Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Thought for today- the English

"A True-Born Englishman's a contradiction,
In speech an irony, in fact a fiction."

 Daniel Defoe, author and journalist   M. Vandergucht engraving, after Jeremiah Taverner 1703

"From this amphibious ill-born mob began
That vain ill-natured thing, an Englishman.
The customs, surnames, languages and manners,
Of all these nations are their own explainers:
Whose relics are so lasting and so strong,
They ha' left a shibboleth upon our tongue;
By which with easy search you may distinguish
Your Roman-Saxon-Danish-Norman English."

The True-Born Englishman: A Satyr  Daniel Defoe, 1700.

Defoe, a Non-conformist, was attacking the prejudice against the new king, William III and his Dutch friends.

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,…" (Charles Dickens)

January:  This  month is named after Janus, the two-headed  Roman god who looks both ways, to the past and to the future.  So too do novelists, and I will mark each new month of 2019 not with famous first lines, but with  opening paragraphs, chosen almost randomly, from a wide range of authors.
Wishing you all a Happy New Year.

Spring Woodland,  Ivon Hitchen  © the artist's estate    Manchester City Art Gallery

"About a mile to the north of the village of Rapstone there was an area of mixed woodland and uncultivated chalk downs.  The woods included some beech, birch, field maple and yew.  The grassland, owing to the centuries of peace it had enjoyed from the depredations of farmers and builders, was rich in plant and insect life.  The violet hellebore and the bird's-nest orchid did well there and gentians and wild thyme proliferated. The Duke of Burgundy's fritillary and the Chalkhill blue butterflies were to be seen, as were the trapdoor spider, fallow and muntjac deer, badgers, foxes, adders and slow-worms.  At the foot of the hill there was a stream said to be haunted by two kingfishers, although their nesting place had never been found.
One afternoon in April a Volvo stopped on the road by the stream." 

So begins the battle for Rapstone Woods, between the Society for  Countryside,  Rural and Arboreal  Protection (SCRAP) and  the department for Housing, Ecological Affairs and Planning (HEAP), and the Minister, Leslie Titmuss MP. is caught in the crossfire.

Quotation from John Mortimer's 1998 comic novel, Titmuss Regained, part of his Paradise trilogy.

Monday, 24 December 2018

A basket of oranges

Will you find a golden orange in the toe of your Christmas stocking on the 25th? This tradition really developed from the Victorian rituals of family Christmas  - and the story of St Nicholas leaving golden coins in poor children's' shoes.  It became a feature of twentieth century children's Christmases when oranges were more widely available but were still a seasonal treat.

   The Arnolfini Portrait  Jan van Eyck 1434  © National Gallery

If you are London, you can go to the National Gallery and marvel at Jan Van Eyck's portrait of the Arnolfinis, with those luxury status-symbol oranges casually glowing, right  at the edge of the painting.  In the fifteenth century, oranges were grown in Andalucia, introduced by the Moors, and exported to the elite of France and Flanders.  They could cost six times as much as apples, but were prized for sauces, and medicinal use.

In Elizabeth's I's reign, oranges and lemons were more widely available, along with imported spices and sugar, especially in the capital, and were popular candied sweetmeats, although the wealthy preferred their scented (and disease repellent) pomanders not as whole oranges but as a paste in a pierced silver globe.

Seville oranges were mentioned by Shakespeare: "civil as an orange" in Much Ado about Nothing, and   in  Coriolanus a competing "orange-wife and fossetseller ";  and the wealthy landowners began to incorporate special  orangeries  in their gardens. The first oranges grown in England were said to be from seeds brought back by Sir Walter Raleigh, where his relative Sir Francis Carew planted the Orangery at Beddington, Surrey, in the 1580s.

Oranges  F. Guarnieri   mid 20th century  (

The traditional verse "Oranges and Lemons,  Say the bells of St Clement's"  is claimed by St Clement Danes, but also by the smaller St Clement Eastcheap, for its proximity to the Thames wharves where the citrus fruits were unloaded. The origins of this musical game is obscure, but this rhyme is printed in a 1665 edition of The English Dancing Master by John Playford 

After the Restoration of Charles II,  Nell Gwyn was not the only famous orange-seller.  In November 1667 Pepys records at the Theatre Royal,  when the gentleman in front choked on his fruit,  Orange Mall (one Mary Maggs) saved him by putting her fingers down his throat.  The other great diarist, John Evelyn records many visits to orangeries at great estates, and he even grew his own, serving them when he entertained the artist Verrio in  late September 1679.  

