Friday 6 June 2014

Toff Tots in Classical Costume

The Bacchant Children of the 2nd Earl Gower
Visiting British stately homes is my favourite summer pastime. It is fascinating to see how the source of the money (usually mining, slavery or imperialism in India) was systematically obscured. Financial capital was exchanged for cultural capital in a neoclassical idiom, including Palladian architecture. Having your child painted in an antique fancy-dress costume was a particular obsession of mine-owners, planters and nabobs who fancied themselves as Hellenistic philosopher-kings.

I have amassed a large collection of images of benighted children of plutocrats dressed as Hermes, Diana and Julius Caesar. Here are the top three in my collection, in ascending order.

Future Slayer of Irish Rebels
First, Master Watkin Wynn (1772–1840), fifth Baronet Williams-Wynne, as the infant John the Baptist. I do not know whether his parents had remembered their theology: John may have said cute things about lambs but he ended up beheaded. In the event, Master Watkin grew up to amass a cavalry regiment and play an enthusiastic role in putting down the Irish rebellion of 1798.

Apollo or Ascanius?
Second place goes to the portrait of an unknown boy, said to be dressed as Apollo, at the Treasurer’s House in York. It is not just the Arcadian landscape, the gorgeous tomato-coral silk mantle, the faux-antique boots and the elegantly curving bow. It is the arrogance of the posture and facial expression, the patrician glossy ringlets and that bossily pointing finger. I wonder whether he isn’t intended, rather, to be dressed as Ascanius, the hunting son of Aeneas to whom so many crowned heads of the European Ancien Regime traced their ancestry.

Sex goddess-appropriate role for a toddler?
The winner until this week was this baby girl at Wimpole Hall, Cambridge, dressed as Venus in a chariot drawn by doves. The logistics of getting such a small infant to sit still in that costume make my maternal mind boggle: when our own progeny dressed up as Darth Vader or Cat Girl they instantly became hyper-active. 

Taxidermy Junkie
But even the diminutive coy Venus has now been trumped by the costume worn by the Countess of Westmoreland to the Duchess of Devonshire’s ludicrously lavish 1897 ball: she went dressed as Hebe, goddess of youth and Olympian cupbearer, with a REAL STUFFED EAGLE attached to her shoulder to represent Hebe’s father, Zeus. From now on I’m going to extend my brief to toff adults in classical fancy dress as well as those of toff tots.

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