Friday, July 31, 2009

Oui, comme mon mari disait à Louis XIV

In the mid-1970s a friend of mine was taken to visit the widowed English grandmother of a university friend of his somewhere in Shropshire, and was warned beforehand that the old lady’s preferred conversational gambit upon sitting down to lunch was to turn to her next door neighbor and commence with something like: “As the Dalai Lama said to me…” Sure enough, this was what actually happened, and my friend got the giggles.

Presumably by disclosing in this manner an easy acquaintanceship with persons famous, exotic, or deeply unexpected, this stratagem may achieve an immediate effect of heightened drama—and enable you to conduct the rest of your conversation entirely unimpeded.

Lately I have been accumulating a charming array of other examples of this ingenious practise, the vast majority of which were used by ladies either rich in experience, or very old indeed.

In her memoirs, for example, Princess Marie Louise recalled being told by a French diplomat, M. de Fleuriau, that as a young man he had been granted an audience with the Empress Eugénie (who died in 1920, aged 94, and was buried at Farnborough in England). This took place in the late 1850s at the Tuileries. During the audience the Empress told him that her previous caller, a
very elderly lady, had tossed into the conversation as casually as possible a remark that began «Oui, comme mon mari disait à Louis XIV… » (“Yes, as my husband used to say to Louis XIV...”)

According to M. de Fleuriau, this was the dowager duchesse de Richelieu, who as a very young girl in 1780 married Louis-François-Armand du Plessis, second duc de Richelieu (1696–1788), marshal of France, and a great-nephew of the eponymous cardinal. By then the duc was eighty-four years old and she was his third wife. Somewhat taken aback by this astonishing span of years, the Empress expressed much interest and some surprise, and it duly emerged that in about 1704 or 1705, aged eight or nine, the duc had served as a page to the Sun King at Versailles. Louis XIV died in 1715. 

In this case, if we accept the facts, the combined lifespan of husband and wife was at least 165 years, possibly much more. Certainly this outstrips by a considerable margin the celebrated case of General W. A. Johnson (born 1777) and the youngest of his nine children, Mrs. Margaret Martin-Atkins (who died in November 1944, aged 94)—yielding a double lifespan of 167 years, for which see Notes and Queries, June 5, 1943, p. 343, and February 10, 1945, pp. 56–57. 

The only snag is that (a) Princess Marie Louise and/or M. de Fleuriau were badly mistaken; or (b) the Empress Eugénie was in a frightful muddle; or (c) much given to exaggeration; (d) fibs, or else (e) a combination of two or more of these, because Jeanne Cathérine Josèphe de Lavaulx, a daughter of the comte and comtesse Gabriel de Lavaulx (a nobleman of Lorraine) was born in 1741. She married, first, on March 6, 1764, the chevalier Edmond de Rothe, a gentilhomme of Irish descent, who died at Mauritius in 1772, by which time she had produced four children. 

Some years later, as a result of an accident on the Pont-Neuf in which her carriage overturned, Mme. de Rothe, by now a widow of thirty-nine, met the elderly but spry duc de Richelieu, or, rather, he met her, and soon afterwards proposed marriage. Their wedding took place on February 13, 1780. The reason why the Empress Eugénie cannot have heard the remark «Oui, comme mon mari disait à Louis XIV… » at the Tuileries or anywhere else, at least not from this particular pair of lips, is because this duchesse de Richelieu died in 1815, aged seventy-four, more than ten years before the Empress was born. Or perhaps it was a subsequent duchesse de Richelieu who was clearly endowed with a fertile imagination. I shall certainly check.

The Turn of the Century

Lately a small but intriguing issue of close textual editing has arisen in connection with that familiar phrase “the turn of the century.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary—my first port of call when questions of this kind are lobbed over my desk by meticulous i-dotting and t-crossing sub-editors—in the huge article about turn, n., under definition number 18 c. [a.], I see that the turn of the century can be either the brief period at the beginning or at the end of the century in question, but obviously not both at the same time. Now, any attempt to fix this problem with the ingenious adjustment “turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries,” for example, is doomed to failure because strictly speaking this could mean c. 1898–1902 and c. 1998–2002, although only a true pedant or ambitious junior barrister would insist upon that, and “turn from the nineteenth century to the twentieth,” is simply not viable on stylistic nor indeed any other grounds. That locution drips with the condescension of language specifically drafted for the benefit of those poor souls who are congenitally slow on the uptake. Context must therefore provide the key to meaning. In other words, freestanding the phrase turn of the century is pretty useless, as in “Australian art at the turn of the twentieth century,” but when juxtaposed with an explanatory clause all is bathed in clear semantic sunshine: “Barely a generation after 1880, Australian art at the turn of the twentieth century increasingly embraced the concept of nationhood.” Here the front end of the century in question is unequivocally indicated, and the meaning is clear. However, you have to ask yourself whether in these or any other circumstances the phrase turn of the century has any point to it at all.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


It may seem slightly odd for me, a forty-four year-old Australian expatriate currently residing in New Haven, Conn., to go into deep mourning for Her late Highness Maharani Shri Ayesha Gayatri Devi Sahiba, Maharani of Jaipur, known since her husband’s death in 1970 as “Rajmata,” or Queen Mother, but my reasons are several. First, the lady, a celebrated beauty, won what is still widely regarded as the biggest landslide ever achieved by any candidate in a modern democratic election. This was in 1962, when she stood for the constituency of Lok Sabha and won 192,909 votes out of the 246,516 cast. Not bad; a singular result, moreover, which President John F. Kennedy described at the time as “staggering.” Second, for sheer splendor the Rajmata’s jewels, particularly the Jaipur diamonds, blow most others—with the possible exception of the nine principal cleavings of the monstrous Cullinan—out of the water. She went to secretarial college in London, learned to type and take shorthand, and later set up a modern school for girls, and in quiet retirement kept a watchful eye on it. During the Emergency Mrs. Gandhi threw the Maharani in gaol for a while (on trumped up charges of tax evasion—in connection with “undeclared” jewels), then let her out again. And, finally, the lady is said to have shot her first panther at the age of twelve, whilst still a princess of Cooch Behar. Not perhaps an attainment one shouts from the rooftops of one’s summer palace in these environmentally sensitive days, but nevertheless a note of sheer flamboyance that is not likely to be surpassed any time soon. Here she is, posing with a portrait of her mother, the Maharani Indira Devi of Cooch Behar (a daughter of H.H. Sayajirao Gaekwad III, Maharaja of Baroda, the shells of whose pet turtles were apparently studded with emeralds). I gather the lawn is still clipped by hand, for smoothness and consistency. In a way, the Royal Family of Jaipur makes most others look like they belong in Cold Comfort Farm.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Earth Goddess

