Sunday, 20 January 2013

The Faery Prince and Winged Time

A Jacobean Tragedy
 Jacobean fantasy and hope for the future cut off before fruition:
Henry, Prince of Wales (1594-1612), armoured and hatted, rides on horseback, 
with winged Time walking beside him.  Oil painting by Robert Peake the Elder, c.1606-08. Peake (born c.1551) was the prince's official painter, producing iconography in the Elizabethan tradition, at odds with the bravura realism of contemporary European baroque art, already old-fashioned in England at the time of his appointment, and soon officially superseded by Isaac Oliver (of refugee Huguenot parentage) and Dutch and Flemish-born portraitists, but providing a transitional allegorical vision of royal mystique. This image is made poignant by our knowledge that death overtook the prince in the flower of youth.  Image source: Wikipedia
On January 13th, 1605, Ben Jonson and George Chapman, two of the authors of Eastward Ho!, were arrested and imprisoned on charges of sedition after a performance of the play at the Blackfriars Theatre. The third playwright involved, John Marston, fled London to avoid arrest. The new King, James I, had only been in power for two years and the government was particularly sensitive to criticism of the court; it was the same year as the Gunpowder Plot. Jacobean political censorship was motivated by immediate propaganda needs, trying to second-guess the reactions of domestic factions and foreign powers, rather than by a programme of ideological oppression. The king, a published author, who regarded himself as a benevolent intellectual patriarch, believed in the power of disseminating words to convince minds, and his queen, Anne of Denmark, passionately loved theatre and performance...
There was even a happy ending for the controversial Jonson, turbulent of temper and intellect, who had already been in and out of prison for brawling and seditious writing during the previous reign. After his release in 1605, he was rewarded with the job of court poet and Eastward Ho! was eventually performed at court in 1614. James, having gone through the motions of punishing Jonson's attack on the cupidity of his Scottish Favourites, was far keener to recruit the versatile, "rare Ben Jonson", whose love poetry was as ethereal as the social criticism of his plays was harsh, to aggrandize the Stuart dynsaty in court masques than keep him in opposition.

Far from being muted by royal protection, Jonson’s public satirical voice was strengthened in his subsequent plays, the great comedies that exposed the vices and absurdities of contemporary society, above all the corrupting obsession with money.

James wanted to win as many friends as possible. He had already upset the old nobility with his debasing sale of titles I, who loved a debate, was genuine in his attempts to reconcile the fractious Protestant and Roman Catholic groups within the established Anglican church. His determination to seek consensus, that he thought was rational, inevitably caused dissension and resentment among extremist groups and social elites, the recorders of their history. His own ideology was politically rather than religiously inspired, and he sought a settlement that supported his own theory of the Divine Right of Kings and, following the same policy as his predecessor Elizabeth, would keep his kingdoms out of ruinous wars against the Catholic powers in Europe. His sympathetic treatment of the Catholic Jonson contrasts with his consistent persecution of another brilliant writer, the Protestant Sir Walter Raleigh, the handsomest Renaissance man in the kingdom, lyrical poet, historian, explorer and politician, whose anti-Spanish activities challenged James’ policy of appeasement. 

Raleigh was a sore point for James within his own family, as his wife and elder son were admiring supporters of the Elizabethan hero and disapproved of his imprisonment; the colonial adventurer's promotion of Virginian tobacco must have been an additional irrittant for the non-smoking King, usually so susceptible to male charm and indulgent of his much younger favourites' transgressions. 

For James' heir, the young Henry, Prince of Wales, the treatment of Raleigh encapsulated all that he opposed about paternal misrule ("None but my father would keep such a bird in a cage" he is alleged to have declared). Henry is one of the might-of-been kings of history, decisive and uncompromisingly Protestant, his virtues exaggerated in his lifetime and afterwards to represent everything that his father and younger brother, Charles I, were not. He did not live to use his influence to save Raleigh from execution, a sacrifice to Stuart short-term politics, the way Charles I was to sacrifice his greatest minister Strafford, and Charles II his greatest general, Montrose, for no other reason than to placate their enemies.

