Thursday, 21 July 2016

"Versailles, Versailles!"

I watched some of the BBC' s  Versailles last night, mainly to check out the furniture (no euphemism there), and I was distracted by imagining how Sid James and better still, Kenneth Williams, would have livened up the stilted dialogue.  As for the set furnishings, I  saw the Palace's beautiful painted panelling and some period cabinets, but nothing as eye-catching as this one I saw at the V&A Museum recently.

Ivory cabinet and stand, 1661-65    Pierre Gole   © V&A Museum

This exquisite display cabinet was made by Pierre Gole, cabinet maker to Louis XIV, for Philippe, duc d'Orleans and his English wife, Henriette-Anne (Charles II's favourite sister, Minette).

Unusually, it is all veneered in ivory with a delicate inlaid floral pattern.  Gole has used many materials to achieve the colours, including several exotic woods, ebony, horn, bone (stained green for the leaves)  and tortoise shell, along with brass mounts.  More tiny drawers are hidden behind the central door panel.  
The amazing craftsmanship of this piece means that it would never be boring.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

94 degrees in the Shade

I have been immersed in preparing a lecture and suddenly summer has arrived, so this painting captures today perfectly.

94 degrees in the Shade  Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema  
© Fitzwilliam Museum

It was painted in 1876 at Godstone in Surrey and shows Alma-Tadema's friend's son, Herbert Thompson, just before he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge.   Herbert went on to become a barrister, lecturer and an eminent Egyptologist.  The Fitzwilliam also has twin portraits of Herbert and his father, Sir Henry Thompson, an very eminent surgeon,  painted by their friend Alma-Tadema.  In 1877 he had joined father and son for a painting holiday on board their boat Gypsy, on the Thames, and painted Herbert's portrait  - wearing a very fetching smoking hat (below) - on one of the houseboat doors;  the  following year  he painted the father.   Both the Thompsons were art collectors,  especially of Whistler and Fantin-Latour, but here Herbert is pursuing lepidoptery (above).

Young Herbert Thompson  by L. Alma-Tadema © Fitzwilliam Museum

Friday, 1 July 2016

July: pond-dipping and Jenny Greenteeth

"By July, the waters of the parish - ditches, rhynes and cuts, carefully demarcated according to size - are thronged with life.  Yet as I walk or cycle past, all I see are various shades of green: the dark, turbid carpet of blanketweed, ranging from near black to moss-green; and the paler, lime-green film of duckweed.  Beneath this covering, below the water's surface, life is no doubt thriving.

Time for a spot of pond dipping.  As a child we did this all the time, though it wasn't such an organised activity as the term 'pond-dipping' suggests; we just went out with our nets and jam jars and fished for tiddlers.
….  The surface of the water is alive with activity, another good sign.  Mayflies are here, as are dozens of whirligig beetles, whizzing insanely around like dodgem cars, but never actually crashing into each other.  Peter nets some and we take a closer look: the black shell appearing almost silver, as if a small drop of mercury has been applied to its surface.  The next pass of the net produces more treasures, which are swiftly transferred to a white metal dish, of the type we used to see in doctors' surgeries….

Meanwhile, Daisy and Charlie are catching fish by the netful: tiny silvery creatures rather like miniature whitebait.  A closer look reveals three small spines -- sticklebacks, of course.  We explain the stickleback's extraordinary life cycle to the children -- how the males make a nest and look after the young  -- but they are more interested in catching even more fish.  These include a few browner individuals without the spine: minnows.

Stickleback and Nest,  F. Whymper   
Freshwater and Marine Image Bank, Washington University

A smaller rhyne, just across the road, is covered with lime-green: the run-of-the-mill common duckweed, and the larger giant duckweed, a deep auburn-red in colour.  Duckweed's ability to completely cover the surface of the water, giving an illusion of solidity, has given rise to a chilling folk tale*: the story of Jenny Greenteeth.  Jenny is supposed to lure little children into her watery lair by tempting them to walk on the solid-looking duckweed, causing them to fall through and drown.  My own children watch agog as I relate this story, presumably designed to warn earlier generations of the perils of venturing too near water.

Wild Hares and Hummingbirds  Stephen Moss

*Also known as grindylows,  greenskinned water hags with long hair and sharp teeth, especially in the north;  possibly a throwback to the lake-dwelling monsters, Grendel and his mother, in the Old English poem Beowulf.   In Kevin Crossley-Holland's translation,  when Beowulf dives into the lake,

"the seething water
received the warrior.  A full day elapsed
before he could discern the bottom of the lake.
……vindictive, ravenous for blood, …
Then she grasped him, clutched the Geat [Beowulf]
in her ghastly claws;…"

Thursday, 23 June 2016

A Dream of Wise Children

The British Library's current exhibition, "Shakespeare in Ten Acts", includes a section on A Midsummer Night's Dream,  with a flickering black and white clip from Max Reinhardt's full-blown 1935 Hollywood film production.

Titania and Bottom, with fairies  Max Reinhardt production, 1935.  

