A Ball of Wool

On my recent blog, The History of Postcards, published on 9th April 2021, I received a comment that said, “Hazel can make anything interesting, perhaps next week the history of a ball of wool!” Whilst this suggestion is undoubtedly a joke, it made me think. Is it possible to write an article about a ball of wool? Could it be an interesting topic to research? So after some thought and a few internet searches, my response to this comment is “Challenge Accepted!” 

From where does wool come? Most people will say sheep, which is true, but wool is also obtained from other animals, including goats, oxen, rabbits and camels. The history of wool begins around 6000 BC, where archaeological evidence in Iran suggests people kept sheep for their wool. Fragments of woollen garments dating to circa 3000 BC exist in the Middle East, but the animals arrived in Europe much later, where the oldest wool textile, found in a Danish bog, dates to c. 1500 BC.

To remove the woollen fleece from the sheep requires a pair of shears. These may resemble a large pair of scissors or, more recently, a power-driven toothed blade similar to human hair clippers. Yet, the first shears did not appear until the Iron Age (c. 1500-500 BC). Before then, people collected the wool by hand, either plucking it straight from the sheep or using sharp bronze combs.

Around the time of the Roman invasion in 55 BC, the British Isles had a thriving wool industry, which helped clothe the majority of people in the country. Soon, wool joined linen and leather as the most common clothing textiles in Europe. Other fabrics, such as cotton and silk, arrived later from India and China, and only the most wealthy could afford such luxuries.

By the 1st century AD, European people bred sheep specifically for wool production. As Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) explained in his encyclopedia Naturalis Historia (Natural History), some areas were already selectively breeding the animals to produce superior fleeces. Pliny claimed Apulian wool, collected from sheep in the heel of Italy, was the “most esteemed”, often used for making cloaks. He explained that although shearing sped up the wool collecting process, some countries still preferred to pluck it from the animal.

Pliny also described the various colours of wool found in different areas of the world. In Southern Italy, sheep tended to have white fleeces, but in the north, black sheep frequented the Alps, and Erythræan or red wool came from countries bordering the red sea. Wool gathered in Istria, a peninsula shared today by Croatia, Slovenia, and Italy, was not as suitable for making garments, whereas sheep in Egypt produced the best wool for embroidery. In Gaul, they used fleece to make carpets and felt. They also dyed the wool to create beautiful patterns, although black wool did not take any colour.

A fair in Champagne in the 13th century

With so many varieties of wool, the fabric soon became a tradeable commodity. In the 12th century, traders flocked to “Champagne Fairs” in the French county of Champagne, where they sold many textiles and spices. Usually, they held six fairs a year, with the first held annually on the 2nd January. The second took place on the Tuesday before “mid-Lent” and the third on the Tuesday before Ascension Day. The fourth fair, known as the “fair of St. John”, occurred on the Tuesday after St John’s Day (24th June), which celebrates the birth of Saint John the Baptist. The fair of St. Ayoul always took place on 14th September to mark the Exaltation of the Cross, and the final fair took place on All Souls’ Day (2nd November).

The Champagne Fairs made different qualities of wool available to other areas of Europe, and the trade became a serious moneymaker for much of the Southern continent. Italy remained the forerunner of wool production until the 15th century when English exports outranked them. As mentioned above, wool arrived on the British Isles with the Romans, but it was not until the 12th century that wool became Britain’s greatest asset.

Cistercians at work in a detail from the Life of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, illustrated by Jörg Breu the Elder (1500)

Cistercian Abbeys around Europe were instrumental in the success of the wool trade. Known for their “enterprise and entrepreneurial spirit,” they “were catalysts for development of a market economy” for much of the 12th century. Cistercians owned a lot of farmland on which they grew crops and bred animals, including sheep. England, in particular, was indebted to the Order for starting a successful wool trade with other countries. The Cistercians sent raw wool to cities in Flanders, where it was dyed and refined into cloth. The income from this industry was significant for the English Crown, which imposed an export tax on wool known as the “Great Custom”.

Maltolt, meaning “bad tax” in Norman-French, is the name given to a series of wool taxes between 1294 and 1297. Taxes imposed in 1275 granted Edward I (1239-1307) a half-mark customs duty per exported sack of wool, but when the Anglo-French War began in 1294, the price increased. All wool gathered in England belonged to the king who charged traders 40 shillings per sack. Unhappy with the “Great Custom”, a group of noblemen wrote a series of complaints or Monstraunces to the king’s government. They claimed the Maltolt had driven the country to poverty amongst other grievances, forcing Edward to cease the taxes.

The Woolsack

By the 14th century, the wool trade was of great importance to the economy of England. Wishing to symbolise this, King Edward III (1327-77) suggested his Lord Chancellor should sit on a wool bale whilst in council. Now known as the Woolsack, the tradition has passed down the centuries and is still used today. The bale has been replaced many times, but in 1938 the House of Lords discovered the Woolsack stuffed with horsehair. Since reupholstered and filled with wool, the Woolsack is covered with red cloth and includes a backrest for more comfort. Since 2006, it is the Lord Speaker who sits on the Woolsack rather than the Lord Chancellor.

Although England was one of the largest wool exporters, they relied on other countries to turn the wool into garments and so forth. During the 14th century, Flemish weavers fled to England to escape taxes in Flanders, bringing with them their knowledge of weaving. Under their expertise, England could turn their wool into cloth, thus being able to trade both raw fleeces and textiles. By the time of the Black Death (1346-53), the most fatal pandemic to date, England accounted for approximately 10% of the wool trade.

The plague halted wool production, but by the 15th century, trade picked up once again. The English wool industry far surpassed the continent, and the government began to discourage exportation. When the Huguenots, French Protestants, fled to England in the early 16th century, they brought their weaving knowledge and expertise. With their help, the English industry became self-sufficient, no longer needing to send fleece abroad to transform into cloth.

Determined to be more successful than Flanders and Italy, England outlawed wool exportation. Nonetheless, this did not stop people from trying to ship the material to France. Known as Owlers because they worked predominantly at night, participants smuggled 480,000 pounds of wool a year across The Channel. They usually set off from Romney Marsh, sparsely inhabited wetlands in Kent and East Sussex, but the government soon found out, and those caught lost their hands as punishment.

In 1699, William III (1650-1702) issued An Act to prevent the Exportation of Wool out of the Kingdoms of Ireland and England into Forreigne parts and for the Incouragement of the Woollen Manufactures in the Kingdom of England. The act aimed to squash the growing woollen industry in Ireland and the American colonies. It also forbade the use of foreign wool, meaning shopkeepers in England could only sell clothing made from the fleeces of English sheep. The government wished to profit from the English wool trade without any other country benefiting from sales. Naturally, several people opposed this rule and wool was transported overseas by Owlers and sold on the black market.

Queen Bertha of Burgundy instructing girls to spin flax on spindles using distaffs

Until the 18th century, the wool industry relied on manual spinning wheels and looms to create cloth. Known as the “cottage industry”, many did this from the comfort of their own homes. The homemade garments, usually produced by women, were made from raw wool supplied by a subcontractor. The subcontractor often employed many women and families to produce cloth for a small amount of money.

Harris Tweed

Manual labour in the cottage industry was slow, but subcontractors usually had several workers, allowing them to make a steady profit. One notable brand, Harris Tweed, began its life as a cottage industry in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Islanders living on Lewis and Harris, the Uists, Benbecula, and Barra made a living as crofters, weaving cloth for personal and practical uses. The islands were often cold, so the inhabitants needed thick clothing, but they also sold fabric to the mainland for income. Using only pure wool from sheep on the islands, Harris Tweed is easily identifiable from flecks of colour made from natural dyes. Although the Industrial Revolution in the mid-18th century sped up cloth production, Harris Tweed is still produced by hand. The fabric is often sought after in the fashion industry and is used by many companies, including Hugo Boss, Topman, Nordstrom, Dr Martens, and Nike.

Handloom weaving in 1747, from William Hogarth’s Industry and Idleness

The Industrial Revolution (1750-1850) brought radical changes to wool production, almost putting cottage industries out of business. Many inventors built devices to help speed up the textile making process. Machines, such as handlooms, worked better for cotton, which is finer than wool. Soon the cotton industry surpassed the wool industry with over 900 factories in Britain by 1797. At that time, cotton made up 2.6% of Britain’s textile output, which increased to 17% in 1801. Wool, on the other hand, only rose from 10% to 14.1%.

Until the 18th century, textile workers used man-powered spinning wheels to turn wool into yarn (balls of wool). To lessen the manual labour, English inventor John Kay (1704-79) patented the flying shuttle in 1733, which halved the production time. Operated by one person, the frame used a series of mechanisms to spin the wool into long strands. In 1764, Lancashire weaver James Hargreaves (1720-78) developed the spinning jenny, which allowed a single worker to spin up to eight spools of wool at a time. As technology improved, this increased to 120.

The first machine that did not rely on human power to work was the water frame, patented by Richard Arkwright (1732-92) in 1767. Initially used for cotton rather than wool, the machine’s mechanisms were powered by a waterwheel. Usually made from wood and fitted with buckets or blades, the wheels were attached to the walls of the mills and factories above a running stream. As the water flowed against the buckets or blades, the wheel turned, thus powering the machines inside. The downside to this invention was its reliance on water flow. They required fast-moving streams that would not dry up in the summer months. This requirement limited the number of places suitable for such mills.

A Roberts self-acting spinning mule

For places without access to suitable water streams, Samuel Crompton invented the spinning mule in 1779. Although this involved manual labour, each machine held 1,320 spindles, significantly increasing the output of the textile industry. By 1825, inventor Richard Roberts (1789-1864) improved production further by patenting the self-acting mule. After starting the mule by hand, each mechanism caused a chain reaction so that the machine continued moving for a length of time. The self-acting mule grew popular and gradually replaced the previous machines. Roberts invention was a vital piece of equipment until the mid-20th century when electric looms became favourable.

Engraving of Ned Ludd, Leader of the Luddites, 1812

Sadly, the introduction of machines cost many people their jobs. Factories needed fewer people to spin the wool, increasing unemployment. In 1812, a secret organisation called the Luddites protested against the Industrial Revolution, destroying textile machinery in the process. Led by Ned Ludd, a weaver from Leicester, the Luddites met at night on the outskirts of industrial towns to plan their attacks. After entering the town, they smashed machines and sent death threats to factory owners before escaping through secret getaway chambers.

“I have been in some of the most oppressed provinces of Turkey; but never, under the most despotic of infidel governments, did I behold such squalid wretchedness as I have seen since my return, in the very heart of a Christian country.” So said Lord Byron (1788-1824) in the House of Lords regarding the Luddite Riots. The British Army frequently clashed with the Luddites, arresting many participants who faced a mass trial in York in January 1813. Parliament passed the Frame Breaking Act, which made machine sabotage a capital punishment. At least 60 men were found guilty and sentenced to either execution or penal transportation. Fearful of this new law, the Luddite organisation disbanded.

Despite their methods of protest, the Luddites made a valid point about the Industrial Revolution. Traditional textile industries, particularly those in East Anglia, suffered greatly. Instead, large cities, such as York, developed into industrial areas, taking work away from people in small towns and villages. Transporting criminals to the colonies also backfired on the British economy. Those sent to Australia found jobs raising sheep and producing wool. By 1845, the Australian wool industry surpassed Britain, even providing wool for British factories.

The history of balls of wool or yarn is less precise than wool in general. It is assumed manufacturers first wound the spun wool into balls or skeins to avoid knots and snags many centuries ago, but it is uncertain when wool became commercially available in this manner. Today, balls of wool come in all colours and sizes and are used by those who knit for a hobby as well as clothing factories. Yet, knitting was not always a hobby but a necessity. Before cheap clothing stores, women made garments from scratch to clothe their families. The oldest knitted artefacts are socks dating from 11th century Egypt, although evidence suggests the technique predates archaeological evidence.

Madonna Knitting, by Bertram of Minden 1400-1410

Archaeologists have discovered knitting needles and crochet hooks in the Middle East dating back to the 3rd century AD. In Europe, the earliest evidence of this skill comes from 13th-century Spanish tombs in the royal Abbey of Santa María la Real de Las Huelgas. Records suggest Christians hired Muslim slaves to produce knitted garments, but in the 14th century, it became a respected skill amongst all women. Several paintings from the 14th and 15th century depict the Virgin Mary knitting clothes for her son, Jesus Christ.

Long before the Industrial Revolution, inventors found ways to speed up the knitting process. In 1589, English clergyman William Lee (1563-1614) devised the stocking frame, controlled by a series of pedals and levers. Unfortunately, Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) refused to grant him a patent because the woollen stockings were too rough for her royal ankles. This had no reflection on the machine but rather her preference for silk. Despite this rejection, Lee found success in France when King Henri IV (1553-1610) offered him financial support.

The Knitting Woman by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1869

Unlike the machinery invented during the Industrial Revolution, the stocking frame never found its way into factories. Instead, workers used them at home in their cottage industries, which only went out of fashion after the introduction of steam-powered knitting machines in the 19th century. Hand-knitting quickly declined in the clothing industry, but it increased in popularity as a hobby. Authors such as Jane Gaugain (d.1860) published books about this leisure activity, featuring many knitting patterns.

During the First World War, the government encourage women, men and children to knit clothing for allied soldiers. This included socks, hats, gloves and scarves because frostbite was as deadly as the enemy. The Red Cross published pamphlets to teach the unskilled how to knit. These were also sent to soldiers so they could repair damaged clothing.

After the war, knitting continued as a popular hobby, and knitted garments became fashionable. In the 1930s, families began knitting out of desperation during the Great Depression because it was far cheaper to make clothes than purchase them. Some knitters even sold their items to make money.

The Second World War sparked the Make Do and Mend campaign. As well as knitting for soldiers, the Ministry of Information published pamphlets encouraging households to limit waste at the height of rationing. The booklets provided instructions about darning socks, patching holes and making many items of clothing. Whilst this helped the country save on resources, it also boosted morale by making people on the “home front” feel they were doing their bit for the war effort.

During the 1950s and 60s, knitted clothing, particularly in bright colours, became haute couture. The government thought knitting was a useful skill and made it a part of the school curriculum, although only for girls. This changed after factories started using computerised knitting machines, allowing them to mass-produce knitted garments and sell them at low prices. By the 1990s, younger generations rejected the skill as an “old person’s thing”.

The 21st century is experiencing a resurgence in knitting, often inspired by celebrities and online craft blogs. The internet allows people to share their ideas and creations, which are far more inventive than the scarves and socks usually associated with the hobby. Magazines, websites, and videos provide everything beginners and advanced knitters need to know to create amazing outcomes, all of which start life as a simple ball of wool.

There ends the long and varied history of a mundane object. At first glance, a ball of wool may not seem an exciting topic, but after picking at the surface, a never-ending story unravels. So, dear reader, I hope I have lived up to your claim that I “can make anything interesting”.


My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

The History of Postcards

It has probably been a while since most of us have sent or received a postcard due to the Covid-19 restrictions across the world. Also, the increased use of smartphones has reduced the need to send “wish you were here” notes in the post when it is easier and cheaper to upload a photograph or message onto social media. Yet, as deltiologists (also known as postcard collectors) will tell you, postcards have an interesting history, which blossomed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many cards purchased as souvenirs in the past are now collector’s items and have appeared in auctions since 1896.

Penny Penates postcard

The earliest known postcard was received in 1840 in Fulham by the composer and writer Theodore Hook (1788-1841). Known for his practical jokes, Hook likely sent the card to himself, either as an experiment or to poke fun at postal workers. The card, which bears a Penny Black stamp, features a hand-drawn caricature of postal clerks holding large pens. They are seated around an inkwell labelled “Official” with the words “Penny” and “Penates” on either side. Penates, or Di Penates, were household deities in Ancient Roman religion responsible for guarding the storeroom. Hook’s illustration suggests the post workers either looked after their pennies or the Penny Black stamps.

In 2001, a collector discovered the Penny Penates postcard and the British Philatelic Association confirmed it is the oldest documented postcard in the world. It is also the oldest card sent with a Penny Black stamp, which was only used between May 1840 and February 1841. In 2002, Penny Penates made history again, becoming the most ever paid-for postcard at auction, selling at £31,750 to a collector in Latvia.

