Thursday, February 28, 2008

Panoramas of paradise, and early modern dodos.

I am faintly surprised to have the privilege of giving a lecture on book IV of Milton’s Paradise Lost. (I half expect a distinguished former Hildred Carlisle Professor to stir from retirement, and intervene personally, to stop such a potentially damaging mismatch between poet and expositor.) But I have been scurrying round EEBO: Willet’s Hexapla … on Genesis, Moxon on Sacred Geography, Salkeld’s Treatise on Paradise and others.

Among the minor finds on this tour, I came across another piece of 17th century advertising, put together by I.H. Gent in 1661:

Paradise transplanted and restored in a most artfull and lively representation of the several creatures, plants, flowers, and other vegetables, in their full growth, shape, and colour: shown at Christopher Whiteheads at the two wreathed posts in Shooe-Lane, London.

‘J.H.’ claims to have been solicited by ‘some persons of quality’ that have already seen this combination of panorama and perspective box (as I think it must have been) to put pen to paper to praise ‘the incomparable Artist’ and ‘recommend this Elegant and curious piece of Art to all Noble and Ingenuous Persons’. He gives it a hard sell, but no-one could fault the ambition of the main display:

‘The Design, is a Model, or Representation of that Beautifull Prospect Adam had in Paradice, when the whole Creation of Animals, were together subjected to his imperious eye, and from his mouth received their several names.”

J.H. (who may well be the man himself) notes of the artist that:

“His researches and inquiries after Foraign, Outlandish Creatures, whose names are not so well known to these Quarters of the World … was a costly Labour; but to present them to view in their natural shapes and postures to the Life, and beyond all former Figures and Descriptions of them, as that every man may be as wise as Adam, and read their names and qualities in their Aspects, is a most meritorious obliging work …. Here …are placed from the greatest to the least, from the Elephant to the Mouse, from the Eagle to the Wren, from the Crocodile to the Glow-worm.”

You are advised, confides J.H., to make sure you see the basilisk before it sees you, lest your imagination accord the image with the beast’s power to petrify, while the centre piece of the display was equally or more involving: “you cannot without indignation of minde see the accursed Serpent putting the deadly Apple into out Grand mother Eves hand: and were it not that this malicious fraud is acted at the furthest end of the Room; and out of your reach, you would put forth your hand to prevent that destruction.”

The panorama came with its own trompe d’oeil audience:

“On the left side of the Room, are five beautifull Ladies seated, beholding these curiosities, a person of quality standing by them, attended with three Blackmore Lacquees in rich blew Liveries.”

J.H. affirms that these paintings (or just possibly wax effigies) are so realistic, other visitors bow to them ‘and have wondered at the non-return of their Civility’, while a ‘Consort of Musitians of commonly known faces’ – 17th century pop stars, look you - was also represented behind the door, ‘all so exact and to the Life, that people on a sudden glance, suppose they shall have Musick too, as in other Shows and Plays, for their money’.

As with Dutch panoramic paintings of Eden, the animals seem to have been the main subject, with Adam and Eve just the opportunity and pretext. Even in the main room, the subject matter extended from the biblical scene into ‘the divertissement of Hawking, in the several Flights of the Tassel, the Lanner, the Marlyn, and that merry sport of the Hobby.’ This said, Andrew Willet’s Hexapla … on Genesis does mention, in solemnly deciding that all animals lived off the super-nutritious herbs of Paradise before the Fall, that one commentator had suggested that Adam could have enjoyed hunting as a sport even in the pre-lapsarian state: God had given him all the animals, therefore he could legitimately kill some of them for his pleasure.

The Artist of the 1661 show must have been English rather than the whole assemblage having been brought over from Holland, for J.H. reports that the painter still makes daily additions, ‘replenishing this Work’, and also does visitors a commentary on the animals he had so consummately brought to life.

Downstairs from this main room, things were more secular, with a depiction of Heliogabalus’s feast - as it were, all the animals just seen upstairs now cooked and served up for consumption. J.H. is artful enough to hint that there may also be a naughty final display, ‘a Banquet (tis not for a masculine palate, and therefore I shall not insist upon those sweet Kickshaws) there is nothing wanting here, to serve a Ladies desire, and to keep it; for its twenty to one if here ye be not bigger then her belly’. Might it have been of Adam?

London in 1661, a few years before Paradise Lost, and Milton’s forthcoming subject matter as a raree-show in a tavern.

My image is one of Roelandt Savery’s paradise pictures, with the Holy Roman Emperor’s dodo at bottom right. Savery worked for Rudolph II over in Prague, and Peter Marshall’s account in The Mercurial Emperor: the Magic Circle of Rudolph II in Renaissance Prague mentions its presence in the menagerie there.

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