Summer fires

All in the golden afternoon
….
In such an hour,
Beneath such dreamy weather,
To beg a tale…
“There will be nonsense in it!”‘
Lewis Carroll, preface to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865

gainsboroughwoodedlandscapeThomas Gainsborough Landscape with a Woodcutter and Milkmaid 1755
Oil on canvas

“Nostalgia is denial. Denial of the painful present.
The name for this denial is Golden Age thinking – the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one one’s living in – it’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.”
Midnight in Paris, 2011, film written and directed by Woody Allen

“Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not enquire wisely concerning this.”
Ecclesiastes, Chapter 7, Verse 10, King James Bible, 1611

constablebrightonJohn Constable (1776-1837) Coast Scene at Brighton: Evening, oil painting, ca. 1828
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

      “….colours from the sunset take:
From something of material sublime
Rather than shadow our own soul’s day-time
In the dark void of night.”
(Keats, Epistle to John Hamilton Reynolds)

“Set yourself on fire with passion and people will come for miles to watch you burn”
attributed to John Wesley (1703-1791)

marsdenmoorfire1

“The people who started the moorlands fires are responsible for a catastrophe that has endangered an enormous number of people. People are having to evacuate their homes, livestock has been lost and natural beauty spots have been ravaged. Resources have been sent from fire and rescue services all across the country.” Fire Brigades Union general secretary Matt Wrack speaking of the wildfires on Saddleworth Moor, Lancashire, England, which spread for 2 weeks during the heatwave of late June and July, 2018

“They never reached a golden age, or found El Dorado. ‘The journey, not the destination matters’, Rachael incanted, out of habit,
while they could see there was nothing left that glittered through the smoke ahead,
and the smell of burnt dirt did not stop rising from the ashes.
Philippa was in too sour a mood to stomach either irony or elegy and she snapped back:
‘Catch on fire and people will come for miles to see you burn’.”
Noëlle Mackay Human Rites 

gainsboroughevening3Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) Wooded Landscape with Herdsman and Cattle

‘And now the tale is done,
And home we steer, a merry crew,
Beneath the setting sun.’
Lewis Carroll (1832-1898), preface to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865

Advertisements

Rose tiara

Rose Tiara, Me Too Era © PJR

This ghostly exuberance, this rose-pink nostalgia, pink, the colour of ironic femininity and about-to-be-lost illusions, knowing and sweet; this decaying crown of experience in the benighted, bee-endangered, Brexit semi-coma is the last shout of beauty on the edge of dying.

On the edge of good taste, too, some would say. Such overt flirtation and florid excess, such abandonment to the moment, such tender voluptuousness, too fragile to touch; their éclat is not for all seasons.

Performance at this level is exhausting. Tomorrow, or the day after, their lovely faces will shrivel, shrink from their reflections, and shed fragrant tears, little pink silk sheets littering the floor, until they are bald.  I owe them the courtesy of hiding them before anyone else sees them like that.

On my last English mantelpiece, the flush of full-blown roses looks dimmed, as if an interfering prig has veiled a group of over-dressed, over-scented, over-the-top fifty-something women at a party long ago, their magnificent defiance muted into memory – 

nah, old pink roses will be back screaming and shouting at you from somewhere next year.

PINK (5): Don’t change colour to be equal

“In the West, to be the equal of men, women imitate them in their worst aspects, which is the best way of remaining inferior to them. That happens even in literature.” (Lydie Dattas)

pink hibiscusPink Hibiscus flower photographed by PJR

blue hibiscusBlue Hibiscus flower photographed by MHP

A woman is “immoral” when she “tries to save her soul by asserting an ideal perfectly foreign to her nature.”  (Lydie Dattas)

THIS POST IS DEDICATED TO LELIUS, WHO INTRODUCED ME TO THE GREAT CONTEMPORARY FRENCH POETESS, LYDIE DATTAS. ONE OF HER POEMS FROM Le Livre des Anges II MAY BE READ IN THE ORIGINAL FRENCH ON LELIUS’ PROFOUNDLY BEAUTIFUL SITE, PERLES D’ORPHEÉ.

