Monday 24 March 2014

Gentleman Provider-of-Ruins

My third monthly trip out of London for 2014 took place three long weeks ago, on the very first weekend of March, but I'm just getting around to writing about it now. I spent the weekend with a friend in Cambridge - the first day was spent in Cambridge itself and the immediate surrounds, while the second day entailed a trip out to Wimpole Hall.

This is the same friend who accompanied me to Sutton Hoo and we both took out National Trust membership there so we figured we'd make the most of it with another property. This one, however, entailed a short train trip from Cambridge and then a cycle ride. Fortunately Cambridgeshire is a flat county as we'd also done a lot of cycling the day before and I'm only an occasional weekend cyclist...

We were delighted to find our bikes matched the train

Upon arriving at Wimpole we got our energy back up with a cup of tea and a scone and then went exploring. We started out at the house but were both slightly underwhelmed by that experience. Yes, the grand country pile just wasn't right for us, darling.

But, in all seriousness, the period and style isn't the favourite of either of us and we found the experience a bit stuffy compared with our recent Sutton Hoo adventure. There were some wonderful spaces but it was a classic National Trust house with roped off rooms and a sense of moving rigidly through the set route. In fairness, this is somewhat fitting for a house of its type, as the eighteenth century saw the rise of country house tourism, where one would travel around to different manors, being met at each with a grand house designed with a definite sequence of rooms, through which one would move, admiring the collection of art and objects. And there was undoubtedly some fine architecture, art and objects at Wimpole:

The ceiling and lantern in the Soane room

I have a peculiar fondness for pineapples appearing in historic house settings

A stunning clock in the Soane room

Okay, it all looks wonderfully charming when I select out a few key photographs, and it was undeniably splendid in parts, but it just somewhat lacked atmosphere. (There was even a lady playing piano, like at Sutton Hoo, but it had a completely different vibe.) So, if that style of operating doesn't really do it for you then you want to at least learn something about the people who lived there, where their wealth came from, the trajectory of their fortune, and all that jazz. That's what gives these places a unique quality when they all have a similar look. Unfortunately, there wasn't much written interpretation, and sometimes you don't necessarily feel like having to ask the volunteers (as lovely as they are). So, I learnt a bit about the last inhabitants of the house but not much more about the generations before that, which was a shame.

Who is this lady? I'll never know...

Once out of the house, we went for a wander around the immediate grounds and the walled gardens. I do so love a walled garden, even when it isn't in bloom. It appeals to my longing to have a secret garden of my own one day.

The walled kitchen garden

The parterre

We then broke out from the genteel surrounds of the house and out into the wider estate to march our way up through the mud and the wintery landscape on a particular mission...

... The Gothick folly! For those who don't know, a folly is basically an architectural feature put in the landscape to look fabulous, but with no actual use. The quintessential folly is the ruinous folly - not actually the traces of a medieval building, as the wealthy estate owner would have us believe, but a structure deliberately built as a ready-made ruin. Unfortunately this fake ruin must now be in actual fact a true ruin, as it was fenced off with 'danger: do not enter' signs.

One of the things that I actually did learn when I was in the manor house was that the folly was built by Sanderson Miller, who was a 'gentleman architect' (that is, he wasn't formally trained as an architect, didn't need to work for money but he just kind of fancied giving it a go). It took something ridiculous like 25 years to complete due to stops and starts. By the time it was complete, fashions had moved on - not from follies entirely but from landmark follies such as this. Instead of being set up as a prominent feature in the landscape, the trend had changed to secret follies that one would stumble upon in one's exploration of the extensive estate. Oh well, it's still good, despite being unfashionable.

Upon later looking up Wimpole Hall in the relevant Pevsner guide (otherwise known as the architectural historian's bible), I came across the description of Sanderson Miller as 'the celebrated gentleman provider-of-ruins'. Don't you just love that? I can totally see him as this charming dandy who not only designs follies for the gentry but also ruins the virtue of the young daughters of his clients when he comes to visit... And just let me clarify that is my concept for a bodice-ripper and if I come across anyone using my idea, I will sue.

Monday 17 March 2014

Of Night and Light and the Half Light

The natural well at Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal

Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams; 
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

(W.B. Yeats)

Tying a votive to the tree at the well

My family is from Ireland a few generations back on my father's side and I carry an Irish surname. I love it when a couple of my friends call me Mac (it's fun to be one of the boys sometimes) but I never felt too much affinity with my Irish roots, even after a visit to Dublin many years ago. However, my trip to my actual ancestral home of County Donegal last year brought me more in tune with that heritage and the romance of the Irish countryside...

And then there's Yeats. I've always struggled with poetry, I must confess, but Yeats was one of the few poets that I actually got, that actually grabbed me, even back in high school English classes. 

So, with a far greater sense of connection and with far less cynicism about it just being an excuse for a piss up, this year I wholeheartedly wish you a happy St Patrick's Day. And I'll leave you with a traditional Irish blessing:

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
And rains fall soft upon your fields. 
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

Tuesday 11 March 2014

Fashion & Gardens

The other weekend, I went along to the Garden Museum to see the current exhibition, Fashion & Gardens: Spring/Summer - Autumn/Winter. The exhibition traced the connections between garden styles and clothes fashion from the sixteenth century through to the modern day. As the blurb on the Garden Museum's website explains, 'Both gardens and dress aim to bring a sense of occasion to a season. Midsummer is more authentic if passed among organza and roses; russet velvet and gold-licked chrysanthemums concentrate our senses that autumn has arrived.' If you've followed either my posting of monthly personifications or my visits to Kew, you won't be surprised to hear that this exhibition immediately grabbed my attention.

Artwork by Rebecca Louise Law... If only I had a space in which to hang hundreds
of dried flowers...

It was a very... shall we say 'compact' exhibition but it was fascinating and I feel that I came out having learnt a whole lot more than I knew when I went in. And the advantage of smaller exhibitions is that you ultimately take more time to appreciate each item.

So what did I learn? I learnt about the correlation between the patterns in Elizabethan knotwork gardens and the patterns on their clothing and upholstery, demonstrated in the exhibition with the display of exquisite embroidery. I also learnt that, while floral patterns on fabrics were popular throughout much of the eighteenth century, there was a transition from sparser patterns to busier, more clustered patterns. So if I see someone in a period drama set in the 1780s, wearing a lightly patterned floral dress, I can now titter knowingly about how deeply unfashionable they are.

One of the things that I found particularly interesting, as someone quite affected by colours, was learning how trends in colours changed both in the fashion world and in gardens. The introduction of chemical (rather than plant-derived, natural) dyes made all sorts of rich, vibrant colours possible in the nineteenth century. As methods improved, production increased and prices came down, these bright colours entered the middle-class and lower-class markets. At the same time, the numerous new public gardens established in cities to provide the general public with green spaces within dense urban areas in the mid-nineteenth century were frequently planted with bright, hardy flowers. As a result, there was a backlash, and the upper classes made a return to soft, subtle colours for their clothes, achieved with natural, high quality dyes, while their private gardens and preferred flowers followed suit.

'None of those obvious, bright colours for us, thank you very much. We're ladies.'
Miss Martineau's Garden, John Sant, 1873 (Image source)

Also interesting was the development of garden fashions and country style, in which, as the exhibition proudly pointed out, the Brits lead the world (partly because of our love of gardens, partly because of our rubbish weather and the waterproof nature of garden and country wear, from Burberry macs, through Barbour waxed jackets, to Hunter wellies). This 'dressed down' style, which was still posh enough to differentiate the gentlemen from the labouring gardeners, began in the eighteenth century as a result of trends for connecting with nature, albeit in a highly controlled manner. Think the 'natural' but in reality highly structured Picturesque gardens with, for instance, cattle forming part of the vista from your French windows, but nicely kept at bay with a ha-ha so that they didn't actually come up and nibble and defecate on your carefully maintained lawn... Along with all this a slightly more casual 'outdoor' clothing style was adopted by the upper classes, to allow them to get down and dirty with a spot of poking around in the garden.

