Tag Archives: England

My Favorite Georgians

The public presentation of history is often driven by anniversaries, and Britain is just beginning a long Georgian moment driven by the 300th anniversary of the Hanoverian dynasty’s accession in 1714 and commencing (after the birth of little Prince George this summer) with the British Library’s new exhibition Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain. Viewing it from afar (online), I like the exhibition’s emphasis on Georgians rather than the more boring King Georges, and its inclusion of some of the more interesting aspects of the era: the development of “celebrity culture”, the “commercialization of leisure”, the emergence of the novel, and intensifying consumerism in many realms of life. But from my own distant Anglo-American perspective, I’m noticing a distinct lack of a colonial presence. Before the Revolution, we should certainly consider the people who inhabited British America as Georgians, so I’m featuring a few of my favorite American Georgian gentlemen here. Although I don’t have quite the same connection to them that I do for some of the people of the earlier era in which I specialize, there is something compelling about both their images (personas) and their stories, if only because several of them walked on the same streets that I do.

My Georgian Gentlemen: Benjamin Pickman, the dashing Loyalist Salemite and husband of the faithful Mary of my last post. What better Georgian than a Loyalist? Even though he left his family and country, his letters testify to the earnestness of his decision and the pain he endured from the separation. Here John Singleton Copley pictures him as a young man, well before this rift, and I think he looks both dashing and earnest. Jonathan Jackson, a contemporary of Pickman’s from Newburyport, painted in his resplendent blue robe by Copley. Jackson looks a little more “Georgian” here but he was no Loyalist: he converted his merchant ships to privateering vessels during the Revolution and later served as a Massachusetts delegate to the Continental Congress. His first wife, Sarah Barnard Jackson, was the daughter of the Reverend Thomas Barnard of Salem, whose silhouette is below. As a true Georgian, Barnard helped avert what might have become the first clash of the American Revolution in early 1775–an incident called “Leslie’s Retreat”–when he negotiated British Colonel Alexander Leslie’s retreat from Salem.

Georgians Pickman

Georgians Jonathan Jackson

Georgians Thomas Barnard

John Singleton Copley, Benjamin Pickman, c. 1758-61, Yale University Art Gallery; John Singleton Copley, Jonathan Jackson, late 1760s, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Painted Silhouette of the Reverend Thomas Barnard of Salem, late 18th/early 19th century, Skinner’s Auctions.

Obviously I have a preference for Copley, who, like his colleague and compatriot Nathaniel West, represents the Anglo-American/Atlantic world in which the acclaimed artist lived and worked. Both were “American” artists who became “English” artists: they were true Georgians above all. Both left their “country” for good before the American Revolution, along with Henry Pelham, Copley’s stepbrother and the subject of one of his most famous compositions, A Boy with a Flying Squirrel (1765). My favorite illustration of this Anglo-American artistic world is a painting of West’s London studio by his protégé Matthew Pratt: entitled The American School, it hints at the future division.

Georgians Pelham Squirrel

Georgians American School MET

John Singleton Copley, A Boy with a Flying Squirrel, 1765, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Matthew Pratt, The American School, 1765, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It looks like Georgians Revealed depicts British Georgians as a fun-loving, pleasure-seeking people: there are lots of illustrations of drinking, dancing and dressing:  by comparison, American Georgians look rather earnest and restrained. It’s hard to compete with the vibrant print culture that emerged in Britain from the 1780s on, however, just when Americans ceased being Georgians.

Georgians

Georgians New England Psalms Revere

Carousing Georgians in Britain and Psalm-singing Georgians in America: Midnight. Tom and Jerry at a Coffee Shop near the Olympic, illustration by Issac and George Cruikshank in Pierce Egan, Life in London, 1823, British Library; Paul Revere, “the Music Party”, engraving for the frontspiece of William Billings, The New England Psalm-Book, Boston, 1770. Library of Congress.


Edmund the Martyr

Since I tangled with John Foxe the other day I’ve been dipping into some martyrologies–not the best bedtime reading I can assure you! I’m quite taken with the story of Edmund the Martyr (841?-869), and by sheer coincidence, his feast day is tomorrow. I think both English Catholics and Protestants would both recognize Edmund as a martyr at the time of the Reformation (though the latter would never validate his sainthood), and I am surprised that such a vivid writer as Foxe does not go into the gory details of the saint’s death. Edmund was King of one of the smaller early medieval English kingdoms, East Anglia, when the Danish Vikings invaded his territory and and slayed him. The basic events recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle were supplemented by the more detailed account of Abbo of Fleury in his Life of Saint Edmund (986): so that he might be compelled to renounce Christ, Edmund was imprisoned and tortured by the Danes (led by the oddly-named Ivar the Boneless), first whipped and tied to a tree and shot with arrows ‘until he bristled with them like a hedgehog or thistle’, but his faith remained steadfast. He was then beheaded (not sure whether or not he was alive at this point) and his head thrown into bramble thickets deep in the forest (on November 20). When his men searched for Edmund’s head later, they found it guarded by a wolf who called ‘hic, hic, hic (here, here, here)’, and so it was recovered. If the violence of one’s death is a testament to the conviction of one’s faith, certainly Edmund was a very pious man, and he was apparently recognized as such not long after his death, with a series of remarkable memorial coins. Given the nature of his martyrdom, you can imagine (actually you don’t have to) the other visual images associated with Edmund’s sainthood, from the eleventh century to the present.

Edmund Morgan MS 1

Edmund Morgan 2

Edmund Morgan MS 3

The torture and beheading of Edmund, and the recovery of his head from the guardian wolf, Morgan Library MS M.736, Miscellany on the life of St. Edmund, Bury St. Edmunds (where Edmund’s relics were entombed), England, ca. 1130

The beautiful Morgan manuscript dates from an era in which Edmund was recognized as a patron Saint of a recently-unified England, along with the soon-to-be martyred Thomas à Becket. One can’t help but compare Edmund to another popular Saint, Sebastian, who was tortured and killed in much the same way a millennium earlier: Sebastian has much the same “hedgehog” appearance in his depictions, and was universally venerated during the time of the Black Death because of its metaphorical association with arrows of poison/plague. The late medieval poet John Lydgate, who spent the last years of his life at the monastery at Bury St Edmunds, the martyr’s namesake town, inspired this next group of images, produced for a presentation copy of his life of Edmund which was gifted to King Henry VI in the 1430s.

Harley 2278 f.61

Edmund BL Lydgate MS 2

Edmund BL Lydgate MS 3

Harley 2278 f.66 (min)

Edmunds Restoration BL Lydgate 4

British Library MS Harley 2278, 1430s: Edmund is subjected to torture and beheading, the recovery of his head and reunification of his body.

A few other objects that speak to Edmund’s veneration through the ages: a medieval pilgrim badge, which could represent either Sebastian or Edward, a French Revolutionary print (something about heads?), and a twenty-first century sculpture: designed by Emmanuel O’Brien, constructed by Nigel Kaines of Designs on Metal, and installed in Bury St Edmunds  in 2011.

Edmund Pilgrim Badge BM

Edmund BM

Edmund Bury Statue 2011

Pilgrim badge and print by François Anne David, 1784, both British Museum; Emmanuel O’Brien metal sculpture at Bury, installed in 2011.


Bloody Mary

Today marks the death day of Queen Mary I, the unfortunate and undisputed first Queen of England, and thus the beginning of the “golden” age of Elizabeth. When I teach the Reformation, as I am doing now, I have to reveal my Protestant bias to my students, but even I can admit that poor Mary Tudor’s reputation has suffered from a hatchet job: she has been “Bloody Mary” from almost her own time and has somehow been transformed into a paranoid, desperate dwarf in ours. She was certainly a pious and intolerant Catholic, but in her time toleration was not an attribute: while almost 300 Protestants were executed during her reign the Chambre Ardent (“Burning Chamber”) of the French King Henri II killed far more. I see her primarily as a victim of circumstances and a woman of her time: the daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, Mary was in a position to make a glorious and early marriage, but fell from favor during her parents’ divorce and was declared illegitimate. She was reinstated in the order of succession to the throne in 1544, and succeeded her half-brother Edward VI in 1553, but her religion and the “Spanish Marriage” to the future Philip II contributed to her unpopularity, along with the economic depression and military losses that characterized her brief reign. Several false pregnancies seem to indicate the presence of severe tumors or possibly even cancer, and she died in pain and in misery on this day in 1558, aged 42.

NPG 428; Queen Mary I by Master John

NPG D18729; Queen Mary I when Princess Mary after Hans Holbein the Younger

Mary Tudor: as Princess Mary in 1544, by Master John; Engraving after Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1700, both National Portrait Gallery, London.

A passionate circle of Protestants, generally called the “Marian Exiles”, left England during Mary’s reign and upon her death they returned, with a vengeance, as their movement had been strengthened by the martyrs who chose to stay behind. Even their new Queen Elizabeth, whom they had idealized as a perfect Protestant princess, would not be pure enough for them, but her sister was thoroughly demonized, most consequentially by John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments of these Latter and Perillous Days, first published in 1563. This book (which is treated as more of an “event” than a mere book by historians) chartered the history of Christian persecution back to the days of Nero in five volumes, but its successive reprints (as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs) and abridgement increasingly focused on Mary, and transformed her into the Bloody Mary of the seventeenth century and after. It didn’t help Mary’s historical reputation that her successor sister’s reign was so golden by contrast, as exemplified by the triumphant victory of England over the “invincible” Spanish (Catholic) Armada in 1588.

The British Library- G 12101 t/p

frontpage_woodcut_full

Title page of 1563 first edition and colored woodcut illustration from John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments online at the University of Sheffield, which has all four Elizabethan editions.

It just gets worse for Mary as Britain’s triumphant Protestantism is associated with its imperial strength (and democratic government) in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. And the contemporary popular obsession with the Tudors seems to have contributed to the deification of Elizabeth and the demonization of Mary: the first Elizabeth film (1999) being a particularly blatant case in point. Despite some recent historical revisionism (there is a succinct review here), I’m not sure Mary I can ever be viewed in her proper historical context:  “Bloody Mary” seems to have taken on a life (several, really) of its own.

Bloody Mary

“Teaching” Mary: a flash card from the 1920s, NYPL Digital Gallery.


The Witchfinder on Film

Between weekend errands, I organized a little Vincent Price mini-marathon for myself, culminating in a truly horrible (in more ways than one) movie called The Conqueror Worm (1968), which was produced and released in Britain under the more appropriate title Witchfinder General. The film is very loosely based on Matthew Hopkins, the self-appointed “Witch-finder General” who was responsible for the condemnation and execution of more than 100 people for witchcraft in 1645-46, during one of the more chaotic phases of the English Civil War. Hopkins’ reign of terror in Essex represents the peak of the witchcraft hysteria in England, which was rather less hysterical than many hot spots on the European continent. I suppose that the American title, which alludes to a poem by Edgar Allen Poe, was chosen to take advantage of the popularity of Vincent Price’s Poe films like The Fall of the House of Usher, but the film has nothing at all to do with Poe.

witchfinder_general 1968

witchfinder-general-movie-poster-1968

I have a distant childhood memory of seeing bits and pieces of this film on television, certainly without my parents’ knowledge, as it is intensely and gratuitously violent: Price’s Hopkins (about 30 years older than the actual Hopkins) is lecherous and his fellow “witch-pricker” John Stearne is absolutely sadistic. These men might have possessed these qualities and tendencies, and they did torture their victims, but it’s no matter: the film is all about sensation, not context, and certainly not history. And in that typical 1960s manner, everyone is running around with swinging sixties hair. There are too many historical inaccuracies to list here; perhaps the most egregious is Hopkins’ ability to just string up his victims, with no presentation of evidence or trial. Even in this chaotic era, lawlessness did not reign. When Hopkins engages in “due process”, it’s the notorious, and seldom-implemented, “swimming test” for witchcraft. The posters above represent the general anachronistic and sensationalistic nature of the film quite well, while also conveying the spirit of the “burning times” when in fact all English witches were condemned to death by hanging. Better to refrain from the film altogether and view Hopkins through Malcolm Gaskill’s substantive-yet-accessible Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century Tragedy.

Witch Finder General 1647
???????????

witchfinders
Frontspiece to Matthew Hopkins’ “Discovery of Witches”, published by Richard Royston, 1647, British Museum; Illustration from C.R. Weld’s History of the Royal Society, 1848; Malcolm Gaskill’s Witchfinders. A Seventeenth-century Tragedy (2007).


Hue Histories

I had a million things to do yesterday: write a new course proposal, rework an old book proposal, write memos and evaluations (the endless activities of a department chair), work on my digital exhibition of the Great Salem Fire of 1914,  finish my seasonal closet turnover (alway a huge project, unfortunately), laundry, cleaning, etc…but for some reason I lay on the couch and read a book about purple—a color I don’t even like—for a good part of the day. To be more precise, the book was about mauve, the first artificial dye, invented quite by accident in 1856 by a teenaged chemical student named William Perkin. I’ve had Simon Garfield‘s Mauve:  How One Man Invented a Color that Changed the World in my library for quite a while, but I never really opened it up until yesterday.

Hue Histories Mauve

And once I did, much of the day slipped away, as Garfield drew me into the story of Perkin’s accidental discovery and its colorful consequences. While working on a malaria treatment derived from the synthesis of quinine from coal tar, Perkin wound up with an appealing purplish sediment in the bottom of his beaker: this became mauveine, the first chemically-produced dye. Mauveine, and the process by which it was produced, led to a world of industrial applications:  more standardized and intense colors for the textile industry, and advances in the diverse fields of medicine, perfumery, explosive, food and photography.  Even before the color made its formal debut at the London International Exhibition in 1862 it caught the eyes of two extremely influential ladies, Queen Victoria and Empress Eugénie, the fashionable wife of Napoleon III. The Queen wore a gown of “rich mauve velvet” (according to the London Illustrated News) to her daughter Victoria’s wedding to Prince Fredrick William in 1858 and later judged it appropriate for “half-mourning”, while the Empress (apparently the Elizabeth Taylor of her day) wore “Perkin’s purple” often, as it was said to match her eyes. The decade of the 1860s was deemed the “mauve decade” by the popular press, characterized and colored by an outbreak of what Punch called “mauve measles”.

PicMonkey Collage

Mauve gowns and upholstery fringe, 1860s-1870s, Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Garfield’s book got me thinking about other hue histories: I read Amy Butler Greenfield’s A Perfect Red. Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire a few years ago while prepping for my Expansion of Europe seminar: its focus on the American cochineal is a perfect illustration of early modern colonial competition. There are several books on indigo, also a sought-after commodity (the one below looks good), and apparently you can read about the histories of all the colors in Victoria Finlay’s Color: A Natural History of the Pallette, including ochre, black and brown, white, orange, yellow and green.

Hue Histories Red

Hue Histories blue

Hue Histories Finaly

I might use one of these books in a class one day (when I am relieved of my administrative obligations): commodities are a good way to focus in history surveys:  students like things that are tangible, material, and accessible–and they also like narratives. Commodity history has been dominated by food and drink in the past few decades (COD and the making of the modern world, the POTATO and the making of the modern world, RUM and the making of the modern world, SALT and the making of the modern world, PEPPER and the making of the modern world, BANANAS and the making of the modern world, etc…..) but now I think we can add some color.


Eleven Lost Days

When people in Salem, and any other British territory around the world, went to bed last night in 1752 it was September 2, but when they woke up this morning it was September 14: they “lost” eleven days as Great Britain and its colonies made the big switch from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendar, at long last.  The latter was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 in the midst of the religious conflict that followed in the wake of the Reformation; Queen Elizabeth had been excommunicated and declared a heretic by his predecessor:  there was no way her Godly country would accept such a papal imposition. While other Protestant countries accepted the new calendar within decades, Britain held out for nearly two centuries.

Gregorian Calendar Gregory

Gregorian Calendar Eliz

Engraving of  Pop Gregory XIII after Bartolomeo Passarotti, 1572, and print by Pieter van der Heyden of Queen Elizabeth as Diana, judging Pope Gregory  as Calisto, c. 1584, British Museum, London.

Religious fervor had subsided considerably by the eighteenth century, if not before. The conduct of both international and Great British commerce made the “Old Style” calendar inconvenient, and so Parliament passed the Calendar Act of 1750, commencing two years of transition to the “New Style” calendar: the year 1751 commenced on 25 March, the Julian New Year, and ran until 31 December, while 1752 began on January I, but sliced off the eleven September days to align the British calendar with that of the Continent. Two short years, and then the British Empire was part of the uniform calendar world.  Despite the placement of a “given us our eleven days” placard in Hogarth’s Election Entertainment (1755) there does not seem to have been much resistance in Britain, and even less over here as gazetteers carefully explained the big change. Nathaniel Ames, author of An Astronomical Diary; or Almanack for the Year of our Lord Christ, 1752  devoted his last few pages to explaining that the “striking off the Eleven Days between the 2d and 14th of September, A.D. 1752 was effected “to produce an Uniformity in the Computation of Time throughout the christian Part of the World…”, and the Boston Gazette, the Virginia Almanack, and Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack included explanations and references to the Act of Parliament that had, quite literally, cut their time short.

Virginia Almanack 1752

Poor Richard's Almanack 1752 cover

Kate Greenaway 1888

Virginia Almanack page for September 1752 and 1752 cover of Poor Richard’s Almanack, Rosenbach Museum & Library, Philadelphia; The modern calendar: Kate Greenaway’s almanac page for 1888–and 2013, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.


Pendle and Salem

While weeding in front of my house yesterday I encountered a group of tourists who had come to Salem for the “witches” but were surprised to find so many nice buildings too. Poor people! Once we started chatting I couldn’t stop myself from subjecting them to a lecture, well, several really: first I told them all about Samuel McIntire and the merchants and sea captains who built Chestnut Street and then we got into the witch trials. They did ask questions, but clearly it’s a good thing that the semester is about to start.

One thing became clear in our “discussion”: they thought Salem was the only place in the world that prosecuted accused witches, at least after the “Dark Ages”. Even after fifteen years of teaching a popular course on the thousands of witch trials that occurred in early modern Europe, I was surprised. The singularity of Salem always bothers me; “our” trials are so seldom placed in western or global context, at least outside of academia.

There are important parallels between the Salem trials and the largest and most notorious English witchcraft prosecution, the Lancashire (“Pendle”) trials in northern England in 1612. The Pendle trials were held 401 years ago this week, and their 400th anniversary was commemorated last year. Salem and Pendle were both (relatively speaking) “frontier” communities, with the Pendle district of Lancashire located in the “dark corners of the north” of England, where various types of nonconformity still reigned. Salem cast a much wider net (185 accusations, 59 trials, 31 convictions, 19 executions, one death by torture/interrogation) than Pendle (16 trials and 10 executions, with one death in prison), but both were notoriously collective, conspiratorial episodes–unusual in the history of English prosecutions for witchcraft. Both trials were well-publicized, with the Pendle “source”, (more of a personal reflection really), clerk of the Lancashire court Thomas Potter’s Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster (1613) being particularly influential.

Pendle and Salem 1

Potts_Thomas-The_vvonderfull_discouerie_of_witches-STC-20138-1554_24-p8

Thomas Potts, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster. London, 1613. STC 20138.

But the most important comparison/connection between Pendle and Salem was the admission of legal testimony by a minor in the former trials, which set the precedent for the latter. Before the Pendle trials, the testimony of children under the age of fourteen was inadmissible in English courts, but nine-year-old Jennet Device was the star witness of the 1612 trials, offering up testimony that implicated her entire family as well as others. Jennet’s family would have been vulnerable anyway–they were a marginalized family led by a “cunning” matriarch, and probably represented the lethal mixture of nuisance and nonconformity to the community–but her vivid testimony was key to their conviction. Jennet was the informer at what became a sensationalistic show trial. Like Salem, the Lancashire trials seem to have become a somewhat self-generating process, engulfing the accusations of the “Pendle Hill” witches as well as so-called “Samlesbury Witches” who were also implicated by the testimony of an adolescent girl. The Salem girls most definitely had their forerunners, and perhaps their inspiration.

Then, of course, there is the cultural aftermath, theatrical and fictional accounts based on Pendle and Salem, tourism, commemorations. Several decades after Pendle, Thomas Heywood brought his comedy to the London stage, while several centuries after Salem, The Crucible transformed the American trials into an ongoing allegory. Salem has, of course, transformed itself into “Witch City”, and in the Pendle district there is a Witch Way bus service with individual buses named after the officials and victims of the Lancashire trials. There are statues in both places, although Pendle’s is of a real victim, Alice Nutter of the village of Roughlee, and ours is of Samantha Stevens, a fictional television character! (Of course we have the beautiful and meaningful 1992 Witch Trials Memorial, but I am afraid that more tourists see Samantha). There are also logos galore, on both sides of the Atlantic, official and otherwise, with just a sampling below.

Witchcraft Plays

witchwayrh3

Witchcraft Statues

PicMonkey Collage


Imperial Ermine

In the midst of a royal-birth-dominated media week I found myself in my graduate class, interpreting two iconic Renaissance portraits with ermines in them. And thus a post was provoked. How did this little weasel get associated with royalty, pretentious nobility, and the academic and clerical hierarchy? The answer lies in the (rare) white fur of this beast (more scientifically know as the stoat, or short-tailed weasel) as well as the emblems incorporated into what became a distinct ermine design: for no animal has the “ermine” black and white coat, it is a heraldic invention.

Ermine Leonardo

1585_elizabeth_ermine_portr

Leonardo da Vinci, Lady with an Ermine (Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan), 1489-90, The Czartoryski Museum and Library, Krakow; Nicholas Hilliard, The Ermine Portrait of Queen Elizabeth, 1585, Hatfield House.

Leonardo has a real ermine in his portrait of a woman who is presumed to be Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of his powerful patron Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan–whose heraldic emblem was an ermine. But the little creature on Elizabeth’s arm, wearing a crown collar, is an artistic creation based on the ermine pattern, in which the distinctive black tips of the animal’s (several animals actually) tail is stitched onto the fur, sometimes cut into distinct heraldic shapes. I think you can see this most clearly in the portrait below, in which a sixteen-century German merchant’s wife is wearing very distinct ermine sleeves (and a lot of jewelry) with her family crest in the corner.

ermine Cologne portrait

Bathel Bruyn the Younger, Portrait of Woman of the Slosgin Family of Cologne, 1557, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

As eminent (and wealthy) as she might have been, this woman is not a Queen–or even the mistress of a Duke: it seems like anyone can wear ermine in the sixteenth century, at least outside of England. The black-and-white (or white-and-black) patterned “fur” had become a device of conspicuous consumption and social mobility, because of its long-held associations with majesty, wealth, and a Christ-like “purity bought with his own death”, in which it was said that the ermine would give himself up to the approaching hunter, so not to sully his pure white winter coat (not quite sure why this was royal). The sheer expense of  ermine is most likely the ultimate source of its desire and association with the wealthy and privileged: the stoat’s coat is pure white only in winter, and then there are all those little black tails. I do think ermine maintains its exclusive association with royalty longer in England than on the Continent, but I could be wrong.

Ermine Bedford Hours

Ermine George I

Ermine sign for Crown Inn 1750 V and A

Ermines

Ermine in various incarnations, through the ages: The Duke of Bedford prays before St. George in his ermine-lined robe, c 1423, the Bedford Hours, 1423  (Additional Ms. 18850 ), British Library, Mezzotint of King George I by John Smith, 1715, British Museum; Drawing for a sign for the Crown Inn, c. 1750, Victoria & Albert Museum, London; The Stout wearing his summer and winter coats, Prang & Co., 1878, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.  

Appendix:  as a stark contrast to Leonardo’s portrait, I could not resist adding this Ermine with a Lady portrait” by Ellen Paquette!

Ermine with a Lady


Why not Alfred?

Very soon we will have a name for the new royal prince and it will probably not be Alfred (all the odds seem to be on boring George or James), but I say: why not?  The  Anglo-Saxon kings are the most English of all English monarchs, and Alfred was, of course, the Great. His lifetime (849-899) was contentious and “dark”, but he shed light whenever he could. Though officially King of the West Saxons, he styled himself King of the Anglo-Saxons, and most historians think of him as the first King of England–at least that part not occupied by the Vikings. Alfred contained these same Vikings, by building a strong fortification system and a navy (again–what could be more English than this?) He was also that very rare early medieval king–a scholar–and as such translated classical and religious works into the language (Anglo-Saxon, Old English) of his countrymen, promoting knowledge and his native language at the same time. Alfred was truly a keeper of the peace and a unifier of England–both in terms of his military and administrative systems and his codified laws–and the only English king to be titled “the Great”: what better namesake?

NPG 4269; King Alfred ('The Great') by Unknown artist

NPG D9257; King Alfred ('The Great') by John Faber Sr

Alfred Counties

NT; (c) Stourhead; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Alfred 1912 BM

The only way to see Alfred as his contemporaries did is on the many coins from his realm, another sign of his effective kingship. Much later, his image becomes much more legendary: Ninth-century coin, and 1712 print by John Faber Sr., both National Portrait Gallery, London; “King Alfred the Great forming a Code of Laws and Dividing the Kingdom into Counties, Tythings, Hundreds, &”, Charles Grignion illustration from Raymond’s History of England, British Museum, King Alfred the Great attributed to Samuel Woodforde, c. 1810-15, The National Trust @ Stourhead; Print of Frank O. Salisbury’s King Alfred the Great Rebuilding the Walls of the City of London, 1912, British Museum.


Burning Times

My title is not a reference to the early modern witch trials, but quite literally to some of the larger urban fires in history: London, Boston, Chicago, Portland, Maine. I am trying to put the Salem Fire of 1914 in a larger context, and I also wanted a place/post to showcase a painting I found recently while auction archive-stalking (a major pastime of mine, along with realestalking). By an anonymous artist of the “American School”, The Burning of Treadwell’s Mill, Salem, Massachusetts shows what must have been the constant threat of fire in the densely-settled urban environment of a nineteenth-century Salem. I’m not sure exactly where Treadwell’s Mill was or what it produced (shoes? cotton? jute?) but the artist (C.C.R.?) certainly captures a striking scene.

Burning Times Treadwell Mill Christies

I’m also unsure as to when this fire occurred, but it appears contemporaneous with the Great urban fires in Chicago (1871) and Boston (1872). I imagine that these two huge conflagrations, happening in such quick succession and causing acres and acres of devastation, much have really raised the specter of fire in the public consciousness in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and incited intensive discussions about fire prevention, water systems, insurance, and city planning. Much of the historical analysis of these fires and their impact focuses on the modern cities that emerged after the flames died down, almost as if fire was a (re-)generative force rather than a destructive one. These dramatic fires clearly inspired contemporary artists as well, who seem to focus on either the unbridled force of nature or more human perspectives. Painted several decades after the fire, Julia Lemos’s Memories of the Chicago Fire (1912) is all about the fire’s refugees, while the popular Currier & Ives lithograph of the Boston Fire shows the totality of destruction.

Burning Times Chicago

Burning Times Boston

Portland has always been one of my favorite little cities, but every time I go there I think something’s missing. Compared to other old New England ports like Providence, Boston, Salem, Newburyport, and Portsmouth, it seems  relatively new and very Victorian. Its urban landscape was shaped dramatically by the large fire of July 4, 1866, in which the joyous fireworks celebrating the first post-Civil War Independence Day triggered an inflammation that consumed much of downtown and presumably many colonial and Federal-era structures. Yet a new city emerged that took advantage of  the considerable charms of its geographic location. I like the transformation charted by the digital exhibition of the University of Southern Maine’s Osher Map Library:  from a “Blackened City, Laid in Ruins” to a “Green City, Reborn in Parks”. The environmental impact of the fire is emphasized by two contemporary images by Portland artist J.B. Hudson of Elms, Locust Street before and after the Fire of July 4, 1866. No mention of the charred remains of the built structures in the titles of these lithographs, just the trees!

Burning Times Portland 1

Burning Times Portland 2

It’s a big jump, back almost exactly two centuries, to the Great London Fire of 1666, but I’m going there. This was a fire that was truly “great”, both in terms of its devastation (some 13,000 buildings) and its impact, which included a rapid rebuilding response through what was one of the first examples of centralized urban planning–a model for disaster-devastated cities in the future. Very shortly after the Fire, King Charles II established a Commission for rebuilding the city, which proceeded with plans for wider streets, squares, and larger brick buildings. Not everything worked out as planned, but a new London emerged from the ashes fairly quickly, with 6000 structures built by 1670. Five years later, Commissioner Christopher Wren (ably assisted in the rebuilding process by the more-than-able Robert Hooke, the “English Leonardo” and the “man who measured London”) began work on his St. Paul’s Cathedral, which more than any other structure emerged at the triumphant symbol of the new and eternal London.

cropped to image, recto, unframed

Burning Times St Paul's

Old St. Paul’s and “New” St. Paul’s, in the midst of fire: unknown artist of the “British School”,  The Great Fire of London, with Ludgate and Old St. Paul’s, 17th Century, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection; Herbert Mason’s iconic photograph of Christopher Wren’s St. Paul’s during the Blitz, 1940.


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