John Harrington, 1561-1612 : Toilet Humor

Treason doth never prosper. What’s the reason?
If treason prosper, none dare call it treason

Old joke, and a good one.  The other night we were trying to remember whose it was.  Too light hearted for Milton.  Too old timey for Dr. Johnson.  Not quite good enough for Shakespeare, but about that period.

It was John Harrington.

He was one of your basic old Etonians who went on to Cambridge. He was also the godson of Elizabeth I, which connection helped him get a minor place at court.  He was witty, or close enough for courtly work.   Seemed to have a taste for dirty jokes.  They must have been utterly filthy – the story is they got him exiled to Kelston, near Bath.*  Well, the jokes, and the stuff insulting the government in general Continue reading

Count Johann Friedrich Struensee (1737 – 1772) Lèse Majesté

We got a copy of A Royal Affair the other week, drawn in mostly on the basis of the costume drama appeal.  It’s good stuff, and the more I watched it, the more I  wondered how much the film makers had fiddled with the truth.  I mean to say,  American movies that tear their stories from yesterday’s headlines are almost invariably poppycock.

The Danes, as it turns out, are a bit better at the whole thing, and if you want to avoid spoilers, stop now and get yourself the video. This post isn’t going anywhere.

So – Struensee was a precocious son of a German superintendent (much like a bishop) of Schleswig-Holstein.   He trained in medicine, getting degreed at a young age, and spent his off hours rebelling against the stodgy doctrines of his elders. Continue reading

Mikhail Mikhaylovich Gerasimov 1907-1970: More Things on Heaven and Earth

That’s him on the left.

You will have seen those documentaries or serious crime shows where experts put layers of clay directly onto human skulls and show us how they looked in real life.  Most recently/interestingly this was done with Richard III, which proves if nothing else that Olivier was right to play the part.*

Among the early practitioners of this art/science was Gerasimov.

He came by it honestly enough.  He was the son of a doctor and an artist and managed to bring the two strains together in Stalinist Russia – no mean feat at all.  He started out on pre-historic men and other bi-peds, and somehow managed to work his way up to real people.  Famous people.   Starting with Dostoevsky’s mother, which seems a bit of an odd choice. Continue reading

Alexander Andreyevich Baranov, 1746- 1819: Lord of Alaska

I’ve heard it suggested that America could pay off its debt to China by giving them Alaska.

There’s a nice symmetry to this idea.  After all, before the U.S. showed up, the place was part of the Russian Empire.  In large part, this is thanks to A. A. Baranov.

Alaska was known to Europeans, vaguely, as far back as 1741 when Vitus Bering of Denmark made a note of the strait that bears his name.  Captain Cook had a look-see, as did others (George Vancouver), but in general it was too far away from the world’s cash centers to garner much sustained interest.

This changed when the locals began offering passers by the local specialty.  The entire coastline, it turned out, was crawling with fur covered critters,  whose pelts were of a great deal of interest to colder cash centers.  The market was insatiable, the supply seemingly inexhaustible.  Ruble signs lit up in the eyes of the ambitious and there was, in effect,  a fur rush.

Which is where Baranov comes in. Continue reading

Thomas Whittemore, 1871 – 1950: Touching the Face of God

“…a man whom professional archaeologists and scholars dismissed as a pretentious amateur; and indeed, he had gift for making himself appear to be a charlatan.  …his persuasive powers enabled him to raise funds from rich American ladies, whom he handled with superb artifice….”

That’s Steven Runciman talking about Thomas Whittemore.

It’s about as sharp as Runciman ever gets, and you have to wonder where the D List rating for the poor fellow comes from.  Well, he went to Tufts despite being a Cambridge native for one thing, and he read English literature for another, and indeed, taught English there after graduation.  He sort of fell into the whole art history thing gradually and over time, and teaching both subjects in places like NYU and Columbia before going whole hog into the art side.  Did a little field work in Egypt before the first war, in which war his bit was chiefly humanitarian (French Red Cross) and some relief work in Anatolia, which are helped feed his Byzantine obsession.  Continue reading