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Friday, March 16, 2012

Mystery Writer Solves Centuries-Old Mystery

Elizabeth Mackintosh, aka Gordon Daviot,
aka Josephine Tey.

Few people have heard of Elizabeth Mackintosh, even those familiar with her work.  She’s a mystery; she’s a writer of mysteries; she’s a mystery writer read by people who don’t like mysteries.  Significantly, she solved a five-hundred-year-old mystery.  Playwright and author, she died in 1952 at the age of fifty-five.  Born and raised in Iverness, Scotland, Mackintosh was trained as a physical training instructress, and taught for eight years at various schools in Scotland and England.  When her mother died she quit to stay and take care of her invalid father.  She started to write while tending him and sold some stories.  She also began to seriously study playwriting and theater.

Her most successful play was Richard of Bordeaux, which she wrote using the pen name Gordon Daviot.  It was first performed in 1932, and was so successful that it established her name as a dramatist, and made a name for the young leading actor and director, John Gielgud.

Richard of Bordeaux, aka King Richard II of England,
artist unknown, circa 1390s.

Her interests informed her writing.  An amateur psychologist, she studied people and tried to ferret out their personal mysteries – who they really were and what they kept hidden from the world. She prided herself on reading faces and facial expressions and even studied their penmanship.  All of these skills she aptly applied to her most famous mystery, Daughter of Time, which she wrote under the nom de plume Josephine Tey.

Richard III
Artist unknown, Late 15th Century
National Portrait Gallery, London.

The protagonist of five of her mysteries (and a minor character in another) is Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard.  In Daughter of Time, Inspector Grant is laid up in a hospital.  Like Tey herself, Grant studies faces.  Given a portrait of Richard III, he finds him to be quite honorable, but ill at ease.  He is horrified to find out the man’s villainous reputation - Richard is accused of killing his nephews, princes Edward V and Richard of Shrewbury,  and Grant sets out to prove that his initial instincts concerning Richard III are correct. From his hospital bed, with the help of friends and a young researcher, he comes to the conclusion that Richard was not the heinous murderer he was thought to be, and offers another answer as to who really killed the princes in the Tower of London.

Earliest known portrait of Richard III, 1520s,
Society of Antiquaries.

Without revealing the entire book, some of the salient facts presented by Tey are compelling.  For one thing, Richard was never formally accused of either kidnapping nor murdering his nephews.  One would think this would be an issue, since at that time his reign was being challenged.  Secondly, their mother, Elizabeth Woodville, remained on good terms with Richard, which makes her the bigger monster if she had thought him guilty of the murders of her sons. Finally, there wasn’t any political advantage to get rid of them.  They were more in the way of Henry Tudor (Henry II).

Frontispage of 1st Quarto
Shakespeare's Richard III.

That history is written by the victors has never been more true than in the case of Richard III.  Sir Thomas More was the author of the unfinished History of King Richard the Third (1513), and he served Henry VIII, son of Henry Tudor who vanquished Richard.  It is an understatement to say that More toed the party line.  Also, More was eight years old when Richard died, so what he wrote was hearsay with a Tudor bent.  Shakespeare has been known to tweak historical facts for the sake of his art, and unfortunately his play, Richard III, has been taken all these centuries to be a history rather than a tragedy. However, his play may be the reason that Richard III has remained in popular memory, whereas other British monarchs have been virtually forgotten.   One also has to consider that at the time of these writings history was not even a genre of its own, but rather was considered a subset of literature.  Therefore historical accuracy was not necessarily a focus or consideration.

Sir Thomas More, 1527, by Hans Holbein the Younger
National Portrait Gallery, London.

A recurring theme in Tey’s work is injustice, and in Daughter of Time she successfully demonstrates that once an idea becomes a part of culture it is hard to correct even with contrary evidence.  Her keen detection, centuries after the fact, has been so impressive that the various Richard III societies that have sprung up internationally supporting his acquittal of this crime have made her their poster child.  This book was called by American crime writer and literary critic Dorothy B. Hughes “not only one of the most important mysteries of the year, but of all years of mystery.”