Lipman’s Postal Card

The first commercially produced postcard appeared in 1861 in the United States of America, although manufacturers saw no need to decorate one side of the card with an image. Instead, the card, patented by John P. Charlton of Philadelphia, was plain on both sides – one for the message and the other for the recipient’s address. After selling the rights to Hymen Lipman (1817-93), the man credited for making the first pencil with an attached eraser, they added a border to the message side.

In 1870, commercial postcards began selling in the United Kingdom. These were also blank on both sides but featured a printed stamp, which the Post Office included in the price of the card. Only the Post Office had permission to sell postcards, which they sold in two sizes. The larger of the two eventually fell out of use in favour of the smaller due to ease of handling. Eventually, the Post Office introduced a standard size of postcard at 5.5 by 3.5 inches.

Other European countries adopted postcards slightly earlier than the United Kingdom, although the Prussian government worried about privacy issues. In 1869, the Austria-Hungary post office issued blank postcards, of which approximately 3 million were used in the first three months. When the Franco-Prussian war began in July 1870, soldiers saw the benefits of this inexpensive method of writing to people back home. Soon, post offices throughout Europe and further abroad agreed to the sale of postcards.

The claimed first printed picture postcard

In 1870, postcards began featuring a picture on one side with a small space to write a message. The reverse remained blank for the recipient’s address. Historians continue to debate over the origins of this idea, with the majority agreeing the first picture postcard was created by a soldier at Camp Conlie. Léon Besnardeau (1829-1914), the alleged inventor, resided at the training camp during the Franco-Prussian war, where he developed a lithographed design to print on postcards. This particular illustration featured two piles of military equipment topped by a scroll and the arms of the Duchy of Brittany. In French, the inscription reads, “War of 1870. Camp Conlie. Souvenir of the National Defence. Army of Brittany.”

Meanwhile, others argue the first picture postcard appeared in Germany three days before the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. August Schwartz, a bookseller from Oldenburg, is regarded as the illustrator of this card, which bears the postmark 16th July 1870. Yet, neither of these cards resemble the souvenir postcards of today, the earliest of which appeared in Vienna in 1871.

North Bay, Scarborough

In the United Kingdom, the first picture postcards appear in 1894 at the beginning of the “Golden Age of Postcards”, which lasted until 1914. The Post Office permitted other publishers to print the cards, which led to a rise in postcards of landscapes and scenic views. ETW Dennis and Sons of Scarborough were the first company to print postcards outside of the Post Office. Edward Thomas West Dennis (1847-1923), a Quaker, saw a commercial gap in the market and began producing postcards for seaside resorts, which consumers purchased as mementoes of their holidays or sent home to friends and family.

Despite permitting others to print postcards, the Post Office provided strict rules about the design. Regulations stated the back must only contain the address, and publishers could print up to five words on the front as well as an image, as long as they left space for the sender to write a message. Society thought it unseemly to write personal messages where anyone could see, so the limited space prevented people from divulging too much information. Nonetheless, some people tried to get around this by writing along the edges of the illustration as well as in the space provided.

When talking about postcards, the historian Steve Hillier likened them to “the text message of their time”. Due to the small message space, households often received several postcards from the same sender. This prompted the Post Office to reconsider its regulations. The outcome, released in 1902, was the Divided Back postcard, which allowed people to write a message on one half and the address on the other. On the front, the picture took up the entire space.

With the rate of sending a postcard at half a penny, many continued to favour postcards over letters. Whilst today postcards are generally received from people on holiday, early 20th-century publishers produced cards for villages and towns across the United Kingdom. For example, in 1910, an inhabitant of the village of Upminster in Essex sent a postcard to a friend in France, asking them if they had recovered from their recent cold. The postcard contains a photograph of The Bell Inn, which dominated the crossroads at the centre of Upminster for 200 years before its demolition in 1963.

During the First World War, postcards helped boost the morale of soldiers, but also remained an effective form of communication with friends and family in Britain. Some postcards contained lengthy updates, whereas others simply said, “meet me off the train at 2 pm tomorrow”, or something equally mysterious. Whilst today we cannot guarantee next-day delivery, even with a first-class stamp, postmen once delivered letters to houses twice a day, providing a near-instant method of communication.

Whilst the war halted the production of seaside and holiday postcards, the industry saw a rise in military postcards. Some of these contained photographs of regiments or individual soldiers, which are now collectors’ items. Publishers also printed humorous cards to keep people’s spirits up, particularly those on the front lines or the injured. These postcards usually featured a cartoon rather than a photograph and saw a revival during the Second World War.

After the end of the First World War, postcard production picked up once more, although it never achieved the popularity of the Golden Years. The price of postage increased to one penny in 1918, then one and a half pence in 1921. The latter caused public protest, so the price reverted to one penny the following year.

The 1930s saw a rise in cartoon-style postcards, many of which were labelled bawdy or saucy. These illustrations shocked those with strong British morals, but others thoroughly enjoyed the innuendos and double entendres. Cartoonists often poked fun at stereotypical characters, such as vicars, large women and unfortunate husbands. They also made inappropriate jokes about the private lives of the average person.

Synonymous with the saucy postcard genre is the English graphic artist Donald McGill (1875-1962), who eventually received a fine for breaking the Obscene Publications Act 1857. His career as a postcard designer began unintentionally in 1904 after drawing a humorous get-well card for a sick nephew. McGill’s family encouraged him to produce more illustrations, and within a year, he had a full-time occupation. He started taking risks with the content of his drawings, noting the more vulgar they became, the better they sold.

McGill earned the title “King of the Seaside Postcard”, but after the outbreak of the First World War, he produced anti-German propaganda postcards instead. His illustration style remained consistent, with bright colours and caricature figures, but the messages focused on bolstering British morale and insulting the enemy. As a child, McGill lost a foot after an accident playing rugby, so he could not physically fight. He saw his humorous postcards as his contribution to the war effort.

Throughout the war, McGill designed approximately 1,500 postcards. His early war illustrations focused on the soldiers but later turned to the Home Front, wives, families, female munitions workers and the Red Cross. McGill often included puns in his work, for example, a soldier hanging up his laundry with the caption, “A blow on the Hindenburg Line!” The Germans built the Hindenburg Line or Siegfriedstellung from concrete, steel and barbed wire as a form of defence, which after several attacks, broke in September 1918.

Whilst the majority of McGill’s wartime postcards involved humour, he also produced sentimental cards featuring poems, which soldiers sent home to their sweethearts. Yet, linking all his postcards together is British patriotism, which inspired other artists and printers to produce similar illustrations.

After the war, McGill began designing postcards for the International Art Company, formed by Robert and Louisa McCrum. For 17 years, McGill produced his usual standard of work, but as time went on, new rules and censorship issues put pressure on the artist. The company prevented McGill from drawing people with red noses or women with exaggerated cleavage, which he found ridiculous rules to follow. Eventually, McGill resigned and worked on a freelance basis for other companies. In retaliation to the censorship issues, McGill’s outcomes became more saucy and shocking.

The outbreak of World War Two in 1939 put a halt to postcard production. With paper in short supply, McGill took a temporary job as a clerk for the Ministry of Labour, but he could not refrain from drawing for long. In 1944, McGill started drawing for D. Constance Ltd, but the newly elected Conservative government of the early 1950s grew concerned about McGill’s immoral illustrations.

Although McGill was not the government’s only target, he was required to attend a trial in Lincoln on 15th July 1954. In his defence, McGill’s lawyers claimed he had no intention of creating innuendos in his postcard designs, of which he produced over 12,000 during his career. They also claimed the “double meanings” needed pointing out to the artist after the production. The court did not believe these arguments and fined McGill £50 for breaking the 1857 Obscene Publications Act. Whilst this does not seem a large sum, McGill also lost his income source because no reputable company wished to print his postcard designs.

Postcards of a similar nature to those by McGill also suffered from the government’s intervention. They issued strict rules about taste and decency in art and literature and censored approximately 167,000 books. Many protested against this censorship and appealed for an amendment to the Obscene Publications Act. In 1957, McGill supplied evidence before the House Select Committee, saying he felt “a national system of censorship would be open to the vagaries of individual interpretation.” The appeal resulted in the Obscene Publications Act 1959, which allowed the printing of McGill’s postcards and the publication of controversial books, such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930).

The revival of saucy postcards inspired bawdy films, such as the Carry On franchise, which ran from 1958 until 1978. McGill’s illustrations regained popularity, and by his death in 1962, surpassed 200 million sales. Printers continued producing McGill’s postcards until 1968 after phasing them out in favour of modern designs.

Postcards never regained their post-war popularity but continued to be a cultural aspect of the British seaside. Colour photography replaced illustrations, which allowed souvenir shops to sell depictions of resorts and towns, often in unrealistically sunny weather conditions. Photographers developed their careers in the postcard trade, for instance, John Hinde (1916-97), who found success in Ireland. In the 1960s and 70s, Hinde teamed up with Billy Butlin (1899-1980), the British entrepreneur, to produce postcards for the many Butlin Holiday Camps around Britain. Hinde employed three men, Elmar Ludwig, Edmund Nägele and David Noble, to help capture idealistic views of Butlin locations.

Hinde often enhanced some of the colours in his photographs to create the optimistic tone Butlin desired. He meticulously planned the snapshots to depict images of a fun-filled family vacation. Typical scenes included large swimming pools, amusement parks, recreational activities and indoor dining. Today, these overly bright postcards are considered kitsch by collectors and cost much more than the few pence Butlin’s charged.

Modern seaside postcards usually feature more than one high-quality photograph of the area. Developments in technology allowed photographers to capture realistic images of the resort without the need for enhancements. Postcards are available in most locations and countries, which thousands of tourists purchase to send home to their family and friends. Contemporary postcards have no value in collections, yet in the future, they may prove of some worth.

In the Smartphone Age, holiday postcards are fast becoming something of the past, but printing companies are fighting to keep them fresh and alive. Many online companies allow people to personalise postcards to send on a variety of occasions. People can chose generic images or upload digital photographs and include text in a variety of typefaces. Is this the beginning of a new chapter in the history of postcards?

Postcards from Donald McGill’s era may have no relevance in today’s world, but for deltiologists, they are worth hundreds of pounds. Some consider saucy postcards a form of art, and we can thank the artists for breaking censorship boundaries and allowing us to be more open and accepting of people’s lives. Whilst some people may dislike lewd comments and foul language used in television and literature, the amendment of the Obscene Publications Act has allowed people to discuss sexual health, mental health and other taboo subjects.

So ends the brief history of postcards in the United Kingdom. Who knows what the future holds for this method of communication?


My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

Lady Godiva

Famed for her naked ride through Coventry, Lady Godiva has inspired many artists and storytellers, but how much of the legend is true? According to Anglo-Saxon legend, Lady Godiva or Godgifu rode through the streets of Coventry covered only by her long hair in protest of the taxes imposed by her tyrannical husband. Today it is uncertain whether this event really occurred or if a pagan myth became medieval propaganda. Nonetheless, the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry owns dozens of artworks on the subject, suggesting Lady Godiva is one of the most popular figures in ancient British history.

It is difficult to write of Lady Godiva’s life to any degree of accuracy since much remains uncertain. According to records, Godiva married Leofric, an Earl of Mercia, who established a Benedictine monastery in Coventry in 1043. Evidence suggests that Leofric and his wife, whose name meant “gift of God” in Old English, donated generously towards religious establishments and they are listed as benefactors of several monasteries. English monk and chronicler John of Worcester, who died in c.1140, wrote about Coventry, “He and his wife, the noble Countess Godgifu, a worshipper of God and devout lover of St Mary ever-virgin, built the monastery there from the foundations out of their own patrimony, and endowed it adequately with lands and made it so rich in various ornaments that in no monastery in England might be found the abundance of gold, silver, gems and precious stones that was at that time in its possession.”

Leofric had nine children, including Ælfgar, who succeeded him as Earl of Mercia. Whether Lady Godiva was the mother of these offspring is unknown but records state she was a widow when she married Leofric at Ely Abbey. Godiva allegedly encouraged her husband to construct the monastery at Coventry, at least according to the 13th-century monk Roger of Wendover (d.1236) and appeared on the deeds of land belonging to other religious buildings. Reports of Godiva’s generosity are abundant, particularly in the form of jewellery, which she donated to the people of Coventry, Evesham and St Paul’s Cathedral. Unfortunately, all traces of these gifts became lost after the Norman Conquest in 1066.

Lady Godiva lived for some time after the death of her husband in 1057. Her name appears on a survey taken shortly after the Norman Conquest, which lists her as the only woman to remain a major landholder. Yet, her name is missing from the Domesday Book compiled in 1086, suggesting she died before the “Great Survey”. The whereabouts of her body are still under debate. The Chronicon Abbatiae de Evesham, a medieval chronicle about Evesham Abbey between 714 and 1539, insisted Godiva rested in the Church of the Blessed Trinity, which no longer stands. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography disagrees, saying, “There is no reason to doubt that she was buried with her husband at Coventry.” Leofric’s burial took place at St Mary’s Priory and Cathedral.

The surviving documents from Lady Godiva’s lifetime mention nothing of her alleged naked ride through Coventry. The story first appeared in writing in the 13th-century book Flores Historiarum (Flowers of History), created by Roger of Wendover and continued by other medieval historians. According to the story, Lady Godiva felt sorry for the people of Coventry, who suffered under the oppressive taxes imposed by her husband. Given the records of Leofric’s generosity, this claim is suspect. Nevertheless, in the tale, Godiva appealed to Leofric to lower the taxes, but he refused. Godiva continued to plead until her husband, growing weary of the argument, agreed to her request, but on one condition: Lady Godiva must remove all her clothes and ride a horse through the town.

If the legend is true, Leofric did not expect his wife to take him at his word. Yet, according to the typical version of the story, after issuing a proclamation instructing everyone to stay in their houses with their windows closed, Lady Godiva rode through Coventry with only her long hair to protect her modesty. Roger of Wendover’s record, on the other hand, states people filled the streets to watch Lady Godiva. Presumably, the outcome remained the same, and Leofric lowered the taxes.

Not included in early accounts of the legend is the character of Peeping Tom. He first appeared in written narratives during the 18th-century but the people of Coventry included Tom in verbal and dramatic versions of the story much earlier. When Lady Godiva instructed “all Persons to keep within Doors and from their Windows, on pain of Death”, everyone obeyed except a tailor named Tom. This “Peeping Tom” could not resist looking at the naked woman and, according to the historian Paul de Rapin (1661-1725), was instantly blinded by God. Other writers suggest the Coventry natives blinded the man for his insolence.

Many historians dispute the reality of Godiva’s naked ride and relate the incident to a pagan fertility rite where the participants led a maiden to “Cofa’s Tree”, from which Coventry got its name. The history of this ritual is undetermined, but a similar tradition, known as the “Godiva Procession” began in 1678. A woman dressed in flesh-coloured clothing reenacted the Lady’s legendary ride, while a grotesque wooden effigy represented Peeping Tom. In an 1826 article by W. Reader, Tom wears a style of armour dating to the time of Charles II (1630-85).

There are many alternative tellings of the legend of Lady Godiva. One suggestion is she did not ride naked but rather in her underwear. At the time the event purportedly took place, the Church instructed penitents to prove the purity of their soul by publically appearing in their “shift”, a sleeveless white garment. At the time, seeing someone in their underwear was akin to nudity. The name of Peeping Tom also differs between storytellers. A 17th-century letter, for instance, suggests his name was Action or Actæon, Lady Godiva’s groom.

In 1586, the County of the City of Coventry commissioned Flemish artist Adam van Noort (1561-1641) to produce a painting of Lady Godiva. The artist, famed for teaching the influential Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), depicted Godiva as a voluptuous woman with long golden hair sitting upon a white horse. In the background, which the novelist Dame Marina Warner (b.1946) describes as a “fantastical Italianate Coventry”, a figure peers out of an upstairs window. This could be the earliest reference to Peeping Tom.

Adam van Noort’s painting is the earliest artwork of Lady Godiva, but the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum contains many more on the theme, which Warner described in an article for The Times as “an oddly composed Landseer, a swooning Watts and a sumptuous Alfred Woolmer.” The majority are by Victorian artists who took inspiration from Alfred, Lord Tennyson‘s poem Godiva, published in 1840.

