Jun 122012


I particularly like these two self portraits by Jean-Étienne Liotard done in 1746 and 1751, showing him in a splendid flowing beard. O.K., so he doesn’t appear to have changed his jacket in six years, but that is what you call a beard!





The upcoming auction at Sotheby’s (June 21) of a fascinating portrait of Mademoiselle Jacquet, a French actress at the Opéra (Académie Royale de Musique) reminded me of the wonderful talents of this fine artist. He was born in Switzerland in 1702 and died on 12 June 1789 and is best known for his portraits in pastel and for his miniatures. He studied in Geneva and then in France but got bored with life in a studio and headed off for Italy in 1735.  There he met Sir William Ponsonby, 2nd Earl of Bessborough, who offered to travel with him to Constantinople, drawing the costumes and characters they encountered. From there Liotard travelled, through Turkey, Greece, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Great Britain, Holland, Italy – and France. Along the way he painted the heads of the royal families, and anyone else who took his fancy, often showing them in Turkish dress….


Here are a few in more conservative attire:        Empress Maria Theresa

  George Prince of Wales                                                                                                                       Anonymous sitter
                           The Austrian Arch-Duke
 Ami-Jean de la Rive                             
                                                                                                                                    Isaac Louis de Thellusson
I am not sure that it is actually lawful to do a post on Liotard without including The Chocolate Girl and Lady Pouring Chocolate so here they are just in case:
But I rather like this self portrait of the artist as an older man, laughing:
To end, on an altogether more serious note to mark the anniversary of the death of this exquisite painter, his portraits of Count Kaunitz, and of Madame Jean Tronchin:
Jun 102012

A trio of delightful (?) etchings, all copyright of the British Museum, to remind us that fashion has been tampering with the ‘natural shape’ of women for hundreds of years. Rarely has the exaggerated female form been so dramatically illustrated as in the late 1780’s and early 1790’s.

In the first etching, entitled Female Whimsicalities, we see ‘Prominence 1785’ as carrying all before her, and with such an uplift that it has the odd result that her chin is nestling on her embonpoint! No neck, just an elevated and pronounced pair of knockers which would shame a modern-day Jordan! Her posterior is positively gargantuan.The lady on the right, entitled ‘Prominence 1793’ still has a projecting bust, but in a less exaggerated manner, and a stomach which on anyone pregnant would denote twins if not a hidden army of admirers up her skirt. In the background is a smaller figure, a girl standing in profile, wearing a high-waisted dress which falls limply to the ground. She is described as ‘Virgin Shape’. Beneath is the inscription:

‘Since all confess the nat’ral Form Divine,

What need to Swell before or add behind?’

It is dated 16 May 1793.

Cartoonists loved poking fun at these absurd fashions – no more so than in the second print entitled A Modern Venus showing what the 1785 female would have needed to have looked like if the shape were natural rather than padded out!

The British Museum description says it all: “A young woman stands directed to the left looking downwards, hands held out. She is naked, with hair falling on her shoulders. Her figure is grotesque, with gigantic breasts and projecting posteriors, wide shoulders and compressed waist, as if to fit the absurd fashions of the day.  Beneath the title is engraved:

‘This is the Form, if we believe the Fair,
Of which our Ladies are, or wish they were.’

It is dated 1786.


So where did such exaggerated shapes come from, before silicone implants were invented? Well, from a bum shop of course!

This third print is entitled The Bum Shop, and according to the British Museum description:

“Two fashionably dressed shopmen supply ladies with pads to extend their dresses at the back. Two other ladies have already been fitted; a fifth, who is buxom, sits on a stool clasping an inflated specimen at which she smiles with satisfaction. Various types of these pads or ‘derrières’ hang on the wall, and a pile lies on the ground (right). A dog, shaved in the French manner showing very thin hindquarters, is begging. Beneath the title is engraved: ‘Derriere begs leave to submit to the attention of that most indulgent part of the Public the Ladies in general, and more especially those to whom Nature in a slovenly moment has been niggardly in her distribution of certain lovely Endowments, his much improved (aridæ nates) or Dried Bums so justly admired for their happy resemblance to nature. Derriere flatters himself that he stands unrivalled in this fashionable article of female Invention, he having spared neither pains nor expence in procuring every possible information on the subject, to render himself competent to the artfully supplying of this necessary appendage of female excellence.”

The thought occurs to me that in another couple of hundred year’s time someone will be looking online at some of the fashion extremes of today – and composing a similar article to this! In the meantime, I finish with the thought that a friend of mine has this delightful description of a well-endowed lady. She is said to have “beaucoup du Monde sur le balcon”.  Slightly more poetic than “all that meat and no gravy”….

Jun 082012

Trawling through information on the Eighteenth Century architect-come-garden designer William Kent elicited the rather surprising information that he is also credited with inventing the first pram!

William was a Yorkshireman born in 1685 who attained considerable success in the early 1700s designing buildings in London such as the Royal Mews at Charing Cross, and the Treasury Buildings and Horse Guards Building in Whitehall. A strict adherent of Palladian style, he worked on the interior of Sir Robert Walpole’s house at Houghton Hall and most effectively at Holkham Hall. And it wasn’t just the buildings he designed – in many cases he came up with the designs for all the furniture as well (for instance at Houghton Hall, Holkham Hall and for Devonshire House in London).

He was also the forerunner of the park-land type of garden design – before that particular baton was picked up by Capability Brown and Humphry Repton later in the century. If you wanted a rolling landscape punctuated with temples, grottoes, ornate bridges and specimen trees, he was your man.

I rather like the assessment of William Kent by Horace Walpole: “(He) was a painter, an architect, and the father of modern gardening. In the first character he was below mediocrity; in the second, he was a restorer of the science; in the last, an original, and the inventor of an art that realizes painting and improves nature. Mahomet imagined an elysium, Kent created many.”

Oh well, you can’t please all the people all of the time….

It was while working on a garden design for the Third Duke of Devonshire in 1733 that he was asked to design a baby carriage. He came up with a shell seat suspended on a carriage chassis, complete with rudimentary springs, and a harness so that the contraption could be pulled by a goat.

The design caught on with the aristocracy and soon everyone wanted their offspring to be towed around in a goat cart!

Some of these expensive toys were beautifully decorated, as in this on from the 18th Century. I can imagine the poor servant receiving constant commands to pull the child hither and thither, faster and faster!

Another splendid conveyance was purportedly made for Dauphin Louis Charles, the unfortunate son of Louis XVI. I say unfortunate – he would not have had many years to be carted around in it behind a goat because mummy and daddy were guillotined when the boy was eight; he was imprisoned and kept in appalling conditions (solitary confinement in a darkened room) for two years. He apparently died from TB (or possibly he was poisoned) shortly after his tenth birthday. The carriage, really no more than a normal carriage in miniature form, can be seen at Le Petit Trianon at the Palace of Versailles. Spare a thought for the young lad – today is the anniversary of his death…


To begin with these conveyances were simply intended to entertain the children – they were not designed so that parents could carry the child from one place to another. At this stage they were intended to harness either servant or animal power (pony and dog carts were increasingly favoured over goat carts).


Then came the breakthrough: Three-wheeler strollers started to appear in the middle of the Nineteenth Century (possibly to overcome by-laws banning four wheeled vehicles from the pavement). Much smaller and lighter, they were also somewhat top heavy and prone to fall over! The first stroller introduced to America was in the 1830s when Benjamin Potter Crandall arrived there. His son Jesse Armour Crandall modified and improved the design so that by the 1840s these strollers were in widespread use.


In time developments came in whereby the child sat in a removable basket, with handles. The patent by William Richardson in 1889 in the States is important because the bassinet was reversible – the child could either face the pusher, or face forward. Maneuverability was greatly increased, with independent axles.





From then it was but a short hop, skip and a jump to this splendid Edwardian pram from around 1905:

Meanwhile dog carts for older children to play in became common – I have a photograph of my grandmother in a dog cart dated 1901 when she was eight years old.



Improvements have come thick and fast in the intervening years, until they are just one more fashion accessory. I still think my favourite has to be the “pimp my pram” extravaganza featured here, from the http://www.emailjokez.com website:

So, we have come full circle – prams are a miniature version of adult cars. Toys for boys more like…

Jun 062012

Theodore Rombout's "Teeth Extraction" from 1635

I have a confession to make: my attendance record with dentists has never been exemplary. It’s not that I don’t like dentists – lovely people, every single one of them, it is just that I work by the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it “ principle, and so far, it (my teeth) ain’t broke…

'Transplanting of Teeth' by Thomas Rowlandson (© BDA Dental Museum)

That doesn’t stop me admiring the work of the early dentists, and the courage of their patients come to that. My 4xgreat grandfather Richard was forever complaining about toothache, and mentions having an extraction.

