Mar 292013

I came across this lithograph at the Museum of London site, showing the steam-propelled carriage being driven sedately on its way between London and Bath in 1829. I rather assumed that this indicated a regular service: far from it, because the service was plagued with difficulties which eventually forced one Mr Goldsworthy Gurney into bankruptcy with debts of well over two hundred thousand pounds. Behind his fall from grace lies a story of  under-hand dealings, shenanigans in the House, and corruption among the rural gentry.

Goldsworthy  (later Sir Goldsworthy) was born on Valentine’s Day 1793 near Padstow in Cornwall. He went on to become a scientist, inventor, surgeon, chemist and lecturer. In other words he was a thoroughly good egg who was rather clever at a lot of things.

In 1820 he moved up to London from Cornwall in order to further his career as a surgeon, and settled at 7 Argyle Street near Hanover Square. Curiously, he decided to expand his influence by lecturing …  on the merits of steam locomotion.


Earlier, he had met fellow Cornishman Richard Trevithick who was one of the pioneers of steam-powered engines.

Trevithicks London Steam Carriage, 1803

Trevithick had produced a steam carriage in 1803 and many of Gurney’s ideas were derived from this. In 1825 Gurney rented workshop premises just off Oxford Street and started tinkering with steam engine parts, particularly the blast pipe needed to increase the power-to-weight ratio of the steam engine .  He soon took out a patent for  “An apparatus for propelling carriages on common roads or railways – without the aid of horses, with sufficient speed for the carriage of passengers and goods”. Goldsworthy Gurney decided to move into the manufacture of steam carriages, and uprooted his family to go nearer Regents Park, where he took over an existing factory and  made a number of important technical improvements to his original design. It must have caused a sensation when he took his vehicles out for a spin on the normal roads – a carriage moving without horses!

It was not always free from risk – in May 1828  a Gurney carriage climbed Highgate Old Hill (no mean achievement). On the return journey the workmen, ever so proud of their success, forgot to lock the drive-shaft to  the rear wheels, and the contraption careered out of control down to the bottom of the hill. Fortunately for Gurney, who was steering the thing, neither he nor anyone else was injured, but a wheel fell off.

A similar problem with keeping the wheels on happened a while later, in thick fog, when a Gurney carriage had to swerve to avoid an oncoming mail-coach which suddenly emerged out of the  gloom. The carriage crashed into a pile of bricks, damaging the drive mechanism, but it is reported that the carriage still managed to continue on its journey, with power to only one wheel, and overtook at least fifty horse drawn vehicles along the way. Let’s all have a quick rendition of “One wheel on my carriage, but I’m still rolling along…”

Eventually he decided to do a there-and-back journey to Bath, a feat accomplished at an average speed of 14 miles per hour (including stops for re-fuelling, taking on water etc.). This was twice as fast as a horse-drawn carriage. It was not entirely without incident, as his daughter remarked in a letter to The Times some years later “I never heard of any accident or injury to anyone with it, except in the fray at Melksham on the noted journey to Bath, when the fair people set upon it, burnt their fingers, threw stones, and wounded poor Martyn the stoker”. Well that says all you need to know about the good burghers of Melksham… but they were apparently mostly unemployed mill-workers so perhaps their luddism can be excused. The vehicle had to be escorted under guard to Bath to prevent further vandalism.

Unfortunately the general public were not convinced that it was a terribly good idea to sit atop a carriage next to a pressurised steam engine, particularly one which belched burning cinders out of every aperture. Our intrepid hero therefore developed what you might call ‘a Gurney gurney’ – an articulated trolley towed by the steam engine, on which the paying public might sit. But no-one really wanted to be towed along in this fashion, and GG quickly started to run out of money.

It wasn’t helped when a boiler exploded on one occasion, killing two people. Not good for business, as a writer of the time pointed out, when you buy a ticket to London but end up going to heaven instead…

For a short while a service was successfully operated between Cheltenham and Gloucester, using three of Gurney’s steam carriages. The service was operated by Sir Charles Dance, and ran every four hours. In one four-month period of 1831, his vehicles carried nearly 3,000 passengers, “including many ladies,” and travelled over 4,000 miles.  But then an unholy alliance was entered into between the owners of the the horse-drawn coach businesses, the local magistrates and various  prominent land-owners. The latter persuaded “their” M.P.’s to push a series of Private Members Bills through Parliament raising the toll on steam carriages to two pounds per trip (as against a couple of shillings for the equivalent vehicle pulled by horses). In all over fifty such bills were passed. Talk about protectionism!

