Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield

“Innovative, accessible, and psychologically acute,” is how the Poetry Foundation describes the short stories of Katherine Mansfield. Highly regarded in the 20th century, although less known today, Mansfield experimented with modernism and brought new genres to the short story format. Writing about relationships, sexuality, the middle class, war, and everyday life, Mansfield was welcomed by members of the Bloomsbury Group in London. Sadly, her untimely death at the age of 34 prevented Mansfield from rising to the celebrity ranks of her friends, such as D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930) and Virginia Woolf (1882-1941).

Born into a wealthy family on 14th October 1888, Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp (Katherine was a pseudonym) grew up in Wellington, New Zealand, with her four siblings: two older sisters and a younger sister and brother. Her father, Sir Harold Beauchamp (1858-1938), was a successful businessman and, later in life, the chairman of the Bank of New Zealand. Katherine’s grandfather, Arthur Beauchamp (1827-1910), briefly stood as a Member of Parliament, and her cousin, Elizabeth von Arnim (1866-1941), became a well-known author and, briefly, conducted an affair with H. G. Wells (1866-1946).

Mansfield’s happy childhood memories made their way into several short stories, which she began writing in the late 1890s. Her first written works appeared in the magazine of Wellington Girls’ High School, which she attended until 13 years old. In 1900, Mansfield submitted a story to the children’s page of the New Zealand Graphic and Ladies Journal, which they published the day before her 12th birthday. The tale, His Little Friend, described the relationship between a man and a young child he met on the road. The man, John, came from a wealthy background, whereas the little boy lived in poverty and had nothing to eat. John gave the child food from his garden, but it was not enough to save the boy from a fatal illness. The sad story revealed Mansfield’s awareness of her parent’s wealth and the poverty of the working-class members of society.

As a child and teenager, Mansfield kept a private journal, in which she jotted down personal experiences and story ideas. They reveal her infatuation with the son of her cello teacher, who did not reciprocate her attention. As she got older, she wrote about the mistreatment of the indigenous Māori people, who she believed were repressed by society. To counteract this, Mansfield portrayed the Māori in a positive light in her stories. On these occasions, she painted white people in a negative light.

Katherine and Ida

In 1903, Mansfield travelled to London with her sisters to attend Queen’s College, an independent school for girls aged 11 to 18. As well as academic studies, Mansfield focused on practising the cello, which she dreamed of playing professionally. Her aspirations soon changed after contributing to the college magazine, which she later edited. Many commented on Mansfield’s aptitude for writing, particularly her friend Ida Baker, who also loved to write.

After completing her schooling, Mansfield returned to New Zealand, where she concentrated on writing short stories. Many of these appeared in the Native Companion, for which she received payment, thus cementing her ambition to be a professional writer. She published these works under the name “K. Mansfield”, her first initial and middle name. 

Mansfield’s journals from 1906 to 1908 suggest she had many romantic relationships. Whilst the majority were male, Mansfield wrote about two women and her conflicting feelings towards them. Same-sex relationships were illegal, but Mansfield felt unable to repress her feelings. On one occasion, she wrote, “I want Maata—I want her as I have had her—terribly. This is unclean I know but true.” Maata Mahupuku (1890-1952) was a Māori woman who Mansfield knew from childhood. They became close after Mansfield’s return to New Zealand, but their relationship ended when Maata married in 1907. The other woman Mansfield wrote about was called Edith Kathleen Bendall, but there is very little information about her.

Growing wearing of life in New Zealand, Mansfield returned to London. Her father agreed to send her an annual allowance of £100, although she quickly took up a bohemian lifestyle. After moving from place to place, Mansfield decided to seek out the son of her cello teacher, Arnold Trowell. Just as before, Arnold did not return Mansfield’s advances, but his brother, Garnet, did. After a brief but passionate affair, Mansfield realised she was pregnant. Sadly, Garnet’s parents, who disapproved of the relationship, forced them to split up.

Not wishing to have a child out of wedlock, Mansfield hastily accepted a marriage proposal from George Bowden, a singing tutor. They married on 2nd March 1909, but regretting her decision, Mansfield fled shortly after the service. For a while, she found solace at the house of her friend Ida. When her mother, Annie Beauchamp, arrived in England after learning about the failed marriage, she blamed her daughter’s “lesbian relationship” with Ida. Angrily, Annie packed her pregnant daughter off to the spa town of Bad Wörishofen in Bavaria, Germany, and cut Mansfield from her will.

While in Bad Wörishofen, Mansfield suffered a miscarriage. After recuperating from the trauma, she returned to London in 1910. Mansfield’s experiences in Bavaria, which included learning of various European authors, prompted her to start writing again. Before her marriage to Bowden, Mansfield only published one poem and one story in London. Her new literary outlook resulted in a dozen short stories, which she submitted to The New Age, a socialist magazine owned by Alfred Richard Orage (1873-1934). Through Orage, Mansfield met the English writer Beatrice Hastings (1879-1943), with whom she developed a close, possibly romantic, relationship.

In 1911, Mansfield published a series of short stories about life in Germany under the title In A German Pension. Some of these tales reference her plight, but most satirically represent the habits of German people and the state of their unhealthy sewage system. On occasion, Mansfield mentioned the misrepresentation of women and how men exploit them.

Mansfield in 1912

For some time, Mansfield attempted to get her work published in the literary, arts, and critical review magazine Rhythm. The editor rejected her first attempt for being too “lightweight”, so she responded with a darker, Fauvist story titled The Woman at the Store. Set in the desolate New Zealand countryside, three friends stop to rest at a store owned by a mentally deranged woman. Whilst the woman attempts to woo the visitors, her neglected daughter reveals to them through her drawings that her mother killed her father.

In 1912, Mansfield joined Rhythm as an associate editor. She developed a close relationship with the main editor, John Middleton Murry (1889-1957), and they had an on and off affair, which inspired the characters Gudrun and Gerald in D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love

Mansfield and John Middleton Murry

Rhythm magazine folded in 1913 after the publisher Charles Granville absconded, leaving them with many debts. Around this time, Mansfield experienced bouts of ill health. A friend persuaded Mansfield and Murry to rent a cottage in Cholesbury, Buckinghamshire, where Mansfield could recuperate. When her symptoms did not alleviate, they moved to Paris, hoping a change of setting would boost Mansfield’s health or at least inspire her to write again. Mansfield succeeded in writing a short story titled Something Childish But Very Natural, but it was not published until after her death.

In 1914, Mansfield and Murry briefly split up when Murry returned to London to declare bankruptcy. Remaining in France, Mansfield conducted an affair with the French author Francis Carco (1886-1958), which she narrated in her short story, An Indiscreet Journey. The tale describes the journey of an English woman on her way to meet her lover on the front line during the First World War, and the people she met along the way. 

Mansfield and Murry reunited in 1915, but Mansfield’s outlook on life changed after receiving the news of the death of her younger brother Leslie. While serving with the British Expeditionary Force in Ypres Salient, Belgium, Leslie suffered fatal wounds during a grenade training exercise. His death made Mansfield nostalgic about her childhood in New Zealand, which she reflected in her writing.

Katherine Mansfield

In 1917, Mansfield and Murry split once again. Mansfield purchased an apartment where she lived for a time with her friend Ida, who she referred to as “my wife”. Although no longer together, Murry visited Mansfield regularly and eventually won back her heart. During this time, Mansfield wrote prolifically, often on themes of marriage or lost love, and published many stories in The New Age Magazine.

Later that year, Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard (1880-1969) approached Mansfield to ask for a story. They needed writers for their new publishing company, Hogarth Press, and Mansfield happily presented them with her work in progress, Prelude. Woolf encouraged her to finish the story, which Mansfield based on her childhood, particularly the family’s move to Karori, a country suburb of Wellington, in 1893. Eventually published by Hogarth Press in 1918, Prelude encompasses themes of feminism, isolation, freedom, servility and familial relationships.

Katherine Mansfield Portrait

In December 1917, Mansfield received a diagnosis of pulmonary tuberculosis. For the rest of the winter and following spring, she stayed with the American artist Anne Estelle Rice (1877-1959) in Looe, Cornwall, hoping the sea air would aid recovery. While there, Rice painted Mansfield’s portrait, which the author requested in vivid red. The painting now lives in the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington, New Zealand.

Mansfield’s health continued to worsen, but she refused to enter a sanitorium. Instead, she moved to Bandol in southeastern France, where she resided in a quiet hotel. Whilst feeling isolated and depressed, Mansfield focused on her writing, producing short stories, such as Je ne parle pas français and Bliss. The latter became the title story of her collection Bliss and Other Stories, published in 1920.

In March 1919, Mansfield suffered a lung haemorrhage, which prompted Murry to urge her to marry him. As soon as her divorce papers came through from Bowden, the couple married in April in London. Murry’s financial situation had much improved, and he worked as the editor for the literary magazine The Athenaeum. Mansfield contributed over 100 book reviews to the magazine, and many well-known authors submitted short stories and poems, including T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), and Virginia Woolf. 

Mansfield travelled to San Remo, Italy, with Ida to avoid the harsh English winters. Murry joined them for Christmas but returned to London soon after. It became normal for Mansfield and Murry to live apart, which Mansfield used as the basis of her story The Man Without a Temperament. Swapping tuberculosis for heart disease, Mansfield wrote about a man who is scorned for leaving his poorly wife behind while he goes for a walk. 

In May 1921, Mansfield and Ida visited the Swiss bacteriologist Henri Spahlinge in Switzerland in search of tuberculosis treatment. In June, Murry joined her, and they rented a chalet in the canton of Valais. While undergoing treatment, Mansfield wrote rapidly, fearing she had little time left. The majority of her short stories from this period were published in The Garden Party and Other Stories in 1922. This publication received mixed reviews from critics. Some argued it left them cold, and others claimed it to be a selection of her best works.

One story, The Daughters of the Late Colonel, is regarded as Mansfield’s finest work. It concerns the lives of two sisters, Josephine and Constantia, who are trying to come to terms with the death of their father. Mansfield emphasised that middle-class women brought up in old-fashioned ways do not know how to fend for themselves. Their father always made decisions about their lives, and without him, the sisters are lost. Readers have interpreted the story differently. For some, this is the sisters’ chance to live their life as they wish; for others, the sisters face perpetual misery, unable to live without their father. Although she did not make it clear in her writing, Mansfield favoured the latter outcome, saying to a friend: “All was meant, of course, to lead up to that last paragraph, when my two flowerless ones turned with that timid gesture, to the sun. ‘Perhaps now’. And after that, it seemed to me, they died as truly as Father was dead.”

In early 1922, Mansfield gave up on tuberculosis treatment in Switzerland and searched for alternative methods. A form of x-ray treatment in Paris caused her painful side effects and failed to improve her condition. Mansfield and Murray briefly returned to Switzerland, where Mansfield finished her final short story, The Canary. After this, they visited London before moving permanently to Fontainebleau in France. Here, Mansfield lived as a guest at the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man under the care of Olgivanna Lazovitch Hinzenburg (1898-1985), the future wife of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959).

Katherine Mansfield’s Tombstone at Cimetiere d’Avon in Avon France

On 9th January 1923, after running up a flight of stairs, Katherine Mansfield suffered a fatal pulmonary haemorrhage. Her husband failed to pay for her funeral expenses, so she was buried in a pauper’s grave until he rectified the situation. After this, Mansfield was interred at Cimetiere d’Avon, Avon, near Fontainebleau.

Many of Mansfield’s stories remained unpublished at the time of her death. Gradually, Murry compiled them into volumes and printed them as The Dove’s Nest in 1923 and Something Childish in 1924. He also published a collection of her poems (The AloeNovels and Novelists), letters and journals.

Despite spending half her life in Europe, Mansfield is most known in her home country. About ten schools in New Zealand have a school house named in her honour. Her birthplace is preserved as the Katherine Mansfield House and Garden, which is open to the public. There is also an award called the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship, which allows a writer from New Zealand to work in one of Mansfield’s former homes in France.

In the 1970s, the BBC serialised Katherine Mansfield’s life in a miniseries called A Picture of Katherine Mansfield, starring Vanessa Redgrave (b.1937). Apart from this, little is done to keep the memory of Katherine Mansfield alive in Britain. For such a prolific writer, she remains unknown to many. If Mansfield had lived longer than 34 years, she would easily have exceeded the number of works by some of today’s most loved writers. 


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Sir Giles Gilbert Scott

Sir Giles Gilbert Scott

During his career, English architect, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, worked on several buildings, including the New Bodleian Library, Battersea Power Station and Liverpool Cathedral. He blended Gothic and modern styles in his architectural designs, resulting in many well-known landmarks. Yet, it is not only these buildings for which we remember him. Scott’s most famous creation was the iconic red telephone box, which still appears on streets in the United Kingdom, Malta, Bermuda and Gibraltar.

Born in Hampstead, London, on 9th November 1880, Giles was one of six children born to George Gilbert Scott Jr. (1839-1897) and Ellen King Sampson. Both his father and grandfather were architects, and the latter, Sir Gilbert Scott (1811-78), produced designs for the Albert Memorial in Kensington and the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras Station. Yet, neither man inspired the young Giles’ interest in architecture; that was his mother.

In 1883, Giles’ father experienced a mental breakdown, which resulted in a lengthy stay at the Bethlem Royal Hospital. The children rarely saw their father and grew close to their mother, who lived in a flat in Battersea. At the weekends and school holidays, they often visited Hollis Street Farm, near Ninfield, Sussex, bequeathed to them by their uncle. On such occasions, Ellen took her sons on trips around the county to study the architecture of impressive buildings. No doubt she wanted her children to learn about their father’s passions rather than his mental illness.

The Scotts were Roman Catholics and Giles attended Beaumont College, run by the Society of Jesus. Yet, the choice of school had little to do with religion, but rather the architecture of the establishment. Due to his father’s reputation and his mother’s encouragement, Giles naturally sought an apprenticeship with an architect after finishing school. In 1899, Giles joined the office of Temple Moore (1856-1920), who once studied with his father. As well as teaching Giles about architecture, Moore taught his pupil about his father’s work, making him feel closer to the man who had been absent for most of his childhood.

Giles Gilbert Scott’s winning design

In 1901, the diocese of Liverpool announced a competition to design a new cathedral. Two well-known architects were assigned to judge the submissions: George Frederick Bodley (1827-1907), who had connections with the decorative arts manufacturer Morris & Co., and Richard Norman Shaw (1831-1912), the designer of the Piccadilly Hotel in London. At least 103 architects entered the competition, including Temple Moore who also allowed his pupil to submit an entry. Remarkably, Bodley and Shaw selected Scott as the winning architect.

Unsurprisingly, many contested the result, arguing that a 22-year-old with no experience was not a good enough architect for the job. Nonetheless, the diocese accepted Bodley and Shaw’s choice, although asked Bodley to oversee the work. Unfortunately, Bodley had commitments in the United States and was rarely on hand to support the young architect. As a result, the process was slow and frustrating, causing Scott to contemplate handing in his resignation. Before Scott could put this thought into action, Bodley unexpectedly passed away in 1907, leaving Scott in charge of the project.

Scott’s 1910 redesign

Without Bodley to hold him back, Scott made rapid progress with the cathedral, but he no longer liked his original idea. After receiving permission from the diocese, Scott redesigned the building, making it simpler and symmetrical, allowing for more interior space. By the end of 1910, the first part of the building – the Lady Chapel – was constructed and consecrated, but the First World War slowed down the rest of the work.

