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.

Avian apparitions

Birds and avian symbolism have been on my mind over the past few months as the book I’m working on has a chapter devoted to fantasy and science-fiction. Madame d’Aulnoy, a seventeenth-century writer of great sophistication as well as a redoubtable and unreconstructed feminist – she attempted to have her much older, tyrannical gay husband framed for treason and dispatched by execution, aided by her mother – uses birds a great deal in her tales. In one of my favourite stories, “La Belle aux cheveux d’or” (Beauty with the golden hair), the hero, Avenant, goes on a quest to win the hand of a queen, on behalf of his ruler but the handsome courtier ultimately ends up marrying her himself after the king inadvertently poisons himself when attempting to use a beauty potions. There are no hapless heroines waiting to be rescued in d’Aulnoy’s fantasy world, only strong women who decide their own destinies and choose whom to marry. Avenant (literally “Comely”) encounters some trapped animals on his journey and instinctively saves them. It is interesting that two of the distressed animals are birds (an owl and a crow), which leads the adventurer to reflect on humanity’s cruelty to the vulnerable. It also functions as a commentary on his own journey from being the pawn of a ruthless and vain king of whom he is obviously the lover to the liberating embrace of a heterosexual relationship (as Madame d’Aulnoy sees it, almost certainly a reflection of her own loveless marriage to a violent man who preferred young male favourites). The bird is a very rich and deep-seated trope often symbolizing freedom and independence, and it features often in the poetry of Emily Dickinson, for example. At the same time, a caged or tame bird stands for the manipulative and unsavoury side of our human natures. I can think of fewer sadder and more perverse sights than that of a bird confined in a small cage.

La Colombe Picasso MOME 1948 lithograph

Avian symbolism can be as diverse as it is rich. Eagles and other aggressive birds often represent predatory behaviour whereas the owl is a sign of wisdom. Paul Tipper devoted a monograph to the subject, The Dream Machine: Avian Imagery in “Madame Bovary” (Durham: DMLS, 1994), in which he proposes  a “sliding scale of suggestivity” depending on the particular bird in question.  He lists twelve variables that affect our interpretation, including flight, size, plumage, whether the bird is mundane or exotic, and whether or no it is a conventional symbol. One bird that is most certainly conventional and universal in figurative terms is the dove. A dove, almost always a white one, is a ubiquitous symbol of peace, accord, and spirituality.  This is quite astounding in one sense since, as the lithograph by Picasso amply shows, above (1949; MOMA), the dove is very closely related to and distinctly resembles the humble and despised pigeon.

The white dove has a particular biblical role. In the Old Testament, one is sent to Noah with an olive branch in its beak as a sign that the Flood has ended and divine wrath has been appeased. In the New Testament, it has a close affinity with the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity and who comes to dwell in our bodies making them temples. In some concrete way, the dove represents the presence of God in our very beings or acts as a messenger of the divine, a very curious symbolism given that the bird is not the largest, most beautiful, or even most fascinating of birds. The captivating flight of the hummingbird or the dulcet tones of the nightingale could have, for example, been a more immediate sign of the other world. El Greco’s peculiar style captures something of the strangeness of the dove as a religious signifier in his representation of Pentecost, below, painted at the tail end of the sixteenth century, one of the most turbulent and conflicted periods in human history.


The scene is one of confusion. Fifty days after Easter, the Apostles and Mary, in some disarray, convened and suddenly the Holy Spirit came down on them, causing them to speak in tongues and have flames of fire. They who were seeking elucidation find themselves linguistically divided and unable to communicate.  In some deep sense, El Greco captures the strangeness of life beyond this natural life, the supernatural encroaching on the normal rhythm of things, best seen in the contorted postures of some of the figures in the painting. However, the most remarkable element in the painting is the very marked division between shadow and light. The Holy Spirit is depicted as appearing out of nowhere and catching the spectators unaware. Some part of us seeks this kind of assistance, aid sweeping in and sweeping us off our feet, part of the appeal of Superman. On the other hand, the bird also looks like a massive burst of electricity, a mini supernova illuminating the gathering like a lamp. This, I think, is the real potency of this painting. In a real way, El Greco manages to picture the bizarreness not of belief but rather of our own human nature. A light is put to the dark cracks of our psyches, our struggle to be better, to do good, and to put our own desires to one side and think of others and other considerations. Somewhat paradoxically given its theme, the painting ultimately focuses on humanity.

Mass Pentecost

As if to underscore the unusual and unworldly aspect of Pentecost, its liturgical colour is not white, as would be expected, but rather red, otherwise used to celebrate martyrs’ feastdays in the Mass. This is perhaps not as curious as might seem, since the invisible force of the Spirit taking hold of our being is not only representative of divine love but also human love. For what is more intangible, inexplicable, and unexpected than love? It is the force over which we have no control, that is irrational, and so necessary, but only so when it is absent. A person who has never known any kind of love is someone to be pitied and avoided. The Church has always taught that human love can ennoble us and make us receptive to the love of God. Just as with our attraction towards a beautiful person can draw us in and we fall in love with their personality, so, too, does the magnificent beauty of the Church’s rites, the vestments, and Latin plainsong, also tempt us to discover the deeper meaning to which they stand as a portal. Once this is crossed, we will see the world with new eyes, as through a glass darkly, a delicious image of St Paul suggesting that the world itself is the illusion and the supernatural life is the authentic version of ourselves. And the same applies to human love. Hugh Grant’s character William observes in the charming Notting Hill (1999), that falling for someone is like taking love heroin, in that takes a hold of you and drives you to want more.  On this note, it must be added that doves do not always denote pure love. Various legends about Semiramis, a Babylonian queen who was the wife of Nimrod, depict her unbridled and insatiable lust yet most accounts relate that she had been brought up by doves.

jan 2012 983

Today’s cufflinks are made out of sterling silver and bear the maker’s mark of Creed. This is the name of a company that specializes in Catholic religious goods, particularly jewellery, in 1946 and still going. They don’t make cufflinks any more, but this pair are very striking in the modernist lines of an ancient symbol, which dates them to the mid to late 1950s. They were almost certainly priest’s cufflinks. I particularly like the detail, such as the eyes, adding new life to a trope that bridges the taboo association between sexuality and spirituality, yet nonetheless a very old and biblical one; in the gently erotic lines of Solomon in the Song of Songs (6:9), his beloved is compared to an unblemished dove. This allusion also references the sacrifice and pain of love, since a spotless dove was a sacrificial offering in Jewish Temple worship.

Strigine symbolism

As an undergraduate I was fortunate enough to spend three years living in the same room in a university college with beautiful grounds (St Hild & St Bede, Durham) which was within a building on the edge of the countryside, not far from the remains of the Iron-Age fort of Maiden Castle. I used to find it consoling to hear the hoots of an owl that must have made its home in one of the trees a few yards from my top-floor window. There is something very special about this bird, something that makes it stand out from any other avian species. It is not only in its characteristic appearance -and each of the 200 odd varieties of owl are distinct, shown in the beautiful photographs below taken by Tim Flach- but also in the fact that it is nocturnal and has evolved to have silent flight enabling the fearsome predator to swoop down on its prey, catching it unawares.

ImageThe word we use for this bird of prey is also distinctive, for the owl belongs to a small category of animals whose call has onomatopoeically developed into its name. It is testimony to the bird’s singularity that this is the case in many languages, such as hibou in French. The Latin word, strix, does not cut the mustard and our current English term has many affinities with an older Indo-European word, being similar to Hebrew and Indian-language names. Somehow, owl-like is much more electrifying than strigine. For once, Latin, you come in second place.

It is not only in its name and physical attributes that the bird can claim a certain uniqueness, for its symbolism is equally unusual. Famously, the owl represents wisdom and was the emblem of the goddess Athena and of the city of Athens itself. This carries on today in the collective noun for the creature; a group of them is a parliament of owls. Rejecting this positive association, it was a portent of doom for the Romans; Julius Caesar and Augustus had their deaths indicated by daytime sightings of the animal. Christian strigine symbolism has inherited this mythological schizophrenia, for the bird has variously been held as an allegory of Christ, relentlessly seeking out lost souls in the darkness (of sin and error), or of Satan, being aligned with dark forces and cunning. In any case, it is not used often in Christian symbolism, though sometimes finds itself in Crucifixion scenes; it was more common in the Middle Ages as seen in 14th-century manuscript illumination below (Reims, MS 993, fol. 153r):


