Sunday, April 29, 2012

Captain Bracegirdle again

I have been consulting the memoirs of the late Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester, which contains among much else a lively account of the period 1945 and 1947 when Prince Henry, the Duke, served as Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia. I was especially tickled to discover the following stray reference to Noël Coward’s play Blithe Spirit (1941), revived on Broadway a few years ago with Angela Lansbury in the role of Madame Arcati, and also to Rear Admiral Sir Leighton Seymour Bracegirdle, K.C.V.O., C.M.G., D.S.O., who was Military and Official Secretary to successive Governors-General from 1931 to 1947:
The holiday over, we returned to Canberra, where at the end of February I report [to Queen Mary] that we have seen “a very amusing coloured film—Blithe Spirit by Noël Coward [1945]. It was shown in aid for “Food for Britain.” The name “Captain Bracegirdle” comes into it, and caused merriment all round. Apparently Noël Coward was staying here [in 1940] while writing the play, and was so taken with the name that he asked if he might use it. We did not know of this beforehand so were completely taken by surprise” [p. 151].
In the third act, Charles Condomine, suffering the ill effects of being haunted by the ghosts of two deceased wives, has an especially sharp exchange with his first, Elvira, about the unsatisfactory honeymoon they spent at Budleigh Salterton, complaining in particular about certain illicit expeditions in a punt with Guy Henderson, and long walks over the moors in the company of a certain Captain Bracegirdle.

There are now two possibilities as to whom Rear Admiral Sir Brian Murray once had in mind (or not) when at Government House, Melbourne, he presented to the Duke of Norfolk his honorary naval aide-de-camp, Warwick Teasdale, as “Captain Bracegirdle” instead—either (1) Commander Warwick (“Braces”) Bracegirdle, D.S.C., R.A.N., which is my reader Rick Cazaly’s quite logical suggestion, or else, more intriguingly perhaps, (2) Sir Leighton Bracegirdle of Yarralumla. Sir Brian, who, I believe, entered the Royal Australian Navy in 1939, would surely have been aware of the identity of both distinguished officers, however it seems unlikely that we shall ever know which one caused his momentary confusion when making presentations to the Earl Marshal of England, or, indeed, if Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit played any part. I rather doubt it.

Friday, April 27, 2012


There are scholars who footnote compulsively, six to the page, writing what amounts to two books at once. There are scholars whose frigid texts need some of the warmth and jollity they reserve for their footnotes and other scholars who write stale, dull footnotes like the stories brought inevitably to the minds of after-dinner speakers. There are scholars who write weasel footnotes, footnotes that alter the assertions in their texts. There are scholars who write feckless, irrelevant footnotes that leave their readers dumbstruck with confusion…The footnote is an awkward tool, inelegant, all thumbs, but it has the breath of life to it.
Mary-Claire van Leunen, A Handbook for Scholars, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978, p. 91.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


