Paul Johnson

Splendours and miseries of the man on the alabaster elephant

Splendours and miseries of the man on the alabaster elephant

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If there is one material I particularly relish, it is alabaster. It is slightly soluble in water and therefore defenceless against a rainy climate. So it can’t be used for outdoor work on cathedrals and churches. For internal decoration, however, it is superb, being soft and easy to cut; it takes a high polish and can be painted with almost any kind of pigment including watercolour. In the Middle Ages, workable deposits were discovered in Staffordshire and near Nottingham, and by the mid-14th century English alabaster was famous, and religious figures and altarpieces carved from it were exported all over Europe. If you want an example of English skills at their best you have only to go to the Victoria and Albert museum, where a splendid altarpiece, late 15th-century, called ‘The Joys of the Virgin’, originally from Swansea, is on display. Alabaster was a favourite material for tomb effigies in churches, especially of knights, for its softness enabled the sculptor to put on exquisite details of armour and equipment, as well as beards and moustaches, and the figure could then be realistically coloured in bright paint. The paint has gone in most cases, and often the nose or face too — the work of Puritans, distant ancestors of those now trying to ban hunting — but these recumbent figures, worn smooth and shiny by touching, are one of the greatest pleasures of our old parish churches. By putting one’s hands on them one joins physically, as well as in metaphor, the men and women who lived more than half a millennium ago, as well as the countless visitors who have felt them since.

I have a beautiful alabaster bust of Loie Fuller, the sensational dancer from Chicago, who performed at the Paris Folies-Bergère in the 1890s, using the resources of electric stage-lighting and spotlights for the first time, and so creating images which were then unprecedented. Paris artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec made stunning drawings and prints of her, and she attracted painters from all over Europe — sculptors, too, one of whom made my bust, though he did not, alas, sign it. I love my alabaster Loie, and pat her soft and slightly warm head every day when I first go into the drawing room, where she has a table and lamp to herself.

An even greater treasure of mine was an alabaster elephant which I think was done in India in about 1903, at the time of the durbar held to mark the coronation of Edward VII as King-Emperor. It was a fine ceremonial elephant, painted green, red and grey, though most of the colour had gone. On its broad back was a flat surface, bound to its sides by broad straps, and on this surface once rested a howdah, containing the figure of Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India 1898–1905. Alas, howdah and viceroy had long since been swept into oblivion; and, about ten years ago, during a cleaning process or one of those periodic catastrophes which take over a peaceful household, like the harrowings in a Bosch triptych, my elephant was swept violently to the floor and shattered beyond repair.

I had almost forgotten about him when, the other day, wishing to look up something, I consulted David Dilks’s two-volume book Curzon in India, and next to it on the shelf found another volume by Leonard Mosley, called Curzon: End of an Epoch, which I remember reviewing. Lo! Opposite page 49 is a photograph with a caption: ‘Viceroy and Vicereine arriving for the Durbar.’ And there is a ceremonial elephant, complete with howdah, and Lord and Lady Curzon on it. Words cannot describe the magnificence of this beast and its burden. To begin with, the elephant is truly colossal, specially chosen or bred for an event of the greatest splendour. It must have been about 18 feet high and big in proportion, making my alabaster elephant seem puny. Its trunk, not curled like mine’s was, is held out stiff, straight and vertical, the tip just touching the ground. It has a fringed and jewelled band above its head, and its eyes, face and much of its front are elaborately painted. There are magnificent fringes, too, of silk I think, hanging down its trunk and on either side of its noble skull. Covering most of its body is a colossal Persian carpet, reaching almost to the ground, and on top of it is a big fringed rug, plus cushions, to constitute a soft plinth for the howdah. This is a great gondola-like piece of furniture, painted in white and gold (I imagine: the photo is monochrome) with pinnacles at each corner surmounted by crowns, and the royal coat of arms decorating the sides. In it is an apprehensive-looking Curzon and a positively nervous Vicereine, and I don’t blame her for being frightened; she must have been a good 20 feet above the ground, and who was to know what would happen if the beast broke into a trot? (Its front legs were loosely chained together to prevent this happening.) The magnificently bearded and turbaned mahout, with gold braid over the chest of his dark blue uniform, sits in charge, clutching a golden rein. Over the howdah stands a similar figure, holding an immense silk and fringed parasol, which brings the height of this tottering and swaying ensemble to nearly 30 feet. By the elephant’s right leg stands a very fierce-looking guard, wielding a ten-foot spear, and I imagine there were three others at the corners, outside the photo. All in all the plate brilliantly perpetuates an epiphany of imperialism at its most splendidly barbaric, oriental magnificence precariously presided over by a polished product of Eton and Balliol in their golden age. One could write a book about it.

Indeed one could, for it also epitomises the transience, fragility and frustrations of imperial grandeur, and its ultimate futility. The durbar itself caused Curzon immense trouble, irritation and even humiliation. He had been obliged to discipline a fashionable hussar regiment for killing a native unnecessarily. Indeed he had wished to exclude it from the durbar parade, but had been persuaded otherwise. When the 7th Hussars rode past, in arrogant, clinking glitter, the vast Anglo-Indian crowd burst into a frenzy of cheering, while Curzon, taking the salute — on a horse this time — sat stonily silent. He was already quarrelling with the home government, as well as with his army commander, Herbert Kitchener, and the two of them eventually produced his enforced resignation and return to London under a cloud. Curzon had been the youngest viceroy, and as his enemy Lord Beaverbrook wrote, ‘For the rest of his life Curzon was influenced by his sudden journey to heaven at the age of 39, and then by his return seven years later to earth, for the remainder of his mortal existence.’

Why Beaverbrook hated Curzon so much I have never discovered, but he went to the trouble and expense of buying up the Curzon papers so they could be used by his underlings to blacken the poor man’s reputation. One of these efforts was the Mosley biography, an exercise in ridicule. I gave it a stinging review, pointing out Curzon’s real qualities and achievements. I subsequently received a grateful letter, signed ‘Ravensdale’. This turned out to be from a woman, not a man. Curzon had no son, and by special permission of King George V one of his titles, the barony of Ravensdale, passed to his eldest daughter, Irene. Curzon had three daughters. One married the notorious Oswald Mosley, who later seduced the other two, including my correspondent. There is an effigy of Curzon in the church at his ancestral home, Kedleston. Not in alabaster, though.