The gift of kings

Matthew Paris Book of Additions c. 1250 Manuscript British Library, London
This African elephant was given to Henry III of England by Louis IX of France in 1254. Soon after its arrival during a cold English winter, the elephant was imprisoned in the royal menagerie, established in 1235, in The Tower of London. The elephant died three years later, in the “house of forty feet long and twenty feet deep” that had been specially built for it, after being given too much red wine to drink.


What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an Angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals….
Shakespeare, Hamlet, c. 1600

captured elephantPietro Longhi The Elephant 1774, Oil on canvas. This shackled Indian elephant was exhibited during the cold winter of Carnevale in Venice.

After claiming credit for the invention of Fake News, Trump now seems to believe he has invented rational leadership. He has postponed his decision to allow imports of elephant hunting trophies

“All courses of action are risky, so prudence is not in avoiding danger (it’s impossible), but calculating risk and acting decisively. Make mistakes of ambition and not mistakes of sloth. Develop the strength to do bold things, not the strength to suffer.” Machiavelli, The Prince

“Men are so simple of mind, and so much dominated by their immediate needs, that a deceitful man will always find plenty who are ready to be deceived.” Machiavelli, The Prince


Antoine Caron The Elephant Carousel, one of the famous, ground-breaking entertainments devised as part of Catherine de Medici’s political programme to augment the Valois dynasty during the second half of 16th century France. Our modern concept of performance arts derives from her vision; a political agenda is understandable, the abuse of a living animal is always inexcusable. Image: WGA

“The vulgar crowd always is taken by appearances, and the world consists chiefly of the vulgar.” Machiavelli, The Prince, written 1513, published 1532.


Antoine-Louis Barye Elephant from Senegal Bronze. Private collection. Image: WGA
Not shackled any more, but still running, always in danger from human cruelty, made up of stupidity, pride, envy and greed.

Nature’s great masterpiece, an elephant
(The only harmless great thing), the giant
Of beasts, who thought none had to make him wise,
But to be just and thankful, loth to offend
(Yet nature hath given him no knees to bend)
Himself he up-props, on himself relies,
And, foe to none, suspects no enemies,
Still sleeping stood; vex’d not his fantasy
Black dreams; like an unbent bow carelessly
His sinewy proboscis did remissly lie.
(John Donne, stanza XXXIX from The First Song Of The Progress of the Soul, 1612)

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

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.


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.


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.

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

Self-promotion of a nakedly political kind

“Context is everything.”
(Peter Drucker, business management consultant, social ecologist and “the man who invented management” in the modern era of complexity, according to Business Week of which I’m not a regular reader.)

This blog advocates frivolity, and revels in images, especially of dead queens, at the same time it sniffs at celebrity photos, selfies and Hello! wedding photos.

So here it presents, in full consciousness of double standards, a stupendous piece of self-advertizing by a grandiose, self-made English politician, and patron of the arts, who hired one of the most gifted court propagandists of any age, Van Dyck, to sell his materially advantageous marriage to a higher-born aristocrat, the daughter of an earl, as a divine union featuring groom and bride half-naked, flaunting everything except their genitalia.


Anthony van Dyck Sir George Villiers and Lady Katherine Manners as Adonis and Venus c. 1620. Oil on canvas Private collection. Image WGA

The curly-haired hunk was the King’s favourite (a multi-nuanced term in this case because the king, a neurotic intellectual who’d had a seriously dysfunctional childhood, was gay and vulnerable to handsome, unscrupulous young men who played him along in exchange for office and titles), and chief minister, George Villiers, later created Duke of Buckingham.

He was the most powerful man in the kingdom during two reigns until his assassination eight years after this portrait was painted, and was later immortalized as a guest star of The Three Musketeers.

In real life, James’ son, Charles I, was as emotionally and politically dependent on Buckingham as his father had been. Intuitively serving two masters in different ways, Buckingham was their homme fatale, fulfilling their personal needs while alienating the nations they governed, a gorgeous psychological prop and political liability.

Portrayed in Van Dyck’s allegory when he was twenty-eight, he plays his amorous part to perfection, enjoying the adoration of his hound and his blue drapery being wafted by zephyrs while he ogles his prey, but Lady Katherine looks coy, even startled, about her classical role, as if she’d rather be fully dressed at a jolly lunch party than sporting with pagan gods, all for the sake of her husband proving to the world that she wasn’t his beard.

the cutting edge of fashion


Jean-Francois Janinet, Marie Antoinette, a print after Jean-Baptiste-André Gautier-Dagoty France, 1777 © The Trustees of the British Museum

Nothing becomes a rich person so ill as telling a poor one that money can’t buy happiness, but I sympathize with them that it doesn’t always buy beauty or good taste.  Looking at the clothes in Harvey Nichols the other day, for the first time in seven years, I have never seen so much I didn’t want.* It is consoling to know that you can dress just as sluttily or frumpily from the local mall as you can from Knightsbridge.

