CHARLES I ON HORSEBACK WITH HIS EQUERRY – VAN DYCK

I’ve recently finished a book about the sale of Charles I’s quite substantial art collection, and Charles II’s attempts to reconstitute it to form what is now the Royal Collection. Unfortunately, the book was written some years before the recent exhibition at the Royal Academy although the revised afterword did allude to the prospect of some of the paintings coming together for the first time since the mid-1600s. However, the book opens with a discussion of this painting, which apparently (according to Art UK) is in Cornwall (although there are other versions in Apsley House and the Manchester Art Gallery); but I have a rather different thesis than the author.

I’m fairly convinced that this image is partly responsible for the English Civil War. A bold statement, and I know full well that there were many other causes of the war, but I think this painting was instrumental. Here’s why.

Charles Stuart was never meant to be king. He had an older brother, Henry, who died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 15. Henry was, like his Tudor namesake, very much a sportsman and soldier, fit and able and keen on a variety of gentlemanly pursuits. He was also a keen art collector, and after his death his art collection was divided between his parents (James I and Anne of Denmark) and his younger brother, who had been considered by the family weak, feeble and not expected to survive for long. Indeed, it took James I five years after Henry’s death to have Charles proclaimed Prince of Wales, because nobody thought he would live long enough to succeed his father.

So already this painting feeds a lie; Van Dyck wishes to give the impression that Charles was militarily capable, authoritative and a bringer of peace throughout his kingdom. Contemporary evidence demonstrates that nothing could have been further from the truth. Charles, reliant on advisors who wanted nothing more than to advance their own causes, was indecisive, frequently deceitful and genuinely believed that, as King, he could do no wrong. He was above human law in all respects, right down to paying his debts. He never talked about money, as it was vulgar, and when chased for payment of his growing art collection, was affronted that these artworks were not gifts to His Majesty.

In creating this image of his monarch, I do feel that Van Dyck was pandering to Charles’ vanity and in so doing, promoted the image of Charles that he very quickly came to believe. It was unfortunate, then, that it proved so costly; in treating Parliament as a vassal and in believing he was above the law of man Charles lost everything. This begs the question of whether a more realistic portrait would have changed anything; I believe that it would have deprived Western Art of a master of baroque portraiture, but it might have given the King a much-needed reality check. We shall never know.

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The Original Fly

Ringtones are strange things; while they may be incredibly meaningful to the owner, they are often simply irritating for everyone else. The reason I mention this is because a former work colleague of mine had the voice of the fly/human hybrid screaming “Help me! Help me!” from the 1958 movie (the best in my opinion) as her ringtone, and it drove the rest of us absolutely nuts. She thought it was hilarious.

Anyway, this late 1950s B movie is one of my favourites, in no small part due to the presence of Vincent Price, one of my favourite actors. Gosh he was handsome in his day. Surprisingly, Vincent isn’t the villain of the piece – not that there is one – nor is he really the main character. The plot of the film is familiar – a scientist is experimenting with a matter transportation device and tests it on himself; unfortunately a fly becomes trapped in the transport chamber with him, and their molecules merge – the fly now has a human head and arm, and the scientist has the head and arm of a gigantic fly. Unfortunately, he also has the temperament and instincts of a fly, so as an act of kindness, she crushes the creature under a hydraulic press.

Although the plot is explained during the course of the film, the ending is still quite chilling – the “white headed fly” (i.e. the one with the human head), which has aged in accordance with “fly time” rather than “human time”, is trapped in a spider’s web and the very hungry builder is heading towards his lunch before humans intervene, destroying the web, the spider and the fly.

I’ve seen this film more times than I care to consider and although there’s no overt horror in it (unlike the remakes), there’s definitely a sense of chill about it. It’s partly the interrelationship between the scientist and his increasingly frantic wife, as she desperately searches for the fly so that he can attempt to reverse the accident and finally agrees to crush what remains of her husband in a hydraulic press; it’s partly how her story is simply considered a fabrication and she is insane; and it’s partly the matter of fact way in which the entire story is told. For its age, it’s very well done and demonstrates that one doesn’t need copious amounts of gore to make a good thriller.

