More TV art history: the paintings in Downton Abbey are maybe anachronistic?

[Disclaimer: I have no training in or formal education about art history – I’m just an art enthusiast. If I’m wrong about something, please let me know!]

I want to do a post on the art in House of Cards season 2, but first, a quickie on Downton Abbey Season (or “Series,” if you’re British) 4. Notably, the season finale/Christmas special was principally set at “Grantham House,” the Granthams’ house in London.

Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess of Grantham with her son’s mother-in-law, Martha Levinson, played by Shirley MacLaine, photographed in the Octagon Room at Basildon Park, in West Berkshire, England.

The scenes that took place in this room – the “Octagon Room” of Basildon Park – were perhaps undermined, in my opinion, by this set of distractingly arresting paintings. It really took only the most convoluted of scheming to turn my attention back to the story.

The paintings are by the 18th century Italian painter Pompeo Girolamo Batoni. In the Vanity Fair photo above, clockwise from top left, the paintings depict Saints Thomas, Peter, Matthew, and Philip. I wish this selection of saints serve as a foreshadowing for next season, but I doubt it. Anyway, some interesting stuff is contained in the National Trust descriptions of the paintings; for example, these pieces were not likely to have been exhibited in the time and place depicted in the show:

It is more unusual, as Francis Russell has said, that they should have been painted as a set of pictures for a private collection (though Rubens painted a set for the Duke of Lerma around 1611-12, and Van Dyck another for an Guilliam Verhagen around 1620/21 , for which there were precedents ), and even more so that the major part of one such set should adorn an English country house . If anything – despite the fact that the Apostles were amongst the saints that the Anglican church continued to recognise – sets of Sibyls were more common as an adornment of English country houses than were the Twelve Apostles. One reason for this was, perhaps, that paintings were very rarely collected in England for their content; if anything, they were collected in spite of it (otherwise, not only the profusion of Madonnas and Saints, but also the early English taste for Murillo, with his proliferation of child-angels, would be inexplicable). Yet even in Italy, where these particular Apostles once formed part of the greatest single concentration of Batoni’s work – the Merenda collection in Forlì – it was unusual to commission religious subjects specifically for a picture-gallery as opposed to collecting them après coup – and it normally betokened, if anything, a weakening of religious sensibility, that such was the destination for which pictures of the kind were painted. [Source]

The oval painting shown in the photo above appears to be “Cleopatra, Mark Antony and the Pearl,” by Giovanni Battista Pittoni the younger, a Venetian painter just about a generation ahead of Batoni. This painting also seems a little anachronistic to be included on the Downton set – all of these paintings didn’t come to Basildon Park until the late 1960s. However, it does illustrate an interesting and thematically resonant episode, about Cleopatra’s profligacy, which should maybe be discussed with Lord Grantham.

Somewhat relatedly, I also came across a great blog that discusses anachronisms in dialect and word usage, including an interesting post on Downton Abbey season 4.


What is the real danger of pseudoscience?

Yesterday, a Daily Beast story started popping up on my various feeds: “Whole Foods: America’s Temple of Pseudoscience.” The point made by the author, Michael Schulson, is this: we shouldn’t give creationists a hard time but give a pass to Whole Foods’ unsupported-by-science health claims. That’s a fair critique, and one that’s undoubtedly attractive to members of my contrarian-friendly social circles. But the article makes its point on a set of assumptions that deserve more critical attention: that the primary danger of pseudoscience lies in the entanglement of pseudoscientific ideas with political ideologies.

So, why do many of us perceive Whole Foods and the Creation Museum so differently? The most common liberal answer to that question isn’t quite correct: namely, that creationists harm society in a way that homeopaths don’t. I’m not saying that homeopathy is especially harmful; I’m saying that creationism may be relatively harmless. In isolation, unless you’re a biologist, your thoughts on creation don’t matter terribly much to your fellow citizens; and unless you’re a physician, your reliance on Sacred Healing Food to cure all ills is your own business.

The danger is when these ideas get tied up with other, more politically muscular ideologies. Creationism often does, of course—that’s when we should worry. But as vaccine skeptics start to prompt public health crises, and GMO opponents block projects that could save lives in the developing world, it’s fair to ask how much we can disentangle Whole Foods’ pseudoscientific wares from very real, very worrying antiscientific outbursts.

It’s not clear to me how Whole Foods’ shtick promotes anti-vaccine zealotry – or even, really, what homeopathy is. But it seems to me that the most pressing danger posed by the public’s slippery grasp of science is not that they might get suckered into believing claims on an herbal supplement bottle that haven’t been evaluated by the FDA. Rather, it’s that, increasingly, people in general, and the Republican Party in particular, reject evidence-based analysis wholesale. To my mind, there’s a vast and critical gulf between “we don’t have sufficient evidence to make a conclusion, but we have a hypothesis or functional model based on preliminary results and observations” and “we don’t have any evidence or a hypothesis, we just have a gut feeling based on stories. Kind of old stories.”

Treating creationism as equal to the Whole Foods ethos just perpetuates the problem; i.e., it’s true that we don’t have data that certain chemical substances used in processed foods or consumer products cause adverse human health effects. The reason we don’t have that data is because there isn’t sufficient political demand for it: the regulatory system does not require it, and there is no funding to support public research in this area. Why? In my opinion, the chief reason is that the public doesn’t value science enough – in part because the public discourse assigns false equivalencies like the ones made by Michael Schulson. Creationism creates a positive feedback loop that is profoundly antiscientific; experimenting with plant-based health remedies, or promoting the precautionary principle, does not. The creationist outlook disseminates in society an attitude that devalues the resilience of the scientific method, to the public detriment; Whole Foods peddles some products and makes claims with questionable supporting evidence, but it at least appeals to your interest in evidence.