Thursday, 18 July 2019

Sacrifice and Memory in a Small Town in Tuscany by Celia Rees

Every year, I come to Monterchi, a small town in Tuscany, most famously the home of Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto (which I have blogged about before).

Madonna del Parto - Piero della Francesca
Up in the small central square, next to the little cafe and in the shade of the lime trees, there is a  plaque on the wall commemorating the deaths of three soldiers during the Second World War, all members of The Central India Horse. 

Their regiment acted as reconnaissance unit to the 4th Indian Division. In July, 1944, Lieutenant St. John Graham Young was leading his men on a night patrol when they found themselves in the middle of a German minefield. Despite being severely injured himself, he went to help one of his men and managed to apply a field dressing, he then rallied his men and guided them to safety. In another part of the minefield, Sowar Ditto Ram had stepped on a mine and had his leg blown off below the knee. He retained consciousness long enough to crawl to a wounded comrade and apply a field dressing before he succumbed to his wounds. Both men were awarded the George Cross and their heroic action is recognised here, along with their comrade, Sowar Nero Chand. 

The plaque is a reminder that this quiet little town in Central Italy was right in the path of the hard fought Allied advance up through Italy during the latter stages of the Second World War. It is very probably a pure coincidence, but I’m always reminded of Kip, the Indian Sikh sapper,  in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient.  The basilica  of  St Francesco in nearby Arezzo houses the fresco cycle that Kip shows to Hanna in the film version and sometimes I wonder if, perhaps, the author might have been sitting in this very square when he saw the plaque and it gave him an idea for a character in his novel. 

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

"WITH A CANDLE, A CHAMBER POT AND A BEDROLL . . ." Visiting the Dennis Severs House by Penny Dolan

By chance I was to be in London with an empty Monday morning to fill and the Dennis Severs House (built in 1724) crossed my mind.  I had heard about the place over the years and long wanted to see inside but the odd opening times had always been difficult to manage from Yorkshire. Almost nostalgically, I glanced at the website, expecting  to see only the famous Christmas Openings or similar celebrations.

To my delight, both the day and date were in my favour. On Mondays, during the early summer months, the  Dennis Severs House at 18 Folgate Street, Spitalfields, does open for visitors between 12 and 2pm.  I got there about 11.30 and waited with a handful people. By the time, the door opened at 12, the queue was along the street.

File:Dennis Severs House (15290690150).jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Even more surprising when, as I noted, that the visitor information did not not encourage much popular attendance: no pre-booking , pay on arrival, no phones or photography, no refreshments or facilities, neither shop nor postcards, and no electricity, with the whole place lit only by candles. Furthermore, visitors could only enter in groups of eight or ten and to keep silent at all times to preserve the atmosphere.

The rationale of this tall house, purposefully "dressed" by Dennis Severs, is very much one of intense atmosphere. Severs was an eccentric Anglophile who was born in Escondo, California. Entranced by London and Dickens and the history of this area, he moved to London in the late 1960's.

Severs studied law at Lincoln's Inn, but dropped out when his income failed. Then he started running horse-drawn carriage trips round Hyde Park and the West End for city visitors and tourists. When Gloucester Road mews were bought by a developer, Severs appealed puiblicly for lodgings for his horses. The Queen Mother let him stable them in the Royal Mews.

By 1979, Severs had bought the decrepit Georgian house on Folgate Street. He moved in with only "a candle, a chamber pot and a bedroll", sleeping, turn by turn, in each of the ten rooms, "in a quest for its soul."

Long a collector of antiques, Severs gradually re-created the possible home life of an imaginary eighteenth century silk-weaver named Jervis, turning Number 18 into a historical art work.  The silent visitor is asked to imagine that Jervis and his family and servants have just left the room to attend to some small matter and will, in a moment and when we have left, return.

Consequently, every room and every surface is covered with items that reinforce that idea. All the  tables and desks are covered in artfully arranged selections of whatever might be about to be used: there are still-life platters of fruit and dishes in preparation, dainty cups and tea-pots and sugar tongs; small scissors and embroidery threads, hands of playing cards and decanters, correspondence and invoices and sealing wax, bowls for shaving and trays full of combs and pins and clothes brushes. Be-ribboned wigs and discarded waistcoats hang from screens or high backed chairs. Heavy boots and embroidered slippers hide in the corners of rooms, while a sprigged silk dress awaits the maids attention.

The rooms are a re-created fantasy: bed-clothes are hastily pulled back as if the sheets might still be warm, nightclothes and small linens are cast aside, and a bunch of lavender rests across a cloth covered chamber pot.

One thinks about the comfort of past times too. Though there are fires in several rooms, the size of the hearth suggests that only those closest will be warmed . However, the constantly burning kitchen oven would keep that room warm, even in midsummer, and who would open windows at the level of street dirt?