A painting of Lady Godiva by Pre-Raphaelite artist John Collier (1850-1934) portrays Godiva as a romantic heroine rather than an Anglo-Saxon woman. Her slender body is typical of the Pre-Raphaelite style, as is the red-tone of her hair. Despite her nudity, Lady Godiva conceals her modesty by the placement of her arms and riding position. Traditionally, women rode side-saddle, but Collier depicts Lady Godiva sitting astride her horse. She appears young and shy, although no one is on the street to see her pass by.

In contrast to the nude woman, Collier decorated the white horse with a silk cape and decorated reins. Although Lady Godiva wears no jewellery to mark her as a member of the upper class, the luxuriousness of the horse’s “clothing” indicates her wealth. These elements add to the romantic heroine appearance of Godiva and emphasise her purity. Leofric did not expect his wife to agree to his challenge due to the shamefulness of the task, but there is no sense of humiliation in this painting.

Marshall Claxton (1811-81), a member of the Royal Academy of Arts, painted Lady Godiva as she mounted her white horse to ride naked through Coventry. Similarly to Collier’s painting, the horse is covered with an ornate red blanket, indicating Godiva’s wealth. Claxton painted the lady from behind, wrapped in a white sheet from the waist down to protect her modesty. Although the legend usually indicates Lady Godiva removed all her jewellery, Claxton’s Godiva wears a gold crown on her head and a gold armband.

Whilst there is no one else in the painting, Godiva glances over her shoulder as though fearful of being caught. The dog in the painting, is the “barking cur” mentioned in Tennyson’s poem, but the small animal is also a symbol of marital fidelity. Nudity is often associated with sexual relations, but in this story, nudity is a sign of purity.

Edmund Blair Leighton (1852-1922) took inspiration from a different section of the story. The English painter decided to depict the moment Lady Godiva pleaded with her husband to abolish the taxes. The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum does not own Leighton’s painting but rather a copy by Frank Albert Philips (1831-1905). Nonetheless, it shows that Leighton paid close attention to Tennyson’s poem and tried to make the painting historically accurate. He dressed Lady Godiva and Leofric in authentic clothing, or at least what he believed Anglo-Saxons wore. Leighton also made the setting look convincing, basing it on medieval English architecture.


Alfred Joseph Woolmer (1805-1892), on the other hand, did not attempt to make his painting historically accurate. Inspired by the 16th-century artist Titian (1488-1576), Woolmer used rich colours, emphasising the animal furs and silks of Godiva’s clothing as well as the sunset in the background. The half-dressed Lady Godiva, who Marina Warner describes as “sumptuous”, takes on the appearance of Venus, the Roman goddess of love, thus presenting her as an object of desire. This is a stark contrast to the woman in the story who wished no one to see her ride through Coventry.

Woolmer’s paintings typically portrayed the concept of “ut pictura poesis“, which means “as is painting, so is poetry”. He wanted people to interpret his work as they would a poem. Although the image is static, it tells the story of Lady Godiva undressing before her ride through Coventry. No one else is in the painting because she has instructed everyone to remain at home. Unfortunately, Woolmer’s depiction of Lady Godiva evokes eroticism rather than her pious nature.

A plaster sculpture by John Thomas (1813-62), of which the museum owns a miniature copy by Philip Pargetter, depicts the naked woman sitting side-saddle on a horse. Walking on a cobbled ground, the horse, a stallion, is caught mid-step with its head straining forward. The visible veins on its body are suggestive of his exertion.

Upon the horse, Lady Godiva bows her head in modesty, obscuring one side of her face with her loosely braided hair. This meekness gives off an air of piety rather than shame and embarrassment, which along with her youth and natural beauty, matches the Victorian ideal of femininity.

John Skinner Clifton (1822-89) attempted to illustrate a faithful representation of a verse of Tennyson’s poem. “…he laid a tax Upon his town, and all the mothers brought Their children, clamouring, ‘If we pay, we starve!’ She sought her lord, and found him, where he strode About the hall, among his dogs, alone, His beard a foot before, and his hair A yard behind…” Clifton depicted Leofric as a large man with similar hair to his wife in length and colour. His blond beard rests on his chest, and one of his large dogs sits at his feet. Beside him, the pale Lady Godiva stands with a crowd of mothers and children on whose half she pleads.

Clifton used bright coloured paint made from aniline dyes, a relatively new invention at the time. Whilst these colours are historically inaccurate, they emphasise the difference in classes. Lady Godiva and her husband are dressed in rich colours, whereas the poor women and children wear dull, dirty tunics. The vivid dyes also contrast with Godiva’s pale skin, emphasising her beauty and purity.


Lady Godiva’s Prayer by Edward Landseer (1802-73) introduces another character to the story: Lady Godiva’s maid. The scene depicts Godiva sending up a prayer before setting off on her journey. In the background is the spire of St Michael’s Church, the cathedral of Coventry, which unfortunately makes the painting historically inaccurate because the church was built in the 14th century. During Lady Godiva’s life, St Mary’s Priory, of which she was a benefactress, was the only cathedral in the city.

Critiques suggest Landseer took inspiration from Marshall Claxton’s painting of Lady Godiva because there are some similarities. Landseer protects Godiva’s modesty by depicting her from behind, and he included the dog or “cur” mentioned in Tennyson’s poem. The horse, whilst not white, is draped with material, but this is where the similarities end. Landseer may have added the ermine drape at a later date after Queen Victoria (1819-1901) viewed the painting at his studio in 1866. The artist was the Queen’s favourite, so the ermine likely honours her visit.


The actress Eliza Crowe, better known as Madame Wharton, posed as Lady Godiva for Landseer. In 1848, Crowe played the part of Godiva in the annual Godiva Procession in Coventry, so she was an obvious choice of model.

English oil painter David Gee (1793-1872) produced several paintings of Lady Godiva but based these on the processions rather than Tennyson’s poem. One artwork from 1829 shows Lady Godiva starting on her journey. Unlike other paintings on the subject, the lady wears white, and several people carrying banners follow in her wake. The identity of the actress in this painting is unknown, but presumably, she is a woman. In earlier processions, a boy played the role of Lady Godiva.

Gee’s paintings reveal the Godiva Processions were popular events attended by crowds of people. The processions often became rowdy and, on several occasions, ended with riots. Whether the legend is true, the people of Coventry take great pride in their history. Processions still regularly take place in the form of a carnival on Dame Goodyver’s Daye. Coventry also organises a Godiva Festival, offering three days of music, food and drink, and a funfair.

It is impossible to prove the myth of Lady Godiva. Whilst there is no evidence of the famous ride through Coventry, the legend must stem from some form of truth or story. Coventry do well to honour a woman who may (or may not) have saved their ancestors from extreme poverty, but the legend is likely much altered and embellished since its first telling several centuries ago.

Mentioning Lady Godiva today raises a few eyebrows. She is often associated with scandal and eroticism, which those familiar with the story know is not the case. Lady Godiva is one of several legends that people have passed down through generations, but we cannot rely on them for historical accuracy. Evidence suggests Godiva existed, but did she really ride naked through the city? We will never know.


My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: Anchor, Breaker, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

A History of Handwriting

Have you ever looked at a piece of writing and instantly known it was written several decades or even centuries ago? What gives it away? The condition of the paper or parchment is a good indication; if it is stained, torn and fragile, it is unlikely to have been written yesterday. The use of language also hints at its time frame, however, so does the style of handwriting. Compare your handwriting with those in handwritten books in the British Library, British Museum or collections such as the one at the Derbyshire Record Office. Why do we no longer write like our ancestors 800 years ago? What changes occurred to result in the simplified letters of today? Handwriting, as you will discover, has a surprisingly interesting history.

The history of writing dates back further than the invention of paper and pen, however, the history of handwriting in the ways that we are familiar today, date back to around 1100 – at least in Britain. During this early Medieval period, which lasted until approximately 1485, there were very few people who could read and write. Only those with important jobs or children from rich families were taught to read but mostly, the “profession” of writing was left to the specially trained scribes.

Naturally, not many examples of writing exist from the Medieval period of Britain due to damage and loss, however, the samples that have survived tend to be legal documents, such as deeds of ownership. These were written in Latin as most deeds were before 1752. Unlike today where all important documents are signed and dated to avoid legal complications, these documents rarely mentioned the date and historians have only roughly worked out when they were written by the style of handwriting. There were, of course, handwriting styles that were preferred for other languages, for instance, Gothic, Anglo-Saxon and Gaelic. These languages, however, were used in local areas, whereas, Latin could be understood by people in several countries.

carolineminuscel

Carolingian minuscule alphabet

This Medieval style of handwriting has been named Carolingian minuscule or Caroline minuscule and was developed in c.780 AD by Alcuin of York (735-804), a Benedictine Monk of Corbie Abbey, France. Alcuin had been invited to France by Charlemagne (748-814), who had founded the Carolingian Empire, hence the name of the script.

Alcuin of York and his fellow monks were responsible for writing and copying religious documents, which they did in Carolingian minuscule. Soon, the style of handwriting was being used throughout the Holy Roman Empire for both Christian and Pagan texts. The Vulgate, a 4th century Latin translation of the Bible originally written by Jerome of Stridon (347-420; Saint Jerome) was copied in Carolingian minuscule to make it legible to literate classes across Europe.

Carolingian minuscule was a rounded, uniform style of writing based on the Latin alphabet, which has many similarities to the modern alphabet. It was easy to distinguish between upper and lowercase letters and there were clear spaces between each word. Whilst most of the letters are recognisable today, there were no tittles (dots) above the letters and j, however, other markings occasionally appeared above certain letters. Whereas in contemporary modern languages these markings would change the pronunciation of the letter, Carolingian scribes used marks to shorten a word. The first word in the deed of grant of the land of Greasby is Ric with a line above the c. This indicates the word has been shortened and should be read as Ricardos, the Latin form of Richard. The deed had been written on behalf of Richard de Rollos (1061-1130), who was giving the land of Greasby on the Wirral to the abbey of St Werburgh in Chester.

As time went on, gradual changes occurred to Carolingian minuscule, making the handwriting more decorative. These changes can be seen when comparing deeds written around 1100 with King John’s (1166-1216) royal charter to the Abbot and monks of Saint Werburgh, Chester, in 1215. Written in Latin and dated 11th January in the 16th year of the reign of King John, the same year the Magna Carta was signed, the royal charter granted the abbey the right of ‘infangthief’, which allowed them to arrest and try thieves caught within the land they leased from the King – all land in those days belonged to the reigning monarch. The charter states this grant was in exchange for the salvation of the souls of the King and of his ancestors.

old_roman_cursive_s

The medial ‘s’ in Old Roman cursive

The hand that penned the royal charter added flourishes to certain letters, which emphasises their difference from contemporary alphabets. The letter s, for instance, is known as an archaic “long s” and went on to inspire the Eszett (ß) in the German alphabet. The long s, in turn, had derived from the medial s in Old Roman Cursive.

When written as it was in the royal charter, the s could be mistaken for an l to the modern reader. Some scribes added a “nub”, which made it look like a lower-case f. Usually, if a word contained both an s and an f, the writer would refrain from adding the nub to save confusion, for example, ſatisfaction (satisfaction).

The long s began to decline in use during the 19th century, however, before then, several rules had been made about its usage. If the came at the end of the word, the writer was to use a round s. If the word contained a double s, the long s could replace one or both of the letters, unless it was at the end of the word, for instance, ſinfulneſs (sinfulness) and poſſeſs (possess).

In some words, the long s stuck out like a sore thumb, however, other letters, such as b, h, l and d, had long ascenders too. The descenders, on the other hand, such as p, y and g, were short. Drawing attention away from the tall characters were decorative capital letters, such as the elaborate H in the royal charter. These nuances gradually disappeared as people began to write faster. The fancy letters were reserved for important, official documents.

Screenshot 2020-06-28 at 17.51.10

Quitclaim from Alice le Waleys to Isabel de Cressy of land in Buxton © Derbyshire County Council 2020

During the 1200s, a new type of handwriting script emerged that was unique to England. Now known as Anglicana, the script has been referred to as charter hand, court hand, and cursiva antiquior over the years due to its use in the production of legal documents. Anglicana was written with a thick-nibbed pen and was much quicker to handwrite than Carolingian minuscule, thus allowing scribes to take on and complete more work. This also meant books could be produced more quickly and sold at cheaper prices than those written in a more laborious script.

Screenshot 2020-06-29 at 15.44.27The ascenders of certain letters were much shorter in the Anglicana script, often being bifurcated (divided) with a curl on either side. Evidence of this can be seen in the quitclaim from Alice le Waleys to Isabel de Cressy, which legally transferred land and property in Buxton, Derbyshire from one woman to the other. These ligatures also leant themselves to joining together two or more letters, which helped the scribe write faster, not needing to remove their pen from the page.

By the mid-1400s, the need for a scribe was reducing as more people were learning to read and write. Up until then, the majority of written texts had been in Latin, for which Carolingian minuscule and Anglicana had been purposely invented. As time went on, however, educated people began to write in English, a language which neither handwriting suited, therefore, a new style was needed. By the beginning of the 16th century, a form of handwriting called Secretary hand had been developed specifically for writing English, Welsh, Gaelic and German.

Screenshot 2020-06-29 at 16.38.00

How to hold a pen, from a Sixteenth-Century handwriting manual – John de Beauchesne

Secretary hand was so-called because the majority of the people who wrote it were indeed secretaries or scriveners. John de Beauchesne (c.1538-1620), a Parisian scribe and teacher of penmanship who moved to England in 1565, wrote a book about the new style of handwriting with the rather lengthy title A booke containing divers sortes of hands, as well the English as French secretarie with the Italian, Roman, Chancelry and court hands. Also the true and just proportion of the Capitall Romae set forth by John de Beav Chesne P[arisien] and M[aster] John Baildon. Imprinted at London by Thomas Vautrovillier dwelling in the blacke frieres. The book explained everything from how to write each letter to how to hold a quill pen.

As time went on, this form of handwriting became less precise, making some pieces of writing difficult to read. Scribes of the Medieval period were carefully trained to write neatly and accurately. If they were unable to do this, they found themselves unemployed. By teaching the masses to read and write, penmanship became less focused on style; being able to write was considered more important than presentation.

Screenshot 2020-06-29 at 17.30.42

Detail from a list of Jewels given to Arbella Stuart (1608) © Derbyshire County Council 2020

A list of jewels given to Arbella Stuart (1575-1615) by Lord William Cavendish (1552-1626) is an example of the messier form of secretary hand. Blotted with spilt ink, the list records the “Pearle rings and other things” received by Arbella on “this xxiij daye of february in the fift[h] yeare of the raigne of our Soveraigne Lord King James 1607”. This date, however, is incorrect from a contemporary perspective because, until 1752, 25th March was considered to be the first day of the year. Had the year begun on 1st January, the date would have been 23rd February 1608.

Despite being written in English, albeit with old-fashioned spellings, the script is difficult to decipher. The letter e, for instance, often lacked a full loop, making it look like the letter c. To add to the confusion, the letter often resembled an x, making the world “pearle” appear to be written “pcaxle”.

Arbella Stuart was the grand-daughter of Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury (c.1527-1608), more commonly known as Bess of Hardwick, who had died ten days previous to the penning of the list of jewels. Bess was the mother of William Cavendish, who was created Baron Cavendish of Hardwick due to his connections to his niece Arbella. Lady Arbella was one of the contenders for the throne after Elizabeth I (1553-1603) but lost out to her cousin James VI of Scotland (1566-1625). As part of the royal family of Scotland, Arbella was expected to marry someone of James VI’s choosing – Ludovic Stewart, 2nd Duke of Lennox (1574-1624) – however, Arbella married her cousin William Seymour (1588-1660) in secret at Greenwich Palace in 1610. Subsequently, Arbella was considered a traitor and was imprisoned in the Tower of London where she died in 1615.