In popular folklore and superstition, the bird conjures up largely negative imagery, such as in Grimms’ tale The Owl, which relates how an owl is trapped in a barn and a “brave” villager goes in to tackle it only to flee in terror when he hears it hoot. The story ends with the barn being burnt down and the unfortunate bird being roasted (though not, presumably, eaten since it is one of the long list of fowl prohibited in Leviticus, along with cuckoos, gulls, and ostriches). There are some notable exceptions; Madame d’Aulnoy’s La Belle aux cheveux d’or turns the unlucky diurnal appearance on its head, as the adventurer in the tale, Avenant, releases an owl trapped in a net who later helps him, and reflects on humans’ inhumanity towards the vulnerable. Edward Lear provides the redemptive tale of an owl marrying a cat with the aid of a ring taken from a pig’s snout in the whimsical and surreal The Owl and the Pussycat. I always stay at his house in London, located in Marble Arch and now a hotel. Lear is one of those rare breed of people who look as they should look, and the image below does rather depict a fellow who would pen a poem about the mixed marriage between a bird and a feline, though at the same time definitely not someone to whom you would entrust money, children, or pets.


It has been suggested by some recent critics that the curious, alternate world he created in the self-styled nonsense verse expresses the feelings of alienation from Victorian society that he felt as a gay man, though the most powerful literary expression of similar sentiments has to be found in Hans Christian Andersen’s delightfully dark fairy tales, particularly The Little Mermaid and The Ugly Duckling. For my part, I think it’s about time to reclaim the owl and to reject its sinister reputation. It is not always a morbid bird as seen in the magnificently named Owl Nebula (M97), below.


The owl also featured consistently in designs produced during the Eames Era, in the mid-twentieth century, perhaps a trope for the movement mirroring the bird itself and finding something beautiful that was not universally accepted thus.


Today’s cufflinks date from the late 1960s and their abstract and brutalist shape suggests an owl to me. They are crafted by Gilles “Guy” Vidal, a Quebec artist who saw himself foremost as a pewtersmith; they are made out of his own formula of a very pure tin-based pewter plated with silver and bear his maker’s mark of GV within a check mark. Vidal is my favourite designer. I love all of the designs of his 44 known cufflinks and possess 15 of them. I think that I can best describe the attraction of his work with reference to the owl itself. It may not possess the evident beauty of the eagle or the sweet song of the nightingale, yet its mysterious nature endows it with a very special kind of draw.

Over the hills

I decided to drive from Lawrence, Kansas to Calgary, Alberta, a roadtrip of around 1,600 miles. The practical reason was to be able to have my car during the four months of my fellowship in Canada, but there was also the drive itself through western Kansas, sweeping up the Rockies in Colorado then following them up through Wyoming and Montana. I never got round to taking a driving test in the UK and learned to drive when I moved to the US in my early thirties, so it still possesses a novelty attraction to me. I did driver’s education, driver’s ed, at a Midwestern driving school which consisted of watching videos (and I mean real, genuine videos) from the 1970s about avoiding driving through railroad crossings when trains are approaching and then I was taken out twice by a sweet lady in her 80s called Wanda, whose conversation consisted mainly of complaining about the teenaged girls that she usually accompanied in the car. I then had my full driving license with no test to pass. There had been a written test on the video day, but the grading sheet was passed out for us to correct ourselves with the admonition that we should ensure that any crossings-out were done properly for the “books”. One young man took off his glasses for the eye test and the cheerful, robust gentleman who ran the school urged him to step as close as he needed to the chart, regardless of where the line was to be found. In his introductory talk to us, he encouraged us by telling us that he had run the school for four decades and only one person had ever failed. “And she was Chinese,” he added for final effect.

I broke up my journey from Lawrence to Calgary over four days, timing my arrival for September 1, driving up in my tornado red VW Beetle (on that note, which nincompoop advertising agent thought it was a good idea to qualify a shade of red as “tornado”, given that these cars are sold in places where lives and livelihoods are lost because of tornadoes?), which was blessed in Latin when I acquired it in 2010 below, though Father Beseau, who performed the blessing, cautioned that it did not come with any guarantee! I like the portal symbolism of all of the doors being open (including the roof and glove compartment), this being emblematic of evil leaving a thing receiving a benediction.

Kansas has some fetching scenery, including the Flint Hills and the Tallgrass Praries, but when you drive west through this vast state along the straight route of the I-70, several hours and several hundred miles of prairies becomes fatiguing. This continues for an hour or so into Colorado until the horizon reveals the first glimpses of the Rockies, which get closer and closer, and more and more impressive. It would be an inspiring sight even without it breaking the overdose of prairies that leads up to it, and although I’ve done this route several times, the excitement of approaching this mountain range is always sharp and tangible. I come from the north of England and very close to the Lake District; in fact, I saw the Lake District’s peaks every day at school (well, on days of visibility), though in typically English fashion these summits are really hills masquerading as mountains.

Rocky Mountains, I-70 west of Denver, courtesy of cobalt123 on Flickr

Mountains are very evocative. We might think of the Paramount Mountain logo that precedes a Paramount Pictures production, or perhaps skiing, or the ranges that scar maps of the continents. It is then quite interesting to compare mountain scenery with the sea, both natural features that many people love to visit or have depicted, because mountains are not only pleasant but we also use the trope in a range -pun intended- of negative ways. We have to move mountains on occasion to achieve things. We can be overloaded with mountains of paperwork and the petty and pedantic among us might delight in making a mountain out of a molehill. Unlike the sea, which we know cannot be tamed, there is something threatening about mountains. They are timeless -old as the hills-, vast, and stable. As such they will outlive us whereas our days are numbered and, in a sense, their silent enormity taunts us, imprisoned as we are by our mortality. Our response to this is pretty farcical. We talk of “conquering” mountains, yet this is absurd for climbing up a rockface, one of the few pursuits even more futile than politics, and reaching a pinnacle does not assert our superiority. I’ve always found it a little disturbing that just as a young woman, Elizabeth II, was crowned Queen in 1953, it was deemed of great importance that a man conquer the previously untamed Everest in time for the coronation.

On that note, I have been struck by the almost complete absence of mountains in fairy tales, at least the dozens of French ones I’ve studied. I have only found one occurrence in a story by the delightful anti-patriarchal Madame d’Aulnoy (who unsuccessfully tried to frame her much older, unreasonable husband for treason and have the executioner’s axe perform a durable divorce) of a boy brought up by eagles on a mountain. The French word for wilderness is désert; I always have to explain to students that it doesn’t only mean sandy deserts. The French term is fascinating for a wilderness is defined by the fact it is deserted, that is to say that there are no people. The English term, wilderness, is both aggressive and negative, for it highlights the wild undercurrent of nature, pitting us against it with savage nature ready to take us out. I love such cultural revelations to be gleaned from terms used between the respective languages.

It was thanks to a mountain that I decided to devote my life to French. As a freshman studying a required poetry option in my first year, I remember the day on which we studied “L’Isolement” (Isolation) by Alphonse de Lamartine, a nineteenth-century Romantic poet.  In this poem, he is seated on a mountain and gazes down on the valley below. Over five stanzas he builds up the idyllic scene, piling descriptions on descriptions of the wondrous vista below his feet when, suddenly and brutally, he interjects a line that changes everything and utterly destroys what the poetry has created for us: “Un seul être vous manque, et tout est dépeuplé !”, “One person is not there, and all of this is desolate”. The person who is missing is the great love of his life, Julie, who died young thus depriving him of the happiness they were to have together. But, again in French, the term means depopulated, barren of life, bereft of people, rather than the tamer wilderness and desolation of the English, which are more inanimate than human. I was 23 years old but this line of poetry convinced me that I had to give myself to a language that could produce something so potent.

Today’s cufflinks are by the Danish designer Hermann Siersbøl whose work also featured in this post. They are sterling silver and bear his maker’s mark of HS. He is one of my favourite designers and this pair most likely dates from the second half of the 1960s. They feature his characteristic organic style, though the shape leaves no doubt that these suggest mountains. I had the choice of acquiring a similar pair by him in a rectangular shape but opted for these unambiguously mountainous ones, despite their unorthodox form. While I thought this was a perfectly random selection on my part, it seems that, on reflection, mountains have played their role in my life’s path.