on a small scale; we will send them to you if they can be got.
I am very pleased that you approve of the window: The musical personages make it specially interesting to us.
Thank you for your kind invitation, but I fear I am not likely to be able to get so long a holiday as would carry me to America for a long while - longer than I can look forward to.
Newspaper Clipping in Miss Catherine L. Wolfe's scrapbook:
Walter Crane is the subject of the principal illustrated article in the November number of the Art Amateur. Among the drawings is a full page reproduction of the artist's sketch of his painting "The Angel of Love Arresting the Hand of Fate," an autograph portrait and a number of reproductions of illustrations. A notable supplement to the number is Longfellow's "The Skeleton in Armor," accompanied by a series of drawings, by Mr. Crane, after his frieze in illustration of that poem, which is one of the decorations in the recently completed Newport residence of that liberal and enlightened patron of Art, Miss Catherine Wolfe.
Letter from Walter Crane in Miss Catherine Wolfe's scrapbook:
Oct. 10 1883
My Dear Madam,
Many thanks for your kind note received to-day.
I am glad that you have been able to re-consider your objection to the sketches of the frieze appearing, as it will save disappointment in more than one quarter.
The editor of the 'Art Amateur' whom I met at Sir Fredk. Leighton's here in London, was anzious to make the account of my work he proposed to publish as complete a representative as was possible, he, having regard to his public, was particularly desirous of obtaining sketches of the frieze I have executed for you & as not only being an important work in itself, but interesting also as being destined for an American home.
I saw Dr. Norris here the other day, & he has intrusted me with some panels in glass for your library at Newport. He leaves for Rome today.
believe me, dear Madam,
very faithfully your
A letter to Miss Catherine Wolfe from Edward Burne-Jones:
Dr. Norris' note & your card have been forwarded to me by Messrs. Morris, and I should have been pleased if I could have asked you at once to visit my studio - but I am so preped with work still to be finished for the Grosvenor Gallery that I have no time free before the end of the week.
Would it be convenient to you to call here about 3 o'clock on Sunday afternoon, when it would give me much pleasure to see you, and talk over the window!
Belive me, dear Madam,
Philadelphia, Wednesday, Sep, 26, 1883,
A VIKING'S SUCCESSOR
The New York Evening Post of the 18th inst. gives a full description of "Vinland," the house just built at Newport for Miss Catharine L. Wolfe, of New York. It reads like a fairy story. The old "Stone Mill" in Newport is often spoken of as a Tower built by the Norsemen, who, it is said, in the Ninth Century sailed westward and found and settled on the New England coast, and Vinland is the name given to the colony supposed to have left the old Stone Mill as one of its heirlooms. Longfellow was riding one day on the sands at Newport, thinking over a story, then recent, of the discovery not far off of a skeleton in armor. With a poet's true instinct, he made the subject the basis of his well-known poem, "The Skeleton in Armor," and his story was that of a Viking who loved a Prince's daughter, and, having been scoffingly rejected by the father, fled with the daughter across the open ocean, landed in Vinland, there built the stone tower for his bride, and on her death fell on his own sword. When Miss Wolfe determined to build her new house she remembered the poem and determined to make her home one that, in stone and wood, in glass and fresco painting, should recall the old story. Her architects seconded her plan. Her house is a long, low, dark red stone structure, made thoroughly comfortable by broad porches and broad terrace walks, while all the carving suggests the vines, leaves and fruit and the foliage that befit the name of Vinland. Indoors, too, both in construction and ornament, the house is full of the old legend. Codman, of Boston, is an artist in feeling and a man of education, fully able to execute the task entrusted to him. With Peabody and Stearns, the architects, he made the house tell its story, and secured the assistance of artists all full of zeal and ability.
