After the Restoration of the Stuart Monarchy, the fashionable ruling class no longer wanted to be portrayed in an elevated spiritual sphere where they knew they didn’t belong. The reward they claimed for going to hell and back was instant gratification, not introspection. Some of them were still secretly very religious, but knowing how short and brutal life could be, waited till their deathbeds for their conversions.
They had lived through Civil War and exile, and they didn’t want to look other-worldly like the previous generation. Nothing was sacred, except survival. A new generation of court painter was happy to oblige with contemporary takes on traditional allegory in a flashier, worldly-wise presentation. The studied nonchalance of Van Dyck’s figures, inspired by Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier, crumpled into the straight out of bed look.
On the great consensual casting couch of the Restoration Court, Charles II‘s mistresses competed to make him laugh as much as get into his bed, and one of Lady Castlemaine’s jokes was to have herself painted as the Virgin Mary with her eldest bastard son by the king playing baby Jesus.
Barbara Palmer (née Villiers), Duchess of Cleveland with her son, Charles FitzRoy, as the Virgin and Child
by Sir Peter Lely, c. 1664. National Portrait Gallery. Image: Wikipedia
Like a modern supermodel, but without make-up, she set the look of the day. Lely used her sensuous features, the heavy-lidded eyes and full lips, as the template for all his portraits of high society beauties, so there were complaints (from Pepys, for instance, and Rochester when he saw the portrait of his wife) that nobody else looked anything like themselves.
She was a sex-addict with a terrible temper and a gambling addiction. Today, she’d be diagnosed with a personality disorder. If she was a man, we’d be terrified of her, and prosecute her for harassment. Instead, we find her entertaining, titillating, challenging, ultimately pathetic.
Barbara is famous for being the most promiscuous, and unfaithful, of Charles II‘s mistresses, portrayed as the nymphomaniac Fuckadilla in a contemporary pornographic satire. Her list of lovers, including Jacob Hall the tight-rope dancer, John Churchill, later Duke of Marlborough, England’s most victorious general, and the playwright William Wycherley, shows she picked talent. She also paid them generously.
She was a life-force, and could be great fun. She enjoyed the thrill of power, or its illusion, and exerting political influence whenever she could, but for purely selfish reasons, to settle personal scores. She acted from the heart, not the head. She was unsentimental, and sometimes compassionate, an important distinction that we have lost sight of.
She was shocking to the country outside the King’s circle, the incarnation of the immorality and waste at Court, a curse on the country, a scapegoat for all the frustration and disappointment with the restored monarchy.
She was politically useful, that way.
She was not popular, like the People’s Choice among the King’s Ladies, Nell Gwyn; she was the Bad Girl, the Dirty Girl, the Bunny Boiler, the Alien Succubus, the space vampire played by Mathilda May in Lifeforce; she was X-rated, HBO, not terrestrial TV.
She was culturally essential, that way.
Barbara Palmer (née Villiers) as The Penitent Magdalene by Sir Peter Lely.
There was one gender injustice she could not defy, the plight of the older but still sexual woman. Barbara was forty-five when her protector, the King, died, and everything started going wrong. She got desperate and stopped discriminating. The once gorgeous predator became the prey of bad actors and con-men. She made a disastrous second marriage when she was sixty-five to a bigamist who was after her money.
The last years of her life read like the moralists’ revenge. It is documented in the DNB that in her final illness a dropsy “swelled her gradually to a monstrous bulk”, exactly the kind of private detail about our own or our beloveds’ deaths that we would want kept quiet.
There is a very sad ghost story about Barbara, Duchess of Cleveland as an old woman lamenting her lost beauty as she walks in her high heeled shoes tapping on the wood floor to stare out of the windows of her house on Chiswick Mall.
Good plastic surgery might have prevented that.
The woman while she lived was not penitent. She seized her moment, enjoying the sexual, and bi-sexual, liberation of the Restoration Court as much as any man. Her appetites, or addictions, and her temperament were entirely suited to her time.
The female libertine did not see herself as objectified or victimized, and we should not judge her differently.
If you were young, how would you be feeling about your future, decided by your elders in a badly informed opinion poll last year?
Augustus 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.
