Dating My Wardrobe: Space Poetics of Innisfree

I have to admit, I am a space snob. I break-out into a cold sweat if I so much as glance at spotty window panes, with dusty Red Rose tea figurines lining the windowsills (watching me with glazed eyes!), or a muted room with popcorn ceilings, and diabolical fluorescent lights clinging to its pocked surface, shedding an ill-light. I have freaked-out on outings with perfectly lovely friends who are more hardy, and genetically made to withstand harsh lines, and sallow lighting. In the middle of a friendly conversation about suggested books, I will tell you now that I am not listening. If I’m in a disorderly place, my mind will wander, fixed on a point of particular ugliness, and focus on that ugliness until I blurt out,” I’m sorry, what were you saying? I think I have to leave….immediately.”

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marsh mallows, and rock walls of Innisfree

And this is why I visit beautiful places, and choose to be romantically involved with my clothes. Sentient beings just don’t understand me the way that my darling wardrobe does. Maybe it’s because they just don’t have any brains, but I believe it’s because my clothing is the most accommodating companion that I know.

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Moi, pre-heat stroke

To celebrate my long-lasting relationship with my wardrobe, I decide to take my dear 1960s gingham skirt, and yellow silk shell on a romantic romp through one of the most beautiful landscapes on Earth– Innisfree Garden in Millbrook, NY; The early twentieth-century country residence of Walter Beck, and wife Marion Burt Beck. This is a romantic poetic space, where my senses are refreshed at every turn.

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cup garden view 

Innisfree Garden is known as a cup garden– a term which Walter Beck coined to describe the intimate garden vignettes which existed within the larger scheme of a more naturalistic garden landscape. During the 1930s, Walter Beck came across scroll paintings of 8th century Chinese artist and garden creator, Wang Wei’s Wangchuan Villa design.

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portion of Wang Wei’s painted scroll of Wanchuan Villa

Utilizing the natural shape of the landscape as the foundation, and creating inward focused and hidden gardens within the overall landscape was a departure from western garden philosophy, which sought to create a uniform and open design scheme. Struck by a concept which encouraged exploration and discovery, and working with the indigenous plants on the property, Beck, along with his gardener wife, Marion, began the fifty some-odd-year development of Innisfree Garden.

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While the theoretical framework, and botanical bones of the garden were in place, it wasn’t until landscape architect Lester Collins came into the picture that the space really began to take shape. The Becks and Collins met in 1938, as Collins was studying English at Harvard University, and traveling with fellow student, John Ormsbee Simonds, to Asia. It was in the balmy breath of spring in 1938 that the fruitful partnership between the Becks and Collins began– a collaborative effort which would produce one of the most profoundly gorgeous spaces on the planet.

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Upon his return from the “Far East,” Lester Collins enrolled in the Master of Landscape Architecture Program of Harvard’s School of Design, receiving his degree in 1942. Here he was met with blossoming ideas of American modernism, which quite naturally complimented “Eastern” design philosophy. However, his career would have to wait, as World War II engulfed whole societies in its growing wake. Collins served in the British Eighth Army from 1942-1945. After which, he returned to America and became a professor of landscape architecture, and later the Dean of Harvard’s School of Design.

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Lester Collin’s quest to expand his breadth of knowledge was a lifelong passion. In 1954, he studied traditional Japanese Garden design and construction methods as a Fulbright Scholar, working with a Japanese scholar to translate the eleventh-century Japanese text Sakuteiki–literally “records of garden making.” This detailed record outlined the styles of gardening in the Heian period, defining gardening as a poetic aesthetic endeavor, in which the designer created from feelings, and responded to the physical characteristics of the site. This ancient methodology was artfully employed by Collins as he worked on the gardens of Innisfree from the 1940s until 1993, responding to the natural character of the terrain with sensitivity and whimsy.

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Innisfree is a space which meets at the intersection between emerging American modernism, ancient Chinese and Japanese aesthetic philosophy, and the Hudson Valley’s inherent natural beauty.  At this point of intersection, I decided to rest a while. The day which I visited in late July boasted 100 degree temperatures, and maximum humidity. The air around me felt like the inside of the moist mouth of a giant dog. Only the cool mist of the modern water fountain, and the shade of a teacup nook could rescue me from this dog-day of summer.

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Despite the air quality, the garden was so beautiful that I wandered from one garden vignette to the next without even noticing that I was massively dehydrated, and overheated. I may be a great lover of my wardrobe, and a fantastic date, but I have never gotten the hang of hydrating. I can drink a cup of coffee or tea, but it never occurs to me to drink water until my cells are shriveling-up, and my tongue feels like an old dried-up piece of hard tack from the Civil War era.

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Heat Stroke, or swooning from passion???

I had to apologize to my dear ’60s ensemble, and sit down in an ivy shrouded nook to rest for a while. I collapsed against the cool stone of an outdoor staircase, my gingham skirt swooning as I reposed. And while I retired like a sweating lump in the most gorgeous garden in the Hudson Valley, I looked out into the verdant landscape, and felt a sense of complete tranquility. Perhaps it was the heat stroke which made me feel as if I was in a lucid dream, but I truly was transported.

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I was a million miles away, in a poetic space, which is never bound by the physical parameters of the land. It is here that I like to dwell, along with my sweetheart wardrobe. This is the space where I stay a while.

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Dating My Wardrobe: Negotiating Space at Naumkeag

As I embark on a sartorial romance, dating my vintage wardrobe, I realize that the clothes on my back are the only real constant in my life. Every seven years, my very own body freakishly exists as collection of completely new regenerated cells, and I certainly have changed my mind over the steady march of time. I lived in various places, as visitor with a lease agreement, but nothing so permanent to call my own. My clothes. My woven companions. These are the only things which cling to my person with any sort of permanence. This negotiation of space, both personal and geographical, always includes a piece of my beloved wardrobe. But enough about me. Let’s talk about Naumkeag, and my date with my vintage 1980s circle skirt and off-the-shoulder shirt.

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Moi in the “Afternoon Garden”

I realize that the places I typically drag my wardrobe along to exist as historical sites, and are generally reserved as a landmark, and preserved for public posterity only after some rich, old white dude from the Gilded Age drops dead, and his descendants of a modern age can no longer afford to upkeep an overgrown, and ostentatious property. This is where a board of trustees, or the government swoops in to care for the property, offering its remarkable beauty to the public (for a nominal fee). This period of historical tourism, for any designated space, is only one chapter in the line of many. As I visited Naumkeag, in the Prospect Hill district of Stockbridge, MA, I do so considering the many different people, structures, purposes and names that the historic spot possessed. Like myself, Naumkeag is a space which has experienced a history of negotiation and reorganization. As I tip-toe through the “Chinese Garden,” perched on a Hill once inhabited by Native Americans, but now exists in an exclusive residential area of New England, only the company of my 1980s tropical motif skirt makes any sense.

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Joseph Hodges Choate, old, rich white dude

While I can’t account for the Stockbridge region during the Mesozoic, Cretaceous, Neolithic eras, historically, Stockbridge was inhabited by Mohican Native Americans. During the 1730s, Stockbridge was founded as a Mission Community, where reading, writing and the Christian doctrine was taught to the Mohicans, and other Native tribes. In the late-19th century, the site on top of Prospect Hill which would become Naumkeag was purchased by prominent New York City lawyer, Joseph Hodges Chaote. Here’s where some name/place negotiation gets tricky. Choate came from the Essex County area of Massachusetts, originally inhabited by the Naumkeag Native American tribe. Before Salem, MA became Salem, it was known as Naumkeag– most likely derived from the Algonkian root “namaas” (fish), and “ki” (place)– or fishing place. Joseph Choate liked the idea of the tranquil fishing hole behind the name Naumkeag, and so he named his Stockbridge area summer home, purchased in 1884, “Naumkeag,” leaving behind his Choate name in the Essex County area, where one can find Choate Hall and Choate Island.

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The Front Entrance to Naumkeag

Ok. Considering the naming, and renaming of all of these places is making my head spin. I’m holding my familiar circle skirt and fanny pack near and dear, and moving on to my date. To begin, I park near some cows in the visitor parking area, put my lipstick on (with the approval of onlooking heifers),  and march-up Prospect Hill. I purchase my ticket, and while I wait to tour the 44-room shingle-style “summer cottage” of Naumkeag, designed by the infamous Stanford White of the architectural firm McKim, Mead & White in 1885, I stroll around the thematic gardens of the property. I think about Stanford White’s violent end, while I admire the tranquil Berkshire Mountains from the Tree Peony Terrace. Aside from being a talented architect, Stanford White was a seasoned lover of the ladies. unfortunately choosing to romance celebrated beauty– and wife of millionaire Harry Kendall Thaw– Evelyn Nesbit. In a fit of rage and jealousy, Thaw murders White in what was contemporaneously termed “The Trial of the Century.” Needless to say, White’s career–among other things– ends.

