Thursday 24 December 2020

Thursday 24th December - A Ghost Story for Christmas Eve

Do It Now
A cold, damp Christmas Eve brought John Montague to the plain-fronted club in the London side street.  Shrugging off an overcoat that was heavy with drizzle, his eyes were drawn to the open door through which he could see men sitting peaceably with papers, drinks and each other.  Moving through the room, he reached an ox-blood red leather chair by the fireside, which slowly revealed a slumped figure who cradled a glass of scotch, untouched.  As Montague approached, Alec Braithwaite’s expression was shielded by the chair’s wing, a protective curl around the man whose head was bent, deep in thought.

‘Braithwaite?’ Montague rested a hand on the back of the chair.  When he saw his friend’s expression, Montague looked concerned but also as if he had expected it. His tone quavered a little as he tried again, ‘Alec? Minnie sent me out to find you.  You know what my sister is like, a regular worrier if left unchecked.  She had some foolish notion you were in some sort of trouble…’

His voice trailed off, all jollity, forced through like winter flowers, running out.  Braithwaite’s face barely registered his presence, but at Minnie’s name he seemed to flinch, then stir as if coming to from sleep.

‘Monty?’ His friend shifted in the chair, his still-full glass placed on the table and a pretense of normality established, before he gestured to chair on the other side of the fire facing him. ‘Heavens, what is the time? I was quite lost in thought.  So much to plan, you know, so many considerations for –‘

Braithwaite paused, as if coming to the frayed end of his pleasantries.  Creases of something troublesome clustered around his eyes. Again, he seemed to pull himself to the surface as Montague friend sank into the facing chair. He had feared the worst when Minnie had propelled him out into the night to find her errant fiancé but, dash it all, he liked Alec, older than him by a good few years and so worldly.  Just lately however, the drinking had become more noticeable, the humour sharper, his attention distracted, forever straying to something else. Someone else? Minnie had demanded of him. Lord, he hoped not, he was not up to untangling that sort of mess. He braced himself as he posed the question in the vaguest possible way.

‘Alec, is everything as it should be?’

For the longest moment, Braithwaite stared at him in silence before remarkably, the corners of his mouth twitched a smile and a snort of hard laughter shot from him. His eyes wandered as thoughts crowded him and again a bolt of laughter broke the silence between them. Montague waited for an explanation but none came and the silence resettled over them, so he pressed the point, fighting the discomfort.

‘Minnie is worried that – well, that you are having second thoughts.’ His blustering, clumsy and mortifyingly embarrassed, seemed to register with his friend, whose expression softened.

‘Oh heavens, no, no, I have absolutely no doubts on that front. I am…’ A pause and briefly, like a flicker of a flame, Braithwaite’s face shimmered a genuine smile. ‘Monty, your sister is one of the finest women I have ever met. If it is indeed my fate to marry her, then I shall consider myself to have been blessed by the angels.’

Montague rushed to be satisfied with this, a bloom of relief growing then wilting back as Braithwaite sank back into his thoughts. Montague sat forward, preparing a second assault. He paused as the club’s man brought him his drink and nodded that the men wished to be left alone.

‘You and I, Alec, we have been friends now for ten years.’ Montague started again with real intention, despite the discomfort in his voice. ‘I mean, heavens, you are marrying my sister. Come now, I must have the truth about this blessed gloom that has come over you. You are worrying Minnie, and if she becomes distressed, we shall all suffer…’

He tailed off with a guilty smile that Braithwaite returned as a pale echo. Shifting in his chair, Montague watched his friend reach for his glass and drink deeply, then looked at his friend with purpose. Montague willed him to speak, the seesaw of his moustache as his wound up his nerve to tackle some uncomfortable topic.  Braithwaite’s further pause brought a blustered explosion of frustration from Montague.

‘Damn it, I demand you tell me immediately what this accursed matter is, or I shall call the wedding of myself!’

His threat was entirely in vain, not least because poor Monty would not have dared get between Minnie and her bridal dream, nor even less between his mother and her new chartreuse hat. Stiffly, slightly, as if restrained, Braithwaite moved himself in the chair. He looked at the expectant face of his friend.

‘If I tell you a story, Monty, if I tell you, then it must remain here.’ The stillness of his friend’s voice brought Montague forward in his chair once more with an eager nod. Braithwaite held up a slightly quivering hand, as if to slow his keenness. ‘You shall not like, nor even understand, what I am about to tell you. Dash it all, I’m not sure I understand it myself.’

‘Tell me, old man, tell me. Let’s get this settled here and now so that all this can be forgotten.’

The older man leaned back, not lost in thought this time, but seeming to compose himself. He placed his glass back down on the table between them and wove his fingers into a bridge, on which he rested his lips. When he spoke, it was against his fingers as if he tried to hush himself.

‘Do you believe in ghosts?’

This opening was so sudden and plain, that Montague, for a moment, thought he was joking and a wry laugh escaped him. His friend’s face did not move, his eyes still fixed on him.  Montague looked around, self-consciously.

‘Well, foolishness, I know, but I mean, I’ve never –‘

Braithwaite’s hand rose again, this time without the tremor.

‘If I was to tell you there was a ghost with us now, what would you say?’

In shock, Montague jumped a little and looked swiftly around with such gusto that the few other men in the club looked over, eyebrows raising, murmured disapproval. He gave a short laugh.

‘There is nothing, I see nothing here. You are joking, I see, very funny.’ His voice was unsteady, and his surety in his friend was being sorely tested. He arranged his face sternly against such teasing, but Braithwaite remained still. His eyes flickered to the side.

‘She’s not here for you.’

Montague heard his own breath quiver out and a creep of fear stroked his spine.  Braithwaite settled back in his chair and began to tell his story.

‘Although I am a few years your senior, Monty, we are both old enough to have seen some life. I fear that possibly when both of us were young, our decisions were not the wisest nor the kindest. If at the end of this tale you wish to take your sister far away from me, I will quite understand. I will publish a letter in the Times to the effect that the blame was entirely mine.’ Braithwaite paused, as Montague began to object, but his love for his near-brother meant that the younger man relented and allowed him to talk. ‘You must hear me out, my friend, you must allow me to explain what has been dogging my step and crowding the corners of every room I rest in. I say ‘what, but I mean ‘who’. I shall tell you how I came to meet Miss Lydia Hargreaves.’

‘I was eighteen when I first saw her. Her father worked for mine, and every so often she would be sent by her mother on some errand that brought her to the offices. In truth I was very fond of her father, so completely unlike mine. James Hargreaves was soft spoken, gentle, patient, and his talent with ink and paper made him the most accomplished draughtsman I have ever seen.  He should have risen higher, achieved more, earned more, but my father liked him where he was. To allow Hargreaves to rise would have meant removing his boot from the man, and that was not my father’s way.

James Hargreaves became an old man under my father’s eye, still producing the same quality of work, the same fine drawings. His daughter had been born and grown to become a beautiful young woman, all while he was finely inking those blessed plans for Nathaniel Braithwaite and Sons. I began to see that the only time his daughter got to see her father was in those brief moments of errands, such were the hours my father worked him. You would think they would be like strangers, but no, an easy affection always filled the room as she crept in to slip a note or a wrapped parcel of food to her father.  I allowed it because I craved that familial warmth.  It was alien to me, but I could observe it as a play on the stage of our office. Her presence removed years from the dear old man’s face, she filled the room with a glorious glow and one day I realised, with a start, that it was love.

Hargreaves passed one afternoon.  He slipped from his chair with the smallest of cries, as if apologising for the meagre fuss he made before dying there on the office floor, his pen still in his hand. I cannot now explain the despair that came over me, as if I had lost my own family, but I think, to my shame, what I was most bereaved of was those visits by his daughter;  the hushed laughter, her toffee-coloured hair in a glinting bundle under an often askew hat. She seemed a confection of my own imagination, more so after poor Hargreaves passing as I dreamed of her, her step on the stair to my office, her fine gloved hands presenting me with hastily wrapped parcels of food, her smile, that warm, heartening beam that brought life and purpose to any man who saw it and no doubt sustained Hargreaves against the slow destruction my father ground against all who worked for him, kin and all.

I pressed my father to allow my presence at Hargreaves funeral. The pretense was a presence from the company, which, being a proud man who liked things to seem proper and appropriate, he agreed to, although made much of the work I would have to make up for the hours I would be absence. There, swathed in black, was my jewel, her glimmering presence muted by her sorrow, yet no less beautiful and her warmth somehow intensified by her need to comfort. I had never met Mrs Hargreaves before, yet she obviously knew me as my hand as seized as if I was family, and she wept openly. She was forthcoming with her fears of widowhood, how was she to manage now? She cried so freely that I became more than discomforted, I became actually afraid of such an outpouring and to me, a stranger! Her daughter moved silently to her mother’s side and pressed steadying hands on her shaking figure.  The girl’s expression when her eyes met mine was embarrassed, not of her mother’s display but that I, Alec Braithwaite, had seen them in such pitiful times. Had she sensed that my life was already colourless enough? She tilted her face to mine, a little of the sparkle returning, if only for a moment, and when she spoke it was with the clarity of a pert brass bell.

‘My father held you in high esteem, Mr Braithwaite, it would be a pleasure if you would visit us when we are less strained, to take tea and tell us of his work.’ She paused, and her mother’s plaintive mewing ceased, as caught by this idea as I was.

‘It would be my pleasure, Miss Hargreaves,’ I replied and her hand, just for a beat brushed my arm, before she turned her attention to the mourner who had approached.  I did not wish to outstay my welcome and so gave my attention briefly to the mother, whose hand had taken the place of her daughter’s on my arm.  Her face was now electric, although still shining with tears.  She had seen clearly, like a fox, all that I had hidden, both in my heart and my account books. Her fingers tightened as she whispered, ‘Yes, come. It would mean so much to Lydia and myself.’

