A Digital Curiosity Cabinet

Archive for June, 2014

Surprised! By Henri Rousseau, 1891

Surprised, Henri Rousseau, 1891, © The National Gallery, London

Surprised, Henri Rousseau, 1891, © The National Gallery, London

Rousseau paints extraordinary visions of exotic jungles, lion hunters and fierce jaguars that remind us of Rudyard Kipling’s, ‘The Jungle Book’. He had never seen a jungle before, so these pictures are painted entirely from his own imagination. He created his own fantasy jungle scenes using domestic pot plants and tropical specimens from Paris’ botanical Gardens. His animals were inspired by visits to see stuffed animals in museums. His work includes fantastical situations that would never happen in the natural world; from a jaguar attacking a horse in a jungle, to a monkey shooting a hunter.

Henri Rousseau was born in 1844 in Leval in Western France. He left his job as a gatekeeper at the Paris Municipal in 1893 to pursue a career as an artist. He was called a naïve artist because he had no formal training at an art school. Academics at the time criticized his work for his poor handling of proportion and perspective.

The tiger in this painting stands ready to pounce on any unsuspecting prey, in the midst of a violent storm. Lightning flashes in the background and the rain falls in heavy sheets. The entire painting is covered with delicate transparent stripes of white and grey, which represents the heavy downpour. The slightly unrealistic, surprised tiger is based on a range of sources including oriental prints and the domestic cat.

The Tale of the Cursed Amethyst

The Cursed Amethyst

The Cursed Amethyst, © The Natural History Museum, London

Amethyst is a violet variety of the quartz stone, that is often used in jewellery. The name comes from the ancient Greek word and it literally means, ‘not drunk’. The ancient Greeks and Romans thought that the stone could be used to prevent drunkenness. They used amethysts in drinking goblets and jewellery.

This stone originally belonged to a 19th century writer called Edward Heron-Allen. He had many talents and enjoyed writing about a wide variety of subjects from violins, to Persian Literature, to Natural History. He also write books on palmistry, the occult and the supernatural. Heron-Allen couldn’t wait to get rid of this stone, as he claimed that it was ‘trebly cursed’ and was ‘stained with blood and dishonour’.

The stone was donated to the Natural History Museum by Heron-Allen’s daughter along with a letter from her father warning curators not to handle it. Heron-Allen wrote that the stone, ‘was looted from the treasure of Temple of the God Indra at Cawnpore during the Indian mutiny in 1855, and brought to this country by Colonel W. Ferris of the Bengal Cavalry. From the day he possessed it, he was unfortunate.’

Some curators think that Heron-Allen may have made up the myth of the Cursed Amethyst to publicise a short story that he wrote in 1921, under the pseudonym Christopher Blayre, called, ‘The Purple Sapphire.’ So far, no curators have died from handling this stone. But who knows…? What do you think?