Jan 302012

An interesting chap, was John James Audubon. Here was a man born in 1785 in Haiti in the Caribbean to a father who was a French mariner-come-merchant adventurer, and his Creole mistress. As a very young child he was brought to France where his father’s wife (in effect his step-mother) brought him up and spoiled him rotten. What with an over-indulgent parent and the disruption caused by the French Revolution his formal education was minimal. And as for art, his training was limited to a couple of months spent in the studio of Jacques Louis David.

American barred owl

In 1803 he was shipped off across the Atlantic to live in the Mill Grove Farm plantation near Philadelphia, an eighteen year old in a completely new environment. Within three years he had met and married Lucy Bakewell, the elder daughter of a neighbouring landowner. Audubon embarked on a series of disastrous commercial enterprises aimed at making money to support his new family, including mining, but the effect was that he was declared bankrupt. This is where his remarkable wife stepped in to save his bacon. Instead of telling her useless husband to go and find a job she announced that she would become the family breadwinner. Her husband had always been passionate about ornithology, and loved painting. “Why don’t you go off and paint birds?” (or words to that effect) was what she told him, and she promptly took the post of governess to a family nearby.


The flamingo

Off went Audubon, wandering the length and breadth of the country with hardly a penny to his name, sketching and painting whenever he could afford materials. He earned a few dollars along the way, painting house signs, panels on the sides of river boats, and the occasional portrait for five dollars. He sometimes taught French, but otherwise spent every spare moment recording birds in their natural habitat. Not for him the rigid poses of stuffed creatures. He painted the birds, often unrecorded species, after many hours of patient study in the wild. When birds were killed he arranged them in lifelike positions using wires, and always painted them life-sized (no mean feat with a large bird such as a golden eagle, which is why some of the paintings fold out to several feet across). And for over twenty years he trudged and painted while his wife stayed at home earning enough to keep the family finances afloat.

In 1826 Audubon felt he had enough to make publication worthwhile. In his opinion there were no engravers in the United States who were up to the task so he sailed to Liverpool and after a few days he headed for Scotland armed with letters of introduction. He was an immediate sensation, with his exhibition of drawings at the Royal Institution attracting huge crowds. He was by all accounts a remarkable sight – with long flowing hair and wearing the clothes of a backwoodsman he enraptured many a dinner party when he moved down to London. One French journalist was perspicacious in his comment that Audubon had the same effect on the British as Benjamin Franklin had on the court of Louis XVI in France.

Audubon needed money to finance the book and it was decided to raise subscriptions for the work to be published in eighty parts, at two guineas each. Raising the subscriptions took some years – keen supporters such as George IV and Lord Rothschild seemed less willing to dip their hands into their noble pockets once the subject of money came up. But in time he obtained subscriptions from 82 American and 79 Europeans (mostly British).Perhaps two hundred sets of his masterpiece ‘The Birds of America from Original Drawings made during a Residence of Twenty-five Years in The United State’s came out between 1827 and 1838. Meanwhile Audubon had gone back to America to track down and paint species which had hitherto eluded him, from Texas to the coast of Labrador.

In all the completed work came to 87 parts, containing in excess of a thousand individual birds, illustrated in 435 plates. They showed many hundreds of trees and shrubs, all individually coloured by hand. In total perhaps a hundred thousand plates needed hand-colouring, a remarkable achievement for the aquatinting firm of Richard Havell of London. Father and son Richard Havell had both been involved in this mammoth project.

When it was complete the book was available for sale in England at a price of £174 but by the time it was exported to the States, with American customs duties etc. it retailed there for $1000, a huge sum of money. Now? Well the book is synonymous with the very finest quality of ornithological painting, supported by engraving and aquatinting which has never been surpassed, so it is no wonder that an edition went for eleven and a half million dollars when it came up at auction in December last year (the highest price ever achieved for a printed book).

As for Audubon he is credited with having discovered twenty five new species and a dozen sub-species. His old home is a museum, and he was the subject of an American postage stamp (22cents) under the series entitled Great Americans. Numerous other stamps have been issued featuring birds painted by him, while this one-cent stamp shows the man in old age.



But for my money the true hero is his Missus. She recognized his genius, she was prepared to make huge sacrifices so that he could pursue his hobby, and she stood by him through thick and thin. With women like that no wonder America has achieved so much!

 The Passenger pigeon

Jan 262012

As time goes by I become increasingly aware – and concerned – that I have yet to do a post mentioning carrots.  The omission came to light when I stumbled across the fact that there is actually a  virtual Museum of Carrots, and a blogsite devoted entirely to pictures of this vegetable, as painted by artists over the centuries.

Who can forget the immortal ‘The Carrot’ painted in 1699                              by Willem Frederick van Royen?

The earliest cultivated carrots were purple, and came from Afghanistan around a thousand years ago. Other varieties were white , and indeed until Linnaeus came along and re-classified them it was thought that the white carrot and the equally white parsnip were the same plant.

In fact you can still get carrots in a range of colours from purple through orange through yellow to red – in all probability it was the Dutch, those canny market gardeners of the 17th and 18th centuries, who bred the orange variety we know today.







And why is this Georgian Gentleman interested in the humble carrot? Because of Master James Gillray and his splendidly lascivious drawing entitled ‘Sandwich Carrots, dainty Sandwich carrots’

Lord Sandwich is caricatured slipping a guinea into the pocket of a barrow girl who happens to be selling carrots (oh Mr Gillray you are a naughty one!)  The Fifth Earl Sandwich lived between 1744 and 1814, and as his birthday was on 26th January this is my birthday tribute to the dirty old man.

Jan 252012

I am delighted to offer my first-ever guest blog to Michael Fowle, a descendant of Sir William Curtis – one of the more colourful characters of the Georgian Era (in a century packed full of colourful characters!). He was affectionately known as ‘Billy Biscuit’ for reasons which will become clear….Michael writes:

Two hundred and sixty years ago today, on 25 January 1752, the Great Leviathan of the City, Sir William Curtis – Billy Biscuit to the irreverent – was born. For fifty years, 1780 to 1829, Sir William was a king of London’s Commerce. 200 years on, nothing remains. He is remembered only by a few of his multitude of descendants (he had 41 grandchildren) and by caricature collectors. I am both. Thank you Mike, for allowing me to guest blog about Sir William. The images here are from my own collection ©Michael Fowle.

My grandmother, born Isabel Curtis, daughter of the great man’s grandson, gunpowder manufacturer Charles William Curtis, was a fearsome old lady who died when I was nine. My father was born in 1885 and as a child knew CWC, growing up around myriad Curtis aunts and uncles and cousins. Sir William was a very real figure to them all, and so to my father – but none called him Billy Biscuit!

This 1820 Dighton caricature was the only cartoon of Sir William that my father owned. As a child I thought he looked a very respectable gentleman, but Granny said it was ‘suggestive’. My Aunt’s family solicitor (inherited from the Curtis family) had a copy on his wall – last seen by me around 1970.

Father told me that there were other caricatures, especially one in a kilt. I started collecting years later, long after my father’s death. He would have enjoyed collecting them.

Who was Sir William? Why Billy Biscuit? Why is he the most lampooned Lord Mayor in 800 years?

In 1771, when he was 19, William and his brother inherited their father’s Wapping biscuit bakery. (‘It is the duty of all good parents to die young.’ Auberon Waugh). William revolutionised the technology of biscuit baking (yes, really!) and biscuit storage aboard ship – hence Billy Biscuit. Within ten years not only were the Curtis brothers the main suppliers of ships’ biscuits to the Royal Navy, but they were general contractors and suppliers, ship owners and whaling entrepreneurs. Billy Biscuit, which stuck, is at least better than Billy Blubber, which mercifully did not. At the age of 30, William Curtis, in Wapping, on the edge of the City, was ‘at the centre of one of one of the largest and most profitable trade networks in the known world’.

Richard Horwood’s 1792 Wapping Map, the bakery of Messrs Curtis & Clark.

‘A trader with a capital, carrying on an extensive business in a neighbourhood where he has scarcely any competitor, proceeds in the natural road to the acquisition of a large fortune. The house of Curtis, besides employing a great number of their poor neighbours in their business, which of course induced personal attachment, deported themselves with such integrity and affability, that in 1785 … a considerable number of the inhabitants of Tower Ward solicited Mr William Curtis to take upon him the office of Alderman of that district … which he retained with such eminent honour for the extraordinary period of forty-three years.’ (Sir William’s 1829 obituary).

In 1788 he was a Sheriff of the City of London and in 1795, age 43, he was Lord Mayor.

In 1787 Alderman Curtis was the owner of The Lady Penryn, a ship in The First Fleet from London to Botany Bay. In 1790 he was elected MP for the City of London, which he remained (with a short interval) until 1826, being re-elected six times. In 1791 he founded his City bank – he neither inherited nor bought it. He founded it.

He acquired, as his London home, a fine house in Southgate, Cullands Grove – and constructed the road still called Alderman’s Hill, to speed his way to the City. Then in 1804 he built his seaside home, in a town he knew well – Ramsgate. He loved the sea and kept two fine yachts at Ramsgate – a sleek racing vessel Emma (named for his elder daughter) and for comfort and real sea-going, a 450 ton converted dhow, Die Jong Vrow Rebecca Maria, named for his second daughter Rebecca Mary.

