Category Archives: Film and TV

Downton Abbey Locations: Irresistible for a Fan

I managed to get to Highclere Castle, the “real” Downton Abbey, on a day it was closed to the general public. Now, I have no claim to fame and I was not invited to take tea with the current Countess, but I was armed with a yearly pass from the Historic Houses Association of England. Reading the booklet’s fine print, I let out a very unladylike whoop–it was covered! Hopeless fan of British eye candy that I am, I was not about to miss my chance.

We arrived at the estate in sunny Hampshire on a day when a fleet of classy British sport cars were parked on the grounds. Lord Grantham and his faithful golden labrador were nowhere in sight.

Full disclosure: my husband had seen exactly half of one episode of the TV show, but we share a fascination with British country homes. It’s always fun to be on the inside looking out of those imposing windows.

Alas, no photos were allowed inside, but after a short time cooling our heels outside the famous front door, in we went. Is that door-knocker a wolf? He’s just a little intimidating, for sure. Inside, the house looks exactly as it does on TV and now in the movie. No photos are allowed, but I can’t blame the owners. Visitors moved through the lush rooms quietly, not rushed, murmuring about their favorite scenes.

The movie’s other stately home location is Harewood–pronounced “Harwood,” of course. I never get British pronunciations right until I’m either corrected or I hear them from somebody who knows better.

Harewood is in Yorkshire (where Downton Abbey is supposed to be) and it’s very grand indeed.

In the recent movie, set in 1927, it’s one of the homes of Princess Mary, daughter of King George V and Queen Mary. She is married to Viscount Henry Lascelles, later the Sixth Earl of Harewood. He had a reputation for being difficult, especially after possibly suffering from shellshock in World War I. Also, he was fifteen years older than the Princess. But I can’t find any evidence that she ever considered leaving him, as in the movie.

Princess Mary was beloved for her gentle nature and her service during the Great War, including her gift packages in 1914 to every single British and Indian soldier, nurse or anyone who had a part in the war effort. The packages included tobacco, a pipe, cigarettes and a lighter in a brass box with a picture of her face. Those who did not smoke received boxes with sweets and such instead.

Harewood as it stands today was built beginning in 1759. The money came directly from the slave trade. Henry Lascelles, an earlier ancestor of the current owners, went to Barbados at the age of twenty-one and made his family’s fortune by astute, and apparently ruthless, exploitation of interests the family already had in sugar, cotton, rum and tobacco production–and in running slave ships.

The year 2007 was the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade in the British Empire, which happened in 1807. The Lascelles family had already sponsored research into the original source of their wealth, something very few British families did. In the Bicentary year, they sponsored a whole range of talks, tours, lectures and theatrical performances on the subject of slavery. Many if not most of the stately homes I like so much share the same history, but very few acknowledge it.

My old guidebook from a visit in the 1990s does not mention the slave trade at all. To their credit, the current owners have produced a new guidebook that not only tells the sad story, but tells how to access the actual historical records online.

The original Henry Lascelles may not have enjoyed his ill-gotten gains all that much. In 1753, he killed himself by slashing his own throat. (I have to wonder if his death was really a suicide, but that’s the story in the house’s current guidebook, above). His son Edwin Lascelles immediately began planning a grand house on the property he inherited.

The slave-trade money certainly bought beauty and luxury.

Robert Adam was a young Scottish architect, recently returned from studies in Italy and on the way up the social ladder when Edwin Lascelles hired him. The hallmark of Adams’s style was elaborate symmetrical plaster ornamentation on every flat surface, and especially on every ceiling.

Capability Brown designed the extensive grounds and gardens.

And Thomas Chippendale furnished the entire house from top to bottom.

Chippendale’s hall chairs, designed especially for the grand entry hall, were never sat upon–they were purely decorative. No doubt anybody like me, who might have plopped down in one, was never left alone in this most intimidating room.

Today, Jacob Epstein’s monumental alabaster sculpture “Adam” dominates the grand hall. It was made in the late 1930s and arrived at Harewood only in 1961. One wonders what “Downton Abbey’s” Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, would make of this Adam.

Anglophile that I am, I’ll always fall for the beauty and romance of a way of life that only existed for a very few people in a very brief period of time. But I’m happy to see the true cost of such beauty acknowledged as it is at Harewood.

George Sand and Friends at the Musée de la Vie Romantique

Musee de la Vie Romantique is a charming, peaceful oasis at the foot of Montmartre in Paris.  (Well, that’s what it was on a sunny spring day the other time I visited. On a recent rainy November day, it was dreary outside. People stood around wondering why they were there. The cheery garden cafe is shuttered and the chairs sit in puddles). Still, it’s worth a stop, especially since it’s free, with donations welcome.

On the way, I passed the Moulin Rouge, THE nightlife spot in Romantic times. From what I can see beyond the tour buses, it doesn’t look too appealing today. Plus I read that animals are used in the current show, in ways a lot of people find distressing. I’ll salute, but pass.

Art Scheffer, portrait by Thomas Phillips, c. 1840

The house, built in 1830, was the rented home of the painter Ary Scheffer, who was well-known at the time and had royal connections. Scheffer hosted weekly salon evenings attended by everybody who was anybody in the Romantic art, literature and music world.

Le Grand Atelier d’Ary Scheffer, Arie Johannes Lamme, 1851

Scheffer’s studio must have been a nice artistic hangout for his friends and students.

George Sand, bust by Auguste Clesinger, 1847

George Sand, one of the most notorious and talented women of her day, attended regularly with the most famous of her many lovers, the composer Frederic Chopin.  Her real name was Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin. Her friends called her Aurore. Though her family was not aristocratic, there was some money, a good education, and entree into high social circles.

George Sand, portrait by Charles Louis Gratia, 1835, Public Domain

She married a Baron and had two children, but aristocratic life was way too confining for her. She ran off with her two children and famously started dressing in men’s clothing, which she considered more practical than the full skirts and flounces of the day. Dressing as a man also let her enter places where women were not allowed, like raffish cafes in Montmartre (where she scandalously smoked in public).

Here she is, presiding over her salon (furnished by her heirs after the house became a museum, with portraits, possessions and mementoes). This portrait is by August Charpentier, 1838. She was striking and charismatic no matter how she was dressed. The poet Alfred de Musset, one of her lovers, said she was “the most womanly woman.” To support and also to amuse herself, she began writing novels, essays, criticism and memoirs. Her colorful life gave her plenty of material, and she was not particularly shy about sharing all her experiences. Note to self: find a good biography, and also her letters.

Frederic Chopin was a regular at the house during his stormy 8-year liaison with George Sand. A plaster cast of Chopin’s left hand reaches wistfully for a plaster cast of George Sand’s right hand in a glass case, along with a pen and some love letters.

Daguerreotype of Frédéric Chopin, Bisson, c. 1849, Public Domain

Poor Chopin suffered from tuberculosis and died at the age of 39. I wonder whether his affair with George Sand lengthened or shortened his life. Note to self: find good biography and letters.

Regulars at the house also included Chopin’s friend the composer Franz Liszt, opera composer Gioacchino Rossini, and the painters Eugene Delacroix and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, among many other artists of the Romantic Period. Later on, Charles Dickens, Ivan Turgenev, and Charles Gounod also stopped by often.

The actress Sarah Bernhardt was a regular, too. Here she is costumed as a character in a play based on one of George Sand’s works.

The house became a museum in 1982.  Heirs of George Sand donated much of the contents.

The audioguide is worthwhile, but not really necessary because there’s a free little guidebook.

In the summer months, there is a pretty tea garden.  The food is nothing special, but it’s a fine place to sit and soak up the atmosphere of La Vie Romantique.

Naturally, George Sand has been the subject of plenty of books and movies.  My favorite is the 1991 movie Impromptu, often streaming on Netflix.  I’ve seen it before, but I’ll be watching it again.  Who can resist Judy Davis as George Sand and Hugh Grant as Frederic Chopin, right at the beginning of their tumultuous affair?

Actually I see that I have it on DVD! Reading the jacket, I remember the rest of the cast: Emma Thompson as a duchess, Mandy Patinkin as Alfred de Musset, Julian Sands as Franz Liszt, Bernadette Peters as the long-suffering wife of Liszt, Ralph Brown as Eugène Delacroix, and the list of treats goes on. James Lapine was the director.

I’m off! If anyone needs me, I’ll be in mid-1800s Paris.

Happy Birthday, Jane Austen!

In honor of Jane Austen’s birth on December 16, 1775, I’m revisiting one of my favorite travel memories. In 2014, I visited the home where Jane lived in her last years. And I experienced Six (or fewer) Degrees of Separation from Jane.

Jane Austen lived the last few years of her too-short life in tranquil Chawton, Hampshire, with her mother, her cherished sister Cassandra, and a family friend. The women were pretty much penniless after the death of Jane’s father.  Like most single women of their time, they had to depend on the kindness of relatives for a roof over their heads.

Edward Knight

It was their good fortune that Jane’s brother Edward Knight was able to come to the rescue. Why was his name Edward Knight, not Edward Austen?  He had been formally adopted by a cousin of Jane’s father, Thomas Knight.  Thomas and his wife Catherine were wealthy and childless.  They made Edward their heir.  He inherited several estates, among them a grand house at Chawton.  The house came with a sizable but cozy cottage, which Edward made available to his mother and sisters for their lifetimes.

At last, in her thirties, Jane had a stable home.  She had begun writing as a teenager but had more or less given it up during the years that she had no settled home.  In Chawton, she established a routine of writing every morning at a little round table in front of the dining room window.  Her sister Cassandra took over morning household chores, giving Jane the freedom to write. In the afternoons, they took long walks in the countryside–just like Jane’s heroines. They also spent a lot of time visiting friends and relatives, including the wealthy connections Edward Knight was able to give them.

On this humble little table, Jane wrote the classics we know and love: Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, and Emma. Some of them she had begun earlier and had put away. Family lore had it that a squeaky door was purposely never oiled, so that Jane always had warning of visitors.  She would hastily hide her manuscript until the visitors had left.

Jane’s books dealt with the serious problems of women dependent on men for economic security.  As she knew all too well from her own life, an unmarried woman without a fortune of her own had very few options for survival. Jane spun her stories with humor, but also with hard-earned experience in understanding human conflicts.

I was deep in a discussion about Austen family history with a man stationed in the house, when I noticed that his name tag said, “Mr. Knight.”  Could it be?  Yes!  My Mr. Knight was a living, breathing, direct descendant of Jane’s brother! I think he looks just like his ancestor.

In Copenhagen this month, I loved seeing some outfits from Jane’s era in the Design Museum.

The Empire dresses first popularized by Josephine, the wife of Napoleon, were popular in Scandinavia as well as in Jane’s England.

I loved the puff detail on this one, which was made in Denmark’s colony in the Indies. (Taking care of fragile garments like this was the job of slaves–an unpleasant fact that countries like Denmark and England and America are still struggling to come to terms with). In one of her books, “Mansfield Park,” Jane touched on the subject.

Still, I can dream of a ladylike life in a peaceful English village. How about a little cotton jacket for a stroll in the garden?

I just found my DVD of my all-time favorite movie based on Jane’s work, “Persuasion.” It’s about maturity, regrets, making one’s own risky choices, and second chances. It stars Amanda Root, Ciaran Hinds, Corin Redgrave, Fiona Shaw, and a long list of other fine British actors. I’ll be watching it today, and feeling grateful that in her short life Jane was able to write as much as she did.

My Scandinavian Fathers

Actually my Scandinavian father and father-in-law are no longer with us, and I only knew grandfathers back one generation. But they were all descendants of families from Sweden, Norway and Finland who made the perilous journey to America in the 19th century. (The one exception was my British grandfather, who made a perilous journey of his own). The sculpture above is from Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland’s fantastic outdoor collection in Oslo, where the city gave him an entire huge park and studio for his lifetime. It’s a carefree image of fatherhood.

My forefathers did not have carefree lives in the Old Country. I never heard any of my relatives speak longingly of returning, although my grandmother used to croon Finnish lullabies to us in the rocking chair. My people were no doubt poor potato farmers trying to scrounge a living from rocky little plots of land. They were very happy to arrive on American shores and begin new lives in the rich soil of Minnesota. I was not particularly motivated to visit Scandinavian or Nordic regions–I guess I vaguely thought of these lands as poor backwaters, maybe lacking paved roads and indoor plumbing.

Over the past few months, I finally got around to visiting, over four different trips: first Sweden, then Denmark, then Finland, then Norway.  Now they’re my new favorite destinations.

Looking at Scandinavian art, I was struck by images of children parting from parents they would never see again.

This painting, by Adolph Tidemand, is “The Youngest Son’s Farewell.” It was painted in 1867, when the great wave of migration was well under way. It’s in the Kode Gallery in Bergen, Norway.

In the National Gallery of Norway in Oslo, there’s a similar poignant scene painted by Harriet Backer in 1878, “The Farewell.”

What’s going on here? It’s either a scene of emigration, or possibly of going off to war.  One of the reasons for leaving the Old Country was to escape compulsory military service. A servant hauls the young man’s duffel bag.

Whatever the reason, the parents are devastated to part with their son. There was no email, no Skyping, no jet planes for quick visits home.  Leaving very often meant leaving forever.

Life in Scandinavia was full of peril as well as poverty. In this 1858 painting by Carl Bloch, a Danish family looks anxiously out to sea was a storm approaches.  Will Father return, or will they all be left to fend for themselves? “Fisherman’s Families Await Their Return in an Approaching Storm” is in the Hirschsprung Gallery in Copenhagen.

In Vaxjo, Sweden, I stopped by the House of Emigrants, full of fascinating displays about the great wave of migration that brought my people to America starting around the 1850s and continuing well into the 20th century.

The museum contains a replica of the writing hut of the Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg, who meticulously documented the immigrant experience is the four historic novels “The Emigrants.”

Moberg spent a lot of time in the very Minnesota counties where my ancestors put down roots, just north of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

I had already watched the fine Max Van Sydow/Liv Ullman movies “The Emigrants” and “The New Land.”

While still traveling, I downloaded the four novels and devoured them.  Suddenly, I wanted to know all about my Scandinavian fathers.  Travel constantly opens up new doors!

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe, the British Isles, and now the Nordic and Scandinavian countries!

Happy Birthday, Emily Bronte!

Emily Bronte, portrait by Branwell Bronte

Emily Bronte, portrait by Branwell Bronte

Emily Bronte was born on July 30, 1818. Her brother Branwell, an aspiring poet and portrait painter, composed one of the very few images of her. His sister Emily was painfully shy, hardly speaking with anyone outside the family. But she was a bold artist.  Her novel, Wuthering Heights, is still startling in its passion and social critique.

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Branwell  was the only son in the family and great things were expected of him. I think poor Branwell suffered from what we might now call Preacher’s Kid Syndrome: a need to act out, just because his father, the Reverend Patrick Bronte, was such an upright man. Branwell studied painting, in between bouts of drinking, taking opiates, and getting fired from various gigs as a tutor–for which his father had taken great pains to educate him. In around 1834, at age 17, Branwell painted the group portrait above. It is now one of the most treasured works in London’s National Portrait Gallery, and the centerpiece of a special Bronte exhibit I saw last spring.

Why is this rare painting folded in the middle?  We’re lucky that it still exists, damaged as it is. The portrait, together with the profile of Emily, traveled to Ireland with Charlotte Bronte’s widower after her death as a young bride. It appears that a heartbroken Arthur Bell Nicholls shoved the portraits of his beloved Charlotte and her sisters on top of a wardrobe in an Irish farmhouse, out of sight and out of mind.

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The churchyard where all the Brontes are buried (except Anne, who died at Scarborough and was buried there) is just outside the door of the parsonage. Living there, walking every day past the graves of so many loved ones who had died so young, must have been unbearably sad.

By the time Charlotte died, shortly after her marriage and while pregnant with her first child, Branwell, Emily and Anne were already dead. Most likely they died of either tuberculosis or infectious diseases from the poor sanitation in the village. (Branwell more or less drank himself to death). Nicholls stayed in Haworth for several years to care for his father-in-law. Nicholls eventually remarried. His widow finally discovered the paintings (housecleaning, no doubt) in 1914.

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Sadly, it seems that Branwell had erased himself from the family portrait. This fact was not known until the 1950s, when the oil paint became more transparent with age. Now, it is clear that there was once a man’s figure between the sisters.  Did Branwell already have such a low opinion of himself? Was he ashamed to be seen with his much-more-virtuous sisters? Or did he feel he could not do justice to his own wonderfulness? Or was this possibly a portrait of his father, who took a very dim view of Branwell’s nights spent in the local pub or worse?  We’ll never know.

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The London exhibit also contains items such as Charlotte’s tiny boots. The caption says that for outdoor wear, the boots were most likely worn with wooden platens strapped to the soles for a little protection against mud and snow. How did the Bronte girls manage to walk for miles in the rugged North Yorkshire moors in footgear like this?

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Last year I made a literary pilgrimage to Haworth in Yorkshire.  The town still looks much the same as it did when Emily composed her novel about wild forbidden love on the moors. I was lucky enough to stay at Ponden Hall, a house where the Brontes were regular visitors. It’s now a family home, a lovingly run bed and breakfast, and a venue for  gatherings of artists, writers, and Bronte fans. The charming hosts go out of their way to show all visitors around their historic home.  In the photo below, the bookcase is a hidden door into a secret library. The Bronte girls used to visit the house, a couple of miles from the parsonage, to use the library.

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It’s possible to actually sleep in the “box bed,” shown above, with the little window that reportedly inspired Emily to write her famous scene where the ghost of Cathy appears outside the window, begging to be let in.  Her forbidden and guilt-ridden lover Heathcliffe staggers out onto the moors in desperate search of her. (Did I sleep in the box bed? No, but maybe next time! Do I believe in ghosts? Maybe!)

Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon in "Wuthering Heights," Public Domain

Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon in “Wuthering Heights,” Public Domain

In 1939, Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon played the lovers Cathy and Heathcliffe in the classic romantic film based on the novel.  Since then, there’s been a 2011 film version that makes explicit the racism that Emily only hinted at in her novel, by calling Heathcliffe a “gypsy.” It’s on my list to watch.  There’s a 2009 miniseries, too.

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Did I venture onto the wild moors myself?  Only partway.  I had a broken foot, thanks to a super-klutzy fall just before I left on my trip.

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But I’m determined to hike the moors.  Next time, I hope I’ll be able to follow the signposts and get just a little bit lost in the wild countryside that inspired Emily Bronte and her sisters.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art, history and literature of Europe and the British Isles!

Ludwig at Linderhof

"King Ludwig II of Bavaria," Ferdinand Piloty, 1865, Public Domain

“King Ludwig II of Bavaria,” Ferdinand Piloty, 1865, Public Domain

“Mad” King Ludwig II of Bavaria was found dead in Lake Starnberg on June 13, 1886. He was 40 years old. The cause of death is still mysterious, but his death was convenient for a lot of people in Bavaria, where he had pretty much given up on the day-to-day business of governing. Government of Bavaria ground to a halt while Ludwig spent all his money (mostly his own personal fortune) on increasingly theatrical castles and palaces. He had been declared insane the previous day and was in some kind of royal “protective” custody.

After a couple of misses, I was finally able to visit Linderhof Palace, King Ludwig II’s favorite home, at a time when the grotto was open.  I was anxious to see it, especially after watching Luchino Visconti’s very fine film Ludwig, about the life and mysterious death of the notorious Bavarian king.

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Ludwig built Linderhof as his own personal getaway.  In fact, it was the ultimate bachelor pad.  But he enjoyed the place in solitary splendor; he rarely if ever had visitors.  He built a special music room for his favorite composer, Richard Wagner, but Wagner never saw it. The grounds are breathtaking, and because the palace is quite small, each room looks out onto a beautiful manicured view with pristine mountains in the background.

Linderhof Palace

Linderhof Palace

In Visconti’s 1972 film Ludwig, the king is played by Visconti’s real-life romantic partner and muse, Helmut Berger.

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The film shows Ludwig lounging around in his grand surroundings with hand-picked servants and a handsome young actor. Filming took place in the palace, so watching it is like having a tour personally conducted by the very strange and romantic Ludwig himself. His bedroom (intentionally) recalls the bedroom of King Louis XIV of France. This is a one-man palace; there are no guest rooms.  The help stayed in outbuildings, invisible to the king until they were needed.

It is hard to say how accurate the life story is.  But it is certain that Ludwig was an eccentric and  dreamy romantic.  His people loved him, but he was not much of a king when it was time to hang the ermine in the closet and get some work done.

One of Ludwig’s very few friends was his cousin, the Austrian Empress Elisabeth, nicknamed Sisi. She was famously married to the Emperor when she was only 15, and spent the rest of her life wanting out.  She is played by Romy Schneider (who also played Sisi in the very silly but entertaining semi-fictional series of Sissi movies).

The grotto was built up the hill behind the castle.  The entrance looks like a fort a very ambitious child might build.

