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Archive for July, 2009

No needlework, either of ancient or modern times, (says Mr. Lambert,) has ever surpassed the productions of Miss Linwood. So early as 1785, these pictures had acquired such celebrity as to attract the attention of the Royal Family, to whom they were shewn at Windsor Castle. - Book of Days

Mary Linwood by Hoppner, 1800

Mary Linwood by Hoppner, 1800. Image @Victoria & Albert Museum

Mary Linwood, Partridges after the painting by Moses Haughton, 1798

Mary Linwood, Partridges after the painting by Moses Haughton, 1798

Mary Linwood was an artist who used needlework as her material.  Born in Birmingham in 1755, Mary made her first embroidered picture when she was thirteen years old. She was mistress of a private boarding school, which her mother started, but her lasting claim to fame lay in her needlework art. For nearly seventy-five years Mary imitated popular paintings in worsted embroidery. An enterprising woman, she opened an exhibition in the Hanover Square Rooms in 1798,  which afterward traveled to Leicester Square, Edinburgh and Dublin. Four years before her death in 1845,  her works were still exhibited in London.  She embroidered her last piece when seventy-eight, although she lived to be 90 and worked as a school mistress until a year before her death.  In 1844, during her annual visit to her Exhibition in London, she caught the flu and died.

Mary worked with stitches of different lengths on a fabric made especially for her in Leicester. She had coarse linen tammy cloth prepared for her as well. Her long and short stitches looked like brush strokes, with silk for highlights, and many amateurs copiesd her on a smaller scale. A good example of her work is the almost 2 ft square portrait of Napoleon in the South Kensington Museum.

Needlework image of Napoleon

Needlework image of Napoleon

Portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte embroidered with coloured worsteds in small short and long stitches By Miss Mary Linwood In gilt frame glazed English Late 18th or early 19 th centy H 2 ft 7 in W 2 ft 2 in Bequeathed by the late Miss Ellen Markland 1438 1874 This is a remarkable specimen of embroidery involving great labour to imitate a painting - A Descriptive Catalogue of the collections of tapestry and embroidery in the South Kensington Museum, Alan Cole, 1888, p.369

Miss Linwood’s worked pictures, exhibited in Leicester square, were for many years reckoned among the sights of London, and although their pretensions to artistic merit are regarded contemptuously by the present generation, they were in one sense undoubtedly wonderful productions. The exhibition contained copies after such masters as Carlo Dolci, Guido, Ruysdael, Opie, Morland, Gainsborough, Reynolds; a list that proves how great was the scope Miss Linwood’s ambition, and how catholic  her taste. The whole collection was dispersed at Christie’s room after Miss Linwood’s death in 1845, when the pieces knocked down for sums far below those at which they had been valued a few years previously…Miss Linwood’s pictures, worked with untwisted soft crewel specially dyed in graduated shades on a ground of twilled linen, are really meritorious, nevertheless one cannot regret that their day, equally with that of the Berlin wool Landseers, is overpast and that we have at last learnt the limitations as well as the possibilities of the embroiderer’s delightful craft. – The Collector

Exhibition, Book of Days

Exhibition, Image @Book of Days

Although Mary Linwood’s needlework exhibits were popular during her lifetime, not everyone was enamored with her work. In 1919, Emily Leigh Lowes wrote these rather hateful statements about Mary in her book, Chats on Old Needlework (Embroidery),

The originator and moving spirit of this bad period was Miss Linwood, who conceived the idea of copying oil paintings in woolwork. She died in 1845. Would that she had never been born! When we think of the many years which English women have spent over those wickedly hideous Berlin-wool pictures, working their bad drawing and vilely crude colours into those awful canvases, and imagining that they were earning undying fame as notable women for all the succeeding ages, death was too good for Miss Linwood. The usual boiling oil would have been a fitter end! Miss Linwood made a great furore at the time of her invention, and held an exhibition in the rooms now occupied by Messrs. Puttick & Simpson, Leicester Square. Can we not imagine the shade of the great Sir Joshua Reynolds, whose home and studio these rooms had been, revisiting the glimpses of the moon, and while wandering up and down that famous old staircase forsaking his home for ever after one horrified glance at Miss Linwood’s invention?

