Friday 30 December 2022

Review: The Legend of King Arthur

Here we are in 'Twixtmas, the week between Christmas and New Year, famously my least favourite time of the year.  I get miserable, on a massive come-down from Christmas and it is dark, cold, wet and pointless.  February and its promise of seedlings and Valentine's Day seems ages off, so I wrap myself in a blanket and mope.  Mercifully, just before Christmas, the Walker family made a mad dash up to London for a lark and we went to see The Legend of King Arthur, A Pre-Raphaelite Love Story at the William Morris Gallery...

I've had the catalogue for a while, as you will remember from this review, but I was beginning to doubt I'd make it to London what with work and rail strikes, but we took our chance on the Thursday before Christmas and were utterly delighted by what we saw...

Full disclosure, I love the William Morris Gallery and am happy to take the tube up to Walthamstow whenever I have an excuse to do so.  Seeing as the following venues for this exhibition are Tullie House and Falmouth, I thought this was probably the easiest gallery for us to get to, so if I wanted to see it, we best head for the big smoke. I'm so pleased we did as it set us up for Christmas beautifully. And it's free to get in!  Glorious...

Study for the Head of Arthur (1879) Herbert Bone

As I'm sure you all know, the legends of King Arthur and his knights, Camelot and the Holy Grail meant a vast amount to the Pre-Raphaelites.  Fuelled by Tennyson and his poems, but also by Mallory and the Morte D'Arthur, these tales of romance, lust, loss and duty chimed with the Victorian ideal of what society should be. The courtly, stately, restrained beauty of Victorian Medieval King Arthur (as opposed to the possibly actual Romano-British Pendragons) shone a mirror back on nineteenth century society, to the extent that Landseer painted Victoria and Albert in their Medieval costumes in 1842. To the Pre-Raphaelites, to whom everything Tennysonian was sacred, Medieval Camelot was the perfect playground for their imagination.  The results can be seen in this exhibition.

Study of Shoulder Armour (1919) Evelyn De Morgan

There is a wonderful mixture of pieces, from studies to oil paintings, tapestry to clothing and books, all showing the range of responses the artists had to the stories. Even the studies, like those of De Morgan and Bone are exquisite works of art in their own right. Each piece tells more of the story, from the earliest days of the Pre-Raphaelites to John William Waterhouse and the second or third wave of Pre-Raphaelitism.

Arguably, the star of the show is the monumental tapestry that starts on one wall and continues on the next, telling the story of the Grail and the knights who searched. It comprises of a series of panels designed by Edward Burne-Jones in the 1890s and shows the Departure of the Knights and the Attainment of the Grail (both belong to Jimmy Page). They are fresh and crisp, the colours still vibrant and clear and provide a gorgeous backdrop to the other objects as well as being overwhelmingly beautiful in themselves.

Study for The Lady of Shalott (1890s) John William Waterhouse

It is always lovely to see John William Waterhouse, and his 1888 Lady of Shalott (at Tate Britain) is probably the most instantly recognisable of Victorian Arthurian images.  Falmouth's oil sketch of one of his later versions of The Lady of Shalott gazes at us with trepidation, stepping through her shattered loom, towards the window and Lancelot. The looser handling of the paint in this sketch gives the impression of the chaos of the scene, with the lady in the middle, her eyes still following the object that brought her doom upon her.

An absolutely delightful object was Waterhouse's own copy of the collected poems of Tennyson, into which he has sketched ideas for paintings.  I actually own a battered antique copy of Tennyson's poems with one of Waterhouse's paintings on the cover, so I found this a covetable book indeed.

This is an exhibition of familiar friends and new faces, of works like Holman's Hunt's Lady of Shalott (the small version, not the whopper I saw last at the Tate in 2012) and William Morris's Medieval dress (designed by, not worn by).  It shows, in one beautifully laid out room, how diverse the response to the Arthurian legends were, united in beauty.  

The Legend of King Arthur: A Pre-Raphaelite Love Story is on at the William Morris Gallery Walthamstow until 22 January, then it moves on to Carlisle and Falmouth.  I thoroughly recommend it and it's a glorious way to start 2023.

