Suspicion of immigrants is nothing new in Britain. In the 1790s it was thought that refugees from revolutionary France would infect Britain with republicanism. Today it is the threat of insidious Islamism. In 2005 Tony Blair faced a similar dilemma to that of the Tory Prime Minister, William Pitt, in the 1790s – how best to deal with a terrorist threat inspired by an alien ideology and to maintain national security.
Who would ever think that a respectable middle-class English woman could attempt to brutally damage a great work of art in the centre of London? But this is exactly what happened at the National Gallery in London on 10 March 1914 when Mary Richardson, a small prim, smartly dressed woman in grey, walked up the steps of the gallery with a small axe concealed beneath her coat. She stopped in front of Velásquez’s so-called ‘Rokeby Venus’ which was standing on an easel in Room 17, temptingly accessible. The painting had been acquired for the National Gallery by the newly created National Art Collections Fund in 1906. The Times had described it as as ‘perhaps the finest painting of the nude in the world’. King Edward VII also greatly admired the painting and provided £8,000 towards its purchase.
When workmen began extending the railway line at St Pancras Station in 2002 to take in the new Channel Tunnel Rail Link they made a gruesome discovery. Cutting through the old Somers Town cemetery they found the bones that belonged to aristocratic French exiles from the French Revolution of 1789. One skull in particular caught their attention. It was in a lavishly engraved coffin and had a full set of remarkably high quality porcelain dentures with distinctive gold hinges and set in a bed of sickly purple ‘gums.’ Research showed there could be only one set of false teeth exactly like this and that it had been made for the Cardinal Archbishop of Narbonne, Arthur Richard Dillon. The teeth had joined him exile and had been used for many years. Experts believe Dillon’s porcelain teeth may have been made by the Parisian dentist Nicholas Dubois De Chemant. Towards the end of the 18th century, people were becoming dissatisfied with ivory dentures, and experiments began with porcelain and the production of ‘incorruptible’ dentures. The whole of the set of dentures, teeth and gums, were made of china. In their favour they were more hygienic; however they were brittle, the colours were not very realistic and generally they did not fit well. De Chemant came up with a radical solution, patenting his method of making individual dental moulds of bees wax or plaster and then casting perfectly fitted porcelain dentures. At the time the Archbishop’s teeth would have cost a small fortune, about as much as a coach and horses.
No painter has done more to define an era than Sir Anthony van Dyck with his portraits of regal majesty, gilded youth and feminine beauty. They show an age of sumptuous costume and cultivated ease. None is more exotic than that of Sir Robert and Lady Sherley painted in Rome in 1622.
The Sherleys are shown in Persian robes with Sir Robert wearing a large turban bearing a crucifix – a strange fusion of two religious traditions and in itself a significant diplomatic gesture at a time when Persia was keen to open its frontiers to the West. The Sherleys were in Rome on a secret diplomatic mission to establish trade links with Europe on behalf of Shah Abbas I of Persia. While in Rome Robert was made a papal count and the pontiff granted him the right to sell blessed rosaries, crosses, medals and indulgencies. This would have been a potentially highly lucrative marketing deal for the time. Later when the Sherleys travelled on to Spain the court there showed him similar courtesy, although the king quietly objected to receiving a European with a turban on his head
Women fighting in the British army – whatever next! But this was inevitable after the USA led the way by repealing the act that banned women from serving in the artillery, armor, and infantry. No great cause for celebration here but a further acknowledgement of the changing role of women in society.
Also nothing new, for from earliest times women have fought with sword and axe alongside the men. Roman historian Plutarch described battles where barbarian women fought as bravely as men and ‘fell on their opponents uttering a hideous, blood curdling cries. Another Roman claimed that the women of Gaul were every bit as formidable than their men, charging into battle kicking and punching with limbs flailing ‘like missiles from a catapult.’ In Rome itself there were female counterparts to the make gladiators. Tacitus recorded that the Emperor Nero regularly held shows with female gladiators from the upper classes.