Portable art

It’s a great shame that hand-held mobile devices are now known, particularly in North America, as cell phones. There is nothing evocative let alone poetic about cell phone whereas portable, mobile, and hand-held phone manages to capture a sense of ease and novelty. I remember my first one in the mid-1990s which was vastly expensive -thus creating a sense of respect that only fiscal pain can generate- during a period in which some people would routinely acquire dummy devices to give off the appearance of affluence. Mobile phone was almost ironic since the generous dimensions of these early handsets were positively hernia-inducing.


It must be said that there’s nothing especially attractive about handsets. Unlike bakelite (or polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride, to give it its decidedly prosaic formal name, though it sounds like a disease or a Romanian brothel madam) telephones of the 1930s, cell phones have never striven to be pretty adornments to our daily lives. Functionality is the end of these apparatuses, which is why there is a whole industry of skins and covers to beautify these singularly unappealing items. Not only that, they’ve become an emblem of the breakdown in normal and healthy social intercourse in society. I have a draconian policy in my classes with respect to cell phones as there’s a time and a place for everything; a classroom is not a cocktail lounge. Most of all, there is the tragedy of cell phones usurping clocks and now computers. We don’t merely communicate using our phones but we also send e-mails, check the weather, check people out, as well as telling the time. We’ve come a long way from my extreme youth when the telephone -now termed the quaintly archaic “landline”- was to be found in the hallway and never, ever in the living room of a house, since conversations were private affairs.

One thing I particularly like about cufflinks, and the same might be said of jewelry in general, is that it is art that can be worn. Many mid-century designers aimed to produce wearable art, a movement discussed by the collector turned dealer Marbeth Schon in her fascinating and detailed study, Modernist Jewelry 1930-1960: The Wearable Art Movement. In an interview talking about collecting, Marbeth sums it up succinctly: ” You can wear it and appreciate it as a work of art. That’s what’s wonderful about jewelry as opposed to maybe a painting—it touches you. That’s what’s unique about it. You can actually wear something that’s unique, beautiful, sculptural, and is a piece of fine art with an interesting history. All of that is in one piece. It’s a wonderful thing to get into”. There is also an accessibility about wearable art since it isn’t necessarily expensive (though, inevitably, in all things touched by our tainted nature’s corruption, profit and greed aren’t excluded from the equation).


The wearable-art movement attracted some amazingly talented if not eccentric figures. One of the most influential and creative designers was Ruth Roach (1913-1979) pictured above at work in her studio (courtesy of Marbeth Schon’s article on her, here). The chain-smoking artist had a untreatable vision problem which meant she saw two images and would concentrate on one when making her jewelry, which is perhaps one reason for which her work is so striking. Her studio was in the basement of her Iowa home and she would often stay up all night long working on pieces. Like some other mid-century designers, she would produce one-off pieces rather than a line, making each one truly unique and a very special thing to own. Owning a piece of jewelry by Ruth Roach means that you can own -and more importantly, enjoy and show- something that is one of a kind.



I’ve just got back, this very afternoon from an extraordinarily rewarding trip to Chile, paid for using the proceeds of this year’s tax refund. One of the other things I used the refund for was to acquire a pair of cufflinks by Ruth Roach, above, and date to the 1950s. They’re incredibly alluring, crafted out of sterling silver with white-gold-fill backs and incorporating a moss-agate stone. There is an unexpected complementarity between the natural mineral and the crafted silver faces which hold it. I’m a little hesitant to wear something which is essentially invaluable, but one of my personal rules with collecting is that I must wear everything which finds its way to me. Otherwise, there is something masturbatory about the endeavor and sharing raises collecting from being a merely solitary vice.

ImageThe shape of these cufflinks is almost brutalist but there is a gentleness which moderates this impression and which, to my mind, reflects their idiosyncratic creator. I like to think of her working through several nights on this pair which was made for one of her nephews, endowing it with an additionally unique quality. These cufflinks, like a few pairs I own, are museum pieces and I will almost certainly leave them to an institution when I shake off this mortal coil. There is something both humbling and gratifying about being custodians of special, beautiful things which will outlive us and reveling in the reflected glory of an inspired work of art. It might appear to be morbid but we need reminders of our mortality to remind us of our humanity and, more crucially, to forge a sense of perspective into our egotistical spirits. And that, surely, is the ultimate and overriding purpose of art and why we so desperately need it, whether or no we realize this.



