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.]

Friday, 1 December 2017

December: Dinner with Emerald at the Dorchester

Friday, 1st December  1944

"Joan Moore lunched with me at Wilton's.  She brought a huge sack which the waiters filled with oyster-shells for her hens.  It was so heavy that we had to wait for a taxi to pull up at the door.  [Joan Moore, the pianist, now Countess of Drogheda]

Emerald, Lady Cunard  (1872-1948)

It was with much reluctance that I dined with Emerald again tonight, but I had promised to do so earlier in the week.  I had a hot bath and set forth in the worst form, taking three books for her to read.  Met Peter Quennell downstairs in the Dorchester*.  We drank whisky and soda together and went up.  As so often when one least  expects it,  the dinner was hugely enjoyable.  There were the two Chaplins, and Alice Harding and Peter.  Anthony Chaplin told us what it felt like in the rear of a bomber with a gun.  He said the cold was quite appalling.  You were numb all the time, and sick. But the spirit of loyalty and camaraderie among the crew was such that it could only be described as pure love.  He said that in 1940 many of our planes were destroyed by bombs dropped from above by our own planes.

We talked of George Moore.  Emerald showed us a letter from him to her, beginning 'Dearest Maud', comparing her to Christ and Sophocles, and acclaiming her genius.  She was very modest about it.  Then she brought from her bedroom a large cardboard box, shook it and said, 'These are all letters to me from George Moore.  I cannot tell you what they are about.'  Peter tried to persuade her to let him go through them with her, but she was reluctant, not wanting them published.  Then she talked of Paris before 1914 and the affectation of Robert de Montesquiou -- who Peter said was the prototype of Charlus - and how he loved to be pressed to recite his own poems, leaning against a marble pedestalled bust in an absurd posture.  While she was telling this story I realised wherein her genius lay, for she has a prodigious memory, and a wonderful gift of narrative, spiced with a frivolity and humour which are unique, and totally irresistible.  It was an enjoyable evening because conversation was not a denigration of contemporary socialites whom I did not know, but about the recent historic past."

Prophesying Peace  James Lees-Milne, 1944

*American-born Maud 'Emerald' Cunard, the  famous society hostess, moved into a suite at London's Dorchester Hotel in her seventies, where she continued to entertain.  Lees-Milne frequently visited her or escorted her to social occasions, and became friendly with the Chaplins.   He later married Alvilde Chaplin, who became famous for her gardening books in the 1950s, even designing Mick Jagger's garden at his home in Amboise, France.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Esmond De Beer, a 20th century gentleman scholar

La Debacle sur la Seine,   Claude Monet 1880  © Dunedin Art Gallery NZ.

This atmospheric painting of the ice thawing on the Seine is now one of the stars in the Dunedin Public Art Gallery in New Zealand.  It was bought by Dr Esmond de Beer and his sisters in London, and was planned as a future legacy to their original home town of Dunedin in the South Island, New Zealand.  Its icy chill was so evocative, that at first they could not sit in the room where it hung, until the winter weather was past.  It is a large painting, some 63 by 50 cms and this reproduction does not really show the cold grey tones of the thawing river. 

This Monet was one of the paintings in the room where I worked as a very minor assistant to Dr de Beer, while he was preparing the final proofs of his major work on the philosopher John Locke, for the Clarendon Press, Oxford.    

Esmond de Beer in his study at Brompton Square, January 1976
© University of Otago NZ.

He had already produced the definitive modern edition of the Diary of John Evelyn, in six volumes, in 1955, and then began the even greater task of editing all the correspondence of John Locke, spanning  over fifty years, with meticulous scholarly notes and background, in eight volumes.  

John Locke, aged 40      John Greenhill, 1672
© National Portrait Gallery, London 

 It is difficult to realise the decades of dedicated work involved in transcribing from the original manuscripts the 3,648 surviving letters of Locke's postbag, many in Latin, French and Dutch.  Dr De Beer's research on often barely identifiable writers, publications, postal routes, addresses, philosophical and political topics discussed, and domestic and historical context, make his detailed accompanying notes a marvellous guide to the letters and the lives of their seventeenth century writers.    

Each volume completed ready for the Clarendon Press was a small celebration for everyone.  He and his sisters Mary and Dora were invariably kind to me:  bringing me back a cake from the Brompton Oratory bazaar, or sharing with me their pleasure when their tree peony bloomed,  and giving Christmas book tokens for my children.  Dr de Beer served on many committees, such as the Society of Antiquaries, the Hakluyt Society, the Historical Association and was a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery, and would show me rare volumes he was using from the London Library.  Occasionally he borrowed some of my medieval English texts, as he was always keen to add to his knowledge of English classics - although Gawain and the Green Knight was not to his taste.

Together, the family were discerning art collectors, acquiring an outstanding Claude Lorrain for Dunedin Art Gallery, and numerous old master engravings and other works;  fine original Japanese woodcuts, an Edward Lear watercolour and William Nicholson prints for example, were hung on the stairs.  

Esmond de Beer with his older sisters, Mary and Dora de Beer (rt.)
 at Brompton Square,   © Otago University Library, NZ

All three siblings were keen climbers, and would holiday each summer on Raasay, (like Boswell and Dr. Johnson) but Miss Dora was the real mountaineer as well as something of an anthropologist.    In 1938 she joined a climbing expedition to the peaks of Yulung Shan in S.W. China with five friends, setting out from Rangoon in August.  She describes their experiences in her Account of a Journey in S.W. China - Yunnan 1938,  published in 1971:
"We dropped steeply down from the pass.  In China nearly all the ranges we crossed were very steep and we were constantly either panting uphill or jarring our knees downhill.  It was warm and there was a big walnut tree.  It was pleasant to rest in the shade, crack nuts, and forget about everything but the present happy moments.  That often happened to me -- China was an enchanted land.  I wandered through it as if I were unrolling a Chinese scroll with trees and hills, and rivers and birds.  That was when it was going well, sometimes I was too weary and uncomfortable to do more than feel that the beauty was there, if only I could forget my tiresome body enough to look around with seeing eyes.  
We continued on down a valley with more rice fields, an occasional granite boulder protruding above the green of the rice  arousing geological interest.  Then a group of men with two mules overtook us, both men and mules carrying wooden casks, and the Chinese scroll turned into a Hokusai woodcut, as it quite often did." 

The back of Mt. Fuji from Minobu river   Katsukisha Hokusai

Dr de Beer made many substantial gifts in his lifetime to support research and scholarship, including the Bodleian Library (where his name is inscribed), and other libraries, museums, art galleries and learned societies in the UK and in New Zealand.  After his sisters died in 1981 and 1982,  the magnificent collection of 172 notable works of art that they had built up together, especially for their home town, was sent out to the Public Art Gallery in Dunedin.
"For a while after the crates were unpacked, 'J' gallery [sealed from the public] resembled a treasure trove.  There were paintings standing on pads around the walls and precious Chinese porcelain and other rarities were arrayed on trestles.  …an atmosphere of excited hush prevailed…every possible excuse was found to linger in the glittering room."  P. Entwisle, Treasures of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery

Dr Esmond de Beer, CBE  (1895-1990)
©  Otago University Library

I feel very privileged to have met this remarkable New Zealand historian and his generous lively-minded sisters.

University of Otago,  Dunedin, New Zealand   (N. H. Hamilton,

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Fifth of November: the "never to be forgotten delivery of this day"

The foiled attempt to blow up Parliament in 1605 was celebrated through that century with services of thanksgiving on November 5th, as John Evelyn records 350 years ago:

"Our Viccar preached on 121 Psal: 4 - [Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep] -shewing the gracious effects of Trusting in God. &c: his universal Vigilancy for his Church:" Diary   1667
He had lived through London's Great Fire in 1666, which destroyed the late medieval St Paul's and he would see its rebuilding in Wren's neoclassical Baroque design, the great dome replacing the old tower on the City skyline.

The Houses of Parliament on fire,  16th October1834

The old Westminster Palace buildings were eventually destroyed by fire, caused like the 1666 fire by human accident, when the burning of thousands of old revenue tally sticks got out of control.

While Wren is rebuilding St Paul's in the new Italianate style, Evelyn continues to record the yearly November 5th thanksgiving services, with occasional comments on changing times.

"…I, indisposed… could not go to Church this day, to my great sorrow, it being the first Gunpowder conspiracy Anniversary, that had ben kept now this 80 yeares, under a Prince of the Roman Religion: Bonfires forbidden &c:  What dos this portend ? "  Diary 1685

"Mr Stringfellow preached at Trinity Church on 2 Cor: 1.10:   [Who delivered us from so great a death, and doth deliver: in whom we trust that he will yet deliver us;]   This Festival was celebrated with Illuminations, that is by setting up innumerable lights & candles in the windows towards the streete, in stead of Squibbs & Bonefires, much mischiefe having ben don by Squibbs:  Illumination was the custome, long since in Italy [& France:] & now introduced here:
The Parliament now sate:"  Diary 1691

In contrast to St Paul's Cathedral, the Palace of Westminster was rebuilt in the Gothic Revival style, looking back to our national heritage, and so those two iconic London landmarks  were shaped by fire, genius, and contemporary attitudes.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

November: Drawn in Kensington - Linley Sambourne House

Linley Sambourne, the famous Punch cartoonist posing

Sunday, 1st November 

"I called for Anne Rosse at her uncle's house in Stafford Terrace, a house bought by her grandfather, Linley Sambourne, the  Punch cartoonist of the 1880s.  It is a period piece, untouched.  It is choc-a-bloc with art nouveau. The Morris-papered walls are plastered with old photographic groups and Sambourne drawings, the frames touching each other, weird clocks galore, stained-glass windows, Victorian walking-sticks and parasols.  Anne and I walked round the pretty back streets by Holland Park, and took a bus to the Ritz, where Michael joined us at 1 o'clock and Oliver [Messel]* at 2 o'clock.  We talked over the luncheon table till 4.  Oliver is a camouflage major in Norwich.  He has discovered Ivory's  disused Assembly Rooms, made them into his headquarters, and is redecorating them."
[*Artist and designer, brother of Lady Rosse] 

Ancestral Voices  James Lees-Milne 1942

The rich, darkly cluttered Victorian interiors of Linley and Marion Sambourne's Kensington home are  just as Lees-Milne describes, but relieved by lamps, mirrors, and the light reflecting off the glass-framed pictures and photographs covering the walls,

Two views of the Drawing Room  
© Linley Sambourne collection, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

This family home at 18 Stafford Terrace was part of the artistic life of Kensington in the 1880s, dominated by Lord Leighton in nearby Holland Park  Road.  It was preserved almost unchanged by Lady Rosse, remembering her happy childhood, and the Victorian Society, until it was passed to the local authority and opened to the public in 1980.

Linley Sambourne made a good living from his drawings for Punch, but he had to follow the editor's directions.  He wrote to James Whistler  to warn him that he would be satirised for his libel case against the critic John Ruskin, who had so strongly derided Whistler's Falling Rocket  painting.  "I am in a manner obliged to take up any subject the editor points out….I have every sympathy with you in what must be a most trying and irritating time".

Working to deadlines and aiming for a range of accurately drawn characters,  he used posed photographs as a source for figures in his cartoons, and turned one of the bathrooms into a workroom, with a marble-lined developing tank in place of the bath.

Marion Sambourne posing for a Punch cartoon drawing © RBKC Sambourne collection

He used family and servants for these photos, and professional models for artistic and nude poses;  when I first visited in the 1980s many of these were hung in the workroom;  I still remember one (maidservant or model?) of a nude young woman in profile, wearing nothing but a pair of black stockings, and looking as unconcerned as if she were just washing dishes.

As well as the stylish 'aesthetic' furnishings, the family records, photographs, diaries and correspondence were also preserved, now part of the Linley Sambourne archives;  Marion Sambourne's diaries in particular give a fascinating picture of daily life for a well-off Victorian  family and their artist friends.

and see: Stafford Terrace;  The Holland Park Circle, Susan Dakers 

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

October: John Evelyn - home thoughts from abroad

Friday 1st October 1943

"A taxi motored me to Wotton House where I lunched and spent the afternoon.  Today it belongs to John Evelyn, just as it belonged to the diarist John Evelyn in the seventeenth century.

  Pen drawing of Wotton House, by Evelyn 1640.  © British Library, Evelyn Archive

It is a long rambling, untidy house.  The nucleus of it is Jacobean, and a few rich doorways of that period survive upstairs.  But the present Evelyn's grandfather spoilt the house in every conceivable way in the 1870s. In the hideous Ruskin-style library are many rare books, including some 200 of Evelyn's own; also royal seals, miniatures and nineteenth-century busts.  There are innumerable family portraits , including three of John Evelyn, of which the Kneller is the most remarkable.

John Evelyn, c.1687  by Sir Godfrey Kneller  © The Royal Society 

There is a table carved by Grinling Gibbons, whom Evelyn discovered, and an Italian ebony cabinet* in which Evelyn's manuscript diaries were found.  The army have occupied most of the house during the war.  They allowed a fire to blacken the original door cases, walls and ceiling of the dining-room.  Could Evelyn have called in Wren to design this room?.  The garden, now a wilderness, has a mound cut into terraces by Evelyn, and below it a temple on Doric columns, which he built.  All the trees are magnificent, and the beeches are said to have been planted by him."

Ancestral Voices   James Lees-Milne 

John Evelyn travelled extensively in France and Italy as a young man during the Civil War.  In his Diary he records (exhaustively) all the palaces, gardens, churches and art treasures he saw in France and the great cities of Italy:  visiting Genoa, Pisa, Lucca, Florence, Leghorn, Rome and Naples. Full of interesting insights, describing the people and customs,  he only occasionally mentions the food and weather, unless it affected his progress. He travelled by coach, on horse-back, and felucca (subject to storms) and by horse-drawn barge and boat from Bologna and Ferrara along the Po marshes to embark for Venice.  From Venice he journeyed home via Switzerland (he was ill with smallpox in Geneva) and France, where he married the English ambassador's young daughter, Mary Browne, in June 1647.  He left Paris for Calais at the end of September 1647, where he had first arrived four years before, and reached London late on 2nd October.

John Evelyn in 1648  by Robert Walker  © National Portrait Gallery

Having only just returned myself from Bologna airport, after several long days of amazing sightseeing in the Emilia-Romagna, I was struck by this poem Evelyn wrote in Naples in February 1645, well before his travels were ended.  Was he remembering the tranquil family home and its gardens at Wotton? 

"I left this Ode, …as the Non ultra of my Travells; sufficiently sated with rolling up and downe, and resolving with my selfe to be no longer an Individuum vagum, if ever I got home againe;...

Happy the man who lives content
With his own Home, & Contintent:
Those chiding streames his banks do curb
Esteemes the Ocean to his Orb;
Round which when he a Walke dos take,
Thinks t'have perform'd as much as Drake:
For other tongues he takes no thought
Then what his Nurse or Mother taught:
He's not disturb'd with the Rude Cries
Of the Procaccio's Up & Rise;
But being of his Faire possess'd
From Travelling sets up his rest:
In her soft armes no sooner hurl'd
But he enjoys another World,
Scornes Us who Travell Lands & Seas,
Thinkes there's no countries like to his:
If then at Home, such Joyes be had,
Oh, how un-wise are We, how Mad!"