Walter Sickert and Jack the Ripper

Walter Sickert’s name has often been linked with that of Britain’s most infamous serial killer – most recently by the efforts of Patricia Cornwell – but the only definitive link between the two is this painting, completed in 1907, called Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom. It was inspired by a room Sickert was lodging in, as his landlady at that time believed that a previous occupant was guilty of the crimes, although this has never been substantiated and the lodger’s identity remains unknown. It’s a suitably dark, gloomy room so it wouldn’t surprise me at all to find there was some truth in the idea.

It has to be said, though, that at this time Sickert was going through a phase of painting scenes linked with murders. Another contemporaneous work was the Camden Town Murders, finished in 1908, which shows a couple in a bedroom – she is naked in bed and he is fully clothed and sitting on the edge of the bed. It is unclear from my viewing whether they are killers or victims – or one of each. The painting’s alternative title, “What Shall We Do For The Rent?” doesn’t offer any clues either.

It is generally considered that the idea Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper is a conspiracy theory based in a fanciful story that first became public in the mid-1970s. It is unfortunate that someone of Patricia Cornwell’s standing and intelligence feels that there is a foundation to this idea; particularly when it is not really substantiated by many other Ripperologists (for want of a better word). For my part, I’m merely happy that the Ripper is dead, which is about the only thing we can say about him with any certainty.

We Can Remember It For You Wholesale

I have an awful confession to make. I’ve never seen either of the two film versions of this story (both called Total Recall; one starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as Doug Quaid, the other starring Colin Farrell in that role), but I have read the story a number of times and know it quite well. So my comments here are based on the story, not on the films and if they differ in any way, as far as I’m concerned that’s to their detriment.

Doug Quaid is a clerk who wants to go to Mars. He doesn’t just want to go – he really, absolutely, has to go. He doesn’t know why, but he has this feeling that Mars is the place for him. I know how he feels, I’m like that with Transylvania. Anyway, there is absolutely no chance he will physically gets there, so he pays a commercial company to implant fake memories of a trip to Mars that, to all intents and purposes, will appear completely real to anyone who questions it. It’s just that there’s a small problem…

I love this story, and I particularly like the delicious twist at the end. Knowing my luck, I’ll get to Transylvania and find out that I had been there in a previous life and that’s why I’ve always wanted to go back. The nature of reality and the nature of memory are two things that Philip Dick plays with a lot in his fiction and this is a great example of just how nebulous these things really are. I can see how Hollywood would have tweaked it to get a feature film out of it, but I much prefer the little dramas played out in the story.

Mithina’s Sad Tale

It’s an interesting contrast, given what I’ve recently learned about Dido Belle, to consider the story surrounding the sitter of this small watercolour by Thomas Bock. This is Mithina, an indigenous Australian from Tasmania and was about eight years old at the time of this portrait.

If she seems rather well dressed for 1842, it may be because she had been “adopted” by Sir John and Lady Franklin, the governor of the province at that time, although they took pains to crop her hair and force her to wear shoes, which hurt her feet. However, here the comparisons with Dido fall away; Dido was given an income, her freedom and was able to dress well, even if she could not mix in polite society. Mithina was, to all intents and purposes, abandoned at the nearest orphanage when the Franklins returned to England and was dead before her eighteenth birthday.

As a convict artist, Bock almost certainly had some sympathy with the indigenous population, driven out of their ancestral lands by white colonists and convicts alike. He painted a series of portraits of various native peoples, treating them with the same respect a society painter would have painted the Franklins.

For me, though, the story behind Mithina’s little portrait is heartbreaking. She wasn’t treated as a person – she was a novelty, an object, fit only to be left behind with the unwanted furniture. This is the legacy of colonialism throughout the world and it’s appallingly sad. It does make you realise how fortunate Dido was, even if she remained a second class citizen herself.

La Grande Odalisque – Ingres

I’m not sure if any readers would remember the Oscars ceremony from a few years back, when Angelina Jolie wore a terribly ill-fitting black dress and every time she stopped for photographs, her right leg stuck out? The reason I mention it is because for a short while afterwards, that leg was photoshopped into a variety of photographs to greater or lesser humorous effect. Looking at the highly dodgy anatomy of this painting, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out that Angelina’s leg had been photoshopped here as well.

For an artist specialising in the human figure – he was well known for his portraits of society ladies – the proportions here are completely wrong. Her back is too long, there appears to be no structure to her arm and those legs – we may need Angelina’s for a spare. She seems to look like a blancmange sculpture, poured onto the chaise longue and left to slowly melt.

