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Reflections on portraiture

In 1904, the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna of Russia purchased as a gift for her sister, Queen Alexandra, a fan composed of two-color gold, guilloché enamel, mother-of-pearl, blond tortoiseshell, gold sequins, silk, cabochon rubies, and rose diamonds from the House of Fabergé in Saint Petersburg. The Empress paid 325 rubles for it. At the published rates of exchange for January 1904, this was almost exactly the same as £13 7s (The Times, February 17, 1904, p. 13) or $64.25 (New York Times, January 3, 1904, p. 7). 

The southern winter has arrived. For people in the northern hemisphere (the majority of humanity) the idea of snow and ice, freezing mist and fog in June, potentially continuing through to August and beyond, encapsulates the topsy-turvidom of our southern continent. However, there have been many other tropes since first contact.

At a meeting by teleconference of the National Portrait Gallery Foundation last week, I found myself reporting that our forthcoming exhibition So Fine is going to be “a humdinger,” whereupon Tim Fairfax chuckled and said that he hadn’t heard that expression for years.

I keep going back to Cartier: The Exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia next door, and, within the exhibition, to Princess Marie Louise’s diamond, pearl and sapphire Indian tiara (1923), surely one of the most superb head ornaments ever conceived. Remodelled for the Coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1937, Louie bequeathed the tiara to the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester from whom it passed to the present Duke and Duchess, who with extraordinary generosity agreed to lend it. For sheer gob-smacking splendour, though, it’s hard to surpass the Maharajah of Patiala’s immense, almost waist-length 1928 five-strand coronation necklace with its vast stones.