Secretary hand was not the only handwriting style in fashion during the Tudor and Stuart reigns in Britain. By the early 17th century, Martin Billingsley (1591-1622), an English writing-master and handwriting adviser, had identified six common handwriting styles in his book The Pen’s Excellency (1618). These were the Secretary (“the usuall hand of England”); the Bastard Secretary; the Roman; the Italian; the Court; and the Chancery. As early as the time of Henry VII (1457-1509), many writers had begun to use a cursive Italian style, from which the digital italic typefaces have developed. This style was often taught to ladies since they were not expected to write official or important documents, which required secretary hand.

For a while, the Italian style of handwriting was used to emphasise certain words within a document written in secretary hand. Playwrights, for instance, wrote character names and stage direction in an Italian script, and the dialogue in secretary hand. Eventually, secretary hand was phased out and our handwriting today stems from the Italian style.

John de Beauchesne, in his book A booke containing divers sortes of hands, as well the English as French secretarie with the Italian, Roman, Chancelry and court hands… demonstrated the Italian hand. At the time it was written, secretary hand was the preferred style and it took another century before the Italian style became the dominant style.

Derbyshire poet Leonard Wheatcroft (1627-1707) was one of the first writers to fully adopt an Italian style of handwriting. Rather than conforming to the style as drawn out by Beauchesne, Wheatcroft used a mix of styles to form a unique italic handwriting. Born in Ashover, Derbyshire, Wheatcroft was also the village tailor and, later in life, parish clerk and school teacher. Although his poems and autobiography were not published until the 20th century, he was well known as an author and many may have been influenced by his handwriting.

A notebook found in Derbyshire dating to the early 18th century demonstrated the transition from secretary hand to a “Round Hand” based on the principles of Italian handwriting. It is not certain whether the notebook was written by one person, who decided to change their handwriting style, or by two different hands. Nonetheless, the Round Hand is far easier to read with carefully shaped letters that provided the basis for modern handwriting.

By the 1800s, nearly everyone was writing in a style inspired by the Italian hand. Paper was becoming more affordable, as was postage, resulting in an increase of letter writing. The act of writing was no longer an ability reserved for the talented minority, therefore, less attention was paid to the neatness of the handwriting. People began to write faster, resulting in a forward slope that made a mockery of the original “italic” style. To fit more on a page, letter shapes became small and less distinct, making them difficult to decipher.

Clara Palmer-Morewood’s recipe for Bakewell Pudding is an example of this rapid, slanted script. Written in 1837, this barely decipherable recipe disproves the legend surrounding the Bakewell Pudding, which was named after Derbyshire market town of Bakewell. The legend claimed that a maid working in the local White Horse inn during the 1860s made a mistake when making a jam tart. With no time to start the tart from scratch, the pudding was served to the guests who declared it a triumph. Not only has this legend been disproved by Palmer-Morewood’s handwritten recipe, but The White Horse was also demolished in 1803.

Illegible handwriting, such as Clara Palmer-Morewood’s, was unsuitable for professional purposes. Throughout the 18th and 19th century, clerks were required to have excellent handwriting and were responsible for writing up ledgers, wage books and minutes. This was particularly important in factories where everything and everyone needed to be accounted for; an error or messy handwriting could cause many problems.

Lumford Mill in Bakewell, Derbyshire, employed a clerk to document the wages of the employees. The cotton spinning mill was owned by Sir Richard Arkwright (1732-92) who invented the “water frame” in 1769. This was a water-powered spinning frame that helped to speed up the process of manufacturing cotton. Lumford Mill was one of several owned by Arkwright in partnership with Samuel Need of Nottingham (1718-81) and Jedediah Strutt of Derby (1726-97). The wages book is dated 1786 and records in neat columns the types of workers and their pay. From this book, we learn of “Youlgreave pickers”, who picked cotton in the nearby village of Youlgreave, and that the factory operated 24 hours a day.

800px-bickham-letter-detail

A sample of a copper plate engraving – George Bickham (1741)

The form of Round Hand used for business and professional purposes became known as Copperplate Script, which is also a style of calligraphic handwriting. Unlike Carolingian minuscule in the 10th century, there was no specific way of writing each letter since each individual’s handwriting would be slightly different. The name of the script refers to the fine nibbed pens used in the 19th century, which resulted in a similar style to engravings or copybooks created using Intaglio printmaking. In this printing method, a thin stylus known as a burin cuts the design into a metal plate.

At school, children often used copy books printed in this manner from which to practice Copperplate writing. The example above shows the handwriting practice of Mary Elizabeth Goodall when she was at Cubley National School in Derbyshire. Each page contained an example of a business receipt, which the students attempted to copy in the same style underneath.

The journey from secretary hand to Copperplate shows how handwriting developed when writing in English. Documents in Latin, however, were still being produced and there were some notable changes in the style of writing. Carolingian minuscule had led to the development of Anglicana, but the process did not stop there. On the continent, a specific style was used for business transactions in the 13th century, which eventually made its way to England after 1350. Known as Chancery hand due to its use in the royal Chancery at Westminster, all legal documents, patents and Acts of Parliament were written in Chancery hand until 1836.

Several examples of Chancery hand have been preserved in documents dating to the years after the English Civil War, such as the Pardon of Sir John Gell written on the authority of Charles II (1630-85). Sir John Gell (1539-1671) of Hopton Hall in Derbyshire supported Parliament during the war and subsequently became the Governor of Derby in 1643. After his appointment, however, he became disillusioned by Parliament and stepped down from his position in 1646. In 1650, Gell was imprisoned in the Tower of London for not revealing a Royalist plot to the authorities but was pardoned three years later. When Charles II came to the throne, he also pardoned Gell, which was recorded by an unknown scribe in Chancery hand.

Earlier examples of Chancery hand exist, such as the charter for the Queen Elizabeth School in Ashburn. Written in Latin, the charter was adorned with painted figures and motifs including a crown, Tudor Rose, a lion and a dragon. The painting in the top left-hand corner of Queen Elizabeth I is believed to have been produced by the English limner Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619) who worked for the Queen and her successor James I.

This charter, which resulted in the founding of a Free Grammar School, was written with distinctively round letters in a broad nibbed pen. Ascenders, such as on the letters h, d and b are finished off with curls and loops, yet the script remains neat and even. Unfortunately, this evenness can make Chancery hand difficult to read, particularly with the letters m, n, u and i, which all have short vertical strokes. With characters written close to each other, words such as nominanimus become almost impossible to decipher at first glance.

Handwritten documents were often written several times before the final copy was produced. This allowed for any amendments and the correction of errors. The process of writing the final legal document onto official parchment was known as engrossing. Thus, the handwriting style became known as Engrossing hand. Whilst it was extremely similar to Chancery hand, the word spacing made it more legible and was also suitable for writing in English. Engrossing hand was commonly used throughout the 1800s once the legal language switched from Latin to English.

Up until the early 1900s, parents often created marriage settlements for their children and proposed spouses to detail how the assets owned by the bride and groom would be used after the marriage. Documents such as these were written in Engrossing hand, which by the 19th century combined elements of Chancery hand and secretary hand. The round, evenly spaced letters resembled the former, however, some of the letters had a more modern appearance. Like secretary hand, the letter c often looked like an r and an e lost its loop, so it resembled a c.

An example of Engrossing hand discovered by the Derbyshire Record Office is the marriage settlement between the explorer, John Franklin (1786-1847) and Eleanor Anne Porden (1795-1825). Eleanor was John’s first wife, who died not long after giving birth to their daughter, therefore it should not have been too difficult to establish a dowry. Unfortunately, both of Eleanor’s parents had died as had John’s father. As a result, the settlement was signed by Francis Bedford, an executor of Eleanor’s father’s will, and Henry Sellwood (1782-1867), John’s brother-in-law, who incidentally became the father-in-law of Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92).

By the 1900s, the concept of writing in a particular style was gradually disappearing from education and business. New technologies were being invented to make writing quicker and cheaper, therefore, people no longer felt the need to painstakingly copy Engrossing hand or Copperplate script. Before the 1800s, people had to make their own quill pens from feathers, usually goose, from which they fashioned a nib with a sharp knife. The quill was then dipped into ink and applied to paper. Metal nibs became popular from the mid-1800s, which were longer-lasting, therefore cheaper, than their predecessors.

Before the 19th century, paper was handmade and expensive. People were conscious about wasting paper and went to great efforts to make sure their writing was perfect. From around 1830, paper was being produced by machines, making it more abundant and affordable. Paper was no longer a precious commodity and there was less need to always write in a perfect hand.

Machine-made paper had a different texture to handmade paper, which meant, along with the new metal nibbed pens, the writing process was a lot smoother. As a result, handwriting became broader and less angular, however, this did not always mean it was easier to read. Look at the handwritten note from a governess to her employer from 1896; the writing is barely legible.

Messy handwriting was not an employable trait, however, the invention of the typewriter put an end to this problem. Businesses who had employed clerks for their neat handwriting were now employing secretaries for their typing skills. Handwriting was still considered important and today primary schools continue to have writing lessons. Legal practices and businesses, on the other hand, adopted the typewriter for speed, neatness and cost. Since the invention of the modern computer, there has been no need to use particular handwriting styles. All official documents are typed and it is not often we receive a handwritten letter.

The art of handwriting, for the styles before the 1800s should definitely class as an art, has become a thing of the past. Calligraphy, brush lettering, and the art of typography should not be confused with handwriting because they have their own origins – which would take three articles to explain. We do not get much opportunity to study the handwriting of our ancestors, so next time you come across an old letter or a handwritten book, take time to look at the style of handwriting. Notice the shape of the letters, the ascenders, the thickness of the ink, the uniformity of the words and appreciate this forgotten art.

Screenshot 2020-07-01 at 17.53.03

An Indefatigable Author: or An Idea in the Night George Moutard Woodward © Derbyshire County Council 2020

This blog was based on an online exhibition by the Derbyshire Record Office.
Image sources: Google Arts and Culture, Derbyshire Record Office, and Wikipedia 

 

My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

Lady Jane Franklin

Last year, money was raised through a crowdfunding campaign called “Lady Jane’s Museum“, which provided the Derbyshire Record Office with the funds to photograph and catalogue objects in the Gell collection. The Gell baronets of Hopton Hall, Derbyshire, had become important and wealthy through lead mining and as Members of Parliament for the county, however, it was not this family that interested the Record Office. The Reverend John Philip Gell (1816-98) was married to Eleanor Franklin, whose step-mother, Jane, was the focus of this project. Married to the English explorer John Franklin (1786-1847), Lady Jane Franklin was “probably the most travelled woman of her time”.

504px-ladyjanefranklin

Copy portrait of Jane Griffin at the age of 22 – Amélie Munier-Romilly

Born Jane Griffin on 4th December 1791 to a family of Huguenot ancestry, Jane grew up in Bloomsbury, London with her sisters Frances and Mary. Her father, a silk merchant, was a wealthy man and made sure his daughters had the best education available, which involved travelling to countries on the continent. This included Switzerland, where Jane had her pastel portrait made at the age of 22 by Swiss painter Amélie Munier-Romilly (1788-1875).

Jane was good friends with the British Romantic poet Eleanor Anne Porden (1795-1825) who was the first wife of John Franklin. On 3rd June 1824, Eleanor gave birth to Eleanor Isabella, however, the stress of childbirth harmed her delicate health. Less than a year later, she passed away from tuberculosis. Her husband was away on an Arctic Land expedition and when he returned to England in 1828, he proposed marriage to Jane Griffin. They were married on 5th November 1828 and the following year John was knighted. During the first few years of marriage, however, Jane barely saw her husband while he served in the Mediterranean. Yet, this did not prevent Jane from doing some exploring of her own.

During the first half of the 1830s, Sir John Franklin was the Naval Captain aboard the HMS Rainbow. Left to her own devices, Jane decided to do some travelling of her own, presumably with a companion, visiting several Middle Eastern countries, including Turkey, Palestine, Syria and Egypt. From these countries, Jane brought back many souvenirs, including fragments of mummy clothes that are labelled “from Thebes”. This was Thebes in Egypt, known to the ancient Egyptians as Waset, rather than the more famous Thebes in Greece.

Records reveal Lady Jane brought home sizeable objects from her travels, however, she also accumulated small, seemingly worthless items, such as nuts and acorns. According to the cards to which the nuts have been secured, Jane took two from St Catherine’s Garden and the Monastery Garden at Mount Sinai. Officially known as the Sacred Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai, the Eastern Orthodox monastery is one of the oldest working Christian monasteries in the world. Built between 548 and 565, it was named after Saint Catherine of Alexandria (287-305) who was martyred at the hands of Emperor Maxentius (276-312).

The two acorns, however, came from the garden of Christ’s College, Tasmania from trees that Jane had planted. In 1836, Sir John Franklin was appointed lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen’s Land, which would be renamed Tasmania twenty years later. After a long journey by sea, Jane and her husband disembarked from the Fairlie and began their life in Van Dieman’s Land.

From 1800 to 1853, Van Diemen’s Land was the primary penal colony in Australia during which over 73,000 convicts were transported. Male convicts served their sentences as labourers and the female convicts were either assigned to households as servants or sent to a female workhouse.

Lady Jane accompanied her husband on several tours of the island, often crossing over steep terrain. Her step-daughter Eleanor, who would have been around 16 years old, had also come to the island. When John was busy, Jane and Eleanor had the opportunity to meet the locals and acquaint themselves with the female convicts. Appalled by the living conditions at the female workhouses, Jane began a correspondence with Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845), an English prison reformer who was considered to be the “angel of prisons”. With advice from Fry, Jane tried to ameliorate the women’s situation, providing them with sewing materials so that they could make clothes and quilts for themselves or to sell.

mathinna_1842_by_thomas_bock

Mathinna – Thomas Bock, 1842

Whilst living in Van Diemen’s Land, the Franklins adopted a young indigenous girl called Mathinna (occasionally spelt Methinna). Mathinna, originally named Mary, was born on Flinders Island, Tasmania to the Chief of the Lowreenne tribe. Her parents, Towgerer, and his wife Wongerneep were still alive when the Franklins adopted their daughter, however, the tribe had been “captured” by George Augustus Robinson (1791-1866), Chief Protector of Aborigines. Some historians argue Mary was unfairly taken away from her parents, however, John and Jane, who renamed her Mathinna because they liked the exotic sound, probably thought they were providing her with a better way of life.

Mathinna was six years old when she became the adopted sister of Eleanor, who also acted as Mathinna’s teacher, teaching her to read, write and sew. A pincushion made by Mathinna was brought back to England by either Jane or Eleanor and has been preserved ever since. An aboriginal doll is also part of the collection, which may have once belonged to Mathinna. Eleanor had recorded in her diary that Mathinna had been given a doll with a petticoat. Aside from these two items and a painting by Thomas Bock (1790-1855), only a scrap of paper remains with a couple of sentences written by Mathinna that give any indication of what her life was like with the Franklins:

I am good little girl, I have pen and ink cause I am a good little girl . . . I have got a red frock like my father. Come here to see my father. I have got sore feet and shoes and stockings and I am very glad.

Unfortunately, when John Franklin was recalled to England, he was advised that Mathinna would not survive the British climate, therefore, they had to leave her behind. They left her at the Queen’s Orphan School in Hobart, however, reports state that she had great difficulty adjusting to her new situation and was sent back to her birthplace, Finders Island. At 16, she moved to Oyster Cove in southern Tasmania where she lived in poverty and died from drowning aged 17 or 18. Rumours claim she died in a puddle where she lay in a drunken stupor. A small town in the north-east of Tasmania has been named Mathinna in her memory.

Before her husband’s recall, Jane undertook some exploring on her own. In 1839, Jane became the first European woman to travel between Port Philip (Melbourne) and Sydney. Whilst in Melbourne, she encouraged the founding of secondary schools that both boys and girls could attend. A letter signed by 63 members of the new settlement in Melbourne referred to Jane’s “character for kindness, benevolence and charity”.

In 1841, without her husband, Jane travelled to New Zealand. Whilst there, she met the German physician and naturalist Ernest Dieffenbach (1811-55), who was the first trained scientist to live in New Zealand. Jane also met William Colenso (1811-99), a Cornish Christian missionary and botanist who was responsible for the printing of the New Testament in the Māori language. Colenso also made a detailed record of native flora and named a rusty filmy fern Hymenophyllum frankliniae in Lady Jane’s honour.

