Jan 302019

Imagine the scene: deep in the rainforest of Malaysia, head full of facts about monkeys, flying squirrels, sea eagles and giant gekkoes. Not a sensible thought in the world, and I idly check my e-mails and stumble across a blog by the excellent Sarah Murden giving details of a talk to be given by ….ME … on 1st March. Talk about coming back to earth with a bang! In my own mind it is way, way off – because I am doing a small lecture tour to the States first (New York and Colonial Williamsburg) and I am still trying to get my head round those talks, let alone think about March. But in practice when I get back from the USA , I have to rush back to Devon for a change of clothes, and then turn round the same day and head for London to give my talk to the Early Dance Circle.

It should be fun. I confess that when I was asked, I thought: what on earth can I say to a load of dance enthusiasts about dancing that they don’t know already? I am after all, renowned for my two left feet. My Dear Lady Wife didn’t help: falling about with mirth at the idea of her husband addressing an audience of dance enthusiasts for 45 seconds, let alone 45 minutes.

After a few hours of panic, swatting up about the Sun King (Louis XIV of France) and his love of court dancing – and studying obscure texts showing notations for 17th and 18th century dance moves, I relaxed and thought laterally. I won’t be talking about the French, or particular dance steps, or showing ‘how to dance’; I will be talking about the importance of dance, in its social context. I will consider what was involved in a simple sentence such as ‘we went to Bath for the Season’. What did you pack? How many days did it take to get there? Where did you stay? What did the Master of Ceremonies do? How could you meet someone who took your fancy and whirl her on to the dance floor? Why was it vital to attend dance classes in order to learn the latest nuance in hand movements and so on?

I will also look at venues such as the Pantheon and Almacks and consider the role of masquerades and balls. And because I love to see how caricaturists revealed the world on the dance floor there will be lots of Gillrays and Rowlandsons.

And then there was the waltz – that outrageous, morally corrupting, dance craze which swept the country in the first decade of the 19th Century. Good heavens, the dancers embraced each other, and wandering hands could cause untold damage to tender nerves! The newspapers were up in arms, linking the dance to the harlots who took to the dance floor in order to entice their paying clientele. It was saved because the royal family loved the waltz, but for a while it looked as if the world was about to come to an end.

The talk will be at:  Swedenborg Hall, Swedenborg House, 20 Bloomsbury Way,London WC1A 2TH   at 19.15 on 1st March.

To reserve your free place, please book on Eventbrite (click here).

A suggested donation on the evening is £5.00

Alternatively, contact the EDC Secretary: secretary@earlydancecircle.co.uk or on 020 8699 8519. That way, you can also enquire about the whole range of activities promoted by the group.

I do hope to see as many of you there as possible – preparing for the talk has been a fascinating learning experience for me and I really look forward to sharing my researches with you. And do look up the Early Dance Circle – they are a UK charity founded in 1984 and they are dedicated to promoting the enjoyment, performance and study of historical dance. Do have a look at their website  here. They have an impressive range of activities including an Early Dance Festival, due to be held this autumn in Edinburgh. They run workshops, study days and host various lectures so, no matter what your  historical period of interest, if dance is your thing, give them a visit.

Meanwhile: thanks Sarah for the reminder – tempting as it is to remain in the depths of the Malaysian jungle!

Jan 152019

  Today (15th January) is supposed to have been the date when, in 1797, a haberdasher called John Hetherington caused a sensation by wearing a top hat in the streets of London. Legend has it that he caused a riot. The story goes that when he “appeared on the public highway wearing upon his head what he called a silk hat (which was shiny lustre and calculated to frighten timid people) … several women fainted at the unusual sight, while children screamed, dogs yelped and a younger son of Cordwainer Thomas was thrown down by the crowd which collected, and had his right arm broken.” It doesn’t sound really plausible, with the unfortunate hat-wearer allegedly being bound-over in the sum of £500 to keep the peace, particularly as the tale does not look as though it appeared in print until another one hundred years had elapsed, with doubtful provenance then being given as an authority.

