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
Part two of Nothing
When Lord Rochester, the Restoration satirist, poet, libertine, courtier, and acting coach, wanted to make a visual satire on human vanity and transience, he avoided the 17th century’s skull cliché by being portrayed with a monkey offering him a page torn from a book, the descendant of the million virtual monkeys typing out Shakespeare’s plays.
Jacob Huysmans, John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (1647 – 1680), oil on canvas. Private collection. Image: WGA Rochester, the most glamorous, and lighthearted, of obscene immoralists, collaborated with the Roman Catholic Flemish painter Jacob Huysmans to produce an iconic image mocking the ignorance and pretentiousness of mankind.
He isn’t patronising the monkey; he rated animal instinct higher than human nature, including his own, and his specific targets were the ruling class of which he was a member by birth, and everyone who presumed to exert power over other people, by force or by creed.
Like the other great privileged literary rebel, Byron, he inherited titles, property and a Cavalier heritage without any money, the lifeblood of power in society.
Rochester’s father was a hard-drinking, Anglo-Irish Cavalier officer, of the clubbable “Laughing” kind, committed to upholding monarchy, “his mother a strict Puritan; out of their union, the great disbeliever was born.
Rochester’s portrait also happens to be one of the most seductive images of male beauty, enhanced by androgynous Restoration fashion, which has glamourized the popular perception of libertines and nihilism ever since. We’d all be enrolling in metaphysics classes if the lecherous lecturer looked like that.
We might even dare go into the darkness some of us fear, to read erotic fiction and obscene verse, because Rochester makes sex feel like love.
Like the actor who played the rake-hell Willmore, based on Rochester, in a revival of Aphra Behn’s The Rover in the 1690s, “he made vice so alluring” to even the virtuous Queen Mary II.
Even the most sincere of critics of human nature cannot shake off his own self-consciousness. By showing himself in a portrait as a freethinker crowning, or more likely decrowning, a monkey, he was declaring how much more hip he was than everyone else at court and in the country.
He was right, of course – he’s a sex symbol who still makes hearts throb faster today, a prototype Romantic, by turns lyrical or obscene, depending on his hangover; one of the great tortured, self-destructive, witty, bisexual, substance-abusing, rocking and rolling anti-heroes who lived in the moment because time before and after is a fantasy, a trick of the mind’s eye, a waste of living.
Monkeys were popular pets among 17th century cosmopolitan aristocrats with brains and attitude – Charles I’s nephew, Prince Rupert, had kept one during the Civil War a generation earlier, “a malignant she-monkey” which the Roundheads made crude allegations about.
When their propagandists alleged she was a witch in disguise with whom the German prince was having sex, they were serving the public an inflammatory potion of minor royalty, xenophobia, superstition, and prurience –
That monkey won’t stop jumping about – it’s run away with the theme of this post – I can’t catch it – where has it gone?
The journey into Nothing will be continued….
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?
Jan van der Heyden Still-Life with Rarities, 1712, Oil on canvas, Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest.
“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.
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.
Portrait of the Duchess of Hamilton and Argyll by Joshua Reynolds, oil on canvas c 1760-61.
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.
Illustration by Harry Clarke to The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, published in 1922 by Harrap. Image: Wikipedia
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”….
“…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