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Kings and Queens wear crowns. Great Lords wear coronets. Emperors wear diadems. Princesses, of course, wear tiaras. Ferrebeekeeper could not let princess week pass without featuring a beautiful historical head-dress worn by a princess. The Iranian crown jewels (which are too-my eyes the most stylish) did not quite suit the theme and so I chose to look to Great Britain. Princess Margaret, late sister to the Queen of England was simultaneously a classic princess and a scandalous modern one. This is her signature tiara, which she wore on her wedding to a photographer, or in the bathtub (to impress on people that she was a classical princess and a scandalous modern one too).
Although the Poltimore tiara is emblematic of the nineteen sixties because of princess Margaret and her jet-setting (but slightly sad) lifestyle, the Poltimore tiara is actually Victorian crown. It was originally made by Garrard for Florence for Lady Poltimore, wife of Baron Poltimore, in the 1870s. Because of the jeweler’s ingenuity, it can be broken apart into brooches and a necklace, and the full tiara set also includes a little screwdriver. Aside from the screwdriver, which I perhaps should not have mentioned first, the tiara is all diamonds set in gold and silver floral scrollwork patterns.
Of course this history doesn’t really get us closer to answering the question of why princesses wear tiaras to begin with. Since the dawn of time, a glistening hat has betokened status, but why? The ancients believed that the form of a crown—rays emanating from the head denoted celestial importance—divinity and the Christians likewise elided the form with the halo of saints and angels, however it is possible there is an earthlier answer.
After her death, Princess Margaret’s heirs auctioned off the Poltimore tiara for more than a million pounds. Nothing shows off status like being able to wear decades worth of a person’s income to a party, and aside from its obvious prettiness (and the fame of its most famous owner), the Poltimore tiara wasn’t even really a valuable tiara….
Today we have a special mystery: a strange sacred underground passage of great beauty which was constructed by unknown entities for unknown reasons. Shell Grotto in Margate Kent is an underground passage constructed entirely of seashells (or, I should say, the walls and ceilings are entirely lined with shells). The passage is 2.4 meters (8 feet) high and 21 meters in length (69 feet) and terminates in a 5 x 6 meter (16 foot by 20 foot) chamber colloquially known as “The Altar Room.” The entire complex is hewn out of the native chalk of Kent and extensively decorated with vaults and decorative mosaics made of local mussels, cockles, whelks, limpets, scallops, and oysters (although winkles from as far away as Southampton.
The complex was “discovered” in 1835 and has been the subject of much speculation ever since. Some people assert that it was a prehistoric astronomical calendar (?), a special space for Templar or Freemasonry ceremonies, or an 18th century nobleman’s folly. The first mention of it in the press is from 1838, announcing its forthcoming opening as a public attraction. My own hypothesis is that the grotto is a Victorian attraction.
Originally the shells had their vibrant natural colors, but after long exposure to flickering Victorian gaslights they had blackened and faded. Fortunately, Shell Grotto is protected as a Grade I listed building of special historical and cultural interest (although no archaeologists seem particularly interested, which reinforces my “Victorian tourist trap: hypothesis). Whatever its provenance, Shell Grotto is certainly impressive. It is estimated that the builders, whoever they were, employed about 4.7 million shells to make the complex. Their initiative and hard work have paid off: Shell Grotto has a mysterious oceanic splendor and beauty all its own. The enigma of its nature only adds to its picturesque (but haunting) charm.
In 1856 the 18 year-old chemist William Henry Perkin was desperately looking for a way to synthesize quinine–since the British Empire relied so heavily on the Peruvian bark as an antimalarial agent throughout its many tropical colonies. The brilliant young chemist failed to find a replacement for quinine, but he instead found a brilliant purple-pink chemical “mauveine” the very first aniline dye (the toxic aromatic amines today serve as precursors to numerous industrial compounds).
