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Apologies to American readers of this blog as you will have to wait a bit longer to see Sherlock, the latest collaboration between Steven Moffat, who is currently in charge of Doctor Who and Mark Gatiss who is best known for The League Of Gentlemen and Doctor Who, for which he tends to write quite dark, intricate historical type episodes such as The Unquiet Dead, also known as The One With Charles Dickens.

Anyway, it is traditional at this point to explain one’s Sherlock Holmes fan credentials if about to embark on a review of a Holmes variant. I don’t know why that is but I found it really hilarious when the frankly brilliant Sherlock Holmes came out last year and all sorts of unexpected people fell over themselves to proclaim themselves Sherlock Holmes’ biggest fan, as if that added weight and gravitas to their pronouncement about the film.

I’m a fan, a big fan, but let’s leave it at that as let’s face it, the amount of time I have read the original stories should have no bearing at all either on how much credence you should give to my opinion and I would be ridiculous to think otherwise.

Anyway, moving on.

I’ve been looking forward to Sherlock for several months, ever since the first rumblings about its existence began to be felt on the internet. I happen to really love modern updated versions of classics so was really keen to see this new imagining of Sherlock Holmes, transplanted to a contemporary London.

I really wasn’t disappointed at all and even my husband, who can be frankly ambivalent about anything related to Sherlock Holmes, crime drama and updated classics seemed entranced by it, which is saying something.

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting to be honest but Gatiss and Moffat produced a tour de force – a slickly realised, often comedic, dark drama in which modern London is revealed to be a dimly lit echo of its Victorian past, complete with rain soaked elegant streets and winding alley ways.

Benedict Cumberbatch was brilliant as Sherlock Holmes, his performance being both icily intelligent and at the same time simmering with an ambiguous sensuality. He often seemed like the annoying, vaguely superior elder brother of Matt Smith’s Doctor as he managed to simultaneously be both absolutely at home and at the same time faintly bewildered by the world.

At first I was a bit irritated by all the text messaging and emailing and whatnot that went on until I remembered that Conan Doyle’s Holmes, with his brilliant and scientifically explorative mind, also made full use of all that his world had to offer so it was totally in character.There was also that horrible moment when Holmes is glimpsed lying on the sofa with his arm tautly upraised. Oh no, you think, a junkie Holmes. But no, this Holmes uses nicotine patches to sharpen his thinking.

Martin Freeman’s Watson was great too. A gentle, awkward, reserved man who despite his better judgement is fascinated by and brought out of his shell by the outgoing, eccentric Holmes. I’m really looking forward to seeing how his character grows and develops over time as he comes to terms with his own true nature.

It was also nice to see Rupert Graves again as Lestrade, although he will always be the hot gamekeeper in Merchant Ivory’s Maurice to me.

The plot itself seemed of secondary importance but worked well as a means to introduce and develop the characters. In that way it was similar to the opening episodes of the latest Doctor Who series, which were light on plot but similarily heavy on foreshadowing, fast paced dialogue and action. It’s a shame therefore that this series is only three episodes long as it feels like it will be over just as it is really beginning, but hopefully there will be more in the pipeline.

And as the days hurtle on towards Autumn, my thoughts turn towards Whitechapel, Spitalfields, the Ten Bells, Jack the Ripper, dark London streets and fog swathed gaslights. It’s been this way since I was a melodramatic gothic teenager, caught up in the Jack the Ripper centenary of 1988 and has lingered ever since. Maybe this year I will even get cracking on that book about Mary Jane Kelly that I’ve been researching on and off for ages!

This can mean only one thing – time for another Gin and Whores party! An evening of corsetry, gin imbibing, flirtation, scandal and iniquity. We’ve held two so far and they were great successes, with loads of beautifully dressed sorts turning up to have lots of fun, eat cake and engage in gin fuelled debauchery.

This year, the Gin and Whores party will be hosted by myself and that louche fan of bohemian Victorian decadence Professor Simon Trafford and will be held sometime in the Autumn in an as yet to be decided venue in London – maybe even the Ten Bells itself!

I don’t know what to write about next – I have so many ideas but can’t decide which one to work on first!

1. A novel set in eighteenth century London and Paris and based on Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers, which is one of my all time favourite novels.

2. A novel about Mary Jane Kelly, the last victim of Jack the Ripper. I think this one would be best kept until the Autumn and Winter really.

3. A novel about women who lived at Versailles through the centuries.

4. A novel based on Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile.

5. A novel set during Napoléon’s conquest of Egypt involving archaeology, hot French aristocrats and possibly a bit of supernatural stuff.

I can’t decide! What would YOU most like to read?

The Empress Eugènie was fascinated by her unfortunate predecessor, Marie Antoinette and in 1854 commissioned Winterhalter to paint this portrait of herself  dressed up as Marie Antoinette in what she and Worth fondly believed to be an approximation of eighteenth century fashion, even powdering her own beautiful dark hair white to add to the Rococo effect.

It is Eugènie that we have to thank for a general resurgence in interest in Marie Antoinette. She was also an avid collector of paintings, furniture and any items connected to the tragic Queen, all of which are now to be seen at Versailles, the Louvre and Fontainebleau and she oversaw the restoration of the Petit Trianon to its former glory, filling it with its original furniture and memorabilia.

Much is made of Eugènie’s fascination with Marie Antoinette and also that of the equally unfortunate Tsarina Alexandra, who also collected items connected with the guillotined French Queen. I don’t believe that either women saw Marie Antoinette’s fate as a warning or a foreshadowing of the upheaval that would face them in the future, but I do believe that they responded, as do so many women (including myself), to different facets of Marie Antoinette’s legend.

Eugènie, I think, really related to Marie Antoinette’s love of fashion, her reputedly extravagant lifestyle and her liking for surrounding herself with beautiful things whereas I think that Alexandra, who was so shy, felt so cut off and alienated in the midst of the intriguing, splendid Russian court and who longed for a simple, down to earth, ordinary family life related to the informal side of Marie Antoinette, who would always feel at odds with the court at Versailles.

Winterhalter

Queen Victoria and her cousin, the Duchesse de Nemours, 1852.

Elizabeth of Bavaria, Empress of Austria, 1865.

Leonilla Bariatinskaia, Princess of Sayn Wittgenstein, 1843.

Victoria, Princess Royal, 1857.

Tsarina Maria Alexandrovna, 1857.

Alexandra Iosifovna, Grand Duchess of Russia.

Claire de Bearn, Duchess of Vallombrosa.

Countess Alexander Nikolaevitch Lamsdorff, 1859.

Countess Olga Shuvalova, 1858.

Countess Varvara Alekseyevna Musina Pushkina, 1857.

Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaievna of Russia, 1857.

Madame de Jurjewicz, 1860.

Pauline, Princess Metternich, 1860.

Princess Elizabeth Troubetskoi, 1859.

Princess Sophia Radzivil, 1864.

Princess Tatiana Alexandrovna Yusupova, 1858.

Through dreamlike installations, interactive theatre, intimate storytelling, soundscapes, haunting film projections and a series of clues hidden throughout the historic rooms, the stories of the palace and the princesses who once lived there – Mary, Anne, Caroline, Charlotte, Victoria, Margaret and Diana – are explored, revealing tales of love and hate, surprise and sadness, secrets and jealousy.”

There is a beautiful new exhibition at Kensington Palace in London, in which the state rooms have been transformed into a beautiful wonderland in order to evoke the often tragic stories of seven celebrated princesses who used to live at the Palace in the past. It opened in March and runs until February 2012, so there’s plenty of time to make a visit! I’m planning to go and see it next time I am in London, if anyone wants to come with me?

I’m particularly keen to see the dress that Vivienne Westwood designed ‘for’ Princess Charlotte, whose untimely death in childbirth, led to an immense crisis and the eventual succession of Queen Victoria.

Other princesses featured in the exhibition include: Mary II, Queen Anne, Queen Caroline (wife of George II), Queen Victoria, Princess Margaret and Princess Diana.

So anyway, the whole point of my going to London last month was to meet up with my former university tutor, Mr Desmond Shawe-Taylor, who is now the Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures.

Actually, I’ve just recalled that not only was Desmond my tutor at Nottingham, but he also interviewed me for my place on the course. At the time I was undecided between Bristol, York and Nottingham, but it was my interview with Desmond that made me decide on the spot that I wanted to go to Nottingham. I was already a fan of his work on Georgian art and I really looked forward to learning more about it from an expert.

It is Desmond that you have to thank for my love of Baroque religious art and for an appreciation of sculpture. The other tutors at Nottingham prefered a more factual, less flamboyant style in their essays – it was Desmond who taught me that writing about art history is boring without drama and flair and encouraged me to write about what I saw vividly and with vigour.

He left Nottingham in my second year to Director of Dulwich Picture Gallery and then later on became Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, which basically means that he is responsible for the Queen’s painting collection.

I was thrilled and excited when he offered to meet up in the wake of the opening of Victoria and Albert: Art and Love at the Queen’s Picture Gallery and had lots of questions planned. However, it didn’t quite work out that way and we ended up having an informal but fascinating conversation about art history instead.

First of all we talked about the exhibition about Victoria and Albert, which I had assumed was inspired by the film Young Victoria or at least was planned with it in mind, but it seems that it was just a happy coincidence that they happened so close together.

We talked about how the world is ready for another reinterpretation of the Victorians and this focus on the young Queen Victoria and the romance between her and Albert is a fresh new look at both the Queen and the period that she lived in, challenging the staid view that people tend to have both of the Victorians and also Victoria herself. The last big rethink about the Victorians seemed to involve focussing on their sex lives and debunking the myth that they were repressed and moralistic – now, it seems that it is time that we looked at the romantic Victorians.

There are cross overs as well between the Queen’s Gallery’s previous exhibition about conversation pieces and the new exhibition about Victoria and Albert: both are intrinsically focused on the contentment of happy domestic life, the intimate moments that until the eighteenth century had not been depicted so often in art. On one hand, we have the somewhat stiff but still affectionate family groups of the conversation pieces and on the other we have the visual evidence of the great love between Queen Victoria and her Albert.

The paintings of the royal couple with their children bear a definite relationship to the earlier paintings, most closely with those of George III, Queen Charlotte and their numerous children. It is clear that what is being depicted here is not just an idealised happy family life but also a very definite attempt at propaganda – on one hand there is George III, his wife and band of pop eyed children, painted at their leisure either seated before a dressing table or at their ease in a quintessentially English landscape, using a very English conceit to distance themselves both from their embarrassing Stuart ancestors and also the unpopular earlier Hanoverian kings and on the other, there is Victoria and Albert, dressed just like any other middle class family, openly showing their love and distancing themselves from Victoria’s family, which at the time comprised her degenerate uncles.

Both exhibitions encompass a movement towards a very informal, middle class form of art. Before the conversation piece, portraiture was the preserve of the aristocracy and usually depicted nobility dressed in their finest clothes, posing self consciously, an arch smile hovering about their lips and the conversation pieces are the antithesis of this. They also chart the movement of the royal family towards a more intimate and informal way of life, reflecting their own wish to be more wholesome in an attempt to gain security and separate themselves from the bad behaviour of the past.

Desmond and I talked regretfully about the fact that these attempts were inevitably doomed to failure. George III and Queen Charlotte did their best to raise good, well behaved children who would be totally unlike their ancestors and instead managed to produce a brood who have gone down in history as a iniquitous rabble. Victoria and Albert had better luck, although their eldest son Prince Bertie could be classed as a definite failure.

We also touched on the burgeoning interest in German art and writing, with its more moral and sombre themes than that of France. It’s interesting that in the eighteenth century, France, Germany and England fed off each other culturally and yet retained their own distinct character. The main crux of this would seem to be the role of court culture at the time and the movement away from behemoths like Versailles towards the more culturally diverse and lively salons of Paris. At the same time, London was a centre for writers and artists while the court at Windsor (with the exception of Frances Burney, who loathed it) was stultified and dull.

Another interesting point was the difference in reactions to the various Germanic consorts at this time – we all know about Marie Antoinette’s shattered reputation in France, but how does this contrast with the way that Queen Charlotte, a German princess, was viewed in England and then, much later, how the Saxon Prince Albert was regarded by the subjects of his wife, Victoria.

It was a fascinating afternoon and so thank you, Desmond, if you read this, for being so kind and for the fabulous conversation! I took so much away with me and have been feeling very inspired ever since.

More posts about this:

Victoria and Albert: Art and Love.

The Conversation Piece: Scenes of Fashionable Life.

The Young Victoria.

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