Friday, 25 December 2015

Christmas Greetings

Best wishes for Christmas and the New Year

Harry Brockway's striking wood engravings head each monthly chapter of Wild Hares and Hummingbirds, by Simon Moss.  
This engraving of "Bellringers at Alstonefield" brings you all my seasonal greetings, and thanks for all your fascinating and entertaining blogs.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

The Irish Shipping News

'Revenons a ces Moutons'

"Ireland affords no news, and therfore I hope you will expect none, here is plenty of all things except money. and the colledge here has as much mutton for three halfepence as christch. can afford for sixpence. I was at kingsale not long since, where a poore marchant, had a great losse in his muttons, for driving his sheepe to the seaside over a rock that inclined towards the sea, one chanct to fall in, and all the rest, as sheep use to do, followd their leader and lept in, so that I thinke three hundred were drowned.  thes and like misschances makes your commons* so little, for twenty thousand sheep a yeare are reckond to got from one port to England, and ten thousand head of cattle, but fourteen Vessels of them were cast away a month since together.  at the same place was a vessell cast away coming to Ireland with spice and nutmegs, and it being neere the harbour, some Irish found some of the nutmegs and went to crack them, but thay prayed for a thousand of st patricks curses to fall upon the merchant for bringing nuts without kirnells in them.  if such kind of news doe affect you I could write diurnally of them."

George Percivall,   from Trinity College, Dublin,  to Christchurch, Oxford*  December 1660

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

A Cabinet of Collectors 3: James Whitbread Lee Glaisher

It was Queen Mary II who introduced the passion for blue and white china into Britain, when she and her husband William III came over from Holland in 1689 to take the English throne.  The appeal of blue and white probably culminated in the mass production of the transfer printed Willow pattern in the nineteenth century, which continues to this day*.  The collector who owned this elaborate Delft posset pot describes "the real charm and beauty of the ware is to be seen in its highest perfection in some of the pieces decorated only in blue upon a white ground".  
This was Dr. James  W. L. Glashier, a mathematics  don at Trinity College, Cambridge,  lecturing to the Society of  Arts in 1897, and the posset pot features on his personal bookplate.   

Tin glazed earthenware (delft) posset pot, dated 1685,  Bristol/London c. 1504.  ©Fitzwilliam Museum
(Posset was a drink of warm milk with eggs, sugar and spices, curdled with wine or ale.)

James Whitbread Lee Glaisher (1848-1928)  © Trinity College, Cambridge

Dr Glaisher's father (also James) was a pioneering meteorologist and balloonist, who took his teenage son with him on two ascents,  and Dr Glaisher became a respected astronomer and was President of the Royal Astronomical Society for some years.  His collection contained several delftware plates commemorating early balloon flights, and this more unusual one from Bristol, dated 1740, (showing a holiday pastime in Teneriffe perhaps?).
It is based on a print illustrating "A Voyage to the Moone; or a Discours of a Voyage thither by Domingo Gonsales, the Speedy Messenger" of 1638.  The 'speedy messenger' was in fact Francis Godwin, Bishop of Hereford, and in his utopian story Gonsales describes how he harnesses wild swans to fly him to the Moon and back.

Bristol tin-glazed earthenware, 1740  
Purchased by Glaisher 1915 for £6.10s.  © Fitzwilliam Museum

As a mathematician and astronomer, and Fellow of Trinity, Cambridge,  this figure of Sir Isaac Newton from his collection would have appealed strongly to him.  He also helped Trinity to acquire a key manuscript letter from Newton to Hooke, discussing how to measure the rotation of the earth.

Sir Isaac Newton, showing the comet of 1680.
Ralph Wood, Staffs., overglaze enamels c. 1790 © Fitzwilliam Museum

Glaisher had an extensive library of books,  collecting manuscripts and Georgian chapbooks as well, which he donated in his will to his college and to Cambridge University Library.  He was a wealthy bachelor and his collections filled his rooms at Trinity.  "His collections never ceased to grow….outgrew available space, upstairs, downstairs, even in his remote bedroom.  He was granted an additional set of rooms at the top of his staircase and next to the upper floor of his own set; they, too, soon were filled.  He then hired a sort of warehouse, that also became filled in due course.  …the Fitzwilliam Museum … granted him a room (also soon filled) in the new wing…" wrote J. J. Forsyth.

He travelled widely, from Egypt to the United States,  and added to his collections (which included early samplers and Valentines) wherever he went. 

Haida totem pole from Queen Charlotte Island, British Columbia
©  Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge 

 In Cambridge, Glaisher would not have seemed eccentric, riding everywhere on his penny-farthing bicycle,  chairing a stormy public campaign meeting for Emily Pankhurst in 1910, and buying this Haida totem pole from the anthropologist C. F. Newcombe, for Cambridge University's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, where it is the centrepiece of the display.

His carefully recorded collections of nearly 6000 pieces of European pottery and porcelain now grace the Fitzwilliam Museum for our enjoyment and study today.

(with thanks to Dr. Julia Poole for her articles)

*  catch  Blue and White: British Printed Ceramics, at the V&A (ends January)  
Robert Dawson Blue Plate © V&A Museum  

Monday, 14 December 2015

A Cabinet of Collectors 2: C. Drury E. Fortnum

Charles Drury Edward Fortnum made his first fortune mining in Australia in the 1840s.  Back in England  he married twice, each time to a rich cousin, heiresses of the Fortnum family grocery wealth.
He travelled on the continent with his wives, collecting and studying Renaissance ceramics, especially maiolica, and bronzes, many of which he loaned to Henry Cole's South Kensington Museum (today the Victoria & Albert Museum) for a special  exhibition in 1862.   For several years, he was an Art Referee or consultant for the Museum, negotiating purchases,  for which he refused to be paid commission because he was 'a gentleman and not a dealer'.  A member of the Society of Antiquaries, he became a Trustee of the British Museum in 1889.

Venetian glass goblet, gilded and enamelled, 1475-1500  © V&A Museum
Purchased by Fortnum for the Museum in 1884

Victorian museums were very competitive institutions in their collecting, and subject to the interests and expertise of individual curators, who could be very cavalier in their decisions.    Offended particularly by one at the South Kensington Museum,  who refused to recognise and accept a terracotta relief by Antonio Rossellino which Fortnum had offered them,  Fortnum looked elsewhere for a home for his treasures. He felt strongly that "to entrust my loved children (my only family) to a baby-farm where they might die for want of proper nursing, clothing or care, would be the act of an extremely careless or unnatural parent".  Courted by curators from the Ashmolean Museum,  he eventually decided to transfer his collections to the Ashmolean, bequeathing them in his will, along importantly with funds to create a proper building to house them.

In 1889 Oxford University awarded him a Doctorate of Civil Law  (he had served as a local magistrate for many years)  in recognition of his gift.

C. Drury E. Fortnum, DCL,    Charles Alexander 1893
© Ashmolean Museum

He was a pioneer and his collection included  early 13th century pieces, as well as the luxury lustre wares, and istoriato narrative plates, showing scenes from history and classical myth.
He presented this istoriato plate to the Ashmolean in 1888, as well as other top quality and historically important pieces from his maiolica collection.

   Dish with Archelaus, King of Cappadocia, before the Emperor Tiberius
Urbino, c. 1530-35  ©  Ashmolean Museum

What the South Kensington Museum did have was Fortnum's masterly Catalogue of Renaissance Maiolica in the South Kensington Museum of 1873, which researchers still consult.  The woodcut illustrations show fine details in counterpoint to modern photographic images.

 His scholarly introductory essay describing the history, techniques and study of Renaissance maiolica was also published as a South Kensington Museum Art Handbook in 1875,  "enabling the public at a trifling cost to understand something of the history and character of the subjects treated of."

Sunday, 6 December 2015

A Cabinet of Collectors 1. Willam Courten, called Charleton

William Courten (1642-1702) in youth, c. 1655
© Trustees of British Museum

In March 1690, John Evelyn recorded that:

"I went againe to see Mr. Charleton's Curiosities both of Art & nature: as also his full & rare collection of Medails:  which taken alltogether in all kinds, is doubtless one of the most perfect assembly of rarities that can be anywhere seene:  I much admired the contortions of the Thea [tea] roote, which was so perplext, large & intricate, (& with all hard as box) that it was wonderful to consider:"

 Tea plant, from A Natural History of the Tea Tree  John C. Lettsom 1772

John Evelyn visited William Courten (known as Charleton) several times, to admire his collections of rare medals, paintings, books, shells, minerals and precious stones, plants and natural history specimens from across the globe, which he displayed for visitors in ten rooms in the Middle Temple. 

© Natural History Museum London

William may have changed his name to Charleton to distance himself from a long, contentious family lawsuit.  He became a wealthy merchant and travelled widely, as well as seeking rarities via his network of friends, including John Locke, whom he met in France in 1675.  In 1679 Locke replies from Paris to his friend Charleton in Montpellier:

   "However, I have got into my custody [for forwarding to London] that which I suppose you value most. i.e. six boxes of seds plants ett and one turned one wherein is a green Lizard,  and doubt not on twesday next to have the books at least all those that are not Contrabanded."

Locke gave him a recipe for preserving plants, and in 1685 Charleton is writing from London to Locke in Utrecht about his collection:

"I most heartily thank you for the acquisition you have made for me of 2 such great rarities as the clove, and cinnamon tree branches, and wish I had anything to make a return to the gentleman that gave them you;….'of doubles I have preserved in spirit of wine which I had at Montpellier (and as well conditioned as when first put into the glasses) a black, and grey scorpion*, a strange sort of locust, a large peice of chrystall with mosse in it, and a small parcel of rich silver ore'…

He also asks him to buy some desirable items:  " I heare there is lately a great Collection to be sold by auction at Amsterdam…amongst which are 2 Remoras if to be had at reasonable rates [20 shillings] I would willingly have them both, and what fine coloured Indian birds there may be…, the Insects that are Exotick of all kinds will be verry acceptable, espicially the great Phalangium [a venomous spider], the teeth of which are usually set in gold to make tooth picks of, the Tarantula of the spider* sort found in the Kingdome of Naples, for the other is a kind of Lizart and common all over Italy, the Stella arborescens [basket-fish] if to be meet with I should desire you to procure for me, amongst the seamen things may be had at easier rates than when they come into the possession of curious and knowing men…" 
*  Evelyn mentions 'the spider and bird, scorpion, other serpent &c.' after visiting in 1691.

Charleton sent some seeds also via a Dr Hans Sloane, which is probably how Locke too became friends with Sloane.   On his death in 1702, Charleton left all his collections to Sir Hans Sloane, and so they ended up now dispersed among the British Museum, the Natural History Museum, the British Library and elsewhere.

[see Biographia Britannica by Andrew Kippis 1725-1795, and Sachiko Kusukawa on]

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

December - "a chord of starlings"

The coming of winter. From Wild Hares and Hummingbirds,  Simon Moss.

"The next morning Jack Frost has returned with a vengeance, and now the scenery really has turned whiter-than-white; white trees, white hedgerows, white grass, white roofs and white sky. This is landscape in crystal form, only punctuated by the staccato notes of black birds as they dash across the sky or gather in the fields: chords of starlings, followed by the occasional crow, jackdaw or rook.  And one brief splash of colour: a flock of goldfinches, whose crimsons and golds illuminate the landscape like a coloured frame added to an old black-and-white film.

Gwyngyed Mountain, Winter   Ogwyn Davies
©  University of Aberystwyth

Later, as the sun sets over Brent Knoll, a low ridge of colour hangs over the Mendips, while a darker, more menacing wave arrives from the west.  A strong, full moon begins to rise, gradually illuminating the flat, white landscape.  A lone buzzard perches on top of a hawthorn hedge, surveying his misty kingdom.  Apart from a distant dog barking, and the hum of the milking parlour at Perry Farm, all is quiet; when it is as cold as this, no bird will waste energy in song.  In the rhyne by the farm a lone heron stands rigid on the ice, as if fixed permanently to the spot.  On catching sight of me he has just enough energy to flap those huge rounded wings and fly away.  I hope he finds some water, somewhere in this frozen land.

Soft, ghostlike, the mist surges westwards from the darkness, creating a blanket of vapour over the layer of snow beneath, like a counterpane laid carefully over a duvet.  As it finally covers the land, the tops of trees and hedgerows poke out as if grasping towards the last few minutes of daylight, before they too are swathed in the mist."

Winter series  Wilhelmina Barns-Graham
© the Barns-Graham Charitable Trust

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Two Lotteries for London

The building of Westminster Bridge was partly funded by a lottery, for which the prize was a  truly giant silver wine cistern, or wine bottle cooler, made for Henry Jerningham.  Flanked by nymph and satyr, supported by crouching panthers and decorated with scenes of Bacchus, it was made by master silversmith Charles Kandler in 1735, with modelling by Michael Rysbrack, weighing some 8000 ounces.  The lottery tickets were five or six shillings each and were accompanied by a silver medal.  The winner (who may not have realised its enormous size and weight) sold the original to a niece of Peter the Great and it is now in the Hermitage collection.  

In 1884 Elkington's of Birmingham made electrotype copies of Russian silver treasures, including the Jerningham wine cistern, as part of an international art education project, and this copy is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The Jerningham Wine Cooler,  electroplate copy 1884  
 ©V&A Museum

Another public lottery was run several decades earlier, for the building of Greenwich Hospital, which was begun following the wish of Queen Mary II to provide for old and wounded seamen after the naval battle of La Hogue.    It was carefully controlled, according to John Evelyn (treasurer and a Commissioner for the Hospital) in 1699 for: "All Lotterys 'til now cheating people, to be no longer permitted than to Christmas next, except that for the benefit of Grinwich Hospital:"

Even John Locke, who was aways very cautious with his money, bought himself a ticket in summer 1700, when asked by a fellow scholar to buy tickets for some friends in Paris.  There appear to have been monthly draws, with large and small lotteries at twenty shillings and five shillings a ticket.  Because of the vagaries of the post, often sending letters via acquaintances crossing the Channel, some draws were missed, but Locke and his French friend did have some winning tickets, as what they jokingly called the ''deus ex machina" looked favourably on them.

By August 1703 the sum of £89,364,  fourteen shillings and eightpence-farthing had been spent on the buildings since work began in 1696.  The first seamen were admitted in 1705 but building continued till 1752.   The Old Royal Naval College is a wonderful sight from the Thames to this day.

Greenwich Hospital,  Antonio Canaletto c. 1752 
© National Maritime Museum

Monday, 16 November 2015

Westminster Bridge - 'all bright and glittering in the smokeless air'.

Here are two views of the newly built Westminster Bridge, finally opened in 1750,  the only crossing between Putney Bridge and London Bridge, for a city which had grown extensively in the last hundred years.  Both show Westminster Abbey,  viewed from opposite directions.  The simple topographical scene has its charm, (the shimmering light, the reflected arches), but the one taken from Lambeth, on the south bank of the Thames, is a wonderful atmospheric landscape of the Thames traffic and eighteenth century London.  

Westminster Bridge  Antonio Joli (attrib.) c.1750
© Parliamentary Art Collection

Joli came to London in 1744, and was known for his theatre scenery and mural paintings, but he also learnt from his fellow countryman, Canaletto, as this other view of the Thames crossing shows.

Westminster from the River, London  Antonio Joli c. 1750
© Bank of England Museum

The bridge was replaced a century later when it become unstable, but it was from this first Westminster Bridge that the poet Wordsworth saw the city in 1802.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

New Spring Gardens, Vauxhall

As the dark evenings draw in, I thought it would be pleasant to remember the charms of summer with this view of the famous Vauxhall Gardens, especially for anyone queueing for buses or fighting onto trains at Vauxhall in the rush hour today. 

Grand Walk at Vauxhall Gardens   Antonio Canaletto 1751
© see Public Catalogue Foundation

Visitors in the eighteenth century also complained about the traffic congestion, whether they came across the Thames by horse-ferry or drove all the way to London Bridge or darkest Putney --and still, after Westminster Bridge was built in 1750, "the tide and torrent of coaches was so prodigious" complained  Horace Walpole in 1769.  He and his friend, after much delay, ...."then alighted; and after scrambling under bellies of horses, through wheels, and over posts and rails, we reached the gardens where there were already many thousand persons".  They were "rejoiced to come away, though with the same difficulties as at our entrance; for we found three strings of coaches all along the road, who did not move half a foot in half-an-hour."

The gardens brought the arts and culture as well as entertainment to the general public, as in this engraving showing the iconic statue of Handel ( of 1738) which graced the entrance.  Horace Walpole's older brother was in part responsible, for when a young immigrant artist found Sir Edward Walpole's wallet on leaving the Gardens and returned it to him, Sir Edward found him a post working for the leading sculptor of the day, Henry Cheere.  The young immigrant, Louis Francois Roubiliac, who created this inventive portrait of the great composer,  soon became known for his celebrity portrait busts and monuments, which now grace Westminster Abbey, churches, universities  and many museums and institutions.

Tom,  Jerry and Logic enjoying Vauxhall,
from Pierce Egan's "London Life" 1823,   © British Library

Vauxhall Gardens went in and out of fashion, with a range of entertainments, attracting the great, including royalty, and the less great, as George Cruikshank's comic illustration shows.  Perhaps James Boswell's  comment sums up the Gardens' long lasting appeal:

"Vauxhall Gardens is peculiarly adapted to the taste of the English nation: -- there being a mixture of curious show, -- gay exhibition, musick, vocal and instrumental, not too refined for the general ear;- for all which only a shilling is paid.  And, though last, but not least, good eating and drinking for those who wish to purchase that regale."    

Thursday, 5 November 2015

A master potter's hand

When I saw the photo of this beautiful pot I immediately wanted to share it, and to handle it.  I love the glossy black slip, and the way it segues into that wonderful striped band, echoing the flow from the spout when in use.  It would not look out of place at the Contemporary Ceramics Centre or a West End gallery,  but it was excavated from the ancient city site of Kerma, in the Sudan, and was made some time between 2500 BC and 1450 BC.   

Spouted ceramic beaker from Kerma, Kingdom of Kush, 2500-1450 BC.
© Trustees of British Museum

[And see the British Museum blog by curator Anna Garnett: Linking Cultures, September 1st] 

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

November in Somerset - Alfred's cakes and shamanic mushrooms

As I dipped into my monthly chapter of Stephen Moss's natural  history of a Somerset village,  I chanced upon his evocative description of woodland mushrooming and English fungi lore.  It also happily links my last two blogs.

"We are going on a fungal foray: to learn how to forage for free food, ideally without wending up in the local casualty department.
…We are walking through a dense woodland: little stands of oak and beech surrounded by great swathes of Norwegian spruce: the fast-growing, economically profitable 'Christmas tree' we know so well. Wildlife is thin on on the ground and hard to see among the dense, inky foliage. The only evidence that anything is here at all is the occasional snatch of sound: the trill of a wren, the peeping of gold crests and coal tits, or the harsh screech of a distant jay.  Closed, claustrophobic, this is not a place in which I feel at ease.

…We spread out through the woods like a police forensic team, carefuly scanning every inch of the ground in front of us.

Landscape of the Brown Fungus  Paul Nash, 1943
National Galleries of Scotland

Walking through the wood at such a slow, deliberate pace, changes the way you appreciate the landscape.  I begin to notice the patterns of the fallen beech leaves arranged in a random collage, ranging from chocolate-brown, through chestnuts, to buffs, yellows and the occasional tinge of lime-green, the summer shade retained even at this late stage of the year. The veins of the leaves overlap each other to make abstract patterns, intermingling with the greens of the surrounding brambles, ferns and moss.

Many fungi are picked, but few are chosen; and as Adrian [Boots] inspects our baskets he discards most of what we have found.  The temptingly named honey fungus is, he tells us, often sold in markets as an edible variety.  If you do eat it, you may get a nasty stomach upset, though it won't actually kill you.  Coral fungus does indeed resemble bright orange corals -- you wouldn't want to eat it, even if you could.

The edible varieties bear out Adrian's warning that appearance cannot be used as a guide to safe eating, as they could hardly be more different from one another. … We find wood blewits and a beautiful orangey-yellow chanterelle, which when gently squeezed emits a delicate scent of ripe apricots.

….Another fungus rich in folklore, though not edible, is King Alfred's cakes -- so called because when you cut open these hard little lumps they look as if they are burnt inside, a feature which would have reminded our ancestors of the famous royal cake-burning incident that took place a few miles south of here.

Daldinia Concentrica, Alfred's cakes, or coal fungus - cross section
© see
Just before lunchtime, we come across what looks like a cluster of bright red apples strewn across the forest floor,  these are fly agaric, whose name comes from its traditional use as an insecticide.  However, its main claim to fame is that indigenous people across Siberia have historically used it for its hallucinogenic properties, as part of their shamanic traditions.

We decide against trying to recreate this ancient practice.  Instead, Adrian heats up his Primus stove, chops up the few edible fungi we have managed to gather together, and sautes them in a mixture of butter and oil….

As we eat,  Adrian tells us about the complex relationship between trees and fungi.  Tree roots are not very good at obtaining nutrition, so they use the networks of underground fungi to do it for them.  What we see on the surface -- the fruiting bodies we call mushrooms and toadstools --are but a tiny fraction of what lies out of sight, beneath the soil.  The time and effort it has taken us to collect this meagre offering is a salutary reminder of just how tough life was for our hunter-gatherer ancestors; and how good they must have been at knowing where to look and what to pick...

By late afternoon the light has turned soft and even as it percolates through the trees, and the smell of woodland begins to intensify: a not unpleasant blend of dampness and decay.  As we return to the warmth of the Swan Inn [at Rowberrow] for a welcome pint, a solitary raven croaks unseen overhead; reminding us of the wilderness we have shared with nature for the past few hours."

November Moon   Paul Nash, 1942
Fitzwilliam Museum © Estate of Paul Nash

Saturday, 31 October 2015

"Witches' " boots from Lapland

Witches were long thought to be able to stir up storms and sink ships --as in Macbeth--

"Though you untie the winds and let them fight
Against the churches; though the yesty waves
Confound and swallow navigation up;"

and there was a special interest in the seventeenth century in the shamanism practised in Lapland, (possibly sparked by a series of witchcraft trials in Sweden).  The Sami culture, rituals and way of life were chronicled by Johannes Schefferus in 1673, aiming to prove that Swedish military success was not dependent on Sami magic.  But in the contemporary western European translations, chapters drawing on preconceived ideas of the Sami's  sorcery, drums, and pagan practices were inserted, without factual evidence, a case of publishers giving their readers the sensational accounts they wanted to hear, rather than a true picture.

© University Library of Tromso  (The Northern Lights Route)

 A young English diplomat in Stockholm, William Allestree, in 1673 sent home drawings of native Lapplanders to friends in England,  and later gifts of Lapp elkskin boots.  The ship carrying the boots, however,  was sunk,  which no doubt some superstitious readers of the adapted Lapponia translations would blame on the shamans' powers.  As Allestree  jests in his letter :

"Sir, yours of April the 14th, came to me on 17th Sept: by which you will judge, that either the Laps had no power to hasten it, or that they are no friends of mine, nor I at all in their book'es, who would deprive me so long of so great a kindness.  I could have wish'd, that as this, though late, came at length, the Laps-boots had had the same conveyance to you, and if they were lost in the sea, you may see, that though their makers are accounted witches because they cannot sinck, yet the boots who did so, were honest.   If the ship which carri'd them had not let in water, I am confident they would have held it out, and had the vessel bene in them*, it had been safer, then they were, being in it."
[*the elkskin boots, fur side out,  were waterproof]

Correspondence of John Locke, ed. E. S. De Beer,  Oxford University Press

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Paul Creswick, an Edwardian Bernard Cornwell?

Was  Paul Creswick the Bernard Cornwell of his day?  He is best known for his retelling of the Robin Hood story in the late Victorian style of Scott's Ivanhoe and George A. Henty's historical adventures.   It was first published in 1902, and was later popular enough to be issued in a deluxe edition with illustrations by N. C. Wyeth in England and in the United States.  Already an established writer,  in 1900 his first story of King Alfred's fight against the Danes was published by Ernest Nister - In Aelfred's Days, a Story of Saga the Dane, to be followed by two further books chronicling the adventures of his hero, Saga.

Set at the same period, it is the reverse of Cornwell's The Last Kingdom, for Saga is really a Danish child saved from the battlefield as a Saxon, and adopted into their household by Alfred and his Queen Ealhswith. The story sweeps along, with pitched battles, treachery, secret passages, caves, and forest wolves, not to mention those cakes.   After fighting with Alfred against Guthrum and his Danes at Edington, and discovering his real birth, our hero returns to his own country to reclaim his heritage and avenge his father in book two, Under the Black Raven.  In the last of the trilogy, Saga, now ruler in his own land,  helps his ally King Alfred defeat their common enemy in Hasting the Pirate (or Hastein, who was driven from Kent at this time).

The illustrator T H. Robinson was brother of Charles and (William) Heath Robinson, all three of them artists.

Born in Kingston-on-Thames in 1866, Paul Creswick was no action man, but an insurance clerk living in Beckenham, Kent, with a wife and young son. His first book was published in 1895; by 1900 he was writing his best-selling historical adventure stories regularly, sometimes two in a year, while continuing his career with the Prudential Assurance Company.  He eventually became their Principal Clerk.
During  the First World War,  he was in charge of Kent's Voluntary Aid Detachments, and was County Senior Transport Officer. He was co-author in 1915 of Kent's Care for the Wounded. But all this, as well as his senior position at work, left him no time for fiction and he wrote only a few books afterwards.  He was awarded the OBE for his wartime services.  (see


Friday, 23 October 2015

"And a few friends, and many books,…" Abraham Cowley

Abraham Cowley,  Sir Peter Lely, 1666-67
© National Portrait Gallery

Highly regarded in the seventeenth century, there are portraits of Cowley in several Oxford and Cambridge Colleges, and he was buried in pomp in Westminster Abbey. His reputation as a poet dwindled in later centuries, but he should also be remembered for his influence amongst those who founded the Royal Society; his Proposition for the Advancement of Learning was published in 1661 and he and his friend John Evelyn shared their interest in botany. 


"Well then! I now do plainly see
This busy world and I shall ne'er agree.
The very honey of all earthly joy
Does of all meats the soonest cloy;
And they, methinks, deserve my pity
Who for it can endure the stings,
The crowd, and buzz, and murmurings,
Of this great hive, the city.

"Ah, yet, ere I descend to the grave,
May I a small house and large garden have;
And a few friends, and many books, both true,
Both wise, and both delightful too!
And since love ne'er will from me flee,
A Mistress moderately fair,
And good as guardian angels are,
Only beloved and loving me.

"O fountains! when in you shall I
Myself eased of unpeaceful thoughts espy?
O fields, O woods!  when, when shall I be made
The happy tenant of your shade?
Here's the spring-head of Pleasure's flood:
Here's wealthy Nature's treasury,
Where all the riches lie that she
Has coin'd and stamp'd for good.

"Pride and ambition here
Only in far-fetch'd metaphors appear;
Here naught but winds can hurtful murmurs scatter,
And naught but Echo flatter.
The gods, when they descended, hither
From heaven did always choose their way:
And therefore may we boldly say
That 'tis the way too thither.

"How happy here should I
And one dear She live, and embracing die!
She who is all the world, and can exclude
In deserts solitude.
I should have then this only fear: 
Lest men, when they my pleasures see,
Should hither throng to live like me,
And so make a city here." 

Abraham Cowley,  1618-1667.  

Cowley was a staunch Royalist, carrying secret letters between Henrietta-Maria from exile in France and Charles I.   Having lived through the political and religious upheaval under Charles I, Cromwell  and Charles II, it is not surprising that Cowley echoes Virgil and Horace in his picture of a quiet rural life (although he never married).  But for the modern reader, Andrew Marvell says it so much better.   

Monday, 19 October 2015

Lady Masham's closet

No portrait survives of Damaris Cudworth, Lady Masham, who was a close friend of Locke since 1681;  she was then living in Cambridge where her father, the Platonist Ralph Cudworth, was Master of Christ's College.

The Master's Lodge, Christ's College, Cambridge (built c. 1550)
© Christ's College Cambridge

This description was written in November 1685, when she was still adjusting to her new life as wife to Sir Francis Masham, stepmother to his children and mistress of a household in rural Essex, and it gives us a vivid sense of her personality.

"I have several times begun to write to You since I received Yours But the Necessitie of Household Affaires will have it so that I could never Yet finish one Letter;...'Tis in vain that you bid me Preserve my Poetry; Household Affaires are the Opium of the Soul… if ever that Humour come on me againe You shall Wish for Finis a Thousand times before you find it; I will set the  Affronted Countrey Ladies too upon you, and They shall Abuse you Ten times more than I can, for All your Contempt of Theire Sublime Ideas of Goose Pye and Bag Puding.  This would bring me again now to the Chapter of Household Affaires, and my imployments, but that I am awearie: However for All my quarrel with you I cannot help  telling you that there is scarse any thing I would not give to see you Here in my Closet where I am now writing to You: I can but think how you would  smile to see Cowley and my Surfeit Waters Jumbled together; with Dr. More and my Gally Potts of Mithridate and Dioscordium; My Receits and Account Books with Antoninus's his Meditations, and Des Cartes Principles; with my Globes and my Spinning Wheel; for just in this order they at present ly, and tis not without Reason I think that I designe to Draw Curtains over this Fantastical Furniture."

From her letter to John Locke, 14 November 1685
The Correspondence of John Locke, ed. E. S. De Beer  Oxford University Press

Engraving of Lady Masham's estate, Oates House, Essex (c. 1821)
(Essex Records Office)

This portrait of Locke was painted in the summer of 1689, soon after his return to England from political exile in Holland. The next year he moved to live with the Mashams at Oates,  a more healthy spot than London, where he became an influential part of the household (although he insisted on paying rent).   So Lady Damaris Masham's correspondence with her friend was replaced with daily conversation.

  John Locke   Herman Verelst,  1689
© National Portrait Gallery

Sunday, 11 October 2015

John Locke: sight and insight.

Here are portraits of two very great friends - young William Molyneux, Irish astronomer and natural scientist and John Locke, the famous philosopher and man of letters. They lived in an age of enquiry and  debate - widely spread through the printed word - and shared their  interests and studies in natural philosophy.      You feel that as such close friends, who relied almost entirely on correspondence between Dublin and England, with only the one meeting in August 1698, they would want to be looking at each other.  But here they are, side by side, having sat for these portraits in 1696.

William Molyneux, attribut.  Sir Godfrey Kneller; and John Locke, by Michael Dahl  c. 1696
© National Portrait Gallery
 Locke wrote to Molyneux in May 1697:

"Though the honour you do me in the value you put upon my shadow be a fresh mark of that friendship which is so great an happiness to me, yet I shall never consider my picture in the same house with you, without great regret at my so far distance from you my self.  But I will not continue to importune you with my complaints of that kind; 'tis an advantage greater that I could have hoped, to have the conversation of such a friend, though with the sea between; and the remaining little scantling of my life would be too happy if I had you in my neighbourhood."

Their friendship began in 1692, when Molyneux read Locke's Essay concerning Human Understanding.  He praised it for its 'more profound Truths, established on Experience and Observations' in the dedication of his work on optics,  Dioptrica Nova, and sent a copy of this to Locke,  who recognised a kindred spirit.  "For meeting with but few men in the world whose acquaintance I find much reason to covet, I make more than ordinary haste into the familiarity of a rational enquirer after, and lover of truth, whenever I can light on any such.  There are beauties of the mind, as well as of the body, that take and prevail at first sight;…"  Locke wrote in September, and asked Molyneux for his detailed advice in preparing the second edition of his Essay.

The friends finally met, face to face, when William visited Locke at Oates, Essex, in August 1698.   William  died soon after, in October 1698 aged only forty-two.  The leading Irish scientist of his day, his 'globe and cube problem' has yet to be satisfactorily resolved.

Quotations from The Correspondence of John Locke  edited E. S. de Beer, the Clarendon Edition, Oxford University Press

Thursday, 1 October 2015

October in Somerset

"Outside in the parks and playgrounds around the parish, it's the local children's favourite time of year. The leaves of the horse-chestnut trees are turning an orangey-brown, and beneath every one is a treasure trove of spiky green balls, each beginning to split open to reveal the dark shiny fruit within.  Is there any natural object as instantly alluring as the conker?  Nothing else has quite the same appeal, and even now, more than forty years after I picked one up as a small child, I still get the same thrill each year when I find the first polished conker of the season."

Wild Hares and Hummingbirds  Stephen Moss

[Like seashells fresh from the beach, the shiny conkers fade when brought home, but the tree summer blossoms are still celebrated on Chestnut Sunday in May, with processions along the Chestnut Avenue in Bushy Park, across from Hampton Court Palace.]

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

The power of drawing

This lovely drawing is by Jehan (John) Daly, whose biography and some other intriguing artist's studio drawings I found on the Liss Llewellyn Fine Art website.  Daly was a close friend of John Stanton Ward, but for me he also links two artists I admire:  Gilbert Spencer, who taught  (or rather allowed him to follow his own path) at the Royal College of Art, and John Sergeant, another Welsh artist and masterly draughtsman.

Bathroom at Erdigg  John Sergeant  1987
National Trust Collection

[Footnote:  James Russell has recently highlighted Fay Ballard's quiet drawings in his blog,  which you may also enjoy.]

Saturday, 19 September 2015

"Accidentally, on purpose"

This useful and expressive phrase goes back several centuries, and is particularly pertinent when faced with entrenched bureaucracy.  Thus, Sylvester Brounower writes to John Locke with news from London in 1697.

John Locke , plumbago drawing by Sylvester Brounower (Locke's amanuensis) c. 1685
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Whitehall April the 24th: 1697   

"Mrs Smithsby…presents her service to you and would be glad to see you [Locke] in Town again, as some in our Office [the Dept of Trade and Plantations] do, she has been served just as we are, for her Petition and the King's reference upon it; and Our Establishment with the King's reference upon it, are both, accidentally, on purpose, lost in the Treasury."

(Mrs Smithsby had petitioned for 12 years' arrears of a pension originally granted to her father and her petition was referred to the Surveyor-General of Crown Lands in July 1696.  See Correspondence footnote.)

The Correspondence of John Locke  ed. E. S. de Beer   © Oxford University Press

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

September in Somerset

A robin calls loudly from a hawthorn hedge; and above it on the topmost sprig, perches a plump buffish-orange bird, a wheatear.  This is unfamiliar territory: the closest place where wheatears breed is Exmoor or Salisbury Plain, though this bird could have come from as far afield as Scandinavia.

2 Northern Wheatears   Henrik Gronvald c. 1907-09

The wheatear may be the robins' cousin, but there is little love lost between them,  Having established his autumn territory along this hedgerow, the robin is not prepared to tolerate any intruder, however far it might have travelled.  So when the wheatear flies down onto the stony track the robin follows, uttering a peevish warning call, in an attempt to see off the newcomer.  But the wheatear takes no notice, running in short bursts along the track on long, rangy legs, and occasionally stopping to pick up a morsel of insect food, before flying up to another perch.

As I get closer, the bird's fresh plumage and confiding nature suggest that this is a juvenile, probably only three or four months old. I appreciate the subtle pale, yellowish-buff of its belly shading darker on the upper breast, the jet-black tail, and as it flies  a few yards along the path, the snow-white rump which gives the bird its name.  For 'wheatear' has absolutely nothing to do with ears of wheat, but derives instead from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning 'white arse'."

Wild Hares and Hummingbirds  Stephen Moss

Saturday, 5 September 2015

A station on the Rake's Progress

I like going to exhibitions where the paintings and objects  speak to each other in surprising ways, and the exhibition of Grayson Perry's  " Rake's Progress" tapestries  (The Vanity of Small Differences)  at Temple Newsam House this summer is a clear case in point.

      The Agony in the Carpark  © Grayson Perry 2012

This  tapestry picked up the blue stripes of the period wallpaper against which it was hung, and its images were  reflected in the rococo overmantel mirror.  A new context adding to the debate.

The tapestries looked very different from their earlier showing at the Foundling Museum in London where they were hung together in art gallery style and spoke to each other in close-up detail.  Elsewhere there was a showing of Yinko Shonibare's work,  again on the Hogarthian Rake theme, but rather cramped in their space for real impact.
And don't miss the Foundling Museum's lovely cafe, food for mind and body.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

"In a Persian Garden"

The popular song cycle "In a Persian Garden" was composed by Liza Lehmann in 1896, taking lyrics from Edward Fitzgerald's translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.
"Paradise" is derived from the Old Iranian word "pairidaeza", meaning park or enclosure, a 'garden oasis' to be enjoyed, as in this Safavid miniature, alone:

The hoopoe brings King Solomon's message to Bilqis, Queen of Sheba  
Iran, c.1590-1600  © Trustees of the British Museum

or in these Iranian tile panels, in company:

Wall panels from the royal garden pavilions of the Chahar Bagh, Isfahan  1600-1625
(the men with hats are probably European merchants) 
© Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

A contemporary large tile panel can be seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum, showing similar interchangeable figures and patterns and Chinese derived cloud border.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

A garden in Bruges

Virgin and Child, with Saints Catherine and Barbara,  and Mary Magdalene, and Donor   
Gerard David 1510  © National Gallery, London

The large-scale meditative figures dominate this painting, posed against the Italian silk and gold damask hanging which frames the Virgin and Child, and the buildings of Bruges behind.  The walled garden (the hortus conclusus),  the potent medieval image of Mary's virginity, seems to fade into the background in this 'modern' Renaissance painting; only the sharp horizontal line of the wall as it  links  the saints' heads reinforces this concept of the holy enclosed garden.  

Sunday, 23 August 2015

At Luton Hoo Park

   Daughters of the 3rd Earl of Bute   Johann Zoffany 1763-4  © Tate UK   

Their botanist father had only just acquired his estate at Luton Park (having resigned as Prime Minister),  and Robert Adam had not yet begun work on the house.  Here the girls are playing with their pet squirrels in the park;  later they could have enjoyed the famous Walled Garden, designed by Capability Brown.  Bute had been tutor to the future George III, and would have been very familiar with the Royal Gardens at Kew.  

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Golding Constable's Garden

John Constable c. 1815  ©  Colchester& Ipswich Museums Service 

Notice the distant windmill drawing the eye, and here closer to home, from an upstairs window, Golding Constable's Flower Garden.

John Constable, 1815  © Christchurch Mansion

Friday, 14 August 2015

In or out of the Garden?

Balloon Race, Clipston     David Tindle  1980/81
©the artist  Government Art Collection

Mural     David Tindle,  1978
© the artist   Open University Campus