Thursday, 28 April 2011

Loads of Queens

Louis Vuitton in Bond Street celebrates the Royal Wedding.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Dare to dream

"The most dazzling exponent of the High Victorian Dream. Pugin conceived that dream; Rossetti and Burne-Jones painted it; Tennyson sang its glories; Ruskin and Morris formulated its philosophy; but only Burges built it."
Mordaunt Crook

William Burges may or may not have been gay (he certainly never married, and his dilettante friends in the High Victorian era were quite a fey lot - Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Millais and the like). He definitely was not reknowned for his good looks (Gwendolen, Lady Bute called him "Dear Burges, ugly Burges who designed such lovely things").

But my dears, what an exercise in campery were his architectural designs!

He designed the most outrageously over-the-top castle in Cardiff for the richest man in Britain in the 1860s, the Marquis of Bute, and not content with that built another - Castell Coch - just up the road!

Cardiff Castle Clock Tower

Cardiff Castle is considered to be one of the finest examples of the Gothic Medievalist style (outside the Palace of Westminster) so favoured in the mid-Victorian era. Not a pillar nor a beam, a nook or a cranny, was spared the sumptuous, often gilded, detail that Burges specialised in. Reflecting a variety of exotic fantasies - Arabesque, Germanic, feudal French and Old English - parts of the castle were deliberately designed to invoke places that both the Marquess and Burges had visited on their travels.

The Arab Room

The Great Fireplace

Castell Coch, an entirely Medieval construct with its galleries around the central courtyard, provided the Butes with a fairytale "feudal country estate", when in fact their land and estates were built largely on the back of the far more pedestrian coal industry. Surprisingly, the family never used it for much more than a few months, and the Marquis himself never visited it after its completion.

Castell Coch

Not content with building just for his patrons (who also included Lord Carrington, the Marquess of Ripon and Sir John Heathcoat-Amory), Burges built his own house - which he dubbed the "Palace of the Arts" - The Tower House in Kensington. Another exercise in faux-medievalism, this dramatic residence also provided him with an opportunity to design and create more elaborate furniture, metalwork, glass and decoration to suit his own peculiar world - famously described as that of "an opium-addicted bachelor Gothicist who dressed in medieval costume."

The Tower House

Burges died prematurely in 1881, aged just 53. Some concluded his opium habit may have been a contributory factor. In hindsight, it was probably just as well he didn't live to see the volte-face that hit the late and post-Victorian period, when fanciful Gothic architecture and designs such as his began to be scorned (even despised) by the "back-to-basics" fanatics of the Arts and Crafts movement, and by the proponents of the new industrial "modern" taste.

Read more about William Burges

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Oh, those Venetians!

The moment Night with dusky mantle covers
The skies (and the more duskily the better)
The Time - less liked by husbands than by lovers -
Begins, and Prudery flings aside her fetter,
And Gaiety on restless tiptoe hovers.
Giggling with all the Gallants who beset her;
And there are Songs, and quavers, roaring, humming,
Guitars, and every other sort of strumming.

Lord Byron, "Beppo" (describing the Carnevale di Venezia)

In an essay titled Homosexuality in Venice in the time of Lord Byron, Jack Gumpert Wasserman offers six reasons for the popularity of Venice with homosexual men - of which the "first, and certainly foremost was the absence of all criminal and civil laws proscribing sodomy. It is worth emphasizing again that homosexuality was still a capital offence in England."


One of Byron's servants was Giovanni Battista Falcieri, known as "Tita," a muscular young gondolier he had acquired in Venice. He was Byron's personal attendant and chasseur, attending his lordship in his equestrian and swimming exercises.

From Sketches of Some Distinguished Anglo-Indians By William Laurie [presumably Tita appears in this book because he eventually worked for the India Office]:
He appeared to enjoy the reminisces of their swimming excursions very much, when his lordship and he would go out at night-time, each with a light in one hand, elevated over their heads, while they swam with the other...They had swam some two or three miles when his lordship turned to "Tita" to ask him if he felt disposed to go farther, which he was quite willing to do.

