Sunday, 22 January 2017

Aquarius, the water carrier: "this frosty night"

Aquarius, from a set of zodiac plates, designed by James Thornhill* 1711
© British Museum
(of whom more anon.)

This is the penultimate zodiac sign I have featured, and this poem by Robert Graves brings many of their stars together on a frosty night. The  fishy last verse will lead us into Pisces, the twelfth sign, in February.

Star Talk

"'Are you awake, Gemelli,
This frosty night?'
'We'll be awake till reveille,
Which is Sunrise,' say the Gemelli,
'It's no good trying to go to sleep:
If there's wine to be got we'll drink it deep,
But rest is hopeless tonight,
But rest is hopeless tonight.'

'Are you cold too, poor Pleiads,
This frosty night?'
'Yes, and so are the Hyads:
See us cuddle and hug,' say the Pleiads,
'All six in a ring: it keeps us warm:
We huddle together like birds in a storm:
It's bitter weather tonight,
It's bitter weather tonight.'"

 Constellation of Aquarius  (from Secrets of Space)

'What do you hunt, Orion,
This starry night?'
'The Ram, the Bull and the Lion,
And the Great Bear,' says Orion,
'With my starry quiver and beautiful belt
I am trying to find a good thick pelt
To warm my shoulders tonight,
To warm my shoulders tonight.'

'Did you hear that, Great She-bear,
This frosty night?'
'Yes, he's talking of stripping me bare
Of my own big fur,' says the She-bear.
'I'm afraid of the man and his terrible arrow:
The thought of it chills my bones to the marrow,
And the frost so cruel tonight!
And the frost so cruel tonight!'

'How is your trade, Aquarius,
This frosty night?'
'Complaints are many and various
And my feet are cold,' says Aquarius,
There's Venus objects to Dolphin-scales,
And Mars to Crab-spawn found in my pails,
And the pump has frozen tonight,
And the pump has frozen tonight.'"

Star Talk  Robert Graves

The stars of Aquarius  (from

Sunday, 8 January 2017

The ship's concert 2: "What happened on the Ark"

Noah's Ark and the animals  Aurelio Luini c. 1556, in San Maurizio, Milan

 I don't think holiday cruise ships or ocean liners have passengers'  concerts any more, though it was common decades ago, to break the monotony of long stretches at sea. (I have taken part in one myself).
As the cruise ship catalogues land on my doormat this winter, I turn to a childhood favourite, The Log of the Ark, written and illustrated by Kenneth Walker and Geoffrey Boumphrey back in 1923.

When Kenneth Grahame was asked to write a story about "Big Jungle Animals",  he passed the task back to his friend, Kenneth Walker, who had really "been inside a jungle".  Kenneth Walker was a distinguished surgeon, as well as a journalist, popular with Picture Post readers, and his colleague
Geoffrey Boumphrey, who drew the cartoon-like pictures (restored from Japhet's cave drawings in ancient Armenia), was an engineer, writer and broadcaster, now best known for his Shell guides to the countryside.

A medieval view of  the  story of the Flood

Their tongue-in-cheek children's tale of Noah and the voyage of the Ark is also an allegory of the Fall, with extinct animals like the Clidders, the Wumpetty-Dumps and the Seventy-sevenses; also on board is the insidious Loathly Scub, who converts the once vegetarian big cats into predatory carnivores.

Noah's Ark   Edward Hicks, 1846    Philadelphia Museum of Art

Edward Hicks, a Quaker preacher,  painted a whole series on this theme, entitled "The Peaceable Kingdom", showing the enlightened interaction between humans and animals.

 On a lighter note, The Log of the Ark includes a chapter on the ship's concert, organised by Ham to cheer up all the animals after weeks of rain (and only porridge to eat).  Each performer acts in character - the bat's song was particularly appreciated by all the crickets and grasshoppers, as only they could hear it.  But it is the Hippo's song, redolent of music hall favourites or old drinking songs, which sticks in the memory -- with a good roll of the R on "number".

"Num-ber-r ONE, num-ber-r ONE,
Some weighs a pound but I weighs a ton,
Chorus: (repeats after every verse)
Hip-po-potamus, What-a-lotamus
Oh, what likely lads us be!

Num-ber-r TWO, num-ber-r TWO,
Some walks round, but I busts through.

Num-ber-r THREE, num-ber-r THREE
The Lark can sing, but not like me.

Num-ber-r FOUR, num-ber-r FOUR
Some likes less, but I likes more.

Num-ber-r FIVE, num-ber-r FIVE
The tide comes up when down I dive.

Num-ber-r SIX, num-ber-r SIX
I likes bathing, but some just licks.

Num-ber-r SEVEN, num ber-r SEVEN,
You must wait till Number Eleven.

Num-ber-r EIGHT, num-ber-r EIGHT
Some likes looks, but I likes weight.

Num-ber-r NINE, num-ber-r NINE ,
Blest if I ain't forgot this line.

Num-ber-r TEN, num-ber-r TEN
I ain't sung this since I don't know when.

Num-ber-r ELEVEN, num-ber-r ELEVEN,
That's the same as Number Seven.

Num-ber-r TWELVE, num-ber-r TWELVE,
If you wants any more you can sing it yourself.
Chorus: Hi-po-potamus, What-a-lotamus;
Oh, what likely lads us be!"

The Log of the Ark  Kenneth Walker and Geoffrey Boumphrey
Dedicated to the Very Old Tortoise at the Zoo, with cave wall drawings restored in this book by Geoffrey Boumphrey with the assistance of Juliet Renny,  1923.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

January at West Wycombe Park

"Thursday, 1st January, 1942

West Wycombe Park is a singularly beautiful eighteenth-century house with one shortcoming.  Its principal living-rooms face due north.  The south front is overshadowed by a long, double colonnade which induces a total eclipse of the sun from January to December.  Consequently we are very cold in the winter, for the radiators work fitfully these days.  Our offices [of the evacuated National Trust] are in the Brown Drawing Room and Johnny Dashwood's* small study beyond it.  Matheson, the Secretary, Miss Paterson, Eardley Knollys and I work in the latter room;  Miss Ballanchey, a typist and the 'junior' (aged 15) in the bigger room with all the filing cabinets.  Matheson, Eardley and I are seldom in the office together. Nearly always one and often two of us are away visiting properties."
* Sir John Dashwood, 10th baronet

Ancestral Voices  James Lees-Milne

Lord and Lady Dashwood at West Wycombe Park   Nathaniel Dance-Holland, c. 1776

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Christmas Eve greetings

"It is an hour or so before dusk, on Christmas Eve, and the landscape has turned completely monochrome.  Far away to the north-east, at King's College Chapel in Cambridge, a lone chorister is singing the opening notes of 'Once in Royal David's City', a moment for me that always marks the true beginning of Christmas."
Wild Hares and Hummingbirds  Stephen Moss

The Adoration of the Magi     Peter Paul Rubens
Altarpiece in King's College Chapel

Wishing all my fellow bloggers a joyous Christmas!

Monday, 19 December 2016

Capricorn: the goat with a tail

This month sees Capricorn the goat usher in the winter, although unlike this image from a medieval manuscript, the true sign is a sea-goat, with coiled serpent-like hindquarters.  As a goat, it is linked in classical myth with the god Pan (who leapt into a river and grew a fishtail, to escape the giant Typhon), and with the forest satyrs, or is shown drawing Bacchus' chariot, and is a symbol of lust to be overcome in christian art.

Capricornus, from a medieval calendar book

Capricorn appears with serpent tail in Henry VIII's great clock at Hampton Court Palace ( seen just above Sagittarius with his arrow). With its many dials, the clock shows the phases of the moon and the times of high tide at London Bridge - essential knowledge for river transport to and from the Palace.

Hampton Court Palace astronomical clock, by Nicholas Oursian, 1540

The zodiacal Capricorn image with coiling tail was also chosen by the Florentine ruler, Cosimo I de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, as his impresa, or personal device, together with his motto, "Fidem fati virtute sequemer" : I shall pursue with valour the promise of Destiny.  He believed the influence of the stars had brought him victory against Siena under the sign of Capricorn.

Cosimo's capricorn impresa in the Laurentian Library, Florence 

Designed by Michelangelo, the library was opened by Cosimo in 1571.  The stained glass windows, after drawings by Vasari, were added later.  Here the Capricorn figures act as supporters to the central Medici coat of arms.

Monday, 12 December 2016

Shakespeare at sea: the ship's concert 1

The ship's concert tradition goes back a long way, although in Shakespeare's plays sea voyages tend to be stormy and perilous, reflecting the reality for those wind-driven ships.

"Thou God of this great vast, rebuke these surges,
Which wash both heaven and hell;
……O! still
Thy deafening, dreadful thunders…"  Pericles, Act III

So Gertrude the Queen describes Prince Hamlet as:
 "Mad as the sea and wind, when both contend which is the mightier."   Hamlet, Prince of Denmark Act IV

The first recorded performance of Hamlet took place at sea in 1607, on board the East India Company ship, the Red Dragon, off the coast of Sierra Leone.

Woodcut of The Red Dragon c. 1595
(from the Dutch E. India Company archives, 1645-6)

The sailor audience would be keenly aware of the risks when Laertes is urged aboard by Polonius -
"The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail, and you are stayed for" - and later Hamlet too is  hastened on his sea voyage by Claudius, the king:

"The bark is ready, and the wind at help,
The associates ready and everything is bent for England!"

