Sunday, 22 November 2015

Two Lotteries for London

The building of Westminster Bridge was partly funded by a lottery, for which the prize was a  truly giant silver wine cistern, or wine bottle cooler, made for Henry Jerningham.  Flanked by nymph and satyr, supported by crouching panthers and decorated with scenes of Bacchus, it was made by master silversmith Charles Kandler in 1735, with modelling by Michael Rysbrack, weighing some 8000 ounces.  The lottery tickets were five or six shillings each and were accompanied by a silver medal.  The winner (who may not have realised its enormous size and weight) sold the original to a niece of Peter the Great and it is now in the Hermitage collection.  

In 1884 Elkington's of Birmingham made electrotype copies of Russian silver treasures, including the Jerningham wine cistern, as part of an international art education project, and this copy is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The Jerningham Wine Cooler,  electroplate copy 1884  
 ©V&A Museum

Another public lottery was run several decades earlier, for the building of Greenwich Hospital, which was begun following the wish of Queen Mary II to provide for old and wounded seamen after the naval battle of La Hogue.    It was carefully controlled, according to John Evelyn (treasurer and a Commissioner for the Hospital) in 1699 for: "All Lotterys 'til now cheating people, to be no longer permitted than to Christmas next, except that for the benefit of Grinwich Hospital:"

Even John Locke, who was aways very cautious with his money, bought himself a ticket in summer 1700, when asked by a fellow scholar to buy tickets for some friends in Paris.  There appear to have been monthly draws, with large and small lotteries at twenty shillings and five shillings a ticket.  Because of the vagaries of the post, often sending letters via acquaintances crossing the Channel, some draws were missed, but Locke and his French friend did have some winning tickets, as what they jokingly called the ''deus ex machina" looked favourably on them.

By August 1703 the sum of £89,364,  fourteen shillings and eightpence-farthing had been spent on the buildings since work began in 1696.  The first seamen were admitted in 1705 but building continued till 1752.   The Old Royal Naval College is a wonderful sight from the Thames to this day.

Greenwich Hospital,  Antonio Canaletto c. 1752 
© National Maritime Museum

Monday, 16 November 2015

Westminster Bridge - 'all bright and glittering in the smokeless air'.

Here are two views of the newly built Westminster Bridge, finally opened in 1750,  the only crossing between Putney Bridge and London Bridge, for a city which had grown extensively in the last hundred years.  Both show Westminster Abbey,  viewed from opposite directions.  The simple topographical scene has its charm, (the shimmering light, the reflected arches), but the one taken from Lambeth, on the south bank of the Thames, is a wonderful atmospheric landscape of the Thames traffic and eighteenth century London.  

Westminster Bridge  Antonio Joli (attrib.) c.1750
© Parliamentary Art Collection

Joli came to London in 1744, and was known for his theatre scenery and mural paintings, but he also learnt from his fellow countryman, Canaletto, as this other view of the Thames crossing shows.

Westminster from the River, London  Antonio Joli c. 1750
© Bank of England Museum

The bridge was replaced a century later when it become unstable, but it was from this first Westminster Bridge that the poet Wordsworth saw the city in 1802.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

New Spring Gardens, Vauxhall

As the dark evenings draw in, I thought it would be pleasant to remember the charms of summer with this view of the famous Vauxhall Gardens, especially for anyone queueing for buses or fighting onto trains at Vauxhall in the rush hour today. 

Grand Walk at Vauxhall Gardens   Antonio Canaletto 1751
© see Public Catalogue Foundation

Visitors in the eighteenth century also complained about the traffic congestion, whether they came across the Thames by horse-ferry or drove all the way to London Bridge or darkest Putney --and still, after Westminster Bridge was built in 1750, "the tide and torrent of coaches was so prodigious" complained  Horace Walpole in 1769.  He and his friend, after much delay, ...."then alighted; and after scrambling under bellies of horses, through wheels, and over posts and rails, we reached the gardens where there were already many thousand persons".  They were "rejoiced to come away, though with the same difficulties as at our entrance; for we found three strings of coaches all along the road, who did not move half a foot in half-an-hour."

The gardens brought the arts and culture as well as entertainment to the general public, as in this engraving showing the iconic statue of Handel ( of 1738) which graced the entrance.  Horace Walpole's older brother was in part responsible, for when a young immigrant artist found Sir Edward Walpole's wallet on leaving the Gardens and returned it to him, Sir Edward found him a post working for the leading sculptor of the day, Henry Cheere.  The young immigrant, Louis Francois Roubiliac, who created this inventive portrait of the great composer,  soon became known for his celebrity portrait busts and monuments, which now grace Westminster Abbey, churches, universities  and many museums and institutions.

