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

Give them back their future

If you were young, how would you be feeling about your future, decided by your elders in a badly informed opinion poll last year?

Past and Present, No. 2 1858 by Augustus Leopold Egg 1816-1863Augustus Leopold Egg Past and Present, No 2 1858. Image: Tate

Two orphaned sisters are reduced to poverty and despair because of the actions of their parents. The elder girl is now responsible for both their fates, and neither she nor we see any hope for her as she looks yearningly at the moon.

On Saturday’s Unite For Europe march, the intelligence and passion of three speakers (Ismaeel Yaqoob, Elin Smith, Felix Milbank) representing Students for EU moved the crowd in Parliament Square and along Whitehall as in turn they pleaded eloquently for isolationist, zenophobic Brexit to be reversed so they can have their futures back.

The New Cosette, marching to Unite for Europe on 25 March, 2017 © Martin Hübscher

In 1858, Egg told another tale of an older generation’s betrayal of the young. A whole family, father, mother and two children, are victims of unfair, unnatural social rules designed by patriarchy to benefit itself.

Continue reading

A Regency Romance (3)

revolutionary baloonFashion, Transport, Political and Sexual Revolution in on one balloon: a gentleman and lady, waving the tricolore with a perfectly true to Regency Romance “arch” expression on her face, in a fashion plate from Journal des Dames et des Modes, 1797. Image: Dames a la Mode

The real Regency was the most elegant time in history to be alive – if you were rich and fashionable.

It was also a time of violent psychological and social upheaval during almost constant continental war, revolution and counter-revolution, of increased national danger and private suicides, of intellectual and emotional struggle, of technological innovation and female emancipation, of radical changes in fashion and education, of mass consumerism and society scandals, of experiments in free love and drug abuse, of famine and rural poverty, of volcanic eruptions and climate change.

The sense of anxiety reached into the heart of middle England where Jane Austen’s heroines  were embarking on perilous journeys of self-examination, and where Marianne Dashwood fell into the emotional abyss.

Women’s Rights beyond the domestic sphere had been declared, but for most of the female sex of the middling and upper classes, the competitive marriage market, for all its humiliations and disappointments, was the lesser of two evils, the other being poverty.

The working poor woman had no elegant choice to make: she worked, she mated, she mothered, she cooked, she cleaned, she worked in a cycle of drudgery. Her alternative was destitution.

The rituals of polite society masked the sordid reality that women were being sold into a luxurious form of slavery, without rights to keep their own property and money when they wed. Men’s financial interest even more than gender discrimination kept women subservient.

At its best, making a good marriage was similar to modern film and theatre casting, decided by who’s related to whom, who’s got money, connections or the most powerful matchmaker/agent behind them, who’s good at manipulating opportunity, who cares enough to run the gauntlet.

Yet women were allowed the power of influence, some of them were acknowledged (by a brave minority) to be the equals, even on rare occasions the superiors, to men in their wit and intelligence, their literary, acting and artistic talents, their philanthropic work and housekeeping acumen.

Like her ancestresses, Shakespeare’s Rosalind and Beatrice and Congreve’s Millamant, the Regency Romance heroine outdazzles her beau with her wit, she wears the trousers metaphorically at least, even while she likes leaning on a strong masculine arm. Theirs is an essentially camp relationship.

There was more hypocrisy, but less compartmentalization, about sexuality and gender. It was the age of the dandy, after all, and when an actress (Siddons) and a princess (Charlotte) were notable for showing more positive masculine attributes than most men.

In many ways, Jane Austen was at odds with the Regency period in which her novels were published. She was torn between the self-expressive freedom of Romanticism and the moral patterns of the earlier Enlightenment, where the landscaped gardens and elegant columns of Pemberley belong.

Charlotte Brontë was born the year before Austen died and grew up to hate her books and everything they represented about the repression of female sexuality.

That was understandable but unfair, because Austen’s couples enjoy, after a struggle, realistically happy unions, while the Brontës’ creations, for all the blazing emancipated passion and voices calling across the moor, do not. Austen wrote prose, prosaically. For her, getting your man didn’t mean having to maim, blind and nurse him. He was allowed a past you didn’t know about, a club you weren’t allowed to enter – not an ideal modern marriage, but with more space than most.

