Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The Whore's Last Shift

James Gillray is, as regular visitors to the salon well know, something of a hero of mine. In his work one is transported back into the Georgian era but not the fine world conjured by the great portraitists and landscape artists, rather a somewhat more bawdy, earthy version of the long 18th century. In Gillray's works one can hear the bustle of the streets, see the people who hid beneath the wigs and panniers and smell the odours of the great Georgian city of London.

The work that has caught my eye today is The Whore's Last Shift, a work completed in February 1779. It is, to my mind, one of Gillray's finest pieces and presents a starkly honest look at the life of one of those infamous Covent Garden ladies so associated with the pleasure houses of the long 18th century.

From the neck up the lady conjures up nothing but fashion. She wears her hair in an elaborate style, adorned with decoration and plumage that would no doubt make this particular lady most eye-catching as she promenades. The rest of the picture tells a somewhat different story, one that is borne out by the title and sad circumstances of the lady at the centre of the etching.

The whore's last shift James Gillray 1779

The woman is washing her last shift in a cracked chamber pot, itself balanced somewhat precariously on a broken chair. Naked save for her badly-holed stockings and garters she concentrates on her lonely task in a room that does not speak of success and extravagance, but of poverty and misery.

Her bright frock and hat are cast aside though in considerably better condition than the rumpled bed or peeling plaster on the walls. A furious cat howls on the window ledge, a far cry from Hogath's faithful pug, and she has decorated her room with a broadside ballad ironically titled, "The comforts of Single Life. An Old Song". 

Gillray does not seek to make a judgement about the woman's place in the world nor her circumstances, but instead presents the scene and invites the viewer to make their own conclusions. There is no moral conclusion here but instead a hundred different stories and scenes.

The one thing we can be sure of is that, once she is swathed in her gown, fashionable hair towering over her, this unfortunate lady would cut a far finer figure. Gillray has afforded us a glimpse beneath the petticoats of this particular lady, and it is a sorry story indeed,.

Monday, 20 October 2014

A Salon Guest... Masquerades and Meaning

It is my pleasure to welcome Alicia Rasley to the salon to discuss the fascinating matter of masquerades, one of my favourite topics...


Regency Masquerades Cover

Hello, everyone! And thanks to Madame Gilflurt for inviting us! I'm Alicia Rasley, and I have a book in a boxed set named Regency Masquerades. All the books have something to do with masquerade or disguise, see? 

Anyway, I did some research on the history of masquerades, and I'd like to share some of that with you all!

In Europe after the Middle Ages, masquerades of various sorts were popular events, often connected to religious or public occasions. A famous early masquerade was held in celebration of the wedding of the French queen's lady-in-waiting. Several men, costumed like "savages" in flax cloth and pitch, got into close contact with the torches and caught on fire. This masquerade was memorialized as the "Burning Men" festival, and a distant descendant of it is held still every summer in the Nevada desert.

Later, masquerades flourished less formally in urban areas, where anonymity was possible and the masqueraders had reason to hide their identities and activities. Masquerade is always connected to societal instability and interaction between people who shouldn't interact (like illicit lovers). 

Generally, the masquerade required certain ingredients:
  1. A party or ball. In London, in the 18th and 19th Centuries, these were often held in the open air, at public gardens like Ranelagh. 
  2. Partygoers. It was more glamorous, of course, if these were naughty aristocrats, but in truth, in the public gardens this could be anyone with a domino and mask.
  3. A mask. This hid the partier's identity, and increased the surreptitious atmosphere. The mask let the masked person commit indiscretions among others also being indiscreet. It was quite "what goes on in Vegas stays in Vegas," but it was very close to that.
  4. Costumes were generally expected, but in England, especially into the 19th Century, they became less than obligatory. This signified the trend away from public playfulness towards private use of the masquerade to commit indiscretions (and sometimes crimes). A nefarious harasser needed only to wear a "domino" (an anonymous cloak) and a face-concealing mask to engage in his abuse.

In England, masquerades were sometimes held at village festivals (especially those based on pagan ceremonies), but the events came into societal importance in the early 18th century. That was when a Swiss count named Heidegger figured out a way to make some money on this entertainment. He sold subscriptions and tickets to public masked balls at the indoor venue of the Haymarket Opera House, and outdoors at Ranelagh and Vauxhall gardens. T'hese were, of necessity, rather public affairs, and became notorious as places where the high-born and the low-born could interact, often violently.

