Dr. David Park Curry, Senior Curator, Decorative Art, American Painting & Sculpture, BMA
Ever since the Venus of Willendorf got her hair done, sometime between 28,000 and 25,000 BCE, human beings have given much thought to personal appearance. Venus’s prehistoric curls — the earliest-known conscious hair style — wouldn’t look all that much out of place in a contemporary night club, although her ample form might cause comment in an era marked by trendy concerns over sugar, butter, eggs, red meat, gluten, and so on. As Bernard Rudofsky’s classic text The Unfashionable Human Body (1971) makes clear, beauty is ever in the eye of the beholder. But we still tend to ponder who’s the fairest.
Emblazoned with an applied gilt crest initialed JB and topped with a couple of seated amorini (cupids) flanking a somewhat formidable female bust, the museum’s imposing silver mirror once jostled for space upon the dressing table of Judith Bridgeman, daughter of Sir John Bridgeman, second baronet, of Castle Bromwich in Warwick County, England. It must have been a mighty big table. As befit Judith’s aristocratic lineage, the mirror was part of a lavish toilet service, comprising 21 silver-and-gilt pieces, including tazze (footed dishes), candlesticks, brushes, scent bottles, boxes, and even a pin cushion. In the days before zippers and velcro, a lady of rank and fashion was partially pinned into her layers of clothing. Getting dressed in the morning was something of a production number and unlike today’s private ablutions, the daily toilette was a formalized semi-public performance, attended by various chamber maids and/or intimate acquaintances.
For awhile, Judith’s baroque toilet ensemble belonged to American newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. After 1918, his mistress was the Ziegfield Follies actress Marion Davies. Backed by Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Pictures, and relentlessly publicized in the Hearst newspapers, Miss Davies eventually starred in 46 silent and talking films. In between engagements, the couple staged a glamorous social life in their 56-bedroom mansion at San Simeon, California, mixing with the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks. They also entertained at St. Donat’s Castle in Wales, purchased by Hearst for Davies as a present. On visiting the castle, George Bernard Shaw is said to have remarked, “This is what God would have built if he had had the money.” The resplendent silver toilet set, including the BMA’s mirror, was kept at St. Donat’s. Even when out of Hollywood, a legend of the silver screen such as Marion Davies would want her makeup always to be perfect.
BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.