Before returning to Van Diemen’s Land, Jane visited South Australia where she persuaded the governor Lieutenant-Colonel George Gawler (1795-1814) to erect a monument to Matthew Flinders (1774-1814). When James Cook (1728-79) had circumnavigated the land in 1770, he had named it New Holland. Flinders was an English navigator and cartographer who led the second circumnavigation of New Holland and proposed that it be renamed “Australia or Terra Australis” and identified it as a continent. Flinders and his crew also confirmed that Van Diemen’s Land was an island, which would later be Tasmania after Abel Janszoon Tasman (1603-59), the Dutch seafarer who was the first European to discover Van Diemen’s Land, New Zealand and Fiji.

Back in Hobart, Van Diemen’s Land, Lady Jane Franklin proposed the building of a temple, which she hoped to serve as a museum that would focus on the colony’s cultural aspirations. Unfortunately, although the temple was built, there was a reluctance to open a museum and the building was used for some time as an apple shed. In 1949, it eventually became the home of the Art Society of Tasmania who rescued and repaired the building, renaming it the Lady Franklin Gallery.

john_franklin

Sir John Franklin

The Franklin’s left Australia in 1843 and made their way home to London. Before the family could settle down, however, Sir John Franklin was assigned his next position as leader of an Arctic exploration. Setting off from Greenhithe, Kent on 19th May 1845 aboard HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, the expedition headed towards Canada to explore the last unnavigated section of the Northwest Passage.

Rather than sit around waiting for her husband to return like a modern-day Penelope waiting for Odysseus, Jane was keen to go on an expedition too. Firstly, she took her step-daughter Eleanor to France, then went on to the West Indies and the United States of America. In hindsight, it may seem odd that Jane decided to travel abroad whilst her husband was on a dangerous expedition, however, there was nothing she could do for him whether she was at home or not. The expedition was due to take at least two years, so there was no need for Jane to stay in England.

1024px-the_arctic_council_planning_a_search_for_sir_john_franklin_by_stephen_pearce

The Arctic Council planning a search for Sir John Franklin – Stephen Pearce, 1851

It was not until 1847 when Jane had not received word from her husband for some time that she began to worry a disaster had occurred. Once again, Jane did not sit around like Penelope, she actively urged the Admiralty to send out search parties for the expedition and travelled to Out Stack or Ootsta, an island in the Shetland Islands considered to be the “full stop at the end of Britain”, to be as close to her missing husband as she could. The Admiralty was oftentimes reluctant to send out a search party, however, with Lady Jane’s sponsorship, at least seven search expeditions were launched between 1850 and 1875.

When the Australian colonies found out about Sir John Franklin’s uncertain fate, they provided support through monetary donations. Over £1671 was raised in Van Diemen’s Land alone, which helped to launch the steamship Isabel in 1852.

On one of the first search expeditions that took place in 1850, Erasmus Ommanney (1814-1904), the captain of HMS Assitance, called in at Greenland where he met a young Inuit man named Qalasirssuaq who offered to guide Ommanney to the rumoured sight of Franklin’s massacre. The rumour turned out to be false and the ship returned to England in 1850 with Qalasirssuaq still on board. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel suggested Qalasirssuaq be placed in St Augustine’s Missionary College, Canterbury, to be taught to read and write and learn about the Gospel. Whilst there, Qalasirssuaq also trained to be a tailor.

In 1853, Qalasirssuaq was baptised Erasmus Augustine Kallihirua and Sir John Franklin’s daughter Eleanor Gell was invited to be his godmother. Eleanor had married Reverend John Philip Gell in 1849 and there are a couple of letters in the Lady Jane Museum addressed to Eleanor Gell from her godson, along with a couple of drawings of ships and polar bears. In 1855, Qalasirssuaq travelled to Newfoundland, Canada to further his religious studies at Queen’s College at St John’s with the intention of starting a missionary career. Unfortunately, he passed away the following year.

800px-franklinexpeditionnote

The Victory Point Note ©Derbyshire County Council 2020

Meanwhile, ships were still being sent in search of Franklin and his crew. In 1959, Francis Leopold McClintock (1819-1907), aboard the steam yacht Fox, found evidence for the death of Sir John Franklin in 1847. McClintock unearthed a written document frozen in the ice at Victory Point on King William Island that stated:

H.M. ships ‘Terror’ and ‘Erebus’ were deserted on the 22nd April, 5 leagues N.N.W. of this, having been beset since 12th September, 1846. The officers and crews, consisting of 105 souls, under the command of Captain F.R.M. Crozier, landed here in lat. 69˚ 37′ 42″ N., long. 98˚ 41′ W. Sir John Franklin died on the 11th June, 1847; and the total loss by deaths in the expedition has been to this date 9 officers and 15 men.

The letter also stated the surviving men would try to make their way to North America, however, they were never seen again. A couple of skeletons wearing European clothes were found in the area but their identity remains unknown.

Lady Jane Franklin was finally able to grieve for her lost husband but she was convinced there was more to discover about their fate. She publicly scorned rumours that Franklin and his crew had turned to cannibalism in their final days and wished to find further documents or diaries about their expedition. Jane was not the only one interested in the failed polar expedition; Henry Grinnell (1799-1847), an American merchant who had funded the first rescue mission, was equally keen to know the facts. In 1860, Jane travelled to America to meet Grinnell in New York. Whilst there, she sought support for a final expedition before travelling the world herself. After the United States, Jane visited Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, the Sandwich Islands, Hawaii, Japan, China and India, returning to England in 1862.

The final Arctic exploration in search of Sir John Franklin’s body was not ready until 1875. Meanwhile, Jane, aged 70, continued to tour the world, stopping in Spain, France, Switzerland, India, the Canary Island, north-west Africa, Alaska and Portugal. Due to her celebrity status as the widow of a famous explorer, many hotels waived her fee and treated her as an honoured guest. Jane finally stopped travelling when she reached the age of 80 and spent the rest of her life at home where she passed away on 18th July 1875, aged 83. The final expedition had set off the same year but she did not live to discover it had been fruitless.

Not all the objects in Lady Jane’s Museum belonged to her but rather the Gell family with whom she was connected via her step-daughter. Items include fans, medals, letters and coins, such as two commemorative world’s fair medallions, one from 1862 and the other from 1882. Whilst the early could have been Jane’s, the latter medallion was produced after her death.

The Gell’s had a small collection of decorative fans, which may have been purchased on trips abroad or received as presents, potentially from Jane. One painted oriental fan dating to the early 18th century shows a possible representation of the story of Dido and Aeneas. The woman seated on a divan may be Dido, the Queen of Carthage, who is being crowned by two putti in the company of a female attendant and two children. In the distance is a sailing ship, potentially carrying Aeneas, the Prince of Troy. Another fan, this time from early 19th century Europe, is made from intricately carved ivory.

Thanks to the successful crowdfunding campaign by the Derbyshire Record Office, these items and more have been preserved in individual containers – they were originally jumbled up in one box – and photographed so that the world can experience them. Not only has this project saved fragile items, but it has also saved a bit of history about a woman who would otherwise be forgotten. Whilst Sir John Franklin remains in the history books due to his fateful journey to the Arctic, Lady Jane Franklin would have disappeared without the preservation of these artefacts. She may not have done something as remarkable as captain a ship – women were not allowed anyway – but she was certainly the most travelled woman of her time.

Photo credits © Derbyshire County Council 2020
This blog was based on an exhibition by the Derbyshire Record Office

[Disclaimer] not all photographs in this article belong to the 
Derbyshire Record Office. Some have been sourced via Wikipedia.

My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

Jewish Britain

Founded in 1932 by Professor Cecil Roth (1899-1970), Alfred Rubens (1903-98) and Wilfred Samuel (1886-1958), The Jewish Museum has one of the world’s finest collections of Judaica. Featuring objects from all areas of Jewish life, the museum in Camden, London explores the public and private lives of communities throughout Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. With both temporary and permanent exhibitions, the museum focuses on Jewish traditions and ceremonies, and the history of Jewish life in Britain: Judaism: A Living Faith and Jewish Britain: A History in 50 Objects.

mikveh_jewish_museum_london-300x228

Mikveh

Before visitors reach either of the two main galleries, they are introduced to the oldest exhibit in the museum. Built into the floor is a mid-13th-century mikveh, which had been discovered by archaeologists on a London building site in 2001. A mikveh is a type of bath used for ritual cleansing as part of many ceremonies and Jewish traditions. For instance, in Judaism, menstruation is regarded as unclean, therefore, women must visit the mikvah once a month. Men, on the other hand, can have a ritual cleansing before holy occasions, e.g. the Sabbath or an annual festival. The bath is also used prior to marriage, after childbirth and as the closing stage of converting to Judaism.

Judaism is one of the oldest religions in the world that is still practised today. The religion can be traced back over 4000 years, as far as the biblical land of Israel. Jewish societies consider themselves to be descendants of Abraham, who established the belief in one God – a belief now shared by Jews, Christians and Muslims.

As recorded in the Hebrew Bible, King Solomon (c.990-c.931 BCE) built the First Temple in Jerusalem in approximately 960 BCE, which became a religious centre for Jewish people. Centuries later in 586 BCE, the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians and the Jews were taken into captivity. For the first time, the Jews were moved out of Israel.

Eventually, the Jewish population returned to Jerusalem and built the Second Temple, however, it resulted in a similar fate. In 70 CE, the Temple was destroyed by the Romans who were in power at the time, resulting in many Jews fleeing the land of Israel in search of safe homes elsewhere. Thus, Judaism began to spread around the world.

jewish-museum-london-lst196710-1

The main teachings of Judaism can be found in the Torah, the first five books (Pentateuch) of the Bible: Genesis (Bəreshit), Exodus (Shəmot), Leviticus (Vayikra), Numbers (Bəmidbar), and Deuteronomy (Dəvarim). These contain 613 commandments that form the basis of the religion. Although Jewish customs have altered over time as they spread themselves out over the world, all Jewish communities use the Hebrew language of the Torah during prayers and celebrations.

On entering Judaism: A Living Faith gallery, visitors come face to face with a Torah scroll attached to 19th-century silver rollers. Scrolls such as these are the most precious object within any Jewish community and are used regularly during services in the synagogue. In traditional Hebrew fashion, the parchment scroll reads from right to left and would have been written by a scribe with a special quill and ink. After production, the scroll is considered to be holy and must not be touched with bare hands. In order to help people read the tiny script, they may use a yad (pointer) to keep their place.

The Jewish Museum owns a large number of Jewish objects from various locations and centuries, however, many of them are used for the same purposes despite the variation in their design. Take, for example, the ornaments that decorate the tops of the Torah rollers. These rimmonim, which literally means pomegranates, are all styled to resemble the fruit. Pomegranates are an important symbol in Judaism due to the misconception in rabbinic tradition that the fruit contains 613 seeds – the same number of commandments. Despite being inspired by the pomegranate, the designers have interpreted this in unique, contrasting ways. Whilst a 19th-century rimmonim from North Africa may be made of wood and decorated with paint, another may be silver and contain a number of bells.

Other objects of various design include spice containers and kiddush cups. Spices, which are used during ceremonies on the Sabbath, are kept in special, decorative containers that are shaped to resemble towers, often inspired by local architecture. An example from Schwäbisch Gmünd in Germany contains illustrations and gems as well as elaborate silver metal work. Similarly, the kiddush cups are also used on the Sabbath and are usually made from silver. An example from 19th-century England, however, was made from the shell of a coconut and carved with biblical scenes and Hebrew verses.

The life of an Observant Jew involves praying three times a day, including the Shema, the most important prayer. In order to say the Shema, which takes place in the morning and evening, a tzitzit (tassels) and tefillin (small boxes) must be worn, and a mezuzah (decorative scroll case) attached to the doorpost. These are items that remind the Jews of God’s presence and examples can be found in the museum.

When a male child is born, he is circumcised at eight days old and named during the ceremony. Baby girls, however, are given their names during a ceremony at the synagogue. The children are brought up to follow strict Jewish rules, for instance, only eating food that is kosher (fit to eat) and to attend the synagogue for the main Sabbath service on a Saturday morning. Later, at the age of thirteen, boys celebrate their barmitzvah (son of the commandment) and, at twelve, girls become batmitzvah. After these ceremonies, they are considered adults and, therefore, are expected to take responsibility for their own faiths.

Marriage ceremonies must also be performed as written in Jewish law. Wedding ceremonies take place under a huppah (canopy), a sheet supported by four poles, and the ketubah (“written thing”; marriage contract) is read and signed. This outlines the rights and responsibilities of the groom in relation to his bride.

Even with death, rules must be followed precisely. The body must be buried as soon as possible – cremation is a big no-no because the body is the “temple of the soul” – and relations must remain at home for a mourning period of seven days (shiva). Due to Jewish customs, the dead are never forgotten. Every year on the yahrzeit (anniversary of death) a memorial prayer is said and a candle is lit.

The main Jewish community centre in the synagogue is where not only prayer and worship occur, but education, celebrations and social events too. Originally based on the Temple in Jerusalem, the architectural appearances of synagogues have altered over time and vary from place to place, however, some things remain consistent. In Britain, synagogues should be built facing east towards Jerusalem and it is forbidden to display images of God within the building.

Another common feature is an Ark, which holds the Torah scrolls, and a ner tamid (eternal light), which hangs above it. The Jewish Museum owns a beautiful example of 17th-century Ark that is believed to have come from a synagogue in Venice. Made from walnut, it is decorated with marbled paintwork and Jewish symbols. A Hebrew inscription at the top reads, “Know before whom you stand.”

52063613_10215788921507437_1036331576520081408_n

A model of the interior of a synagogue helps visitors visualise Jewish services. This exhibit is child-friendly and people are encouraged to find the Ark, the ner tamid and the bimah (a desk that the Torah scrolls are read from).

Within Judaism, there are different religious groups who follow a mix of traditions. In Orthodox synagogues, the rules are strict: men and women are not allowed to sit together and may be separated by a mechitza (screen); the rabbi is always male. In Reform and Liberal synagogues, however, people are free to sit wherever they choose and, in some instances, the rabbi is female.

Whilst it is the centre of Jewish religion, not all worship takes place in the synagogue. According to the Hebrew Bible, God created the world in six days and “on the seventh day he rested from all his work.” (Genesis 2:2 NIV). The Jews call the seventh day Shabbat (the Sabbath) and believe it is a time of rest for everyone. “Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy because on it he rested from all the work of creating what he had done.” (Genesis 2:3 NIV)

The Sabbath begins at sunset on Friday and ends Saturday night. During this time, families and friends come together to relax and pray, often sharing a meal. The museum has set up a table with important objects and place settings so that non-Jewish visitors can get a sense of the peaceful atmosphere that is felt during this time of worship.

As with any religion, there are several Jewish festivals throughout the year. Most of them, at least by name, will be familiar to visitors, however, what they involve and the objects used may not. In the winter, while the majority of the world is preparing for Christmas – a holiday Observant Jews do not partake – Jewish societies are celebrating Hanukah, the winter festival of light. This festival observes the spiritual survival of the Jews under Syrian Greek rule in 165 BCE. Jewish practices were banned and the Greeks began worshipping their own idols in the Temple. In retaliation, a group of Jewish rebel warriors known as the Maccabees fought back and reclaimed the Temple. Naturally, much of the Temple had been damaged, however, the Maccabees were able to find enough oil to keep the menorah (candelabrum) alight for one day. Yet the menorah did not burn out as expected; it lasted for eight days by which time more oil had been sourced.

The Jews remember this miracle by celebrating an eight-day annual festival, which involves candle lighting and prayers every evening. Hanukah lamps, similar in style to the seven-branched menorah in the synagogue, have eight candles to represent the eight days the Maccabee’s menorah stayed alight. Also at this time, children receive gifts and everyone feasts on oily food, for instance, doughnuts and latkes (fried potato pancakes).

In the early spring, the Jewish celebrate Purim in memory of the survival of the Jews in Persia during the 5th-century BCE. As told in the Book of Esther in the Hebrew Bible, the Jewish queen of the same name saved her people from the king’s advisor, Haman, who intended to kill all the Jews. Purim is celebrated by reading the Book of Esther in the synagogue followed by fancy dress parties, plays and plenty of food and drink.

One of the most important Jewish festivals of the year is Pesach (Passover), which celebrates the exodus of the Jewish people from slavery, as told in the Book of Exodus. The well-known story recounts the experience of the Israelites who were enslaved in Egypt then, after God sent ten plagues to persuade Pharaoh to free them, were led across the Red Sea by the prophet Moses. The Torah states that this story must be told to each generation, therefore, an eight-day festival is given annually for this purpose. During this time, people eat matzah, a form of unleavened bread, as a reminder of the flatbread the Israelites ate on their journey out of Egypt. During this period, leavened bread (hametz) or any food containing yeast is forbidden.

The history of Jews in Britain begins in roughly 1066 following the Norman invasion, which put William the Conqueror (1028-87) on the throne. The largest Jewish community settled in London, however, the law forbade them from owning land. Many Jews became moneylenders, which was a position that was forbidden to Christians at the time. Despite this, a Jewish name, Manasses, appears in the Domesday Book, a land survey commissioned in 1086.

More Jews arrived in England after the first Crusade, which took place between 1095 and 1099. This was the first attempt by Christians to reclaim the Holy Land. As a result, the Jewish community in London grew and by 1130, the Great Synagogue was founded in the Jewish quarter of London. Unfortunately, there was a lot of hostility towards the Jewish population and in 1144 the first European blood libel occurred in Norwich. By 1190, Jews were being forced to convert to Christianity, however, many decided to commit suicide instead.

Despite King John (1166-1216) granting Jews the right to live in England, he made their lives difficult by imposing huge taxes on their communities. In 1218, Henry III (1207-72) ordered that all Jews should wear a badge (sound familiar?) and attempted to persuade Jews to convert to Christianity. Then, in 1278, hundreds of Jews were accused of coin clipping resulting in the execution of more than 200 people.

By 1290, Edward I (1239-1307) had decreed that all Jews should leave England and have all their property confiscated. Nonetheless, there were still Jews in the country by the time the Tudor monarchs were on the throne. In fact, Elizabeth I’s (1533-1603) most trusted physician was Rodrigo Lopez (1517-94), a Portuguese Jew (although he had converted to Catholicism). Unfortunately, he was later accused of treason and hung, drawn and quartered in 1594, an execution that was witnessed by a massive crowd who mocked him for being a Jew. It is believed that Lopez was Shakespeare‘s inspiration for Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.

It was not until 1656, with England being ruled by parliament, that Jews began to be welcomed back by Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), although more for economic reasons than anything else. Nonetheless, the Jewish community once again began to grow, first with an influx of Sephardim Jews (from Spain and Portugal), shortly followed by Ashkenazim Jews (from Germany and Poland).

The end of the 18th-century saw Jews spread over all areas of society. They were particularly popular within the theatres as both performers and managers. Plays were often performed in Yiddish, a language spoken by most Central and Eastern European Jews. Plays ranged from comedies to tragedies, featuring folk tales, stories based on true life and adaptations of Shakespeare. The museum has a number of theatre posters on display as well as the opportunity to dress up in some of the clothing worn at the time, including a top hat.

Of course, Jews still faced discrimination, as did anyone who was not a member of the Church of England. In 1753, the “Jew Bill” allowing Jewish immigrants to become British subjects was repealed due to public outcry, however, protests during the 19th-century changed this. By 1874, Britain had its first Jewish-born Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli (1804-81), although he had converted to Christianity as a child.

Although Jews were finding acceptance in Britain, they were not so lucky in other European countries. In Russia and Poland, Jews were severely restricted in terms of occupation and housing, therefore, many were living in poverty. Due to the violence targetted at them, over two million Jews left their homes to seek a better life, 150,000 of whom arrived on British soil.

Those who already had relatives in Britain were able to move in with their families, however, the majority of the migrants were complete strangers, starving and penniless. As a result, the Jew’s Temporary Shelter was set up in London to provide food and a safe shelter for the immigrants whilst they searched for jobs and homes. The museum has an example of a deed box that Jews were invited to place their valuables for safekeeping.

The Jewish Museum explains how the new arrivals gradually began to fit into British society. Jewish schools and hospitals were set up as well as synagogues, which helped to make the Jews feel more at home in this foreign country. By the outbreak of World War One, the Jewish communities were as patriotic as the rest of the country and as many as 50,000 Jews served within the British armed forces.

War is difficult for everyone, but the Jews who joined the British ranks had another challenge on their hands. Britain was on the same side as Russia, the country many Jews had fled from. This caused friction within Jewish communities, however, the soldiers were welcomed back as heroes. Some of the Jews who fought in the war also received the Victoria Cross for their gallantry “in the presence of the enemy”.

The 1930s brought more European Jews to England due to the growing power of Nazism in Germany. 10,000 children arrived via Kindertransport, which the Museum had a temporary exhibition about at the beginning of the year (2019). As everyone should know, thousands of Jews lost their lives in Nazi Germany due to the policies of party leader Adolf Hitler (1889-1945). The Holocaust caused the death of 6 million European Jews and it is estimated that in total, 17,000 million people fell victim to the Second World War. A survivor’s account of his time in a concentration camp is the main focus of a small exhibition within the museum.

“We are all human beings, whatever colour or race we are, everybody deserves respect.”
Ann Kirk, Kindertransport refugee

The Jewish Museum may not be on many people’s radar, however, it is an important museum to have in London. Non-religious people tend to shy away from things labelled “Jewish”, not due to discrimination, but because they think it is something only for Jewish people. This museum, however, is for everyone. It provides an eye-opening history of the Jewish religion as well as a shocking record of Jewish life in Britain. Whilst the Holocaust plays a large part in Jewish history, there is so much prior to that of which the majority of the British population will be unaware. There is information in this Museum that will never be taught in schools. After all, it is the winners that write the history books and the Jewish rarely were.

The Jewish Museum can be found in the heart of Camden Town, a mere 3 minutes walk from the underground station in Raymond Burton House, Albert Street. Opening hours are between 10am and 5pm on weekdays, except Friday, which closes at 2pm ready for the Jewish Sabbath. The entry fee is £7.50 for adults, £5.50 concessions and £3.50 for children between the ages of 5 and 16.

King and Collector

For the first time since the 17th century, a fraction of Charles I’s (1600-49) impressive collection of treasures is reunited in a phenomenal exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. It is thought that the Stuart king once amassed over 1500 paintings, which after his execution in 1649, were sold off and scattered across Europe. Thanks to his son and heir, Charles II, who incidentally has an exhibition of his own at the Queen’s Gallery, many of these were retrieved and reclaimed by the royal family. Charles I: King and Collector contain over 100 works including classical sculpture, Baroque paintings, miniatures and tapestries.

The fate of Charles I is largely known, however, his personal life and character often get overlooked. Charles was the second son and youngest surviving child of James VI of Scotland (later James I) and was not destined to become king. Unfortunately, his older brother Henry, the Prince of Wales died in 1612, making Charles heir apparent. Thirteen years later, Charles succeeded his father as king and his volatile reign began. As the king of Great Britain, Charles I angered many people by dissolving Parliament and taking complete control of the country. By 1642, the first of two civil wars had broken out between the Parliamentarians, led by Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), and the Royalists. Seven years later, Charles was dead, having been beheaded in front of the Banqueting House at Whitehall Palace.

The Royal Academy puts Charles I’s execution to one side and concentrates on the man himself and his huge collection of artworks. At the time, Charles owned the best art collection in Europe and the pieces that remain in the Royal Collection are his greatest legacy. The exhibition begins by introducing a few of the painters that were working at the time of Charles’ reign. These include Anthony van Dyck ,(1599-1641), Peter Paul Rubens (1571-1640), and Daniel Mytens (1590 – 1647), whose self-portraits can be seen in the first gallery.

Two portraits by Van Dyck introduce visitors to the king and his queen, Henrietta Maria (1609-1669), the daughter of Henri IV of France. The painting of King Charles is unusual in that it contains three portraits of the king, each facing a different direction: profile, face on, and half-profile. This painting was not made for display but rather to aid the Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) to produce a bust of the British king. Unfortunately, this sculpture was later lost in a fire. This painting, however, reveals a lot about the way Charles wished to be seen. It is clear from his clothing that he is a man of taste, yet his dreamy expression suggests an air of sensitivity.

Charles’ passion for art began before he became king and was greatly impacted by his travels to Madrid in 1623. The initial purpose of visiting Spain was to explore the possibility of marrying the Infanta Maria Anna, however, it quickly became apparent that this was never going to happen. Instead, Charles returned to England with a number of paintings and artworks. Many of these appear in this exhibition, including several he acquired from the continent later in life, in particular, the second century AD statue of the Greek goddess, Aphrodite.

Aphrodite or The Crouching Venus is one of several Roman marble copies of the lost Hellenistic sculpture. Aphrodite was the Greek goddess of love and beauty who is depicted as a nude in a crouching pose with her hair over her left shoulder.

This was one of the most beautiful antiquities sourced in Mantua for the king. After Charles’ execution, the painter Peter Lely (1618-80) acquired the statue, however, returned it after the restoration of the monarchy. The Crouching Venus can usually be found at the British Museum where it has been on loan since 1963.

Another important artwork with Spanish connections is a large-scale oil painting by Rubens that was gifted to the king by the artist. Peace and War (c1630) was Ruben’s subliminal method of illustrating his hopes for peace between England and Spain. In the background, the Roman goddess Minerva can be seen pushing Mars, the god of war, whilst in the foreground, Pax, the goddess of Peace sits amidst a horn of plenty.

“The King prefers old paintings.” Letter from England to Cardinal Francesco Barberini, 11th July 1635

Many paintings in Charles’ collection were painted long before he was born. A considerable amount of artwork on display comes from the Renaissance era, both Northern and Italian. Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), who had been in service to Henry VIII (1491-1547) was a particular favourite. It is recorded that Charles I owned 44 works by Holbein, who predominantly painted portraits. The example in this exhibition, however, is a biblical scene taken from John 20:17. Noli me tangere (c1528) shows the risen Christ outside his tomb forbidding Mary Magdalene to touch him.

Nearby, another Biblical painting from the same era depicts Adam and Eve standing naked in the Garden of Eden after taking their forbidden bites from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. This painting by Jan Gossaert (1478-1532) was sent by the Dutch states in an attempt to curry favour with the king. A number of paintings from Northern Europe were given to Charles as gifts, therefore, it cannot be certain whether he enjoyed these types of works. On the other hand, the sheer number of paintings from the Italian Renaissance, which fills two galleries of the exhibition, imply that the king had a passion for older works.

Biblical scenes were popular amongst Renaissance painters, therefore, it is unsurprising to find several more religious artworks in Charles’ collection. One of particular note is The Supper at Emmaus (c1534) by the Italian painter Titian (1488-1576). Charles acquired this painting in the 1620s shortly before becoming king. It illustrates part of the New Testament recorded in Luke 24:30-31 where Jesus is breaking bread with two disciples after his resurrection. This, however, is not the reason for its significance, it is the techniques of the artist rather than the subject that matters most in this exhibition.

As those who choose to pay for an audio guide will discover, works by Titian influenced many later artists, including Van Dyck who became the Principalle Paynter in Ordenarie to their Majesties in 1632. In the background of Titian’s painting is a large column, which can be seen over Jesus’ shoulder. The positioning of this column is deliberate because it draws the eye to the principal character in the painting, thus denoting his importance. Van Dyck uses this artistic trick in a few of his portraits of Charles I and the royal family. Similarly, William Dobson (1611-46) does the same in a portrait of Charles II, indicating his importance, even at the young age of twelve.

As the king’s painter, Van Dyck was responsible for many of the portraits of members of the royal family. Born in the Flemish city Antwerp, Anthony van Dyck was a teen prodigy who found his feet as an assistant to Peter Paul Rubens. It was during a stay in Italy where Van Dyck encountered paintings by Titian and filled many sketchbooks with drawings based on these. One of these books is displayed in the final gallery of the exhibition.

Van Dyck quickly built up a reputation as a portraitist and was sought out by many aristocrats throughout Europe. King Charles I was one of his many admirers and enticed Van Dyck to come to England with promises of a knighthood, a bountiful salary and a studio in Blackfriars, London. Although he preferred to be in mainland Europe, Van Dyck impressed the British nobility with his impressive paintings.

For the first and possibly only time, the four largest and most important paintings Van Dyck produced of Charles I are on display at the centre of the exhibition. The curators at the Royal Academy have done an excellent job at positioning these tall canvases so that if visitors stand in the centre of the Central Hall, they can turn 360 degrees and take in all four paintings. Three of these focus on the king and his passion for the hunting field, however, the other is a family portrait, featuring his wife and two eldest children.

The first piece Van Dyck was commissioned to produce for the king was the family portrait, which became known as The Great Peece (1632). Charles and Henrietta Maria are both seated on throne-like chairs whilst their pet dogs play on the floor at their feet. The queen holds the baby Mary and Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, clings to his father’s leg. This may appear a casual, informal portrait depicting the foursome as a family rather than rulers of the country, however, there are many subliminal signs that suggest the opposite.

To the king’s right-hand side sits the royal crown atop a red velvet cloth, which indicates Charles’ status. Behind him, in the distance, are the buildings of Westminster, communicating the king’s role in politics. Both of these elements point to Charles’ importance, however, Van Dyck’s use of a column inspired by Titian, is almost an arrow pointing to the most significant person in the painting.

The remaining three paintings show Charles I outside of his family circle. In two of these, Charles is mounted on a horse: Charles I on Horseback with M. de St Antoine (1633) and Charles I on Horseback (1637-8). Equestrian paintings were an emblem of power and Charles wished to appear to the public as a strong ruler. The horses are large and muscular with manes that are not dissimilar to their rider’s hair. Van Dyck uses the strength of these animals to stress the powerful position of the king.

The final large painting, Le Roi à la Chasse or Charles I in the Hunting Field (1636) reflects more of the king’s personality than his position of power. Rather than sitting aside his horse, Charles stands at its head striking a nonchalant pose with a traditional English landscape behind him. Although Charles may not be wearing the royal armour as in the previous two paintings, he is still dressed as befits his status, complete with broad-brimmed hat, an appearance that would become a memorable look for the king.

It is clear from this exhibition that Charles I had an eye for artwork, however, he was not the only one. Henrietta Maria sought out and commissioned a fair share of the collection, particularly the Italian Baroque paintings, which her husband appeared not to be as fascinated with. Like her husband, Henrietta Maria was drawn to religious scenes as well as the occasional Greek or Roman myth. Many of the paintings owned by the queen were commissioned for particular rooms in her apartments, including the Queen’s House in Greenwich.

The Queen’s House was originally going to be a gift for James I’s wife, however, she died before its completion. Henrietta Maria, who received the house as a present from Charles I, made the building’s decoration her personal project. One painter she particularly admired was Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639) who had once worked for her mother in Paris. Henrietta Maria persuaded the Italian painter to come to England where he decorated one of the ceilings at the house in Greenwich. He also completed canvases for the queen, including Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife (1630-2), which only returned to the Queen’s House last year.

Gentileschi’s Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife is based on a scene from the Book of Genesis (39:7-12) when the Pharaoh’s wife attempts to entice Joseph into bed, who at this time is the captain of Potiphar’s guard. Although Joseph refuses the woman, she uses his cloak, which in the painting she is holding on to whilst Joseph makes his escape, to claim that he had seduced her. The rich colours, smooth skin tone, an abundance of fabric, and the use of chiaroscuro (dramatic lighting, see Caravaggio) that Gentileschi includes in the painting are an indication of Henrietta Maria’s tastes.

Visitors who have also been to the Queen’s House may also recognise the final painting in the exhibition: Landscape with St George and the Dragon (1630-5) by Peter Paul Rubens. This was not one of Henrietta Maria’s acquisitions but a gift to the king from the artist. It is believed that Rubens produced this landscape in honour of England after his year as an English diplomat. It is a depiction of the famous English folktale where Saint George defeats the bloodthirsty dragon, however, in the background can be seen buildings alongside the River Thames. It is also suggested that Saint George has been deliberately painted to resemble King Charles I.

