Mar 242019

Richard Hall rarely mentioned party politics in his diaries – I suspect that he simply wasn’t that interested. But he did mention politics and current events if he felt that they represented a threat to stable government and the rule of law.

This is his entry in a review of the year 1784.

Gt Seal

Thieves had broken into the Gt Ormond Street house of Lord Thurlow, the Chancellor, and had stolen the Great Seal, complete with its leather pouch and silk container. It was never recovered and a new seal had to be hastily made the next day. It was all part of a period of turmoil in Britain’s parliament linked to the rivalry between William Pitt, the Prime Minister, and Charles James Fox, the leader of the opposition.

Pitt had been endeavouring to govern from a power-base in the House of Lords. Indeed he was the only member of the government to have a seat in the House of Commons, with all the other Ministers being peers of the realm. But Pitt enjoyed the support of King George III and managed to resist all of the attempts by Fox to force him to resign.

In March 1784 Pitt asked George III to dissolve parliament so he could hold a General Election. Foxite supporters were believed to have been behind the plot to steal the Great Seal, a symbol of royal authority. In the event Pitt was returned to power and 160 opposition M.P.’s lost their seats. Caricaturists of the time suggested that the theft was part of a plot by the Prince of Wales, aided and abetted by Fox, to undermine the power of the Government. Here, a caricature from 1784 showing Fox, dressed as Falstaff, supporting the PoW on his shoulders while he takes delivery of the Great Seal, being handed to him out of the window by a man believed to be Colonel Richard FitzPatrick, who is disguised by wearing a stocking mask. Fitzpatrick was a lifelong friend of Fox, but in reality there is no shred of evidence to suggest that he theft was anything but the work of a petty criminal.

The adventures of Prince Pretty Man, courtesy of the British Museum

Lord Thurlow,From a painting by Thomas Phillips, R.A. By permission of the Trustees of the National Portrait Gallery. Lord Thurlow, from a painting by Thomas Phillips, R.A.
By permission of the Trustees of the National Portrait Gallery.

But for Lord Thurlow it must have been an embarrassing time, losing the ultimate symbol of his authority. For Richard? Well, it was a time of turmoil and uncertainty – not good for business! He was definitely a Law’nOrder man, who hated any challenge to the status quo because it might be bad for trade.

A wax impression of the reverse of the present Great Seal of England.

Mar 232019

© National Portrait GalleryFashion can be a cruel mistress – as exemplified by the tale of a man by the delightful name of Sir Lumley St. George Skeffington. It is his birthday today, having been born 23rd March 1771 in the parish of St Pancras. His father, Sir William, had taken the surname ‘Skeffington’ when he became baronet in 1786.

Master Skeffington was well-bred, with the fine manners expected of the Age. As a young man he quickly fitted in to the small coterie of friends of the Prince of Wales (the “Carlton House set”) and was on hand to offer advice to the Prince on all things sartorial. He was mad keen on the theatre and became part of a group who were always in attendance at first nights. Indeed on more than one occasion he apparently went to four different theatres in the single evening. He invariably wore ‘a dark blue coat with gilt buttons, a yellow waistcoat, white cord inexpressibles, with large bunches of white ribbons at the knees, and short top boots.’

He fancied himself as a bit of a playwright. Correction: he fancied himself. He gave his name to a particular shade of ….brown: “Skeffington Brown” – now that is something to be remembered for! He became a dedicated follower of fashion and this in turn attracted the attention of Gillray, who showed him in this 1799 print entitled  ‘Half Natural’

© National Portrait Gallery

and again a year later, after his appearance at the Birthday Ball, in a print sub-titled ‘So Skiffy Skipt-on, with his wonted grace.’

© National Portrait Gallery

Most of his contemporaries noted Skeffington’s rouged complexion – and his somewhat overpowering use of perfume.Skeffington, L© National Portrait Galleryumley St. George 3

Gillray also lampooned him in this print dated 1802 showing him (left hand figure) and a friend in a pair of polished boots – the implication being that the polish was all in the clothing.


