Tag Archives: Art

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

Queen_Eleanor__Fair_Rosamund1-619x744

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.

1march_0crop

1march_1crop

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.

1march_5 crop

1march_7crop


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.

800px-Joris_Hoefnagel_Fete_at_Bermondsey_c_1569

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

Hip (-Hop) Hamilton

It seems to me that from time to time one of our Founding Fathers emerges from the pack, to glow just a little brighter in a blaze of adulation. Certainly John Adams had his time a few years back, singled out by David McCullough’s book and the HBO series; more recently “Sexy Sam Adams” emerged as the hero of the History Channel’s (or as most historians refer to it, the Hitler Channel) Sons of Liberty miniseries, sponsored, of course, by Sam Adams beer. Now it’s all about Alexander Hamilton, the star of a namesake, sold-out musical on off-Broadway. Hamilton, written, directed and starring Tony winner Lin-Manuel Miranda, is based on Hamilton’s rag-to-riches life, as charted by Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography, set to a score that sounds far more lively than that of 1776.

Hamilton the Musical

Hamilton the Musical 2

Hamilton Poster

I don’t find the spotlight on Hamilton, or the success of Hamilton, even remotely surprising. After all, I live in Alexander Hamilton world: the first thing I see every morning when I wake up is Hamilton Hall, the c. 1805 assembly hall named after the Federalist hero/martyr, and the sign boldly attesting to that fact. And even if you’re just familiar with the outline of his life you can understand that it would make for a good story: illegitimate Caribbean orphan sent to New York, student, lawyer, lover, soldier, author, first Secretary of the Treasury, victim of a duel. Fill in the details and you’ve got a blockbuster!

Alexander Hamilton 1957 Rand McNally Ad

Hamilton Batman Bill

Hamilton Birthday Card

Hamilton Vodka

Hamilton updated: 1957 Rand McNally ad; defaced $10 Batman bill; Alexander Hamilton birthday print by A5/Day; Alexander Hamilton small-batch Vodka.


A Salem Romance

I have a real romance author as a neighbor, so I am venturing into this territory with some trepidation, but as Valentine’s Day quickly approaches I want to shift the focus from snow, snow, snow, which is all we are talking about here. In Salem, the perennial romance that is dragged out nearly every year for this occasion is that of Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne, which I find boring, boring, boring. It’s been done to death, like so many Salem stories, because it is easy: they both came from conspicuous families and were great diarists, she painted some charming scenes, he was so very handsome. If I were going to pen a Salem romance, which I am not (I am not creative enough for fiction, which this post will verify) I would write the love story of Philip English and Mary Hollingsworth. Now I have no idea if these two people were actually in love (they come from a different time and are not so “open” as Nathaniel and Sophia) but their intertwined lives would sure make for a good story!

Actually, I don’t know why there is not more scholarly work on Philip English, whose life is intertwined not only with Mary but with two of the seminal events of the seventeenth century: the English Civil War and the Salem Witch Trials. He’s the perfect “transatlantic man”, with one foot on either side of the ocean: born on the English Channel island of Jersey to a very connected family in 1651, the very same year the Royalist Carteret family, including his godfather Sir Philip De Carteret (III), surrendered the island to Parliamentary forces. Philip d’Anglois grew up in the midst of a network of merchants, fishermen, and smugglers who had several North American ties–and after the Restoration, his Carteret connections would no doubt come in useful too. He emigrated to Salem by 1670, became Philip English, and immediately commenced making his fortune, no doubt using both his old Jersey and Royalist connections and the new ones forged in New England, most notably through his marriage (in 1675) to Mary Hollingsworth, the only daughter of wealthy merchant and tavern-keeper William Hollingsworth and his wife Eleanor. There followed: the death of William (lost at sea!) and a likely considerable inheritance for Mary and Philip, the construction of a stately, much commented-upon, mansion house in the east end of Salem, seven children, the acquisition of a fleet of over 20 ships, a wharf, and considerable real estate on the harbor, and in 1692, accusations of witchcraft brought forward first against Mary and then Philip. After brief bouts of imprisonment and the confiscation of their considerable property, they fled to New York, where they apparently lived in splendor, and returned home to extract their revenge after the hysteria was over. But it was too late for Mary, who died soon after her return to Salem, aged 42.

English Channel Islands 1680

English House

A 1680 map of the Channel Islands by Thomas Philips, British Museum; The English “Great House” in Salem, built between 1683-90 at the corner of Essex and present-day English Streets: later it was known as the “40 Peaked House”. The Reverend William Bentley records visiting in 1791, and observes that “the rooms are the largest in Town [and]….even the Cellars are plastered.” Image from Ralph Paine, The Ships and Sailors of Old Salem: the Record of a Brilliant Era of American Achievement (1912).

How would I romanticize these biographical facts? I would play up both Philip’s and Mary’s early years, his life in Jersey and at sea and her domestic life. I think I could turn him into a pirate pretty easily, and the Peabody Essex Museum has a sampler of hers, which would provide me with the opportunity to engage in a dreamy, internal narrative. Once he arrives in Salem, their courtship would obviously provide lots of romantic opportunities, and I would emphasize their cultural clash and his exotic “otherness” both before and after their marriage: he was “French” and Protestant, but not quite Protestant enough for Puritan Salem, which doubtless contributed to his accusation in 1692. Seven children! That has to point to some sort of attachment. He goes away, and comes back, away and back. She was first accused of witchcraft (there were rumors about her mother, who ran the family’s Blue Anchor Tavern, which I could certainly exploit in a work of fiction), he comes to her rescue, then he is accused, and they escape to New York: lots of room for embellishment in this course of events. And shortly after their triumphant return to Salem, Mary dies–either from the treatment she received in prison and the difficulties of life on the run, or tuberculosis, or complications stemming from her last childbirth. A tragic romance (and I think I’ll leave out his second marriage and the possibility of at least one illegitimate child).

(c) Grosvenor Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

English Keeping Room American Museum Bath

English Rinaldi

I’m really taking liberties here, but this is fiction! This couple is NOT Philip and Mary, but rather the marriage portrait of an “unknown couple” by John Souch, painted c. 1640 (© Grovesnor Museum): I want my Englishes to look slightly more “worldly” than the typical late seventeenth-century Salem couple, but this couple is probably too “English”. This is not the English “Great House” either, but rather the seventeenth-century “Keeping Room” at the American Museum in Bath. Ann Rinaldi’s A Break with Charity (1992), is told from the perspective of Susanna English, Philip’s and Mary’s daughter.


Occupational Art

I’m looking forward to the Valentine’s Day opening of the exhibit “Cosmopolitan Consumption: New England Shoe Stories, 1750-1850″ at the Portsmouth Athenaeum: it is co-curated by my friend Kimberly Alexander and strikes me as the perfect afternoon activity for that particular day (of course I am female). You can read much more about the exhibit on Kimberly’s blog: SilkDamask. I want to see amazing shoes and support my friend, but she had me as soon as I saw the invitation, which features one of my favorite early modern genres, which I will call “occupational art”. The image is by Martin Engelbrecht (1684-1756), an entrepreneurial artist and publisher from Augsburg who produced  170 “Mr. and Mrs.” engravings for his series Artists, Craftsmen, and Professionals (circa 1730). On the invitation, appropriately, we see the wife of a shoe peddler, and while I haven’t been able to source her partner in peddling, I did find another very striking couple, the porcelain maker and his wife, at the Winterthur Museum.

ShoeStoriesfront

Occupational Art Porcelain Maker Winterthur

Occupational Art Porcelain Makers Wife Winterthur

This genre seems to have two categories: the fantastic–even grotesque–and the realistic. Engelbrecht’s images fall squarely in the former, and while he appears to have been an innovator in many aspects of his business, these creative composites were nothing new. The depiction of people as assemblages of objects goes back to the Renaissance, and his near contemporaries Nicolas de Larmessin and Gerard Valck produced even more fantastic occupational images decades before him. Engelbrecht’s women are unique though: he even includes a lady cartographer and prosecutor! Images of real workers are going to have to wait for the nineteenth century for the most part, but in keeping with the shoe theme here are Valk’s and Larmessin’s leather workers, in all of their glory.

