Jul 312015

12 exterior

12 Saltram






I didn’t think I really did justice to Saltram House when I blogged about it  last week – I got into such a mess with the photographs that I stopped, and missed off many details about the house, which is a shame because it really is fascinating.

Plasterwork cherubs on the Adam ceiling

Plasterwork cherubs on the Adam ceiling

The house, built high above the River Plym, is magnificent. It was constructed during the reign of George II,  on the site of an older Tudor mansion, as a home for the Parker family, and they have lived there ever since. 1743 may have been when the Parker family finished cladding the older building with stucco, but the main refurbishment  of the interior waited until  1768 when John Parker II succeeded his father. He and his wife Theresa Robinson poured all their energies and artistic talents into decorating the interior, and the joy is that little has happened since then to mess up the Georgian grandeur. The odd room lay-out has been altered, with two smaller rooms being combined to make a magnificent library, and an exterior porch was added in the Regency period, but the building still has the symmetry and elegance of the original Georgian building. You can however still see a few traces of the Tudor building, with its red-bricks showing in the inner courtyard.

John Parker, First Baron Bornngdon, by Joshua Reynolds

John Parker, First Baron Boringdon, by Joshua Reynolds


Theresa Parker by Reynolds

Theresa Parker by Reynolds














It was handed over to the National Trust in 1957 in lieu of death duties and the Trust has done a great job of maintaining the main building as well as the outbuildings, such as the fine orangery, and  the garden with its lovely specimen trees.

The interior of the building you see today is a masterpiece by Richard Adam, and the main drawing room or salon is often regarded as the finest example of his work.  Adam didn’t just design the salon, its ceiling, its fireplace and doors but also the minutiae of the finishes – the mouldings, the plasterwork, even the door handles. For lovers of the style, it is an Adam-heaven!

12 salon


12 fireplace

12 doors

John and Theresa Parker were great friends of Joshua Reynolds and they acquired ten of his portraits, mostly of members of the Parker family. The third John Parker married twice and his second wife was an accomplished (and beautiful) woman whose own paintings adorn several of the rooms. But it is the chinoiserie which impresses most, especially in the bedrooms upstairs. OK a few bits have suffered from damp (and the predations of silverfish) but the overall effect is undiminished. As I alluded to in the previous blog, the walls are adorned with painted mirrors – the manufacture of reflective glass was not a technique known to the Chinese, so the mirrors were made in England, and then shipped out to China so that their craftsmen could scrape off the backing of silver nitrate and mercury. The decoration would then be painted on in the Chinese style, and the finished decorative mirror was then exported back to England. Artistry never came cheap …. but the effect is great and you can just imagine how these tiny reflective mirrors must have picked up the flickering candle-light in the dark evenings.

12 chinese ppaer12 fourposter









12 paperThe house has a well restored kitchen/pantry/larder area and I was especially interested in the smoke jack fitted into the kitchen so that the rising heat from the fire turned the spit. My ancestor Richard Hall had great difficulty fitting his smoke jack – it was obviously a messy job, particularly if the chimney was narrow and already coated with soot….

The kitchen

The kitchen



The smoke jack

The turning mechanism, linked to the smoke jack

The library is really splendid with a fine collection of 18th Century books. At the time of my visit there was also a display of early Worcester porcelain – normally shut away, but thankfully laid out as a tea service for all to see. And what I liked most – there wasn’t too much of the “touchy-feely, let’s make all this accessible to young kids” which the National Trust love nowadays. I am all for getting children involved but I must admit an emphasis on dressing up in nylon costumes is no substitute for seeing a house in its original state, and just walking around having a good inspection. Personally I am not too keen on trying to make a fine stately home into an adventure park.  Curmudgeonly, that’s me. To the core… but I was prepared to overlook the odd teddy-bear having a picnic….

The Library

The Library. The photographs om display may seem to be an anachronism, but it is a home not a film set!

Jul 292015

100 facts imageTo mark the imminent release of my new book, The Georgians in 100 facts’ I thought I would borrow a few of the facts featured in the book, and add illustrations. First up: the remarkable Edward Jenner.

For a man credited with saving more lives than anyone else in history, and of leading to the first ever eradication of a disease which had previously afflicted mankind, Edward Jenner was something of a polymath. He was interested in fossils, in hot air ballooning, in heart disease, and in the cuckoo. Indeed he had already been made a member of the Royal Society on the strength of the research he carried out on the nesting habits of the cuckoo, before he even started looking into immunisation, vaccines, and cow pox. It was Jenner who established that the young cuckoo chick was responsible for ejecting its nest-mates, not the adult bird.


J1He was the son of an Anglican clergyman and received a good education before being apprenticed, as a fourteen year old, to a surgeon in Chipping Sodbury. At the age of twenty-one he went away to study surgery and anatomy, before returning to his native village of Berkeley in Gloucestershire to become a country G.P. He was personally familiar with the prevailing fashion of immunising against smallpox, because he had been immunised as a schoolboy. The method of immunisation, known as variolation, involved deliberately infecting a fit, healthy person with a supposedly mild strain of the disease, by injecting the patient with matter taken from someone who had had a mild attack of smallpox. In Edward’s case it meant a period of starvation, and being shut up in a confined space with other boys, before being given a dose of a potentially fatal disease. With variolation it was an entirely hit-and-miss affair as to whether the patient would suffer, or not at all.

As a G.P. he noticed that milk-maids often caught cowpox, but afterwards never caught smallpox, and he correctly surmised that the former gave an immunity against the latter. He began experimenting, and the story of Blossom the cow, Sarah Nelmes the milkmaid and James Phipps the gardeners son, have gone down in history. Suffice to say that Master James had to patiently accept that his arms were experimental pin cushions. He was injected with a serum containing cow pox. Having been infected, he was then variolated against smallpox. Nothing happened. The experiment was repeated on a number of occasions, just to make sure that the immunity was permanent. It was also carried out on two dozen other human guinea pigs, before Jenner was ready to publish his findings. The result was a sensation, and a source of controversy which lasted for decades. Not everyone accepted Jenner’s ideas on vaccination – he was ridiculed and lampooned constantly, and it was years before his ideas on immunology were accepted. Defending his findings took up all his time, at the expense of his general practice, and in 1802 Parliament voted him a grant of £20,000, increased by another £10,000 once the Royal Society of Physicians accepted that his ideas on vaccination actually worked. He died aged 73 in 1823.

I rather like the Gillray caricature, published in 1802, showing contemporary fears that humans might start sprouting bovine appendages as a result of being immunised (shown courtesy of the Library of Congress).

j3Jenner is rightly remembered as the man whose work led to the entire eradication of a disease which had blighted the human race for thousands of years, scarring and killing millions. But I also like to remember him as a medico who had enough time on his hands – and enough interest in the world around him – to crouch in the hedgerows for hours at a time during the Spring, looking at the nesting habits of the humble cuckoo.

Rather more about the remarkable Dr Jenner appears in a fascinating book I bought a few years back by Professor Gareth Williams entitled ‘Angel of Death’, published by Palgrave Macmillan. I went to listen to the author  at the ‘Way with Words’ literary festival at Dartington three years ago – and he was the only one of a dozen speakers who had even the vaguest idea of how to present a talk using Powerpoint. The rest all read their scripts verbatim, or else believed that waving their arms around in the air, underlining their credibility as a TV “celebrity”, was enough to compensate for a poor delivery style.

My new book, ‘The Georgians in 100 facts’  will be published some time in August, by Amberley. It will be available direct from the publishers and on Amazon/as a Kindle book and I am looking to see if I get get a special promotion code, entitling readers of this blog to a discount on the price. Watch this space!

Jul 272015

S1Considering that I live less than twenty miles away from Saltram House I find it remarkable that I have only just got around to visiting it! It occupies high ground overlooking Plymouth, and although much of the original estate had long since been sold off, enough remains to provide a lovely area for walks and so on.

S2It really is a Georgian gem – which is no doubt why it was used in Ang Lee’s version of ‘Sense and Sensibility’ starring Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman.

S14I visited on a wet and windy day so the gardens were not at their best, and the orangery looked somewhat forlorn, but the main building is  fabulous, with elegant symmetry, Robert Adam designed interiors, a fine display of early Worcester porcelain, enough paintings by local boy Joshua Reynolds to fill a gallery, a splendid library and some extraordinary chinoiserie not least in the form of hand-painted Chinese wallpaper and some remarkable mirrors which were apparently made in Britain, exported to China for “finishing off” and then re-imported in order to match the paper.

Reynolds pained by fellow Royal Academician Angelica Kauffman

Reynolds pained by fellow Royal Academician Angelica Kauffman


The link to the National Trust site is here.

Here are a few more images of this fascinating house:










S5   S7














I have always heard that chamber pots were "hidden" in pieces of furniture, and this proves it!

I have always heard that chamber pots were “hidden” in pieces of furniture, and this proves it!

The chinese rooms were especially impressive:




Jul 142015


annenbergOn holiday in the States a couple of months ago I visited the Annenberg Estate at Rancho Mirage, California. The place is a pretty impressive monument to what wealth can buy, most of it involving excess in one form or another. But I was taken by the sheer extravagance of an item from an earlier age, tucked away in a corner. It is shown here – sorry it is a lousy photograph but I could only take it against a background of agarve leaves… a silver gilt epergne by the English silversmith Thomas Pitts 1 (apparently his son bore the same name and he was therefore TP2…).

