Compass of the notes

Last week, on January 6, the feast of the Epiphany was celebrated (in the west; eastern churches keep it a little later because of the Julian Calendar, on  what is January 19 in the Gregorian Calendar, as is their time-honored custom). It was once the grandest festival in the Christian calendar, now eclipsed by Christmas and Easter, and I suspect few people know much about it. My second term at university was named Epiphany (the first term being Michaelmas and the third one Easter) and I remember fellow students wondering why this was. A remnant of its previous importance may be seen in the wide range of Epiphany traditions kept across the world, from marzipan and puff-pastried galettes des rois in France (I shared the one below last week from Stohrer in Paris, which has had almost three centuries to perfect its recipe) to music and sweets in Brazil. I think the decline of Epiphany is a very sad one since it is endowed with an extraordinarily rich symbolism, one that at once universal and personal. There is something quite strange in the story, a heady blend of the mystical and the practical.

ImageThe strangeness of the story lies in the characters associated with it: the Magi. Traditionally, these are the three wise men, though the New Testament does not specify their number, somewhat curiously in a text in which numbers play a prominent role. There are, however, three gifts which they bring leading folk to assume, not unreasonably, that there were three people involved. The passage of time has allowed an elaborate legend to be created around these men, giving them kingdoms, names, and narratives. In a real way, this detracts from a central element in the biblical passages about them. Since they are anonymous in name and number, they represent us, the reader, in a tangible manner. More of that in a little bit. What is astonishing about these individuals who make the journey to worship a baby is that they are not Jewish and they are therefore outside of the chosen race, bereft of God’s favor. They clearly belong to the Zoroastrian religion and they find out about the birth of Christ through astrology, a practice consistently condemned by both Judaism and Christianity. At the same time, they are scientists, astronomers to be precise, and it is the unusual stellar event which guides them to their destination. So, they are mixture of the certain (science) and the speculative (astrology), being exposed to the literal birth of a new religion but belonging to a pagan one already centuries old. They take a leap in the dark to reach the unexpected epiphany of witnessing the startling circumstance of a baby child being sheltered in a stable. We should remember this is not the immaculate hay and benign animals of Manger scenes but rather a dirt- and noise-filled basic and unadorned structure. You don’t have to be a believer to see the striking and devastatingly attractive symbolism of this scene. Sometimes in our lives, the most significant epiphanies are those which are the simplest and the least expected, and come to use by means of the least likely people and events. The problem is that we rather pine for fireworks and neon lights to illuminate our moments of self-realization. This is perhaps one of the core tragedies of the human condition.


The painting above is Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s Adoration of the Magi (1660). The spectator is first struck by the rampant yellow hue of the royal robes of the elderly kneeling figure, a nod to the legend that the Magi were kings. However, the triumphant note of the golden, ermine-trimmed cope with its meta-joke of embroidered stars embellishing it is subverted by the back view of the king for monarchs are never portrayed from behind. They face forward and are seen their subjects but here we have the enormous clue that the order of things in the universe has been changed by this event; poverty has become the new wealthy, lowly has become lofty, royal has become submissive. The second disturbing note in the painting is the cross, hints of which are seen in the crossed spears and beams of the upper right-hand corner as well as featuring on the kneeling sovereign’s cope itself. The generous amount of ermine on the cope punctured by the copious black stoat tails also constitutes a subtle clue about a deeper, less obvious reading: the beauty and warmth of the fur has been obtained from the deaths of a myriad number of animals. The metaphor works on a double level for it both stands as a critique of the brutality of humanity and underscores the painful cost of beauty. Finally, there is a sense of urgency in the scene which is depicted in the crowding. Traditional nativity iconography has a sense of space. Here, animals and humans are squashed together, another indictment of the futility of our endeavors. While the open box at the bottom of the painting suggests that salvation is open to everyone, everywhere, irrespective of any consideration, the looming presence of crosses reminds us of the price that was to be paid. You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the beauty of this scene which, at first glance, appears to be quite tranquil yet which, on closer inspection, turns out to be decidedly dark, paradoxically in the midst of the light which emanates from the child, and is also to be seen in the star seen in the sky, and, finally, implicitly and metaphorically in the quest for Truth.

I have my own particular epiphany related to Bethlehem. On my first visit to Israel in 1996, I decided to visit Bethlehem from Jerusalem, where I was staying. I had the route planned but for some reason the alarm did not sound or I did not hear it. I was woken instead by the building shaking violently and the sound of an explosion. I will never forget the very unsettling and eerie silence which followed for a short time though seemed elongated, broken by screams, shouts, and sirens. A suicide bomber was on the bus I would have taken and had exploded his bomb a few yards after the stop I would have got on. Almost everyone on board was killed. This radically, brutally, and definitively changed my perspective on a lot of things, not least my attitude the final examinations of my undergraduate degree which took place a few weeks later. All because of a bus not taken. I did get to see Bethlehem on my second visit to Israel, assisting at Christmas midnight Mass there in 1998.


Unlike the Magi, we can rely on more accurate, though less romantic, devices to guide us on our paths. The humble and iconic compass has suffered a terrible prostitution of late, along with clocks, for most people simply use their cell phones to tell the time or to chart their journeys. It is eminently practical, of course, but I wonder whether it doesn’t drain the awe-inspiring notions of time and magnetism of their mystery. A life void of mystery leads us to seek out compensation and it is then that we risk distorting our moral compass.

A collection of essays which I edited in 2010 entitled Collaboration and Interdisciplinarity in the Republic of Letters was originally intended to be called Through All the Compass of the Notes. The press didn’t like it and thought, quite reasonably, that people would imagine it to be a work of musicology. The quotation is from John Dryden’s A Song for St Cecilia’s Day (1687) and the section it’s from is as follows:

From harmony, from heavenly harmony,

This universal frame began:

From harmony to harmony

Through all the compass of the notes it ran,

The diaspon closing full in Man.

The poem was set to music by Handel as the Ode for St Cecilia’s Day (1729) and is one of my favorite pieces of music. An admirable though somewhat aggressive performance of the work in its entirety is available here, by Arts Florissants. The chorus quoted above is particularly pleasing as it involves all of the instruments of the orchestra with the vocalists rising up the scale at the mention of “compass of the notes” (from 08’26 onwards). The poem is really not concerned much with St Cecilia, the patroness of music, but rather muses on the Pythagorean theory of harmonia mundi which became popular once again in the seventeenth century following the publication of Johannes Kepler’s Harmonices mundi (1619). In a nutshell, the theory speculated that music was central to the universe and that cosmic harmony was dependent on this. The planets, in particular, had their own distinctive harmonies, the music of the sphere. Gustav Holst would create his own version of their respective tunes in The Planets (Opus 36) in the twentieth century, a work much haunted by the devastation brought by World War I. Of course, we know that sound doesn’t travel through space but nonetheless the theory isn’t altogether dead since sonification is bring used to understand and visualize, in a sense, patterns in the cosmos using analogue techniques. There is an interesting talk, here, by Honor Harger, giving examples of sound waves of celestial objects such as stars and pulsars. We might not use the night sky much to help us in our travels these days, but the universe still remains something which inspires and fascinates us. Very few astronomers are atheists.


Today’s cufflinks are designed by the Norwegian jewellers Frank and Regine Juhls and date from the mid-1960s. I’ve already blogged about another pair I have, here, and like that pair, this one is part of their Tundra series. The pair is crafted in sterling silver and the brutalist lines suggest a compass, or perhaps a ship’s wheel. My mother believed that a better night’s sleep would be had if your body is aligned in a north-south axis and I’ve consistently found this to be the case. Choosing directions in every part of our lives, then, seems to have consequences, for better or for worse.


Crowning glory

It is an inevitable fact that any form of ceremonial dress will, eventually, end up looking faintly absurd. British judges and barristers blended into early eighteenth-century society but now appear somewhat incongruous sporting horsehair wigs of various lengths and carrying gloves in their “non-dominant hand” on various occasions, not to mention nosegays. The same is true for the winged gowns and brightly colored hoods of academic regalia or the pinstriped pants and tailcoat of morning dress. However, these all serve a function and a very important one at that: they are symbols and relics whose purpose enables us to go beyond externals to deeper truths. People who cannot, because of the feebleness of their imagination or some attachment to the quaint crevices of humanity, journey beyond these exterior sartorial signs are invariably devoid of faith, religious or human, and should be avoided at all costs. It is a strange thing indeed that we need to be attired in certain clothing on specific occasions, but it cannot be denied that this need is as universal as it is deeply engrained, whether it be for a wedding, graduation, investiture or formal dinner. The older the institution, the grander and more elaborate the vestimentary code, meaning that monarchies possess some stunning -and sometimes startling- apparel.

ImageI’m currently teaching a play by Jean Anouilh, Becket ou l’honneur de Dieu (Becket or the Honor of God, 1959), which was adapted, very successfully, into a movie in 1964 with Peter O’Toole playing the role of King Henry II of England and Richard Burton starring as his nemesis, Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury. The historical events are fascinating; Henry II when he became sovereign appointed his very close friend and companion, then a deacon, as archbishop of Canterbury, a move which served the two-fold aim of elevating his friend as well as having his ally to control the Church in his country. Instead of being his stooge and servant, Becket was seized with an unexpected change of heart and took the role seriously, so much so that he came into constant conflict with Henry, losing his friendship, support, and eventually his life when four knights took the ruler at his word in wanting rid of the “turbulent priest”, slaying the unarmed prelate in his cathedral, the fatal blow being delivered by a sword which split open the archbishop’s skull.

I spent a year living in Ramsgate and teaching at the University of Kent prior to moving to the USA and visited the spot of Becket’s martyrdom inside Canterbury Cathedral on a number of occasions (refusing to pay to enter the building on each occasion; I passionately believe that churches and toilets should be free facilities). In the hands of Jean Anouilh, the story becomes less of a narrative about religion and duty than a story imbued with colonial and racial themes. Becket is cast by the playwright -wrongly it turns out- as a Saxon and has a subservient relationship at first to the Norman king, being his “little Saxon” and even toweling the monarch dry, massaging him, and giving up his bed to him to sleep on the floor during the first act, a relationship with a homoerotic subtext; it is also possible that the two historical figures had been lovers at some point in their youth, which would certainly go some way in explaining their extraordinarily bitter feud. This theme of colonized peoples collaborating, sometimes uneasily, with their oppressors was a highly topical one in 1959. Anouilh adds to the racial element by implying that the cleric also had a Palestinian mother brought back from the Crusades, indicating that this is indeed one of the play’s central topics. At the time of his play’s publication, the Algerian question loomed large for the French, particularly for the president, Charles de Gaulle, architect of the newly devised Fifth Republic (1958) and a longtime personal enemy of Anouilh. The General suspected the writer of having collaborated with the occupying Germans during the Second World War since he remained in Paris, probably wrongly since Anouilh’s Antigone premiered in the capital several weeks before its liberation in 1944 and very vividly depicts the indomitable spirit of resistance against tyranny. Going back to his play about twelfth-century England, the opening scene shows Henry II visiting Becket’s tomb to do penance. He arrives in a red cloak and a crown, moves to the tomb with his back to the audience, then removes it to reveal that he is completely naked. This unexpected visual effect superbly illustrates the ethical emptiness of the Norman ruler’s colonialist ideology. It also reverses the power dynamic between them, since the King kneels, bereft of clothing. Except that, significantly, he retains the crown on his head. The 1964 movie version might have been filmed during the swinging sixties yet has the ruler keep on his pants and only strip himself of his shirt (above), a prudish change which guts the original setting of its potency.

ImageCrowns are perhaps the most recognizable and obvious symbols of monarchy, often used in coats of arms, flags, and as a cipher. Queen Elizabeth II, who is a direct descendant of William the Conqueror, the great grandfather of Henry II and who seized the English crown in 1066, through eight separate lines, is pictured above at the State Opening of Parliament in May of this year, wearing the Imperial State Crown. This crown might only have been created for Queen Victoria in 1838 but it contains some much older parts. The blue sapphire in the cross comes from a ring made for Edward the Confessor around 1054, the Black Prince’s Ruby at the front of the band, the size of a chicken egg, was given to the English monarchy in 1367, and the crown also contains pearls from the collection of Elizabeth I. While crowns are a ceremonial headgear associated with most of the world’s remaining monarchies, only that of the UK (and the Queen’s other realms) and Tonga actually wear one.


Tonga’s crown may be seen in the above image, of the coronation of King George Tupou V in 2008. The delightfully attired ruler died in March of 2012, succeeded by his younger brother now King Tupou VI, since George had no issue, being what used to be coyly and knowingly referred to as a confirmed bachelor. Other monarchies, such as those of Belgium and the Netherlands, use an actual crown in official ceremonies, but one which rests on a cushion like an unwanted and abandoned handbag. It is a rather sad state of affairs since the crown is pregnant with the symbolism of power and wealth, even if the former is rarely the case.

ImageI completed an article which will appear in the journal Œuvres et Critiques very shortly in a special issue devoted to the irascible and indefatigable extreme Catholic theologian Jean Boucher (1548-1646?) which I co-edited with my friend and colleague Bruce Hayes. My article, “Les images théâtrales de Jean Boucher”, deals with the eight woodcut illustrations which feature in Boucher’s polemical work, La Vie et faits notables de Henry de Valois (Paris: Didier Millot, 1589), railing against King Henri III of France and a book which would inspire a fanatical Dominican friar, Jacques Clément, to stab the ruler fatally several months later. Henri gave an audience to his assassin while on his latrine (a special informal audience given to a privileged few), a lesson about toilet etiquette if ever one were needed. One of the images in the work, above (courtesy of the Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas), concerns an episode which allegedly took place at the coronation of Henri in 1575 (which Boucher attended and gave an address in his capacity as dean of the theology faculty of Reims, a position he held before becoming dean of the Sorbonne’s theology faculty). We only have Boucher’s word for the incident and it does suspiciously bear the hallmarks of fabrication. The priest relates that the king cried out that the crown hurt him and it fell twice off his head, all the while engaging in unedifying whispering asides to his gang of mignons, the pretty young men with whom Henri delighted in surrounding himself. Whether authentic or not, the image is a striking trope of a ruler unsuited, literally and figuratively, for the dignity of the crown. As I also argue in my article, it also serves as an elliptic critique of the sovereign’s same-sex tendencies, a love which enfeebles him and erodes his political and masculine power.


At the same time, the scene evokes the ubiquitous iconography of the wheel of fortune, as above, with the king’s falling crown, the implication being that Henri cannot escape the clutches of destiny. Boucher held that Henri had ceased to be king when he ordered the execution of the Guise brothers in December 1588, an act of tyranny against a Catholic prince and a cardinal which caused him to lose his office -and crown. Above all, the illustration deftly illustrates Boucher’s deadly gift for satire.


Today’s cufflinks are in the design of the Swedish royal arms, with the three crowns representing the three provinces of the nation. They are made by Sporrong, the royal jewellers and a company which was founded in 1666. The are crafted out of rich cobalt guilloched enamel and gold fill. I bought them in Helsinki a couple of years ago. I had forgotten to pack my cufflinks on a trip from Paris and called into an antique store run by an intransigent and formidable lady who spoke to me in French and was ruthless in resisting my repeated attempts at haggling. Sometimes the memory of how we acquired something can be just as enjoyable as the item itself. Another metaphor, perhaps.

Orange skies

Orange is a positively shining and a shiningly positive color. It is bright, pleasant, and conjures up sunny days, orange juice, and warmth. It’s also the only color named after a fruit; before orange trees were introduced into Europe in the late fifteenth century from Asia, the word in English simply was the word for yellow-red, ġeolurēad, then in 1512 we have the first recorded use of the word orange in English, deriving from the Sanskrit term for the fruit (नारङग, nāraṅga). Orange remains the color with the most shades named after fruit or vegetables, with hues possessing names such as apricot, melon, tangerine, persimmon, pumpkin, and carrot orange. It is a color which is often associated with fall and autumnal foliage, though it is, in fact, announcing death and impending winter.

ImageFrederic Leighton’s Flaming June, above, was painted in 1895 and appropriates orange for summer. This painting follows the frequent pre-Raphaelite theme of dolce far niente, a delightful Italian phrase which translates as “sweet idleness” or perhaps “sweet nothing”. Austere Anglo-Saxon types might call this wasting time, but not so in southern Europe. The painting is incredibly deceptive, almost outrageously so. At first glance, we might be tempted to see a sensuous scene, but we would be quite wrong. The beautiful figure might look sensual but her sleeping state subtly yet firmly desexualizes her. Not only that, the thin veil over her body, which gently gives a glimpse of the outline of her breasts, ultimately covers her from our gaze rather than unveiling her to us. The fact that her hair is covered and that it is crumpled material rather than the long hair we first think further reinforces this sense. Leighton does something magnificent and teasing in this painting: he guts summer of its exuberance and vitality and makes us think of the inevitability of autumnal decay. The plant we see so prominently above the orange-clad woman, intruding itself in carefree aggression onto the veranda, is oleander, a highly toxic plant. Leighton makes the time-old parallel between sleeping and dying; in his metaphysical sonnet “Death be not proud”, John Donne addresses death with “rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee”.

ImageThe other way in which Leighton visually signals that we must read into this image is with the pose of the central figure. Her whole body forms an S, and in this she is not unlike illuminated first letters in medieval manuscripts such as the D in the photograph above. I took that photograph of a French Book of Hours dating from around 1430 which is held in the Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas, my institution. It’s an interesting image; the presence of the dog suggests that the couple in the picture might be the husband and wife who commissioned the work, immortalized for all time. Going back to Leighton’s painting, it has had a varied fortune since it was executed. In the 1960s, during a period in which Victorian art was generally despised and not sought after, the young Andrew Lloyd Webber saw it unframed and grubby in a Fulham Road store on sale for the bargain price of £50 and asked to borrow the money to buy it off his grandmother, who adamantly refused, saying “I will not have Victorian junk in my flat”. It ended up in auction, and failing to reach its reserve price, was bought for practically nothing by the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico, where it hangs today. Lord Lloyd Webber, who has evidently never been able to forget this missed opportunity, recently offered the museum $10 million for it, which was promptly turned down.

ImageIn one of the most bizarre fairy tales by Madame d’Aulnoy (1650-1705), “L’oranger et l’abeille” (The Orange Tree and the Bee), a couple of lovers fleeing an ogre which is in hot pursuit of the pair, uses a magic wand they’ve stolen from the ogress to transform themselves into the disguise of an orange tree (him) and a bee (her). Unfortunately, a passing traveller finds and take the wand and they are permanently stuck in their metamorphosed state. A princess called Linda takes a shine to the orange tree and tries to have it uprooted and taken to her garden but gets stung by a very jealous bee on every attempt, leading to an argument between the lovers. They are eventually transformed back to their original states by a fairy who recognizes the zealous and protective bee and pretty orange tree not to be everything they appear. My favorite occurrence of the fruit in literature is in Jeannette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel which was adapted by the BBC in 1990 (both are well recommended). The title comes from the protagonist -Jeanette- who is brought up in a very strict religious sect and is offered an orange by her mother whenever she feels down and needs cheering up. The fruit comes to symbolize the calcified and intolerant mindset of her background, with the young woman coming to realize that life has a varied range of fruit, and experiences, for her to sample.

