Thursday, 15 March 2018

"The Price of Shrimps" -- and some cautionary tales for adults

This poem by Paul Dehn was tucked in my old student commonplace book:

" All my life long Since I was thirteen,
Loved by St Francis Is what I would have been.

The fish still scatter, The pony shies,
The snake bites And the bird flies.

Yet here is one who is What I would have been
All my life long;  And he is thirteen."
Circus Hand  

It was possibly taken from one of those idealistic children's annuals of the 40s and 50s.  You would never imagine (apart from its neatness of structure), that it came from the man who wrote apocalyptic poems like these in the 1960s:

From Quake, Quake, Quake*, poems by Paul Dehn, illustrations by Edmund Gorey

Journalist and film critic,  Paul Dehn is probably better known as the script writer for films such as Goldfinger, The Spy who came in from the Cold,  and the many Planet of the Apes sequels.

Born in Manchester in 1912, he was writing as a film reviewer in the late 1930s, and then served in Intelligence in World War II.  He was very affected by the Cold War and the nuclear threat of the 1960s, and published his parodies of classic English poems, memorably illustrated by Edmund Gorey, in Quake Quake Quake, A Leaden [not "Golden"] Treasury of English Verse in 1961.

A parody of "Oh western wind", an anonymous love poem from the 16th century

A parody from Tennyson's poem in "The Princess, III."
*(Quake, quake, quake is also a parody of Tennyson -- "Break, break, break)

The Cold War was a very real threat, and influenced writers, artists and film-makers.  I recall seeing Peter Watkins' The War Game in the 1960s. Creating a documentary-style imagined account of Britain, invaded after a nuclear attack from the Communist East, he mixed news clips with searing acted scenes all in black and white. The film was planned to be shown on BBC TV in 1965, but was cancelled as too "horrifying" to broadcast.  It was later shown by the British Film Institute and at other carefully scheduled screenings; it was a chilling experience. (see

From Paul Dehn's A Soviet Child's Garden of Verses, illustrated by Edmund Gorey

His sister, Olive Dehn (later Markham) was also an anarchist poet and feminist writer.
As a nineteen-year old she was escorted  from Nazi Germany in 1933 for writing a satirical poem about Hitler, and in later life she was again expelled from the Soviet Union for human rights campaigning.
Her stories for children reflect these concerns.  Come In (1946) is a realistic picture of family life in the 1940s, where the housewife has no freedom from domestic chores. Like her brother's poem Circus Hand, her stories (with a twist) feature in children's annuals.  In The Price of Shrimps, eighteenth century satirists Joseph Addison, Richard Steele and Jonathan Swift combine to rescue the heroine (and the secret shrimp recipe) from a life of drudgery with the wicked witch - by inveigling the witch to read Gulliver's Travels.  But there is a consequence for the fishing port of Parkgate on the Dee: the witch conjures up a furious storm in retaliation and all the Dee estuary is silted up.

Olive Dehn's stories featured alongside those of Enid Blyton and Eleanor Farjeon in the 1940s and 50s.  Odhams Annual 1948

For Paul Dehn, see also sports  (Poems © estate of the writer)
For Olive Dehn, see

Thursday, 1 March 2018

March Labours: a foretaste of summer

Despite the daffodils, as the winter chill continues into March, many of us are dreaming of summer holidays and enjoying a glass of wine in the sunshine.  But that depends on those in wine growing regions working on the spring pruning which ensures a fruitful vintage.

Book of Hours, March Pruning   Master of Mary of Burgundy and others, Ghent or Bruges, 1500s 
© Houghton Library, Harvard University

It is often the southern countries of Europe which portray pruning vines as the Labour for the month of March, while colder northern regions focus on digging and delving, as in this sculpture from Carlisle Cathedral.    The twelve Labours of the Months are carved into the capitals of the pillars in the choir, images of devotion for the majority, who could not afford illuminated prayer books and their own stained glass. These vignettes of the agricultural year would illustrate many Bible references in the prayers and preaching for the whole congregation.

Medieval carved figure for March   © Carlisle Cathedral 

Whether digging or pruning, it was all hands to the work;  the smaller sickles suggest skilled pruning of valuable vines, or grafting trees, not just lopping dead branches, although the important Church symbolism of wine and vineyards would be a reason for vines to feature in these luxury devotional manuscripts. 

Page heading for month of March,  Queen Mary's Psalter,  English, c. 1310-20 

This manuscript was thought to be made for Edward II or his Queen, Isabella.  It was seized from the Earl of Rutland in 1533 when Mary Tudor, Mary I, succeeded to the throne and was presented to the Queen  by the Customs officer.  It was given to the British Library in 1757 by George II as part of the Old Royal Library.                
 © British Library Royal Collection

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Debenham House: the colours of the peacock

I used to pass this eye-catching house in North Kensington as I walked from my bedsit to the red telephone box to ring my boyfriend.  Years later I visited the house with a private group and remember the interiors were just as striking, with brilliant William de Morgan tiles and mosaics.  

