Caswell, J. 1996. Order of the bath. Cornucopia, Vol. 10, Issue II.
Gertrude Bell, the Empress Helena, Jane Digby, Hester Stanhope - of all the world's great women travellers, there is one who eclipses the rest. Not for the hazards of her travels, or for the exoticism of the places she visited, but for her audacity and the objectivity with which she recorded her experiences. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was born in the closing years of the seventeenth century, the daughter of Evelyn Pierrepont, Marquess of Dorchester (later Duke of Kingston-upon-Hull). Her girlhood friend was Anne Wortley, and it was Anne's brother, -Edward Wortley Montagu, with whom Mary fell in love. In the first surviving letter to him, written in 1710, she says: "You are brother to a woman I tenderly loved. My protestations of friendship are not like other people's. I never speak but what I mean, and when I say I love, it is for ever."
Thus began a correspondence in which she bared her soul, but could not resist dissecting her own emotions and Edward's, too. She also had an ambition: "My schemes are a little romantic. Was I to follow my own inclinations, it would be to travel, my first and chiefest wish." This was a prophesy, for, after a stormy courtship violently opposed by her family, she eloped with Wortley, as she called him, and married him in August 1712. She bore him a son nine months later.
While her husband pursued his political career, Lady Mary was banished with her child to the countryside, openly joining her husband in London only
A Portrait in oils of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu,
by Charles Jervis, in the National Gallery, Dublin.
‘AMAZED BY THE AMOURS AT COURT IN VIENNA, SHE DISCOVERS THAT THE OLDER WOMAN REIGNS SUPREME, AND 'WRINKLES OR A SMALL STOOP IN THE SHOULDERS GRAY HAIR ITSELF, IS NO OBJECTION TO MAKING NEW CONQUESTS...'
three years later. Throughout their separation she maintained a dutiful if somewhat hurt correspondence with Wortley, reminding him from time to time that he had a son. When they were reunited at last, on April 7, 1716, Wortley was appointed ambassador to Turkey.
Lady Mary began making preparations for the embassy. She writes to her husband: "If you would speak of liveries, say whether you would have them plain or laced. Any sort of lace will considerably increase the expense but perhaps it may be necessary. I long to see you for a variety of reasons. Your boy presents his Duty." The appointment was confirmed by the Levant Company in May, and on August 1 the embassy sailed from Gravesend to Rotterdam, and the long journey to Turkey began.
It was also the beginning of the first great phase of Lady Mary's life, and the composition of a series of travel letters describing her experiences which was later to establish her reputation as a writer. The Turkish Embassy Letters, as they are called, were published in 1761, less than a year after her death. It is not exactly clear how these albums relate to the letters she sent home, and it has been conjectured that they are a sort of travelogue in the form of letters. Indeed, her granddaughter said she created the albums from a journal she kept. Lady Mary herself labelled the two volumes "copies of letters". We may conclude that actual letters existed, which she strung together, along with impressions recorded in her journal, to form a continuous sequence of events and ideas.
From the moment she stepped ashore her sensitive eye went into sharp focus. It is fascinating to follow her progress through eighteenth-century Europe. This was no description of a Romantic grand tour, but rather the pinning down of her everyday experiences. The first paragraph of the first letter sets the tone: "I flatter myself that I shall give you some pleasure in letting you know I am past the sea, though we had the ill fortune of a storm ... the wind blew so hard that none of the sailors could keep their feet, and we were all Sunday night tossed about very handsomely. I never saw a man more frightened than the captain."
In Rotterdam "I was charmed by the neatness of this little town... the shops filled with an incredible quantity of fine merchandise, so much cheaper than we see in England. I have much ado to persuade myself I am still so near it. Here is neither dirt nor beggary to be seen. One is not shocked with those loathsome cripples so common in London, nor seized with the importunities of idle fellows and wenches that choose to be nasty or lazy." So begins her litany of comparisons between the old and the new.
Surprisingly, she is much concerned with dress. This concern with outward appearances may have been the result of the disfiguring effects of the smallpox she had suffered in 1715. She can have been no beauty, and after her illness she wrote a bitter verse about her doctor:
Machaon too, the great Machaon known,
By his red cloak and his superior frown,
And why, he cried, this grief and this despair?
You shall again be well, again be fair,
Believe my oath
(with that an oath he swore).
False was his oath; my beauty is no more!
In Nuremberg, she remarks that the dress is controlled by a civil code, according to rank. This strikes her as an excellent and practical idea. As she says, "When one considers impartially the merit of a rich suit of clothes in most places and the respect and the smiles of favour it procures, not to speak of the envy and the sighs it occasions (which is very often the principal charm of the wearer) one is forced to confess that there is a need of an uncommon understanding to resist the temptation of pleasing friends and mortifying rivals..."
On reaching Vienna she is astonished by the fashions, particularly the ladies' headdresses, which she says are more than a yard high: "The fashions are more monstrous and contrary to all common sense and reason than it is possible for you to imagine." She describes the Viennese court and its personalities. She is impressed by the Empress, with "the mien of Juno, the air of Venus ... nothing can be added to the beauty of her neck and hands. Till I saw them I did not believe there were in nature any so perfect, and I was almost sorry that my rank here did not permit me to kiss them, but they are kissed sufficiently, for everybody that waits upon her pays her that homage." She is less enthusiastic about the Empress's mother, who is "a princess of great virtue and goodness, but who piques herself so much on a violent devotion she is perpetually performing acts of penance without ever having done any thing to deserve them".
She is amazed by the amours at court. She discovers that the older woman reigns supreme, and "wrinkles or a small stoop in the shoulders, nay gray hair itself, is no objection to making new conquests ... a woman of five and thirty is only looked upon as a raw girl, and can possibly make no noise in the world fill about forty. I don't know what you think about it, but it is a considerable comfort to me to know that ... there is a paradise for old women, and I am content to be insignificant at present in the design of returning when I am fit to appear no Where else."
She too was propositioned, she reports with glee. At the assembly she was taken aside by a young count and questioned how long she intended to stay in Vienna. "Not for me to say," she said. "Well,' he replied, "be it long or short, I think you ought to engage in a little affair of the heart." "My heart does not engage easily, and I have no design of parting with it." "I see, Madam," he said, sighing, 'I am not to hope for it ... but however, I am still devoted to your service, and since I am not worthy of entertaining you myself, let me know whom you like best amongst us, and I'll engage to manage the affair entirely to your satisfaction."
Finally, she observes: "That word reputation has quite another meaning here ... than in London ... getting a lover is so far from losing, that it is properly getting a reputation ... it would be downright affront if you invited a woman of quality to dinner without inviting her two attendants of lover and husband, between whom she always sits in state with great gravity."
Pride, apparently, was another Viennese trait: "Not long since two coaches meeting in a narrow street at night, the ladies in them not being able to adjust the ceremonial of which should go back, sat there until two in the morning ... the streets would never have been cleared if the Emperor had not sent his guard to part them; and even then they refused to stir until the expedient was found of taking them both out of their chairs at exactly the same moment."
She visited the treasury, and was unimpressed. As for the antiquities, "upon my saying they were modern... I could not help laughing at the profound antiquary that showed them, for he said they were ancient enough, for to his knowledge
AT THE TURKISH BATHS IN SOFIA, LADY MARY SAW SOFAS 'COVERED
AND RICH CARPETS, ON WHICH SAT LADIES ... ALL BEING IN THE STATE OF NATURE, THAT IS
IN PLAIN ENGLISH, STARK NAKED. WITHOUT ANY BEAUTY OR DEFECT CONCEALED...
they had been there this forty years".
When it came to food, "The plenty and excellence of all sorts of provisions is greater than any place I was ever in.. @ they want nothing but shell fish, and are so fond of oysters that they have them sent from Venice and eat them greedily, stink or not stink."
Once more on the road, things were not so comfortable. It was winter time, and between Prague and Leipzig they had a scary moonlit coach ride through a mountain pass. Of Leipzig, she says it was a fortified town but does not elaborate, for, as she says, "if I mention of all the Ravlins and all the Bastions I see on my travels, I dare say you would ask me What is a Ravlin, and What is a Bastion? and I really do not know". As a correspondent Lady Mary was never a bore. For instance, in Hanover she had an encounter with two bananas. She was amazed to find this fruit from Brazil, "to my taste a fruit perfectly delicious", and learned that they were grown in hothouses. This leads her to digress, "I am surprised we do not practice in England so useful an invention. This reflection naturally leads me to our obstinacy in shaking with cold six months of the year rather than make use of stoves ... If I ever return, in defiance to the fashion you shall certainly see one in my chamber."
They came at last to Budapest, "the castle much higher
than the town ... without the walls a vast number of little houses, many thousands
of them appearing at little distance like old-fashioned thatched tents".
After Budapest they were at Mohacs, where Louis of Hungary had drowned in a
ditch fleeing Suleyman's army in the sixteenth century. Travelling through the
wintry wastes, she says they always found warm accommodation wherever they stopped,
and plenty of wild game to eat.
Arriving in Belgrade, where they were obliged to wait for permission from the Turks to proceed to Edime, they were lodged in the house of the Pasha, Ahmed Bey. This was her first encounter with an Oriental scholar. "Perfectly skilled in Arabic and Persian ... he sups with us every night and drinks wine very freely. He has explained to me many pieces of Arabic poetry ... I have frequent disputes with him, concerning the differences of our customs, particularly the confinements of women. He assures me there is nothing at all in it; only, he says, we have the advantage that when our wives cheat us, no body knows it."
