Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Charles Dickens describes a school outing

This is the time of year when you see troops of school children on their end of term summer outings, to  parks and zoos  and museums.  Charles Dickens gives an account of a Infant school visit to the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, to see the 1851 Great Exhibition,  much of which still rings true today.

View of the Crystal Palace, 1851  © V&A Museum

…"the school was composed of a hundred 'infants', who got among the horses' legs in crossing the main entrance to Kensington Gate, and came reeling out from between the wheels of coaches undisturbed in mind.  They were clinging to horses, I am told, all over the park.  When they were collected and added up by frantic monitors, they were all right.  They were then regaled with cake, etc., and went tottering and staring all over the place; the greater part wetting their forefingers and drawing a wavy pattern on every accessible object.  One infant strayed.  He was not missed. Ninety and nine were taken home, supposed to be the whole collection, but this particular infant went to Hammersmith.  He was found by the police at night, going round and round the turnpike, which he still supposed to be a part of the Exhibition.  He had the same opinion of the police, also of Hammersmith workhouse, where he passed the night.  When his mother came for him in the morning, he asked when it would be over?  It was a great Exhibition, he said, but he thought it long."

Charles Dickens,  Letters, July 1851

Saturday, 8 July 2017

An artist in love

This summer I plan to revisit Leighton House (after a long gap) to see the Alma-Tadema exhibition.  Like Lord Leighton, Dutch-born Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema was also known for his unique "artist's house" in Grove Road, St John's Wood, but his was amazingly and exotically splendid.

One of the more intimate of his paintings is this painted screen in the British Galleries at the V&A Museum,  showing the family of his second wife, Laura Epps.   As his dealer, Ernest Gambert wrote to Holman Hunt in 1869: "Tadema went last Boxing Day to a dance at [Ford] Madox-Brown's, fell in love at first sight with Miss Epps, a surgeon's daughter, is going to marry her as soon as she names the day.  It plays havoc with his painting; he cannot turn to work since."


The Epps Family, 1870  Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Laura Epps  © V&A Museum

Recently widowed, Alma-Tadema moved to London in 1870 and undertook to teach Laura Epps to paint (she had been taking lessons from Madox Brown); his method was to paint six large oil panels with portraits of Laura's parents, who were not keen on the proposed marriage, along with Laura's sisters and brother with their spouses and children dining..  Laura is on the right in a green, aesthetic style dress (as they were an artistic family) and Alma-Tadema himself is in the doorway.  Laura made additions to the panels, but the screen remained unfinished after their marriage in July 1871.

Although Laura later modelled for some of Alma-Tadema's historical paintings, work on the screen had served its real purpose, to bring the lovers together.

Saturday, 1 July 2017

July: Phoenix London 1944.

Saturday, 1st July

"All afternoon planes came over…….
At 6 I met James at Kings Bench Walk and we tubed to East Aldgate.  We walked down the Commercial Road to the river. God, the squalor, the desolation and the dreariness of the East End! We passed one beautiful church, burnt out, which I said must be by Vanbrugh.  J. identified it from his pocket guide-book as St. George's-in-the-East, by Hawksmoor.  The pinnacled square towers like those of All Souls gave the clue. "

St. George's-in-the-East,  1714-26, by Nicholas Hawksmoor (successor to Wren and Vanbrugh)

The church interior was destroyed by an incendiary bomb in the Blitz (and remodelled in the 1960s) but Hawksmoor's 160-foot tower and turrets survived.  This was one of his six landmark London churches; here at St George's he used his rejected designs for the tower of  St. Alfege-with-St. Peter which had been turned down by the Church Commissioners.

"We were smartly dressed underneath, but wore over our suits dirty old burberries buttoned up to the chin..  We went into a pub for a drink, and a robot [V1 or doodlebug] came over, nearer and nearer, exploding a few yards away. The pub keeper turned us out and shut the door, saying he had had enough for one day.  We wished him good luck.  'All the best,' he said.
We wandered through Wapping, to Wapping Old Stairs where Judge Jeffreys was captured trying to escape to France dressed as a sailor.  Then to the Prospect of Whitby on the water, with its rickety galleries built over the river on piles."



"We found Philip Toynbee there with a pretty little girl, a Communist.  We sat together on the gallery drinking beer and eating sandwiches, watching large boats struggle up the river, pirouette in front of us and retreat into the docks.  From here Jamesey saw his first robot .  It scurried through the clouds at a great rate and seemed to be circling and not going straight.  By 9.30 the inn was full, and a piano and a clarinet were playing hot music.  Women sang into a harsh microphone, sailors stamped, and  peroxide blondes and the worst characters of London danced like dervishes.  It was a strange, gay, operatic scene. ...
Slept in John Fowler's Anderson shelter on the top bunk, which was very luxurious, although there were as many as five of us in the shelter. A noisy night, but quieter at dawn. Incessant jokes and hoots of laughter non-stop.  In fact we laughed ourselves to sleep. Nobody woke before 10.15."

