Monday, 29 March 2010

Dear Spring...

Dear Spring,

You fooled me. How did you manage it? You brought daffodils to the garden, and even a few half-hearted tulips (mostly all leaf and no flower head, but still). You encouraged the Forsythia to blossom, and you informed the country that, as of yesterday, we were to consider ourselves in "British Summertime". I do understand that this term is to be taken with a huge pinch of salt and a rueful smile, but come on. You even took an hour's sleep away from me so that I could enjoy a longer, lighter evening. You have brought breezy blue skies and budding hedgerows. Yesterday I even saw a bumble bee. This morning, early on, you confused the blackbird that visits my garden as he sat on my chimney stack, merrily singing, his voice carrying all the way down into my room via the fireplace.

But it seems you might have only been playing with us, because this morning was cold and miserable, and some joker at BBC Weather tells us all we're getting snow later this week.

Spring, is this your idea of an April Fools? Please do come back soon!

Yours sincerely,

Tired-of-wearing-tights, England.

(Photo by me) :)

Friday, 26 March 2010

Nobody's Daughter

It makes me smile when my status as a nerd is well and truly confirmed. My friend did this for me by emailing me a link to the artwork for the new album by Hole, Nobody's Daughter. "You will love it!" she wrote to me, and she was right!

Now, I'm not a Courtney Love expert. I will also confess that I'm not even that much of a fan, but the cover artwork for her band's new album is something that interests me very much.

Front and back, there are two images of queens who both met their ends by means of execution: Marie Antoinette by the blade of Madame la Guillotine, and Ann Boleyn by the hands of a French swordsman.

 Marie Antoinette à la Rose by Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1783

The portrait of Marie Antoinette (Marie Antoinette à la Rose) is by Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun. Painted in 1783, it was commissioned as a hasty replacement (at the Academie Royale in Paris) for the disastrous and controversial painting of the French queen dressed in chemise dress and straw hat. The more regal replacement sees Marie Antoinette in a seemly silk gown trimmed with lace, and a more formal hat complete with ostrich feathers.  

 Ann Boleyn by an unknown artist.

The image on the back (partially covered by the album track listing) is of Henry VIII's ill fated second wife, Ann Boleyn. This is probably the most well known and well used portrait of her, yet it is a seventeenth century copy of a lost original painted around 1533. Here, Ann wears the fashionable French hood headdress and her iconic "B" necklace. 

It's interesting that both portraits, for the purposes of Hole's new album, are close-up views of the chests of both queens. They are cropped just below the bust and just before the chin, and I'm sure the contrast on both has been heightened for more of an impact. I would love to know who chose these images, and to know the reasons behind these left-of-field choices, especially in relation to the title of the album. Perhaps there is no deep and meaningful reason, but it mustn't be coincidental that both portraits are of young queens, both executed and both vilified.

Is Courtney a closet history nerd, maybe?!

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Things to See: Dennis Severs' House

Master Bedroom at 18 Folgate Street, Spitalfields. 

A few days ago, I rediscovered 18 Folgate Street, Spitalfields. That is to say, I've read about this house before, and it's one of those infuriating memories that lingered just out of reach, refusing to step forward and say, "hello, remember me?!" So, imagine the little light bulb that flickered and blinked on when I saw 18 Folgate Street on the television a few days ago.

And now, the place is well and truly stuck at the forefront of my brain, and I suspect it will remain there until I manage to visit. To explain the phenomenon that is 18 Folgate Street is a feat in itself, but I'll do my best!

Born in California, but fascinated by England from an early age, Dennis Severs bought a wreck of a Georgian house in Spitalfields, London in 1979 and set about making his mark upon it. This would be the best way of describing his achievement. A restoration in the more established, heritage sense of the word just doesn't seem to cover it.

In Severs' own words,

"I worked inside out from there to create what turned out to be a collection of atmospheres: moods that harbour the light and the spirit of various ages in Time."

By using the fictional Jervis family as a starting point, he elaborately wove their story into the fabric of the house. 18 Folgate Street is not a museum, neither is it a heritage property in the style of the National Trust or English Heritage. In flickering candlelight, visitors are left with the impression that various members of the Jervis family have just flitted from the room. There are unmade beds, discarded wigs, open books and half-eaten meals. Surfaces groan with Severs' carefully placed items, the floors are covered in oriental rugs and the windows dressed with sumptuous velvet. Visitors to the house are asked to respect the space in silence, thought and contemplation.

Severs' vision was very clear: he wanted to evoke more than atmosphere. He wanted to provoke deep emotion and feeling; to create a discourse between the past and present in order that we might somehow make sense of life itself. Severs' own description for his creation was to call it "still life drama." The house is by no means a truly accurate reflection of eighteenth century living, but I can feel the warmth of it even from the pictures. More than anything, 18 Folgate Street is an unfolding story told through objects which envelope the senses. Whatever your view about Severs' unusual approach, it is nothing if not extraordinary.

When he died in 1999, the house was bought by the Spitalfields Trust, and continues to be open for public visits, although subject to booking. I myself fancy the "Silent Night" visit! Find out more here.

I leave the final word to Dennis Severs,

"You either see it, or you don't."

Monday, 22 March 2010

Timelessness (Part One)

As well as tracing part of our family tree, my Dad has been tirelessly scanning and cataloguing our old family photos. It's a great idea, and means that even if these old snaps fade or become lost, there is now an electronic record of them for us all to share.

The photographs are not just inside the pages of those old self-adhesive style albums (the kind you can date just by glancing at the pattern on the cover!), but they spill over into wooden boxes and old biscuit tins. They are not just the product of my parents' collecting, but also of their parents, and their parents, and even their parents and beyond. They are a potent and evocative record of changing faces and lost faces; of places that have remained the same for years and of places that have altered beyond all recognition. They are frozen moments in time, but to me, they are still full of meaning.

There are some photos that age badly, not gracefully. These usually display a litany of fashion disasters, missing milk teeth and bad haircuts. These are the ones we all snigger at and these are usually the biggest talking points when the photos are passed around: the psychadelic dungarees, the pointy collars, the wonky fringes...the big shoulder pads and even bigger back combing ...the forced expressions only a school photographer can achieve.

However, there are some photos that manage to be both of their time, and yet transcend it, too. These are the magical ones. The ones that make you suck in your breath, smile and say, "Ooooh." Just exactly why is as impossible as catching smoke in your hands. They just are. Purely and simply put, they have it.

One of my favourite such photos is this one of my Mum (right), our cousin and an obliging Fiat 127, taken in 1979. I've been trying to decide just what it is that makes this picture so special for me, but as I said, it's so difficult to define. I love the faded colours and I love their clothes. I think their sunglasses are very chic and their haircuts very stylish. I love the fact they are posing on top of a Fiat bonnet and the fact that I know that expression on Mum's face so well because I do it, too. But there is so much more to it than that, and all of my words are falling flat.

This picture, to me, is timeless.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

A Peacock's Tale

It was a little way past dawn when George's cry woke me on my first morning at Thoresby Hall. As I peered from my window at the misty lawn below, I saw him there, his head cocked to one side, imperiously regarding me and my pyjamas. "Come with me," he said. "And let me show you my kingdom."

With a swish of his magnificent tail, he took me past the imposing entrance covered in ivy branches. I strolled the driving circle with him while he told me of carriages and fine ladies; of boot-clad gentlemen departing on their horses. He hopped onto the old mounting block by the door with a twinkle in his eye.

Together we gazed at the turrets and towers; the windows black in the early light.
"It is a fine house, to be sure," George said, pecking at the grass. "But I am still waiting for them to repair the clock."

In the gardens George showed me statues and fountains. He told me sad stories of broken stones and an old garden once hidden under piles of rubble and soil. But there was resdisovery and restoration, too...

...of statues being pieced back to life, and of fountains once again playing night and day, weathered but all the more beautiful because of it.

"How do you like my kingdom?" George asked me.
"Very much," I replied, wondering to myself just how George knew so much. Had he too been a sleeping ghost, waiting for the chance to come back to life?  How long had he lingered in the crumbling house and wandered the buried gardens wondering when his time would come again?

I asked him, but he only tilted his head and looked at me, knowing and silent.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

The Green Stuff

Inniskeen Road: July Evening

The bicycles go by in twos and threes -
There's a dance in Billy Brennan's barn to-night,
And there's the half-talk code of mysteries
And the wink-and-elbow language of delight.
Half-past eight and there is not a spot
Upon a mile of road, no shadow thrown
That might turn out a man or woman, not
A footfall tapping secrecies of stone.
I have what every poet hates in spite
Of all the solemn talk of contemplation.
Oh, Alexander Selkirk knew the plight
Of being king and government and nation.
A road, a mile of kingdom, I am king
Of banks and stones and every blooming thing.

I was very remiss yesterday in not wishing people a very happy St. Patricks Day. This is even more shameful when I mumble with a red face that the green stuff flows rather strongly through my veins. I hope to make it up today by sharing some poetry by a favourite Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh.

Kavanagh was born in 1907 in the small village of Inniskeen, Co. Monaghan, and his poetry strikes a note with me because Inniskeen is also where my grandfather was born. Kavanagh's love for his tiny home village is evident in his work, although his poetry is by no means trite or sentimental. In fact, he prided himself on the directness of his words, often coming into conflict with the Anglo-Irish literary establishment because of his refusal to romanticise rural life in Ireland. Critics witheringly referred to him as "that Monaghan boy"; a social stigma he struggled with throughout his career.

Despite these setbacks and despite severe illness (he had a lung removed in 1954), Kavanagh continued to write, and, more importantly, continued to write in the same unpretentious fashion. What I respect about Kavanagh is that he in turn appreciated his own beginnings. He left Inniskeen for Dublin when he was in his twenties, but his words never belittle or bemoan his country upbringing. In his directness and humour there is warmth, affection and true regard.

"I dabbled in verse and it became my life."- Patrick Kavanagh
 Photo by me :)

Tuesday, 16 March 2010


I'm a bit of a sucker for quirky female singers. I love Imogen Heap (of Twitter necklace and bag at the Emmies fame) and think Alison Goldfrapp is brilliant. They both have the most wonderful voices and combine musical ability, intelligence and a sense of humour with truly individual style. Lady GaGa, I place into an entirely different category to "quirky". I call her "bonkers".

Anyhow, I wanted to share with you my latest quirky find. Her name is Marina Diamandis, and she goes by the stage name of Marina and the Diamonds. I love this song and find the video mesmerising. 

I hope you enjoy, too!

Marina and the Diamonds, I Am Not a Robot.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Mothering Sunday

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and Lady Georgiana Cavendish, by Joshua Reynolds, 1784.

Today is Mothers' Day over here in the UK. I hastily add the caviat that it is only Mothers' Day here, so as not to send any international readers reaching for their diaries and calendars in a blind panic! In honour of the day, I wanted to share one of my most favourite images of one of the true icons of the eighteenth century; Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. There are few other paintings of the time that convey such a feeling of closeness as this one of Georgiana and her eldest daughter, "Little G". It is a testament to the skill of Reynolds' artistry, but it is also a testament to the relationship between mother and daughter, even at such a young age. 

What I find so lovely about this image is just how engaging it is. Georgiana and Little G's delight in one another is clear; so much so that they seem entirely unconcerned about having their portraits painted. When comparing this image of aristocratic eighteenth century motherhood with others of the time, I'm struck by how stiff and cold they seem in comparison to this warm and natural picture of a maternal bond.

Of course, Georgiana and Little G's relationship was not without it's difficulties and it's upsets, but in this one moment, captured and reflected back to us, the love is clear and the bond unbreakable.

"You are my dear and chosen little friend, for such you would have been to me had I not had the happyness of being your mother." (sic) Georgiana, in a letter to Little G. (Amanda Foreman, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, Harper Collins, 1998).