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View from Tree Peony Terrace Where I Contemplate                                                 Murder…That of Stanford White, of Course!

But, I’m not fixated on the house for long. My attention is drawn to the gardens of property, largely developed by the last resident Naumkeag, Mabel Choate. Following the death of her father in 1917, Mabel took the reigns of revamping the gardens, collaborating with the landscape designer Fletcher Steele in 1926 to create the Afternoon Garden, Rose Garden, Tree Peony Terrace, Evergreen Garden, the Chinese Garden, and Steele’s world renown Blue Steps, featuring a graduated series of water fountains with cobalt blue tiles, and flanking staircases.

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Studying the Art of Leisure in the “Chinese Garden”

I move from the Tree Peony Terrace to what is called the “Chinese Garden,” which showcases Mabel Choate’s collection of Asian sculpture, acquired from her travels. Despite my current status as a post graduate student, working two internships, and living with my aunt in a little pink room, I am able to pretend that I am a lady of leisure, in an age dripping with golden opportunity. I sit in a comfortable orange recliner, located in the fantasy Chinese pagoda-style outdoor patio, and admire the geometric and minimalistic water features of the garden. After a bit of lounging, I exit the Chinese Gardens through a lovely circular gateway– an action which is considered good luck.

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The green inhabitants of the Afternoon Garden

The rest of my garden-tour is an ongoing series of walking, stopping, having my breath taken away from a view, sitting, making sure that my skirt stops riding-up my leg, and fanny pack quits its 360 degree revolution around my waist, and walking again. Through this experience, my vintage wardrobe and I grew closer than ever. Negotiating spaces can be confusing. Names change, people change, places change, but clothes remain the same.

 

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Dating My Wardrobe: Interior Desires, Henry Davis Sleeper’s Beauport

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Beauport, Sleeper-McCann House

Sometimes love is forbidden. You have to contain it, house it in an interior world of desire and expectation, where only those who have been invited into the sanctum of the self get to see it. In my humble view, Henry Davis Sleeper’s gorgeous summer home, Beauport, located on the Eastern Point of Gloucester, MA, is a metaphor for his own life. The rich evolution of identity unfolds as you tour each room of the house, but it remains hidden to those who have not have not received access into the space (in this case, you can purchase a ticket from the friendly museum staff, hanging out in a booth on the edge of the property). As one of the very first super-stars of American interior design, Sleeper had a national reputation for taste and decor for which he was widely recognized. However, his life as a gay man during the Edwardian era had to be interred, hidden away. For this reason, when I visited Beauport in June, during Pride month, I decided to take my loudest, proudest 1970s crop top and palazzo pants suit on a date to the National Historic Landmark. Unlike Sleeper, I don’t have to hide my affection for my love: my vintage wardrobe.

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Let me just say, when you take your neon pink and green floral palazzo pants from the 1970s on a date to a historic site, people notice. My conspicuous darling caught the eye of many-a-museum patron as we stood outside of Sleeper’s home, which he purchased as an Arts and Crafts Cottage in 1906, and expanded into a architectural fruit cocktail of Medieval, Gothic and Colonial styles. (Although, in retrospect, I may have just been confused for a clown who lost her circus troupe somewhere in Ipswich). Regardless, my possible identity as an escaped circus performer was soon forgotten once my little tour group and I entered the house. The interior is all consuming. You forget that there is an outer world, a 2018, a cell phone bill to pay just on the other side of the Beauport walls. You hover in that fantasy world designed by Sleeper, which begins somewhere in 1910, and then gets lost in time and space. I like to dwell here.

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Left: Indian Room, housing collection of Antique carved Native Americans

Below: Belfry Chamber, featuring sliced and reconfigured French Decor Chinois wallpaper

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The tour begins in rooms which were inspired by Americana, like the Colonial-esque Pine Kitchen, complete with a dusty rifle hanging on the wall above the hearth. As you move from room to room, Sleeper often leaves a little clue, indicating to the observer which room you’re about to enter next. For example, before you proceed into the functional kitchen of the home, you find a rolling pin, seemingly out of place in the hallway, leading to the kitchen. But, the rolling pin has a purpose– all part of a little tantalizing trail of design breadcrumbs which leads you to a mural of George Washington, commanding a speech over the breakfast table. Good old George pops-up all over the home, functioning as a buck-skin-breeched and powdered Where’s Waldo, of sorts. One of my favorite rooms was the Golden Step Room. A veritable green heaven, with a trestle table set for house guests, and majolica and Wedgewood glassware shining like treasure from a frothy set of seafoam green cabinets.

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The Golden Step Room

As I peered over his lemon yellow and vegetal green table settings, and into Gloucester Harbor, I felt as if Sleeper had prepared for a grand party, and was currently out– getting the oysters and champagne– and would return shortly. A feeling of occupation pervades the house. As I rounded every corner, I half expected to see Sleeper standing in a three-piece suit by the doorway, greeting me as he would have greeted frequent house guest, Isabella Stewart Gardner.

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Overhead view of table settings in the Golden Step Room,

overlooking Gloucester Harbor

In stark contrast to the breezy sea views of the Golden Step Room, the adjoining Octagon Room hungrily soaks light-up into its dark aubergine walls, offsetting the bright red antique toleware and glassware which Sleeper collected on his trip to France. Designing his rooms around curious objects and collections which appealed to him, Sleeper offers the visitor no rhyme or reason, only discovery.

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Octagon Room

For example, an antique Connecticut River Valley Door which Sleeper acquired becomes a showcase for his artfully arranged amber glassware collection. And what is good design without even better lighting? Sleeper seemed to realize this entirely, and cleverly installed a skylight and a mirror behind the amber glass, giving his interior space the dimension of a holy temple. It’s like entering his Spiritual center.

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Amber Glassware, housed in Antique Connecticut River Valley Door

But, just as you think you’re getting to know Sleeper, you’re thrown for a loop by the unexpected: an ordinary looking doorway which opens-up to reveal a full-length mirror, an impossibly small writing nook, secret staircases, and a wall which features butterfly-splayed specimens of books.

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Book Specimens

Another acquisition– hand-painted 18th century wallpaper, featuring varying scenes from China’s landscape– acted as the inspirational backdrop to Sleeper’s China Trade Room. The wallpaper, originally ordered by long-forgotten signer of the Declaration of Independence, Robert Morris, completes the evolution of historical and geographical dreamscapes. The fusion of culturally constructed ideas– East, West, Old-World, New-World–are deconstructed. In the end, it’s all just a blur.

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China Trade Room

 

And that brings me back to the interior life of Henry Davis Sleeper. In 1906, Sleeper discovered the beauty of Eastern Point, in Gloucester, MA through Abram Piatt Andrew, who lived there in his home called “Red Roof.” Soon after, Sleeper purchased a neighboring lot, converting the resident cottage into the amalgam architectural gem that it is today. The blurred definitions of his life, repeated throughout his interior design, are suggested between the lines of 60 extant letters, exchanged between Sleeper and his dashing neighbor, Andrew, and confirmed by the oral histories of friends who knew the couple personally. Other evidence of their romantic relationship remains secreted away. Personal papers, listed in inventories of Beauport’s holdings taken after Sleeper’s death on September 22, 1934, disappeared by the time the historic home was opened to the public in 1942. This was most likely done to protect the reputation of Sleeper during a time when homosexuality was certainly not something that one aired out in the open. That wasn’t safe. Constructing a fantasy world of walls, filled with objects of beauty, was safe. The people invited to cross-over the threshold of that protective fortress, and enter the interior world were lucky. So many decades later, wearing fluorescent florals and a sun hat from the 70s, I consider myself lucky. I get to take a peek into the internalized romances of Sleeper’s life.

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Henry Davis Sleeper

Before I ended my date with my vintage duds, I decided to treat my palazzo pants to a quick dip in the Atlantic Ocean, on Pebble Beach, MA. This view was much different than that of Beauport. Before me, the whole world was open. Unbridled Love, laid out before me like an oyster in there half-shell.

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Hot Date With Myself (or Dating My Wardrobe), No 8. Kaaterskill Falls

Well, if you have been reading my posts thus far, you’ll detect a sickening smidgeon of sadness to my narrative. Apparently, it takes about a year for my brain to process and come to terms with the fact that ANYONE would ever want to dump moi! How could they?! Fast forward to one year later, and I don’t give a damn…in the best possible way. I realized that, after a year of what I supposed was dating myself, was really a long romantic engagement with my vintage wardrobe. I hand selected only the luckiest of my dated threads to accompany me on my journey to historic sites, beaches, waterfalls, you name it! My relationship with my vintage wardrobe has proven to be the most durable and faithful of all past relationships– weathering athletic trips over fences and guardrails, occasional mood swings, and loooong car rides, listening to Iggy pop’s “Passenger” on loop.

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For date number 8 in June, I decided to wash away the old sad-sap Laura. Cleans myself of any residual remorse, or tendency to feel sorry for myself, and rise like a 1970s disco inferno phoenix from the proverbial ash heap which I had become. I decided that a world renown waterfall, and some brightly hued 1970s garb would be the perfect symbolic materials for my rebirth as a slightly cantankerous, but stylish lady of letters. Nestled somewhere in the Catskill mountains of New York existed my salvation!

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Thomas Cole, oil on canvas, “The Falls of Kaaterskill.” 1826

Why did I choose Kaaterskill Falls to wash away my sappy sins? Because it’s an absolutely stunning place (if you can arrive early enough in the morning to avoid the crowds), and there are two tiers of deliciously cold, tumbling white water which spill from a Crescent-shape shelf of rock, as if it were the rim of heaven! Artists, photographers, and writers were drawn to this area, centuries before I showed-up in a 70’s crop top with a psychedelic peacock print. The Hudson River School of the 19th century was particularly fond of Kaaterskill Falls, with the likes of Thomas Cole capturing the falls in his oil painting, “The Falls of Kaaterskill,” 1826.

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In 1836, poet William Cullen Bryant was inspired by the mists of the falls to write the romantic poem, “Catterskill Falls.” It begins quite accurately,

“Midst greens and shades the Catterskill leaps,
From cliffs where the wood-flower clings;
All summer he moistens his verdant steeps
With the sweet light spray of the mountain springs;
And he shakes the woods on the mountain side,
When they drip with the rains of autumn-tide.”

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Bearing the romantic words of Bryant in mind, I ascended the rocky, root-riddled trails– and eventual staircases– of Kaaterskill Falls, making sure to hike-up the lengths of my 1970s vintage maxi skirt. As a word of advice and caution, always hold-up your maxi skirt when you’re hiking-up a steeply graded mountain. You’ll trip, and slip otherwise! So, proceeding in a romantic mood, and with safety, I finally reached the falls. Because I began my trip early in the morning, there were only a hand-full of tourists at the bottom falls. When I reached the rocky pool of the top-tier waterfall, I realized that I had entered into a prime area of passion: the waterfalls were heavy with rain waters, and I was all alone with my lovely vintage crop top and skirt set. Swoon!

 

 

Aside from taking a few photos of me flirting on the shores of the waterfall, I did eventually go for a swim, thus completing my ritual task of cleansing myself of sad Laura. The Laura who called her fiends-up late at night for consolation, after watching Steel Magnolias in her bed. The old Laura who felt foolishly sentimental every time she saw orange juice in the supermarket, because it reminded her of her ex. The old Laura who was getting really exhausted by the full-time job of feeling sorry for herself. Bye, babe! Gone!

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I emerged from those frosty June waters as a newer, wiser, wetter woman. And while the cotton of my vintage dress clung to my newly born form, I went out into the summer of 2018 with a vengeance!

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William Cullen Bryant’s Complete poem:

“Catterkill Falls”

Midst greens and shades the Catterskill leaps,
From cliffs where the wood-flower clings;
All summer he moistens his verdant steeps
With the sweet light spray of the mountain springs;
And he shakes the woods on the mountain side,
When they drip with the rains of autumn-tide.

But when, in the forest bare and old,
The blast of December calls,
He builds, in the starlight clear and cold,
A palace of ice where his torrent falls,
With turret, and arch, and fretwork fair,
And pillars blue as the summer air.

For whom are those glorious chambers wrought,
In the cold and cloudless night?
Is there neither spirit nor motion of thought
In forms so lovely, and hues so bright?
Hear what the gray-haired woodmen tell
Of this wild stream and its rocky dell.

‘Twas hither a youth of dreamy mood,
A hundred winters ago,
Had wandered over the mighty wood,
When the panther’s track was fresh on the snow,
And keen were the winds that came to stir
The long dark boughs of the hemlock fir.

Too gentle of mien he seemed and fair,
For a child of those rugged steeps;
His home lay low in the valley where
The kingly Hudson rolls to the deeps;
But he wore the hunter’s frock that day,
And a slender gun on his shoulder lay.

And here he paused, and against the trunk
Of a tall gray linden leant,
When the broad clear orb of the sun had sunk
From his path in the frosty firmament,
And over the round dark edge of the hill
A cold green light was quivering still.

And the crescent moon, high over the green,
From a sky of crimson shone,
On that icy palace, whose towers were seen
To sparkle as if with stars of their own;
While the water fell with a hollow sound,
‘Twixt the glistening pillars ranged around.

Is that a being of life, that moves
Where the crystal battlements rise?
A maiden watching the moon she loves,
At the twilight hour, with pensive eyes?
Was that a garment which seemed to gleam
Betwixt the eye and the falling stream?

‘Tis only the torrent tumbling o’er,
In the midst of those glassy walls,
Gushing, and plunging, and beating the floor
Of the rocky basin in which it falls.
‘Tis only the torrent–but why that start?
Why gazes the youth with a throbbing heart?

He thinks no more of his home afar,
Where his sire and sister wait.
He heeds no longer how star after star
Looks forth on the night as the hour grows late.
He heeds not the snow-wreaths, lifted and cast
From a thousand boughs, by the rising blast.

His thoughts are alone of those who dwell
In the halls of frost and snow,
Who pass where the crystal domes upswell
From the alabaster floors below,
Where the frost-trees shoot with leaf and spray,
And frost-gems scatter a silvery day.

“And oh that those glorious haunts were mine!”
He speaks, and throughout the glen
Thin shadows swim in the faint moonshine,
And take a ghastly likeness of men,
As if the slain by the wintry storms
Came forth to the air in their earthly forms.

There pass the chasers of seal and whale,
With their weapons quaint and grim,
And bands of warriors in glittering mail,
And herdsmen and hunters huge of limb.
There are naked arms, with bow and spear,
And furry gauntlets the carbine rear.

There are mothers–and oh how sadly their eyes
On their children’s white brows rest!
There are youthful lovers–the maiden lies,
In a seeming sleep, on the chosen breast;
There are fair wan women with moonstruck air,
The snow stars flecking their long loose hair.

They eye him not as they pass along,
But his hair stands up with dread,
When he feels that he moves with that phantom throng,
Till those icy turrets are over his head,
And the torrent’s roar as they enter seems
Like a drowsy murmur heard in dreams.

The glittering threshold is scarcely passed,
When there gathers and wraps him round
A thick white twilight, sullen and vast,
In which there is neither form nor sound;
The phantoms, the glory, vanish all,
With the dying voice of the waterfall.

Slow passes the darkness of that trance,
And the youth now faintly sees
Huge shadows and gushes of light that dance
On a rugged ceiling of unhewn trees,
And walls where the skins of beasts are hung,
And rifles glitter on antlers strung.

On a couch of shaggy skins he lies;
As he strives to raise his head,
Hard-featured woodmen, with kindly eyes,
Come round him and smooth his furry bed
And bid him rest, for the evening star
Is scarcely set and the day is far.

They had found at eve the dreaming one
By the base of that icy steep,
When over his stiffening limbs begun
The deadly slumber of frost to creep,
And they cherished the pale and breathless form,
Till the stagnant blood ran free and warm.

 

 

 

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My Own Muse: Hot Date With Myself, No. 4, Nick Cave’s “Until,” at MASS MoCA

If you’re wondering why I’m having all of these hot dates with myself, I should start at the beginning of my tale, when in June of 2017 I was abruptly dumped by a major dumb-dumd with a wandering eye. While being relegated to the status of chopped liver by my boyfriend initiated my experiment with dating myself, I should emphasize the fact that I have since discovered that it’s much more exciting to take myself on dates than it is to drag an unenthusiastic man-slug about. In fact, I never ever want to stop dating myself. I’m committed to this monogamous love of myself! Swoon!

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Well, in June I didn’t feel so hot. Most of that month was spent getting my bloated, out-of-shape heart back into prime fitness. What I needed was a Richard Simmons-style introduction to love. Encouraging, embracing, sweaty. I began taking myself out to romantic gardens and hikes, easing myself into the idea that there was life after love. But, to truly lose myself in this lifestyle of romantic calisthenics,  I needed a wholly cathartic and cleansing experience, putting my seemingly devastating problems of a trodden-heart into perspective.

To accomplish this, I decided to visit Nick Cave’s immersive, massive and stunningly gorgeous exhibition, titled Until, on display at MASS MoCA during the summer of 2017. Cave created the exhibition to visually confront the problems of racism permeating American society, hinging the controversy of gun violence and race stereotypes from the hanging preposition Until– “Innocent Until proven guilty,” or, in this case, Guilty Until proven innocent.” Cave elaborates in his interview with the New York Times: “I had been thinking about racism and gun violence colliding, and then I wondered: Is there racism in heaven?” This question reverberates throughout the body of Until. 

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Upon entering the football field-sized building No.5 at MASS MoCA, I had in mind the familiar image of Cave’s remarkable Sound Suits, but I was not prepared for the overwhelming density of beauty, intersecting with violence, racism and politics. I mean, I was simply blown away.

