Thursday, November 27, 2008

Priceless Pre-Raphaelite Painting Found in Dusty Attic

A woman in Somerset, England, recently discovered this rare portrait by John Everett Millais of his wife, Effie Millais, while she was in the process of cleaning her house.

How come stuff like this never happens to me?

Apparently, she had received the painting as a birthday gift when she was just nine years old (now that was one spoiled child!), and then forgot about it. The man who was evaluating the rest of her belongings, Duncan Chilcott, described his discovery:

"Up in the attic she wanted me to look at a table. On the other side of the room behind some old mattresses I saw the painting leaning against the wall," the Telegraph quoted him as saying.

"It was covered in thick dust and I was astonished when I blew it off and saw what was beneath."

"The lady selling it said it was purchased for her by her mother as a ninth birthday present."

Mr. Chilcott's wife later added that when the woman was informed of the painting's value, she was rather nonplussed:
"she wasn't leaping up and down but she was surprised by it. I guess it is cash in the attic for her."
Perhaps her mother would have been better off getting her a bicycle for her birthday and keeping the fine art for herself.

While the owner might not be excited about the paintings' discovery, the art world is quite excited. You will recall that Effie Millais was actually married to the art critic John Ruskin before she met Millais. Because Effie's hand is hidden in this portrait, there is some speculation that it has something to do with John and Effie's relationship (or, as the Daily Mail more provocatively stated it, the "scandal of a love triangle"). The painting will be auctioned on December 9.

Read the whole story at the Daily Mail

Thursday, November 20, 2008

La Vie en Rose: The Middle Ages through Rose-Coloured Glasses

Nostalgia always brings with it a certain amount of selective memory. We idealise the past because we remember the best and forget the rest. But is this really such a bad thing? The 19th century medieval popularised by William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites was based in the firm belief that the people of the Middle Ages had closer contact with organic elements and were thus more aware of their connection with nature and with each other. William Morris' novel News from Nowhere--(which I highly recommend, by the way)--presents a Utopian vision of the future that clearly is meant to be a recreation of an idealised medieval past.

The Nostalgic Middle Ages:

Of course, medieval revival is fairly easy to criticise from a historical viewpoint. Morris, like his Pre-Raphaelite friends, had a habit of focusing on the positive, and carefully avoiding things like war, feudalism, disease and famine that were such problems throughout the Middle Ages (plus, many of their notions of the Middle Ages were completely inaccurate).

Morris believed capitalism was to blame for modernity's rift with nature, and that our goods-focused society created artificial needs that enslaved mankind in an endless cycle of consumption and debt (no doubt today's current market crisis would have reinforced this belief!). And while the Middle Ages were not perfect, that doesn't mean that we can't embrace what they seem to have done right. Or, perhaps we might finally acknowledge the fact that our imagined concept of the Middle Ages is actually far superior to the way things actually were! I actually think fantasy makes a much better template for the future than any reality, past or present. This is probably because I'm a historian, so I know just how much of a failure most societies have been!

The real Middle Ages?

I'm curious to see whether the current economic upheaval will cause people to re-evaluate the Middle Ages and look to them for inspiration. I've noticed that some aspects of medieval culture, like the barter system, as the New York Times reports, are actually becoming much more widely adopted (it is expected that barter will account for $3 billion in trade in the US this year).

It will be interesting to see what develops!

Images courtesy Wikimedia. Top: Lamia (1905) by John William Waterhouse; Middle: A monk-cellarer tasting wine from a barrel whilst filling a jug. From Li Livres dou Santé by Aldobrandino of Siena - France, late 13th century.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The End of an Era--Spode Begins Overseas Production of Blue Italian, Then Goes Bankrupt

I've collected Spode Blue Italian since I was ten years old. I have some pretty interesting pieces in my collection, like the Cheese Wedge Dish that I begged for--and received from my dear mother--for high school graduation. People might have thought it was a little odd for a ten year old to begin collecting china, but that's just the way I was! From the time I was young I recognized the beauty of the products and I still remember reading about transfer ware in Victoria Magazine and being fascinated with the time consuming, labour of love involved in creating each piece of porcelain.

