London has gone all in a tizz for the Eighteenth century this January. Londoners are donning their sheepskin jackets and teddy bear coats and braving the frosty air to relive the shining splendours of the age of sensibility (and slavery) at various expositions and film showings.
The Favourite (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)
The Favourite depicts the reign of Queen Anne. At the heart of this film is Sarah Churchill, the powerful political operator working in the murky world of male party politics.
It is a film that ostensibly explores the issues of today and especially gender politics. Not for nothing does Glenn from the Thick of It play Godolphin. Rather than being just a period drama, it tastefully revels in blurring the lines between then and now. For example, the anachronistic dance which marries street moves with period flourishes shared between Rachel Weisz and Nicholas Hoult.
Although it has received much praise, it is a derivative piece. Entire scenes are lifted completely from other films. Yorgos Lanthimos is clearly a big fan of Ken Russell. The film’s originality lies in the presentation of female politics in the Eighteenth century, but sadly its anachronism shows a lack of faith and makes it all seem fantasy. This does a massive disservice to Sarah Churchill.
Whilst the films presentation of men as powdered fops smells a little too strongly of the stale homophobic disdain of later ages for their eighteenth century forebears. This is sad in a film celebrating female homosexuality.
The Favourite doesn’t really examine the age or personalities in any detail. Where is the religious fanaticism of the time which defined politics, the colonialism which brought luxuries to the tables of the rich and the slavery which made Britain the emergent superpower of the Eighteenth century,
The subject, themes and talent on show here deserved better. The actors make this film in spite of, and not thanks to, the direction.
Would, even, that Trevelyan’s England under Queen Anne was updated and reissued as a Penguins Classics or Faber Finds with extensive critical and historical footnotes.
Gainsbourough’s Family Album
The National Portrait Gallery is currently showing the family portraits of Thomas Gainsborough, the celebrated society portraitist.
A suitably small show which exudes domestic warmth, the paintings which depict the Gainsborough’s two daughters with psychological depth and paternal love were painted ostensibly for the marriage market. Mary married badly and Margaret never at all. Margaret looked after Mary, who suffered from a severe mental illness.
Behind Gainsborough was his wife, Margaret Gainsborough (née Burr), an Eighteenth century Kris Jenner who managed her husband to great success.
A real family drama revealed in the sublime portraits of a master craftsman at the top of his game.
A little unfair that the captions suggests that Zoffany’s small study of Gainsborough is more accurate than Gainsbourough’s own self portraits. Nevertheless a fine show.
The Treasures of Strawberry Hill House
The Treasures of Strawberry Hill House is, perhaps, the must see show at the moment. For the first time in centuries the collections of Horace Walpole have been returned to his house. Horace built Strawberry Hill over several years. It was a fantasy of gothick with its crenelations and dark rooms. Preempting the later Victorian interest in medievalism, Strawberry Hill House was not just a building but a living museum. Horace was a big collector owning everything from James I’s gloves (which he wore at parties) and Holbein’s.
On his death, the house, its collections and Walpole’s voluminous writings were bequeathed to his niece. She organised the publication of her uncle’s charming writings. Walpole has enjoyed a peculiar postmortem reputation. He has been seen as an immense talent and a frivolous dilettante.
Macaulay said of him “The conformation of his mind was such that whatever was little seemed to him great, and whatever was great seemed to him little.”
The items reveal another side of the house. The dark stairway is lifted with colours. The recesses of the long gallery emphasise paintings of royalty. Small closets are lifted by bright miniatures.
The items also reveal something of the psychology of Horace. He was a family man but was proud of his aristocratic connections and used art to promote the marital interests of his nieces. What is most revealing is that the family’s illegitimate members were not hidden away. Horace paid Sir Joshua Reynolds a lot of money to show his nieces as the three graces (Reynolds chose to paint them instead as the three fates). In the same room one wall is dedicated to his father, mother and his father’s long time mistress. Amongst his forebears could be found a Tudor Catholic martyr (later a saint) and perhaps Horace had an interest in this religion. Other items on display include Cardinal Wolsey’s red silk hat and a painting of Sarah Macolm a Catholic woman, on the eve of her execution for murder.
He was also a fan of classicism and objects include busts of emperors and a small figurine of Diana of Ephesus, and a Roman eagle whose beak was broken off by one of his guests.
It would be great to see Pablo Bronstein loose on this show and see what he makes of it?