Category Archives: Historical Reconstructions

Regency Pot Plants, or Learning to Love a Hyacinth

On her first morning at Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland came down to breakfast, Henry Tilney was already there, in order to prevent him teasing her about her fears of the night before she changes the subject by looking at some flowers.

“What beautiful hyacinths! I have just learnt to love a hyacinth.”

“And how might you learn? By accident or argument?”

“Your sister taught me; I cannot tell how. Mrs. Allen used to take pains, year after year, to make me like them; but I never could, till I saw them the other day in Milsom Street; I am naturally indifferent about flowers.”

“But now you love a hyacinth. So much the better. You have gained a new source of enjoyment, and it is well to have as many holds upon happiness as possible. Besides, a taste for flowers is always desirable in your sex, as a means of getting you out of doors, and tempting you to more frequent exercise than you would otherwise take. And though the love of a hyacinth may be rather domestic, who can tell, the sentiment once raised, but you may in time come to love a rose?”

Catherine had arrived at Northanger about the middle of March, so the hyacinths were probably not cut flowers, but ones in pots or glasses. Glasses for hyacinths were available at the time, William Cobbett in The English Gardener (1829) advises;

In water-glasses, the hyacinth makes a very agreeable show in the house during the most dismal part of the winter. Get blue glasses, as more congenial to the roots than white ones, fill them with rain water, with a few grains of salt in each, and put in enough water to come up the bulb about the fourth part of an inch. Change the water carefully every week, and place the plants in the lightest and most airy part of the room, or green-house, in which you keep them.

 However by March, and particularly in a house like Northanger Abbey which had large and extensive glass houses, the bulbs would probably have been grown in pots, so that they could be changed as soon as the flower began to fade.

Flowers were often grown in pots and, if you had a large collection, could be displayed in a fashion that seems strange to a modern reader, as Louisa Johnson in Every Lady her own Flower Gardener (about 1840) describes;

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We recollect once seeing a very interesting collection of more than two hundred species, growing in a high state of perfection, in the house of an amateur living in Brussels. The room containing them was fitted up much in the same way as an ordinary library, with abundance of light shelves round the walls, and a large table in the middle of the room, on which were placed the pots containing the plants. At night, the room was lighted up by an elegant glass lamp, and it was heated by one of those ornamental stoves which are so common on the Continent, Altogether, it had a very handsome appearance.

However, in smaller room she advises to use pot stands rather than stages, (the pretentious term jardinière didn’t come into England from France until the mid-nineteenth century). A Regency, or perhaps a facsimile of a Regency, plant pot stand is to be found in Lytes Cary, a country house in Somerset.

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Courtesy National Trust

I didn’t have the material to make a curved front, so settled on an angular form. Painted black with a gold chinoiserie pattern.

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Cobbett says that there were over a thousand varieties of Hyacinth available in his day, so I felt justified in using a range of colours, to give an impression of the display admired by young Catherine Morland.

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Amazing Feet, A Tale of Discovery

The skull arrived on the wedding day, all through the ceremony he thought about it.
Was it a primitive human? was it an ape? All agreed it was incredibly old and that more of the skeleton had to be found.
In the quarry where it had been discovered, the manager pointed out the blocked cave and the search began. After several weeks fragments of bone were discovered, the palaeontologist was ecstatic.
“What is it?” the manager asked, looking at the tiny scraps of bone.
“The feet, the amazing feet.” He replied in delight, “It walked upright, it was human!”

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The Taung child, the skull from the story

And that, oh best beloved was, more or less, how Australopithecus, mankind’s most primitive ancestor, was discovered.

This is in response to Charlie Mills flash fiction challenge, in 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about an amazing feat, which I have interpreted phonetically. Hope you enjoy it.

 

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A Flight of Fancy – Another Chance Meeting

A little while ago, I wrote an imaginary tale based on a possible meeting between two historical characters, some people found it amusing, so here is another one.

“It’s impossible!” Bursts of laughter echoed round one end of the table. At the other end the young poet looked up, curious to know what was happening. Everybody was looking at a middle aged gentleman with a round, tanned face, he looked like a prosperous farmer. But the poet was not so sure, he had seen this ‘farmer’ make a rapid, very rapid, calculation, he was a serious mathematician. Who was this farmer? And what were they laughing about?

