Mar 142017
 

Today is the birthday (1836) of Isabella Beeton, known now universally as Mrs Beeton, whose recipes from her Book of Household Management I have given here many times.  There’s no great need to review her life and history of publication of her cookbook, which has gone through multiple editions and is still in print. Of course, the recipes from 1861 have gone the way of all things. Later 20th century editions used metric measures, were very precise in their lists of ingredients, and all the recipes were thoroughly kitchen tested.  When I was growing up my mother used a 1939 edition (affectionately known as “Ma Beeton”) which was given to her as a wedding present in 1944, inscribed lovingly by her parents who were born in the Victorian era, and who spent their whole working lives as household servants.  This was my first cookbook too when I was a boy, and I inherited it from my mother after she died.  I always imagined that Mrs Beeton was a starchy mob-capped old Victorian household cook (hence “Ma Beeton”). It never dawned on me that she was a well-to-do woman who died in her twenties until I started exploring her history. I also never realized the vast difference between her recipes and those in later editions until I bought a facsimile of the first edition.  In my oh so humble opinion, the first edition is still the best.  You can peruse it here:

http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/10136

In the 20th century the first edition came in for a lot of criticism for being a work of plagiarism and for the assertion that Isabella herself had little knowledge of cooking. Based on my own research I think that this criticism is unfair.

Isabella’s unmarried name was Mayson, and she was born in Marylebone, London. Shortly after Isabella’s birth the family moved to Milk Street, Cheapside, where her father Benjamin traded linen. He died when Isabella was four years old, and her mother, Elizabeth, pregnant and unable to cope with raising the children on her own while maintaining Benjamin’s business, sent her two elder daughters to live with relatives. Isabella went to live with her recently widowed paternal grandfather in Great Orton, Cumberland, though she was back with her mother within the next two years.

Three years after Benjamin’s death Elizabeth married Henry Dorling, a widower with four children. Henry was the Clerk of Epsom Racecourse, and had been granted residence within the racecourse grounds. The family, including Elizabeth’s mother, moved to Surrey and over the next twenty years Henry and Elizabeth had a further 13 children. Isabella was instrumental in her siblings’ upbringing, and collectively referred to them as a “living cargo of children.” The experience gave her a great deal of insight and experience in how to manage a family and its household at an early age.

After a brief education at a boarding school in Islington, in 1851 Isabella was sent to school in Heidelberg, accompanied by her stepsister Jane Dorling. Isabella became proficient in the piano and excelled in French and German.  She also gained knowledge and experience in making pastry. She had returned to Epsom by the summer of 1854 and took further lessons in pastry-making from a local baker. All in all, therefore, to accuse her of simply compiling recipes and household advice from others and then copying it is a gross distortion.  It’s true that she used recipes from the works of others, but this was (and is) normal practice.  Furthermore there is clear evidence that she kitchen tested most, if not all, of her recipes.  Isabella’s half-sister, Lucy Smiles, was asked after her death concerning her memories of the book’s development. She recalled:

Different people gave their recipes for the book. That for Baroness pudding (a suet pudding with a plethora of raisins) was given by the Baroness de Tessier, who lived at Epsom. No recipe went into the book without a successful trial, and the home at Pinner was the scene of many experiments and some failures. I remember Isabella coming out of the kitchen one day, ‘This won’t do at all,’ she said, and gave me the cake that had turned out like a biscuit. I thought it very good. It had currants in it.

I don’t see how you can read this and still think that Isabella was just a rank plagiarist. I think that her sister probably overstates the case in asserting that every recipe was tested, but I am sure the majority were.  What is more to the point is that her recipes are all clear and relatively easy to follow, unlike those of previous generations. She gives lists of ingredients with exact quantities, straightforward directions, and indications of seasonality and cost per person. Her additional remarks about farming practices, hunting, and the like are a bonus. It is true that you need to have some experience in cooking to follow her recipes, and you need to know something about the Victorian kitchen to make sense of the directions sometimes. If you’re not familiar with cooking on a wood-fired stove (which I am) you can get a little lost from time to time, but experience ought to direct you. The reason I give her recipes here frequently is that they are good recipes, and I applaud her on her birthday.

There is no mention in the first edition of birthday cakes, and very little reference to birthdays at all (only to birthday dinners in ancient Greece).  Never mind. Here is her recipe for yeast cake which I think is quite delectable and well suited as her birthday cake.

A NICE YEAST-CAKE.

  1. INGREDIENTS.—1-1/2 lb. of flour, 1/2 lb. of butter, 1/2 pint of milk, 1-1/2 tablespoonful of good yeast, 3 eggs, 3/4 lb. of currants, 1/2 lb. of white moist sugar, 2 oz. of candied peel.

Mode.—Put the milk and butter into a saucepan, and shake it round over a fire until the butter is melted, but do not allow the milk to get very hot. Put the flour into a basin, stir to it the milk and butter, the yeast, and eggs, which should be well beaten, and form the whole into a smooth dough. Let it stand in a warm place, covered with a cloth, to rise, and, when sufficiently risen, add the currants, sugar, and candied peel cut into thin slices. When all the ingredients are thoroughly mixed, line 2 moderate-sized cake-tins with buttered paper, which should be about six inches higher than the tin; pour in the mixture, let it stand to rise again for another 1/2 hour, and then bake the cakes in a brisk oven for about 1-1/2 hour. If the tops of them become too brown, cover them with paper until they are done through. A few drops of essence of lemon, or a little grated nutmeg, may be added when the flavour is liked.

Time.—From 1-1/4 to 1-1/2 hour. Average cost, 2s.

Sufficient to make 2 moderate-sized cakes.

Seasonable at any time.

If you want to have a sugar fit you can add almond icing; I prefer the cake plain.

ALMOND ICING FOR CAKES.

  1. INGREDIENTS.—To every lb. of finely-pounded loaf sugar allow 1 lb. of sweet almonds, the whites of 4 eggs, a little rose-water.

Mode.—Blanch the almonds, and pound them (a few at a time) in a mortar to a paste, adding a little rose-water to facilitate the operation. Whisk the whites of the eggs to a strong froth; mix them with the pounded almonds, stir in the sugar, and beat altogether. When the cake is sufficiently baked, lay on the almond icing, and put it into the oven to dry. Before laying this preparation on the cake, great care must be taken that it is nice and smooth, which is easily accomplished by well beating the mixture.

Jan 112017
 

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Since 2010 this date has been designated as Tag des deutschen Apfels (German Apples Day) in Germany, a campaign started by the National Association of Fruit and Vegetables Producers as a part of a more general campaign: “Germany – My Garden” to raise awareness of farm products that are locally grown. The main objective of German Apples Day is to draw public attention to apples and make them more popular across the country.  January might seem like an odd month to celebrate apples given that in Germany at this time of year apple trees are bare. But the good thing about apples is that they keep well over the winter months if they are stored at cool temperatures.

The German apple growing area was about 32,000 hectares (79,000 acres) in 2012, a little less than in  2007, although the number of apple trees increased by about 6% to about 72 million. Roughly 87% of the apples are sold fresh for eating and cooking. The remaining 13% are processed. The most popular varieties Elstar, Jonagold, Janagored, and Braeburn.  All told, though, there are between 3,000 and 5,000 varieties of apples grown in Germany, but some of the heirloom varieties are becoming quite rare.  The great proliferation of varieties stems from historical needs. Some were used for wine and cider, some for cooking, some for long storage and so forth, and different varieties were especially well suited for specific locations.  The apple is still by far the most popular fruit in Germany but there is concern that popularity is waning and the diversity of choices is decreasing.

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German Apples Day is celebrated by giving out hundreds of thousands of apples in major cities in Germany. Every year locally grown apples are distributed to schools and businesses, and even to passers-by in the streets for free.

Today is a good day to celebrate apples by using them in cooking. In past posts I have given recipes for apple pancakes, apple pie, apple strudel, apple crumble etc. Today it seems fitting to give a recipe for German apple cake, a very moist cake loaded with apples.

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German Apple Cake

Ingredients

2 eggs
1 cup vegetable oil
2 cups white sugar
2 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
4 cups  peeled, cored and diced apples

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 350°F/175°C. Grease and flour one 9″x 13″ cake pan.

