Conserving The Past

RubensNicola here! I’ve recently become obsessed with a BBC TV programme called Lost Masterpieces. In it, art detectives Bendor Grosvenor and Emma Dabiri track down lost paintings from local museums and art galleries. Whilst Bendor delves into their background and oversees their restoration, Emma tells us more about the history of the collection and the people behind it. It’s a wonderful combination of detective work, conservation and history, exciting because so often the pictures have been attributed to the wrong painter or there is a hidden masterpiece waiting to be discovered amongst the racks of pictures in the museum’s store. In the most recent series they discovered a lost portrait by Reubens of George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, and a painting by Mary Beale, a 17th century professional artist which had been attributed to Peter Lely because it was felt that a woman couldn’t possibly be able to paint as well as she did!

One of the most fascinating aspects of the programme for me – apart from the way in which Bendor Grosvenor was able to identify the artist from the tiniest clues in style – was the way in which the paintings were so meticulously repaired and restored. In some cases they were very badly damaged and needed the most painstaking work, wiping away layers of varnish, even repairing those that had water damage, for example.

I was able to see this process for myself last Friday when we had a tour of the conservation studio Oxford at the Ashmolean Museum. Newly built a few years ago, the studio is on the top floor of the museum with natural north light and a view across the city’s rooftops. The Chief Conservator stressed how important both the light and space were to enable them to do their work.

First we had a talk from the painting conservator. He was working on two very different projects, the first of which was a pair of painted wooden trays that had been donated to the museum by a family who had lived in Oxford. Putting together the story behind the donation had been a piece of detective work in itself; the trays were 19th century origin from India, brought back by one of the sons of the house who had been a soldier with the East India Company. They depicted a story told in a series of images, a moral fable that dated from a much earlier era which told of a virtuous prince who gave away all his possessions to those in need. Apparently the trays had been mass-produced as souvenirs for Mary Tudorsoldiers in the early 19th century. One of the pair was damaged and the conservator explained the judgement needed to decide how much repair to do to a historical object and how much to leave as natural wear and tear, part of its story. For example they had decided to mend a broken corner but to leave a slight discolouration in the white paint that had occurred through the ageing process. He was also working on an amazing portrait of Mary Tudor, dated from before she had become Mary I, which had been very badly damaged. It was absolutely bursting with colour and vivid life but was in dire need of sympathetic restoration with some patches faded and discoloured and peeling. I can’t wait to see what it will look like when it is finished.

Part two of the tour involved the conservation of material objects, ranging from a 16th century ceremonial sword that was about five foot long to the most exquisitely painted Tudor sweetmeat trenchers. The conservator was fascinating on the different ways of cleaning the objects – tiny special sponges! – and the way precious objects were packed for storage or for transfer from museum to museum and especially the difficulties of wrapping a long, pointed object with sharp side and knobbly bits! I found the trenchers in particular to be fascinating as I had always Tudor trencherimagined them to be bigger; these were about three inches square and made of sycamore wood. The sweetmeats were served on the plain side and when you had finished you turned them over to see the picture and read the verse on the other side!

SilkFinally we had a tour with the fabrics conservator and here I realised how much ingenuity was required in the display of the items. Not only did she need sewing skills, she also needed to be very good at creating ways to display items in a way that reminded me of craft lessons in a primary school! A gorgeous piece of three hundred year old Persian silk was wrapped around a model to create a wraparound skirt in the style in which it would originally have been worn, but because it couldn’t be fastened with a belt as that would crush the delicate old material, she had pinned it to foam pleats to help it hang as a skirt would. I thought this showed such wonderful ingenuity! She also showed us how they would sew clothing to the back of upright panels in order to display it so that it wasn't crushed by the glass of the display case. One example she showed us was an embroidered 19th century dress that had been adapted to wear as a jacket in the 1930s! This dual purpose was all part of the story of that item of clothing and for someone like me who had no experience of conservation work, the whole tour was a revelation. All the conservators explained that their work mainly consisted of responding to the items that the curators brought in to them when a new exhibition was planned, or when the museum acquired a new item. I think that if I was let loose in the place though I would be rummaging through the stores looking for an exciting lost painting or researching the stories behind so many fascinating objects! 

What about you? Would you be more interested in the paintings, the swords or the fabrics? Have you ever restored or repaired something precious (to you) or are you more like me, not very  good at the craft side of it but fascinated by the background? 

What Lies Beneath

Nicola clandonNicola here. The sort of stately home visits I tend to make usually involve a gorgeously-furnished and decorated historic house, beautiful gardens, a gift shop and afternoon tea (or morning coffee, lunch and afternoon tea to be more specific.) Those are usually the National Trust places or the Historic House Association. Alternatively I might go to a ruined castle or a site in the care of English Heritage and it’s always amazing and I learn a lot about the place and the people who lived there.

I’ve never “done” a stately home visit like the one I went on last week at Clandon Park in Surrey. Marble hall Originally built, or re-built in the early 18th century, Clandon is a Palladian-style mansion built for Thomas, 2nd Baron Onslow. The interior of the house was completed in the 1740s and it was glorious, with a two storey, forty foot Marble Hall and stunning plasterwork ceilings. Described by the National Trust as “a gleaming white forty foot cube”, the hall must truly have been a jaw-dropping space and hugely impressive. It was the centrepiece of entertainment at the house, surrounded by other grand rooms and with two huge staircases and was designed to emphasise the status of the Onslow family.

 Other rooms, including the State Bedroom, were equally grand. The state bed was made in about 1710, with exquisite silk embroidered hangings, a reminder of the visits of King George I and George II. Although the bed was already 50 years old in 1778 it was described as “a noble and costly bedstead with hangings beautifully worked in a great variety of colours lined with sattin and superbly finished.” The bed was not used frequently; the last person to stay in it was the Princesse de Lamballe, a friend of Queen Marie-Antoinette, who was a guest in 1791 and was subsequently guillotined in the French revolution.

Clandon exteriorOn April 29th 2015 everything changed at Clandon Park when fire gutted the entire mansion. Everyone was evacuated safely but the house was left a shell. A complex salvage operation followed and plans have been made to rebuild Clandon in a way that pays tribute to its history but also creates different opportunities for the future. In the meantime, it’s possible to enter the house via a walkway to see both what has been lost and what survives. I found this a very poignant and moving experience. It’s so seldom one gets to see what lies beneath a grand house – I’ve only had the experience once before when we were undertaking conservation work at Ashdown House – and in the case of Clandon, of course, the reason for the opportunity a tragic one. And yet it’s also a way to see and learn new things – about how the house was built and decorated, about what is usually hidden underneath all that gorgeous decoration.

Standing in the Saloon the first thing that struck me was the noise. The house is completely covered to protect it from the weather Clandon 2
and the false roof and the scaffolding vibrate in the wind like an instrument. It adds a rather eerie quality to what is already a strange experience. This room has had many different roles in the history of the house. It has variously been used for dining, as a parlour, and as a billiards room. An inventory from 1778 noted that it was painted dark green and hung with oil paintings; it was used as an entrance from the gardens and as an extension to the Marble Hall. After the fire the room was full of debris from the floors above which collapsed into it and a huge amount of salvage work has been done here. One of the fine fireplaces survives which gives a flavour of the intricate decoration that was once in the room.

The Marble Hall still retains its floor, which is damaged and covered over, and if you take the walkway to the left you can see down into the basement of the building and up to the sky. All the beams and flooring have gone but the fireplaces and some of the statues remain. It was an extraordinary feeling to stand in that space, feel the emptiness and try to imagine the original grandeur.

State bedIn the state bedroom some of the wallpaper, panelling and even the plasterwork was saved so the traces of what was here before can still be seen. Our guide told us that the bed hangings had been saved because by a miracle they had been taken down for renovation and were still parcelled up when the fire started. Even more miraculously, the dining room next door, known as the Speaker’s Parlour, remained largely unscathed. It is hoped that this will be open to view again soon. Little by little the house comes back to life.

 In addition, other parts of the house have been revealing secrets that would otherwise not have been known. Down in the basement is a room that in the Victorian period was called “The Butler’s Room.” Once the fire debris had been cleared it became apparent that the floor there was different from the rest of the house and that it contained brick and tile. Drains have been found that date prior to the time the house was built and are the remains of a previous house on the site, a Jacobean mansion whose footprint lay hidden beneath and would never have been found but for the fire. Whilst in no way underplaying the devastating effects of the fire, our guide emphasised the positive opportunities they now have at Clandon to learn about its history and construction and to make exciting progress going forward into the future.

After the emotion of touring the house we went out into the gardens, a beautiful landscape created by Capability Brown which Clandon Dutch garden subsequent owners and generations added to with a parterre, grotto and Dutch garden. The Dutch garden is gorgeous and felt exactly the right place to sit and think about all we had seen at Clandon, both the terrible destruction but also the secrets revealed and the hope for the future.

You can find out more about Clandon Park and the restoration project here.

When we restored Ashdown House we found lots of hidden things, from old newspapers to a secret passageway beneath the building. Have you ever seen "behind the scenes" at a place that usually looks quite different, and did you find anything that would normally be hidden? Do you think it's important to restore old houses or other properties that have been damaged by natural disasters or should we move on and put the money to other uses?

Oranges and Lemons, Say the Bells of St. Clements

Raphaelle Peale (American artist, 1774-1825) Orange And A BookOranges and Lemons,

Ring ye bells at St. Clements.
When will you pay me,
Ring ye Bells at ye Old Bailey.
When I am Rich,
Ring ye Bells at Fleetditch.
     Tradtional Counting Rhyme 

There are any number of interpretations as to what this all means, but I see it mostly a reminder that poetry does not necessarily have to make sense.

Joanna here, talking about Regency oranges.

Those of us with a keen interest in botany will have noticed that oranges — not to mention lemons — don't thrive in the British climate.  Well, maybe down in south Devon where hopeful souls sometimes plant palm trees.  But citrus isn't plucked off the tree on Hampstead Heath or in the Welsh mountains.

What is an orange doing in an old, old counting rhyme?
Not to mention lemons.
How come?

Because the Regency and Georgian folks imported their oranges (and lemons) enthusiastically or grew them enthusiastically in greenhouses.  

Musee carnavalet orangerie exterior Paris 1


I'll just wander off track for a minute to point out that greenhouse in the Regency didn't mean a building all made of glass with a roof of glass panes.  That's Victorian.  In the Regency a greenhouse was a tall room with high windows, like this to the right.

Sometimes, they called them orangeries.
I think not.

In the Regency we're talking about three different species of oranges, just because life is complicated.

Our first guest orange  . . . the bitter one.

The oraOrangeBloss_wbnge is another of those marvelous botanical productions of the Orient, like lychees and tea and peaches.  They've been cultivated in China for four thousand years, in several varieties. The bitter or sour orange, Citrus aurantium— what we'd call a Seville orange — made a complicated journey overland to Europe, piggybacking its way from the Middle East to Italy and Spain with the returning Crusaders.

Here's a picture of an early orange in Van Eyck's Amolfini Portrait of 1434.  This picture records a
Van_Eyck_-_Arnolfini_Portrait full sizemarriage and it's just bristling with nifty references faithfulness and fertility. 

Van_Eyck_-_Arnolfini_Portrait detailSee those those oranges in the Van Eyck painting, over next to the window?  Symbolic as heck.

