Some of you may have seen in the news that this postcard has led experts to identify the exact location of Vincent van Gogh's unfinished last work. The History Blog's account (with some very high-rez images) is the best I've seen so far. The story is interesting as art history, but it has also set me wondering how an historical postcard might be used in a story.
Picturing a World
Whatever did we do without the internet? I read the following description in a high school girl's diary from December 1901, when she had gone to a dressmaker, "to try on a waist": "It is lovely—dark red cashmere, with a tucked yoke and vest outlined by scalloped stitched bands, bishop sleeves tight at the elbow and full at the top and bottom and with collar and cuffs alike trimmed with scalloped stitched bands."
During the pandemic, a good project for me has been sorting through family papers. The Real Jeanette, like her fictional counterpart, spent the first years of her married in Cincinnati; but after a few years, the family moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee. The Woodward family lived around the corner; and lo and behold, when I Googled, up popped this picture of Mrs. Woodward and her children. I love being able to see the daughter's dress, the shutters closed against the heat, that trumpet vine on the porch, and most of all, of course, a glimpse of the neighborhood. Does it inspire me to send my fictional Jeanette and Edward to Chattanooga? Naaah. Could a story grow out of finding an old photo? Maybe!
Via Old Tennessee.
Companies of traveling players performed Commedia dell'arte outdoors, a topic that can be explored from many angles—at what venues? to what sized audience? in what legal or illicit circumstances? What interests me most in Watteau's depiction of a troupe is the lighting by torch and moonlight. Remember Snout's question in A Midsummer Night's Dream, III, i: "Doth the moon shine that night we play our play?"
How much could be seen by how many spectators would vary immensely by how full the moon was on a given night, and whether the sky was clear. Torches would illuminate in a small area and add glaring, smoky focal points. But, oh, but what else could be going on off in the darkness—that's for the writer to visualize!
Blog post alert: The British Library has announced acquisition of 300 drawings by the writer and artist, Mervyn Peake. You can read about it in a blog post by curator Zoë Wilcox, Mervyn Peake's scariest drawings saved for the nation. In covering the story, The Guardian quotes Wilcox: "We know that he drew whenever he got stuck with his writing, in order to help him imagine what his characters might say and how they might speak." For those of us with no training (and little talent), doodles still might be an interesting way to unlock creativity.
An article in a double issue of American Art Review (June–August 2020) alerted me to Agnes Pelton, whose work was recently shown in the Phoenix Art Museum and will eventually show at the Whitney in New York. I find this image mysteriously evocative. Sun and moon? Eclipse? Steady gaze by an unseen power? Balance, equipoise? Sometimes meaning is felt, not spoken, and best left unexplained.
Blog post alert: And now today's Spitalsfield Life. The Microcosm of London has nearly forty highly detailed images of life in London, which can be enlarged to high resolution. It was tempting to show you only a screenshot of that fireplace on the right. Think about it: an open fire in an auction room! Indispensable if you are writing Regency fiction and stimulating in all sorts of ways.
A recent post at Spitalfields Life reproduces this picture and the pages it illustrates. In The Little Visitors, two girls visit a knowledgeable aunt in the English countryside. She teaches them many things and tells the story of how she once rescued a slave boy by purchasing him to give him his freedom. For us, the fraught layers of history, agency, privilege, etc., make this picture and its story complicated. But the idea of two clever girls in Regency England visiting a learned aunt? Now, that offers possibilities for flights of compositional fancy!
Blog post alert: A History Blog post on the reunion of two 16th C portraits in a diptych is interesting in its entirety, but what is specially useful to historians of fashion (and thus historical fiction writers) is the accompanying high-rez image, which allows you to examine the clothes closely. I'm quite taken, for instance, with this jeweled button and looped clasp at the sitter's neck.
Website alert: In an account of a 1908 wedding I've just read, the bridesmaid was said to have worn a "white lingerie gown." Whoa. Not her underwear or nightgown, but what? Short, short answer is a lightweight dress made of cotton or linen characterized by pleats, tucks, and lace, as I learned in a beautifully illustrated post, Terminology: what is a lingerie dress or lingerie frock? (and blouse, and skirt) at The Dreamstress website. The same website has a splendid glossary of textile terms with links to longer posts like this one.