He also kept a copy of the British Magazine for January 1773. It contains the following explanation of a tooth extraction:

“First, in drawing all teeth the patient’s head should be held by an assistant in the required position; second, the forceps is always to be held in the right hand, and the fulcrum in the left; third, the tooth after being first freed from the gums, if the surgeon thinks it necessary, is to be gripped as low as possible by the forceps…covered with leather.” It goes on to list a handy guide to the nine stages of pulling out a tooth….nice bedtime reading!

No doubt Richard found it reassuring later in 1773. Throughout the first week of December he complained of toothache (“Friday 10th December the past night very painful with my Tooth etc – got up between 3 & 4 o’clock. Today very bad with it likewise. Frosty, dull, very cold day”). By 16th December he “had an indifferent night the past – with my Tooth. Today was enabled to go through the Operation of having it drawn out which gave me great relief. Part fine, part dull, not very cold.”

I am sure that he never aspired to visit the premises of Thomas Berdmore (or indeed, arranged for the good doctor come to him). Thomas Berdmore (1740-85), was considered the outstanding dentist in England and was known as “Dentist to His Majesty” (i.e., King George III). Thomas  had been born in Nottingham to the Revd Thomas Berdmore and his wife Martha. By the age of 21 he appears to have joined the (Royal) dental practice of Watts Rutter and Green in Racquet Court off Fleet Street . A year later he was  appointed Surgeon’s Mate to the Regiment of Artillery and four years after that, aged a mere 26, his royal approval was marked by his appointment as “Operator for the Teeth”  to George III

In 1780 he published the “Treatise in the Disorders and Deformities of the Teeth and Gums”. It has several chapters devoted to periodontal problems. In Chapter 7, “Of Tartar of the Teeth, and the Recess of the Gums, and Toothache Occasioned by Tartarous Concretions long Neglected,” Berdmore offered detailed descriptions of instrumentation for tartar removal but stressed prevention. He also used surgery when necessary to remove ‘hyper-plastic gingival tissue’ once the tartar was removed. He stated that in some cases the tartar build- up was so thick that removing it necessitated surgery “for without this surgery the gums will not closely embrace a tooth which has been made smaller at the collar by the removal of its tartar”.

The treatise contains some fascinating advice to the public:

* Young children with milk teeth ought “to be encouraged to chew upon coral, wax and such like bodies”.

* “People who eat most sweetmeats are subject to disorders and deformities of the teeth.”

* “Peasant and poor farmers suffer less in this way, unlike those of rank and opulence.”

* “Cracking nuts is hurtful to teeth, as is the custom young girls have for cutting sewing thread with their teeth.”

* “Tooth picks are very bad practice.”

* “I am inclined to think smoking is hurtful to the teeth.”

* He also suggested that with toothache a useful remedy was “astringent liquors such as betony rendered slightly acid by orange, lemon juice or vinegar”. On another occasion he advises “To help cure toothache, keep the mouth filled with warm water or peppermint water, or if that is not handy any ardent spirit.”

* “Free your teeth carefully at night from the scraps of food which are apt to lodge after supper.”

18th Century dental forceps for molar extraction

When it came to correcting a crooked smile Berdmore was emphatic. Addressing the subject of ‘how to bring teeth which are ill into beautiful order’, he wrote: ‘Pass gold wire from the neighbouring teeth on either side, in such a manner as to press upon what stands out of the line.’ (In other words, a form of brace).

The alternative, Berdmore suggested, was to ‘break the teeth into order by means of a strong pair of crooked pliers’.

Berdmore became both rich and famous. Among other things he taught dentistry to Robert Woffendale (1742-1828). Woffendale later went on to become the first American qualified dentist  in 1780. Berdmorere’s wealth enabled him to travel to France (home of so many dental advances in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century). Thus there is a record of Benjamin Franklin receiving a letter of introduction dated 26th August 1784 from a ‘Mr William Strahan of London’ introducing “Thos Berdmore the celebrated dentist who goes to Paris on a pleasure jaunt.”

By the time he died aged 45 he had amassed a fortune of some £40,000 (perhaps equivalent to three million pounds today). He had never married and left handsome bequests to various nieces. His body was brought from London to the White Lion Inn at Nottingham in an elegantly decorated horse-drawn hearse. From there the funeral procession wended its way to St Mary’s Church, where he was buried in the Chancel alogside his uncle Revd Scrope Berdmore. A memorial tablet was set up nearby.






And because no self respecting blog is complete without a James Gillray, here is one entitled ‘Easing Toothache’ (memo to self: never sit on a high stool when visiting the dentist, unless, that is, you are planning to kick him in the goolies if the pain gets too much!).


Jun 042012

Confession time: I have to admit that when I saw that it was the birthday of Thomas Lawrence on 13th April, my response was to think “Who he?” Sometimes my ignorance is quite breath-taking…

He was born in Bristol  in 1769, one of only five children out of sixteen in the family to survive childhood. His father moved from Bristol to run the Black Bear Inn at Devizes, but failed in business, and was declared bankrupt.  By a curious coincidence, my ancestor Richard Hall  probably met the family, since his diary for 6th June 1773 states that he ‘went to see Wilton House and Stonehenge; Supp’d and lay at The Bear at Devizes’. It is interesting to conjecture whether Richard would have been greeted with the landlord’s usual question “Which would you rather, young Tom recite a verse or paint your likeness?”

His father’s bankruptcy left young Thomas, then ten years of age, as the family bread-winner. He moved to Bath, aged 11, and exhibited a precocious talent for portraiture, charging three guineas a sitting. He was entirely self taught, using pastels at first before graduating to oils. His reputation soon spread and at the age of eighteen he moved to London and installed his parents in a house in Greek Street and opened a studio at 41 Jermyn Street. Not bad for an 18 year old!


He enrolled as a student at the Royal Academy but that didn’t last long – portrait painting was his only real interest. Over the ensuing thirty years he became the pre-eminent artist of his generation. His portraits of Nelson, Wellington and George IV (see above) are iconic representations of some of the great figures of Regency England.

I particularly like some of his unfinished studies – they seem to draw you in to the actual face of the sitter, rather than get bogged down with details of dress, such as in this portrait of the avuncular William Wilberforce, courtesy of the National Gallery. (I gather that when he died there were rather a lot of unfinished portraits in his studio, as he was hopeless at finishing projects; on one occasion taking twelve years to complete a commission).

With  Lawrence it seems that it was not so much a case of not falling in love, so much as falling in love too often, famously with two of the daughters of the actress Sarah Siddons at one and the same time. He alternated between the two sisters, causing enormous hurt to the family,  and at one stage this led him to have a complete nervous breakdown. Some of the pain and anguish, and burning sadness, appears in  the portraits he painted. By and large he seemed to excel at painting beautiful people, male or female. He knew how to bring out the best in good-looking sitters!

Take this splendid Byron-esque portrait of Arthur Atherley, a banker’s son just down from Eton, who was only two years younger than the painter. Set against a foreboding dark sky, the young buck holds his hat in his left hand while nonchalantly placing his right hand on his waist, staring straight at the viewer with a confident, almost arrogant, gaze.





Over the years he painted portraits of royalty, including this 1769 one of Queen Charlotte, shown courtesy of the National Gallery. She hated it so much she refused to accept delivery of it and it remained in his studio until he died. Why didn’t she like it? Probably because it captures something of the sadness of the poor woman – this was done at a time when her husband’s madness had just become evident. It was also the time of the French Revolution, and perhaps being royal was not a particularly happy experience in those days! And maybe she just didn’t like being shown as the Snow Queen, locked away inside her palace.

In time Lawrence was admitted to the Royal Academy, and in 1820 was made President of that august body. He had previously been appointed “painter-in-ordinary ” to George III,  was knighted in 1814, and travelled through Europe at the request of the Prince Regent painting foreign leaders such as Napoleon ll, the Pope, the Tsar of Russia and miscellaneous Arch-Dukes, Kings and Emperors. Not my cup of tea….but more to my taste are some of the gorgeous portraits of the beauties of the Age.


