Sunday, 20 October 2019

The harmonising effect of girls: then and now

Friendship is Magic
As a child I used to love My Little Ponies - they were, I think, my favourite toys to play with. And this morning I was secretly excited as my almost three-year old daughter asked to watch "ponies" on TV - something we'd never watched before. So we snuggled down on the sofa and watched our first episode together...

I was immediately struck by the overarching messages - echoes of the exact same messages for girls I read in texts over 200 years old. I know change takes time, but the specific similarity was very surprising.

Harmony Quest
The series we watched was subtitled 'Friendship is Magic' and the lead characters were on a quest to find the ‘Elements of Harmony’. As the programme is clearly directed at girls (all the lead characters are female) the message I was getting was that it is specifically important for girls to value friendship and harmony, and to work hard to make good relationships and create social harmony. The adventures are contained within that core premise.

Happily, my daughter also currently enjoys (but for how long?) what could be called 'boys' programmes, including Paw Patrol and Blaze and the Monster Machines. These programmes have overwhelmingly male characters and focus on heroism, courage, winning and adventure. There are of course friends present, but developing friendships per se is not the focus. And it's fascinating that these specifically gendered messages and language are still in use for boys and girls today.

Rewind to eighteenth century girls' conduct books, and we read the same language. As the steady rise of the cult of domesticity began, revering the domestic role of women, we see a responsibility set out for women in which creating social harmony is vital. This was particularly seen through the encouragement of domestic music for girls, who were expected to play the piano and sing to soothe the worries away from wearied fathers and brothers. Hampshire Record Office holds hundreds of letters between two friends, Anne Sturges-Bourne and Marianne Dyson, one of which states "most of my evening is employed in singing Clarion, which Papa always asks for, & I really am not tired of it" (Ref: 9M55/F6/38) A similar sentiment is expressed by a teenager about 20 years later: "I feel that, situated as I am, an only daughter…, it rests upon one, to make our home bright, cheerful and attractive to the boys, and comfortable to Father" (Quoted in Solie, Music in Other Words, p106). Here we can see how girls employed a double meaning of the word harmonious, by literally singing melodic harmony but also creating domestic harmony. 

Letters to a young lady: 
On a variety of useful and interesting subjects: 
Calculated to improve the heart, to form the manners,
and enlighten the understanding
by the Rev. John Bennett
The conduct book featured above, 'Letters to a Young Lady' by Rev. Bennett was originally published in 1798 and subsequently had multiple editions and is fairly standard for its time in suggesting that girls should play music to "harmonize...mind and spirits". 

While I am very used to reading this kind of message in eighteenth and nineteenth century texts, it's sadly fascinating to see this gendered language of creating harmony rebounding into our living rooms today.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Farewell to Clandon Park

Clandon Park
I had the huge privilege to work as the House Manager's Assistant part-time for three years at the beautiful Clandon Park from 2009 and, like so many others affected, am devastated by the nation's loss following the recent fire. Seeing the images of flames ripping through the rooms, destroying the beautiful objects that so many of us have lovingly cleaned and cared for over so many years, is truly heart-breaking.
The collection was fabulous and included one of the country's best assembly of porcelain and ceramic, including stunning Meissen harlequin commedia dell'arte figures and monkey orchestra as well as pieces by Sèvres, Bow and Chelsea.
Some of Clandon Park's fabulous ceramics

The fire-fighters did an amazing job, and I was reminded of the modest antique fire-fighting equipment displayed in the basement outside the old kitchen, just metres from where the fire broke out. When giving tours of the property, I would often finish here, concluding how significant a risk fire posed to historic mansions, never thinking it might later destroy the very property I was standing in.

Fire-fighting equipment on display in the basement of
Clandon Park, where the fire broke out

Without a doubt the awe-inspiring Marble Hall (a towering 40-foot cube) was the highlight of the mansion, described in 1747 by George Vertue as:
"a most noble and elegant Hall, 40 foot high, adorn'd with marbles, pillars, carvings, bass relieves by Rysbrake, stuccos, painting[s], guildings &co, most rich and costly."

