Thursday 29 September 2011

Bequeathing her Worldly Goods

 Domestic recycling in the wills of Tudor and Stuart women.

Wills are often controversial, regardless of their historical moment.  As death approached, Tudor and Stuart women took stock of their goods and went about dividing them up among their relatives and friends. Some of their bequests can seem surprising today; not many people in the twenty-first century would think of passing on their bed, pillows or sheets, but considering that for many, this would have been the most expensive item in the house, this act of generosity gains considerable significance. Whole books have been spun out of Shakespeare’s legacy to his wife of his second best bed, playing on the emotional connotations of being “second-best” rather than simply reflecting the accessibility, ownership and disposability of the item.
Women’s wills of the late Sixteenth and early Seventeenth centuries continued a long standing tradition of passing down the tools of their trades; those household items that helped structure the day for the vast majority were used and used again. In a patriarchal world where the main viable social status for women was achieved through marriage, a “career” for the Tudor and Stuart housewife largely meant washing, cooking and childrearing. Household objects such as cooking utensils, cutlery, bed linen and clothing were not as readily available or disposable as they are today but they were often more durable. Many women’s homes were filled with inherited items and the “life” of a solid pewter saucepan might span many generations.

Following the usual arrangements for burial and the payment of debts, beds were the most common first item on a woman’s list. Composing her will in February 1629, Joane Nickoll, widow of a Shoemaker in Essex left her “joined (double) bedstead” with the “featherbed thereon,” two bolsters, one pillow, one blanket and one covering to her married daughter, Mary Barnes. One can only imagine the subsequent reshuffle in the Barnes household, as the various beds were reassigned, in the light of this good fortune. Joane also had furniture to give, which was rare for the time; she left two cupboards, three chests, one box, one table and a number of stools; from her mother’s kitchen, Mary received two pots, one gridiron, one spit and three kettles.
In 1621, the widow Christian Lamberd of Prittlewell left her “joined bed that standeth in the new loft” to her married son, along with a featherbed, two bolsters, two pillows, blankets and a coverlet but to his wife, she left money in order to have a ring made. In 1622, it was Alice Bird’s grandchild Frances Parker who received the featherbed currently from her parlour “upon the trundle” and the one in her kitchen, which were probably pull-out beds used for servants as well as her joined bed from over the brewhouse, also a “blew birded coverlet” (probably embroidered), fine white sheets and a casting sheet, which had been left in the hands of another local widow to pass on. A similarly lengthy and generous bequeath went to her other married grandchild also named Alice Bird.
The handing down of household objects is indicative of the tradition of mutual support that thrived among some women through mutual necessity. The female subculture of domesticity was not any form of proto-Feminism but rather a shared sympathy for the similarities in their lives. Women supported each other practically and emotionally at key moments such as childbirth, illness, death, marriage and conflict. Court Assize records state how they took each other in during times of dearth and loss, helped in delivering the babies of strangers, sheltered abandoned and mistreated wives and even physically intervened in cases of domestic violence. They would have shared a common culture of recipes, remedies, advice, support, medicinal herbs and the artefacts of their existence: small wonder that their wills are vehicles for recycling those pots and pans that, far from being trivial, marked the cornerstones of their lives.
In 1603, Thomasin Deysey left her sister Agnes Cock four pewter platters but it was her servant Thomas Munt to whom she gave a flockbed with cover and bolster. Thomasin’s stepdaughter Grace received three pewter platters whilst the rest of her worldly goods were left to be sold in order to pay her debts.  Alice Bird of Chelmsford endowed her grandchildren with an array of kitchen items, including a great cauldron with iron hinges, the newest of the two lesser brass pots, two brass possets, a pair of pewter candlesticks, a pewter chamber pot, plates and pans. To the daughters of her son-in-law, Joan Raven of Little Waltham gave one pair of candlesticks, two platters and two platters in 1591; such gifts might contribute to a young woman’s ability to marry and set up a household of her own.

Clothing might seem a strangely intimate thing to bequeath to friends or neighbours. Obviously hand-me-downs in families were common and special items might be given as gifts but the majority of legacies in wills are for regular, daily clothing, that the recipient may well have seen the owner wearing. There were no mass-produced garments at the time; new clothes were cut and sewn by hand, woven or knitted by those intending to wear them but this would not have been frequent. The average “wardrobe” (as a collective noun, rather than piece of furniture,) of four hundred years ago would have been tiny in comparisons with today. Clothes were expensive and time-consuming to produce; costly fabrics and dyes were accessible by a small elite but even those at the top found it hard to keep up. Elizabeth’s favourite, Robert Dudley often found himself deep in debt through keeping up the appearances necessary to his rank, until he was given the Earldom of Leicester, on this day, 29 September, in 1564.
In 1578, Margaret Rand of Ashden left her two daughters “all her best apparel,” presumably for them to fight over between themselves; similarly in 1570, Agnes Rothe of Wix left her four daughter her “raiment” as well as a pewter platter and saucer each. The widow Trott of Tilbury left to her daughter Sara one “red stuffe petticoat” and one Holland smock and her daughter Mary “one cloth gown and one clothe petticoat, to make her apparell withal.” To her sister-in-law Agnes she left one “handkercher stitched without” and to her brother and brother-in-law, she gave money to buy a pair of gloves as a remembrance of her. In 1603, Thomasin Deysey left Jude Wilbure her “first gown” and Elizabeth Irelande a red petticoat and white cotton waistcoat.
Clearly, these examples barely touch the surface of a wide culture of domestic bequests that indicate an understanding of the cyclical nature of life; women passed on the metaphorical baton to the next generation of wives and mothers by endowing them with the apparatus of the bedroom and kitchen. Inscribed in the nicks and dents of each saucepan, in the tears and mending of petticoats, were the experiences of a marginal and largely illiterate group, whose stories were barely otherwise told.