Lydia Hargreaves – I finally knew her name, and when I attended their modest home for tea, I was entreated to call her Lydia.  I brought her the softest of paisley shawls, tinted with the same golden strands as her hair.  Her quiet delight filled me with joy and she discretely concealed the shawl from her mother, promising to wear it when her mourning was over. My Lydia, as I came to think of her, had all the gentle looks of her father, and stayed attentive through my visit.  Her mother, however, was quite another creature.  She was sharp and a little too familiar for someone who scarcely knew me.  Where her husband had been respectful of our position, almost to a fault, Mrs Hargreaves took liberties by inches, and would not relinquish what land had been gained, until you found yourself occupied. It was clear at once that she intended her daughter for me.  This revelation was not unpleasant, quite the reverse and I allowed this invasion without considering the implications. Lydia and I developed the understanding without having the time to truly get to know each other, and therein lay the fault, for which I take full blame. I should have realised that despite assuming the gentle manner of her most excellent father, it took two parents to create this blessed child and I had not considered the mother’s character in my Lydia. Indeed, she became ‘My Lydia’ in my mind, before I discovered who the girl really was.

‘Do it now!’ became her favourite refrain.  At first it was a cheery cajoling, a tease and pleasurable invitation. It grew to be a stick with which to drive me towards whatever she desired. The request of a kiss on one day became a pressure to strive harder at the company, to ask for more than I could manage, to just become more for her sake. There were not enough hours in the day to cater for her whims.  Her mother became her echo, it was as if I was courting the both of them as they were always together, a duality of pressure until I was saddled and yoked and hip deep in the furrow I could barely plough. My beautiful Lydia, my sunshine and spark had become my drover, demanding that rings be bought and houses found, all immediately. I struggled and I buckled.’

There was a pause in the narrative as Alec drew his tumbler once more to his lips with a shaking hand. Montague watched, his mouth open in uncertain horror and at the silence, he stumbled to speak.

‘But, surely, Alec,’ he began in a hurry, ‘you did not marry this girl?’

Alec shook his head, swallowing, his eyes dipped.

‘I did not,’ he confirmed, shame washing his words. ‘I would have, yet fate stepped in and Miss Hargreaves died.’

‘Good God!’ Montague exclaimed, then adjusted his tone from relief to one of sympathy, not wholly convincingly. ‘I’m sorry to hear that, but you were free!’

‘I was.’ The two words were murmured, then followed by three more. ‘So I thought.’

‘The mother?’ asked Montague, but Alec shook his head.

‘No, that harridan faded into the background. I found myself unshackled from them both, and for my shame, I celebrated my freedom. I did so discretely because to the world I was a bereaved man, affianced if not wed, but still I had to maintain the pretence of sorrow when all I felt was relief.  Still though, she found me out.’

Alec paused, drinking deeply, his eyes settling on his friend, who was agog. With a nod, he continued.

‘At first the voice was indistinct. Do it now she’d whisper in my ear and I’d turn and see nothing.  I believed it a figment, a result of overwork, of drink, too little sleep. Then I would catch a glimpse of her in the corner of my eye, so close and smiling. Do it now, Do it now. I could not believe it was Lydia, her presence there to force me still further from beyond the veil. Do it now, Do it now, on and on, scarce leaving me alone. I tried to ignore her, I moved city, abandoned my family business, and even fell in love with another, but still, just in the corner of my eye she dwells, never satisfied.’

Montague turned sharply, looking about.

‘And she is here now?’ he whispered. Braithwaite nodded stiffly, causing the younger man to lean forward. ‘Be gone, spirit! Off with you, you are not needed!’ he intoned softly.  The older man smiled weakly.

‘Thank you, Monty, but it will not help. It is down to me, I believe I can dispel the phantom myself.’

‘But it is Christmas Eve, my dear fellow, come back with me.  Minnie is beside herself with worry over you.’ Montague reached over the table, his hand extended. Braithwaite capitulated, shaking it, and gave a faint smile.

‘All will be well, brother, if I might call you so. Return to your home and tell Minnie that all is as it should be.’

‘Well then,’ Montague nodded, and rose, ‘we shall see you in the morning, for church?’

‘As you say,’ Braithwaite replied, and allowed his companion to leave.  Montague reached the door, but could not leave without a final glance back. All will be well, he had promised.  A fancy, a foolishness, his nerves possibly frayed by work, or drink or something. Possibly a tease, a joke from his brother to be, yes, that would be it.  As if to signal this, Alec Braithwaite nodded reassuringly towards him as he loitered. All would be well, Montague was certain.

Back out in the black, glittering night, the cold air pinched at Alec Braithwaite’s lips and nose. His steps turned homeward, back to his rooms. What a liar he had become, and how solidly now she dogged his steps, her face contorted with pity. Had he provoked her on purpose? Oh, but she was there, hovering, crowding him, beside him as he strode purposefully onwards.

What now then, Spirit? Confess it all? Ridiculous. Tell dear, stupid Montague and his pretty, wealthy sister what had happened with Miss Hargreaves, what had truly happened?

