Friday, October 24, 2014

Friday Video: A Medieval Hedgehog Tale

Friday, October 24, 2014

Isabella reporting,

Today's short video, De Herinacio: On the Hedgehog, is no ordinary nature video. Instead it's a charming animation inspired by a 13th c. English medieval bestiary, the Rochester Bestiary, now in the British Library (shown right.) This story of how hedgehogs collect grapes from vineyards for their families is imaginative, even if it bears little resemblance to real hedgehog behavior; you can read more about the story here on the British Library blog.

The video was made by Obrazki nunu and Discarding Images. Yes, it's in Latin, but there are English subtitles, and it's just delightful.

If you receive our posts via email, then you may be seeing a blank space or black box in place of the video. To view it, please click here.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Embellishments: Constructing Victorian Detail

Thursday, October 23, 2014
Loretta reports:

Continuing my report on Astrida Schaeffer’s lecture at the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, MA: 

As promised, today we look at Embellishments:  Constructing Victorian Detail, Ms. Schaeffer’s book accompanying what clearly was a marvelous exhibition.  On display were twenty-five garments from the Victorian era, from the Irma Bowen Collection of the University of New Hampshire Museum.

The book helps explain, as described in the first chapter, “The Victorian Aesthetic Mindset.”  This is an aesthetic some some may think of as Wretched Excess or clutter, because it seems so busy to the 21st century eye.

But it reflects a time of burgeoning consumerism, expanded international connections, and the many “technologies, discoveries, and opportunities bursting out of the Industrial Revolution.”  Even without fully understanding the aesthetic, however, we can appreciate the beauty and workmanship of these garments.  This book lets us get up close and personal.

We’re treated not only to close views of design details but instructions for making them as well.  The photographs and illustrations are simply spectacular, and made me wish I had the skills to try recreating some of the adornments.  You can view sample pages here and images from the exhibition here.

Do check out the dashing Art Nouveau coat (back view second from left in first photo, front view at right of fourth and fifth photos).  That's my favorite.  Which garment do you like best?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Ugbrooke Park: Saving a Historic English Country House

Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Isabella reporting,

Many of us Nerdy History Folk dream of living in a grand English country house, whether Pemberley, Downton Abbey, or, in the case of Loretta and me, the imagined house in our current WIPs. But in too many cases, that dream country house proves more of a nightmare for the families who inherit estates burdened with taxes and hundreds of years of deferred maintenance. The scores of servants necessary to support such an estate have vanished, and in many cases the necessary income necessary has disappeared as well. It's estimated that 1 in 6 of the great English country houses has been demolished in the last 75 years, and the inescapable economics of a long-gone way of life means that others houses are sure to meet the same fate.

But one house that teetered on the bring of such a disaster has returned to flourish: Ugbrooke Park, located in Devon. Last week I had the pleasure of hearing Clarissa Clifford, Lady Clifford of Chudleigh, and the current mistress of Ugbrooke Park, speak at Winterthur Museum about both the challenges and rewards that Ugbrooke has offered.

The Cliffords have the kind of family history that novelists like me love. Scattered through the centuries are a royal mistress and an Elizabethan privateer, an adventuresome lord who rode the American plains with General Custer, another who became a cardinal, and yet another who was an eccentric famous for founding the Mystic Evolution Society.

But the ancestor most important to Ugbrook was Thomas Clifford, 1st Baron of Chudleigh, who was one of the most trusted of Charles II's ministers. (If you've read any of my Restoration-set historical novels, then you'll recognize Lord Clifford's name, even though he wasn't well-liked by any of my heroines.) In return for Lord Clifford's services, the king granted him the land that would become Ugbrooke.

The 4th Lord Clifford, Hugh, transformed the property extensively in the late 18th century, adding beautiful interiors by Robert Adam and landscapes and gardens by Lancelot "Capability" Brown. The turreted exterior with a medieval flavor was the latest fashion at the time, but a mixed success in a land of Palladian symmetry; it's that somewhat squat appearance that has earned Ugbrooke its reputation as an "architectural ugly duckling."

But over the centuries, the house's fortunes declined. While the 20th c. members of the family preferred their lands in New Zealand, Ugbrooke languished, serving as a school, a refuge for soldiers, and, most ignominiously, a granary. When the 13th Lord Clifford returned with his family in 1957, he began the monumental challenge of making the house once again fit to be a home, a task that the 14th Lord Clifford continues today.

There were many decisions to be made. Instead of restoring the house into a museum-like setting, the family chose to make it a family home with modern amenities where the children's pets were as important as the Robert Adam ceilings. History was respected and embraced – one of the highlights of the restoration was discovering Adam's
working drawings – but never overshadowed the present. Budgets were strict, and addressing unglamorous projects like new roofs, dry rot, and plumbing were methodically accomplished year by year. To help fund the restoration, a family heirloom – the state papers of the secret 1670 Treaty of Dover between Charles II and Louis XIV that had been given to the first Lord Clifford for safekeeping – was sold at auction.

Lady Clifford is a professional London-based interior designer who, after her marriage, threw herself whole-heartedly into the house's rebirth on a budget. Stables and attics were searched, and long-neglected furnishings were restored and given a fresh place in the house. Murky forgotten paintings became glorious again once cleaned and rehung. When recreating an elaborate plaster frieze proved prohibitively expensive, a printed trompe l'oeil version was substituted instead. After a half-century, the transformation is still on-going, but that's to be expected when your renovation has more than eighty rooms.

