Gilded Dramas

Functional objects, vessels for light and fragrance, tables, clocks and other household accessories for the rich and powerful, gilt bronze status symbols that are also neoclassical sculptures of the finest art, piercing the soft darkness with their golden fluidity, making your jaded heart sing – I never understood ormolu before I saw The Wallace Collection’s current exhibition Gilded Interiors: French Masterpieces of Gilt bronze.

Video Gilded Interiors © The Wallace Collection 2017

And, in The Wallace Collection’s tradition for 117 years, entry to temporary exhibitions as well as to the permanent galleries is and always will be free. Liberty, Egality, Fraternity still exist in an Anglo-French union in Manchester Square,  London W1.

It is a small exhibition, the pieces liberated by the curator from glass cases and cluttered rooms, out of the crude glare of museum electric lighting into simulated candlelight. The atmosphere is seductive. It is a tiny piece of gilded theatre. Continue reading

The gap in time

“Truth is rightly named the daughter of time, not of authority.” Francis Bacon

 “The eternal silence of these spaces frightens me.” (“Le silence eternel des ces espaces infinis m’effraie.”) Pascal

timeovercomeby truth

Pietro Liberi (Venetian School) Time Being Overcome by Truth c. 1665 Private Collection. Image: WGA.
An exasperated woman puts the boot in.

How many damned anniversaries does each of us have to have?

Are we not reborn with each new experience, so much more important to us than a bloody, noisy, messy, weepy event that cost our mothers pain?

And that’s just the weddings.

And do not the most significant things happen in the unmarked gaps in time? The greatest passions are felt beneath the lines.

Our deepest thoughts are in silent crevices. We climb in and out of them before facing the world again.

I looked, I laughed, I loved, I hated, I remembered so I repeat. The reasons, the true histories, are unrecorded on the face of time – until someone writes a novel or a poem.

There’s an ugly word in the usually beautiful English language for those pregnant pauses and frightening spaces: interstices.

I once had to say it, trembling on the edge of its four syllables of plosive and sibilant gory, in a reading from a Thomas Hardy novel at a wedding, the ears of bride, groom and a hundred guests pricking at me.

They no longer speak to me.

Interstices. A nasty physical condition? Or a neglected classical Greek hero? “Achilles aimed his spear at his mysterious adversary, and raised his shield, but he was not prepared for the quicksilver cunning of Interstices.”

Continue reading

Epistolary (Half) Eschewed

Portrait of a young woman gilbert stuart

Portrait of a Young Woman, writing a letter, by Gilbert Stuart, c. 1802 -1804. Image courtesy of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. I am sorry to have interrupted her; she is rather lovely, rather to be loved and written about than briefly employed as a cover girl.

All roads in this land lead to Pemberley. Jane Austen, the prosaic revolutionary, waits quietly, with gloves and bonnet on, at the crossroads of 18th century and modern novels. The bonnet conceals the expression in her eyes, which isn’t quiet at all.

Audio: Till this moment, I never knew myself

Pride and Prejudice, which seems so fresh and spontaneous on every reading, took eighteen years to evolve, from the first draft written in 1796-97 to publication in 1813. It had a gestation period almost as long as the heroine’s life at the stage when we first meet Elizabeth Bennet, aged 20. And which of us remembers anything before we are two, anyway?

Poor Clarissa Harlowe was only eighteen when her ordeals, recorded in epistolary form by Samuel Richardson, started.

Clarissa is an articulate, morally courageous young woman, not immature at all, whose fortitude and capacity to forgive her abuser overcomes adversity far more severe than any suffered by an Austen heroine – and yet she has martyr written all over her, which Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse and Elinor Dashwood, even Marianne Dashwood, Fanny Price and Anne Eliot, do not.

Their creator gave them autonomy. They step off the page. They walk into our minds, and they get transplanted into other times and places. They dress and speak differently in all these reincarnations, their education and professions and leisure pursuits vary, but they are still recognizable, except, perhaps, when attacked by zombies.

They are not social rebels; they don’t demand equal rights. They would have been deterred by the violent excesses of the French Revolution which had just rocked Europe. The only revolutionary changes that take place are in their own heads.

They are not submissive and they refuse to be victims. They are paragons of self-improvement, never blaming other people or fate for their shortcomings.

They are intelligent young women, articulating a life of the mind richer and more independent than offered by ribbons, posies and billets-doux.

fragonardletter

 The Love Letter by Fragonard, 1770s. Image: WGA.
Arch, erotic and epistolary – the Rococo melted away with the advance of more demanding, independent-minded literary heroines.

Jane Austen began writing novels on the conventional epistolary model, and quickly abandoned it after Lady Susan (c. 1794), and the first draft of Sense and Sensibility (c. 1795). Continue reading

Summer disturbed

g1775-7

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.

gainsborough wife

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.

Epistolary

readingheloiseBernard d’Agesci Lady Reading the Letters of Heloise and Abélard c.1780 Oil on canvas, Art Institute, Chicago. Image source: WGA

Oh, no, it’s her again, our young 18th century friend falling out of her dress while being debauched by reading the love letters of two of the finest minds of the Middle Ages. What effect would the gratuitous sex and gore of Game of Thrones have on her?

What will she read next that will cause images to rise like heat in her mind and release forbidden chemicals in her blood? If we believe the picture, reading is a Dionysian ritual for this young woman, in which she abandons self through arousal of desires and emotions she had never guessed she had.

What isn’t shown is that when she reads, she identifies with all the characters; like Tiresias, the first recorded human transsexual, she now knows what it is like to love as a man and a woman. Through imagination, we become angels. A similar orgasmic expression was given by painters of religious subjects to saints in ecstasy, with the approval of the Church.

The next book she will pick up is one of the seven volumes of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, first published in 1748. It was Number Four in The Guardian’s 100 Best Novels list in 2013.

Before by Hogarth, 1730 -31 © Tate Gallery London

Clarissa is an enormous book of approximately 970,000 words – the author himself was worried about the length. The size and weight of the Penguin Classics edition is a deterrent to picking it up to throw, let alone read.

It is an epistolary novel – 537 letters followed by a postscript – and the word epistolary is itself a turn-off in this emailing, Tweeting world. It should be adopted as a swear word: I’m having an epistolary day today.

But our young lady doesn’t want to read Clarissa on Kindle, or in extracts of 140 characters on an impersonal screen; she likes the intimacy of a physical book, which belongs to her; she enjoys the mystery and suspense of opening each page as if she is unlocking a jewel chest.

LuiseUlrikevonPreußendiamonds

Antoine Pesne Luise Ulrike of Prussia, Queen of Sweden 1744. Image: Wikipedia. The sitter was a younger sister of Frederick the Great of Prussia. Her ensemble is studded with diamonds on her black cap and the bow on her choker, an ostentatious aristocratic style of fashion emulated by the impostors who arrive at Clarissa’s safe house “richly dressed and stuck out with jewels.” (Clarissa, Letter 312)

And the young woman likes jewels, and clothes, just like Clarissa does. Even when her virtue is being tested, even when her heart is broken, and she is overcome with shame and indignation at her treatment by her ruthless lover, Lovelace, Clarissa has time to note another woman’s fashionable dress, stuck out with jewels:

Listen to: Audio extract from Letter 312, in which fashion and class-conscious Clarissa is visited by Lovelace and two female accomplices, impersonating two of his rich, aristocratic relatives.

Clarissa is a middle-class girlie-girl, like Cher in Clueless (1995), who is momentarily distracted from her remorseful, Jane Austenesque epiphany by a shop window display: “Ooh, I wonder if they have that in my size.”

That’s the point, you see: multi-faceted, capable of thinking and feeling several different things at the same time – and knowing it; being female; being human. You can wear high heels, and be a feminist; you can be a lesbian and wear lipstick.

The obsessive materialism of the aspirational middle-classes, whose new wealth was often founded on sugar and slavery, is presented as the source of society’s moral corruption in Clarissa. We are so much closer to the 18th century than the gap of years, fashion choices and sanitary inventions suggests…..

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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