Friday 26 June 2020

Angelica, Paintress of Minds by Miranda Miller

   When I was writing my novel about the fascinating painter Angelica Kauffman there were two things I found difficult to understand: her devout Catholicism (I am not religious) and her fear of change in her last years, when she was living in Rome, widowed, waiting for Napoleon’s army to invade. In early nineteenth century century terms she was an old lady - actually younger than I am now - and she wanted to continue to shine in the brilliant world of art and culture in London and Rome that no longer existed because of the wars. Change is inevitable, I thought rather impatiently as I wrote about her sadness and fear of the new century.

   The last few strange months have changed all of our lives and now I think I have more empathy for people who lived through past wars and pandemics. We spend most of our lives deluding ourselves that we are important and then some disaster comes along to remind us that we are actually tiny and have no control over these great events.

   Angelica was a determined woman who controlled her life from childhood, when her precocious gift was regognised and exploited by her father, an unsuccessful painter. Hers was one of those talents that was perfectly attuned to the taste of her age and she made the most of it, painting portraits of the rich and famous that were flattering and also psychologically acute, like this one of the great classical scho;ar Winckelmann, who was a friend,.

   Angelica was good looking and charming, a talented singer who spoke German, Italian and English. When she was twenty-five she moved to London where she very quickly established herself in the highly competitive art world. A new word was coined: Angelicamad. Joshua Reynold liked and encouraged her and as well as portraits she did History and literary paintings, often showing melancholy women left behind by the macho exploits of their men, She also painted many aristocrats and members of the royal family, including Queen Charlotte, who befriended her. These two intelligent cultivated young women were about the same age and the Queen, who was lonely in En gland, was relieved to be able to speak German . This ia a mezzotint of Angelica’s allegorical painting of the Queen about to awaken the sleeping arts in Great Britain.

   Angelica was always aware that as a ‘paintress’ she did not have the sexual freedom of male artists. Remarkably, her career and reputation were not damaged by the one mistake she made, her first marriage to the ‘Count de Horn’ who turned out to be a con man. It was probably due to the influence of the Queen that Angelica was one of only two women to become founding members of the Royal Academy of Arts when it opened in 1768. She was a shrewd businesswoman who made a lot of money during her years in London. Here is one of many self portraits she painted from the age of thirteen. I found them very helpful as a guide to exploring her life.

    In her late thirties, after her first bigamous marriage was annulled, she married Antonio Zucchi, a Venetian decorative painter fifteen years older than her. She had seen many other women artists ruined by marriage because their husbands were jealous of their talent or objected to their earning money as painters. She drew up what we would call a pre-nuptial agreement, giving her total control over her own money. In fact Zucchi was happy to be supportive of his more famous wife and their marriage seems to have been a happy one.

   In 1780 Lord George Gordon let a violently anti-Catholic mob on a rampage of rioting, looting and burning in London that lasted for several days. As Catholics, Angelica and her household were terrified and decided to move back to Italy.

   Rome was then the centre of the European art world,where all the Grand Tourists came. Angelica and her husband lived in a very grand house at the top of the Spanish steps. When I was researching my novel I visited Rome, thanks to a generous grant from the Authors’ Foundation, and found that her house has been demolished and replaced by a luxury hotel.

   Her house became an international cultural centre and during those years Angelica painted the Queen of Naples, Antonio Canova, Germaine de Stael, Emma Hamilton and Goethe, all of whom were her friends. After Zucchi died in 1795 she wrote, ‘These happy times are over,’ and for the last years of her life she lived in fear that the soldiers of Napoleon, would arrive and loot her valuable art collection. Lucia, an invented character in my novel, is a young woman Angelica helps who is infatuated with the glamour and excitement of Napoleon and his sister, Princess Pauline Borghese, who was living in Rome. As a conservative Catholic Angelica detested both and mourned the old world that was being swept away by Napoleon. This argument runs throughout the novel. In Lucia’s unconventional spirit Angelica recognises a youth she missed:“She is the girl I trained myself not to be.”

   Like us, Angelica lived at a time of enormous change and was often bewildered by it. At the end of her life, still anxious to avoid scandal, she made a bonfire of most of her private papers. I’ve presumptuously tried to bring them back to life in my novel, Angelica Paintress of Minds, which is now out on kindle and will be published by Barbican Books in August.

Friday 19 June 2020

On Purbeck Marble

Tomb of William Marshal: Temple Church.  Author's photograph
Purbeck Marble was a highly prized building material in the Middle Ages especially from the 11th to 16th centuries, with its heyday in the 12th and 13th.

It can only be obtained from one place and that is the land in the area of Corfe on the Isle of Purbeck in south-east Dorset.  It is not a marble technically speaking, but a polishable limestone, characterised by tightly-packed fossil shells of the water snail viviparus carinfer.  It comes in a variety of shades including blue-grey, red-brown and green.  The vein of this limestone is between 18 and 24 inches thick and was worked from the surface.

Thousands of architectural objects have been fashioned from Purbeck stone, including the the columns at the Temple Church in London, various knightly effigies, including that of William Marshal, and a magnificent fountain that used to stand outside the private apartments at the Palace of Westminster.  Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester and brother to King Stephen, used Purbeck for wall shafts, capitals and bases at Wolvesey Palace in the mid 12th century and also for elaborate colonettes at Hyde Abbey.

Working the marble is difficult because of its denseness and it required expert craftsmen for the task.  Such men worked at Purbeck itself and in London.

One of the reasons for the success of Purbeck was the coastal location of the source which made it easy to transport. Columns were shipped up to Durham Cathedral in 1175. Capitals and bases went to Norwich, to Westminster, to Vale Royal.  In 1375 a ship called the Margarite out of Wareham was listed as transporting cargoes of Purbeck to London, including two high tombs for the Earl of Arundel and a large slab for the bishop of Winchester.  In 1386 the same ship took Purbeck from Dorset to London intended for the tomb of Edward III.

Tomb of King John Worcester Cathedral.  photo taken by the author
The London craftsman originally came from Corfe but settled in their community in London. The biggest influx seems to have come with the requirement for building and beautifying at Westminster Abbey instigated by Henry III in 1245. By 1253 there were 49 marblers on the site all cutting and polishing the marble blocks and shafts.  There were probably also centres of marbling at other great ecclesiastical sites - Salisbury Cathedral for example, which was sending worked marble to Southampton in 1231-2.

The most successful Purbeck items for the mass market in the 12th and 13th century were tomb slabs and effigies.  William Marshal's effigy as aforementioned, Henry Bishop of Winchester, King John, Hubert Walter - Archbishop of Canterbury.

Later on Purbeck continued to be in high demand when funeral brass effigies became all the rage and the marble was used as a background to the brass.  It was still also being used for paneled tomb chests and large canopied wall tombs.

Today it is no longer quarried on the former sites except for specialist restoration projects.

Temple Church interior showing the Purbeck columns - these are restored ones following
bomb damage in World War II

Friday 12 June 2020

What's in a Name ? by Judith Allnatt

What's in a name? Well, often quite a nod to history. Our own names often tell us something of the occupations off our ancestors, as in Potter, Shepherd, Smith (blacksmith) and Whitaker (white acre).  Some, of course, would be difficult to guess. Who would have known that the first name Gary means 'spear-carrier',  Kimberley 'a wood clearing' or  Everard 'strong boar'?

Some names have suffixes that suggest the nature of an occupation. 'Wright' means someone who makes something, as in Wheelwright or Wainwright, 'wain' being short for 'wagon'. Suffixes can also imply gender. The surname Webb was commonly used for a male weaver. The suffix 'ster' was often added for a female labourer, as in 'Webster'. Words on this pattern have even entered the language as nouns.  'Spinster' no doubt originated from an occupation commonly taken up by single women needing to support themselves. Prefixes can also be revealing. 'Fitz', from Old French,  means 'son of', as in Fitzpatrick or Fitzgerald, or in the case of Fitzroy the (illegitimate) son of the King (Roi).

When choosing names for characters, novelists generally think carefully about the nature of the character and the impression they want to create. Thomas Hardy, in Far from the Madding Crowd, introduces his character, Gabriel Oak, through his robust clothes and steady nature but his name also underpins this impression. A man named after an archangel and the sturdiest of English trees must surely be a moral benchmark and a reliable, all round solid chap.

Sometimes historical research can lead a writer to a name that chimes with their idea of a character.When I was writing The Silk Factory, set in the early 1800s, I drew on the history of John English, the overseer in the silk manufactory in my Northamptonshire village. He was described by the outraged schoolmaster of the time as 'an inhuman taskmaster'. Like Gabriel Oak, John English seemed far too traditional and forthright a name for a character who was to cruelly exploit and mistreat his workforce. I would have to rename him. In researching the industry, I read about weaving  workshops in Spitalfields in London and how nets would sometimes be set up on the rooftops  to catch songbirds to sell. A bird catcher was known then as a 'fowler' - the perfect name for the silk master overseeing a workforce trapped in a stuffy attic working sixteen-hour days.

John English also had a mysterious past. An advert in the Northampton Mercury offered a reward of ten guineas for his capture as he was accused of several felonies, including theft and cruelty. It said: 'He has many wounds upon his head and in different parts of his body, wears a wig and the general turn of his conversation is directed to Travelling, Voyages, Mechanics and discovering Mines and the North-West passage.' Because  of this, I wanted a first name that had elements of mystery and exoticism. I chose 'Septimus', the name used for a seventh son, a role imbued with mystery in fairy tales through the ages. 'Septimus  Fowler', I felt would be a character that the reader would recognise as villainous from the moment of his introduction.

We don't tend to think about the origins or meanings of names as we use them in everyday life. They've become commonplace over the generations through their frequent use. However, I think perhaps we sometimes have an unconscious awareness of their associations. When writing A Mile of River, which features a farmer obsessed with expanding his land and controlling his family, I drew a blank for his name. After a night sleeping on it, I came up with the name 'Henry Garton'. It seemed to click although I couldn't have said why. Looking up the meanings I found "Henry - head of the household" and "Garton - a fenced farm, a walker of boundaries". A salutary lesson on trusting one's writerly instincts!

No wonder many peoples have superstitions about telling a stranger their names. Perhaps they have a sense that to do so is to part with more information about themselves  than they would like to give. What's in a name? Quite a lot it would seem.

Friday 5 June 2020

Beautiful Libraries & Travel Dreams by Catherine Hokin

Like every writer I know, I am wedded to libraries and bookshops and, ten weeks into this strange new world we are now living in, I am missing my regular haunts.

I have two libraries I regularly spend time in - my local university library in Glasgow and the Wiener Holocaust Library in London - and too many virtual ones to count. Independent bookshops in Glasgow are, unfortunately, thin on the ground but Edinburgh is only a hop away and we have a suitably eccentric second-hand bookshop at the bottom of our road that I really hope survives the current closures.

 El Ateneo Grand Splendid Bookstore - Flickr
Travel seems a long way away but I have been digging through the photos and planning trips, and libraries and book stores are always part of the itinerary. Last year, while researching my novel The Fortunate Ones, I was lucky enough to visit Buenos Aires and the incredible El Ateneo Grand Splendid. This bookshop was built in 2000 inside the Grand Splendid Theatre which itself opened in 1919. The shop retains many parts of the original theatre, including the stage - which is now a cafe - the balconies and boxes and even the red curtains. I have never seen a shop like it, and we lost hours in there.

 Washington National Library - my picture
A few months before that, I was in Washington where I almost broke my neck craning for a better view of the magnificent ceilings in the Library of Congress.The decoration is breath-taking, the library is in the Beaux Art style which means it is theatrical and heavily ornamented. It was the largest library in the world when it opened in 1897, and still is. Its collections number more than 170 million items and that number is constantly growing - about 10,000 items are added to its lists every working day.

The Library of Congress is, however, a long way from being the world's oldest library. That honour falls to the Library of Ashurbanipal, which was founded in Ninevah in modern day Iraq in the seventh century BC. The ancient world also housed the legendary Library of Alexandria which attracted scholars from around the Mediterranean until it was destroyed by fire - either in 48 B.C., 270 A.D or at the end of the fourth century depending on which record you read. The oldest surviving library collection - roughly 1800 scrolls - dates from 79 A.D and was discovered in the Villa of the Papyri when Herculaneum was excavated in the eighteenth century. The scrolls were blackened and carbonized after spending so long entombed in the mud and ash left by the volcanic eruption which buried Herculaneum along with Pompei. Much of the catalogue has yet to be deciphered, but studies have already revealed that the library contains several texts by an Epicurean philosopher and poet named Philodemus.

Libraries have always been viewed as an essential part of our world and I, for one, cannot wait to walk into one and breathe that special printed page smell again. We are currently, I think, evaluating many of the things that are important to us, and I hope libraries continue to get the support and funding they, and we, need. In a time of fake news and sometimes too fast news, they have never been more essential to us - libraries provide equality of information and they are the custodians of truth. They are also, many of them, stunning works of art in their own right. I am sure many readers of this blog have their own favourites - Trinity College Library in Dublin is another of mine - but the following pictures are top of my my wish list. As soon as the world opens up again, I'm on my way...

Royal Library, El Escorial, Madrid, Flikr

 George Peabody Library, Baltimore, Wikicommons