Thursday, 1 December 2011

Things to See: The First Actresses at the National Portrait Gallery

I'm kicking myself for not finding out about this amazing Things to See before now, but a random browse of the National Portrait Gallery's website led me to a fantastic special exhibition at my most favourite of art galleries. The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons, is a display of portraits of true pioneers of the acting profession - as the exhibition name suggests. 

From Restoration era beauties like Nell Gwyn (who rose from orange seller, to actress, to famous mistress of King Charles II) to respected, classical actresses like Sarah Siddons, the NPG's exhibition charts the bawdy to the brilliant, and those somewhere in between.

With the legalisation of female stage performers in the 1660s, the path was clear for women to venture into unknown territory. Those who did gained celebrity status, whether for genuine talent or for the more superficial qualities of a pretty face and figure, thus proving that the idea of celebrity for its own sake is not a modern concept by any means.

During the eighteenth century, the sight of an actress upon the stage had lost some of its shock value, as more theatres opened their doors and more female performers were needed to keep up with demand. The struggle for the Georgian actress was to maintain a respectable reputation in the face of the popular idea of them as prostitutes and courtesans. As the NPG's exhibition explains, this was not helped by the fact that theatres in London sprung up in Covent Garden - an area rife with brothels and houses of ill repute. 

Certainly, there were actresses who used their celebrity status to garner prestigious male attention, and possibly a wealthy patron - and there were courtesans whose stage careers began through the promotion of their charms (and sizeable financial incentives) by their influential lovers - yet there were also those who rose to fame by their remarkable abilities.

Sarah Siddons is perhaps the most well-known example of a woman from humble beginnings who became the greatest tragic actress of her age, all the while cultivating a persona so spotless that she was even invited to read aloud for King George III and Queen Charlotte's brood of children.

Despite their sometimes questionable reputations, many actresses became well known society figures, looked to as leaders of fashion and arbiters of good taste, but at the same time largely inhabiting the shadowy demi-monde between sin and virtue.

The First Actresses effectively chronicles the likes of Sarah Siddons, Nell Gwyn and countless others who paved the way for the modern actress, while exploring key themes of celebrity, respectability, and the creation of a public persona through the use of portraiture and fashion.

Simon Vereist, Eleanor "Nell" Gwyn, c.1680

The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons, runs until the 8th January 2012 at the National Portrait Gallery, London. For booking and ticket information, click here.

All images courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery. First image contains detail of John Hoppner's 1782 portrait, Mary Robinson - Perdita. 

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

History Lover's Gift Guide: The Nineteenth Century

About this time last year, I blogged about eighteenth century themed gifts that would make perfect Christmas presents for fans of all things Georgian. This year, I'm skipping forward into the nineteenth century to offer up a selection of ideas for lovers of this period, from Regency elegance to Victorian decadence. Enjoy!

Victorian Key Brooch, £28 by Bena,
This quirky antique key brooch would look great against a brightly coloured coat...
Gilbert & George Gin Brooch, £27 by Tatty Devine,
....Failing that, there's this brooch - reminiscent of nineteenth century gin palaces.
Days of Decadence Ring, £11.50 by Storm in a Teacup,
This cocktail ring is large and ostentatious enough to pass for Victorian...
Vintage Picture Set, £22.95, by I Love Retro,

Hummingbird & Cage Cushion, £70, by The Natural History Museum
...While these botanical and wildlife prints and cushion - taken from nineteenth century encyclopaedia and catalogues - are as delicate looking as they are beautiful.
Be Silly Print, £25, by TAG Fine Arts x Stephen Kenny,
Artist Stephen Kenny found a collection of nineteenth century sayings in an old printer's book of typography, turning them into a series of posters for a modern audience.
Victorian Style Birdcages, £129.95, by I Love Retro,
These ornamental Victorian style birdcages might not be suitable for feathered occupants, but are striking enough on their own.

Blue Asiatic Pheasant Teacup & Saucer, £17.25, Burleigh
Blue Calico Chinese Bowl - Small - £15.25, Burleigh
Based on original early and mid-nineteenth century designs, Asiatic Pheasant and Blue Calico form part of a huge collection of patterns still in production at one of the last remaining Victorian pottery factories in North Staffordshire. 
Aubrey Beardsley 'Angel' Christmas Cards, £5 for 10, V&A Museum
Aubrey Beardsley Christmas cards show off the nineteenth century Aesthetic movement at its best...
Jane Austen Bust, £15, The Jane Austen Centre, Bath
...while a bust of Jane Austen could provide daily desktop inspiration.
'A Gaiety Girl' Print, from £25, V&A Museum 
'Mr Darcy Loves Elizabeth' Card, £2.50, The Jane Austen Centre, Bath
Posters and greetings cards look just as good as artist prints when framed, like this striking theatrical poster from 1895, and the Darcy-and-Elizabeth inspired card above.

Victoria & Albert Christmas Decorations, £9.50 each,
National Portrait Gallery
And finally, what better way to salute a love of the nineteenth century than with Victoria and Albert adorning your Christmas tree?!

Images courtesy of, V&A Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Burleigh, The Natural History Museum and The Jane Austen Centre.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

A State of Flux

Dinner Plates L-R: Bendot by Marcus Steel, Geometrix by Sarah Callard.
Daisy Chain by Amy Clarke, Novella by Marcus Steel & Rosette by Denise Moloney.
Daisy Chain by Amy Clarke.
Mugs L-R: Bendot by Marcus Steel, Splat & Geometrix by Sarah Callard.

Largest plate: Splat by Sarah Callard.
Smaller plates: Bendot by Marcus Steel.

Bottom plate: Willow Blues by Jenna Stanton.
Left hand plate: Spiro by Harry Davies.
Other designs seen and credited above.

Various designs, seen and credited above.

Assorted test pieces and idea boards.

Test pieces and design sketches.
A few weeks ago, I attended the launch of a new ceramics company designing and producing wares entirely in Stoke-on-Trent. Flux: Stoke-on-Trent was established last year at Staffordshire University; harnessing the creative power and technical knowledge of the university's MA Ceramic Design students and graduates in a fresh, exciting and innovative way.

Taking the classic and perennially popular blue-and-white colourway (take Spode's Blue Italian as an example), the Flux team have paid homage to the ceramic heritage of the city while producing designs that are strikingly modern.

There are various designs to choose from, and because they are all made using the same colours, buyers can either select matching pieces, or mix styles to produce a unique set.

The launch party was well attended, and there was a definite sense of excitement in the air. This is not production on a massive, industrial scale, yet perhaps in smaller, design focused companies like Flux lies the promise of a future for pottery production in Stoke-on-Trent, and I - for one- certainly hope so.

For further information on Flux: Stoke-on-Trent, visit their website, here.

All photos by me.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Autumn Colours

Hello! It's been far too long since my last post, but here I am. I'm not going to give a raft of excuses for my hiatus, but this blog - and, in turn, all the lovely blogs I read have not been far from my mind.
So, Autumn is here again and it's my favourite season. The most elegant of seasons, I always think - showy, yes, but with a touch of melancholy that signals the coming of winter chills and bare branches. Autumn is also my favourite season to take photographs, too. Not just for the contrast of colours, but also for the misty mornings and, for me, the most beautiful of sunrises to be found all year. 
This time a good few years back, I shot a series of photos at the theme park, Alton Towers. These days it may be home to famous roller coasters, but before any of that came into being, Alton Towers was owned by the Earls of Shrewsbury, who built a house there to be used as a hunting lodge. The house slowly grew in grandeur over the years, and by the 1800s, was a lavishly appointed neo-gothic residence with large, landscaped gardens.
As anyone who has visited Alton Towers will know, the house - the Towers - still stands, but is a gutted and derelict shell. Although listed by English Heritage, it stands in a pretty woeful state, but visitors to the theme park are still able to wander it's cavernous rooms and passageways. The gardens also remain, and it is here that I took my photos. Also listed, and still maintained, the gardens are a beautiful reminder of what once was. Victorian conservatories stand empty now; the statues crumble and fountains play on. A wander through the vast paths and avenues reveals surprise after surprise, as the screams of ride-goers and hum of the theme park disappear and silence abounds. 
It's quite easy to get lost in this garden-labyrinth, but that's no bad thing, for within the ghostly echoes of what Alton Towers once was, lies a beauty all of its own.

All photos by me.

Friday, 7 October 2011

The British Ceramics Biennial: 22 Hands

Blue Italian Mug by Spode.
With part of the British Ceramics Biennial being held at the old Spode Factory in Stoke, it seems only right and proper that the company's industrial and design heritage be celebrated in situ.

Spode's story - its fortunes and misfortunes - are sadly commonplace in an industry that has largely outsourced production overseas and in an increasingly difficult economic climate. After over 200 years of production, Spode went into administration in 2008, the factory closed its doors and hundreds of people lost their jobs. What happened next, however, is not commonplace, and provides a fresh and much-needed glimmer of hope to the pottery industry in North Staffordshire.

The Spode label and intellectual property rights were acquired by the Portmeirion Group, another Stoke-on-Trent ceramics company, who then set about returning the production of Spode designs to the Portmeirion factory in the city.

Spode's legacy - and its future - has been celebrated in a special exhibition within the old factory. The Spode Room displays current and popular designs and pays homage to one of the company's most famous patterns - Blue Italian.

Blue Italian was created in 1816, and features Italian country scenes in iconic blue-and-white colours. As popular today as when it was first sold, Blue Italian is also a great example of the pioneering production techniques for which the pottery industry in Stoke-on-Trent is famed. 

Film-maker Johnny Magee was commissioned by the British Ceramics Biennial to produce a short film about the production of Blue Italian. The result is a beautifully filmed and edited piece set to Johann Strauss II's famous waltz, The Blue Danube. As odd a music choice as this sounds, it works brilliantly well, as the various elements of the piece fit different parts of the manufacturing process. 

Magee has created a quirky but elegant film, which takes the popular preconception that the industry is dirty, nasty work and turns it on its head. Of course, as with any manufacturing industry, the production of pottery is dirty, smelly and noisy, but even in an age where machines have taken over from previously hand-crafted work, there is an immense amount of craftsmanship and patience required. The production of Blue Italian becomes poetic and hypnotic, and the light-handed skill of the Spode employees featured is a real joy to watch. 

See for yourself...

22 Hands by Johnny Magee, courtesy of Cangyroo on youtube.

Image courtesy of Spode. 

The British Ceramics Biennial runs from now until November 13th at the Spode Factory, Stoke and The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Hanley. For further information, visit the website, here.

Things to See: The British Ceramics Biennial

L'Architect by Craig Mitchell, Porcelain & Wire sculpture
I'm very happy to be able to report on a truly special "Things to See", taking place in my home city. The British Ceramics Biennial has returned to Stoke-on-Trent, following the success of the event two years ago.

The Biennial is an innovative and exciting celebration of the British ceramics industry. As well as giving a platform to new and emerging art and design talent, the Biennial is also showing off the very best of the current British ceramics market. Companies such as Wedgwood, Portmeirion, Spode, Steelite, Emma Bridgewater and Burleigh (to name but a few) are displaying work. Not content with restricting the Biennial to a purely artistic vision, the organisers have also included items which serve more industrial purposes, and have even included a display of ceramic ball joint replacements to show how the UK ceramics market crosses over into the world of medicine.

AWARD will be hosted at The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery; an exhibition featuring ceramic work by artists and designers, one of whom will be selected for a £10,000 prize.

FRESH takes place at the now disused Spode Factory site, and will make vibrant use of the factory's space to display the work of new art and design graduates, as well as featuring items from the British ceramics industry's market leaders and sculpture and installations from contemporary artists commissioned by the Biennial.

There will also be a series of interactive events and workshops, both at the Spode site and at other museums and galleries across Stoke-on-Trent.

Over the next few days, I'll be sharing a series of posts with you about the Biennial and its venues, along with my favourite picks.

The British Ceramics Biennial runs from now until November 13th at the Spode Factory Site, Stoke, and The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Hanley.

For further information, including details of special events, opening times and all-important afternoon teas, visit the Biennial's website, here. 

Image courtesy of The British Ceramics Biennial.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

The Royal Ballet at London Fashion Week

At last week's London Fashion Week, one designer took the idea of staging a catwalk show to a whole new level. Jayne Pierson (who has worked for the likes of Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood before launching her own label) decided not to use models, but dancers from the Royal Ballet instead. As they strutted out onto the catwalk, they brought a new level of dynamism to the show.Their athletic physiques lent both elegance and edginess to the clothes; their poses creating striking shapes on which to showcase Pierson's designs.

The Royal Ballet's First Artist, Nathalie Harrison
Soloist Eric Underwood
First Artist Olivia Cowley
Hayley Forskitt
First Artist Tara-Brigitte Bhavnani
 Images by Steve Osborn, courtesy of The Guardian.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life With John F. Kennedy

If you are as fascinated as I am by the gilded enigma of the Kennedy dynasty, then you'll be interested to learn that last week saw the long-awaited publication of historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s interviews with Jacqueline Kennedy. Entitled Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life With John F. Kennedy, the book transcribes a series of conversations which Mrs. Kennedy held with Schlesinger only months after her husband's assassination.

These particular interviews have not been released since their recording in 1964, and have now been published with the approval of the Kennedys' daughter Caroline, not only to mark the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's presidency, but also as a way of putting Mrs. Kennedy's opinions on the historical record.