William Morris, of London, is known as a poet who has rewritten the old Norse legends, and as a practical house furnisher who has made a study of applying art to the daily requirements of life indoors. He has supplied much of the material that makes
Vinland a comfortable home, but he has done more than that, for he has enlisted in the work of its decoration artists of acknowledged pre-eminence. Burne Jones, the famous aesthetic painter, is hard at work on a great glass window, in which the heroes and heroines of the old Norse legend of Vinland, and their ship, are to stand in glowing colors. Walter Crane, the popular painter and designer, who has revolutionized the whole world of children's picture books, has painted a frieze in which he illustrates with wonderful beauty, vigor and coloring the story of Longfellow's Skeleton in Armor; and, last scene of all, the Old Stone Tower stands up, as the artist fancies it must have looked those long centuries ago. The same quaint legend has its suggestion in the carving, both in stone and wood, of chimney pieces, columns, arches, windows, and all the constructive and ornamental parts of the house that require or admitted such a method of pointing out the origin of the name chosen, Vinland. The house is described as well placed in a large stretch of ground, bounded by the sea, and the famous "cliff walk" kept open for the public, while Bowditch, the well-known Boston landscape gardener, has preserved the trees of the old farm that once occupied the site, and added others brought from the new owner's own paternal homestead, and has made the whole a setting of lawn and garden well suited to the house, which will in time stand in the midst of a wealth of foliage, suggesting the name "Vinland," and the story of the old Norsemen of Longfellow.
The Opening of Miss Wolfe's New House
- Latest and Best addition to the
"Cottages" - Some Description
of it Within and Without.
(Correspondence to the Evening Post.)
[New York, 1883]
NEWPORT, September 15. - The wide gates of Miss Wolfe's Newport house, just completed, were opened to-day for the first time, and her large circle of friends were hospitably welcomed within its walls. The house stands upon Ochre Point, on the site of the old Lawrence mansion, a plain, old-fashioned wooden house, noted for the long ownership and occupancy of ex-Governor William Beach Lawrence, where a succession of distinguished visitors were entertained during the forty years of his busy literary life. After his death his library was sold, his manuscripts scattered, and his household effects distributed among his family. His farm, for such it was when he bought it, and it remained plain and unimproved in his hands, was cut up, and on the lots first sold are built the fine houses of Mr. Lorillard, Mr. Walter Lewis, Mr. Fairman Rogers, and half a dozen other modern villas in a curious medley of architecture. [This includes "Ochre Court" - a French Chateau by Richard Morris Hunt, and "Wakehurst," an exact copy of Wakehurst Place near Standen in Sussex, that occupies a large house lot across the street from "Vinland."] Miss Wolfe's house is a large, long, low red-stone house, in the midst of a large plot of ground that has been converted into a beautiful pleasaunce, rich in great beds of ribbon gardening, with some fine old trees and plantations intended to shelter the lawns. The house itself was designed by Peabody & Stearns, architects of Boston, and much of the constructive and ornamental work within was executed under their direction.
The name of Vinland typifies the story that is told by the house itself, and by the decorative work that makes it a treasure-house of art. It is named after the first spot on which the old Norsemen are supposed to have landed on their prehistoric voyage across the ocean. The house is a modern, modified, and subdued Norseman (or Norman) building, with an entrance gate of great square columns. A broad porte-cochere, with richly carved capitals upon the sides, opens by a wide doorway, across a pavement of mosaic work in low colors, into the main hall. The ceiling is an arched roof of dark lustrous color, and the light is given mainly by a great window at the head of a generous stairway, to be filled by a glass window now in course of construction from designs by Mr. Burne Jones.
The story told by Longfellow in his well known poem of "The Skeleton in Armor" is the keynote of the house and its decoration, and Vinland is well chosen as the name of a house in which the old Norse legends are told in frescoes by Walter Crane and painted glass with subjects selected by William Morris from the Norse sagas. The frieze executed by Walter Crane is an artist's rendering of Longfellow's heroic verse. The designs in much of the woodwork, both constructive and ornamental, recall the Runic or Northern art seen in not a few Northern buildings, and even the Venetian mosaic work, used freely and effectively, suggests the debt of the Italian mediaeval artists to the early Northmen. Morris reread the sagas, and chose for subjects the heroes and heroines who figure in the legendary voyage to Vinland.
Even the woodwork of the railing and newel of the staircase leading up to the foot of the great window, and the gallery opening into the rooms above, are carved in Runic and Norse designs, relieved by vines and clustering leaves and grapes. In the dining-room, at the foot of the broad staircase, the frieze is a series of frescoes by Walter Crane, illustrating in successive pictures the story of Longfellow's Viking, his wooing of the blue-eyed maid, Hildebrand's scornful rejection of his suit -
"She was a Prince's child,
I but a Viking wild;
And though she blushed and smiled,
I was discarded.
