Friday 24 February 2023

LUCY BOSTON: An artist in everything she did. Edited by Victor Watson. By Adèle Geras

Victor Watson (see photo at the end of this piece)  was for many years  an academic at Homerton College, Cambridge and an expert on children's books. He edited The Cambridge Guide to Children's Books in English (CUP 2001). He was Chairman of Seven Stories during its development and eventual opening in 2005 as the National Centre for Children's Books. He has written novels for children and a novel for adults called Time After Time. I ought to say that he and his wife Judy are friends of mine and  I have visited their house  and admired their beautiful garden. I only mention this because Lucy Boston, the subject of the book I'm writing about here, was also a passionate gardener  and many visitors to the  Manor House in Hemingford Grey go precisely to see the beautiful garden Lucy Boston created. I have written about it on this blog.


This collection of essays has many Japanese contributors because Japanese academics had put together a book of essays about Boston and many of their pieces are translated here.  In  Japan, Lucy Boston is a much -loved and much- studied writer. Many Japanese visitors come to England and visit the Manor, paying tribute to her not only as a writer but also as a patchworker, a poet, an artist, and a gardener.  The book is very well-titled. Victor himself has written an essay on her Green Knowe books and another on her other fiction, as well as an introduction.


Diana Boston, Lucy's daughter in law and the devoted chatelaine of the Manor,  has written about the patchworks, Lucy's garden and about Lucy as an artist. When you visit Hemingford Grey, Diana is the one who shows you the patchworks which lie spread out on a bed and can be seen one by one. Last time I visited, Diana asked me to put on the white gloves (to protect the fabric) and help her fold back each quilt so that other visitors could see their full beauty. I"ve never forgotten that day. 

Hemingford Grey  is perhaps the oldest inhabited house in England.  If you visit as a reader of the Green Knowe books, you will find many objects and places you will recognise from the novels. Victor's work in bringing us these essays is cause for rejoicing.  It will help enormously in encouraging new readers, new fans to Boston's works, and hopefully enthuse a whole new generation of fans. 

There's a piece by Jill Paton Walsh at the end of this book which is very moving and personal. She was a good friend of Lucy Boston's and she wonders whether the novels will be enjoyed at a time which is on the surface so very different from the days when the Green Knowe books  first appeared.  Tik Tok, the metaverse, AI bots and the like are the prevailing background to reading today, but I am quite sure there must be those people still who would greatly appreciate the haunting prose and wonderful narratives of these novels. They were only published as children's books because their author insisted on her son's beautiful illustrations being part of the whole. The Japanese, of course, are quite relaxed about adults reading illustrated stories and they are also perfectly accustomed to's no wonder that Lucy Boston is still being studied there. I hope very much that this lovely volume brings new readers to the work and new visitors to Hemingford Grey. Victor Watson has put together a collection that's both enjoyable to read and beautiful to look at. Lucy Boston would definitely have approved. 

Friday 17 February 2023

No amount of Wright's Coal Tar -- a trip to the Museum of Brands Sheena Wilkinson

I’ve spent the last few months in the 1930s. It’s a grim place in many ways, with the rise of the political far right; poverty and deprivation, and the displacement of millions as people are forced from their homes by political or economic cruelty. Part of the grimness is not how alien these issues are to us today, but how depressingly familiar. 

the reason for my immersion in all things 1930s

But the books I have been writing and editing, though firmly grounded in political reality, have been essentially upbeat in their tone. Yes, there’s fascism, but also bias-cut frocks and black-and-white matinées. My three historical novels for children (Name upon Name, Star by Star and Hope against Hope, Little Island 2015-2020) dealt with Politics with a capital P, as they looked at various aspects of Irish history a century ago. In Mrs Hart’s Marriage Bureau (HarperCollins Ireland, 2 March 2023, and its unnamed-work-in-progress sequel) the focus is much more domestic. And that’s what took me to the wonderful Museum of Brands in London a couple of weeks ago: an afternoon’s immersion in 200 years of packaging, with particular attention to the 1930s. The museum’s permanent display is based on the extensive Robert Opie collection.

Note the biscuit tin from the exact year

I’ve always loved material culture. Even as a child, I loved reading as much about the minutiae of everyday objects as about huge historical events – more, probably. It’s one reason why I always loved Noel Streatfeild: her emphasis, in books like Ballet Shoes, on what they wore, and how much things cost, was endlessly fascinating to me. Having said that, I’ve always been suspicious of what I call the product placement type of historical fiction – you know what I mean: too many brand names at the expense of a genuine feel for the period. If characters speak with 21st century accents and voice 21st century opinions, no amount of Wright’s Coal Tar soap is going to wash that out.

But there’s nothing like looking at the chocolate bars and shampoo bottles and dress patterns that your heroines would have been familiar with. Luckily the museum was quiet that afternoon because I kept exclaiming at things I recognised. Sometimes this was the visual memory of a childhood sweet, or a biscuit tin the same as the one Gran kept her buttons in. More often I was excited to see evidence of the brands and labels that I had mentioned in the text but wasn’t personally acquainted with. For example, my heroine April offers to wash some curtains in Reckitts Blue – a product I knew from my reading of 1930s fiction would bring them up nice and white, but which I’d never actually seen in the flesh until then. And there it was, reassuringly promising to do just that.

As always I was surprised at both the longevity of some of my favourite brands, and the disappearance of others. My 1930s characters could have joined me in a bar of Aero, but I can only imagine what grapefruit filled chocolate tastes like – and I don’t think I’d have given them a bar, because for the reader to start thinking, Gosh: grapefruit chocolate, how odd. I wonder what tastes like? might well have plucked their interest out of the story.

grapefruit chocolate, anyone?

And maybe that’s key to using brands and products: of course it’s important to be accurate – my browser history is full of questions like When were tampons invented? and What breakfast cereals were popular in 1934? – but that needs to be balanced by not distracting the reader. After all, in a book set in 2023, I wouldn’t even mention brands unless perhaps as an economic signifier. One of my favourite displays was the 1930s chemist’s shop. I could imagine my characters choosing a shampoo, or trying to find a patent recipe for period pains. And although they don’t make their own clothes, the range of 1930s dress patterns helped me to imagine their frocks and cardigans.

some frocks for Martha and April 

Mrs Hart’s Marriage Bureau will be published on 2 March. It’s my first novel for adults, and I absolutely loved writing it. I hope the little domestic details will charm the readers as much as they charmed the writer. And at the launch, I’ll be serving little boxes of traditional toffees. And yes, they did have Mackintosh’s in 1934.

(all photos taken at the Museum of Brands, 31 January 2023)

Friday 10 February 2023

Wheel Fiddle by Joan Lennon

Elders playing a two-person organistrum
Santiago de Compostela, Spain
12th century
(wiki commons)

What has more than 90 moving parts, was once the instrument of choice in churches, in its earliest version needed two people to play* and has been making music for over 1000 years?

It's the hurdy-gurdy. Aka the wheel fiddle, symphonia, organistrum, vielle a roue, zanfona. Its music is made by a rosined wooden wheel turned by a crank moving against melody strings, plus drone strings and a buzzing bridge or 'dog'**.

Illustration of two symphonia from the Canticles of Holy Mary
during the reign of Alfonso X of Castile El Sabio (1221-1284)
(wiki commons)

Are you reading or writing medieval historical fiction? Would you like a sound track? Try these (though there is a certain irony in the ones where there's an organ accompaniment ...):

Though the organ as we know it took over as the instrument of ecclesiastical music, the hurdy-gurdy remained popular in the secular world. Once you start looking you see it illustrated everywhere - Leonardo da Vinci, Hieronymus Bosch, Brueghel, Jacquet, Millais - not all on wiki commons, so sadly I can't show them here, but keep an eye out. It even makes a brief appearance on the film
The Polar Express.

The Hurdy-Gurdy Player
by Anne Claude de Caylus 1737
(wiki commons)

For a modern take on the hurdy-gurdy, here is a beautifully creative work by Guilhem Desq called Le chateau magique:

I couldn't resist leaving you with this version of the Game of Thrones theme played on hurdy-gurdy:

* The history of instruments that need more than one person to play them is a fascinatingly odd one, and includes 'the courting dulcimer' from the Southern States of the US in the 1850s. A protective mama was reassured by the sound of the music from the next room because the dulcimer required four hands to play, so the courting couple could be left alone without fear of hanky-panky taking place.

I'm also quite fond of the two person octobass, but that's a story for another day.

** It's called a dog because (to someone, not me) the noise it makes sounds like barking.

Joan Lennon website

Friday 3 February 2023

HAMILTON'S TREASURES ... by Susan Stokes-Chapman

Thankfully the ship rests in the shallows. He has not used this apparatus before and will not venture any deeper than he must. Twenty feet below the surface. No danger there, he tells himself. And he knows exactly where to look. Under careful instruction the object he seeks was safely hidden within the starboard bow, away from the other shipments tightly packed in the hold, but the ship broke apart in the storm; he hopes his luck stays true, that the crate has not strayed too far along the seabed, that no one else has managed to retrieve it ...

In the winter of 1798, the Royal Navy ship HMS Colossus met its watery end off the coast of the Scilly Isles in the grips of a treacherous storm. On board that mighty warship – stored away in the hull – was the British diplomat William Hamilton’s treasured collection of Greek antiquities. He had decided, with an invasion of Naples by Napoleon's forces imminent, to ship this collection back to England for safety. Ironic, then, that these precious pieces ended up lost at the bottom of the sea.

William Hamilton loved his Greek vases, having collected many of them during his 35 years living in Naples. During his time serving as British Ambassador to King Ferdinand between 1764-1799, his official duties allowed his intellectual passions for art and culture to blossom. In particular he ardently pursued his interest in antiquities, purchasing Greek vases from collectors, funding archaeological digs and opening ancient tombs. This interest soon became an obsession - by 1766 he had amassed a collection of over two hundred individual pieces. For his own scholarly satisfaction (it can be presumed), in 1766–67 he published a four-volume set of engravings of his collection entitled Collection of Etruscan, Greek, and Roman antiquities from the cabinet of the Honble. Wm. Hamilton, His Britannick Maiesty's envoy extraordinary at the Court of Naples:

Hamilton's first collection of antiquities was sold to the British Museum in 1772 for £8,410, where the pieces can still be viewed today - in particular, a red-figure volute crater is known as the 'Hamilton Vase'. However, no sooner had Hamilton sold this collection (immediate seller's regret, perhaps!) he began to collect once more, later publishing a second catalogued vase collection. This catalogue was titled Collection of Engravings from Ancient Vases Mostly of Pure Greek Workmanship Discovered in Sepulchres in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies but Chiefly in the Neighbourhood of Naples During the Course of the Years MDCCLXXXIX and MDCCLXXXX, and what makes this set of engravings so valuable is the fact it was this particular collection of vases that were lost on board the HMS Colossus:

He was, understandably, devastated. In a letter he wrote to his nephew Charles Greville in 1799, he said of his vases 

“they had better be in Paris than at the bottom of the sea; have you no good news of them? they were excellently packed up, & the cases will not easily go to pieces, & the sea water will not hurt the vases. All the cream of my collection were in those eight cases on board the Colossus, & I can't bear to look at some remaining cases here in which I know there are only black vases without figures.”

Unfortunately, very few items from the collection were recovered in his lifetime. They were eventually brought to the surface by a recovery crew in 1974, and the damaged pieces are now housed in The British Museum. The legacy of William Hamilton's collections, however, live on - artists such as Josiah Wedgwood referred to the published volumes and used them to influence their own work. One of the most famous of Wedgwood's pieces is his copy of the 'Portland Vase', below ...


My debut novel Pandora opens with the recovery of an ancient vase from the shipwreck of HMS Colossus, and features William Hamilton quite prominently as a key character. To read all about it you can order by clicking the image below:

Twitter & Instagram: @SStokesChapman