Tom,  Jerry and Logic enjoying Vauxhall,
from Pierce Egan's "London Life" 1823,   © British Library

Vauxhall Gardens went in and out of fashion, with a range of entertainments, attracting the great, including royalty, and the less great, as George Cruikshank's comic illustration shows.  Perhaps James Boswell's  comment sums up the Gardens' long lasting appeal:

"Vauxhall Gardens is peculiarly adapted to the taste of the English nation: -- there being a mixture of curious show, -- gay exhibition, musick, vocal and instrumental, not too refined for the general ear;- for all which only a shilling is paid.  And, though last, but not least, good eating and drinking for those who wish to purchase that regale."    

Thursday, 5 November 2015

A master potter's hand

When I saw the photo of this beautiful pot I immediately wanted to share it, and to handle it.  I love the glossy black slip, and the way it segues into that wonderful striped band, echoing the flow from the spout when in use.  It would not look out of place at the Contemporary Ceramics Centre or a West End gallery,  but it was excavated from the ancient city site of Kerma, in the Sudan, and was made some time between 2500 BC and 1450 BC.   

Spouted ceramic beaker from Kerma, Kingdom of Kush, 2500-1450 BC.
© Trustees of British Museum

[And see the British Museum blog by curator Anna Garnett: Linking Cultures, September 1st] 

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

November in Somerset - Alfred's cakes and shamanic mushrooms

As I dipped into my monthly chapter of Stephen Moss's natural  history of a Somerset village,  I chanced upon his evocative description of woodland mushrooming and English fungi lore.  It also happily links my last two blogs.

"We are going on a fungal foray: to learn how to forage for free food, ideally without wending up in the local casualty department.
…We are walking through a dense woodland: little stands of oak and beech surrounded by great swathes of Norwegian spruce: the fast-growing, economically profitable 'Christmas tree' we know so well. Wildlife is thin on on the ground and hard to see among the dense, inky foliage. The only evidence that anything is here at all is the occasional snatch of sound: the trill of a wren, the peeping of gold crests and coal tits, or the harsh screech of a distant jay.  Closed, claustrophobic, this is not a place in which I feel at ease.

…We spread out through the woods like a police forensic team, carefuly scanning every inch of the ground in front of us.

Landscape of the Brown Fungus  Paul Nash, 1943
National Galleries of Scotland

Walking through the wood at such a slow, deliberate pace, changes the way you appreciate the landscape.  I begin to notice the patterns of the fallen beech leaves arranged in a random collage, ranging from chocolate-brown, through chestnuts, to buffs, yellows and the occasional tinge of lime-green, the summer shade retained even at this late stage of the year. The veins of the leaves overlap each other to make abstract patterns, intermingling with the greens of the surrounding brambles, ferns and moss.

Many fungi are picked, but few are chosen; and as Adrian [Boots] inspects our baskets he discards most of what we have found.  The temptingly named honey fungus is, he tells us, often sold in markets as an edible variety.  If you do eat it, you may get a nasty stomach upset, though it won't actually kill you.  Coral fungus does indeed resemble bright orange corals -- you wouldn't want to eat it, even if you could.

The edible varieties bear out Adrian's warning that appearance cannot be used as a guide to safe eating, as they could hardly be more different from one another. … We find wood blewits and a beautiful orangey-yellow chanterelle, which when gently squeezed emits a delicate scent of ripe apricots.

….Another fungus rich in folklore, though not edible, is King Alfred's cakes -- so called because when you cut open these hard little lumps they look as if they are burnt inside, a feature which would have reminded our ancestors of the famous royal cake-burning incident that took place a few miles south of here.

Daldinia Concentrica, Alfred's cakes, or coal fungus - cross section
© see
Just before lunchtime, we come across what looks like a cluster of bright red apples strewn across the forest floor,  these are fly agaric, whose name comes from its traditional use as an insecticide.  However, its main claim to fame is that indigenous people across Siberia have historically used it for its hallucinogenic properties, as part of their shamanic traditions.

We decide against trying to recreate this ancient practice.  Instead, Adrian heats up his Primus stove, chops up the few edible fungi we have managed to gather together, and sautes them in a mixture of butter and oil….

As we eat,  Adrian tells us about the complex relationship between trees and fungi.  Tree roots are not very good at obtaining nutrition, so they use the networks of underground fungi to do it for them.  What we see on the surface -- the fruiting bodies we call mushrooms and toadstools --are but a tiny fraction of what lies out of sight, beneath the soil.  The time and effort it has taken us to collect this meagre offering is a salutary reminder of just how tough life was for our hunter-gatherer ancestors; and how good they must have been at knowing where to look and what to pick...

