Mar 302012

Today is the anniversary of the death of Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, in 1842. By the time of her death she was something of a relic from a bygone age, all things rococco, the neo-classical, and a world always associated with Marie Antoinette. I love her use of colour.


                                                          Le Brun’s self-portraits.

She had been born in 1755, the daughter of a painter who made a living producing portraits of the French nobility. She not only followed in Dad’s footsteps but achieved great fame as the portrait painter of the French Queen, painting Marie Antoinette on some fifty occasions. They had first met when both were 24 – the Queen had never been particularly satisfied with any previous portraits but in Le Brun found a likeness she favoured, and promptly commissioned Le Brun to prepare duplicates for gifts to members of the royal family. Over time Le Brun’s pictures of the Queen have meant that  it is these images which have become indelibly imprinted on our minds: think of Marie Antoinette and you are thinking of her through le Brun’s eyes.

She  painted the Queen in her ball gown (just look at all that fabric!) and it was given by the Queen to her mother the Empress Marie Theresa.

She also painted Madame du Barry, last mistress to the French King. She too was to go to the guillotine, on 8th December 1793

At the same time she painted other noble French heads – I rather like this one, a detail from her portrait of Charles Alexandre de Calonne.
In 1776, she married a prominent art-dealer Jeanne Baptiste Pierre Lebrun and in 1783 she was admitted to the French Academy of Arts. Forced to flee France by the Revolution she travelled throughout Europe, painting portraits as she went. Her fame grew as she travelled to Italy (1789-93), then to Vienna (1793-94), and then to St. Petersburg (1795-1802), where she also spent 6 very successful years painting portraits of Russian aristocrats. She was finally able to return to France when in her fifties, and when she died in Paris in 1842 she left a legacy of some 660 portraits and 200 landscapes. In particular she had chronicled the aristocracy of France before the world order came tumbling down.
She is buried in the cemetery of Louveciennes, near her old home. The epitaph on her tombstone  states “Ici, enfin, je repose…” (Here, at last, I rest…). She had indeed been a long while coming home.
Mar 292012

On 16th March 1792 Gustav, by the Grace of God, of the Swedes, the Goths and the Vends, King, Grand Prince of Finland, Duke of Pomerania, Prince of Rügen and Lord of Wismar, Heir to Norway and Duke of Schleswig-Holstein, Stormarn and Dithmarschen, Count of Oldenburg and Demenhorst, went to a masked ball at the Royal Opera House in Stockholm. And no, this  wasn’t a whole group of men; he was just one person. (Well, you tend to need a few titles like that when you have seized power in a coup d’etat, and have imposed an absolute monarchy on your peoples). Apparently he liked the dinner but not what followed: he was shot.

His assassin was Count Ankarstrom (acting jointly with others) and although the King appeared to survive the attempt on his life the wound in his back became infected and he died on 29th March. (I rather like his last words: “I feel sleepy, a few moments rest would do me good”).

The King, for all his extravagant foibles, was a cultured man who wrote plays and founded the Royal Swedish Opera, the Royal Swedish Ballet, the Royal Dramatic Theatre and the Swedish Academy. He also instituted the Royal Order of Vasa to reward  pioneers in the field of culture, mining and commerce. But he ruffled a lot of feathers, particularly with the nobility.

His demise sent shock waves throughout the royal families of Europe, not least in Britain where Gillray got in on the act with this print, first published in 1792, entitled “Taking Physick: – or – The news of shooting the King of Sweden”. It shows King George III seated on a latrine alongside the Queen, with Pitt rushing in with news of the assassination. All done ‘in the best possible taste….!’


Mar 272012

Writing on 22nd January 1660 the diarist Samuel Pepys recorded
“This day I began to put buckles on my shoes”. He was absolutely the height of fashion, and the Restoration of the monarchy was accompanied by the rapid decline of the ubiquitous boot, and the revival of the shoe. This in turn meant the stocking suddenly got a look-in, and the fashion for elaborately embroidered stockings came in. Which in turn led to Francis Hall, my five times great grandfather, becoming a hosier’s apprentice in 1720.
The actual manufacture of the shoe would have been carried out by a member of the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers. It got its name from the Spanish city of Cordoba, from where the very best leather (goatskin) came from.

