Friday, February 22, 2013

The gown

The day before yesterday we installed Lady Curzon’s spectacular white satin “orchid” gown, one of a number that were created for her by the House of Worth. We know she wore it on state occasions in Delhi when she was Vicereine of India. The train is fourteen feet long, and, together with the bodice and skirt the entire ensemble was richly embroidered by Indian craftsmen and women with gold and silver threads and further augmented with faceted crystal beading that with the bullion shimmer under the lights. This indigenous technique is known as zardozi. Watching our colleague from the Fashion Museum at Bath perform the operation of dressing the dress was slightly eerie, as this sequence of photos will demonstrate, because one gradually began to sense more and more Mary Curzon’s ghostly presence, while also witnessing something of what it must have been like for a skilled lady’s maid to help her to get dressed. It would be impossible to do this without assistance. Naturally we began with a customized dummy on a stand.
The dummy and its precious cargo migrated from place to place throughout this procedure, which added to a vague but growing sense of imminence, but it was in the beginning dressed with a long calico petticoat to give some support the very fragile skirt.
Naturally Lady Curzon wore additional foundation garments, including an up-to-the-minute boned and laced “s” corset, so this impression of the size of her waist (when so constricted) is actually quite conservative.
The skirt came first, fastened with hooks to innumerable hand-stitched eyelets. Lady Curzon presumably stepped into it, but we had to very carefully lower it over her head.
Then came the bodice, very tight fitting and, like the skirt, extraordinarily heavy for its size (because of the bullion-work)...
...and finally the train, which you see here folded in three between layers of tissue paper. The front end of the train was secured with tapes around the waist, and these double bows finally tucked inside the front of the bodice.
This is the view that none of our visitors will have because I took the photograph through the rear of the case before it was firmly shut (for environmental control and light sensitivity). But it is helpful to explain why the train had to be arranged in this fluid manner, for to extend it fully would cause too much tension along the left edge. We had decided that it would be best to orient Lady Curzon to the front, a slightly less than three-quarters view, and to allow the train to create for her a graceful arc. Notice also that the skirt itself is possessed of a short but ample bell train on its own, so all the bullion-work and embroidery on the back of it is therefore mostly covered by the removable train.
Here she is, making a graceful turn. Lady Curzon must have had at least one page to assist her with the train, possibly two, and it was only worn for the most formal ceremonies. The pungent Indian iconography of sprays of orchids dominates the decoration of the skirt and bodice, but the train adds to this the more squarely English clusters of oak leaves and other British vice-regal heraldic devices, and fuses both in a sequence of classicizing wreaths around the edges that culminate in three very large ones at the end of the train. It is a truly remarkable hybrid. Very few exercises in art museum display have taught me as much or given me as much pleasure and fascination over three or four magical hours as did this gradual re-animation of Mary Curzon’s spectacular white satin “orchid” gown. Do please come and see it for yourselves.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The diamonds

Diamonds are impossible to photograph. No image ever really captures the astonishing effects of color, fire, and light in motion that are produced by these most fascinating stones—lumps of pure carbon, compressed into atomic hardness by colossal pressure deep inside the earth’s crust and at huge temperatures tens of millions of years ago. A colleague recalls witnessing the funeral procession of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and the moment when, making the wide turn from Clarence House onto the Mall, hard by his office in St. James’s Palace, Her Majesty’s gun-carriage and catafalque, which was surmounted by the queen-consort’s crown, caused the famous Koh-i-noor diamond mounted in front to project an almost blinding searchlight-flash across the same wide arc, and caught him by surprise. Yesterday we installed and secured the Manchester tiara, and it was thrilling to observe a similar effect, but this time further exploited by the master craftsmen of Cartier, ca. 1903. For the central portions of the principal up-thrusting forms of this sumptuous jewel—actually flaming hearts of catholic dogma—consist of stones artfully suspended in groups of three so that the slightest motion will set the entire jewel alight. It is as if the light emanates from within each stone, instead of simply bouncing off or passing through it. In a world that especially for young people increasingly knows no tangible difference between physical reality and virtual substitutes, it is heartening to think that there is in the museum experience an opportunity to reach for the ungraspable, and enjoy a visual experience that cannot happen any other way. Magnificent jewels may also prompt ruminations upon the astounding excesses of elite consumption, but this is also healthy. I daresay many New Englanders will judge the Manchester tiara to veer dangerously towards a region of high vulgarity that is difficult to approach without the crampons and heavy lifting gear afforded by immense wealth. I tried to imagine what it must have felt like to wear this spectacular jewel, as the Duchess of Manchester undoubtedly did. At least satisfying, I should think, and probably exciting too. Good looks, decent teeth, clear skin are simply irrelevant when you have something as visually amazing perched on top of your head. However, I suspect I may be old-fashioned in attaching rather more importance to the purely aesthetic impact of this great jewel. It consists, after all, of hundreds of old-cut diamonds, dozens of them whoppers—strobing, glinting, flashing out of the colorless clarity of their hand-made facets bright and paradoxical little murmurings of green, orange, yellow, and blue. Nothing better captures the supreme self-confidence of a ruling elite than the Manchester tiara. Through the Edwardian decade that aristocracy knew it was dancing on the rim of a volcano, and I suppose there were no better or surer guarantees attaching to their self-confidence than today’s Wall Street plutocrats presume they too enjoy.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Miss Preston

Mr. John Proctor and Miss Alison Preston have arrived from Perth, Western Australia, thanks to the generosity of Wesfarmers Limited. This beautifully-painted action portrait by the Australian expatriate George Washington Lambert, the father of the composer Constant Lambert, was originally exhibited as Mearbeck Moor, probably to avoid raising indelicate questions as to the exact character of the relationship between a middle-aged gentleman and a much younger lady with different surnames posing together in the same portrait. In fact they were uncle and niece, and the atmosphere of the salubrious outdoor exercise and country sport are perhaps also misleading. Mr. Proctor was a London barrister, a professional man whose authoritative pose as a huntsman and maybe squire is therefore strongly aspirational in tone. I wonder also if the al-fresco cigar, a Cohiba Robustos surely, encodes a hint of metropolitan taste that is slightly at odds with the briskness of a day out riding on the moor, and even slightly vulgar. The brilliant part about getting hold of the objects in an exhibition and having an opportunity to examine them again at close quarters and for some considerable time is that you notice many new and intriguing things. 
So it was not until last evening that I grasped that Miss Preston is wearing a pince-nez, or possibly spectacles, which I suppose seems prudent but rather inconvenient when riding side-saddle. She must have needed them. Alison Preston is an interesting figure, because the very fact that she is participating in a hunt at all, and on horseback, implies an independent-mindedness and a definitely progressive spirit that underlies this particular social gathering, and certainly her own cheerful participation in it. Edwardian ladies did not usually go out shooting. Indeed, the late Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester, remembered her father-in-law King George V being genuinely shocked to learn that she firmly intended to accompany the Duke when he went stalking at Balmoral. And that was in 1935. Given the longstanding conventions of portraiture, the wearing of spectacles is always noteworthy: Reynolds made no secret of his, on the contrary. Whistler positively advertised his rimless monocles. But it is nevertheless most unusual for young women to be portrayed wearing specs. A tactful artist might have chosen to omit them, and some ladies may also have preferred to be portrayed without. That Miss Preston wears hers here strongly suggests to me that the detail existed either with her blessing, or possibly at her instigation. I like her choice of hatpin, too: a jumbo South Sea pearl to go with the riding outfit. Splendid! 

Thursday, February 14, 2013


We are told that last Friday evening’s blizzard, known as Nemo, was a once-in-a-century event. Well, yes, but notice how many of these we seem to be getting nowadays. I have never experienced anything remotely like it. Here in New Haven, a fraction more than thirty-four inches of snow fell in twenty-four hours, but neighboring Hamden got more than forty. Certainly the snow that drifted along the front of my house in the Westville neighborhood was much deeper than three feet, more like six. It is not difficult to describe the fundamental difference between an ordinary snow storm and a blizzard. Storm has always struck me as a misnomer. When it merely snows there is a delicious quiet, a softness, an atmosphere almost of calm not unlike the effect of a blanket—provided you are safely tucked up in bed, or sitting by the fire with a cup of tea and a good book. A blizzard, by contrast, has teeth, fangs, claws. The snow starts to behave like grit against doors and window-panes. It penetrates nooks and crannies. It scrapes and mauls. There is a howl in the wind, and a sinister air of real danger. Walking in a snow storm can be pleasant, if at times hard work. Trudging through a blizzard is hazardous. You cannot see. Your footing is at best uncertain. The cold is especially severe. You must seek shelter. Nothing better accounts for the practical purpose and life-saving rationale of the covered bridges of New England than a fully-fledged blizzard. On Saturday morning the impact of Nemo was almost overwhelming in its scale. Dozens of snow plows, emergency vehicles and cop cars lay abandoned in city streets like so many woolly mammoths. The streets were impassable, even on foot. Plucky citizens began to shovel, but as the city’s monster digging equipment began to carve single-lane canyons through the middle of the main arteries their efforts were largely annulled or even reversed because of the immense walls of snow thrown up on either side. On Monday it began to rain and, the drains being blocked with snow, the whole concoction began to settle into deep, frigid puddles, soon to become sullen floes of ice, exceedingly unhelpful. Still the city chugged ahead. The Governor temporarily lifted a ban on dumping snow into Long Island Sound because there really was nowhere else to put it. Now, nearly a week later, a small army of diggers, earth moving equipment and dump trucks are still loading up with immense quantities of snow, gradually clearing the streets and parking lots. The university was closed for classes on Monday and Tuesday, something that through 312 years is almost unheard-of. I must say that the citizens of New Haven exhibited extraordinary patience, forbearance, generosity, and good cheer amid the most trying circumstances. Frustrating though it is to be holed up for days on end, and to experience the onset of cabin fever, most people were philosophical—merely breathing silent prayers lest the snow and ice on the roof formed a destructive ice dam, or worse. The excellent Tony Maratea managed to carve me out a portion of my drive in which to park, and also a little path to the back door, but I have no idea how on earth he will clear the rest of it. Forget the snow-blower, this requires at least a Bobcat. In the meantime, we continue to install our exhibition, and have really only lost two working days as a consequence of the blizzard. Only two weeks to go, but I am sure we will get the job done.

Friday, February 8, 2013

More bill

Orpen’s bill from the Café Royal carries a distinctive monogram, the capital letter N beneath a crown. This haughty gesture recurs throughout the lavish interior decorations of the café, and, I fancy, embraces a degree of Gallic mischief. In 1865, Daniel-Nicolas Thévenon, a French wine merchant, established the Café Royal in extensive premises on the Crown Estate at the bottom of Regent Street, hard by Piccadilly Circus. He anglicized his name to Daniel Nicols, and by the end of the century his son and namesake took the Café Royal to new heights of opulence. Its cellars were famous for their size, distinction, and rarity. The Café Royal became one of the most fashionable establishments in the West End, and was frequented by artists and writers such as Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, Arthur Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Rudyard Kipling, W. B. Yeats, Walter Sickert, Max Beerbohm, James McNeill Whistler, William Nicholson, Augustus John, and obviously William Orpen too. The character of the place embraced the dizzyingly high, expressed above all by its extravagant décor, but also the forthrightly low. Some of the early rules of boxing were first written down in the building, and contests were regularly staged there. No doubt this was something that drew Nicholson and John especially—both were connoisseurs of the boxing ring. From the vantage point of the 1920s and 1930s, when it was still going strong, the Edwardian Café Royal was recalled as so many charmed caverns, their gilding and encrusted ornamentation softened by thick blue cigar smoke, and the buzz of brilliant talk brightened further by the clack and shuffle of dominoes over marble. Through all of this, not unlike the flamboyant César Ritz, Daniel Nicols oversaw his palatial establishment with the flair and instinct for public relations that distinguishes a true impresario. He was the svengali of catering, a gentleman moreover eagerly sought after for preferred table reservations, or, in the case of social indiscretions, tables in quiet corners. His monogram refers unabashedly to that of Napoleon, but also implies no less imperial authority wielded over a West End café society that increasingly sought to distinguish itself from the starchiness of clubland, the inaccessibility of the Court, and from the rough and tumble of music hall entertainment.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The bill

Installation continues apace. This morning we unpacked, condition-checked, and hung the great self-portrait by Sir William Orpen entitled Myself and Venus that comes to us from the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At once I realized I have made an error in the relevant catalogue entry. The picture is very close to the artist’s nearly contemporaneous Self-Portrait (Leading the Life in the West) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which unfortunately cannot travel any more, and it contains the same conceit of the large, framed mirror facing the window of Orpen’s studio. In the New York painting Orpen showed various invitations, letters, opened envelopes, and other pieces of colored paper slipped between the vertical edges of the mirror and the wall, but in the Pittsburgh picture there is only one—which I took to be a newspaper clipping, perhaps a positive notice in one of the weeklies, or some such. That would be consistent with his steadily growing self-regard.

Instead I see now that this large piece of paper is a sizeable bill from The Café Royal, an itemized check, quite a long one, to which Orpen has added his notional and, I suppose, actual signature at the top, the souvenir of a bibulous evening spent with artist friends in that glamorous establishment at the bottom of Regent Street, hard by Piccadilly Circus, presumably in the opulent surroundings of the Domino Room. As it happens, we will have Charles Ginner’s view of the interior of that very room in the next bay but one, so this could not be a happier state of affairs. As well, the plaster cast of Orpen’s Venus is also present in his collegial group portrait from the Manchester City Art Gallery entitled Homage to Manet, but because in the Pittsburgh picture it is seen by Orpen reflected in the mirror with which he also sees himself it is naturally reversed. These two paintings will hang side by side, which is a rather neat curatorial stratagem, if I do say so.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The condominium again

The Anglo-French condominium or joint administration of the New Hebrides formed between 1904 and 1906 against a sinister backdrop. The southwestern Pacific islands of Melanesia had for decades attracted the attention of nineteenth-century Church of England, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Catholic missionaries, whose motives ranged from the genuinely enlightened to the expedient and nakedly sectarian. At the enlightened end was a deep concern for indigenous people who were target and victims of the criminal trade in indentured labor for the cane fields of Queensland and indeed many other places and purposes, a form of illegal serfdom that had existed since the 1860s to which successive colonial governments turned a blind eye. Annexation by Australia or by Britain was urged upon Whitehall therefore as a way of eradicating this form of modern slavery. At the same time it was also feared that if annexation did not take place the islands would be turned into a French penal colony, possibly worse even than Devil’s Island, and a further concern was obviously that the indigenous people would inevitably become francophone and therefore Catholic. Ironically considerable opposition to annexation came from the “White Australia” lobby, which was sufficiently developed at this date to argue for the abolition of the traffic in kanak labor not upon humanitarian grounds but rather for the purpose of racial purification. Beyond this hideous rationale, the White Australia lobby had already succeeded in persuading inter-colonial legislatures to enact impossibly high tariffs on maize, coconuts, and other crops from the New Hebrides so as to discourage trade with the coloured islanders, a state of affairs to which the French gleefully responded by encouraging and extending the flow of commodities back and forth between Port Vila and Noumea, the chief port in their thriving nickel and copper colony of New Caledonia. According to the veteran Scottish missionary Dr. John Gibson Paton, the New Hebridean islanders used to call themselves Queen Victoria’s children, and by 1904 were calling themselves the children of Queen Victoria’s son. No doubt they had long been encouraged to do so by British missionaries, but he thought annexation was in the best interests of the islanders, of the Commonwealth, and of the Empire, and that the proposed condominium was a thoroughly bad idea. Of course this view did not prevail in the end, and it is interesting to observe that the condominium was at first interpreted by the Conservative opposition to the Liberal government of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman at Westminster as a dangerous concession that undermined British imperial interests everywhere, particularly in the partly French-speaking colony of Newfoundland (not yet a part of Canada), and by the predominantly white dominions themselves as a potentially unwelcome threat to “progressive unity” between their interests and those of the imperial capital. Old debates can be extraordinarily revealing, and battle-lines over long-forgotten issues not necessarily easily comprehended. In these circumstances, and balancing these arguments against current orthodoxies, it is hard to know whether one would have been for or against the annexation of the New Hebrides, or indeed for or against the Anglo-French condominium. Fortunately the issue is unlikely to arise again in this particular form, although the Republic of Vanuatu, as the New Hebrides are now known, is seriously threatened by the gradual but inexorable rise in sea level, so the fate of its gentle Melanesian population may again claim the moral attention of the world.