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‘What the deuce is it to me?”‘ he interrupted impatiently: ‘you say that we go round the sun. if we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.’– Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet

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Dear friends and readers,

Mr Holmes has a couple of obstacles or problems to wide-spread acclaim. It is melancholy. Its themes include how to cope with aging and its losses, death, stigmatized class status (a no-no). For those brought up on the action-adventure of Robert Downey, Jude Law, Michael Strong and Rachel McAdams, it will not answer your expectations; for those still wedded to Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce (to say too little of the justified paranoia of WW2), it will make fun of the 1943 fanatical adherence to the deerstalker hunting cap and pipe (Holmes goes to a black-and-white simulacrum of such a movie and just cannot sit through it); it lacks the giddy pace and surrealism of the first 2 seasons of the BBC Cumberbatch and Freeman Sherlock concoctions; but to say it’s not Holmesian (as the New Yorker guru critic in residence, Anthony Lane means to insinuate) is just not so.

I concede fully that the perspective is post-modern (conventional thought and cant, especially about death and grief be damned), that there is something deliciously Jamesian (Henry) about it. Characters have deeply traumatic encounters on park benches while wearing impeccable hats.

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Close-up of hat

They fail to understand one another, cannot bear one another’s emotions. It moves slowly, with shots that capture a poetry of stillness and costume drama in its green landscapes, seascapes, the sina qua non steam train rushing serpentine and noisily through. More than twice, though in one climactic instance it matters as someone is (reminding me of a Trollope scene in The Prime Minister) voluntarily smashed to smithereens.

But that it’s not Holmesian is unfair. Once you try to drill down to what could be the psychological or thematic or even political motive or moral explanation of at least two of its flashback and front story plots, you end up with ideas that will not bear any scrutiny. Convention defeats me here: I do not claim to be writing a consistently post-modern blog so allow me to explicate and show at least miminal story consistency.

There are three time frames: the present, 1947, Mr Holmes, aged 93, losing the last vestiges of memory from the past, living on the south coast of England, cared for by a housekeeper (natch) Mrs Munroe (Laura Linney) and her son, Roger (Milo Parker) who turns to Mr Holmes as father figure because his own father died in WW2: a bitter moment of memory has Linney as Mrs Munroe remembering how, like herself, her husband, was corroded by the stigmas of lower class status, and for his efforts to become a pilot in WW2, was blown to bits immediately (his mates, content to be menial mechanics all survived the war).

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A story from thirty years ago is painstakingly put together (& dramatized as flashbacks) by Mr Holmes about Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan) who had two miscarriages or stillborn children, cannot accept this and whose grief is only moderated by lessons she eventually finds for the glass harp (Frances la Tour, the crook teacher), whose intensity bothers her husband to the point he cuts off her money-supply and refuses to set up stone monuments for the never-developed nor born children. It is not giving away the story to say she plots to kill her husband.

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Holmes (McKellen) remembering (a difficult feat in the this story) Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan)

It’s not true though that there is no sense to this story. The moral is the husband was wrong; he should have allowed his wife to be deluded by the crook teacher — this reminded me of Woody Allen’s frequent defenses of fortune-tellers in many of his movies and there is a fortune-telling scene here.

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The glass harp medium (Frances de la Tour, aka Mrs Western in the 1997 Tom Jones)

Another backstory told through interwoven flashbacks is set in Japan: Holmes has gone to Hiroshima (1946?) to obtain a promised solution of which is said to restore the memory, only to find himself confronted by a Japanese man who accuses Holmes of seducing his father away from him and his mother through the stories of Dr Watson (The Study in Scarlet is the culprit), all the while we know that Holmes now deplores Watson’s fictions a providing false gratifying endings and heroism, with many details so wrong they are embarrassing. Of course this story “falls to pieces in your hands” (as Lane says). Worse, the explanation is reactionary defense of “national” and family secrets, of absurd honor which one sacrifices one’s life for? What Conan Doyle story does not do something like this?

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It is Holmes’s self-imposed mission in the film to retrieve: to retrieve the memory of who his Japanese man was (until near the end Holmes believes the man a liar, coward, and that he never met him — the man just deserted his family); to compensate for how inadequate, insensitive, absurd, selfish was his Jeremy Brett-like behavior to Anne Kelmot (the way this Kelmot thread is dramatized is closely reminiscent of the 1980s BBC Holmes movies), something which depends on memory and rewriting Watson’s story.

Much of this is done through the techniques of filmic epistolarity: voice-over with Holmes writing out new texts to replace Watson’s. Part of the fun of this is withholding. We do not see Mycroft (who explicates the Japanese story) until near the end of the film and it’s John Sessions (for me memorable as Henry Fielding, also in the 1997 Tom Jones); we do not see the bumbling inspector (played by Phil Davis, great in sinister, threatening roles in Dickensian film adaptations, now Jud in Poldark), until near the end. There is fun in recognizing these character actors from other costume dramas quietly semi-parodying the roles.

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Indeed the uplift at the close is the same fantasy Dickens plays upon in A Christmas Carol. We are asked to believe that people can make up for what they did wrong in the past, find a new person like the one you so hurt now to do better by. We do come near searing calamity in the present, brought on by both Mrs Munroe and Mr Holmes. I can’t deny that sometimes people (as characters) are lucky. The film is as Dickensian as it is Jamesian.

Hattie Morahan was once again “emotionally aflame” — Lane talks of her in A Doll’s House in BAM, but she was astonishing in Duchess of Malfi and I still watch her as Elinor refusing solace. I felt bad for Laura Linney(unbeatable in Love Actually, unforgettable in Hyde Park on the Hudson) that she was given the howling role. I found myself crying at the close because I couldn’t believe in the self-reproach and better behavior of our principal trio: Mr Holmes and Mrs Munroe, to say nothing of the maturation of Roger.

If I had anything to object to in this film it was that both Ian McKellen (too many great films and plays to begin to cite) and Laura Linney could have been given much more deeply nuanced moments. She is literally kept behind bars, looking out from windows:

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The film-makers were chary about releasing stills of McKellen showing the ravages of old age in the film, as he falls, eats, puts down stones for those who have gone before him. There was a pandering to the sub-genre of old man-and-hopeful worshipping-boy

OTOH, the beautiful loving feeling at the close of the film was authentic. Doyle’s ever-cool, ever witty, impatient Sherlock is now taking the risk of giving of himself; entering into loving relationships directly. Mr Holmes will leave the property to Mrs Monro and her boy when he dies. We see Mrs Munro and Roger in the garden working together and we see them walk off hand-in-hand too. The boy is now respectful of his mother under an eye of approval by Mr Holmes. He is 94, and we last seem him putting down stones (as Ann Kelmot did) for each of his friends now gone to the earth. He bows before them murmuring a lullaby. McKellen himself is very old now. It is a summer movie because through Jeffrey Hatcher’s marvelous screenplay McKellan as Mr Holmes is believable and comforts you.

Ellen

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JaneBoleyn

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Anne (Claire Foy) has had a miscarriage (penultimate sequence, Wolf Hall 4), POV, Thomas Cromwell aka Mark Rylance first observes the sexually spiteful Jane Boleyn (Jessica Raine) and then stands before Anne

… the historical novel has been one of the sites where women writers have had most freedom to examine masculinity as a social and cultural construct, Diana Wallace, The Woman’s Historical Novel, British Women Writers, 1900-2000)

Dear friends and readers,

We left off at the close of Wolf Hall 2, whose screenplay is (let us nor forget) is by Robert Straughan since in Wolf Hall 5 &6, we will retrospectively observe and understand some significant departures by Straughan from Hilary Mantel’s conception. We watched Thomas Cromwell meditating over relics, objects to remember Cardinal Wolsey (played by Jonathan Pryce), including a blue ring he places on his finger, which he will twist now and again in the rest of the drama.

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I argued the over-arching trajectory of the three-act (albeit 6 part) mini-series is that of a psychologically and politically complex Renaissance revenge tragedy. Within that larger framing, there are a number of secondary stories, with accompanying themes, some which cross all six episodes, some dominating just one episode or group of scenes. This week I will concentrate on two, one pictorially and the other allusively and thematically brought out by Anibundel in her blog, Wolf Hall 3 & 4: A Man for all Seasons.

Mantel’s Wolf Hall performs the function of recent sequels to classic fiction and revisions of consensus histories; she asks us to switch our allegiances to the victimized, conquered, castigated and stigmatized lives of traditional histories and in so doing discover the tragedy going on is one where the subaltern figures are us. In this case these figures include several of the hitherto despised and dismissed women of Henry VIII’s court and his low-born secretary, Thomas Cromwell. My feeling is Mantel came to her very project, her very choice of historical span, by way of so many women’s identification with Anne Boleyn, and added to her Mary and Jane Boleyn, Mary Tudor (Lily Lesser) re-seen (as the product of a neurotic relationship of a profoundly sexually twisted man and woman, Henry VIII & Katharine of Aragon). Thomas Cromwell she came to by way of her insight of the deep evils religion (in her case, originally Roman Catholicism) promotes and disciplines people to enact.

My favorite moments are when Rylance as Cromwell speaks truth to religious hypocrisy as when he follows Benjamin Whitlow as Bishop Warham upstairs to let him know he, Cromwell, understands, the games Waltham is playing using Elizabeth Barton:

Cromwell; “Archbishop Warham. This um, prophetess you harbour in your diocese – Eliza Barton? How is she getting on?
Warham: “What do you want, Cromwell?”
Cromwell: “Well, I hear that she’s telling people that if the King marries Lady Anne, he has only a year to reign. I just wondered who is controlling her.”
Warham: “She may be a simple country girl but she has a genuine gift.”
Cromwell: “She does, doesn’t she? I hear she can tell you where your dead relatives are. If it’s in Heaven, she speaks with a higher voice, if in Hell, with a deep voice.”

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The episodes are entitled Anna Regina and Devil’s Spit, both of which refer to women, the first obviously Anne’s coronation and the second Elizabeth Barton (Aimee Ffion Edwards] a burningly spiteful self-deluded woman at the close burnt at a stake, whose spit or uttered prophecies were used by the Catholic faction at court to try to frighten Henry VIII from removing from positions of power adherents of the Italian and German circles of power and marrying Anne Boleyn. Across the two episodes we travel with Cromwell: in the first he begins with attempting to reason with the losers, Katharine of Aragon (Joanne Whalley) and her painfully awkward daughter (to whom Cromwell shows an instinctive pity):

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Cromwell cannot stand there and not offer this stumbling naive woman a chair

to listening to Mary, Anne’s sister’s self-directed description of Anne’s manipulation of Henry’s insecure aroused sexual desire, her thwarting of him, Anne’s overwrought bargains:

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Towards the end of the third part he is the first to notice Anne’s propensity to flirt too much with other men beyond Henry and arouse Henry’s ominous anxiety during dancing, hears their quarreling raised to a pitch that leads to an old-fashioned bethrothal. Henry had demanded sex after that flirtation with another man. Mary comes out and seeks a Bible; they pledge themselves off stage and we are to imagine consummation (this was a recognized form of marriage before 1753). We glimpse the wedding itself at first in Calais and then the crowning in Westminster.

But Anne’s fall from power doesn’t take much longer than that of her sister, both more watched and in invisible prisons than we or they are aware: by the middle of the fourth episode, a Boleyn male spy is there to stop Mary (Charity Wakefield) from kissing Cromwell; by the the close of part 4 Anne’s dog has been thrown from the window, and she has bled on the floor, miscarried a second time.

It’s easy to miss how many women’s lives are wholly epitomized in a few shots: Alice More (Monica Dolan) whose guarded face appeals to Cromwell as she cannot reach her husband, some complicit in evil thinking (deludedly) they can save themselves (e.g., Margaret Countess of Salisbury, Pole’s aunt [Janet Henfrey] later beheaded), or are exceptions because seemingly virtuously superior (Jane Seymour, played by Kate Phillips).

I am most drawn to those who recognize there is no safety and act out of this inner apprehension for others: say the interspersed touching moments between Cromwell and Johanne, through or in her his memories of Liz and his daughter with her peacock angel wings (ghosts), none of them can he reach:

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Saskia Reeves as Johanne

Anibundel’s analogy for Cromwell is that of a fixer, but in the stories of these women he is helpless to fix their lives, and he appears to want to help them help themselves by the good advice he gives them (as well as the young male studs around Mary). He is himself a subject, dependent on the unlimited power of a near madman whose eyes (those of Damien Lewis) are fearfully threatening, fierce, glitter at us while the inner thoughts of the brains we think of as behind the eyes remain opaque:

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Opening shot of Devil’s Spit

Mantel’s reconstruction of Cromwell in Wolf Hall, her rehabilitation of him comes from seeing him in terms of all these women at the court. If you go on to read even sympathetic historical accounts of him (e.g. Tracy Boorman’s biography) in the provinces where he successfully manipulated local powerful men by rewarding and punishing them through property arrangements, criminal charges dependent on the new Anglican church laws, customs, doctrines, you have to infer he drove these middle men to destroy and execute the local abbots or any priests who got in their way. The man Bolt and others have characterized as ruthlessly ambitious, and willing to kill, organizing from afar terrifying executions is glimpsed only fleetingly. The criminal aspect of Cromwell’s character is also more in evidence in Bring Up the Bodies where he will take a woman (innkeeper’s wife) casually, have her husband destroyed, remembers murderous acts he participated in in the past.

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More

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More pouring over the documents, Cromwell trying to reason with him to return to his home, to Lady Alice who has food waiting and will put him to bed

Part 4 is indeed a rewrite of Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, to the point where speeches that Bolt plucked out of the historical records are re-plucked but uttered in contexts that reverse or at least significantly alter their significance. I was riveted by this as someone who has watched both movies of the original play several times: there was another beyond Fred Zinnemann’s with Scofield as More, Leo McKern as Cromwell, Wendy Hiller as Alice, John Hurt as Richard Rich; this other less-known A Man for All Seasons starred Charlton Hester as More, Corin Redgrave as the cynical allegorical ordinary man, and Vanessa Redgrave (memorably as a terrified Anne in way over her head). I also still admire More from having read his deeply humane analytical original Utopia, his Dialogue of Comfort during a time of Tribulation, his sardonic poetry, and his friend Erasmus’s Praise of Folly (in Latin translation it means praise of More as a holy fool dangerous to himself in his idealism). Much in More’s life resembles that of Cromwell as middling men in Parliament; both were instruments of Henry VIII.

In Bolt’s play all is done that can be done by More’s wife, daughter, son-in-law to persuade More to sign and live; Cromwell bullies and threatens, with Cranmore uttering the same rationalities. In Mantel and now Straughan, Cromwell takes over the humanity of the family. In Bolt’s trial it is Cromwell who engineers Rich’s betrayal; in Mantel it is Rich. Straughan’s 4th episode opens with More salivating over torturing someone, and again and again through dialogue and the burning and torture of other Protestants we are led to see More as the harmful fanatic. More’s utterance near the end that he has wished and done no man harm and if that cannot keep him alive, he’d rather not live (rendered famously by Scofield on the scaffolld), is answered here by Cromwell as they sit over a table by a list of people that Cromwell cites whom More has destroyed viciously. In the final scene of More’s beheading, in Mantel and Straughan there is only the pathos of a wretched narrow man.

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The burning (after torture and imprisonment, interrogration of Bainham for spreading the Bible as translated by Tyndale, More’s POV)

Mantel is doing more than insisting on more accuracy about More and some justice to Cromwell. As Bolt was making a fable for the hopeful sixties where people could respond to figures who acted out ideals, so Mantel is taking the past and mirroring a deeply pessimistic disturbed era where we have seen much progress made in social and other areas of life over the course of the 20th century reversed. Popular and significant TV mini-series on commercial channels (Breaking Bad, Games of Thrones) portray utterly amoral characters in environments where there is no hope for humane solutions, with voyeuristic cruel violence an accepted sport. Henry VIII in Mantel’s Wolf Hall and this mini-series is a site representative of today’s ruthless militaristic and fascistic oligarchies, seemingly crazed armies of fanatic men determined to turn women into subject creatures. She is a deeply secular woman, for tolerance, feminist. I know her Eight Months on Gaza Street shows how fearful and helpless individuals and especially women can feel in Saudia Arabia where there is nowhere to turn for certain information about just about anything, and all action hinges on gaining the favor of powerful individuals.

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I do ask myself where the power of this mini-series resides. Each time I rewatch it I think to myself it cannot be as good as I’ve remembered it, and each time it is. Is it in this vision? In the case of the famed Brideshead Revisited, one can point explicitly to a set of filmic techniques new and daring, or older and breaking with foolish taboos and conventions. If anything this is a kind of throw-back to the staged days of the 1970s. I wonder if it’s in the stillness and slowness of the filmography, how much time is left for each shot.

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Cromwell coming to talk with the Boleyn family (to the back, George, the brother, to the front, Norfolk [Bernard Hill]

I come back to the use of Rylance as POV and his uncanny ability to convey complicated layers of thought in different scenes with these highly theatrical characters in situations of deep crisis strain, to seem outside the action and questioning it. The character he plays, Cromwell, is himself deeply complicit, compromised and comprising — rising, becoming wealthier, powerful, using his nephew and ward, Rafe as spies. He says at one point, now it’s his turn to get back. He participates in the neurotic fights of the Boleyns. He may tells Henry Percy (then drunk) the day of the power of the thug warrior-aristocrat as all-powerful is over: that the world also works on money, that bankers are in charge (this seems a bit anachronistic, you’d think the Italian bankers were turned into today’s European Union and World Bank).

Cromwell: “My lord, you’ve said what you have to say. Now listen to me. You’re a man whose money is almost spent. I’m a man who knows how you’ve spent it. You’re a man who has borrowed all over Europe. I’m a man who knows your creditors. One word from me, and all your debts will be called in.”
Percy: “What are they going to do? Bankers don’t have armies.”
Cromwell: “Neither will you, without any money. My lord, you hold your earldom from the King. Your task is to secure the north, to defend us against Scotland. If you cannot ensure these things, the King will take your land and your titles and give them to someone who will do the job that you cannot do.”
Percy: “No, he won’t. He respects all ancient titles.”
Cromwell [his expression conveys how dense Percy is and how laughable the idea that Henry respects any titles]: “How can I explain this to you? The world is not run from where you think it is. From border fortresses. Even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from Lisbon. From wherever the merchant ships set sail off into the west. Not from castle walls, from counting houses. From the pens that scrape out your promissory notes. So believe me when I say that my banker friends and I will rip your life apart. And then, when you are without money and title, yes, I can picture you living in a hovel, wearing homespun, bringing home a rabbit for the pot. Your lawful wife, Anne Boleyn, skinning and jointing that rabbit. Yes, I wish you all happiness”

Percy has no credit card you see.

