Sunday, 30 November 2014

“- Still more Venuses this year... always Venuses!" - The French master of academic art William-Adolphe Bouguereau

30 November 1825, the French master of academic art William-Adolphe Bouguereau was born in La Rochelle.

“- Still more Venuses this year... always Venuses!... as if there were any women built like that!“ (Honoré Daumier’s satire on the Paris salon, the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris)

William Bouguereau: "The First Mourning" (1888)

Vowing to never paint war is an endearing attitude, especially from a successful artist creating works of art in the manner of the best-established style in a time when glorifying war was socially and politically more than comme il faut, both in the visual arts as well as literature. Fortunately, not even during the nationality-crazed 19th century, gory charges, roaring broadsides and heroic last stands around shot-torn flags were to everyone’s taste as a permanent decoration for living quarters. Salon art found far different sujets to denote allegiance to bourgeois value propositions, usually in the half-draped female guise of allegories and scenes from morally valuable mythological or religious tales from days when walking around in one’s smallclothes or draped in bedclothes was, obviously, de rigeur. Pastoral scenes were not to be scoffed at either, especially if they showed shepherdesses and exotic girls carrying water jugs. And even if lines or glances of the mythological heroines turned out to be a bit too much on the racy side, they were still part of the canon of classical education, an inherent part of bourgeois self-conception back then, and thus acceptable.

“- Still more Venuses this year... always Venuses!... as if there were any women built like that!,”
Honoré Daumier, 1864

Well into the 20th century, to simulate a metropolitan fire house at major alarm, it was enough to mention “salon art” and “Bouguereau” in artists’ circles. Bouguereau’s student Matisse, who usually soaked his comments about his former teacher in irony, at least acknowledged the benefits of a classical art education. The rest usually philosophised with the hammer. On the other hand Bouguereau’s remark that Impressionism and what followed was, first and foremost, not good painting, had a damning effect on many forms of modern art in the eyes of the contemporaries. In the turmoil of the last century, Bouguereau was duly forgotten and his mastership of the academic style that included, in his own words, to see colour and line as basically the same thing instead of focussing only on form, that made him one of the greatest oil painters in art history, was only recently rediscovered. While the New York Cultural Center staged a show of Bouguereau’s works almost as a cabinet of curiosities in 1974, illustrating the follies of a bygone era, prices along with appreciation of his art are steadily on the rise since then. Unsurprisingly, since a superficial approach to his paintings is rather easy, even if the classical background his contemporary audience once had is, by and large, forgotten along with the cultural implications, in the best and the worst sense, of 19th century salon art. Bouguereau’s paintings remain a thing of treacly beauty in technical perfection. And it is not without irony that they are as controversially discussed today as the modernists were during his life and times.

William Bouguereau: “Birth of Venus” (1879)

And more about William-Adolphe Bouguereau on:

Saturday, 29 November 2014

"Accursed! Accursed! You shall be accursed to the thirteenth generation of your lines!" - The Iron King Philip the Fair of France

29 November 1314, the King of France and Navarre and Count of Champagne, Philip the Fair, died in Fontainebleau at the age of 46.

“Pape Clément! Chevalier Guillaume de Nogaret! Roi Philippe! Avant un an, je vous cite à paraître au tribunal de Dieu pour y recevoir votre juste châtiment! Maudits! Maudits! Vous serez tous maudits jusqu'à la treizième génération de vos races!" (“Pope Clement, Chevalier Guillaume de Nogaret, King Philip, I summon you to the Tribunal of Heaven before the year is out, to receive your just punishment! Accursed! Accursed! You shall be accursed to the thirteenth generation of your lines!" – alleged curse of the dying Grand Master of the Knights Templar, burned at the stake on 18 March 1314) 