 

 

 

At the entrance to the exhibition, I was met with 16,000 wind-spinners, and a meandering path to follow through the whirling, glinting curtains of ornaments. The beauty of the shiny and distracting objects betrayed images of guns and targets. A reminder of proverbial glistering. Emerging from this forest of spinners, I paused in amazement. At the heart of Cave’s installation existed a marvelous floating world, dripping with over ten miles of crystal, and 24 chandeliers, and backed by miles of net made out of shoelaces and millions of pony beads.

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Here, Cave’s idea is posed: “Is there racism in heaven?” To arrive at this question, one must climb-up one of four ladders which support the hovering heaven on earth, and peer into a bric-a-brac utopia made of thousands of ceramic and metal birds, fruits and flowers. Hidden within this Eden-like world are 17 cast-iron Jocko lawn jockeys, their black-face style countenances smiling back at you from behind a spray of faux flowers.

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It’s an uncomfortable feeling to be tickled and amused by fantastical flora and fauna in one moment, and then to suddenly be reminded by Jim Crow-era-style stooping ornaments that racism cannot be ignored or covered up by ornament and material mass. Cave’s Until forced me to consider a deeper wound; a collective mar on the face of society’s psyche. And while my romantic heart did ache, as I balanced on the top of a ladder, staring into a fabricated heaven made of ceramic robins, golden pigs and glass grapes, I knew that my heart-ache was singular, temporary, and would ease with time. Before me lay a bigger heartache– the drawn-out, festering heartache of America: racism. And, as I embrace my quest to love myself, and take myself on 100 hot dates, I am reminded along the way by beautiful places, thoughtful people and provoking art installations of the larger scheme of love, and all of its capacity.

 

 

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My Own Muse: Hot Date with Myself, No. 2, Blithewood Garden, Red Hook, NY.

After climbing out of the metaphorical blackened crevasse of an ugly break-up in June, I decided that it was high time that I surfaced for some sunshine. Don’t get me wrong, living as a troglodyte for one month had its benefits. I finished reading my collection of Regency-era romance novels, and binge-watched Korean dramas for four weeks straight, increasing my boob-tube stamina and romantic acuity. However, by the time July rolled around, I knew what I had to do. I would take myself on 100 hot dates.

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For date number 2, I rounded-up a selection of the finest cheeses (from my comprehensive personal refrigerator collection), and stopped at a local farm-stand for some fruit. My life brimming with cheese, and heart overflowing with cholesterol, I strolled over to the Blithewood Mansion and Garden, on the Bard campus, Red Hook, NY.

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Now, if you’re as much of a romantic as I am, you’ll know that cheese does not inspire sentiments of love and enchantment unless it’s consumed in the proper setting. To achieve this illusion of fromage amour, I traveled with a cheese laden bag to the breathtaking Italian sunken gardens of Blithewood Mansion. The garden was constructed circa 1903 as an extension of the Georgian-style Blithewood mansion, constructed circa 1900 for Captain Andrew C. Zabriskie and his wife Francis. Both the garden and the mansion were designed by Francis L.V. Hoppin, of the Hoppin and Koen Architectural firm, adhering to the conventions of Romanticism which influenced the Gilded Age home.

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At the time that I visited the garden, the rain had just subsided, and the sun began to glisten over the sopping wet flowers and walled structures of the garden. Sitting on a marble (or limestone) bench in the garden, I looked towards a sliver of the Hudson River, visible through a parting in the trees. With a mouth full of St. Agur cheese, I turned to look over my shoulder, and was rewarded with a vision of a double rainbow arcing over Blithwood mansion.

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Perhaps it was the effect of massive amounts of brie and agur entering my body all at once, but at the sight of this, my heart skipped a beat. Love flooded my veins. These are the moments that are best shared alone, on a date with yourself, smelling of fermented dairy and oxytocin. Between the natural beauty of the garden, and my full stomach, I was content that hot date number 2 with myself had been a complete success. I was falling in love!

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A Leopard Must Change its Spots….

I embark upon this new year, wearing plaid pants, a banana brooch, and a big-old leopard-print swing coat. Embedded in the threads of my loud and incongruous get-up are messages of hope, destiny and….what the hell am I doing with myself in 2018?!?! Like the clothes that I wear, this question is rhetorical.

As a Costume Studies grad student at NYU, I know that the clothing that I wear contains conative and subliminal declarations about who I am. I’ve written research papers about all of this. It must be so! But, this notion only makes me uneasy. Is my 1990s punk-revival/granny outfit a sign that I’m looking to the past for comfort, or that my future is likely to be a circus? Perhaps it’s just a flamboyant palette cleanser for a tart 2017. The past year contained moments of glory and growth, but also a few minor disasters. For example, in the midst of grad school, my long-term boyfriend cheated on me, moved to Florida, and left me with a dilemma about finding someone to help me pay the rent, while simultaneously filling the void in my gutted soul (OK. That was a bit dramatic, but I am dressed like a wild-cat!). With deft anger and scrappy resilience, I managed to resolve this problem, but, by-golly, am I left with a bad taste in my mouth! Holding onto my knickers, and finding comfort in loud textile patterns, I go forth.

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In 2018, I have decided to look for a new job, publish my work, rekindle old friendships, and ignite new ones. Most excitingly, I am determined to go on 100 hot dates with myself. No historic site, museum, garden, mountain-top, restaurant or dive-bar will be immune from my romantic inclinations, and desirous heart. Oh, to find myself in a beautiful sunrise, or delicious flan! So, stay-tuned. Prepare to come-along with me through the annals of history, the paths of curiosity, all while wearing clothing of major connotation. In short, I will be my own goddamned muse!

Happy 2018, darlings! Mwah!

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My Muses: Thalia and the Mona Lisa

As the Greek muse of comedy, Thalia is among my favorite of the fair affecters. She sparks a willingness to smile, and knows that a perfectly timed practical joke is worth a more than a picture and its thousand words. At least, that’s what my muse of comedy, Mona Lisa, could tell you!

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On August 21st, of 1911, Mona Lisa was stolen from the Grand Gallery of the Louvre by an Italian handyman named Vincenzo Perugia. Most people recognized this as a tragic blow to the art-world, but has anyone ever entertained the possibility of Mona Lisa just needing a little holiday?? I mean, just consider the famed “Mona Lisa smile.” I know that look all too well. That expression means give me a damn break! I’ve been entertaining crowds in the Louvre since 1804, and before that I had to hang about in Napoleon Bonaparte’s bedroom in the Tuileries, for da Vinci’s sake! I need to get away!

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Here’s what I believe happened. The winsome Mona presented to Perugia her most beguiling smile, and eventually (through her considerable charms) coerced him to take her away to see the sights. She decided to summer on the Riviera, and after getting quite a sun burn, insisted that she retreat to the Alps for some tranquil reflection. Her much needed respite ended in 1914, but reliable sources claim that she’s planning on another vacation, soon! Oh, Mona Lisa, you little minx!

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The Victorian Bathing Suit of Winslow Homer’s “High Tide”

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Winslow Homer’s Eagle Head, Manchester, Massachusetts (High Tide), which is exhibited in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, represents a transitional period in American art, clothing and society. Embedded within the appearance of the three young women on the seashore, rendered with lively brush-strokes, is a cultural cocktail of change and modernization. When Homer displayed this particular work at the National Academy of Design in 1870, critics reacted with uncertain, if not hostile remarks about his treatment of his female subjects and his overall painting technique. What Homer captured so aptly in this painting was a cultural undercurrent that was traveling just below the surface of Victorian mainstream ideals of “modesty, moral integrity, self-control, sober earnestness and industriousness.”Under the veneer of Victorian society, a natural world was pulsing.

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Homer was an American-born genre painter, who depicted every-day American life with sensitivity and vigor. Unlike his romantic predecessors who depicted highly polished interior scenes or grandiose landscapes which echoed the sanctity of a holy church, Homer turned his attention to the home-spun American scene, with a “native and personal” naturalism. His illustrations and oil paintings of Americans participating in outdoor leisure sports was a new theme in painting, and for which he produced a prolific number of examples. The fact that he was painting during the height of the Hudson River School Movement was quite influential to his work, since the Hudson River School stressed that artists should go outside of the studio to capture natural light.

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However, Homer’s summary hand, and the “unfinished” look of his antebellum paintings was a departure from the Hudson River School tradition, which subsequently drew much criticism from contemporaries. Harper’s Weekly commented on Winslow Homer’s High Tide exhibited at the 1870 Academy show, stating: “The pictures are not wholly pleasing; perhaps the bathing scene—like another he has in the East Room—is not quite refined. But this picture shows a fresh eye and a wholesome independence of conventions with spirit and vigor…If the critics must gibe, it must not be at such work, however faulty, but at the hopeless, conventional, dead and buried commonplace of many of the pictures, but suggest nothing but that the painter has seen nature only in very namby-pamby engravings. In the works of Homer…you are very sure that the painter has really seen what he paints, and really tries to represent it. When he fails, he is therefore a hopeful failure.” Homer was, in fact, just painting ahead of the curve. He is considered to be one of the forerunners to Impressionism, along with Boudin in France and Fattori in Italy.