In a mixing bowl beat the oil and eggs with an electric mixer until creamy. Add the sugar and vanilla and beat well.

Combine the flour, salt, baking soda, and ground cinnamon together in a bowl. Slowly add this mixture to the egg mixture and mix until combined. The batter will be very thick. Fold in the apples by hand using a wooden spoon.

Spread the batter into the prepared pan.

Bake for 45 minutes or until cake a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.

Let the cake cool a little on a wire rack, then turn it out on to a serving plate. Dust with confectioners’ sugar and serve.

May 162016
 

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Today is  Whit Monday in Britain and the Commonwealth and Pentecost Monday in other parts of the world. It is a civic rather than a church festival. The Monday after Pentecost is a holiday in Austria, Antigua and Barbuda, Anguilla, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belgium, Catalonia, Cyprus, Denmark, Dominica, France, Germany, Greece, Grenada, Hungary, Iceland, Ivory Coast, Luxembourg, Monaco, Montserrat, the Netherlands, Norway, Romania, Saint Lucia, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands, Switzerland, Togo and Ukraine. In France, it became a work day for many workers from 2005 to 2007. This was to raise extra funds following the government’s lack of preparation for a summertime heat wave, which led to a shortage of proper health care for the elderly. It continues now to be a public holiday in France.

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In Liechtenstein, Whit Monday is an extremely popular holiday akin to Christmas in other countries. Until 1973, Whit Monday was a public holiday in Ireland (also called a bank holiday). It was a bank holiday in the United Kingdom until 1967. It was formally replaced by the fixed Spring Bank Holiday on the last Monday in May in 1971. It was also a public holiday in various former British colonies, especially in the Pacific. It remains a public holiday in some of the countries of the Commonwealth Caribbean. In Sweden, Whit Monday was a public holiday until 2004 when it was replaced by the National Day of Sweden.

Nowadays countries generally dislike having public holidays that are pegged to the date of Easter and, therefore, swing about the calendar so much. Whit Monday can fall anywhere from early May to mid-June. It’s rather early this year and that means that the weather will be unpredictable in Britain. The newer Spring Bank Holiday makes things a little more fixed and predictable, but the weather is still anyone’s guess.

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Whit Monday, though tied to religious festivals, is not especially religious in itself in most parts of the world. In some Germanic Catholic regions it is, but for most people and cultures it’s just an excuse for a holiday. I’m up for that. A random day off work never hurts, especially if it extends the weekend. In England, Whit Monday used to be a day off that could be used for picnics, political rallies, outings and so forth much as Spring Bank Holiday is now. But for me the most important aspect of the day is that it used to be a chance for morris dancers to begin their dance season.

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I wrote the definitive history of morris dancing, in large part to dispel so much rubbish talked about its history. So many people want to see it as a “survival” of ancient pre-Christian ritual because they have been drawn in by ludicrous 19th century speculations about its history based on one or two dubious sources. Morris dancing in England cannot be traced further back than the 15th century and the references from that time are sparse and unhelpful. Things get better in the 16th century, but it is the 17th through 19th centuries when the picture gets clearer. When you actually collect together ALL the extant records, as I did over a 30-year period, it is perfectly clear that morris dancing was first a royal entertainment, then got adopted by churches as part of their annual festivities, then got banned during the Reformation, and finally re-emerged during the Restoration, and later, as a rural pastime for fun and to make money.

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People want to peg morris dancing to May Day because they want to believe that it is an old pagan ritual in new guise, but the history shows that it was more common to dance on Whit Monday, not because it was a religious holiday, but because it was a day off for fun. As morris dancing died out at the end of the 19th century, dancing on Whit Monday withered also. But it did survive in the town of Bampton in Oxfordshire, and continues to this day, although shifted to Bank Holiday Monday nowadays.

Festivities in Bampton have grown significantly over the years, but the general course of the day remains the same. The Bampton dancers tour the town during the day, stopping at carefully scheduled sites. Fixed scheduling is necessary because in the 1960s the dancers fissioned into two competing teams who did not want to collide, but both wanted to share the day. Then they were known by the family names of their respective leaders (Woodley and Shergold), and each group had their followers. I was in the Shergold camp. Now there are THREE teams !!!

Bampton dancers on Whit Monday 1979 Photo © Bill Smith 28th May 1979

Photo © Bill Smith 28th May 1979

After the daytime dancing, teams from various parts of the country are invited to dance. I danced there with Oxford University Morris Men in the early 1970s. Once in a while I pop back for a visit, but it is not often, and I have not been there since the 1990s. The cast of characters does not change much. I can’t go this year, but if I attend some time in the future I’m bound to run into old friends. That’s the value of classic calendar customs. Forget the ancient, pagan nonsense. Whit Monday is a day off to have fun, and it was 200 years ago as well.

Whit Monday is not associated with particular foods. The word Whit is an abbreviation of Whitsun, from Whitsunday  and ultimately White Sunday. The general conjecture is that Whitsunday was so called because baptismal candidates and new communicants wore white, and Pentecost has historically been associated with baptism and first communion. Some people, therefore, like to prepare white foods in celebration. Well, I mentioned red foods yesterday for Pentecost, so white foods would be all right, although hardly thrilling.

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We’re talking about rice, pasta, cauliflower, coconut, and so forth. Many foods that are called “white,” such as beans, are not really white, and white foods in general can be bland. Wherever they are staples they are dressed up with a sauce or condiment. You’re not going to find me eating tofu by itself.  Generally speaking, adding “white” to any food turns me off: white bread, white cake, white pepper, white sauce. Ugh. White food even looks unappetizing to me. If you want to make a white meal to celebrate, go ahead, but don’t invite me.

Though it goes against the grain, here’s a recipe for white cake from Bolivia. It is salvaged for me by the generous addition of lemon. Vanilla would be all right too. “Vanilla” is often treated as a synonym for “bland” which is unfair. This comes about because typical commercial vanilla ice-creams are white and tasteless. True vanilla is not white and is not bland.

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Bolivian White Cake

Ingredients

Cake

1 cup flour
1½ tsp. baking powder
¼ cup cornstarch
⅛ tsp salt
3 eggs, beaten
1 cup white sugar
grated zest of ½ lemon
5 tbsp water

Icing

3 cups powdered sugar
1 tsp lemon extract
3 tbsp melted butter
3 tbsp hot water

Instructions

Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly grease a 9-inch-square baking pan.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, cornstarch, and salt. Set aside.

Place the eggs in a separate bowl, making sure that they are thoroughly beaten and frothy. Add the sugar to the eggs slowly and beat vigorously as you go. Using a stand mixer for this step is best. Add the  lemon and water to  the egg mixture and continue to beat well.

If you are using a stand mixer, remove the bowl and fold in the flour mixture, a little at a time. Do not over mix, but make sure the batter is smooth.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 25 to 30 minutes. Use a toothpick to test for doneness. Insert one into the center of the cake after about 20 minutes and see if it comes out clean.  As soon as it does remove the cake from the oven. Let it cool for several minutes and then turn it out on a wire rake to cook completely.

Meanwhile make the icing. Beat all the icing ingredients together in a small bowl.  You can use a stand mixer but do not beat too hard.  The icing needs to be creamy, but not frothy. Spread the icing evenly along the top and sides of the cake. You can chill the cake to allow the icing to harden if you like.

Nov 122015
 

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Today is the birthday (1840) of François Auguste René Rodin, renowned French sculptor. Although Rodin is generally considered the progenitor of modern sculpture, he did not set out to rebel against the past. Sculpturally, Rodin possessed a unique ability to model a complex, turbulent, deeply pocketed surface in clay. Many of his most notable sculptures were roundly criticized during his lifetime. They clashed with the predominant figure sculpture tradition, in which works were decorative, formulaic, or highly thematic. Rodin’s most original work departed from traditional themes of mythology and allegory, modeled the human body with realism, and celebrated individual character and physicality. Rodin was sensitive to the controversy surrounding his work, but refused to change his style. Successive works brought increasing favor from the government and the artistic community.