This conversation must have been the genesis of one of Lady Mary's favourite themes, that the supposed subjugation of women in the Islamic world in fact gives them a great deal of personal liberty. It is hardly surprising that when they at last arrived on Ottoman territory, after an arduous eight-month trip overland, one of the first things she did was to seek out Turkish women at first hand. Later, established in Istanbul, she took Turkish lessons so as to converse with them.
But her most significant encounter with a group of women was much earlier, in Sofia, on the way to Edirne: "I am now in a new world," she said, "where everything I see appears to be a change of scene ... I must not omit what I saw at Sophia, famous for its hot baths that are resorted to both for diversion and health. I stopped here one day on purpose to see them. Designing to go incognito, I hired a Turkish coach ... having wooden lattices painted and gilded, the inside being painted with baskets and nosegays of flowers, intermixed with little poetical mottoes.
"In one of these covered waggons I went to the bagnio about 10 o'clock. It was already full of women. It is built of stone in the shape of a dome with no windows but in the roof, which gives light enough. [There was an] outer hall where the portress stood at the door. Ladies of quality generally give this woman a crown or ten shillings, and I did not forget that ceremony.
"I was in my travelling habit, which is a riding dress, and certainly appeared very extraordinary to them, yet ... no one of them showed the least surprise or impertinent curiosity ... I know no European court where the ladies would have behaved themselves in so polite a manner to a stranger.
"I believe in the whole there were 200 women and yet none of those disdainful smiles or satyrical whispers that never fail in our assemblies when anybody appears that is not exactly dressed in fashion. They repeated over and over again Uzelle, pek uzelle which is nothing but 'charming, very charming'. The first sofas were covered with cushions and rich carpets, on which sat ladies, and on the second their slaves behind them, but without distinction of rank and dress, all being in the state of nature, that is in plain English, stark naked, without any beauty or defect concealed, yet there was not the least wanton smile or immodest gesture amongst them.
"They walked and moved with majestic grace ... there were many among them as exactly proportioned as ever any goddess was drawn by the pencil of Guido or Titian, and most of their skins shiningly white, only adorned by their beautiful hair divided into many tresses hanging on their shoulders, braided either with pearl or riband, perfectly representing the figures of the Graces. I was here convinced of the truth of a reflection I had often made, that if it was the fashion to go naked, the face would hardly be observed. The ladies with the finest skins and most delicate shapes had the greatest share of my admiration, though their faces were sometimes less beautiful than their companions ... so many fine women were naked in different postures, some working, others drinking coffee or sherbet, and many negligently lying on their cushions while their slaves (generally pretty girls of seventeen or eighteen) were employed in braiding their hair in several pretty manners.
"It is the women's coffee-house, where all the news of the town is told, scandal invented, etcetera. They generally take this diversion once a week, and stay without getting cold by coming immediately out of the hot bath into the cool
room, which was very surprising to me.
"The lady that seemed the most considerable amongst them entreated me to sit by her and would have fain undressed me for the bath. I excused myself with some difficulty, they -being all so earnest in persuading me. I was at last forced to open my skirt and show them my stays, which satisfied them very well, for I saw they believed I was so locked up in that machine it was not in my power to open it, which contrivance they attributed to my husband. I was charmed with their civility and beauty and should have been very glad to pass more time with them."
One hundred years later, in 1817, the painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres copied a French translation of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's description of the Turkish bath into his youthful sketchbook. It contains Lady Mary's key passage: "... il y avait bien la deux cent baigneuses; les premiers sophas furent couverts de cousins et de riches tapis; et toutes etaient nues. Cependant il n’y avait parmielles ni geste indecent, ni posture lascive…”
owever objective she intended her account to be, it had the reverse effect on Ingres, for it inspired him to paint, forty five years later, one of the most erotic paintings in the whole history of art. This was Le Bain Turc, of 1863.
It had been preceded by a series of nudes, the first of which, the Baigneuse a mi-corps vue de dos, was painted soon after his arrival in Rome, in 1806. The southern sun had obviously got to him; this very early painting contains all the elements which were to continue to fascinate him - the figure seen from behind, the half-turned head, the stylishly draped Turkish towel, and the all-pervading sensuality. The elements recur in the Baigneuse de Valpincon, painted in 1808. Here the head is averted, and the real subject is the
model's extraordinary, magnificent back.
This foreshadows by almost half a century Degas' similar interest in the spinal column. There is also a stillness, a concentrated calm which only serves to heighten the implicit eroticism - what if, one wonders, she were actually to turn around?
The next in the series is Ingres' Grande Odalisque of 1814. This painting follows in the grand tradition of Titian and Velazquez of naked women seen from behind, but has an additional majesty.