Wednesday 28 September 2011

Three extraordinary, dead women

Writer Sophie Brzeska, artist Ida Nettleship and model Fernande Olivier, who spent their lives with famous men. 
Taken from a multiple biography currently in progress

                                 Sophie, painted by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska in 1913

When Sophie Brezska was born in 1873, Charles Darwin’s “Origin of the Species” was fourteen years old but by the time of Fernande Olivier’s death in 1966, mankind was only three years away from setting foot on the moon. The world changed beyond recognition during the lives of their generation. Their maturation was concurrent with the suffrage movement and whilst none engaged directly with the more political activities of their contemporaries, their lives reveal continual conflict between more conservative, traditional values and new codes of conduct and experimentation. Nor was their challenge to gender stereotypes constant. Each experienced specific moments when changing social and moral expectations informed their decision making and resulted in deliberate acts of defiance, which although frequently motivated by personal desire, expose a complex interrelation of individual and context. What seems most strikingly and inescapably time-specific, was the power of men to define and limit their artistic achievement: their success being as durable as contemporary masculine understanding and generosity. Sophie lived briefly with the tragic Vorticist sculptor Henri Gaudier, linking her name with his; Ida was married to the rakish and fecund Augustus John while Fernande was Picasso's first love. Each had ambitions of their own yet little of their work survives.
 Separated by the passage of a century and vocal women’s movements, it is easy now to talk about wasted opportunities and romanticise these women as heroines sacrificed to male success, but as artist Edna Clarke Hall put it in response to her critics, women’s responsibilities lie equally with their children and “…in the development of the powers in herself which are her true expression.” The early twentieth century does provide examples of women who became successful artists as well as raising children: Bloomsbury’s Vanessa Bell, poetess Frances Cornford, Ida’s friends Edna Clarke Hall and Gwen Smith all persisted despite complicated personal arrangements. Yet there were also a significant number of successful women who remained single, delayed marriage, or did not have children, featuring on the fringes of these three lives: artists Ursula Tyrwhitt, Dorothy Brett, Gwen John, Dora Carrington, Nina Hamnett and Marie Laurencin; writers Virginia Woolf, Julia Strachey, Gertrude Stein and Katherine Mansfield. Of course there are many others, but although equal success in the realms of domesticity and creativity was achievable, it was significantly more difficult for women of the early twentieth century. Sadly, the most consistent and significant factor was financial circumstance: they could not all afford rooms of their own.
                                A pregnant Ida in 1901, painted by Augustus John

 Possibly of the three, Ida came the closest to having what would now be considered the most successful if short lived “career”, studying at the Slade throughout her teenage years: a handful of Fernande’s pictures have been reproduced in biographies of Picasso and until recently, Sophie’s unpublished diaries and short stories languished in a Colchester library, where water damage made her French-Polish writing difficult to read: a 2008 translation and limited edition of her stories and autobiography went a long way to address this. Ironically, their posthumous existence has been allied to the fame of those who directly affected their output but it is significant that they have been remembered primarily as women and not artists or writers.

 The arena of relationships and gender expectations was difficult and complicated for Sophie, Ida and Fernande: all three rejected the marital ideals of their families in order to follow their hearts. Their quests for romance were not always successful though, as the men they encountered could be predatory and selfish, exploiting double standards of sexual behaviour even when professing themselves most in love. Nor did marriage guarantee security. Instead, these women sought to forge new family units and open relationships that allowed for greater sexual and personal freedom, although the idea often proved more fulfilling in theory than practice. The casual encounters and affairs of Sophie and Fernande were strikingly modern in comparison with the expectations of their upbringing and despite remaining faithful, Ida saw her marriage become a ménage. As such, the conditions and experiences of these three women’s lives identify them as representatives of a changing world.

                                    Fernande, painted by Kees Van Dongen

All three led tragic lives. Sophie's belief that Henri would be killed during the Great War, was proven in April 1915; after a peripatetic existence, teaching, writing and moving about to escape great poverty, she ended her days in a psychiatric hospital in 1925. After six years of marriage, Ida's youthful hopes were buried in drudgery and repeated childbearing; her final labour proved too much and she died in Paris in 1906, at the age of thirty. Fernande lived the longest, flitting between artists and lovers after she and Picasso split in 1912; again poverty oppressed her despite stints working for Paul Poiret and the writing of her memoirs in the 1930s; she died in 1966.

Tuesday 27 September 2011

Historical Wallpaper addiction

And while we're at it, let's also have this lovely Voysey bird paper, made in 1891.

Instances of the colour yellow #2

Yes, more delicious buttery yellows- a lovely delicate piece of Art Nouveau wallpaper this time, made in around 1900.

Instances of the colour yellow #1

A bit of shameless indulgence in my favourite colour

Wheat field with reaper and sun, Van Gogh 1889

Monday 26 September 2011

No Cubes left in Cubism: Picasso and Braque 1910-1914

 Still life with chair caning, Picasso 1912

 Art is everything and everything is art.
In the years leading up to the outbreak of the Great War, the relationship between art and artist underwent a fundamental change. The act of creation became increasingly self-conscious; initially playful, later cynical and ironic; as artists questioned their purpose and relation to the emerging modern world. Boundaries between life and art were repeatedly broached, as all objects and situations became potential artistic material, calling the very existence of the artist into question and leading some into an increasing mood of disorientation, disillusion and cynical manipulation. Others were buoyed by this iconoclastic frenzy, fired by the irreverently poetic and fantastic origins of Dada and Surrealism, Abstract, Constructivist and Installation art. Poet Guillaume Apollinaire said the spirit of these years forced artists to “learn to laugh,” but their works contained an increasingly uneasy sense of impending world events and the suspicion that they were  at best misunderstood, at worst, irrelevant.  

