Archive for the ‘Regency Travel’ Category

From Tony Grant, whose contributions to this blog are numerous: “Two years ago some of my friends wanted a weekend away so we decided on Lyme. Our wives went off to New York for the shopping. We tend to go to places more for the local beer than the literary connections, I must admit. Lyme has some very nice pubs and also we wanted somewhere where we could take a brisk walk. We thought of the Undercliff.”

The Cobb at Lyme Regis. Image @Tony Grant

It depends on the weather conditions but the Cobb at Lyme can look and behave like an evil spirited leviathan; a Moby Dick. It’s a savage beast. At other times it can be a gentle, peaceful and calm creature.

Jane Austen used the Cobb at Lyme for the setting of an integral scene in her novel, Persuasion.

The accident on The Cobb, to Louisa Musgrove, brings Anne Elliot to the fore. She is the one looked to by Captain Wentworth and the others to take charge.

John Fowles, who lived in Lyme for most of his life, used Lyme , The Cobb and The Undercliff as the settings for his novel ,The French Lieutenants Woman.Indeed these topographical elements of Lyme are like a group of brooding characters within the novel and shape the action as much as the human characters…” Read the rest of the post at Tony Grant’s blog, London Calling.

View of the Undercliff from the Cobb. Image @Tony Grant

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Copyright @Jane Austen’s World. Gentle readers, as you know, the northeast has been socked in by snow, ice, gale winds, and bitterly cold temperatures today.

George Scharf, Sketches of People in Snow. Some scenes of winter have never changed.

This is a perfect time for hunkering inside and drinking hot chocolate. Or is it?

Image @City of London. This young lady is wearing pattens to protect her shoes.

My nephew’s children will go sledding, others will go ice skating, and my dog will bound through the snow drifts with undisguised glee, as people have done for ages.

Winter Amusement, Hyde Park, after Ibbetson, 1789. Note the bare feet on the young child in rags. (Foreground)

As early as the 17th century, the noted diarist John Evelyn noted: ” Having seen the strange and wonderful dexterity of the sliders on the new canal in St James’s Park, performed before their Ma[ties] by divers gentlemen, and others with Scheetes, after the manner of the Hollander,s with what swiftnesse they passe, how suddainely they stop in full carriere upon the ice, I went home by water, but not without exceeding difficultie,s the Thames being frozen, greate flakes of ice incompassing our boate. Pepys entry is as follows: St James’s Park Dec 1 1662. “Over the Park where I first in my life it being a great frost did see people sliding with their skeates, which is a very pretty art.”


Dutch steamers on the frozen Zuyder Zee. The leather straps are quite visible on these skates.

Skating has been around since 3,000 BC or thereabouts and stone age skates have been uncovered in bogs. But it was the lowlanders who took to the sport with glee, using wooden platform skates with iron runners as early as the 14th century. At first, skaters strapped their skates around their shoes with leather straps and propelled themselves forward with wooden poles.


William Grant, The Skater, 1782

Then, the Dutch invented a narrower double-edged metal blade that allowed them to glide with their feet, and the poles became obsolete.

1824 Skating Dandies Showing Off

Many 19th century images exist of people skating on frozen streams and ponds, and sledding or sleighing.


1820. In the distance on the right, one can see a man chopping through the ice to allow his cattle to drink water. On the left, another man is spreading grain to feed his animals.

“..moderns sledges are used, which being extended from a centre by the means of a strong rope, those who are seated in them are moved round with great velocity, and form an extensive circle. Sledges of this kind were set upon the Thames during the hard frost in the year 1716 as the following couplet in a song written upon that occasion 1plainly proves:

“While the rabble in sledges run giddily round
And nought but a circle of folly is found” – The sports and pasttimes of the people of England

By the mid 18th century, Robert Jones described paired ice skating, or figure skating in A Treatise on Skating (1772).


The Timid Pupil, 1800. Both this ladies feet are placed together, as her escort gently leads her over the ice.

Sleds and sleighs have been used for centuries to transports logs, people, and good over frozen waters all over northern Europe for centuries.


Frozen river in The Netherlands with townsfolk skating and sledging using various forms of sleds pushed by people, and one pulled by a horse. By Vermeulen

Called coasting, sliding down hills and inclines on hand sleds or sledges provided hours of pleasure, as well as a practical way to get around over frozen landscapes and water. Wooden sleds pulled by a rope are still a familiar sight today.

19th century porcelain (figures in 18th century dress): man pushing woman on a sleigh

Fancy sleighs pulled by horses (or reindeer in the frozen north) transported groups of people, often in comfort, for their feet were placed upon footwarmers that were heated with hot coals, and their bodies were covered by thick furs or blankets.


Victorian sleigh. The travelers are protected from the cold by muffs and a thick blanket. Even the dog wears a coat. Note the bells on the horses.

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Inquiring Readers, Tony Grant has been contributing articles to Jane Austen Today for several months. Recently, Tony and his family traveled to Bath and the West Country. This is one of many posts he has written about his journey. Tony also has published several posts about his trip on this blog: Going to Bath With Jane Austen and The Servant’s Entrance to Regency Townhouses, for which he supplied the photographs. He has already contributed a post about Milsom Street for Jane Austen Today. This post about his tour through Bath was first published on Jane Austen Today, but the images caused the sidebar to be pushed out of sight, so I placed it here.

Bath Thoroughfare
Jane Austen knew Bath extremely well. Throughout Persuasion and Northanger Abbey she houses her characters in real streets and in real buildings, although she does avoid giving us the number of the house in such and such a street. The real owners and occupants might not have liked the notoriety. And today they might not like the notoriety as well. Was there such a thing as litigation in the 18th century? I’m sure there was.

Pultney Bridge

Here are some of the places that Janes characters lived in and when you go to Bath you can see them for yourself.

  • Anne Elliot and her father lived in Camden Place up the hill at the top of the town.
  • Lady Russel lived in Rivers Street just north of The Circus.
  • Rich, Mrs Wallis lived in Marlborough Gardens on the hill leading down from the north end of The Royal Crescent.
  • Catherine Moreland lived in Pultney Street, which is now called Great Pultney Street, very close to Sydney Street. I wonder if Jane saw somebody in Pultney Street that she thought, “ah, that’s Catherine Moreland.”
  • The Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple lived in Laura Place at the end of Great Pultney Street and at the start of Pultney Bridge.

The meeting places and places central to both novels are Milsom Street where everybody shops. Shopping, the bain of my life. My wife and three daughters love shopping. Shopping could be their lives. In Jane’s time tooapparently. It makes me come out in a cold sweat thinking about it. The amount of standing in shops and outside of shops I’ve done.

God, I’ve suffered for shopping over the years.

Ah, that’s better. I needed that rant.

Also the Pump room. What a glorious place it is. I felt a tingle down my spine as I my wife, Abigail and myself were shown to our seats by the headwaiter and we were graciously handed the menus. A trio of musicians, cello, pianist and violinist, played sedately at one end of the room. People lined up at the water pump to imbibe Baths greatest commodity, water from the spring and we ordered tea and cakes.

Pump room window
The “pump room blend” of tea is as close as you can get to the blend of tea that Jane Austen, Catherine Morland and Anne Elliot would have drunk. The scones with clotted cream and fresh strawberry jam were exquisite. The tea was delicious and there I was with my family, in THE PUMP ROOM!!!!!!

The Pump Room

I could almost see Catherine Morland pop in to see if she could find Henry Tilney and of course take a few turns of the room to see and be seen. I knew nobody in The Pump Room just as Catherine knew nobody.

Bath Abbey

Then we had a look inside Bath Abbey. Jane seems to have not attended services at the abbey. She preferred The Octagon. This was a newly built chapel in Jane’s day. She seems to have preferred churches where the incumbent vicar had new and fresh ideas to deliver in his sermons.

Cheap Street
After Bath Abbey we walked through the passageway that leads from the churchyard opposite The Pump Rooms, called Union Passage and into Cheap Street. It is the very passage that Catherine Moreland walked through with Miss Thorpe and suddenly sees a carriage with her brother and coincidently Miss Thorpe’s brother too, the awful John Thorpe. It is their first fateful meeting.