When Hamlet, safely back on land in Denmark, describes his narrow escape and rescue by pirates, did the sailors cheer and exchange anecdotes?
"…a pirate of very warlike appointment gave us chase. Finding ourselves too slow of sail, we put on a compelled valour;  in the grapple I boarded them: on the instant they got clear of our ship, so I alone became their prisoner…."

The Red Dragon began life in 1595 as the Earl of Cumberland's flagship,  a 38 gun 'privateer' ship, for raiding on the Spanish Main, and was given its name The Scourge of Malice by Queen Elizabeth I.  

In 1601 it was sold to the newly formed East India Company, renamed the Red Dragon and sailed for the Indian Ocean under the command of James Lancaster.

Sir James Lancaster c. 1600: (the ship may be one he captained in the Armada 1588) 
  © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

The Red Dragon's third East India Company voyage was captained by William Keeling, and it is surviving accounts from him and his sailors which record the plays performed.

Later in the voyage, the entertainment was Shakespeare's Richard II, but even this tale of English wars and treachery two hundred years before would have extra meaning for sailors, far from home on a round trip voyage which would last two to three years.  As the play opens, Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV) and Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk are banished and sent into years of exile:

"Must I not serve a long apprenticehood
To foreign passages, and in the end,
Having my freedom, boast of nothing else
But that I was a journeyman to grief?"        Richard II, Act I

King Richard himself, returning from Ireland, marks the moment of landing in Wales:

Aumerle: "How brooks your Grace the air,
After your late tossing on the breaking seas?
Richard:   " I weep for joy to stand upon my kingdom once again.
Dear earth, I do salute thee with my hand."               Act III

King Richard II with his patron saints,  The Wilton Diptych, c. 1395-9
© National Gallery, London

 This folding devotional panel painting  was probably King Richard's personal portable altarpiece.  It has his emblems on the exterior side and the angels also are wearing his white hart device, and would have been taken on campaigns, such as his trip to Ireland.

And John of Gaunt's speech in Act II of the play might mean as much to the homesick sailors in the Red Dragon, sailing on distant oceans:

"……this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,...
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
England, bound in with the triumphant sea,  
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune,……"

Detail from the National Gallery's Wilton Diptych, showing a castle on an island, discovered during conservation in 1992

Friday, 2 December 2016

December: the Somerset Levels

I have been dipping into Wild Hares and Humming Birds for more than a year now,  a city flat-dweller marking the beginning of each month with a glimpse of life in the countryside. My images of the  county now are mostly memories of our holiday journeys, as the M5 traffic crawled across the Somerset Levels, and the thoughts the landscape evoked of fugitives after Monmouth's disastrous defeat at Sedgemoor in 1685.
So Stephen Moss's monthly record of the seasons in one village have been both thought-provoking and reassuring.

"A couple of miles beyond the River Brue,  the southern boundary of the parish, another winter dawn  breaks over Catcott Lows.  As the mist rises from the the cold ground, revealing the silhouette of Glastonbury Tor, I begin to lose any sense of feeling in my fingertips.  All around me a shrill chorus of whistles pierces the chill air.  It is the unmistakable sound of hundreds of wigeon, the most striking and handsome of all our dabbling ducks.  ….."

Photo © Peter Moore

"Of all the birds here before me, the wigeon have travelled the furthest.  Although a few hundred pairs breed in northern Britain, their numbers are massively swelled each autumn, when close to half a million birds arrive here from their breeding grounds in Iceland, Scandinavia and northern Russia.  Because these areas freeze up during the winter, the wigeon must travel southwards and westwards, seeking out the more benevolent, maritime climate of Britain and Ireland.

Here on the Somerset Levels we have our fair share of these engaging ducks, but another winter visitor from Siberia, Bewick's swan, has all but disappeared. Named after the nineteenth-century engraver, publisher and political radical, Thomas Bewick, small flocks of these wild swans have always spent the winter here, filling the air with their yelping cries,  But in the past decade numbers have fallen away, and nowadays only a handful overwinter on the levels.  Most are well to the south, in the vast waterlogged fields around the villages of Muchelney, Stoke St Gregory and Curry Rivel, whose very names reflect the long and fascinating history of this landscape.

Even without Bewick's swans though, the sight and sound of more than a thousand dabbling ducks lifts the spirits. My encounter with them reinforces the continuity of this place and its wildlife over time, much in the same way as the distant backdrop of Glastonbury Tor reminds me of our human presence here across the centuries. "

Wild Hares and Hummingbirds  Stephen Moss

A boy birdnesting - tailpiece in The History of Birds Vol.II 1804  Thomas Bewick