The epergne is interesting because of its role in the changing face of the dinner table throughout the 18th and 19th Centuries. In the early years of the 18th century the English had adopted the French fashion of having a surtout, holding casters and containers for condiments, and this would be exchanged for a fruitier when fruits were brought to the table towards the end of the meal. Both items were designed to take as little space as possible on the table and therefore made use of tiers of dispensers. Eating had traditionally been a communal activity – no-one was “plated up” one course at a time, and instead the whole groaning table would have been laid out with all the courses at the outset. A “remove” would then lead to a completely new set of dishes.

The tiered surtout in the centre became more and more elaborate. It developed into the epergne (originally anglicized as “aparn”) so that by the 1750’s these were extremely popular and gave rich owners the chance to show off their wealth and taste for opulence.

The word “epergne” apparently derives from the French “epaigner,” meaning thrifty or economical. At first the item was called a Save All because it saved the servant from serving each guest, since all the diner had to do was lean towards the centrepiece and help him or her self to condiments, pickles, fruits, nuts, sweetmeats, and other small items held in the bowls at the end of each radiating arm. The central bowl would have held exotic fruits of rare flowers. The “economy” was from the fact that it was space saving, and, as well as saving the servants from serving every single item, it also saved wastage – unused items were simply left in the centrepiece for use on another occasion.

And the foremost silversmith designing these elaborate edifices was Thomas Pitts. He was born in the Parish of St. Mary Whitechapel and was apprenticed to Charles Hatfield on December 6, 1737. In February 1742 his training was transferred to David Willaume II, son of a prominent French immigrant silversmith. He qualified and became a freeman of the City of London in 1744 but does not appear to have registered his first mark as an independent worker until 1758. He really got going with his epergnes in the 1760’s and 1770’s


The Leeds Art Fund site here  in describing this epergne at Temple Newsam House bedecked with fruit states “The centrepiece is in the form of a Chinese pagoda or garden pavilion, complete with upturned eaves, hanging bells, pierced baskets and dishes. They would have contained fruits and delicacies for the dessert course at dinner and the table might have had additional ornaments such as porcelain figures and sugared sculptures”

sothebysSothebys describes the George III silver nine basket epergne shown above as being by Thomas Pitts, London 1762 and having “a frame on four beaded scroll supports linked by openwork aprons of fruit and flowering foliage, rising to the neck pierced with panels of trellis and supporting a matching large oval basket and eight scroll branches topped by four circular hanging baskets and four circular dishes.” It apparently sold for $37500 in October 2012.

Another Thomas Pitts epergne, in the neo-classical style, is this one:

Neoclassical style epergne by Thos Pitts 1789

The popularity of the epergne started to wane by the time Queen Victoria came to the throne. Fashions changed and in came the “new” style of serving, service a la russe, with each course being brought in separately. This left more room on the table for the display of flowers and so on. But for sheer extravagance the Annenberg epergne takes some beating – imagine the effect this theatrical masterpiece would have had on diners, with the dancing candle light bouncing off the fretwork gilding, casting shadows as it glittered in the golden light, and no doubt tinkling its bells whenever a guest removed an item. Magnificently O.T.T.!

close up

Jul 062015

It is always interesting to see how people viewed fashions of the day – and contrasted them with fashions of a bygone age. This is a print from the Metropolitan Museum site.

a bombazeenIt is stated to be  ‘after the style of George M Woodward’ and appeared in 1808 and shows on the left a demurely dressed lady clad in black bombazeen – a sort of heavy corded material which most certainly did not reveal “what lay beneath.”  The  lady carries a closed fan and is described as showing the Lady’s Full Dress of Bombazeen for the year 1740.

The flimsily dressed floozy on the right wears a diaphanous number, through which her stocking tops are clearly visible. Her posterior is there for all the world to see, and across her front the dress does little to hide the charms of her embonpoint….  On her head she wears a fashionable poke bonnet, and she carries a parasol. She is representing the 1808 Lady’s Undress of bum-be-seen.

By way of amplification of the joke I came across this piece of doggerel in a book called ‘The flowers of literature, or, Encyclopædia of anecdote’ :


As Jack, above a drapers shop,

Saw written “Bombazeen”

“Here Bet,” says he, “I pray thee stop

And tell what that may mean.”


“It means fair lady’s dress” she cried,

“Who now go naked nearly,

For ‘tis so thin and drawn aside,

‘Tis bum-be-seen most clearly.”


“That’s true dear Bet, it is no less”

(Said Jack the simple hearted)

And bum-be-seen’s the mourning dress

For modesty – departed.”


Not the finest sonnet I have ever encountered, but I thought it amplified the caricature rather nicely. I have no idea which came first…..