Friday 27 December 2019

Angelica Kauffman by Miranda Miller

   My eighth novel, Angelica, Paintress of Minds, will be published by Barbican Press in June. to coincide with an exhibition of her work at the Royal Academy.
   A few years ago I had the good fortune to be awarded a Royal Literary Fund Fellowship at the Courtauld Institute, then housed in Somerset House. I became fascinated by the history of the building itself and by the story of the foundation of the Royal Academy there in 1768. In the library, deep in the basement, I found two excellent books: James Fenton’s School of Genius, a wonderful introduction to the eighteenth century art world in London, and Angelica Gooden’s biography of Angelica Kauffman, Miss Angel. Until then I only knew her paintings from visits to Kenwood House.
   Angelica’s mother was Swiss and her father, an unsuccessful painter, was Austrian. She grew up in her father’s studio and he soon realised that she was immensely talented. He used to ask her not to sign her paintings and would pass them off as his own. Other successful painters, including Artemisia Gentileschi and √Člisabeth Vig√©e Le Brun, were also the daughters of painters; without such a background it was very hard for women to acquire an artistic education. Angelica was a prodigy, as can be seen from this self portrait she did when she was thirteen.

   In addition to being a talented artist Angelica had a beautiful singing voice. This painting dramatizes the decision she had to make in her youth to choose between painting and singing. All her life she performed as a good amateur singer and played the harpsichord. The great classical scholar Winckelmann said of her, ‘she sings with our best virtuosi.”

   After establishing herself as a painter in Italy Angelica came to London in 1766, when she was twenty-five. She became so successful that a word was coined, Angelicamad. She painted Queen Charlotte and other members of the royal family and her work was reproduced in engravings, as cameos by Wedgwood, on teapots and on Worcester, Meissen and Derby porcelain. The new invention of transfer printing made these items much cheaper and she gained an international reputation. Her popularity had a price; male artists could do as they liked but ‘paintresses’ always had to be decorous or risk losing their aristocratic patrons. Angelica was under enormous pressure to behave as ‘Miss Angel,’ the affectionate name her friend Joshua Reynolds gave her. Astonishingly, she was so well liked and respected that she survived the potential scandal of her first bigamous marriage to a fake Count. 

    I stared at this painting by Zoffany of the life drawing class in Old Somerset House and was intrigued to see that portraits of Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser were on the wall, staring down at the proceedings like ancestors. Although they were both alive and founder members of the Royal Academy, as women they were not allowed to attend life drawing classes there because respectable ladies were not supposed to look at a naked man.
   After fifteen triumphant and lucrative years in London, Angelica was terrified (as a  Catholic) by the Gordon Riots and she decided to return to Italy with her second husband, Zucchi, a Venetian artist.
    I discovered that Angelica spent her last twenty-five years in Rome, a city where I lived in my twenties and which I love. 
    In my novel Angelica, as an old lady, is living in her house at the top of the Spanish steps. As she looks back on her life she is afraid of the new century which is destroying the world she knew and finds herself isolated because her husband and most of her friends have died or left Rome. She has a valuable art collection and expects the soldiers of Napoleon, who she detests, to arrive at any minute and loot it.
   In her studio, Angelica stares at her self portraits and relives her journey from a poor background to international fame. She draws us into her fascinating past through her self portraits and the portraits she has painted of her friends, including Antonio Canova, Germaine de Stael, Emma Hamilton and Goethe. This is a novel about a gifted and powerful woman with a kind heart. Like us, she lives at a time of bewildering change and fears the unknown future.
   Slowly, my interest developed into a passionate engagement with Angelica and the many interesting people she painted and befriended. Every time I encountered a new name - Reynolds, Canova, Goethe, Madame de Stael and many more - I had to stop writing my novel and read a book, or several books, about them. Thanks to a generous grant from the Authors’ Foundation I was able to return to Rome and also to visit Weimar to learn more about Goethe, with whom I believe she was unrequitedly in love.   This is the portrait she did of him, which Goethe disliked because he didn't think it made him look heroic enough.

   In order to make a successful career as an artist Angelica had to battle against powerful waves of misogyny. Those battles are still being fought; it was not until 1936 that another woman, Laura Knight, was elected as an RA. Finally, generations of talented women artists are beginning to be recognised. This is the right moment to rediscover Angelica Kauffman’s life and work.

Friday 13 December 2019

Shot at Dawn. By Judith Allnatt

Private Henry Burden, a Northumberland Fusilier, was shot at 4 a.m. on 21st July 1915 having been found guilty of desertion. He was just seventeen years old.

Like many young men keen for adventure and caught up in the patriotic rush to war, he had lied about his age in order to join up. Once sent overseas, he lost friends at the Battle of Belwaarde Ridge, experienced nerve shattering barrages of shelling and was sent to a military hospital to recover. On the same afternoon that he was discharged, he was sent forward with his battalion to the front line. Burden left his post, he said, to visit a neighbouring battalion to see a friend who he had heard had lost a brother. Two days later he was arrested and two days after that he was tried by a court martial. He had a record of going absent without leave, which went against him and he had no one to defend him as those who could have spoken up for him had all been killed. He wasn't asked about his age and he didn't raise it. He was found guilty, not of the lesser charge of going AWOL, but of desertion, and condemned to death.

Photo credit: Harry Mitchell [CC BY 4.0 (] 

In the British Army, discipline was harsh. The offences for which a soldier could be executed were many and various. They included: cowardice, casting away of arms, disobedience, striking an officer and desertion. Falling asleep on sentry duty could also carry the death penalty as it endangered a whole section of the line. Soldiers on duty at night stood with head and shoulders above the parapet, rather than using a periscope, so that they could get a good field of view. (There being less chance of being hit in the dark other than by a random shot). It was therefore very obvious, if a sentry slumped, that he had fallen asleep and those who did so were easily caught. Standing at their posts for hours, dealing with mind-numbing boredom and body-numbing cold, it was all to easy to be overtaken by exhaustion. Fear of the consequences resulted in the practice of using matchsticks to prop their eyes open.

Around 3,000 soldiers were executed for offences such as those listed. There is a strong sense of the authorities using the ultimate punishment to 'set an example', a stark warning to re-assert discipline. Before facing the firing squad, the soldier's General Service buttons were removed from his tunic as a mark of his shame. Blindfolded and manacled, he was led to a stake and a target such as an envelope was pinned to his chest. Often, the firing squad was chosen from the soldier's own unit, presumably to hammer home the lesson that breaches of discipline would not be tolerated. One can barely imagine the horror and mental anguish that this practice must have caused both the man and his comrades. Apparently, the traditional belief that one of the bullets used would be a blank so that each soldier was left with the moral let-out that his shot may not have been the lethal one, is actually untrue. The whole squad were, in fact, given live ammunition.

The man's disgrace often continued after death: there were relations who chose not to talk of the relative who had brought shame on the family and memorials in towns and villages that omitted their names. Not until the 21st Century, when it became clear that many of those found guilty had suffered what we now know as Post traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) , was there any attempt to give them a memorial.

At the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, this shift in understanding and attitude found expression. The memorial Shot at Dawn, by Andy de Comyn, consists of a larger-than-life sized statue of Henry Burden, blindfolded and with his hands tied behind his back. Before him, the firing squad is represented by six juniper trees and behind him are an array of wooden stakes representing 309 other victims, each one individually named. These are the men who were posthumously pardoned by the British government in 2006. The pardons were granted not to imply blame for the officers who had acted in line with army regulations and without the understanding of PTSD that we now have, but in a spirit of mercy and in recognition of the battle trauma experienced by many, often very young men, and the suffering of their families. The Director of the Arboretum said that  "over 80 years of medical, psychological and sociological advantage (was) denied those who sat on the court-martial boards that passed sentence."

