Saturday, 24 September 2016

Libra: the Scales of Justice

"He shall have merely justice, and his bond."

  Charles Macklin in The Merchant of Venice,  Johann Zoffany c. 1768
©  Tate Gallery, London

"Merchant:  Most learned judge! A sentence! come, prepare!
Portia: Tarry a little: there is something else.
This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood;
The words expressly are 'a pound of flesh:'
Then take thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh;
But, in the cutting it, if thou dost shed
One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods
Are, by the laws of Venice, confiscate
Unto the state of Venice."
 The Merchant of Venice, Act IV Sc. 1.  William Shakespeare

Many visitors in the audience at London's Globe Theatre are not that familiar with Shakespeare's plays.  I remember that there was an audible gasp at this point in the court scene as Portia plays her master stroke against Shylock - just as there must have been when the play was first performed around 1599.

Nearly 150 years later, at Drury Lane Theatre in 1741, Charles Macklin created another sensation by playing Shylock as a serious character, not the comic clown figure the eighteenth century had turned him into.
Eighteenth century engraving © National Portrait Gallery

To get in character he researched the London Jews, their dress and accents, to create a believable stage persona, and not the old 'bogeyman' as was then customary.

The dramatic figure of Shylock on this Staffordshire teapot is based on engravings of Macklin in the role (not David Garrick as was once thought).  You can see the scales hanging from his arm, while his fingers are testing the tip of the sharpened knife, just as in this other engraving of the actor below.

Jasper teapot, Neale & Co, Hanley c. 1785
© Fitzwilliam Museum

Engraving after J.H. Ramberg c. 1785  

Macklin, known as "wicked Charlie Macklin", was a tempestuous character; he accidentally killed a fellow actor in a backstage quarrel, and was tried and acquitted of murder. Zoffany's painting above is thought to portray one of the judges on the left.  Macklin had a long successful career, his portrayal of Shylock making his name, and he spoke a few lines at his last stage appearance in 1789.
He was a Libran, born on 26th September, 1697 and died in 1797,  probably not quite the 102 years recorded on his memorial plaque in St Paul's Church, Covent Garden.

Monday, 19 September 2016

"Driv'n by the spheres"

"…...Time in hours, days, years,
Driv'n by the spheres
Like a vast shadow mov'd; in which the world
And all her train were hurled."    
from The World,  Henry Vaughan

St. Mark's Clocktower, Piazza San Marco, Venice 

We are now halfway through the celestial Zodiac, when the sequence turns from the northern hemisphere to the southern, Time marking the move from summer to winter as the autumn equinox approaches.
On a more prosaic note than the seventeenth century poet Henry Vaughan,  the late Victorian Rev. E.C. Brewer (in his Dictionary of Phrase and Fable) provides this helpful mnemonic for the monthly astrological signs:

"Our vernal signs the RAM begins,
Then comes the BULL, in May the TWINS;-
The CRAB in June, next LEO shines,
And VIRGO ends the northern signs.

The BALANCE brings autumnal fruits,
The  SCORPION stings, the ARCHER shoots,
December's GOAT brings wintry blast,
AQUARIUS rain, the FISH come last."

Friday, 16 September 2016

"London's burning!"

Some fires have changed the face of London drastically - such as the burning of the old Houses of Parliament on 16th October 1834 - which paved the way for Charles Barry and Pugin's  Gothick Revival Palace of Westminster.  This view by an unknown artist is in the Parliamentary Art Collection and clearly shows the old buildings, but not perhaps the excitement of onlookers in another view from that collection.

From the Parliamentary Art Collection, by an unknown artist:

"Good God!  I am just returned from the terrific burning of the Houses of Parliament.  Mary and I went in a cab, and drove over the bridge.  From the bridge the view was sublime.  We alighted and went into a room of a public house, which was full.  The feeling among the people was extraordinary - jokes and radicalism universal."  Benjamin Haydon, artist, Memoirs.

Another landmark fire was the destruction of the old 'White Hall' Royal Palace on the fourth of January 1698.  The rambling labyrinthine Palace suffered at least two large fires in the 1690s, a smaller fire in April 1691, and the major conflagration in January 1698, leaving only Inigo Jones' separate Banqueting Hall intact.

Whitehall Palace from St James's Park   Hendrik Danckerts c. 1674-5
©  Government Art Collection

Here is the layout of Whitehall Palace, in John Fisher's Plan of 1680, stretching north from the Thames,  and from  Old Scotland Yard on the east  to Horse Guards and Treasury Passage on the west.  It shows the sprawl of buildings begun by Henry VIII and continued piecemeal under the Stuart monarchs, a warren of lodgings and courts old and new which housed a small city of courtiers, visitors, nobility, administrators and servants coming and going;  plans to rebuild a whole new Palace in the style of the Palladian Banqueting House (1619-25)   seen on the left in Danckerts' painting, were never realised.   

