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Friday, 22 April 2016

Dressed to Kill

A piece of excellent news this year is that Emma Rice has been appointed artistic director of the Globe Theatre in London. It will be exciting to see how the work of the traditional home of Shakespeare's plays develops with her direction. In an early interview, she indicated that she would be casting female actors in some of the major male roles. The idea is not entirely new - there have been female Hamlets from Sarah Bernhard to Maxine Peake - but no doubt Rice will expand the repertoire.

It's no surprise that men got the biggest share of the lines in Shakespeare's day. It was a male dominated society, and outside the comedies, the women don't get much chance to drive the action forward. There are exceptions of course, for example Lady Macbeth. By a happy accident, I was thinking of this when I came across a reproduction of John Singer Sargent's portrait of Ellen Terry in the magnificent beetle wing gown she wore in the role.

In 2011, after five years and more than 700 hours of meticulous restoration work, it went on display again at Terry's last home, the National Trust property Smallhythe Place in Kent. After a tempestuous life, it deserved some tender loving care . Terry had a reputation for arriving late and dressing in a hurry, thereby damaging the delicate wings. It also showed the marks of snagging from the spectacular jewellery she wore on stage; being trampled on by other actors and snagging on scenery. The production ran for more than six months to packed houses, and the costume was reused on many later tours, crossing the Atlantic at least twice.

In the painting, the sea green fabric shimmers with the iridescent wings of 1,000 beetles. The replacements for  the damaged ones were donated by an antique dealer in Tenterden. (Fear not, these jewelled beetles shed their wings naturally.)

The gown caused a sensation when Terry wore it as Lady Macbeth in 1888, transforming the beautiful flame-haired actor into a cross between a jewelled serpent and a medieval knight. After the first night, Oscar Wilde, recalled the impact of Lady Macbeth arriving in a taxi: "The street that on a wet and dreary morning has vouchsafed the vision of Lady Macbeth in full regalia magnificently seated in a four-wheeler can never again be as other streets."

Another smitten male visitor to Terry's dressing room recorded: "There before me was Lady Macbeth in the glorious robe of green beetle wings. Her face was wreathed in smiles, and almost the first words she said were 'Is not this a lovely robe? It is so easy, and one does not have to wear corsets.'"

How practical.



 

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Every Picture Tells a Story


As a writer of historical fiction, I've often found inspiration for my work in art and this has definitely been the case with my two most recent novels, City of Dreams and its sequel Following the Dream. Both are set in Paris in the second half of the nineteenth century and tell the story of Anna, a young Russian girl, who comes to Paris with her new French husband, Emile Daubigny. She's thrilled to be in the most fashionable city on earth, but when Daubigny turns out to be a rogue and abandons her, she has to cope with a very different life from the one she had looked forward to with such joy.

Bar at the Folies-Bergere by Edouard Manet
 

The names that come to mind in the art of the time are well known - Manet, Renoir, Monet to mention the most famous. Manet's harsh realism certainly has a place in City of Dreams and Following the Dream. Monet's beautiful pictures were, on the other hand, less influential.His water lilies are a marvellous subject for his magnificent explorations of colour and light, but I suspect their private lives are a little lacking in interest.

Renoir La Loge
It was his contemporary, Auguste Renoir, whose work really fired my imagination. It's sometimes dismissed as, 'chocolate boxy' but look closer - there's so much more to it than that. Renoir's paintings, with their lush brushwork and limpid, sensuous colours, aren't just beautiful, they're full of stories too and bursting with life.
















A glamorous woman with her beau in the box at the opera looks pensive, as if she's not really enjoying herself. A girl gazes wistfully out of the picture plane in The Moulin de la Galette, The young men in The Boating Party, show off their muscles while a smooth, dandified young man whispers in his girl's ear. Who are they all? What are their stories? It was my desire for answers to questions like these that planted the seeds of Anna's story in my mind. It has been a fascinating search.   
 
 
 
To download to your Kindle, just click on the cover images in the sidebar. (City of Dreams is currently free.)
 
 
 

 
 
 




 

 

 

 

 



Monday, 4 April 2016

Brother and Sister

Anyone who has a nodding acquaintance with English poetry is likely to be able to recite a few lines of William Wordsworth's famous poem,  I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud. The entry in his sister, Dorothy's, Lakeland Journal for 15th April 1802, the day that they saw the daffodils together, is less well known, although William himself gave her credit for being an inspiration to him when he said of her in old age that "She gave me eyes; she gave me ears."

As it's daffodil time, I've just re-read what Dorothy wrote. It's so evocative, I'd like to share it with you:

"When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow Park, we saw a few daffodils close to the water-side. We fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore, and that the little colony had so sprung up. But as we went along there were more and yet more, and at last, under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful. They grew among the mossy stones and about them; some resting their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness; and the rest tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind, that blew upon them over the lake; they looked so gay, ever glancing, ever changing . This wind blew directly over the lake to them. there was here and there a little knot, and a few stragglers a few yards higher up; but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity, unity, and life of that one busy highway."