PALIN IN BALTIMORE FOR BBC DOCUMENTARY ON
A pair of proper Victorian ladies, sporting well-starched collars and wearing multiple layers of petticoats. Sitting in a Parisian brothel. Having tea with Pablo Picasso. Purchasing a sketch he'd made on the back of a brown paper bag. Discussing the finer points of cubism.
Welcome to a day in the life of Claribel and Etta Cone, those tastefully eccentric sisters whose gift to their adopted city was one of the finest -- not to mention largest -- collections of impressionist art ever amassed by private collectors. If you think that's hyperbole, go to the Baltimore Museum of Art and check out the Matisses, Picassos, Renoirs and van Goghs that make up the vaunted Cone Collection.
That's what Michael Palin did. And the prospect of telling TV audiences all about the two prim and proper spinsters who put it together delights him no end.
For such a scenario has all the earmarks of a vintage Monty Python sketch -- a piece of cross-cultural absurdism not lost on Palin, he of the fish-slapping dance and the dreaded Spanish Inquisition. He's here in Baltimore serving as host for a BBC documentary on the Cones. The work he's doing is serious, and the program -- set to air in England in September, not yet scheduled here in the States -- promises to be as informative as entertaining. Palin, 59, has developed a genuine affection for the sisters, and has come to explore their lives and their livelihoods, not to mock them.
"The BBC wanted me to do something on Matisse," Palin says, invoking the artist most represented in the collection, "and the idea of doing it through the Cones appealed to me. It was all about the collector, and people sort of don't give credit to the collectors, to their role in art. The Cones appealed to me; there's a good story there."
Yes, but also an odd one. Palin smiles as he envisions the Cones during one of their many early 20th-century art-buying sprees in Europe.
"They're out there buying very early Picassos," Palin says over lunch at the BMA's Gertrude's restaurant, "just sketches from when he was virtually penniless and living in this house full of pimps and prostitutes and all that. I have this image of them turning up there to see Picasso -- now there's a scene.
"They're like characters that Terry Gilliam used to draw for Python, with little wheels appearing underneath them, and underneath their skirts would be a little motor. But that's so great. They weren't fuddy-duddy, they weren't puritanical."
Eleanor Yule, who is directing the documentary for the BBC, picks up Palin's train of thought. "The question we ask at the beginning of the film is, how did these two women, dressed in black, sitting at this table in Italy, looking very prim and Victorian, end up with this collection, which includes some of the most controversial pictures of all time? How does that happen?"
Claribel and Etta Cone might not have been amused by all this hullabaloo. But then again, they might. The Cones were doubtless a complicated pair: What you saw often seemed diametrically opposed to what you got.
Good at retail therapy
The daughters of well-off German immigrants (whose sons increased the family fortune through investments in textile mills), Claribel (1864-1929) and Etta (1870-1949) began their lives as art connoisseurs innocently enough; given $300 by older brother Moses to decorate the family home, Etta traveled to New York in 1898 and bought five paintings by American impressionist Theodore Robinson. Three years later, she made her first trip to Europe, spending considerable time with her friend and mentor, Gertrude Stein. Soon, both Cone sisters were being chauffeured all over Europe -- Etta for pleasure, Claribel (a Hopkins-trained research path-ologist) to study in Frankfurt.
The pivotal year 1905 marked the sisters' first encounter with French impressionist Henri Matisse and his works. To say they were impressed would appear to understate the case; despite qualms about his paintings' scandalous nature, Etta bought two of his drawings. The Cones and Matisse became lifelong friends; the painter visited Etta during his trip to America in 1930, and later produced a series of pencil and charcoal drawings of the two sisters.
After Claribel died suddenly of pneumonia during a trip to Europe, Etta maintained the collection -- which would eventually include nearly 250 pieces by Matisse alone -- in their Eutaw Place apartment. Upon Etta's death, the entire collection was willed to the BMA.
Palin and the crew from the BBC first picked up the Cones' trail in Princeton, where they visited with their nephew, Edward T. Cone, a professor of music who remembers his aunts well; he even visited Europe with Etta in 1933.
"He just had some nice little observations and memories of their idiosyncrasies," Palin recalls of their visit with Edward Cone. "He confirmed stories like the one about Claribel in England, where she put an umbrella up to go through the cathedral, because she heard there were bats there.
"The thing about the Cone sisters is," Palin says with a smile of obvious admiration, "people seem to have a lot to say about them. The more you get to know them, the more curious and wonderful they are.
"The sisters were very different," he continues. "Etta was the younger one, a bit more earnest. Claribel was a real character; she was a big, dominating lady, a bit like Gertrude Stein, in a way. The more I see of her now, there's a great opera waiting to be written about Claribel Cone.
"Claribel was very much of a loner; she really didn't like people. I think she said something like, 'I prefer things to people any day.' Whereas Etta was the opposite. I think Etta really did like relationships, and she got into relationships with Gertrude Stein and others. She quite liked strong women -- men as well -- liked having strong characters about her. Whereas Claribel herself was a strong character, didn't need anybody else around."
But for all their differences, Palin notes, they were well- matched as traveling companions.
"They were great champions of retail therapy," he explains. "They would buy two or three of almost anything. Even a Matisse lithograph -- they'd buy three or four, one for their wall, others to give to other people.
"Wherever they went, they always looked the same. There's even pictures of them on an elephant in India -- they traveled all around, it wasn't just in Europe -- and there they are, still in these huge skirts. They always had several layers of skirt and petticoat, and when they traveled, that's where they kept their money and tickets, passports, all that. Etta called this her underground."
Slaking his wanderlust
From Baltimore, where filming was done at both the BMA and the Marlborough Building (former home of the sisters' legendary apartment), the film crew planned on heading to North Carolina, where much of the Cone family fortune was made, and then on to Paris and Florence. Such extensive traveling does more than simply replicate the Cones' globetrotting. It also suggests another reason Palin became interested in the project.
Since Monty Python's Flying Circus stopped performing together in the early 1980s, Palin has emerged as both the U.K.'s most convivial world traveler and its most documented. In 1989, Around the World in 80 Days chronicled Palin's re-creation of Jules Verne's literary journey. It featured Palin interacting guilelessly with peoples throughout the world, and proved a big hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Since then, he's written and starred in travel documentaries retracing the journeys of Ernest Hemingway, circling the Pacific Rim and traversing the globe from North Pole to South.
Next year, he'll be taking viewers on a tour of the Sahara Desert.
"It's a matter of extreme curiosity," Palin says of his incessant wanderlust. "I am just fascinated by other places, wherever they are. Whenever I do one of the series, I say never again. I've said that five times now. Traveling is a bit of an addiction."
If traveling does get old, there's always Monty Python to fall back on. The group does have plans to release a grand, extensive collection of archival material, sort of a compendium of all things Python. Now, that sounds awfully traditional and staid for a group as devoted to anarchy as Python was, a juxtaposition Palin is not entirely comfortable with. But it's hard to remain committed to going against the grain, he notes, when fans are constantly asking them to revisit their glory years.
"I'm not sure I'm entirely comfortable with being this piece of heritage," he says. "It's not really what Python was all about; we were really against that sort of thing. But you sort of get sucked into it, because people want to know, want to learn more."
As a documentarian, Palin is treading some of the same ground trod by his fellow Pythons. Terry Jones has done a series of well- received programs on the Crusades, the social structure of ancient Rome and other lesser-known aspects of ancient history. John Cleese narrated a program on the lemurs of Madagascar.
"The odd thing is, when we did Python, a lot of it was clearing the old conventions of television, shoving them aside. But in doing that, you had to be aware of what the conventions were. And a lot of them involved presenters going around the world, traveling, newsreaders and that sort of thing -- we did all that in Python.
"Now we find ourselves coming back and doing those sorts of things
ourselves. History is revisiting us, only this time it's for real."