Skeffington was undeterred and put on his first play at Covent Garden in 1802 called “Word of Honour.” Let us just say that it did not trouble the scorers… A year later he followed it with The High Road to Marriage” (ditto) but a degree of success greeted his next offering, a melodrama by the title of “The Sleeping Beauty” which opened at Drury Lane on my birthday, 6th December, in 1805.

Hard as he tried, he never managed to repeat even that small success. Money seemed to pass through his hands like water, and although he succeeded to the baronetcy when his father died in 1816, the estate did nothing to clear his debts and poor Skiffy spent several years dodging in and out of the Debtors Prison. He was fortunate enough to receive a small inheritance, but not sufficient to enable him to regain his position at the pinnacle of fashion. By all accounts he simply never moved on – into his eighties he was still wearing the same dandified clothes, his cheeks still heavily rouged, his hairpiece still ebony black.

A sketch of what was once a Dandy , 1823 (British Museum).

He eventually died, unmarried, in Southwark in 1850, and the baronetcy came to an end. I find him a rather sad forlorn character – a fop who flopped. But a happy birthday, nonetheless!

All images (apart from the last) © National Portrait Gallery



Mar 202019

love-at-300dpiFor the cover on my book “In Bed with the Georgians – Sex Scandal and Satire in the 18th Century” I chose a print based on a painting by William Matthew Peters. I subsequently acquired an original print of the lady in question, thanks to the generosity of one of the readers of this blog, for which I am extremely grateful.

The Rev W M Peters

The Rev W M Peters

Peters was quite an interesting character. Some books describe him as “ a portrait and history painter from the Isle of Wight” while others ascribe to him an Irish birth and ancestry. His father appears to have been a garden designer working in Dublin and who had originally done work for Lord Cobham at Stowe. As a youth Peters went twice to Italy to study the works of the great Renaissance artists. He returned from the first trip (to Rome) in the early 1760s and then went again to Rome, and Venice, in the early to mid 1770s. He gained the somewhat over-egged title of “the English Titian” – due to a series of portraits of ladies in various stages of undress. He apparently painted them as a tribute to the works of Titian, intending to emulate Titian’s “Venus” by showing modern-day seductresses. However, whereas Titian painted his Venus stretched out full length on her bed, entirely naked, Peters showed only the head, shoulders and breasts. Peters provided his ladies with contemporary night-caps along with familiar names of the period eg Lydia, Belinda, Sylvia (and Lucrece…?).

Lydia. circa 1777 . shown courtesy of the Tate Museum

Lydia. circa 1777 . shown courtesy of the Tate Museum

Described as "a Study for Lydia" - same hat, same breasts... It poses the question: how much study did he really need to do?

Described as “a Study for Lydia” – same hat, same breasts… It poses the question: how much study did he really need to do?!



He may have seen them as tributes to the great Italian Masters, but the public saw them as erotic art which they could buy as pin-ups, and copies appeared in print many times over. Not all the critics were in favour. When Peters exhibited The Woman in Bed at the RA summer exhibition the critic in The Morning Chronicle of 26 April 1777 noted: “We cannot … help thinking that the inviting leer of the lady, and her still more inviting bosom, ought to be consigned to the bedchamber of a bagnio, where each would doubtless provoke a proper effect; in the present situation they serve to prevent the pictures around them from being so much seen and admired as their merits demand, for every man who has either his wife or daughter with him, must, for decency sake, hurry them away from that corner of the room”

Belinda - the basis for the print used on my book cover

Belinda – the basis for the print used on my book cover, but showing rather less décolletage – and a different hat!

Matthew Peters had trained in London under the portraitist Thomas Hudson and when he returned from his second Italian tour Peters had moved into a house belonging to Lord Grosvenor in Millbank. It was then, presumably urged on by patrons such as Lord Grosvenor, that he began to paint his studies of courtesans. And let’s face it, Lord Grosvenor certainly knew a lot of courtesans… I can just imagine him coming home after a torrid night between the sheets at a local brothel and saying to Peters “Look who I’ve brought for you to paint.”

