Tag Archives: periodicals

Victoria and Elizabeth

I can’t say that I think the newest PBS series Victoria is very good, but yet I still seem to be watching it: it’s cozy, just what we need for winter and these anxious times. I also can’t put my finger on what I dislike about it: the acting and consequently the characters draw one in, but the world in which the latter live seems somehow airbrushed and empty, hardly the colorful milieu of Victorian London. Victoria should not be thrust into the arcades and slums of course, but when there is a ball at Buckingham Palace more than twenty people should be in attendance. So far, it seems like a 1980s miniseries to me, with less anachronistic hair and clothes. The “downstairs” scenes and storylines seem so contrived, and so desperately anxious to remind us of Downton Abbey. I will say that the second episode piqued my interest, because it touched on something I’ve been curious about myself: the “relationship” between Victoria and the first long-reigning English queen, Elizabeth I. Victoria is wondering about her romantic future, and she gazes upon the coronation portrait of the Virgin Queen and wonders aloud to ever-present sexy Lord Melbourne (Rufus Sewall–who probably is the major reason I’ve kept watching) that perhaps she should abstain from marriage as well. Later on she dresses as Elizabeth for a masquerade ball (at which, again, there are maybe 30 people in attendance). Did this ever happen? I don’t think so, but I do know that there were lots of comparisons made between Victoria and Elizabeth in the popular press, both at the beginning of the former’s reign, and later on, when they were “two great queens”.

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Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria and Queen Victoria in Elizabethan fancy dress.

The comparisons began with Victoria’s coronation procession in 1837, and continued until the end of the century, coinciding chiefly with moments when the Queen had to exercise her limited political powers, such as during the debate over the Irish Church Bill in 1869, or when there was a general concern about her presence, or lack thereof. The later 1860s was clearly a time to summon Elizabeth, the strong queen who ruled alone, in order to compel Victoria to come out of the prolonged mourning state she had been in since the death of her beloved Albert in 1861: in “A Vision” (third from the top): a “frowning” Elizabeth tells Victoria that she has “let grief prevail over duty”. Newspapers with anti-Republican leanings could use the Virgin Queen as a patriotic symbol and make their points without carping editorials. I’m not quite sure what the Hamlet allegory means, but the depiction of Prime Minister Robert Cecil, the Marquess of Salisbury, descendant of Elizabeth’s Cecil ministers, and favorite of Victoria, as a modern-day Walter Raleigh would have been a rather obvious comparison, I think. Ultimately the first great queen (looking very mannish I must say) bows to the second, at the time of Victoria’s Golden Jubilee.

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Elizabeth and Victoria in British periodicals from 1837, 1843, 1868, 1869, and 1887, ©British Museum and ©National Portrait Gallery.

 


Road Trip, Part Three: Pilgrimage to the Mount

The contrast between Edith Wharton’s aunt’s house, Wyndcliffe, and her own Berkshire “cottage”, The Mount, could not be more extreme:  decaying Victorian Gothic indulgence as opposed to restored (or in the process of being restored) and restrained American neo-Classicism.  Even before Wharton penned her fictional bestsellers she wrote a popular interior design manual with her friend and collaborator Ogden Codman, Jr., The Decoration of Houses (1898), and The Mount fulfilled her vision. There have been some obstacles and challenges in its ongoing restoration over the past 15 years, but on this beautiful August morning it looked bright and cheerful and orderly. By all accounts, Wharton considered The Mount to be her first real home, and it seems like such a shame that she only spend a decade in seasonal residence, from its construction in 1902 until the break-up of her marriage and departure for France in 1911.

Our vivacious guide kept referring to the house as English in inspiration and style, and I suppose it is:  Wharton always proclaimed her admiration for the Georgian style above all others.  But The Mount felt very American to me, in that assimilated, melting-pot way: Georgian house, Italian gardens, French courtyard.  None of the original furnishings are in the house, so contemporary designers have recreated an updated Edwardian ambiance inside, adhering to the original finishes and arrangements whenever possible.  I did like Bunny Williams’s dining room, but I was more drawn to the original features of the house no matter how mundane:  hardware, the “trunk lift”, the unrestored scullery in the basement.

Less decorative license was taken upstairs in the private rooms of The Mount, including in what is arguably the most important room in the entire house, Mrs. Wharton’s bedroom, where she did all of her writing, in bed.  She would write every morning, numbering her pages and casting them to the floor, where her maid would pick them up and send them off to her secretary to be typewritten.  She loved little yapping dogs, whose presence is felt by the placement of stuffed animals around the house and a pet cemetery out back.

Private spaces made public:  Edith Wharton’s bedroom and adjacent bathroom.

The Mount, Plunkett Street (off Route 7), Lenox, Massachusetts.

Because I was having a completely indulgent day (one in a series), after my morning at The Mount, I stopped on the way back to my inn to pick up that must-have publication of the season, the September issue of Vogue Magazine.  I opened it up, and there she was:  Edith Wharton in Vogue!  Or model Natalia Vodianova playing Edith in residence, in an 18-page article and spread entitled “The Custom of the Country” by Colm Tóibín with photographs by Annie Leibovitz. There was Edith/Natalia ensconced where I just was, along with various actors, authors and models playing members of her inner circle who were regularly invited to the Mount (Henry James, Walter Berry, Theodore Roosevelt, her landscaper niece Beatrix Farrand, and sculptor Daniel Chester French–whose home I also visited yesterday).  A happy coincidence.


Dolphin Decoration

In my ongoing quest for the perfect mirror, and more mirrors, I came across this Carvers’ Guild mirror embellished with intertwined dolphins, gracing a San Francisco house designed by Benjamin Dhong in the current issue of House Beautiful.  It caught my eye because I have two very similar mirrors in my “mirror files”:  another reproduction one from Mecox Gardens, and a Regency example from the blog Paisley Curtain.  All similar and all beautiful, I think.

As you can see, the “dolphins” embellishing these mirrors are not your typical Flipperesque variety.  The first English explorers named the large fish they observed patrolling the waters off the eastern coast of North America “dolphins”, thus causing centuries of confusion with the better-known marine mammal.  This confusion finally cleared for me just last year, when I wrote a post about the Lady Pepperell House in Kittery Point, Maine, which features dolphin-fish decoration on its exterior, and the commentators cleared it up for me.  I’m not completely certain, but I think the source of this confusion is John White, who accompanied both Richard Grenville and Walter Ralegh on exploratory tours of the New World in the 1580s, charting and illustrating what he saw along the way.  White’s “Duratho” became Dolphin in common Elizabethan English, and endured.  The Dolphin fish later became known as “dorado”, and later still as “mahi-mahi”.

Dolphin fish seem to have been popular decorative motifs in furniture of the English Regency and American Federal and Empire periods, carved in relief or in part on sofas and tables as well as mirrors. There are lots of dolphin feet, as illustrated by the sofa (circa 1820), Lannuier pier table (1815), and Indian tilt-top table (made for the British market after 1825) below.  The American examples generally come from Philadelphia or New York, not New England, where no doubt the almighty cod was still golden.

Mahogany sofa and rosewood pier table by Charles-Honoré Lannuier, Detroit Institute of Arts via ARTstor; Indian tilt-top table, Walters Art Gallery via ARTstor.


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