Mind you, ladies of refinement  would have been far more likely to wear silk shoes indoors, saving leather for trips outside. Here are a pair shown courtesy of the V & A Museum, dating from around 1730:The curved heel and pointing-up toes are typical of the period.

I love this pair of silk shoes (early 18th Century) shown courtesy of the Bata Museum:



The 18th-century taste was for diamond encrusted buckles, but high quality rhinestones (which were small pieces of quartz that washed up on the banks of the River Rhine) were also used along with paste (glass). So highly prized were the rhinestones and diamonds that as fashions changed, and tastes altered, the ‘stones’ were prised out and re-used while the setting would be melted down.
The heel is interesting: made of wood they would have clattered daintily on wooden floors! The shoe makers had great difficulty with the actual position of the heels – put at the back of the shoe the pressure on the sole would cause it to break or give way and therefore it was positioned much closer to the instep. The demand for more vertiginous heels meant that the wearer must have found the shoes somewhat uncomfortable. I confess I have never tried teetering around in high heels  supporting my instep, and I am not about to try!

Mind you, it takes all sorts: this one  on the left is apparently a fetishist shoe from the 1780s:                 

I think I still prefer the contemporary look of the modern one on the right! Killer heels and peep toes… and laces. But there’s the point: laces swept across the board in around 1790, driving the buckle into obscurity. O.K. they are still worn by High Court judges  on Law Sunday processions, but hey, they still wear full wigs so they don’t really count as mainstream fashion arbiters!

The actual date when shoe laces are first recorded was a very specific one: 27 March 1790. The buckle-making industry, particularly centred in Wolverhampton, Birmingham and Walsall, collapsed almost overnight. In vain the buckle-makers went to see the Prince of Wales at Carlton House. “The object of their audience was to present a petition, setting forth the distressed situation of thousands of individuals in different branches of the buckle manufacture in consequence of the the fashion then prevailing of wearing strings. His royal highness received the petitioners very graciously and, as proof of his sympathy, not only resolved to wear buckles himself but to order that his household should do the same.”

A fat lot of good that did, the same source recording that “by 1812, the whole generation of fashions, in the buckle line,  was extinct: a buckle was not to be found on a female foot, nor upon any foot except that of old age”.

Laces were the order of the day (not bright colours like these – but something altogether more tasteful…). And the aglet? Well, as any quiz follower will know (because it seems to have become the archetypal quiz question) the little thingy at the end of the lace, the bit which stops it fraying and enables the lace to be threaded through the eyelet, is known as an aglet (sometimes aiglet). Back in 1790 it would have been made with tightly bound thread encasing the end of the lace. Later the end was crimped in metal or, more recently, heat bonded with plastic..

Wikipedia kindly shows three sorts: copper, plastic and brass.

And finally: some more facts for Quiz Night: until as recently as 1850 the majority of shoes were made so as to be interchangeable (there were generally no ‘left’ and ‘right’ shoes because they were usually made on identical lasts). And the rubber heel? It was patented on January 24, 1899 by Irish-American Humphrey O’Sullivan.  Meanwhile, happy birthday to the modern shoelace, 222 years old today!

Mar 262012

One of the things I love about the Eighteenth Century was that ‘there walked giants’ – everywhere you turn there are people who were prepared to turn known ideas on the head, and to usher in new concepts. This was certainly true of a man I had never heard of until I realized that it is the anniversary of his death in 1797 – one James Hutton.

To set the scene: it had previously been taken as a universal truth that the Bible was an accurate historical narrative showing that the world was formed on a specific date in history. As recently as the sixteenth century Archbishop James Ussher of Ireland had totted up the days and calculated that that Day, the Big One when the earth was formed, was 22nd October 4004 B.C. All done and dusted on a single day, no evolution, no geology, no changes (apart from the Flood).

