Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Stormy Weather...18th century storm chasers

Harbor View from Cette, Claude-Joseph Vernet, mid 1700s
The volatile spring weather made itself boisterously apparent this past week in eastern North Carolina with severe thunderstorms and even devastating tornadoes striking within four miles of this author's home. It drove home the realization that storms during the 18th century were at least as damaging and our ancestors had no early warning system to batten down the hatches. Of course because, here along the shore, we have few basements since the foundations of our homes are so close to the water table, finding a safe haven in the case of an impending tornado is, at best, problematical even today.

A fairly recent phenomena is that of storm chasers. These people jump into vehicles of all description, cameras in hand, to catch the drama of a powerful storm, most often a tornado, as it descends from
Portrait of Claude-Joseph Vernet, Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, 1778
Mountain Landscape with Approaching Storm, Claude-Joseph Vernet, 1775

the heavens.

Looking over the Internet, I found many versions of storm chasers, 18th century style: painters who recreated the awesome, terrible beauty of storms, not just of tornadoes but of other severe weather that touched the lives of those around them. What they lacked in immediacy, they more than made up for in portraying the spirit of the storms. It appears to me, however, that Frenchman Claude-Joseph Vernet, 1714-1789, was the king of stormy paintings and so I present several of his works here for your perusal.
Mid-Day, Claude-Joseph Vernet, 1757

A Shipwreck on a Rocky Coast, Claude-Joseph Vernet, 1775
(This one is for sale by Whitfield Fine Art, London)

Soldiers in a Mountain Gorge with a Storm, Claude-Joseph Vernet,1789 
The Tempest, Claude-Joseph Vernet, 1762

And, of course, there is the calm before the storm... 
Seaport by Moonlight, Claude-Joseph Vernet, 1771

Have a good week, dear Reader. Thanks for stopping by...Y'all come back now...
and as Colonel Benjamin Hawkins of the late 18th century so famously wrote to 
President George Washington when asked to return to the nation's capital,
"God willing and the Creek don't rise!"
('Course he was probably referring to the Creek Indians, but we won't split hairs here.)


Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Real Robinson Crusoe...the 18th century castaway who inspired Defoe

Robinson Crusoe illustration by N.C. Wyeth
We are all familiar with the quintessential "stranded on a deserted island" story of 18th century author, Daniel Defoe: Robinson Crusoe. Many other stories and films have used it as a springboard including the 1812 novel, The Swiss Family Robinson, by Johann David Wyss (which was made into a 1960 Disney film followed by a 1970's television series version,) the 1960's science fiction spin with the television series, Lost in Space, as well as Tom Hanks' portrayal of the FedEx man stranded after a plane crash in the 2000 film, Cast Away.There are many more examples of fictional portrayals inspired by Defoe's character but who was his inspiration? I discovered the answer in a marvelous book, I have recently purchased, authored in 2007 by Colin Woodard. Woodard's book, based upon his extensive research of original documents of the early 18th century including letters, journals, court depositions, ships' logs, rosters, etc, bears a title with a sub-title long enough to make any 18th century author proud: The Republic of Pirates-- Being The True And Surprising Story Of the Caribbean Pirates And The Man Who Brought Them Down. 

Woodes Rogers Expedition from Bristol to Juan Fernandez Island from National Archives, U.K.
Now, regarding Defoe's inspiration, there really was a man rescued after having been stranded alone on a deserted island for many years. In early 1709 a two-ship privateering expedition (i.e., lawfully sanctioned piracy by British ships against Spanish and French ships,) led by Woodes Rogers, was attempting a foray around the globe when they were forced to  make an emergency stop at Juan Fernandez Island, some 400 miles off the Pacific coast of Chile. The seamen aboard the Duke and Dutchess were dropping like flies from scurvy due to the depletion of needed fruits and vegetables. Juan Fernandez was an island held by Spain but was so remote, its early colonization attempts failed and was only used sporadically by the Spaniards for their own stopovers for fresh water and produce. On the night of January 31, 1709, the island came into view of the two privateering ships. To the crews' dismay a campfire was seen flickering on the beach so, the next morning, they sailed into the harbor, guns at the ready. 
Juan Fernandez Island

Anchoring a mile offshore, no other ship was in sight and the island appeared deserted after all. As a landing boat rowed ashore, a wild-looking man clothed in goatskin, waving a white flag and yelling in excited English, came running to the shoreline. This solitary man, Alexander Selkirk, had been living alone for the previous four and half years with only the company of wild goats, rats and feral cats, the legacy left by early Spanish colonization attempts. And here was the great irony: the reason Selkirk was there at all, was because of a man sailing aboard one of the British ships at anchor. That man, William Dampier, had led a round-the-world privateering expedition back in 1704, but due to his mishandling of his ships' needs, he faced many lawsuits when he returned to England. His ships and crew were so mismanaged, a group of seamen on one of his consort ships, mutinied and sailed to the island of Juan Fernandez on their own. After they'd landed and helped themselves to the fresh water and naturally available food sources on the island, they discovered their ship's hull was riddled with holes from shipworms. Mate Selkirk, decided to take his chances for rescue and remain alone on the island rather than risk death at sea from a ship likely to sink during its voyage.

Robinson Crusoe illustration by Walter Stanley Paget
Scotsman Alexander Selkirk survived by running down and catching wild goats, eating their meat and stitching their hides for clothing and shelter. In time, he domesticated several to insure a ready supply of their life-saving properties. His enemies were the rats who nibbled at his toes at night but by befriending some of the hundreds of feral cats, he gained a measure of respite from their intrusion. He passed his time with survival activities and in reading a copy of the Bible he'd secured before watching his fellow mutineers sail away. Once, he narrowly escaped the hands of a Spanish landing party by hiding in the top of a tree under which the sailors were urinating. When Rogers first saw him, he described Selkirk as looking wilder than the animals who'd first worn the goatskins themselves and noted in his writings that the man was so unused to speaking, he spoke only in half sentences. After twelve days on the island the crew, refortified with tropical fruit, goat stew and broth and with Selkirk reassured that Dampier was not in charge of the expedition, sailed away for the next leg of their adventure.

Daniel Defoe's, Robinson Crusoe
Once back in England, Woodes Rogers published a book about his adventures at sea, A Cruising Voyage Around the World, including an account of the rescue of Alexander Selkirk. Journalist and author Daniel Defoe read this with great interest and went to Bristol to meet with Selkirk who became the inspiration for Defoe's best known work and spawner of numerous copycats, of which the full, original title including its substantial sub-title was, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver'd by Pyrates. 

In 1966, the Chilean government renamed Juan Fernandez Island, Robinson Crusoe Island.

As my dear father was fond of saying, "True story!"

And, now you know!

Have a good week, dear Reader. Thanks for stopping by...Y'all come back now! 


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Power of the Dog...a timely poem by Rudyard Kipling

My dear readers, I beg your patience and your indulgence this week as I depart from my usual sharing of 18th century research and take time to mourn the loss of our beloved dog, Betsy, who passed away in my arms April 13, 2014, just a month shy of her twelfth birthday. I am including a poem written by Rudyard Kipling who spoke to our nature of giving dogs our deepest love knowing, full well, their time on earth is far too short. Yes, Betsy's passing has torn my heart in two but for such a loving companion, I gladly give it to her, for it is the least I can do for such a pure soul.  

The Power of the Dog by Rudyard Kipling
There is sorrow enough in the natural way
From men and women to fill our day;
And when we are certain of sorrow in store,
Why do we always arrange for more?
Brothers and Sisters, I bid you beware
Of giving your heart to a dog to tear.

Buy a pup and your money will buy
Love unflinching that cannot lie --
Perfect passion and worship fed
By a kick in the ribs or a pat on the head.
Nevertheless it is hardly fair
To risk your heart for a dog to tear.

When the fourteen years which Nature permits
Are closing in asthma, or tumour, or fits,
And the vet's unspoken prescription runs
To lethal chambers or loaded guns,
Then you will find -- it's your own affair --
But . . . you've given your heart to a dog to tear.

When the body that lived at your single will,
With its whimper of welcome, is stilled (how still!)
When the spirit that answered your every mood
Is gone -- wherever it goes -- for good,
You will discover how much you care,
And will give your heart to a dog to tear.

We've sorrow enough in the natural way,
When it comes to burying Christian clay.
Our loves are not given, but only lent,
At compound interest of cent per cent.
Though it is not always the case, I believe,
That the longer we've kept'em, the more do we grieve;

For, when debts are payable, right or wrong,
A short-time loan is as bad as a long --
So why in -- Heaven (before we are there)
Should we give our hearts to a dog to tear?
The Author and Betsy
Have a good week, dear Reader. Thanks for stopping by...


Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Pirate 18th century bandits became Hollywood darlings

Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow of Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean
So, how did the Golden Age of Piracy, most prominent in the early 18th century, sail into history and into the hearts and minds of the public, spawning tales of adventure and romance on the high seas? How is it that a bunch of sea-going bandits has become the stuff of children's stories and blockbuster movies featuring endearing and often comical characters such as Johnny Depp's portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow in the 2003 Pirates of the Caribbean movie series which was, itself, inspired by a children's ride in Disney World? Sparrow followed in the footsteps of
Movie Poster from Disney's 1950 version of Treasure Island
 Robert Louis Stevenson's Long John Silver of
Treasure Island, 1883, and J. M. Barrie's Captain Hook of Peter Pan, 1904. Both Treasure Island and Peter Pan were made into films by the Walt Disney company during the 1950s and, of course, Walt Disney has always been about entertaining children (as well as young-at-heart adults.) 

My research gives some clues into this phenomenon. It seems that the roots of these pirate tales stem from the lives of men who were, in the beginning of their sea-going careers, often pressed into service by the British Royal Navy and then, once on board, mistreated under a variety of tyrannical captains. The means by which they became His or Her Majesty's seamen was sometimes by a blow to the head, after which they'd awaken aboard a tall ship with no means of escape, legal or otherwise. Agents of the Royal Navy would haunt taverns to scout for likely candidates and follow them out, clubs in hand, as the intended victims wove their inebriated paths toward home. As members of the Royal Navy, these unfortunate men often lived under harsh conditions and were paid little or nothing for their service. The captain's word was law and he could dole out any punishment from flogging to drowning at his order
From "The Last Battle of Blackbeard" by Edward Eggleston, 1895
and whim. That is not to say all captains were oppressive and all seamen were kidnapped, but enough were to build the foundation for the league of pirates, men who once they'd left the Royal Navy by whatever means they could, went into business for themselves. This was especially true for a man such as Edward Teach AKA Edward Thatch AKA Blackbeard who was trained as a "legal" pirate, known as a privateer, expected to capture and rob ships looked upon as enemies of the British realm. It was under Queen Anne that Blackbeard learned his trade and when his services were no longer needed, set out on his own to ply the profitable waters of the Atlantic. He even named his flagship, one he'd confiscated from the French, the Queen Anne's Revenge.

One of the things that set the pirates apart from the legally acceptable tyrants of the Royal Navy, was their relative democracy. Pirate seamen voted for their captains and could vote to depose them if things didn't work out well. They were also paid a great
The Pirate Flag of Blackbeard (designed to intimidate!)
deal more than they were while in the Royal Navy. "Honor among thieves" was a very real part of their world. There were, of course, pirate captains who were just as despicable as the worst of the Navy's and ruled their men with an iron fist gripped tightly around a cat-o-nine-tails, ready to lash out at the slightest hint of insubordination. Although there were atrocities among them, many a pirate leader used image and intimidation rather than cruelty as the means to their end. It is said that Blackbeard was a master at this with his frightening appearance enhanced by his naturally huge stature and his habit of tying slow-burning fuses in his long, black beard giving him the illusion of a creature straight from the gates of Hell. 

I believe the public formed a kind of admiration for these men (and a few pirate women) who, having suffered under the heavy hand of the all-powerful law of the land and sea, went on to form fairly democratic, albeit sometimes brutal, fellowships of their own and lived the life of "sticking it to the Man" that many secretly wished they could as well. This notion has made its way down to our present time, long after the last of such pirates was pardoned by royal decree, retired through self-exile or hanged on the gallows.
The Author striking a piratical pose at the Queen Anne's Revenge exhibit
 in New Berm NC. 2014

Have a good week, dear Reader. Thanks for stopping by...Y'all come back now! (Arrrgh!)


Wednesday, April 2, 2014

18th Century Selfies...revealing self-portraits

Clearly, this yawning self-portrait of Joseph Ducreux,
1783, shows the artist did not take himself too seriously.
In this age of cell phone selfies popping up all over the Web capturing self-portraits of celebrities, wannabe celebrities, teenagers, adults, toddlers (who've grabbed their parents phones to imitate them with often hilarious parodies of said parents,) and even shamed political figures one would think would know better, I pondered the selfies of former days. Of course, those selfies were created by accomplished artists. What do those self-portraits say about their subjects, the artists themselves? I'm sure many of them were honest portrayals but, even before the days of photo-shopped enhancements, there must have been the temptation to paint one's self in the most flattering light. So, this week I've searched the Internet and harvested a few of those 18th century selfies for your edification and enjoyment:
Judging by these self-portraits of Decreux, this one from 1793, the artist
had quite a sense of humor. But there's something about his expression, here, that
makes me think I wouldn't want to get on his wrong side and become the butt of his jokes.
I can imagine the title for this self-portrait as Gotcha! 
Now, here is an artist who took himself VERY seriously but you
probably would have too if you'd been Jacques-Louis David painting
 this while imprisoned during the French Revolution in 1784.

Blame my art history ignorance but, until I began hunting down 18th century artists for my research, I was unaware of the number of accomplished female artists of the era. Here, in all their finery, are just a couple I ran across:

Yes, female artists of the time were expected to paint dressed up in their
 fashionable ensembles as seen here in Adelaide Labille-Guiard's self-portrait 
with pupils in 1784. 
(I can't even eat a bowl of spaghetti without splattering it all over my clothes!)

This beauty, Marie-Gabrielle Capet, appears to like what she sees 
in her 1783 self-portrait, but who could blame her?

I ran across a number of self-portraits, male and female, featuring artists 
shading their eyes as here with Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1745.

Perhaps those artists plagued with sun in their eyes should have followed 
the example of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin as seen in his 1775 self-portrait
 wearing a clever visor and, take note ladies, protecting his hair with a turban!

Gotta love a man who puts his dog before him!
 This is the self-portrait of Englishman, William Hogarth with his pug, Trump, in 1745.

The Author's 18th Century Selfie 
(with a little help from Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun)

Have a good week, dear Reader. Thanks for stopping by...Y'all come back now!