Friday, 31 October 2014

Nan Tuck, A Georgian Ghost

It would simply not be right to let Halloween pass unmarked and just as my grandfather once terrified me with an entirely fictional tale of Lord Byron's ghost, so too did he like to tell a scary tale come 31st October. I considered crime, mused or monsters and finally settled on spirits and so it is my pleasure to share with you the strange tale of Nan Tuck's ghost. 

As the 18th century turned into the 19th, Nan Tuck lived in obscurity in Buxted, Sussex and was, to all intents and purposes, not a person who seemed destined to stand out. With her husband she went about her quiet business in a cottage on the edge of the woods and life rolled past with the years until, quite out of nowhere, Mr Tuck dropped down dead. Legend tells us that Mrs Tuck was responsible for her husband's death and had fed him a most deadly poison though whether this was true or not, it mattered little to the local populace. 



Nan Tuck's Lane
Nan Tuck's Lane

With the death of Mr Tuck husband the locals began to chatter. Wasn't Nan a little unusual? A little old, ugly and eccentric? Could she possibly be... a witch?


Of course, it was not long before villagers pointed the finger at the widow and she fled her home, not much fancying a run in with the law on charges of witchcraft or murder. With her pursuers hot on her trail, Nan decided that the only sure place of refuge was in the dark woods that surrounded her home in Buxted. Perhaps, once the search party had passed, she might continue her escape or even make a run for the sanctuary of the church but if she were to be caught, the scaffold surely awaited the fugitive.

In fact, the pursuing officials caught sight of the escaping woman and took off after her, her capture inevitable now. Crashing through the trees and into the woods they found... nothing. Nan Tuck had vanished clean off the face of the earth and left behind no trace, never to be seen again. All that marked the spot of her disappearance was a patch of utterly dead foliage and even now, it is said that nothing grows on the spot. Indeed, Mrs Tuck still puts in the occasional appearance, terrifying unsuspecting wanderers in the woods and on the lane that now bears her name.

Truth be told, there are half a dozen legends attached to the place known as Nan Tuck's Lane in Buxted. Was Nan an elderly lady or a young maid, did her unfortunately fate befall her in the 18th century or the very early 19th and did she disappear of her own, was she hanged or did she fall victim to a miscreant? We can never know for sure, but I hope my tale today whetted your appetite for a most ghostly Halloween!

Thursday, 30 October 2014

A Tot of Grog

Edward Vernon (aka, Old Grog; London, England, 12th November 1684 – Nacton, Suffolk, 30th October 1757) 


Edward Vernon by Thomas Gainsborough, 1753
Edward Vernon by Thomas Gainsborough, 1753

Those of you who visit the salon regularly or have seen me elsewhere on the web chatting about my influences, know that I owe my love of history and tall tales to my old granddad. A born storyteller, he liked the occasional tipple and one of his favourites was a tot of rum or, as he would term it, "grog".

Today we mark the death of Admiral Edward Vernon, a career officer in the British Navy from the age of just sixteen. As his career progressed, Vernon earned the nickname, Old Grog, for his love of coats made of grogram cloth; however, the word has since come to mean something in no way related to clothing!

As an officer in the Navy, Old Grog faced the same challenge as many of his fellows, that of the men under his command getting a little carried away on their daily rum ration. Concerned about the affect of this libation on both their physical health and their moral wellbeing, in 1740 Vernon decreed that the rum ration should henceforth be diluted by water.

The sailors were understandably not at all happy, since water on board a long sea voyage was far from palatable. In answer, Vernon replied that they could purchase limes or sugar with thick to sweeten the drink and, quite without realising it, those who added this extra ingredient were doing wonders for their health. 

Almost ten years later, in 1747, James Lind concluded that citrus fruit was a valuable weapon against scurvy and the Royal Navy swiftly leaped into action. Suddenly, instead of being an optional extra, all naval rum rations were supplemented with lime or lemon juice, the newly-created drink being nicknamed, Grog, after the man who inadvertently created it.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

A Most Dramatic Cláirseach

Not so long ago, we took a look at a harp once owned and cherished by Marie Antoinette. That post revealed that there are a lot of fans of the harp who visit the salon and even, unbeknown to me, one or two harpists as well. There is something romantic about a harp and to me it is, in some ways, the quintessential 18th century instrument so when a reader pointed me in the direction of this rather dramatic instrument, an Irish cláirseach, I had to feature it here.

John Kelly Harp


Marie Antoinette's harp was ornate, opulent and perfectly appointed to take its place at the Bourbon court. With its more Gothic leanings, this Irish instrument seems less suited to the delicate hands of the French queen and almost looks as though it should be taking pride of place in The Castle of Otranto.

The harp was made by instrument maker, John Kelly, in 1734 and is fashioned from willow and brass. It is carved with beautifully rendered depictions of flowers and trailing foliage though they are not picked out by paint and colour as on the queen's harp; likewise, there are no painted depictions of art any mythology here.

The instrument features another carving too, this time an inscription informing us that the unique harp was made for the Reverend Charles Bunworth of County Cork. Upon his death it passed down his line and was eventually sold in the Victorian era. Although some of the wood has warped and become misshapen, it remains a breathtaking piece of design and one that Reverent Bunworth must have been proud to own and play.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

The Death of Anna of Russia

Anna of Russia (Anna Ioannovna, Moscow, Russia, 7th February 1693 – St Petersburg, Russia, 28th October 1740)


Anna of Russia by Louis Caravaque, 1730
Anna of Russia by Louis Caravaque, 1730
Thomas Carlyle compared her large cheeks to a “Westphalian ham” but, sadly, this painting doesn't appear to do them justice!

Today we find ourselves back in Russia to share the final days of another famed and, in this case, feared Empress. Just as we peeked in at the death of Catherine the Great, now we are afforded a glimpse into the death of Anna of Russia, an autocratic and strong-minded ruler.

After an iron-gripped decade as the Empress and Autocrat of all the Russias, it was becoming increasingly clear to Anna that her health was in somewhat speedy decline. With one eye on the future she appointed Regent from her circle of favourites and selected her infant grandnephew as a successor, determined that the descendants of Peter the Great would never again sit on the Russian throne.

For many years Anna had suffered from debilitating gout and as the years passed, so too did the symptoms of her ailment grow worse and worse until her mobility began to suffer. Not only this, but she was beset by initially unexplained pains in her torso that were later diagnosed as an ulcer on one kidney and this was the start of the kidney trouble that would eventually kill her.

As 1740 wore on, the pain grew more pronounced as Anna was beset with kidney stones and she was forced to retire to her bed. Here she remained in increasing pain until she died as a result of kidney failure at the age of 47, leaving her carefully-laid plans for the succession to fall into failure.

Monday, 27 October 2014

The Premiere of Il Pirata

I have made a few theatre trips of late and have several more planned in the forthcoming months, much to my delight; from comedy to drama to musical, it will be almost theatrical winter in the salon!  Although I do not have any operas currently in my theatrical schedule, it is that art form that concerns us today as we find ourselves in Milan for the premiere of Vincenzo Bellini's 1827 smash hit, Il pirata.

Based on Charles Nodier's play, Bertram, ou le Pirate, itself adapted from an earlier work, the opera tells a tale of love, death and madness and is regarded as a romantic tragedy of epic proportions.

 Vincenzo Bellini
 Vincenzo Bellini

Bellini was just twenty six years of age when he arrived in Milan and began to mix in theatrical and musical society, forming close bonds that saw him in the inner circle of those who called La Scala their workplace. It was through these circles that he met librettist, Felice Romani, who discussed with the young composer the possibility of collaborating on an operatic adaptation of Nodier's play. It was to be the start of a hugely successful partnership that extended over numerous projects and years, with the two men forming a close working relationship that resulted in some of the most celebrated works of the era.