This background makes it all the more remarkable that James Hutton was able to formulate his ideas on the formation of the Earth. In doing so he established himself as the ‘Father of Modern Geology’ and in my view his works deserve to share an equal place with those of Charles Darwin, who arguably was influenced to no small degree by Hutton’s ideas and thoughts.

He had an interesting past for a geologist: born in Edinburgh in 1726 he trained briefly as a lawyer, then travelled to Paris and Leyden to study as a doctor, qualifying after writing a thesis on the circulation of the blood. He moved on to chemistry, and jointly with a colleague James Davie he devised a cheap and efficient way of making sal ammoniac from soot. This crystalline substance was widely used in dyeing, metalworking and as smelling salts. Previously it had been available only from natural sources and had to be imported from Egypt.

With commercial success came the ability to buy farmland and for twenty years or more he was a ‘gentleman farmer’. He still studied in Edinburgh, falling in with a number of first-class scientific minds including John Playfair and Joseph Black. He was also a close friend of the philosopher David Hume and the economist Adam Smith, all pillars of the new Scottish Enlightenment.

Hutton turned his attention to selective breeding of cattle and experimenting with crop yields, ending up with writing an unpublished work entitled The Elements of Agriculture. Above all he looked and speculated at what lay beneath the surface of the land. He thought long and hard about the jagged outcrops which marked the Scottish landscape, about the streams cutting into the rocks, about each hill and incline.

In a 1753 letter he wrote that he had “become very fond of studying the surface of the earth, and was looking with anxious curiosity into every pit or ditch or bed of a river that fell in his way.” Eventually he came up with a theory, and it was one which blew away the biblical explanation of the world’s creation in the first Chapter of Genesis. According to his friends he was in no hurry to publish his theory – it took him 25 years to come out with it. John Playfair stated that Hutton “was in no haste to publish his theory; for he was one of those who are much more delighted with the contemplation of truth, than with the praise of having discovered it”. But finally, in March and April 1785 his Theory of the Earth; or an Investigation of the Laws observable in the Composition, Dissolution, and Restoration of Land upon the Globe was read to meetings of the Edinburgh Royal Society. He called his theory uniformitarianism: it was based on the idea that the geological process was ongoing and immensely slow, with incredibly long cycles of erosion, deposition, sedimentation and volcanic up-thrust. He came up with the idea of ‘deep time’ measured in tens of thousands of years. Yes, he may have been way out from modern ideas of the Earth being billions of years old, but he was on the right track in appreciating that yesterday’s sea beds have, through volcanic activity became today’s mountains. Revolutionary stuff!

The man and his hammer.


Hutton proposed that at its core the Earth was hot, and that this heat caused new rock to be created: land was eroded by air and water and deposited as layers in the sea; heat then consolidated the sediment and then drove it upwards to create new landscapes. The theory was known also as ‘Plutonism’ in contrast to the earlier flood orientated ideas. He demonstrated that igneous rocks were once molten. He studied Salisbury Crags, an igneous intrusion (sill) in Edinburgh from the Carboniferous Period, and concluded that molten rock had forced its way between layers of sandstone before cooling to form rock. He also studied the rock formations at Siccar Point in Berwickshire where rocks of very different ages are found one on top of the other, often at different angles and in unequal layers. It was unconformities like these which lay at the heart of his ideas of deep time.

Siccar Point

He studied eroded rock, concluding that rocks are made up of “materials furnished from the ruins of former continents.” It was an ongoing process – new rocks being exposed to the atmosphere and then being eroded away. He called this alternating destruction and renewal the “great geological cycle,” and realized that it had been completed innumerable times.


Hutton Unconformity at Jedburgh, Scotland, illustrated by John Clerk in 1787.



For good measure his Theory of the Earth also contained a section on the Theory of Rain: he looked at data about rainfall and climate throughout different regions of the world and realized that rainfall levels are regulated by humidity on the one hand and the mixing of air currents in the higher atmosphere of the other.

Not content with establishing geology, and dabbling in meteorology he also laid the foundation stones for Darwin’s theory of Evolution. His treatise on Elements of Agriculture may not have been published but the underlying ideas would certainly have been prevalent in Edinburgh at the time Charles Darwin was studying medicine there in 1825. Hutton applied his theory of uniformitarianism to living creatures and came up with the idea of ‘principles of variation’ to explain different varieties of flora and fauna. He distinguished between ‘heritable variation’ which came about as a result of breeding, and ‘non-heritable variations’ caused by environmental differences such as soil and climate. Sounds close to Darwinism and the ideas of natural selection to me!

James Hutton died in Edinburgh on 26th March 1797. I have him down as a hero of his Age, without a doubt. And finally – the only way I could add colour to this post, since let’s face it, Hutton was not exactly flamboyant or colourful – a satellite image of Edinburgh and the Firth of Forth.


Mar 252012

I don’t know why but I find this picture rather haunting.The subject Victoire Lemoine is also the artist, but by a nice conceit the picture suggests that it is the viewer who is the sitter, not the artist herself. Her intent stare follows you as you move.

Marie Victoire Lemoine was a Parisienne, born in 1754 and like her two sisters Marie-Denise Villers & Marie-Élisabeth Gabiou she became a painter. She was part of a generation of women who were able to enjoy considerable success as professional artists. Before this time, women were rarely able to become artists, with a few exceptions who were all sisters or daughters of artists. This was the first period in history where a female artist was not an obscure oddity, and she was one of the first women artists to come into prominence in Paris once the official Salon was opened to women in 1791. She produced miniatures as well as oils and genre paintings.

Lemoine studied with Menageot and is thought to have been a student of her heroine Vigee LeBrun. This picture is believed to be a painting of LeBrun by Lemoine, who pays homage to her by showing herself as the pupil. Entitled Interior of the Atelier of a Woman Painter and exhibited at the Salon in 1796 LeBrun is shown palette and mahlstick in hand, pausing from work on an Antique-inspired subject, a votary of Athena, goddess of wisdom and patron of the arts, while her pupil makes a copy of it. It can be interpreted as eulogising  Vigée LeBrun as the original ground-breaker, the high priestess of female artists. The picture is exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Lemoine waas admitted to the Academie Royale in 1783, aged 29.

I find many of her paintings too ‘soft and gentle’, just a bit too mushy. Some of the portraits are a bit ‘samey’ and with interchangeable heads – particularly of children, but here are another two I like:






The un-imaginatively entitled ‘Boy in a black hat’ showing an unknown lad leaning on a portfolio. Shown courtesy of Christie’s, it made $23,750 when sold at auction last year.



And finally, one which really is quite striking,  showing  Zamor, page boy to Madame du Barry (the last mistress to Louis XV). It is shown courtesy of the Cummer Museum in Jacksonville, Florida.                                  Lemoine died in 1820.

Mar 222012
I rather liked this guide to men´s hairstyles in The British Magazine – and an explanation of how it took time for the English  to adjust to these darned foreign styles favoured by those Frenchies and Italians…
           “The Ladies’ Head-Dress”                       
Give Chloe a bushel of horsehair and wool
Of paste and pomatum a pound
Ten yards of gay ribbon to deck her sweet scull
And gauze to encompass it round.
Let her gown be tucked up to the hip on each side
Shoes too high for to walk or to jump
And to deck sweet charmer complete for a bride
Let the cork cutter make her a rump
Thus finished in taste while on Chloe you gaze
you may take the dear charmer for life
but never undress her, for out of her stays
You’ll find you have lost half your wife.
By 1778 it was high fashion to have as much as three feet of hair above the head surmounted by an elaborate headdress, of fabric, feathers, flowers and pearls.
Far from being an exaggeration, the scene in The Duchess where Georgiana wafts by, her head-dress brushing the candelabra and catching fire, must have been a regular risk. Milliners vied with each other for more and more ludicrous edifices – commemorating naval battles etc.


                                          Marie Antoinette, where would we be without you!

and with apologies both to Princess Beatrice and Marie Antoinette…       

It just goes to show that absurd  hats and head-dresses are nothing new! (Picture courtesy of ‘Below your Means’).

By the 1780’s the focus had shifted away from the high hair towards the actual hat – and boy, did they do big hats! I particularly like Gainsborough’s portrait of the Duchess of Devonshire:

and a splendid French hat:


Come the Revolution, and ladies lost both their  heads and their hats, which was a bit of a shame from a millinery point of view! And by then the era of the macaroni was also over. Indeed I cannot think of any other time when men’s hair has ever scaled quite these heights!Engraving from 1773


Mar 202012



An ‘angel’ of Charles 1st, so called because of the image of St Michael slaying the dragon on the front (obverse). Originally worth one third of a pound, by the Stuart period inflation had changed its value to ten shillings. The reverse shows a ship flying the royal pennant.

This coin was pierced so that it could be used in the ceremony of ‘touching for the King’s Evil’. It was believed that the disease scrofula  could be cured by the touch of the king, and thus it was also called the King’s Evil.  Sufferers of the disease who were touched by the king were presented  with a gold angel to hang around their neck, as an amulet to reinforce the cure. This was one of the perks of  being a King by Divine Right, you could go around curing the common people…. as such it was not confined to Great Britain – even the French monarchs were empowered!

Henry IV of France touching sufferers of the King’s evil.  From André Du Laurens, De mirabili strumas sanandi vi solis Galliae regibus…. Paris, 1609.

One of the last people to be touched for the King’s Evil was reputedly the infant (later, Doctor) Samuel Johnson, who was presumably cured of scrofula, if nothing else, and who went on to become one of the greats of the eighteenth century. Young Master Samuel was born in 1709 and if he was touched by Queen Anne this would have had to have been before his fifth birthday, when the Queen died. Her Germanic successors were distinctly unhappy about the superstitious practice, and allowed the ceremony to die out. In Scotland the Stuart “pretenders” continued the practice well into the eighteenth century.

Scrofula is a variant of tuberculosis that most commonly affected lymph nodes in the face and neck. This is how the diarist John Evelyn describes the ceremony (in the reign of Charles II)

His Majesty began first to touch for ye evil, according to custom, thus: ….the chirurgeons cause the sick to be brought or led up to the throne, where they kneeling, ye King stokes their faces and cheeks with both his hands at once,…. When they have all been totched [sic],… the other chapelaine kneeling and having an angel of gold strung on white ribbon on his arme., delivers them one by one to His Majestie, who puts them about the necks of the touched as they passe….

And for Richard Hall, how come he had a Kings Touch-piece? I have no idea. By then the angel was no longer being minted and would have been of bullion value only (i.e. not in general circulation, but worth whatever was the corresponding weight of gold). But there it is, right at the bottom of his list of coins, after the ‘2 Jacobus’ (i.e. gold twenty-five shilling coins of James 1st) and the ‘Prussian ducat’:

Perhaps it shows Richard was more superstitious than he let on! An interesting link is that I used to collect angels, and ‘stepped the mast’ with one minted in 1497 when the replica of John Cabot’s ship The Mathew sailed to Newfoundland in 1997 to commemorate the discovery of Canada 500 years before.  (The Mathew is generally to be found lurking in Bristol harbour. Lift the mast and you should find my coin, though possibly a little flattened having been squashed under the mast for ten years and more!)

It is there to bring the ship good luck, just as one was almost certainly placed under the mast of the original Mathew. So, an interesting coin: the angel. When it was first minted it was in response to demand from …lawyers, since their standard unit of charge was measured in one third of a pound (six shillings and eightpence, for purists). Employ a lawyer to draw up a deed in the 1400’s and the chances are that you would have paid him an angel. And I suppose that is why I was drawn to collect angels – a link to my medieval predecessors!