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While critics picked apart the “homeliness” of his subject matter and the lack of refinement in his painting surfaces, the American public embraced his work, and the National Academy elected him an Academician when he was a young man. At least one critic had this generous statement to make about Homer’s work, “Mr. Homer goes in, as the phrase is, for perfect realism, and cares not for such fantastic hairsplitting as the distinction between beauty and ugliness. He is a genuine painter; that is to see, and reproduce what he sees.”

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The swimsuits that appear in Homer’s painting, High Tide, are the result of a compromise between Victorian social mores, fashion and function. While it was considered immodest to expose the shape of the female leg, even when it was covered with stockings, weighty swathes of material made it physically impossible and dangerous for women to swim. The bathing suits popular from the mid-nineteenth century to around 1870 were a sartorial settlement between modesty and function, and were typically made of serge (a wool fabric) or flannel. The weighty material was fashioned into a paletot dress, which had a cinched bodice and short skirt that stopped at the knee. Underneath the paletot dress were ‘Turkish’ trousers, or bloomer-style pants.

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Around 1848, dress reformers introduced the ‘Turkish trowser’ to lady’s fashion, in an attempt to free the female body up for engaging in more physical activities like popular “water cures”, or, in the case of Amelia Jenks Bloomer, bike riding. Just a few years prior to 1848, bifurcated undergarments had been slowly incorporated into middle-class women’s wardrobe. Such controversial undergarments made headway for bloomers or Turkish trousers.

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However, the look of women wearing trousers in the nineteenth-century did not catch on with mainstream fashion, and magazines like Punch often poked fun at women who wore such emancipated attire.  The satirical cartoons in Punch magazine were a more humorous reaction to male fear that women were “appropriating male dress, and, by association, male privilege and power.” Because the trouser for women threatened the foundational gender codes of the Victorian era, bloomers and Turkish trousers were typically only worn when pursuing genteel pursuits of recreation, and were made less threatening to the male sartorial sphere by incorporating current female fashionable silhouettes and details into the overall look of the sportswear.

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Apart from the main body of the bathing dress, oiled linen caps were worn to protects the hair, while straw or sunhats hats were worn to guard the face against sunlight. In addition, lisle gloves were shown in fashion plates of the time to protect the hands from the sun, and gum shoes to protect the feet. While historians and mid-nineteenth century fashion magazines imagined Victorian women in bathing suits which covered them from head to toe, complete with black stockings, gum shoes, a linen cap, sunhats hat, gloves, bloomers or Turkish trousers and a shirt dress over a short dress, an illustration by Winslow Homer, which appeared in Harper’s Weekly in 1858, gives us another glimpse into the world of Victorian sea bathing. Women appear swimming alongside men, and bare feet, naked calves and arms and elbows can be observed bobbing out of the waters in the illustration. Although ladies wear straw hats on the shore, the women swimming in the ocean only wear their linen caps.

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Patricia C. Warner uses this particular illustration by Homer to argue that contrary to some historian’s beliefs about mid-nineteenth-century sea bathing, women did not always wear every article of clothing prescribed by fashion plates from the time.  Homer, with his tradition as a genre painter and his acute eye for detail, captured the actual way in which women wore bathing suits, unencumbered by excessive articles of clothing and material, like gloves, straw hats, shoes and trousers. Furthermore, Homer was hired to record what he saw for the magazine, not reinterpret.  The fashions for bathing suits scarcely changed between the 1858 and 1870, so his illustrations of sea bathers for Harper’s Weekly and oil painting, High Tide, reaffirmed this image of young women swimming at the seaside with their bare legs exposed. Victorian art critics, viewing paintings from terra firma, may have been shocked by Homer’s realist rendering of “exceedingly red-legged and ungainly,” young women, but for enthusiast sea bathers, such opinions about the immodesty of bare skin might not have mattered. While the wearing of black stockings with a bathing suit was popular for American women from the mid-nineteenth-century and into the twentieth-century, it is highly likely that some more forward thinking or active women saw fit to remove their stockings while sea bathing.

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There were two imperatives for preserving the social status of middle-class beach-going women: safeguarding white skin against sun exposure and conserving one’s modesty, by way of concealing the body’s supple contours beneath ample clothing. The breach of these two precepts in High Tide caused negative reactions in critics after he displayed the piece. In this painting, the maintenance the young lady’s lily-white skin is in jeopardy while the two figures in the foreground expose their bare legs and faces to the sun. White skin was a marker a nineteenth-century beauty and class, indicative of a life spent indoors in the domestic sphere, and also of a woman’s delicacy and refinement. Milky-white skin was preferable.  Evidence of this preference for white skin during the Victorian era can be surmised by looking at the cosmetics which were on the market during the mid-nineteenth-century, such as “Rowland’s Kalydor,” which claimed in its advertisement that it had power to “cool and refresh the face and hands of ladies and all exposed to the hot sun. It removes freckles, tan, sunburn, redness and roughness.” This Victorian beauty ideal for white skin, and a subsequent rejection of tan and red skin, explains the negative reaction one critic had to the exposed red skin of the young woman in Homer’s painting, High Tide, calling one of the figures “exceedingly red legged and ungainly.”

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There is one more cultural aspect that can be ascertained from the appearance of the young ladies on the beach: the mid-nineteenth-century development of the idea of leisure time and recreation, in the wake of urbanization and an expanding middle-class. Urbanization and industrialization began to replace agrarian life in America, and thus the way in which time was spent moved away from the rhythms of the natural seasons, and became more in-tune to the rhythms of capitalist industry. The stress from “unnatural” modern life, formed by a shift from an outdoor existence to an indoor existence, created a need for leisure and recreation for the middle-class, and “natural” spaces where the bourgeoisie could retreat to became a necessity.

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By 1840, there was a boom in the creation of mountain and maritime resorts to meet the demand for recreation and leisure. It was also during the mid-nineteenth century that public parks were being constructed to better the lives of urban dwellers, as in the case of Central Park, in New York City, which was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1857. Aside from creating a demand for “green spaces” and retreats to seaside resorts, modernization and industry also made it possible for more Americans to travel and visit remote wilderness areas like mountains and beaches. By 1841, an expanded national railway system enabled the American middle-class to travel to natural havens, like the seaside, in large numbers. These presumably middle-class girls which appear in Homer’s painting, High Tide, occupy the space of a beach in Massachusetts because of new middle-class concepts of leisure and recreation, and because of innovative industry and technology which allowed for extensive travel.

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These three young ladies represent a number of changes occurring in America during the mid-nineteenth-century. Hidden in the contours of their bodies lies a message about the advent of impressionist painting, the introduction of active-wear for women, and the emergence of leisure and travel for a burgeoning middle-class.

 

References

 

Lois W, Banner. American Beauty. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1983.

 

Deitz, Paula. “Parks and Public Places,” Of Gardens. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.

 

Downing, Sarah Jayne. Beauty and Cosmetics: 1550-1950. Shire Publications, Oxford, 2016.

 

Fischer, Gayle V. “Pantalets and Turkish Trowsers: Designing Freedom in the mid-nineteenth-century United States.” Feminist Studies, Vol. 23, No. 1. Feminist Studies, Inc. 1997.

 

Goodrich, Lloyd. Winslow Homer Essay. George Braziller, Inc., 1959.

 

Goodrich, Lloyd. “Winslow Homer.” Published for the Whitney Museum of Art by MacMillan Co., New York. 1944.

 

Kushner, Marilyn S. and Barbara Dayer Gallati, Linda S. Ferber. Winslow Homer: Illustrating America. Brooklyn Museum of Art, George Braziller Publisher, NY, 2000.

 

Sandiford, Keith A.P. “The Victorians at Play: The Problems in Historiographical Methodology,” Journal of Social History, Vol. 15, No. 2. Oxford University Press, 1981.

 

Shrimpton, Jayne. Victorian Fashion. Bloomsbury Publishing, Oxford, 2016.

 

Sloan, John. “The Origin, Growth and Transformation of Maritime Resorts Since 1840,” Built Environment. Vol. 18, No.1. Alexandrine Press, 1992.

 

Patricia Campbell Warner, When Girls Came Out to Play: The Birth of American Sportswear. University of Massachusetts Press, Boston, 2006.

 

“Eagle Head, Manchester, Massachusetts (High Tide),” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.

 

“The Hudson River School”. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art and History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/hurs/hd_hurs.htm)

 

Winslow Homer. “The Bath at Newport,” Harper’s Weekly, September 4, 1858. Courtesy of Mount Holyoke College Special Collections and Archive.