At long last I have grasped how dendrochronology actually works. It took an entire classroom of patient colleagues, and an especially lively discussion, to achieve this over lunch today. Dendrochronology is the method of dating the demise of living trees, and pieces of wood cut from them, by counting, measuring, and analyzing the patterns formed by the rings that accumulate naturally through successive annual growth cycles in late spring, when wood grows faster and is less dense than in the fall and winter, and may be clearly seen in cross section through the trunk of a tree, from its bark to its core. Evidence of such tree rings may also be observed and recorded along the edge of planks of wood sawn from individual trees, and although these necessarily tell only a relatively small part of the whole growth history of that larger tree, the unique sequence of seasonal variations that are preserved in such a piece of wood does nevertheless form a reasonably reliable fragment of a botanical fingerprint, as it were, that ought to correspond with contemporaneous growth patterns in comparable pieces of wood from the same species of tree that once grew in the same region—an important caveat, because therefore such trees shared patterns of rainfall and other climatic conditions that governed their growth each calendar year. Previously I could not understand how such ring patterns could provide anything other than relative data, with luck corresponding to otherwise independently verifiable dates that could, in turn, be pinned fairly reliably to particular pieces of wood. But let us suppose, for example, that one is interested in knowing the exact age of a piece of oak that forms part of a fine English panel painting of approximately the late sixteenth century. This is how it is done: We know that supplies of the finest quality close-grained oak were in the late sixteenth century imported to England from the Baltic, and share certain basic characteristics. If you cut down a tree in that region today, right now, and analyze the ring patterns that radiate in reverse chronological order from the middle of the trunk you may trace how the rings correspond with each growth season extending from last year all the way back to the birth of the tree itself, perhaps 300 years ago. That sequence will necessarily overlap with the ring patterns in a piece of wood from a similar tree that was cut down 155 years ago, and was, let us say, at that date 420 years old. For 145 years both were growing at the same time and with the same annual spurts of growth, or enduring the ill effects of the same especially appalling winters, and this therefore yields reliable data that apply to annual seasons through an accumulated total of 575 years. How do we know the older tree was cut down 155 years ago? Because its last growth ring exactly corresponds with the 155th of the younger tree. By this method it is possible to assemble relatively accurate overlapping data, extending back for centuries, with which to compare the sequence of annual tree-ring growth patterns discernible in much smaller pieces of wood. This in turn allows the dendrochronologist to estimate within several years the exact date when each original tree was cut down. There are a number of variables, such as conventions of the Renaissance lumber trade that governed which portions of the tree trunk afforded the straightest and best quality planks, and the length of time such planks were left to season before sale, which usually means that the age of the plank is maybe slightly less than the date when the tree was felled, but greater by a certain number of years, perhaps up to seven, than the age of the panel painting the plank was used to build. Occasionally, other evidence contained within the painting itself may be used to narrow down the available date range afforded by the dendrochronologist, and other documentation about extremes of climate may also help to confirm data that is occasionally otherwise compromised by the action of wood-eating insects, etc. However, we do know that by this method it has been possible to identify certain English panel paintings that were definitely made from planks hewn from the very same tree. This does not necessarily shed any more light upon our painting than that the craftsmen who supplied the artist with his panel sourced their timber from a single batch, which may or may not have kept them supplied with the raw material to make their panels over an additional period of months or even years. Still, it is amazing, because by this method it may be argued that our late sixteenth-century English painting adheres to a panel made from Baltic oak that was felled in 1585, which is what we like to call a reliable terminus post quem. One must be wary, of course, because cunning forgers have at times been easily capable of using an old panel to fabricate a new picture, and pass it off as something else entirely, but that is a very different story.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Chicken sandwiches

Which reminds me, in its heyday, the Regency Room on the top floor of Georges in Collins Street, Melbourne, served the best, moistest, freshest, tenderest, most exquisitely seasoned chicken sandwiches that I have ever had the good fortune to sample regularly for lunch or afternoon tea—in the company of my old friends Helen Bird and Kelly Read, to whom I shall be ever grateful for introducing me to them. Obviously, in some quite tangible way, Georges’s chicken sandwiches, now forever vanished, were then a still living relic of the Edwardian diet. Yet they were not too fat, not too thin; there were not too many chopped spring onions, nor too few; not too much mayonnaise, nor too little; the filling was pleasingly al dente, but not too lumpy, nor indeed chopped into a sort of slimy oblivion. Was there not a hint of tarragon also, as well as a welcome suggestion of chopped parsley—for texture? Meanwhile, the solid architecture afforded by the thinly sliced wholemeal bread was equally distinguished, not the tasteless, starchy, sugar-laden, industrially-manufactured foamy white rubbish one is so often obliged to endure here in America, but rather a bread of distinction, freshly baked, and with that hint of chewy, gluten-y resistance that actually improves the loaf through the course of those crucial first twenty-four hours. Also, by the way, it contained an appropriate amount of salt—a point upon which my late mother insisted—a vital ingredient, in harmlessly small quantities, that was yet to be targeted by the healthy-heart fundamentalists. In other words, Georges’s chicken sandwich was exactly right, a sandwich of genius, the Koh-i-noor, the Cotopaxi, the Rembrandt, the Concorde of chicken sandwiches. Who, I wonder, was responsible for the Georges chicken sandwich? Could she still be alive? How I miss her artistry, skill, dedication, and how often I have attempted—and failed—to recreate the whole effect in the mad, desperate privacy of my own kitchen, here in New Haven, Conn.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Edwardians

I have been struggling, searching, questing towards an Edwardian frame of mind—with which to conclude my essay for the catalogue. It is not easy. Was there such a thing, or even any sort of reliable national recollection of an especially gilded age residing out of reach across the chasm of the Great War, and with any particular defining qualities? Lady Cust obviously doubted it when, writing to The Times newspaper on November 3, 1930, she remarked:

Is it not time that certain of the Victorians stood aside for a little while and stopped finding fault with the present generation? We can hardly pick up a paper nowadays without reading the lamentation of pessimists over England’s wretched state. A few days ago, someone writing to The Times quoted ‘a middle-aged masseur’ who considered there was no one left in the country to be trusted. Now another has been bewailing our vanished dignity and the golden days that will never return. Well, were they so very golden? For the comfortable classes in their great houses, yes; but what of the Crimean heroes who walked the streets and lanes destitute and hopeless, and the great gulf fixed between the rich and poor; derelicts for whom there was nothing save haphazard charity between starvation and the workhouse?

No doubt Sybil Cust reflected here a social conscientiousness that was clearly in evidence in many Edwardian minds, certainly in the governments of Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith. And there is, I think, a variety of other similarly typical Edwardian outlooks that crop up from time to time, and put me in mind, once again, of Kenneth Clark’s blasé apercu: “What is civilization? I don’t know. I can’t define it in abstract terms, yet. But I think I can recognize it when I see it, and I’m looking at it now.” So, too, with Edwardian frames of mind. Or is it still too soon to say with any precision? J. B. Priestley certainly did not think it was, and nor did the authors of the thousands of other books with Edwardian in their title. No subsequent regnal term ever made it into the language, which is also suggestive. The hints are everywhere. Writing about the habit of addressing letters to the editor of The Times newspaper, for example, which was never more mightily entrenched in 1901, Kenneth Gregory pointed to the “finest letter which The Times—for excellent reasons—never published”:
September 9, 1985
Travelling in the Balkans before the war with one of my uncles, a botanist, we made use of various phrase books including a somewhat erratic English–Albanian one by George Nakos and Kamber Ali, the latter said to have been a near relation of King Zog. Some of the phrases included envisaged contingencies which might seldom occur to ordinary travelers, for example: “Tell the Italian consul to fetch me an omelette.”
I am, Sir, your etc.,
J. R. Burg
As Gregory remarks, “In two sentences, Mr. Burg triumphed with at least half a dozen ploys: [1] travelling in the Balkans was not common before the war…but [2] Mr. Burg and his uncle were there; [3] ‘one’ of Mr. Burg’s uncles implies that he had several, to have enumerated them would have invited comparison with P. G. Wodehouse’s eleven aunts on his mother’s side alone; [4] a ‘botanist uncle’ has the reader asking ‘what were the others? Diplomat? Water-diviner? Professor of Sanskrit? Was the botanist uncle botanizing or acting on behalf of British Intelligence?’ [5] Mention of King Zog is a reminder that the British adore Royalty.
Mr. Burg’s final ploy [6] is superb. He implies that he and his uncle were ‘ordinary’ travelers; we know they were not. We know that Uncle Burg went from restaurant to restaurant: ‘Tell the Italian consul to fetch me an omelette.’ History recalls what happened. The Italian consul protested vehemently to Rome so that on April 7, 1939, Mussolini invaded Albania, by which time Burg and nephew were safely back in England awaiting further instructions.
To these observations I would add: (7) Mr. Burg’s characterization of his Albanian phrase book as “erratic,’ notwithstanding the distinction of one of its authors—a distinction, however, that he was careful not to take at face value; (8) a presumption that readers of The Times newspaper would find his account both informative and amusing; (9) the vision of their stout hand luggage brimming with a variety of other phrase books, some presumably more reliable than others; a corresponding (10) faith in their usefulness; a (11) self-confident determination to resort to them where and when necessary, the better (12) to be clearly understood as British travelers in temporary transit through countries of (13) dubious merit. There is also the presumption that (14) especially in those unpromising places an omelette would probably not be obtainable, even for ready money, or (15) by means of diplomatic intervention (16) other than that of an ambassador or minister plenipotentiary. Somehow, one thinks of Dame May Whitty in the role of Miss Froy. Just delightful.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Hanging Rock

Last night I dreamed I was at Hanging Rock. Though I have driven past it many times, on my way from Melbourne to Castlemaine and back, I have only ever visited the rock once—when, as a child, my brother Nick took me there with his girlfriend, Judy, and their friend Annie Byrne, for a picnic. It is a most remarkable wooded formation of extruded volcanic plugs rising rather abruptly out of gently rolling arable land in the vicinity of Mount Macedon, Woodend, and Kyneton in cental Victoria. Not especially spectacular in scale or appearance, it nevertheless creates a lasting impression of strange, quiet imposition, and inconceivable antiquity. I gather it is also known as Mount Diogenes. Actually I do recall that the view out from between vast granite boulders near the top conveyed to me then a far greater sense of monumentality than seeing the formation from some distance away, as in this atmospheric photograph, but of course I was little. Anyhow, in my dream I am back at the rock, and quite alone, searching in vain for the neighboring race course, where I know I am expected for the Easter races, always (I gather) an amusing country meeting. While searching, I am also slightly irritated by other visitors, gigglesome strangers, a fraction shrill in their cheerfulness, who are rushing about and entertaining each other by shouting up rock faces “Mir-aaaaanda!” in acknowledgment of the character who goes missing in the film, and the novel by Joan Lindsay. This disturbs the otherwise peaceful atmosphere of the crackling, eucalyptussy slopes, and further distracts me. As a far-off place I suppose Hanging Rock somehow reminds me of my late mother and father: quiet, solid, dependable, self-contained, self-disciplined, old. They, too, are missing. I must be sure to go back on my next visit.

Google Art Project

Last week we joined the Google Art Project, and yesterday I received the first of what I anticipate will be a steady stream of helpful communications from interested persons who may now gain access to reproductions of objects in our collection directly through Google, and obviously know far more about a particular object than we do. An exquisite example is this charming small painting by George Chinnery of a young man playing a guitar. A colleague in Britain has let me know that his sheet music may now be identified as Fantaisie, Opus 7, by Fernando Sor (1778–1839) whose name can be read at the top, a piece that was originally dedicated to the Austrian-born French composer and pianoforte builder Ignaz Joseph Pleyel. All this is due to the sharp eye of James Westbrook, of the Guitar Museum in Brighton, to whom we are most grateful.

As Roberta Smith remarked in yesterday’s New York Times, “The top contributor [to the Google Art Project] is the Yale Center for British Art, which has uploaded images of 5,414 paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings by 580 artists—about 10 to 12 percent of its entire collection and everything in the public domain that appears on its own Web site—including scores of works by John Constable and J. M. W. Turner.” In fact, we have put up all our paintings and sculptures that are in the public domain, and it is only a matter of time before all the many thousands of works on paper go up in tranches. This is merely an extension of our new policy of open access that, together with partner institutions including the British Museum, we have lately implemented—that is, to make available free of charge easily downloadable high-resolution images of anything in our collections that is out of copyright, so that they can be published anywhere, in any form, printed or digital, without a fee for permission to reproduce. We ask only that our users let us know where our things appear, so that we can maintain as accurate a record as possible, though of course in future this, too, will be an exercise made largely redundant by increasingly powerful online searching methods that, like Googe, will eventually span whole collections.

True, there are some slightly surprising aspects of the arrangement of the images on the Google Art Project site, and a curious determination to list artists in alphabetical order of first or Christian name instead of surname. With Leonardo and Michelangelo this is not such a problem, but informed searchers may be puzzled to find Arthur Devis listed under A, and Jonathan Richardson under J. No doubt this was the work of a computer programmer, and not a librarian. I am sure they will get around to fixing this.

The awesomeness of the whole exercise may be illustrated by the following scenario. You see a winsome detail of a painting or sculpture in an advertisement on the side of a bus, and are curious to know what it is. You take a photograph of it with your smart phone. The relevant Google art app will then correctly identify the original work, and not only bring you the pertinent information and a full reproduction but also provide a link to the parent institution’s web site, and, in the case of MoMA, for example, show you exactly where it hangs on which wall, and in what gallery—together with a map. Instantaneously. One prays that this will not provide too convenient a blueprint for future generations of thieves, and that our security measures are sufficiently robust, but I also notice that such qualms when expressed in meetings by cautious art museum curators in the firm grip of middle age can at times be greeted with soothing noises of good-natured indulgence by much younger colleagues who are completely embedded in the world of information technology.

There was a time, not so long ago, when hunting for a work of art involved shuffling through black-and-white photographs in any number of cardboard boxes, or an exercise in memory. One thinks of needles and haystacks. The Google Art Project promises to revolutionize the process, and it seems just incredible.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Hogarths

We art museum curators regularly enjoy moments of interaction with certain visitors to our galleries, usually but not always members of the general public. So it was yesterday afternoon, when, sharing the elevator with a young mother and her enormous pram, after a bit I complimented her on the extremely winning blue-eyed infant who was quietly but with alertness ogling me from those luxurious depths, all set about with rugs, blankets, rattles, soft toys, and whatnot. In a completely unexpected non sequitur to which I found it impossible to think of any sort of adequate response, while efficiently swinging the pram onto the fourth-floor, casually, over her shoulder, as if this were completely self-explanatory, the mother replied: “Oh, she’s just dropped in to see the Hogarths.”


For me one of the profoundest moments of the liturgical calendar, and certainly of Holy Week, is the chanting on Good Friday, today, of the Improperia, or Reproaches, in the setting composed by Tomás Luis de Victoria. The Reproaches, a series of antiphons and responses, come from the Roman liturgy for Good Friday and form a somber background for the Veneration of the Cross, full of pathos, dignity, and grandeur. The verses, twelve in number, were conceived as having been uttered by the crucified Saviour, and, as Jon Dixon once observed, “contrast Divine compassion…with the sufferings inflicted on Christ during his Passion.” I suppose it is hardly surprising that this ancient rite has at different times been twisted into an especially damaging anti-Semitic framework, but, in essence, the Improperia are addressed to everyone, each and all—just as the reproaches themselves fully extend across oceans of human weakness, from the purely personal to the corporate, collective, and global. These are important words to hear, and upon which humbly to reflect.

As far as we can tell, the Improperia first appeared in a document known as the Pontificale of Prudentius (Bishop of Troyes, 846–861) and gradually came into use throughout Europe in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. After this suitably long and typically cautious period of “research and development,” finally in the fourteenth century the Improperia were incorporated into the Roman Ordo. True, the Catholic Encyclopedia rather sniffily noted that they are nowhere to be found in the old Roman Ordines, while Louis Duchesne thought he could detect a Gallican ring to them, in other words a faint echo of pre-Gregorian Roman rites as practiced from the fifth to the ninth centuries in Frankish lands (the loose-knit remnant of Roman Gaul). I love this old form of purely stylistic detective-work, which is based on a vast accumulation of knowledge that, in turn, equips the scholar with the ability to form certain deeply informed hypotheses about where certain phrases truly originated. Yet the survival in the text of the Greek Trisagion (literally “Thrice Holy,” the Agios O Theos) certainly proves that the Improperia had found a place in the Roman Good Friday liturgy before the Photian schism of the ninth century.

Forming part of his sumptuous volume of music for Holy Week, the Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae, which was published in Rome in 1585 by Alessandro Gardane, the Counter-Reformation Spaniard Victoria assembled the text into a deceptively simple, four-part setting of two refrains of really astonishing beauty, a brilliant fusion of homophony with the comparatively daring melodic lines for which he became famous, and ultimately led twentieth-century scholars of sacred music to resuscitate his work, and perform it widely again.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Mr. Sage

I wonder, too, about Mr. Sage, that shadowy figure who lurks somewhere in the background. He may have been one of the two sons of John Sage, haberdasher, of Cheapside, who were listed as scholars of St. Paul’s School in 1748: John junior, aged 8, or his younger brother Isaac, aged 7. This would place either one within plausible range of Letitia Anne Hoare in the late 1770s or early 1780s. Presumably one or either of them, or indeed another member of the same family of haberdashers in due course successfully lifted the business into partnership: Sage, Rawdon & Atkinson, listed in the Directory of London for 1794, where they are described slightly more aspirationally as “Wholesale Linen-drapers,” though still at Cheapside, number 19 to be exact. However, as we have seen, by that time Mrs. Sage had moved on, and is said to have been living with the purser of an East Indiaman. She is therefore safe from any association, however distant, with the scenario described here in Following the Fashion, James Gillray’s vicious satire of the mid-1790s. Predictably, the unfortunate figure on the right represents Cheapside, “a body without a soul,” in fact “aping the Mode” of St. James’s, on the left, who is naturally “a soul without a body.” As we have seen, Mrs. Sage demonstrated beyond question that she was in comfortable possession of both.