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.

The Monarch At Rest: A Permanent Home For A British Masterpiece?

A major story at present in the international art press concerns the fate of one of the most famous and influential British works of art ever painted. “The Monarch of the Glen”, pictured below, was painted in 1851 by Sir Edwin Landseer (1802-1873) for the House of Lords, but thanks to a bizarre and tangled history, too convoluted to explore in full here, it is currently the property of the international beverage conglomerate Diageo. While there are various possibilities regarding where this Victorian masterpiece will ultimately end up, fortunately it looks as though it will at last become part of a public collection as it was always intended to be – even if not exactly where it was intended to be.

Landseer was an artist who specialized in the representation of animals, and his reputation as an observer of their anatomy and behavior was such that he asked to design the four massive bronze lions which still today surround the base of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. However prior to his foray into the world of sculpture, it was Landseer’s paintings and drawings which led him to become one of the most popular British artists of the 19th century. Even though he depicted everyone and everything from the British Royal Family to prize-winning dogs and cattle, it was “The Monarch of the Glen”, depicting a majestic stag roaming the Scottish Highlands, which forever sealed his reputation.

When the Palace of Westminster burned down in 1834, the ruins were replaced with the enormous Gothic Revival complex that we commonly refer to today as the Houses of Parliament. The project took decades to complete, in part because of the Palace’s massive size, but also because of the significant cost involved in its decoration. If you have ever been to London and had the opportunity to examine the buildings up close, you realize that they are absolutely covered in statuary, architectural detail, and colorful decoration, something which cannot be fully appreciated in photographs taken at a distance. Inside the Palace, the various rooms, staircases, and halls are even more sumptuously decorated, with elaborate tile and stone work, brass and iron ornament, and vast quantities of painting and sculpture.

In 1850, Landseer was commissioned to paint three large works for the Palace, destined to be hung in the Refreshment Rooms of the House of Lords. You can see some of the restoration work that has been going on in these Rooms, including the revival of the sumptuous wallpaper designed by Augustus Pugin, by following this link. Landseer was asked to provide three canvases for this space illustrating scenes related to hunting, and the most famous of the three turned out to be “The Monarch of the Glen”. Unfortunately, when the time came for the paintings to be delivered, the House of Commons refused to pay Landseer’s bill of £150 for the three paintings.

Today, Parliament’s decision seems incredibly short-sighted, given how famous “The Monarch of the Glen” has become since its creation. It has been copied and reinterpreted by other artists, studied and written about by historians and philosophers, and has become something of an internationally recognized symbol of Scotland. For example, not only was there a long-running BBC television series, about a down-at-heel Scottish aristocratic family, which took its title from the painting, but references to the painting continue to appear in popular advertising campaigns and other media related to Scottish whisky, tourism, and the like.

In the 2006 film “The Queen”, there is a beautifully-shot scene in which Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) becomes stranded in the middle of the Scottish Highlands near Balmoral Castle, when her Range Rover breaks down. She and the Royal Family have retreated there, in the wake of the death of Princess Diana, to regroup and figure out how to proceed, as the monarchy stands perilously close to extinction in the wake of popular resentment of the Queen’s perceived coldness toward the death of her former daughter-in-law. The Queen seems not herself, uncertain of what to do, and confronted by conflicting advice, which has led her into a course of public inaction and private frustration.

In what ends up being the major turning point of the film, as the Queen awaits rescue she is confronted by a magnificent stag, very similar to the idealized animal portrayed by Landseer in “The Monarch of the Glen”. The deer has been the subject of rumor on the estate, and hunters are actively seeking to bring it down. Human queen and cervine king stare at each other in silence for some time, until the Queen seems to recover herself and waves the deer off, saving its life. It is a scene which makes all the more sense to the viewer, if you are familiar with both Landseer’s painting and its title. From this point, just as the animal monarch returns to his throne unharmed, so too the human monarch returns to her throne, unharmed.

While Landseer’s painting may at last be finding a permanent home in a public collection, that collection looks likely to be the National Galleries of Scotland, rather than the Palace of Westminster, where it was originally intended to be displayed. In the wake of Brexit and the Scottish independence movement, you may make whatever political conclusions of this arrangement that you will. Personally, I tend to agree with art historian Bendor Grosvenor, who in this piece comes close to saying that really, the painting should be the subject of a donation rather than a sale.

But be that as it may, this painting is a real treasure, for whatever public institution ends up becoming its proud and permanent custodian.

The Curious Case of the Caring Curator

A not-infrequent criticism I raise on this blog has to do with museums, and the fact that so many of them seem to have forgotten what they are supposed to be.  So it was a real pleasure this morning to read this interview with Luke Syson, the chairman of the European Sculpture and Decorative Arts department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  While I can’t say I agree with him on every point he raises in the article, I can see that he’s coming from the right starting point, both in how he’s looking at the art under his care, and the purpose of the institution he’s working for. Some highlights:

Should we be looking at contemporary and historic art side by side?

Works from different periods and different places are best shown together in people’s houses, but in museums, I like to keep them separate so that everything doesn’t become some mushy whole. The museum’s task is to present the works of art from the past as a product of their particular time, but also as timeless.

This is a blessed relief to read, particularly from someone in a curatorial position.  Over a decade ago, certain museums and galleries in this country began re-hanging their collections in seemingly arbitrary ways, copying some of the damage done by Sir Nicholas Serota and others in positions of curatorial authority who suffer from exceedingly poor taste.  My personal favorite was the major American (taxpayer-funded) collection which decided to install the works in its permanent collection in groups of “feelings” selected by the curators.  Fortunately this trend seems to be reversing itself of late, as the new director of Tate Britain demonstrated recently.

You are refurbishing the Met’s galleries of British sculpture, furniture and decorative arts. What can we expect?

What we have had on show in the past is a history of aristocratic British patronage, and that is very important, but we also want to look at the entrepreneurial spirit that runs through British art. This is a country without a dominant court in the way that the French had Versailles. Although the monarch was important, he wasn’t the person dictating all trends. Similarly, London’s Royal Academy of Arts comes late in history. Arguably, the establishment of factories by [ceramic manufacturers] Bolton and Wedgwood is as significant as the Royal Academy.

This is a spot-on observation.  There’s a reason why Napoleon famously referred to the British as “a nation of shopkeepers”, with somewhat mercantile tastes.  This is not to say that there are no grand houses in Britain, for there certainly are.  Rather, the level of show and luxury is, when viewed as a whole, not quite as ostentatious as one would have found in France or Italy during the same periods of time.  Moreover, there is a perennial British fascination with collecting large amounts of smaller objects and cramming them all together onto shelves, mantelpieces, and so on, whether you are an earl in a stately home or a pensioner in a terraced house.

You are one of a number of curators who have left British museums for US institutions in recent years. Why has there been such an influx?

Perhaps it sends a message to museums back home that they need to value their curators more.

Shhh….keep this to yourself.  We want them here to lend a bit of style about the place.  Hopefully Mr. Syson’s plans will bear good fruit over the coming years.

Room in the European Sculpture and Decorative Arts Galleries The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Room in the European Sculpture and Decorative Arts Galleries
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York