Shakespeare has a lot to answer for. Without him, there would never have been a “cold-blooded” murder (he coined the hyphenated word in his history play King John), and no-one would ever “refuse to budge an inch” (an expression he minted in The Taming of the Shrew), be sent on a “wild goose chase” (first documented in Romeo and Juliet), or “catch cold” (a phrase he introduced in Troilus and Cressida).
But for every word or expression we correctly attribute to the Elizabethan playwright, there’s another we misremember and mangle. “To gild a lily” is one of those. Commonly used to characterise the unnecessary adornment of something that is already faultless, the phrase “gilding a lily” is in fact a common misrecollection of what Shakespeare actually wrote in King John, in the mid 1590s: “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily … Is wasteful and ridiculous excess”.
The now-forgotten phrase “to paint the lily” sprang to mind with the circulation this week of a whimsical photo of a young girl standing in an enormous field of purple tulips in Holland. In one hand, she holds a bucket of rich plum paint, while with her other she lifts a huge brush, whose bristles drip with same deep hue that throbs from the petals that surround her – as if she has just finished the awesome task of artificially decorating the countless flowers that stretch from her feet to the horizon.
Taken by the Dutch photographer Jeffrey Bakker, the image is part of a series featuring Bakker’s six-year old daughter, Lynn, who is presented as the invisible hand behind the inspiring colours and renowned beauty of The Netherlands’ signature blossom. The playful poetry of the photo, which encourages us to appreciate with childlike wonder the aesthetic craftsmanship of spring, also invites us to summon one of the more curious images from art history: The Tulip Folly (1882) by the 19th-Century French painter and sculptor Jean-Léon Gérôme.
Fond of subjects drawn from history and mythology, Gérôme’s reputation rested on his reconstructions of melodramatic scenes, such as a bizarre duel in the snow between a man dressed as a Pierrot and another dressed as a Native American – attendees of a masquerade ball. For The Tulip Folly, Gérôme cast his imagination back to the so-called ‘Tulpenwoede’ (or tulip madness) of the 17th Century, in which, according to legend, a single bulb of the flower could fetch unfathomable sums of money, equivalent to many times the salary of a trained professional. Though historians have since cast doubt on the oft-told tale, said by some to be the first financial bubble in history, those who recount the story embroider it with colourful anecdotes, such as the patrolling of tulip fields by armed guards who trampled the bulbs to control their supply and drive up prices – the subject of Gérôme’s painting.
In Gérôme’s vision, a nobleman protects an especially exquisite specimen from the brutish stomping of soldiers behind him. Placed alongside the photo of Jeffrey Bakker’s daughter, who appears to curate the season’s joy, Gérôme’s farcical fantasy is a curiously alluring allegory of pointless pomposity. In the end, the artificially inflated prices for the flower collapsed and the whole preposterous affair, like so many human obsessions, was much ado about nothing.
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