And how very little light entered those small-paned windows, even on a summer's day! Every Jervis room holds two or more burning candles, while small piles of discarded candle stubs lie in dishes everywhere. Even that uncurtained kitchen, below the level of the pavement and passing feet, was very dimly lit place for cooking or for cleaning work. (Please ignore the anacronistic matches in the illustration below.)

Candlestick - Wikipedia

The eight-viewers-only rule became clear as one went round the house, wihere silent young men waited enigmatically on landings and directed visitors into the next room. Those same wandering "bodies" demonstrated how crowded such rooms might feel when filled with a large family and servants, and how a businessman might have need of a club for meeting his acquantainces in some sort of peace.

Besides, where exactly did one rest? The lower floors contain plenty of chairs. Tall, brocade-covered, cushioned wing-backed chairs would keep a valued sitter comfortably protected from draughts, but there were few that looked cosy. A quantity of uncomfortable upright wood-and-wicker chairs stood by or even hung on the walls in the "Hogarth" card room.  I imagined longing for the luxury of a sofa but there was no spare space at all in this house, despite the wealth displayed by the painted walls and the small decorative items everywhere.  A strong back and posture was needed.

Yet no decorative luxury graced the sad upper floor, "dressed" as the two wretched rooms that Jervis might be forced to rent out to poor weavers and their families as the silk trade at home declined. The pitiful family bedsteads contrasted bitterly with the stuffed four-poster floors below.

Severs musthave been optimistic. Up there, on the top floor, one "hears" cannons firing from the Tower, welcoming the accession of the young Queen. The Georgian era is over so the shots are signals of hope for the reign to come. Down on the ground floor is a room filled with more than enough Victoria & Albert memorabilia to delight any tourist; this was the last room one is guided into before stepping out with ahead full of thoughts into the real world again.

When Severs died in 1999, a critic wrote that one has to bring to the visit  
"an empathetic historical imagination and suspend disbelief (never mind mundane considerations of historical fact, conventional museum practice or conservation policy.)"  

For myself, I could recognise those rooms as imaginative set dressing , maybe a little tawdry and suspect and even grubby in corners. At first I was half determined to ignore the atmosphere but it was impossible. Something powerful lwas living there within the Dennis Severs house.

Furthermore, when Severs died, the house was placed in a Trust and there was a suggestion that, without Severs, Number 18 Folgate Street would soon be forced to close. Now in 2119, the House seems to be doing well : certainly well enough for one of our founding History Girls, Catherine Johnson, to have celebrated a book launch there a while ago.

The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo by Catherine Johnson ...

Folgate Street is a ten minute walk from Liverpool Street Station and is close to Hawksmoor's Christchurch and the old Spitalfields market site.  It is also, according to the Spitalfield Life blog writer, an area of prime re-development where the historic nature of the remaining area is under attack. Many old buildings are in danger of demolition or have gone, and there is much use of "architectural facading", ie where the front of the old building is retained but a new and different structure built behind, as a way of passing planning regulations.

Number 18, Folgate - the Dennis Severs house - stands for more than just one building, or so it seems to me. It may be a kind of fiction, but  fiction can still speak truth.

Penny Dolan

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Lascaux IV - by Sue Purkiss

So my post last month - here - got us as far as the entrance to Lascaux. It's a surprisingly modern building, considering it's the gateway to a cave whose glorious paintings were created 20 000 years ago - but still, never mind. Let's go in, and find out more.

When the artists were decorating the pale limestone walls of the cave with their images of horses, bulls, aurochs, bison, and stags, this countryside would have looked very different. The planet was still in the grip of an ice age. Down here, in the balmy south, the summers would have been quite pleasant - but the winters were bitterly cold. It was too cold for forests. Great herds of animals roamed the land, providing food for the hunters. The sewing needle had been invented, and the people made well-fitting clothes out of skins to keep themselves warm. There were fish in the rivers and berries growing on the low-lying scrub. The people made instruments - flutes and pipes, drums perhaps, which they played at their gatherings and festivals. Some of these, almost certainly, celebrated the creation of new art works deep in the caves. Why did they do something so hard as to paint in places where it must have been very difficult to create enough light to see by? What drove them? Something of the same impulse, I imagine, that made mediaeval masons build soaring cathedrals - but I don't know. Nobody does: we can only guess.

Anyway, the decorating of caves went on for hundreds, possibly thousands of years. And then it stopped. Maybe people's lives changed: maybe it was the land itself that changed. Certainly at some stage, the entrance to the cave was blocked. The artists and their work, the very caves themselves, disappeared into the shadowy spaces of the past: no-one remembered them any more. In our arrogance, we modern humans patronisingly thought of those early people as primitives, whose only purpose was to survive. You only have to look at their paintings to see how wrong that was.

