Sunday, 29 August 2010

The King's Pearl

Today pearls are among the most common of precious "jewels." But before the development of cultured pearls and farming in the early 20th c., all pearls were natural pearls. These rare treasures could be discovered only by accident and at considerable peril. Natural pearls had great mystique and luminous beauty as well as value, which made them favorites of queens – and kings.

One of the most famous pearls of the 17th c. belonged to King Charles I of England (1600-1649). While the origins of this single pearl earring are unknown, Charles is first shown wearing it in a miniature, left, as the fifteen-year-old Prince of Wales. The pearl soon became what fashion-folk today call a "statement piece", and one that he was seldom without.

Charles's large teardrop-shaped pearl – an especially rare and desired shape –was made into a single dangling earring with a tiny gold crown as the cap, topped with an orb and cross that was most fitting for a future king. Since Queen Elizabeth's reign, fashionable English gentlemen had worn single earrings as a sign of courtly swagger and bravadoqualities that the young prince was woefully lacking: Charles was slight and short (only 5'3"), he limped from childhood rickets, he stammered, and he suffered from acute shyness. Perhaps the sizable jewel gave him the confidence that nature had not.

Whatever the reason, Charles wore the pearl for the rest of his life, and it appears in nearly every portrait of him, including one of him dressed casually for hunting, right. He developed into a style-conscious king who patronized the arts, and the single earring suited him in that capacity, too, as the romantic, cavalier king.

Unfortunately, while Charles was a very good patron to artists, architects, and composers, he proved to be a wretched king to his people, stubbornly unable to reconcile his subjects' desires and expectations with his own. After barely surviving two civil wars, he was captured by Parliamentary forces, tried, and found guilty of high treason. He was executed on 30 January 1649, beheaded with a single stroke of the ax on a scaffold before Whitehall Palace. He was still wearing the pearl earring as he placed his neck on the executioner's block.

Some later historians have been determined to give the execution a lurid, gory hysteria that no contemporary witness reported, and describe a howling mob surging forward to tear the precious jewel from the bloody, severed royal head.

Well, no. Even with regicide, this was still Puritan England, not Jacobin France.

Instead Charles's earring was respectfully removed when his head was sewn back to his body in preparation for burial. The earring was then sent as a final memento to his oldest daughter, Mary, Princess Royal (1631-1660), as Charles had requested. After Mary's death, the earring eventually found its way to one of the late king's most loyal supporters, William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1592-1672), who had also been entrusted with the education of Charles's son, the future King Charles II. Today the earring, bottom left, remains in the collection of the duke's home, Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire, now owned by the Dukes of Portland.

Top left: Charles, Prince of Wales (later Charles I) by Isaac Oliver; the Berger Collection,
Denver Art Museum.

Top right: detail, Charles I, King of England, at the Hunt by Anthony van Dyck; the Louvre

Lower left: detail, Charles I, King of England, from Three Angles, by Anthony van Dyck; Windsor Castle, Royal Collection

Bottom right: Earring of Charles I, Harley Gallery, Welbeck, Worksop, Nottinghamshire

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Mary Beale - by Dee Swift Guest Blogger

Mary Beale - Torch bearer for women artists

'Unlike other painters of that era, she tried to understand her sitters, rather than glorifying them. She didn't claim to be extraordinary, but she was. She never claimed to be the first woman to make a living by her brush, but she was.”

This is how Germaine Greer described Mary Beale, speaking at the dedication of a memorial tablet for her at St James's Church London, where she is interred.

I first became interested in Mary Beale when researching for my book The Lady’s Slipper, which is about a woman artist of the same period. My interest was aroused by Germaine Greer’s other comment about Mary Beale, which was that ‘she wasn't interested in flattering the nabobs and potentates who surrounded the court.' This made me think Mary must have been an independent spirit ahead of her time, and made me curious about this 17th century woman who had broken into the male-dominated world of portraiture.

Mary had two extraordinary relationships in her life, the first with her father and the second with her husband. Mary was the daughter of John Cradock, a puritan rector from Suffolk. Her mother, Dorothy, died when she was only ten, so she was heavily influenced by her father John, who was an amateur painter, and member of the Painter Stainer’s company.

Through her father she became acquainted with local artists, such as Matthew Snelling, Robert Walker and Peter Lely, so it was understandable that she should develop an interest in painting herself. Her first attempts were of religious subjects as you would expect from someone brought up by a rector, but later she brought a new style of intimacy to her commissions. And looking at her portraits, a great sense of the personality of the sitter is apparent, particularly in her loving portrait of her husband, Charles, who she married in 1652 at the age of eighteen.

Some might describe Charles as a “new man”, as he gave up his previous occupation in the respectable Patents Office to join her in her studio to prepare her canvases and mix her paints. He experimented with pigments and became an expert in the field, sometimes selling his ideas from his “tryalls” to other artists. His experiments bordered on the alchemical, and it is clear from his notebooks that it was interest not necessity that made Mary and Charles such a good partnership.

As Mary became a semi-professional portrait painter in the 1650s and 1660s, working from home, first in Covent Garden and later in Fleet Street, Charles would write up detailed notebooks in which he customarily referred to his wife as 'Dearest Heart' and described the sittings, the sitters and his own technical discoveries. Sadly the majority of his notes have been lost, but those for the years 1677 and 1681 survive in the archives of the Bodleian Library at Oxford and the National Portrait Gallery. His notebook of 1677 tells us Mary painted a staggering 83 commissions, bringing in earnings of £429.

Charles Beale diary and notebook, interleaved with a copy of Merlini Anglici Ephemeris by William Lilly (London: Printed by J. Macock for the Company of Stationers, 1681). Comprises notes and accounts relating to the daily operations of his wife's painting studio including names of sitters. )

During the 1660s, when the plague ravaged London, Mary fled out of the city to the safety of Allbrook Farmhouse, Hampshire, a rare example of local vernacular architecture. Allbrook Farmhouse is unique as the only known surviving artists’ studio from the 17th century in Britain. Mary had two sons, Bartholomew (known as ‘Bat’) and Charles,who assisted in the studio and later became painters in their own right.

Little is currently known of the portraits painted by Mary Beale before her move to Allbrook, but by the time she returned to London, her income from her art was sufficient to afford a large house in Pall Mall, and here her thriving portraiture studio was established. It is clear, therefore, that Mary's time at Allbrook was a turning point in her career.

Unfortunately for Mary, fashions in portraiture change and following Lely's death in 1680, the baroque style of portraiture for which she was known fell from favour. Charles' 1681 notebook refers to the family's reduced circumstances: 'We had but only 2s 6d [about 12 pence] left us in the house against Easter,' he writes.

Mary Beale's work now hangs in public and private collections all over the world, including the National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain and the Geffrye Museum in London. More detailed information about Mary Beale can be found through the Geffrye Museum.

Mary was extremely prolific and her body of work includes many formal portraits of the great and the good, though I have to say I find the self-portraits and those of her family, servants and closest friends more fascinating and revealing. Mary Beale worked until her death in 1699, at the age of 66, and leaves a lasting legacy as the first woman artist to make her living from painting.

Deborah Swift’s book, “The Lady’s Slipper” is out now

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Who was the Man in the Iron Mask?

The mystery of the Man in the Iron Mask is an on-going, never-ending puzzle, even now—over 300 years after the fact. 

Who was he? The Sun King's twin? (A conjecture made famous in a novel by Dumas and recreated on screen.) One of the Musketeers? The Italian trickster Marguerite? It has even been suggested by a respected French historian that the Man in the Iron Mask might have been a woman.

It's perplexing. We know so much — and yet not enough. We know that named Eustache Dauger — or, rather, Eustache d'Auger — was arrested in 1669 and held in various prisons for 34 years until his death in the Bastille in Paris in 1703. He wore a mask (some claim iron, others cloth), and was not allowed to speak to anyone. 

Gary McCollim, an historian I know though an on-line discussion group on all things pertaining to the French king Louis XIV, recently reviewed a new publication by French historian Vergé-Francheschi: Le masque de fer (The Iron Mask). 

When it comes to The Mask, fancy has traditionally had a way of overtaking facts, and what's interesting about this publication is that the author appears to be rigorous about only considering first-hand documentation. All non-witness accounts have been eliminated. 

From the actual witness accounts a portrait emerges of a man of average height with black hair  and a slightly brown complexion. Shortly before his death in 1703, he had no grey hair. Given that he was in his early 40s at the time of his death, The Mask would have been a boy when imprisoned.

This rules out the theory that The Mask was the Sun King's brother: if so, the prisoner would have been over 60 at his death.

The author also rules out the theory that The Mask was Italian because his jailor chose Italian litter bearers to carry him. The Mask was forbidden to speak to anyone, and his jailor would not have chosen bearers who spoke the prisoner's language. 

In this way, the author eliminates the various contenders, settling on a new proposition: that The Mask was an Algerian slave who witnessed the death of his master, the troublemaker Duke de Beaufort (shown at right). Was Beaufort, honoured a hero after his death in battle against the Turks, in fact murdered with the complicit knowledge of the Royal Family? Was the slave a witness? Yes and yes. At least this seems to be this author's proposition. 

But if this is the case, why was the prisoner masked? The assumption has been that a mask was used to hide the identity of this man. (Ah! He looks just like the King! Etc.) However, masks were also used to hide hideous facial injuries. This author proposes that Beaufort's slave might have suffered battle injuries. 

