Jun 292014

If you wanted a shop which would sell you all or any of the following, where would you go?

“… all sorts of paper hangings for rooms, halls, staircases & c., also papier mache for ornamenting cielings, rooms, staircases, chimney pieces &c., consisting of rich center & corner pieces, heads, trophies, festoons, cornices, & c., also matches any silk or linen patterns with paper & ornaments, halls & staircases with landskips ruins & figures on paper or canvass in the genteelest & best manner. Likewise all sorts of hatts, viz., mens, beavers, castor & felts, women’s ruffs, leghorn, straw chip, horse hair, bonnets &c. Together with all sorts of stockings, worsted pieces for waistcoats & breeches, worsted & cotton caps, gloves, mitts and ribbons on the most reasonable terms by wholesale and retail”.

The answer would have been to good old Nathaniel Barrow at the Indian King in the New Exchange Building in the Strand, London. His card appears courtesy of the Lewis Walpole site.


Another card redolent of the times, that of John Winning:

Let’s face it, if you wanted bedding and soft furnishings, John was yer man!

But I think I will take myself off to see Mary Hooker. Where else could you find someone who make such goodies as “all sorts of fans, French and other, necklaces, earrings, fine combs, French lavender, Hungary water, gloves & mitts of all kinds, worsted thred & cotton stockings, mens worsted dimity & cotton caps, gayle, and silk handkerchiefs, chip & other hats, plain & figurd ribbons, and all sorts of hosiery, and haberdashery wares of the newest fashion & at reasonable rates. Wholesale and retail. Fans mounted.”

I cannot think of anything more quintessentially Georgian!

Jun 272014

a seven In between packing for a trip to Canada and Alaska I found time this week to get to see Berrington Hall, set in the rolling Herefordshire countryside. I had driven past the grounds, laid out to designs of Capability Brown, on many occasions while travelling between Leominster and Ludlow, but had never been in to explore the National Trust property.

It meant a seven-hour round trip by car, but was it worth it? Yes. Your first impression of the neo-Palladian house, designed by Henry Holland in 1770, may be slightly under-whelming – it is “grandeur on a small scale” in the sense that it is nothing like as impressive and in-your-face as some of the better-known and larger Georgian country homes. But then the symmetry and manageability of the house strikes you that it is far more accessible than its bigger cousins – you can walk round it without getting room fatigue, you can enjoy it without huge crowds. It feels almost homely.

a eightAnd it really is a gem. The National Trust have tried hard to make it of interest to all age groups. There are walks through the parkland setting, with great picnic spots; the vista over the ha-ha separating the lawned area from the sheep munching away in the park is most effective and impressive; there is a lovely walled garden; there are boxes handed to youngsters filled with replica Georgian and Victorian toys so that they can see what their predecessors would have played with. But it is inside that the house comes alive. The rooms are beautiful and stuffed to the gills with items of interest. And, if like me, you have always wondered what it felt like to wear panniers around your waist, making you so wide that you have to sashay sideways through a door when entering or leaving the room (while wearing a two-foot high blonde wig perched on top of your head) this is the place for you! Because here you are encouraged to don panniers and wigs, and see for yourself what it was like to dress like an elegant Georgian! And no, photographs of the Georgian Gent in drag will not be released!

a one

The particular reason for the visit was the exhibition of costumes from the film The Duchess. It was fascinating to be able to see the wedding suit worn by Ralph Fiennes, or the gowns sported by Keira Knightley, including the rather lovely one which is called the “drunken dress”( i.e. the one in the scene where the inebriated duchess sets her head-dress on fire by bumping into the naked flame of a candle). There is her wedding dress and a riding outfit, and you can get up-close-and-personal with the shoe buckles, the hats, the accessories which are so evocative of the times. And when the present display ends at the end of the month it is quickly followed by a new exhibition, this time showing costumes from the BBC’s 1995 production of Pride and Prejudice.

a twoBut for me the really impressive thing about the items on display was the staggering collection of costumes collected by Charles Paget Wade. This extraordinary man built up an amazing eclectic collection of costumes, furniture and effects – anything which satisfied his demands for colour, design and good craftsmanship. A few, just a tiny few, of the tens of thousands of items are shown on display at Berrington Hall – at the moment it is mostly Georgian waistcoats, exhibited under the title of “Wearing the Garden,” but hopefully other boxes will be unpacked to reveal other jewels as the season progresses. The National Trust have organized all sorts of specials to attract visitors – there is an exhibition called “Big Bottoms and small waists” opening at the start of July and running through to the end of August. There is a two-day a threedemonstration called “Dressing and undressing a Georgian Lady” by stay-maker Ian Chipperfield on 12/13 July, and with the male counterpart, the Georgian gentleman, being dressed and undressed the following week. Mmm, sounds like a busy schedule, although I stress that this particular Georgian Gent will NOT be offering his services as mannequin!DSC09193

The house was originally built for Thomas Harley. He had made his name, and fortune, as a politician in London, becoming a Member of Parliament and, in 1767, Lord Mayor. Harley Street is named after him. But he retired to Herefordshire and built this stately pile, and I am rather glad that he did. It really is a Georgian gem, and with so much going on I will certainly try and visit it again during the summer.

Thanks to the National Trust for many of the close-up images – the blurry longer distance images are of course my own!

a five  a nine       a elevena ten

Jun 242014

Had I been strutting my stuff a couple of hundred years ago I like to think that I would have been the model of sartorial elegance (then, as now!). And what was the well-dressed young man-about-town wearing? Why, we have this etching to show us what was fashionable in February 1777.

Enormous buttons, tick; fancy decorated long cane with which to swagger, tick; shiny buckles on shoes, tick; smart cap with what looks like a target for pigeons to aim at, tick; enormous nosegay to ward off the odours of the common people, tick. Just the right amount of lace showing at the cuff, and a cravat which matches perfectly my silk waistcoat. Oh yes, I am the thing, dem-me!

It is high time that the male peacock made its appearance again! Bring back shoe buckles – and over-sized buttons come to that! Meanwhile, my thanks to the Lewis Walpole Library for the image.

Jun 192014

Those of us interested in the Georgian era resort to all sorts of ways of expressing our enthusiasm – be it blogs, or posting images on Pinterest, or writing academic works – whatever. Today I thought I would offer the spot of ‘guest blogger’ to someone who chooses to write fiction, albeit with a historically accurate slant. He is Michael Dean, author of five novels including his latest one called ‘I, Hogarth’ which comes out in paperback on 19th June. He writes:

“William Hogarth’s love for his wife Jane was deep and enduring.   He was twelve years older than her and a penniless engraver when they met.   No wonder Jane’s father, the eminent and crusty classical painter, Sir James Thornhill, told his daughter’s diminutive suitor never to darken his elegant Georgian portico again – or words to that effect.   The young lovers’ subsequent elopement was one of the great romantic stories of the Georgian era, complete with its artistic coda of young William painting his way back into the old man’s affections, impressing him with his nascent artistic genius.

William and Jane did not have children.   So the painter of one of the greatest studies of children in all art – The Graham Children (1742), at the National Gallery – was, in a manner of speaking, working from theory.

the-graham-children-1742 NPG

Hogarth’s work for the children of London’s Foundling Hospital is well-known; Jane’s, sadly, less so. She was an Inspector, travelling regularly to the little-known Aylesbury outpost of the Hospital.  William and Jane had foundling children over for regular visits at their country place in Chiswick; rather movingly all the children were given the names Jane or Billy.

In tune with Georgian mores, Jane would have blamed herself for her barrenness.   But I believe Hogarth had syphilis, as I describe in my novel, I, Hogarth. Narratives like The Orgy in The Rake’s Progress III (1733-4) at the Sir John Soane Museum, and the visit to the pox doctor in The Inspection, in Marriage à la Mode (1743-5), at the National Gallery, are surely drawn from life, as is all Hogarth’s work.  Hogarth knew the myriad bagnios and brothels of Georgian London first-hand, as a client.