 

 

 

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The Portrait of Elizabeth Farren, Painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1789)

 

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I just adore this portrait of Elizabeth Farren! As soon as I enter the gallery where she is housed (in the European wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art), I swoon. I hardly notice any other portraits around me. It’s just Elizabeth Farren and I in that room. I’m infatuated. In love.

But what makes this painting so compelling? Is it her smiling Irish eyes? The gossamer white silk satin and cotton muslin of her wardrobe? The languid paint-strokes which make up her body? Perhaps it is a combination of all three. The painting titled Elizabeth Farren, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, is a masterful rendition of the popular Irish actress, who ascended the ranks of both English theater and society. But, her climb up the proverbial social ladder was not just blind luck. Hard work and careful management of her image were essential to Elizabeth Farren’s success as an actress and as a wife to the twelfth earl of Derby. Framed within the confines of this portrait are symbolic and cultural messages, which transmit ideas about reputable social standing and the feminine ideal. The portrait of Elizabeth Farren is a careful composition, which was painted in the manner of aristocratic portraiture, and is the result of a collaboration of ideas between Elizabeth Farren and Sir Thomas Lawrence. Far from being a carefree and fanciful painting, Elizabeth Farren is a work of great integrity and intent, and would have been highly readable to a contemporary audience.

The painting was shown at the Royal Academy in 1790,where it was well received and praised for its brilliant technique and composition. The brush strokes are fluid and soft, her body is positioned to face the grasses and trees of the natural background, as if she has suddenly decided to walk in that particular direction, while her head turns back to the viewer, beckoning one to follow her into the painting. Her lustrous white satin cape pops into the space of the viewer, seemingly crossing over from the boundaries of the two dimensional confines of the painting. Central to the composition of the painting is a rather rotund and richly colored brown fur muff, which is offset by the diaphanous material of the cotton muslin dress which she wears.

The composition in its entirety suggests liveliness and natural spontaneity— artistic marks which Lawrence was well known for, and for which he had no contemporary parallel. When Lawrence painted Elizabeth Farren  in the spring of 1790, he was all but twenty-two years old, starting out his career as a child prodigy who would sketch drawings of customers in his father’s hotel, The Black Bear. Just recently departing from pastels to pick up the medium of oil painting, Lawrence’s accomplishments with Elizabeth Farren are impressive.Contemporaries and modern viewers alike can observe in the painting Lawrence’s ability to capture the personality of the sitter, in a way which appears lively. This was achieved by Lawrence’s preliminary sketch techniques, where he spent a few hours studying the natural expressions and gestures of the sitter, drawing with black chalk on canvas.The initial engagement between artist and sitter is preserved in Lawrence’s final painting, therefore making the painting appear more life-like. Contemporaries noted, “We have seen a great variety of pictures of Miss Farren, but we never before saw her mind; arch, careless, spirited elegant and engaging.”Lawrence’s finishing touch, which added to the fluidity and animation of the portrait, was his technique of flicking white highlights across Farren’s hair, fingers, and face

Beyond Lawrence’s personal touches of painterly panache, he did largely work within the aesthetic framework of his contemporaries. It has been noted that he gleaned much of his compositional form from fellow painter, Thomas Gainsborough. Before beginning his painting on Elizabeth Farren, Lawrence had visited Gainsborough’s studio, where it is noted on the back of a drawing by Gainsborough that Lawrence had spent “several successive days [studying] when Lord Derby employed him to paint Miss Farren.” The particular work which Lawrence was studying was Gainsborough’s drawing of an anonymous young woman who wears white, walks into a natural landscape and looks back over her shoulder at the viewer. Both Lawrence’s painting and Gainsborough’s drawing share these particular details. (Figure 1)

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The open air setting of grass, trees and sky was quite popular in British portraiture of the last half of the eighteenth-century. Portraits were largely commissioned by the landed aristocracy, or the aspiring—in which case displaying one’s permanency as landed Gentry was expressed through idyllic natural backgrounds. “The landed aristocracy had of course always seen itself , and has been seen by everyone else, as representing permanence….[There was no] clearer expression of continuity through time than the park landscapes, the wide lakes and ancient trees….which are featured in so many portraits.”Some examples of portraits which include landscapes of English countryside include Sir William Beechey’s Portrait of a Young Girl (circa 1790) in fig. 2, and George Romney’s portrait of Lady Anne de la Pole (1786) in fig. 3.

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English portraiture during the late eighteenth century showed “a keen fondness for pastoral settings and costume,” and was centered on “rural pastimes.”Lawrence’s artistic oeuvre reveals that much, of his late-eighteenth century portraiture feature backdrops with grassy lawns, bordered by trees and foliage. To observe the lithe figure of Elizabeth Farren walking into a field of grasses and trees was not unique to Lawrence’s work. “The outdoor setting also serves artist and sitter well. It allowed Lawrence to display his skill in painting landscapes and encouraged honorific association to his female sitter with nature, thus assuaging a moral question attached to her career as an actress.” Because Elizabeth Farren was so careful about her chaste appearance, the natural setting would have distanced her image from the general association of the time of actresses with prostitution and overt sexuality.

Lawrence did encounter some criticism for his decision to portray Farren in a fur trimmed cape and muff, against a summer landscape.However, the incongruous pairing of winter accessories and a summer back-drop allowed for Lawrence to demonstrate his ability to juxtapose the textures of the lustrous white satin cape against the filmy white muslin, and the supple kid glove against the sensual fur muff.Most importantly, he was displaying fashionable clothing which would have identified Farren with the social elite, including the large fur muff, and the satin white cape with fur trim. The portrait of Melanie de Forbin-Gardanne, painted by Jean-Louis Le Barbier Le Jeune, in 1789, is another striking example of the fashion for white satin, trimmed with fur, during the time. (figure 4)

 

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Generally, Lawrence’s mis-matched seasonal cues in Elizabeth Farren were ignored by contemporaries, in favor of its praise-worthy rendition of flesh and fabric. Most likely, Lawrence was amused and relieved by a poem which appeared in a prose book, by Thomas Bellamy:

On a Celebrated Picture

Of

Miss Farren

Incas’d in fur; as shrinking from the blast;

Midst scenes that glow with all that summer yields.

Where not a cloud the sky has overcast,

Where blooms the garden, smiles the distant fields

We know the Farren, by thy lovely face:

But sure the artist ought to shrew some cause

Why thus he sins against all truth and grace

Why thus he turns his back on nature’s laws.

Why thus, pale, shiv’ring on a summer’s day,

He paints Thalia’s child, all sportive fair and gay.

 

Moreover, the outdoor backdrops in Lawrence’s painting linked him to a larger aesthetic movement grounded in Neoclassicism, which extolled the Republican virtues of ancient Rome and the reign of Augustus, and was witnessed in late eighteenth century art, architecture and fashion. Neoclassicism allowed for English “to identify with the antique, with political liberty and civic virtue…What justified ‘civic’ classicism was its success in anchoring the principals of political liberty deep within in the nation’s culture, by way of the plastic arts in giving civic values visible form.”

Neoclassicism was further reinforced by the architecture and fashion of the by the discovery of the Greek ruins of Pompeii in 1748. The columnar white muslin dress which Elizabeth Farren wears in Lawrence’s painting is very much occupying popular fashion of 1790.

Beginning in the mid 1780s, the robe en chemise became favorable, after the fashion forward Queen Marie Antoinette was immortalized in a portrait by Elisabeth-Louise Vigee-Le Brun, (painted in 1783), wearing the underwear-like garment (figure 5). Although the robe en chemise’s debut amongst privileged circles was shocking, it was quickly embraced by the fashionable elite. Soon, European royalty, like the Prussian princesses Friederike and Luise, and aristocrats, like Juliette de Recamier, were wearing simple white dresses made of muslin fabric. Furthermore, the simple white dress of the 1790s symbolically encapsulated the political climate of a post-Revolutionary France, along with the ideals of democracy and the Republic.

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Neoclassicism was the prevailing aesthetic during the time in which Lawrence painted Elizabeth Farren, and the fashion for resembling Greek marble sculpture was in-line with aristocratic taste.  It was the gossamer sheerness and the soft drape-ability of cotton muslin which made it best-suited to these Greek-goddess-inspired fashions  Having the simple and elegant cotton muslin dress immortalized in portraiture would have been a constructive way of visually linking herself to the fashionably elite in society. Below are two fashion plates which illustrate the fashion for white dresses, coupled with the “hedge-hog” hair-do; Figure 6 is a fashion plate from Journal des Luxus und der Modern, July 1789, and Figure 7 is a fashion plate from the Magazine de Modes Nouvelles 1789.

 

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Of course, the correspondence between the Greek-inspired white muslin dress in the 1790s, and the rejection of the ostentation and sexual excess of French court style was integral to Farren’s lifetime effort of maintaining her respectable and chaste image. “These neoclassical white, muslin dresses—worn by young and old, single and married women alike—signified English moral purity and industry (English cotton, not French silk).”The idea of moral purity was central to Farren’s daily conduct. She was well known for having her beloved mother as a constant chaperone, especially in the presence of her admirer and suitor, the twelfth earl of Derby. An acquaintance of Elizabeth was Joseph Farrington, who noted in his diary: “Lord Derby’s attachment to Elizabeth Farren is extraordinary. He sees her daily and always attends the plays when she performs….her mother is always with her….so careful is she of appearances.”

And Farren had good reason to keep up such appearances. She was involved in a painfully long engagement with the twelfth Earl of Derby, where she had to bide her time and wait for Derby’s estranged wife, Lady Elizabeth Hamilton— who was ill— to die. And, although it sounds heartless of Elizabeth to wait for Derby’s wife to perish, it was common knowledge that Derby’s wife had run off to live with another lover, the third Duke of Dorset, and that Derby had refused to divorce her. It wasn’t until 1797 that Elizabeth could unite with Derby in marriage.

Aside from associating herself with virginal, pure images, Farren swathed herself in volumes of white muslin, which draped from her body, as a means of shrouding what was widely considered to be her only shortcoming. During the eighteenth century, it was ideal to have a bit of plumpness to the body. Because of this ideal, her critics had this to say of her:

“Miss Farren was in the perfection of her charms; her figure was

 above the middle height, graceful and suited to the disposition

 of drapery which served to conceal her lack of plumpness which

was her only defect; her eyes were blue, she had a lovely mouth

 and a winning smile, her voice was sweet,” wrote one critic and

 another, “Her figure is of that slight texture which allows and

 requires the use of full and flowing drapery—an advantage of

which she knows well how to avail herself.”

 

Elizabeth was very sensitive about her body’s thin appearance, and in her attempt to maintain her public image, requested that Thomas Lawrence add some volume to her figure in his painting of her. Proof of this is found in a letter which Elizabeth wrote to Lawrence in 1792, in which she begs Lawrence to rework her portrait, given the embarrassment of having her friends tease her for her appearance in the painting, where she was ‘so thin….that you might blow it away.’Despite her attempts to alter her “only imperfection,” it has been revealed through modern X-rays and infra-red reflectography that the painting has never been altered. (figure 8)

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figure 8

Despite her inability to control every aspect of her public image, Elizabeth Farren was held in high regard amongst the upper crust of society. Her rise to fame and acceptance in high society attracted a few jealous gossips, but they had little fuel to run their rumor mill. With her respectability and gentility, Farren was able to override her profession’s dubious the connections to brothels and loose living, and model herself after the aristocracy. It was also helpful that during the late-nineteenth century there was a vogue for plays about high society, decency, and delicacy—plays in which she excelled in as women of noble breeding. She was so adept at playing ladies of high birth on the stage, that, soon, the boundaries between her image on the stage and her image off the stage became confused and obscured. When Elizabeth played Lady Emily Grayville, in Burgoyne’s play, The Heiress, in 1787, the critic Adolphus noted of her performance in the Morning Chronicle:

“[Farren] absolutely identified herself with this model of fashionable

excellence. In the female characters, every actress shone…but above

all, and to such a degree as to attract the separate thanks of the author,

Miss Farren displayed her characteristic excellencies in Lady Emily

Grayville. Where high and honorable sentiments, burning virtuous

sensibilities, sincere and uncontrollable affection, animated through

sportive reprehension, elegant persiflage, or arch pointed satire, were

 the aim of the author, Miss Farren amply filled out his thought and by

her exquisite representation made it, even when faint and feeble in itself,

 striking ad forcible. And these irresistible graces of her address and

manner, the polished beauties of action and gait, and all the indescribable

 little charms which give fascination to the woman of birth and fashion,

the power and inspiration of Miss Farren’s performance may in some

degree be appreciated. She had the feeling, judgement, grace and

discretion.”

 

The celebrity status and high visibility that the late eighteenth century actress had achieved meant that their personas would forever be linked to their costumes and characters. It is interesting to observe that Miss Farren’s highly regarded portrayals of refined ladies on the stage crossed-over into real life. (figure 9)Even amongst her many friends of high social standing, her grace, charm and respectability were notable. She regularly mixed and mingled with the “ton” at Richmond House, where she was praised for her joie de vivre. One of her acquaintances, Mrs. Matthews, said of her, “[She was] a fascinating woman….ladies of rank and character received and visited her on the most familiar terms of friendship and daily extended the circle of her distinguished friends.” Because she rubbed elbows with high society, it was even more important for her—a woman coming from a middle class background—to maintain her image as a fashionable lady of high status. The rather large fox fur muff in the portrait by Lawrence would have certainly sent a visual message to her contemporaries, outlining her ability to buy luxury goods and to display them.

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figure 9

If one observes the muff in the painting by Sir Thomas Lawrence, the bulbous shape, large size and appearance of softness is notable in the accoutrement. But, overly large muffs—like the one which appears in the painting— were at the height of fashion during the 1780s and 1790s, so it is not unusual to see Elizabeth Farren toting a muff of this size. There are several humorous satirical illustrations which appear around the time that Sir Thomas Lawrence painted Elizabeth Farren, in 1790, which confirm the rather ridiculous size of fur muffs in the last half of the eighteenth-century.

 

 

In 1787, Samuel William Fores published his satirical cartoon of a fashionable lady whose entire body has been engulfed by a gigantic fur muff (Figure 10.) Despite the fun which was poked at the large muff, it was readily used in late-eighteenth century portraiture to convey ideas about the fashionability or the sensuality of the sitter. Whether the fur muff was perceived as libidinous or proper in a portrait had much to do with the perceived respectability of the sitter, as Laura Engel explains through her comparison of two British actresses who were contemporaries of Elizabeth Farren: Sarah Siddons and Mary Robinson. Mary Robinson’s personal character was connected to her affairs with Charles Fox and Prime Minister North, as well as her bouts of erratic behavior.  Unlike Mary Robinson, Sarah Siddons had a reputation as a respectable woman, and her theatrical roles were often connected to mother or Queen figures. When Sarah Siddons posed for Thomas Gainsborough for a painting in 1785, her use of the muff in portraiture was perceived as a “stylish and elegant accessory designed to promote Siddons’ image as a woman of quality and grace, a celebrity worthy of admiration by respectable women.”

the-muff-1787

figure 10

Like Siddons, Elizabeth Farren had a long-held reputation as a respectable woman, thus, the muff in the painting by Lawrence is used as a signifier for Farren’s role as a consumer and connects her to the fashionable elite of society. The social boundaries between the aristocracy and popular actress was further blurred by the fact that famous artists were painting both nobility and actresses, using the same techniques and iconography.  The work of Lawrence is no exception. One of the most telling indicators of a sitter’s status is her ability to consume and display luxury goods, like the luxurious fur trimmed, silk satin cape, or the voluminous fox fur muff which Lawrence makes central to his painting. “Lawrence aspired to fame as a portraitist within fashionable society, so a large percentage of his clients were women. In the late eighteenth century women in the upper and middle classes were charged with the burden and pleasure of consuming luxury goods such as high fashion and jewelry, and portraiture was a means for them to convey their fashionable taste.”

For Elizabeth Farren, having her portrait painted by a renowned artist, and displaying her ability to consume luxury items like furs was akin to an advertisement which transmitted ideas about her respectability as a lady and her inherent fashionable taste. Especially during the time of Elizabeth Farren’s career, which began in 1777 and ended in 1797, British actresses witnessed an “unprecedented conspicuousness in the public eye.” Elizabeth Farren had to carefully construct her public image because like luxury goods, her image was a highly consumable item. The diaphanous white muslin fabric of her gown, the silvery white satin of her cape and the richness of her fox fir trim and muff all act as visual signifiers of her status as a respectable lady of high social standing.

 

 

Bibliography and Further reading:

 

Agres, Philip. Classical Culture and the Idea of Rome in Eighteenth-Century England. Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Albinson, Cassandra A. “The Construction of Desire: Lawrence’s Portraits of Women.” Sir Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power & Brilliance. Yale University Press, 2010.

Albinson, Cassandra, Peter Funnell and Lucy Peltz. Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010.

Berg, Maxine. Luxury and Pleasure in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Oxford University Press, 2007.

Bloxam, Suzanne. Walpole’s Queen of Comedy: Elizabeth Farren, Countess of Derby. Worcester: Billing and Sons Ltd, 1988.

Bradford, Isabella. “Big and Bigger Muffs: Reality Versus Caricature c. 1790,” Two Nerdy History Girls, (April 21, 2013) http://twonwrdyhistorygirls.blogspot.com/2013/04/big-bigger-muffs-reality-vs-caricature,html.

Brooks, Helen E.M. “Negotiating Marriage and Professional Autonomy in the Careers of Eighteenth-century Actresses.” In Eighteenth-century Life, 39-76. Kent: University of Kent Press, 2011.

