Monday, 14 August 2017

The Crystal Palace resurrected -' a paradise for children, and a world full of sound'

The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park,  from the north east  ( pub. Dickinson Bros 1852)

Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace - a pioneering wonder of prefabricated iron and cast glass - was taken down after the 1851 Great Exhibition and re-erected in the former grounds of Penge Place in Sydenham, opening in June 1854.

1886 engraving from Cornelius Brown's book, True Stories of the Reign of Queen Victoria


It was a fairytale place surrounded by gardens, fountains,  amusements, a maze, and many statues, including 33 life-size images of prehistoric dinosaurs and extinct creatures, and flanked by two giant water towers to supply the  many fountains.  There were concerts and exhibitions, a menagerie and firework displays, and popular entertainments.



The dinosaurs survive today and are very popular. They were moulded in concrete by Benjamin Waterhouse  Hawkins, a natural history artist who had worked on the 1851 Exhibition, and were based on scientific knowledge of the time.  They are now Grade I listed and undergoing a full conservation programme (and see cpdinosaurs.org)

One late Victorian writer remembers the Park's glories from his childhood, including the living animals on display:

" Several following years of early childhood were spent at Norwood, with the Crystal Palace an entrancing playground.  In the early 'seventies the place was rich with the scent of the beds for tropical vegetation, stale buns, and new paint; and in the more rapturous end - where the parrots were kept - came unmistakable gusts and shrieks from the monkey-house, entrancing to the infantile mind, but deemed unhealthy and too exciting by parents and governess alike. "


Pop-up Christmas card,  Benjamin Sulman 1873 © the Crystal Palace Foundation


" The Crystal Palace was at that time a paradise for children and one of the most comprehensive art museums in the world (this I knew later); it was also the home of music in England of that decade, with daily concerts, a small local opera, crashing brass bands, great Saturday classical concerts, and huge Handel Festivals.  The place was not only an appeal to the imagination, from the toy stalls to great intimidating groups of statuary, it was a world full of sound.  The loud strains of a symphony might burst from the closed concert-room, interrupting the musical whiz and purring of a top spun by a toy-stall assistant; simultaneously would come the scarlet cries of a cockatoo and the persistent cadences of a popular valse played by a mechanical piano, and, most delightful of all, the tinny sounds of clockwork toys,  which moved if a penny were dropped into them by an indulgent elder.  Thereupon glass waterfalls would trickle in landscapes of Virginian cork;  whilst a train, with cotton-wool smoke, darted over a Lilliputian bridge, and small Swiss peasants valsed, all too briefly, to the sound of a tired musical box."

Self Portrait  Charles Ricketts, 1866-1931



The grand May opening by Queen Victoria was delayed
until June, but this Stevens' silk commemorative
bookmark  is part of the Crystal Palace Foundation's
museum collection.  © Crystal Palace Foundation

Monday, 7 August 2017

John Bacon: carving an epitaph

If there was a category on the BBC show "Pointless" on famous eighteenth century sculptors in Britain,  I would be able to name John Flaxman, and on a very good day perhaps another,  but who was  John Bacon the elder,  RA.?  He would surely come up as a "pointless" answer,  for even though his many statues and sculptural monuments can be seen around us -- in St Paul's Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, at Somerset House, or Guy's Hospital, in churches and in  Oxbridge Colleges, in the provinces and in the colonies, yet his name is not widely known.

Memorial to Lord Chatham, William Pitt the elder, by  John Bacon 1782,  Guildhall, London

He died on 7th August 1799, aged 58, and was buried in Whitfield's Tabernacle off Tottenham Court Road, composing his own epitaph:

"What I was as an Artist
Seemed to me of some importance
While I lived;
But
What I really was as a Believer
In Christ Jesus,
Is the only thing of importance
To me now."

It was while looking for information on the anonymous writers of those elegantly-expressed Georgian epitaphs that you find in our churches and churchyards, that I stumbled across his name:

"for sensible of religion himself, [John Bacon] composed a variety of epitaphs for churchyards, and wrote sermons and fables, which do not appear to have been printed."

He is said to have had a hand in composing the inscription on his other monument to Lord Chatham in Westminster Abbey, having  "waited a considerable time for the inscription, which had undergone so many alterations, that at last he was bold enough to venture on its completion himself, which, with his usual diffidence, he submitted to the consideration of his employers, and his proposed completion meeting their entire approbation, it was accordingly ordered to be cut upon the tablet."

Clearly a practical as well as a creative man, but it his resilience I admire.

Born in November 1740 to a Southwark clothworker, as a boy, according to one chronicler, "after having fallen into the pit of a soap boiler, and been run over by a loaded cart, he recovered health enough to assist in his father's business".
At fourteen he was apprenticed to a porcelain factory, where he developed his modelling skills, and began to imitate the established sculptors' clay models, which were sent to be fired in the potters'  kilns.  His models won prizes from the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, and from 1769 he was employed by Mrs Coade in her artificial stone works at Lambeth (approximately where the National Theatre now stands), where he became chief modeller and director.


This large figure of Father Thames is made of Coade stone, catalogued in 1784 as  "A River God, 9 feet high, with an Urn through which a stream of water may be carried (100 gns)".  Like countless visitors entering Ham House in Richmond I have admired it in passing, but never knew it was the work of John Bacon.   There is a large collection of other surviving Coade stone sculptures at  Croome Court in the care of the National Trust.


Head of River God, in Coade Stone   John Bacon


He used this Father Thames figure again for the base of his statue of George III in the courtyard at Somerset House - but how many also look up at Bacon's sculptures decorating the facade? 

Facade of Somerset House, London

….Or know that this is also his work up above our heads?

Figure of Atlas by John Bacon the elder    Radcliffe Observatory, Oxford

He had a very successful career and two sons followed him into the business,  with an extensive works in Newman Street;  and he was elected RA in 1778.  Maybe his name is less famous because his work is mainly around us on public view everyday, more than in private and museum collections; in his early career he would be seen as something of an outsider, who was largely self taught, and although he won medals,  not academically trained in sculpting marble.  He would also be linked with trade, producing replicated figures in artificial stone.


 But he overcame his background, literally carving his way out of Southwark, to become a leading public figure in the arts:

"There touch'd by Reynolds, a dull blank becomes
A lucid mirror, in which Nature sees
All her reflected features, Bacon there
Gives more than female beauty to a stone,
And Chatham's eloquence to marble lips."

Poetical Works, William Cowper

Bacon was also fittingly commemorated by the Victorians, beside other renowned artists, in a portrait statue by W. Frith, which can be clearly seen on  the exterior of the V&A Museum today.

John Bacon the elder  © V&A Museum 

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

August: a heatwave in Lugano

In summer 1946 James Lees-Milne went on holiday to Lugano in Switzerland, travelling across Europe by train via Berne and Interlaken.

 View of Lake Lugano   Robert Kiener  1846-1945
Thursday, 1st August

"Although I have passed my time this week as I have intended and hoped, yet I shall be glad to leave on Sunday.  Ten, or rather eleven days of complete solitude are enough.  Besides, I am anxious about that accumulating pile of work at home.
Today there is some sort of festa and the shops are all shut. I went to church next door (Saint' Angioli) at 9.45.  Mass was in progress. I stayed till the end then studied very closely the Bernardo Luini 'Passion', a splendid thing, in excellent preservation.


Santa Maria degli Angeli,  Passion and Crucifixion fresco, Bernardo Luini 1529
(from: web gallery of art)

Visited the Museum in the Villa Cacci, a good late classical building of c. 1840, but the internal decoration poor: stucco and painted ceilings of feeble quality.  Museum itself awful, neglected and absolutely lifeless, as I should hate any of mine to be.  After luncheon took the steamer to Morcote. Extremely hot and muggy, there being high clouds behind which the sun is sheltering.  Climbed the steep eighteenth century stairs to the S. Sassa church, with splendid square Romanesque campanile, which I photographed."



Santa Maria del Sasso, Morcote   (wikimedia commons)

During this trip, filled with sightseeing, Lees-Milne encountered all the common mishaps of foreign travel: an upset tummy, fears of sunstroke, delays with money not arriving when expected, dirty trains and expensive hotel bills. "It is terribly hot in Berne and we wander about disconsolately.  Cannot even afford to buy postcards."  And arriving in Lugano, "The Grand Palace Hotel stiflingly hot".

He was comforted by his holiday reading:  Shakespeare's Sonnets --  "Poetry and architecture are my two great loves" -- and The Last Chronicle of Barset.     On the homeward  journey he stopped for lunch and sightseeing in Lucerne,  where he admired the famous bridge and the  "Marvellous .. exhibition of paintings and tapestries from the Ambrosiana, Milan.  Bought a catalogue to give to Ben Nicolson", but then he had to rush for the Basle train without time to buy food. 

He had one book left to sustain him on the long journey home between Basle and the Dunkirk-Calais crossing: "two days and one night without a sleeper and without food on the [filthiest, indescribable] French train, in this torrid heat.…I have never been dirtier….I arrived home tired out at 10 p.m. Read Jane Eyre on the journey. "

Caves of Ice  James Lees-Milne 1946

One English visitor to Lugano the previous summer took a more relaxed view:


At Lake Lugano    Winston Churchill, 1945
© The Churchill Heritage Ltd

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"