Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Art of Portraying

Lady Agnew of Lochnaw by John Singer Sargent (1893)

American painter John Singer Sargent turned Gertrude Vernon - the young wife of Andrew Noel Agnew, a barrister who in 1892 inherited the baronetcy and estates of Lochnaw in Galloway, Scotland - into something of a celebrity after painting her portrait. It’s considered one of Sargent’s best, full of all the beautiful and expensive fabrics a woman of that era could want. The expression on Lady Agnew's face is very captivating, with a slightly raised eyebrow, a knowing, almost careless gaze and set lips.


madame rimsky-korsakov
Madame Barbe de Rimsky-Korsakov by Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1864)

Her name is Varvara (in Russian Варвара), often called Barbe (Demetrievna Morgassov). She was the wife of Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov and reportedly the aunt of the famous composer by the same name. Her husband was from a rich aristocratic family. He was a VERY handsome man. They married in Moscow when she was 16 or 17 and he was 20. This couple was mentioned in "Anna Karenina" by Leo Tolstoy. They had three sons: Sergei, Alexi and Nikolay.

However, the marriage ended in divorce and Varvara left for France. She was a regular at the Court of Napoleon III and Eugenie and was reportedly one of his lovers. Prince Obolensky wrote that she was known everywhere in France thanks to her beauty and charm. The French called her "La Venus Tartare". During her time in Paris, she was painted twice by the portrait painter of the day, Franz Xavier Winterhalter. The second portrait, painted in 1845, became the most well known, and is now in the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.

After the Franco Prussian War, Barbe went to live in Nice, where it is believed she died at age 45 and is buried in the Russian cemetery. Cause of death is unknown. Other royal ladies of Napoleon's Court lived much longer, into their '80's and even 100's.

At this time there was large Russian community in Nice. The Czar would come in his yacht to Nice in the summers.

Her son Nikolay went back to Russia to his father and later married one of the daughters of Natalia Pushkina-Lanskaya. What became of the other two sons is unknown.

... from --- 

Thank you for the inspiration, rauf, these two paintings are most definitely worth a post of their own. Your favourites just became mine.

The Willow Manor Ball

With so many upsetting news in the media today [1] [2] [3] [4] [5], I really need to switch off for a moment and indulge in a bit of pleasant frivolity."Because I'm worth it!" Blah, blah, blah! Bah.

So... I'm just about to leave for the Third Annual Willow Manor Ball, that most exciting of cyber events that everyone has been talking about in the blogosphere for the past few weeks.

As my husband is away and I wouldn’t dream of going on my own, I’ve invited a dear friend of mine to be my date for the night. He isn't famous - I wouldn't even dream of being escorted by a celebrity - but I haven’t seen him in almost three years and I miss him terribly. The Ball is the perfect opportunity to meet up and have some fun again. I can barely wait to catch up (indeed it will be the highlight of the evening for me). He’s a marvellous and very accommodating dancer, as charming, witty, and good humoured as the best of them. Not bad looking, either, with his silver streaked auburn hair and deep set golden-brown eyes that light up a room when they smile. We've had numerous good times together and endless discussions about life, religion, philosophy and politics that have deeply shaped my beliefs and ethical values. A brilliant guy whose Jewish parents escaped Hitler by a hair's-breadth in the 1940's and set up home in Portugal. Quite a family story, intimately entwined with the history of Europe (from the expulsion of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula in the 15th century right up to the Holocaust). 

But enough said about my wonderful, long-time-no-see date, now I want to tell you about my attire.

After much consideration, I decided that - because a certain degree of poetic liberty is allowed for this event and because both my date and I love Vienna and its waltzes - my dress would have to be inspired by that of Empress Elizabeth of Austria in her most celebrated portrait:


So, after pulling a lot of strings (in more than one sense), I’ve managed to borrow the dress Romy Schneider wore when she played Sissi in 1955 and fit perfectly into it (oh the joys of a tight corset! ). After hours of torment, my hair is now made up like hers, abundant, glossy and adorned with twenty-seven sparkling diamond stars (no, not uncomfortable at all !). I've dabbed on some Fantasia de Fleurs by Creed  and I'm trusting my feet will stay snug and comfortable in the Rudolf Scheer & Söhne shoes I had especially made for the occasion.

As I prepare to dance the night away to the sound of Strauss, I look and feel quite the princess.

I'm looking forward to mingling a bit with the crème-de-la-crème attending this magical gala Willow is hosting with such sophistication and grandeur. But only when I'm too tired to dance with my much missed friend whom I had to part with so unexpectedly three years ago. I might not mingle at all...

Mourning Fan

Wednesday, September 29, 2010



Go inside a stone
That would be my way.
Let somebody else become a dove
Or gnash with a tiger's tooth.
I am happy to be a stone.

From the outside the stone is a riddle:
No one knows how to answer it.
Yet within, it must be cool and quiet
Even though a cow steps on it full weight,
Even though a child throws it in a river;
The stone sinks, slow, unperturbed
To the river bottom
Where the fishes come to knock on it
And listen.

I have seen sparks fly out
When two stones are rubbed,
So perhaps it is not dark inside after all;
Perhaps there is a moon shining
From somewhere, as though behind a hill—
Just enough light to make out
The strange writings, the star-charts
On the inner walls.

-- Charles Simic --

(I'm glad to have found Simic today.)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

I Say, Hard Cheese!

Well, today is just one of those days!

Got a speeding fine in the post, the washing machine broke down again (I’ve lost count of how many times it’s had to be repaired since we got it 4 years ago), internet speed doesn’t go above 400 Kb/s even though I’m paying for 4 Mb/s, my laptop is making a strange rattling noise and a light bulb just went out when I walked into this room (yes, it’s that dark and gloomy outside at 2 PM in the afternoon today).

Hubby’s on the plane heading south to somewhere exciting where I would quite like to go as well and Clara is about to head east to spend a week in my favourite of favourite cities (oh là là, oui c’est ça) with her class. I’m feeling stranded and plagued by rotten luck.

I Love Krzysztof Kieslowski

The Double Life of Veronique is such a wonderful movie.  It's true that Irène Jacob is so beautiful that just watching her is sheer delight (amazing how Krzysztof Kieslowski managed to enhance the beauty of his actresses to the level of sublime) but the film is very good despite that, and the musical score by Zbigniew Preisner is absolutely superb.

I also love Blue and Juliette Binoche in it, the essence of grief so poignantly and understatedly conveyed. A tough movie to watch but unforgettable for all the right reasons.

Blue. Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski. Score by Zbigniew Preisner.

Blue. Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski. Score by Zbigniew Preisner.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Listeners

The Listeners

'Is there anybody there?' said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
Of the forest's ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller's head
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
'Is there anybody there?' he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller's call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
'Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:-
'Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,' he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.

-- Walter de la Mare --

Have a good week.

The magic of Venice

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Sunday Bliss


Mozart. Watching the Andrew Marr show during breakfast. Reading the papers. Happy that Ed won.


Kitchen fun with my treasures. The next couple of weekends are going to be pretty busy and we won't be together, so today we just had to have a bit of "quality bonding time" (as Clara likes to say).

These are some scones made by Ana using one of our old, tried and tested recipes. We had them for tea and they were scrumptious. The next time we feel like having scones, however, we'll just have to try this delicious sounding recipe in The Pink Wisk.

Sunday afternoon fun
Cookies made by Clara for her friends. She wants to have a cookie corner shop when she's grown up, even has a name for it already: Clara's Cookie Corner. 

Have to start practicing some Halloween cupcakes soon. Clara put this collage together for inspiration.

halloween cupcakes


Settling down to watch the premier of Downron Abbey on ITV1. I'm a sucker for quality period dramas.

Here's an interesting clip about it from the Press Association.

Wondering what I would wear if I were going to the ball at Willow Manor. Carolina Herrera, Valentino, Dior, Armani? Haven't thought about evening dresses in years... 

Anyway, too bad I can't go, I just haven't enough time to prepare for it. Maybe next year.

Can't wait to see the pictures and read all about it, though! Such a fantastic concept!

Stray Birds and Autumn Leaves

stray bird

Stray Birds

Stray birds of summer come to my
   window to sing and fly away.
And yellow leaves of autumn, which
   have no songs, flutter and fall
   there with a sigh.

-- Rabindranath Tagore --

Paris: Absence

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Just to say...

Dad August 1943
In 1943

Mom and Dad - 31st August 1966
With Mom in 1966

dad cranfield
With me in 1967

dad 90's
In 1991

dad un
 At the United Nations in 1997

Speaking at the European Space Agency in 2000

Today isn't good for Chopin's Tristesse so I post the Heroic, which is perfect!

Did you know that when, at twenty years of age, Chopin left Poland and settled in Paris as a political exile, he took with him some Polish soil? He kept it with him all his life -never having gone back to Poland - and when he died, it was buried with him at Père Lachaise. 

Recognize this?

Friday, September 24, 2010


I wonder if Paul Auster writes as effortlessly as he breathes. Or if for him, like for most mortals, writing involves painstakingly pondering, constructing and deconstructing each word, phrase, sentence, paragraph and chapter before putting it on paper.

Excellence and fluidity in verbal expression - be it written, like Auster’s, or oral, like Barack Obama’s, is something I admire and envy tremendously. Supposedly practice makes perfect, but I doubt either Auster or Obama could be as good as they are without being naturally gifted (although I do admit they probably did practice a lot before making it to greatness).