`A beautifully smooth lamp found in the caves. It would probably have been filled with animal fat, with a wick made of juniper ( which doesn't smoke).
Then, in the early twentieth century, there was a storm on a hillside above the small town of Montignac in the Dordogne region of France. A tree was uprooted and a small hole appeared. Farmers frowned when they noticed this; it was a danger to their animals. A goat even disappeared down it. So they blocked it up with branches to make it safe, and forgot about it.

Then, in 1940, when war was raging across the planet, four teenage boys, out with their dog, Robot, heard him barking. When they went to investigate, they saw that he was furiously digging away at the hole, making it bigger. They looked at each other. Curious. They dropped a stone down through the hole.

It was a long time before they heard it hit the bottom.

Over the next few days, they brought makeshift lamps and ropes and let themselves down through the hole into what turned out to be a great cave. Imagine their excitement when they played the light from the lamps over the walls, and caught glimpses of the paintings, still vivid and life-like after so many millenia! This is an area of painted caves - they knew what they had found.

Well, after that, the experts came, and eventually the cave, which became known as Lascaux,  was opened up to the public. Of course it was immensely popular - but its success came at a price. The equilibrium of the cave, which hadn't been disturbed for so many thousands of years, was now destroyed: the paintings began to deteriorate. In 1963 the decision was taken that, to save it, the cave must be closed to everyone except a very few researchers and scientists. In 1983 a replica was opened - Lascaux 11. Marcel Ravidat, one of the four boys who had discovered the cave and had been involved with it ever since, came to see it. After examining it minutely, he declared that he was satisfied - the replica was worthy of its great original!

Then, in December 2016, Lascaux IV was opened. This was the exhibit we were going to see.

We were only there for a few hours, and the story of the creation of this place is incredibly complex. I don't pretend to understand it all. As far as I can gather, although the paintings themselves are produced with absolute accuracy, the layout of the cave is not. You might think that a replica can never be authentic, can only be a pale facsimile of the original. Well - I've never seen the original, so I can't judge. But - before we entered the 'cave', our guide gazed at us all solemnly, and said: "I can promise you - what you are about to see is going to absolutely BLOW YOUR SOCKS OFF!"

And he was absolutely right. What you see is stunning. The paintings are beautiful, created with an economy and perfection of line and colour that would be impressive in any age. And the artists used the contours of the rock to create a 3D effect in some places; a sense of power and movement. New discoveries are being made all the time - for instance, I had read that charcoal fragments had been found in the cave, which were probably used by the artists - a detail I had used in my story. Not true: carbon dating has shown that this charcoal was thousands of years more recent than the era of the paintings, which were done using only natural mineral pigments, which cannot - so far - be dated.

But there is still much more that isn't known. Exactly why the paintings were done is the obvious unknown. Another is the meaning of the ubiquitous patterns of dots and small rectangles.

Yet this museum answers an enormous number of questions. And above all, it sets before us this beautiful art. I've only touched on what there is to know about Lascaux: I'd love to tell you the stories of the four discoverers of the cave. And you might be interested to know how my own story, my current work-in-progress, ties in with that of the cave. But I won't try your patience any longer. I'll just put in some pictures, which will speak more than adequately for themselves: and I'll strongly recommend that you visit the museum if you get the chance. And see if, like me, you then become fascinated to know more about the artists and their people: these early - but not inferior - versions of ourselves.

Monday, 15 July 2019

Don't be out of Pocket by Susan Vincent

I love pockets. This doesn’t mean that I must have them, but just that the whole notion is so brilliant. The idea of having a built-in receptacle – a handy ambulatory container for the things that you need throughout the day – is pure genius. A bag, you can always leave somewhere by mistake and it clutters your hands or drags at your shoulders. But pockets are different – pockets, no matter where you go, they effortlessly come along with you.

Useful as they are, pockets often look good too. Virtue out of necessity, their functional features – the openings, the flaps, the outlines – are made decorative with embroidery, extra stitching, or contrasting colours. This is a ‘pimp my pocket’ restyle of the basic receptacle concept. 

But I even love the weirdness of the way that such essentially practical devices are often entirely useless. Think of those pockets on the front of a blouse, and the absurdity of actually carrying anything in them. Or what about those titchy change pockets in jeans that are too small to ram your fingers in, let alone remove again clutching a coin. And then there are faux pockets. These promise entry to a roomy interior but on closer inspection turn out to be just flaps – these are pocket teases, of ornament but no use.

But where did pockets come from? Were they always around?

The not-so-humble pocket as a built-in garment feature appeared from around the end of the fifteenth century, inserted into breeches. 

As the sixteenth century progressed it began to migrate to garments on the upper body. But it was the eighteenth century that might truly be called the era of the pocket, when they became such striking – and capacious – design elements on outerwear, as on the coat and the waistcoat here. 

Even if not apparent, as in this quite severely cutaway garment from 1780–90, the back and side views reveal that this coat is flamboyantly rocking those pockets. 