Not only Miss Linwood, but Mrs. Delany and Miss Knowles made themselves famous for Berlin-wool pictures. The kindest thing to say is that the specimens which are supposed to have been worked by their own hands are considerably better than those of the half-dozen generations of their followers. During the middle and succeeding twenty years of the nineteenth century the notable housewife of every class amused herself, at the expense of her mind, by working cross-stitch pictures with crudely coloured wools (royal blue and rose-pink, magenta, emerald-green, and deep crimson were supposed to represent the actual colours of Nature), on very coarse canvas.

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syrie james the secret diariesThe days when I can read a book cover to cover in one or two sittings are gone, but if I’d been able to free up such a large block of time, I would have finished Syrie James’s new book, The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë, a month ago. As it was, the book became a constant companion in my briefcase. I would fish it out at opportune moments to steal a few minutes reading about Charlotte, her sisters Emily and Anne, her brother Branwell, and Arthur Nicholls, the young curate who’s been hired to help out Charlotte’s  father, Reverend Patrick Brontë, and who eventually marries her.

I’ll be the first to admit that my knowledge of the Brontë family was minimal at best. While I count Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights as among my favorite 19th century novels, I knew very little about the authors, except that Charlotte was no fan of Jane Austen’s writing style. Note that I wrote “was,” for after having finished this book I feel that I have gotten to know the Brontë clan quite well.

Syrie’s modus operandi in writing a fictional biography is to inhabit her character and take on her persona as she writes in the first person. She meticulously researches her subjects and uses original sources as much as possible. The result, in this instance, is a first person account of Charlotte Brontë in a style that is not quite Syrie’s and not quite Charlotte’s, but that is serviceable and believable. When using such a technique, one is always in danger of awkward transitions and a choppy style, but I found the story so compelling that I stopped noticing the transitions and began to read the book out of pure interest and enjoyment. The author illuminates certain facts by adding footnotes that link to the actual historical event, enhancing the richness of this reading experience. She also “shows” and doesn’t “tell”, which demonstrates her maturity as an author. Syrie’s introduction to Mr. Nicholls, the “hero” of this romance, instantly tells us something about his character without hitting us over the head with unnecessary exposition. Keeper, the mastiff at the parsonage, is an aloof and particular dog who can take a fierce dislike to strangers, yet here is his reaction to the new cleric:

“To my astonishment, the fire now instantly dissipated from Keeper’s bull-dog eyes; he descended onto all fours; and, as if a child responding to the Piper of Hamelin’s call, he trotted obediently back to the curate’s feet and calmly settled on his haunches.”

Arthur Bell Nicholls

Arthur Bell Nicholls

Syrie strikes a nice balance between the past and the present, going back in time only to illuminate details about Charlotte’s life that were the inspiration for her novels, and she keeps the flow of the story going with as much suspense as Charlotte’s life offered. I found Syrie’s description of Bramwell’s, Anne’s, and Emily’s deaths not only unutterably sad, but she also depicts a despondent Charlotte who went from living in a house filled with supportive siblings to one that was largely silent and empty in a year. For fans of biographical tales and romance, Syrie’s story of Charlotte offers it all: longing and yearning, struggle and success, the searing pain of immeasurable loss, and the happiness of a love that came unbidden and unsought. I did not want this story to end. Thankfully, the book offers an appendix filled with Charlotte’s letters, Brontë poetry, and an interview with Syrie that explains why and how she wrote the book. I also want to learn more about Charlotte and cannot wait to read Mrs. Gaskell’s account of the author’s life.

Charlotte Bronte

Charlotte Bronte

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Ladies fan, 1750

Ladies fan, 1750

Wednesday, June 27, 1711, Mr. Addison writes a letter to The Spectator:

Mr. Spectator – Women are armed with fans as men with swords, and sometime do more excution with them. To the end therefore that ladies may be entire mistresses of the weapon which they bear, I have erected an academy for the training up of young women in the exercise of the fan, according to the most fashionable airs and motions that are now practiced at court. The ladies who carry fans under me are drawn up twice a-day in my great hall, where they are instructed in the use of their arms, and exercised by the following words of command: – Handle your fans, Unfurl your fans, Discharge your fans, Flutter your fans – By the right observation of these few plain words of commands, a woman of a tolerable genius, who will apply herself diligently to her exercise for the space of but one half-year, shall be able to give her fan all the graces that can possibly enter into that little modish machine… For the rest of Addison’s letter to The Spectator, please click here.