With the project officially starting in May 1827, things moved fast and by summer, not only was Bellini was well-embarked on the music, but much of the casting was already confirmed with everything on track for an October opening at La Scala. Although the process moved fast and actors and creatives found the rehearsal process fraught, their efforts were not in vain and the opera was soon on the lips of Milanese theatregoers, with tickets for the opening night in high demand.  

Felice Romani
Felice Romani

In fact, as the curtain came down to rapturous applause on the opening night, there was no doubt whatsoever that Bellini and Romani had a hit on their hands. Almost immediately Il pirate became the hottest ticket in Milan and for the duration of its time in the repertoire, which ended on 2nd December, was a complete sell out.

The cast and creative teams rode the wave of success as the opera transferred across Italy to enormous success and acclaim in the following year, receiving its first international performances too. By the time Il pirate sailed into London in 1830 and America two years later, it was a phenomenon and remains in performance to this very day.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

William Hogarth and Miss Mary Edwards

William Hogarth (London, England, 10th November 1697 – London, England, 26th October 1764) 

On this day in 1764, one of the most iconic painters in the history of English art, William Hogarth, died. Beloved of court and public, Hogarth turned his hand to portraiture, caricature and satirical prints. His subjects ranged from the street vendor to his own beloved pug and, as we shall see today, the most noteworthy names in Georgian society.

Miss Mary Edwards of Kensington was a most singular sort. One of Hogarth's favourite portraits, the eccentric heiress inherited a fortune in her early twenties and she and the artist enjoyed a fruitful, close friendship as she brought commissions and inspiration to his door including a portrait of her own infant son and caricatures of society types who had once mocked her somewhat unorthodox approach to life.


Miss Mary Edwards by William Hogarth, 1742

When the time came to paint Mary herself in 1742, she was thirty seven years of age and had lived an eventful life, including marrying and then casting aside a most avaricious and scheming husband, Lord Anne Hamilton, whom she believed intended to relieve her of her fortune. In this oil painting Hogarth captured his adored patron perfectly, his brush picking out a kindly, playful and undeniably appealing face, the central figure of Mary in her vibrant red dress shining out against a formal dark background.

Behind Mary a globe and bust suggest wisdom and artistry respectively and she rests her hand on the head of a loyal, adoring dog, marking her out as a most dependable sort. Her clothes are fine yet not overly extravagant, the jewellery around her neck likewise ornate but not quite dazzling. As we can see from Mary's decision to leave her marriage rather than lose her fortune and place in the world, she loved and valued freedom and independence and the scroll at her elbow bears testament to this, reading:
Remember, Englishmen, the Laws and the Rights.
The generous plan of Power delivered down
From age to age by your renown’ed Forefathers. . .
Do thou, great Liberty, inspire their Souls!

This portrait is not simply that of one more sitter in the appointment book, it is a friend captured forever on canvas, Hogarth's brush showing us how highly he thought of this most illustrious lady. One year after Hogarth completed this lovely painting the lady was dead yet she lives on even now, vibrant, happy and adored, in this remarkable painting.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Carnivalesque 106

I have been on something of a historical voyage of discovery of late in preparation for my role as hostess of Carnivalesque 106.

Carnivalesque is, in its own words, “an interdisciplinary blog carnival dedicated to pre-modern history (to c. 1800 C.E.)” and although you will still find some wonderful tales of the long 18th century here, it has been a delight to dip into pre-modern history too and be treated to the best of the history web!


The Ridotto in Venice by Pietro Longhi, 1750s
The Ridotto in Venice by Pietro Longhi, 1750s

To start us off we have an ideal post given that Halloween is fast approaching as Willow C Winsham delves into her collection of tales on The Witch, the Weird and the Wonderful to investigate the case of Guillaume Edelin, a former monk who confessed to witchcraft. Notable in his confession is the first recorded mention of a witch riding a broomstick, a familiar image come 31st October!


