19 August 2014

Charles Darwin and his family's terrible medical condition

Charles Robert Darwin (1809–1882) was born to a wealthy doctor and financier Robert Darwin and his wife Susannah Wedgwood Darwin; plus he was a grandson of the brilliant physician and scientist, Erasmus Darwin. But all the family's medical scholarship and financial resources couldn't save young Charles from a life of pain.

Charles Darwin's famous journey on The Beagle started in December 1831. He was sick from the moment he stepped on the port, before embarking on the ship, and did not stop vomiting until he disembarked back in England, five long years later.

While still rewriting his Journal in 1836, Charles began editing and publishing the expert reports on his collections. He obtained a governmental grant to publish his huge work, Zoology of the Voyage of HMS Beagle, and stretched the funding to include his planned books on geology. He unfortunately agreed to unrealistic publication dates with the publisher. The financial and time pressure must have been enormous, so Darwin's health suffered. Only in his 20s, Charles’ heart pain was alarming, his depression was severe and insomnia was ever present.

In 1837 he went to stay with family in the countryside, to relax, and it was there Charles’ very cultured cousin Emma Wedgwood came into the picture. This was a very clever family, on both sides. But I wonder how restful this break was. Darwin took on the duties of Secretary of the Geological Society, questioned every scientist in the country and wrote as fast as his fingers would go.

In 1838 Charles was fit enough to get married and to father children. Over the next seventeen years Emma gave birth to ten babies, three dying in early childhood and seven living normal adult lives.

Emma and Charles Darwin's wedding portraits,

Yet Darwin was often bed ridden with stomach problems, headaches and heart symptoms. For the rest of his life, he was repeatedly incapac­itated with episodes of depression, relentless vomiting, severe boils and palpitations. The cause of Darwin's debilitating illnesses remained unknown but it was noted that when he was presenting his papers to scientific meet­ings, the violent vomiting attacks would increase. Fear of leaving home made him house-bound for years.

Friendly commentators believed Darwin’s weak constitution could not deal with having to expose his radical ideas to academic critiques and to Christian out­rage. That is, his symptoms were largely psycho­somatic, probably starting with his unresolved grief over the death of his mother when he started primary school. Creationist enemies, on the other hand, suggested his ill health was totally faked.

Charles' older brother, Erasmus Darwin, was born in 1804 and died a single man in 1881. The two brothers had been emotionally very close all their lives and it was assumed that when Charles heard of Eras­mus’ death, the news provoked an even greater strain on an already ill functioning heart. Charles Darwin died soon after Erasmus; both brothers had reached a decent age.

Now John Hayman has changed 130 years of guesswork in his paper Charles Darwin’s Mitochondria. Darwin’s ill­ness, the illnesses of his brother, their mother, maternal uncle Tom, and a child belonging to the maternal generation etc showed a genetic pattern of maternal inheritance that was the hallmark of mitochondrial mutations. The symptoms were exactly right – severe depression, shaking, fainting, nausea, anxiety, vomiting, visual hallucinations, headaches and cardiac palpitations. The Creationists were exactly wrong.

Prof Hayman then looked at Charles' brother. Erasmus Darwin had graduated in medicine from the University of Edinburgh but had never practised. Instead he spent a life in London as a chronic invalid, suffering from abdominal pain and lethargy. His symptoms suggested that Erasmus had the same DNA mutation as his younger brother.

Darwin not only inherited any weaknesses his own parents had; he also chose to marry, of all the women on the planet, his own first cousin Emma Wedgwood. It was therefore even more fascinating for Prof Hayman to know what happened to their children. Hayman showed that Charles Darwin’s children were unaffected since defective mitochondria can only be inherited from the mother. Emma Wedgwood was genetically clean!

The critics were harsh.
"Natural Selection" was a caricature of Charles Darwin by James Joseph Jacques Tissot 
Published by Vanity Fair magazine in September 1871.

