Prologue (Because Who Doesn’t Love A Good Prologue?):
I spent 10 days in Europe (!) this April. My first ever trip over the pond as a matter of fact. And it was GLORIOUS, with all capital letters. I spent one morning ooing and ahhing over Westminster, St. Margaret’s Cathedral, the Jewel Tower and all things London ‘n’ stuff.
Then it started to mist, then drizzle, then downright pour. I ended up at the National Portrait Gallery, a bit bedraggled but ready to see everything. The pictures and information I captured will be fodder for years of posts to come, but for now I wanted to focus on a very interesting and macabre bit of artistry.
Post (Because Who Doesn’t Love A Macabre Post?):
It’s clear the artists for many of the portraits posed their subjects—obviously, as you can’t just take a one second painting, right? The subjects have to pose for hours. Days. Months, sometimes. But like modern photography, every picture includes very carefully chosen and positioned props. Often the props make sense if you know the history of the subject. There were a couple of fascinating similarities in a few pictures that had me musing (in my damp clothes and the conveniently atmospheric rain-gray light from the ceiling windows) about the subjects, the artists and the time period.
Because, you know, a skull is just what I want in my portrait.
This would be Mr. John Evelyn. If you can read my rather blurry picture of the plaque accompanying the painting, it reads as follows:
“Evelyn records in his Diary that he sat to Walker on 1 July 1648, and that his portrait was intended to accompany a treatise on marriage which he had written for his young wife Mary Browne. The portrait originally showed him holding a miniature or medal of his wife. The skull was substituted some years later, with the Greek motto (top) signifying ‘Repentance is the beginning of Wisdom’, and the quotation in Latin from Seneca on the importance of preparing for death.”
My question? Why would he substitute a skull for a miniature of his wife? And what about the repentance bit? Seems that treatise on marriage might not have done the young couple any good. Then again, if Mr. A gave me a treatise on marriage, I’d wap him upside the head with it. So there you go. Maybe Miss Mary Browne did just that.
Next up is John Tradescant The Younger (which makes me wonder about The Elder). Another skull.
This time the plaque reads: “The moss growing on the skull in the portrait is probably a (something too blurry for me to read) to the belief that a powder made ‘out of the mosse of a man’s scull’ was ‘a (darn it, too blurry, but it seems good) remedy for the falling sickness [epilepsy].”
Still. It’s a SKULL.
Now we have a portrait that I failed to capture the plaque of on film. I dunno who this guy is, or why he has a very scary fake head in his portrait. Whatever the reason, I still wonder why he would want this immortalized for all time.
And my very favorite gentleman, this guy:
Mr. Charles Waterton. A taxidermist. Hence the cat head. *shudder*
His little plaque says that he traveled in South America, wrestled a caiman (an alligator type animal) and then went home to start a bird sanctuary. He also spent a lot of time talking about taxidermy and how to preserve animal specimens. Not sure what to say to that. I mean, my uncle is a taxidermist of fish and deer. That’s cool. But a cat head? Yeah, nope.
Really, I can’t say I’d like my portrait with any of these props. Not the skulls, the fake head or, you know, the cat head. (Cat head?!?) But I find them fascinating…More so, because what type of person wants their likeness captured with a skull for all perpetuity? And/or what sort of artist wants to paint a skull? And/or, what would make me want my likeness portrayed with a skull for all eternity? Or the cat head. (Cat head?!?!?!?!)
Then again, I have really bad selfies in front of Westminster preserved on Facebook for all eternity. So I guess we all have our version of weird.