Perkin’s discovery lead to a revolution in purple dyes which had historically been costly, rare, and fugitive. Suddenly cheap synthetic purples were everywhere—particularly mauve, which was named for mauveine. Perkins named his dye after the French word mauve (French for a particular sort of purple mallow flower).
Today we understand mauve to be a slightly blue-grayish shade of magenta, but the original usage may have been different. Mauveine dyes fabrics to a brilliant glowing purple—initially—however the synthetic purples created from this dye are also fugitive. The fabrics quickly faded and left succeeding generations with a somewhat attenuated color (which is what we thibnk of as mauve). Some of the pre-Raphaelites even painted whole canons of works which soon changed colors as the purples faded.
Many succeeding generations of new artificial dye have long since swept away mauveine (although Perkins became rich and was knighted for his teenage discovery). We now have brighter purples which do not fade (like the quinacridones and diozanines in my paintbox). Whatever the virtues of the original color, mauve, as it is today understood, is a beautiful purple.
April is poetry month! I love poetry…and poets! Many of my friends and close associates are contemporary poets, scrambling to make ends meet as they rework language to capture the elusive meaning and rhythm of life. I really enjoy talking to them about literature…including poetry, but much of my favorite poetry is Victorian poetry…and it’s frustrating to watch my poor friends’ smiles curdle when I say such a thing. The rhythm and the themes of 19th century poetry are very different from modern poetic tastes, but not quite sufficiently different that it can be neatly archived away in the hallowed halls of ancient poetry. To modern poets a great deal of Victorian poetry seems fusty and overly-detailed. It has a repetitive classical-music rhythm which (to ears more used to the syncopation of rap and rock) can sound like a monotonous drone. Thematically, Victorian works are insufficiently focused on identity politics to rate approval from the academic literary establishment right now. The canonical poets of the 19th century were seemingly unconcerned with the complexities of gender, class, race which hold the so much of the attention of the literati in today’s democracies (although this stereotype is less true on careful re- reading—indeed many of the great Victorian poets were passing, or gay…or even women!).
I am making the same mistake which drove me away from literature—talking about politics, historiography, the biography of authors, and suchlike “meta” concerns, when what really matters is the actual poetry! At its zenith English poetry of the 19th century is unrivaled. The sumptuous language immerses the reader in a fulsome world where colors burn brighter than in real life and supernatural epiphany lurks around every verdant garden corner. The great English poets of the nineteenth century were too concerned with the greater meanings of humankind, life, and the universe to become unduly caught up in the grasping web of daily politics…but that doesn’t mean humankind’s scheming clannish nature and self-delusions are not addressed.
Here is one of my favorite passages of poetry, from Alfred Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H., a vast elegy which Tennyson wrote for a beloved friend who died unexpectedly of a brain hemorrhage. The work is an attempt to make sense of loss and human fragility. It was written at a time when the simplistic certainties of religion were rapidly fading away. The scientific breakthroughs of the 18th century were driving technology and civilization forward at a breakneck pace during the 19th century but some of the other larger implications of these scientific breakthroughs were also becoming apparent. Victorians were relentlessly trained to be religious, but thinking people could see past the fraudulent stagecraft of the priests and begin to apprehend how vast, ancient, and uncaring the world really is.
Tension between the ersatz facade of religion, and the darkness of a world without any magical beings, was much at the center of Victorian thinking…and it made for dramatic and interesting poetry! Here is Tennyson’s poem (or actually the 69th canto thereof), a lament about the pain of death and loss…and about the larger nature of life…and about faith.
I dream’d there would be Spring no more,
That Nature’s ancient power was lost:
The streets were black with smoke and frost,
They chatter’d trifles at the door:
I wander’d from the noisy town,
I found a wood with thorny boughs:
I took the thorns to bind my brows,
I wore them like a civic crown:
I met with scoffs, I met with scorns
From youth and babe and hoary hairs:
They call’d me in the public squares
The fool that wears a crown of thorns:
They call’d me fool, they call’d me child:
I found an angel of the night;
The voice was low, the look was bright;
He look’d upon my crown and smiled:
He reach’d the glory of a hand,
That seem’d to touch it into leaf:
The voice was not the voice of grief,
The words were hard to understand.