The main body of the cathedral was erected in 1924 and consecrated in the presence of King George V (1865-1936) and Queen Mary (1867-1953). The Second World War caused problems with the construction and, although Scott worked on the project for the rest of his life, he never saw the finished cathedral. The building works finally came to an end in 1978.

Although Scott spent his entire career working on Liverpool Cathedral, he simultaneously produced designs for other buildings. His first completed construction was the Roman Catholic Church of the Annunciation in Bournemouth, followed by other churches in Norfolk, Kent, and the Isle of Man. He also worked on a house in Surrey with his brother, Adrian (1882-1963). During the First World War, while work on Liverpool Cathedral slowed, Scott became a Major in the Royal Marines and oversaw the construction of sea defences on the English coast.

While working in Liverpool, Scott met and married Louise Wallbank Hughes. His mother expressed disapproval about their relationship because Louise was a protestant, but the marriage was a happy one. The couple had three sons, although one died in infancy. One son, Richard Gilbert Scott (1923-2017), worked on several buildings at the London Guildhall amongst other constructions.

During the 1920s, Scott’s reputation as an architect soared, earning him many commissions. Cambridge University, for example, hired him to design a memorial court outside Clare College. Several churches also sought Scott’s expertise, including the Benedictine monastery Downside Abbey, for whom he produced a new nave. In Bath, Scott received the commission to design the Church of Our Lady & St Alphege, which he described as his “first essay into the Romanesque style of architecture.” He later declared the church one of his favourite works.

Chester House

Scott did not produce many domestic buildings during his career, but he is celebrated for the Cropthorne Court mansion block in Maida Vale. Scott also designed a house for his family in Clarendon Place, Paddington, called Chester House, where he lived for the rest of his life. The construction earned him the medal for London street architecture of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1928 and is now on the Grade II list for the National Heritage List for England.

K2 red telephone boxes preserved as a tourist attraction near Covent Garden

Scott’s most iconic design of the 1920s was his entry to a competition held by the Royal Fine Art Commission. They asked architects to submit ideas for the General Post Office’s new public telephone box. The first standard public telephone kiosk (K1) installed in 1921 did not meet everyone’s approval, particularly in London. The competition of 1924 aimed to find a design that suited the London Metropolitan Boroughs.

The dome of Sir John Soane’s mausoleum

Shortly before the competition opened, Scott became a trustee of the Sir John Soane’s Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. The museum, formerly the home of the neo-classical architect, John Soane (1753-1837), contains drawings and architectural models of Soane’s projects, plus the paintings and antiquities he collected throughout his career. With this new position fresh in his mind, Scott based his entry on the dome of Soane’s mausoleum, which Soane designed before his death. 

The Post Office selected Scott’s entry as the winning design, although they wished to make a few changes. Whilst they kept the shape, they decided to paint it red like their postboxes, rather than silver with a greeny-blue interior as Scott suggested. They also rejected Scott’s proposal to build the kiosk from steel, in preference to cast iron. By 1926, the new telephone box (K2) appeared on the streets of London. Over time, alterations were made, but the general shape of Scott’s design remains the same. K4, for example, combined the telephone box with a stamp-machine, but various technical issues rendered them useless. K6, a shorter, streamlined version, appeared in 1936 to mark the Silver Jubilee of George V (1865-1936), and it is this version that proved most popular. Examples of the original K2 boxes are displayed near Covent Garden.

Battersea Power Station

At the beginning of the 1930s, the London Power Company hired Scott as a consulting architect for their new power station at Battersea. Electrical engineer Leonard Pearce (1873-1947) had already drawn up designs for the building, but they desired Scott’s input on the external appearance. The public was not happy about a coal-fired power station appearing on their doorstep, so Scott’s task was to make it look as attractive as possible. Scott opted for a brick-cathedral style, remodelling the four chimneys to look like classical columns. The interior designer tried to match Scott’s design by adding Art Deco components to the control rooms. When Battersea Power Station opened in 1933, critics labelled it “one of the finest sights in London”.

In 1933, the Royal Institute of British Architects elected Scott as their president. He encouraged architects to think about their choice of technique and materials to create practical but beautiful buildings, as he was then doing in Cambridge. The University asked Scott to build a library next to the memorial court he developed the previous decade. The library was to replace the old, impractical building that did not have room for Cambridge University’s growing collection of books. Scott designed a large reading room featuring a 12 storey tower, which is visible for several miles around the city.

Weston Library, Oxford

After completing the Cambridge University Library, Scott travelled to Oxford to work on their main research library. The Weston Library, or New Bodleian Library as it is also known, needed to be large enough to accommodate several millions of books. So as not to produce a construction that towered high above the surrounding buildings, Scott dug deep into the ground so that only part of the library is visible at street level. Conscious that the rest of the street featured a mix of architectural styles from Gothic (16th century) to Victorian (19th century), Scott opted for something in between: Jacobean (17th century). Unfortunately, it is not considered one of his greatest works.

Scott often searched for the “middle line” when producing designs. He combined modern architecture with the age of the surrounding buildings. Whilst this technique generally worked well, the Bishop of Coventry, who wished him to draw up plans for a modern cathedral, rejected his proposals. The Royal Fine Arts Commission, on the other hand, thought the new cathedral should resemble the old and not contain any contemporary elements. Despite working on the project for five years, Scott resigned in 1947 because he felt unable to satisfy both parties.

The Second World War temporarily halted many projects, but in the aftermath, many bombed-out buildings needed reconstructing. The House of Commons hired Scott to rebuild the Commons Chamber at the Palace of Westminster. On this occasion, Scott decided not to search for a middle line, but rather design something that complemented the rest of the palace. After a fire in 1834, British architect Charles Barry (1795-1860), remodelled the building in a Gothic style, which designer Augustus Pugin (1812-52) augmented with the interior design. Scott argued that any other architectural style would clash with the surviving parts, and after much discussion, Parliament approved his proposal.

Tate Modern

Gradually, post-war repair work died down, and Scott became available to accept other commissions. Although he opposed the mass construction of industrial buildings, Scott agreed to redevelop Bankside Power Station on the River Thames. In some ways, Scott’s design resembled a modern church, with the 99-metre tall chimney standing in the centre. Nonetheless, it was a stark contrast with the magnificent St Paul’s Cathedral on the opposite bank. 

Bankside Power Station closed down in the 1980s, and the Tate Modern art gallery took over the building in 2000. Despite disliking industrial buildings, Scott agreed to design North Tees Power Station in Durham and Rye House Power Station in Hertfordshire. Neither building still stands today.

Scott worked as an architect for the rest of his life, mostly on religious buildings. He designed many Roman Catholic Churches, including Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Kensington and St Anthony’s Church in Preston. He worked on two Anglican churches: St Leonard’s Church in Sussex and St Mark’s Church in the London Borough of Bromley. Scott also drew up the plans for the Trinity College Chapel in Toronto, Canada.

During his late seventies, Scott developed lung cancer, but he was determined to finish all his design projects, even if he would not live to see them built. When he was admitted to the University College Hospital in London, Scott took his plans for the Church of Christ the King in Plymouth with him and worked on them from his hospital bed. By the time he passed away on 8th February 1960 at the age of 79, his final design was complete.

Scott’s grave at Liverpool Cathedral

Giles Gilbert Scott’s funeral took place at St James’s Roman Catholic Church, London, on 17th February 1960 before his body travelled north for burial outside Liverpool Cathedral. Although the cathedral was Scott’s first project, the construction did not finish until 1978, 18 years after his death. In the plans, Scott stipulated that burials were not to take place inside the church because he did not want the cathedral to become a mausoleum. Nonetheless, the Diocese of Liverpool honoured the architect with a memorial stone set into the floor of the cathedral.

For an architect, Scott’s gravestone is rather modest, but who needs a monument when buried next to a cathedral of his own design? Since not many people know his name, Giles Gilbert Scott was probably not a great celebrity during his lifetime, but he did win a few awards. Early in his career, Scott received a knighthood from George V. In 1944, George VI appointed Scott a Member of the Order of Merit (OM).

During his career, Scott designed many buildings, including some that are now familiar landmarks. Arguably, his most famous design is the K2 Telephone Box. Although it is rare to see one in use, the design is synonymous with London and a great tourist attraction. But how many people look at a telephone box and think about the man who made them? The same goes for buildings. We are aware buildings do not just appear, but without the vision of an architect, they would not be built. We must remember and celebrate the lives of people such as Giles Gilbert Scott, for, without them, many famous landmarks would not exist.


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The Most Beautiful Girl in the Midwest

Hazel, Lady Lavery

“The most beautiful girl in the Midwest” is how the Irish historian Dr Sinéad McCoole (b.1968) describes Lady Lavery, an American woman who became the face of Ireland in the 20th century. Married to a painter, Lady Lavery sat for over 400 paintings, including one reproduced on banknotes for more than 50 years. How did an American woman become the most recognisable face in Ireland?

Lady Lavery was born Hazel Martyn in Chicago on 14th March 1880. Her father, Edward Jenner Martyn, was a descendent of a Galway tribe that dominated the Irish county between the 13th and 16th century. Hazel and her sister Dorothea Hope (1887-1911) grew up in relative comfort due to their father’s success as a businessman. Sadly, Edward passed away when his eldest daughter was only 17 years old, but his wealth allowed Hazel to attend finishing school in the city. She earned a reputation in Chicago high society circles for her beauty, which attracted many suitors, including Edward “Ned” Livingston Trudeau Jr, the son of the doctor who made progress with tuberculosis treatment.

Hazel and her sister enjoyed the arts and, whilst Dorothy aspired to be a playwright, Hazel set her sights on becoming a painter. She regularly visited Europe in pursuit of her dreams, while her fiancé Trudeau waited for her return. On one trip, Hazel attended an artists’ retreat in Brittany, France. Here, she met the Irish painter John Lavery (1856-1941), famed for his portraits and landscapes. Writing home to her mother, Hazel described Lavery with great fondness. Her mother disapproved of the relationship because of their 24 year age difference and urged Hazel to return home to her fiancé.

In 1903, Hazel and Trudeau married in New York. Sadly, five months later, Trudeau tragically died, leaving behind his widow and unborn child. On 10th October 1904, Hazel gave birth to Alice, but it was not an easy pregnancy, and she took several months to recover. In June 1905, Hazel and her mother travelled to the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire, England, to aid her recovery. While there, she received several visits from Lavery, with whom she had regularly corresponded since her husband’s death.

On one visit, Lavery painted his first portrait of Hazel and made his affections clear. Hazel’s mother continued to oppose the match and rarely let the couple spend time alone. On a trip to Italy in 1906, Hazel accepted a marriage proposal from Leonard Thomas, a wealthy diplomat, but the relationship did not last. Meanwhile, Hazel remained in contact with Lavery and, after her mother passed away in 1909, they married and moved to London. For a brief time, Hazel divided her time between England and America. After her sister died in 1911 from anorexia nervosa, Hazel cut ties with her birth country.

John Lavery

Whilst born in Belfast, John Lavery grew up in Scotland where he associated with the Glasgow School of art. Lavery launched his career as a society painter after receiving the commission to paint Queen Victoria’s (1819-1901) visit to the Glasgow International Exhibition. After moving to London in 1889, Lavery befriended artists such as James Abbott Whistler (1834-1903) who greatly influenced his work.

In London, Lavery married Kathleen MacDermott with whom he had a daughter, Eileen (1890-1930). Sadly, Kathleen passed away from tuberculosis shortly after the birth of her daughter. By the time Lavery met and married Hazel Martyn, he was a well-established artist in the capital city.

Mrs Lavery sketching, 1910

During their early years of marriage, Hazel acted as a London society hostess, welcoming prestigious guests to dinners and soirees or her husband’s studio for a portrait sitting. Whilst Hazel sat for the majority of Lavery’s portraits he also took on commissions. Flirtatious in nature, Hazel enjoyed being the centre of attention, particularly around male guests. Lavery tolerated this vice, but others gossiped about rumoured affairs.

There is no evidence that Hazel did conduct an affair, although she did correspond with many men. Amongst those to whom she regularly wrote are the authors Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953), George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), Lytton Strachey (1880-1932) and W.B. Yeats (1865-1939). She also knew many politicians due to her husband’s position as an official artist for the British government during the First World War. Future Prime Minister, Winston Churchill (1874-1965) famously asked Hazel to teach him to paint during his portrait sittings.

The Artist’s Studio: Lady Lavery with her Daughter Alice and Step-Daughter Eileen

In 1918, John Lavery received a knighthood, making him and his wife Sir and Lady Lavery. The same year, Hazel and John took an active interest in their Irish roots, particularly after the Sinn Féin election victory. Churchill mentioned in his letters to Hazel about his concerns over the growing tensions between Britain and Ireland. The Lavery’s had many social and political contacts in both countries and wished to help bring peace between the nations.

The Laverys lent their house at 5 Cromwell Place in South Kensington as a neutral location for negotiations for the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The Prime Minister David Lloyd George (1863-1945) led the British side with Churchill as Colonial Secretary. Michael Collins (1890-1922), an Irish politician, headed the Irish delegation. Both Churchill and Collins were regular visitors to the Lavery’s house and were grateful to Lady Lavery for her hospitality.

Collins grew fond of Hazel and rumours flew about a potential affair. Some biographers claim Hazel loved Collins, whereas others say there is no proof of a romantic relationship. Nonetheless, members of the delegation questioned their closeness, fearing Hazel to be a spy. She appeased them by calling herself a “simple Irish girl” and converting to Catholicism.

Due to their connections with both British and Irish politicians, the Lavery’s home became a safe place for discussions away from the hostile environment of the courts. Hazel’s presence often diffused bitterness, allowing peaceful talks to take place. Many letters written by Hazel reveal her organisation skills and a gift of persuasion, which helped the negotiations run smoothly. Although Hazel came from America and lived in England, her Irish roots bridged the gap between the warring nations.

Michael Collins: Love of Ireland by John Lavery

The Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed on 6th December 1921, thus ending the three-year Irish War of Independence. Ireland gained its freedom, although arguments regarding the status of Northern Ireland continued. Civil War broke out in Ireland and, despite attempts to talk peacefully, Michael Collins was assassinated on 22nd August 1922. Rumours of an affair between Collins and Lady Lavery flew once more when a letter addressed to “Dearest Hazel” was found on his body. Yet, the gossipers were silenced at his funeral when Collins’ fiancé Kitty Kiernan embraced Hazel as though a close friend. As the Irish biographer Anita Leslie (1914-85) put it, Hazel and Collins were “soul mates rather than bed mates”.

Until 1922, Ireland used the British pound; after gaining independence, they wished to create a new currency. Many discussions took place within the Irish government until September 1927, when they publicly introduced their idea of a “Saorstàt Pound”. (Saorstàt is the Irish word for “free state”.) The government planned to issue new coins and banknotes but needed to think carefully about their design. Joseph Brennan (1887-1976), the Chairman of the Currency Commission, set up an advisory committee to discuss design proposals.

