Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Asps and Needles...

Yesterday we saw how the Victorian's loved the delights of Ancient Egypt, and its many, many semi-naked water-carrying ladies.  All very entertaining and lovely, but today we turn to the more serious matter of the last of the Pharaohs, the great ruler of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, Cleopatra.  No sniggering in the back now...

Berenice, Queen of Egypt (1867) Frederick Sandys
Berenice was the first queen of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, pictured here by Frederick Sandys, but it is definitely the last queen that got all the attention.  Neither was Cleopatra the only Cleopatra, because by the time we get to the asp-hugging Queen we know so well, she is actually Cleopatra VII.  That's a lot of eyeliner to follow...

Another reason for the enthusiasm for all things Ancient Egyptian was the enormous erection that graced London in 1878.  Presented to Britain in 1819 by the erstwhile Mohammad Ali (remember him from yesterday?) and finally making its way to London in 1878, the huge red granite obelisk, or 'needle' dated from around 1450BC.  It was flanked by two huge mock-Egyptian sphinx and a bevy of other stylistic details, such as winged sphinxes on the benches.

Back end of a Sphinx...
In the flurry of all the interest it is hardly surprising that the artistic imagination fixated on one figure.  And what a figure...

Cleopatra John William Waterhouse
In some ways, we shouldn't be surprised that the poster-girl for the Ancient Egyptian world was Cleopatra.  In some ways she reflected Queen Victoria, strong female ruler of a powerful nation, but she also reinforced certain attitudes towards women.  She was fallible, she was a seductress, she died with her boob out.  Okay, ignore the last one, but she was a woman who lived, loved and died while still gorgeous, by her own hand.  Who could ask for more?

Lillie Langtry as Cleopatra

Possibly the most famous play to involve Cleopatra would be the play by Shakespeare, but there are a host of plays and operas that included depictions of the Queen of Egypt.  A 'character' began to emerge, a beautiful and tempting Queen, foreign yet familiar, ancient and modern.

Cleopatra (1875) Lawrence Alma Tadema
I'm not sure how historically accurate the proclivity to leopard print is, but many artists did straight 'portraits' of Cleopatra, looking pouty among fur.  You wonder how she managed to rule a country with such a sulky demeanor...

Cleopatra (1885-1920) Margaret Cookesley
When she is shown dressed, her costumes are extremely luxorious, golden prints spreading for miles.  The Cookesley image is typical of the dramatic portrayals, like a still from a play. You can imagine the glorious Miss Bernhardt striking a pose like this.  Mind you, she is known for more stunning moments than just standing or lying around looking a bit mardy...

Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Condemned Prisoners Alexandre Cabanel
Well, how are you meant to test your poisons if not on condemned prisoners?  Perfectly sensible.  I'm surprised this picture survived intact as it would be tempting to trim it down to just the righthand side with the glammy ladies and their leopard.  On the left you have a rather grim gathering of poorly gentlemen. Deary me.  I'm not sure what she is trying to do, other than find a really good poison.  I wasn't aware that Cleopatra was an arch poisoner, I thought she just had you done in if she didn't like you in a rather more traditional way.  You know, with burly man and a big knife.

Cleopatra in Flight Charles Ricketts
Yes, yes, very nice, but we all know this isn't the iconic image of Cleopatra we all know and love.  She doesn't look very 'flighty', more 'stroppy' or 'floppy' and excuse me, but surely if one is fleeing, one would tuck ones thrups away in case they slowed you down.  In my experience.  Moving on, this is what most artists seemed to think of...

The Death of Cleopatra Achille Glisenti
Did you know that before Shakespeare it was generally accepted that the Queen of Egypt topped herself by pressing an asp to her arm, but that sort of thing doesn't sell seats or canvases, so poor old Cleopatra suddenly seized the snake to her bosom, apparently while her handmaidens (equally nudey) swooned around (also possibly dead).

Cleopatra and the Asp Edward Poynter
In more classy moments, the odd artist showed Cleo with her top on, looking broody (obviously), but more often than not the boobs were as intrinsic a part of the story as the asp.  Poynter shows the Queen looking conflicted, tense, her face darkened with her dark thoughts.  The narrative of the end of her life is usually Mark Anthony's suicide following the defeat of his army by Octavian, then Cleopatra's suicide.  You would think if her lover had killed himself and her palace was about to be over-run by an invading army then she would look a bit more dramatic, but Poynter shows her crumbling slowly, her defeat coming unwillingly, thoughtfully as befits a woman who had ruled such a strong country.

The Death of Cleopatra Gaetano Previati
Then again, she could have just rolled around naked with a snake.

The Death of Cleopatra (1890) John Collier
Somewhere in between you have Collier's image.  The Queen lies in state, looking beautiful and marble-skinned, with her two ladies in various stages of collapse.  It reminds me of pictures of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, she had a couple of collapsing ladies in waiting.  Maybe it's the law.

Death of Cleopatra Reginald Arthur
Not sure why she had to top herself in bed, but I suppose there is no reason why not.  I love the glowing red hair of the maid and the colours are marvellously warm and rich.

Death of, oh well, you know by now (1874) Jean-Andre Rixens
It's interesting to see that the black kohl eyeliner is a silent movie star or Elizabeth Taylor touch to our idea of Cleopatra.  None of these lovely ladies have the big sweepy wings around their eyes (as modelled now by the teenage waitresses in Pizza Hut, in my experience) although the flat black hair and gold accessories are very much in evidence.  I think the appeal of Cleopatra is in her glorious life and dramatic death.  Yes, she would do very naughty things to you, some of which you might not survive, but she gets hers in the end.  You wonder if there was a little bit of snide giggling at the expense of Victoria, maybe a real concern about the fitness and safety of female rulers.  After all, women can be a bit hysterical you know.  Given half the chance I'd be seducing you one moment then clasping a poisonous reptile to my naked breast in the next.  Not that I have a snake.  It would have to be a slow-worm, which kind of lacks the drama.  And the poison.  Personally, I think it's less about politics and more about nakedness.

But it's history, so it's fine.


  1. Dear Kirsty
    Not that I want to throw a spanner in the works of all these eminent artists, but according to a coin showing her profile, Cleopatra wasn't actually that beautiful; however, it is agreed that she did have masses of charisma, and that is something that can get you anywhere (so I'm told, not being terribly charismatic myself). I suppose that an ordinary looking woman wouldn't have done very well in the selling art stakes - especially to Victorian men who did like to pretend they were being intellectual but in actual fact, just liked looking at beautiful nude or semi-nude women. No change there, then.
    I really enjoyed these posts (despite the number of bare bosoms on show!)
    Best wishes

  2. I agree, as we have seen from Aiden Turner's portrayal of Rossetti, it can be challenging to show attractive without being hot. People apparently just don't get it. If you bear in mind that Cleopatra was roughly my age when she did herself in, then the depictions really are rather generous and, in fact, a bit made up. I hardly ever parade around naked with a snake. Mind you, I don't have floppy handmaidens, so there you go. Not sure what my point was there...

    Thanks for the comments and I'm glad you enjoyed the post!

  3. Hilarious!
    "Challenging to show attractive without being hot"... Is there a difference?
    There are some accounts Cleopatra was beautiful like her paintings and rather scandalous movies, so we can't say for sure she was unattractive. However, murderous young warrior ladies sometimes are lacking in attention to their hairstyle and facial delicacy.

  4. Thanks for the comments. Yes, I believe there is a difference between being outwardly beautiful and being irresistible. Many contemporary accounts of Rossetti call him irresistible because of his personality. Personality goes a long way :)

    It's hard to keep your hair straight while poisoning. Or so I have been told.


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx