Saturday, 13 December 2008

Happy birthday, Erasmus

How remiss of me, I forgot to wish Erasmus Darwin a happy birthday yesterday. Thank goodness that Palaeoblog remembered! Here's a seasonal excerpt from my copy of Darwin's The Loves of the Plants, which, because I'm short on time, I'm going to have to generalise as a botanical poem concerning itself with the sex life of flowers. Yes, really...
Ambitious Visca [mistletoe], from thy eagle-flight! - Scorning the sordid soil, aloft she springs, Shakes her white plume, and claps her golden wings; High o'er the fields of boundless ether roves, and seeks amid the clouds her soaring loves!
Footnote: Viscum. Mistletoe. This plant never grows upon the ground; the foliage is yellow, and the berries milk-white; the berries are so viscous, as to serve for bird-lime; and when they fall, adhere to the branches of the tree, on which the plant grows, and strike root into its bark; or are carried to distant trees by birds.

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Friday, 12 December 2008

The Chap

Ah, The Chap magazine. While the country plunges deeper into recession, The Chap goes A4 and expands to 12 pages. Thank goodness! Where else can one obtain glossy articles on Georgian rakes?
From The Chap Manifesto: Society has become sick with some nameless malady of the soul. We have become the playthings of corporations intent on converting our world into a gargantuan shopping precinct... we live in a world where children are huge hooded creatures lurking in the shadows; the local hostelry has been taken over by a large chain that specialises in chilled lager, whose principal function is to aggravate the nervous system... It is time for Chaps and Chapettes from all walks of life to stand up and be counted. But fear not, ye languid and ye plain idle: ours is a revolution based not on getting up early and exerting oneself - but a revolution that can be achieved by a single raised eyebrow over a monocle; the ordering of a glass of port in All Bar One; the wearing of a particularly fetching cardigan upon a visit to one's bookmaker...

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Triumphing over smallpox

I was intrigued when I came across this monument to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in Lichfield Cathedral a few days ago, though puzzled as to its origins, given that she's buried in (I think) Yorkshire. It reads:
Sacred to the Memory of The Right Honorable Lady MARY WORTLEY MONTAGUE, who happily introduced from Turkey into this country the Salutary Art of inoculating the Small-Pox. Convinc'd of its Efficacy she first tried it with Success On her own Children and then recommended the practice of it To her fellow-Citizens. Then by her Example and Advice we have soften'd the Virulence and escaped the danger of this malignant Disease. To perpetuate the Memory of such Benevolence, and express her Gratitude for the benefit she herself has receiv'd from the alleviating Art, this Monument is erected by HENRIETTA INGE relict of THEODORE WILLIAM INGE, Esq.r. and Daughter of Sir JOHN WROTTESLEY Baronet in the Year of OUR LORD MDCCLXXXIX

Happily, Rob Hardy's blog, written during a sabbatical in Warwickshire, answers my questions, provides a neat little biog of Lady Mary, and an overview of the scourge of smallpox in the 18th century.

A small addendum to Hardy's article: Edward Jenner was born in Berkeley, England, on 17 May 1749, and would become a pioneer of smallpox vaccination. The act of deliberately giving people smallpox to create immunity, popularised by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, became known as variolation. Jenner was variolated at school: he was starved, purged and bled, then locked up in a stable with other artificially infected boys until the disease had run its course! Because variolation was still an imprecise science, the technique was a risky one, and some died from it.

Operating as a country doctor, Jenner soon observed the effects of cowpox, and speculated, correctly, that it could act as a safer protective against smallpox. In his garden he installed what would become known as the Temple of Vaccinia: a small hut with a thatched roof where he vaccinated the local poor.

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Thursday, 11 December 2008

Fire wrecks David Garrick's villa

I'm in shock. I was going to do you a jolly little blog about my visit to David Garrick's villa at Hampton and his Temple to Shakespeare (which I visited on the Open House London weekend). Anyway, as I was nipping through Technorati for some blogs on the legendary 18th-century actor, I came across the news that the Grade I listed villa (below, as I photographed it in 2006) caught fire in October and was badly damaged. English Heritage described the loss of parts of the building as a tragedy, adding that it was of national importance. There's some BBC video of the incident here.