The Iron King Philip the Fair of France - a 16th century illustration

The French did not call him “le Roi de fer”, the Iron King for nothing. And the Middle Ages saw very few true statesmen like him, far-sighted, ambitious far beyond military exploits and utterly ruthless. His grandfather Saint Louis left him with a legend of chivalry and piety and a country that was suffering from fragmentation, the enormous debt Louis’ two failed crusading attempts had left behind and the yearning for the fabled “Golden Age” of his rule that Philip’s father had allegedly gambled away. Saint Louis’ half-done reforms of France’s still rather early medieval body politic were something, though, Philip IV addressed with a vengeance as soon as he had ascended the throne in 1285, without the least attempt of being saintly. At the beginning of the 14th century, Philip’s Kingdom of France had surpassed the Holy Roman Empire as the dominant power in Europe, noticeably enough not with successes on the battlefield, the Iron King’s exploits there were rather negligible, but by sheer power play. In 1309 he had coaxed the Papacy to relocate to Avignon for the next 70 years, downgrading the most influential institution of the Middle Ages to a mere local French affair, an irreversible blow to the pope’s universal claim to power. Philip had succeeded were all the Holy Roman Emperors had failed, including the mighty Staufer Frederick Barbarossa and Frederick II.

Some of the principal actors in the Tour de Nesle Affair, depicted in 1315, the year after the scandal broke: Philip IV of France (centre) and his family: l-r: his sons, Charles and Philip, his daughter Isabella, himself, his eldest son and heir Louis, and his brother, Charles of Valois (wikipedia)

Establishing an early absolutistic reign 400 years before Louis XIV, incorporating disputed territories into the crown domain, reforming and centralising financial institutions and establishing an administrative system, is, naturally, rather expensive. And Philip IV, always strapped for cash, had some rather dubious ideas of how to bring money into his coffers. Blackmailing Lombard bankers and disseising and expelling the Jews from France was one thing that his contemporaries did not exactly frown upon. Seizing the probably richest establishment of the day, the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, better known as the Knights Templar, was something different, though. Accusing the whole order with the help of his papal marionette in Avignon of blasphemy, confiscating their immense assets and burning their leaders at the stake in 1312 in Paris was his questionable masterstroke. And, besides the Tour des Nesle Affair that ended with two of his daughters-in-law imprisoned for life for adultery and their lovers brutally executed, the curse of Jacques de Molay, the dying grandmaster of the Knights Templar, was probably the best-known event of his long reign that was successfully and brutally ahead of its time. 

The Death of the Iron King - from a 15th century miniature (and probably not quite the way it happened)

Philip’s creature Pope Clement V did indeed die under rather unsavoury circumstances four weeks after Jacques de Molay’s demise and, only a couple of months after Tour des Nesle Affair, while hunting in the Forest of Halatte in Picardy, the Iron King suffered from a stroke on November 3rd and died in Fontainebleau at the age of only 46. Many of his subjects allegedly saw his death as a release from his hard rule, even though it was probably more of Golden Age for most of the French than the years of Saint Louis’ reign. What followed, though, was far worse. Philip’s daughter Isabella was married to King Edward II of England and after the death of Philip’s third son Charles IV without leaving an heir to the House of Capet, her offspring Edward III made a claim for the crown of France and was refused under the Salic Law, stating that “no portion of the inheritance shall come to a woman: but the whole inheritance of the land shall come to the male sex.” Edward’s cousin Philip VI was elected as the first king of the House of Valois in 1328 and in 1337 Edward III prepared his invasion of France to claim his rights. The Hundred Years’ War had begun.

And more about Philip le Bel on:

"If I had seven lords, I could not make ONE Holbein“ - Hans Holbein the Younger

29 November 1543, Henry VIII’s former court painter, the German artist Hans Holbein the Younger, died of the plague in London.
“If I had seven peasants, I could make seven lords. But if I had seven lords, I could not make ONE Holbein“ (Henry VIII)

Hans Holbein the Younger's portrait of Anna of Cleves from 1539

The 15th and 16th century, the days when the Middle Ages finally came to an end in Europe, was shaped by upheavals in all spheres of life, from the lowest serfs to kings and popes, like few other transitions of ages. The old order of feudal lords had served its time and the developing bourgeoisie, the Reformation plunged the continent in deep spiritual turmoil that resulted in riots, persecutions and bloody wars more often than not, the printing press paved the way for mass media and a New World had been discovered. The arts saw a rediscovery of the imagery and achievements of the ancients, the time before the “Dark Ages”, illustrating the spirit of the new times and in Northern Europe, the conflicts between old and new, the clinging to the traditions of 300 years of Gothic art and influences of modern Italian models of perception and expression brought forth an own, distinctive variant, the Northern Renaissance, with the lugubrious religious imagery of Dutch and German paintings. Realistic portrait art became a specialty of some highly talented artists at that time, among them Hans Holbein the Younger.

Hans Holbein the Younger's portrait of Thomas Morus (1527)

Stepping out of the shadow of the famous family of Augsburg painters, most notably his father’s Hans Holbein the Elder, was certainly not easy for young Hans. He learned his trade from one of the best artists north of the Alps in a trade and art metropolis and began to earn a living by illustrating the Humanist works of Erasmus of Rotterdam and Thomas Morus and, at the age of 25, with painting the murals that would adorn the council chamber of Basel’s townhall, received Humanist patronage and worked in England until Thomas Morus fell out with Henry VIII and Master Hans became court painter, portraying the personages that went in and out of Henry’s court until the king sent him out back to the continent to look for a new bride after Jane Seymour’s death in childbed, fell in love with Holbein’s portrait of Anne of Cleves, was quite disappointed when he saw her in the flesh, probably and contrary to Tudor legend more of her demeanour than her appearance, nevertheless Master Hans fell out of favour with Henry, his other patron Thomas Cromwell was disempowered as well and Holbein spent the last three years of his life painting non-courtly scenes, miniatures and portraits until the plague got him.

Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of Henry VIII (c 1540)

The portrait of Henry VIII by Holbein has become a cultural icon of a whole era of history, subtly belying the headless tyranny of the Tudor monarch and contributing to his legend. His almost realistic approach, 300 years before Realism became a widespread artistic expression, preserved the age but had no real successors in English art until his late-Gothic and very late medieval features compared with his unique modernity were rediscovered by the Romantics in England and his native Germany, the latter cherishing especially his sacral art with its never before seen manifestation of human all-to-human features that made Dostoevsky write in his “Idiot” in 1867, Holbein’s “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb“ from 1522 “Why, a man's faith might be ruined by looking at that picture!"

Hans Holbein the Younger: “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb“ from 1522

And more on:

Thursday, 27 November 2014

“I see a lily on thy brow" - the English Victorian academic painter Sir Frank Dicksee

27 November 1853, the English Victorian academic painter Sir Frank Dicksee was born in London.

“I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.” (John Keats, “La Belle Dame sans Merci“)

Frank Dicksee’s interpretation of Keat’s “La Belle Dame sans Merci” from 1901, originally a signature tune for the image of the femme fatale Dicksee’s contemporaries so cherished during the fin de siècle.  

Sensuous salon sujets, thinly veiled under a historical or mythological pretence, enhancing Aristotle’s ideal of mimesis, imitation and representation of reality with strong Freudian undertones for the benefit of the paying public, was, more often than not, at the core of the much maligned academic art style. There were far easier ways of making money by playing on the Victorian and their Continental brethren’s suppressed sensitivities than becoming an academy-trained artist, though, painting goddesses in the altogether or half-clad damsels in distress. Education in an academy of art like Paris’ Académie des Beaux-Arts, the Royal Academy in London or the Imperial Academy of Arts in St Petersburg, was costly, time-consuming and comprehensively thorough. And, first and foremost, graduates tended to be highly skilled individuals, even if they saw the merit of a work of art in Aristotelian composition and meticulous execution rather than the capture of new-fangled perceptions and expressions. L'art pompier was not only a contradiction between artistic naturalistic means and techniques and a petty, inhibited mind, in short” kitsch”, but a Romantic reconstruction of a past and how it should have been according to the mindscape of the second half of the 19th century.

Frank Dicksee: "The Mirror" (1896)

In regards to the general outlook on art, Frank Dicksee was born twenty years too late. Like his teachers, Leighton and Alma-Tadema, Dicksee conjured images from legendary history, mythology, literature and religion, clothed the truth in lovelier garments and walked on a thin line between sublime artistic composition and expressive power and kitschy mawkishness by depicting topics the Romantics and Pre-Raphaelites had already handled with far more artistic aims and inspiration a generation or two before him. Dicksee looked over the fence towards his Symbolist artistic neighbours like his contemporary Waterhouse did, found them quite as unsuitable in their choice of unfathomably indecent motifs as well and remained the ultimate Victorian and his portrayals of legendary womenfolk all emit the rather subtle erotic of a high-necked dress, even more than Waterhouse’s. And the ultimate Victorian Dicksee would remain until his death in 1928, throughout all the years that saw the visual arts completely pass by the admittedly rather straightforward merits of l'art pompier.