Captured by Beaufort during his raids on Algeria, Beaufort had had the boy baptized in Paris and gave him the name Eustache. It's not too great a leap to imagine the name "Eustache de Algiers" becoming "Eustache d'Auger." 

Mystery solved?


Sandra Gulland

Sunday, 8 August 2010

London Coffee Houses

Family legend says I come from a long line of German carpenters [well OK, three] and that my grandfather fashioned the elaborate ornate woodwork that graces Victorian public houses throughout London. Some of these still exist, notably The Jamaica Wine House, a 19th century building with an oak-panelled bar, high partitions and ornate ceilings. I visited this pub recently, and although I have no evidence Grandad worked on this bar, the design is reminiscent of his style.

This brought me to my own area of interest, as The Jamaica Wine House was originally The Turks Head, London’s first coffee house that opened between 1650 and 1652.

Coffee is believed to have come to Britain around 100 years after the first coffee-houses opened in Turkey. However, the Elizabethan essayist Francis Bacon, in his Historia Vitae et Mortis, published in 1605, warned the public against the dangerous properties of coffee. Thus the implication being that some contact existed prior to the establishing of coffee-houses.

A man named Pasqua Rosee arrived from Ottoman Smyrna with his employer, a Mr Daniel Edwards, a “Turkey merchant”. He fell out with Mr Edwards and teaming up with his former employer’s coachman, they established a coffee-house in St Michael’s Alley. Set amongst a labyrinth of medieval courts and alleys off Cornhill and Lombard Street, this establishment was known by some as “The Turk’s Head” It opened between 1650 and 1652, and Samuel Pepys is reputed to be a customer.

By 1660, there were 500 coffeehouses in London alone, although various sources claim this number is between 200 and 2,000. What with the Great Fire of 1666 having destroyed many and with no existing records, the numbers cannot be verified.

Grouped mainly around the Royal Exchange, Custom House, Post-Houses and the court, these all-male preserves apart from the lady at the counter, admitted anyone who laid down a penny at the bar, or a token stamped with the emblem of the establishment, as an entrance fee.

They provided a gathering place to exchange news, gossip and conduct business in a sober environment, a genteel atmosphere that contrasted with public houses attended in the evenings where people would go for entertainment.

Some coffee-houses served tobacco and hookah pipes, chocolate and a range of sherbets, which, according to the Mercurius Publicus (12-19 March 1662), were “made in Turkie, of lemons, roses, and violets perfumed”. Advertisements found in pamphlets and newspapers of the time refer to coffee as “the right Turkie berry”, which implies its introduction by way of the Ottomans, or Mediterranean trading routes.

China Tea was also served, and negro boys seeking refuge from the West Indies was sometimes employed a star attraction to customers. The signs outside, and the coffee tokens used to gain entry, were often be-turbaned. Of the most famous are:

Jonathon's Coffee House in Change Alley: a favourite meeting place for stockbrokers and eventually became the London Stock Exchange.
Edward Lloyd's Coffee House: a haunt for ship owners and marine insurers and became Lloyd's of London
The “Great Turk Coffee House”, also known as “Morat Ye Great”, in Exchange Alley in 1662, apparently boasted a bust of “Sultan Almurath IV”, “the most detestable tyrant that ever ruled the Ottoman Empire”.

Coffee-houses became venues for artists and writers to congregate and hold business meetings. Freemasons had their Lodge meetings in them. Some, due to their sea-born connections, set up a postal system for collecting and carrying letters abroad, which annoyed the struggling Postal Service no end. Some gained a reputation for being meeting places for religious or political dissidents, and hence at one point in the mid to late seventeenth century were “under suspicion as being centres of intrigue and treasonable-talk”.

Intellectuals and scientists used them to launch their latest projects to the Press; and the sea-born trading companies such as the East India Company, the African Company and the Levant Company all made use of coffee-houses, often to store their records. Newspapers, journals and pamphlets were circulated. They also went hand in hand with Turkish baths, which were also becoming a popular London feature. Whatever the local ethos of the area, whether it be one of literary prowess or ill-repute, the coffee-house became the main focal-point for all of this activity.

Many believed coffee to have several medicinal properties in this period. A 1661 tract entitled "A character of coffee and coffee-houses", states:

'Tis extolled for drying up the Crudities of the Stomack, and for expelling Fumes out of the Head. Excellent Berry! which can cleanse the English-man's Stomak of Flegm, and expel Giddinesse out of his Head. '

Not everyone was in favour of coffee, however and in 1674 the anonymous, "Women's Petition Against Coffee" declared:

'...the Excessive Use of that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called COFFEE [...] has [...] Eunucht our Husbands, and Crippled our more kind Gallants, that they are become as Impotent, as Age.'

In 1675, Charles II 'called for the suppression of all coffee-houses in London as being places where the disaffected met, and spread scandalous reports concerning the conduct of his Majesty and his Ministers'. The uproar that followed forced King Charles to cancel this edict.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Lammas-tide and Harvest Home

August 1 marks the beginning of the grain harvest in Britain, a period of intense labour and also celebration. In our age of convenience foods perhaps it's hard to imagine how important the harvest was in centuries past. The harvest could be poor, or fail entirely. If a community suffered two bad harvests in a row, entire families would starve.

The word "Lammas" derives from the Anglo-Saxon "hlaef-mass" or loaf mass. The first grain of the year would be reaped and then baked into a bread, which was consecrated in the church upon the first Sunday of August. A number of researchers have speculated that the origins of Lammas may be connected to the pre-Christian Irish celebration of Lughnasad. I highly recommend Waverly Fitzgerald's fascinating essay on the subject.

17th century poet, Robert Herrick offers us a window into how the Harvest Home was celebrated in his day.


by Robert Herrick

COME, sons of summer, by whose toil
We are the lords of wine and oil :
By whose tough labours, and rough hands,
We rip up first, then reap our lands.
Crowned with the ears of corn, now come,
And to the pipe sing harvest home.
Come forth, my lord, and see the cart
Dressed up with all the country art :
See here a maukin, there a sheet,
As spotless pure as it is sweet :
The horses, mares, and frisking fillies,
Clad all in linen white as lilies.
The harvest swains and wenches bound
For joy, to see the hock-cart crowned.
About the cart, hear how the rout
Of rural younglings raise the shout ;
Pressing before, some coming after,
Those with a shout, and these with laughter.
Some bless the cart, some kiss the sheaves,
Some prank them up with oaken leaves :
Some cross the fill-horse, some with great
Devotion stroke the home-borne wheat :
While other rustics, less attent
To prayers than to merriment,
Run after with their breeches rent.
Well, on, brave boys, to your lord's hearth,
Glitt'ring with fire, where, for your mirth,
Ye shall see first the large and chief
Foundation of your feast, fat beef :
With upper stories, mutton, veal
And bacon (which makes full the meal),
With sev'ral dishes standing by,
As here a custard, there a pie,
And here all-tempting frumenty.
And for to make the merry cheer,
If smirking wine be wanting here,
There's that which drowns all care, stout beer ;
Which freely drink to your lord's health,
Then to the plough, the commonwealth,
Next to your flails, your fans, your fats,
Then to the maids with wheaten hats ;
To the rough sickle, and crook'd scythe,
Drink, frolic, boys, till all be blithe.
Feed, and grow fat ; and as ye eat
Be mindful that the lab'ring neat,
As you, may have their fill of meat.
And know, besides, ye must revoke
The patient ox unto the yoke,
And all go back unto the plough
And harrow, though they're hanged up now.
And, you must know, your lord's word's true,
Feed him ye must, whose food fills you ;
And that this pleasure is like rain,
Not sent ye for to drown your pain,
But for to make it spring again.

Maukin, a cloth.
Fill-horse, shaft-horse.
Frumenty, wheat boiled in milk.
Fats, vats.

Herrick's portrayal of Harvest Home reveals no religious feast centered around the church, but a feudal tradtion in which peasants toil to harvest their overlord's grain. A decorated cart carries the last load of grain from the fields, forming the front of a secular procession followed by reapers crowned in grain and a piper playing a harvest song. The lord rewards his workers with a feast featuring plenty of meat (a rare treat for the labouring classes) and beer. After first toasting the landowner, the merry company toasts the "maids with wheaten hats." Just who were these maidens?

In his book, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, Robert Hutton wonders if Herrick's maids with wheaten hats were young women crowned in chaplets of wheat and flowers as Harvest Queens, or if they were decorated Corn Dollies--sheaves of wheat decorated to look like maidens.

In 1598, the German traveller Paul Hentzer observed the following scene in Windsor:

We happened to meet some country people celebrating their Harvest home; their last load of corn they crown with flowers, having besides an image richly dressed, by which perhaps they would signify Ceres; this they keep moving about, while men and women, men and maidservants, riding through the streets in a cart, shout as loud as they can till they arrive at the barn.

Although Herrick's poems contains an admonition against excess merriment, lewdness, and drunkenness, some landlords went out of their way to make the harvest celebratory for their reapers. Ronald Hutton mentions Sir Patricius Curwen of Workington in Cumberland, a landlord of such largess that, in each year between 1628 and 1643, he not only paid his harvesters with food and wages but provided a piper to play in the fields for the nine to seventeen days that the grain harvest required.