Friday 29 March 2024

The Aspidistra Radio Transmitter #WW2

by Deborah Swift

Harold Robin - WW2 Radio Engineer

The Shadow Network which forms the title of my latest book refers to the fake news radio stations set up by Sefton Delmer in WW2. These secret radio stations operating in WW2 pretended to be genuine German radio stations and employed German prisoners of war or other German speakers to make their broadcasts. The broadcasts were deliberately racy and were designed to capture the hearts of ordinary Germans and make them believe they were listening to a forbidden radio station from their own country. Their popularity spread, and they got wide audiences for their programmes.

The radio signal for these ‘fake news’ radio stations needed to be strong enough to appear as though it came from Germany and had to be more powerful than anything that was then available.

By coincidence, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) had created two high-powered radio transmitters which could not be used in the US, because of a change in American law. The RCA were eager to sell them to Britain. So Harold Robin, (pictured above) a Foreign Office radio engineer, saw their potential, and travelled to America to examine them, and then worked to improve them. He adapted a transmitter so it was able to move frequency in a fraction of a second, at the flick of a switch.

The powerful ex-RCA transmitter, eventually installed in Sussex, England, was named Aspidistra, referencing the popular Gracie Fields song ‘The Biggest Aspidistra in the World’, in which an Aspidistra houseplant grows until it ‘nearly reached the sky’.

In fact, most of the technology was buried underground at the site at Crowborough, though its antennae were visible – three guyed masts, each 110 metres tall, directing the signal broadly eastwards. The Art Deco–style transmitter building was housed in an underground shelter which had to be excavated by the Canadian army troops who were stationed nearby.

Intrusion operations

The Aspidistra mast was so powerful it could be used to intercept German frequencies. During Allied air raids, German radio transmitters were switched off so the Allies couldn’t use them to locate their installations.

As soon as the Germans switched off their masts, Aspidistra began transmitting on its frequency, just like the German station. The transition was seamless and German listeners believed the original station was still broadcasting. Aspidistra operators would then insert pro-British propaganda and fake news into the broadcast as if it was coming from official German sources.

Post War Use

After the war, Aspidistra was used by the BBC. It made its final transmission on 28 September 1982, before being finally switched off by Robin, the man who had been responsible, forty years earlier, for bringing the transmitter from the US and setting up the station at Crowborough.

In my novel based around the Aspidistra transmitter and the fake news radio stations, I include a fictional plot to blow up the transmitter. Although fictional, this is not unlikely as there were several attempts by the Germans to sabotage infrastructure and communications systems in England at the time.

If you’d like more information about Radio Aspidistra I recommend this Nuts and Volts Magazine article - The Raiding Dreadnought of the Ether.

‘Brilliant! Loved this novel about the input made by the Political Warfare Executive to WW2. The characters seemed so real and true.’ NetGalley Reviewer

‘A gripping tale of wartime subterfuge, spies, saboteurs and black propaganda’ NetGalley Reviewer

Read more about   THE SHADOW NETWORK

Friday 22 March 2024

In Defence of Poland by Rebecca Alexander

My first neighbours were a couple in their eighties from Poland. As time went on, they told me stories of life in childhood, celebrations, food, the Slavic language, the beautiful landscape and grand history. After Joe died, his wife Rosa started to tell stories of his journey through the war. 

Zygmunt Bieńkowski and Jan Zumbach present the first "trophy" of Squadron 303

On 1st September, 1939, as we all know, Germany invaded Poland. What is less commonly known is the scale of the invasion. 1.8 million German combatants poured across Poland from three sides, from Germany, East Prussia and Slovakia in one day. They brought the massive power of the Luftwaffe, which had some of the most evolved and heavily armed planes of that time. Hitler had ordered that the attack was to be carried out “with the greatest brutality and without mercy”. 

Sixteen days later, The Poles were beaten back and trying to protect Warsaw, when Stalin invaded the part of Poland ceded to him by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The Poles were overwhelmed, and had lost at least twenty thousand civilians and more soldiers. Poland never formally surrendered but its government, navy and air force evacuated to London, seeking a place from which to win back their homeland. 

The Polish Air force had taken its outdated P11s with open cockpits and two machine guns against the faster, better armoured and closed in cockpits of the Me-110s, with four machine guns and two cannon. They fought gallantly and often successfully, but they were also outnumbered. Despite the disadvantage, Polish pilots far outnumbered their planes by 5 September, down to 120 aircraft. By the time the order came to evacuate on 17/18 September, pilots were reduced to flying trainer planes, unarmed civilian planes or their battered P11s across to neighbouring Romania. Despite their disadvantages, they had brought down 126 German planes, with more probably shot down and or damaged. It would now be a long and difficult journey to safety. 

Most of the Polish Air Force made their ways by circuitous routes to France, with the stated aim of defending the French then driving forward to liberate Poland. They stole planes and gliders, drove cars and lorries, caught rides on horse drawn cars and the last of the trains. The Romanians took their smart uniforms, exchanging them for their own clothes, stealing personal jewellery, boots and weapons when the refugees couldn’t hide them. The country was poor, the language unfamiliar, the only common language was French. Refugees were marched to an internment camp in Cernăuți, along with thousands of soldiers, ordinary people and other airmen. About eighty percent of the air force (over nine thousand air- and ground- crew) had got to Romania. Another thousand escaped through Lithuania, Latvia, Slovakia or Hungary. Fifteen hundred were captured by the Soviets and sent to labour camps. 

Conditions in the Cernăuți camp were terrible. There was poor sanitation, little food or shelter, but security was very lax. Polish Air Force personnel escaped, travelling across nominally neutral Romania on foot, horse and cart or train to Yugoslavia or Hungary. A few secreted coins for bribes, and home-made documents got them through border checks, avoiding the odd Nazi sympathiser. On one occasion, realising they were being followed, two pilots caught and questioned a man speaking in German on a concealed radio, eventually making the decision to kill him as a Nazi spy. 

Many walked over the Carpathian mountains, some dying in the cold. The Hungarians were civil and helpful, despite having a very active fascist party and anti-Jewish legislation, and many were helped onwards toward Italy. General Józef Zając, a pilot, was stopped in Fiume, which was then in Italy, accused of being a Jew. Only his rosary and Polish credentials saved him. Pilots reaching the Black Sea were able to take ships to the Mediterranean and to French or British ports. Others struck out through Germany itself, walking into Belgium then across to France, knowing they could be shot if caught. 

The Polish personnel were incredibly resourceful. Three mechanics walked to the Italian border on the Yugoslav side and claimed they were Italians who had accidentally wandered across the border, the Yugoslavs sent them into Italy rather than fill out visa forms. After walking across Italy, they used the same ruse to get into Switzerland, from which they could legally travel into France. 

Polish pilots escaping north to Lithuania were not so welcome, and Latvians were cautious, not wanting to offend the Soviets. Polish agents in collusion with the British embassy helped many pilots escape by boat to Sweden, then on to Denmark or Norway here they headed for France. 

The Polish Air Force initially wanted to defend Europe by bolstering the French air defences. Bomber pilots were sent to England to start training but fighter pilots were accommodated, as they drifted in, at Luxeil, Le Bourget and dispersed around the French airbases. 

Many French politicians didn’t believe it would come to another war. The Polish pilots were placed on out of the way airfields with old Caudron Cyclones, defective planes that the French called ‘flying coffins’ were grounded by the French air ministry. The Poles couldn’t wait to engage the German Luftwaffe, and were happy to fly in the Caudrons. As on the first of September, the Germans attacked at dawn, blowing up French planes in their airfields and hangars while the Polish pilots chased them off as best they could. Six weeks after arriving at the airbase, the French surrendered and the Poles were off again, commanded by their leader General Sikorski, to flee to the coast and get, by any possible means, to Britain. 

Polish pilots stole planes, boats, rode trains, hitched lifts and walked to the coast, where thousands were rescued. Those in bases in the south of France fled to the Mediterranean coast. British steamers, Polish naval vessels that had joined the Royal Navy, and British warships transported them to Britain from ports as far away as Algeria and Casablanca. One had stowed away on a steamer going to Mexico, travelled up through the US and Canada and joined a unit coming to the UK. 

Altogether, 6,200 made the journey successfully. It was a heroic migration, but the fight had hardly begun. The Poles (and Czechs, Hungarians, Yugoslavs and French who had joined them) arrived just in time to adjust to the RAF regulations, learn the language and cope with the different culture before the onslaught of the battle of Britain. The Poles, who had experienced actual combat against the German forces, were horrified to be demoted to the lowest rank, pilot officers, and to have to practice formations and radio commands on bicycles on the runway. They were happier to be training in relatively advanced British planes and to be reunited with their ground support crew, who were so conscientious some only slept when their pilots were in the air. 

By the time Polish pilots flew their first missions in defence of Britain, they had survived their own rigorous training, months of dogfights against the power of the Luftwaffe in Poland and France, travelling across and increasingly hostile Europe, training in old biplanes at British training grounds and learning a new language and customs. They complained mostly about the strict rules within the air forces, and the food, but the locals were welcoming and the British were determined to fight off any invasion. 

Dunkirk had left the Royal Air Force short of 450 pilots, with a loss of another 300 a month as the German planes started incursions across the English Channel. The British knew the Polish pilots had been trained to use their own initiative over staying in strict formations or waiting for commands. It was easier to assemble pilots that hadn’t been integrated into the depleted squadrons, into their own, Polish groups. 

On 31 August 1940, the newly formed 303 squadron was operational, six of their Hurricanes defeating four confirmed and two probably Messerschmitt 109s, and they continued to have considerable success for the week up to the Battle of Britain. 

303 squadron pilots. L-R: F/O Ferić, F/Lt Lt Kent, F/O Grzeszczak, P/O Radomski, P/O Zumbach, P/O Łokuciewski, F/O Henneberg, Sgt Rogowski, Sgt Szaposznikow (in 1940)

By the 31 October 1940, the battle was over. Almost three thousand pilots of all Allied nations had taken part, destroying over thirty percent of the German planes, although at considerable loss to their own forces. 

British pilots on average took down 5 enemy planes per pilot lost. The Poles averaged 10.5, meaning they were able to fly many more missions for the rest of the war with tremendous success. Nearly two thousand Poles were killed and thirteen hundred wounded, winning 342 bravery awards. 

As the RAF’s Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding put it: ‘If it had not been for the magnificent material contributed by the Polish squadrons and their unsurpassed gallantry, I hesitate to say the outcome of the battle [of Britain] would have been the same.’ 

After the war, the Polish airmen couldn’t safely return to Poland, which was lost to the Soviet Union. A few who tried were either arrested and interned, or shot as traitors or spies. Most, like my neighbour, settled in Britain and many were offered permanent posts in the RAF when the Polish Air Force was disbanded. Taking Joe’s story of the journey to Britain and his burning desire to free Poland, I am presently writing a book based on a fictional pilot which comes out January 2025 with Bookouture.

If you are interested in reading more about this subject, I can recommend: The Forgotten Few; The Polish Air Force in Word War II by Adam Zamoyski (2004) and Truly of the Few; The Polish Air Force in Defence of Britain by Dr Penny Starms (2020)

Friday 15 March 2024

Stories in Flowers by Caroline K. Mackenzie

Spring is on its way. It has been a long winter (or, at least, it feels that way) and the bursting of buds and arrival of flowers bring welcome signs of new life. In a former History Girls Blog, I wrote about Autumn: a celebration of nature’s golden season but, this year especially, I feel Spring deserves its own celebration. As each new flower appears, I have been delving into the stories behind the species and their names. Here are a few of my favourites:


‘Brother, joy to you! I’ve brought some snowdrops; only just a few, …Cheerful and hopeful in the frosty dew’. Extract from 'The Months’ by Christina Rossetti. 

© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

Snowdrops are seen as bringers of cheer and joy, given they are one of the first flowers to appear after winter. They may originally have been brought to Britain by monks in the fifteenth century (although the sixteenth century is usually cited as the earliest date). Frequently they are found in monastery gardens and churchyards and have been associated with the Christian celebration of Candlemas Day (2nd February), which gave them the name ‘Candlemas Bells’.

Their Latin name is ‘Galanthus’ which derives from Ancient Greek, meaning milk-flower. The common snowdrop’s name ‘Galanthus Nivalis’ ('nivalis' is Latin for ‘snowy’) alludes to its ability to thrive even in snowy conditions, its pendent blooms nodding gracefully above a blanket of white. An added bonus of this particular variety is its honeyed scent. 

Although we usually associate snowdrops with hope, there was a time when it was thought that to see a single snowdrop was a sign of imminent death. It was even considered bad luck to take a snowdrop inside one’s home.

Snowdrops have been used to treat headaches and other pains and, in modern medicine, an ingredient from snowdrops is being used in a treatment for dementia.

During the Second World War, British citizens nicknamed American soldiers ‘snowdrops’ due to their green uniforms with a white cap or helmet.


© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

After the snowdrop, next appears the Narcissus, commonly known as the Daffodil. One of the best loved stories of the character Narcissus is told by the Roman poet, Ovid, in his 'Metamorphoses'. Narcissus is a beautiful young man who rejected the love of many admirers, male and female. One of those scorned hopefuls prayed that Narcissus himself might suffer unrequited love. The goddess Nemesis heard his prayer. One day, while out hunting, the handsome Narcissus lay down to relax on a grassy bank next to a clear spring. On noticing his own reflection in the water he mistakenly believes he has happened upon another beautiful youth. He smiles. The youth smiles back. He waves. The beautiful boy waves back. Narcissus is falling head over heels. But he soon becomes frustrated:

‘My love desires to be embraced for whenever I lean forward to kiss the clear waters he lifts up his face to mine and strives to reach me.’

Narcissus beats his chest with his fist, turning his milk-white skin crimson (‘like apples tinted both white and red’), and is dismayed to see that his beloved likewise appears battered and bruised. The torment continues until eventually Narcissus dies, consumed by his grief. Mysteriously, when his sisters prepare his funeral pyre, ‘The body was not to be found – only a flower with a trumpet of gold and pale white petals’.

© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

Narcissus achieved immortality through his metamorphosis, living on through the ubiquitous daffodils springing up in March bringing cheer and colour. Perhaps less cheerfully, his legacy has also been left in the term ‘Narcissism’.


When the daffodils have finished, we can look forward to the blooms of Fritillaries. These were introduced into England in the seventeenth century by Huguenots, French protestants, fleeing from persecution by the Catholic tyranny. Hence, Fritillaries have long been seen to symbolise persecution. Their pendulous solitary flower perhaps reinforces this meaning.

The flowers are commonly known as ‘Snake’s head’ due to the scaly pattern on them resembling a snake’s skin. 

© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

Another explanation is that the name derives from the Latin word ‘Fritillus’ meaning a dice box. The connection seems to be that games of dice can be played on a chess board, which the markings on the flowers resemble. 


In the Latin poem the ‘Aeneid’ (Virgil’s epic celebrating the founding of Rome), the climax describes fierce battles fought between the two sides led by the hero Aeneas and his great enemy, Turnus. The battlefield is described as being smattered with a ‘dew’ of blood. Commentators have noted the highly poetic use of ‘ros’ (dew) here. In another of Virgil’s poems, the 'Georgics' (a celebration of all things rustic), he uses ‘ros’ simply to mean rosemary, the full Latin name for which is ‘ros marinus’ (dew of the sea). Rosemary is thought to represent remembrance and perhaps Virgil had this symbolism in mind in his description of the victims on the battlefield whose lives were sacrificed as part of the destiny of the founding of Rome. 

© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

The symbol of everlasting memories also explains why in Victorian times brides included rosemary in their wedding ceremonies - it demonstrated they were bringing fond memories of their former home into their new, marital home. Some brides today still include it in their bouquet to represent love and memories (both those to cherish from the past and those to come in the future).

Rosemary is a firm favourite in kitchen gardens, with purple flowers to add colour to the wonderful scent.


© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

Colours are the basis of the story behind the beautiful Iris. Iris was the messenger of the Greek gods. When she flew down from Mount Olympus to deliver messages to the mortals, she would leave a rainbow in her trail. The colours of irises are as varied as the colours of the rainbow. A devilish red known as Lucifer and vibrant orange are just two of the colours found in Crocosmia, which are in the same botanical family as Iris, the latter shown perhaps at its best in a striking purple.

© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

The kings of France used the iris in their royal emblem – we know it as the Fleur de Lis.

Water lily

France also leads us to our next flower, the water lily, magnificently celebrated by the French impressionist Monet whose beloved water lilies in his garden at Giverny inspired him time and time again.

© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

They take their name, ‘Nymphaea’, from Greek mythology, where Nymphs (Nymphai) were minor goddesses or spirits of nature, many of whom were associated with springs and fountains. Water lilies were said to be found growing where nymphs used to play. 


Finally, a brief mention of a flower to look forward to in Summer. Foxgloves’ flowers stand tall, as if pointing upwards, and it is easy to see why their shape is described in their Latin name ‘Digitalis’ (like a finger).

© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

They have beautiful bells in pinks and whites but, a note of caution: the freckles in the bells have been said to be the fingerprints of elves, placed there as a warning that the plant is highly poisonous.

These are just a few of the stories which flowers and plants have to tell. Names, symbolism, uses and superstitions have evolved throughout history, culminating in a true garden of delights. I do hope you enjoy all the flowers which you see in Spring, whether in a garden, park, or simply by the roadside.

Post Script

The date of this blog coincides with the release of a video I recorded for Bloomsbury Academic as part of their campaign Where Can Classics Take You? The theme was what I love most about Classics and how the study of Latin and Greek can lead to so many fascinating places. ‘Mea culpa’: I forgot to mention one place where Latin, Greek and Classical mythology are alive and growing – the garden.

Watch the videos here: Where Can Classics Take You?


Aeneid (Virgil: Edited with notes by R. Deryck Williams)

A Latin Dictionary (Lewis and Short)

Cambridge Latin Anthology (Ashley Carter and Phillip Parr)

Cambridge Greek Lexicon (J. Diggle et al.)

Complete Language of Flowers (Sheila Pickles)

Metamorphoses (Ovid: Translated by David Raeburn)

RHS A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants (Christopher Brickell)

RHS Latin for Gardeners (Lorraine Harrison)

Who’s Who in the Ancient World (Betty Radice)

Friday 8 March 2024

"Hans the Most Famous"* by Mary Hoffman


Hans Holbein the Younger, Self-portrait

Think of Henry Vlll and what picture floats into yoir mind? Or Thomas Cromwell, or Thomas More? The likely answer is an image painted by Hans Holbein the Younger, a German-Swiss Master who spent more than a third of his life in England and weathered the stresses of the king's marriages, religious reforms and and the many shocks that Tudor England was heir to. In fact you can't really think of the Tudors at all without the man who became known as the King's Painter.

There is an exhibition on till 14th April at the King's Gallery in Buckingham Palace (though it was still the Queen's Gallery when we visited it in January) called Holbein at the Tudor Court and it is well worth your time to go and see it. 

Young Hans was born in the autumn/winter of 1497 in Augsburg, Bavaria the son of Hans the Elder, who was also a professional painter. His older brother, Ambrosius, was a painter too and their uncle Sigismund (or Sigmund) seems also to have worked in Hans the Elder's studio. The boys would have been brought up in an atmosphere of portraits and altarpieces, of oil paints and book design.

Augsburg had been passed over by the plague that ravaged most of Europe in earlier centuries and, with access to the forests and rivers of Bavaria, had become a booming centre for timber, metal, paper and textile industries.The Holbeins lived in a three-storey building by a narrow canal, reached  over a little wooden bridge.

Hans the Elder's art was largely devotional, paintings and murals on religious themes, painting textiles and carpets in exquisite detail, a technical skill inherited by his younger and more famous son. 200 sketches survive from Hnas the Elder, mostly portraits. But art at the time was not valued in the way it became in later centuries. An "artist" was an alien concept in the Renaissance; even Vasari in 1550 wrote his Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects without use of that term. The social position of the Holbeins and other what we would now call 'artists" in both Northern and Southern Europe was that of an artisan, someone paid for his labours as piecework or on commission.

But the prosperous merchants and bankers of Augsburg were keen to have their likenesses commemorated, whether in portraits or as donors on lavish altarpieces.

Ambrosius and Hans, drawn by their father

By his late teenage years Hans the younger had moved to Basel with his older brother Ambrosius, where they became apprenticed to another Hans, Herbster, Basel's leading painting of his day. They found work making woodcuts for use in book production in the young industry of printing and one of their first jobs was to drawmarginal pictures for a work by Desiderius Erasmus, the leading Humanist of BNorthern Europe.

A few years later it seems that Ambrosius might have died, since nothing more is recorded of his work. Young Hans, on the other hand, thrived, marrying a well-off widow, Elsbeth, who already had one sone and started bearing more children to her second husband. And in 1923, Hans painted his first portrait of Erasmus, who recommended the artist to his friend Sir Thomas More in England.

Desiderius Erasmus by Hans Holbein the Younger


Three years later and Hans quit Basel to seek his fortune in London but this was just his first foray into England. He went back to Basel for four more years, painting his wife and their two older children, in the time between many commissions. But Basel was a hotspot for Protestant Reform and the political upheavals there made the city a dangerous place for artists, whose freedom to paint whatever they liked was strictly curtailed.

Perhaps this is why Hans went back to London in 1532, where another kind of upheaval was soon to rock the Tudor court. By then Henry Vlll had convinced himself that the lack of a male heir from his wife Katherine of Aragon was God's punishment of the king for marryting his older brother's widow. At least, that was Henry's justification for wanting to divorce his wife and marry a young lady-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn, in the belief she would bring forth a prince to inherit his crown. Henry was infatuated with Anne and took his case to the Pope and to anyone that would listen. To make a long and complicated story short, he solved his problem by splitting from the Church in Rome and becomiong Supreme Head of the Church of England - a strategem suggested by Thomas Cromwell, who was becoming the king's right hand man.

Useless then for Holbein to play his card of introduction from Thomas More, who was opposed to the king's second marriage, and he might have returned to Basel with his tail between his legs, since More resigned his role as Lord Chancellor in May 1532.

Sir Thomas More by Hans Holbein the Younger

The coming men were of the Boleyn faction and Thomas Cromwell himself; Holbein lost no time in making himself known to them and it seems as if art won out over politics as this former protegé of More's gained favour at the Tudor Court. He started modestly, with portraits of rich merchants, which must have recalled his early life in Augsburg, but in 1533, Holbein painted what is probably still his most famous work, The Ambassadors, now in the National Gallery. Aristocrat Jean de Dinteville and  Bishop Georges de Selve were French diplomats for Francis 1, who were both in London at the time. 

This enigmatic painting, with the elongated skull in the foreground, has led to much speculation. It is said to combine the Arts and Sciences, religion and politics and its technical skill is beyond doubt. Maybe it was this that established young Hans, not yet forty, as the premier painter of the 16th century in England.

1533 was a momentous year for England and Henry. He had married his Anne but his divorce from Katherine had not been sanctioned by the Pope and he was excommunicated. Holbein was commissioned to paint a portrait of Anne Boleyn, but after her fall from grace and execution in 1536, all memorials of her were expunged from the record. This charming drawing of her in a night cap survives and is in the exhibition:

By 1536, Holbein the Younger was designated "the king's painter" (not the only one) and paid £30 a year by Henry for his services. Franny Moyle's magnificent book The King's Painter (Head of Zeus 2021) suggests that the king had a genuine affection for the artist and held him in great esteem. But it was a dangerous thing to be a friend of Henry's as Thomas More and Thomas Wolsey had found to their cost and Thomas Cromwell would in time experience. 

Earl of Essex (Thomas Cromwell) by Holbein the Younger

Holbein was not so associated with the Boleyns that he suffered for the connection after Anne's death and he continued to paint the prominent men and women of the court. In 1537, the king gave Holbein the commission of depicting his whole family in a mural for Whitehall and, although this work is lost, a copy of it is the origin of all our ideas of the Tudor monarch in his heyday, sumptuously dressed, legs apart in perhaps the first "power stance" of English politics.

Copy by Remigius after Holbein the Younger


The mural featured Henry's parents, Henry Vll and Elizabeth of York, behind him and Jane Seymour, his third queen, on the right. Holbein also painted a full portrait of Queen Jane, the sketch for which is in the exhibition.

Jane Seymour by Hans Holbein the Younger

As, surely, everyone knows, Queen Jane died shortly after giving birth to Hanry's only legitimater son and heir, who became Edward Vl. This was when things became perilous for Holbein, who was tasked with depicting the candidates to be Henry's fourth wife. One of the king's early choices was Cristina of Denmark, whose half-portrait is in the exhibition (a copy - for the dazzling full-length portrait you must go to the National Gallery).

Cristina of Denmark by Holbein the Younger

Henry's courtship of Cristina was unsuccessful - she is said to have valued her head too much to accept him - and a later candidate was Anne of Cleves. Hans painted a most beguiling portrait of her but Henry found it untrue to life. The disastrous marriage and annulment that followed might have cost Holbein his head, since it contributed to the execution of Thomas Cromwell, who had brokered the match. But Hans kept his head down, and attached to his shoulders. He had lost all his patrons - More, Anne Boleyn and Cromwell but he survived in the torrid world of King Henry's Court, to fight another day.

Anne of Cleves by Holbein the Younger (Louvre, Paris)

There is a miniature that might be of Henry's fifth wife, the ill-fated and short-lived Katherine Howard. Certainly many of Holbein's paintinhgs were copied as miniatures and circulated among Tudor nobles. The exhibition is full of these and many, many exquisite drawings - Mary Shelton, Thomas Wyatt, Thomas More, to name just a few. But you might want to supplement the experience with a an add-on trip to the National Gallery to see Cristina and the Ambassadors. And the National Portrait Gallery for Thomas Cromwell and a copy of Sir Thomas More. The shop at the Monarch's Gallery will sell you the catalogue but I recommend Franny Moyle's book in preference. It is lavishly illustrated and you should not skimp but buy the hardback, as the paperback is inferior.

What were the qualities that made Holbein ther Younger so prominent and his work so enduring in its appeal? Flattery certainly wasn't among them. The king looks powerful, yes, but his tiny mouth and meaty face are far from attrractive and Jane Seymour is positively plain. (Even Holbein's own self-portrait at the head of this post, painted in the year before his death, does him no favours). It is of course possible that standards of beauty/handsomeness have changed somewhat since Tudor times.  

Holbein's technical skills afre beyond doubt, whether in depicting rich fabrics, furs and lace in detail or the modest folds of a simple gown. His main strength seems to be an unsurpassed ability to present us with the sitter itself. Whether the figure is noble, distinguished, sly or "looking like a murderer." as a character in Hilary Mantel's Cromwell trilogy describes his poirtrait, he or she looks out at us over the centuries, saying "this is who I am; take me or leave me."

Hans Holbein the Younger died in 1543, at the age of around 46, possibly of the plague that ravaged London in that year. His luck finally ran out but at the time of his death he was the "most famous" English painter (he had taken English citizenship so let us claim him as our own). Nearly six hundred years later his works are exhibited in a sell-out show, which you should try to see before it closes. 


* from a poem by Nicholas Bourbon

Friday 1 March 2024

'Inigo Jones - Inventor of the Glitter Ball' by Karen Maitland

Inigo Jones (1573-16520
Artist: William Hogarth (1697-1764)
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

Today, we mainly remember Inigo Jones as an architect, but he actually got his first shot at designing a building, a shopping-mall – the New Exchange on the Strand, for Secretary of State and arch spy-master, Robert Cecil – after coming to prominence as a designer of costumes, scenery and special effects for the grand royal masques staged for James I and his Danish wife, Queen Anne. And the special effects Jones created for the stage were remarkable. 

Inigo Jones was born to a Welsh clothmaker in Smithfield in London in 1573. He travelled to the Court of King Christian of Denmark in the retinue of the Earl of Rutland and it seems likely that Queen Anne was introduced to Jones through her brother, Christian. Jones was first employed to design the sets and costumes for a masque for her in back in England in 1604, alongside the controversial playwright, Ben Jonson, with whom he had a creative but stormy relationship. 

Scene of Witches from 'The Masque of Queens'
By Ben Jonson
Artist: Henry Fuseli (1741-1825)
Yale Center for British Art

Royal masques were elaborate allegorical plays incorporating music and dances, staged to celebrate anniversaries and events such as Twelfth Night. The queen and her ladies took part, posing in classical costume or riding on the backs of mechanical animals, while professional actors spoke their lines, though the actors often got too drunk in the ‘green-room’ to remember them. But Jones’ audiences and royal patrons demanded that each masque should be even more spectacular than the last. 

The stage Jones devised for the first royal masque was four feet above the ground, forty-foot square and could be wheeled into place. Hand-operated machinery below the stage allowed the mechanical creatures to move. A curtain painted with landscapes, dropped to the floor to reveal a fairy court or the sea made to roll onto the shore by raising and lowering painted cloths. Actors appeared to be ride through the waves on giant sea-horse or shells carried by sea monsters.

Masque Costume - 'A Star'
by Inigo Jones
Using only candle flames, oiled cloth, coloured glass and prisms, Jones managed to create lighting effects that could suggest a nocturnal glade with twinkling stars, or a blazing desert with a scorching sun. He would make the audience gasp by suddenly switching from white moonlight to brilliantly-coloured torchlights. He sometimes had lights in glass cases lowered from the ceiling that moved around above the stage to distract the audience from scenery and prop changes 

He produced clouds that moved across a sky and fake trees which half sank into the stage before opening their branches to reveal the performers. He devised mechanical monsters, which appeared to move on their own and designed the most extravagant, often transparent costumes, some of which were worn by Queen Anne and her ladies. A Venetian ambassador attending a performance of ‘Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue’ in January 1618, was shocked to observe that several of the ladies’ costumes left them bare breasted.

Masque Costume
'A page like a Fire Spirit'
by Inigo Jones

By 1611, Jones had introduced side wings - scenery that poked out from the sides of the stage and were angled to create the illusion of perspective, as well as places of concealment for the actors. He also introduced shutters that slid in from both sides and closed together, and could be drawn in and out to reveal different scenes. 

From medieval times, English audiences had been accustomed to gods and angels being lowered down from the ceiling onto the stage, but Jones managed to produce chariots, clouds and giant birds on which actors could appear to fly right across the stage.

On one occasion, Jones had a specially mixed perfume puffed across the audience at a key moment – the original smelly-vision – and he even invented the glitter ball: a large, revolving, silver ball decorated with gold that hung above the dancers, sending sparks of light darting round the set. 

The cost for staging the masques varied enormously from an extravagant £3,000 in 1609, to around £719 two years later. Perhaps some costumes and devices had been recycled. Certainly, Queen Anne raided the vast numbers of sumptuous gowns left by Queen Elizabeth for fabrics, jewels and embroidered panels to decorate costumes for herself and her ladies. 

Inigo Jones and Ben Johnson were well paid for their efforts. For their work on one of the masques, each received £40 in fees, but not as much as the instructor who schooled the ladies-in-waiting in their dances for the same masque, who was paid £50 – about two and half times the annual salary of a skilled tradesman. But given the drunken antics of the court ladies and their outrageous flirting, perhaps the poor dance tutor had earned it.

Inigo Jones' costume design for
a nymph for'Tethy's Festival'
by Samuel Daniel

But Jones’s royal patrons were to prove his undoing, for when Civil War broke out, Jones was assumed to be a royalist, and forced to flee. He was finally arrested, and lost everything he worked so hard for, sadly dying just three years after the execution of King Charles I.


For anyone interested in reading more about this remarkable man and his amazing and turbulent life, I thoroughly recommend the fascinating book ‘Inigo – The life of Inigo Jones, Architect of the English Renaissance by Michael Leapman, pub. Headline, 2003 


KJ Maitland’s final novel in her Jacobean quartet, ‘A Plague of Serpents,’ set in the aftermath of the gunpowder plot, will be published in April 2024.