ImageToday’s cufflinks have a glorious and unabashed orange colour, made by the Danish company Brondsted. The materials are glazed terra-cotta pottery with sterling silver links, and they look like they were made in the 1950s or 1960s. I am posting a second photo, below, which shows the pottery heads and underscores how unusual this pair is.


Everything about them cries out to be loved. The grey ring on the orange faces suggests some kind of alien nebula and I really love this seasonally appropriate and quite quirky pair.

Mirror image

There is quite possibly no object we use so frequently and carelessly -other than our partners- than mirrors. Whether it be in shaving, combing our hair, checking ourselves before we venture out, or seeing that chocolate has not remained on our lips, mirrors are our daily companions. On one level, it’s quite odd that the first thing we do on getting up, apart from feeling miserable, is to check out our appearance in the mirror, as if to verify that some usurper has not stolen our body. I mean,what do we expect to see other than ourselves in the looking-glass? Mirror is a compact little term and I much prefer looking-glass which neatly combines two concepts (sight and reflection) than the very humdrum sounding mirror. This older use survives in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871) and in the familiar yet enigmatic remark by St Paul, “For now we see through a glass, darkly” (I Corinthians 13:12). Through a Glass Darkly is the title of a 1961 movie by Ingmar Bergman, part of his faith trilogy and which, despite the promise of the title, is quite possibly his most claustrophobic and impenetrable film. Some sounds don’t do justice to what they represent. To me, mirror has always been in this category. While we might mirrors for granted in our homes, toilets, restaurants, and cars, it was not always a banal item. The manufacturing process was very expensive and the process was secretive, being closely guarded by Italian craftsmen working on the Venetian island of Murano, who held a monopoly on producing mirrors which were worthy of the name. As part of the systematic and purposeful manipulation of his image, a propaganda strategy which has been adeptly analyzed by Peter Burke and Joan DeJean, Louis envisioned the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles (below), which would involve mirrors of dimensions and number hitherto unknown, all for the purposes of reflecting his grandeur, literally and figuratively.


Louis did what everyone who wants to break a monopoly must do: he resorted to bribery. He lured several of the craftsmen to France to share the mercury mirror formula and this knowledge spread over the years. Venice was so incensed at this that it sent agents to attempt to poison the renegade artisans. The Hall of Mirrors still remains very impressive and I’m glad that it’s now back on show after a decade of restoration, though it’s incredibly difficult to appreciate this grandiose testament to one man’s self-belief when surrounded by hordes of tourists whose idle chatter and clumsy gait slowly erode one’s spirit and concentration. If I could use a time machine, I would go back to an iconic moment which took place within the mirrored walls of this room. This would be when Louis XV first encountered Madame de Pompadour at a ball held here on 25 February 1745. It began a relationship which would endure until her death nineteen years later, a genuine love affair which outlived the charms of physical passion. Pompadour used her influence well; the Place de la Concorde was designed by her, though jealous courtiers openly libelled her, a gossip strategy which would come back to bite them, as the impetus of this anti-royal slander would drive the Revolution.

ImageI love this painting of her, above, by François Boucher (c. 1750). She is so self-assured that she does not need to look at the spectator for reassurance and affirmation. The book held in her hand – apparently carelessly at first glance but clasped firmly on closer inspection- is no mere prop. Despite the flowers and ribbons which testify to her love of enjoyment and worldly things, the grey background and pensive expression, together with the quill in the foreground -standing on end to denote that she is an active letter writer, all point to an intelligent and deep individual. It is as if we are invited to see the superficial mistress who is much talked about but then are visually guided to go beyond the stuff of legend to consider the real figure. The detail of the first meeting of Louis XV and his love at this costume ball which appeals to me the most is the costume that the monarch was wearing: he was dressed as a yew tree.


One unintended consequence of Louis XIV’s poaching of the Venetian mirror manufacturers was that mirrors became more available and therefore less expensive, meaning that, within a few years, they became common household objects rather than a sign of opulent wealth. Given the mirror’s ubiquity, it has long served as an obvious and laden symbol in literature and film, and I’m particularly interested in its use in fairy tales, a genre which one of my research interests. It occurs in many tales, from the talking mirror in Snow White to the shards of the magic mirror in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. In Jean Cocteau’s delightful 1946 movie, La Belle et la Bête, a mirror image is first used in the reflection of Belle on the floor she is scrubbing, highlighting her simplicity and obedience, whereas an actual mirror occurs later in the film as a means of Belle to see what is happening at her home (when she is at the castle) and at the castle (when she is at home). In this way, the motif becomes not a vehicle to show introspection in the heroine but rather her concern for others, a purposeful distortion of the Narcissistic trope of mirror images. Ovid’s tale of Narcissus illustrates the dangers of egocentricity and self-fixation, just as the fate of Echo in the same tale, whose obsession for the epicene youth leads her body to fade away to just her voice lamenting her personal tragedy and repeating what she hears – Echo’s echo and whence the origin of the word, demonstrates the risk of unbridled desire.


