The Burden of Gilt

With more than 40,000 of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s possessions to display and dispose of (compared to 6,000 for the Jackie O. pig-out of 1996), Sotheby’s has temporarily turned itself into a theme park dedicated to – what? To imperial splendor, to pathetic irrelevance, to shopping and fucking, and, yes, to undying devotion.

Three images from the collection (the auction continues through this week) are particularly evocative. Alfred Munnings’s 1921 portrait of Edward, as Prince of Wales, astride his favorite hunter, is a dreadful painting (Munnings was no Stubbs), but it reveals something of the young Prince Charming’s diffidence and appeal. A faded photo recalls an era when it was still possible to contemplate the royal family without snickering: The P.O.W., touring the African colonies in 1928, presents his portrait to a group of Suk tribesmen; they carry spears and look gravely bemused. Finally, there is the portrait by Gerald Leslie Brockhurst of a not-so-young woman wearing a severely tailored deep-blue dress. Her gaze is steady, her expression quizzical, even challenging. “I have cost you dearly,” she might be saying. “But I will amuse you and take care of you forever.”

Fashion, of course, obsessed them both. But the Sotheby’s sale suggests that he was the true clotheshorse, nursing a passion for pink plaid golfing outfits, flamboyant tartan suits, and outrageously baggy plus fours, and giving his tailors precise instructions to make the left rear trouser pocket slightly bigger than the right, the better to accommodate his cigarette case.

Then there is the Hitler thing – or rather, there isn’t. For all its exhaustive inventory, the exhibit reveals almost nothing about the Windsors’ flirtation with the Nazis, which included a personal inspection of the elite Death’s Head corps and several hours of schmoozing with der Führer. The British government regarded these indiscretions as so potentially embarrassing that when World War IIbegan, the couple were spirited off to the Bahamas, where Edward spent five boring years as governor.

So much time, so little to do … On their last years together – when they lived as café-society gypsies, sometimes appearing as pay-per-view attractions for charity events – the exhibit is, however, quite eloquent. A grainy blowup of the couple photographed in their Paris foyer shows them smiling gamely, as if to welcome or wave off the hordes who come to examine their effects. Despite the size of the enlargement, they seem insubstantial, a pair of glazed, crackled figurines left too long in the kiln.

The Burden of Gilt