Friday, 4 September 2009

Entering 18th-century London

I've been trawling through my picture archive, looking at the snaps that my partner and I took on various research trips for the novel I'm writing. This one was for a scene at the historic 'entrance' to the city of London, Temple Bar.

Part of Wren's original gateway is pictured above. It's no longer at its original location on The Strand (there's a modern-day marker outside Royal Courts of Justice to show where it once stood), having been shifted to Paternoster Square in 2004. It must have been a gruesome sight in the 18th century, when you consider that the heads of traitors were mounted on pikes on the roof; quite a sight for my Catholic heroine, entering London for the first time.

Photograph © Memoirs of the Celebrated Mrs Woffington.

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Thursday, 3 September 2009

Thoughts on Le Frog Mug

What started me thinking about frog mugs was a trip to the National Maritime Museum's shop, where my boyfriend bought a replica of a creamware frog mug in the museum's collection, with a design on the outside depicting the Battle of the Trafalgar (above). It's inscribed 'Lord Nelson/Engaging the Combin'd/Fleets of Cape/TRAFALGAR', 'The young Alexander of France/May boast of his prowess in vain/When Nelson appears tis confest/That Britains are Lords of the Main'.

In case you're not familar with the frog mug tradition, this drinking vessel (also sometimes called the 'surprise mug' or 'toad mug') has a miniature ceramic frog modelled on the inside, so that when you drink the liquid you get the shock of your life as the critter emerges from the depths.

Some sources say the mugs were originally made in Liverpool and Sunderland where they were used in taverns frequented by sailors - but how old is the tradition? I wondered if the frog mug was particularly popular in the 18th century because of its anti-French overtones; after all, English sailors of the Trafalgar period frequently referred to Frenchmen as 'Monsieur Johnny Crapaud' [crapaud=toad]. One mug even has the inscription:

May England's oak,
Produce the bark,
To tan the hide Of Bonaparte.

A bit more history here (and my apologies to any French readers!)

Photographs © Memoirs of the Celebrated Mrs Woffington.

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Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Athens Revisited

Continuing our tour of Greenwich Hospital, we next visited The Chapel of St Peter and St Paul (above). Built by Wren, the interior (below) was completed to Thomas Ripley’s design in 1752, though in 1779 it was gutted by a fire, supposedly emanating from an adjacent tailor’s workshop after some particularly riotous New Year celebrations.

James 'Athenian' Stuart then came to the rescue, rebuilding it in the Greek Revival style which, as you can see, is particularly fine. Yet there are references closer to home too; the powdery blue ground overlaid with a pattern of white acanthus leaves reminded us of the work of Potteries hero Josiah Wedgwood, and there's a very delicate pink ground too, if you look carefully at the ceiling. I didn't much like the hideous yellow spotlights they'd installed, but you have to admit, it's not everyday you get to see such a perfectly preserved neoclassical building.

Photographs (including the entrance hall, above) © Memoirs of the Celebrated Mrs Woffington.

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Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Greenwich "Me" Time

Thanks to London Midland's £15 deal for a return ticket to London, it seemed rude not to visit the capital on Bank Holiday Monday (especially as it was sunny there and cold and wet in Lichfield). So we headed off in the direction of Greenwich, bound for The Fan Museum, where my patient boyfriend was going to endure several hours learning about the ceremonial and decorative uses of the fan. However, as we rocked up on Crooms Hill we realised that the museum was, indeed, closed on Mondays.

Never mind; Greenwich isn't short on historic treasures, one of the greatest being the Greenwich Hospital, founded in 1694 as the Royal Naval Hospital for sailors, with its ornate chapel (top) and the famous Painted Hall, where (in 1806) Lord Nelson's body was laid in state before being taken up the river Thames to St Paul's Cathedral. The architecture alone is absolutely stunning; above is a statue of George II which stands in the Grand Square.

I wasn't quite prepared for the grandeur and beauty of the Painted Hall (1707-27, see below). It was originally intended to be the hospital's dining hall, but by the time the artist James Thornhill had finished with it - painting an elaborate trompe-l'œil interior that would be 19 years in the making - it had become too much of a major tourist attraction and was used, instead, to raise funds for the Hospital. Thornhill, you will remember, was Hogarth's father-in-law and his ‘great and laborious undertaking’ at Greenwich earned him a knighthood.

Check out the use of mirrored trolleys (above) to help you study the detail in the ceiling (below).

We laid our hands on a facsimile copy of An Explanation of the Painting in the Royal Hospital at Greenwich, written by Thornhill himself, and it's a very detailed analysis. For instance he describes the section pictured above in the following terms: 'In the middle of the great oval, under a canopy of State, and attended by the four cardinal virtues, are King William and Queen Mary, Concord fitting between, Cupid holding the sceptre, while King William presents Peace and Liberty to Europe and tramples on Tyranny and Arbitary Power.'

We went up the steps to the Upper Hall (top) where we were presented with the scene of 'the Accession, or the landing of King George at Greenwich'. A glance at the bottom right of the scene, at eye level, revealed Thornhill's self-portrait (bottom), his paints and brushes temporarily abandoned on the base of a nearby pillar. It was in this area of The Painted Hall that Nelson lay in state (the walls were draped with black fabric and anything between 15,000 and 30,000 people paid their respects). Here I am (below) standing on the very spot.

Next, I'll tell you about Greenwich Hospital's chapel: an 18th-century gem designed by Wren and Ripley and rebuilt by James 'Athenian' Stuart in 1779.

Photographs © Memoirs of the Celebrated Mrs Woffington.

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Sunday, 30 August 2009

Redefining the Landscape

With nothing much sorted for the bank holiday weekend, my partner suggested a trip out to Halesowen, near Dudley in the West Midlands, to see an area of parkland known as The Leasowes. This rather wild landscape of woodland, lakes and streams (now bordered by a golf club) was first laid out by the poet William Shenstone (pictured left) between 1743 and 1763, and is a very important piece of land in terms of the its influence on 18th-century landscape gardening.

Shenstone inherited The Leasowes (pronounced 'lezzoes') in the early 1740s; it had previously been a small grazing farm, but Shenstone admitted to being a poor farmer, and instead set about turning it into an artfully sculpted 'natural' landscape - something he called 'ferme ornée' (ornamented farm). Before Shenstone, the fashion was for formal garden designs, but driven by a combination of literary imagination and lack of money, Shenstone abandoned formality and set about introducing pools and cascades, constructing temples, ruins and seats, and planting trees and shrubbery. The locals were a bit confused to see shrubs on a farm, and many - believing them to have special qualities - dug them up repeatedly!

The Leasowes was a destination that attracted much interest during Shenstone's lifetime and was hugely influential on garden design in general. When you consider our recent tour of the Shugborough Estate with its park ornaments, you can see how ahead of his time Shenstone was with his essentially romantic conception of a picturesque landscape (later in the century you see this develop through works such as Edmund Burke's Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful).

After his death - partly thanks to Robert Dodsley, who published a kind of tourist guide to the circuit path called A Description of The Leasowes - Shenstone's ferme ornée became one of Europe's celebrated destinations, with visitors such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Wesley and Samuel Johnson. Today The Leasowes is Grade I listed and on English Heritage's Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in England.

We didn't have Dodsley's guide, but we did manage to get Dudley Council's leaflet (downloadable as a pdf from this page), which contained a decent map of the area and a bit of historic background. We entered the park via the golf course and emerged near to Priory Pool (pictured at the top of the page).

Thanks to the existence of engravings, maps, written descriptions produced by 19th-century visitors to The Leasowes and William Shenstone's own paintings, there's quite a bit of information about what structures Shenstone erected around the park; for example, it's known that beside Priory Pool he built an ornamental ruined Priory (possibly with stone from Halesowen Abbey), part of which served as a modest dwelling for his gardener. Elsewhere was a temple to Pan, whose entrance was marked by holly bushes (holly has run wild across the whole area but you can still see the thick growth which suggests the entrance to the temple).

As Shenstone wrote in a letter in 1743: 'My favourite scheme is a poem, in blank verse, upon Rural Elegance, including cascades, temples, grottos, hermitages, greenhouses... The next, running upon planting, & c. will end with a vista terminated by an old abbey.'

The picture above is taken in the most famous part of the park, Virgil's Grove, which in Shenstone's day was a grassy vale in a wooded valley containing a stream surrounded by yew trees and an obelisk dedicated to Virgil. Prominent visitors included the Lytteltons of Hagley, William Pitt and James Thomson; it was intended to be gloomy and melancholic (locals still wryly call this part of the walk ‘the dark half-hour’) and what you can see peeping through the trees is the cascade and stone grotto. The grotto has been the subject of some recent restoration and there's also work underway to help return the woodland to its original 1740s layout.

Above is the chalybeate spring, which has a bright orange colour thanks to the iron-rich rocks. Shenstone encouraged visitors to drink from it, though when he developed ill health people were quick to blame the spring (this was nonsense; chemical analysis has shown the water to be completely harmless). Finally, we passed a dam and Beechwater (see both pictures below) and entered the grassy glade known as Lovers' Walk, which originally contained an urn dedicated to Shenstone's cousin who died of smallpox at the age of 21.

We ended our walk on Shenstone's High Terrace, which affords a fantastic view over the whole area (below).

While Shenstone has clearly 'managed' the landscape, it still feels as if nature has been preserved rather than bounded by formality. Following a visit to The Leasowes with the Thrales in 1777, even Dr Johnson (who had been critical of Shenstone in his Lives of the Poets) had to admit that: 'with such judgment and such fancy [Shenstone has] made his little domain the envy of the great, and the admiration of the skilful; a place to be visited by travellers, and copied by designers'.

Colour photographs © Memoirs of the Celebrated Mrs Woffington.
Shenstone portrait: Wikimedia Commons

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