The men to watch were Pablo Picasso and George Braque, working so closely together in Montmartre's Bateau Lavoir studios that it was sometimes difficult to tell their creations apart. Since Picasso's 1906 "Demoiselles D'Avignon," they had rapidly been moving away from representational forms and experimenting with Cezanne's legacy of the cylinder, sphere and cone. Cubism’s innovations inevitably attracted followers among the young avant-garde artists of Paris. While Braque’s inclusion of new works in the 1909 Salon des Independants and Picasso’s retrospective late in 1910 confirmed them as the leaders in the field, a group of young “Salon” cubists were keen to appropriate and adapt the advancements they had made. As Cubism developed greater emphasis on the third dimension, artists found new ways of departing from the canvas and applied their cubist principles to the media of collage and sculpture, semiotics and machinistic expressions of modernism.
Published in Paris in 1907, Henri Bergson’s “Creative Evolution” seemed to predict, or perhaps help inspire, the direction of Cubism. His theories of memory and the subjective construction of reality pervaded avant-garde circles, encouraging artists to “look on all matter as if it were carvable at will…regard matter as indifferent to form” and use the artist’s power of “decomposing and recomposing as (they) please….according to any law…into any system.” This implied more than just freedom from physical restraint, it encouraged an active, near god-like ability to manipulate all forms to individual, subjective purpose and encouraged the Cubists and later Futurists to view space as “the plan of our possible action on things.”

                                               Picasso's "Les Demoiselles D'Avignon" 1906

Early works.
In 1909 and 1910, Picasso and Braque’s experiments in Analytic Cubism produced monochromatic images apparently broken into fragments and reassembled to represent multiple viewpoints. They moved away from the Cezannian influences of twisting and contorting bodies that had marked their work from 1907-8 and began treating figures more like landscapes, dissecting the planes or cube forms they were reduced to. Important bridging works between these styles are Picasso’s “Bread and Fruit Dish on a Table,” a proto-Cubist still life of familiar domestic objects and “Bather” of 1909, which retains the clear influence of Cezanne’s series of the same name, whilst introducing the duller Cubist palette and opening up the body so as to be seen from a variety of angles. “Woman with Pears (Fernande)” also retains elements of the Demoiselles style, although other heads produced during a summer trip to Horta de Ebro show further fragmentation of features and planes, heading towards the complete abstraction of Picasso’s Cadaques trip of Summer 1910. This intense focus upon the merging of three dimensional objects, allowing them the freedom to pass through each other, developed Cezanne’s technique of passage in a way sometimes referred to as Facet Cubism.

Other works such as “Mademoiselle Leonie” and “Woman in an Armchair” still include recognisable human forms, however distorted or devoid of features but the body parts of “Nude Woman” are barely recognisable and the geometric lines have lost any three dimensional quality. Recent controversy over whether “Man with a Violin” might actually be “Woman with a Violin,” or even a still life arrangement, illustrates the extent of figurative rejection in these images. Although experiencing a greater degree of success in the market place with these new works, than ever before, Picasso returned to semi-recognisable human forms for the commissioned portraits of 1910. Images of dealers Vollard, Kahnweiler and Wilhelm Uhde are visibly varied in character, with subtle differences in palette and mood, suited to personality: the Kahnweiler work is most abstract, predominantly grey with lighter, more ochre focal points around the head and clasped hands: Vollard’s greys are greener, with strong emphasis on the yellow-pink face, which is full of character: Uhde is brown, almost dull purple, with pinched features and more visible clothing, especially the collar and neck tie.

Picasso, Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, 1910

Hidden codes in Cubism ?
 Through 1911 and 1912, fragmentation became so complete as to render original images almost illegible, infused with a new sense of space and openness; Picasso’s “Arlesienne” and “Dancers on July 14” have a lighter feel, although this many be in part due to the lack of heavy colour, as they are executed in ink on paper. Certainly the density of activity has lessened and the canvases of Braque’s “Woman Reading,” “Still Life with Violin” and “Pedestal Table” appear to be only loosely containing their subject matter, dispersed and diffuse as that was. By 1912, that there were no longer any cubes left in Cubism; the third dimension had been analysed, reconstructed and dissected beyond recognition. The paintings of this period, from Picasso’s dealers series, to 1912, are often referred to as Hermetic Cubism, when the shattering of solid forms was taken as far as is possible in oil on a two-dimensional canvas.

 Braque had introduced another innovation early in 1909, when he began to play with the idea of dimensions, signs and signifiers, acknowledging the artificiality of his work, a quality Matisse earlier admired in Cezanne. At the tops of “Violin and Palette,” 1909 and “Violin and Pitcher,” 1910, he painted a large nail, in trompe l’oeil style, pinning the canvas against a wall and undermining three dimensional interpretation. The irony of this was Cubism’s hitherto deliberate reluctance to yield meaning, breaking the usual planes and dimensions of objects and reconstituting them in short, often disconnected lines, broken circles and curves, with the use of shading or monochromatic tonality.

 A specific Cubist language and iconography developed, partly from the use of violins and musical scores; the instruments’ holes became an “f,” then an “s” and the inclusion of newspapers in compositions led Braque to include recognisable words, the first being a section “GIL B” of the “Gil Blas” paper, perhaps as an ironic nod to its critic Louis Vauxelles.  This points to a playful relationship between the real, or recognisable, aspects of a work and those which are almost impossible to decipher, indicative of a widening gap between the public and private aspects of Cubist work and the “truth” artists were prepared to yield. Letters and recognisable objects, such as faces, hands, violin strings or flutes, could be clues and concessions to the viewer or further exaggeration of the point that these canvases should not be interpreted in terms of representation but as comments upon the nature of art and depiction of reality. This meant artists could more overtly deny their role as conveyers of truths, using visual tricks to mislead rather than explain, true of other non-figurative art but interpreted by Picasso and Braque as a mark of exclusivity, perhaps even mockery.

                                                               Braque, Still Life 1913 
Much of the Cubists’ subject matter involved a return to the Impressionists’ personal and domestic realm; sheet music, fruit bowls, pipes, cards, papers, glasses and drinks were familiar depictions of the pleasures of café life. Braque later termed this phase “the triumph of painting as deception” and implied the symbols did indeed act as signifiers, visual signs for what was imagined, not seen, with the bunches of grapes appearing in several works representative of this theme of illusion. The letters and words featured did have contextual meaning across several canvases but the vocabulary of signs developed by Picasso and Braque were more playful and self-parodic, than a deliberate attempt to enter the realm of semiotics. Critic Jacques Rivière was taken in by this in 1912, writing that the inclusions of symbols had been taken to the “point of absurdity, (thus) depriving them of meaning,” hitting upon the very point that the symbols partly served the same purpose as the trompe l’oeil nails. However, the use of longer, recognisable words undeniably had significant inclusive and exclusive effects, exciting play between artist and viewer, who is fooled into seeing the canvas as a code to be cracked.

Picasso's guitar, 1913

Initially, this play of words was generated by subject matter but later began to provide clues in the deciphering of more abstract representation. Lettering, as used in “Lighter and Newspaper” highlighted the artificiality of canvas images that had no more connection with the real three dimensional object than its name did, reminiscent of Magritte’s “This is not a pipe” a decade later. Following the theme, Braque produced “Pedestal Table,” “Still Life with Banderillas” and “Le Portugais” in 1911, with words as fragments, as devoid of apparent relevance as the broken lines are to their subject matter. However, the sketched “Fox” and “Still Life with Bottle of Marc” still included words as clues to identity; in these cases, extensions of the titles. Braque’s “Homage to J S Bach” and Picasso’s “Scallop Shell” and “Souvenir du Havre” press the point further; Picasso included names and labels from posters and used words of personal significance in the 1911-12 “Ma Jolie,” as a reference to his new lover. The inclusion of symbols and words makes clear a key technique of Analytical Cubism: the artificiality of representation on canvas was explored to comment on the limitations of painting as an art form.

Rising off the canvas.
This sense of reconstructive adventure and the rejection of figurative limitations led inevitably into collage and the third dimension, enabling Picasso and Braque to liberate themselves from the flat planes of the canvas and blur the lines between hitherto separate media. Echoing Foucault’s concept of significant “texts”, and theories of semiotics, dealer Kahnweiler wrote of Cubism in the 1940s that the “true character of painting and sculpture is that of a script. The product of these arts are signs, emblems for the external world, not mirrors… once this was recognised, the plastic arts were freed from the slavery inherent in illusionistic styles.” For the Analytical Cubists, the qualities of objects existed independently of those objects; properties and ideas were more real in abstract form than they were when found in three dimensions, linking them with Platonic conceptions of the ideal.
Picasso's 1912 "Still Life with Chair Caning" was one of the most significant of the Cubist's experiments with dimension. Onto a half-completed painting of cafe-based objects: newspaper, clay pipe, glass, lemon slices and knife, is pasted a piece of oilcloth printed in imitation of a woven cane pattern, over which painted lines extend. Displaying little correlation between these two distinct areas, the image rejects classical unity and juxtaposes different planes which challenge the eye's attempts to decode perspective. The shape and framing of this work was also unusual; cut into an oval, encompassed by a single, thick piece of rope, it gives the effect of a cafe table top or the seat of a chair, an exciting move in the direction of sculpture. The "real" objects are allowed to possess their own dimensions, while the others are painted flat. Significantly visible, the "JOU" of the newspaper "Le Journal," puns on the visual game or joke of double dimensions and the further play on the concept of a "tableau," the French word for an easel picture, reminds us the picture is simultaneously a work of art and a useful table.
In further mimetic play, Picasso’s “Still Life” construction employed plaited fibres and scraps of wood, painted to look like a plate and wine glass, with sliced bread and sausage, creating a fictional space at the same time that the objects’ outward projection calls this into question. Differing conventions of reality are expressed; the sausage and bread are clearly not so, yet the plaited fibres are present as literally themselves; it also proves difficult to ascertain a single viewpoint, as the angles of table top and glass suggest the multi-faceted approach of Analytic Cubism. The line between reality and artifice is called into question; the work reassures on one hand, whilst disturbing our senses on the other.

From this, further contrasting dimensional techniques developed in Cubist works, marking the start of the Synthetic period from 1912-1914. Texture and pattern, along with chiaroscuro paint effects made the composed forms more like pictorial objects in themselves than recognisable figurations. Braque had already been using a faux-bois technique achieved by scraping a steel comb across wet paint to create a wood grain effect; now scraps of wall paper, adverts, cloth and sheets of music began to appear and instead of painting newspapers, the artists stuck real sheets of printed matter directly onto the canvases. This technique of using “found” objects as literal representations of themselves, later involved more complex, sculptural arrangement of pasted papers, interpreted by drawn or painted lines, known as papiers collés. Every plane in view, real or imagined, was parallel to the work’s surface. Braque’s “Still life with Guitar” shows the importation of paper for texture, colour and grain but Picasso’s “Guitar and Sheet Music” and “Guitar, Sheet Music and Wine Glass” use ochre patterned wall paper as a background for a more complicated collection of coloured, representative shapes. Initially, extra papers were being stuck onto the canvas but by late 1912, Picasso’s found objects were substituted for the canvas itself and drawn elements appeared on smaller pieces of paper, as if the relationship between the central “real” and representational objects had been reversed. The flat collages pushed further into the third dimension, as with Picasso’s “Guitar and Bottle of Bass” and “Violin” of 1913, which incorporates a box pasted into the design.

                                                          Picasso's absinthe glass 1913
 Braque’s use of faux-bois showed that almost any material could be used to represent another, as a sort of visual short-hand for the qualities of texture but the tactility of Picasso’s “Still Life with Chair Caning” went further in rejecting signifiers in favour of the real. Picasso had crossed over into sculpture before: a plaster version of a head of Fernande in 1909, later cast in bronze, has the Medusa-style hair and distorted figure which place it in the early cubist period, the Cezannian, or Facet era; other similar early works were also made of bronze, wood or plaster. What was different about the Synthetic sculptures was the new idea that the use of any material or object was acceptable; every day objects could potentially become works of art with little alteration. It was a matter of perception; they simply needed to be seen in that context; the ultimate stage to artistic autonomy. This was revolutionary, leading directly to Marcel Duchamp’s iconic ready-made porcelain urinal of 1917. After that, Art would never be the same again: Duchamp was to give up painting althogether a few years later, claiming there was nowhere left to go with it; yet sixty years of colourful canvases still lay ahead of Pablo Picasso.