The resolute profile of a classical hero: Prince Henry, c.1610, in masque costume inspired by Roman antiquity, from a watercolour miniature by isaac Oliver. He could be played by Shia Labeouf.
For James, his long-cherished dynastic ambitions looked to be fulfilled through the personality cults surrounding his two eldest children, Henry and Elizabeth. Through her marriage aged sixteen to the equally young Elector of the Palatinate, the princess was intended to be the figurehead of the Protestant flank of her father's foreign policy. She later became celebrated as 'The Winter Queen' of Bohemia, possessed of legendary Stuart charm and beauty (the Rose, the rising moon, "th'eclipse and glory of her kind", in Sir Henry Wotton's ecstatic words), the qualities so conspicuously lacking in her Hanoverian descendants who succeeded to the British throne in 1714.  
Emblematic princess: Elizabeth Stuart, c.1612 -13, shortly before her marriage to the Protestant German Elector of the Palatinate. Every jewel, and thread of lace, the lion and unicorn prominent at opposite ends of her collar displaying the Stuart monarchy's coat of arms, carry the symbolic burden of royalty and purity. Detail of oil painting by Peake.

Jacobean government failed to heal the religious and political fissures fermenting into the civil war of the next reign, and James' own historical reputation was made, not by Jonson, Jones and Rubens as he had intended, but by critics and enemies, disgusted by his personal habits and over-reliance on favourites. Only recently have historians reassessed the evidence against the homophobic and anti-Scottish accounts of an undignified figure, unwashed, cowardly, drunken, slobbering and leching over his pretty young boyfriends with their lovelocks and shapely long legs, all far too much for the Puritans.

Stuart pretensions to absolutism as articulated in James' pet theory of Divine Right were finally quashed in the 1689 settlement. He had never intended it to be taken literally, only as a guide for monarchs and subjects, a parable justifying hierachy and obedience. The more intelligent among his Stuart successors understood this, but Charles I and James II made the mistake of believing their own royal publicity.

Charles, Prince of Wales, aged about fourteen, in a watercolour miniature from the studio of Isaac Oliver, in 1615, the resemblance to his dead elder brother being exaggerated as much as possible to distract from any signs of weakness and self-doubt. 
Image source: Wikipedia

In 1612, James' vision of a dynasty throned amidst peace and abundance, appeared to unravel when, to universal dismay, Henry died of typhoid, leaving puny Charles as heir, and, eight years later, Elizabeth and her husband, the newly elected King of Bohemia, were dethroned by the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor's army and forced out of the Palatinate. Most of Europe was immolated in thirty years of endemic religious and territorial war, the very thing that James had devoted himself to preventing. Many of his Protestant subjects contributed money and volunteered to fight for Elizabeth's cause, but her father never consented to official government intervention in the war. The awful dramatic irony is that while James was preoccupied by preventing war abroad, he failed to check the slide to catastrophic war at home. Misled by the conviction that the Crown could win over opposition through the printed word and extravagant entertainment, hopelessly compromised by the constant need for money, the Stuart monarchy's  relationship with Parliament had deteriorated by the end of his reign.

A healthy, energetic archetype of the ill-fated Stuart myth, a tragic princess who refused to behave tragically, Elizabeth spent the next forty years of her life in exile, maintaining a court at The Hague under the protection of the Dutch Republic. Other privileged casualties of political reality have degenerated in similar circumstances, but Elizabeth was sustained by her vitality and intelligence, and by her public popularity as the glamorous and fecund personification of the Protestant cause, idealized as a virtuous mother in distress calling from a better world of gallantry. Several of her thirteen children, including Prince Rupert and Princess Elisabeth, her eldest daughter, who engaged Descartes in philosophical debate, were genuinely artistically and intellectually gifted, and like their mother have been absorbed into a romanticised parallel history, appearing in as many novels as biographies. The Winter Queen returned to the English court after the Restoration of her nephew, Charles II, and died soon afterwards in London in 1662.

Though he was only eighteen when he died, her elder brother Henry had been active in the creation of his own iconography through commissioning chivalric images of himself as a warrior prince and playing fantasy heroes written specially for him in Jonson's masques, as the Lord of the Isles in the Arthurian legend of the Lady of the Lake (the allegorical entertainment that constituted The Speeches at Prince Henry's Barriers, part of the court's Christmas festivities in 1610) and as the eponymous lead of Oberon, the Faery Prince, performed on 1 January, 1611 at Whitehall, when he was costumed like a Roman hero by Inigo Jones. It was a masculine, imperial image; his hair cut short, brushed off his forehead, looking a bit like Shia Labeouf in a gladiatorial epic, the classical tunic, draped cloak and sandals showing off athletic bare chest and legs. The beautiful illusions of Stuart masques were created at a high price: the costumes cost over £1000, about half the total cost of staging. Jonson was paid £40 for the script. [VAM:The Court Masque]

One of a set of Royal Mail stamps commemorating the 400th Anniversary of Inigo Jones, Architect and Designer on August 15, 1973. The figures are adapted from original designs by Jones, including, on the left, the costume for Prince Henry in Oberon the Faery Prince.
The theatrically-conscious late Elizabethans and Jacobeans took dressing up as allegorical figures very seriously, emulating the iconography of Queen Elizabeth (the eyes and ears of her kingdom, a half radiant, half sinister pagan goddess in Isaac Oliver's Rainbow Portrait of 1600). It was their favourite way of being officially portrayed, their personal fantasies manifested through the extraordinary imaginations of contemporary artists, the designer Inigo Jones, and portraitists Isaac Oliver, Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, Robert Peake the Elder and William Larkin, who at the same time they faithfully rendered facial likenesses, turned clothes into art that transformed prosaic courtiers into exotic, magical beings from another world. These early Baroque dress designs are usually stunningly elegant and inventive, always entertaining to look at, and only occasionally, due to a sitter's whimsy, ridiculous. They provide the source of future classical ballet, theatre and film costumes, and some of their details still give inspiration to haute couture and street fashion.
Sir Thomas Lee in masque costume as a native Irishman, by Marcus Geerhaerts the Younger. c.1594. As an English army captain, Lee had served in the colonial wars in Ireland attempting to subdue rebels. He was a close associate of the Earl of Essex; his disconcertingly fanciful dress does not disguise serious political intentions. Image source: Wikipedia.
The romantic, loosening, influence of masque costumes on contemporary formal wear was first evident in the fantastical embroidery of Jacobean bodices and petticoats, with motifs from nature, brightly coloured birds and flowers on backgrounds of curving lines and foliage, and in the gradually softening silhouette and shimmering fabrics of both male and female clothes that had lost the angularity of stiff doublets, huge ruffs and farthingales by the early 1620s, while the waistline was raised and sleeves were fuller and puffed out.

Lady Elizabeth Pope, informally dressed in a dramatically chic and revealing masque costume, her draped black cloak, embroidered with seed pearls in the shape of feathers barely covering her breast, set off by more pearls and coral on her wrists. She shelters under a laurel tree, her loosely flowing hair and jewellery indicating her wealth and virginity, her assets on the marriage market, yet her poise and direct gaze have the look of a woman in control, not commodified. 
This combination of classical illusions to beauty and chastity foreshadows the presentation of women in neoclassical art and fashion nearly 200 years later. 
Oil Painting, c.1615 by Robert Peake the Elder. Image source: Wikipedia
The surface exoticism of Jacobean court portraiture was not aiming at psychological truth, the subjects all knowingly actors in a masques. The next reign saw itself as less hedonistic and corrupt, more sober and morally refined, and had the luck of employing one of the most talented portraitists of any century, certainly the greatest court painter England ever had, who introduced a new blend of naturalism and aestheticism. The ethereal, subtly sensuous figures created by Van Dyck, dressed in their shimmering satin and lace, with their luminous skin, wistful spaniel eyes and carefree ringlets, look more like individual human beings than their predecessors - a sublime artistic illusion and marketing ploy, because they were, of course, more idealized and self-deluded.

The dullest British aristocrat could be transformed into a fairy prince by Van Dyck, who re-invented the ruling class into the insouciant, exquisitely dressed characters that still draw besotted mass audiences today: Lord John and Lord Bernard Stuart, c.1638. Oil on canvas, National Gallery, London. Image source: Web Gallery of Art. 
Aged only about sixteen and seventeen when they were painted by Van Dyck as confident young men on the eve of glorious careers, both brothers were dead within seven years, killed fighting on the losing royalist side in the Civil War. The estimate for Civil War casualties, including civilians, in England Wales, Scotland and Ireland is 200,000.

Fairy princess: Elizabeth Stuart, aged about seven, in 1603 after her father's accession to the English throne. Oil painting by Robert Peake the Elder.
 Image source: Wikipedia
(By coincidence - that I believe in more than almanacal prognostications - there was an exhibition at the National Gallery devoted to Henry Stuart, "The Lost Prince", that ended on January 13th, 2012, when this post was first blogged, that this blogger regrets she couldn't afford to see.)