I loved that summer job working for Jean Waller. Her Mollison Library catalogue cards were carefully drafted on slips of scrap paper in the spidery longhand of which I still treasure numerous specimens, mostly cheeky postcards that she sent to me while I was living in Rome, and much later in New York, and Adelaide.

Somewhere along the line by mutual consent there developed between Jean and me the unusual concept of “Earth Goddess” and, at her feet, the groveling slave/acolyte/temple prostitute, a fantasy with which we persisted for many years—and to which latter broad-brush categories other friends gleefully subscribed also. This gave Jean particular enjoyment, and she never failed to reference it in her many cards and letters—typically reporting to me the modest entertainments she enjoyed with mostly Presbyterian friends and relations as “orgies.” Hers was one of the most finely calibrated senses of the ridiculous that I have ever had the good fortune to encounter.

Mostly the catalogue cards required only two or three added entries, and for this purpose I used an exciting putty-colored “word processor” of immense size, which had the capacity to remember the main entry, and allow minor adjustments for printing the added ones. The vast bulk related to specialist works in systematic theology, New Testament studies, philosophy, ethics, and church history—leaning heavily towards the Church of England, this being the diocesan library (overseen by Bishop James Grant). At its height, the process of typing the cards simply barreled along, and each day I returned to Jean’s desk in the Muniments Room a swatch of handwritten slips with the relevant cards for checking. I am proud to say that very few (if any) required correction.

Perhaps it was my impressive performance of this vital task that led, the following summer, to being hired with the beautiful Jeremy Gaden to carry out for Jean and her colleagues Margaret Brown and Helen Brown (no relation) the annual Leeper and Mollison Library stocktake—an immense undertaking that required days of patient shelf-reading. Right through the summer, Jeremy would stand at the top of a tall wooden ladder in those boxy, airless rooms in the Leeper building, wearing, I recall, comparatively tight-fitting shorts, while I did my best to read off the shelf lists (meaning drawers densely laden with cards), performing this function from as advantageously configured a vantage point below. It worked rather well, though I fear we gradually assembled much evidence of pilfering—hardly a credit to the theological students of several generations.

Years later, I came face to face with Jeremy outside a large tent in Adelaide. He was doing the “Roll up! Roll up!” routine in a spangly bowler hat. I’m not sure which of us was more surprised to see the other. “What are you doing here?” I asked. “Ran away and joined the circus,” was his jovial reply, with a full-throated laugh.

In both jobs there was the twice daily ritual of morning and afternoon tea in a corner of the dining hall, to which all the staff of Trinity College repaired at half past ten in the morning and three fifteen in the afternoon—the Warden, Evan Laurie Burge; the director of the theological school, Jeremy’s father John Gaden; Arthur Hills, Frank Henigan, and everyone else. Of these I realize only Frank is still alive.

Arthur was technically the college porter, though upon reflection his role was then and is largely still impossible to describe. He was a genuinely Falstaffian figure, beloved of all students and staff. Between him and Jean, in particular, there existed a lively banter in which Jean gave quite as much and as good as Arthur gave her. From time to time Arthur answered the college telephone, and for sheer, peremptory abruptness—it didn’t matter if you were the Archbishop of Melbourne, or a member of the council—Arthur’s telephone manner was unequaled. When he died, virtually nothing was known or indeed knowable about Arthur’s life, which must have been eventful. He lived in a small room near the laundry, and left behind two or three cashmere sweaters, $6, and nothing else. The rest was almost completely shrouded in mystery, although I imagine Evan must have known considerably more, but for whatever reason chose to suppress it.

In turn, of course, Arthur was the custodian of innumerable secrets imparted over the years by despairing students in the back bar of Naughton’s Hotel, across Royal Parade. There is literally no limit to the number and nature of potentially career-destroying scrapes into which undergraduate law, medical and other students inevitably get themselves, and the beauty of having a wise old Arthur en poste, who enjoyed the complete trust and confidence of the warden, was that ninety-nine times out of a hundred Arthur could somehow get them out of it. To him no doubt more than one puisne judge, suffragan bishop, member of parliament, or cabinet minister today owe their careers, and each and every one of their youthful peccadilloes went with Arthur to his grave, which, incidentally, is under a pretty gum tree on the southeast side of the Bulpadock.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Cards

In middle age I seem to have become more and not less subject to the brisk forms of nannying in which our Yale information technology time-lords seem to specialize. Just now, you cannot log onto anything internal without being reminded that it is time to change your password. Tick, tock—it must be done, once a year. This is dreadful because, having in recent days finally obeyed that instruction (for fear of getting a big smack on my bottom for non-compliance), I now type in the old one out of sheer habit before remembering to correct myself by entering the new one instead—almost as ingeniously configured. Nobody could ever possibly guess what these were/are, and they are not written down, except in some secure and (I hope) impenetrable spot on the server. On the other hand, I do wonder what anyone would gain from stealing my identity. Best not to tempt fate, but they might at least get a few amusing surprises. Anyhow, now the central presidium urges me to scan my computer for credit card and social security numbers, a process that takes forever and yields a bunch of false hits—ten-digit clusters that are not, in fact, social security numbers at all, but rather the accession numbers of various objects that belong to other art museums. I am invited to shred the offending documents in which these suspicious numbers crop up, and indeed I have now done so because (a) resistance is futile, (b) anything for a quiet life, (c) I don’t seem to be able to proceed unless I obey, and in any case (d) you have to log onto some internal site and click on a box that alerts the authorities to the fact that you have carried out their instructions to the letter. All of which reminds me that my very first job after entering university—this was in the upper cretaceous period—was to type out Mollison Library catalogue cards for the estimable Jean Mary Waller of beloved memory, a task (in her words) of “sub-professional” responsibility, which I carried out in a small room right next door to Angela Mackie’s private loo. Everything else has long since changed; the cards pulped (or worse), but at least the loo is still there.

