Aug 312015

bougainvilleaEvery so often, I have a complete mental aberration and decide to write something nice about a Frenchman. What has prompted it this time? Looking out the window at the magnificent bougainvillea which has spread across the head of the steps leading from my terrace here in Spain. And yes, I am well aware that the brightly coloured red papery ‘ petals’ are actually bracts, not flowers. The flowers are small, white and insignificant. The plant grows like wild-fire, and has vicious spikes which retaliate if ever you try and prune the beast…

a Louis_Antoine_de_BougainvilleBut the point is: it got me thinking about Louis-Antoine, Comte de Bougainville, because he really was a remarkable man. Yes, he was a thorn in the side of the British (perhaps that is why the plant was named after him!) but he was also a great explorer, the first Frenchman to circumnavigate the world, and a very talented man. Born in  1729 (the same year as my ancestor Richard) he showed early signs of being a brilliant mathematician, publishing books on calculus. He then packed that in, and joined the French army, seeing service in the French territories of North America during the Seven Years War. 1759 was spent harrying British troops along the St Lawrence River, preventing them from landing, and cutting their supply lines. He was involved in the battle on the Plains of Abraham  in which Quebec fell to the troops led by General Wolfe, and later became a diplomat, involved in negotiating the terms of the Treaty of Paris, which marked the end of the Seven Years War.

So far, nothing very naval about him. As part of the peace settlement large numbers of Acadians – settlers of French origin who had established homes in what are now Eastern Canada’s Maritime Provinces, (such as Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Price Edward Island ) – were  chucked off their land and forced to return to France. Good old Bougainville felt bad about that, and out of his own purse set up an expedition to re-settle the Acadians…  the “Isles Malouines”. We know them as the Falkland Isles….

Bougainville accompanied the expedition which claimed the islands for France in April 1764. He must have been a tad miffed when the French then did a deal with the Spanish and ordered him to hand control over to the Spanish. It was after all his money which had financed it all, but he was “bought off” to the tune of 700,000 francs, and Spanish the Falklands became. At least until 1766 when Captain Macbride on the frigate ‘Jason’ called by, and announced that it was really a British colony after all…..

a BougainvillegIn 1766 he was granted permission to establish an expedition to circumnavigate the world – something no other Frenchman had done before. With two ships called La Boudeuse and  the Étoile  and a crew totalling 330 men (well, 329 actually) he set sail on 15 November 1766. One of those on board was the botanist Philibert Commercon, who was accompanied at all times by his valet, one Jean Baré (otherwise Jeanne Baret). Female, but always dressed in a man’s clothing. How she managed to conceal her gender from over three hundred randy Frenchmen for eighteen months is a bit of a mystery, but as a twenty-seven year old she was apparently able to masquerade as a young man in Tahiti, which they reached in March 1767.  She later returned to France, the first woman to sail round the globe, and died at a ripe old age in 1807, taking with her to her grave the story of her remarkable life.

Bougainville wasn’t the first to discover Tahiti, but he thought he was, since he was unaware that an Englishman called Samuel Wallis on HMS Dolphin had landed there in the previous year.

a -Bougainville_Voyage_around_the_World_1772Bougainville published his travel-log as Voyage autour du monde  in 1771, translated into English and re-published the following year as A Voyage Around the World. It created  a sensation, with its description of the noble savages of Tahiti and their idyllic existence.

He didn’t have a chance to put his feet up for long: he played a crucial part in the French victory at the Battle of the Chesapeake, a turning point in the American War of Independence, and which led to the eventual defeat of Great Britain. At the age of 52 he then decided to get himself married, fathering four sons (including one poor blighter lumbered with the name Hyacinthe…) all of whom went on to serve in the French armed forces. In 1782 he got caught up in the Battle of the Saintes in which Admiral Rodney dealt a crushing blow to the French Navy in the Caribbean, led by  the Comte de Grasse. Somehow Rodney failed to press home his advantage, and Bougainville was able to slip through the net, extricating eight ships of the line and sail them to safety. His action prevented the defeat from being a catastrophe – in itself, a sort of victory.

Gillray's caricature of Admiral Rodney presenting the sword of de Grasse to George III

Gillray’s caricature of Admiral Rodney presenting the sword of de Grasse to George III

He then apparently decided to explore cooler waters, and proposed a trip to the North Pole! The French government was not enthusiastic, and he had to abandon the idea. In 1787 he was made a member of the French Academy of Sciences, and in 1804 Napoleon made him a Grand Officier de la Légion d’honneur . Four years later, Napoleon conferred upon him the title of count (the Comte de Bougainville), and when he died in 1811 he was buried with great pomp at the Panthéon in Paris.

His name lives on – as the plant, as an island in  Papua New Guinea, and in ‘Port Louis’ in the Falklands. I have also had the pleasure of reclining languidly under the Seychelles sun on Anse Bougainville, and very pleasant it was too!

In Britain we remember Captain Cook, who was an exact contemporary of  Bougainville, but I certainly never learned about the French equivalent to Cook when I was at school all those years ago. No wonder we are such an insular and ignorant lot….

Bougainville and La Boudeuse

Aug 272015

Anna's schooling costs 001I recently came across Richard Hall’s summary of what it was costing him to send his younger daughter Anna to school. As far as I can see there were two terms in the year, one starting around 4 February and another at the end of July. Sometimes the term started later (17 August as in 1792) and in 1796, when Anna would have been fifteen, she went back on 22 June. It looks as if she boarded – the family lived at Bourton on the Water in the Cotswolds and the expenses included  over twenty pounds for “Chaises and expenses takeing and bringing Anna to and from Cirencester” – sixteen miles away. The journey would have taken most of the day. Elsewhere in one of his diaries Richard noted “1796 Anna left Miss Darke’s School at Midsummer” so presumably the school fees of £17.8.0 were payable in arrear, since he records payment as having been made on 22 June that year.

Richard noted that his daughter’s education set him back over £170 for the period 1792 to 1796, which was quite a significant sum. That included “work frames etc” of £5.14.9 but is separate from the fees he lists elsewhere for teaching Anna how to dance. At least Anna doesn’t seem to have had to learn Latin – unlike her brother Benjamin for whom Richard shelled out so that the local Baptist Minister (Mr Uppadine) could give him a basic education in classical languages. Benjamin loathed Latin – and hence Mr Uppadine – and spent most of his time playing truant!

And to end with – although Richard unfortunately fails to list “hairdressing expenses” as a separate item I would like to think that the poor girl got her tresses trimmed while she was away studying – which leads me on to one of my favourite prints, available via the ever-helpful Lewis Walpole Library, and entitled: “The Boarding School Hairdresser”. Methinks Anna is rather enjoying the visit by the frizzeur, judging by the smile on her face – and just look  how the crimper is standing, and see where she is holding her hands…. in such a sexually-charged picture no wonder he is having difficulty concentrating on doing a spot of back-combing!


Aug 242015
Quarry Bank Apprentice House

Quarry Bank: The Apprentice House

Recently I went to a National Trust property in the village of Styal, near Manchester, called Quarry Bank. It is a late 18th century cotton mill, full of fascinating detail and will be the subject of another blog in a day or two. But one of the ancillary exhibitions which I found especially interesting was the restored Apprentices House, with its focus on education for the poor in the 18th Century.

The school room

The school room

Writing slates and chalk, for doing those confounded letters...

Writing slates and chalk, for doing those confounded letters…

1 Alphabet

Hannah Greg, the wife of mill-owner, was instrumental in housing sixty girls and thirty boys, from the age of nine upwards, in the Apprentice House. A devout Unitarian, she was convinced that both her husband’s business, and the children, would benefit from the “homely” environment in which children could be brought up – providing labour during the day, and giving the children an education in the evening. The girls were taught to read and write, and it was interesting to see the sand trays (in which the younger children could practice their letters) and the slate tablets upon which the older children would trace out their copperplate script over and over again. The punishment for running away could be severe – fines of up to five shillings were recorded in some instances, paid back at the rate of a penny a day if the child worked overtime. But, since the children had to rise at 5.30 in the morning for a shower under the outside pump, and a spoonful of solid cold porridge to be eaten out of the hand en route to the factory 200 yards away, it is hard to see how “overtime” could be fitted in, since a day in the factory lasted until nightfall, and was then followed by lessons. Six days a week they worked – and then were expected to do their washing on Sundays – while fitting in two visits to the local church for services in the morning and afternoon.

Thirty beds for sixty girls, in one room...

Thirty beds for sixty girls, in one room… in practice there were twice as many beds as those now on display.

Amazingly the sixty girls were crammed into wooden-framed beds in a single small dormitory, two to a bed. Six chamber pots were provided in the room, in which the girls were locked overnight. Mod. Cons ? Well. not exactly, but they were given straw in lieu of loo paper – and as the windows were left open all night and there were no fires, the poor little blighters must have been frozen. Still, they were better off than being in the Workhouse, and they got an education into the bargain.

A loo with a view - slop bucket and basket of straw, girls backsides, for the use of... slp

A loo with a view – slop bucket and basket of straw; backsides, for the use of…

Interestingly, new arrivals were checked out by the local doctor (Dr Holland), who made sure that the newcomers were old enough and fit to be admitted as apprentices. For his £20 annual fee he would give the children regular surgeries, bleed them with leeches when they suffered from reactions to the constant cotton dust, supply them with brimstone and treacle if they had stomach aches, and cut off damaged digits if they caught their fingers in the looms and yarn spinning machinery.

Having worked from the age of nine for perhaps ten to twelve years, the apprentices might then get a paid job in the factory, but at that stage would move out into other accommodation in the village. It seems amazing to think that a childhood of abject slavery was considered ‘enlightened’ but in practice the apprentices were fortunate to get regular meals, a roof over their head, and a chance to get a job afterwards. So, well done, Hannah Greg!

