AFA Summer 2021

Antiques & Fine Art 51 2021 F rom their ancient origins in China and Greece to their nineteenth-century American peak, weathervanes have populated urban and rural landscapes around the world for millennia. Beginning in the 700s, churches throughout Europe topped their steeples with “weathercocks” symbolic of Christian faith. In the middle ages, vanes took their name and form from heraldic flags, or fanes, flown from castle towers as proud displays of coats of arms. Although fundamentally tools to show the direction of the wind, weathervanes have always been aesthetic objects designed to capture attention and signal pride and status. As omnipresent ornaments in Western architecture from the eighth to the early twentieth centuries, vanes also served as way-finders, offering cues to the activities taking place within the buildings they topped, while orienting inhabitants to the function of the architecture around them. Over time, weathervanes have taken on complex layers of purpose and cultural meaning. In the United States, their forms have become significant markers of American identity. Weathervanes were often employed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to express political pride as well as social status. In the early twentieth century, these objects were “rediscovered” by folk art collectors, who saw them as icons of a uniquely American sense of artistry and ingenuity or revered them as symbols of a bygone era. Brought down from their high perches and into the human realm, these objects reveal their full histories—as tools, symbols, and works of art. In their wide-ranging forms, expressive character, and weathered surfaces, vanes spark the imagination while communicating multiple aspects of their history. Considered as a group, weathervanes can be read as cultural texts, documenting some of the aspirations, achievements, and anxieties of American consumers. Emblems of Identity & Historical Memory While the earliest weathervanes used in America were imported from abroad, a local craftsmanship tradition soon sprang up. Boston was home to the first documented American weathervane maker, Shem Drowne (1683–1774), whose work included such iconic forms as the rooster seen here (Fig. 1). From American Weathervanes The Art of the Winds by Robert Shaw and Emelie Gevalt CONTINUED ON PAGE 61