Lavery’s portrait of Hazel for the Irish banknotes

The committee approached several artists and printers before commissioning John Lavery to paint an “emblematic female figure” to appear on the new notes. They chose Lavery due to his ongoing support during the war and peace talks as well as his artistic ability. Whereas British notes featured the reigning monarch, the Irish government wanted “an archetypical Irish Cailín or Colleen, symbolic of Irish womanhood.” (Cailín is the Irish word for “girl”.) As the committee expected, Lavery asked his wife to sit for the portrait.

“I really feel that you are too kind and generous when you suggest that my humble head should figure on the note, and you know I said from the first that I thought it wildly improbable, unlikely, impractical, unpopular, impossible that any committee would fall in with such a suggestion. Indeed apart from anything else I think a classic head, some Queen of Ireland, Maeve perhaps, would be best, someone robust and noble and fitted for coinage reproduction …”

Lady Lavery in a letter to Thomas Bodkin on the advisory committee

Having her portrait painted by her husband was not a new thing for Hazel, but knowing she would soon be on every banknote in Ireland was a little unnerving. Nonetheless, Lavery produced a faithful likeness of his wife with her arm resting upon an Irish harp. In the background, he included an Irish landscape. The shawl Hazel wore was also typical of the country. The government paid Lavery 250 guineas for the painting, and the first notes featuring Hazel’s face arrived in September 1928.

The public automatically assumed the portrait on the new notes was Hazel Lavery. Not only had John Lavery painted it, but the likeness was evident. The government attempted to protect Hazel’s identity by openly denying that she was the sitter. They worried people would not accept the notes because of Hazel’s reputation as a flirt and the rumours surrounding her relationship with the late Michael Collins. Fortunately, the public readily accepted the new notes, and the identity of the sitter remained anonymous.

Following the success of the new banknotes, John Lavery received the Freedom of Dublin. Despite this, the Laverys decided to remain living in London, although they frequently visited Ireland. Initially, Hazel remained involved with Irish politics, but changes within the political parties distanced her from those in charge. Lavery continued to paint portraits of his wife and produced other artworks for exhibitions. During this time, Hazel’s health, which had never been good, began to deteriorate.

After a routine operation to remove a wisdom tooth, Hazel passed away on 1st January 1935, aged 54. Her funeral took place at the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in the Knightsbridge area of London, followed by a simple burial in Putney Vale Cemetery. In Ireland, her death received more attention, and the government arranged a memorial service.

Lady Lavery by John Lavery

Although many portraits survive of Lady Hazel Lavery, the paintings she produced during her lifetime are missing. As Churchill’s cousin Sir Shane Leslie (1885-1971), said, “Had it not been for Hazel’s portrait as the colleen of Irish banknotes, her features and even her name would now be forgotten in a land which has never accounted gratitude amongst its theological virtues”. Without the banknotes, which Ireland used until the introduction of the Euro in 2002, Hazel’s involvement with the Anglo-Irish Treaty would remain unknown.

In many cases, women are written out of history, not out of malicious intent, but because society did not consider them important at the time. It is with thanks to historians who wondered about the identity of the Irish Cailín on Ireland’s old banknotes that we know anything at all about Lady Lavery. As a result, we have an intriguing story about an American woman who became the face of Ireland. It is a great shame Hazel’s paintings are lost, and that we know little else about her personal life. Hazel’s story contains many unanswered questions but also opens our eyes to the possibilities of many more hidden histories.


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Unfinished Business: Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft – John Opie

Mary Wollstonecraft received a mention in the Unfinished Business exhibition held at the British Library for her publication, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). In this book, Wollstonecraft argued women only appeared inferior to men because they did not receive the same education opportunities. She encouraged her readers to treat both men and women equally as rational beings.

Whilst the Library praised Wollstonecraft for her philosophy, it said nothing about who she was as a person, other than the obvious: Mary Shelley’s (1791-1851) mother. Her daughter indeed is the more famous of the two women, but we ought to remember Wollstonecraft as a person, a philosopher, an advocate of women’s rights and a writer, not just a mother.

Born to Elizabeth Dixon and Edward John Wollstonecraft on 27th April 1759 in Spitalfields, London, Mary had a comfortable life until her father lost his money through risky investments. The family relocated several times to cheaper locations, but they never had enough money to live comfortable lives. What little money they did have, her father spent on drink, often coming home in drunken rages. At night, Mary slept outside her mother’s door to protect her from the violent drunkard.

Wollstonecraft found solace through her friendship with Jane Arden (1758-1840), who she met while living in Yorkshire. The pair enjoyed reading and often attended lectures given by Arden’s father about science and philosophy. These intellectual opportunities inspired Wollstonecraft to think of and form ideas of her own. Another friend, Fanny Blood (1758-85), is credited with opening Wollstonecraft’s mind. They made plans to live together and support each other emotionally and financially, but reality got in the way of their dreams.

To escape her unhappy family home, Wollstonecraft found a position as a lady’s companion in 1778. Unfortunately, she did not get on well with the elderly widow and left two years later when her mother became seriously unwell. After Wollstonecraft’s mother passed away, she left the family home for the second time, moving in with Fanny Blood and her brother Lieutenant George Blood (1762-1844). To make a living, Wollstonecraft and her sisters Everina and Eliza attempted to help Fanny Blood set up a school and boarding house in Newington Green. The school failed to take off, and Fanny relocated to Portugal with her new husband Hugh Skeys. Wollstonecraft followed a few months later to care for her pregnant, but poorly friend. Sadly, Fanny passed away during childbirth.

Engraved frontispiece for the 1791 edition of Original Stories, by William Blake

After Fanny died in 1785, grief-stricken Wollstonecraft obtained a governess position for a family in Ireland. She did not get on well with the lady of the house, but the children adored her. Many of Wollstonecraft’s experiences as a governess made it into her children’s book, Original Stories from Real Life (1788), later republished with illustrations by William Blake. The stories describe the education of two fictional girls, Mary and Caroline. Rather than focus on Accademia, Wollstonecraft describes the girls’ moral and ethical education as they grow up to be mature adults. Around the same time, Wollstonecraft wrote the feminist novel Mary: A Fiction, loosely based on the death of Fanny Blood.

Although Wollstonecraft enjoyed teaching her Irish pupils, she lamented the lack of job opportunities for women in her position. After only a year of working as a governess, she decided to try a career as an author. Wollstonecraft moved to Southwark in London and, with the radical publisher Joseph Johnson (1738-1809), produced her first two books. To aid her writing career, Wollstonecraft learnt French and German, earning money by translating texts. She also wrote reviews of novels for the periodical Analytical Review.

Wollstonecraft in 1790–91 – John Opie

By attending dinners with Johnson, Wollstonecraft met many radical celebutantes, including the Swiss artist Henry Fuseli (1741-1825). Attracted by his genius, Wollstonecraft began an affair with Fuseli, knowing full well he was already married. When Fuseli’s wife learnt of the relationship, he broke it off with Wollstonecraft, who fled to France to avoid humiliation. Around this time, she wrote the political pamphlet A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in a Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke; Occasioned by His Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) in response to the critique of the French Revolution written by Irish statesman Edmund Burke (1729-97). Initially, Wollstonecraft published the argument anonymously but a second edition revealed her name, making her famous overnight.

Unlike Burke, who supported the French royal family, Wollstonecraft believed the French Revolution to be a “glorious chance to obtain more virtue and happiness than hitherto blessed our globe.” Burke called the women of the revolution “furies from hell, in the abused shape of the vilest of women”, to which Wollstonecraft responded, “you mean women who gained a livelihood by selling vegetables or fish, who never had any advantages of education.”

Wollstonecraft followed her pamphlet, A Vindication of the Rights of Men, with an 87,000-word booklet about women’s rights to education. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (1792) is one of the first books about feminism published in the 18th century. Wollstonecraft believed women should receive an education that befitted their social class because society often expected women to educate their children. She argued that women were not possessions or property, but human beings with the same rights and needs as men. Wollstonecraft called for equality in particular areas, but some traditional stereotypes continued to cloud her judgement in other spheres.

Against advice, Wollstonecraft moved to Paris in December 1792, where she witnessed first-hand the French Revolution. She witnessed the trial of Louis XVI (1754-93) before the National Assembly and, despite supporting the revolution, found “tears flow[ing] insensibly from my eyes, when I saw Louis sitting, with more dignity than I expected from his character, in a hackney coach going to meet death, where so many of his race have triumphed.” Shortly after the king’s execution on 21st January 1793, France declared war on Britain. Fearfully, Wollstonecraft attempted to travel to Switzerland, who denied her entry.

Wollstonecraft’s support of the revolution did little to protect her in war-torn Paris. The French forbade all foreigners from leaving the country and kept them under police surveillance. They also needed to apply for a residency permit, which involved producing six statements from French citizens to prove their loyalty. Some of Wollstonecraft’s friends in France lost their heads for supporting the Girondins rather than the Jacobins, who were currently in power. Having shared similar sentiments to her friends, Wollstonecraft feared for her life.

During the Reign of Terror, foreigners tended to band together, which is how Wollstonecraft met the American businessman Gilbert Imlay (1754-1828). Despite dismissing sexual relationships in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft fell in love with Imlay. Sleeping with Imlay out of wedlock challenged conventional practices concerning marriage, yet their relationship proved to be Wollstonecraft’ saving grace from the guillotine. Wollstonecraft refused to bow down to Jacobin-rule, which denied women equal rights to men. This put her under suspicion, and her family back home in Britain feared she would lose her head. By October 1793, the Girondin leaders were dead, and their followers were the next targets of the government. To protect her from arrest, Imlay claimed to the authorities that he had married her, making Wollstonecraft an American citizen.

“It is impossible for you to have any idea of the impression the sad scenes I have been a witness to have left on my mind … death and misery, in every shape of terrour, haunts this devoted country—I certainly am glad that I came to France, because I never could have had else a just opinion of the most extraordinary event that has ever been recorded.”

Mary Wollstonecraft in a letter to her sister, Everina

On 14th May 1794, Wollstonecraft gave birth to a baby girl, named Frances “Fanny” (1794-1816) after her late friend Fanny Blood. Imlay initially adored his daughter but soon got bored of domestic life and left, promising Wollstonecraft he would eventually return. In his absence, Wollstonecraft wrote An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution, which she sent to London for publication. Imlay never returned.

The Jacobins fell in July 1794, but life remained difficult for Wollstonecraft. A harsh winter plagued the continent; rivers froze over, preventing deliveries of much-needed coal and food. Many people died from starvation in the French capital, but Wollstonecraft managed to survive, holding on to hope that Imlay would return. After the winter thawed, Wollstonecraft left France for England, arriving in April 1795.

In London, Wollstonecraft located the missing Imlay who made it clear their relationship had ended. In her distress, Wollstonecraft attempted suicide, but Imlay saved her. Mistaking his actions for affection, Wollstonecraft travelled to Scandinavia on his behalf to conduct business negotiations. She believed Imlay would be pleased with her and wish to rekindle their romance. Taking her daughter Fanny with her, Wollstonecraft embarked on a hazardous trip across northern Europe, which she recorded in Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, published in 1796. The book of twenty-five letters inspired many poets and writers, such as William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834).

On her return to London, Wollstonecraft realised there was no hope for her relationship with Imlay. She wrote a letter to Imlay saying, “Let my wrongs sleep with me! Soon, very soon, shall I be at peace. When you receive this, my burning head will be cold … I shall plunge into the Thames where there is the least chance of my being snatched from the death I seek. God bless you! May you never know by experience what you have made me endure. Should your sensibility ever awake, remorse will find its way to your heart; and, in the midst of business and sensual pleasure, I shall appear before you, the victim of your deviation from rectitude.” Fortunately, a passing stranger pulled Wollstonecraft out of the Thames, saving her life.

William Godwin – James Northcote,

For some time, Wollstonecraft focused her attentions on her daughter Fanny until she felt able to return to the literary circle. Through her publisher, Wollstonecraft met the novelist and critic William Godwin (1756-1836) who said of her Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, “If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book.” Godwin did, indeed, fall in love with Wollstonecraft and she soon fell pregnant. Godwin and Wollstonecraft married on 29th March 1797 so that their child would be legitimate. Godwin also adopted Fanny, who believed him to be her real father until she learnt otherwise nine years later. 

The Godwin’s moved to Somers Town in North West London where they spent a few months in a happy, stable relationship. Godwin rented a nearby apartment, so that both he and Wollstonecraft could focus on their work without distraction. Heavily pregnant, Wollstonecraft had little opportunity to complete any of her writings.

On 30th August 1797, Wollstonecraft gave birth to her second daughter Mary (1797-1851), the future Mary Shelley. Initially, all went well, but the placenta had torn during the delivery, causing an infection. Wollstonecraft lay in agony for over a week, passing away from septicaemia on 10th September. Speaking of her death, Godwin wrote “I firmly believe there does not exist her equal in the world. I know from experience we were formed to make each other happy. I have not the least expectation that I can now ever know happiness again.” He expressed his grief through his publication Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which went into great detail about his wife’s life and personality. The book received a lot of criticism from those who thought wrong of Godwin to expose her unladylike qualities. This was not Godwin’s intention; he wished to celebrate the life of a woman who had overcome hardships to become a successful author.

Unfortunately, Godwin’s memoirs ruined Wollstonecraft’s reputation, and her work fell out of favour. Satirists mocked her ideas, and some writers used her as an example to teach their readers a moral lesson. On the other hand, one writer respected Wollstonecraft and used several of her views in her novels. Although she never mentioned Wollstonecraft by name, Jane Austen (1775-1817) respected her opinions and scholars have found comparable traits in Austen’s characters. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet speaks of female accomplishments, and Sense and Sensibility contains similar themes to Wollstonecraft’s novel Mary. Mansfield Park draws attention to the treatment of women in society, and Anne Eliot, in Persuasion, is better qualified to look after the family estate than her father.

As feminism movements developed, Wollstonecraft’s popularity began to grow once more. Authors, such as Virginia Woolf (1888-1941), openly declared their respect for Wollstonecraft’s ideas. Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847-1929), leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), claimed Wollstonecraft as the foremother of the struggle for the vote. By the 1960s, Wollstonecraft’s books were back on the shelves, and many women have found comfort in her writing. The former Muslim author Ayaan Hirsi Ali (b.1969) wrote she felt “inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft, the pioneering feminist thinker who told women they had the same ability to reason as men did and deserved the same rights.”

A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft in Newington Green, London

Over time, plaques have appeared on or near buildings where Wollstonecraft once lived. This year, British artist Maggi Hambling (b.1945) unveiled a statue of Wollstonecraft in Newington Green, London. This is Hambling’s second sculpture to appear in London, the other being A Conversation with Oscar Wilde near Trafalgar Square, but this latest addition has caused controversy. 

A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft features a naked female figure emerging from “a swirling mingle of female forms”. On the plinth, an inscription quotes Wollstonecraft: “I do not wish women to have power over men but over themselves.” Hambling intended the female figure to represent all women, but many critics assumed it to be a likeness of Wollstonecraft. They were critical of its nudity, including pubic hair, but Hambling maintained she wanted to move away from the traditional depiction of the female body and produce something more realistic instead. “Statues in historic costume look like they belong to history because of their clothes. It’s crucial that she is ‘now’.”