From the unexpected realism of his first major figure – inspired by his 1875 trip to Italy – to the unconventional memorials whose commissions he later sought, Rodin’s reputation grew, such that he became the preeminent French sculptor of his time. By 1900, he was a world-renowned artist. Wealthy private clients sought Rodin’s work after his World’s Fair exhibit, and he kept company with a variety of high-profile intellectuals and artists. His sculptures suffered a decline in popularity after his death in 1917, but within a few decades, his legacy solidified. Rodin remains one of the few sculptors widely known outside the visual arts community.

Rodin was born in 1840 into a working-class family in Paris, the second child of Marie Cheffer and Jean-Baptiste Rodin, who was a police department clerk. He was largely self-educated, and began to draw at age ten. Between ages 14 and 17, Rodin attended the Petite École, a school specializing in art and mathematics, where he studied drawing and painting.

In 1857, Rodin submitted a clay model of a companion to the École des Beaux-Arts in an attempt to win entrance. But he did not succeed, and two further applications were also denied. Given that entrance requirements at the Grande École were not particularly high, the rejections were considerable setbacks. Rodin’s inability to gain entrance may have been due to the judges’ Neoclassical tastes, while Rodin had been schooled in light, 18th century sculpture. Leaving the Petite École in 1857, Rodin earned a living as a craftsman and ornamenter for most of the next two decades, producing decorative objects and architectural embellishments.

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In 1864, Rodin began to live with a young seamstress named Rose Beuret, with whom he would stay – with ranging commitment – for the rest of his life. The couple had a son, Auguste-Eugène Beuret (1866–1934). That year, Rodin offered his first sculpture for exhibition, and entered the studio of Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse, a successful mass producer of objets d’art. Rodin worked as Carrier-Belleuse’ chief assistant until 1870, designing roof decorations and staircase and doorway embellishments. With the arrival of the Franco-Prussian War, Rodin was called to serve in the National Guard, but his service was brief due to his near-sightedness. Decorators’ work had dwindled because of the war, yet Rodin needed to support his family; poverty was a continual difficulty for Rodin until about the age of 30. Carrier-Belleuse soon asked Rodin to join him in Belgium, where they would work on ornamentation for Brussels’ bourse.

Rodin planned to stay in Belgium a few months, but he spent the next six years out of France. It was a pivotal time in his life. He had acquired skill and experience as a craftsman, but no one had yet seen his art, which sat in his workshop because he could not afford castings. Having saved enough money to travel, Rodin visited Italy for two months in 1875, where he was drawn to the work of Donatello and Michelangelo. Their work had a profound effect on his artistic direction. Rodin said, “It is Michelangelo who has freed me from academic sculpture.” Returning to Belgium, he began work on The Age of Bronze, a life-size male figure whose realism brought Rodin attention but led to accusations of sculptural cheating.

Rodin earned his living collaborating with more established sculptors on public commissions, primarily memorials and neo-baroque architectural pieces in the style of Carpeaux. In competitions for commissions he submitted models of Denis Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Lazare Carnot, all to no avail. On his own time, he worked on studies leading to the creation of his next important work, St. John the Baptist Preaching.

In 1880, Carrier-Belleuse – now art director of the Sèvres national porcelain factory – gave Rodin a part-time position as a designer. That part of Rodin which appreciated 18th-century tastes was aroused, and he immersed himself in designs for vases and table ornaments that brought the factory renown across Europe. The artistic community appreciated his work in this vein, and Rodin was invited to Paris Salons by such friends as writer Léon Cladel. French statesman Leon Gambetta expressed a desire to meet Rodin, and the sculptor impressed him when they met at a salon. Gambetta spoke of Rodin in turn to several government ministers, likely including Edmund Turquet, the Undersecretary of the Ministry of Fine Arts, whom Rodin eventually met.

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Rodin’s relationship with Turquet was rewarding: through him, he won the 1880 commission to create a portal for a planned museum of decorative arts. Rodin dedicated much of the next four decades to his elaborate Gates of Hell, an unfinished portal for a museum that was never built. Many of the portal’s figures became sculptures in themselves, including Rodin’s most famous, The Thinker and The Kiss. With the museum commission came a free studio, granting Rodin a new level of artistic freedom. Soon, he stopped working at the porcelain factory; his income coming from private commissions.

Although busy with The Gates of Hell, Rodin won other commissions. He pursued an opportunity to create an historical monument for the town of Calais, and was chosen for a monument to French author Honoré de Balzac in 1891. His execution of both sculptures clashed with traditional tastes, and met with varying degrees of disapproval from the organizations that sponsored the commissions. Still, Rodin was gaining support from diverse sources that propelled him toward fame.

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The Thinker (originally titled The Poet, after Dante) was to become one of the most well-known sculptures in the world. The original was a 27.5-inch (700 mm)-high bronze piece created between 1879 and 1889, designed for the Gates of Hell’s lintel, from which the figure would gaze down upon Hell. While The Thinker most obviously characterizes Dante, aspects of the Biblical Adam, the mythological Prometheus.

During the Hundred Years’ War, the army of King Edward III besieged Calais, and Edward ordered that the town’s population be killed en masse. He agreed to spare them if six of the principal citizens would come to him prepared to die, bareheaded and barefooted, and with ropes around their necks. When they came, he ordered that they be executed, but pardoned them when his queen, Philippa of Hainault, begged him to spare their lives. The Burghers of Calais depicts the men as they are leaving for the king’s camp, carrying keys to the town’s gates and citadel.

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Rodin began the project in 1884, inspired by the chronicles of the siege by Jean Froissart. Though the town envisioned an allegorical, heroic piece centered on Eustache de Saint-Pierre, the eldest of the six men, Rodin conceived the sculpture as a study in the varied and complex emotions under which all six men were laboring. One year into the commission, the Calais committee was not impressed with Rodin’s progress. Rodin indicated his willingness to end the project rather than change his design to meet the committee’s conservative expectations, but Calais said to continue.

In 1889, The Burghers of Calais was first displayed to general acclaim. It is a bronze sculpture weighing two tons (1,814 kg), and its figures are 6.6 ft (2 m) tall. The six men portrayed do not display a united, heroic front; rather, each is isolated from his companions, individually deliberating and struggling with his expected fate. Rodin soon proposed that the monument’s high pedestal be eliminated, wanting to move the sculpture to ground level so that viewers could “penetrate to the heart of the subject”. At ground level, the figures’ positions lead the viewer around the work, and subtly suggest their common movement forward.

The committee was incensed by the nontraditional proposal, but Rodin would not yield. In 1895, Calais succeeded in having Burghers displayed in their preferred form: the work was placed in front of a public garden on a high platform, surrounded by a cast-iron railing. Rodin had wanted it located near the town hall, where it would engage the public. Only after damage during the First World War, subsequent storage, and Rodin’s death was the sculpture displayed as he had intended. It is one of Rodin’s best-known and most acclaimed works.

Commissioned to create a monument to French writer Victor Hugo in 1889, Rodin dealt extensively with the subject of artist and muse. Like many of Rodin’s public commissions, Monument to Victor Hugo was met with resistance because it did not fit conventional expectations. Commenting on Rodin’s monument to Victor Hugo, The Times in 1909 expressed that “there is some show of reason in the complaint that [Rodin’s] conceptions are sometimes unsuited to his medium, and that in such cases they overstrain his vast technical powers”. The 1897 plaster model was not cast in bronze until 1964.

The popularity of Rodin’s most famous sculptures tends to obscure his total creative output. A prolific artist, he created thousands of busts, figures, and sculptural fragments over more than five decades. He painted in oils (especially in his thirties) and in watercolors. The Musée Rodin holds 7,000 of his drawings and prints, in chalk and charcoal, and thirteen drypoints. He also produced a single lithograph.

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Later, with his reputation established, Rodin made busts of prominent contemporaries such as English politician George Wyndham (1905), Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw (1906), Austrian composer Gustav Mahler (1909), former Argentinian president Domingo Faustino Sarmiento and French statesman Georges Clemenceau (1911).

