Renoir’s Dancer: The Secret Life of Suzanne Valadon

Renoir’s Dancer: The Secret Life of Suzanne Valadon

St. Martin’s Press, 2018, 381 pages

Valadon as seen by Toulouse lautrec

Valadon as seen by Toulouse lautrec

The lives of female artists have seldom been easy.  This turns out to have been painfully true of the French Post Impressionist Suzanne  Valadon, who began her life as the illegitimate daughter of a linen maid in the Limousin region of France.  Her mother, left widowed young, by a husband who was a forger, subsequently apprehended, and sentenced to hard labor, decided to move to Paris to better her lot and that of the young daughter born to her some years after her husband’s death. Fate dealt the pair a severe blow, for the year of their move was 1869-70, or the year of the Paris Commune, and the resulting rioting, and famine.  Continue reading

The Other Wilde: Jane

Jane Wilde in the 1840s

Jane Wilde in the 1840s

“My dear boy, no woman is a genius…They represent the triumph of matter over mind, just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals.” The Picture of Dorian Gray

When it comes to the Wilde family you never know how many surprises you are likely to come across.  Possibly one of the most unexpected ones, is the brilliance and the nationalistic fervor of Oscar’s mother Jane Wilde.

The daughter of a clergyman, very well connected (a brother became one of the most respected judges on the US bench, and an uncle Charles Ormesby was a member of the Irish Parliament) she was a young woman during the dreadful years of the Irish famine.  Her response was to take up a fiery torch for home rule, and she wrote the poem The Stricken Land in 1847. Continue reading

Henry Labouchere: The Non-Progressive Progressive

Henry du Pre Labouchere

Henry du Pre Labouchere

The history of gay rights is blotched with all sorts of setbacks and failures, one of the worst occurred in Britain in 1885.  The proximate cause was an addendum to The Criminal Law Amendment Act proposed by the MP Henry du Pre Labouchere. Originally the 1885 law was designed to  address  the problem of under age prostitution.  It raised the age of consent to sixteen and criminalized attempts to pimp young girls.

The editor of “Truth”, as well as a member of Parliament, Labouchere was a seriously rich man.  He had inherited not one but two banking fortunes, being connected to the Baring Bank founders, and he had had a chequered career.  Labouchere was a republican who detested the royal family, a liberal, almost a radical, where politics were concerned, but this ex- diplomat, financier, and semi-professional gambler turned politician, had his prejudices.  He was anti-semitic, convinced that women were,”mentally flighty” and therefore should not have the vote, and he detested homosexuality.  Continue reading

Through a Lorgnette Darkly

by Harry M. Allen, after Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt, oil on canvas, (circa 1884)

by Harry M. Allen, after Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt, oil on canvas, (circa 1884)

Not many Victorian Lords of the stage have reputations which have survived into the twenty first century.  Many of them are now forgotten, even such people as John Wilkes Booth are famous for their non thespian activities (in his case presidential assassination) but one at least deserves to be remembered: Henry Irving.

Henry, or Sir Henry as he came to be known later in life, was from Cornwall and began his career with the unfortunate surname of Brodribb.  He changed it to Irving and began acting when an uncle left him a small legacy of 100 pounds, enough to start himself in the competitive  business of acting in the mid nineteenth century. Continue reading

Stalin’s Englishman

stalins-englishmanStalin’s Englishman, by Andrew Lownie, St. Martin’s Press, $29.99

Andrew Lownie’s biography of one of the Cambridge spy circle has recently caught an answering echo at Cambridge.  Three men prominent in intelligence circles, one of them Sir Richard Dearlove, ex-head of MI5 and master of Pembroke College, have resigned as conveners of the Cambridge Intelligence Seminar.

The trouble specifically was over a digital publishing service which was providing funding for the seminar called Veruscript, founded by one Gleb Cheglakov and his wife Nazik Ibraimova.  Some of those who resigned fear that Veruscript may be a front for Russian intelligence services.  One recent attendee at the regular Friday meetings was Mike Flynn, the Trump nominee for US national security adviser.  What an unseemly to do for Corpus Christi College. Continue reading

Plus ça change…

This Renaissance sign required you to measure your catch from the Tiber river:

Your catch should not be larger than this or it belonged to the Pope.

Your catch should not be larger than this or it belonged to the civic authorities.

These days, if you catch something smaller than these:

You measure your catch and if it is smaller than these it goes back into Long Island Sound.

You measure your catch and if it is smaller than these it goes back into Long Island Sound.

One way or another, size always matters and there’s always a catch.

The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters

the-sixThe Mitford sisters have become an industry.  There are over twenty nine titles concerning them and that does not count their own books- three of them were writers. Only one of them was truly a success, the instigator of the Mitford mythology: Nancy Mitford.

Laura Thompson is contributing her second book to this already crowded section of the biography shelf. The Six, The Lives of the Mitford Sisters is not a straightforward biography.  She has already written about Nancy, Life in a Cold Climate and this is her second attempt at mapping the complicated lives of these siblings only this time by psychological surveillance. Continue reading

A Thoroughly Modern Marriage

Portrait of a Marriage

Nigel Nicolson

Atheneum, 233 pages

Vita Sackville-West

Since gay marriage has become a legal reality in the United States so recently, it pays to remember that in the last century tolerance for sexual variety was generally low.  Homosexuality was considered a perversion and a few unlucky people born with the proclivity sought out “cures”.  There were however some surprisingly tolerant oases in this desert of  negative public opinion.

One such was the long running marriage between Harold Nicolson, the British diplomat and his wife Vita Sackville-West the novelist and garden writer.  They married for love in 1913, or so it appeared at the time.  What Harold Nicolson did not know was that his wife was in love with another woman, and only came around to marriage reluctantly. Continue reading

Cristóbal Balenciaga Eizaguirre (1895 – 1972): Master of All Couturiers

The Master of Us All, Balenciaga His Workrooms, His World
by Mary Blume,
Farrar, Straus, Giroux 2013

Cristobal Balenciaga

The news of Oscar de la Renta’s death this past Monday (Oct.20th 2014) snapped one of the last remaining threads stretched between Balenciaga’s era and our own. As a young man, Mr. de la Renta had worked briefly at Balenciaga and the imprint of the great Spanish designer is on his work. You see it in de la Renta’s architectural designs and his love of deep ruffles. Continue reading

Philippe Duc d’Orleans (1640 – 1701); Didn’t Ask, Didn’t Tell

Philippe Duc d’Orleans had the dubious distinction of being Louis XIV’s younger brother. It was not a position to be envied. Having the Grand Monarque as a sibling must have been trying sometimes in the extreme, but Monsieur, as Philippe was always called, had a way of getting out of the tedium of his proximity to power: he was gay.

In fact Monsieur was so very far out of the closet, in a place and at a time, when the “Italian vices” were punishable in all sorts of barbaric ways, that it staggers the mind now both that Monsieur could pursue his way of life relatively unobstructed, or that it was so often recorded by memoirists. We know that his brother Louis detested homosexuality, and yet he seems to have tolerated it in his brother, of whom, we understand, he was very fond. Continue reading