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"

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

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 poemhunter.com.
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