To make matters worse, landowners in Cheltenham took it upon themselves to  cover a long section of the road with a layer of loose gravel, about a foot deep,  in order to make the heavy horse-less carriage sink up to its axle. This, combined with the prohibitively high tolls, was the death knell of the venture, and GG quickly went bankrupt. (It appears that the landowners were far more interested in selling their land to the new railroad companies – carriages on existing roads brought them no profit at all).

Suffice to say he went on to invent all manner of useful and exciting things, but that was in the reign of Queen Victoria and, as anyone who knows this blog is aware, that is totally outside my area of interest!

Mar 262013

I like the way that similar themes are re-worked by different caricaturists over the years, often using the same pun or a variation on a theme. Take this etching from 1783. It is apparently based upon a poem of Erasmus Darwin called ‘Botanical Garden’

“On his Night-Mare, thro the evening fog,
Flits the squab fiend o’er fen, and lake, and bog,
Seeks some love-wilder’d maid, by sleep opprest,
Alights, and grinning, sits upon her breast.”


The ever-excellent Lewis  Walpole Library site describes the scene thus: “An incubus squatting on a sleeping woman, her head and arms falling over the side of the bed at right, with a wild horse behind curtains in the background and a small table with jug and pots beside the bed at left; after the painting by Fuseli”

The following year saw Thomas Rowlandson with his take on Fuseli’s painting:


It shows Charles James Fox lying naked on the bed, with the demon sitting on his chest and with the bulging-eyed  horse peering in through the window.

By 1795 the horse had disappeared to be replaced by  a ghastly vision of a French revolutionary at the window, and with Pitt sititing on the chest of the unfortunate figure of John Bull.


The Lewis Walpole explanation says “John Bull lies on his back in bed, his mouth gaping; Pitt, a goblin creature, sits on his chest in profile to the right, holding above his upturned head a loaf inscribed ’13 Pence’. Pitt has a huge head, much caricatured, with starting eyeballs; his hair stands up and the bag of his queue, inscribed ‘Taxes’, flies out behind him. Through a casement window (left) looks a fantastic French republican, with bulging eyeballs and fang-like teeth, glaring at John Bull; from his neck hangs the model of a guillotine. Behind his head is a waning moon. Beside him are the words: ‘Republic War and Famine for Ever.’ Beneath the bed is a chamber-pot inscribed ‘John Bull’; beside it is a chair on which stands a candle.

A year earlier (1794) Richard Newton had set to work on the theme – we still had the mare’s head at the open window, and it looked like this:


The terrified man wakes up to see the devilish figure sitting on the chest of his sleeping wife, holding a lantern while the night mare surveys the scene from the open window.

A few years later caricaturists were still playing with the pun, and George Cruikshank came up with the Night Mayor:

NM5 Geo Cruikshank

The caption underneath reads:

“The Night Mayor flitting on the evening fogs,                                                                                                  Traverses alleys, streets lanes and bogs.                                                                                                               Seeking some Love bewildered Maid by Gin appeared.                                                                                       Alights and ogling sits upon her downy breast”

And the pictures on the wall shows what the naughty girl has been up to to get nightmares – there is a three-in-a-bed scene, and a naked satyr. Peeping from under her voluminous bloomers a bewigged judge gleefully announces that “The deeds shall be recorded”

And finally, still on the theme of nightmares but without any dreadful puns, we have a Victorian stab at the tradition with “The effects of a Crab Supper”:


Good old Fuseli inspired them all….

Mar 222013

I rather liked one particular little snippet of information which Richard Hall jotted down in his note-book about natural disasters, It relates to a catastrophic fire which destroyed the palace in Copenhagen in March 1794:

copenhagen fire 001In case your eyesight isn’t up to deciphering my ancestor’s spidery scrawl, the transcript reads:

“March 1794. At the fire at Copenhagen Palace Captain Eberlin and Mr Handevad were preserved by a sailor fastening a rope to a Balcony and getting up by it, he took one of the Gent under his right arm, and holding the other fast with his teeth by the Cloaths, brought them both safe to the ground by letting himself down with his left hand”

Rescuing two gentleman at the same time, including holding onto one of them by his teeth, sounds fairly impressive – but not enough for the name of the sailor to be recorded! Captain Eberlin and Mr Handevad, well they were O.K. They not only got saved but their names were noted down. And yet the poor sailor remains anonymous. Typical!

