Friday, 27 April 2012

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904)

Self-portrait (1866)

Jean-Léon Gérôme.
Born 11 May 1824 at Vesoul, Haute-Saune, France.
Attended Ecole des Beaux-Arts and tried unsuccessfully to enter Prix de Rome, a scholarship for art students.
He improved his skills with The Cockfight (1846) winning third-class medal at the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts at Paris, known as the Salon.
His success at the Salon led to a career as painter and sculptor in a style that became known as Academicism.

Phryne before the Areopagus (1861)

The Cockfight (1846

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Peter Paul Rubens and Marie de' Medici

The Coronation in Saint-Denis

Peter Paul Rubens was one of the most successful artists of the seventeenth century and counted monarchs, statesmen and church leaders among his clients, one of the most lucrative being Marie de’ Medici, the second wife of Henry IV of France. 

Rubens had attended Marie's marriage to Henry in 1600, a grand event that took place in her home town of Florence, although one important party  had been missing from the celebrations, the groom himself, who sent a proxy in his place, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Now twenty-two years on Marie wanted to commission a series of paintings to illustrate her life, and the artist she chose for the work was Rubens.

The canvases which the artist was to produce numbered twenty-four in all, of which three were portraits of Marie and her family, and were to adorn the new residence of Luxembourg Palace that she was having built in Paris. They were intended to bequeath to posterity an account of her life. One of the paintings, The Coronation in Saint-Denis, was a depiction of the coronation she insisted upon to celebrate her position as Queen of France, and shows the moment that the crown is placed upon her head, with her son and daughter on either side of her, and the King looking down from a balcony.

Among the other canvases in the series was The Education of Marie de' Medici, in which the young Marie is seen receiving instruction in reading, music and eloquence; The Arrival of Marie de' Medici at Marseilles, where Neptune and an assembly of mythological sea creatures escort Marie's ship into the harbour; and Henry IV Receiving the Portrait of Marie de' Medici, where we see emissaries of Juno, the Goddess of Marriage, showing to the King a portrait of Marie, his future bride.

Henry IV Receiving the Portrait of Marie de' Medici

The paintings were completed c. 1622-25 and are now in the possession of the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)

‘Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?’   
'D'où Venons Nous? Que Sommes Nous? Où Allons Nous? 

It was the title of one of Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin’s paintings and in many ways encapsulates the life of the man himself. He worked for a time as a stockbroker before he rejected ‘artificial and conventional’ European civilisation and set off in search of a tropical paradise where he could live the simple life. His travels took him to Panama, where he briefly worked on the construction of the canal, and then to Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands, where he painted many of the native girls and had affairs with several of them.

Spirit of the Dead Watching (1892)

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Sir John Vanbrugh: Architect, Playwright, Soldier, Spy

John Vanbrugh c1718: portrait
attributed to Thomas Murray

‘There is something so catching to the ear, so easy to the memory, in all he writ, that it has been observed by all the actors of my time, that the style of no other author whatsoever gave their memory less trouble than that of Sir John Vanbrugh’.
[Colley Cibber]

John Vanbrugh was born in London in 1663/64, the eldest son and one of 19 children of Giles and Elizabeth Vanbrugh, themselves the descendants of Flemish religious refugees from the previous century. The family moved to Chester in 1667, possibly as a result of the Great Fire which had destroyed most of the city of London in 1666, where the young Vanbrugh evidently had a good education, possibly at the King’s School. 

Giles Vanbrugh made his living as a sugar refiner, but his eldest son appears to have had no wish to follow in his father’s footsteps, and instead secured a military commission in the foot regiment of the Earl of Huntington, an aristocratic relative of his mother. He resigned his commission the following year after the regiment had been posted on a semi-permanent basis to Guernsey in the Channel Islands, and sought a further military appointment with another of his mother’s relatives, the Earl of Abingdon. But Abingdon fell out of favour with the king, James II, who dismissed him. Then, in September 1688, Vanbrugh surfaced in France, where he was arrested as a spy and imprisoned in the Bastille.

What Vanbrugh was doing in France is not clear, though tradition has it that he went there to study architecture. However, incarceration in the notorious prison was not as rigorous as we might think. Privileged prisoners were provided with four-course meals and three bottles of wine a day. and were allowed to keep pets and play cards and billiards in their furnished private ‘cells‘. They were even assigned a personal servant to run their errands outside of the prison. And if any of the prisoners had literary ambitions then the Bastille was an ideal place to pursue their creativity, “not unthankful for the quiet they enjoyed”. Vanbrugh clearly took advantage of the opportunity, reading widely in French drama and drafting a play of his own, which was later to become The Provok’d Wife.

Colley Cibber as
Lord Foppington
Vanbrugh was suddenly released from the Bastille in November 1692 and returned to London where generous provisions from his father’s will made him a rich and independent man. Some time after his return he wrote his first play The Relapse, in part to satisfy a debt to Sir Thomas Skipwith, a manager of the Drury Lane theatre. The Drury Lane was suffering financially from the opening of a rival theatre at Lincoln’s Inn Fields by the famous actor Thomas Betterton, and Vanbrugh’s play proved a godsend, keeping the theatre afloat for the following two or three years. It was written as a sequel to Colley Cibber’s Love’s Last Shift, and retained the character Sir Novely Fashion, now elevated to the peerage as Lord Foppington, with Cibber himself in the part. Actress Mary Kent played the part of Worthy, a gentleman of the town, in keeping with the current tradition of women in ‘breeches’ roles. 

The Relapse had its first performance on 21 November 1696 and was followed a few months later by Aesop, a play reworked by Vanbrugh from a French original. His next original play was The Provok’d Wife, which he had begun in the Bastille, and which he gave to Betterton’s company at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. It opened in April 1697 and confirmed Vanbrugh as one of the most popular dramatist’s of his day. But it was to be his last original work, the rest adaptations of French comedies, much to the anger of Voltaire, who complained that the English had disguised and ruined Molière’s plays.

Vanbrugh’s plays were also under attack from the English puritans, one of whom, Jeremy Collier, produced a pamphlet entitled A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage. Vanbrugh was Collier’s main target, accusing him of bawdiness and blasphemy. The attack intensified with three leading actors being prosecuted by magistrates ‘for using indecent expressions’ on stage. The wit and elegance of Restoration comedy was evidently lost on the puritans who saw only uninhibited bawdiness and the exploitation of sexual relationships.

Vanbrugh's opera house in the
Haymarket: the Queen's Theatre
At about this time Vanbrugh turned his attention to architecture, and in 1700 sent a model of his design for Castle Howard to Hampton Court, and work was commenced on the laying of the foundation for the new building. In 1702 he was commissioned Captain in Lord Huntington’s Foot Regiment, a year which also saw the première of a new play The False Friend. And in 1704 the foundation stone was laid for a new theatre in the Haymarket which Vanbrugh had designed and which he was to manage with William Congreve. Unaccountably he had failed to equip the theatre with adequate acoustics, an oversight which proved disastrous. Congreve pulled out of the partnership, and in 1706 Vanbrugh let the theatre to impresario Owen McSwinney, then two years later, sold out to him completely. McSwinney’s first move was to improve the acoustics.

In the year 1702 Vanbrugh had also been appointed to the position of Comptroller of the Board of Works under Sir Christopher Wren. His high patronage as well as his growing reputation as an architect led to his commission for the design of Blenheim Palace, which was to be presented to the Duke of Marlborough as a mark of royal favour. Built in a flamboyant baroque style, the work was beset was problems which developed between Queen Anne and the quick tempered Duchess of Marlborough, who also became hostile towards Vanbrugh. It was not completed in 1723. The work at Castle Howard took even longer, and was not finished until 1742, sixteen years after Vanbrugh’s death.

In 1714 Vanbrugh was knighted and hoped to succeed Wren as Surveyor General. But he was passed over by the King in favour of William Benson, who managed to unseat almost all the members of the Board of Works bar Vanbrugh. Then Benson fell foul of his own machinations and was dismissed himself in much disgrace. In 1719 Vanbrugh was again passed over by the King, this time for an amateur architect with almost no experience. A mortified Vanbrugh wrote a complaint to the Duke of Newcastle, stating: “’Tis one of the hardest pieces of Fortune that ever fell on anybody”.

Vanbrugh's Pyramid at Stowe
By this time Vanbrugh had married Henrietta Maria Yarburgh, and he devoted the rest of his time to family life while continuing to practice as an architect. His last design was the Great Pyramid in the gardens at Stowe and which was inscribed in Latin: ‘Among the great number of buildings designed by Sir John Vanbrugh in these gardens Cobham desired this pyramid to be sacred to his memory’. However, by a twisted turn of fate, the pyramid was later demolished, and even the architect’s vault in St. Stephen Walbrook, a church designed by Wren, was walled over in the nineteenth century. But his lasting memorials are his comedy masterpieces The Relapse and The Provok’d Wife, his palaces at Castle Howard and Blenheim, and the opinion of his admirers:
“No person ever lived or died with so few enemies as Sir John Vanbrugh, owing to his pleasant wit and unaffected good humour”. [M. Noble]
"We shall look in vain for the vigour of a Dryden, or the exquisiteness of a Congreve, but for a breath of goodhumoured and spacious England that we hope will never die, we may settle ourselves in our chairs with a book of Vanbrugh's letters or plays". [Bonamy Dobrée]

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Shak.Rap - Shakespeare and Hip Hop

Was Shakespeare the world’s first rapper? In 2009 British rap artist and MOBO award winner Akala accepted a BBC challenge to stage Othello with a hip hop twist. The result was Othello Retold, with 50 Manchester based MCs, musicians, dancers and visual artists. Here is part of their creation:

The course of deception never did run smooth Yet Othello still had more to prove
Cold is his heart, shielded by a cage
His evilness never fades Like a blade with no size As sharp as a colour that blinds
Deception, manipulation, manifested in his creation To divide, step into and override
Faithfulness does not lie but doubt corrupts the mind
Othello’s lost inside his heart skipping the beat The rhythm of Iago’s defeat

Akala believes that Shakespeare and hip hop have a lot more in common that we may imagine. To demonstrate this he posed some quotations and asked if we could tell if they were from Shakespeare or Hip Hop:


(1) I am reckless, what I do to spite the world.

(2) A dead bird flying through a broken sky.

(3) Hear my soul speak.  

(4) Who inflicted this bitter sickness?

Click for answers

Michael Boyd, distinguished artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, has also joined in, stating: “The closest to Shakespeare in contemporary times are rappers”. He singled out and Jay-Z and talked of how Shakespeare and rappers, in comparison with films and TV, speak directly to an audience: “There is something missing with [films and TV shows] that maybe Jay-Z doesn’t miss in a live concert. He is in direct contact with his audience”.

Shak.Rap Answers

(a) Shakespeare - Macbeth 3.1.111-112

(b) Hip Hop - Nasir Jones aka Nas

(c) Shakespeare - The Tempest 3.1.63

(d) Hip Hop - Inspectah Deck

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Sex in the Restoration Theatre

The Laughing Audience - engraving by William Hogarth

In his book The Art of Living in London, 17th-century author Henry Peacham relates the following anecdote about a tradesman’s wife who went to see a play without her husband and there lost her purse:

“Where did I put it? Under my petticoat, between that and my smock”. “What” quoth her husband “did you feel nobody’s hand there?” “Yes” quoth she “I felt one’s hand there, but did not think he had come for that.”

In Restoration England if a gentleman was seeking an extra-marital affair, the ideal place to seek a partner was in one of the city’s many theatres, and in particular in the pit. Help (if help were needed) was available in The Young Gallant’s Academy (1674) by Sam Vincent, in which Chapter V devotes itself to ‘Instructions for a young gallant how to behave himself in the playhouse’....

Having ‘paid his half-crown and given the door-keeper his ticket’, the gentleman should ‘presently advance himself in the middle of the pit, where having made his honour to the rest of the company, but especially to the vizard-masks, [’Ladies rarely came upon the first Days of Acting but in Masks’- Colley Cibber (1704)] let him pull out his comb, and manage his flaxen wig with all the grace he can’. The next step was to buy some oranges from the ‘orange-wench’, and present one to ‘the next vizard-mask’. In this way ‘By sitting in the Pit, if you be a Knight, you may happily get you a Mistress…’ 

 If encouragement were needed this too was available on the stage itself, such as at the Dorset Garden Theatre, opened on 9 November 1671. It had a seating capacity of between 1,000 and 1,200, and a gilded baroque proscenium lavishly decorated with carvings and a heraldic emblem. A visiting Frenchman, François Brunet, wrote in his Voyage d’Angleterre (1676):

‘The auditorium is infinitely more beautiful and functional that those in the playhouses of our French actors. The pit, arranged in the form of an amphitheatre, has seats, and one never hears any noise. There are seven boxes, holding twenty persons each. The same number of boxes form the second tier, and higher still, there is the paradise.’

One of the most bawdy plays to be performed at the Dorset was The London Cuckolds by Edward Ravenscroft, first staged in 1681. Born in May 1644, Ravenscroft had been destined to follow his father and become a lawyer, but theatrical success in his adaptation of a Molière play persuaded him to give up law for a career in the theatre. He had further success with a farce entitled The Anatomist and with an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. But his biggest hit by far was The London Cuckolds, an unashamedly rude play involving young rakes pursuing buxom married women. The play was so popular that it was performed each Lord Major’s Day for seventy years, until pressure from puritans caused Garrick to discontinue the tradition. 

The Four Times of the Day - Morning by William Hogarth (detail)

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Edward ‘Ned’ Howard and a Restoration cause célèbre.

Edward ‘Ned’ Howard (1624 - c.1700) was one of four Restoration playwright brothers with a reputation for being difficult and demanding. He particularly disliked actors improvising their parts, and in 1667 became embroiled in a controversy involving his play The Change of Crowns, in which comic actor and fellow playwright John Lacy, regarded as the greatest comedian of his day, was performing.

It all happened on Monday 15 April 1667 at the King’s House theatre. It was the first performance of the play and the house was packed. King Charles II and the Queen were there, along with the King’s brother the Duke of York and the Duchess, and various members of the Court. Also present was Admiralty official Samuel Pepys, who was unable to find a seat and had to stand by the door. But he found the play ‘the best that ever I saw at that house’, and that Lacy ‘did act the country-gentleman come up to Court, who do abuse the Court with all the imaginable wit and plainness about selling of places, and doing every thing for money’ like no-one else. Everyone in fact seemed to enjoy the play. Everyone that is except for one person: the King.

Charles, in fact, was furious with Lacy for the liberty he had taken in apparently improvising his part, and in his anger had the actor incarcerated. Lacy spent several days confined, and on his release he met with Ned Howard. He blamed Howard’s play for his ill treatment, accused him of being more a fool that a poet, to which Howard replied by slapping Lacy’s face with his glove. Lacy responded in striking Howard on the head with his cane, and some there wondered that Howard did not run Lacy through. Instead Howard complained to the King, and the King’s response was to the close the theatre.

Samuel Pepys heard about the confrontation and recorded it in his Diary. He next saw Lacy on stage on 1 May 1667 in a play titled Love in a Maze, which he described as 'a sorry play: only Lacy's clowne's part, which he did most admirably indeed; and I am glad to see the rogue at liberty again'.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

The Music of William Shakespeare

Musicians by Dutch artist Dirck Hals

What music did Shakespeare listen to? On Saturday 21 April 2012 between 10.30-11.00 a.m. (BST) BBC Radio 4 will be broadcasting a selection of what they call 'Shakespeare's favourite songs' chosen by scholar Stanley Wells, RSC director Greg Doran and musician Lucie Skeaping.

The selection to include a lullaby that the poet's mother may have sung him; bawdy tavern songs; and songs from the pen of the man himself.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Sir Peter Lely and the Windsor Beauties

The English Stuart king Charles II (1630-1685) had an eye for the ladies as well as being a prolific squanderer of public money. It is depressing to think that England abandoned its republic for a wastrel who had scant regard for parliament and who even cynically betrayed his own people's safety by accepting an allowance from Louis XIV of France in exchange for his non-interference in Europe.

Among the idle king's many mistresses were Barbara Villiers, also known as Lady Castlemaine; and the stage actress Nell Gwynn. The picture above by Sir Peter Lely is of Nell Gwynn, though there is an alternative belief that it depicts Lady Castlemaine.

Sir Peter Lely (1618-1680) was a Dutch-born artist who became a leading painter of the English court following the death of Sir Anthony van Dyck. He was portrait artist to Charles I, and he painted Oliver Cromwell when he was Lord Protector. In 1661 he was appointed Principle Painter in Ordinary to Charles II.

Among Lely's works were ten portraits of ladies of the court, the so-called Windsor Beauties, named after the medieval Windsor Castle, parts of which were rebuilt by Charles II. The paintings were later moved to Hampton Court Palace where they are currently on display in an exhibition entitled The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned. The exhibition runs until 30 September 2012.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Samuel Beckett's new suit

Beckett in his new suit in 1938 after it had been altered in Dublin

'...the suit is lovely except that it doesn't fit anywhere'.

It is the year 1936 and Samuel Beckett is living with his mother at the family home of Cooldrinagh in the Dublin suburb of Foxrock. Some years earlier he had resigned his post of lecturer at Trinity College, Dublin, and had recently undergone psychiatric therapy at the Tavistock Clinic in London. Now, back in Dublin, he is broke, unemployed, and quite likes getting drunk.

He mother is frantic for him to find employment, and he persuades her to fund a trip he could make to Germany in order to study paintings with a view to finding a post of curator of an art gallery. His mother agrees, and on the morning of 28 September 1936 he sets off for six months of wanderings around the newly created Third Reich. 

The trip is long and at times tiring, and towards the end he finds himself in the town of Bamburg, where he has a strange encounter with a tailor.

The man pours his soul out to Beckett: his poor health, his debts, even evokes his old war wound. Ever compassionate, Sam asks the man to make him a suit in 'midnight blue'. The tailor quickly produces a tape measure, takes Sam's measurements, suggests a special cloth, and gives a cost of 120 marks. Beckett pays 35 marks deposit and they arrange a fitting several days later in Nuremberg. 

Sam waits in Nuremberg, but there is no news from the tailor. Is he being swindled, he wonders. The tailor finally calls and tells Sam he will be coming by train. Beckett goes to the station but there is no sign of the man. He finally comes on a later train, what he calls an 'extra', and has the coat with him, but not the trousers. 

Sam tries the coat. The tailor praises the woof, the weight, says his own next suit will be of no other material. Sam is now convinced that he is being done, but consoles himself that he is not being done 'in the eye'. He writes in his diary:

'The difference between being done and done in the eye is in first case one knows and in second not. He thinks he is doing me in the eye, whereas he is only doing me.'

The fitting is done and the tailor departs. Several days later the finished suit arrives by post in Munich. Sam opens the package, looks at the suit, describes it as 'of grotesque cut, coat too big and trousers too short, but blue'. He writes a letter to the tailor telling him 'the suit is lovely except that it doesn't fit anywhere'. Later that day Sam buys a white silk shirt to go with the suit. He tries it on and finds it 'too big and beastly cut, but white'.

Shortly afterwards he returns to Ireland.

[Source: Damned to Fame, The Life of Samuel Beckett by James Knowlson]