Bouncy Stonehenge!

April 24th, 2012

Bouncy Stonehenge!

The Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art opened on April 20th, and one particular piece has become a sensation: a life-sized inflatable bouncy Stonehenge. It’s called Sacrilege and was designed by Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller. He worked with Inflatable World Leisure for two months to create this masterpiece of public art, and although you might think some Scots would be displeased to have an icon of English history on Glasgow Green, in fact people of all ages are having a complete blast on it because it’s undeniably awesome.

The installation is deflated at 6pm every night and re-inflated in minutes the following morning. Project manager James Hutchinson said it had caught the imagination of Glaswegians.

“I think it would take a mean heart not to smile as you are passing by,” he said. “People have been wanting to get on and we have had all ages from seven to 70. Nobody knows what Stonehenge is for. It doesn’t belong to anybody. Not the Druids or those interested in British or English history or Glaswegians.”

“We come to the green a lot and I was surprised to see it and wondered what it was, but I think it’s great,” says Robert Barnes, 72, who lives locally. “My grandson’s been playing on it and I can’t get him off.”

Deller envisioned it as both an interactive public sculpture and a tactile, playful way to introduce ancient history to young children. The constraints of preservation often by necessity keep people at a distance, including at Stonehenge where visitors are no longer allowed to roam amidst the sarsen stones. A version you can bounce on brings the remote into the immediate.

ForArgyll’s Paul Hadfield has written a detailed review of inflatable Stonehenge’s bouncing good times. Key points:

There were bouncings, boundings, hurlings against the megaliths, collapses for a breather, group bounces, hide and seeks.

You can’t get near the real thing any more but oh boy, you can get up close and very personal with this one.

The ‘stones’ are surprisingly hefty. You can throw yourself at them with impunity – but you know you’ve met. [...]

You can see people starting off just bouncing, then getting more inventive, then teaming up in impromptu mass playfulness and daft game strategies, then splitting and going off in separate directions but somehow lighter footed than when they arrived.

Sacrilege will remain in Glasgow until the festival ends on May 7th, then it will travel to various locations in the UK until it arrives in London for the Olympic Games.

Here’s video of Funhenge guaranteed to make you want to play on it even more than reading about it did:


Mole archaeologists excavate where humans can’t

April 23rd, 2012

Molehills dot the Epiacum Roman fort siteWhitley Castle, a.k.a. Epiacum, is a Roman fort in Northumberland close to the border with Cumbria, 12 miles south of Hadrian’s Wall. It’s also a scheduled ancient monument, a legal designation that prohibits all excavation on the site. Not even the landowners (Elaine and John Edgar of Castle Nook farm) are allowed to touch the soil. Moles, however, care not for our puny human “laws.” Moles laugh in the court’s collective peruked face and dig with impunity as deep under the fort as their little hearts desire.

Seizing the opportunity afforded by the moles’ tireless efforts, a team of 37 volunteers assembled on the site to sift carefully through the molehills for ancient artifacts under the careful supervision of English Heritage whose presence made the sifting legal and who assessed the artifacts as they were found.

Among the finds were:

A quarter-inch-long piece of rare Samian ware, tableware known as the classic Roman ceramic discovery;

A number of pottery rim fragments from Roman serving bowls and earthenware pots;

A jet bead from a Roman necklace or bracelet.

Roman pieces that had been brought to the surface by the dirt-churning vigor of the moles were found last year too, including a number of nails that confirmed the fort was not solely built out of stone but also of wood. A visitor on a guided walk stumbled on a small bronze dolphin that might have been part of a bath tap.

For now, the Roman artifacts are in the care of Paul Frodshaw, one of the directors of Epiacum Heritage Ltd, a company dedicated to the promotion and development of Epiacum. Elaine Edgar is a co-founder and one of the directors. Frodshaw will catalogue every artifact before returning them to the landowners. Edgar just this month received a £49,200 Heritage Lottery grant which Epiacum Heritage plans to use to raise the profile of the fort as a tourist attraction. The ultimate aim is to have all the artifacts the moles have unearthed be part of an on-site display.