Her silence was concerning. He had given her plenty of reason to speak now, plenty of justification to tell her tale but she was mute. He had always craved her attention so deeply. She found it impossible to refuse. He had been drawn into the Hargreaves home by the mother and had taken what he wanted there.  Oh, the mother, now there he had been honest.  A foulsome woman bent on social climbing despite the lack of ambition her husband showed on that front. She had thrust sweet Lydia in his lap, expecting him to propose. To marry beneath him was unthinkable.  Lydia had not thought so. Had he encouraged her?

He had asked for a kiss, just one and in return he would bring her a gift. She had smiled, shyly, and timidly acquiesced. Her face humorous, she had agreed. Do it now she had murmured with a wrinkled nose.

He had promised a ring if she would allow a little more liberty. She had tilted her head uncertainly, but pressed and promised, the liberties were allowed. Do it now she had whispered afterwards, her voice shaking and ashamed. A paste ring had been given with no formality. 

He had promised a wedding if more ground had been given. Bolder, crueller demands followed and each time she yielded, expecting a formal declaration, her plaintive plea of Do it now, sorrowfully echoing.

Alec turned sharply to his door, and could almost hear the swish of her skirt, the pull on his arm, that final time they had met. She had pursued, begged and pleaded. His child was growing inside her, he could not deny her any longer, he must save her, if he had any love for her. She had clung to him and he had turned on her fast and hard his hands on her arms, driving her back, back, back until she hung over the rail backwards, her breath catching.  He felt his body alive with her fear and she had seen it all, finally.

Do it now, she had said, her voice soft and final.

How dare she? He had pushed her over and away. That was an end to it.

Alec slammed the door behind him, a futile gesture as she was already inside the house, the tap of her shoes on the hall tiles in the darkness.  He strode through to his room, but this time closed the door softly.

‘So, here we are, my sweet Lydia. I see now how you will never let it alone.  Will you dog me down the aisle? On my wedding night, will you be in attendance?’

He paused, listening, his arms raised in challenge in the empty room.  There came no reply. He roared in frustration.

‘Well, now, silence is it? After all I’ve said, all I accused you of to poor stupid Monty? What use is your silence now? I know you are here. Am I never, ever to be free of you?’

He filled a tumbler with scotch, listening intently but the room was quiet, but for his own noises. A rustle of silk pulled his head to the left, searching the dim room for the source.

‘What? What must I do, you accursed harpy?!’ he screamed uncontrollably, spinning to see her. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the glint of gold on her toffee hair, the timid way she drew back from him, out of his sight.  He cries became a choked sob and he turned this way and that, trying to find her as she slipped from him. ‘Lydia, please, Lydia, don’t leave me. Speak, please, speak, once more, I beg-’

In a dark corner of the room, a side table held an object that Alec had not noticed before, a box. He approached unwillingly, his tumbler of whiskey swaying with his uncertain movement.  He raised the lid and saw his pocket revolver nestled in a paisley shawl, the golden threads glinting.

Do it now.

Her voice, sweet and soft.  She had not deserted him, and for the first time, Alec granted her wish.


Wednesday 23 December 2020

Wednesday 23rd December - The Best Kisses in the World

 Well, today is the last of the pictures for Snogvent as tomorrow I will bring you a ghost story, inspired by a picture, but we'll talk about that later. I've saved one of my favourite kissing paintings until last - actually two of my favourites.  Let's start with one of the most beautiful paintings ever created...

The Meeting on the Turret Stairs (1864) Frederic William Burton

 I mean, heavens, what a truly beautiful painting - his blue leg-wraps match her frock, he's all silvery and she's all golden, and he's kissing her sleeve! Her sleeve! Dear God, that's so weirdly romantic.  If you don't know the story, the couple are Hellelil, who falls in love with her personal guard, Hildebrand. Obviously such a lovely painting does not have a happy ending, all stabby and miserable, yet here we are with the couple sharing a very chaste kiss indeed on a spiral staircase.  I think it's the fact that they are framed so close to us, and are sharing a stolen moment of romance that endears the image to so many.  However, I did say right at the beginning of Snogvent that only face-kissing was allowed, so sadly, despite being one of the swoon-worthiest paintings in the whole world, The Meeting on the Turret Stairs is not my final painting (although it should be); that honour goes to this one...

The Kiss (1859) Francesco Hayez

 Again we have snogging by some stairs, but it looks like our chap was about to go up them when he remembered he had to kiss a lady. While this kiss has no context or backstory, unlike The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, there is a figure lurking on the left hand side (you know how I love a lurker) hinting that this romantic moment is possibly not all it seems and will not end well.  Who are they? Why is our chap looking like he wants to run, with his foot already going up the stair? Why is her dress so shiny?

That's proper spaniel-shiny and actually reminded me of this picture...