Part seven of Nothing
Modern animal experts do not recommend anyone, even warrior princes or prankster poets, keeping monkeys or any other wild animals as pets and the RSPCA wants a ban. They are messy, destructive, predatory – they’ll bite a human and eat any smaller pet mammals or birds left unprotected – and they never stop chattering – rather as Lord Rochester’s seems to be doing in the picture that started this diversion on the journey into Nothing:
Lord Rochester with monkey by Huysmans
Rochester was thirty-three when he died in 1680, burnt out by sex and alcohol, pranks and humanity. His wife, Elizabeth Malet, whom he had tried to abduct when she was the richest and most eligible heiress in the north of England, and to whom he was conspicuously unfaithful, died a year later, leaving their four young children in the care of their grandmother. All is vanity.
Matthias Withoos, Landscape with a graveyard by night, oil on canvas, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Reims. Image: WGA
“And all our yesterdays have lighted fools / The way to dusty death.” (Shakespeare, Macbeth) Withoos was active in the second half of the 17th century, and in this atmospheric painting prefigures Romantic Gothicism and our own obsession with twilight.
And yet – the most poetic of brutal realists and his wife had written a book of poetry together. Their minds met on equal terms. She had a wit of her own, and answered him back. Anyone who has spied on their marriage by reading their private letters has the impression that they understood and esteemed one another.
In a long tradition of creative men who have acted on their desires and looked deeply into their souls, Rochester led a double life. He was Ernest in town, where “a sweet soft Page of [his could] do the Trick worth Forty wenches”, and Jack in the country, where he loved his wife.
As for the monkey, Rochester’s symbol of human vanity was recently reincarnated as Mally, Justin Bieber’s capuchin accessory, infamously abandoned in Germany after quarantine.
The journey into Nothing is not over…
Catharine Macaulay, born Catharine Sawbridge: social, political and economic radical, educationalist and republican historian,
in a portrait by Robert Edge Pine, oil on canvas, circa 1775 © National Portrait Gallery, London.
Macaulay (2 April 1731 – 22 June 1791) argued that if distribution of wealth is not evenly balanced, society will break apart, and anarchy followed by tyranny will ensue.
“every citizen who possesses ever so small a share of property, is equally as tenacious of it as the most opulent member of society; and this leads him to respect and to support all the laws by which property is protected.”
“….it is only the democratical system, rightly balanced, which can secure the virtue, liberty and happiness of society”.
She was a democratic republican who supported the American and French Revolutions.
She saw that power given to a privileges few corrupts them, and that they too readily lose accountability. The people, if their trust has been betrayed, have reasonable grounds to oppose autocratic government:
“the people may possibly object, that in delivering themselves passively over to the unrestrained rule of others ….they deliver themselves over to men, who, as men, and partaking of the same nature as themselves, are as liable to be governed by the same principles and errors; and to men who, by the great superiority of their station, having no common interest with themselves which might lead them to preserve a salutary check over their vices, must be inclined to abuse in the grossest manner their trust.”
She called for better education for women, like her younger contemporary Mary Wollstonecraft, so their sex could at last take their place in society as equal citizens to men.
She was a member of the Bluestockings circle of leading women intellectuals and artists; she was a correspondent, and inspiration, of the American political writer Mercy Otis Warren, who praised her “Commanding Genius and Brilliance of thought”. Together they shared ideas for improving society and denounced the tyranny of the British government as the violent behaviour of an “unnatural parent”.
Portraits in the Characters of the Muses in the Temple of Apollo by Richard Samuel, oil on canvas, exhibited 1779. © National Portrait Gallery, London.
Another 18th century Leibovitz-style celebrity group portrait of nine extraordinary women, linked by their intellectual and artistic interests to form the Bluestockings.
They are still familiar names today for their achievements, including the novelist Charlotte Lennox, the painter Angelica Kauffmann and the anti-slavery campaigner Hannah More. Macaulay is seated on the plinth, holding her historian’s scroll.
Their self-conscious poses are a lot less awkward than the ones in last year’s M&S iffy ‘Leading Ladies’ advertizing campaign, and Marks might get some inspiration for womenswear from the neoclassical look.
National Portrait Gallery ‘Brilliant Women’(2008 exhibition)
a stimulating introduction to the Bluestockings