16 August 2014

a feast of exhibitions for Edward Seago, a fine landscapist

Edward Seago (1910–1974) was not ever a healthy young lad. He was born to a Norwich coal merchant, and was given a proper education but not in art. I don’t suppose his parents were thrilled when he decided to become a professional artist but it was better than his other passion – travelling circuses. Just!

They seemed tough parents so perhaps Edward hid his young, gay lovers from their gaze. Life was clearly a struggle at chez Seago, both healthwise and in terms of family support.

He might have been bohemian and circus-y, but My Daily Art Display was right to discuss Seago's aristocratic patronage. One such man was the politician-industrialist-art connoisseur, Henry Mond Lord Melchett.  Seago and Mond travelled together to Venice in 1933, the most blissful place on earth for a young man planning a career in landscape art.

Seago joined the Royal Engineers in 1939 and was employed on dev­el­oping camouflage techniques, painting canvases only in his spare time.

After the war he started to become popular, exhibiting his works and selling them. I assume this was because of Seago’s close friend Princess Mary Countess of Harewood, King George VI’s sister. It was through this acquaintance that he was later to meet the rest of the royal family, especially the Duke of Edinburgh and Elizabeth the Queen Mother. To this day, some of his paintings hang at Balmoral. 

Edward Seago, Honfleur
51 x 76 cm, 1950s?
Photo credit: Bonhams 

Seago made eight major painting trips to France in the 1950s and early 1960s, often to explore the coastal region and northern water­ways. For these trips Seago had his beloved yacht, The Capricorn, fitted with secure facilities for canvases and boards, stocked the companionway drawers with painting equipment and bought provisions to last up to three months at a time. He sailed along the coast, then on the Seine towards Paris, mooring en route to paint scenes in and around Dieppe, Rouen and Honfleur.

Reid* suggested Seago’s infatuation with Honfleur in particular might have stemmed from his admiration for the Honfleurais artist Eugène Boudin, a pioneer of the en plein air method that Seago adopted so heartily. And, I would add, from an admiration for Claude Monet.

This satisfying time was form­ative within the artist's life; as Seago developed new techniques, embarked upon new subject matter and explored new uses of colour, a greater confidence appeared in his work. He seemed to explode in a burst of creative energy. Like the old Dutch landscape artists, Seago valued atmosphere and light above all, as long as they were representative of the northern landscapes he painted in. He did not appreciate bright colours that would have better belonged in the tropics.

Edward Seago
Before the Barge Race, Pin Mill
66 x 91 cm, ?year.
Photo credit: Bonhams 

Reid* also noted that, from the 1950s on, Pin Mill in Suffolk became for Seago what Argenteuil had been for Claude Monet in the early 1870s. Like Monet, Seago was drawn to Pin Mill's maritime activ­ities. A keen sailor himself, he became a member of the Pin Mill Sailing Club and found the club's activities and landscapes to be wonderful subjects for his art. The Pin Mill painting above captured the moment in which the sailing competitors gathered in the town, resting on gentle waters early in a bright August morning, the air charged with Regatta excitement.

Seago died of a brain tumour in London in 1974, only 64 years old. In his will he requested that one third of his paintings in his Norwich studio at the time of his death were to be destroyed. Nonetheless thousands of water colours and oil paintings still remain in public and private collections.

20 works by the Norfolk painter Edward Seago are being hung in the ballroom of the royal residence at Sandringham, which is open to the public for the northern summer 2014. Subjects range from the wedding procession of Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh, in 1947, to racehorses thundering down the final straight. Landscapes include the rugged terrain of far-flung islands in the South Atlantic, the sand dunes at Happisburgh and King’s Lynn waterfront. 

Richard Green in London has also pres­ent­ed a Seago exhibition this northern summer. As at Sand­ringham, his emphasis was very much on East Anglia and boating scenes. 

The last exhibition is at the Portland Gallery  in London, which represents the Seago estate. Here 50 works include early paintings inspired by Alfred Munnings, such as After the Ploughing Match (1936). But mostly his works depict the rambling countryside and rippling waters of East Anglia under scurrying clouds in a vast sky. Portland Gallery, in association with Lund Humphries, has published a delicious book called Edward Seago (2014). The author is James Russell.

