Tag Archives: England

Wondrous Whales

Over the past week or so I’ve had whales on the brain, and I’ve encountered them in numerous places: at the Smithsonian’s recently-opened Whales:  from Bone to Book exhibit, in the pages of an old Salem-published book I picked up at a yard sale last weekend, and searching for examples of wonder in various digital archives of sixteenth and seventeenth-century English printed books. For early modern Englishmen and -women, few things were as “wondrous”, or providential, as the appearance of a “monstrous fish”, a “sea-monster”, or a whale. Their Christian worldview and precedents (Jonah and the whale, St. Brendan’s “island”) guaranteed that something big was up when one of these creatures appeared.

Whale Granger_Timothy-A_moste_true_and_marueilous_straunge-STC-12186-385_01-p1

Whale St Brendan 1621

Whale Dow 1925

Timothy Granger, A Moste true and marveilous Straunge wonder (1568); St. Brendan holding mass on the back of a whale, from Caspar Plautius, Nova Typis Transacta Navigatio (1621); Illustration from George Francis Dow, Whale Ships and Whaling: a Pictorial History (1925).

Every maritime culture appears to have its whale lore, but I’m only (vaguely) familiar with the western variety, and still trying to figure out quite a few whale tales. I’m not entirely certain why whales were so wondrous, so monstrous, so shocking, so noteworthy in the early modern era; after all, there were the ancient precedents as well as more recent medieval references, most notably to ambergris. Though there were diverse theories about its exact source, everyone seemed to accept that whales were somehow connected to the exotic substance.

Whale Medieval

Birthwort, serpent & a sperm whale in a Salerno herbal, British Library  MS Egerton  747,  c. 1280-1310.

Centuries later, it is apparent that it was not just whales that were wondrous in early modern England but beached or stranded whales, gigantic creatures that were far from their natural surroundings. And I can understand the fascination; I remember discovering the remains of a whale (just a blubbery part really) on a rocky beach in Maine when I was a child and running home to tell my parents, small bone in hand, quite vividly. Another memory I have of a whale comes from much later, when I was researching my dissertation and came across a seventeenth-century pamphlet reporting the foiled attempt of a Jesuit to sneak into England in the body of a whale. Few things were as threatening as Jesuits in post-Gunpowder Plot England, so this secret papal mission of sorts makes sense in the scheme of things, but I lost track of the reference and never found that source again. This past weekend, I found something similar:  A True and Wonderfull Relation of a Whale with a “Romish Priest” in its belly, no doubt the tract of my faulty memory.

Whale 1645

Two seventeenth-century tracts that look slightly more “scientific” but also contain “prodigious” accounts are A True Report and Exact Description of a mighty Sea-monster, or Whale (1617) and Strange News from the Deep, Being a Full Account of a Large Prodigious Whale (1677). These accounts date from the same century when the English were actively engaging in whaling well off-shore in the North Atlantic, so apparently it was only whales at home that were wondrous. Those in the deep possessed another characteristic–value–which would only increase in the coming centuries.

Whale 1617

Whale 1677

Purple Reigns

I was looking at pictures of the recent commemoration of the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, and even the Anglophile in me thought: aren’t they done? Haven’t the British been celebrating anything and everything for the past several years? Enough. But I did like this one photograph of royal purple banners, and it inspired me to find some purple in my own city. I’ve been working my way through the palette of paint colors here in Salem for several years, beginning with Old Orange Houses, so it’s all about purple today.

Purple Reigns in London

Purple banners in London last week and Salem (and one Marblehead) houses below:

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purple reigns 057

One of my favorite houses in (south) Salem, a mid-nineteenth-century extended “cottage” that extends for quite a bit and is set on a very nice property. Love these long windows on the side and the purple-with-green paint scheme.

Purple Reigns 2

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A purple Salem triple-decker, and a c. 1710 house in nearby Old Town Marblehead.

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purple reigns 075

Side by side in North Salem, an 1830 house and one from the turn-of-the-century or after (not quite sure about this style; it almost looks storybook to me. This house is a very, very, very pale greyish purple with purple trim and it is for sale now–no, under agreement; I just checked).

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purple reigns 091

Two High Victorian houses in purple on Federal Street.

Band of Brothers

Because I’ve been rather engrossed in the Hundred Years War this past few weeks as I prepped for my summer graduate course on late medieval and Renaissance Europe, I’ve been thinking more about the Battle of Agincourt than, say, D-Day. And so for this Memorial Day weekend, a moment of remembrance and reflection, I thought I’d look at Shakespeare’s famous “band of brothers”/St. Crispin’s Day speech, with which King Harry rallies the troops just before battle in Henry V. “Band of brothers” is a familiar phrase to us now, because of Olivier and Branagh and Spielberg, but did it always have resonance? What did it mean when an actor first uttered these lines in 1599 or 1600, and after?  From this day to the ending of the world, But we in it shall be remember’d; We few, we happy few, we BAND OF BROTHERS; For he to-day that sheds his blood with me Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile; This day shall gentle his condition. And gentlemen in England now a-bed Shall think themselves accursed they were not here, And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks That fought with us upon Saint Crispin day.

STC 22289, front endleaf 3v- A1r, t.p.

Band of Brothers Lambeth Palace Library

Title page of first printed version of Henry V, Folger Shakespeare Library; Agincourt illumination, Lambeth Palace Library.

Of course Henry did not really utter these lines; Shakespeare wrote them for his late Elizabethan audience, tapping into their burgeoning nationalism in the decade after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, while Spain was still a very real threat. So when England was threatened again, do these words reappear? The Napoleonic Wars immediately come to mind, when an even more glorious national hero than King Henry V–Admiral Nelson–used the “band of brothers” analogy on several occasions, most notably in reference to the great victory against the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile in 1798. While Nelson was referring to the ship captains under his command, the phrase took on a more egalitarian and nationalistic meaning in the celebratory aftermath.

Band of Brothers Battle of the Nile

Band of Brothers BM

Contemporary prints of the “Glorious Battle of the Nile” and Admiral Nelson and his band of brothers, British Museum.

At about the same time the Battle of the Nile was waging on the other side of the world, Philadelphia statesman Joseph Hopkinson was penning a poem that later became the lyrics to the so-called first American national anthem, Hail, Columbia. Hopkinson’s’ chorus proclaimed:  Firm, united, let us be, Rallying around our liberty, As a Band of Brothers joined, Peace and safety we shall find. My brief search through the sheet music collection of the Library of Congress gave me the impression that this song was far more popular in the nineteenth century than the Star Spangled Banner, which eventually became the national anthem in 1931. Before, during, and particularly after the Civil War, the phrase “band of brothers” was used in speeches and published materials in both the North and the South, cementing its American usage.

Band of Brothers Hail Columbia 1798

Band of Brothers Memorial Day Card 1909

The Favorite New Federal Song, Adapted to the Presidents March, Library of Congress Music Division; 1909 Memorial Day souvenir card.

Back in Britain, the phrase was still Shakespearean, and most definitely one inspiration for Winston Churchill’s famous “the few” speech given in 1940 in the midst of the Battle of Britain, when Britain was most definitely standing alone: Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. I would expect (but didn’t really have enough time to confirm) that the band of brothers theme was used to emphasize the bond between British troops and their allies, both in the Commonwealth and outside, as the “we’re in this together” message is artfully employed in wartime propaganda.

Band of Brothers together William Little 1941

Band of Brothers Back to the Wall

Two examples of British wartime propaganda from the great exhibit at the UK National Archives, The Art of War:  “Together” by William Little, 1940 & “Back against the Wall” by Illingworth, 1941.

It’s no accident that Sir Laurence Olivier chose to produce a stylized film version of Henry V during the war, indeed, the project was partially funded by the British government and originally dedicated to the “Commandos and Airborne Troops of Great Britain the spirit of whose ancestors it has been humbly attempted to recapture”.  And there is the direct connection between Shakespeare’s romanticized war and an all too real one. I do recall the inclusion of Shakespeare’s words in Spielberg’s and Hanks’ Band of Brothers (as well as Stephen Ambrose book on which it is based), but it doesn’t matter; by this point in time,  the title says it all.


A fifteenth-century manuscript brought to life/film:  the recently-restored Henry V (1944).

Fashion and Art, centuries apart

One big fashion and art exhibition closes this month while another opens: at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity closes on May 27 while across the Atlantic, In Fine Style: the Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion just opened at the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace in London. I had hoped to see both exhibitions, but will probably end up of seeing neither; for some reason I thought the Met show was up all summer. Oh well, I have been perusing the catalog of the former and I’m already familiar with most of the paintings in the latter, and I have some general comparative observations, which would almost certainly either be reinforced or refuted if I saw the actual shows.

First observation: the early modern era was a much better time for MEN’s fashion. Tudor and Stuart men got to dress up in fabulous, colorful clothing for all sorts of occasions, and they had ARMOUR.  There is no comparison for the Belle Epoque. One of the galleries in the Met show is entitled “Frock Coats and Fashion: the Urban Male”, but these stockbrokers are clearly no match for the enigmatic sixteenth-century man in red or King Charles I.

Art and Fashion Degas

Art and Fashion Red  Art and Fashion Charles I

Edgar Degas, Portraits at the Stock Exchange, 1879, Musée d’OrsayParis; Portrait of a Man in Red, German/Netherlandish School, c. 1530-50, Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II; Daniel Mytens, Portrait of H.M. King Charles I, 1628, Royal Collection© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Second observation: black-and-white is classic. No matter what the occasion, black-and-white attire is timeless and striking. The Met exhibition has a gallery of black dresses and white dresses, also completely classic, but what I notice looking at both eras is the eternal elegance of the two non-colors together. Below we have two very different scenes:  seventeenth-century mourners and a lady of leisure on a sunny late nineteenth-century afternoon, united by their attire.

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Art and Fashion Black and White

Sir Anthony van Dyck,Thomas Killigrew and (?) William, Lord Croft, 1638; Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II; Albert Bartholomé, In the Conservatory (Madame Bartholomé),1881; “Summer Day Dress Worn by Mademe Bartholomé in the PaintingIn the Conservatory”,1880, which is described as cotton printed with PURPLE dots and stripes but it reads black to me–a good illustration of why I should have seen this exhibition in person!

Third observation: texture = luxury+artistry. This is where the art and the fashion really meet. In both exhibitions, the fabrics are absolutely luxurious, and the artists’ ability to depict their textures is absolutely amazing. Obviously the Met exhibition, which places garments adjacent to paintings (as in the example above) illustrates this artistry in a really compelling way, but the artists of the Tudor-Stuart era, who are depicting royalty and nobility, are also compelled to inject that luxurious texture into their subjects’ portraits, as illustration of their exalted status.

Art and Fashion Tissot

Art and Fashion Leyly

Glistening fabrics from both eras: James Tissot,Evening (The Ball),detail, 1878; Sir Peter Lely, Frances Teresa Stuart, Duchess of Richmond, c.1662, Royal Collection© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Fourth observation: it’s all in the details. Both exhibitions feature “little” things that are incredibly important: trims, jewelry, undergarments, patterns. Whether the sixteenth-century ruff or the nineteenth-century corset, details are important to these societies–and these artists. You would think that the details would be more important in the early modern portraits than the nineteenth-century en plein air paintings, but that is not the case. The details are always important.

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Art and Fashion

Details of Marcus Gheeradts the Younger’s (attributed) Anne of Denmark, 1614, Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and Ckaude Monet’s Camille, 1866, as banners for their respective exhibitions.

Mother Shipton

Rather contrarily, my offering for Mother’s Day weekend is not a warm, loving, and lovely caregiver but a prophesying crone:  Mother Shipton, who most likely never existed.  Supposedly born in the first years of the new Tudor dynasty in a Yorkshire cave (the product of  a union between a poor wretch named Agatha and the Devil), Ursula Southeil or “Mother Shipton” rose to fame in the mid-seventeenth century, long after her supposed death. Just before the English Civil War, a time of high anxiety indeed, a series of Mother Shipton pamphlets suddenly appeared, containing predictions of things that, for the most part, had already happened, along with dire warnings of war and destruction.

Mother Shipton 1642p

Mother Shipton 1642 part 3p

The first prophecy on the second 1642 pamphlet is typical Mother Shipton: Joane Waller should live to heare of Wars within this Kingdome but not to see them. The Civil War broke out in the same year of as the tract was published, but of course Waller had died the year before. A similar assertion regarding Henry VIII’s chief minister, Cardinal Wolsey, that he would see York but never get there, was one of Mother Shipton’s most famous “predictions”.  Her published prophecies continued through the Civil War (closely tied to current events) and after, and she joined the ranks of such legendary magicians as Merlin.

Mother Shipton 1648p

Mother Shipton 1661p

Shipton Prophecies from 1648 & 1661

In the later seventeenth century, Mother Shipton’s biography and predictions were embellished rather vastly by a series of publications entitled The Life and Death of Mother Shipton, and her story was adapted for entertainment purposes, thus cementing her now-legendary character. The transition from ominous witch-soothsayer to stock character is emblematic of the emergence of a collective rationalist mentality in the seventeenth century, with a corresponding decline in belief in magic and “wonder”, now assuming its more modern meaning.

Mother Shipton 1677p

Mother Shipton Life and Death

Mother Shipton play 1670p

And that would probably be the end of Mother Shipton, consigned to a relatively minor character in the long history of sibyls and soothsayers, if she was not resurrected in the Victorian era. It’s always the Victorians! Charles Dickens first referenced her in a 1856 story, and then the entrepreneurial bookseller Charles Hindley published a new set of rhymed and timely prophecies that were supposedly based on a newly-discovered manuscript in the British Museum (he later confessed to making them up). Now Mother Shipton was predicting railroads, ships made of iron, wireless communication and all sorts of industrial innovations, as well as the ominous warning that the world then to an end shall come/ In Eighteen Hundred and Eighty-One, which was changed to 1991 in early-twentieth-century reprints. By that time, she had evolved yet again, into a fairy-tale character and (later) a tourist attraction.

Mother Shipton 1800 BM

PicMonkey Collage

Mother Shipton's Cave Yorkshire

Charles Townley print of Mother Shipton and her familiar, 1800, British Museum, Linley Sanbourne and W. Heath Robinson illustrations of Mother Shipton on her broomstick for Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies. A Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby (1888 & 1915); the entrance to Mother Shipton’s Cave in Knaresborough, “England’s Oldest Tourist Attraction” (shades of Salem!).

A Few Scraps of Shakespeare

  They have been at a great feast of languages, and stolen the scraps.

Love’s Labour’s Lost, 1594

April 23 is a big day for Anglophiles, marking the birth (and death) of William Shakespeare and the Feast of St. George, the patron saint of England. I have never really understood how St. George became the patron saint of England, so I’m going with Shakespeare. And as I’m not a literary scholar, I’m going for scraps, bit of ephemera that were quite the rage in the nineteenth century, when scrap-booking became a popular leisure activity, and scrap screens began appearing in parlors on both sides of the Atlantic.


Decoupage screen decorated by Jane Carlyle in 1849, in the Drawing Room at Carlyle's House , London

Title Page of Shakespeare’s First Folio, 1623, British Library; Jane Carlyle’s Scrap Screen, 1849, at the Carlyle House in London, Treasure Hunt.

There’s nothing particularly novel about pasting images in a book or on a wall, but printing and paper technologies in the nineteenth century commercialized the activity, like everything else. Scraps for sale first appeared as black and white engravings at the beginning of the century, and by the latter half they were colored by chromolithography, embossed, die-cut and sold as sheets at the local stationer. Mrs. Carlyle’s screen above is made of more “found” examples, but many people seem to have  preferred the more glossy materials that could be found at the shop. In the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, there are some wonderful scraps of Shakespearean characters, vividly bringing them to life for those that could not see them on the stage. Sigmund Hildesheimer & Company’s Characters from Shakespeare. A Series of Twelve Relief Scraps depicted characters played by popular actors, and were sold in packs costing one shilling in the 1890s. My favorites are below:  Romeo and Juliet, Richard III and the two “princes in the tower”, Ophelia and Hamlet, and Cromwell and Wolsey from Henry VIII.

Shakespeare Scrap RJ

Shakespeare Scrap Richard

Shakespeare Scrap Hamlet

Shakespeare Scrap Henry VIII

Shakespearean Scraps by Siegmund Hildesheimer & Co., c. 1890, Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Two Tudors

It is been an EXHAUSTING week living in the present; I’m retreating to the past. To my favorite period and my academic specialty:  the Tudor era. Before they were as fashionable as they are now due to an explosion of cultural depictions in the last decade or so, I set my sight on this dynasty. This is a big day in Tudor history as it marks the death of its founder, Henry VII, and the accession of his (second) son, the much-more notorious Henry VIII. These were very different men, very different kings, very different Tudors.

NPG D34139; King Henry VII; King Henry VIII; King Edward VI after Unknown artist

King Henry VII of England (r. 1485-1509) & King Henry VIII of England (r. 1509-1547); 1677 print, National Portrait Gallery, London.

I’ve always preferred the father to the son.  Henry VII was a reluctant warrior-turned king: disciplined (physically reinforced by his slender physique), a bit defensive, definitely wary, prudent, calculating, somewhat severe, on the job. He was determined to bring order, stability, and prosperity to England after the tumultuous Wars of the Roses, and equally intent on liberating the Crown from parliamentary and noble interference. These two policies had both positive and negative consequences:  increased industry and trade, a more centralized administration, an “isolationist” foreign policy which shifted England away from the Continent, the Court of Star Chamber, revenue collection that ventured into the realm of “avarice” according to the Tudor historian Polydore Vergil. It could just be the so-called “Tudor myth”, but England seems dark and divided at the commencement of Henry VII’s reign and more illuminated and integrated at its end. And then came Henry VIII.

Tudors BL Arundel 66 1490 Henry VII

Tudor Henry MIchael Sittow 1500


(c) Bristol Museum and Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Henry VII in life, death, and after:  British Library MS Arundel 66, c. 1490; portrait by Estonian court painter Michael Sittow, c. 1505, National Portrait Gallery, London; deathbed scene by Sir Thomas Wriothesley, BL MS Additional 45131; the avarice label sticks: Thomas Edwin Mostyn’s 1919 painting, King Henry VII Fining the Citizens of Bristol Because Their Wives Were So Finely Dressed, 1490, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.

Henry VIII is of course a more iconic figure than Henry VII, more so because of his personal life and portraits than his policies. As momentous as it was, the English Reformation cannot trump the six wives in the public mind, although scholars are not so similarly focused. I drag my students through the “Tudor revolution in government” (a point of continuity between the two Henrys) and the Reformation, but I know we’ve also got to cover the wives: Anne Boleyn, in particular seems to have become an object of singular obsession for this particular generation. And when I show them pictures of the young Henry, they gasp, so fixed in their mind are the Hans Holbein images and their derivations. Because of the emphasis on the personal, Henry VIII seems to have emerged as a more human figure than his father, warts and all. He is portrayed and perceived as both pious and gregarious, educated and arbitrary, charming and tyrannical. Everyone seems to agree that he was self-indulgent and wasteful, lacking his father’s discipline in all matters, but somehow compensating for this weakness by his larger-than-life personality. He does indeed get bigger and bigger in his contemporary portrayals, and ultimately this magnitude extends to his historical image. Henry VIII’s ability to project his image transcended that of his father–he had more at stake and more tools at his disposal–but there is no getting around the fact that Henry VII was the first Tudor.

Tudors Henry VIII 1540 NPG

NPG 157; King Henry VIII after Hans Holbein the Younger

Tudors Great Bible 1538 BL Henry VIII

Tudors Henry and Barber Surgeons 1541 Hunterian

(c) DACS; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Henry VIII through the ages: at about 30, in a c. 1520 portrait by an anonymous artist, and in a c. 1536 portrait after Hans Holbein, National Portrait Gallery, London; Henry handing down the word of God in the frontspiece to the “Great Bible” of 1538, British Library, and among (above!) the Barber-Surgeons of London in 1541, Hunterian Museum, Glasgow; a rather romantic image of a key moment in the “King’s Great Matter”:  Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon before Papal Legates at Blackfriars, 1529 by Frank O. Salisbury, 1910, Palace of Westminster Collection.

Rest for Richard

Now that it has been confirmed that the skeletal remains found underneath a parking lot in Leicester, England are indeed those of the last Plantagenet king, Richard III, at last he can be laid to rest in a place and manner befitting a king. His advocates, the Riccardians, have been uncharacteristically divided in the past few months over the burial:  should Richard have a grand state funeral and be laid to rest in Westminster Cathedral, or remain in Leicester, or be interred at York Minster, which he himself might have desired?  I took note of more than one newspaper British headline that read Bones of Contention, but in the end Leicester won out, so Richard’s bones will not have to travel very far.

I’ve already posted about Richard and the discovery of his bones, so today I have some rather random thoughts about reactions to their verification. My first thought upon hearing the news was for Josephine Tey, who wrote the 1951 historical detective novel (one of the first of its genre?) Daughter of Time about a twentieth-century detective’s efforts to untangle the Tudor mythology of Richard’s life and death. This little book definitely sparked my own interest in history when I first read it in my teens, and I’ve seen it have the same effect on countless students and friends. Though the recovery of Richard’s remains sheds little light on his life deeds and misdeeds, he is forever linked with historical curiosity for me.

Richard Daughter of Time

The cover of the first edition of Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time, 1951.

And that really is the key point. Curiosity, and engagement, are fostered by uncertainty about the past more so than any presentation of supposedly well-established “facts”.  It’s been so exciting to see historians, scientists, and the general public engage with each other over the discovery of the remains of a long-dead king, and a short-lived and unpopular one at that. This engagement might not be palpable here in the United States (where I heard a succession of broadcasters take great pains to point out that this was Richard III, not Richard the Lionheart) but it sure was coming over loud and clear on my Twitter feed (along with a lot of bad jokes:  a hearse, a hearse, my kingdom for a hearse!).

The other thing I have noticed (watching from afar) is the very personal, even intimate, nature of this entire revealing. The Riccardians have always taken Richard’s demonization very personally, so that is no surprise, but the sight of his curved spine (but no withered arm!) and cleaved skull is a verification not only of his existence, but his suffering. On the other hand, I found the images of the facial reconstruction released yesterday a little off-putting, though it’s interesting to read comments of how handsome he was:  not a monster, after all.

Richard Buckley and Richard III

Richards Skeleton and Jo Appleby Bioarcheology

Richards Spine

Richard III facial reconstruction

NPG 148; King Richard III by Unknown artist

Scenes from the big reveal:  University of Leicester archeologists Richard Buckley and Jo Appleby discussing the archeological and DNA evidence, Richard’s curved spine, the results of scoliosis, the facial reconstruction, and a late 16th century portrait of Richard III, Getty Images & the National Portrait Gallery London.

And so now Richard will be laid to rest (again).  I’m sure there will be a lot more discussion about the ceremony for his re-interment (will the Royal Family attend?), but it sounds like David Monteith, the Canon Chancellor of Leicester Cathedral, has already given this a great deal of thought:  he announced that an ecumenical service of remembrance is being planned for our time, as the King had most certainly received a proper Christian burial in his.

Leicester Cathedral

Cathedral and Guildhall, Leicester.

Fifty Fabulous Frocks

This past weekend, the exhibition Hats: an Anthology by Stephen Jones closed at the Peabody Essex Museum here in Salem while across the pond 50 Fabulous Frocks opened at the Fashion Museum in Bath, England.  You know what they say in fashion, one day you’re in, the next you’re out. Seriously, Hats must have been an absolute blockbuster for the PEM and I’m sure the relatively new Bath museum organized the Frocks anniversary exhibition to expand their audience as well:  fashion history is popular, and almost immediately accessible.

There’s been a lot of publicity for the Frocks exhibition, so even if you’re not able to make it to Bath this year you can still see many of the dresses, including one of the most famous in the museum’s collection, the “Silver Tissue” dress, dating from about 1660. I have seen this dress myself, and it is beautiful, and interesting: there is a contrast between the luxury of the fabric, a fine Italian linen interwoven with silver thread and trimmed in parchment lace, its coarser cotton trim and its relatively modest cut.  Most likely this is due to the fact that it was worn by an adolescent girl, which explains the gown’s considerable charm. We are used to seeing more extravagant gowns from the era, made of less subtle silks and satins and much lower cut, most beautifully in the Peter Lely portraits of Charles II’s courtiers, family, queen or mistresses.

Fifty Fabulous Frocks Silver Tissue Dress 1660

NPG 6028; Henrietta Anne, Duchess of Orleans by Sir Peter Lely

Silver Tissue Doublet Victoria & Albert

The “Silver Tissue Dress” at the Fashion Museum, Bath and North East Somerset Council; a Peter Lely portrait of Henrietta Anne, the Duchess of Orleans, sister of Charles II, from the National Portrait Gallery, London; a doublet from the same era, made of similar fabric, Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Keeping with the metallic theme, but moving forward 150 years or so, the next dress that emerges from the exhibition for me is this ball gown from the late 1820s, made of cream silk embroidered with gold ribbon. Of course it would be right at home in Austenland, but also in Salem’s Hamilton Hall–either in the ballroom or the bride’s room, I think.

Fifty Fabulous Frocks ballgown 1820s

Hamilton Hall Ballroom 2

Hamilton Hall Bride's Room

Another ball gown which is sure to get a lot of attention is the Veuve Cliquot champagne bottle dress worn by an unnamed lady to a fancy dress ball in 1902: the cap is the cork!

Champagne Dresses from Fifty Fabulous Frocks at Bath Fashion Museum

The celebrated designers of the twentieth century are all represented in the exhibition, including Poiret, Vionnet, Chanel, Dior, Schiaparelli, and St. Laurent. There’s a bright tartan satin ball gown from the 1860s, which (except for its length) has a very 1950s silhouette and a Mickey Mouse dress from the 1930s which looks like it could be from the 1960s–to my untrained eye. A little lace Alexander McQueen dress, trimmed with leather, appealed to me the most among the modern dresses:  again, it looks like it can transcend the date of its creation:  1999.

Fifty Fabulous Frocks Alexander McQueen cotton lace 1999

Fifty fabulous frocks ensemble

Alexander McQueen cotton lace dress from Spring/Summer 1999 & a display of dresses (and one coat) from Fifty Fabulous Frocks, on view at the Fashion Museum, Bath, until the end of 2013.

Christmas Casting

In the medieval era and slightly after, Christmas was often the time for making predictions for the coming year, rather than on New Year’s Day. Weather predictions were common, and also more varied prognostications, based on what day of the week Christmas fell. The predictions based on a Christmas Tuesday are not particularly cheery, I must admit, but then neither are they overwhelmingly optimistic for Christmases that fell on the other days of the week.  Here’s the Middle English verse from British Library Harley Manuscript 2252, the commonplace book (an often-miscellaneous journal of very random sayings and bits of information, kind of like a blog!), of London merchant John Colyns, from the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century, with my hasty translation. It’s been a while since I have tangled with Middle English so there may be some lapses here, but I think I got the gist of this verse.

Yf Crystemas day on Tuysday be, That yere shall dyen wemen plenté; And that wynter wex grete marvaylys; Shyppys shalbe in grete perylles; That yere shall kynges and lordes be slayne, And myche hothyr pepylle agayne heym. A drye somer that yere shalbe; Alle that be borne ther in many se, They shalbe stronge and covethowse. Yf thou stele awghte, thou lesyste thi lyfe; Thou shalte dye throwe swerde or knyfe; But and thow fall seke, sertayne, Thou shalte turne to lyfe agayne.

If Christmas Day be on a Tuesday, many women will die that year; and that winter will see great marvels; Ships shall be in great perils; That year kings and lords shall be slain, And many other people against them. That year will have a dry summer; All that are born in that year shall be strong and covetous. Whoever steals, shall lose his life by sword or knife; But if one falls sick, they shall become well.

Well at least it ends on a somewhat optimistic note!

STC 25949, title page

Ships and people in peril a century later:  The Wonders of this Windie Weather, London, 1613. STC 25949.


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