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Just swanning around – isn’t it ironic

July has been and gone and the swans have been counted. Swan Upping is the annual census of the swan population on the stretches of the Thames in Middlesex, Surrey, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire. The Crown retains the right to ownership of all unmarked swans in open water but The Queen exercises her ownership only on these stretches of the Thames. In the Swan Upping ceremony, The Queen’s Swan Marker and Royal Swan Uppers – this is all true – take to rowing boats on their five day journey up river dressed in traditional scarlet uniforms and when a brood of cygnets is sighted a cry of ‘all up’ is given and they rally round to start the counting and marking. When the boats pass Windsor Castle, the rowers stand to attention and give the salute ‘Her Majesty The Queen, Seigneur of the Swans.’ This historic ceremony dates from the twelfth century when the Crown claimed ownership of all swans which at that time were regarded as a delicious dish and de rigeur at banquets and feasts. We are told by the official website that nowadays the swans are no longer eaten!

Since antiquity, the swan has occupied rich symbolic territory in art, the duality of human nature at the same time graceful and sinister, placid and nasty, chaste and sexual, the swan has also functioned as the representative of hypocrisy. Leda and The Swan is the story and subject in art from Greek mythology in which the god Zeus, takes the form of a swan in order to rape/seduce Leda, the wife of the King of Sparta. Interpretations of the erotic myth have been captured in sculptures, mosaics and on canvas by Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Tintoretto, Cezanne and Dali. In the 15th/16th centuries, whilst the kings and queens of England were contemplating a nice bit of roast swan, the Italian Renaissance Artists were viewing the swan in a whole different light. The subject of Leda and The Swan undoubtedly owed its popularity to the paradox that then it was considered more acceptable to depict a woman in the act of copulation with a swan rather than with a man. In 1524 the engraver, Raimondi, the original creator of the book I Modi, illustrated with erotica (and not a swan in sight) was imprisoned and his work destroyed – the symbolic motif cloaked in mythology acceptable, realistic interpretation not. And what of Leda and the Swan in the new millennium. In April 2012, the Scream Gallery in London was instructed by the Metropolitan police to remove a modern depiction of Leda entitled ‘A fool for love’ by the artist Derrick Santini, on the grounds that it condoned bestiality, an arrestable offence contravening Section 63 of The Criminal Justice Act 2008! ‘The police reaction shows a distinct lack of culture in the force’ said a bemused Santini. How public mores have changed since Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel.

Moving on from the female form, earlier on this year at an exhibition at the Leopold Museum in Vienna ‘Nude Men from 1800 to Today’ a man stripped naked and wandered amongst the pictures and sculptures until he was ordered to get dressed. This made the headlines and the museum had many requests from the public inspired by the naked viewer’s example, and who also wanted to visit the exhibition naked. Hence a special after hours showing was arranged where visitors could leave all their clothes at the coat check except for their shoes and socks ‘because the stone floors are very chilly!’

A different story, however, in the Victorian era, where male nudity was a contentious issue. On her first encounter with the caste of Michelangelo’s nude David, at the V and A Museum, Queen Victoria was so shocked by the sight that a proportionally accurate fig leaf was commissioned which was kept in readiness for any royal visit when it was hung on strategically placed hooks. Can only imagine that Queen Victoria would probably have gone for the swan dinner rather than a viewing of Leda and her cygnets.

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