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But the grotto itself is as jaw-droppingly weird and beautiful as it was in Ludwig’s day.  He had Wagner’s operas performed inside for his own personal pleasure.  The water was heated, so that he could swim in it if he tired of being rowed around in his gilded shell boat.  And the lighting could change colors depending on his mood, or the mood of the opera scene.

Ludwig's Grotto

Ludwig’s Grotto

The grotto is still festooned with the floral swags that Visconti’s movie crew put up.  The film has a fantastic scene where an Austrian actor is taken into the grotto to meet Ludwig, who wants him to recite dramatic speeches 24/7.  Helmut Berger, as Ludwig, floats out of the gloom in his shell boat, wearing a dark overcoat and a black Homburg–with an enormous diamond brooch pinned to the side. He fixes the actor with an imperious, piercing stare. The actor tries hard to be Ludwig’s New Best Friend, but the friendship ends badly and Ludwig is alone again.

Nearby Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau Castles are justly famous, but they are overrun with tourists.  Armed with a Bavarian Castles Pass, I actually went to Linderhof twice during my last trip.  One day it was rainy, the next it was sunny.  I can’t say I had the place to myself, but there was time and space enough to ponder the mysterious life of Ludwig.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

Vincent and Theo

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In 1990, Robert Altman directed the movie Vincent and Theo, concerning the relationship between Vincent Van Gogh and his brother.  The fine actor Tim Roth plays Vincent.  The equally fine Paul Rhys plays his brother Theo. It was originally made as a 4-hour BBC mini-series, which the director Altman compressed into a feature film. Rolling Stone called the Altman movie “a masterpiece.” But then, lots of Altman films are known as masterpieces.

The film brilliantly evokes the times in Paris and in the south of France.  There is nothing very picturesque about poverty in either place.  Vincent’s brave attempts to create a stable life for himself are heartbreaking.

“Memory of the Garden at Etten,” Vincent van Gogh, 1988, Public Domain

In 1888, during his troubled time with his painter friend Paul Gaugin in Arles, van Gogh painted his mother’s garden at Etten from memory.  I don’t know whether I’ll ever see the original; it’s at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.  It’s a stunning painting.  Vincent wrote about it to Theo:  “A reminiscence of our garden at Etten with cabbages, cypresses, dahlias and figures…Gaugin gives me courage to imagine and the things of the imagination do indeed take on a more mysterious character.” Which of the figures is van Gogh’s mother?  One of the sad-looking figures in the foreground?  Or the woman bent over her garden in humble hard work?  Maybe they all represent his mother, or his childhood, in some way.  I think this painting would have had deep meaning for the brothers who shared so much.

Having recently visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, I gave the film another look.  I have always thought of Theo as the long-suffering, conventional patron of his tortured genius brother.  In the film, interestingly, Theo comes across as equally troubled.  In fact, he sometimes seems more tortured than VIncent.  At least Vincent always has his single-minded determination to paint.  Theo has self-doubts.  Why is he stuck working in art galleries?  Why can’t he afford to get married?  Finally he does marry, in spite of suffering from syphilis.  Then he has a wife and colicky baby to add to his troubles.

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Theo was always in frail health.  In fact, he died just a few months after VIncent’s death.  The brothers are buried side by side in Auvers. When I visited, a few years ago, the cemetery adjoined a cornfield that could have come straight out of a van Gogh painting. The same ivy vine intertwines and covers the graves of the two brothers. It’s a lonely trek to see the graves; this is not a major tourist attraction. The brothers’ relationship, troubled as it was, gave us the gift of Vincent’s paintings, which always attract clumps of viewers in museums lucky enough to own them. Vincent could not have painted his masterpieces without the love and support of his brother Theo.

I wrote about Vincent’s mother and their loving relationship in a previous post at  https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2015/05/09/thanks-for-eve…m-love-vincent/

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

Back to Blenheim

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Every now and then the stars align favorably.  I was lucky enough to visit Blenheim Palace last fall, and doubly lucky to be in England again in the spring.  When I bought my Blenheim ticket last fall, I stopped at a kiosk and made it into a year-long pass–at no extra charge!  What a deal!  I’d probably go back even if I didn’t like the place, but I happen to love it.