James Russell's book

James Reid, Edward Seago, The Landscape Art, Sotheby's, London, 1991*

12 August 2014

Golden Lane - Prague's historic heritage

My children certainly knew their grandparents spoke Czech (and Hungarian) at work in Australia, and they understood that their father spent his young years in Prague. But they had never seen a photo or painting of the Prague city-scape. After the government changed in 1990, my mother in law wanted to see her beloved homeland one last time, before she was too old to travel. So we all went, in 1993!

Within Hradcany/Prague Castle, and almost hidden beneath the castle's massive outer walls, lies a narrow street of uneven but colourful little timber houses. The 1 metre wide lane was built when an outer fortified wall was added to the northern part of Prague Castle, in the 1560s.

At this early stage, the 24 small houses were built by the Emperor Rudolph II for his castle guards or marksmen. Thus the space became known as Archery Lane. Rudolph was just another Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor from 1576–1612, but he had two unique qualities. Firstly he was the only Habsburg ruler to make Prague his permanent home and secondly he was a student of occult learning which helped promote a passion for state-funded science.

Now called Golden Lane, the original small houses with colourful facades are still built directly into the arch­es of the defensive castle walls. But if Golden refers to artisans who moved into the lane, what happened to the castle guards? When did they leave the area? Because of Emperor Rudolf’s passion for science, I can quite believe that the houses was were given instead to goldsmiths, and to alchemists who were asked to create gold out of base metals. 

Golden Lane, Prague

So until the C19th, there were 24 wooden dwellings along the lane. But unfortunately by then the houses on one side of the road had been condemned as unhygienic slums and were knocked down. Houses on the other side were left intact.

Can we use the word yuppified for Prague? Before WW1, Golden Lane had certainly been made more romantic and had become the preferred address of some of Prague’s members of the arts community. The most prominent of these was Franz Kafka, who lived in a house owned by his sister Ottla during WWI. The poet Jaros­lav Seifert, the winner of a much later Nobel Prize for Literature, also lived on the street as a young man in the 1930s.

After WW2, in 1952, the Czech government took responsib­ility for this historic site. From 1952 to 1955, the hous­es were properly restored and became souvenir shops or small museums and galleries. The facades were repainted, giving the street today’s brightly coloured appear­ance. [I'd like to know if these bright colours are historically accurate?]

Since then, some of the houses seemed to be collapsing. So Golden Lane was again renovated and was reopened to the public in June 2011. Now 7 houses are used for commercial purposes, while the other 9 offer historical exhibitions on Prague life in times gone by.

House #12 was home of amateur cinematographer and film historian Josef Kazda. The front room is a small cinema and old black and white films show Prague before WW2. Spools and canisters of film are stacked up the narrow staircase and film posters adorn the walls. House #13 is the residence of a Artillerymen-castle guard, including his uniforms and weapons. House #15 shows a goldsmith’s home and workshop, complete with his tools and working gear. House #22 was the sister’s house where Franz Kafka lived in 1916/17 and wrote some of his short stories. Her residence was presumably Kafka’s inspiration for his later book The Castle. House #27 shows a herbalist’s practice. One of his rooms was used as a doctor’s office and pharmacy, with shelves of bottles of botanical extracts on display.

Interior of a craftsman's home in Golden Lane

Most of the rooms were based on real people who lived here, disp­lay­ing behind glass panels how owners decorated their houses with furnishings, wall stencils and embroidery. Thankfully Golden Lane was inscribed into the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1992.

At the end of the Golden Lane tour, visitors are encouraged to visit the round Daliborka Tower at the end of the street. One should avoid the torture instruments and instead climb to the top for wonderful views of Prague and its outstanding buildings. My mother in law's great joy was seeing her beloved suburb Josefov from the tower. She passed away the very next year.