When it was first exhibited at the salon in 1819, the distortion of the figure bothered critics and general public alike. But this picture was to have a profound effect on modern painters, who saw beyond the impossible anatomy to the marvellous resilience with which Ingres infected the pose. There is nothing to touch it for its balanced composition of swinging forms and arabesque curves. Every single detail is faultlessly placed. The head, for instance, could easily exist on its own, and Ingres did indeed
INGRES LIKED THE GRISAILLE VERSION
OF 'LA GRANDE ODALISQUE' SO MUCH THAT HE
KEPT IT IN HIS STUDIO UNTIL HE DIED
produce two independent studies as circular compositions.
He also painted a grisaille version of the Grande Odalisque, which stresses even more the formal, abstract qualities of the composition. Ingres liked this painting so much that he kept it in his studio until he died. I last saw it in the office of Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The occasion was an odd one. The pipe-smoking director had just been informed that his office had come under the museum's new ban on smoking. The Odalisque was all he had left to console him in a smokeless zone.
it was between painting the polychrome and monochrome versions of the Odalisque that Ingres stumbled on Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's description of the hamam. This surely influenced the next painting in the series, the Petite Baigneuse ou intirieur de harem of 1828, which is essentially a repetition of the earlier bather, but with five other ladies around a pool in the background.
A decade later, in 1839, he came up with a new composition, L'Odalisque a' 1'esclave, of 1839. This technically brilliant but slightly dotty painting has none of the gravitas and authority of the earlier nudes, and one is all too conscious of the studio-like environment.
In this context one is reminded that Degas was Ingres' pupil in Rome, where all painting was done in the studio. Nature was definitely not the thing. It was, after all, Degas who later in life showed his disapproval of the plain air tactics of the Impressionists, and declared there should be a special police force to arrest painters who worked out of doors. This said, the painting is a marvellous spatial composition, if flawed by the unconscious humour of the soulful musician and the bored Negro slave in the background.
Finally, Ingres combined all the elements into his greatest painting, Le Bain Turc, completed in 1863. This was originally a square composition, but only a photograph by Marville exists of the painting in this format. It was commissioned by Napoleon, but returned to the artist on the insistence of the Princess Clothilde, who was shocked by the lascivious postures of the naked figures.
Once the painting was back in the studio Ingres exercised his true mastery and miraculously turned it into a tondo. The circular composition is so convincing that it is hard to believe that it was ever conceived otherwise. An oil sketch exists showing how he rearranged the arms of the figure on the right. The right arm had previously fallen downwards. He raised it behind her head, but at the same time cunningly managed to keep the profile of the hand by transferring it to the arm of the figure below, where it now half conceals the bashful lady's face.
Numerous pencil studies and sketches exist for many of the other figures, including the girl half-sliding into the pool, and the dancer behind her. There are also preliminary sketches for another dancer to the right of the main figure, and an early sketch for the couple on the right engaged in a Sapphic embrace. In the far background are two standing figures, one of a naked lady with her head improbably draped in an orange towel and trailing a blue cloth. Believe it or not, these figures were lifted from a sixteenth century print, in turn based on a drawing by Nicolas de Nicolay of 1576. The original actually depicts two fully dressed women, a mistress and her servant, in the street on their way to a Turkish bath.
What can one conclude from all this? Quite simply, that the nineteenth-century Orientalism so derided by Edward Said in literature was also rife in art, and proved to be imaginatively much more powerful that the truth. No matter how much Lady Mary extolled the realities of the Ottoman Empire, and how everyday life did not correspond to the preconceptions of the West, the romantic impulse was stronger than the fact.
This attitude, of course, is not dead, and misconceptions about the Islamic world are still not far below the surface of our own prejudices. Two pictures make the point. The first is an eighteenth century Turkish miniature of a lady at the bath. Here is a degree of realism unknown to Ingres, indeed to any Western artist of the period. And where, for instance, is that prohibition, supposedly a cornerstone of Islam, against the depiction of the human figure?
For contrast, a late nineteenth-century painting of our dreams (below) -a beautiful girl in the harem, languid and relaxed, puffing on a cigarette. There is a glass of good hock at her side, just in case she should need cheering up, and a ready-peeled orange and a plate of pilav, should she feel peckish. Who could not but envy her?
Yet in spite of Ingres' masterpiece, and all the misconceptions of the Romantic movement, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu still reigns supreme as a writer of wit and style - and of truth. We still need her, perhaps even more so today.
THIS ARTICLE IS BASED ON A LECTURE FIRST
GIVEN BY INVITATION OF THE WINDSOR FESTIVAL IN 1995,
AND SUBSEQUENTLY FOR
THE ISLAMIC ART CIRCLE, LONDON.
Carswell, J. 1996. Order of the bath. Cornucopia, Vol. 10, Issue II.