By the late 1770s Peters, was getting increasingly worried about the damage to his reputation as a serious artist, and so abandoned painting courtesans. This became even more important to him when he decided to become ordained in 1781, Subsequently he was appointed Honorary Chaplain to the Royal Academy, and was highly embarrassed by his quasi-erotoc offerings. According to the Tate Gallery he expressed “a profound regret that he ever devoted his talents to such subjects, not only because they were degrading to his character but [also] from sincere moral regret.” He went on to become rector of Eaton, Leicestershire, then rector of Wolsthorpe, Leicestershire, in 1788, and became Prebendary of Lincoln in 1795 He was also chaplain to the Prince Regent, so we can safely say that he was not just a man of the canvas but also a man of the cloth….

In 1777 he had been elected a full Member of the Royal Academy. He married Margaret, daughter of the Rev John Knowsley and they had various children including a son, Edmund, who took the surname of Turton in order to receive a benefit under the will of Dr John Edmund. He carried on painting – mostly mawkish pictures of young children ascending to Heaven, but I rather go along with the comment on his works which appeared in the Dictionary of Irish Artists in 1913 “Peters’ work as a painter was very unequal; but in his portraits he shows a strength and ease in painting, with good colour, which raises him to a higher level than has hitherto been accorded him. Had he devoted his talents to portraiture instead of wasting them on his historical pictures and his ill-drawn, badly-coloured angels and pious children by which he is best known, he would have been regarded, and taken his place, as one of the best painters of the English school.”

Peters died at Brasted Place, Kent, on 20th March, 1814. I confess that I rather like his seductive nudes with their ‘come hither’ look. Let’s face it, I wouldn’t have any of his other  paintings hanging on my study wall. My book is intended as a rattling read through the bedroom antics of Georgian Britain, and I am grateful to the Rev. Peters for providing me with a most suitable cover.


Mar 122019

At first sight you would not expect to find much in New York which would resonate with a Georgian fanatic – but I am delighted to say that if you look, it is amazing how much you can find!

I started off by taking a taxi to the heart of the financial centre – Wall Street. When writing Pirates and Privateers I came across a reference to the fact that William Kidd had settled in New York after marrying the wealthy widow Susan Bradley Cox Oort. Their home off Pearl Street was one of the most prestigious in the area, with fine views (untrammelled by today’s sky scrapers!). It has of course long since disappeared.

Captain William Kidd’s house and gardens on Pearl Street, c. 1691

As a wealthy philanthropist Kidd helped with the building of Trinity Church, finished in 1698. In particular he lent the builders a pulley system for raising the stones to build the church tower, with the Vestry Minutes of 20 July 1696, recording that “Capt. Kidd has lent a Runner & Tackle for the hoiseing [ie hoisting] up Stones as long as he stays here.”

Poor William Kidd – he was left high and dry by the authorities back in London when he sailed off to the Indian Ocean, armed with a Letter of Marque. OK, he dabbled a bit in piracy and robbery on the High Seas. Yes, he struck a mutinous crew member across the forehead with an iron-banded bucket, from which the man later died. But he was never given a fair trial and was hanged in 1701, a victim of political shenanigans.It meant that he never actually got to worship at Trinity Church, although he appears to have paid for the use of a pew for the family to use for at least 17 years after his death. The Trinity Church website here shows the original minute, with Pew 4 shared between the Rector and the heirs of Captain Kidd.

The records of who-sat-where – item 4, the Kidd’s pew

The church was destroyed in the ‘Great Fire ’which swept through New York on 20 September 1776 when almost a third of the city was consumed in the flames, but rebuilding soon got underway and astonishingly the spire remained the highest building in the city until the 1890s.

The Great Fire

Nowadays it is totally dwarfed and in permanent shade from the ‘cathedrals to Mammon’ which tower above it.

St Trinity Church, and below, one of the gravestones.

At present Trinity Church is undergoing renovation works, but the graveyard contains many reminders of the 17th and 18th centuries.

                                                                                                St Pauls

Next up, this Georgian Gent wandered up to the chapel of St Pauls, one of the few buildings in Lower Manhattan to escape the ravages of the Great Fire. It had been completed in 1766 and is fascinating because it contains the pew occupied by George Washington during the two  years while New York was the nation’s capital. Here, on Inauguration Day, April 30 1789, George Washington and other members of the U S Congress worshipped. Nowadays the wall above the pew exhibits an early form of the Great Seal of the United States. You know the bird is a turkey – I can only confirm that it looks more like a goose…

St Pauls pulpit









But it is a splendid church, well worth the visit. But that is not all that remains – how about more secular buildings? How about this fascinating building in Upper Manhattan, owned by The Colonial Dames of America.

