At last, 11 days late, THE CAPTAIN’S WALLFLOWER has been released in the UK, but what do I care, I’m happy riding a hobbyhorse until I fall off….
French fashion plate from Journal des Dames et des Modes, 1797, showing a lady riding sidesaddle, wearing a red and black “spencer” jacket with matching bonnet. Image from the irresistible Dames a la Mode
The Victorians and Edwardians revised Regency style for a contemporary audience, fed up with stuffy Victoriania, and in doing so drained the real Regency of its blood and guts, replacing Romanticism with romanticism, sense and sensibility with archness.
Supremely self-aware, the Countess of Blessington shares a candid moment with her portraitist Thomas Lawrence (Oil on canvas, 1814. Image: WGA) While enjoying her sexual charms, he notes her vitality and intelligence (she was a novelist, journalist and literary hostess). There’s nothing arch or simpering about the woman or the artist.
Lawrence was a celebrity flirt: every portrait session with him, whether you were a man or a woman, was a Regency Romance in itself.
Fictional Regency heroes, like their historical models, incarnate the classical ideal of a healthy mind in a healthy body. They are likely to have been trained on the playing fields of Eton, or Harrow, and fought at Trafalgar or Waterloo.
Snobbery is inherent to Regency Romance, but it is pervading film and theatre nowadays, too, answering an atavistic patriarchal need whether we like it or not..
An actor of over 50 years’ experience remarked to me the other day, after we’d rolled our eyes at all those Old Etonians monopolizing the best acting parts: “They teach charm at Eton”. It recalls the “Company of Youth”, the notorious Charm School of the Rank Organization in the 1940s and 50s. It is the equivalent of mass produced “antiqued” or “chateau” furniture.
Class-consciousness separated Keats from public school-boys Byron and Shelley, causing a gulf that only Shelley tried to bridge.
It’s reassuring to know that both the poetic rebel Shelley and the military hero/reactionary Conservative politician Wellington hated being at Eton.
The myth of the perfect English hero was consolidated in late Victorian fiction, partly by the Hungarian-born Baroness Orczy in The Scarlet Pimpernel, and explains the success of public school type actors today.
Sir Percy Blakeney is an invented 18th century, not Regency figure, but his characteristics are the same: masculine strength under a metrosexual exterior.
Ambivalence is essential to the Regency hero’s sex appeal – and a sense of humour.
Sexual attraction combined with rom-com plot is essential to Regency Romance, but so is an arcane, or snobbish, element contained in the jargon, which you have to understand if you are to master the etiquette and be accepted into the ton along with the always charmingly unconventional heroine. Regency Romance palliates the reader’s own social anxieties. If you can succeed at that assembly room ball, you can succeed anywhere. Continue reading
The Painter’s Daughters Chasing a Butterfly, one of Gainsborough’s intimate studies of his daughters made in the late 1750s, which took 18th century sensibility forward into a Romantic awareness of individual development through the senses. Image © copyright The National Gallery London
He sees beyond the fragile innocence of two little girls, in the glancing light of a fashionably Rousseauian childhood idyll, to a more profound understanding. He is not just a portraitist exploiting vulnerability and shimmering fabric; he is their father who loves them and worries about them.
He would prefer to think his daughters are happy and well, hale and whole, but he dared to paint the anxiety showing in their faces as they ran, clutching each other’s hands, through the sinister half-darkness of a wood, which is both catalyst and externalization of their unconscious minds.
Happiness as represented by the decoratively winged insect is always out of their reach; they experience, as Keats described, “the feel of not to feel it”.
Love and madness disturb a summer’s day two hundred and fifty years after two little girls chased a butterfly.
I try to imagine again my first happy impression of this painting, first seen on visits to the National Gallery, when I was no older than the girls in the picture had been when their father painted them.
I took for granted they were living the ideal childhood of which I could only dream, long before I knew for a fact that both girls suffered from a genetic mental disorder, and grew up into deranged middle-aged women.
I didn’t see the sadness in their eyes, because I didn’t want to see it. The mysterious twilit wood looked enticing, not forboding.
When we look at their father’s painting, in ignorance of biographical details about the girls, shouldn’t our hearts still ache for them, with some knowledge intuitively divined, as Keats put it, “without irritable reaching after fact and reason”?
Or do we always impose our own preconceived ideas on everything we see, until some bossy person lectures us about it?
Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that the girls would have fared better in our time. Nowadays, Mary and Margaret might be taken away from Thomas Gainsborough, who loved them so, and his unstable wife, whom he also loved, to be put into mental hospital or a lifetime of unreliable drug dependency.
The painter’s wife, Margaret Gainsborough, by Thomas Gainsborough, c 1779, when she was about fifty years old.
Image © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London
Imagine being both the painter and the parent of those little girls, chasing their butterfly, never being able to catch it.
One person’s wistfulness is another’s indifference. Nothing we see feels the same to the person in the picture. We congratulate ourselves on feeling so deeply about art that we must be good people or, at least, better than we thought we were a moment ago
Good or not, we cannot help the girls in the picture.
We chase the butterfly.
Acedia as a psychological condition was once prevalent among monks, nuns and other people in solitary professions. The creeping spiritual sickness was known as the noonday demon. By the early 20th century, it had spread to the cocktail set.
Acedia can be camp. There’s a manifestation in the film White Mischief (1987) when the jaded socialite Alice de Janzé looks at the sublime beauty of the setting sun and feels nothing: “Oh God, not another f******* beautiful day”.
Orson Welles’ Garbo is so beautiful, so poised, we don’t believe she has real, painful feelings. She comes over as spoilt, vain, and apathetic, not tragically depressed. In her inability to act being herself, she is a grand failure, a camp joke.
Part eight of Nothing
Is this a photograph of an easel and canvasses arranged for a trendy shop window display? Or you might see it on the cover of one of those aspirational free lifestyle mags published by estate agents, showing off the latest interior design features to fill those awkward corners of a penthouse with river view.
We know it’s staged – no real painter’s easel ever looks like that – but it is a reproduction of a real three-dimensional, isn’t it?
It is the three-hundred and forty year old optical illusion proving that human life is transient and meaningless, but art is not:
Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts Cut-Out Trompe l’Oeil Easel with Fruit Piece oil on canvas 1670-1672.
Image: SMK – Statens Museum, Copenhagen..
Is this why all of us, even if we can’t draw or paint or write much more than a list of tags, are so desperate to leave our mark? Because we can’t bear being meaningless? Even if we can’t find a market for it? Even if we’re vanity publishing?
Posting on our online pin boards is another opiate for existential angst, supplying illusions ad infinitum. We think it keeps us sane, even while we drive everyone else mad. All is vanity.
Our response to the portrait of Lord Rochester holding a laurel crown over a monkey is dictated by the subject matter, because the charisma of the wild glamour boy poet, and the daring symbolism, which was the patron’s idea, not the artist’s, are more striking than Huysman’s execution, gorgeous though the baroque reds and ochres are.
Most Vanitas painting, of everyday objects, just stuff lying around, succeeded in glorifying itself as much as the customer’s lifestyle choices.
It was bravura advertizing of the painter’s technique and ingenuity, especially in conveying perspective, and of the power of art, in which the painting triumphed over the concept, the artist over the patron, however rich or royal; as an exercise in humility it defeated its own object. It is utterly vain. It’s not even transient.
The strict moral message is usually, thank God, almost completely submerged in wonderfully extravagant decorative effects, like theatre design.
The seventeenth century was as fluent in theatrical metaphor as we are in digital media and the manipulated image. Vanitas, which at first glance is the least dramatic of historic painting, with none of the stories to tell of landscape and portraits, is all about theatrical illusion.
Gijsbrechts created his delectable fruit-piece for the Danish king’s cabinet of curiosities. It was plainly described in the inventory from 1674 as: “A stand with painter’s paraphernalia painted on perspective.” (SMK website, which is superb.)
Even without tricks of perspective, the most mundane looking Baroque still life is set-dressing of a drama or satirical comedy, an illustration to a Shakespearean soliloquy about the futility of life, in which the cloud capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces, all our invented consolations dissolve; or it simply looks good enough to eat.
Photo: Martin Hübscher Photography © 2014
And there is more vanity to come, in yet another post….
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…
Part six of Nothing
Prince Rupert’s monkey was not supernatural, as the enemy claimed, but when it wasn’t being amusing, it must have been offensively annoying to its own side. There is no record (as far as I know) of what happened to the monkey, whether it survived the first civil war to go on Rupert’s further adventures as a soldier in Europe and pirate of the Caribbean, or if it died of natural causes in England.
Rupert didn’t become a pirate for fun – Royalist fortunes were at their lowest point in the early 1650s when England was doing very well as a republic for the only time in history – so far – and his exiled cousin, Charles II, was desperately short of money.
Rupert lost something far more precious than the booty he gained on the expedition: Moritz, his closest brother and best friend, his second-in-command and comrade-in-arms was drowned. “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.”
Gijsbrechts, Trompe l’Oeil with Trumpet, Celestial Globe and Proclamation by Frederik III of Denmark, 1670, oil on canvas. Collection and image: SMK – Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen
The symbols of temporal political power and global commerce are piled up like forgotten booty, or modern window display of a luxury boutique for people who have everything, in front of Gijbrechts’ usual background of plain wood.
Rupert’s personality and exploits swept him away from historic battlefields into Stuart myth, biography, novels, and most dubiously of all, blogs, which, while romanticising him, have detracted from his tangible achievements.
There are two Ruperts, a figment of other people’s imagination, an object of desire or envy, and a real man who, when he settled in his adopted country of England after the Restoration, contributed in a very realistic, practical way to British artistic and scientific progress and overseas commercial exploration.
He is the sardonic action hero with brains and, when he was young, beauty, the darkly brooding antithesis to Rochester’s merry lord of misrule. Continue reading