  Reduced copy of Fisher's Ground Plan of the Royal Palace of WhiteHall  -- 1608
© British Library

Charles Hatton wrote to Viscount Hatton his account of the fire:

 "last Tuesday I acquainted you that Whitehall was then in flames, which burnt till six of the clock next morning, and by that time had consumed all the buildings except the Banqueting House….  the fire broke out about three or four of the clock in a garret in the lodgings, as some say, of Colonel Stanley, next to the Lord Portland, occasioned by a Dutch serving maid laying a sack of charcoal so near the fire it all took fire, …. All persons were intent to save their goods, and all the gates locked up to prevent the mob coming in; and, when the houses were blown up… the timber and the rafters were laid bare and there wanted hands to remove them, so that instead of stopping the fire it helped to increase it.
All the buildings westward joining to the Banqueting House by being blown up about six of the clock on Wednesday morning saved that which remains as monument where the Blessed Martyr, King Charles the First, was murdered by his rebellious subjects.  God divert his just judgements!"  (6 January 1698*  Hatton Family Correspondence)

The Old Palace of Whitehall  Hendrik Danckerts  c. 1670s.© Government Art Collection

The palace was never rebuilt, as William III preferred Kensington for its healthy country air, or St. James's Palace in town.  The area was gradually built over through the 1700s and the remains of Henry VIII's wine cellar are now deep under the Ministry of Defence building.   

Saturday, 3 September 2016

"wofull accydent of Powder and Fyer"

This weekend London celebrates the 350th anniversary of its Great Fire in 1666, burning from 2nd September for four days and nights.  Fires were a regular hazard but the effects of this one were noticed even in Oxford, carried on the east wind: " the sunshine was much darkened….the moon was darkened by clouds of smoke and looked reddish. "  Antony Wood.

As well as the words of diarists Pepys and Evelyn, other contemporary accounts paint a similar terrifying picture, and many are quoted in Walter Bell's The Story of London's Great Fire. Thomas Vincent for instance,  writes:

…"quickly the flames cross..they mount up to the top of the highest houses; they descend down to the bottom of the lowest vaults and cellars, and march along on both sides of the way, with such a roaring noise, as never was heard in the city of London; no stately building so great as to resist their fury."    God's Terrible Voice in the City, 1667.

All Hallows by the Tower, in 1736

On 5th September Samuel Pepys views the desolation from the new tower of All Hallows Barking, which marked the eastern limit of the burning: "it having only burned the Dyall of Barkeing Church, and part of the porch, and was there quenched." He must have known of the dreadful fire and explosion which occurred alongside the church in January 1649, when barrels of gunpowder exploded at a ships chandler's in Tower Street, demolishing the Rose Tavern, killing 67 people and badly damaging the Church, so that its tower had to be rebuilt in1659.   Did he also know the story of the baby miraculously saved from that fire, or was the story apocryphal, a later urban legend?

" …The next Morning, there was found, upon the upper Leads of Barking Church, a young Child lying in a Cradle, as newly laid in Bed, neither the Child nor Cradle having the least Sign of any Fire, or other Hurt:  It was never Known whose Child it was, so that one of the Parish kept it for a Memorial; for in the Year 1666, I saw the Child, grown then to be a proper Maiden."

John Strype includes this 'eyewitness' comment in his account of the 1649 Barking fire, in his edition and updating of Stow's Survey of London, but he was writing in the next century.   The fire destroyed several businesses whose owners claimed for lost stock, and there are detailed accounts based on official records in the LCC's monumental Survey of London  (Vol. 12, pt. 1) of 1929.  There does not, however, seem to be a record of this baby's miraculous escape.

The church survives, rebuilt again after WWII bombing,  and in its crypt are vestiges of the great burning of Roman London by the Iceni in AD. 60.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

September: "Then nightly sings the staring owl, Tu-whoo!"*

Marazion Marsh   Harold C. Harvey, 
© Penlee House Museum & Gallery

"Now that September is here, the nights are gradually drawing in.  By 8 p.m. the sun has set, and the sky is almost dark.  Outside the Old Vicarage, a hundred yards or so east of the village shop, a bird is perched on the telegraph wires: those same wires where, a few months ago, the first swallow of the summer was sitting.

The bird is a tawny owl.  It sits on the topmost wire, unnoticed by drivers passing beneath on their journey home from work.  Occasionally it twists its head slowly from side to side; though even when a medium-sized bat passes closely by it takes no notice.  After a few minutes, it drops off the wire on soft, silent wings, disappearing into the dense foliage of a sycamore.  In an hour or so, when the remaining glimmer of light has finally been enveloped by darkness, it will go hunting, listening for the rustling of hidden rodents below."
Wild Hares & Humming Birds  Stephen Moss

When I was young, we would look for solitary owls sitting on telegraph poles in the dusk along country lanes, almost indistinguishable from the ceramic insulators.  Just like this little owl in Dobrogea, Romania,  featured in the Daily Mail newspaper.

