Of Princes and Elephants

Last weekend I emerged from my convalescent’s lair into a cold world, just in time to catch The Lost Prince exhibition on its final day at the NPG.  It was a captivating history lesson; to be honest I don’t think I had realised that Charles I had an elder brother, still less that he had made such a cultural impact in his short life.  He appears to have been a precocious art collector and bibliophile – though companions such as the Earl of Arundel and prospective brides chosen for him may have helped considerably in this respect.  The Medici alliance brought bronzes from the studio of Giambologna, while Henry himself was drawn to Northern Renaissance paintings, intrigued by studies into perspective and trompe l’oeil effects in genre paintings, such as that of the laughing boy, face pressed to the painted windowpane.  He had Inigo Jones to design sets and costumes for his masques, and ships launched in his name, not to mention instigating the exploration of the north-west passage…  What impressed me was the suggestion of a transition from the stiff, formal court portraits, in which enormous care was lavished on evoking the luxurious fabrics and jewels, while the face remained formulaic (heraldry or inscription often added just to confirm identity), to the more human, expressive style that Rubens and Hals would come to epitomise.  I felt quite sorry for the frail child inserted into an intricate cage of precious metals.


It was a plaster elephant that stole the show in Les Miserables: The Movie.  Desperately rifling through my recollections of Parisian history, I eventually turned to Wikipedia, which informs me that it was part of a Napoleonic initiative to decorate the space left vacant by the fall of the Bastille.  No-one seemed to question why he chose an elephant.  I imagine Napoleon envisaging himself as a heroic Hannibal scaling the Alps… Victor Hugo refers to its inventor as the ‘General-in-chief of the army of Egypt.’ This seems an irrelevant euphemism for Napoleon as elephants do not naturally thrive in Egypt.  Though I suppose it would not be surprising if he harboured desires to conquer the rest of Africa. The plaster model was completed in 1814 – swiftly followed by Waterloo.  Subsequent uprisings, such as that recounted in the film, may have discouraged the authorities from using the bronze of captured guns to immortalise incongruous edifice.  It subsequently became infested with rats and started shedding its skin.  And still a caretaker lived in its leg!!  (In fact, imaginative and ambitious designs for an elephant shaped attraction had already been proposed by Charles Ribart in 1758.  Amazing).



Victor Hugo’s novel is apparently the only written source to describe contemporary public reaction to this debacle:

“It was falling into ruins; every season the plaster which detached itself from its sides formed hideous wounds upon it … There it stood in its corner, melancholy, sick, crumbling, surrounded by a rotten palisade, soiled continually by drunken coachmen; cracks meandered athwart its belly, a lath projected from its tail, tall grass flourished between its legs; and, as the level of the place had been rising all around it for a space of thirty years, by that slow and continuous movement which insensibly elevates the soil of large towns, it stood in a hollow, and it looked as though the ground were giving way beneath it. It was unclean, despised, repulsive, and superb, ugly in the eyes of the bourgeois, melancholy in the eyes of the thinker.  There was something about it of the dirt which is on the point of being swept out, and something of the majesty which is on the point of being decapitated.”

So much for the ‘grandiose skeleton’ of Napoleon’s dreams.


There was actually a full length article in the weekend paper (the proper, serious news section, not the telly supplement) questioning whether David Attenborough’s ‘Africa’ was manipulating the emotions of the viewing public.  Really??!!  Apparently there was a sad moment in last week’s episode where an elephant mourned her dead calf, which had induced tears.  Is this really newsworthy?  Should the BBC really have to defend itself for showing nature as it is?  Soon it will have to issue warnings prior to every dead badger reported on Points West (or is this already the case?)

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