George Street outside Edgar Buildings

We walked on up Milson Street to George Street where Edgar Buildings are situated. Edgar Buildings are where the Thorpes stayed.

25 Gay Street

From George Street we went into Gay Street and walked past number 25 where the Austens stayed for a while.

At the top of Gay Street is the magnificent, The Circus. This is a circle of the most magnificent Georgian Houses. There is a small green park in the centre of the circle in which grow four gigantic London Plains trees. They must be four or five hundred years old. Jane knew them. The portrait artist Gainsborough lived in one of these houses in The Circus for a while. Bath would have provided many opportunities to gain commissions and make money.

The Royal Crescent

From The Circus we turned down Brock Street and arrived at The Crescent at the top of the hill.

A front door at the Royal Crescent

This was the place where the elite lived. These were the largest and most expensive houses. Lords, Dukes and the very wealthy lived up here. It was also a good place to walk to get fresh air.

The back of the Crescent, each house is different
Jane mentions in her letters taking walks up to The Crescent and walking in the park and enjoying the views. Catherine Morland and Anne Elliot also walked there. There is a very good reason why Jane and her characters might want to walk here, the fresh air. If you look back over Bath you can see the beautiful city with its creamy yellow stonework In Jane’s time it would have been black. You will also notice the myriads of chimneys, which no longer spout black sooty smoke from thousands of coal fires. Coal is no longer burnt. We have clean air towns and cities nowadays. In Jane’s time the air was far from clean and the beautiful Cotswold stone became black. You can see today a building or two that have not had their surface cleaned since the clean air act was passed through parliament.

The Assembly Rooms

The Assembly Rooms, just north of The Circus, are what Jane and her characters knew as The Upper Assembly Rooms and also included the Octagon tearoom. This is where Catherine Morland met with the Thorpes.

The Lower Assembly Rooms, the original assembly rooms in Bath, where Beau Nash officiated , were situated near the abbey. They no longer exist. It was in the Lower Assembly Rooms that Catherine met Henry Tilney for the first time and fell in love.
Just to conclude, a couple of stories about Bath.

Sheridan eloped with Elizabeth from this house

In the Crescent , about half way round, is a house with plaque that relates a very dramatic story. In 1755 Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who was a great playwright in the 18th century and wrote The Rivals and School for Scandal and who was also the owner of the Covent Garden Theatre, absconded with a young lady from the house. Her father chased them all over Europe. When they were found the father made Sheridan marry his daughter. However soon after Richard Brinsley left her in the lurch. The chase was the thing. The excitement of the chase had gone. What a cad and bounder!!!!!

Tony at Pultney Bridge

Now, a story about myself. As we walked up Gay Street towards The Circus we obviously stopped outside number 25 to look at it and photograph ourselves outside. An irate and very upset looking lady marched out of the front door next to number 25 with a bowl full of water and threw it all over my legs. I must add this does not normally happen to me. The circumstances were, that some juvenile idiot had drawn rude graffiti over the side of her white van parked outside. She was trying to clean the words off. She was obviously upset and came out to wash the side of her vehicle. Unfortunately for me, she missed. She was SO sorry. Luckily it was a warm day and my trousers dried quickly in the walk up the hill.

The Royal Crescent (top) and the Circus (Bottom with trees at center.)

One fact before I finish. Did you know that the houses in The Crescent and in The Circus are all different? They all look the same because they are the same on the outside. The builder built the fronts and sold just the fronts. The new owners had to build their own backs to their houses. Hence, if you go round behind the houses in The Crescent they all look different.

Posted by Tony Grant, London Calling

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Panorama of Bath from Beechen Cliff, 1824, Harvey Wood

Inquiring Readers, Tony Grant, who lives in London, teaches, and acts as occasional tour guide, has been contributing articles to Jane Austen Today for several months. Recently, Tony and his family traveled to Bath and the West Country. This is one of many posts he has written about his journey. Tony also has his own blog, London Calling.

The Paragon from Travelpod

On Wednesday 6th May 1801 Jane wrote to Cassandra, from a house positioned on a hill half way up a road called, The Paragon, in Bath. It was her uncle and aunt’s, the Leigh Perrots, home. Her aunt was her mother’s sister. Jane and her mother and father had just arrived, just moved in and were getting settled into their rooms.

“ My dear Cassandra,

I have the pleasure of writing from my own room up two pairs of stairs, with everything very comfortable about me. Our journey here was perfectly free from accident or Event; we changed horses at the end of every stage, & paid almost at every turnpike;- we had charming weather, hardly any dust,& were exceedingly agreeable, as we did not speak above once in every three miles.- between Luggershall & Everley we made our grand meal…….”

Jane had arrived in Bath after a journey of about 50 miles from Steventon, her home.

Wood engraving of Steventon Rectory

She sounds excited and thrilled by the new experience for instance she has ,” my own room.” But perhaps she was trying to put a brave face on it, be positive and put the negatives to the back of her mind.

Claire Tomlin reminds us,

“ The decision by Mr and Mrs Austen to leave their home of over thirty years, taking their children with them, came as a complete surprise to her; in effect, a twenty fifth birthday surprise, in December 1800. Not a word had been said to anyone in advance of the decision.”

Jane had spent all her life in Steventon a quiet country village near Basingstoke in Hampshire. She knew the families who lived in the great houses and many were her friends. She knew the villagers of Steventon very well. It was the source of her imagination and she had developed her own intimate writing habits there. Her world , in a sense was turned upside down and she was being wrenched from this intimate, close world that she was comfortable in, to that of a bustling town, but not just any town.

The Bath Medley, the Pump Room, detail on a fan, 1735

Bath was the centre of Georgian ,”FUN.” Here people came for the medicinal benefits of the waters, dancing, parading in the streets in their finest clothes, drinking tea, and taking rides and walks out into the nearby countryside. It was a place to rest, to be seen and to meet new people. Many families brought their unmarried daughters here to find eligible spouses.

Dancing, Rowlandson, The Comforts of Bath

Bath was a magnet for the wealthy and comfortable middle classes who came and went with the season. It was a fluctuating population. Friendships could be brief. It was a hot house for relationships. Whether The Reverend George Austen had it in mind to find suitors for his two unmarried daughters, as part of his plan, is not certain. Jane however was definitely out of her comfort zone. She was a very astute judge of characters and she would not like much of the ostentatious show of Bath. People who went to Bath for the season behaved differently. Strangers were thrown together in a mix of fun and gaiety. Moral codes were loosened. You get a very strong sense of this in the description of Catherine Morelands first experiences of Bath in Northanger Abbey.

Comforts of Bath, The Pump Room, Rowlandson

To get to Bath from Steventon over the fifty mile journey, Jane took, she passed through many picturesque and beautiful villages and towns. Those places are still there today.

Overton, Andover, Weyhill, Ludgershall, Eveleigh, where the Austens stopped to take tea and rest, Upavon, crossing the River Avon at this point, Conock and Devizes where they probably rested again before the final stretch to Bath. Devizes is a bustling town today, traffic and shoppers, many small businesses, churches and chapels and still many magnificent Georgian buildings. Take away the cars, and dress the people differently and Devizes would still be very familiar to Jane. It still has very much of its Georgian character but it is a modern 21st century town too.Like modern day England, Devizes is a layer cake of history. There are bits from every era and it has and does thrive in all of them.

Strolling through Sydney Gardens

When I went to Bath this time I came in from a slightly different direction to Janes journey there in 1801. I came the south east, travelling from Stonehenge in Wiltshire. This road comes from high up in the hills to the south of Bath and the first sight of the city is from a steep, tree lined, Beckford Road which reaches Bath stretching along next to Sydney Gardens. It was a great pleasure and very exciting to come across, almost immediately on reaching Bath, number 4 Sydney Place, which was one of the houses Jane and her family rented.