Cole, Daniel James. “Hierarchy of Seduction in Regency Fashion.” Jane Austen Society of North America, Vol. 33, No. 1, 2012.

Conway, Alison. “Private Interests: The Portrait and the Novel in Eighteenth-Century England.” In Eighteenth-Century Life, 1-15. Kent: University of Kent, 1997.

Engel, Laura. Fashioning Celebrity: 18th-Century British Actresses and Strategies for Image Making. Ohio State University Press, 2011.

Engel, Laura. “The Muff Affair: Fashioning Celebrity in the Portraits of Late Eighteenth-Century British Actresses.” In Fashion Theory, Volume 13, Issue 3, 279-298. Berg: 2009.

Garlick, Kenneth. Sir Thomas Lawrence: A complete Catalogue of the Oil Paintings. New York: New York University Press, 1989.

Johnson, James William. “What was Neo-Classicism?” Journal of British Studies, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1969. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Lubrich, Naomi. “The Little White Dress: Politics and Polyvalence in Revolutionary France.” Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture. 2015.

Maeder, Edward. An Elegant Art: Fashion and Fantasy in the Eighteenth Century. The Los Angeles Museum of Art, 1983.

Mannings, David. The British Face: A View of Portraiture, 1625-1850. London: P & D Colnaghi & Co., Ltd., 1986.

Oestreich, Kate Faber. “Fashioning Chastity: British Marriage Plots and the Tailoring of Desire, 1789-1928.” Dissertation. Ohio State University Press, 2008.

Perry, Gill and Michael Rossington. Femininity and Masculinity in Eighteenth-Century Art and Culture. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1994.

Ribeiro, Aileen. The Art of Dress: Fashion in England and France 1750-1820. New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 1995.

Ribeiro, Aileen. “Thoughts on Changing Attitudes to British Portraiture.” The British Face: A View of Portraiture 1625-1850. P & D Colnaghi & Co. Ltd., 1986.

Wahrman, Dror. The Making of the Modern Self: Identity and Culture in Eighteenth-Century England. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004.

Ylivuori, Soile. “Rethinking Female Chastity and Gentlewoman’s Honour in Eighteenth-Century England.” In The Historical Journal, 71-97. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

 

Adolphus, Morning Chronicle, January 11, 1786.

Bellamy, Thomas. Miscellanies in Prose and Verse, Vil.ii. 1795.

Hayes, John. “Gainsborough’s “Richmond Water –Walk.’” Burlington Magazine. January 1969.

Journal des Luxus und der Moden, July 1789.

Jeune , Jean-Louis Le Barbier Le. Melanie de Forbin-Gardanne. Ackland Museum, Chapel Hill, NC, 1789.

Magazine de Modes Nouvelles, 1789.

Romney, George.  Lady Anne de la Pole. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1786

“The Muff,” published by SW Fores, London, 1787. Copyright: the Trustees of the British Museum.

Vigee-Le Brun, Elisabeth-Louise Marie Antoinette. Private Collection of Heissische Hausstiftung. Germany, 1783.

[1] Elizabeth Farren, by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1790). Heilbrunn Timeline of Art and History, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

[2] Albinson, Cassandra A. “The Construction of Desire: Lawrence’s Portraits of Women.” Sir Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power & Brilliance. Yale University Press, 2010, 35.

[3] Albinson, Cassandra A. “The Construction of Desire: Lawrence’s Portraits of Women.” Sir Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power & Brilliance. Yale University Press, 2010, 32.

[4] Garlick, Kenneth. Sir Thomas Lawrence: A complete Catalogue of the Oil Paintings. New York: New York University Press, 1989, 11.

[5] Albinson, Cassandra A. “The Construction of Desire: Lawrence’s Portraits of Women.” Sir Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power & Brilliance. Yale University Press, 2010,35.

[6] Ibid. 31.

[7] Public Advisor, 30 April 1790.

[8] Albinson, Cassandra A. “The Construction of Desire: Lawrence’s Portraits of Women.” Sir Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power & Brilliance. Yale University Press, 2010, 35.

[9] Hayes, John. “Gainsborough’s “Richmond Water –Walk.’” Burlington Magazine. January 1969.31.

 

[10]Mannings, David. The British Face: A View of Portraiture, 1625-1850. London: P & D Colnaghi & Co., Ltd., 1986, 17.

[11] Ibid. 20.

[12] Garlick, Kenneth. Sir Thomas Lawrence: A complete Catalogue of the Oil Paintings. New York: New York University Press, 1989.

[13] Albinson, Cassandra A. “The Construction of Desire: Lawrence’s Portraits of Women.” Sir Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power & Brilliance. Yale University Press, 2010, 35.

[14] Bloxam, Suzanne. Walpole’s Queen of Comedy: Elizabeth Farren, Countess of Derby. Worcester: Billing and Sons Ltd, 1988, 119.

[15] Albinson, Cassandra A. “The Construction of Desire: Lawrence’s Portraits of Women.” Sir Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power & Brilliance. Yale University Press, 2010, 98.

[16] Aileen Ribeiro, The Art of Dress: Fashion in England and France 1750-1820. New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 1995. 78-9

[17] Bellamy, Thomas. Miscellanies in Prose and Verse, Vil.ii. 1795. Cited in Bloxam, Suzanne. Walpole’s Queen of Comedy: Elizabeth Farren, Countess of Derby. Worcester: Billing and Sons Ltd, 1988, 119-120.

[18] Johnson, James William. “What was Neo-Classicism?” Journal of British Studies, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1969. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 52.

[19] Agres, Philip. Classical Culture and the Idea of Rome in Eighteenth-Century England. Cambridge University Press, 1999, XIV.

[20] Cole, Daniel James. “Hierarchy and Seduction in Regency Fashion” Jane Austen Society of North America. Vol.33, No. 1, 2012. 3.

[21] Ibid. 4.

[22] Lubrich, Naomi. “The Little White Dress: Politics and Polyvalence in Revolutionary France.” Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture. 2015. 273.

[23] Cole, Daniel James. “Hierarchy and Seduction in Regency Fashion” Jane Austen Society of North America. Vol.33, No. 1, 2012. 4.

[24] Oestreich, Kate Faber. “Fashioning Chastity: British Marriage Plots and the Tailoring of Desire, 1789-1928.” Dissertation. Ohio State University Press, 2008, 57.

[25] Farrington, Joseph. Farington Diaries, Vol. 13. Royal Libraries, Windsor Castle, 803.

[26] Bloxam, Suzanne. Walpole’s Queen of Comedy: Elizabeth Farren, Countess of Derby. Worcester: Billing and Sons Ltd, 1988, 67.

[27] Ibid., 61.

[28] Albinson, Cassandra, Peter Funnell and Lucy Peltz. Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010, 101.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Bloxam, Suzanne. Walpole’s Queen of Comedy: Elizabeth Farren, Countess of Derby. Worcester: Billing and Sons Ltd, 1988, 112.

[31]Ibid., 68.

[32] Ibid., 50.

[33] Adolphus, Morning Chronicle, January 11, 1786. Cited in Bloxam, Suzanne. Walpole’s Queen of Comedy: Elizabeth Farren, Countess of Derby. Worcester: Billing and Sons Ltd, 1988, 76.

[34] Engel, Laura. Fashioning Celebrity: 18th-Century British Actresses and Strategies for Image Making. Ohio State University Press, 2011, 20.

[35] Bloxam, Suzanne. Walpole’s Queen of Comedy: Elizabeth Farren, Countess of Derby. Worcester: Billing and Sons Ltd, 1988, 73.

[36] Engel, Laura. “The Muff Affair: Fashioning Celebrity in the Portraits of Late Eighteenth-Century British Actresses.” In Fashion Theory, Volume 13, Issue 3, 279-298. Berg: 2009, 279.

[37] Bradford, Isabella. “Big and Bigger Muffs: Reality Versus Caricature c. 1790,” Two Nerdy History Girls, (April 21, 2013) http://twonerdyhistorygirls.blogspot.com/2013/04/big-bigger-muffs-reality-vs-caricature.html

[38] “The Muff,” published by SW Fores, London, 1787. Copyright: the Trustees of the British Museum.

[39] Engel, Laura. Fashioning Celebrity: 18th-Century British Actresses and Strategies for Image Making. Ohio State University Press, 2011, 72.

[40] Engel, Laura. “The Muff Affair: Fashioning Celebrity in the Portraits of Late Eighteenth-Century British Actresses.” In Fashion Theory, Volume 13, Issue 3, 279-298. Berg: 2009, 288-28.

[41] Engel, Laura. Fashioning Celebrity: 18th-Century British Actresses and Strategies for Image Making. Ohio State University Press, 2011, 27.

[42]Ibid., 17.

[43] Albinson, Cassandra, Peter Funnell and Lucy Peltz. Sir Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power & Brilliance. Yale University Press, 2010, 30.

[44] Asleson, Robyn. Notorious Muse: The Actress in British Art and Culture, 1776-1812. New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 2003, 1.

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