Image courtesy of Olga's Gallery

Saturday, 13 March 2010

The Butterfly Effect

Butterfly by my friend spandexgirl

My butterflies are alive and well. I know this seems like an odd choice of statement, but it's true. I've not taken leave of my senses and announced that actual butterflies are living inside me, but I mean my own, personal Butterfly Effect. It goes under various guises. Some people say their stomach is doing somersaults or flips, and some people say it exactly as it is, but I call the feeling butterflies, because that's how it seems to me.

That feeling when you're nervous, anxious even, but excited. It's anticipation, suspense, hope and wonder all rolled into one fluttering, soaring sensation. Waiting only makes the butterflies grow bigger and the hope grow stronger. The wings get bigger and take shape, and before you know it, they are ready to stretch out and to fly. That soft flutter becomes an insistent, persuasive beat that pushes you onwards...onwards and upwards and into the light.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Off I Go!

Today I'm off for a couple of days rest and relaxation in beautiful surroundings. I'm lucky enough to be going to Thoresby Hall in Nottinghamshire. A stone's throw from Sherwood Forest, this former ancestral home has been saved from ruin and is now a hotel.

It's funny that I was talking about Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu in yesterday's post, and today I'm off to the house where she was born. Thoresby was also used to eerie effect in the BBC's 1999 adaptation of Great Expectations (with Ioan Gruffudd and a resplendently decaying Charlotte Rampling as Miss Havisham). During it's restoration, the BBC used the crumbling interiors of the house as Satis House, the time-capsule home of Miss Havisham.

So, off I go to have fun, take photos and report back to you in a few days!

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Tricky Trend: Eighteenth Century Style

Ah, the Harem Trouser. These sprung up last year and still seem to be the cause of much discussion in certain style circles. The other day, in amongst my emails I received a fashion newsletter from a UK womens' retailer in which they set out their rules for "nailing" the "tricky trend" that is the Harem Trouser. (Pictured right, by Chloe).

On a personal note, I have to say that it's not an item that will be making it into my wardrobe (!), but I have seen some women out and about sporting the look to successful effect. 

Eighteenth century ladies also knew how to dabble with their own version of the Harem, and in my opinion, to much more spectacular and theatrical effect.

Princess Marie-Adelaide of France, 1753, by Jean-Etienne Liotard

Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu's travel writings in the earlier part of the century gave readers an exotic insight into what was deemed to be Turkish or Oriental dress. There are many surviving portraits of her dressed from head to toe in the clothes she collected on her travels. 

As the British Empire began to expand at a rapid pace, a burgeoning interest in the mysterious east developed into a luctrative selling strategy for masquerade costumiers. 

One of the most popular and enduring costume choices for women was that of a "Sultan" or "Sultana"; an interpretation of what was considered to be Turkish or eastern dress, including (naturally) the Harem style trouser, as modelled above by Princess Marie-Adelaide. There could be many reasons why this particular costume was so prevalent, but key among them could be the fact that these outfits were daring, dazzling, markedly different from everyday clothing and more than just a little mysterious.

 Jane Baldwin, 1782, by Joshua Reynolds.

This leads us to Jane Baldwin (above). Born in Smyrna, Turkey (now the city of Izmir) to British parents, she married at nineteen and travelled to England. There she presented herself to the Prince of Wales in her exotic native "Turkish" dress. This was a little bit of a lie on Jane's part; the costume was not a true reflection of a Turkish woman's dress, but rather an amalgamation of various items, designed for maximum mysterious impact and notoriety.

So, whether you choose to embrace the Harem as a fashion item of choice for this season or not, you might want to take note: their occasion of choice for their billowing trousers? Why, a party of course!

Chloe image courtesy of
Liotard image courtesy of Wikimedia
Reynolds image courtesy of Olga's Gallery 

Monday, 8 March 2010

Blue Skies and Vapour Trails

Vapour trail above Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire.

This past weekend, we have been enjoying some beautiful weather here in my part of England. It's amazing just how much more inspired you can feel by being able to see a perfect blue sky and feel the sun on your face. I know I'm not the only one to feel this way. The sky has been perfectly clear, marked only by the occasional vapour trail. These marks always make me wistful. Granted, it's still quite cold, and the winter chill lingers on the ground, but as I see signs of spring appearing around me, I know it's not far away and I smile to myself. All things are possible...

Photo by me. :)

Friday, 5 March 2010

Degas on Dancers

For me, Edgar Degas is the only artist who accurately captures the highs and lows of a dancer's life. His ballet paintings are legendary; compelling glimpses into hidden wings and rehearsal studios, as well as beautifully depicting those glorious moments spent on stage.

I deliberately wrote Degas on Dancers, not Degas on Dancing, because when I look at any of his ballet images, I get the distinct impression that it is not the act of dancing that interests him, so much as the dancers themselves.

 Danseuse, c. 1874

"Personally, I don't like cabs. You don't see anyone. That's why I love to ride on the omnibus-you can look at people. We were created to look at one another, weren't we?" (Degas).

Every minute gesture seemed to interest Degas, from the tired stretch of a dancer with aching muscles, to the vacant boredness of performers waiting in the wings. These gestures were not grand; were not meant for public view, but Degas' work is all the more wonderful because he chose to invite us into that private world. Devoid of glamour, without the glow of stage lighting and the approval of applause, he instead gave us a dancer's alter-ego; practising, perfecting, waiting and nervous; exhausted and sore but nevertheless determined. For me, this is where their true beauty lies.

Image courtesy of Olga's Gallery.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

The Secret Life of a Waistcoat

This photograph of an eighteenth century waistcoat panel was taken by myself in the Spring of last year. For teaching purposes, I was incredibly lucky enough to be the temporary custodian of this wonderful item for a short time. I carried it carefully home after it had been padded out and wrapped in acid free tissue and placed inside a large brown lidded box.

Along with a large donation of twentieth century clothing to a local museum, this panel was found languishing at the bottom of a box of assorted bric-a-brac. Under the 1970s silver lurex turban, large Minnie Mouse style hair bows, a pair of broken Courrèges sunglasses (not to mention the scarves and a tangle of costume jewellery), was a long picture frame. The glass was smashed and the fixings on the back were rusted, but stretched out inside the frame was this beautiful treasure.

Now it has been properly packed and stored, with rolls of tissue paper protecting every crease and seam to lessen the stress upon them. Having said that, it's still remarkably sturdy; a true testament to it's craftmanship. It is dirty now, but squint slightly and it's not hard to imagine that it was once a bright cream colour. The exquisite embroidery and spangles still sparkle brilliantly. Can you imagine how much more...well, more it would have seemed when new?

I can't help but get a little bit wistful about where this panel came from. How did it come to be removed from the rest of the garment, and why? Not only that, but I would simply love to know who owned this in the first place. A painted and powdered macaroni, perhaps? An elderly gentleman addicted to finery or a handsome young man with a view to impress the ladies?

Where did you go to, waistcoat? What parties did you attend and what scandals were you privy to as you dazzled in the candlelight? I wish I knew...

I confess that I slipped a (careful, as well as gloved!) hand inside the pocket to see if anything had been left behind, but it was empty. So the waistcoat panel keeps it's secrets. In truth, I suppose that I prefer it that way.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

By Way of Introduction

 The Royal Crescent, Bath, taken on a beautiful September day,

Hello Blogging World!

By way of a short introduction, I hope that this blog will be entertaining, with flashes of occasional enlightenment. I will make no secret of the fact that although my interests lie in many areas, I have a real passion for the eighteenth century; the personalities and events which shaped the time, as well as the fashion (oh, the fashion!), art and culture.

Consequently, there will be a lot of posts dedicated to the subject, but don't worry if that's not really your thing! I hope to chat here about anything and everything that is of interest. I hope I can reflect that interest into a blog posting, but more than that, I hope that my enthusiasm shines through, and my sincerest wish is that you enjoy what you read. That's about all that I could ask for, really.

So, please feel free to leave comments and thoughts. It's exciting to be let loose in the Blogging World, and I'm looking forward to the fun ahead.

There will be much more to come...