Friday, 17 January 2020

A very long way from Rome - by Ruth Downie

If there’s a museum around, I’m usually to be found in the Roman section. But Roman sections are hard to come by in Hong Kong, where a recent visit forced me out of the comfort zone to discover the treasures beyond. Here are a few favourites.

The Time Ball Tower

This is set in a complex of Victorian buildings now renovated for modern use and collectively known as “1881 Heritage

Tower with ball on pole above it
 If you know what a Time Ball does and why (and they’ve been around since 1829) then skip the next section. If you share my former bafflement, read on.

There’s a clue in the location: the Time Ball Tower is set on a hilltop that would have been visible to most of the ships in the busy Hong Kong Harbour below. And that’s the point. In order to navigate longitude, a ship’s captain needed to know exactly what the time was, and until the mid 18th century, timepieces were notoriously unreliable at sea. If you haven’t read “Longitude”, Dava Sobel’s account of how the inventor John Harrison solved that particular problem, then I thoroughly recommend it. But even Harrison’s marvellous marine chronometer would only work if it was set to the right time in the first place.

For many years ships visiting Hong Kong would set the time by the sound of a noon-day cannon. Well, maybe not by the sound. Because as anyone who’s watched distant fireworks will know, sound doesn’t travel as fast as light. The noise of the cannon could take up to three vital seconds to reach the far ends of the harbour, so what the sailors actually did was watch for the puff of smoke. A more accurate signal, but worryingly ethereal.
Mechanism of time ball

It was a British naval officer who invented the visual clue of the time-ball: a huge metal ball to be hoisted up a pole and then dropped at a precise time for all to see. Hong Kong adopted the idea in 1884 and the ball fell daily at 1.00 pm sharp, as determined by the nearby observatory.


Thus it was with great anticipation that Husband and I rushed over to the refurbished tower at 12.55pm, only to wait… and wait… and wait, until our mobile phones told us the moment had long passed. What we didn’t register until later was the day. The original time ball did not fall on Sundays or public holidays, and this was a Sunday. Time and tide might wait for no man, but the sychronising of timepieces evidently does.


 
The Odometer

pull along wooden cart with two figures and a drum on topHong Kong Maritime Museum is always a treat, and they currently have an exhibition on map-making. Fundamental to making a decent map is being able to measure distances. While the Romans seem to have had some sort of wheeled vehicle with cogs that dropped pebbles through holes, the Chinese approach was far more stylish.

Here’s a replica of a machine in use during the Han dynasty (206BC-220AD). After a set distance the little men on top bang their drum. Much more fun than pebbles in a box, no?



Fishing-net weights
Narrow-waisted stones


These are from the Hong Kong Museum of History and were in use in Neolithic times. Such a clever and simple idea. Maybe I haven’t been paying attention, but I’ve never seen anything like them before.
Replica boat with net weighted down by stones










The Rat Bin

The story of these grim but highly practical objects is told in the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences.
Black metal bin with hinged lid marked RAT BIN H 525


In 1894 Hong Kong was ravaged by plague. In the fight against the spread of disease, numbered bins were placed on lampposts all over the city for the collection of dead rats in disinfecting carbolic acid. Bins were emptied twice a day and each creature was marked with the number of the bin it had come from before being inspected. Any signs of plague infection in the rats gave the authorities a head start in surveying the local area for human cases.

(Incidentally, the bacterium responsible for plague was first discovered in Hong Kong during this outbreak. It’s named Yersina Pestis after one of its identifiers - Alexandre Yersin.)



St Paul’s, and a few St Nicholases

On a more cheerful note: some major cultural fusion in nearby Macau.

foreground - plastic Santa figures in garden. Background - carved stone facade of church
In the background: the stunning façade of St Paul’s. It’s all that remains of a church and college built in the 17th century by exiled Japanese Christians and Chinese craftsmen in a Portuguese-controlled territory under the direction of an Italian Jesuit. In the foreground: heralding a very twenty-first century Christmas.








 

Something familiar


And finally - there wasn’t a total absence of Romans.
Roman glass vessels

These familiar-looking glass vessels (now in the Maritime Museum) arrived sometime between the second and ninth century, presumably via a trade route. And to demonstrate that the travel wasn’t all one way, recent work on Roman-era cemeteries in London and Somerset suggests that some of the occupants had origins in East Asia.

I wonder what their favourite British finds would have been?


Ruth Downie writes a series of murder mysteries set mostly in Roman Britain, and featuring Roman army medic Ruso and his British partner, Tilla. To find out more, visit www.ruthdownie.com

Friday, 10 January 2020

Felicia Skene: writer & philanthropist by Janie Hampton

Felicia Skene, left, with her niece Zoe Thomson, wife of the Archbishop of York,
and her brother William Forbes Skene, Historiographer Royal of Scotland, in 1892.

When I first moved to Oxford I rather disapproved of the hostel next door, with its Victorian attitude to young, single mothers. I was not surprised when our local vicar told me that it was run by the ‘Skene Moral Welfare Association’. I then learned that the Skene in question was Felicia Mary Frances Skene, one of the most radical women in nineteenth century Oxford. I was even more amazed to discover that she was my grandfather’s great aunt, known in the family as ‘Fifi’. I wanted to know more.
Felicia Mary Frances Skene as a young woman

Her father James, was a wealthy Scottish lawyer and amateur artist whose engravings illustrated Walter Scott’s novels. Born in 1821, Fifi comforted Scott with fairy stories the night in 1825 when he lost everything. Roused by her cheerful spirit, he decided to fight bankruptcy and work through his debts. Scott wrote that Fifi’s parents ‘bring so much old-fashioned kindness and good humour with them that they must be always welcome guests.’ They were also enterprising and resourceful.
James Skene believed that travel was the best form of education, and so led his family on a grand tour around Europe. Fifi was taught the piano in France by Liszt, whom she described as ‘a wild-looking, long-haired excitable man’. Between 1838 and 1845 the family lived in Athens where Fifi sang with the Greek royal family. During an expedition on horseback across the Marathon plain, she spent the night in a shack with Albanian peasants and their pigs. At the age of twenty-four she brought her young nieces aged ten and eleven (one of them my great grandmother Janie) home from Athens by ship and train via Constantinople. Arriving in England she wrote her first book Wayfaring Sketches among the Turks and Christians, first in French and then in English. Her observations of conditions in slave markets, galley- ships and an Ottoman Pasha’s harem made it a bestseller.

Fifi’s father James Skene of Rubsilaw, 1775–1864,
 with two of his grandchildren.
The Skene method of education obviously worked. Her older brother James Henry married Rhalou, a Greek aristocrat and became a British Consul to Aleppo. Fifi’s brother George was Professor of Law at the University of Edinburgh and Sheriff of Glasgow. Another brother William became the Historiographer Royal of Scotland, writing the first academic history from Scotland’s point of view. One of her sisters married the Swedish ambassador to Washington, Berlin and Paris, and the other married a Greek archaeologist– the brother of her sister-in-law.
Fifi settled in Oxford, where her social views were considered overly progressive, especially for a woman. Her 1866 novel Hidden Depths was an exposure of prostitution in Oxford inspired by the injustices she had witnessed in the prison and women’s reformatories. The Athenaeum criticised her writing as ‘unrepresentative of society’, The London Review disapproved of the message and Mudie’s Library considered the subject-matter altogether too provocative. The Lesters: A Family Record warned readers of the dangers of alcohol but was denounced by Saturday Review as being ‘cheap melodramatic horror’ and ‘almost beneath criticism’ while Academy dismissed the novel as 'dull and destined for failure'.
Despite many offers, the auburn-haired and boisterous Fifi was far too busy to bother with marriage. She preferred to carve out her own life as a writer and philanthropist than belong to a man. Fluent in both French and Greek, and possessing a photographic memory, she published more than twenty books under the pseudonyms of Oxonesis, Francis Scougal and Erskine Moir. Her interest in the high-church ‘Oxford Movement’, inspired a theological work The Divine Master, which ran to eleven editions. She wrote for Blackwood’s, Cornhill and Macmillan's Magazines, Quiver, Temple Bar and Good Words, which had a circulation of 100,000 and featured contributions by Thomas Hardy and Anthony Trollope.
Fifi’s 1865 anonymous pamphlet, ‘Penitentiaries and Reformatories’ on the humiliation of ‘fallen women’ whom society ‘sought to hide its blackest curse under a veil of mock prudery. . . because their sin was unfit to be named in the polite society that received with open arms the very men on whom they sinned’. (University of Indiana's Victorian Women Writers Project)
Fifi was a deeply religious and principled woman and used the income from her books and articles to finance her philanthropic work. Her biographer, Edith Rickards, wrote in 1902 that ‘it was her rule throughout her long life never to spend on herself what she gained from her writings, partly from her natural love of giving, partly from an old-fashioned idea that it was an undignified thing for a lady to earn money for her own personal advantage.’

'The Skene Arms', left, in St Michael’s Street, Oxford.

For most of her life, Fifi lived in St Michael’s Street in the centre of Oxford. It’s nickname was ‘The Street of Seven Deadly Sins’. Her home was known as ‘The Skene Arms’, because it was always open to beggars, clergymen, prostitutes, politicians and students. In her Cornhill Magazine article ‘Ethics of the Tramp’ she wrote that like her parrots, men of the road should roam free and never be incarcerated. She braved the wrath of local pimps and drunken husbands by finding refuge for women fleeing prostitution and domestic violence.
Fifi, Tatters and Rev. Algernon Barrington Simeon,
the first Warden of St Edward’s School,
whom she nursed though diphtheria, 1875.
After years of impromptu visits to Oxford Prison accompanied by Tatters, her Skye terrier, Fifi became England’s first official female Prison Visitor. She insisted on complete confidentiality and demanded that male and female prisoners be housed separately, for the protection of the women. On their release, she gave prisoners a hearty breakfast and a reference for employment. She even organised marriages to legitimatize the children of ‘fallen women’. Independently of any political movement, she fought for prisons to be used for rehabilitation; for the abolition of capital punishment; and for the decriminalization of suicide. She also campaigned against female inequality, animal vivisection and religious intolerance. When the Prime Minister, W.E. Gladstone, asked her advice on the new theory of evolution, she told him that Darwin’s discovery was true, and compatible with Christianity. 
Fifi helped found St Edward’s School for the sons of poor clergymen and dug the first sod of earth for its new buildings in North Oxford. With Dr Henry Acland, Fifi trained nurses to deal with cholera and smallpox outbreaks in Oxford. But when she offered her nurses to Florence Nightingale for the war in the Crimea, all but three were turned down for being ‘too working class.’

Fifi, 1821-1899, in old age.


Fifi died of bronchitis in 1899 and was buried in St Thomas Church, near Oxford railway station. A century later the assets of the Skene Moral Welfare Association were redistributed among Oxford’s social housing associations. In old age, Fifi had said of herself, ‘I am like the Martyr’s Memorial – everybody knows me and no-one is interested me.’ Beyond Oxford, she has largely been forgotten, but in 2002 a blue plaque was erected outside her home, now a hostel for single men. The plaque describes Fifi as ‘Prison reformer and friend of the poor’ but there is no mention of her literary achievements.
At times I have felt that my own career, which is split between writing popular history books and international development, confuses people. Great Aunt Fifi demonstrated that a woman can have as many different careers as she likes.
 Some of her titles: Wayfaring sketches among the Greeks and Turks, and on the shores of the Danube by a seven years resident in Greece, 1849. The Isles of Greece, and other poems, 1843. Use and Abuse,  a tale, 1849. The Inheritance of Evil or, The Consequence of marrying a deceased wife’s sister, 1849. The Tutor's Ward, 1851.  The Divine Master, 1852. S. Alban’s, or, the Prisoners of Hope, 1853.  Hidden Depths ,1866. Still and Deep, 1875. Memoir of Alexander, Bishop of Brechin, 1876. Raymond, 1876.  Life of Alexander Lycurgus: archbishop of the Cyclades, 1877. More than Conqueror , 1878. The Shadow of the Holy Week, 1883. A Strange Inheritance, 1886. The Lesters: a Family Record, 1887. Through the Shadows: a Test of the Truth, 1888. Awakened. A tale in nine chapters, 1888. Dewdrops: selections from writings of the saints,1888. Scenes from a Silent World, or, Prisons and their Inmates, 1889.

Friday, 3 January 2020

Matisse, Cinema and the French Riviera, by Carol Drinkwater


Sorry about the glare on the pictures' glass. I took these myself today while the sun was shining and I couldn't find an angle that blotted it out. The above are two of my many favourites of Henri Matisse's work. The first is from his Cut Outs and the second is a Still Life painting. Both are inspired by the colours, light and vegetation here on the Côte d'Azur.

I am fortunate to live in such a special corner of the world.

Back when the French Riviera was little more than olive groves and a series of fishing villages bobbing at the edge of the Mediterranean, some of Europe's leading artists were settling here or finding the means to sojourn here for months on end, to take advantage of our extraordinary light.

                                           View of country fields, outside Nice, Henri Matisse

Here, below, is a photograph of the 17th-century Genoese villa now reinvented as the Matisse Museum, which is in Cimiez, a once-upon-a-time bourgeois neighbourhood of Nice, inland up behind the coastal strip of the city. It houses a permanent Matisse exhibition as well as offering a range of other exhibitions throughout the year.
Henri Matisse lived in Cimiez at the Regina building from 1938 onwards. (He first arrived in Nice in 1917). He is buried with his wife in the cemetery of Monastère Notre Dame de Cimiez.  So, it is fitting that this grand property in Cimiez is dedicated to his work and life as an artist.




(A little aside here: The Regina building was constructed for Queen Victoria who adored the French Riviera and wintered in Nice between 1897 and 1899). In its heyday the Regina was considered one of the most glamorous buildings along this coast. Matisse lived in on the third floor.

Nice, as the capital of the French Riviera, has also been known as the Hollywood of France. Not only because it offers sunshine and palm trees but because it has been the location where several French cinema masterpieces were produced.

Entrance to La Victorine Studios.

In 1919, to compete with Paris as a major European filmmaking hub and to compete with Hollywood, a city also set on the coast and blessed with a sublime climate, the Victorine studios were conceived. These studios and the city of Nice have played an important role in French filmmaking. Since its inception, more than eight hundred films have been shot out of La Victorine. Amongst the stars who have worked here can be counted Jeanne Moreau, Brigitte Bardot, Grace Kelly, Cary Grant,  David Niven, Michael Caine, Catherine Deneuve and Lauren Bacall, to name but a few. David Lean died at the Victorine during pre-production of his last and never-completed film, Nostromo.

During WWII, when France was partially occupied by the Germans, this area, because it was in the Free Zone, became even more attractive to filmmakers. Many of the artists who could not work freely under the scrutiny of the Nazis fled to the south. Here, they were at liberty to make films. After WWII, since 1946 when Cannes held its inaugural world-renowned film festival, this region has attracted many of the greatest names in world cinema.

Poster for the first Cannes Film festival


(I even auditioned myself for a film shot here. Day for Night or La Nuit Americaine directed by François Truffaut, meeting the great man in London.)

Les Enfants du Paradis, signed by Michel Carné, To Catch a Thief, directed by Alfred Hitchock, were both shot here during the studio's golden age.

From 1975 to 1983, while Nice was under the governance of the notoriously corrupt mayor, Jean Médicine, the studios began to fall into decline, or rather its reputation became muddied with stories of local corruption, Mafia interference, neglect. Mid-eighties, the studios were sold to actor Michael Douglas and his brother, Joel, who came away from the experience with little to show on their production belt. From thereon, the studios knew several proprietors but little glory. The place was used as the base for high-budget commercials shot here but not much was made that could be considered quality cinema. In 2017, rather than continue to watch this decline, the city of Nice bought the studios, returned to it its original name of 'Victorine' and this year celebrates its first centenary with an eye, we hope, to better times ahead.

It is not surprising, given a century and more of filmmakers and artists congregating along this coastline, that the work of one influenced the other. Famously, there have been exhibitions - an excellent one I went to at the Tate Modern in London charting the influences of Picasso and Matisse on one another's work. They lived a few kilometres from one another, were friends and friendly rivals.


We have this drawing above our bed. Picasso, 1952. 

I had at first mistaken it for a Matisse.

                                                 Henri Matisse

There have been many articles and books written, also exhibitions, such as the Matisse Picasso I saw at the Tate Modern in 2002, all concentrating on the influence the artists of the Côte d'Azur have had on one another. Or the influence this famous light we are bathed in down here on a daily basis even now in mid-winter, has had on so many of their works. However, I think the influence the septième art, the seventh art, cinema, has had on the French Riviera artists is a new angle.

La Nouvelle Vague of French cinema which included directors such as Truffaut, Rohmer, Godard, Jaques Demy, Agnes Varda (who died this year) cited Henri Matisse as one of the important influences of their work.

Matisse was an avid cinema-goer. Now, the city of Nice in a fascinating exhibition looks at how film images have influenced Henri Matisse and his work.

The exhibition, CINÉMATISSE, runs at the Musée Matisse until 5th January 2020.

Happy New Year to all our wonderful History Girls and Happy New Year to all our readers.

www.caroldrinkwater.com




   
Poster for the exhibition at the Massena Museum in Nice.
musee-matisse-nice.org