Sunday, 31 August 2014

The Execution of Général Moustache

Adam Philippe, Comte de Custine (Metz, France, 4th February 1740 – Paris, France, 28th August 1793) 

Adam Philippe, Comte de Custine

To France today for a trip to the National Razor in the company of Adam Philippe, Comte de Custine. Known as Général Moustache, Custine fell afoul of the Revolutionary Tribunal when his strategic mind failed him and he was censured for failing to properly command revolutionary forces against their loyalist opponents.

After a successful military career, Custine took a sideways move into politics but he was soon back in the forces, serving with distinction in a number of battles and campaigns. However, the Comte de Custine's career would soon falter, with fatal consequences.

Throughout 1792 and into 1793, it seemed that the Comte de Custine could not make a successful military move no matter what he did. Efforts to negotiate with his Prussian opponents failed and after series of high profile defeats and retreats he was recalled to Paris to account for himself before the Revolutionary Tribunal. 

Here he found himself accused of treason and conspiring with the Austro-Prussian High Command. At this point there can have been little doubt as to his fate and Général Moustache went to the guillotine on 28th August 1793.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Jacques-Louis David and the Last Journey of Marie Antoinette

Jacques-Louis David (Paris, France, 30th August 1748 - Brussels, Belgium 29th December 1825)

On this day in 1748, famed artist Jacques-Louis David was born. Initially renowned for his history paintings, David eventually began to develop strong Revolutionary sensibilities and became closely allied to Marat, producing a famed painting depicting his death. He later grew close to Robespierre and enjoyed immense influence over French arts and culture during the Revolution and then the rule of Napoleon. Although known for his grand works and portraits, I have chosen instead to concentrate on a more simple sketch he produced, that of Marie Antoinette on her way to the guillotine.

Marie Antoinette on the Way to the Guillotine by Jacques-Louis David, 1793
Marie Antoinette on the Way to the Guillotine by Jacques-Louis David, 1793

When David sketched the doomed queen on 16th October 1793, she was a world away from the grand, glamorous figure memorialised in innumerable works of art. In her thirty seventh year, Marie Antoinette had been incarcerated for some time and David depicts her with an unflinching eye, showing an unremarkable woman, face haggard and toothless, hair shorn and her hands bound as she sits in the tumbrel on its way to the scaffold. One cannot help but notice how straight she sits, though the expression on her face is one of grim sadness.

In this simplest of sketches David shows not a queen, nor the hated figure so vilified by her persecutors, but a simple human in her final minutes. There was nothing remotely Royalist in David's work and yet his honest depiction carries with it a dignity of its own. He might have produced far finer works and laboured long hours over great canvasses but for me, this simple, human sketch is one of David's greatest works; it captures a singular moment in time and one that, as the tumbrel rolled on past the artist's window, was soon gone forever.

Life in the Georgian Court, true tales of 18th century royalty, is available at the links below.

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Book Depository (free worldwide shipping)

Friday, 29 August 2014

The Father of Whist Versus the Publishing Pirates

Edmond Hoyle (1672 – London, England, 29th August 1769)

Edmond Hoyle
Edmond Hoyle

Although fond of a social gathering and the occasional game of chance, I have never been a lady who gambles or one who is an expert with a deck of cards! My grandfather was likewise not a gambler but he knew more than a few card games and it is through him that I first encountered whist, a game in which our guest today is widely regarded as one of the leading experts of the 18th century.

Edmond Hoyle had already lived a long and mysterious life by the time he began tutoring some most illustrious clients in how to excel at the game of whist. In addition to his skills as a tutor, he provided his clients with written notes to support their lessons and soon these notes grew into a manuscript. In 1742 he published his book, A Short Treatise on the Game of Whist. This hugely successful work sold for one guinea and it was soon a sell out, so popular and fashionable had to game become. However, Hoyle did not reprint the book and instead sold the rights for 100 guineas to Francis Cogan, a London bookseller.

Unfortunately, Cogan was not to see any benefit from this enormous investment as, before he republished the book, two most unpleasant printers began publishing pirated copies credited only to A Gentleman. Publishing under the names Webb and Webster, these miscreants made a tidy sum from their scheme and though Cogan an was eventually successful in blocking these uncredited reprints, he was about to face even more financial problems thanks to what must have seemed like a good deal at the time!

In order to ensure that only official copies of the book were sold, Cogan decided that each copy of the book he published should be personally signed by Hole. Hoyle was happy to do this for tuppence per signature and so Cogan was forced to pay out once more, providing the elderly yet canny author with tuppence for each book he signed. Hoyle would publish other gaming books but none were as lucrative as the first, though Francis Cogan did not opt to but any further rights from the elderly card player!

Thursday, 28 August 2014

In Memory of MM Bennetts

Over the past year as I have been writing this blog, I have had the fortune to meet some lovely people and enjoy their support, warmth and shared expertise. One of these was MM Bennetts, a remarkable lady who sadly passed away this week. I will remember her as a woman with a passion for history, family, horses and life itself, always full of good humour and grace.

For some twenty years, she was a book critic for the Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper, The Christian Science Monitor, specialising in history and fiction. She was one of the editors of Castles, Customs and Kings ~ True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors, as well as the author of two novels set amidst the turmoil of the Napoleonic wars:  May 1812 and Of Honest Fame.  

Earlier this year MM gave an interview to Stephanie at the wonderful Layered Pages site. My post today is simply a link to that interview and to a tribute to MM. I hope you will enjoy it and hopefully read MM's books too, if you haven't already, you won't regret it.

An Interview with MM Bennetts

A tribute by the Bennetts family

Of Honest Fame cover

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Eise Jeltes Eisinga and the Drawing Room Planetarium

Eise Jeltes Eisinga (Dronrijp, The Netherlands, 21st February 1744 – Franeker, The Netherlands, 27th August 1828) 

Eise Eisinga by Willem Bartel van der Kooi, 1827
Eise Eisinga by Willem Bartel van der Kooi, 1827

The salon where I write my tales of the long 18th century is the place where I feel happiest; it is here, surrounded by the things most precious to me, that I am at my most productive, creative and settled. It is far from minimalist and full of things that bring the 18th century to life, whether pictures, books or little items of interest.

Another man who turned his home into a most personal place was my guest today, Eise Jeltes Eisinga. Employed in the wool industry, Eisinga's true passion was for astronomy and since childhood he was fascinated in the heavens, publishing his first book on the subject at the age of just 17. He harboured grand dreams of being the proud master of his own planetarium and, in 1774, decided to make this a reality.

The Eise Eisinga Planetarium

Astronomers across Europe were keenly waiting for a conjunction of the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter that was due in May 1774. However, Reverend Eelco Alta, from Boazum in Netherlands predicted that this conjunction, due on 8th May, would mark the end of the world. In his own book he predicted that the planets and the moon would crash into one another and force the earth straight into the sun, resulting in a fiery demise for the planet and all life on it. Many who read the book took it as fact and soon people were just a little panicked that they were headed for Armageddon. 

Eise Eisinga Planetarium

Sure that the Reverend and his readers were mistaken, Eisinga set about constructing the Eise Eisinga Planetarium in his home in Franeker. Although he missed the conjunction by some time, he eventually completed construction in 1781. As soon as it was finished, the planetarium was out of date as Uranus was discovered soon after and there was no space remaining on the ceiling in which to paint this newly discovered planet! 

However, Eisinga's planetarium is still a remarkable achievement and King William I of the Netherlands certainly thought so; visiting the planetarium in 1818, he immediately decided to buy it for the nation and it remains in working order to this day!

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Jacques de Liniers: The Execution of a Viceroy

Jacques de Liniers (aka Jacques de Liniers; Niort, France, 25th July 1753 – Cabeza de Tigre, Córdoba, Argentina, 26th August 1810)

Today we journey far afield to South America and the last day in the life of Jacques de Liniers, a French military officer who served as Viceroy of the Río de la Plata. Liniers enjoyed a turbulent military and political career and though he did eventually retire, he could not stay away from public life and was destined to meet a violent end.

After being appointed viceroy in 1807, Liniers found that his time in office was not destined to be easy. He was soon challenged and ultimately deposed, handing over control of the government to Baltasar Hidalgo de Cisneros in 1809 and entering retirement. As Liniers went into retirement, the country entered a time of unrest that led to the May Revolution of 1810.

Execution of Santiago de Liniers by Franz van Riel, 1921
Execution of Santiago de Liniers by Franz van Riel, 1921

Following the Revolution, Liniers emerged from retirement and became involved in the counterrevolutionary movement, joining efforts to effect a monarchist uprising against the newly-installed government. His efforts to raise a force were to prove disastrous and he was arrested by Ortiz de Ocampo; although Ocampo brought an armed force to make the arrest this move was completely unnecessary. The counterrevolutionaries were badly organised and damaged by infighting, so when the government force arrived to make the arrest, they met with no resistance. 

Without the benefit of a trial, Liniers was sentenced to death alongside a number of his fellow counterrevolutionaries. However, Ocampo recognised their popularity in Buenos Aires and refused to carry out the executions, taking them prisoner instead. The reprieve was temporary at best and Juan José Castelli took charge of the prisoners and executed them at Cabeza de Tigre in 26th August 1810.