Lord Byron

Venetian gondoliers were well known for selling their sexual services. Apparently Tita had sex (for "broad silver pieces") with one of Byron's guests, William Bankes, who as a young man had initiated Byron into the gay world at Cambridge.

Campness personified, he is further described by Laurie thus:
Falcieri was accustomed to speak with pride on the richness of his uniform - a cocked hat with a plume of feathers; scarlet coat, richly embroidered with gold lace; pantaloons, also similarly embroidered; Hessian boots, with tassels; sword and sash completed his equipment when out on special occasions with his lordship.
Byron apparently died holding Tita's hand...

Read more about Byron's gay affairs

In a footnote to this story, "Tita" was recommended by friends of the late Lord Byron to none other than the family of Benjamin Disraeli, latterly Prime Minister under Queen Victoria, and became a servant in his household. He even accompanied the great man on his diplomatic missions to Albania and the Adriatic.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Cousin Louie

Princess Marie Louise of Schleswig-Holstein (12th August 1872 - 8th December 1956), a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, photographed by Cecil Beaton.

According to Angus Trumble, writing in The Paris Review:
“Cousin Louie,” as she was known, was the fourth child of Queen Victoria’s bad-tempered middle daughter, Princess Helena. Her book My Memories of Six Reigns is a fantastically weird combination of out-of-sequence table-rapping reminiscence; reverent reflection upon the burdens of monarchy, and innumerable flecks of interesting detail.

Louie’s Edwardian wedding to Prince Aribert of Anhalt was the bright idea of Cousin Willie, the Kaiser, but more accurately an example of his total lack of judgment. It seems the Prince was soon afterwards caught in flagrante with an attractive young male servant in, on, or more probably beside the marital bed, and, concluding from this that her marriage was no longer viable, Louie promptly undertook an extended tour of Canada and the United States. Returning to Britain she immersed herself in charitable and artistic work, set up a Girls’ Club in Bermondsey, kept an eye on her mother’s nursing homes, and lent modest support to the imperial trade in dried fruit. Wholly guileless, Princess Marie Louise is irresistible.
Princess Marie Louise on Wikipedia

Monday, 11 April 2011

"Lollipops! Bright shiny lollipops!"

The magnificently camp Robert Helpmann - dancer, choreographer, and actor - was born in South Australia on 9 April 1909.

In his eight decade career, he danced with Anna Pavlova during her Australian tour in 1926, was premier danseur with Sadler's Wells from 1933 to 1950, and worked with such notable legends of the ballet world as Frederick Ashton, Ninette de Valois, Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev.

From Ballet Magazine:
"I can do something with that face" - so Ninette de Valois famously said when she first saw Robert Helpmann. He had just arrived in London to join the Vic-Wells Ballet; he was 24, and in his native Australia he had already begun his career as an actor and dancer, including a tour with Pavlova's company as a student. With de Valois' support he became the company's leading male dancer, partnering Fonteyn as she grew to greatness in the classics, and choreographed a number of works in the 40s at least two of which earned a place in the repertoire. Most of all, he created unforgettable characters, both comic and dramatic, in many works by Ashton and de Valois. He had the priceless gift of being able to hold an audience, no matter what he was doing.

From the Helpmann Awards site:
When Sir Robert Helpmann died in Sydney on 28 September 1986 the curtain fell on a career so long, diverse and extraordinary that obituary writers hardly knew where to start. Into his 77 years he had packed more activity, met more challenges and excelled in more fields than any of his contemporaries, in Australia or overseas.