Independence was not yet attainable, but a truce, even a peace, was within the art of the possible..

Jane Austen used irony as a tool with which to open a window on human life, not as a shield to hide behind.  Romantic infatuation was a trap, not an escape. Continue reading

A Regency Romance

What explains the enduring appeal of the Regency Romance? (Question arises from the latest audio book I’ve narrated, already successfully released in USA 10 days ago, by a subsidiary of over-mighty Amazon).

Why has that period in history lent itself more than any other to our fantasies about courtship and social acceptance? The origins of its potency lie older and deeper than the comedies of manners written prolifically by Georgette Heyer, the doyenne of Regency Romance fiction, and the costume rom-coms of the film and movie industries of the last hundred years.

Regency Romance is written to a winning formula nowadays, some of it blissfully unconcerned with syntax or history, but millions of women had fallen in love with Classic Literature’s Mr Darcy for nearly two centuries before the BBC got him wet.  Members of all sexes have obsessed over the period’s dead poets with a sense of connection that felt stronger than many real relationships. Many a girl and boy have thrilled to Byron’s “mad, bad and dangerous” celebrity, or pined to be the one to soothe Keats’ fevered forehead, rather than inadequate Fanny Brawne.

We are all touched by the Regency, even those of us who have never read a romantic novel or would know a pelisse if it arrested us.

John_Arthur_Douglas_Bloomfield,_2nd_Baron_Bloomfield_by_Sir_Thomas_Lawrence

John Arthur Douglas Bloomfield, 2nd Baron Bloomfield, already a career diplomat at the age of seventeen, a pillar of the Establishment trying desperately to look like poet, libertarian political writer and social outcast Lord Byron, painted at full Romantic throttle by Thomas Lawrence, 1819. (National Portrait Gallery. Image: Wikipedia).
The Regency created its own romantically sexy myth long before it was appropriated by later generations.

The Regency period looks more modern to us than either the preceding 18th century age or the following Victorian age. The style of clothes and short hairstyles are still around – even the men’s tight-fitting trousers have been revived as jeggings.

Regency architecture, interior and garden design still provide some of the most elegant home improvement options available today.

EdmundBlairLeightonOntheThreshold
Edmund Leighton: On the Threshold (1900). Manchester Art Gallery. Image source: Wikipedia
Love the wrought iron and lead roofed porch. And his boots….

A late Victorian nostalgia for Regency style packaged the romance of consumerism, in which props and set dressing are more prominent than feelings. You’d never guess from later illustrations that there had been a war going on, in fact several wars, about ideology, trade, territory and ideas.

Women’s clothes in the neoclassical Regency period, for three decades after the French Revolution, were more comfortable, more symbolic of personal freedom, than later 19th and early 20th century fashions. By the late 1820s, tight lacing was back and got tighter. (Traditional stays had never really gone away for every woman in Regency times, and were superseded by the much-maligned corset which, correctly fitted, is far more comfortable and good for posture than its reputation allows. And some of us are comfortable and happier in high heels, just as some people have sea legs – but that’s for another battle at the Last Post.)

The female body of the following four generations was squeezed in and padded out, satisfying somebody or other’s fetishes, some of them as weird as Comic Con costumes.

At the time Edmund Leighton was turning out his chocolate box historical genre scenes, and C.E. Brock was producing his fairytale illustrations to Jane Austen, fashionable women’s bodies were trapped in S-shaped cages which they only started getting out of shortly before World War I. The Regency looked like a time of rationality and enlightenment in comparison.

Bingley&Jane. Brock

One of the later (1907) watercolour versions of C.E. Brock’s original 1895 illustrations to Pride and Prejudice: the sugary colours signal the export of Jane Austen’s “two inches of ivory” world to the arch land of Regency Romance.

to be continued

The AUDIO VERSION of THE CAPTAIN’S WALLFLOWER – A Regency Romance by Audrey Harrison, read by Pippa Rathborne – is available now on Amazon, Audible and iTunes.

