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The Charm of 19th-Century Domescapes--Reality as a Vehicle for the Imagination

Ed Polk Douglas | February 16th, 2014

A Book Review


Under Glass: A Victorian Obsession

by John Whitenight

Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2013, 288 pages, hardbound, $89.50 from (

Let’s go back in time to, say, London, on a mid-September afternoon in 1858. We’re in the front parlor (on the second floor) of a row house in a prosperous upper-middle-class neighborhood. The room is still in “summer dress,” with its slip-covered furniture and minimal draperies. Two children are playing on an area rug in front of the unused fireplace, there is a flowered wall-to-wall carpet, and on the walls, a complementary floral-themed wallpaper.

At the far end of the room, a huge gilt-framed mirror hangs atop a Rococo Revival cabinet on whose top is a large portico clock covered by a glass dome and flanked by smaller domes covering art objects. To either side of the cabinet are arched niches filled with console tables, similarly topped with domes holding decorative porcelain. Reflected in the mirror, on the opposite wall, is a related arrangement: a white marble fireplace mantel with its mirror, and niches with console tables. Domes abound here, too, and there is a three-piece dome garniture (of artificial flower-filled vases) on the mantel shelf.

Glimpsed through the portieres behind the folding doors is the back parlor, similar to the front in its general fittings, but differing in its furnishings because of its occasional use as a library. A low mirror-backed bookcase is topped by domes covering small statues, and the draped center table holds a large dome filled with stuffed birds and foliage. Were we able to see the fireplace mantel, it might well be topped with a garniture similar to that in the front parlor.

White wax Easter cross, British or American, circa 1875. (All objects shown are from the Whitenight- LaValley collection, Philadelphia; all photography by Alan Kolc, courtesy Schiffer Publishing, Ltd.)

Pair of porcelain vases with glass and beadwork flowers, topped with cloth birds, unknown origin, Continental or American, circa 1880.

The Monkey Artist, automaton, Jean-Marie Phalibois, Paris, circa 1880.

Hairwork sculpture, probably American, circa 1870.

Guinea pig, birds, and foliage, British or American, circa 1890.

Does all this sound odd and/or excessive? For the average 21st-century American, perhaps yes; for many M.A.D. readers, not really. John Whitenight, the author of Under Glass: A Victorian Obsession, a new book on 19th-century domes and their contents, would feel right at home.

Under Glass is a landmark volume about an underrated facet of 19th-century decorative arts, the charming, often whimsical, sometimes homemade crafts—known then as “household arts”—that filled domes, dioramas, and shadowbox frames. It is a fascinating topic, here carefully researched, engagingly written, and sumptuously presented. The book is oversized—it weighs about five pounds—and the photography by Alan Kolc is superb.

Author John Whitenight, a retired high school art teacher originally from rural upstate Pennsylvania, has been interested in Victoriana since childhood. His focus on domescapes began in 1973 with a gift of a small dome holding stuffed canaries. He has gone on to amass an impressive collection of over 175 examples, small to large, that  fill the 1860’s Philadelphia rowhouse he occupies with his partner, Frederick LaValley. Equally impressive in this setting are the 19th-century American and European furnishings by makers such as Belter, Pottier and Stymus, and Allen and Brother (see “Eminent Victorians,” Barrymore Laurence Scherer, The Magazine Antiques, September/October 2013, pps. 90-101).

Whitenight gathered his collection of household arts from a variety of sources in the United States and abroad, and, quite naturally, it forms the basis of the book. A number of acquisition anecdotes describe the pleasures and frustrations of his searches, and throughout the text the author shares his knowledge of the methods of their creation as well as his experiences in restoration, since surviving domescapes are often in disrepair.

Under Glass is handsomely designed and organized in an appropriate, logical manner. After the usual introductory matter, including a foreword by Timothy Rub, the George D. Widener Director and chief executive officer of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, there are 11 chapters devoted to the different kinds of materials found under domes (or in tabletop dioramas or shadowbox frames). The categories include wax flowers and fruit; shellwork; beaded, paper, feather, and cloth objects; hair art; stuffed birds, mammals, and amphibians; skeleton leaves; glass whimsies; miniature statues and buildings; and musical automata.