Liniers lives on in the very fabric of Buenos Aires in street names and even the name of a province in the city. Liniers was buried without ceremony in Argentina and here he remained until 1861 when, at the request of Queen Isabella II of Spain, his remains were returned to Spain and laid to rest in the Pantheon of Cádiz. 

Monday, 25 August 2014

The Kongouro from New Holland

George Stubbs (Liverpool, England, 25th August 1724 – London, England, 10th July 1806)

Today marks the anniversary of the birth of George Stubbs, a most remarkable artist known primarily for his equestrian portraits and depictions of the natural world. I have previously told the story of his life and today have decided to focus on one of his paintings, The Kongouro from New Holland.

The Kongouro from New Holland by George Stubbs, 1772

The 1772 oil painting was commissioned by the naturalist Joseph Banks, and when Stubbs set about the work, he had never seen a live kangaroo. Noted for his exceptional attention to anatomical detail when painting animals, Stubbs had only eyewitness accounts and an inflated, preserved kangaroo skin owned by Banks on which to base his depiction. It was to be the first time this most unusual animal was depicted in western art and the painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1773 alongside another work by Stubbs, Portrait of a Large Dog, a depiction of a dingo.

Clearly the kangaroo painted by Stubbs is not as perfectly drawn as his equestrian work but it must be said that it is a remarkable work given that he had never actually seen a kangaroo in any form other than inflated skin. It was brought by Banks and passed along his descendants until 2012 when it was sold, alongside Portrait of a Large Dog, to an Australian buyer. However, after a campaign to keep the painting in England, it was agreed that the paintings would remain at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, for now at least.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

A Birthday Gift Fit for a Prince

It's time to pour the gin, roast something tasty and welcome rogues, harlots and peers alike to the salon because the year has rolled round and it's my birthday once more. I mused a little over the tale I might tell today and eventually settled on one with a birthday flavour, so without further ado I present a little something on Bonnie Prince Charlie's silver travelling canteen!

This beautiful 31 piece canteen was made by the splendidly-monikered Ebenezer Oliphant of Edinburgh in 1740-1 and was owned by Prince Charles Edward Stuart. It is thought the set was presented to the prince for his 21st birthday gift and what a wonderful gift it would have been!

Bonnie Prince Charlie's silver travelling canteen

The silver gilt canteen is richly adorned with images of thistles and foliage representing the Collar and Badge of the Order of the Thistle as well as the Prince of Wales's feathers. It holds a variety of implements for civilised dining on the go including a nutmeg grater, salt and pepper shaker, two wine goblets and a corkscrew. One can see that Charlie must have been a chap of fashionable tastes as there is no suggestion of subtlety about this glorious piece, no suggestion of slumming it on the road.

The canteen remained in Charlie's possession until, in 1746, it was seized at Culloden by William, Duke of Cumberland and Bonnie Prince Charlie never saw his 21st birthday present again!

Life in the Georgian Court, true tales of 18th century royalty, is available at the links below.

Pen and Sword
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Book Depository (free worldwide shipping)

Saturday, 23 August 2014

The Death of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry

Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry (South Kingstown, Rhode Island, America, 23rd August 1785 – Trinidad, 23rd August 1819) 

Oliver Hazard Perry by Gilbert Stuart, 1818
Oliver Hazard Perry by Gilbert Stuart, 1818

Today marks the anniversary of both the birth and death of the famed American Naval Commodore, Oliver Hazard Perry. Controversial and celebrated in equal measure, he is memorialised today in the form of monuments, buildings and numerous place names.

Perry served to great acclaim in the War of 1812, among others, and was highly decorated for his exploits, even if he was not always the most politic of gentlemen.

In addition to his naval career, Perry was known for his efforts to combat piracy and in 1819 he was due to meet with Simon Bolivar to discuss measures again pirates in the Caribbean. To this end, he was on board the USS Nonsuch, returning from Venezuela and an expedition up the Orinoco River. Mosquitos were a persistent problem and during the long, hot summer, Perry contracted yellow fever as a result of the insects.

With the Commodore declining fast, the crew of the Nonsuch made desperate efforts to reach Trinidad and medical care but their efforts were destined to fail. As the ship approached the island Perry died on the day he reached the age of thirty four. Initially buried in Port of Spain, Trinidad, his remains were later reclaimed and moved to Newport, Rhode Island, near his childhood home. 

Friday, 22 August 2014

Captain Cook Lands on Possession Island

We have met Captain James Cook on a couple of occasions in the past, sharing the landing at Botany Bay and witnessing his murder after a disastrous foray into Hawaii's Kealakekua Bay. Today marks another anniversary for Cook, that of the discovery of Possession Island off the coast of Queensland, Australia.

