I have a nineteenth century screen in my sitting-room. It comprises four hinged panels: one side has a scarlet background, and the other has a black one. It was a popular pastime for ladies to buy cut-out and varnished pictures to paste onto the screen, or perhaps into a scrap book, and create their own customized art-work.
Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess (1905) was one of my favourite books as a child. The heroine, Sara Crewe, says early on: ‘Whenever I play I make up stories and tell them to myself.’ I, too, told myself stories, and I knew at once that this would be my sort of book.
Sara was born in India and, as was usual then for health reasons, was sent to England for her education when she was seven. We first meet her with her much loved father in London, being taken to Miss Mitchin’s Select Academy for Young Ladies. She will be a parlour border, that is, she will stay there during the holidays. I, too, was at a Primary boarding school – so that was another thing we shared.
Kate Greenaway (1846-1901) was a late Victorian artist who specialized in beautifully designed paintings of children, mainly little girls, in Regency costume to illustrate stories and poems. ‘She created a small world of her own, a dream world, a never-never land,’ said one critic, and it was one which was, financially, extremely successful.
Illustration of ‘Jack and Jill’ from ‘Mother Goose’ (1886)
I’ve always loved Victorian magic shows with their sleights of hand and appearances that trick the eye. To my delight, this year’s exhibition, Queen Victoria’s Palace, at the Summer Opening of the Buckingham Palace State Rooms, offers a genuinely Victorian touch of magic with an optical illusion known as Pepper’s Ghost. I couldn’t wait.
This week I’m in Rochester, an important naval town on the River Medway which flows into the Thames. There is a huge amount to see in Rochester from Roman times onwards, but today I’m looking at one house.
Being a Charles Dickens fan, I have long wanted to visit Restoration House, supposedly Dickens’ inspiration in Great Expectations for Miss Havisham’s home, Satis House, that ‘large and gloomy’ place, full of dust, cobwebs and shadows and lit only by candlelight. It is here that the young Pip is entrapped by Miss Havisham’s desire to seek revenge, through him, for her lover jilting her so cruelly on her wedding day.
Today, I’m re-visiting the Royal Mews, looking the various coaches and landaus, and, of course, the gold ‘Coronation’ coach. Landaus feature in Jane Austen’s novels; the obnoxious Mrs Elton, in Emma, boasts about her sister’s barouche-landau – which she takes every opportunity to mention (presumably because Emma doesn’t have one at Hartfield). But what exactly is a landau?
Queen Alexandra’s State Coach dates from 1865. It was used regularly by King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra
A carriage is the general term for any horse-drawn passenger vehicle, from the humble gig to the Gold Coronation Coach. A coach is simply a large carriage. Basically, all landaus are coaches but not all coaches are landaus.
I am lucky enough to sleep in a four-poster bed. It dates from around 1850 and is 5 ft 6 ins wide, 6 ft 8 ins long, and nearly 8 ft high. Fortunately, my terraced 1820 house has high ceilings. The bed has a roof canopy, a curtain behind my head, side curtains which remind me of sails on a tea clipper, arched pelmets around three sides at the top, and three lower valances which cover from the bottom of the mattress to the floor. Sleeping in it is like being on board a galleon.
On Friday, I went to Tate Britain, one of my favourite places. I had two paintings in mind which I thought might make an interesting blog but, to my dismay, they weren’t hanging where they should have been. A gallery attendant told me that they were on loan to Canberra, and wouldn’t be back until October. Disaster. It was Friday and I needed a blog for Sunday.
John Ruskin (1819-1900), an art critic and a man who held strong views on what values a society should hold, was one of the most influential men of his generation. For example, when Lucy Honeychurch, heroine of E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View (1908) visits the church of Santa Croce in Florence, she’s desperate to know which tombstone was praised by Ruskin. This is her first trip abroad and she’s unsure of her own taste; she needs the reassurance that she’s admiring the right one.
However, I think it’s fair to say that Ruskin is not always an easy person to appreciate in the 21st century. Nowadays, we like to view ourselves as liberal-minded and tolerant, particularly in sexual matters. An intellectually very gifted only child, Ruskin was brought up on strict Puritanical principles and cossetted by both parents. His mother had high moral standards and was a very controlling parent. It is not surprising that Ruskin turned out to be obsessive, sexually inhibited and highly-strung.
Watercolour sketch of a coastal scene with fortress by John Ruskin, 1841
We’ve just past November 30th, St Andrew’s Day, the patron saint of Scotland, so it feels appropriate to celebrate the 19th century transformation of that beautiful country.
Flatback Staffordshire figure: Highlander with deer (45 cms. high)
My parents lived in Invernesshire, in the Scottish Highlands, for many years and their house contained a number of things unmistakably inspired by Scotland, one of which was this large flat back Staffordshire figure of a kilted Highlander with his arm around what looks like a small deer. I’ve always liked it – partly because it looks so absurd. There is a gun dangerously positioned beside the highlander’s left leg pointing upwards, (my brothers and I had to learn the ‘Never, never let your gun/ Pointed be at anyone’ rule before my father, an excellent shot, would allow us anywhere near a gun), and the figure has a horn at his waist. Why? To summon a gillie? Or does it contain gunpowder for the gun, though that seems unlikely.