Facing the world (2) through Beguiling Hollywood

“I want to be alone; I just want to be alone.”
Line delivered by Greta Garbo in Grand Hotel, 1932

garbo-clarence-s-bull-1929-the-kissPortrait of Greta Garbo in The Kiss, 1929 by the great Hollywood stills photographer Clarence Sinclair Bull.
Image: Beguiling Hollywood © Vickie Lester 2014

Orson Welles spins a tale about two incomparable beauties; Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo…truth or fiction? retold in the wittiest, most sophisticated blog in the west – Vickie Lester’s Beguiling Hollywood.

Garbo was sitting on a raised platform in the middle of the living room, so that everybody had to stand and look up at her. I introduced them. I said, “Greta, it’s unbelievable that you two have never met—Greta, Marlene. Marlene, Greta.” Marlene started to gush, which was not like her at all. Looking up at Garbo, she said, “You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, it’s such a pleasure to meet you, I’m humble in your presence,” and on and on. Garbo said, “Thank you very much. Next?” And turned away to somebody else. Marlene was crushed.

Read the full, illustrated story on Vickie Lester’s Beguiling Hollywood.

Orson Welles’ mischievous anecdote about a goddess so world-weary she is bored with being worshipped contains an allegory of acedia, the state of mind that drives people to retreat from responsibility to lonely indifference to their existence.

The shadows of facts and guesses about Welles, Marlene and Garbo loom over the tale, along with the suspicion that more than one of them was sending up the others.

Welles and Garbo both suffered from depression which has been diagnosed since as bipolar disorder; Marlene and Garbo are rumoured to have been lovers, many years before the party at which, according to Welles, he introduced them for the first time.

The affair might be a writer’s sexual fantasy turned into lucrative gossip, but it could also be an imagined consummation of an attraction between two powerful, androgynous rivals, an historical fiction with pyschological truth.

None of them corrected the received impressions of their private lives, or revealed their most desperate feelings, when they faced the world. The self needs protecting from exposure to other people if it is to stay true. You don’t know what they will do to it.

Orson Welles deflects all the latent sexual feelings, self-aggrandisement and fears of worthlessness into an amusing piece of apocrypha.

As Vickie Lester succinctly puts it, “truth or fiction?”, meaning, it doesn’t matter, art in the form of a funny story has been born.

Both are true; one reveals the outward parade of facts, the other what was going on inside people’s heads, their thoughts and passions, and secrets.

Myth and history interweave, informing each other, and it’s up to us to treat them as allies, not irreconciliable forces. We can’t understand one if we ignore the other.

It is a universal truth that could not have been illustrated without Vickie Lester, who has published her own beguiling Hollywood murder-mystery, It’s In His Kiss.

Fairy tale ending

NPG D34186; Maria (Gunning), Countess of Coventry by John Finlayson, after  Katharine ReadNPG D7116; Elizabeth (Gunning), Duchess of Argyll by John Finlayson, after  Katharine Read

The Gunning sisters: Maria, Countess of Coventry (1733-1760) and Elizabeth, Duchess of Argyll (1734-1790),
Mezzotints by John Finlayson (Maria, on the left, or top, depending on your device) published in 1771, Elizabeth, on the right, published in 1770) after paintings by Katherine Read.
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Perhaps it’s projection, or Read, an experienced society portraitist, really did put a hint of slyness in Maria’s expression, and caught Elizabeth’s bland composure and self-determination.

Being defined by being beautiful and nothing else has always come at a price: Maria died aged only 27 of blood-poisoning caused by the excessive use of lead in her make-up. Ten thousand people went to look at her coffin.

We – the observers, then and now – are so afraid of our own mortality, so needy for affirmation of own moral superiority, we like to believe that if she had not been so vain, she could have controlled her fate.

It depends on your definition of vanity, of course. If she had been a plain woman, or an old woman, spending time at the dressing-table before going out to work, or the shops, or being forced to stay in for BT or the gasman, taking the trouble to put on a bit of powder of lipstick, we would call her “well-groomed”, and be cheered up by her sense of social responsibility.

