Tom Sutcliffe: How Madonna put Edward VII in the shade

Share
Related Topics

It's intriguing, I think, that an exhibition of early colour photographs of Edwardian grandees should get newspaper exposure hard on the heels of a widely disseminated sepia photograph of a contemporary VIP. The Edwardian photographs were taken by Lord Rothschild – a photographic hobbyist rich enough to try his hand at the Lumières' early Autochrome process, and well-connected enough to be able to ask King Edward VII himself to say cheese (though judging by the king's expression in the picture he looks to have declined the invitation).

The sepia picture was that authorised version of Madonna as the Madonna, cradling Mercy in her arms and mutely reproaching the Malawian authorities for their iconoclastic disregard for celebrity compassion. And between them they're quite telling about the way that colour colours our attitudes to photographic truth.

The Edwardian photographs were implicitly presented as an increase in our knowledge of the Edwardians, though the mere addition of colour couldn't really be said to have been revelatory. I don't suppose it will have surprised anybody to find that Edward VII's face was pink or that Edwardian tigers, like their modern counterparts, are pale orange with black stripes. And since we have no way of calibrating how accurately these photographs recorded the colours in front of the lens, you can't draw any more subtle conclusions from them either.

It isn't possible, for example, to diagnose the exact condition of the king's health from the tint of his complexion. And yet it's undeniable that the images somehow yank the Edwardians closer to us – rescuing them from antiquity into a place where one can think of them as something other than two-toned and two-dimensional.

The Madonna photograph travels in the other direction – deliberately surrendering colour so as to make the image seem detached from contemporary events and the bright palette of the "pap" shot. In doing so, it also pushes away from news and towards art and history, exploiting the fact that colour was held at bay by serious fine-art photography for decades after the technology first made it available (an unusual instance of willed anti-modernity).

This remains a powerful piece of visual rhetoric. Go to an up-market family photographer and you will almost certainly be offered the option of monochrome pictures, and you may well take it up with the sense that these will look more refined, more tasteful, somehow more "dynastic". Colour is the territory not of artists but of technicians and salesmen, those only interested in "likeness", that most vulgar of artistic ambitions. Effectively Madonna's sepia photograph had time deceptively embedded into it – to suggest that this putative relationship already existed and had done for some time. It presented itself with the patina of instant nostalgia.

There is a lot going on here – photographic snobbery about tonal range, the medium's inherent embarrassment at its mechanical access to depiction, the erroneous belief that colour is not "classical" – but there's also that unshakeable companion to most British cultural questions – class.

Colour is Torremolinos, today and triviality. Monochrome is history and high art. That's why when we look at Edward VII, glumly regal, with his green kilt and the little red flash on his stocking, he looks much more approachable to us. This isn't a monarch in a portrait, it's a chap in a snapshot – and the grass turns out not to be greener at all, but exactly the same colour as it is on our side of the fence.

The great conjuring trick that is After Dido

Katie Mitchell has confirmed her reputation for dividing critics with her new production After Dido, which left quite a few reviewers tepid and others glowing. You'll be glad to know that Edward Seckerson, who reviewed it for this paper, got it spot on in his rave review – by which I mean that he agreed with me. Even within this consensus though there's room for difference. He found it very moving and I didn't – though so dazzlingly inventive was the staging that I didn't notice until some time afterwards and even when I did, I didn't care.

Mitchell effectively creates a live television broadcast of three contemporary stories that accompany Purcell's music for Dido and Aeneas, with the finished version on a screen above the stage and "factory floor" beneath, where singers and stage-hands create sound-effects, flashbacks and mood lighting as they go to feed into the "film".

It is like watching a conjuring trick from back stage and front stage simultaneously – oscillating between suspended disbelief and knowing admiration at the sleight of hand – and at the heart of it sits Purcell's music, artifice and pretence and tricks of the trade coming together to create something that makes you entirely forget that it's all illusion.

Cute kids, talent shows and Jedi police...

Like everyone else in the world, barring a few Somali goat herders who don't have access to YouTube, I enjoyed Susan Boyle's triumph over the dubious on Britain's Got Talent. But my real admiration is reserved for the way in which Simon Cowell crafts his apparently spontaneous dramas of ordinary Joe apotheosis.

Take this weekend's show for example, during which a little crowd-pleaser called Shaheen, pictured, turned up to prod the crowd into making that mooing noise we reserve for kittens and small children. Shortly after Shaheen had launched into an Amy Winehouse number Cowell stopped him in mid-flow. Shocked gasp from crowd. Cut to Shaheen's mother looking anguished. Was Simon really going to drop-kick a kitten into the wings?

Simon sternly asks Shaheen whether he sings anything else and Shaheen says yes, he can do a Michael Jackson number too. And, by marvellous serendipity, a recording of it just happens to be in the theatre's sound system, cued up and ready to go. Shaheen licks into the number, crowd erupts, Simon smiles and sinks the programme's hooks a little deeper into the audience.

Why did Susan Boyle's hair look more dishevelled on her big night than it did when she was doing follow-up interviews in her own home? Because it made for better television that way. Most of the acts (including many of the notional successes) are mediocre, but the pantomimes of astonishment and surprise from the judges are world-class stuff.



*It's hard to know quite what to make of the revelation that eight members of the Strathclyde Police force (plus two of its civilian staff) had identified their religion as "Jedi" for a diversity questionnaire.

On the one hand, you could argue that it's important that a police force should be representative of the community it serves (and assaults). Since around 14,000 Scots identified themselves as Jedi worshippers in the 2001 census they would presumably like to know that their religious sensitivities are understood (don't make light-saber swooshing noises to wind them up).

On the other hand, should a police force really be as representatively childish as the society from which it's drawn? We don't want them to be representatively bigoted or violent or lacking in self-restraint, after all – but to be a cut above the people they're dealing with. Surely the same thing should hold true for common sense. It may be time for a silliness clause in the contract.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Asset Finance Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CITY - ASSET FINANCE - An outstanding...

HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350 - £400 per ...

Assistant Marketing & PR Manager

£16 - £17 per hour: Ashdown Group: Marketing & PR Assistant - Kentish Town are...

Project Manager (App development, SAP, interfacing)

£50000 - £60000 Per Annum + excellent company benefits: Clearwater People Solu...

Day In a Page

Read Next
James Foley's murder by Isis has shocked the West  

Today Isis is attacking the Middle East. Tomorrow it’ll be the West

James Bloodworth
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?
Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

Young at hort

Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

Beyond a joke

Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

A wild night out

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

Besiktas vs Arsenal

Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment