Tudor and Georgian Treasures in Bath

The TudorsNicola here. It’s always a pleasure to visit the Holburne Museum in Bath (it’s always a pleasure to visit Bath!) and last week Baden and I hopped on the train to go and see the exhibition on The Tudors: Passion, Power and Politics, which has had rave reviews and I’ve been desperate to see from the first. 

It’s quite a thing to come face to face with some of the most famous names in Tudor history, particularly as the exhibition room is smaller than most galleries and therefore more intimate. It wasn’t busy either, which meant I could stand for as long as I liked in front of the paintings simply lapping up all the details.

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Back to School

Nicola4Here in the UK it’s the first day of the new school year today. I can vividly remember the pleasure of the school summer holidays – six weeks off! – lasting from the end of July to the beginning of September, including my birthday and usually a holiday by the seaside. Summer was such a treat in that respect! Then the days would start to shorten and the nights would turn cooler and even if it felt as though it was still summer we knew that autumn and a return to school was on the way. The shops would all go on about “back to school” uniforms and stationery, and my grandfather in particular would tease me about going back to school knowing how much I wanted the holidays never to end. It wasn’t that I disliked school. I enjoyed it most of the time but there was something special about those summer holidays of childhood. Of course I never really thought about how fortunate I was to have an education until I started to study history and realised that girls in particular hadn’t always had those opportunities.

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Going Dutch at Dyrham Park!

Dyrham 1Nicola here. Today I’m doing one of my virtual tours of an English stately home. On Monday, author Anna Campbell and I went on a day trip, as we tend to do when she is over visiting from Australia. This time our destination was Dyrham Park, a seventeenth century house near Bath which looks like a miniature version of Chatsworth House, home of the Duke of Devonshire. Dyrham was built at a very interesting time by a very interesting man: William Blathwayt, who started life as the son of a debt-ridden gentleman and ended a very rich man who made his fortune in the service of several monarchs.

Dyrham was built in the 1690s, when the Stuarts were on 220px-DyrhamKip the throne but the dynasty had changed direction somewhat after James II was deposed and his daughter Mary and her Dutch husband William had become joint King and Queen. William Blathwayt was very much a supporter of King William and he used the new house he was building at Dyrham Park to demonstrate his loyalty.

At a time when most houses were built out of local materials, Dyrham was an “international” house as William Blathwayt was able to use his extensive contacts in England and abroad to provide the raw materials. He ordered marble from Genoa, pine and spruce from Norway, and black walnut and red cedar from North America. In terms of furnishings, William had experienced first hand the fashionable style of the court. He imported a trunk of luxury items from the Netherlands including various printed silks and cottons with exotic designs, fine damask silks and crimson velvets. The interior of the house looks very rich and bright today; in candle light it must have seemed very lustrous and luxurious.

Dyrham stairMy favourite part of the house was the staircase, which was constructed out of black walnut and red cedar from Virginia and Carolina. Other American timber used in the construction was pine and cypress. It’s astonishing to look at the staircase today and imagine the journey made by those timbers all the way from the rivers of North America across the Atlantic to Bristol and London. The transport caused lots of problems because often the planks 18 – 24 feet in length, were too large for the ships or the captains charged huge fees to transport it! When some of the timber was brought up the Thames from London, the wood had cost £40 and the transport cost £10, an exorbitant sum. However Blathwayt was a rich man and wanted the best for his house – and the best was what he got!

The strong Dutch influence in the house is still visible today in the gilt leather panelling on the Dyrham interior walls and the many pieces of Delft ceramics. A number of the paintings are also by Dutch artists including the amazing “A view through the house” by Samuel van Hoogstraten, which captures a moment when a door opens and the viewer sees the world within. I loved this picture and wanted to step into it – or write a story set inside it! Another gorgeous picture was of a cocoa tree and a roasting hit; it illustrates the process of turning cacao into chocolate!

William’s library was the jewel of his house, a sentiment that we could totally endorse! He had a huge collection of books on law, history, religion, geography, politics and philosophy. He also had a number of dictionaries – as a fluent Dutch speaker, which was very rare in England, he was very interested in languages.

State bed DyrhamThe furniture on display in the house still contains a number of items from William Blathwayt’s original 17th century collection, most notably the state bed. This is a towering wooden four poster covered in crimson and gold silk, velvet and satin. Like so many beds from the period it looked very narrow and uncomfortable to me, more a single bed than a double, let alone a king or Queen size. The legend is that was ordered to encourage Queen Anne to come and visit when she was in Bath. Sadly she didn’t call!

King William and Queen Mary were keen gardeners and one of the ways for courtiers to curry favour was by copying their garden style, which Blathwayt did to great effect at Dyrham. Even on a dull day in winter the gardens looked gorgeous, with exotic trees, water cascades and elegant walkways. Blathwayt used both the trees and the statuary to declare his loyalty to the king;  there is an orangery at Dyrham full of orange trees, a not particularly subtle tribute to the fact that William III was from the House of Orange! A statue of Hercules also draws comparisons with the king, suggesting that he is a courageous and virtuous hero. There’s nothing like a bit of flattery to ingratiate yourself with the monarch!

My favourite aspect of the garden, though, was the fact that William, a businessman to the last, Dyrham garden had declared that the estate must be as self-sufficient as possible when it came to fruit and vegetables. He was quite ahead of his time with this ecological view and grew a range of apples and pear trees for cider and perry production, quince for jam and various other “organic” crops! He came unstuck with the mulberry bush, however, as he had planned to cultivate white mulberries to encourage silkworms but unfortunately he imported the black mulberry instead. It still bears fruit but the silkworms aren’t interested!

Visiting Dyrham Park was gorgeous but I did come away wondering about the concept of demonstrating your loyalty to a person or a cause through the way you decorate your home. Presumably if William Blathwayt had fallen out of favour with the King he would have had to re-decorate his house and re-design his garden!

If you were to design your house or garden as a tribute to a famous person, who would it be? Would you honour them with plants, statues, pictures or something unique and different?

Marry in Haste with Anne Gracie!

MarryInHaste_coverMary Jo here–

I was delighted to get an early reading of Marry in Haste so I could interview Anne about the book.  Marriages of convenience are such a popular trope in historical romance that they have their own abbreviation: MOC.  And in Marry in Haste, Anne Gracie launches a new Marriage of Convenience series.  The book released from Berkley on May 2, and it's received rave reviews.  

From Romantic Times"Gracie utilizes the ever-popular “marriage of convenience” theme to her advantage in the first of a new series. It isn’t just the premise, but the marvelous cast of characters, that will keep readers entranced….  A totally delightful read!"

And here's a rare starred review from Library Journal:

"With deep character insight, subtle humor matched with rapier wit, and brilliant repartee, Gracie puts a refreshing spin on a classic romance trope and delivers another knockout Regency that will keep fans enthralled."

Plus, All About Romance has given Marry in Haste their coveted Desert Island Keeper (DIK) rating, calling it "a gorgeously romantic read."

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The English Village

Melford 3Nicola here. Today I am musing about life in the English village. So many of the historical romances I’ve read are set it cities such as London or Bath, or smaller towns like Brighton or Cheltenham. This makes sense. These places were the epicentres of activity in the Regency era, the venue for balls and other social events, a place where people might go for their health, for sea bathing or to take the spa waters. They were a good hunting ground for ladies looking to secure a titled husband, or for men seeking an heiress. It feels as though all the excitement is focussed on the towns and cities where there are lots of new people to meet and lots of things going on. After all, as Jane Austen wrote in Northanger Abbey: “If adventures will not befall a young lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad.” 

In some ways, things haven’t changed much in two hundred years. When I was younger I lived in a number of different English cities: Leeds, London, Leicester. They were vibrant places with a mix of cultures and events that was very stimulating. Even today a trip to London, or Edinburgh, or Oxford is something of a treat. The combination of history and shopping is irresistible and much more exciting that what is on offer at home. So where does that leave the English village?

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