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Blenheim was used for the exterior scenes of the great film Hamlet, with Kenneth Branagh as director and and playing the melancholy Hamlet himself. He was perfect. English major and Shakespeare lover that I am, I’ve watched the film quite a few times.  I like to turn on the subtitles so I can get all the glorious Shakespearean words, but it is very dramatic and easy to follow even without caring much about the dialogue. It even ends with some swashbuckling worthy of Jack Bauer in 24. The acting is stellar, featuring, besides Kenneth Branagh, Charlton Heston, Julie Christie, Billy Crystal, the late Robin Williams, Derek Jacobi, Kate Winslet, Michael Maloney, Timothy Spall, Richard Attenborough, Brian Blessed, Judi Dench, Geraard Depardieu, John Gielgud, Rosemary Harris, and Jack Lemmon (he was still with us in 1996!)

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Toward the end of the film, one scene shows the new King arriving after the tragic events of the story, riding up to the palace with his retinue.

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The palace, decorated with military mementos of the First Duke of Marlborough, was just the right location. The 11th Duke of Marlborough had a cameo appearance as one of the nobles accompanying the new king.  I’m guessing it was one of the highlights of his long and distinguished life. After all, he was appearing with fine actors in a great film that showcased his ancestral home. Plus the new King was played by Rufus Sewell, in fine smoldering form.  Who wouldn’t want to appear in that film?
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I  last saw the 11th Duke last fall on my visit.  He was usually a very visible presence, striding around his palace and really seeming to welcome visitors.  When I was there last, his brother was being married in the palace chapel. So the Duke was jovially greeting his guests.  He looked frail, though, and I was sad to learn that he died just a few weeks later. During my visit, I saw his lovely wife, and I also saw the soon-to-be 12th Duke with his wife. I recognized them all from photos in the house. The heir is in the photo just behind the 11th Duke.

I previously wrote about Blenheim at https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2014/11/06/blenheim-the-s…kings-waterloo/

I wrote about the death and funeral of the elegant 11th Duke at https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2014/10/30/what-are-plus-fours-anyway/ ‎ and  https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2014/10/29/farewell-to-th…of-marlborough/

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The 12th Duke has now moved to the front of the photo displays in the palace. Yesterday I toured the several of the family’s private rooms in the East Wing.  The rooms are sumptuous, but lived-in.  (Think of the most elegant possible version of Shabby Chic).  There are 12 bedrooms, each with its own bathroom and dressing room–but they are off limits. No photos were allowed. The 12th Duke was in the house–his flag was flying.  But he must not have been told that I had come to see him, because he was nowhere in sight.  As an American, I’m always puzzled but intrigued by British aristocracy and royalty.  I wish the 12th Duke many years of carrying on his family’s heritage, and I’m sure he’s as dedicated to the task as his late father was.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

Topsy Turvy

The cold winter months are a perfect time to catch up on movies and miniseries.  I just treated myself to a repeat of one of my very favorite movies, Topsy Turvy. It’s a 1999 musical drama/comedy by the great and idiosyncratic director Mike Leigh. He works with a regular troupe of favorite actors.  The actors all develop their characters over a period of months and get together regularly to improvise based on the relationships they develop. Mr. Leigh watches the improvisations.  At certain points, he tells his actors to get out of character. Then they all discuss what’s happened. Based on the improvisations and discussions, Mr. Leigh develops a shooting script.  So the stories arise organically, out of real human behavior.

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The subject of Topsy Turvy is the unlikely creation of the much-performed and much-loved musical classic, The Mikado. The film’s story is based on real people and real events, extensively researched.  Each cast member was given a character to research and understand, then at intervals they got together in various groupings. Mr. Leigh would give them the premise of a scene, and off they’d go.

At the beginning of the story, Arthur Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert are a phenomenally successful creative team.  Their comic operas attract large and appreciative audiences to the Savoy Theatre, built specially for them by the producer D’Oyly Carte. Gilbert writes the stories and lyrics, and Sullivan comes up with the orchestral scores.  But Sullivan is weary.  He feels he has a serious opera in him, and he is convinced he is wasting his time with light comic operas.  He complains to Gilbert that every story they’ve done is the same: a “topsy turvy” world created by a potion or spell or magical device.

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Sullivan decamps to Paris, where, truth be told, he enjoys the naughty nightlife more than he composes serious work.  Gilbert is left to his own devices in Victorian London. He has a supportive but miserable wife, an estranged set of demanding elderly parents, and two old maid sisters.  His wife wants children, and he either can’t or won’t cooperate in conceiving any.