From this point on, pockets were standard issue in male garments, with an increasing range of sizes, types and locations. But womenswear tells a somewhat different story. While they started to be sewn into skirts in the sixteenth century, pockets for women did another amazingly brilliant thing as well. They became separate garments consisting of the pocket itself attached to a tape either singly or in pairs, which were worn tied around the waist. Sometimes plain, they were also often prettily embroidered.

These are the sorts of pockets that are immortalized in the rhyme that has puzzled generations of children and their parents, for whom its mundane description has now been lost in the mists of dress history:
Lucy Locket lost her pocket,
Kitty Fisher found it;
Not a penny was there in it,
Only ribbon round it. 

To add to the all-over niftiness of these standalone pockets, they could either be worn on top, or hidden away over a shift and corset but underneath the skirts. You can see this in the tight-lacing caricature below, in which the subject is getting dressed. Such a wearer would reach her pockets through an opening in the side seams of her gown. This made them full-proof against theft, but also explains the aspersions cast on a woman’s virtue if her pocket was successfully picked.

When the nineteenth century dawned, bringing with it high waists and light, narrow-fitting dresses, neither separate pockets nor the sewn-in sort were feasible. Enter the reticule, a small bag – very often fancifully decorative – that eventually ushered in the whole vast world of handbags.

But pockets didn’t die away. Around the middle of the century they returned to womenswear as the built-in variety, though they have never been the necessary features that they are in male garments. As we all know, in modern womenswear function is subordinate to looks, and pockets are only included if they do not spoil a garment’s drape or cling. Instead, women have been both hampered and helped in equal measure by handbags and purses.

Once created, these pockets of ours allowed for the invention – or adaptation – of other items of material culture (as historians rather pompously like to put it), and thus new habits and practices. Pocket money, pocket knives, and pocket handkerchiefs are still part of our lives. The pocket watch has gone, but we know what it is: a timepiece carried in a fob (a small purpose-made pocket). Less familiar are pocketbooks, sometimes meaning a folding case used for carrying papers and banknotes, and at others referring to a notebook for memoranda. Or what about this rather lovely pocket pistol from around 1815: deadly, elegant and infinitely portable.

And of course, carrying things on the person in this way in turn facilitated a new branch of criminal industry: the pickpocket. But probably what fascinates me most about pockets are the performances that they allow to their wearers. I was reminded of this the other day when I walked past two men in suits, both of them with their hands plunged in their trouser pockets, busy jingling change. Pockets give us something to do with our hands when we are nervous or bored. In the cold we ball them into fists and huddle them into, yes, our pockets. Pockets help us express slouching defiance of authority. And with pockets you can be nonchalant. 

In fact, it strikes me that traditional womenswear, in denying them (pocketed) coats and trousers, made it much harder to perform devil-may-care ease. Along with all the social mores and the normative gender behaviours that prohibited this kind of emotional register, women’s clothing also worked against the performance of such expansive and easy nonchalance.

Having worked this out, I love pockets even more than before. Sure, they trap the tissues which then disintegrate in the wash. But with pockets, we can be insouciant and cool. This is a very big thing – this is gender equality. And it comes courtesy of a very small feature indeed.


If you want to take pockets further – and let’s face it, who wouldn’t – then here are some excellent places to start:

  • Barbara Burman and Ariane Fennetaux, The Pocket: A Hidden History of Women’s Lives, 1660–1900 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019)

1. Photo by Lisa Fotios from Pexels

2. Jan Georg van Vliet (print maker), Figure with hands in pockets, 1635, Leiden. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, no. RP-P-OB-61.808

3. Coat, 1750–9, British, fustian. V&A Museum, London, Given by James Potter, Esq., Master-Tailor of Derby, no. T.962-1919

4. Waistcoat, 1775–85. V&A Museum, London, no. CIRC.216-1920

5. Cutaway coat, 1780–90, French, silk. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009 (Gift of Mrs. Gilberte Andree, 1960), no. 2009.300.840

6. Pair of Pockets, 1700–25, English, linen, silk embroidery. V&A Museum, London, no. T.281&A-1910

7. John Collett, Tight lacing, or, Fashion before ease, print, London, c. 1777. Lewis Walpole Library, Farmington, Local record no. lwlpr04124

8. Le Mois, Journal historique, littéraire et critique, avec figures, Vol. 4, No. 10 (Paris, 1800). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, no. BI-1926-0324D-1

9. Joseph Egg (gunsmith), Over-and-Under Flintlock Pocket Pistol, c. 1815–20, English. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Charles M. Schott Jr, 1917, no. 19.53.111a–d

10. Portrait of a man standing by a fence, photograph, c.1900–10, France. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, no. RP-F-F01164-5-1

11. Pearl, Kit & me, Landgirls, World War II, no date.