So, it seemed natural to use my wedding registry as an opportunity to complete my collection. I set up my registry at Caplan Duval, here in Canada. I ended up waiting over a year due to some mysterious "reorganization" at the Spode factory. Finally, 15 months later, my first shipment of china arrived.

I was completely crestfallen when I opened the box. I hardly recognized the china. It was an odd, almond colour, with an indistinct blue-ish pattern that seemed like a caricature of the original. Moreover, the plates in the 5 piece place setting did not even stack properly with my old set because they were sized incorrectly.

Spot the knockoff:

Businesses seem to apply a "one size fits all" solution to economic challenges. Outsourcing is viewed as the universal cookie-cutter response to poor sales. In their letter to my mom, the people at Spode suggested that outsourcing was their only option. For legal reasons, I cannot quote their letter on The Earthly Paradise, but their overall argument was that customers would prefer to purchase Spode products at a lower price, than spend more for Spode that had been made in England.

The next day, we discovered that Royal Worcester, the maker of Spode, was bankrupt. I wonder why!

Outsourcing is a difficult concept for me. I would personally much rather spend twice as much for a quality product made by artisans than a cheap knockoff produced by workers in a foreign factory being paid pennies an hour. I firmly believe that unhappy workers cannot create beautiful work. It doubtless comes from reading too much William Morris, but I firmly beleive in artisan work, and I don't care whether it's profitable or not! Morris and Company was always a profitable business, in that it did not lose money. But it also did not make the kind of obscene profits that most business today seem to believe they require in order to compete in the global marketplace.

I continue to hope that whichever corporation purchases Royal Worcester has better businesses ideas, but I'm not holding my breath. It seems that the world's former luxury goods producers have completely lost sight of what made their products worth having in the first place.

You can read more about Spode/Royal Worcester's financial difficulties in the Tri-City Herald.

Server Problems

My apologies to anyone who has been having difficulties accessing my blog over the past few days. The server has been having issues, and I'm not quite sure what's wrong with it. I may be changing companies very soon if things don't improve quickly!

Thank you for your patience, and if you ever have a hard time getting The Earthly Paradise's home page to work, please try back later, and know that we aren't going anywhere any time soon!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Edmonton Opera's Production of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman

Flying Dutchman
Last week the Edmonton Opera's season began with an ambitious production of Richard Wagner's The Flying Dutchman. I wasn't quite sure what to expect from our small opera company, but I was impressed! Overall I think it was a great success, although there were some inevitable hiccups.

First of all, the music was gorgeous: my husband and I were both captivated from the moment the orchestra started playing. Once the the curtain went up, many of the cast members had a difficult time being heard above the orchestra, which I suppose is an occupational hazard of performing Wagner. Thankfully, the Dutchman (Jason Howard)and Senta(Susan Marie Pierson)had voices that were capable of standing up to the music. I personally felt that Senta stole the show. From the moment she began singing(Act 2), she really demonstrated what a more powerful voice could do with the music. The chorus numbers were another highlight, as the larger number of voices meant that the singers weren't going to be drowned out by the music.

The Flying Dutchman tells the story of a sea Captain who is condemned to wander the seas for all eternity. Once every seven years he is permitted to leave the ship in order to search for a woman who can be faithful to him until death. If he accomplishes this task, he will be freed from the curse. Unfortunately, although he has been trying for hundreds of years to find such a woman, all of them have proved unfaithful (quite a sad commentary on womankind!).

One thing that constantly impresses me about the Edmonton Opera is the great set designs that they consistently manage to pull off. This time they staged the entire production in a Shaker-style meeting hall on stilts that appeared to be tilted dramatically. I kept wondering how the cast members managed to maneuver around the stage without falling down! It really was quite extraordinary.

Ultimately, I was very happy to see an opera like this being staged in Edmonton. Doing Wagner is always difficult, but I think it was definitely worth it. Hopefully we'll get the chance to see more Wagner in Edmonton!

"The Flying Dutchman" by Albert Pinkham Ryder courtesy Wikimedia commons.