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

Sunday, 31 December 2017

January: the 'Golf' Book of Hours

The month of January from the "Golf" Book of Hours,  Simon Bening, Bruges c. 1540
© the British Library 

This beautiful Calendar page comes from a luxury Book of Hours, containing prayers and psalms for private worship, with each month showing the traditional European labours of the month.  January usually shows someone warming themselves by the hearth, or vigorously chopping wood, as many country dwellers will be doing even nowadays.  This illumination has several other popular images included, such as the windmill, the pigeonloft and farm animals, all in deep snow.  The 1500s saw Europe's "little Ice Age" taking hold -- in England the Thames froze in December and January (1536/37) so that King Henry VIII could travel on the ice by sleigh between London and Greenwich.

The Renaissance style borders in this Book of Hours show seasonal sports and pastimes, hence its name as the "Golf Book", and January shows boys happily sledging.  This is, of course, a particularly idealised view of ordinary villagers' life in January, with the blue-robed mother and child a reminder of the Nativity.  Prosperous, well-wrapped villagers and townsfolk are leaving a church which would not have looked out of place in the miniaturist's home town of Bruges, which can look particularly beautiful in winter when its canals are frozen and the trees are bare.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Christmas at Camelot, a Yuletide story

Over six hundred years ago, in the reign of Richard II, an anonymous poet creates a tale of Arthurian adventure and romance, its hero the courteous Sir Gawain, one wintry Yuletide.

King Arthur and his court feasting   © British Library  

"Christmas time.  The king is home at Camelot
Among his many lords, all splendid men --
All trusted brothers of the Round Table
Ready for court revels and carefree pleasures.
Knights in great numbers at the tournament sports
Jousted with much joy, as gentle knights
Will do, then rode to the court for the carol dances.
The festival lasted fifteen days long
With all the meat and mirth the men could manage.
Such clamour and merriment were amazing to hear:
By day a joyful noise -- dancing at night --
A happiness that rang through rooms and halls
With lords and ladies disporting themselves as they pleased.
So in delight they lived and danced there together:
The knights of highest renown under Christ himself,
The loveliest ladies that ever on earth drew breath,
The most handsome king that ever ruled court,
The best and noblest of people -- all in their prime in that hall."

So this anonymous fourteenth century poet sets the scene at Camelot, and into all the merriment arrives the forbidding stranger, a giant horseman:

"There hove into the hall a hideous figure,
Square built and bulky, thickset from neck to thigh --
The heaviest horseman in the world, the tallest as well;
…the mightiest of men
And, astride his horse, a handsome knight as well.
…But the hue of his every feature
Stunned them: as could be seen,
Not only was this creature
Colossal -- he was bright Green --"  [as was his horse!]

"The arrival of the Green Knight" 
 This manuscript illustration (?from Froissart) shows his axe but not his evergreen holly bough

"Such a horseman had never crossed their tracks:
To them he looked as bright
As summer lightning that cracks
The sky -- and no man might withstand his dreadful axe."

The stranger proceeds to issue a daunting challenge to Arthur's knights:  an exchange of blows with his mighty axe,  and he will  take the first blow himself,  bare necked:

"...if any hold himself bold enough,
Has the stomach to strike one stroke for another,
I'll give him the gift of this beautiful battle-axe."

 Sir Gawain, King Arthur's nephew, takes up the challenge:
"I am to make this cut at you come what may,
And a twelvemonth from now I'll take another one
From you, with whatever weapon you choose, to pay it back."

Gawain duly strikes and the Green Knight's head rolls along the floor.  But this headless green apparition picks it up, remounts and holds his head aloft before the horrified company :

Original illustration to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,  
Cotton Nero A. X manuscript © British Library

"And turns it to face the nobles at the table.  It lifts its eyelids, gives them a long stare,
Then slowly opens its mouth from which these words come forth,
Be prepared to come as you promised, Gawain,
Seek me faithfully until you find me, sir
As you have pledged in the presence of these noble knights."