After the revitalization of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in 1890, Rodin served as the body’s vice-president. In 1903, Rodin was elected president of the International Society of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers. He replaced its former president, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, upon Whistler’s death. His election to the prestigious position was largely due to the efforts of Albert Ludovici, father of English philosopher Anthony Ludovici, who was private secretary to Rodin for several months in 1906, but the two men parted company after Christmas, “to their mutual relief.”

During his later creative years, Rodin’s work turned increasingly toward the female form, and themes of more overt masculinity and femininity. He concentrated on small dance studies, and produced numerous erotic drawings, sketched in a loose way, without taking his pencil from the paper or his eyes from the model. Rodin met American dancer Isadora Duncan in 1900, attempted to seduce her, and the next year sketched studies of her and her students. In July 1906, Rodin was also enchanted by dancers from the Royal Ballet of Cambodia, and produced some of his most famous drawings from the experience.

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Fifty-three years into their relationship, Rodin married Rose Beuret. The wedding was 29 January 1917, and Beuret died two weeks later, on 16 February. Rodin was ill that year; in January, he suffered weakness from influenza, and on 16 November his physician announced that “congestion of the lungs has caused great weakness. The patient’s condition is grave.” Rodin died the next day, age 77, at his villa in Meudon, Île-de-France, on the outskirts of Paris.

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A cast of The Thinker was placed next to his tomb in Meudon; it was Rodin’s wish that the figure serve as his headstone and epitaph. In 1923, Marcell Tirel, Rodin’s secretary, published a book alleging that Rodin’s death was largely due to cold, and the fact that he had no heat at Meudon. Rodin requested permission to stay in the Hotel Biron, a museum of his works, but the director of the museum refused to let him stay there.

Rodin willed to the French state his studio and the right to make casts from his plasters. Because he encouraged the edition of his sculpted work, Rodin’s sculptures are represented in many public and private collections. The Musée Rodin was founded in 1916 and opened in 1919 at the Hôtel Biron, where Rodin had lived, and it holds the largest Rodin collection, with more than 6,000 sculptures and 7,000 works on paper.

I could probably dredge up for you a suitable Parisian recipe for you to celebrate Rodin, but I feel an inherent connexion between Rodin, decorative art, and cake making. So instead of a recipe I leave you with two images of wedding cakes using The Kiss as their motif. There’s also a certain ironic twist here in that Rodin had a relationship with the same woman – off and on – for decades and yet only married her weeks before her death.

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Jan 052015
 

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Twelfth Night is an old festival, in some Christian cultures (chiefly in Europe), more or less obsolete now, marking the coming of the Epiphany (6 January). It had its heyday from Regency to Victorian times in England. Different traditions mark the date of Twelfth Night on either 5th January or 6th January. The Church of England, Mother Church of the Anglican Communion, celebrates Twelfth Night on the ­­­­5th calling it the equivalent of the eve of Epiphany. In Western Church traditions the Twelfth Night concludes the Twelve Days of Christmas, although in others the Twelfth Night can precede the Twelfth Day. Generally speaking it’s a question of how you count the Twelve Days. In 567 the Council of Trent established the liturgical season of Christmas as lasting from Christmas Day to Epiphany, so many people assume that Epiphany is Twelfth Night. This cannot be correct unless you make 26 December the 1st day of Christmas. To put it bluntly, this is absurd. Christmas Day is the first day of Christmas, so 5th January is the 12th day, and Epiphany comes next (see tomorrow’s post). In fact they are two quite distinct festivals although over time cultures have muddled them up. Nowadays if households celebrate the end of the Christmas season at all they do so on Epiphany and not Twelfth Night – hence the muddling of traditions. But a few communities have revived old customs although they have been modernized considerably. In London, for example, in several boroughs there are big parades, but they incorporate folk customs, such as morris dancing, that have nothing to do with Christmas.

A belief has arisen in more modern times, in some English-speaking countries, that it is unlucky to leave Christmas decorations hanging after Twelfth Night, a tradition originally attached to the festival of Candlemas (2 February) which was once the official end of the Christmas season. They took all the decorations down in my hostel today.

In medieval and Tudor England, the Twelfth Night marked the end of a winter festival that started on All Hallows Eve (Halloween). Usually it had an element of social inversion, in which the people of high social class adopted a low status and vice versa. Such customs generally disappeared around the time of the Industrial Revolution when they were conceived of as a threat to social order. Historically on Twelfth Night some method would be chosen to elect a Twelfth King. Commonly it was by drawing cards from a special deck which assigned various roles to guests – including king. The king ruled the feast until midnight and could order tomfoolery. In Regency and Victorian times the role was assigned by eating a cake that contained a bean and a pea. The cake was eaten at the start of the meal, and who got the bean was king and who got the pea was queen. There is reasonable evidence that such “elections” were rigged.

The major point of Twelfth Night is to go out of Christmas with a bang, so food and drink are central. Like Christmas, Twelfth Night gatherings tend to be home party affairs (with guests).

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In colonial America, a Christmas wreath was always left up on the front door of each home, and when taken down at the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas, any edible portions would be eaten with the other foods of the feast. The same held true in the 19th and early 20th centuries with fruits adorning Christmas trees. Fresh fruits were hard to come by, and were therefore considered fine and proper gifts and decorations for the tree, wreaths, and home. Again, the tree would be taken down on Twelfth Night, and such fruits, along with nuts and other local produce used, would then be eaten.

In families who still celebrate Twelfth Night, all the remaining special foods such as Christmas puddings and mince pies must be eaten. My mother always made a Twelfth plate and I continue in the family custom. Here’s mine from 2 years ago.

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Drury Lane Theatre in London has had a tradition since 1795 of providing a Twelfth Night cake. The will of Robert Baddeley made a bequest of £100 to provide cake and punch every year for the company in residence at the theatre on 6 January. The tradition still continues now with a procession as well.

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William Shakespeare wrote the play Twelfth Night, around 1601 on royal request to be performed as a Twelfth Night entertainment. The earliest known performance took place at Middle Temple Hall, one of the Inns of Court, on Candlemas night, 2 February 1602. The play has many social elements that are reversed, in the tradition of Tudor Twelfth Night revels, such as a woman, Viola, dressing as a man, and a servant Malvolio imagining that he can become a nobleman. The wonderful element that few today know is that women in Shakespeare’s day were played by boys. So the part of Viola was a boy playing a woman pretending to be a man – being courted by Olivia, a woman being played by a boy. The complex sexual and social overtones would have been hilarious to contemporary audiences but are lost on modern audiences because the women’s parts are played by women.

Ben Jonson’s The Masque of Blackness was performed on 6 January 1605 at the Banqueting House in Whitehall. It was originally entitled The Twelvth Nights Revells. The accompanying Masque, The Masque of Beauty was performed in the same court the Sunday night after the Twelfth Night in 1608.

Robert Herrick’s poem “Twelfe-Night, or King and Queene,” published in 1648, describes the election of king and queen by bean and pea in a plum cake, and the homage done to them by the draining of wassail bowls of “lamb’s-wool”, a drink of sugar, nutmeg, ginger and ale.

NOW, now the mirth comes
With the cake full of plums,
Where bean’s the king of the sport here ;
Beside we must know,
The pea also
Must revel, as queen, in the court here.

Begin then to choose,
This night as ye use,
Who shall for the present delight here,
Be a king by the lot,
And who shall not

Be Twelfth-day queen for the night here.
Which known, let us make
Joy-sops with the cake ;
And let not a man then be seen here,
Who unurg’d will not drink
To the base from the brink
A health to the king and queen here.

Next crown a bowl full
With gentle lamb’s wool :
Add sugar, nutmeg, and ginger,
With store of ale too ;
And thus ye must do
To make the wassail a swinger.

Give then to the king
And queen wassailing :
And though with ale ye be whet here,
Yet part from hence
As free from offence
As when ye innocent met here.

Charles Dickens’ 1843 A Christmas Carol briefly mentions Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present visiting a children’s Twelfth Night party.

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In Chapter 6 of Harrison Ainsworth’s 1858 novel Mervyn Clitheroe, the eponymous hero is elected King of festivities at the Twelfth Night celebrations held in Tom Shakeshaft’s barn, by receiving the slice of plum cake containing the bean; his companion Cissy obtains the pea and becomes queen, and they are seated together in a high corner to view the proceedings. The distribution has been rigged to prevent another person gaining the role. The festivities include country dances, and the introduction of a “Fool Plough”, a plough decked with ribands brought into the barn by a dozen mummers together with a grotesque “Old Bessie” (played by a man) and a Fool dressed in animal skins with a fool’s hat. The mummers carry wooden swords and perform revelries. The scene in the novel is illustrated by Hablot Knight Browne (“Phiz”). In the course of the evening, the fool’s antics cause a fight to break out, but Mervyn restores order. Three bowls of gin punch are disposed of, and at eleven o’clock the young men make the necessary arrangements to see the young ladies safely home across the fields.

Twelfth cake is the most important component of the dinner and in Victorian times turned into an elaborately decorated item as seen here:

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Nowadays the Twelfth cake, with the demise of Twelfth Night as a celebration, has metamorphosed into the Christmas cake (when once Christmas pudding was the key sweet element), and the bean/pea cake has become an Epiphany tradition. There is not a universally set way to make a Twelfth cake. The ornamentation plus bean/pea are common elements. I used to make a basic fruit cake, cover it with marzipan and royal icing, and then circle the fringes with 12 marzipan balls to signify the twelve days and with a bean embedded. No photos – sorry.

Here is the first known recipe for Twelfth cake taken from John Mollard, The Art of Cookery. (London 1803).  It makes a BIG cake.

Take seven pounds of flour, make a cavity in the centre, set a sponge with a gill and a half of yeast and a little warm milk; then put round it one pound of fresh butter broke into small lumps, one pound and a quarter of sifted sugar, four pounds and a half of currants washed and picked, half an ounce of sifted cinnamon, a quarter of an ounce of pounded cloves, mace, and nutmeg mixed, sliced candied orange or lemon peel and citron. When the sponge is risen, mix all the ingredients together with a little warm milk; let the hoops be well papered and buttered, then fill them with the mixture and bake them, and when nearly cold ice them over with sugar prepared for that purpose as per receipt; or they may be plain.

Oct 062014
 

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Today is the birthday (1820) of Johanna Maria Lind, better known as Jenny Lind, a Swedish opera singer, often known as the “Swedish Nightingale.” She was one of the most highly regarded singers of the 19th century, performing in soprano roles in opera in Sweden and across Europe, and undertaking an extraordinarily popular concert tour of North America beginning in 1850. She was a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music from 1840. For me one of the most interesting things about Lind is that it seems clear that she was not necessarily the most accomplished of singers, and there were certainly better sopranos than her in her day (now forgotten). This is not to say that she was mediocre by any means. She had great singing qualities. But she had some serious flaws which critics of the day noted. However, what she did have was great PR, especially when she was under contract to P.T. Barnum in North America. Maybe she is the first singing superstar to have had her reputation created by publicity? Unfortunately there are no recordings of her voice so it is now impossible to tell. We must rely on contemporary critics – not the safest of bets – whose statements do, to me at least, seem to the point and balanced.

Lind was born in Klara, in central Stockholm, the illegitimate daughter of Niclas Jonas Lind (1798–1858), a bookkeeper, and Anne-Marie Fellborg (1793–1856), a schoolteacher. Lind’s mother had divorced her first husband for adultery but, for religious reasons, refused to remarry until after his death in 1834. Her parents married when she was fourteen.

Lind’s mother ran a day school for girls out of her home. When Lind was about nine years old, her singing was overheard by the maid of Mademoiselle Lundberg, the principal dancer at the Royal Swedish Opera. The maid, astounded by Lind’s extraordinary voice, returned the next day with Lundberg, who arranged an audition and helped her gain admission to the acting school of the Royal Dramatic Theatre, where she studied with Karl Magnus Craelius, the singing master at the theatre.

Lind began to sing on stage when she was ten. She had a vocal crisis at the age of 12 and had to stop singing for a time, but recovered. Her first great role was Agathe in Weber’s Der Freischütz in 1838 at the Royal Swedish Opera. At age 20 she was a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music and court singer to the King of Sweden and Norway. Her voice became seriously damaged by overuse and untrained singing technique, but her career was saved by the singing teacher Manuel García, with whom she studied in Paris from 1841 to 1843. So damaged was her voice that he insisted that she should not sing at all for three months, to allow her vocal cords to recover, before he started to teach her a secure vocal technique.

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After Lind had been with García for a year, the composer Giacomo Meyerbeer, an early and faithful admirer of her talent, arranged an audition for her at the Opéra in Paris, but she was rejected. The biographer Francis Rogers concludes that Lind strongly resented the rebuff; when she became an international star, she always refused invitations to sing at the Paris Opéra. Lind returned to the Royal Swedish Opera, greatly improved as a singer by García’s training. She toured Denmark where, in 1843, Hans Christian Andersen met and fell in love with her. Although the two became good friends, she did not reciprocate his romantic feelings. She is believed to have inspired three of his fairy tales: “Beneath the Pillar”, “The Angel” and “The Nightingale.” He wrote, “No book or personality whatever has exerted a more ennobling influence on me, as a poet, than Jenny Lind. For me she opened the sanctuary of art.” The biographer Carol Rosen believes that after Lind rejected Andersen as a suitor, he portrayed her as The Snow Queen with a heart of ice. Curiously, music critics often described her singing as cold.

In December 1844, through Meyerbeer’s influence, Lind was engaged to sing the title role in Bellini’s opera Norma in Berlin. This led to more engagements in opera houses throughout Germany and Austria, although such was her success in Berlin that she continued there for four months before leaving for other cities. Among her admirers were Robert Schumann, Hector Berlioz and, most importantly for her, Felix Mendelssohn. Ignaz Moscheles wrote: “Jenny Lind has fairly enchanted me … her song with two concertante flutes is perhaps the most incredible feat in the way of bravura singing that can possibly be heard.” This piece, from Meyerbeer’s Ein Feldlager in Schlesien (The Camp of Silesia, 1844; a role written for Lind but not premiered by her) became one of the songs most associated with Lind, and she was called on to sing it wherever she performed in concert. Her operatic repertoire consisted of the title roles in Lucia di Lammermoor, Maria di Rohan, Norma, La sonnambula and La vestale, as well as Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro, Adina in L’elisir d’amore and Alice in Robert le diable. About this time she became known as “the Swedish Nightingale.” In December 1845, the day after her debut at the Leipzig Gewandhaus under the baton of Mendelssohn, she sang without fee for a charity concert in aid of the Orchestra Widows’ Fund. Her devotion and generosity to charitable causes remained a key aspect of her career and greatly enhanced her international popularity even among the unmusical.

At the Royal Swedish Opera, Lind had been friends with the tenor Julius Günther. They sang together both in opera and on the concert stage, becoming romantically linked by 1844. Their schedules separated them, however, as Günther remained in Stockholm and then became a student of García’s in Paris in 1846–1847. Reunited after this in Sweden, according to Lind’s 1891 Memoir, they became engaged to marry in the spring of 1848 just before Lind returned to England. However, the two broke off the engagement in October of the same year.

After a successful season in Vienna, where she was mobbed by admirers and feted by the Imperial Family, Lind travelled to London in 1847, where her first performance, at Her Majesty’s Theatre on 4 May, was attended by Queen Victoria. The Times wrote the next day, “We have had frequent experience of the excitement appertaining to “first nights”, but we may safely say, and our opinion will be backed by several hundreds of Her Majesty’s subjects, that we never witnessed such a scene of enthusiasm as that displayed last night on the occasion of Mademoiselle Jenny Lind’s début as Alice in an Italian version of Robert le Diable.”

During her two years on the operatic stage in London, Lind appeared in most of the standard opera repertory. Early in 1849, still in her twenties, Lind announced her permanent retirement from opera. Her last opera performance was on 10 May 1849 in Robert le diable; Queen Victoria and other members of the Royal Family were present. Lind’s biographer Francis Rogers has written, “The reasons for her early retirement have been much discussed for nearly a century, but remain today a matter of mystery. Many possible explanations have been advanced, but not one of them has been verified.”