Debenham House (the Peacock House), 8 Addison Road, Kensington

It was built for Sir Ernest Debenham (of the department store) by architect Halsey Ricardo in 1905.  He was one of the circle of forward-looking artists and designers building in Holland Park (like R. Norman Shaw, Philip Webb, or William Burges) and had designed Nos. 15 and 17 in Melbury Road ten years before.  These were clad with red glazed terracotta bricks,  an innovation to withstand the corrosive effects suffered by brick, plaster and paint from the foul, smoky London atmosphere.  The Builder, in July 1894 noted they were "faced externally with salt-glazed bricks…proof against the disintegrating forces of the London air."

Decorative tiled interiors had been promoted by the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A) since 1865 and by designers like William Morris, friend of de Morgan, but these tiled exteriors were a new idea.  Sir Ernest had lived at No 17, and he must have found it comfortable as well as practical, for he chose Ricardo's plans for his new large house nearby.  It is faced with Doulton cream glazed terracotta -"Carrarra Ware"- and blue and green Burmantofts glazed bricks*, with roof tiles from Spain.

The interior must have been inspired by Leighton House (built in the mid 1860s), for there are the same peacock blue tiles in the passages and hall from Willam de Morgan's factory. De Morgan supplied these for Leighton House in 1879-81, for he was employed to conserve and display Frederic Leighton's spectacular collection of middle eastern tiles. When de Morgan's factory closed in 1905, Ricardo bought up the stock to complete Sir Ernest's Addison Road house.

Entrance hall, 8 Addison Road (Bridgeman images)

More de Morgan tiles decorate the passageways, as well as blue and green tiles edging the garden paths. This panel shows the influence of the collection of Isnik tiles at Lord Leighton's house

A wall panel inspired by Isnik tile patterns and colours © Getty images

Perhaps the mosaic central dome is the most splendid part of the interior, designed by Ricardo with later additions from other artists, in Byzantine style.  You can also see a peacock carved in the balustrade.

 View of the Dome at the Peacock House (photo M. Jenner)

The interchanges of the the artistic Holland Park circle brought Gaetano Meo, a studio assistant and artists'  model, to direct the application of the mosaic work, each glass tessera from Powell's of Whitefriars individually applied, which increased its light reflecting qualities.  He had previously worked on William Blake Richmond's mosaic decoration in the quire of St. Pauls' Cathedral.

This was a house with no expense spared, a palace of art, but a place to live, with state of the art tiled bathrooms and kitchen.  During a chequered history as a teacher training college and home of the Richmond Fellowship, it is now in private ownership again, but is recognisable in shots from films and television (Poirot, Wings of a Dove ) from the past, and its green and blue tiled exterior still reflects the trees and the sky in this part of Kensington.

*Burmantofts tiles were used for the exterior of Michelin House on Fulham road, in 1911.  Debenham House usually takes part in the London Open House programme each September.
Further information on the Holland Park houses can be found at and information on their artistic styles at

Friday, 9 February 2018

An emperor's collection: "rare as the stars of morning"

On the top floor of the British Museum is an amazing collection of the finest Chinese ceramics, many of them from the Imperial courts or the personal collections of Emperors themselves.  Some of the rarer pieces are Ru ware, from Northern kilns, which were only made for about forty years in the twelfth century AD, and were highly prized by connoisseurs, courtiers and scholars, as well as Emperors.  This piece is a cup stand from the Song dynasty, part of the collection of Sir Harry Garner and his wife; he was a government scientist whose hobby was the study of Chinese art and design.

Ru stoneware cup stand, N. Song dynasty 1090-1127.  © V&A Museum
This may have been to hold  a tea bowl; the emperor Huizong was a great tea connoisseur.

The Ru kilns were in Henan province, near the Northern Song capital of Kaifeng, and it is thought many of the master potters followed the court south to Hangzhou when Kaifeng fell to the mongolian Jin dynasty in 1127.

From the beginning, these Ru ware pots were rare and desirable, made specifically for the court of the Emperor Huizong, (AD 1100-1125) and even today there are less than 100 complete pieces in known collections, even after the discovery and excavation of the kiln sites near Baofengxian in 1987. They were admired for their finely potted hard bodies, often with the rim protected in smooth copper, and particularly their resemblance to magical jade.  The distinctive blue-green celadon colour was the result of ferrous oxide in the glaze, fired in a reducing atmosphere: the air holes to the kiln are blocked producing a smoky atmosphere and the fire draws its oxygen from the iron in the glaze, changing the colour in the process to cool grey-blues and greens. (Note that photographs of the same object vary in accuracy of tone.)  