Saturday 24 December 2022

Saturday 24th December - The Golden Fleece

 So, we have made it to the end of Stabvent alive! Honestly, given the month we have just seen, it's a miracle any of us made it, what with all the duplicity, jealousy, anger and generally stabby-ness we have witnessed.  It's enough to make you want to stay at home with the doors locked.  But I have to get a nut roast from Sainsbury's later, so send your thoughts and prayers to me.  I remember one year when Lily was about 4 years old, we were doing the Christmas food shop stupidly close to the big day and the tannoy announcements kept dropping in and out so all you could hear was 'Could Maureen come to Aisle 4 (crackle, crackle) necessary (crackle, crackle) wet (crackle)' and Lily asked what that all meant.  I told her fighting had broken out and everyone in Aisle 4 was dead and Maureen had to mop it up.  Lily found that far too funny.  Actually, that was probably close to the truth. Anyway, let's crack on with our last tragic death...

The Golden Fleece (1904) Herbert James Draper

I've saved this one for last.  I know I'll get complaints because no-one is being stabbed but I thought a boob-flash might compensate and it is both murder-y and pretty tragic.  Oh and it's gorgeous! So, what on earth is going on here?
Medea (1868) Frederick Sandys

The lady with a boob out is Medea, a favourite with the Pre-Raphaelites as she is the epitome of 'sexy witch' but also brings a bit of Fatal Attraction styling to her second act.  One thing I didn't know about Medea is that she was Circe's niece, which is impressive, but also gives you some idea of the family.  Probably best not to mess with them. In most of the Pre-Raphaelite images of her, she is doing her magic and looking a bit wild.  She was a helpful sorceress that Jason (of Argonaut fame) needed to get the Golden Fleece, so the Goddesses cast a spell on her to make her fall in love with Jason.  Medea agreed to help him if he agreed to marry her. Let's get that fleece!

Jason and Medea (1907) John William Waterhouse

Medea's father, King Aeëtes of Colchis tells Jason he can have the fleece if he performs some frankly impossible tasks. Luckily, Jason has Magical Medea to help!  The first task is to plough a field with a fire-breathing ox.  Medea gives Jason some magic oven gloves or sun cream or something, so that he won't get burnt, hurrah!  The second part is to sow the field with dragon teeth.  Weird, but okay.  However, Medea knows that Ray Harryhausen's skeleton army will rise up and give me nightmares for years...

Yep, still creeps me out. Anyway, helpful Medea tells Jason how to confound the nightmare-fuel stop-motion skeletons and so he defeats them too.  Finally, Jason has to fight and kill the sleepless dragon, so Medea gives the dragon a sleeping draft and Bob's your uncle, they pinch the fleece and sail off together.

Medea (undated) Evelyn De Morgan

Okay, so all is good and no-one, save a few skeleton soldiers, has perished so why is Medea in Stabvent? Well, just running off with Jason was not enough as Medea's father was pretty hacked off to be out-smarted by Jason and his daughter, so was in hot pursuit of the Argo and his golden fleece. Medea needed a way to distract her father for long enough for them to properly escape.  She killed her brother and scattered the bits everywhere so her father would have to stop and gather the lumps of his son back together in order to bury him.  Flipping Nora...

So, here in Draper's fabulous painting we have Jason fannying about with his lovely Gold Fleece, while Medea, boobs a-go-go, is seemingly directing for her brother to be flung overboard. That sea is  a lovely colour. In the background, the sails of her father's fleet are bearing down on them and she needs a distraction.  I love the look on one of the chaps's faces...

'We're not being paid enough for this nonsense...'

Anyway, I though Draper had gone soft on me and Medea was just lobbing her brother over the side of the ship where he'd be fine and Dad would pick him up in a minute anyway. Newspaper reviews of the 1905 Royal Academy exhibition explained that Draper is showing us Medea hurling Absyrtus, her brother, into the sea to drown, but then I noticed this...

I know we're all distracted by Medea's right boob but behind her is a chap with a ruddy big knife!  Given that most of the crew are rowing their little socks off and Jason is busy with his fleece (yes, yes, it's very nice now come and help with the escape!) why is that chap holding his knife and appears to be about to help Medea? Absyrtus is going into the sea, obviously, but maybe not all at once. Either way, escape they did and they lived happily ever after...

Medea about to Murder her Children (1862) Eugene Delacroix

...for about five minutes, then Jason decided he didn't want to be married to the woman who basically enabled him to fulfil his dream of getting the fleece and saved his life umpteen times, plus murdered her own brother to help him escape. Jason dumped Medea to marry Glauce, the daughter of the King of Corinth, where the couple escaped to. Medea was a tad hacked off and sent Glauce a cursed, poisoned dress that stuck to her body, engulfing her in flames. In some versions of the story, she managed to take out the King too, which is pretty impressive. Medea then killed her and Jason's children, which is a bit harsh, refusing to let Jason touch the bodies.  Jason called her the most hated to Gods and Men, but Medea simply stepped on her golden chariot, a present from Helios the Sun God and flew off. She absolutely gets away with it.  There is no retribution at all - I mean, everyone else is a bit dead and she's been double-crossed by the man she loved, but in the end she flies off to Athens, gets married again and lives her best life. Blimey.

Medea gives Jason the Magic Potion (undated) Unknown French Artist

So, what we have learnt today?  If you are getting some pretty serious help from a very powerful sorceress who is demonstrably able to kill her nearest and dearest, do not double-cross her. It will not go well. Medea's murder of her brother, either by drowning or dicing, is about as hard-core as it gets this month because it's done cynically, in order to achieve their escape.  The murder is absolutely nothing to do with the brother, he's done nothing wrong apart from being the son of the man in the boat that's gaining on Medea and Jason. The brother's dead body is merely a distraction, which is awful.  Of all the reasons we have seen to kill people this month - jealous, anger, war, entertainment - distraction seems a terrible cause of death.  The fact that Medea repeatedly walks away from her appalling acts is remarkable, and I have to admit it makes a change that a woman is not punished for transgressing the 'natural' nurturing state of womanhood. She just gets on her flying golden chariot and clears off.  Excellent.

Looking back at Stabvent, I think we have learned quite a bit.  Try not to fall in love with someone your family hates, try not to invade other people's countries as the local people will not like it, try not to be the Queen of Scotland at six days old - all of that is sage advice, I think you will agree.  Most of all, however much your family, friends or other people in Sainsbury's hack you off today and over the festive period, keep your temper.  Laying waste to the frozen aisle because someone else took the last Viennetta is not worth it because, unlike Medea, you do not have a golden chariot.  If you have someone in your life you really quite fancy murdering, then they probably don't need to be in your life, so hold close those that you cherish and make you happy and not-at-all-stabby instead.  Make 2023 the year you cut appalling people out of your life and see how much happier and less murderous you feel by next Blogvent.  If the people who you want to murder are your family, good luck over the next few days and can I recommend audiobooks and chocolate to get you through?

Happy Christmas, my most beloved ones, and I will see you next week somewhen...

Friday 23 December 2022

Friday 23rd December - Scene at Holyrood, 1566

We have reached the penultimate Stabvent entry, hasn't time flown? Presents have been wrapped and I have a list with which to do battle with the supermarket, so onwards with today's tragic, messy death...

Scene at Holyrood, 1566: Death of Rizzio (1855) William Borthwick Johnstone

Here we have a jolly scene - David Rizzio and Mary, Queen of Scots are having a bit of a chat, but just outside the room, lots of chaps are waiting to spring a splendid surprise party. One of the chaps is so overcome with excitement that he is having a little lie down to recover.  How jolly! Okay, I suspect not all is going well here and those chaps in the hallway are not concealing a lovely cake after all...

The Murder of Rizzio (1787) John Opie

There we go.  Knives out and away with the stabbing while poor pregnant Mary, QoS, tries to intervene.  This is a brilliant painting, full of movement and drama, with Rizzio on the floor about to meet his doom.  So, what happened to cause this calamity?

Mary, Queen of Scots and David Rizzio (c.1870) John Rogers Herbert

Mary, Queen of Scots is one of those historical figures who had a lot of bad things happen to her and then she made a lot of dodgy choices.  More than likely one begat the other, but whenever I read about her, I feel both horribly sad for her and really cross with her.  Part of the problem was that she was only six days old when she became Queen of Scotland, which meant that other people had to rule in her stead as Regents until she was old enough. That sort of thing leads all sorts of people to believe that they can rule instead of you, and that you are not capable of being a queen on your own.  She also got married off when she was 6 to a French Dolphin, excuse me, the Dauphin of France and so ended up Queen of both France and Scotland, although not really queen of either, if you know what I mean.  As the only surviving legitimate heir of James V of Scotland, she was the only person who should have been in charge - does that remind you of anyone?