Frank Dicksee: "The Two Crowns" (1900)

And more about Frank Dicksee on

Sunday, 23 November 2014

"Weel done, Cutty-sark!" - Tea Clipper Cutty Sark and the Swan Song of the Age of Sail

23 November 1869, the tea clipper “Cutty Sark”, now the last survivor of her class, was launched in Dumbarton, Scotland.

“But here my Muse her wing maun cour;
Sic flights are far beyond her pow'r;
To sing how Nannie lap and flang,
(A souple jade she was, and strang),
And how Tam stood, like ane bewitch'd,
And thought his very een enrich'd;
Even Satan glowr'd, and fidg'd fu' fain,
And hotch'd and blew wi' might and main;
Till first ae caper, syne anither,
Tam tint his reason ' thegither,
And roars out, "Weel done, Cutty-sark!" (Robert Burns, “Tam o' Shanter“)

An imagination of “Cutty Sark” under full sails in the sunset off some China shore by an unknown artist*

Smuggling. Privateering and blockade running in times of war. Carrying dubious cargoes such as opium and slaves. The immediate ancestors of the tea clippers were built to outrun everything from China Sea pirates to Royal Navy frigates. Dryden had used the word “clip” to describe the swift flight of a falcon and the fast sailing vessels from Baltimore that appeared since the late 18th century seemed indeed to clip along the waves rather than plough through them. The British copied the lines of their hulls and substituted the Baltimore Clipper’s two-masted schooner or brigantine rig with a three-masted square rig since the 1830s, the Americans recreated the design and the term “extreme clipper” came into use for fast sailing ships whose builders had sacrificed cargo capacity for speed. The great days of the American extreme clippers came with the gold rush of 1848 when folks wanted to get from the Eastern Seaboard to the gold fields in California as fast as possible. The clippers became the vessels of choice on the San Francisco run and one, the “Flying Cloud”, held the record for the fastest passage from New York to San Francisco until 1989, she made it in 89 days and 8 hours around Cape Horn. And while the crews of the clippers more often than not jumped ship in California to go and search for gold, the British gained the edge again in building and operating clippers on the trade routes between Europe and the East Indies and China.

Antonio Jacobsen (1850 - 1921): "The American Clipper Ship Flying Cloud at Sea under Full Sail" (1913)

Clippers were the swan song of sailing ship building, in terms of sheer elegance as well as speed. With making an average of 16 knots while riding a trade wind on the China run, tea clippers could well compete with the average steam vessel, but then, a few days before “Cutty Sark” was launched in Dumbarton in Scotland, the Suez Canal was opened and the days of commercially successful sailing vessels had come. Even the most asthmatic steamer could beat a sailer by taking the shortcut through the canal that was virtually impassable under sail. Nevertheless, the “Cutty Sark” began her career as a tea clipper in 1870 on the London – Shanghai route, while the rate of freight given to steamships already had doubled and was steadily increasing. But still, tea clippers raced each other for the fastest passage back to London around the Cape of Good Hope and the rivalry between “Cutty Sark” and “Thermopylae” was still followed by somewhat nostalgic readers in the papers. Then, in 1877, “Cutty Sark”, could not find a cargo of tea in Shanghai and had to ship coal and castor oil to Sydney and finally returned to London in 1883 with a cargo of wool and a record for making the trip from Newcastle, New South Wales, in 83 days. She remained in the wool trade until 1895 and was then sold to Portuguese owners.

Jack Spurling (1870 - 1933) "Ariel and Taeping"  (1926) - two clippers in the Great Tea Race of 1866

Nannie Dee, the winsome and wawlie witch from Burns’ “Tam o' Shanter”, famous for dancing in the heather in her underwear, namely a short chemise, a cutty sark o’ Paisley harn, was the clipper’s namesake and the Portuguese still called her “Pequena Camisola“, little shirt, while she was officially and respectably rated as “Maria do Amparo“ when the retired tall ship captain Wilfred Dowman saw her put into port in Cornwall after a storm in the Channel in 1922. He bought her from her owners, made her into a training ship and his widow sold her to the Incorporated Thames Nautical Training College, HMS Worcester at Greenhithe. She sailed for the last time from Falmouth to London in 1938. Finally, in 1954, “Cutty Sark” was dry-docked at Greenwich as a museum ship where she is still today, twice burning, the last time in October 2014 after narrowly escaping total destruction in a fire that broke out while she underwent a restoration in 2007, her spirit bruised, but hopefully not broken, not even by the museum constructed around and under her, famous for receiving the Carbuncle Cup for the worst new building completed in 2012.

