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.