History

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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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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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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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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Illuminating the Dark Ages is no easy task, as I discovered when I went to the British Library’s new Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War exhibition. There are a lot of illuminated manuscripts, most of them beautiful, but what, exactly can they tells us about that troubled period? A surprising amount, as it happens.

The Lindisfarne Gospels, one of the glories of Anglo-Saxon craftsmenship. This illuminated manuscript was produced in the monastery on Lindisfarne in 715-720 AD. Its sophisticated designs owe much to Celtic art.

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I have long been fascinated by the Victorian age. It was a time of huge contrasts, as well as social mobility- certainly for men. But what about women? At the beginning of the Victorian age, they had no legal existence, they couldn’t vote, nor have a bank account, and what work opportunities they had, in factories or shops, say, were were less well-paid than men. As for any more professional position – forget it. The choice of jobs for most middle-class women was being a governess or lady’s companion for, at most, about £35 a year, or, for a few talented writers, actresses, artists or musicians, you might be able to make a decent living, if your father or family were also in the same profession.

The Awakening Conscience 1853 William Holman Hunt, Tate Gallery

However, there was an alternative – a shocking one; become a mistress.

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Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes(1936) was one of my favourite books as a child and I suspect that many other girls have also loved it because, eighty-two years later, it is still in print. My own, very worn, copy has the original illustrations by Ruth Gervis (1894-1988) which I’ve always thought were just right.

Noel Streatfeild (1895-1986) Courtesy of Wikipedia

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This year’s summer exhibition at Buckingham Palace, which celebrates the Prince of Wales’s 70th birthday, features his personal selection of over a hundred objects from the Royal Collection together with works by young artists who have trained with his three arts charities: The Royal Drawing School (2000), The Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts (2004) and Turquoise Mountain (2006). These provide top quality training for young people in a number of traditional arts across the world.

 

The Prince of Wales visits the Royal Drawing School, Shoreditch. c. Arthur Edwards

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Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965) was a politician, a Prime Minister; a writer; a notable orator; and an indomitable war leader during World War II. During his long life, he was given almost every honour his country (and others) could bestow: Knight if the Garter, Companion of Honour, Order of Merit, Nobel Prize for Literature, Fellow of the Royal Society, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports and an Honorary Citizen of the United States, amongst others.

This post looks at his private country home – Chartwell in Kent.

Sir Winston Churchill, 1941, by Yousuf Karsh

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A couple of weekends ago I was staying in a cottage on top of a chalk downland hill in Wiltshire. The views are stupendous. Look south on a clear day and you can see the Isle of Wight. I love the wealth of Ancient History here. Wiltshire is criss-crossed by a number of ancient, Prehistoric roads, the most famous being the Ridgeway, on the north side of Salisbury Plain.

The Ridgeway with barley growing on the far side. This ancient road is much wider than a footpath Continue reading

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