It starred a young Olivia de Havilland, with James Cagney as Bottom the Weaver  and Mickey Rooney as Puck.  With metal trees painted orange to glow eerily on the black and white film, truckloads of real trees and foliage, 650,000 candles and live owls, doves and ravens, as spangled fairies streamed across the screen, to music by Mendelssohn,  audiences and critics were of two minds as to its success.
    More stills from the Warner Brothers film, 
director Max Reinhardt, designer William Dieterle

But is it the words 'fairy' and dream' or even the play's hypnotic rhyming couplets, which, regardless of Shakespeare's lyrical verse,  spark such creative extravaganzas on canvas, stage and screen?   The play was a fruitful source for artists, from Fuseli's vision of c. 1790, even to Sir Edwin Landseer in 1851 (a commission for Isambard Brunel's Shakespearian themed dining-room). Titania and Oberon were popular subjects :

The quarrel of Oberon and Titania  Sir Joseph Noel Paton, 1849
© Scottish National Gallery

Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree's famous stage production of 1907, in similar spectacular style, featured real grass and live rabbits, one of which bit Bottom the Weaver when he picked it up.

Scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream,  H. Beerbohm Tree, His Majesty's Theatre, London 1900  
© Victoria & Albert Museum

Angela Carter's great last novel, Wise Children, is another creative extravaganza, full of Shakespearian allusions, covering most of the plays: "…I wanted it to be very funny, and at the same time I wanted the complex ideas about paternity, and the idea of Shakespeare as a cultural ideology".

She tells the story of illegitimate identical twins, Nora and Dora Chance, the "Lucky Chances", from 49 Bard Road, Brixton, earning a hard living as music hall dancers in the 1930s. "By ourselves, neither of us was nothing much, but put us together, people blinked.  Which is Dora? Which is Nora?"

Their story as Dora narrates it intertwines with the famous Hazard theatrical family, their putative father being Melchior Hazard, the great Shakespearian actor-manager of the day.  Along with Melchior's twin brother (their 'Uncle' Perry), a succession of wives,  and more twin children, the legitimate Hazards, wealthy and successful, seem to be the lucky ones.

The climax of the Chance sisters' career is a trip to Hollywood to play Peaseblossom and Mustardseed in their father's film of A Midsummer Nights' Dream - clearly inspired by Max Reinhardt's famous 1935 film.  As pragmatic Dora relates:

 "I remember that day, the day The Dream began, as if it were yesterday.  We all arrived in costume -- we were a motley crew and no mistake.  None of your soppy fairies with butterfly wings and floral wreaths.  No, sir. As Peaseblossom and Mustardseed, our bras and knicks had leaves appliqu├ęd at the stress points, there were little lights in our shaggy wigs, and when we saw how the rest had fared in the wardrobe, we thought we'd got off lightly, I must say, because some had antlers sprouting out of their foreheads and fur patches covering up the rude bits; others were done up as flying beetles, in stiff shiny bodices split up at the back; and one or two with boughs, not arms, plus a lavish use of leather and feathers all round.
Furthermore, remember that not fairies alone inhabited the wood near Athens.  A giant mouse, saddled and bridled trotted past.  A bunny, in a wedding wreath and veil. Some dragonflies, in masks.  Several enormous frogs.  Dwarfs, giants, children, all mixed up together.  Suddenly I had a sinking feeling; I knew it in my bones.  This film is going to lose a fortune."

This is a witty, bawdy, irreverent novel, where Carter's imaginative extravaganzas are grounded in the daily realities of the sisters' life: -- from liberty bodices to Grandma's square oilcloth shopping bag or Fuller's walnut cake. It is an irrepressible celebration of its players'  humanity.

"We do not come as minding to content you, Our true intent is.
All for your delight, we are not here.
That you should here repent you, The actors are at hand;
and, by their show,
You shall know all that you are like to know."

A Midsummer Night's Dream (the players' Prologue)  Act V.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Stars and dog-stars?

This is the season when Gemini the Twins gives way to Cancer the Crab in the heavens.  But it was probably a terrestrial crab the Victorian star, Ellen Terry was thinking of when she wrote in her Memoirs :
"Progress on the stage is often crablike, and little  parts, big parts, and no parts at all must be accepted as 'all in a day's work'. "

Did she also have a fleeting thought for The Two Gentleman of Verona, Shakespeare's early play about love and fidelity?  In it Launce, the comic servant is upstaged by his badly-behaved mutt, Crab the dog.

Launce teaching his Dog 18th century engraving,  Henry W. Bunbury, 
© Fine Arts Museum, San Francisco

"When a man's servant shall play the cur with him, look you, it goes hard; one that I brought up of a puppy; one that I saved from drowning when three or four of his blind brothers and sisters went to it. I have taught him, even as one would say precisely, 'Thus would I teach a dog.'   I was sent to deliver him as a present to Mistress Silvia from my master, and I came no sooner into the dining-chamber but he steps me to her trencher and steals her capon's leg. O! tis a foul thing when a cur cannot keep himself in all companies."   But worse is to come:

"He thrusts me himself into the company of three or four gentleman-like dogs under the duke's table: he had not been there -- bless the mark---a pissing-while, but all the chamber smelt him.  Out with the dog!

. …Nay, I'll be sworn, I have sat in the stocks for puddings he hath stolen, …I have stood on the pillory for geese he hath killed,…. thou thinkest not of this now.  Nay, I remember the trick you served me when I took my leave of Madam Silvia: did not I bid thee still mark me and do as I do?  When didst thou see me heave up my leg and make water against a gentlewoman's farthingale?  Didst thou ever see me do such a trick?"

Two Gentlemen of Verona  Act IV, sc. 4.  

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Flaming June

Flaming June  Frederick Leighton  1895
Museo de Arte de Ponco, Puerta Rica

This is the famous painting by Frederick, Lord Leighton, probably of his favourite model, the actress Dorothy Dene, who also sat for George Frederic Watts and John Everett Millais.  These were among the rich and socially ambitious painters who built houses for themselves in Kensington, close to the homes of their wealthy patrons like the Ionides family, the Prinseps or Lady Holland.

Leighton's house on Holland Park Road was designed as a Palace of Art, with six eye-catching public rooms, including his large studio/gallery, the scene of soiree's and concerts as well as actual painting.  His single bedroom is small and almost spartan in contrast.

He came to fame early, when Queen Victoria purchased his painting Cimabue's Celebrated Madonna in Procession in Florence when it was shown at the Royal Academy in 1855;  his work follows this classicizing Renaissance revival style.

Cimabue's Celebrated Madonna by Frederick Leighton 1855
On loan to the National Gallery London, from the Royal Collection

 Many of his paintings are widely dispersed in public and private collections (there are several large murals by him at the V&A Museum), but the Leighton House collection now includes many important paintings, drawings and sculpture by Leighton and his circle of artist friends.

Leighton House  © Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

The star of Leighton House itself is the Arab Hall, based on a twelfth century palace in Palermo, with its gentle fountain and pool.   It was created to display his glowing collection of early Syrian and Isnik  tiles and ceramics,  acquired on his travels, and on a visit to Damascus in 1873, with marble,  mosaics and carving. Here he was helped by the Consul,  explorer Sir Richard Burton:

 "My wife and I will keep a sharp look-out for you, and buy up as many [old tiles] as we can find which seem to answer your description.  If native inscriptions -- white or blue, for instance -- are to be had, I shall secure them, but not if imperfect.  Some clearing away of rubbish is expected at Damascus; the Englishman who superintends is a friend of mine, and I shall not neglect to get from him as much as possible (1871)."  Other friends added to his collection and  fellow artists Walter Crane, William de Morgan, Edgar Boehm and Randolph Caldecott collaborated on the finished design,
"quite the 8th wonder of the world, including a Moorish cupola palace, with a fountain, all lined with precious Persian tiles and mosaics by Walter Crane, as good almost as a Ravenna church;" ( Mrs Vernon Lee 1883).

I am sure my small daughter cannot be the only past visitor gazing up at the amazing golden frieze who has found themselves ankle deep in the pool.     Today Leighton House is one of London's less familiar public treasures, a quiet oasis just off Kensington High Street,  where you can soak up the atmosphere of artistic life in the late nineteenth century,  preferably keeping dry feet.

Quotations from Caroline Dakers' The Holland Park Circle.

Saturday, 4 June 2016

The Weather in June, 1681 and more

Very unseasonal weather in June is nothing new.  On 24th June, 1681, James Tyrrell writes to his friend from their student days at Oxford,  John Locke:

"as for news all that wee talk of here is of the rain and are still praying for more, I think it were worth your enquiry to write to your Friends in France whether they have had the same weather there, since I hear at Oxford, that the Drought hath bin so great about Paris, that the fear of Famine had raised Corne to well near a pistol a bushel: the truth of which I should be glad to know.  in the mean time you may furnish your Paris vertuosos with this observation concerning weather: that for the honour of our Northern Climate, there hath bin seen several times this month ice of the thickness of half a Crowne, and the last time I was told of it was just after I writ my last to you, which was about the 11th. or 12 instant. God be thanked wee are now like to have a seasonable after spring, and in hopes of it I am hayning [fencing grass to protect from cattle] my ground againe as if it were but Lady day having had almost no hay yet; "

This must be small comfort to today's Paris 'virtuosos'.  But dipping into Geoffrey Grigson's  The English Year, extremes of weather seem not uncommon (or perhaps more often recorded) in June.  

June 3rd:  "Since which till last week we had hot dry weather. Now it rains like mad."  Thomas Gray 1760;

June 9th:  "Everything seemed parched and dried up by the two months' drought except some brilliant patches of crimson sanfoin which lighted up the white hot downs and burning Plain."  Francis Kilvert, 1874;  and

June 11th:  We have had an extraordinary drought, no grass, no leaves, no flowers; not a white rose for the festival of yesterday!  About four arrived such a flood, that we could not see out of the windows: the whole lawn was like a lake, though situated on so high an Ararat  [at Strawberry Hill]… You never saw such desolation.…It never came into my head before, that a rainbow office for insuring against water might be very necessary."   Horace Walpole, 1775

The Blind Girl  John Everett Millais, 1856
Birmingham Museums Trust