Epiacum, aerial viewEpiacum is the highest stone Roman fort in Britain. Its unique diamond-shaped structure once housed a garrison of about 500 Roman soldiers who were probably in charge of supervising local lead and silver mining operations. It was built at the same time as Hadrian’s Wall (ca. 122 A.D.), but the wall a dozen miles away gets thousands of visitors each year, while Epiacum, despite its unusual design, extensive remains including a civilian settlement, a bath house, some of the best preserved stone ramparts in the entire Roman Empire, not to mention the in-house mole archaeologists, goes almost entirely unnoticed.

It never really has gotten the attention it is due. Small excavations in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries turned up a number of important artifacts like intact leather shoes, coins, pottery and altars to Apollo, Hercules, Minerva and Mithras. Nonetheless, even before it became a scheduled monument Epiacum was barely touched.

The new corporation has plans to create an interpretation center and hopefully lure tourists to the “hidden gem of the North pennines” but they’ll need to raise more funds to make it happen. They also need volunteers to help develop the site within the parameters of the scheduled ancient monument designation. For instance, volunteers can help survey the site in more detail, adding to our understanding of the fort and its occupants during its 200 or so years of habitation. If you’re interesting in volunteering, click on the Help Out page of the website and fill in the email form. Follow Epiacum Heritage’s progress on Twitter @epiacum.

Many thanks to Elaine Edgar for correcting some errors in this entry and for sharing information about Epiacum Heritage’s goals. :thanks:


15th c. Scottish tower gets new living roof

April 22nd, 2012

Smailholm Tower with rubble roofSmailholm Tower is a peel tower, a small, four-story rectangular tower used to warn of and for defense against raids by English and Scottish border reivers. It was built in the first half of the 15th century by the Clan Pringle, whose lairds lived in the tower until it was acquired in the 17th century by the Scott family of Harden.

When the Scotts moved to nearby Sandyknowe Farm in the early 18th century, the tower began to fall into ruin. Its decay only enhanced its appeal to wee Walter Scott, future literary giant, whose father sent him to stay with his grandparents at Sandyknowe in 1773 after polio left him lame in one leg when he was just two years old. The fresh air of rural Scotland wasn’t a miracle cure but it did improve his health.

By the time he left in 1775 he could walk with a cane, and most importantly for history’s sake, he could read. His Aunt Jenny’s stories and the songs and legends of the Scottish Borders he read during long winter visits instilled in him a lifelong love of Scottish folklore. Smailholm Tower, with its dramatic vistas and basalt walls, loomed large in his consciousness. It was the setting for his 1801 poem The Eve of St. John, and makes an appearance in Marmion, his epic poem about the 1513 Battle of Flodden in which several Pringles died. In 1831, ill and just a year from death, Sir Walter Scott would return for one last emotional visit to Smailholm with artist J.M.W. Turner.

Despite its historical and literary significance, Smailholm Tower continued to decay. In 1950 it was given to the state by John Sutherland Egerton, 5th Earl of Ellesmere, and various restoration attempts ensued, including a new whinstone rubble roof added in the 1960s over the elliptical stone vault that was originally built to support the long-gone stone slab roof.

Smailholm Tower roof constructionBy 2006, cracks in the rubble roof were leaking water, damaging structural timbers and the top story rooms of the tower. Since rebuilding the original slab roof was not an option due to concerns about whether the current structure could support it and because we don’t know exactly how the original was built, Historic Scotland initiated a project to replace the leaky roof with a grass one that would absorb water.

“In 2006, the agency trialled two different specifications of living roof. One was based on traditional puddled clay below turf, and the other a proprietary clay membrane beneath a sedum mat. The tests were checked over a period of two years, with visual inspections and electronic monitoring, and we discovered that both roofs had been successful in preventing rainwater penetration.”

Historic Scotland decided to combine the best features of both specifications to achieve long-term durability. The capping was based on the sedum system but modified to enhance drought resistance, and to encourage the growth of a thicker sward to improve overall rainwater retention.

The Tower’s new roof is fully reversible, and replicates evidence of previous vegetation that once grew on the roof, as documented in historic images.

So far it is working like a charm. The sedum roof has stopped all water penetration into the tower and it looks fantastic to boot. It’s like a Chia Tower now. :love:

Smailholm Tower with its new living roof
Detail of Smailholm Tower living roof

Pictures of the roof construction and the lovely new green roof courtesy of and copyrighted by Walter Baxter, who generously allowed me to use the glorious high resolution versions you see above. They are licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.