The CDA is an organization made up of women who are descended from an ancestor who lived in Colonial America between 1607 and 1775, and who was of service to the colonies either as a result of holding public office, or of being in the military, or in some other “eligible” way.

The logo of the Colonial Dames of America

The hotel sign










The Colonial Dames have their headquarters in the period Mount Vernon Hotel Museum. Next to it, they have premises used as a meeting hall – ideal for lectures. I was thrilled to be able to speak there to the American Friends of the Georgian Group. It made for a fascinating experience – usually you give your talk at a set time, and have refreshments afterwards. Not here – there is a much better arrangement: everyone meets up, has a good gossip, and everyone knocks back a few glasses of wine. All very convivial. Half an hour after the appointed start time I wandered over to the lectern, only to find that my lap-top had jammed – no notes, and no lap-top display showing what image was being displayed on screen. No bother. It’s the sort of thing which might have phased me when I started, but by now I am immune to the curve-balls which technology throws at you. I gave the talk and it seemed well received, and it is always fun to meet up with fellow Georgian enthusiasts.

That wasn’t the end of the city’s Georgian connection. The next day we visited the fabulous Metropolitan Museum, adjoining Central Park. Some of the exhibitions are stunning – for instance the restored interiors of Georgian buildings, re-assembled inside the Museum. These are just two:

The interior, Baltimore House, from 1810

Room from the Powel House, Philadelphia, remodelled 1769-71

But somehow the Met is a bit intimidating – it is so huge. It would take days to see everything, and fortunately the entrance ticket gives you a right of admission for three consecutive days – if your poor feet can stand it! Instead we wandered across to the Frick Museum – a truly astounding private collection with delights around every corner. Somehow the idea of one man collecting the whole lot makes it all the more personal – there was a reason why he acquired paintings – to make a pair, to illustrate a point, to show an unusual juxtaposition. And suddenly you are surrounded by old favourites – Gainsborough’s portrait of  Grace Dalrymple Elliott ‘(Dally the Tall’, featured in my book In Bed with the Georgians) and a Reynolds portrait of Selina, Lady Skipwith. I blogged about her here because my ancestor Richard Hall lent the good lady £1100 at a rattling 4½%.

Dally the Tall

Selina, Lady Skipwith, 1787












There are dozens of other period paintings – by Romney, Turner, Constable and so on and a fascinating pair of portraits by Hans Holbein hung either side of the fireplace – one of Thomas More, and one of his arch-rival Thomas Cromwell. Each ended up with his head on the block, courtesy of Henry VIII, and here they are destined never to be rid of each other, glowering into Eternity.

New York was a great experience. I had been before and therefore did not feel the need to ‘do’ the Empire State Building, or take a heli-tour, or go round the harbour on an up-market booze-cruise. Been there, done that. Instead it was great fun to look out the vestiges  of a glorious and fascinating past, hidden but never totally obscured by a plethora of modern buildings.

Mar 102019

On the morning of 10th March 1777 a crowd, estimated as being twenty thousand strong, gathered by the naval dockyard in Portsmouth. Towering above them was the mizzenmast struck from the warship HMS Arethusa, specially erected for the purpose. And the purpose? To hang one John Aitken, otherwise known as John Hill, otherwise known as John the Painter, for arson in the royal dockyards. abc3

It is hard to see Aitken in a heroic light – he was 24 years old, a highwayman, a burglar and, on at least one occasion, a (self-confessed) rapist. He was also responsible for a one-man wave of arson and bomb attacks apparently aimed at weakening the British Navy – and hence helping the cause of the revolutionary forces in the American War of Independence. Whether he was genuinely motivated by political ideology, or whether he just wanted to attain notoriety and to escape from a hum-drum existence is unclear. Certainly he had spent a couple of years in America – after he fled there to avoid prosecution for raping a young girl who was looking after some sheep in a field near Winchester.

