British Bakers

I am certainly saddened by the end of Downton Abbey’s season last week, but I am devastated by the conclusion of its lead-in, The Great British Baking Show, to which I became positively addicted. Everything about this show drew me in: the amiable (never snarky) contestants, the chatty hosts, the authoritative judges, and (most of all) the setting: a turreted tent in the midst of a perfect green English field dotted with sheep and bordered by blooming perennials. Under the tent, all is pastel perfection: the set designers seem to have taken their cues from the classic 1903 Book of Cakes by T. Percy Lewis and A.G. Bromley (which was reissued in 1991 as The Victorian Book of Cakes).

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Pastel Time

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Great British Baking Show (Bake-Off in Britain) judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, this past season’s contestants under the tent, and a page from Lewis & Bromley’s Book of Cakes (1903).

I never knew baking was so difficult, requiring so much precision and patience! The weekly technical and “showstopper” challenges make those on Top Chef look like cakewalks. And all for the title of “star baker” and (the ultimate prize) an engraved cake plate. Victoria sponge cakes, Farthing biscuits, Swedish Princess cake, twenty-layer Schichttorte: these British bakers can do it all. I learned a lot (not that I will ever really use this knowledge) and really enjoyed being plunged into this cozy world on a weekly basis. I’ll miss all the people and all the pastry, and most especially all those beautiful Gorenje refrigerators on set, so much so that I might have to buy one for my own kitchen!

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Baking Winner

THE refrigerator; Berry and Hollywood with this season’s best baker, Nancy Birtwhistle.


Salem Film Fest 2015

We’re in the midst of the eighth annual Salem Film Fest, featuring a diverse menu of documentary films from all over the world. I’m for any initiative that plays to Salem’s worldly past rather than its witchy one, and this extremely well-planned festival does just that: its slogan is Come to Salem, See the World and this year you can embark on a “curated itinerary” following the themes of arts and artists, films about music, righting wrongs, films about identity, contemporary political and social issues, land and sea, and living on the edge–giving it all. Several screenings include Q and A sessions with the filmmakers, and there are also forums which explore particular aspects of documentary production. I always have an ambitious itinerary of my own, but generally end up only seeing one film. Perhaps I’ll do better this year. This weekend I saw Dennis Mohr’s Mugshotwhich examines the cultural significance of these little pictures, from law enforcement tool to celebrity signal to object of art. It was great, perfectly mixing past and present and imagery in my favorite way. Then I got focused on an academic project (a good thing) and missed American Experience Presents, about the making of the iconic PBS series, later on Saturday afternoon as well as today’s screening of Sex and Broadcasting, focused on the independent New Jersey radio station WFMU. There are still several screenings left of what looks like the “feel good” film of the festival, The Optimists, about a Norwegian volleyball team for women aged 66 to 98, so I think I’ll probably see that one, and I’m also interested in Seeds of Time, which examines one man’s mission to save the world through seed-saving and crop diversity.

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Optimists

Seeds of Time

Cats and dogs:  the festival mixes its worldliness with local perspectives by including shorts by local college students and promotional “Salem sketches” which offer a frame of city life in very short films–a minute or two. I love this one featuring our local cobbler (and his cat) and even though “Snow Place like Salem” dates from a few years ago, it perfectly captures life in Salem this winter.


Film Fonts from the 1930s

Big time transition here from the 1180s to the 1930s but that’s my life! As even the casual reader of this blog may know, I’m an avid classic film buff who is regularly tuned in to Turner Classic Movies–on which I watch (or glance at, while I’m doing other things) even bad movies. It doesn’t matter: if the plot doesn’t hold my attention something else will:  the sets, the costumes, even the titles. The other night an extremely lightweight Ann Sothern film from 1936 entitled The Smartest Girl in Town (working model “Cookie” Cooke seeks rich husband and reluctantly falls for a man whom she presumes is another model but is in fact–and of course–a millionaire) caught my attention simply by its title sequence, featuring an amazing font which I had never seen before. I taped the film and have since gone back again and again just to look at these letters:

Film Font 1936

And aren’t they amazing? Look at all those circles and parallelograms–they really liven up what looks (to my untrained eye) like a pretty standard 1930s font. My preoccupation with this particular title drove me to look for those of some of my favorite films from this era, and led me to discover a great resource: the website of Dutch graphic and web designer Christian Annyas, who has collected hundreds of screen shots of film titles from the 1920s to the present in his The Movie Title Stills Collection. You can search by title, designer, director, or actor, but the best thing to do is just browse through the decades so you can see the evolution of letters on film. I did that briefly, and then went right back to the 1930s, which produced my favorite films and my favorite fonts, and here are just a few of them:

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Design for Living (1933): almost as good a title as The Smartest Girl, but a much better film. It’s very modern, and is basically about a menage à trois!