Georgian terraced houses along the London Road, Bath

Jane entered Bath by way of the London Road which sweeps in from the east and curves across the top of the bend in the River Avon which borders the southern part of the City of Bath.The London Road leads straight to The Paragon, the road in which her aunt and uncle, The Leigh Perrots, lived and where Jane and her mother and father were to live until they found their own residence. Bath has not expanded in modern times much south of the river partly because of the steep hills there.

Old - Lower - Assembly Rooms

So there is an excited tone in Janes first letter from The Paragon. The excitement doesn’t last. Her aunt and uncle being residents in Bath, they at least know people to introduce Jane to. Unlike Catherine Moreland who meets nobody and knows no one at first. But what terrible people? Or is Jane just having a bout of sour grapes? Within weeks Jane is writing to Cassandra her comments about Bath acquaintances.

Wednesday 13th may 1801 writing to Cassandra

“I cannot anyhow continue to find people agreeable; I respect Mrs Chamberlayne for doing her hair well, but cannot feel a more tender sentiment.”

Mrs Chamberlayne is picked out for more effort. Jane tries to find something in common, tries to see if a new friendship can blossom.

Friday 22nd May 1801

“The friendship between Mrs Chamberlayne & me which you predicted has already taken place, for we shake hands whenever we meet Our grand walk to Weston was again fixed for yesterday & was accomplished in a very striking manner; Everyone of the party declined it under some pretence or other except our two selves, & we therefore had a tete a tete, but that we should equally have had after the first two yards, had half the inhabitants of Bath set off with us.- It would have amused you to see our progress;-we went up by Sion Hill, and returned across the fields,- in climbing a hill Mrs Chamberlayne is very capital; I could with diffuculty keep pace with her- yet would not flinch for the world.- On plain ground I was quite her equal- and so we posted away under a fine hot sun, She without any parasol or any shade to her hat, stopping for nothing ,& crossing the churchyard at Weston with as much expedition as if we were afraid of being buried alive.-After seeing what she is equal to, I cannot help feeling a regard for her.-As to agreeableness, she is much like other people.”

There is something final about this relationship as though it’s not going far, in two phrases, “The friendship between Mrs Chamberlayne & me which you predicted has already taken place,…..” and , “As to agreeableness, she is much like other people.”

Regency Bath

Jane uses the past tense already about the relationship with Mrs Chamberlayne and she finally concludes that she is much like other people. Nothing is going to happen here. Jane was a very guarded person, certainly didn’t suffer fools gladly, gave people a chance and discarded them for their mediocrity. Jane obviously needed something else in a relationship. Already she wasn’t in the mood for Bath.

Candle Snuffer, image Tony Grant

In the same letter she mentions house hunting. They have been looking at houses amongst Green Park Buildings. Green Park Buildings are situated near the river at the bottom of the town. They were obviously prone to flooding.

“ our views on GP building seem all at an end; the observations of the damps still remaining the offices of an house which has only been vacated a week, with reports of discontented families& putrid fevers have given the coup de grace.”

Nowadays the river near Green Park Buildings has high banks to prevent flooding and has been canalised. One of the main car parks, where we actually parked is near there. Also Bath Railway Station and The University of Bath is situated nearby these days.

For all this dire and damning report the Austens did move into Green Park Buildings. It could not have been very pleasant. Perhaps they thought their stay in The Paragon was prolonged enough and anything had to be taken.

Much of Jane’s remaining letters from Bath have some discussion about finding accommodation. The contracts on these houses seem to have been short term. Maybe this was because Bath was a seasonal place. People generally came for short periods of time. If you really wanted to live there permanently you would have to buy. Perhaps the Austens could not afford to do that. It begs the question, did Mr and Mrs Austen really think through their move to Bath carefully enough?

25 Gay Street, image Tony Grant

After Green Park Buildings the next set of letters come from number 25 Gay Street, just a few houses up the hill from The Jane Austen Centre. It is a dental practioners office today. The letters from Gay Street are the last from an address in Bath. However we also know that Jane lived at number 4 Sydney Street, a new house at the time overlooking a grand house which is now the Holburn Museum and its grounds, Sydney Park. This is by far one of the more pleasant situations Jane lived in.

Jane’s father died in a house in Trim Street not far from Queen Square and Gay Street. So another move had had to take place. In five years Jane had lived in at least five different house all providing differing qualities of living.

Side Street, Bath, image by Tony Grant

You can find this reflected in the two novels that concern themselves most with Bath, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. In Persuasion Anne Elliot finds an old school friend, Mrs Smith, living in poor circumstances.

“Her accommodations were limited to a noisy parlour , and a dark bedroom behind, with no possibility of moving from one to the otherwithiout assistancewhich there was only one servant in the house to affordand she never quitted the house but to be conveyed into the warm bath.”

Mrs Smith’s accommodation was in Westgate Buildings not far from the Pump Room. Mrs Smith’s husband had died leaving her almost penniless but because of her health the warm bath treatment was seen as a cure. Her life was certainly not one of fun and frivolity. It seems, like in any city and town today, in the 18th century, the poor and destitute and the wealthy are not far from each other. Anne Elliot seems to prefer the company of Mrs Smith rather than the fripperies that Bath had to offer. She knows the right people and could have fun if she wanted to. Anne Elliot can see the two sides of Bath.

Side view of Bath Abbey, image Tony Grant

Jane Austen knew Bath extremely well. Throughout Persuasion and Northanger Abbey she houses her characters in real streets and in real buildings, although she does avoid giving us the number of the house in such and such a street. The real owners and occupants might not have liked the notoriety. And today they might not like the notoriety as well. Was there such a thing as litigation in the 18th century? I’m sure there was.

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Cheap Street with hills in the distance, image from Tony Grant

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Crofts arrive in the gig, Persuasion 1995

In Persuasion, Jane Austen depicts the Crofts as the happiest couple imaginable. Sophy, who is also Captain Wentworth’s sister, follows her Admiral across the seas, sacrificing her looks in the process. She is only 38 years old, but her complexion is ruddy and has obviously been affected by the sun. Jane Austen writes about the couple in a realistic way, and like all happily married folks, these two exhibit their own idiosyncracies. Admiral Croft, it turns out, is a bad driver. Captain Wentworth says about his brother-in-law to Louisa:

“What glorious weather for the Admiral and my sister! They meant to take a long drive this morning; perhaps we may hail them from some of these hills. They talked of coming into this side of the country. I wonder whereabouts they will upset to-day. Oh! it does happen very often, I assure you–but my sister makes nothing of it–she would as lieve be tossed out as not.”

“Ah! You make the most of it, I know,” cried Louisa, “but if it were really so, I should do just the same in her place. If I loved a man, as she loves the Admiral, I would always be with him, nothing should ever separate us, and I would rather be overturned by him, than driven safely by anybody else.”

The party stops to talk to the Crofts

During their return walk from Winthrop, the party from Uppercross, which includes Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth and a number of the Musgroves, encounter Admiral and Mrs. Croft in a gig. They offer a seat to one of the party. Everyone declines, except for Captain Wentworth, who has noticed Anne’s fatigue. He whispers something to his sister, then encourages Anne to join the Crofts in their two-seater for the rest of the way back to Uppercross (about one mile.) Anne is grateful for his thoughtfulness. But as she rides in the carriage, she hears Mrs. Croft warn her husband:

The Crofts and Anne Elliot crowded in a 2-man gig

My dear admiral, that post!–we shall certainly take that post.”

Jane Austen goes on to write:

But by coolly giving the reins a better direction herself, they happily passed the danger; and by once afterwards judiciously putting out her hand, they neither fell into a rut, nor ran foul of a dung-cart; and Anne, with some amusement at their style of driving, which she imagined no bad representation of the general guidance of their affairs, found herself safely deposited by them at the cottage.

The happy admiral is more than willing to allow his wife to steer the carriage alongside him, which many of us who have driven with “back-seat driving” spouses know is a rare attitude indeed!

