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

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

A bird in the hand, at the Fitzwilliam Museum

Was it a wet, wintry day in 1828 when Isabella, Lady Hertford reached for her scissors and began cutting out some colourful pictures with which to liven up her blue wallpaper?  That wallpaper  had been imported from China, a gift from George the Prince of Wales many years before, and can still be seen in situ, duly embellished with exotic birds pasted amongst its flowering branches, at Temple Newsam House, near Leeds.

Embellished 18th century Chinese wallpaper in the Blue Drawing Room
© Temple Newsam House, Leeds

Far greater 'vandalism' was done to the newly published portfolio Lady Hertford cut all those exotic hand-coloured pictures from :  the first part of  John James Audubon's The Birds of America, with its 435 astonishing life-size images,  now regarded as one of the finest natural history publications held in any great library collection.

Plate from The Birds of America, from Original Drawings, made during a Residence of  Twenty-five Years in the United States  John James Audubon  (for images see 

Creating this labour of love over twenty-five years, Audubon was supported during his travels by his wife Lucy working as a governess.  "Every moment I had to spare I drew birds for my ornithology in which my Lucy and myself alone have faith.  My best friends solemnly regarded me as a madman, and my wife and family alone gave me encouragement,  My wife determined that my genius should prevail, and that my final success as an ornithologist should be triumphant."

Roseate Spoonbill

"Light as a sylph, the Arctic Tern dances through the air above and around you."  J. J. Audubon

Visitors to Cambridge this December can find out more about John Audubon, his years of perseverance  (at one stage his paintings were all eaten by rats)  and his remarkable creation,  at the Fitzwilliam Museum.    On selected dates the Founder's Library, named after Richard, the 7th Viscount Fitzwilliam, will be open to the general public in small groups at lunchtimes.

The mantel clock in the Founder's Library at the Fitzwilliam Museum

 The Library curators will introduce you to Audubon's giant masterpiece and reveal the fascinating stories about this rare hand-coloured volume and other historic printed books from the collection across the centuries.  Prepare to be amazed!*

Carolina Parrot or Parakeet

Great Blue Heron

* Or see the marvellous illuminated manuscripts in the Fitzwilliam exhibition "Colour" (

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Sagittarius: the Archer

The Fair Toxophilites   William Powell Frith 1872
© Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter

It was Roger Ascham, tutor and later secretary to Queen Elizabeth I,  who coined the word "toxophily".  In 1545 he published his treatise on archery -- "Toxophilus", -- from toxon, the Greek word for bow, rather than the Latin arcus. His book takes the form of a debate between Philologus, the scholar, and Toxophilus the archer, on the respective virtues of learning versus shooting.  Toxophilus is clearly no mean scholar himself, drawing on as many classical writers - Plato, Aristotle, Hesiod and more - as the book-loving Philologus.  This was the first handbook on archery written in English, and Ascham's dialogue format was soon copied by other writers, including Izaak Walton in his Compleat Angler in 1653.

the Moon goddess, late 17th century engraving

The constellation of Sagittarius takes its name from the Latin for arrow, sagitta, and is often portrayed (as above) as a centaur, that half-man, half-horse beast from Greek mythology;   although it is perhaps that other archer,  Cupid, who is the more popular figure in western art and literature.

"With what sad steps, O Moon! thou climb'st the skies!
How silently! and with how wan a face!
What! may it be that even in heavenly place
That busy archer his sharp arrows tries?"

Sonnet 31, Astrophel and Stella  Sir Philip Sidney

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Diverse dishes - and wartime celebrations 20th November

Saloon Bar 1940  Edward Le Bas
© Tate Britain

"For those who eat out in the West End, getting a meal is becoming more and more of a race to the swiftest, in which latecomers are greeted with nothing but polite headshakes and overflowing tables.  The five-shilling limit on bills has no real effect on the cost of dining out - the addition of various 'house charges' and sundry items see to that  - but it does have certain comic results,  Oyster fanciers, for instance, can start their dinner with six oysters if they can afford such luxuries, but if they have nine oysters they cannot have another course, for that would send the bill above the legal total.  A major in Driver's the other evening, affectionally regarding the last oyster on his plate, saw it snatched from under his nose by the barman, who had suddenly realised that he had given the guest ten by mistake. The unhappy major said that they were the first oysters he had had after three years in the desert, all of which time he had apparently spent dreaming about Whitstable Natives.  It didn't make any difference to the bartender, though."

Mollie Panter-Downes, in The New Yorker, November 1943

This wartime austerity continued through 1947:

"Potato rationing is not an unexpected blow, but after two years of peace, this continuous taking in of the belt is becoming very discouraging.  … It was surprising however, to hear that the sweet ration was to be reduced and this at a time when the sugar supply is so ample that some think it might be taken off the ration altogether.  When will austerity cease?"       Mass-Observation Archive, 9th November 1947

But all was not doom and gloom that month: on the 20th November 1947 the country celebrated the wedding of HRH Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip:

"…I turned on the wireless.  A moving occasion….the feeling is genuine enough -- a delightful sort of family feeling. .. We do love our little ceremonies.  And why not? All of us are hungry for colour, romance and adventure.  Today's ceremony symbolised some dormant dream of perfection alive in the breast of every, well, woman at least. …I wept copiously into the washing-up bowl as I listened."
© Mass-Observation Archive, as above, both quoted in Our Hidden Lives  © Simon Garfield

The royal wedding banquet of Anglo-French dishes concluded with an ice-cream bombe, named after the Princess.  Maybe some people even celebrated with oysters, if not so prolifically as Lewis Carroll's pair:


The Walrus and the Carpenter  illus. John Tenniel 1871

"…Oh Oysters come and walk with us!
The Walrus did beseech.
A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,
Along the briny beach:
We cannot do with more than four,
To give a hand to each. ….

Four  other Oysters followed them,
And yet another four; 
And thick and fast they came at last,
And more and more, and more --
All hopping through the frothy waves,
And scrambling to the shore….

A loaf of bread, the Walrus said,
Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed --
Now if you're ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed……

Oh Oysters, said the Carpenter,
You've had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?
But answer came there none --
And this was scarcely odd, because
They'd eaten every one!"

Through the Looking Glass  Lewis Carroll
(see for the full text)

Saturday, 12 November 2016

"She's a dish" ?

Shakespeare's Measure for Measure is a play full of moral ambiguity and vice, in which two virtuous women are threatened by hypocrisy and male power.  Isabella, a novice nun, must trade her virginity to save her brother's life,  while Mariana has been jilted for lack of her dowry, both at the mercy of Angelo, the outwardly upright Ducal deputy.
Elsewhere, Pompey the bawd, trying to make Mistress Overdone's brothel appear respectable to the officers,  describes how

 "..she came in…longing for stewed prunes.  Sir we had but two in the house, which at that very distant time stood, as it were, in a fruit-dish, a dish of some threepence; your honours have seen such dishes; they are not China dishes, but very good dishes."  Measure for Measure Act 2, sc, 1.

Small 'Kraak' porcelain dish,  imitated in blue and white Dutch delft   
© V&A Museum

The first recorded performance of  Measure for Measure was for the Christmas Revels of 1604.  Ever up to date, Shakespeare's "China dishes" would surely be recognised by his elite audience as a reference to the spectacular sale of Chinese porcelain in Holland from captured Portuguese carracks in 1602 and 1603. One cargo alone contained 50 tons or 100,000 pieces of Chinese export porcelain. Before this, Chinese porcelains were exotic rarities, owned only by royalty and the very wealthiest of courtiers and Levant merchants.

Pompey's "very good (threepenny) dishes" might have been pewter, but more likely Dutch 'delft' - imitations of the imported 'Kraak' i.e. carrack porcelains, made of tin-glazed earthenware - liquid resistant, shiny and colourful but prone to chip and crack.  Some immigrant Dutch potters were making basic tin-glazed earthenwares in London from 1570s (especially smooth tiles and jars for apothecaries). The Museum of London has a large collection, many found in pieces in old cesspits.  

                     3 rare survivals:  Tin-glazed drug pots, English or Dutch, c.1600-1650.  
                                                 © British Museum, London 

It was Italian potters who introduced the technique into Holland, for tin-glazing in Italy had reached a high art form in the early 1500s, with master potters decorating wares with scenes from history and classical myth in vivid colours (known as 'maiolica').  Popular display pieces were the coppe amatorie, stock  images of idealised beautiful women, inscribed with a name and flattering titles such as bella, diva, gracioza, galante.  

'Laura bella', shallow maiolica bowl on foot, Urbino or Casteldurante, Italy, c. 1525-35
© Fitzwilliam Museum

'Silvia diva mia bella' , Urbino or Casteldurante, Italy, c. 1540
© V&A Museum

A modern feminist take on these idealised  "fair women" has been created by the Boston-born book artist, Angela Lorenz in 1993,  in her set of 6 collagraphed paper plates, framed and stored in a slatted crate.  She now lives and works mainly in Bologna, and this piece was inspired by these 'Belle Donne' images.

She's a Dish: paper plates  © Angela Lorenz, National Art Library, V&A

The six paper plates are variously labelled:  
 "She is round. She is idealised. She hangs on the wall.
  She is not to be used. She is not disposable. She's a dish."

Angela Lorenz, from artist's book, 1993 

Angela Lorenz, from artist's book, 1993

Each 'She' is in fact a dish of collaged spaghetti, sealed with glue and inked in typical maiolica colours, making a relief print in the style of those Renaissance fair women, now captured in their 16th century ceramics in museums across the globe.

See Angela Lorenz's website:

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Music of the Thames

Symphony in Yellow

"An omnibus across the bridge
Crawls like a yellow butterfly,
And, here and there, a passer-by
Shows like a little restless midge.
Big barges full of yellow hay
Are moored against the shadowy wharf,
And like a yellow silken scarf,
The thick fog hangs along the quay.
The yellow leaves begin to fade
And flutter from the Temple elms,
And at my feet the pale green Thames
Lies like a rod of rippled jade."

Poems, 1881  Oscar Wilde

Claude Monet must have seen similar views across the Thames when he was staying at the Savoy Hotel in the autumn of 1899 and the winters of 1900 and 1901, but this view upriver towards the Houses of Parliament was seen from his fifth floor balcony, not from the Embankment.

"… the evening mist clothes the riverside with poetry…" J.M. Whistler

 Charing Cross Bridge  Claude Monet, 1899, completed 1902
© National Museum of Cardiff, Wales

Monet and Whistler had met in Paris, where both exhibited impressionist paintings in the Salon des Refuses of 1863.  The much younger Wilde, just down from Oxford, met Whistler in London in 1881,  and fell under the influence of this artistic circle.  It was fashionable to give paintings musical names, hence his poem title "Symphony". 

Wilde's 'yellow butterfly' too is a reminder of Whistler's monogram on his Thames "Nocturne" series,   painted further upstream at Chelsea between 1866 and 1877.  Whistler called them his 'moonlights', until his patron Frederick Leyland suggested the poetical name 'Nocturne'.

Thames Nocturne, James McNeill Whistler, c. 1875
© Indianapolis Museum of Art

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

November 1st: " Some are weather-wise, some are other-wise."*

"All Saints' Day, at the beginning of November, often marks a dramatic change in the weather, as the last traces of summer finally fade, and the true character of autumn is revealed.  Some years this is marked by hard frosts, but our unpredictable climate means that dank, wet weather is equally likely.

Channel  Neil Murison   Royal West of England Academy  © the artist

When the Atlantic weather systems dominate, wave after wave of depressions sweep across that vast ocean, and funnel up the Bristol Channel, bringing more rain to an already sodden landscape.  The ground soaks up the extra water for a while, but as the weeks go by the roads are awash with muddy puddles, while little pools begin to form on the fields.  Day after day, the west wind whips across this flat, open land, battering the stunted trees and hedges into submission."

Black Wing  Peter Lanyon   British Council collection  © Sheila Lanyon

And later in the month:    "….a crow sounds a high-pitched cry of alarm.  A small taut shape shoots out of the hawthorn hedgerow: a male sparrow hawk, twisting and turning in pursuit of a bird not much smaller than he is; his T-shaped silhouette shooting low across the landscape as clouds of birds panic in the skies above.
A few minutes later, the sparrow hawk has moved on, and the fieldfares settled back into the topmost twigs of the hawthorns,  A constant, soft chattering sound fills the air, as if they are discussing the event I have just witnessed.  Fanciful, I know, but this murmur of sound is clearly a response to the passing of the predator.

The more time I spend in the parish, the more I become sensitive to these subtle changes in sight and sound.  This is a skill all naturalists pick up over the years, but it is heightened on my journey through time and seasons in the same, small, enclosed space.  It goes much deeper than mere knowledge; and almost feels as if I am becoming part of the landscape and its wildlife.  I find it comforting to know that as I get older, and my physical horizons begin to diminish, I shall never get bored with what I see, hear and find in this country parish."

Wild Hares and Hummingbirds  Stephen Moss

* from Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac

Monday, 24 October 2016

St Crispin's Eve, 24th October 1415

Key moments in Shakespeare's plays include the eve of battle scenes in Richard III and in Henry V.  Before Agincourt, Henry walks around the camp incognito, in a borrowed cloak, testing the mettle of his men and himself: 

"Henry: Good morrow, old Sir Thomas Erpingham:
A good soft pillow for that good white head
Were better than a churlish turf of France.

Erpingham: Not so, my liege: this lodging likes me better,
Since I may say, 'Now lie I like a king'.

Henry: Lend me thy cloak, Sir Thomas." Act IV, sc.1.

Embroidered chasuble, English, early 1400s    © V& A Museum

When Henry borrows the cloak from Sir Thomas Erpingham, his senior commander who drew up the English line at Agincourt,  I am reminded of this medieval priest's chasuble, bearing the shields of Sir Thomas under the arms of the embroidered cross (the orphrey).

 It was made from the most luxurious fabric available, woven silk from Italy, here unusually portraying exotic camels with panniers of flowers,  and made suitable for religious use by applying a panel of English silk and gold thread embroidery, (opus anglicanum *).  This is the rear view of the chasuble, which would be seen when the priest celebrated mass.  Sometimes chasubles were cut down from a much larger cloak, or cope, deriving their name from the Roman soldier's enveloping cloak - or casula, little house.
I like to think it was so in this instance, linking cloaks for kings, soldiers and priests.

*see the current exhibition at the V&A Museum.

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.