Suddenly, Eureka!  There’s an international exposition which includes a wildly popular Japanese pavilion.  Gilbert brings home a ceremonial Japanese sword; it falls on his head with the same brain-jarring effect as Newton’s apple.  The Mikado, in all its wit and humor, flies out of his pen. Sullivan, skeptical,  reads the libretto and chuckles appreciatively.  The duo is in business again, hard at work on their greatest triumph. The Mikado premiered in 1885.  It was an instant smash hit.

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The best part of the film chronicles the joy and struggle to bring the piece from the page to the stage.  Scenes of backstage pettiness alternate with scenes of sheer genius as the performers learn their places in the comic masterpiece.

Some years ago, I was lucky enough to attend a performance of The Mikado at the Savoy Theatre in London.  It was all I’d hoped for, and more–sublimely beautiful and funny. Topsy Turvy brings it all back. But it is not necessary to know a thing about Gilbert and Sullivan to enjoy the rollicking humor and genuine pathos of the movie.

Alan Corduner stars as Arthur Sullivan.  Jim Broadbent is W.S. Gilbert.  All the actors are stellar, including Timothy Spall, who is currently starring in Mr. Turner, a new Mike Leigh film. Mr. Spall plays the great English landscape painter J.M.W. Turner in an acclaimed performance.

The movie still above is from Roger Ebert’s admiring review, found at

http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/topsy-turvy-2000

Consuelo Vanderbilt to the Rescue

La Duchess de Marlborough, Helleu, 1901, Public Domain

La Duchess de Marlborough, Helleu, 1901, Public Domain

Julian Fellowes, creator of the television hit Downton Abbey, did not invent the story of an American heiress bringing her fortune to the rescue of an aristocratic British family of declining fortunes. Fortune-hunting Brits, titled but poor, regularly patrolled the upper reaches of American society for rich brides.  Consuelo Vanderbilt was one of those real-life brides. She became the very reluctant wife of the 9th Duke of Marlborough.

By all accounts, Consuelo was one of the loveliest and most charming women of her age. The playwright Sir James Barrie, author of Peter Pan, famously wrote, “I would wait all night in the rain, to see Consuelo Marlborough get into her carriage.” She was also sweet, compliant, and dominated by her mother Alva Vanderbilt.

Alva was formidable.  She was estranged from her husband, the fabulously rich railroad man who, among other feats, created Madison Square Garden.  He was a grandson of the dynasty’s founder, Cornelius “The Commodore” Vanderbilt, and inherited the equivalent of about $1.4 billion in today’s money. Alva divorced him for adultery and landed a settlement of the equivalent of $280 million in today’s money.  Alva named her daughter after her godmother, a half-Cuban American socialite who had made a spectacular marriage into the family of the Duke of Manchester.

Alva expected no less of her beautiful daughter Consuelo. She forced Consuelo into a brilliant but doomed marriage with the 9th Duke, who didn’t want the marriage any more than Consuelo did. Alva actually placed her daughter under house arrest in her bedroom, keeping her away from the man she loved, until the tearful teenager finally agreed to marry the Duke of Marlborough.  Consuelo wept behind her wedding veil at the 1895 ceremony in New York. She was just 18 at the time. The Duke wasted no time in collecting her dowry, the equivalent of $67 million dollars, which he sorely needed to maintain the family seat at Blenheim Palace. The money lasted until around 1950, when declining fortunes forced the house to open to the paying public.

Duke of Marlborough and His Family, John SInger Sargent, 1905, Public Domain

Duke of Marlborough and His Family, John SInger Sargent, 1905, Public Domain

Consuelo did her duty, producing the required “heir and a spare.” By some accounts, she invented the famous expression. Predictably, the marriage ended in separation in 1906, divorce in 1921, and finally annullment in 1926, after Alva admitted that she had been wrong to force the marriage. Consuelo forgave her domineering mother and they developed a close relationship.

Consuelo with WInston Churchill at Blenheim, Public Domain

Consuelo with WInston Churchill at Blenheim, Public Domain

Consuelo became a close friend of Sir Winston Churchill, who was born at Blenheim in 1874 and remained a frequent visitor there all his life. While she was the Duchess, she worked to improve the lives of the poor around the estate and in the town of Woodstock.  It appears she was universally adored.  Later in life, she continued her good works, even as she took part in glittering society.  Her second marriage was happy, and she lived out her days in contentment. She died in New York at age 87.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!