Elizabeth Hawksley

Last year, a friend gave me Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes for my birthday. I knew who he was, of course, but although I had seen and enjoyed The Young Victoria, I hadn’t watched Gosford Park because I feared I’d find gaffes which would either infuriate me or make me cringe. Past Imperfect was, therefore, something of a revelation for its wit, acute social observation and terrific storytelling. As I read, I realized, with a sense of shock, that I knew exactly where Julian Fellowes was coming from because the story’s social background, as told by his anonymous narrator, was, in many respects, painfully similar to my own. He didn’t pull his punches and his depiction of the late 1960s amongst what rather too many reviewers patronizingly called the ‘toffs’ was spot on.

‘Past Imperfect’ by Julian Fellowes

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Princess Mary, the Princess Royal (1897-1965) was seventeen when World War I broke out in 1914. In normal circumstances, Mary would have been kept under wraps until she was eighteen and come out in Society, but, the outbreak of war changed everything. The House of Saxe-Coburg began to be accused of being far too German, and King George V and Queen Mary found themselves with an image problem.

Princess Mary by J. J. Shannon, R.A. 1914

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On December 16th, 1775, in the rectory at Steventon, Hampshire, on a freezing winter’s day, the rector’s wife, gave birth to a daughter. The baby was, of course, Jane Austen, and she was to become one of our greatest novelists. Her books have given us so much pleasure, as well as inspiring numerous film and television adaptations. Then there are those books her works have influenced from Marghanita Laski’s completion of Sanditon in 1975, 200 years after Jane’s death; Amanda Grange’s clever Mr Darcy’s Diary; to Val McDermid’s witty and perceptive modern take on Northanger Abbey, to name but a few. Many Jane Austen characters have also had interesting afterlives as detectives, vampires or zombies; and some of them have even met up with Austen characters from her other books.

So today, on her birthday, it’s only fitting to pay tribute to many people’s favourite author, including mine.

Sanditon, a novel by Jane Austen and Another Lady, 1975

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We’ve just past November 30th, St Andrew’s Day, the patron saint of Scotland, so it feels appropriate to celebrate the 19th century transformation of that beautiful country.

Flatback Staffordshire figure: Highlander with deer (45 cms. high)

My parents lived in Invernesshire, in the Scottish Highlands, for many years and their house contained a number of things unmistakably inspired by Scotland, one of which was this large flat back Staffordshire figure of a kilted Highlander  with his arm around what looks like a small deer. I’ve always liked it – partly because it looks so absurd. There is a gun dangerously positioned beside the highlander’s left leg pointing upwards, (my brothers and I had to learn the ‘Never, never let your gun/ Pointed be at anyone’ rule before my father, an excellent shot, would allow us anywhere near a gun), and the figure has a horn at his waist. Why? To summon a gillie? Or does it contain gunpowder for the gun, though that seems unlikely.

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It’s a sunny, late November day and my friend and I are inside architect Decimus Burton’s newly-reopened, Grade 1 listed, Temperate House in Kew Gardens, the largest glasshouse in the world. I have long wanted to see it but for the last five years it has been covered in scaffolding.

Exterior of the first section of the Temperate House glasshouse

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Roger Fenton (1819-1869) was one of the earliest British war photographers, and the Queen’s Gallery is currently showing a selection of his 1855 Crimean War photographs in the Royal Collection. After a tussle with his father, who didn’t approve of his son’s artistic leanings, Fenton was eventually able to follow his heart. He discovered photography when it first appeared in the late 1840s, immediately recognized its potential and set himself to master it. In 1852, he travelled to Russia, visiting Moscow, Kiev and St Petersburg, and, on his return, he toured an exhibition of his photographs around Britain, which established his name. It also led to his involvement in the founding of the Photographic Society of London, where he promoted this new medium, and became its first honorary secretary.

Roger Fenton, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, 1854

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The new exhibition Russia: Royalty & Romanovs at the Queen’s Gallery, has all the splendour one would expect with Fabergé eggs and other objets d’art but the initial contact between the two countries was in the late 17th century, and low key.

1914 Faberge Mosaic egg and the surprise inside it, showing the profiles of the Tsarina’s five children

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Gold has always been a key to power: it doesn’t corrode, so it holds its value, and, as every ruler knows, access to gold is essential for paying armies and controlling the state. Furthermore, in skilled hands, this precious metal can be transformed into beautiful and desirable objects which, in turn, help to cement alliances, reward allies and demonstrate the power of the ruler.

The Goldsmiths’ Company’s leopard’s head symbol entwined with vine leaves on the mantelpiece in the Court Room (Photo by Elizabeth Hawksley)

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I’ve always enjoyed pageantry. I confess that the sight of soldiers in uniform, wearing crested helmets and scarlet jackets, sitting on gleaming black horses and being put through their paces by an even smarter officer, gladdens my heart. So, today, I’m visiting the Household Cavalry.

Visitors watch the Changing of the Guard ceremony in Horse Guards Parade. 

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Recently, a friend and I visited the Walthamstow Wetlands, a new haven for birds and insects in north London. The story of how it came about is a very 21st century one – and, in these days of doom and gloom, very cheering. The A to Z of Victorian London from 1888 shows the River Lea meandering through marshland. An 18th century stretch of canal called ‘River Lea/Lee Navigation’ (the spelling varied) had been dug to bring goods from the country up to London, and, parallel to the canal, the Mill Lead powered several water mills, indeed, four mills are mentioned in Domesday Book. The area was good for fishing, and that was about it.

River Lea Navigation canal

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