The dramatic Marble Hall

Now all that remains is a shell, an echo of its former glory. Yet miraculously surviving are the Corinthian marble pillars, marble busts and statues, and one Venetian wall-lamp. And who knows what lies under the rubble in the ashes?

The Marble Hall (copyright Hayley Bystram)

The solitary marble "blackamoor" bust, nestled in the Saloon door's pediment - now broken free and gazing towards the open sky - leaves a ghostly reminder. The 1720s mansion was built by Thomas Lord Onslow using money from his wealthy new bride, Elizabeth Knight. Elizabeth was the sole heiress of not only her father but also her childless uncle, both of whom made their fortunes from large sugar plantations in Jamaica as well as slave trading. 

A haunting legacy now remains. With a lonely and proud face, a slave whose bondage and toil funded the building of Clandon is now its final inhabitant.

Surviving marble bust in the ruins of the Marble Hall

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Back to life: A Regency square piano

I was lucky enough to acquire my very own square piano a few years ago, which needed some TLC to bring it back to working order - and luckily for me we were able to find a wonderful piano restorer in Somerset who has almost finished his amazing work! In just a few weeks we shall have it returned to our living room, so that the songs of period composers such as Hook, Storace and Dibdin can be played and sung to once more.

My square piano - restoration almost completed

Square pianos were a fundamental domestic instrument from the 1760s until well into the early nineteenth century, when they were replaced by piano fortes. At first they were expensive and elite, but by the turn of the nineteenth century (when my piano was built, in 1808) they were affordable for many British families. As the musicologist Charles Burney noted:

The tone was very sweet, and the touch...equal to any degree of rapidity. These, [with] their low price and the convenience of their form, as well as the power of expression, suddenly grew into such short [they could not be made] fast enough to satisfy the craving of the public.

Female music making in 1810 (courtesy of Albion

Played primarily by young women, they offered the latest in home entertainment of the era, with the small size of the square piano making it ideal for any sized drawing room. And unlike the harpsichord before them which were plucked, the square pianos' little hammers allowed the young lady to play loudly or softly, staccato or smoothly.

Our hammers with the original leather hinges still intact.
The 1960s felt is being replaced with leather to create an authentic sound

As befitted the performance style of the songs she would sing, expressivity and stirring emotionality were paramount. In a guide to singing of 1765, Jonas Hanway noted how "music may fire the mind with martial ardour...warm the breast with a religious zeal, or sooth[e] it into tears of penitence".

And indeed, when you examine the music collections of girls of this era, they are filled with stirring songs telling tales of dangerous naval battles or compassion for fallen women pleading for pity.

Another innovative way to play expressively was to use the square piano's sustain pedal. Our little piano had lost its pedal, so our talented restorer has turned a new one for us and reattached it. The sustain system is very straight-forward with a simple string pulling the dampers up to allow the strings to ring.

The newly turned pedal, replete with hook for the string to go through

It is also an exceptional instrument to play. The action of the keys is very shallow and light, so it is much easier to play fast runs, making the experience very different to a modern piano. In fact, at the time many music guide books encouraged women to hide any appearance of effort or virtuosity, to ensure their performances looked natural and modest. Music making for women should have no sense of having required hours of strenuous toil - music was simply one of many accomplishments. A light touch on the keys would surely have aided this representation of ease.

Although Broadwood was one of the most popular makers of square pianos, the musician Muzio Clementi also became a keen producer of these instruments in London from the 1790s. My piano comes from his Cheapside workshop and we can tell from its handwritten serial number that it was made in 1808.

My only concern now is the tuning. Unlike iron-framed modern pianos, the wood in square pianos moves and shifts with humidity, meaning the strings require regular tuning. I have been warned that to tune my piano will take around an hour. Now I just need to find an authentic Regency stool to sit on, practice my Regency repertoire, and ensure the piano returns in one piece.

The spaces for the pegs for strings - all neatly labelled

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Wilderness or shrubbery?

'"Miss Bennet, there seemed to be a prettyish kind of a little wilderness on one side of your lawn. I should be glad to take a turn in it, if you will favour me with your company."

