Sunday, March 25, 2012

Dinner with Mr. Wickham!

In September of last year I was very lucky to be invited to take part in a television programme here in the UK. It's called Masterchef, and the wonderful cooks below were competing for the title week by week, undergoing a gruelling set of challenges and providing some fabulous food for those fortunate enough to be on the receiving end of all their hard work.
This episode coincided with the end of The Jane Austen Festival, and many of the attendees were asked to come along and enjoy some of the food with a Regency theme. The chefs were divided into two teams and they were competing for the chance to cook with top chef, Jason Atherton.
The event took place at The Royal Crescent Hotel, and the chefs cooked outside in tents erected on what was known as the Cresent Fields in Jane Austen's day.
I was so lucky to be invited to the dinner that took place next day, and meet amongst other distinguished guests, one of my favourite actors, Adrian Lukis, who you will all recognise from the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice. Sigh...I have to say, he's just as gorgeous!
The other guests were Richard Knight (the Jane Austen Society) and his wife Phillipa, Jackie Herring (the Jane Austen Festival Director) and her husband, Caroline Langrishe, (a very well-known actress from stage and screen), John Cullum (the High Sheriff of Bath, and also Jamie Cullum's Dad), and Paula Byrne (the writer of Jane Austen and the Theatre). 

Paula Byrne told me all about her new book which sounds fascinating, a biography on Jane Austen which I'm looking forward to adding to my collection. Here we all are enjoying champagne before the dinner, and finding our places at the table.
When I agreed to take part, I had little idea what was involved, and I must admit I was petrified. I cannot imagine what those poor chefs went through or how nervous they must have been having to work in a kitchen they'd never been in before, and under such pressure to produce food of the highest standard. I have to say it was delicious, and every course was divine - five in all! Dinner was served in a beautiful room at The Royal Crescent Hotel, and there was lots of laughter between courses when the cameras were off.
Here I am trying to look as if I know what I'm talking about - I'm not sure if anything I said made any sense, but I did enjoy it all very much, and I felt very privileged to be part of such a wonderful dinner. 

Jane Odiwe

Friday, March 23, 2012

All at Sea

Thank you all very much again for your warm welcome – I’m thrilled to be here and look forward to posting each month!

I thought I would start by talking a little bit about long sea journeys during the 18th century as I am currently doing some research on this for my next book.  I’ve been reading a journal kept by a Swedish man, Christopher Hinric Braad, when he sailed to Canton in China between 1750-1752 on board the ship Götha Leijon.  He made detailed notes about everything he saw during the trip and included drawings of some of the ports and various other things like plants and fish.  His account is fascinating, if at times somewhat long-winded, and I’m thoroughly enjoying his erratic spelling as well!

The Götha Leijon was one of the ships belonging to the Swedish East India Company (SOIC) and when I was writing my first novel, Trade Winds, I did a lot of research about the company’s very first journey to Canton in 1732.  That venture was so successful, the SOIC continued to send out ships every year.  By the early 1750’s they had quite a few going back and forth, although they were 'small fry' in comparison to their English and Dutch counterparts for example.  The Swedes had not had much experience of Far East trade, so in the beginning they employed Scotsmen and Englishmen to help them learn.  These foreigners seem to have flourished and stayed on in Gothenburg, because twenty years later, when Braad sailed on the Götha Leijon, two out of the five supercargos (the men in charge of the trading) were still Scottish (John Irvine) or English (John Chambers).

Braad seems to have gone on the journey purely as a scientific spectator and writer, rather than a trader.  He went out of his way to seek out the most obscure facts about each of the places they visited along the route, recording it all carefully.  He gives boring measurements, longitudes and latitudes for everything, but the most interesting parts of his accounts (for me anyway) are those where he describes the people and places he encounters.  For example, on an island called Johanna near Madagascar, he writes about one of the island chieftains who the Europeans gave the title of ‘Prince’ even though this was plainly not very apt!  He says the man “bore this title ... despite the fact that his only claim to princely demeanour was the fact that he wore shoes, albeit without socks, when the rest of the people there went barefoot, and in his hand he carried a walking stick decorated with a silver button.  Upon our arrival, he graced our ship with his presence dressed in clothing that lay close to his body, a so called ‘kabay’ of chequered cotton material with a green open coat on top, a belt over his left shoulder and a small crocheted or knitted hat (‘calott’) on his head.”  I find this description charming and can imagine how very strange this ‘prince’ must have seemed to an 18th century European!  You can almost hear the amazement in Braad’s writing voice.

What strikes me the most, however, is how brave Braad (and the others) were to go on such a journey at all!

Personally, the mere thought of going on a sailing ship makes me turn green.  Although I’m happy to look around a ship while it is in port (as I did with the SOIC replica ship Götheborg when it visited London a couple of years ago), wild horses wouldn’t get me to actually sail on one!  (I have the dubious distinction of probably being the only person ever to be seasick during the ferry journey between Sweden and Denmark which takes less than 20 minutes).  I would not wish this kind of suffering on anyone, however, so the characters in my books always gain their ‘sea legs’ very quickly.  It would have made for rather miserable stories otherwise!

Going back to the 18th century though - what if you decided to go on a seven to nine month journey on a sailing ship and found that you suffered from mal de mer the entire time?  Could that happen?  When I went on board the Götheborg, I talked to a crew member who had sailed on her for months and asked this very question.  The girl told me that they had only had one such person out of the hundreds who had sailed with them and this unfortunate man had been returned to land after a week.  Everyone else had adapted.  So perhaps there is hope even for me?

For our forebears there were worse things to contend with – cramped conditions, extreme weather (from freezing cold to unbearable heat and back again), monotonous and often rotten food, scurvy, illness and even the drinking water having to be sieved for maggots!  So the men who ventured abroad in this way must have been extremely tough indeed and it’s a miracle that any of them survived.  Braad did, he even made the journey several times, returning safely to report back to his superiors about everything he’d seen.  This is lucky for me, because journals like his are invaluable for research purposes and I’m indebted to him and others like him.

I think our ancestors were amazingly resilient, resourceful and courageous and I admire them immensely!  Researching their exploits and reading their own words are a part of what makes writing historical novels such fun, at least for me.  Would you agree?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Welcome to Christina Courtenay

We are delighted to welcome Christina Courtenay as a new full-time member of our blog. Christina will already be known to some of you as the author of the fabulous Highland Storms, which won this year's RoNA for Best Historical Romantic Novel. It's a wonderful novel - here's a taster!

Betrayed by his brother and his childhood love, Brice Kinross needs a fresh start. So he welcomes the opportunity to leave Sweden for the Scottish Highlands to take over the family estate.
But there’s trouble afoot at Rosyth in 1754 and Brice finds himself unwelcome. The estate is in ruin and money is disappearing. He discovers an ally in Marsaili Buchanan, the beautiful redheaded housekeeper, but can he trust her?
Marsaili is determined to build a good life. She works hard at being housekeeper and harder still at avoiding men who want to take advantage of her. But she’s irresistibly drawn to the new clan chief, even though he’s made it plain he doesn’t want to be shackled to anyone.
And the young laird has more than romance on his mind. His investigations are stirring up an enemy. Someone who will stop at nothing to get what he wants – including Marsaili – even if that means destroying Brice’s life forever …

Christina will be blogging regularly on the twenty-third of each month, so watch this space!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Extreme Regency Fashion

Spring is trying to get sprung here in chilly North Norfolk, the daffodils are blooming, the pheasants are courting... It all makes me think of Spring bonnets which led me to browse through my collection of Regency fashion prints to see what I could find.

But then I got distracted by some truly weird and wonderful designs, so I thought I would share some of them with you instead.

All are by the inventive and prolific Mrs Bell who had her own dressmaking establishment and used the pages of publisher John Bell's La Belle Assemblee to publicise her wares. Mrs Bell is a bit of a mystery. She seems to be related in some way to John Bell but the link has never been found.

To start there is the deeply unflattering Walking Dress of 1809 on the right. No wonder she has a veil - I would pay good money not to wear this!

For the truly uninhibited there is this Bathing Place Evening Dress of 1810, frilly unmentionables and all. (Left) Considering that this was a time when ladies drawers were considered a daring innovation it must have taken an iron nerve to appear in these.

There was something about the seaside that got Mrs Bell's creative juices going. She invented a Bathing Preserver which was a sort of oilskin over-garment that a lady could wear before taking to the water to save her from the dubious delights of the bathing costume provided by the bathing machine proprietors. Although I have seen a picture of the bag this was carried in I can't find a picture of the Preserver itself. Perhaps the sight  was considered too exciting for the pages of a magazine.

You were not spared Mrs Bell's inventiveness on your way to take your dip in the sea either. Below right is an 1809 Bathing Dress. It is not intended to be worn in the sea, but note the fetching seaweed trim and the snazzy striped booties.

If you are talking a walk around the London parks, instead of along the clifftops, why not frighten the ducks in this tartan Walking Dress of 1811 (below left)? It is difficult to imagine who might look good in this outfit but presumably it chimed with interest in Scotland and Highland romance. I would imagine Bonny Prince Charlie would have run screaming at the sight.

Mrs Bell flourished for some years with designs ranging from the practical to the elegant to the downright bizarre. She seems to have started off in Upper King Street, Bloomsbury but moved to 26, Charlotte Street, off Bedford Square - a much smarter address - in 1814. By 1817 she was at 52, St James's Street, right in the centre of fashionable club land and just around the corner from Almack's.

 I would love to know how many of these eccentric "inventions" as they are frequently captioned were ever purchased and worn or whether they were like the extremes of modern catwalk fashion  designed to get people talking about the designer.

Louise Allen                                

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Celtic Blessings

I was looking for some toasts or salutations for use in my current book and found these.  They say so much in so few words, especially the fisherman's prayer.

A Celtic grace:
May the roof above
never fall in.
May we below
never fall out.

A Celtic Blessing:
May you have -
Walls for the wind
And a roof for the rain,
And drinks bedside the fire
Laughter to cheer you
And those you love near you,
And all that your heart may desire

An Old Wedding Blessing:
May God be with you and bless you.
May you see your children's children.
May you be poor in misfortune, rich in blessings.
May you know nothing but happiness
From  this day forward

Fisherman’s prayer:
Dear God, be good to me;
The sea is so wide,
And my boat is so small.

Old English Blessing:
 May your joys be as sweet as spring flowers that grow.
As bright as a fire when winter winds blow,
As countless as leaves that float down in the fall,
As serene as the love that keeps watch over us all.

 Armenian blessing:
 May their joys be as deep as the ocean
And their misfortunes as light as the foam.

Jane Jackson.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Princess Charlotte

I posted about royal weddings back in February 2011. It intrigued me then to wonder what would have happened if Princess Charlotte had not died in childbirth in 1817.

I was not the only person who was wondering. I learned today that a new exhibition about Princess Charlotte has been opened at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton. The curator's motivation seems to have been this year's Diamond Jubilee; he found himself wondering what would have happened if it had been Charlotte's descendents who were on the throne now, rather than Victoria's.

You can read about the exhibition here. It's called Charlotte, the Forgotten Princess. It is on for a year, until March 2013, so some of us might be able to arrange to visit. I reckon it would be worth the journey.

When I visited Windsor last autumn, I was struck by the huge marble monument to Princess Charlotte in St George's chapel, showing her ascending to heaven with her still-born child in the arms of an angel. It reflects the depths of the mourning that followed Charlotte's death.

Suddenly, the Prince Regent had no heirs and no hope of begetting any, since his wife was still alive. The succession was up for grabs. The Prince Regent's brothers had to drop their long-term mistresses and go and find themselves German princesses to marry. No one else would do, because marrying a German princess was a requirement if any of them was eventually to become King of Hanover as well as Britain.

Just by Charlotte's memorial in St George's chapel, there's a statue of Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, her husband. But the written material at Windsor doesn't explain that he was her husband. It just says he became King of the Belgians. I thought it was touching that he had been placed next to her and sad that most visitors wouldn't understand why. I hope the curators have changed it by now. It does seem unfair that Charlotte, and Leopold, have been forgotten.


Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The phaeton

In the occasional series about modes of transport, we can’t ignore the phaeton. It was introduced in the second quarter of the eighteenth century and it remained a firm favourite with a certain set right up to the popularity of the train.
In fact, it was the smart man-about-town’s sports car, his Aston Martin DBS, his Porsche 911, his Ferrari 458. Young men would discuss the merits of various models, they’d have special paint jobs applied, and they’d vie for the finest horses to draw the speed machine.
Oh yes, and a few daring women had them, too.
The top of the range was the high perch phaeton. It kept off the mud, kept the driver so high up he could look down on everyone else, and it was tricky to drive. You can almost hear the Regency buck in White’s Club, “I swear, Carruthers, I went around that corner so fast the wheels left the ground.”
They had a club for particularly daring drivers in the early nineteenth century – the Four Horse Club. The regalia, in effect an old school tie before old school ties existed, was particularly garish, blue and yellow. They would race their vehicles, be it the four wheeled phaeton or the two wheeled curricle, or a different variation on the fashionable car.
Ladies had fashions too. The whips of the day would take a fortunate woman in his carriage in the park, one of the few places they could have relative privacy in the full sight of society, although there would usually be a boy or small man, a “tiger” up behind, to attend to his lordship’s needs, should a need arrive. He could walk the horses while his master showed his charming young guest a particularly pleasant clump of daffodils or bluebells a little off the beaten path, or he could take messages. Or pick up shopping without his lordship having the necessity of getting down himself.
It does look a particularly attractive vehicle, and of course there are still examples today for us to admire. But no more races from London to Bath. It’s a shame. We have the annual vintage car rally, so a race of the carriages that were developed at the height of the carriage era would be fun, wouldn’t it?

Friday, March 09, 2012

Miss Shaw & The Doctor

Miss Shaw & The Doctor
I'm delighted to tell you that my sixth book for Aurora/Musa is finally coming out on 23rd march. It was due to be published last August with Aurora/AMP but this company folded. The four women who had set up the Aurora wing bought this part of AMP and so Musa was born. The company is going well and will continue to do so.
Here is an extract from the book. I hope you enjoy it.

Ebook Price: $4.99
Ebook ISBN13: 978-1-61937-260-3

At the sound of rapidly approaching hooves Sarah pushed herself upright. How kind of the squire to send someone out to look for her. She had fully expected to wait until the morning to be collected. She picked up her valise and withdrew her handkerchief from her reticule to wipe some of the grime from her hands.
The gig, travelling at a spanking trot, showed no sign of pulling up. The driver could not have seen her. Leaning forward, she waved her handkerchief furiously. The beast shied and the vehicle slewed sideways. The unfortunate driver slipped from his perch and vanished into the hedge.
“Oh, my goodness! What have I done?”
The horse, having recovered from its fright, now waited a few yards away as if nothing untoward had happened. The outline of the gig was clearly discernible in the welcome light of the lanterns. It appeared undamaged–indeed not even the traces were tangled. Only the driver had suffered a mishap. She was most concerned about him.
The head and shoulders of the missing man emerged through a gap in the hedge. He was covered in twigs, his hair awry, and his smart topcoat sadly mired. She was relieved to see he had not injured himself. Apparently, the hedge had made a soft landing.
This was no servant – oh, dear! She had made a grave error of judgement and would never have attempted to wave down the gig if she’s realised. The gentleman did not look at all pleased to see her. In fact he looked furious.
“I do beg your pardon,” she said. “I thought you were a servant from the manor come to collect me.”
He drew himself up to his full height, which must be two yards in his stocking feet. Every inch quivered with rage. “Are you mad? Only an imbecile would wave her handkerchief at a horse as you did. You are lucky we were not killed by your stupidity.”
Sarah bristled. How could she have known the silly animal would tip its master over the hedge? She had already apologised. There was no need for him to be so unpleasant.
“If I had not done so, you might not have seen me. As a gentleman, I’m sure you would not wish me to be marooned here on my own for the rest of the night.”
She risked moving closer and curtsied politely. “I am Miss Sarah Shaw, the new governess for Lady Fenwick. I have been sitting here for over two hours.”
“Dr. Adam Moorcroft.” He barely nodded.
“I should be most grateful if you would assist me, Dr. Moorcroft.”
“I suppose I shall have to give you a lift as I am going to the manor myself.” He viewed her large trunk with disfavour. “That will have to remain where it is until tomorrow. Bring your valise. Let us hope, Miss Shaw, that my horse is not lame after your foolishness.”
“All that I possess is in that trunk. If you will not put it in your vehicle, then I shall remain behind with it. Please, do not let me delay you. No doubt you are on your way to deliver Lady Fenwick’s child.”

   Fenella Miller

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Regency Boxing

Recently I’ve been writing a couple of articles about the research I did for Whisper of Scandal, as it will be published in Germany later this year. One of the items I came across was about boxing. I’m not a huge fan of the sport but I did find the research into the Regency passion for boxing to be fascinating. In Whisper of Scandal my heroine, Joanna, is a “Lady of the Fancy,” one of the patronesses of the ring. This is despite the fact that like me she doesn’t care for contact sports. (She was just too polite to refuse when asked to be a patroness!) In the book the hero finds her at a boxing match hiding away in a back room with her fingers in her ears to blot out the sound of the punches!

Sport in England in the late 18th and early 19th century was rowdy, riotous and often cruel. It was also quite democratic; a duke would be happy to play cricket in the same team as his gardener and the Prince of Wales entertained a pugilist to dinner. In 1750 an act of parliament reaffirmed that boxing was illegal, a criminal activity that was viewed by the courts as an affray or assault. This was largely because there was nervousness in the later 18th century about big gatherings and unruly crowds, but from 1780 the sport became both fashionable and popular with the support of the Prince of Wales and the Dukes of York and Clarence.

The support of rich patrons was in fact vital to the sport. Keen attendees at matches were not only royal and noble but also members of the gentry and men from the world of business. As fights were technically illegal they could not be advertised. They often happened on private land or on estates outside London. No advance tickets were sold. The organisers would arrange the fighters, the stake etc. Then a few days before the match word would go out that a fight was happening. This was to avoid alerting the magistrates. Hungerford and Bath were two popular venues because they were easily accessible from London. Sometimes bouts were held at racecourses where the spectators could use the grandstands. Word was spread from the London boxing pubs, Castle Tavern in Holborn and the Horse and Dolphin in St Martin’s Lane. Fans – the Fancy – would set out early in the morning and were prepared to travel a long way to matches, just like football fanes today. The Fancy came from all strata of society. One thing that amused me was that these crowds, sometimes twenty or thirty thousand strong, would set off armed with fishing rods as decoys! It appears that they did not have too much to fear from the magistrates either since often they would come along as spectators, as they did at the Cribb versus Molyneaux fight in Rutland in 1811.

Unlike the supporters, the fighters were mostly from the unskilled working classes. It was a very vicious sport. Not many boxers died in the ring but some died from their injuries afterwards. Others were said to die from drink. Boxing offered great rewards for top fighters with prize money ranging from £50 to over £2000. Despite this, champion boxer Daniel Mendoza died in a debtor’s prison. Others such as Tom Cribb ran pubs in their retirement. “Gentleman” John Jackson, who was the son of a builder, set up a highly successful boxing academy in Bond Street that was patronised by the aristocracy.
Despite the popularity and fashionable credentials of the sport I think I would have been like my heroine, hiding away with my eyes closed and my fingers in her ears to avoid witnessing the brutality!

Monday, March 05, 2012

The Appeal of Mr Rochester

I’ve just been re-reading Jennifer Kloester’s excellent biography of Georgette Heyer. In it, she quotes Heyer’s interesting article in Punch on the continuing appeal of Mr Rochester.

Charlotte knew, perhaps instinctively, how to create a hero who would appeal to women throughout the ages, and to her must all succeeding romantic novelists acknowledge their indebtedness.

Rochester is the rugged and dominant male, who can yet be handled by quite ordinary a woman, as it might be, oneself. He is rude, overbearing, and often a bounder, but these blemishes, however repulsive they may be in real life, can be made in the hands of a skilled novelist, extremely attractive to woman. Charlotte Bronte, immensely skilled, knew just where to draw the line.

What struck me was Georgette Heyer’s acknowledgement that Rochester is frequently a bounder and, in real life, would be an emotional disaster area. I have often wondered about various Heyer heroes in the Rochester mould, Max Ravenscar, say. Yes, a terrifically sexy hero, but as a husband? I doubt it. Give me Freddy Standen any day; not much in the way of brains but such a poppet. Or Sir Gareth Ludlow, where the slow build-up of his relationship with poor, dowdy Lady Hester allows her to open up and become herself, and him to appreciate her qualities.

Interestingly, the eminent Victorian man of letters, Sir Leslie Stephen, also had his doubts about Rochester. Writing on Jane Eyre in the Cornhill Magazine in 1877, he argues that Rochester is really a woman – with added muscles.

Jane Eyre has not had such bitter experiences as Lucy Snowe (Villette), Shirley (Shirley) is generally Jane Eyre in high spirits, and freed from harassing anxiety, and Rochester is really a spirited sister of Shirley’s, and even an unusually masculine specimen of his sex.

He is supposed to be specially simple and masculine, and yet he is as self-conscious as a young lady on her first appearance in society, and can do nothing but discourse about his feelings, and his looks, and his phrenological symptoms to his admiring hearer. Set him beside any man’s character of a man, and one feels at once that he has no solidity or validity. He has, of course, strong nerves and muscles, but they are articles which can be supplied in unlimited quantities and with little expense to the imagination.

My first reaction on reading this, was a shock of recognition, because Sir Leslie is surely right. Rochester does spend a lot of time talking about his feelings and his looks in a most un-masculine way. In fact, he talks like a woman.

When I was teaching Jane Eyre at A Level, my female students all loved Rochester. However, when I asked one of my male students what he thought of Rochester, he said, tersely, ‘I think he’s an absolute pillock!’

I rest my case. (I do, however, reserve the right to say ‘Yes’ if Damerel asks me.)

Elizabeth Hawksley

Saturday, March 03, 2012

A Labour of Love

It is the Romantic Novelists Association's Awards Event on Monday 5th March, with nibbles and bubbly and the announcement of the RoNAs, the RNA's awards announcing the best romantic novels of the year.  There is a category for the outstanding love story of the year, the RoNA Rose, for category romance and the shorter romantic novel, that focuses on the developing love story between the hero and heroine, and I am thrilled that my book, The Dangerous Lord Darrington is one of the six titles shortlisted for the RoNA Rose.  The list is impressive, with some really good, established authors here, so I decided I would read them all (no real hardship, after all, in fact it is a labour of love)

I started with Liz Fielding's Flirting with Italian, a beautiful, contemporary love story set in Italy. I couldn't put it down and it had me reaching for the holiday brochures. Next it was Jessica Hart's Ordinary Girl in a Tiara, a very topical story of the girl who falls in love with a prince – or is he a frog?  This story is charming, funny and poignant, and I found myself rooting for the characters right up to the end.
I followed these with Mary Nichols' Winning the War Hero's Heart, a Regency romance with a twist – the heroine is a working woman and the hero is, well, a wounded war hero.  It is set in 1816, the year without a summer, and my goodness do those poor characters have some wet weather to put up with!  A lovely, warm romance that also has its more serious moments, but with all the loose ends nicely tied up at the finish.
I have just finished Kate Hardy's A Christmas Knight – a medical romance that definitely requires a box of tissues close by. I fell in love with the hero immediately and when the heroine is a kind, warm-hearted working mum and a generous nurse who is so good with her patients, how could you not want her to be happy?
The final book is Jan Jones' The Kydd Inheritance, another historical romance.  I am still waiting for that one to arrive, but having read other works by this author I know I am in for a real swashbuckling romantic adventure .
So, I shall be there on Monday, and I hope to see the other five authors there, too. And for me, it doesn't really matter who wins, surely just to be shortlisted amongst such august company is enough. Well, it is for me, although, of course I shall be keeping my fingers crossed……

Sarah Mallory

Thursday, March 01, 2012

The navy, the bank and the painter

I have recently been watching the delectable Dan Snow talking about the history and growth of the British Navy in the programme Empire of the Seas.

One snippet in programme two reminded me of the glorious Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich. (The Romantic Novelists’ Association held their 2010 Conference at Greenwich, which is when I went and gawped and marvelled and got a dreadful crick in my neck - but oh, it was worth it).

The real kickstart to the growth of the navy was the formation of the Bank of England in 1694. Subscribers were promised a whacking 8% in interest if they put money into a new venture designed to halt the appalling loss of British ships - and lives and valuable cargo! Within a very short time, a million pounds had been raised. The Bank promptly loaned this to the government to build a fleet of warships and the National Debt was born.

Now, the Painted Hall is in King William Court at Greenwich. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor, it was originally intended as an eating space for the naval veterans who lived here at the Royal Hospital for Seamen. In 1708 James Thornhill - then not very well known - was appointed to decorate this dining hall with suitable naval imagery. The vast opulent paintings sprawling across walls and ceiling that resulted took 19 years to complete! I don’t imagine his back was ever the same again.

My favourite part is this section of ceiling: a mighty warship resting on the shoulders of the bank which loaned the money, in its turn resting on allegorical rivers bearing money from subscribers from all across the country. They really knew how to get the most out of a painting in those days.

Incidentally, James Thornhill apparently neglected to set a fee when accepting the commission. He was eventually knighted and paid almost £7000 - that’s £1 per square yard for the walls and £3 per square yard for the ceilings!

Jan Jones