But where is exquisite wearable art to be found in London today if it’s not in “premier luxury retail”? It doesn’t matter that the prices are out of my reach – the famous department stores have the power to inspire us all by showcasing the best, not dumb fashion down. Capitalism is failing in its moral justification to broker beauty. Producing and buying expensive stuff for the sake of its cost alone is not enough; wealth is not its own reward.

Good taste and beauty are not always the same thing, of course. One implies reason, order, restraint – the other can be terrifying Continue reading

End of the Fairy Tale

There was a torture chamber hidden under the fairytale palaces, those vanishing flower-garlanded places where laughing, well-fed putti carry on playing long after the people, surfeited on Rococo, have died or fled.

Apollo with the Graces and Muses painted for the ceiling of the Théâtre de la reine, at Trianon, Versailles, by Jean-Jacques Lagrenée, 1779. Image source: Wikipedia

The restrained imagery of the later Stuart monarchy reflected the bloodless 1688 revolution in political realities. Baroque was sobered down, mannered. Its architecture was perceived as heavy and florid, and was already going out of fashion by the time its last great palace, Blenheim, was finished in 1716, to complaints from the owner, Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, about the impracticalities of the design. The architect, John Vanbrugh, whose other most famous building is the fairy tale Castle Howard, a fantastical stage set on the Yorkshire moors, was also a dramatist, author of two of the greatest English comedies of manners.

William and Mary Presenting the Cap of Liberty to Europe, sketch by James Thornhill for his design of the painted ceiling of the Great Hall, Greenwich Hospital, 1708-1712, the last great public illusionist interior of English Baroque.
Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The idea of putting William and Mary’s apotheosis on a painted ceiling never occurred in their lifetime; after the queen died to almost universal lamentation in England and the Netherlands, the completion of the project for a Hospital for wounded and disabled seamen was chosen as the most fitting memorial to her charitable character, a sign of a new, recognizably modern, kind of monarchy.

Thornhill’s grandiose commission for the interior of the Great Hall of Greenwich Hospital celebrating the Protestant Succession was issued in the next reign, under Queen Anne, and completed under George I, in justification of the Hanoverian right to rule.

By 1690, even the fashion in clothes had become architectural, the cut Continue reading

Absolutism and Revolution

Engraving by Le Pautre of the performance of Lully’s Alceste in the cour de marbre, the first of six fêtes, Les Divertissments de Versailles, held in 1674 to celebrate one of Louis XIV’s military conquests. “I have loved war too much”, confessed the dying king, forty two years later, when his mania for glory had bankrupted the state and devastated large swathes of the European mainland.

In the second half of the 17th century, court ballet, inspired by Louis XIV‘s example, continued to be a ritualized, exquisitely designed declaration of political agenda and ideology, occasions prickling with controversy, just as much as the Jacobean court masques and the dumb-show of Hamlet’s play within the play.

Contemporary princes were expected to use theatrical performance to make a political point, even if by nature they were not talented dancers or actors. A serious vocational soldier-statesman like the young William of Orange, who preferred architecture and gardening to any of the performing arts, appeared in a ballet at his court in 1668 as a codified message to the Dutch Republic and the foreign states that he intended to restore the authority of his family as a major European power, just as King Louis had done in France.

Le Roi-Soleil: Louis XIV dancing in La Ballet de la Nuit, 1653. Image source: Wikipedia

Like today’s royal family, there were plenty of monarchs by the 18th century who restricted their performance art to official ceremonial functions, weddings and funerals, reviewing the troops and dining in state, but earlier there had been natural actors and star personalities like Elizabeth I and Louis XIV (who made his debut as a ballet dancer in 1651 and first appeared as le Roi Soleil two years later) or queen consorts….. Continue reading

Wedding of the Gods

Stefano della Bella (1610-1664) Scene Five, “Hell”, of a set of stage designs for Le Nozze degli Dei, 1637. Image copyright The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

The origins of the theatrical spectaculars of the Baroque and our own time, and of classical ballet and opera, are usually traced by academics to the “magnifences” of Catherine de Medici, who, out of dire political necessity during the Wars of Religion, built on two traditions, the Valois court entertainments and the intermezzi of her own family’s court in Florence, to devise cultural showcases for dynastic policies.

Dynasty: Catherine de Medici and her husband, Henri II, at the centre of family satellites in France and other European states. Miniatures by Clouet. Image source: WGA

Two engravings by Jacques Callot in the Courtauld exhibition gave an idea of the ambitious scale of the entertainments laid on by the Medici, including a mock water battle to celebrate the visit of the Prince of Urbino in 1619, which was watched by 30,000 people. In modern terms, these huge events were the equivalent of staging the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, and the intermezzi are comparable to Madonna’s half-time show at the Super Bowl, spectaculars that even people in countries across the sea might hear about and see in reproduced prints.

Stefano Della Bella’s etchings of stage designs for The Wedding of the Gods in 1637 record the illusionistic splendour achieved on temporary stages at the Medici court, with machinery capable of lowering performers in the role of gods from the sky in front of painted cloud drops. In the fifth scene, flying monsters attack cavaliers from the air, like a scene from a modern sci-fi movie. With all these scenes and effects to get through, it is not surprising that….. Continue reading

Enchanted Islands

As proof that Louis XIV’s power was absolute, Nature itself was subservient to him in the water gardens of Versailles. The fountain jets of le bosquet du théâtre d’eau (replaced in the early 1770s by a plain grass covered grove, and recently excavated) were designed, according to the fontaineer Claude Denis, to perform “obeisance to the king of kings”.

Le théâtre d’eau – vue de la scène,one of the views of les bosquets, or groves, of Versailles by Jean Cotelle the younger, 1693.
Image source: Wikipedia

For over a hundred years, the official pretexts for the exquisite staged illusions in the chateau’s grounds were usually celebrations of royal weddings and new-born heirs, as you would expect of a fairy tale, but also, on occasion, the birth of a son to the king’s favourite mistress of the moment, and the acquisition of territories through war, ruinously expensive in money and lives. “I have loved war too much”, confessed the dying king, forty years later, when he bequeathed toxic, bankrupt splendour to his five year old heir.

Feu d’artifice
: Firework display on the canal at Versailles, one of the divertissements held at Versailles to celebrate the reconquest of Franche-Comté in 1674. On previous days of the festival, Lully’s ballet Alceste had been performed in front of the Marble Court and Moliere’s Le Malade Imaginaire in front of the Grotto of Thetis. Engraving by Le Pautre, 1676. Image © RMN, Musée du Louvre/Photo Thierry de Mage

Advanced technology and artistic talent mythologized life at court, enabling the refulgent monarchy to divert the nobility into acquiescence during peacetime, and dazzle friends and enemies abroad, with ballets, plays, operas, tricks of the eye, dancing fountains, musical gardens and artificial fire. The population excluded from wealth and political power, the artisans and peasants, were invited to marvel at the pleasures of the elite from a safe distance, on the terrace behind the palace or in the branches of the garden trees.

Louis XIV had always intended Versailles should be a theatre. The members of the Accademia Olimpica in Vicenza who commissioned Palladio to design a permanent theatre in 1585, would have approved of the main stage facade looking like a palace, because the theatre was an idealised representation of their own power in the real world, which included the vistas of Scamozzi’s wooden set of streets and buildings glimpsed through the three main arches of the stage in perfect perspective.

Renaissance palaces had always been theatres; now theatres were being built to look like palaces, a fashion….. Continue reading

The ministry of fashion

“Golden lads and girls….must come to dust.” Shakespeare, Cymbeline.

Lord John and Lord Bernard Stuart
Van Dyck, c. 1638. Oil on canvas, National Gallery, London. Image source: WGA

Collateral damage of baroque absolutist illusion, nowadays they’d be the latest posh boys to break into show business.

They were wrong but romantic; collateral damage of absolutism and revolution, teenage brothers, cousins of the king, transformed and immortalized by Van Dyck into an illusory image of English aristocracy that inspired fantasies still enjoyed today, including fictional upper-class heroes like the Scarlet Pimpernel and the 1930s gentleman detective, whose outward foppishness concealed brains and virility, and, more recently, re-invented as the modern meterosexual vampires of film and TV, whose lineage goes back beyond late Victorian Dracula, to Byronic heroes, Restoration libertines and doomed Cavalier youths.

The confident, sensual magnificence of Baroque male fashion boasted feminine attributes; in comparison, the presentation of ideal masculine sexuality of a hundred years earlier – Henry VIII in his straddling stance jutting out his codpiece – looks crudely insecure.

Even a realistic artist and social observer like Frans Hals….. Continue reading