Sunday, 25 August 2013

Slavery and the British Country House

The wealth that built the grand country houses in the 18th century coincided with Britain’s economic expansion through global trade and exploitation, notably in India, North America and the Caribbean.  How much of that links surviving houses to Caribbean slavery is explored in the new book published by English Heritage, often the accidental inheritor, on behalf of the state, of properties like Brodsworth Hall, Kenwood House, Bolsover Castle, Marble Hill, Northington Grange.   Evidence of direct links is difficult to track and tricky to interpret or quantify  and the assembled essays sometimes read like fascinating footnotes and suggestive sidebars, with entangled histories of transfers, re-building, finance.  Other houses investigated include Danson House, Dyrham Park, Piercefield, a clutch of once-rural retreats near Liverpool, several estates in Bristol, Somerset and Gloucestershire, and Osborne House (Victoria & Albert’s seaside home, with few links to the Caribbean in fabric or contents, but plenty to India).  One misses the striking example of Harewood House, bought and built by the Lascelles with cash from slave trading, plantations and loans to other planters, but this has been well-covered elsewhere.

Many connections are so hedged with (proper scholarly) qualifications regarding tenuous links between houses, owners, heirs, income, construction dates, lost fortunes, demolition, that one has a curious sense of historical concealment, as if slave trading and slave owning were always obscured.  Seldom is anything as clear as the investments in the Compagnie des Indes and the South Sea Company that funded the building of Marble Hill; and even that is partly speculative.  In 1710 Christopher Codrington of Dodington House left two plantations on Barbados to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, to maintain a theological school, with the result that in 1837 the Archbishop of Canterbury and other churchmen received £9000 and £13000 respectively in ‘compensation’ for the emancipation of their enslaved workforce.  Successive owners of Northington Grange, Henry Drummond and Alexander Baring had fingers in lots of pies and government business, so even while dependent on slavery-related investments the latter could truly deny, in a parliamentary debate, that he was not ‘a West India proprietor’, and argue as it were disinterestedly, that abolitionist accounts were ‘essentially false’.

If one remembers that most early banking and insurance in Britain developed in relation to slaving and sugar production, the complexities connecting British families and their dwellings to exploitation of Africans and other peoples around the world are not surprising, even if sometimes challenging to unravel.   Usefully, for a book priced at £50.00, EH offer a downloaded text – minus maps and illustrations – for free, at   


Monday, 19 August 2013

Murals at Red House

These two views above show before and after the startling revelations under paper and panelling in the drawing room at Red House -- the startlingly bright and crisp patterning above and beneath Burne-Jones's Sir Degravant narrative episodes.  The Qui bien aime tard oublie design, all surely done by Morris himself,  extends under the dado right round the end [south] wall from window to door while the repeating scatter of roses on dark green fills the roof gable either side of the loft door.  It's the  decoration Morris conceived and created for his  first big project, and foreshadows so much else.  Revealing the full extent also optically enlarges the Degravant panels, previously cramped between battens holding the protective glass, to give them their  correct proportion in relation to wall and room.
The sloping ceiling was also patterned - fragments have been uncovered to date, and if one imagines the now-white-painted woodwork in its original hues - ox blood, maybe also decorated - then the original scheme grows even more splendid, in the manner of Cardiff Castle and Castell Coch.  William Burges was in fact an early visitor to Red House, and presumably absorbed the effect of Morris's whole decorative intention, to  be more professionally but not more excitingly copied.   below a photo of the uncovering in progress which gives a slightly better view than the before-and-after shots.  But none quite conveys the visual thrill of entering the room to see the designs in real view.
The National Trust has devoted more media attention to the interesting and intriguing but less impressive wall paintings in the bedroom alongside the drawing room -largely because they are figurative, albeit in a sorry state.   Almost equally exciting however because drawn from the medieval Golden Legend, with quotations running below the figures, and the Golden Legend was one of Morris's key sourcebooks, to which he and Burne-Jones returned for what proved their final project.  The Golden Legend inspired the Kelmscott Press, and was one of the first texts to be printed there.
From left to right the Red House mural shows Adam & Eve, with serpent; Noah cradling a model ark, Rachel looking sad, and Jacob with a foot on his ladder. 
Although the figures seem painted in a na├»ve almost childlike manner, the concept is in fact sophisticated, for the frieze is drawn to represent a fabric hanging in folds, like a curtain or unstretched tapestry, so that some figures are half-unseen and the whole unevenly visible.  Morris was surely responsible for subject and design, but the authorship of the figures is debated and conjectural.  Ideas currently invoke early widow designs:  a similar Noah by Madox Brown is in Troutbeck church, while Adam & Eve resemble a Rossetti stained glass design.  For sentiment's sake Rachel is allocated to Elizabeth Siddal, since one of her few surviving letters refers to painting a figure on a wall at Red House; as yet Jacob has no firm contenders.  A better image and some rather garbled copy here:
At a stroke, the interior of Red House has become 100% more interesting, in relation to its architectural design, visual impact and daily experience; in respect of its inspiration for the Firm and Morris's future design career; and in regard to our understanding of Morris's lifelong creative impulses and energies.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Italian Gardens Old and Modern 8

