Sunday, 19 February 2017

Pisces: piscatorial tales: "Come now, it's time to leave"

Pisces is the final sign of the zodiac in my blogs (and here it seems I have two ideas weaving about).

Pisces - the two fish - is the largest of the constellations and features in ancient mythology, the earliest known example of its symbol found on an Egyptian coffin lid  c. 2300 BC.   Many thousand years later, the fishes appear on the coinage of the Mogul Emperor, Jahangir:  he believed in divination to guide his actions so astrological symbols were an essential part of his environment.

Mogul gold coin from c. 1569 - 1627

In classical Greek myth, the two fish represent Aphrodite and Eros, escaping into the river Euphrates (like Pan or Capricorn) from the giant Typhon, and are usually shown joined with ribbons.  I rather liked this cheerful image from a 14th century manuscript:

Breviari d'amor, French early 1300s, M. Ermengau
© British Library

The Pisces myth seems to be closely linked with two great rivers of the ancient world, the Nile and the Euphrates, along with many ancient stories of magic fish.  In the biblical Apocrypha the Euphrates was where Tobias, guided by his angel, caught his giant fish; and the Euphrates runs through regions which were the source of many stories gathered together in the The Thousand and One Nights. Based on a lost book of Persian tales, the Hazar Asfanah,  Antoine Galland's French translation from a ninth century Arabic version was published early in the eighteenth century.

Edwardian children would have read these stories in Andrew Lang's famous fairy books,  particularly The Arabian Nights Entertainments published in 1898.  The books are also known for their dramatic and detailed illustrations by Henry Justice Ford.

Colour-plate illustration for "The Girl-Fish" by H.J. Ford, from The Orange Fairy Book 

Here is one of Ford's line drawings illustrating the tale of magic fish in "The Vizir who was Punished" from the Arabian tales.  "When the cook was about to turn them on the other side, the wall opened, the damsel appeared, addressed the same words to the fish ['Fish, fish, are you doing your duty?'], received the same answer, and then overturned the pan, and disappeared."

Even in this poorly scanned image you can sense the drama and see Ford's wonderful evocation of exotic eastern palaces, in the Princess's Egyptian-style dress and the Islamic tiled fireplace.

"The Girl Upsets the Frying Pan" in Lang's The Arabian Nights Entertainments, H. J. Ford  1898

Henry Justice Ford was born into a London solicitor's family on 5th February 1861 (not quite a Piscean) and after leaving Cambridge with a classics degree he studied art at the Slade and then at Hubert von Herkomer's Art School.  Between 1894 and 1916 his studio was in Edwardes Square, Kensington, a short walk from the Victoria and Albert Museum, where he could have seen this Turkish fireplace, acquired in 1891.

Tiled fireplace, possibly from the palace of Fuad Pasha, Istanbul, c. 1731
© Victoria and Albert Museum

The detail in Ford's drawing even indicates a frieze of arabic writing just above the chimney opening. 
In the V&A's fireplace, seven cartouche tiles list the names of the legendary seven Sleepers of Ephesus, another story from the Near East found in Christian and Islamic legend.   Similar stories of heroes sleeping under the earth to be awakened, cross many ages and cultures and, like tales of enchanted fish, inspire artists and writers.

"But come now, it's time to leave;
the Fish glitter on the horizon,
the Bear is right over Caurus
and over there we can climb down."

Dante, Inferno, Canto XI (trans. © Steve Ellis)

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

St Valentine's day: Love and death for the Merry Monarch, Charles II

Pierre Mignard painted this flattering portrait of Louise de Keroualle, Charles II's French Catholic mistress, in 1682 in Paris; some years later he became Louis XIV's first painter.
The distinctive blue sleeves may have been from a studio prop, and the negro child, the coral, nautilus shell, and the pearls all contrast with Louise's pearly skin, and also hint at the "vanitas" of earthly love.

Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth,   Perre Mignard, 1682
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Charles II had many mistresses - or "Valentines",  over the years, most famously English-born Nell Gwyn, and it was her rival Louise de Keroualle she was referring to, in her famous quip "I am the Protestant whore!" during a period of anti-Catholic demonstrations.