Take this lovely painting of Elizabeth, Duchess of Devonshire, painted in 1819 when she was sixty years old. This was ‘Bess’ Foster, close friend of Georgiana, who had married the Duke after Georgiana had died. To me it has it all: a beautiful woman, a memorable hat, and a look which haunts with its enigmatic expression. Terrific!



Here are a few more which I admire.  Left to right, Frederic Lock, Margaret Countess of Blessington and Lady Selena Meade:





And here is Sarah Siddons (a sitter, even though he was knocking off both her daughters!) and a splendid portrait of Elizabeth Farren (later Countess of Derby).





At the time of his death, Lawrence appears to have been at the height of his powers (but was nevertheless heavily in debt). He died on 7th January 1830 and almost immediately seems to have been airbrushed from history. Perhaps it was the Victorian reaction to the excesses and immorality of the Regency era, but the fact remains that from a height of popularity which far exceeded Constable and Turner, he has slumped into relative obscurity. We may know his paintings, but we rarely see his name.

Lawrence was buried two weeks after his death, in the crypt at St Paul’s Cathedral.  The artist Turner was one of the mourners, and he painted this sketch of the funeral from memory.

Last year the National Gallery sought to remind us what a fine artist Thomas Lawrence was, with an exhibition of his works, gathered from top collections in America and Great Britain.

Finally, let me end with my personal favourite, his portrait of Rosamund Hester Elizabeth Croker, painted in 1827:

Jun 022012
The sun pictured during the 2004 transit of Venus (yup, it’s the black dot at the top!)

On June 3rd 1769 Captain James Cook opened his ship´s log and noted:

“This day prov´d as favourable to our purpose as we could wish; not a Clowd was to be seen the whole day and the Air was perfectly clear”

The ‘purpose’ described by him was the primary reason for his voyage on board the Endeavour: to observe the transit of Venus. Also on board was the astronomer Charles Green, and they had gone to Tahiti on the instructions of George III to observe and measure  the silhouette of the planet Venus as it crossed the face of the sun. Once they had completed their observation they were to head south in an endeavour to find the fabled ‘Unknown South Land’.

The astronomer Edmund Halley had been one of the people clamouring for the expedition. In 1716 he correctly predicted that observing and accurately recording the differences in the transit time, measured from two different places on the earth’s surface, would enable scientists to calculate the exact distance of the earth from the sun, and hence measure the size of the solar system. Halley called on the scientific community to combine forces so that accurate measurements could be taken all across the globe, knowing that the fairly straight-forward trigonometry calculation would give the measurement ‘to unlock the secrets of the universe’.

Halley correctly predicted the transit would next occur on June 6, 1761 and again on June 3, 1769. Ironically he never lived ot see either transit – just as he never lived to see the return of the comet which carries his name and whose trajectory he correctly calculated.

But the scientific community heeded his call, and a whole army of scientists embarked for distant places armed with stop watches and telescopes. The numbers they brought back were duly crunched and analyzed, and a conclusion was reached that the distance between the sun and the earth was in the range of 92,900,000 to 96,900,000 miles – very close to today’s figure of 92,960,000 miles.

The astronomical event occurs in pairs eight years apart, and then not again for another 105 years. It was last observed in 2004. This year is therefore the last chance any of us alive as adults today will see the occurrence, due on 5th/6th June 2012, as the next one will not come round until 11th December 2117 (and December 2125).

Statue of Captain Cook at Gisborne, New Zealand

This year’s transit will be best viewed from the Pacific Ocean where it will be visible (cloud cover permitting) for most of the time. In Sydney the transit should start around 8.30 and last until 2.00 in the afternoon. The start of the transit will be visible in North America, and most of Europe  will be able to observe the closing stages. Hard luck on the South Americas and those interested in astronomy in  much of Africa – it will not be visible at all in those areas. In the United Kingdom the transit should be visible an hour after sunrise – at around 6 a.m.

In Australia plans are afoot to send a replica of the Endeavour to Lord Howe Island in June to repeat the  earlier work of Captain Cook. The ballot to get on the crew list of 32 was drastically over-subscribed and each has to pay a substantial sum of money for the privilege of going on the voyage. Any ‘softy’ wanting the luxury of a cabin has had to fork out A$8000 For the rest of us, observing the event through smoked glass, or old X-ray film, is probably the best bet.