Ru stoneware brush-washing dish, Northern Song (960-1127) © Rohsska Museum, Gothenburg

Most of the surviving pieces of Ru and other ancient wares reached the West through the efforts of Percival David, who persuaded the Chinese officials to let him curate and exhibit the Imperial ceramics in the neglected Forbidden City in the late1920s.  He returned in 1930 with a programme of exhibitions and catalogues and purchased any pieces he could which reached the antiquities market. In 1950 he gave his extensive ceramic collection to University College London for public education and research, and it is now on longterm loan to the British Museum.

This to me, is one of the stars in Percival David's collection, simply for itself, and then for its later connection with Hongli, the Qianlong Emperor from 1735-96.

Ru stoneware with celadon glaze and copper rim, from Qingliangsi, Northern Song c. AD 1086-1125
© Percival David Loan Collection,  Joseph Hotung Gallery, British Museum

These test samples for colour and kiln temperature show some of the difficulties of achieving perfect pieces in the temperamental medieval wood-fired kilns, with variable quality clays and glaze materials, relying on the expertise of the kiln master to control the temperatures and the reduction of oxygen over several days of firing.  Even stormy weather could ruin a whole kiln batch, as Bernard Leach discovered working with traditional methods in Japan.

Ru ware firing samples, designed to be strung together. c.1086-1125 
© Percival David Loan Collection, British Museum

The Emperor Hongli liked to add his thoughts and poems as inscriptions, making his mark on particular pieces in the Imperial collection (much of which was inherited from his father).  He promoted his image as a Confucian scholar and sage, a connoisseur collector of antiquities, as well as a wise, strong ruler.

The Qianglong Emperor in his study.   This portrait was painted for him by Guiseppe Castiglione, a Jesuit lay brother at the court.

Here is a translation of his inscription added to the Ru bowl above, in his collection:

"Many dishes have survived but bowls are difficult to find. In the palace alone are stored well nigh a hundred dishes. Yet bowls are as rare as stars in the morning.  What is there, forsooth, for which a cause cannot be found?  Large bowls are difficult to preserve, small dishes easy.  In this I find a moral and a warning.  The greater the object, the heavier the task for its care.  Composed by the Qianlong Emperor in the cyclical year bingwu ."  [AD1786].

Later inscription added in 1786 by Qianlong Emperor to Ru stoneware bowl shown above 
© Percival David Collection, B.M.

The other attraction of Ru and similar wares was the crackle in the glaze, described as "cracked ice" or "crab claw veins."  This crazing is technically a fault, caused by the glaze and body of the pot expanding and contracting at different rates in the kiln, but the Chinese potters were skilful enough to exploit it as a decorative technique, using several layers of glaze to help achieve it; other wares filled the cracks with dark stain for emphasis.  The other secret of the finest wares was the long grinding by hand of the glaze materials, even for two or three days.  It is this unpredictability of the materials and production methods which gives each piece its individuality, and explains why such a small number of perfect pieces were produced.  

Some coveted Ru wares and other celadons were exported to Korea, and then copied there.   A contemporary Korean scholar and official Yi Kyu-bo (1168-1241) describes the ceramic works near the capital Kaesong:

"The felling of trees left Mount Namsan bare and the smoke from the fires obscured the sun.
The wares produced were celadon bowls: out of every ten, one was selected - for it had the bluish green lustre of jade.
It was clear and bright as crystal, it was hard as rock.
With what skill did the potters work - it seemed as if they borrowed the secret from Heaven!"

 Ru ware from the Percival David Collection.  The central wine bottle is 20 cms. high  
© British Museum

Qianglong Emperor's inscription translation by R.L. Hobson, © Percival David Foundation.
Yi-Kyu-bo translation from Beth McKillop's "Korean Art & Design" © V&A Museum.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

February: winter labours: "Whether the weather be cold…."

February Labours of the Month traditionally show people warming themselves by a cosy fire, like this wealthy man, with his fur hat, and yellow hose, toasting his toes by the supper pot.  His home has glazed windows, and smart tiled floor, as well as bowl and ewer over the large fireplace.

Labour of the Month for February, stained glass roundel © from the Burrell Collection, Glasgow

Designs were often taken from stock woodblock images, shared amongst glaziers, and other craftsmen:  this later one from  Norwich shows similar common elements, with a very fine fire.  

Norwich School stained glass roundel c. 1480-1500  © V&A Museum

There was more demand for domestic stained glass - as can be seen in the wealthier dress and home comforts portrayed - in the early 1500s, and the monthly Labours were a popular subject.  The borders show the  increasing use of silver stain painted on to create yellow areas on clear glass, as well as the continued use of the more easily controlled pot-metal yellow glass cut to shape (emphasising the large bowl).

This one from the same series (which may represent  the month of April?)  shows the inclement weather, as a well-dressed man dives into the porch away from the sudden shower of rain or snow.  The bare trees suggest winter, although the sward is green and he has abandoned his spade, but I like the sense of a familiar chilly weather moment caught in the stained glass.

Possibly the work of John Wattock, for Thomas Pykerell, mayor of Norwich in the 1520s and 30s. ©Norwich Castle Art Gallery & Museum

For more information on stained glass see the Boppard Conservation Project Glasgow and (Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi).  The glazier's original sketch (for the patron) is called the vidimus.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

"Fly me to the Moon.."

Tin-glazed earthenware plate, Bristol  c. 1740   Glaisher bequest 1928. © Fitzwilliam Museum

This delftware plate celebrates a very early science fiction novel, The Man in the Moone, a discourse of a voyage thither.  Published in 1638 by a Spaniard, one "Domingo Gonsales", it tells the story of his travels, from his stay in St Helena,  where he trained the native wild swans as a means of aerial transport, to his escape off Tenerife when his ship home is attacked by the English.  Unable to land safely, the swans transport him higher and higher, reaching the moon after 12 days.  Here he finds a Christian Utopia among the Lunars. Becoming homesick, he travels back with his swans, landing in China.  From there his narrative is carried back to Europe by Jesuit missionaries.
The romance was very popular, meeting the 17th century interest in the lunar world, with the ideas of Copernicus and stories of distant voyages.    The real author was in fact Francis Godwin, Bishop of Hereford, and he probably wrote it in the late 1620s, inspired by classical and contemporary accounts of travel and astronomy.

The plate with its image taken from an illustration, was discovered in 1915 by Dr. James W. L. Glaisher, a Cambridge maths don, who was a prolific and organised collector, particularly of books and ceramics; his extensive collections now grace the Cambridge University Library and the Fitzwilliam Museum.

The image must have revived vivid memories for him, as his father (also James Glaisher) was a senior meteorologist at Greenwich Observatory, and took his schoolboy son with him on pioneering balloon ascents to collect weather data.

Friday, 5 January 2018

Twelfth Night: from cakes to crackers

In 1849, the Illustrated London News featured Queen's Victoria's Twelfth Night Cake, celebrating the the Epiphany, the coming of the Three Kings, developed from the pagan Roman Feast of Saturnalia.  Early cakes  contained a bean and a pea, to determine who should be King and Queen of Misrule for the night.  By the later eighteenth century, chefs learnt to use eggs as raising agents, and rich fruit mixtures replaced the old fashioned yeast or batter type, fruit decorated cakes, growing ever larger and elaborately iced.    The first printed Twelfth Cake recipe* is that of John Mollard, of the London Tavern in Bishopsgate Street, in 1803,  and he seems to have been the inspiration for this description from R.H.Horne's Memoirs of a London Doll of 1846:

"Sir, said he, "this is a Twelfth-cake of very superior make.  It was made by my grandfather himself, who is known to be one of the first makers in all Bishopsgate street: I may say the very first.  There is no better in all the world.  You see how heavy it is; what a quantity of plums, currants, butter, sugar, and orange and lemon-peel there is in it, besides brandy and caraway confits. See! what a beautiful frost -work of white sugar there is all over the top and sides!  See, too, what characters there are, and made in sugar of all colours! Kings and Queens in their robes, and lions and dogs, and Jem Crow, and Swiss cottages in winter, and railway carriages, and girls with tambourines, and a village steeple with a cow looking in at the porch; and all these standing or walking, or dancing upon white sugar, surrounded with curling twists and true lover's knots in pink and green citron, with damson cheese and black currant paste between.  You never saw such a cake before, sir, and I'm sure none of your family ever smelt any cake at all like it.  It's quite a nosegay for Queen Victoria herself; and if you were to buy it at my grandfather's shop you would have to pay fifteen shillings and more for it."

Another part of the fun and games was the allotting of "characters". They were sold in sets, and could be comic:  

or even political:

This cartoon by Isaac Cruikshank of 16th January 1779 refers to Sir Francis Burdett's campaign to reform the dreadful Coldbathfields or Middlesex Prison, known as the English Bastille.

By 1866, the Queen herself pronounced the Twelfth Night celebrations as un-Christian, and Mrs Beeton's recipe book omitted the Bean and Pea.  Gradually the  outrageous antics and traditional rituals were  tamed and transformed  (helped along by commercialism) into  the iced Christmas cake, the silver coins or charms in the Christmas pudding, and the jokes and paper hats in the crackers. 

I  am not superstitious, but I still feel compelled to take down the last of my Christmas decorations before midnight tonight!

*see for Mollard's recipe