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Beast of England?


St George & dragon, Paolo Ucello, c 1470 (NG, London

Don’t get me wrong, when faced with the best that the Italian Renaissance has to offer I am as impressed as the next beholder – possibly even more so. But every time I see the above, I can’t help grinning. It’s the composition that’s to blame, I think (rather than any aesthetic deficiency on my part. Oh, no – perish the thought). The dragon – the bestial creature that must die – is the focal point of the painting. And the poor beast  (yes, ‘poor’: see what I mean?) has an expression that is not so much agonised more like a hungry child presented with a minuscule portion of haute cuisine when expecting a plateful of bangers and mash. The damsel’s posture indicates weak expostulation and exasperation, and the fact that the beast is attached to the rather depressed-looking female by means of a long, loose and rather fragile leash is, to me, the clincher – look at them: if theirs isn’t the stance of owner and pet, then I don’t know what is. Meanwhile, the Saint is attending to warriorlike business, head down and pallid features semi-obscured, intently joyless in his righteousness – clearly the mark of a true spoilsport. An uncertain judge, what I can be certain of is that this works on me in the same manner every time, producing giggles.  This is what it makes me think is going through the maiden’s mind:

‘Honestly, just look at that, will you? Men! Well, knights in shining armour anyway, since that is the type we are talking about here – aren’t we, hm?
Will you just look at the bugger!
He’s only gone and offed my pet dragon. And just as I’d finally managed to get the scaly sod house-trained (don’t ask. No, really you don’t want to know. All I can say is that I am the one around here with the saintly qualities –  talk about patience on a monument. Although the veg patch’s coming on a treat).
And did I look as if I might be in the slightest distress? Did I? Did I eff! I mean, that lead’s a bit of a giveaway. Bit of a clue there, wouldn’t you say? The poor creature is a pet. Pet. P.E.T. One that saves me a small fortune in fuel, to boot.
Ruddy warriors on their white chargers: what can you do with them, eh?
And there’s never one about when you really need one.’

PS And,yes, the title’s based on the song from Chapter I of Animal Farm.


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