Wollstonecraft will soon feature in the library of Trinity College Dublin, which, until now, has been home to forty busts of literary men. Wollstonecraft is one of four women to join the marble collection. The other women are the scientist Rosalind Franklin (1920-58), the dramatist Augusta Gregory (1852-1932), and the mathematician Ada Lovelace (1815-52). They were chosen from a list of 500 pioneering women.

Gradually, Mary Wollstonecraft’s work is gaining more popularity than her unsavoury reputation at the time of her death. She is more than Mary Shelley’s mother; she is a woman who dared to speak out against gender stereotypes and equality. She is the first of many women to start the ball rolling for women’s rights, and for that, we should be eternally grateful.

Other blogs in the Unfinished Business series:
Vesta Tilley
Harriet Martineau
The Edinburgh Seven
Mary Macarthur

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Papa Haydn

Papa Haydn’s dead and gone
  but his memory lingers on.
When his mood was one of bliss
  he wrote jolly tunes like this.

“Papa Haydn” was the affectionate name bestowed on Franz Joseph Haydn, the father of the symphony and the string quartet, by musicians who worked for him. The nickname caught on, and people far and wide adopted the term for the older composer, including Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91). But who was Haydn, other than the composer of over 100 symphonies and over 80 string quartets?

Franz Joseph Haydn, born on 31st March 1732, grew up in the Austrian village Rohrau, where his father, Mathias Haydn (1699-1763) served as Marktrichter or mayor. In his younger years, Mathias learnt to play the harp by ear, although he never learnt how to read music. Haydn’s mother Maria could not read music either, yet Haydn’s childhood was very musical, often singing with his neighbours. 

Haydn’s younger brother Michael (1737-1806) was also musically gifted, and their parents worried the village of Rohrau was not the right place for them to enhance their skills. When Haydn was only six years old, his parents sent him to a relative and schoolmaster called Johann Matthias Frankh in Hainburg. As Frankh’s apprentice, Haydn trained as a musician and never returned to his parents. Haydn learnt to play the harpsichord and violin under Frankh’s tuition but suffered neglect in other ways, such as nourishment and clothing. Fortunately, his passion for singing was his saving grace.

The people of Hainburg heard Haydn singing the treble parts in the church choir and brought him to the attention of the composer Georg von Reutter (1708-72). Reutter was the director of music at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna and was on the lookout for fresh talent. After several months of training, Haydn moved to the Kapellhaus in Vienna with Reutter where he worked as a chorister for nine years. His brother Michael joined him there in 1745.

Joseph, Michael and the other choirboys received an academic education as well as voice, violin, and keyboard lessons. The tuition lacked musical theory and composition, but Haydn picked up some of this knowledge through practice and performance. St. Stephen’s Cathedral was a leading European music centre and attracted large aristocratic audiences for whom Haydn and the other boys performed.

As Haydn got older, his voice changed, making him unsuitable for Reutter’s choir. He also had a reputation as a practical joker and, after going one joke too far, was caned and dismissed from the school in 1745. With the help of a friend, who provided Haydn with accommodation, Haydn started working as a freelance musician. Jobs included working as a music teacher and singing on the streets until 1752 when he found a position as valet-accompanist to the Italian composer Nicola Porpora (1686-1768). With Porpora’s help, Haydn learnt “the true fundamentals of composition”.

Working with Porpora, Haydn realised his education lacked music theory and composition. To rectify this, Haydn worked his way through books by Johann Joseph Fux (1660-1741) and studied the works of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-88). As his skills improved, so did his public reputation, which earned him a commission to write his first opera Der krumme Teufel (The Limping Devil). Whilst it premiered successfully in 1753 critics soon closed it down because of the uncensored “offensive remarks” in the libretto, written by Johann Joseph Felix Kurtz. 

Between 1754 and 56, Haydn returned to freelance work, including for the court in Vienna. He obtained aristocratic patronage, eventually being employed as a Kapellmeister or music director by Count Karl Joseph Morzin. Haydn’s roles included leading the count’s orchestra, for which he composed his first symphonies. In 1760, Haydn had enough money to marry Maria Anna Theresia Keller (1729–1800), the daughter of an organist. Unfortunately, the marriage was an unhappy one.

Count Morzin suffered financial difficulties and had to let Haydn go in 1761. Fortunately, Haydn immediately received a job offer from Prince Paul II Anton Esterházy (1711-62). The Prince employed Haydn as the vice-Kapellmeister of the Esterházy family, although later promoted him to Kapellmeister in 1766. For this position, the family required Haydn to wear livery and accompany them wherever they went, often to cities in Hungary.

As Kapellmeister, Haydn’s tasks included running the orchestra, composing music, performing for patrons and arranging operas. Until 1779, anything Haydn wrote belonged to the Esterházy family, including approximately 90 symphonies, 13 overtures, two dozen string quartets and around 200 works for the baryton. The baryton, a bowed string instrument, was the preferred choice of Prince Nikolaus I Esterházy (1714-1790) who asked Haydn to write compositions for him until 1775 when he switched the baryton for producing operas, many of which were also composed by Haydn.

In 1779, Haydn renegotiated his contract, which allowed him to publish his works and write for other people. Whilst this allowed him to contact and meet with new people, Haydn felt isolated and lonely in the out-of-the-way home of the Esterházy family. He longed to return to Vienna to visit Mozart, who he had the chance to meet in 1784. Haydn was a great admirer of Mozart’s work, and the young composer reciprocated the feeling by dedicating six quartets to Haydn.

After working for the Esterházy family for 30 years, Haydn finally got his wish for freedom after the death of Prince Nikolaus in 1790. Although the prince’s son Anton (1738-94) kept Haydn on, it was at a lower salary, since Anton dismissed most of the court musicians to save money. Having little use for the composer, Anton allowed Haydn to come and go as he pleased.

German violinist Johann Peter Salomon (1745-1815) invited Haydn to join him on a trip to London, which he readily accepted. Despite never having been to England, Haydn’s works were well-known in the British capital, and Haydn was eager to compose and conduct new symphonies with their large orchestras. After a brief visit to Vienna, where Haydn reunited with Mozart, Salomon and Haydn travelled to Calais, France, via Germany, where he met the young Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Haydn promised that on his return, he would take Beethoven with him to Vienna as his student.

Haydn and Salomon crossed the English Channel on New Year’s Day, 1791 and settled in London. Crowds flocked to see Haydn in concerts where he both performed and conducted. One critic remarked, “Haydn himself presided at the piano-forte; and the sight of that renowned composer so electrified the audience, as to excite an attention and a pleasure superior to any that had ever been caused by instrumental music in England.” As well as his well-known works, Haydn performed new symphonies, most notably Surprise (No. 94), Military (No. 100), Drumroll (No. 103) and London (No. 104).

During the visit, Haydn spent some leisure time in the Hertfordshire countryside. He also travelled to Oxford where the prestigious University awarded him an honorary doctorate. At the ceremony, the orchestra played Haydn’s Symphony No.12, which they afterwards renamed the Oxford Symphony, despite it being a commission by the French Count d’Ogny in 1789. 

As promised, Haydn took Beethoven to Vienna on his return from London. Beethoven had already received tuition from several musicians, but it was Haydn’s reputation that gave Beethoven a boost in his career.

In 1794, Haydn made a second tour of London. He was a familiar figure in the concert scene and attracted much attention. Before he returned to Vienna in 1795, London held a benefit concert nicknamed “Dr Haydn’s night”, which Haydn regarded as the peak of his career. Haydn’s biographer Georg August von Griesinger (1769-1845) noted that the days Haydn spent in England were “the happiest of his life. He was everywhere appreciated there; it opened a new world to him”.

On his return to Vienna, Haydn learnt of his employer’s death. Anton’s son, Prince Nicholas II Esterházy (1765-1833), was his successor and wished Haydn to return to the establishment as Kapellmeister. Haydn reluctantly agreed to return on a part-time basis, spending half the year with the Esterházy family and the other half in Vienna.

By now, Haydn’s popularity in Vienna was as great as it was in London. He continued to compose for the Esterházy family, but his most prominent achievements of this period were collaborations with the librettist Gottfried Freiherr van Swieten (1733-1803). Together, they produced two oratorios: The Creation (1798), based on the Book of Genesis, and The Seasons. Haydn also took inspiration from his time in London where he had heard the crowds singing God Save the King. For the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Francis II (1768-1835), Haydn composed the hymn Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser (God save Francis the Emperor). Germany’s national anthem today continues to use this tune. 

By 1800, Haydn faced the typical health problems that came with old age. He composed his final major work in 1802, a mass called Harmoniemesse for the Esterházy family. After this, it became increasingly difficult for Haydn to write music. Haydn frequently suffered bouts of dizziness and had swollen painful legs. Doctors offered no diagnosis at the time, but the symptoms suggest his body was suffering from high cholesterol and bad diet. Yet, whilst his body became uncooperative, Haydn’s mind remained sharp.

“I must have something to do—usually musical ideas are pursuing me, to the point of torture, I cannot escape them, they stand like walls before me. If it’s an allegro that pursues me, my pulse keeps beating faster, I can get no sleep. If it’s an adagio, then I notice my pulse beating slowly. My imagination plays on me as if I were a clavier. I am really just a living clavier.”

Haydn, 1806

Except for a few futile attempts at composing, Haydn retreated from public life. He remained the Kapellmeister for the Esterházy family, but they employed other musicians to take on many of Haydn’s roles. Nonetheless, Haydn continued to receive public honours, such as concerts in his name, which Haydn attended on an armchair carried by his servants. When he felt strong enough, Haydn played his piano, although limited himself to only his “Emperor’s Hymn” Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser. It was this music that he played on the 26th May 1809 before collapsing. A few days later, Haydn passed away on 31st May at the age of 77.

Haydn’s funeral took place on 15th June in Vienna, a small affair including a performance of Mozart’s requiem. Hundsturm cemetery, where they interred his body, is now known as Haydnpark, although the Esterházy family insisted on moving Haydn’s remains to Eisenstadt in 1820. Yet, when they dug up Haydn’s body, they discovered his skull missing.

The furious Prince Nicholas II deduced the stolen skull was the work of Joseph Carl Rosenbaum and Johann Nepomuk Peter. The two men, who had a strong interest in phrenology, a discredited science, believed they could ascertain Haydn’s genius by measuring the bumps and shape of the skull. Whilst Nicholas was correct in his assumption, the men gave the family a different head, secretly keeping Haydn’s for their studies.

When Rosenbaum died, Haydn’s skull passed from person to person until it became the possession of the Vienna Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Society of the Friends of Music). Learning of this, the Esterházy family set out to reunite Haydn’s head with his body, although this took many years to arrange. Eventually, in 1954, 145 years after the composer’s death, they finally restored Haydn’s head. Not knowing what to do with the substitute skull, the family left it in the tomb thus Haydn’s final resting place contains two skulls.

Looking at Haydn’s skull did not tell the world anything about the composer, but studying his works, letters and biographies reveal his mental traits. Growing up in poverty, Haydn knew the importance of money, making him an astute business dealer. “As regards money, Haydn…always attempted to maximize his income, whether by negotiating the right to sell his music outside the Esterházy court, driving hard bargains with publishers or selling his works three and four times over.” Yet, Haydn gave much of his money to charity and friends. He even taught Mozart’s sons for free after their father’s death.

Haydn’s original manuscripts are evidence of his devout Catholicism. Each composition began with the phrase in nomine Domini “in the name of the Lord” and ended Laus Deo (praise be to God). When troubled, Haydn regularly turned his thoughts to God, a practice he usually found effective.

Haydn attributed many of his compositions to God’s presence in his life. When he did not know how to tackle a particular piece, his prayers to God helped him to find the answer. Often, this meant a change in style or mood of the music, making his critics exclaim, “This Haydn is like a child, for there is no knowing what he will do next.”

These changes were not drastic enough to make them unrecognisable as Haydn’s work, but music historians have noticed a distinct development in Haydn’s output after the year 1779. Until then, Haydn wrote compositions at the request of others. After renegotiating his contract with the Esterházy family, Haydn could publish works without the approval of his employer. Critics often describe these pieces as “purer” than his earlier works. Haydn’s trips to England also brought changes to Haydn’s music, resulting in what one critic called his “popular style”.

Haydn produced a considerable number of compositions during his career, but only a few remain recognisable to modern generations. His operas have disappeared from opera houses, but this does not mean Haydn had no talent. He was, after all, the “superstar” of his day. Without Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart’s work would be unrecognisable today. Haydn set the foundations for symphonies and string quartets, which composers have followed ever since. Without Haydn, the history of music would be completely different.


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Unfinished Business – Vesta Tilley

Shortly before Lockdown 2.0, the British Library opened an exhibition about the fight for women’s rights. Displays about the Women’s Suffrage Movement were popular in 2018, celebrating the centenary of women voting for the first time. Unfinished Business explores other areas of life where women have been given or continue to receive unfair treatment. 

The exhibition explores three areas: body, mind and voice. For years, media has dictated how women should look, what they should wear and how they should appear in public. Magazines are full of airbrushed photographs, showing the (usually male) ideal of the female body. Models appear thinner on paper than in real life and their complexion perfect; the only time a woman appears fat or ugly is in gossip magazines where articles express horror at how she “has let herself go”.

Menstruation continues to be a taboo subject. Not only do men not wish to hear about periods, but they have led women to believe they are disgusting and unnatural when the complete opposite is true. After 48 years of campaigning, sanitary products will be tax-free from 1st January in the United Kingdom, although the Welsh government were recently in trouble when they deemed tampons as non-essential items. 

For hundreds of years, men considered the female mind to be inferior, resulting in limited education and career opportunities. Women were not allowed to attend university until 1868, yet their choices were limited and degrees unattainable. The first woman to receive a degree from the prestigious Cambridge University was Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (1900-2002) in 1948. Even then, it was only an honorary degree.

Until the 20th century, politics was a man’s world. Today, just over 23% of people in national governments are women, and the United Kingdom only has a proportion of 33.8% of women in management roles. Women broke parliamentary barriers in 1924 when Margaret Bondfield (1873-1953) became the first woman to be appointed as a minister. Barriers were broken again in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013) became Prime Minister, and in 1987, Diane Abbott (b.1953) became the first black woman to serve as an MP.

The final section of the exhibition explores women’s voices and their determination to be treated equally. One of the most notable campaigners for women’s rights is Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847-1929), whose statue now stands in Parliament Square in 2018. The British suffragist leader played a vital role in winning women the right to vote.

A century before, novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817) pushed gender boundaries by publishing her books under the name “A Lady” rather than taking a male pseudonym. Most publishers rejected novels written by women, so to advertise her gender, if not her name, was radical for the era.

Women continue to speak up about their unfair treatment, making use of the media, music and protests. In 2018, British activist Stella Dadzie (b.1952), a founder of the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent, designed a board game called “Womanopoly”. Loosely based on the familiar Monopoly, the game exposes the gender stereotypes that continue to plague modern society. Each square has an instruction for male and female players, for example, “Man – you are very aggressive and competitive – seize an extra turn. Woman – so are you. Take a sedative and stop being unfeminine. Lose a turn.” Yet, Dadzie does not only focus on women’s struggles: “Woman – your husband agrees to share all the housework … Take an extra turn. Man – you are ridiculed by your men friends. Back 2.”

The Unfinished Business exhibition acknowledges many women’s voices. As well as notable names, quite a few remain unknown. Going around the displays, visitors discover women who need their stories told. Having noted a few of these names, I plan to dedicate a blog to each individual. 