True First Edition.  London:  Peter Davies, 1951.

And Elizabeth Mackintosh remained a mystery until the day she died.  John Gielgud wrote, "Her sudden death...was a great surprise and shock to all her friends in London.  I learned afterward that she had known herself to be mortally ill for nearly a year, and had resolutely avoided seeing anyone she knew.  This gallant behaviour was typical of her and curiously touching, if a little inhuman, too.”  

"The Princes in the Tower" by John Everett Millais, 1878.

If you are interested in the mystery of history, then Daughter of Time is the mystery for you. Think CSI without the gadgets; only a sharp mind as a tool. A bit inhuman, perhaps, but remaining aloof from humanity while investigating it is the fictional detective’s stock in trade.  Recall Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot.  And then remember that Josephine Tey, née Elizabeth Mackintosh, the mysterious mystery writer, was not a detective in a novel. She was the real deal.

Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of Wikipedia.
An earlier version of this post appeared on Booktryst.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The King and Lie

Yul Brynner as King Mongkut does the polka with Debra Kerr.
Image courtesy of www.amuseum.org.

Yul Brynner made a career out of playing a Thai king who danced the polka.  For many people this was, and sadly is, their knowledge and impression of Thailand. The King and I was one of Rodgers and Hammerstein's outstanding theatrical successes during the "golden age" of musical theater.  Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein were initially reluctant to pursue the project proposed by a theatrical attorney seeking a vehicle for client Gertrude Lawrence, a veteran leading lady. But they agreed to write the musical based on a 1944 novel, Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon.

The original poster for the original Broadway production.

Margaret Landon was a writer who became intrigued with a woman named Anna Leonowens and her memoirs of her five years in Siam teaching the king's wives and children English.  Landon took these memoirs, then embellished them with details from other sources.  Although it was denounced and banned in Thailand (known as Siam until 1939) until recently, it was a bestseller in 1944 and was translated into dozens of languages.  This image of Anna became symbolic of the Victorian female traveller.  Landon sold the musical play rights to Rodgers and Hammerstein in 1950.

The semi-fictionalized biographical novel that
started it all.  Image courtesy of Harper Collins.

Anna Leonowens was born Anna Harriette Edwards in Ahmadnagar, India in 1831.  Her father was a British sergeant, and her mother was half-British and half-Indian.  Anna was apparently an Anglophile and resented her Indian lineage, so she invented a more preferable one:  She claimed she had been born a Crawford in Caernarfon, Wales, to a captain and his British wife.  In reality, her father died just before her birth, and her mother had remarried.  Her stepfather was an Irish corporal and Anna grew up in an army barracks where blankets served as walls separating families.  She completely estranged herself from her family as an adult, including her sister in whom she was disappointed for marrying a British civil servant who was also Anglo-Indian.  (As a side note, her sister's grandson was William Henry Pratt, better known as the actor Boris Karloff.)

William Henry Pratt, better known as Boris Karloff.

When Anna was a teenager she moved with her mother and stepfather to Aden. From there her tutor (and perhaps his wife - accounts vary) took her to Egypt and Palestine, apparently on recognition of her facility with languages and to further her education.  The family moved back to India in 1849, and she quickly married civilian clerk Thomas Leon Owens over her parents' objection.  (She later changed their last name to Leonowens, perhaps thinking it sounded more distinctive.)

Anna Leonowens by Robert Harris, circa 1900.

The newlyweds made their way to Australia via Singapore, eventually arriving in Perth.  There Anna tried to open a school for girls with no success.  Eventually the family, all opportunities exhausted, moved to Penang, Malaysia, where Thomas got a job as a hotel keeper.  He died of apoplexy.  With two children to support, Anna moved to Singapore and opened a school for the children of British officers. Although this wasn't a successful endeavor, it did serve to establish her reputation as an educator.

Anna in later years.  Image courtesy of this site.

In 1862, the Siamese Consul in Singapore offered her a position teaching the 39 wives and concubines, and 82 children of King Mongkut of Siam.  The King wanted them to have a modern Western education and he wanted the curriculum based on scientific secular lines, and not the Christian-based curriculum previously attempted by missionaries' wives.  Anna served as a teacher and then language secretary for King Mongkut.  She was respected and had some political clout, but ultimately was dissatisfied with the terms and conditions of her contract.

King Mongkut at his coronation on April 1, 1851.

Anna went to England, and was in negotiation for a new contract when King Mongkut died in 1868.  His heir, the 15-year-old King Chulalongkorn, wrote her a letter of thanks but did not renew her contract.  They maintained written communication for years as part of their amicable relationship; the King later even granted her son, Louis, a commission of captain in the Royal Cavalry.  Later Anna was to claim credit for some of the changes King Chulalongkorn implemented.

King Mongkut and his heir, the future King Chulalongkorn,
circa 1860s.

Anna opened a school for girls on Staten Island, New York in 1869.  She also began writing travel articles for Atlantic Monthly.  Her articles were collected into two volumes of memoirs - The English Governess at the Siamese Court (published in 1870), and Romance of the Harem (published in 1873).  These brought her fame but at the same time she was charged with sensationalism.  The books are still controversial in Thailand.  Her writings are very critical of court life and show an exaggerated view of her influence and position.  She was a feminist, and this colored her depiction of Siamese culture, especially the harem.  A lot of court gossip was included in her "memoirs", and she claimed that concubine Tuptim was tortured and executed.

Anna became a lecturer in the U.S., and was in literary circles which included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.  In 1880, she began teaching at a new prep school in Manhattan while continuing to travel and write.  When her married daughter moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia, she accompanied her and taught her grandchildren.  She was one of the founders of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (originally the Victoria School of Art and Design, founded in 1887 and named in honor of Queen Victoria).  She died in 1915, at the age of 83, in Montréal.  Her son, Louis, founded a successful trading company that still operates in Thailand today;  The Louis T. Leonowens Co. Ltd. is a leading exporter of Malayan hardwoods.

Louis Leonowens, image courtesy this site.

This whole Anna/King of Siam industry has shaped the concept of an Eastern kingdom much in need of Western influence and civilization.  The Siam depicted is inferior and even silly - the King is a barbarian who wises up and even learns the polka from a Western woman (an inferior human even in Western viewpoints at that time).  No wonder that The King and I was even banned in neighboring India as inaccurate and insulting.

In 1960, King Bhumibol, the present king and great-grandson of Mongkut, on a visit to the U.S. stated that the representation of Mongkut was 90% exaggerated. In 1985, the ambassador from Thailand also communicated his disapproval that Siam had been depicted as a whole as childish and inferior.  Mongkut's great-granddaughter, Princess Vudhichalerm Vudhijaya, in 2001 gave an interview where she explained that Mongkut was a monk for 27 years before becoming king, and therefore it would have been against his Buddhist principles to torture and execute his concubine, Tuptim.  In fact, Tuptim was her grandmother and one of the 36 wives of Chulalongkorn.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the present King of Thailand.

Indeed Mongkut led an interesting life.  For political reasons he was passed over initially for the kingship, and became a monk as was typical for Siamese men.  As a monk he initiated many changes to Buddhism as it was practiced in Siam.  He also discovered Western knowledge and studied English and Latin.  He became close friends with Vicar Pallegoix of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Bangkok, and even invited him to deliver his Christian sermons to his fellow monks.  He is famously quoted for observing, "What you teach people to do is admirable but what you teach them to believe is foolish."  Additionally he improved women's rights in Siam, including releasing a great number of concubines so that they could marry.  He banned forced marriages and the selling of wives to pay debts. Obviously the employment of a British teacher was evidence of his own interest in modernization; it was not a result of her influence.

Mongkut when he was a monk, circa 1845-1851.

