The Art of the Matter

Article by F. L. Toth

Ian Fleming was often criticized, sometimes rightly, for getting the facts wrong about the things for which he is best known, such as fine food, guns, wine, and bath products of all things. He seems, in fact, to have been the most annoying of dilettantes: the man who learns just enough to impress the easily impressed at a party.

When it comes to the performing arts, Ian is understood to be ignorant. It is said he never attended a play starring his Oscar-nominated sister-in-law Celia Johnson, and the only incident of Bond attending a play was in the short story “Quantum of Solace” when he reflects with embarrassment that he didn’t even want to attend; he was tailing someone. Bond never attends a ballet or opera, even though he is part of a class which would be rich in supporting the arts. Yet, Bond books abound with music, fine arts, and decorative arts.

To a large extent, arts in Bond books exist to tell us someone is loaded with money. In the short story “Hildebrand Rarity,” the reader knows Milton Krest is authentically rich because his ship has “a rather good Renoir” of a dark-haired woman. Dr. No, the title character displays the lithographs of “Degas ballet sketches, well hung in groups.” Bond makes a point of noting when a lair has a portrait of the Queen, but also which artist painted the portrait, and makes a note of Aubusson rugs when he sees them.

En Ete by Renoir

En Ete by Renoir

Ian’s dropping of art into the narrative is often a marvellous use of art and language. You don’t have to know anything about Renoir to know that “a Renoir painting” means quality. Any qualifier could be substituted with effect. Substitute the phrase “a Francois painting,” and the effect is similar; it’s fine art, it’s foreign to Bond, it’s expensive. Not knowing about art doesn’t hurt the effect, but knowledge of art trebles the delight.

There’s much more than meets the eye to many of Ian’s art product placements, and the Renoir is a prime example. Renoir, like many artists before and since, often did studies of individuals before placing them in the larger, “real” work of art. Among collectors, studies can have great value. Studies also have the bonus of being small enough to fit on the wall or a ship, where space would necessarily be limited.

And Ian had a particular interest in Renoir.

In a letter to Roald Dahl urging the latter to take on a writing job, Ian wrote “ . . . money is a despicable business, but it buys Renoirs.” In the Hyde Collection, a small museum in Glens Falls (a city in Northern New York with which Ian was familiar), there is a Renoir study of a dark-haired woman in a striped blouse similar to that described in “The Hildebrand Rarity.” Whether this is the one to which Ian referred, or he saw another study of “Estelle,” the painting Milton Crest owned did in fact exist.

Honeychile Ryder

Honeychile Ryder (Illustration by George Almond)

Ian also uses art, as might be expected from him, to describe a woman’s beauty. In Dr. No Bond believes Honeychile to resemble the vision in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. This is a marvellous use of art; instantly, the reader is aware that the woman is fair, is of uncommon beauty, and is calmly a part of her surroundings. Admittedly, it is not much of an intellectual or art historical stretch—Birth of Venus is one of the most recognizable examples of Italian Renaissance art. Still, it is a good match for Honey appearing from the sea, and the reader may feel smarter recognizing this important piece. But Ian doesn’t always give you the easy art.

In Moonraker, published three years previous to Dr. No, Ian compares Gala Brand to a painting by Marie Laurencin. Laurencin was a French cubist who worked in oils and was influenced by both Picasso and Braque. The Laurencin comparison is similar to the Renoir in that no knowledge of art is necessary to understand the point: the woman is beautiful, and in this case (as detailed by Fleming) a full mouth and rich dark hair. Bond knowing and seeing beauty in Laurencin indicates a depth of art knowledge not normally associated with Bond, and those who are familiar with Laurencin’s work will appreciate that Bond can make this comparison. It’s also interesting that Bond, so frequently associated with oppressing women, both elevates a woman artist and assumes the reader will know and understand her.

Sometimes Ian uses his art knowledge to make a joke. The description of the art in Blades is superficially impressive as it is doubtless expensive work and impressively old, if not Renaissance. But what pieces are on display at Blades, as described in Moonraker? Fragonard, Romney, Hell-Fire Club engravings.

Jean-Honore Frangonard was a real painter, but Jeu de Cartes is not a known Fragonard work. Fragonard’s best-known work is probably The Swing, which is a luscious dirty joke. In a beautiful garden, a young woman swings on an adult-sized swing operated by an old man assumed to be her husband. As the swing reaches its zenith and starts to fall, the motion causes the woman’s skirts to part, exposing all beneath (the viewer does not see what is or is not beneath, only the lover’s happy reaction).

One would assume Jeu de Cartes would show a less than fair game, just as The Swing shows a cuckolded husband and a delighted lover. The point is not the title, “Card Game” in a card place–the point is really the naughtiness of Fragonard. In addition, an art lover who remembered Fragonard painted The Swing might remember it is also known as The Happy Accident of the Swing and that it resides in the Wallace Collection in London—in other words, Blades could not own it. In order for Blades to have an original Fragonard, and not a print, it needed to be an unknown (or imaginary) painting.

Jean-Honore Fragonard's The Swing

Jean-Honore Fragonard’s The Swing

While portraitist George Romney probably did not paint Mrs. FitzHerbert as mentioned in Moonraker, it was believed to be so at the time, and the operative word in Ian’s description is “provocative;” “Mrs. FitzHerbert gazed provocatively across at Fragonard’s Jeu de Cartes. Added to these are the “rare engravings of the Hell-Fire Club.” The Hell-Fire Club is less well known today, but it is reasonable to assume Ian’s readers at the time of publication would remember that these clubs were formed for respectable members to participate in unrespectable acts.

Similarly, Thomas Lawrence did no Beau Brummell portrait we know of but painted enough portraits of high society for it to be plausible a Brummell might be owned in a private collection.

Hugo Drax at Blades [Illustration by © George Almond]

Hugo Drax at Blades [Illustration by © George Almond]

In the art of Blades, Ian makes it clear that the decorator either had more money than taste or was purposefully indulging in a taste for hedonism and wicked excess. If you don’t know art, you may skim the art description of Blades and move right on to the good part—the card game. If you know art, you read the art of Blades with a chuckle.

Ian’s knowledge of art ranges from Renaissance to up to the minute of publication, referencing Warhol and Dali as well as the less well-known Laurencin. In no case must the reader understand the art but in each, if he does, Bond’s adventures become more interesting.

Ian also had a reasonable command of the vocabulary of architecture. In the same art-heavy paragraph in Moonraker that introduces Fragonard and Romney, Bond notices a “frieze of plaster relief . . . interrupted by the capitals of fluted pilasters . . .” While this seeming word salad seems a bit out of place for Bond, it’s good art history. Pilasters are like flattened columns, encased in a wall and commonly used in architecture, particularly interior, and the accenting elements at the top are called capitals.

There are times when knowledge of art makes something of a difference for the reader. In manipulating the reader to be disgusted by Rosa Klebb, the head of SMERSH in From Russia with Love, Fleming says she is posing “like a parody of a Recamier.” In all probability, Fleming refers to the Jacques-Louis David portrait of Juliette Recamier, a woman whose great beauty inspired many men to fall in love with her. In this portrait the subject, wearing a light gown languorously reclines while eyeing the viewer; her bare arms and feet could equally be a nod to a classical look or a suggestion of flirtation. The notion of the famously ugly Klebb comparing herself, in a stench filled flat, to a socialite whose beauty inspired worship, fails as a joke if the modern reader has no knowledge of the original painting. However, it still works as a description, since the reader can tell Klebb is imitating some work of art.

Jacques-Louis David portrait of Juliette Recamier

Jacques-Louis David’s portrait of Juliette Recamier

On occasion, Fleming uses art or jewellery to show lack of money. Moonraker’s Gala Brand wears a Tassie intaglio brooch which Bond muses is “cheap, but imaginative.” Rather a stuck-up shot from Bond, to be sure. Nowadays a piece of jewellery from James Tassie is, of course, beyond the reach of many women, but even in its time, it would have been considered good quality even if it was not quite up to the category of fine jewellery. Tassie mass-produced his art but did so very well, and his artisans created cameos not only for their own line but for Josiah Wedgwood. Any woman who has to travel for work would agree that Gala did well to bring a well-made but not terribly expensive piece of jewellery to her workplace.

Arguably the most famous art object associated with Bond is the Faberge egg. Unlike a portrait, which has a purpose of preserving the image of a real person, the Faberge egg has little practical use. It serves as a thing of intrinsic beauty and a symbol of wealth and influence. A portrait is important to people who know the subject, and a landscape is bulky, but a decorative egg is linked to no one person and can be smuggled or just left on a desk. A decorative egg, moreover, is in sync with the perceived Bond trope of hedonistic excess. The egg persists as a symbol of Bond where Fragonard does not because of its universality, and because, unlike the paintings mentioned by Fleming, the Faberge egg made it into a movie and a video game.

Faberge Eggs

Image: Shutterstock

The first appearance of Faberge in James Bond is in 1955’s Moonraker. Bond observes that Drax’s expensive car has doors that close as smoothly as “a Faberge box.” We next see Faberge in From Russia with Love, where the possessions of villain Red Grant are described in order to demonstrate his wealth. Laid out on the grass beside the man getting a massage are such things as a money clip made from a Mexican fifty dollar piece, a Girard-Perregaux watch, and a gold, Faberge cigarette case.

Since Faberge “style” items are currently available from Amazon from fifteen dollars, it is easy to lose sight of their magnificent beginnings. Gustav Faberge founded the jewellery house in 1842, but it was Peter Carl Faberge who came up with the Imperial Eggs for which the house is most famous. Tsar Alexander commissioned the first Easter egg from Carl as a gift for his wife, the Empress Maria Feodorovna. Ultimately 69 unique eggs were made, of which only 57 are known to have survived. Over the years, Faberge has been associated with jewellery, art restoration, goldsmithing, perfumes, and clothing, but now the name refers to a company exclusively associated with jewellery and gems.

While Faberge is a symbol of Bondian wealth and taste from 1955, the name only becomes integral to the plot beginning with the short story “Property of a Lady.” The plot of hinges on the auction of a Faberge egg. The lady in question is of questionable virtue, and the splendid egg is being artificially inflated in price; Bond must foil the plot with the help of a Russian double. The James Bond short stories tend to be short on action and heavy on introspection; “Property of a Lady” has neither action nor introspection and Bond somehow does his thing entirely in the confines of an auction house.

Roger Moore in Octopussy

Roger Moore in Octopussy

Luckily for luxury fans, the Faberge egg was considered interesting enough to be part of the plot of the 1983 film Octopussy, where a forged egg was substituted for an authentic piece of art. The Faberge egg also featured in the 007 Role Playing game which created a whole new generation of Bond fans.

Where did Ian get this broad knowledge of art? Is it simply the result of good public school education? In later life, Ian was known to dislike art galleries, so he did likely not gain this knowledge from self-education at the excellent galleries available to him in London and the many large cities he frequented. Yet while not enjoying galleries, Ian was proprietary about art itself. Andrew Lycett reports in Ian Fleming, that when Ian was at the Art Institute of Chicago, he was incensed to see the fine quality of the paintings there, “Those paintings have no goddam right to be in Chicago!” As a collector, he had taste and discretion and believed himself to be enough of an expert that he and Anne had a lively argument (she won) over whether a certain painting was an original or a copy.

My theory is that Fleming added more art and better detail as he became more involved in art and collection. Casino Royale has very little in the way of art or artists, although the lush rich life for which Bond is famous is very much present. By the time Moonraker was written, Fleming employed art-specific vocabulary as well as naming specific artists and making art history jokes.

Aficionados of Fleming’s Bond, look with affection, on the fact that he is known almost as much for his cringe-worthy mistakes as for his painstaking details. Fleming was known to get calibres of guns wrong and to attribute perfumes to the wrong makers. This makes it all the more interesting that when it comes to art, Fleming seldom stumbles. He gets the artist right, he correctly names artistic styles, and if a painting does not exist as he describes it this is either to make a joke or because a nonexistent work of art was needed for that scene.

When you next reread an Ian Fleming book, go ahead and look up any unfamiliar artworks. You’ll likely get an extra chuckle. And you’ll feel so smart!

Incidental Intelligence

F. L. Toth earned a B.A.  in Art History and an M.L.S in Library Science and while she was at it became a certified SCUBA diver and a holder of a motorcycle licence. She recently presented at South Atlantic Modern Language Association on the subject of Tilly Masterton’s role in Goldfinger. She’s currently researching Ian Fleming’s time in the United States, particularly the exquisite Adirondacks.

The Property of Faberge

Enemy Action by Jeremy Duns

5 thoughts on “The Art of the Matter

  1. What an absolutely brilliant and original essay.
    Just when you think it’s impossible to dig deeper into the Fleming oeuvre along comes with something completely engrossing.
    Bravo Ms.Toth !

  2. I have to say, that I have stopped reading a novel at page 3 because of an erroneous product placement. Great article though!

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