The fascination may come from the puzzle and elusive depths of suggestion. The series can suddenly speed up. Just as the fourth episode seems to come to an end and Cromwell is in the crowd watching More being beheaded, his memory becomes a series of flashbacks, he as a boy in More’s house where More was a boy. Then we see More about to be beheaded (unflinching scene) and Cromwell the older man watching.

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Then the camera moves and sees Johanne watching Cromwell deeply ill in bed, sweating, hysterical, seemingly traumatized. We enter his mind as he glimpses his second daughter (not the one with the angel wings, but the one who wanted to learn Greek and marry Rafe).

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He says aloud if he’s dying there are things he needs to tell Gregory (his son), Then a patch of sunlight on his bed, Liz (Natasha Little) his wife knotting,

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Cromwell: “Slow down, so I can see how you do it.”
Liz: “I can’t slow down. If I stop to think how I’m doing it, I won’t be able to do it.”

The camera again moves, we hear words about an itinerary, which ends at Wolf Hall and out from the corridor comes yet another set of people, the Seymours.

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By the end of this second act (fourth episode), we are back in the era of the all frighteningly powerful tyrant, and Cromwell seems to glimpse Anne’s waning power and glimpses the wary alert presence of Jane Seymour as a possible fall-back position as Henry must be pleased and wants a son.

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The last still of Part 4

Ellen

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Piero di Cosimo, The Hunt (Scena di caccia)

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Piero di Cosimo, The Return from the Hunt

Gentle readers and friends,

Stop a minute and look at the pictures displayed before you just above. Notice in the picture traditionally called “The Hunt” and (rightly) attributed to a man we know as Piero di Cosimo depicts not only the savage cruelty the half-animal human beings enact towards the full animals but how the animals themselves, driven wild by pain, turn on one another. Notice the animal struggling to get loose of the human being in the center. If we can’t kill it, it’s immortal was a sign supposedly seen in a gunshop in the southern US in the 1960s. Then look at the picture traditionally called “The Return from the Hunt,” and notice the tender loving nurturing care of some of the figures towards animals and small babies. Two women dressed in fur in the center of the painting care for what looks like a small puppy.

These are but two of the paintings on display in an exhibit of Piero di Cosimo’s works that (alas) just closed at the National Gallery (last day, May 3rd, Sunday). There’s also “The Theft of Fire and Prometheus Punished:”

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The separate incidents set in one large frame like a medieval tale (or modern cartoon in a newspaper) tell a story of egregious injustice, which just gets worse. These are to be found in 7 rooms worth of Piero di Cosimo’s art.

Not all is desperate consolation and clinging or bleak outcomes, there’s a story of Vulcan and Aeolus, which like a number of the conventional Madonnas, and Childs, Christ, John the Baptist and the rest of it, has details which don’t fit into any secure (bogus) narrative, but offer vignettes on life’s experiences, some playful, some vicious, some senseless.

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One of my favorites looks like a building site. We see a palace newly built and all around it small figures hard at work, putting things away, carting things, planning, with ordinary life just going on around them. This one has had dense allegoresis.

Cosimo seems to be very fond of animals. We have sweet lion faces in the altar pieces. Dogs here and there, unrecognizable animals (as in medieval paintings, showing the man had not seen the creature he was depicting).

What are we to make of this? that Cosimo was an astonishingly original mind as heretic when it came to his visual art? Vasari suggests, denigratingly, Piero was illiterate. I wonder if he was hiding himself in plain sight. The exhibit shows the high intelligence (in straight portraiture),

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wit, sense of life’s crazy tragedies and finally concentration of mind and knowledge of out-of-the-way aspects of the classical and Biblical stories this painter knows about. The dullest of Madonnas has playful doings in images. Anthony Grafton in his “The Ravishing Painting of Piero …. ,” in the New York Review of Books for May 7, 2012, does justice to subtle brilliance and high intelligence seen in the stories told, Madonnas and children and old men undercut by the stories that go with them.

I took my black-and-white or gray image from Panofsky’s famed Studies in Iconography, the third chapter of which includes a romantic nostalgic interpretation and Renaissance small rebellions which petered out, against a mirroring of what we see upper middle English society is. Panofsky’s reading does not proceed from painterly analysis (what is there, the colors, even the tone), is not practical but rather an allegoresis of visions.  I suggest as with Tiepolo you need to look at  the faces of the smaller people, see what they are doing or not to the sides of the big scenes and there you find Piero.

I regret to say I cannot find if this exhibit is traveling somewhere else where there is a cultural life and orchestras. So this blog is here to alert you, to keep out a guarded eye. Walter Benjamin’s essay on the necessity of seeing the unique work of art if it’s a painting, or sculpture. a tapestry, piece of furniture is vindicated. It’s that there are 7 rooms so we can see “down’ to the smaller achievements, get a sense of a career. The true limpid intense colors.  Piero di Cosimo’s imagined stories are deeply sceptical, pessimistic, ironic, humorous, tragic, it’s all there. I’d say Ingmar Bergmann’s Seventh Seal is an equivalent.

I also spent some time in a smaller exhibit of paintings by Americans at the turn of the 19th century, mostly impressionistic, from the Corcoran; if you live in DC and missed it, you could walk or take the train to the Corcoran.

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John Singer Sargent, Setting out to Fish, 1878.

My spirit was lifted up; I felt I communed across time. It was so cheering to feel oneself in contact with once there individuals who rejected in their times the equivalent of the materialism, nonsense, sheer stupid noise engulfs us if we don’t make a private space of retreat to share with others.

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The question, using Poussin’s paintings, in his The Sight of Death, T.J. Clark sets out to answer, explain, develop, is why and how do paintings communicate deep feelings and thoughts. Clark is a left-liberal person and knows Poussin was reactionary, the stories are esoteric classical legends and myths, the paintings still, and yet he is deeply moved. Jim and I loved and responded deeply to Poussin together. The paintings chosen include Landscape with a Calm and Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake. There are lots of close ups of the figures’ terror and panic and grief in the latter; of everyday sudden doings by characters in the former.