When I spoke at the beginning of this very prosaic chapter, of the necessity of getting rid of all your English knowledge of gardening matters, I meant that times and seasons being so absolutely different in the two countries, the routine of garden work differs in toto.  Thus, for some years I held to the English practice of striking chrysanthemum cuttings in the late autumn, and having the plants in their flowering pots and staked by July, as one would at home.  The result was that they were weedy, drawn-up things long before the first of November, by which date one expects to have them in flower.  Now, partly from inability to do much in the garden, I leave them entirely to Eugenio, who has had the sense to profit by his friendship with a very good grower of these, and the results are much more satisfactory.  The cuttings are taken much later;  in January or even early in February, they are shifted on, just as they would be at home; but in June they are cut back absolutely to the earth, one or two brown twigs sticking up out of each pot; and anyone looking at the rows of some two hundred or three hundred apparently empty pots, would be puzzled to know what they were supposed to contain.  But a little foliage soon begins to appear, in the end of July they are  moved into their flowering pots, and by the end of August present a most flourishing appearance.
They are one of the flowers that best repay cultivation here, but Italians detest them for two reasons.  The first is, that, as a nurseryman said to me one day, “when you have re-potted your camellias and azaleas and plants of that class, you may leave them alone, only for the watering.  But with these (the chrysanthemums), you must be after them all the time”.  This is quite true.  The other reason is, that they are called the “flowers of the dead,” coming into bloom as they do, just at Ognissanti, the first of November, when every available bud and blossom is requisitioned for funeral wreaths to be carried to the cemeteries.  On a fine first of November, and for many succeeding days, the roads leading to the cemeteries are one moving mass of flower-laden people.  The poorest people manage to have their little offering, if it is only a small bunch of flowers; and all along the roads, booths and tables are stationed, with wreaths piled up on them to tempt the passers-by.  I remember once when I was buying some plants from a neighbouring gardener and asked if I could have some particularly fine pot plants that were not for sale: “No, signora!” said the old man, “I can’t give you those; they are for my old master’s grave, and I am going to place them on it at Ognissanti.”   The master had been dead for many years, but the gardener was most faithful in his attachment to his memory.  The feelings is so general that I am always nervous about the safety of our chrysanthemums during that week, and like, if possible, to get them into their quarters in the court-yard, rather than leave them down in the garden, perilously near the low wall that separates us from the highroad.

Ognissanti is, to my mind, a beautiful festa, and one that I always miss much if I am in England then, where there may, or may not be, a dull church service, but where there is none of the outward demonstration of feeling that links us on with those who have gone before.  The weather is often very fine then, and though Ognissanti  used to be the date fixed by immemorable custom for  getting all the big lemon plants and other tender things into their winter quarters, it is often possible to defer this for a week or fortnight later.  In our own case, with our very inadequate provision for winter shelter, I am always glad to keep the plants out as long as possible, and to get them out in spring as early as may be.