But that was sex. What about love, outside marriage? What about emotional infidelity to Jane? We will never know, but there are two possible candidates.

The first is a mysterious and lovely lady known as The Shrimp Girl, in the National Gallery, painted at some time in the 1740s.  One mystery is why the portrait of this buxom young woman was still in Hogarth’s studio when he died in 1764.   As far as we know he never made any attempt to sell it.   And uniquely we do not know who the sitter is.

File:William Hogarth 002.jpg

The received wisdom is that Hogarth painted this portrait on spec, perhaps having seen the girl in the street. One authority even compares the girl to the stylised, almost generic, milk-maid in the print of The Enraged Musician, 1741.   Well, I have written about Rembrandt in another novel and I can imagine him walking down the street, seeing a pretty girl and drawing her. But Hogarth?

Hogarth had been dirt poor. Hogarth had seen his father die in debtor’s prison. William Hogarth invented the art gallery concept at Vauxhall Gardens. William Hogarth never drew a line without being reasonably sure he could sell it, and those of us who have not known hunger may not judge him for that.

So whoever this so-called Shrimp Girl was, I think Hogarth loved her in some way. That is what the painting tells us.

His other possible love was Mary Edwards, who he painted in 1742. Mary Edwards was among the richest women in England; she was a brilliant intellectual and an intimate of that other remarkable Georgian lady, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.

File:Miss Mary Edwards - Hogarth 1742.jpg

                          Miss Mary Edwards, from the Frick Collection

I can’t prove that Hogarth loved Mary Edwards but I imagined it.   The extract below is from an early draft of my novel – a scene where Hogarth is painting Mary. I cut it from the published version because it was bulging the narrative arc, but I’m still very fond of it:

Twice, both times when drunk, he sought to declare himself to Mary. Each time she saw itcoming before he had the words in his mouth and compassionately guided him to safer ground. His first attempt to kiss her resulted in a resounding slap in the face, followed by a crisp threat to ban him from her presence. He apologised on his knees.

He planned his next Progress with Mary as much as with Jane, rather more so if truth be told.

‘Blood and thunder,’ Mary said. ‘That’s what you need. Blood and thunder.’

Hogarth stood, transfixed, brush in hand, smock paint-bespattered, cap awry. He had reworked her portrait a hundred times, he felt he could never let it go. Or let her go.

 ‘I …er … blood …’

‘I know! A scene in a bagnio! The sort of place you go a-whoring with John Thornhill’

 ‘No. Not these days, we …’

‘A gallant is run through!’ She gave a pealing, tinkling laugh. She laughed with her whole body, bending herself into an S shape. It was exquisite. ‘He is run through by a jealous husband, as he catches them in flagrante!’

They sat down, side by side, as it was clear to both of them that there would be no more painting that day. Hogarth felt a surge of bliss. He never wanted the portrait of Mary to be finished because he never wanted her to leave his studio. He longed to take her long white hand in his stubby ones, but dared not. He twisted in his seat, tilted himself toward her and aimed a kiss at her mouth.

She saw it coming and was not averse to the little man trying, mainly because the little man, ridiculous in aspect though he was, was most definitely one of the great artists of the age. She even intended to kiss him back, out of curiosity, but there was a rash round his mouth and his breath was bad. She was overcome by a fit of giggling. This opened her mouth, so his tongue met her tiny exquisite teeth as much as her lips.

And that is how Charles Mahon, the young Irish second-footman, found them when he strode into the studio, with all the vigour of youth, with a message from Jane.”

Mrs Jane Hogarth (d.1789) Detail from portrait of Jane Hogarth painted by William, courtesy of the Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums.


Layout 1Thanks for that Michael! He has also written the article William Hogarth and Georgian Life for History Today blog, and How to Write a Historical Novel for the Publishers’ Weekly, about the writing and publishing of I, Hogarth. The Kindle version  of his book is available online here and in paperback here.

The May 2014 issue of the Historical Novels Review contains an article by Stephanie Renée dos Santos called The Artist’s Call, the Writer’s Calling which features an interview with Michael Dean about I, Hogarth, as well as with other authors about their novels featuring artists. The full interview with Michael Dean is on the Historical Novels Association website from June 14, 2014.

Jun 172014

self portrait June 2014


Half way through the year and the Rendell household undergoes a complete upheaval – we pack up in Spain (where it is too darned hot) and head back to the UK (where it is generally wet, dull and anything but hot….). A time to review the year so far, and plan ahead:


  • I have finished the manuscript for “An Illustrated Introduction to the Georgians” and will be submitting it to the publishers immediately on my return. I don’t yet have a specific publication date for it, but it will be some time this autumn.

    Sorry about the brown triangles - they won't be in the book!

    Sorry about the brown triangles – they won’t be in the next book!

  • I have decided that my next book will be on sex, scandal and satire in the 18th Century. Publishers seem interested in the synopsis I have submitted, so fingers crossed. It is a huge project but one with great scope for lots and lots of lovely Rowlandson, Gillray, Newton and Cruikshank prints, as well as loads of scurrilous tit-bits from the Georgian gutter press. At this stage all I would say is: thank goodness for the American libraries such as Lewis Walpole, or the Library of Congress, or the Yale Center for British Art – there is no way I could justify a hundred or more colour illustrations if I were having to pay for them at a minimum of £75 each. At least the American institutions I have mentioned are free, and their service is amazing.SSS Dandy sleeping partners lwlpr12349
  • Lots of talks lined up for the summer – about three dozen. Not too bad except that some are morning and evening on the same day! When I do one on the origins of the circus at London’s Guildhall (29th July – link here) I am doing another one that morning in the Cotswolds on “Life in a Cotswold Village 250 years ago” – so it will be a bit of a rush.
  • This week I did a public lecture, here in Spain, on the Abolition Movement in Britain. A bit heavy on a hot day! Not a topic I will choose to repeat, though it was exceptionally well received. Normally you get loads of questions – this time there was a dumbstruck silence before people could recover!
  • Other talks are mostly to WI’s, Probus Groups and Family History Groups, but I am looking forward to the challenge of doing one as a public lecture at the Holburne Museum at Bath (22 September at 15.00) on 18th Century silhouettes and paper-craft! Now, what I know about paper-cutting can fit on the back of the proverbial postage stamp so I may just have to wing it! I just knew that being a bull-sh***ing lawyer would stand me in good stead one day!3
  • While in Bath I will definitely call in at the excellent museum at One Royal Crescent – they have a must-see exhibition on ‘Georgian Tarts’ (O.K., ‘Portrait of a Lady?’) which I am looking forward to, and will blog about.
  • I am also hoping to get to Berrington Hall, a wonderful Palladian house near Leominster belonging to the National Trust, preferably while their exhibition of costumes from The Duchess is still on. I believe it runs until the end of June – and later in the summer there is an exhibition of costumes from the BBC adaptation of Pride & Prejudice.
  • IMAGE 4Another possibility is a visit to the National Circus School, linked to my book on Philip Astley. Sales are reasonable rather than spectacular, but it is something of a niche subject! I rather fancy getting the chance to look behind the scenes at how artists learn the tricks of their trade! Just as long as I am not expected to try the high wire……
  • book coverKindle sales of  The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman seem to outnumber printed sales by ten to one. It is a shame really, because the e-format has far fewer illustrations than the printed book, but download speeds were a consideration.