Commemorative fan, Nelson and the Battle of the Nile, 1804

Commemorative fan, Nelson and the Battle of the Nile, 1804

Display case, Fan Museum

Display case, Fan Museum

A lady’s fan carried far more symbolism than the mere act of cooling by agitating the air. At first considered a novelty, the fan gained popularity in Europe in the mid-sixteenth century and could be seen in the paintings of fine Elizabethan ladies. The folding fan, which was introduced from the Far East, gradually replaced the fixed fan. Made from vellum or paper, these fashionable and expensive accessories lent themselves well to elaborate painting and decoration. By 1709, fans began to be manufactured in London and a Fan Makers’ Company was established. Commemorative fans that celebrated an historic event were quite popular among the well to do, and their styles echoed the fashion of the day. Neoclassical fans, like the commemorative fan depicted above, lacked color and were generally bare of decoration, reflecting the simple white muslin dresses so popular during the Regency era. When dresses became more ornate and colorful again, fans followed the trend. They were highly prized for their aesthetics, for “in the ordinary fan of the present day Art has not strayed far from Nature.”

Goya, Woman with Fan

Goya, Woman with Fan

Over the centuries, a language of the fan evolved (see link below). Legend has it that by the time the Victorian era began fan gestures had been rigidly codified, wherein each movement and snap of the wrist carried a message fraught with meaning, although some experts dispute this. (See comment below made by Pierre Henri Biger, a fan expert.)  Once popular both during the day and evening, fans gradually became restricted only for the evening, increasing in size in the last two decades of the nineteenth century.  Their popularity waned and waxed as the quote below suggests, but until they could be cheaply manufactered in large quantities, they remained the province of only those who could afford them. In the late 19th century to early 1920’s, fans were made in profusion to carry advertisements, and were given away as souvenirs by hotels, restaurants, and businesses.*

Fan Design, The Lower Rooms, Bath

Fan Design, The Lower Rooms, Bath

For just a century after Addison wrote, the fan figured prominently in polite society, matched, when the sword went out of fashion, against the snuff-box and the clouded cane, and often victorious. The satirists and dramatists wore in turn bitter and pleasant in their references to it. Painters and their sitters paraded it ostentatiously. It is said to have done wonders in diplomacy, and who could wonder at the success of flying sap and masked battery against garrisons defended by an eye-glass, a pinch of snuff, and a malacca. The fan’s apogee was in the days of the minuet de la cour. But since athletic waltzes, polkas, and mazurkas have elbowed out their courtly predecessors, the once ” modish little machine” has retired into obscurity with the “wall-flowers,” or, if at all, is used by the dancers as inartistically as though it were the archetypal ” vanne” or wind engine. Brighter days may, however, dawn, and society which, in its way back to costumes of the Watteau and Pastoral periods, has already reached the stage of short waists and long trains, may over in our time reclaim the little exile from its temporary partial shade. – Nature and Art, by Day & Sons, 1866, p62

3 regency fans

More about this fascinating fashion accessory

from nature and art, 1866

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synopsis_askevans_01Gentle readers, Afficionados of Agatha Christie mysteries will have one more chance to see an original Miss Marple mystery on Masterpiece Mystery! this Sunday. My good friend Hillary Major has reviewed the last episode. What did she think? She thought it was well worth her while, as did I. See this episode on Sunday, July 26th, at your local PBS television station. The series airs 9 pm local time.

When vicar’s son Bobby Jones (Sean Biggerstaff) discovers a dying man abandoned on a Welsh cliffside, he is determined to elucidate the man’s cryptic final words: “Why didn’t they ask Evans?” Fortunately, Bobby has help — from childhood friend (and romantic interest), the impetuous Lady Frances “Frankie” Derwent (played by Georgia Moffett), and from an old friend of the family, just arrived in town for a visit.