But Hannah  was not unaware of the injustices of the world and I must say I was impressed with some of her ideas which she recorded in her diaries in the last decade of the 18th Century. These are not the retrospective comments of modern-day feminists, or of rabid opponents of the British Empire – they were what a thoughtful, conscientious, person was thinking at the time, 215 years ago. It makes you think…1 Hannah GregAnyway, Quarry House was well worth a visit. More of the noise, the dust, the sheer awesome scale of the factory operations, in a future blog. Details of the National Trust property opening times appear here.

Aug 202015

lwlpr04251I recently came across this Carington Bowles print on the wonderful Lewis Walpole site here. I was looking for images of windmills, and sure enough, there is one in the background. Otherwise it is a typically quiet rural scene – well, apart from the sailor trying to nick a local girl from her boyfriend by offering her a coloured ribbon. The oik of a boyfriend looks somewhat peeved, and one of the dogs is drinking the milk from the pail while no-one is paying attention. It is from 1778 and is interesting as an example of what sailors, labourers and milkmaids were wearing at the time.

Wheat_close-upAs I say, I was actually researching windmills in connection with a much less pastoral scene – the food riots of 1766. The Gentleman’s Magazine for 1766 lists progressive hardship throughout the latter half of the year as the harvest failed to live up to expectations, and prices started to sky-rocket. The export of grain was  halted, but there was still not enough to go round, at a time when bread, made from wheat, really was a staple part of the diet.

People in the country started to take the law into their own hands, and rioting occurred in many places. Here is the start of a report of what was happening in the West Midlands: aaa1

You have to feel a bit sorry for the wheat growers – it was after all simply a case of supply and demand. Worse was to follow in Coventry later in October, as the magazine explains:

cccaaSo we had mob violence, aimed at reducing prices for cheese. Meanwhile in Salisbury rioters were enraged when they  attacked a windmill at Bradley and found that the miller was adulterating the wheat with ground chalk, lime and horse beans. This so provoked the mob that they set out and destroyed another seven or eight bolting mills in the area ( “bolting” – otherwise “boulting” – being another word for sifting).

bbbbbbbbb1As the report stated, more serious insurrections occurred in Norwich, which seemed to be aimed at destroying local businesses as much as it was about feeding the poor. Sack after sack of “flower” ie flour was thrown into the river, a water pumping building was destroyed, bakers shops were plundered and smashed, warehouses set fire to and gutted. Sounds like quite a party…

The repercussions were swift and ruthless. Two months later the Gentleman’s Magazine reported on a number of criminal trials linked to the outbreak of mob violence. In virtually every case, the ringleaders were sentenced to death:mmm

I find it fascinating that in the middle of a record of  people sentenced to hang, there was a report of a man coughing up a “plumb stone” which he had swallowed four months earlier and which had “gone down the wrong way.” Obviously the health of the son of Sir Alexander Powel rated more highly than the fate of a few rioters…



Aug 182015

While I was sitting on the beach on holiday in Mozambique I received an e-mail from those lovely people at Amberley Books asking if I was interested in writing a book for them, to be entitled “The Georgians in 100 Facts.” It was to form a part of a series (“The Tudors/The Stuarts etc etc in 100 facts”) and I thought the idea rather appealing. Why? Because the one hundred facts could cover all those quirky, whimsical matters which I have concentrated on in this blog for a number of years. All those stories of weird inventions, wonderful eccentrics, and strange events which have largely been forgotten, but which help define the Georgian Age.

100 facts imageBy the time I had reached Jo’burg airport I had decided on most of the one hundred facts, and I rattled off the text in next to no time, and submitted it to the publishers before they had even had time to type and send me the contract! It must be a first….

The good news is that it has just been published and is available for your immediate edification and enjoyment! You can find it on Amberley’s site here (where you can get a discount on the price) or on  It looks as though are a tad behind the times, because they show it as  “yet to be released” but purchase details appear here.

I think it really is a case that if you like the blog you’ll love the book! O.K., it is different to the blog because it doesn’t use masses of illustrations, but that just means that it is a whole collection of oddments which I have enjoyed finding out about, from the story of the vicar who “discovered Asprin” by chewing willow bark, to  the man who invented the modern toothbrush while serving time in His Maj’s prison for causing a riot.

It includes reminiscences about the crankier members of the Royal family and the shenanigans they got up to, plus inventors, industrialists and all the other people who made a difference to life in the Georgian era. Think flush toilets, think Ordnance Survey Maps, think smallpox cures and the lottery. I cast a brief but beady eye on all of them, and hopefully the result is something you can dip in and out of. It’s not necessarily a book you will read from cover-to-cover in a single sitting, more one to savour in stages whenever you are really, really bored. Or waiting for British Rail. Or queuing interminably in the Post Office, or waiting for your granny to emerge from the Bingo Hall. Simply dip in and see the hours rush by!

