Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Seeing Britain From Above

The Britain From Above  project was launched online yesterday; a fantastic collaboration between English Heritage and the Royal Commissions on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland and Wales, making a massive collection of aerial photographs taken in Britain between 1919 and 1953 available for public viewing.

Thousands of images covering the length and breadth of the country have been restored and catalogued, and are a wonderful testament to the skill and daring of the aerial photographers involved in the creation of the Aerofilms Collection.

If you visit the Britain From Above website, beware. You'll probably disappear down a rabbit-hole like me, and emerge a good while later. The website is a well-designed experience, designed to promote discussion, as well as to help the project team identify a number of images with mysteriously unknown locations. 

You can create a profile to engage with other users and offer opinions as to photo locations, as well as being able to search the huge database via an interactive map and search tool. And if the map proves somewhat overwhelming, you can also browse several well thought out categories and sections.

This is a fantastic project that gives us the chance to view famous landmarks, beautiful countryside - and even our home towns and cities - from a point of view we don't usually enjoy. They are a massively important historical and geographical record of Britain; a fascinating, evocative and spectacular portrait of how much our landscapes have altered in many ways, but in others, remained firmly the same.

Here are a few of my favourites...

"The Three Graces', Liverpool, 1928 - The Royal Liver Building, Cunard Building & Port of Liverpool Building

Blackpool Tower, Pier & Beach, 1920

Central Station & Albion Street, Manchester, 1921

Conwy Castle, North Wales, 1927

Etruria Pottery Works, Stoke-on-Trent, 1928

Gay Street & The Circus, Bath, 1920

Holy Island, 1947

Kensal Green, London, 1921

Snowdonia, North Wales

St. Paul's Cathedral, London, 1921

View over Worcester

All images courtesy of the Britain From Above project.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned: Dressing Down, Seventeenth Century Style

The fantastically titled, The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned exhibition opened at Hampton Court Palace on the 5th April this year. Running until the 30th September, it tells the story of "beauty, debauchery and decadent art in the late Stuart court." In the sumptuous setting of Hampton Court Palace, visitors will be guided through the royal apartments of Queen Mary II, have a chance to view portraits of leading royal and court figures (including King Charles II's infamous mistresses, Barbara Palmer and Nell Gwyn), and learn about the fashionable (and often turbulent) lives of the glitterati who surrounded the monarchs of the late Stuart dynasty, from Charles II to Queen Anne. 

With such a wealth of late seventeenth century glamour on display from artists like Sir Peter Lely, what immediately sprung to my mind were the seductive portraits of court beauties in variations of an informal kind of gown. Sleepy eyed and loosely attired, the women in these images give us an excellent insight into a popular style of aristocratic dress in that period...or rather undress.
Sir Peter Lely, Elizabeth, Countess of Kildare, c. 1679, Tate Gallery
Known as a 'nightgown', this was a more informal type of dress used by aristocratic wives and royal mistresses alike for entertaining friends and (perhaps more importantly) lovers, in the more relaxed setting of one's boudoir. This wasn't the seventeenth century equivalent of answering the front door in your pyjamas and slippers - definitely not. This kind of gown was not a nightdress in the real sense of the word. Made of silk and constructed along the same lines as a more formal gown, it could be laced tightly or loosely, depending on personal preference and occasion. With a low-cut neckline, they could also be worn without a corset, too. It isn't difficult to see why the royal court beauties (and in particular, Charles II's mistresses) favoured this style so much.
After Sir Peter Lely, Barbara Palmer, Duchess of Cleveland, c.1666, National Portrait Gallery
In her latest TV series for BBC 4, Harlots, Heroines & Housewives: A Seventeenth Century History for Girls, the brilliant historian (and Chief Curator of the Historic Royal Palaces - including Hampton Court) Lucy Worsley gives viewers an illuminating and practical demonstration of the nightgown, dressed by fellow historian, Joanna Marschner. (See the video at the foot of this post). In her own words, she describes the gown as feeling "...like it could quite easily just, sort of, fall off," thus giving your lover, as the two historians discuss, exactly the view you would "...both wish for." It's also worth pointing out that this was definitely not an egalitarian fashion. It was not the kind of gown worn every day by those women whose work was physically demanding, and for a maid-servant to appear before her own mistress in such a way would have been socially unthinkable. As unfair as this seems to modern sensibilities, the nightgown was a trend for royalty and aristocracy only, and in the title words of the exhibition at Hampton Court, the 'wild' and 'beautiful' ladies and courtesans who inhabited the gilded cage of Charles II's court.