Captain James Cook by Nathaniel Dance-Holland, 1776
Captain James Cook by Nathaniel Dance-Holland, 1776

Following his discovery of Botany Bay, Cook sailed on and eventually discovered a group of islands in the Torres Straits. These islands were home to the Kaurareg people and Cook eventually made landfall on an island that its inhabitants knew as Bedanug or Bedhan Lag. 

However, the Captain came ashore and raised the flag as the sunset on 22nd August, 1770, claiming the eastern coast for Britain in the name of King George III and declaring it as New South Wales.

More than two centuries later, the Kaurareg people were successful in their petition to have the native title rights of Possession Island and its neighbours returned to them in perpetuity. Today the island is celebrated for its rich flora and fauna and Cook's landing is marked by a monument on the spot where he once raised his flag and claimed the land for the king.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Rumford's Soup

Sir Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford FRS (Woburn, Massachusetts, America, 26th March 1753 – Paris, France, 21st August 1814)

Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford
Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford

Today marks the anniversary of the death of physicist Benjamin Thompson, a much-decorated gentleman who lived a life that could never be called dull. He went from his birthplace of Massachussetts to England and then to Bavaria and Europe, all the time working on inventions as diverse as the drip coffeepot, the Rumford fireplace and even the occasional warship.

It is for a culinary achievement that Rumford has piqued my interest today thanks to a recipe developed by the Count in response to the poverty that he saw during his life in Bavaria. Shocked at the hunger and suffering he witnessed, Rumford prevailed upon the government to develop a system of workhouses where people might be able to eat a nourishing meal. To this end, he developed a recipe for a dish that became known as Rumford's Soup and consisted of the following ingredients:

1 part pearl barley
1 part dried (yellow) peas
4 parts potato
Salt according to need
Old, sour beer

The mixture was cooked slowly and though perhaps not delicious, provided a low cost, nutritious and simple meal.

The soup was served in the workhouses of Munich where the poor were employed to make military uniforms and though children were expected to work to earn their keep too, they were also educated and given time in which to play with their peers. At mealtime, the soup was served with rye bread and workers went back to their tasks with full bellies; in fact, the soup was adapted to serve as a basic military ration and with some amendments to recipe, remained in use by some militaries for two hundred years.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

"I am going away": The Death of Charles Floyd

Charles Floyd (Kentucky, America, 1782 – Iowa, America, 20th August 1804) 

In May 1804, the famed Corps of Discovery Expedition set out to explore the uncharted west of America. Commissioned by Thomas Jefferson, the iconic Lewis and Clark expedition lasted for two years, four months, and ten days and today marks the anniversary of the death of the only fatality on that trip.

Charles Floyd was just 21 years old and served as the expedition's quartermaster. He kept a journal of his experiences and was well aware of the importance of the work, taking his own role extremely seriously. In late July 1804, Floyd confided in his diary that he was suffering from an unexplained illness. Although he appeared to recover, within days he was deathly ill, his condition deteriorating at a frightening speed.

The Obelisk

William Clark reported that the young man was suffering from bilious colic and bore his illness with stoicism and bravery. Clark was with him at the moment of his death, reporting his last words as, "I am going away. I want you to write me a letter."

Modern medical historians believe that Floyd died as the result of a ruptured appendix that led to peritonitis. Having suffered from both of these conditions, I cannot imagine how much Floyd must have suffered. There was certainly nothing that could be done to save him and the young quartermaster was buried atop a bluff beside the newly-named  Floyd River, a tributary of the Missouri River near what would one day become Sioux City, with full honours. A simple cedar post was driven into the ground to mark the spot of Floyd's Bluff and inscribed "Sergt. C. Floyd died here 20th of August 1804." 

In the years that followed the cedar post was whittled away by souvenir hunters and replaced on more than one occasion; eventually an obelisk was erected on the spot, a permanent memorial of Sergeant Charles Floyd.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Queen Charlotte's Diamonds

Today is the anniversary of my wedding to my colonial gentleman; it seemed right, then, to post something with a marital flavour and I settled on a rather fetching ring that was given by a King to his bride. I have a soft spot for such things as my own engagement ring met with a terrible fate that almost cost me a finger too, of which more anon.

Now on with the tale, which happily contains no gruesome accidents or jewellery disasters!

On 8th September 1761, George III married Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz in the Chapel Royal at St. James's Palace. The ceremony was presided over by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Secker and the marriage was a long and eventful one, ended only by Charlotte's death in 1818.

Queen Charlotte's Diamond Keeper Ring
Queen Charlotte's Diamond Keeper Ring

George presented Charlotte with a beautiful diamond ring to be worn alongside her wedding ring and inscribed within the band was Septr 8th 1761. The ring was a personal gift from the king and it was accompanied by bracelets, necklaces and earrings but it is the ring that appears most significant to Charlotte. From the day of her wedding to the day of her death, Charlotte never wore another ring on that finger, holding her wedding jewellery in such regard

Following Queen Charlotte's death, her jewels were divided amongst her daughters and many were sold on. The diamond ring, however, remained in the care of Charlotte, Princess Royal, and was later inherited by Queen Victoria. It remains in the Royal Collection, though I cannot help but wish it had stayed with Queen Charlotte at her death, but perhaps that's the romantic in me coming out.