Enduring symbols

Some keyboard symbols are distinctly and distinctively pedestrian. Take the pound or hash, for example, dear old #. We might use it a lot and it may be rather useful, but it cannot be said that this is a pretty sign, resembling an impoverished waffle or an italicized noughts and crosses. Other symbols are more suggestive, such as the curvacious ampersand which hints at functionality & playfulness at once. The most used symbol of all is the at symbol: @. And yet, despite this poor creature being relentlessly pressed into service day in and day out, we have not come up with a satisfactory and universally accepted term for it in English other than the at sign or at symbol. This would be like describing our friends as bipeds. The shame is compounded by the fact that the at symbol is patently a pretty one, looking like an A which has been apotheosized. There is something very attractive about it with the faint hint of subversion suggested by the fact that it curves to the left and not to the right. No, our ubiquitous symbol does not veer forward and to the right but rather curls on its own terms.

ImageWhat adds insult to injury is that the at symbol enjoys a variety of terms in different languages ranging from the quirky to the delicious (see a list here). I’m partial to the French term, arobase, which has a ring to it. In Hebrew, the popular word is שטרודל or strudel whereas Slovak sees it as zavináč, or pickled fish roll. Swedish has it as an elephant’s trunk, the traditional Luxembourgish term is a monkey’s tail, the Greeks prefer little duck, and Kazakh opts for Moon’s ear or dog’s head. And then, in English, we use the outrageously prosaic at symbol in a gross manifestation of linguistic prostitution. We are better than this. If we cannot treat the tools which we use the most frequently with a modicum of respect, then how can we muster up any sentiments of dignity for anything, or anyone at all? It is not only that the at symbol is brought into service so often – in every e-mail we compose and receive, on Twitter, and on Facebook – but also its unlikely story of survival and triumph which makes it a symbol to be admired. While it made its entry on to the typewriter’s keyboard in 1885, on the Underwood to be precise, its use in our modern sense to denote at dates to at least the sixteenth century and it may be a scribe’s contraction for the Latin “ad”. Anyone working with manuscripts will immediately see the sense in this theory, since the curly D in “ad” is utterly commonplace and sometimes extravagant. They liked their little sleights of hand.

ImageFor nine decades, the at symbol lingered on typewriters as a little-used key -save for commercial settings where quantities would be typed as “15 @ $1.20” etc.- until 1971 and the first e-mail. Ray Tomlinson, the electrical engineer charged with the development of electronic communications, chose it because it was underused in addition to the fact that it couldn’t occur in a proper name. And thus began the phoenix-like rise of the at symbol. There is an interesting recent development in Spanish which also presses the at symbol into an unlikely role. Spanish is like French with gendered plurals. In French, there can be a million women present at an event but if a sole man should be there, “ils” must be used to describe the group. Many proponents of reform in Spanish, desirous of ending this patriarchal intrusion, have advocated “amig@s” for a mixed group of friends, and so on, instead of “amigos” or “amigas”, as a way of gender neutrality, or perhaps more accurately, neutrality. The Real Academia Española (Royal Spanish Academy), which could give the Académie Française a run for its money in terms of stuffy reactionary attitudes, has violently disapproved of this use of a symbol as a letter, displaying that its members know nothing about this particular symbol’s resilience and flexibility.

ImageToday’s cufflinks suggest an at symbol to me, even though they predate its Internet resurrection. This sterling silver pair is made by Caroline Gleick Rosene, an important mid-century designer who was also a teacher and museum director, training in various places including Hawaii, New York, and Paris. She was based in San Francisco from around 1940 to 1970, and this pair probably dates from early 1950s. Rosene’s work is very distinctive and I have several pairs by her. This beautiful pair has so much attention to detail: an oxidized disk topped with a fragile yet sturdy coil. Paradoxically given its technological connotations, some languages call the at symbol a snail or snail’s shell. The Museum of Modern Art in New York, MoMA, officially announced it was acquiring the at symbol as a design classic in 2010, acknowledging the beauty to found in the ordinary. For me, Caroline Rosene beat them to it.

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.

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.

The mating game

Ever since I was taught how to play at the age of 10 years old, I’ve been rather fond of chess. I like to say it’s my favourite sport, along with bitching. It is a board game that never disappoints, can be as fast-paced or as slowly thought-out as the players desire, and involves reserves of foresight and strategy. An individual can reveal much of their personalities, strengths, and weaknesses through their manner of playing. And the way in which they win, or more crucially, lose a match. There is something rather special about the hierarchical arrangement of the pieces and their capabilities, with the most important piece, the king, being effectively imprisoned by its token greatness.