“I am perfectly serious, I feel perfectly confident that the art of aerial navigation will soon be brought home to man’s convenience, and that we shall be able to transport ourselves and our families, and our goods and chattels, more securely by air than by water, and with a velocity of from twenty to one hundred miles per hour.”
“But Sir George, you mean flying, and that is impossible.”
“You have seen balloons, I am just saying that other means will be available, as soon as engines of suitable power can be developed.”
The poet listed for some time as Sir George made fantastic suggestions, trade would be carried through the air, that warfare would be fought there, that there would even be harbour masters and controls over ‘aerial navigation’.”
The rest of the diners listened in amusement. One said with a laugh.
“But for all that you need machines that can fly, and that is an impossibility.”
“So you think it is impossible to build a machine that can fly?”
“Of course,” the man looked around in amusement, “I could as just as easily walk on the ceiling like a fly.”

The man hadn’t seen what Sir George was doing with his hands, he had taken something from his pocket and was wrapping a cord around it. He leaned forward, pulled the cord, and the little machine buzzed and soared up into air. It sailed across the table and dropped down in a corner of the room. There was silence, Sir George smiled and pointed at the ceiling.

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A reconstruction of Sir George’s glider of 1804 – in flight

That evening the poet sat and thought, aerial navigation, now that was a wonder. He sharpened his pen and began to write;

For I dipt into the future, Far as human eye could see,
Saw the vision of the world, And all the wonder that would be;
Saw the heavens fill with commerce, Argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight, Dropping down with costly bales;
Heard the heavens fill with shouting, And there rain’d a ghastly dew
From the nations’ airy navies Grappling in the central blue;
Far along the world-wide whisper Of the south-wind rushing warm,
With the standards of the peoples Plunging thro’ the thunder storm;
Till the war-drum throbb’d no longer, And the battle-flags were furl’d
In Parliament of man, The Federation of the world.
There the common sense of most Shall hold a fretful realm in awe,
And the kindly earth shall slumber, Lapt in universal law.

Sir George Cayley(1773 – 1857), the ‘father of aviation’, was an incredible man. A Yorkshire landowner, as a teenager he worked out the physics of heavier that air flight and built and developed the first gliders, models then man carrying aircraft. His notebooks make it clear that, if he had had a powerful enough engine, he would have been able to build a man carrying aeroplane.

He always referred to ‘aerial navigation’ as people laughed when he talked about flying machines, and he carried a model flying machine in his pocket which he would launch at dinner when people talked of the impossibility of flight, Sir George’s words are his own.

Alfred Tennyson lived about a hundred miles south of Sir George Cayley, and wrote Locksley Hall, from which his description of flight comes from, in 1835. I don’t think they ever met, but perhaps?

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Chance Meeting

Charli Mills from the Carrot Ranch prompts us thus this week
August 17, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that features a fossil or uses the word in its variant forms (fossilize, dino bones, petrification, gastroliths, ichnofossils, etc.). Dig into your imagination and go where the fossil record leads you. So here is another of my historical retellings.

“What have you there, child?” The tall lady smiled at the little girl.
“It’s a curtsy miss.” She replied. It was black and shiny, shaped like a coiled snail.
“She means a curiosity,” said her companion, “They are found in the cliffs, no one knows what they are.”
“What are you going to do with it?” asked Jane.
“Take it to father, he sells them.”
“Will you sell it to me?” The girl nodded, shyly.
“But she is Anning’s daughter, he overcharged us for that cupboard.”
“But she isn’t overcharging me.” The coin changed hands and a legend began.

In 1804 Jane Austen and her family visited Lyme Regis, in a letter to her sister she tells how they had been overcharged by a local carpenter, Robert Anning. As well as woodwork Robert also sold fossils that had been found in the local cliffs. His daughter, Mary Anning, the greatest fossil hunter of the age was his daughter, in 1804 she would have been five. Legend tells how she began her career as a little girl, selling a fossil she had found, to a lady she met on the beach. I have just brought Lyme Regis’s two most famous residents together.