Work on building the original palace had started in 1733. It replaced the earlier medieval castle which had become so dilapidated that it was in imminent danger of falling down.

Christian VI


King Christian VI (pictured here) commissioned an architect by the name of Häusser to build the first Christiansborg Palace (“Christiansborg Slot”), as a series of magnificent baroque structures intended to be the home of the Danish Royal Family. The palace complex included show grounds and a rather splendid chapel. Building work took 12 years.



copenhagen palace                                                           The first ‘Christiansborg Slot’

The palace and church were almost totally destroyed by the fire in 1794, but the show grounds were saved. The second Christiansborg Palace was no more fire-proof – it too burned down in 1884.

The palace on fire in 1794

The palace on fire in 1794

Mar 172013

“Being St Patrick’s Day, the Butchers in Clare Market hung up a Grotesque Figure, to represent an Irishman; and a great Number of Irishmen coming to pull it ’down a fierce Battle ensu’d, when much Mischief was done, and some very dangerously wounded; but a File of Musqueteers being fetched from St James’s several of the Rioters were carry’d before Col De-Veil, who sent three of them to Newgate”.

Somehow,the celebration of  St Patrick’s Day seems rather more fun nowadays….

As a follow-up, and without wanting to appear to be falling into stereotypes, I thought it would be interesting to show one 18th Century view of an Irish-ness. It consists of a cartoon by my favourite caricaturist Richard Newton and is entitled the Progress of an Irishman. It appears courtesy of the British Museum.

It consists of a strip design and is arranged in three rows.  Top row:

[1] ‘Going to School and eating a Potatoe for his Breakfast’. A ragged, bare-legged Irish boy carrying a  bundle and clutching a potato.

[2] ‘Setting out for the Irish College in Paris to be made a Priest’. He is still bare-legged but carries his shoes and is less ragged.

[3] ‘Swinging the Incense’. He wears a long  gown.

[4] ‘Renounces the Church and Turns a man of Gallantry’. He kneels on one knee, elegantly dressed.

[5] ‘Turns Player’. He rants violently, wearing Elizabethan dress.

Middle row:

[6] ‘Leaves the Stage  and turns Soldier’. He stands with a musket.

[7] ‘Deserts and offers his service to a Noted English Gambler on his travels’. He is ragged and supplicating but fashionably dressed.

[8] ‘Gets as deeply skill’d in  the mystery of cards and dice as his Master and sets up for himself’. He holds up a dice-box with a scowl.

[9] ‘Fights for a Demirep in high keeping and becomes her favourite’. He brandishes a bludgeon.

[10] ‘Sends his purse with all he has to a friend in distress’. He stands, eyes downcast, with left hand on his heart and his right outstretched clutching a purse.

Botom row:

[11] ‘Is himself the next hour in Prison for  debt’. He stands disconsolate.

[12] ‘Writes to every fine woman he knows and is relieved by them all’. He holds out a pen and a sheaf of letters.

[13] ‘Comes out with a full purse makes fierce love to a rich  Widow and marries her’. He kneels, making an impassioned declaration.

[14] ‘Gets into the Army – gives a Challenge while in liquor to a Brother officer’. He stands in a brawling attitude.

[15] ‘Thus ends this  strange eventful History – Sudden – unprepared- Death!!!’ He falls to the ground.

And in case he appears prejudiced against the Irish, Newton also made a Progress of a Scotsman – perhaps I will save that until St Andrews Day. Meanwhile, to the beautiful country of Ireland, and to all her Sons and Daughters – enjoy your day!

St Patricks day in the morning

Mar 152013

Richard Hall loved writing about the weather. Quite apart from filling his diaries with entries about the rain and snow, he kept a retrospective note-book on weather abnormalities. Here is his entry for March 1774:

flood 001

Poor old Edward Vickers (I think it is Vickers and not Nickers!) so let us spare a thought for the poor newspaper boys who still have to deliver the papers in all weathers. Some things never change…

Mar 132013

In yesterday’s post I dealt with some of Merlin’s musical instruments and handy inventions. But what of the other matters which mark him out as different from all the other roller-skating violinists? Today I give you a truly impressive list of other delights which he came up with:

A mechanical chariot equipped with a mechanical whip and an early form of odometer called a “way-wise.”  The distance covered was shown on a dial at the side of the vehicle. This picture of Merlin with his sedan-chair-on-wheels was produced in 1803. Apparently Merlin liked to advertise his chariot by riding it through Hyde Park on Sundays. The picture is shown courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

A Dutch oven or Rotisseur with a mechanical jack to turn meat (patented 1773).

A bell communication system to summon servants, with a list annexed to the bell push. Moving the pencil down the list led to a corresponding movement on the list in the servants’ quarters in the basement, so that the servant would know without ascending the stairs that his master required Chocolate, Tea or whatever.

A self-propelling wheel chair or ‘Gouty Chair’, propelled and steered by turning winches on the arms. These enabled the disabled user to control the mahogany wheels. This one appeared in Ackermann’s Repository in 1811.

A mechanical garden

A revolving tea table with a central samovar – so that the hostess could depress a foot pedal and turn the table, while another foot pedal operated the tilting of the urn so that it dispensed a set amount of tea into each of 12 cups.

A Hygeian pump to “expel foul air out of Ships Hospitals Bed clothes etc”

A mechanical carousel called “an Aerial Cavalcade” with 4 wooden horses on a structure supported by 6 pillars “on which the Ladies and Gentlemen may ride, perfectly safe, over the heads of the rest of the company”

A gambling machine which, once wound up, would play a game of ‘odd and even’ for up to four hours!

A set of whist cards for the blind (a sort of braille precursor).

A prosthetic device for a “Person born with Stumps only” which apparently enabled a person to use a knife and fork, hold a horse reins, “and even write with great freedom”

Also musical instruments: a pianoforte with a six octave span made for Dr Burney in 1775

A personal weighing machine in satinwood called Sanctorius’s Balance. This picture of one appears on the Apter-Fredericks site.

Pendulum of Merlin clock
(showing scale of adjustment).










Various exquisite clocks – this detail of the pendulum shown courtesy of Quality Antique Clocks.

A set of weighing scales with a built-in micrometer screw for measuring the size, thickness and weight of golden guineas (and their divisions, the half guinea and quarter guinea).

Pictured is a photograph of one of the scales which came up for auction a few years back when it was expected to make £1000 ($1500).

(In fact if you look closely at the Gainsborough portrait of Merlin it shows him holding on to one of these scales with his left hand).

A perpetual motion clock – a joint collaboration with James Cox. It wound itself up automatically. The change of pressure in the Earth’s atmosphere acted as an external energy source and caused the winding mechanism to move. This kept the mainspring coiled inside the barrel – with the winding of the mainspring via movement of the liquid in a mercury barometer. So as to provide the required amount of energy, a Fortin mercury barometer was used. It contained an astonishing 68 kilograms (150 pounds) of mercury! Somehow it failed to catch on…



Merlin died at Paddington in May 1803 at the age of 68. In his will he directed that his 30 year old horse should be shot. Having died unmarried, he left his property to two brothers and a sister.

Merlin you old wizard, we salute you!

Mar 112013

Today’s post is intended to redress the dreadful slur against the Belgians, suggesting that the only memorable people to have emanated from that country were the (fictional) Hercule Poirot and the irritating Father Abraham of The Smurfs fame. Actually Father Abraham is the performing name of a Dutchman – Petrus Antonius Laurentius “Pierre” Kartner – and Smurf-fans (I assume there must be some somewhere) should be indebted to a man who styled himself ‘Peyo’ a.k.a. Pierre Culliford: he  actually was Belgian, and I am sure very proud of that fact (even if his father was English….).

I therefore give you – Mr John Joseph Merlin, a splendid fellow and a credit to the nation of his birth. This is his portrait by Thomas Gainsborough. He was born at Huys, near Maastricht, in Belgium on 17 Sept 1735. Google his name and the chances are that it will simply tell you that he invented a form of roller skate and crashed into a mirror when making a spectacular appearance at a soiree, while playing the violin and wearing his skates…(as one does).

The earliest mention of this Grand Entrance appears to come from a work entitled “Concert Room and Orchestra Anecdotes”written by Thomas Busby in 1805. He relates:

“One of his ingenious novelties was a pair of skaites contrived to run on wheels. Supplied with these and a violin, he mixed in the motley group of one of Mrs Cowley’s masquerades at Carlisle House; when not having provided the means of retarding his velocity, or commanding its direction, he impelled himself against a mirror of more than five hundred pounds value, dashed it to atoms, broke his instrument to pieces and wounded himself most severely”

There was however rather more to Mr Merlin than inventing skates-without-brakes. Indeed he is one of my heroes of the century – a man whose accomplishments fitted perfectly into the Georgian era. He was an inventor, a showman, a fine musician, a clock maker and much more besides.

It appears that he studied for six years as a maker of clocks, automata and mathematical and musical instruments at the Académie des Sciences in Paris. He came to the notice of the Court and arrived in England in May 1760, aged twenty-five, as part of the entourage of the ambassador Conde de Fuentes. His connections stood him in good stead. He became a friend of Johann Christian Bach (son of Johann Sebastian Bach). He was a favourite of Thomas Gainsborough. Indeed there is every indication that the portrait shown earlier was executed by the artist in payment for a musical instrument made for him by Merlin – Gainsborough’s papers include an invoice for ten guineas from Merlin dated at around the time the painting was completed.

Charles Burney
by Sir Joshua Reynolds

He was also a popular visitor at the household of the musicologist Charles Burney. In the words of (daughter) Fanny Burney: “He is a great favourite in our house…He is very diverting also in conversation. There is a singular simplicity in his manners. He speaks his opinion upon all subjects and about all persons with the most undisguised freedom. He does not, though a foreigner, want words; but he arranges and pronounces them very comically. He is humbly grateful for all civilities that are shown him; but is warmly and honestly resentful for the least slight.”

He set to and developed many refinements to existing musical instruments – to the harp, the harpsichord, the new-fangled pianoforte and so on. He  invented and patented a harpsichord with pianoforte action. By 1763 he appears to have been involved in the preparation and finishing of a large barrel organ for the Princess of Wales (Augusta of Saxe Gotha, widow of Frederick Prince of Wales and mother of George III).

The trade card of James Cox,
copyright, British Museum

By 1766 he had started working with James Cox, the brilliant showman/jeweller/goldsmith. Merlin became Cox’s “chief mechanic” developing  the mechanism for the famous Silver Swan, now the deserved star of the Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle.

The Bowes Museum Silver Swan










Click here to see the brilliant action as the swan appears to turn its head from side to side before lowering it into the water and swallowing a fish! Obviously no-one told Merlin that swans are vegetarian…

Cox had premises at Spring Gardens near Charing Cross and my ancestor Richard Hall was a frequent visitor. I still have his catalogue, which alone cost half a guinea, on top of the same fee as an admission charge.

Thomas Johann Christian Fischer,
painted by Thomas Gainsborough, 1780

Cox got into financial difficulties and Merlin decided to set up on his own. To begin with he made  automata as well as musical instruments. When the musician Fischer chose to have his portrait painted by Gainsborough he elected to do so leaning against one of Merlin’s pianos. Full size, you can just make out his name on the plate: MERLIN LONDINI FECIT.





He also made clocks and possibly some watches – very few survive.  English Heritage show one of his skeleton clocks at their site. It formed part of the Iveagh Bequest at Kenwood House and I am grateful to them for the image, which is their copyright.

He acquired premises at 11 Princes Street off Hanover Square (just South of Oxford Street). The area is indicated by highlighting on Horwood’s map shown here.

The year was 1783 and he called the place Merlin’s Mechanical Museum. Here he offered refreshments to visitors, with an advertisement stating that ”Ladies and Gentlemen who honour Mr Merlin with their Company may be accommodated with TEA and COFFEE at one Shilling each.” It cost two shillings and sixpence to go in during the morning session (11 until 3) and three shillings per evening session (7 until 9).

What they saw was an impressive array of automata and various inventions made by Merlin. Some I will detail in tomorrow’s post.  ‘At Merlin’s you meet with delight’, ran a contemporary ballad. Suffice to say that one of the people attending the exhibition was a young schoolboy from Devon called Charles Babbage. The story goes that Merlin took Charles upstairs to see his workshop and to show some more exotic automata. Babbage later recalled: ‘There were two uncovered female figures of silver, about twelve inches high’. The first automaton was fairly ordinary, though ‘singularly graceful’, one of Merlin’s well-known stock of figures ‘in brass and clockwork, so as to perform almost every motion and inclination of the human body, viz. the head, the breasts, the neck, the arms, the fingers, the legs etcetera even to the motion of the eyelids, and the lifting up of the hands and fingers to the face’.

