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Flemish Flatfish (Wayne Ferrebee, 2016) ink and watercolor on paper

Happy Solstice! I wanted to finish off the ocean theme and celebrate the longest day of the year by coloring one of my large flounder drawings (which I originally designed to be in a huge strange flatfish coloring book). Unfortunately, coloring the image took sooo long that the longest day of the year is now over! (and I am still not happy with the coloring–which turns out to be just as hard as I recall from childhood)

Anyway, here is a sky flounder with a Dutch still life on his/her body swimming over the flat sea by the low countries. Little Flemish details dot the composition (like the clay pipe at the bottom, the bagpiper by the beach, and Audrey Hepburn in a 17th century dress) however the endearing minutiae can not forever distract the viewer from larger themes of sacrifice and the ineluctable passage of time (both of which are fine ideas to contemplate on this druidic holiday).

As always, we will return to these ideas, but for now, happy summer!

Founder/Flounder Galley (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink and watercolor

Here is another image from my little moleskine sketchbook which I carry around. This past year I have been trying to become better at drawing an image with a nib and then coloring it with watercolors (the go-to methodology of illustrators who want beautiful diagrammatic details). I am getting better at this technique…but I am still not a master of photographing small artworks with a cellphone camera (the true signature medium of our age). Anyway, here are a bunch of hapless galley slaves rowing along in glum resignation as their captain and officers take the fragile wooden ship through a mermaid-haunted reef. Huge poisonous monsters and weird idols stand on the deck. Hungry seabirds and devilfish size up the sailors as a Chinese junk sails by out in the navigable strait and a German airship floats by like a leaf. I see no way that this small composition could represent our entire Rube Goldberg economic system of world trade. Also there is a flounder, floundering along the sand hunting for worms and copepods. Let’s hope that no larger fish or fisherman show up to hook or spear or dynamite the poor hungry fish!

Oops…better get back to rowing…

Although crowns are one of our main themes here, Ferrebeekeeper has largely resisted writing about the British crown jewels…until a week or so ago, when we looked at the strange history of a preposterous medieval spoon which is somehow part of the UK royal regalia. The massive popularity of that post has inspired our researchers to probe more deeply into the royal collection, and a shocking truth came to light. The crown which is arguably the most iconic (or at least the second-most-iconic) of all English crowns was not an “official” crown (in that it was a personal piece of jewelry rather than an item owned “by the crown”). Here is the somewhat touching story of Queen Victoria’s iconic “little crown” which is sort of a signature piece of the great monarch.

Queen Victoria was queen of the United Kingdom from 1837 until 1901 (an era which also witnessed the zenith of English wealth, power, and influence around the globe). For much of that time she was married to her first cousin Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (he really was a rather debonair looking fellow when he was young). Sadly, the German prince died in 1861 (after making sure that the United States and the United Kingdom didn’t come to war over some vile confederate traitors who were plucked off of an English flagged vessel a trifle peremptorily–thanks, Albert!). Queen Victoria was devastated. She wore black mourning clothes the rest of her life and never remarried. Her already regal and aloof personality became even more solemn and remote. In 1870, the ministers, courtiers, and suchlike fancy folk who ran England begin to become alarmed at the queen’s prolonged absence from public life (and her noteworthy austerity). They begged her to return to royal duties and ceremonies. Naturally such things would require her best prop–her crown–however the Imperial State Crown (which is really, truly THE crown of the UnitedKingdom) was too heavy for the diminutive fifty something sovereign. (As an aside, Wikipedia tells us exactly how heavy this beeweled monstrosity really was: “It weighed 39.25 troy ounces (43.06 oz; 1,221 g) and was decorated with 1,363 brilliant-cut, 1,273 rose-cut and 147 table-cut diamonds, 277 pearls, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds, 4 rubies, and the Black Prince’s Ruby (a spinel).” Anyway, Queen Victoria did not want to wear such a thing while doing queenly things, partly so that her head did not fall off, but also because the giant Imperial State Crown would not fit on top of the widow’s cap which she wore until she died. But what is the point of being queen of half of the world if you don’t have a crown?

To solve the dilemma, Queen Victoria turned to the royal jewelers, Garrard & Co. and requested (i.e. commissioned and purchased) a solution. She had them make a tiny crown which would fit on top of her widow’s cap and which would not compress her spine with all sorts of fatuous gold and jewels. The tiny crown was made of plain silver and was a mere 9 cm (3 1⁄2 in) across and 10 cm (4 in) high. It was plainly and frugally fitted with 1,162 brilliant and 138 rose-cut diamonds which the queen had lying around. According to Victorian mourning tradition, white diamonds, (being white) were appropriate for mourning attire. The tiny crown of Queen Victoria was her own. She bought it and paid for it with her own money and it did not belong to the crown (a phrase which strikes me as funny in this instance). During the 30 years she wore it, the crown became part an iconic part of her brand. If we were to summon Terry Gilliam and have him animate queen Victoria, I am 100% certain she would be portrayed with her little crown (although I suspect she would prefer to have her little dog, Turi, a beloved Pomeranian, whose company is what she asked for when she was herself dying).

Queen Victoria willed her little crown to the crown, so it is now somewhere in the glittering stack of ermine, gold, scepters, rubies, emeralds, and er, spoons at the Tower of London. I have always though of Queen Victoria as something akin to the gold statue of Jupiter on Capitoline Hill–an inhuman symbol of inhuman power. The story of her little silver crown (a memento to someone she loved and lost and then mourned for the whole rest of her life) humanized her to a surprising degree. This is funny, because if anyone that I knew commissioned a crown made of 1300 diamonds that they could wear around all of the time it would have exactly the opposite effect. We will keep thinking about this hierarchy business.

In all of our explorations of crowns and crown jewels, we have barely addressed the most famous crown jewels of all–those of the United Kingdom. Ferrebeekeeper posted about the giant dark spinel in the imperial state crown (aka “the black prince’s ruby“) and about the crown of the Tudor kings–which was destroyed back in the 17th century–and that is about all we have said about the most famous royal regalia. The reason for the paucity of posts is that the crown jewels of the United Kingdom were themselves destroyed in 1649 at the order of Oliver Cromwell, a puritan anti-monarchist who seized control of England and had no use for such things. Interestingly, this was (at least) the second time that all of the crown jewels were lost: in 1216 Bad King John somehow sank all of the previous crown jewels (and most of the treasury) in the Wash River (we will explore that humorous catastrophe in a future post).

Anyway, the real point of all of this is that although Cromwell destroyed all of the golden crowns, jeweled scepters, ancient magic swords and whatnot, he did not quite destroy all of the crown jewels. A single metal item from the ancient medieval royal collection of England survived the meltdown and is now the oldest item in the crown jewels (although the Black Prince’s ruby (which was sold and later returned) is pretty ancient too). The sacred coronation spoon of the ancient kings of England survived the Commonwealth. As the crown jewels were being torn apart and melted by stern religious zealots, there was apparently a spoon enthusiast (?) in the crowd. This Mr. Kynnersley bought the ancient coronation spoon for 16 shillings.

The first mention of the coronation spoon was in 1349, but even then it was said to be “of ancient form” so the true age and origin of the spoon are lost in history (although experts surmise that it is from the 12th century). The coronation spoon is decorated with monster’s heads and ornate medieval scrollwork. It was probably originally used to mix water and wine (a critical component of drinking in ancient times which ensured that the imbiber neither died of dysentery nor blacked out from alcohol poisoning). If you squint a bit, the spoon has quite a lot of resemblance to a modern bartender’s mixing spoon.

As far as I can tell, the spoon is too famous and special to be photographed, but there are many high quality drawings and reproductions of it. I wonder how this spoon will fare during the next 800 years of royal history, or will it fall victim to a new King John or another Cromwell somewhere down the line?

Brooklyn Brill and the Roller Dance Party of ’21 (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink and watercolor on paper

Sooner or later, the end of quarantine lockdown is coming and it will be such a joyous shindig! Here is a little watercolor painting from my moleskine sketchbook which begins to conceptualize the freedom and the fun of the summer of ’21…and yet even in my imagination the roller-skating goddess is wearing a mask! I wonder how long it will be before we ever see a public gathering without some weird respiratory accessories (assuming such a thing ever happens again). Anyway, the image shows the Coney Island Boardwalk at night. In addition to the magical rollerskating disco woman–who needs no explanation–there are two novelty rubber chickens and some sentient dancing fruit (probably left over from the ’80s). An accordion player plies his craft as a shy young hotdog takes a first few tentative dance steps. While the rollercoaster runs in the background, a crab in the foreground seemingly wonders if a cigarette will give him cancer.

In the upper left of the image is a rather strange steel structure which Brooklyn residents will immediately recognize as the “Parachute Jump”. This was some sort of horrifying human sacrifice-themed amusement park novelty of the early twentieth century and its steel skeleton still lingers at the edge of the continent to remind us of delights now gone forever. Preposterously a spoonbill is flying towards the erstwhile ride. Everyone knows that is not a native bird!

One of the splashy headlines from today’s newspapers concerned an American mogul’s plans to build a second planned city in Uganda….even though he hasn’t finished his first. I did not know that American moguls were building any cities in Uganda, but strange, futuristic planned cities interest me, so I was quick to click on the headline! Apparently the mogul in question is the rap/R&B singer Akon, whose family emigrated to Missouri from Senegal. Akon’s first planned city, “Akon City” is set to be built in Senegal, not Uganda (I guess I misunderstood the Post’s somewhat misleading headline). All financial transactions which take place in Akon City will be made with “Akoins” a cryptocurrency also devised by Akon.

3D illustration of a futuristic city in sunset, with an organic architectural design and high-rise buildings, for fantasy and science fiction backgrounds.

Although urban planners and economic development experts are…skeptical…about both cities, Akon and his collaborators aver that they have raised $4 billion dollars of the required $6 billion dollars to get stage one of the city (in Senegal) started. I am going to gloss over the pointed questions which auditors and activists have raised concerning how so much real estate was pledged to these projects by cash-strapped governments and just show you some pictures (in fact, all of these pictures are designs/conceptions for how Akon City could look).

I am not going to speculate about whether Akon can build Akon City and finance it with Akoins, however I would like to propose that if he does manage to do so, he should immediately extend a sister city deal (and most-favored-trade status) to Akron, Ohio. I feel like that post-industrial rustbelt city has been desperately looking for someone with Akon’s interests. In fact, I wonder if they couldn’t raise some quick cash from the rap mogul by getting rid of their “R” (which they could make some extra money off of by selling to Pune, India or Vigo, Spain, or some similar metropolis).

When I was in secondary school in the 1980s, one of the required classes for every pupil was “Civics”. Civics, which was a broad overview of American law, civil rights, and government (with some small intersections with economic and military affairs) took place right before lunch and involved a great deal of (sometimes heated) discussion between the teacher and the students. It was also a thrilling class because we got to discuss an actual presidential election as it happened–and everyone was extremely excited over whether Michael Dukakis or George Bush (Senior!) would prevail. I also remember my fellow students getting especially worked up about 4th amendment questions, about Larry Flynn, and about how old you had to be to vote (for Bush or Dukakis!) or to run for the Senate. Although I did not notice it at the time, “Civics” at Valley Forge Middle School was taught fairly well and students who emerged with an A in the class also had a decent holistic understanding of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and a simplified but workable macro-understanding of government.

A peripheral side note in civics class was “the filibuster” which was mentioned briefly as an obscure legislative tactic of last resort last used by racist southern politicians during the civil rights era. The filibuster was presented as a desperate measure by which a benighted United States senator could stall legislation by endlessly talking for hours and hours until he (the theoretical senator was a”he” in 1980s civics class) turned blue and keeled over, whereupon the senators could go ahead and vote about pressing national affairs. It was mentioned that the filibuster had an earlier past when it was maybe (?) used for nobler aims than just promoting segregation and Jim Crow. Somebody brought up the Jimmy Stewart movie, and then we moved on. Apparently that was all you needed to know about the filibuster back in 1988!

[actually, I think the teacher might have tried to add some additional information, but the bell rang and we rushed off to hair metal and savage adolescent delights…or at least to lunch.]

