Light Relief and the Golden Age

Loyd Grossman explains how a gifted teacher from Maine inspired his love of the past, and encouraged him to plunge his hands into a mixing bowl of Plaster of Paris.

Perhaps it has ceased to exist, or maybe it never did, but it is my firm belief that I once visited and enjoyed the Musée des Plans Reliefs or Museum of Relief Maps – in spite of its not being listed in that otherwise useful guide Little Known Museums in and around Paris. Its display of relief maps, impressive in detail if neglected and bereft of visitors, occupied a dingy floor somewhere above the Musée de l’Armée. I think they were made of painted Plaster of Paris, and the earliest ones dated from the late seventeenth century – the age of Vauban and the perfection of fortification science – when it was felt that gentleman officer cadets in the French army should make models of the strong points of France as part of their military education. In my imagination I connected immediately, remembering how what might have been the turning point in my historical education was mired in Plaster of Paris too.

I was born in Boston, but soon moved up the coast to Marblehead, Massachusetts, a handsome, very well preserved seaport justly praised by Ada Louise Huxtable, formidable architectural critic of the New York Times, as ‘one of the four most beautiful towns in America’.

With a father who sold art and antiques to museums and an overtly historical townscape as my nursery, it was pretty obvious that the past would engage me. But real inspiration – that is, the force that turned a focused appreciation for the past into a passionate interest – came in the form of Miss Maxine Waite, history teacher at the General John G. Glover Elementary School. Glover was both the father of the American Navy and the general whose troops ferried George Washington across the Delaware River to defeat the British (actually mostly German mercenaries) at the Battle of Trenton. Emmanuel Leutze’s idealised painting of the episode is a celebrated icon of American history.

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