In this famous scene by Jane Austen, the Crofts moved over to make room for Anne. Mary Musgrove would rather die from fatigue than be seen crowded in a humble gig, but Anne could only feel gratitude. She is beginning to understand that while Captain Wentworth is unable to forgive her for rejecting him, he is still a kind and decent man. He knows her well enough to see that she was tired and made arrangements for her. In these small observable progressions (as with taking the child Walter from her without comment), we see the Captain’s love for Anne come to the surface. It will take a little longer for his anger at her rejection to recede. See also Shopping and Milsom Street, Bath

Light weight gig

About Gigs: Gigs were two-wheeled carriages equipped for one horse only. They were designed for two people, one of whom was the driver, and were considered carriages for the middle class, or for the “poorer” classes, who paid less duty on them. Because these carriages were light in weight and springy, they could be easily turned over, especially by a poor driver like Mr. Croft. Gigs were used by doctors, travelers, and people who made short journeys that would not fatigue the horse. Gigs evolved into cabriolets (early versions of cabs) Dennet, Stanhope, and Tilbury. The Stanhope was designed by Fitzroy Stanhope, the second son to the Third Earl Stanhope. This carriage became popular towards the mid-19th century for short trips between Town and the suburbs.

Road to a fight, detail by Henry Alken, 1821

The two men in this high perch phaeton show how precarious a light two-wheeled vehicle can be. One can see the difference between this “sporty” more expensive vehicle and the humble gig (above).

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Emma, Lady Hamilton is best known by the casual history fan for her love affair with Lord Nelson. Born in poverty, she first plied her alluring wares in a brothel before becoming Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh’s mistress. When she became pregnant, he unceremoniously dumped her. But Emma was too stunningly beautiful to live a life of squalor, and the Honorable Charles Greville next picked her to become his mistress. It was through Greville’s connections that she met painter, George Romney, whose obsession with her beauty resulted in a score of memorable paintings. (He continued to paint her portrait even after she left England.)

Emma as Circe, George Romney

Emma loved Charles, but he needed money, so when he met a woman of means in 1786,  he trundled Emma off to his widowed uncle in Naples, Italy, and thus Emma’s association with Sir William Hamilton began. Sir William was a diplomat and an avid art collector of classical statuary, urns and vases, which filled his villa in Portici overlooking the Bay of Naples. A connoisseur, he deeply appreciated Emma’s beauty, intelligence and special talents, not the least among which were her acting skills, hostessing abilities, and aptitude for learning new languages.

Caricature of Emma Hamilton as an artist's model posing in an "Attitude", Thomas Rowlandson

Sir William Hamilton

Emma’s stint as Romney’s model had given her experience posing in various classical guises. She’d also had the dubious distinction earlier in her career in London, of having worked as a scantily clad model and dancer – or “Goddess of Health” –  at Dr. Graham’s Temple of Health and Hymen, which claimed to cure the reproductive and sexual problems of couples. Emma  used her “theatrical” experiences to develop her “Attitudes”.  In helping Emma design her act, Sir William, whose knowledge of the imagery on classical vases was authoritative, used ancient Roman pantomimes as a model. The result of their collaboration was a silent performance that combined poses, classical dance and acting with Emma’s special allure. Emma gave her first showing in spring of 1787 to a group of European guests. Sir William held the lights and introduced his wife, as he would do for all her theatrics.

The Attitudes of Lady Hamilton, 1791, Novelli

The poses were an immediate hit. Emma moved through her routine within a tall black box surrounded by a gold picture frame, using only a shawl or urn for a prop. (Although she must have occasionally used a child, as included in these images.) For her “Attitudes”, Emma  wore simple white-draped garments that fitted loosely and allowed her long hair to flow free. Her dresses were modeled on those worn by peasant women in the Bay of Naples. Sitting, standing, leaning, or kneeling, or posing as Medea or Cleopatra, she seemed to step right off the antique vases that her husband collected.

