No Bed for the Cat


Peter Paul Rubens, Annunciation, c. 1628 Oil on canvas, Rubens House, Antwerp.
Image: WGA

It is the same astonishing moment as a thousand times before and after – the same winged and muscular messenger, with the same soft feminine face, the same long golden hair, wearing a yellow tunic, accompanied by a dove and flying babies, interrupting a girl reading while a cat sleeps in the corner – but in a different place, light years away.

This is no baby shower, like the time before. This time the stranger does not bring the pure white flowers of virginity to present to the girl from a deferential distance. There are already flowers in a bulbous glass vase on a round table, red and pink roses unfurling petals the colour of flesh, a red tulip like a licking tongue. The dive-bombing cherubs are about to pelt garlands of more roses, a lover’s gift, on the girl’s head.

It’s not the same girl, or she has changed. She reads the same book, but she is not self-composed like the girl kneeling in a room in Urbino, over twenty years earlier. There is no view of a white castle, the room is dark and the floor is made of wooden nailed planks.

There is no sign of the patriarchal puppeteer in the sky. There is no formality, no inhibition, only the visitor’s knowing smile as he alights, his left hand almost close enough to touch her, and her gasp of expectation. Even the watching cherubs are louche.

This time she is aroused by the visitor’s physical presence and does not attempt to hide her feelings. Illuminated by a beam of light, she rises to meet his passion with her own, her lips parted and her uplifted eyes rolling in trance-like ecstasy. Her longing is mixed with reproach. She is worried about consequences.

She is Psyche in love with Eros, who has flown in through her open window. He is beautiful and persuasive. His power will change her life.

She is not sure she wants him yet.

(Keats, Ode to Psyche, 1819)

It’s not the same cat, either. This one is a tabby, coiled tight in its own sensual world, indifferent to human desires, lying on the hard wooden floor beside a work basket because the girl has forgotten to make a cushioned bed for its sleep.

 

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The Cat’s Dream

Federico Fiori Barocci, Annunciation
1592-96 Oil on canvas, Santa Maria degli Angeli, Perugia. Image: WGA

A cat sleeps on a cushion in the corner of a room while a fourteen year-old virgin receives her pregnancy results from a beautiful, transgender visitor, who presents Madonna lilies as a baby shower gift. She smiles sweetly, and lowers her eyes modestly, grateful but not surprised. She accepts the news in the composed manner of a young prima donna receiving the bouquet that her talent deserves.

The visitor has only just arrived, interrupting the girl reading a small, pocket-sized book, which she lays aside instantly, without closing the pages or rising to her feet. The girl reads a lot. She has few possessions apart from her expensively bound books. She reveres their contents, kneeling while she reads. Her room is sparsely furnished, functional; only the voluptuous folds of the dark red drape loosely knotted over the window relieve the cell-like austerity. She cares about the cat’s comfort as much as her own. She has hung her hat and shawl neatly on a hook. The polished stone tiled floor is clean.

Nothing else is normal, and yet the scene is familiar. The visitor, who kneels before the girl as if she is a queen, has wings, and is accompanied by two over-excited flying babies, clapping their hands and gurgling with joy on either side of a hovering dove. The window drape looks like a stage curtain, framing a view of a white turreted castle on a hill, guarding a city beyond, a landscape in fairyland.

Strangest of all, the ceiling has been removed from the room. The billowing curtain blends into clouds that separate to allow a gigantic elderly man with a long beard to peer down out of a hole in the sky. Golden light radiates behind him, crowded with faces of more chubby babies, made of the Sun, all pressing closer and closer to the girl in the room. He holds his hands palms down over the girl like a puppeteer pulling invisible strings.

The cat sleeps.

Rembrandt’s Cat

Rembrandt, The Holy Family with a Curtain, 1646
oil on wood, Staatliche Museen, Kassel. Image: WGA

Rembrandt, Maria met kind, met kat en slang (Virgin and Child with a Cat and Snake),
etching on paper, 1654. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.
Image: Wikipedia

Gilded Dramas

Functional objects, vessels for light and fragrance, tables, clocks and other household accessories for the rich and powerful, gilt bronze status symbols that are also neoclassical sculptures of the finest art, piercing the soft darkness with their golden fluidity, making your jaded heart sing – I never understood ormolu before I saw The Wallace Collection’s current exhibition Gilded Interiors: French Masterpieces of Gilt bronze.

