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December 4, 2017
The Chester County Historical Society: Art, History, and A Green Sale
The holidays tend to be a time when there are so many things to see and do, you’re in danger of missing something you might truly enjoy. I speak of the events at one of my favorite places (and an organization that doesn’t always get the fanfare it deserves): the Chester County Historical Society. At least, I’ve been told that people tend to think of it as a place of permanent exhibits and a library where you can research your Chester County roots. That’s true but there’s also a wonderful museum shop where you can find the kind of gifts you can’t find anywhere else, partly because the items – books, crafts, and decorative items tend to relate to Chester County.
A Greens Sale
As for the events, first up on the docket is the society’s volunteer-run Holiday Crafts & Green Sale. It’s held from 9:30 a.m to 8 pm on Friday, December 8th and from 9:30 to 2.m. on Saturday, Dec. 9th. However, you can also stop by the society and preorder the holiday greens such as bags of holly and magnolia.
A Free Holiday Lecture
The first of a series of free lunchtime lectures also begins December 16th at 1 pm. All the upcoming lectures relate to the society’s current exhibit “You’ve Got Mail !” As you might guess, it relates to the fascinating early history of the U.S. postal system—but the December lecture is uniquely related to the holidays. The lecture, by historian Robert Rufe, is titled “You’ve Got… A Package.”
The Final Days of A Major Art Exhibit
All of this is perhaps a preamble to what I really think is one of the society’s most remarkable exhibits to date. The exhibit’s title, “Adrian Martinez Presents The Visionary World of Humphry Marshall (1750-1800)” has appeared on banners since November of last year, and will close at the end of December.
Partly because of the special events centered on Marshall’s accomplishments as a colonial botanist—the one event I attended included the prominent plantsman and author, David Culp, who is also a close friend of Martinez. The historical society found a new audience with “Visionary World.”
The exhibit, I’m told, has appealed to gardeners, plant collectors, and people who want to know about Marshall’s associates such as Hannah Freeman, aka “Indian Hannah,” and his more famous cousin, John Bartram. (Bartram’s Gardens is now a public space and worth visiting. See https://bartramsgarden.org/)
Martinez spent four years researching and planning those aspects of Marshall’s “visionary” world that he wanted to depict in 12 large-scale oil paintings. There was so much material, in fact, obtained through research trips to places like Bartram’s Gardens and Michigan (where Humphry Marshall papers are archived), Martinez’s project became a family affair including the help of his son, Sebastian, a biology minor who is now pursuing a doctorate in philosophy. (More about Martinez’s family is included in a short essay on the West Chester borough’s website.)
In recent years, artists who specialize in figurative painting have increasingly turned to presenting ideas in a social context. But Martinez, who also brings a background as a former exhibit designer and museum curator to his work, has practically developed his own genre. He uses historic figures to explain not only Chester County history but the world at large. He does so in a way that points to an interesting phenomena: the past is never very far away.
What will you see in “Visionary World”? Well, something not that different than the conflicts we see today, much of it caused by a society comprised of diverse groups. In Humphry Marshall’s world that included indenture servants and “free” blacks, Tories and Native Americans, Continental soldiers and peaceful Quakers during the American Revolution.
Martinez’s powerful paintings subtly explain what he calls the “chaos” of the times, and are fascinating to look at mainly because they are typically imaginative interpretations of real-life events. For instance, the “Examination of Hannah Freeman,” depicts what could be described as the “interview” process “Indian” Hannah had to endure before she entered the Chester County Poorhouse.
Although Hannah Freeman later became a celebrity of sorts as the “last of the Lenapes,” and was well-known as a herbalist and basket-maker—she reportedly had a “booth” at West Chester’s colonial Markethous—no other artist that I know of other than Martinez has ever depicted her. (Martinez had access to contemporary descriptions of Freeman, but a lot of his imaginative renderings were based, I believe, on his humanistic vision and empathy as an artist).
Thanks to the exhibit’s extensive captions, we learn that Martinez used a “muted color combination” to create the “somber” mood of this important event: “the final and successful non-violent disenfranchisement of the American Indians in Chester County.”
Chester County Historical Society is located at 225 N. High Street and is open from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm Tuesday through Saturday.
Note that the society will close early at 1 p.m. on December 23 and 30th.