Elizabeth Hawksley

I first came across the Italian artist, Artemisia Gentileschi (1597-1652), in Our Hidden Heritage by Eleanor Tofts, published in 1974. It was one of those books at the forefront of the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s which sought to re-instate women writers, artists and composers whose works had been forgotten or downgraded.

Our Hidden History by Eleanor Tofts, 1974

Artemisia was taught to paint by her father, Orazio Gentileschi, in Rome. Both were influenced by the new style of the painter, Caravaggio, with its accentuated use of shadows, strong colours and dramatic story-telling. Artemisia became known for her wit and high-spirits, as well as her painting. But, when she was only seventeen, her life took a traumatic turn. She was raped by a friend of her father’s, a fellow painter called Agostino Tasso. Orazio appealed to the Pope and Agostino was brought to trial. Artemisia was cross-questioned under torture but held firm, and Tasso was imprisoned for eight months. Poor Artemisia was hastily married off and moved to Florence.

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In the 19th century, screens were very popular and many well-to-do day homes had one. They comprised three wooden frames hinged together, with hessian stretched across each frame and painted to create a base for illustrations. The owners would decorate the screen themselves. They could buy a whole range of painted decorations – often flowers, birds or animals – and customize the screen to suit their own tastes. Looking at the oval photographs of Princess Beatrice (Queen Victoria’s youngest child) and Prince Henry of Battenburg which probably celebrates their wedding in 1886, I’m guessing that my screen dates from the late 1880s, and I suspect that the original owner was female, romantic and about thirteen. I’ve named her Muriel after my great-grandmother.

One of the pictures is interestingly misleading.

Three boys pulling girl in sleigh on the ice

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To wear a hat or not to wear a hat? That is the question.

I have something of a love-hate relationship with hats. After my horrible boarding-school hat – which I jumped on when I left school for the last time – I avoided wearing hats as much as possible. Though I see from my About Elizabeth website page that I had a white straw hat when I was about seventeen in Paris being finished – but the straw began to unravel and I was pleased to have an excuse to ditch it. It smacked too much of ‘young lady’ and I was desperate to re-invent myself.

Later, when working in Fringe Theatre, I sported a rather nice white lacy wool beret. Alas, I washed it in a too hot white wash and it shrunk.

The hat I never wear

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Some years ago, at a Romantic Novelists’ Association conference, I heard Professor Jenny Hartley give a talk on popular Women’s Fiction – she was researching it at the time. At the end, after the questions, she said, ‘I’d now like to ask you a question: how many of you have read Katherine by Anya Seton?’

Katherine

Cover of ‘Katherine’ by Anya Seton (1961)

A forest of hands shot up. The entire conference had read it. I myself read it as a teenager and loved it.  First published in 1954, it’s the story of a herald’s daughter, Katherine Swynford, who was first the mistress and then the third wife of John of Gaunt, a marriage which scandalized all Europe. It is one of English History’s great love stories and it truly changed the course of history; for Katherine became the ancestor of the Tudors and thus of Queen Elizabeth II.

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I’m always delighted to be invited to a Bloggers’ Breakfast at the Queen’s Gallery; I know I’ll be in for a treat – and that’s not including the delicious coffee and croissants.

Bloggers breakfast

Oh! the croissants!

Their new exhibition, Portrait of the Artist, showcases 150 portraits from the Royal Collection, and the range is much wider than you’d expect. Not only are there the greats: Rubens, for example, but also humbler artists, like Paul Sandby, whom I’ve long admired; the photographer, Herbert Ponting – ditto; and the decidedly bizarre, like the French tragedienne Sarah Bernhardt’s large bronze inkwell in the form of herself as a harpy-like creature with bat’s wings, clawed feet clutching the inkwell, and with her own head.

In this post, I have chosen to look mainly at the more unexpected exhibits.

E Bernhardt inkwell EH

Inkwell of a harpy-like creature by Sarah Bernhardt Continue reading

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This is my heroine of the week: the redoubtable – and diminuative (she was only 4ft and 10 ins) – Dame Sarah Ann Swift, the founder of the Royal College of Nursing.

Sarah Swift

Dame Sarah Ann Swift (1854-1937) by Herbert James Draper

Born in 1854, Sarah Swift had had a long and successful career in nursing and proved herself to be an excellent organizer. She had not long retired when war broke out but she immediately offered her services to the government. They accepted and she found herself responsible for the placement of 6000 trained nurses, and VAD nurses, in various war zones. It was 1916, and World War I was about to enter its most bloody stage; the Battle of the Somme, where over one million soldiers were killed.

RCN facing Cavendish Sq

20 Cavendish Square, home of the Royal College of Nursing

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I’ve always loved the novels of Georgette Heyer for their wit, well-researched period detail, terrific story-telling and escapist fun. And I am not alone. When, in June 2015, I attended the Blue Plaque ceremony at 103 Woodside, Wimbledon, where she was born, Stephen Fry, a great fan, did the honours, opened the red curtains to reveal the plaque and spoke enthusiastically of Georgette Heyer’s stylish and witty novels. He’d discovered them at school and has loved them ever since; he finds them great comfort reading if ever he’s under the weather.

Georgette Heyer Howard Coster 1939

Georgette Heyer by Howard Coster, 1939, National Portrait Gallery

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I never thought I’d find myself loving a building site but this one is special.

Gasholder Park

Gasholder, men in hard hats and yellow jackets, machinery, Victorian warehouse: it must be the new Kings’ Cross development!

In the 19th century, the area around King’s Cross station was a hive of industry with barges bringing goods from the Port of London up the Regent’s Canal for storage in the huge warehouses there, like the Granary Building which stored grain. But by the 1970s, the area had become a wasteland, full of decrepit empty buildings, and notorious for drugs and prostitution.

Not any more. It is being totally transformed and this post is a whistle-stop tour of what’s going on. Grab your hard hats and let me show you round.

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Last Thursday, I was lucky enough to be invited to the preview of this small but fascinating exhibition at the British Library. It celebrates late 19th century popular entertainment through vividly-coloured posters, playbills, and various magical artefacts. It concentrates on major entertainment characters, such as Dan Leno, Mr Evanion, ‘Lord’ George Sanger, and John Nevil Maskelyne.

I love this cut-out novelty of Ada Blanche as Dick Whittington on a swing, plus cat in Dan Leno’s pantomime at the Theatre Royal, London in 1894.

Ada Blanche as Dick Whittington advertising novelty

Theatre Royal novelty: Now in full swing, Dick Whittington at Drury Lane

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I am a huge fan of public libraries; I’ve had a library card since I was six. And, nowadays, they offer you far more than just books. With my various library cards, (I have library cards like other people have credit cards) I can access the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (the DNB) – really useful for research – with my library card number, or read The Times or The Guardian online, and much more. And libraries are currently suffering from ferocious budget cuts.

Library 2

Me and Tony Brown, the Stock and Reader Development Manager

So, when I became the UK Children’s/Young Adult Book Review Editor for the quarterly Historical Novel Society Review, I decided to offer the ex-review copies to my local library. Every few months, when my floor round my desk has once more disappeared under books, I email Tony Brown, the Stock and Reader Development Manager of my local library, label the email: Books looking for a good home, and send him a book list. Would he like any of them? So far, he has always said, ‘Yes, please,’ to the lot.

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