Vesta Tilley (1864-1952)

Vesta Tilley featured in the exhibition for being one of the most famous male impersonators of her era. Typically playing fops, dandies or principal boys, Tilley became England’s highest-paid woman of the 1890s, yet continued to scandalise people by wearing trousers.

Born Matilda Alice Powles on 13th May 1864 in Worcester, Tilley was the second of thirteen children of Henry and Matilda Powles. Her father, known as Harry Ball, was a musician and the master of ceremonies at the Theatre Royal, Gloucester. With his encouragement, Tilley first experienced life on stage at the age of three and, by six, was singing songs while dressed as a man.

From 1869 onwards, Tilley worked as a professional stage performer. Her first named role was Pocket Sims Reeves, a spoof of the opera singer John Sim Reeves (1821-1900). Tilley performed many of Reeve’s songs, including the traditional piece, The Anchor’s Weighed. Audiences found the young Tilley’s performances sweet and amusing, but Tilley continued to impersonate men throughout her teens and adulthood, including the role of Robinson Crusoe at the age of 13.

“I felt that I could express myself better if I were dressed as a boy.”

Vesta Tilley

Between 1815 and 1918, British Music Hall entertainment flourished, providing audiences with a variety of acts, often on the bold and scandalous side. Vesta Tilley fit the bill perfectly, quickly gaining fame. In 1872, Tilley’s father ceased working to become his daughter’s manager. This meant Tilley was the family’s chief income source.

In 1874, Tilley performed in London for the first time. Due to popular demand, the “Great Little Tilley” attended three different venues every night. Whilst audiences loved her, Edward Hyde Villiers (1846-1914), the manager of the Canterbury Music Hall in Lambeth, worried about the gender ambiguity of her act. “Great Little Tilley” neither suggested she was male or female, which Villiers feared was misleading.

After some thought, Tilley’s father decided on a new name for his daughter’s act: Vesta Tilley. Tilley was a diminutive of her real name, Matilda and Vesta referred to the Latin word for “virgin”. In April 1878, Tilley performed under her new name, Vesta Tilley, for the first time at the Royal Music Hall in Holborn.

Tilley typically performed as a dandy or fop, but also embraced other characters, such as clergymen and police officers. By the 1880s, Tilley was the favourite performer at music halls, resulting in an increased salary. At this time, her favourite character was Burlington Bertie, a young aristocratic man who aspires to a life of leisure in the West End of London.

Dressed as the Burlington Bertie, Tilley sang the song of the same name written by Harry B. Norris. The song has since been parodied several times, particularly under the title Burlington Bertie from Bow. Dame Julie Andrews of Mary Poppins fame performed a rendition of the song while dressed as a man in the 1968 film Star! 

In 1888, Harry Ball passed away, but this did not impact on his daughter’s successful career. Two years later, Tilley married the British theatre impresario Abraham Walter de Frece (1870-1935). The pair met when 25-year-old Tilley starred as the principal boy during the pantomime season at Frece’s father’s Gaiety Music Hall in Liverpool. Frece instantly fell in love with Tilley, but there was a lot of romantic competition amongst other theatre workers. Eventually, Frece managed to take Tilley out to a dance where he expressed his feelings, which she reciprocated. He married “the London Idol” on 16th August 1890 at Brixton Register Office in London.

With her husband as her new manager and songwriter, Tilley completed an extensive tour of Britain followed by six visits to the United States of America. Although she performed within the American vaudeville circuit, Vesta Tilley’s acts were usually family-friendly. By this time, Tilley was the highest-earning woman in England, and in America, theatres offered her $600 a week.

Despite taking on farcical characters, often mocking the upper-classes, Tilley paid a great deal of attention to her attire. At the time, there were no unisex clothing, and female items, particularly underwear, tended to draw attention to a woman’s shape. Not only did Tilley wear male costumes, but she also wore male underwear. She complimented her suits with a wig under which she hid her long, plaited hair.

When Tilley first began acting, music halls were a place for gentlemen only. Her biggest fans, therefore, were men, but during the 1870s women were permitted to attend performances too. The majority of these women delighted in Tilley’s shows, enjoying her sense of independence. Protests for women’s rights were underway, and Vesta Tilley became a prime example of a woman succeeding in a man’s world.

In 1898, Vesta Tilley made one of the first sound recordings in England. She continued to record some of her songs for radio broadcasts throughout her career, including It’s part of a policeman’s duty, I’m the idol of the girls and Following a fellow with a face like me.

By the 1900s, Tilley’s fame was equal to that of music halls in general. During the reign of Queen Victoria (1819-1901), several “Royal Command Performances” were held at Windsor Castle each year to celebrate the talents of leading actors in London theatres. These performances tended to exclude music hall acts, perhaps because of their bawdy nature, but the growing popularity called for the inclusion of the entertainment.

In 1912, an all-star Royal Command Performance took place at the London’s Palace Theatre in aid of the Variety Artistes’ Benevolent Fund, the first of an annual event later renamed the Royal Variety Performance. His Majesty King George V (1865-1936) and Her Majesty Queen Mary (1867-1953) attended the show starring Vesta Tilley and other great performers of the time, including, singer Harry Lauder (1870-1950), comedian Harry Tate (1872-1940), ballerina Anna Pavlova (1881-1931) and the ‘White-Eyed Kaffir’ G. H. Chirgwin (1854-1922). Whilst the royals enjoyed the acts, Mary hid behind her programme at the sight of Tilley wearing trousers. She was scandalised to see a woman dressing as a man.

When the First World War began, concerts became less frequent, but Tilley continued to act and sing where she could. Along with her husband, who by this time owned 18 theatres, Tilley organised charity events where she performed dressed in military uniform. Frece composed many of the songs for his wife, but she also sang war songs, such as Jolly Good Luck to the Girl Who Loves a Soldier, and Your King and Country Want You (also known as We Don’t Want to Lose You but We Think You Ought to Go).

During her wartime shows, Tilley encouraged young men to enlist in the army, earning her the nickname “England’s greatest recruiting sergeant”. Within a week, Tilley managed to recruit an entire army unit, known as “The Vesta Tilley Platoon”. Despite encouraging the soldiers to fight, Tilley also acknowledged the horrors of war. In the song I’m Glad I’ve Got a Bit of a Blighty One, for example, she sang about a soldier who was happy to be injured in battle so that he could return to Blighty (England).

As a result of the war, music halls declined in popularity, and Tilley felt it was time to step down. At 55, her health was deteriorating, which also contributed to her decision to retire. For her farewell tour, which lasted a year, all proceeds were given to local children’s hospitals. On Saturday 5th June 1920, Vesta Tilley performed for the last time at the Coliseum Theatre in London and lived out the rest of her life as Lady de Frece. Her husband had received a knighthood in the 1919 King’s Birthday Honours List.

 It was a “wonderful night” and at the end Vesta Tilley was “gradually being submerged under the continuous stream of bouquets”.

The Times, writing about Vesta Tilley’s final performance

Tilley’s retirement coincided with her husband’s decision to go into politics. In 1922, Sir Frece became the Conservative MP for Ashton-under-Lyne in Greater Manchester and 1924, the MP for Blackpool. Despite holding these positions, Frece was rarely in the country. Frece relocated to Monte Carlo on the French Riviera to aid his wife’s ailing health and only returned for parliamentary meetings.

In 1931, Sir Frece retired from politics and made the French Riviera his permanent home. During this time, Tilley penned her autobiography Recollections of Vesta Tilley, which she published the year before her husband died in 1935. Frece was 64 at the time of his death; his body lies in Putney Vale Cemetery, southwest London. 

Despite her frail health, Lady Frece continued to live in Monte Carlo for seventeen years. While on a trip to London in 1952, Tilley fell ill and passed away on 16th September at the age of 88. After her funeral, Tilley was reunited with her husband in Putney Vale Cemetery. Many famous people have been buried or cremated in the cemetery, including, Egyptologist Howard Carter (1874-1939), sculptor Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), Formula One driver James Hunt (1947-93), actor Kenneth More (1914-82) and Doctor Who star Jon Pertwee (1919-96). 

Five years after her death, Compton Bennett (1900-74) directed a biographical film about the life of Vesta Tilley. Starring Pat Kirkwood (1921-2007) as Tilley and Laurence Harvey (1928-73) as Walter de Frece, After the Ball told the story of “the life and loves of Music hall singer Vesta Tilley, who married into the nobility.” Unfortunately, the film failed to please the critics: “It’s incomprehensible how director Compton Bennett … could have made such a yawn out of such a good true story.” (TV Guide, 1957)

The British Library used Vesta Tilley as an example of a woman who was unafraid of controversy. She was an inspiration for women keen to challenge convention, and yet not many people remember her name today. Daring to go against gender norms, Vesta Tilley should be an inspiration to all feminists fighting for equality.

London Down Below

On the edge of Covent Garden is a museum devoted to telling the history of London transport from 1800 until the present day. The London Transport Museum contains examples of horse-drawn carriages, trams, steam trains, buses and taxis. The red double-decker buses and the black taxi cabs have become symbols of London, but nothing is more iconic than the London Underground.

Mainline railways constructed in the 1840s and 1850s caused the population of London to rise rapidly. As a result, road traffic increased, which caused congestion in the city. A journey of five miles could take up to an hour and a half on a horse-drawn omnibus – a precursor to motorised buses. By 1850, London had seven railway termini, and people often had to get an omnibus to catch their connecting train at another station. Something needed to change to reduce the time of these journeys.

Proposals for an underground railway link between London’s termini appeared as early as the 1830s. Charles Pearson (1793-1862), a solicitor to the City of London, backed this idea and created the City Terminus Company who proposed to build a line between Farringdon to King’s Cross. It took some persuading, but after establishing the Metropolitan Railway Company in August 1854, parliament consented to the plans.

Despite having permission, the company needed to raise £1 million to cover the costs. Unfortunately, money was scarce due to the ongoing Crimean War, and it took five years to raise sufficient funds. Eventually, construction began in March 1860 using “cut-and-cover” and tunnelling methods to create the 3.75-mile underground railway.

The Metropolitan Line opened on 10th January 1863, carrying 38,000 passengers on the first day in wooden carriages pulled by a steam engine. The underground railway linked the Great Western Railway terminus at Paddington to Farringdon via the Great Northern Railway terminus at King’s Cross. Steam from the engine posed ventilation problems, but this did not prevent the public from embracing the new form of travel. The Metropolitan Line, the first underground railway in the world, was an instant success.

Inspired by the result, Parliament received 250 different plans for other underground railways. The House of Lords agreed to an “inner circuit of railway that should abut, if not actually join, nearly all of the principal railway termini in the Metropolis”. This resulted in proposals for the Metropolitan District Railway (now known as the District Line). Civil engineer John Fowler (1817-98), who worked on the Metropolitan Line, was chosen to lead the construction of the District Line, which opened on Christmas Eve 1868 between South Kensington and Westminster. During the 1870s, the line extended to Hammersmith, Richmond and Ealing Broadway.

The original plan was for the Metropolitan District Railway and Metropolitan Line to join up, creating a circuit. Unfortunately, the companies owning the lines fell out over expenses, delaying the completion of the “inner circle”. Conflicts between the companies lasted over a decade until the government intervened. Eventually, the track was complete, and the first circular service began in 1884. This route is known as the Circle Line but did not receive this name until 1949.

The Metropolitan, District and Circle lines helped reduce some of the congestion on London’s streets and made it easier for people to travel between mainline termini. Over time, expansions reached London suburbs, providing thousands of people with easy access to the city. By 1902, the District Line had extended to Upminster in the east of London. In 1990, the Hammersmith & City Line took over parts of the Metropolitan and District lines, and since 2012 has extended to span between Hammersmith and Barking.

Whilst these new railways were a great success, they did not provide access to the heart of London. As a result, there was still a great deal of congestion in the city centre. Proposals for underground tracks in this area were aplenty, but the “cut and cover” method of constructing the tunnels was too disruptive and expensive.

In 1843, French engineer Marc Isambard Brunel (1769-1849), the father of Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-59), proved it was possible to tunnel underneath London. The Thames Tunnel was the first underwater tunnel in the world, although it was only suitable for pedestrians. Unfortunately, the method of construction was expensive and time-consuming, taking over 20 years to complete. They needed a more practical solution.

Peter William Barlow (1809-95), the designer of the first Lambeth Bridge, patented a method of tunnelling using a circular cast-iron shield, which he commissioned his pupil James Greathead (1844-96) to build. Work on a railway tunnel between Great Tower Hill and Pickle Herring Stairs near Vine Street began in February 1869, opening in August the following year.

Steam-powered lifts either side of the River Thames took passengers down to the newly built City and South London Railway (C&SL) to a single carriage that could carry up to 12 passengers. The train was pulled from one station to the other by a cable firstly powered by steam then by electricity. Unfortunately, the tunnel was a commercial failure and closed in December 1870, only four months after opening.

Rather than closing the tunnel completely, they converted it into a foot tunnel, which people could use for a ha’penny. Charles Dickens Jr (1837-96), the son of the famous author of the same name, commented, “there is not much head-room left, and it is not advisable for any but the very briefest of Her Majesty’s lieges to attempt the passage in high-heeled boots, or with a hat to which he attaches any particular value.” This description and stories that Jack the Ripper frequented the tunnel put people off using it. Even fewer pedestrians walked the Tower Subway after the toll-free Tower Bridge opened in 1894, causing it to close to the public in 1898.

Although the tunnel has been out of bounds since the end of the 19th century, it is still used today as a means of carrying water mains and telecommunication cables. A small round building near the Tower of London marks an entrance to the tunnel, constructed in 1926 by the London Hydraulic Power Company. 

Demands for more underground railways after the success of the Metropolitan and District lines prompted engineers to have a second attempt at constructing a deep-level electric railway. James Greathead improved his tunnelling shield to make wider tunnels, which he used to dig the second City & South London Railway (C&SLR), the first successful “tube” train.

On 4th November 1890, Edward, Prince of Wales (1841-1910; later Edward VII) opened the C&SLR to the public. Trains of three carriages carried up to thirty-two passengers from Stockwell to King William Street (now Monument), stopping at the Oval, Kennington, Elephant & Castle, and Borough along the way. Although the Tower Subway used electricity to pull the cable, the new railway was named the first electric railway in England. Rather than using cables, a live rail beneath the train provided power.

Unlike the Tower Subway, the new railway was an instant success. Nevertheless, as with all new ventures, it had its share of problems. Designers of the underground carriages saw no need for windows, only including a narrow band of windows for ventilation. Punch magazine dubbed it the “sardine box railway” and the public nicknamed the carriages “padded cells”. Nonetheless, the railway was well-received, but the company underestimated the amount of electricity needed to power the trains.

In 1896, the C&SLR extended the tunnel to Bank, but it was struggling to cope with the number of passengers. At the same time, it also failed to make much of a profit. Proposals for other underground lines began to dwindle due to the uncertainties this provoked, but two years later the London & North Western Railway backed the opening of a short track between two stations.

The Waterloo & City Line became London’s second deep-level underground line or “tube”. Known colloquially as “the drain”, it took passengers into the City of London from the mainline station at Waterloo. Despite being only 1.47 miles long, it continues to be the second most used of all London’s underground lines. Since Bank station is in the heart of the financial district, the line tends not to run on Sundays or Bank Holidays.