Diary of  John Evelyn  edited E.S. De Beer

*I wrote about Evelyn's Italian ebony cabinet in an earlier blog (Jan 2016): see  "A Collector's Cabinet"

Sunday, 17 September 2017

"The Farthing Poet", a Victorian individualist

Charles Dickens is known for the many remarkable characters in his novels, but among his large circle of acquaintances there was one person that he might have hesitated to create as fictional, best known as 'Orion Horne'.

Widely travelled, a poet, playwright, journalist and social reformer, unsuccessfully married, self- invented and enterprising, young Richard Henry Horne had left Sandhurst in 1820, aged just 18. Inspired by Shelley to become a poet in 1823, just two years later he sailed with the Mexican Navy and fought at Vera Cruz. Chambers' Dictionary describes this early career somewhat breathlessly:

"having survived yellow fever, sharks, broken ribs, shipwreck, mutiny and fire, he returned to England and took up writing."

Horne was known for his Spanish guitar playing, his cape and his theatrical whiskers and moustache, among his interconnecting circles of friends and colleagues in London.

Richard Henry Horne, c. 1840    Margaret Gillies*   © National Portrait Gallery London 

These poets, editors and publishers included Leigh Hunt, Charles Lamb, and the Quaker writers William and Mary Howitt, William Macready the Drury Lane impresario, Charles Dickens (whom he met in Macready's dressing room) and Dickens' biographer John Forster.   

William and Mary Howitt,  miniature by Margaret Gillies 
© Nottingham City Museums and Galleries

Horne wrote for their new topical journals on many subjects and styles, often using exotic pseudonyms, through the 1830s, but his real ambition lay in his Jacobean-style verse dramas, (e.g. The Death of Marlowe, 1837).    He campaigned for a Society for English Literature and Art, to support "men of superior ability" against "the False Medium and Barriers excluding Men of Genius from the Public" and felt that "all departments of human genius and knowledge" should combine for the good of man.

In 1839 he began writing to Elizabeth Barrett (Browning) who contributed to his edition of Chaucer's Poems, Modernised.  This was published in 1841, when Horne was working in Wolverhampton as a government Assistant Commissioner reporting on child labour in mines and factories.  His detailed report  inspired Elizabeth Barrett to write The Cry of the Children in 1843.  He compares a rich child practising the piano, with a poor factory child striking a wrong key on a machine and losing its fingers, and reveals that when these neglected children pray "Our Father", they think that is the whole prayer.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Italy, 1858   Michele Giordiani

1843 also saw the publication of his major epic poem Orion, to general praise, and for which he is best known, as 'Orion Horne', partly through his own publicity.  It was to be sold for one farthing exactly, and only to those who pronounced its title correctly; this was his riposte to the public neglect of poetry.
He was also successful with his critical biographies (helped by Elizabeth Barrett), A New Spirit of the Age in 1844 and his popular children's book Memoirs of a London Doll in 1846.  Unwisely marrying  Kate Foggo in 1847, he began working on Dickens' new monthly journal Household Words in 1850. 

By 1852, abandoning his marriage, his old wanderlust and unsatisfied ambition sent him sailing to the Australian goldfields with fellow writer William Howitt, where he commanded Melbourne's Private Gold Escort in the outback.

One of many books written by Howitt, based on his and Horne's early years in the outback.

During a chequered career as writer and administrator,  he was ousted from his position as area magistrate in a controversy over illegal liquor sales, and in the 1860s produced a lyrical drama Prometheus, and other epic poems which he felt were unappreciated. Disillusioned, he sailed for England in 1869,  still writing poems, articles, plays and romances for periodicals, now under the name of Richard Hengist Horne, possibly (or not) appropriating the name from someone he met in the  outback. He survived on a government pension,  as "a literary doyen, producing many new works all artistically worthless"** until his death in 1884.

A chameleon figure in the Victorian literary world, he pioneered new styles and new ideas in his writing:  Dickens' symbolic dust heaps in Our Mutual Friend were partly inspired by one of Horne's articles.  But perhaps his greatest legacy was his detailed report for the Child Labour Commission in 1841, contributing to the 1847 Ten Hour Act and Lord Shaftesbury's successful campaigning.