Anna claimed credit for many of these reforms, and also of ones that Chulalongkorn made, such as no longer requiring prostration before a royal person.  Although she claimed to be a governess, hence crediting herself with teaching everyone Western knowledge, she was primarily an English teacher.  In the play and her second book she states she witnessed the king throwing wives into a dungeon.  Since the watery soil of the region would not even support basements, much less dungeons, this is a fabrication. There is also no mention of the public torturing that she claims in any other accounts, foreign or domestic.  It is telling that she was not part of the ex-pat circle of British consular officials and merchants even though her position at court was respectable; this speaks volumes of her lack of importance.

Anna Leonowens was adept at self-promotion and invented a more preferable background for herself - born in Wales with a middle-class upbringing - and denied her Indian heritage.  She even altered her last name to make it better fit the person she imagined herself to be.  While all of this reflects a person shamed and chagrined at her own circumstances, what is inexcusable is the harm she has done to Thai culture with her transformation of facts into fantasy.  The popularity of her books and the books about her, as well as the play, movie, and television show based on The King and I have become an industry that illustrates the Western attitude of superiority over other cultures.  It is time that this ridiculous, farcical story was laid to rest.

Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of Wikipedia.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Early Engraver Played His Cards Right

The Cardmaker
From L'Encyclopedie by Diderot et d'Alembert, Paris, 1751

The "Meister der Spielkarten", or "The Master of the Playing Cards" is known only through the 106 engravings that have been attributed to him, including the set of playing cards that he is named for.  The term “master” is reserved for someone who has completed an apprenticeship and ran his own workshop, teaching apprentices.  His presumed students are also unknown but have similar names, such as "The Master of the Nuremberg Passion", "The Master of 1446", and "The Master of the Banderoles".

9 of Beasts of Prey.
Central climbing bear also appears in a copy
of the Gutenberg Bible.
Multiple-plate card, each animal is on a separate
copper plate, several which are reused elsewhere.

The first woodcuts on paper were playing cards.  Prior to this playing cards were hand-colored and very expensive.  A way was needed to mass produce them and make them affordable to more people, as playing cards caught on quickly.  While French and Italian manuscripts in the middle 15th century mention woodblocks made for printing playing cards, a German manuscript from 1402 specifically mentions "kartenmahler" (card painter) or "kartenmacher" (card maker), according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.  

The Queen of Wild Men
Courtesy of the Kupferstichkabinett, Dresden, Germany

There was a distinction in the process of woodcuts between the designer who made the drawings and the artisan who cut the drawings in wood. Since engravers came from professional craftsmen, goldsmiths and armor makers who were designers themselves, this process could be accomplished by one person instead of two, making control of the entire process achievable.

Five of Flowers
Image courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Engraving was a more expensive process than woodcuts, and the resulting playing cards must have been unique.  "The Master of the Playing Cards" appears to have been trained as an artist rather than a goldsmith. His prints show images in three dimensions, shaded by parallel lines.   The fact that these cards were engraved, and therefore more expensive, suggests they were made for clients of some financial means.

The Queen of Stags
Image courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

His cards have compositional elements that also occur in the Giant Bible of Mainz and the copy of the Gutenberg Bible in the Princeton Library.  Although there have been attempts to identify him as Gutenberg, it can only be postulated that Gutenberg knew of "The Master of the Playing Cards" and possibly worked with him.  The common design elements of both can be attributed to a design book for artists that may have been popular at the time.

Three of Birds

Efforts to positively identify "The Master of the Playing Cards" have been futile. His style resembles paintings from southwestern Germany and Switzerland of his time period.  He often uses depictions of the alpine cyclamen, also from that area. Some of the cards look to be composed of different plates that must have been held together in some sort of frame when printed.  This is another allusion to Gutenberg’s moveable type, which either shows collaboration or exposure to the same idea. Since copies of his suit symbols appear in datable manuscripts, the cards have been dated to circa 1440.

The Queen of Flowers
Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Some cards exist in two different states, and some in different versions. There are no numbers on the cards and the pips, or symbols, are different, which indicates that playing must have been difficult, especially quick playing.  Typical of northern European cards at that time, the cards have five suits:  beasts of prey, birds, deer, flowers, and wild men.  It is not know what card games were likely to have been played with these cards.