Prophesying Peace James Lees-Milne 1944

The Prospect of Whitby is one of London's oldest riverside pubs, frequented by Pepys, as well as Judge Jeffreys who lived nearby, and Thackeray, Turner, Dickens and Whistler among many.  Built in 1520, it was known as the Devil's Tavern for the smugglers and thieves it attracted. In 1777 it was renamed The Prospect, after a Whitby collier of that name which was moored nearby.

 .
Its rebuilt street facade, No. 57 Wapping Wall, E1.  The flagstone floor is its oldest part.

It would be appropriate if those hanging baskets contained fuchsias,  for the story is that in the Prospect a sailor sold an unknown plant to a nurseryman, and so the fuchsia was introduced to England.  



It was  Frenchman Charles Plumier who discovered the fuchsia in the Caribbean c. 1703, and named it after the 16th century botanist Leonhart Fuchs (this helps with the spelling as the English pronounciation has softened the 'k' sound).  Various versions mention a Captain Firth of Hammersmith and a plantsman, Mr Lee; what is confirmed is that in 1788 Kew Gardens acquired a fuchsia plant from a Captain Firth,  and the Prospect of Whitby was always a meltingpot of classes and occupations, where a sailor might have met a nurseryman, and was a source of exchanges of all kinds, for centuries here on the Thameside.



   Wappng from Rotherhithe  J.M. Whistler  c. 1861  

Images all Wikimedia Commons.




Friday, 23 June 2017

"Hay and Ice" : June weather cycles (and the correct way to scythe)



The Haymakers  George Stubbs 1785  © Tate Britain


"It froze hard last night;  I went out for a moment to look at my haymakers, and was starved.  The contents of an English June are hay and ice, orange flowers and rheumatism.  I am now cowering over the fire."   This was Horace Walpole at Strawberry Hill on 14th June, 1791.   He also recorded droughts and inundations: 

 "11th June: We have had an extraordinary drought, no grass, no leaves, no flowers; not a white rose for the festival of yesterday!  About four arrived such a flood, that we could not see out of the windows: the whole lawn was a lake, though situated on so high an Ararat…. You never saw such a desolation.  …It never came into my head before, that a rainbow-office for insuring against water might be very necessary." (Twickenham 1775)

Strawberry Hill, Twickenham     Paul Sandby


Others recorded June temperatures in the 80s (Fahrenheit): thus Walpole's poet friend Thomas Gray: "June 3rd Wind S.S.E.  Thermometer at 84 (the highest I ever saw it): it was at Noon. Since which till last week we had hot dry weather.  Now it rains like mad."  (Cambridgeshire, 1760)

And Gilbert White of Selborne: "June 22nd.  Fruit-walls in the sun are so hot I cannot bear my hand on them.  Brother Thomas's thermometer was 89 on an east wall in the afternoon.  Much damage was done and some people were killed by lightning on this sultry day."  (Hampshire, 1790)
.


Daniel Fahrenheit and his thermometer  (Wikimedia)


Mercurial Samuel Pepys reacted to a late June heatwave: "June 28th: Up; and this day put on a half-shirt first this summer, it being very hot; and yet so ill-tempered I am grown that I am afeard I shall ketch cold, while all the world is ready to melt away."   (London, 1664)

Erratic weather particularly threatened the hay and other essential fodder crops.

James Tyrrell reported frosts and drought to his friend John Locke, a regular weather observer.
"June 24th:...  alas for news all that we talk of here is of the rain and are still praying for more,….I hear at Oxford, that the Drought hath bin so great about Paris……for the honour of our Northern Climate, there hath been seen severall times this month, ice of the thickness of half a Crowne…   I am hayning* my ground againe as if it were but Lady day haveing almost no hay yet: but however I hope I shall be able to bid the horse, as well as the Master welcome…" . ( Shotover, Oxford 1681)  Correspondence, ed. E.S. De Beer

" June 21st:  We now have frosty mornings, and so cold a wind, that even at high noon we have been obliged to break off our walk in the southern side of the garden, and seek shelter, I in the greenhouse, Mrs Unwin by the fireside.  Haymaking begins here tomorrow."  (William Cowper, Buckinghamshire 1784)


Sainfoin (Fr. holy hay)  Onobrychis viciaefolia  (Wikimedia)

"June 9th: Everything seemed parched and dried up by the two months drought except some brilliant patches of the crimson sanfoin which lighted up the white hot downs and burning Plain. " (Frances Kilvert, Wiltshire  1874)

And the same the previous year: "July 22nd: Today the heat was excessive and as I sat reading under the lime I pitied the poor haymakers toiling in the burning Common where it seemed to be raining fire." (Frances Kilvert, Wiltshire, 1873)

What would these observers have thought of  meteorologist Eduard Bruckner's 35-year weather cycles of alternate periods of warm dry and cold damp weather?   Readers of Cassell's Magazine in June 1899 (particularly umbrella-makers) were reassured that the twentieth century would begin with the 17 year period due of rainy weather.


But if you are planning to make hay while the sun shines this summer, here is how to do it:

"July 24th:  Robert says the first grass from the scythe is the swathe, then comes the strow (tedding),
then rowing, then the footcocks, then breaking, then the hubrows, which are gathered into hubs, then sometimes another break and turning, then rickles, the biggest of all the cocks, which are run together into placks, the shapeless heap from which the hay is carted."  (Gerrard Manley Hopkins, Lancashire 1871)


Haymaking  Alfred Glendening  1898  ©Tate Britain 

* Haining:  fencing grass to protect  from cattle.
Most of these quotations are from Geoffrey Grigson's anthology "The English Year"

Friday, 16 June 2017

A poem for June voters?

Instructions, apply to the affected parts as required:

"Fish (fly replete in depth of June,
Dawdling away their watery noon)
Ponder deep wisdom, dark or clear,
Each fishy secret hope or fear.
Fish say, they have their Stream and Pond;
But is there anything Beyond?
This life cannot be All, they swear,
For how unpleasant if it were!
One may not doubt that, somehow, Good
Shall come of Water and of Mud;
And, sure, the reverent eye must see
A Purpose in Liquidity.
We darkly know, by Faith we cry,
The future is not Wholly Dry.
Mud unto mud! -- Death eddies near --
Not here the appointed End, not here!
But somewhere, beyond Space and Time
Is wetter water, slimier slime!
And there (they trust) there swimmeth One
Who swam ere rivers were begun,
Immense, of fishy form and mind,
Squamous, omnipotent, and kind,
And under that Almighty Fin,
The littlest fish may enter in.
Oh! never fly conceals a hook,
Fish say, in the Eternal Brook,
But more than mundane weeds are there,
And mud, celestially fair;
Fat caterpillars drift around,
And Paradisal grubs are found;
Unfading moths, immortal flies,
And the worm that never dies.
And in that Heaven of all their wish,
There shall be no more land, say fish."

Heaven   Rupert Brooke

Monday, 12 June 2017

Mysteries of the Yellow Earth

This cleverly designed jar could be a well used piece of twentieth century studio pottery, but it is in fact a Neolithic Chinese pot from c. 3000 BC, and is now in the Museum of Far Eastern Arts in Stockholm.


Storage jar, MFEA, Stockholm

This one has a similar dynamic curvilinear design, but is more obviously ancient.


 
Burial jar from Gansu Province, China   c. 2600-2300 BC.  © V&A Museum 

These Stone age Chinese pots caused a sensation when they were discovered in 1921 from ancient settlement sites in Yang Shao province, as they had been lost for thousands of years, neither seen nor recorded in China's long history.  They included both burial urns and storage jars and bowls.

It was geologist-turned-archeologist Johann Gunnar Andersson, who discovered several similar sites along the Yellow River Valley in Gansu province and at Yang Shao in 1921, and recorded the first recognised evidence of Neolithic culture in China.

These pots were made before the potter's wheel was in use - a straw mat was probably used to help turn the pot around as more clay coils were added; some pots show the weave impress on the base.  The pots were beaten and smoothed with rib bones and paddles, and after drying, the fine loess clay surface was decorated with earth pigments, iron black and manganese purple, before firing. The early brushes were probably just a bamboo stem frayed.  Others were painted after firing, and the decorated surface was carefully burnished with a bone or pebble to preserve it.*

Yangshao neolithic earthenware pot, Banpo Museum 


Andersson was a Swedish geologist, who had visited the Antarctic as a member of the Swedish expedition  (collecting fossils of plants) in 1901-03.  The loss of their ship the Antarctic meant Andersson was in one of the small groups completely isolated on different islands through the long winter with small odds of rescue in the spring.  China must have seemed very different when in 1914 he was employed by the Chinese government's geological survey to advise on coal and oil resources.

Johan Gunnar Andersson (1874-1960) in China, 1920
© Swedish East Asian Museum


Intrigued by a strange piece of quartz and tales of dragon-bones, when he first excavated their source at Zhoukoudian not far from Beijing, he correctly predicted that fossils of early man - homo erectus - would also be discovered in that region. Soon fossil teeth sent back to Uppsala were identified as human, and eventually announced to the world as Peking Man in 1926, when the Swedish Crown Prince visited China.  So from fossil hunter Andersson turned full-time archaeologist, and with all his Yang-Shao discoveries he became Director of Stockholm's  Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, and more of these striking painted burial urns later made their way into other European collections.


Painted pottery funerary urn, Yang Shao, c. 3000 BC MFEA Stockholm

A further major discovery (again a result of economic enterprise) was made in 1952 near Xi'an, when a site was being excavated for a new factory.  This site is now known as Banpo, after its team of diggers, and an extensive settlement was revealed with as many as six pottery kilns.  The Banpo pots clearly show the early animal and fish paintings from which the striking abstract geometric patterns were developed.

Fish decorated bowl   Banpo Museum China

Abstract patterns derived from fish decorations   Photo M. Reuterdahl 


Abstract patterned bowl, c. 3200-2650 BC. Gansu area  Metropolitan Museum, New York

The Banpo major archeological site is now a very busy tourist destination, with its museum opened in 1958.

But the story is incomplete.  Many of the Yang Shao ceramics, buried unknown for so many millennia before Andersson's excavations,  were then lost again after barely a quarter of a century.  Andersson returned very many of his finds (which had been studied in Sweden and were held in the Stockholm Museum), to China where they were last seen in 1937,  although some were still listed in 1948 in the Nanjing Museum guidebook.    Some  surviving pieces of those returned by Andersson were found  forgotten in storage in 2012, but many of these miraculous objects from prehistory which he brought to the light of day are still lost without trace.

And see China Heritage Quarterly; Archeologybulletin.org; China Before China, Magnus Fiskesjo & Chen Xingcan, 2004.

*Reference books give different accounts regarding whether the painting was done before or after firing, but as the excavated pots were being made over a very long time period, I assume there would have been differences in the materials and techniques and firing kilns at the various sites.

Monday, 5 June 2017

June: Portrait miniatures at the post-war V&A

Tuesday, 3rd June, 1947

"Heat at its height today.  I love it but it's stifling.  Everyone else complains….I had a dinner party of Billa Harrod, Puss Milnes-Gaskell and Leigh Ashton.  It was so hot that we sat with the windows and door open in a direct draught.  Leigh, being very fat, sweated profusely.  Food the best I have had here yet: chicken in aspic, strawberries and cream.  I am a bad host however, and inattentive.  Leigh took us to his Museum across the way where he showed us the Elizabethan miniature collection just opened.  They are beautifully displayed behind glass.  He is a splendid  showman.  The V & A was all lit up for us alone, and attendants there in their uniforms.  Billa stayed and talked until one o'c, for sleep is out of the question in this heat."

Caves of Ice James Lees Milne 1947

Sir Leigh Ashton  V&A Museum Director   © V&A


Back in March 1946  Leigh Ashton was in charge of restoring the V&A Museum, as its various collections filtered back from wartime storage in the Aldwych train tunnel, underground quarries in Wiltshire and from Montacute House, along with the "piles of dusty furniture in the downstairs basement".   He established new galleries according to historic periods, bringing together the finest or most historically significant pieces of furniture, metalwork, textiles, painting, sculpture and ceramics of their time in visually arresting displays.
But in 1947 this was yet to come.  Then there was a display of Wellington's military medals and insignia in the Entrance hall, a study collection of Coptic and French textiles in the gallery beyond, and Frederick, Prince of Wales' Royal Barge (now in the NMM at Greenwich) sitting in an adjoining gallery; other large architectural items  (staircases, house fronts) stood against walls with little coherent plan.

Today, some of the finest Tudor miniatures are on display in the British Galleries, by artists such as Holbein, Isaac Oliver and Nicholas Hilliard, alongside contemporary jewels and textiles.

Unknown Man  Isaac Oliver c. 1600 © V&A

Nicholas Hilliard painted this self portrait below in 1577, while he was in France; his portrait of Mary Queen of Scots,  is dated c. 1578-9 and is a repeat of one in the collection of HM. the Queen (the repeat uses the less costly blue bice pigment).
Mary Queen of Scots c. 1579-9  Nicholas Hilliard   © V&A


The Museum's extensive main collection of portrait miniatures is upstairs in Room 91.  It does not include the miniature Lees-Milne brought to the Museum in March 1946:  "I left at the Museum Queen Elizabeth's reputed napkin from Charlecote which Leigh thinks may be sixteenth century.  Also the miniature of Sir Thomas Lucy which may be by Isaac Oliver."    This is now back home at Charlecote Park and ascribed to William Larkin.


Sir Thomas Lucy III,  oil on copper, c. 1609-10   William Larkin  © National Trust