"Go, my dear," cried her mother, "and shew her ladyship about the different walks..."'

The term wilderness isn't one we often use any more and so trying to imagine the environment Elizabeth and Lady Catherine have just strolled into in Pride and Prejudice can be frustrating.

A wilderness however was an exceedingly popular garden feature from the seventeenth to the mid-eighteenth century. Unlike the wildness that the word conjures up, it was actually a highly structured space. Developing from bosquets (formal lines and rows of trees), wildernesses were places where you could walk on gravel or grass paths, through neatly ordered geometric lines or curves of trees.

To understand what they were like, it is worth quoting Philip Miller from his Gardener’s Dictionary of 1735 at length:
The usual Method of contriving Wildernesses is, to divide the whole Compass of Ground, either into Squares' Angles, Circles, or other Figures, …  the Walks are commonly made to intersect each other in Angles...and the more these Walks are turned, the greater Pleasure they will afford. These should now and then lead into an open circular Piece of Grass; in the Center of which may be placed either an Obelisk, Statue, or Fountain.

An eighteenth century wilderness, as planted

The idea was that you could lose yourself within the shady walks, deep in contemplation, similar to a philosopher under a tree. As Robert Burton wrote in his Anatomy of Melancholy in 1612:
What is more pleasant than to walk alone in some solitary meditate upon some delightsome and pleasant subject.
At Ham House in Richmond, near London, the garden has been recreated as it would have been in the seventeenth century, so you can wander around through leafy corridors and really get a feel for this type of walk.

Wandering the Wilderness at Ham House, Richmond (National Trust)

By the 1750s however such formal spaces were becoming unfashionable and any linear features were slowly disappearing, in order to reflect the more liberal and free-thinking attributes of a patriotic Britain. Curved walks became serpentine and walls of trees and hedges gradually turned into shrubberies bursting with borders of small flowers running back into taller flowering shrubs and then trees. Now such shady walks included honeysuckle, primroses, sweet briars, pinks, roses, peonies, lilacs, laburnams and syringas. Capability Brown, who we associate so closely with sweeping acres of rolling turf, created many such flowering shrubberies, often referred to as Pleasure Gardens. These walks were close to the house, to allow the owners and their visitors pleasant, sheltered walks in both summer and winter. Austen herself highlights this in Mansfield Park when Lady Bertram states: '"Mr Rushworth, ... if I were you, I would have a very pretty shrubbery. One likes to get out into a shrubbery in fine weather."' In her home at Chawton, Austen had a shrubbery border of which she was very fond.

So we can see how, by the late eighteenth century, when Austen was writing, wildernesses were wholly unfashionable and outdated, and had been replaced by the more modern shrubbery. Why therefore did Austen give the Bennets a wilderness? Was she perhaps drawing the readers' attention to the fact that the Bennets did not have the money to update their garden, and highlighting their lack of wealth and fashion? Or could she have been pointing to Lady Catherine's outdated language when describing shaded gravel walks near the house?

Finally, it is also interesting to note how Austen could combine a criticism of the old-fashioned nature of the gardens at Mansfield Park with a conservative approval for the preservation of useful features, showing a mature respect for old and new, when she writes about how:
A considerable flight of steps landed them in the wilderness, which was a planted wood of about two acres, and though chiefly of larch and laurel, and beech cut down, and though laid out with too much regularity, was darkness and shade, and natural beauty, compared with the bowling-green and the terrace. They all felt the refreshment of it, and for some time could only walk and admire.
By the end of the eighteenth century, your decision to have a wilderness or shrubbery was actually an important social indicator, and was commented on by guests and visitors alike. But whatever you had, the necessity of having a shaded place for pleasant sheltered walks close to the house was fully appreciated by the Georgians. Luckily for us, many such spaces still exist and can be equally enjoyed by visitors today.