Chapter 12 describes a few contemporary makers of domes and dome objects, and this is followed by useful back matter—endnotes, references, bibliography, and index.

The varied 19th-century household arts discussed in Under Glass have certainly been mentioned in other books, but author Whitenight would seem to be among the most ardent collectors of this genre, an obsessed neo-Victorian, perhaps. His longtime dream to produce a significant work on this topic, encouraged by friends and fellow collectors, coupled with a lot of work and perseverance, is the reason the book exists. Congratulations to all involved, including the publishers.

On a personal note, I have been familiar with the type of objects discussed in Under Glass for many years. There were several remarkable domescapes in family collections, and I saw others in the auction houses and antiques shops of the Deep South in childhood. Occasionally, I saw them in historic house museums and in the homes of fellow collectors.

In 1976, already a confirmed neo-Victorian, I moved to Rochester, New York, to curate the newly created furniture department of the then-not-yet-opened Margaret Woodbury Strong Museum, an institution whose original mission was to chronicle America’s social and cultural development from 1830 to 1940. The myriad collections of Margaret Strong (1897-1969), including household arts, as well as a generous endowment, served as the museum’s core, and while the many domescapes in the collection were not in my department, I was fortunate to have exposure to them.

A few of those glass-enclosed items had been seen publicly in Rochester in 1975 as a part of a 500-item museum preview; the attractive, informative catalog, A Scene of Adornment by H.J. Swinney, et al., includes almost all of the kinds of objects discussed in Under Glass, and I was surprised at this work’s absence from the Whitenight bibliography. When the museum opened in the 1980’s, some of those objects were on exhibit, while most of the others were accessible to the public in visible storage (a pre-Luce Foundation Center type concept for which the Strong Museum is rarely credited).

In more recent years, The Strong has changed its mission and name, and many objects from the original Strong collection as well as others subsequently acquired by staff in pursuit of the initial mission have been deaccessioned. Whitenight, familiar with the museum in its original guise, learned that a core group of household arts remained in the collection, and he included 11 of those objects in Under Glass.

Knowing this, and in preparation for my book review, I made a trip down memory lane last autumn when I visited The Strong specifically to see the approximately 50 remaining domescapes in curatorial storage. They were as fascinating as ever, although only one—a diorama of squirrels playing cards—was on view. Fortunately, there are no current plans to deaccession this sub-collection, and I am convinced that a new exhibition of some (or all) of them would both entertain and educate museum-goers of any age.

Of course, those dedicated household arts collectors, including, I suspect, Whitenight, anxiously await any news of deaccessioning.

An informative book review needs to be both good news and bad news (if applicable). Overall, my impression of Under Glass is very positive. However, the addition of certain elements would have improved it: a more substantial introduction; a socio-technical essay on the origin and development of glass boxes and spherical forms as protective and glorifying containers; a selection of 19th-century domestic interior views—paintings and photographs—showing domescapes in situ; more complete illustration captions, including object dimensions; and a price guide or at least some kind of value guidance for collectors, dealers, and those new to the topic.

Regrettably, there were a variety of editing problems throughout the volume (including the index), but I will mention only a few. I was dismayed by the author’s use of the outdated and often inaccurate term Old Paris when referring to 19th-century ceramics made in Limoges, France, or Bohemia, and when the 18th-century British cabinetmakers Ince and Mayhew were briefly mentioned, the firm became “Mayhew and Ince.”

In closing, I want to mention an object that would suit Whitenight’s collection perfectly—as well as that in a home further South—but which escaped his notice for chapter 6, “Beautiful in Death ‘Skeleton Leaves and Phantom Bouquets.”’ Supposedly, in January 1865, a group of Philadelphians presented President Lincoln with a domescape containing phantom leaves made from foliage gathered on the Gettysburg battlefield. If a M.A.D. reader knows of its existence, contact me, and let’s play wheeler-dealer!

I am happy to acknowledge the assistance of the following individuals in the preparation of this article: Jesse Marth, Schiffer Publishing Ltd; Christopher Bensch, the National Museum of Play at The Strong, Rochester, New York; Rob Bigelow, Washington, D.C.; and Gary Cooley, Ontario, New York.

Originally published in the March 2014 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2014 Maine Antique Digest

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