The most powerful piece, given what it can do on the board, is the queen, but this was not always so. Since chess is so ordered, it has echoed major social trends across the centuries. In Birth of the Chess Queen: A History, Marilyn Yalom details how this piece’s power on the board increased with the influence of female wives and rulers in medieval Europe. Yalom views the chess queen as “the quintessential metaphor for female power in the Western world”. Before around 1000 AD, there were no female chess pieces, the queen’s role being occupied by a vizier or advisor in the Middle East and India, where the game originated. Yalom suggests that its creation was as a result of Empress Adelaide (931-999), the second wife of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great. She was later canonized. As a result of having to escape from an attempted political marriage to the son of her first husband’s assassin by means of an underground tunnel, she is the patron of victims of abuse, as well as of second marriages, prisoners, and people experiencing conflict with their in-laws. The great medievalist Jacques Le Goff has pointed out another marker of social change in the rules of chess: with the social mobility afforded to craftsmen because of the advent of strong, large stone structures in the Middle Ages, peasants could learn a trade and become wealthy, a impossible prospect before the eleventh and twelfth centuries. It is at precisely this juncture that the pawn, the humble, doggedly populous piece of the game -there are 16 pawns in all and, as in the Lewis Chessmen above, the pawn is often faceless and therefore dehumanized- suddenly has the possibility of being queened, that is of becoming any greater piece (generally though by no means always the queen) if and when it reaches the final row of the board.


Because of its extraordinary tenacity and enduring relevance -and one can think of the Cold War chess games to know how long it has functioned as an effective emblem of power and struggle- chess has a long and varied pedigree of use in art and literature. I am particularly fond of Lucas van Leyden’s “The Chess Players”, above, painted in 1508. The game depicted in this canvas is courier chess, the forerunner to the modern game in which there were more squares and the queen was only empowered to move one square at a time, exactly like the present king. That would change during the sixteenth century with effective queens who yielded power as regnants rather than spouses or dowagers, such as Isabella I of Castile and Elizabeth I of England. There is so much going on in this painting and, as the title suggests, the interest is focused on the people rather than the pieces. The scene is positively crammed with people, mainly men, and there is the definite impression that the authentic game is not that being played in plain sight. The two women stand out both by the relative luminosity given to them but also in less aggressive features. While there is a female player, her male opponent appears to be disinterested in her and a male figure seated to her right is advising her. It is not difficult to see this gentleman as a “mansplainer” and it is tempting to interpret the painting as a representation of women, like the chess queen, having to negotiate the brutal rules of patriarchy in the midst of which they find themselves, caught up but there is not, however, the slightest hint that the females are at all subjugated or browbeaten.


There are countless examples of chess in literature across the centuries, such as Thomas Middleton’s A Game of Chess (1624), an allegorical play in which political tensions between Spain and England are satirized in a chess match. As well as being an apt source for political tropes, the game has featured in more whimsical works, such as Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1871), above, and has also been brought into play -dreadful pun alert- to reflect the power struggles involved in love. I’ve long been planning an article on chess in French literature, particularly during the early modern period when the first chess manuals were published in order to cater for the upwardly mobile who had to learn to navigate the treacherous waters of high society and be able to converse and act as if to the manner born. Chess has, naturally, loomed large in film and television and there are iconic chess matches such as the one played in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) between HAL and Frank, this particular match -based on a real game- symbolizing and foreshadowing the sinister power struggle between the computer and the human. Kubrick was obsessed with chess, an affliction that blights many creative people; Vladimir Nabokov also possessed an obsessive-compulsive relationship with the game.


For me, there is only one cinematic depiction of chess and that is Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 movie, The Seventh Seal. If you haven’t seen this film, I would urge you to. It is a brilliant work by a brilliant writer and director. I wrote a few blog entries ago that you never forget your first kiss nor your first Bergman movie. Set in the fourteenth century, a knight returns back to his native Sweden after having survived a decade on the Crusades. The film opens on a beach, shortly after his return, and the vivid sound of the sea of the first couple of minutes subsides as the crusader, Antonius Block, faces the personification of death, come to remove him from his mortal coil. Block challenges Death to a game of chess, and the movie’s action veers around this staggered game. Block is, of course, playing for time. As indeed are we all in this game of life and love and ultimately we will lose since Death cheats us all. The film is the first of Bergman’s series exploring faith -and doubt, and the work is at once spiritual and existentialist, austere and rich, uplifting and pessimistic. Like life itself, then.


