Monday, 17 October 2016

Scorpio: death and danger

October sees the meteor showers from the constellation of Orion, the Greek hunter of myth who was said to have been killed by Scorpio, the scorpion, this month's Zodiac sign.

Carved Scorpion sign,  on the Royal Portal voussoirs, Chartres Cathedral

The medieval figures show the signs of the Zodiac, interspersed with the traditional Labours of the Months: a Book of Hours for the populace, as well as the super-rich, representing the heavenly and earthly cycles of the year.

To cross the Scorpion was always dangerous.  The Egyptian goddess Serket with her scorpion headdress, protects the dead, as in Tutankhamens' tomb figures and inscriptions, while in his epic poem Metamorphoses, the Roman writer Ovid vividly recounts how Phaeton met his fate, recklessly driving his father the sun god's chariot across the heavens.

 Bk 2. The Fall of Phaethon:
"To add to his fear, he now perceived the monstrous beasts of huge size which lay scattered over the spangled face of heaven.  There is a certain place where the Scorpion stretches out his pincers in two hollow arcs, and with his tail and curving claws outspread on either side sprawls over two signs of the Zodiac.  When the boy saw him, exuding his baneful poison and menacing him with his curved sting, he was so completely unnerved and numb with fear that he dropped the reins.  They fell from his hands and lay loose on the horses' backs.  At once, the team galloped away out of their course.  With none to restrain them, they sped through regions of air unknown, and rushed wherever their headlong career carried them, quite beyond control. They dashed against the stars set in highest heaven, and hurled the car along where there was no pathway, now soaring up to the heights of the sky, now hurtling down its steep incline, to be borne along close to the earth,  The moon was amazed to see her brother's horses lower than her own, and smoke rose from the scorched clouds." © translation M.M.Innes

Detail from Horoscope from Book of Birth of Iskander
Wellcome  Library Images

Monday, 10 October 2016

Lexicographers and Library Treasures

"REFERENCE, s. (from refer.)
Relation; respect; view toward, allusion to. Raleigh."  Samuel Johnson, Dictionary

King George III's Library at the British Library, London  © British Library

For many of the books I pull from the shelf for reference --  like Shakespeare, Evelyn, Johnson, Dickens, Pevsner --  I have a clear image of the author,  but several I rely on equally are just names, like Roget, Kennedy, and Brewer, so this blog celebrates these indispensable nineteenth century scholars.

"The man is not wholly evil, he has a Thesaurus in his cabin."  J.M. Barrie on Captain Hook

Peter Mark Roget, physician, writer and scholar, was born in Soho in January 1779, graduating from Edinburgh in 1798.  He travelled on the continent and worked as tutor and physician in many places, finally settling in London as a professor of physiology, where he was an active member of the Royal Society and many other scientific institutions.  
Very much a child of the Enlightenment, in 1825 he contributed to the very early development of moving pictures with his observations on the retina's retained images,  and his work on natural selection in Animal and Vegetable Physiology,  published in 1833-4, was a forerunner to Darwin.

His early life was very unsettled; several close relatives died young or suffered mental problems, and he found list-making kept away depression.  As early as 1805 he was cataloguing words and phrases, and in his retirement he worked on his Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, published in 1852 and never since out of print.  What writer, reader, or crossword devotee does not possess a well-thumbed copy on their bookshelf?

Strahov Monastery Library, Prague
The Theosophical Hall contains a vast collection of Bibles

Benjamin Hall Kennedy  Born in 1807, Benjamin H. Kennedy was a contemporary of Darwin at school.   An outstanding classical scholar at St. John's College, Cambridge, he took holy orders in 1824, and was a well-regarded headmaster at Shrewsbury School from 1836-1866.  His retirement also saw the first publication of his Latin Primer for Schools. Kennedy was a keen supporter of education for women and campaigned for the women students of Girton and Newnham to have full access to the University lectures and examinations.   It is not surprising then, that in 1888 he relied on his two daughters'  help for the revised edition of the Primer;  with its new rhyming mnemonics to guide even the dullest scholar, it became an indispensable success. To this day I can quote the 5 line verse for spotting the ablative absolute, without (until I looked it up) remembering what was an ablative absolute. (and see

The Teleki-Bolyai Library, Targu-Mures, Romania
In this eighteenth century public library founded by Count Samuel Teleki, chancellor of Transylvania,  in 1802, you can see works by Galileo, Descartes, Locke and Newton, as well as books they will have studied.

Ebenezer Cobham Brewer  Born in Norwich in 1810, Brewer graduated in law from Trinity Hall, Cambridge; he then taught at his father's school and wrote textbooks on education, literature and science.  He travelled and lived in Paris for six years the 1850s, where he married, and then concentrated on his writing.
He began his "treasury of literary bric-a-brac", The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable in the 1860s, publishing it in 1870, and revising it in 1894.  It runs from A: "modified from the Hebrew aleph = an ox",  to Z: " Zulfagar, Ali's sword" .  As he explained, "I have always read with a slip of paper and a pencil at my side, to jot down whatever I think may be useful to me, and these jottings I keep sorted in different lockers."  His methodical labour and lively mind created a beguiling treasury for us, as well as a lasting work of reference.

The New York Public Library Reading Room
As well as its inspiring architecture and collections, it has a wonderful collection of authors' manuscripts, including A.A. Milne's "Winnie the Pooh".

Saturday, 1 October 2016

October: autumn's changes

October: Twelve Months of Flowers  Jacob van Huysum, early 18th century
©  Fitzwilliam Museum

"I mow the lawn for what I hope will be the last time this autumn; though in some years another cut is required in November, or even December.  Instead of  the grass-moths of spring and summer, long-legged craneflies leap from beneath the mower's blades, bouncing away in search of an uncut patch of sward where they can hide from predators.

Despite the warmth, signs of autumn are more and more visible; not least in the absence of those pink and purple flowers that lined the rhynes and hedgerows during the past few months.  Purple loosestrife, which only a few weeks ago was still flowering in any damp corner, has gone to seed, while only a few sad, drooping fronds of willow-herb remain.  Clouds of midges still hang in the air in more sheltered areas; but within a week or so I shall hear the high-pitched call of returning redwings in the night sky; and soon afterwards feel the crunch of early-morning frosts beneath my boots."

Wild Hares and Hummingbirds  Stephen Moss

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.