Monday, 7 July 2014

Light and Shadow in the 17th Century

by Deborah Swift

When I first began writing novels set in the 17th century, I quickly became aware that lighting would play an important part in any night time scene. If outdoors, then the phase of the moon dictates how much light there is to see by, and any indoor scene would need to be lit by some means.

So what did ordinary people use in their daily lives?

The earliest form of lighting, which existed in Greek and Roman times and persisted until well after the 17th century was the rush-light. Gathered in the height of summer, the rushes were stripped to leave only a narrow sliver of green attached to the pith. These were then dried in the sun and were sold on, or used at home. To give you an idea of their lightness and fragility, a pound in weight of rush-dips contained 1600 dry rushes (according to Gilbert White of Selborne )
Chobham Museum, Rushlight holderphoto by Brian Wood
Rushes were dipped in bacon or mutton fat in an oval grease pan. This type of light might last for a half hour, but the light was meagre and smoky, and several lights might need to be burned to provide useful light for work. The rush was supported by a clamp in a rush-light holder, and when it became low could be burned at both ends. (Yes, you guessed, origin of the phrase; 'burning the candle at both ends'.) Children were often responsible for making rush-lights and keeping them alight, as they were very fiddly and delicate to handle.

Candles were the light of choice for more wealthy householders, and rush-light holders often had a candlestick attached, see left. Candles were made the same way as rush-lights with string dipped several times in grease, or by moulding them with a 'candle stool'.

Candle stool for moulding candles
Beeswax candles were made from rolled sheets of wax and were very expensive, so reserved for special occasions. With the mutton fat candles the string burned more slowly than the grease and had to be trimmed often.

1680 Candlestick
A candlestick could be a simple wooden or brass holder, or something more elaborate. Candles were often supported by pushing them onto spikes, rather than into a cup type holder.

Antique 1800s Early Wrought Iron Free standing candleabra such as this Spanish 17th Century example, were common, as were wall sconces, usually of a simple wrought iron variety. These examples are later, but something similar is referred to in Evelyn's diary of the 17th century.

A lamp was often just a candle inside a metal carrier, and often not glazed but with holes cut to let out the light, or bars to prevent the candle from falling over and setting light to the furnishings. See the picture at the top of the post. Examples with glass are rare, but this is a German hand-held lantern. The front hinges open so that you can insert a candle, and there is a 'chimney' to let the smoke out. The handle is at the back, as heat rises and this prevents the hand being burned.

I became especially interested in different types of lighting because my latest novel for teens and adults, 'Shadow on the Highway' has many night-time scenes.

In order to understand the visual effect of the light and shadow of naked flames I turned to artists such as Gerrit Von Honthorst (see below) and Rembrandt. I hope to write a further post on these artists as their paintings really helped to shape the world  of light and shadow I was trying to create. The painting I've put in this post is called 'The Denial of St Peter', though the subjects are dressed as contemporaries to Honthorst. The darkness where things can be out of sight so easily, is a thing that novelists often forget to take account of, but this painting makes it very evident.


'Shadow on the Highway' is coming out in a few weeks time as an e-book from Endeavour Press, and the paperback will follow later. It is about the life and legend of Lady Katherine Fanshawe, the highwaywoman.
Here is a sneak preview of the cover.


Judith Starkston said...

I enjoyed this detailed discussion of forms of pre-modern lighting and the way Deborah Swift incorporates this quality in her writing. Thanks!

Deborah Swift said...

Thanks Judith, always nice to connect via this blog. I still get your posts to my inbox and always enjoy them.

Anita Davison said...

Fascinating Dee, where do you get all your great pictures-they show exactly what you mean. No wonder ladies liked the winter evenings they must have looked so much better by candlelight

Debra Brown said...

I'm excited that you have another coming out! I'm taking off some time for reading after finishing my current edits.

Deborah Swift said...

Thanks Anita, I always think pictures say more than words can, but that does not bode well for us writers! And Debra, I hope you enjoy your reading time -an essential luxury I'd call it!

Unknown said...

Thank you for enlightening about a history people seldom reflect upon, now almost everything is accessible instantaneously!

John B. Sanchez said...

The lighting tools of the 17th century are very simple, but they contain people's wisdom. Thank you for sharing this interesting information.