John Dee Performing an Experiment before Elizabeth I (c.1880s) Henry Gillard Glindoni

Contemporaries that would become rivals due to the machinations of Elizabeth's court, Elizabeth and Mary should have been allies because one thing they both needed was a friend who was not after anything and completely understood the pressures of being a Queen.  Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) Elizabeth had no mother to marry her off, so really was without family ties when she ascended to the throne, and she was an adult.  Mary was not so lucky.  She was widowed before she was 18, the same year her mother died and was shoved back into Scotland, a country that had been managing without her rule, thank you very much.  She then got married off to her half-cousin Lord Darnley, who was not very pleasant. He wanted to be King rather than just the husband of the Queen - excuse the generalisation, but in history, I am struck by how badly men who marry Queens seem to cope with that.  I suspect the Queen just marries the wrong sort of bloke, but I am always struck by the struggle of these chaps with not being ultimately in charge.  I know, I know, #NotAllQueensHusbands, but it does seem an awful lot of them. Anyway, into this rather tense marriage came David Rizzio...

David Rizzio (1600s) Unknown Artist

This painting from the Royal Collection is allegedly David Rizzio, although contemporary accounts called him a short, ugly hunchback.  Now, come on, of course they did which probably means he was tall and exceptionally hot, and also even if he was ugly, doesn't mean he wasn't excellent company and very charismatic.  Either way, he wasn't Mary, Queen of Scot's irritating husband and as far as we known, Rizzio didn't actually want very much from Mary, which made a damn change in the poor woman's life.  Rizzio was looking for a job, starting in Turin, then moving on to the court of the Duke of Savoy and then to Nice but he wasn't getting anywhere.  He travelled from France to Scotland in search of work but there was nothing for him there, however he found that Mary needed a bass singer to join her musicians she had brought home with her from France.  Having a lovely voice, he got the job. Not only that, he was pleasant company, educated and obliging and so he became Mary's private secretary.

'David Rizzio Playing for the Queen' from Britannia and Eve, 1935

Mary relied on Rizzio to keep her company and possibly act as a buffer between her and her awful husband and his crew. This led to rumours that the pair were conducting an affair, compounded by the announcement that Mary was pregnant.  The appalling Darnley grew so jealous that only one thing was to be done.  Poor Rizzio's days were numbered.

Conspiritors arranging the Murder of Rizzio (no date) William Lindsay Windus

On the evening of 9th March 1566, Rizzio, and the pregnant Queen were having dinner when there was a kerfuffle in the outer room and a group of Darnley's awful friends stormed in, demanding that Rizzio come with them.  For obvious reasons, Rizzio was not keen and the Queen stood between him and the motley crew.  Various threats were made to the Queen and then they grabbed Rizzio and stabbed him around 57 times.  Darnley was conspicuous by his absence but allegedly, the last blow was with Darnley's dagger before Rizzio was thrown down the stairs. There is a plaque at the bottom of the stairs in Holyrood where Rizzio died and a stain on the floorboards - again, you have to put your back into scrubbing up stuff or this is what happens.

Rizzio, laid out on a wooden chest in the Porter's Lodge from Britannia and Eve, 1935

Although Darnley claimed to have no part in the actual murder of Rizzio, his big, shiny dagger sticking out of the poor musician must have made Mary realise who was behind it all.  Also, not being the brightest of chaps, Darnley apparently had a written bond with his co-conspirators saying exactly what they were about to do. For goodness sake.  As for Mary, she gave birth to her son James, who would end up as James I of England and James VI of Scotland, finally doing what his mother had not managed, ruling two countries. Mary never trusted Darnley again (if she trusted him before, which seems doubtful) and wasn't exactly broken-hearted when he died accidentally in an explosion which left him some distance away, stabbed.  A very unique sort of explosion then... She went on to marry one of the apparent murderers of her husband, three months later. 

The murder of Rizzio marked a turning point for Mary which epitomises the problem with Mary, Queen of Scots.  Things happen around her and she becomes the victim of them, never quite managing to get in control or pull rank. It is easy to compare her to Elizabeth I and see how one woman seemingly got it right and one got it horribly wrong, but Mary had so many more hurdles and problems thrown in her way and she made terrible decision from which she was not allowed back.  Elizabeth chose not to marry, which turned out to be a wise decision in many ways, but for Mary, that decision was made for her, at least twice. Had the French Dolphin lived longer, she might have been a splendid Queen of France.  Had Darnley not been a baggage, she might have been a marvellous Queen of Scotland.  Had she made an ally of Elizabeth I, she might have become Queen of England after Elizabeth, just as her son became King.  However, she had terrible advisers, horrible situations thrust upon her and pitiful choices. Then she died.  As for Rizzio, he was merely collateral damage in Mary's chaotic life. I'm guessing, taking Darnley's character into consideration, if it hadn't been Rizzio, someone else would have ended up stabbed. What a complete pickle, but that's history for you.

I'll see you tomorrow for the last Stab of the season...

Thursday 22 December 2022

Thursday 22nd December - The Wounded Cavalier

I regret nothing! I love today's painting so much I had a photographic recreation of it in my murder-mystery novel We Are Villains All. Loads of people get stabbed in that book! Here we go then, get a load of this gorgeous painting...

The Wounded Cavalier (1855) William Shakespeare Burton

Hurrah and stabs all round! I was delighted when I realised I could shove this painting into Stabvent as honestly, I would include this image in everything I do, given half the chance. There is a mystery over the painting as well as the obvious sexual tension between our Puritan lass and the frilly collared injured party.  Is he going to die? (yes, probably, he's not looking too well...) What has he been up to? Why is his sword stuck in a tree? Who's the judge-y bloke in the background? Well, the trouble is that we don't know half of the answers but I think we can guess what he's been up to...

Innocents and Card Sharpers (undated) Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier
If you look on the right-hand side of The Wounded Cavalier, in amongst the undergrowth there are discarded playing cards.  Unless our russet-haired lovely was playing solitaire and minding his own business when he was attacked, I think we can agree he was probably playing cards and gambling.  There are quite a few paintings of Cavaliers playing cards and not usually very legally or well.  That well-known Cavalier painting should be known as the Gambling Cavalier rather than the Laughing Cavalier.  Actually, in my home town there is a pub called The Gay Cavalier, which was known in the 1980s as simply The Cavalier because it was the 1980s.  Thinking about it, we also had a shop called 'Gay Homes' in our shopping precinct so maybe I just grew up in a very gay town. How enlightened...

Cleaned Out (1868) John Pettie

Looking at the above painting, we again have the scattered cards after an unsuccessful game, denoting loss and anger.  This Cavalier looks a mixture of despondent, angry and devastated. Has he been the victim of card sharps or just incredibly unlucky? By the look of his face, this is not just tonight's money he has lost, not just his pockets that have been cleaned out, but he has lost everything.  No wonder the cards have been scattered...

The End of the Game of Cards (undated) Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier

When it stops being fun, stop playing.  There is no need for everyone to get stabby.  I almost picked this one for Stabvent but I was seduced, yet again, by my Wounded Cavalier. Images like this make me suspect that the gentleman who is 'cleaned out' is bent on revenge and destruction because gambling seems to get quite stabby, especially for Cavaliers. No-one likes a bad loser and even fewer people like a stabby loser.  I think we know what happened to our supine Royalist...

Whoever he was fighting, seems to have got him in the neck. I was always puzzled as to where he's been stabbed as he was wearing that armour, but by the angle of their hands, she is pressing sideways onto his neck and not on his shoulder, which would be armoured.  I wonder if that is a message that you are never as well-protected as you think? There doesn't seem to be any blood on her hanky, but he is a remarkably pale young man which leads me on to think how she found him.  If the Puritan pair - brother and sister? husband and wife? - have just come across him, was he like that when they found him or has she hauled him up across her lap in order to press a hanky to him? There is a bit of blood on the collar, but not enough to make you fear for his life.  I wonder if he was face down, then it would have run out of him quite quickly, so there wouldn't be much left for the hankie and that would account for how pale he seems.  Otherwise, it's all gone inside his armour and that will be very unpleasant when that comes off later. Sticky.

His broken sword stuck in the tree has layers of meaning.  On one level, he was obviously fighting, missed his opponent and struck the tree where it snapped off, leaving him without a weapon and stab-able.  Maybe he was stabbed and he hit the tree afterwards? The handle of the sword is just by his hand, as if he staggered on with the handle gripped in his hand before he collapsed. The sword is a metaphor for his luck, broken or his life, cut off.  Beautifully detailed, a tiny tortoiseshell butterfly is sitting on the blade.  Butterflies denote vanity, brevity, the soul and the transience of states. Did the vanity of our cavalier cause him to fight? His life has been cut off, abbreviated, and the butterfly is possibly his soul, paused for a moment on the instrument of his life and downfall before moving on.

Hidden in the ferns and brambles, behind his boots are his discarded cards and we can see hearts.  Does that denote the blood that he has lost, his heart that will stop?  Or are we looking at another reason he might have been stabbed which might also account for this chap's expression...?

This figure has always jarred with me because I forget he's there, so caught up am I in the romance of the Cavalier and the Puritan lass. He's lurking at the back with a face like thunder.  All the descriptions I have ever read suggest he is either the girl's husband and he is jealous of her attraction to the handsome, bleeding stranger or he is her brother and is feeling that Christian charity does not extend to floppy-collared wastrels who are sprawled on the floor. However, look at the broken sword - it looks like it is coming out of his flipping big Bible.  The brother (if that is who he is) probably would believe that God, in his infinity judgement, has struck down this unworthy, rather handsome, gambling sinner, but is there even more to it?  Has the man at the back had anything to do with the Cavalier's injury? Did he ambush the Royalist, knock him to the ground with his huge Bible and then stab him with something? We shall never know as Burton never gave any further detail or explanation and the painting was exhibited without much in the way of notes, yet it became his signature piece, the one people compared all his subsequent work to, and at his death in 1916, it was the painting mentioned first and foremost in his obituaries.

I'll leave you with a description from the Bicester Herald of two women viewing the painting in 1905, as it hung on the wall of the Guildhall Art Gallery (where you can still view it today):

The following remark, made by one woman to her neighbour as they passed, should serve to show that for once in a way the Eastender does not err in the direction of exaggerated statement. She gazed at the deathlike face for a moment, then remarked with the air of a connoisseur "Ow, don't 'e look ill!" There was no contradiction possible, and the pair passed on.

I'll catch you tomorrow... 


Wednesday 21 December 2022

Wednesday 21st December - The Ides of March

Happy Winter Solstice!  Enjoy your shortest day and longest night and then we are on the road back to sunshine and less thermal underwear. Let's crack on with today's shortest post...

The Ides of March (1883) Edward Poynter

Just as most of my 18th century knowledge came from Carry On Don't Lose Your Head, all of my Julius Caesar knowledge comes from Carry on Cleo, so I think we can agree I am an expert. Okay, so here we have a nice Roman couple out for a stroll on the 15th March 44BC (your actual Ides), and there is a comet in the sky (I think that's meant to be Caesar's Comet, which was actually seen in July, I think you'll find, but we'll draw a veil).  If I remember rightly, comets are signs of what God thinks of things and the comet of 44BC was seen as God giving side-eye at the (spoiler alert) big old stabbing of Julius Caesar in March, but let's not let that get in the way of an atmospheric painting.  So, what happened on the Ides of March?

The Death of Caesar (1818) Heinrich Fuger

Julius Caesar is probably one of the best known of the Roman Emperors and he is mostly thought of as productive and positive, if always thwarted by those pesky Gauls (I read a lot of Astrix too), unlike Nero and Caligula who are seen as entirely awful.  However, his assassination at the hands of the Senate seems enormously theatrical (and indeed Shakespeare made it into a play, from which we get a lot of our impressions of him) (after Carry on Cleo, obviously).  It is from Shakespeare we get the phrase 'Beware the Ides of March', which is said to Caesar as he returns after defeating his rival Pompey.  The inference is that Caesar, at that point, began to believe his own hype and was about to make the mistakes that would hack everyone off and lead to a very stabby March indeed.

The Death of Julius Caesar (1888) William Holmes Sullivan

I think the problem was that three times (strange how it is always three times someone does something before it becomes a problem - three is a magic number indeed) Caesar implied he was too cool for school - he refused to rise to meet the Senate (rude),  he made a joke that he was not 'Rex' be was 'Caesar' after being called rex by the crowd.  The implication was he was saying Rex wasn't his name, but he didn't mind being called King, which was a bit of a no-no. He also refused to wear a diadem that was presented to him, ostentatiously offering it to Jupiter as a sacrifice as 'Jupiter was the only king'.  This was seen by many as a sneaky way of testing public opinion to see if the crowd would accept him as king.  Basically, Caesar pushed his luck at a power grab and made everyone feel extremely murder-y. That's the problem when your boss is an absolute womble, as the employee, you can't sack him or even get rid of him because it would be likely he's try and get back in power.  The Senate decided there was only one way to permanently get rid of Julius Caesar and that involved daggers.

The Murder of Caesar (1865) Karl von Piloty

Various seers foresaw the assassination of Caesar, hence in Shakespeare, one warns him about the Ides of March.  Even Calpurnia, Mrs Caesar, had a nightmare where she saw her husband murdered. Caesar thought it best to have a duvet day and stay home but one of the Senate arrived and basically said 'Oh, you are bossed about by your wife then?' and so Caesar put on his toga and went off to the Senate. Apparently, he made the mistake of calling out to the Seer, as he passed her on the road, 'The Ides of March have come and look!  I'm absolutely fine!' 

For goodness sake...

The Death of Caesar (1859-67) Jean-Léon Gérôme

He turned up to the Senate and that was that.  Much stabbing later, there was one Caesar less in the world.  Whether or not he shouted 'Infamy, infamy, they've all got it in for me!' is lost to history, but I believe so. So, what does Poynter's painting of the Ides of March show us?

It is a painting of shadows and portent, of things hidden and sudden revelation. In the centre, their backs to us, are Caesar and Calpurnia.  She is looking up at her husband and seems to have her arm on his, stopping him.  She is telling him that today is the day, the Ides that he has been warned about and she has a very bad feeling indeed. 

I am interested in the bust, so sharply up-lit.  I wondered if it was Jupiter, because of the hints that Caesar had played around with his own importance in comparison with the God's, but it is not beardy enough.  Is it Caesar?  Are we up-lighting our own busts now?  Is that a thing? Anyway, if you are more educated that what I am in the classics, let me know who that bloke is please.

This is the portion of the painting that I love the most.  You don't have to be a fortune teller to look out at that doom-laden sky and say 'I'll just stay in today, because nothing good is happening under that...' The dark shapes, the lurking black figure, the sudden bolt of bright light across the sky?  It is all very portentous indeed and everyone need to stay in their pyjamas and try again tomorrow when it wasn't the sodding Ides of March anymore. Really, I'm not saying that Caesar deserved to get stabbed to death, but take a day off! Also, don't push your luck with the Senate. And don't be rude to tribunes.  Honestly, if every manager I've ever worked under could be given a copy of Julius Caesar and the word 'tribune' be replaced by 'Admin Assistant', then those of us who are support staff might start getting the respect we deserve.

I'll see you tomorrow...

Tuesday 20 December 2022

Tuesday 20th December - In Memoriam

I start getting a bit excited at this time of the year (steady now) because we are literally a day away from the turning point, when we move from longer nights to longer days and the promise of Spring.  I think Spring is probably my favourite season, with Autumn a close second (for my Dark Academia styling, obviously), so tomorrow will be an absolutely delight to get past.  In the meantime, on with the harrowing slaughter!

In Memoriam (1858) Joseph Noel Paton

I think the first time I saw this picture, I did not get what all the fuss was about. For starters, I had read accounts such as the one in Homeward Mail for India, China and the East, from 4th May 1858, when the painting was first exhibited...

'It represents a group of miserable, stricken, beautiful, half-dressed women and children crouching or clasping one another with upturned eyes, with clenched teeth, with baked, parched, livid lips, in a mean room that has something of an Oriental character about it. An olive-faced Ayah, with a child in her arms establishes the locality. These wretched girls are waiting for death, for, see, through the open doorway, the bloody sepoys are bursting in to ravish and kill. Looking at the ghastly canvas, "Cawnpore! Cawnpore!" keeps ringing in the ears and turns the soul away, at last, sick weary and half-terrified. It is a powerfully expressive production but the expression is too shocking to be long contemplated. Years must elapse ere the horrors which it depicts can be looked upon with the calm eye of critical admiration.'

Okay, well I see the miserable, stricken etc etc women in the foreground, all looking decidedly peaky, but hurrah!  Some nice soldiers seem to have turned up! What on earth is going on?  Reading the explanation, I was reminded of this picture...

The Awakening Conscience (1857) William Holman Hunt

The first time I was ever shown The Awakening Conscience, I also got confused because the contemporary reviews of it describe the horrified and stricken expression of the woman's face, how terrible and tortured she looks because she has realised she is wallowing in sin (who doesn't enjoy a good wallow?) Well, looking at the painting I was very confused as the young lady looks a bit perturbed, but nothing more than trying to remember if she turned her oven off or not. The answer, of course, is that we are not looking at the same painting that the contemporary critics were.  In both cases, initial reactions were so extreme that it rendered the painting unsaleable. That's all very well for artistic verisimilitude, but some of us need to eat, so in both cases, a bit of editing later and we have a similar, but rather more palatable scene...

Therefore, this part of the painting remained untouched - we have the stricken, beautiful women, all looking terrified in a triangular composition.  Your eyes travel up the very saintly lady in black, her eyes turned to heaven, stoically. In her hand, she seems to be holding a Bible, so you know she's a lovely Christian lady. The Ayah (an Indian nanny, which I only know because they discuss it in Agatha Christie's A Murder is Announced) is the lady against the wall on the right - interestingly, she is the only one of the adult women who fully looks at the opening door.  The child next to her might have turned too but equally she might be looking at the tragic pyramid of women in the middle. It is exactly as the papers reviewed it, however this part changed...

Hurrah!  The British have arrived to save the day! Only they didn't, that's the problem. After the Athenaeum commented that it should not be displayed as it was cruel and in bad taste and the Illustrated London News called it a horrible picture with revolting subject matter, Paton changed it from murderous Sepoys to rescuing Red Coats, and even Queen Victoria breathed a sigh of relief. For many looking at the picture from that moment onwards it was not "Cawnpore!" they heard but "Lucknow!"  So what was the difference?

Both sieges happened simultaneously, and because of that, it could be argued Lucknow had survivors. As there were two pulls on resources and relief, the decision was made not to go in for an attack at Lucknow, just to evacuate all that could be rescued and send relief to Cawnpore. Shelling commenced as a distraction at Lucknow, while screens were erected, behind which women, children and the injured could be sneaked to safety.  In that sense, this is very much of the spirit of Lucknow, with the besieged women being found and escorted to safety just as they must have thought all hope was lost.  However, that makes the title nonsensical and that is not what Paton intended when he painted this work...

Memorial Well at Kanpur (Cawnpore)

It does seem a bit ghoulish that Paton painted this picture so hard on the heels of the events, so I'm not sure what he was expecting. Possibly he didn't care, he just wanted to be angry about an event. Rightly so, because what happened at Cawnpore, which is modern-day Kanpur, was horrific and very reminiscent of other events we have covered this month.  The evacuation of Lucknow seems to have been achieved in a far more organised manner, but not for Cawnpore.  Major General Sir Hugh Wheeler had faith in the local people of Cawnpore, despite the growing mutiny; he had learned the language, followed the customs and married an Indian woman so obviously felt he had integrated, missing the obvious point that he was still The Colonial Oppressor. When he retreated to an armed position, followed by al the other European families who had heard of the growing rebellions, the optics were that The British did not trust The Native Types and were preparing to attack. Add to this, Nana Sahib, who was the adopted son of the former peshwa of the Maratha Confederacy had been basically disinherited by the East Indian Company who didn't consider him the heir as he was adopted.  He had petitioned Queen Victoria to honour his claim but was refused.  He arrived at Cawnpore apparently on the side of the British, but obviously with an axe to grind.  It was a recipe for disaster.

Illustration from Victor Surridge's 1909 The Romance of India

It went very badly - an attempt at evacuation down to the river was a disaster. Accounts found written in the clothing of prisoners tell of a trap, the boats burning and the escaping Europeans shot.  Of all the Europeans stationed there, only 5 men and 2 women survived, mostly by jumping into the river and swimming for their lives.  Women and children who survived the initial attack by the river were captured and taken back to Cawnpore.  On the approach of the relief force, the Sepoy forces killed their prisoners and deposited the bodies into the well.  This is now a memorial to the whole tragedy, which hit England with horror and disbelief, especially when confronted with first-hand accounts, such as the one published in the Illustrated London News in the September of 1857.  The author had been sent out on reconnaissance just before the tragedy, dressed in civilian clothing and so had not been killed.  He had learned from others the fate of his wife and children, from notes written in Hindi.  The prisoners were kept in the Assembly Rooms until the male prisoners were taken out and killed.  The women then were moved and some died of cholera and other diseases.  The remaining women and children were taken out to the well and either killed or jumped on their own, only to die later.

'Miserere, domine!' (Christians in Prison) (1903) St George Hare

Looking again at the painting and imagining the original, with the Sepoy soldiers coming to take the women to the well, the anger and disgust of the events is obvious. However, it was painted less than a year later and it had taken until the release of prisoners from surrounding areas in September for detailed accounts to emerge. Paton's painting was in the May 1858 Royal Academy exhibition, so very quickly after the event that people were not prepared.  This is not the same situation as Major Wilson or Chinese Gordon, this is a slaughter of the innocent - possibly the reason for such levels of both anger and disgust.  I also wonder if Cawnpore was also something that the British did not want to dwell on - a sign that not only were we capable of massive defeat, but that we couldn't protect the most vulnerable.  In war, and in war art, it is men who are involved.  Men fight, men die, men face their fate with a stiff upper lip and a safe knowledge that they are absolutely doing the good Christian thing and will be remembered as a jolly good chap.  These women in the room in Cawnpore are doing their best but most of them look absolutely terrified, clinging to each other. I am reminded of Christian martyr paintings, where the good are imprisoned, awaiting death but with the knowledge (as signified by the clutched Bible) that a better place awaits them. That must have been a difficult thought to cling to in that room.

See you tomorrow...