The Black Brunswicker (1860) John Everett Millais

The satin! Blimey, it's all a bit shiny.  I wonder if Millais knew of the Hayez or if there was just a massive love of satin in art? I should really do a post about the best satin in the 19th century, because it really does make a picture extra special. Well, there was no snogging for our poor Black Brunswicker as he galloped off to die pointlessly on a snowy field somewhere, but at least he looked sexy in his black uniform.  Also Katie Dickens, who is entreating him not to leave, never even met the handsome soldier she is pressed against, as Millais posed them separately with wooden mannequins. The handsome soldier apparently died shortly afterwards which is absolutely appropriate. Well done Doomed Soldier.

 So, what is it about Hayez image that is so appealing and causes Wikipedia to extravagantly declare it 'among the most passionate and intense representations of a kiss in the history of Western art'?  I'm not sure I entirely agree with that claim, for me the sleeve-snogging in a turret is more moving as it seems sort of hopeless, and we all know how that will end.  Is the threat of something lurking behind Hayez's couple what makes their kiss so special? Why do we find tragedy so bloody romantic?

 'Hey girl, you're pretty, fancy some orange? I'm sure no-one will murder me for it...'

'Hey girl, fancy a snog? I'm sure we won't have to top ourselves in an alarming mix up later...'

'Hey girl, pucker up as I'm sure my brother/your husband won't see us and stab us both to death...'

Do we love these pictures because they absolutely sum up how fleeting love is? That intense, mad whirlwind of love that catches your breath and makes you slightly unhinged doesn't last, and although we adore it, we recognise how deliciously selfish it makes us.  This is love that burns out and we see it and vicariously wallow in it but probably do not wish to be on the sharp, pointy end of it, when all is said and done.  However, as a tourist destination, doomed love is a cracking place to visit.  I want my sleeve kissed on a stairway! I want to drop my book in a moment of passion! I want a hot bloke to offer me an orange! However, on the whole, I don't need all the bloodshed and familial murdering so I'm happy just to look at the pictures and be grateful for the non-murderous kisses that I get.

I'll see you tomorrow with a dark and spooky ghost story which might be a little on the grim side...

Tuesday 22 December 2020

Tuesday 22nd December - Destroy What You Like In Your Passion...

 Goodness, well we have only a couple of days of Snogvent left, which is possibly for the best as this has all been far too silly.  I'll make sure that today's image is a nice serious one...

Destroy what You Like in Your Passion Except For My Dress (1909) Ferdinand von Reznicek

Well, here we are then. The subtitle for this work is 'Couple embracing after drinking champagne' which makes me wonder what sort of champagne are they drinking.  It's never had that effect on me, it makes me sneeze, but then I'm not classy. I suspect it was not the champagne that set them off, but whatever it was, there seems to already have been some knocking over of furniture and that table cloth is going to be next.  They'll be sponging champagne out of the rug for the next week.  Very wisely, however, the lady has specified that no matter how rambunctious they get, he has to be mindful of her very smashing dress. Given that we have seen people damned for all eternity for snogging over the last 22 days of Snogvent, I think a few bits of knocked over furniture is actually quite mild. 'So, you had to Vax your rug because you kissed a bloke?' asked Francesca and Paolo, 'That must be inconvenient for you...'

Drahrer (1890s)

I rather like von Reznicek's world, it seems like lots of fun.  There is lots of kissing and dancing and kissing while dancing, together with foamy petticoats and ladies in masks.  Quite the antidote to how gray and miserable it is here today, and I'm sure that none of what they get up to in his illustrations would be allowed under Tier 2, even within your bubble. Also, I'm not sure Mr Walker's back is up to swinging me about these days, which is a shame as I have just the shoes for the occasion.

Serpentine Dance (1890)

I'm not sure if this is Loie Fuller, the famous dancer from the turn of the century (Apparently Taylor Swift is a big fan) or one of her many imitators, but what von Reznicek is showing is the billowing movement of the Serpentine Dance...

Fuller was known for the extraordinary movement of the silk wings of her dress, and came from America to Europe to 'patent' the dance as her own. She appeared at the Folies Bergere...

...and her unique dance was captured in many statuettes and lamps... 

Loie Fuller Lamp (c.1900) Raoul Larche

 I get that same lust for life and gay abandon from the art of von Reznicek as I do from Fuller's dancing, where everything should be done with great enthusiasm.  Maybe that is what we will all be like when Corona finally fades into the memory and we can start mixing and dancing and kissing again.  What a smashing thought.  In the meantime I best stock up on 'champagne' (Lambrini) and make sure the Vax works.  It's going to be a gloriously messy summer...

See you tomorrow.

Monday 21 December 2020

Monday 21st December - Such is Life

 Today is the shortest day, and this might be the shortest post as I have quite a bit of housework and cooking to do today, not to mention walking the dog and the suchlike, so we shall crack on with today's image...

Such is Life (1907) John Byam Liston Shaw

Damn it, but I do love Byam Shaw, as I explained in this post (blimey, back in 2011, weren't we all young and innocent then?!) and often what I adore is the ambiguous message of the piece.  I mean, look at Such is Life, what is going on there?  He did enjoy his problem paintings and even in something as simple as a love picture, there are still notes of discord.  Let's start with the obvious bits...

The scene is a 'harlequinade' at a pantomime (as the Yorkshire Post called it, what an exciting new word that doesn't at all sound like a diamond-printed hand grenade...) where the Harlequin kisses Columbine...

 ...watched by a clown and (checks review in the newspaper) a 'Pantaloon' - is that the chap in the mental trousers? Nice tights, by the way...

 So far, so theatrical, like the conclusion of a comedy, filled with misunderstandings and reconciliations, and a happy ending, but hang on, why is the Policeman so lurk-y in the background...?

He's really not getting into the spirit of the piece, is he? Blending in with the shadows next to the boy on the dolphin statuette.  That statuette is really bothering me - does it have meaning?  Is it meant to be Arion or Melicertes, deified as sea-gods after escaping their troubled human existence? And what are the posters on the wall referring to...?

Scandal! One of the gentlemen laughs while the other covers his eyes, so is that the response of the public to love? Is it funny or unpleasant? Do we revel in the scandal or avert our eyes in embarrassment? Are the only people allowed to love the young and the beautiful, only to be mocked by the grotesque and foolish? Is the policeman's presence there to sober us up and remind us that life is not a pantomime? The painting is theatrical, literally placed in the context of a theatre, but will this scene have a happy ending?  Possibly the role of the little boy on the dolphin is to hint that when it comes to love, you best dive right in. Then again, his dolphin is diving straight into the top of a pillar. Love is filled with trouble, interference, surprising collisions with obstacles and pain, so on the whole, best kiss while you can, because you never know what's coming next...

I really don't know what Byam Shaw is saying here, but yet I love it.  Reading the reviews, which constantly refer to it being an allegory without explaining what it is, the one that made me laugh was The Daily Mirror in 1907 when it was shown at the Royal Academy.  In listing the paintings that they thought were the best, they listed the preference Mr Ernest Walker, who expressed an admiration for Such is Life.  Mr Walker was a 'pavement artist' with a pitch at the top of the Kingsway.  When Byam Shaw was told of how much the pavement artist loved his work, he replied merrily, 'I'm glad I'm appreciated somewhere...'

See you tomorrow...

Sunday 20 December 2020

Sunday 20th December - The Birth of Venus

 Well, things have somewhat changed in the last 24 hours here in the UK and I hope everyone is finding a way to deal with the adjustment in our expectation of what Christmas is going to be looking like this year.  As long as everyone stays safe and well, it's all fine in the long run, but the uncertainty and changes are hard to keep up with. Hang in there, my lovelies, we'll get through all this nonsense and have a much better time next year.  Anyway, on with today's offering...

The Birth of Venus (1903) Ettore Tito

Good morning Venus! Even being the Goddess of Love being born from sea foam doesn't keep you safe from being kissed first thing in the morning.  Yes, yes, she's lovely, but she's being born right now so can the kissing wait?  Apparently not. Not only that but the chap next to her has decided this is exactly the moment to blow on his shell-kazoo.  Could you all keep it down a bit until the poor lass has had a cup of tea, at the very least? For heaven sake, some people have no respect...

The Birth of Venus (1875) Alexandre Cabanel

Even if you are not being kissed by someone, there is always the noise.  Look, someone has given two of the putti shell-kazoos.  Venus has the facial expression of every parent on Christmas morning as little Tabitha unwraps yet another noising-making present.  Oh look, Grandma has given both you and your brother recorders for Christmas.  How marvellous.  Where's the gin...?

The Birth of Venus (1846) Eduard Steinbruck

"It is kind of you all to come but I have really only just been born and it's a bit early for all this kerfuffle.  Also, I'm not sure four of us can safely fit on my big shell. And Maureen, your bum is showing again, you attention-seeking hussy..."

Venus Born of the Sea Foam (1887) William Stott

I don't know but is it worse that no-one showed up for this Venus's birth? You don't get all the noise and celebrating, I grant you that, but she looks like she's thinking 'I've shown up, so where is everyone else?! I'm fabulous, dammit, come and be astounded by my beauty and stuff!'

The Birth of Venus (1879) William-Adolphe Bouguereau

Oh no, hang on, that's too many people! There is no happy medium and in William-Electric Boogaloo's pearly rendition of the Venus's birth, there are merfolk and putti everywhere.  No wonder this poor Venus has been born standing up, there is barely room to swing a cat. And two shell-kazoos, the horror... 

Okay, this whole being born thing has to be sorted out.  No kissing, no shell-kazoos, the correct number of people and Venus should be coming into the world like an absolute Boss...

The Birth of Venus (1933) George Spencer Watson

Good Lord, that's awful and I love it! Venus seems to be springing to life in an Instagram-able manner just off the Dorset coast, with two dolphin-riding chums, a chap with a really impressive beard and Cupid, striking a pose behind his mum. And there is a rainbow! Definitely #TooBlessedToBeStressed

So, I think the lesson from today's post is less people first thing in the morning is a good thing, no-one should give children toys that make noise at Christmas, and if you have to spring to life in front of people, remember you are fabulous and don't worry that you haven't done your hair. Also, if you fancy buying yourself a little Christmas pressie, you definitely need this...

