Posts Tagged ‘history’

roses, royalty, and lace

I’ve been interested in British and French history since I was a teenager, and relish the art, fashion, and scandalous stories of royalty, the elite, and the demi-monde of the 17th to 19th century. Perhaps this stems from reading childhood tales of kings and queens, courtesans and courtiers, who surrounded themselves with the luxurious accouterments that were an intrinsic part of their lavish lifestyles.

Are there still craftsmen who create exquisite cabinets and commodes in precious ebony, marble, porcelain, and gold? Couturiers who use thirty yards or more of fine velvet for a ballgown, spangling it with real diamonds and gold thread, and icing it with lengths of delicate handmade lace? Each era features its own excesses defined by prevailing trends – certainly no one wears that kind of clothing anymore - yet it seems that nothing made now can truly compare to the creations of the past.

My favorite portrait of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France. Titled “Marie Antoinette a la rose” it was painted in the rococo style in oils on canvas in 1783 by Marie-Elisabeth Louise Vigee-Le Brun, the Queen’s favorite portrait painter. Image from here.

Fortunately much material still survives from those years, for our present edification. “Marie Antoinette’s Gossip Guide to the 18th Century” and “Tea at Trianon” are among the best blogs on the subject.

On the subject of scandal, Scandalous Woman is the most informative blog I have come across. It’s been said that the very rich and the very poor have no morals – the former because they possess the money to do whatever they want, and the latter because they don’t and have nothing to lose. The behavior of some of these entitled nobles and their hangers-on still raises eyebrows today.

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tudor parfitt: the lost ark of the covenant

He’s been described as “a British Indiana Jones”. Intrepid Oxford-educated scholar Tudor Parfitt, the non-Jewish Professor of Modern Jewish Studies at the University of London’s prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies, embarked on a twenty-year quest to find one of religion’s most mysterious artifacts – the Lost Ark of the Convenant.

Several Old Testament books, from Exodus onwards, tell the story of the Ark, a receptacle of wood and gold made upon God’s command to hold the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, a pot of manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded.

Just like Noah’s Ark, it is an artifact with deep significance that, if found, would have profound impact upon modern Christianity, Islam, other religions, and disciplines such as archaeology and history.

In the course of his studies and travels to Zimbabwe, Papua New Guinea, Israel, Egypt, and many other lands, Parfitt believes that he has solved this centuries-old mystery and found the Ark of the Covenant.

He tells the story of his quest and its successful (to him) conclusion in his book The Lost Ark of the Covenant, published earlier this year.

Dr. Parfitt with a Gogodala (Papua New Guinea) tribesman; his controversial book

Has he, indeed, found the Ark? He is convinced that he has. I could tell you what he discovered, but that would be such a spoiler.

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charles higham: mrs simpson

For some reason, the lives of dead European, especially British, royals have fascinated me no end. I’ve had this book for quite some time, but lately have been re-reading it. It’s all about the woman for whom a king gave up a throne – Wallis Warfield Spencer Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor.

Author Charles Higham, whose father was a member of the British nobility, had access to information and dossiers that were until recently kept classified. His “in” into British and European society also helped him obtain personal reminiscences from people who were the Duchess of Windsor’s contemporaries or their descendants.

Mrs Simpson dishes out a lot of juicy tidbits, not only about Wallis’ notorious personal life, but also about top-secret political machinations around the time of the Second World War.

But beyond the gossip, fashion, scandal, and intrigues that swirled around this magnetic couple, on thing is clear – the love that Edward had for his Wallis.

Would that we all could find someone to love us as utterly and completely!

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bettany hughes: helen of troy

A masterwork by a brilliant Oxford-educated historian, Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore deals with Helen of Troy as a historical and literary figure. Very well-researched, it is scholarly without being boring; erudite without being pompous; interesting without being pretentious.

The book is flooded with facts, and the deluge will leave you breathless under the waves of words, but once you sink into the Late Bronze Age world that Bettany reveals to us, you will float away to a place and time alien to our own, but still a part of it.

Helen may have been a cultic goddess worshipped in trees and other forms of nature; she may have been a version of Aphrodite; she may have been an aristocrat during the days when matriarchy ruled, when the feminine was venerated and revered over the masculine; or she may have been a mixture of all these.

What matters is that she was an empowered female figure, whose personality was magnetic, whose beauty was iconic, whose story became legendary, and today stands for the strength of the feminine, which is in all of us women, if we but claim our right to it.

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victoria finlay: jewels, a secret history

Jewels: A Secret History, by Victoria Finlay, takes us deep into the glittering, scintillating hearts of gemstones, their history, what they are, and where they come from. She tackles ten different stones and arranged the chapters according to Moh’s scale of hardness of minerals.

The hidden wonders of pearls, emeralds, rubies, and sapphires are revealed. Do you recall the story of how Cleopatra was said to have dissolved a pearl in vinegar and drunk it before Caesar to show off her wealth and power? Finlay experimented with a river pearl, and the results are surprising.

I loved the chapters on jet and amber, since they are almost unknown here in the Philippines.

Reading about these precious materials brings to mind a friend I had in UP, Mona Caccam, whose dad was a mining engineer and actually owned, or had shares in, a jade mine. Mona said that the Philippines is rich in mineral wealth, but strict and obstructive laws make it difficult for mining companies to be profitable.

Meanwhile, us ordinary folks will have to content ourselves with gazing into jewelry shop windows and reading books to enjoy the world of gems and minerals.

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amanda mackenzie stuart: consuelo and alva vanderbilt

Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt is Amanda Mackenzie Stuart’s biography of mother and daughter Alva and Consuelo Vanderbilt, of the American railway fortune – where the moral of the story is, riches can’t always make you happy. Only love can.

Stuart takes us into America of the late 1890s, when opulence and decadence were the hallmarks of the lifestyles of the rich, while frightful squalor and poverty afflicted the less fortunate. Fortified by great wealth, ensconced in her grand mansion called Marble House, Alva did not have much to do in her cosseted life save to look after her milionaire husband William Kissam Vanderbilt and their children (Consuelo, William Jr., and Harold Stirling), and to seek dominance in upscale New York and Newport society, dominated at that time by Mrs Astor.

In her quest to become “Queen of Newport” during that fussy, protocol-laden era, the determined and bossy Alva married off Consuelo at 19 to the 9th Duke of Marlborough. Not only was the teenager tall, beautiful, and endowed with swan-like grace and high intelligence, she was also obscenely rich, with a dowry in the millions of dollars.

The Duke, called “Sunny” (from one of his hereditary titles, “Earl of Sunderland”, and not because his nature was particularly bright), only wanted Consuelo’s money to save his family’s aged ruin of an ancestral palace, Blenheim Castle.

Though Consuelo was in love with another man (socialite Winthrop Rutherfurd), Alva railroaded the marriage through. Predictably, the marriage was not happy and did not last, ending later in divorce. Consuelo married again, to Lt. Col. Jacques Balsan, the love of her life, with whom she spent her twilight years.

Aside from being a window into the past, it is a brilliant story that reinforces an idea I’ve formed through the years – that many times, first marriages don’t work out and it’s the second one that brings wedded bliss.

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joan de jean: the essence of style

Here’s an interesting read I picked up at Fully Booked last May 2007 along with Victoria Finlay’s Colour: Travels Through the Paintbox.

The Essence of Style is by Joan de Jean, who has written seven other books on French literature, history, and culture. She is a professor of French at the University of Pennsylvania, and also holds positions at Princeton and Yale.

De Jean traces the reasons why Paris is the fashionista center of the world, and why Hermes, Vuitton, and Creme de la Mer are must-haves despite their exhorbitant prices.

Apparently it was all Louis XIV’s fault. This maitre of style ruled the French court with his highly original and decorative ideas on dress, etiquette, and urban planning, which to this day have repercussions on the monde of haute couture.

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victoria finlay: colour

Victoria Finlay’s first book Colour: Travels Through the Paintbox explores the origins of color, or where people obtain the paints, pigments, and dyes used throughout history. I loved her second book, Jewels: A Secret History, and this book is just as fascinating.

I had to learn the color wheel and the lingo associated with it for my quilting. As a visual person, I enjoy reading books that are highly descriptive; it makes the story come to life for me. Apart from being a history of paints, it is also a travelogue, with Finlay travelling all over the world to visit the places where paint is made and talk to the people that make them.

From the blurb:

On her quest to uncover the secrets of colour, Victoria Finlay visited remote Central American villages where women still wear skirts dyed with the purple tears of sea snails; learned how George Washington obsessed about his green dining room while he should have been busy with matters of state; and investigated the mystery of Indian yellow paint, said to have been made from the urine of cows force-fed with mango leaves.

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