More information about the imminent transit can be found at:


And because the old maps are often so much more beautiful than their modern counterparts, here is Ferguson’s map showing the 1761 Transit:

Jun 012012

To describe James Rennell as a sailor is to miss out his huge contribution to the science of oceanography; to call him an oceanographer is to overlook his consummate skill as a surveyor and map maker, especially in India. He was so much else besides – explorer, soldier, erudite writer, family man and a friend whenever one was needed. His life falls conveniently in to two parts – his early years as a sailor and adventurer, followed by half a century spent at home studying every field of geographical activity.

He didn’t have an auspicious start: he was born on 3rd December 1742 in the tiny village of Upcot near Chudleigh in Devon. His father was a Captain in the British Army and was killed in action in the Low Countries when the lad was five years old. His widow was left ‘with no visible means of support’ and was forced to sell the family properties. A couple of years later she re-married but her new partner Mr Elliot had a family of youngsters of his own, and not enough money to support any step-children. This resulted in James going to stay with the kindly Revd. Gilbert Burrington, vicar of Chudleigh, who provided him with a home, and love and affection, until James was 14. Meanwhile he attended the local grammar school, and drew maps of the village to pass the time.…

At 14 he caught the Stage Coach as it rolled past his home towards Plymouth, and got a place as a midshipman on board the Brilliant, under the captaincy of Captain Hyde Parker. This most supportive of men had served under Admiral Anson in his circumnavigation of the world and it is likely that he was the person who encouraged the lad to pursue surveying. His first chart was of the Bay of St Cast, where he witnessed the slaughter of most of the 1200 grenadiers trying to re-embark their vessels under enemy fire. The following year the Brilliant captured a couple of French privateers and this meant the entire crew shared in the Prize money. James used it to buy books, and he returned briefly to England before heading off on board America for Madras. It was to be another eighteen years before he would return.

George Romney's 1782 portrait of Hyde Parker

Captain Hyde Parker used his influence to get James transferred to the Grafton, which was involved in the siege of Pondicherry, which ended successfully in March 1761. From there the Grafton headed towards Mauritius with the rest of the East Indies Squadron, stopping en route at Rodriguez Island (some 344 miles to the east of Mauritius). There the fleet dined plentifully on turtles – lots and lots of them. James wrote in one of his letters calculating that some 60,000 turtles were consumed by the fleet during its seven week stay! When not eating turtle stew, turtle soup, turtle fricassee or turtle pie James surveyed the local Port Mathurin before the influence of the good Captain saw him seconded to the East India Company as an assistant surveyor. This post took him to Malacaa, the Nicobar Islands and North West Borneo, all of which he painstakingly surveyed.

On return to India he befriended the Governor of Madras, a man by the name of Robert (later Sir Robert) Palk. He got James a commission form the East India Company to superintend the transport and landing of troops for a siege. This led him to Calcutta where he met up with an old mess-mate called Topham. Mr Topham had a useful contact with the Governor of Bengal. The Governor rather wanted his province to be properly surveyed – an exercise which was both useful militarily, and advantageous in establishing ‘what was there’ rather in the manner of a latter-day Domesday Book. Enter James Rennie, who at the precocious age of 21 landed the plum job of surveyor with a commission in the Bengal Engineers. He rose to the rank of Captain and eventually, on retirement, was made up to Major. Meanwhile he passed the rest of the 1760s mapping the Ganges. The Governor was so pleased he recommended that the East India Company pay him a thousand pounds a year. James responded by sending money home to his mother and sister, and to the family of the kindly Revd. Burrington.

Within a couple more years he had reached the foothills of the Himalayas (then known as the Tartarian Mountains). Around this time he became a friend of Hugh (later Sir Hugh) Inglis. A useful contact – Inglis was to become head of the East India Company in 1812.

Life was never dull for James. In 1766 his surveying party was ambushed by fanatical Sanashi Fakirs, armed to the teeth with sabres and rifles. James was seriously wounded – to the shoulder blade, ribs, both arms and left hand – but managed to fight off his attackers and stagger back under heavy fire. On reaching the rest of his men he collapsed from loss of blood and was not expected to survive. His men did what they could (there was no surgeon in the party) and packed his wounds with crushed onions and put him on an open boat for the six day voyage back to Dacca. His wounds were thought to be terminal, but in time he recovered and the grateful Lord Clive promptly had him made up to Surveyor General and insisted that thereafter he should always be accompanied by his own band of sepoys.

His surveying field work took seven years, enlivened by the occasional encounter with leopards (one badly mauled five of his men before James stabbed it with a bayonet) and on another occasion when he was asked to march 320 miles against border raiders, a journey which he accomplished in fifteen days (remarkable when you consider the climate, the terrain, and the harsh conditions).

In 1768 a new Governor of Calcutta was appointed, a Mr Cartier. He had a secretary, whose sister Jane Thackeray was staying with the family in India. Jane was one of fifteen children, her father being headmaster of Harrow School in England. James and Jane fell in love, and were married in India. James then immersed himself in the second phase of the mapping operation – actually transferring all the data to make up the 14 sheets which comprised the map of Bengal.

Illness, and a desire to return to England, meant that James sought permission from Warren Hastings to retire, with a pension from the East India Company. The Company promised him six hundred pounds a year (but later tried to say it was only four hundred) and off he sailed for England, stopping off on the way at St Helena so that his wife could give birth to a daughter (called Jane). Finally, in February 1778 the Hector landed at Portsmouth.

At this point the Company not only tried to short-change him on his pension, they also refused to contribute to the cost of printing and publishing the Bengal Atlas. In time they relented, albeit begrudgingly.

The family settled in London Cavendish Square where Jane gave birth to two sons. They then moved to 23 Suffolk Street (later renamed Nassau Street) while James started on the second phase of his career, compiling his “Map & Memoir of Hindoostan”.

In 1781 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (its President Sir Joseph Banks had accompanied Cook on his first 1st voyage, & became a great friend of Rennell).

He started to collate all the various attempts to chart the continent of Africa and to make these up as a comprehensive map, and was immediately made an Honorary Member of the Africa Association.

He had developed an interest in ocean drift during his long journey back from India and had prepared an oceanography chart of what he termed the Lagullas Cape in 1778. As a sailor he had personally observed the currents of the Atlantic, measured the trade-winds, and noted the monsoons and their effects on ocean drift. He persuaded sea captains to supply him with their log books so that he could add to his immense store of knowledge. From this he whittled it down to 7 charts of winds and currents. Seamen still have reason to be grateful for his expertise, especially with the identification of what is now called the Rennell Current. This sweeps up past the Bay of Biscay and across the mouth of the English and Irish Channels, and can cause ships seriously to misjudge their position. It was only a century earlier (1707) that Sir Cloudesley Shovel lost his flagship & two ships of the line through his failure to appreciate the existence of this current.

At this stage no-one else knew anything about oceanography – the word was not in use, and the importance of wind and currents was not understood. Small wonder that the Navy offered him the appointment of Hydrographer to the Admiralty, but James turned down the offer, concerned that it would interfere with his on-going research.

In his old age he continued to work, and above all to offer encouragement and support, and helpful criticism, to those that followed in his footsteps. He was a hugely influential and genial person.

With age came recognition from most of the countries in Europe. The Copley Medal was awarded him in 1791, at which point Sir Joseph Banks said that the Bengal Atlas had been prepared “with a degree of exactness that had not been paralleled by the most applauded geographers of this or any preceding age.” He was given the Gold medal by the Royal Society of Literature in 1825 as well as being honoured by continental academies. He was famed for his simplicity, courtesy and genius for friendship. Everyone agreed: he was a pleasure to know, a man of great benevolence.

When Sir Joseph Banks died his friends decided to form a dining group known as the Raleigh Club. And when James himself died, on 29th March 1830, within two months the Raleigh Club had re-named itself the Geographical Club.

Publication of many of his papers, including the Map and Memoir of Hindoostan shown here, took place posthumously, thanks to the devoted work of his daughter Jane.

He is buried in in the centre of the nave of Westminster Abbey. His grave is now unmarked but just had his name, date of death and age on it. Nearby in the north west tower chapel is a white marble bust by sculptor Jacob Hagbolt and the inscription reads:


“Major James Rennell. Died March 29th 1830 in his 88th year. His useful life, firm character and high talents are amply exhibited in his works and need no other monument. This tablet therefore merely records that this celebrated man was buried near this spot”.  Appropriately, the body of David Livingstone is buried nearby.