The Cry of the Children 
" Do you hear the children weeping,…
For, all day, we drag our burden tiring
Through the coal-dark, underground --
Or, all day, we drive the wheels of iron
In the factories, round and round,…"

E. Barrett Browning, 1843

*Margaret Gillies made a successful career for herself as a rare independent woman artist, known for her portraits of many public figures.  She was also one of Horne's friends, illustrating his children's  books.
 ** according to Ann Blainey, Horne's biographer: "The Farthing Poet," 1968 

Monday, 4 September 2017

September: a visit to Constable country

Willy Lott's Cottage, Dedham Vale;  watercolour, grey ink   John Constable 1832  © British Museum 

Friday, 1st September
"A crisp, chilly morning, with that whiff of melancholy in the air.  Autumn is well on the way.  I would not mind if only I felt well, clear-headed and un-drugged.  Sisson* took me to Flatford Mill which the N.T. has acquired.  I love Constable, but I do not love this place.  It has been made a travesty of the totally unpretentious, rural, domestic scene of one of England's greatest painters.  Today the manor house is too picture postcardy for words.  Willy Lott's Cottage is abominably whimsy inside.  Sisson favours whitewashing or white painting all interior beams, I am glad to say. I concur with nearly all his ideas.  The Mill itself is still relatively unspoilt, and the island garden, with fat box hedges and old apple trees is full of charm.

We drove to Thorington Hall.  It has a rather neglected look, and the furniture inside -- well!  The house has had evacuees, and not been inhabited as a private house since the war, which explains much.

Thorington Hall's landmark octagonal, star-topped chimneys at Stoke-by-Nayland

Paycocke's House  elaborate carved frontage 

I left the Sissons after luncheon, and drove to Paycocke's, that hideously over-restored house in Coggeshall.  The tenants' bogus French furniture most inappropriate.  Sisson and I would like to whitewash all the harsh new brick nogging on the street elevation."

Prophesying Peace  James Lees-Milne 1944

Dedham Vale and Dedham Church  John Constable 1828 
© National Gallery of Scotland

Flatford Mill, Thorington Hall, and Paycocke's House in Coggeshall, near Colchester  were all acquired by the National Trust.  They represent the prosperity of the Stour and other  East Anglian river valleys where, like the medieval monks before them, Tudor butchers progressed from keeping  flocks of sheep to becoming wealthy cloth merchants, with river transport to major ports like Ipswich (where Cardinal Wolsey's father was a butcher-cum-grazier and merchant). By the eighteenth century cloth manufacture moved north and the cloth-fulling mills were converted to grain mills, like Flatford, where the Constable family farmed, and shipped their flour down to Pin Mill near Ipswich.

Dedham Lock and Mill   John Constable 1820  ©V&A Museum

*Marshall Sisson was an architect who lived in Shermans House in Dedham; in August the next year Lees-Milne stayed with the Sissons for the weekend:  "Sisson and I walked to Flatford Mill, where we watched the milling crowds bathing, running, jumping and enjoying themselves".  Prophesying Peace  1945  James Lees-Milne

Maybe they walked along Fen Lane, which was Constable's boyhood path from East Bergholt to school in Dedham?

Fen Lane, East Bergholt  John Constable 1817  © Tate Britain

Thursday, 24 August 2017

West End shopping (with footman), in 1846

Where does a young Victorian lady go shopping for things for her new doll?  Why to the Pantheon in Oxford Street, as related by 'Maria Poppet', a painted wooden London doll, in her Memoirs of a London Doll:

"At four o'clock my new mama went out for a drive in her carriage with her governess, and chiefly to buy several things for me.  Of course I went too…..we drove to a toyshop in Oxford Street and there the little Lady Flora bought me a cradle of delicate white basket work,  with a mattress and pillow covered with cotton of pale pink and lilac stripes.  She wanted a featherbed, but they had not got one..."