The Pleasure Ground or Shrubbery at Petworth House

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Women vs Men: Battle of the Bodies

In the eighteenth century much of our medical understanding was founded on the knowledge of the Ancients. The Hippocratic doctrine of the four humors was its basis, and it attempted to explain the differences between men and women through them. For example it was believed that women and children suffered more from cold and moist humours than men (phlegm), leading to them having naturally weaker and less controlled bodies and minds.

The Four Humors

As society changed in England during the eighteenth century the role of women began to be questioned. Were women different because of nature or nurture? Feminists such as Mary Wollstonecraft argued strongly that a lack of decent education for women, as well as social opportunities, were the causes of gender inequalities. Unsurprisingly however the male orientated world of science (or natural philosophy as it was called) generally argued the opposite. With new branches of anatomy and physiology, thanks to more opportunities for dissection, men directed their studies at trying to understand what made women so fundamentally different through studying the human body. It was important to them to try and establish exactly where women fitted in and why, and the skeleton was seen as the way to do this.

Before about 1750 the human skeleton was almost thought of as asexual, with gender differences only being apparent in reproductive organs and the exterior body. (Yet this in itself was still enough to prove some sort of gender superiority, as women's reproductive organs were seen as inferior to men's because they were an inverted version of the ideal.)  The first publication to contain both text and illustration of male and female skeletons was the Traité d’ostéologie published in 1759 with illustrations by Marie d'Arconville.

Marie Genevieve Charlotte Thiroux d'Arconville

D'Arconville chose to incorrectly represent the female skull as smaller in proportion to the body, as well as drawing broader hips and a narrower ribcage, perhaps reflecting the use of tight corsets during this period. Later, in 1796, a German anatomist called Samuel von Soemmerring also published illustrations of a female skeleton, but his were quite different to d'Arconville's, particularly with reference to the ribcage. In fact his work was criticised for not showing a narrower ribcage - not for scientific reasons, but for cultural ones: 'women's rib cage is much smaller than that shown by Soemmerring, because it is well known that women's restricted life style requires that they breathe less vigorously'.

Soemmerring's illustration showing the effects of corsets, 1785

Through these new medical illustrations of male and female skeletons however, men were now able for the first time to see internal differences between the genders, and it is interesting to see how they used this knowledge to further solidify their gender bias. Women's larger pelvis' were seen as 'proof' that women were naturally bound for motherhood and domesticity, unlike men who were clearly not, and this scientific knowledge complemented the increasing nostalgia for the role of motherhood that developed during the nineteenth century, reflected in art and literature. Likewise it was thought that the reason women and children had proportionately larger heads than men was simply because their skulls lacked the complete evolutionary growth of men's. This psuedo-science of craniology was also applied to Africans and Aborigines in an attempt to justify their subjugation by white men.

Skeletons by John Barclay, 1820

To conclude, by discovering differences in men and women's bodies in the later eighteenth century, anatomists sought to understand why women were culturally different, but without taking culture into account. Morality and gender, physicality and character, all were combined in 'scientific' understanding. This can be summed up by a doctor called J. J. Sachs who stated in 1830:
The male body expresses positive strength, sharpening male understanding and independence, and equipping men for life in the State, in the arts and sciences. The female body expresses womanly softness and feeling. The roomy pelvis determines women for motherhood. The weak, soft members and delicate skin are witness of women's narrower sphere of activity, of home-bodiness, and peaceful family life. 

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Taking a stroll in Vauxhall Gardens

Vauxhall Gardens first made its appearance as Spring Gardens back in 1661 and was developed into its heyday by the manager Johnathan Tyers and his son in the eighteenth century.

 You traditionally arrived by boat, paid your shilling entrance fee, then entered into a magical world of illumination and excitement. It was seen as a rite of passage and young people pined for the day that they could tell their friends they had been to Vauxhall. It was the one place where some rules were discarded and you could talk to strangers. You could buy rack punch and stroll in the 'dark walks' where men and women could meet without being seen. For the more respectable you could buy supper, listen to music and promendade, allowing yourself to see and be seen, leaving before things got too raucous. The aristocracy and nobility rubbed shoulders with the middle classes, who were aspiring to a better standard of life through politeness and elegance. In short, anyone who was anyone had to go.

