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;; 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

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Pages from the past, which "flew about like butterflies"

"In 1663 I entered into my Latin school at Yatton Keynell,, in the church….The fashion then was to save the ferules [bindings] of their books with a false cover of parchment, that is, old manuscripts, which I was too young to understand; but I was pleased with the elegancy of the writing and the coloured initial letters. …"

John Aubrey recounts how one rector used old manuscripts from Malmesbury Abbey  to stop up his beer barrels,  and another parson's sons used them to scour their guns.

"In my grandfather's days the manuscripts flew about like butterflies.  All music books, account books, copy books etc. were covered with old manuscripts, as we cover them now with blue paper or marbled paper; and the glovers at Malmesbury made great havoc of them; …One may also perceive by the binding of old books how the old manuscripts went to wrack in those days."

 John Aubrey, 1626-97  edited Richard Barber, © Folio Society  

John Aubrey, writer and antiquarian  1626-1697

Despite these and all the various destructive usage of old manuscripts and printed pages, miraculously many have survived.  One is a completely unique page from an early Willam Caxton book of 1476-7, a Latin printing of the 11th century Sarum Ordinal, which was resting in the University of Reading Library archives.  Lost for over 300 years, it had been found in 1820 being used to strengthen the binding of another book, but was unrecognised then as Caxton's printing.  Nearly a century later, it has recently been rediscovered while cataloguing a vast repository of fragments from a typographer's collection.  This rare "butterfly" is now on exhibition in Reading till mid June.  (see Beckett, Books  and Biscuits: University of Reading Special Collections for more information.)

William Caxton's printer's mark

Page with red letter initial, in the style of early manuscripts, from Caxton's Canterbury Tales 

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Sandleford Priory and Lady Montagu's bluestockings: "beauty blended with utility"

"The approach to the house is a fine lawn, with sheep feeding upon it.  This gives you the idea of beauty blended with utility, which always produces agreeable sensations in the mind."  
Memoirs of Mary Morgan 1791, A Tour to Milford Haven pub. 1795.

The Montagu family at Sandleford, Berkshire     Edward Haytley c. 1744
© the Huntington Library collection, San Marino California

These idyllic scenes of Georgian gentry amid pastoral pursuits on their country estates, were just as carefully contrived (by painters and patrons) as Capability Brown's landscapes.  Haymaking was a popular subject, as village women traditionally helped to bring in this all-important harvest, adding colour and interest to the scene.  Here we see Edward Montagu and his wife Elizabeth, married two years earlier, with her sister Sarah Scott, enjoying the prospect from Sandleford Priory south across the river Enborne to Newtown and Beacon Hill.  Haytley has included a telescope in this painting, just as in his picture of the Drake Brockman family at Beachborough House, Kent.

A mezzotint of 1776, after a lost portrait of Lady Montagu by Sir Joshua Reynolds 
© National Portrait Gallery London 

Elizabeth Montagu was left a wealthy widow in 1775 (Montagu's wealth came from Newcastle coal) and began updating the house and gardens.  She employed James Wyatt to link the house and the ancient Priory chapel.  He created a beautiful octagonal drawing-room with antechambers, linking the two buildings;  previously the old chapel had provided spare bedrooms if there was an overflow of guests, such as Hannah More and other members of Lady Montagu's "Bluestockings" circle. Sandleford would be a convenient stopover en route to Bath.

Lady Montagu was called "the Queen of the Bluestockings" by Samuel Johnson, for her literary salons held at Montagu House in Mayfair. Here there was no dancing, cards, or alcohol, but tea and lemonade to refresh the witty and intellectual conversation discussing the arts and ideas (but not scandal or politics) with women equal among men.  Fellow leading bluestockings were Mrs Elizabeth Vesey and Mrs Frances Boscawen, ladies of wealth and education, and guests at their salons included Edmund Burke, Mr and Mrs David Garrick,  Johnson, Fanny Burney and the Thrales, Horace Walpole, Reynolds and many women writers and philanthropists.  Promoting and supporting women's right to education, and to publish their work, was one of their leading concerns.

Capitalizing on their reputations, in this painting Richard Samuel has included Lady Montagu, "Queen of the Bluestockings" seated centre right, with Hannah More behind her, Angelica Kauffman at her easel, and Elizabeth Carter the poet and translator of Epictetus far left behind her.

Portraits in the characters of the Nine Muses in the Temple of Apollo   
Richard Samuel 1778  © National Portrait Gallery

It was Hannah More who wrote the comic "blue-stocking" poem The "Bas Bleu", or Conversation*, in praise of Mrs Veseypublished in 1784, but the name was probably begun by Mrs Vesey apropos of the retiring botanist, Dr. Benjamin Stillingfleet. He could not afford the black or white silk stockings expected for such social occasions, but was told by Mrs Vesey to turn up in his blue worsted hose, (blue being a cheap practical colour popular for servants, tradesmen and charity schoolchildren).
He "rendered himself so entertaining that the ladies used to delay their discussion until his arrival, declaring - 'We can do nothing without our blue stockings' - whence the bas bleu. "

Lady Montagu was herself celebrated in a poem by William Cowper,  in which he describes  her London salons as like a haven for exotic birds:
"The birds put off their feathery hue
To dress a room for Montagu……    

These were large rainbow-coloured woven feather screens "from gaudy peacock to solemn raven" astonishing even in her palatial Portland Square house, and Cowper compares her writers and intellectuals to the rare birds represented:

"All these to Montagu's repair,
Ambitious of a shelter there.
There Genius, Learning, Fancy, Wit,
Their ruffled plumage calm refit,

And in her eye, and by her aid
Shine safe without a fear to fade."
On Mrs Montagu's Feather Hangings*  William Cowper

Portman Square from Ackermann's Repository of Arts, c. 1831

The summers at Sandleford were spent in a simpler bucolic mode.  Philanthropic with her wealth in London and in the country,  Lady Montagu revived harvest suppers and entertainments for servants and tenants, and was a generous local benefactor. Yet she remained a lady of rank, enjoying from a distance the labours of others.  She writes to Mrs Vesey in July 1786:

 "I now inhabit [my new dressing room] with great pleasure: each window of the Bow presents a most delightful pastoral scene, which was yesterday rendered more gay by 33 Women and girls singing while they were weeding and picking up stones.   My heart….sympathised in their cheerfulness".

This is also Watership Down country.  One childhood exploration took us along a cart-track past haystacks and between the  fields of corn. Tiptoeing into shady coppices where Solomon's seal grew, it was so utterly silent that a startled wood pigeon  taking off would make us jump with fright.  Eventually we would see Sandleford Priory on the skyline.

 Sandleford Priory and High Wood, near Gorse Covert (Photo Rodolph@Wikimedia)

 It seems appropriate that Elizabeth Montagu's country home at Sandleford, where she supported women's learning, should have become a thriving girls' school.

*Both Hannah More's and Cowper's poems can be enjoyed on
For a fascinating study of women's lives, I recommend Behind Closed Doors, at home in Georgian England, by Amanda Vickery.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

May in Norfolk: dangerous ladies

Blickling Hall, Norfolk  © National Trust

Thursday, 1st May, 1947

"It is May Day and pouring and blowing icily.  Stopped at Cawston church to gaze my fill at the fourteenth-century roof and painted panels of saints on the screen.   At Blickling made my peace with the caretakers and Miss O'Sullivan who is always nice to me. Alec* came over and had some useful suggestions for arranging furniture.  The rooms now filled do not look any more beautiful because the furniture is on the whole poor. The house was today open for the first time, and only twenty people came. So we need not have fussed ourselves."  (*Alexander Penrose)

Caves of Ice  James Lees-Milne, 1947

Blickling Hall (built 1616) was one of Lees-Milne's favourite houses, although when he visited in May 1942 the RAF were occupying the house, not without causing some damage,  and a sea of Nissen huts was in the grounds.  In 1984 he met the teenage actors who were performing a play to celebrate the National Trust's acquisition of Blickling from Philip Kerr, 11th Marquess of Lothian,  in 1941.  "I am apparently the only person left who remembers Lord Lothian, [Donald] Matheson and the place in pre-war days." 

Although few people would have recognised it, Blickling Hall was seen in cinemas across England in 1945 and 46 when its exterior was used to represent "Maryiot Cells", the Buckinghamshire home of scandalous "Lady Skelton".  This was Margaret Lockwood's iconic film with James Mason, The Wicked Lady, in which the heroine sheds corsets and morals and turns highwayman herself.  Audiences both sides of the Atlantic were shocked and enthralled by their favourite stars in this period drama.

Gainsborough Film Studio poster c. 1945

Publicity film still for  "The Wicked Lady" (*from a story by Magdalen King-Hall)
 with Margaret Lockwood and James Mason

A more famous and charismatic lady associated with Blickling Hall is Anne Boleyn, as it was the home of her father Sir Thomas Boleyn, and Anne is thought to have been born there (around 1504)  although at that period Blickling Hall was still a moated late-medieval manor house.

Drawing of Queen Anne by Hans Holbein, © Royal Collection

Most of the contemporary portraits of Anne were destroyed after her death, and the accuracy of later paintings is open to doubt.  This miniature portrait was in the collection of Horace Walpole, at Strawberry Hill, when it was thought to represent Queen Katharine of Aragon.

Possibly Anne Boleyn, c. 1532-3  Lucas Hornbout
© 9th Duke of Buccleuch Trust

Returning to her childhood home, Anne is believed to haunt Blickling on May 19th, the date of her execution in 1536, carrying her bloody head with her.  She is driven, it is said, in a coach with flaming headless horses and driver; meanwhile, her over-ambitious father, Thomas Boleyn, later himself executed for his political scheming,  is condemned on the same night to cross a dozen bridges before cockcrow, driving from Blickling to Wroxham, every year for a thousand years.

View of the South Front  Entrance   © National Trust

Blickling is also famous for its Library, the collection of Sir Richard Ellys, which was brought to the House in 1740.  Among its 12,500 volumes are sure to be histories of the House and Estate, its famous occupants, and its ghosts.

The Library in the Long Gallery at Blickling
© National Trust

Today the gardens at Blickling are as beautiful as the house:  

"The first sight of the entrance front from the public road is so famous and breathtaking that every passing motorist halts instinctively to take a longer look.  But the secret of the place is only discovered late in the day among the trees and flowering shrubs that stretch upwards from the east side of the house.  Never has there been a garden quite like it, not at least since the eighteenth century,…Great arches of beech and oak form choirs and aisles, and under them grow azaleas, rhododendron, magnolias and wild bluebell."  Nigel Nicolson, 1978