The work is Christian in meaning and symbolism, but right away the narrator experiences problems with the dogma and the real nature of his faith. The poet picks up and puts on a wreath of thorns which is meant to represent grief for his dead friend and the larger grief of mortality itself. This thorn crown obviously also has a special religious significance: it is the same crown which Jesus Christ wore during the passion. Jesus was both human and divine. In Christian mythology he was a person who died and then transcended death. Christianity extends the same promise to its followers.
In his broken sadness, the narrator attempts to bridge the gap between death and eternity by wearing the same garb as Christ, but right away society condemns the narrator as pitiful and childlike. Grief is not meant to so undo a person. Additionally, the promise of eternal life—of any divine compact at all—is in doubt. Spring will not come again. The streets are black with industrial grime. His friend is dead…as we all must die, and yet religion is no so longer a sovereign remedy. The world of society is founded on religious strictures—but laughs off expressions of those beliefs. Worse the beliefs themselves have been undermined…by life’s sorrow sand by greater knowledge of the world.
When the narrator does encounter an actual angel–a numinous from beyond who represents the true meanings of existence—the angel transmutes the crown of thorns into a living wreath and says something which lies beyond the poet’s grasp. It is a tremendous combined message of hope, uncertainty and grief…yet this sacred message lies beyond the poet.
The words were not the words of grief, but neither were they comprehensible to Tennyson…We all must keep fumbling towards meaning in a world without any certainty.
Divine messages are jumbled whispers from our dreams and from angels of the night…and from poets who keep delivering beautiful and ambivalent truths which the priests and politicians certainly would never dare utter.
In classical mythology Anchises was a prince of Dardania who found lasting fame as the mortal lover of the goddess Aphrodite. One day when he was hunting in the forest, she appeared to him disguised as a Phrygian princess. They made love for two weeks straight (!) whereupon she vanished–much to the distress of the besotted prince. Nine months later she reappeared to him in her full glory as the goddess of love…with a baby, Aeneas, who was fated to survive the fall of Troy and found Rome. Here is a splendid, splendid painting of their meeting which was made by William Blake Richmond in 1889/1890 at the zenith of nineteenth century painterly craft.
In the painting, Venus is not working very hard to conceal her godhood (although, uncharacteristically, she is garbed). Flocks of doves spring up at her feet. Sparrows fly everywhere like confetti and the dead winter woods burst into crocuses as she passes. Glowing hawthorn flowers frame her beauty like a halo of stars and a pair of adult lions bound through the woods in front of her to herald her coming. Yet these peripheral details are clearly lost on the gobsmacked Anchises whose focus is squarely on the goddess. His horn hunting bow has dropped to his side (although the top limb juts out in a not-at-all symbolic manner).
This lovely painting is remarkable for the way it merges seemingly incompatible contrasts. The larger-than-life mythical characters somehow fit in with the hyper realism of the forest in early spring. Likewise the glowing white and gold of Venus’ glowing raiment is starkly juxtaposed with the dark earth tones of the mortal world—yet somehow they go together. Her lambent robes seem to form a swirling nebula. Richmond lavished such effort on the details of this picture. Look at each perfect crocus or the endearing little Phrygian hat. You should blow the painting up and look at it full size—it is an appropriate Valentine’s Day treat.
One of the prettiest colors also has one of the prettiest names. Viridian is a medium green with notes of blue (though it is more green than blue). The name is based directly on the Latin word for green—though the first English use of the name viridian came only in the 1860s when all sots of greens became popular with the growing Victorian middle class (and were first commercially available due to the burgeoning chemical industries and consumer goods industries of the time).
