Wednesday, June 30, 2010

White elephants & Siamese cats...

Actually tracking down the elusive elephant of Reims cathedral was quite a task a few years ago - it appeared to have been tucked away in a corner at the back of this very famous site. Trying to take a photo of this same elephant now is even harder because it's virtually inaccessible; a large spouting gargoyle almost blocks your field of vision, a wooden gate bars your way, and then finally the position assumed by the elephant doesn't immediately make you think of imposing pachyderms! This elephant seems to be sitting on its haunches like an obedient  performing animal, or rather like a modest household cat! While all kinds of exotic creatures, real & imaginary, decorate many of the Gothic cathedrals from this time, few of their sculptors had seen living specimens of the animals that made up this ecclesiastic menagerie, and so could be forgiven for a certain inaccuracy or artistic licence. In this  sculpted bestiary, each animal had its significance; the elephant symbolized chastity and self-control and the latter certainly seems to be reflected here!

In its Asian countries of origin, the elephant was a symbol of power and justice, and endowed peace and prosperity on those who possessed it. It was, and still is in countries such as Burma, highly treasured and coveted even. Even before Hinduism (with Ganesh) and Buddhism with their faith symbolized by the elephant, this creature was at the heart of animistic beliefs and was associated with life and growth. In the Buddhist faith the future mother of Siddharta, Queen Maya, was able to conceive once a white elephant had presented her with a lotus flower and "touched her with its trunk" during a dream; Buddha was born.

The 'Asia' group from the Albert Memorial, Kensington Park.
Centuries later, the veneration of the precious, rare white elephant continued. In the kingdom known as Siam, later Thailand, the white elephant was a treasured possession that was highly auspicious and so protected by sacred laws. In 1861 the King of Siam offered a white elephant to Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil war; this was politely declined. For others, refusing the gift of this unusual beast was impossible and the chosen individual was put in a difficult situation since the upkeep of the regal elephant was ruinous to those obliged to take up such a responsibility. The white elephant, with its sensitive skin (due to a recessive gene resulting in a lack of melatonin) was considered to require special treatment, while its regal position meant that this animal was lavished with every luxury. It could not be used as a beast of burden nor could it be sold, and should it die this was the omen for the approaching demise of king and country. The recipient of  such a venerable beast,  faced financial ruin and it is said that the king would give such a 'gift' to individuals who met his disapproval. Bankruptcy thus neutralized enemies and the king  found an efficient means of avoiding huge court expenses in passing this 'honour' to some hapless individual. And so therein lies the origin of the term 'white elephant' - an expensive yet worthless present. Until the beginning of the 20th century the Thai flag bore a white elephant on a red background...


In a Gothic elephant pose, with legs slightly banjo-shaped, is my Siamese cat who sadly died of old age, well before time and certainly well before I had a digital camera... The Siamese are just such affectionate pests - and I especially love that aspect about them, this 'naughty-but-nice' trait which is often misinterpreted by some, but duly appreciated by others. It is said that during the creation of Noah's ark, an ape fell in love with a lionness and the resulting offspring bore the "attributes of an ape and the bravery of the lion". The actual history of the Siamese cat is perhaps a little more refined than that.....

These particular felines were deemed precious creatures, doted with special powers and as such were sacred temple animals in Thailand, formerly Siam. Apparently these cats were used as venerated guardians in the ancient city of Ayudha, founded in 1356, capital of Siam until it was destroyed by fire during the Burmese invasion in 1767. The ownership of these cats was restricted to the Royal family or at least to a individaul of important descent, such as a knight or promoted to a high-ranking post as a noble. Simple commoners did not have this right and the theft of a cat from the Royal court could result in death.

It was believed that the Siamese would receive and transport the soul of important dead people and so after the death of a high-ranking individual the cat would subsequently be sent to a temple to live a live of luxury, high pomp and ceremony amongst monks. The best morsels of food would be offered on gold platters to the sacred cats, bearer of souls, provided, no doubt at great expense, by the mourning relatives.

