The Lady Lever Art Gallery
Port Sunlight, Merseyside, England
The names alone are enough to take one's breath away: Cordelia's Portion, Lady Lever, Port Sunlight! Port Sunlight is one of the most charming towns in all of England, a nearly perfect early twentieth century model village. Its premier feature is the jewel - like Lady Lever Gallery, which contains an amazingly extensive collection of pre-Raphaelite paintings, including Ford Madox Brown's tableau of the tragedy of King Lear, entitled: Cordelia's Portion. When touring the gallery, I like to save this painting until last and stand before it in awe for awhile, marveling at the understated intensity of Lear's sadly fractured family and needlessly divided kingdom.
Cordelia's Portion (c. 1866)
by Ford Madox Brown (1821 - 1893)
English painter of moral and historical subjects
loosely connected to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood
To the left are the malevolent sisters, Goneril & Regan, staring each other down; and kneeling at their feet, the Dukes of Cornwall & Albany, Lear's corrupt sons-in-law. To the right, are the fickle Duke of Burgandy; dear Cordelia, Pure of Heart, whose "love's more richer than her tongue," and the loyal King of France. In the center is King Lear, dejected, misguided; and at his feet, the Map of the Kingdom, divided. In this painting, the Fool is only a minor character. You can see his blue hood if you look closely behind the dark - haired sister.
However, in numerous other depictions of Lear's tragic demise, the Fool is a major player. Likewise, the Fool is central to the action of Shakespeare's play. Referring to himself as "Lear's shadow," Lear's Fool is a character of wisdom, loyalty, and comprehension, who grasps the mixed motivations of all the other characters. In this next painting, the artist dramatically captures the Fool's ability to mirror Lear’s flawed judgment:
King Lear and the Fool in the Storm (c. 1851)
by William Dyce (1806 - 1864)
distinguished Scottish artist
advocate of public art education
No study of the Fool would be complete without the following poem that my father shared with me when I was in high school. I wish I knew more of the story behind his giving it to me: when did he first learn it, did someone pass it on to him or where did he come across it -- in a book or a magazine or a class? My only reference now is the typed copy that has been stored in one of my high school notebooks since graduation. In turn, I passed this poem on to my son Ben during his junior high years at St. Peter's School, Philadelphia, where the students were required to memorize and recite a poem every month. Ben and Sam became quite adept at managing increasingly long works, and I often urged them to choose from among my old favorites. Ben won first place for this one:
THE FOOL'S PRAYER
The royal feast was done, the king
Sought some new sport to banish care,
And to his jester cried: "Sir Fool,
Kneel now, and make for us a prayer!"
The jester doffed his cap and bells,
And stood the mocking court before;
They could not see the bitter smile
Behind the painted grin he wore.
He bowed his head, and bent his knee
Upon the monarch's silken stool.
His pleading voice arose: "O, Lord,
Be merciful to me, a fool!
"No pity, Lord could change the heart
From red with wrong to white as wool,
The rod must heal the sin: but, Lord,
Be merciful to me a fool!
"Tis not by guilt the onward sweep
Of truth and right, O, Lord we stay;
Tis by our follies that so long
We hold the earth from heaven away.
"These clumsy feet, still in the mire,
Go crushing blossoms without end'
These hard, well-meaning hands we thrust
Among the heartstrings of a friend.
"The ill-timed truth we might have kept --
Who knows how sharp it pierced and stung?
The word we had not sense to say --
Who knows how grandly it had rung?
"Our faults no tenderness should ask,
The chastening stripes must cleanse them all;
But for our blunders -- oh, in shame
Before the eyes of heaven we fall.
"Earth bears no balsam for mistakes
Men crown the knave, and scourge the tool
That did his will; but Thou O, Lord,
Be merciful to me a fool!"
The room was hushed; in silence rose
The king, and sought his gardens cool,
And walked apart, and murmured low,
"Be merciful to me, a fool!"
by Edward R. Sill, 1841 - 1887
"They could not see the bitter smile
Behind the painted grin he wore."
For more on the significance of foolishness,
see my recent blog post on the Quotidian Kit:
"What Shall He Tell That Son":
and to have no shame over having been a fool
yet learning something out of every folly
hoping to repeat none of the cheap follies
thus arriving at intimate understanding
of a world numbering many fools."
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Monday, June 28, 2010
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