There are countless other examples of chess, such as in The Prisoner (with Patrick McGoohan) and Star Trek but only one blog entry. I could not talk about artistic depictions of chess without alluding to the inspired and inspiring use of it in the 2005 spring and summer collection of the late, gifted Alexander McQueen. The theme was “It’s Only a Game” and the catwalk was replaced by models who went through a choreographed game of chess, which can be seen here. The concept is breathtaking and McQueen holds up a mirror to fashion itself, which is, after all, a vicious, ephemeral game with prizes to be won and victims to be vanquished. As Roland Barthes noted in Système de la mode (Paris: Seuil, 1967), clothes are, above all, not about concealing the flesh but rather constitute an expression of the individual wearing them, which he terms a description. Our dress describes us to others. What we wear is, then, completely about deceit based on the conceit of covering our bodies or keeping us modest and warm. Sartorial garments are all about power and seduction and little else, so McQueen’s chess topic hints at the depression that would later, very sadly, take him.


 Today’s cufflinks are a really exquisite pair, made from sterling silver which has developed interesting oxidization. They each have each of the six chess pieces on the faces with very Nordic lines. The cufflinks have date stamps to 1957 and also bear the place mark of Stockholm. The maker’s mark is BHS, which is B. Sorlings Konsthantverk of Stockholm, active with this mark from 1949 to 1986; I’m grateful to Patrick Kapty for supplying information about this designer. The artist was very skilled and I would like to think that the chess-themed cufflinks are linked to the screening of The Seventh Seal that very year, a source of great pride for Sweden and Swedish cinema, though, of course, it didn’t win an Oscar; another striking and outrageous example of the vicissitudes of the game of life.

The Child within

There are essentially two kinds of people who have acquired deep specialist knowledge: the contagious and the contemptuous. I know this all too well, being a professor, and an academic condescending to a student is as perverse as it is outrageous. One of the true teachers of the twentieth century is Julia Child (1912-2004), someone who could stand as the very definition of fabulous. Her career was unexpected and deeply rooted in her humanity, for Julia was someone who exulted in life and raised cooking from a chore to something vibrant, exciting, and sensual. As well it should be. What is remarkable about Julia’s career is that she went into cookery purely by chance and as a direct result of her passion for Paul Child, the friend who became her husband. They are both pictured below in a whimsical Valentine’s Day photograph from 1952, an image that captures the deep affinity that bound these two people.


I always compare Julia Child with her British equivalent, Fanny Craddock (1909-1994). These two TV chefs from both sides of the Atlantic have long been staples of the drag-queen circuit, most likely because of their extraordinary respective presences. While Julia Child stood out in front of the camera because of her imposing height of 6′ 2″, Fanny was distinguished by her painted eyebrows and perpetually surprised expression that reminds one of a shrew in the process of being electrocuted (below). With Fanny there is the sense that she is speaking at the audience whereas Julia always manages to cultivate a conspiratorial affinity with her followers, one that was real. Fanny seems to want audiences to be able to cook so they can better themselves, best seen in the comment she once made about how to pipe cream on to a sherry trifle: “Don’t tell that woman next door how to do it and then you’ve got a bit of one-upmanship … which is always satisfying”. I must, in the interests of frankness, declare at this juncture that I am of the firm opinion that a trifle is a sickly and inhumane concoction that should be served only to prisoners and politicians.


With Julia, on the other hand, her goal was always that her audience enjoy themselves, both during the preparation and in the enjoyment of the food. On this score, she had no time for the blog by Julie Powell which inspired the movie Julie and Julia (2009), which, in her opinion, was a gimmick, and mainly because Julie never talked about how the final product tasted, which for Julia was a cardinal sin of disrespect. The movie is notable not only for being the first film based on a blog but also for Meryl Streep’s uncanny performance in the role of the culinary pioneer. The radically different approaches between Julia Child and Fanny Craddock may be seen in two clips of them instructing viewers how to make a good omelette, with Fanny performing here, and Julia here. Whereas Fanny looks like she would spank anyone who didn’t carry out the task according to her specifications (doubtless part of her appeal to a certain generation of privately educated men), Julia appears to be having a friendly chat with the viewer as she busies herself.


One anecdote relates how, at a book signing taking place in the early fall, one person in the line gave Julia Child a small bag of homemade truffles, cheerily suggesting she save them for Christmas. Julia immediately tore into them and announced “Oh no! We’ll have them right now!” and started to purr as she enjoyed a truffle she had popped into her mouth, all the while signing other books. I think this story is very much a metaphor for how she lived her life: living in the present moment and doing things the way in which she wanted to, a rejection of puritanism. When things went wrong in front of the cameras, an audience, or friends, Julia would state defiantly “Never apologize”, a motto that was important to her as a lanky person who was somewhat exuberant –and awkward- in her movements and overall demeanour. I feel a great rapport with her in this, being one of life’s clumsy people. Hell, for me, would be having to parallel park in limitless spaces for all eternity.