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Reconstructing the Regency – The Red Books of Humphry Repton

As part of a series of classes I will be giving on Regency life, using objects rather just pictures, I am reconstructing various objects that are either very rare or only survive in pictures. Amongst the rare, and fragile, items are the Red Books of Humphry Repton

Recently there have been a series of exhibitions commemorating the 300th anniversary of the birth of the great landscape gardener, Capability Brown. So naturally I want to talk about his successor, who was mentioned in Mansfield Park.

“Your best friend upon such an occasion,” said Miss Bertram calmly, “would be Mr. Repton, I imagine.”

“That is what I was thinking of.” said Mr. Rushworth. “As he has done so well by Smith, I think I had better have him at once. His terms are five guineas a day.”

If Mr Rushworth had employed Humphry Repton, instead of having to spend his money divorcing his newly married wife, who had run off with Henry Crawford, there would have been a Red Book produced for Sotherton.

The Red Books, so called from the colour of the leather in which they were bound, were Repton’s innovative method of attracting clients. As well as plans and descriptions of what he proposed doing to the estate, there were before and after paintings of what the view looked like now, and what it would look like when Repton’s works were carried out. Much of this had been done before, but what made Humphry Repton’s pictures remarkable was that before and after were to be found on the same illustration. You first saw the landscape as is at present, then you raised a paper flap and the view turned into what it would be.

 Lord Sidmouths in Richmond Park - merged

It must be said, however, that Humphry Repton had a major character flaw, he was a dreadful snob, always sucking up to his wealthy or titled clients, he was referred to as oleaginous (oily), and was more than happy to approve of his clients more morally doubtful schemes, such as this for enclosing a common and turning it into the park associated with a fashionable villa.

 A Common improved in Yorkshire - merged

Which reminds me of the famous verse;

            The law is hard on man or woman

            Who steals the goose from off the common

            But lets the greater villain loose

            Who steals the common from the goose

 View from my own cottage before

To create a facsimile of a Red Book illustration I first downloaded high resolution scans from the websites listed below. I decided to take the pictures showing how he improved his own house. I printed both the before and after views at exactly the same size, on heavy cartridge paper.

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Then I cut out the tab and frame of from the ‘before’ view, this was then pasted over the ‘after view.

 Reconstruction

By lifting the flap you can see how he improved his garden, planting rose bushes, enclosing the village green and getting rid of the geese and inconvenient disabled poor people.

A great gardener but not a very nice man.

 View from my own cottage after

Repton’s books can be found on the University of Wisconsin website:

Sketches and hints on landscape gardening, 1794.

Observations on the theory and practice of landscape gardening, 1803.

Fragments on the theory and practice of landscape gardening, 1816.

 

 

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Reconstructing the Regency – The Weymouth Cyclorama

As part of a series of classes I will be giving on Regency life, using objects rather just pictures, I am reconstructing various objects that are either very rare or only survive in pictures. One of the strangest is the Weymouth Cyclorama.

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In the collections at Weymouth Museum is a small cardboard box containing a roll of paper. The paper roll consists of a series of printed views of the Dorset coast, which have been stuck together on a linen backing to give a continuous picture of the coast from Portland Bill to Lulworth Cove as seen from the sea. From the steamships that are shown off Weymouth, I would date the roll to about 1825-30. It must have been part of a very expensive tourist souvenir.

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The box lid describes it as a Cycloramique View of Weymouth Bay, and incudes a drawing of the viewer. Clearly it was intended to turn the roll so the pictures moved in front of the viewer as though they were passing along the coast.
I naturally wanted to reconstruct the viewer.

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From high quality scans of the cyclorama images I was able to print off all the images and mount them together in a single strip. Even at ten centimetres high the strip was nearly four metres long.

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Then it was necessary to reconstruct the turning mechanism, I had no idea of how the original worked, but after several sessions of trial and error I created this.

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The surrounding box both contains the winding mechanism and holds it at a suitable distance from the viewers eyes. An internal partition gives a suitable frame for the view.

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The box was finally decorated and, by tuning the knobs, you can experience a voyage along the Dorset coast as it would have been nearly two hundred years ago.