He had had a somewhat deprived childhood in Edinburgh, where he was born, the eighth of twelve children, in 1752. His father soon died, which curiously gave young John a boost in life because it meant that he was eligible for free education at a charity school set up by George Heriot which provided help for the poor fatherless children of Edinburgh (or, as the Scottish dialect has it, the “puir, fitherless bairns”). When his schooling finished he tried his hand at various jobs, including that of a house painter, but drifted into a life of petty crime.

John_the_PainterAs a 21 year old, running away in order to avoid being imprisoned for rape, he secured a passage to Jamestown in Virginia on the basis of signing an Indenture of Apprenticeship, but discovered that he was not suited to a life of servitude working on the tobacco plantations. He ran away and spent a couple of years drifting through Philadelphia, Boston and New York.

In 1775 he returned to England and embarked on a career of political arson. Not only did he aim to destroy naval ships in harbour, but also to cripple the repair of ships by burning down the dockyards and ropewalks upon which the navy depended.


He comes across as something of a loner desperate to make a name for himself – in a pub he apparently heard a group of people talking about how vulnerable the Navy was to the ravages of fire, and in his words “I spent two days in the contemplation of this malicious design, and promised myself immortal honour in the accomplishment of it. I beheld it in the light of a truly heroic enterprise, such as never would have been equalled to the end of time. I was persuaded it would entitle me to the first rank in America, and flattered myself with the ambition of becoming the admiration of the world!”

He seems to have been able to gain access to a number of naval installations in Bristol and Portsmouth and, using his knowledge of inflammable materials gleaned from his time in the paint trade, he succeeded in fire-bombing a small number of installations.abc2

His first attempt, at Portsmouth, had to be aborted when he accidentally got locked in the ropewalk and had to hammer on the door to be let out!  He stayed close by, and returned on 7th December 1776 when he managed to set off three incendiary devices. One building was destroyed – but hardly the mass conflagration of the whole city and dockyards which Aitken apparently intended.

He later made his way to Bristol where he triggered off a number of small fires, all of them extinguished without serious damage. The authorities were convinced that a whole gang of terrorists were on the loose – a number of wholly unrelated fires were also attributed to him. The panic caused by the reports of the arson attacks helped the government push through the Treason Act, enabling suspected rebels to be seized without the right of habeas corpus (in other words, without the courts having the right to question the legitimacy of the imprisonment). Eventually a reward of one thousand pounds was posted, his description was circulated, and the Bow Street Runners were employed to track him down. Before long, Aitken was apprehended while travelling through Odiham in Hampshire and taken in for questioning.

At first he proved unwilling to cooperate but a government agent managed to gain his confidence while in prison and to secure sufficient details from him to enable a conviction to be obtained.

The gallows created from the mast of HMS Arethusa, some sixty feet above ground level apparently made it the highest ever used for an execution. Clearly the authorities wanted people to see the punishment from as far away as possible – which perhaps explains why, following his death, the corpse of John Aitken was suspended in chains at Fort Blockhouse, overlooking the harbour at Portsmouth, where it remained for many years, a gruesome reminder of the fate which awaited terrorists in the 18th Century.

I see that arson in the King’s Dockyards featured earlier in the 1770’s – the Lewis Walpole Library site has this etching entitled “The blind Justice & the secretaries One Eye & No Head examining the old woman and little girl about the fireing  of Portsmouth Dock Yard.” c1

The incident referred to occurred in June 1770 but the etching came out a year later. It shows Justice as being not just half-blinded but as an ugly old hag with her scales of justice heavily tipped by a bag of gold coins. The secretaries include the blind magistrate Sir John Fielding (wearing a visor), and the Earls of Rochford, Sandwich and Suffolk. They are examining an old crone and her daughter who have been arrested on a charge of setting fire to a part of the dockyard at Portsmouth. Fielding is saying ” I see plainly that you are guilty. You have that hanging look”. One of the earls says “Some body must hang for this, right or wrong, to quiet the mob and save our Credit.” In vain the old crone claims that she is a poor honest woman and that her betters know more about the fire than she does….