I suspect a modern version of civics class would be mostly about the filibuster and would not bother with any of that minutiae concerning the Bill of Rights, separation of Church and State, Article 1 institutions, or the draft…or any of the things which used to seem important in the 80s. The filibuster is why contemporary America is paralyzed with political deadlock and is swiftly becoming a failed state. It is why the Chinese laugh at us as a used-up empire as they build continent-striding super railroads and bribe every dictator in Africa to do their bidding. It is why young adults today shrug sadly about affairs of government and don’t bother to vote. They know that no matter how they vote, nothing will happen and nothing will ever change. The filibuster will kill any reasonable law. It will destroy all reform. It will prevent any change from the status quo of never-ending trench warfare. The filibuster is killing American democracy.

Grim Reaper Standing in the Meadow Credit: Getty

What happened? How did a footnote from civics class (humorously named after Dutch pirates!) rise up to throttle our entire society and destroy our democracy? In 1980s civics class we were taught that the true genius of the Constitution is that it allows reform. When vested interests or revanchists try to thwart the will of the electorate by means of out-of-date antidemocratic rules, the free people of the United States and our elected champions in Washington rise up and fix the system. That is no longer happening in America for a variety of reasons…but almost every one of those reasons directly or tangentially involves the Senate filibuster. Today’s post was a hair raising prequel to another essay about how to fix the rot which is affecting the world and threatening the future. Political problems are at the very heart of what is going wrong. America’s greatest political problem in 2021 is legislative gridlock. The filibuster is the cause of that problem.

I recognize that international audiences are now asleep as they read about obscure chicanery in poorly designed U.S. parliamentary rules. Yet unless the United States gets back to a political system involving good faith deal-making, the waves of nationalism and populism which are buffeting the democratic world will grow into tsunamis. We will talk about how to move forward in tomorrow’s second installment.

I guess we have been in society-wide quarantine lockdown for an entire year (at least here in New York City). The grim anniversary at least provides the opportunity to show you the artwork which I made during the spring of 2020 as nature burst into glorious life while humankind cowered at home in the shadow of the crowned plague.

I like to draw in little 3.5 inch by 5.5 inch moleskine sketchbooks (which i fill up pretty regularly). Last spring, due to an ordering error, I purchased a Japanese album (which folds out into one long accordion strip of paper) instead of my usual folio book. Since the pandemic left me stuck in my little Brooklyn garden, I began drawing a Coronavirus journey along a continuous garden path running from my backyard, through the stricken city, to the cemetery and then out to the sea. As spring turned into summer I rode my bike over to Greenwood to work on it. Usually works of this sort are destroyed by giant ink blots, spills, or catastrophic drawing failures (since I drew this freehand with a Hiro Leonardt 41 steel nib), and although there are lots of flaws (sigh), none of them destroyed the drawing outright.

Pandemic Album (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) pen and ink on paper

as you can see, the one factor which made the isolation and anxiety of the coronavirus pandemic bearable to me was the one thing which makes existence bearable–the unlimited power of imagination to go anywhere and make anything happen! Thus we see a Byzantine/Gothic Brooklyn as suited to the plague of Justinian as to Covid 19.

I effectively finished the drawing in June, but I kept frittering at the edges. Plus there was an empty space in the path beneath the fountain (just before the musical garden filled with lyrebirds, siamangs, singing sphinxes, and aulos players). That space stayed blank until November, when I realized that the blank spot in the middle was where the vaccine belonged (you can see it there now just below the fountain).

Unfortunately, I am a better draftsman than a photographer, and it is hard to make out the small details of the little garden plants and bugs which were my original inspiration. Anyway, hopefully you can click on the panels and look at the musicians (C-minor), the plague doctor, the manticore, and the covid party filled with Bushwick Bohemians and sinners! If not, let me know and we will see if I can repost the drawing somehow. Maybe I will post some of the details later on anyway, since the virus pathway is filled with serpents, bats, dark gods, pigeons, bees, trees, and flounder (and other ferrebeekeeper subjects which are always close to my heart).

Speaking of things close to my heart, thanks again for reading this and for being here with me (at least in my writings and thoughts if not in the real world). Dear Reader, you are the absolute best. If the Fates are willing, we are nearing the end of this horrid covid chapter (just as the dark path from the drawing ultimately runs out into the great ocean and vanishes in the waves). I am sorry it took so long to post this little book, but it seems appropriate somehow. As always, let me know what you think, and for my part I will think about what delights to put in the spring album for 2021!

