Titian: Love, Desire, Death

The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square has reopened with a small exhibition about Titian’s interpretation of Classical myths. Known as the poesie, Titian: Love, Desire, Death, reunites all six paintings for the first time in centuries. Painted for Prince Philip of Spain, the future King Philip II, these artworks demonstrate Titian’s talent at the height of his career as well as his ability to capture a story. Unlikely to be displayed together again anytime soon, this exhibition is a rare opportunity to see some of the greatest paintings in Europe.

Titian had already had a long career before he started working on the poesie. Born sometime around 1488, Tiziano Vecelli (Titian was his anglicised name) was the son of Gregorio and Lucia, who, although there is little information about them, were related to notaries in Venice. When he was about ten years old, Titian and his brother Francesco (c.1475-1560) became apprentices of Gentile Bellini (1429-1507) and Giovanni Bellini (c.1430-1516), who were the leading artists in Venice at the time.

While in Venice, Titian met and became the assistant of Giorgione (c.1477-1510), but it was clear to clients that Titian’s paintings far surpassed his master’s. He was also in charge of finishing paintings left by Giovanni Bellini and received commissions to paint the portraits of five Doges of Venice.

After Giorgione and the Bellini’s had passed away, Titian began to come into his own, developing his mature style. For the following 60 years, he was considered the master of Venetian painting. Titian’s first masterpiece was the Assumption of the Virgin, which is still in situ in the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa Dei Frari, Venice. He continued to paint for churches for the next few decades, producing many artworks on a religious theme.

During the 1520s, Titian also began to produce paintings on a mythological theme. A few of these artworks were commissions from Alfonso d’Este (1476-1534), Duke of Ferrara, for his private rooms. Titian also worked for Alessandro Farnese (1520-89), an Italian cardinal, for whom he produced one of his famous paintings, Danaë. Titian made several copies of this scene, including one that forms part of the poesie.

As time went on, Titian’s style became more dramatic and vibrant, plus he was a popular choice for portraits. He painted portraits of people high up in society, including royalty, Doges and cardinals, as well as artists and writers. “…no other painter was so successful in extracting from each physiognomy so many traits at once characteristic and beautiful.” (The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913)

In 1546, Titian visited Rome and received the freedom of the city, a privilege that once belonged to Michelangelo (1457-1546). He was also in the running to succeed Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547) as Keeper of the Seal to the Papacy and take Holy Orders, but he had to return to Venice to work for Charles V (1500-58) and his son, Philip (1527-98).

For the last 26 years of his life, Titian predominantly worked for Philip II as a portrait painter. By this time, he had become a perfectionist and was very critical of his work, often reworking paintings for years until he was satisfied. When Titian met Philip, the 21-year-old prince was on a tour of the European countries he would soon rule over. The first meeting was organised by Charles V, who was then Titian’s patron, to paint a portrait of Philip. Pleased with the result, Philip became another of Titian’s patrons.

The six poesie, produced between 1551 to 1562, were the result of an open commission from Philip in which he gave Titian free reign of the subject matter. Titian produced paintings of both religious and secular themes, six of which were mythological scenes based on Ovid’s (43 BC-c.AD17) Metamorphoses. These six paintings became known as the poesie because Titian considered them to be visual equivalents to poetry. They covered many themes, including, love, desire and death.

When Philip became the King of Spain in 1556, Titian’s importance increased. He was now the painter for the most powerful man in the world. As well as Spain, Philip II ruled over the Netherlands, Genoa, Milan, Naples and a handful of American colonies. He later became the King of Portugal and was briefly the king consort of England through his marriage to Mary I (1516-58). Philip was a great lover of art and filled his palaces and houses with paintings. Since he had no fixed place of residence, there were several buildings to decorate, making Titian and other artists of the time very valuable to the king.

Considered to be one of the first paintings of the poesie to be completed is Danaë, a copy of one of Titian’s earlier paintings. Since there are at least six versions, it is unsure which one he sent to Philip II. In some versions, a nursemaid is depicted with Danaë and in others, she is alone or with the figure of Cupid.

Princess Danaë was the daughter of Acrisius, the King of Argos, who had imprisoned her in a bronze tower after learning from an oracle that her future son was destined to kill him. Whilst the tower protected her from mortal suitors, it was no barrier for the Roman gods, particularly Jupiter, king of the Olympians, who had fallen in love with Danaë.

According to Ovid, Jupiter entered Danaë’s tower disguised as a shower of gold, which her elderly maid attempted to catch in the hopes of bringing her youth. Jupiter impregnated Danaë who later gave birth to a son, Perseus. Still intent on preventing his fate, Acrisius forced his daughter and grandson into a chest and threw them into the ocean. Fortunately, Polydectes, King of Serifos, rescued them and Perseus grew up to fulfil the prophecy. At a sports contest, Perseus’s discus struck Acrisius’ head, killing him instantly.

In the story, of which there are several tellings in addition to Ovid’s, Jupiter raped Danaë, but Titian did not depict a struggle. Instead, he painted the nude Danaë lying on a bed, seemingly expectant of events to come as she calmly let Jupiter’s golden shower descend upon her. British art historian, Kenneth Clark (1903-83) claimed in The Nude, A Study in Ideal Form, Danaë’s body was “clearly based on drawings of Michelangelo … At every point Michelangelo’s grandiose invention has been transformed from an embodiment of spiritual malaise into an embodiment of physical satisfaction.”

Danaë was sent to Philip in 1553 while he resided in either Madrid or Valladolid. There is some damage to the surface, possibly caused during transport, which has revealed some of Titian’s preliminary studies below the paint. It appears he originally intended to include an image of Jupiter’s head, which he later did in another version of the painting.

Diana and Actaeon, now owned by the National Gallery and the National Galleries of Scotland, portrays the moment the hunter, Actaeon, stumbled across the goddess Diana and her nymphs bathing. Diana, the goddess of the hunt, was renowned for being a virgin goddess, so it was forbidden for mortal men to see her naked. Outraged by the intrusion, Diana turned Actaeon into a stag so that he could not tell anyone what he had seen.

Titian painted Diana, who can be identified by her crescent moon crown, hastily covering herself with the help of a black woman. It is uncertain whether this woman is one of the nymphs or if she was Diana’s maid or servant. Given the era Titian worked, it is more likely to be the latter. Nonetheless, Titian has painted the dark-skinned woman with great care. Unlike Diana and the nymphs who have a generic body shape that is common to many Renaissance paintings, Titian may have used a model for Diana’s maid.

Ovid wrote that Diana was enraged with Actaeon, yet Titian did not depict that emotion in his painting. Instead, Diana fixes Actaeon with a glare, causing the innocent Actaeon to realise he has witnessed something he should not. The nymphs are more expressive, reaching for something to cover their bodies or hiding behind a pillar.

Although Actaeon is still in human form, Titian hid a few symbols in the painting to indicate the hunter’s fate. In the foreground, Diana’s lapdog barks at and frightens Actaeon’s much larger hounds. In the background, a small figure is hunting a deer and, on top of the stone pillar, is a stag’s skull, suggesting that not only would Actaeon be transformed into the animal, he will also be killed.

Titian painted Diana in another of his paintings based on Ovid’s story, Diana and Callisto. The scene Titian chose to depict occurs midway through the tale after Callisto has been raped by Jupiter who tricked his way into the nymph’s presence disguised as Diana.

Knowing Diana demanded chastity, Callisto kept the attack secret, but she was pregnant and could not hide it forever. When Callisto was eight months pregnant, Diana and the nymphs decided to bathe together. When Callisto did not remove her clothing, the other nymphs stripped her, revealing her swollen stomach. Although the situation was not Callisto’s fault, Diana, who once considered Callisto to be her favourite nymph, immediately cried, “Be gone! This sacred spring must not be polluted!”

It is this moment Titian captured in paint, revealing the struggling Callisto’s pregnant stomach and Diana’s dismissal of the nymph. Critics claim Diana and Callisto to be the most dramatic painting in the poesie. Callisto’s bloodshot eyes and body language indicate her desperation. She is a rape victim but is being shunned by her only friends rather than supported.

Callisto’s distress indicates her banishment from Diana’s presence is not the end of the story. After Callisto had given birth to a boy, Arcus, Jupiter’s jealous wife Juno discovered her husband’s infidelity. Rather than confronting Jupiter, she took her anger out on Callisto, transforming her into a bear. For years, Callisto roamed the forest until, many years later, she met her adolescent son out hunting. Frightened, Arcus pointed his weapon at his mother, but Jupiter intervened, picking them both up and transforming them into constellations: the Great Bear (Ursa Major) and the Herdsman.

Titian’s painting of Venus and Adonis is slightly different from the others in that there is no portrayal of violence, wrongdoing or punishment. It is a scene Titian painted several times, each slightly different, although the figures of Venus and Adonis remained in the same pose.

Adonis was an orphan who had been brought up by Proserpine, the Queen of the Underworld. Known for his good looks, Adonis attracted the attention of Venus, the goddess of beauty, who became his lover. The scene Titian painted shows the pair after a night of lovemaking. Venus, still unclothed, is begging Adonis not to go out hunting. She is warning him of the dangers of wild beasts, but he is insistent on going out with his hounds.

Venus was right to worry about her lover. Instead of heeding her advice, Adonis chased and hunted wild beasts and was killed by a boar. According to the story, Venus found her lover bleeding to death and, unable to save him, shed copious tears. Where her tears fell on Adonis’ blood, red anemones grew.

Titian captured the flexing muscles of the goddess as she desperately tried to prevent him from leaving. Adonis, on the other hand, is painted mid-stride, already determined to go out hunting. Titian included a slight hint of hesitation in Adonis’ stance but his face hints of incomprehension, unaware of his fate.

Titian sent this painting to Philip in London where he had just married Mary I. Titian explained in a letter, Venus and Adonis complemented his painting of Danaë. Both females had a similar, if not the same, body: one shown from the front and the other from the back. When placed together, the viewer could see the complete figure, thus competing with sculptures of a similar nature.

Of Titian’s poesie, his painting of Perseus and Andromeda has received the most damage over time. Sent to Philip while he was residing in Ghent in 1556, it was sold or gifted less than two decades later. In total, the painting has changed hands at least fifteen times, resulting in its poor condition. A lot of the colour has faded, making the paint seem darker than intended. The blue pigment, for example, has become grey in some places.

The story of Perseus, the son of Danaë, is fairly well-known, or at least bits of it, such as how he killed the snake-haired gorgon, Medusa. On his return, wearing winged sandals, Perseus flew across the Kingdom of Ethiopia where he came across Andromeda chained to a rock. Andromeda was the daughter of Queen Cassiopeia who boasted that her daughter was more beautiful than the sea nymphs. Offended by this, Neptune, the god of the sea sent Ceto, a giant sea creature, to attack the kingdom. To appease Neptune, Andromeda sacrificed herself as bait for the monster.

Fortunately, Perseus arrived before Ceto could attack Andromeda. Using the head of Medusa, whose gaze turned living beings to stone, Perseus froze the sea monster. Having fallen in love with Andromeda on sight, Perseus had secured her hand in marriage before saving her, and they went on to live a relatively happy life – at least in comparison to the majority of Classical myths.

Titian’s use of expressive brushstrokes helped to capture the movement of Perseus as he swooped towards the sea monster. They also make the sea look violent and dangerous, and the dark rocks forbidding. In comparison, Andromeda’s pale skin makes her appear vulnerable and innocent.

The Rape of Europa

The Rape of Europa was the final painting Titian sent to Philip and thus concluded his poesie. Similar to Perseus and Andromeda, time and handling have damaged parts of the painting, causing some of the blue pigment to turn brown. Nonetheless, Titian’s expressive brushstrokes and detail are still visible.

Europa, the daughter of King Agenor of Phoenicia, had unknowingly drawn the attention of Jupiter with her beauty. While Europa and her friends were relaxing on the beach, Jupiter approached the princess in the guise of a snow-white bull. Fascinated by the creature, the girls gathered around him and Europa, rather foolishly, climbed on his back. Suddenly, the bull took off, carrying her to Crete where Jupiter raped her.

Despite not being the nicest of stories, the myth was widely interpreted in art and literature. Ovid had written about Europa in his Metamorphoses as well as his previous work, Fasti. Titian also used the 2nd-century book The Adventures of Leucippe and Clitophon by Achilles Tatius for inspiration.

Titian’s rapid brushstrokes emphasise the speed of the bull as it charges through the water. Europa’s hair and clothing appear to be flailing around in all directions as she desperately clings onto the bull so that she does not drown in the sea. Her eyes are wild in fear, but some critics suggest her body language evokes excitement and her red scarf symbolises passion.

To contrast with the rapid speed of the bull, Titian included a graceful dolphin in the background and a couple of cherubs gliding through the air. A third cherub sits upon a fish while another more vicious-looking fish swims alongside the bull, foreshadowing the next part of the story.

The Death of Actaeon

The National Gallery included a seventh painting in their exhibition that is not considered part of Titian’s poesie. Titian may have intended to send it to Philip, however, he never completed it. It is thought someone else tried to complete the painting, although they left out the bowstring and arrow held by the female archer.

The Death of Actaeon concludes the story Titian depicted in Diana and Actaeon. After being turned into a stag, Actaeon fled from the scene but was chased by his hounds who eventually caught him and tore him apart. Titian portrayed Actaeon in mid-transformation between man and stag surrounded by a blur of movement to indicate the vicious attack from his dogs.

In the foreground, a female archer, presumably Diana, aims an invisible arrow at Actaeon. In the story, Diana is not involved in Actaeon’s death, so Titian has embellished the myth with his imagination. All the paintings in the poesie featured fleshy women, which may be why Titian included Diana in this scene.

Titian was in his mid-80s when he was working on The Death of Actaeon. He had been working on his poesie for just over a decade. Whilst they are considered to be some of his best works, these paintings did not remain in the Spanish Royal Collection for long. Philip’s successors were prudish and did not like Titian’s nude figures.

Pietà

While working on the poesie, Titian accepted other commissions, including decorations for churches. He continued to take on these jobs right up to the end of his life. His last painting was a rather dark Pietà, which, along with his other artworks of a similar nature, suggests he was very aware of his age and inevitable mortality.

Titian spent his final days in Venice where the bubonic plague raged through the city. It is not certain if Titian caught the plague, but he passed away after suffering from a fever on 27th August 1576. As it is impossible to determine his exact date of birth, Titian would have been somewhere between the ages of 85 and 100 at his passing.

Before his death, Titian had chosen the chapel of the Crucifix in the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa Dei Frari as his final resting place. When interred, there was no memorial to mark his grave, although one of his paintings hung nearby. Centuries later, the Austrian rulers of Venice commissioned Antonio Canova (1757-1822) to produce a monument in Titian’s honour, which remains in the church to date.

Titian left no will, but other documents have revealed information about his family. His first wife was called Cecilia with whom he had two sons, Pomponio and Orazio (1528-76), and a daughter who died in infancy. Sadly, Cecilia died in 1530, and it is thought Pomponio also predeceased his father. Titian remarried and had another daughter called Lavinia, who often modelled for his paintings. A fourth child, Emilia, may have been the result of an affair with a housekeeper. When Titian died, Orazio was his only heir but died soon after from the plague.

Titian produced around 400 paintings of which 300 survive. Many of these ended up in private collections, but galleries have been able to purchase a handful. Diana and Actaeon was bought by the National Gallery and the National Galleries of Scotland for £50 million in 2009. Diana and Callisto was bought for a similar amount three years later.

It may seem expensive at £12 a ticket to attend the exhibition Titian: Love, Desire, Death, which only consists of seven paintings, however, it is a once in a lifetime chance to see the entire poesie in one room. Titian is considered to be the most important member of the 16th-century Venetian school and earned the nickname “The Sun Amidst Small Stars” from his contemporaries. He was one of the most versatile Italian painters and has influenced generations of artists. This small exhibition allows each painting to be admired in detail, thus receiving the respect they deserve.

Titian: Love, Desire, Death is open until 17th January 2021. Tickets must be bought online in advance. Concessions are available, including for NHS workers.

London Calling

Punk Rock band The Clash may seem like an odd choice of an exhibition for the Museum of London to host, but for a brief time, it was a popular attraction for people of several generations. Based on one of the band’s best songs, London Calling, the exhibition examined how the capital city influenced the popular 20th-century British band.

The Clash in 1980

The Clash was formed in 1976 at a time when Punk was the leading genre of music. Rather than jumping on the bandwagon, The Clash became pioneers of a blend of styles, including reggae, dub, funk, jazz and hip hop. Although they had several turbulent years, the band went on to be one of the most iconic of the era, reaching the Top 10 in the USA.

Before forming The Clash, singer and guitarist John Graham Mellor (1952-2002) played in a band called The 101’ers. He quickly dropped his real name and went under the stage name Joe Strummer, referencing his guitar playing skills. After a gig, Strummer was approached by bass player Paul Simonon (b.1955) and guitarist Mick Jones (b.1955) to ask if he would be interested in joining a band they were forming. Keith Levene (b.1957), a guitarist, was also a founding member of The Clash but was soon fired due to his lack of interest in the band and rumoured use of drugs.

With Strummer on board, The Clash came to life under the management of Bernard Rhodes (b.1944), a record producer who also had connections with the influential punk rock band The Sex Pistols. Rhodes was a rather unorthodox manager and may have influenced the band’s manifesto: “We’re anti-Fascist, we’re anti-violence, we’re anti-racist and we’re pro-creative.”

Bernard Rhodes encouraged the band to write about the issues in society that affected their lives. For example, living in run-down areas of London, The Clash were regularly witnessing racism, violence and trouble with the police, all of which crept into their lyrics. They also wrote about drugs, boredom and tower blocks. Their music was influenced by the areas they lived, for example, Simonon had a preference for reggae after growing up in Brixton and Ladbroke Grove where there was a growing population of blacks and West Indians.

In January 1977, The Clash signed up with American broadcasting network CBS and welcomed the drummer, Terry Chimes (1956) to the band. Together, they released their first album, The Clash, which featured tracks such as London’s Burning and White Riot. The latter was in reference to police retaliation against a group of rioting black people.

Terry Chimes did not last long with the band, and Mick Jones revealed in an interview, “I don’t think Terry was officially hired or anything. He had just been playing with us.” After Chimes had left the band, The Clash held auditions for a new drummer and, despite having hundreds of applicants, there was only one man they thought good enough: “We must have tried every drummer that then had a kit. I mean every drummer in London. I think we counted 205. And that’s why we were lost until we found Topper Headon.” (Joe Strummer)

Nicholas Bowen “Topper” Headon, so nicknamed because he resembled Mickey the Monkey in the Topper comic books, joined The Clash intending to make a name for himself as a drummer before moving on to bigger things. Yet, he soon realised the band’s potential and stayed with them for four and a half years until he was forced to leave due to heroin addiction in 1982.

Headon brought a new dimension to the band, having grown up in Dover, Kent rather than London. As well as the drums, he could play the guitar, bass and piano when needed, which was a real bonus for the band. A year after Headon had joined, The Clash released their second, more controversial album, Give ‘Em Enough Rope.

By this time, The Clash was gaining fans in America as well as England, touring the USA twice in 1979. Despite this, they continued to get themselves in trouble with the police, as they had done in their teens and were arrested for shooting racing pigeons in Camden, London, and for starting a punch-up with bouncers in Glasgow. These violent actions were a result of pent up emotions and even followed them onto the stage where Simonon smashed his bass guitar in frustration.

Simonon’s destruction was caught on camera by photographer Pennie Smith (b.1949), which they used on the cover of their next album, London Calling. The album, which features a song of the same name, was voted the best album of the 1980s and remains at number eight in the Greatest Albums Of All Time. It was this album and song title that inspired the Museum of London’s exhibition.

London Calling was released in 1979 (1980 in the USA) and was named after the BBC World Service’s radio identification: “This is London calling …” used in broadcasts during the Second World War. The song, written by Strummer and Jones, features a politically charged rant that reflected their apocalyptic fears, particularly after the partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, which caused panic in the area.

The song also reflected concerns about the River Thames flooding: “London is drowning / And I live by the river”. Flooding had been a problem in London for centuries but, after the North Sea flood of 1953, which affected the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Belgium, people began to fear the River Thames could burst its banks and flood the entirety of Central London. In order to prevent such an event, discussions began about various methods, resulting in the construction of the Thames Barrier. When The Clash wrote London Calling, the barrier had already been under construction for five years but would not be completed until 1984.

The Clash also alluded to their run-ins with the police: “We ain’t got no swing / Except for the ring of that truncheon thing”. Having attended many riots in London, members of the band were very familiar with the Metropolitan Police’s truncheons, which were standard equipment at the time. A truncheon or baton is a compliance tool and defensive weapon used by the police until the 1990s. The first “policeman’s club” was recorded in 1856 and if it had the Royal Crest painted on it, it also acted as a Warrant Card. The Clash’s experience with these truncheons would have been negative, making the police appear to be attacking people rather than trying to bring situations to order.

Despite being a popular record, London Calling was criticised due to its allusion to recreational drugs: “We ain’t got no high / Except for that one with the yellowy eyes”. It is likely all the band members had some experience with drugs or addiction as it turned out in Headon’s case. The song also expressed their financial worries. The Clash had never intended to make money with their music but sales had done well at the beginning. A few years on, their income had dwindled and they were facing high debts. “Now don’t look to us / Phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust”. “Beatlemania” refers to the fan frenzy surrounding The Beatles during the 1960s. The Clash had a similar but briefer experience that ended in 1977.