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The 39 Steps (1935): Hitchcock attended to every little detail–all his titles are great.

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Theodora Goes Wild (1936): not sure this is as classic as some people say, but it is charmingly well-acted by Irene Dunne and Melvyn Douglas–and I love this font!

Film Font Godfrey

My Man Godfrey (1936): more 1930s shadows–the “forgotten man” gets into the picture!

Film Font Dead End 1937

Dead End (1937): a more realistic Depression-in-New-York film by William Wyler with Humphrey Bogart and one of my favorites, Joes McCrea.

Film Font Wings

Only Angels have Wings (1939): I don’t really care for this sandy font, to tell the truth, but as this is probably my favorite movie of that stellar movie year 1939, I felt I had to include it. You can tell we’re about to go through a typographical transition…….


Curtmantle

Though my primary field is Tudor-Stuart history, occasionally I teach a more general English history survey which spans from Roman era to the seventeenth century. My biggest challenge in this course, which I am teaching this semester, is to refrain from settling into mere storytelling about the characters and exploits of a succession of colorful kings and queens. The students in this course are generally not history majors, and their knowledge and interest in history tends to be quite History Channel-ish, meaning that they are more interested in personalities than structures. I try to balance it all out, and for the most part I think I’m successful, but periodically I must slow down and simply consider the character and reign of a monarch in rather narrative fashion. Such is the case with King Henry II, nicknamed Curtmantle for the shorter French/Angevin mantle he supposedly wore, who was born on this day in 1133. It doesn’t matter how much I dwell on King Henry–they want more, and I’m wondering why? Of course the broad strokes and details of his life are dramatic–the rise to power in the wake of Civil War, his conquest and contests with Queen Eleanor, his family fights, his multi-front wars, the murder of Archbishop Becket in Canterbury Cathedral and the penitential consequences–I still think that it’s the popular characterization of Henry rather than the historical one that has captivated my students. Even though they’re far too young to remember Peter O’Toole in Becket (1964) and The Lion in Winter (1968), he is still their Henry.

Curtmantle O'Toole Becket

Curtmantle Lion in Winter

Peter O’ Toole in a publicity photograph for Becket (1964) and a still from The Lion in Winter (1968).

My students are so young they haven’t even seen or heard of O’Toole’s portrayal of Henry II, but when I ask them what they know about him, they describe O’Toole’s portrayal:  now that’s a powerful performance! Once again, we see that history is produced by film (sigh). But I think you have to go further back:  not (of course) to the actual era of Henry II, but to that which produced the characterization that inspired O’Toole’s performance. Henry became Henry because of his hand in martyring Becket, of course, but also because of his women: his wife Eleanor and his mistress Rosamund Clifford, the “fair Rosamund”. Henry’s struggles with the Church in general and Becket in particular appealed to 18th and 19th historians charting secular “liberation”, while their more romantic counterparts in the arts focused on the women: the Pre-Raphaelites in particular seem to have been obsessed with Eleanor and particularly Rosamund, featuring them both individually and together in mythical contest (based on an old fable alleging the Queen tried to poison the mistress). This is all very dramatic stuff, almost equaling the narrative of that dynasty of the (long) moment, the Tudors. I predict a Plantagenet comeback.

King Henry II

Henry II Thornycroft framed

Curtmantle chapbook

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Fair Rosamund 1916

Henry II as characterized by Alfred Crowquill’s Comic History of the Kings and Queens of England (Read & Co, c 1860) and Rosalind Thornycroft in Herbert and Eleanor Farjeon’s Kings and Queens (1932). A chapbook of folk ballads with Henry II and the Fair Rosamund on the title page, c. 1815-30, British Museum; Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund by Evelyn de Morgan, 1905, De Morgan Centre, London;The Fair Rosamund by John William Waterhouse, 1916, National Museum Wales.


Pieces of March

I’ve never seen them in person, but the celebrated frescoes by Francesco del Cossa representing March, April and May in the Room of the Months at the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara have still captivated me for years. They were painted by del Cossa in 1469-70 at the behest of Borso d’Este, the Duke of Modena and Ferrara, who is featured prominently in typical Renaissance fashion. The complex astrological and classical schemes in the murals keep me guessing, but it’s the details that keep me looking. Let’s look at March as a case in point.

1march Allegory

Francesco del Cossa, Allegory of March: Triumph of Minerva, c. 1469-70, at Palazzo Schifanoia and Web Gallery of Art.

The del Cossa murals have three sections: the gods above, the zodiac in the center, and the d’Este court below–but everyone looks accessible and interesting. In the case of March, triumphant deity Minerva, patroness of learning and crafts, is seated in her chariot surrounded by scholars deep in discussion and craftswomen hard at work (at least some of them–all while beautifully dressed and coiffed). These women–most particularly the Three Fates in the foreground– have received a lot of attention from Renaissance costumers and reenactors: even though they dwell in the realm of the Gods they seem quite grounded, by the details of their dress and activity–quite in contrast to those who occupy the realm below.

