Lucy Worsley: An Appreciation

Most people spend their lunch hours…well, eating lunch, I suppose. I don’t normally have time to take an hour, as it happens, and while I do manage to eat at some point, I tend to spend my midday repast watching documentaries online. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been delighted by several television programs hosted by British historian Lucy Worsley. Dr. Worsley is Joint Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, the charitable institution that runs and maintains several famous royal residences in Britain, including Hampton Court Palace and the Tower of London.

A television documentary charting the origins of the palace of Versailles, or the rise and fall of the Romanov dynasty, might seem the sort of thing that only a real history nerd could love, and I make no apologies for being just that sort of nerd. Yet Dr. Worsley is not the sort of dry, boring history professor that one might expect to tackle such subjects. She’s smart, sassy, and just a tiny bit saucy, so that you never quite know what she is going to do next.

Take “If Walls Could Talk”, a four-part series about the domestic history of the English home. Each episode tackles a different room of the house: living room, bathroom, bedroom, and kitchen. Dr. Worsley traces the development of each room from the Middle Ages up to the present day, and during the course of her journey she not only educates the viewer, she manages to make him laugh as well.

In “The Bedroom” for example, I learnt the origin of a number of common phrases in English whose origins I never stopped to question before, such as “hitting the hay” or “sleep tight”. We get to see what went into the construction of a bed from the Tudor period, as well as some of the bizarre nighttime rituals which our forbearers engaged in to try to keep both critters and evil spirits away, when they turned in for the night. In order to prevent what otherwise could have turned into a rather dry presentation of facts from becoming dull however, Dr. Worsely plays dress-up, and goes about doing some rather unusual things.

In “The Bathroom”, in order to demonstrate the bizarre 18th century medical advice which recommended sea water as a cure-all, she dons a Georgian bathing costume, downs an atrocious-looking drink made of milk and sea water – “This tastes exactly like vomit,” she remarks, in her wonderfully unique accent, after spitting out the noxious concoction – and then plunges into a very cold and rough-looking sea. Later in the same episode, in order to demonstrate how far bathroom development had come by the Art Deco period, she checks into a suite at Claridge’s Hotel in London, gets a period makeover (including having her hair set in a Marcel wave), and shows how a glamorous film star of the 1930’s would have relaxed in a state-of-the-art luxury hotel bathroom, complete with cocktail and bubble bath.

Lest one think that this is merely history as popular entertainment, Dr. Worsley manages to bring some real historical analysis into these programs, by examining not only the motivations of the people involved, but also by looking more closely at some of the documents or objects associated with them. In her survey of the Hanoverian monarchs for example, she draws our attention to the almost hereditary problem of father-son strife that occurred during the reigns of the first four Kings George, where each father as he ascended the throne managed to alienate his son and heir into setting up his own, rival court. This allowed rival factions in Parliament to politically manipulate king and crown prince into casting their support in one direction or another, with respect to the development of policy.

In tracing the time that the Mozart and his family spent in London when the great composer was just a child prodigy, Dr. Worsley reads to us from letters which Mozart’s father Leopold wrote back to Austria, giving a foreigner’s perspective on the moreys of English society at the time. She also shows us how propaganda, published in the Georgian equivalent of the tabloid press, was used both by Mozart’s detractors, as well as by the Mozart family itself, to affect the boy genius’ career. And because she herself is a competent pianist, Dr. Worsley gets to sit down at the keyboard with musicians and musicologists, in order to look at some of the complex compositions coming from the mind of this wunderkind.

Many of Dr. Worsely’s documentaries are available to stream on YouTube, but her work can also be found through PBS and other sources. I encourage you to take the time to seek her out. You’ll not only learn a great deal, while appreciating her rather impish sense of humor, but you’ll have a great time while doing so.

Sex, Violence, And The Superbowl

Not being a fan of watching professional sports apart from tennis, I didn’t watch the Super Bowl on Sunday. I did however manage to catch Lady Gaga’s performance during the Halftime Show. It was a high-energy blend of art pop, hair metal, and 1980’s-style excess, recalling diverse performers such as David Bowie, KISS, and Madonna. Whatever you may think of her, if you understand music and dance, you appreciate that Lady Gaga certainly knows how to put on a show.

Among the commenters in my timeline, some expressed disgust at the messages of sexual immorality which Lady Gaga put on display. Others thought that this was no big deal, because there were other, more positive messages about family and patriotism which she conveyed as well. I don’t think it’s worth my time or yours to turn a pop star’s performance into an academic thesis, but I do think it’s worth considering whether there are a couple of hard truths that we can learn, from thinking about how we apply standards of morality to entertainment, not only with respect to sexuality, but also with respect to violence.

The display of both sexual behavior and acts of violence as mainstream entertainment is not something that came into existence in the 1960’s. Take opera, for example. Here are the plots of three of the most popular operas ever written, with apologies for the admitted oversimplification:

– A hooker seduces a man into leaving his fiancée, then runs off with another man; her jilted lover later tracks her down and murders her. (Carmen)

– A hooker is forced to leave her current lover for a more powerful one, whom she eventually murders before committing suicide. (Tosca)

– A man marries a hooker, leaves her in order to commit bigamy, and the hooker kills herself. (Madama Butterfly)

Stepping off stage however, it’s interesting to note that many who criticize musical entertainers, are the same people who give a pass to sports entertainers. Professional football is a semi-controlled form of genuinely violent entertainment, perhaps preferable to the gladiator fight to the death, but which still almost inevitably involves serious physical injury. Moreover, when it comes to sexual behavior, whatever a singer may be doing on stage, at the end of the day it’s still play-acting. Hardly anyone ever dares to publically criticize a famous athlete who is notorious for committing serial adultery in real life, however. It seems as though our culture has developed quite a double standard in this regard.