The Temple is actually across the road on the riverbank - Garrick used to access it via a specially built tunnel - so thankfully, it escaped the flames (I'll do a separate blog posting on the Temple at some point). I feel rather shocked and upset about the damage to what Garrick called his 'pretty place by ye Thames side', mainly because his childhood home here in Lichfield has long since been demolished.

Garrick was actually born at the Angel Inn at Hereford, where his father was on an army recruiting expedition, but the family had a house in Lichfield (his mother, Arabella Clough, was the daughter of one of the cathedral clergy). I actually live just up the street from where Garrick grew up, though the site is now occupied by the registry office, which bears a simple plaque (below).

But what a shame about the Hampton villa! When Johnson attended a fĂȘte champĂȘtre on Garrick's lawns, he was supposed to have told his host: 'Ah David, it is the leaving of such places that makes a deathbed so terrible.'

Photographs © Memoirs of the Celebrated Mrs Woffington.

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Find your way around early Georgian London

For someone like me, occupied with trying to write historical fiction, an old map is a useful imaginative aid. While including exact street names in your novel is tedious (unless you're James Joyce), there's something helpful about visualizing your hero or heroine's neighbourhood - in my case, London in the 1740s - because it helps to bring their world to life. After all, if something seems vivid to you, it should seem vivid to your readers. Imagine how delighted I was, when poking around in Stanfords caverous map shop in Covent Garden, to find a whole set of maps of London in different periods on CD Rom, including maps and topographical prints from John Strype's 1720 edition of John Stow's Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster. Stow's was the very first written survey of London (published in 1598), and Strype carefully updated and extended it to produce an overview of the capital's antiquities and its topography. This advert appeared in Hatton's New View of London (1708):

In a short time Proposals will be published for Reprinting Mr Stow's large Survey of London improv'd; with very great Additions throughout, and illustrated with about 100 large Copper Cutts, viz. of the City in general, and of several of the Wards thereof: of Westminster, Southwark, and all the Out-Parts of the City as they are now: and several Ornamental Plates of Churches, and other Public Buildings in Folio.

Note: this Work has been long preparing, the Cutts requiring much Time and Great Expences, but they are now all finished, and may be seen at the Undertakers.

For some reason I didn't get a copy of John Rocque's famous map, surveyed between 1735 and 1746 (maybe it wasn't on the shelf), but happily, copyright owner Motco Enterprises Ltd. has now put some of it online. It's worth buying the CD of Strype's Stow for the gorgeous topographical prints though - I'm using the beautiful architectural drawing of the south side of St Paul's Cathedral as my desktop image.

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Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Minster Pool

Minster pool at dusk today, as I was coming back from Christmas shopping.

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Handel... in the nude

It's funny what you stumble across on research trips. Here are a couple of pictures from a trip I did to Dublin. We paid a visit to Fishamble Street because I wanted to see the site of Neal's Musick-hall, where Handel's Messiah was premiered in April 1742, and we did actually find the remains of the doorway (below), which stands alongside what's now the Handel Hotel.

But as we were inspecting the gate, we caught sight of something in the courtyard beyond. A sculpture of Handel, perched on some organ pipes with his, er, kit off. Now, I don't know about you but I don't remember the maestro appearing in public without his wig, let alone his clothes, and he certainly wasn't that athletic. And if we're going to get all technical, he probably wouldn't even have conducted with a baton. But hey, that's the least of our worries.

I'd love to know who sculpted it, or what indeed Herr Handel would have made of it. I don't think he was known for his sense of humour!

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Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Christmas: 18th-century style

I spotted a fun event this weekend at Soho House in Handsworth called A Georgian Family Christmas (Dec 14, noon to 4pm, £5, £3 children/concs, £15 family). Soho House was the home to the great industrialist and founder member of the Lunar Society, Matthew Boulton (above), between the years 1766 and 1809. Now a museum, it's gearing up for the bicentenary of Boulton's death next year, but in the meantime there's some festive fun to be had...

Visitors will be greeted by the housekeeper who will talk about Georgian food and Christmas traditions, and give cookery demonstrations using recipes from a Regency cookbook. You can see Soho House decked out in festive greenery and monitor the butler's progress in the dining room, making preparations for a lavish dinner. Meanwhile, in the drawing room there'll be carols and live music from period-instrument outfit Diabolus in Musica, not to mention seasonal refreshments in the tea room. How civilised!

PS Also just received an email from the
Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum in Lichfield to say there will be mince pies and mulled wine available for visitors this Sunday. There's also a bit of news on the Tercentenary:

This will be a very happy new year indeed, as we all look forward to 2009: the 300th anniversary of the birth of Samuel Johnson. Lichfield will be at the centre of the national celebrations and an exciting calendar of special events has been planned. Events at the museum begin on Sunday 1st March with Intimate Theatre in ‘The Golden Moment: a family farewell to Johnson & Garrick’. Tickets cost £6.50 including a pre-show drink and will be available to buy at the museum from January 10th . Other highlights include a living history weekend when ‘Johnson’s House Comes Alive!’ in May and entertainment from celebrated actress and historian Lesley Smith in ‘An Audience with Hester Thrale’ in June - two of the many events planned in the run up to an extra special Birthday weekend in September.

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Monday, 8 December 2008

A Georgian time capsule

The picture above is of 18 Folgate Street, Spitalfields, London, and for me, it's a truly magical place. My boyfriend suggested going last year, having heard a programme on Radio 4 about the house and its late owner, Dennis Severs. Unfortunately there's no photography allowed, so I only have pictures of the exterior, but the website gives you some idea of what it looks like inside.

Severs was an American artist who first came to the UK in 1965, at the age of 18, and was captivated by what he called ‘English light’. In 1979 he bought 18 Folgate Street - a Georgian terraced house in the then dilapidated area of Spitalfields - and set about renovating it, choosing to live there as people would have done in the 18th century, with nothing more than a bedroll, a candlestick and a chamber pot! He describes this period vividly in his book, 18 Folgate Street: The Tale of a House in Spitalfields:

'I found plenty to eat abandoned in the market each morning, which I would then boil up over a fire made from the broken wooden pallets also left behind there… With not a penny available for rewiring, and with the odd electricity cables rotted away on the basement floor, the first thing I did was to light the fire in the kitchen hearth and begin to build my new life from there.'

Over time he furnished the house with discoveries from the local antique markets and bric-a-brac stalls, but he didn’t want to create a museum. He was emphatic about using his visitors’ senses and imaginations as his canvas (his motto being ‘you either see it or you don’t’), and he despised attempts to mothball history by placing it in cabinets or categories. 18 Folgate Street was intended as a work of art which coaxes the visitor back in time, as if you had stepped through the frame of an Old Master painting.

But that’s not all - the house has a narrative. You must imagine that it’s the home of a family of Huguenot silk-weavers named Jervis. As you enter each room, they have just dashed out of sight - their meals left half-eaten on the table; a wig discarded on the back of a chair. Because visitors are asked to go around the house in silence, you sometimes catch the murmur of their voices in a neighbouring room; the tinkle of the front door bell; the rumble of carriage wheels or a baby crying in the distance.

As you rise up through each of the ten rooms, you rise through Georgian life, starting off in the basement kitchen in the early years of the 18th century, finally ending up in the attic where you step into a Dickensian scene - imagined somewhere between the years 1837 and 1850. Outside you can hear tolling bells and distant artillery fire, signalling the coronation of Queen Victoria (Severs looted loudspeakers from television sets and installed them under floorboards and in cupboards, and the effect brings the house vividly to life.)

I made notes as I went around, and what struck me most was the light - or rather, the lack of it - with even the rooms at the front needing candles during the day, and also the smells: firewood, damp rags, vanilla, candied fruits, tobacco, hair powder… If you’re ever in London, this place is unmissable, but be sure to check the website, since the opening hours are eccentric, and email first ( to let them know you’re coming.

Photographs © Memoirs of the Celebrated Mrs Woffington.

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Sunday, 7 December 2008

We are a city of philosophers...

Lichfield's famous son, and his biographer, contemplate yesterday's shoppers from their pedestals in the market square. When Boswell (pictured, bottom) remarked on Lichfield's lack of trade, Johnson (top) loftily explained: 'We are a city of philosophers. We work with our heads and make the boobies of Birmingham work for us with our hands.'

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