Mar 172012

Would my ancestor have noticed an Irish connection on 17th March as he grew up in London in the middle of the eighteenth Century? Almost certainly, yes. Dean Swift in his Journal to Stella demonstrates that the wearing of crosses on this day was not confined to Ireland and that the custom had travelled abroad with its citizens as they crossed the Irish Sea. Writing in 1713 he remarks that in London “The Irish folks were disappointed that the Parliament did not meet today, because it was St Patrick’s Day; and the Mall was so full of crosses, that I thought all the world was Irish”

The traditional St Patrick’s Cross differed  according to gender: the one worn by men and boys was made of a square of paper, each side about three inches long, on which a circle was drawn. Using a quill pen and the index finger as a rough pair of dividers the circumference of the circle was used to create small arcs inside the circle. These would then be coloured, often by the children, traditionally using egg yolk for yellow, chewed grass for green – and a pricked finger for red! An alternative pattern was to draw an inner circle, ringed along its edge with six smaller circles. The whole would then be set within a larger circle and each of the constituent parts of the pattern would then be coloured. The resulting equivalent of an intricately designed Celtic cross would then be pinned to the cap and worn throughout the 17th  March.

   For the girls there was a different custom: a cross was made of stiff card and pinned onto a circle of silk. The arms of the cross would then be decorated with ribbons and bows, with a rosette of emerald green silk  attached to  the centre. The decorated cross would then be pinned beneath the wearer’s shoulder on her right hand side.     (Illustration  courtesy of National Museum, Dublin).

And the wearing of the shamrock? Well that was certainly already a custom in the 1700’s. In 1727 the botanist Caleb Threlkeld identified the shamrock as the white clover (‘Trifoleum repens’) and remarked “This plant is worn on the 17th March yearly, which is called St Patrick’s Day, it being a current tradition that by this three-leaved grass, he emblematically set forth to them the mystery of the Holy Trinity. However that be, when they wear their seamar-oge, they often commit excess in liquor, which is not a right keeping of a day to the Lord; error generally leading to debauchery.” He goes on to describe the break in Lenten fasting as being called “wetting the shamrock”

Others have identified the shamrock with other plants from the same family. But whether it was the clover or oxalis or the common trefoil, tradition had it then when the last drink was about to be drunk, the wearer removed the leaf and placed in St Patrick’s Pot (‘pota Pádraig’), delivered a toast, and then having emptied the pot or bumper, threw the leaf over his left shoulder.

So, there we have it – the day was celebrated by young and old alike, at home in Ireland but also wherever they congregated overseas, and it invariably ended up with the consumption of alcohol. It also was a pretext for abandoning the rigours of Lent for one day – observers of St Patrick’s Day felt able to eat meat instead of the wretched herring on which they had subsisted for the previous few weeks!

P.S. Why 17th March? Because that was the day in 432 that St Patrick, a bishop, was captured and carried off to Ireland as a slave.

P.P.S. First time St Patrick’s Day was celebrated in New York City? 1756 in the Crown & Thistle Tavern.

Mar 162012

It is hard to imagine a less likely heroine than Caroline Lucretia Herschel, born on 16 March 1750 into a highly musical Hanoverian family. She did not have an awful lot going for her: she caught smallpox at the age of three and this left her disfigured and facially scarred; she caught typhus at the age of ten and this stunted her growth (she apparently scaled the heights at four feet three inches). Her looks ‘were not considered likely to gain her a husband’ – a polite way of saying that she was somewhat unattractive in her appearance and indeed she never married. Her parents therefore decided that she would only ever get a job as a home help. As such her mother decided that she was scarcely worth the bother of educating – to the extent that she never did learn her multiplication tables to her dying day on 9 January 1848 at the age of 96.

She had two things going for her: one was that Britain and Hanover were ruled by the same monarch and therefore travel between the two countries was unrestricted because she was considered to be a British subject: and she had an elder brother Wilhelm who had already moved to Bath. Following the death of their father Isaak in 1767 she had stayed on in the kitchens as a maid, until Wilhelm invited her to stay with him in Bath in 1772. It was to result in a partnership which brought considerable fame and a reasonable fortune to both of the siblings.

