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.