More to the point, the top hat (a name which was not to appear until the nineteenth century) had been in existence for many years. The only thing ‘new’ was that by the 1790s they were being made of silk rather than beaver pelts – but the whole thing about this was that the silk was made to look like beaver using a fabric called silk shag (a form of hatters’ plush, which had a soft silk weave with a very long, defined nap). It is highly unlikely that the uninitiated would have noticed the difference. In any event a more likely candidate for the first use of a silken substitute for fur was George Dunnage, who advertised just such a hat in 1793 calling it ‘an imitation of beaver’. Why would anyone have been astonished at it – unless the whole story was a fabrication put about by Mr Hetherington as a sales puff?

In the time of Richard Hall any such item of headwear would have been known as a beaver hat (topper, stovepipe, high hat, cylinder hat or chimney pot hat were all later appellations). But tall, towering, absurd structures had been around for centuries. Have a look at this one:

(as worn by the French king Henry IV 1552-99 ).










But don’t think  such absurdities were confined to the French side of the Channel. Here, painted in 1595 is the man who was to become our own James I (at the time, just plain James VI of Scotland. Well, not exactly plain.) Now that hat would have frightened the pigeons…







The fashion disease spread to nobles as well – here is the first Earl of Exeter, Thomas Cecil, painted in 1605 .








And when a certain Guido Fawkes ventured to blow up the Houses of Parliament history recorded him wearing a singular structure on his head.  

O.K. it had a floppy brim, but it wasn’t exactly a close fitting skull cap was it?




Through into the Eighteenth Century William Hogarth shows the Lord Mayor wearing a fine beaver in 1749,  and by the end of the century tall hats were commonplace as in this 1796 water colour by the French artist Carl Veney. He made a specialty  of painting les incroyables (the French equivalent of the Regency dandies).

James Gillray was also showing the monarch and his family in straight-sided beaver hats. Whether the popularity of the new silk versions caused the collapse in the fur trade, or whether the collapse in the fur trade forced manufacturers to become more inventive with their alternatives, is not clear. The new methods were quite complicated and two different weights evolved, one for ‘Town’ and a heavier one, more suitable for riding, known as ‘country weight’.

Wikipedia gives the method of construction: ” A town-weight silk top hat is made by first blocking a piece of cheesecloth that has been coated with shellac on a wooden top hat block (which is made of several inter-connecting pieces like a puzzle so the block can be removed from the shell, as the opening is narrower than top of the crown) to form the shell. After the shell has more or less dried but is still a bit sticky, the block is removed and the silk plush, which comes in several different pieces, is cut to the correct pattern, then stuck onto the shell. The top flat part of the crown uses a single flat disc of silk plush that has a circular nap. The sides consist of one or two rectangular pieces with the ends cut at a diagonal. The edge of the crown where the side pieces and the flat disc meet are carefully hand stitched together. The side pieces where the seams meet at the sides are not stitched as the silk nap conceals the seams.

The upper brim is also covered with a piece of silk plush or with silk petersham (a ribbed silk). The under-brim is also covered with either cloth or silk. After the hat has fully dried, the brim is curled and bound with silk grosgrain ribbon, and a hat band (either silk grosgrain with or without a bow, or a black wool mourning band without a bow) is installed. Finally, the lining and the leather sweatband are carefully hand-stitched in.”  The country weight hat is heavier because it starts with extra layers of shellac and calico.

 Isambard Kingdom Brunel in a fine chimney-pot hat.

Other famous wearers were Abraham Lincoln,  with the good luck topper as worn to Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865…

The Mad Hatter,          Dr Seuss,         Uncle Sam

Boy George      Fred Astaire       Madonna

Marelene Dietrich         Also the much lamented Screaming Lord Sutch

 (longest running British political party leader 1963 -1999, Monster Raving Loony Party).

Princess Diana with her take on the topper:

So, forget about John Hetherington: it seems fairly clear that the top hat has been with us for over four hundred years. It had its heyday in the Victorian era, and remains today with vestiges of its former glory – outside posh hotels, at Royal gatherings, and as a fashion statement.

 And so, in the immortal words of Leslie Nielsen as Lt Frank Drebin in Naked Gun:

 “Nice beaver”

Jan 072019

 Thomas Lawrence, 1769 – 1830

One of the people I am considering including in my next-book-but-one (about 18th Century heroes who  have missed out on the spotlight of fame) is Thomas Lawrence.    At first sight the inclusion of Thomas Lawrence, knight of the realm, painter in ordinary to His Majesty King George III, and a President of the Royal Academy, may seem somewhat incongruous. But his inclusion is justified just in order to show that the spotlight of fame can be turned off as well as on – Lawrence enjoyed fame in his lifetime but fell out of favour during the Victorian era, largely as a result of his perceived immoral lifestyle. Nowadays, we have come to expect that our painters  lead a bohemian lifestyle – to drink, experiment with drugs, fornicate and generally set a bad example. It is seen, no doubt, as being part of the artist ‘exploring the inner self’. But Lawrence had the misfortune to be followed almost immediately by the moralising Victorians, who tut-tutted at his indiscretions, and deemed him unsuitable and unworthy of praise. And so, the spotlight was turned off, and this magnificent artist has never quite regained his place alongside the British Greats of the world of painting.

Lord Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington

It was not always thus: after Gainsborough died in 1788 and Reynolds died in 1792 Lawrence seemed to have taken over their mantle (although many would argue that he was a far finer portrait painter than Reynolds). He became the artist of his generation, the one commissioned to paint the portraits of all the movers and shakers of the Regency era. And all this from a man who was largely self-taught.

He was born in Bristol on 13 April 1769, one of only five out of sixteen children in the family to survive childhood. His father moved from Bristol to run the Black Bear Inn at Devizes, and the precocious young Thomas was already proving something of an artist and an entertainer. Father would apparently ask the tavern’s customers ‘Which would you rather, young Tom recite a verse or paint your likeness?’

The tavern-keeping venture was a failure and his father was declared bankrupt. This left Thomas, then ten years of age, as the family bread-winner. He moved to Bath, aged eleven, and exhibited a precocious talent for portraiture, charging three guineas a sitting. He was entirely self-taught, using pastels at first before graduating to oils. His reputation soon spread and, still in his teens, he moved to London and installed his parents in a house in Greek Street and opened a studio at 41 Jermyn Street. Not bad for an eighteen-year old!

He enrolled as a student at the Royal Academy but that sojourn did not last long – portrait painting was his only real interest. Over the ensuing thirty years he became the pre-eminent artist of his generation. His portraits of Nelson, Wellington and George IV are iconic representations of some of the great figures of Regency England.

Here are a few more which I admire.  Left to right, Frederic Lock, Margaret Countess of Blessington and Lady Selena Meade:





Lawrence had a fairly alarming habit – at least, alarming for young and impressionable female sitters – of starting a commission by invading their personal space, coming right up alongside them and, from a distance of just a few inches, sketching a specific detail such as the nose or eyes. It must have been unnerving for anyone not used to feeling on their neck the warm breath of an adult male! No wonder half the female sitters look as though they have something very specific on their minds…

And here is Sarah Siddons (a regular sitter, even though he was knocking off both her daughters!) and a splendid portrait of Elizabeth Farren (later Countess of Derby).


With Lawrence it seems that it was not so much a case of falling in love, so much as falling in love too often, famously with two of the daughters of the actress Sarah Siddons at much the same time. He alternated between the two sisters, Sally and Maria, and on different occasions proposed marriage to them both. The affairs caused enormous hurt to the family and at one stage this led him to have a complete nervous breakdown. In all likelihood Sarah Siddons herself held a torch for the charming artist, and certainly Lawrence seemed enraptured by her as well, painting her portrait in at least fourteen occasions. The rumours got so bad that in 1804 Mr Siddons felt compelled to take out an advertisement in the newspapers of the day, expressly denying that his wife was having an affair with Lawrence. It is perhaps odd that the denial came from Mr Siddons, rather than from his wife – or indeed from Lawrence himself. Some years later, Lawrence was to fall head over heels in love with Sarah’s niece, Fanny Kemble, a girl who, more than any other, closely resembled Sarah Siddons in her youth. Curious, n’est ce pas?

Some of the pain and anguish, and burning sadness, appears in the portraits he painted. By and large he seemed to excel at painting beautiful people, male or female. He knew how to bring out the best in good-looking sitters. However, he was hopeless at finishing projects; on one occasion taking twelve years to complete a commission and, on his death, his studio was found to be littered with unfinished paintings, started and then abandoned.

Unfinished portrait of William Wilberforce


Over the years he painted portraits of royalty, including the one on the right of Queen Charlotte. She hated it so much she refused to accept delivery of it and it remained in his studio until he died. Why didn’t she like it? Probably because it captured something of the sadness of the woman behind the royal mask – and maybe she just didn’t like being shown as a sort of Snow Queen, locked away inside her palace.

