Saturday, 20 July 2019

The nature of growing things... by Carolyn Hughes

Last month, my History Girls post looked at various aspects of food and eating in the 14th century, the period of my current fiction series, using a few descriptions from my novels as a shortcut to the evidence I have gleaned over my relatively brief time as an historical novelist. Food and meal-taking are good vehicles for showing the lives of historical characters, helping to put them in context, to differentiate the life styles of people of diverse stations, and to bring a sense of authenticity to the historical world one is creating.

Gardens too are an interesting differentiator of class and circumstance, and both real-life gardening and reading about medieval gardens are favourite pastimes of mine. In a novel I have written but not yet published, the “garden” runs through the book in different guises, as a central motif, and helps to draw the book’s various threads and storylines together. But gardens feature in all my novels – almost inevitably, as they are all set largely in rural medieval England. In today’s post, I am going to review some of what I have learned so far about medieval gardens and again use a few examples from my work as the “evidence”.

In my unpublished novel (The Nature of Things), the garden is used both as a vital element in the lives of my principal characters and also as an affirmative metaphor for the hope that can come out of even desperate struggle and tragedy – a symbol of the continuity of life.

The novel spans the entire 14th century, with its calamitous periods of the Great Famine of 1315-17, the plague (“Black Death”) of 1348-50, the Hundred Years War of 1337 onwards, and the so-called Peasants’ Rebellion of 1381, not to mention everyday poverty, illness and untimely death. Between them, the voices of the seven principal (fictional) characters tell the story of the century through the narratives of their own lives. But the voices also bring a sense of continuity, as each character is linked with the one before and/or after. And the metaphor of the garden, with its (typical, if not infallible in the direst of circumstances) unceasing cycle of life, reinforces the concept of continuity.

The garden metaphor is introduced at the very beginning of the novel by an omniscient narrator. The garden is both the Garden of Eden, Paradise, God’s glorious bounty, and also man-made gardens, sources of both physical and spiritual nourishment. The point is also that, in the context of the “calamitous” 14th century, in a garden can be found life, death and renewal. Every year, no matter what happens in terms of weather, or God-inspired or man-made disaster, life will begin again. In principle at any rate, there is always continuity, always renewal...

The metaphor is given a physical presence in the novel by a fictional 13th century book of plants, The Nature of Growing Things: Plants, Herbs and Trees, passed down from character to character from the first to the last. (A gardening book at that time, and its title, would most likely have been in Latin, but for reasons of narrative simplicity I chose to have it “written” in English.)

The Nature of Growing Things is fictional, but three of the novel’s parts include “extracts” from it, which are in fact my re-workings of various real mediaeval texts about gardening and garden design, taken from a 13th century book on plants by Albertus Magnus, a French 14th century guide for housewives, and others [see Note]. I include a few of these extracts in what follows.

In the novel, each of the seven characters has some sort of association with a garden. For the first three characters, the garden is essentially the basic provider of food. For the next two characters, the garden is more decorative than functional. For the final two characters, the idea of the simple domestic garden expands to become “nature’s garden”, to orchards and forests – trees as vehicles of continuity.
So, to consider the different types of garden in a little more detail…

For William, a priest, his garden is a source of food and medicine, but also one of spiritual joy. For Agnes, his niece and the daughter of a peasant farmer, it is a vital source of subsistence that she sees severely threatened during the famine of 1315-17. Her husband, Richard, is also from farming stock but becomes an archer and joins the king’s war in France. There, despite his own rejection of the farming life, and his commitment to the king’s cause, he recognises only too clearly what it will mean to the French peasantry when their gardens – the lifeblood of their existence – are devastated by the English army in its brutal chevauchées.

All these gardens are essentially peasant plots: they are a vital source of food, the sort of food that goes into making pottage: onions, cabbages, turnips. Beans and peas, also pottage ingredients, eaten fresh or dried for use throughout the year, might be grown in the garden but often more likely as a field crop. If there was space, fruit might be grown – apples and pears, medlars and cherries, perhaps.

Herbs were also grown in a peasant garden, as William says,
to add savour to my food and make remedies for injuries and ailments
Tacuinum Sanitatis, Sage
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
I think that a peasant housewife might well understand both the value of herbs as taste-bringers and their properties as simple everyday remedies, as described in the gardening book…
“A syrup of violets is a good remedy against the pleurisy and cough, and also fevers or agues, especially in young children. Apply the petals of Saint Mary’s Gold (marigold) to painful stings to soothe them… Wormwood is a bitter herb…that cures the stomach ache and a constipation of the bowel… It also repels fleas…”
I wonder if any of those remedies worked! Sadly, when William and his adopted daughter seek a cure for his ailing wife, they are unsuccessful…
Emma has sought advice from other women in the village and has come home with recipes for cures. We pick mint and balm and camomile from the garden, and make them into medicaments and potions for Alys. But nothing worked.
Our present-day understanding of what constitutes a “cottage garden” assumes many flowers as well as vegetables, fruit and herbs. William says,
I also cultivate a few flowers – columbines, periwinkles and lilies – for their beauty and my education.
But he is a priest – and in truth rather an educated, intellectual one at that, probably having more in common with the 18th century “parson-naturalist” Gilbert White, of Selborne, Hampshire, than the typical 14th century parson! – and he allows himself a few aesthetic and intellectual elements in his garden. Whether the average 14th century peasant went in much for flowers, I am not entirely sure. But I suspect that, like William, at least some would have grown a few flowers, for much the same reason as William, if not expressed as such. On most peasant patches, the flowers would have been grown among or around the vegetables and herbs, whereas in the larger plots of wealthier gardeners, there might well have been a “vegetable garden”, a “herb garden” and a “flower garden”, all neatly divided up (into “rooms” as we would now say…). Ideally, keeping flowers and vegetables separate was the aim, according to the gardening book:
“Have two gardens, one for flowers and one for porray… Not that the flower garden can have no herbs and the potager no flowers, but keep them separate for the most part, else your flowers may be affronted if you intermingle them with onions and leeks…”
“Porray” was essentially the ingredients for pottage.

However, at the time of William’s story, the first decade of the 14th century, much of England was suffering from severe overpopulation, with a resulting dearth of land. So, he says,
…in the village, they have no time for beauty or education: every last square foot of soil must be planted with something that can be eaten. Yet, these days, the village gardens are no longer large enough to provide all the onions and cabbages and turnips that are needed, for there are so many mouths to feed.
Tacuinum Sanitatis, Cabbage harvest
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Agnes’s story takes place partly during the Great Famine, 1315-17, which occurred during a period of appalling weather and dreadful harvests, and the luxury of growing flowers no longer seems appropriate. Her mother, Marjory, a peasant of the wealthier sort, feels obliged to help her neighbours in their time of suffering. She has a large plot and grows lots of onions and leeks, cabbages, “worts” or “porray” of many kinds, turnips, beans and peas, all essential ingredients for the daily pottage. She has also grown flowers amongst her vegetables, using her brother William’s book The Nature of Growing Things as her guide on what to plant. But, when the famine severely threatens some of her poorer neighbours, she determines to sacrifice the frippery of flowers to help prevent them starving.
Ma nods. ‘Flowers are a folly. Folk need beans and onions. I don’t want to dig them up, but it’s our Christian duty to help our neighbours.
‘It’s a shame,’ I say. Though in truth the garden brings little joy these days, for the plants are struggling to grow in the cold and claggy earth. 
We sit in silence, gazing at the beds where yellow primroses and creamy honeysuckle, blue periwinkle and purple iris should all be in flower. 
Bless those lovely blooms that have defied the rain,’ says Ma, pointing to a few brave flowers open in search of sun and honeybees.
They dig up most of the flowers apart from a couple of rose bushes.
When the ground’s been cleared, we dig it once again, turning it over in the hope that, with even a feeble sun, the soil might dry out a little and warm up enough to receive the seed Ma’s carefully saved. We leave it for a day or two – days mercifully dry and almost warm – and then we sow: onions and leeks, turnips and cabbages, peas and beans. Ma’s face is downcast as she carefully places each seed in straight and well-spaced drills. 
‘The ground’s still cold,’ she says, shaking her head. 
‘But warmer than it was,’ I say, trying to be cheerful. ‘Surely God’ll bless your garden, Ma, and won’t deny the seeds their chance to grow?’ 
She smiles. ‘You’re right, Agnes. We must place our faith in His Divine Providence.’ 
Two weeks later, little shoots are poking up above the soggy earth. Now all we have to do is guard them from torrential rain and biting winds, and Sir Giles’s doves, and pray the sun shines often – and warmly – enough for them to thrive.
Marjory puts her faith in God, the vegetables do continue to grow and she distributes what she can to her starving neighbours. Though, in the end, there simply isn’t enough to spare...

Tacuinum Sanitatis, Leek harvest
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
In the fourth story, Peter, son of Agnes and Richard, who remakes himself as a merchant, re-experiences, if unconsciously, his great-uncle William’s pleasure in a garden’s beauty when he visits Genoa, in Italy. He brings home his discoveries to his new wife, Joanna, a merchant’s daughter, and she becomes a passionate creator of Italian-style “paradise” gardens in Southampton.
The grandest of the villas are outside the city, up on those glorious hillsides, though Giovanni has a smaller house, quite close to the sea. But, though it’s small, it’s surrounded by the loveliest of gardens, bounded on all sides by a high wall. Walkways criss-cross from side to side, enclosed by arbours heavy with jasmine and roses, whose heady fragrance fills the air on summer evenings. And in the very centre is a white marble statue spouting water into a delightful pool. 
[Peter] sketched an outline of Signor Alberti’s garden on a small fragment of parchment, and I was thrilled by the wondrous depiction he conjured up.‘Could we have a garden like that here?’ I said, full of excitement already for turning our bare little plot into such a lovely paradise. 
He laughed. ‘I’m not sure we could have marble fountains, my love. But rose-covered pergolas and a flowery mead, yes, perhaps we could.’
In this type of “paradise garden”, I am alluding to the idea of the hortus conclusus, meaning “enclosed garden”. The idea of the enclosed garden is related to the worship of the Virgin Mary, with references in medieval poetry and art, depicted in painting and manuscript illuminations from about the middle of the 14th century. It became popular as theme in garden design. In my novel I am not ascribing any religious feeling to this design of garden but rather using it to illustrate that wealthier people can afford to make gardens that are essentially for pleasure.
“Pleasure gardens are devised for the satisfaction of both sight and smell…so, around the lawn should be planted every sweet-smelling herb, such as rue and sage and basil, and all sorts of flowers, such as violet and columbine, lily, rose and iris.”
“In the middle of the garden there should be a meadow, the grass deep green, spangled with a thousand different flowers, violets and periwinkles, primroses and daisies… And also, perhaps, a clear fountain in a stone basin in the centre of the lawn, for the pureness of the water gives great refreshment...”
Some such gardens might become quite elaborate and Joanna, with time on her hands as the wife of a wealthy merchant, lets her imagination take flight in her creation of the sort of structures that might enhance her garden’s sense of mystery and privacy:
But I have had a notion for some time to create within the garden a covered walkway: a tunnel made from willow or hazel and planted with vines and white roses. At its centre, there would be a secret shady arbour with a soft turf seat, and more roses of yellow, white and deepest red and sweet-smelling honeysuckle to clamber over. 
I smile to myself as I wonder if such a shady structure is quite needed for our English summers, but I like to imagine my garden is in Genoa, with the sun and the warmth and Peter’s arms enfolding me.
Tacuinum Sanitatis, Roses
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Joanna encourages her servant Tom, who to her delight expresses his love of trees even as a child, by first employing him as a gardener on her estate and, later, helping him to become a carpenter. Later still, Tom’s passion for all things arboreal inspires even Susanna, a child of the city and a former prostitute whom Tom takes as his wife. She initially has little interest in trees or gardens but at length understands their place in the world. Tom first shares his knowledge and love of gardening with her (and her sister Ali), but Susanna is delighted when his enthusiasm expands to the establishment of orchards and – when he has the time and money to do so – woodland.
Whilst Ali and me work in the garden, Tom’s making a start on an orchard. 
‘Seems to me you’re trying to create your own little manor out here in Saint Mary’s,’ Ali says one day, as we help him plant his first few apple and pear trees. Her eyes are smiling as much as her mouth. 
He grins again. ‘You know I’ve always loved trees.’ He turns the soil back into the hole he’s dug for the last of the apples and treads it down. He stands up and gazes along the row we’ve planted. 
‘Looks good, doesn’t it?’ he says, and Ali and me agree. Then he points to the far edge of the field, to a small patch of woodland that came with the land he bought. ‘I’m going to plant a lot more trees down there too. More oak and ash and walnut, good for making furniture.’ 
‘Your own little forest,’ I say. 
He nods happily. ‘Of course, I’ll not see the trees I plant full grown, especially the oaks.’ He turns the corners of his mouth down a little.
But the important thing about the trees is what they mean for their descendants, in their case an adopted son. Susanna says,
‘It seems so sad you’ll never see these trees full grown.’
But Tom shakes his head. ‘They’re for the future,’ he says, putting his arm around me. ‘For Peter. He was brought to us for a reason, and he’s our future.’
‘It’s time I taught him all about the trees. The ones we’re growing here for timber, and those in the orchard.’
And Susanna then brings the story around full circle when she urges Tom also to hand on to their son The Nature of Growing Things, confirming both the continuity of nature and the connection provided by the gardening book from the start of the story.

In my novel series, the Meonbridge Chronicles, I have used similar ideas of both peasant gardens and the type of hortus conclusus imitated in the gardens of the wealthy. My purpose is the same as in The Nature of Things, both to illustrate everyday life and to point up the differences between people’s lives. Other types of gardens have yet to find a place in my writing, among them perhaps the truly devotional gardens of a monastery or priory. Maybe in a future book…

For my gardening book “extracts”, I reinterpreted Albertus Magnus’ words from a passage I found in John Harvey’s Mediaeval Gardens, and rewrote passages from several pages of both Frank Crisp’s Mediaeval Gardens and Eileen Power’s edition of The Goodman of Paris (Le Ménagier de Paris), A Treatise on Moral and Domestic Economy by a citizen of Paris c.1393.

I have found Medieval English Gardens by Teresa McLean most interesting and enlightening, though of course there are many others.

The illustrations for this piece come from the Tacuinum Sanitatis, a medieval handbook mainly on health which was based on an 11th century Arab medical treatise. It describes in detail the beneficial and harmful properties of foods and plants, and is wonderfully illustrated.

Friday, 19 July 2019

The Wrong Caesar by L.J. Trafford

It's a grandiose painting, isn't it? A representation of the glory of Ancient Rome with a crowd of thousands. It was painted by Frenchman, Jean Leon Gerome and there is an intriguing mystery at the centre of it. One I felt compelled to dig into.

Painted in 1859 it depicts a gladiatorial contest. You can see the gladiators standing in front of the emperor’s box declaring:“Hail Caesar! We Who Are About to Die Salute You!”
The setting is the Colosseum, and the emperor we know, is Vitellius. If you enlarge the picture you will see his name inscribed on the emperor’s box. 

Now I wrote a book about Vitellius (entitled Vitellius’ Feast and available at all good bookshops *end plug*) and so I know rather a lot about him. Most of this is filed away in a part of my brain entitled: things I know but sort of wish I didn’t. Vitellius is somewhat extreme.
But the Vitellius fact that popped up instantly when I saw this painting is that he died in December 69 AD. Which is odd, since they didn’t finish building the Colosseum until 80 AD.
This is the mystery at the heart of Gerome's painting: what is Vitellius doing there?

Instinctively you want to blame the painter. J.L. Gerome. He does not know his Roman history, does not know Rome. It's a sloppy work.
But is it? Let us take a closer look.

First up, there is no record of any gladiator saying the line, “Hail Caesar! We who are about to Die Salute you!” Possibly because they weren’t necessarily about to die. Though Ridley Scott and every other treatment of the topic would have you believe that the way to win a gladiatorial bout was to kill your opponent, this was not the case. The poet Martial writes about one of the very first gladiatorial contents in the Colosseum, between Priscus and Verus and it’s a draw – nobody dies:

"But an end to the even strife was found: equal they fought, equal they yielded. To both Titus sent wooden swords and to both palms. Thus valour and skill had their reward. This has happened under no prince but you, Titus: two fought and both won.” 

Inscriptions to gladiators sometimes give the number of fights they took part in before being killed.
For example one to a gladiator named Glauco notes that he died during his 8th bout. But there are commemorations to those who had over 50 bouts to their name. Looking at inscriptions from Pompeii we can put together the results on 23 bouts: There were 21 winners, 17 who did not win but still survived and 8 who were killed during their bout. 
So not nearly as bloody and final as the movies would have us believe.

It makes sense when you think about it. How are the crowd to have favourites if one gladiator had to die each bout? How would the gladiator trainers make any money if they were continually replacing their stock? How would gladiators themselves build up the skills and moves to be entertaining, if their lives were abominably short? 

However, Gerome gets quite a lot right in this painting. Look at the scale of the Colosseum, the vastness. It was the first stone permanent amphitheatre in Rome. Before then the Games had been held in temporary wooden structures. It sat 50,000 spectators it was believed, far more than any amphitheatre anywhere else in the empire.
Also look at the awning over the top, we know from our sources that this was done to keep the hot sun off spectators.Famously in another amphitheatre the sadistically cruel emperor Caligula removed the awning on a particularly hot day and blocked the entrances so he could enjoy the spectators getting sun stroke and burning themselves red as a lobster (whatever gets you off....). 
It’s a nice detail that awning, it proves that Gerome has read a bit of Suetonius most likely and other sources. 

Let us look at the gladiators now, look at what they are wearing. The loin cloth/gladiator pant look with the heavy belt. 

Now look at this mosaic of gladiators, from the Borghese gallery in Rome. The outfits are very similar; loin cloth/gladiator pants with a thick belt. I would bet that Gerome has seen this mosaic, or others very like it.

Have a look at the crowd and more particularly the figures in white to the left of Vitellius. These are the Vestal Virgins, priestess who tendered the sacred hearth of the goddess Vesta. Vesta was the goddess of the home and the family. Seating at the Games was heavily controlled along class lines. The emperor and the senatorial class sat at the front and thus got the best view. Behind them were the Equestrian class, followed by plebeian males. And then right at the back; women and slaves. Aside from the Imperial family, Vestals are the only women allowed to sit at the front.

That Gerome gets this right, I would argue shows he does know a fair amount about ancient Rome. He has clearly done in-depth research in order to tackle this painting, he knows about seating orders and the awning and the gladiator outfits. He surely must know, therefore, that Vitellius never saw the Colosseum.
So let us ask that question again, why Vitellius?

Vitellius is a rather obscure emperor. He ruled for only 8 months during the tumultuous year of the four emperors. He did nothing, he achieved nothing of any note during that time. He is utterly superfluous to history, yet here he is depicted by Gerome watching over the gladiators.

Let us take a look at another of Gerome’s Roman painting, it is of a slave market.

And here’s another one.

It is rather interesting that these Roman slave markets seem only to sell very beautiful, healthy, nubile young lady slaves.
My suspicion is that there’s a bit of Victorian morality seeping here, with gawking at naked lady slaves and watching men fighting to the death representing the very worst of Rome. A Rome of decadence and depravity and immorality. Which is where, I believe, Vitellius fits in.

When I wrote Vitellius' Feast I struggled to find any redeemable qualities in him. He is a truly horrible man and an awful emperor.
I'll let Suetonius fill you in:

"He delighted in inflicting death and torture on anyone whatsoever and for any cause whatever."


"He regulated the greater part of his rule wholly according to the advice and whims of the commonest of actors and chariot-drivers, and in particular of his freedman Asiaticus. This fellow had immoral relations with Vitellius in his youth, but later grew weary of him and ran away. When Vitellius came upon him at Puteoli, he put him in irons, but at once freed him again and made him his favourite. "


"He divided his feasts into three, sometimes into four a day, breakfast, luncheon, dinner, and a drinking bout; and he was readily able to do justice to all of them through his habit of taking emetics"

So in short: he's cruel, depraved and gluttonous. All the very worst of Rome to be represented alongside that very worst of Roman pursuits; watching men fight each other to the death.
That is why Gerome places Vitellius in the Colosseum when historically he could never have been there, is my theory.

Hail Caesar! We who are about to die salute you is part of Yale University's Art Gallery.
A Roman Slave Market is housed at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.
Slave Market in Ancient Rome is part of the Hermitage museum, Russia.

Recommended Reading:
The Colosseum by Mary Beard and Keith Hopkins is a wonderful study of the Games and the Colosseum. They write about J.L. Gerome's other, very famous, gladiator study 'Thumbs Down'.
And also enjoyably crunch those gladiator deaths, bouts and how they could possibly have supplied quite so many exotic beasts for the arena.

L.J. Trafford is a writer of Roman things, including a short story in this new anthology of Roman fiction. Available here

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.