There is considerable rivalry now-a-days among the Anglo-Italian gardening folk in the matter of chrysanthemum growing.  Last year I was absent in England for eight months, not returning till the spring, and so missed my own small show, but I heard it was very creditable to Eugenio, who takes a deep interest in these plants, and whom I suspect of harbouring the idea of exhibiting in the near future.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Italian Gardens Old and Modern 7

I regret to say we found he had taken with him a  watch belonging to one of the servants, and had lef an accumulation of debts a the village near us, and, what I did not know till later, had abstracted a sum of money entrusted to him to hand to my wood-merchant.  I had been suddenly called to Rome, to friends who were in great trouble, and having written to the wood-merchant to call for the money due to him, did not wish him to have a fruitless journey, and had left it for him with the gardener.  On my return I should, of course, have asked for the receipt, but I was so worn out with grief and fatigue, that I had to go to bed for some days, and entirely forgot the matter.  That was quit the most curious and unpleasant experience of the kind that I have ever had, and when I betook myself to the residence of the German baron, and informed Angiolino’s sponsor of what had occurred, he at first flatly declined to believe my tale of woe.  One quite understands the reluctance felt by people of all ranks and classes in Tuscany ever to recommend, for, as they say, if they do so, the object “disgraces” them.  Great pity was felt for this young man’s father and family, who were most honest, hard-working people.
I was thus left, just at the beginning of the busy spring season, to find another gardener, - visitors in the house, and others in prospect.  The youth whom Angiolino had imported was some years younger than he, and had had very little experience of garden work, having been only employed as a general “help” in a  florist’s establishment; but he seemed to me of a good disposition, and honest and industrious.  So I thought I would give him a trial.  To this day I have never been able to decide whether his having been brought to my house as he was, was a “plant” between him and Angiolino or not; on the whole, I incline to think that it was.  It would be quite in the Tuscan order of things that Angiolino should have disclosed his plans to his friend, and said, “You come and help me for a month, and I will show you all the ways and the dodges, and then, if you please the Signora, perhaps she’ll give you a trial, and after that, you must look to yourself.”   They are a most intricate people, in spite of a certain child-like simplicity of demeanour which, however, is on the surface only.

This boy, Eugenio, has now been nearly four years    with me, and has developed into a very fair gardener.  Like other people, he has his good and bad points, but, on the whole, the former preponderate. I have so far found him absolutely honest and straight in money matters, extremely industrious and hard-working, of a most obliging disposition, and, what is to me of supreme importance, he is very devoted to our pets.
His weak point is a certain tendency to shelter himself from unpleasant consequences by telling lies.  I make the same rule in the garden, that we  have always done indoors, in regard to accidents and breakages; viz., that if these are at once frankly confessed, reproof will be of the mildest description; but, that if I am left to discover these and kindred misfortunes, things will be made decidedly unpleasant for the culprit.  It is very difficult to induce the Tuscan mind to live up to this standard of frankness, and on several occasions, Eugenio’s deficiencies in the art of speaking the truth have brought him into dire disgrace.  The rule that if I discover any special plants dying or dead, he is obliged to replace them (with reasonable limits) has proved most salutary.  On two occasions during his incumbency I have been obliged to call in the assistance of parental authority, and a most decent-looking old contadino has appeared on the scene, with the happiest results.  On the last of these occasions I was detailing his iniquities with some warmth, when the old man nodded his head gently, and said “Dear Signora, leave the boy to me.  His mother and I will have a little conversation when he comes home next Sunday, and you will see he will be all right.” I could not help wondering if these arguments would be enforced with any applications of a weightier description.

The boy is the youngest of a large family, and has never done his military service, according to the rule that, when three brothers have serves, the fourth is exempt, as is also the only son of a widow.  Privately, I have a sneaking affection for Eugenio, who though only a kind of grown-up child, has really profited by his opportunities in a way that does credit to his intelligence, and who takes a great pride in his small domain.  For myself, I never go into any garden, private or public, large or small, without learning something; it may be only a negative something of what is to be avoided, but more generally there is a leaf of good to be taken out of your neighbour’s book.  But this is an attitude of spirit not understood by the average Tuscan peasant, who is either so conceited that he fancies all he does is perfection, or too unobservant to bestow any thoughts on other people’s ways.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Ira Aldridge and Baron Nagell's Running Footman

Last year a hitherto unknown version of the portrait of Ira Aldridge by James Northcote now in Manchester Art Gallery (which is on the front cover of BLACK VICTORIANS) was acquired on long loan by the National Portrait Gallery where after conservation it has gone on display in the room featuring literary and theatrical figures from the early 19th century.  Taking as it were a normal position in the contemporary pantheon.