In time Lawrence was admitted to the Royal Academy, and in 1820 was made President of that august body. He had previously been appointed ‘painter-in-ordinary’ to George III, was knighted in 1814, and travelled through Europe at the request of the Prince Regent painting foreign leaders such as Napoleon ll, the Pope, the Tsar of Russia and miscellaneous Arch-Dukes, Kings and Emperors.

At the time of his death, Lawrence appears to have been at the height of his powers (but was nevertheless heavily in debt). He died on 7th January 1830 and almost immediately seems to have been airbrushed from history. Perhaps it was the Victorian reaction to the excesses and immorality of the Regency era, but the fact remains that from a height of popularity which far exceeded Constable and Turner, he then slumped into relative obscurity. Today, we may know his paintings, but we rarely see his name.

Lawrence was buried two weeks after his death, in the crypt at St Paul’s Cathedral.  The artist Turner was one of the mourners, and he painted this sketch of the funeral from memory. Almost immediately there was a reaction against Thomas and his legacy. He went out of fashion totally, and the repugnance felt by society over his behaviour towards Sarah Siddons and her daughters was re-ignited in 1904 when his personal letters were published. The correspondence shows a highly emotional side to Lawrence, and he writes of his uncontrollable feelings and his anguish, while Mrs Siddons talks of ‘this wretched madman’s frenzy’ and of his ‘flying off in ANOTHER whirlwind’.

On the anniversary of his death, spare a thought for poor Tom: a much underrated artist! Yes, I think he will get a place in ‘Georgian Giants – the unsung heroes of the Industrial Revolution’.  Pen & Sword Books are due to publish it later in the year.

Meanwhile a break from blogging for a couple of weeks – I am off on a  tour to Vietnam via Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand on board the Good Ship Diamond (Princess Line) lecturing on a few more novel aspects of 17th and 18th century history. Well, novel for me: The maiden voyage of the Batavia (a tale of  mass murder, mutiny and rape); Piracy in the Indian Ocean; the race between Nicholas Baudin and Matthew Flinders to circumnavigate Australia and to map the coastline of the entire continent; castaways in the Pacific Ocean; and finally, the true story of William Bligh, captain of the Bounty. Why hello, sailors, here I come!

Website update

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Jan 032019

In November 2018 Pen & Sword published my latest book, Pirates and Privateers in the 18th Century – the Final Flourish. It is available direct from the publishers here and at Amazon.co.uk and at Amazon.com

My previous book, on female pioneers in the Eighteenth Century, was published in March 2018 (to mark International Women’s Day) and is available from the publishers Pen & Sword here and in the UK on Amazon  (in the States at Amazon.com )

In Bed with the GeorgiansAn earlier book, from the same publisher, was In Bed with the Georgians – Sex, Scandal & Satire and it can be found (here) and of course at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk



Next up will be Crusoe, Castaways and Shipwrecks in the Perilous Age of Sail, due out in April 2019 to mark the three hundredth anniversary of the publication of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. It looks at some of the stories which inspired Defoe and also considers some of the other wrecks, storms and stories of castaways which peppered the Georgian era.




To find earlier blogs please put the title (or part of it) in the search box in the sidebar and that will take you to the appropriate post. Thanks!

Jan 012019

Having been commissioned to write a book on sex and sexuality in the eighteenth century, I started, as is my universal habit, by looking through the works of Gillray, Rowlandson and other caricaturists for inspiration.Here are two which caught my eye – definitely from the top shelf. The first is interesting in not relating to life in the capital, but suggesting, shock horror, that people in the country had sex. It is Rowlandson’s picture of ‘Sex around a country cottage’, and shows the irate old lady of the house, brandishing her broom at two dogs who have already engaged in coitus and are locked end-to-end. On the roof,  a pair of cats are at it like … cats, and no-one is taking any notice of the two sets of lovers having it off in the garden.

The second came to my attention as an interesting variation of a duet on the piano….

It is by Rowlandson,  and was probably etched some time after 1790 and before 1810, and bears the title ‘A music master tuning his instrument.’

I wish an indecently splendid New Year to everyone. Now excuse me, I must get down to some more research for next year’s book….