Friday, 24 March 2017

Glorious Years: French Calendars from Louis XIV to the Revolution, at Waddesdon Manor

Where would we be without a calendar? They’re an essential part of our busy lives, helping with planning and reminding us about holidays, outings and engagements. But they’re not a modern phenomenon – back in 17c France, they were hanging on the walls of upper and middle-class homes in and around Paris, alerting people to events such as royal birthdays, weddings and anniversaries. More usually called almanacs, they reached their golden years under Louis XIV, who cannily used them as a propaganda tool to shape his image, with illustrations glorifying his family and regime and highlighting his country’s victories and peace treaties. (France was at war for most of his reign.) But because, like ours, they were taken down at the end of the year, few have survived. This makes the new exhibition at Waddesdon Manor all the more special.
The house’s original owner, Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild (1839 – 1898) was fascinated by social history and managed to collect some 70 such almanacs, 26 of which are on show for the first time. All are exquisitely drawn, with writing so tiny that magnifying glasses are provided for close scrutiny. The earliest dates from 1656, two years after the coronation of Louis XIV, and shows the king triumphant. In a later one (top), he is on horseback, presenting his troops to the viewer as an example of French military might.
Others celebrate subjects such as his son’s recovery from smallpox (above) and the coronation of Louis XV in 1723. As well as wall calendars, there are some pocketbook almanacs. These range from official directories, listing members of the royal households, schedules for the postal service and carriage travel to collections of songs, poems and illustrations. Some even have erasable pages for note-taking and recording gambling gains and losses – the PDAs of yesteryear.
Most of the calendars took two months to design and execute and went on sale in December. (In contrast, Louis XV’s souvenir coronation book was such an elaborate undertaking it took nine years to prepare.) Not surprisingly, there was a surge in calendar production after the French Revolution of 1789, when the monarchy was abolished and the royal family lost their heads.Time was reinvented with the new Republican calendar, which removed all royalist and religious connections and looked to the natural world for inspiration. Instead of honouring saints, each day was named after an aspect of agricultural life, such as the day of chicory on 23rd Frimaire (November). The 12 months were divided into weeks of ten days, with the extra 5 days collected together at the end of the year. Printed almanacs were essential to ensure that people were getting the message.
This calendar for 1794 by Philibert Louis Debucourt shows the figure of Philosophy seated on a marble throne, recording the principles of the new calendar in the book of nature. The text along the bottom describes the objects at her feet, including the abandoned Gregorian calendar, as ' the gothic monuments of error and superstition on which the ignorant and ridiculous division of time was founded.' However, the change brought problems with business and foreign trade, and when Napoleon Bonaparte became emperor, he brought back the Gregorian calendar.
The exhibition has one modern calendar. British artist Adam Dant (above) was commissioned to create a 21st century almanac inspired by those on show. The Mother of Parliaments: Annual Division of Revenue satirises modern British MPs by using them as replacements for the French kings and their attributes. Instead of the traditional saints’ days of the old almanacs, the birthdays of the  Honorable Members are listed (should you wish to send a card) and blank spaces are left left to take  details of the year’s budget. Look carefully and you’ll find Harry Potter, lurking near the Department for Education.
Glorious Years: French Calendars from Louis XIV to the Revolution runs until Oct 29 2017, Wed – Sun, free with admission to Waddesdon Manor (National Trust).
Waddesdon Manor, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire HP180JH

Monday, 20 March 2017

Michelangelo and Sebastiano at the National Gallery, London

This intriguing exhibition explores the creative partnership between two artists, the superstar Michelangelo and his protégé, Sebastiano, and gives an insight into their complementary talents and divergent personalities. There are some seventy items on display – paintings, drawings, sculptures and letters. Their friendship lasted more than 25 years, which was surprising in itself (Michelangelo was notoriously difficult to get on with)  but owes much to the fact that for most of that time they were in different cities, Michelangelo in Florence and Sebastiano in Rome. A key factor in this partnership was their intense rivalry with another key Renaissance painter, Raphael, whom Michelangelo hated. While Michelangelo preferred painting egg tempura on wet plaster, Sebastiano and Raphael excelled at oils and the latter rapidly became a Vatican favourite, landing the plum jobs. So Michelangelo did his best to help Sebastiano, generously providing drawings and designs for some of his major works. A key painting in the exhibition, the Lamentation over the Dead Christ, on loan from the Hermitage (above), is their first collaboration, and the first large-scale nocturnal landscape in history. Michelangelo did many sketches (some of his work can be seen on the back of the wooden panel) and Sebastiano translated them into a monumental altar-piece. This met with widespread praise, and as a result, Sebastiano was given two major commissions, the Borgherini Chapel and The Raising of Lazarus, both of which were completed with Michelangelo’s help.
Recent scientific research on The Raising of Lazarus (above) – the gallery’s first acquisition in 1824 – has revealed that Michelangelo was quite hands-on, intervened at a relatively advanced stage to revise the figure of Lazarus so his right arm is drawn back across his body, rather than reaching towards the outstretched hand of Christ, and thus increasing the dynamism.
The spectacular Borgherini Chapel has been recreated for the exhibition in near lifesize form with digital imaging. It's an impressive achievement, and is surrounded by preliminary sketches for the project. Michelangelo did the premilinary drawings for the central Flagellation of Christ before he left for Florence and possibly a layout for the half-dome Transfiguration, while Sebastiano completed the decoration on his own between 1519 and 1524. Below, Sebastiano's cartoon for the head of St James Major.
The letters that flowed between the two show how they helped each other. Sebastiano begs his ‘dearest compare’ (who was godfather to his first child) to ‘remember me...and recommend me to the most reverend Monsignor (Cardinal Guilio de’ Medici); and if I’m any good at this work, please let me carry it out...’. Michelangelo does his best: ‘I beg your Most Reverend Lordship... to obtain Sebastiano Veneziano, the painter, some share in the work at the Palace... as I’m sure he will do credit to Your Lordship’. Sebastiano also reports that Pope Leo X praised Michelangelo’s work but told him he was ‘terribile’ (daunting, awful) and that ‘one could not deal with him’. He goes on: ‘And I replied to His Holiness that your terribile character did not harm anyone, and that you appear terribile for love of the great works you carry out.’
Among Michelangelo’s great works on display are two versions of the Risen Christ, both from Italy. The first was abandoned when a dark streak in the marble emerged. It was later finished by an unknown hand and found a home in the Church of San Vincenzo Martire.  Behind it is a plaster cast of his second, successful, version, which never leaves the S. Maria sopra Minerva. It’s the first time these statues have been seen together.
A cast of another of his masterpieces, the Pieta, is also on display and can be seen from all angles, unlike the original, now behind glass in the Vatican.
Towards the end of the show is a portrait of Michelangelo, believed to be by Sebastiano. He’s looking round, smiling and relaxed, as he invites us to look at his sketchbook. It’s a very different view of a man usually regarded as a tortured genius, and the curator, Matthias Wivel, is to be congratulated for the way the exhibition sheds light on another side of his character and introduces us to the tensions and rivalry of Renaissance art.
At the National Gallery, London, until June 25. Admission charge.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Diana: Her Fashion Story

It’s hard to believe that 2017 brings the 20th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales –  one of the most photographed women in history, whose fashion choices were copied by millions. This exhibition at London's Kensington Palace – her home for many years – is a celebration of her life, charting the transformation from fresh-faced teenager fond of frilly collars to international star in a bejewelled Versace gown.
From the moment the engagement of Lady Diana Spencer to the Prince of Wales was announced in February 1981 (she wore this blouse for her engagement portrait), there was a huge demand for news about her. Magazines that featured her on the cover could increase circulation by 40%.
The pressure was intense, but she quickly learned the unwritten rules of royal and diplomatic dressing. As she explained in 1985: “You’d be amazed by what one has to worry about, from obvious things like the wind... and you’ve got to put your arm up to get some flowers, so you can’t have something too revealing and you can’t have hems too short.”
On her honeymoon in Scotland Diana wore this brown tweed wool day-suit, a very traditional English country outfit that she had made in two versions – one with extra shoulder room that allowed her to take part in activities such as shooting.  As she gained in confidence she began experimenting with different looks and learnt from her mistakes. Pie crust collars were out – ruffles didn’t photograph so well. 

This tartan wool day-suit was for an official visit to Italy in 1985, and although the boxy shape was fashionable, it swamped her and was criticised by the press. It was never seen again.
She learned which clothes worked for different occasions. When she posed for an official 1987 official portrait, she needed something strong that would hold its own next to Prince Charles’ ceremonial uniform, and Catherine Walker devised this stately pink satin gown, sometimes dubbed the ‘Disney Princess’ dress. Diana quickly became, according to designer Caroline Charles, “the best ambassador for British fashion”.
The Princess was not afraid to bend the rules. The tuxedo style of this cocktail dress by Bellville Sassoon was an unusual choice for a princess, and in royal circles, black was usually reserved for mourning – but the result was stunning.
Diana developed close relationships with fashion designers, who would prepare sketches for her to review. Together they would finalise the look, and she often made notes on the sketches, suggesting changes or commenting on details she particularly liked. A selection of these is on display..
The exhibition includes many dresses worn on high-profile engagements around the world. This cream silk crepe Catherine Walker gown was created for an official visit to Saudi Arabia in 1986. It’s embellished with the national bird, the falcon, and the long sleeves and high neckline respect local customs.
Diana was aware she would be photographed from all angles, so her outfits often had back interest, such as the embroidery on this burgundy silk velvet evening dress by Catherine Walker (1990).
Many of her dresses were asymmetrical such as this sari-inspired chiffon dress, worn to a ballet performance in Rio de Janeiro in 1991. (On the same trip to Brazil she famously shook hands with an Aids patient, conspicuously removing her gloves first in a gesture that did much to dispel public fear of the disease.)
Two iconic dresses in the exhibition are the ink blue velvet gown by Victor Edelstein that she wore at the White House when she danced with John Travolta and this pearl encrusted dress with a high collar by Catherine Walker, christened by the Princess as her ‘Elvis’ dress. Designer Oscar de la Renta summed up the impact she made whenever she appeared: “She had tremendous star quality. When she walked into a room, there wasn’t anyone who didn’t notice.”
Walker became her favourite designer, and together they honed and streamlined Diana’s image, creating a ‘royal uniform’ – simple outfits that would focus attention on her work, not her wardrobe. She wore cheerful colours that children would like, in specially weighted fabrics that would not crease or crumple. She would never wear a hat to a hospital, because she said you could never cuddle a child with a hat on, and chose bright, chunky jewellery that they could play with. This red day suit was worn in 1996 at the launch of an HIV/Aids Charity London Lighthouse appeal.
In 1997, after her divorce, 97 of her dresses were sold at Christie’s in New York, raising $3.25 million for charity. Diana wore this Catherine Walker shift dress, with deliberately light and understated embroidery, to the gala event preceding the auction. Who could have guessed that in a little over two months she would die in a road accident in Paris and people would be queuing to place flowers outside her Kensington Palace home? But as this exhibition shows, her legacy endures. The 25 dresses and many photographs will trigger a flood of memories for visitors. Some of the outfits have been on show before, but this is the first display to examine the way her style evolved, and how she used her image to engage people and champion the causes she cared about. As designer David Sassoon put it: “There will never be anybody to replace her. She was unbelievably genuine and completely unique.”

The exhibition runs throughout 2017. 

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Good trivia question: What connects the Lutine Bell to Queen Victoria?

Answer: a gun that sits on the North Terrace of Windsor Castle, pointing towards Eton College, the old school of Princes William and Harry. 
A nearby plaque records it was part of the armament of HMS Lutine, lost off the coast of Holland on Oct 9 1799. The wreck was later handed over by the Dutch government  to Lloyds, where the treasure it had been carrying was insured. The gun and the ship’s bell – along with some of the gold - were salvaged many decades later. The bell now hangs from the rostrum at Lloyds of London and is still rung: once for bad news, twice for good. Presumably Lloyds didn’t need the gun, which was rather the worse for wear after almost a century underwater. So it was presented to Queen Victoria and to this day decorates Windsor Castle’s North Terrace, once described as “the noblest walk in Europe”.