I guarantee that you will never mistake it for an academic work of enormous scholarship and learning: it isn’t meant to be. It contains no footnotes, acknowledgments, bibliographies or credits. It is fun; it is history-lite. I commend it to you without hesitation!

Aug 162015

A few caricatures on the subject of going to the opera in Georgian England – as usual, courtesy of those lovely people at the Lewis Walpole Library site, here. The first one appeared on New Year’s Day 1781 and was published by James  Wicksteed – a rather nice comment on the fashion for wearing muffs, and for enormous hair-pieces topped with  little mob-caps:1Mrs Bruin is shown using her opera glass to look across at someone else in the auditorium – surely one of the most important points about going to the opera, i.e. to see what everyone else of fashion was wearing.

Next up, a couple of Gillray’s, the first from 1791 showing Lady Henrietta Cecilia Johnston. She featured in at least half a dozen of his caricatures, this one entitled “At the Opera.”

2The next, from 1795, is called “Characters in high life : sketch’d at the new rooms, Opera House” and apparently features the Duchess of Rutland, and her sister Lady  Manners.  I bet one of those two ladies was none too pleased at that portrayal! But it does show the ridiculous lengths feathered hats had gone to by the last decade of the century – imagine sitting behind that pair having your nose tickled by ostrich feathers throughout the performance!5An aquatint from 1792 by S W Fores apparently duplicated an image from ten years earlier (so presumably the fashions are from the ’80s rather than the 90’s), and also demonstrates the absurdity of high  fashion, especially for the more mature, larger, lady! Here we see a pair, trussed and be-ribboned, under the title of  “A side box at the opera.” It is a wonder that the Georgians left us with any ostriches roaming the wilds of Africa at all….


Fast forward to 1829 and we see another example of fashion idiocy – enormous hats making the wearer either invisible or looking like a midget. It is entitled “Hat-boxes” and was by William Heath.

6It all goes to show – the first and last pictures are half a century apart, but they both show the same thing – ladies loved to get dressed to go to the opera – to see and be seen!

Post script: the more I see of caricatures the more I become a fan of Thomas Rowlandson, so here are two of his – the first showing the rake George Hanger chatting up a pair of ladies in the theatre lobby (shown courtesy of the British Museum) and the second showing the audience during a performance. In neither case is the watching of the play especially important – it was a social event which for many of the people attending was primarily aimed at flirting, and lining up the entertainment for later in the evening. It must have been quite difficult for the actors having to contend with an audience who were drinking, playing cards, chatting with others around them, and such like. On the other hand, at least they didn’t have to contend with mobile phones going off… lobby loungers

1024px-Thomas_Rowlandson_-_An_Audience_Watching_a_Play_at_Drury_Lane_Theatre_-_Google_Art_ProjectO.K., one more – “Symptoms of lewdness, or, A peep into the boxes” by Isaac Cruikshank. It appeared in 1794, is shown on the Lewis Walpole site, and features the ample charms of Maria Anne Fitzherbert and Albinia Hobart, Countess of Buckinghamshire. And yes, it is one of the images I will be using in “Sex Scandal and Satire – in bed with the Georgians.” My apologies if it appears sexist – if I had found one of half-dressed men I would have shown that as well….

I have included it because it demonstrates that the obsession of the Press with “wardrobe malfunctions”, nipples and high fashion is nothing new. The Eighteenth Century is so very like our own in certain respects!

BBB Maria Fitzherbert & Albinia C of Bucks lwlpr08317



Aug 102015

P1A fortnight ago I visited London in order to give a talk to the City of Westminster Guides’ Lecturer’s Association – great fun, and very well received, but I have to confess that as a country boy I really don’t like big cities. London always make me feel as if I need a bath…

One of the highlights of the trip was the chance to call on an antiquarian bookseller called Hawk Norton. He publishes a catalogue of books, mostly relating to the City of London, and visiting him at his home in Brentford is like entering an Aladdin’s Cave of wonderful old books. In fact I bought a few, including one I had no idea I wanted (!) namely Paterson’s ‘Roads’. The story behind the book is interesting – Daniel Paterson was born in 1739 and he joined the Army as an Ensign before rising through the ranks to become lieutenant, then captain, then major and finally, on 1 January 1798, lieutenant-colonel. For many years he had been Quarter-Master General of His Majesty’s forces at the Horse Guards in London.

For some reason he decided that what the army really wanted was a book listing all the cross roads in England, and in 1771 he published “A New and Accurate Description of all the Direct and Principal Cross Roads in Great Britain, containing:

  1. An Alphabetical List of all the Cities, Boroughs, Market and Sea-port Towns in England and Wales;
  2. The Direct Roads from London to all the Cities, Towns, and Remarkable Villages in England and Wales;
  3. The Cross Roads of England and Wales;
  4. The Principal Direct and Cross Roads of Scotland;
  5. The Circuits of the Judges.”

Not the punchiest of titles! Nevertheless, the army were most appreciative of a book which gave exact marching distances between towns and villages across the land. A second edition followed in 1776 when it was called “Paterson’s British Itinerary: being a new and accurate Delineation and Description of the Roads of Great Britain” and it ran to two volumes.

Extract from Paterson's map showing the route between East Bourne and New Shoreham

Extract from Paterson’s map showing the route between East Bourne and New Shoreham

Subsequent editions sold by their thousands, as Paterson added more and more information, both useful and useless. The original slim volume of  a hundred pages had grown to some seven hundred pages of factual information. By the time it hit its 18th edition in 1826 its title hinted at the encyclopaedic nature of the work. It was now called “Paterson’s roads : being an entirely original and accurate description of all the direct and principal cross roads in England and Wales, with part of the roads of Scotland” and it stated that it included “topographical sketches of the several cities, market towns, and remarkable villages; and descriptive accounts of the principal seats of the nobility and gentry, the antiquities, natural curiosities, and other remarkable objects throughout the Kingdom: the whole re-modelled, augmented, and improved, by the addition of numerous new roads and new admeasurements, and arranged upon a plan at once novel, clear and intelligible, is deduced from the latest and best authorities: including a table of the heights of mountains from the grand trigonometrical survey of the Kingdom; also a table of the population, from the census of 1821; to which is annexed the arrival and departure of the mail together with the rates of postage; and an entirely new set of maps.”

Hey, what’s not to like! Oddly Paterson didn’t have anything to do with any of the books after his fifteenth edition. He was such a recluse that everyone thought that he had died, and thus editions sixteen onwards were authored by Edward Mogg, who assumed that the original author was long gone. Not so, he was leading a hermit-like existence in Clewer, near Windsor. He actually died in 1826.

Stage coach travel was never without its risks - here, Rowlandson's The Runaway Coach shown courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art.

Coach travel was never without its risks – here, Rowlandson’s The Runaway Coach, shown courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art.

Poor Paterson: his magnum opus was dogged by litigation. When he first entered into a contract with the bookseller Thomas Carnan to print and publish the first edition of the book in 1771 he could not have known that other writers would then seek to plagiarise the work, making free use of his maps and pinching his ideas. Indeed the doctrines about copyright which lay behind court decisions made as a result of the Paterson litigation cases continue to resonate in our modern Copyright laws. I rather suspect that all that litigation was responsible for Paterson becoming such a recluse. No wonder he chose to lie low!

p2His work remains as a lively, fascinating picture of the topography of Britain towards the end of the Georgian period. If you want to visualise what it was like to get the stage coach from, say, London Bridge to Exeter (“172 ½ miles”) or how you could branch off during the journey to visit Dorchester, or to see all the coaching stops, distances, sights to be seen etc, then this is invaluable. So, a warm thanks to Hawk Norton for flogging me something I never knew I wanted, and which has proved to be such a compulsive waste of my time that I am continually picking it up and delving into – even though, if truth be told, I am not actually likely to be putting any of the information to practical use! After all, who needs a Paterson’s Roads when you have a SatNav – but I know which one I prefer most. Back it up with one of the fascinating linear maps which were available at the time and you can really imagine the journey…

Bowles Post Chaise Compoanion showing a linear map of the journey from Bourton to Bristol (own copy).

Bowles Post Chaise Companion showing a linear map of the journey from Bourton to Bristol (own copy).

Thank you Paterson – and thank you Hawk! Anyone interested in looking at his catalogue of old and second hand books can contact him on but the link should come with a health warning: the catalogue is fascinating, and could distract you for hours!

Aug 062015

A look at a quartet of John Collet prints “in the possession of Carington Bowles” and published in 1778:

First up: Spring.

jc spring It shows a young swain sitting on a bench under a tree holding the hand of a pretty young girl. In her pocket is a piece of paper with the words “Let us Polly do so to.” On one side a young boy delicately plays with a bird’s nest, while below him in the foreground a magpie sits besides a basket containing five eggs. The man points with his hand to a pair of birds “playing lovey-dovey,” while an angry old lady observes the scene of the amorous couple, clenching her fist.

Next, Summer:

jc summerThe young boy is laden down with items, including the house dog, along with clothing he is carrying for the lady, plus patterns for her to put on over her shoes for walking through puddles. He has already dropped one. Three girls armed with a telescope look out of the window of the school where they are being educated (“Young Ladies completely instructed”) at a  a trio of naked lads swimming and posing in a nearby swimming pool.In the background a farmer atop a haystack is packing more hay onto the stack, while in the foreground cherries are being sold on sticks from a basket.

