By Louisa Finn, fourth generation Smiley family member
Episode #8: A Wider View: The Smileys’ world travels Part II
As wonderful as the pictures were in my imagination after reading Daniel Smiley’s observations of travel almost 100 years ago, it was astonishing to discover that Albert, his elder half-brother and founder (with his wife Eliza) of Mohonk Mountain House, made an extraordinary European journey 50 years earlier, in 1876. He and his wife Eliza were both nearing 50 years old at the time, and the letters chronicling this journey are written by both of them. Keep in mind that this was only 7 years after Mohonk was founded, and it is likely that they were actively seeking ideas for their new venture.
Unlike Daniel’s world cruise, this trip was undertaken by ship to Scotland and then train once they arrived. The observations are those of a world before the age of electricity, when all activities requiring vision needed to be carried out “by daylight.” In a comment revealing the smoky air quality in London (due to coal), Albert writes from Paris that “Linen keeps clean here six times as long as in London.”
Albert and Eliza spent their time sightseeing many of the wonders of European architecture and art. For educated Quakers from the United States, who are accustomed to relative simplicity, these were heady sights:
”These German cities with their triumphal arches, numerous arcades, narrow winding streets, and quaint buildings keep a curious visitor on his feet and give him plenty of exercise in the open air. ….I never have till now understood the endless ways in which wood, precious stone, silver and gold can be combined to minister to art. Every evening we have a fire in our room and read up or talk over the many things we have seen and make our plans for the subsequent day.”
It’s extraordinary to think of traveling to Europe in a time when Vienna was still being built!
”I give Vienna the palm on the finest city I have seen–not even excepting Paris. The new part built almost entirely within five years is a city of palaces—tasteful and grand.”
Eliza’s ascerbic comments highlight the fatigues of sightseeing, familiar perhaps to all of us who have spent a day walking around a foreign city, or in a museum looking at paintings.
“Came home just tired enough to wish all the Cathedrals were overwhelmed with Pompeii and were thus covered. A very irreverent thought, but I have good company for Hawthorne dares express himself in a similar strain, only stronger. He also expresses my mind when he says after visiting the British museums: glancing at a thousand things, and conscious of some little titillation of mind from them; but really taking in nothing, and getting no good.”
Eliza’s letters also comment on the lack of attendance to the Sabbath, finding people out enjoying themselves and museums open on Sundays. She eventually makes a moral argument in order to forgive herself for going to a museum in Berlin on “1st day (Sunday).”
“It is the first time we have attempted anything of the sort on the Sabbath. But we leave here in third day noon and it will not be open tomorrow, and so it did not seem to me very wrong to spend a while studying the grand conceptions of Kaulbach and others. Here you know is the finished Era of the Reformation and five other grand moral paintings by the same artist and such a wonderful head of Christ Crowned with Thorns by Caravaggio, and Murillo’s angels that are so much more angelic than anybody else’s angels.”
By journey’s end, the extent of Eliza’s religious fervor becomes clear.
“As for me, I feel quite starved for religious society–shall be so glad to join in prayer meetings again. I have always prayed that this journey might be to God’s glory but I fail to see how it is or will be. It seems so many months to use in visiting for the most part only worldly shows. Our weeks among God’s own great works here in the mountains and around Naples seem more edifying and yet I am hungry and unsatisfied.”
A FONDNESS FOR ITALY
Albert saves his most effusive words for Italy, particularly Florence and Naples and the surrounding areas. His observations contain both his appreciation for the grand vision of a landscape as well as close notice for the plants and people in the landscape:
“We have taken two rides in the afternoon–one to the south of Florence–the most enchanting ride I ever took. We rode through olive groves by beautiful villas—going up and up till we had a superb view of Florence and the picturesque hills and mountains begirting it. The road is made by government and laid out with exquisite taste. Beautiful evergreen shrubs line it nearly all the way. The maples were in blossom and some of the early flowers in bloom. Miss Waterman said it was the finest ride she ever took and I admire her taste. The next day we went to Fiesole an old Etruscan town a thousand feet above the valley. The monks were planting potatoes. The rose bushes had sent out new shoots about six inches in length.”
His account of climbing Mt. Vesuvius left a wonderful and unforgettable images:
“Eliza and I left our very comfortable hotel Washington at Naples and rode in a two-horse carriage for six or seven miles along the bay… to Portici at the base of reservoirs when we began to climb up the steep sides of the mountain for two hours, till we reached the observatory 2,000 ft above the sea. The lava beds of different ages which we rode over for miles, were deeply interesting and the views all along were very fine as indeed they are everywhere around Naples. Eliza reminisced whilst I mounted a horse and rode a mile to a place where the steep cave begins– too steep for donkeys even to climb. I took with me a guide who spoke very broken English, a boy to hold the horse and a man to go ahead and pull me up by a strap. I soon found it prudent to employ two other stalwart men who had followed me (waiting for a job) to push behind and between the help of these three I succeeded in two hours in climbing 2,000 ft. (it seemed to me nearer 4,000 ft.). The mountain is very much higher than I supposed. It is as high as Mt. Washington in Above the Glen House or Crawfords. The tremendous volumes of smoke which rolled out of the great crater—the fumes of Sulphur and smoke which issued all around our feet– the burning of green caves inserted in the rocks—cooking eggs in a few minutes– the glimpses into the yawning chasm and the wonderfully grand prospect, were deeply interesting– much more so than I had imagined. One New Englander tried to discourage my going up by saying there was nothing worth seeing and he was sorry he went. I wish such people would remain at home and more appreciative ones take their place.”
AN APPRECIATION FOR NATURE & CULTURE
These letters reveal a keen sense of the nature of both Albert and Eliza. On one hand, we are witness to Albert’s energetic appreciation for nature as well as the cultural achievements that Europe embodied in terms of art, architecture, and layout/design of cities and gardens. It is not a big stretch to consider how these travels influenced Albert’s vision for Mohonk’s design. Eliza, on the other hand, presents as a willing journeying companion though her preference is clear for matters of spirit and “the inner world” of religious study in comparison to the “outer experience” of viewing all that Europe has to offer.
Amazingly over 150 years later, one can still experience both of these aspects of Albert and Eliza today at Mohonk, in the beauty and elegance of its architecture and surrounding landscape which give us a wider view, as well as the contemplative quiet that can best be described as spirit, where our inner worlds are nurtured.
Louisa Finn is a fourth generation Smiley family member. She is Secretary for Mohonk Consultations, Speech/Language Therapist, and poet. Her mother, Patricia Smiley Guralnik, directed the Festival of the Arts at Mohonk following the death of her husband, pianist Robert Guralnik. As a child, Louisa spent many days visiting her grandmother, Rachel Orcutt Smiley, who, in her later years, lived in Mohonk’s tower room 271. Currently, Louisa enjoys spending time in the Mohonk Archives, and reading the letters of her ancestors. Their words help to confirm her strong sense of the value of place, and inspire her to share the way past voices can instruct the present, and the future.