Victorian Age

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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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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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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Open House weekend in London happens once a year, in September; when all sorts of buildings which you can’t usually see inside, both public and private, are open to the public – for free. This year, my niece and I decided to visit the tomb of Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890), Victorian explorer, soldier, linguist (he spoke at least forty languages), scholar and prolific author and translator who had long been a hero of mine.

Sir Richard Burton’s tomb in the churchyard of St Mary Magdalen’s in Mortlake

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I have a wonderful book of advertisements in ‘The Times’ from the 1870s. As well as being a mine of information about everyday life in  London at that date, there is also a section of personal advertisements, many of which could be the basis for a novel.

Looking for a plot? How about:

C.C.C.C. Do not despair, my Marguerite. Only have patience. I hope we shall meet on the 3rd at P. Be cautious and attend to all the advice I gave you. Do write to the London address if you possibly can, and tell me what has happened that prevents your writing. If I wrote in l.j. it would betray us. Thine for ever, B.B.B.B.

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I came across this little garden next to Embankment tube station one icy day in March and I was struck by the number and variety of statues and fountains. Why was a languorous bronze female draped up the side of an obelisk in an attitude of extreme grief? And what was the statue of a soldier riding a camel commemorating? Not to mention Sir Wilfrid Lawson, Bt, whose friends erected his statue ‘in loving and grateful remembrance of his splendid leadership and of his pure and unworldly life’? I vowed to return with my camera when it was warmer.

The Antique Bronze van; John and William complete the statues and monuments’ annual clean

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The Historic Dockyard, Chatham, on the River Medway in Kent must surely be one of the most extraordinary places in the U.K. and, I’m ashamed to say, I scarcely knew it existed. It had been a Royal Naval Dockyard since Henry VIII’s time; the diarist, Samuel Pepys, in his capacity as Clerk of the King’s Ships visited regularly in the 1660s.  Charles Dickens’ father worked in the Cashiers’ Office here from 1817-22. At least I’d heard of the Dockyard’s famous ropewalk – over a quarter of a mile long, and still in operation. What’s more, the dockyard is only forty minutes by fast train from London, so I had no excuse not to visit.

H.M.S. Gannet (1878) in dry dock

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The Queen’s Gallery’s new exhibition, Splendours of the Subcontinent: A Prince’s Tour of India, 1875-6, examines a largely forgotten episode in the thirty-four-year-old Prince of Wales’s life, and one which is full of surprises.

1. Perfume holder in the form of a lotus flower presented by the Maharaja of Jaipur. A hidden mechanism allows the petals of the flower to open, revealing a red and yellow enamelled cup. It is made of gold, enamel, diamonds and pearls.

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