In emphasis of all these worries and potential apocalyptic dangers, the song fades out to a beat that spells S-O-S in Morse Code. Despite the pessimistic nature of the lyrics, London Calling went to number 11 in the UK Charts and has been hailed by critics as their best song. In recent years, the track has been used by Arsenal Football Club as an opening anthem at home games.

Regardless of their success with London Calling, trouble continued to find The Clash, beginning with Strummer’s arrest in Hamburg, Germany after hitting a member of the audience over the head with his guitar. The incident occurred after a group of people disrupted the concert because they were disappointed in the music choices. The Clash was moving away from the Punk Rock genre and experimenting with other styles of music, which they released in 1980 on their fourth album, Sandinista!

Sandinista! was named after the socialist political party Sandinista National Liberation Front, which had just seized power in Nicaragua, thus ending the dictatorial Somoza dynasty. The Clash, who identified with left-wing ideological sentiments were in favour of these left-wing rebels. Many of the tracks on the album referred to political issues around the world, for instance, Washington Bullets, which mentions the Cuban Revolution, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Dalai Lama, and the death of communist Victor Jara (1932-73).

The Clash continued to be daring in their style of music, which increased their popularity, particularly in the USA. Between May and June 1981, the band performed 17 times at Bond’s Casino in New York’s Times Square where they became aware of post-Vietnam War opinions, which became the basis of their next album, Combat Rock.

Combat Rock reached number two in the UK album charts and number seven in the United States. One track, Straight To Hell, referenced the children fathered by American soldiers to Vietnamese mothers and then abandoned. Should I Stay or Should I Go and Rock the Casbah were two of the more popular tunes on the album. The latter was written by Topper Headon who, unfortunately, had to leave the band due to his health-damaging addiction before the track reached the top ten in the USA.

The band continued for a while without Headon but the following year, 1983, Mick Jones decided to leave the band. The Clash had already been working on their sixth album, Cut the Crap, but by the time it was released, the group had broken up.

The break-up was not the end of the band members’ music career, and each musician went on to make new achievements. Mick Jones formed a new band called Big Audio Dynamite and was joined by Strummer who helped write the band’s second album. Paul Simonon, on the other hand, kept his hand in the music business but also decided to become an oil painter.

Topper Headon played the drums for a variety of bands after he left The Clash, but his heroin addiction was rapidly eating up all his money. He briefly worked as a minicab driver to finance his addiction but ended up busking in desperation on bongo drums on the London Underground. In the late 1980s, Headon was diagnosed with Hepatitis C as a result of his alcohol and drug intake, leading to severe liver problems. Fortunately, he responded to treatment and has been the spokesman for the Hepatitis C Trust since 2007. Unfortunately, this was not his only disease to battle. In 2003, Headon was diagnosed with hyperkyphosis, a curvature of the back. Back problems are common for drummers, but this condition needed intense posture adjustment treatment to overcome. Thankfully, for the last ten years, Headon has lived a fairly healthy life in his home town of Dover.

Sadly, Joe Strummer unexpectedly passed away in December 2002 from a congenital heart defect. Although he had become involved with other bands since The Clash‘s break-up, it was his time with The Clash that fans remember. A month after his death, The Clash was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Strummer was given a special tribute at the Grammy Awards in February 2003. Elvis Costello (b.1954), Bruce Springsteen (b.1949), Steven Van Zandt (b.1950), Dave Grohl (b.1969), Pete Thomas (b.1954), and Tony Kanal (b.1970) paid their respects to the late musician at the presentation ceremony by singing London Calling. Also in his honour, his friends and family set up the Joe Strummer Foundation, which gives opportunities and support to musicians and music projects around the world.

As the exhibition at the Museum of London proved, The Clash continues to be loved by many fans. Visitors were keen to see the drum sticks and guitars used by the band, particularly the one Strummer smashed on stage. Handwritten notes revealed how The Clash planned out their albums and wrote their songs, which would have been a great inspiration for upcoming musicians. The Clash has influenced many people over the years, including The White Stripes (1997-2011) and the Arctic Monkeys (2002-present).

The Clash may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and they certainly were not what people would expect to find at the Museum of London. Nonetheless, they form part of London’s history, capturing events, beliefs and fears from a working-class perspective. Regardless as to whether the exhibition gained the band more fans or not, it is always worth looking into new topics and eras. Perhaps some will discover something interesting, if not, at least some things may be worth knowing for potential future pub quizzes!

London’s Canals

museum-waterside

London is known for its tourist attractions, tall buildings and river; however, a short walk from King’s Cross Station in a former ice warehouse, is a museum that tells a little known history of the city. The London Canal Museum, established in 1992, displays information about the history of London’s canals. Today, these canals are a peaceful area away from the busy roads, but they were not always like that. Once vital for industrial London, these canals had a significant part to play, a role that is gradually disappearing from memory in an increasingly technological world.

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On entering the museum, the first thing visitors see is the remains of an unpowered narrowboat named (rather unfortunately) Coronis. Built in 1935 by Harland and Wolff, an offshore construction company, Coronis accompanied a motorboat known by the (even more unfortunate) name, Corona, on the Grand Union Canal. Carrying goods, such as wood, metal, fruit and grain, Coronis regularly travelled from London to Birmingham and back again.

Narrowboats are unique to the United Kindom and were built to fit the narrow canals and locks that had a much shorter width than the canals in Europe. The average narrowboat is 6 feet 10 inches (2.08 m) wide and no longer than 72 feet (21.95 m). Despite the lack of space, narrowboats were also used as floating homes for many people. The rear portion of the boat, known as the boatman’s cabin, was designed to make use of every bit of space. Although rather cramped, the cabin contained a stove, a folding table and a couple of folding beds. These would fold out of cupboards meaning the floor space could be kept clear during the day.

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What inhabited narrowboats lacked, however, were bathroom facilities. Instead, families had to use rather primitive methods, such as going to the toilet in a bucket and washing with rainwater collected in a “Bucky” can on the roof of the cabin. These cans were usually decorated, as was the rest of the narrowboat.

By the end of the 19th century, it was common practice to either decorate a narrowboat with painted flowers or with images of castles. The origin of these designs is unknown but may have been influenced by Romani communities.

Today, narrowboats are motorised, however, during the 19th and early 20th century, they were powered by horses. Running alongside the canals is a towpath, which the horses used to walk, pulling the narrowboats behind them by rope. Some people regarded this as cruel, however, bargemen maintained it was far easier than dragging a carriage through the street. The hardest part for the horse was to get the boat moving, but once this had been achieved, the narrowboat would move easily across the water. The horses were regularly changed, rested and fed throughout the day.

The main danger for the horses was losing their footing and falling into the canal. This was most likely to occur during thick fogs when it was impossible to see anything in front of you. Whilst this problem could not always be avoided, horse slips or ramps were built into the canal walls so they could easily climb back out. Passing trains often spooked the horses, which also caused many to fall into the canal. As a result, it was made certain there were horse ramps within 100 yards of train bridges.

By the 1950s, horses were replaced by tractors. Of course, many faced the same fate as the horses and found themselves in the canals. To prevent this from happening, railings were added in areas where the towpath was harder to navigate.

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Legging in Islington Canal Tunnel on the Regent’s Canal, c.1916

As roads and railways were developed, more bridges were built over the canal. This, however, caused problems for horses and tractors because, unless a towpath had been built into the construction, they could not go through the tunnel. Therefore, bargemen had to “leg” the boats through. This involved a couple of men lying on planks hooked at right angles to the front of the boat who would use their legs to “walk” along the tunnel wall, gradually inching the narrowboats through.

For some years, the main canal in London was the Grand Junction Canal, which was built between 1793 and 1805 to connect the River Thames to the Midlands. Since 1929, this canal has become a part of of the Grand Union Canal, which the narrowboat Coronis used to sail. Today, London’s most famous canal is Regent’s Canal, which joins the Grand Union Canal at Paddington and stretches across the north of London to Limehouse Basin and the River Thames, a total of 8.6 miles (13.8 km).

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Regent’s Canal was first proposed in 1802 by Thomas Homer, although it was not constructed until after 1812 when it was agreed by Parliament. Designs for the canal were drawn out by John Nash (1752-1853), who is better known for designing Buckingham Palace and Marble Arch. Most of Nash’s architectural work was financed by the Prince Regent, later George IV (1762-1830), which is why the canal was named Regent’s Canal.

Nash appointed his assistant James Morgan (1776-1856) as the chief engineer of the canal company and construction began on 14th October 1812. The first section, Paddington to Camden, was completed by 1816 and the rest was opened in 1820. There were, however, a couple of problems along the way.

The first problem was the hydropneumatic locking system invented by William Congreve (1772-1828), which did not work when first installed. A lock is a device used to raise or lower boats between different water levels in a canal. Usually consisting of two gates, the boats enter through one, which is then sealed shut while the other gate gradually lets water in or out until the water inside the two gates is level with the outside. Once this has been achieved, the other gate opens and the boat continues on its journey.

Operation of caisson lock

The most common type of lock is known as the mitre lock and is based on designs by Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519), which he produced to show how improvements could be made to the canal system in Milan. This type of lock was first used in England on the River Lee in 1577, however, Congreve wished to impress the Prince Regent with a more impressive design.

In 1813, Congreve patented a “hydro-pneumatic double balance lock”, which involved a boat entering a box or caisson submerged in a cistern. The cistern would then either descend or ascend and release the boat onto the new water level. Unfortunately, there was not enough water for this to work in Regent’s Canal, which was only discovered after its construction. Various alterations were made to the lock, however, it was soon replaced by a more conventional design.

Camden Lock

Today, there are nine locks on Regent’s Canal between Islington Tunnel and the Thames: City Road, Sturts, Acton’s, Old Ford, Mile End, Johnson’s, Salmon Lane, Commercial Road and Regent’s Canal Dock. These were initially manned by lock keepers who would open and close the gates for the passing boats for a small toll fee. Today, narrowboat owners each have their own Windlass Handle, which opens the majority of the locks around the UK, therefore, lock keepers are no longer needed.

The second problem faced during the construction of Regent’s Canal involved money. It cost a total of £772,000 to build the canal, which was twice the amount predicted. Getting an adequate water supply was a big issue, therefore, further digging needed to be done to create dams, make reservoirs and build basins. This, however, was not the main money problem.

Thomas Homer, the man who first proposed Regent’s Canal, became known as the Villain of the Regent’s Canal after embezzling funds in 1815. Homer was born on 27th March 1761 and was one of seventeen children born to the Rector Henry Sacheverell Homer, who was considered to be the finest classical scholar of his day. Out of the twelve sons, Thomas Homer was the only one not to go on to become a clergyman. Instead, he followed his father’s passion for canals.

After completing an apprenticeship in Coventry in 1782, Thomas Homer was qualified as a solicitor. By 1795, Homer had become the Auditor of the Grand Junction Canal Company and began making plans for what would become Regent’s Canal. All seemed to be going well until 1815 when the canal construction ran into some difficulties. The company was also facing financial problems caused by shareholders not paying up or, if they had paid, not paying directly to the treasurer but Thomas Homer.

Suspicions about Homer’s actions began to arise after he repeatedly failed to produce records when requested by the company’s chairman, Charles Monro. Homer soon fled the country and it came to light he had been declared bankrupt. It also became clear he had been syphoning off money from the company in an attempt to cover his debts. The company immediately reported Homer and offered an award for his arrest.

Thomas Homer was arrested and brought back to London where he was placed in debtors’ prison. He pleaded guilty to embezzlement and was sentenced to seven years transportation to Australia. It appears, however, that he never went and there are no records about how he spent the rest of his life. Despite his arrest and admission, the Grand Junction Canal Company was unable to claim any money back as there was no knowledge of how much money Homer had stolen.

Fortunately, funds were found to complete the construction of Regent’s Canal and it officially opened in 1820. Yet, within two decades of its completion, the canal was already under threat from the increase in railways. Several attempts were made to turn the canal into a railway and the idea to run a track alongside the water was also rejected. As a result, rail construction companies built bridges over the canal, however, these caused their fair share of problems, such as scaring the horses and making it difficult for narrowboats to pass under the bridge.

Bridges were also built over the canal for cars to pass over the water. One famous incident involving one of the bridges occurred in the early hours of 2nd October 1874 when a barge called The Tilbury exploded underneath Macclesfield Bridge. The barge was carrying a couple of barrels of petroleum and five tons of gunpowder when it caught light passing under the bridge at the north of Regent’s Park. The resulting explosion destroyed Macclesfield Bridge and killed all three men on board.

The explosion was heard up to 25 miles away and many people mistook it for an earthquake. Animals in the zoo were frightened and debris flew in all directions, damaging nearby buildings and shattering windows. Eyewitnesses claimed that dead fish from the canal “rained from the sky”.

Fortunately, the majority of the iron legs of Macclesfield Bridge were salvaged and the bridge was successfully reconstructed. The explosion caused the government to amend the laws about selling and buying explosive substances to avoid similar incidents in the future.

Although explosive substances had been limited on canals, barges became vital during the World Wars for transporting munitions and equipment across the city. On one occasion, Londoners were surprised to see a tank being sailed along the canal. After the Second World War, the usual trade resumed upon the canals, delivering goods and materials that could not easily be reached by ships and cars. Horses continued to be used to tow the crafts until 1956 when they were replaced by tractors. By the late 1960s, however, commercial traffic on the canals had almost disappeared and it was opened to the public. Today, Regent’s Canal has become a leisure facility, used by those who own narrowboats for fun rather than for work or domestic living. The towpaths are also opened to the public and have become a popular place for cyclists.

Before canal boats were motorised, the most difficult sections to pass through were the tunnels. In London, there are three tunnels, all of them on Regent’s Canal. Getting a barge or narrowboat under a bridge without a horse or tractor was difficult enough but a tunnel required far more strength.

Two of the tunnels were opened as early as 1816 before the full extent of Regent’s Canal was completed. One of these is the Maida Hill Tunnel, which lies to the west of Camden Locks. It was not a part of the original plan but, due to protests about the route of the canal, it was agreed a tunnel would be constructed.

It took a while to complete the Maida Hill Tunnel, not least due to damage caused by the water. Eventually, the 272 yards (249 m) long tunnel was completed, however, due to its narrow width, there was no towpath. The only way for narrowboats to get through was to manually “leg” it through. This required much more energy than walking a boat under a bridge and, in 1825, two people lost their lives in the process. Three men were legging a boat through Maida Hill Tunnel when the boards they were lying on slipped. One man was seriously injured and another was crushed to death. The body of the third man was never found.

The other tunnel constructed in 1816 was Eyre’s Tunnel, also known as Lisson Grove Tunnel, near St John’s Wood. It was originally called Eyre’s Tunnel because it went through land belonging to Richard Eyre. Today, more people refer to it as Lisson Grove after the name of the road that passes above. Often mistaken for a bridge, Eyre’s Tunnel is only 52 yards (48 metres) and has a towpath that was once used by horses and tractors.

The third tunnel on Regent’s Canal was Islington Tunnel, which was completed in 1818. At 960 yards (878 m), the tunnel, which travels under Angel, Islington, was built by the canal’s engineer, James Morgan. When Morgan began the project, he had little knowledge of locks and tunnels, so the Grand Junction Canal Company decided to hold a design competition.

Advertisements were placed in August 1812 for the competition with a 50-guinea (£52.50) prize for the winner. William Jessop (1745-1814), who had designed the Grand Canal of Ireland, was invited to judge the entries along with two engineers, Ralph Walker (1749-1824) and Nicholson. Unfortunately, the competition was not as successful as they had hoped and they only received a handful of entries. Although the prize was awarded, the designs were not considered suitable, therefore, the project fell to Morgan once again.

By 1816, the company were low on funds, so work had to temporarily cease on the tunnel. Before then, Morgan had also discovered the construction of the tunnel was not as easy as he had hoped. To begin with, there were protests from landowners to overcome before work could commence. To dig the tunnel, men had to be lowered down on shafts with their equipment, which added to the cost of the project. The tunnel also needed to be straight for boats to pass through easily, which was a difficult thing to achieve. Although slow, progress was going well until they neared the other side where the earth was a lot less stable than Morgan had anticipated. It was at this point the company’s money ran out.

The company needed at least a further £200,000 to complete the tunnel and canal but had no means of raising the money. Fortunately, a chance meeting with the Society for the Relieving of the Manufacturing Poor resulted in talks about government loans and providing opportunities for poor people to work on the canal’s construction. Following this discussion, the Poor Employment Act was passed in 1817 followed by the Exchequer Bill Loan Commission. On behalf of the commissioners, Thomas Telford (1757-1834), who had built canals in Shropshire, was sent to survey the canal’s construction progress. After reading his report, the commissioners agreed to provide the company with a loan of £200,000 if they could raise at least £100,000 in match funding.

Finally, work on the tunnel and canal was able to continue and was opened on 1st August 1820. Islington Tunnel alone had cost £40,000 to build, making it the most expensive section of Regent’s Canal.

Islington Tunnel has no towpath, so before motors were added to the boats, they had to be legged through. This was extremely hard work due to the length of the tunnel and people were grateful when the steam chain tug was invented in 1826 to pull the narrowboats along – although some complained of almost being gassed out in the tunnel!

Islington Tunnel Waymarker

Due to the length of the tunnel, it was not as simple for the horses, and later tractors, to meet the boat at the other end. To help people find their way, towpath link waymarkers were placed on the pavements for people to follow. By following the waymarkers, people are taken up Duncan Street, through Islington High Street, up Liverpool Road into Chapel Market, then through Penton Street, Maygood Street and Muriel Street where they finally rejoin the towpath.

Today, the canal is less busy than it was in its early years and is no longer used for commercial purposes, except for short boat trips near Camden. Whereas narrowboats tended to be owned and worked by the poorer people of London, it is the richer citizens that own them now for pleasure. Yet, the history of the canal will not be forgotten thanks to the London Canal Museum, which has collected personal records and memories of those who used to live by and work on the canal. There are plenty of happy memories but also stories about the dangers of the canal.

For a small fee, visitors can explore the London Canal Museum and learn about the background of England’s canals and the introduction of canals to London, including information about locks and horses. As well as this there are exhibits of painted items belonging to narrowboats and decorative pottery, a history of the life on the canal and examples of narrowboats and barges, including Coronis, which visitors are welcome to enter. Also, there is a history of Carlo Gatti’s icehouse that once stood on the site.

Of course, there is no better way to explore the canals than by walking along the towpath. If you do, look at the architecture of the bridges and tunnels, marvel at the engineering of the locks and enjoy seeing the narrowboats going past, all the while remembering the work that went into the canal’s construction.

The London Canal Museum is usually open Tuesdays to Sunday (Friday – Sunday at the moment due to Covid-19) from 10 am-4:30 pm. Tickets cost £5 for adults, £4 concessions and £2.50 for children between 5-15 years old.

The Scottish Queen

Many schools teach the Tudors as part of their history curriculum, therefore, most people have heard of Mary, Queen of Scots who got her head chopped off for supposedly plotting against Queen Elizabeth I. At schools in England, this is more or less all that is taught about the Scottish queen, however, in Scotland she plays a much bigger part in history. Even today, the National Galleries of Scotland continue to celebrate the queen’s life with exhibitions, such as The Life and Legend of Mary, Queen of Scots, which was put online for all to view. Mary’s life was fraught with conspiracy and treason but not necessarily of her own making. In some ways, as the National Galleries of Scotland portray, Mary became a romantic heroine in a heartbreaking story that has inspired artists, poets and writers for centuries.

Mary was born Mary Stuart on 8th December 1542 at Linlithgow Palace, Scotland and was the only legitimate child to survive her father, King James V (1512-42), who died six days after her birth. He allegedly collapsed due to stress after the Battle of Solway Moss on the Anglo-Scottish border. Following her father’s death, Mary became the Queen of Scotland, although the country was ruled by a couple of regents until she became an adult. James Hamilton, Duke of Châtellerault, 2nd Earl of Arran (1519-75) ruled as regent until 1554 when he was replaced by Mary’s mother, Mary of Guise (1515-60).

From her baptism at the Church of St Michael onwards, decisions were being made for the young queen that would shape her future. Not only did the regency control Mary’s life, the King of England, Henry VIII (1491-1547), also interfered. Mary’s paternal grandmother, Margaret Tudor (1489-1541) was Henry’s sister, making Mary his great-niece. Taking advantage of the regency, Henry proposed marriage between Mary and his son Edward (1537-53), hoping that when Edward became king, Scotland and England would be united.

When Mary was only 6 months old, the Treaty of Greenwich was signed, which declared “Prince Edward, eldest son and heir apparent of Henry VIII, now in his sixth year, shall marry Mary Queen of Scotland, now in her first year.” Whilst this would unite the two countries, the treaty also stated they would remain legally separate and, if Edward were to die without an heir, Mary would rightfully take control of Scotland.

Naturally, Henry had ulterior motives, including to break the Scottish alliance with France and abolish Catholicism. Instead, David Cardinal Beaton (1494-1546), who was the last Scottish cardinal before the Reformation, rose to power with a pro-Catholic pro-French agenda. Henry took advantage of the distraction caused by the infant Mary’s coronation on 9th September 1543 to arrest Scottish merchants headed for France. This action caused a lot of anger in Scotland, and by the end of the year, the Treaty of Greenwich was rejected.

