On the fourth day of Christmas my true love sent to me...
Four calling birds
‘On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me four colly birds’ was the lyric published in the 1780 version of the Christmas carol. Colly was a regional expression for ‘black’. Following the many variants in the nineteenth century, in 1909 English composer Frederic Austen introduced the now most popular lyric ‘calling birds’ along with his melody.
These two panels from the Sleeping Beauty series by Russian painter, set and costume designer Léon Bakst contain four ‘colly’ birds between them. A black bird first appears perched on a ledge providing a sense of foreboding during the moment in which the Princess pricks her finger on the spinning wheel. Three can be seen in the next panel following the majestic Good Fairy as she arrives to reassure the King of his daughter’s future. The attendant monkey hands the father a medal bearing the face of Prince Charming. Swirling illuminated dragons and a shell-encrusted coach lend a grand theatricality to the Fairy’s entrance, witnessed by the court.
Bakst, who designed for the Ballets Russes was commissioned by James de Rothschild to decorate the drawing room of his London house. The choice of subject was left to the artist, who completed the seven panels in 1922, delayed by ill health, other work and the First World War. In 1923 it was decided to hang the panels in the dining room, but it is not known whether they were ever installed. They were finally hung in the dining room of James’s and Dorothy’s next house, at 23 St James’s Place, before being installed in the Bakst Room in Waddesdon Manor in 1995. Bakst based the faces of most of the characters on sketches he made of his patrons, their family and friends. Here, the housekeeper of James de Rothschild’s father, Madame Marion, guides James’s sister-in-law, Noémie, to her fate, whilst his sister Alexandrine’s cat lounges in front. The Prince on the medal in the second painting, is none other than James de Rothschild himself.
Indeed, the themes of theatre, fairy tale and dressing up are closely connected with this year’s theme at Waddesdon – ‘Christmas Carnival’, making the work the perfect gift for the fourth day.