The key to Julia’s enthusiasm is in the support and love she enjoyed with Paul. Letters they exchanged reveal a profoundly sensual and authentic bond between the two, and food played an important role in their relationship. In her first meal in Rouen with Paul, she experienced an epiphany that changed her palate and, indeed, the course of her life and countless people influenced by her magisterial cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (published in two volumes released in 1961 and 1970). She reflected later that this meal constituted “an opening up of the soul and spirit for me”. I have had one relationship in which food was a very key ingredient –pun fully intended- and it is no accident that this has been the most striking, deep, and influential relationship I’ve had in my life. We would talk over food, savour and discuss the flavours, and, all the while, enjoying each other. A meal we shared at the Modern in New York stands out as the most satisfying culinary experience of my life, enjoyed with an individual who enabled my heart to sing tunes I didn’t know were there. It was a long evening of sumptuous courses on the tasting menu, gently lubricated with Laurent Perrier champagne, and impeccable service and seats. Emotionally, gastronomically, and intellectually, the evening was a benchmark. Nothing can ever take that incomparable evening away, not even my own insecurities or failings nor the disruption of a rupture. Thankfully!


I’m currently in Paris and a restaurant which I frequent frequently is Le Trumilou. It’s a place that Julia would approve of in very forceful terms. Julia had an unreconstructed distaste and suspicion of health fads in cooking, and attributed her longevity (dying just shy of her 93rd year) to red meat and gin, defiantly and perhaps accurately. Le Trumilou is located next to the Seine and run by a pair of brothers who took it over from their godparents. The interior looks like a 1950s photograph and hints at a retro makeover, but in fact it simply hasn’t bucked to, and become enslaved by, trends. The restaurant offers different daily specials that are both simple and pleasing such as chicken with thyme, suckling pig, roast rabbit, and duck with prunes (pictured above, from Saturday’s dinner, and served with a gratin as per my special request). It is comfort food that does not disappoint, and during these past few weeks of a particularly painful break-up, the fare at Le Trumilou has been a companion that has not let me down and has offered the particular and peculiar reassurance that only solid rustic cuisine can provide. One reason for this is that I had the good fortune to be brought up with a good supply of local country food. Rabbit pie, freshly caught river fish, and homemade bread and cakes punctuated my upbringing, so Le Trumilou’s offerings momentarily conjure up the childhood state of not realizing how harsh life’s realities can be.

There is, sadly, a puritanical attitude towards food on the part of some people that manifests itself in a suspicion of taking pleasure in meals, photographing them, and talking about them. This is the Craddock approach. The Child attitude is very European, particularly Gallic, in not rushing food, in knowing what you are eating, and in allowing meals to be fecund opportunities for exchange, laughter, and enjoyment. It is not for nothing that some of Christ’s important teaching moments occurred within the context of shared food nor that the central element of the Mass is a meal of bread and wine literally transformed, transubstantiated, into nourishment for our soul as well as for our all-too-weak bodies. I am reminded of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s striking poem “The Bugler’s First Communion” in which the priest-poet describes administering the Eucharist to a crimson-clad lad: “Forth Christ from cupboard fetched, how fain I of feet / To his youngster take his treat”.


Today’s cufflinks are at once pretty and optimistic, as well as both whimsical and serious. They are crafted by Orla Eggert for the company he founded with his wife, Flora Danica, and I’ve already blogged about another pair in my collection by this quirky artist. He delighted in making jewellery that took, as its inspiration, the herbs in his garden, and this pair features chard leaves, made out of sterling silver coated with a gold wash and dating from the 1950s. It is not the most recognizable of herbs, and it was not I who first identified it. Julia Child does something radical with this unassuming leaf in the second volume of her masterpiece: a Swiss chard gratin. The combination of cheese, butter, lemon, and cream transforms the plant into something very special. Gratins are always an interesting item to have because, by their very presence in a special dish, they already assert their superiority over other side ingredients and vegetables. It is nothing other than the apotheosis of root crops (or leaves in this case) and a muted declaration of rivalry against the main course’s primary ingredient, whether meat, fish, or a vegetarian option. The gratin for me is a very attractive metaphor, as is cooking itself. By means of daring, passion, and imagination, something ordinary can be made exceptional and memorable. And, despite the pain and pleasure of falling in love, it is the only feature in our lives that has the power to metamorphose us and make us strive to be the people we should be. Despite ourselves. Would that we could all permit ourselves to unleash the joie de vivre of our inner (Julia) Child…


There has long been a debate on whether knowing background information to a literary or artistic work or details about the creator’s life is useful or even essential to be able to appreciate and understand it fully. The same can be said about an unattributed piece. We can enjoy and be provoked, stimulated, satisfied by a book or painting, but knowing who it is by can alter our perspective of it, for better or worse. If the Mona Lisa in the Louvre turns out to be a forged replacement, as is very possible, it would certainly spoil many people’s enjoyment. This is an issue that has been treated by Arthur Danto in his theory of indiscernible counterparts. If you have two paintings that are identical in every way, it is obviously outside factors – the title, the artist’s (or artists’) purpose in executing them, and the dates on which they were produced – which enables us to distinguish between them. One thing is for certain: knowing who made a work can radically affect its market value.


One person whose work always fetches robust prices is Björn Weckström (above). This Finnish designer, born in 1935, enjoys an international reputation for his creations, and quite rightly so. He has worked in many media, including silver, gold, marble, and glass. The artist tends to spend some months obsessively plunged in one medium before moving on to another one. His jewellery designs are very distinctive and I would categorize them by one word: seductive. They seduce because they flatter the wearer or spectator by their very organic purity and raw honesty. An example, from his gold phase, is below, a 14kt-gold cuff entitled Goldfire (image taken from here). It is crafted from gold ore mined in Lappland.


Is this not beautiful? This cuff item does something mildly, almost imperceptibly, radical with gold. It distorts the normally smooth lines associated with the precious metal and endows it with a savage quality. This is very apt, since gold is not only completely natural -and we know nature is a savage mistress- but it is also a trope for greed, and ultimately, misery. Weckström has taken inspiration from mythology, astronomy, and above all his homeland. I’ve only been to Finland once, and then just within Helsinki, but the Finns have a very understated welcoming attitude coupled with a hint of the whimsical. Weckström’s enthusiasm for his profession is absolutely evident both from his work and from his site. He has led a very full life and has left a brilliant legacy.


His international profile was radically enhanced by one of his pieces, a necklace, being worn by Princess Leia in the original Star Wars movie. The design is called Planetaariset Laaksot, or Planetary Valleys, making it a particularly apt choice for a science-fiction themed film. It was designed in 1969, so had been around for eight years before its cinematic debut. The jewellery company which made the necklace is Lapponia, which enjoys an iconic if not mythic status among collectors of jewellery for its select range and its collaboration with gifted designers such as Weckström. The designer himself didn’t know it was going be used on the big screen until he went to see the cult film of 1977 and was caught unawares.


Today’s cufflinks are crafted from sterling silver and were acquired several months ago. I thought they reminded me of Weckström’s work, even though they weren’t advertized as such. It was only when I looked at the maker’s mark with an eyeglass that I discovered they were, in fact, created by him. They bear his signature and a Finnish date stamp of 1971, being part of a series entitled Seen in Mars. The reason why they were not recognized as Weckström’s work is because there is no mention of Lapponia on them, the company with which he has long been associated. However, they do bear the symbol of Lapponia, the name not yet having been chosen for the firm. The pair is worth at least 1,000% more than I paid, given who made them. It is not the fiscal value, however, that enhances my enjoyment of them but rather the knowledge that they were designed by such a passionate man. They are brutally beautiful and beautifully brutal and I particularly like the fact that the backs (the foot, in technical terms) is also patterned.


The cufflinks are chunky, highly conspicuous, items that command attention and positively reward it. While they are rooted in the contours of a hibernal, glacial Finnish landscape, and therefore the present, they are equally, unequivocally, futuristic. They employ the crumpled folding technique that Scandinavian artists have perfected. Above all, I relish wearing these cufflinks as they sing aloud of the sheer joy of life.

Turquoise delight

The name of the colour turquoise comes from the stone that exemplifies it. The gem’s name, in turn, is a medieval English corruption of Turkish, since it was believed to originate in that country. In fact, turquoise is to be found all over the world and is part of the fabric of all of the great and minor cultures in the history of the planet. The range of hues of turquoise, both the colour and the stone, goes from greenish to blueish with the evocatively named celeste being the extreme blue shade and the equally pleasing pearl mystic turquoise marking the end of the greenish dominance. In the gemstone, the scale depends on the degree of copper present, which is why the colour suggests the patina of oxidized copper. It is a stone that does not belong to one region and is quite ecumenical in its scope with strong turquoise traditions among Native Americans, the Aztecs, the American Southwest, the ancient Egyptians (see, for example, the inclusion of turquoise in Tutankhamun’s death mask, below), the Middle East, China, and Europe. It is mined across the world, from Cornwall to Arizona and from Queensland to Chile.


