Category Archives: History

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!

Easter Time in Helsinki


Helsinki in early April is chilly and blustery.  All the children are bundled up in one-piece snow suits. I was wishing I had one! Finland is not a place for religious pageantry and parades as in Southern Europe.


The Lutheran Helsinki Cathedral is impressive in its grand spaces, but very austere. Aside from Martin Luther gazing skyward, there’s not much to look at. And (at least on an admittedly quick stop) I didn’t see a children’s corner with little chairs, or posters about bake sales, or ladies dusting things, or a single clergy person.


The National Museum of Finland was a much more church-like experience. This pulpit is from the church in Parainen, Finland, dated 1650. At the time, Finland was a frontier to the west of Sweden–and very handy as a buffer between Sweden and Russia. Newly built churches were required to have pulpits. Lutheranism was the state religion of Sweden, and everybody was expected to sit still for it or else.


This pulpit is from the Kalvia Church, around 1726.  I like the cloudy heavens painted on its ceiling just above the preacher’s head.


Wait, there are hourglasses? Four of them? How long is this sermon going to be, anyway? Better not ask.


My favorite item was an altarpiece depicting the Last Supper. It’s from the Ylane Church, dated around 1675.


The faces are friendly and everyone is having a nice time together. There seem to be only 11 apostles. Apparently Judas has already left the building.


Jesus (with spiky sun-ray halo) seems to be holding a child in his lap. So the story is maybe doing double duty here: “Let the little children come unto me.”

The museum also had wonderful religious wood carvings dating back as far as the 1200s. I liked St. Martin on his horse, about to share his warm cloak with a beggar. He was carved and assembled from several pieces of wood around 1320.


I gazed for awhile at the Archangel Gabriel, carved and gilded around 1500.


Then I was back on the friendly but chilly streets of Helsinki, wishing I had a striped snowsuit and a red polka-dotted hat with flower ears.

Julius Caesar and the Ides of March

In the midst of the most turbulent American political season in decades, I recently re-read Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar. His source was mostly the historian Plutarch. The play is still relevant, and still illuminating on the subjects of loyalty to others versus loyalty to country, honest differences of political opinion, the uses and abuses of power, and whether and when violence is justified. And because it’s Shakespeare, every word is memorable. In history and in the play, Julius Caesar meets a bloody end.  But  Shakespeare gave him some memorable lines before he went down.  In the play, contemplating his risks, Julius Caesar says, “Cowards die may times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.”

This day, the 15th of March in year 44 B.C., did not work out well for Julius Caesar.  According to the historian Plutarch, a fortune-teller warned Caesar that something terrible would happen to him before the “Ides of March.”  There were other warnings, too:  a graphically violent dream by Caesar’s worried wife Calphurnia, men seemingly walking around on fire in the marketplace, a lion wandering the streets. Confident (or foolhardy) fellow that Julius Caesar was, he laughed at the portents and predictions. He even gloated, as he made his way to the Roman Senate on that morning.  When he reached the Theater of Pompey, where Senate sessions were being temporarily held, he figured he was home free.  But a lethal circle of assassins awaited him, knives concealed under their togas. Calphurnia’s nightmare came horribly true.

"Death of Caesar," 1798, VIncenzo Camuccini, public domain

“Death of Caesar,” 1798, Vincenzo Camuccini, public domain

Julius Caesar’s death marked the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of fierce civil wars that eventually led to the formation of the Roman Empire–a period that was stable, but definitely not democratic. Julius Caesar had already more or less ended the Republic:  at the height of his power, he had named himself “Imperator.”

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Could Caesar have avoided his violent end? Given his personality and supreme self-confidence, he probably could not. He had refused to resign when the Senate politely requested that he step down, and with one of his legions he had defiantly crossed the Rubicon River into Italy.  That was strictly forbidden. Military conquest was for the frontiers. Rome was for reasoned debate among civilized men.  Ever since Julius Caesar’s audacious and risky march across that border river, the expression “crossing the Rubicon” has meant a fateful and irreversible action. There was no turning back, for Caesar or for Rome.

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Looking back over the centuries, it appears that the common people loved Julius Caesar for his flamboyance and for the military glory he had brought home to Rome. But his aristocratic peers saw only danger ahead. They decided that Caesar had to go. Once he was safely dead and out of the way, his heir, Octavius, obligingly made Julius Caesar a god. No danger there, and the move placated the restive common people.

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Today, the Roman Forum is a haunting place to wander, pondering the ups and downs of history. When I visited, I bought a book with clear overlays which shows how the various buildings must once have looked back in the day.  But even without a visual aid, it is not hard to imagine Julius Caesar and his entourage making his way through the Forum on his way to the Senate session on that fateful day, the Ides of March in 44 B.C.

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

No More Red Boxes? What Would Disraeli Say?

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At Hughenden Manor last spring, I was thrilled to spot Prime Minister Disraeli’s famous “red box” in his study.  It’s a  kind of box used for the last 150 years or so by British government officials. It’s really just a briefcase, but so much more romantic–and quintessentially British. These boxes were first used in the 1860s.  They were covered in red-dyed rams’ leather, embossed with the Royal Cypher and lined with lead–reportedly so that if the carrier were captured at sea, the box would sink with all its secrets intact. The lead also made the boxes pretty strong in the event of bombing or other catastrophe. The lock is on the bottom of the box, guaranteeing that nobody will walk off without locking it. (Does anyone ever forget, grab the handle and spill the important documents?  Let’s hope not).

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Photo from “Daily Mail” article cited below

Until very recently, important government officials proudly carried their red boxes wherever they went. (Naturally, a government official is always hard at work, so the box is necessary at all times). Any man or woman would walk a little taller carrying the jaunty red case. And what a status symbol to casually place on one’s table on the train!

Queen Elizabeth, like Disraeli’s Queen Victoria, receives her own royal red box daily.  It contains documents the sovereign must sign before they become law.  I’d like to think the Queen’s red box will exist for a long time.

But now, the British government is phasing out the revered symbol of power in favor of secure smartphones. For one thing, ministers have developed the wasteful habit of having their boxes shuttled from place to place in chauffeured limousines, as described in an article from The Independent. Then there’s the problem of security. A fingerprint-activated smartphone is apparently safer (at least until it’s hacked.)

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So in England, red ministerial boxes are going the way of red curbside telephone boxes.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli lived in a slower-moving world.  His red box came with him to his country home, where he worked in his quiet study between long walks inspecting his grounds. There was time for him to think, to read actual books, to reflect on the weighty problems of state. I fear that Britain’s government ministers will now be more like the rest of us: constantly intent on a pocket-sized screen.

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Somehow, I can’t see the elegant Mr. Disrael hunched over a smartphone.

I wouldn’t give up my own smartphone for anything, of course.  It’s my only camera, as well as my window into the wider world.  I can look up most anything with a few thumbstrokes. But if I were a British government minister, I would miss my elegant red ramskin box with the Royal Cypher and the lock on the bottom.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2958851/Traditional-government-red-boxes-phased-150-years-ministers-given-thumbprint-activated-smartphones.html

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/the-government-ferried-briefcases-around-alone-in-chauffeur-driven-cars-3000-times-in-the-last-three-a6812851.html

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

 

Hughenden Manor: Winning the War in the Icehouse

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Who was the man getting the surprise ice-water bath above, and what did he have to do with victory in World War II? One day in 2004, a National Trust guide at Hughenden Manor overheard an intriguing conversation.  An old man was very quietly describing to his grandchild how he had once worked in the very room they were standing in.  Hughenden Manor was the country home of Benjamin Disraeli, the Prime Minister and friend of Queen Victoria.

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The house was a dusty relic of Victorian times. But it turned out that the house played a pivotal role in the Second World War, totally unknown to anyone except the 100 or so people who secretly worked there in the 1940s.

When the Battle of Britain and the London Blitz ended in late 1940, Britain’s Royal Air Force, the RAF, had overcome all the odds and held off the German Luftwaffe. Adolf Hitler had believed that the British would fold under heavy bombing, negotiate a peace treaty, and become his allies.  How wrong he was. About 3,000 young pilots, averaging 20 years of age, did battle daily over the Channel, outnumbered by 5 to 1 in both equipment and flyers. They were not all British; some of them were Polish, Czech, Belgian and French.  According to the RAF, 544 of them were killed in the Battle of Britain, and another 814 died later in the war. Winston Churchill famously summed up the Battle of Britain: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”  To this day, pilots who fought are referred to as “The Few.”