More about “Cutty Sark” can be found on:

and Burns poem, along with a translation, on:

fimage was ound on

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Nominoë, ad ar Vr, "father of the country", the Bretons, the Franks and the Battle of Ballon in 845

22 November 845, the Frankish army of King Charles the Bald was defeated by the Breton lord Nominoë, ad ar Vr, "father of the country", at the Battle of Ballon near Redon in northwestern France.

“The Franks entered Brittany and engaged in battle with the Bretons, November 22. Helped by the difficulty of the wetland location, the Bretons proved the better." (First Annales de Fontenelle, probably after 872)

A woodblock print created by the Breton artist Jeanne Malivel (1895 – 1926), showing her imagination of the Battle of Ballon.

It was actually not only one but several villages of indomitable Gauls that were still holding out against the invaders in the year 50 B.C. Or rather Armoricans, who shared a complicated cultural web with the Celtic princes of Southwestern Britain, the Dumnonii, Belgae and Durotriges dwelling as far to the east as the Solway, and probably caused Caesar to try to invade the place twice while the Island Celts still continued to support their cousins on the mainland. 500 years later, in the historical twilight of the end of the Roman Empire in the West during the days that gave birth to the legend of King Arthur, the Armoricans did not only get waves of British immigrants that led to Armorica being called Brittany, Little Britain, but their own cultural hero as well, who was kin to Arthur, Conan Meriadoc, the mythical ancestor of the Breton princes. And they continued to be fiercely independent. The Merovingian Franks who ruled the rest of old Gaul had to establish the Breton March, a fortified cordon sanitaire along the borders to keep raiders from the three principalities of Brittany out of the Maine and the Loire valley. The most famous Frankish marcher lord was probably Charlemagne’s nephew Roland and not even the early Carolingians could subdue old Armorica, but they certainly tried to.

Carolingian heavy cavalry, from the St Gallen Golden Psalter, 9th century 

Home policy in Little Britain, however, was a mess. Three Principalities, two of them stemming from the British immigrants of the 5th and 6th century, one from the native Gallo-Romans, with 34 influential clans ruled by their machtierns, clan chiefs, each probably as stubborn as the other and only of one mind when it was raid-the-Franks season, were a neighbourhood that was even harder to tolerate by the Carolingians than the Danes, Slaves and the Arabs in Spain. A local chieftain, the lord of Vannes, or Gwened to the Bretons, with the melodious name of Nominoë was obviously loyal enough to get appointed by Louis the Pious at Ingelheim as Duke of almost all of Brittany in 831. Nominoë continued to support Charles the Bald, Louis’ successor to the western third of the Carolingian Empire. They fell out around 843, though, and it was raid-the-Franks time again in Brittany, especially inconvenient for King Charles since he had to get through a continuous feud with his brothers Lothar and Louis the German, the Norse were raiding down the Seine and the Loire and Aquitaine was in rebellion.

Jeanne Malivel: "Nominoe Triumphant: Tad ar Vro"

It took Charles two years to respond to the Breton threat, but after having settled matters in Aquitaine, he detoured from participating in the festivities of St Martin in Tours and hurried north with 3,000 men, most of them probably his heavy household cavalry. Nominoë had about 1,000 light horse at his disposal, traditionally fighting as skirmishers, raining their enemies with javelins from horseback, time-honoured hit-and-run tactics. Drawing Charles into the marshes north of Redon at the confluence of the rivers Oust and Aff, Nominoë had the Franks where he wanted them and even with the few contemporary sources of the event being rather sketchy, it is not hard to imagine the Frankish knights staggering through the swamp through a hail of November rain and Breton javelins and loosing the battle that ensued on 22 November near the Abbey of Ballon. Nominoë was crowned King of the Bretons around 848 in Dol and raid-the-Franks remained a popular pastime even after his death in 851.