That said, I have to confess that I doubly admire people who can achieve this brilliance even when expressing themselves in a foreign language, Vladimir Nabokov, Kazuo Ishiguro and Joseph Conrad, to name a few. I find it infinitely harder to write in English than in Portuguese, my first language. Sometimes it takes me forever to write what I want to say and even then what comes out doesn’t always reflect what was on my mind. A tad frustrating, I daresay (how’s that for British understatement?).

When I began this blog, five years ago, I chose to write it in English to set myself a challenge. My readers were mostly Portuguese family and friends but they were very accommodating and understanding, after all I had just moved to England and it was only natural that I’d want to try my hand at blogging in Shakespeare’s tongue. When I compare The Millstone with my 2003 Portuguese blog, however, the contrast is stark: clearly my lack of ease in English impacts greatly on the style and depth of the posts in The Millstone.

These five years have been bumpy and irregular but I don’t intend to give up on the challenge. I feel particularly rewarded in my efforts when I consider the wonderful people chance and fortune have brought to my comment box during this time, some of whom I already cherish almost as dearly as family. May serendipity always be with us.

Woman Writing at a Table
Woman Writing at a Table (1905) - Thomas Anshutz (1851-1912)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Cold Mistress of Moods

"Got eclipsed but I'm back again."

Yesterday I read this in an article in The Independent:

"How does the moon affect us? Depression, accidents, even suicide - are all more common when the moon is full. Why?

Various studies have so far shown that gout, pseudo-gout, lunacy, alcoholism, epilepsy, menstrual cycles, casualty-unit admissions, road accidents, absenteeism, anxiety, depression, sexual activity, homicides, insomnia and diarrhoea are influenced by the full moon.

Diet, too, is subject to a lunar effect, with an 8 per cent increase reported in average meal sizes on the day of the full moon, and a 25 per cent hike in drinking rates. Researchers in Italy have also found that births, at least in Fano, tend to be clustered around the full moon.

Even fish and insects are not immune. Diverse research teams have discovered that when there is a full moon, the dust mite is not so active, the giant tiger prawn eats more and the belted sandfish is more sexually active.

The idea that the full moon has an effect on human and animal health and behaviour goes back at least to Roman times and shows no sign of going away. Indeed, one American study found that the belief in a lunar effect among health professionals is waxing rather than waning.

But, despite the links between the full moon and increases in myriad diseases and disorders, the actual mechanism remains elusive.

It has been proposed that if the gravitational force of the moon is sufficient to cause the oceans to rise, it may also affect the glands and organs. Some people are affected more than others, it's suggested, because they are borderline cases that are tipped over into ill health every month by the power of the moon.

Dr Mikulecky Rovensky proposes that gout attacks may peak at the full moon because of the changing geomagnetic fields; Dr Arnold Lierber suggests the biological tide theory, in which the moon exerts a pull on the water within the body, resulting in a cascade of effects. Internal body rhythms may also be implicated, as could the effects on the pineal gland of the light emitted by the moon or a slightly warmer temperature triggered by the full moon.

Although some conditions, especially depression, anxiety and behavioural problems, have long been associated with a full-moon effect, other conditions, such as diarrhoea, are more recent.

One of the explanations as to why the full moon should have such an effect is that its small gravitational effect has an unbalancing effect on pathogens, making the body more toxic."

Twilight Zone

In the end, I found myself thinking, "Will medicine ever have all the answers, the cure for all our ailments? I think and hope not."

Clair de Lune

The poem I chose to mark this full moon is particularly bleak in sentiment but brilliant in delivery. It goes well with this extraordinary photo I found in Flickr some four years ago.

Train Tracks
Train Tracks - by Terry Lea

The only thing missing is the Yew tree.

The Moon and the Yew tree

"This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary.
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.
The grasses unload their griefs at my feet as if I were God,
Prickling my ankles and murmuring of their humility.
Fumy spiritious mists inhabit this place
Separated from my house by a row of headstones.
I simply cannot see where there is to get to.

The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right,
White as a knuckle and terribly upset.
It drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is quiet
With the O-gape of complete despair. I live here.
Twice on Sunday, the bells startle the sky -
Eight great tongues affirming the Resurrection.
At the end, they soberly bong out their names.

The yew tree points up. It has a Gothic shape.
The eyes lift after it and find the moon.
The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary.
Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls.
How I would like to believe in tenderness -
The face of the effigy, gentled by candles,
Bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes.

I have fallen a long way. Clouds are flowering
Blue and mystical over the face of the stars.
Inside the church, the saints will be all blue,
Floating on their delicate feet over cold pews,
Their hands and faces stiff with holiness.
The moon sees nothing of this. She is bald and wild.
And the message of the yew tree is blackness - blackness and silence."

-- Sylvia Plath --

After having stepped inside Sylvia's tormented mind, I had to pull myself together by listening to two of the most beautiful and soothing pieces of music ever composed inspired by moonlight.