Occupational art Shoes Valk

Occupational Art Larmessin Sauetier

Cordonnier BNF

Occupational Art Ceinturier

Gerard Valck’s Habit de Cordonnier (c. 1700) from the invitation to the Bata Shoe Museum’s 2012 exhibition, Art in Shoes~Shoes in Art; Nicolas II de Larmessin’s Habit de Cordonnier and Habit de Sauetier from his Les costumes Grotesques: Habits des métiers et professions, c. 1695, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Bibliothèque nationale de France; Gerard Valck print of Habit de Ceinturier after Nicolas de Larmessin, c. 1695-1720, British Museum.


White Feathers

Another snowstorm, another snow day for me, but I am tired of thinking and writing about that particular form of white. Yesterday I was sitting on the couch watching the 1939 film The Four Feathers (what a great movie!) while intermittently selecting images for a PowerPoint presentation on the Hundred Years’ War and quite suddenly there was a paradox about white feathers: in the film, of course, white feathers are a symbol of cowardice, while in the late medieval past, they became associated with heroism after the teenaged son of King Edward III, thereafter known as the Black Prince, led the English troops to a momentous victory against the French at the Battle of Crécy in 1346. His adoption of the three white feathers and the motto “Ich Dien” (“I serve”) established an emblem which is still attached to the Prince of Wales today. So we have a feather quandary! What’s the story?

Black Prince BM

23020 - The Four Feathers

The Black Prince with his feather-plumed helmet in a c. 1670 print published by Robert Walton; British Museum; Harry Faversham (John Clements) receives his three white feathers from his former mates and is about to pluck a fourth from the fan of his fiancée, Ethne Burroughts (June Duprez).

The story that I have pieced together has many gaps in it–and (as is often the case) there is no one big moment when somebody proclaims: white feathers stand for cowardice! Clearly by the turn of the twentieth century the association was generally known in Britain (not elsewhere), as evidenced by the publication of the 1902 A. E.W. Mason novel on which the Four Feathers films are based and P.G. Wodehouse’s boarding school tale The White Feather (1907), as well as Admiral Charles Fitzgerald’s Order of the White Feather, an organization which encouraged young women to present young men out of uniform with white feathers “encouraging” them to enlist during World War One (many of you might remember the Downton Abbey episode from season 2 which featured several feather girls). Apparently the association comes from cock-fighting (game birds with white feathers proving to be not as “brave” as those without) and dates back to the eighteenth century, although the first visual references that I could find date from the Napoleonic wars. Before that, nothing:  just a lot of (presumably heroic or at least virtuous) kings and princes wearing plumage.

Four Feathers 1902

Edward VI by Holbein MET

First edition of Mason’s Four Feathers (1902); a Holbein miniature of young Prince Edward (later King Edward VI) who, though never formally crowned Prince of Wales, is always depicted with the title’s emblem, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Whatever its origins, the white feather/cowardice connection is a strictly British one. Both across the Atlantic Ocean and across the English Channel, no such association developed. French kings and nobles are routinely pictured with white plumage in the early modern era, including the ever-popular, and always-courageous, Henri IV, who compelled his troops to ralliez-vous à mon panache blanc! (follow my white plume!). At the same time that Napoleon is comically portrayed by caricaturist William Elmes “with a white feather in his tail”, Henri IV is ideally depicted with a white feather in his helmet, leading the troops. A real contradiction–and I’m not sure I’m buying the “cowardly cock” theory either. Just look at one of British artist Hilton Lark Pratt’s white-tailed fighting cocks: that’s one tough bird!

Napoleon with White Feathers 1813

Henri IV NYPL

Fighting Cock Hilton Lark Pratt

William Elmes’, “Little Bony sneaking into Paris with a white feather in his tail”, 1813, Napoleonic Period Collection, University of Washington Digital Collections; Henri IV at the Battle of Ivry, 19th century, New York Public Library Digital Collections; Hilton Lark Pratt (1838-1875), “Fighting Cock”, National Trust for Scotland


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