I’ve always found it a surprising choice for jewellery for two reasons. Firstly, the colour itself can be very attractive but often seems to just miss being garish. Secondly, the stone itself is somewhat fragile and can fracture. I’ll add to these two reasons that the market has been inundated with synthetic turquoise to the point that one is naturally suspicious of its authenticity. However, my own natural prejudices cannot get in the way of the fact that turquoise has a long pedigree of positive symbolism. Tibetan monks often carried it as it gently can change colour over time and it served as a reminder of the wheel of life. Some Native American tribes saw the shades of the sky and the sea in it and thus it represented life itself to them. These natural tropes together with its availability has meant that it has long been used in jewellery. My own favourite use of the gem is in tiaras. The photograph below is of the Persian tiara of Princess Margaret (Queen Elizabeth II’s late sister). The turquoise outshines the diamonds, even though these precious stones are vastly worth more, and the overall effect, somewhat paradoxically, is a natural one.  The Duchess of Cornwall often wears turquoise, including a tiara, and never fails to look stunning in it.

ImageIt is somewhat surprising, given its noble lineage, that there isn’t a particularly strong use of it in Christian art and architecture, with the exception of some Orthodox churches. It has perhaps been eclipsed by the deep blues obtained from lapis lazuli, long used in representations of Our Lady. Islamic art has a much more visible tradition of turquoise and it is often found on mosques, in both the interior and exterior, both the colour and the stone. A particularly striking example is the portal of the St Petersburg Mosque, a building completed in 1921, below. The Wilayah Mosque in Malaysia is crowned with twenty-three composite domes clad with turquoise mosaics. This traditional use is offset by the decidedly modern use of computerized pixel technique to achieve the pattern.


One tradition attached to turquoise is that it should never be purchased but only received as a gift. This, incidentally, was also a norm that held for cufflinks; a gentleman was never supposed to buy his own pairs. Sometimes iconoclasm is not only a good thing but is also positively to be relished.

ImageToday’s cufflinks have three turquoise cabochons, rather appropriately for Trinity Sunday, set on sterling silver. They carry the maker’s mark of MLV and the three-eagles symbol denoting that they were made in Taxco, Mexico. While we don’t know the name of MLV, he or she is a recognized designer who was active in the 1940 and 1950s, and this pair looks like it dates from the 1950s. MLV loved working with turquoise as most of the pieces that bear this maker’s mark (brooches, wrist cuffs, and rings) incorporate the gem. Since it widely symbolizes healing and protection, turquoise is often associated with guardian angels. It is thus perhaps not a bad thing to have in our lives.

Spidery suggestivity

Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695) was a writer who put his eggs into the wrong basket. His first patron, to whom he remained devoted even after the disgrace of the former, was the brilliant Nicolas Foucquet. This administrator and benefactor to the arts committed the ultimate sin: he outshone the Sun King. In the lavish ceremonies to celebrate to opening of Fouquet’s newly built palace at Vaux-le-Vicomte in 1661, the finance minister realized, all too late, that his guest of honour, the 22-year-old Louis XIV, had a very displeased dismeanour. He immediately offered to donate the estate to the monarch, but Louis acerbically replied that kings did not receive grandeur from their subjects. A few weeks later Fouquet was arrested by D’Artagnan and a small band of trusted musketeers. Although Louis was able to stage manage a show trial -on the basis of financial corruption- he was ultimately unsuccessful in his efforts to pressure the judges to enforce the death penalty; the justices opted for life imprisonment. Every judge who voted against a capital sentence was removed from office within a matter of months. In one of the great injustices of the seventeenth century, a man who had helped himself to perks in a much more modest way than his predecessors found himself imprisoned for the rest of his life. La Fontaine remained vocal in his support of the beleagured politician. For this act of disloyalty to the regime, he was to receive his own disgrace. When he was finally elected to the Académie Française aged in his 60s, Louis XIV refused to grant his assent for several months, an unprecedented course of action. La Fontaine’s fables are crammed full of examples of injustice and abusive power. In one of the fabulist’s most curious poems, “Le lion et le moucheron” (The lion and the gnat), he takes up a tale first spun by Aesop, about a gnat which buzzed around a lion and had this beast hopping mad at its inability to destroy the source of its annoyance. The gnat flies away, very pleased at its victory, only to fly straight into a spider’s web thus meeting an untimely demise. La Fontaine spells out two morals which amount more or less to the same thing: firstly, we should not underestimate apparently small enemies; secondly, we are often distracted by major affairs when it is sometimes little things that bring us down. There is, undoubtedly, a hidden message to Louis XIV here (La Fontaine dedicated the first collection of fables to the dauphin in 1668 with the implicit imperative of following literary wisdom rather than imitating his illustrious father). While the lion and the gnat come out rather badly, the spider alone seems triumphant and full of foresight.