Then the flight of the lovers, the pursuit, the sinking of the ship, with the father and his twenty comrades, the safe arrival of the pair on land, where the Viking built
"the lofty tower,
Which to this very hour,
Stands looking seaward,"
and the old stone mill stands forth with renewed honor in this cycle of the old Norse legend, while the last scene represents the death of the heroine and finally of the hero. Even the red sandstone of the fireplace and mantel is inscribed with the names of the great Norse heroes, who figure in Leif's Saga, and with runic emblems all entwined in the vine that gave its name to the western world of the Norseman as it now does to the Newport Vinland. Throughout the house the spirit and influence of William Morris, as poet and designer, are shown. Architect and artisan have worked in admirable and affective sympathy. The drawing room is full of light and the carving in wood of the vine on the mantel and around and over the fireplace is carried on in a graceful stucco frieze, relieved by a tinge of color, with mottoes and arms and emblems running freely around. The walls are hung with a cool stuff, the design repeating in varying colors and different material for the furniture cover and the carpet, and the portieres are made on Morris's own looms and often his own handiwork. The fire dogs are repetitions of those of Haddon Hall, and with the chandelier are the work of handicraftsmen who have studied under Morris and are now his colaborers. The rich yellow giallo antico of the marble mantel gives a tone to the decoration all about it.
In the library there are rich carvings on the pillars that support the arch of the great bow, done by Edson of Boston, which show great force and strength. The ceiling, too, shows the skill of the native workman in carrying out the architect's design, while between the panels are painted in subdued tones the arms and monograms of all the early printers - Fust, Scheffer, Guttenberg, Caxton, and Wynkyn de Worde, the various Wolfes, and other notable early masters of the art. The walls of the hall and stairway are hung with old Flemish tapestry, and the reflection of an old mirror, a family relic going back to the times of good colonial work, makes the woven pictures fresh and bright again. In front of the great window is suspended by chains from the ceiling a great Northern vase, in beaten copper and iron, alternating black and gold, from which at night the light will pour out over the stairs, while the drawing-room will be lit by a chandelier of metals of five kinds and colors. The morning-room is in black wood, relieved by gold, with a ceiling, painted by Treadwell, of Boston, in morning glories and homely flowers; and one window-door opens on the broad terrace, with its dark-red sandstone walls and its bed of green, bright with ribbon gardening, and a flight of steps leading down to the lawn, where Bowditch has subdued trees and plants and flowers to be a foreground for the sloping cliff and the boundless sea view, with the rocks jutting above the green water.
The parquetry of the floors is half hidden by rugs of Persian and Turkish pattern, and by those of Morris's design, whose hand is also shown in the bed-rooms and living rooms of the upper story, where the architect has shown his appreciation of domestic comfort and has met the requirements of every-day life. Much old family furniture finds its place throughout the house. The long, low rooms open into one another with generous doors, and the contrast of color and decoration heightens the effect of the architectural lines without in the least diminishing the comfortable and home-like air of the whole house. The outlook on the sea over the sloping green lawn makes a picture from every casement. On the other side the Messrs. Bowditch have carefully preserved the picturesque old trees of the Lawrence homestead, and have found room for some that were brought from the old Wolfe place in Westchester County, N.Y., and all are growing well in the rich soil on which the broad curves of leaf plants rest. The pictures, oils and water-colors, and drawings throughout the house are provisionally hung, but all are examples of the best art, and in pleasant conformity to the exquisite taste and simple love of the beautiful that have subdued all in and out of the house, in spite of its newness, into a succession of pictures. It is a house to be lived in, and yet it is, in stone, and wood, and metal, and glass, and fresco, and furnishing and decoration, just what its name suggests, Vinland, a Northern home, full of the inspiration of Norse story and of Longfellow's verses, giving Newport another example of what good art can do in the service of a good master.
The result is something upon which the eye can rest in comfort; for there is no view, out of doors or in, that does not please by the grace and beauty on all sides. Even the stables and outbuildings have a dignity of their own, without pretending to be more or other than they are. The good old public right of way has been carefully acknowledged and protected, and a comfortable foot path keeps the walk on the cliffs open in full view of the house and the grounds, while the terrace and the broad porches secure the house and its occupants from curious eyes. The rapidity with which the work has been done is not less surprising than its solidity and the substantial excellence and thoroughness of everything above ground and in view, many well guarantee the hidden things, the underground drains and sewers, and all the important elements of health in the house. To it the Newport people now look with pride and satisfaction, for is it is the last so it is the best addition to the homes that increase the affection which old Newporters have for their little island, with its mild climate, rocky cliffs, greensward, and picturesque scenery.
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