If she was a blogger, anxiously counting her “Likes”, screaming at the screen because she didn’t have enough Followers, would we call her vain?

Everything is vanity, traditionally: every thing that makes life bearable. Beauty, comfortable housing, not just the cushions and the free-standing bath (god, I’d love that, if I had the space and the plumbing wasn’t so crap) but the external structure of your home – why can’t you live in a nicely frescoed cave? – and the fixtures and fittings inside – the fireplaces, the built-in cupboards, the curtains, even your books, your pictures, your hobbies, your phones, your tablets – not to mention your bank accounts, which the government are probably looking at already – so why can’t we give that girl the right to own her face?

raritiesarevanities

Jan van der Heyden Still-Life with Rarities, 1712, Oil on canvas, Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest.
Image: WGA
“Rarities are vanities” – the pointlessness of civilization and individuality (but oh! what a nice fireplace for the cool light of a modern home, with an optional armadillo swinging by).

We don’t think, if we hadn’t been so addicted to looking at her, thousands of us looking at her, criticizing her, aggrandizing or belittling her, she wouldn’t have been so obsessed with how she looked in our eyes. She wants our approval, we want her to have our approval, we want to own her, a fiction of our making, and we, like drug dealers, push her, this lovely, stupid, vulnerable girl, into the habit.

Every time you notice she’s got a zit, are you relieved to see she’s as prone to imperfections as you? Then it’s you who are vain.

Oh, look – beauty and tragedy, in one stroke. Eat this lovely red apple, Snow White. We’ll give you a happy ending if we feel like being cheered up, but sometimes tears are even better; they make us feel we are good people.

toilettepapillons

La Toilette engraving by Saint Aubin, 1748, Bibliothčque Nationale, Paris. Image: WGA
As well as pretty shells and gurgling putti, flower garlands and little baa lambs, Rococo imagination played with sinister, grotesque and entomological figures long before pseudo-medieval horror entered mainstream culture, and these giant butterflies, descended from fantastical stage-set monsters of a hundred years earlier, so closely resembling science-fiction aliens of today, might be visible fluttering around our own dressing-tables in the blinking of an eye…

The younger sister, Elizabeth, had more sense and a stronger instinct for self-preservation. She never lost the proverbial “luck of the Gunnings”, and she had a natural dignity of her own. She was a successful serial gold-digger, marrying two dukes and being engaged to a third in between, finally being granted a noble title in her own right by a besotted George III.

Hers was the sort of life, like Lorelei Lee’s, in which “Fate keeps on happening”.

There was something of a life-force about Elizabeth, which was her greatest beauty.

Sir_Joshua_Reynolds_-_Elizabeth_Gunning,_Duchess_of_Hamilton_and_Argyll

Portrait of the Duchess of Hamilton and Argyll by Joshua Reynolds, oil on canvas c 1760-61.
Image: Wikipedia.
Elizabeth, the younger sister by a year, wearing the ermine edged crimson coronation robes of a duchess, as you do, while you lean nonchalently on a plinth in a park.
The robes are only worn on the ceremonial occasion of the sovereign’s coronation, in this case, George III’s.

At the time Reynolds painted her portrait, Elizabeth had been recently widowed and was a dowager duchess at the age of twenty-four; she quickly married another duke in time for the new king’s accession, proving the luck of the Gunnings, that gentlemen marry brunettes, that Fate keeps happening, and that it’s hard to tell the difference between history and fantasy.

Page_138_illustration_from_Fairy_tales_of_Charles_Perrault_(Clarke,_1922)Illustration by Harry Clarke to The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, published in 1922 by Harrap. Image: Wikipedia

But gentlemen marry brunettes

Once upon a time, long, long ago, longer than the first BB creams, or plastic surgery, longer ago than the film of How To Marry a Millionaire, longer even than the age of Flappers and their shingle bobs, when Anita Loos wrote Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and its sequel, But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, longer than when unstoppable American heiresses married into the British and European aristocracy, longer ago than universal suffrage and universal education, at a time when the only universally accepted truth for a woman’s fate was in the marriage market, there lived two beautiful, but very poor, dark-haired sisters known as the Gunning Beauties.

They became A-list celebrities of their day, Cinderellas who escaped from genteel poverty in Ireland – so poor that they had to try earning a living on the stage – to social ascendancy in England through marriage to aristocrats – fine, if you like that sort of thing, and even if you don’t, imagine a world in which a woman’s career options were so narrow that only a wedding in a silver dress could save her from destitution or prostitution.

Like Cinderella, they didn’t have dresses for their first ball in Dublin, until a fairy-godmother, in their case the local theatre manager, supplied them with two costumes from his wardrobe department.

Unlike Cinderella, they had a living mother who had a dream for her daughters, “a wonderful dream”, to get her daughters married to princes. She had the advantage of being born on the right side of the tracks, as the daughter of an Irish peer, and had an insider’s knowledge of how to market the girls for presentation at Court. Her daughters’ beauty would get them the wealth and social position that she had been denied by an unlucky marriage.

She steered them over the water to mainland Britain where they would, in the words Sondheim wrote for another ambitious mother, “stand the world on its ear / Set it spinning..” and “have nothing to hit but the heights”….

Elizabeth Gunning Hamilton

“…the cool type of temperament who thinks two is a crowd” (Anita Loos, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) Portrait of Elizabeth Gunning, by Gavin Hamilton, commissioned by her first ducal husband, the Duke of Hamilton, 1752/53. Image: Wikipedia Continue reading

Foreshades of Grey (12)

or, The Power of Pink: She’s a Girl, get over it

 

Portrait of Marquise de Pompadour by Boucher, 1759. Oil on canvas © The Wallace Collection, London

So here, at last, it couldn’t be resisted, the most familiar and most delectable of all the images of Madame de Pompadour that enchanted my childhood is posted here for DvP, like everything else that matters in life.

It is not just the story of a dress, though what a dress, which can transform a woman into a rose, it is the story of the balance of feminine power between personal ambition and love for another person. She sacrificed peace of mind for ambition, and then fell in love, first with a king, then a man, then a country, and finally a civilization which she made universal.

Notorious as the quintessential courtesan, sneered at by the court for being bourgeois, called “putain” by the king’s sour doughball of a son, reviled by the public, viewed ambivalently today as a well-dressed figurehead of a rotting totalitarian system, there was nothing vulgar, tarty or heartless about her. The illegitimate daughter of a financier showed the world how a cultural leader and benevolent queen should behave.

She was not a parasite; she graced the ancien regime, she gave it lustre and refinement, and it is to Louis XV’s credit that he recognized her contribution to French culture, beyond her private services to him. She transcended the official position of royal mistress through her own accomplishments and charm, of which sex was the smallest part.

If you examine her portrait closely, with the same forensic intensity we study photo-shopped celebrities for flaws today, you might be thinking, by this time, 1758, she was in her late thirties, her looks deteriorated prematurely by anxiety, poor health and rich food, she wanted to hide her ageing neck and chin with that chic ruffle round her neck, then, yes, you are right, of course she did, and let her alone, for heavens’ sake; she lived to please; one person’s vanity is beauty’s gift of happiness to everyone with eyes to see, and shame to you who evil thinks.

She lived beautifully, and showed the rest of us how to do it, too. She united femininity with power, without concessions to coarseness or snobbery. She was a talented actress who knew how to put on a good show with complete sincerity. That is not a contradiction; good acting is about unpeeling layers to the truth underneath, however you are feeling. No-one has ever achieved and exercised power in quite the way she did, in such elegant style, on such a grand scale, and being nice to everyone along the way.

She is leaning on Pigalle’s statue of ‘L’Amour embrassant l’Amitié’, Love embracing Friendship, which she had commissioned in 1754 to aggrandize her new relationship with the king. They agreed they would not sleep with each other more, but that she would keep her job, because Versailles and French civilization were better with her, and he needed her, he couldn’t rule or live without her, and promiscuous lover though he was, he would be the most faithful of friends.

A lot of us can’t live without her, either. She’s one of the most enduring and likeable of icons, a woman for all seasons. We love her for the beautiful display, and the vulnerability. Continue reading