And more about the battle on:

Thursday, 20 November 2014

"Now obey my order and lay me alongside the French admiral.” - The Battle of Quiberon Bay in 1759

20 November 1759, during the Seven Years’ War, Lord Hawke with 24 sail-of-the-line decisively defeated Admiral de Conflans' 21 battleships in a hard fought battle during a November storm off the coast of Brittany in the Battle of Quiberon Bay.

“You have done your duty in this remonstrance. Now obey my order and lay me alongside the French admiral.” (Admiral Lord Hawke to the sailing master of HMS “Royal George” after the latter had warned him about the exceedingly dangerous character of the approach to Quiberon Bay)

Nicholas Pocock (1740 - 1821): "The Battle of Quiberon Bay" (1812)

Even if Boscawen’s victory off Lagos had effectively put the French Mediterranean squadron out of the war, 21 battleships under Marshal de Conflans still lay in the mouth of the Loire to escort a ramshackle invasion fleet and 100,000 French and Imperial troops across the Channel to invade Southern England, Ireland and Scotland where the Jacobite Rising of Forty-five and Charles Stuart, now in France, were not forgotten. Even without the reinforcements of the 12 ships-of-the-line from the Med that never came, the Duc de Choiseul’s plan to end the Seven Years’ War within a couple of months was still a serious threat, especially because most of Britain’s line troops were deployed abroad, from Canada to Central Europe and India, the militia back home rioted and everybody, the French, the British and the rest of the world anxiously watched the weather in the Channel. Admittedly, weather conditions in the Bay of Biscay, the English Channel and the North Sea are not especially known for unseasonal improvements and Admiral Hawke’s blockading squadron of 24 battleships still stood off shore to end the threat for good. Public opinion in England was not in Hawke’s favour, though, as he had let slip already three convoys through the blockade over the last years with troops that were now fighting in the Americas and effigies of Hawke were hung from pub signs all along the coast of England in disdain. To top it all, fierce November gales had forced Hawke’s squadron back to Torbay. And the French were out at sea already. De Conflans had sailed on the 14th of November from Brest for the Gulf of Morbihan to collect the transports and the weather be damned.

Richard Paton’s (1717 – 1791) imagination of the Battle of Quiberon Bay (1760) showing the sinking “Thésée” in the centre.

On November 20th, early in the day, de Conflans had sighted a brace of 4th rates under Commodore Duff still in place and, convinced of an easy victory, he ordered his vanguard to give chase, ignoring the sails approaching from the west. Duff split his ships, the French centre made sail to join the pursuit and with his squadron scattered off the Belle Isle, de Conflans was a bit surprised when the newly arriving vessels turned out to be Hawke’s battle fleet under full sails despite the vile weather conditions, flying the signal for ‘Use utmost endeavour … to engage closely.’ themselves. That was quite a bit more than de Conflans had bargained for. He decided to withdraw into the Bay of Quiberon northeast of Belle Isle and form a defensive line within the labyrinth of reefs and shoals there, while Hawke’s sail-of-the-line already bore down on the French rear. “Formidable” (80) had to surrender to HMS “Resolution” (74), “Thésée” (74) foundered when her lower gun deck was flooded through her open gun ports and was lost with all hands after her artillery duel with the old HMS “Torbay” (74) while Hawke’s own “Royal George” (100) sunk the “Superbe” (70) with only two broadsides. De Conflans had already lost the engagement before it had really begun. The storm over Quiberon Bay was still blowing when night began to fall, Hawke ordered his squadron to anchor, “Soleil Royal” (80), de Conflans flagship, and “Héros” (74) ran aground in the dark and were burned, only seven French ships-of-the-line managed to escape to Rochefort in the night, seven others jettisoned their artillery and fled into the mouth of the river Vilaine where they remained until the war was over. The French Atlantic Fleet was destroyed as an effective fighting force, six battleships were sunk or burned, one was captured and the rest scattered while Hawke’s losses amounted to two ships-of-the-line that had to be abandoned and destroyed after running aground in the treacherous waters of the bay while the weather continued to be abysmal.