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Reconstructing the Regency – The Dandy Toy

As part of a series of classes I will be giving on Regency life, using objects rather just pictures, I am reconstructing various objects that are either very rare or only survive in pictures. Of these toys are the rarest as they were usually played to pieces.

 English Ladies Dandy Toy cropped

I recently came across a print of 1818 entitled The English Ladies Dandy Toy, it shows a lady playing with a child’s toy, a Jumping Jack. This is a very ancient toy, which works by pulling the string making the legs move. The cartoon is probably a skit on the ‘Dandy’, the hyper-fashionable men of the early nineteenth century, suggesting that they are little more than toy boys for the ladies of the period, not real men.

 Dandy Toy detail

The ‘Dandy Toy’ the lady is holding is clearly a caricature of the dandy of the period, a thin, corseted waist (men wore tighter corsets than women at this time!) and the very high neck cloth which could prevent the men turning the head.

 Reconstruction 1

I naturally wanted to make a ‘Dandy Toy’, so took an outline plan of a jumping jack, then adapted it to something approaching the toy the lady is holding. This was then stuck to a sheet of card and painted.

 Reconstruction double

Finally it was cut out and fitted together with modern paper fasteners (the original would have used wire) and linked with heavy thread. And there I had a ‘Dandy Toy’.

 V0011689 A corpulent woman provides the pustule for the vaccination o

And here is one being used in a brilliant fashion, indeed just as one might be used today. To distract a child as it is being vaccinated. A contemporary view of the way in which one of the most important medical advances of all time was implemented.

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The Beginning of the Game, an Historical Tale.

All games must have a beginning, even if it has been lost in the metaphorical mists of time, but for one game there is a wonderful tale of how it was created ……..

 

The subaltern looked out of the window and swore, it was raining, not just a drizzle but a steady, heavy downpour. As he looked he saw a stable hand run towards the stable block, a sack protecting his head and shoulders, it was certain there would be no riding today.

Ostensibly it was a riding party, a group of people gathered together to enjoy a few days of riding in one of the best parts of the country. The unspoken reason for gathering together several young men and women was to ensure suitable matches were made, and the presence of several friendly, but observant, chaperones was to ensure that nothing unsuitable took place. But now it was ruined, the weather would prevent any riding out together.

They gathered in the great hall, several of the young women were very unhappy, they had ordered new riding habits, which hung unwanted in their rooms. One of them picked up a battledore and shuttlecock which lay on a bench and started to play, bouncing it up and down. One of the young men picked up a second battledore and called.

“To me.”

She lobbed the shuttlecock across to him and they knocked it to and fro, getting higher and higher.

“That’s too easy.” Called one of the men and, running downstairs, came back with a length of rope which he tied across the hall.

Knocking it over the rope made the game more fun and the couple continued to play until the girl knocked it very high, the man ran to hit it and almost stumbled into a cabinet beside the wall.

“Careful,” said one of the chaperones, “I think we should stop now.”

“Oh no!” said one of the girls, “We should just keep away from the wall.” She ran upstairs to the schoolroom and returned with some chalk. She drew a line on the flagged floor following the edge of some of the paving stones. She then paced out lines on the other side of the rope, and along each side. The game resumed.

Over the next two days, as long as the rain continued they kept on playing, developing the rules as they went, playing singles and doubles. The chaperones smiled approvingly as some pairs of players began to show a fondness for playing together.

By the time they left the house, two couples were engaged and the game was forgotten in the preparations for the weddings, the carefully developed rules languished in the pocket books of some of the participants.

Laura Theresa Alma-Tadema - Battledore and Shuttlecock

Battledore and Shuttlecock – Laura Theresa Alma-Tadema

A year later the subaltern found himself given the job of carrying dispatches to a governor of an Indian province, then staying in Simla, the summer capital of British India, high in the foothills of the Himalayas.

“At least you will be out of this dammed heat,” said one of his fellow officers, “at least for a few weeks. It’s only lucky devils who get a transfer to the hills.”

When he arrived, it was certainly cooler, but it was wet, it was raining incessantly. The governor greeted him cordially and invited him to dinner.