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

Adornment and Concealment

How to Fashion a Neoclassical Queen

Luise1796JFATischbeinJPG
This heroine who inspired a nation’s resistance to Napoleonic globalization was pretty as a picture. She loved clothes for their own sake as much as for their symbolic value in propaganda. Like many a girly-girl, she had balls. After her death she was neutered. For over a hundred years, a series of mutations, adapted to reactionary politics and fascist myth, obscured the real woman and her self-made images almost entirely from view.

FULL TEXT reblogged from a contrablog, 2012

crownpriback

WHO IS LOUISE? WHAT IS SHE?

crownprinzessinnenfrontSchadow Prinzessinnengruppe (Crown Princess Louise and her younger sister Princess Frederica of Prussia) 1796 -7. Image: WGA

THE HUSBAND WHO LOVED UNIFORMS

BEING THE HEROINE’S SISTER

LOUISE OF PRUSSIA AND IMAGES OF FEMALE POWER

reblog: Carapace

FairyTales(BostonPublicLibrary)

Fairy Tales by Jessie Willcox Smith. Chromolithograph for book cover illustration (c 1861 – 97). Boston Public Library. Source: Wikipedia.

extract from a story by Noëlle Mackay (reblogged from Tumblr)

“She’s mad. And she hates me. I’m sure she wants to kill me.” Imogen, unusually agitated, trying too hard to keep her tone flippant, was standing in her kitchen, clutching a glass of wine far too early in the afternoon, knowing she was about to give away too much to her avid audience of one. “And she’s living in my house, looking after my children, sleeping with my husband.”

“Darling, you are so lucky and so beautiful – your life is a Victorian melodrama. Oliver is so sexy, we all want to sleep with him.”

Mark, for all the campery, had hit the nail on the head. Oliver was less of a person than an object, everyone’s object, the golden goose, there for the laying, if only you could get to the front of the queue. She had known that when she married him; she could hardly accuse him of betrayal.

Mark was so wise for such a young man, young enough to be her son, though she would never say it. He was exquisite, slender and fair, with an angelic face and solemn judge’s eyes.

Flirting with him was a courtly pleasure that relaxed her. The mind sex invented by women when they were chattels of men in tights was still liberating. She wondered if Oliver  thought atavistically of her as a chattel. It would explain a lot. “Marriage is no real excuse for not loving” she remembered, but couldn’t remember the last time she had felt loving towards her husband.

Annoyingly, Mark didn’t drink alcohol. She put down her glass of wine. “It would be better if I started smoking. All we need is something to keep fingers and mouth occupied. I’m sure that’s why my mother smoked so much. She did everything else in moderation. I wish I was like her. How is your mother?”

“She is well; she is beautiful like you; she knows how to organize her life, though it is harder now my father is home so much.”

“But they love each other, don’t they? They’ve made it work.”

“They got used to being apart. It was a pact: he earned the money abroad; my mother brought us up and worked when she could.”

“And I can’t manage without a frigging nanny.” Heroically, Imogen did not pour another glass.

She looked distractedly around the gleaming work surfaces and artfully distressed furniture of the room, where every utensil and flower was coordinated for a lovely whole.

Imogen had created this order herself. She was a priestess of shabby chic, manifested in her clothes, her expensive hair-cut and make-up that did not look like make-up. She wanted everything to look natural and spontaneous, which cost her great effort.

floor scrapers

Floor Scrapers by Gustave Caillebotte (1875) Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Source: Web Gallery of Art.

She continued: “Is that what you’re thinking? My poor, privileged children. I hate having a nanny. I don’t know how I let it happen. Any of it. Do you feel hard done by, have regrets, about your father’s absence I mean?”

“No. He made money to make us free. My sisters and I wouldn’t have got our flats without his help. We’d never have afforded tuition fees. They thought it through.”

“And are you free? Do you feel free? I don’t. Now I think I have to welcome refugees to my spare room – the one She’s got now. And I don’t really want them. Well,  I want nice ones, of course. But I can’t choose people as if they were rescue dogs or cats. I can’t face more clutter, more emotion. Isn’t that bad? To reject my White Woman’s Burden? To think that I could use refugees as an excuse to evict the nanny? Thank God I never tell the truth on Facebook.” Continue reading