Henry was still determined to form a Scottish-English union and began a military campaign in an attempt to force Scotland to accept the treaty. Known as Henry’s “Rough Wooing”, English soldiers invaded parts of Scotland and France, rallying support from Protestant lairds. In May 1546 Cardinal Beaton was murdered by a group of the latter and, despite Henry’s death in 1547, the Scottish suffered a severe defeat at the Battle of Pinkie on the River Esk.

Scotland was fearful for Mary’s safety and she was moved to Inchmahome Priory on an island in the middle of the Lake of Menteith. Meanwhile, Scotland appealed to France for help. King Henry II (1519-59) of France responded with a proposal to unite Scotland and France, which was not too dissimilar from Henry VIII’s treaty. In return for military support, the regency agreed that Mary would marry Henry II’s son, the Dauphin Francis (1544-60). In June 1548, the French arrived in Scotland to help take back parts of the country besieged by the English. The following month, the French marriage treaty was agreed and signed by the Scottish Parliament.

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Mary and Francis in Catherine de’ Medici’s book of hours, 1558

With the marriage treaty agreed, Mary, who was now five years old, was sent to France to live at the French Court. Mary was accompanied by two illegitimate brothers and her governess, Lady Janet Fleming (1502-62), an illegitimate daughter of James IV (1473-1513). Janet was the mother of one of the maids-in-waiting, the “four Marys”, who also accompanied the Queen: Mary Fleming (1542-81), Mary Beaton (1543-98), Mary Livingston (1541-79) and Mary Seton (1542-1615).

Mary had a pleasant childhood in France, where she was also in contact with her maternal grandmother, Antoinette de Bourbon (1494-1583). Mary got on well with the members of the French royal family, particularly her future sister-in-law, Elisabeth of Valois (1545-68). Her relationship with the queen consort, Catherine de’ Medici (1519-89), however, was less favourable.

In 1551, Mary’s governess was replaced by Françoise d’Estamville, Dame de Paroy (d.1557), a favourite of Catherine de’ Medici. Although Mary did not like her new governess, she received a good education. She was taught to speak French, Italian, Latin, Spanish and Greek as well as continuing to speak in the native language of the Scots. Mary learnt to play the lute and virginal and became proficient at writing poetry, needlework, horse riding and falconry.

Eventually, at the age of 16, Mary married the Dauphin on 24th April 1558 at Notre Dame de Paris. Although he was not yet the King of France, the marriage automatically made him the king consort of Scotland. It was also agreed that if Mary died without an heir, Francis would take her place as King of Scotland.

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Elizabeth I – attr. Frans Huys

At this time in England, Mary I (1516-58) had just been succeeded by her protestant sister Elizabeth I (1533-1603). In the eyes of the Catholics, however, Elizabeth was an illegitimate child because she had been born to Henry VIII’s second wife after divorcing his first, which was not allowed in the Catholic church. If the English monarchy had been kept in the Catholic line, Mary, Queen of Scots would have been the rightful heir. The King of France, who was a strong Catholic, went as far as to hail Mary and his son as queen and king of England.

The following year, Mary and her fifteen-year-old husband became the joint rulers of France after the death of Henry II on 10th July 1559 from fatal jousting wounds. Being so young, the French courts were mostly run by the French relatives of both Francis and Mary, however, they were unable to support Scotland in their battles against the English due to the Huguenot uprisings in France. To make matters more difficult, Mary’s mother, who had been ruling as regent, passed away on 11th June 1560.

To end the hostilities in Scotland, representatives of France, Scotland and England signed the Treaty of Edinburgh. This agreed that all three countries would cease fighting at 7pm on 17th June 1560. After this, the French and English were to remove their troops from Scotland, and France was also to recognise Elizabeth I as the Queen of England. Mary, as the Queen of Scotland, should also have signed the agreement, however, she was too overcome with grief after the death of her mother.

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Mary, Queen of Scots: The Farewell to France – Robert Herdman (1867)

Life, unfortunately, was not going to improve for the young queen. In the winter, Francis II developed an ear infection, which led to an abscess on his brain and he passed away on 5th December 1560. As of that point, Mary was no longer the Queen of France and Catherine de’ Medici, who still acted coldly towards the Scottish queen, was made regent for her ten-year-old son, Charles IX (1550-74), who inherited the throne.

No longer part of the French court, Mary returned to Scotland to rule as queen, however, she had been in France since the age of five and knew very little about the workings of the country. Seeing her as weak, the Protestants, led by her illegitimate brother James Stewart, Earl of Moray (1531-70), began to rise up against her. Likewise, the Protestant preacher, John Knox (1514-72), verbally attacked Mary in his sermons.

Unsure what to do, Mary tried and failed to talk to Knox then charged him with treason, however, he was later acquitted. Rather than also accusing her half-brother of treason, she appointed him her chief advisor in an attempt to keep the peace between the Protestants and Catholics. By September 1561, two-thirds of Mary’s privy council were Protestants.

Mary was advised by her councillors to put forward the proposal to the English courts that Mary be made the heir presumptive to the English throne. Queen Elizabeth, husband-less and childless, had refused to name an heir, however, she had reputedly admitted to the Scottish representative, William Maitland of Lethington (1525-73), that Mary had the greatest claim. A meeting was arranged between the English and Scottish queens, however, it was later cancelled because of the civil wars in France, which had caught England’s attention.

Meanwhile, Mary turned her thoughts to finding a new husband and began looking for a suitable match within the royal families of Europe. Her uncle, Charles de Lorraine (1524-74), suggested Archduke Charles of Austria (1540-90) as a potential suitor, however, Mary was horrified by the idea and outraged with her uncle’s interference. Her own attempts to find a husband, however, were also proving fruitless.

Elizabeth I attempted to persuade Mary to marry her favourite statesman, Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester (1532-88). He had once been a suitor for the English queen, however, she had always turned him down. Elizabeth’s suggestion, of course, had an ulterior motive. She believed she had control of Dudley, therefore, she would be able to gain some control in the Scottish court. To tempt Mary further, Elizabeth promised her that if she married Dudley, Elizabeth would “proceed to the inquisition of her right and title to be our next cousin and heir”. This promise, however, came to nothing for, even if Mary had agreed, Dudley strongly rejected the proposal.

Pierre de Bocosel de Chastelard (1540-63), a French poet from Mary’s court, put himself forward as a marriage contender. Unfortunately, he appeared overly besotted with the queen and used peculiar methods of showing it, such as hiding under her bed or bursting into the room while she was changing. The latter occasion caused Mary great distress and some people claimed Chastelard was faking his attraction and attempting to discredit Mary’s reputation. Nonetheless, whatever the truth, Chastleard was tried for treason and executed.

In 1565, Mary met her half-cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley (1545-67) for the second time in her life. Their first meeting had been in France when Darnley visited to pay his respects to the recently widowed queen, however, on their second meeting, which took place at Wemyss Castle in Scotland, Mary fell in love. “Her Majesty took well with him, and said that he was the lustiest and best proportioned long man that she had seen,” reported Scottish writer James Melville of Halhill (1535-1617). It is believed Darnley was over 6 foot tall.

Usually, Catholic laws forbade first cousins from marrying, however, Mary and Darnley went ahead with their wedding at Holyrood Palace on 29th July 1565. The match angered the Protestants, including the Earl of Moray, who roused up troops in open rebellion. Mary retaliated by sending her own troops who prevented Moray from gaining sufficient support. Eventually, the Earl retreated and sought asylum in England. Meanwhile, Queen Elizabeth was upset that the wedding had gone ahead without her permission. She was also concerned that both Mary and Darnley were claimants of the English throne, therefore, if they were to have children, they would have an even stronger claim.

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The Murder of David Rizzio – Sir William Allan 1833

Unfortunately, Mary’s marriage was not all she dreamt it would be. It soon became clear Darnley was an arrogant, self-centred man. He demanded the Crown Matrimonial, which would make him co-ruler of Scotland, however, Mary refused. This rejection worsened the strain on their already fragile marriage.

Darnley was also a jealous man and did not approve of his wife having dealings with any other men. This made life particularly difficult for Mary who, as Queen, regularly spoke to the men in the Scottish Parliament. The man who caused Darnley the most concern, however, was David Rizzio (1533-66), an Italian courtier who had been appointed the private secretary of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Rizzio’s position meant he spent a lot of time with the Queen and they developed a strong friendship. In his jealousy, Darnley conspired with Protestant Lords who were against Mary’s reign and riled them up by spreading the rumour that Mary was pregnant with Rizzio’s child. On 9th March 1566, while Mary and Rizzio were dining at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, a group of rebels burst into the room led by English ambassador Lord Patrick Ruthven (1520-66) and demanded Rizzio be handed over. Mary refused and tried to protect Rizzio but the rebels overpowered her and stabbed him to death.

Mary was unaware her husband had been involved in the murder and believed both she and Darnley were in danger from the rebels. On 11th March, Mary and Darnley escaped from the Palace and took refuge in Dunbar Castle. Once she was certain she was safe, Mary returned to Edinburgh Castle a week later, by which time some of the former Protestant rebels, such as the Earl of Moray, had been restored to the royal council in an attempt to bridge the rift between the Protestants and Catholics.

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Portrait of James as a boy, after Arnold Bronckorst, 1574

On 19th June 1566, James Charles Stuart (1566-1625), the future king of Scotland and, later, England, was born at Edinburgh Castle. Although James was recognised as Darnley’s son, the murder of Rizzio had led to an irreparable breakdown of their marriage. In November, Mary held a meeting to discuss what should be done about her overbearing husband. Divorce was suggested but eventually ruled out as an option, probably due to religious laws.

Darnley was aware he was no longer wanted by the Scottish courts and feared for his safety. Before Christmas, he fled to his father’s estate in Glasgow for protection, however, spent several weeks suffering from a fever. There were rumours he may have been poisoned. By the end of January 1567, Mary urged Darnley to return to Edinburgh, where he continued to recuperate at the former abbey of Kirk o’ Field.

On 10th February 1567, an explosion destroyed the abbey and Darnley was found dead in the garden, reportedly from asphyxiation. Although there were no visible signs that Darnley had been strangled or smothered, it was believed Darnley had been murdered. The identity of the killer or the names of the people who plotted Darnley’s demise were never discovered, however, Mary and her half-brother, the Earl of Moray, were amongst the suspects.

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James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, c 1535 – 1578

Eventually, the murder was pinned on James Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell (1534-78), although there was no tangible evidence. After a seven-hour trial, Bothwell was acquitted after which he sought the support of two dozen bishops, earls and lords to support his aim to become the next husband of the Queen. The agreement was signed in the Ainslie Tavern Bond, which Mary also allegedly signed.

Bothwell, however, had an unconventional way of proposing to the Queen. In April 1567, Mary visited her ten-month-old son in Stirling for a few days before returning to Edinburgh. Unbeknownst to her, this would be the last time she would ever see James. During the journey home, Mary was abducted by Bothwell and his men and taken to Dunbar Castle. It is not certain but there have been suggestions that Bothwell may have raped her. On the other hand, there were rumours that Mary went with Bothwell of her own volition.

The events leading up to Mary and Bothwell’s marriage on 15th May 1567 are hazy, but one obstacle to overcome was Bothwell’s previous marriage to Jean Gordon (1546-1629). Bothwell and Jean had only been married since February 1566, therefore, he was able to have the marriage annulled.

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The Return of Mary Queen of Scots to Edinburgh – James Drummond (1870)

Mary believed the Scottish nobles supported the match, however, because Bothwell was a Protestant, it also caused some antagonism from her allies. Catholics refused to acknowledge the marriage because they did not believe in divorce. They also thought it unsavoury to marry the man who was accused of murdering her previous husband.

The lords and advisors Mary once trusted, began to turn against her, raised their own army, and denounced her as an adulteress and a murderer. On 16th June 1567, the lords had her imprisoned in a castle on an island in Loch Leven. Mary was pregnant with twins at the time but miscarried a week later. On 24th July, Mary was forced to abdicate in favour of her one-year-old son and the Earl of Moray was made regent. Meanwhile, Bothwell had been forced into exile, although he was later imprisoned in Denmark where he went insane and died in 1578.

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Mary, Queen of Scots Escaping from Lochleven Castle – William Craig Shirreff 1805

During her ten months of imprisonment, Mary was looked after by Lady Agnes Leslie, the wife of the castle owner Sir William Douglas (1540-1606). On 2nd May 1568, however, Mary managed to escape with the help of Sir Douglas’ brother George and managed to raise an army of 6000 men. Unfortunately, her army was no match for Moray’s army, who they fought at the Battle of Langside.

Mary fled from place to place, spending the night at Dundrennan Abbey and crossing the Solway Firth into England. There, she stayed in Workington Hall in Cumberland before being taken into custody at Carlisle Castle for her own protection. Mary was hoping Queen Elizabeth I would come to her aid, however, the English queen hesitated, wishing to ascertain whether Mary had played a part in Darnley’s murder. Whilst these inquiries were taking place, Mary was moved to Bolton Castle.

A conference, which Mary refused to attend, was held in York in October 1568, which Moray used as an opportunity to offer incriminating evidence against the former Scottish queen. Moray presented eight letters known as the “casket letters” that, although unsigned, were allegedly written by Mary to Bothwell. The letters, which contained two marriage contracts and some sonnets, are now believed to be forgeries but at the time they were accepted as genuine proof of Mary’s guilt. Elizabeth, however, neither wished to convict or acquit Mary, so Moray returned to the new Protestant government in Scotland and Mary remained in custody.

Elizabeth was still concerned about Mary’s claim to the English throne, so kept her under lock and key at a variety of locations, including Tutbury Castle, Sheffield Castle and Chatsworth House. Despite being imprisoned, Mary was allowed up to sixteen members of domestic staff and was well looked after, however, after some time her health began to deteriorate. Meanwhile, Elizabeth attempted to restore Mary to the Scottish throne on the understanding that the government remain Protestant, however, this was rejected.

In 1571, Elizabeth’s principal secretaries uncovered a plot to assassinate the Queen and replace her with Mary. International banker Roberto di Ridolfo (1531-1612), supported by Elizabeth’s cousin, Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk (1536-72), had begun to rally support from the Spanish when their plans were discovered. Some believe Mary had given the plot her consent, however, she still claimed to be loyal to Elizabeth.

The result of this attempted scheme was the publication of the “casket letters”, which caused some of Mary’s supporters to turn against her. Another plot was developed to marry Mary to the governor of the Low Countries. Although this was endorsed by Pope Gregory XIII (1502-85), it was discovered and prevented by the English government. In February 1585, a Welsh courtier was convicted of plotting to assassinate Elizabeth. Although Mary had nothing to do with this, Elizabeth tightened Mary’s terms of custody and moved her to a manor house at Chartley, Staffordshire.

Another plot, known as the Babington Plot, was uncovered in August 1586. The goal was for the Spanish to invade and assassinate Elizabeth, putting Mary on the throne. Letters from Mary to the plot’s leader, Sir Anthony Babington (1561-86), incriminated her and suggested she had authorised the assassination.

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Mary Queen Of Scots’ Trial & Execution, 1560

Mary was moved to Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire and put on trial for treason. She denied the accusations against her and protested she had not been allowed to defend herself. She warned her accusers, “Look to your consciences and remember that the theatre of the whole world is wider than the kingdom of England.” Nonetheless, she was found guilty.

Elizabeth was hesitant to sentence Mary to death, possibly concerned about potential consequences involving the Catholics and Mary’s son. She even enquired whether there was any humane way of shortening Mary’s life, however, no doctor was willing to do so. Finally, on 1st February 1587, Elizabeth signed the death warrant.

Mary was only told of her impending execution on 7th February, the day before it was scheduled. She spent her remaining hours in prayer and wrote her final will, which expressed her wish to buried in France. The following morning, Mary was led to the scaffold and after uttering her final words, “In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum” (Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit), was beheaded.

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Mary, Queen of Scots, 1578

So ended the life of Mary, Queen of Scots. Elizabeth, who had not been told of the execution until afterwards, was angry that it had gone ahead without her permission, despite having signed the death warrant. Some suggest she did not want Mary executed and was stalling for time, however, she refused Mary’s request in her will that she be buried in France. Instead, Mary was buried at Peterborough Cathedral in July 1587, although, her son, once he was King of England, instructed his mother to be reinterred at Westminster Abbey.

Mary’s courage at her execution has painted her as a heroic character in a dramatic tragedy. Whereas some say she was “a pawn in the hands of scheming noblemen,” she has been idolised as a brave, fearless woman who continued to fight for her freedom and her country despite the risks upon her life. She may not have been able to save herself, but she became the matriarch of the English monarchy for the following century. After her son became the King of England in 1603, the crown passed down the Stewart line until 1714: Charles I (1600-49), Charles II (1630-85), James II (1633-1701), Mary II (1662-1694) and her husband William III (1650-1702), and Anne (1665-1714).

Dealing With Cards

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Everyone is familiar with the modern deck of playing cards. Most households own at least one pack and they have become a part of traditional cultures and customs. Yet, these decks of cards have been completely transformed since their origins several centuries ago. What we now take for granted has taken hundreds of years to reach its current format: four suits, red and black, court cards etc. Looking back through history, it is fascinating to see how our standard hearts, spades, clubs and diamond suits developed and why playing cards have remained a conventional pastime.

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Ming Dynasty Playing Card

The origins of playing cards are widely contested, however, it is generally accepted they were invented in China during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). The earliest evidence of playing cards in Europe dates to around the late 14th century, however, a 9th-century text, Collection of Miscellanea at Duyang, describes the daughter of Emperor Yizong of Tang (833-873) playing Yezi Gexi, a “leaf” game. These “leaves” are believed to be card-like pieces of paper featuring special designs or symbols. Rather than suits or numbers, the pictures revealed instructions or a forfeit to the players.

The rules of this “leaf” game are unknown, as are the visual appearance of the cards. It was not until 1294 that they were actually described in written documents. A legal document records that Yan Sengzhu and Zheng Pig-Dog were caught playing cards that had been printed with woodblocks, and 36 taels (an old monetary unit), which suggests they may have been gambling illegally. Later, during the Ming Dynasty, a scholar called Lu Rong (1436-94) reports he was mocked at college for not knowing how to play cards.

British Sinologist and playing card enthusiast, William Henry Wilkinson (1858-1930), whose collection of Chinese cards can be found in the British Museum, undertook a comprehensive study of the history of playing cards in China. His results can be read in several books including Chinese Origin of Playing Cards (1895) and The Game of Khanhoo (1891). The latter explains the rules of a game developed during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

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Money-suited cards, 1905

Khanhoo, which roughly translates as “Watching the Tiger”, was a trick-taking game using “money-suited cards”. This set of cards was made up of three suits known as coins, strings and myriads. The aim of the game was for the players to get rid of all their cards by melding them into certain sequences. The common meldings were known as “gibbons” (a sequence of three cards from one suit) and “Leopards” (three cards of the same number). Alternatively, players could hold onto their cards to create a special melding, for instance, a “Pangolin” (7 coins, 3 strings, 3 myriads) or “Tiger” (9 coins, 1 string, 1 myriad). Each melding was worth a certain amount of points and the player with the highest score at the end of the game was the winner.

Money-suited cards were only one form of playing cards to develop from the “leaf” game in China. Another type was Mahjong cards with which similar games to the tiled version of Mahjong could be played. The cards contained Chinese characters or suits representing circles, bamboos, characters, dragons, winds, flowers and seasons. Often an illustration was included with the Chinese characters to emphasise their meaning, however, others featured characters from popular stories, such as The Story of the Water Margin. This is not dissimilar from the novelty packs of cards sold in the western world today. Another type of playing card was the Domino card with pips (dots) representing numbers. These cards could also be embellished with cultural illustrations.

When the Chinese travelled abroad, they often took playing cards with them, either as a form of entertainment or something with which to trade. As a result, playing cards were introduced to people from other countries who began to print their own versions. In Persia, for example, a 48-pack of cards was developed, containing four suits made up of ten pip (number) cards and two court cards (king and vizier).

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Mamluk playing cards

By the 12th century, playing cards had been introduced to most countries in Asia and had just worked their way into Africa, in particular Egypt. In fact, the oldest surviving playing cards were produced in Egypt. The majority of surviving cards from Africa, however, were made during the 15th century.

Initially, Egypt copied the Asian style of playing cards but, during the Mamluk Sultanate period (1250-1517), they began to develop their own designs and games. Known as Mamluk cards, they contained colourful abstract designs and calligraphy, however, unlike Chinese playing cards, they never visually represented people. This is because Sunni Islam, which was the prevalent religion in Egypt, advocated Aniconism: the avoidance of images of sentient beings.

There were typically 52 cards in a Mamluk pack, ten pip cards and three court cards. Although the court cards could not visually depict a person, they could bear the names of ranks: king, viceroy and seconder. It is not certain what games were played with these cards, however, they were probably based on Chinese and Asian rules.

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Knave of Coins from the oldest known European deck (c. 1390–1410).

Playing cards reached Europe around the 14th century and were first described in writing by Johannes of Rheinfelden, a German Dominican friar also known as John of Basle (b.1340). Playing cards had evidently been in Europe long before he wrote his treatise in 1377, which was a response to the decision in Florence to ban card games. Johannes began by describing the cards then went on to say he believed they could be used as a means of understanding the world, in particular how social standings worked in court and how this could be applied to social orders throughout the rest of humanity. Despite his writings, bans continued to be enforced across Europe and playing cards were denounced in churches as forms of gambling.