There were constant rumours that the King himself was a closet Catholic, and almost certainly died as such on 6th February 1685.   It was to avoid such anti-Catholic disturbances that Charles II was quietly buried between eight and nine at night on St Valentine's Day, 14th February 1685, as John Evelyn recounts:

"the King was [this night] very obscurely buried in a vault under Hen: 7th Chapell in Westminster, without any manner of pomp, and soone forgotten after all this vainity, & the face of the whole Court exceedingly changed into a more solemn and moral behaviour: The new King affecting neither Prophanesse, nor bouffonry:  All the Greate Officers broke their white-Staves on the Grave &c: according to form:"  Diary of John Evelyn, ed. E.S. De Beer

Henry VII's Chapel, © Westminster Abbey

Evelyn's friend, Samuel Pepys, whose Diary tells us so much about Charles II and his Court in the 1660s,  also records Valentine's Day merrymaking, a mixture or romance, sex, and 'bouffonry'.  It was the custom for groups of friends to draw lots for their Valentines for the forthcoming year, and give their ladies gifts. John Locke writes to his Oxford valentine in 1659: "I have an overflow of happiness and honour in being yours though a Lottery made me soe, and you have given no small proofs of an excellent and obliging nature in accepting such a trifle from the hand of fortune. "

You were also expected to take as your Valentine the first person of the opposite sex whom you saw that morning:
"14. St.  Valentine. 
This morning comes betimes Dicke Pen[n] to be my wife's valentine, and came to our bedside.  By the same token I had him brought to my side, thinking to have made him kiss me, but he perceived me and would not. So went to his Valentine -- a notable, stout, witty boy.  I up, about business; and opening the door, there was Bagwell's wife, with whom I talked afterwards and she had the confidence to say she came with a hope to be time enough to be my Valentine, and so endeed she did -- but my oath preserved me from losing any time with her."  Samuel Pepys, Diary 1665

In May 1660, Pepys sailed with Edward Lord Montague to the Hague, part of the  convoy to bring King Charles and his brother James back to England, where Pepys was presented to the King, his brother James, Duke of York and their sister Mary, the Princess Royal.  Before this, Charles and his attendants in exile had been living in penury, " in a sad, poor condition for clothes and money…their clothes not being worth 40s., the best of them".

Here is Charles as Prince of Wales with his siblings in happier times, with on the left in the painting Princess Mary, whose son would reign as William III, and Charles' brother James, still in long skirts, who would succeed Charles as King James II, in February 1685.

The five eldest children of Charles I,  copy after Anthony Van Dyck 1637
© National Portrait Gallery

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

February at Norton Conyers. "We are guardians of the past to benefit the future"*

Norton Conyers house, near Ripon, N. Yorks 
© Norton Conyers

Friday 1st February 1946:

"Left Womersley for Ripon. … At 2.30 reached Norton Conyers, a sunny, pleasant house facing due south across a wide expanse of open park towards Ripon and framed in a broad background of expanding trees.  The south front has several curved Jacobean gables and is roughcast, which gives it a somewhat naked appearance.  The last Graham baronet stripped off the roughcast to reveal red brick, but soon replaced it when he experienced the damp.  Lady Graham, mother of the present baronet, received me.  A capable, outspoken and blunt woman, which whom before I left I made friends, but to start with was hostile.  She manages the property of some 18,000 acres for her son….
Charlotte Bronte stayed here [1839] and made it the scene of Rochester's house in Jane Eyre.  A lunatic Lady Graham was once incarcerated in an attic room I was shown.  

The staircase to the attics, blocked up in the 1880s*
© The Telegraph newspaper

"The entrance hall is filled with portraits of Grahams.  There is a large Ferneley of a meet of the Quorn outside Quenby.  The portraits include a Zoffany group, a Battoni, a Hudson, a Romney. There is a wide Jacobean oak staircase.  On one tread near the top a large knot of wood is shown.  It resembles a horse's hoof, reputedly of the horse which planted it here before collapsing, having borne its master twenty miles home badly [mortally] wounded after the Battle of Marston Moor."

The Jacobean staircase and portraits.
© Norton Conyers

"On the stairs a small Zoffany of the housekeeper who was to murder one of the Grahams.  Upstairs an oak panelled room with double four-poster bed in which Charles I slept.  Lady Graham told me that both Charles I and James stayed in this room.  In the garden are some lead figures and urns of the eighteenth century.  Lady Graham had a long talk with me afterwards and said she wanted to endow the house with some private money of her own, but I was not to tell her son this."

Caves of Ice  James Lees-Milne, 1946

*Sir James Graham's words.  The blocked staircase to the attic room was uncovered in 2004, during the 30 hands-on years Sir James and Lady Graham spent restoring Norton Conyers.  Lady Graham said then that:
 "the house has a very strong presence.  It reveals it secrets grudgingly, so we have to work hard".  

Nearly 70 years after Lees-Milne's visit, the story of Norton Conyers' secrets was told by Stuart Penney in The Telegraph, May 2005. 

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Myths and Morality: two Covent Garden scene painters

At Hampton Court Palace, I once watched a charismatic storyteller make a class of prep-school boys in their caps and blazers all lie down on the floor, to see the mythological characters in the ceiling painting properly.  Was it perhaps this ceiling painting of the Dawn by Sir James Thornhill  in the Queen's State Bedchamber?

Sketch design for ceiling painting in the Queen's State Bedchamber,   James Thornhill 1715
© Sir John Soane's Museum, London

Thornhill was an assistant to Antonio Verrio, and replaced him as Britains' finest native-born Baroque painter.  George I found Thornhill to be better and cheaper: he was paid £3. 11s. per yard, £457 in total for this ceiling, with its classical allegory of Apollo in his golden chariot surrounded by portraits of the Royal family.  He even had to paint scenery for the King's theatre at Hampton Court.

His best known great decorative schemes can be seen in two of Wren's masterpieces, St Paul's Cathedral and the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich.  An early commission in his career, beginning in 1708, the Painted Hall at Greenwich shows William III and Queen Mary bringing Liberty and Peace to Europe, celebrating succeeding Protestant monarchs and maritime prowess.  Amazing in Wren's magnificent setting,  the paintings are now undergoing large-scale conservation and close-up viewing of work in progress will be possible for visitors to Greenwich this year.  see

The Painted Hall,  the Old Royal Naval Hospital, Greenwich  

During the 19 years it took to complete, (at £3 a yard), he worked on many other projects, including his work high up in St Paul's Cathedral, between 1715 and 1717, where his grisaille paintings of St. Paul's life encircling the dome blend perfectly with the interior architecture. A story runs that checking progress one day, Thornhill stepped back perilously close to the edge of the scaffolding; fortunately a quick-witted assistant, afraid of startling his master into falling backwards,  smeared over part of the painting so that Thornhill rushed forward to correct it.  

Sir James Thornhill c. 1712-15    Marcellus Laroon 
© National Maritime Museum, London

At this time, Thornhill was a leading figure in the artistic community of Covent Garden. In 1716 Thornhill took over the first Art Academy,* which he had helped Sir Godfrey Kneller to establish at his premises in Great Queen Street, and moved the classes to his own new painting room in Covent Garden (based approximately where the Royal Opera House now stands). The equipment included " a proper table for the figure to stand on, a large lamp, an iron stove and benches in a circular form". Without charging fees, and no proper financial support from rich patrons, it foundered, but the idea was there and the young artists moved to a St Martin's Lane academy * in the 1720s.  

Among them was William Hogarth, who became an assistant to Thornhill, and later 'eloped' to marry his daughter Jane in March 1729 (he had obtained the licence a year before at St. Paul's,  Covent Garden).  

A happily married Mrs Jane Hogarth,  by William Hogarth c.1730;  she worked closely with William supporting Coram's Foundling Hospital.   © Aberdeen Art Gallery, Scotland

Thornhill would have been dismayed at Hogarth's lack of prospects or family connections, which were then an essential part of financial success. Thornhill himself was from a notable Dorset family - his maternal grandfather was Governor of Weymouth - and a legacy paid for his apprenticeship to Thomas Highmore, also a Dorset man.   Although  Hogarth aspired to be a great historical painter like his father-in-law, he proved to be the coming man, who would outstrip his mentor in reputation,  buying a gentleman's country villa in Chiswick in 1749.  

Thornhill's major paintings were high up in churches and palaces, but Hogarth's paintings,  from his training as an engraver, you could hold in your hand as a print, and understand the emotions of the characters.  

The Lady's Last Stake   William Hogarth  c. 1758
© Albright-Knox Art Gallery,  Buffalo, New York

As Hester Piozzi (Mrs Thrale) recalls a childhood encounter in her memoirs:

 "But the next time we went to Leicester Fields, Mr Hogarth was painting, and bid me sit to him; 'And now look here,' said he, 'I am doing this for you.  You are not fourteen years old yet, I think, but you will be twenty-four, and this portrait will then be like you.  'Tis the lady's last stake; see how she hesitates between her money and her honour.  Take you care; I see an ardour for play in your eyes and in your heart: don't indulge it.  I shall give you this picture as a warning, because I love you now, you are so good a girl' ."  from Thraliana.

But Thornhill and Hogarth were not just scene painters;  both men in their different ways were real scene-changers in eighteenth century art in Britain. 

* forerunners of the  Royal Academy of Art

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Aquarius, the water carrier: "this frosty night"

Aquarius, from a set of zodiac plates, designed by James Thornhill* 1711
© British Museum
(of whom more anon.)

This is the penultimate zodiac sign I have featured, and this poem by Robert Graves brings many of their stars together on a frosty night. The  fishy last verse will lead us into Pisces, the twelfth sign, in February.

Star Talk

"'Are you awake, Gemelli,
This frosty night?'
'We'll be awake till reveille,
Which is Sunrise,' say the Gemelli,
'It's no good trying to go to sleep:
If there's wine to be got we'll drink it deep,
But rest is hopeless tonight,
But rest is hopeless tonight.'

'Are you cold too, poor Pleiads,
This frosty night?'
'Yes, and so are the Hyads:
See us cuddle and hug,' say the Pleiads,
'All six in a ring: it keeps us warm:
We huddle together like birds in a storm:
It's bitter weather tonight,
It's bitter weather tonight.'"

 Constellation of Aquarius  (from Secrets of Space)

'What do you hunt, Orion,
This starry night?'
'The Ram, the Bull and the Lion,
And the Great Bear,' says Orion,
'With my starry quiver and beautiful belt
I am trying to find a good thick pelt
To warm my shoulders tonight,
To warm my shoulders tonight.'

'Did you hear that, Great She-bear,
This frosty night?'
'Yes, he's talking of stripping me bare
Of my own big fur,' says the She-bear.
'I'm afraid of the man and his terrible arrow:
The thought of it chills my bones to the marrow,
And the frost so cruel tonight!
And the frost so cruel tonight!'

'How is your trade, Aquarius,
This frosty night?'
'Complaints are many and various
And my feet are cold,' says Aquarius,
There's Venus objects to Dolphin-scales,
And Mars to Crab-spawn found in my pails,
And the pump has frozen tonight,
And the pump has frozen tonight.'"

Star Talk  Robert Graves

The stars of Aquarius  (from

Sunday, 8 January 2017

The ship's concert 2: "What happened on the Ark"

Noah's Ark and the animals  Aurelio Luini c. 1556, in San Maurizio, Milan

 I don't think holiday cruise ships or ocean liners have passengers'  concerts any more, though it was common decades ago, to break the monotony of long stretches at sea. (I have taken part in one myself).
As the cruise ship catalogues land on my doormat this winter, I turn to a childhood favourite, The Log of the Ark, written and illustrated by Kenneth Walker and Geoffrey Boumphrey back in 1923.

When Kenneth Grahame was asked to write a story about "Big Jungle Animals",  he passed the task back to his friend, Kenneth Walker, who had really "been inside a jungle".  Kenneth Walker was a distinguished surgeon, as well as a journalist, popular with Picture Post readers, and his colleague
Geoffrey Boumphrey, who drew the cartoon-like pictures (restored from Japhet's cave drawings in ancient Armenia), was an engineer, writer and broadcaster, now best known for his Shell guides to the countryside.

A medieval view of  the  story of the Flood

Their tongue-in-cheek children's tale of Noah and the voyage of the Ark is also an allegory of the Fall, with extinct animals like the Clidders, the Wumpetty-Dumps and the Seventy-sevenses; also on board is the insidious Loathly Scub, who converts the once vegetarian big cats into predatory carnivores.

Noah's Ark   Edward Hicks, 1846    Philadelphia Museum of Art

Edward Hicks, a Quaker preacher,  painted a whole series on this theme, entitled "The Peaceable Kingdom", showing the enlightened interaction between humans and animals.

 On a lighter note, The Log of the Ark includes a chapter on the ship's concert, organised by Ham to cheer up all the animals after weeks of rain (and only porridge to eat).  Each performer acts in character - the bat's song was particularly appreciated by all the crickets and grasshoppers, as only they could hear it.  But it is the Hippo's song, redolent of music hall favourites or old drinking songs, which sticks in the memory -- with a good roll of the R on "number".

"Num-ber-r ONE, num-ber-r ONE,
Some weighs a pound but I weighs a ton,
Chorus: (repeats after every verse)
Hip-po-potamus, What-a-lotamus
Oh, what likely lads us be!

Num-ber-r TWO, num-ber-r TWO,
Some walks round, but I busts through.

Num-ber-r THREE, num-ber-r THREE
The Lark can sing, but not like me.

Num-ber-r FOUR, num-ber-r FOUR
Some likes less, but I likes more.

Num-ber-r FIVE, num-ber-r FIVE
The tide comes up when down I dive.

Num-ber-r SIX, num-ber-r SIX
I likes bathing, but some just licks.

Num-ber-r SEVEN, num ber-r SEVEN,
You must wait till Number Eleven.

Num-ber-r EIGHT, num-ber-r EIGHT
Some likes looks, but I likes weight.

Num-ber-r NINE, num-ber-r NINE ,
Blest if I ain't forgot this line.

Num-ber-r TEN, num-ber-r TEN
I ain't sung this since I don't know when.

Num-ber-r ELEVEN, num-ber-r ELEVEN,
That's the same as Number Seven.

Num-ber-r TWELVE, num-ber-r TWELVE,
If you wants any more you can sing it yourself.
Chorus: Hi-po-potamus, What-a-lotamus;
Oh, what likely lads us be!"

The Log of the Ark  Kenneth Walker and Geoffrey Boumphrey
Dedicated to the Very Old Tortoise at the Zoo, with cave wall drawings restored in this book by Geoffrey Boumphrey with the assistance of Juliet Renny,  1923.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

January at West Wycombe Park

"Thursday, 1st January, 1942

West Wycombe Park is a singularly beautiful eighteenth-century house with one shortcoming.  Its principal living-rooms face due north.  The south front is overshadowed by a long, double colonnade which induces a total eclipse of the sun from January to December.  Consequently we are very cold in the winter, for the radiators work fitfully these days.  Our offices [of the evacuated National Trust] are in the Brown Drawing Room and Johnny Dashwood's* small study beyond it.  Matheson, the Secretary, Miss Paterson, Eardley Knollys and I work in the latter room;  Miss Ballanchey, a typist and the 'junior' (aged 15) in the bigger room with all the filing cabinets.  Matheson, Eardley and I are seldom in the office together. Nearly always one and often two of us are away visiting properties."
* Sir John Dashwood, 10th baronet

Ancestral Voices  James Lees-Milne

Lord and Lady Dashwood at West Wycombe Park   Nathaniel Dance-Holland, c. 1776