Victorian Age

Kensal Green Cemetery is an extraordinary place with an astonishing variety of tombstones: Do you fancy ivy twining up crosses, you have it; angels dancing on the roof of a classical columned temple, you have that, too; there are severe Egyptian-style family vaults, as well as pointy Gothic shrines. Furthermore, it is gloriously egalitarian; royalty lies within a stone’s throw of self-made men, quack-doctors, artists, and incongruously modern gravestones with plastic flowers.

General View looking west towards the catacombs

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This week I’m looking at two pairs of mid-19th century ladies’ open crotch drawers which you can see hanging on my washing line in the photo below. As an historical novelist, I need to know what my heroines are wearing, even, or perhaps especially, the undergarments. They affect her posture, her comfort and indicate her status.

Two pairs of mid-19th century open-crotch drawers

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This, believe it or not, is my sewing machine, it dates from between 1898-1904. I’m not sure of the exact date because I’ve never come across another one like it. I bought it for £5 when I was a student and I’ve used it ever since.

Sewing machine with handle in place and ready for use

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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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This week I’m looking at a poem/picture about love: a tale of a fatal attraction between two children. She, Maud, is a woodman’s daughter; he is the squire’s son and they meet in his father’s woods where Maud’s father, Gerald, is clearing the undergrowth. The story comes from Coventry Patmore’s 1844 poem The Woodman’s Daughter.

The young Pre-Raphaelite artist, John Everett Millais (1829-1896), came across the poem and made it the subject of his 1851 Royal Academy painting.

The Woodman’s Daughter by John Everett Millais

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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 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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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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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 Mariana – and she has a problem. She was betrothed to Angelo, a man she was passionately in love with, but, when her dowry was lost in a shipwreck, the rat Angelo repudiated her. She now lives a lonely life in a moated grange. But things are about to change…

Mariana brighter

Millais’s painting ‘Mariana’

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