Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Holburne Museum in Bath

The Holburne Museum, Bath
The wonderful Holburne Museum sits at the end of Great Pulteney Street, Bath, nestled among the trees and landscape of Sydney Gardens and almost opposite Jane Austen's house at 4, Sydney Place. It houses a beautiful collection of paintings, ceramics, furniture, glass and other treasures which are a delight to study.
The heart of the present day Collection was formed by Sir Thomas William Holburne (1793-1874). As a second son, Thomas William (generally known as William) first pursued a naval career. He ultimately inherited the Baronetcy in 1820 following the death of his elder brother, Francis, at the Battle of Bayonne in 1814.

From 1830, Sir William lived at 10 Cavendish Crescent in Bath with his three unmarried sisters. We don’t know much detail of the circumstances and pattern of Sir William's collecting, but to some inherited family treasures (Chinese armorial porcelain, silver and portraits) he added seventeenth- and eighteenth-century silver and porcelain, Italian maiolica and bronzes, old master paintings, portrait miniatures, books and furniture and a variety of other smaller items including Roman glass, coins, enamels, seals, gems and snuff boxes. All of these give the Collection its unique character.

In 1882 this collection of over 4,000 objects, pictures and books was bequeathed to the people of Bath by Holburne’s sister, Mary Anne Barbara Holburne (1802-1882). From the start, it was intended to form “the nucleus of a Museum of Art for the city of Bath”. Since the Museum opened to the public in 1893, a further 2,500 objects have been acquired. Some of the growth has consisted in filling gaps in the collection: the furniture, for instance, is almost entirely a post-Holburne addition. Holburne Museum Website.

In my new book, Searching for Captain Wentworth, one of my heroes, Josh, is a curator of a special exhibition on Georgian Bathwick at the museum. In this scene, Josh and my heroine Sophie finally bump into one another for a proper introduction. Although they are living in the same house in separate flats, they've never quite managed it though it soon becomes obvious to Josh that he might just have seen his neighbour before.

‘Can I help you?’ he asked, looking at me so searchingly with his dark eyes that I found it difficult to maintain eye contact.
‘Oh, I know you,’ he said, just seconds later before I could answer, as his expression changed to one of smiling recognition.
‘You’re the girl from the Pump Room. Are you living here? I’ve been hearing the occasional footsteps upstairs, and Lara at the pub said someone had moved in.’
I managed to nod my head, but I was blushing more furiously than ever and feeling the heat on my cheeks like a furnace blast from an open oven door.
‘I’m Josh Strafford,’ he said, ‘your neighbour from the downstairs flat. This is such a coincidence, don’t you think?’
‘Sophie Elliot,’ I said, holding out my hand, and then regretting it instantly because it seemed so silly and formal to be shaking hands. But he didn’t shake my hand. He took it and kissed it like some Regency suitor in a romantic novel.
Catherine Cussons by John Hoppner

‘I’m very pleased to meet you, Miss Elliot,’ he said, with a mock bow and in a very serious voice, obviously thinking I was a complete noodle to be behaving so ceremoniously.
I giggled because he looked so solemn, but it did break the ice.
‘That name has a most familiar ring. Are you related to the family that own the house?’ he asked in such a direct way that I was taken aback.
I nodded again, a little hesitantly this time, wondering why he wanted to know.
‘It’s just that I’ve found some of the Elliot family whilst doing some research. I’m over at the museum across the road, temporarily, putting together an exhibition celebrating Georgian Bathwick and its inhabitants. I’ve got lists of people who were in the area at the time and I was interested to find out who was living in the house during the early eighteen hundreds.’
I nodded. ‘I’m the great-niece of the lady who still owns the house which has been in the family since it was first built.’
‘Wow, that’s amazing!’ said Josh, who looked genuinely impressed. ‘The family had a manor house, I believe … Monkford Hall in Somerset.’
‘The family seat,’ I said, smiling at his round-eyed expression.
‘We don’t have it anymore. To my knowledge it passed out of the family after the First World War. They’d lost all their money by then and after the war there was nothing to be done, but sell it.’
Josh looked genuinely disappointed. ‘Oh, that’s a real shame.’
‘Yes, I know, but I imagine great houses must be such a financial drain and always cold. I couldn’t imagine living in one, could you?’

Josh didn’t speak, so to cover the awkward pause I just carried on talking. ‘My mother always kept an old print that gives an idea of what it must have looked like in its heyday. I understand it’s still a private house. I always think it was a shame that she never got to see it again, or have another look inside. Mum died some years ago so she’ll never see it now.’
‘Oh, that’s so sad,’ he said.
As I looked up at him wondering why I was telling this virtual stranger about every aspect of my family history, the thought then struck me that there was a very remote chance that I might be able to visit the house, though I seemed to recall that the Elliots I’d met in the past were to be in Bath for some time and not about to travel. How wonderful it would be, I thought, if I could go back to visit Monkford Hall and walk in the footsteps of my ancestors. I suddenly realized that Josh was staring at me. ‘I haven’t upset you by talking about your family, I hope.’
He must think I’m not all there in the head, I thought, as I became conscious that I’d been standing mute with a faraway expression on my face for longer than I should.
‘No, not at all.’ I felt so embarrassed I picked up the painting in an effort to disguise my flame-red cheeks. ‘I was just going out. It’s really nice to meet you, properly. Of course, I know we met before and everything, but …’
Pricilla Jones by Thomas Barker

There didn’t seem to be anything else to add and what I’d managed to say hadn’t come out at all the way I’d wanted it to. I moved forward and then the agony was prolonged a bit further by the fact that we both went the same way and did that sort of dancing thing where you can’t quite get past each other. The hallway wasn’t very wide as it was and it was getting very ridiculous as we hopped about, until Josh put his hands on my shoulders steering me towards the door. I mumbled my thanks and opened it without looking back. Call me paranoid but I was sure he was watching me as I marched away, cheeks on fire. I didn’t hear the door shut straight away and I could just picture him with a puzzled expression, making a mental note to avoid me at all costs in the future.

To listen to some audio excerpts of Searching for Captain Wentworth click here and to read more about the book click here.

The Holburne Museum always has some fascinating exhibitions on and for anyone with an interest in Georgian art and artefacts it's a must-see destination on a visit to Bath.
Jane Odiwe
A view of Sydney Gardens from the museum

Monday, October 22, 2012

Holland House

Holland House in it's heyday (courtesy of Wikipedia)
As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I find ruins very atmospheric and romantic, but some are just plain sad.  One such, to my mind, is Holland House, in Kensington, west London.

I often walk my dogs in what is now Holland Park, the former grounds of this once magnificent mansion, and every time I look at what is left of the house, I can’t help but feel that it’s a shame it is no longer complete.  It must have been absolutely lovely in its heyday!

Built of brick, with stone and stucco decorations, at the beginning of the 17th century for Sir Walter Cope, it was originally called Cope Castle, but the name was changed by Cope’s son-in-law, Henry Rich, who inherited it.  Rich, a courtier and soldier, was the younger son of Robert, 1st Earl of Warwick, and was made Baron Kensington and Earl of Holland by James I.

He made improvements to the house and completed the internal decorations.  Apparently there was a very fine entrance hall and a large drawing room (called the gilt-room) above that with lovely views of the back garden.  There was also a big library, although this may first have been a greenhouse or conservatory as it was said to be up to 90 foot long but only 17 feet wide with lots of windows.

Unfortunately Henry Rich was beheaded in 1649 for trying to help King Charles I during the English Civil War and the house was then used as headquarters by the Parliamentarians under General Fairfax.  One source states that the gilt-room was later haunted by Rich who “issued forth at midnight from behind a secret door and walked slowly through the scenes of former triumphs, with his head in his hand” – spooky!

The front of the house now (just a facade with nothing behind)
The mansion was restored to the ownership of Lord Holland’s widow and children, then rented out to various people.  (Lord Holland’s son succeeded his cousin as Earl of Warwick and thereby united the two earldoms, but later the line became extinct).  In 1768 it was bought by Henry Fox, who was made 1st Baron Holland.  He had been renting the place since 1749.  Fox, a politician, eloped with a Duke’s daughter – Lady Caroline Lennox – and the couple were married in Fleet prison in 1744.  (You can read about Lady Caroline and her three sisters in Aristocrats by Stella Tilyard – a fascinating book).  Their second son, Charles James Fox, was also a celebrated politician, notable for being pro the American War of Independence and a supporter of the French Revolution, but against slavery.

Under the 3rd Baron Holland and his wife, the house became one of the country’s most celebrated political salons and attracted some of the greatest names of the age – people like Byron, Talleyrand and Mme de Stael.  Lord Macauley apparently said the house “can boast of a greater number of inmates distinguished in political and literary history than any other private dwelling in England”.  It was also virtually the headquarters of the Whig party (almost always in Opposition) during the first 30 years of the 19th century.  It sounds like just the kind of place a Regency hero might like to visit and as it wasn't too far out of London, it would have been easily reached.

The title Lord Holland became extinct on the death of the 4th Baron in 1859 and passed to a distant cousin, whose family continued to own it into the 20th century.  However, during World War II, in 1940, the building was unfortunately badly hit during a particularly long bombing raid and almost totally destroyed.  It later came to be owned by the local authority and the grounds were made into the park it is today.

Although sad, the remains of the house are not totally wasted – parts of it are used as a youth hostel and the rest as the backdrop for the open air Holland Park Theatre, where they stage operas every summer.  The former Orangery is also used as an exhibition space, as is the Ice House, and the so called Belvedere is now a restaurant.

Waterfall in the Japanese Garden
When you walk in the park, you can clearly see how grand the grounds of Holland House must have been.  Parts of the park have been kept quite wild, which makes it feel as though you are not in the middle of London at all, but almost in the country, as it would once have been (Kensington being a small village on the way to Hammersmith).  The daffodils and bluebells are stunning in spring time!  My favourite part now, however, is a recent addition – the Japanese garden – which is truly beautiful and very peaceful.  I think the former owners would have approved of that.

Christina Courtenay

Friday, October 19, 2012

Alcoholic Tipple for Regency Ladies? Surely Not...

The Regency gentleman was well provided for when it came to drinks – brandy, port, claret flowed like water. But a lady, naturally, couldn’t be seen knocking back the hard stuff, could she? A daring glass of Champagne, a few delicate sips of wine with dinner and a glass of sherry for the dowagers were all acceptable, but after that it was lemonade and something innocuous like ratafia.

At least, I had assumed ratafia was innocuous until I came face to face with a bottle while buying wine last week at my favourite Burgundian cave. 18 per cent alcohol, it said on the label.
That sent me back to the original recipe books and, sure enough, alcoholic it most certainly was.

Here is the recipe from Domestic Cookery of 1812.
Blanch two ounces of peach and apricot kernels, bruise, and put them into a bottle, and fill nearly up with brandy. Dissolve half a pound of white sugar-candy in a cup of cold water, and add to the brandy after it has stood a month on the kernels, and they are strained off; then filter through paper, and bottle for use. The leaves of peaches and nectarines, when the trees are cut in the spring, being distilled, are an excellent substitute for ratafia in puddings.

It sounds as though it was sweet. Perhaps that meant everyone concerned could pretend it wasn’t strong enough to make a lady tipsy if she had more than a small glass!

Ratafia desserts appear to have been popular and range from alcoholic versions to innocent concoctions that retained the almond flavour without the alcohol. Here are three receipts for Ratafia Cream from the same recipe book:

Blanch a quarter of an ounce of bitter almonds, and beat them with a tea-spoonful of water in a marble mortar; then rub with the paste two ounces of lump sugar, and simmer ten minutes with a tea-cup of cream, which add to a quart more of cream, and having strained, ice it.

Boil three or four laurel leaves [bay leaves??]; peach or nectarine leaves, in a full pint of cream; strain it; and when cold, add the yolks of three eggs beaten and strained, sugar, and a large spoonful of brandy stirred quick into it. Scald till thick, stirring all the time.

Mix half a quarter of a pint of ratafia, the same quantity of mountain wine [Madeira], the juice of two or three lemons, a pint of rich cream, and as much sugar as will make it pleasantly-flavoured. Beat it with a whisk, and put it in glasses. This cream will keep eight or ten days.

I like the sound of the last one! If you would like to nibble a biscuit while getting genteelly cast-away on your ratafia, there is even a recipe for Ratafia Drops, which sound rather good.
Blanch and beat in a mortar four ounces of bitter, and two ounces of sweet almonds, with a little of a pound of sugar sifted, and add the remainder of the sugar, and the whites of two eggs, making a paste; of which put little balls, the size of a nutmeg, on wafer-paper, and bake gently on tin plates.

Now, of course, I must drink my bottle of ratafia – purely in the interests of research, you understand.  Hic!

Louise Allen

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Rankings and Real Life

When the first of my six backlist titles was released on Amazon Kindle I promised myself I would not become a slave to rankings. Well, you can imagine how long that lasted.  I was ecstatic when Eye of the Wind reached number 40 in the Amazon top 100 free downloads.  Then Tide of Fortune went to No. 12 on the Kindle store’s Historical list, and No. 18 in the Historical Romance list. But these were four-day free promotions and so more attractive to people who didn't know my name and didn't want to risk their money.  But when The Chain Garden reached #1324 in the paid listings, plus staying for nearly a week in the top 50 in Amazon's paid Hist Fic and Hist Rom lists, thrilled doesn't even begin to describe how I felt.
Then real life intervened and I was brought firmly down to earth by my beloved husband coming home every other day for a fortnight with two two-litre tubs of blackberries picked from field hedges above the Helford River.  He collected them so it was my job to pick out the mildewed ones, remove the spiders, caterpillars, bits of leaf and stalk etc, and after a thorough rinse, cook them.  Ladled into scalded marge tubs and wrapped in clingfilm, when cool they were stacked in the chest freezer we bought in a sale in anticipation of this year’s harvest. Superstition decrees that you don't pick blackberries after the 30th September - apparently the devil spits on them.  But any hope of me putting in a full day's writing soon evaporated because in the tunnel on our allotment the raspberries were reaching their peak.  Over the past three weeks Himself has brought home 9 kilos. Putting them on the kitchen worktop signals his part done.  So, as with the blackberries, I went through them, removing any that were mildewed, overripe or still pale and bullet-hard. The best I spread in a single layer on baking trays to quick-freeze. Those unfit to freeze but too good to throw away I rinsed then added to stewed apple for a delicious crumble filling. Though I'd rather have been writing this sort of job (like ironing) allows my mind to freewheel so it's great for exploring potential plot twists. And on cold dark winter days a raspberry flan, or blackberry and apple pie will provide a delicious reminder of late summer, and those few so welcome sunny days.  I have one more tray of frozen raspberries to bag. But first I’ll just take a quick peek at the Kindle rankings.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Lord Elgin and Athens

Last month, I was lucky enough to be in Athens, in the sunshine, while everyone at home was huddling indoors to keep out of the rain!

At the strong recommendation of fellow author Louise Allen, I spent a lot of time in the impressive new Acropolis Museum. It was built to house the sculptures and artefacts from the Acropolis, partly in hopes that the British Museum would return the "Elgin Marbles" which have been on display there since 1816.

Here are some of the stunning originals still in Athens:

Horseman, possibly Theseus.  Sculpture attributed to Phidias.

And this is a 19th century reconstruction of the west Pediment of the Parthenon. You can see how breathtaking it would have been, even high above worshippers' heads.

Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, was British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799-1803. At that period, Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire and not an independent state. Britain had recently defeated Napoleon in Egypt and was held in high regard in Constantinople, which may have helped Elgin to pursue his obsession with the Acropolis, especially the Parthenon and its sculptures.

Elgin spent £70,000 of his own money removing about half of the existing Parthenon sculptures and shipping them back to England, a process which took his agents over 10 years. He claimed to have permission to do so from the Ottoman authorities though that is still a subject of dispute. Even at the time, he was accused of vandalism and looting, most notably by Lord Byron. To put his actions in perspective, though, it was commonplace for tourists of the time to take away souvenirs from places they visited, ignoring any damage they did.

Napoleon made a practice of removing art from many of the countries he conquered. For example, he took the four bronze horses from St Mark's, Venice, and used them for the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. After his defeat the horses were returned to their original owners, though, which is not true of the Elgin Marbles.

After a British parliamentary debate, the Elgin Marbles were bought from Lord Elgin for £35,000 in 1816 and presented to the British Museum. So Elgin suffered a huge financial loss as a result of his passion. He is reputed to have turned down much higher offers for the Marbles, including one from Napoleon. Whatever we may think about Elgin now, he seems to have had some redeeming qualities.

The new Acropolis Museum displays the Parthenon frieze and sculptures in a huge sunlit gallery at the top of the museum. From its floor-to-ceiling windows, visitors have a splendid view across to the Acropolis itself and the Parthenon on its summit.

The frieze has been recreated life-size and with the same aspect as the originals – the west side faces west, east faces east, etc. Those sculptures which remained on the Parthenon were removed to the Museum, to preserve them from pollution. Plaster casts of the ones in the British Museum fill many of the gaps, though some have been lost forever.

The marbles are stunningly beautiful, especially seen at eye-level in the Acropolis Museum, which would never have been possible when they were in situ, high up on the Parthenon. What's more, the original ones, with their beautiful colouring, are much easier to photograph than the white plaster casts.

A white plaster cast. next to an original panel

It is very noticeable that the marbles are not white, as we might expect. The originals are of a colour between honey and tan which is the natural patina of Pentelec marble as a result of exposure to air. Sadly, past restorers did not know that, and considerable damage was done to the marbles in the British Museum by restorers who were trying to make them white. In the Acropolis Museum, modern restorers are cleaning away the grime of centuries using lasers; the amount of detail being revealed is astonishing. Even the sculptors' chisel marks can be seen.

This is the Erechtheion, built in the 5th century BC, which held the wooden cult statue of Athena. Its porch is supported by Caryatids, though those you can see are copies. Five of the originals are in the Acropolis Museum being painstakingly cleaned.  The hairstyles, seen close up, are beautifully sculpted.

There should be six Caryatids, but Lord Elgin removed one. Athenians say that, at night, you can hear her five sisters mourning her loss.  Sad, don't you think?