John William Waterhouse’s stunning depiction of Echo and Narcissus, above, painted in 1903 during the relatively racy Edwardian period, encapsulates all of the layers of this mythology, including the homoerotic suggestion of Narcissus’s choice of male beauty, albeit his own, over the acutely sensual Echo. Despite the negative connotations of this association, the ability to recognize oneself in a mirror, to know that it is ourselves peering back from the glass, is an observable stage of intelligent development known as the Mirror Test, which occurs in humans at around 18 months of age. It is not only humans which pass the mirror test but also great apes, dolphins, and elephants. Rather than denoting wanton curiosity or unhealthy self-examination, the mirror then also functions as a sign of awareness, of our very consciousness. In exactly a week’s time, the Norwegian village of Rjukan will have direct sunlight for the first time in its history. Nestled in a valley, the population does not enjoy solar daylight for up to six months a year, but this is about to change thanks to a system of mirrors which will reflect and beam sunlight into the town. The mirror should clearly never be taken for granted.


Today’s cufflinks rather remind me of car side-mirrors. They are fashioned out of sterling silver and are hand signed “aFD ’58” on the backs, meaning they were made in 1958. It’s a quirky and timeless shape on the cufflink fronts which, for me, reflects the timeless topicality of the looking-glass in our lives.

Mellow yellow

Pity poor yellow. In studies on people’s favourite color, it consistently scores the lowest, with under 6% of the population selecting it as their preferred shade of the rainbow. This is somewhat surprising since it’s one of the most positive of colours, with warm associations – think of buttery snacks taken in golden sunlight among yellow flowers. John Hertz opted for yellow as the colour of his taxicabs in Chicago in 1914 after he read a survey indicating that it was the easiest colour to spot. The tradition carries on in many parts of the world, the same reason for which school buses, post boxes in many countries, and fire hydrants are painted thus. Despite these optimistic links, it’s rarely been fashionable in the west at all, during any point in history. There are exceptions, such as yellow neckties and bow ties on men and Queen Elizabeth II looks particularly agreeable in it, wearing a vibrant canary-yellow ensemble to the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in 2011, below. It is has many associations with Asian monarchies. It was reserved for the emperor alone in long periods of imperial China, and it is still the symbolic colour of the monarchies of Thailand and Malaysia today.

ImageAt the same time as being the hue of power, as Victoria Finlay points out in her excellent study Color: A Natural History of the Palette, it also denotes declining power as in the decay of autumnal leaves. No matter how vivid the foliage display might be, it indicates the death of the leaves, lacking light and chlorophyll. Yellow pigment for artists was often sourced from saffron and for many decades Indian yellow was particularly prized, being obtained from force-feeding cows vast quantities of mango leaves in India, then  boiling their urine. The shades of yellow have some interesting names, including Chartreuse yellow, amber, jonquil, and, my personal favourite, Mikado yellow. Believe it or not, both mellow yellow and unmellow yellow are also officially recognized shades.

ImageFor me, yellow will always and steadfastly be associated with a fictional ursine creation, Rupert Bear, whose annual I received every Christmas. The little bear, who was, naturally, ageless and timeless, was always bedecked in yellow trousers and a scarf, even in the height of summer. The strip had a format geared to different ages -and temperaments- of readers. You could simply follow the images and have a pictorial adventure or you could read the rhyming couplets situated beneath each cartoon. Serious readers could follow a lengthy narrative at the bottom of the page, as above, though there was something seriously suspect about children who did. I was a couplet lad. I loved Rupert and the tales often involved magic and wonderful fantasy kingdoms. The fatal flaw in the comic strip was the fact that all of Rupert’s friends were the same dimensions as he was, even an elephant. Children can accept supernatural occurrences and they might even suspend their disbelief at a talking bear partial to yellow, but they draw the line at such imaginative bestial sizing and I count the day on which my childhood innocence disappeared to be the same day on which it dawned on me that a badger, pig, elephant, and bear couldn’t all be exactly the same height.


Yellow enjoyed a brief surge in popularity during the Renaissance, a relic of which may be seen in the uniforms of the Papal Swiss Guard, above. Swiss mercenaries enjoyed huge prestige for many centuries not only because of their reputation but also because there was a ready supply of young men ready to quit their impoverished and overpopulated Helvetian Federation. Yellow has become more acceptable in recent years thanks to Kate Moss who wore a one-shoulder citrine-lemon cocktail dress to a party during fashion week in New York. Sometimes it takes just one person to buck the trend in order to kickstart another one. Orange might be the new black, but yellow will always be the choice of the brave, despite the colour’s traditional use of depicting cowards.

ImageToday’s cufflinks were made by a pair of artists from Quebec, Micheline and Yves de Passillé-Sylvestre. This married couple was active for a couple of decades from 1960 and they specialized in enamel jewellery creations. The base of the relief pattern is dark-chocolate brown with golden-yellow highlights, the enamel being over copper. They’re a spectacularly beautiful pair and date almost certainly from the 1970s. The shapes suggest, to me, phases of a harvest Moon and I’m pleased to have a little dash of yellowness in my life.