Reading the book last night I realized one needs to answer why say Piero di Cosimo’s pictures made me feel better about being alive because his spirit was in them and it was a good one. he is altogether more playful than Poussin. Sargent is so varied I can’t begin to make a nugget summary: he is endlessly interesting and presents strange beauties in life.  So we enjoy. How did I know or feel that. Clark attempts to meditate over and over colors, shapes, schemes of representation, bits of content. I was too tired to take the specifics in but the endeavour is worthy and will return to this.

Jim would have so enjoyed the Piero paintings.

Ellen

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Dear friends,

It’s said they recorded this in 1971 when the war in Vietnam was not over: the US gov’t was bombing hospitals in Vietnam; they thought, What could they do about it? they decided to sing and record a song in which they pretended “the war is over:”

A hundred and ten years ago, this short French film, “The Christmas Angel” was made, and thanks to a friend on one of my listservs I watched it last night and can share it here:

An early film adaptation.

Ellen

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Anothercast
Michael Volle as Hans Sachs (with a different soprano in the role of Eva than the production we saw today)

Dear friends and readers,

I thought I’d record that Yvette and I spent 6 long hours watching Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg (to give Wagner’s opera its full title) today at our local HD movie-theater. Neither of us hardly ever drowsed off — I observed a number of people half-dozing at times. Two people in our row left after the second act. It was an utterly unimaginative production not quite rescued by the intelligent acting and realism and singing of Michael Volle.

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Speaking for myself I found the second act charmed me by the touching and human psychological interactions of the principle characters, especially the Volle as the older intelligent witty passionate complex character of a cobbler Hans Sachs genuinely in love with Eva (Anne Dasch in the production we saw), the daughter of his friend) who herself seems torn between Sachs and the lifeless stiltedly acted and (it mattered) unattractive Johan Botha as a supposed dazzling Knight-poet Walther von Stolzino.

village

The scene is a street in a picturesque fairy tale German-like town, Hans is making shoes for the coming wedding of Eva and whoever wins her as a prize in a coming singing contest, and along comes a master-singer, Johannes Martin Kranzle as an emasculated over-sensitive and therefore mocked suitor-contestant Sixtus Beckmasser intending to serenade Eva at a window. Some of the wall of music in this and the third act swooningly as well as some of the comic singing and hammering away by Volle appealed to me, was amusing. Also the overt theme of how valuable original poetry which does not follow rules or conventions is (Wagner thinking of himself) appealed to me as well as some of the romantic lyrics (a leider-like song attributed to and sung by the Knight-Poet Walther).

Renee Fleming’s interview of Volle showed him to be a deep feeling singer who had given a lot of thought to his role as a man in love with a much younger woman who gives her up (as he foresees he will be a Mark to her Isolde). The interview of the production design person who talked of this 1990s pre-computer set, watching it put up, and then a rehearsal of the dancing (Kelli O’Hara as lead, Deborah Voight interviewer):

MerryWidow

and an interview with a costume designer for the coming new production of The Merry Widow starring Fleming were entertaining.

Had Jim been alive he’d have certainly been there; I remember half-sleeping through a Meistersinger next to him where he stayed up for all of it I’m not sure where. He would have understood and listened to the music as Yvette seemed to.

Jim joined the Wagner Society of Washington DC here in DC shortly after he retired and envisaged us going to its lectures and concerts and yearly full weekend get-aways; and was bitterly hurt when after a second year of going to all its events, supporting it with money, we were clearly at the last moment excluded from their weekend (they held onto his check for it, some $500 until a week before when he said they must have at last had enough people for this event so they need not include us). He had thought here was a semi-popular cultural group we could attend, pretend to belong to. What was wrong with us I’ll never know — I did talk a lot on the one weekend we attended to a hired photographer-historian who shared my political outlook; maybe this was frowned upon. Maybe we weren’t important enough in any way. The snobbery of this society and the way the leaders behaved sycophantically to the supposed civic or political or cultural leaders of this or that place was without awareness. I was aware of how the fascism of Wagner, his anti-feminism (by the women there) was just ignored in all the talks about Wagner operas. I bring this experience up to expose this Wagner Society of Washington DC for doing that to him, and also show how much he was willing to endure to participate in the music of Wagner with the occasional person who knew something about it.

I’d like to think he might have agreed this production was hopelessly dull; the first act of the masters arguing over the coming contest was without drama — even Renee Fleming, the hostess could find nothing beyond vague hype about how “special” and “wonderful” this Wagnerian production was as she talked to the dull Kranzle and at least honest Dasch (she admitted the part was small, the psychology simple). In his filmed interview Levine kept going using the same contentless words. The third act went on for an interminable 2 hours: each of the major characters visits Sachs before the contest begins and while the interaction leads to the climax, each phase not only went on repetitively, but predicted the over-long heavy-handed climax with its gestures of gaiety, priggish self-righteousness at someone not wanting to join something, scorn of weakness and then insistence of how important it was to respect even conventional guilds and Germanness.

For me the HD film close-ups and surtitles made this another first time to see and understand an opera I’ve watched before and really gotten little out of. I was surprised to discover that Yvette didn’t like the second act: she thought it could have been a lot funnier. Very “uninventive.” She too felt it could have been half as long.

Not that anyone who matters in making new productions of this opera will pay attention to this blog, but I’ll still make the suggestion it needs not only to be wholly re-designed using modern symbolic staging but someone needs to take seriously its riveting interest is the erotic relationship between Eva and Hans. Wagner’s words do not call for Hans to act avuncular; and she asks him to marry her more than once and seems to prefer him to this suitor of hers in the third. Almost the whole of the first act could be eliminated, whole sections of the third, and if it cannot be cut, at least the mockery of Beckmesser could be cut down, made less snarky (he’s a kind of Mr Moseley character for anyone who watched Downton Abbey). There was no undercutting of the intense patriarchy of the male roles, but Karen Cargill, an Irish soprano as Magdalene, sister to Eva, showed some comic gifts:

nuremburgtwosisters

Yvette and I caught sight of the dress circle we sat in when we were at the Met in mid-November, and she said she liked that she could now imagine where the various places filmed were in relation to what we had walked through.

I wonder when these opera companies who broadcast through HD will admit that filming for audiences makes them change how these operas are directed. The one person never interviewed in any of these productions is the person called “the live HD director,” this time Matthew Diamond. It is egregiously obvious that blocking and entrances and exits and choreography is done with movie needs as well as in-house stage limitations and sets in mind.

Ellen

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Twomen
Omar and Klinghoffer (from the National English Opera production)

Protests-on-opening-night-of-the-MET
Protests at the Metropolitan Opera house on opening night

Dear friends and readers,

It’s hard to know how to treat this opera since as a result of intense pressure from Jewish, particularly those supporting the present and previous right-wing Israeli organizations put sufficient relentless financial and social pressure on the Met as to cause them to not air it on the HD network (thus depriving thousands of people around the globe to see the opera for themselves) and to bring an halt to productions at the Met itself. (It has played in many others, from England to Scotland to Prague, and doubtless will continue to do so all the more.) At any rate Yvette and I saw the last big production in the US for some time to come, this past Saturday afternoon, November 15th.

What I have to tell those who come to this blog is that far from being a provocative, anti-semite inciting viscerally dramatic opera, The Death of Klinghoffer bends over backwards not to be overtly empathetic towards any group of people or individuals aboard ship. It’s a choral piece, much in the tradition of Copeland’s The Tender Land and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, only there is even less dramatic action and creation of individual personalities. Only 4 characters are made individual: Klinghoffer, his wife, Marilyn (Micheala Martens), a woman now famous for having hidden out in her cabin the whole time (Theodora Hanslowe?); a British dancer (Kate Miller-Heidke) by happenstance one of Omar’s prisoners who is eager for “ciggies” from him.

Britishdancer

The Palestinians remain archetypes and are presented as teaching killing (while Jewish armies are forgotten). Death of Klinghoffer is a mild, indeed in some ways tame meditative and lyric opera: its center is the captain (Paul Szot) as neutral narrator (he has a podium he sings from) and the story and action, such as it is (beautiful filmed waters on three sides of the stage, graffiti filled walls, light and dawn and evening shows) is punctuated continually by the beautiful music and singing of the Palestinian chorus of exiled people, and the Jewish one of people come to Israel after horrific misery in Europe during WW2.

The actual history behind the incident is well-known, easy of access: 4 young Palestinian men in 1985 hijacked a ship and 400 passengers and threatened to kill everyone unless Israel exchanged these captives with his brother and other male relatives. In the event they killed but one man, but the elderly helplessly crippled one: all else emerged unharmed. The opera takes into account the English-sidekick to US role: the Palestinians threaten UK as well as US and Jewish people. Three of the Palestinian men were later arrested and tried and allowed to go to their homeland (relatively free). Adams presents so little about the Palestinian case (so we learn very little about what was at stake in the negotiating bargain) — for every Palestinian chorus there is a Jewish one.

I immediately asked myself, why this incident when there are so many others of thousands and thousands killed and murdered Palestinians and “other Arab people”: 250 at one blow (on Reagan’s “watch”) is more like it. Why nothing of Jewish conscription and the constrained lives of Jews in this “fortress” state? In lieu of a continuous storyline, the three walls of the stage had a light show taking us through announced years (sometimes just the year showed, as in 1967), graffiti on walls, the waters of the sea rising and falling, night and then dawn. There was a chorus of male dancers representing writhing Palestinian young men; the four hijackers were archetypal presences (Aubrey Allicock as Mahmoud sung of his bonding with migrating birds). The concentration though was on Klinghoffer and his wife, ever focused on by light and given the individuating startling and moving arias.

A scene from The Death Of Klinghoffer by English National Opera and Metropolitan Opera

Though the poignant figure etched in the visual memory is of the Jewish man who dies facing the sky in his chair (providing the advertisement poster) and in sound memory his wife’s two arias.

Yet I have not been so sincerely moved by an opera in years. It was a bold courageous move not to offer us a mythic metaphor of a story, but at least give us the outlines of a story that really happened. Thus the realities of rich middle class people, here a number of Jews and British who can afford to go on an expensive cruise (ship fuelled by oil, the natural resource the the elite powerful of the US and other NATO countries have been destroying all social and democratic movements to keep control of) is simply part of the givens. Each of the characters spoke as individuals; I was rendered riveted by Mrs Klinghofer’s final widow grieving aria, especially lines, “I live in him” and “I wanted to die,” and thought I heard the voice of Adams in her words about the medical establishment’s indifference to his suffering — all everyone cared for was their payment, their profit, with a sudden interjection about profit centered research (as such a woman would put it.)! I understood why the Palestinians picked on Klinghoffer: Klinghoffer’s scolding is that of the ignorant man: he inveighs against the hijackers as simply killers, thugs; he denies they have any justification, that their houses were worth anything. Adams had the courage to show the man to have been obnoxious against the Palestinians harassing and terrifying the hostages with threats of death, blindfolds, guns held to their heads and the like.

harassinghostages

The opening Palestinian chorus a stunner protesting the originating incidents in 1948 a stunner. No as powerful as the Jews fleeing Europe and the death camps with a few thing or none to the promise of the desert where they would irrigate and make a new world. The Palestinians were treated as equal human beings — there was a remarkably beautiful aria by two singers who represented Palestinian women, one whose house had been destroyed in 1948 and the other the mother of Omar, one of the highjackers (an angry one, urging him to kill if needed in order to get the demands taken seriously).

OmarMotherKlinghoffer
From the opera: Omar Jesse Kovarsky), his mother (Maya Lahyani), and Klinghoffer (Alan Opie) seen in the picturesque distance

Omar has a sort of friendship with one of the British dancers who sings — there were 6 British dancers on board. The dancing of Omar was wrenching; the music beautiful and light and water and film effective, melancholy.

Jewishchorus
A matching Jewish chorus: remembering the holocaust

We had come to NYC for Yvette to experience the real opera house, and since The Death of Klinghoffer was removed from HD operas broadcast (and the mediocrity of a Rossini concoction substituted) we chose this weekend. We were in dress circle seats an experience in itself: it was hard to get to them, and we were in an overhang on the third tier so we saw both stage and (if this were still done) the opera house itself beautifully. We were cut off from the left side of the stage (partial view). Yvette’s blog-review worth reading in this regard (her experience from her spot). There was a kind of strangeness and stiltedness as if Adams was continually pulling his punches lest he offend someone important somewhere. It was a kind of staged masque:

THE DEATH OF KLINGHOFFER

How to account for the tameness of this piece? fear of reprisal if too truthful and searing? I object to the lack of hard violence by both sides and the situating of the Jewish chorus too early so later realities and cruelties beyond shame (in Gaza and the West Bank) omitted. Such an opera if people would watch would be useful: yet I am told there are Americans who Foxnews and the like have taught to looks upon Palestinian people as “cockroaches.” Operas are supposed to reveal grief, teach compassion, sing out the vulnerability of its characters (and occasionally even composers), though they rarely set their action in the here and now and an actual incident.

It was stimulating to really be there; Yvette said the voices sounded better and she seemed to enjoy being there: I dislike the elitism one comes up against as part of each experience from eating (each cafe callibrated to a specific income group), to lingering on the balcony; you can’t just go into the central cafe but must reserve and have tickets for that day; the shop was a replica of the Kennedy Center in its commercialism. It did seem to have far more CDs and DVDs. More: the way this incident was hyped up in the program notes unreal. Phrases like “horrible barbaric” and others suggesting some catastrophe of immeasurable proportions when it was a case of 400 people all of whom but one survived unharmed. No talk whatsoever about atrocities for real. Instead the program notes had a story about Stalin’s repression of Verdi’s Don Carlos as if to deflect attention. None of this Adams’s doing. He came on stage that afternoon Yvette and I were there. I hope the opera was filmed and eventually can come out on DVD and thus be shown to a much wider segment of the US population.

Adams

It is a disgrace that the Met did not broadcast this opera as an HD presentation, and has shut down further performances — the direct result of the relentless political powers and economic realities (no one dares to buck anyone connected into the 1% of US media and money today). I foolishly became a member of the Met this year. I thought to be sure and get tickets to HD operas this way, but there is no need and I won’t do so again. I understand the Met’s economic difficulties but they demanded their tech people take cuts in salaries and benefits while the stars were politely asked if they would …

I can’t deny it was something to be there literally though the misery of young Palestinian man forced to shoot (reminding me of Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad) and the cries of the cancerous woman (Mrs Klinghoffer is dying of cancer) whose crippled suffering husband could have been so easily taken out would have been more accessible (oddly) had we seen it in a plain movie-house, though then again we would have had to endure the hype in the form of interviews in the intermissions.

Confiteor

I heard something out by the gate
and went to look.
Dead of night; new snow, the larch woods
filling slowly, stars beneath the stars.

A single cry it was, or so it seemed,
though nothing I had recognised as native;
and when it came again, I knew for sure.
No badger there. No gathering of deer.

Forgive me, if! choose not to believe
the snow would fall like this, were I not here
to see it.
There might be snow, of course, but not like this,

no hush between the fence line and the trees,
no sense of something other close at hand,
my dwindling torch-beam flickering between
a passing indigo and lux aetema.

I stood a while to listen; nothing moved
– and then I turned and walked back to the house,
the porch light spilling gold for yards around,
snow at the open door and then, again,

that far cry in the dark
behind my back
and deep in the well of my throat
as I live and breathe.
— John Burnside

Read Alice Goodman Reflections on her libretto.

Ellen

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photo-6
The actual day dress and hat worn by Elizabeth McGovern as Cora Crawley, Lady Grantham in Downton Abbey — rich heavy cloth

Described, who funds it, how the Duponts grew so (obscenely may I use the word) rich — gunpowder. The gardens, the exhibits, dwelling of course on Downton Abbey, the fetish dresses. How it functions as a social facility faute de mieux.

Dear friends and readers,

As my header and picture tell immediately, I have been to Winterthur Museum: this past Thursday afternoon and evening. I have decidedly mixed feelings about such places: I asked more questions of our guide than anyone else (note: she was grateful and wanted questions she could answer to fill out the time allotted to each of several rooms in the central house she showed us), especially who owned this house originally (the Duponts — they owned everything worth having at one time in Delaware), who’s funding it now: there’s an endowment by the Duponts substantially added to by philanthropists, selling memberships to local people for activities like lectures, evening receptions, tours. Winterthur Museum is one secular local social and cultural center; the university is the other. At each stop of this tour I noticed how the particular Dupont she was often talking of (a male born in the early 20th century who became a collector, connoisseur, sportsman, lover of art, builder of museum rooms and garden) spent enormously on each whim however art-oriented he might have: move whole ceilings, change contours to accommodate every detail of an 18th century wallpaper handed scenes around a room from China, have opera music piped in from miles away to where he was golfing. The guide picked up on my perspective (drift?) and became just a trifle defensive, regaling us with the two schools of art and conservation supported at the Winterthur (by fellowships? she didn’t say? or students loans?), to one of which she had been and gotten a degree in fine arts and is paid now for working there.

The gardens are beautiful and extensive; there are treasures of pottery, sculpture, home furnishings of all sorts, musical instruments, specific objects owned by this famous person and that; an indoor garden all bewindows; we were invited to look at the rooms the family once used and those originally built to be shown to the public. There is a research library — for American artefacts and architecture. I regret I didn’t buy at the gift shop a pair of exquisitely filligreed earrings in the Downton Abbey style, and a light weight woven jackets, lovely dark blue threads woven into this light lacey cloth, again a Downton Abbey style. Had Jim been alive, I probably would have, but don’t have the urge to treat myself the way I once did (indeed it feels somehow downright wrong), and told myself he’d have said I couldn’t wear it, as it was too delicate so I was getting a bogus relic. But when I noticed a colleague and friend had gotten herself an exquisitely embroidered scarf, Downton Abbey mode, I wished I had (they sell for $30 and up).

I had the same response which Jim and I shared when we were taken through a castle-like house, now a full-fledged week-long-trip place at Asheville, North Carolina, where a similarly super-gargantuan rich family filled a huge building and made a garden, Biltmore (a bus takes you) that ordinary people are invited to visit. The unexamined adulation of such places supports the present oligarchy and its past — and forgets that but for a brief time (1930s to 60s) there was in the US an attempt to make life more decent and share the goods, fulfilling occupations, enjoyment, and security with the average person. We did not have to be grateful for the crumbs off the table of the 1%.

What I enjoyed most of the museum itself was the most foolish thing probably: the rooms given over to the actual costumes worn by the actors and actresses of Downton Abbey. I felt my heart-strings tug as I heard the familiar strains of the music coming from the corridor as I climbed the marble stairwell. The museum knows the draw of this place and it is advertised everywhere in the museum. The information about what we were seeing was accurate: the Grantham family dresses and some of the suits are a mix of style then with style today. The staff had rebuilt the bell system — that is the sort of thing that grates. Are we to celebrate this? Here and there perpetual films were going of this or that episode where a costume we were viewing could be seen. Of course this was a tiny percentage of the stock the program costumer and her assistants have made but it was sufficiently wide that you could see each of the main characters’ sort of dress (two each for each of the daughters for example, a couple each for each of the older upper class family women). Unfortunately, I was taking photos with my cell phone and even with a real camera I am not exactly competent so while I tried to get some of the hats, I seem only to have captured two (the above and this one below):

photo-5
Summer dress and hat worn by Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley — light cotton (muslin?)

I had predicted and indeed found the “creations” for the married Lady of the house (Cora) stood out for the work, material, expense, lavishness over all the other females.

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One of Cora’s evening dresses: my photo doesn’t capture the heavy and delicate working of the embroidery up and down the front of Cora’s dress — the varied textile dress is expensive

I have favorite characters so I am glad I managed to photograph Mr Bates’s working clothes as worn by Brendan Coyle and his bench, even if smudged:

Bates

I like Joanne Froggart as Anne Smith but must agree with her (as she’s hinted) that her outfits are so dull (and there is but one of Sophia McShera as Daisy’s and one of Leslie Nicol’s as Mrs Patmore), and in this exhibit none from the time of her being a lady’s maid — to tell the truth I have better photos to share from the books I’ve bought. Who makes a fetish of a servant’s outfit?

Gwen
Remember Rose Leslie as Gwen, the housemaid, whom the Winterthur people are aware was a popular favorite once —

I note that the choice of fetish items show a class perspective and emphasis at work — minimal for the servants and several for the family each time. There is the one typical housemaid outfit we first see her in, one for Siobhan Finneran as Miss O’Brien, the lady’s maid; here is but one the glitter and richness of Phyllis Logan’s layered dress as housekeeper: an expensive set of sewn varied textiles and chains:

PhyllisLoganHousekeeper

In the physical place, you can see the stiffness of Rob James-Collier’s outfit as a footman:

footman

The costumes did seem to be almost all from the first season. Winterthur did not go to this expense for more than one and the beginning of another (to get in Shirley MacLaine’s garments doubtless). All of them looked remarkably comfortable as styles (they simple hang on the body)

PostWW2coathat
Post World War One coat and hat – this kind of semi-sexy outfit was there, the fur expensive, rich velvet gold cloth

— as long as you didn’t remember the women wore corsets underneath to provide the form of body that the dress was to wrap round and cling to.

It was an exhibit of textiles the rich could use as imagined by the ITV costume workshop. it might have been interesting to see information about the dress designer, materials, who made the dresses (how much paid?). There were also objects the Grantleys used (beyond the re-built bell system):

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Gloves worn by the actresses — kid is the slang

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Crockery used — the same kind as Jim and I used to see at Landmark Trust houses

I did go into other parts of the museum — found an 18th century sack dress and noticed that a couple of the later 19th century ones did resemble aspects of the Downton Abbey costumes.

sack

Of course if this man and his family of Duponts had not wanted to spend their money this way, we the public could not have this functioning funded social facility and pretty space. But it testifies to the continued domination of private property and huge fortunes as the controlling factors in US society that we owe such places to private foundations: of course the discourses they will support will not be those that undermine their positions; we see everything from a limited perspective of the privileged. The guide mentioned in passing that the basis of the Dupont money was gunpowder. All that slaughter and destruction of the Civil War enriched the Duponts, modern uses of chemistry in industry (and one of its results the spread of cancer) are the bedrock of this dream place.

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Michelle Dockery’s silk layers Christmas ball dress from the first season; this is next to Dan Steevens’s tux (rather like a needed Ken doll) behind which is played over and over his proposal on bended knees to her in the snow

The museum several years ago allowed EC/ASECS to have its banquet in the museum (I’m not sure where); this year we were allowed to use a beautiful area for a reception for snacks, sweets and drinks and enjoyable talk, and then for another hour to wax exhilarated reading 18th century poetry and verse playlets aloud to one another. Peter Staffel, our master of ceremonies, chose to end these on Gray’s brilliant “Death of a Favorite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes” which for me nowadays especially evokes an ambivalent response too to conclude the festivities.

’Twas on a lofty vase’s side,
Where China’s gayest art had dyed
  The azure flowers that blow;
Demurest of the tabby kind,
The pensive Selima, reclined,
  Gazed on the lake below.

Her conscious tail her joy declared;
The fair round face, the snowy beard,
  The velvet of her paws,
Her coat, that with the tortoise vies,
Her ears of jet, and emerald eyes,
  She saw; and purred applause.

Still had she gazed; but ’midst the tide
Two angel forms were seen to glide,
  The genii of the stream;
Their scaly armour’s Tyrian hue
Through richest purple to the view
Betrayed a golden gleam.

The hapless nymph with wonder saw;
A whisker first and then a claw,
  With many an ardent wish,
She stretched in vain to reach the prize.
What female heart can gold despise?
  What cat’s averse to fish?

Presumptuous maid! with looks intent
Again she stretch’d, again she bent,
  Nor knew the gulf between.
(Malignant Fate sat by, and smiled)
The slippery verge her feet beguiled,
  She tumbled headlong in.
Eight times emerging from the flood
She mewed to every watery god,
  Some speedy aid to send.
No dolphin came, no Nereid stirred;
Nor cruel Tom, nor Susan heard;
  A Favourite has no friend!

From hence, ye beauties, undeceived,
Know, one false step is ne’er retrieved,
  And be with caution bold.
Not all that tempts your wandering eyes
And heedless hearts, is lawful prize;
  Nor all that glisters, gold.

Ellen

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