Tag Archives: Victoria & Albert Museum


I find myself these days full of feelings of dissent and resistance but looking for more whimsical ways to express the same, as you can’t be strident all the time. It’s boring, and exhausting. So a flashing reference caught my attention, to a dinner party in Baltimore in February of 1777 attended by two of the most strident people in history: John and Samuel Adams of Massachusetts. The next day, John noted in his diary [II, 434]: Last evening I supped with my friends, Dr. Rush and Mr. Sargeant, at Mrs. Page’s, over the bridge. The two Colonel Lees, Dr. Wisherspoon, Mr. Adams, Mr. Gerry, Dr. Brownson, made the company. They have a fashion, in this town, of reversing the picture of King George III in such families as have it. One of these topsy-turvy kings was hung up in the room where we supped, and under it were written these lines, by Mr. Throop, as we are told: Behold the man, who had it in his power/ To make a kingdom tremble and adore, Intoxicate with folly. See his head Placed where the meanest of his subjects tread. Like Lucier, the giddy tyrant fell; He lifts his heal to Heaven, but points his head to Hell.

George III

King George III by Nathaniel Dance-Holland, National Trust, Uppark

Well I like this “fashion”, and can certainly think of one or two people I’d like to turn upside down at the moment. I’m sure we all can. Apologies to my British friends: I couldn’t find an image of a Baltimore dining room with a topsy-turvy portrait of King George, so I simply turned him upside down myself. But we must note that like so many of their revolutionary sensibilities, the new Americans were simply following a British example: in this case the “world turned upside down” sentiments of the English Revolution in the previous century. The leader of that revolution, Oliver Cromwell, was himself turned upside down when an Indian monarchist of the Victorian era purchased his portrait and displayed it topsy-turvy in a delayed protest of the regicide: the Inverness Museum and Art Gallery followed suit when it acquired the portrait, and Tate Britain when it exhibited it. Another topsy-turvy ruler is Philip V of Spain, whose portrait is traditionally upended in the Almodí Museum in Xàtiva, in retribution for the burning of the city at the close of the War of the Spanish Succession.

Topsy Turvy Tate cromwell_for_web_0

Robert Walker (in the style of), Inverness Museum and Art Gallery

Topsy Turvy King 2

The first Bourbon King of Spain, Philip V.

Later in the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, the upside-down, topsy-turvy motif was mostly used in a satirical or critical way, the point having been established: “it is monstrous that the feet should direct the head” (in the words of my favorite queen, Elizabeth I, to make up for turning George III upside down) or something’s not right here. There was also a two-sides-of-the-same-coin message in some topsy-turvy images, as well as a general sense of we’re being tossed about/PLAYED. That’s how I feel.

topsy turvy collage

TOpsy Turvy Economy 1979 Jean-Michel Folon Smithsonian NPGTopsy-turvy “Talons” Kaiser Wilhelm I and Emperor Napoleon III, 1878, Victoria & Albert Museum; the Topsy-turvy Economy, 1978, Jean Michel Folon, Smithsonian/National Portrait Gallery.

Pastry Castles

There is much focus on food and drink during December, of course, and today I’m thinking about “pastry castles”, an early form, perhaps, of our own American gingerbread houses? The British Library recently digitized one of the oldest English cookbooks (which is actually a cook-scroll), the Forme of Cury (Add MS 5016), and the recipe for “chastletes” is a conspicuous entry. The Forme of Cury ( a Middle English title for “method of cookery” having nothing to do with England’s current national dish) was written by the chefs of Richard II’s kitchen in the later fourteenth century, and includes recipes for both “common” and “curious” foods, and “for all manner of states, both high and low”. One assumes that the pastry castles, which are a curious mix of sweet and savory in typical late medieval fashion, were produced for the former.




Forme of Cury scroll and recipe for pastry castles, BL Add MS 5016; a feast featuring a “chastlete” in a late-medieval Bruges manuscript, BL Royal MS. 15 D I.    

Here is the recipe for chastletes in its original Middle English:  Take and make a foyle of gode past with a roller of a foot brode. & lyngur by cumpas. make iiii Coffyns of þe self past uppon þe rolleres þe gretnesse of þe smale of þyn Arme. of vi ynche depnesse. make þe gretust in þe myddell. fasten þe foile in þe mouth upwarde. & fasten þee oþere foure in euery syde. kerue out keyntlich kyrnels above in þe manere of bataiwyng and drye hem harde in an Ovene. oþer in þe Sunne. In þe myddel Coffyn do a fars of Pork with gode Pork & ayrenn rawe wiþ salt. & colour it wiþ safroun and do in anoþer Creme of Almandes. and helde it in anoþer creme of Cowe mylke with ayrenn. colour it with saundres. anoþur manur. Fars of Fygur. of raysouns. of Apples. of Peeres. & holde it in broun. anoþer manere. do fars as to frytours blanched. and colour it with grene. put þis to þe ovene & bake it wel. & serue it forth with ew ardaunt.

The “Coffyns” refer to the pastry shell, encasing the savory mixture of pork, saffron (amazingly dear at the time!), almonds, raisins, apples and pears—mincemeat essentially. The entire form was not made of “bread”, consequently it’s difficult to make the link between these constructions and our own modern gingerbread houses, which seem to have more modern, continental origins, although Elizabeth I purportedly instructed her cooks to make gingerbread men and women in the recognizable forms of her courtiers and guests. I think we’re talking about multiple lines of food cultural evolution here—pies, cakes, ginger, ginger cakes, breads, and houses–and perhaps I shouldn’t mix them up except under the label of “architectural pastry constructions”.  If I could make my own pastry castle, which I would fill with cake and not mincemeat, I would certainly recreate one of Elizabeth’s very favorite castles, Nonsuch Palace, built by her father in the last years of his reign. This is well beyond my baking abilities, but wow, just imagine such a structure!



Two views of Nonsuch Palace by Joris Hoefnagel–the second was just acquired by the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Footcandy in Salem

And now for the shoes. While I didn’t find the latest PEM blockbuster material exhibition Shoes: Pleasure and Pain to be particularly probing, it was definitely aesthetically pleasing, and I enjoyed the insights into the production and collection of shoes. For me, the other exhibition themes of transformation, status and seduction did not seem quite as well-developed as those of creation and obsession. The cumulative presentation focuses on the extreme rather than the mundane, and on the colorful rather than the neutral, and thus is tailor (cobbler?)-made for social media. I kept thinking that I had seen it before, and then I realized I just missed it at the Victoria & Albert Museum when I was in London last winter, but must have absorbed a lot of the publicity when planning my trip. Two minor comments: 1) I was really happy to see a high-heeled King Charles II rather than the usual Louis XIV, Sun/Shoe king (after all, Charles II was a tall man whose shoes were a choice of fashion while the much-shorter Louis XIV’s heels were partly an invention of necessity); and 2) Loved the creative use of shoe boxes, and our opportunity to “peak” into the closets of some local collectors.So what’s next?  We have seen myriad garments, hats and now shoes: perhaps purses or gloves? Since the PEM seems to follow in line with the Victoria & Albert Museum with these types of exhibitions I went to the latter’s website to look for upcoming events, and my bet is on lingerie based on their spring showUndressed: A Brief History of Underwear.

My highlights from Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, beginning with perspectives on Charles II’s coronation portrait by John Michael Wright, Sebastian Errazuriz’s “Heart Breaker” shoe and iconic heels from Christian Laboutin and Manolo Blahnik. 






An assortment of heels, one of several Latchet shoes in the exhibition, North Shore shoes, and myriad embellishments: feathers, polka dots, pom poms, laces………………








The last part of the exhibit, on collection/obsession, was probably the most introspective, if only because it featured the collections of some local shoe lovers–and insights into how they wear/store/display their shoes. Love the last shoe “box”, which I suppose can double as an ottoman in the dressing room.




Drawing down the Moon

One artist whose work I have admired for quite a while but never really knew how to contextualize in a topical or thematic way is Samuel Palmer (1805-1881). He seems to be one of those people who was not of his time. I guess you would call him a Victorian artist, but he reacted against his dynamic age by creating rather romanticized, even primitivized (if that is a word) landscapes and pastoral scenes, in several mediums. I find much of his work–particularly his early work– very appealing yet hard to pin down: some of his paintings look and feel as if they could date from either the early seventeenth century or the late nineteenth. The monochromatic drawings which he called “blacks” (the first two images below) look strikingly modern to me, and deliberately designed to illustrate the effects of moonlight. I was looking and thinking about the Harvest Moon over the past few nights and suddenly one of these popped into my mind. So I looked up his works at the Tate, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a few other places, and found that my memory was correct: this was a man who could really draw (down) the full moon–and its crescent counterparts as well. The then-nineteen-year-old’s biblical inscription on the last drawing below is both timeless and timely: The / moon / also to / rule by night / for his mercy / endureth / for ever. Thou crownest / the year / with thy / goodness.

The Harvest Moon: Drawing for 'A Pastoral Scene' c.1831-2 by Samuel Palmer 1805-1881

Samuel Palmer, The Harvest Moon: Drawing for ‘A Pastoral Scene’ c.1831. Tate Britain


Samuel Palmer, Nocturnal Landscape with Full Moon and Deer, c. 1829-30. Victoria & Albert Museum


Coming from Evening Church 1830 by Samuel Palmer 1805-1881

Samuel Palmer, Coming from Evening Church,  1830. Tate Britain


Samuel Palmer, A Cornfield by Moonlight with the Evening Star,1830.  British Museum


Samuel Palmer, Harvest Moon, 1833. Yale Center for British Art


Samuel Palmer,Christmas, or Folding the Last Sheep, 1850( Etching; second state of five). Metropolitan Museum of Art


Samuel Palmer, Harvest Celebration, c. 1824 (Leaf 20, ink drawing from a sketchbook). Victoria & Albert Museum

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.

The World of Work Boxes

I was researching a post on painted “fancy chairs” from the Federal era and after when I got distracted by a great book and its subject matter: Betsy Krieg Salm’s Women’s Painted Furniture, 1790-1830 (University Press of New England, 2010) caught my eye in the library for numerous reasons (it’s a beautiful book, I love painted furniture, the era coincides with Salem’s golden age, so I knew I’d find some good stuff in it), but once I opened it I could not put it down. The result of three decades of research by the author (who is an ornamental artist herself), the book is art history, social history, education history, cultural history, world history all at the same time.

The subtitle, American Schoolgirl Art, is particularly appropriate as this book is about training, expectations, and influences as well as the motifs which decorate the furniture. I had never really considered the distinct genre of “schoolgirl art” and now I’m curious about its place in other eras and cultures. Lots of painted pieces are examined in Salm’s book, but my favorite by far are the work boxes produced by young women from relatively wealthy families, like Salem’s own Mary Derby Prince, the daughter of a Salem ship captain, with connections by blood and marriage to two of Salem’s most commercially aristocratic families, the Derbys and the Ropes. Another Salem box from the same era (and milieu) is that of Hannah Crowninshield, from the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum. Have I ever seen this before?  I don’t think so, but I could have walked right by it. I am familiar with samplers, of course, and the various types of wooden, decorated boxes produced for documents and other materials, but somehow I have never put the two together in the form of a work box, produced by young women as both an example of their work and for their work. Here are some of my favorites from the book:

Work Box by Ann Trask, Rowson Academy, Boston, circa 1810-20. Collection of Old Sturbridge Village.

Lid of Work Box by Hannah Bland, Massachusetts, circa 1810-30. Private Collection.

Detail of Lobstermen from Work Box of Fanny Barber, Gloucester, Massachusetts, 1821. Private Collection.

These boxes are so charming and so reflective of the environments in which these girls lived and worked, as well as the more general cultural influences to which they were exposed.  A little bit more context, for both American schoolgirl art and (transatlantic) work boxes in the first half of the nineteenth century:  a concise yet substantive article about the curriculum and culture at the Misses’ Martin’s School in Portland, Maine, and a few images of professionally-made work boxes from the British Empire. The first box is a particularly expensive example, with leather covering, silk lining, brass fittings, and custom-made sewing and needlework accessories, from the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

Work Box, England, circa 1815. Collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

These last two “cottage” work boxes are both examples of Tunbridge ware, even though they were made in places thousands of miles apart:  southeast England and India. Tunbridge ware is the very intricate type of inlaid woodwork that emerged in the vicinity of Tunbridge Wells, Kent in the eighteenth century, characterized by the creation of mosaic patterns with different colored woods, and sometimes other materials. Tunbridge ware designs influenced American decoration and obviously Asian as well, as the second work box, made of wood veneered with ivory, was made in India around 1790-1800.

Tunbridge ware painted sewing box, early 19th century, Bleasdales Ltd.

Ivory-veneered Work Box, Vishakhapatnam, India, circa 1790-1800. Collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

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