Illustration to George Sala's Twice round the Clock  1859

The Pantheon began life as a fashionable winter Ranelagh, or assembly rooms in in 1772, then became variously a concert hall and a failing theatre until it was reopened in May 1834 as the Pantheon Bazaar.  Marks and Spencer's Oxford Street store now stands on the site. 

But 'Maria Poppet' still lacks a feather bed:

"We next went down Regent Street, and sent the very tall footman with the gold-headed cane and powdered hair into every shop that seemed likely, to ask if they had a doll's feather-bed. But none of them had.  We passed the Regent's quadrant, and then turned up Piccadilly, and got out at the Burlington Arcade. But no such thing as a doll's feather-bed could be found.The little lady, however, bought me a small gold watch and chain, which cost a shilling.  We then drove down Waterloo place ...[without success] we turned round and drove up Bond Street, and [again sending the very tall footman] tried at several shops with no better success; then we passed again down Oxford Street and went to the Soho Bazaar."

The Soho Bazaar stretched from Dean Street to Oxford Street, and was opened in 1816 by John Trotter.  He had grown rich supplying the army during the Napoleonic wars, but after Wellington's victory at Waterloo in 1815 he converted his vast Soho Square warehouse into a fashionable 'Bazaar', initially a place where army wives and widows could sell their handicrafts.   It was 'conveniently and comfortably fitted up with mahogany counters,  having at proper distance flaps or falling counters... the walls are hung with red cloth and at the end are large mirrors.  The principal sale is jewellery, toys, books, prints, millinery &c. ' 

And there the very tall footman has his moment of glory: 
"There, at the top of a long room -- on the lefthand side--in a corner -- there, at last, we did find a doll's feather-bed, and of a very superior quality.  No doll in the world, and particularly a wooden doll, could have wished for anything softer.  At the same place were also many articles of furniture, such as dolls of the higher class are accustomed to have, and some of these were bought for me.  That which I was most pleased with was a doll's wardrobe made of cedar wood, with drawers for clothes in the middle, and pegs to hang dresses upon at each side, and all enclosed with folding doors, and smelling so sweet.  All of these things being carefully packed up in silver paper, were given to the very tall footman with powdered hair, who receiving them with a serious face, and carrying them balanced on the palm of one hand,  and holding up his long gold-headed cane in the other, slowly walked behind us, with his chin raised high out of his white neckcloth, to the admiration of everybody in the bazaar, as we returned to our carriage."

Memoirs of a London Doll, Written by Herself
Edited by Mrs Fairstar (otherwise Mr Richard Henry Horne)  1846

'Maria Poppet', our narrator and heroine, begins life at a doll-maker's in Holborn,  and describes many London scenes as she passes from 'mamma' to mamma', in homes rich and poor. She has a narrow escape at the Opera when she is dropped from the box into the pit and falls into a gentleman's top hat, or when she is lost in the crowd and bundled up with Mr Punch's puppets, but later in her adventures she sees a Drury Lane pantomime and the Lord Mayor's Show, described in colourful detail:  "We had an excellent view of the Lord Mayor in his robe of scarlet, with gold and coloured stripes over it, and wearing a beautiful necklace hanging down upon his breast.  He gave a sigh as he passed us, and laid a hand upon his fine stomach, and then he gave a smile".

This forgotten Victorian doll's story was read to us at primary school, and long remembered, so I was delighted in 1967 when it was edited by Margery Fisher, the widely respected writer on children's literature and republished by Andre Deutsch.   Maria Poppet's creator merits a blog of his own, as do the various London bazaars (there was even a Crystal Palace Bazaar of iron and glass designed by Owen Jones in 1858), but for now, I give the last word to Punch describing the Soho bazaar in 1842:

"the Soho Bazaar, chiefly remarkable for the diverting and expert manner in which the young ladies who keep the stalls run about backwards and forwards through certain apertures, under the counter, like rabbits in a warren. It is generally presumed that this degree of perfection is obtained by much practice, at home, under a shutter placed on the backs of two chairs; but this appears to be a popular error."

(and see victorian or and others)

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

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;
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