By late afternoon the light has turned soft and even as it percolates through the trees, and the smell of woodland begins to intensify: a not unpleasant blend of dampness and decay.  As we return to the warmth of the Swan Inn [at Rowberrow] for a welcome pint, a solitary raven croaks unseen overhead; reminding us of the wilderness we have shared with nature for the past few hours."

November Moon   Paul Nash, 1942
Fitzwilliam Museum © Estate of Paul Nash

Saturday, 31 October 2015

"Witches' " boots from Lapland

Witches were long thought to be able to stir up storms and sink ships --as in Macbeth--

"Though you untie the winds and let them fight
Against the churches; though the yesty waves
Confound and swallow navigation up;"

and there was a special interest in the seventeenth century in the shamanism practised in Lapland, (possibly sparked by a series of witchcraft trials in Sweden).  The Sami culture, rituals and way of life were chronicled by Johannes Schefferus in 1673, aiming to prove that Swedish military success was not dependent on Sami magic.  But in the contemporary western European translations, chapters drawing on preconceived ideas of the Sami's  sorcery, drums, and pagan practices were inserted, without factual evidence, a case of publishers giving their readers the sensational accounts they wanted to hear, rather than a true picture.

© University Library of Tromso  (The Northern Lights Route)

 A young English diplomat in Stockholm, William Allestree, in 1673 sent home drawings of native Lapplanders to friends in England,  and later gifts of Lapp elkskin boots.  The ship carrying the boots, however,  was sunk,  which no doubt some superstitious readers of the adapted Lapponia translations would blame on the shamans' powers.  As Allestree  jests in his letter :

"Sir, yours of April the 14th, came to me on 17th Sept: by which you will judge, that either the Laps had no power to hasten it, or that they are no friends of mine, nor I at all in their book'es, who would deprive me so long of so great a kindness.  I could have wish'd, that as this, though late, came at length, the Laps-boots had had the same conveyance to you, and if they were lost in the sea, you may see, that though their makers are accounted witches because they cannot sinck, yet the boots who did so, were honest.   If the ship which carri'd them had not let in water, I am confident they would have held it out, and had the vessel bene in them*, it had been safer, then they were, being in it."
[*the elkskin boots, fur side out,  were waterproof]

Correspondence of John Locke, ed. E. S. De Beer,  Oxford University Press

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Paul Creswick, an Edwardian Bernard Cornwell?

Was  Paul Creswick the Bernard Cornwell of his day?  He is best known for his retelling of the Robin Hood story in the late Victorian style of Scott's Ivanhoe and George A. Henty's historical adventures.   It was first published in 1902, and was later popular enough to be issued in a deluxe edition with illustrations by N. C. Wyeth in England and in the United States.  Already an established writer,  in 1900 his first story of King Alfred's fight against the Danes was published by Ernest Nister - In Aelfred's Days, a Story of Saga the Dane, to be followed by two further books chronicling the adventures of his hero, Saga.

Set at the same period, it is the reverse of Cornwell's The Last Kingdom, for Saga is really a Danish child saved from the battlefield as a Saxon, and adopted into their household by Alfred and his Queen Ealhswith. The story sweeps along, with pitched battles, treachery, secret passages, caves, and forest wolves, not to mention those cakes.   After fighting with Alfred against Guthrum and his Danes at Edington, and discovering his real birth, our hero returns to his own country to reclaim his heritage and avenge his father in book two, Under the Black Raven.  In the last of the trilogy, Saga, now ruler in his own land,  helps his ally King Alfred defeat their common enemy in Hasting the Pirate (or Hastein, who was driven from Kent at this time).

The illustrator T H. Robinson was brother of Charles and (William) Heath Robinson, all three of them artists.

Born in Kingston-on-Thames in 1866, Paul Creswick was no action man, but an insurance clerk living in Beckenham, Kent, with a wife and young son. His first book was published in 1895; by 1900 he was writing his best-selling historical adventure stories regularly, sometimes two in a year, while continuing his career with the Prudential Assurance Company.  He eventually became their Principal Clerk.
During  the First World War,  he was in charge of Kent's Voluntary Aid Detachments, and was County Senior Transport Officer. He was co-author in 1915 of Kent's Care for the Wounded. But all this, as well as his senior position at work, left him no time for fiction and he wrote only a few books afterwards.  He was awarded the OBE for his wartime services.  (see