Nonetheless, playing cards continued to be designed and printed. The first European versions are believed to have been created in Italy, which were divided into four suits: swords, clubs, cups, and coins; these are still used in Italy and Spain today. In Italy, court cards within these “Latin suits” were a king, queen and knave/servant, although the latter may have been a prince. In Spain, on the other hand, the court cards became a king, knight and knave. Whereas the Italian version had ten pip cards, the Spanish only had nine and, in some games, they only used numbers one to seven.

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Italian Cards

When playing cards were first produced in Italy, they were only intended for the upper classes. Each card was hand-painted, making them an expensive, luxury item. As their popularity grew, however, card makers sought methods of producing them quickly and cheaply. As a result, playing cards began to spread across the rest of Europe.

Between 1418-1450, professional card makers set up woodcut factories in the Germany cities of Ulm, Nuremberg and Augsburg. Although the woodcut process printed the designs onto the cards, the colours were added later by hand, therefore, these 15th-century cards were mostly handpainted. To establish themselves as card manufacturers of Germany, the designers changed the Latin suits to reflect the rural lifestyle of the country. These new suits were acorns, leaves, hearts, and bells. The court cards were changed to a king and two knaves: Obermann and Untermann. The pip cards, however, only numbered two to nine as they did away with the ace.

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German Cards

Although the new suits became the norm in Germany, some factories produced novelty version to appeal to people of particular professions and interests, for instance, animals and kitchen appliances. In Switzerland, they adopted the Germanic suits but tended to use flowers rather than leaves and a shield rather than hearts.

Germany was one of the key countries involved with developing printing techniques, which helped them to produce larger quantities of playing cards. Soon, they became more famed for the playing card trade than Italy. Subsequently, German suits became more dominant throughout Europe than the Latin versions.

In France, the Germanic suits were altered to clovers, hearts, pikes and tiles, which led to the development of the modern suits – clovers being clubs, pikes being spades and tiles being diamonds. Not only this, but the French also simplified the designs to make them quicker to print and divided the four suits into two colours: black and red. They also simplified the images on the court cards, reintroducing the queen and the ace to the pack. This meant stencils could be produced and used multiple times in printing presses, such as the Guttenburg press that was developed in 1440.

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French Cards

French playing cards quickly surpassed Germany in popularity and spread across Europe, thus familiarising the continent with a design similar to the cards used today. In the 16th century, the French also drew attention to the court cards by naming them after people from the Bible and popular works of literature. The kings became known as King David (Spades), Alexander the Great (Clubs), Charlemagne (Hearts), and Julius Caesar (Diamonds), consequently representing the four major empires up to that date: Jews, Greeks, Franks, and Romans. The queens were designated Greek goddess Pallas Athena (Spades), Judith (Hearts), Jacob’s wife Rachel (Diamonds), and Argine (Clubs). It is not certain who the latter is but Argine may be the French name for Argea, wife of Polybus and mother of Argus.

The knaves were assigned the names of La Hire (Hearts), Charlemagne’s knight Ogier (Spades), Hector the hero of Troy (Diamonds), and King Arthur’s knight Lancelot (Clubs). Hector and Lancelot are the more famous of the set, whereas, La Hire and Ogier were only celebrated in France. La Hire was the nickname of Étienne de Vignolles (1390-1443), a French commander during the Hundred Years’ War. Ogier the Dane was a legendary knight of Charlemagne (748-814) who featured in many medieval French stories.

France was made up of nine regions and the appearance of the kings, queens and knaves differed slightly from place to place. It was not until playing cards became popular in Britain that a common design was developed.

It is not certain when playing cards arrived in Britain but it is likely they came via Belgium, where many French people had fled to avoid heavy taxes. Without having been influenced by Latin or Germanic playing cards, the English were happy to use the French designs, although they renamed the suits clubs, hearts, spades and diamonds.

The biggest difference between French and British cards was the Ace of Spaces. This card tends to have some form of design, signature or marking to make it appear more important than the other aces. There was, however, no difference in value. This tradition began sometime after 1588 when the English government placed a tax on playing cards. To indicate they had been taxed, the manufacturers were required to sign or stamp the Ace of Spades, which was usually the top card in a brand new pack.

To avoid paying tax, some people began to forge signatures, which led the government to enforce more drastic measures. From 1828, the Ace of Spades had to be purchased from the Commissioners for Stamp Duties. The card had to be stamped with the manufacturer’s name and the amount they had paid. Initially, manufacturers had no say in the appearance of the Ace of Spades, however, after 1862 they were allowed to design their own ace to complement their signature. Although this tax law no longer applies, playing card manufacturers have stuck to tradition, giving the Ace of Spaces more attention than the other cards.

The court cards, which feature detailed illustrations of bearded kings, flower-holding queens and clean-shaven knaves, began to become less elaborate as manufacturers sought to find a way to produce playing cards quickly and cheaply. Thomas de la Rue (1793-1866), a printer from Guernsey, was the first to drastically reduce the prices of playing cards and increase productivity.

Thomas de la Rue moved to London in 1818 to set up a shop, initially for straw hat-making, but soon expanded to include bookbinding and paper manufacturing. By 1828, De la Rue had become interested in playing cards and used all his skills, including letter-press printing, to modernise the designs. In 1831, De la Rue was granted a patent for his improvement and has since been regarded as the inventor of the modern English playing card.

The early version of De la Rue’s court cards, which were produced using the letterpress, were still highly detailed full-length figures, however, he had used a limited palette of red, yellow, blue and black. A second attempt at modernisation resulted in a flatter, two-dimensional design and, in the 1840s, he combined both styles together to produce an intricate design, opting to use blue ink for the outlines rather than black.

“The whole of Messrs De la Rue’s establishment is carried out in a manner perfectly unique. Steam power wherever practicable is applied to the various departments of the business.” (Bradshaw’s, 1842) De la Rue’s modern designs were made possible by developments in technology. Not only was hand-painting the cards time-consuming, but the ink also took a long time to dry. So, De la Rue found a quicker drying ink and glazed the cards to prevent them from losing their pigment. Wherever he could, he replaced jobs that were originally done by hand with steam-powered machines, which sped up the manufacturing process.

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Card Backs designed by Owen Jones

In 1844, De la Rue hired Owen Jones (1809-74), a Welsh graphic designer who had trained at the Royal Academy Schools. Jones’s task was to produce designs for the backs of playing cards and, in the two decades he spent with the company, it is estimated he made 173 different designs. Jones was influenced by foreign cultures and many of his designs were similar to Moorish, Chinese and other art styles from antiquity. Fruit and flowers were a typical feature in the designs.

Owen Jones’s playing cards were much sought by the upper classes, including the Royal Family. Unfortunately, they were also quite expensive. Nonetheless, sales continued to do well and Jones received a lot of praise for his work, including from the Victorian author, Charles Dickens (1812-70). It is also said the Arts and Crafts artist, William Morris (1834-96), was influenced by Jones’s work.

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De la Rue, 1860

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De la Rue, 1885

Around the 1860s, double-ended court cards were designed so that they would always be the right way up. Previously, serious card players could work out if their opponent had a court card by watching to see if they turned a card around when adding it to their hand. The court cards now had two heads and joined together in the middle where their legs once began.

Another alteration was the inclusion of indices (a number or letter indicating the value of the card), in the top corner of the card. This allowed players to easily see which cards they had by fanning them out in one hand. The corners of the cards, which were originally sharp, were rounded off to limit wear and tear. A ripped corner could make it harder for players to tell what cards they had in their hand or even reveal the value to their opponents. The design on the back of the cards was another way of preventing other players from seeing what cards their opponents had; wear and tear caused cards to thin, revealing the design through the paper.

Playing cards eventually reached the Americas through European exports and quickly became a commercial success. Lewis I. Cohen (1800-68), who had spent some time in England between 1814 and 1819, returned to America with fresh insight into technological developments. As a result, he became the first American to introduce lead pencils and steel pens, which replaced the out-dated quill pens. He also became a manufacturer of playing card printing, developing a colour-printing machine that was able to print more than one colour at a time, thus speeding up production.

When playing cards became popular in the USA, they were already in the final stages of the design that would become commonplace across the world. It was in the USA, however, that one final card was added to the pack: the Joker. Samuel Hart (1846-1871), a playing card manufacturer from Philadelphia, is credited with the invention of the Joker, which was initially called “Best Bower” or “Imperial Bower”. The name came from the German word Bauer, which is what they called the Jack in Germany. (Knaves had become known as Jacks to make it easier to differentiate them from the Kings.) Jacks were often used as the highest trump cards in many games, including a trick-taking game called Euchre. Hart’s idea was to make an even higher trump card.

Around the late 1860s, the Imperial Bower was renamed the Joker, which is believed to have come from Juckerspiel, the German name for the game of Euchre. In Britain, the USA was still one of its biggest exports, so card manufacturing company Chas Goodall and Son began adding jokers to the packs produced for the American market. Eventually, the idea caught on in Britain and the first Joker for the British market was sold in 1874. The Joker also spread to mainland Europe where, in Italy, it became known as the “Jolly”.

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Unlike the rest of the playing cards, a uniform design was never developed for the Joker, therefore, companies could be as creative as they wished. For some manufacturers, the Joker became their trademark, however, they are usually depicted as jesters. It is common nowadays to have two jokers in a pack, often one coloured and one black and white. This was so there could be a trump card for the red suits (hearts and diamonds) and the black suits (clubs and spades). Usually, the two Jokers are different in appearance as well as colour to differentiate between them. The United States Playing Card Company (USPCC), established in 1867, prints their guarantee on one of the joker cards as a way of telling them apart.

The Joker has been introduced to many card games as the trump card, although, in Britain, older rules tend to be followed and the Joker discarded. For instance, in Britain, it is more common to play Old Maid rather than Chase the Joker.

Over time, nicknames have been invented for certain cards. The court cards (King, Queen and Jack) are also known as face cards but some of these cards have earnt other names due to their visual appearance. The King of Hearts and King of Diamonds, for instance, are sometimes known as the Suicide Kings. This is because the King of Hearts holds a sword to the back of his head as though stabbing himself. The King of Diamonds does a similar action with an axe.

The Jack of Hearts, the Jack of Spades and the King of Diamonds have been referred to as the One-Eyed Royals because they are traditionally drawn in profile rather than face on. The rest of the court cards are drawn in such a way that both eyes can be seen. The Jack of Diamonds is sometimes known as the Laughing Boy but this may be due to previous illustrations rather than the traditional British design.

The Queen of Spades, often known as “the black lady” or “black Maria”, is the undesirable card in the game of Old Maid. She is shown holding a sceptre, which has led to the nickname “the bedpost Queen”. The Queen of Clubs was, at one point, the only Queen holding a flower, therefore, she became known as the “Flower Queen”. Today, however, all four Queens are usually depicted holding flowers.

The Ace of Spades, with its unique design, is often designated the trump card in certain games. As a result, it has earned the nickname “the death card”. Most of the pip cards are known by the numbers, however, on occasion, the twos have been referred to as “deuces” and the threes as “treys”. The Nine of Diamonds, on the other hand, has become known as “the Curse of Scotland” but no one agrees on the reason why. One suggestion was every ninth king of Scotland was “a tyrant and a curse to that country”, and another suggestion was nine diamonds were stolen from the crown jewels during the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-87), which resulted in the whole country being taxed to recoup the costs.

New theories, names and meanings of playing cards have continued to be invented over the years. At one time, the four suits were said to represent the four major pillars of the economy in the Middle Ages: Church (Hearts), military (Spades), agriculture (Clubs), and merchants (Diamonds). Since then, the suits have also been assigned the four seasons, the four solstices and the four natural elements: water (Hearts), fire (Clubs), earth (Diamonds), and air (Spades).

There are 52 cards in a traditional pack of cards (discounting the jokers), which is the same number of weeks in a year. There are 13 cards in each suit and 13 weeks in each season and there are 12 Royals and 12 months of the year.

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The history of playing cards is long and varied and will likely endure forever. Over time, novelty versions of the cards have been produced, such as those featuring images from popular literature, to appeal to new generations. Playing cards have also been redesigned for coronations and special events and sold as limited editions.

Despite cultural differences, playing cards are something most countries have in common. Across Europe and America in particular, language barriers can be overcome through the playing of a well-known game. Even with the development of digital technology, playing cards are not at risk of being forgotten. Digital versions of solitaire are proving to be popular amongst all generations and casinos across the world continue to make lots of money from a simple pack of cards.

It is impossible to determine how many card games have been invented or how many styles of playing cards have been produced, but what we do know is they have all derived from games played in China during the 9th century. Who knew something so simple as a few strips of paper could grow to affect the whole world?

Rowntree’s® of York

When people hear or say the brand name Rowntree’s, it is difficult not to add the words “Fruit Pastilles”. Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles were introduced in 1881 and fast became the confectionery company’s most associated product. Yet, there are several well-loved chocolates and sweets brands that began their lives in the Rowntree’s factory in York. The company itself has a long and varied history and, thanks to York’s Chocolate Story museum, the Rowntree’s founders have been immortalised forever.

Rowntree’s history begins with Joseph Rowntree Senior (1801-59), a Quaker from Scarborough, who moved to York in 1822 to open a grocery shop. Unlike today where many products are sold pre-packaged, Rowntree usually had to measure out his goods for each customer. Unlike other grocers who cheated their customers by adding sawdust to increase the weight, Rowntree’s Quaker morals prevented him from doing such a thing and he quickly developed a reputation for good quality.

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Rowntree Senior was not personally involved with the confectionery or chocolate trade, however, he would likely have sold products by the Tuke family, who produced “Rock Cocoa” drinking powder. One of Rowntree’s sons, Henry Isaac Rowntree (1837-83), went to work for the Tukes after his father’s death in 1860.

Two years later, in 1862, Henry Isaac Rowntree bought out the Tuke family who were focusing on other things, such as mental health retreats, and established a confectionery business in Castlegate, York. Following in his father’s footsteps, Henry insisted on quality above anything else. In 1864, for £1,000, he purchased an old iron foundry at Tanners Moat by the River Ouse and set up a factory. His chocolate business suffered somewhat, however, due to his devotion to the Yorkshire Weekly Press, of which he was both editor and printer.

By 1869, the business, which was staffed by 12 men, was beginning to struggle, so Henry invited his older brother Joseph (1836-1925) to become a partner, thus renaming the company H. I. Rowntree & Co. With Joseph Rowntree in control, the factory was transformed. Under his expertise book-keeping and stock control, the business went from strength to strength. He also helped to found one of the first Occupational Pension Schemes.

Whilst the company was beginning to do well with their chocolate sales, it was the launch of Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles in 1881 that truly saved the company. The sweets, which are still produced today, are small and round with a diameter of approximately 1.5cm. They have a jelly consistency and are coated in sugar. Each pack contains a mixture of lemon (yellow), lime (green), strawberry (red), blackcurrant (purple) and orange (orange).

Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles were an immediate success and, by 1887, were responsible for at least 25% of the company’s profit. In 1893, H. I. Rowntree & Co introduced Rowntree’s Clear Gums, later rebranded as Fruit Gums. These were similar to Fruit Pastilles but without the coating of sugar. Although they never became as popular as the original sweets, Rowntree’s Fruit Gums were marketed as “The nation’s favourite sweet”.

Sadly, Henry Isaac Rowntree died suddenly in 1883 before he could see the extent of the company’s profits. Fortunately, Joseph Rowntree had everything in hand and used the company’s success to invest in a Van Houten press, which enabled them to produce chocolate with the cocoa butter removed. In other words, it allowed them to make their own cocoa powder.

The Van Houten press was developed by a Dutch chocolate factory owner, Casparus van Houten (1770–1858), in 1828, although it is his son, Coenraad Johannes van Houten (1801-87) who usually takes the credit. This hydraulic press could reduce the cocoa butter content by nearly half so that it could be pulverised into cocoa powder. Ten years later, the patent for the machine expired, allowing other factories to use it. As a result, British chocolate maker J. S. Fry & Sons were able to use this technology to produce the world’s first chocolate bar.

With the Van Houten press, H. I. Rowntree & Co were able to make products to rival other chocolate companies. By then, the company had far surpassed its small family business status and was developing into a large-scale manufacturer. Between 1880 and 1890, sales had more than quadrupled, yet, they felt they were still a step behind their strongest competitor, Cadbury.

In 1889, Joseph Rowntree hired his son, Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree (1871-1954), to research into rival company products and run a small research laboratory for analysing ingredients. Seebohm’s task inspired his future career as a sociological researcher, social reformer and business magnate. In 1899, 1935 and 1951, he conducted studies in his home city, analysing the living conditions of the poor in York and argued for a national minimum wage.

Whilst Seebohm was conducting his research, H. I. Rowntree & Co was struggling to keep up with consumer demands and needed a much bigger factory. In 1890, Joseph Rowntree purchased a 20-acre site at Haxby Road on the outskirts of York upon which he began to construct a modern industrial complex. In 1899, a further 31 acres were purchased to expand the factory further. Over the following century, developments and expansions were made to the site, including the addition of a school building to train their workers. Today, the factory is being repurposed as a housing estate.

The move to Haxby Road, however, resulted in a shortage of funds, which prompted them into becoming a public limited liability company and renaming themselves Rowntree & Co in 1897. In 1899, Rowntree & Co finally produced their first milk chocolate bar. Unfortunately, the chocolate bar was not as successful as they hoped and failed to match the quality of their rivals, Cadbury and Lindt. At first Joseph Rowntree was undeterred and believed milk chocolate bars to be a passing fad, however, he was soon proved wrong.

When Seebohm Rowntree inherited the company in 1923, it was bordering on bankruptcy; something needed to change. Although Joseph Rowntree was against the idea, Rowntree’s had begun using advertising methods in the 1890s, such as a nine-foot replica tin of Rowntree’s Elect Cocoa that was driven around the city or sailed along the river. John’s nephew, Arnold Rowntree (1872-1951), insisted they put a greater emphasis on marketing, which George Harris, John’s brother-in-law, became responsible for as marketing manager.

Seebohm’s son, Peter Rowntree (1904-85), discovered the importance of market research, which helped Rowntree’s produce what the consumers wanted rather than trying to replicate what other brands were making. Using this approach, Rowntree’s launched its first successful selection box, Black Magic.

Marketed as a courtship gift, Black Magic, was an affordable selection of small samples of different chocolates that would otherwise be expensive to buy. Although Rowntree’s had been spending considerable resources on developing milk chocolate, the selection box reverted to dark chocolate. Each box contained chocolates with a variety of fillings, including fudge, caramel, raspberry and orange.

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Putting their rivalry with Cadbury to one side, Rowntree’s began to release chocolates and sweets that they hoped would appeal to the nation. In May 1935, they launched the Aero Chocolate Bar, which they initially marketed as the “new chocolate bar”. Their first advertising slogan for the new bubbly product was “You get a lift”, however, after the Second World War, the marketing team commissioned paintings of “ordinary” women to use on their advertisements along with the slogan “Different… For her, Aero – the milk chocolate that’s different!”

Aero was an instant success, which boosted the morale of the company. Later the same year, Rowntree’s launched the Chocolate Crisp, which is now better known as KitKat. The renaming of the chocolate-wafer bar occurred in 1937 and was a name Rowntree’s had previously used for a selection box that had not done as well as Black Magic. KitKat was an odd choice as it was the name of an 18th-century mutton pie that was served at what became the political Kit-Kat Club in London.

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The original advertising of the four-fingered chocolate bar claimed it was a snack “a man could take to work in his pack”, which he could eat on his lunch break. This developed into the much more familiar slogan, “Have a break … Have a Kit Kat!”

The milk chocolate KitKat was sold in red packaging, however, lack of ingredients during the war years made it difficult to produce the chocolate. In 1942, Rowntree’s changed the packaging to blue and announced, “This product is made with plain chocolate. Our standard Chocolate Crisp will be re-introduced as soon as milk is available.” As soon as rationing allowed, the red-packaged milk chocolate KitKats returned.

Today, KitKat is one of the most produced chocolate bars in the world and is made in 16 different countries across all continents. Each country produces a variety of different flavours. In the United Kingdom, the milk chocolate variety is the most popular, however, there are also dark chocolate, white chocolate, orange, mint, and cookies and cream versions. This year (2020), two new flavours were launched in the United States: Lemon Crisp and Rasberry Creme.

In Japan, on the other hand, there are over 200 different flavours. KitKat is a highly popular and respected brand due to its similarity to the Japanese phrase “Kitto Katsu”, which translates as “you will surely win”. Different regions of Japan are associated with distinct flavours, which they incorporate into KitKats and gift to people from other areas. Flavours range from fruity (apple, banana, cherry, pear, pumpkin, watermelon) and sweet (blueberry cheesecake, brown sugar syrup, creme brulee, strawberry cheesecake, sweet pudding) to the downright bizarre (cough drop, European cheese, green bean, melon and cheese, red potato, sake, soy sauce, vegetable juice, wasabi).

In 1937, Rowntree’s, who were still using the market research Peter Rowntree had conducted, launched a Dairy Box of assorted chocolates. This was a milk chocolate version of Black Magic and contained several different fillings, such as almond crispy cluster, Aero, burnt almond toffee, cracknel and praline sandwich, nougat de Montelimar, hazelnut log, and coffee creme.

The following year, Rowntree’s began selling Chocolate Beans. Initially, these were sold loose or in small cardboard packets until they were rebranded as Smarties and sold in the distinctive cardboard tube. The chocolates, which are coated in red, orange, yellow, green, blue, mauve, pink or brown sugar casings, remain a firm favourite, particularly with children. From the 1980s, the colourful plastic lid of the tube was appropriated as a teaching aid, each featuring a different letter of the alphabet. The purpose was to encourage young children to recognise and learn letters, which in turn would help them to read. Approximately, five billion Smarties lids were produced and some are considered collector’s items. Production of the round tube ceased in 2005 when it was replaced with a hexagonal design. Although they no longer have plastic tops, they still feature a letter and also a quiz question.

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Rowntree’s next launch was “the mint with the hole”. The famous Polo was originally developed in York in 1939, however, the outbreak of the Second World War meant production had to be put on hold. Finally, in 1948, the breath mint was released to the world. This peppermint flavoured confectionery was named Polo due to its similarity to the word “polar”, which would subliminally suggest to consumers a hint of coolness.

When the rationing of sweets ended at the beginning of the 1950s, Rowntree’s launched Polo Fruit, a fruity version of the popular mint. Since then, several flavours of Polo have been launched, some more successful than others. These include spearmint, sugar-free, strong mint, citrus, buttermint (mint flavoured butterscotch), and gummy versions. During the 1990s, they also sold “Polo holes”, i.e. the holes that had supposedly been punched out of the original Polo.

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Continuing along the mint theme, Rowntree’s launched After Eight Mint Chocolate Thins in 1962. These originally dairy-free mints are coated in dark chocolate and presented in individual paper sleeves in a dark green box. An estimated one billion After Eight chocolates are made each year. Since its launch, After Eight has become a family name for a selection of products, including biscuits, desserts and special editions.

The chocolate industry was and still is very competitive, therefore, it is not unusual for other companies to try and buy each other out or merge to create a bigger corporation. In 1969, Rowntree’s merged with John Mackintosh and Co to become Rowntree Mackintosh. Founded by John Mackintosh (1868-1920), Mackintosh’s was a confectionery company from Halifax, West Yorkshire, known particularly for their toffees. They are also famed for brands such as Quality Street, Rolo, Caramac, Munchies and Toffee Crisp.

Although Rowntree’s had been a successful company, they had failed to produce a solid milk chocolate bar to rival Cadbury’s Dairy Milk. Under the merger of Rowntree Mackintosh, they were ready to make another attempt. The result was a chunky chocolate bar that was launched in 1976 under the title Yorkie, so named after the city of its birth. These chocolate bars were promoted as manlier versions of the Dairy Milk bar, therefore, advertisements often featured images of men doing “manly” work. As a result, the slogan “It’s Not For Girls!” developed, which was finally dropped in 2011. For some time, on arriving at York Railway Station, passengers were greeted with a billboard that stated: “Welcome to York where the men are hunky and the chocolate’s chunky”.

There was an attempt to make a female version of Yorkie, which was wrapped in pink packaging, however, it did not prove overly successful. Other variants of the chocolate bar include Yorkie biscuits, biscuit and raisin flavour, and honeycomb flavour.

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The same year, Rowntree Mackintosh released the Lion Bar. It was originally an experiment and consisted of wafers, caramel, puffed rice and peanuts covered in chocolate. After trialling the chocolate bar in Dorset, it was deemed a success and launched on a wider scale. Since 1988, the recipe has been changed to remove peanuts from the ingredients.

In the 1980s, Rowntree Mackintosh focused more on expanding the company than on producing new chocolates and confectionery. That decade, they spent almost £400 million upgrading their factories and a further £400 million on purchasing other companies. This included the American peanut company Tom’s Snacks, the Canadian company Laura Secord Chocolates, and the UK’s Gale’s honey.

There had been many attempts from competitors to purchase or merge with Rowntree Mackintosh, which the company had thus far avoided. By the 1980s, Rowntree Mackintosh was the fourth-largest chocolate manufacturer in the world, coming after Mars, Hershey and Cadbury.

By the 1980s, Nestlé, a Swiss food and drink company that dates back to the 1860s, was the largest company of its kind in the world and had expressed interest in Rowntree Mackintosh but had been rebuffed. On 13th April 1988, however, Rowntree Mackintosh found themselves in danger of a hostile take over by a German coffee brand Jacobs, who had purchased shares in the company, giving them a 14.9% stake.

Out of fear that Rowntree Mackintosh would fall into the hands of their competitors, Nestlé made contact with Kenneth Dixon, the chairman of Rowntree Mackintosh and offered to buy them out for £2.55 billion. Naturally, Dixon refused the offer, however, as the situation worsened he began to see the benefits of joining with Nestlé. Very soon they were operating under the name Nestlé Rowntree.

Before long, however, Nestlé dropped the name Rowntree from their branding except for Fruit Pastille and other fruit gum lines. The name Mackintosh was all but forgotten and was only mentioned on Mackintosh’s Toffee, for which they had initially gained fame.

The Nestlé takeover almost erased Rowntree’s history by removing its name from the majority of its products. Now only associated with fruit and gummy products, many people are surprised to hear Rowntree’s referred to as a chocolate company. Thankfully, the people of York refuse to let Rowntree’s history be forgotten and its story and chocolate are talked about several times a day at York’s Chocolate Story.

Nonetheless, Rowntree’s is the nations favourite fruity sweet brand. Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles are enjoyed by an estimated 15 million people per year and other favourites include Rowntree’s Fruit Gums, Jelly Tots, and Rowntree’s Randoms. Jelly Tots were launched in 1969 as a children’s alternative to Fruit Pastilles. Rowntree’s Randoms, however, is a Nestlé, product introduced in 2009. Being a fruit flavoured product, they respectfully kept the original manufacturer’s name.

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From a small Quaker family in the Victorian-era, Rowntree’s grew into a major corporation and, although it was eventually taken over, it is responsible for so many of the sweets and chocolate sold today. For that, every person with a sweet tooth is eternally grateful.

Simeon Conquers York

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It has been some time since Simeon the red-haired gibbon (toffee-coloured, if you please) has had an adventure. After months of self-isolation, Simeon braved the outdoors, travelling 200 miles from London to York, the city of Romans, Vikings and Chocolate. Known for its city walls and magnificent Minster, York is situated on two rivers, the Ouse and the Foss, and was founded in around 71 AD. With so much history, York was the perfect city for Simeon to explore and he would love to tell you all about it.

Day One

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Having left London at precisely 6:06 am, Simeon arrived at Ebor Cottage, York around 10:30 am (he stopped on the way for breakfast, naturally). The cottage gets its name from Eboracum, the name the Roman’s gave the city when they arrived in 71 AD, which possibly means “place of the yew trees”. Before the Roman conquest of Britain, the area was inhabited by a tribe called the Brigantes, a name which translates into contemporary English as “highlanders”. The Brigantes were unhappy about their land being taken by the Romans, who had built a wooden fortress and surrounded it with stone walls, however, it was not until AD 306 that they retaliated.

The Brigantes were temporarily subdued by Roman Emperor Constantius Chlorus (c205-306) and his son Constantine (272-337), however, victory did not come without a price. Constantius Chlorus was fatally wounded in battle and passed away in his headquarters at Eboracum. His son immediately seized power, becoming Emperor on what is now the site of York Minster. Constantine I, also known as Constantine the Great, was the first Christian emperor of Rome and brought Christianity to Western Europe.

It did not take Simeon long to unpack his bags before he was racing off to the city centre. What better way to see the city than on a City Sightseeing bus? The open-topped bus took Simeon on a circular route around the city of York, telling him about all the sites and places to visit. Afterwards, Simeon decided to explore some of the city by himself, walking the remaining Roman walls, visiting the many gates and “bars”. The bars are actually gateways to the city that were built into the walls. The gates, on the other hand, are the streets. The term comes from the Old Norse word “gata”, which means “road” or “path”.

The bus tour began in Exhibition Square in front of York Art Gallery. Here, Simeon resisted the temptation to play in the fountains by the statue of William Etty (1787-1849), a member of the Royal Academy of Arts who was born in York. Next door is a grand building called the King’s Manor, where Charles I (1600-49) set up his headquarters during the English Civil War. On the other side of the road is Bootham Bar, one of the four main entrances to the medieval city and the oldest gateway in York dating back to the 11th century. The other bars are Monk, Walmgate and Micklegate.

Monk Bar was built in the 14th and 15th century and now houses the Richard III Experience. The second storey was added by Richard III (1452-85) in 1484. It features a portcullis, which is no longer used, and a series of holes in the walls from which guards could drop missiles onto attackers. Stone figures have been added to the top of the building to represent men throwing boulders onto their victims below. During its history, Monk Bar has been used as a prison and a police station and boasts two garderobes (medieval toilets).

Walmgate Bar is the most complete of the four bars and dates to around the 12th century, although it has had many additions over the centuries. The arch is the oldest part but the portcullis and gates are from the 15th century. The century before, a Barbican (extended wall) was built in front of the Bar. This meant attackers had to get through two gates before entering the city. Damages from cannonballs can still be seen on some parts of the Bar from the time the city was besieged by Parliamentarians in 1644.

“Off with his head and set it on York gates; so York may overlook the town of York.”
– Queen Mary in Shakespeare’s Henry VI

Micklegate Bar was once the most important of York’s gateways. At three storeys high, it was the place where severed heads of traitors were displayed on pikes and pecked at by crows. Sometimes, rotten heads were left up there for almost a decade. Despite its gruesome history, Micklegate Bar was the traditional entry for royalty, dignitaries and important visitors. They could not enter without permission and this rule is still in place today. If the current monarch wishes to enter the city through Micklegate Bar, they must first receive permission from the Lord Mayor of York.

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Clifford’s Tower

The bus took Simeon past lots of interesting places, some ancient, some old and some new-ish. After William the Conqueror (1028-87) invaded York, he built a wooden castle on a raised mound in 1068. Of course, a wooden structure would not last forever, so 200 years later Henry III (1207-72) replaced it with a stone castle, of which one tower remains today. Simeon got a good view of this structure, known as Clifford’s Tower, which was built between 1244 and 1270.

Clifford’s Tower is usually open to the public, however, due to lockdown restrictions, it was closed when Simeon visited. Luckily, the bus tour was able to tell Simeon a little about it. Known by the locals as the “Eye of York”, the 15-metre high building stands on a conical mound and provides stunning views across the city. It contains two floors, the top which once included a chapel and private apartments, however, it is now mostly roofless. At first glance, the tower may appear to be round, however, it was actually built in a quadrilobate design made up of four round bastions and two turrets.

The bus continued on past the War Memorial Gardens, which are relatively new in comparison to the majority of York. The garden was first opened in 1925 to commemorate those who lost their lives in the Great War. In the centre stands a war memorial designed by Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944) and other memorials have been added since to commemorate the Second World War and the Korean War.

Another garden allegedly contains the grave of Dick Turpin (1705-39): “Richard Palmer alias Richard Turpin, notorious highwayman and horse stealer. Executed at Tyburn, April 7th 1739″. Dick Turpin was an infamous highwayman from Essex who fled to York under the pseudonym John Palmer. After a fight with a local man, his true identity was revealed and he was hung in the Knavesmire, a marshy area outside of the city walls. Many now believe Turpin’s body does not lie under the gravestone in York, however, others have recorded paranormal activity in the area. Simeon decided not to visit the gravestone and peered at it nervously from the bus in case he saw the rumoured ghostly figure on horseback.

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After Simeon’s bus journey came to an end, he was eager to explore some of the sights and immediately rushed up the steps at Botham Bar to walk along the Roman walls. Walking where the Romans once trod, Simeon came across some of the places he saw from the bus plus several other places.

The walls do not encircle the whole of York because the River Foss and the boggy land made some areas impenetrable. At the beginning of the 14th century, however, a bridge known as Layerthorpe Bridge was built across the river to increase trade. Those who crossed the bridge were required to pay a toll. It was eventually demolished and replaced in 1996 by two bridges that are used today.

The area surrounding the location of Layerthorpe Bridge has become known as Jewbury due to a Jewish cemetery that once stood there. In the 12th century, York had the largest Jewish community in England, however, in 1190 many of the Jews were forced to take their own lives at Clifford’s Tower. Later, in 1290, the remaining Jews were expelled from England by Edward I (1239-1307).

Later, Simeon came across Fishergate while walking along the wall. Whilst it was not one of the original bars, the gateway was added in medieval times. Inscribed above the central arch is the commemoration of the knighthood bestowed by Henry VII (1457-1509) in 1487 upon William Todd, the Lord Mayor of York. The tower above the gateway was used as a place to imprison Roman Catholics during the reigns of Elizabeth I (1533-1603) and James I (1566-1625). It was also briefly used as a place to incarcerate the mentally ill.

By this point in Simeon’s journey, he was feeling rather worn out and decided not to walk the remaining parts of the wall. This may also have been because he had spied The Postern Gate, a pub built next to the Fishergate Postern medieval tower!

Day Two

More exploring was on the cards for Simeon, this time with the help of a York Minster Area Trail put together by Treasure Trails. The trail contained 19 clues that led Simeon around York, solving hints to work out who murdered the (fictional) novice campanologist, Terry Bell. Along the way, Simeon learnt even more about the City of York.

The York Minster Area Trail began beside a Roman column that once stood in the great hall of an ancient fortress. When the building was destroyed, the column was buried, which preserved it until 1969 when it was eventually found. The trail then led Simeon to Dean’s Park where he met Gerald the Minster Cat along the way. Gerald suggested Simeon look for clues in small places, so he did, including inside a post box! Gerald warned Simeon not to appear suspicious because York Minster has its own police force. Gerald also told Simeon the Minster’s full name is the Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of St. Peter in York.

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As Simeon rapidly crossed off his list of suspects, he ventured down many interestingly named streets: Chapter House Street, St. Saviourgate, Swinegate and Coffee Yard to name a few. Simeon’s favourite street, however, was Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate. Ironically, this is the name of the shortest street in York and only contains three buildings: 1, 1a and 1 1/2. It was first recorded in 1505 as Whitnourwhatnourgate, meaning “Neither whit nor what street” or “Neither one thing nor the other”. The locals, however, claim it means “What a street!”

Simeon’s second favourite street is actually the most famous in York. The Shambles, which has been taken over by Harry Potter shops, is a very narrow street that gets its name from the Anglo-Saxon Fleshammels, meaning “flesh-shelves”, due to the number of butchers that once traded there. Some of the shops still have the hooks or “shammels” upon which meat was displayed.

Despite being the best-preserved medieval street in England, literature and film fans have likened the street to Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter stories by J. K. Rowling (b.1965). Some claim the street was actually the inspiration for the fictional alley, however, the author denies this and states she has never visited The Shambles. Nonetheless, Harry Potter fans have moved in, opening shops such as The Shop That Must Not Be Named, World of Wizardry, The Boy Wizard and The Potions Cauldron. Fortunately, the street still contains a few of the more traditional shops selling clothes, sweets, fudge, accessories and gifts.

Partway down The Shambles is a shrine dedicated to Saint Margaret Clitherow. Also known as “the pearl of York”, Margaret Clitherow (1556-85) was a butcher’s wife who converted to Catholicism in 1574 at a time when it was banned in England. Despite being fined and imprisoned multiple times by the Church of England for not attending Sunday services, Clitherow maintained her Catholic faith, celebrating mass in a rented house. She allegedly helped to hide some of the priests who were being persecuted, for which she was arrested in 1585. Refusing to plead neither guilty nor innocent, Clitherow was tortured then executed on Good Friday by being crushed to death by a door. This was a form of peine forte et dure (hard and forceful punishment) given to those who refused to plead in which the defendant was slowly crushed by a gradual accumulation of heavy stones or weights upon their body.

Margaret Clitherow was one of a few notable names Simeon came across while searching for the murderer of (fictional) Terry Bell. While walking down Stonegate, Simeon came across the house in which the infamous Guido “Guy” Fawkes (1570-1606) was born. His date of birth is not known, however, records reveal Fawkes was baptised on 13th April 1570 at St Michael le Belfry church in York. He attended St Peter’s School but left the city when he was 21 to fight in the Catholic Spanish army. When he returned to England he went straight to London to help plot the murder of James I. As the majority know, Fawkes was caught with several barrels of gunpowder in the cellar under parliament, after which he was arrested and hung, drawn and quartered.

Other names that cropped up during Simeon’s search of the city included George Hudson (1800-71) the Lord Mayor of York known as the “Railway King” for bringing the railway to York, and Yorkshireman Miles Coverdale (1488-1569), later the Bishop of Exeter, who published the first complete printed English Bible in 1535. Simeon found the location of the first Wesleyan Methodist Chapel in York where John Wesley (1703-91) conducted the opening service on Sunday 15th July 1759.

After two hours of deciphering clues, Simeon had solved the murder mystery. As a reward, he treated himself to a Yorkshire pudding at newly opened restaurant Forest.

Day Three

Simeon was not overly impressed with the downpour he woke up to but at least the York Minster, which he intended to visit would have a roof. York Minster, however, had not always been the stable building that it is now. Foundations under the building, which can be seen in the undercroft, date from around AD71 and once belonged to a Roman Fortress, which was later destroyed. It was some time before Christianity arrived in York and the first known Church on or near the site was a wooden structure erected around AD627 and was the location of the baptism of King Edwin (586-633) when he converted to Christianity. The wooden building was soon replaced with a stone version, where King Edwin was buried in AD633, however, it was destroyed by William the Conqueror’s forces in 1069.

Despite having destroyed the first stone church, William the Conqueror gave the Archbishop of York, Thomas of Bayeux (d.1100), permission to build a new church on the Roman foundations. Over the following 250 years, the church was added to by various kings and archbishops, which explains the differences in architectural styles. The original tower collapsed in 1407 and a stronger one built, therefore, the Minster was not consecrated until 3rd July 1472. Future disasters destroyed parts of the Minster, such as fires in 1829 and 1840, and subsidence in 1967, however, rescue missions have saved the Minster, which still stands in all its beauty.

“The Minster is a symphony in stone.”
– John David, Master Mason

As Simeon entered the Minster, his breath was taken away by the enormity of the Gothic Nave. Staring up at the ceiling, Simeon spotted the seven key ceiling bosses that the Victorians recreated after the loss of the original ceiling. Each boss illustrates an event in the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Simeon was a little disconcerted by the golden dragon head that peers down into the Nave. No one knows its true purpose but some suggest it may have been used to lift up a heavy font lid.

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The Nave can fit up to 1,500 people, however, on Simeon’s visit, only a few people were allowed to enter at a time. The lack of crowds made it easier for Simeon to study the building carefully, which is when he discovered a series of headless statues on either side of the west entrance. “What a strange sight,” thought Simeon. “Their heads have fallen off.” Their heads, however, had not fallen off, they had been purposefully made without them.

During the Reformation, the Minster was purged of any traces of Roman Catholicism, which resulted in the decapitation of several statues. To symbolise this event, twelve headless statues were created in 2005 by Terry Hammill (b.1941) and are known as the “Semaphore Saints”. Each statue signs a different letter and when placed together, they read “Christ is here”.

Due to repair works, Simeon could not enter the northern sections of the Minster, nor could he see the great organ and its 5,403 pipes, which were hidden by scaffolding. Social distancing prevented Simeon from climbing the tall tower, however, he did not mind too much because he was so busy marvelling at the many stained glass windows. In the Nave, Simeon enjoyed studying the Tree of Jesse Window, which shows the genealogy of Jesus. Simeon’s favourite window, however, was in the Lady Chapel.

Source: Smithsonian Magazine

Great East Window

The Great East Window was created between 1405-8 by John Thornton (c1385- after 1433) for a fee of £46 and tells the story of the world from its beginning as told in the Book of Genesis, to its end as told in Revelations. Simeon could not see from standing on the ground, but the top piece of glass depicts God with the words “Ego sum Alpha et Omega“, which means “I am Alpha and Omega of all things”. A guide showed a close up of the glass on a tablet and pointed out the amusing graffiti left by conservators that read “top, centre” as though they would forget where it goes! It took conservators 92,400 hours to clean and protect all 311 glass panels.

Descending underground, Simeon braved the crypt, which contained some of the original Norman architecture. A disconcerting doomstone showed a carving of Hell in which lost souls were being pushed into a cauldron and boiled alive by demons. Needless to say, Simeon did not stay down there for long.

Before leaving the Minster, Simeon spent some time in the South Transept, which is the oldest part of the present building. Ironically, it has the newest roof because its old roof was destroyed when it was struck by lightning in 1984. Four years later, the roof had been rebuilt and Blue Peter set up a competition for children to design six of the new bosses on the theme of important events of the 20th century. The winning designs include the moon landing and the raising of Henry VIII’s (1419-1547) ship the Mary Rose. Another of the bosses, although not one of the competition entries, represents the nursery rhyme, Jack and Jill. Simeon was slightly disappointed that his favourite song, Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, was not featured.

The round window in the South Transept dates back to 1250, however, the stained glass was installed in 1515. Made up of a pattern of red and white roses, the window commemorated the union of the House of Lancaster and the House of York through the marriage of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York (1466-1503). Strangely, the window features the red roses of Lancaster and the red and white Tudor rose, however, there are no white York roses. Miraculously, the Rose Window survived the lightning strike of 1984, however, it suffered 40,000 cracks in 8,000 pieces of glass. It would have been impossible to replace every panel of 16th-century glass, therefore, a special resin was produced to seal each crack.