God bless Santoro's Masterpieces collection for giving me a good many laughs.  You can find this here...

See you tomorrow...

Saturday 19 December 2020

Saturday 19th December - In Bed

 I am spending the last few days before Christmas frantically tidying the house up.  You'd think that we were hosting some sort of magnificent event, but obviously we're not in any way, shape or form.  It's just the byproduct of 2020, a year when I have had the time to do stuff.  Therefore, with only a couple weeks of this accursed ratpile of a year left, I am making the most of it and cleaning house.  The chickens are in lockdown because of bird flu, therefore I have great plans for getting the garden shipshape in the near future, but just now, it's the house I'm scrubbing.  All of that meandering leads me to a picture today of domestic comfort...

In Bed (The Kiss) (1892) Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

In a comfortably rumpled bed, a couple embrace.  In the blue-grey of the sheets, the pair seem to glow with pleasure, lit within in whites, pinks and yellows.  This is just one of a series of four images of the couple, all painted around the bed.  Not only that, but it is suggested that the couple are actually two women, painted at a brothel on the Rue d'Ambroise...

In Bed (1892)

It's unusual for Snogvent that we get a series of pictures, but all four seem to include at least one of the girls, if not both (I think it's the same two lasses, just the girl on the left's long hair is sometimes hidden in the bedding).  There is an informal, relaxed cheekiness to the images that we expect from Toulouse-Lautrec, and despite being sexy, the pictures don't feel sordid or voyeuristic. 

In Bed (1893)

Maybe it's because there are four images that we don't get the normal male-gaze, peep-show aspect of some 'intimate' art.  I remember feeling really creeped out by Edward Linley Sambourne's photograph that he took of his maid sleeping, which was presumably taken without her knowledge (let alone permission). No, we get to know Lautrec's women, if only briefly, and we are included in the rosy glow of their love.  Also, unlike some of the icily perfect images of love we have seen, Lautrec shows us love in a cold climate, buried underneath patchwork quilts and sheets, with rumpled bed-hair and smiling faces.

The Kiss (1892)

I'm not sure in what order you are meant to see the pictures, but I like to read them in reverse - they started kissing on the bed then decided it was much too cold for that and also that bloke with a canvas was stood at the end of the bed again, so they went under the duvet and hid, grinning. Lautrec's interest in the prostitutes of Paris, both on and off duty, brings you to wonder what we are seeing here - is this at work or during leisure hours? Is one of these girls a client or a lover? Are both of these girls in the same business and have found romance with someone who understands the life?

Le Sofa (1895)

This is also a painting from Lautrec's brothel phase, showing two lasses, again possibly both in the same profession, or possibly client and prostitute.  This has a far more professional feel to it, the women in their stockings and barely-there (or not) underwear.  The difference between the kissing couple and these women is that there is no mistaking the profession of the women on the sofa.  In contrast, the couple in the bed  have a cheekiness and an almost prim normality.  There is no fluff-flashing, nor stocking tops, just bedspreads and rumpled hair.  The girls in the bed seem off-duty, the two on the sofa seem professional. There is something about a kiss that seems more intimate and meaningful than all the exposed pubic hair.  As Vivian Ward says in Pretty Woman, no kissing, it's too personal. 

On that note, I'm off to hoover and I'll see you all tomorrow (if you can be bothered to get out of bed)...

Friday 18 December 2020

Friday 18th December - The Kiss

 I've been trying to avoid today's image.  I love the artist, I love his work and don't actually mind this particular art work but it felt like such an obvious cheat to do it, but here we are.  I can't avoid it any longer...

The Kiss (1907-08) Gustav Klimt

Okay, so the reason I was trying to avoid The Kiss (or Lovers as it's also known) is because it is what we would call in the Walker household, the 'Common People' painting.  To explain, I did not go to university, I did my degrees via distance learning and the superb Open University.  However, Mr Walker did university in the traditional sense.  This was the early to mid 1990s and wherever he went, he could not avoid this...

When I met Mr Walker in 1996 he could not stand Pulp because he had spent the last few years just being inescapably saturated in the music.  I, on the other hand, with my university average age of around 60, was quite delighted with the odd, novel bit of Pulp.  However, that rambling nonsense is sort of how I feel about Klimt.  Despite the Pre-Raphaelites being roundly dismissed by art history courses when I was growing up, you could not spit without hitting some Klimt and usually it was The Kiss.  It was bloody everywhere, on biscuit tins, tea towels and my personal favourite, a 3D resin statuette from the National Gallery. I had become too familiar with it and it lost all its power. I no longer saw it, I saw the mass of marketing and merchandising that had surrounded it.  I think one of the tragedies of loving art from a previous era is that we never experience it new, we're never feeling what the artist and their audience felt when the work was first launched onto the scene.  Even with my very limited art experience before my degree, I knew and was immune to the charms of The Kiss.  However, that has all changed...