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The central section of the Allegory of March is the most mysterious: here we see the somewhat familiar Athena hovering over the ram Aries, with two oddly-dressed characters on either side. They are deccans, mediating spirits who ruled for only periods of ten days: a black man dressed in rags and a rather effeminate arrow-and ring-bearing young man (???)–what’s happening here? These guys could represent lots of things–fortitude, beauty, caution–but why the adrogyny, why the rags? The ragged man was so captivating to novelist Ali Smith that he inspired her Man Booker Prize short-listed novel, How to be Both (2014), told partially from the perspective of Francesco dell Cosso.

Allegory of March Zodiac figures

March deccan

Allegory of March Smith Cover

Leather commemorative binding of Ali Smith’s How to be Both by Derek Hood, featuring pieces of the March mural and a famous letter from del Cossa to Borso d’Este asking for more money for the commission–when he was rebuffed, he left Ferrara for good: Begging to recall to your highness, that I am Francesco del Cossa, who made those three fields towards the antechamber entirely by my self: so if you, your Highness really don’t want to give me more than 10 bolognini [pennies] per square foot, I’d be losing 40 or 50 ducats…..I’ve got a name these days, and this payment leaves me on a par with the saddest apprentice in Ferrara…and I’ve studied, I study all the time, and I’ve used gold and good colours at my own expense…and done the whole thing in fresco, which is really advanced work……

I’ve got a name these days: a nice expression of Renaissance confidence in achievement, and attitude! Del Cossa places us firmly on the ground–and in his own time–in the lower register of the mural where we see Duke Borso reigning under a very impressive loggia as his subjects go about their March-appropriate activities: the courtiers hunt and the peasants prune. Obviously there’s some damage here, but in the upper left hand corner there’s a perfect vignette of daily life: while men prune grapevines atop an impressive brick foundation (Del Cossa’s father was a mason) we see dogs chasing March hares, who look like they’re definitely going to get away.

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From Fast to Feast

Today, a national holiday of Wales based on its association with the Welsh patron Saint David (c. 500-c. 589), affords yet another opportunity to explore one of my favorite themes: the secularization of saints’ days. This is a touchstone in several of my courses and a subject I’ve returned to here again and again: on Halloween, St. Nicholas’s Day, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, and even the feast day of the lesser-known St. Swithun. There’s no question in my mind that one of the most basic tasks, and most popular consequences, of the Reformation was the transformation of the Christian calendar. This transformation was dramatic: Saint David appears to have been one of the most ascetic of saints (a bold claim, perhaps too bold), forswearing beer and meat in favor of water and bread seasoned with a few grains of salt and herbs, yet today his day is celebrated with parades and cupcakes embellished with Welsh dragons and daffodils, and the leeks which became more particularly associated with him over time.

Saint David's Day

Saint David's Day cupcakes

British School, A Celebration of Saint David’s Day, c. 1750, National Museum Wales, Cardiff; Dotty Cupcakes, Cardiff, featured here.

The most revealing illustration of this process occurred during the Elizabethan era, when the Queen–or her advisers and followers and assorted hangers-on–rather deliberately emphasized the coincidence of dates shared by Elizabeth and the Virgin Mary: September 7 (Elizabeth’s birthday and the Eve of the Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary) and March 24 (the day on which Elizabeth died in 1603, and the Eve of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary). Moreover, the “Queene’s Day”, November 17, the day of which Elizabeth acceded to the throne in 1558, achieved the status of both a national holiday and a religious holiday over her reign. And thus the Virgin Queen and “the cult of Elizabeth” (a phrase first used by Sir Roy Strong) emerged. There’s no agreement that the feast displayed below represents an early celebration of the Queene’s Day, but I like to think that Joris Hoefnagel’s iconic painting Fete at Bermondsey (c. 1569-70)–one of my very favorites– does just that.

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Joris Hoefnagel, A Fete at Bermondsey. Copyright The Marquess of Salisbury, Hatfield House

The Last of Frozen February

Never have I been so excited for the arrival of March, generally the muddiest month! February has simply brought us too much: snow, ice, hassles, damage, cancellations, time indoors. I’m clearing out my cache of February pictures today with the hope that March will mean the last of all this, but I might be too optimistic: there’s still feet of snow on the ground and cold weeks ahead. But nevertheless I am moving on–the days grow longer, the sun seems stronger, spring break is right around the corner and garden catalogs are stacked high by my bed.

Either end of frozen Chestnut Street, and in the middle:

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The horizontal space of a Salem snowbank: the distance from the granite curb to the middle of the street:

Frozen February 017

Carving out frozen spaces for recycling bins:

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Icicles around town:

Frozen February Salem

Frozen February 2

Frozen February 4


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