What was he? A dancer? A choreographer? A director of ballets, plays and operas? A stage, film and television actor? Even a singer? He was all these and much, much more: a theatrical chameleon, capable of adroitly adapting his prodigious knowledge, talent and enthusiasm to everything he tackled. Robert Helpmann was unique.
Mr Helpmann is perhaps best remembered by international audiences today for his visually stunning screen performances in the cult Powell-Pressburger classic The Red Shoes, as "Prince Tuan" in 55 Days At Peking, and, most of all for his portrayal of one of the most scary villains of all time, the Child-Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Many years after its 1948 premiere, an intrepid reporter asked Helpmann if the portrait in The Red Shoes of dancers' lives was an over-the-top exaggeration. He replied, "Oh, no, dear boy, it was quite understated." However, as choreographer in both the UK and his native Oz - he was artistic director of the Australian Ballet from 1965 to 1976 - among his numerous choreographic works are Comus, Elektra, Hamlet, Adam Zero, Miracle in the Gorbals and The Display.

His waspish personality was legend - he famously fell out with the other principal Queen of the Ballet Freddie Ashton, and their spats were the stuff of backstage gossip for years.

My favourite anecdote about Mr Helpmann has been related many times before...
During a ballet tour, Sir Robert Helpmann's company played a huge sports arena. The management gave Helpmann the referees' dressing room. Before the performance, the stage manager peeked in to give to Sir Robert his call and was amused to discover the star standing on a chair, perched atop a table, beneath the room's one and only light bulb. Holding a small mirror, Helpmann was applying intricate eye makeup. "Are you alright Sir Robert?" the stage manager asked. "Well yes, I suppose," he replied, "but heaven knows how the referees cope!"

Michael Benthall

From the GLBTQ site:
His flair for playing to the press and keeping his name before the public also brought him many other invitations, among them one to dance at Oxford University, where he met a 19-year-old undergraduate named Michael Benthall.

Helpmann noted at the time that Benthall had matinee idol looks and understood what he was talking about: this was the start of something big, a professional and personal partnership that would endure for thirty-six years until Benthall's death in 1974. Although their relationship was conducted in accordance with the rules of decorum and discretion of the time, they lived together and were recognized as a couple in their wide social circle.
RIP a genius.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Old Queens

This week nine years ago, the country was draped in black as preparations were underway for the funeral of the dear old Queen Mum. Never in fact as “dear” or “sweet” as her mythology might suggest, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was actually a most fascinating and powerful character, as this article from author Philip Hoare, writing in The Independent on Sunday at the time, suggests...
Amid all the tributes paid to the Queen Mother, little has been made of one intriguing aspect of her life: the colourful friendships she enjoyed with some of the most flamboyant gay men of her day.

Three years ago, I watched the Queen Mother unveil a statue to the memory of her friend, Sir Noël Coward. It was the centenary of his birth, and the speech that she made at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane was remarkable - not least because her voice was so seldom heard in the latter years of her life.

Hearing her speak, slowly, in measured, fluting and affectionate terms, of her friendship with and admiration for Coward, it struck me how much a part of that world she was; and how remarkable, in its own way, was her stalwart support for a man whose own official recognition - in the form of a knighthood - was delayed, according to many, by the fact of his homosexuality (and his rumoured affair with her own brother-in-law, Prince George, Duke of Kent).

The Queen Mother was an actress: that's why she got on so well with Noël Coward. She knew her lines, and played her part brilliantly; archive film reminds us just how well, just as it reminds us how far she is from us, and how difficult it is for a younger generation to understand her appeal and the frankly fawning nature of some of the tributes of recent days. Yet her relationships with other gay men - including Cecil Beaton, Benjamin Britten, and, perhaps most remarkably, the outrageous Stephen Tennant - indicate a camp sensibility that always lurked under that Establishment façade.

