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.

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 protruding 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 ecstasy. She is almost drifting into a trance. Her longing for him is mixed with reproach. She is worried about consequences.

She is Psyche in love with Eros, who has flown in through her open window at night. 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 for the first time in their lives to make a cushioned bed for its sleep.

 

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. The girl smiles sweetly, and lowers her eyes modestly. She is 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.

Foreshades of Grey (4)

Reinette/Putain/Marquise

pompadour3

Portrait by Boucher painted 1756, oil on canvas, Alte Pinakothek, Munich. Image source: WGA

She is the quintessence of 18th century Taste and Elegance. Her pose is often the same in her portraits, presenting her left three-quarters profile, faintly smiling, vitality sparkling, but not too much; her legs crossed casually, showing off petite feet slipped into chic mules, peeping out like shells under an ocean of embroidered silk; she pauses from reading a book – she is nearly always reading a book.

The same roses are cast down at her feet, next to one of her attentive spaniels, and tokens of her cultural pursuits are strewn around her – paint brushes, music sheets, writing materials, yet more books – her dress alone is a work of art – and yet there is always a subtle difference in each version of her, containing a subliminal message in the most seductive of advertizing campaigns.

Here she is enthroned in an opulent interior. She is relaxed about ownership of such splendour; she doesn’t mind you seeing – she wants you to see – the open drawer of her cabriole legged side-table. If she wasn’t so good at playing herself, you would almost suspect she was an actress in a divine drawing-room comedy.

She is more nonchalant than a nouveau riche wanting to show off would be, but, and here she proves her diplomatic brilliance, she is humbler than a queen, she is looking away from us, not seeking dominion over us. She is not completely abstracted, she is a sociable creature who would invite us in and be interested to talk to us, and say something witty to put us at ease.

This is the perfect hostess, the perfect leader of fashion and culture, not the most beautiful woman you have ever seen, it’s true, but the one who cultivates the most beauty around her. This is Madame de Pompadour.

She is the king’s mistress, and he needs her, more than anyone else, but they have not had sex with one another for years. She doesn’t mind you knowing that. It’s not the only way a woman can have power and show love.

The only thing she doesn’t want you to know is that the decorative and devoted dog is, as Nancy Mitford pointed out in her biography of Madame de Pompadour, her emotional substitute for her dead daughter.