Here we have Autumn. It is the season of plenty, and the young man with a gun has shot a rabbit. He helps a young lady down the ladder where she has been picking fruit. His hand is ambiguously holding either her right hand, or her breast, or the ‘forbidden fruit’. The young lady’s apron  is full of harvested fruit, which cascade down onto the ground. A young black boy looks up at the couple, while appearing to eat one of the fruit. Behind him two girls are also picking fruit, while a man in the window smoking a pipe is cutting off  bunches of grapes growing on the vine.

And finally Winter:

jc winterA mother and her daughter wearing fur trimmed pelisses and carrying muffs walk past a warehouse called Messrs Frost, Snow & Co. A poster on the building opposite advertises a performance of The Winters Tale. Snow lies on the roofs and is piled in the street, although some effort has been made to sweep a passage clear, using a besom. One boy has slipped over, and another hurries in from the left, carrying blades which presumably belong either to a sled or to a pair of skates. A dog has stolen a  joint of meat and is eagerly devouring it.

The images are shown courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library/Yale Center for British Art.

John Collet was born in 1725 and became a pupil of John Lambert. He studied art at St Martin’s Lane. Many of his subjects have a Hogarth-esque quality and he often shows scenes of debauchery, drunkenness and immorality. Publishers such as Carington Bowles often produced engravings based on his pictures, and Collet developed a reputation for his humorous and sometimes gently satirical depictions. He was fortunate enough to inherit a large fortune when a relative died, meaning that he was freed from the financial pressures which dogged so many artists. He died in Cheyne Row, on 6 August 1780, aged 55.

Aug 042015

100 facts imageLinked to the imminent publication of ‘The Georgians in 100 Facts’  I thought I would showcase some of the facts featured in it – and today it is about Sir Joshua Reynolds. I have to confess – he isn’t my favourite painter – give me a Gainsborough any day! Reynolds strikes me as having been petty and jealous, but because I am such a generous and broad-minded person I have allowed him to sneak a place in my book!


Reynolds pained by fellow Royal Academician Angelica Kauffman

Reynolds pained by fellow Royal Academician Angelica Kauffman

Reynolds was one of the most influential painters of the Age – and didn’t he know it! A highly political animal, he despised true talent in others, lest he suffer in comparison. He churned out portraits by the hundred, offering his sitters appointments lasting just one hour. Having done the face and general pose, he would hand the canvas over to his assistant, who would then finish the portrait, especially the folds in the fabric and the hands. This was a perfectly normal type of mass-production, and it earned Reynolds eighty guineas a portrait in the 1760s. He might get through as many as six sittings in a single day.

He had been born near Plymouth in 1723 and spent three years in Italy as a teenager, learning what was known as ‘the Grand Style’. When he returned to England in 1752 he moved to London, taking rooms in St Martin’s Lane before moving to a house off Leicester Square.

He mixed in all the right circles – he was friends with all the leading actors, politicians and aristocrats of the period. In 1768 he was made President of the newly-formed Royal Academy – something of a poisoned chalice given the unhappy history of earlier groups consisting of artists with their easily-bruised egos. He held it all together, somehow placating those who were aggrieved by the decisions of the Hanging Committee, and he helped foster a British style of painting which drew crowds every year to see the summer exhibition of paintings.

Nelly O'Brien, by Reynolds.

Nelly O’Brien, by Reynolds.

When Allan Ramsay died in 1784 his position as Principal Painter in Ordinary to the King came up for grabs. Thomas Gainsborough was expected to be appointed, but Reynolds threatened to resign as President of the Royal Academy unless he was appointed (not that he wanted the position, he just didn’t want it to go to Gainsborough).

He delivered a series of lectures to the students of the Royal Academy between 1769 and 1790 called Discourses on Art, and these critiques on the works of other artists became hugely influential. Not all his students approved – the idiosyncratic William Blake, for instance, dismissed Reynolds as an idiot, which must have made for some lively tutorials!

Kitty Fisher, copyright  Petworth House, The Egremont Collection (National Trust).

Kitty Fisher, copyright Petworth House, The Egremont Collection (National Trust).

Reynolds was somewhat deaf and often used an ear-trumpet. He never married, and was happy for his sister to act as his housekeeper. Intriguingly, the one group he painted over and over again were courtesans. They were the fashionistas of the day, and he helped make them famous. Not only would those attending the Summer Exhibition get used to seeing the portrait of a whore hanging next to one of the Queen, but when the exhibition closed they could then buy a copy of the portrait as a mezzotint, and hang it on their wall at home. Celebrity status had arrived, and it helped consolidate the careers of women like Kitty Fisher, a famous courtesan who he painted on no fewer than six occasions.

Reynolds died in 1792 and was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral.

‘The Georgians in 100 Facts‘ is due out later this month and is being published by Amberley. Details can be found here.

Aug 022015

Ahead of the imminent publication of 100 Facts about the Georgians I thought I would preview a few of the stories which make up the one hundred facts. Today, George I and his mistresses.

George 1st, c.1714, painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller

George 1st, c.1714, painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller

When George had married his cousin Sophia Dorothea of Celle in 1682 he was twenty-two and she was sixteen. It was not exactly a love-match – she referred to him as “pig-snout” and begged not to be forced to go through with the marriage. She fainted when she was first introduced to him. For his part, George was equally horrified, largely because he felt insulted by the fact that his bride was of illegitimate birth (although her parents did eventually marry each other). For some strange reason George’s taste in women did not extend to this vivacious, good-looking young girl with a stunning figure. It was rumoured that his preference was for a somewhat short and portly paramour – another Sophia (Sophia Charlotte von Kielmannsegg). She was the married daughter of his father’s mistress, the Countess Platten. The Countess was renowned for being particularly generous with her favours and there is no certainty as to which of her many lovers fathered Sophia, but the public were convinced that Sophia and George shared the same father. The relationship, if true, meant that George was having an incestuous relationship with his half-sibling.…

George's wife, Sophia Dorothea of Celle

George’s wife, Sophia Dorothea of Celle

George’s marriage was arranged by the two prospective mothers-in-law purely for financial and dynastic reasons – George’s mother was the Duchess Sophia of Hanover, and she was keen to get her hands on the very substantial dowry on offer, payable in annual instalments. As the duchess wrote to her niece: ” One hundred thousand thalers a year is a goodly sum to pocket, without speaking of a pretty wife, who will find a match in my son George Louis, the most pig-headed, stubborn boy who ever lived, who has round his brains such a thick crust that I defy any man or woman ever to discover what is in them. He does not care much for the match itself, but one hundred thousand thalers a year have tempted him as they would have tempted anybody else.”

The marriage was doomed. George treated his new bride with contempt, humiliated her in public, and was constantly arguing. But despite his ‘extra-curricular activities’ he managed to sire a son and a daughter by Sophia: George Augustus, born 1683, who went on to become King George II of Great Britain; and Sophia Dorothea, born 1686, later to become wife of King Frederick William I of Prussia, and mother of Frederick the Great. However, Sophia was more and more abandoned by George – she had done her duty by producing a male heir, and he fell back on his other amorous pursuits. Faced with such a loveless environment, Sophia developed a friendship with a Swedish Count by the name of Philip Christoph von Königsmarck. The Count had a penchant for writing somewhat indiscreet letters to Sophia, and soon they became lovers. A huge number of particularly torrid letters fell into the wrong hands (in other words they were intercepted or stolen) and ended up with Sophia’s father-in-law, and by 1694 the affair had become extremely public knowledge. George was incandescent with rage and physically attacked his wife, attempting to strangle her before he was pulled off by male attendants. His parting shot was that he never wished to see her again – and he never did.

Sophia and the Swedish count decided to elope, but their plans were intercepted. Having enjoyed one last tryst with his inamorata, the Count was ambushed and killed by members of the palace guard. Sophia was placed under house arrest and a ‘kangaroo court’ was held. It found her guilty of malicious desertion – a finding which had the dual advantage of ensuring that the dowry payments from her parents would be maintained, while avoiding those awkward questions about the paternity of her children which might have arisen if she had been publicly declared to have been an adulterer. In December 1694 the marriage was dissolved. Her children were then aged eleven and eight. They were taken away from her and she was banished to the Castle of Ahlden, never to see her offspring ever again. She remained, incarcerated at Ahlden, for thirty-three years until her death in 1726. When she lay dying with kidney failure she sent a letter to George, in which she predicted that he too would be dead within the year. Delivered posthumously, it cursed him from the grave, and a popular story has it that within a week of opening the letter, George was indeed dead.

The Maypole

The Maypole (although in this portrait she doesn’t look particularly scrawny!).

All that was in the future when George ascended the British throne in 1714, but it explains why, when he first set foot on English soil on 18 September 1714 George brought with him two women who quickly became known by the nick-names of ‘the Maypole’ and ‘the Elephant’. The ‘Maypole’ was his somewhat scrawny and wafer-thin maîtresse-en-titre – his official mistress, by whom he had three illegitimate children. They had met when she became a maid of honour to Sophia, the Electress of Hanover, in 1691.The ‘Elephant’ was his illegitimate half-sister Sophia von Kielmansegg, mentioned earlier. The royal family denied vehemently that George slept with Sophia, but as far as the British public were concerned both the Maypole and the Elephant were royal mistresses, and stories were rife about the goings-on in the Royal household. As to the Elephant, Horace Walpole recalled ‘being terrified at her enormous figure… Two fierce black eyes, large and rolling beneath two lofty arched eyebrows, two acres of cheeks spread with crimson, an ocean of neck that overflowed and was not distinguished from the lower part of her body, and no part restrained by stays; no wonder that a child dreaded such an ogress, and that the mob of London were highly diverted at the importation of so uncommon a seraglio! … indeed nothing could be grosser than the ribaldry that was vomited out in lampoons, libels, and every channel of abuse, against the sovereign and the new court, and chaunted even in their hearing about the public streets.’ Sophia was the complete opposite of the willowy Maypole, who Horace Walpole termed ‘long and emaciated.’

The Elephant

The Elephant

George was known to have a propensity for large women, or, as Lord Chesterfield put it: ‘No woman was amiss if she was but very willing, very fat and had great breasts’! That still leaves the question: whatever did George see in the Maypole?

The Maypole, more correctly styled Ehrengard Melusine von der Schulenburg, was loathed by the English court. She was hated for being dull and stupid, for having appalling dress-sense, for being avaricious, and for condoning incest (i.e. because it was believed that she shared the King’s bed with his half-sister). She must have had something going for her though, since the King kept her as his mistress for almost forty years, and during that time she became an invaluable intermediary between the King and his Ministers. She grew rich on the sale of appointments, and incurred the wrath of Grub Street hacks who resented her meddling in British politics. As Robert Walpole remarked, she was as much Queen of England as any ever was, … he [George I] did everything by her.’ Above all though, she and The Elephant were closely linked with the scandal of the stock market crash in 1720 known as The South Sea Bubble.

Both women appeared to have shared a common link – neither of them had enough money. In the case of Melusine she had her ‘three nieces’ to bring up and educate – they were in fact her illegitimate children by George, but he never acknowledged them nor contributed significantly to the cost of their upbringing. In 1719 she had been given the title of Duchess of Kendal, and she needed to maintain appearances appropriate to her status. Meanwhile Sophia was a widow bringing up five children – in a country where the cost of living was far higher than in her native Hanover, and where keeping up a lavish lifestyle, appropriate to what she saw as her entitlement, was extremely expensive. Both women were happy to be the recipient of bribes in the form of South Sea Company stock to the value of fifteen thousand pounds. In addition, two of Melusine’s ‘nieces’ each received shares to the value of five thousand pounds.

The South Sea Company entered into a guarantee with Melusine and Sophia that £120 would be paid for every point the stock price rose above £154. In 1719 the South Sea company had sought permission to convert some thirty million pounds of the British National Debt. Up until that time government bonds were not readily trade-able because there were problems redeeming the bonds, which were often for very large amounts which could not be sub-divided. The South Sea Company hit upon a clever wheeze whereby they would convert these un-wieldy untrade-able bonds into low-interest, readily trade-able bonds, and they set about bribing half the cabinet, including both Lord Stanhope and Lord Sunderland, to gain support for the scheme.

The Elephant and the Maypole were enthusiastic supporters of the proposal – small wonder since they had a vested interest in the success of the venture. Stock, which had stood at £128 in January 1720, was being valued at £550 when Parliament accepted the scheme in May. The price had climbed to £1000 by August, before the crash caused the stock to plummet to £150 by the end of September. Many wealthy families became impoverished overnight. It was rumoured that the King had received payments from the Company, having been made a Governor of it in 1718. In the aftermath of the crash it became apparent that vast bribes had been paid to prominent people at Court, and both Sophia and Melusine were named in the House of Lords during a debate on the subject of bribery and corruption. Indeed the pair of them were most fortunate that Robert Walpole, entrusted with responsibility for clearing up the mess, shielded both the King and his royal appurtenances from the risk of prosecution.

The South Sea Scheme by William Hogarth

The South Sea Scheme by William Hogarth

Caricatures appeared, suggesting that the Duchess of Kendal had helped Robert Knight, the Treasurer of the South Sea Company, to escape abroad. More ridicule followed with the publication of packs of ‘Bubble’ playing cards, while a young William Hogarth produced his first satirical engraving ‘The South Sea Scheme’ in 1721.

The Elephant a.k.a. Sophia was created the Countess of Leinster in 1721, becoming the Countess of Darlington and Baroness Brentford a year later. She died in 1725 and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Melusine, who went by the nick-name of ‘the Scarecrow’ in Germany and ‘the Goose’ in Scotland, died in 1743.

King George, then aged 65, had moved on to a new mistress – his first English one – a woman by the name of Anna Brett. Horace Walpole refers to her as being ‘very handsome, but dark enough by her eyes, complexion, and hair, for a Spanish beauty.’ The aristocracy was horrified to hear the rumour that she was to be elevated to the rank of Countess, since Mistress Brett (as she was derogatively called) was the daughter of a mere colonel with an infamous mother. No sooner had she started throwing her weight about at the Palace, making alterations and rubbing up the Maypole the wrong way, than news of the death of the King came through. She never did get her hands on a ducal coronet, and she disappeared from court and into obscurity.


The story of George and his mistresses appears in much-shortened form in my new book 100 Facts about the Georgians. It features, guess what, a hundred different facts, and gives a brief account of a whole variety of events which occurred during the reigns of the first four Georges. It includes inventors and inventions as well as odd and quirky oddments about everyday life, and is due to be published around 15th August. It will be available on Amazon here.