Isolated in her exalted position, yet able to surround herself with a self-chosen circle of friends, she felt flattered by gay men - and, indeed, was served by them, as one now-famous story goes. It is cocktail hour at Clarence House; the Queen (as she then was) is waiting for her gin and Dubonnet. She calls down to the servants' quarters: "I don't know about any of you queens down there, but this Queen up here wants a drink." Like her younger daughter Princess Margaret, and like Diana, Princess of Wales, she was, as a royal female, almost inevitably attracted by and attractive to gay men. It was a relationship of mutual convenience.

And it was Cecil Beaton, after all, who had reinvented her, in the image of the Edwardian actresses of his childhood, photographing her in Winterhalter-style scenes that distilled her romantic sense of royalty at a time when its image needed a drastic revamp. Not that Beaton had always been a fan. Seeing her wedding photographs in 1923, he had written, rather cattily, "She does look sloppy".

It was only when the couturier Norman Hartnell began to design his frothy confections for the new Queen that Beaton was inspired, and he fell fawning at her feet - even stealing one of her handkerchiefs from the session as a souvenir. And as Beaton's biographer, Hugo Vickers, notes, the Queen appreciated what Beaton had done for her image, and, indeed, for reconstructing the Windsors as a whole: "I feel that, as a family, we must be deeply grateful to you for producing us, as really quite nice and real people." Beaton's artful eye imparted a sense of style to the new Queen; he delivered the image that was to recreate the Royal Family for a new era.

To Beaton's patron, Stephen Tennant, the ultimate gay narcissist of the time, however, Elizabeth was "too royal to carve the joint". Stephen first met Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, as she then was, when they were both children, and he was taken to stay at Glamis Castle. Later, the aesthete Stephen recalled the "hideous Danish furniture" and "spinachy green and sour yellow tapestries" of the place - but this was an opinion coloured, in retrospect, by Elizabeth's jilting of his elder brother, Christopher.

In the early Twenties, Elizabeth had become a frequent visitor to the Tennants' house, Wilsford Manor in Wiltshire (which now boasts Sting as a neighbour). In this idyllic and lush river valley, with its sympathetic Arts and Crafts manor house built by their mother, Pamela, Christopher Tennant had pursued his suit to Elizabeth's apparent encouragement - only to find himself spurned in favour of "bigger fish", in the form of the Duke of York.

The episode underlies the equivocal attitude of English aristocracy towards the Queen Mother. Christopher's son, Colin, the current Lord Glenconner, once told me of the aristocratic reaction to the Royal Family under the Queen Mother's influence, how people such as Nancy Mitford and Diana Cooper were snobbish about "her sweet-pea suits, and so on". But there may have been darker and more specific reasons for his Uncle Stephen's antipathy: he may also have been aware, earlier than most, of the scandal in the Bowes-Lyon closet, when, in the early 1930s, he shared the same Kentish psychiatric hospital as the Queen Mother's mentally ill cousins.

Stephen Tennant
In later years, however, the increasingly reclusive Stephen (who by now had painted all the statues at Wilsford pink, and had imported palm trees and tropical lizards to its English lawns) appeared to have forgiven Elizabeth, and would send frequent gifts of laxatives to Clarence House, with his personal recommendation. Doubtless, he also appreciated her outfits, too. "She likes pink for evenings," noted her wardrobe mistress, "as it gives a bit of a glow." "Oh, pink," as Stephen declared to Rosamond Lehmann, "I almost faint when I think of pink."

For her part, the Queen recalled the decorative recluse with affection: "Oh, Stephen! I'd love to see him again," said the Queen Mother, recalling his carriage rides over the Wiltshire downs, "thinking lovely thoughts or whatever one did in those days". (Stephen's attitude to royalty did not alter enough to admit the Queen Mother's daughter, however. When Colin Tennant brought Princess Margaret to call, Stephen instructed his butler to tell the visitors that he was seeing only blonde-haired visitors that day.)

But it was with Noël Coward that the Queen Mother struck up her strongest relationship with a gay man. She may have criticised Wallis Simpson for her café-society commonness (and Wallis in turn called her "a fat cook"), but she was, in her own way, every bit the social operator; and in the 1920s and 1930s, a period of "emasculated" men and "masculine women", Elizabeth's social network inevitably included such people.