Apples and Oranges  Paul Cezanne c. 1900  © Musee d'Orsay

The winter season oranges were then eagerly awaited by those who had to buy them.  Each December John Bonville, cousin of the philosopher John Locke, waited anxiously for the fresh imports, the best ones usually arriving early in January, to send to Locke living at Oates in Essex.  Half a hundredweight in a basket cost five shillings and threepence in Dec 1694, but in 1704 the best shipments did not arrive till 29th January, "after so many weeks which I have been waiting for oranges"  writes Bonville to his cousin.

Now we have oranges all the year round, and the old-fashioned tissue paper wrappers are collectors' items.  

Spanish orange tissue wrapper

Oranges and lemons has become a community children's party game, and is also played at different times of the year, but oranges are still associated with the Christmas season when they seem at their best.   A very happy holiday to all my readers!

Oranges and Lemons, 1928   Thos. Saunders Nash  © the artist's estate     Manchester Art Gallery

Sunday, 2 December 2018

December Labours - a correction

Remember this prosperous gentleman complete with cat, enjoying his December feast?  I not only got the wrong month, but also the wrong manuscript., for which I apologise to my readers.   

 In fact it illustrates the Calendar month of January (where the year frequently begins with feasting) and comes from the Spinola Hours, one of the finest of the surviving Books of Hours.

Here is the December Calendar page from the series, which shows unsurprisingly,  pigs being slaughtered, a well set-up bakehouse, and a lovely wintry river in the background.  The borders contain scenes from the Gospels and saints,  and Capricorn is shown as land-based hairy goat.

December Calendar page from the Spinola Hours, Flemish c. 1510-20, Workshop of the Master of James IV of Scotland.  Courtesy of the Getty Museum

For anyone who would like to know more about these fascinating medieval illuminated manuscripts,  I can only recommend Christopher de Hamel's book Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts; there is still time to add it to your Christmas list.  

Saturday, 1 December 2018

December Labours: the close of the year

The main December labour for the peasant farmers in many Books of Hours seems to repeat November, with the killing of pigs.   But the wealthy who would commission and use these wonderful illuminated manuscripts ( and lived in the castles often shown in the background) would hunt the wild boar.  

December, a boar hunt. Hennessy Book of Hours, Simon Bening 1530-40
© Royal Library of Belgium, Brussels

This forest image is from the Hennessy Book of Hours: the lord's huntsman blows the 'mort' for the death of the boar, and other handlers hold back the dogs to preserve the carcass, while his master is shown with his long spear on a prancing horse:  "they blew the death of the boar, On blaring horns". *  
The artist, Simon Bening, suggesting different phases of the chase, contrasts the vivid colour and action of the hunt with the delicacy of the winter forest foliage and the castle turrets behind.

   December,  from the Tres Riches Heures de Duc de Berry   
attrib. Bartelemey d'Eyck c. 1440s ʩ Musee Cond̩, Chantilly France

This earlier miniature, with its equally expensive and vivid blues and scarlets, includes the zodiac signs, showing Capricorn, the sea-goat, as the calendar enters December.  The castle is Charles V's Chateau de Vincennes.

Boar hunts not only provided food for the rich man's feast, but culled the wild boar who would damage woodlands and next year's crops.  The famous Boar's Head Carol was first printed in 1521, celebrating the Queen's College Oxford student who, confronted by a wild boar in the woods, thrust his Aristotle text into the boar's mouth, saying 'Graecum Est' (very loosely translated as 'Meet the Greeks') as it choked.  But the Boar's head Feast is closely linked with the older pagan Yuletide, as the Norse Goddess, Freya, is shown riding on a wild boar.

Other calendar illustrations for December show a scurry of manual activities before the winter closes in, and in preparation for the Christmas and New Year feasts.

Farmers and labourers are usually shown bleeding the domestic pig's throat.  

According to region and climate, some are digging and ploughing for next year's crops,  chopping wood, still cutting pigs' throats for blood sausage (black pudding), baking bread, or already feasting. Below is an image from warmer climes - the pigs are still happily feeding while the farmer digs, ready for planting next year's crops.

December, digging.  Luca della Robbia ceramic ceiling plaque for Piero de Medici c. 1450-56
© Victoria & Albert Museum

A master baker at work,  Hours of Charles d'Angouleme c. 1475-1500
© National Library of France
Note the very clear image of Capricorn with its spiral tail.

These medieval bakers would be in a castle,  or a large town, with quantities to feed.  The dough trough has changed little in shape through the centuries.  (image wikimedia commons)

And finally the feasting, at court, or in prosperous comfort:

Those luxury embroidered table cloths come from Perugia in Italy (image wikimedia commons)

Here is December feasting for the wealthy, in fine domestic comfort, complete with cat.  
Rothschild Book of Hours c. 1500-1520   (see National Library of Australia)

Perhaps this December page from The Golf Book best sums up the end of the year activities and the annual cycle of Labours.  While the huntsmen chase the deer in the background, the farmer prepares his supplies of bread and pork, so there will be plenty of bacon sandwiches to enjoy in the last  month of the year.    

From the late 14th century English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. see blog, 24 Dec. 2017 

Friday, 23 November 2018

"Looke back at November 23:1658, and be astonish'd "

Portrait of Oliver Cromwell, unknown artist,  c. 1655    Cromwell Museum, Huntingdon

On 23rd November 1658, John Evelyn watched Oliver Cromwell's State Funeral procession.

"To Lond, to visit my Bro: & the next day saw the superb Funerall of the Protectors:  He was carried from Somerset-house in a velvet bed of state drawn by six horses houss'd with the same; The Pall held-up by his new Lords: Oliver lying in Effigie in royal robes,  and Crown'd with a Crown, scepter & Mund, like a King:
The Pendants, & Guidons were carried by the Officers of the Army, The Imperial banners, Atchivements &c by the Heraulds in their Coates, a rich caparizon'd Horse all embroidered over with Gold: a Knight of honour arm'd Cap a Pe & after all his Guards, Souldiers and innumerable mourners:"

Contemporary Plan of the Hearse (see Thomas Burton below*)

Although Cromwell constantly refused the Crown, his State funeral was conducted with all the splendour due a King of England.  He died on September 3rd, probably from septicaemia, and his body was embalmed and taken to Somerset House.    Here it lay in State on public display from mid-October, but this was a carved wood and wax effigy, which may have been in the coffin for the State funeral procession to Westminster Abbey on 23rd November.  The man himself had been buried privately at night in the Abbey on 10th November.

Westminster Abbey, engraving by Pieter van der Aa, 1707

The full State funeral procession numbered many hundreds of nobles, soldiers, Palace and Parliament servants and officials, all with their attendants and train bearers. Some ten separate groups were each preceded by a black plumed horse, with drums, trumpets, musicians and banners.  The procession was led by the Knight Marshall on horseback with gold-tipped truncheon and accompanying riders.  The hearse and pall bearers were led by the Chief Horse of Mourning  (in black velvet and plumes), and followed by the Horse of Honour, in embroidered crimson velvet with plumes of red, yellow and white.*  The whole event cost £60,000, about 7 million in today's money.

Tellingly, Evelyn continues his account:

"In this equipage they proceed to Westminster [with great pomp] &c: but it was the joyfullest funerall that ever I saw, for there was none that Cried, but dogs, which the souldiers hooted away with a barbarous noise; drinking, & taking Tabacco in the streets as they went."

Two years and two months later, after Charles II was restored, Evelyn also saw the reprisals of 30th January 1661, the anniversary of Charles I's death, when the corpses of Cromwell and two other regicides were dragged from their tombs in the Abbey and hanged at Tyburn.

A popular engraving of the scene, 1661

The corpses were  "then buried under that fatal & ignominious Monument, in a deepe pitt:  Thousands of people (who had seene them in all their pride & pompous insults) being spectators: looke back at November 22: 1658, & be astonish'd
--And (fear) God, & honor the King, but meddle not with them who are given to change".

Quotations from The Diary of John Evelyn, E. De Beer,  Clarendon Press, Oxford
* Details of the funeral procession from Thomas Burton's Diary 1658-9, British Library; see

Thursday, 15 November 2018

The Green Dwarf , a Tale of the Perfect Tense

If you like a dose of Victorian melodrama complete with an "unprincipled villain!", a stalwart Scottish hero and a tender heroine, plus battles, magic and some Gothic terror, I recommend The Green Dwarf.  

The Bard    John Martin, 1817  © Laing Art Gallery

This is a short novelette, written by Charlotte Bronte when she was seventeen, between her Roe Head schooldays and her first post as a teacher there.   Much of it is drawn from her and her siblings' juvenilia, all those tales and adventures inspired by the box of wooden toy soldiers her brother Branwell was given.  Isolated in Haworth parsonage,  Branwell and his sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, created the imaginary worlds of Angria and Gondal.   Much of their juvenilia was inspired by their reading of Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, the Arabian Nights Entertainment and the visionary landscapes of artist John Martin*, popular through his engravings.

 The Fire Worshippers, battle scene     John Martin (1789-1854)

 For this tale, Charlotte has taken the city of Verdopolis in Africa,  the setting for the "African Olympic Games" and its war with the Ashantee tribe, as the background to the romance between the lovely Lady Emily, her countenance of "a most fascinating but indescribable charm" and her beloved, the painter Mr Leslie.    Her artist hero is in fact the noble Scot, Lord St. Clair, but his humble disguise does not deceive his rival, the handsome but treacherous Colonel Percy, a man with "a spirit of deep, restless villainy".

The plot is convoluted, with several fey characters who are not what they seem, but under cover of darkness Colonel Percy double-crosses the lovers and abducts Lady Emily, to make her his wife. "Behold me, fair lady, and know into whose power you have fallen!"

Drawing of a  fair young lady, by Charlotte Bronte
©  British Library

Emily is all too human a heroine: she repudiates Percy's evil power over her with this stirring riposte:

 "Then here I remain till death or some happier chance relieves me, for not all the tortures that man's ingenuity could devise should ever induce me to marry one whose vices have sunk him so low in the ranks of humanity as yours have, one who openly renounces the dominion of honour, and declares that he has given himself up to the blind guidance of his own departed inclinations."...
but then - somewhat breathless? - she succumbs to Percy's taunts of how her uncle ("her careful and affectionate guardian") will be suffering at her disappearance:
"She leant her head upon her hand and burst into a flood of bitter tears".

Readers of Jane Eyre will note that Lady Emily is left in her gloomy prison to the care of her attendant "the withered hag Bertha".

Much of the story's charm is seventeen year old Charlotte's evident relish in her fantasy drama, larded with adjectives, but with some wonderful descriptions:
here is the Ashantee battle array at daybreak: "It was a gorgeous but terrific spectacle as the first sunbeams flashed on that dusky host, and lit up to fiercer radiance their bright weapons and all the barbarous magnificence of gold and gems in which most of the warriors were attired",

and here the forest at night:  "Darkly and dimly, branch rose above branch, each uplifting a thicker canopy of night like foliage, till not a single ray of light could find an opening by which to direct the belated travellers passing underneath."

Twilight in the Woodlands   John Martin  1850
©  Fitwilliam Museum

Despite the melodrama of plot, characters and language,  like a theatrical MC she firmly takes control and addresses her readers at regular intervals.

Introducing  the African Olympics, which is a pivotal occasion in the narrative,  "It is not my intention to give a full and detailed account of all that took place on that memorable day, I shall merely glance at the transactions which followed and then proceed to topics more nearly connected with my tale."

Further interjections dot the narrative :  "Having given the reader this necessary information I will now proceed with my narrative in a more detailed and less historical style…."With his opportune arrival my reader is already acquainted, … and "I must beg my reader to imagine that a space of six weeks has elapsed before he again beholds my hero…"

These interjections are Charlotte reining in her runaway enthusiasm for the story she is presenting, much like a teacher who has strayed far from the topic, returning to her text.
" It may now be as well to connect the broken thread of my rambling narrative before I proceed further … and now,  having cleared scores, I may trot on unencumbered. "

She herself describes The Green Dwarf as a brief and 'jejune' narrative,  but it is full of spirit and style,  with a clear underlying sense of its unreality, which her readers (originally her siblings)  are invited to share and enjoy.

Charlotte Bronte, 1816-1855,
 probably a posthumous portrait by John H. Thompson (1808-1890), a close friend of Branwell
© Bronte Parsonage Museum 

Extracts from The Green Dwarf  by Charlotte Bronte, 1833,   Hesperus Press 2003

*John Martin appears in the story as the character Edward de Lisle, a successful artist.

Saturday, 10 November 2018

" Not so Quiet " - the costs of war (Helen Zenna Smith)

Helen Zenna Smith was a pseudonym for Evadne Price*, journalist and popular children's writer, asked by her publisher to write a spoof of Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front  (1929) from a woman's point of view:-  "All Quaint …by Erica Remarks".  Instead, after reading Remarque,  she wrote her searing account of the VAD women ambulance drivers in France, drawing on the real diaries of driver Winifred Constance Young.

A visceral indictment of the young women's physical and mental misery, both on and off duty, engulfed with cold, pain, filth, hunger and fear, relying on the comradeship of fellow drivers to help them survive each day.  These sheltered middle-class girls had to drive out repeatedly to the train station for convoys of wounded men to be loaded into their ambulances, night and day, and then drive around a shattered landscape (often during shelling) to find their numbered hospital stations.

Loading ambulances at Ypres,  Gilbert Rogers 1919
 Crown © Imperial War Museum

She is even more savage on the consequences of war.  She pulls no punches at all.

"Boom-a boom-booma-boom- boommm!
'God I hate those bloody guns', mutters Tosh and this time B.F. is silent.  We stare ahead.  We hate and dread the days following on the guns when they boom without interval. Trainloads of broken human beings: half-mad men pleading to be put out of their misery; torn and bleeding and crazed men pitifully obeying orders like a herd of senseless cattle, dumbly, pitifully straggling in the wrong direction, as senseless as a flock of senseless sheep obeying a senseless leader, herded back into line by the orderly, the kind sheep-dog with a 'Now then, boys, this way. That's the ticket, boys',  instead of a bark; men with faces bleeding through their hasty bandages; men with vacant eyes and mouths hanging foolishly apart dropping saliva and slime; men with minds mercifully gone; men only too sane, eyes horror-filled with blood and pain…"
…..  "Tears tear at my heart...awful tears that rack me, but must not rise to my eyes, for they will freeze on my cheeks and stick my eyelids together until I cannot see to drive.  Even the solace of pitying tears is denied me."

A V.A.D. motor driver   Gilbert Rogers
©  Imperial War Museum

She rages bitterly against those flag-wavers like her mother, writing to her from home safe in Wimbledon Common:

"Committees …committees…committees…. recruiting meetings.  She has seventeen more recruits than Mrs Evans-Mawnington up to date.  My brother Bertie won't be satisfied until he gets to the trenches…she doesn't fancy the idea, but of course she is proud her son wants to fight for the Dear Old Flag.   The cat has had three kittens, three dear fluffy balls of fur …Mons, Wipers and Liege… rather sweet, don't I think?  Mrs Evans-Mawnington is boasting that Roy Evans-Mawnington is on his last leave before going out to the trenches.  Simply awful if  Roy got out there before Bertie.  Darling, I don't know how proud mother is of me and Trix and Bertie.  My three heroes...  so-and-so-and-so ….my affectionate mother, whose little daughter is … Doing her bit."

Menin Gate, Ypres,   Richard Tennant Cooper
© Royal Signals Museum, Blandford

"What is to happen to women like me when the killing is done and peace comes …if it ever comes?  What will they expect of us, these elders who have sent us out to fight?   We sheltered young women who smilingly stumbled from the chintz-covered drawing rooms of the suburbs straight into hell?" 

Extracts from Not So Quiet,  Helen Zenna Smith, 1930

* Evadne Price became a WWII war correspondent in 1943 and was there for the  liberation of the camps and the  Nuremburg trials.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

November Labours: Martinmas, killing pigs and swingling flax

Traditonally, November is the month for killing cattle and pigs to preserve their meat,  when there was little fodder to spare for livestock and the main drive was to lay in provisions  to last the household through the harsh winter months.  Many Calendars show pigs, as in the fifteenth century rhyme,
 "At Martinesmasse [11th November] I kylle my swine".
This medieval manuscript decoration shows a labourer with what might be a poleaxe, stunning the pig before it is despatched with the blade.