Vauxhall by Rowlandson, c1784

Vauxhall was indeed a special garden, in that the twelve acre site enclosed avenues of trees, birdsong, a variety of walks and a cascade of water. However this was a garden like no other - here you were not hindered by mud or manure. Here was nature purposefully romantisiced into a rural idyll, full of images of pastoral nymphs and songs of happy swains. It was like real nature, only better.

It must have been quite a sight. This was a time before street lighting and where you could not socialise outside after dark. Outdoor urban activity in the hours between sunset and sunrise were limited to prostitutes, students and thieves. Yet Vauxhall was only open on summer evenings and so offered the chance to chat to friends and strangers after sunset under the magnificent illumination of hundreds of lamps. Vauxhall truely colonised the night.

The Grand Orchestra, 1803

Music and art were important features of Vauxhall. Rather than hearing entire operas, here the most catchy arias and popular ballads were sung and the sheet music could be then purchased so you could play the Vauxhall songs at home, making the experience and memories last even longer. Love songs and patriotic arias were particularly popular. In addition, quaint pastoral paintings by Francis Hayman adorned the supper boxes and a statue of Handel was displayed, being the first public statue of a living composer. The performance of vocal and instrumental music was also crucial to keeping the atmosphere cultured and refined.

In all, a visit to Vauxhall would have been truely an impressive experience in Georgian London.

Enjoying the music at Vauxhall, 1821

Friday, 23 December 2011

The East in blue and white

The Far East remained mysterious and unknown throughout the eighteenth century, viewed as a distant land of wealth and splendor. Even with the busy trade of the East India Company, Europeans were forbidden to wander farther than the city walls of the only Chinese trading port, Canton. This literal distance and lack of knowledge of the East led to the creation of an exotic and fanciful interpretation of what countries like China and India really were like.

This fascination for the East led to the artistic term chinoiserie which refers to architecture or decorative arts created in the West but with a stylised Oriental theme. Popular blue and white porcelain is a clear example of this.

Originally all porcelain was imported from China through a monopoly held by the East India Company. In fact, in the 1777/8 season the East India Company imported 348 tons of Chinese porcelain! This was then sold to dealers wholesale at huge auctions, before being displayed in their individual shops.

East India House in Leadenhall Street, London, by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd, c1817

Chinese porcelain was made using a substance called kaolin and hand-painted in China using designs solely for the export market. In fact, specific requests were made by the East India Company for suitably West-friendly exotic designs and shapes. Meanwhile potters in Europe tried but couldn't work out what the mysterious ingredients were that the Chinese used in order to create this mystical substance themselves.

Finally, after much experimentation across Europe, the production of hard-paste porcelain (i.e. like Chinese porcelain) developed, the Meissen factory being one of the first. (Funnily enough, the man who made this amazing discovery was a chemist at Wittenberg University called Johann Boettger who had initally been given the impossible task of trying to change base metals into gold.) In Britain, the first potters to make porcelain focussed on copying Chinese designs, which had been popular with shoppers for decades. Interestingly, the development of home-made porcelain took off at the end of the century, co-inciding with the dramatic decision of the East India Company to stop importing Chinese porcelain.

Plate showing The Two Temples, by Miles Mason, c1805
held at the Victoria & Albert Museum

Technological developments meant that, unlike Chinese porcelain which was hand-painted, British items could be mass produced. Indeed, it was in the second half of the eighteenth century that patents were taken out for transfer-printing, starting a revolutionary and labour-saving process in ceramic production. Now Chinese images could be printed easily onto porcelain, using designs engraved into copper plates. These copper plates could be sold to many factories meaning that different potters were creating products depicting identical images. Possibly the most famous image is the Willow pattern, created in England, for British consumers, and based on an original Chinese design. The charming story behind the picture however is likely to have been invented as a clever marketing tool.

The famous Willow pattern

Into the nineteenth century, developments in transfer printing led to the use of other colours, and we start to see other exotic elements coming through, including Indian scenes.

Plate depicting Wild Sports of the East, by Spode, c1815
held at the Victoria & Albert Musuem