Button up

There is something immensely satisfying about the ritualistic act of putting on clothes for a special occasion, perhaps laid out the preceding evening or morning, and getting ready to go forth and mingle. I had this feeling of apprehension and excitement on Monday of this week when I made ready to teach the first classes I’ve taught in fifteen months, having enjoyed a sabbatical year, spent in Canada, France, and the UK, as well as the US, taking up three different fellowships. For me, the emblematic moment is buttoning up my shirt before putting on a necktie. It is an act which takes me back to the age of 4 years old and wearing my first school uniform (with a pre-tied necktie), or 11 years old and beginning a new school (with a real necktie), or 19 years old and buttoning up the 33 buttons of the black cassock of my religious order (a symbolic number representing the 33 years of Christ’s life). It is a reassuring and measured sartorial ceremony and different men have their own methodology; some commence from the bottom and work their way up -the optimists; others work their way down -the realists; while others make at it in an apparent haphazard fashion -the thrill seekers. We might take buttons for granted, but they’ve been with us for five thousand years and, unlike garments such as ties or decorative scarves, their purpose is eminently -though by no means always- practical, serving to keep the very fabric we wear together. As such, they represent that peculiar human trait of wanting to keep our skins and bodies concealed from our fellow creatures.

ImageButtons can be very ornamental and occasionally outshine the jackets or shirts which they embellish. There have also been particular peaks of buttonery mania; the Victorians favoured painted buttons with characters from their preferred plays, novels, and opera, while gentlemen at the end of the eighteenth century often wore porcelain buttons such as the cameo ones shown above (from the extensive button collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum), designed by Josiah Wedgwood. Being buttoned up evokes, perhaps above all, the dress uniform of the armed forces, particular the British ones, whence the expression the “top brass” originating from generals festooned with an array of brass buttons. Brass buttons were the preserve of the military in many countries until relatively recently, one reason being that they are relatively inexpensive to manufacture, polish very well, and can easily be stamped with regimental or national insignia or logos.

ImageThe painting above, of Edward VII on his coronation in 1902 (painted by Luke Fildes) shows one occasion on which gilt brass buttons are positively overshadowed by the rest of the monarch’s dress, a quite unusual state of affairs for such prominent buttonery. Edward came to the throne at the age of 59 years old, reigning from 1901 to 1910, having once remarked that he seemed to be blessed with an eternal mother (Queen Victoria) as well as an Eternal Father. While his reign was relatively brief, he gave his name to an era, the Edwardian one, and was to prove a capable and popular monarch, personally brokering the Entente Cordiale with France in 1904 and being responsible for forging warmer relations with the papacy. This was despite all expectations and previous evidence to the contrary; Edward was not only what was euphemistically called a womanizer, he was also almost certainly a sex addict. He used the pretext of afternoon tea to facilitate his liaisons, thus starting an adulterous subtext that continued for decades surrounding this apparently innocuous break, perhaps best exemplified in Cole Porter’s Tea for Two, which has little to do with taking tea and everything to do with an assignation. Rather bizarrely, this whimsical song from a musical was set into a 45-minute arrangement, Opus 16, by Dmitri Shostakovich in 1928, as a result of a wager made with the composer. Despite Edward VII’s wandering eye and attentions, he nonetheless had a genuine affection for his long-suffering Danish wife, Alexandra, who was serially late for anything and everything, very nearly causing the coronation to be delayed. On his deathbed, the Queen arranged a discreet visit of his beloved mistress, Alice Keppel, so that the pair could say goodbye to each other; this must have been a difficult decision yet it is an extremely humane and sensitive one. Alice is the great grandmother of the present Duchess of Cornwall, formerly Camilla Parker-Bowles. It is possible that Edward was also received into the Catholic Church at around the period, during the last two weeks of his life, by the chaplain to the French Embassy in London.

ImageButtons have made out of many materials through the ages, from precious metals to shell, ivory, and my own favourite, horn, as seen in the distinctive horn toggles, crying out duffle coat, in the image above (sold by Benno’s as an organic product).  Charles Dickens wrote a charming essay, “What there is in a button”, appearing in 1852, which concludes with the words: “It is wonderful, is it not? that on that small pivot turns the fortune of such multitudes of men, women, and children, in so many parts of the world; that such industry, and so many fine faculties, should be brought out and exercised by so small a thing as the Button”. Quite. The word itself derives from the Old French bouter or boter, itself a Germanic borrowing, meaning to thrust out, which is the origin of the modern words bud (in the sense of a shoot thrusting forward) and butt (that part of us which stands out behind -on some of us much more than others, it might be added).