The historian Hywel Williams has written perceptively of this sensibility, noting that the Queen Mother "brought into the Royal Family a very 1920s style of brittle suppression, which was part of a wider culture. Embarrassed by Victorian ardour and emotion, its ancestors in literature are Oscar Wilde and Ronald Firbank. Suddenly, it was smart to be hard - Noël Coward developed the style as a clipped heartlessness that has sunk deep into the Windsor consciousness". Williams even saw the then Duchess of York as an "emasculating femme fatale", as though she were herself one of Coward's hard-bitten heroines - Amanda out of Private Lives, or the equally divorced Larita of his earlier succès de scandale, Easy Virtue.

In this guise of world-weary mondaine, then, Elizabeth cast a blind eye to Coward's much-trumpeted (within their social circle) but brief encounter with her brother-in-law. Prince George was a part of the royal set that enjoyed the hedonism of the time - other members included the Mountbattens, Dickie and Edwina; and the then Prince of Wales himself, of course - all of whom have long been rumoured to have had homosexual inclinations. It was the Prince of Wales who rescued his brother George from drug addiction, and helped hush up an affair that George had had with a boy in Paris, after his "fling" with Coward.

The rumours about the affair between the playwright and the prince continued even after the latter's tragic death in a flying accident during the Second World War: one mutual friend told Coward, "You can't be the Dowager Duchess of Kent, you know". Yet, whatever Queen Elizabeth thought of this alleged affair, or knew of its details, played out so close to home, it did not affect her affection for Coward.

Coward's most obvious appeal to the Queen lay in his entertainment value - not least in the duets of My Old Man that they enjoyed singing together. But as her senior by just seven months, Coward also understood, as a contemporary, her tastes, which were ever-so-slightly common; he was, after all, a suburban boy from Teddington. And his relationship with Elizabeth was further strengthened by his unshakeable devotion to everything that she stood for, and also by his increasingly reactionary politics. For a man born in 1899, in the already fading glow of Empire, his friendship with the last Queen-Empress was one to be highly prized, and actively pursued.

Thus, the day in 1961 when the Queen Mother came to lunch at Coward's Jamaican home, "Firefly", was the social zenith of his career - although the lobster mousse melted before her arrival, and she was served curry made in a coconut. (As the cuisine in her own household often consisted of Ritz crackers and cheese spread, she probably felt quite at home with Noël's efforts at cooking, which, as Sir John Gielgud told me, were "disgusting".) Elizabeth did, however, heartily approve of Noël's "Bullshots", a potent vodka-and-bouillon cocktail, two of which she downed with delight. When she drove off, she "left behind her five gibbering worshippers".

Yet Noël Coward was ill-rewarded for his loyalty. He had written privately to a friend in 1955, noting that, while "the general public love me and are, I feel, proud of me... this does not apply to... the present darling royal family - or, if they are, they haven't made it apparent". Even Elizabeth herself seemed to have reservations. When Lord Wyatt told her that he was reading a book on Oscar Wilde and his trials, she said: "They were much too strict about those things then. But now I think they've gone too far the other way." For her, the status quo and a sense of discretion - if not suppression - was all-important; not for nothing was she known as "the imperial ostrich".

It was not until 1970 that her friend, entertainer and loyal supporter was awarded a knighthood, just three years before he died. Summoned to Clarence House for a lunch party to celebrate the fact, at the last moment the Queen Mother had to cry off with a cold, telling the about-to-be knight, "I'm afraid you'll have to make do with my daughters". The Queen and Princess Margaret duly presented Noël Coward with two gold cigarette boxes. When they suggested that he use the extra gift as a box for toothpicks, he demurred, "Alas, darling Ma'ams, too late, too late!".