Miss Marple doesn’t appear in Agatha Christie’s mystery novel Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (first published in the U.S. as The Boomerang Clue), but the good-humoured tension between the mild-mannered detective and the eager young pair of would-be gumshoes makes the opening of this Masterpiece Theatre episode sparkle. While critics could argue, with some merit, that Miss Marple’s presence is extraneous to the plot and that, in fact, the stakes would be higher if her protégés were forced to discover the truth on their own, it is hard to complain when Julia McKenzie is on the screen. Miss Marple may appear to be absorbed in her knitting, but McKenzie’s bright eyes are keenly tracking Bobby and Frankie at they plot to uncover the criminal, and soon Miss Marple is an acknowledged co-conspirator. Viewers of many ages will feel a bit smug when Miss Marple proves, time and again throughout the episode, that older is wiser when it comes to solving mysteries.

poster_askevans

The search for the murderer sends Bobby, Frankie, and Miss Marple “undercover” to the Savage family estate, where suspects abound — the recently widowed and seemingly out-of-touch matriarch Sylvia Savage; the suspiciously ubiquitous psychiatrist; Mr. Evans, former business associate of the deceased and, like most orchid-lovers in fiction, just a bit creepy; not to mention the truly creepy Thomas Savage, a teenager who spends most of his time with his pet snake. Then there are the psychiatrist’s beautiful but disturbed wife and the handsome young piano teacher, who between them manage to complicate Bobby and Frankie’s blooming courtship.

Immune to such distractions, it is Miss Marple who begins to suspect that the heart of the matter may lie in the Savage family’s past, in time spent in China between the world wars. Christie has cleverly used the personal drama to illustrate a larger, societal guilt surrounding Britain’s post-WWII relationship with China. As one of her characters puts it in Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?, when Britain withdrew their presence they “practically gave it to the Japanese.” While this political issue creates an underlying frisson in the episode, the focus really is on individual crimes and their consequences, as the Savage history is revealed.

Although a few of the plot point may stretch the viewer’s credulity (like the chance meeting of Bobby and Frankie at the beginning of the episode or Bobby’s semi-successful impersonation of a chauffeur), overall, the mystery is well-structured and makes for an action-filled hour-and-a-half. With eye-catching cinematography, strong acting, and a complicated knot to unravel, Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? will be appreciated by many a Sunday-evening armchair sleuth.

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roman road, 1909 H. Thomson
Highways and Byways of Surrey, 1909, an e-book on Project Gutenburg, features drawings by Hugh Thomson. Mr. Thomson is best known to Jane Austen fans for his drawings for Jane Austen’s novels. These idealized images of England, drawn almost 100 years after the Regency period, could still represent village and country life as Jane and her characters knew it.
A Street in Oxted 1909
More about Hugh Thomson on this blog:

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Tributary of the Tyburn with goldfish

Tributary of the Tyburn with goldfish

Gentle readers, when looking up information about the reference Jane Austen made to Gray’s Jewellery store in Sense and Sensibility, I ran across this interesting site about Grays Antique Dealers. Situated in a famous building constructed by Bolding and Son, Plumbers, a water closet manufacturer whose name did not become as famous as Crapper’s, the building features a most wondrous sight – the remains of a tributary of the River Tyburn which runs through its mews.

The river rises at Shepherds Well in Hampstead and flows through Regents Park and the West End to the Thames via The Mews. As the area became built up the river was culverted, but there is one place the clean and running water of the Tyburn can still be seen and that is beneath the basement of Grays Mews, where it has become a popular tourist attraction full of golden fish.

This is how Mayfair might look had the Tyburn been allowed to flow above ground.

This is how Mayfair might look had the Tyburn been allowed to flow above ground.

