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A Royal Wedding Dress, Remodeled? How Princess Alexandra of Denmark Got It Right

When Princess Alexandra of Denmark married the Prince of Wales, in 1863, to judge from the photograph, she looked a bit like a wedding cake. The silk satin dress was festooned with tulle and specially made Honiton lace which featured English roses, Irish shamrocks and Scottish thistles. It was all very fitting for the 18-year-old who was marrying the son and heir of Queen Victoria. The dress’s train was 21 feet long and required eight bridesmaids to carry it.

I recently saw that very dress in a special exhibit at the Costume Museum in Bath, England. But wait, what happened? According to the placard, the original dress was designed by Mrs. James of London for the wedding, then remodeled that same year by Madame Elise, also of London. If I had rented the audioguide, I would probably know more about why and how this happened.

I assume that even a princess in those days might be practical and frugal enough to remake a fancy dress so as to get more use out of it. To a modern eye, the remodeled dress is much more elegant. The skirt must have been made more sleek, and some of the royal crinolines packed away for another time. (I’d cheerfully wear this dress if I were invited to a grand enough occasion. Go ahead, invite me!) This will definitely not happen with Meghan Markle’s dress after her marriage to Prince Harry. Royal wedding dresses these days cost several hundred thousand dollars, and they go straight to preservation and later display.

Princess Alexandra was known for her elegance and style. (In fact, she was so avidly followed that when an illness left her with a limp, all the stylish ladies hobbled around with the Alexandra Limp). She reportedly favored slimmer, simpler silhouettes than her new mother-in-law, Queen Victoria. That’s Alexandra above, in a portrait now in Fredericksburg Castle in Denmark. It’s by Edward Hughes, 1904. (This would be after her husband, Prince Albert Edward, became King Edward VII, and she became Queen and also Empress of the British Empire).

The arrival of Alexandra for her wedding was a grand occasion, painted by Henry Nelson O’Neil: “The Landing of H.R.H. the Princess Alexandra at Gravesend,” March 7 1863, Public Domain.

The marriage seemed to be a happy one, although even after he became King, Alexandra’s husband enjoyed the company of a string of mistresses. They had six children.

In her homeland of Denmark, Alexandra sponsored the building of a very English-looking church for British residents, 1885-7. It’s St. Alban’s Anglican in Copenhagen, pictured above. (Photo is by Blake Handley, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0).

I was lucky enough to take in a Christmas concert at St. Alban’s last December, and admired a memorial plaque honoring Alexandra.

Alexandra’s wedding took place in St. George’s Chapel on the grounds of Windsor Castle. It’s one of the most beautiful and evocative churches I’ve ever been in, but photos are not allowed inside. I’m sure the excitement ahead of the royal wedding is intense, but then again this is a real parish church with everyday business to attend to.

As on most evenings, Evensong is probably happening–a small, intimate service which I highly recommend. (Many Anglican churches have either Evensong or Evening Prayer–a restful end to a tourist’s day). The evening I attended at Windsor, I was disappointed that I missed the Boys’ Choir. But a choir of girls had been invited instead. No photos were allowed inside, but excited girls in blue dresses, and their parents, had a once-in-a-lifetime experience–and the girls sang beautifully.

Will I be watching the royal wedding on May 19? Oh, yes! I’m looking forward to seeing a bit of the pomp and pageantry. I’ll be with two of my granddaughters, explaining to them why Britain still has royalty and why this marriage is significant. To honor the occasion properly, I stopped at the local Dollar Store to get tiaras for us all to wear, plus crepe paper and such to decorate the living room. We’ll be wishing Harry and Meghan a long and happy life together! (And drinking tea and eating scones warm from the oven, of course–the wedding is at 6:00 am where I am in the USA).

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

Easter in Copenhagen: Church-Lady Angels, A Sunburned Gardener, and Thermal Onesies

Last winter in Copenhagen, I admired a very unusual Easter-themed painting in the Hirschsprung Gallery. Joakim Skovgaard painted it as an altarpiece in 1890. The title is translated as “Christ Welcomes the Penitent Thief into Paradise.”

In the Biblical account, one of the thieves executed with Christ admitted his sins, repented, and begged desperately for help. Christ promised him, “Today you shall be with me in Paradise.” I’ve never seen this event depicted anywhere else, maybe because I’m not Catholic. I understand the Catholic Church celebrates the feast day of this man, now called St. Dimas, around Easter time. I think his feast day is March 25.

I admire the gentle realism of the painting, along with the liberal use of gold leaf. Three angels with gold haloes AND rose wreaths stand ready with new clothes and a pitcher of water. They look like very earthly angels, wearing pretty Scandinavian jackets and embroidered dresses. Their wings are barely visible; these angels could easily pass for kindly church ladies. (They’ve probably also made a nice casserole and some lemon bars for their newest guest).

Above are some actual church ladies, for comparison. They were helping people at the Christmas bazaar at the Swedish Church in Copenhagen this past November. I have a high opinion of angels as well as helpful church ladies in pretty Scandinavian outfits.

Paradise has a thick wall with guard towers and a narrow door.

An angel with a flaming sword guards the door. I especially like this angel’s gold armor and comfy gold sandals.

So which side of the wall is Paradise? At first I thought the angel with the flaming sword was “inside.” But that side of the wall drops off sharply into nothingness. The flaming-sword angel perches on some kind of pillar beside the door, looking off into the nothingness in case anyone else approaches. I think Christ has already ushered the thief through the door and on into Paradise, which looks a lot like rural Denmark in springtime. Or maybe it looks like the Garden of Eden. But I don’t want to overthink the theology here, not that I know enough theology to overthink it. I just like the painting.

Religiously themed art is not very common outside of churches in Scandinavia. And the churches tend to be austere. This altarpiece must have been a real center of attention and worship. I’d like to have seen it in the church it was painted for.

For those who celebrate Easter more as the beginning of spring, here’s another Hirschsprung Gallery painting from the same time period. Fritz Syberg painted “Spring” in 1891-93.

A sturdy fellow in wooden clogs cheerfully rakes the bare soil. It looks like he’s been at it long enough to get a bit of sunburn.

Neighbors stroll and gaze off into the distance under flowering fruit trees. They look glad to be outside. Winters are long and hard in Scandinavia. But spring finally comes.

In nearby Tivoli Park last December, thousands of hyacinths were featured in the Christmas flowerbeds–a real novelty in the long winter. (Temperatures were around 40 degrees Fahrenheit, almost the same day and night. I wondered if the plants were dug up and put to bed in a greenhouse while the park was closed at night).

It wasn’t cold enough to snow in early December. The dusting of pretend snow on the hyacinths must have been sprinkled by human hands.

We were lucky enough to also be in Copenhagen last April (we liked it so much we went back in December). Even in spring, we bundled up in layers of sweaters and raincoats.

Actually, I think it was colder in April than in December. I was wishing I had a parka, or better yet, a onesie snowsuit like the ones all the kids wear.

Chilly or not, I’m sure the Tivoli flower beds are overflowing again this spring with tulips and daffodils. I’d like to be there again.

Happy Easter and happy spring!

First Day of Spring

I think spring is coming late to England this year. I’ll be there soon, and I’m thinking there might still be snow in the ground. Or flooded spring rivers. Still, I’m hoping for tulips. They were spectacular a couple of years ago.

These were in the gardens of Ann Hathaway’s thatched-roof cottage near Stratford-on-Avon.

The tulips and daffodils were in bloom at Sudeley Castle in Winchcombe, where Richard III’s banqueting hall lies in picturesque ruins, sheltering a Tudor Knot Garden (planted much later, using Tudor designs).

Fruit trees blossomed overhead…

…and in St. Mary’s Church on the castle grounds, angels hovered over the Victorian tomb of Queen Catherine Parr, the last wife of King Henry VIII. (Her coffin was lost for a few centuries following the English Civil War, when the castle was “slighted” by Cromwell’s troops).

I was on the lookout for bluebells in all the woodsy places.

We should have been on the lookout for hidden springtime potholes too. This one caused not one but two flat tires on our rental car. Country roads are narrow, we’re driving on the “wrong side,” and sometimes we have to swerve.

Where I live in the mountains of Colorado, it’s still winter. The moose are finding tender branches to chomp, though.

In the dead of winter, I admired a painting by Fritz Syberg, from 1892. It’s called simply “Spring.”

Birds sing, rivers flow, and trees bud.

The young girl’s face is oddly melancholy. Or maybe she is just thoughtful.

Art should make us think. Travel makes us think too, about the past, about being present in the moment (even if the moment involves flat tires), and about the future. I’m anxious to be off again!

Renaissance Angels of Florence

A year ago I was in Florence, and I found myself collecting angels. On December 21, the darkest day of the year in North America, I’m thinking we could do with a few angels to watch over us.

I’d be looking at a masterpiece like this “tondo” (round painting) in the Uffizi Gallery and then I’d go in for a closeup of the angels. Lorenzo di Credi painted “Adoration of the Christ Child” between 1505-15. (The placard says it’s an unfinished painting, but I’d like to even start a painting this good).

There are a lot of angels in Italy. In Florence, anybody with an angel phobia would be out of luck. Some angels travel in crowds, as in Beato Angelico’s “Glorification of the Virgin with Angels and Saints,” c. 1434-5.

In Florence, the cradle of the Renaissance, there was new interest in the individuality of ordinary humans, and their importance in the scheme of things. This carried over into the portrayal of angels and saints as well. Each personality is distinct.

Fittingly, the crowd of human saints is placed closer to the viewer than the troops of angels. But some angels mix right in with the humans, and they pretty much look like regular humans with wings.

Sometimes, baby angel-faces with double sets of wings float around in clouds. Those above are from “The Trinity and Saints Benedict and Giovanni Gualberto,” 1470, a panel by an unknown artist, taken from the Church of Santa Trinita and now in the Uffizi. (Sometimes, glare got in the way of my photos and I had to sort of mosey over to the side to get a halfway-clear image).

I especially like this toddler angel in her Sunday best, from the same panel.

Angels like music a lot.

The two above are celebrating “The Crowning of the Virgin,” a panel by an unknown painter around 1470-1480. Again, there are the double-winged angel-babies.

Some angels have especially colorful wings, not to mention their bright robes.

The elegant angels above are from a very grand altarpiece by Lorenzo Monaco, around 1414.

One of Filippo Lippi’s most famous paintings, “Madonna and Child with Two Angels,” wowed everyone in 1460, and still does. Do the humans look just like angels, or vice versa? The friar’s fresh take on a traditional theme influenced any number of other artists, including Sandro Botticelli.

My photos hardly do justice to Botticelli’s sublime “Annunciation,” 1481. His angel looks half real, half apparition and all beautiful.

In Neri di Bicci’s “Annunciation,” 1465, the starring angel, Gabriel, has brought along a couple of mini-me’s to help out.

I love their modest expressions. They’re not even looking up at the action, just there to do their job.

Actually, my favorite angels are often the ones off to the side of the action, like the one in the lower right-hand corner of one of Filippo Lippi’s most important paintings, “Coronation of the Virgin,” 1439-47. It’s a monumental painting–it is no wonder he worked on it for years.

I especially like the gentle angel in the corner, unfurling a banner but not calling attention to herself.

Time to leave the galleries and wander the narrow streets of Florence, where the glorious Duomo dominates. The cathedral was begun in 1296, just before the dawn of the Renaissance in Florence. It was completed in 1496 when Filippo Brunelleschi figured out how to top it off with his glorious dome. (Over the centuries, the builders must have figured, “Well, how hard can it be?” But eventually they discovered they’d built too big for any known dome construction).

Finally, in the 19th century, Emilio De Fabris frosted the cake by adding the pink, green and white marble Gothic Revival facade. He stuck a welcoming angel next to the main entrance.

Whatever theology or non-theology one has, I think angel-collecting is a fine way to spend time in Florence, or anyplace where there’s fine art.

Happy Scandinavian Christmas!

I don’t know exactly what’s going on here, but I want in. The painting, from Norway’s National Gallery in Oslo, is “Traditions of Christmas” by Adolphe Tideman, 1846. It looks like a sheaf of wheat is being hoisted up on the rooftop for hungry birds. And there are skis, and puffy snow to tumble into. Works for me!

Viggo Johansen painted his family celebrating in “Silent Night,” 1891, now in the Hirschsprung Gallery, Copenhagen.

He painted his wife, his children, and a servant around their tree with lighted candles.

The artist most likely only painted himself as an arm reaching for his son’s arm behind the tree. The museum commentary explains that Christmas was the best day for quite awhile in the Johansen household. Within a day or so, all the kids were down with measles. The artist left the tree up for four months so he could finish the painting while also tending a houseful of sick children.

In Copenhagen right now, street markets are bright with berries, and the grand assembly room at the Workers’ Museum is set up for a party.

Children are cozy in their insulated onesies. Every time I see one, I want one for myself.

I’m not sure the sun is shining today in Copenhagen, but it was a sunny day a couple of weeks ago at City Hall.

Back in my hometown of Minneapolis, where many Scandinavian people ended up as immigrants, the Swedish Institute has decked the halls.

The lakes are frozen, there’s just enough snow to call it a White Christmas, and it’s COLD.

And at Christmas dinner today, I have not only grandchildren but a new granddog: a sheepadoodle. Merry Christmas to all!

Christmas Time in Copenhagen

Danish flags and paper cutouts are popular on Christmas trees.

The upscale Magazin du Nord department store is festooned with paper cutout garlands.

Tivoli Park is full of lights and people.

Right, I’ll be next on the carousel giraffe!

The snow is not real yet at Tivoli, but it’s cold. Pink and purple hyacinths are planted everywhere. Their scent fills the air.

Festive music fills churches.

The Christmas market at the Gustaf Swedish Church is the best weekend party. Church ladies all wear costumes of Swedish districts. I have shawl-and-apron envy!

There are only about 5 million Danes in the entire country. The pace is relaxed, even in Copenhagen. Art galleries are pleasantly uncrowded and stuffed with beautiful things. Above is “Mary with the Christ Child and the Infant St. John” by Maurice Denis, 1898. It’s in the fabulous French collection at the Glyptotek.

Copenhagen’s City Hall is a work of art in itself. I’ll cheerfully wander its hushed halls for an hour anytime.

Cafes are cozy and store windows full of temptations.

Buying a gift? A friendly elf in ruffled pantaloons will wrap it up for you.

Is Copenhagen expensive? Oh, yes. We rented an apartment, ate in a lot, took in free concerts and recitals, and bought Copenhagen cards, which cover all the sights and all the excellent public transportation. It’s manageable and worth it!

Jimmy Reagan’s “Outsider” Art

Jimmy Reagan is a Minnesota artist in his twenties. At age 2, he was diagnosed with a complex form of autism. In his teens, he began working as a serious painter, and he’s had a lot of success. Above is a self-portrait. I saw his work in a recent exhibit in St. Paul.

Above is another self portrait: “Jimmy Painting Pretty Girl in Orange Dress and Pearls.”

He does a lot of portraits. Above is his mom.

Apparently Jimmy has done some traveling. Above is a portrait of a “Girl from Italy.” He often paints his backgrounds and sometimes his frames with what he calls “ticks”–bright splashes of brilliant color.

Jimmy lists his artistic influences as Picasso and Van Gogh. I can see the influences, but to me Jimmy seems totally original.

This is “The Emperor.” Looks pretty self-important, don’t you think?

I like his “Golden Hair Man.”

I’m an aspiring painter myself, and I know what a challenge it is to develop a distinctive style. It really takes a distinctive way of looking at the world.

My painting teacher recommended the book pictured above, “The Innocent Eye” by Jonathan Fineberg. I highly recommend it. Many artists we think of as “modern,” like Picasso, Klee and Kandinsky, were fascinated by children’s art. They actually collected and studied it, and even collaborated with children.

Picasso famously commented that all children are artists. He said that when he was age four, he could draw like Raphael–very probably true. But he said that it took him a lifetime to be able to draw “like a child.”

I especially like Jimmy Reagan’s animal portraits. Above is “Blue Sheep,” acrylic on foam carving.

Here is “Cow, Pig and Rooster.” Jimmy has sold a lot of prints of many of these pieces. I can see why.

“Just Cow” may be just a cow, but what personality. She’s acrylic on carved foam.

Elizabeth” is another cow, an especially joyful one.

My very favorite animal of Jimmy’s is “Dirty Happy Pig.”

On this Thanksgiving Day, I’m thankful there are “outsider” artists, and people who nurture and encourage them. I’m also thankful to be setting off on a trip, hoping to see lots of art. I’ll take Jimmy’s unique way of seeing the world with me.

Note on December 5, 2017:  Jimmy’s mother very kindly commented: “If you or your readers are interested, we are hosting a sale/exhibition on December 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th in Jimmy’s space at Sunfish Cellars in Lilydale, MN – http://www.sunfishcellars.com We will have artwork and Jimmy’s merchandise available for sale. It is family friendly. All are welcome.”   I’ll be there!

Jimmy’s website is http://www.throughjimmyseyes.com