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In London, Lind’s close friendship with Mendelssohn continued. There has been strong speculation that their relationship was more than friendship. Papers confirming this were alleged to exist, although their contents had not been made public. However, in 2013 George Biddlecombe confirmed in the Journal of the Royal Musical Association that “The Committee of the Mendelssohn Scholarship Foundation possesses material indicating that Mendelssohn wrote passionate love letters to Jenny Lind entreating her to join him in an adulterous relationship and threatening suicide as a means of exerting pressure upon her, and that these letters were destroyed on being discovered after her death.”

Mendelssohn was present at Lind’s London debut, and his friend, the critic H. F. Chorley, who was with him, wrote “I see as I write the smile with which Mendelssohn, whose enjoyment of Mdlle. Lind’s talent was unlimited, turned round and looked at me, as if a load of anxiety had been taken off his mind. His attachment to Mlle. Lind’s genius as a singer was unbounded, as was his desire for her success.” Mendelssohn worked with Lind on many occasions and wrote the beginnings of an opera, Lorelei, for her, based on the legend of the Lorelei Rhine maidens; the opera was unfinished at his death. He included a high F sharp in his oratorio Elijah (“Hear Ye Israel”) with Lind’s voice in mind, and even though this was technically outside of her range.

In July 1847, Lind starred in the world première of Verdi’s opera I masnadieri at Her Majesty’s, under the baton of the composer. Four months later, she was devastated by the premature death of Mendelssohn in November 1847. She did not at first feel able to sing the soprano part in Elijah, which he had written for her. She finally did so at a performance in London’s Exeter Hall in late 1848, which raised £1,000 to fund a musical scholarship as a memorial to him; it was her first appearance in oratorio. The original intention had been to found a school of music in Mendelssohn’s name in Leipzig, but there was not enough support for that in Leipzig, and with the help of Sir George Smart, Julius Benedict and others, Lind eventually raised enough money to fund a scholarship “to receive pupils of all nations and promote their musical training.” The first recipient of the Mendelssohn Scholarship was the 14-year-old Arthur Sullivan, whom Lind encouraged in his career.

In 1849, Lind was approached by the American showman P.T. Barnum with a proposal to tour throughout the United States for more than a year. Realizing that this would yield large sums for her favored charities, particularly the endowment of free schools in her native Sweden, Lind agreed. Her financial demands were stringent, but Barnum met them, and in 1850 they reached agreement.

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Together with a supporting baritone, Giovanni Belletti, and her London colleague Julius Benedict as pianist, arranger and conductor, Lind sailed to America in September 1850. Barnum’s advance publicity made her a celebrity even before she arrived in the U.S., and she received a wild reception on arriving in New York. Tickets for some of her concerts were in such demand that Barnum sold them by auction. The enthusiasm of the public was so strong that the U.S. press coined the term “Lind mania.”

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After New York, Lind’s party toured the east coast of the U.S., with continued success, and later took in Cuba, the southern states of the U.S., and Canada. By early 1851, Lind had become uncomfortable with Barnum’s relentless marketing of the tour, and she invoked a contractual right to sever her ties with him; they parted amicably. She continued the tour for nearly a year, under her own management, until May 1852, and donated all her earnings to charity.

In July 1851, the 20-year-old American poetess Emily Dickinson gave an account of a Lind concert:

…how bouquets fell in showers, and the roof was rent with applause – how it thundered outside, and inside with the thunder of God and of men – judge ye which was the loudest; how we all loved Jennie Lind, but not accustomed oft to her manner of singing didn’t fancy that so well as we did her. No doubt it was very fine, but take some notes from her Echo, the bird sounds from the Bird Song, and some of her curious trills, and I’d rather have a Yankee. Herself and not her music was what we seemed to love – she has an air of exile in her mild blue eyes, and a something sweet and touching in her native accent which charms her many friends. … as she sang she grew so earnest she seemed half lost in song. …

Benedict left the party in 1851 to return to England, and Lind invited Otto Goldschmidt to replace him as pianist and conductor. Lind and Goldschmidt were married on February 5, 1852, near the end of the tour, in Boston. She took the name “Jenny Lind-Goldschmidt” both privately and professionally.

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Lind and Goldschmidt returned to Europe together in May 1852. They lived first in Dresden, Germany, and, from 1855, in England for the rest of their lives. They had three children: Otto, born September 1853 in Germany, Jenny, born March 1857 in England, and Ernest, born January 1861 in England.

Although she refused all requests to appear in opera after her return to Europe, Lind continued to perform in the concert hall. In 1856, at the invitation of the Philharmonic Society conducted by William Sterndale Bennett she sang the chief soprano part in the first English performance of the cantata Paradise and the Peri by Robert Schumann. In 1866, she gave a concert with Arthur Sullivan at St James’s Hall. The Times reported, “there is magic still in that voice … the most perfect singing – perfect alike in expression and in vocalization. … Nothing more engaging, nothing more earnest, nothing more dramatic can be imagined.” At Düsseldorf in January 1870, she sang in Ruth, an oratorio composed by her husband. When Goldschmidt formed the Bach Choir in 1875, Lind trained the soprano choristers for the first English performance of Bach’s B minor Mass, in April 1876, and performed in the mass. Her concerts decreased in frequency until she retired from singing in 1883.

From 1879–1887 Lind worked with Frederick Niecks on his biography of Chopin. In 1882, she was appointed professor of singing at the newly founded Royal College of Music. She believed in an all-round musical training for her pupils, insisting that, in addition to their vocal studies, they were instructed in solfège, piano, harmony, diction, deportment and at least one foreign language.

She lived her final years at Wynd’s Point, Herefordshire, on the Malvern Hills near the British Camp. Her last public appearance was at a charity concert at Royal Malvern Spa in 1883. She died, aged 67, at Wynd’s Point on 2 November 1887 and was buried in the Great Malvern Cemetery to the music of Chopin’s Funeral March.

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There is a once popular tune, Jenny Lind Polka (composed by Anton Wallerstein c. 1850), the first two parts of which are used for morris dancing. On a morris tour of the Malverns several years ago, my friends and I danced the Jenny Lind at her grave. Here’s the tune (the vid does go on a bit). Sorry, the photos of the dancing are on my HD in New York.

There are no recordings of Lind’s voice. She is believed to have made an early phonograph recording for Thomas Edison, but in the words of the critic Philip L. Miller, “Even had the fabled Edison cylinder survived, it would have been too primitive, and she too long retired, to tell us much.” The biographer Francis Rogers concludes that although Lind was much admired by Meyerbeer, Mendelssohn, the Schumanns, Berlioz and others, “In voice and in dramatic talent she was undoubtedly inferior to her predecessors, Malibran and Pasta, and to her contemporaries, Sontag and Grisi.” He notes that because of her expert promoters, including Barnum, “almost all that was written about her was undoubtedly biased by an almost overwhelming propaganda in her favor, bought and paid for.” Rogers says of Mendelssohn and Lind’s other admirers, that their tastes were “essentially Teutonic” and, except for Meyerbeer, they were not expert in Italian opera, Lind’s early specialty. He quotes a critic of the New York Herald, who noted “little deficiencies in execution, in ascending the scale, which even enthusiasm cannot deprive of their sharpness.” The American press agreed that Lind’s presentation was more typical of Germanic “cold, untouching, icy purity of tone and style,” rather than the passionate expression characteristic of Italian opera of her time, and the Herald wrote that her style was “suited to please the people of our cold climate. She will have triumphs here that would never attend her progress through France or Italy.”

The critic H. F. Chorley, who admired Lind, described her voice as having “two octaves in compass – from D to D – having a higher possible note or two, available on rare occasions; and that the lower half of the register and the upper one were of two distinct qualities. The former was not strong – veiled, if not husky; and apt to be out of tune. The latter was rich, brilliant and powerful – finest in its highest portions.” Chorley praised her breath management, her use of pianissimo, her taste in ornament and her intelligent use of technique to conceal the differences between her upper and lower registers. He thought her “execution was great” and that she was a “skilled and careful musician”, but felt that “many of her effects on the stage appeared overcalculated” and that singing in foreign languages impeded her ability to give expression to the text. He felt, however, that her concert singing was more admirable than her operatic performances, although he praised some of her roles. Chorley judged her finest work to be in the German repertoire, citing Mozart, Haydn and Mendelssohn’s Elijah as best suited to her. Miller concluded that although connoisseurs of the voice preferred other singers, her wider appeal to the public at large was not merely a legend created by Barnum, but was a mixture of “a uniquely pure (some called it celestial) quality in her voice, consistent with her well-known generosity and charity.”