Dirty pages reveal medieval fears, prayer habits

April 21st, 2012

Densitometer analyzing page of a medieval illuminated manuscriptUniversity of St. Andrews art historian Dr. Kathryn Rudy has devised an ingenious new way to unveil the deepest fears, reading and prayer habits of medieval people. Using a machine called a densitometer, she measures how much dirt is on each page of a medieval manuscript. The dirtiest pages are the ones that were open the most, and therefore most read and referred to.

Dr Rudy said: “Although it is often difficult to study the habits, private rituals and emotional states of people, this new technique can let us into the minds of people from the past.

“Religion was inseparable from physical health, time management, and interpersonal relationships in medieval times.

“In the century before printing, people ordered tens of thousands of prayer books – sometimes quite beautifully illuminated ones – even though they might cost as much as a house.

“As a result they were treasured, read several times a day at key prayer times, and through analysing how dirty the pages are we can identify the priorities and beliefs of their owners.”

St. Sebastian by Andrea Mantegna, ca. 1470-1475Dr. Rudy analyzed a number of European prayer books. She found that one of the most read pages was a prayer to St. Sebastian, the saint who was shot full of arrows at the command of Diocletian but didn’t die from it. The iconography of the nearly nude martyr with wounds all over his body that he survived associated Sebastian with surviving the plague. Legend has it that after an altar was built in his honor in 7th century Lombardy he stopped a plague, so praying to St. Sebastian was deemed a protection against it. Given the alarming frequency and mortality of plague in medieval Europe, it makes sense that the prayers to Sebastian would be among the most frequently recited.

In people-are-people news, prayers for the salvation of one’s own soul were more often read than prayers for the salvation of other people’s souls, and the prayers read in the wee hours of the night and morning are dirty mainly on the first couple of pages. After that, readers consistently stopped, no doubt because they were face down in a puddle of their own drool, snoring happily.


Are these Mark Antony and Cleopatra’s twins?

April 20th, 2012

Statue of Shu and Tefnet, possibly Alexander Helios and Cleopatra SeleneAnother sculpture that has been idling in a museum for ages is getting new attention all of a sudden. Egyptologist Giuseppina Capriotti of the Italian National Research Council believes a statue in the Cairo Museum depicts the twin children of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene. The sandstone statue was discovered near the temple of Hathor in Dendera on the west bank of the Nile in 1918. Cleopatra VII is known to have commissioned works in that temple, most famously a monumental pharaonic relief of herself and her son by Julius Caesar, Ptolemy XV Philopator Philometor Caesar, aka Cesarion.

The Cairo Museum bought the five-foot-tall statue but didn’t pay it a great deal of attention, thinking it a representation of the twin gods Shu and Tefnet, son and daughter of the sun god Atum-Ra.

The statue is of two nude children, one male, one female, who bear the attributes of sun and moon respectively. They have an arm over each other’s shoulders while they hold a serpent in their other hands. The coils of two snakes wind around their legs and the base of the statue.

DetailCapriotti noticed that the boy has a sun-disc on his head,‭ ‬while the girl boasts a crescent and a lunar disc. The serpents, perhaps two cobras, would also be different forms of sun and moon, she said. Both discs are decorated with the udjat-eye, also called the eye of Horus, a common symbol in Egyptian art.

“Unfortunately the faces are not well preserved, but we can see that the boy has curly hair and a braid on the right side of the head, typical of Egyptian children. The girl’s hair is arranged in a way‬ similar to the so-called ‭m‬elonenfrisur‭ (‬melon coiffure) an elaborated hairstyle often associated with the Ptolemaic dynasty, and Cleopatra particularly,” said Capriotti.

The statue dates to between 50 and 30 B.C. Mark Antony and Cleopatra’s twins were born in 40 B.C. so the timing fits, but it’s the unusual iconographic choices which suggest this is not just a statue of Shu and Tefnet. In the Egyptian pantheon, Tefnet, the sister, wears the solar disk, but in this piece the female twin wears the crescent moon and the male wears the sun, in keeping with the Greek tradition of the female moon goddess Selene and the male incarnation of the sun, Helios.

Side view of statueThe twins’ embrace could suggest a solar eclipse, which is significant because when Mark Antony officially recognized the twins as his children three years after their birth, the event was marked by a solar eclipse. That’s when Cleopatra changed their names from plain Cleopatra and Alexander to Cleopatra Selene and Alexander Helios.

If these are Antony and Cleopatra’s twins, it’s the first representation of the two together ever discovered. The only other image we have is of an adult Cleopatra Selene on coins minted during her reign as Queen of Mauretania. Alexander Helios does not appear to have survived into adulthood, nor his younger brother Ptolemy Philadelphus.

After their parents’ suicides, all three of Antony’s children by Cleopatra were taken to Rome by Octavian in 30 B.C. to march in his triumph as royal captives in gold chains. He handed the three of them over to his sister Octavia, Antony’s third wife, to raise. The boys disappear from the historical record, perhaps dead at Augustus’ hand, perhaps from natural causes. Cleopatra Selene, on the other hand, was married around 20 B.C. to King Juba of Mauretania, a north African client state.

Juba and Cleopatra Selene of MauretaniaBy all accounts she was an accomplished and powerful ruler, working alongside her husband and maybe even bossing him around a little. It’s not often you see coins with the king on the one side and the queen on the other. She even named her son Ptolemy, in keeping with her mother’s tradition rather than the more common practice of naming sons after their fathers, or at least including some reference to the paternal line.


Medieval abbot and insignia found at Furness Abbey

April 19th, 2012

Furness Abbey todayThe 12th century Furness Abbey in south Cumbria has been in ruins since 1537 when it was disestablished, looted and destroyed by Henry VIII. Large cracks began appearing in the walls of the presbytery in the early 20th century, and English Heritage is currently funding an extensive project of exploration and restoration with the ultimate aim of underpinning the structure to keep it from collapse. They plan to install massive concrete rafts deep into the ground on top of which a steel framework will be built to brace and anchor the walls.

To prepare for the concrete rafts, Oxford Archaeology North was contracted to excavate four deep holes, two north of the presbytery on the site of the abbey cemetery and two inside the presbytery. As expected, a number of graves, all of them disturbed over the centuries, were found during the cemetery excavation. When they moved inside, just 13 feet (four meters) northwest of the high altar they discovered the undisturbed grave of a medieval abbot, still wearing his ecclesiastical ring on his finger and holding his crozier, the staff of office shaped like a shepherd’s crook.

Intact grave of abbot with crozierThis find was not at all expected. The abbey was looted thoroughly after the Dissolution; it was thoroughly dug up by archaeologists in the late 19th century, and it was even more thoroughly and deeply dug up in the last century during work to shore up the failing foundations. Finding an undisturbed grave would have been shocking in and of itself, never mind one of an ancient monastic leader still wearing his accouterments.

It’s also of major historical significance because this is the first intact abbot’s grave discovered and excavated under modern archaeological conditions.

An initial examination of his skeleton, which is currently in the care of Oxford Archaeology North, indicated that he was probably between 40 and 50 years old when he died. Like many monastic burials of middle-aged and older men, he had a pathological condition of the spine often considered to be associated with obesity and mature-onset (Type II) diabetes. The grave – which could date to as early as the 1150’s – also included the decorated crozier and a gemstone ring. The grave was situated in the presbytery, the most prestigious position in the church and generally reserved for the richest benefactors. Most Cistercian abbots were buried in the chapter house.

Kevin Booth, Senior Curator at English Heritage, said: “This is a very rare find which underlines the Abbey’s status as one of the great power bases of the Middle Ages. While we don’t yet know the identity of the abbot, he was clearly someone important and respected by the monastic community. Given that the crozier and ring have been buried for over 500 years, they are in remarkable condition.”

Crozier discovered at Furness AbbeyThe crozier is made of gilded copper and on the inside of the loop has a depiction of the Archangel Michael defeating a dragon. The end of the crook is shaped like the head of a serpent (looks like a dog to me). A small piece of the wooden staff which the crozier capped has survived, as have the pointed iron spike that was at its base and some fragments of the linen and silk cloth used to keep the abbot from sweating all over the wood as he held the staff.

Ring found in abbot's grave at FurnessThe ring is gilded silver with a clear gem or crystal. There’s a hollow behind the stone — perhaps used to store a holy relic — and the inside of the bezel where the ring touched the top of the finger comes to a point. Abbots in the 12th century were supposed to eschew the kind of ornamentation common among the princes of the Church. They even had to get special permission to wear an ecclesiastical ring. The pointed ring, which doubtless caused its wearer some amount of irritation and pain, may thus have served double duty as insignia of authority and as mortifier of the flesh. Certainly the abbot was devout. The arthritis in his knees bears mute witness to many hours spent in prayer.

