Picture, if you will, a tiny car barrelling down the motorway and a woman belting out Christmas carols at the top of her voice. That, gentle readers, is me on my commute at the moment, singing along with the Annie Lennox Christmas album. I verily live up to my Native American name of ‘Sings Loud in Small Car’. I’m not sure what my favourite carol is, possibly a toss up between ‘Hark the Herald Angels’ and ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman’, especially the latter as I like the thought of being saved from Satan’s power when I am ‘gone astray’ (which is quite often). I do like the opportunity to sing loudly and in public, so maybe carolling is a way forward for me, much like the people in today’s picture….
|A Carol Laura Alma Tadema|
A group of cherubic kiddiwinks belt out classics in the hallway of their home. Blimey, they’re organised, one even has a lute. It wasn’t like that in my day. Also, just because I grew up in the middle of Wiltshire, please don’t imagine it was some romantic Thomas Hardy-esque Casterbridge Christmas. We ambled through the various 1960s new-build estates, then gave up when our wellies filled with rain. To avoid the wellies-and-rain combination, these smart children are carol singing indoors. Genius! The roughest terrain they are going to tackle is the rug. Victorian kids had it easy…
Looking at the children, their faces are together in a neat arrangement...
The two youngest sing, holding a large book of music between them, the elder boy plays his lute and the girl carries a plate with a scroll and some tulips. Ahhh, the tulips. Not especially known as a Christmas plant, but they do enable us to date the picture exactly. This painting is set in 1636, and while it wasn’t unusual for Laura Alma Tadema to use seventeenth century Dutch style in her work, this picture is easy to date because rather than being about Christmas, it’s about folly and wealth.
I’m guessing that the tulips pictured on the silver plate are Rosen, the variegated red/pink and white variety, possibly even Admiral Verijck, a specially prized specimen, pictured below…
During the Tulip Mania of 1636-37, the lovely Admiral would cost you 1045 florins. The price rose dramatically from December 1636 to February 1637, and so the children are carrying an extremely expensive bunch of flowers as they sing in the middle of the period of mania. Maybe the young lady with the plate should pay more attention as the petals have begun to fall and one has settled on the fur of the bear. The flowers won’t last much longer, and neither will their fortune if it is dependant on something as fragile and transient as the fashion for flowers.
Modern discussion of Tulip Mania began in this country in 1841 with the publication of Charles Mackay’s splendidly named Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Greed and folly were seen as herd instincts for people, all driven mad as they clamoured to buy into the thing that would make them rich. Alma Tadema seems to have contrasted the tulip on the silver plate with the carols, songs about a child born in a stable.
So, where are the children? It seems they are within their own home, singing for their parents, but why are they faced with a closed door? It might be as simple as the parents will open the door and bestow gifts upon their lovely offspring, but as images go, surely it would be less ambiguous, more straight-forward, to have the parents smiling at their carolling kids. The only thing I can think is that it hints that not all rewards are forthcoming. The children sing sweetly in the corridor but the door remains closed, just as Holland went mad for the tulip but the reward for their actions was not given when the bubble burst and the tulips fell in price. It could be that the painting is suggesting that their wealth is as fragile as the tulip that is already falling apart.
Sing up Kids, by February you’ll be busking for your supper.
See you tomorrow.