To the end, however, the Queen Mother retained her affection for her loyal, bouffant-haired male retinue, who stage-managed the appearances of this royal version of Barbara Cartland. Yet she was no pantomime dame, for all the flowers and furbelows and winsome smiles. In that almost fey, whimsical and decidedly camp figure who would appear on birthdays and ceremonial occasions garbed in chiffon and bows, there was a sense of steel; what Truman Capote called an "iron-winged butterfly". And if, as Jean Cocteau once said, camp is "the lie that tells the truth", then she was the acid Queen in a fantasy Wonderland of her own making, and her greatest creation was herself.

Sunday, 3 April 2011


Aestheticism was an extraordinary avant-garde artistic movement which sought to escape the ugliness and materialism of the Victorian era by creating a new kind of art and beauty. Its adherents were also referred to as "decadents" from the decadentismo movements in Italy and France.

"Aestheticism is acknowledged for its revolutionary re-negotiation of the relationships between the artist and society, between the 'fine' and design arts, as well as between art and ethics and art and criticism. Aesthetic sensibilities produced some of the most sophisticated and sensuously beautiful artworks of the Western tradition."
Taking their lead from the pre-Raphaelites, British artists, designers and writers who are today considered the mainstay of Aestheticism include such favourites here at Dolores Delargo Towers as Pugin, Rennie Mackintosh, Beardsley, Swinburne, Whistler, Wilde, Burne-Jones and even William Morris. The style of the decadent aesthetes more or less formed a "bridge" between the Arts and Crafts and the later Art Nouveau fashions.

The imagery of the Aesthetic movement is described by the scholars on VictorianWeb thus:
  • trance and dream;
  • life as a drama, dance, or puppet show;
  • jewels and instances of extreme artifice (the anti-natural), such as - masks, Byzantine goldwork, cosmetics, and the dandy;
  • particularly ornate, perverse, or unnatural examples of natural phenomena, such as orchids and peacocks;
  • perverse people, customs, and events in ancient Rome and Egypt;
  • Japanese style and taste such as lacquered or ebonised wood and blue and white pottery;
  • instances of transience (butterfly, flower, sunset, autumn, self).
The predominant colours of wallpapers, fabrics, ceramic tiles and ephemera were often yellow and green.

"Fearful consequences through the laws of natural selection and evolution of living up to one's teapot."

The movement was heavily ridiculed for its "feyness" (in modern day parlance read "effeminacy" or "camp"), hence the pastiche of the "aesthete" in Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience:

When I go out of door,
Of damozels a score
(All sighing and burning,
And clinging and yearning)
Will follow me as before.

I shall, with cultured taste,
Distinguish gems from paste,
And "High diddle diddle"
Will rank as an idyll,
If I pronounce it chaste!

A most intense young man,
A soulful-eyed young man,
An ultra-poetical, super-aesthetical,
Out-of-the-way young man!

A Japanese young man,
A blue-and-white young man,
Francesca di Rimini, miminy, piminy,
Je-ne-sais-quoi young man!

A pallid and thin young man,
A haggard and lank young man,
A greenery-yallery, Grosvenor Gallery,
Foot-in-the-grave young man!

From 2 April until 17 July 2011, the Victoria and Albert (V&A) museum features a new exhibition The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900:
The exhibition will feature paintings, furniture, ceramics, metalwork, wallpapers, photographs and costumes, as well as architectural and interior designs. Included will be major paintings by Whistler, Rossetti, Leighton, and Burne-Jones. Architecture and interior design will be represented by the works of Edward Godwin, George Aitchison, Philip Webb and Thomas Jeckyll, among others. Art furnishings designed by these and others, including William Morris, Christopher Dresser, Bruce Talbert, Henry Batley, and Walter Crane will showcase not only the designers and manufacturers they worked for, but also new retailers, such as Liberty's.
Read more about the exhibition

VictorianWeb - Aesthetes and Decadents