This 1809 Isaac Cruickshank portrait shows three of the four near invariable characteristics of a Curtis cartoon: first, the sailor suit and hat; second, the stomach – Curtis was famous both for enjoying his food and for the naturally consequential belly, his pictures often including edibles like a turtle or turtle soup, or sausages (‘alderman in chains’ was catering-speak for turkey garnished with sausages); and third, the red nose – today, as at least one of his descendants can attest, we know this as herpes simplex. The fourth characteristic he shared with John Prescott; he was no master of words. ‘He was not a polished orator, and he would have scorned the affectation of being one; plain, simple, and energetic in the delivery of his sentiments, he trusted to the substance of what he had to say …’ His mangled catch words and phrases were the delight of satirists – today we know he was dyslexic.

Listening to a debate on schooling, he was bored by those who talked about the importance of Latin and Greek; he had none of that. ‘What children need,’ Curtis said in the House, ‘is the three Rs, Readin’, Ritin’ and Rithmatic.’ Posterity’s laugh is on those who laughed at the MP for the City. No one knows if he spoke from wit or from ignorance and confusion – but The Three Rs remains the classic expression of basic education.

He was a celebrity. He was famous, immensely rich, jovial, popular, driven, effective, influential, spokesman for commerce in Parliament, loyal supporter of Pitt and of successor governments (made baronet in 1802 for ‘steady voting’), a committed public servant, an amateur musician, a patron of charities – and a faithful friend of the most disreputable of royalty, banker to the Prince of Wales. Today his phone would be hacked. 200 years ago he was lampooned, unmercifully.

1809 was a bad year in the French wars. Castlereagh disastrously sent an expeditionary force to capture the Dutch island of Walcheren and the port of Flushing. Against Castlereagh’s advice, the patriotic Sir William sailed too, carrying on Die Jong Vrow Rebecca Maria ‘delicate refreshments of all kinds to the military and naval commanders and the principal officers.’ This was too much for Isaac Cruickshank, who pictured the banker destroying the Emperor by setting a giant turtle on him.

Sir William remained a major force in commerce, in the City, and in the House, often controversial, always independent. But let us jump to 1821, George IV, now being King, needed to visit his other Kingdom, Hanover. But the King could never give his patronage to Dover, which had so traitorously welcomed his despised wife Caroline only the previous year.

Sir W could therefore persuade the King to sail from Ramsgate – and stay the night with his loyal subjects Sir William and Lady Curtis.




George Cruickshank found domestic Ramsgate too tempting.

There are over 100 Curtis-related satirical caricatures covering the entire period 1789 to 1830. Their apogee was in 1822 when Sir William accompanied his sovereign and old friend George IV on his Royal Visit to Scotland. Sir William and his family found these cartoons simply too wounding – in the 1940s his great grand-daughter still could not talk about them.

Here we see Sir William as he saw himself, and Bonnie Willie as others saw him – actually George Cruickshank again.

           The King decided, for the great Levée at Holyrood, to ‘assume the garb of old Gael’ and appear in kilt and plaid, ‘but his satisfaction therein was cruelly disturbed when he discovered, towering and blazing among the genuine Glengarries and Macleods and MacGregors, a figure even more portly than his own.‘

On the theme of the Scottish visit, another, one of many:

This one (Cruickshank again) caused particular offence and there were attempts to suppress it.


The fat King and his fat subject (with turtle and sausages) have caught scabies, vulgarly called ‘the Scottish fiddle’, and are vigorously going through the traditional process of rubbing themselves against a post, while the King courteously blesses his grace the Duke of Argyle. An English acquaintance wisely refuses the Alderman’s proffered hand.

If the King really was angry about the Holyrood Levée, he soon forgave his old friend. In July 1823 John Constable writes to Archdeacon Fisher ‘I have been a day or two at Southgate … We dined at Sir William Curtis’s. He is a fine old fellow, and is now sitting for his portrait to Lawrence for the King, who desired the portrait in these words, ‘’Damn you, my old boy, I’ll have you in all your canonicals, when I can look at you every day’’; he is a great favourite — birds of a feather.’ George gave Sir William a Lawrence of himself and did indeed keep with him Lawrence’s portrait of Curtis. It is still in the Royal Collection.

1826 was a year of banking crisis (plus ça change), but there was no crisis at the banking house of Sir William Curtis, Robarts, and Curtis.

Cruickshank shows an ageing Sir William on the steps of his bank at 15 Lombard Street (now a Sainsburys Local, but within recent memory The Robarts Branch of Coutts), a turtle above the door. Pan says’ I’m come to terrify you all Sir Billy’. People run in panic up Abchurch Lane, but Curtis, with a bag of gold in one hand and a bowl of turtle soup in the other, replies ‘D’ye think I care a d–n about your Notes? While I have Wisdom, Sovereigns & Soup, to Pan or Frying Pan I’ll never stoop.’

The catch phrase Soup, Sovereigns and Security clearly refers back to the alliterative 3 Rs.

Billy Biscuit died at the full age of 77, at his much loved Ramsgate. ‘The great respect and regard which Sir William had acquired at Ramsgate was most conspicuously displayed on his decease. Every shop was closed during the whole week his remains lay in the town; and his funeral was followed half way to Canterbury.’

‘A more honourable, upright character than Sir William Curtis never existed. In private life the urbanity of his manners and generosity of his temper rendered him universally respected and beloved by a very numerous body of friends and admirers, as by his children and relatives …’

I am immensely grateful to John Curtis Dalby (my fourth cousin once removed, I think he is), and to Nick Brazil, authors of Billy Biscuit – The Colourful Life and Times of Sir William Curtis Bt MP 1752-1829.

This was published by Brazil Productions in 2010 and can be ordered from nicholasbrazil@btinternet.com for £21.00 inc p&p.)

Two other important reference sources are: The British Museum Catalogue of Personal & Political Satires, vols 6-11 (publ 1938-1954); and Wapping 1600-1800 by Morris & Cozens, published in 2009 by The East London Historical Society.

My daughter Emma Curtis, who took her great grandmother’s family name because mine would not do, shares my interest in her great great great great grandfather. Emma has photographed all my prints and encouraged and supported me in every way. Thank you so much.

http://www.emmacurtis.com ;  Twitter: https://twitter.com/#!/thefrolick  (@thefrolick )

Jan 232012

John Hoppner, self-portrait, c.1780.

On 23rd January 1810 the artist John Hoppner drew his last breath. He had been born, to German parents, some 52 years earlier. As a child he showed artistic merit and in 1775 enrolled at the new Royal Academy. Three years later he was awarded their Silver Medal for drawing from life, and in 1780 had his work exhibited at the Academy for the first time. Two years later he picked up the Gold Medal for best historical painting. At that stage his output was mostly in the form of landscapes, but ‘needs must’ and the public wanted portraits, so portraits were what he gave them.

The Prince of Wales was a particular supporter; and he also painted Wellington, Nelson, Sir Walter Scott and other luminaries. He published A Series of Portraits of Ladies in 1803, and it is his pictures of ladies, and in particular ladies in hats, which give him an edge over many of his contemporaries. Here are a few really good ones:






The Hon. Mrs. Hugo Meynell in a serious chapeau.

                                                Mary Benwell, in a B-I-G hat.
Another Mary – Mary Robinson – in a lovely asymettrical hat with feathers, shown playing the part of Shakespeare’s “The Winter Tale” heroine, Perdita.
                                                          And another Mary (as in Princess)…
And to finish with, another….Mary (Boteler) –  in a lovely double-bowed hat.
Farewell John, and thanks for the hats!
Jan 222012

Joshua, born in 1723 into a family the size of a football team, was the son  of a school-teacher at Plympton in Devon. He was largely taught by his own father and showed a prodigious talent for painting. As a 17 year old he was  apprenticed to the portrait painter Thomas Hudson. Later he spent time travelling in Europe, studying ‘the Grand Masters’ before returning to London and opening his own studio. He became part of a coterie which included Dr Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke, David Garrick and fellow artist Angelica Kauffmann in its numbers.

 A self-portrait of Reynolds, aged 18.

A gregarious man who never allowed his deafness to restrict his social life  (he frequently had to use an ear trumpet) he quickly became the man sought out by the rich and famous if they wanted their portrait painted. And rich they had to be, with fees of as much as a hundred guineas per portrait. He was knighted in 1769 and was one of the founders of the Royal Academy, becoming its first President.

In 1784, following the death of George Ramsey, Reynolds was appointed  Principal Painter in Ordinary to his Majesty – thereby making his rival Gainsborough extremely miffed. It is almost as if he only wanted the post to spite his rival, comparing the poorly paid job of royal painter to that of ‘the King’s Rat catcher’

Five years later, aged 66, Reynolds was forced to retire from painting when he lost the use of his left eye.

Sir Joshua, painted by Gilbert Stuart in 1784

By then he had painted perhaps three thousand portraits. He died on 23rd February 1792 and is buried in St Pauls Cathedral.








From all those hundreds of portraits to choose from I will select half a dozen sitters, all of them of female.

                                      Portrait of Mary Wordsworth (1777)

                                                                            Lavinia Spencer (1781-2)                  

Lady Skipworth (1787)








Lady Caroline Price (1787)                              

Mrs Abington as Miss Prue in ‘Love for Love’ by William Congreve, 1771.









And finally my favourite even if  it is unfinished (or perhaps, precisely because it is unfinished): a portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, painted in 1780









Thank you Sir, and we will remember you tomorrow on the anniversary of your demise.

Jan 202012

There were in fact over four hundred of them – little red books that is. And each of them contains a detailed essay on an Eighteenth century country estate, with recommendations for improvements linked to ‘before and after’ sketches showing different vistas and perspectives. They are the work of a man whose reputation is often over-shadowed by the more famous Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, but who was in his own way every bit as important in the history of landscape gardening. For a start he coined the phrase ‘landscape garden’ and unlike Brown he put his ideas down on paper so that his influence went beyond those land-owners for whom he submitted designs. Anyone interested in garden design and lay-out could read and learn.
 Humphry Repton (no ‘e’ in Humphry, please) was born in Bury St Edmunds in 1752 and after attending Norwich Grammar School was packed off to Holland as a 12 year old to learn Dutch and to train as a merchant. Instead he developed his love of sketching, botany and gardens. He returned to England and tried his hand at all sorts of things – journalism, painting, play writing, even helping John Palmer in a venture to reform the mail-coach system. His long-suffering wife, by whom he had 4 children, must have watched in dismay as he flitted from one venture to the next, before deciding in 1788 that he wanted to combine his two hobbies -gardens and sketching – and to launch a business aimed at wealthy land-owners. His first paid commission was at Catton Park in 1788.

At first he was clearly influenced by ‘Capability’ Brown – indeed many of his early commissions involved ‘tweaking’ gardens Brown had originally designed. But whereas Brown saw the whole project through from start to finish – from design right through to completion of all works – Repton designed his gardens, with the aid of his soon-to-be-famous red books, and then left it to others to implement the ideas. Clients loved the way they could visualize the schemes, by looking at the water-colours Repton produced to illustrate his proposals. 

Humphry Repton’s trade card, engraving from The Langley Park, Beckenham Red Book (1790) (Source:RIBA British Architectural Library), showing the great man surveying the site with a theodolite, while men in the background are toiling to fill wheel-barrows. The view of the lake, in a woodland setting, is typical Repton.

Where Repton differed from Brown was his treatment of the area between the house and the garden. Brown had brought his sweeping landscapes right up to the front door: Repton put in flower beds and balustrades, terraces and formal walking areas. At Blaise Castle near Bristol he quite artificially constructed a long and winding drive, in order to show off the magnificent gorge and fine vistas, rather than use the infinitely more practical but ever-so-dull access from the nearby main road. He was then commissioned by the Duke of Bedford to work on Woburn Abbey, introducing themed areas such as a separate Chinese Garden, an American Garden and an arboretum. These set the taste for others to follow. Later he was to bring in cricket pitches (‘home lawns’) and bowling-green lawns, both of which were picked up by others to create what we would now regard as a Victorian country estate.


One of Repton’s drawings for Catton Park, showing his    proposal for a new drive and picturesque cottages.

Throughout the 1790s Repton worked closely with the architect John Nash, the two joining forces to give clients a package of house-and-garden combined. But the two fell out and Repton had his nose further put out of joint when his designs for the Royal Pavilion in Brighton were turned down in favour of the John Nash proposals.

Repton published his first main treatise on garden design in 1795 with his Sketches and Hints on Landscape Gardening following it up with Observations on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening in 1803 and Fragments on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1816).

Repton had clearly impressed the Duke of Bedford with his Woburn plans and he had been given the job of designing the central garden area for Russell Square in London, at the heart of the Duke’s development in Bloomsbury. That apart, he rarely worked in London, spending his time whizzing around the countryside in his carriage. Well, he did until 1811 when the said carriage overturned, damaging his back and leaving him an invalid for the rest of his life, often confined to a wheel-chair. He died in 1818 and is buried at Aylsham.

One of the red books, for Hatchlands in Surrey, is featured in the Morgan Museum (New York) website at http://www.themorgan.org/collections/works/repton/redbook.asp?page=10&id=Hatchlands

The website shows the hand-written book with its separate pages for introduction, situation, character, approaches etc and leads on to the illustartions with flaps which lift to reveal the effect of the intended design changes. It was clearly a great marketing tool!

Jan 182012

“I give and bequeath unto my Sister in Law Ann Snooke Ten Guineas and to each of my nieces the daughters of my said Sister in Law a Mourning Ring of a guinea value.”

In his will Richard Hall bequeathed a mourning ring to each of his nieces. None of the five remain in the family but there is a very good chance that the rings looked like this one, shown courtesy of http://www.worthpoint.com/

Offered for sale on e-bay it is described as an ‘1818 gold and jet mounted mourning ring’.

Richard was simply following a tradition by making a present of a mourning ring to close family and friends. It was a sort of status symbol  – ‘see how many friends I have’ – so much so that the diarist Samuel Pepys left instructions for no fewer than 129 mourning rings to be handed to doleful recipients at his funeral in 1703. It was not unusual for the testator to specify the design and materials – typical Richard that all he specified was the cost!

To modern tastes the whole thing may seem macabre, because it has largely fallen out of fashion. We tend to associate the excessive reminders of mourning with Queen Victoria – the casts of hands and arms of dead children, the wearing of black jewellery made from jet, and so on. And yet it is fascinating to see how successive generations cope with the grief of mourning. The items of jewellery can be hugely symbolic, with their lovers knots, seed pearls signifying frozen tears, and so on. We may recoil at wearing rings decorated with skulls, or draw back from wrapping a picture of a coffin around our little fingers, but back in the eighteenth century nobody would think ‘There goes a Goth, how warped!’

For Richard Hall, one way of coping with his wife’s death was to sit down and spend hours cutting out this intricate picture of the coffin – it may well have been designed to fit into the back of his watch case, and served the same purpose as a ring with a locket of the deceased’s hair i.e. to keep a memento close to him at all times.


Everything about the mourning rings was symbolic – it is a sort of language where you need to learn to unlock the message. White enamel was used for the finely scrolled mourning rings commemorating the demise of an unmarried person – black enamel was used for someone who was married. Often the ring would have the name and age of the deceased engraved on the shank, along with the date of death.

Nowhere will you find a more succinct and enthusiastic explanation of mourning rings – indeed the whole Art of Mourning – than the eponymous Art of Mourning site at http://artofmourning.com/ It describes this ring from the early years of the 1800’s as having “a shank which…twists the centre glass panel into a diamond shape … the open shank design (here in a circular pattern has an open and wirework style.”

Another variety is shown on the same site, with the analysis:

“The 19th Century saw a dramatic change from the Georgian opulence in rings to the bolder, and more common, Victorian pieces.

“The mourning band above carries through the previous enamelling along the band. The piece below from 1838 is a continuation of this style, but in its own form. The evolution of this piece began in the mid 18th Century with scrollwork shanks and thinner memorial bands.”


 “From the turn of the 19th Century style of this piece, the anachronistic nature of the above ring clashes with its design. A skull is painted upon the hair memento and the shank itself is rolled in the fashion of the mid 18th Century, but the style is essentially very early 19th Century.”
Art of Mourning has a picture of this superb example of a gold and enamel ring, dating  from 1818.



The hair is hidden behind the urn, and can be seen from the rear view.The Regency period saw a marked shift in mourning rings. They became smaller and more wearable. A coil of hair beneath oval shaped glass is a common factor in jewellery of this time. Pearls also become  popular as a material, as well as jet and turquoise.
Personally I find the whole history of mourning fashions fascinating and as Art of Mourning has its own blog I can do no better than recommend it. You can find it at http://artofmourning.wordpress.com
To close: here is a beautiful example of a ring from the 1720s, a style prevalent when Richard was growing up, and shown on the blogsite mentioned above. Exquisite.
Jan 162012

Richard Hall was meticulous about keeping lists – and it may seem odd but one of those lists which he kept was of those occasions when his (second) wife Betty fell down.

In the space of just a few months she apparently had half a dozen bad falls. Here he mentions a fall in the parlour (16 August 1797) hitting the back part of her head against the stone wall. Less than a fortnight later she fell at the Inn in Cirencester and on 24 September fell over while out walking along North Parade in Bath, and again the next day when she returned home.

A month later she travelled to London and was ‘greatly preserved when getting into a Coach, on resting upon the opposite door it gave way, not being fastened. The Lord is good to her under the infirmities he is pleased to lay upon her’

No explanation is given but it does not sound as if it was simply a case of being accident-prone. In all twenty such falls are listed, starting on 21 March 1797 when she ‘fell down the stairs at the Parlour Door’. The reference to ‘infirmities’ suggests that Richard was aware that these falls were part of an on-going condition which affected his wife. Possibly she was subject to seizures (e.g. epileptic fits), or quite simply was prone to consuming rather too much home-brewed wine. Or, as I surmise in the Journal of a Georgian Gentleman, maybe she contracted worms (affecting her balance) as a result of eating undercooked pork in one of the pie shops which abounded in London at the time. Worms were not an uncommon affliction, affecting rich and poor alike. Richard even wrote down the story of the physician called in to treat Princess Elizabeth and who prescribed a large dose of snuff (‘the second day she voided a worm from her Nose, since which the complaint has totally ceased’).

Whatever caused it, Betty Hall clearly had a problem with her balance, and the problem never went away. And because no post is complete wihout a Gillray, here is his etching entitled The Fall of Phaeton.

     First published, July, 1788. The Prince of Wales is about to land onto his mistress, Mrs. Fitzherbert (courtesy of the Lancashire Gallery)

Jan 132012

In Mansfield Park, published in 1814, Jane Austen mentions the card game of Speculation on several occasions, usually contrasting it with whist:

In the evening it was found, according to the predetermination of Mrs Grant and her
sister, that after making up the whist-table there would remain sufficient for a
round game, and everybody being as perfectly complying and without a choice as
on such occasions they always are, speculation was decided on almost as soon as
whist; and Lady Bertram soon found herself in the critical situation of being
applied to for her own choice between the games, and being required either to
draw a card for whist or not.”

Lady Bertram turns to her husband and asks “What shall I do, Sir Thomas? Whist and Speculation; which will amuse me most?”  Sir Thomas, after a moment’s thought, recommended Speculation. He was a whist player himself, and perhaps might feel that it would not amuse him to have her for his partner.

The game also appears in Nicholas Nickleby. Published in 1839 the book reflects the fact that the popularity of Speculation was perhaps at its zenith. Within another fifty years it had all but disappeared. So what was Speculation, and how was it played?

The game is a noisy parlour game involving a mild form of gambling, and requires an element of skill in remembering which cards of the trump suit have already been played. Basically the players would start with an equal number of counters, often fish made of mother-of-pearl. I well remember that my grandmother (Richard Hall’s great great grand-daughter) still had dozens of these.  They had a knack of secreting themselves in nooks and crannies at the bottom of drawers.

Each player puts in a stake of four fish, with the dealer putting in six. The dealer then deals three cards face downwards to each person. No-one is allowed to inspect their cards. Dealer then turns over the top card in the remaining pack, which establishes the suit which is trumps (although there are no tricks to be won – it simply determines which suit is to be collected: the aim of the game is to hold the highest card in that suit in any particular round).

If that first card is an ace, the pot goes automatically to the dealer; otherwise it is open for the other players to bid for the card (i.e. gambling that it is likely to be the highest card turned over during that round). The player to the dealers left (called ‘the eldest hand’) then turns over a card. If it is the same suit as the card turned up first, and is higher, then the others can bid for it. The person holding the card can either choose to sell or to keep the card. Each player in turn reveals the card at the top of his pile (apart from the person holding the current highest trump card, who takes no further part in the round until a higher trump card is exposed). When all cards have been revealed the person holding the highest trump card takes the pool, and another round begins (but without the deck being shuffled). If no higher trump is exposed, the pot remains on the table to be won the following round.

Hoyles Games of 1842, the definitive ‘bible’ of card games at the time, suggests one or two different variations – in one a dummy hand is dealt, and remains secret until the round finishes. If it is then found to contain a higher trump than those already turned up, the pot remains on the table and is added to the next round. In another variant, a player has to add in an extra counter if a five or a knave  is turned up.

The rules make for a noisy game, with players trying to out-bid each other. As Hoyle states,
“To play this game well, little more is requisite than recollecting what superior cards of the trump suit appeared in the preceding deals, and calculating thereby the probability of the trump offered for sale proving the highest in the deal then undetermined.”

By the end of the nineteenth century the game appears to have lost its popularity to the extent that no mention of it appears in the 1897 revision of Hoyle.

The actual deck of cards changed during the nineteenth century to resemble the ones we know today. This deck dates from the 1870s  and was made by de la Rue (now makers of bank-notes). Note that all the symbols on the number cards (i.e two through ten) are displayed in the same direction (unlike modern packs where the symbols on each card are turned round from one end to the other). On six of the royal cards the symbol is to the right of the royal head. The ace of spades is stamped with evidence that the duty on the deck had been paid (three pence per pack in this instance).

It is easy to forget that each country has its own playing card traditions – we are so used to the American/English deck that we forget the variants such as the Spanish deck known as a baraja. Go to a hostelry in the Spanish interior and you often see elderly gentlemen playing with a deck like this:

Usually there are only forty cards (there are no eights or nines, and the knave is reduced to being a ten). The suits are oros, copas, bastos and espadas (gold coins, cups, clubs and swords, representing respectively the different social orders, merchants, church, peasants and the military). Each suit has three picture cards all of the same value, namely the sota, which is similar to the jack and generally depicts a page or prince, the caballo (knight, literally “horse”), and the rey (king).The number of breaks in the edging line to each card (the pinta) shows which suit is which (no line break for the gold coins, one interruption for the cup, two for the club and three for the sword).


  A replica 18th Century baraja set, courtesy of Wikipedia.

But back to Austen and the game of Speculation : “for though it was impossible for Fanny not to feel herself mistress of the rules of the game in three minutes, he had yet to inspirit her play, sharpen her avarice, and harden her heart….  Miss Crawford…made a hasty finish of her dealings with William Price, and securing his knave at an exorbitant rate, exclaimed, ‘There, I will stake my last like a woman of spirit.’

A James Gillray etching dated 1798 entitled “Lady Godinia’s Rout –  or – Peeping Tom spying out Pope Joan”

Jan 052012

On the left, Richard Cosway’s hauntingly attractive portrait of his young wife, and on the right, her own self-portrait.

The story of the life of Maria Louisa Catherine Cecilia Hadfield (later Cosway) is a remarkable one by any standards. Italian born in 1759, she was originally one of eight children but four were murdered by their insane nursemaid, who was caught after being overheard discussing how she was planning to kill the young Maria as well. Small wonder the girl was a bit unstable!

She showed an aptitude for painting at an early age and when she came to London in 1779 she attracted the attention of Richard Cosway, well known miniaturist and middle-aged roué. They married two years later, despite a twenty year age difference.

   Wax portrait of Maria






She had an interesting  life of romance to say the least. A beautiful woman, she quickly attracted admirers when she came to London, becoming known as ‘the Goddess of Pall-Mall’ when the couple moved to  Schomberg House House and opened a salon there. Later the couple moved to larger premises in Stratford Place. It was the venue for fashionable people to meet and to be seen.


An extract from Maria’s painting entitled ” Georgiana as the Goddess Diana”courtesy of Chatsworth House





Like her husband she also painted miniatures :

    (this being one of her later works, circa 1820)






She was  a fine artist with a celebrity status of her own and she exhibited some thirty pictures at the Royal Academy in a twenty year period  from 1781. I must confess that many of her paintings are not to my personal taste, particularly the ones with mythological scenes and wing-ed nymphs!  She was also a hugely accomplished musician and composer. She entertained royalty in London, and later, the Bonaparte family in France.                                    © National Portrait Gallery, London

“A View from Mr. Cosway’s Breakfast-Room Pall Mall, with the Portrait of Mrs Cosway (Maria Louisa Catherine Cecilia Cosway (née Hadfield) stipple engraving, published 1789, by William Russell Birch”

Later on a trip to Paris with her husband in 1786 she was introduced to the recently widowed Thomas Jefferson, the American Envoy to the Court of Versailles and who was living in Paris at the time. He was 43, she was 27. Jefferson fell in love at first sight.  To begin with they were inseparable companions sampling the delights of Paris, sharing a similar love of art, architecture and music (Jefferson was a talented violinist). But after six weeks Richard Cosway got tired of the besotted Jefferson and sent his wife  back to London. Maria was the subject of Jefferson’s 4000 word letter entitled ‘A Dialogue between the Head and the Heart’  written in October 1786. There followed a passionate if sometimes one-sided correspondence which was to last for the rest of Jefferson’s  life. They met up again in Paris.Theirs appears to have been a platonic romance (Maria was a strict catholic girl with a convent education to terrify her into fidelity) but the ‘affair’ rumbled on for many years. On the occasion when Maria left for Italy and he for America he wrote  “One of us is going the wrong way, for the way will ever be wrong that leads us further apart.”

Maria’s own portrait of Thomas Jefferson.





She travelled extensively in Europe after her marriage (and not necessarily partnered by her husband). The relationship with her husband was a curious one – they had a daughter (who died as a young girl) but Richard made no secret of his numerous affairs. For a while it suited them to remain married, but eventually the marriage was annulled.

In 1802 Maria went to Paris and started a girls’ school there. She was then asked by the Duke of Lodi to return to Italy and found a  convent and college for girls. She did so, and on 1st April 1812 the school at the Convent di Santa Maria delle Grazie opened its doors for the first time. She remained closely involved in the running of the college and her work as an educationalist led to her being awarded the rank of Baroness by the Austrian Emperor Franz I. She died at Lodi on 5th January 1838.

And O.K. you get one mawkish picture with wing-ed dryads. It is entitled “An Angel and Putti accompanying a child’s soul to Heaven” and is not to my taste at all…..