Jan 242015

January 24th marks the birthday of Carlo Broschi, one of the most famous of the 18th Century curiosities, the castrati. He was born on this day in 1705 near Naples. Like several thousand poor Italian boys each year, he was castrated in the hope that this would preserve his high-pitched singing voice. But unlike so many of his fellow-eunuchs, he did become a singing sensation, and did become rich and famous. He adopted the name Farinelli, supposedly after an Italian magistrate who possibly acted as patron, and made his first public singing appearance in 1720. Two years later he made a sensational debut in Rome, apparently out-performing a leading trumpeter (for whom  the composer Nicola Porpora had written an obbligato) by holding and swelling a note of prodigious length, purity and power. Not only did he out-blast the trumpeter but added his own variations, roulades and trills which left the audience enraptured.

He went on to wow Venice, Vienna and Milan and in 1734 arrived in London, where Handel had established the Royal Academy of Music at a theatre in the Haymarket with the castrato Senesino as lead male singer. Senesino had been on a reported salary of some two thousand guineas – a vast sum of money. Handel and Senesino were constantly at loggerheads and when Senesino went off and set up a rival company known as the Opera of the Nobility in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, it was here that Farinelli performed. He was a stunning success and was showered with expensive gifts and awarded a salary of 1500 guineas per annum. But one season’s meteor was the next season’s damp squib, and his popularity started to wane to the extent that when he received a summons to go and visit the Spanish court in 1737 he did so with alacrity. On his way he stopped off to sing for Louis XV, being rewarded with a large pile of money and his portrait framed with diamonds. He arrived in Madrid in August 1737, expecting to stay a few months, but remained for nearly a quarter of a century…

The court of King Philip V must have been a strange place – the King suffered from extreme melancholia and it was hoped that Farinelli’s exquisite voice would drive away the sadness. And so he sang, night after night, the same songs over and over again, until the old king died nine years later. This was not the end of Farinelli’s influence – far from it. The new king was Philip’s son, Ferdinand VI. He too required an exclusive access to the voice of Farinelli (who never sang in public again) and would accompany him on the harpsichord while Farinelli sang duets with  the Queen. He was  a close personal friend of them both and was made Knight of the Order of Calatrava in 1750, an honour of which he was inordinately proud. With the honours came power and influence (some have described him as being de facto prime minister, although he does not appear to have meddled in politics). Nevertheless he was extremely influential and it must have been a huge blow when Ferdinand died in 1759 and was succeeded by his decidedly non-musical half-brother. Farinelli stayed long enough to pick up a decent pension, then packed his bags and went back to Italy. He lived in considerable wealth but increasing loneliness at Bologna until his death  in 1782. His estate include art works by Velázquez and Murillo as well as a violin crafted by Stradivarius and a number of exquisite harpsichords and early pianos.

The castrati remained popular throughout the 1700’s, but fashions changed in the following century and they went out of favour. It is said that the effect of ‘the snip’ was to make the castrati not just long-lived (and hirsute!) but also altered their musculature so that they ended up extremely tall and with extended ribs and hence a huge lung capacity. This is what gave them the ability to hold a note for so long. The practice of castrating young boys for this purpose was banned in Italy in 1870, and the singing role in arias etc has been taken over by mezzo-sopranos or countertenors. Somehow baroque music will never sound the same again – poor Handel would be turning in his grave.

Jan 112015

As a youngster I used to love making a house of cards, but if I recall right, I cheated by using a special pack with notches cut at each corner so that successive layers slotted together. But my interest was re-kindled when I saw this picture on the Lewis Walpole Library site. It appeared in 1791 and shows the architect Sir William Chambers (designer of  Somerset House).

lwl william chambersAnother picture on the same site was this one:

Building Houses with cards lewis walpoleIt is called ‘Building Houses with Cards’ and is based on a painting in one of the supper boxes at the original Vauxhall Gardens. A quick look at the web shows a few other examples of this popular hobby:

$$$-HOGARTH A93 300dpi/A3-0This is Hogarth’s ‘House of Cards’ dating from 1730. I am not too sure about those rather ghastly children, but it is a good representation of the card house….

Gainsborough with his ‘John and Henry Trueman’ follows the same theme, but at least it wasn’t quite as mawkish:

John and Henry Trueman Villebois by Thomas Gainsborough

To end with a couple from a French artist, who appears to have rather liked painting people playing with cards:

The House of Cards by Jean-Bapiste-Siméon Chardin, 1737 Nat Gallery of Art washingtonThis is ‘House of Cards’ by Jean-Bapiste-Siméon Chardin, painted in 1737 and is shown courtesy of the National Gallery of Art in Washington. From the same artist: The House of Cards by Jean-Baptiste Chardin, 1736 National Gallery LondonIt is shown courtesy of the National Gallery in London.

Post script: for the complete anorak, the actual world record for building a house of cards is held by a Mr Bryan Berg, He completed a 25 foot 9 7/16 inch (≈7.87m) tall ‘skyscraper’ at the State Fair of Texas on 14 October 2007. All I can say is: Bryan, get yourself a life!

Jan 032015

Wander round London in  1818 and 1819 it would have been impossible not to have observed a new hobby  sweeping the capital – even if the observation was made as you hurled yourself to the ground in an effort to get out of the way. The hobby? Well, that was it: the hobby, hobby horse, dandy horse or pedestrian curricle.

It had been invented in 1817 by  by a German living in France by the name of Baron Karl von Drais. For that reason the early velocipede, the forerunner of the bicycle, was called a Draisine, or draisienne in France. The problem was that it was made of wood and iron, and weighed 48 pounds! Nevertheless, gentlemen saw it as a stylish way of travelling, quicker than walking, but more importantly still, of making an impression on the people you left trailing in your wake.Ackermanns repository 1819

From Ackermann’s Repository – the Pedestrian Hobbyhorse.

The fashion for propelling yourself around town on a hobby was introduced to this country by the London coach-builder Denis Johnson. He made it a little lighter, and used a serpentine frame. Even though the Hobby horse had no pedals, no gears and no chain, you can clearly see the influences on the bicycle, which came into popularity later in the century. To move forward, the rider pushed on the ground with his feet, leaning forward while sitting on a central saddle. Without putting too fine a point on it, it must have been an absolute nut-crusher, particularly if you were travelling over cobbled streets! But no matter, it was fashionable (hence dandy-horse). They would have retailed for around £10 – quite a tidy sum for a bit of a gimmick.

hobby 1 B Mus

Here we have “Hobbies – or Attitude is everything” – and who cares about the poor pedestrian, scared witless as he is run down by two fashionably dressed dandies? His fault for venturing outdoors without a hat…


In “The New Long-back’d Hobby made to carry three without kicking” we see the  fanciful idea that the hobby could emerge as a genuine means of transporting the family around town. Note the brake-man holding on for dear life at the back, reminding me of a bob-sled!

hobby 3

The craze looked set to  drive the horse off the road – and where would that leave all the vets, the ostlers, the grooms and the coachmen? In the caricature  above, “Anti Dandy Infantry triumphant – or the  Velocipede Cavalry Unhobbey’d” we see the village blacksmith defending his business of making horse-shoes by smashing a hobby to pieces, while the vet stands over the fallen rider about to administer a large dose of gollop from a giant syringe. It was published by Thomas Tegg in 1819 and appears courtesy of the British Museum site. They offer this explanation:

“The dandy, who is very thin, with a wasp waist, exclaims: “I swear by my stays I never will mount a Hobby again! don’t now you’ll take all the stiffening out of my collar and frill.” The man answers: “I’ll only give you a dose to make you remember! and if ever I catch you again you shall swallow all the contents of my shop!” The smith says: “That’s right Doctor! if we don’t exterminate these Hobbies, you’ll never have to bleed or drench or I to shoe.” Behind him (left) are houses bordering a village street. The mistress and maid of an inn, with ‘Man and Horse taken in’ over the gate, watch delightedly. Next door is a smithy: ‘Anvil Smith and Farrier &c.’, adjoining the thatched and gabled cottage of ‘Drench Veterinary Surgeon Cows Asses & Dogs cured’. In the middle distance an ostler prises a dandy out of his seat with a pitchfork; he shouts: “D—n you but I’ll spoil your sitting! if the Doctor can’t get horses to dose he shall have asses to plaster! D—n me! I shall never have an opportunity of cheating a horse of his corn any more if these Hobbies come in Use.” The road curves to the left and recedes in perspective, a sign-post pointing ‘To Coventry’. A man eggs on a dog to attack a retreating hobby-rider; and a tiny fugitive in the distance shouts: “Dick! steer clear of the Blacksmiths in the next village and put up your Hobby where there is no stabling.” After the title:

“Then beware Hobby Horsemen, beware of yr fate

Dismount from your Hobbies before t’is too late,

For Farmers, horse doctors and horses providers,

Cry down wooden horses & down walking riders,

whoa hobby, down hobby down.”


Hobby 4And to end with, a far-from-original one showing the Prince Regent falling to the ground, between the thighs of his female companion (Lady Hertford). I like the way the Prince is shown wearing a gouty shoe on his right foot (yes, I know, it is difficult at first to see who owns which foot!). It is called “Accidents in High Life, or Royal Hobbys broke down.”  In practice it is the pole supporting the central saddle which has snapped.

It was drawn by George Cruikshank and appeared in 1819. It appears  on the British Museum site with the comment:

” The end of the bar, curving over the front wheel, and surmounted by a coronet, is inscribed ‘Royal Roley Poley’. The Regent has (inconspicuous) ass’s ears; his coat-collar is inscribed ‘Royal Horse Collar’. On one foot is a buckled pump, on the other a sandal adjusted to gouty toes. He says: “Oh dear! Oh dear! who wod have thought the Pole had been so rotten! —I wish I had a new one:—however this Hertford Road is so d—d rough I’ll not drive on it any more—I’ll go the Richmond road next time.” Lady Hertford (right) grasps a birch-road in her right hand, her coronet falls off. She screams: “Oh! My Back!—Oh! My Side!! curse you & the Pole too: I was a great fool to trust myself with such an Old Stick—I’ve got into a pretty mess by it! what will the M—q—s say to it?!!! !!! !!!” In the background, on a grassy slope near a stone inscribed ‘Mile from Windsor’, the Duke of York falls violently from his velocipede; he wears boots with huge spurs; his left elbow rests on a cushion inscribed ‘10,000 pr annm’. He exclaims: “Oh! my Arm!!!—D—nthe Spurs! ’tis a d—d good thing I did’nt break my Neck!! indeed it would have been a hell of a fall as it is, if it had not been for this Cushion.”

So what happened? How come all these caricatures date from 1819 (and there were dozens and dozens of them) and  within a couple of years they were totally a thing of the past? Because the fashion for riding hobbies could not translate to uneven country roads, and, I suspect, because wearing fashionably tight trousers made for an extremely painful riding position! No one wanted to be seen on “last year’s fad” and the craze disappeared as quickly as it first appeared.