Today Ugbrooke Park has a new life as Ugbrooke Enterprises. The estate can be hired for destination weddings, corporate retreats, concerts, and hunting parties, and also hosts events as diverse as classic automobile shows and whippet fun days. Lord and Lady Clifford entertain overnight guests from around the world, including groups from Winterthur. (You can read more here on Ugbrooke's website.)

And from Lady Clifford's presentation, I'd say Ugbrooke looks once again thoroughly dream-worthy.

For another country house that's being pulled back from the brink of disaster by its determined family, see this post on Highclere Castle, otherwise known as Downton Abbey. For one that sadly wasn't as fortunate, see here for Mavisbank.

Photos top and bottom left copyright Patrick Baty.
Photos right copyright Ugbrooke.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Victorian Corsets: Some Facts & Myths—update

Tuesday, October 21, 2014
Loretta reports:

I had the good fortune recently to attend a lecture by historic fashion and textile expert Astrida Schaeffer at the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, MA.  Ms. Schaeffer very kindly gave me permission to take photographs of her lecture.*

As this blog’s regular readers are aware, we periodically point out fashion myths, especially those about corsets.**  However, my research area is the early part of the 19th century, not the Victorian era, so I was interested to distinguish truth from myth regarding later corsets, constructed with materials like steel and metal grommets strong enough to allow more intense tightening.

The changes were not as extreme as we tend to think.  No, the 16”-18” waist wasn’t the norm but the exception.  Ms. Schaeffer presented several images showing the waist we associate with Victorian women, and pointed out that these were not usual, but corset ads or images of actresses whose claim to fame was a teeny tiny waist.  The average woman didn’t go to this extreme.  Her corset was meant to create a smooth line under her clothing, and she came in all shapes and sizes as women do today.

Waist differences illustration source
Ms. Schaeffer also pointed out the way the corset redistributed flesh.  From the front, the waist appears narrow, especially with a great skirt ballooning out below.  But if we look at the lady from the side, she’s rather wider.  The experiment was tried with an actual human being, and the picture shows what happened.

These images, front and side, give you an idea.

Another false image is the Victorian woman lying or swooning on her sofa  because her corset prevents activity.  Also not true.  I couldn’t keep up with all the photographic examples, but here’s just one, of women jumping rope.  In other photos from The Happy Valley, they’re climbing fences and jumping down from them, ice skating and roller skating, running, leaping fearlessly from stairs, and so on.  As we’ve pointed out before, when you live in a world where the corset is the norm and not wearing one is abnormal, you are simply accustomed to doing everything wearing a corset.  It doesn’t debilitate you.  If you’re in the last stages of a galloping consumption, that’s another story entirely.

If all goes smoothly, I’ll have something to say at another time soon about Ms. Schaeffer’s book, Embellishments: Constructing Victorian Detail.

The gold dress, c. 1896, which belonged to Ellen Rodman Motley, is part of the museum’s extensive collection of clothing.  A small but fine selection is on view at present.

Update:  Belated credit to The Pragmatic Costumer, whose illustration above, of the waist differences was included in the lecture, but whose source I was unaware of.  Please check out her post, which is much more informative than I could ever be.

*Not wishing to be obnoxious about it, I limited photo-taking to one or two examples in each  subject she covered.
**Please click on the corsets label for more on the topic.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

From the Archives: Queen Victoria's Baby Tooth Brooch, 1847

Sunday, October 19, 2014
Isabella reporting:

Yes, it's that finish-the-infernal-manuscript time again, and so for today I'm sharing a favorite post from our archives. 

I'll freely admit that I'm as sentimental as most mothers, and that like a lot of us, I squirreled away my children's first lost baby teeth as mementos. They're tucked in my desk, inelegantly sealed in business envelopes, preserved for...something.

But then, I'm not Queen Victoria (1819-1901).

When Victoria's oldest child, the Princess Victoria, Princess Royal (1840-1901), shed her first baby tooth, it, too, was preserved, though not in a lowly envelope. The seven-year-old princess's father, Prince Albert (1819- 1861) tugged the tooth free himself in 1847, while the royal family was visiting Ardverikieby Loch Laggan, as a guest of the Duke of Abercorn. As a memento of both the enjoyable visit (Victoria was so smitten with Scotland that she soon purchased Balmoral Castle as her own retreat in the Highlands) and to commemorate the landmark event in Princess Vicky's young life, Albert had the tooth made into a special brooch, left, for Victoria. Set in gold, the tooth forms the blossom of a gold and enamel thistle, the symbolic wildflower of Scotland. A "private" piece of jewelry as opposed to royal jewels for state occasions, the small brooch had never been shared with the public until 2010, when it was included in the Victoria & Albert: Art & Love exhibition at Buckingham Palace.

It's easy to dismiss a brooch featuring a baby's tooth as one more example of slightly macabre 19th c. taste, but in some circles, such mother's jewelry is still made and worn. Check out actress Susan Sarandon's custom-made bracelet, featuring her children's assorted baby teeth as the charms.

Above: Brooch, gold, enamel, & tooth, 1847. Commissioned by Prince Albert for Queen Victoria. Photo copyright The Royal Collection.
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