Wilhelm had been an oboist in the army before coming to Britain and he got a job as a music teacher and organist at a school at at 19 New King Street (now the site of the Herschel Museum of Astronomy).

He was also appointed choirmaster at the Octagon Chapel and in this context was able to Wilhelm give his kid sister (she was 12 years his junior) regular singing lessons in order that she might be able to support herself financially. She became highly proficient and with a fine singing voice she performed up to five times a week in Bath and Bristol.

Wilhelm was fascinated by the heavens at night and spent hours studying the stars. His sister kept him company on what would otherwise have been a lonely vigil and together they made some remarkable discoveries. I will cover Wilhelm in a later post. Suffice to say he discovered a new planet (Uranus) and noted dozens of double stars, planets and nebulae. He was knighted for his services and received a personal appointment as Astronomer to the King.

But it is Caroline who intrigues me. She had the precision and accuracy to polish the metal mirrors which were used in the telescopes of the day. She was the one who made notes, corrections and organized his observations. She was also encouraged by her brother to learn about astronomy and in the 1780’s she discovered three nebulae and, in 1786, her first comet. Another seven comets were discovered by her over the next few years. Her brother went on to build the biggest telescope in the world. But she was also recognized as an astronomer in her own right, and received a state salary of fifty pounds per annum for services to science – making her the very first woman in this country to be rewarded in this way.

She went on to receive the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1828 and was made an (honorary) Fellow of the Royal Society in 1835, when she was 85. She was elected as a full member of the Royal Irish Academy the following year. She was also awarded the Prussian Gold Medal for Science when she was 95 years old.

But all this was in the future in 1788 when to her shock and horror her brother decided to get married (at the age of 51) to a wealthy widow called Mary Pitt. Caroline was extremely possessive of her brother and was at constant loggerheads with the new Mrs Herschel, not least over the upbringing of Master John who was born in 1792. In fact the son went on to be another brilliant astronomer, building on the family reputation by discovering 525 nebullae and clusters and becoming President of the Royal Society in 1850 (and in 1855 being appointed Master of the Royal Mint).

Brother Wilhelm may have had other night-time distractions but Caroline pursued her astronomical interests with renewed vigour. Her bitterness revitalized her. In 1798 she published an updated version of Flamsteed’s star catalogue (to include an extra 500 stars omitted from the original work). She became a friend of the Royal family, staying with them on a number of occasions. When her brother died in 1822 she returned to her native Hanover but continued with her astronomy studies, including the completion of a catalogue of some 2500 nebullae noted by her late brother.

She was a remarkable woman who achieved remarkable things. To her brother goes most of the fame and prestige – but he would never have managed it without his sister. And just imagine what she might have achieved if only she had been taught mathematics and in particular her multiplication tables! After all, she helped pioneer the modern mathematical approach to astronomy!

Picture courtesy of the Royal Astronomical Society          






P.S. This repeats a blog I posted elsewhere last summer but I felt it was worth repeating on the anniversary of Caroline’s birth.

Mar 152012

Richard’s birthday fell on 15th March. He recorded it in his diary each year, generally adding that he had been ‘spared to see the return of another birthday’ and bemoaning the fact that he had done far too little for the Lord in the previous year…!

Sometimes the occasion seems to have been marked by a small present –  one birthday was enlivened by the arrival of a new Cocker Spaniel. Another was celebrated by dining ‘on a Hare and a piece of Salmon’. Occasionally a member of the family returned home to mark the day (‘ Son Franky din’d with us today’) but what comes across is how low-key celebrations were – no cards, no wrapped presents, no celebratory meals or trips to the theatre.

His best birthday present must have been when he was 53 – for on that day his (new) wife gave birth to their baby daughter Anna.

So, 282 years on, Happy Birthday Richard!