Parliament has always taken a dim view of burning down the Royal Navy. The “Dockyards etc. Protection Act 1772” set out a comprehensive list of crimes punishable by death, such as causing a fire or explosion in a naval dockyard, magazine, warehouse, or ship –  and oddly it remained a capital offence even after the death penalty for murder was abolished in 1965. The 1772 Act was finally repealed by the  1972 Criminal Damage Act. It rather looks as though John the Painter was the only person ever executed under this particular piece of legislation, which is strange when I can recall from my days as a law student that we always had to remember that the death penalty still existed in certain circumstances such as arson in Her Majesty’s dockyards. No matter that it hadn’t happened for  two centuries, you needed to remember it!


The paper cut-outs were all made by my ancestor Richard Hall in the 1780’s.

Mar 072019


The Governor’s Palace

Being invited to give the keynote speech at the five-day long Antiques Forum hosted by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation was a great honour – and enormous fun! As a lecturer I must admit it was a real highlight, and I was able to link it with giving a talk to the American Friends of the Georgian Group, while staying in New York.

For those of you not familiar with the concept, Williamsburg was the original capital of the young colony of Virginia, but it proved strategically very vulnerable and the capital moved to Richmond in 1780. This left Williamsburg as a quiet backwater, decaying gradually as the old colonial buildings collapsed – including the governor’s palace and all the original homes as built by the early settlers. Then along came Dr W A R Goodwin and he persuaded the philanthropist John D Rockefeller Jnr to invest a very large slice of his enormous wealth into creating Colonial Williamsburg – the historic heart of the old town.










The foundations of the original buildings were uncovered and used to recreate the layout of the town, on its 300 acre site. The decayed capitol building was restored to health – and what we are left with is a remarkable recreation of what the place would have looked like 250 years ago. It has become Virginia’s largest tourist attraction, drawing thousands of visitors who can come and see the trades as originally carried out in the different buildings – the cordwainer making shoes, the carriage maker, the milliner, the wig maker and so on. It is no Disney-esque  pastiche – it may be fake, but it is genuine fakery and it works rather well.    


The cordwainer

The cordwainer in his shop

Carriage making










The streets  are wide and devoid of yellow lines and modern street furniture. The taverns sport no modern lighting, and the staff recreating the world of the Eighteenth Century really do know their stuff. Ask the wig makers about pomades, different wig powders and the use of tails and queues – and they are well able to answer authoritatively. Ask the cook about smoke jacks, or the recipes being used, and you will be amazed at the background knowledge.

And then, quite separately, there is the museum, the conservation, the research and the scholarship. All very impressive – I attended a workshop on Old Sheffield Plate and was fascinated by the display of early plate silverware. We got to handle the wares, to examine the manufacturing techniques, to look at the ornamentation and so on. All good stuff – especially as Thomas Boulsover, who first discovered the practical use for fusing copper and silver to create silver plate, is one of the ‘heroes’ featured in my next-book-but-one, on lesser known Georgian  movers and shakers.

18th century dress on display in the museum








A solid silver chamber pot – now that’s class!

No Stamp Act teapot – Boston Harbour here         we come!

The Antiques Forum is an annual event, attended by well over 300 antique enthusiasts – collectors, dealers, curators, conservators and so on. The range of talks – often eight a day – was amazing. There were talks on glassware, on mahogany, on specific paintings, on rug making and jewellery. There were numismatic lectures, and there was a talk by Professor Amanda Vickery on shopping in the West End of London and the development of that area, linked to the London Season and the annual sitting of Parliament. All fascinating, and I was left amazed at the range and depth of topics covered throughout the symposium.

I kicked things off with a general talk about good old Richard Hall – a ‘life and     times’ social history to put things in context. It was remarkably well received, and I must say I had a wonderful time.

Not everything was on site. The organizers also arranged a number of coach trips to look at nearby sites of historical interest – old churches, court houses, fine buildings and so on. I  could have done with more at nearby York Town – site of the siege which ended in the capitulation of the British forces under Cornwallis. I was also unable to find time to get to James Town, site of the first settlement – but hey – there is always another time!

The restored Capitol Building

    All-in-all a memorable experience. If you get the chance to go to Virginia it is well worth spending time in Colonial Williamsburg – and if you get the chance to go to the lectures at the annual Forum, you won’t be disappointed. Who knows, I may even get invited back! (And yes, the weather really was that good, even in February!).