Babbage recalled that ‘she used an eye-glass occasionally and bowed frequently as if recognizing her acquaintances’. But it was the other automaton which most impressed Babbage ”an admirable danseuse, with a bird on the forefinger of her right hand, which wagged its tail, flapped its wings and opened its beak’. Babbage was completely gob-smacked. ‘The lady attitudinized in a most fascinating manner. Her eyes were full of imagination, and irresistible’.

Fired up by this visit, Babbage was later to go on and invent the forerunner of the modern computer. Indeed in 1834 he actually managed to buy the two exhibits which had so profoundly affected him.

Mar 082013

Growing up in the Fifties I remember getting my first pair of roller skates when I was seven. They were “traditional” skates, each  with four metal wheels, and the contraption strapped on over your shoe.

Years later a craze for in-lining developed and I assumed that this was a new invention, so I was amazed to discover that in-lining was started nearly two centuries ago.

Here is a splendid engraving showing three elegantly attired gentleman speeding around on their ‘volitos’ (sometimes they are called ‘rolitos’). Their speed enables them to evade the attempt by the Fuzz to hand one of them a warrant. The first man (on the left) shouts back “You’ll have to double your speed or you’ll never catch me!”  Another says “You had better get a pair of Volitos. They would be a great advantage in your profession.” The officer orders them to stop – “You are wanted” while his assistant shouts “Tis no use Master. The fellow has wings on his heels”

The central caption underneath reads:

“THE VOLITO, or Summer and Winter Skait. For Amusement in cold weather without Ice and is equally useful on stones, boards, roads etc. NB the three different wheels fit into the same skait.”

The date is 1823 and the print is shown courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library. The idea of putting wheels of different sizes under the wooden platform on which the  skaters stood enabled the user to execute turns much more easily, simply by shifting the weight onto either the front or back wheels. The central wheel was larger than its neighbours, with the front and rear wheels smaller still.The spare pairs of skates on the left (foreground) shows how they were strapped on. A metal bar front and back gave an element of control for braking.

Adapting skates for summer use was common in Holland in the early 1700’s. Early “skeelers” as they were called, consisted of wooden spools nailed on to the underside of a piece of wood, onto which the normal shoes were strapped. In 1743 an (anonymous) actor apparently glided onto the London stage wearing a pair of skeelers to great admiration and effect. A later development is attributed to the Belgian inventor John Joseph Merlin who developed a skate with iron wheels (but unfortunately for him, without a brake mechanism. See Horrible Histories.)

The first patent seems to have been taken out in 1819 by a Frenchman. Monsieur Petitbled  invented a brand-new roller skate design using three wheels, made of either wood or iron, or indeed ivory. These didn’t catch on (the wheels kept slipping on any hard surface) and it wasn’t until 1823 that an Englishman called John Tyers came up with the five-wheeled “Volito”. The rest, as they say, is History.

There really isn’t all that much difference in the modern in-liners (a bit more stylish, I give you!).

Mar 042013

Here’s a caricature which resonates with the discussions which still take place about Prince Charles and his income from the Duchy of Cornwall (Ah, Duchy Originals! All those expensive but yummy biscuits and fancy foodstuffs!).

A visit to the Lewis Walpole  Library site reveals this cartoon entitled “The Royal Dairy, or  George Split-Farthing selling his skim milk.” It is by Isaac Cruikshank and appeared in 1792.

Seated on the left is the Queen, portrayed with the usual savage cruelty we expect from Cruikshank! Just as a comparison, here is a close-up from the portrait of the Queen done a couple of years earlier by Thomas Lawrence:

The Queen has presumably just taken off the milkmaids yoke which lies on the floor. The King dispenses milk into a container held out by one of a handful of people in a queue. The Queen says “Come Come Come. Give me the money my bags are not full yet and I am afraid they never will – you give those lubbers too much Measure” as  she shoves coins into her bag using her right hand.

Her husband George III mutters “What What What! Come my Lads hold up your Pitchers, it have only been skim’d once. I have made a good breakfast of it myself. Sugar is so Dear”

One of those queuing is aghast at the sight, and exclaims “Oh Lud, Oh Lud, he is nothing but a man” to which another adds, “Let me See” and another” Let me to(o)”.

Remember, this was the time of revolutionary activity in France, and to view the monarch as a mere man was strong stuff!

Frankly the more the monarch was portrayed as a frugal human being the more I like him. I for one do not want my taxes used to fund the antics of ‘Air Miles Andy’ (or his predecessor the Prince Regent). So, good on you Farmer George, I salute your thrift, just as I salute your mean harpie of a wife!

Mar 032013

In 2010 a remarkable house, situated south west of London, emerged from its chrysalis of scaffolding and protective cladding and was revealed in all its original glory: Strawberry Hill House. It has been likened to a wedding cake on account of its beautiful white exterior finish called ‘harling’ (a lime and pebble stucco render). It may be decorated like icing, but to me it is altogether lighter – more like a confection made of whipped cream! It really is a masterpiece and its resurrection is all the more remarkable because by the end of the Twentieth Century the place was in a terribly dilapidated state. Three cheers for English Heritage and the Lottery Fund, who between them raised the majority of the nine million pounds needed to restore the building which kicked off the neo-Gothic movement!

I cannot claim that I am enamoured with what Victorian Gothic became (think of the heavy, over-ornate architecture of the Houses of Parliament) but I have to say that its Georgian precursor of Strawberry Hill Gothic (as the style became known) is astonishingly delicate, vibrant – and fun!

The style is down to the vision and verve of Horace Walpole, who bought what was an eighty-year old villa near the banks of the River Thames, at Twickenham, in 1747. The previous owner was a well-known shopkeeper who sold toys and trinkets by the name of Mrs Chevenix, and Horace Walpole described his purchase as “a little plaything that I got out of Mrs Chevenix’s shop and is the prettiest bauble you ever saw.” Over the next fifty years he transformed it into a Gothic fantasy – into what he whimsically described as “the castle I am building of my ancestors”.

Walpole used it as his summer residence. In those days it was half a day’s ride from the centre of London, eleven miles away. It was not in a particularly fashionable area, but Walpole created a wondrous creation to impress and amuse his friends – and to house his astonishing collection of books, paintings, furniture, coins and historical artifacts.

He could hardly have come from a better-connected family: his father Robert was the first British Prime Minister, and Robert had built his rather solid ancestral home in Palladian style at Houghton Hall in Norfolk. Horace was the youngest son and he did what was expected of him: he went to Eton, then went up to Cambridge, failed to take his final examinations, and then set off on the Grand Tour for a couple of years. He returned in 1741 and immediately entered Parliament, but his main interest seems to have been the acquisition of paintings and artworks. Strawberry Hill was his chance to showcase the collection; he had some 4000 items including drawings by Holbein, paintings by Sir Joshua Reynolds, Renaissance armour, and objets d’art. The architectural symmetry so favoured by contemporary architects disappeared out the window, to be replaced by crenellations, gothic window frames, Tudor turrets, Jacobean chimneys and details from his imagination. Horace Walpole never intended it to be built to last – he himself doubted if it would remain more than ten years after his lifetime. Why? Because it was jerry-built, a piece of froth, a sham. Where others used plasterwork Walpole used papier mache, but to what effect! The interiors were stunning, and it is thanks to a brilliant restoration programme that they have been put back to their former glory. In all there are 25 show rooms which have been meticulously restored on the ground and first floors. Most significantly, all the cement render has been hacked off and the exterior put back to its white stucco finery.

Horace Walpole was a remarkable man – an effete, an aesthete, a dilettante, a collector and an innovator. He died in 1797 at the age of eighty.

Of course it is a shame that none of the contents remain. In an act of cultural desecration the contents were sold off separately in 1843, although the V&A were able to track down nearly three hundred of these items in a major exhibition in 2010.

Outside, Walpole’s pride and joy was his lime tree grove, and this is now being replanted. As Walpole wrote in 1753 “it is an open grove through which you see a field which is bounded by a serpentine wood of all kind of trees and flowering shrubs and flowers”. Nothing much can be done about the fact that the fields have been replaced with modern housing, but hopefully the gardens will soon prove to be a magnificent setting for this extraordinary creation, one which triggered off the architectural movement which dominated the ensuing century.

   Strawberry Hill house is at 268 Waldegrave Road, Twickenham, TW1 4ST and is administered by the Strawberry Hill Trust. The house has been closed for the winter, with a re-opening date of 3rd March 2013. The trust website is here,  and I am grateful to them for the use of all the images used in this post (apart from the John Giles Eccardt portrait of Horace Walpole from 1754, which is shown courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery).