Nov 302013

Henry Robert Morland was from an artistic family – he was born around 1716, the son of George Henry Morland a celebrated genre painter. He later married a French woman called Maria and she exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1785 and 1786. No wonder that their son George was also to become a painter – one whose profligacy made him notorious. Father, like son, experienced great wealth – but also bankruptcy.


This is my favourite painting by HRM, entitled “Laundry Maid Ironing” done in 1785.

File:A Woman doing Laundry by Henry Robert Morland.jpg

He seemed to have a penchant for painting woman at work – here his “Woman doing Laundry.” Various other versions of this picture exist including a mezzotint in which she has been downgraded to a Lady’s Maid, and another where the cap has been altered.

   HRM died this day in 1797. I think he is worth a mention.

Nov 272013

Waldegrave sisters by Richard Cosway per ChristiesI came across this delightful miniature by Richard Cosway (1742 – 1821) on the Christie’s site of lots sold in 2002. It apparently went for £11,163 – ten times its estimate, and as I am uncertain about the copyright I must stress that the image belongs to Christies or whoever was lucky enough to buy the miniature. I show it because I like it.

The site explains  in the Lot Notes:

“The Waldegrave Sisters: Lady Anna Horatia and Lady Charlotte Maria, wearing white dresses with frilled collar and bows at corsage, Horatia with white plumes in her long powdered curling hair and Charlotte with white bonnet tied with white ribbon under her chin; sky and cloud background”

I find it charming. There were in fact three Waldegrave sisters, born after the marriage  in 1759 between James Waldegrave, 2nd Earl, and Maria Walpole (illegitimate daughter of Sir Edward Walpole). The eldest child, Lady Elizabeth Laura Waldegrave went on to marry her cousin the 4th Earl Waldegrave.

That left Lady Charlotte Maria to marry the 4th Duke of Grafton, while the Lady Anna Horatia ensnared Admiral Lord Hugh Seymour, son of the first Marquess of Hertford. In other words, a rather well-connected, well-married set of sisters.

Their father had died in 1763 leaving their mother a widow at the age of 26. But blow me, within three years she had gone and found herself another husband, no lesser a personage than the Duke of Gloucester, third son of Good King George III. The problem was: Maria was born  illegitimate, and worse still, was a commoner. There was no way the King would have approved of the wedding so they married in secret.

Subsequently Parliament passed the Royal Marriage Act stating that descendants of George II could only marry with the consent of the monarch – but it  was not retrospective so the wedding remained valid and therefore Maria was entitled to be styled “Her Royal Highness”.  I wonder what her daughters made of that….But George III was unforgiving and never allowed Maria to be introduced at Court.

To end with, the Sir Joshua Reynolds portrait of the three sisters -” The Ladies Waldegrave” painted in 1780, and shown courtesy of the Scottish National Gallery. Haughty is the word which springs to mind. Accomplished at embroidery and tapestry work, yes, but certainly with an air of knowing their own importance and worth! Love the frocks though….Sir_Joshua_Reynolds_-_The_Ladies_Waldegrave_-_

(Post script: I am grateful to Rachel Knowles for gently pointing out my mistake in the blog, as originally  published. I got the wrong wife  for the second Earl, confusing him with the first Earl… my excuse is that they were such an inter-married family it is hard to remember who was who!) Thanks, Rachel.


Nov 252013

BB4At this time of year everyone gets on the bandwagon by saying what a perfect stocking filler such-and-such is – so  it seems inappropriate for me to hold back: show me a bandwagon and I will jump it – onto it, over it, no matter!


You must know someone with a nice bit of Bristol Blue Glass – someone who would really appreciate a booklet – even one on Kindle if you are a real cheapskate – telling them the history of this beautiful glassware.

So that is my thought of the day, one I just HAD to share with you: the perfect stocking filler is one click away if you are in the U.K. or here if you are Stateside. Simples!Bristol_Blue_Cover_for_Kindle

And if you happen to be anywhere near Bristol, give yourself time to go and visit the fascinating factory-come-shop-come-museum which is run by the Bristol Glass Centre; in Bedminster. You can find all the details you need here. I promise you an enjoyable and informative visit!

Nov 212013

modernfoppery:</p><br />
<p>earwigbiscuits:</p><br />
<p>Mrs Jordan, in the character of Hippolyta; mezzotint by John Jones of London, 1791, after a painting by John Hoppner<br /><br />
Dorothea Jordan (1761-1816) was an Irish actress &amp; courtesan, and mistress of the Duke of Clarence. They separated after 20 years and at least 10 illegitimate children. She died in poverty at Saint-Cloud, near Paris, in 1815. He became King William IV of the United Kingdom in 1830, and, having no legitimate heirs when he died 7 years later, was succeeded by his niece, Victoria.</p><br />
<p>One of my favorite portraits.<br /><br />
252 years ago today saw the birth day of Dorothea Bland in Waterford Ireland. There was little about the circumstances of her birth to suggest that she was marked out for fame and fortune. Her father was  a stagehand and her mother was an unmarried actress. To make maters worse, Dad went off and married another actress when Dorothea was very young, and finances were distinctly precarious. With such a stage background it is small wonder that she was to become an actress herself. In this she was aided by a formidable quality – she had a fabulous pair of pins. She was the Betty Grable of the Age. Audiences (well, the male ones) adored her and she quickly became famous, specializing in  ‘breeches roles’ where her limbs were displayed to the best advantage (e.g. cross-dressing parts where tight trousers were de riguer and where her charms were not hidden by the voluminous dresses of the day). ‘Jordan’ was her stage name (she never married) but she was also known as Dorothy Phillips.

 John Hoppner’s portrait of Dorothea, 1785, pencil & chalk on paper.      (Courtesy of the British Embassy in Paris)

She was, shall we say, extremely active  romantically. By the age of 20 she had already had a child as a result of an affair with the theatre manager in Cork. A number of other affairs followed, along with three other children. And then she met the Duke of Clarence (later to become William IV)….by whom she had at least ten children (all of whom were given the name FitzClarence). She openly lived with the Duke at Bushy House, attending official engagements as his consort.

A cartoon poking fun at the Royal Family, with Dorothea and her brood in tow, a cartoon by James Gillray.

She was his mistress from 1791 until 1811, so baby-rearing might be thought to have been a full time job. Not at all, she continued to work on the stage throughout their relationship.

 Another Gillray cartoon, entitled ‘The Devil to Pay – The Wife Metamorphosed, or Neptune reposing after fording the Jordan.’
The split, when it came,  must have been a huge blow to Dorothea, after twenty years of living together as man and wife. The start of the Regency meant that it was imperative that the Duke found an official bride, since he was now next in line to the throne after the Prince of Wales. He cast his mstress  aside, and when they split the Duke kept custody of the sons and she was allowed to look after the daughters. In return for promising not to go back on the stage the Duke agreed to pay her an annual sum, but family debts forced her to renege on her promise: the Duke cut off the stipend, and removed their daughters from her care. Facing financial ruin she fled to France in 1815 to avoid her creditors and died the year later, near Paris, in abject poverty.
Woops, sorry, wrong  ‘actress’ otherwise known as Jordan….

Her children all did rather well for themselves – the daughters marrying viscounts, earls and admirals, while one of the sons became rear-admiral, and another a Lieutenant-General in the British Army.

Dorothea was one of the actresses featured in the National Portrait Gallery exhibition of First Actresses. This  by John Hoppner

 Dorothea in one of her famous breeches roles in Cibber’s ‘She Would and She Would Not’, where she dresses as a young soldier to follow her lover to Madrid.

So today Dorothea, we remember you and wish you many happy returns of the day. Yours was certainly an eventful (and fecund) life!

Nov 192013

Some of the 18th Century trade cards go rather further than just describing the name and address of the business – they are an advertisement for just about everything stocked by an individual shop, and the lists can be absolutely fascinating. That is certainly the case with “Robert Jenkin, oil-man, at the Oil Jar, in Fleet Street near the Market, London” who sold all sorts of fine oils.

It appears on the Lewis Walpole Library site and is part of an intriguing album of trade cards and invitations, dated between 1733 and 1769.


I love the “likewise” and the way it then launches off into the most amazing catalogue of goodies:

“Gallipoly, Linseed, Rape, Train, Neatsfoot, Drying & Turpentine oils,

Distill’d Vinegar, Wine Vinegar, Rape Vinegar, Verjuce,

Basket & comn salt, French Bay salt, Salt Prunalla, Salt Petre & Petre Salt,

India & English mangoes, India & English ketchup, Fine Russia Cavere, French Spanish & Luca olives, capers, anchovies, vermichelli, macrony, troffels & morrels, dry’d mushrooms,

Hams & tongues, Dutch beef, fine Durham & common mustard flower,

Castile & brown soap, common cake soap, crown soap, hair powder, powland & comn. starch, rock indico, fine seques figges & drop do., calcin’d smalts, common powder blue, battle gun powder & shot, rock & common allom, Venice & refin’d turpentine,

Burgundy pitch, roll’d brimstone sulpher, yellow & black rosin, pitch & tar, black red & white lead, ivory & lamp black, gumdragon & arabick, bees wax & glue, wax & spermaceti can[dles], flambeaux & links, red & pickl’d herrings, pearl ashes, rotton & fire stone,

Fullers earth, emmery & whiting, red scowering sand, flag brooms & corks, cords & packthread, Wholesale & Retail with all sorts of foreign & English pickles. ”

It really is a cornucopia of delights – you can almost imagine the aroma as you entered the shop, part turpentine (used for drying paints), part soaps (be they cake, crown or common) and part pitch and tar. What intrigues me is that the combination is that of a dry grocery (salt, mustard, dried herrings etc) and part general store/ironmonger  with yard brooms, cord and lamp black (the latter used as a food colourant and as a pigment in inks). Gunpowder and shot may perhaps seem a little odd to us today as being something to be found in a general store – though salt petre was there as a food preservative (known as E252,  it is still used in the manufacturing process of corned beef and some salamis).

Fullers Earth is a form of clay, high in magenesium oxide, used  in cleaning woolen goods which have become stained with animal fats, oil etc and therefore forms part of the “laundry wash reckittsperquisites” along with the soap and “common powder blue” used as a washing whitener. I see that my ancestor often referred to buying “blue”  – a little blue bag which was stirred around in the final rinse water on washday. We tend to think of ‘Reckitt’s Blue’ but Isaac Reckitt didn’t really get involved with ‘blue’ until he opened a factory in Hull in the 1840’s. Clearly, eighty years before that  Robert Jenkin was getting his supplies from someone else.

Durham Mustard was ‘invented’ on 10th June 1720 by Mrs Clements of Durham (see my post here). The verjuice would have been made by pressing unripe grapes (and sometimes crab-apples or other sour fruit). It was extensively used in cooking – as an ingredient in sauces, as a condiment or to de-glaze preparations.

Neatsfoot oil (‘neat’ being an Old English word for cattle) was obtained by rendering down the shin and feet of cows to produce an oil which, unlike other animal fats, stayed in liquid form at room temperature. It was therefore easily absorbed into leather, making it an ideal conditioner and softener for leather boots, riding equipment and so on.

Gallipoli oil was a coarse form of olive oil, and it looks as though it was used with other exciting products such as sheeps dung, pigments etc to make dyes for cotton such as ‘Turkey Red’.

The dictionary tells me that Burgundy Pitch is “a form of spruce resin which has strengthening and regenerative properties. It also has anti-bacterial properties and can disinfect the air…” and is therefore similar in its origins to the ‘yellow and black rosin’ (used  in varnishes, glues, soaps and … sealing wax!

ws (2)Spermacetti was a waxy substance found in the cranial cavity of the sperm whale which, when compressed, could be used to make a form of candle which burned with a very constant light. The flame didn’t  flicker or gutter, and it had the added advantage that the candle would not melt and “go bendy” in the summer sun. Richard Hall would buy it a couple of ounces at a time, as in his shopping list from 1790.

All in all, a veritable treasure trove and my thanks go out to the Lewis Walpole Libray site  for allowing me to use the trade card.

Nov 162013

Had you been around in London this day in 1724 there is a one in four chance that you would have been in the procession (some two hundred thousand strong) wending its way in a carnival atmosphere towards Tyburn Hill, where the empty gallows were being prepared for a hanging. One in four, because the crowd represented at least a quarter of the capital’s population at the time, and they were all there to ‘honour’ one man: the diminutive Jack Sheppard. Daniel Defoe is presumed to have been hard at work scribbling the final touches to a biography which was on sale ‘hot from the press’ by the time of the execution. And the 22-year-old Jack, his cart escorted by uniformed guards, paused long enough at the City of Oxford Tavern in Oxford Street to sink a pint of  sack (sherry), no doubt bemoaning the fact that one of his prison guards had discovered a pen-knife secreted about his person, and thereby scotched his chance of escape. And escaping was what Jack was good at, and why the crowds turned out in their thousands.

For there was no doubt that the baby-faced Jack Sheppard was a thief, and was getting his just rewards from a legal system designed to protect the wealthy. But over and over again he had escaped justice with his daring escapes, and no doubt the throng wanted to see if he could pull off the final escape, the big one, from Death itself. There was to be no such luck, and the  lad finally went to meet his Maker this day nearly three centuries ago.

File:Sheppard Cruikshank.jpg“The Last Scene”engraved by  George Cruikshank in 1839, over a hundred years after Sheppard died,  to illustrate  the serialised novel, Jack Sheppard by William Harrison Ainsworth.

Sheppard had been born in 1702 into abject poverty in the deprived area of Spitalfields: his father died when he was young and his mother had little choice but to send him to the Workhouse when he was six years old. Jack was lucky –  eventually he was placed  with a  draper on The Strand called William Kneebone, as a shop-boy. Kneebone took the lad under his wing, taught him the rudiments of reading and writing and encouraged him to become apprenticed as a carpenter  (a seven year indenture, which was signed in 1717 when Jack was 15). His master was Owen Wood, whose premises were in Covent Garden.

All went well for five years – an exemplary pupil, who showed every aptitude for carpentry and hard work. Then, well, he went off the rails. Maybe it was too many visits to The Black Lion off Drury Lane; maybe it was the blandishments of the young whore Elizabeth Lyon (otherwise known as Edgeworth Bess) whom he met there; or maybe it was the company he fell into while frequenting the establishment, and in particular the notorious Joseph ‘Blueskin’ Blake or the duplicitous  Jonathan Wild (who styled himself the Thief-Taker General, though in reality he was a thief himself, but one who turned in his acquaintances whenever it was opportune to do so). Whatever the reason, the fact was – young master Jack turned himself to a life of petty crime, and soon there was no way back. For a while it was pilfering – helping himself to odds and ends from people’s houses while on carpentry errands. But by 1723 he had jacked in his apprenticeship, and set up home with Mistress Bess.  Naturally she wanted to be spoiled rotten; naturally she was not content with the proceeds of minor shop lifting; she wanted Jack to show her the good life. He turned to burglary ( an offence which carried the death penalty). Mistress Bess was arrested after they had moved to Piccadilly from Fulham: Jack broke in to the jail and rescued her!

Jack and his brother Tom, aided by Bess, embarked on a series of robberies until Tom got caught. The previous year he had also been apprehended (and suffered the painful penalty of being branded on the hand). This time he shopped his brother Jack to save his own skin, and a warrant for Jack’s arrest was issued. Knowing this, and anxious to get his hands on the forty pounds offered as a bounty, Jonathan Wild betrayed Jack to the constables and he was arrested and locked up in the very prison from which he had rescued Elizabeth. Within hours of his incarceration he had cut a hole in the ceiling (leg irons notwithstanding) climbed on to the roof and dropped down to join a crowd who had gathered when news of his escape became known. Diverting attention by announcing that he could ‘see someone on the roof over there’ he calmly shuffled off in the opposite direction…

In May 1724 Jack was arrested for a second time – caught while in the act of lifting a pocket-watch from a gentleman in what is now Leicester Square, and was taken off to Clerkenwell prison, where he was locked up with his mistress. A few days passed while Jack, active with a file, cut through the manacles which chained them both, and then removed one of the iron bars on the prison window. He lowered himself and his buxom Bess down to the street on a knotted bed-sheet (no mean feat given his lack of stature) and off they went into the darkness.

Things escalated – they tried their hand at highway robbery and burglary, stooping so low as to break into the home of his old employer and helper William Kneebone, but the greedy Jonathan Wild was closing the trap. He found Elizabeth Lyon, plied her with alcohol to loosen her tongue, and by this means established where Jack was staying. Again he was arrested, again he was sent to prison (this time to the notorious Newgate), and guess what, he escaped from there as well! On 30th August a warrant for his death was being brought to the prison from Windsor – but by the time it arrived it was discovered that Jack had escaped. Aided and abetted by Bess he had removed one of the window bars, dressed in female clothing brought into prison by his accomplice, and made good his escape via boat up the river to Westminster.

By now he was renowned for his escapades. He was every cockney’s hero, Jack the Lad whom no bars could hold. After all, he hadn’t killed anyone, he was the ultimate cheeky chappy who always got away from the law in the nick of time. Added to that he was good looking in a baby-faced sort of way, young, strong and very agile. This was the stuff of which legends would be made…

Jack lay low for a few days but was soon back to his old tricks, and on 9th September was captured and returned to the condemned cell at Newgate, His fame meant that he was visited by the great and the good – gawpers who wanted to say that they had met Jack Sheppard. All this time he was not just in leg-irons, but chained to iron bolts in the floor of the cell. Cheekily he had demonstrated to his guards his ability to pick the padlocks with a bent nail, and they in turn had increased the security by having him not just hand-cuffed but bound tightly as well. Having trussed him up like a turkey, they retired for the night….  and Jack set to work. He couldn’t get rid of the leg-irons but he could free himself from the other restraints. He managed to break into the chimney, where his pathway was blocked by an iron bar. This he dislodged, using it to break a hole in the ceiling and as a crow bar to open various doors barring his way.  At one point he went back to his cell to retrieve his bed clothes, as he needed these to drop down on to the roof of a building next to the prison. He waited until midnight, let himself into the building via the roof, and calmly walked out the front door (still in his leg-irons).

The lad must have had a fair amount of chutzpah, because after lying low for a couple of days he was able to persuade a passer-by that he had been imprisoned elsewhere for failing to maintain an illegitimate son – and would he mind fetching some smithy tools? The passer-by obliged and within a few hours Jack had broken his fetters, and was off to taste a freedom which was to last all of a fortnight. It was at this point that the journalist Daniel Defoe was brought in to pen Jack’s story,  which he did anonymously as The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard.

On the night of 29th October Jack Sheppard broke in to a pawnbrokers shop in Drury Lane, helping himself to a smart black silk suit, a silver sword, rings, watches, a peruke wig, and other items. He then hit the town, dressed in style, and passed the next day and a half drinking and whoring. Finally, in a drunken torpor, he was  arrested on 1st November, dressed “in a handsome Suit of Black, with a Diamond Ring and a Cornelian ring on his Finger, and a fine Light Tye Peruke”.

Back he was taken to Newgate, imprisoned in an internal room and weighted down with iron chains. His celebrity status meant that he was visited by  the rich and famous, and had his portrait painted by James Thornhill, painter to his Majesty King George I.

 Jack Sheppard sits for his execution portrait, to be done in oils by Sir James Thornhill. Also shown  is one Figg, prizefighter (to Jack’s right); the playwright John Gay (to Jacks’s left); while William Hogarth sketches him on the right.

There was  a clamour for his release but the authorities were adamant: Jack must pay the price for his notoriety. And so it was that on 16th November a huge and happy crowd escorted Jack to the gallows, where he did what prisoners were supposed to do – hang. After a quarter of an hour he was cut down, rescued from any attempt by the vivisectionists to claim his body, and buried in the churchyard at St Martin’s-in-the-Fields.

That was the end of Jack Sheppard but not the end of his story. Pamphlets, books and plays were written, all singing the praises of this swash-buckling hero. His name quickly became an icon and his story inspired John Gay to write The Beggar’s Opera in 1728. It was hugely popular. Others piled into print and for the next one hundred years the tales based on Jack’s exploits were legion. It got so bad that at one stage the Lord Chancellor’s office banned the production of any plays containing Jack Sheppard’s name in the title – for over forty years – for fear that it would encourage lawless behaviour.

                                                    Courtesy of East London Theatre Authority.
Let us remember Jack Sheppard – a twenty-two year old who went to the gallows for offences which today would merit little more that an ASBO or a Community Service Order. The boy did wrong, but his memory lives on in our collective consciousness, kept alive by every episode of Minder and every tale of Jack the Lad.

A mezzotint engraving, after the Thornhill portrait mentioned above.FAP173.JPG

Nov 132013

Writing some years after the event, my ancestor recorded in his journal the purchase of various items of mahogany furniture, including this one for a chair. He does not specify a maker, but it is quite likely that the design would have been influenced by Chippendale.

There were in fact two Thomas Chippendales, father and son. The elder Thomas was a Yorkshireman, born in Otley in 1718 to a family with a long wood-working and timber trade tradition. After a probable spell working in York and then as a journeyman carpenter he moved to London and in 1748 he married Catherine Redshaw. They went on to have five boys and four girls, living first in rented accommodation near Covent Garden and then at Somerset Court off the Strand. In 1754 he moved to fashionable premises at 60-62 St Martin’s Lane and the business remained there for sixty years.

File:Chippendale chair.jpgA Chippendale style chair, circa 1780

At the same time he took a wealthy Scottish businessman called James Rannie into partnership, enabling him to concentrate on his masterpiece The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director. It contained 161 engraved plates of “elegant and useful designs of Household Furniture in the Gothic Chinese and Modern Taste.” It was a sell-out success, as was the second edition in the following year. A third edition, with additional illustrations came out in 1762. The Director is important because it was the first time a publication had appeared listing designs for others to copy, and because of the success the Chippendale name has been synonymous with the rococo style. It does not mean that all the pieces of ‘Chippendale’ were made by him, although it is true that he employed some fifty in-house carpenters and any number of outworkers. His role was as artistic director, dealing with wealthy clients and supervising the workforce. Ideally he preferred to be given a commission to design the furniture for a grand house, from top to bottom, (such as at Harewood House, situated between Leeds and Harrogate) but he also sold ‘off the peg’ items from the London premises to the passing trade.


File:Two Book Cases From Chippendale's Director.jpg

Two bookcases, from Chippendale’s Director

His partner James Rannie died in 1766 but his share in the business was sold to their accountant Thomas Haig and for a time the business was known as Chippendale Haig & Co. With passing years Thomas the elder Chippendale had less to do with the business – he remarried in 1776 and had two more children, and by then his role had passed to Thomas Chippendale junior. The old boy had moved to Hoxton and died there of tuberculosis on 13 November 1778. He was buried at St Martin-in-the-Fields in London and various memorials have been erected in his memory including a statue in his home town of Otley and another outside the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

a chipp

A Chippendale break-fronted bookcase from 1764,  courtesy of Christies.

This left the younger Thomas to soldier on until 1803. It must have been a difficult time for Thomas junior because Haig was the senior partner. When Haig died that year there were insufficient funds to pay his legacies and Thomas was forced to liquidate his assets and was declared bankrupt in 1804. He finally quit the St Martin’s Lane premises in 1813 and died in 1822.

Nov 122013

“About 1 o’clock in the afternoon Robt. Betteridge, whose Father and Mother live at Bourton, was at work as a carpenter in a Well about a mile from Stow. The wall of the Well fell in upon him and he was covered up to the Chin. It was twelve at night before he was released so far as his arms – at last it appeared one leg was about half way got between two stones and with every method used they could not get him out til 7 o’clock at night, on the Wednesday. He was then got out, with his life and limbs being preserved.”D


And although it may seem tenuous I think I will end this with a rather lovely Rowlandson coloured etching, dating from 1790. It shows  village life – including the maid at the well.


It appears on the Lewis Walpole Library site and is described as showing “Water wells — Duels — Children at play — Sedan chairs — Lawn rollers — Trades: blacksmiths — Cottages — Bird cages — Boats — Hounds — Hares”. A delightful set of images, and it is good to know that young Rob Betteridge lived to fight another day….

Nov 092013

I rather like the gentle humour in this 1799 print entitled ‘A tete a tete’: lwlpr0943 4tete a tete

Above the etching, by E Blunt, are the words ‘Attitude, gratitude mum……. round about, puff ’em out mum’.

Four lines of verse appear below the title:

‘Sound the Trumpet,

Beat the drum,

Nancy’s this day fifty four,

We wont dispute a few years more.’

I just love the slightly bemused look on the old woman’s face as the younger swain bursts into song! Using the excellent zoomify feature on the Lewis Walpole site you can see that he is singing from a song- sheet containing words such as ‘My Dear Mistress……My jealous Heart would break asunder’

So,  let us hear it for the older woman! A reminder that you are never too old to pull – and besides, if you have a faithful dog, as in this etching, you will always have a friend, as well as an ardent admirer!

Nov 072013

23It is strange how some people can influence the world and yet pass directly into obscurity. None more so than a Swiss scientist called Ami Argand who was born in 1750. He revolutionised the distillery process – something dear to my heart – before turning his attentions to the problems of the inadequacy of candle-light. His solution was an oil lamp, which became the staple source of lighting  the households of Europe, right up until the 1850’s with the development of the kerosene lamp.

Good man! But he used whale oil, which led to the wholesale destruction of those Leviathans of the deep. Bad man! The light was between five and ten times brighter than candle-power, and his invention was more a series of improvements as he tackled problems with the wick, the oil feed, the  type of glass and so on. The end result – the Argand Lamp – lit up the Industrial Revolution like a beacon – yet all it gave Argand was litigation over patents! He died in 1803.



But my interest in him is connected to ballooning. In 1783 he met the Montgolfier Brothers, and they were struggling with the problems of getting hot air into the envelope of delicate fabric. Too large an aperture and the heated air would escape. They modified the chimney used by Argand for his lamp, enabling them to funnel the air into the balloon. In his article “Let there be light” Martin Saltzman of Providence College says that the fuel was “a three-to-one mixture of olive oil and grain alcohol impregnating a circular wick of spun cotton. The principle was that of convection draft, air for combustion being carried up through the centre of the wick by an iron tube that acted as a blower.”

Argand was more interested in promoting his lamp – he travelled to England and was introduced to His Maj. at Windsor. Which is why we know that this very week 240 years ago, George III was being entertained in the gardens at Windsor by this enterprising Swiss gentleman. Argand played on the fact that what the King really wanted to see was the balloon – the English were more than a trifle miffed to hear that those darned Frenchies had stolen a march on them with the first balloon ascent  and wanted to make sure we too could take to the skies and fly like a bird. So, first he showed the balloon, then he demonstrated the lamp.


Posterity does not record the light being exhibited, but fortunately it does record the balloon demo. Visit the site of Sanders of Oxford and you can see this lovely pair  of  prints, taken from copper engravings. They were drawn by James Basire – one of four generations of  “James Basires” who were all engravers  and illustrators in the Georgian era. This one had the misfortune to have William Blake as his apprentice, which cannot have been much fun, but that is another story!

The Sanders site shows that they had them on offer at £250 per print – and certainly they appear in beautiful condition, albeit without their original frames. If you want the whole caboodle look no farther than my new friends at Fisher London who have the pair, framed as original, for a fraction of the price. And my thanks are due to Hilary at Fisher London for introducing me both to Argand and to these prints – excellent!

And what happened to Argand? He rushed off back to the Montgolfier Brothers with news that the English were mightily envious, and then settled down to finish developing his own invention. It was granted a British patent under Patent number 1425 entitled “Lamp, Argand’s Specification.” This was published on July 3, 1784. In his patent Argand states  “…that I had, after much trouble and considerable expense, found out and invented A LAMP THAT IS SO CONSTRUCTED TO PRODUCE NEITHER SMOKE NOR SMELL, AND TO GIVE CONSIDERABLY MORE LIGHT THAN ANY LAMP HITHERTO KNOWN.”

James Peale painted by  his brother Charles Willson Peale in 1826.  The oil lamp is an Argand lamp.

James Peale painted by his brother Charles Willson Peale in 1826. The oil lamp is an Argand lamp.


He entered into a partnership with Matthew Boulton  to produce his lamp, having been introduced by Boulton to other members of the Lunar Society in Birmingham. He found their company most stimulating,  but was forced to return to the Continent to defend his ownership of the invention. Martin Saltzman in his article explains: “The time Argand spent in England was the high point of his life. Called back to Paris in 1786 to deal with the numerous cases involving the  piracy of his lamp and the claims as to whether he was the inventor of the lamp, Argand suffered both a physical and financial breakdown. Even though he was able to establish a factory at Versoix near Geneva, the French Revolution was the final blow to Argand as he lost most of his assets.”

So, not content with forgetting that he probably demonstrated the first ascent of a hot air balloon in this country – albeit tethered and unmanned – we give him no credit for lighting our world. All that and he perfected a way of turning wine into brandy – what more could he have done to ensure fame throughout posterity?

And, finally, (because no post is complete without an 18th Century caricature) a print courtesy of those lovely people at the Lewis Walpole Library site: “Rural Sports. Balloon Hunting” by G M Woodward. It shows a man at the top of a tower taking a pot-shot at the balloon passing overhead, while a startled horse rears up and deposits the three corpulent ladies on the ground. Rare sport indeed!