Category Archives: Art

Bengal Tiger Eats Westerner, 1792

Man’s fascination with the gruesome is often rooted in power—who has it, who doesn’t. In the case of Tipu’s Tiger, the 18th century Indian automaton that terrified and thrilled Europeans after the defeat of Tipu Sultan, the ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore, it was an emblem of domination. Much like Louis XIV and his golden sun, Tipu Sultan cultivated an affinity to the almighty tiger, stitching its image on his standard, running its stripes along his soldiers’ uniforms, and placing its head on the hilt of his favorite saber. Even his gold and jewel ornamented throne bore the tiger’s shape.

Unlike his father Sultan Hyder Ali, Tipu Sultan understood the importance of a fearsome image. His nickname, the Tiger of Mysore, was reinforced in his palace and beyond, but the depth of his representations weren’t understood by the west until the sack of Seringapatam in 1799 when many of his treasures were seized by the British.  Enter the object of Tipu’s amusement.


Tipu's Tiger, Victoria and Albert Museum

Attribution: Victoria and Albert Museum

Like any good Indian Sultan, Tipu grew up hating the British East India Company.  Their expansion across his father’s kingdom was an affront that resulted in four Anglo-Mysore wars, the first two bannered by Hyder Ali, the third and fourth by Tipu Sultan.  It was during the Second-Anglo Mysore War in 1781, when his father suffered a loss of 10,000 men to the British General Sir Hector Munro, though, that a cruel fate was sown.  Eleven years after Indian blood had been shed, a hunt for deer commenced on Saugur Island.   Bengal tigers had a reputation among westerners for being vicious predators, but they were unpredictable, sometimes attacking, other times retreating.  Sir Hector Munro’s only son, Hugh Munro, was not lucky enough to come upon a retiring tiger.  He stumbled upon a beast to make Tipu Sultan proud and died from the mauling within twenty-four hours.

Many think the automaton Tipu’s Tiger specifically commemorated the event.  One of the charms of his automaton–if it may be called that–is that when you turn a crank, the tiger emits a bellow while the man cries in agony.  You can see Tipu’s Tiger played in the video below, though from what I can tell we’re hearing the organ play a tune rather than the wretched sounds of Hugh Munro’s earthly departure.

If you’re interested in the Mysore/British conflict, Youtube also has a few educational videos on Tipu Sultan and his infamous tigers. You can also see why Tipu was trending in January 2014.

Upstairs, Downstairs: Golddiggers Are All the Same

The difference between a classy lady and a hussy?

First and Second Floor by Thomas Rowlandson (1791)

According to Thomas Rowlandson, the first or second floor.

The Human Butterflies

Anthropomorphic monkeys ran rabid through interior designs during the early to mid 18th century, and Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin put his spin on the trend by creating his human butterflies.  If you’re not familiar with Saint-Aubin, he had two claims to fame beyond his body of work.

1.  He came from a large French family of creatives, with six of the seven children finding work as draughtsman, etchers, and designers.  His younger brother Gabriel-Jacques is noteworthy for having studied with Francois Boucher and chronicling daily Parisian life, but unfortunately died penniless and largely unknown.

2.  He occupied the official position of Designer of Embroidery and Lace to the King’s Wardrobe for King Louis XV.  Fun day job, right?  His parents were embroiderers, and though he followed in their footsteps, spiffing up the king wasn’t his only pursuit.  In addition to authoring a scandalous book that required his anonymity, he etched what remains his most popular series: Essay de Papillonneries Humaines (1756).

So, you ask, what occurs in a butterfly’s life?  Unsurprisingly, butterflies, unlike their lowly caterpillar counterparts, live like aristocrats.   First there are the daily rituals such as the bath and toilette…

Le Bain by Charles Germain de Saint-Aubin

La Toilette by Charles Germain de Saint-Aubin

Then the energetic pursuits of the acrobat and the duel….

Le Bateleur by Charles Germain de Saint-Aubin

Le Duel by Charles Germain de Saint-Aubin

Which naturally leads to the injured person…

Le Blesse by Charles Germain de Saint-Aubin

And what is an injured person to do but play checkers and get carted around in a litter?

Le Damier by Charles Germain de Saint-Aubin

La Brouette by Charles Germain de Saint-Aubin

Evening arrives and a butterfly has no choice.  He must go to the country ballet or the French theatre…

Ballet Champêtre by Charles Germain de Saint-Aubin

Théâtre Français by Charles Germain de Saint-Aubin

And when that gets dull?  Well, one can always ride around on a turtle.

Le Papillon et la Tortue by Charles Germain de Saint-Aubin

Ah, it’s hard being a butterfly.

P.S.  As an aside, if you’re the type who must know what would have gotten Saint-Aubin in big trouble if he fessed up to authoring the work, the answer is his Book of Caricatures, Good and Bad. Waddesdon Manor has the 400 page volume in a digital catalogue and contains some subversive images that are good for a laugh, including a nun watering a man’s sprouting bottom.  (Who knew that would happen?  Nuns are so clever.)

Dripping in Gold

Ever heard the tune ‘Crave You’ by Flight Facilities?

“I walked into the room dripping in gold
Yeah dripping in gold
I walked into the room dripping in gold
Dripping in gold
A wave of heads did turn, or so I’ve been told
Or so I’ve been told…”

I present the 18th century version in Lady Cunliffe, who may actually have been dripping in gold.


By John Hoppner (1781/82)

When Lady Cunliffe (nee Harriet Kinloch) married Sir Foster Cunliffe, 3rd Baronet, in 1781, the Cunliffe family was a generation away from two words that wrinkled society noses: merchant and slavery.  Hoppner’s portrait was completed right before or right after they wed, and may have alluded to the less than respectable Cunliffe family riches that were accumulated mid-century.

The first Foster Cunliffe–Sir Foster Cunliffe’s grandfather–was born in 1685 and made his wealth as a Liverpool merchant.  The Virginian tobacco trade was just emerging in his hometown in the early 1700s, and he made a great deal of money on Oronoco weed (originally cultivated by John Rolfe, Pocahontas’ husband), which he sold to the French.  What filled his coffers the most, though, was the Atlantic slave trade.

To get an idea of what occurred during Cunliffe’s lifetime, the first half of the 18th century saw an expansion of some 5,000 ships from the beginning of the century to a whopping 45,000 before 1750.  Cunliffe, as one of a hundred slave traders in Liverpool, owned 26. Those ships transported West Africans to the sugar islands, but they also carried German Palantines (sold as indentured servants) as well as convicts to the Americas.

Exporting commodities from the sugar islands provided a supplemental income, but the trade that brought the family into affluence was falling out of favor by the time Lady Cunliffe entered the picture.  By 1758, upon Foster Cunliffe’s death, Cunliffe’s sons followed in their father’s mayoral footsteps and took political offices.  The company went defunct in 1759 and the family began distancing itself from its role in slavery.  Thanks to their investments, the following generations joined the landed gentry and used their fortune to buy the hallmarks of social ascent, including the dripping in gold Hoppner portrait above.

An Electric Blue Gown at Grandmother’s Party, 1788


Bouquets, or Grandmother’s Party by Philibert-Louis Debucourt  (1788)

Grandmother’s party is popping with fashionable details:  the little boy in a striped suit, the chubby cheeked toddler’s bonnet that matches maman’s, and Maman.  The hedgehog hairstyle she’s sporting isn’t too hot, but how about the electric blue paired with a black lace and silk wrapper?

All in all the etching, dedicated to mothers, is a quaint family scene from an artist and social satirist who built up a body of work painting racier images.   You may compare it with Debucourt’s 1787 companion piece that is dedicated to fathers.

The Compliment, or New Year's Morning by Philibert-Louis Debucourt, 1787

The Compliment or New Year’s Morning by Philibert-Louis Debucourt (1787)

A History of English Miniatures

As is often the case, I recently came across a very dry history book with some hidden gems in it.  Miniatures: Ancient and Modern was written by Cyril Davenport and published in 1908 and although I wouldn’t recommend reading it if you’re a miniaturist dilettante like I am, it does offer a useful perspective on how English miniatures changed from the 16th through the 19th centuries.  The short answer is not much in terms of shape and overall presentation. Excluding the style exhibited in the day’s favored painter,  miniature portraits gradually grew more sophisticated in terms of backgrounds and range of mediums, but they are still miniatures.

England’s Three Periods of Miniature Art

Thomas Wriothesley, First Earl of Southampton by Hans Holbein the Younger (1535) (c) Met Museum
Thomas Wriothesley, First Earl of Southampton by
Hans Holbein the Younger (1535) (c) Met Museum

The 16th century Tudor period marks the first time in English history when miniatures appear in large numbers.  They are influenced by the work of Hans Holbein, the younger and are fairly uniform in design.  Simple blue or red backgrounds predominate and men are the likeliest subjects, although important high-born ladies and Queen Elizabeth do appear.

The shape of the miniature is round, the medium gouache or oils, on vellum or paper, wood or metal, respectively, and no shadows present themselves on the portrait itself. Davenport’s definition of a miniature is no larger than 7×7 inches, which sounds fairly large to me if you wanted to admire someone in the palm of your hand (I always thought miniatures were somewhere in the range of 2×2 inches or less, but I guess not). Anything larger than 7×7 inches gets classified as a cabinet painting, which would measure no more than 2×2 feet.

The black and white mother and son portrait miniatures are from Elizabeth’s reign.  If you do know what Henry, Prince of Wales looks like, you might be wondering if this miniature is actually of his younger brother, Charles I.  Here’s a portrait from 1610-12 painted shortly before Henry death at age 18, making the age depicted in the miniature improbable.

Maybe the miniature below is a keepsake of what Henry would have looked like if he hadn’t died (hmm, I wonder if that was done)?  Or maybe the painter sucked at his art? Another of history’s mysteries, if you’re up for some sleuthing.  You can see Anne’s miniature in color here–the jewels in her hair and ruff are crazy!

The style of the 17th century Stuart period takes a nod from the work of Anthony van Dyck.  Instead of being strictly blue or red, backgrounds add distinctive scenery and short oval shapes compete with the rounds of the previous century.  The mediums have not yet changed.  I personally like the first miniature of a Lady as Flora that was painted by Issac Oliver between 1575 and his death in 1617, making it straddle the Tudor and Stuart period.  The duke in the second miniature has smug looking lips though, so I can’t recommend him.

Portrait of a Lady Dressed as Flora

books-2Before daguerrotypes came onto the scene and resounded the miniature death knell, the third period extended into the 18th and 19th centuries.  They styles is a reflection of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s paintings.  Transparent watercolors were introduced, the shape turned oval, and ivory is a popular medium on which to paint.  Ladies also start to appear in miniatures with regularity, though I must say I’ve seen a lot of ladies in 17th century miniatures.

The first three below are 18th century, the fourth is from the 19th, and the fifth is late 19th to early 20th century.

Archibald Robertson by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1786-91) (c) Met Museum
Archibald Robertson by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1786-91) (c) Met Museum


Portrait of a Woman, Said to Be Madame Récamier by Nicolas François Dun (1812-14) (c) Met Museum
Portrait of a Woman, Said to Be Madame Récamier by
Nicolas François Dun (1812-14) (c) Met Museum

One last medium that I haven’t mentioned is enamel.  Portraits on enamel have been around since the Byzantine period and during the 16th-19th centuries, were more popular on the continent than in England.  I like how glossy they look.  The colored Mary Wortley Montagu miniature at the top of the post is also enamel.

George IV as Prince Regent, after Lawrence Henry Bone (1816) (c) Met Museum
George IV as Prince Regent, after Lawrence
Henry Bone (1816) (c) Met Museum

Unlike miniatures from the 16th century onward, early examples of Roman miniatures from the first and second centuries A.D. were painted on gold leaf and encased in glass plaques.  The Greeks produced encaustic miniatures, painted on wood with hot beeswax, while Renaissance Italians and Germans also excelled at encaustic works, setting their miniatures in relief with most of their subjects in profile.

Clearly, there’s always been a desire to carry a beloved’s portrait around, making me think that miniatures are kind of romantic.  Yes, they were given as diplomatic gifts and created to commemorate an age or occasion, but I can’t help but feel that many of them are as sentimental as a picture or a photograph in locket, which has got me thinking . . . what’s the history of lockets?

For more information on miniatures, do see:

Victoria & Albert Museum Portrait Miniatures Collection

And if you’d like to know what was going on across the pond, visit the Metropolitan’s Museum of 18th century American miniatures and 19th century American miniatures.  Of particular note is the daring Sarah Goodridge’s self-portrait.  Gotta love a lady with pluck!

Cries of London: 1688-1799

Francis Wheatley’s paintings of London street criers represent the century’s most successful depiction of hawkers, albeit also the most idealized. This is not surprising given that they appeared at the Royal Academy from 1792 to 1795 when romantic aesthetics and neoclassical sentiments were reaching their zenith.  But I must say they are pleasant enough to look at.  A sense of healthfulness pervades.  The hawkers are rosy-cheeked and clean, going about their day to day business in a tidy, calm manner.

“Hot Spice Gingerbread, Smoking Hot!” (1796)


“Sweet China Oranges!” by Luigi Schiavonetti after Francis Wheatley (1794)


“Old Chairs to Mend!” by Giovanni Vendramini after Francis Wheatley (1795)


Thankfully, though, for those of us who like variety, Wheatley wasn’t the first to start the trend.  The first prints of London criers date from 1600 and enjoyed three decades of popularity. For comparison to Wheatley, take a look at Marcellus Laroon’s “Cryes” first published in 1687; Paul Sandby’s in 1760s; and my favorite, Thomas Rowlandson’s satirical Cries of London, which first appeared in 1799.  As is expected of Rowlandson, the latter are delightfully absurd.  I personally like ‘Letters for Post’.

Letters for Post by Thomas Rowlandson (1799)

A Girl with a Basket on Her Head, “Lights for the Cats, Liver for the Dogs” by Paul Sandby (1759) — Doesn’t she look like she’s having tooth pain?  I vote “most realistic”.

Girl with a Basket on Her Head by Paul Sandby (1759)

The Merry Milk Maid by Marcellus Laroon (1688) — aka, the miss who has mastered the fine art of balance.

The Merry Milk Maid by Marcellus Laroon (1688)

If you guys are interested in learning more, check out Old London Street Cries and the Cries of To-Day from 1885.  It’s loaded with pictures and all the cries you would ever want to learn.

A French Family, 1792

after Thomas Rowlandson“Such precious manners and such indecency,” scowl the English.

Displayed here is the perennial contentiousness of French vs English through the eyes of satirist Thomas Rowlandson in 1792. What’s being poked at in this engraving? Fashionable deshabille. The central man is without his breeches, the lady wears a scandalously clingy and popular Chemise a la Reine, and the child below the fiddler is inspecting the curiosities beneath its nightshirt. Beyond the hired musicians, the most fully dressed figure is a dog. One of them wears not only a dress but a hat, and has feigned a delicate paw. The flaw, however, can been seen in the impudently raised tail, peeping out the too short vestment.

Can you readers spot any other bits an actual French family might find objectionable? Do tell! To the delight of his most astute observers, Rowlandson loved to sneak in telling details.

What a Visage! Louis XIV’s Wax Portrait

If you want accurate likenesses of eighteenth century aristocrats, don’t rely on painted portraits.  If you must insist on versimiltude, I have two things to say:  “Goodnight and good luck” and “Wax Portraits!!”

Before yesterday, I had never heard of such a thing.  Wax figures like Madame Tussaud’s?  Of course.  But small, uncomely representations of monarchs, mistresses, noble folk?  I am fascinated.

Somehow in the two times I visited Versailles I missed Louis XIV’s 1706 wax portrait.  Too distracted by the gilt, no doubt.  What’s peculiar about this buste is what’s most obvious.  Apart from the fact he looks dusted with flour–an ill omen caused by bad reproduction–he’s got pockmarks, a five o’clock shadow, and age spots.  If you can’t see them in the first picture,  my lack of HD quality has dashed the clarity (Super clear and creepy whole bust here).

Louis-XIV by Antoine Benoist 1715

Benoist Louis XIV eye and nose

To be fair, Antoine Benoist molded his creation when Louis XIV was an old man.  The artist was hardly the first wax artist, but he accomplished two feats which secured him favor at Versailles. First, Benoist capitalized on his art form when few had yet to do so; and second, he perfected color waxworks.

Louis looks real in the way that dead people look real, but in examining this work, I sense the accomplishment.  I almost believe I’ve seen Louis on the hay-strewn street.   His eyes, by the way, are hunter’s green or maybe hazel.  They could also be brown. It’s hard to tell.  The video about the restoration work by Versailles provides the closest look.  Watching it, you can even see the individual scars, including the thin, half-inch scar slashing at an angle above the corner of his right lip.

What’s your take on wax portraits? Predecessor of Photoshop? Prefer a potentially blander, perfected prettiness over the realer thing? I’m undecided but think I prefer both. Benoist’s representation of Louis is considered the sun king’s most accurate likeness in existence. But it’s too bad he couldn’t have come along in Louis’s youth; the contrast would’ve been marvelous to behold.

Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin’s The Ray, or The Kitchen Interior

I have an affection for rays. I’ve watched them sleep in a secluded bay under full moonlight, glide between channels of mangroves, and fly beneath the seawater as if they’ve wings. They’re creatures possessed of a quiet grace: Stay still in the water beside them and they’ll graze your leg if you don’t fear their spiked tail.  Mostly, though, you wouldn’t want to.  As Monsieur Chardin shows us, they are better off beyond the hands of man.

Yes, I am sentimental about rays.