Video Gilded Interiors © The Wallace Collection 2017

And, in The Wallace Collection’s tradition for 117 years, entry to temporary exhibitions as well as to the permanent galleries is and always will be free. Liberty, Egality, Fraternity still exist in an Anglo-French union in Manchester Square,  London W1.

It is a small exhibition, the pieces liberated by the curator from glass cases and cluttered rooms, out of the crude glare of museum electric lighting into simulated candlelight. The atmosphere is seductive. It is a tiny piece of gilded theatre. Continue reading

Everything I love

is either dead or under attack


Gainsborough’s The Morning Walk (1785)

DAMAGED on 18 March, 2017

We congratulate ourselves on feeling so deeply about art that we must be good people or, at least, better than we thought we were a moment ago

If only it was a bad dream

The country you live in is changed

CamelotIdyllsoftheKing_3CAMELOT: Gustave Doré, illustration to Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, 1868

extracts from an article in The Guardian by IAN McEWAN:
“The country you live in, the parliamentary democracy that ruled it, for good or bad, has been trumped by a plebiscite of dubious purpose and unacknowledged status
. From our agriculture to our science and our universities, from our law to our international relations to our commerce and trade and politics, and who and what we are in the world – all is up for a curious, unequal renegotiation with our European neighbours. How did we get to this? What can you do?

…. we’re almost evenly split. One third wants to leave, fractionally less than a third wants to stay, and a third doesn’t know or doesn’t care. Seventeen million against 16 million. Each full of contempt for the other. And on this basis and unlike any other country in the world, we are about to redraft our constitution and much else besides.

….the lies that needed to be told to gain the result. The £350m a week that would become available to the NHS; that we could halt immigration from Europe and remain in the single market….

Meanwhile, the economy is in decline, the pound is drifting towards parity with the dollar, the jobless lines are lengthening. Racists and xenophobes are gripped by an elated sense of entitlement….

IT WAS ALL A BAD DREAM….”

idyllsofthekingLargeDoré, illustration to Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, 1868.
Vivien leaves Merlin sleeping in the oak tree in which she has ensnared him “and the forest echoed ‘fool'”.

Then, in one moment, she put forth the charm
Of woven paces and of waving hands,
And in the hollow oak he lay as dead,
And lost to life and use and name and fame.

   Then crying “I have made his glory mine,”
And shrieking out “O fool!” the harlot leapt
Adown the forest, and the thicket closed
Behind her, and the forest echoed “fool.”
From Alfred Tennyson, ‘Merlin and Vivien’, Idylls of the King

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Uncovered: The Spy Who Lost Her Clothes

A dress recovered from a 400 year old shipwreck reveals secrets of the Stuart court on the eve of the Civil War. (Source: The Guardian)

IsaacOliverunknownwomaninmasquecostume1609Unknown woman in masque costume, miniature by Isaac Oliver, 1609. Image: Wikipedia
In the Masque of Queens, everybody finds out that they are taking part in an illusion, and carry on regardless. They are all lying by the end.
Say to the court, it glows
And shines like rotten wood
(From ‘The Lie’, attributed to Sir Walter Ralegh)

A Story of Guile at the Stuart Court

Anne of Denmark
Betrayed Queen No 1: Anne of Denmark, wife of James VI of Scotland and I of England, by Paul van Somer, 1617. Image: Wikipedia.
She is shown wearing a fashionable riding habit, accompanied by her greyhounds, standing in front of Oatlands Palace, for which she had ordered Inigo Jones to build a new ornamental gateway. Jones’ beautiful Queen’s House at Greenwich was built for her, but was uncompleted at the time she died in 1619.

Anne was a cultured woman in a difficult marriage to a gay, frequently drunk, pedant. She enjoyed hunting and dancing. Her patronage of the arts, especially court masque and neoclassical architecture, added lustre and prestige to the disreputable, faction-ridden Jacobean court that lurched from plot to counter-plot while James deluded himself that a king with bishops could keep the balance of power.