Plans were underway to build another tube line, meanwhile, the original C&SLR chose to extend the railway to the north and south of London. In February 1900, stations opened at London Bridge and Moorgate, and in March, Clapham Road and Clapham Common. Later that year, the track extended to include Old Street, Angel and City Road (closed 1922).

During the 1890s, Parliament approved several plans for underground railways, but the majority fell through due to lack of funds. Eventually, after ten years of planning, the Prince of Wales opened the Central London Railway on 27th June 1900. For the first time, passengers could travel directly under the centre of the city between Shepherd’s Bush and Bank. Popular stations on the line included Tottenham Court Road, Bond Street, Oxford Circus, British Museum (now closed) and Post Office (now St. Pauls). In 1909, Liverpool Street Station joined the line.

Nicknamed the Twopenny Tube after the cost of a ticket (approximately 91p today), the CLR was popular with shoppers and commuters alike. When Queen Victoria (1819-1901) passed away in 1901, crowds wanting to get a glimpse of her funeral procession filled the trains. The useful transport links encouraged people to move to the capital, and by the end of the year, London was the largest city in the world with a population of 6 million.

One of the lines proposed in the 1890s was the Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway (CCE&HR), but there were not sufficient funds. The situation changed in 1902 after American financier Charles Tyson Yerkes (1837-1905) purchased the company. With his money, the CCE&HR came into existence, and Yerkes also purchased the Metropolitan District Railway, replacing the steam-powered engines with electric trains.

Following the success of the new railway, Yerkes purchased the underfunded plans for the Brompton and Piccadilly Circus Railway (B&PCR) and Great Northern and Strand Railway (GN&SR). The two railways subsequently linked, forming the Great Northern, Piccadilly and Brompton Railway (GNP&BR). The railway opened in 1906, running through 22 stations from Hammersmith in the west to Finsbury Park in the north of the city.

Yerkes’ final purchase was the Baker Street and Waterloo Railway (BS&WR), running from Paddington to Elephant & Castle. By now, the majority of the underground railways belonged to Yerkes’ company Underground Electric Railways Company of London (UERL). In 1908, the UERL published the first map of the underground network, thus developing the “underground” brand.

The lines continued to extend until the First World War, which put a temporary halt to the proceedings. Work continued after the war under the direction of UERL until 1933, when the public corporation formed the London Passenger Transport Board (LPTB). The LPTB purchased all the underground railways from UERL as well as tramway companies and bus operators.

Under London Transport, some of the railways joined up to form a single line. The Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway, for instance, connected with the City and South London Railway to form the Northern Line. Others railways shortened their names, such as the Bakerloo Line and Picadilly Line. These changes made mapping the underground system more manageable, which Henry “Harry” Beck (1902-74) achieved in 1933.

Older maps of the underground, drawn geographically, became confusing to read as more stations joined the lines. Beck’s version used a non-geographic linear diagram, with equally spaced distances between stations. This also made the maps easy to edit when lines grew to include more stops. Beck colour coded each track to make reading the map as simple as possible: red for the Central Line, green for District Line, brown for the Bakerloo Line, purple for the Metropolitan Line, black for the Northern Line, dark blue for the Piccadilly Line and turquoise for the Waterloo & City Line. After several edits over the decades, the current underground map resembles Beck’s original idea.

Following the outbreak of World War Two, some of the underground lines were closed to the public. The Northern Line tunnels temporarily closed between the Strand (now Charing Cross) and Kennington for use as flood barriers. During the Blitz, many stations became makeshift air raid shelters. Approximately 175,000 Londoner’s slept in the stations each night during the summer of 1940.

The British Museum used the tunnels between Aldwych and Holborn as a safe space to store some of their most valuable items, including the Elgin Marbles. Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874-1965) used Down Street, a disused station on the Piccadilly Line, as a bunker until his Cabinet War Rooms were ready. He reportedly nicknamed the shelter “The Barn”.

After the war, the British Transport Commission, created by Prime Minister Clement Attlee (1883-1967), focused on repairing the war damages to the transport system. In 1949, the Circle Line became an official line on the Tube Map, appearing in yellow. In the same year, constructors submitted proposals for a new track to alleviate congestion on other lines.

The Victoria Line (light blue), named after the last queen, was constructed during the 1960s, making it the first entirely new underground line to open in 50 years. The government approved the track to run from Walthamstow to Victoria station, although later amended the plans to include Brixton. Queen Elizabeth II (b.1926) formally opened the line on 7th March 1969 by travelling from Green Park to Victoria, making her the first reigning monarch to use the Underground.

Tragedy struck the London Underground on 28th February 1975 when a train failed to stop at Moorgate Underground Station. Forty-three people died as a result of the train ploughing into the wall. Investigations proved there was nothing wrong with the train, so the crash was deemed to be caused by the actions of Leslie Newson, the 56-year-old driver. Unfortunately, Newson died in the crash, so it is impossible to ascertain the reason for the collision. A post-mortem revealed nothing was physically wrong with the driver at the time of the accident. Since the incident, all underground lines use a device that prevents trains crashing into walls at the end of the track if a driver fails to activate the brakes.

Before the Victoria Line opened, proposals were submitted for a new line to take over part of the Bakerloo Line between Baker Street and Stanmore. Further designs extended the track as far as Cannon Street, passing through Bond Street, Trafalgar Square, Strand, Fleet Street and Ludgate Circus. Due to be named the Fleet Line, construction began in 1971 and continued until 1979. During this time, the queen celebrated her Silver Jubilee, prompting London Transport to rename it the Jubilee Line.

In 1999, the Jubilee Line extended to Stratford as a way of marking the upcoming millennium. The stations within the new section of the track are unique because they are the only platforms with doors that open when trains arrive. The Jubilee Line is appropriately coloured silver on the underground map and runs between 27 stations.

Since its beginnings, the London Underground continuously expands and develops to keep up with the present day and the demands upon the service. Plans are in place to extend some of the underground lines to provide the suburbs with easy access to the city. Next year, the Northern Line is due to open a new stretch between Kennington and Battersea Power Station.

Between the opening of the Metropolitan Line in 1863 and the present day, London has changed dramatically. Without the London Underground, it is hard to imagine how the city would function. Many cities around the world have followed suit, creating an underground metro system, but London’s continues to be the most famous. This is helped, in part, by its iconic logo, the roundel.

The London Underground logo is over 100 years old, beginning as a humble bar and circle on platforms in 1908. Comprised of a red disc and a blue horizontal bar, the signs helped passengers distinguish the name of the station from the surrounding advertisements. Although the lines were owned by different companies at the time, they agreed to use the symbol and refer to the entire system as the Underground.

In 1914, the Metropolitan Line opted to use their own logo on publicity items, such as maps and pamphlets, rather than the generic roundel. They chose to keep to the same colour scheme but swapped the circle for a diamond.

Before other lines had the opportunity to propose individual logos, publicity manager, Frank Pick (1878-1941) commissioned calligrapher Edward Johnston (1872-1944) to design a company typeface. To suit the new lettering, Johnston tweaked the proportions of the bar and switched the solid disc for a hollow red circle. The new symbol was registered as a trademark and began to replace the old signs in the 1920s.

In 1924, Frank Pick commissioned the architect Charles Holden (1875-1960) to redesign the underground stations to incorporate Johnston’s logo. Roundels appeared on walls, windows and posters on the platforms and outside the station, a three-dimensional version appeared on Venetian masts or flag poles.

Holden also helped to design bus stops, using a version of Johnston’s logo on bus stop flags and shelters. For buses, the roundel was printed only in red to help people differentiate it from underground stations. In 2000, Transport for London (TfL) formed to manage all forms of transport in London. The roundel became the identification of TfL with alternative colours adopted for different services. The Overground service, for instance, is recognised by the colour orange, whereas trams are green, river services blue, Docklands Light Railway turquoise and the upcoming Elizabeth Line purple.

The London Underground serves over one billion passengers a year and continues to be one of the busiest cities in the world. The underground system has extended to include parts of Buckinghamshire, Essex and Hertfordshire as well as the City of London. Newer sections of the service tend to be above ground, ironically making the London Underground only 45% underground. The system covers 250 miles of track and 270 stations, only 29 of which are south of the River Thames.

Next time you travel on the London Underground or see or read anything about it, bring to mind its history. Marvel at the workmanship that went into building the extensive system. Thank Harry Beck for creating a readable map and Edward Johnston for his instantly recognisable logo. Be grateful to our forefathers for having the insight to create something so vital for the everyday workings of the capital city. Also, take note of these fun facts:

  • Upminster Bridge is the only station to have a red phone box
  • Mile End to Stratford is the longest underground section between stations – 1.8 miles
  • The longest overground section is between Chesham and Chalfont & Latimer – 3.9 miles
  • The distance between Covent Garden and Leicester Square stations is the shortest at 285 yards, taking 37 seconds to travel
  • The only place to hear the original “Mind the Gap” announcement is on the northbound platform of the Northern line at Embankment station
  • At St James’s Park, one of the roundels is spelt incorrectly
  • Victoria is the busiest station on the network
  • Roding Valley is the least used station
  • Turnham Green was used as a test station for the automated ticket barriers that were introduced in the 1960s
  • Kew Gardens is the only station that has a pub directly attached to it
  • A statue of Isambard Kingdom Brunel is located at Paddington station, as is a statue of Paddington Bear
  • Aldgate station is built on top of a plague pit where thousands of bodies were buried in 1665
  • King’s Cross and Waterloo tie for the station with the most escalators – 20
  • Angel station has the longest escalator
  • The Northern line at Waterloo is the deepest part of the Underground – 21 metres below sea level
  • There are only five stations that fall outside of the M25: Amersham, Chalfont & Latimer, Chesham, Chorleywood and Epping
  • Amersham is the highest station above sea level – 150 metres
  • Gants Hill station and Wanstead station were used as a munitions factory during WWII
  • There is no platform seven at Stratford station
  • The longest journey you can make without getting off the train is between Epping and West Ruislip on the Central line – 34.1 miles
  • Arsenal station was originally called Gillespie Road until it was renamed after the football club in 1932

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London Calling

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

The Clash in 1980

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The History of Gardening

The Garden Museum, housed in the former church of St Mary-at-Lambeth in London, is Britain’s only museum of the art, history and design of gardens. The church, adjacent to Lambeth Palace on the South Bank of the River Thames, was deconsecrated in 1972 and scheduled for demolition. Fortunately, the building was saved when a tomb belonging to two 17th-century royal gardeners and plant hunters John Tradescant the Elder (1570s-1638) and the Younger (1608-62) was discovered in the churchyard. John and Rosemary Nicholson who found the tomb were inspired to turn the building into the world’s first museum dedicated to gardening.

The main section of the museum is on the first floor, which has been added to the main body of the church. The collection includes a wealth of information about the history of gardening and displays a collection of tools, art and other ephemera.

The Garden Museum

What constitutes a garden? Areas of land can be private, public, designed or wild, however, what makes it a garden is the activity within it. Gardens are usually maintained, cultivated or used for public and private enjoyment and recreation. The history of gardens begins in 1600, towards the end of Elizabeth I’s reign, when John Tradescant, the first great gardener, began his career, however, it was only the wealthy that could afford such privileges.

It was during the 18th and 19th century when the general public began enjoying their private gardens. Whilst farming has been a necessity throughout time, gardening for pleasure has increased rapidly over the last few centuries. Flower Shows began emerging in the North, the first taking place in Norwich in 1843; the show was dedicated to chrysanthemums. Three years later, the craze had spread across the rest of Britain.

Prizes were awarded at Flower Shows for various achievements. Gardeners competed for best flowers, biggest vegetables, neatest gardens and so forth. To begin with, these were held in small communities but today, some competitions have reached a national scale.

Advice for gardeners began being printed and distributed as early as 1826 when the first gardening magazine, The Gardener’s Magazine, was established. Initially, this was targetted at the gardeners of country estates but it soon found a more general readership. Taking advantage of this, The Amateur Gardening Magazine was founded in 1884, providing advice about plants, soil and seasons. The magazine is still published today.

Other companies soon jumped on the bandwagon, producing magazines such as The Garden Home Journal (1907), Understanding Gardening (1960s) and The Woolworth Gardener (1950s). The latter was published by Woolworths, then Britain’s biggest seller of seeds and bulbs. It included advice from many professional gardeners and boasted that it was “a guide to successful gardening for all“.

From the mid-to-late 20th century, gardening advice moved to televisions with programmes such as Gardeners’ World in 1969. The show was presented by Percy Thrower (1913-88) who had been professionally gardening since the age of 18. Thrower was known for his early work at Windsor Castle, promoting the Dig for Victory campaign during the Second World War, and designing the Blue Peter garden. In 1974, Thrower created the Master Gardener Series, providing simple guides about sowing seeds and other gardening tips.

Percy Thrower died in 1988, however, his legacy lives on in the continuation of Gardeners’ World and the introduction of other gardening programmes, such as Ground Force (1997-2002).

Growing flowers was by no means a new concept in Britain. People had kept window boxes and bought cut flowers from markets to display in their homes for hundreds of years before they began maintaining larger gardens. From the late 19th century, however, owning a garden was not just about growing plants, they became places of leisure. Croquet and lawn tennis became popular and children used gardens as a space to play and invent numerous games.

Around the same time, novelty items began to appear in gardens, for instance, the garden gnome and, later, pink flamingoes. Today, garden centres are full of traditional and contemporary sculptures specifically designed to stand on lawns or hide in flowerbeds. Since the mid-20th century, children’s playthings: swings, slides, climbing frames; have dominated lawns. Unfortunately, due to the modernisation of towns and cities, not everyone has the opportunity to own a private garden.

Fortunately, the lack of a garden does not prevent people from enjoying flowers and plants. Cut flowers have been available in London since Covent Garden Market opened in the 1630s. As modes of transport improved, different types of flowers became available at the market, for instance, daffodils from Lincolnshire, violets from Devon and, by the 1900s, carnations from southern France.

Today, florists sell flowers from all over the world, particularly from Holland. In Britain, the changing seasons control which plants can be grown throughout the year, however, thanks to air travel, it is possible to order whatever cut flowers we desire, whenever we want. The majority of roses sold in Britain, for instance, come from Kenya.

Statistically, Britain has the least native flora than any country in Europe other than Ireland. From as early as the 16th century, “plant hunters” were sent to other countries to discover foreign plants and introduce them to Britain. Snowdrops and tulips were found in the Ottoman Empire and Sunflowers arrived from Central America. Later, in the 19th century, explorers found rhododendrons and wisteria in the Himalayas.

Some of these expeditions were funded by aristocrats who wished to show off exotic plants in their gardens. Other trips were arranged for scientific reasons by the government. The plants that were gathered were brought to the botanical gardens at Kew where botanists could learn about the foreign flora and their potential economic and medical properties.

Buried in the gardens of the church/museum is Vice-Admiral William Bligh (1754-1817) who captained the Royal Navy vessel HMS Bounty in 1789. His main task was to transplant the breadfruit from Tahiti to the British colonies in the West Indies as cheap but nutritious food for slaves. The breadfruit had been found when Captain James Cook (1728-79) had sailed to Tahiti in 1769. Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), the founder of the Botanic Gardens at Kew, who travelled with Cook was intrigued by this “miracle food” that bore fruit for seven months of the year. The fruit could also be easily stored and dried so that it was available for the remaining five months.

