Normally, the only time I might stop to think about wishing upon a star or the like is when listening to the “Dave Digs Disney” (1957) album by the Dave Brubeck Quartet – particularly their take on “So This Is Love” from Walt Disney’s “Cinderella” (1950).
Of course in the present climate, if there’s any fairy tale that seems to resonate most, it’s probably that recounted by the poet Goethe in “Der Zauberlehrling” (“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”.) Based on a story from Ancient Greece, and perhaps most famous in its retelling in a sequence from Walt Disney’s “Fantasia”(1940), the story involves the same task being performed over and over again, threatening to overcome those involved. I suspect that for many, the Coronavirus pandemic has taken on that aspect the longer it has continued, and I know that some of my readers are struggling right now with the thought of how they’re going to cope with yet another impending semester – or longer – during which their wee ones will have to be homeschooled, and not by choice.
Two recent bits of arts-related news however, have been on my mind this week regarding this issue, not only for teacher-parents, but also for those just looking for some wisdom, beauty, and a bit of a break from having to do the same thing over and over again, seemingly without ceasing.
As highlighted in a new exhibition that opened recently at Windsor Castle, in 1940 a series of 16 paintings by the great British portraitist Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) depicting the allied leaders involved in the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte were taken down from the Waterloo Chamber at the royal residence, and placed in storage for safekeeping during World War II. The following year, teenage art student Claude Whatham (1927-2008), who had been evacuated from Manchester to the countryside as were many other British children, was commissioned to create a series of paintings to fill the empty frames where the Lawrence pictures normally hang. They were to be executed on strips of wallpaper, presumably for easy removal afterward, and the theme chosen for what was supposed to be a temporary installation was a series of characters from pantomime, a centuries-old British musical comedy tradition often enjoyed during the Christmas holidays.
The stories in pantomime – or “panto” as it’s often called, for short – are usually taken from popular fairy tales, with characters that would be familiar to everyone in the audience, regardless of age. While children follow the adventures of figures such as Aladdin or Puss In Boots, or the perils of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, the scripts for these performances are generally written in such a way that elements of adult contemporary humor, such as political or social references, are contained within them. These references would go over the children’s heads, but be caught by the grown-ups attending the show.
The installation of Whatham’s paintings in the Waterloo Chamber was intended to tie in with a planned series of pantomime performances held in the room in order to benefit the Royal Household Wool Fund, as the Royal Collection Trust explains:
Christmas pantomimes were performed at Windsor between 1941 and 1944, the first being Cinderella, in which both Princesses had leading roles. The pantomimes were staged in the Waterloo Chamber and were both written and produced by Hubert Tannar, Headmaster of the Royal School in Windsor Great Park. The performers included local children (some evacuees) and friends of the Princesses, with occasional help from service personnel based in the Windsor area. There was always an enthusiastic audience, and all monies raised from the admission charge went to the Wool Fund, to supply knitting wool for the making of comforters for the armed forces.
For whatever reason, after the War ended Lawrence’s portraits were returned to their frames, but Whatham’s panto paintings were not removed: Whatham’s fairy tale characters remained stuck to the walls underneath. The images were not seen again until 1992, when the Lawrence paintings were once again temporarily removed for safekeeping, during the disastrous fire that ravaged parts of the Castle. Perhaps because they had been covered up for almost fifty years at that point, the pantomime pictures remained remarkably fresh, despite having been executed on decidedly non-archival paper and using inexpensive paints.
Above we can see a selection of three of the sixteen Waltham paintings: Dick Whittington and his cat on the left, Cinderella in the center, and Jack and the Beanstalk on the right. They’re wonderfully Art Deco in style, and obviously influenced by Continental advertising posters of the period, though there’s a confident economy of line that’s all the more remarkable considering that the artist who painted them was only about fourteen years old at the time. It’s also interesting to note how the image of Cinderella somewhat strongly anticipates the Walt Disney depiction of the same character several years later, although it seems highly improbable that Disney himself could have seen the Whatham painting. [N.B. If my readers are more informed on this point – or indeed on any point – than I am, please share what you know in the comments section.]
The paintings are currently on display for visitors to Windsor Castle while the Lawrence portraits are once again undergoing some study. While it seems a pity that Waltham’s work will be covered up again in a few months, for as long as they’re visible they serve as a colorful reminder of how, even in the darkest of times, it’s possible to find some inspiration from these old, magical tales. And to that end, for those of you interested in taking a deeper dive into the subject, there’s an online learning resource that you may find worth investigating.
“Fairy Tales and Sacraments” is an online course being offered this coming semester by my friend Sarah Maple, PhD., Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, New York. As Dr. Maple describes the course, in part:
Fairy Tales allow us to isolate, suspend and consider particular realities that further explore the mysteries of our origin, meaning, and destiny…Fairy Tales from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in particular, attempted to recapture the imaginations of Christians, and the whole world, within the message of the Scripture and the Gospels. This course is an intensive study of the Fairy Tales of George MacDonald, author of The Princess and the Goblin, and the primary source of inspiration for the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis.
Tolkien, Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Louis Carroll, and many other writers were hugely influenced by the Scottish poet, Christian apologist, and children’s fantasy author George MacDonald (1824-1905), shown at work above. For example, in reflecting on MacDonald and his work in a forward to a book about MacDonald – written by one of MacDonald’s eleven children from his over fifty years of marriage to his wife Louisa – Chesterton noted the Scottish writer’s enormous impact on his own life:
[I]n a certain rather special sense I for one can really testify to a book that has made a difference to my whole existence, which helped me to see things in a certain way from the start; a vision of things which even so real a revolution as a change of religious allegiance has substantially only crowned and confirmed. Of all the stories I have read, including even all the novels of the same novelist, it remains the most real, the most realistic, in the exact sense of the phrase the most like life. It is called The Princess and the Goblin, and is by George MacDonald…The commonplace allegory takes what it regards as the commonplaces or conventions necessary to ordinary men and women, and tries to make them pleasant or picturesque by dressing them up as princesses or goblins or good fairies. But George MacDonald did really believe that people were princesses and goblins and good fairies, and he dressed them up as ordinary men and women. The fairy-tale was the inside of the ordinary story and not the outside.
Dr. Maple’s course will run online from August 25th through December 8th, and for more information on how to go about signing up, please contact the College Registrar’s Office by following this link.
And with that, let’s move on to some less magical, but still interesting stories from the week gone by.
Notes from Notre Dame
Now that the melted, twisted scaffolding surrounding the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre Dame de Paris is being removed, attention has turned to the church’s historic pipe organ, which dates to 1733. Miraculously, like the enormous rose window it sits beneath, the gigantic instrument survived the April 2019 blaze intact, but the entire thing is now in the process of being disassembled, including its 8,000 pipes. Every piece of it has to be cleaned of lead, soot, and other debris, and any damaged parts need to be replaced. Then the entire thing must be re-tuned, disassembled for transport, and put back together inside the Cathedral. The disassembly alone is expected to last through the end of this year, so this is yet another gargantuan task ahead for the team of restoration experts.
Booty from Berlin
By now more people are aware of the work of the “Monuments Men”, the team of experts who rescued art stolen or stashed away by the Nazis during World War II. This summer, the Cincinnati Art Museum was supposed to open an exhibition titled “Paintings, Politics and the Monuments Men: The Berlin Masterpieces in America”, recounting another aspect of the story. At the end of the War, 202 masterpieces from the Berlin State Museum were found stashed in a salt mine in the town of Merkers, and were recovered by a team lead by U.S. Army Captain Walter I. Farmer, who hailed from Cincinnati. It was decided to send the paintings to the U.S. for a tour of American museums, a move which Captain Farmer and others protested for, among other reasons, smacking of the kind of triumphalism that Ancient Rome would engage in after defeating its enemies. This is just one intriguing aspect of the rather complicated story of what happened to these pictures, which the show is to tell (whenever it opens) alongside some of the works themselves, on loan from Berlin, as well as documents, photographs, and other original materials. Although the exhibition is currently on indefinite hold, the catalogue is now available and is definitely on my Wish List. Below, Generals Bradley, Eisenhower, and Lieutenant General Patton tour the Merkers mine before the paintings were taken back to the surface.
Gazing from Ghent
One of the most famous works of art rescued from the Nazis by the Monuments Men is, of course, “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”, more commonly known as “The Ghent Altarpiece”, a 15th-century masterpiece by the Van Eyck brothers that resides in St. Bravo’s Cathedral in the Belgian city of Ghent. Readers will recall that recently, a number of ill-informed commentators and meme-makers criticized the recent cleaning and restoration of the piece, because the face of the Lamb came out looking more humanoid and less lamb-like. After an exhaustive review, experts from the University of Antwerp and the National Gallery of Art have concluded that the Van Eycks did, in fact, intend to have the Lamb – who symbolizes Christ Himself – display the (to modern eyes) slightly disturbing face that we see gazing out at us now. It may be a late Medieval convention with respect to how to portray animals, since similar faces appear among the horses in one of the other panels of the altarpiece, or it may be that one or both of the Van Eycks intentionally wanted to have the viewer thrown a bit off-balance when praying or meditating before the image. For more about this, including a wealth of technical analysis that really gets into the weeds (but in a fascinating way), you can read the report here.