postera crescam laude II

Somewhat satisfactorily, the problem of “postera crescam laude” was already knotty in the second or third century, when in his Commentum in Horatium, the North African grammarian and editor Pomponius Porphyrio tagged it with the explanatory remark: “Eleganter, quia semper sunt, quibus haec elocutio noua sit et laudetur.” Thanks to a timely intervention by my Yale colleagues Tristan Taylor and John Dillon, this gloss may now be translated as “Elegantly [put], because there are always those [people] to whom this statement is new, and by whom it is praised,” which doubles as a perfect rationale for whoever it was at the fledgling University of Melbourne who in 1854 came up with the bright idea of adopting the motto “postera crescam laude” in the first place. I hope it was Judge Redmond Barry, veteran horse-whipper and sometime defense counsel for my great-great grandfather William Pearson (who, notwithstanding his conviction for assaulting his catholic neighbor Mr. Desailly, following a steeplechase at Green Wattle Hill in which both men rode fiercely, went on to become a member for Gippsland in both houses of the Victorian Parliament). In any case, John goes on to say that the best literal translation of postera crescam laude (taking into account the recens which follows laude) would appear to be: “I will continue to grow in fame hereafter, ever new.” For his help with this, and for much else besides, I am most grateful.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

postera crescam laude

In his excellent and thought-provoking address about humanities and philanthropy (Australian Book Review, June), Professor Malcolm Gillies directs our attention to the concluding poem (Carmen xxx) in Book III of the Odes of Horace in the verse translation by John Conington, specifically to the phrase “…usque ego postera / Crescam laude recens…,” of which the fragment “postera crescam laude” has since 1854 served as the motto of my alma mater, the University of Melbourne.

At the risk of dragging you kicking and screaming into this regularly recurring in-house discussion, that Latin phrase is especially difficult to translate, and all of the following have from time to time been proposed: (1) “I shall live in freshness of fame as long as the world endures”; (2) “I shall grow into the future, still / In fame renewed”; (3) “later / I shall grow by praise”; (4) “Ever new / My after fame shall grow”; (5) “In time to come / my fame will grow ever fresh”; (6) “On and on / shall I grow, ever fresh with glory of after time”; (7) “I shall increase with the praise of after ages”; (8) “I shall grow in the esteem of future generations”, and (9) “I shall rise in posterity’s praise.” Nowadays the university seems to have settled upon the very loose (10) “
We shall grow in the esteem of future generations.”

No doubt the general, broad meaning is by now pretty clear, but the issue serves to demonstrate the brilliant economy of classical Latin, and the clunkiness of modern English in finding a satisfactory, attractive, or even true rendering of Horace’s phrase.

Context helps. In his recent commentary (2000), David West points to the remarkable strength of the poet’s voice—no false modesty there, though one might now disagree with the nineteenth-century glossist who found ‘no extravagance but much dignity’ in its tone.

At any rate, beginning with the first word of the poem, “
Exegi” (I have built), the first person dominates the verb forms, pronouns, and general thrust, so crescam here (much bolstered by that ego, and the adverbs usque, i.e. continually, perpetually, and recens, i.e. newly or freshly) therefore needs to follow suit. In other words, we shall not grow or increase, nor my fame, nor anything else of mine; rather, I (the poet) shall grow…

For Horace this is simply a statement of fact, indeed one that has across the intervening twenty centuries proven remarkably prescient, but as the motto of a university it more properly functions as an expression of hope, or an aspiration. There are, after all, no guarantees.

Postera, meanwhile, comes from the adjective posterus, –a, –um, and means coming or occurring hereafter, following, ensuing, subsequent, future, or simply later on; laude is from the noun laus, –dis (praise, commendation, renown, relating to the verb laudo, –are, –aui, –atum, I praise, etc.). These go together, and therefore mean [in] the praise, approval, honour, or commendation of what used to be called “my posterity,” in other words those who come along after me: future generations, if you like.

The problem here is how to convey all of the separate but clear, indeed harmonious components of those six Latin words, or, worse, only three of them. In English we have to mess around with “ever new,” “ever fresh,” “on and on,” “in time to come,” all of which mean rather different things from each other, and only partly or imperfectly capture certain elements of the original.

On the other hand, if you are not careful you may end up with something as grotesque as “continually and, at the same time, being ever renewed and freshened up, I shall grow in the sense of rise and/or steadily increase or even expand in the estimation of those who come after me, forever”—which in any case doesn’t rhyme.

It is of little comfort to find that the Germans, Dutch, Spaniards and French have had an even harder time with
postera crescam laude than we have.

In 1861, for example, Prof. Dr. Wilhelm Binder came up with “…
herrlich bei Enkeln einst / Wächst mein Rame” (from herrlich = glorious, magnificent, even lovely; bei Enkeln = among descendants; einst = some day (implying “with luck,” a nice touch); wachsen = to grow, lengthen, broaden, and/or shoot up, so Wächst mein Rame = my fame shall grow). The Dutch were wordier but equally sensible: “Mijn lof zal hier na altijt even frisch aengroeien” (my fame shall...grow fresh—a nod to the abundance of sea air, perhaps).

Yet these are both as stodgy as the Spanish is impressionistic: “
renovado siempre / Crescer con las alabanzas venideras” (always or ever renewed / to grow with the praises of those who come after), while the French is wholly flamboyant: “sans cesse, moi, par la gloire de la postérité, je grandirai toujours jeune” (without cease, I, by the glory of posterity, shall grow tall [or, intriguingly, lengthen (!), and remain] forever young)—but let us assume that the cheeky hint towards length and that conspicuous toujours jeune (forever young) are purely Gallic flourishes.

Which merely reinforces Malcolm’s point that it is well nigh impossible to put a price tag on all of that, so let us be gay.

Sunday, July 19, 2009


Last week in London I heard for the first time in years the endearing English shorthand term for sandwiches, the diminutive “sarnies.” Time: approximately 1:00 p.m., Wednesday, July 8. Place: The English Tearoom, Brown’s Hotel, Albemarle Street, Mayfair. Speaker: My colleague Gillian Forrester, Curator of Prints and Drawings here at the British Art Center. Host and eyewitness (for whom sarnies were until then a closed book): our Director, Amy Meyers.

The odd thing was that over lunch almost exactly forty-eight hours after this, unprompted by me or anyone else, our London colleague Kasha Jenkinson, said it across the table to Gillian: “sarnies”!

Interestingly in both cases the reference was not to what we were actually eating, but what under radically different circumstances we might have been eating had we not been so lucky as to find ourselves where we were at those particular moments.

On the other hand, the term was on each occasion applied with much affection, so I am not quite sure what it really denoted, except that so often unusual words and expressions crop up in twos, threes, and even (for the especially attentive) fours. Perhaps this is because after the first time you notice something like this, your ear is far more likely to register it again soon afterwards. In any case, there we were—and here we are.

Indeed, I’m not quite sure why sarnies struck any sort of chord with me, because I have no recollection of ever having heard this word uttered at home in Australia, where “sambies” and, hair-raisingly, “sambos” were once fairly widespread—though not, I think, among Borthwicks and Trumbles of this and previous generations. I am told that “sangers” is sometimes also said, but I have never heard that one either.

When I was little I don’t think Mum said anything other than sandwiches—hers are still delicious—and Dad never mentioned them at all, so evidently we four boys followed suit. Perhaps this is as it should be.

Then why did sarnies strike me as somehow deeply familiar? Could this be a case of some vestigial remnant in the brain of something concocted by Mike Leigh, or indeed Alan Ayckbourn (though certainly not Noël Coward)? No doubt the answer lies somewhere on the internet, but let us not be distracted, deflected, or bogged down by trivia.

Garden and Cosmos

As usual the British Museum blows its competitors—if that is the right word—out of the water. Because just now in Bloomsbury you can see at least three exhibitions or new displays of supreme quality and startling intellectual power, the kind of aesthetic experiences that stay with you for years—and indeed in certain circumstances may be for many visitors entirely transformative.

I shall go into a few of the others on another day, but first: Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur commenced at the Sackler in Washington, D.C., shuttled to London via Seattle, and will conclude at the National Museum of India in New Delhi later this year and into 2010. There is still time to catch up with it.

Many years ago the National Gallery of Victoria purchased for Melbourne a major collection of miniature paintings from Rajasthan, which were shown there and in Sydney most recently in the exhibition Rajput: Sons of Kings (200405).

Impressive certainly, but what the court painters of Jodhpur achieved (and the curators now demonstrate through this beautifully chosen exhibition) was to make the Rajasthani stuff look like so many postage stamps. In artistic terms scale can be a very blunt weapon, but in these big, densely populated sheets the focus is no less sharp than that of the Rajasthani miniature painters, but the scope, the spread, the narrative energy, the splendor of palace life, the religious intensity as, for example, in the highly intoxicated pre-sex gaities of Holi, as well as the exquisite control with which the Jodhpur painters made a consistent, orderly transition from minute leaf, bud, and flower all the way up to the thundering gallop of a herd of elephants trumpeting beneath monsoonal storm-clouds (above)—all these qualities win for the artists a triple gold star for cosmic and political synthesis in landscape, and for the wholly ruthless Singhs of Jodhpur a heritage and a testament of unequalled magnificence.

Ajit Singh was put to death by his second son, Bakhat Singh, ostensibly for screwing his own daughter-in-law, Bakhat Singh’s wife, but this may have been a convenient pretext for Big Brother Abhai Singh to take over, which he promptly did. In due course, after Abhai Singh died and was succeeded by his feeble son Ram Singh, Uncle Bakhat Singh orchestrated a coup d’état  and seized power for himself. However, in due course one of the new Maharajah’s many nieces murdered him—apparently to avenge her grandfather, incidentally turning a blind eye to the small matter of semi-incestuous adultery. What goes around comes around, as we say in the United States. Incidentally, her method: the gift to Uncle Bakhat of a splendid new coat prudently steeped in poison. In other words the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Singhs of Jodhpur make the House of Atreus look like Little Women

This point was not lost on the court portraitists. With the greatest of respect, even whilst merrily spraying buckets of brightly colored water over his ladies during Holi, Bakhat Singh invariably manages to look like a fully paid-up, card-carrying thug. With a large and well-fed tummy also.

Certainly the climax of the exhibition is the sequence of paintings that deal with key episodes in the Ramayana, that centerpiece of Indian culture and religion—for want of a better word. Why is Prince Rama blue? And what about that intriguing army of shrewd, resourceful monkey creatures? How did the subcontinent manage over millennia to arrive at such a very sensible, realistic, and healthy attitude towards sex? And how on earth—no, really!—did the anemic English manage to keep a lid on India for so long, even taking into account the connivance of the princes, whose expediently self-seeking attitudes and internal cutthroat rivalries played so effectively into the hands of the East India Company, and afterwards the extremely under-staffed India Office in Whitehall?