Portland Vase, British Museum, once owned by Sir William Hamilton

Emma’s repertoire was large and made up of at least 200 poses. During a performance she moved from one silent tableau to the other with great rapidity, delicacy. and deliberateness in what one writer termed ‘bursts of stillness.’ The private and select audiences would attempt to guess the names of the classical characters and scenes from stage and literature that she pantomimed, and stare in awe at Emma’s ability to transform her moods and the scene in an instant. Out of necessity, earlier viewings remained private, for Sir William and Emma were not married.

The couple did eventually marry  in London in 1791 at St. George’s Church in Hanover Square. Sir William was 61 and his wife was 26. After their wedding, the Hamiltons returned to their home in Italy. They continued to perform the “Attitudes, but now they could publicly and conspicuously invite a much larger and more diverse audience. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the German poet, had been invited to watch a performance during a visit to Naples. Impressed, he wrote:

The Chevalier Hamilton so long resident here as English Ambassador, so long too connoisseur and student of Art and Nature, has found their counterpart and acme with exquisite delight in a lovely girl, English, and some twenty years of age. She is exceedingly beautiful and finely built. She wears a Greek garb becoming her to perfection. She then merely loosens her locks takes a pair of shawls, and effects changes of postures, moods, gestures, mien, and appearance that make one really feel as if one were in some dream. Here is visible complete and bodied forth in movements of surprising variety, all that so many artists have sought in vain to fix and render. Successively standing, kneeling, seated, reclining, grave, sad, sportive, teasing, abandoned, penitent, alluring, threatening, agonised. One follows the other and grows out of it. She knows how to choose and shift the simple folds of her single kerchief for every expression, and to adjust it into a hundred kinds of headgear. Her elderly knight holds the torches for her performance, and is absorbed in his soul’s desire.

Lady Emma Hamilton as the Goddess of Health, 1790, Cosway

There must have been something titillating and erotic about Emma’s act, for her poses, although inspired by classical motifs, also drew upon her earlier experiences as a “Goddess of Health” in London and her erotic performances dancing naked for Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh’s friends on his dining table. Her fame spread far and wide, and Emma, Lady Hamilton’s “Attitudes” became a big draw on Europe’s Grand Tour. Painters and writers sought out her performances, which charmed aristocrats and royals as much as artists and the literary set.  Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun observed:

“Nothing was more curious than the faculty that Lady Hamilton had acquired of suddenly imparting to all her features the expression of sorrow or joy, and of posing in a wonderful manner in order to represent different characters. Her eyes alight with animation, her hair strewn about her, she displayed to you a delicious bacchanale, then all at once her face expressed sadness, and you saw an admirable repentant Magdalene.” – Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun

Lady Emma Hamilton, 1794, Rehberg

The black and white Rehberg illustrations featured in this post and commisioned by Sir William,  are drawn with simple, graceful and classical lines and freeze a particular “Attitude”. Their idealistic poses are among the few visual reminders that remain of Emma, Lady Hamilton as a performance artist. As the images show, Emma was a voluptuous, well-formed and beautiful woman. Her love for food and drink was no secret, and she would gain a substantial amount of weight over time, until at 47 she was described as being fat. But for a number of magical years, art, performance and beauty combined to create a series of tableaus that are still remembered today for their freshness and originality.

Emma Hamilton, 1794, Friedrich Rehberg, engraver and Tommaso Piroli, illustrator

Read about Lady Hamilton’s later years and sad death in this link.

To learn more about Emma’s fascinating skills, watch a lecture by John Wilton-Ely. His talk is on the ” performances by Lady Emma Hamilton, one of the most celebrated beauties of her era and a remarkable pioneer in developing performance art.”  Click here to watch the lecture. (A little over an hour long but well worth the time.)

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I’m a little late for the party, but a full day still remains until Laurel Ann at Austenprose finishes her in-depth tour of Sanditon, Jane Austen’s last, unfinished novel. Click on this page to catch up on all the links and comments and guest posts.

Sea Bathing in Scarborough, 1813

Read more about the seaside and seaside fashions on this blog to round out your knowledge of how the Regency folks enjoyed their seaside excursions:

Poetical Sketches of Scarborough, 1813, is a digitized book about the seaside resort of Scarborough, including color plates.

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