The pigment used in viridian paint is a hydrated chromium(III) oxide, which is colorfast but nothing like the formidable phthalocyanine dyes which eventually ruin all pieces of artist’s clothing (believe me). Viridian has a political significance—the color was affiliated with a group of environmental and technological theorists who believe that humankind’s environmental and resource problems have high tech solutions. These theorists were originally known as the Viridian Design Movement but their ideas have been assimilated into the “Bright Green” environmental movement which emphasizes science and technology solutions to modern global conundrums (as opposed the “Dark Green” movement which advocates for the destruction of technology and a substantial reduction in the human population).
As paint manufacturers know, there is poetry to the names of colors which influences the way that people respond to said colors. Sadly, the newer names invented by sundry marketers, “taste-makers”, business people, and other such scallywags are often not as euphonic to my ear as the old classic names (although the people at Crayola are pretty good at coming up with jaunty color names which have a whisper of classic beauty). Of course this renaming/rebranding convention has been ongoing ever since the dawn of language. Some of the renaming debacles from past eras are as egregious as the most laughable names from the decorator paint samples at the hardware store. For example, during the Victorian era, an extremely popular color was a dusky shade of pink known as “ashes of roses” (I have included examples of the color at the top and bottom of this post). As the Edwardian era dawned, someone evidently thought that the name was too long and lugubrious—so the color was rechristened with the vastly less evocative name “old rose.” What a fall from grace! Everyone knows that Shakespeare wrote, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” But I feel that sometimes the names of things do indeed diminish them. Would ashes of rose be as pretty if it were called “old rose” like someone talking in hushed tones about their spinster great-aunt?
A visit to a museum of fine art with a collection of works older than a century quickly convinces the viewer that flowers have a symbolic language which has long been of paramount importance to human concerns. However, as one walks through rooms of Dutch still life bouquets, pre-Raphaelite garden scenes, and post-modern steel blossoms, one also longs for a symbolic guide. Flowers have long held a cryptographic significance but the idiom varies from culture to culture—even from person to person. The Victorians, who were positively crazy for flowers (but famously bashful in person) tried to standardize the language of flowers in order to make things more clear. They utilized classical poetry and art for certain long-held associations and invented a huge number themselves: the result was the famous “language of flowers”.
Ideally a courting couple would exchange bouquets which included romantic-messages (the concept was possibly invented by horticulturists and the florists’ guild). Daily “talking bouquets” let couples know how each partner was feeling. Awkward suitors pinned their hopes on extravagant floral gifts. As the popular culture of the nineteenth century picked up on the concept, it became part of the literature, theater, and art of the time. Publishing houses sold floriographies—dictionaries of flowers—which can still be read or found online: You can look at a more comprehensive online “floriography” here, but I have isolated some choice examples below:
Heart’s Ease: thought
Hyacinth (yellow): jealousy
Larkspur (pink): fickleness
Nasturtium: Conquest and victory in battle
Mock Orange: Deceit
Orchid (Cattleya): Mature Charm
Peony: Shame; gay life; happy marriage
The experience is somewhat queasy-making. It is hard not to wince at all the inappropriate or offensive things I have said to various young ladies I have esteemed (or, indeed, to my friends–since I like to bring flowers as dinner gifts or thank you presents).
The language of flowers was most en vogue in Western Europe and the United States from 1810 to 1880. However just as it evolved from a long antecedent of flower symbolism it has also cast long shadows—and flowers have played substantial roles as signifiers in movies, television, and popular music up to this day. None-the-less the high formalism and stilted exactitude of the language of flowers has faded into the twilight (thankfully, since goodness knows what the Victorians would have thought of dyed orchids and anthuriums.
Here in Brooklyn it has already been a long, long winter…and more snow and bitter ice is on its way. Spring seems like a vanishing dream which recedes further with every day instead of growing closer (as is the proper course of nature’s ancient power). Would that I were able to visit my felicitous readers in the beguiling south where tropical breezes cajole weary wayfarers with the heavenly scent of orange and gardenia—where winter itself is a whimsical conceit and life is an eternal pleasure garden completely free of care [ed’s note: the writer has not spent very much time in southern latitudes or among tropical people].