At 22 years of age, Bligh accompanied Cook on his final voyage where Cook, unfortunately, was killed on the island of Hawaii. Due to his experience at sea, Bligh was chosen by Banks to captain HMS Bounty and transplant the breadfruit tree. During a five-month stay in Tahiti, Bligh and two gardeners collected a thousand cuttings of the breadfruit, however, they never managed to transport them to the West Indies. Led by Fletcher Christian (1764-93), some of the Bounty’s crew decided to take over the ship. Unable to regain control of the mutineers, Bligh and his loyal sailors rowed over 4000 miles to safety.

Fortunately, Bligh was able to return to Tahiti in 1793 aboard HMS Providence. This time, the ship reached Jamaica with 1,281 breadfruit plants. Today, the plants grow abundantly across the Caribbean.

Bligh went on to serve in the Napoleonic wars before becoming the Governor of New South Wales, Australia in 1806. Unfortunately, due to his sympathetic attitude towards the poor settlers, he was overthrown by the rich colonists. Bligh returned to England where he eventually died at home in Bond Street, London in 1817. He was buried in a tomb at St Mary’s, which had been built for his wife Betsy.

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Initially, it was only the aristocracy that could afford to purchase the plants that explorers like Cook and Bligh collected, however, in the 18th century, nurseries were set up where the general public could purchase the seeds to sow in their private gardens. These nurseries were the precursor to today’s garden centres.

Unlike the nurseries, garden centres can assist with landscaping as well as maintaining plants. Garden design is believed to be one of the most challenging forms of design. The designer must understand the properties of plants and soils as well as be able to imagine aesthetically pleasing spaces. Garden designers are not only responsible for the positioning of plants but also walls, paths and features, such as ponds and fountains.

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Plan of the Eden Project, 1998

Garden design can be studied as a profession, although many people save money by designing their family gardens. Public gardens, however, need the attention of professionals to make them safe as well as attractive for visitors. As an example, the museum displays a copy of Dominic Cole’s (b.1957) design for the Eden Project.

“Tools make the garden. We, the gardeners, may dream and scheme to our heart’s content, but with no more than our bare hands we can’t proceed far down the garden path with our imagined garden plan. We can’t even begin to make the path.”
– Christopher Thacker, garden historian

To design and maintain a garden properly, the gardener needs to have access to the right tools. Today, standard tools can be found in all good garden centres and DIY shops, however, in the 17th century, tools were made specifically for individual gardeners. For years, most gardeners relied on hand tools, however, techniques began to change in the 19th century.

In 1830, Edwin Budding invented the first lawnmower. Up until then, grass was cut using scythes or even sheep, but Budding, inspired by a factory machine for cutting cloth, developed a way to make maintaining lawns much easier.

The introduction of new materials allowed for cheaper and quicker production of garden tools. In the 1960s, the plastic flower pot became popular and plastic was also used to make watering cans. The development of rubber hoses provided an alternative, faster way of watering the garden. Putting the current war on plastic to one side, these inventions made gardening accessible for everyone, regardless of skill.

The museum contains examples of tools throughout the years, examples of seeds, gardening magazines and a wealth of information. Located at various points around the displays are information boards about several people who have contributed to the world of gardening.

Humphry Repton (1752-1818)

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Humphry Repton was the last great English landscape gardener of the 18th century. Born in Bury St Edmunds, Repton was destined for a life as a merchant until he visited the Netherlands where a wealthy Dutch family introduced him to the joys of drawing and gardening. Repton attempted a career as a textile merchant, however, he was unsuccessful and moved to a modest cottage near Romford, Essex. With no secure income to support his wife and four children, 36-year-old Repton turned to garden landscaping.

Repton’s first paid commission was Catton Park in Norwich in 1788. Despite having no experience, he became an overnight sensation. Repton began producing “Red Books” full of watercolours and text to help his clients visualise his proposed designs. The Garden Museum displays one of these books and a brief video showing Repton’s design process.

Sadly, Repton was involved in a carriage accident which left him unable to walk for the final seven years of his life. Fortunately, Repton’s work has secured his name in the history of gardening. Three roads in Romford and Gidea Park, near where he lived in Hare Road (now Main Road), have been named after him: Repton Avenue, Repton Gardens and Repton Drive.

Over the length of his career, Repton produced designs for over 70 grounds of country houses in Britain. These include Crewe Hall, Dagnam Park, Higham’s Park, Kenwood House, the Royal Pavillion, Russell Square in Bloomsbury, Stubbers in North Ockendon, Wanstead Park, Warley Woods, Wembly Park and Woburn Abbey. Jane Austen (1775-1817) referenced Humphry Repton in her novel Mansfield Park.

William Robinson (1838-1935)

William Robinson was an Irish practical gardener who popularised the English cottage garden. He began gardening at an early age when he became the “garden boy” for the Marquess of Waterford at Curraghmore, County Waterford. Following this, he worked for an Irish baronet in Ballykilcavan, County Laois where he was in charge of several large greenhouses. Possibly due to an argument as rumours suggest, Robinson fled to England in 1861 where he found work at the Botanical Gardens of Regent’s Park.

Robinson specialised in native British wildflowers and was sponsored by Charles Darwin (1809-82), David Moore (1808-79) and James Veitch (1792-1863) to become a fellow of the Linnean Society, dedicated to natural history. Robinson left Regent’s Park in 1866 to write for The Gardener’s Chronicle and The Times, and in 1871 he established the gardening journal, The Garden. Contributors to The Garden included John Ruskin (1819-1900), William Morris (1834-96) and Gertrude Jekyll.

Through his magazines and subsequent books, Robinson challenged the traditions of gardening, introducing new ideas, such as the herbaceous border containing a mixture of plants, and the wild garden where sections were allowed to grow naturally without too much interference from the gardener. His concept of the English Flower Garden was influenced by simple cottage gardens once favoured by landscape artists.

“The gardener must follow the true artist, however modestly, in his respect for things as they are, in delight in natural form and beauty of flower and tree, if we are to be free from barren geometry, and if our gardens are ever to be true pictures….And as the artist’s work is to see for us and preserve in pictures some of the beauty of landscape, tree, or flower, so the gardener’s should be to keep for us as far as may be, in the fulness of their natural beauty, the living things themselves.”
– William Robinson, The English Flower Garden, 1883

Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932)

(c) Elizabeth Banks; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Portrait of Jekyll by William Nicholson

Gertrude Jekyll was one of the most influential gardeners of the 20th century. Born in Mayfair, London, Jekyll studied as an artist and became associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement before moving on to designing interiors. In her 40s, she progressed to designing gardens.

Jekyll’s gardens were influenced by the artistic training she had received. She was particularly inspired by J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), Impressionism and the use of colour. As well as designing over 400 gardens in Britain, Jekyll developed a colour theory, which she published in Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden and other works.

Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944), an English architect, partnered with Jekyll who designed the landscapes for his impressive buildings. Lutyens designed Munstead Wood, the house where Jekyll lived in Surrey; Jekyll, of course, created the garden.

Unfortunately, many of Jekyll’s gardens are now lost or destroyed, however, her fame lives on. In 1897, Jekyll won the Victoria Medal of Honour, which was followed by the Veitch Memorial Medal and George Robert White Medal of Honour in 1929. Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94), a friend of the Jekyll family, used their surname in his famous novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886).

Ellen Ann Willmott (1858-1934)

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“My plants and my gardens come before anything in life for me, and all my time is given up to working in one garden or another, and when it is too dark to see the plants themselves, I read or write about them.”

In 1892, Ellen Ann Willmott inherited Warley Place at Great Warley in Essex on the death of her father Frederick Willmott. The 33 acres of land had become the family home when they moved there in 1875. When she was 21, Willmott was permitted by her father to plant an alpine garden, which included a gorge and rockery.

Willmott employed 104 male gardeners, insisting that “women would be a disaster in the border”, who helped her to grow more than 100,000 different plant species. Recognised for her efforts, Willmott was elected to the Royal Horticultural Society’s narcissus committee and received the Victoria Medal of Honour – a medal that only two women ever receive, the other being Gertrude Jekyll.

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Ceratostigma willmottianum

Expeditions to China and the Middle East were financed by Willmott to bring exotic species to Warley Place. Willmott spent so much money on Warley that she died penniless. Warley Place was abandoned to the wild, although it is now managed by the Essex Wildlife Trust.

Ellen Ann Willmott is remembered by over 60 species of flowers, which have either been named after her or Warley Place. Examples include Rosa willottiae, Ceratostigma willmottianum and a species of sea holly nicknamed “Miss Willmott’s Ghost”.

Graham Stuart Thomas (1909-2003)

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Graham Stuart Thomas

“Whether you look upon gardening as a hobby, a science or an art, the fundamental point returns again and again: that we garden because of the beauty of plants.”
– Graham Stuart Thomas, The Art of Planting, 1984

Graham Stuart Thomas declared he would become a gardener at the age of six when he was given a fuchsia as a gift. At seventeen, he joined the Cambridge Univerity Botanic Garden and then the Six Hills Nursery in Stevenage in 1930. The following year, he became the foreman at the nursery T. Hilling & Co (Hillings) in Surrey.

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‘Graham Thomas’ Rose

Whilst working at Hillings, Thomas met Gertrude Jekyll who became his mentor. She taught him how to combine plants into colour patterns and inspired him to collect samples of roses. This led to several books: Old Shrub Roses (1955), Shrub Roses Of Today (1962) and Climbing Roses Old And New (1965).

Thomas began working with the National Trust at Hidcote Manor in Gloucestershire in 1948. He later worked at Sissinghurst Castle, Kent; Mount Stewart, Northern Ireland; Mottisfont Abbey, Hampshire; and Sezincote House, Gloucestershire.

Graham Stuart Thomas is remembered for his many books and a species of honeysuckle and rose have been named in his honour.

John Tradescant the Elder (1570s-1638)

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John Tradescant the Elder was an English gardener and collector. Not much is known about his early life other than he began his career as head gardener to Robert Cecil (1563-1612), 1st Earl of Salisbury at Hatfield House, Hertfordshire. Following this, Tradescant worked for George Villiers (1592-1628), 1st Duke of Buckingham, remodelling his gardens at New Hall in Essex. Later, in 1630, Tradescant was made the Keeper of his Majesty’s Gardens, Vines, and Silkworms by King Charles I (1600-49).

Tradescant travelled to other countries and continents in search of seeds and bulbs. Places he visited include Arctic Russia (1618), the Levant (1620), the Low Countries (1610 and 1624), and France (1624). As well as looking for plants, Tradescant assembled a collection of curiosities of natural history, that he displayed in a large house known as “The Ark”, which later opened as a museum – the first-ever museum, in fact – to the public: the Musaeum Tradescantianum.

The Ark

The curiosities from “The Ark” are now housed in the Garden Museum, although they have no link to gardening. Tradescant intended the collection to be a representation of the nature, art, religions and ways of life of all nations on earth. Items include an alabaster figurine of St Fiacre, the patron saint of gardening; Roman coins; medallions; reindeer antlers; a cast of a dodo head; shells; and the vertebrae from the spine of a North Atlantic whale.

St Mary-at-Lambeth

A church has been on the same spot on the south bank of the Thames since before the Norman conquest. The crypt of the present building and some of the burials date back over 950 years. The church, whilst not the original, is a combination of medieval and Victorian architecture and is the oldest structure in the London Borough of Lambeth.

A stone tower, dating to 1377 although repaired in the 19th century, is still intact and accessible to visitors. One hundred and thirty-one stairs lead up to the roof of the tower, which provides an impressive view of London.

The churchyard was a place of burial until it was closed in 1854. An estimated 26,000 burials took place, although many were interred without tombs or monuments. As well as the Tradescant and Captain Bligh, notable names in the churchyard include Anne Boleyn’s mother Elizabeth (née Howard, c.1480-1538), Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk (1443-1524), Richard Bancroft (overseer of the production of the King James Bible, 1544-1610), and Frederick Cornwallis, Archbishop of Canterbury (1713-83).

The Garden Museum is open Monday – Sunday, 10:30 – 17:00. Tickets are £10, although some concessions are available. The entrance fee includes both the museum and the tower. A tower only ticket is available for £3. More information is available on their website: www.gardenmuseum.org.uk


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Meet Vincent Van Gogh

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After captivating audiences in Beijing, Barcelona and Seoul, the official Meet Vincent van Gogh Experience has arrived in London. When Vincent van Gogh died in 1890, not only did he leave behind a great number of paintings and drawings, his voice was captured in hundreds of letters to his brother and other friends and acquaintances. Using the wealth of information in these correspondences, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has designed an exhibition through which the artist speaks directly to the visitor. An audio guide tells Van Gogh’s story, reading directly from many of his letters in order to teach visitors everything they need to know about one of the most celebrated artists in the world.

Please do touch! Nothing is off-limits in this experience, there are no ropes separating visitors from exhibits. Large recreations and 3D prints of Van Gogh’s works allow people to see and feel the texture of the paint. Reproductions of tools and materials help to demonstrate the artist’s method and technique, and interactive stations throughout the experience encourage visitors to create their own art, using the words of Van Gogh as their guide.

Unlike art galleries where everything is neatly hung on walls, the Van Gogh Experience uses digital projections, props, and videos to make it feel as though one is walking directly into a Van Gogh painting. The breaking down of traditional boundaries lets visitors pull up a chair at the Potato Eater’s table, sit on a haystack, stand beside the Yellow House and enter Van Gogh’s recognisable bedroom.

As you progress through the exhibition, the scenes change, revealing key turning points in Vincent’s life. With his disembodied voice in their ears, visitors accompany the artist from Nuenen in the Netherlands to Paris, Arles, Saint-Rémy and Auvers-sur-Oise in France. Engaging with the sets provides the opportunity to feel as though you are seeing the world and his paintings through Van Gogh’s eyes.

Vincent Willem van Gogh was born on 30th March 1853 in Zundert, Netherlands. He was the first surviving child of the Dutch Reformed Church minister Theodorus van Gogh (1822-85) and Anna Cornelia van Gogh-Carbentus (1819-1907), born exactly a year after a still-born brother. Vincent had many siblings: Anna (1855-1930), Theo (1857-91), Lies (1859-1936), Willemien (1862-1941) and Cor (1867-1900); however, it was with Theo that Vincent had the strongest relationship.

At least 902 letters of Van Gogh still exist, 819 of which he sent and 83 he received. Vincent burnt the majority of correspondence he received since it was impossible to keep them all; Theo, on the other hand, did not like to throw things away and managed to save 658 letters from his brother. Twenty-one letters to his sister Wil (Willemien) also exist, however, there appear to be none addressed to his other siblings.

Vincent was initially taught at home by his mother and a governess before joining the village school in 1860. In 1864, however, he was sent away to boarding school where he felt abandoned and deeply unhappy. Eventually, he returned home and his uncle obtained him a position at the art dealers Goupil & Cie in The Hague. After completing his training in 1873, Vincent was sent to Goupil’s London branch where he began earning more money than his father. In retrospect, it is believed this was the best year of Van Gogh’s life.

