After a ride on the Overground and transfer at the Shard, my companions and I found ourselves before the Palace of Westminster. Tourists milled about the pavement, dutifully awaiting the clocktower to sound the hour. We chose to press on, and our steps carried us past the overly wrought doors and portals, the façade too fine by half.
The crowds began to thin somewhat as we left the Palace behind and drew nearer the Tate Britain. Once inside, we wandered about with neither rhyme nor reason. All the same, half-narratives for the paintings sketched themselves inside my head, such as the green palette work of 17th century British School and landscapists.
In the 1636 Portrait of William Style of Langley, the titular person looms over the foreground in almost comical fashion while at his back stands an ivy-colored garden à la française. A small fence encloses the geometrical flowerbeds, the fence in turn surrounded by a colonnaded walkway complete with gatehouse, bower and arch, to which the same ivy coloring had extended. Indeed, the ivy seemed to coat every structure of the garden complex and rather brought to mind the green seen on tree trunks in rainy climes.
By contrast, Jan Siberechts’ 1696 View of a House and its Estate in Belsize, Middlesex had retained the portraiture theme but eliminated its human subject entirely in favor of an bird’s-eye view of said estate. From above, the park’s rectilinear forms jumped out at the viewer. A series of interlocking garden squares stood behind the main house. Such was the care given to the detail of each individual leaf that the sight induced a certain dizziness and gave one the impression of a hedge maze on the verge of formation. So had the Golden Age Flemish “landschap” and its own vocabulary of greens been translated into 17th century English landscapes and country house portraits.
With the end of the 17th century there came the formal Acts of Union between England and Scotland, as a historical panel recalled for the reader. If the English had sought union to neutralize the Scots’ ability to pursue alliances contrary to the former’s interests, the Scots had in turn profited by escaping financial ruin due to the Darién Scheme. The Scottish Parliament had attempted to establish a trading company to rival the English East India Company. The proposal met with royal assent from William III, and the company was granted the right to settle unclaimed areas in the New World.
Due to intrigue on the part of the English, the company’s directors had had to raise capital in Scotland alone, even though the sum required represented roughly a third of Scotland’s liquid wealth. Funds at last in place, 2,500 Scottlish settlers set out in 1696 for the Panama and established a trading colony at Darién. The settlers, numbering among them ex-soldiers, pastors, merchants, seamen and third sons of the landed gentry, soon gave way before famine in the Lowlands and New World disease, limited goods like wigs and wool, shoes and pipes. Perhaps most decisively, the Spanish maintained a strong presence in the area.
Not wishing to offend the Spaniards, the English left the Scots to their own devices at Darién, and the colony collapsed before the calendars reached 1700. Upon reading the preceding, I was struck with a curious sentiment and tried to picture for a time present-day Central America where individuals haggled at the market not in Spanish but in Scots and Scots Gaelic. Though still mestizos by present terms, these people would then have been known by another name entirely, gathered under another category entirely.