The King of Wild Men

The largest collection of the cards, forty of them, is in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris; fourteen more are in the Kupferstichkabinett in Dresden.  It is rare that works by "The Master of the Playing Cards" come on the market.  In September of 2006, in London, an impression of the "Queen of Flowers" was auctioned by Christie’s for $450,000.

A Poet Reading
Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

"The Master of the Playing Cards" also produced other works, mostly religious.  They are rather large for early engravings.  These were most likely intended as insertions to illustrate devotional books.  Most of his designs survive in copies by other printmakers, and there are no doubt works that didn’t survive at all.  It is unknown but possible that he produced paintings, but nothing that exists of that era has ever been acceptably attributed to him.

The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian
Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Although he, himself, remains unknown, his work places him in the forefront of the art of engraving, and attests to his artistry and skill.  "The Master of the Playing Cards" stands as the most accomplished and influential member of the first generation of engravers.

Unless otherwise noted, all images are courtesy of Wikipedia.
An earlier version of this post was published on Booktryst.

Friday, March 9, 2012

These Birds in Hand Are Worth Millions

John James Audubon (1785-1851)
Oil on canvas by John Syme, 1826
Currently hanging in the White House.

John James Audubon, a Haitian-born man raised in France, had a vision. One that resulted in a monumental and important work – Birds of America.

Carolina Pigeon
(now called Mourning Dove)

He had loved birds and nature as a child, and was encouraged by his father to explore and draw what he saw. He was reported to be quite charming, played the flute and violin, learned to ride and to fence, but loved roaming the woods best.

White Gerfalcons

Although his father had planned for his son to be a seaman, the young Audubon was not fond of navigation or the math required, and failed his officer’s qualification test. He also got seasick easily. His father managed to secure a fake passport and sent him to America in 1803, in order to avoid being drafted in the Napoleonic wars.

Virginian Partridge (Northern Bobwhite)
under attack by a young red-shouldered hawk.

Audubon did well in various family businesses, but really relished his time outdoors, hunting, fishing and drawing. He had a great respect for Native Americans, and spent time with local tribes learning their ways of hunting and their views on nature. He married his neighbor’s daughter, Lucy Bakewell, with whom he shared common interests. They lived in Kentucky and spent time together exploring the local countryside.

Roseate Spoonbill

In 1812, after Congress declared war with Great Britain, Audubon went to Philadelphia and became an American citizen. Upon returning to Kentucky, he found that his entire collection - over two hundred drawings - had been destroyed by rats. Despondent and downhearted, he decided to redo his work, but this time even better.

Paridae:  (clockwise from top right, in pairs)
Psaltriparus minimus, Parus atricapillus, Parus rufescens

His methods for drawing birds were based on his extensive observations from the field. He first killed the birds with fine shot, then wired them into natural poses. He painted the birds in their natural settings, often as though in the midst of motion. 

The Greater Flamingo

Working primarily with layers of watercolor and sometimes gouache, he added pastels or colored chalk for softness. Audubon drew all the birds life-size and placed smaller birds in settings with branches, flowers, fruit and berries. He grouped several species in some drawings on the same page to show contrast. His poses were contrived to reveal as much of bird anatomy as possible, achieving both scientific and artistic efficacy.

Snowy Heron or White Egret

He took his new collection of drawings to England in 1826. American printers had not been very responsive to his enthusiastic plans to publish life-size prints of hundreds of bird species made from engraved copper plates and hand-colored.  

Mallard Ducks

Birds of America consists of 435 prints printed on sheets measuring 39 by 26 inches. The printing costs were $115,640 (over $2,000,000 by today’s rates). Besides arranging for the production of his grand opus, he tirelessly promoted it.  He raised the money from advance subscriptions, oil painting commissions, exhibitions, and even the sale of animal skins from his hunts.

Blue Jays

Over fifty colorists were hired to apply each color in an assembly line. The original edition was engraved in aquatint. Robert Havell took over the project when the first ten plates of engraver W. H. Lizars were found subpar. By the 1830s, lithography replaced the aquatint process. He called the new size the double elephant folio since it was double elephant paper size.

