History

A few days ago, I was leafing through an old scrapbook that belonged to my great-grand-father. He was obviously interested in current affairs and what was going on in the world, and the scrapbook is full of cuttings from periodicals like The Illustrated London News. (There are at least half a dozen cuttings about Brunel’s famous Great Eastern, for example.)

The page from my great-grandfather’s Scrap Book which caught my eye.

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Last week, I had the good fortune to visit the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, founded in 1570, and in Whitechapel Road since 1738. Now, nearly 450 years later, it was to close, and our tour was the very last one. Mr Alan Hughes, the owner, whose family had been there since 1904, and who was born there, was our guide.

Whitechapel Bell Foundry with the ochre shutters

It was the Whitechapel Bell Foundry that cast the 13½ ton hour bell, Big Ben, for the Palace of Westminster in 1858. It also replaced a number of famous church bells lost in the London Blitz, including the ‘great bell at Bow’, as the Nursery Rhyme has it, and the ‘Oranges and Lemons’ bells at St Clement Danes. Whitechapel bells are found in countries as far apart as Australia, South Africa and America.

The foundry’s small back yard. Note the lead water tank, dated 1670, from the original Artichoke Inn, now a planter under the window

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The thought struck me recently that I live in a house with a number of objects which are nowadays more or less redundant, like paraffin lamps, warming pans – and door stops.

I grew up in a large country house where almost every room had its own cast iron door stop. There was a large handsome painted one of Mr Punch by the front door, for example; and the one pictured below in the morning room. Elsewhere, there was a horse door stop, one of a sheep, and another of an early locomotive, possibly The Rocket, (I come from a railway family), as well as plainer ones.

Two Figures at a Well door stop

Why, did we need so many? I can see that the front door might need to be held open on occasions, if luggage, say, was coming in or going out. But otherwise?

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Tuscany, Italy, last year. The first thing our guide to the Etruscans said was, ‘Everyone calls the Etruscans “mysterious” and it’s simply not true.’ By the end of the week, I thought: You’re wrong. Yes, thanks to archaeology, we can see inside their tombs; admire their grave goods, the amazing terracotta sculptures, and their famous black bucchero ware; and we know what the Romans thought of them. But, for me, the Etruscans themselves still remain fascinatingly elusive. This is why.

 Apollo, from the temple at Veii

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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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This post is about two Arts and Crafts oak chairs with Walter Crane tiles, bought for ten shillings (50p),  with an intriguing story to tell. My mother, who loved auctions, got them from Mr Little’s Salerooms in Barnard Castle, an attractive upper Teesdale market town.

Chair a

The first History chair

They were, she explained, hall chairs, you weren’t meant to sit on them. In fact, they are excruciatingly uncomfortable, not to mention unsafe. I wouldn’t trust the front right leg of one of them (see photo above) and the other creaks ominously. But I like them, and I’m a fan of Walter Crane (1845-1915), an eminent artist who collaborated with William Morris. The tiles say a lot about late Victorian England and what people thought was important about English history. (And it’s definitely English history, as opposed to British.)

Caesar b

Julius Caesar tile by Walter Crane

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This is the culprit – one of the items in the Undressed: a Brief History of Underwear exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum. The signage tells us that it is a cuirass bodice dress in silk satin and lace, dating from 1876 and adds that it was considered shocking at the time because….  I thought it might be fun to look more closely at why it was so shocking.

Cuirace dress close up

Cuirass bodice dress, 1876

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Ever since Roman times, the rich and powerful have built villas in the hills surrounding Rome to escape the summer’s heat. Some, like Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli, still survive. Others, like Castel Gandolfo, built in the 17th century for Pope Urban VIII as a summer palace, were built on top of Roman villa sites. And why not? The land was already levelled and useful top quality building material was there for the taking.

Castel Gondolfo Pope's palace

Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer palace

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Some years ago I saw a rom.com where the American heroine visits London for the first time. She lands at Heathrow and takes a cab to wherever she’s staying – somewhere fashionable with a SW postcode. She peers excitedly through the cab window as Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, St Paul’s Cathedral and Tower Bridge whizz by. I thought: where the hell is the cabbie going? Then the penny dropped: his circuitous route in the wrong direction had nothing to do with the real London; it was a fictitious ‘London’.

Alcazar courtyard 2

The Alcazar: the Spanish Royal family’s summer palace in Seville

I’d always felt much the same about the cigarette factory in Seville in Bizet’s opera Carmen. It must be fictitious. Bizet took his plot from a novella by Prosper Merimee and I doubted whether either of them had actually been to Spain. Merimée probably thought Seville sounded romantic and what was really important wasn’t the unlikely cigarette factory but the romantic toreador at the centre of the story.

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