Saturday 24 September 2011

Mark Gertler's East End Inspiration

The artist's parents

The young artist

 Artist Mark Gertler’s early work was inextricably linked with his childhood in London’s East End. Born in the shadow of Spitalfields market in 1891, he was inspired by the bright colours of Jewish folk art and the densely populated streets around Whitechapel, to produce some of the most iconic early Twentieth century images of Jewish immigrants. Works such as “Talmudic Discussion” (Jews Arguing) (1911), “The Rabbi and his Grandchild” (1913) and “Rabbi and Rabbitzin” (1914), helped establish Gertler’s career and presented the first such images to a hegemonic English art establishment. But what was this world like, that so inspired and rewarded his devotion ?

 For many, it was a paradox of safety and persecution. Whitechapel had been a haven for refugees for centuries, first developed under Elizabeth I as a home for persecuted Huguenots who established the silk weaving industry that gave the district its early distinctive character. After the Industrial revolution, Jews from Russia and Poland sought safety from persecution there, although the vehemence of hostility they encountered is apparent in their scape-goating during the investigation of the Ripper case in 1888, when any perceived aliens became the target of suspicion, ranging from Jewish Immigrants to a Greek circus troupe and passing gypsies. A local newspaper reported how “ was frequently asserted that no Englishman could have perpetrated such a horrible crime and forthwith  the crowds began to threaten and abuse such of the unfortunate Hebrews as they found in the street.”

  The late 1880s were a real crisis time for Jews in the East End, with unemployment and housing shortages provoking a national and political debate. The “Pall Mall Gazette”, which was later to praise Gertler’s works, warned its readers in February 1886, that Jews were “...becoming a pest and a menace to the poor native born East Ender” and the following year, in a speech given in the House of Commons, a Captain Colomb, Conservative MP for Bromley and Bow, asked what other countries “...permit the immigration of destitute aliens without restriction.” A Commons Committee was established to interview a “random” selection of these “aliens”, with the effect that as many as possible were to be encouraged to return to their homelands. Liaisons with Russia produced a despatch from St. Petersburg ordering all refugees to return home, with the Jewish Board of Guardians supplying funds to make this possible. In their annual report, the Board confirmed they were doing all they could to dissuade new arrivals, attempting to reconcile “its duty to the needy alien with the part it has to play as a body of patriotic Englishmen.” Local MP Samuel Montagu, in his own words “joined with others in subscribing towards sending poor foreigners back to their country.” Anti-Semitic feeling was high; letters of complaint to local newspapers ascribed all social, moral and physical evils to the immigrant communities; at public meetings, voices spoke out against “unfair labour practices” and court cases revealed prejudice and unnecessary harshness: even random, physical attacks upon Jews were increasing.

 Mark Gertler’s family were among the thousands returned to Eastern Europe with the aid of the Jewish Board of Guardians. Although Mark had been born in Gun Street, in 1891, his parents originated from Przemsyl, on the border of Austria, Russia and Poland. It is impossible to know how much their decision to return there in 1892 was taken willingly but the crippling poverty they experienced upon their return, sent them back to England permanently in 1898. By then, the situation had diffused a little; tensions were not as strong as they had been a decade before and the community was supported by more sympathetic and influential voices and figures. The “East End News” criticised the “...unjust reflections upon Jewish tailors” who had ensured the clothing industry remained British and the “Jewish Chronicle” stated that immigrants were not a burden at all, but instead had been “a source of profit rather than loss to the native worker.”
 Mark Gertler’s childhood in the East End marked an improvement upon Przemsyl privations, but still involved frequent upheaval and the ever present threat of total poverty. The family moved many times, often only a few streets away from the old house and they were never more than a mile from Liverpool Street station, as was the case with many refugees. This sense of a community inspiring each other despite shared suffering; the old men in the Synagogue, the women at the market, children playing in workshops and yards; was the start of the life long affection Gertler was to feel for the East End and “his people” all his life. Even when experiencing acute financial hardship, it was where he belonged; “I must go back to my East End, where only God knows how many discomforts I suffer...I've also learned that I must go on in the East End. There lies my work, sordid as it is.”
 It was the vital colour of his home and the characters he met there, that ignited in Mark Gertler the energetic zeal for life and beauty that emerges in his work and letters. It also fostered in him a love of the people of his home, solid and realistic, beautiful and colourful, yet tainted by hardship: the very qualities he tried to capture in his later portraits of them. As a boy he loved to wander and roam about the streets, observing the colour, movement and life going on around him. Shop fronts particularly attracted him and he spent hours looking at the quality and texture of fabrics and their appearance in different lights, transmitted into the rich vividness of his early still lifes. Others too, were able to see the inherent beauty of the East End; the chronicler Israel Zangwill recorded; “this London Ghetto of ours is a region where, amid uncleanliness and squalor, the rose of romance blows yet a little longer in the raw air of English reality; a world which hides behind its stony and unlovely surface an inner world of dreams, fantastic and poetic...”  In her novel “In Darkest London,” Margaret Harkness described a walk through the Jewish quarter, in the eyes of an outsider, starting with a “buxom Jewish matron” sitting on a doorstep, who could well have been Mark’s mother Golda, who loved to sit out the front of her house watching people pass by. Harkness continues: “...little dark children who tumbled at their feet. Young Hebrews smoked short pipes and talked in their own lingo....a young girl with jet black hair and flashing eyes...singing a foreign song.” In their “long suffering faces,” she read not despair, but hope and compared them to the “down trodden...crouching and whining” men who were their detractors, praising them for their assertion of "sturdy independence."

 The Gertler family’s first East End home was at number two, Zion Square, where seven of them shared a single room, considering themselves lucky in comparison with others. The square itself was south of Whitechapel Highstreet; a dozen or so three storied eighteenth century tenements with doors opening directly onto the ground and a small paved yard at the back, an area which has now been developed to accommodate the overspill of the City. Only a short walk south were the docks, a further possible source of employment for those in the area, although the district was home mainly to artisans and labourers, including many tailors whose whirring machines created a constant backdrop of sound, late into the night. The family’s immediate neighbours were a chandler and a diamond mounter, others were cigar makers, fur and skin workers or general hawkers and traders. The Jewish Board of Guardians, who monitored the state of local labour, produced a list of key occupations for the years 1882 to 1892, according to which, tailoring and the boot and shoe trade were most popular, followed by the uncertain profession of hawker, or general tradesman. Contemporary comment shows the complaints by which workers in these most popular professions could be identified; the shoemaker with his stained hands and the tailor with his stoop. Mark’s father Louis found work that fitted in well with this; he was paid 12s 6d a week to smooth walking sticks with sand paper.
 Their landlord was a bootmaker, whom Gertler recalled with affection; “Mr Levy and his wife were kind, decent people” who were not insistent that the rent was paid on the same day every week. Their leniency and understanding was appreciated by the family, who found them willing to help smooth their passage into the community, sometimes acting as translators, as Golda still spoke only Yiddish. Their son Moisha soon became Mark's friend and spent much of their time playing in and around the workshop where boots were made and repaired, a “dirty, airless little room.” Despite the terrible conditions, a sense of solidarity and mutual support illustrates the drive and determination that bound and strengthened the community.
 The Gertler family eventually settled in Spital Square and established a thriving fur business that supported both Mark’s elder brothers. Mark himself was to remain in the East End until the end of 1914, after which he felt it necessary for his artistic development to move to the more well-connected Hampstead. Linked with the Bloomsbury group through his Slade friendships and passing the war years in the shelter of Ottoline Morrell's Oxfordshire home he would produce his decisive work, "The Merry Go Round," a nightmarish vision of wartime carvnial, in 1916. However, the East End and its people remained a powerful muse throughout his life as “my London, where I have experienced so much…that has become a part of me to such an extent that I can almost imagine life more easily without the people I have known than its own embodiment and peculiarity.” He never forgot those early years of paradoxical joy and suffering, which had provided him with the determination and subject matter that inspired the success still recognised over seventy years after his death.

This article originally appeared in The London Magazine in September 2008

Thursday 22 September 2011

From the Tudor Receipt Book

My in-laws have in their possession the transcription of an unpublished late Tudor/early Jacobean receipt book, including a range of instructions for some delicious sounding dishes and some rather worrying cures.

Here's the entry "to bake a crane." Spelling and grammar not my own.

"First take a crane and parboil him a little, then take swete larde and larde it withall then put it into the coffin (pastry case) and take peper and salte a good quantity and season them together and cast upon it and then take butter and put it into the coffin and let it bake the space of four howers."

Incase that doesn't agree with you, here's a remedy "for a pain in the stomach."

"Take wormewood, commen and sentory and egremony and speard mints of each a handfull, a few Rostleans, heate them all with a little vineger, a little rosewater, upon a chaffindysh then putt them into a Bagge and quilt and soe lay it to your stomach."

I must report that I have not tried either of these and would not recommend the use of wormwood, which is very bitter and was used for weaning, nor the application of small birds to various parts of the anatomy although the use of spearmint for an upset stomach clearly has its roots in something.

Wednesday 21 September 2011

Heroism and Hedonism: reviews of books concerning the Downton Abbey generation.

“Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men After the First World War.”
Virginia Nicholson. Viking. 2007. pp336 0670915645

Bright Young People: The Rise and Fall of a Generation 1918-1939.”
D.J.Taylor. Chatto and Windus. 2007 pp336 0701177543

Leaving aside the riotous pyjama parties, treasure hunts across London in the small hours and gallons of champagne, the generation of “bright young people” who emerged in the aftermath of the First World War, were often less luminous and less young than history has remembered them. Yes, they may have had brought London to a standstill with their stunts and filled the gossip columns week-in, week-out but their relentless hedonistic pursuits were, in many cases, less of a recipe for happiness than the lives of quiet determination led by the huge army of surplus women eking out a packet of tea alone in a single room. Nicholson and Taylors’ books make for fascinating comparisons and readers will find themselves surprised, amused and sometimes frustrated at the contrast.
 2008 marked the ninetieth anniversary of the Armistice treaty. Soon after its signing, Virginia Woolf described in her diary the “mental change” she had noticed in the air: “we are once more a nation of individuals. Some people care for football; others for racing; others for dancing…taking up their private affairs again…people quite at their ease and the shops blazoning unshaded light.” It seemed that the world had come back to life and yet, Woolf was full of foreboding: “yet it is depressing too. We have stretched our minds to consider something universal” and was disappointed to find “we contract them at once.” It is this feeling of waste that still lurks behind Taylor’s attempts to avoid passing judgement on the hedonisitic socialites of inter-war London. Immense social change and sacrifice was dismissed by a group bent on pleasure at any cost; amid the entertaining anecdotes of themed parties and uncontrolled self-annihilation, lie glimpses of dismissive and even vicious, responses to the war and its veterans; one young lady dismissed her friend’s fiancée with disgust as having been old enough to fight. Yet for all their wealth and glamorous exuberance, the tragic stories of the Bright Young Things can stir the reader’s sympathy. Take Elizabeth Ponsonby and Brenda Dean: two beautiful, privileged young women who drifted through the twenties with apparently no awareness of the potential consequences of their excess: both died unnecessarily young and unhappy; the letters and diaries of the bewildered Ponsonby parents betray their pain.
 The sense of waste is more powerful for the millions of women described as “surplus” by the government in 1919, whose stories Nicholson has traced in fascinating detail. Here though, the spinster, or “bach” (short for bachelor girl), confined by class, finances or commitments, emerges as more glorious and successful as the Chelsea socialites, surviving through daily acts of heroism and appreciation of their small lot. These are the real bright young things of the era: Victoria Drummond, who became the first female Chief Engineer, Beatrice Gordon Holmes who used her earnings as the first woman stockbroker to buy rose coloured carpets. A flurry of survival books helped the “bach” live life “to the full,” through visits, concerts, small comforts and friends. The reader senses these women enjoyed their small pleasures more than the extravagant parties of the fast set, which the press lampooned as self-conscious freak-shows.
 Both books make good use of the achievements of their subjects: Taylor has the novels of Waugh, Powell and Miller and the photographs of Cecil Beaton: Nicholson has Winifred Holtby, Radcliffe Hall and Angela Du Maurier. Politically, Taylor charts the intimacy developed by Diana Mitford with Mosely and Fascism, which contrasts sharply with Nicholson’s story of Florence White’s campaigns for the introduction of pensions for single women. Female sexuality is a visible and modern facet of Taylor’s subjects; love affairs and divorces created an environment where the pursuit of pleasure and the sustenance of relationships often collided, as the novelist Bryan Guinness found to his cost, when wishing to set up a country home with the party-loving Diana. The raw, rule-breaking homosexual world of the Bright Young Things reinforces the stereotypes of Nicholson’s old maids, rightly or wrongly accused of lesbianism and writing desperate letters to Marie Stopes in hope of a champion for a little solitary or same-sex pleasure.
 Despite containing more draw-out suffering and far less gossipy anecdotal joy, Nicholson’s book is the more positive in conclusion, as it deals with the survivors of a generation of women, drawing many accounts from interviews with centenarians and the autobiographies of their peers, several of whom claim to be willing to live such lives again; it is difficult not to speculate though, about the many women who failed to “survive” and disappeared into unhappy obscurity. Obscurity was not a problem for the likes of Diana Mosely and Elizabeth Ponsonby; their lives were lived in the spotlight, a powerful negative example as the shadow of war loomed again in the late 30s.
 The juxtaposition of two such opposing accounts, could encourage a reader to “take sides.” However, what both books make clear, is the terrible quest for happiness that eluded so many of this generation and instead, incites equal pity. Ironically, the happiest figures emerge as those who dedicated themselves to a life of service, making them useful in some way and prolonging the war-time spirit. For the surplus women and the bright young things, survival meant different things, as Woolf wrote in her 1918 diary: “peace is rapidly dissolving into the light of common day.”

Charleston Farmhouse, a living sketchbook.

Hidden away at the foot of the Sussex downs, Charleston farmhouse remains an enduring design icon. Surrounded by rambling, quintessentially English gardens, it lies set back from a track off the busy A27 between Brighton and Eastbourne, a haven of a bygone era. Thirty years after the death of its last long-term resident, artist Duncan Grant, the house’s popularity is still as strong with the visiting public as ever, as attested by the annual festivals, courses and thriving gift and tea shops but it is Charleston’s unique blend of shabby gentility and spontaneous charm that has ensured the affection in which it is held.

That style was largely the work of Vanessa Bell, who first leased the farmhouse during the First World War, in order to find work for Duncan Grant and his lover David (Bunny) Garnett. With her two boisterous sons in tow, Vanessa had initial reservations about the scale of the project, for although it had previously operated as a guest house (metal numbers are still screwed to the doors of the bedrooms,) there was no electricity or telephone. Water had to be pumped from an outside tap and only after the wood had been chopped, could the stoves be lit. Vanessa’s sister Virginia Woolf wrote to reassure her that “if you lived there, you could make it absolutely divine,” so from 1916, the living sketchbook of Charleston began.

There was no grand style scheme, nor much of a sense of finish or polish. Initial decorations were made on a spontaneous, ad-hoc basis, designed to make the place more inhabitable and it is this vibrant, raw feel that makes the house feel like a home. On occasion, décor was determined by family life, when the boys’ rowdy games broke a mirror in what is now the garden room, Grant left the ornate frame on the wall and painted a frieze within it; similarly when Clive Bell’s study was the schoolroom, a foot through a door panel necessitated a new work of art. Vanessa, her husband Clive and Duncan, later her lover, were profoundly influenced by Parisian avant-garde art of the early Twentieth Century, paying frequent visits to the studios, galleries and collecting works by Cezanne, Derain and Matisse. Before the move to Charleston, Vanessa’s love affair with critic Roger Fry drew them into close involvement with his controversial Post-Impressionist exhibitions and establishment of the Omega workshops. These influences are felt all through the house.

The predominant palette is a Post-Impressionist blend of what could easily have become jarring colours; muted greys, pinks, red, and moss green, punctuated with intense yellow, orange and black, of which Grant’s “Lily Pond” table is typical. Vanessa daubed the walls with a free hand, favouring feminine curves and circular patterns, flowers and fruit, alongside Grant’s acrobats, nudes and caryatids. Nor was the paint confined to walls. Vibrant decoration was applied to any surface, in keeping with the Omega gallery practice; wood boxes, screens, tables, beds, chairs; even the bath panels are painted with folksy-style still lifes or natural forms. The artists designed fabrics which replaced old upholstery, or were worked in needlepoint by Grant’s mother; the later addition of Quentin Bell’s (son of Vanessa and Clive) pottery produced a range of ceramic tableware as well as the distinctive lampshades and pots in most rooms.

But there are surprises at Charleston. A number of items from Vanessa’s childhood home in Hyde Park Gate are mixed among the hand crafted, home-spun items. Alongside the delightful circles and flowers painted around the window of the spare bedroom, stands the dressing table which belonged to her mother, now a little foxed and on the mantelpiece beside a small clay figurine shaped by hand, is part of the old family Staffordshire collection. It is this very eclectic contrast, between high Victoriana and informal personal expression, which makes Charleston farmhouse unusual. It does not feel like a museum; instead the sense of vibrancy and exuberance remains a lasting testimony to the lives that were lived in it. In 1919, Virginia Woolf wrote in tribute: “Vanessa presides over the most astonishing ménage; Belgian hares, governesses, children, gardeners, hens, ducks, painting all the time, till every inch of the house is a different colour.”

Vanessa Bell remained at Charleston, making it a warm centre for friends and family, as photographs of the era attest. She died in 1961, Clive in 1964 and following Duncan’s death, the process of regeneration began, led by Deborah Gage and Angelica Bell (daughter of Vanessa and Duncan.) Today, visitors still make the pilgrimage down the rambling lane and attend the many events held at the house: a large number of publications have made its charm accessible to a wider audience, with a lasting influence on late Twentieth century Bohemian-style interiors.

Charleston Farmhouse is open to the public from April-October.
Wednesday- Sunday and bank holiday Monday 2-6pm. Last entry 5.30pm.
01323 811265.
The Charleston festival is held annually at the end of May; the Short Wonder Story Writing Course runs in September.
Look out for the brown sign one mile East of Firle, along the A27 between Eastbourne and Brighton.

The naming of Tudor Babies.

Today the naming of babies is a serious business. Parents-to-be can choose from a wealth of books and websites dedicated to the topic and every new celebrity arrival seems to be flagged up on internet search engines. Anything seems acceptable as a name these days: places, food, objects, colours; the field is vast. Parents can choose to endow their offspring with pretty much whatever name they fancy and it can take a while to choose. Yet go back five hundred years and name-giving was a far more simple matter.
Throughout the Tudor dynasty, the same names remained in favour. John, Thomas and William topped the chart for the boys, whilst Elizabeth, Mary and Jone were regularly chosen for girls. Old favourites such as Richard, Henry, Robert and George, Alice, Anne, Margaret and Joanna continued to be murmured over the baptismal font, although the vagaries of Tudor spelling led to a wide range of variation, dependent upon accent and the relative education of parish clerks. Family tradition played a big part too. It was common to find the same name given to fathers and sons or bestowed to honour the memory of a grandparent. The Rayners of Burnham, Essex, regularly named their sons Grene or Green while the Peekes opted for John, usually spelt Jhon. The names of children who succumbed to an early death were reused, so a family might christen two or three Thomases before one survived.
The royal family were not particularly daring with their choices. Henry VII’s first son was named Arthur and born at Winchester, in an attempt to realign the dynasty with traditional legends and Welsh roots. After that, the king bestowed his own name on his second son, with two other short-lived boys named Edmund and Edward, after the Queen’s father. Their first daughter was named Margaret, like the king’s mother, followed by Elizabeth, Mary and Katherine, the absolute staples of early Tudor popularity. Henry VIII lost at least three Henries before the arrival of Edward VI and showed little more originality when it came to his daughters, also choosing Mary and Elizabeth. In this though, he can hardly be blamed. Unlike today, Tudor names were not intended to be original; they spoke of loyalty to family, religion and the monarchy. In the same way, they could go out of favour. In many Essex parishes, Katherine and Anne were popular choices during the 1520s and 30s, with many ladies in waiting at the court naming their daughters after the relevant Queen. Katherine of Aragon’s close friend Maud Parr gave birth to a daughter in 1512, which led to the pleasing symmetry of Henry VIII’s last wife being named after his first. Katherine and Anne suffered a lapse in popularity in the middle of the century though, forever associated with the unhappy fates of Henry’s wives.
Choices would have been affected by family history, dynastic loyalties and geographical location. Favourite names were repeatedly passed down, causing confusion in parish registers where three generations might share the same pair of names. Analyses of baptismal records reveal that communities tended to develop their own name pool, passed on by word of mouth. The more movement and migration a town experienced, the greater access they may have had to unusual names. Thus Burnham on the river Crouch had Barnabe, Lenarde and Jasper, Susan, Annes and Sara while in the nearby city Colchester, the names Winken, George and Ralff, Esther, Prudence and Frances occur more than in other places. Colchester as on the main pilgrimage route towards Walsingham and as with many centres of devotion to the Virgin, Mary remained the favourite choice.  Further up round the coast, Clacton was unusual in throwing up some exotic listings; boys there might find themselves baptised as Clement, Augustine or Bartholomew, although interestingly, the most flamboyant names of Silvester and Hercules were bestowed on illegitimate sons. The Clacton registers also include the names of a large community of Dutch immigrants, ensuring regular new entries into the lists.
Similar names were given among all ranks of Tudor life, although the tradesmen and yeomanry became notably more experimental towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign. In Colchester in the 1540s, only ten female names were reused with regularity; the 1550s saw the introduction of four more, while seven joined the list in the 1560s. After this though, a rapid expansion seemed to take place, with names arriving each month; new trends brought Lettice, Ursula, Faith, Rhoda, Judeth, Stace, Parnell and Thomasine. The same was true of boys’ names, whose initial field was even narrower. In the 1540s, parents in Colchester only used six male names with any regularity but by the 1590s, they could choose from over fifty. In this they were only keeping up with the Sir Joneses. The aristocracy were never averse to throwing something unusual in among their pool of Thomases, Johns, Marys and Annes; Berkshire families used Bartholomew and Marmaduke, Honoria, Coleberry and Frideswide.
Modern parents seeking to bestow their offspring with a Tudor name might follow the Essex trends and opt for the solid, enduring choices favoured by the royal family or else take the plunge with a Martha, Maude or Ursula for their daughters and Raynold, Walter or Gilbert for the boys. It might prove difficult though, to find those on key rings and Christmas stockings. In any case, to avoid embarrassment they should be wary of those which have switched gender. Tudor girls might have been proud to be called Clement, Julian, Bennet, Christian or Dennis but their modern counterparts may not be so appreciative.
Here in full is the Tudor top ten:
 1   Mary/Marie                         John
2    Elizabeth                             Thomas
3    Jone/Jane/Joan                    William
4    Margaret/Margery               Richard
5    Ann/Anne                            Henry
6    Agnes                                  Edward
7   Alice/Alis                             Ralf/Ralff
8   Joanna/Johanna                    George
9   Susan                                    Robert
10 Annis                                    Humfrey