Books I'm reading 2
Updated: Dec 19, 2019
Girl in a Green Gown, by Carola Hicks
Years ago I took a course in art history, and the famous Arnolfini portrait was one of the most beautiful and striking paintings that we studied. Painted by the brilliant Jan van Eyck in 1434 in Bruges, it portrays a wealthy couple from the merchant class. The course I took covered composition, subject and colour, in the context of other paintings of the time. But this author looked at the painting in a completely different way.
The late Carola Hicks was an art historian. She researched the answers to questions about every object in the room, questions such as, Why did the couple have a bed in the room? or Why are there oranges on the windowsill? and of course, Who are they, and is she expecting a child?
She also researched the provenance of the painting and its amazing survival for centuries, including having been left on a Spanish battlefield by the fleeing King of Spain, Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon's brother.
The writing style was easy and clear, though every so often it seemed to flag - when that happened, I jumped a few paragraphs. Also, a few more close-up photographs of each area of the painting would have been helpful. But on the whole I found the book fascinating and I was able to see this brilliant painting in a completely new light.
The Feather Thief, by Kirk Wallace Johnson
I found this book intriguing. The author drew me in to the arcane world of fly tying - making fishing lures from feathers - and to the related theft of rare birds from a natural history museum.
There were two strands to this book - the theft, and the history of feathers.
The story of the callous theft was compelling and at first I found it hard to stop reading. But about half way through the book I felt that the story had lost its way, and that it had become a little repetitive. I also found the ending disappointing.
It was the history of feathers that really held my interest, particularly the shocking plunder of bird life during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century for women's fashion items, especially hats. For example, the author writes:
In 1886 a prominent ornithologist conducted an informal survey of the extent of the feather fever during an afternoon stroll through an up-town New York shopping district. He counted seven hundred ladies wearing hats, three quarters of them of them sporting whole [bird] skins . . . The species in vogue were Birds of Paradise, Parrots, Toucans, Quetzals, Hummingbirds ... One merchant peddled a shawl made from eight thousand Hummingbird skins.
I was also interested in this topic because I'm currently researching late-nineteenth-century Patagonia for my next two books. Whilst researching this topic, I've found regular mention of the trade in 'ostrich' (or ñandú) feathers. The following quote is from an article in The Sun newspaper of New York, dated 6 September 1885, called Stopping in Patagonia. The Southernmost Settlement of the Globe. I found it on the Library of Congress website.
But the prettiest things to be bought at Punta Arenas are the ostrich rugs made of the breasts of the young birds, as soft as down and as beautiful as plumage can be. The plumes of the ostrich are plucked from the wings and tail while the bird is alive, but to make a rug the little ones are killed and skinned and the soft fluffy breasts are sewed together until they reach the size of a blanket. Those of brown and those of the purest white are alternated, and the combination produces a very fine artistic effect. They are too dainty and beautiful to be spread upon the floor, but can be used as carriage robes, or to throw over the back of a couch or chair. Sometimes ladies use them as panels for the front of dress skirts, and thus they are more striking than any fabric a loom can produce. Opera cloaks have been made of them also, to the gratification of the aesthetic. They are too rare to be common and too beautiful to ever tire the eye.
I think this speaks for itself, sadly.
At Home with the Patagonians, by George Chaworth Musters
And continuing with the Patagonian theme . . .
Published in 1871, this book is a first-hand account of the Indigenous Teheulche tribe of southern Patagonia, and is often quoted in articles about the region and its original inhabitants. Patagonia being the setting for my next two books, this was a 'must read.' Readers should be prepared for the occasional convoluted nineteenth century wording such as, 'Betaking ourselves thither,' 'As we ascended the northern declivity,' 'The prison-like walls of cliff rendered it by no means a desirable place of abode,' and so on.
Chaworth - the author - was orphaned as a child and brought up by his uncles, one of whom had sailed with FitzRoy and Darwin on board the HMS Beagle, and who had impressed him with stories of the Indigenous Tehuelche tribe, their skilful riding and their use of bolladoras to hunt game. Chaworth joined the navy at the age of thirteen, and was already a Commander in 1869. In that year, at 27 years of age, he took half-pay and travelled to Punta Arenas, seeking out the Tehuelche chief Casimiro, who allowed Chaworth to accompany the tribe on year-long journey from the Straits of Magellan to Río Negro in Argentina. Here, at last, Chaworth fulfilled his childhood dream of riding like the Tehuelches and using the bolleadoras.
He described Tehuelche customs such as marriage and divorce, and hunting and sharing game. He also mentioned other aspects of their life, for example the fact that skunks were a common child's pet, and the fact that it was not uncommon for the women to wear hairpieces. He taught some of his companions how to fish, even though at first they were repulsed by the idea of eating such creatures.
He also described the versatility of these nomadic hunters, using interesting examples. When he was travelling in the Pampas region with the Tehuelche tribe, they joined a group from the northern Araucanian race and engaged in horse racing, followed by cock fighting. Chaworth describes it thus:
The international sports were diversified by a cock fight between Orkeke’s bird and one belonging to an Araucanian. My assistance was requested to sharpen the spurs, and my friends were much astonished at my indignant refusal to have anything to do with such a proceeding. The Araucanian owner of the cock had also a hen which, during the march, sat upon a clutch of eggs and successfully reared her brood of six chickens, the hen, nest, and all being carefully transported on horseback, and Dame Partlet seeming quite as much at home in the saddle as any Indian mother with her nursling carried in the cradle behind her.
In describing the features of the Tehuelches, the author managed to take a dig at the anthropologists who in those days were keen on measuring cranial capacity:
The thick masses of hair, and the obvious risk, which would deter the most zealous craniologist from endeavouring to measure their heads, must be deemed sufficient excuse for my not being able to state whether they are dolichokephalic or brachykephalic; a point, however, which I confess did not particularly attract my observation; but, for the partial comfort of anthropologists, be it noted that both Chilians and myself interchanged hats with some Tehuelches, especially Orkeke and Hinchel, without finding misfits.
For anyone interested in the way of life of this tribe, its customs and social groups, this book is essential reading, and at least for me, very entertaining.
When Chaworth later married and lived in England, he found it more comfortable to sleep outside on the hard ground, as he had done in Patagonia, than in his bed.
The book is available online, at no cost, here, as a Project Gutenberg book