The earliest dated letter from Vincent to Theo was sent in September 1872 in which he begins to confide in his brother, telling him about the things he has seen or read. “You must write to me in particular about what kind of paintings you see and what you find beautiful.” (January 1873) The letters continued during Vincent’s time in London where he regularly visited museums. “English art didn’t appeal to me much at first, one has to get used to it.” (January 1874)

Theo began working with Goupil & Cie three years after his brother, which made their relationship even stronger. Vincent’s letters, however, had become rather gloomy, often writing about a “quiet melancholy”. This may have been triggered by the rejection of Eugénie Loyer who he had confessed his love to whilst living in London. Vincent began to isolate himself and became religiously fervent, adopting the words “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10) as his motto.

Van Gogh’s father and uncle arranged for him to be transferred to Goupil’s Paris branch, however, due to Vincent’s poor attitude, he was dismissed in 1876. Over the next few years, Vincent explored a variety of career possibilities, including returning to England to work as an unpaid supply teacher in Ramsgate. This proved unsuccessful, so he returned home where he worked at a bookshop in Dordrecht. This also proved futile and Vincent spent hours doodling or reading the Bible.

Even though Van Gogh’s father was a minister, he thought his son’s religious passion was excessive. Nonetheless, to support Vincent’s new-found desire to become a pastor, his father sent him to live with his uncle and theologian Johannes Stricker (1816-86). Unfortunately, Vincent failed the entrance exam for the University of Amsterdam, nor did he pass the three-month course at a Protestant missionary school in Laken, Belgium.

Undeterred, in 1879 Vincent took up a missionary post in the coal-mining district of Borinage in Belgium. Up until this point, his letters to Theo had contained passages or references to the Bible, however, his experience of the squalid living conditions made him turn his back on religion. Feeling that he had no career prospects and nowhere to go, Vincent returned home.

After a few months living with his parents and a brief spell in a lunatic asylum – presumably for depression, Vincent returned to Borinage where he temporarily lodged with a miner. A letter written to Theo at the time suggests Vincent had stopped writing to him during his difficult period. “My dear Theo, It’s with some reluctance that I write to you, not having done so for so long … Up to a certain point you’ve become a stranger to me, and I too am one to you, perhaps more than you think…” (August 1880)

Whilst living in Borinage, Van Gogh became interested in the people and scenes around him, producing quick sketches, which he sent to Theo. His letters became both a means of communicating and a way of documenting his ideas. Encouraged by his brother’s new way of expressing himself, Theo encouraged Vincent to take up art in earnest. Van Gogh followed Theo’s recommendation, eventually registering at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts. Vincent’s early sketches in Borinage proved to be more than a desire to draw but also the inspiration for Van Gogh’s first major work, The Potato Eaters.

By the end of 1883, loneliness or, perhaps, poverty had driven Van Gogh to move in with his parents, who were then living in the Dutch town of Nuenen. During his two year stay, Vincent completed many drawings, watercolours and oil paintings of the local weavers and cottages. Unlike the vivid colours of his later work, Vincent worked in sombre earth tones to capture the true nature of the scenes.

The colours inadvertently reflect the events in Van Gogh’s life during the period he stayed with his parents. In August 1884, the neighbour’s daughter Margot Begemann fell in love with Vincent and he, reluctantly at first, developed a strong relationship with her. They both wished to marry but their families were strongly against the proposal. Upset, Margot swallowed rat poison and was rushed to hospital where she was lucky to survive. Unfortunately, Vincent received another blow not long after this incident on 26th March 1885 when his father died.

Nonetheless, Van Gogh continued with his drawings and paintings then, the same year, Theo wrote to him asking if any of his paintings were ready to exhibit. Vincent replied that he had been working on a “series of peasant studies” and submitted his first major work, The Potato Eaters. This was a culmination of several years work, taking inspiration from the people in Nuenen, who often sat for him, as well as his experience in Borinage.

“You see, I really have wanted to make it so that people get the idea that these folk, who are eating their potatoes by the light of their little lamp, have tilled the earth themselves with these hands they are putting in the dish, and so it speaks of manual labour and—that they have thus honestly earned their food. I wanted it to give the idea of a wholly different way of life from ours—civilized people.”
– Vincent to Theo (30th April 1885)

Two years later, Van Gogh considered The Potato Eaters to be “the best thing I did”, which he confessed in a letter to his sister Wil. Critics, on the other hand, were less inclined to agree, including Vincent’s friend and fellow artist Anthon van Rappard (1858-92). Initially, Vincent was angry with Rappard’s criticism and told him that he “had no right to condemn my work in the way you did” (July 1885). A month later, with his confidence in tatters, Vincent tried to defend his efforts, writing “I am always doing what I can’t do yet in order to learn how to do it.”

In November 1885, Van Gogh spent a brief time living in a room above a paint dealer’s shop in Antwerp. Although Theo supported him financially, Vincent chose to spend the money on painting materials rather than food. He also bought Japanese ukiyo-e woodcuts, which he studied and copied, incorporating some elements into his paintings. He also broadened his palette, beginning to paint in reds, blues and greens.

“My studio’s quite tolerable, mainly because I’ve pinned a set of Japanese prints on the walls that I find very diverting. You know, those little female figures in gardens or on the shore, horsemen, flowers, gnarled thorn branches.”
– Vincent to Theo (28th November 1885)

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Portrait of Vincent van Gogh – Toulouse-Lautrec

Due to living in poverty and eating poorly, Van Gogh was hospitalised between February and March 1886, after which he moved to Paris where he lived with Theo. Since they were living together, there was no point in writing to each other, therefore, not a lot is known about Vincent’s time in Paris.

Other sources of information reveal Vincent spent time in the Louvre, examining paintings, colour schemes and artists’ techniques. Through Theo, he met up-and-coming artists, such as Émile Bernard (1868-1941) and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901).

Theo found living with Vincent almost unbearable and, although they remained firm friends and brothers, Vincent moved in 1887 to Asnières in the northwest of Paris. Here, Vincent met Paul Signac (1863-1935), a neo-impressionist painter who helped develope the Pointillist style. Inspired by Signac, Vincent began to include aspects of pointillism in his paintings.

Van Gogh’s artistic breakthrough occurred after he had moved to Arles in the south of France in an attempt to recuperate from his smoking problem and smoker’s cough. It is believed he had the intention of founding an art colony, however, this never came to fruition. Nonetheless, existing letters reveal Vincent was in contact with several artists at the time, including Bernard, Charles Laval (1862-94) and Paul Gauguin (1848-1903).

During his year in Arles, Van Gogh produced over 200 paintings and 100 drawings, the majority of which were intended for the decoration of the Yellow House – a personal gallery of his work. When Vincent first arrived in Arles, he signed a lease for the eastern wing of the Yellow House at 2 Place Lamartine, however, it was not yet fully furnished so he was only able to use it as a studio. Meanwhile, he resided at the Hôtel Carrel and the Café de la Gare.

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The Night Café, 1888

“I want to do figures, figures and figures … Meanwhile, I mostly do other things.” Van Gogh desired to paint portraits and, whilst he painted a few, he mostly produced landscapes. Inspired by the local harvests, wheatfields and landmarks, Vincent painted Arles in yellow, ultramarine and mauve. The wheat fields were a common feature in his landscapes, however, Vincent also painted his house, sunflowers, fishing boats and the Café de la Gare. Writing about one of his paintings of the latter entitled The Night Café, Van Gogh revealed he was trying to “to express the idea that the café is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad, or commit a crime”.

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Bedroom in Arles, 1888

Once the Yellow House was suitable to live in, Van Gogh began displaying some of his paintings on the walls as can be seen in his depiction of his bedroom: Bedroom in Arles. When planning this painting, Vincent wrote to his brother that “colour must be abundant in this part, its simplification adding a rank of grandee to the style applied to the objects, getting to suggest a certain rest or dream.” The walls are a pale violet and the wooden furniture is “yellow like fresh butter”. On the bed, a scarlet bedspread lies on top of a “lemon light green” sheet and pillows. The windows are shuttered and the blue doors closed, one which led to a staircase and the other a guest bedroom.

The guest room was used by Paul Gauguin when he agreed to visit Van Gogh in Arles. While waiting for him to arrive, Vincent frantically worked on paintings to decorate the house, including more sunflowers, a painting of his chair and a painting of the chair he had purchased in anticipation of Gauguin’s visit.

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The Painter of Sunflowers by Paul Gauguin, 1888

Gauguin eventually arrived on 23rd October and the artists settled into a routine of sleeping and painting in the Yellow House. Noticing that Van Gogh always used visual references, Gauguin encouraged Vincent to paint from memory. They also went on outdoor ventures to paint en plein air, however, the only painting Gauguin completed in Van Gogh’s studio was The Painter of Sunflowers, a portrait of Van Gogh.

Van Gogh had hoped for friendship with Gauguin, however, after two months the relationship began to deteriorate. Vincent admired Gauguin and wished to be treated as his equal, however, Gauguin was rather arrogant and full of criticism, which was frustrating for Vincent and led to many quarrels. Every day, Vincent feared Gauguin would leave him, describing the situation as one of “excessive tension”. Eventually, Vincent’s fear became a reality.

It is difficult to determine exactly what happened next because Van Gogh had no recollection of the events. Gauguin claimed they had been cooped up in the house due to several days of heavy rain, which led to much bickering culminating in a huge argument. To cool off, Gauguin left the house to go for a walk, however, Vincent, presumably mistaking this action for abandonment, “rushed towards me, an open razor in his hand”. That night, Gauguin stayed in a hotel rather than returning to the Yellow House.

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Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889

Alone in the house, Van Gogh was plagued by “voices” and cut off his left ear with the razor. Whether this was wholly or partially is now unknown since there are discrepancies between the sources from the time of the incident. Van Gogh bandaged his heavily bleeding wound, wrapped the ear in paper and delivered it to a woman at a brothel he and Gauguin frequented. Vincent was discovered unconscious by a policeman the following morning, who took him to the local hospital.

Van Gogh was diagnosed with “acute mania with generalised delirium” and remained in the hospital for some time. Although Gauguin had returned to Paris, the artists put the event to one side and continued to correspond through letters. They proposed to form a studio in Antwerp when Van Gogh was well but they never had the chance.

On 7th January 1889, Van Gogh returned to the Yellow House, however, he was still suffering from hallucinations. Some sources claim Vincent tried to poison himself, whereas others say this was one of his delusions; nonetheless, concerned for his welfare, inhabitants of Arles demanded that he was forcibly removed from the house. Vincent found himself back in the hospital, eventually agreeing to voluntarily admit himself to the asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.

Van Gogh stayed in the asylum for about a year, during which time he was allowed to paint. The clinic and its gardens were Vincent’s primary sources of inspiration as were patients and doctors. The Starry Night, one of Van Gogh’s most famous works, was painted in the hospital grounds.

Letters continued to be sent back and forth between Theo and Vincent as well as a few friends. Since there was a limited amount of artistic inspiration in the hospital, Theo sent his brother prints of famous artworks from which to copy. Some of Vincent’s favourite artists to study included Jean-François Millet (1814-75), Jules Breton (1827-1906), Gustave Courbet (1819-77) and Gustave Doré (1832-83).

Van Gogh’s letters to his brother became increasingly sombre and he suffered a relapse between February and April 1890. During this time, he felt unable to write, however, there are a few small paintings dated around this time. Two Peasant Women Digging in a Snow-Covered Field at Sunset was one of these, based on an artwork by Millet.

Meanwhile, Van Gogh’s paintings were beginning to attract attention and he was invited to submit some of his paintings to an avant-garde exhibition in Paris. Whilst some people were critical of his work, others defended Van Gogh’s style and he was soon invited to participate in an exhibition with the Artistes Indépendants in Paris. Claude Monet (1840-1926) declared Van Gogh’s work was the best in the show.

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Almond blossom, 1890

It was not the success of the exhibition that buoyed Van Gogh’s motivation to write and paint again but rather the news from Theo that his wife Jo (1862-1925) had born a son, Vincent Willem van Gogh. “How glad I was when the news came… I should have greatly preferred him to call the boy after Father, of whom I have been thinking so much these days, instead of after me; but seeing it has now been done, I started right away to make a picture for him, to hang in their bedroom, big branches of white almond blossom against a blue sky.”

Almond Blossom is unlike any of Van Gogh’s previous paintings. The blue sky is more realistic than the swirly backgrounds of his recent works. The branches of the tree are outlined in black, which was a feature Van Gogh admired in Japanese paintings.

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Wheatfield with Crows, 1890

By May 1890, Van Gogh was deemed well enough to be discharged from Saint-Rémy, however, he had no home to which to return. Instead, he moved to the Paris suburb of Auvers-sur-Oise to be closer to both Theo and his doctor, Dr Paul Gachet (1828-1909). Van Gogh continued painting, absorbed by “the immense plain against the hills, boundless as the sea, delicate yellow” and “vast fields of wheat under turbulent skies”. When writing to Theo about one of his final oil paintings, Van Gogh said that they represented “sadness and extreme loneliness” and “tell you what I cannot say in words”.

On 27th July 1890, Van Gogh failed to return to his lodgings for his evening meal. His arrival later in the night revealed the reason for the delay; Vincent had shot himself in the chest with a 7mm Lefaucheux à broche revolver. Although there was no damage to any vital organs, there was no surgeon in the area to remove the bullet. Two local doctors did the best they could and left him at home where he was joined by Theo. Vincent was in good spirits but soon began to suffer from an infection. Not long after his final words, “The sadness will last forever”, Vincent van Gogh passed away in the early hours of 29th July.

“… and then it was done. I miss him so; everything seems to remind me of him.”
– Theo to his wife Jo, 1st August 1890

Van Gogh was buried the next day in the municipal cemetery of Auvers-sur-Oise and was joined by Theo the following year. Theo had been ill and worsened after the death of his brother. Initially, Theo was buried in Utrecht, however, his wife had his body exhumed and reburied beside his beloved brother. Jo knew how much Vincent meant to Theo and it is thanks to her that Vincent’s letters have been preserved and made public. Although other family members were unhappy about this, without the letters Vincent may never have been as celebrated as he is today.

Van Gogh’s story does not end with his death but continues through the lives of millions of people around the world for whom he is still a source of inspiration. Well-known artists have been influenced by Van Gogh, including Pablo Picasso, David Hockney, Piet Mondrian, Henri Matisse, Edvard Munch and Francis Bacon.

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Contemporary artists are also fans of Van Gogh and attempt to recreate his style, for example, a Van Gogh-esque painting of Donald Duck that appeared on a Walt Disney magazine in 2015.

The Meet Vincent Van Gogh Experience proves how much Vincent van Gogh is loved and appreciated. His life was full of mental anguish and unhappiness, which ended prematurely before he had the chance to witness his success. His tragic story is part of the draw to the artist, however, Van Gogh’s highly recognisable works are appreciated all over the world for their uniqueness.

With a museum named after him, Van Gogh has excelled beyond his expectations and it is a shame that he will never know. The Meet Vincent van Gogh Experience allows people to learn more about the artist, to discover his story, and to appreciate his work with a greater understanding.

Tickets for the Meet Vincent van Gogh Experience vary between £16.50 and £18.50 for adults, and £12.50 and £14.50 for children. Time slots and tickets can be purchased via Ticketmaster in advance. The experience will be open every day until Thursday 21st May 2020.

Ever yours,
Vincent

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