Spiders are the object of the most universal phobia, arachnophobia, yet this intense and widespread fear is also coupled with millennia of positive associations, symbolism, and mythology. Spiders can be very beautiful and have evolved into some ingenious forms. My personal favourite is the bird dropping spider, above, which, as its name so prosaically states, resembles avian dung. Not only that but the spider also weaves a white silken base that looks like a spatter mark beneath its body and emits an unpleasant odour that approximates fecal matter. This disguise is far from crappy as it succeeds in attracting prey and repels predators, a perfect combination. Many spiders, such as the tarantula, look fearsome but contain relatively harmless venom, though it’s been a struggle to adapt to living in the Midwest where there are brown recluses -I regularly find them in spider traps below my bed- given that I come from a country which boasts of no harmful arachnids. My mother would always urge me to check my suitcases closely, as she strongly suspected that I would one day unwittingly bring a brown recluse back with me on my visits home. I used to tease her about it, joking that I had seen something run out of my suitcase, but Mother became inured to this!


Perhaps it is not so much the appearance of spiders but rather their devious means of trapping prey that so unsettles us, as it does seem to point to an intelligence that spiders do not actually possess. Arachnid brains are very simple and operate a few reactions such as run, eat, and, quite rarely, attack. The appearance of cunning is a tenacious one. Some versions of the Japanese Jorōgumo legend depict a spider taking the form of a seductive woman who lulls a gullible man with her lascivious appearance and soothing music only to weave a web around him and then devour him. A nineteenth-century woodcut, above, represents a man being rescued from this fate. While such sinister manifestations are to be found in folklore and even populate horror movies, the spider’s industriousness generally enjoys a more positive spin – pun intended.


My favourite version is one familiar to Scottish schoolchildren, that of Robert the Bruce. While Robert spent several months hiding in caves on the Irish coast during the wars that threatened his position as King of the Scots (he ruled as Robert I from 1306 to 1329), he one day watched a spider spin a web to connect two points of the cave’s roof. It kept falling down but commenced again and again until, on the eighth attempt it successfully had weaved the skeleton of its web. He was heartened by the resourceful stubbornness of such an insignificant creature and felt emboldened in his own quest, which would culminate in the Battle of Bannockburn (1314), a decisive victory over English colonialism in Scotland. The same story of arachnid voyeurism is also to be found in a Jewish legend about King David, while closer to our time, Walt Whitman’s “A Noiseless, Patient Spider” makes a metaphysical trope along the same lines:

A noiseless, patient spider,
I mark’d, where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;
Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;
Ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you, O my Soul, where you stand,
Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,—seeking the spheres, to connect them;
Till the bridge you will need, be form’d—till the ductile anchor hold;
Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.

On the subject of religion, the patron saint of spider bites is St Conrad of Constance, seen in the stained glass below with a rather cute spider peering over the top of his golden chalice. The hagiographical detail is that this tenth-century prelate was celebrating Mass when a large, vicious-looking spider dropped in the chalice. St Conrad was singularly unimpressed and downed the contents, spider and all. It was popularly believed that all spiders were poisonous, whether venomous or not, so the saint was taking his life into his hands, somewhat literally. Nowadays, liturgists only recommend swallowing a spider if it is small, digestible, and non-toxic. Otherwise it should be scooped out with a purifier -a white linen- and both the spider’s corpse and the linen burnt when dried out. If there are any ashes, these should be disposed down the sacrarium, a sink within the church’s precinct that goes straight into the earth. The Catholic Church may be accused of many things, but being unmethodical is not one of them.


While there are countless horrid urban legends concerning spiders, it is gratifying to know that Spiderman and St Conrad exist to counter the negative connotations. Hagiography and comic books share many affinities.


I think that the most appealing arachnine appearance in art has to be the Maman series of sculptures by Louise Bourgeois. The image above shows one outside of the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, which stands at over 30 feet in height. The title of the work is the French word for Mum or Mom, and Bourgeois manages to create a sense of maternal comfort in these sculptures that somehow eclipses the menace of the form. It is interesting that spiders are most often represented and understood as being feminine. In dream interpretation, the presence of spiders is usually deemed to relate to the dreamer’s mother or a strong female in their life, particularly if the spider bites. I can’t help but feel that this symbolism seems to reflect society’s long-standing misogyny more than anything else.


Today’s cufflinks strongly suggest a spider to me, and a female one carrying eggs on her back. There are no maker’s marks to be found on this pair other than an 835 silver stamp, denoting 83.5% grade silver, which often oxidizes in a more appealing way than sterling silver. I acquired them from Germany and would guess them to be studio made in the early 1970s. The swirly lines of the framed spider is most definitely positive and hints at gateways such as the worldwide web rather than fear of the unknown.