Thursday, 28 July 2016

Leonine stories

Persian Astrological illustration for Leo,  gouache, c. 1800s. 
(from the Wellcome Library Images ) 

 This is the time when the constellation of Leo is in the ascendent.  There are many examples of the kingly Lion as a symbol from myth and legend, from the lion-killing hero in the Epic of Gilgamesh, or the Old Testament's  Samson and David, or the Greek Hercules, all often shown wearing a lion skin.  Gentler heroes are St. Jerome, who befriended a lion by removing a thorn from its paw, a story taken from the classics and reimagined by G. B. Shaw in Androcles and the Lion,  and of course, the fourth Gospel-maker, St. Mark and his winged lion, historically associated with Venice. 

But for my Lion illustration I have gone back to the Babylonian myth of the tragic lovers, a tale popular in the  later Renaissance: 
"In such a night  
Did Thisbe fearfully overtrip the dew, 
And saw the lion's shadow ere himself, 
And ran dismayed away."  (Merchant of Venice  Act V)

Pyramus and Thisbe, maiolica plate from Urbino, c. 1550s  © Fitzwilliam Museum

As Ovid recounts, the eloping lovers are due to meet at Ninus' fountain outside Nineveh, but Thisbe, arriving first, is frightened by a bloody-mouthed lion and flees, dropping her cloak. Pyramus arrives, sees the lion mauling Thisbe's bloodstained cloak, and, most true lover, falls on his sword.   Here we see Thisbe returning and desperately following  Pyramus' example, watched by Cupid.

Not the finest rendering in maiolica - a very cluttered image with all the city backdrop encroaching.  The painter (or his customers) obviously liked scenes of impalement, but the lion has not got Thisbe's bloodstained cloak in its mouth, in fact Thisbe still seems to have a cloak around her; nevertheless the painter has captured the popular tragedy with dramatic 3D effect.  According to Ovid, a mulberry tree grew beside the fountain and, drenched in the lovers' blood, its white berries were ever after deep purple.

There are other finer maiolica examples in e.g. the Wallace Collection, and this popular story appears in paintings, mosaics, on Venetian glassware and French tapestry, although you sometimes have to look hard to spot the deadly lion.

I could not resist this Footnote:  a fresco by Benozzo Gozzoli, c. 1425, from Montefalco, Italy.

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;…"