Thursday, 7 April 2011

The Crystal Palace

You know those lists of contingency options we all keep? You know, what music to play at your funeral? What you would do if you won the lottery (despite not even playing)? If you absolutely, absolutely had to kill someone, who would it be? and, of course, what to say when Doctor Who eventually turns up and wants to whisk you off through time and space?

Oh, it’s just me then...?

Come on, If you could get the TARDIS to drop you anywhere in the world at a culturally significant point in history, what would you ask for? For me, there is only one option: Thursday 1 May 1851, to see the opening of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations at the Crystal Palace.

The Crystal Palace from the northeast from Dickinson's Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851, published 1854.

Characteristic of the finest Victoriana, the Great Exhibition was both an anomaly and typical of the time. What we understand as the “Victorian” style is actually a massive spectrum of appropriated and hybrid historical styles in modern techniques. The fact that the 1851 Exhibition included an “Engine in the Egyptian taste” (I shit you not) is almost too perfect to be true. This is what I find most fascinating about the Victorian world, the way it defiantly leapt forward, all the time anxiously looking to the past.

When we think of the Crystal Palace you probably think of faded grey prints in neglected corners. With a little imagination perhaps you could introduced some sparkling monochrome to the picture. But just think, as the exhibition opened, of the 293,655 panes of glass that comprised the structure glittering in the spring sunlight.

It’s easy to imagine the Victorian world with a muted palette of monochrome, supplemented by muddy ruby reds and holly greens, and apply this thinking to the Crystal Palace. What colour do you think the structure was? Grey metal or perhaps white like a tasteful conservatory? In fact, it was painted in the full range of primary colours. It was red on the undersides of girders and behind the gallery railings; yellow on the diagonal faces of the columns and on certain projections; blue on the concave parts of the columns. Positively, and gloriously, gaudy!

Within it must have been utterly and overwhelmingly dazzling, with the glass ceiling letting in so much light a canvas barrier had to be constructed to keep the reflected light from blinding visitors. Among the 100,000 objects on display there was a giant fountain made entirely out of glass, large chandeliers hung throughout the building, stained glass hanging up in sheets in their very own gallery... and not to forget the bloody Koh-i-nor! Doesn’t it sound fabulous?

The Crystal Palace persisted for many years, falling into disrepair, until burning down in 1936. In that period it was used again for the Great Exhibition of 1863 (we don’t talk about that one), as well as the world’s first cat show in 1897. However, I’d most dearly like to see it on that spring day in 1851, when it was opened by Queen Victoria herself.

So Doctor, if you are reading, pick me up tomorrow, about 12.30, and get me back in time to pop down to Matta's for some herbal tea and be back at my desk before my lunch break is over. Deal?

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Lady Digby on her Death-Bed by Anthony Van Dyck (1633)

I recently made a a few changes in my living habits, which have resulted in me sleeping like I have never experienced in my adult life. For weeks now, most nights I’ve fallen into deep, oceanic slumber that insomniacs can only dream of. It would be a happy consequence, if the tendrils of sleep didn’t linger throughout the day. A dullness and melancholia, somehow worse that sleep deprivation or hangover, haunts me.

Where am I going with this? I feel, perhaps, that this is an instance where a painting can describe, if a little abstractly, what I’ve been experiencing better than words. A kind of reverse ecphrasis. It might be a little self indulgently morbid, but when struggling out of bed this morning I found myself thinking about Van Dyck’s posthumous portrait of Venetia Stanley.

A little background first: The painting was commissioned by Venetia’s husband, Sir Kenelem Digby. The popular story is that her death was caused by excessive arsenic consumption, taken for cosmetic purposes, encouraged or aided by her shallow or ignorant (or Machiavellian) husband. I don’t know how much of this story is a Victorian construction, who loved a good cautionary tale, although the fact an autopsy was performed suggests there was some suspicion about Venetia’s death at 33.

Venetia Stanley, Lady Digby on her Death-Bed (to use its full name) was painted from drawings made two days after her death. I suspect this painting avoids truth in the photographic sense. There are no signs of rigor mortis or decay, her hands and facial features haven’t contracted. Nor is there any evidence of the plaster casts that were made of her face and hands or the hair cut from the head as a relic. In fact, the only indication she is really dead, and not sleeping, is the slightly open left eye, a subtle and morbid detail. Despite it's obvious beauty it is at complete counterpoint to Van Dyck's numerous portraits of strutting cavaliers and blossoming ladies. Is this a fantasy of death or of sleep?

However, these are just the facts, as far as you can call this smattering of historical titbits and opinion facts. Like many paintings by Old Masters - and indeed all art which is not of our era - we cannot suppose that our initial reaction and interpretation has any relation to what was intended or interpreted at the time. What I do feel free to ponder, is the haunting beauty of this painting and the immutable mysteries of sleep... Sorry, getting melodramatic, what's I'm basically trying to say is see that picture, that's how I feel at the moment.

Perhaps I should just cut out the Sleepytime Extra tea?

Venetia Stanley, Lady Digby on her Death-Bed, by Anthony Van Dyck (1633), is in the collection of the Dulwich Picture Gallery. According to their website it currently needs restoration to which you can contribute by ‘Adopting’ the painting... it’s a little more expensive than a baby panda though.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Glee - A Confession

For someone who used her 4 years at university to grapple with the most esoterically, historically pointless subjects she could find - Victorian polar explorers, Crimean war memorials and mezzotints anyone? - I am completely intellectually lazy. I weekly rediscover, and then fight to conceal, the fact that I am the worst kind of Guardian skimming snob, misanthrope and hypocrite.

So, in an effort to move away from having to leave the flat to find something to write about, I’ve decided to fess up, come clean and interrogate some of my less surely held opinions.

First up Glee. I’ll freely admit I’ve said some pretty harsh things about this television show. It’s marketed as colourful, plasticy sub-High School Musical trash, and without watching it for yourself there is nothing to make you think otherwise. I only deigned to watch it because I was in a bit of a blue funk and was looking for the televisual equivalent of sitting in a bath with a bottle of gin and a massive bag of Haribo... and of course I was pleasantly surprised.

If you watch it you don’t need me to tell you that despite it’s many faults, it is thoroughly engaging and utterly endearing. Inside it’s sugary shell, it must be one of the most generous shows in terms of characterisation out there. Glee frequently accepts difference where other shows would have ponderously dwelt on it, instead agilely shifting the plot forward for more high jinx and toe tapping pop numbers.

Setting aside that the majority of the cast are offensively beautiful and talented - it is produced for US network television after all - and that it is often uneven in tone, inconsistent in plot and the (sometimes obviously and direly auto-tuned) music out of context is utterly execrable, I can no longer pretend I don’t have a massive soft spot for this show.

Now I’ve admitted this, does Glee no longer count as a guilty pleasure?

(However, you try to play the music in my presence, I’ll push you out the nearest fucking window.)