Radiocarbon dating is ongoing. Until we have the results we can’t know who this man was. Should the results come back within a few decades’ range, it should be possible to pinpoint the abbot based on the information we have from his burial. He might not be an abbot at all. Bishop William Russell from the Isle of Man was buried in Furness Abbey in 1374. He would have had and been buried with a crozier and episcopal ring.

The crozier and ring will go on display at Furness Abbey for just a few days, from Friday, May 4th until Monday, May 7th.


Seizure-inducing but awesome 1930s France

April 18th, 2012

Fair warning: this entry is not for the faint of eyeball.

A few months ago, photography enthusiast and Redditor AlexisfromParis found a wooden box in a thrift store in Paris’ 15th arrondissement. The box contained approximately 50 glass plates of side-by-side stereographic pictures of France in the 1930s, and it came with a period stereograph viewer.

Anaglyph of France in the 1930sAlexis took the box home and scanned the side-by-side stereograms. He converted them into anaglyphs, superimposed red and cyan images which when viewed through 3D glasses integrate into one image with the illusion of dimensional depth. Then, for those of us not equipped with 3D glasses, he combined the two slightly offset black-and-white images into an animated GIF that flickers like crazy, but if you can get past that does convey some of the depth you’d see looking through the stereograph viewer without having to use any external equipment.

Animated version of stereographic picture

I love the stillness of the posed people against the hyperactive background. My favorite animation along those lines is this one:

Paris balcony, 1930s

It’s as if Whistler’s Mother were sitting in a club while strobe lights illuminated the background.

Just one more and then I’ll link you to the rest. Here is a man either dancing with or bowing before a lion:


Here is Alexis’ gallery of anaglyphs. Here are the raw 3D side-by-sides. Here is the gallery of animations.

The animation technique Alexis used is known as wiggle stereoscopy, for obvious reasons, and is a fun toy if you’re not prone to seizures or motion sickness. The New York Public Library has a nifty tool for people to create animated GIFs from the library’s massive collection of 40,000 stereographic pictures: the Stereogranimator.

The Library of Congress has almost 9,000 stereographs from the Civil War available online. They don’t have a wiggle stereoscopy tool to make them dance, but they’re still fascinating to browse, and you can always put them together yourself in any photo editing software that creates animated GIFs (GIMP is free, although not what I would call intuitive).


Is this a statue of a female gladiator?

April 17th, 2012

Is this bronze statue depicting a female gladiator?University of Granada researcher Alfonso Manas believes a bronze statue in the permanent collection of Germany’s Museum für Kunst und Gewerbein of Hamburg is an extremely rare depiction of a female gladiator, sword raised in victory while she looks down at an unseen defeated opponent. The statue is of a woman wearing nothing but a loincloth and a bandage around her left knee. In her left hand she raises aloft a sica, a short curved blade used by the thraex or Thracian type gladiator.

Thracians, however, also carried a small shield and wore armor — a helmet, greaves, an arm and shoulder piece called a manica, or sleeve — while this figure does not. The lack of armor suggests an athlete rather than a gladiator. The curved implement could be a strigil, a cleaning tool used to scrape oil and dirt off the body. Athletes were often depicted in the act of strigiling themselves, but the raised arm doesn’t fit with that tradition at all. The strigil stays connected to the body, or at least close to it, during the cleaning process. Holding a strigil aloft makes no sense. It’s much more in keeping with gladiatorial gestures of victory than with athletic hygiene.

In addition, female athletes in the Roman world did not go completely topless, as they would wear a bikini or “a tunic that left one breast exposed,” Manas pointed out. “In any case, female athletes never performed with bare breasts,” at least not with both exposed. Gladiators, on the other hand, tended to be slaves or people of low social status; depicting them topless would have been considered more acceptable. The bandage the woman is wearing on her knee is also a common feature of gladiators.

Altogether, this evidence “seems to indicate that the statuette at the MKG [the museum] represents a gladiator, thus becoming the second piece of visual evidence we have of female gladiators,” Manas writes in a recent issue of the International Journal of the History of Sport.

The other piece of visual evidence is a marble relief discovered in the ancient Greek city of Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum, Turkey) and now in the British Museum. The relief depicts two gladiatrices called Amazon and Achillia who have fought valiantly to a draw (stantes missio, meaning “dismissed while still standing”), a rare event requiring exceptional combat on both sides. Like the bronze, they are topless and wearing loincloths. Unlike the bronze, they wear traditional gladiatorial armature including greaves, a manica and a shield.

It is possible that the statue was carrying a shield in her right arm which is broken just above the wrist. The lack of helmet could be explained by her victorious posture, since gladiators removed their helmets as gesture of victory. She might just have been stripped of gear to present a more erotic nude figure for decorative purposes. The relief of Amazon and Achillia took a more businesslike approach since it was probably affixed to the ludus, or gladiator training school.

If there were any sexual implication of the nude gladiator, it would’ve been due to her low social status. “In the Roman mind, there would have [been] certain associations with the sexual availability of slaves,” [Ohio State University professor Anna] McCullough said. “Slaves were sort of expected to be sexually available to anyone at anytime, especially their masters.”

To, “depict a female gladiator, or a slave, nude was really no big deal,” she said. “It was an indication of their extremely low status.”


Lost portrait of cross-dressing Chevalier d’Eon found

April 16th, 2012

The Chevalier d'Eon by Thomas Stewart, 1792British art dealer and art detective Philip Mould was sleuthing in the saleroom of the Thomas Cornell Galleries in Patchogue, Long Island last November when he came across an arresting portrait of what appeared to be a rather masculine middle-aged woman. Named “Portrait of a Woman with a Feather in her hat” and attributed to painter Gilbert Stuart, the oil painting was part of the estate of Ruth Stone, daughter of Samuel Klein, founder of Edith Bunker’s department store, S. Klein’s.

His spidey sense tingling, Mould purchased the portrait at the auction and brought it back to his gallery in London for conservation and further research. A thorough cleaning revealed that the artist was not Gilbert Stuart, the American portraitist most famous for having painted the unfinished Athenaeum Portrait of George Washington, a replica of which is the face on the US dollar bill. Old varnish and dirt had obscured the signature of the real artist: Thomas Stewart, an 18th century English painter who is not very well known today, but who starting in the 1780s was a successful painter specializing in portraits of actors. Next to the “T. Stewart” signature is the date “1792.”

Documentary research uncovered that the misattribution to Gilbert Stuart is longstanding. A painting answering to this one’s description is included in Lawrence Park’s 1926 catalogue raisonné of Gilbert Stuart’s work. At some point in the early 20th century, the portrait was sold to an unknown US buyer by Ellen Anne Simonds, who had inherited it by descent from Sir Thomas Pelham Hayes, or perhaps his father Sir John Macnamara Hayes, military surgeon and the personal physician of the future George IV. The original owner was Francis Hastings Rawdon, the 2nd Earl of Moira, a collector of exotica who had also served in the American Revolution. After its move across the Atlantic, the painting disappears from the record.

The cleaning also revealed another telling detail: a noticeable five o’clock shadow on the lady’s face. Moira is known to have owned a portrait of the Chevalier d’Eon, and the Chevalier was known to always wear a black dress and the medal of the Order of St. Louis, which he had been awarded by Louis XV for his work as a spy. D’Eon was living in London in 1792, making a living doing demonstration fencing matches, so that fits with the timing and focus of Thomas Stewart’s work.

Print of the Chevalier d'EonConnecting all the dots points to this portrait being of Charles Genevieve Louis Auguste André Timothée D’Eon de Beaumont, aka the Chevalier D’Eon, a biological male who spent his first 49 years dressed as a man, fighting in the Seven Years’ War, fomenting political intrigue as part of Le Secret du Roi, King Louis XV’s personal secret spy network, and serving as Minister Plenipotentiary in London in 1763. When an aristocrat was appointed ambassador demoting d’Eon to a secretarial position, he threatened to publish secret correspondence and blow the lid off Le Secret du Roi.

Mademoiselle de Beaumont, le Chevalier d'Eon, aka LiaThe blackmail garnered him a pension in 1766, but after the king died, he had to strike a whole new deal with Louis XVI to secure his pension and be allowed to return to France. The 1774 treaty, drawn up by Louis’ representative Pierre Beaumarchais (the playwright who most famously wrote The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro), required d’Eon to return the secret letters and, since he now claimed to be biologically female, to wear women’s clothing instead of the military uniform he wore in public. He still wore male clothing at times, but now it would get him arrested.

By the time he returned to England permanently in 1785, he was wearing women’s clothes full time. According to witnesses, he made no attempt to adopt feminine mannerisms. He hiked up his dress to run up stairs and fenced with manly vigor. Yet, the question of his sex was widely debated in society at the time. There was even a bet running on the London Stock Exchange.

"The Fencing-Match between the Chevalier de Saint-George and the Chevalier d'Eon" by Charles Robineau; the Prince of Wales, wearing the Star of the Garter, stands watching

In 1792, the French Revolutionary government stopped paying d’Eon a pension. He was deeply in debt and had to sell his extensive library to make ends meet. His fencing skills and notoriety still ensured him an income from fencing performances until he was severely wounded in 1796. After that, he had to sell even his precious Order of St. Louis medal to keep himself out of debtor’s prison. It wasn’t enough. He struggled the rest of his life.

When he was examined by a physician after his death in 1810, many people were shocked that his genitals were found to be intact and entirely male. The Chevalier d’Eon was so strongly associated with gender ambiguity that psychologist and researcher Havelock Ellis coined the term “eonism” to describe cross-dressing and other transgender behaviors. The British transgender and cross-dressing support organization, The Beaumont Society, is named after the Chevalier. They have an excellent short biography of the Chevalier here (pdf).

Although prints of the Chevalier in a black dress wearing the Order of St. Louis medal are extant, this portrait is the only known oil painting of him. It may be the first formal portrait of a cross-dressing man wearing women’s clothing. According to Mould, the National Gallery has expressed serious interest in acquiring it.

If you’d like to visit the Chevalier in person, the picture will be on display in the Phillip Mould & Company gallery on Dover Street, London until Friday, April 20th (excluding Wednesday morning). If you’d like to see a bizarre but awesome fictionalization of his life, check out the anime Le Chevalier d’Eon. Talking baby skulls and zombies that bleed mercury are involved, so you know it’s good.


Cezanne stolen in Zurich found in Belgrade

April 15th, 2012

Serbian police guard recovered Cezanne, "The Boy in the Red Vest"On February 10, 2008, three armed men wearing ski masks walked into the E.G. Buehrle Collection in Zurich, Switzerland. While one of them held staff and visitors at gunpoint, the other two helped themselves to four Impressionist masterpieces: Claude Monet’s Poppies near Vetheuil, Edgar Degas’ Count Lepic and his Daughters, Vincent Van Gogh’s Blossoming Chestnut Branches and Paul Cezanne’s The Boy in the Red Vest. It was one of the largest heists in Europe in terms of market value. The four paintings were worth an estimated $163.2 million.

Converting famous paintings into quick cash is rarely as easy as thieves imagine, however. The Van Gogh and Monet were found a week later in a car parked outside a Zurich psychiatric hospital. The remaining two disappeared without a trace.

Witnesses at the Zurich museum testified that the thieves spoke German with Slav accents. Two years ago, Serbia’s Anti-Organized Crime Unit, in collaboration with the police of several other European countries, opened an investigation into the theft. They uncovered a plan by four men to sell the Cezanne to a Serbian buyer for three million euros (about $4 million). The plan was thwarted when ringleader Ivan Pekovic was cornered in a parking lot after a high-speed chase through the streets of Belgrade.

The Cezanne was found in his car along with a cache of firearms and more than £1 million ($1.6 million) in cash. Police arrested two other men thought to be part of the ring, one in Belgrade and one in the southern town of Cacek.

A museum curator quoted by Serbia’s Blic newspaper said criminals smuggle artwork stolen in Western Europe through Serbia and on to Montenegro where they are then sold for cash to members of the Russian oligarchs eager to get their hands on a masterpiece.

Another network takes stolen art to Kosovo where thieves sell it to rich Albanians.

The recovered painting has been authenticated by a Swiss expert. It is indeed the missing Boy in the Red Vest, one of four slightly differing versions made by the Impressionist master. The other three are in museums in the United States.

That leaves only the Degas still to be found. According to this BBC article, Serbian interior minister Ivica Dacic said that the Degas had been found in 2009, but I’ve searched high and low and I can’t find anything about this in the 2009 press. You’d think it would have made just as much of a splash as the recovery of the other three have made.





February 2016
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