Water Serpents (c.1907)

My affair with Klimt began with Gladys.  She was a hefty lass that we bought from Ikea to hang in our front room over our sofa.  Turns out her name wasn't Gladys, despite us christening her that, but she was part of a larger image called Water Serpents and she was obviously by Klimt.  Up until that point I hadn't really given Klimt very much attention but I rather loved Gladys in all her nude-y glory.

From The Beethoven Frieze (1901)

 Then I saw this part of the Beethoven Frieze and I'm sorry, but what in the actual chuff is going on there?!  I wonder if Klimt thought 'I fancy doing something lovely, involving girls, flowers and possibly an animal' and this is what happened.  Here we have Typhoeus, looking like something out of a nightmarish Muppet Show, and his three charming daughters, the Gorgons.  On the right are Lasciviousness, Wantonness and Maureen. On social media, we sometimes play the game of picking which if the nymphs you think you are in Hylas and the Nymphs - it seems deeply inappropriate to do the same here (Bagsy Maureen, as she looks like she knows where the cake is kept)...

Gustav Klimt (and cat)

Oddly, the critics did not take to the glittery hellscape that is the Beethoven Frieze.  It was roundly written off as far too rude and weird, sort of missing the point that maybe that was what he was going for as an interpretation of Wagner's response to the Ninth Symphony.  I think anything that involves both Wagner and the Ninth is going to be a right old palaver, so it's about right, even though the weird giant-y thing will haunt me for a while...

Bernard (35) enjoys gardening, jazz and long walks in the countryside

Swipe left! Left! Damn it, I panicked and swiped right...

Anyway, understandably bruised by the criticism of his enormous artwork, Klimt was filled with self-doubt but determined to do something that people would respond to positively.  In 1908, he revealled Der Kuss (The Kiss), also known as 'The Lovers', a massive canvas almost 6ft square, and decorated with gold leaf, silver and platinum.  The two figures kiss and that's it, but around those two little pink faces are flowers and blocks and all sorts. It has a lot in common with Fulfilment from a couple of years earlier...

Fulfilment (1905-9)

As soon as The Kiss was exhibited (even before he had completely finished it) it was purchased by the Belvedere Museum for a whopping 25,000 crowns overwhelmingly more than the average price paid in Austria for an artwork at the time. Compared with the boobs-and-fluff orgy that is the Beethoven Frieze The Kiss (and Fulfilment) is a modest affair with very little skin showing. So what does it all mean?

Is it just a painting in celebration of a sneaky snog? Obviously art historians are not about to leave it at that and despite Klimt not saying so, have come up with some interesting ideas of what's going on in the picture.  Firstly, they have offered that it might be a celebration of Klimt's love of his artistic collaborator, the designer Emilie Flöge...

Blimey, she rules, look at that outfit! Emilie was a designer and owner of a fashion house, as well as being sister-in-law of Klimt.  The pair of them became long time companions, but the nature of their relationship seems to be up for debate by those who think it's their business to have clarity (such as Germaine Greer, as quoted in Portrait of a Muse, who claims that Klimt never laid a finger on her). Honestly, who cares, because they were obviously devoted to each other. The male figure is meant to be a self-portrait, and it is supposedly a celebration of their love. Well, that's lovely.  Unless, it's another woman entirely and it's all about their love...

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (1907)

 The extremely famous woman in gold is of course Adele Bloch-Bauer, another woman who definitely had an affair with Klimt unless she didn't.  For a man known for having affairs with lots of Viennese ladies, much like Rossetti he seems to have not slept with many of them. So, maybe that's not what the kiss in The Kiss is about...

Apollo and Daphne (1908) John William Waterhouse

There is a suggestion that the two might be Apollo and Daphne, probably because of the natural patterns that cover the girl.  She seems to be clothed in nature and I suppose it's not a stretch to say that she is being consumed by it as an escape from her lover's attention.  You could read her expression as rather unengaged or unwilling...

Orpheus Leaving Eurydice (1909) Douglas Strachan

 Another explanation is that the couple are Orpheus and Eurydice at the moment that Orpheus turns irresistibly to embrace his lover. The look on the girls face in The Kiss is supposed to be her fate taking hold, pulling her back into the underworld.  The oddly disjointed nature of the flat pattern and the flesh that make up the female figure could be seen as the woman vanishing a piece at a time, fading even as her lover holds her.  She knows she is leaving, so she doesn't return his kiss or even look at him. The man desperately holds her face, but soon even that will vanish.

So, what does this kiss mean? I think it is a comment on love itself.  The gold and precious metals, coupled with the way in which the man holds the girl's face makes me think that love is a precious thing. He holds her like a valuable object and she closes her eyes in appreciation.  Love means being careful with those you value, taking care of them as you would the most valuable thing in the world.  Carelessness and neglect would tarnish them, doubt would damage them.  Those we love need precious care to keep them present. 

Kiss those you love like they are made of gold, and I'll see you tomorrow...