Health and peace to you and your loved ones! We are nearly through this!

It is Mardi Gras today: tonight the season of carnival excess and frivolity comes to a crashing end at midnight as Lent begins. Well…actually I am from Appalachia, a land of hypocritical puritans and runaway indentured Protestants and I don’t really remember any of this Carnival business from when I was growing up…but I do know about it…from Venetian art! That is why today we are traveling back to the decadent Venice of the 18th century–hundreds of years after Venice’s reign as the dominant military and cultural power of the Mediterranean was over—but in an era when the City of Masks was still the preferred playground for cosmopolitan European aristocrats. Venetian art of the great era was ruled by titans like Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese…but even centuries later during the 1700s it could still produce masters like Canaletto (who painted those vast watery Grand Canal pictures which you undoubtedly know) and my personal favorite 18th century painter, Pietro Longhi.

Longhi paints in the literary/social critique style of Hogarth, but, unlike Hogarth. his pictures are rarely straightforward morality tales. Usually his small intimate canvases superficially present people dancing, drinking coffee, playing cards, or meeting friends in a sitting room. Closer examination discloses all manner of duplicity hidden in these small scenes which turn out to be filled with mountebanks, debauchees, flimflam men, cardsharps, pickpockets, gigolos, and procuresses (and other categories of extinct grifters that modern critics can’t even understand).

Masked Party in a Courtyard (Pietro Longhi, 1755) oil on canvas

For example, in this small painting (now in the Saint Louis Museum of Art) two different groups of revelers take refreshments in a small courtyard during the carnival season. A conventional description of the painting would probably be something like ” a debutante and her chaperone enjoy hot chocolate from an important admirer while their friends chat in the background.” But what is actually going on here? Who are all of these enigmatic revelers wearing hall-masks and veils? What is actually in that beverage which the porcelain faced beauty is carefully holding but not drinking? What is the wire implement held by the figure in the upper right or the ancient sumptuous platform which intrudes a single voluptuary angle into the painting? Why is the figure looming above the young woman so menacing? At the composition’s dead center is a glowing pink flower, visible beneath the young lady’s veil just above her heart. What’s up with that?

I can’t definitively answer any of these questions! However my proposed explanation of this painting would be as follows:

A wealthy but older nobleman presses his amorous suit on a teenage beauty by offering her a cup of chocolate (an expensive new world luxury reputed to be an aphrodisiac). The nobleman’s manservant pushes the spoon at her like a contract as the debutante’s chaperone (or Madame?) enjoys her own chocolate while carefully eying her headstrong young charge (who wears the corsage of her actual love interest between her breasts). In the background another couple arrange an assignation while at back a roue shows off some sort of cheating implement to a masked & veiled person who is mostly hidden behind a column. Roman columns and a piece of an ancient marble (a font? a catafalque? a sarcophagus?) remind us of greater eras in the past, and the inexorable death of empires.

Is this interpretation right? Who can say. The pictorial puzzle has no clear answer that I am aware of, but the puzzle of it invites us to turn it over and over in our heads. Probably the Longhi expert at the Saint Louis Museum would say “oh that wire device is actually a clotheshanger and the model’s white slipper and gown indicate that she is figure beyond reproach.” Yet once we start asking questions, the painting feels anything but innocent, even if we can never know the specifics. The sense of exciting secrets just beyond our apprehension is Longhi’s greatest gift. It has endowed this perfectly chaste picture of a girl drinking cocoa with all sorts of shadowy insinuations. Longhi’s brush did not just tickle a subdued (yet strangely sensual) palette of pinks, browns, and grays, it also tickles our imagination…and that turns out to be naughtier than any actual Carnival naughtiness.

Palace Progress (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) Watercolor & ink on paper

Here is a watercolor picture from my the little moleskine sketchbook which I carry around. A pompous, three-legged grandee makes his serene progress through a palace landscape. Around him are fawning moth courtiers and little fairies (as well as a horrified little flatfish who has somehow wound up in the garden’s reflecting pool). Although it is good to poke fun at the airs of aristocrats, my favorite part of the picture are the fluffy pink flying fox in the center and the ancient monotreme. Watercolor is not my finest medium, but maybe if I keep trying to capture fantastical foibles with the set I carry in my bag, I will keep improving…

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