Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Antiques Roadshow

I love British Victoriana - all that extremely starched clothing and fatuous middle-brow artwork.
            Paintings of beggar children with painfully clean feet, hands clasped in humble gratitude, accepting single pennies from virginal young women with clean kid gloves and bovine smiles.
            Etchings of bowing, scraping Irish peasants in soup kitchens (tickets sold separately to the gentry for entrée to the spectators booth). 
            Nudes in the National Gallery, sinuous and golden-tressed - but eyes modestly downcast or they wouldn't be in the National Gallery - painted in front of vaguely eastern arcades to lend a cultural veneer to the leers and heavy breathing.
            Shell boxes.
            Embroidered draft excluders.
            Fir-cone hedgehogs.
            Crocheted antimacassars.
            Fire-screens worked with cherubs and wreaths of roses and - in pink - the words "Bless this House."
            Elephant-foot umbrella holders.
            Chrysanthemum Pen-wipers.             It's one short step from all that stuff to the Pre-Raphaelites, who soaked themselves in opium and velvet waistcoats and howled rebellion and fell insensible at their easels. Victorian culture was so self-anesthetized, the worstest those bad boys could wreak was to paint even more lascivious long-haired nudes than the Good Boys painted - theirs with swollen, heavy-lidded eyes staring right at the viewer - she's not a pliant slave onto which you can stamp your own private imperial fantasies, she's an Evil Temptress, see? Her hair all symbolic and allegorical of the coils and snares in which she entraps Man! How's that for soft-core? This one's got meaning, dude!             Any society so starched and powdered it can give rise to the urban myth of the piano skirt can only stretch so far before you trip over a bobble-trimmed ottoman in your glazed opium haze and can't get back up again. Poor boys.             Ahem.
            Last night I vegetated on the sofa underneath my new crocheted afghan (thrift-store pseudo-Victoriana. Say what you will about their full-frontal assault on home decoration, the Victorian's stiff-upper-lip approach to building insulation lent them genius when it came to designing Things to Keep You Warm) and watched an old episode of Antiques Roadshow.  A genteel matron from the Isle of Wight had brought along an extremely ambiguous objet d'art that she'd been given as a present twenty years ago, and for all of those years she'd been completely bamboozled as to what in hell it was supposed to be.  The confusion was reasonable - the thing looked like a wrought-silver fishing boat - sans mast - being buffeted about on a choppy wrought-silver sea. The back half of the deck lifted up on hinges to show a hollow hull.  The giver must have been a very good or very important friend, or the thing would have landed itself in a shoebox at the bottom of the hall cupboard and been forgotten about for ever and ever fifteen minutes after the giver had gone home.             But the Roadshow Expert grasped the thing enthusiastically in both hands and shouted "Aha!"
            And burbled at the woman happily.  "You know what this is, of course?"
            No, the woman indicated with eloquence of eyebrows, she certainly didn't.
            "Well"  the Expert said (employing that very specific antiquarian "Well" that expresses volumes about the speaker's superior grade of cultural appreciation, your lamentable lack of same, and the high probability that you're going to get a lecture in deeply specialized academical trivialities in a minute)  
            "What it is, is a Genuine Electroplated Victorian Silver Water-Activated Spoon Warmer."
            The owner looked as bemused as I felt. With exclamation points.
            "What you do with it, of course, is fill it with hot water, lift up the lid, and insert the business half of your serving spoon to warm until you need it at the dining table. I would suggest, if you'd take my advice, to have it insured for somewhere around the value of fifteen hundred pounds."

My word!

Bless the Victorians. That same uncritical imperial egotism that painted pictures of the Deserving Poor to sanctify the parsimonious middle-class soul (beggar children with dirty feet presumably both undeserving and irredeemable) gave them the confidence that these fifteen-minute gimcrack marvels would be cherished and appreciated by their owners - down unto the generations.  Electroplating indeed.
            The breed of man that built the better mousetrap (steam powered), that ran an entire empire to the clockwork precision of railway time - this, my dears, THIS is why the sun never set 'on em!             And the proud possessor of a Genuine Victorian Electroplated Silver Water-Activated Spoon warmer looked upon it with a new appreciation.  Somewhere in the neighborhood of fifteen hundred pounds, eh?  Now there was an excuse to wrap it in paper, lay it carefully in a shoebox and keep it safe and far from harm - and out of sight.  For ever and ever and ever.

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