Thursday, 18 December 2014

Duchess of Deptford

Hogarth's prints are full of detail, much of it significant to his eighteenth-century audience but obscure to the modern viewer. The current exhibition at the Cartoon Museum does a great job not only of showing many of Hogarth's works but also of explaining lots of those intriguing details. One which caught my eye was mention of Nan Rawlings, known as 'Duchess of Deptford' or 'Deptford Nan'. 

Nan's portrait features in the engraving The Cockpit, which gives a strong clue as to her unsavoury occupation. The cockpit was a venue for cock-fighting, and Nan was a cock-breeder and well-known figure on the fighting circuit. As her nicknames suggest, she was based in Deptford. 

There doesn't seem to be much more information available about Nan Rawlings. It's perhaps not surprising: although (as Hogarth shows) people of all classes attended cock fights, those who made their livings from the activity were not likely to feature in many histories. In fact, she may have been forgotten fairly soon after her death: by 1803, the 'Duchess of Deptford' was a title accorded to a lavishly-dressed figure in a print satirising the nouveau riche

In 1835, cock-fighting was banned by the Cruelty to Animals Act.  One suspects that Hogarth would have approved: The Cockpit is a depiction of the vice and degradation of its gambling audience, while his series Four Stages of Cruelty begins with its central character delighting in such animal suffering and ends with his executed body being dissected at Surgeons' Hall.
The Museum of London website has the image and a description

Hogarth's London continues at the Cartoon Museum, Little Russell Street, until 18 January 2015 and is well worth a visit. I attended with London Historians

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Murals in and out: Camberwell Library and Bath House

The Edwardian building housing Camberwell's former Passmore Edwards Library & Bath House has two murals. The first is something of a local landmark, its tiles depicting a Camberwell Beauty butterfly. They adorn the gable wall of the former baths, now home to Lynn AC Boxing Club. The Royal Doulton tiles were moved here in 1982 when their original home - the factory of stationers Samuel Jones & Co - was demolished.

The library's main room is bright, with windows and skylights: what a contrast to the windowless basement which housed the children's library. However, inside that basement are secret treasures: murals painted on the upper walls. Among the institutional green paint, pipes and wires are wonderful, delicate images from Alice in Wonderland and fairy stories. No wonder that a contemporary news report proclaimed 'Dingy Cellar Becomes a Fairy Palace'!

I visited during Open House weekend. Unfortunately, I've since lost my note of the artist's name: if anyone knows, I would be very grateful!

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Please adjust your dress


While I don't actively plan my visits around the presence of Victorian cast-iron urinals, it's always a joy to come across them - at the National Railway Museum, York, the Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham, and most recently, St Fagans National History Museum, Wales. 

The Welsh example is technically Scottish, since it was cast by the omnipresent Walter Macfarlane & Co at their Saracen Foundry. However, it spent nearly a century in Llanwrtyd Wells before moving to St Fagans in 1978. 

Like all Macfarlane's work, the urinal is full of elegant and decorative detail. A particularly nice feature, though, is the admonition cast into a panel of each stall to 'please adjust your dress before leaving'.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Crystal Palace in Paris

The amazing Crystal Palace, star of the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park and later of Crystal Palace Park in Sydenham, was destroyed by a fire in 1936. However, it lives on in a model in Paris - where it is shown still under construction. 

The Cité d'Architecture et de la Patrimoine in the Trocadéro is dedicated to exploring France's architecture. However, it recognises the importance of the Crystal Palace as a pioneering work of pre-fabrication, and has a marvellous model in 1/100 scale, made by Philippe Dubois and Michel Goudin. 

Behind the famous facade, the builders are still at work assembling and erecting the cast-iron framework. Most of the glass is yet to be put in place. The Park's elm trees, famously incorporated into the interior of the central hall, are visible here.

The depiction of wooden cranes seems anachronistic at first glance, but is correct: this extraordinary structure was built before powered cranes had been developed. 

Of course, there is much more to the Cité d'Architecture than this tribute to a British masterpiece. Perhaps the most striking exhibits are those in the cast galleries: plaster replicas of building features from all over France. 

The Crystal Palace has a natural home here, perhaps: the Palais de Chaillot was itself built  for an International Exhibition in 1937 (replacing the earlier Palais constructed for the 1878 Universal Exhibition). Its windows offer excellent views of a landmark from the 1889 Universal Exhibition, the Eiffel Tower. 

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Speaking arms - the Chappe telegraph

In the eighteenth century, it took the best part of a week to get a message from Paris to the naval port of Brest and receive the reply. By 1800, it could be done in an hour. The reason? Rather than sending a messenger on horseback, the French state was now using a visual telegraph system named for its creator, Claude Chappe.

It was his family's intention that Claude would enter the church, but that career was disrupted by the French Revolution. However, as the nephew of an astronomer, he was already interested in the physical sciences and with his brothers, turned to invention. They worked to devise a practical system of semaphore signalling which would allow messages to be sent and received quickly and efficiently. The word 'telegraph' was coined to describe it.

Although we think of semaphore systems as involving flags, Chappe realised that much better visibility could be achieved if the message was communicated by angled arms. A string of towers could be set up, each one ten or fifteen miles apart, and operators with telescopes would send and receive the signals along the line. The government eagerly took up his invention, with the first line between Paris and Lille operating from 1794, and lines soon extended between key locations across France. They would prove invaluable to Napoleon in wartime, and continued in use until the mid-nineteenth century when overtaken by new technology: the electric telegraph. Perhaps its last use was in the Crimean War, when a mobile system was employed.

To understand how the system worked, there is no better place to go than the Musée Télégraphe de Chappe at Saint Marcan in north-east Brittany. There, one of the towers survives and has been restored to working order. Visitors can not only learn about the system, but watch it in action and even set signals themselves. (My own attempt suggested that I have not missed my vocation!)

The key to the system's speed and security can be found on the museum's sign. The signals did not proceed letter by letter, but communicated a number between 1 and 92. Each pair of numbers gave the page and line of a signal book; by turning to the page and reading the relevant line, the message recipient obtained anything from a word to a complete phrase or sentence. Thus even a long message could be reduced to a fairly small number of signals; without the codebook, it was meaningless, so even the operators did not understand the message they were relaying.

Once it had been encoded into pairs of numbers, the message would be transmitted from station to station. Each one was a small but solid stone building: sturdy construction was required to support the weight of the mechanism on its roof.

The operator worked on the first floor, looking carefully for messages from neighbouring stations on the line. When a signal appeared at the previous station, the operator would replicate it on his own signal. The main arm would be diagonal as he worked, and swung into a horizontal position when the signal was complete. He would then watch to see that it had been correctly reproduced at the next station before returning his signal to the neutral position (all arms vertical).

The towers were on high points, for obvious reasons of visibility. That resulted in some startling locations: many church towers were used, while the station to the east of Saint Marcan was on Mont Saint Michel. Nonetheless, messages could only be sent when daylight and weather conditions allowed sufficient visibility.

The Parisian starting point for the telegraph was at Menilmontant. The site of the Chappe telegraph station is now commemorated by street names, plaques - and the local Metro station, Télégraphe.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Ghost signs (113): Lewisham paint

This lovely ghost sign on Belmont Hill was uncovered earlier this year when a hoarding was removed - many thanks to Alan Burkitt-Gray for telling me about it. Running Past has done some fascinating research on the sign and dated it to before 1912, making it a particularly exciting example. 

C Holdaway advertises himself as a 'Painter Grainer & Decorator' as well as offering 'estimates for general repairs'. While painters, decorators and general repairs remain familiar in modern life, the 'grainer' is less common today. Graining was a method of using paint to imitate wood - either on non-wooden surfaces, or on soft wood to make it look like more expensive hardwood. It enjoyed real popularity in the nineteenth century, when labour was cheap and wood expensive; today, it is often more economical to use the real thing than employ an artisan to imitate it. How apt, then, that this vintage sign should make reference to an equally vintage trade.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

London exploration, large and small

If you want to explore London this weekend, there are some exciting options available. The biggest, of course, is the annual Open House weekend. Over 800 buildings and more are open on 20 and 21 September - from the large and famous, like the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, to small and quirky buildings such as Rotherhithe's Old Mortuary.

Fancy a break and a sit-down? Or an altogether more relaxed weekend? If so, Londonist has a weekend of Thames-themed talks. They're all in a perfect location: HMS President, currently a work of art in itself as it has been painted in 'dazzle camouflage' by artist Tobias Rehberger to mark the centenary of World War One. Tickets for individual talks and day passes are available.

Finally, you can sample the City of London's history on a much smaller scale. The new Heritage Gallery in the Guildhall Art Gallery is not large, but the space curated by London Metropolitan Archives is packed with treasures. The centrepiece is a copy of Magna Carta, ready for its 800th birthday next year; there are lots of other gems including 15th-century portraits of City aldermen and a First World War recruitment poster. The main art gallery has also been re-hung, so it's an excellent time to visit - and admission is free. 

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Vintage tractors

For the 22nd year, Plenee Jugon in Brittany hosted a Festival of Mechanisation, featuring farm vehicles from the 1920s to the 1950s. There were lots of vintage tractors, some rusty, others restored to vivid colour.


Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Bristol time

Moving a country from solar time to unified time is no easy matter (France had three separate kinds of time at one point). However, the railways made it a necessity: local time, which varied by minutes as one travelled east or west, was not really compatible with accurate railway timetables. Noon in Bristol, for example, is over ten minutes later than noon in London.When the Great Western Railway came to Bristol in 1841, it brought 'railway time' with it.

Bristolians had other reasons for wanting to know Greenwich Mean Time as accurately as local time. As a major seafaring port (it traded with America and the Caribbean, and was heavily connected to the slave trade), the city had plenty of people who needed GMT in order to calculate longitude and thus navigate accurately on the oceans. And in 1852, the electric telegraph arrived - with Bristol time creating the ridiculous situation of messages from London apparently arriving before they were sent. Within a few months, the city's public clocks moved from local time to GMT.

Today, few of us tell the time by the sun, so we don't notice the discrepancies between solar noon and the time on our clocks. For those who lived through the transition, though, the clock on Bristol's Corn Exchange with its two minute hands must have been very helpful. Installed in 1822 with just one minute hand set to local time, it was later given a second set to GMT. Only when the city' time was unified in 1852 was the Bristol hand removed; it was finally restored in 1989. 

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Cupboards-full of Roman wall

Eager to protect Londinium, the Romans built a wall around the city at the turn of the 3rd century, and kept working on it for the next 200 years. The wall was composed of Kentish ragstone rubble, held together with mortar, and interspersed with bright red stripes of tiles. It was adopted and adapted by later Londoners, until falling into disrepair in the eighteenth century. Today, only various fragments remain. 

Some pieces of wall are well-known and substantial; they can be found just outside Tower Hill tube station and alongside the Museum of London, for example. (If you want to explore in much more detail, the Museum of London's London Wall Walk is still available online, although many of the 23 information panels are now damaged or missing.) Other sections are in more surprising places - even an underground car park

Two pieces of late Roman wall find themselves in another surprising context. On the east side of Jewry Street is the former Sir John Cass College, built in 1902 and currently occupied by London Metropolitan University. Within its basement are the ancient fragments - carefully preserved, in a manner wholly evocative of twentieth-century education establishments, within glass-fronted cupboards. The larger piece even has a label.