None of these questions are directly relevant to the mighty aesthetic experience proffered by these paintings, especially the explicitly religious ones—for example, the fifth folio from the Durga Charit, entitled Sage Markandeya’s Ashram and the Milky Ocean, with its amazing representation of Vishnu sleeping against the flank of his gloriously tapering fifteen-headed white serpent Shesha, which forms a compact group suspended in turn over a cosmically scalloped ocean—inflected by only two discretely contrived flourishes (maybe waterspouts).

You have to hand it to those shrewd, powerful, illustrious sages, gurus, yogis, etc., who deftly exploited the anxieties of the princes in respect of seeking release from their (ample) attachment to the material world. Where better to pull the political strings than on a pleasant ashram? And the more famous your sage, the more people flocked to him, the more information he assembled from people wanting more than anything else to lay out their woes, the better to make plausible and carefully placed “prophecies” further down the line (hemmed in by convenient generalities)—in other words, rather like the Oracle at Delphi, this was a highly effective intelligence gathering system which rendered spies, phone-tapping and all the other crude methods of our era wholly unnecessary.

But, above all, I join with my dear colleague Romita Ray in loving the elephants!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Well, they would, wouldn’t they?

Bad curatorial habits seem to thrive in clusters. In almost every art museum I visited in London last week, on wall labels and in published materials relating to many different types of object, again and again I noticed the same sloppy formulation: Originally this bejeweled Portuguese breast ornament “would have been” pinned or sewn to a gown; “This carriage would have been pulled by a pair of sheep or goats, wearing blue velvet harnesses and bridles with silver buckles as mentioned in eighteenth-century inventories” (both Baroque, V. & A.); originally that rare Chinese vase “would have had” identical rings suspended from its handles (Highlights of the Sir Percival David Collection, Sir Joseph Hotung Centre for Ceramic Studies, The British Museum), and so on.

This problem is partly the result of confusing known conventions applying to certain broad categories of object and what one can definitely say about specific examples (or what one certainly cannot say about the same for lack of hard evidence).

Was this bejeweled breast ornament routinely pinned or sewn to a gown? Which of these was it? Possibly yes to both, even probably, but maybe also at different times. Either the original eyelets for needle and thread are no longer there, or the mounts have at some point been altered to suit later habits of dress. In other words, it may not be possible to know for sure—even if we have a very clear picture of how such an object was fully intended to be worn. Here is another one very much like it, in a portrait painting, say, affixed with a ribbon that is tied in a bow. Such evidence can be pretty persuasive, but it is at best circumstantial.

The glorious little pumpkin carriage for the eldest son of the Elector Max Emanuel of Bavaria, meanwhile, may or may not have been equipped with harnesses of blue velvet and bridles fastened with silver buckles, but it is something of a stretch to base this claim upon documents relating to an altogether different princely court. Here as elsewhere the curator’s quest for the telling detail translates into plain conjecture.

Finally, did the famous Yuan dynasty David vases (above) have rings suspended from their elephant-head handles, or not? If they were exactly like other examples of this shape and type, probably yes, but there is no trace of them, and you have to wonder why, if both were at some point broken, there are inconsistent traces of damage to the relevant parts of those vessels. And it is very hard to see why anyone would run the considerable risk of damage by deliberately setting out to remove them.

Maybe in each case we cannot know; but certainly we can make a reasonably plausible and well-informed guess about what craftsmen aimed for in a more general sense: (1) bejeweled Portuguese breast ornaments of this type were evidently worn pinned or sewn to a gown; (2) Chinese vases of this type were generally equipped with identical rings suspended from each handle.

Everyone wants to apply general principles or knowledge to specific objects, but to do so in English prose by means of the so-called “past unreal conditional” is a solecism because this tense calls for (positively demands) a qualifying phrase beginning with “if,” or the equivalent. Therefore, to get away with this locution, you need to say something like: “These rare Chinese vases would have had identical rings suspended from their handles had they survived the hazardous processes of firing in the kiln, or if for unknown reasons, perhaps of taste, they had not been deliberately removed at a later date, or else accidentally broken.”

All of which gives to the text a decidedly clunky texture that I suppose is best avoided.

I realize some of my colleagues get thoroughly exasperated by some of the smaller bees that find their way into my bonnet, but my gentle response to them is to echo as tactfully as possible the estimable Miss Mandy Rice-Davies who, at the Old Bailey in 1963, in connection with the Profumo scandal, whilst under cross-examination during the trial of Stephen Ward, responding to the risible claim that Lord Astor denied ever having met her, famously remarked from the witness box: “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?”

Something of the same brassy colloquialism has evidently now burrowed its way onto our wall labels and into our catalogue entries, and would have refused to budge if a few of us had not learned to love our inner stickler, and accepted that there are certain limits to what one can definitely say about the original state of very old things.


It is impossible to underestimate the value of frequent travel in the professional life of an art museum curator. The opportunity to see dozens of museums, exhibitions, displays, and hundreds, actually thousands of original works of art in radically different settings in the space of a week or so gives you food for thought that lasts for months. It is not a privilege that any of us take for granted; indeed this type of travel can be pretty exhausting. But it is vital if you are going to keep your eyes sharp, and your visual memory stoked up.

However, what is especially curious is that while you can plan a campaign of saturation-looking down to thirty-minute increments, criss-crossing London by tube, or Paris by Métro, you can nevertheless find yourself surprised by a serendipitous sequence of unplanned encounters with works of art that opens your mind to something entirely new, or at least beyond the current parameters of your experience, even your interests.

What did this for me last week in London and Paris was on the one hand, a beautiful display of Sèvres porcelain in The Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace, and, on the other, the newly installed display in the British Museum of the Sir Percival David collection of Chinese ceramics—about which I shall have more to say presently.

A few summers ago I had the wonderful opportunity of seeing numerous Sèvres masterpieces in situ at Windsor Castle, and in other royal establishments, but right now the public can see a brilliantly cogent display of many of the best and rarest of these remarkable objects in the museum setting.