Anna's Hummingbird

Criticized for not ordering the plates in Linnaean order (like a scientific treatise), he was more interested in providing a visual tour for the reader. King George IV was a subscriber along with others of nobility. He gave a demonstration of how he propped the birds with wire to arrange their poses. A student at the time, Charles Darwin, was at that demonstration. Darwin quotes Audubon three times in The Origin of Species and in later works.

Golden Eagle

Audubon has had a vast influence on natural history and ornithology. His high standards set the bar for future works. Among his accomplishments were the discovery of twenty-five new species and twelve subspecies. In his journals, he warned about loss of habitats and over-hunting. Birds that have become extinct, including the Carolina Parakeet, Passenger Pigeon, and Great Auk, are only known to us from his prints.  This follows in the steps of a predecessor, Ustad Mansur, the Mughal artist who most famously left us with a true depiction of a dodo bird.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker

His next work was a sequel entitled Ornithological Biographies, written with a Scottish ornithologist, William MacGillivray. Both books were published between 1827 and 1839, but separately to avoid having to provide a copy of Birds of America to the Crown libraries, as required by law for any books with text.

Ruffled Grouse

In 1839-1844, he published an octavo edition of Birds of America with an additional 65 plates. These were approximate 10-1/2 by 6-3/4 inches.  The earliest editions were bound in seven volumes, editions after 1865 in eight volumes.  This edition was first published in fascicles (parts) in an effort to make it more affordable, and therefore accessible to libraries and to more people. Each fascicle cost $1, and the entire set cost $100.  Once collected, most subscribers had them bound in volumes.

Fascicle of Part 4

The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, his final work which focused on documenting mammals, was written in collaboration with Rev. John Bachman, who supplied most of the scientific text. This was completed by his sons and son-in-law posthumously.

Snowy Owl

John Woodhouse Audubon devoted himself entirely to continuing the work of his father. They worked together on the series The Quadrapeds of North America (the “Viviparous” was dropped), but when John James became too ill to continue, John Woodhouse ended up doing most of the drawings. Because of the dangers of working closely with live animals, caged or dead ones were used as models.  Since this was more unwieldy than staging bird poses, their animal paintings were not as successful, and are rather gloomy.

Mountain Brook Minks, 1848 by John Woodhouse Audubon.
Image courtesy of National Museum of Wildlife Art

Despite being under the shadow of his father, John Woodhouse’s contributions are valuable. His brother, Victor Gifford Audubon, also continued the family tradition of wildlife painting, but is the least known of the Audubon family.

Passenger Pigeons
(now extinct)

Lucy Audubon sold all 435 of the original watercolors to the New York Historical Society, after her husband’s death. Desperate for money, she later sold all but 80 of the original copper plates to the Phelps Dodge Corporation, who melted them down and sold them for scrap.

Sotheby's Mary Engleheart shown with copy of Birds of America
auctioned December, 2010.  Photo by Pitarakis/AP.

Considered the world’s most expensive printed book, one of the 119 copies still extant was sold on January 20th of this year at Christie's.  This was the "Duke of Portland" set acquired by William Henry Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, the fourth Duke of Portland (1768-1854) some time after 1838.  Reported to be in excellent condition, it was sold to a private American collector for $7,922,500.  The highest amount paid for the four-volume set was in December of 2010 when Michael Tollemache, a London fine art dealer and bird lover, purchased one for $11.5 million.  Of the 119 remaining copies of the book, only a few are in private hands, the rest (estimated to be 108) belong to libraries, universities, and museums. 

Photograph of John James Audubon just prior to his death
by photographer Charles DeForest Fredricks

John James Audubon was a talented artist and salesman, whose exacting efforts to record the creatures he loved yielded one of the most impressive books ever made. A unique man, he envisioned his dreams and brought them to fruition. That is certainly worth millions of dollars.

Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.
An earlier version of this post appeared on Booktryst.