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

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.]