This prelude to Gawain's quest is the traditional 'Champion's Bargain'.  This poem exists in a single manuscript of the late 1300s from the collection of Sir Robert Cotton;  and the story continues with Sir Gawain honourably setting out alone one year later, to search the icy wilderness of the Wirral for the home of his challenger. Braving robber knights,  fierce beasts and wild men ("wodewose") through the depths of winter, he prays to the Virgin Mary for help, and miraculously the castle of Sir Bercilak appears, where he finds rest from his travels. The hero's three 'Temptations' follow.

For three days Sir Gawain is to be entertained by Sir Bercilak's wife while her husband is out hunting, and agrees to exchange any 'trophies' with his host each evening.   Each hunt pictures the contemporary    customs in exciting detail as "the bugle sounds ricocheted round the woods".

The Boar and Bear Hunt  tapestry,  S. Netherlands, c. 1425-1430 © V& A Museum
"he rides through bush and briar, chasing the doughty boar"

While his host is out in the wild forest, hunting the deer, then the boar and lastly the fox, safe inside the castle each day Gawain is waylaid in his bedchamber by his hostess in courtly love contests.  The first two evenings he honourably returns the Lady's kisses  - first one and then two - to Sir Bercilak as agreed.   But on the third day, he succumbs to accept a special green girdle which she assures will protect him from the Green Knight's axe stroke.

The Lady 'beards' Sir Gawain in his chamber,  Cotton Nero A.X ms. © British Library

That last evening Gawain only gives to Sir Bercilak his wife's three kisses, but not the magic girdle, before he must face the Green Knight's deathly challenge on New Year's Day.

This unique English narrative poem mingles both Christian and pagan legend and symbols in the European folk tradition of Green Men, as found in carvings in medieval churches and chapels, notably the numerous versions in the Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland.

Gargoyle sprouting green leaves  (and see  

This is another familiar version with a mane of greenery found in a carved roof boss at Pershore.

  Green Man carving, Pershore Abbey, Worcester

There are similarities to the wild men of the woods - the wodewose, hairy and leafy- which were popular characters of misrule in medieval court entertainments. 

Decorative Wild men and women tapestry,  Swiss c. 1430-70  © V & A Museum

These pagan figures from myth and folktale become conflated with the ancient Spirit of Winter, or Old Father Christmas, who introduces the Christmas mummers' plays, with staff and holly bough (like the Green Knight. 
By the later nineteenth century this Spirit of Winter becomes linked with St. Nicholas (or Santa Claus), still mingling pagan and Christian seasonal rituals.

The 'Spirit of Christmas Present'   from Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" , 
illustration by John Leech 1834

The last part of Gawain's adventure is the 'Testing of the Champion',  a narrative of reward and retribution. Arrived at a desolate cave, a chapel more suited for the Devil, the Green Knight swings his huge axe at Gawain, who flinches, but the Green Knight stays his blade and calls Gawain coward.  Now Sir Gawain stands unflinching, "Though once my head is off, I cannot put it back".
A second time the Green Knight holds back his axe and Gawain angrily challenges him to make his full stroke.  But with this third blow, the Green Knight just nicks Gawain's neck, drawing blood.  This he explains, was because Gawain withheld the green girdle - for through enchantment the Green Knight is Sir Bercilak himself.
Returning to King Arthur's court,  Gawain wears the girdle with remorse as a reminder of his weakness; but because he steadfastly paid his debt to the Green Knight,  the Round Table adopts the green baldric as badge of honour:
"He who wore it would be honoured evermore
As it is recounted in the best books of old romance."

This centuries-old Christmas tale has been the subject of many interpretations (some link it with the founding of the Order of the Garter), much critical research and debate, and various translations. One thing is clear all through, it is the work of a master storyteller in creating mood and heightening drama.  For what does Sir Gawain hear as he reaches the sinister Green Chapel, and climax of his quest --

"Way off, beyond the brook, a weird sound.
It clattered against the cliffs as if to shatter them:
A sound like a scythe being ground against a stone.
There it goes again -- a whirring, like mill-water
In a race.  It clanged and ran out, rushing
Towards him. 'By God, this horrible instrument is meant
To honour me alone; it is for me he hones his blade!"

Like the best winter's tales, this unknown poet  keeps his listeners and readers on the edge of their seats!
"These marvellous things took place in the age of Arthur
As the books of Britain, Brutus' isle, all tell."

Christmas Greetings to my readers

[All the poem's quoted passages are from the verse translation by Keith Harrison, © The Folio Society 1983.]

Friday, 1 December 2017

December: Dinner with Emerald at the Dorchester

Friday, 1st December  1944

"Joan Moore lunched with me at Wilton's.  She brought a huge sack which the waiters filled with oyster-shells for her hens.  It was so heavy that we had to wait for a taxi to pull up at the door.  [Joan Moore, the pianist, now Countess of Drogheda]

Emerald, Lady Cunard  (1872-1948)

It was with much reluctance that I dined with Emerald again tonight, but I had promised to do so earlier in the week.  I had a hot bath and set forth in the worst form, taking three books for her to read.  Met Peter Quennell downstairs in the Dorchester*.  We drank whisky and soda together and went up.  As so often when one least  expects it,  the dinner was hugely enjoyable.  There were the two Chaplins, and Alice Harding and Peter.  Anthony Chaplin told us what it felt like in the rear of a bomber with a gun.  He said the cold was quite appalling.  You were numb all the time, and sick. But the spirit of loyalty and camaraderie among the crew was such that it could only be described as pure love.  He said that in 1940 many of our planes were destroyed by bombs dropped from above by our own planes.

We talked of George Moore.  Emerald showed us a letter from him to her, beginning 'Dearest Maud', comparing her to Christ and Sophocles, and acclaiming her genius.  She was very modest about it.  Then she brought from her bedroom a large cardboard box, shook it and said, 'These are all letters to me from George Moore.  I cannot tell you what they are about.'  Peter tried to persuade her to let him go through them with her, but she was reluctant, not wanting them published.  Then she talked of Paris before 1914 and the affectation of Robert de Montesquiou -- who Peter said was the prototype of Charlus - and how he loved to be pressed to recite his own poems, leaning against a marble pedestalled bust in an absurd posture.  While she was telling this story I realised wherein her genius lay, for she has a prodigious memory, and a wonderful gift of narrative, spiced with a frivolity and humour which are unique, and totally irresistible.  It was an enjoyable evening because conversation was not a denigration of contemporary socialites whom I did not know, but about the recent historic past."

Prophesying Peace  James Lees-Milne, 1944

*American-born Maud 'Emerald' Cunard, the  famous society hostess, moved into a suite at London's Dorchester Hotel in her seventies, where she continued to entertain.  Lees-Milne frequently visited her or escorted her to social occasions, and became friendly with the Chaplins.   He later married Alvilde Chaplin, who became famous for her gardening books in the 1950s, even designing Mick Jagger's garden at his home in Amboise, France.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Esmond De Beer, a 20th century gentleman scholar

La Debacle sur la Seine,   Claude Monet 1880  © Dunedin Art Gallery NZ.

This atmospheric painting of the ice thawing on the Seine is now one of the stars in the Dunedin Public Art Gallery in New Zealand.  It was bought by Dr Esmond de Beer and his sisters in London, and was planned as a future legacy to their original home town of Dunedin in the South Island, New Zealand.  Its icy chill was so evocative, that at first they could not sit in the room where it hung, until the winter weather was past.  It is a large painting, some 63 by 50 cms and this reproduction does not really show the cold grey tones of the thawing river. 

This Monet was one of the paintings in the room where I worked as a very minor assistant to Dr de Beer, while he was preparing the final proofs of his major work on the philosopher John Locke, for the Clarendon Press, Oxford.    

Esmond de Beer in his study at Brompton Square, January 1976
© University of Otago NZ.

He had already produced the definitive modern edition of the Diary of John Evelyn, in six volumes, in 1955, and then began the even greater task of editing all the correspondence of John Locke, spanning  over fifty years, with meticulous scholarly notes and background, in eight volumes.  

John Locke, aged 40      John Greenhill, 1672
© National Portrait Gallery, London 

 It is difficult to realise the decades of dedicated work involved in transcribing from the original manuscripts the 3,648 surviving letters of Locke's postbag, many in Latin, French and Dutch.  Dr De Beer's research on often barely identifiable writers, publications, postal routes, addresses, philosophical and political topics discussed, and domestic and historical context, make his detailed accompanying notes a marvellous guide to the letters and the lives of their seventeenth century writers.    