It shows Aldridge half-length in a  white satin stage costume, presumably in the character of Othello, the part he played to acclaim in London and Manchester in 1826 and 1827, and thereafter all over Europe until his death in Lodz in 1867, if not on stage then almost.

Coincidentally the Tate has recently acquired a fine pastel portrait by Ozias Humphry, which after extensive research has been identified with 'Crayon Picture no.4 The Black Running Footman of the Baron Nagel 3/4 length' listed in a manuscript catalogue of Humphry's collection, and originally exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1795.
Baron van Nagell van Ampsen was Dutch ambassador to London from 1788, which helps the identification through the tricolour of the sitter's cap and costume, like the Netherlands' national flag. 

A contemporary reference to Nagell at the Court of St James recorded that he made ' a splendid appearance with his footmen in scarlet and silver and a gay page or running footman was vastly well received'.  Running footmen were messengers in the days before texting and telephoning, like bike couriers today, between wealthy households, offices, parliament and coffee houses. The Tate is hoping to find the sitter's name from Nagell's correspondence. 

As Tate points out, this is a notable addition to the collection, which otherwise only includes two copies of Reynolds' study of a young man thought to be Francis Barber,  John Downman's pencil drawing of Thomas Williams, a Liverpool seaman, and John Simpson's head study for his full-length painting The Captive Slave. 

I have always wondered if Simpson's subject was painted from Ira Aldridge - an obvious and apparently willing sitter at this date - and I'm delighted that Tate has both currently put the work on display probably for the first time and also added the conjectural identification.  The facial features look decidedly similar.



Rose Macaulay and biographical ghost-hunting

“I think this is what a biography is meant to be: a folding-in of all the ingredients, the living, the loving, the writing, to make a rich pudding. Oh dear.’
So writes Sarah LeFanu in her biographer’s journal Dreaming of Rose, which chronicles her researches, writing and rewriting of her book on Rose Macaulay’s life, which involved travels to the Macaulay homes in Wales, Cambridgeshire and the Ligurian coast as well as foot-stepping Rose to Herrick’s Devon village for They Were Defeated and her trip to the Black Sea for The Towers of Trebizond.  She also goes to Ireland, where Rose’s long-term secret lover had been a popular priest before leaving the church for marriage and fatherhood.

There’s something of Macaulay’s own clear-eyed rejection of romance and glamour in LeFanu’s wry observational style, as well as a touch of her subject’s abjection, as when both authors deprecate their own books or (silently) envy others’ success. Above all it’s a beguiling mix of literary pudding, detective scholarship mingling with daily life and paid work, current reading and personal memories such as when she and a friend sneaked from Cheltenham Ladies College to Brian Jones’s funeral, hiding their uniforms in a hedge behind the public lavatories.
There’s local tragedy too, in the suicides of a neighbour and his son, and snatches of friendship with other writers, intermingled with radio broadcasting and creative writing for visually-impaired students.  The narrative thread, almost invisibly woven in, covers long hours in libraries, copying ancient letters and microfilmed newspapers, obtaining inter-library loans and talking or failing to talk to those who knew Rose Macaulay.  Oh, and dreams, of course – of Ivy Compton Burnett, ‘hair sculpted as ever like an over-turned chamber pot … a silent but powerful presence’; and of being handed a book by RM in bookshop with a title like Veruca of which Sarah  had never heard, its pages stuffed with edibles like olives, so that even wearing gloves as she turned the pages her fingers were smeary with oil.

I expect most biographers are familiar with these vivid dreams invaded by one’s subject in incomprehensible guises. I also often used to dream of writing the perfect paragraph that conveyed exactly what I wished to convey,  and even repeating it in the dream so it would be remembered…. I began a similar journal when writing about Christina Rossetti, only to find life and research so uncannily full of coincidence and correspondence that I desisted for fear of what might happen. 
LeFanu writes wittily and economically of writing as wrestling; of searching for a non-chronological opening only to eventually settle on ‘Emilie Rose Macaulay was born on…’; of the ethics of telling other people’s stories irrespective of what they wished to conceal; and of completion, when finishing a book is more like divorce than like sending a child on its first day at school, least of all like giving birth. Endless niggling details backward and forwards, letters of supplication over quotations and illustrations – ‘a hundred tiny ties to the book I want to cast off’.