The paintings mentioned above are only a handful of the marvellous artworks that Charles I had in his reputable collection. Within this exhibition are the nine paintings that make up The Triumph of Caesar (1484-92) by the 15th-century artist Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506), and four tapestries showing the Acts of the Apostles. There is also a room devoted to miniatures and small items that were part of the Whitehall Cabinet. These would not have been on public view, therefore, give an insight into Charles’ life behind doors. One item worth noting is the tiny bronze statue of Charles I on horseback by Hubert Le Sueur (1580 – 1658); this is a model of the version erected in Trafalgar Square.

As reported in The Times, the RA exhibition Charles I: King and Collector is “a landmark exhibition. You will not see its likes again. Don’t miss your chance.” This is a very accurate opinion, it is indeed a landmark exhibition and these paintings will never be all in the same place again. Most importantly, the paintings on show are some of the best to have been produced prior to and during the early 1600s. It may be expensive to enter, but after two hours of walking through the galleries, you will agree that it is worth the price.

Charles I: King and Collector is organised in partnership with Royal Collection Trust and remains on show until 15th April 2018. Prices are £18 although concessions are available. 

 

Charles II: Art & Power

The first half of the 1600s were a turbulent time for the English with civil war, the beheading of a king, over a decade of Cromwellian rule, and, finally, the restoration of the Stuart Monarchy. The Royal Collection Trust has foraged through their huge hoard of paintings to put together an exhibition to illustrate the restoration of the monarchy and the rule of Charles II (1630-85). Charles II: Art & Power, held at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, celebrates the resurgence of the arts in England, reinforced by Charles II’s position as king. The colourful court life was a stark comparison to the dreariness of the Republic with a rise in paintings and rich materials, and the reproduction of regalia.

678574-1491571682

Charger 1680 – 1700 Faience

The exhibition starts off with a look at the final moments of Charles I’s life (1600-49) before he was committed for treason and beheaded in January 1649 outside the Banqueting Hall in Whitechapel. The Commonwealth which followed lasted a little more than a decade with the puritan Parliamentarian general, Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) in charge. The remaining Stuarts were forced into exile, resulting in the story of the oak tree, which was where part of Charles II’s mythology, arose from. After the royalists lost the battle, the son of Charles I spent a day hiding in a great oak tree at Boscobel House in Shropshire. Commemorative wares, such as the dish on display, were sold in honour of his bravery after the restoration of the monarchy.

Charles II’s coronation took place on 23rd April 1661 and was the most extravagant since Elizabeth I’s the century before. During the Commonwealth, most of the ceremonial items needed for the inauguration had been sold or destroyed, therefore the Jewel House needed to be replenished and royal regalia remade. A number of these items are on display in the gallery and a few are still used today in royal ceremonies. A particularly noteworthy piece of regalia is the Collar and Badge of the Order of the Garter designed by Sir Robert Vyner (1631-88) specifically for Charles II’s coronation. It is made from gold and set with 20 large and 100 small diamonds.

 

 

Charles II’s reign was not the only change affecting England in the mid-1600s, the restoration of the monarchy occurred simultaneously with the development of print production. As a result, Charles II was the first king to include prints in his growing art collection. Artists also converted portraits of the monarch into printed versions, which, although he never owned himself, are featured in the gallery.

Two prints of portraits by Sir Peter Lely (1618-80) show the difference between two printmaking techniques. The first is an etching produced by Peter Vandrebanc (1649-97). The majority of early prints used this method in which a painting was carefully copied and etched onto a metal plate and covered with ink in order to transfer the drawing onto paper. The second, similar portrait was produced by Abraham Blooteling (1640-90) by a process called mezzotint (“half-tone”). Unlike its forerunning techniques, mezzotint avoided the line marks that cross-hatching caused and produced high-quality, tonal images instead.

 

As well as portraits of the king, his wife and mistresses, of whom he had many, were also the subjects of detailed prints. These were adapted from paintings by various artists, however, Charles II never owned them himself. The benefit of printmaking was that several copies of the same image could be made at once, thus lowering the cost, making them affordable to members of the public. Many prints found themselves pinned on the walls of taverns and coffee shops where they could be appreciated by the masses and demonstrated the shop owners’ loyalty to the royal family.

The prints that Charles II did collect had a more functional nature. A particular print worthy of note was a map of London that revealed the damages caused by the Great Fire of London. The fire broke out on Sunday 2nd September 1666, only a few years into the king’s reign. Instead of fleeing for safety, Charles found himself standing before the heat of the flames, helping and overseeing the extinguishing of the destructive inferno. Shortly after the three-day long blaze, Charles commissioned his scenographer Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-77) to produce a detailed map revealing the buildings that had succumbed to the devastation. With the aid of the map, plans to rebuild a better, safer London was initiated and conducted quickly and efficiently.

 

Due to printmakers’ abilities to produce numerous copies of one item, illustrators and writers took full advantage in order to send their work out to a much wider audience. As a result, many satirical pieces began to arise, including the farcical The Horrid Hellish Popish-Plot (1682). With illustrations by an anonymous artist, the broadsheet attempted to mock the printed account A True Narrative of the Horrid Plot and Conspiracy of the Popish Party (Oates, 1679). The Popish Plot was indeed a fictitious conspiracy concocted by Titus Oates (1649-1705) in an attempt to accuse Catholics of conspiring to assassinate Charles II. The broadsheet owned by the Royal Collection Trust likens Oates’ testimony to the false witnesses who testified against Jesus Christ and included illustrations that resemble Judas Iscariot’s betrayal.

It is not until midway through the exhibition that the artworks begin to describe and reveal the actual life and reign of Charles II. The restoration of the monarchy not only reverted England to its Kingdom status, it essentially rebooted the lives of the royals. Just as the royal regalia previously mentioned had been destroyed, so too had the former residences, palaces and castles belonging to the first Stuart king. As a result, only Whitehall Palace and Hampton Court, which Cromwell had commandeered for his personal use, remained in functioning order.

Unfortunately, funds were low, and with many things in need of replacing, only Windsor Castle was rebuilt during Charles II’s lifetime. Of course, Windsor Castle has been revamped since the Stuarts were on the throne, however, watercolour illustrations by Charles Wild (1781-1835) reveal what the interior of the castle looked like after Charles’ renovations. On the ceiling of the St George’s Hall was a fresco painting featuring Charles II at its centre. All that remains of this fresco is the head and shoulders of the king which somebody had the foresight to rescue and preserve.

 

Charles II was a significant figure in the resurgence of arts and could often be found surrounded by beautiful women, actors, scientists and poets. His passion for the theatre re-established the playhouses which he and his court would regularly attend. This also marked a significant turning point in stage production; for the first time in history, women were allowed to act on stage. Previously, female parts had been performed by young male actors, but now women could take those positions themselves, including one of Charles’ long-time mistresses, Nell Gwyn (1650-87).

Being a great encourager of the arts, paintings became an expression of power for the monarch and his family. Not only did he own paintings of himself and his wife, he had all his mistresses painted as well. Amongst portraits of these ladies, including Nell Gwyn, Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland (1641-1709) and Mary Bagot, Duchess of Falmouth and Dorset (1645-79) sits the painting of Catherine of Braganza (1638-1705) who Charles married in 1662. Less alluring than her husband’s lovers, Catherine is depicted as a shepherdess, complete with a little lamb which may have been a reference to the children court and society hoped for her to have.  Unfortunately, despite three miscarriages, Catherine produced no royal heirs.

The most significant portrait in the collection is without a doubt the king himself, painted by John Michael Wright (1617-94). Featuring heavily on advertisements for the exhibition, this recognisable portrait is of a formidable size and is an outstanding piece of artwork. Charles II sits on a throne wearing the royal crown and is dressed in parliamentary robes over his Order of the Garter costume. In one hand he carried the Orb and the other the sceptre, both of which were made by Sir Robert Vyner for the king’s coronation. The colours and pose of the sitter are similar to portraits of past monarchs, thus conveying the continuation of the royal line.

 

Walking around the gallery, looking at the members of the royal court, it is easy to think of these historical figures as a form of still life, to be studied at a distance like precious objects in a museum. However, these were real people living real lives, but what is even more important is that these paintings do not represent the majority of the English population. At midday and midafternoon, talks are held at the gallery in front of Charles II’s prestigious portrait. Although each discourse will differ depending on the speaker, it is likely that the gallery worker will enlighten visitors about the true living situations of the people of London.

Before the Fire of London, houses were a mess of materials held together more by luck than architectural skill. One could be as bold as to say the fire did the people a favour by destroying their inadequate abodes in order to rebuild nicer looking, safer structures. The streets, however, would have been full of disease-ridden waste, including human excrement, which would be thrown from the windows of houses due to the lack of a sewage system. The streets of London stank and the Thames was full of the debris and detritus that flowed into it. The capital was not a pleasant place to live and the Royals were the only people who could reside there in comfort.

Whilst Charles’ collection of paintings may have hidden the true situation in London, they did introduce people of lower status. Although painted a year after the king’s death, an example of this features a full-length portrait of a domestic servant. Before the seventeenth century, it was extremely rare for a servant to feature in a painting let alone be the main subject. Bridget Holmes (1591-1691) was painted by the artist John Riley (1646-91) when she was at the ripe old age of 96. She had already served both Charles I and II and was now the “Necessary Woman” of James II. She would later serve under William III until her death at the age of 100. It is likely that this painting was produced in honour of her dedication to the royal family.

Charles’ love of the theatre resulted in actors (and actresses) receiving more respect than they had done in the past. John Lacy (c1615-81) was a comic actor who was a particular favourite of the king. Lacy was honoured with a three-in-one portrait which depicted himself in three different theatrical roles: the lead from The Taming of the Shrew, Monsieur Device from the Duke of Newcastle’s The Country Chaplain, and Parson Scruple in John Wilson’s The Cheats.

 

Although these portraits were one way of rebuilding the royal art collection, Charles II was determined to recover the original artworks belonging to his father. The Parliamentarians had sold off nearly all paintings belonging to Charles I, and the new king was doubtful that he would retrieve many of them. However, after instructing his subjects to return them immediately (later making this law), a significant amount was returned. Charles II was also gifted paintings from many dignitaries across Europe, including 28 from the States of Holland and West Friesland. In all, Charles II owned over 1000 paintings, a handful of which are exhibited in the final room at the gallery.

Charles preferred the Old Masters but also collected contemporary classical-style paintings. Those that were not returned or gifted to the king were likely ones he had purchased himself. Not believing he would ever see his father’s collection again, Charles sought out an art dealer in Breda, the Netherlands and purchased 72 paintings. One of these is the famous Massacre of the Innocents by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-69). This popular image illustrates the slaughtering of babies under the orders of King Herod as written in Matthew’s Gospel in the New Testament after he learnt about the birth of Jesus from the wise men.

The royal collection accumulated other religious scenes from the art dealer and artists themselves who chose to honour the king with gifts of their paintings. One painter, Carlo Dolci (1616-86), sent Charles two paintings of biblical women: The Penitent Magdalene and Salome with the Head of John the Baptist. The latter refers to the imprisonment of John (Matthew 14: 3-12 and Mark 6: 17-29) and his subsequent beheading at the request of Herodias’ daughter.

Charles II also commissioned artists to produce paintings for rooms at Windsor Castle. Two examples are the mythological scenes painted by Benedetto Gennari (1633-1715) which hung in the king’s dining room. Titled Venus and the Sleeping Adonis and The Triumph of Galatea, these oil paintings represent love stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

 

It is interesting to take note of the varying style of paintings collected by the third Stuart king. He owned a mix of religious and mythological narrative artworks, tapestries, portraits and so forth from a wide range of painters. This could potentially be a result of Charles’ desperation to rebuild his father’s grand collection, however, it is just as likely that he was an art aficionado and enjoyed an assortment of approaches and topics.

Admittedly, there are not many paintings at the Charles II exhibition that have the “wow factor”, nor do they linger in the mind after leaving the gallery. Although this is first and foremost an art exhibit, what the Queen’s Gallery has effectively achieved is an articulate history of the restoration of the monarchy. The combination of art and written explanation, as well as an optional audio guide, reveal to visitors far more than they may have learnt at school or discovered in their own time. Those whose interests lie in both British history and 16th- and 17th-century art will greatly enjoy and benefit from this exhibition – that is not to say, of course, that others will not!

Charles II: Art & Power will remain at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace until Sunday 13th May 2018 leaving plenty of time for those who have not yet had the opportunity to view the exhibition to book their tickets. Entry prices for adults are £11 and this includes the option of a free audio guide which elaborates on certain paintings and objects.

Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia

scythianrider01-1024x795

A gold plaque depicting a Scythian horseman with a spear in his right hand; Gold; late fifth to early fourth century BC; Kul’ Oba. © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Supported by BP, the British Museum’s major exhibition explores the lives of a barbaric tribe known as the Scythians. These Eurasian nomads inhabited the majority of the western and central Eurasian steppes for hundreds of years with evidence dating as far back as 900BC. Since 300BC, the Scythians gradually disappeared leaving very little proof of their existence.

For centuries, historians have had to rely on Greek historians and Assyrian inscriptions for information about these primitive humans, in particular, Herodotus, “the father of history”, a fifth century BC Greek historian, with his magnum opus The Histories.

“For Herodotus, the Scythians were outlandish barbarians living north of the Black Sea in what are now Moldova, Ukraine and Crimea.” – Michael Kulikowski, Rome’s Gothic Wars from the Third Century to Alaric

Ancient manuscripts, whilst useful, are not always the most reliable of sources, therefore, a lot of Herodotus’ description is not to be completely trusted. Fortunately, within the past couple of centuries, the discoveries of graves and burial mounds in the areas the Scythians occupied have revealed a wealth of information about these ancient Indo-Europeans.

Objects excavated from Scythian tombs have been carefully stored at the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia and are temporarily on loan to the British Museum where they can be viewed in this outstanding exhibition. Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia contains objects that are over 2,000 years old, astonishingly preserved in the permafrost of the cold landscape. Glass cases of gold and bronze jewellery, clothing, weapons and everyday items relates the story of a rich civilisation of formidable warriors.

Set in a darkened gallery, highlighting the exhibits with lit cabinets, the curators have created an atmospheric display complete with soundscapes that set the scene of the temperate grasslands, beginning with the resonance of a strong wind and moving on to the clamour of galloping horses. Wall-size digital panoramas present a computer-generated landscape complete with horsemen dressed in what it is believed the Scythian’s wore. Although the remains of items found during excavations provide enough information to understand the lives and culture of this society, these creative extras help to paint a fuller picture.

 

peter_i_by_kneller

Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia (1672-1725) by Sir Godfrey Kneller

A full-length portrait of Tsar Peter I (the Great) (1672-1725) introduces visitors to the man responsible for the first excavation of a Scythian burial site. For scientific purposes, Peter the Great sent men on an expedition to Siberia to study the land, not realising that he would receive more than he bargained for.

 

After accidentally discovering an ancient burial mound full of armour, sophisticated jewellery, belt buckles and weapons, the Tsar decreed that all findings should be brought back to St Petersburg to be documented. He also instructed that detailed drawings be produced of each object. Some of these are on display positioned next to the original item.

At least 250 Scythian gold artefacts found themselves in Peter the Great’s inventory, which prompted him to commission the building of the first Russian museum, Kunstkamera (cabinet of curiosities). Unfortunately, the Tsar was not to see the opening of his enterprise since he died earlier that year.

From these initial findings, and the many that have since occurred, a lot has been deduced about the lives of the Scythians. With the ancient texts by historians such as Herodotus to help place them in context, each object tells modern researchers about the Scythian’s beliefs, lifestyle and abilities. It is assumed that it was a funerary custom to be buried with important possessions, and most graves contained someone form of armour and weapon – even the females.

Although it cannot be proved, the burial mounds suggest the Scythians believed in some sort of religion, perhaps one where they believed they would need certain items in the afterlife, for instance, arrows. Herodotus notes, “Ares, the God of War, was the only deity whom the Scythians worshipped and to whom they built altars.” However, how the historian came to this conclusion is unknown and could be an assumption based on the Scythian’s fighting abilities. Further examination of the recently discovered decorative metalworks implies the warriors may have believed in other divinities too.

1_162_hi_under-tree_new1500px

Scythians with horses under a tree. Gold belt plaque. Siberia, 4th–3rd century BC.

The first example of the Scythian’s careful metalwork is on display at the entrance to the exhibition. Labelled a gold belt plaque, it is understood that this made up one half of a belt buckle. Although many of the artefacts presented at the British Museum are made of gold, it is likely that these would have belonged to nobility or royalty, thus implying something about the Scythian social structure.

Rather than being a plain, functional buckle, the goldsmith carved a detailed scene involving the death of a warrior. The deceased is lying on the ground in the arms of a female deity wearing a high ponytail – this goes to disprove Herodotus’ theory that the Scythian’s only worshipped the Greek god of war. On the left is a tree of life from which a quiver hangs from a branch, presumably belonging to the fallen man. On the right are a pair of horses, which emphasises the importance of the animal to the Scythians.

Scythians were not just formidable fighters, they were capable of defeating their enemies on horseback. Evidence suggests that they took great care of their horses and relied on them for many things including transport, milk and meat. Skeletons of horses have been found in many graves next to their owner, implying they were sacrificed in honour of the warrior’s death. Studies of the bones suggest that the horses were given a death blow to the forehead, potentially with an axe.

It was not only belt buckles that Scythians produced in lavish designs, the display cases contain jewellery, ornaments and appliqués for clothing and weaponry. Many of these have been made with gold, but bronze was also a popular material. Although highly detailed, these accessories were smaller than they seem in photographs, which was necessary in order for the Scythians to be able to wear or transport them. The above belt buckle was one of the middle-sized plaques at 16.1 centimetres wide and weighing 465.04 grams.

deer-figure-with-bent-legs

Deer-shaped gold plaque. Barrow 1, Kostromskaya, Kuban region. The second half of the 7th century BC.

An example of a larger plaque is this deer-shaped ornament that probably adorned a case for a set of bow and arrows. It is approximately 30 centimetres long and is made from a thick sheet of gold. The animal is typical of what has become known as “Scythian animal style art”. The ornamental antlers indicate that this was made by a very skilled artisan and, due to the material, belonged to a member of the Scythian royals.

As the journey through the exhibition continues, the displays go from impressive ornaments to the more mundane, everyday life objects expected of an ancient civilisation. The weather conditions in the Altai mountains where the majority of Scythian burial sites have been found meant the ground was often frozen. It is because of this that so many items have been preserved. Clothes and fabrics, which would easily decay under normal circumstances, are still recognisable and show the workmanship and effort that went into making them. They are not the primitive garments many have envisaged people wearing thousands of years ago, they are well designed and suitable for the harsh weathers to which they would have been subjected.

 

Similarly to their belt buckles, Scythian clothing was not only a matter of function, they were richly decorated too. Before reaching the examples of clothing, the British Museum has laid out some of the gold appliqués that would have been sewn onto important figures’ clothing in intricate patterns, but this was not their only method of embellishment.

An example of a woman’s shoe has been found in extremely good condition. Made from leather, delicate patterns have been sewn across the toe and ankle in a material that imitates silver – presumably, this would have belonged to someone of high ranking. Interestingly, the sole is enriched in pyrite crystals, which, although may have made a sturdier bottom, was probably a method of showing status. Scythians spent a lot of time on horseback, therefore the soles of their feet would be visible to those on the ground.

From the clothing found in the graves and the accounts of ancient historians, artists have been able to determine what the Scythian’s outfits may have looked like. Both men and women wore trousers to make riding horses easier, however, women may also have worn skirt-like garments. Women also wore “high caps tapering to a point and stiffly upright” (Herodotus) but the purpose of this remains unknown.

The belts that may have been ornamented with golden plaques, would have been less about keeping one’s trousers up, instead used as a method of storing weapons. Evidence of a wide variety of tools and weaponry has been unearthed, including double- and single-edged swords, daggers and spears. The Scythian’s weapon of choice, however, was the bow and arrow.

The Scythians were the finest bowmen of their time and were capable of shooting at a considerable range. Their bows were crafted in a way which made them capable of accuracy, an important aspect when relying on them whilst on horseback. The arrows themselves were sharp and deadly, and if the shot was not fatal, removing the shaft may have proven to be. Ancient texts suggest that the Scythians may also have covered the tips in poison; no one could escape with their lives.

“None who attacks them can escape … ” – Herodotus

These ancient Siberian warriors, with their power and strength, were also human, and therefore, needed items similar to those still used today. Wooden bowls and cups made from pottery were also found in burial sites, however, these were probably used for something more significant than the average meal.

In comparison to their jewellery and clothing, their forms of crockery were fairly basic. In this instance, the item’s function was probably more important than what it looked like. Nevertheless, a lot can be learnt about the Scythians from these simple objects.

Backing up the claims of Herodotus, excavators have come across a hemp-smoking set, which insinuates the Scythians occasionally smoked to get intoxicated by the fumes, either for pleasure or part of a religious ceremony.

“Let us not again this evening
With our shouts and noisy uproar
Get ourselves as drunk as Scythians,
Let’s get moderately tipsy
And our best songs sing with fervour.”
– Anacreon (c.582-485BC), Greek poet

1295-37ab-log-coffin

Wooden coffin. Late 4th–early 3rd century BC.

The exhibition ends with a closer look at the notable burial tombs that kept these amazing object safe for two or three thousand years. The graves were dug deep into the ground – another reason they have been so well preserved – with a wooden structure at the bottom. These were, apparently, similar to log cabins carpeted with felt. Within this chamber, a coffin, made from a tree trunk, was placed with body and important possessions inside. The graves that contained horses revealed the animal’s skeleton outside of the coffin but within the walls of the cabin. According to the British Museum’s blog, the horses were always positioned facing east – something to do with religion, perhaps?

The wooden coffin in the exhibition shows how well protected its contents were, with its thick walls and sturdy roof. It also conveys the impression that the Scythians took death seriously and were, perhaps, not as savage as past historians have made them out to be.

The Scythians would not have known how well preserved their deceased and possessions would be, but thanks to the diligence of their burial processes, they will be forever remembered as a formidable civilisation rather than the stuff of legend. Archaeologists are even able to determine their physical appearance due to the survival of mummified heads and bodies. Warning: the head and tattooed skin of a Scythian is on display for those with strong stomachs to marvel over!

The British Museum has excelled itself with this exhibition of such a fierce but sophisticated culture. It takes visitors on a journey through the lives of a nomadic tribe that, until recently, has only existed in myths and legends. Being able to see the objects up close (and the body parts) brings the stories to life and reveals how advanced the human race was in terms of survival as far back as the early Iron Age.

Only a week remains before Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia closes to the public. The items will be returned to the State Hermitage Museum so, unless you are planning a trip to Russia, this is your final opportunity to see this amazing proof of a rich, ancient civilisation.

The BP exhibition Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia is on at the British Museum until 14 January 2018. Tickets are £16.50, Members/under 16s free. 

Churchill War Rooms

a5_h_020446-tif_

Winston Churchill making a radio address from the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street. © IWM (H 20446)

Everyone has heard stories about the Second World War, Britain’s involvement and the famous speeches of wartime-Prime Minister Winston Churchill. With the conflict still fresh in the older generation’s minds, the media is forever portraying the battles, the bombed-out cities and living conditions of the public on our wide-screened TVs. It is a topic that is unlikely to ever be left alone.

Although documentaries and films tend to focus on the violence and dangers of war, a lot of it was fought in secret, unbeknownst to the general British public. In more recent years, these classified undertakings have gradually been revealed, bringing to light many unsung heroes.

Winston Churchill (1874-1965), the prime minister during the war, is obviously not overlooked in British history, however, at the time, it was not clear exactly what he was doing. Nevertheless, the hidden location beneath the streets of London, where Britain’s leaders made decisions to lead the country to victory, has been revealed to the public in London’s Westminster. The Cabinet War Rooms were situated underground in the basements of the New Public Offices and since 1984 have been widely available to tourists. The Imperial War Museum has restored many of the rooms to their original appearances to give an authentic insight into the daily life of the War Cabinet. Adding a Churchill Museum in 2005, the site was renamed Churchill War Rooms and celebrates the life of one of Britain’s greatest heroes.

“This is the room from which I will direct the war.” – Winston Churchill, May 1940

After descending the stairs underground, paying a fee of £19, and receiving an audioguide, visitors find themselves in the masses of corridors hidden beneath the Treasury Building (the former New Public Offices) opposite St James’s Park. At some times narrow and claustrophobia-inducing, these corridors connect a series of rooms where vital meetings and work took place during the Second World War. Even the main corridor, now mostly empty, would have been full of typists crammed together at small desks, toiling away at the never-ending piles of written correspondence.

722x270_1wm_site_cm_cwr_182

Cabinet Room at Churchill War Rooms. Source: Imperial War Museum

The audio tour begins with a glance into the Cabinet Room where the Prime Minister would chair meetings with his advisers and Chief of Staff (heads of the army, navy and airforce). The room is displayed exactly as it would have looked like before a meeting commenced, with paper and pencil in front of every seat, and ashtrays ready to receive the ashes from Churchill’s legendary cigar.

Churchill’s position at the table is clearly marked by a posher, more comfortable chair, whereas everyone else had to make do with the uniform basic versions. For the interest of visitors, a diagram is provided detailing the seating plan, explaining the importance of each meeting attendee.

The audioguide directs each visitor around the war rooms, explaining the uses of rooms and adding in interesting bits of information. Although some information boards are positioned around the corridors and rooms, the audioguide is much more beneficial, providing details about and describing the atmosphere during the war years.

There are still secrets to be revealed about the war rooms, mostly because a lot of the rooms were stripped bare at the end of the war with many items being thrown away. Fortunately, the most important rooms were left as they were, and in some cases, photographs have assisted museum workers to reconstruct the various chambers.

cabinet_war_rooms10_transatlantic_telephone

Transatlantic Telephone Room

Some of the secrets the Imperial War Museum has unearthed were not even known to the majority of people who worked there. One of these was the Transatlantic Telephone located off the centre of the main corridor. Originally a storeroom, a lavatory-style lock was added to a door in 1943, giving rise to the rumour that Churchill had been given his own private toilet (there were no flushing toilets available to anyone underground). However, this cupboard-sized room had actually been adapted to accommodate a secure radio-telephone link between the Prime Minister of Britain and the President of the United States of America.

Although not allowed to enter these small rooms, doors are left open so that visitors can peer in at the 1940s decor and furnishings (although rather sparse) and imagine what working underground must have felt like. Also on show are the private rooms such as bedrooms, kitchen and dining areas, built with the intention of being used during bombing raids.

Included in the tour is Churchill’s bedroom, although it is reported he only stayed the night there three times. However, he did make good use of the room, retiring there for a nap during the afternoon. Often, Churchill would dictate his speeches to his Private Secretary whilst lying on his bed, which would then be given to a typist to type out ready for use later in the day. In fact, Churchill made four radio speeches directly from his bedroom using microphones installed for this very purpose. The wall behind the bed is covered with a large map of Europe, implying that the Prime Minister would plot out potential landing sites for invasion.

The most important room of the entire Cabinet War Rooms was the Map Room. Here, officers from the army, navy, airforce and Ministry of Home Security would sit awaiting phonecalls to tell them of the latest news in Europe. This information would then be passed on to “plotters” who would attach pins, ribbons and so forth to wall-sized maps, displaying the latest situation and location of enemies and allies. From these maps, potential courses of military action could be assessed and planned –  a vital contribution to the eventual victory.

To try to prevent confusion, the Map Room contained phones of varying colours, each connecting to different correspondents. White phones were connected to the armed services, black to the outside world, and green to intelligence services. Rather than ringing, which would have caused an incessant racket, the phones would light up to indicate an incoming call.

churchill-museum-and-cabinet-war-rooms

The private rooms contain items that had to be sourced elsewhere by researchers because nothing remained of the original furniture and so forth. The Map Rooms, however, were left exactly as they were when the lights were turned off after six years of war. Other items have been fortunate to survive and are also on display around the corridors and rooms to create an authentic appearance. This includes a door complete with key rack where many of the original keys to the rooms still hang, as well as a gun rack mounted on the wall of the corridor (thankfully, the guns are nailed down).

“The greatest Englishman of our time – I think the greatest citizen of the world of our time.” – Clement Attlee, Churchill’s wartime deputy, speaking in the House of Lords the day after Sir Winston’s death

The Cabinet War Rooms were already in use during the year before Churchill became Prime Minister. Neville Chamberlain held the first war cabinet meeting on 21st October 1939, however, it is Churchill who the war rooms have now been named after. In some ways, it is thanks to Churchill that the war rooms were built. In a meeting in July 1936, Churchill asked the present Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, “Has anything been done to provide one or two alternative centre of command, with adequate deep-laid telephone connections and wireless, from which the necessary orders can be given by some coherent thinking mechanism?”

Despite so many people being involved, Churchill was certainly the leading man in the underground rooms and deserves the recognition he has received. In celebration of his life, a third of the tour of the Cabinet War Rooms takes place in a museum dedicated to the Prime Minister. The Churchill Museum tells the story of Winston Churchill’s extraordinary life from birth until his death at the age of 90.

The museum is split into five sections that can be viewed in any order, although the audioguide suggests sticking to a clockwise path around the exhibits. The most pertinent of the five sections is set between 1940-45, which outlines Churchill’s time as War Leader. The other sections cover his childhood (1874-1900), his entry into politics (1900-29), his political exile (1929-39), and his life after the war (1945-65).

Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill was born on 30th November 1874 in Blenheim Palace. His aristocratic parents, Randolph Churchill and Jennie Jerome, sent him to boarding school at the age of eight and had very little to do with his early years. Rather than immediately following his father’s footsteps into politics, Winston opted for a military career, eventually becoming a Boer War journalist for the Morning Post. However, Churchill could not avoid the pull of politics for long, and as of 1900, started a new career as the Conservative candidate for Oldham.

To begin with, Churchill was not the popular man he was destined to become and clashed with many other politicians. With so much antagonism against him, Churchill returned to military service in 1915 until 1924 when he rejoined the Conservative Party. Unfortunately, he fell out of favour with the subsequent Prime Ministers, eventually becoming exiled from politics in 1929. However, with the beginning of the war in 1939, Churchill was given the responsibility of the role of First Lord of the Admiralty and eventually began to earn respect. As a result, at the age of 65, Churchill was chosen as the new Prime Minister after Chamberlain’s resignation.

From 10th May 1940, Churchill supported Britain through the war, working extensively in the Cabinet War Rooms. Evidence of his hard work can be seen in the museum through visual, audio and interactive displays.

02_churchillIn the centre of the museum stands a 15-metre-long, digital, interactive table that provides a timeline of Churchill’s life. By using a touchstrip at the edge of the table, visitors can select and explore dates and events during Churchill’s life, viewing over 2000 documents, images and videos. This lifeline is continuously updated as more is discovered about the prodigious War Hero.

Unlike the War Rooms, preserved in their original appearances, The Churchill Museum is a contemporary feature. With so much to watch, read, hear and touch, the large room becomes crowded and overstimulating as everyone tries to explore the life of the famous figure. But with so much to learn, it is inevitable that the room becomes cramped and filled to capacity. Fortunately, the Imperial War Museum provides an in-depth guidebook which can be purchased at the entrance, or later in the gift shop. However, seeing personal items belonging to Britain’s most famous Prime Minister is much better in person, than within the limited pages of a book.

Following the audioguide and taking time to look at everything in the museum may take a couple of hours. A café is located two-thirds of the way through the tour, providing refreshments and a selection of lunches to replenish people’s energy for the final section, which includes the Map Rooms.

The Churchill War Rooms is a vital place to visit to get a true sense of the wartime efforts of the British government. If you are willing to pay the price (£19 adults, £9.50 children), it is certainly worth a visit. School history lessons barely cover the Second World War in comparison to the information provided in this secret bunker. You are guaranteed to learn something new.

The Churchill War Rooms is only a 20-minute bus ride from IWM London or HMS Belfast. It is also close to a wide range of famous tourist attractions including Tate Britain, Westminster Abbey, the London Eye and Buckingham Palace. St James’s Park is also on the doorstep.