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In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood receive their first unflattering glimpse of a finnicky Robert Ferrars in Gray’s Jewelers  as he takes his time choosing a toothpick case:

He was giving orders for a toothpick-case for himself, and till its size, shape, and ornaments were determined, all of which, after examining and debating for a quarter of an hour over every toothpick-case in the shop, were finally arranged by his own inventive fancy, he had no leisure to bestow any other attention on the two ladies, than what was comprised in three or four very broad stares. – Jane Austen

ivory-toothpick-holder-104Good dental hygiene is not a modern concept. Toothpicks have been found alongside their owners in ancient Egyptian tombs, and the Chinese freshened their breath as early as 1600 B. C. by chewing on aromatic tree twigs.  The world’s first known recipe for toothpaste, a mixture of rock salt, mint, dried iris flower, and pepper, came from Egypt. The development of toothpastes in more modern times started in the 18th century. A bicarbonate of soda or baking soda, the main raising agent in baking powder, was traditionally used for cleaning teeth and included in tooth-powder . A 19th century London Times advertisement promised an assortment of wonderful results for those who used tooth powder:

For the TEETH. Patronized and used by his Royal Highness the Duke of Kent. TROTTER’s ORIENTAL DENTIFRICE, or ASIATIC TOOTH POWDER, had been for 20 years acknowledged by the most respectable Medical authorities, used by many, and recommended. The Powder cleanses and beautifies the teeth, sweetens the breath, posses no acid that can erode the enamel, and puts a beautiful polish on the teeth. From its astringency, it strengthens the gums, eradicates the scurvy (which often proves the destruction of a whole set of teeth), preserves sound teeth from decay, secures decayed teeth from becoming worse, fastens those which are loose, and proves the happy means of preventing their being drawn. – Next Year, Last Century

Antique toothpicks and toothpick holders

Antique toothpicks and toothpick holders

A dentist named Peabody was the first to add soap to toothpowder in 1824. Betel nut, though to reduce cavities, was also mixed into certain recipes.  By the 1850s chalk was included and in the 1860s a home-made toothpaste recipe incorporated ground charcoal. Recipes for tooth powder varied and were zealously guarded by their creators:

Toothpowders were based on three or four components: abrasives such as chalk, orris root, heavy magnesium carbonate or cuttlefish bone; antiseptics and detergents, represented by powdered hard soap and borax; and astringents which could be the tannins found in cinchona bark, bayberry leaves, essence of sassafras, and, very commonly, tincture of myrrh. Aromatic substances were often added as breath sweeteners, common ones being cardamon, cloves, peppermint, oil of lemon and aniseed. – Dental practice in Europe at the end of the 18th century By Christine Hillam, p. 214

The first toothbrush was made around 1780 by William Addis of Clerkenald. Addis also manufactured tooth brushes made of cattle bone.  Boar bristles were placed into bored holes and kept in place by a thin wire.  Interestingly, boar bristles remained in use until 1938, when nylon bristles began to replace the natural fiber.

Toothbrush holder made of bone, early 1800

Toothbrush holder made of bone, early 1800

Toothbrush bristles were the stiff, coarse hairs taken from the necks and shoulders of swine who lived (preferably) in the colder climates of  Siberia and China. Tooth powder was packed in a variety of boxes, like the one in the image below.

19th c. toothpowder box

19th c. toothpowder box

By the early 1800s, a variety of toothbrush and toothpowder manufacturers were competing with each other for a rapidly growing number of clientele in a thriving toothpowder trade. Tooth powder recipes proliferated, and toothbrushes began to be sold in great quantities. Sometimes both the tooth powder and toothbrush were sold together  ( ‘Bott’s Tooth Powder and Brushes’, Newspapers (1798).

M. Trotter, a widow, manufactured tooth powder and tooth brushes in her warehouse on No. 36, Surrey-street  in the Strand. Her tooth powder cost 2s 9d a box and her India Tooth Burshes cost 1s each. She was so successful that in a few years she moved into larger premises.  Dental Practice in Europe, p. 212

18th c. silver flask-shaped comfit box

18th c. silver flask-shaped comfit box

Anise comfits

Anise comfits

Breath fresheners took the form of comfits made of anise, caraway, and fennel seeds. These sugary seeded confections were laborious to make,  requiring dozens of thin sugar coatings. The seeds needed to be continually stirred in order to spread the coat evenly, and each sugared coat had to harden before the next coat was poured on. The process was repeated until the comfits had reached the proper size.  When a comfit is chewed, the fennel or anise seeds are crushed open, freshening the breath for 15 minutes up to half an hour.  People are still served this type of candied seed in Indian restaurants today.

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