But the war was just beginning. It was necessary for Allied forces, soon including the United States, to knock out German infrastructure. The only maps available at the time were made for tourists. They showed roads, cities, railways and sightseeing destinations like castles and cathedrals. Bombers needed detailed maps to accomplish their missions of destroying armament factories and other strategic targets.

Hughenden Manor became a secret command center for the vital mission of creating detailed maps for bomber pilots to use.  British Spitfires and later Mosquitos were dispatched across the Channel with automatic cameras in their gun bays.  Since the gun bays had no guns, the planes had no protection.  The pilots, as brave as any of The Few, flew thousands of surveillance missions over Germany. Over the course of the war, they took 36 million photos. The camera film was carried by courier to Hughenden Manor, where the 100 or so top-secret mapmakers went to work.

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The old Hughenden icehouse was the darkroom.

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Mapmakers were on duty at all times; someone always slept in the icehouse.

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Inside, mapmakers worked day and night, translating the surveillance photos into maps for bomber pilots. Target maps were drawn by hand, with the target in the middle, surrounded by concentric circles one mile apart.

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Today, the visitor can try out the equipment, which in its day was high-tech. Completed maps, thousands of them, were sent seven miles up the road to Bomber Command.  Often, couriers used bicycles, so as not to draw attention.

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The entire map-making operation was a military secret, protected by the Official Secrets Act.  People who worked at Hughenden, military and civilian, took an oath to keep the operation secret for their entire lifetimes.  When the National Trust accidentally learned a little about the amazing World War II history of Hughenden, they went to Parliament and eventually received permission to make the secrets public.  Today, the icehouse and the basement of Hughenden hold an enthralling museum of this vital part of victory for the Allies in World War II.

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Veterans of the secret operation were tracked down and interviewed on video, before their stories were lost forever. People sent in their personal diaries and photos. The almost-lost history came alive.

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And the man getting the surprise ice bath?  Newbies were invited into the icehouse to have a wartime picture taken, to send to the folks at home (of course, the location was always kept secret). The helpful icehouse staff posed the unsuspecting person under an icy water outlet in the brick ceiling.  Someone pulled a lever at the exact moment the camera snapped.  Everyone, including the victim, laughed uproariously.

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The result was a nice wartime keepsake, and a personal reminder of undaunted British spirit when the odds of victory seemed slim.  British self-deprecating humor and camaraderie were a big part of that spirit.

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I’d recommend a visit to Hughenden Manor. Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

 

 

 

Mary Anne Disraeli: the Woman Behind the Man

Why is a Victorian carriage door prominently displayed on a wall at Hughenden, the country home of Queen Victoria’s friend and Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli? The Prime Minister himself removed it from the carriage and preserved it as a tribute to his wife, Mary Anne. One evening the ambitious politician and his doting wife set off from his London house to Parliament, where he was to deliver a very important speech.  When the carriage door was closed, it slammed shut on Mary Anne’s thumb. What did she do? She suffered in silence, all the way to Westminster. She didn’t want to upset the man before his speech. A placard next to the carriage door explains that Mary Anne said not a word until Disraeli was safely out of the carriage and on his way into the corridors of power.  The placard remarks drily that her words when her thumb was released were not recorded.

 Mary Anne was 12 years older than her husband, and the marriage began as one of convenience. But it grew into a true love match.

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According to the guidebook sold at Hughenden, Disraeli was a novelist and something of a playboy in 1830s London. He had written a novel, Vivian Grey, which was a thinly veiled self-portrait of a young man on the make. His friend Bulwer-Lytton described him thus: he wore “green velvet trousers, a canary coloured waistcoat, low sleeves, silver buckles, lace at his wrists, his hair in ringlets.” He cut a wide swath through bohemian London salons, finally gaining an entree into the highest circles. He tried five times for a seat in Parliament before he won an election.  His maiden speech was a disaster; he was shouted down. What worked in drawing rooms did not work in the House of Commons.  He famously ended by saying, “I will sit down now, but the time will come when you will hear me.”

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Mary Anne, my photo from Hughenden guidebook

 

What Disraeli needed was a rich wife. He met Mary Anne Wyndham Lewis in 1832, when she was just another older married woman he enjoyed flirting with.  He thought her “a pretty little woman, a flirt and a rattle” which according to the guidebook meant “incessant chatterer.” But her deep-pocketed husband obligingly died in 1838, leaving her a rich widow. Her appeal increased and Disraeli married her in 1839.
Disraeli soon learned what a treasure he had found.  He wrote, “There was no care which she could not mitigate, and no difficulty which she could not face. She was the most cheerful and the most courageous woman I ever knew.”  High praise indeed; Disraeli had known and depended on many, many women in his rise to power in Victorian England.

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A visit to Hughenden is a window into the Victorian past.

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The estate is under the care of the National Trust, and beyond the quintessentially Victorian rooms there’s a surprise, new since I first visited years ago. The estate was a secret location for surveillance work which was crucial to victory in World War II.  This work was so secret that not even the National Trust knew a thing about it until very recently.  I’ll be writing about what went on in the wartime rooms and the icehouse soon.

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

Las Meninas: A Velazquez Masterpiece

Diego Velazquez, "Las Meninas," 1656-7, Public Domain, Prado Museum

Diego Velazquez, “Las Meninas,” 1656-7, Public Domain, Prado Museum

In around 1656-57, the great Spanish court painter Diego Velazquez was at the height of his powers, both as an artist and as a courtier.  King Philip IV appointed him not only to paint portraits of the royal family, but also to acquire and curate the royal art collection. Velazquez was more than a mere painter; he lived almost as a member of the royal family. Many people think Las Meninas is the greatest painting in all of Western art.

Pablo Picasso, "Las Meninas," image from Guggenheim website cited below

Pablo Picasso, “Las Meninas,” image from Guggenheim website cited below

In 1957, Pablo Picasso painted over 40 of his own versions of the painting. One of the greatest artists of modern times was carefully studying and paying tribute to a great artist of the past.

In the original painting, Velazquez did not have the red cross of the Order of Santiago emblazoned on his chest; he only received it three years later.  Philip IV ordered the cross to be added to the painting after the death of Velazquez. Legend has it that the King personally painted it.

The central figure is Princess Margarita Teresa, at the time the only living child of her parents, King Philip IV and his second wife Mariana of Austria. They’re in the background of the painting, possibly reflected in a strategically placed mirror. Also present are two ladies-in-waiting, two dwarves, a lady chaperone, a chamberlain, a bodyguard, and a friendly-looking mastiff.  And the artist himself is present, with brush and palette. The names of all the people are known, except the bodyguard.

Detail from "Las Meninas," Public Domain

Detail from “Las Meninas,” Public Domain

I’ll leave it to art historians to explicate what all Velazquez wanted to say in his magnum opus.  I’m drawn to the enchanting figure of little Margarita Teresa, age 5.  This was a golden moment in her short but seemingly happy life. The painting was almost destroyed by a fire in 1734.  Fortunately, it was rescued.  The left cheek of the princess was burned, but it was painstakingly restored.

The spectacular Velazquez exhibit at the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum last year had to make do with a reproduction of Las Meninas. The masterpiece is too precious for the Prado to lend out.

One of the pleasures of a major museum exhibit is a stop at the gift shop.  What souvenirs did the marketing people come up with? I thought they outdid themselves for the Velazquez exhibit.

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Anyone for a t-shirt with the most fetching images from the great paintings? On the black cotton background, they show up almost as elegantly as the figures in Las Meninas.

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Or how about a set of salt and pepper shakers? The salt is the adorable Margarita Teresa.  The pepper is Diego Velazquez himself, complete with brush, palette and the cross of the Order of Santiago. I’m still kicking myself for not buying them.

An article about Picasso’s Las Meninas is at http://web.guggenheim.org/exhibitions/picasso/artworks/maids_of_honor

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