The Siamese became known to the Western world towards the end of the 19th century. A certain Edward Gould, Consul-General in Bangkok brought a pair back to his sister in England. The kittens of these were later exhibited at Crystal Palace in 1885, leading to the introduction of this breed to the British public, who, as can be imagined, would have been greatly surprised and shocked in equal measure by the dazzling blue eyes and elongated forms. Around this same period a Siamese was presented as a gift to Mrs Hayes, the president's wife and consequently the Americans were able to hear of this breed originally known as the Royal Cat of Siam and with the development of photography images could be viewed, albeit in black and white...

The traditional Siamese appearance was modified over the following decades, leaving behind the rather rounded 'apple-head' form, and larger body frame to take on the unique, rather snaky, lithe appearance of the modern Siamese which was further exaggerated until there was a return to the more robust, often healthier shape. The genetic flaw of the original Siamese, giving rise to the kinked tail and squinted eyes, origin of many stories and legends, was also modified and lessened by selective breeding over the years. Likewise, the coat itself now presents itself in many beautiful shades - seal, blue, lilac, chocolate being just a few. Nevertheless the pointed pattern of the coat still retains its original characteristic wherein the fur is heat-sensitive on the cooler extremities of the body (the points) and will darken considerably in cold temperatures due the specific melanin production. The beautiful blue eyes are said to lack a structure which aides night vision and this would account for the fact that the Siamese tend to be less active at night in comparison to other breeds, generally preferring to be in bed with their masters and mistresses, all the more to our pleasure!

Anyone who has had the honour of owning a Siamese cat knows that, in fact, it is us mere humans who are owned, captivated by a humourous yet quite haughty feline friend, who gives dog-like devotion and companionship over the years.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Purple Petals & Mauve Mania...

I love the colour of this piece of Indian needlework, so delicate and quite difficult to define, in fact rather like my faded dried hydrangea flowers or a very watered-down shade of the mauve flowers in the garden which seem to change depending on the light.

'Purple' seems to be a very general colour description since in reality one person's concept of this seems to differ greatly to another's, apparently due to the differences in retinal sensitivity in the human eye to red and blue light. Purple can therefore include a somewhat wide range of colours, a hue between violet and red, and  few people agree with what actually constitutes this. The names given to shades of 'purple' are lovely to simply read off... heliotrope, lilac, violet, pansy, lavender, orchid, mulberry & regalia are just a few.
Purple is wildly associated, historically speaking, with royalty and 'high office'. Certainly purple, deriving its name from Greek porphyra - the spiny murex whose secretions provided the dye, was only available to the very wealthy, from its very origins in classical antiquity.

It wasn't until the 19th century that the colour mauve was to be introduced to Victorian society, and quickly made highly accessible, largely thanks to the Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III of France who found that the colour matched the colour of her eyes and wanted a wardrobe to reflect this. Originally called 'Tyrian' purple by its young British inventor, it was soon labelled mauve by the French, after their name for the mallow plant. Perkin soon used the name mauveine since the French were admired for their sense of fashion and good taste and this provided an invaluable 'French touch'. Indeed, Mauve Mania was born...

Until the middle of the century cloth had generally been dyed using plant extracts, however the colours obtained were neither vivid nor long-lasting. The accidental discovery of the 18-year-old William Perkin in 1856 transformed the dyeing industry with the introduction of artifcial colour to be manufactured on industrial scale. This was far from Perkin's origin aim, which was medical rather than aesthetic as it was in seeking to create artificial quinine as a cure for the malaria devastating the British troops in India that the young man stumbled across his revolutionary dye. The dark, oily substance, aniline, that Perkin produced during experimentation on coal tar stained his clothing a resilient purple colour and soon led him to patent the production process and set up a factory in London to manufacture the newly-discovered synthetic dye. The capital was soon taken over by mauve mania, with Charles Dickens commenting on it as he observed mauve garments and accessories worn by those "flying countryward, like so many migrating birds of purple paradise".

Although mauve was to become the acceptable colour for the transitional period of mourning (ie. the last six months of a two-year stretch), influenced by Queen Victoria herself, it was the symbol of opulence and as such was later associated with things rather louche and perhaps of free morals. In the Portrait of Dorian Grey, Oscar Wilde wrote, "Never trust a woman who wears mauve.... Whatever her age always means they have history". No wonder I love mauve! Curiously, to describe an individual as 'mauviette' in French means that you find that person cowardly, spineless & lacking in character - 'yellow' - in short!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Honeysuckle blond...

The honeysuckle is so dense this year that the weight of the leaves and flowers has broken the trellis, and the smell in the evening is incredible. The pale yellow of certain parts of the flower contrasts with the richer gold on this particular plant, but in fact there many variations in colour as 180 different varieties of honeysuckle exist, half of these are to be found in China.

The lawn in the garden is looking very green at present, so I couldn't understand why there were a few bleached 'scorch' marks upon it... Then I remembered that I had told the children to "just use the garden" while we were waiting for the plumber to do some vital repair work recently....
This reminded me of what I had once heard about the bleaching capacity of urine; both bleach and urine being strongly alkaline they are able to dissolve or distintegrate biological matter. Urine has apparently always had a key role in the dyeing & tanning industries (the Romans even imposed a urine tax in the 1st century A.D).
The legend of the noblewomen of Renaissance Venice going to great lengths in order to achieve the desired 'strawberry blond' or 'Venetian blond' hair colour has persisted, yet whether actual urine was used as the bleaching agent (elixir) is a little more difficult to ascertain. Although the elixir recipes differed in composition, they all contained tannic acid whose high ph level would strip the hair of its original colour. To accelerate the process, women would position themselves in direct sunlight, a procedure which took on the trappings of a ritual in 16th century Venice.
Indeed, in La Serenissima, an altana, meaning a veranda or terrace, was built on the tiled roof between the characteristic high funnel chimneys (fumaioli) and often these altana would be extended beyond the edge of the roof. The women would wear specific garments for the bleaching procedure, namely a schiavonetto - a Dalmatian silk gown, while a solana, a light, broad-rimmed straw hat protected the wearer from the direct sunlight, yet the open top enabled the gentlewoman to spread the hair onto the rim to maximize the exposure to the sun. The ladyfolk dampened their tresses with elixir at regular intervals using a sponge attached to a long stick, meanwhile admiring themselves, chatting and observing those below. The woodcut above, by Cesare Vecellio, 1590 (British Library Board), portrays this particular pursuit of the Venetian ideal of beauty.

The Weird Faux de Verzy...

To make the most of the weather I went to visit the faux de Verzy yesterday, in a wood devoted mainly to this tree. The faux are a contorted, twisted variety of the beech tree, and the name comes from old French for this tree, and the latin word, fagus. While the largest concentration of these are here in the Champagne region of France, others are to be found in Hannover, Germany, and in Malmö, Sweden.

Indeed, this very specific beech tree grows to only a very maximum of 3-4 metres from the ground, and as it grows its branches twist and weld together to from a dense green parasol, or igloo form in summer, giving rise to rich names such as le faux parapluie, le faux de la tête de boeuf and le faux de la Demoiselle (in honour of Joan of Arc, said to have slept in the forest). A tree may produce long running branches (marcottes), just above the ground, which will then take root and grow into new trees whilst still attached to the 'parent'. Others have roots that then go up to the surface to develop into new trees. Meanwhile only 40% of actual seeds will go on to develop into the characteristic faux; whether this depends on the soil, water properties or climate remains to be established. The faux leave a beautiful, yet tortured structure in winter, when the forms appear at their most striking and stark without their folliage; Tolkien could have drawn inspiration here...

The cause of the unusual branch formation remains a mystery even today, and this is perhaps all the more intriguing since other varieties of tree can develop the same characteristics - the oak, the chestnut tree & the European hornbeam being other examples. Sometimes the faux will be entwined around another tree, creating a dramatic effect; in this case, the tree has grown around an oak. Not surprisingly, all kind of legends have surrounded the faux through the ages- it is said that the faux were sent as a divine punishment against the non-believers of Verzy...In the 6th century  a certain Saint Basle came to Reims, having met the archbishop of Saint Remi and became a hermit living in a grotto in the forest of Verzy, ready to preach to the population of the area.
I can't wait to go back on a misty autumn day, or when the whole area is under a layer of  snow in winter...

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Pieces of glass; blue, red, green and gold to welcome you....

Another beautiful day with the light streaming in, which reminds me of the Joni Mitchell song, 'Chelsea Morning,' a track that is so bright that it fills you with happiness for the day ahead. It appeared on her second album, 'Clouds', in 1969. There have been many cover versions since then , of course, but the most famous goes back to that same time, with Judy Collins' take on on it - said to have inspired the Clintons in their choice of name for their daughter. The title of the song comes from the Chelsea neighbourhood of Manhatton where Joni Mitchell was staying, whilst the rainbow on the wall in the lyrics came from beams of light passing through a stained glass mobile hanging in the window...
You can see Joni Mitchell singing it on the following link...

Woke up, it was a Chelsea morning and the first thing that I heard,
Was a song outside my window, and the traffic wrote the words,
It came up a-reeling up like Christmas bells, and rapping like pipes and drums.
Oh, won't you stay
We'll put on the day,
And we'll wear it till the night comes.

Woke up, it was a Chelsea morning and the first thing that I saw,
Was the sun through yellow curtains,
And a rainbow on the wall,
Blue, red, green and gold to welcome you,
Crimson crystal beads to beckon.
Oh won't you stay
And we'll put on the day,

There's a sun show every second
Now the curtain opens on a portrait of today,
And the streets are paved with passersby,
And pigeons fly,
And papers lie,
Waiting to blow away.

Woke up, it was a Chelsea morning and the first thing that I knew,
There was milk and toast and honey,
And a bowl of oranges too,
And the sun poured in like butterscotch
And stuck to all my senses.
Oh, won't you stay,
We'll put on the day,
And we'll talk in present tenses.

When the curtain closes and the rainbow runs away,
I'll bring you incense owls by night,
By candlelight,
By jewel-light,
If only you will stay.
Pretty baby, won't you,
Wake up, it's a Chelsea morning.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Pansies, poppies and porridge...

Woke up this morning to see that summer is finally here - the light has changed and so has temperature - dramatically! From my kitchen table I could see the turtle dove still brooding on the nest just outside the door, the honeysuckle on the far wall and my toast and porridge right next to me - with some pansies from the garden.

Pansies are such happy, resilient plants even surviving snowy conditions - these ones endured the cold winter months, and are only now starting to get long and leggy. They still smell beautiful, however, showing how they belong to the viola family and are, in fact sometimes known as the pansy violet.

Apparently pansies, a hybrid plant, were developed in England in the 1830's, and were modified into every conceivable colour - even black and bi-coloured varieties, but nevertheless retaining their characteristic petal ' face'. Over the ages pansies have been associated with a reflective, contemplative quality - with their thoughtful faces and the manner in which the flowers lean forward in the summer, as if lost in contemplation. The pansy derives its name from the French word pensée, and it is floriographic meaning (the symbolic meaning of flowers) plays, not surprisingly on this aspect. According to the legend, the pansy was originally white but blushed bright purple when pierced by Cupid's arrow and ever since has carried the thoughts of loved ones. Indeed a gift of pansies shows that your beloved is always in your mind... Another name for the pansy is 'heartsease'. Shakespeare chose 'pansy juice' to  create a love potion in Midsummer night's Dream, and Ophelia used the pansy in Hamlet.

"There's rosemary that's for remembrance,
Pray you, love, remember.
And there is pansies,
That's for thoughts."

Alice in Through the Looking Glass was astounded to hear the tiger lily speaking, "And can all flowers talk?". Throughout the ages, the language of flowers has had great importance. Indeed, although generally associated with the Victorian fashion for exchanging sentiments through an elaborate and sometimes complicated floral 'code' - the language of flowers is said to have its origins in Persia and Turkey. In Paris, a the beginning of the 19th century, a certain Charlotte de la Tour wrote a flower dictionary, 'Le langage des Fleurs'. This contributed to the later fashion wherein the variety of flower selected, its colour, number of flowers used, arrangement and association with other blooms would convey a precise amourous message.

Posies, called 'tussie-mussies' were often used, although their use was often of a practical nature since their perfume could ward off unpleasant smells and the herbs frequently employed were thought to combat airborne illnesses.....
I prefer to just think of the amourous messages, especially on a day like this, with the smell of the honeysuckle all around - what a pity I can't put that on my blog!!!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Two turtle doves

Well, it's the summer solstice today, supposedly with the longest amount of daylight, but it certainly isn't summer in terms of temperature!

However, while working from the kitchen table the other day I looked into the garden and noticed that we now have two visitors who have taken up residence in the wisteria now that the flowers have gone....A pair of collared doves. Their plumage is a pale pink-ish grey, with the distinctive black half-collar on the neck (apparently only on adult birds), the beak is black and the eyes, from this distance, seem very black and beady, but in fact the iris of the eye is apparently a dark amber red, surrounded by a white ring. I say at this distance because since their arrival I have avoided disturbing them by going into garden yet they seem to follow my movements warily as I work and sit stock-still when they think I pose a threat. The nest looks very precarious balanced between the metal slats of the wisteria tunnel as it is basically just a collection of twigs that somehow manages to support the two white eggs and the parent bird. You can just make out one of the birds peeping out at me spying on it in the photo above!

Apparently the parent birds both cover the nest - the female during the night, the male in the daytime and the couple, like many birds, remain together for life. These eggs then should hatch in fortnight's time; this particular type of bird is able to lay eggs every month of the year - helped by the feeding process which doesn't depend on insect-based diet provided by the adults, but on the parents' production of 'pigeon's milk' or 'crop milk', which both male and female give to their young (known as 'squabs'). This civilized system perhaps explains why the collared dove managed to grow significantly in numbers and expand its territory from Asia Minor, via the Balkans, to all over Europe from the latter part of the 19th century. Incidentally in French the collared dove is known as the tourterelle turque....

Whatever the origins, my two collared doves are providing a welcome distraction and animation with their cooing and the funny whishing noise their wings make in flight.
On my way back from work I came across this lavender but wondered where all the bumblebees were!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Pretty Lethal

When we were younger we used to go digging around old dumps in order to retrieve antique stoneware bottles, containers & ceramic lids, but above all the beautiful Victorian glass bottles that were commonly used for drinks such as lemonade- with their funny marble stoppers; household products & pharmaceutical mixtures. The latter looked very imposing with their gold embossed labels - "Tincture" etc. However, it was the colour of some of these bottles that was particularly eye-catching - with their cobalt blue, honey amber, dark emerald.
 We soon learned to associate these colours, especially the much-coveted royal blue, with toxic products as it was indeed very much the practice to store them in bottles that could be easily differentiated from other, less harmful household substances. Whilst illiteracy was rife, poor lighting afflicted all classes and so careful packaging could avoid lethal accidents. As a consequence, the shape and texture of  bottles containing dangerous chemicals was changed too and so embossed glass, 'quilted' surfaces, ridges and grooves all
  helped people see and feel the difference between bottles.

Today I love just looking at the colours and wondering about the past lives of all these containers.
The big stoneware containers I didn't unearth, but the one from Birmingham used to act as a hot-water bottle for my mum as a child!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

All dried up & twisted!

