Thursday, 8 April 2010

Unmasked

Henry Robert Morland, The Fair Nun Unmasked, c. 1769

If I could be magically dropped into the eighteenth century, I would ask to be deposited right in the middle of a masquerade ball. This painting by Henry Robert Morland was first displayed with the title of A Lady in Masquerade Habit, but later became known as The Fair Nun Unmasked. If you're wondering just what kind of nun dresses that way, I can tell you that it isn't the kind of nun who teaches school children or lectures on the finer points of renaissance art. Comically subversive costumes of all kinds were very popular at masquerades, as this smiling lady shows with her "demure" veil and cross pendant. Public masquerades like those held at Ranelagh and Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens were also overrun by enticingly dressed courtesans; nun being a popular and sarcastic term for a prostitute.

A lady of questionable virtue she may well be, but The Fair Nun is a really beautiful and detailed painting, and it conjurs up images of fantastical masquerades in candle lit gardens on summer evenings.

"...we went to Ranelagh. It is a charming place and the brilliancy of the lights, on my first entrance, made me almost think I was in some enchanted castle or fairy place, for it all looked like magic to me."

Frances Burney, Evelina, Vol. I, Letter XII.
First published in 1778.

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