Each volume completed ready for the Clarendon Press was a small celebration for everyone.  He and his sisters Mary and Dora were invariably kind to me:  bringing me back a cake from the Brompton Oratory bazaar, or sharing with me their pleasure when their tree peony bloomed,  and giving Christmas book tokens for my children.  Dr de Beer served on many committees, such as the Society of Antiquaries, the Hakluyt Society, the Historical Association and was a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery, and would show me rare volumes he was using from the London Library.  Occasionally he borrowed some of my medieval English texts, as he was always keen to add to his knowledge of English classics - although Gawain and the Green Knight was not to his taste.

Together, the family were discerning art collectors, acquiring an outstanding Claude Lorrain for Dunedin Art Gallery, and numerous old master engravings and other works;  fine original Japanese woodcuts, an Edward Lear watercolour and William Nicholson prints for example, were hung on the stairs.  

Esmond de Beer with his older sisters, Mary and Dora de Beer (rt.)
 at Brompton Square,   © Otago University Library, NZ

All three siblings were keen climbers, and would holiday each summer on Raasay, (like Boswell and Dr. Johnson) but Miss Dora was the real mountaineer as well as something of an anthropologist.    In 1938 she joined a climbing expedition to the peaks of Yulung Shan in S.W. China with five friends, setting out from Rangoon in August.  She describes their experiences in her Account of a Journey in S.W. China - Yunnan 1938,  published in 1971:
"We dropped steeply down from the pass.  In China nearly all the ranges we crossed were very steep and we were constantly either panting uphill or jarring our knees downhill.  It was warm and there was a big walnut tree.  It was pleasant to rest in the shade, crack nuts, and forget about everything but the present happy moments.  That often happened to me -- China was an enchanted land.  I wandered through it as if I were unrolling a Chinese scroll with trees and hills, and rivers and birds.  That was when it was going well, sometimes I was too weary and uncomfortable to do more than feel that the beauty was there, if only I could forget my tiresome body enough to look around with seeing eyes.  
We continued on down a valley with more rice fields, an occasional granite boulder protruding above the green of the rice  arousing geological interest.  Then a group of men with two mules overtook us, both men and mules carrying wooden casks, and the Chinese scroll turned into a Hokusai woodcut, as it quite often did." 

The back of Mt. Fuji from Minobu river   Katsukisha Hokusai

Dr de Beer made many substantial gifts in his lifetime to support research and scholarship, including the Bodleian Library (where his name is inscribed), and other libraries, museums, art galleries and learned societies in the UK and in New Zealand.  After his sisters died in 1981 and 1982,  the magnificent collection of 172 notable works of art that they had built up together, especially for their home town, was sent out to the Public Art Gallery in Dunedin.
"For a while after the crates were unpacked, 'J' gallery [sealed from the public] resembled a treasure trove.  There were paintings standing on pads around the walls and precious Chinese porcelain and other rarities were arrayed on trestles.  …an atmosphere of excited hush prevailed…every possible excuse was found to linger in the glittering room."  P. Entwisle, Treasures of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery

Dr Esmond de Beer, CBE  (1895-1990)
©  Otago University Library

I feel very privileged to have met this remarkable New Zealand historian and his generous lively-minded sisters.

University of Otago,  Dunedin, New Zealand   (N. H. Hamilton,

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Fifth of November: the "never to be forgotten delivery of this day"

The foiled attempt to blow up Parliament in 1605 was celebrated through that century with services of thanksgiving on November 5th, as John Evelyn records 350 years ago:

"Our Viccar preached on 121 Psal: 4 - [Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep] -shewing the gracious effects of Trusting in God. &c: his universal Vigilancy for his Church:" Diary   1667
He had lived through London's Great Fire in 1666, which destroyed the late medieval St Paul's and he would see its rebuilding in Wren's neoclassical Baroque design, the great dome replacing the old tower on the City skyline.

The Houses of Parliament on fire,  16th October1834

The old Westminster Palace buildings were eventually destroyed by fire, caused like the 1666 fire by human accident, when the burning of thousands of old revenue tally sticks got out of control.

While Wren is rebuilding St Paul's in the new Italianate style, Evelyn continues to record the yearly November 5th thanksgiving services, with occasional comments on changing times.

"…I, indisposed… could not go to Church this day, to my great sorrow, it being the first Gunpowder conspiracy Anniversary, that had ben kept now this 80 yeares, under a Prince of the Roman Religion: Bonfires forbidden &c:  What dos this portend ? "  Diary 1685

"Mr Stringfellow preached at Trinity Church on 2 Cor: 1.10:   [Who delivered us from so great a death, and doth deliver: in whom we trust that he will yet deliver us;]   This Festival was celebrated with Illuminations, that is by setting up innumerable lights & candles in the windows towards the streete, in stead of Squibbs & Bonefires, much mischiefe having ben don by Squibbs:  Illumination was the custome, long since in Italy [& France:] & now introduced here:
The Parliament now sate:"  Diary 1691

In contrast to St Paul's Cathedral, the Palace of Westminster was rebuilt in the Gothic Revival style, looking back to our national heritage, and so those two iconic London landmarks  were shaped by fire, genius, and contemporary attitudes.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

November: Drawn in Kensington - Linley Sambourne House

Linley Sambourne, the famous Punch cartoonist posing

Sunday, 1st November 

"I called for Anne Rosse at her uncle's house in Stafford Terrace, a house bought by her grandfather, Linley Sambourne, the  Punch cartoonist of the 1880s.  It is a period piece, untouched.  It is choc-a-bloc with art nouveau. The Morris-papered walls are plastered with old photographic groups and Sambourne drawings, the frames touching each other, weird clocks galore, stained-glass windows, Victorian walking-sticks and parasols.  Anne and I walked round the pretty back streets by Holland Park, and took a bus to the Ritz, where Michael joined us at 1 o'clock and Oliver [Messel]* at 2 o'clock.  We talked over the luncheon table till 4.  Oliver is a camouflage major in Norwich.  He has discovered Ivory's  disused Assembly Rooms, made them into his headquarters, and is redecorating them."
[*Artist and designer, brother of Lady Rosse] 

Ancestral Voices  James Lees-Milne 1942

The rich, darkly cluttered Victorian interiors of Linley and Marion Sambourne's Kensington home are  just as Lees-Milne describes, but relieved by lamps, mirrors, and the light reflecting off the glass-framed pictures and photographs covering the walls,

Two views of the Drawing Room  
© Linley Sambourne collection, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

This family home at 18 Stafford Terrace was part of the artistic life of Kensington in the 1880s, dominated by Lord Leighton in nearby Holland Park  Road.  It was preserved almost unchanged by Lady Rosse, remembering her happy childhood, and the Victorian Society, until it was passed to the local authority and opened to the public in 1980.

Linley Sambourne made a good living from his drawings for Punch, but he had to follow the editor's directions.  He wrote to James Whistler  to warn him that he would be satirised for his libel case against the critic John Ruskin, who had so strongly derided Whistler's Falling Rocket  painting.  "I am in a manner obliged to take up any subject the editor points out….I have every sympathy with you in what must be a most trying and irritating time".

Working to deadlines and aiming for a range of accurately drawn characters,  he used posed photographs as a source for figures in his cartoons, and turned one of the bathrooms into a workroom, with a marble-lined developing tank in place of the bath.

Marion Sambourne posing for a Punch cartoon drawing © RBKC Sambourne collection

He used family and servants for these photos, and professional models for artistic and nude poses;  when I first visited in the 1980s many of these were hung in the workroom;  I still remember one (maidservant or model?) of a nude young woman in profile, wearing nothing but a pair of black stockings, and looking as unconcerned as if she were just washing dishes.

As well as the stylish 'aesthetic' furnishings, the family records, photographs, diaries and correspondence were also preserved, now part of the Linley Sambourne archives;  Marion Sambourne's diaries in particular give a fascinating picture of daily life for a well-off Victorian  family and their artist friends.

and see: Stafford Terrace;  The Holland Park Circle, Susan Dakers