Ah well, enough updates! Time to head for the ferry, then it is off to Canada and the wilds of Alaska ….RTN newspaper clipping 001

Jun 092014

a card box 1I have blogged before about the fascinating treasure trove which is to be found on the Hampton Antiques site here. This month their news letter features a “Japanned polychromed card box with a chinoiserie scene depicting two figures in a garden with a Ho-Ho bird in a tree on the lid. The front and sides of the box feature inlaid gold floral designs. The Ho-Ho bird is said to bring luck and symbolizes good fortune.”

a card box 2 jpga card box 3Apparently the interior is lined with a navy blue and gold patterned paper which is a later addition, and most probably done in the the Victorian period. Traces of the original blue / green paper can be seen underneath this. There is a tray to the centre of the box which removes, which would have contained counters.It dates from 1820 – an interesting time in terms of design and fashion.

It got me thinking: you have had your guests round to dinner at a fashionable seven o’clock in the evening and have dined well. The first and second removes have come and gone, and the Ladies have withdrawn to play cards, leaving the Gentlemen to drink themselves into a stupor over the Port. The lady of the house produces this gorgeous little card box – but what would the actual cards have looked like?

In this I have been assisted by a great website called ‘The World of Playing Cards here. They have a mass of information about the history of cards. In particular I was interested in a number of sets from the Eighteenth Century which would already have been antique by the reign of George IV. I especially liked  the sets relating to the 1720 South Sea Bubble scandal – with scurrilous and often coarse pictures and verse about the people involved in this early Sock Market scam. Printed from copper plates, the red diamond and heart symbols would have been stencilled on afterwards.

a SS bubbleThen there were the Street Cries:

a criesMore recent sets might have been made by Gibson & Gisbourne, who had taken over the Blanchard card-making company in 1780 and who produced two-headed court cards which later came to be standard:

a blanchard

New out in 1820 would have been a set printed by Charles Goodall & Co, who went on to dominate the market. Jointly with arch-rivals Thomas de la Rue, they went on to produce 70% of all playing cards sold in Britain. Goodall had opened premises in London’s Soho area in the year that the Hampton Antique’s card box was manufactured. To begin with they struggled to meet demand for their  high-quality cards, Initially the backs were left plain white but in time they introduced backs with stars, fleur-de-lys and subsequently somewhat elaborate designs. Commemorative and royal images came into vogue.  More significantly, Goodall’s popularized the court cards we are familiar with today.

a court-faces

Fashions changed and Goodalls found themsleves no longer  able to sell two million packs of cards a year. They diversified into printing calendars and so on, but ended up merging with de la Rue in 1922. All this and more can be found on the World of Playing Cards site. More to the point if you are wanting to obtain replicas of these old card sets, so that you can faithfully re-enact your Regency card party, have a look at the site of  Harry Margary.

Meanwhile I will content myself with imagining that I own the lovely card box, complete with  either brass gaming counters minted to look like Spade Guineas, or else with mother-of-pearl fish-shaped counters which I can remember from when I played cards with my aged grandmother many moons ago!

a tokena counters


Jun 052014

June 5th  sees the British premiere of a film which was released some months ago in the States about a woman of mixed race called Dido Elizabeth Belle. The film is based on a true story – Dido existed, and was the illegitimate daughter of a Royal Navy officer called Admiral Sir John Lindsay.   She was born in 1761 and died in 1804.

Sir John Lindsay by Nathaniel Hone

Sir John Lindsay by Nathaniel Hone

A word about Sir John: he was a fine naval commander who rose to prominence during the Seven Years War. In the successful capture of Havana in 1762 he took command of HMS Cambridge when her commander was killed by sniper fire – and then proceeded to show great courage and leadership. When he returned to Britain he was knighted. He spent further time in both the East and West Indies before returning to marry Mary Milner in 1768. They had no children. Sir John became an MP – and for a short while was in command of HMS Victory when she was first launched, standing down in favour of  Admiral Keppel when the latter announced that he wanted the Victory as his flagship.

He had obviously met Dido’s mother, believed to be a slave girl called Maria Belle,  before he came to fame – Dido was one of three illegitimate children he fathered in his lifetime. When Dido was born she was sent back to England to be brought up by the family of his mother’s sister (married to Lord Mansfield) at the Mansfield home at Kenwood House, in Hampstead, London. Lord Mansfield and his wife were childless and were already bringing up her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray.