By contrast, the luxurious fabrics and her peacock feather fan are recreated in exquisite detail. This is an artist who knew his textiles – I’m in love with the dress worn by the subject of one of his portraits in the National Gallery, it’s so detailed I’m tempted to tear it off the wall and wear it home. So what went wrong?

Ingres would have argued that, although based on a real life model, the odalisque portrays an idea – as continental travel became increasingly fashionable and orientalism was all the rage, this was a European’s idea of an oriental concubine. She’s not meant to be real at all, she represents a fashion, a style, a mood of languid indolence and luxury. This also explains why the fabrics are so detailed – if they were not, we wouldn’t be able to differentiate between the velvet and the satin.

Is it a good painting? It’s not my favourite Ingres, but it is possibly his best known and it was highly influential on some later Impressionists – an interesting comparison would be with Degas’ Olympia, another reclining nude. If I’m honest, I’d rather have the fabrics.

Art Crime and Organised Crime

Anyone who reads this blog with any kind of regularity – that’s you two right there – will know that I have an abiding passion for art crime. I’ve come to the conclusion that I may have been Thomas Crown in a past life or something, but I can’t accept that it doesn’t have a glamorous side. Who wouldn’t want to have a Picasso under their bed in case of financial emergency?

I’m afraid Andrew Graham-Dixon – a man whom I would happily watch standing in front of a brick wall and let him tell me why it was modern art – went a long way to disabuse me of my assumptions. Art crime, as a general rule of thumb, is organised crime; and any mafia worth its protection money has its tentacles in the field, alongside the trafficking, gun running and whatever else they get up to. (I’m afraid I’m still in the era where Al Capone ruled the roost, so I suspect I’m a wee bit out of date when it comes to organised crime).

Graham-Dixon took as his focus the 2002 theft of two paintings from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. While neither painting was one of Van Gogh’s best known, they were historically very important; his first oil painting (Seascape at Scheveningen) and a picture of a Lutheran church which was dedicated to his mother. The latter painting, if I’m honest, reminded me an awful lot of his masterpiece Church at Arles, in its composition and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to find that he had one in his mind when he painted the other.

The fact is that even for criminals who wouldn’t know a Van Gogh from a Vermeer or a Rembrandt from a Raphael still understand that there is money in it; as Graham-Dixon himself points out, criminals trade using “the 10% rule”, meaning that if a painting is worth £100,000 they will trade it for £10,000. More importantly, under Italian law, criminals can return or sell their assets for a reduction in sentence; having a couple of Van Goghs under the kitchen floor (where the Van Goghs were found in 2016) could halve a sentence. So museum-quality art is considered quite the insurance policy for the criminal in the know.

Sadly, the overwhelming majority – almost all, in fact – of art thefts result in significant damage to the paintings, because they are simply not kept in optimum conditions. Fortunately, the two Van Gogh paintings suffered minimal damage – a small patch of paint had flaked off the seascape – but some are almost completely ruined by the damage suffered from endless trading and being kept in poor conditions. The fact that any are (a) recovered or (b) restored is frankly amazing.

Having learned all this, I now understand that there is nothing glamorous about art theft; it’s a nasty, vicious business and involves hardened criminals. The likes of Thomas Crown really are figments of the imagination.

The Strange Life of Dido Belle

The BBC really are earning their licence fee at the moment, in my opinion. Some of the drama is top notch and I’m yet to be disappointed by BBC4 (except for the reruns of Top of the Pops – I don’t need to be reminded how little taste I had growing up). In fact, it was on BBC4 that I learned the fascinating story of Dido Belle, the illegitimate daughter of a British naval admiral and an African slave.

There is much that is distasteful about British history and the slave trade is a significant part of that. What still irritates me is that people still seem unable to tell the difference between slavery and the slave trade, indicating that the former was abolished in 1807. It wasn’t. Slavery was abolished in England and Wales in 2015; it was the trade in slaves which was abolished in 1807. This means that you could still own slaves if you inherited them (as property, they could be bequeathed in a Will), but you couldn’t buy or sell them. If you are going to discuss history, please try and get it right.

This is an important point, because Dido’s great uncle was (at that time) the Lord Chief Justice of England, and some of his decisions were instrumental in the trade in slaves being abolished. Indeed, in his own Will, Lord Mansfield LCJ granted Dido her freedom (as she was otherwise still a slave, even though his own nephew’s child) – thereby ending her status as chattel and granting her, for want of a better expression, personhood. Although a servant, Dido was considered more a companion to Lady Elizabeth Murray, another (but legitimate) niece of Lord Mansfield, and also helped with the household accounts and occasionally as Lord Mansfield’s secretary – but she did not dine with the family and did not appear in society. She was in a difficult position, as she was the child of a nobleman (and so could not mix with the staff) but she was too different (being black) to be fully part of the family.

Lord Murray did his best for her; she was well educated, housed and clothed in luxury and given a very generous allowance; her portrait, alongside that of Lady Elizabeth, still hangs in Scone House, the Earl of Mansfield’s seat just outside Perth. It reflects her status perfectly; elegantly and expensively dressed yet standing behind her companion. As a portrait of an individual from an ethnic minority, it is quite unique for its time and it is that rarity that allows us to consider Lord Mansfield’s – and Dido’s – role in the abolition of the slave trade in Britain.

Mary Delany’s Botanical Collages

I blame the Savoy for this. In the atrium, just before you go into Kaspar’s restaurant, they have a room filled to the rafters with the most wonderful artwork. The large feature painting was a portrait of the Queen, but my eye was caught by five small pictures on the lintel above the entrance to the restaurant. I am ninety nine percent convinced that they were original Mary Delany botanical collages, made in the early 1770s out of coloured paper on a black background. The majority of her works – of which there are 938 in total – are in the British Museum and are incredibly fragile, so it is wonderful to see some “in the flesh” as it were.

Mary Delany was born in 1700 to an army colonel, and her uncle was Baron Lansdowne. She was married twice, firstly to a man over forty years her senior and, after his death, to an Irish clergyman, Patrick Delany. It was after becoming a widow for the second time at the age of sixty eight that Mary Delany started work on what she called her “paper mosaicks”, which she continued until her eyesight failed – by which time, she was in her late eighties.

As Mary and her late husband were both interested in botany, she made sure that her collages were as accurate as possible, using layers of sheets of tissue paper to create shades of leaf and petal appropriate to whichever plant she was trying to represent. It is thought that she dissected the plant to ensure her accuracy, but her collages are nevertheless incredibly detailed.

She also corresponded with many of the leading figures of the time, such as Fanny Burney, Jonathan Swift and Sir Joseph Banks – who created Kew Gardens – and her letters offer an equally detailed picture of polite society of the time as her collages do of polite society’s gardens.

Forgotten Old Movies

I’ve found a television channel that seems to show old black and white movies that have slipped through the historical net and ended up forgotten. In some cases, it’s quite justified but I’ve seen a couple of films lately that are absolutely remarkable, with well-known actors and good scripts. I’m baffled why they’ve ended up on some obscure satellite channel rather than being on mainstream TV, even if it on a weekday afternoon. I know I’d rather watch an old film than yet another run in with Jeremy Kyle.

The first film I caught was Suddenly!, a 1954 film noir starring Frank Sinatra as a gangster hired to assassinate the president (given the date, I’m assuming it’s Eisenhower). The majority of the action takes place in two rooms – and would probably be quite easy to adapt as a stage play – but the script is excellent. Sinatra and his henchmen have commandeered a house to set up the gun in readiness for the arrival of the President at a sleepy California town, as the house has a perfect view. It soon becomes clear that Sinatra’s character is a psychopath who kills for the fun of it, and the actual target is irrelevant to him. The script is taut, the dialogue is sharp and the acting is top notch. Given that Sinatra was nominated for an Oscar for this movie, it’s pretty criminal that (1) I’ve never heard of it before and (2) it’s only been shown on TV on this back of beyond channel.

The other film I’ve come across is also a film noir, a 1947 psychological thriller starring Edward G Robinson called The Red House. It’s not a gangster movie, but has some wonderfully gothic elements surrounding a derelict house in woods owned by a handicapped farmer. If you’re familiar with the genre, you could probably work some of the plot out, but given its age it’s actually really exciting. It’s a good story with an excellent cast who do extremely well with the relatively poor script. Again, this is a great afternoon film that seems to have been buried under the blockbusters, and it’s a great shame.

I’m hoping that I catch up with some other cracking old movies, because they really are worth watching if you like sparkling scripts, well-dressed actors and plots that don’t rely on special effects.