As Dr Sarah Peverley tells us in her fascinating post on Medieval Maps of Scotland, Scottish independence is far from a modern issue. As something of a fan of old maps, this post was not just a feast of knowledge but a visual delight too and those wild, unknown highlands depicted by Hardyng remain wonderfully evocative, even today.

Considerably less wild but no less intriguing is Jonathan Jarett's Making Sense of Glastonbury. Delving into the secrets still hidden at Glastonbury Abbey, Jarett investigates the likelihood of sub-Roman occupation and Professor Roberta Gilchrist's efforts to interpret the Anglo-Saxon archaeology of the site.

I am blushing to admit that something a little more familiar to me is the subject of Sexual Curiosities? Aphrodisiacs in early modern England. In her post on the subject, Jennifer Evans examines the long and intriguing list of foodstuffs that were believed not only to give a little pep in the bedroom, but also to increase fertility.

Of course, all the aphrodisiacs in the world were of little use to the figures who feature in Katherine Harvey's, Death by Celibacy: Sex, Semen and Male Health in the Middle Ages. The tale of a bishop who needed to have sex for the sake of his health is certainly a cautionary one.

Whether Lady Chanworth's jumballs were an aphrodisiac, we can never know but we can be sure that they were tasty indeed. At Cooking in the Archives, Marissa Nicosia uncovers an original recipe for this spicy shortbread treat and updates it for the modern kitchen.

If those jumballs have given you an appetite than prepare to have it roundly quelled as Jo and Sarah at All Things Georgian take us on a search for Oliver Cromwell's missing head. The well-travelled cranium certainly got around prior to its arrival in Cambridge and even spent some time in exhibition on Bond Street, for just half a crown a look.

Over at Early Modern/Medieval Histories, Sjoerd Levelt tells the story of a 17th century commentator's margin note that became a Twitter phenomenon. Sjoerd takes a deeper look into an apparently throwaway comment and unravels a wealth of meaning behind John Seldon's prose commentary.

Prose commentaries may appear to have been far beyond the reach of The Rabble that Cannot Read yet, in his post on literacy in seventeenth century England, Mark Hailwood offers a different perspective. Through the study of signatures he reveals a far wider spectrum of literacy than we might expect and warns of the dangers of dismissing that illiterate rabble.

I have long been fascinated with the de Medici family and Lillian Marek's story of  Lorenzo's Galley Slaves told a tale that I was utterly unfamiliar with as Lorenzo de Medici's slaves were given a handful of money, a new suit of clothes and their freedom.

If slaves could be given their freedom, what then of the belief that all Medieval women were nothing but chattel? Not so, says Kim Renfeld, as she shares the stories of women from all walks of life and offers an insight into the diplomatic career of Bertrada, mother of Charlemagne.

From aphrodisiacs to jumballs, nothing could aid in the case of the Midwife of St. Giles Cripplegate as investigated by Sarah Fox at Perceptions of Pregnancy. Sarah delves into the archives of the Old Bailey in search of a sad tale of a midwife driven to subterfuge to conceal her own infertility.

We find ourselves back in the 18th century now with the beautifully illustrated story of Polesden Lacey by Rachel Knowles. Rachel's Regency History site is a regular haunt of mine and any post that mentions not only Richard Brinsley Sheridan but Joseph Bonsor too is a must-read for me!

Staying with the Georgian era, Antoine Vanner looks at one of my favourite subjects, with an evocative description of the loss of HMS Queen Charlotte. He brings his usual air of nautical authority to this dramatic and tragic tale in which nearly 700 men were killed.

Last but certainly not least, how can one resist Jonathan Healey's wonderfully-titled post, Dudes of the Dutch Republic? Opening with Michael Caine and taking a lighthearted yet revealing illustrated trip through 10 dudes who lived large, from Pipe Dude to Dance-off Dude and everything in between! 

Hosting Cesque has been a fascinating and educational experience, thank you for sharing this journey with me!