In the culinary field, a new variety of potato with blue ‘eyes’ was named for her, as was a melon (the association here was not recorded) a cake, and her famous soup with sago and eggs – which “have always been deemed very beneficial to the chest and throat.” Singer’s soup!

Here’s the soup from A Cyclopaedia of Domestic Economy” (1857)

JENNY LIND’S SOUP.

Make about three quarts of stock, which strain through a fine sieve into a middle-size stewpan; set it to boil; add to it three ounces of sago; boil gently twenty minutes; skim; just previous to serving break four fresh eggs, and place the yolk, entirely free from the white, into a basin, beat them well with a spoon; add to it a gill of cream; take the pan from the fire, pour in the yolks, stir quickly for one minute, serve immediately; do not let it boil, or it will curdle, and would not be fit to be partaken of. The stock being previously seasoned, it only requires the addition of half a teaspoonful of sugar, a little more salt, pepper, nutmeg; also thyme, parsley, and bay-leaf will agreeably vary the flavor without interfering with the quality.

The cake is a bit more of an enigma because there seems to be a number of recipes available. I gather, however, that the original was a plain cake made in three layers. Two of the layers (top and bottom) are plain, and the middle one is flavored with a mix of sweet spices such as cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon and contains raisins. The layers are held together with a puree of brandied peaches.

Mar 072014
 

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Today is the birthday (1872) of Pieter Cornelis “Piet” Mondriaan (after 1906, Mondrian), a Dutch painter who was a major figure in the development of non-representational art. He called his non-representational style, neoplasticism. This consisted of white ground, upon which he painted a grid of vertical and horizontal black lines and then filled some of the squares and rectangles with three primary colors.  The style is instantly recognizable.

Mondrian was born in Amersfoort in the Netherlands, the second of his parents’ children. He was descended from Christian Dirkzoon Monderyan who lived in The Hague as early as 1670. The family moved to Winterswijk in the east of the country, when his father, Pieter Cornelius Mondriaan, was appointed Head Teacher at a local primary school. Mondrian was introduced to art from a very early age: his father was a qualified drawing teacher; and, with his uncle, Fritz Mondriaan (a pupil of Willem Maris of The Hague School of artists), the younger Piet often painted and drew along the river Gein.

After a strictly Protestant upbringing, in 1892, Mondrian entered the Academy for Fine Art in Amsterdam. He was already qualified as a teacher. He began his career as a teacher in Primary Education, but he also practiced painting. Most of his work from this period is Naturalistic or Impressionistic, consisting largely of landscapes. These Pastoral images of his native country depict windmills, fields, and rivers, initially in the Dutch Impressionist manner of The Hague School and then in a variety of styles and techniques documenting his search for a personal style. These paintings are most definitely representational, illustrating the influence various artistic movements had on Mondrian, including Pointillism and the vivid colors of Fauvism.

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On display in the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague are a number of paintings from this period, including such Post-Impressionist works as The Red Mill and Trees in Moonrise. Another painting, Evening (Avond) (1908), depicting a tree in a field at dusk, even augurs future developments by using a palette consisting almost entirely of red, yellow, and blue. Although it is in no sense Abstract, Avond is the earliest of Mondrian’s works to emphasize the primary colors.

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The earliest paintings that show an inkling of the abstraction to come are a series of canvases from 1905 to 1908, which depict dim scenes of indistinct trees and houses with reflections in still water. Although the result leads the viewer to begin emphasizing the forms over the content, these paintings are still firmly rooted in nature; and it is only the knowledge of Mondrian’s later achievements that leads one to search for the roots of his future abstraction in these works.

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Mondrian’s art always was intimately related to his spiritual and philosophical studies. In 1908, he became interested in the theosophical movement launched by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky in the late 19th century; and, in 1909, he joined the Dutch branch of the Theosophical Society. The work of Blavatsky and a parallel spiritual movement, Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy, significantly affected the further development of his aesthetic. Blavatsky believed that it was possible to attain a more profound knowledge of nature than that provided by empirical means, and much of Mondrian’s work for the rest of his life was inspired by his search for that spiritual knowledge.

Mondrian and his later work were deeply influenced by the 1911 Moderne Kunstkring exhibition of Cubism in Amsterdam. His search for simplification is shown in two versions of Still Life with Ginger Pot (Stilleven met Gemberpot). The 1911 version is relatively representational whereas the 1912 version, has reduced all the elements to simple shapes.

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In 1911, Mondrian moved to Paris and changed his name (dropping an ‘a’ from Mondriaan) to emphasize his departure from The Netherlands. This matched the changed signature on his works that is dated to before 1907. While in Paris, the influence of the Cubist style of Picasso and Georges Braque appeared almost immediately in Mondrian’s work. Paintings such as The Sea (1912) and his various studies of trees from that year still contain a measure of representation; but increasingly, they are dominated by geometric shapes and interlocking planes. While Mondrian was eager to absorb the Cubist influence into his work, it seems clear that he saw Cubism as a “port of call” on his artistic journey, rather than as a destination.

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Unlike the Cubists, Mondrian still attempted to reconcile his painting with his spiritual pursuits; and, in 1913, he began to fuse his art and his theosophical studies into a theory that signaled his final break from representational painting. While Mondrian was visiting home in 1914, World War I began, forcing him to remain in The Netherlands for the duration of the conflict. During this period, he stayed at the Laren artist’s colony, there meeting Bart van der Leck and Theo van Doesburg, who were both undergoing their own personal journeys toward Abstraction. Van der Leck’s use of only primary colors in his art greatly influenced Mondrian. After a meeting with Van der Leck in 1916, Mondrian wrote, “My technique which was more or less Cubist, and therefore more or less pictorial, came under the influence of his precise method.” With Van Doesburg, Mondrian founded De Stijl (The Style), a journal of the De Stijl Group, in which he published his first essays defining his theory, for which he adopted the term Neoplasticism.

Mondrian published “De Nieuwe Beelding in de schilderkunst” (“The New Plastic in Painting”) in twelve installments during 1917 and 1918. This was his first major attempt to express his artistic theory in writing. Mondrian’s best and most-often quoted expression of this theory, however, comes from a letter he wrote to H.P. Bremmer in 1914:

I construct lines and color combinations on a flat surface, in order to express general beauty with the utmost awareness. Nature (or, that which I see) inspires me, puts me, as with any painter, in an emotional state so that an urge comes about to make something, but I want to come as close as possible to the truth and abstract everything from that, until I reach the foundation (still just an external foundation!) of things…

I believe it is possible that, through horizontal and vertical lines constructed with awareness, but not with calculation, led by high intuition, and brought to harmony and rhythm, these basic forms of beauty, supplemented if necessary by other direct lines or curves, can become a work of art, as strong as it is true.

When the war ended in 1918, Mondrian returned to France, where he would remain until 1938. Immersed in the crucible of artistic innovation that was post-war Paris, he flourished in an atmosphere of intellectual freedom that enabled him to embrace an art of pure abstraction for the rest of his life. Mondrian began producing grid-based paintings in late 1919, and in 1920, the style for which he came to be renowned began to appear.

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In the early paintings of this style the lines delineating the rectangular forms are relatively thin, and they are gray, not black. The lines also tend to fade as they approach the edge of the painting, rather than stopping abruptly. The forms themselves, smaller and more numerous than in later paintings, are filled with primary colors, black, or gray, and nearly all of them are colored; only a few are left white.

During late 1920 and 1921, Mondrian’s paintings arrive at what is to casual observers their definitive and mature form. Thick black lines now separate the forms, which are larger and fewer in number, and more of them are left white than was previously the case. This was not the culmination of his artistic evolution, however. Although the refinements became more subtle, Mondrian’s work continued to evolve during his years in Paris.