Richard Wright (1723 - 1775): "The Battle of Quiberon Bay, 21 November 1759: the Day After" (1760)

Hawke’s naval victory in the bay of Quiberon was the climax of Britain’s “annus mirabilis” of 1759, the year the tides of war turned in their favour. Now, Britannia ruled the waves almost unchallenged, could strike at will at French overseas trade, a fact recognised by the markets on the continent with an immediate credit crunch, but, far more important, the French and Spanish colonies in America and India could no longer be supplied and, despite initial successes on the battlefields, were ceded to Britain after the Seven Years’ War ended with the Peace of Paris in 1763. Thus, Hawke’s daring and his throwing caution and orthodox naval tactics literally to the wind in Quiberon Bay was at least as consequential in terms of empire building as Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar almost 50 years later. However, back in the day, the actor David Garrick wrote the words of “Heart of Oak” to Boyce’s rousing music in celebration of Hawke’s feat, the song would become the hymn of the Royal Navy, crowds in the streets shouted “Quiberon!” and “Hawke!” Nelson’s mentor William Locker had served under Hawke, admired the admiral to an extent that he had named his son after him and passed on the tradition of daring head-on naval tactics to his famous mentee who wrote on the eve of Trafalgar: “No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy and fights.”

And more about the Battle of Quiberon Bay on:

Antediluvial Britons, national pride and the Piltdown Man hoax

21 November 1953, the paleoanthropological hoax known as “Piltdown Man” was exposed by three British anthropologists.

“When Dr Trask, the anthropologist, stopped to classify the skulls, he found a degraded mixture which utterly baffled him. They were mostly lower than the Piltdown man in the scale of evolution, but in every case definitely human. Many were of higher grade, and a very few were the skulls of supremely and sensitively developed types.” (H.P. Lovecraft, “The Rats in the Walls”)

A painting by one John Cooke, dating back to 1915, with Dawson standing to right of the portrait of Charles Darwin in the background, showing the Piltdown skull examined after its “discovery” in 1912.

Charles Dawson was a busy man. For over 20 years, the amateur archaeologist and palaeontologist came across all kinds of wonders from the past in his native Sussex. The teeth of a wondrous being half reptile, half mammal. A Roman statuette made of cast iron. The Bexhill boat, the missing link between coracles and the vessels depicted on the Bayeux tapestry. A curiously advanced type of stone axe. A toad enclosed in flint. And since he dreamed of winning his spurs, getting a knighthood for his efforts, he conveniently found a spur, a somewhat deadly article allegedly from the early Middle Ages that would probably have rather killed the poor equine exposed to the sharp-pointed thing. And, of course, he once saw a sea serpent beating about off the coast of Sussex. But his greatest find, the one that made him world-famous, consisted of fragments of a skull and a jawbone of another missing link, that between ape and man and it was named eoanthropus dawsoni ("Dawson's dawn-man") or Piltdown Man after the place in East Sussex where these fragments had turned up from a gravel pit.

Charles Dawson and Smith-Woodward digging for more antediluvial Britons (Illustrated London News, 1913)

Admittedly the British were a bit behind in claiming an early humanoid of their own. The Germans famously had the Neanderthal since 1866, even the French had one and now, in 1912, the earliest Englishman was discovered, with two-thirds of the brain of a modern human, an ape-like jaw and, wonder of wonders, an early tool was found nearby, made of ancient elephant bone, that looked suspiciously like a cricket bat. Experts from the National History Museum in London determined the age of the fossil to be more than 200,000 years old, far older than the Neanderthal and Dawson’s find made headlines across the world. More than 500 publications speculating about the habits, life and times of the Piltdown Man were released over the next 40 years and the few critical voices that had voiced their disbelief about the genuineness of the fossil were simply overheard. And poor Dawson, who dug all over Sussex for the “big one”, the great archaeological discovery that would made him famous until he had found the “First Briton”, was never even knighted for his efforts. He died in 1916. Unfortunately, though, very few people get a knighthood for creative hoaxes anyway.

Contemporary reconstruction of eoanthropus dawsoni, the Piltdown Man

Methods of chemical and physical age determination made rapid progress during the 1940s and ‘50s and the fossil teeth of Piltdown Man were among the first tested with fluorine absorption dating and in 1949 it came out that the bone fragments could be impossibly more than a 1,000 years old. And then, in 1953 a trio of eggheads, the anatomists Le Gros Clark, Oakley and Weiner exposed Dawson’s wonderful hoax. The skull was human’s who had lived in the Middle Ages, the jaw had once belonged to an orangutan from Sarawak and the teeth were that of a chimpanzee, artificially aged and honed down to look more human. The ends of the jawbone that would have linked to the skull were conveniently broken off anyway. If Dawson had worked alone on his hoax or if a whole posse of fraudsters had helped him was never really established, but even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s name came up in the list of potential forgers. 50 years later, in 2003 however, at least 38 of Dawson’s discoveries had been identified as hoaxes and the Piltdown Man was certainly the climax of the work of a genius who had an unparalleled ability to bypass dull scientific routine and create one myth after the other to bestow on a thankful audience. Thus, the skull of the eoanthropus dawsoni certainly deserves a place of honour among the exhibits of the #wunderkammer .

And more about Piltdown Man on:

Monday, 17 November 2014

“Pour accomplir de grandes choses il ne suffit pas d'agir il faut rêver" - The Suez Canal

17 November 1869, the Suez Canal was inaugurated in the presence of a host of European guests with a three-day event that costed the Khedive of Egypt more than 20 million Francs.

“Pour accomplir de grandes choses il ne suffit pas d'agir il faut rêver; il ne suffit pas de calculer, il faut croire.” (To accomplish great things we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan, but also believe. Anatole France, introductory speech at a session of the French Academy, 24th December 1896, on Ferdinand de Lesseps' work on the Suez Canal.)

A contemporary German illustration showing the ships’ procession after the opening ceremony, omitting, of course, the “Newport”

In the middle of the night, with her lights doused, Commander George Nares sneaked his 145’ gunboat HMS “Newport” undetected through the crowd of ships waiting for the opening ceremony of the canal, put her right before Napoleon III’s imperial yacht “L’Aigle” and when the sun rose over the newly constructed harbour of Port Said on November 17th, the Royal Navy vessel stood in the entrance of the canal, unmovable like the Rock of Gibraltar. The French were aghast, the “Newport” was the first ship that sailed through the canal, Commander Nares was officially reprimanded and received an unofficial pat on the shoulder and a promotion to the rank of captain. Actually, the British had tried with diplomatic wire-pulling if not to stop then at least delay the construction of the canal over the previous 15 years. During the 1850s and 60s, lots of goods traffic with the East was still handled by square-rigged sailing ships, more or less unable to pass through the new waterway. The opening of the canal was an immense time-saver for steamships only and meant a quick and costly conversion of large parts of the merchant fleet was necessary. Six years later, the Disraeli government bought the majority of canal shares from the bankrupt Egyptians and the British kept the guardianship over the Canal until 1956.

HM gunboat "Newport" after she was sold to a private owner (1894), once first ship through the Suez Canal

The idea of constructing a canal connecting the Med and the Red Sea and thus East Asia was not exactly brand new when Ferdinand Lesseps dug the first piece of ground on the site of future Port Said on 25 April 1859. Various projects had been planned and initiated during the days of the Middle and the new Kingdom of Ancient Egypt more than 3,500 years before, but were never completed. That feat was accomplished by the Persian King-of-Kings Darius who ruled Egypt since 525 BCE, the late Ptolemies let the channel wither that once ran from the eastern delta at Bubastis via Wadi Tumlat to the Red Sea, Emperor Trajan put it in operation again, but the world wars fought between the Romans and the Sasanian Kings and later the Caliphate brought trade with India and China into the hands of the rulers in Ctesiphon and Bagdad and the canal was forgotten. When the sea route to India was opened by the Europeans and Mediterranean trade went belly up in the 1500s, Venetian merchants, faced with bankruptcy, at least tried to revive the idea, but it came to nothing.

The next first vessels through the Canal...

Napoleon’s expedition in 1798 had discovered remnants of the old canal among other major archaeological achievements and started a downright Egyptomania that swept through Europe and the United States and never really ebbed away throughout the century. And besides the commercial and political upheavals, the inauguration of the canal caused European interest in ancient Egypt to peak again. The most famous cultural aftereffect was Verdi’s “Aida”, though. The opera was not, however, put on stage in November 1869. Admittedly, Verdi was asked to write a hymn for the opening ceremony, but the maestro simply refused to write commissonal work. “Aida” premiered on 24 December 1871 in Cairo while “Rigoletto” was chosen to celebrate the completion of the largest construction project of the 19th century.

And more about the Suez Canal on: