Elizabeth

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Today, I’m removing myself from wet, chilly and windy London and re-visiting Plovdiv, a town I’d love to see more of. First, a bit of history to set the scene. The earliest evidence for Plovdiv is a Neolithic settlement; it was later settled by invading Thracians, expanded by Philip II of Macedon who named it Philippopolis, and, in due course,, it became part of the Roman Empire. The photo below of the archaeological excavations of the Roman Odeon below, shows how closely packed the layers of history are. You don’t have to dig very deep to find something surprising. But more of that in a minute.

Excavations of the Odeon in Plovdiv

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On Friday, I went to Tate Britain, one of my favourite places. I had two paintings in mind which I thought might make an interesting blog but, to my dismay, they weren’t hanging where they should have been. A gallery attendant told me that they were on loan to Canberra, and wouldn’t be back until October. Disaster. It was Friday and I needed a blog for Sunday.

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth 1889 by John Singer Sargent, Tate Britain

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Last year, the British Museum opened the Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World and I went to see it. The press reviews, rightly, raved about the Mosque lamps in glowing colours, the beautifully-decorated jars, and so on. Not only were the objects displayed of top quality but the exhibition space itself had been meticulously designed and lit especially to enhance the visitor’s experience.

I decided I’d go back, photograph of my favourite objects, and write a blog about them. But something happened.

Pottery Jar with Lid

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Recently, I saw the Lost Treasures of Strawberry Hill exhibition at that extraordinary Gothic extravaganza, Strawberry Hill, the summer villa of the author, letter writer, and passionate collector of the Fine Arts, Horace Walpole (1717-1797). Horace was the son of the politician and statesman, Sir Robert Walpole, and rich enough to do what he wanted: travel in Italy, buy art and antiques, and live the life of a cultivated man of leisure. His tastes were unusual and original – and he had the money to indulge himself.

Strawberry Hill: note the Gothic windows, tower and chimneys

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The Worshipful Company of Salters is one of the twelve medieval Great Livery Companies of the City of London, and number 9 in the order of precedence. It was first licensed as a Guild in 1394, under King Richard II, to protect its members who worked in the all-important salt, pepper and spice trade. In medieval times, both sea salt and rock salt were essential to the economy: it preserved food in the days before refrigeration; it was also used in the dyeing trade to fix colours, and in the leather making process. Members of The Salters’ Company became experts in the chemical possibilities of sodium chloride.

Two members of the Worshipful Company of Salters’ Company, Anthony Lybster and Chris Cockcroft, about to show visitors round.

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John Ruskin (1819-1900), an art critic and a man who held strong views on what values a society should hold, was one of the most influential men of his generation. For example, when Lucy Honeychurch, heroine of E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View (1908) visits the church of Santa Croce in Florence, she’s desperate to know which tombstone was praised by Ruskin. This is her first trip abroad and she’s unsure of her own taste; she needs the reassurance that she’s admiring the right one.

However, I think it’s fair to say that Ruskin is not always an easy person to appreciate in the 21st century. Nowadays, we like to view ourselves as liberal-minded and tolerant, particularly in sexual matters. An intellectually very gifted only child, Ruskin was brought up on strict Puritanical principles and cossetted by both parents. His mother had high moral standards and was a very controlling parent. It is not surprising that Ruskin turned out to be obsessive, sexually inhibited and highly-strung.

Watercolour sketch of a coastal scene with fortress by John Ruskin, 1841

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I have been re-reading Jenny Uglow’s In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815 in which she demonstrates very clearly how the Napoleonic Wars permeated every aspect of life for twenty-two long years and affected everybody – including Jane Austen’s characters  – as the country faced the urgent need for men for the armed forces, military supplies, ships, a modern transport system, efficient banking, and so on.

Captured Napoleonic Eagle of the 105th by the Royal Dragoons at the Battle of Waterloo,1815, in the Household Cavalry Museum (copy)

This post is a refutation of those critics who assert that Jane Austen’s novels concentrate only on domestic everyday life as lived by the English upper-middle classes.Jane  Austen, they say, ignores the wider picture and fails to mention the Napoleonic Wars. This, in my opinion, is simply not true. In fact, the war is a constant, and important, background to her novels; the problem is that most modern readers fail to recognize her references to it.

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We are getting towards the end of January; the temperature on Thursday slumped to 4C and the wind was bitter. My fingers turned white, even with my Alpaca wool gloves on, and the forecast shows that it will remain 6C at best for God knows how long. I’m not a winter person; cold just makes me want to hibernate.

The gardens at Ninfa

I long to be somewhere warm and Italian; somewhere with flowers, trees, shade as well as sunshine, flowing water and romantic ruins. Ideally, I want to be transported to the gardens amid the ruins of the medieval town of Ninfa. I cannot think of anywhere nicer – especially when, back in England, it’s so cold and wet.

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This week, while doing some much needed clearing the decks in my study, I discovered a long-lost letter from my teenage daughter (now grown-up and with a family of her own) which brought back a memory which made me smile.

When my son was fifteen and my daughter fourteen, I suggested that now they were teenagers they were surely too old for Christmas stockings. (My daughter had developed an interest in philosophy and was reading Jean-Paul Sartre) They were both most indignant; they liked having Christmas stockings! They knew that Father Christmas didn’t really exist but …

Stripy Christmas knee-high socks

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Visiting the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire in January with my daughter was a slightly spooky experience. Set in a field next to an ancient ridgeway with a wood nearby, these prehistoric stones still exude an air of power. The most important are ‘The King’s Men’, a Neolithic stone circle of over a hundred stones weather-worn into fantastical shapes (the exact number is unknown – legend has it that they are uncountable), dating from around 3000 BC.

Me, standing by one of the King’s Men stones

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