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In the 1921 paintings, many of the black lines (but not all of them) stop short at a seemingly arbitrary distance from the edge of the canvas, although the divisions between the rectangular forms remain intact. Here too, the rectangular forms remain mostly colored. As the years passed and Mondrian’s work evolved further, he began extending all of the lines to the edges of the canvas and he also began to use fewer and fewer colored forms, favoring white instead.

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These tendencies are particularly obvious in the “lozenge” works that Mondrian began producing with regularity in the mid-1920s. The “lozenge” paintings are square canvases tilted 45 degrees, so that they hang in a diamond shape. Typical of these is Schilderij No. 1: Lozenge With Two Lines and Blue (1926), also known as Composition With Blue and Composition in White and Blue, which is currently on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. One of the most minimal of Mondrian’s canvases, this painting consists only of two black, perpendicular lines and a small triangular form, colored blue. The lines extend all the way to the edges of the canvas, almost giving the impression that the painting is a fragment of a larger work. A close examination of this painting begins to reveal something of the artist’s method. Mondrian’s paintings are not composed of perfectly flat planes of color, as one might expect. Brush strokes are evident throughout, although they are subtle, and the artist appears to have used different techniques for the various elements.

The black lines are the flattest elements, with the least amount of depth. The colored forms have the most obvious brush strokes, all running in one direction. Most interesting, however, are the white forms, which clearly have been painted in layers, using brush strokes running in different directions. This generates a greater sense of depth in the white forms, as though they are overwhelming the lines and the colors, which indeed they were, as Mondrian’s paintings of this period came to be increasingly dominated by white space.

Schilderij No. 1 may be the most extreme extent of Mondrian’s minimalism. As the years progressed, lines began to take precedence over forms in his painting. In the 1930s, he began to use thinner lines and double lines more frequently, punctuated with a few small colored forms, if any at all. Double lines particularly excited Mondrian, for he believed they offered his paintings a new dynamism which he was eager to explore.

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The above is a 1939–42 oil on canvas painting by Mondrian titled “Composition No. 10”. Responding to it, fellow De Stijl artist Theo van Doesburg suggested a link between non-representational works of art and ideals of peace and spirituality.

In September 1938, Mondrian left Paris in the face of advancing fascism and moved to London. After the Netherlands were invaded and Paris fell in 1940, he left London for Manhattan, where he would remain until his death. Some of Mondrian’s later works are difficult to place in terms of his artistic development, because there were quite a few canvases that he began in Paris or London which he only completed months or years later in Manhattan. The finished works from this later period demonstrate an unprecedented business, however, with more lines than any of his work since the 1920s, placed in an overlapping arrangement that is almost cartographical in appearance. He spent many long hours painting on his own until his hands blistered and he sometimes cried or made himself sick.

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Mondrian produced Lozenge Composition With Four Yellow Lines (1933), a simple painting that introduced what for him was a shocking innovation: thick, colored lines instead of black ones. After that one painting, this practice remained dormant in Mondrian’s work until he arrived in Manhattan, at which time he began to embrace it with abandon. In some examples of this new direction, such as Composition (1938) and  Place de la Concorde (1943), he appears to have taken unfinished black-line paintings from Paris and completed them in New York by adding short perpendicular lines of different colors, running between the longer black lines, or from a black line to the edge of the canvas. The newly colored areas are thick, almost bridging the gap between lines and forms, and it is startling to see color in a Mondrian painting that is not bounded by black.

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Other works mix long lines of red amidst the familiar black lines, creating a new sense of depth by the addition of a colored layer on top of the black one. His painting Composition No. 10, 1939-1942, characterized by primary colors, white ground and black grid lines clearly defined Mondrian’s radical but classical approach to the rectangle.

The new canvases that Mondrian began in Manhattan are even more startling, and indicate the beginning of a new idiom that was cut short by the artist’s death. New York City (1942) is a complex lattice of red, blue, and yellow lines, occasionally interlacing to create a greater sense of depth than his previous works. An unfinished 1941 version of this work uses strips of painted paper tape, which the artist could rearrange at will to experiment with different designs.

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His painting Broadway Boogie-Woogie (1942–43) now at The Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan was highly influential in the school of abstract geometric painting. The piece is made up of a number of shimmering squares of bright color that leap from the canvas, then appear to shimmer, drawing the viewer into those neon lights. In this painting and the unfinished Victory Boogie Woogie (1942–44), Mondrian replaced former solid lines with lines created from small adjoining rectangles of color, created in part by using small pieces of paper tape in various colors. Larger unbounded rectangles of color punctuate the design, some with smaller concentric rectangles inside them. While Mondrian’s works of the 1920s and 1930s tend to have an almost scientific austerity about them, these are bright, lively paintings, reflecting the upbeat music that inspired them and the city in which they were made.

In these final works, the forms have indeed usurped the role of the lines, opening another new door for Mondrian’s development as an abstractionist. The Boogie-Woogie paintings were clearly more of a revolutionary change than an evolutionary one, representing the most profound development in Mondrian’s work since his abandonment of representational art in 1913.

When the 47-year-old Piet Mondrian left the Netherlands for Paris for the second and last time in 1919, he set about at once to make his studio a nurturing environment for paintings he had in mind that would increasingly express the principles of Neo-Plasticism about which he had been writing down for two years. To hide the studio’s structural flaws quickly and inexpensively, he tacked up large rectangular placards, each in a single color or neutral hue. Smaller colored paper squares and rectangles, composed together, accented the walls. Then came an intense period of painting. Then again he addressed the walls, repositioning the colored cutouts, adding to their number, altering the dynamics of color and space, producing new tensions and equilibrium. Before long, he had established a creative schedule in which a period of painting took turns with a period of experimentally regrouping the smaller papers on the walls, a process that directly fed the next period of painting. It was a pattern he followed for the rest of his life, through wartime moves from Paris to London’s Hampstead in 1938 and 1940, across the Atlantic to Manhattan.

At the age of 71 in the fall of 1943, Mondrian moved into his second and final Manhattan studio at 15 East 59th Street, and set about to recreate the environment he had learned over the years was most congenial to his modest way of life and most stimulating to his art. He painted the high walls the same off-white he used on his easel and on the seats, tables and storage cases he designed and fashioned meticulously from discarded orange and apple-crates. He glossed the top of a white metal stool in the same brilliant primary red he applied to the cardboard sheath he made for the radio-phonograph that poured out jazz from well worn records. Visitors to this last studio seldom saw more than one or two new canvases, but found, often to their astonishment, that eight large compositions of colored bits of paper he had tacked and re-tacked to the walls in ever-changing relationships constituted together an environment that, paradoxically and simultaneously, was both kinetic and serene, stimulating and restful. It was the best space, Mondrian said, that he had ever inhabited. Tragically, he was there for only a few months, as he died in February 1944.

Mondrian’s work has had a profound influence on popular culture.  You will find all manner of items to this day – clothes, shoes, boxes, wrapping paper, cars etc. – using Mondrian’s style.

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You can also use Mondrian’s style in cooking.  Here is a Mondrian cake.  It is a little more tricky, but it is made in the same way, essentially, as the classic Battenberg cake. It is from Modern Art Desserts, the brainchild of Caitlin Freeman.

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If you are a good baker you can figure it out for yourself. You’ll need a white sheet cake, and three other smaller sheet cakes in the primary colors.  Then it’s a matter of cutting the cakes into long strips and binding them together in the correct order with a thin layer of chocolate icing.  Lastly you coat the whole thing in chocolate ganache.  This site has very good step by step instructions.

http://ronnas.blogspot.com.ar/2012/03/step-by-step-mondrian-cake.html

Of course there is no reason to stick to the one Mondrian design. After all, it’s no simpler, nor more difficult to pick another design and assemble it in the same way.

But you need not limit your Mondrian designs to cake.  Here is a very simple sandwich described in this website.

http://www.saveur.com/article/Kitchen/Links-We-Love-1000089688

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Or there is this molded cod brandade (an emulsion of salt cod and olive oil) dish from the south of Spain with thinly sliced red, green, and yellow pepper squares, piped with black olive borders, pictured here:

http://www.alifewortheating.com/spain/sant-pau

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In this case the challenge is not only to make a pleasing design, but to use ingredients that complement one another.