What is lacking both in entertainment and in real life is not the knowledge that our own bad behavior eventually comes back to bite us. We still intrinsically know this, and we have not yet fallen so far into secularism that we are so entirely unaware of such things. Yet the solution to a libertine society filled with hypersexual and violent entertainments is not to join the Amish in cultural retreat: “Utopia”, after all, is a work of fiction.

Instead, what we need to cultivate is a greater sense of balance, particularly as consumers of entertainment. We can both foster our appreciation for genuine talent, creativity, and skill, while at the same time criticizing and refuting when necessary those behaviors and philosophies associated with it which only lead to destruction. To ignore the former is to display one’s ignorance; to refrain from the latter is to pretend that what we do here has no significance in the hereafter.

Perhaps it’s unfair to ask that we even attempt to seek such a balance today, when pagan attitudes toward sexuality and violence are regaining their former footholds. At least for now, the woman in the spangled shoulder pads surrounded by drones, and the man in the plastic shoulder pads under his football jersey, are merely entertainers on a stage. The vanity that has brought our society to levels of self-destructive behavior not seen in centuries is not going to disappear simply of its own accord. It’s time we wake up to that fact, and balance both a genuine appreciation of our entertainers with our legitimate criticism of them, when warranted.

Brown Furniture And The Dictatorship Of “Midcentury Modern”

This piece in Apollo Magazine, about the beautiful but forgotten furniture of our ancestors, caught my eye yesterday. It picks up on some trends that I’ve observed first-hand over the years in art, architecture, and design. So let’s go back a bit, if the reader will indulge me.

Last summer in Madrid, I spent a morning visiting a number of dealers in the city’s main antiques district, on the hunt for a special wedding present. I noticed that the stock on display in the majority of shops had shifted away from what you would normally expect to find. Instead of things like giltwood tables, crystal chandeliers, and Baroque statuary, pieces that could have decorated the lair of a villain in a Bond film were placed center stage. I asked several of the dealers about this, and they noted that mass-produced, industrial designs from the middle of the 20th century are what buyers want now; there was little interest in collecting more traditional art or furnishings.

These dealers were describing the choking embrace of what in this country we call “Midcentury Modern”, a term regularly abused to within an inch of its life on popular television shows such as HGTV’s “House Hunters”. With respect to architecture, it’s applied to everything from a Richard Neutra Palm Springs bungalow to an anonymous suburban ranch house built in the 1960’s. A similar over-generalization occurs when it comes to furniture and decorative objects, so that a chair designed by Eero Saarinen for Knoll or a handmade Isamo Noguchi coffee table falls under the same category as a 1960’s plywood dinette set from Montgomery Ward or a Sputnik-shaped pot metal chandelier by some unknown manufacturer.

In the current frenzy for Midcentury Modern, one significant area of collecting that has been lost in the shuffle is what at Sotheby’s I was taught to call “brown furniture”. Loosely speaking, this term refers to traditional wooden furniture, which was created by generations of cabinetmakers and furniture carvers between the late 17th and early 20th centuries. These solidly made tables, chairs, and cabinets, typically constructed from woods like mahogany, walnut, or oak, were inlaid, stained, and polished to look their best, and to last for generations. They were considered essential for the furnishing of a respectable home, whether you were a prosperous Philadelphia merchant or a humble New England seamstress.

Over the last two decades these pieces have fallen out of favor, and their prices have fallen along with them. They are viewed as too stuffy, too traditional, and too out of keeping with contemporary lifestyles. While at the upper end of the market, a rare Chippendale cabinet created by a famous cabinetmaker for the Earl of Someplace is always going to command a significant price, at the more affordable end of the market, there are real bargains to be had – especially when compared to what you can buy new.

For example, let’s say that you wanted to buy a nice desk for your home office, in order to replace the old kitchen table that you’ve been using. Back in December, you could have bought a hand-carved, 18th century polished mahogany desk, made in England during the reign of George III, for $1,000 at Wechsler’s Auction House here in DC. Or, you could have gone to the mall or shopped online, and easily spent twice that amount for a similar-sized desk made with little or no craftsmanship at all, constructed from cheap materials in some Communist hellhole like Red China or Vietnam, and designed to both go out of fashion and fall apart within the next 5 years.

This is not to say that I don’t appreciate good Modern or Contemporary design. In fact I not only appreciate, have studied, and understand it, I can also identify what are good examples of it. There should be room in your life for both a well-made William & Mary chest of drawers, and a sleek Mies van der Rohe leather chair.

Yet that being said, there’s something rather sad about the fact that those handmade pieces of old, well-constructed furniture, which your grandparents would have cherished, are now looked on as inferior to pieces that were specifically designed to be disposable. The rejection of what was previously the product of careful craftsmanship, in favor of what was created to be fast and cheap, along with the adoption of the corresponding view that the latter is somehow more desirable than the former, is truly bizarre. Indeed, perhaps this state of affairs serves as an all-too-apt metaphor for the state of our society as a whole.

Still: for those wise enough to perceive it, the situation presents a terrific opportunity for those who still appreciate the beauty of brown.

Furniture designs by Thomas Chippendale