29 August 2010

The Lion and the Unicorn: The Rose and the Thistle


The lion and the unicorn
Were fighting for the crown
The lion beat the unicorn
All around the town.
Some gave them white bread,
And some gave them brown;
Some gave them plum cake
and drummed them out of town
The Lion and Unicorn nursery rhyme dates back to 1603 when King James VI of Scotland became England's James I. James' image was captured by Nicholas Hilliard (1547 - 1619) who is remembered for the portrait miniatures he did of the courts of the king and his predecessor Queen Elizabeth I of England. A union of the two crowns required a new royal coat of arms. The lion and rose stands for England and the unicorn and thistle for Scotland. The heraldic animals were joined together as supporters on the Royal Coat of Arms of Great Britain depicting a crowned lion on the right and an uncrowned unicorn on the left. American illustrator Frederick Richardson (1862-1937) shows the lion and unicorn fighting over the crown. Leonard Leslie Brooks (1862-1940) the British artist and writer also illustrated the nursery rhyme. Although in the verse the unicorn gets the worse of the fight, in Scotland he is equal to the lion. The Royal Coat of Arms displayed in Scotland places a crowned unicorn to the right and the crowned lion is on the left, together on a bed of thistles.

21 August 2010

Smoke and Mirrors: The Conjurer

Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516), the early Netherlandish painter showed a world full of tricksters in The Conjurer. The magician wears the tall hat of the ruling court while a Dominican monk steals the purse of the woman watching the illusion. Whereas Bosch depicts the wealthy and powerful as thieves, French Baroque painter Georges de la Tour (1593-1652) portrays the wealthy being robbed by the poor. In his genre painting, The Fortune Teller an old gypsy woman tells a vain young man his fortune while her companions steal his valuables. The fortune teller wears a distinctive robe decorated with birds of prey attacking innocent rabbits. Despite these warnings through time we continue to be fascinated by illusion. American Charles Joseph Carter (1874-1936) was a part of the Golden Age of Magic. Although he was a successful journalist and lawyer he chose to practice magic on the stage under the name Carter the Great. An astute marketer as well as an accomplished magician, Carter promoted himself through fine lithographed posters.


11 August 2010

The Dress Act: When Wearing Tartans and Kilts was Banned in Scotland

Before tartans became associated with royal patronage and the upper class in Britain they were banned in the Scottish Highlands. The Dress Act was imposed in 1746 and made the wearing of Highland Dress including tartans and kilts illegal. This was done to break the clan system and stop Jacobite risings supporting the House of Stuart. Prince Charles Edward Stuart (1720-1788) known as Bonnie Prince Charlie was considered the Jacobite claimant to the thrones of the Kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland. The Catholic Charles, who was born to his exiled parents in Rome was supported by the Highland Clans, as opposed to the reigning Protestant House of Hanover's George II. The young prince was painted by Italian Antonio David (1698-1750), the official painter for the exiled Stuart court living in Rome. A 1744 image shows a private and corporal in the Highland Jacobite Regiment.


Charles and this followers were defeated by the English at the Battle of Culloden in 1746 resulting in a campaign to assimilate the Scottish Highlands by repressing Gaelic culture. When the act was appealed in 1782 tartans and kilts were no longer limited to the Highlands but became symbolic of Scotland. In the nineteenth century the fashion was incorporated into Britain with the Highland romantic revival. Robert Ronald McIan (1803 -1856) was a Highland actor and painter who depicted Scottish clansmen in The Clans of The Scottish Highlands which he dedicated to Queen Victoria. The Queen, great - great granddaughter of George II, embraced Gaelic culture buying Balmoral Castle. Prince Albert decorated it in the red Royal Stewart and green Hunting Stewart tartans of the House of Stuart. When the royal family visited they would wear Highland dress.


09 August 2010

The Wheel of Fortune: Up and Down, Endings and Beginnings

The Wheel of Fortune turns

I go down, demeaned;

another is raised up;

far too proud

sits the king at the summit --

let him fear ruin!

for under the axis we read

about Queen Hecuba

Carmina Burana


In ancient and medieval times the capricious nature of life was explained by Rota Fortunae or The Wheel of Fortune. Lady Fortune would spin the wheel at random and much like gambling at roulette some players would win and some would lose. Since she was often blindfolded she did not know if the participant was wealthy or poor. The detail of a French fifteenth century illuminated manuscript page illustrates Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio’s (1313 -1375), On the Fates of Famous Men. Tarot cards also represented The Wheel of Fortune, including the Visconti-Sforza tarot deck of fifteenth century Milan. A sixteenth century French painting shows Fortuna not only blindfolded but with the duality of a Janus figure. Perhaps that is an interpretation for our times; The Wheel of Fortune as a symbol of endings and beginnings and what is down and demeaned can also be raised up.

07 August 2010

Black and White: The Moor, The Black Mozart and Pushkin

Before the United States elected a biracial President there were other prominent people of mixed African and European ancestry. Italian Alessandro de' Medici (1510-1537) ruled Florence as its first Duke. The illegitimate son of Cardinal Giulio de' Medici and an African slave, he was called il Moro, the Moor. Alessandro had two children Giulio and Giulia with his mistress Taddea Malespina and through them the majority of the Italian noble houses are descended. There are many portraits of the Duke including Cristofano dell'Altissimo's (1525–1605) painting from the Giovio Series. Chevalier Joseph Boulogne de Saint-Georges (1745-1799) was born in Guadeloupe to an African slave and a wealthy French plantation owner. His father took Boulogne to France where he would become an important violinist, composer, fencing master and equestrian. Known as The Black Mozart, his image was captured by American portrait painter, Mather Brown (1761–1831) and engraved by English printer William Ward (1769–1823). The great Russian Romantic author, Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) was the son of a father descended from Russian nobility and a mother of aristocratic German, Swedish and African ancestry. Orest Adamovich Kiprensky (1782-1836) the leading Romantic portrait painter portrayed the founder of modern Russian literature ten years before he would die from wounds received in a duel.

03 August 2010

The Changing Face of Fashion: White Lead and Sun Tans

Before the affluent were seduced by the glamor of sun tanning and its dangers, they risked their lives whitening their skin. Venetian Ceruse was made from white lead and popular from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. Known as "The Mask of Youth", Queen Elizabeth I of England (1533-1603) is shown wearing it in a coronation painting by an unknown artist. Smooth alabaster skin was a sign of nobility and wealth but rare during an era of smallpox that lacked proper skincare. Women resorted to a foundation of white lead and vinegar that was poisonous. Japanese culture also idealized fair skin; the Geisha wore a white lead based paint until it was discovered to be toxic replacing it with rice powder. The pale beauty of the Geisha was idealized in the Bijinga woodblock prints as depicted in Kitagawa Utamaro's (1753-1806), Print of Three Women. The suntan did not become popular in Europe until the 1920's when Coco Chanel came back with darkened skin from the French Riviera. The look was equated with fashion, health and leisure. Parisians were also influenced by African-American, expatriate, entertainer Josephine Baker (1906-1975). The "Bronze Venus" was photographed by Lucien Walery (1863-1935), her tan was natural.