Today’s cufflinks are really quite lovely, being made out of brass with a real red garnet gem in the middle. They’re shaped like semi-globes and have an interesting ornate pattern repeated across their surface. They bear the maker’s mark of Michaud. This is the married couple of Gladys and Arthur Michaud who founded their company in the 1930s, a venture which lasted half a century. Gladys would scour the Paris flea markets for buttons which were then converted into cufflinks and sold to high-end stores on the East Coast of the USA. This pair, which might be unique, is almost certainly made from brass military buttons, with the garnet being employed to cover up a hole. I like the recycling that has gone into this product and while they most likely date from the late 1930s, the buttons look like they might be from the nineteenth century. There’s something especially appropriate about buttons metamorphosing into cufflinks since the French term is boutons de manchette, literally “sleeve buttons”. While I adamantly refuse to wear my heart on my sleeve, my cufflinks show how I manage to button up my lax, emotional self in a triumph of style over substance. And thus attired, I am ready to face the world, bright as a button, it could be said!

Painted black

Black has had a very bad rap, as they say. The colour has long been associated with mourning rituals, evil, and has sometimes possessed unpleasant racialist connotations. Its reputation has been blackened, so to speak. We speak of blackspots and of people being blackballed, though Black Friday and black markets are not entirely negative, neither is being in the black, the ideal financial situation. It is, nonetheless, a particularly prized colour for flowers mainly because of its rarity, so black orchids are especially well esteemed and black roses and tulips were the objects of myth. Coco Chanel was the designer who reclaimed black from mourning during the twentieth century with her concept of the LBD (little black dress). Inspired by the dress of rural peasant widows, this is one of the rare cases in fashion history of a trend beginning from the working classes and working its way up rather than the other way around. Perhaps the most iconic depiction of the LBD is in the 1961 movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s based on a short story by Truman Capote. Holly Golightly, seen below as portrayed by Audrey Hepburn, looks stunning in her ensemble. However, the colour she wears is associated with her superficial and vacuous character; she is colourless and is, in all but name, a prostitute.

ImageOne of the reasons for which black became so popular following Chanel’s vogue for the LBD is that production methods made its manufacture much cheaper in the twentieth century than had hitherto been possible. Historically, black dyes have been very expensive to produce, a rather ironic fact given that black has often been adopted by religious groups as a symbol of penitence and worldly spurning. The puritans had the best of both worlds in that they wore black clothing as a sign of mortification but in reality it was a deep indigo, so they avoided any great expense in their outward display of renunciation.

ImageIn a sense, Chanel was repopularizing the colour. We might imagine that sovereigns were festooned with ornamentation and fine livery in former times in Europe, but really many monarchs wore black from the fourteenth century on, particularly the Holy Roman Emperor, as seen above in Titian’s breathtaking portrait of Charles V who ruled from 1519 to 1556. It was painted in 1548, when the Emperor was 48 years old, yet he looks like a much older man here; the years and events have visibly taken a heavy toll. What I think Titian conveys in a striking way is a man racked by doubt. This is not the face of an imperious, decisive man, and his slightly awkward pose -particularly his legs which do not align with the chair or his sword- reveal a man who is trying to project majesty yet is not quite sure of himself. The fact that the sword is hidden to the right is significant; Charles was dragged into many wars yet obsessively wanted peace. The black that he wears makes him look human and, in a curious way, endearing. It hints at a certain mystery which is certainly real. Within a few years of this scene, Charles abruptly and unexpectedly abdicated in 1556, retiring to a monastery to spend his last remaining two years, surrounded by clocks affixed to every single wall of his apartment.


Black was, in many respects, the very lifeblood of the nineteenth century, not least of which because of the Industrial Revolution. Claude Monet’s magisterial La Gare Saint-Lazare (1877) captures the decidedly unromantic scene of a railway station. The smoke drowning out the sky, the grey and black hues, and the faceless figures all seem to denote the downsides to progress and the terrifying march of progress. Yet this would miss an important point: all of the black in this painting, and it’s the predominant shade of the scene, is actually made up of extremely vivid colours such as vermilion red, ultramarine blue, and emerald green. In fact, Monet used almost no black pigment at all in this painting. Is it possible to see a work of art in which seeing is not believing is depicted so forcefully, almost brutally? It’s in the Musée d’Orsay, a museum that is worth visiting for this painting alone (though, in point of fact, there are many works that could claim this title there).


I have platinum-blond hair, so black is not a frequent sartorial choice, since it makes pale-skinned Celtic lads like me look like freshly revived corpses in a nightmarish zombie holocaust. I did of course, wear it as a trainee priest for two years, though had a bespoke cassock made by Parisian tailors, which was, in retrospect, a sign. However, I love today’s cufflinks, a pair crafted out of black enamel with brass fasteners by Jules Perrier, a Quebec-based founder of a family-run firm that is still going strong, and which was founded in 1956. What I especially like about this pair is the ruthless subversion of the black. They most likely date from the 1960s, given their style. The lozenge shape and delicate gold-painted motif are strenuously futuristic, yet based on the traditional black. This shade is, after all, the colour of space and our cosmos, so what better choice for representing the past, or, indeed, the future? Black truly is and always will be the new black.