(Wikimedia commons)

Other Calendar versions for November show pigs still being  herded in the woodlands,  as in this late fifteenth century French calendar, with the zodiac sign of Sagittarius clearly having loosed his arrow below.  And is the young man in the background out to catch a bird?

Heures de la Reine Anne de Bretagne, Paris
© National Library of France

Anne of Brittany (1477-1514) was Queen Consort to two kings of France, Charles VIII and then his succeeding cousin Louis XII. Four surviving  Books of Hours bear her name. By the sixteenth century royal collectors liked their new style printed books to have hand-painted illustrations, and also still commissioned traditional illuminated manuscripts.

For those who did not have to labour, hunting was a source of meat as well as a pastime, and this later Venetian image for November shows a very relaxed young man with his dogs and hunting horn and again with a small bird - sparrow hawk, delicacy or pet?

Month of November,  oil painting, Venice c. 1580
© National Gallery London

And this November image from  the Da Costa Hours  is unusual as it shows an image from textile production - the preparation of flax, an important crop for seed (linseed oil), straw and linen. Flanders, where this painting was done, was a centre for the linen trade. 

Detail from November: Swingling Flax, Da Costa Book of Hours c.1515  Ghent

After being retted, which used water or outside weathering to soften the stalks, the flax was beaten to break up the fibres and separate them from the straw and woody stems.  
This "swingling" was done with a heavy ridged or toothed tool, although probably not in such an artistically neat circle as this. A scutching tool was also used to dress the flax, with a thin edge one side like knife.   The woman in the background is using one.  Finally the fibres would be combed, or "heckled" to remove the last shreds of straw and wood.  

It is clearly a winter occupation as the manuscript pages below are consecutive,  with bare trees and the pigs in the farmyard, and the actual calendar page ends with a fine Sagittarius as the zodiac tailpiece.

November illustration from the Da Costa Book of Hours, Simon Bening, Ghent c. 1515. 
From the coats of arms on the cover,  thought to be made for a wealthy family in Porto, Portugal, and then owned by Don Alvaro da Costa, the King's chamberlain.   © Morgan Library, NYK

From the Da Costa Book of Hours, as above.

Monday, 1 October 2018

October Labours: "And I sow my whete so rede (red)"

October is still the month when in the northern hemisphere we prepare for the winter ahead.  In medieval Europe the essential  second sewing of winter wheat or rye took place,  pigs were fattened on fallen acorns or mast before killing, and wood was stored for ovens and stoves.

In the scene below, ploughing and sewing seed for winter wheat takes front of stage: the skilled sewer will first have measured out the steps per furrow, so that the precious grain is broadcast evenly by handful per number of steps.  The harrow was used to loosen and then rake over the soil to protect the seed from eager birds.  In the background, a man is knocking down acorns or nuts to fatten the pigs rooting among the dead leaves and autumn fungi. Peasants would pay "pannage" for the right to forage their pigs in the landlord's woodland.

Golf Book of Hours, workshop of Simon Bening, Bruges, c. 1520-30
©  British Library Add. MS 24098

In the Golf Book of Hours, this is in fact the illustration for September, with October devoted to the vintage.   Other calendars also show the grape harvest in October,  with winter wheat sewing and pannage activities spread across the three autumn months, according to regional climate and custom.   

This decorated calendar page for October  emphasises the all-important autumn ploughing and sewing, to provide grain through the late winter months.  It also includes the zodiac sign of Scorpio against the same fertile landscape.

October Calendar page with Saints' Days 
©  Morgan Library, USA

And this cheerful, fifteenth-century stained glass Labour for October makes the harrow and the evenly scattered seed into a decorative pattern. Notice the extra large sack of seed,  all part of the pattern, along with the mettlesome horses and the fortified city.  

Painted and stained glass roundel, unknown maker, English c. 1450-75, probably based on woodblock engraving.  The skilled artist has used scratching, stippling and smearing of the brown pigment for shading and emphasis. 
© V&A Museum