Kate Middleton effortlessly bringing the 'country chic' look
(Image source)

Even the French admit defeat by the Brits on the mac style front
(Image source)

Following the Fashion & Gardens exhibition, I had a wander around the rest of the museum. I've been here for talks and into the garden when the museum was closed for renovation a few years ago, but never properly explored the permanent collection. Again, it's small, but lovely. 

Scarecrow in cute cat form, c.1920s

'Seeds for sale'

The carrots are only intermediate...

... but the rhubarb is GIANT!

But they both pale in comparison to this prize tomato

The museum is located in a disused church, and on the way out of the building I noticed the memorial below in the entrance porch. Unfortunately, the bottom of it was covered up but I was suitably intrigued - 'killed by thunder and lightning'? At the tender age of 34? There's got to be more to that story, surely?

To the memory of William Bacon
of the Salt Office, London, Gent.
who was killed by thunder & lightning
at his window July 12th 1787
Aged 34 years

Thursday 6 March 2014

A Bookish Character

I only realised late yesterday evening that today was World Book Day, which, in the school-going world, often involves dressing up as your favourite character from a book for the day. I was rather annoyed at myself for not clocking this earlier, as I would have dressed up as my favourite character for the office, if only I'd had a little more time to think and plot and plan. Fancy dressing for the office is frequently more of a challenge than for recreational fancy dress, as you have to strike a balance between respectability and fun (as experienced here and here). So I really needed more time to work something out. But as I started conjuring up ideas belatedly this evening, I realised just how endless the possibilities are... 

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(I urge you to follow that link - a fascinating
progression of covers for Alice over the years)

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(Again, follow that link!)

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Do you think I could go as a character from The Wind in the Willows? Obviously I wouldn't paint on whiskers or wear ears, so it would just be Edwardian country gentlemen's clothes really.

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Of course, it doesn't have to be only children's books that I draw from. But considering how many ideas I came up with just from that section of the library of the world's books, there doesn't seem to be the need to go elsewhere. And the concept is derived from an idea for children, after all. Hm, it would be somewhat ironic if I went as, say, The Naughtiest Girl in the School, wearing my take on a school uniform - exactly what the kids of the world are getting out of wearing on that very same day.

Anyway, I'll put in my diary for next year and plan ahead - not just a costume for myself but maybe a nice little event with my workmates and/or friends revolving around favourite books. Watch this space!

And happy reading!

Saturday 1 March 2014

The Forgotten Saint's Day

People tend to start thinking about St Patrick's Day around this time of year and planning their emerald green outfits, but what about the patron saint's day that comes today, two weeks before St Patrick's Day? Yes, happy St David's Day everyone! Or more rightly, in Welsh, Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Sant hapus!

In the valleys

I've had a soft spot for the Welsh and Wales for some time, all beginning with getting into some Welsh bands when I was a teenager. And what a better avenue in to exploring the Welsh culture than music, as the Welsh are famously known for being a musical people - with 'music in their blood and poetry in their souls'.

On the south coast

And what a beautiful country it is, to inspire that music and poetry. I remember the first time I ever went to Wales, travelling from the south, up out to Aberystwyth on the coast and then ultimately up to the north. When I got to Conwy, I remember standing on the castle walls that surround the town and looking out into the surrounding mountains and truly believing there were dragons out there in the wild.

Near Llangollen

So I thought I should mark the day of the Welsh patron saint with a wee post, sharing some pictures of that mountainous, beautiful land from a winter-time family trip there a few years ago. So, go ahead, drink Guinness and enjoy the craic in a couple of weeks' time but do spare a thought for the Welsh and their saint today. I give you my blessing to go out and pick a wild daffodil and wear it in your hair as a mark of solidarity with the Welsh... Or how about cooking up some Welsh cakes? Mmmm... So tasty.

Llangollen train station

Gyda chariad (with love), 
Miss Marie