Oranges were symbolic of marriage, maybe because the plant bears its flowers and its fully ripened fruit at the same time, thus being both the potential fertility of the innocent flower and the fecundity of the plump fruit. 
Queen Victoria wore orange blossoms in her hair at her wedding.  Maybe some of the folks reading this today wore them too.  You can look at that Van Eyck and know the symbol is more than 500 years old.

As a totally unrelated side comment, Isobel Carr points out that the little dog in that picture might just be the earliest depiction of a pet animal in a European painting. 
Its name is Max.
. . . Okay.  I'm kidding about the name.

They called the bitter orange a 'Seville orange' because that's where they were grown and shipped from in Tudor times and beyond. 
Our English, French and other European folks used skin, juice, root, leaf and branch in
medicine and for making cordials and syrups and orange-water for scent
and flavoring.

"Nor can I blame you, if a drop you take,
of orange-water, for perfuming-sake."
John Breval

Seville oranges nowadays are used about exclusively for making that wonderful marmalade you can still pick up in the grocery if you go searching a while for the authentic stuff.  It's the same marmalade they made in Regency times.  When you spread it on your toast, you can think about Elizabeth Bennet doing pretty much the same, except she's sitting across the breatkfast table from Mr. Darcy.

Looking next at . . . 
. . .  Ahem. 
Eyes off Mr. Darcy, if you please.  Thank you.

Turning to this second type of orange, I hear you saying, "What about the sweet orange, Citrus sinensis, my supermarket orange, the ones that the lack of is like a day without sunshine, the ones Nell Gywn sold at Drury Lane?"

I will pause an instant to offer Samuel Pepys' take on orange juice:
"and here, which I never did before, I drank a glass, of a pint, I believe, at one draught, of the juice of oranges, of whose peel they make comfits; and here they drink the juice as wine, with sugar, and it is very fine drink; but, it being new, I was doubtful whether it might not do me hurt. "

Anyhow, these newcomer sweet oranges showed up in the 1500s.  They were called sweet oranges because, well, they were sweet, and China oranges to distinguish them from the Seville oranges which were not so sweet.  'China' because, unlike their bitter cousins, they didn't migrate slowly overland.  They arrived in style by ship, brought by Portuguese and Italian merchants directly from China. 

This is when the orange became a hand-eating f3 Francis Wheatley (English artist, 1747-1801) Cries of London 1792-1795 Sweet China Oranges, Sweet Chinaruit, sold in baskets on the street.  Nell Gywn, before she became mistress of King Charles II and presumably went out of the retail fruit business, was one of the scantily clad young women who sold sweet oranges in the Drury Lane Theatre (sixpence apiece,) for the refreshment of the patrons and as a handy means of expressing dissatisfaction with the performance.

In case you were wondering — as who has not — whether the orange fruit was named after the color,

("Oh look! There's a whole bunch of oranges up in the tree, and some reds over on this tree and look at all those blues down here on the bushes.")

or the color was named after the fruit.  I can set your mind at rest.
The color is named after the fruit.
The word orange meandered into English from the Sanskrit word for the fruit —nāranja — through Arabic, Old Provencal, Old French and Middle English.

Before the Fourteenth Century, folks had to refer to the color as geoluhread.  As in, "Wow. Love your geoluhread i-pod!"  Geoluhread would roughly translate as yellow-red and I am sure we are all grateful to Sanskrit for its intervention into what would have been a dismal shade with a long name.

How common were oranges in Georgian and Regency England?  How expensive? 
In the mid-1700s oranges sold on the street four a penny when hot cross buns were 'one a penny, two a penny'.  That doesn't seem outrageously expensive, does it — two oranges for the price of a bun? 

Zurbaran 1633 still life

lemons and oranges in 1633

Karl Phillip Moritz, about that time, wrote, "All over London as one walks, one everywhere, in the
season, sees oranges to sell, and they are in general sold tolerably cheap, one and even sometimes two for a halfpenny."

By 1828, one could speak of "The China, or sweet oranges, with which this country is now so amply supplied, and at such moderate prices that all classes of society enjoy them as perfectly as if they had been indigenous to the climate."  John S. Skinne


Francisco_de_zurbaran about 1630

a really annoyed cup, above

And our third orange? 

It was almost the blood orange.  I mean, there the blood orange was, in Italy, as a
mutation among sweet oranges in the 1600s.  Really no reason it couldn't have been a trade item.
I'd love to add it to the Regency table.

But it looks like they weren't imported.  Mention is made of blood orange trees brought into England as greenhouse curiosities in the 1820s. I suppose some intrepid traveller might have brought back a box of fruit for friends any time. 

Must have been a shock when that first blood orange was cut open at the table for everyone to see.

But the third of the Regency orange trio turns out to be the mandarin orange, the tangerine, our friend Citrus reticulata, which is technically a kind of orange rather than a separate fruit altogether, if we listen to those tricky botanists who dabble in such matters.  Trees were brought to England direct from China — the word mandarin is a dead giveaway — in about 1805. It settled into the greenhouses of England.  Not a fruit for the street crowd.  An exotic treat.  As late as 1817, a botanist could say it was a pity none of the countries exporting citrus to England had established the tangerine as a crop. 

After 1805, your Regency heroine might be offered a mandarin, sensuously peeled, by someone who owns a very fancy greenhouse.  A spiffy little factoid.

Seville orange leMoynCOME buy my fine oranges, sauce for your veal,

And charming when squeez'd in a pot of brown ale;
Well roasted, with sugar and wine in a cup,
They'll make a sweet bishop when gentlefolks sup.


The world would be a poorer place without oranges — and I happen to notice I've got a half-eaten clementine beside me as I write this post.

What's your favorite oranges recipe?  I used lemons to make a fancy syllabub not so very long ago, but I bet it'd be equally good with oranges.  And I love me some orange cake.  Also Benedictine-just-abour-anything.

One lucky commenter gets to pick a copy of any of my books.

The Stiff Upper Lip

MedievalNicola here, reflecting on the qualities associated with the
“stiff upper lip” and whether they are the type of characteristics we like to
read about in our heroes – and heroines.

No Self-Control

A new series on TV in the UK is tracing the “emotional
history” of Britain and it is interesting to discover that the nation has not
always been associated with reserve, resilience, restraint and emotional
coolness. In the Middle Ages visitors including the Dutch scholar Erasmus
commented on the fact that the English were always kissing each other, weeping,
arguing and generally allowing their passions to get the better of them.
Italian visitors to the Elizabethan court also commented unfavourably on how the
British lacked self-control. It was a time when the Brits were renowned for
letting it all hang out emotionally and it was the French who invented the word
“sang-froid” to describe a quality that their neighbours across the Channel
singularly lacked.

During the English Civil Wars of the 17th century
the Parliamentarians, famous for frowning on
Cavalier celebrations of festivals such as
Christmas, represented the virtues of modesty and discipline whilst the
cavaliers revelled in pleasure and panache. This vogue for indulging the
emotions was popular during the Restoration and by the 18th century the
word “sentimental” was a term of praise. It referred to a person of taste and
refinement, someone who would openly show emotion. Both men and women wept over
books such as Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, and sentimental paintings were
much in fashion. The last great hero of this era was Horatio Nelson, flamboyant
and sentimental, a man who paraded his passions in public.  This was a man who had no hesitation in
asking one of his closest friends to kiss him goodbye on his deathbed. When
Nelson died the huge outpouring of grief at his funeral mirrored the emotional
nature of his life.


The Lip Stiffens 

But the Napoleonic Wars and the French Revolution were
changing British attitudes towards the
Darcy expression of passion. The French
Revolution was seen as a disastrous result of the outpouring of rampant
emotional expression. Passion was seen as dangerous to life and liberty.  At its most extreme, political passion
resulted in revolution. So it was time to stiffen the upper lip and reject the
display of emotion. Jane Austen’s heroes reflect this change. They have admirable self-control and seldom express their feelings. When they do, what
they say is concise, heartfelt but not flamboyant: Mr Darcy, for example, only expresses his admiration for Elizabeth Bennett when goaded into it by Miss Bingley. Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey is determinedly unsentimental, rejecting the heroine's wild flights of imagination. Even Frederick Wentworth, possibly the most open of Jane Austen's heroes is still a model of military restraint, resourcefulness and fortitude. As for the heroines, Elinor, representing sense, is favoured over Marianne, representing Sensibility.

WellingtonLord Byron was another man who simply could not resist
indulging his emotions. In contrast, the Duke of Wellington came to exemplify all
that was admired in stoicism and self-control. The “Iron Duke” was emotionally
restrained. One could not imagine him asking his best friend to kiss him under any circumstances. The
story of his exchange with Lord Uxbridge at the Battle of Waterloo demonstrates this. When Uxbridge had his leg shattered by a cannonball he declared: “By God,
Sir, I’ve lost my leg!” “By God, sir, so you have,” Wellington replied calmly.

The Doughty Victorians

The Victorian era enshrined
the stiff upper lip as a virtue throughout all classes of society. Britons’
Florentia Sale
inclination to express passion was suppressed, beaten out of young men at
public school and repressed by the Church. 
Explorers and soldiers were models of cool self-control and so were the
women who supported them. Florentia, Lady Sale, during the disastrous British
retreat from Kabul in the First Afghan War wrote in her diary: "Today we
fought our way through the Jugdulluk Pass. Fortunately, I was only wounded

Much of the literature of the
Victorian period reflected this cool stoicism. Invictus by WE Henley, Vitai
Lampada by Henry Newbolt and If by Rudyard Kipling all praise the quality of
the stiff upper lip in the face of adversity. However, the flip side to such fortutide could be a lack of imagination and empathy. There was a strong backlash against the stiff upper lip at the start of the 20th century from those who felt it ironed out all sensitivity.

Is there still a place for the stiff upper lip?

Andy Murray cryingThese days there is a general
consensus that the stiff upper lip is quivering too much with
sentimentality. We Brits cry regularly – even tennis player Andy Murray, the dour Scot, gets emotional. We get
passionate for the things we care about. And yet some of the British classic
understatement and stiff upper lip does survive. In my family the enquiry “How
are you?” is always greeted with the answer “fine, thank you” regardless of
circumstances. When my other half and I were driving through the African bush
and got stuck in deep sand we took turns in digging the Land Rover out whilst
the other one kept watch for a lion attack. We needed all our reserves of calmness and fortitude then. 

I’m not suggesting that the
qualities of coolness in the face of danger, resilience and restraint are
exclusive to the Brits. Far from it. I don’t see them as the preserve of one
particular nation over another. During the Victoran period there was in fact a fear that the Americans in particular were going to overtake the British in terms of their coollness under pressure and their positive attitude. Other races were also acknowledged to possess the stiff upper lip: The Germans were renowned for their discipline, the Australians for their resilience and resourcefulness and the Nordic races for their calm.

I have to confess that I do find many of the qualities associated with the stiff upper lip to be attractive, in real life as well as in my fiction. I suppose ideally I would like a
hero who possesses some restraint and a great line in understatement, but who is still
emotionally literate enough to declare his love to the heroine. I also love strong heroines who are clever and resourceful. 

What about you?
Do you prefer the strong silent type of hero who suppresses his passion or the sort of
man like Nelson or Byron who isn’t ashamed to show his emotions in public? Or a
hero somewhere between the two? Are there any particular examples of restraint
and self-control you admire in real life or in novels? And what about the heroines? After all, the stiff upper lip isn't the sole prerogative of the male of the species!