Simon Chadin's still-life The Ray 1728

The Still-Life in 1728

Gazing at Chardin’s The Ray, or The Kitchen Interior plumbs from me a visceral reaction: repulsion. The tableau is unsettling and provocative, inciting neither the appetite nor the anticipation of gastronomic pleasure. The anthropomorphic ray has a face reminiscent of a sad clown or a person, however comically, pleading for mercy before death. Apart from the indignity of being eviscerated, he emblazons the wall with a natural opalescent splendor, but the eye doesn’t stray far from raw flesh; he’s hung on a hook until he’s chopped and plopped in a pot.

The sole living object in the painting is the cat. Perched in maniacal rapture, the feline is takings its chance on slurping the glutinous flesh of a half-dozen oysters before it’s swatted off the counter. The instruments of death–i.e. kitchen pans and cutlery–await the arrival of the cook. But what is being said about death here and what of life? What did Chardin intend?  Interpretations range from religious overtones of Christ and martyrs, to man versus nature, to the simplest explanation: rays or skates were a regular fixture in French fish markets.  No need for squeamishness here.

water giuseppe acrimboldo 1566

Play find the skate! – ‘Water’ by Giuseppe Acrimboldo (1566).

On Zee Plate

Curious about the customs and regularity of eating skate (the type of rays commonly dished up), I searched Google books and found recipes for fried skate, boiled skate, steamed skate, skate a la beaufort, skate a la plenty.  Turns out, Bubba’s enumeration of shrimp from Forrest Gump equally applies to skate.  In the 18th century, the fish was more common in France than England, but today the BBC has skate recipes which leads me to believe skate has been accepted as a tasty food source.   According to an 1828 Angler’s Guide, skates were also plentiful in Scotland but the traveling writer wasn’t particularly impressed.  The 1785 A View of the British Empire, most especially Scotland, cites Harwich in Essex as supplying London with 2000 tons of fish, including skate.  As another writer of ichthyofauna records, presumably some English folk besides residents of Devon ate it as a cheap and nutritious food source.

Across the channel, the opinion on the deliciousness of skate differs and there tends to be greater consensus.  The Magazine of Domestic Comforts  (1839) describes skate as “. . . held in high estimation, and is looked upon as one of the most delicate of fish.”  Back in 2006 when I was in France, I saw skate in Parisian markets and on restaurant menus throughout the countryside.   In fact, before I knew skate was a ray, I think I ate it at a restaurant in a teeny French town where the local butcher shop lady had blackened teeth and few, if any people, could or would speak English.  I remember asking the hurried waiter to describe the fish and after confirming it as having crimped white flesh, I thought: fish, edible, smells fine – we are good here.  Turns out, I believe I also ate pureed brains during that dinner because the waiter called it “cervelle” and ’twas not cervelle de canut (this is what happens when you eat in a town where a lady has blackened teeth!).

The practice of eating skate is apparently not as horror-inducing as I seem to think or as Chardin  has portrayed.  A book from 1903, Fish, Volume 1 from the Queen Cookery Books at Windsor, describes the various names, the preparation required to turn wing to edible filet, and what I have come to consider a predictable reaction to the cartilaginous fish: “. . . known as the thornback, the tinker, the ray, and the maid [‘Young skate are called ‘maids’ and their flesh is tender and delicate.’]  It is seldom seen in its natural and very ugly state on the fishmonger’s slab, though it is common enough when cut up and crimped.”

Do you recall how the ray in Chardin’s still life is hung from a hook?  Surprisingly, it is not for effect but rather practicality.  An 1897 Handbook of Fish Cookery explains:  “Skate improves by being hung up for a day before using.”  According to another fish guide, it should be hung head down (rather than Chardin’s head up) for two days in cool weather to fully develop its flavor and texture.  The wise fisherman knows that their skin secretes mucus for a number of days after catch and will ward against consuming this anti-digestive .  What is the mucus, you ask?  Ammonia the skates have converted to urea which is stored in their blood while they’re alive.  Nineteenth century Scots in the Hebrides used the hang dry  method to prepare “sour skate” (salted and strongly smelling of ammonia) which, based on what I could find, sounds similar to the Norwegian lutefisk (salted and treated with lye).

Of note to literary fans, Dickens, whose prolific pen seems to cover all topics known to man, edited a volume of Household Works in 1883.  Whilst eating a sixpence dinner at a Fisheries Exhibition in South Kensington one evening it was remarked: “We were glad it was not skate, for a portion of this fish, with the redness which gives it the appearance of being undone, was served to a lady near us, and was rejected as being uneatable.”  The reference to red flesh is a minor conundrum.  Skate flesh is ever described as white, but when it’s uncooked or, in the lady’s case, undercooked, it looks like the picture below.

uncooked skate wing

Chagrin, chagrin, my dear. Seems the lady got a raw deal, after all.