Sèvres may be for many people an acquired taste, but several aspects of this commercial monopoly of the second half of the eighteenth century struck me as especially fascinating—beyond the purely technical matters arising from “process”: hard-paste versus soft-paste wares, the various painter-decorators, formulators of luxurious ground colors, modelers, kiln-operators, gilders, chasers, creators of lavish gilt-bronze mounts, and so on, for whom the annual end-of-year Court sales at Versailles held the key to success.

On one level the elephant in the room of the current Royal Collections is the Prince Regent’s Carlton House, which, if it had survived, would stand as one of the most extravagant and gorgeously decorated interiors of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Many of the decorative objects and furnishings that now decorate the other royal residences were purchased for Carlton House, and most if not all of the most impressive pieces of Sèvres porcelain.

With the aid of dealers, auctioneers, and other slightly dubious middle-men, the Prince Regent spent a lifetime picking off these limping antelopes at the edge of the luxury herd: exceedingly rare Sèvres models with royal (usually French) provenance; dessert services, loopy garnitures, wacky covered vases, and intricately perforated jars for pot-pourri, and thousands of other vessels that were disbursed as a direct result of the French Revolution. Even if this program of hi-octane shopping had not nearly bankrupted the nation on at least a handful of occasions, and earned the Prince perhaps the worst reputation of any British monarch of the modern era, his Sèvres porcelain would be ample grounds for distinguishing George IV as one of the greatest collectors of any age.

A relatively unremarked aspect of the Sèvres phenomenon is also the astonishingly rapid development of modern methods of industrial design, production, marketing, and public relations—converging neatly with the far older concepts of breathtaking craftsmanship, microscopic skill, opulence, and princely magnificence. This is to some degree the fount of the modern luxury goods industry, and the fact that Sèvres not merely survived the French Revolution but went on to become a state monopoly that has survived to this day and still prospers points to the important fact that the Versailles shop-front kept up by Louis XV, Mesdames de Pompadour and du Barry, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, was only one aspect of the larger enterprise. At length the donkeys of the Court were losers, but the Sèvres manufactory consistently made a killing.

Maybe one of the most breathtakingly beautiful exhibitions I have seen for many years hinges not on eighteenth-century Sèvres, but on Sèvres today. It is a group of 57 large porcelain vases of identical shape (model SR22, leaning heavily towards a shapely Chinese profile), all of which were made and decorated over the past two years and will henceforth reside in the permanent collection of the Musée Guimet (a.k.a. the Musée national des arts asiatiques). These are the result of a remarkably happy collaboration between the Sèvres factory and the 89-year-old Chinese painter Chu Teh-chun (Zhu Dequn)—the kind of cross-cultural exchange in which the visionary French seem to specialize.

This one-room show is arranged in the top floor rotunda of the Musée Guimet, in which, for no particular reason, almost invariably I find myself the sole visitor—and Wednesday morning was no exception. The Place d’Iéna is, after all, not at all hard to find, and there is a Métro stop right outside the front door.

What you see is a forest of kindred vessels (above) with a sumptuous cargo of complex decoration, bringing together radically different practices and surface effects. The Sèvres surface is here as smooth and as glossy as polished crystal; by contrast the film in which we see the artist at work between separate firing processes emphasizes the richness and thick texture of his painstakingly slow gestural strokes with enormous brushes laden with inky Sèvres blue, and the gradual accumulation of thousands of smaller strokes and lines—line (the “bone of the brush”) being the ancient bedrock of Chinese painting, richly sustained by the tradition of literati connoisseurs and hugely learned poet practitioners.

Some of his marks are tiny; others are flamboyantly applied or modified with the fingers, and/or allowed to dribble down the shoulder to the foot. An opulent snow of gilding brings the surface decoration into comfortable alignment with the Sèvres “aesthetic,” which moreover reduces to a uniform consistency all but the slightest hints of surface texture. The luster of the creamy porcelain and the richness of the decoration merge indivisibly. What I would not give to own one, preferably this example with its deeply resonant but perfectly judged chords of blue-black!

Yesterday morning, whilst killing time before leaving for Heathrow, I popped into the Wallace Collection, and for three quarters of an hour immoderately ogled their amazing Sèvres—at least several pieces of which are identical to models in the royal collection. Indeed the Marquess of Hertford was evidently the King’s most formidable competitor for big-ticket Sèvres—of which Catherine the Great’s bespoke pair of ice-cream coolers (top) is among the most breathtaking—as much for their glorious shape as for the brilliant faux-cameo decorations, an effect especially requested by the forward-thinking Empress, bless her. And now to get hold of Rosalind Savill’s magisterial three-volume catalogue of Sèvres in the Wallace Collection and learn all about it, or at least as much as I can absorb.

No doubt there will be other incidental discoveries on my next working trip to London, but I shall long remember this as the summer of Sèvres, of Chu Teh-chun—and, incidentally, of the 11ème Cie. des sapeurs-pompiers.

Grand bal des sapeurs-pompiers

Those who know me well can easily imagine the mixture of pleasure and excitement I experienced last week upon checking into my little hotel in the Marais and discovering that my third floor window faced directly onto the façade of the 11ème Cie. des Sapeurs-Pompiers. This estimable local branch of the Paris fire department occupies a large, elegant, but unpretentious seventeenth-century hôtel on the other side of the rue de Sévigné, a mere stone’s throw from the rue Saint-Antoine.

However, what launched me into the upper stratosphere of delight was the discovery on Monday evening that, to mark the Fête Nationale, the self-same sapeurs-pompiers were preparing to stage their annual open-house “grand bal,” a come-one-come-all évènement (entrée €4) to which in due course, from nine o’clock, tens of thousands of chirruping local people presented themselves at the metal-detectors, mostly queueing patiently about two hundred metres down the street, and right around the corner, almost to the rue de Rivoli.

From my window I observed all the preparations, including the meticulous rearrangement along the street of the various pint-sized glossy-red Renault fire-engines so as to open up the necessary space inside the cour; the stocking of large ice-boxes with mountains of refraichements; the watering of the geraniums in the window-boxes; the house-proud sweeping, primping, buffing, and tidying that distinguishes the corporate pride of this small army of efficient, exceptionally handsome young men.

Perhaps you are beginning to see my point.

Firemen in America tend to cleave to the heroic, not to say pumped-up model of body shape and general deportment. As far as I can tell the same generally applies to their cousins in Australia, and the United Kingdom. There is a faint note of over-emphasis in all of this, as well as plainly excessive machismo, much encouraged by the publishers of cheesy semi-nude fire department calendars and other forms of sex-driven merchandise, to say nothing of the post-9/11 environment.

Parisian sapeurs-pompiers, by contrast, as if by some outrageous process of admittedly no less fetishistic typecasting, are mostly lithe, elegant, sinuous, and beautiful. They are the concorde to the Airbus A380 so loudly proferred by the portly swains of the N.Y.F.D. The blond ones are the epitome of all things youthfully blond: with not an ounce of excess fat or muscle, finely chiseled features, and a perfect tan—from the same firm, I suspect, that did the Kritios Boy. And setting aside the demands of their vocation, the darker, olive-skinned, almost imperceptibly stockier ones (Marseille? Corsica? Heaven?) smolder out of some erogenous zone of hotness against which I challenge any reasonable person other than your average straight man to erect and sustain an effective psychic barrier.

During the later stages of the grand bal—not a single drunk, tart, or slapper to be seen or heard; please pay close attention, bibulous, messy old England!—I watched the apparently endless supply of sapeurs-pompiers pausing for quiet, sociable Gauloises on the street; chatting with colleagues; dallying with pretty girls; flirting with exceedingly attractive much older women; tossing excitable fire-engine-mad toddlers on their shoulders, and greeting with much friendliness the proprietors of local shops, and, incidentally, displaying with complete nonchalance the red piping that runs up the outside leg of their navy-blue dress uniforms, apparently professing to be wholly unaware that in this respect they trace slender lines of immoderate appeal, the scarlet satin-lined kepi held in the crook of the elbow, just comme ça, the épaulettes drawing attention to compact, but perfectly wrought shoulders.

In my feverish state, I seriously contemplated setting fire to my room just for the pure bliss of being rescued by one or all of them—although though my handy Zeiss binoculars I see that the majority wear a gold band on the ring finger of their left hand. Merde!

At my advanced age these stunning foot-soldiers of the sapeurs-pompiers in the Marais are thankfully (I suppose) out of reach, but when, out on the street, in the early morning of the quatorze, I came face to face with the person who could only be their commandant, supervising the brisk clean-up operation—a man in his late forties or early fifties, salt-and-peppery, but as swarthy, slim, fit, and now as devastatingly handsome as he was obviously once beautiful when he started out maybe twenty-five years ago—it was as much as I could do to prevent my jaw from dropping.

Moreover, I recognized him. Early the previous evening he and his wife were enjoying a glass of rosé with our friendly concierge in the modest hotel lobby.

With luck into every life come occasional moments of pure joy, but when, in the warm early sun over Paris last Tuesday morning, between issuing snappy orders to his compagnie of busy, stalwart sapeurs-pompiers, that beautiful leader of men looked up, and, smiling the faint smile of “mine host,” nodded affably, shook my hand, and addressed me with unselfconscious good cheer («Bonjour, monsieur»), I confess I nearly fainted.

Who said anything about Parisians being rude?


Jonathan Jenney is quite right: The Eurostar rocks.

Thanks to brand new track laid through Kent, it now takes only two hours and fifteen minutes to go from Paris Gare du Nord to London St. Pancras: an hour and twenty minutes to Calais via Lille (approx 190 miles); twenty minutes at low speed through the Chunnel; and thirty-five minutes to cover the 75 miles or so from Dover to London. That’s keeping to an average speed of nearly 130 miles an hour.

To say that this contrasts with the hour and forty minutes only occasionally attained by MetroNorth over the distance of approximately seventy miles that separate New Haven from Grand Central Terminal in New York, or the meager ten minutes you gain by choosing Amtrak’s far more expensive, so-called Acela service to Penn Station (at exciting average speeds of 42 and 46 m.p.h. respectively) is a woeful understatement, and scarcely believable in a country that is just now celebrating the fortieth anniversary of putting men on the moon.

Further, last night, upon returning from London, I grasped to my infinite annoyance that it can take much longer to crawl across the Borough of Queens, immured in dense traffic between John F. Kennedy International Airport and the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge (formerly the Triborough), than it takes to travel by train from Paris to Calais. This is wholly absurd.

Surely the tens of millions who cluster all the way along the corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C., deserve a fast train, a genuinely fast train, and not the filthy, noisy, cramped, bone-jarring tin cans that are this wealthy, populous super-nation’s feeble excuse for one.

All one can assume is that those in authority in the Congress, in the relevant state legislatures, and in the tired old city halls scattered along the route have never actually experienced the joy of traveling in comfort and safety aboard a proper train.

When challenged on this point, with tedious regularity fast-train skeptics in this part of the world tell me that the cost of straightening out the kinks in the old tracks that are so hemmed in by the vast conurbation of the north-east is prohibitive; that this sort of infrastructure project would in any case be impossible, and the cost of traveling by such a fast train far too high for the vast majority of passengers.

To which I say: stuff and NONSENSE. If the French, Belgians, and British can lay their fast track under the ocean bed, and through densely populated regions such as Kent or Flanders (only two hours by train from London to Brussels), there is no reason why it cannot be done through Massachusetts, Rhode Island, southern Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and the District of Columbia.

Get out your shovels and dig—right under Long Island Sound if necessary. Harness some of those bail-out billions and use them for something more useful than shoring up greedy banks and insurance companies. Recruit armies of construction workers in urgent need of gainful employment, and an opportunity to shed lots of weight; get gasoline-thirsty vehicles off the roads; wean America off lorries, creaking under-sized jet aircraft, abusive geriatric flight attendants, and traffic jams. Liberate travelers from the enormous risk attendant upon sharing the interstate highways with the average motorist—each one more dangerous than the last. And, incidentally, let us make it possible for hundreds of thousands of people realistically to transform dozens of depressed cities in the rust belt such as New Haven, Conn., Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Allentown, Pa., etc., by actually moving there, taking advantage of the extra breathing space and cheaper rent, whilst commuting daily to their places of work in (for example) midtown Manhattan—because each of those legs really ought to take only twenty to twenty-five minutes by fast train.

If you don’t believe me, take Eurostar and see for yourself.

Saturday, July 4, 2009


I am currently having one of those irritating little running battles with the management of my apartment building in New Haven over the matter of a “capital improvement” campaign of construction, which was originally announced to us as a simple matter of replacing the aging railings on the balconies. It seems that, along with this, there is some repointing to be done.

Repointing, I now learn, is the process of removing crumbling mortar from between certain joints, and replacing it—the better to resist moisture. This process of deterioration is due to the impact upon masonry of annual cycles of extreme heat and cold and back again. 

It turns out that to do this work much aggressive drilling is required, and in my apartment building that means incessant, deafening, mind-altering noise, commencing at nine o’clock in the morning and ending at around four in the afternoon—every day, including weekends. No mention was made of loud noise or any other sort of disruption in the original, soothing message alerting us to the impending job of work, and in the update delivered to each apartment this week I see that once again no direct reference is made to the amount and volume of the noise.

So this week, having prudently (I thought) taken some time off work to catch my breath before going to London tomorrow, I found that my apartment was completely uninhabitable. Something about the concrete superstructure of our building acts as a kind of echo chamber, no matter how far away from me they are drilling, and the result is a ceaselessly rabid, migraine-level din.

Later on Monday morning, therefore, in a mild fit of pique, I sought reliable information as to how long we could expect this project to continue—at first addressing this not unreasonable question to the doorman, who had no idea, the rental agents (likewise), and finally to two darling little Hobbit-like workmen with whom I happened to share the elevator, going down. One of them pretended to speak no English at all, and with breathtaking mendacity the other flatly denied being in any way involved in it. Their hard-hats, tool-boxes, and matching red shirts, rather fetching, each emblazoned with the name of the pertinent firm of construction subcontractors, told a rather different story. However, on reflection I suppose this was the most sensible approach on their part: Deny everything, and let management handle testy, no ropeable tenants.

I didn’t get much further with our manager. Dear Sholom is much given to using the phrase “not a problem,” which I confess drives me mad. “Nodda-problem,” he says to me, even when the problem is acute. This time, inspired by Barry Humphries, I ventured to say, “But, Sholom, it is a problem, and the mood among many residents of this building is one of gradually increasing frustration”—especially, I added, among those unfortunate persons currently studying for the New York bar examination, or else young people dealing with distressed infants and toddlers. 

However what tipped me over the edge of irritation into the chasm of despair was the discovery at our monthly senior staff meeting on Tuesday morning—I attended it to escape the noise—that construction is shortly due to commence right below my office window as well—the steps down into the lower court of our Kahn building need to be taken up and put back again. Over the years they have developed Borobudur-level subsidence, perky bumps, and potentially dangerous fissures.

Therefore for at least several weeks, possibly months, henceforth I will ricochet from one noisy construction site at home to another at work—and this photograph shows you how close each one is to the other. (I live in the background quite high up, at the east end, which you cannot see, and my office window is on the top floor facing this way, just out of frame in the foreground.)

Hard to know how in these unpromising circumstances my already jangling nerves will hold up, but let us make every effort to be gay.

Blithe Spirit

One of the great advantages of living near New York City is comparatively easy access to Broadway theater. Last Sunday I went with some friends to see the matinee performance of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit at the Sam S. Shubert Theatre at 225 West 44 Street. This fine revival stars—and the verb is for once deeply appropriate—Rupert Everett, Christine Ebersole, Jayne Atkinson, and Angela Lansbury in the role of Madame Arcati. They receive strong support from Simon Jones, Deborah Rush, and the fine Broadway debutante Susan Louise O’Connor, whose Edith the maid achieves at least one show-stopping moment involving a tray laden with breakfast things.

However, it is Angela Lansbury’s Madame Arcati who has stayed with me for days, like some lingering but essentially benign ectoplasmic manifestation. 

Angela Lansbury is six months older than The Queen, and at 83 (turning 84 in October), she is absolutely astonishing. Margaret Rutherford created this role on the West End stage in 1941, and in 1945 brought it to the screen with Rex Harrison, Constance Cummings, and Kay Hammond, directed by David Lean. He was 36; Noël Coward was by then 46. 

In any event, Margaret Rutherford’s was the Madame Arcati of cat hair, tweed, and knitted gloves. Angela Lansbury’s Madame Arcati replaces these with henna, chunky jewelry, and more than a whiff of patchouli. Rutherford was essentially cuddly; Lansbury is far sharper with the dinner guests, and decidedly angular in motion, and delivery. Her fabulous trances involve nervous but sprightly, high-kicking dance maneuvers, with Irving Berlin gramophone accompaniment, on a shallow stage in (at best) semi-darkness—wearing high heeled shoes. Clearly she deserved this year’s Tony, her fifth, and in this regard Angela Lansbury now equals the record previously held by Julie Harris. Bravissima! 

However, what struck me most about Blithe Spirit—which is, of course, an old-fashioned farce, and a very funny one—is how strongly it still holds up as a play. There are at times hints of genuine darkness, and numerous comparatively surprising dashes of domestic sturm und drang, as well as a little wry consideration of the larger themes of credulity, condescension, and death. Noël Coward was a genius, as his very earliest writing for the stage amply demonstrates, as well as a master craftsman of astringent comic dialogue.

If you see nothing else this season (apart from the brilliant revival of Hair), make sure you see this Blithe Spirit.