I am pleased to relate that there was a happy ending to my own sorry story as the stones from my pulverised engagement ring went onto a new life as a beautiful necklace. Indeed, my gentleman was kind enough to present me with a new engagement ring too, which is now sitting happily alongside my wedding band on my happily recovered digit!

Life in the Georgian Court, true tales of 18th century royalty, is available at the links below.

Pen and Sword
Amazon UK
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Book Depository (free worldwide shipping)

Monday, 18 August 2014

Fuddling Cups

It is a rare day of writing indeed when there is not a cup of tea at my elbow and today is no different. Being a traditional sort, I favour a cup and saucer but nothing quite like the unusual item that has caught my eye today. It is a fuddling cup and believe me, when the fuddling cup appears, merriment is never far away!

Fuddling Cups

These 1766 fuddling cups at first glance appear to be individual vessels but in fact, the cups are connected one another and are used in the commission of a drinking game. The challenge in using the cups is to drink from each without spilling your refreshment of choice and to be victorious, the canny drinker must use each cup in a specific order. Get the pattern wrong and you can be sure that your shirt will be ruined by ale!

Such games can lead to riotous nights for even the most reserved of chaps; my birthday is due very soon, perhaps we will get the fuddling cups out to celebrate...

Sunday, 17 August 2014

The Post-Death Travels of Frederick the Great

Frederick II (aka Frederick the Great; Berlin, Prussia, 24th January 1712 – Potsdam, Prussia, 17th August 1786)

Frederick the Great by Anton Graff, 1781

On this day in 1786, Frederick II's reign of more than four decades finally came to an end. Better known as Frederick the Great, he is remembered now for his military victories and a monarchy that placed Prussia in the vanguard of European nations.

On 17th August, the 74 year old king retired to his study in the palace of Sanssouci in Potsdam. Here he settled in an armchair and passed quietly away. He left no children to take his place and was succeeded as King of Prussia and Elector of Brandenburg by his nephew, Frederick William II.

However, if in life Frederick had been a man used to getting his own way, in death things were to change. He had always expressed a wish to be laid to rest beside his adored Italian greyhounds on the terrace at Sanssouci. However, Frederick William II decided that a more appropriate resting place would be a formal tomb within the Potsdam Garrison Church. Here Frederick was destined to lay until World War II, when his remains were spirited away to a hidden location; discovered at the close of the war, they were reburied in Marburg. However, Frederick's travels were far from over and in 1953 he moved again, this time to Hohenzollern Castle, where he was interred until 1991.

Finally, two hundred and five years after Frederick's death, his mortal remains were returned to Sanssoucci where they were placed in state with a full guard of honour. That evening his casket was taken out to the vineyard terrace and Frederick the Great was laid to rest in the plot of his own choosing, his wishes finally fulfilled.

Life in the Georgian Court, true tales of 18th century royalty, is available at the links below.

Pen and Sword
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Book Depository (free worldwide shipping)

Saturday, 16 August 2014

A Tube for Leeches

Regular readers of my medical posts will know that I am occasionally visited here in the salon by a certain fictional gentleman of my acquaintance by the name of Doctor James Dillingham. 

A most dependable Edinburgh sort, Doctor Dillingham can always be relied on for a little nugget of something from the history of medicine and today it is a tool of the medical trade that has caught my eye. I have always had a fancy for blue glass and this was just unusual enough to appeal, so I thought I would set down a little something on the subject of leech tubes.

A leech tube
A leech tube

The rather snazzy object depicted here is a Dutch leech tube fashioned from turquoise glass. With leeches a standard bit of kit in the physician's arsenal, a tube of this type could be used to transport the leech safely on visits to patients. There are two openings in the tube, one wide and one narrow, and a cork in the larger open end kept the leech safely held in place, whilst the narrow aperture at the other end allowed the creature to breath.

Upon reaching the patient, the cork would be removed and the wide opening pressed to the skin so that the leech might attach to the skin and go about its medical business. Although leeches are less common in medicine now than once they were, they are still employed in some cases but sadly these wonderful devices have passed out of everyday use.

Friday, 15 August 2014

The Bladder-Stone Operation: A Most Unusual Composition

Marin Marais (Paris, France, 31st May 1656 - Paris, France, 15th August 1728) 

Marin Marais by André Bouys, 1704
Marin Marais by André Bouys, 1704

Today we find ourselves in France for an unusual musical interlude, courtesy of Marin Marais, a famed French composer and darling of the Versailles court. In between fathering 19 children and entertaining the French royal family, Marais was famed for his operas and other compositions, though it is for a most singular piece that he has won his place at the salon today.

Marais was an early practitioner of the genre known as "program music", in which music is used to communicate a narrative to the audience. Sometimes, as in the case of Marais, the narrative is also provided in a written format to the audience.

Marais wrote his work, Le Tableau de l'Operation de la Taille, in 1725. The English title of the composition is The Bladder-Stone Operation, and it depicts a scene all-too common in the 18th century, the practise of bladder surgery to remove stones. In the piece for viola and harpsichord, Marais gives a gruesome account of the operation and when he published the composition he provided a written passage to accompany it. 

Below you can read the notes written by Marais; I can certainly hear the fear and grisliness of the operation in the music. indeed, it sends a chill through me even on a lovely day like this!

The appearance of the apparatus.
Shuddering at the sight of it.
Resolving to climb onto it.
Achieving this.
Descending again.
Solemn thoughts.
Securing the arms and legs with silken cords.
Now the incision is made.
The pincers are inserted.
Now the stone is pulled out.
Now the voice dies away to a croak.
Flowing blood.
Now the cords are removed.
Now one is carried to bed.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Two Landscapes: A Sunset and a Storm

Claude-Joseph Vernet (Avignon, France, 14th August 1714 – Paris, France, 3rd December 1789)

Claude-Joseph Vernet by Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun, 1778
Claude- Joseph Vernet by Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun, 1778

On this, the anniversary of the birth of artist, Claude-Joseph Vernet, I thought the time was right to examine some of his remarkable works. The son of a painter, Vernet was noted for the beautiful landscape paintings he produced and he often exhibited contrasting works together, demonstrating the harmony and savagery of nature. Vernet lived for many years in Italy and fell in love with the world of the ocean, depicting wild storms and tranquil surfaces, with ships both in peril and safely sailing into port. These contrasts are nowhere clearer than in his series, Two Landscapes: A Sunset and a Storm.

A Shipwreck in Stormy Seas by Claude-Joseph Vernet, 1773
A Shipwreck in Stormy Seas by Claude-Joseph Vernet, 1773
In 1773, Clive of India purchased two paintings from Vernet, A Shipwreck in Stormy Seas and its companion piece, A Landscape at Sunset. Other than the nautical setting, the content of the paintings could not be more different and A Shipwreck in Stormy Seas depicts an image that would have not been unfamiliar to those who lived in coastal regions. In it we see mighty ships tossed this way and that on the violent waves as the few survivors stagger to safety on the wind-lashed rocks. It is an image that perfectly captures the fury of nature and the dangers of sea travel in the era, with the impressive vessels no match for the lightning we see striking off into the distance as the sun battles to pierce the clouds.

A Landscape at Sunset by Claude-Joseph Vernet, 1773
A Landscape at Sunset by Claude-Joseph Vernet, 1773

Contrast the violence the lightning flaring in the sky with the gentle depiction of soft sunlight on the tranquil waves depicted in its partner, A Landscape at Sunset. Here the waters are not a place of danger but of commerce and recreation, with people fishing and taking the air as the ships that appear so fragile in the storm sail majestically out of port. If this is the maritime dream then A Shipwreck in Stormy Seas is its nightmare flipside, the idea of the ocean as a source of riches depicted likewise as a source of danger.

As a lady who loves the sea, these are richly evocative works and I could study them for hours. Vernet's paintings are so rich in detail and these are only two, I heartily recommend that you seek out others!

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

The Premiere of Zaïre

As I book tickets for a pre-Christmas theatre jaunt later this year, I find myself in a theatrical frame of mind which is highly appropriate given that today marks the anniversary of a dramatic premiere. We head over the sea today to Paris and the first performance of Voltaire's tragedy, Zaïre, a famed text in French theatre.

By summer 1732, Voltaire was feeling somewhat disenchanted. His previous work, Eriphyle, had not set the world of French theatre alight and audiences and critics asked why Voltaire did not feature love stories more prominently in his plays, as they all fancied a little romantic drama to pass the time. In response, Voltaire worked feverishly on Zaïre  completing the five act tragedy in verse in under a month and offering it as his answer to the critics.


A story of religious intolerance and doomed love, Zaire was to receive its premiere on 13th August 1732 by the Comédie Française at the Théâtre de la Rue des Fossés Saint-Germain. The case consisted of actors well-known in French theatre and tickets were in high demand as the audiences of Paris waited to see how Voltaire would respond to the relative failure of Eriphyle.

In fact, as the crowds filed out onto the Rue des Fossés Saint-Germain, the responses were somewhat muted. There were some criticisms of thematic elements and one or two of the cast but Voltaire would not be defeated and revised the work until it was agreed by all concerned that the play was a triumph. Due to demand it ran for 31 performances and Voltaire took the company to Versailles, where Zaïre was performed for the court.

Following its European success, Zaïre was translated into English and performed in London in 1737; to this day it remains a popular piece and has inspired multiple operas and other dramatic works.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

"My mind, is, as it were, gone": The Suicide of Castlereagh

Robert Stewart, 2nd Marquess of Londonderry, KG, GCH, PC, PC (Ire), Viscount Castlereagh (Dublin, Ireland, 18th June 1769 – North Cray, Kent, England, 12th August 1822)

Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, 2nd Marquess of Londonderry by Thomas Lawrence, 1809-10
Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, 2nd Marquess of Londonderry by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1809-10

There are some names that echo through the ages, men and women who will always be remembered for their philanthropy, heroics, or perhaps their infamy. These are the names that seem to sum up their era for better or worse and for me, one of these names is undoubtedly Castlereagh, a man who is perhaps less well known now than he once was though for me, he is a figure of endless fascination. Today marks the anniversary of his death and it is this story that I will tell, a bleak end to a troubled existence. 

Castlereagh lived a life among the highest political spheres, serving in a number of high profile government offices in which he found himself increasingly at odds with public opinion. Associated with wildly unpopular policies and broken political promises, as he was attacked by the people, so too did his mental health become increasingly frail. In the year of his death, increasing stress saw Castlereagh's behaviour becoming increasingly erratic as he descended into paranoia.

As summer drew on, Castlereagh returned to the sanctuary of Loring Hall in North Cray, Kent, where his friends and family remarked that he cut a most unsettled and unhappy figure. With his physician, Doctor Bankhead, in constant attendance and all razors and other dangerous implements removed from his reach, the once influential man passed long and unhappy days in mental distress until, somehow, he managed to come by a penknife.

The Suicide of Lord Castlereagh by George Cruikshank, 1822
The Suicide of Lord Castlereagh by George Cruikshank, 1822
On the morning of 12th August Castlereagh's paranoia reached new heights and he aggressively accused his wife, Lady Amelia Hobart, of joining a widespread conspiracy against him. As she fled to summon Doctor Bankhead to attend the husband she had nursed throughout his decline, Castlereagh took up the blade and slashed his own throat. He was dead within minutes and as news of his suicide spread throughout the land, the nation fell into shock at such a violent end to the career of Castlereagh.

Perhaps in deference to his widow, the inquest found that Castlereagh had taken his own life whilst insane. Accordingly, he was buried with full honours in Westminster Abbey on 20th August. Even in this, the final act of Castlereagh's story, the unpopular politician's funeral procession was heckled and jeered on its way to the Abbey. Though his political opponents and colleagues alike were quick to sing the praises of Castlereagh, it is Byron's verse that has caught in the public memory, a savage memorial to a troubled man.
Posterity will ne'er survey
A nobler grave than this:
Here lie the bones of Castlereagh:
Stop, traveller, and piss.

Monday, 11 August 2014

The Flintlock Pistols of Catherine the Great

When I am not gadding about in pursuit of stories of the long 18th century, I can often be found setting quill to paper to tell tales of romance, adventure and all sorts of scandalous behaviour. Whilst researching a little something recently on my Pinterest boards, I came across the image of a pair of ornate flintlock pistols that once belonged to Empress Catherine the Great, and thought I would share a little about these remarkable weapons here.

Flintlock Pistols of Catherine the Great

The pistols were made by Johan Adolph Grecke in Saint Petersburg in 1786 and were accompanied by a fowling piece and a rifle. Although the rifle has been lost, the pistols and fowling piece remain as testament to the remarkable work of the gunsmith.

With stocks of ivory, Catherine's initial is marked on the grip and she later made a gift of the guns to Prince Stanislas August Poniatowski, a favourite of the Empress. The weapons were hugely fashionable at the Russian court and now reside at the Met Museum in New York. 

I cannot help but admire the exquisite workmanship of these pistols and the significance of Catherine passing them along to the prince cannot be underestimated. It sent a clear message of the strength of her respect for this particular courtier, who she supported throughout his career.

Life in the Georgian Court, true tales of 18th century royalty, is available at the links below.

Pen and Sword
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Book Depository (free worldwide shipping)

Sunday, 10 August 2014

The Painter and his Pug

It is no secret that I adore the pets who share my house, nor is it privileged information that my constant companion is Pippa, my wonderful hound. A man who shared my love of dogs is, of course, William Hogarth, the legendary painter who, like my sister, shared his home with a pug. 

Hogarth's pug went by the name of Trump and it's fair to say that he was a celebrity in his own right, with small porcelain figures of Trump being sold to Hogarth's fans, whilst the painter himself was on occasion depicted as a pug too!