Unfortunately I am presently unable to leave the ice-fastness of my home to travel the happy Azores or frolic in the eternally verdant south. Even my imagination is beginning to turn cold and cracked. People of past eras likewise missed the summer during long winters. Unlike us, such bygone generations also lacked Hollywood movies, jet airplanes, and refrigerated trains full of produce—even aristocrats were far more trapped by the winters of yesteryear.
To keep some of summer’s pleasures with them (and, more practically, to provide a home for tropical fruits and flowers which would never grow in temperate climes), bygone generations kept conservatories, greenhouses, and orangeries. These splendid glass buildings were heated in the winter. Such conservatories had a golden age in the18th and 19th centuries, when glass and heating became cheaper, yet international transit infrastructure was not robust enough to provide cheap travel and tropical produce to the masses (or indeed to anyone).
The favorite architecture for such buildings was ornate gothic–which suited the shape of the iron and glass (and of the taste of the times). To help my winterbound readers escape the endless arctic storms, I have included a gallery of some of the loveliest gothic greenhouses I could find online. Sadly the majority of these buildings seem scantly furnished with flowers and fruit, but that means you can imagine them filled with whatever sensuous orchids and sumptuous fruits you would like. As an added bonus the last few greenhouses are contemporary, so if you have some space you could always add such a miniature gothic greenhouse to your own garden!
In the middle of the nineteenth century, oil and gas lamps replaced candles as the main source of indoor illumination. At the same time, chemists and industrialists were rapidly bringing numerous new dyes and pigments to market. Because of these innovations there was a great change in interior decorating: gone was the era when walls had to be pale-colored to keep rooms from being gloomy. There was a tremendous revolution in color! Paints, dyes, and wallpapers became available in shades never seen before. Thanks to the nineteenth century British love of green, few colors were more popular than Scheele’s green, a beautiful yellow green which became the color de rigueur for fashionable bedrooms, studies, and dining rooms during the 1850s and 1860s. The color was unimaginatively named after Carl Wilhelm Scheele, a Swedish chemist who discovered the pigment in 1775.
Unfortunately, the compound which lent the distinctive and vivid color to Scheele’s green was an acidic copper arsenite (which contains the highly poisonous heavy metal arsenic). Soon rich and modish people throughout Great Britain were falling sick of headaches, nausea, tremors, and other symptoms of arsenic poisoning. Numerous children died outright (particularly since sick people were confined to their poisonous rooms by medical norms of the day). In addition to being poisonous, arsenic is a potent carcinogen so wallpaper which did not kill a person outright (or was replaced by newer fashions) might still shorten its owner’s life by decades.
Cheap wallpaper released toxic powder, but even expensive well-made wallpaper could be colonized by various fungi when the paper became damp. As the fungi metabolized the Scheele’s green dye, arsine gasses were produced. In case you are not alarmed enough at the idea of people coating their walls with arsenic, Scheele’s green was also used as a food color for candies and sweets (and as a potent insecticide).
Perhaps the most disturbing part of the story is the lengths to which merchants and manufacturers went in order to prove that Scheele’s green was perfectly safe. Craftsmen and wallpaper sellers would earnestly lick the walls and vigorously swear that nothing was wrong with the color. Even when the link between Scheele’s green and morbid toxicity was firmly established, some artists and artisans were difficult to constrain. To quote suttonplacedesign.com, “The famous artist and designer, William Morris,only removed green arsenic pigments from his wallpapers under protest, writing in 1885: ‘….it is hardly possible to imagine….a greater folly…than the arsenic scare.’” To celebrate Morris’ strong feelings, I have illustrated this post about a horrible toxin entirely with his beautiful designs.
In our era, there is a pervasive sentiment that the stuff in our walls, food, and air is gradually killing us. At least we can take comfort we do not live in the Victorian era when the word “gradually” was not a part of that sentence!