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The wet weather put a bit of a damper on the rest of Simeon’s day, so to avoid the raindrops, he took the opportunity to explore a few shops, including those in the Shambles. Being a little gibbon with short legs, however, meant Simeon soon tired and needed refreshments. Fortunately, a stone’s throw away from Lendal bridge where Simeon had found himself, was a French Bistro called Rustique, where Simeon enjoyed steak and chips.

Day Four

From the moment he arrived in York, Simeon was keen to meet the Vikings and he finally got a chance at the Jorvik Viking Centre near Coppergate Shopping Centre. Jorvik (YOR-vik) was the name the Vikings gave to the city, from which the name York developed. In fact, the Vikings are responsible for many place names in Britain. The suffix -ness, for example, means headland, and -by means village or farm, as in Whitby: “white farm”.

Upon arriving at Jorvik, Simeon was ushered down a set of stairs, 9 metres underground to where the Viking street level once was. Years of debris and rubbish has caused the ground level to rise, however, this has been beneficial as the waterlogged soil helped to preserve the Viking village, which otherwise would have rotted to dust. Under a glass floor are the remains of two houses, which were discovered when foundations were being built for the shopping centre. Whilst the houses seem quite small, even to Simeon, they would have been the homes of large, extended families.

Formerly the Anglo-Saxon capital of Northumbria, York/Jorvik was captured by the Vikings in AD866. Under Viking rule, the city expanded and became a populous trading centre where many came to work or settle. The Vikings remained the rulers of Jorvik until AD954 when the Norwegian leader Eric Bloodaxe (885-954) was exiled from the land and possibly assassinated. Back under Anglo-Saxon control, York continued to develop, eventually becoming one of the largest cities in the new kingdom, England.

After a brief talk from a Viking (the face mask made his costume seem less authentic but Simeon did not mind), Simeon boarded the Ride Experience for a journey through a recreated Viking village featuring realistic, moving models, sounds and smells. The audio guide explained to Simeon that the Vikings arrived by sea from Scandinavia bringing with them all sorts of goods to trade, including animal pelts, whalebone and amber.

Simeon was a little concerned to see a woman tied up and even more perturbed to learn this was a common scene in Viking areas. When Vikings raided a village, they often took people captive as slaves. This woman, called Brónach, was captured in Ireland and was being taken to market to be sold. The market also sold food, including meat and fruit, clothes, and animals. Most people worked from their houses and Simeon passed a blacksmith, a cobbler, a weaver and a fisherman on his journey around the village.

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© 2012-2020 York Archaeological Trust

Whilst travelling through the market, Simeon saw a disabled lady trying to cross the road. Initially mistaking her for an elderly woman with a crutch, Simeon learnt the lady was called Leoba and moved to Jorvik when she was young. Now aged 46, which was quite old at that time, her health was beginning to deteriorate. Modelled on a skeleton that was discovered under Coppergate, Leoba had defects in her hip, knee and spine, which caused her to walk with a limp. At 5 ft 2in tall, Leoba had a widespread degenerative joint disease and traces of lead and strontium have been found on her skeleton.

Leoba was not the only Viking suffering from a physical condition that Simeon met on his trip. The leatherworker, Mord, had painfully clawed hands due to suffering from “Viking Disease”. Now known as Dupuytren’s contracture, the hand deformity occurs when the tissue under the palm of the hand begins to knot, causing the fingers to become bent.

After passing a man trying to use a cesspit (toilet), Simeon came to the final two scenes of the ride. The first revealed some of the pagan Vikings converted to Christianity. In Scandinavia, the Vikings worshipped Norse gods, such as Odin, Thor, Frey and Freya, however, they chose to leave those beliefs behind and adopt the religion of their new land. Viking monuments have been found in churches across York and several Viking rulers, including Guthfrith (d.895) and Sweyn Forkbeard (960-1014), were buried in York Minster. Evidence of Pre-Christian stories has also been discovered in York, including the story of Sigurðr the dragon-slayer.

After the ride came to an end, Simeon had the opportunity to view two rooms full of Viking artefacts that were discovered below the surface of Coppergate. These included bones, weapons, knives, coins, clothing and the largest fossilised human faeces. Fortunately, there were no smells in this part of the museum!

After a cup of tea at Lucky Days Cafe on Church Street, Simeon was keen to make the most of the good weather and headed to the Museum Gardens to explore the 10 acres of land that once belonged to St Mary’s Abbey. Throughout the grounds are the remains of the Benedictine abbey that was founded in 1055 and dedicated to Saint Olaf II of Norway (995-1030). After the Norman invasion, the abbey was granted to a group of monks from Whitby. The remaining ruins date from the 1260s when the abbey was expanded to create a defensive wall. The abbey was converted into a palace after Henry VIII banned all monasteries in the 1530s. The palace, however, was seldom used and soon fell into disrepair.

Some of the remains were once part of St Leonard’s Hospital, which shared the grounds with St Mary’s Abbey until the Reformation. The hospital was founded shortly after 1100 to replace a former hospital that had been damaged by fire. The hospital, which looked like a church, cared for the sick, poor and elderly, however, they could be denied treatment for refusing to confess their sins and partake in regular prayers and rituals.

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To one side of the abbey and hospital ruins is a medieval building that has stood the test of time. Known as a Hospitium, the 14th-century building would have once housed guests to the abbey who were not allowed to stay in the main abbey with the monks. Whereas the abbey and hospital were destroyed, the Hospitium has gone through several uses and, although fell to disrepair a few times, was saved by the Yorkshire Philosophical Society in 1828. Today it can be hired for weddings, parties and special events.

On the opposite side of the park is the Yorkshire Museum, which was one of the first purpose-built museums in the country. Designed by William Wilkins (1778-1839) in the neo-classical Greek Revival style, the museum opened in 1830 and is home to several collections, including geology, archaeology, natural history and palaeontology. Unfortunately, the Yorkshire Museum was still in lockdown at the time of Simeon’s visit.

Simeon’s favourite part of the garden was the botanical section, which has won the Gold Award at the Yorkshire in Bloom competition three years running. There are several themes throughout the garden, such as the Prairie Border, which contains the native flora of the American prairie, the Fern Garden, and the Oriental Border, with plants from China and Japan. Simeon liked the Butterfly Border best, which contains several perennial plants that are full of nectar and other plants on which butterflies like to hibernate.

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After leaving the garden, Simeon found himself by the River Ouse and went for a long walk up one side and down the other (actually, he was lazy and was carried the entire time!). All the walking (?!) made Simeon very tired and he was glad to find a cocktail bar on Coney Street with views of the river. After enjoying a burger at Revolution, Simeon returned to his cottage where he promptly fell asleep, dreaming of fighting Vikings in a garden full of flowers.

Day Five

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Before travelling to York, Simeon was told the city was nicknamed the Chocolate City and today he was determined to find out why. In King’s Square, a building has been devoted to York’s Chocolate Story, so using his nose, Simeon followed the scent of chocolate through the city until he found the correct building. Inside, Simeon joined his tour guide outside a make-shift shop to begin his journey through the history of chocolate.

York’s Chocolate Story has been told in the city since 2012 and begins by travelling back to around 1900 BC when the earliest evidence of humans consuming the cacao bean has been recorded. Simeon felt right at home in a room decorated to look like the Amazon rainforest and had to resist swinging from the trees but was soon captivated by the film about the origins of chocolate.

Simeon learnt that drinking chocolate has a much longer history than coffee, almost equalling the enduring history of tea. It is believed the cacao bean was discovered by the Mokaya people in the north of the Amazon rainforest who took it to other places in South and Central America. In Aztec societies, only the upper class were allowed to drink chocolate and in Mayan myths, chocolate was believed to be a gift from the gods.

Unfortunately, the way chocolate made its way to Europe paints the 16th-century explorers in a bad light. The Spanish were the first to discover the cacao-based drinks of the South American natives and were keen to trade with them. Girolamo Benzoni (1519-70) described the chocolate drink as “somewhat bitter, it satisfies and refreshes the body without intoxicating”. Whilst the natives agreed to trade with the Spanish, it was in part due to the Spanish colonisation of Central and South America. In other words, the natives may not have had a choice.

It was the Europeans that first added sugar to cocoa to make the chocolate drinks sweeter. Due to the cost of both the beans and sugar, chocolate was initially a drink for the rich. In 17th-century Britain, chocolate houses began to appear in the cities where the elite would congregate to drink the precious liquid. To make more money, however, dealers began to sell compressed “cakes” of cocoa powder, which people could buy to make chocolate drinks in their own homes.

Mary Tuke (1695-1752), a Quaker, was one of the key sellers of cocoa in York. In a grocery store on Walmgate, Tuke sold the “cakes” by weight, which people would take home and add to hot milk or water. This was the precursor to the chocolate bar, which was eventually created by J. S. Fry & Sons of Bristol in 1847. When Mary Tuke died, the family business was handed down to her nephew William (1732-1822) who, in turn, passed it down the family line until it was sold to Henry Isaac Rowntree (1837-83) in 1862.

Simeon had heard of Rowntrees and is particularly fond of their fruit pastilles, so was keen to learn more. The Rowntrees company was founded by Joseph Rowntree (1801-59) who moved from Scarborough to York where he established his grocer’s shop at 28 Pavement. As a Quaker, Rowntree knew the Tuke family as well as other Quakers, such as his apprentice George Cadbury (1839-1922) who eventually set up his own chocolate factory in Birmingham. Joseph’s youngest son, Henry, worked for the Tuke’s cocoa production, and it was to him the Tukes sold their business.

Henry Rowntree died shortly after Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles launched, which saved the company from bankruptcy, and Henry’s brother Joseph (1836-1925) took over the business. Rowntrees, however, was not the only chocolate company in York. Terry’s, most associated with the Terry’s Chocolate Orange, was established in York by Robert Berry and William Bayldon in 1767. Initially known as Berry’s, they sold rock cocoa and lozenges, claiming they had many health benefits. Joseph Terry (1793-1850), a relative of Berry, joined the company at its Saint Helen’s Square (named after Constantine the Great’s mother) premises in 1824 and eventually took over the business, renaming it Joseph Terry and Company. Since 1993, Terry’s has been owned by Kraft Foods.

Craven’s, initially a sugar confectionery company famed for humbugs and other boiled sweets, is another chocolate company from York. The business had been set up by Thomas Craven and was run by his wife Mary Ann Hick (1829-1900) after his death in 1862. Craven’s main factory was at Coppergate and was known as the “French Almond Works” as this was their key product. It is on this site that the Viking remains were found and where the Jorvik Viking Centre has been situated since 1984.

Simeon was overjoyed to receive some chocolate samples to try. He was feeling rather hungry after learning about different chocolate bars. Yorkie, for example, was made by Rowntrees in the 1970s to compete with Cadbury’s Dairy Milk. Several names were considered, such as “Trek”, “O’Hara” and “Jones”, before they decided to name it “Yorkie” after the city of its birth. When it was first launched, Yorkie was targetted at men, hence the sexist slogan “It’s not for girls.”

Terry’s Chocolate Orange is Terry’s best-known product, however, they also developed the Chocolate Apple and the Chocolate Lemon, although neither were successful. Rowntrees, on the other hand, have had several successes, such as Polos, Smarties and the Chocolate Crisp, now known as KitKat. Now owned by Nestlé, who purchased Rowntrees in 1988, KitKats are the most sold chocolate bar around the world. In Japan, they are particularly loved due to the similarity in name to the phrase “Kitto Katsu” (you will surely win) and gifted as good luck presents. Different countries have developed alternative flavours of KitKat, such as honeycomb in Australia and a twelve-finger KitKat in New Zealand. Japan, however, has produced hundreds of flavours, including, strawberry, green tea, melon, and cheese. (“Yuck!” says Simeon.)

Simeon’s favourite part of the Chocolate Story was making his own chocolate lolly. Naturally, it did not last long. He was hungry after learning all about chocolate!

“No city in England is better furnished with provisions of every kind, not any so cheap, the river being so navigable, and so near the sea, the merchants here trade directly to what part of the world they will.”
– Daniel Defoe, 1724

With an entire afternoon at his leisure, Simeon decided to head to the River Ouse where he walked (was carried) yesterday. This time, however, Simeon was hoping to go on the river.

Near Lendel Bridge, Simeon boarded the York Sightseeing Cruise and set off on a 45-minute trip up and down the River Ouse. Simeon was not too sure whether he would enjoy the trip because it was quite breezy but, after adapting his facemask into a headscarf, he sat back and enjoyed the ride. The captain of the boat told the passengers about the history of York, pointing out famous landmarks that Simeon could see from the upper deck. The captain was full of fascinating facts about the history of flooding and trade on the river. Simeon enjoyed seeing all the views but fell about laughing when he saw a converted ice cream van-boat floating on the river!

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Back on land, Simeon was momentarily startled by a cat on the balcony of a nearby building. After being reassured the cat was a statue, Simeon learned there were several cats all over the city. The originals had been placed there to ward of rats and mice. Using a map supplied by the York Lucky Cats glass shop, Simeon set off on the York Lucky Cat Trail, determined to find them all. Craning his neck to look up at the tall buildings, Simeon found the majority of the hidden cats. His favourite was the ghost cat coming out of the wall of the Golden Fleece Pub. The pub is allegedly haunted and has reported the sightings of several ghosts. Lady Alice Peckett has been seen wandering the corridors, Geoff Monroe haunts the third floor, and a small child hides behind the entrance to the pub. Two ghosts have been reported by the bar: One-Eyed Jack and a Grumpy Old Man, who crouches in an alcove.

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Simeon decided The Golden Fleece was not the place for him, however, he was rather hungry after chasing cats all over York. Thankfully, he had spotted a restaurant called D’Vine in Swinegate and ordered himself a large pizza!

Day Six

Simeon, the little explorer, decided to step outside of York and travel through the North York Moors to the seaside town of Whitby. The journey, which took just over an hour, led Simeon up and down some steep hills and he was pleased when he caught sight of the River Esk, which headed out to the North Sea.

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The little gibbon was keen to see the ruins of Whitby Abbey on top of the East Cliff and was grateful someone was willing to carry him up the 199 steps. The abbey was founded in AD657 by the Northumbrian King Oswiu (612-670) in commemoration of his victory over the pagan king of Mercia. It was a double monastery, meaning it housed both men and women, and it soon became a place of learning. It is said a cowherd called Cædmon (657-684) was miraculously transformed into a poet while staying there. Simeon returned to sea level following the more gentle path known as “Cædmon’s Trod”.

Whitby Abbey was destroyed by Vikings in a series of raids, however, after 1066, it was rebuilt as a Benedictine monastery dedicated to St Peter and St Hilda. Unfortunately, it fell into disrepair when Henry VIII ordered its closure in 1539. The ruins of the abbey inspired the setting of Bram Stoker’s (1847-1912) Dracula and there is a museum based on the story on the quayside.

Having conquered the East Cliff, Simeon was determined to climb the West (with help) to see the whalebone replica and the statue of Captain James Cook (1728-79) whose ship, HMS Endeavour, was built in Whitby and known by the locals as the Whitby Cat. Simeon saw a scaled-down replica of the ship in the harbour called the Bark Endeavour Whitby. The Captain Cook Memorial Museum can be found on Grape Lane, however, Simeon was eager to walk on the grade II listed West Pier, which ran parallel to the East Pier. Both piers have a lighthouse and a beacon to help guide ships in the dark. On the West Pier, a horn is sounded every 30 seconds if the piers become hidden by thick fog.

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Before returning to York, Simeon had time for some local scampi at the award-winning fish and chip shop Quayside.

Day Seven

Simeon’s trip to York has come to an end and, whilst it was sad to leave, he has lots of great memories that will last him a lifetime. As he settled into his car seat for the long journey home (via Stamford for refreshments), Simeon tried to pick out his favourite part of York. Was it making a chocolate lolly or was it visiting Jorvik? What about the Minster or the Treasure Trail? Do not forget the boat trip and the bus tour! “It is impossible to choose a favourite,” thought Simeon. “I’ll have to tell everyone about ALL of it.” And so, he did.

Simeon’s Top Tips

  1. Book tickets for the attractions in advance. Most places are limiting the number of visitors due to Covid-19. (Generally, it is best to book to avoid disappointment)
  2. Buy a map. There is so much to see and so many streets, so be careful you do not get lost.
  3. Wear a mask. Obey all social distancing measures.
  4. Do not eat too much chocolate. You will get a tummy ache.
  5. Do not fall into the river. It is deep and you will get wet.
  6. Do not try to fight the Vikings. They are actors and wax models.
  7. Visit The Shambles in the evening if you want to take photographs. It is too crowded during the day.
  8. Do not fall off the Roman Walls. Not all sections have railings.
  9. Be respectful in the Minster. It is a place of worship.
  10. Pace yourself. There is so much to see. It is impossible to do it all in a day.

Read about Simeon’s previous adventures here:
Simeon goes to Amsterdam
Simeon and the Bloomsbury Treasures
Simeon Visits Rainham Hall
Simeon, the Cliffs and the Sea
Simeon Encounters Antwerp
Simeon Investigates Covent Garden
Simeon and the Green Witch’s Treasure

A Life of Quixotic Adventure

Quixotism is a term to describe the impractical ideas or an extravagant chivalrous action made by an impulsive person. The term comes from the word Quixote, which was invented by the Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes for the titular hero of his 1605 novel Don Quixote. By the mid 17th century, the term was being widely used to describe someone who could not distinguish between reality and imagination, just like Cervantes’ famous character.

Don Quixote is considered by most to be the world’s first modern novel and Miguel de Cervantes is still regarded as the greatest Spanish writer. Searching through online exhibitions from Spanish museums via Google Arts & Culture, Cervantes crops up again and again, suggesting he is respected as a national hero. Yet, his life remains a bit of an enigma. It is generally believed he spent the majority of his life in poverty, however, there are some disputed claims in his biographies that sound rather quixotic…

It is not certain what Cervantes looked like, or even if that was his name. A portrait, attributed to Juan Martínez de Jáuregui y Aguilar (1583-1641), is said to be of the author, however, the signature and title were added to the painting centuries later. El Greco’s (1541-1614) Portrait of an Unknown Gentleman is rumoured to be a painting of Cervantes, however, there is no tangible evidence.

As for his name, he often signed his name Cerbantes, although his publishers always used Cervantes. He also had around eleven different signatures and, later in life, began to use the name Saavedra, which may have been the name of a distant relative or the Spanish version of an Arabic nickname he was given, meaning “one-hand”.

Miguel de Cervantes was born around 29th September 1547 in Alcalá de Henares, a Spanish city 22 miles from Madrid. His father, Rodrigo de Cervantes, was a barber-surgeon (someone who could use the same blade to shave your head or chop off your leg) from Córdoba, Andalusia. Although Cervantes’ paternal grandfather, Juan de Cervantes, was a successful lawyer, Rodrigo was frequently in debt and struggled to find work.

Cervantes’ mother was Leonor de Cortinas (c. 1520–1593) who came from Arganda del Rey but moved to Córdoba after marrying Rodrigo. Records suggest she was a resourceful woman, capable of looking after her children while Rodrigo was frequently in debtor’s prison. Records also reveal Leonor was able to read and write, therefore, she may have been responsible for educating her seven children when they were young: Andrés (b. 1543), Andrea (b. 1544), Luisa (b. 1546), Miguel (b. 1547), Rodrigo (b. 1550), Magdalena (b. 1554) and Juan (b.1556c).

By 1564, the family were living in Seville where Rodrigo had secured rented accommodation from his brother Andres. Although there is no written record, Cervantes and his siblings likely attended the local Jesuit college, however, in 1566, the family were forced to move to Madrid because Rodrigo was, once again, in debt.

An arrest warrant dated 15th September 1569 reveals Miguel de Cervantes was charged with wounding a man named Antonio de Sigura in a duel. Who this man was is unknown, however, the incident is likely the reason Cervantes soon left Madrid and travelled abroad to Rome.

In Rome, Cervantes found a position in the home of an Italian bishop, Giulio Acquaviva of Aragon (1546-74), who had just been made Cardinal-Deacon of San Teodoro by Pope Pius V (1504-72) on 17th May 1570. What Cervantes did during this time is, of course, unknown, however, he cannot have been there that long before the Ottoman–Venetian War began (1570-73).

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The Marquess of Santa Cruz

The Ottoman–Venetian War, also known as the War of Cyprus, was waged between the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Venice, the latter of whom was supported by Spain and several Italian states. When the war began, Cervantes, perhaps hoping it would redeem him from his earlier arrest, travelled to Naples to enlist. Don Álvaro de Sande (1489-1573), a Spanish military leader and friend of the family, found Cervantes a position under the Spanish admiral Álvaro de Bazán, 1st Marquess of Santa Cruz (1526-88).

Cervantes’ brother, Rodrigo, also enlisted in Naples and in September 1571, the siblings sailed on the Marquesa, which was one of the ships in the fleet of Don John of Austria (1547-78), the illegitimate son of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-58) and half-brother of King Philip II of Spain (1527-98). Cervantes’ written account of life aboard the Marquesa reveals he was put in charge of a 12-man skiff who were forced to fight despite suffering from malaria.

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The Battle of Lepanto by Juan Luna (1887)

On 7th October 1571, the fleet defeated the Ottoman Empire at the Battle of Lepanto, however, the Marquesa suffered many fatalities. A total of 40 men were killed and a further 120 wounded, including Cervantes who received two blows in the chest and one in his left arm, which rendered it useless.

Cervantes wrote a poetic account of his experiences in battle, which was published in 1614 under the Spanish title Viaje del Parnaso (Journey to Parnassus). He declared he had “lost the movement of the left hand for the glory of the right”, but needed to spend six months in hospital in Messina, Sicily, to recover from the chest wounds.

In July 1572, Cervantes returned to service, however, records reveal it was still several months before his chest wounds had fully healed. During this time, Cervantes was mostly stationed in Naples, however, he took part in expeditions to Corfu and Navarino in Greece. The following year, he took part in the occupation of Tunis and La Goulette in Tunisia, which was, unfortunately, recaptured by the Ottoman Empire in 1574, thus giving them overall victory. Despite Spain’s loss, Cervantes was given letters of commendation from the Duke of Sessa, Gonzalo II Fernández de Córdoba (1520-78).

In September 1575, Cervantes and Rodrigo boarded the galley Sol to make their homeward journey to Barcelona. Unfortunately, the galley never got there. As they approached the city, the slender ship was attacked and captured by Ottoman corsairs, also known as Barbary Pirates, who took everyone on board to Algiers as their prisoners. The pirates sold many of their captives as slaves and kept the rest as hostages. Cervantes and his brother fell into the latter category and a ransom letter was sent home to their family.

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Kılıç Ali Paşa (1837)

The brothers’ family could not afford to pay the ransom for them both, so only Rodrigo was able to return home. Forced to stay, Cervantes may have been used as a slave, however, there is no proper evidence of what his life was like at this time. One suggestion is Cervantes was one of the construction workers of Kılıç Ali Pasha Complex, a mosque in Istanbul built between 1578 and 1580. If this is true, then Cervantes and some of the other prisoners must have been moved to Turkey. The mosque was named after the Grand Admiral of the Ottoman fleet, who had many names, including Kılıç Ali Pasha. Born Giovanni Dionigi Galeni (1519-1587), he is mostly known in history books as Occhiali, however, he did feature in Cervantes’ Don Quixote under the name Uchali.

If Cervantes did work on the construction, he would have likely struggled without the use of his left arm. It may have been here that he was given the nickname “one-hand”, which may have led him to adopt the Spanish equivalent, Saavedra, as his surname.

Cervantes was in captivity for five years during which he attempted to escape at least four times. Throughout this time his family never raised the required ransom money but, in 1580, Cervantes was fortunate to be “rescued” by the Trinitarians. The Order of the Most Holy Trinity and of the Captives, to give them their full name, was founded by Saint John de Matha (1160-1213) in the 12th century with the express purpose of paying the ransom for Christians held captive by Muslims.

After his rescue, Cervantes returned to Madrid, however, he struggled to find work. His military employers, Don John of Austria and the Duke of Sessa, were both dead, therefore, there was no one suitable to provide Cervantes with a reference. Not much is known about how Cervantes lived between his release and 1584, however, some sources claim he was employed as a spy in North Africa.

By 1584 he was back in Madrid where he had conducted an affair with a married woman called Ana Franca. In November, his illegitimate daughter Isabel was born and, although Cervantes acknowledge paternity, he was then engaged to someone else. After her mother died in 1598, Isabel went to live with Cervantes’ sister, Magdalena.

In December 1584, Cervantes married Catalina de Salazar y Palacios (c.1566-1626) who he had met when visiting the home of a deceased friend in Castile-La Mancha. It is not certain what year Catalina was born, therefore, she could have been anywhere between 15 and 18-years-old on their wedding day. Their wedding documents are the first written record of Cervantes’ use of the double surname Cervantes Saavedra.

It appears Cervantes continued to struggle to find work and even when he was employed, it was not always straightforward. In 1587, he was appointed a governor purchasing agent but soon moved on to be a tax collector instead. Either Cervantes was not good at the job or he was deliberately committing fraud because he was frequently arrested for irregularities in his accounts. Records also show he made several applications for posts in “Spanish America”, however, these were rejected.

At the end of the 16th century, Cervantes was living in Seville but moved to Madrid in 1606. Again, it is not certain what form of employment Cervantes took, however, he was later receiving financial support from Pedro Fernández de Castro y Andrade, better known as the Great Count of Lemos (1576-1622). The Count was a patron of several writers, which suggests Cervantes may have been a full-time author.

In 1613, Cervantes joined the Secular Franciscan Order, also known as the Third Order Franciscan, which was formed of male and female Catholics who wanted to follow the Gospels in the manner of Francis of Assisi (1181-1226). The order was not bound by any religious vows but was a typical way for a Catholic to gain spiritual merit towards the end of their life.

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Three years later on 16th April 1616, Cervantes died from what is believed to have been diabetes. Reports of his death record he suffered from excessive thirst, which is a common symptom of the disorder, which at that time was untreatable. As stipulated in his will, Cervantes was buried in the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians in Madrid. No evidence suggests Cervantes attended the Church, however, he felt he owed the Trinitarians for rescuing him from slavery.

As befalls many great authors of the past, Cervantes’ fame came after his death. Supposedly, Cervantes had written around two dozen plays by the end of the 16th century, however, only two survive today: El trato de Argel (The Deal in Algiers) and El cerco de Numancia (The Siege of Numantia). The former was based on his time in captivity, however, it did not earn him much money. Playwrighting was one of his many failed careers.

Cervantes’ first attempt at a novel was published in 1585 under the title La Galatea. Contrasting rural and city folk, the main characters, a rural herdsman called Erastro and a cultured shepherd called Elicio, vied for Galatea’s love. Through their dialogue, the reader learns about the differences between pastoral and urban life. Both men believed the other to have certain advantages and a simpler life, however, they soon learnt this is not the case. Cervantes promised a sequel but never got around to writing it.

La Galatea was not a major success in terms of earnings but attracted the attention of many readers and authors. Cervantes also wrote several short stories, which were collectively published in 1613 and dedicated to the Count of Lemos, who was by then his patron. It is not certain whether La Galatea earned Cervantes a patron or whether it was his second novel, for which he is most remembered.

In 1605, Miguel de Cervantes decided to challenge the ‘vain and empty’ chivalric romance stories that were popular at the time. The result was El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha (The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha), more commonly shortened to Don Quixote. This was actually volume one of the story we know today, however, at the time of publication, Cervantes may not have intended to produce a sequel.

Labelled “the first modern novel”, Don Quixote follows the adventures of Alonso Quixano, who had read so many chivalric romance stories that he lost his mind and decided to become a caballero andante (knight-errant) like the heroes of the tales and serve his country. Having recruited a simple farmer, Sancho Panza, as his squire, Quixano travelled around the country, imagining he was performing his knightly duties.

At the beginning of the story, 50-year-old Quixano was living with his niece and housekeeper in La Mancha. His niece realised her uncle was losing his mind when he, a typically rational man, began to lose touch with reality. Having donned an old suit of armour, there was nothing anyone could do to stop Quixano, who had renamed himself Don Quixote, from setting off on his old horse, Rocinante. Since the heroes of his favourite stories always had a “lady love”, Don Quixote set his heart on his neighbour, Aldonza Lorenzo, whom he renamed Dulcinea del Toboso.

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On his journey, Don Quixote met lots of trouble, mostly due to his irrational view of the world. He mistook a brothel for a castle, two friars for enchanters, windmills for giants and a serving girl for a princess. Being slow and ignorant, Sancho Panza did not realise Don Quixote’s monologues and actions were pure fantasy and offered his master his full support throughout the adventure. Eventually, after many mishaps, Don Quixote returned home.

When the book was first published, it was an immediate success. In an attempt to earn money, 400 copies were shipped to the Americas, although, due to shipwrecks, only 70 arrived in Peru. Unfortunately, Cervantes had sold his work to the publishers, therefore, there was no copyright. Pirated copies began to appear across Spain, which deprived Cervantes of financial profit.

In Cervantes’ 1613 book of short stories, he promised his readers a sequel to Don Quixote: “You shall see shortly, the further exploits of Don Quixote and humours of Sancho Panza”. The following year, however, he was preempted by an unofficial sequel to Don Quixote, published under the name Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda. There are many theories about who this pseudonym belonged to, including those who think it was Cervantes stalling for time by faking a scandal. Nonetheless, the writing is poor compared to Cervantes’ and was quickly rejected by the public.

The real sequel was eventually published in 1615, ten years after the first part. Whilst Part One had been farcical, Part Two was more serious and philosophical. Due to his previous antics, Don Quixote was well-known across the country. Still delusional, strangers decided to take advantage of the confused man, resulting in a series of practical jokes. Still devoted to Dulcinea, Don Quixote sent Sancho Panza to find her, however, he returned with three peasant girls and told his master they were Dulcinea and her ladies under an enchantment. A Duke and Duchess led Don Quixote to believe the only way to lift the spell was to receive three thousand three hundred lashes, although Sancho prevented this from happening.

The story begins to end after a battle on the beach in Barcelona, which Don Quixote lost. The agreed prize for the winner was that the other had to obey the will of the conqueror. The victor declared Don Quixote had to refrain from acts of chivalry for a year. Returning home, Don Quixote fell ill, which remarkably restored his sanity. His final act was the penning of his will, in which he stipulated his niece would be disinherited if she married a man who read books of chivalry.

Both parts of Don Quixote have been published together since 1617, the year after Cervantes’ death. The same year, Cervantes’ final work Los Trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda (The Travails of Persiles and Sigismunda), a romance story that he completed three days before he died. It did not, however, receive much praise.

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Miguel de Cervantes Memorial by Jo Mora, presented to city on Sept 3, 1916 – Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, California

Don Quixote is Miguel de Cervantes biggest legacy, for which he is known throughout the world. He is celebrated across the ocean in America where a memorial statue sits in San Francisco by Uruguayan sculptor Joseph Jacinto Mora (1876-1947). In Australia, a town near Perth bears Cervantes’ name, as does a municipality in the Philippines and Spain. There are several establishments named after the author, including the worldwide education charity Instituto Cervantes, the Miguel de Cervantes European University (Spain), the Miguel de Cervantes Health Care Centre (Spain) and the Miguel de Cervantes University (Chile).

Nowhere, of course, celebrates Cervantes more than his home country of Spain. Located in the city of Valladolid, Spain, is the Casa de Cervantes, a museum set in the house in which Cervantes was living in 1605. The museum consists of 17th-century furniture, paintings and ceramics relating to the author.

In Madrid, the Museo Casa Natal de Cervantes (Cervantes Birthplace Museum) is situated in what scholars believe was the family home where Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra spent his early years. Each room of the house represents the culture, activity and customs of the 16th and 17th centuries to help visitors envisage the life of Cervantes. The museum also boasts a significant collection of Cervantes’ works and provides activities for children, theatre students and literature students throughout the year. They also celebrate the annual Cervantes Week around 12th October.

Whilst it is the legendary Don Quixote that draws people to these museums, it has to be said that Miguel de Cervantes had an equally interesting life. Despite very few facts being known for certain, his experience in war and his capture by pirates make a fascinating story.

Evidence of Spain’s love of Miguel de Cervantes can be seen on Google Arts and Culture, which features several online exhibitions and articles about the author. Examples include:
Miguel de Cervantes: a life of adventure by Agencia EFE S.A.U.
The Don Quixote Route by Agencia EFE S.A.U.
Miguel de Cervantes: From Life to Myth by Acción Cultural Española (AC/E)
Cervantes, the brilliant author by Archivos Estatales
Cervantes in the World by Agencia EFE S.A.U.
Museo Casa Natal de Cervantes by Museo Casa Natal de Cervantes
The female world in Don Quixote by Instituto Universitario de Investigación

“He who loses wealth loses much; he who loses a friend loses more; but he that loses his courage loses all.”
Miguel de Cervantes

Childhood: A Visual Story

“Children should be seen and not heard,” says a 15th-century English proverb. That is certainly the case in a series of paintings featured on Google Arts & Culture. The Galleria d’Arte Moderna, which displays the modern art collection of Milan, Italy, teamed up with Google to produce an online exhibition of artworks depicting children in the 19th and 20th century. Titled simply Childhood, the exhibition explores a range of artists and styles that have one thing in common: the presence of a child.

It is interesting to see the different approaches to depicting a child. Some artists focused on the innocence of children, whereas others produced a maternal scene, emphasising the importance of motherhood. Many of the artworks in the exhibition were commissioned by proud parents who wished to capture the purity of their child before they grew up; it is much easier for parents to do this today with the development of the digital camera. Other artworks, however, contain a message or tell a story in which the child plays a vital role.

Portrait of Countess Antonietta Negroni Prati Morosini as a Child – Francesco Hayez (1791-1882)

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Portrait of Countess Antonietta Negroni Prati Morosini as a Child (Oil on Canvas), by Francesco Hayez (1858)

This portrait of Countess Antonietta Negroni Prati Morosini is an example of a painting requested by a parent. Her father, Count Alessandro Negroni Prati Morosini, commissioned the Italian painter Francesco Hayez to produce a series of portraits of his extended family, including one of his four-year-old daughter.

Rather than just painting the child, Hayez brought the plain background to life with a still-life of a magnificent display of colourful flowers. To connect the two genres of painting together, Antonietta was posed with a bouquet of the same flowers.

Usually, commissioned portraits were intended to express the wealth and status of the sitter. Costumes, hairstyles and facial expressions were carefully considered, as was likely done in this case with Antonietta’s dress. Unfortunately, the clothing was a little on the large side, causing the sleeves to slip down and expose much of her chest. Hayez could have used his skill and artistic license to change the position of the sleeves, however, he opted for a realistic likeness.

Photography had already been invented at the time of this portrait, although not widely used and only in black and white, and several were taken of Antonietta to limit the amount of time she had to pose. Once again, Hayez could have chosen the happiest or sweetest facial expression but opted for the most realistic instead. As a result, Antonietta looks slightly awkward and confused, as any 4-year-old would when forced to pose for a portrait.

The Two Mothers – Giovanni Segantini (1858-99)

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The Two Mothers – Giovanni Segantini (1889)

The Two Mothers by Giovanni Segantini explores the relationship between mother and child. The Italian Symbolist artist, whose mother died when he was seven after a long illness, painted this genre scene for the inaugural Milan Triennale in 1891. The child, who is only a baby, lies asleep on its mother’s lap. Sitting on a stool, the mother has also drifted to sleep, suggesting it took some time to settle the child.

As the title suggests, there are two mothers in the painting, the other being a cow who stands over her sleeping calf. Both woman and cow are symbols of motherhood. Segantini has not represented motherhood as a glamourous role, as some portrait artists might, but rather as a humble, selfless task. The humbleness is emphasised by the lowly barn, dimly lit by a lantern. It is likely the same place the calf was born, therefore, the scene also represents the beginnings of life.

Segantini’s biography claims his paintings represent his pantheistic view of life. He did not recognise God as an individual entity but rather recognised divinity within all natural things. “I’ve got God inside me. I don’t need to go to church.” Farms and barns were a common feature of the landscape in the Alps where Segantini lived, however, someone unfamiliar with the area may derive a different meaning from the painting. Although it was not intended to have religious connections, a Christian may recognise Christ’s humble beginnings in the artwork.

Christian Goddess, or the Angel of Life – Giovanni Segantini

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Christian Goddess, or the Angel of Life- Giovanni Segantini (1894)

Segantini was not a church-going man, which makes Christian Goddess a strange title for one of his paintings. This canvas, however, was a commission from the Italian banker Leopoldo Albini to be hung in his extravagant home. The figures are supposed to represent the Virgin Mary and the child Jesus sitting in a barren tree. Some have interpreted this as being symbolic of both Jesus’ birth and death, the branches representing the crown of thorns.

On the other hand, the branches may relate more to the mother than the child. The Virgin Mary has on occasion been nicknamed the “rose without thorns”, suggesting she has lived a sin-free life. The analogy developed from the idea that roses did not have thorns before the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Despite the painting’s depiction of the relationship between mother and child, the figures were actually modelled on the artist’s nanny, Baba, and Segantini’s son, Gottardo. With this in mind, Christian Goddess, sometimes known as the Angel of Life, demonstrates the maternal instincts of women towards babies and young children regardless of their relationship.

Madonna of the Lilies – Gaetano Previati (1852-1920)

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Madonna of the Lilies – Gaetano Previati (1893-94)

Gaetano Previati was an Italian symbolist and contemporary of Segantini who also painted a representation of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child. Unlike Segantini, Previati painted many artworks on a religious theme, particularly involving Catholic ideals.

Madonna of the Lilies, which originally had the shorter title Madonna, shows Mary in a seated position with the baby on her lap. This religious iconography has been around since the 15th century, although the Virgin is usually shown seated on a throne. Whilst Previati was influenced by tradition, he used the Divisionist style inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites. Divisionism involved separating colours into dots or dashes, although slightly subtler than Pointillism.

The title Madonna of the Lilies has been used by other artists working on a similar theme. Although Previati’s painting contains the theme of motherhood, it’s Catholic connection is a stronger subject. Just as a thornless rose is used to describe the Virgin’s sinless lifestyle, lilies represent chastity and purity.

Rural Idyll of the Meadows in the Volpedo Parish (Ring a Ring o’ Roses) – Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo (1868-1907)

Rural Idyll of the Meadows in the Volpedo Parish is a copy of Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo’s original painting Idillio primaverile (Spring Idyll) that was exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1903. It is not certain why Pellizza chose to make a copy, however, it was left incomplete at his death in 1907. It was eventually finished by Italian Impressionist Angelo Barabino (1883-1950).

It is thought Pellizza was inspired by The Dance of the Cupids by Italian Baroque artist Francesco Albani (1578-1660), which depicts several naked cherubs dancing around a tree. In contrast, Pellizza’s children are fully clothed and playing Ring a Ring o’ Roses in a field beyond a blossoming tree rather than around it. Pellizza also included a couple of children playing together in the foreground.

The setting is based on the commune Volpedo in the Piedmont region of Italy where Pellizza lived for his entire life – hence the new title of the painting. The original painting belonged to a series representing the theme of love. On its own, however, the painting is a metaphor for life. The trees are blossoming after the winter, demonstrating the cycle of the seasons. The children also represent new life; people grow old and die but new generations keep on coming.

The Troubetzkoy Children And Their Dog – Daniele Ranzoni (1843-89)

The Troubetzkoy Children And Their Dog

The Troubetzkoy Children And Their Dog – Daniele Ranzoni (1874)

As can be guessed by the title, this painting was a commission by Prince Paolo Petrovich Troubetzkoy (1866-1938), a Russian diplomat and sculptor who the playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) claimed was “the most astonishing sculptor of modern times.” The three boys, Pietro, Paolo, and Luigi, are shown with their dog in the family’s greenhouse at their villa on Lake Maggiore.

Despite being the portraits of children from a noble family, Daniele Ranzoni adopted an informal approach, which emphasised the children’s youth and energy. Ranzoni belonged to the Scapigliatura (Bohemian) movement and built up his paintings with splashes of colour, disregarding form and depth.

The painting was presented at the Brera exhibition in 1874 and is considered to be one of Ranzoni’s most successful works. Whether Troubetzkoy was pleased with this representation of his children is a different matter. The facial features are a blur, making the result a far cry from the realistic family portraits desired by the upper classes.

Girl Running on a Balcony – Giacomo Balla (1871-1958)

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Girl Running on a Balcony – Giacomo Balla (1912)

Giacomo Balla’s painting of his eldest daughter Luce running on a balcony can be interpreted as a unique depiction of childhood freedom. The Futuristic style, which borrows elements from Post-Impressionism, Symbolism, Divisionism, Pointillism and Cubism, shows each movement Luce made as she ran from one side of the balcony to the other. The repetition of his daughter’s body also emphasises the speed in which she ran. This reflects what the Futurists believed, that everything is made up of dynamic forces and, therefore, everything is in constant motion.

The mosaic effect blurs the features of Luce’s face, making her the anonymous “Girl” running on a balcony. It was not Balla’s aim to capture his daughter or memory but rather study the movement of a child. The painting was also not intended to represent childhood, however, the artist’s meaning and the viewers’ interpretations can differ.

Some of the paintings included in the Galleria d’Arte Moderna’s Childhood exhibition have little or no explanation. This may be due to the artists being lesser-known or the true purpose of the paintings being lost. One example is Bambini e Fiori by Italian painter Armando Spadini (1883-1925). The title translates into English as “Children and Flowers”, which is an obvious description of the painting. An alternative title offers the names of the children as Anna and Lillo, however, nothing else is known of their identity.

Spadini was a Symbolist painter who moved to Rome from Florence in 1910 to focus on a career as a portrait and landscape artist. Despite being virtually unknown today, Spadini grew successful through his participation with annual exhibitions and, in 1924, had an entire room devoted to his work at the 14th Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte della Città di Venezia.

The way Anna and Lillo are sat suggests they are posing for the painting, therefore, it could either have been a commission or a double portrait of Spadini’s own children. Rather than glamorising the children, Spadini captured the bored expression of the older child and the baby’s distraction with the flowers. Rather than create an unflattering image, it makes a sweet, contemplative picture of two siblings in a moment of quiet and demonstrates the love and tenderness of the older for the younger and the trust the baby has for its sister.

Plinio Nomellini (1866-1943), on the other hand, painted a spontaneous scene that captured the interaction between mother and child. Nomellini, whose work became increasingly Divisionist in style throughout his career, shows a child’s delight at reading, or at least looking at, a book. Rather than the mother reading to her child, the child is attempting it for itself. The mother, whose arm stretches towards the book, is eager to help the child with this latest development, demonstrating her love and care.

The identity of woman and child is unknown and the little information the internet has about Nomellini does not uncover any clues. Nomellini was born in Livorno but studied in Florence where he took part in several exhibitions. His later work got him in trouble with the law and he was arrested and accused of anarchism. Fortunately, he was acquitted and joined a group of Symbolist painters. He spent the latter years of his life between Florence and the Island of Elba. With no knowledge of his family, it is impossible to guess whether his painting is of his wife and child, friends or strangers.

Of course, the Galleria d’Arte Moderna is not the only art gallery with paintings of children. Londoners do not even have to leave the city to view an excellent example of a day in the life of a child. The Guild Hall Gallery, home to beautiful Victorian art, owns two paintings on the theme of childhood by Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood co-founder, John Everett Millais (1829-96). Millais was very fond of children, particularly his daughter Effie who features in My First Sermon and My Second Sermon. The first was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1863 and was warmly received by the Archbishop of Canterbury Charles Longley (1794-1868).

“Art has, and ever will have, a high and noble mission to fulfil…. we feel ourselves the better and the happier when our hearts are enlarged as we sympathise with the joys and the sorrows of our fellow-men, faithfully delineated on the canvas; when our spirits are touched by the playfulness, the innocence, the purity, and may I not add the piety of childhood.”
– Charles Longley, Archbishop of Canterbury

My First Sermon was painted in a church at Kingston-on-Thames, which had high-backed pews. Effie is seated on one of the pews wearing a hat, muff, red stockings and a red cape, which adds a splash of colour to her dreary surroundings. Effie was born in 1858, which makes her five years old in this painting, yet she appears to be trying to pay attention to the sermon.

My Second Sermon, however, reveals the sermon may have gone over her head and she has fallen asleep. Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1865, it would not have been surprising if the painting had not been received well by the Archbishop, however, Longely was just as enthusiastic. In a speech, the Archbishop referred to the painting, saying, “I see a little lady there, who, though all unconscious whom she has been addressing, and the homily she has been reading to us during the last three hours, has in truth, by the eloquence of her silent slumber, given us a warning of the evil of lengthy sermons and drowsy discourses. Sorry indeed should I be to disturb that sweet and peaceful slumber, but I beg that when she does awake she may be informed who they are who have pointed the moral of her story, have drawn the true inference from the change that has passed over her since she has heard her ‘first sermon’, and have resolved to profit by the lecture she has thus delivered to them.”

Other commentators at the Royal Academy exhibitions noted that Millais painted his daughter “con amore” (with tenderness), emphasising his love for her. The girl’s facial expression openly expresses the purity of her soul and the innocence associated with childhood.

Another artist noted for his paintings of children is Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923), whose work was celebrated in an exhibition at the National Gallery last year (2019). Known as the “Master of Light”, Sorolla’s beach scenes are some of his best paintings and often featured children, whose movements Sorolla captured perfectly. He emphasised their carefree nature and unknowingly captured 19th-century Spanish beach culture, i.e. young boys wore nothing, whilst girls wore light cotton dresses.

Sorolla was a family man and adored his three children, María (1890-1956), Joaquín (1892-1948) and Elena (1895-1975). Although his artistic career was important to him, when Sorolla’s eldest daughter contracted tuberculosis, he put his profession to one side so that he could nurse her back to health.

The paintings by Millais and Sorolla demonstrate a paternal love for children, whereas, some of the artworks at the Galleria d’Arte Moderna illustrate maternal love. The love of a parent is an important factor in a child’s life, which some children sadly miss out on. Fortunately, the children in these 19th and early 20th century paintings had, or a least appeared to have had, a loving childhood during which they could maintain their innocence and enjoy a carefree life.

Of course, life is never as perfect as some of these paintings suggest and there will always be childish tantrums, pain and sadness. Yet, when looking back on life, it is these happier times we wish to remember. These artists have captured what many people associate with childhood and there is something more meaningful and personal seeing it in paint rather than the hundreds of photographs taken of children today.

To see more paintings from the Galleria d’Arte Moderna Childhood exhibition, click here.

All images are in the public database.

Genre Master: The Sphinx of Delft

Genre paintings, also known as petit genre, depict scenes of everyday life. These artworks show ordinary people performing ordinary tasks. Unlike portraits, which were usually commissioned, and history paintings, which depicted well-known scenes, genre artists painted life as it truly was. This type of art gained popularity in the Low Countries, i.e. the Netherlands and Belgium, during the 17th and 18th century but many of the artists’ fame and reputations have dimmed over the years. That is, all except Johannes Vermeer, the man who gave us Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665).

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A Lady Writing (1665)

Admittedly, Vermeer did go off the radar for a hundred years or so but was rediscovered at the beginning of the 19th century. Since then, more than 250 exhibitions about his paintings have taken place all over the world. It is estimated that one of his paintings, A Lady Writing (1659), has travelled a total of 250,000 kilometres. To put that in perspective, it is equivalent to travelling around the circumference of the earth five times or halfway to the moon. Today, Vermeer can be found in several galleries, including the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam), Mauritshuis (The Hague), the Scottish National Gallery (Edinburgh), the National Gallery of Art (Washington DC), Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien (Vienna), Gemäldegalerie (Berlin), the Old Masters Picture Gallery (Dresden), and The Frick Collection (New York City).

Relatively little was known about Vermeer’s personal life other than where he had lived, which earned him the nickname “The Sphinx of Delft” from French art critic Théophile Thoré-Bürger (1807-69). In more recent years, art historians have been able to piece together some semblance of a biography using documents in the city archives of Delft. Records reveal Johannes Vermeer, or Jan Vermeer van Delft, was born in October 1632 and baptised within the Reformed Church on All Hallow’s Eve.

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View of Delft (1660)

Vermeer’s father has been identified as Reijnier Janszoon (1591-1652) and was a middle-class silk worker. Vermeer’s mother was likely Digna Baltus (1594-1670), who Janszoon married in 1615. By 1620, the couple were living in Delft with their daughter Gertruy (1620-70). It is not known whether there were any other children within the 12 years between Gertruy and Johannes. By the time Johannes was born, Janszoon was an art dealer and proprietor of the inn The Flying Fox. Ten years later, Janszoon bought a larger Inn called Mechelen, from which he conducted his art sales. When he died in 1652, his son took over the family business.

It is unknown where and when Vermeer learnt to paint. Art critics have suggested several names of artists who may have trained the young painter but there is no written evidence. Another suggestion is he taught himself using the paintings his father sold, however, this is unlikely. If it were not for Vermeer’s baptismal records, it would seem as though he suddenly appeared, fully formed, in 1653 when he joined the Guild of Saint Luke and married his wife, Catharina Bolnes (1631-88).

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The Allegory of Faith (1670-72)

Catharina Bolnes was a Catholic and Vermeer likely had to convert from Protestantism before the wedding. Whilst there is no written record to prove this, a later painting suggests he had fully immersed himself in the religion. The Allegory of Faith, painted in the early 1670s, contains several examples of Catholic iconographies, such as a crucifix, crown of thorns, a chalice and a painting of Christ’s crucifixion.

At some point after marriage, Vermeer and his wife moved in with Catharina’s mother, Maria Thins (1593-1680), where he lived for the rest of his life. Catharina gave birth to 15 children, four of whom died before they could be baptised. Ten of the remaining children have been named Maertge, Elisabeth, Cornelia, Aleydis, Beatrix, Johannes, Gertruyd, Franciscus, Catharina, and Ignatius in wills written by relatives, therefore, it can be assumed they survived infancy.

Life was hard in the Netherlands during the mid-17th century. Delft, in particular, suffered from an outbreak of bubonic plague, which coincided with the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-54), leading to an economic crisis. Evidence reveals Vermeer was unable to pay the usual admission fee for the Guild of Saint Luke but neither were several other artists. To add to the city’s hardship, half the city was destroyed in 1654 by the “Delft Thunderclap”, an explosion at a gunpowder store that killed 1200 people.

Vermeer may have been kept financially afloat by a patron, perhaps art collector Pieter van Ruijven (1624-74) who purchased twenty of his paintings. This money allowed Vermeer to remain a member of the Guild of Saint Luke. He was elected head of the guild in 1662 and reelected in 1670. From this honour, it can be ascertained that Vermeer was a respected artist amongst his peers and some art critics say his method of showing light in his paintings was an inspiration to other artists. Nevertheless, Vermeer was a slow painter, producing an average of three paintings a year.

Despite never earning much money, the 1660s were the highlight of Vermeer’s career. Unfortunately, life was about to get much harder. In 1672, King Louis XIV (1638-1715) of France invaded the Dutch Republic, sparking the Franco-Dutch War. This worsened the economic conditions in Delft, especially as the Third Anglo-Dutch War was taking place at the same time. Theatres, shops and schools were closed in the ensuing panic, making it even harder for artists to earn money.

In 1674, Vermeer was enlisted as a member of the (voluntary) civic guard who was responsible for guarding the city against attack. As a result, his painting career suffered and Vermeer ended up borrowing money (1,000 guilders) from Jacob Romboutsz, a silk trader from Amsterdam. To do this, Vermeer had to use his mother-in-law’s house as a surety. Unfortunately, Vermeer was never able to pay back the loan. In December 1675, 43-year-old Vermeer fell ill and passed away. Despite having converted to Catholicism, he was buried in the Protestant Oude Kirk (Old Church) on 15th December.

…during the ruinous war with France he not only was unable to sell any of his art but also, to his great detriment, was left sitting with the paintings of other masters that he was dealing in. As a result and owing to the great burden of his children having no means of his own, he lapsed into such decay and decadence, which he had so taken to heart that, as if he had fallen into a frenzy, in a day and a half he went from being healthy to being dead.
– Catharina Vermeer (Bolnes)

Vermeer left his family with severe debts and Catharina had to ask the High Court for help to raise her eleven living children. In Vermeer’s will, 19 paintings had been bequeathed to Catharina and her mother, which they sold out of desperation. Two of the paintings were purchased by the baker Hendrik van Buyten (1632-1701) for 617 guilders, which was the same amount of money Catharina owed him for bread. He struck a deal that if she could pay back the money, he would return the paintings.

Despite the sale of his paintings, Vermeer remained unknown outside of Delft. He had only ever left the city to visit Amsterdam, therefore, never had an opportunity to make artistic connections. Over time, many of his paintings were misattributed to other artists, which almost erased Vermeer from history.

Vermeer had been a relatively slow painter and only produced between 50 and 60 oil paintings. Only 36 of the paintings survive today and are comparatively small to the majority of paintings in galleries. The frame that holds Rembrandt’s Night Watch (3.6 x 4.4 metres) could contain nearly all Vermeer’s paintings grouped together. In fact, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam displays a few of Vermeer’s paintings in the vicinity of Rembrandt’s masterpiece.

It has been difficult for historians to make a chronological list all of Vermeer’s paintings because he only included his signature and date on three. These were The Procuress (1656), The Astronomer (1668) and The Geographer (1669). Vermeer has become known for his use of colours, particularly lead tin-yellow and ultramarine, both of which can be seen in The Procuress. His use of ultramarine is rather surprising given his low financial status. The colour was one of the most expensive to buy and was made by grinding the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli into a powder.

The Procuress, which now hangs in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden, features four figures, one of whom is looking out of the canvas at the viewer. It is believed by many that this is a self-portrait of Vermeer. Rather than depicting himself as an artist, Vermeer portrayed himself as a musician. It has been suggested the procuress was modelled on his wife, which may explain why the painting once hung in Vermeer’s mother-in-law’s home. The same woman has been identified in four of Vermeer’s paintings, however, he had many models, painting a total of 42 women and 13 men throughout his career.

The Astronomer and The Geographer feature the same male model who has been identified as Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), “the Father of Microbiology”. Science was a popular topic for painters during the Dutch Golden Age. People were beginning to learn about the world and universe they lived in, although religion was still of great importance, hence the painting of the Finding of Moses in the background of The Astronomer.

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Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665)

Of all Vermeer’s paintings, Girl with a Pearl Earring (Meisje met de parel, 1665) is the most recognised. Now hanging in the Mauritshuis, the 44.5 cm × 39 cm canvas has had many names and only received its current title in the 20th century. More recently, however, the “pearl” earring has been contested by those who think it looks more like polished tin.

Girl with a Pearl Earring is a “tronie”, which is Dutch slang for a painting of a head that is not meant to be a portrait. The unknown model, whose colouring suggests she is European, wears an oriental dress and turban. The story behind the painting, however, is unknown.

The painting’s fame is largely a result of Tracy Chevalier’s (b.1962) novel Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999), which was adapted into a film starring Scarlett Johansson (b.1984) in the title role. Chevalier imagined the girl was a maid in the Vermeer household who had an eye for art. The author also expertly described the situation in Delft where people were suffering from an epidemic.

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The Milkmaid (1657-58)

Although Vermeer was growing in popularity before the publication of Chevalier’s book, the media attention increased his fame and drew attention to his other works, for instance, The Milkmaid (1657-58). Curators of the Rijksmuseum, where the painting is displayed, claim The Milkmaid is “unquestionably one of the museum’s finest attractions”.

Despite its title, the lady in the painting is a kitchen maid who is pouring milk into an earthenware bowl. She wears Vermeer’s favourite colours: lead tin-yellow and ultramarine, and goes about her work as though unaware she is being painted.

According to Walter Liedtke (1945-2015), a curator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, this genre painting has a “Mona Lisa” effect. “There’s a bit of mystery about her for modern audiences. She is going about her daily task, faintly smiling. And our reaction is ‘What is she thinking?'” (Liedtke, 2009)

Whilst not as famous, Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window (1657-59) and Woman Reading a Letter (1663) evoke a similar reaction. What are they reading? Is it good or bad news? Who is it from? It is generally assumed the younger girl has received a letter from a lover, perhaps an illicit one. The open window may be symbolic of the girl’s desire to experience the world outside, away from the constraints of her family’s expectations.

Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window was initially mistaken as a Rembrandt and it was not until 1880 that it was identified as a Vermeer. Recent x-rays of the painting reveal Vermeer had originally included an image of a putto – perhaps Cupid – which is another indication the girl’s letter is from a lover.

Woman Reading a Letter is very similar in composition, however, it is almost unique among Vermeer’s paintings of interiors. Unlike the others, there is no fragment of either corner, ceiling or floor. There are, however, other features common to Vermeer’s art: a table, a pearl necklace (on the table) and a wall hanging. The map is of Holland, which suggests the letter could be from her husband or a male relative who is either travelling or taking part in the various Dutch wars.

Today, people think the woman is pregnant due to the shape of her figure, however, it was very rare for a pregnant woman to be depicted in art. Some suggest the loose clothing, which was popular in the Netherlands at the time, makes the woman appear larger than she really is.

The Wine Glass (1660) is considered to be one of Vermeer’s first mature works. The brushwork is much smoother and the colours brighter. These qualities are obvious when comparing the painting to an earlier work set in the same room, The Girl with the Wine Glass (1659-60).

Since genre paintings depict scenes of everyday life, it is not always possible to decipher exactly what is going on. In The Wine Glass, the woman is finishing a glass of wine while a man waits to refill her glass. There is no way of knowing the relationship between the two figures but many assume some form of courtship is being played out. The man almost seems impatient for the woman to finish her drink so that he can pour more, suggesting he is trying to make her drunk.

There are many similarities between The Wine Glass and The Girl with the Wine Glass, most notably the colours of the dresses. The woman and the girl wear a similar style of dress and are both holding wine glasses. The girl, however, looks out of the painting as though aware of the artist’s presence. The floor, walls and window reveal the scenes were painted in the same room, however, there are small differences, such as the position of the table and the picture on the wall.

The Girl with the Wine Glass is just as hard to decipher as The Wine Glass. One of the men, who are similarly dressed, looks interested in the girl, suggesting there is a courtship or illicit romance between them. The other man, however, looks bored in comparison, which begs the question of his identity and purpose in the scene. Without Vermeer around to reveal what is going on, it is up to the viewer to use their imagination.

Many of Vermeer’s paintings only contain one figure, however, when there is more than one person, they are always interacting. Officer and a Girl Laughing (1657) show a couple conversing at a table. The girl, possibly modelled by Vermeer’s wife, is holding a glass of white wine, which was an expensive drink at the time. If the officer has a drink, it is hidden by his body, which has its back to the viewer.

The officer, a military man, is wearing a red coat and expensive hat, suggesting both power and passion. Many have interpreted the painting as an innocent courtship between two respectable people, however, others have read ulterior motives in the girl’s smile. Once again, it is impossible to understand the true nature of the painting.

To paint the room, Vermeer used a camera obscura, as he did in the majority of his work. The camera obscura, whose technology inspired the photographic camera, was a drawing device that became popular in the mid-16th century. The device consisted of a box with a small hole in one side through which light could travel. Inside the box, the light would transfer an upside-down version of the outside scene onto a surface. If the surface was a mirror, the image would then be reflected onto another surface, such as an artist’s canvas, this time the right way up. This technology was based upon the human eye: pupil, lens and retina. Vermeer used the reflected image to trace a geometrically correct perspective.

The camera obscura may not have been needed for Mistress and Maid (1667), which shows the interaction of the titular roles. Although the direction of light suggests the mistress is sat in front of a window, the painting is too dark to see any physical features of the room. The scene depicts two classes of Dutch society: the mistress, who is brightly lit and dressed in yellow, and the maid, whose brown dress blends into the dark background. The mistress’s wealth is emphasised by her fur-lined clothing, silk table cloth and a pearl earring.

Despite their difference in class, the two women are both interested in a letter the mistress has received. It has been assumed the message is a love letter and the maid is advising her mistress on the appropriate response. Although she would have been considered no more than household staff, the maid may have known many of her mistresses secrets and was thus treated as a trusted confidant.

Vermeer would have made good use of the camera obscura in The Music Lesson (1662-65) and The Art of Painting (1666-68), which shows two different artistic professions. The former, also known as A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman, shows a young girl receiving a music lesson by a male tutor. The tutor, whose mouth is parted, is either singing along to the music or giving instruction to his pupil.

Vermeer’s geometric perspective aided by the camera obscura emphasises the depth and height of the room. Part of the room is obscured by a rug-covered table upon which a familiar jug sits. Vermeer often reused props in his paintings. Although the floor pattern is different, the room has a similar appearance to the setting of The Art of Painting.

The Art of Painting is the second largest of all Vermeer’s works and is the one that most closely resembles a scene in his own life. In fact, many assume the artist figure is a self-portrait, albeit from the back, and the girl, one of his daughters. This, of course, cannot be proven.

Thoré-Bürger, who gave Vermeer the “Sphinx of Delft” nickname, regarded The Art of Painting as the artist’s most interesting painting. Also known as The Allegory of Painting, art critics believe there to be far more to it than a typical genre painting. The model is presumed to represent Clio, the Greek Muse of History. She wears a laurel leaf and holds a trumpet and a book, which matches the description of Clio in the book Iconologia (1593) by Italian iconographer Cesare Ripa (1560-1622).

There is thought to be political symbols hidden within The Art of Painting, such as a double-headed eagle within the design of the chandelier, which was the symbol of the Habsburg Holy Roman Empire, the former ruler of the Low Countries. The map on the wall also refers to earlier political divisions.

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Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1655)

Vermeer’s largest painting, which is housed in the Scottish National Gallery, is Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1655). Religion was not a common theme in Vermeer’s work, however, he did occasionally incorporate religious icons into his work, for instance in The Allegory of Faith. This large painting, however, fully embraces Christianity and depicts a scene from the Bible.

Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word.” (Luke 10:38-39, NIV)

Although Christ in the House of Martha and Mary is a religious painting, it does not leave the concept of genre painting far behind. Despite the halo and choice of clothing, the three characters could be anyone going about their daily life. The man (Jesus) is talking while one woman (Mary) listens. The other woman (Martha) is making preparations for a meal.

Given the size of the painting, it is likely it was a commission, which may explain Vermeer’s deviation from his usual style. On the other hand, when Vermeer first appeared on the artist scene, his paintings were larger and, on two other occasions, featured mythical scenes.

Diana and her Companions (1653-56) is believed by some to be Vermeer’s earliest known painting, although others think it was painted after Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. The painting shows the Roman goddess Diana having her feet washed by her attendants. Critics have commented on the serious mood of the scene and the contemporary style of clothing, which is unusual for a mythological painting.

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Saint Praxedis by Felice Ficherelli

Saint Praxedis (1655) is similar in style to Diana and her Companions, however, it is obviously a copy of a painting by Felice Ficherelli (1605-60). Saint Praxedis or Práxedes was a second-century Christian saint, about which very little is known. It is possible Vermeer came across this painting on the walls of his father’s inn and copied it for practice. He did, however, change a few details, such as the colour of the saint’s dress and added a crucifix in her hand.

With this copy of a painting in mind, Diana and her Companions may have also been inspired by an existing artwork. If this is the case, the style of clothing is likely Vermeer’s addition.

It is a shame so little is known about Vermeer’s life and that he never experienced the fame his paintings have earned. He had no apprentices, therefore his style of painting died with him. We are lucky that many of his paintings have been discovered, especially as some were signed by other artists to try and sell them for more money. Today, Vermeer’s paintings are some of the most popular attractions in art galleries and there are several online exhibitions about his works. The Sphinx of Delft is definitely the most loved, if not the greatest genre master the world has seen.

Online Exhibitions about Vermeer:
12 Things You Didn’t know about Vermeer
Johannes Vermeer, Life and Work
Rediscovering Vermeer
Basics of Technical Research
The Painting’s Journey to its Present Appearance
Vermeer’s Contemporaries in Delft
Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting

All images used are in the Public Domain.