* "Tu-whit, tu-whoo!" Love's Labour's Lost, Winter song,  W. Shakespeare

Sunday, 28 August 2016

John Locke's troublesome portrait

29th August, 1632, is the birthday of philosopher and scholar, John Locke.  He was born in Wrington, near Bristol in this cottage - which looks somewhat decayed in this much later print. This was the childhood home of his mother Agnes Keene, who had come here to be with her mother for the birth.  It has since been pulled down and is now marked by a commemorative plaque set against the churchyard wall nearby.  His father was a country attorney and a few days later mother and child returned to Belluton, near Pensford, which remained Locke's home until he left for Westminster School, followed by Christ Church college, Oxford in 1652.
 In 1665 he was employed as a minor secretary on a diplomatic mission to Cleves near Brandenberg and on his return to England became part of Sir Anthony Ashley-Cooper's household at Exeter House in the Strand, as physician and confidential secretary.

John Locke c. 1672  by John Greenhill
© National Portrait Gallery, London

 Locke was rising forty when this portrait was painted, and Ashley-Cooper, now Lord Shaftesbury, had his portrait painted by Greenhill around the same time.

Sir Anthony Ashley-Cooper c. 1672-3,  after John Greenhill
© National Portrait Gallery London

Three years later Locke's health, always worse in the heavily polluted London air, forced him abroad in November 1675 to winter in Montpellier.  Before he left he made arrangements for his books and other belongings, including a portrait,  to be cared for in Oxford and at Exeter House, not knowing that he would be abroad for over three years.

So, is this the famous portrait of Locke left in safekeeping with his colleague and friend, Shaftesbury's steward Thomas Stringer, along with his books and other effects, over which he and Mr & Mrs Stringer quarrelled when Locke asked for its return some years later?

While Locke was abroad Exeter House  had the builders in in 1676 and then the Shaftesbury family and staff moved to Thanet House in Aldersgate Street and to Wimborne St Giles, the family seat.  Stringer would have been dealing with all these relocations of people and goods, as well as moving to lodgings in St. Martin's Lane himself.

Locke returned to Shaftesbury's service in 1679, but then following Shaftesbury's death in disgrace in 1683,  he also fled to the Netherlands for safety for the next six years.  No wonder there was some confusion over the painting's ownership by 1688 when Locke asked a friend to retrieve it for him*, but this does not entirely explain Thomas Stringer's unfriendly and adamant claim that it had been a gift.
He writes to Locke's go-between, Edward Clarke in March, arguing at length:
 "…wee are now too old for Children's play to have a thing given and then to have it called for againe;"
This sense of umbrage remained between both parties, and the identification of the painting remains uncertain.   

John Greenhill was also a Somerset man, who trained with Peter Lely before setting up his own London studio about the time he painted this showy self portrait.  It was probably intended to attract potential patrons, and he holds Lely's drawing of him like  a reference. 

Self Portrait, c. 1665, aged 20
© Trustees of Dulwich Gallery

By the time he painted Locke,  Greenhill  was an established portrait painter, but was to die young after a fall returning home from a heavy night out, in 1676.  Many of his portraits of Stuart worthies are now in public collections, as are his and other artists' portraits of Locke. 

*Locke wanted an engraving made for the frontispiece to his Essay concerning Human Understanding,   and admitted his vanity in liking this image of his younger self.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

"Divinest creature, Astrea's daughter" *

Very soon the sign of Virgo takes over from Leo in the zodiac, and hints of incipient autumn make our summer pleasures keener, just as they did six hundred years ago -- for the harvesters as well as the elegant ladies and the lords in their straw hats, before the Chateau d'Estampes. 

August, from Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, c.1412-16

The constellation of Virgo, according to  Greek myth, was created when Astrea, virgin goddess of the Golden Age, left the sinful earth for the heavens.   She is also linked with the goddess Ceres and harvest-time.

Here Virgo is portrayed by astronomer Johannes Hevelius in his Uranographia of 1690, her left hand holding its sheaf of corn.

In literature Astrea is seen to preside over a new Golden Age of Justice, symbolically representing Queen Elizabeth I in Spenser's  Faerie Queene, and similarly in Dryden's poem Astrea Redux, celebrating the return of Charles II in 1660.    In seventeenth century France, she was the heroine of Honore' d'Urfe's pastoral romance, L'Astree,  a best seller for many decades; her lover, the shepherd Celadon, dressed in grey-green, and gave his name to this colour in Europe.   The word celadon is now synonymous with Song dynasty porcelains.

Bowl with lid, Longquan ware; Song Dynasty **

* Shakespeare,  Henry VI Pt.1, Act I. vi, of Joan of Arc.
**  Chinese Ceramics , Dr. F. Lili, Chinese Intercontinental Press