Saturday, August 25, 2018

Arranging the family album

Today we have hundreds of photographs in files on our computers, or shiny pieces of pasteboard shut away in a cupboard. We select and filter them when we choose the ones to put in our albums, digital or physical.
Since Victorian times people have collected photographs of themselves and others. Now we have photo filters and Photoshop to alter the pictures, to make ourselves beautiful, or to look like a cat.
Back then, they had portraits. During the early sixteenth century the Long Gallery became popular.
A long room made for exercise or physical pursuits when the weather didn't allow it. At least, that's what they said. But it also displayed family portraits.
My favourite isn't one of the magnificent examples in great houses like Hardwick, wonderful though they are, it's the one at Little Moreton Hall in Cheshire. That house was built for a wealthy farmer, a squire, not a member of the aristocracy, and as the family grew wealthier, they built on to the original structure. The Long Gallery was the last of these, plonked on to the top, made of green wood that warped and twisted, so walking along it is like walking on the deck of a ship at sea. It also made three rooms redundant, as only the top half was available. So they panelled it off and those rooms became "secret rooms."
So they are the rooms where Isobel hides Nick in "Danger In White" when she thinks he's a Jacobite spy. I had the seeds of that plot on my computer for years before I found a book where I could use it. 
The portraits were as manipulated as our Photoshopped photos, and seen through the eyes of a painter. After Classical painting, portraits were considered high in the heirarchy of painting, higher than landscapes. They were also a painter's bread and butter.
The great painters would often only do the vital parts of a work, usually the head and hands, but if the sitter was important, like Charles I to Van Dyck, then the painter would do everything. He would train students and some of his studio would have specialities they would use - the ability to paint trees or drapery. Van Dyck himself was a wonderful painter of fabric. In the eighteenth century Gainsborough and Reynolds led the pack, and during the Regency the glamorous paintings of Lawrence became all the rage.
Most sitters wanted a likeness, but they wanted a flattering likeness. Some, like Oliver Cromwell, demanded they be shown "warts and all," but most wanted to be seen at their best. There were no happy snaps back then! Charles II had his mistresses painted by Sir Peter Lely, most of them half naked, or with silk and satin robes falling artfully from their shoulders.
Reynolds and Gainsborough made the eighteenth century movers and shakers elegant and proud. Many were painted in fancy dress, so the portraits would be less likely to go out of date quickly. The clothes they wore were their best ones. Rarely are there portraits of people in everyday wear, so these are treasures. Genre paintings like the ones by Chardin show everyday wear, and cartoons, engravings and sketches give a better idea. But you had your portrait taken in your best, or if you didn't have a best, in a borrowed outfit, or one hired from the painter.
The best artists showed people, so you feel that you could talk to them and hear their reply. You can sense their characters.
Even though they are all staring down at you from the walls of the Long Gallery.

Danger In White is on offer this month for 99 cents/99 pence. All the buy links are on this page, with an excerpt link


Unknown said...

I suppose the historical equivalent to Photoshop giving a portrait a cat face, is having an artist paint the sitter as a god or goddess. I have seen portraits of Barbara Villiers, mistress of Charles II, as the goddess Minerva, and Nell Gwyn, dressed only in a pair of wings and holding an arrow, as Venus.

On the ceiling of the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, Sir James Thornhill has painted King William III as Mars, the God of War (conquering the French - naturally), and Queen Mary II is dressed as Pallas Athene, goddess of wisdom.

Re-branding oneself has a long history!

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