I've often thought that behind that soft, well-polished voice there had to be a wealth of choice opinions on the many and varied people Jacqueline Kennedy encountered, and Historic Conversations confirms this. Public opinion is, even after all these years, strongly divided on the former First Lady, but I've always felt there to be so much more to her than the popular image of a serene (but long-suffering) clothes-horse. 

As the President's wife, Mrs. Kennedy was naturally expected to be charming, supportive to her husband, and above all to maintain a smilingly diplomatic approach to all public matters. Yet as her conversations with Arthur M. Schlesinger show, she held privately strong opinions and made thoughtful - and sometimes acerbic observations. Of herself she said, " know, everybody thought I was a snob and hated politics." Of President Kennedy's successor, Lyndon B. Johnson she retells a remark her husband once made to her - "Oh, God, can you ever imagine what would happen to the country if Lyndon was president?"

The interviews are intimate and chatty in tone - conveying a strong sense of place and time, as well as offering hitherto unheard insights into the Kennedy's lives. Mrs. Kennedy asserts that theirs was a marriage in which very traditional roles were maintained - even going so far as to say that all of her opinions came from the President, yet historian Michael Beschloss urges us to "...take that with a warehouse of salt." 

Friends of Mrs. Kennedy have commented that the Jacqueline of the interviews is not the woman she was in later years, and it's certainly an interesting conundrum. However intimate the interviews seem, they were still exactly that: interviews, not a tell-all. No reference is made to President Kennedy's alleged infidelities, nor is his death discussed in any way. Mrs. Kennedy is articulate and charming, but rightly maintained her right to keep some matters strictly private. The interviews must be taken within the context of the time, too - coming as they did only months after her husband's murder. In many ways, she was still Jacqueline the First Lady (however many "Presidential" moments are relived), and more importantly, she was a grieving wife. This was Jacqueline before Jackie O, and before the respected career in publishing she would later have.

We will never know all that Jacqueline Kennedy was, but at least with the publication of Historic Conversations, we can get a glimpse into her fascinating world.

For audio clips and images, go to the New York Times story, here.

Image courtesy of

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Saying Goodbye to Summer

It's been so long since my last post, and yet time has flown. There have been busy times, but also a lovely, relaxing holiday - and a fittingly balmy goodbye to the summer. No, it wasn't spent in England (I'm not going to start on our none-event summer), but by the seaside in Spain.

We met fearsome creatures with a penchant for sea-bathing...

...admired sweet-smelling Bourgainvillea...

...viewed the world from the shade of an umbrella...

...and swam in sea as warm as bath water.

A great end to the summer.

NB - If you're dreading the impending autumn months, then read this blog post by Deanna Raybourn. Autumn is my favourite season anyway, but she extols its virtues so beautifully, I'm already itching for the leaves to turn...

Photos by me.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Masterly Inspiration in Vogue UK's September Issue

Freja Beha Erichsen, by Mario Testino for Vogue UK, September 2011.
Mario Testino's shots of models Freja Beha Erichsen and Arizona Muse for Vogue UK's September issue invoke the spirit of Old Masters like Johannes Vermeer.

Johannes Vermeer, Woman Weighing Pearls, c.1662-4.
Starched, severe white caps, prim collars and brilliant white cuffs are seemingly lifted from the canvas of paintings like Woman Weighing Pearls and given a modern, high fashion twist.

Freja Beha Erichsen on the streets of Antwerp, by Mario Testino.
It would also seem that the iconic work, Girl With a Pearl Earring, has its part to play in this autumnal fashion story.

Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1665.
Beautiful and intelligent use of light, striking jewellery and an unusual head-dress...

Freja Beha Erichsen, by Mario Testino.
All are in evidence here, translated for a twenty-first century audience. Perhaps the only thing missing is that enigmatic look from the unknown girl in Vermeer's painting.

Johannes Vermeer, Woman With a Water Jug, 1665.
Testino and his team have done a marvellous job of paying tribute to the harmony of light and composition of the Old Masters; carefully observing key elements, from the shape and form of clothing to blushing cheeks...

I blogged about the historical connotations of this McQueen gown back in April.
This is a great example of fashion meeting art...and getting along famously.

Vermeer images courtesy of Olga's Gallery. Testino/Vogue UK images courtesy of

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Georgian Ice-cream

Georgian ice-creams created by Historic Food - Left to Right - Royal Cream, Chocolate, Burnt Filbert Cream & Parmesan Cream.
Out on the street on a hot summer's day, you might stop at an ice-cream parlour or gelateria for a sundae or a cone. It might even be just a quick stop off at the supermarket or corner shop for a tub of your favourite flavour or an ice-lolly or two. However you get your icy kicks, it would be fair to say that it's easy to get hold of in one form or another. 

So how would our eighteenth century counterparts have done so? 

Flavoured ices had been around for thousands of years before the 1700s, but it is widely accepted amongst food historians that the first real "iced-cream" recipes were created in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, originating in Italy and then spreading throughout Europe.

The first recipe to be written in English came courtesy of Mrs. Mary Eales' Receipts in 1718; a book of dessert recipes (later published as The Compleat Confectioner) containing directions for the making of ice-cream,

"Take Tin Ice-Pots, fill them with any Sort of Cream you like, either plain or sweeten'd, or Fruit in it; shut your Pots very close; to six Pots you must allow eighteen or twenty Pound of Ice, breaking the Ice very small; there will be some great Pieces, which lay at the Bottom and Top: You must have a Pail, and lay some Straw at the Bottom; then lay in your Ice, and put in amongst it a Pound of Bay-Salt; set in your Pots of Cream, and lay Ice and Salt between every Pot, that they may not touch; but the Ice must lie round them on every Side; lay a good deal of Ice on the Top, cover the Pail with Straw, set it in a Cellar where no Sun or Light comes, it will be froze in four Hours, but it may stand longer; than take it out just as you use it; hold it in your Hand and it will slip out..."

Food writer Hannah Glasse also included a recipe for ice-cream in her book The Art of Cookery, in 1747.

These recipes provide us with the basics of a Georgian ice-cream; sweetened cream or milk poured into a covered mould, which is then plunged into a bath of ice crystals and salt and left to set in a cool, dark place. 

This leads us to the important question of where the ice itself came from. Where possible, ice and snow would be transported from mountain regions to use for culinary (and medical) purposes. If you were not surrounded by mountains, the simple solution was to make the ice yourself by leaving containers of water outside on a freezing night. Of course, this method wouldn't work during warmer months, therefore various methods were used to store and preserve ice; purpose built ice-houses for the wealthy, and caves and cellars for the not-so-wealthy.

As the century progressed, so too did the very industry of ice-cream itself. By the 1760s, a number of confectionery establishments had sprung up in European cities, selling ice-cream in a variety of exotic and downright extraordinary flavours. In 1789, the fantastically named Frederick Nutt published a book called The Complete Confectioner, in which he detailed recipes for flavours including Bergamot Water Ice and Parmesan cheese. Nutt was an apprentice to Italian confectionery expert Domenico Negri, who owned and ran The Pot and Pine Apple on Berkeley Square, London. 

The Pot and Pine Apple would later become Gunter's Tea Shop, a fashionable Regency destination and ever-popular purveyor of ice-cream.

Anyone for a Parmesan sundae...? 

Image courtesy of Historic Food.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Things to See: The Staffordshire Hoard On Tour

Scabbard Boss
In May last year, I blogged about an amazing stash of Anglo-Saxon gold; discovered by one man and his metal detector in a field near Lichfield, Staffordshire. The treasure quickly became known as The Staffordshire Hoard, capturing the imagination of academics, archaeologists and the public alike, and setting off a chain of events which find the hoard where it is today.

So, where is it now - two years since its unearthing? Parts of the hoard are currently on tour, while other artefacts are undergoing painstaking conservation. Funding has been secured to keep it in the area of its discovery; the ancient kingdom of Mercia (largely the West Midlands and Staffordshire in its modern form), and fundraising is underway to create a permanent home for the entire, 1,500 piece-strong collection at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery.

Sword Hilts
If you would like to see the hoard's glittering objects for yourself, then head to Lichfield Cathedral where artefacts will be on display from now until the 21st August. Following the exhibition at Lichfield, the Staffordshire tour continues onwards to Tamworth Castle from the 27th August to the 18th September. Both Lichfield Cathedral and Tamworth Castle are historically important and beautiful venues in their own right, and the addition of pieces from the hoard will only serve to make things even more interesting!

After September, the hoard will journey over the Atlantic for an exhibition at the National Geographic Museum in Washington D.C. Called Anglo-Saxon Hoard: Gold From England's Dark Ages, the exhibition will run from the 29th October until the 4th March 2012.

For more information on the Staffordshire Hoard, visit the website, here.

For further details on the Staffordshire tour, click here, and for information on the National Geographic Museum in Washington, click here.

Images courtesy of Portable Antiquities on Flickr.