Over the centuries, the idea of the masquerade has inspired much literature, including of course the famous Capulet ball scene where Romeo meets Juliet. (Here is a clip from the Prokofiev ballet. Notice that Romeo and his friends are masked – they are in the enemy camp—but Juliet's innocence is signaled by her lack of disguise.) Edgar Allan Poe used the masked ball as a symbol of aristocratic corruption—but death comes in disguise. (Here's a link to the trailer of the Vincent Price film.) Prof. Terry Castle pointed out that fiction and masquerade were natural partners as masquerades allowed participants a way to engage in stories and take on the personas of other characters: "Just as the actual masquerade gave people… a way of acting out memories of the traditional world of magic and folk belief-- as witches, conjurers, devils, and the like—so the masquerade set piece (had a) … second life in realistic … fiction."

In the Regency Masquerades set of six novels, we're exploring different aspects of masquerade in our stories, focusing especially in how disguise allows lovers to "reveal what they conceal"—their true selves. The mask or disguise they wear is a clue to their real identities, and that paradox is a clue to why the masquerade remains one of the most enduring motifs in fiction.

To see how each type of masquerade plays out, buy Regency Masquerades, a digital boxed set containing six full-length novels by award-winning authors. For a short time, this set is just 99 cents!
Buy at AmazonBarnes & NobleiTunes and Kobo Books. 

Written content of this post copyright © Alicia Rasley, 2014.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

A Tale of Conjoined Twins

Helen and Judith (Szőny, Hungary, 19th October 1701 – Presburg, Hungary, 8th February 1723)

Helen and Judith, conjoined twins

My tale today is another of medicine, brought to my door by Doctor Dillingham, who has recently returned from a sojourn to the continent. It is, however, also a story of family and of lives that ended before their time. When I first encountered a mention of the twins known simply as Helen and Judith, the story struck me as one that I wanted to share and off I went to find out more. I am pleased to present the tale here on the anniversary of their birth.

On the face of it, there should have been little of note to remark on in the birth of Helen and Judith, twin girls born in Szőny, Hungary. Although their surname is lost to history, they became knows simply as the Hungarian Sisters, and that nickname lasts to this day. There was indeed something most remarkable  about the sisters though, as far from being just another set of twins, they were conjoined twins. 

Medical science was baffled by the birth and swiftly decided that their circumstances should be blamed on their mother's overactive and somewhat excitable imagination during the pregnancy. This is quite a diagnosis, of course, but there the matter rested without further debate.

Helen was the first child to be born and within three hours Judith also emerged, joined to her sister at the coccyx. Just as she had been born first, so too was Helen reportedly the physically stronger of the two, as well as the more attractive and intelligent. Luckily the sisters were able to adapt to their very particular circumstances and soon their unusual condition became their livelihood.

From infancy into childhood, Helen and Judith were exhibited to excited crowds across Europe where they submitted to medical tests, enjoyed an education and enjoyed the society of artists, poets and others who found them utterly fascinating. However, this life was not to last and Judith suffered a debilitating stroke at the age of six that left her partially paralysed for the rest of her days. 

For three more years the girls continued to tour Europe until, at the age of nine, Judith's physical state could no longer endure such rigours. The girls were taken into the Convent of St. Ursula in Presburg, Hungary and here they remained, focusing on their faith.

The unusual story of the Hungarian Sisters was to end in 1723 when first Judith and then Helen fell ill with a fever. Throughout their entire lives, despite being conjoined, the girls did not share a sensation; they would experience neither feast nor hunger at the same time and lived as separate lives as they could yet, when their final moments came, they were almost simultaneous. Judith died early on 8th February and was followed within moments by her sister. The girls were laid to rest in the churchyard of the convent, the unusual lives of the Hungarian Sisters finally at an end.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

A Jacket for George

We have, of late, spent some time admiring the footwear and fashions of ladies of the 18th century. Today we stay on the topic of clothes but visit good old Prinny, never a man who was shy about dressing to impress. I do love a good Georgian uniform and this fits the bill perfectly, as I turn my eye to the Prince Regent's splendid jacket that he wore as Colonel of the 10th Light Dragoons.

George became Colonel Commandant of the Dragoons in 1782 and by 1796 was Colonel. Although he adored the trappings of the military life, the prince was forbidden from undertaking active service by his father, George III. Disappointed but nothing less than obedient on this occasion at least, George combined his twin loves of spending money and the military into amassing a rich collection of military dress and other related objects. 

This rather splendid jacket is one of those items and came into George's possession in 1800. Made by JC Franck, a London tailor, the jacket is fashioned from a rich and suitable commanding dark blue. Its lining is white silk and the garment is adorned with bright silver lace and an eye-catching yellow detail that picks out the cuffs and collar. 

Happily this jacket remains in excellent condition and once can quite imagine why George loved it; it is a timeless garment, of its era yet as eye-catching now as it was two centuries ago. I am sure that Prinny cut quite a dash sporting about town in his brand new jacket!

Friday, 17 October 2014

Queen Charlotte's Notebook

As a lady who is constantly scribbling down notes about this, that and everything, I am something of a buyer of stationery. I love a nice notebook and for that reason, am somewhat in love with the rather beautiful item that is the subject of my blog today. In fact, I posted a picture of the stationery in question on my Facebook page some time ago and it made quite an impact, so the time seemed right to let Queen Charlotte's notebook take the spotlight, just as her diamonds did recently.

Queen Charlotte's Notebook

This stunning notebook was made for Queen Charlotte in 1765 and is a rather dazzling concoction of tortoiseshell and gold, with Charlotte's monogram picked out in diamonds. In case the whole thing was a little understated, a similarly dramatic pencil is securely affixed to the book so that Charlotte might never be at a loss when urgent notes were required.

In spite or perhaps even because of its rather elaborate appearance, the pages of this remarkable notebook remain unused. In fact, Queen Charlotte preferred a more spartan book for her writing and it remains in perfect condition, as fresh today as it was at its creation.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

The Slippers of Marie Antoinette

Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna (Vienna, Austria, 2nd November 1755 - Paris, France, 16th October 1793)

On this day in 1793, Marie Antoinette went to her death. Last year I wrote of the last day in the life of this most iconic of French queens but today, I thought I would mark the occasion with a somewhat more pastoral post. Indeed, the topic of my blog today is nothing more lofty than Marie Antoinette's shoes!

Having trod the floors of Versailles and no doubt accompanied some quite wonderful gowns, these delicate silk shoes in a suitably dainty green and pink hue saw the light of day once more on 16th October 2012, at the Paris Drouot auction house. 

Marie Antoinette's shoes

Unsurprisingly, the shoes generated enormous interest and the auctioneer put an expected price on them of around €10,000 ($12,600 or £7,800). As is so often the case, this proved wildly inaccurate and instead the heeled footwear sold for a whopping 50,000 ($63,300 or £39,300) to an unidentified bidder.

The shoes had been given as a gift to a servant, Alexandre-Bernard Ju-Des-Retz in 1775. He passed them along to his family and they continued to be handed down the line until they were eventually put on sale, along with a certificate of authenticity guaranteeing that the ill-fated queen had indeed sported these dainty little shoes during her tumultuous life!

If only these slippes could talk, who knows what a tale they might tell!

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Captain Cook by Nathaniel Dance-Holland

Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland, 1st Baronet RA (London, England, 8th May 1735 – Winchester, England, 15th October 1811) 

Self Portrait by Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland, 1st Baronet RA, 1773
Self Portrait, 1773

On the three occasions that I have told tales of Captain James Cook, I have featured the same 1776 portrait of the famed explorer. That portrait was painted by Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland and, since today marks the anniversary of the artist's death, I thought the time was right to offer a little insight into iconic portrait of Cook. Of course, all of us Georgians know the Captain by reputation and there's many a seafaring gent pays his bar bill with stories of adventures alongside the Captain, half of them as fanciful as they false! Still, if today's post piques an interest in his voyages, you can also join him on Possession Island, Botany Bay and learn more of his grisly murder elsewhere on the Guide.

In this rather fine portrait, Cook is certainly in his Sunday best and sports full dress uniform, as well as a suitable grave expression. As befits a gentleman given to exploration and charting the furthest oceans, the items depicted with the Captain are suitably iconic and chosen with great care. On the table what could be any chart is actually Cook's own chart of the Southern Ocean. With his finger he gestures to the east coast of Australia which, of course, he chartered. This hand is notable for what it doesn't show too, as Dance-Holland has elected not to paint Cook's right hand with a scar left by a burn some twelve years earlier.

The portrait was commissioned by Sir Joseph Banks, who had sailed with Cook in the past, and the captain sat for Dance-Holland portrait on 25th May 1776 so that he might begin work. Whether Cook sat for the artist again we do not know but what is certain is that, upon its completion, the portrait was hung over the fireplace in Banks's home in London. Here it remained until Banks died in 1820 when it went first to Greenwich Hospital and then on to the National Maritime Museum, where it remains to this day.