So, what of Henry Burden? As always, it is the small human details that suddenly pierce the heart. I think of his body taken down from the stake to be prepared for burial and the tattoos discovered upon it of "clasped hands" and "Love Lilly".  I am glad that his statue is placed at the eastern end of the arboretum where the sun's first rays strike.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Laurence Binyon 1914

Friday 6 December 2019

From Sinister to Sweet: The Strange Tale of the Nutcracker by Catherine Hokin

A deeply creepy inventor ‘uncle’, a seven-headed mouse, a little girl who tears her arm open on broken glass and a curse which traps first a queen and then a boy inside the misshapen body of a giant nutcracker: what better story to entertain your little ones with this Christmas? 

For the next few weeks theatre foyers will mill with children stickily clutching wands and toy soldiers and waiting to be inducted into the wonderful Christmas world of The Nutcracker, a ballet with far darker origins than their sugar plum fairy and sweetie-filled heads can possibly imagine.

The Nutcracker was first performed on the 18th December 1892 at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, set to music by Tchaikovsky. The book on which this ballet was based - Histoire d’une Casse-Noisette by Alexandre Dumas - was not, however, the original story. That first appeared in 1816, in ETA Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King

Hoffmann wrote a number of spooky stories that were set to music during the 19th century. One of these, The Sandman which is about about evil inventors who create a robotic girl, appears in the Offenbach opera, The Tales of Hoffmann and likely inspired the ballet Coppelia, in which a young man who falls in love with a life-size dancing doll. The original Hoffmann story, as outlined above, is a complex thing which blurs fantasy and reality. The rodents are cursed, the parents are oppressive and cruel and the little girl at the centre of the story runs away to her nightmare/dream world and does not return.

The Dumas version, which continues to form the basis of the ballet, simplified the plot and made the story rather more gentle. In this version, Clara rejects the fantasy world and wakes up happy and smiling under the Christmas tree, a Hollywood-style ending which was largely the reason for the ballet’s future success. And its success was very much in the future. In 1892, the unimpressed Russian critics called the choreography confusing, the libretto lopsided and the whole experience (according to the St Petersburg Gazette) “the most tedious thing I have ever seen.” After the first Russian Revolution in 1905, the ballet was dropped from the repertoire and, in a twist Hoffmann (and his fan Edgar Allen Poe) may have appreciated, its principal male lead, Sergei Legat, slit his throat.

Many of the Mariinsky dancers scattered across Europe in the early twentieth century and the ballet re-appeared, first in Budapest in 1927 and then in London in 1934. 

It took an American showman, however, to bring The Nutcracker fully back into the light. In 1940, Walt Disney used the entire Tchaikovsky score in Fantasia, bringing the music to a huge new audience. On Christmas Eve 1944 the San Francisco Ballet performed the first complete version of the ballet and in 1954 George Balanchine’s New York production turned the ballet into the classic Land of Snow and Kingdom of Sweets version we recognise today. Where America went, the rest of the world followed: more companies have performed The Nutcracker than any other ballet. In 2015 the Royal Ballet December production was beamed live to 2000 cinemas and, according to Daniel J Wakin of the New York Times, its holiday run “is generally the foundation of an American dance company”.

Why has The Nutcracker become so popular that even non-ballet fans, who would run a mile at a suggestion of an evening with Les Sylphides, are happy to be dragged along? 

Perhaps because it truly is family-friendly: it has parts for over 35 children; a pattern of short, highly-charged dances and watered-down cute mice and dancing toys. Perhaps because, in the words of Isabel McMeekan, founder of Everyday Ballet and a former dancer, it is“the eternal fantasy of Christmas come to life on stage…the girl, the guy, the dream, the magic tree that grows to 7 feet, the glittery snowflakes.” Or perhaps because it has proved so adaptable. As well as traditional outings, there have been hip-hop, LGBT and Jewish versions and, my own personal favourite, Matthew Bourne’s Dickensian orphanage with its pyjama-clad cupids and cast of very wicked sweets (check out the exceedingly sticky Knickerbocker Glory). 

And in that, I think, lies the ballet’s endurance – to paraphrase one supermarket’s ad: however you do Christmas, there’s a Nutcracker for you.