Despite it being summer, it's too damp and certainly not warm enough to tempt me out so here I am looking at the various objects around the room.... A mixed collection of dried and twisted objects, mineral and otherwise, amongst them the old favourites of ornamental garlic, poppies heads and twisted hazelnut branches...
While I have no interest in trying any opium deratives myself, I find the history of opium interesting in itself, if not pretty devastating... Apparently the German pharmacist Sertürner was the first to isolate pure morphine from opium in 1817 and deserved the title of 'father of alkaloid chemistry'. Indeed, he recognised the analgesic and euphoric effects of the substance derived from the poppy, yet it took longer to establish the physiological addiction it gave rise to. The compound was named Morphium after Morpheus the Greek god of dreams, and in the Victorian period it was taken in significant amounts by a significant proportion of the population without initially inciting the opprobium reserved for alcohol by the temperance groups. In medical preparations, this was admininstered to adults and children alike, while even Marx remarked on this English tendancy to give babies opium. Its capacity to induce vivid dreams, and trance-like states was soon to give rise to a recreational use of the substance, and not surprisingly, at this time it began to take on a more clandestine identity and this led to the opening of opium dens.
There were many famous users and abusers of opium-derivatives in the latter part of the 19th century, one of the most common ways of taking the drug being in the form of laudanum. There are many references to laudanum in literature of the period and indeed many writers, such as Wilkie Collins were addicted to it, and perhaps depended on its muse-like qualities in the creative process. Lewis Carroll not only took opium, but seems to allude to it with his hookah-puffing caterpillar "You are old, Father William..." in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
Women were frequent suffers of narcotic addiction as it was often given as a remedy for 'feminine complaints', and it also had the advantage of giving the taker a palid complexion - a vital asset to woman aspiring to look 'pale and interesting'. Lizzie Siddal, Rossetti's muse and mistress, became one of more famous female addicts, due to the Pre-Raphaelite Millais' depiction of her as Ophelia, but the writer Elizabeth Barratt Browning was equally dependent on her daily intake.
Many medicinal products of the time were conserved in glass bottles - and at this time the distinctive Victorian poison bottles were developed. These had the aim of reducing accidental deaths due to the confusing of substances by an often illiterate public, unable to read the labels and the appropriate warnings.... But that will be a tale for another evening....

Monday, June 14, 2010

Garlic inflorescence

Inflorescence refers to the way flowers are positioned on a stalk, and on the ornamental garlic plant this reminds me a little of dandelion clocks. Garlic (Allium) is a member of the Amaryllis family, which also includes leeks and shallots, both of which bear a relatively long stalk. Indeed, the word garlic comes from old English garleac, meaning 'spear leak'. However, the garlic stalk is in fact called a 'scape', and these can often adopt interesting forms, which in turn remind me of a local tree here, le Faux de Verzy, which is a variety of twisted beech (but that will be for another rainy day!), and then of course the corkscrew hazel in the garden (whose branches are presently camouflaged by spring leaves).
Garlic has been doted with medicinal and even spiritual powers over the centuries - and according to one Christian myth garlic grew in the left footprint of Satan as he fled the Garden of Eden, while onion grew from his right....

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Red, red poppies...

Despite my attempts, this year I just can't find the field with the pharmaceutical opium flowers! However, faute de mieux I found some bright red poppies and they never fail to amaze me with their colour, even if they're not quite so exotic...

 Throughout history the poppy has always been associated with sleep and repose - even eternal rest. It is, of course, symbolic of the fallen soldier and the emblem of Remembrance Day; the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month. In Christian churches during the Medieval period poppies were carved into the wooden benches to represent Man's need for rest and reflection when contemplating his last day.

In the Wizard of Oz (written by L.Frank Baum in 1900) there are the magical, yet 'deadly' fields of poppies causing visitors to sleep forever.

"They now came upon more and more of the big scarlet poppies, and fewer and fewer of the other flowers; and soon they found themselves in the midst of a great meadow of poppies. Now it is well known that when there are many of these flowers together their odor is so powerful that anyone who breathes it falls asleep, and if the sleeper is not carried away from the scent of the flowers, he sleeps on and on forever. But Dorothy did not know this, nor could she get away from the bright red flowers that were everywhere about; so presently her eyes grew heavy and she felt she must sit down to rest and to sleep."

The poppy was also considered to be a talisman for good luck in love, health & money and was particularly beneficial for those in a transitional period in their lives. I especially like that notion...