Kenwood House

Kenwood House

Inevitably much of the film is conjecture – what little is known about Belle is that she lived as a young girl at Kenwood House with Lady Elizabeth,  who was born in 1760 and went on to live until 1825.  The two cousins were therefore much the same age, and became inseparable.  Their young lives would have been extremely comfortable and privileged. That much is clear from a portrait, originally credited to Zoffany, showing her and her cousin and painted in around 1778 when Dido would have been 17. The original is in Scone Palace, Perthshire, Scotland.


a Dido_Elizabeth_Belle

The picture suggests that the two girls were of similar status. At the very least she was a play-mate of her cousin, or perhaps the equivalent of a Lady-in-Waiting. Dido spent some three decades at Kenwood House. Her position was unusual, because as the daughter of a slave she might otherwise have been regarded as having the status of a mere servant. There is some suggestion (from a letter written by a visitor at the time) that she did not actually take meals with the family but would join the family afterwards for coffee in the drawing room.When she grew into adult-hood  she took over responsibility for running the dairy and poultry yards at Kenwood. Unusually for a female, she was also tasked with helping her uncle with his correspondence. Normally this would have been done by a male secretary or a clerk, and indicates a high standard of education. She received an annual allowance of just over £30  – far more than the wages of a domestic servant, but somewhat less than the hundred pounds a year paid to her cousin who, after all, had the great advantage of being both legitimate and an heiress.  But she was to some extent treated as a member of the family, and it is the film’s case that in living with Lord Mansfield as part of his household she directly influenced him in his opinions about slavery. Who is to say that this wasn’t the case?

NPG 172,William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield,by John Singleton Copley
The point is significant because Lord Mansfield became Lord Chief Justice. As such it fell to him to pass judgment in The Somersett Case – where a slave had been brought to this country and escaped, and his master sought to have him returned to his control so that he could be shipped out, enslaved, to the plantations in the Caribbean. Lord Mansfield was by his upbringing and background a member of the aristocracy. He came from a class which had benefited enormously from slavery – and he would have been well aware of the economic impact of declaring slavery to be unlawful. He prevaricated for some time before making his decision – not an outright condemnation of slavery, but a victory for James Somersett, who was set free.

As Lord Mansfield said: “The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political; but only positive law”  (in other words, an Act of Parliament)  “which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasion, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory: it’s so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from a decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England”

Dido looked after Lord Mansfield in his old age, and under his Will was left a bequest of £500 and an annuity of over £100. She married, had three children (all boys) and when she died in 1804 was buried at St George’s Fields, off Hanover Square, near the modern Bayswater Road.

a Belle posterIn the film version, shot in the Isle of Man, Oxford and London, the part of Dido Elizabeth Belle is taken by Gugu Mbatha-Raw while Tom Wilkinson plays the part of her uncle Lord Mansfield. The film is directed by Amma Asante, written by Misan Sagay, and produced by Damian Jones. It is released on 5th June and should be worth seeing – and not only for the costumes and the recreation of the period. As the Press Release says: ” Belle’s lineage affords her certain privileges, yet her status prevents her from the traditions of social standing. After meeting an idealistic young vicar’s son bent on changing society, he and Belle help shape her uncle Lord Mansfield’s role as Lord Chief Justice to end slavery in England.”

The interviews with Gugu (British born) suggests that it is a sensitive portrayal of a woman coming to terms with who she is (and is not). She herself describes Dido as “inspiring and uplifting.” And, let’s face it, there are precious few films with a woman of colour cast in the leading role, so it will be interesting to see how she carries it off. I was given the opportunity to interview British director Amma Asante, but unfortunately ran out of time before preparing this blog.

All I can say is  why not go and see it and judge for yourself? It may be conjecture, it may be imaginative – but it is an interesting story and the portrait, be it by Zoffany or some other artist of the period, is testament to a most unusual life. I will be particularly interested in seeing how that fine actor Tom Wilkinson shows the journey of discovery made by Lord Mansfield, who at first did not want to have to bring up  the young Dido, but grew to treat her as a daughter, and through her learned about race, culture and identity.

belle and tom


Tom Wilkinson in the role of Lord Mansfield, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw  as Dido Elizabeth Belle.

Jun 042014

A recent Tweet about the new series of Poldark (due to be screened next year) got me thinking about Eighteenth Century make-up, and in particular about face patches/mouches/Court plasters (call them what you will). They were especially popular in the previous century but still remained fashionable until the end of the Georgian period.

A stunning gold and agate  box for patches and rouge, c. 1750 courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

A stunning gold and agate box for patches and rouge, c. 1750. Shown courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Detail for Hogarth's Harlots Progress, Plate 1, showing the patches on the bawd's pock marked face

Detail for Hogarth’s Harlots Progress, Plate 1, showing the patches on the bawd’s pock marked face




The patches seem to fall into two separate categories – those worn for high fashion, and those worn to hide pock marks (or should that be pox marks….). The disfigurement cover-up is understandable. Smallpox affected perhaps a quarter of the population, and frequently left the sufferer with facial blemishes. To reach adult-hood and have a perfect complexion was unusual.

Even worse, the great pox (as venereal disease was known) and its treatment with mercury, frequently caused dreadful facial disfigurements. Small wonder that ladies with ravaged faces sought to hide the  blemishes either with a thickly applied make-up, or with patches.


Looking at the patches worn wholly for fashion, you need to remember that a porcelain-white complexion was a sign of high class – after all, the lower orders had to work outside and so had ruddy complexions. Her Ladyship distanced herself from such labourers by emphasizing her pale skin, often slathering on white lead. Yes, it was poisonous, and yes, that was known at the time, but it did not prevent those dedicated followers of fashion from literally killing themselves to look as white as a sheet.

How to get the white lead? According to Fenja Gunn,  in  The Artificial Face, you needed the following:

several thin plates of lead
a big pot of vinegar
a bed of horse manure
perfume & tinting agent


Steep the lead in the pot of vinegar, and rest it in a bed of manure for at least three weeks. When the lead     finally softens to the point where it can pounded into a flaky white powder (chemical reaction between vinegar and lead causes lead to turn white), grind to a fine powder. Mix with water, and let dry in the sun. After the powder is dry, mix with the appropriate amount of perfume and tinting dye.

Sounds delicious, especially with all that horse manure!

A face balm could also be made using a concoction of almond oil heated up with spermacetti (a waxy substance found in sperm whales, normally used in candles) mixed with a tablespoon of honey.  Just don’t go out near wasps or bees afterwards…

Men as well as women would whiten their skin. The patches were then applied as a contrast – drawing attention to the pale complexion.They could be kept in a small patch box, and the patches might be made of  silk or black paper (in which case they might be applied simply by affixing to the face with a bit of lick) or of velvet, taffeta or leather (in which case a dab of gum arabic might suffice).


There was a whole language attached to where the patch would be worn, borrowed (of course) from the French. Supposedly, you could show your political complexion by whether you wore your patch on your right cheek or on the left. But ladies would use the patches as a language of flirting – for instance, a patch above the lip invited kissing. Those lips would be coloured with carmine – sometimes bright red but generally pink, applied with a pad of colour-impregnated wool or hair, called  spanish wool. The red effect could also be achieved by dabbing on  vinegar (fancy a snog anyone?) or distilled alcohol ( yes please!). By the middle of the 18th Century  coloured lip-balms became available, made from a mixture of carmine and Plaster of Paris. The fashion was for small, bee-sting (i.e. rose bud) lips – and colour might be applied by both genders. You only have to think of those ludicrous macaronis…

Dame a sa Toilette, by Boucher

Dame a sa Toilette, by Boucher

Back to the patches – they came in all shapes and sizes and a lady might wear a dozen or more at one time. You might fancy a heart-shaped one, or a starry one – or even group them together to make a sort of stylized picture on the cheek or side of the neck. A sort of  dot-to-dot adhesive tattoo!

Other positions for patches had different meanings: just by the eye indicated passion; a heart shaped one on the left cheek showed that you were engaged  and on the right that you were already married. On the nose was saucy, and in the centre of the forehead – dignified. A beauty spot on the breast  was said to indicate a murderess – but then again, some books say that it denoted generosity! Wear two down your decolletage and perhaps you were murderously generous! Or a generous murderer…It is useful to remember that the neck, shoulders and bust were also whitened, not just the face, and for added glamour a lady might accentuate the veins on her breasts with blue lines.

Eyebrows were often plucked – either that, or were the first thing to disappear as a result of the white lead. This resulted in  people having to cut strips of mouse  hair to be glued in place, and of course sometimes they came loose during an evening’s entertainment, which must have looked most odd. Even Jonathan Swift commented on the fashion:

“Her eyebrows from a mouse’s hide
Stuck on with art on either side”

(Regular readers of my blog will know that the same poor mouse was also used to provide pubic hairpieces called merkins, link here).

The fashion was for eyebrows to be half-moon shaped, tapered at either end, and an especially pleasing effect could be obtained by the judicious application of lamp-black (i.e. soot) or  burnt cork, or even elderflower berries. Rouge would be used to accentuate the white skin – again, more lead-based products! The red would come from  vermilion obtained from mixing ground-up cinnamon with mercury, or from carmine (red lead).  Other colourants came from vegetable sources such as  wood resin and sandalwood, which would be pulverized and then mixed with grease or vinegar to make a paste.

A Jelly House Maccaroni, courtesy of the British Museum

The Jelly-House Maccaroni, courtesy of the British Museum. Spot the spots!

And then of course there was the high point of your  toilet – the wig. It was a bit of a nuisance having to keep putting on powder in order to keep the dratted thing white ( the hairdresser used a puffer, while Her Ladyship protected herself with a conical mask) so the fashion developed for applying lard to the wig, so that the powder stuck to it and lasted for days. No wonder lice and other insects were attracted to the smelly concoction, and there are even tales of mice nesting in wigs which were not regularly taken off and brushed through. For ladies the wig powders were often a bluish white. The poorer fashionistas and wannabees might use flour, whereas the aristos would  powder their crowning glories with dust – obtained from white lead. Lead was a Bad Thing. It caused hair loss, vomiting,  acute head aches, bowel problems, blindness, and, even paralysis and death. Add that to a regular ingestion of mercury and it is amazing anyone reached adulthood!

Rowlandson's Six stages of mending a face, dedicated to Lady Archer. In the finished face - bottom left, she sports patches on her chin and cheek

Rowlandson’s Six stages of mending a face, dedicated to Lady Archer. In the finished face – bottom left, she sports patches on her chin and cheek

I have blogged previously about the much-rouged Lady Archer – see this link – and I particularly like the image of her driving her phaeton and four to her favourite perfumier and cosmetic seller in Pall Mall. She was indeed a painted lady – and make-up was actually called just that – paint.

As far as I can  decipher this one, a Gillray called The Finishing Touch, it shows Lady Archer holding a rouge pot in her left hand while applying a copious amount of her trademark rouge to her right cheek. In fact I bet the old gal used a trowel…

 (nÈe West), Lady Archer ('The finishing touch') by James Gillray, published by  Hannah Humphrey

Post-script: My understanding is that the new eight-part series of Poldark, starring Aidan Turner as Captain Ross Poldark and Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza, will be shown on BBC1 some time next year. It will be shown after the watershed so expect  lots of swash-buckling, plenty of shots of lanterns moving through swirling mist, and hopefully some  steamy moments! I well recall the last series, aired between 1975 and 1977, so I look forward to the new series with anticipation – if only to see if the gorgeous Demelza sports her patches. For fashion reasons of course, not to disguise her ravaged face!

Poldark - the 500th slate

Poldark – the 500th slate