Written on June 20, 2014 by Administrador de IE Blogs in Arts & Cultures & Societies

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Written on June 19, 2014 by Administrador de IE Blogs in Film

banner-belle-filmAmma Asante’s powerful, moving and gently subversive romantic melodrama is a finely wrought tale of a woman out of time, a film that plays eloquently upon the heartstrings as it interweaves familiar personal intrigue with stirring social history. Intelligently combining the enticing pleasures of a ripe costume drama with the still shameful legacy and lessons of the slave trade, Belle dresses its entryist agendas in the fashionable finery of a multiplex crowd-pleaser. The result is a handsomely mounted and emotionally engaging drama that smartly examines issues of race, class and gender while leaving nary a dry eye in the house.

Like Girl with a Pearl Earring (both Tracy Chevalier’s novel and Peter Webber’s subsequent film), Misan Sagay’s inventive script takes inspiration from an enigmatic painting upon which the writer projects a heady mix of fact and fantasy. The unsigned picture at the heart of Belle(which once hung in Hampstead’s grand Kenwood House) depicts what Asante calls “a bi-racial girl, a woman of colour, who’s slightly higher than her white counterpart”, a significant placement implying a social equality extraordinary in the late 18th century. But what does the hand of one young woman upon the waist of the other imply – sisterhood or rivalry? And what should we read from the expressions (playful? defiant? mischievous?) upon the faces of the artist’s subjects?

This much we know; that Dido Elizabeth Belle – the illegitimate daughter of a Royal Navy captain, John Lindsay, and an African woman named Maria Belle – was raised at Kenwood House in north London by her great-uncle, Lord Mansfield, where she became companion to her half-cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray. As lord chief justice, Mansfield heard several significant slavery cases, including the 1772 Somerset v Stewart case (which questioned whether slavery was supported by common law), and the Zong ship case, which hinged upon the deliberate drowning of human “cargo”. The latter of these forms the backdrop of Sagay’s narrative, providing an Amistad-like framework for the discussion of human rights versus property law, arcane legal argument circling absolute moral imperative.

Describing her film as a hybrid of “the Jane Austen elements we know so well – the marriage market, the lives of girls growing up into society ladies, the romantic longing – combined with a story about the end of slavery”, Asante paints an enthralling portrait of a woman struggling to define her identity, caught between stairs in terms of social custom and protocol. Too elevated to eat with the servants, yet too lowly to dine (in company, at least) with her “family”, Dido must find her own space in a world in which her colour marks her as unique among her peers.

Continue reading in The Guardian


mercedesOn the morning of October 5, 1804, a British naval squadron came across a group of four Spanish frigates off the southern coast of Portugal, close to the port of Cadiz. The two countries were not yet at war, but the British, aware that Napoleon would soon force Spain into a conflict, engaged the Spanish forces, capturing three of the ships, while another, the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, sank after her magazine exploded, killing an estimated 265 people and taking a vast hoard of bullion down to the seabed.

And there she would remain, forgotten for more than a century, until US deep-sea treasure hunting company Odyssey located the vessel in 2009 and removed around 600,000 mainly silver coins, along with other items.

When the story broke, the Spanish government of the day, under Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, immediately claimed ownership, and the affair soon became a matter of state, rallying the two main political parties in a rare display of unity.

Two new exhibitions in Madrid, one at the National Archeology Museum, and another at the Naval Museum, not only provide historical context to the sinking of the Mercedes, but also tell the story of the legal battle to get the coins returned.

From a legal point of view, the affair ended two years ago after the Supreme Court ruled that as the Mercedes was a warship on a mission of state, the treasure aboard her was Spain’s. Two Hercules military planes were sent to an army base in Tampa to bring the coins back. The Culture Ministry decided that the best place for them to be seen was at ARQUA, the National Sub-Aquatic Archeology Museum in the Mediterranean port city of Cartagena, where a permanent exhibition area has been created.

The exhibition at the Naval Museum tells the story of Diego de Alvear, the second-in-command of the Spanish squadron, whose wife was aboard the Mercedes, along with seven of his children. He was later compensated by the British for his loss. He went on to remarry, tying the knot with an Irishwoman called Lisa Ward, and have another 10 children. One of his sons from his first marriage fought for Argentinean independence a decade later. Several personal items belonging to Alvear are also on show, including his telescope, a portrait of his second wife, a saber and a theodolite. At the time of the encounter with the British, Alvear was returning to Spain with his family, and had been appointed second-in-command of the squadron by José de Bustamante, the commander of the convoy.

Continue reading in El País


‘Ten Cities that Made an Empire’, by Tristram Hunt

Written on June 17, 2014 by Administrador de IE Blogs in Literature

citiesgoodThere are a multitude of ways in which historians – alongside them, economists, geographers, cartographers, social scientists – have tried to reckon with the achievement of the British Empire, a subject that remains for many of us one of very great interest, at least if the term is used in a proper way. Thus, the word “achievement” is not meant here as some sort of patriotic reinforcement to Tory Home Counties triumphalism, but simply the plain measure of historical record: the fact that, for well over 200 years, a small cluster of islands lying off the northwest Eurasian landmass exercised political, cultural and economic power out of all proportion to its size. No Indian railway lines criss-crossed northern England; no Nigerian gunboats sailed up the Clyde; no West Indian polity built church schools in Glamorgan for Sunday services. From about the 1650s onwards, in some ways before, all flowed in one direction until, of course, the tides began to turn after 1900.

The islanders left behind many intriguing signs of their outsized role, and sometimes it’s still hard to grasp this remarkable story, except perhaps in anecdotal and antiquarian ways. An American colleague of mine at Yale measures it through his schoolboy postage-stamp collections of imperial coronations and jubilees; another (this seems truly idiosyncratic, unless you happen to have been in the West Indies during the days of a Test match) through the spread of cricket. One of my personal favourites is through tracing the multitude of quiet, modest Commonwealth war graves and memorials scattered across 153 countries. There are thousands of sites, often, as at El Alamein, kept in lovely, watered condition even in the midst of dusty urban sprawl.

And then the story could be measured and told via the many British overseas ports, cities and towns, as has been done in Tristram Hunt’s attractive new book, Ten Cities that Made an Empire. The author, a Labour MP and a history lecturer at Queen Mary College, London, takes 10 of the most important and colourful cities within the old empire, explaining how they came about, what they became, and the role they played in the larger system. It is a great idea, and Hunt achieves his purpose superbly, with panache and in fine style.

Continue reading in Financial Times



ulyssesWork from Richard Hamilton‘s unfulfilled quest to create the definitive illustrations for James Joyce‘s novel Ulysses have gone on display at the British Museum. The 60 drawings and prints have been accepted by the government in lieu of almost £1m in taxes, due on the artist’s estate since his death in 2011.

The father of pop art in Britain was celebrated in a major retrospective at Tate Modern this year. For his entire working life Hamilton loved Joyce’s huge meandering tale of a day and night’s wandering through the streets of Dublin, and he was also very interested in Irish politics and culture.

Ulysses was first published in Paris in 1922, the year of Hamilton’s birth, and the artist first read the book in 1947 at a particularly difficult point in his life, having been forced into national service after being expelled from the Royal Academy art school for not obeying instructions. The following year he won a place at Slade, and produced his first illustrations for Ulysses, the first of scores of etchings and drawings created over the following decades.

The British Museum in London exhibited many of the Ulysses etchings in 2002, and afterwards Hamilton donated eight to the collection. The new acquisition adds more than 90 works including his first attempts at tackling the book.

A selection is going on display, free, at the museum in time for Bloomsday on 16 June, a date celebrated all over the world by fellow lovers of the book.

Stephen Coppel, assistant keeper of prints and drawing at the museum, who curated the 2002 exhibition, said Hamilton’s ambition to illustrate the book was an unrealised odyssey.

“Although Hamilton continued to think and work on Joyce all his life, he never fulfilled his original ambition of illustrating all 18 episodes of Joyce’s encyclopaedic text, and, like William Blake’s illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy, it remains one of the great unfinished projects. Hamilton always wanted the studies and prints of his lifelong odyssey into Joyce kept together and it is most gratifying that the entire group now finds a permanent home in the British Museum.”

Continue reading in The Guardian

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