She was lucky that Inigo Jones, an architect and designer of genius, was at hand to make her dream houses real and make theatre sets like dreams. She suffered depression and bad health for the last seven years of her life after the catacylismic death of her eldest son, Prince Henry in 1612.

OberonbyJones

Design for a masque costume for Prince Henry in Oberon, the Faery Prince, 1611, by Inigo Jones.
Lost Prince: one of the might-have-beens of history, Charles I’s elder brother, the precocious, athletic and staunchly Protestant, Henry Frederick Stuart, who died of typhoid aged eighteen. Among other manly virtues, he understood the propaganda value of masque.

Anne might have been a secret Catholic, like her grandson Charles II (the most disillusioned and guileful of all the Stuarts and their courtiers) at a time when the political majority supported a Protestant succession to protect vested interests in the name of national security.

One of the ladies-in-waiting who accompanied the queen from Scotland to England in 1603, was Jean Ker, Countess of Roxburghe who became a spy for the Spanish government. Anne knew she could not be trusted, and managed to dismiss her in 1617.

HenriettaMariaofFrance

Betrayed Queen No 2: Henrietta Maria of France, wife and “Dear Heart” of Charles I, who was lucky enough to be painted by Van Dyck, the greatest propagandist the British Royal Family have ever had.
Oil painting, c. 1636 – 38. Image: Wikipedia

Van Dyck in his portraits and Inigo Jones in his theatrical designs transformed Henrietta Maria into a fairy tale queen of sweet dignity peeping out from billowing clouds of coloured silk.

Henrietta Maria, like her mother-in-law and husband, had a genuine enthusiasm for the arts. Like Anne, she enjoyed performing an active part in court masques.

Unlike Anne, she was also politically active and one of her husbands’s most influential advisers. He became increasingly dependent on her after the death of the Duke of Buckingham. Her devout Roman Catholicism aroused suspicion and unpopularity in the country during rising tensions between King and Parliament.

In February, 1642, she travelled to the Netherlands, ostensibly to reunite her nine year old daughter Mary with the princess’s husband, the Prince of Orange, when some of the ships in her fleet were wrecked by storms off the Dutch coast, and her ladies in waiting lost their wardrobes in the North Sea.

Of far more concern to the queen, the crown jewels and plate, which she had brought with her in the hope of selling to raise money for the royalist cause, were safe and dry.

Prominent in the royal entourage was Princess Mary’s governess, the Countess of Roxburghe.

Roxburghe-1st-Countess-of
Betrayer: Jean Ker, Countess of Roxburghe, (c 1585 – 1643) lady-in-waiting to Queens Anne and Henrietta Maria successively, governess to three of the royal children, and spy for the Spanish government. Image: Adel in Nederland.

The activities of the dark lady were well known to the Jacobean and Caroline courts, where everyone was so used to spies, as one of the collateral evils hedging the king, that they just played along, feeding information when it suited them.

Lady Roxburghe had lost her position as Mistress of the Robes at Anne of Denmark’s court but was brought back into favour by Charles I, who appointed her governess to Princess Mary in 1631, and consequently to two of his younger children, a sign of his strong sympathy towards the Catholic faith.

She accompanied the princess to Holland in February 1642. Her luxurious silk dress was one of the losses in the shipwreck of the royal fleet off the Dutch island of Texel.

Kept close to the heart of the royal family as she was, it is hard to know who was spying on whom.

In the Masque of Queens, everybody finds out eventually that they are taking part in an illusion.

Anthonis_van_Dyck William and Maryjpg

Dynastic Pawns: Princess Mary, eldest daughter of Charles I, and her husband Willem II, Prince of Orange, in one of Van Dyck’s most poignant portraits, painted in 1641 when the children (she was nine; he was fifteen) were formally married in London.
Image: Wikipedia

Thirty-six years later, during the Restoration, their only child, Willem III of Orange, married his cousin Mary Stuart, and they eventually succeeded to the English throne in the Protestant coup d’etat of 1688 as William III and Mary II.

The Stuart Masque was over. Continue reading