Vita

vita.jpg

A detail from the 1918 portrait of Vita Sackville-West, writer, gardener, force of nature, painted by William Strang (1859-1921), Scottish artist, and entitled “Lady in a Red Hat.” It was Violet Trefusis who suggested Vita pose for Strang, and who sat in Strang’s studio the whole time, never taking her eyes off the subject.

Dogs and Stars

“In the beginning of all things, wisdom and knowledge were with the animals, for Tirawa, the One Above, did not speak directly to man. He sent certain animals to tell men that he showed himself through the beasts, and that from them, and from the stars and the sun and the moon should man learn… all things tell of Tirawa.”

— Eagle Chief, Pawnee, late 19th century

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard.”

— Psalm 19:1-3

On Blackwater in Baghdad

I have long had problems with people who thump the Bible but never read it, much less heed it, but more and more it appears that the people who presently claim to lead our nation are ignoring their real, most trusted advisor as well:

“Mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous. If a prince bases the defense of his state on mercenaries he will never achieve stability or security. For mercenaries are disunited, thirsty for power, undisciplined and disloyal; they are brave among their friends and cowards before the enemy; they have no fear of God, they do not keep faith with their fellow men; they avoid defeat just so long as they avoid battle; in peacetime you are despoiled by them, and in wartime by the enemy.”

— From The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527)

To Love a Queen

My grand-nephew Jacob’s interest in chess has rekindled my own, and a day in London gave me the opportunity to visit the British Museum and see the Lewis Chess pieces. Much has been written about them, so I won’t repeat it all here, but they are the oldest complete set of chess pieces yet found, carved from walrus tusk and bone, possibly Norse or Icelandic, dating from the 1100’s. There are several of each piece, but it is the queens I love. Usually, in a figurative set, the queen is regal, icy, beautiful — all appropriate to her position as the most powerful piece on the board. But chess is a game of war, and a king must die, and the queens in the Lewis set seem to know that. They fear what their husband might do next, how goes the battle, if they are to be widowed or die themselves. They are not artificially beautiful, but human, the robes and crown failing to hide weight and age, one hand touches a worried face, another clutches an ale horn. They cannot put the vessel down or it will spill; they must hold it until it is empty. The war draws closer; its end is near. Which king will die?

The Little Girl at the Door

When I was walking in Canterbury, I came upon the local library, a great ark of a building. It was the gift of a wealthy benefactor, and it reminded me of the Skaneateles Library with its Barrow Gallery attached to it. Except here, the gallery was on the upper floor and went by the more elevated title of The Royal Museum and Art Gallery. All by itself, the old building was worth exploring, but the gallery, up a grand staircase, was filled with surprises. An exhibition of teapots, a room devoted to military history, and in one room, in a corner, one of the most arresting paintings I’ve ever seen.

It was tall, almost as large as its subjects, a girl in a dark hat and coat standing at a white door, about to turn the doorknob. Not the stuff of epic romance, but I couldn’t leave it. It cast a spell and I was caught. When I did manage to leave, I came back again. I don’t remember anything else in the room.

The painting was titled The Little Girl at the Door, and the artist was Harriet Halhed (1851 – 1933). She was born in Australia, but came to England and studied in Canterbury at the Sidney Cooper School of Art, at the Royal College of Art in London, and then in Paris under Louis Henri Deschamps. She came back to Canterbury where she painted, taught, and also did some sketches of sculptural details at the Canterbury Cathedral for the Kent Archeological Society.

One of her pupils, Janet Forbes, described her: “She wore strange, homespun, loose, sacklike clothes… girded herself with embroidered and studded belts and clasps and chains from Bulgaria, donned little Finnish fur hats, and beads from the Andaman Isles.” This was a woman my Aunt Rhea would have enjoyed.

Historical sources list both Foresters’ Hall in Canterbury and Sevenoaks, in Kent, as places where she lived or worked; in 1897, she went to London, where her studio was behind a Chelsea pub called “The Magpie and Stump,” which often furnished lunch for the artist and those she taught.

The Little Girl at the Door was exhibited in 1910 at the Royal Academy in London and at the Paris Salon, and 20 years later was presented to The Royal Museum & Art Gallery by 16 of her former students. There is little about the artist on the Web, just enough to offer a glimpse of a fascinating person and a fascinating painting. I’d love to know more, but I need to be grateful that our paths crossed at all.