How to get an artist wrong

One of the effects of repeats on television and DVDs is that you can re-watch a programme and spot things that were not apparent during the first viewing but do emerge during the second and subsequent viewing a scene or episode. Chief among these would include a missed scene or spot of dialogue, inconsistencies, anachronisms and outright boo-boos.

It was while re-watching series 5 of Downton Abbey and searching for something online that I came across this:

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It is a gif of two scenes from Downton Abbey – first in series 1 where Mary and Pamuk are looking at a painting by Piero della Francesca. This painting and the artist resurfaces again as part of the Simon Bricker story line in series 5 but whoever created this gif has perhaps not noticed was that the paintings that were featured in series 1 and series 5 were different.

The Simon Bricker story line sparked an interest in researching more about Piero della Francesca because to me it seemed like the painting(s) the Crawleys had looked nothing like the della Francescas on display say at the National Gallery. In both scenes Mary and Cora tell Pamuk and Bricker that it was brought back by the second earl from his Grand Tour which I found hard to believe. During the 17th and 18th centuries when the second earl would have been alive, paintings from the Medieval and early Renaissance were out of fashion and out of reach because the vast majority were in churches: what was seen as desirable were paintings from the High Renaissance and Baroque, those that fell under the Old Masters category with later additions of paintings by then contemporary artists such as Canaletto and Guardi.

I have a theory that the Piero della Francesca that the Crawleys have is a fake or a copy made by an assistant, even done much later. Looking at the painting(s) at the Abbey, it has none of the use of pale and bright colours that are characteristic of the artist’s works. In a later episode in series 5, Bricker claims that the painting is a study of one of the figures found in the Nativity which hangs at the National Gallery. This is highly unlikely as studies as we know today did not come into existence until the 17th century. Until then, artist relied on cartoons which were a model for a painting, stained glass or tapestry. Some of them have pinpricks along the outline of the design that could be transferred against the surface to be painted. In addition, cartoons were also widely used for frescoes to link parts of the fresco when painted over damp plaster.

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Delving further, there are more inconsistencies that show up. Piero della Francesca unlike many of his contemporaries was not a prolific artist which wasn’t helped by the fact that it can take him years to complete a commissioned work and made worse by some of his works are now lost. After completing the Nativity around 1481, he abandoned painting to concentrate on mathematics and family affairs. Majority of his works remain in situ in churches in Italy while others have ended up in museums both in Italy and abroad which means that by the late 19th century none of them were in private hands. Not even the Royal Collection or the the Louvre, the Hermitage and the Smithsonian or even the grandest aristocratic families have a Piero della Francesca in their collection, which makes it highly unlikely that an obscure backwoods family like the Crawleys would have one.

The inconsistency with having a Piero della Francesca also ties with another discrepancy this time in series 4 when its revealed that the Crawleys have a Gutenberg Bible in their possession. Again this is highly unlikely, even after the last of the Bibles rolled out of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press these were not meant for private use but rather for churches and monasteries to be read out during Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation. As of 2009, only 44 bibles existed with only 23 complete and they are all housed in major libraries. Which leads us to the question – if the Crawleys have these treasures (as well as their London property Grantham House) then why were these not sold when a) the Crawleys were bankrupt the first time round and Robert had to marry Cora or b) after the war when Robert lost the Levinson money?

The whole point of having these treasures was not only to demonstrate a family’s wealth and status but also something to sell off during the hard times when cold, hard cash was needed. This is precisely how for instance the likes of the National Gallery were able to acquire these works of art – Sir Charles Eastlake who served as an adviser and later director of the National Gallery undertook a trip to Italy and acquired paintings owing to sales from aristocratic families and churches. In Britain from the 1870s onwards, the market was flooded with paintings, jewels, silver, books and other objects from aristocratic families having to retrench and pay higher rates of tax and hence this is one of the reasons why major museums and galleries are now home to these treasures. If the Crawleys were really serious about putting their financial house in order then all these alleged treasures and Grantham House should have been sold and other economies made. But instead what we have is the family being “rescued” by some miracle bequest then they promptly fall back into their old ways and what we have from series 4 onwards is the spectacle of a family in denial of their financial situation and that of their peers and the country.

More and more one sees how Fellowes’ writing and plotting has become so bad that he doesn’t seem to even check what he’s writing for plausibility and credibility. If indeed the Crawleys have a Piero della Francesca and a Gutenberg Bible, they could have named their price and even if both were revealed to be fakes, they could still fetch a good sum. As it stands, both of these were bolt on plot devices to pad out a threadbare narrative and show in an unconvincing way that this family is cultured as well as to patronise the audience and assume that they wouldn’t know who Piero della Francesca or what a Gutenberg Bible is when in reality there are those who do and failing that, Google is your friend.

 

Further reading about Piero della Francesca:

Larry Whitham. Piero’s Light (New York, 2014)

James R. Banker. Piero della Francesca: Artist and Man (Oxford, 2014)

Marilyn Aronberg Lavin. Piero della Francesca (London, 2002)

Kenneth Clark. Piero della Francesca (Oxford, 1969)

Marilyn Aronberg Lavin. ‘Monarca della Pitura: Piero and His Legacy’ in Marilyn Aronberg Lavin (ed.) Piero della Francesca and His Legacy (Washington DC, 1995)

Pierluigi de Vecchi and Peter Murray. The Complete Paintings of Piero della Francesca (London, 1970)

E.H. Grombich. The Story of Art (London, 1951)

Giorgio Vasari. Lives of the Artists (London, 1987)

Notes:

1 & 2 are part of the fresco cycle of the Legend of the True Cross at the Basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo, Italy (photos found on Pinterest.com)

3 The Baptism of Christ can be seen at the National Gallery in London (photo taken by blogger)

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Book Review: Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary by Anita Anand

The release of the film Suffragette late in 2015 brought the spotlight back on the efforts of several British women during the late 19th and early 20th centuries for women to have the same voting rights as men. Leaving aside the various shortcomings of the film, its biggest limitations were its inability to tackle all aspects of the movement or even subject it to in-depth analysis. For that, we will have to turn to other means such as books, articles, biographies, etc to obtain a more rounded picture of the struggles women faced in order to obtain the right to vote.

One of these is Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary by BBC journalist Anita Anand: an admirable attempt to bring to the forefront a life that has been pushed to the shadows and more or less forgotten. Princess Sophia Duleep Singh was born and lived in a time when the British Empire was at its height and lived to see it gradually dismantled. Her eventful life also saw her caught up with the winds of change that were to sweep Britain during the twentieth century and as the book’s title suggest, she would play her part in helping bring about some of these changes.

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Born in 1876 to the exiled Maharajah Duleep Singh and his half German and half Abyssinian wife Maharani Bamba, she was christened Sophia Alexandrovna: the second name being the Maharajah’s way of honouring Queen Victoria, who agreed to become the girl’s godmother. While she and her siblings were raised in the conventional upper class way, their foreign name and skin colour would always mark them out as being different, yet their royal connections and their friendships with leading members of the aristocracy meant that the family was at the heart of the Establishment.

Anand goes back to the history of how Punjab was formally annexed into the British Empire to explain how the Maharajah came to settle in Britain, marry, raise a family and live the life of a British aristocrat. A son of Ranjit Singh, the “Lion of the Punjab”, Duleep was installed as maharajah as an infant after two half-brothers and their sons met their ends in highly suspicious circumstances brought about by infighting among Ranjit Singh’s family. This power vacuum was seized upon by the British East India Company who finally invaded the Punjab and by now, eleven years old, the Maharajah Duleep signed away his kingdom and his fortune (including the famous Koh-i-Noor diamond) in exchange for a pension from the British government. Under the care of a well-respected British doctor in India, John Spencer Login and his wife, Duleep converted to Christianity, began to receive an education befitting an English gentleman and at the age of 15, left India for Britain to finally meet Queen Victoria. From the moment he arrived in Britain, Duleep was well received at Court and became an intimate of the Royal Family which led to the doors of aristocratic homes being open to him as well.

Provided with money from the government and with a wide circle of friends, Duleep married and established himself as a squire with a country estate in Suffolk, Elveden and a house in London where his wife gave birth and raised their six children. However by the time Sophia was a child, the cracks in this family idyll began to show as the Maharajah, testing the limits to what the British government had provided for him, began to plan regaining his kingdom, then abandoning his wife and family for another woman only to die in poverty but reconciled with Queen Victoria.

In part two we get to know more about Sophia as she grew up: as befitting an upper class girl and a goddaughter to Queen Victoria, Sophia and her sisters were presented at Court and subsequently enjoyed the life of a typical upper class woman. She was given a grace and favour apartment at Hampton Court Palace; went to parties, balls and other social events and became well known for her fashion sense, her passion for cycling and being a dog breeder. It was only during a trip to India with her older sister Bamba that her political sensibilities were awakened.

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Although she was a supporter of Indian independence, it was her backing for the suffragette movement that became the main driving force in Sophia’s life. She donated money to the cause, attended meetings, handed out leaflets, took part in marches and even refused to take part in the 1911 Census where she defaced her form with the note: “No vote, no census. As women do not count, they refuse to be counted, and I have a conscientious objection to filling in this form.” While many of her fellow suffragettes suffered from heavy handedness from the police and force feeding in prison, Sophia much to her chagrin was untouched. Clearly, her royal and aristocratic connections were a huge factor and the authorities, mindful of her support for Indian nationalism, were wary of turning her into a martyr.

With the outbreak of the First World War, Sophia turned to nursing and raising funds for the war effort and although she was unable to speak Hindustani, her presence was a source of comfort for Indian soldiers and officers who were being treated and convalescing in British hospitals. The years following the war saw Sophia living in more reduced circumstances and devoting her time to helping raise the child of her chauffeur and housekeeper as well as taking in evacuees during the Second World War where she treated them as her own. It is a testament to bond that she formed with these children that they have retained affectionate memories of her.

On the whole, Sophia stands out for Anand’s journalistic eye for detail where she evokes the history of the Duleep Singh family and bringing out Sophia’s personality and that of her siblings (all of who were larger than life in their own ways). In addition, Anand should also be commended for her efforts in adding to our knowledge of the suffragette movement through the eyes of Sophia Duleep Singh.

There are weaknesses however that appear most notably for instance what I see is the exaggeration of Sophia’s progressive credentials. We do not know what were her views on the role of religion and caste with regards to India’s problems, and for someone who was active in the fight for the women’s right to vote, what were her views on the deplorable state of Indian women then? In addition there is also the tendency to downplay that she was a more of a figurehead in the suffragette movement and in the end the suffragettes’ tactics did little to advance the cause of the women’s right to vote. Lastly was the presence of the wrong use of titles such as Lady Lytton instead of Lady Constance and Lord John French instead of Lord French which I put down to sloppy editing and proofreading but which mars an otherwise interesting read.

In the end, Sophia’s story is a timely reminder for women never to take their lives and rights for granted. As she told her goddaughter Drovna Oxley, “You are never, ever not to vote. You must promise me. When you are allowed to vote you are never, ever to fail to do so. You don’t realise how far we’ve come. Promise me.” As Mrs Oxley tells Anand, she has kept her promise ever since she reached voting age and to me, that is Sophia’s greatest legacy.

Blogger’s note:

This is a review of the paperback version of Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary published in 2015 by Bloomsbury Press.

Photos courtesy of Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sophia_Duleep_Singh