The Painter and his Pug by William Hogarth, 1745
The Painter and his Pug by William Hogarth, 1745

In the 1730s, Hogarth began work on what would become The Painter and his Pug. The work depicts Hogarth as a picture within a frame whilst Trump sits outside it, reality alongside the constructed and framed image of Hogarth. Although the finished portrait shows Hogarth in informal dress, initial work on the canvas showed a very different figure, with the artist resplendent in wig and formal dress. Clearly Hogarth had a rethink though and chose to depict himself as a craftsman, rather than a figure of wealth and importance. 

He has taken great care over other aspects of the painting too, as the self-portrait rests atop a bile of books by Milton, Swift and Shakespeare, whilst the palette in the foreground bears the words, "Line of Beauty and Grace". Although Hogarth painted out "and Grace", over time it has become visible again and this refers to Hogarth's artistic beliefs set out in his work, The Analysis of Beauty.

The Painter and his Pug was completed in 1745, a decade or so after work on it began. As a dog-lover, it is a painting that immediately speaks to me because of the way in which Trump is presented, obediently sitting before his master alongside the books, palette and words that mean so much to the artist. He is a vital part of Hogarth's life and art, as much a part of his inspiration as the literature on which Hogarth's portrait rests. Trump would not be the only pug owned by William Hogarth but his place in history is assured, captured forever in this striking work.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Augustus William: The Prince Who Died of a Broken Heart

Prince Augustus William of Prussia (Berlin, Prussia, 9th August 1722 - Oranienburg, Prussia, 12th June 1758)

Augustus William of Prussia by G von Bern
Augustus William of Prussia by G von Bern
As a lass, I was fascinated by the very concept of Prussia. Something about the word itself seemed impossibly exotic, a land of mystery and, for some reason, snow everywhere. I can't vouch for snow and exoticism but we are in Prussia today to meet Augustus William, a prince of the House of Hohenzollern.

As son of Frederick William I of Prussia and Sophia Dorothea of Hanover, Augustus could count amongst his siblings our old friend and seasoned schemer, Louise Ulrika, and Frederick the Great.

Unlike his sister, Augustus did not hanker after absolutist power and was content to live a life away from the throne. Aged twenty, he married Luise of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, the sister of Frederick the Great's wife, and the couple were parents to four children, all but one of whom survived to adulthood. In fact, though Augustus never ruled in his own right, when his brother died leaving no heirs, Augustus' son came to the throne as Frederick William II of Prussia. 

Augustus won the ire of Frederick thanks to a disastrous showing at the Battle of Kolin during the Seven Years War, at which Augustus unwisely chose to retreat. The furious Frederick suffered his first defeat in this battle and he and his brother never fully reconciled. In fact, when Augustus died twelve months later of a brain tumour the rumour spread that the unhappy prince had actually died of a broken heart.

Life in the Georgian Court, true tales of 18th century royalty, is available at the links below.

Pen and Sword
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Book Depository (free worldwide shipping)

Friday, 8 August 2014

"Spain and Portugal": The Death of George Canning

George Canning, FRS, (London, England, 11th April 1770 – Chiswick, London, England, 8th August 1827)

George Canning by Richard Evans, 1825
George Canning by Richard Evans, 1825

In the long list of those who have been awarded the title of Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, there are names that will go down in history for one reason or another. Some are celebrated for their work in office, others vilified and some, for better or worse, are little remembered at all. During a conversation I had of late in a tea shop adjacent to the salon, it became apparent that few of my learned companions were aware of George Canning, whose 119 days in office stand today as the shortest term served by any Prime Minister. A respected Tory and a steady hand on this, the anniversary of his death, I thought the time was right to revisit the final days of the man who was chosen by George IV to lead the government.

When he came to office in 1827, Canning did not inherit a happy parliament and his health was already failing. He had not been well since January when he attended the evening funeral of Frederick, Duke of York. Sitting in the unheated, nighttime chapel in the depths of winter, Canning came down with a cold so serious that it threatened to carry him off before spring came round. In fact he soldiered on until his lungs became diseased, the Prime Minister continuing in government as his frail health went into terminal decline.

As the summer wore on Canning took up residence at Chiswick House and became increasingly unable to perform official duties. Here he lingered on, staying in the very room where Charles James Fox had died over two decades earlier. At four o'clock in the morning on 8th August 1827, George Canning passed away. His last words, spoken on his deathbed were reportedly, "Spain and Portugal".

Canning was buried in Westminster Abbey amid much ceremony; those who rallied against parliamentary reform mourned his passing. An able politician yet one not much loved by the ruling class of his own party, we might never know what Canning's legacy might have been if not for that final, fatal illness.