“It will be a couple of weeks before I can reply to these dispatches, I afraid you will have to remain here until then. And at the moment there is nothing much to do.”

“No, no games or parties or anything.” Said the governors eldest daughter, “we should all be playing outside, but there is nothing we can do indoors.”

“Last year,” replied the subaltern, “ I was with a party in a country house, it was weather like this and we made up a game, using battledores and shuttlecocks.”

Fascinated the governor’s wife and daughters listened as he described the game.

“Can we try?” asked the girls, laughing the governor agreed. An old hall was marked out and soon all the younger people of Simla were playing.

A few weeks later, the daughter was writing down the rules of the game to send to a friend of hers, along with the news of her engagement. She looked up at her fiancée and asked.

“What is the game called? we have just been calling it the game, but it must have a name.”

“We never gave it a name.” He replied.

“Then what was the name of the house where you invented it?”

“Badminton.”

 

And that, more or less, is the tale as told to me.

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A Woman’s Work

A little while ago I posted a blog illustrating the traditional poem ‘Dashing away with the Smoothing Iron’ with eighteenth and nineteenth century illustrations of women at work. Some people criticised the illustrations as offering an idealised image of working women, I hope they like this better. Here is a traditional couplet, the first line less well known than the second

Man’s work lasts till set of sun

Harvest Moon Helen Allingham

Woman’s work is never done

The Sleeping Kitchen Maid by Peter Jakob Horemans 1765

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Picking Darcy’s Pocket – A Model Dinner

As people who have read my blog before may realise, my study is a little cluttered, OK very cluttered. For this reason when I am looking for something in the back of a cupboard, or a draw, I often find something I had either forgotten I had, or which I thought I had lost. This happened the other day when I came across a box containing a group of old, miniature, china.

 Model plates

Now I had been looking for this group of china ever since I saw a compete set in Lytes Cary, a National Trust house not too many miles from here. There it was suggested that it dated from about 1800 (with which I would agree) and was a travelling tradesman’s sample set (with which I disagree). The pottery is simply too coarse to be a sample set of anything other than the roughest kitchen china, and who would carry around a set of that. No, I suspect that it is an educational toy, to help a young Georgian or Regency lady learn the complicated business of laying a table.

Today we dine in courses, a dish of fish or meat or something similar is served with a range of accompanying vegetables. These are all placed on the table, served, then the table would be cleared before the next course. This is technically called dining ‘à la russe’, however in the eighteenth century the practice was for dining ‘à la française’ where all the dishes, savoury as well as sweet would be laid on the table at once, the diners would then sit and serve themselves. If there were a large number of dishes, or the dinner was very formal or elaborate there would be two or three removes, when all the dishes would be cleared and a fresh set of dishes laid on the table.

This system was so complicated that cookbooks and advice manuals gave outline plans of how the table should be laid.

 Female Instructor Family Dinner Plan

From; The Female Instructor or Young Woman’s Companion being a guide to all the accomplishments which adorn the female character C1811

And this is where I think the miniature china comes in. I believe that it would have been used by a girl in about 1800 to lay out an imaginary meal, I like to think of Georgiana Darcy with such a set, laying out an elaborate dinner, under the helpful eye of Mrs Younge (before she turned bad and tried to arrange for Wickham to seduce her). Then nervously using this knowledge to plan the dinner at Pemberley for Elizabeth and the Gardiners, that they were never to eat as the letter from Jane announcing Lydia’s elopement arrived at just the wrong time.

But what was it like to go to a real dinner at this time, that will be the subject of a later blog.

 

In May 1812, Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy is walking down a London street. As has been his practice of late, he had been turning over the words of Elizabeth Bennet in his mind. ‘Had you acted in a more gentlemanlike manner’. Distracted, he doesn’t notice a shabby young man in a long coat brush past him. Israel Fagin, at the beginning of his long and disreputable career (which was to lead to literary fame and the condemned cell at Newgate), had taken something from his pocket – but what?

In the case of these toys, perhaps it is in about 1820, and Mr Darcy has just seen a group of china in a shop window, remembering the set his sister once owned he buys one for his own, or Jane Bingley’s, daughters.

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