Last week I had to ring an information telephone number and when my call was connected I was informed the current waiting time was 60 minutes. Interestingly the voice didn’t say one hour, but 60 minutes. Maybe, they think you’ll mishear and be hoping it was only going to be a 16 minute wait. Eventually after 57 minutes of holding on, I spoke to a human who endeavoured to help, but when they attempted to put me through to another department the advisor inadvertently cut me off.
Momentarily I was stunned. Disbelief was rapidly followed by R A G E. My blood pressure must have rocketed into the stratosphere. I felt I needed to get out of the house as quickly as possible. Breathe some fresh air. Go for a walk. Visit somewhere soothing and peaceful.
I strolled over to Christchurch Mansion which is near to where I live and at 10.15 on an August weekday morning it was open and thankfully still quiet. Of course, I have visited the Mansion on a number of occasions since I moved to Ipswich, but as yet had never investigated the Toy Room. To my surprise, along with the usual faded dolls and well-cuddled teddy bears, there was this fascinating gem. It is a Victorian Glass Dome display called the Doll’s Toy Bazaar.
It’s difficult to understand the scale of this piece from photographs even when estimated measurements are given so I thought I’d include a sequence of photographs with ‘normal sized’ reference points.
The Doll’s Toy Bazaar is packed with miniature versions of familiar homeware. It’s relatively easy to spot candlesticks, glasses, porcelain ornaments and a few crocheted doilies.
But something I didn’t notice until I looked at my photographs was this grouping of three very tiny houses. I think you can tell how small they are by the brush behind which has a head of bristles the size of a modern toothbrush head.
Looking at the entirety of the Doll’s Toy Bazaar made me consider the nature of the person who had collected and selected and arranged this display. Her name was Henrietta Clarke and she died in 1869. I’ve not been able to find out anything else about this Victorian woman at all. There’s no indication of her marital status or age at the time of making the display nor even if she grew to adulthood.
Mind you examining her creation we might presume that she had had steady hands and a patient temperament although lurking beneath the Victorian etiquette of feminine passivity there might have been an inner core of turmoil and vexation.
Last week, we took a brief tour of Maldon in Essex, but I failed to mention the specific reason for my visit which was to see ‘The Maldon Embroidery’ on permanent display at the Maeldune Heritage Centre.
The Maldon Embroidery was initially called ‘The Millennium Embroidery’ as it was commissioned to celebrate 1,000 years of Maldon’s history.
It was unveiled over 30 years ago in 1991 to mark the millennial anniversary of the Battle Of Maldon in 991. The whole work is 42 feet long and 26 inches wide and is formed of seven panels. It was designed by the famous photographer, artist and textile designer, Humphrey Spender (1910-2005) who lived locally in the village of Ulting four miles from Maldon.
This textile work falls within the tradition of a ‘Bayeux tapestry’, and like the Bayeux original it isn’t actually a tapestry (woven), but is embroidered (hand stitched).
Furthermore, Humphrey Spender felt the term tapestry was associated with something “faded and dun-coloured”. And, as we can see this intricately detailed, colourfully vivid work is anything but faded.
The content of the embroidery is partly chronological and partly thematic. The significant Battle of 991 is near the left end and we then walk along its length and across time with depictions of noteworthy local events and well-known landmarks.
Unsurprisingly, as the embroidery was made to mark 1,000 years since the Battle of Maldon, warfare is one of themes. The war panel flows from left to right in a transition from ancient to modern warfare.
When we reach the end we have travelled through time to 1991. The final panel shows vignettes of Maldon’s twentieth-century highlights such as the 1980s construction of new roads and roundabouts around the town.
Working together with Humphrey Spender, Mrs Lee Cash and Andrew Fawcett, a further 85 embroiderers took three years to create this work of art.
May I just at this point apologise for the multiple reflections in the photographs and the lack of pictures of full panels. It is a physically long piece of work and naturally it is protected behind glass, but sadly opposite large windows. I am not sure if the glass is of a special quality, but the display room is brightly lit with damaging daylight.
Discussing his love of bright colours, Humphrey Spender, who lived in a Richard Rogers steel and glass residence for over three decades, once commented on the fading of domestic textiles in his home saying they’d faded substantially in just 15 years. Well, the Maldon Embroidery is already 30 years old and so far it is still very colourful, let’s hope it stays that way.
In these times when curators of large, famous Western museums are grappling with the contentious issue of repatriation of cultural artefacts, it is interesting that even smaller, regional museums also have collections of objects from ancient times and very, far-flung places. This situation has partly arisen from the Victorian obsession for collecting combined with their civic movement that saw the building of museums in many county towns across the country.
Ipswich Museum is like many regional museums in this respect and has a section devoted to the Ancient Egyptians. The outstanding core of this collection is a small, dark room with at its centre a decorated Egyptian mummy that contains the remains of Lady Tahathor. She was a wealthy woman who lived and died in Luxor 2,500 years ago. She was brought to England in 1856 by George H Errington, then in 1871 she was donated to Colchester Museum and since 2010 has been the centre piece in Ipswich Museum’s Ancient Egyptian gallery.
At the head of this display and spotlit to catch the drama is a gold death mask. This is not from Ancient Egypt per se, but was in fact made between AD80-120 for a Roman citizen who lived in Egypt and wished to be buried in the style of an Ancient Egyptian god as opposed to the usual Roman manner.
The Roman citizen’s name was Titus Flavius Demetrius and his golden mummy mask was excavated by pioneering Victorian archaeologist Flinders Petrie at Hawara in Egypt in 1880. Only a death mask for Titus is on display and there doesn’t seem to be any record of what happened to the mummy. However, the early 20th-century curator, Gay Maynard, is credited with the masks acquisition for Ipswich Museum.
Titus’s death mask is not the only golden death mask on display at Ipswich Museum. There is another also from the time of the Roman occupation of Egypt made for a man known as Syros. It is nearly 2000 years old and is made of layers of linen or papyrus paper with plaster. It bears a gilded face of inlaid limestone with glass eyes and painted brows and has a border with painted vignettes and Greek text on top of the head.
This golden mask is a longterm loan to Ipswich Museum from the British Museum who bought it in 1889 from the Rev. Walter L Lawson. Apparently, the Rev. Lawson collected Ancient Egyptian objects from excavations at Hawara in Egypt in 1889-90, but it is unclear whether he actively took part in the digs. However, there are records of him purchasing pieces from the antiquarian market in Luxor in 1889.
It is intriguing how the Ancient Egyptians still hold such fascination for many of us and it is encouraging that a local museum can share an interesting display of fine, original objects. The provenance and ownership of some pieces may be tricky, not least the mummy of Lady Tahathor, but maybe sharing human histories and practices can partially eclipse any ‘generating society’s’ privileges.
The two Romans, Titus and Syros, rejected their society’s death practices and in a way appropriated those of the Ancient Egyptians, maybe they were simply converts. However, for whatever reasons they had, the result for us 21st-century visitors to Ipswich Museum is to witness their choices made 2000 years ago in the form of these two gilded masks. Both are indeed finished with real gold even if technically they were not made for ‘real’ Ancient Egyptians. Oh, the delicious complexity of being human.
Even before my parents took my sister and I to the British Museum to see the 1972 Tutankahmun Exhibition I had already fallen under the spell of Ancient Egypt.
I still have my original collection of newspaper articles, souvenir extracts and a history magazine stuck in a scrapbook accompanied by an average 10 year old’s random commentary and drawings.
Incidentally, I can see now, as the front cover has come unglued, that this scrapbook had originally been used for a school project imaginatively called ‘Normans’. All trace of school Normans has gone and my obsession for all and anything Ancient Egyptian (a topic not covered at my village school) has instead filled the pages and still does, sort of, 50 years on.
Of course during the run up to the 1972 ‘blockbuster’ exhibition, although that term wasn’t used back then, there was plenty of press coverage. Serious articles in the Sunday broadsheets and specialist magazines were printed as well as the ubiquitous souvenir pull-out.
The 1972 exhibition consisted of fifty prize objects from Tutankhamun’s reign as the boy-king of Egypt (BC1361 to 1352). The artefacts had been lent by the Egyptian Government and made this the biggest Tutankhamun exhibition outside Egypt. Fifty objects to mark the 50 years since 1922 when the English archaeologist, Howard Carter, had discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb with the inner chamber still intact and undisturbed by grave robbers.
Apparently the British Museum estimated that between 800 – 1000 per hour would pass through the turnstile with adults paying 50p and children 25p entrance fees. (So that cost my father £1.50!) I didn’t know at the time, but have read since, that the exhibition ran from 30th March to 30th September 1972, opening Mondays 3 pm to 9 pm, Tuesdays to Saturday 10 am to 9 pm and Sundays 2 pm to 6 pm with any profits going to Unesco’s fund to save the ancient temples of Philae from the waters of the Aswan Dam. (As a side note it’s interesting that the BM was open until 9 pm. I had thought evening opening was a 21st century innovation.)
Returning to the ‘treasures’ in my scrapbook I found an envelope with a special edition stamp which was also issued to mark the 50 year anniversary of the original 1922 discovery. (My goodness a stamp for 3p!)
Today turning the foxed pages and unfolding the fading newspaper pages all stuck in with the now yellowing and stick-less sellotape has reminded me just how keen I had been. You’d have thought I might have gone on to be an historian or even an archaeologist, but at 14 years old school history hit the Industrial Revolution and from being nearly top of the class I dropped to the very bottom in a year.
It was another 25 years before I seriously returned to history when I enrolled at UEA to study Art History. Of course you never really forget your childhood passions and eventually 20 years after seeing the 1972 Tutankhamun Exhibition I did, finally get to visit Egypt. We saw the Pyramids, the Sphinx, took the slow night train down to Aswan and travelled back to Cairo after stopping off at Luxor and the Valley of Kings. I still remember visiting the Cairo Museum strolling straight up to the cabinet displaying the gold death mask of Tutankhamun with no other tourists in the room. It was a pole opposite experience to my attempt to see the mask back in 1972 at the BM. After queuing for a couple of hours, I had struggled in the crush of adults and after the briefest of glimpses of the iconic mask been swept on through the exhibition to the next object.
Of course, since 1972 attending blockbuster, popular exhibitions has changed with the introduction of limited numbers and timed entrances. Then along came Covid and we now have greatly reduced numbers, strictly timed tickets, hand gel stations and one-way systems along with mask wearing. Last week when I made my first post-Covid lockdown visit to the Ipswich Museum it was so quiet the staff outnumbered the visitors.
Walking through Trafalgar Square in the evening these days is still a noisy and bustling affair, but with all the cleaned buildings and the National Gallery artfully lit, the experience is definitely an improvement from my first memories as a newly arrived student in 1979.
Also, back in 1979 the fourth plinth beneath the towering Nelson’s Column was empty. In fact it had been empty for 150 years until the current series of temporary artworks was begun in 1999. The present sculpture is the twelfth artwork to top the plinth. It is a replica of an Assyrian lamassu statue that was destroyed by ISIS/Daesh at the Mosul museum in 2015. The original had guarded the entrance at the Nergal Gate of Nineveh (near modern day Mosul) from c700 BC.
Lamassus were protective winged deities with the body of a bull or lion and the head of a man. Some of these statues that stood at the gates of ancient Assyrian cities and palaces as symbols of power are nearly three thousand years old.
This particular lamassu has been created by the Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz. He is an artist who, within his creative practice, has been considering peoples and cultures that have been under threat of being deliberately erased, and, to this end he has created counter-monuments such as this lamassu. This piece is one of his series ‘The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist’, a project he began in 2006. His hope is to recreate many of the 7000 cultural objects that have been lost forever. Some of these were looted from the Iraq Museum in 2003, whilst many others were destroyed across the country during the Iraq War.
From the pavement below it isn’t obvious at first glance precisely what this sculpture is comprised of. However, gradually you realise the surface decoration is tin cans. The Lamassu is made from 10,500 empty Iraqi date syrup cans and you can even spot the date tree motifs. Selecting date syrup cans was not a random choice. Of course not, this top decorative layer is informing us about another type of loss as a result of the Iraq War, the loss of one of Iraq’s traditional food export businesses.
Placed on a plinth in Trafalgar Square beneath Admiral Lord Nelson, the lamassu’s style and content is very much a counter to the traditional representation of wars and war heroes as seen with the sandstone Nelson atop his granite column. This lamassu is colourful, transient and recycled, literally made from the remains of everyday food packaging. I think it challenges the hubristic ideas of permanence, stability and the ‘forever’ notion that the stone Nelson monument suggests. Trafalgar Square may not be under water within the next 30 years, but much of a London that even now is a forever changing building site, will probably be looking very different. See London 2050 flood map.
Now the statement ‘Not all that glistens is gold’ in this case is a bit of a naughty comment to attach to the Wickham Market Hoard of late antique coins. It implies the coins are not made of gold whereas it is just that they are not pure 24 Karat gold. Pure gold as we know is a soft metal and is unsuitable for circulating coins and therefore over the centuries various gold alloys have been used.
The Wickham Market Hoard is comprised of tribal coins made of one such gold alloy. The alloy in this case is a mixture of gold, silver and copper. The coins of different tribes of this period are known as staters and were marked with different symbols.
At the time these coins were in use in Britain, around 10 BC to AD 10, Julius Caesar had already been and gone from our shores, and Britain wouldn’t be officially conquered and part of the Roman Empire until Emperor Claudius’s campaign of AD 43 .
The Romans had, of course, been minting coins for the empire and Roman coins circulated in Britain from Celtic times, but regional tribes also minted their own coinage. Roman coinage had consisted of coins of gold, silver, orichalcum (a brass-like alloy of copper and zinc) and copper. However, the tribal finds dating from this time are hoards that comprise of gold coins only.
The Wickham Market Hoard was discovered in 2008 and is the largest hoard of British Iron Age gold coins to have been found in more than 150 years. There has been nothing of comparable size since the discovery of the Whaddon Chase Hoard in Buckinghamshire in 1849.
On display at the Ipswich Museum, the Wickham Market Hoard consists of 840 staters. That is 830 are Freckenham staters, five are Snettisham staters and five are Ferriby staters. These coins are named after the villages in which the coins were originally discovered. Freckenham is a village in west Suffolk and the staters found their were made by the Iceni tribe.
These coins have a horse motif on one side and on the reverse a pair of crescents motif with a cross formed of dots or a flower.
The Snettisham staters were first found near the village of Snettisham, west Norfolk, and were also made by the Iceni. These staters have a similar horse motif, but this time it has a sun symbol between its legs and the reverse of these coins is nearly blank.
Finally, there are the five Ferriby staters so-called as these were discovered as part of a hoard found in north Lincolnshire in 1900. These were made by the Corieltauvi who were a tribe from the East Midlands. These coins also have a horse on one side. It is a more stylised version as the horse’s head is a triangular shape and the body is made up of a series of crescents. The reverse of a Ferriby stater has a wreath of laurel leaves.
These coins struck with their fascinating images are over 2000 years old, and yet the design for the horse motif on the Freckenham staters has a timeless quality. When I first saw them I knew that they would be the basis for my next collection of silk scarves.
Apparently for 21st-century folk, ‘stuff’ is so last century. I am sure there are still plenty of people who are collectors, but generally the marketing people inform us that it’s experiences and not things we prefer these days. Of course, with more and more bad news regarding the climate emergency and all those shocking images of plastic waste, the old mantra ‘less is more’ could not be more necessary. However, for our more prosperous Victorian forebears it was very different and with drawing rooms, parlours and front rooms overflowing with collections of objects, more was definitely more.
Last month I made my first visit to the Ipswich Museum. It was opened in 1881 and was dedicated to the study of science and art. And, in that Victorian tradition of progress and improvement, the museum’s founding purpose was to ‘promote the study and extend the knowledge, of natural history in all its branches’. To this end it still displays its nineteenth-century collections of stuffed animals and birds.
The type and number of birds and animals is not as large as either Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum or Norwich’s Castle Museum (the town museums of the last two places where I’ve lived), yet it still offers visitors a thought-provoking display of the Victorian’s approach to a Natural History collection. Arguably, there is some scientific value from these various collections across the country as examples of life forms now extinct can be seen in their 3D form. However, all is not always what it seems as I read when I looked up ‘stuffed dodos’.
No stuffed dodos remain in any collections. Recently the last two were lost to fire and attack from museum pests. Some museums have made mock-up dodos using pigeon and chicken feathers, and there is a head, leg and single foot remaining at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.
Grant Museum, UCL, London.
I have mixed feelings about these stuffed creatures. I think today we are lucky. We have the luxury of digital cameras, computer animation, David Attenborough documentaries, wild life centres and opportunities to travel around the world to see some of the more exotic exhibits alive and in their natural habitats. It is understandable that in the past these stuffed creatures were prized objects within a museum setting. It is also intriguing that they found their way into many domestic parlours where exotic birds were the stars of glass dome dioramas. I suppose it can also be seen as part of the Victorian’s wider obsession for collection and display combined with their keen interest in Natural History.
Nowadays, these displays of exotic birds, survivors from over a hundred years ago, are themselves collected. Examples can be found in antique shops and popping up from time to time at auctions, but what other options are available for today’s avid collector interested in Natural History. If it’s now more about experiences than stuff then shooting exotic birds with a camera and not stuffing them must surely be the answer. (Is that a collective tweet of relief from birds around the world we hear?)
Finally, one of the most popular exhibits at the Ipswich Museum, especially with children, is a very large, 3D animal. It is the life-sized model of a woolly mammoth standing just inside the museum’s entrance. The model is based on the bones of a woolly mammoth unearthed in 1976 during the building of a local school. This woolly mammoth lived and died some 186,000 to 245,000 years ago, thousands of years before an accomplished taxidermist or even an experienced Ancient Egyptian embalmer ever drew breath, however the surviving bones tell their own story. It is suggested the animal died as a result of being stuck in the mud.
For a very interesting opinion regarding Ipswich Museum posted June 2019 see, current Chief Executive of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, Charles Saumarez-Smith’s post.
In one of those strange moments several threads of my life came together over the Easter weekend. As a keen gardener a four day break with glorious weather was not wasted and I eventually managed to plant two pear saplings and a fig tree.
I also visited my nearest park, Christchurch Park, and popped into the beautiful Christchurch Mansions to take photographs of their 17th-century exhibits. It has been on my to-do list for a while following hearing the rerun of the brilliant recording of ‘God’s Revolution’ by Don Taylor (original broadcast back in 1988). The drama takes us through the English Civil War and as I listened I remembered how my school history lessons had completely drained me of any interest in the 17th century. I had also been left with the impression that the 17th century had been very grey, plain and practical under the influence of the Puritans. It has been a pleasure to discover that this was not the case.
Of course, skills and craftsmanship did not suddenly evaporate overnight with the Puritans and even though much religious art was destroyed or defaced by the likes of William Dowsing, plenty of interesting examples of visual culture survived the 17th century including new work created during that period. Just think of the monumental splendour of Wren’s St Paul’s. And, then we have at the other end of the scale of English creative expression, small, private handiwork such as this beautiful embroidered panel (above) dating from around 1650.
The full embroidery panel shows a young woman in a garden filled with images of nature. These flowers, animals, birds and insect motifs represented natural gifts from a bountiful God and were celebrated as such. The abundance of nature was a common theme for domestic pieces at this time as displaying overt religious imagery became less popular. It is interesting that the lion and leopard each have their own corner. Their placement is probably significant as it is not an uncommon arrangement, as seen below, in another similar embroidery from the mid-17th century.
Also included in the embroidered menagerie of the Christchurch panel is a unicorn. According to Ruby Hodgson of the V&A, when a lion, leopard and unicorn appear together it is thought to be a reference to royalty.
Looking at the Christchurch panel the most striking representation of the abundance of nature is the pear tree laden with ripe pears in the centre of the composition. It occurred to me that as this example shows a young woman alone in her garden, that the pear tree with fruit maybe a symbol of fertility and allude to her as a potential wife and mother, especially as she stands with her hand outstretched drawing the observer’s attention to the tree.
However, it might simply have been the convention to include a fruiting pear tree as the visualisation of the 17th century English proverb, ‘Walnuts and pears you plant for your heirs’. Old English varieties of pears take years to mature before they bear fruit perhaps not fruiting during a single lifetime and therefore are grown to benefit future heirs. I know that planting avenues of trees for the future such as the famous Spanish Chestnut avenue at Croft Castle, has been a long tradition for the grand and wealthy, but ‘pears for your heirs’ is a discovery for me.
And, that brings me to the third thread of my Easter Weekend, my heir, my daughter. She spent most of her four day holiday break in London moving between Waterloo Bridge, Oxford Circus and Marble Arch as part of the Extinction Rebellion civil disobedience protests. Like so many others including all kinds of folk from all generations, she wants the climate crisis at the top of the global to-do list. Since Easter the recent summary from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has highlighted even more bad news regarding human beings’ detrimental effect on biodiversity. We have become accustomed to disregarding our natural environment and it appears that since the 17th century ‘pears for your heirs’ has faded from common use and yet . . .
. . . attempting to finish on a more optimistic note, it is not just me who has been planting a tree or two, the Woodland Trust hope to plant 64 million trees over the next decade.
Christchurch Mansions in Ipswich is a fine historical house that these days uses its beautiful rooms to display art. Traditional art, oil paintings, sculpture and a few framed textiles cover the walls in an art gallery manner. However, some of the main rooms are still furnished as for their original purpose in a style you might see in a National Trust stately home and include using paintings and art pieces in a domestic setting.
Personally, I appreciate seeing a Reynolds or a Gainsborough portrait displayed in a drawing room or library with a Georgian atmosphere. I know some folk prefer to summon up their historical imaginations and quibble about authenticity, but I enjoy visiting these ‘posed’ rooms even if purists consider it a borderline Disneyesque experience. I think informed, well-curated rooms help to provide context for the paintings especially when some of the portraits are of people connected with the house’s history.
One such painting is the Reynolds’ portrait of Sir Hutchins Williams (1701-1758). Williams was the father of Mrs Anne Fonnereau (1732-1805) who had married the Reverend William Fonnereau (1732-1817) in 1758. Anne and William lived at Great Munden in Hertfordshire where William was Rector, before in later life they moved to Ipswich. The Reverend William Fonnereau eventually inheriting Christchurch Mansion in 1804.
However, it is not only art on display at Christchurch Mansions, in the library the curators have arranged a room full of smaller, functional pieces such as an antique desk that is set with writing paraphernalia and a gorgeous, elegant clock.
The room contains an eclectic mix as you might see accumulated over a century or two.
The library was not only a place for reading, it perhaps also provided an agreeable environment for a serious game of chess.
On a small table an Indian ivory chess set is displayed, pieces ready for the next move. These chessmen are typical of the work from the two neighbouring towns, Berhampur and Murshidabad, located in the West Bengal region of India.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century it was the custom for British families resident in Calcutta (now Kolkata) to take a voyage up stream on the Hooghly river to these two towns.
A chess set was a typical souvenir purchased by these visitors and was eventually brought to Britain when the family finally returned home. This set comprises of intricately carved figures, one set has pawns clothed as East Indian Company Sepoys and the other set are Marathi spearmen.
Recently I have been sorting and collating and trying to delete some of my thousands of photographs. It’s what I call a New Year’s task and as usual I have already been completely sidetracked!
This time it was all St Gabriel’s fault or rather should I say the talented Victorian stained glass artist who created this work. I think it could possibly have been painted by somebody who worked for James Powell & Sons. It has an Arts and Crafts feel, and, the overall design of the complete window has a look very similar to the late-19th/early-20th century works by that famous, London-based stained glass makers.
It wasn’t so much the beauty of the window, although I really do love the restrained aesthetic of this style of glass, but I wanted to know who had made it and so the hunt began. I was sidetracked.
Disappointingly, I was not successful, however, I did come across a little thread of discord from 2005 regarding the taking of photographs within National Trust properties. The above stained glass window, that had captured my attention, can be found in the chapel on the Oxburgh Hall estate in Norfolk.
Inside the chapel there are a few artworks worth attention. There is the tomb of the 6th Baronet, Sir Henry Bedingfield, complete with a fine, marble effigy and alabaster tomb chest.
There is also a further stained glass window by Thomas Willement, this time featuring heraldic motifs and . .
there is an oddly, overblown altarpiece arrangement. This is not the original 1839 altarpiece. In fact the painted and gilded wooden structure we see today is a retable with wings that was purchased sometime in the late-19th century. It is unclear when and who put together the full arrangement with the upper retable, the sacrament tabernacle and the bottom, carved altar table.
As you can see from my photographs, when the wings are opened displaying scenes from the Passion and the life of St James of Compostela, the whole effect is unbalanced and out of proportion within such a small chapel. Flemish altarpieces from the sixteenth century are often seen these days in museums and art galleries, but originally they would have been erected in cathedrals or larger churches set beneath high vaulted ceilings and tall windows. Perhaps the entire Oxburgh construction was purchased during a moment of Victorian religious zeal. Strangely, according to the official guidebook ‘The retable was acquired by the National Trust in 1982 with the aid of grants from the Art Fund, the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Victoria & Albert Museum’ thirty years after Oxburgh Hall had been given to the National Trust. If you are at all interested in the baffling and convoluted arrangements for keeping some art accessible to the public you can read about the retable provenance here.
Now, after that minor digression, I come back to the issue of taking photographs, such as mine of the Oxburgh Retable, in National Trust properties. Back in January 2005, Simon Knott, who has made a fine photographic record of much of East Anglia’s church art, was visiting Oxburgh Hall. And, in 2005 photography was not allowed inside any National Trust properties for ‘security reasons’. However, Mr Knott attempted to photograph inside the chapel and was caught by the room steward. Mr Knott subsequently recounted this episode on his website. He was mildly critical of the NT’s over zealous no photography policy and then latterly received a sharp slap down in reply. Below is a glimpse back to those pre-selfie, pre-Instagram days!
Postcript, June 2005: Teresa Squires, House Steward at the Hall, was alerted by, as she put it, ‘a concerned National Trust volunteer’, and contacted me [Simon Knott] : I am most concerned about your puerile comments regarding the “sneak” photography. The National Trust has a No Photography rule for a number of good reasons, of which one is security. If you had taken the trouble to enquire of the steward, you would have found out that the No Photography rule only applies during public visiting hours, and an arrangement can be made to photograph for bona fide reasons at another time. Your irresponsible attitude is likely to cause others to think they can buck the system with impunity. Remember, the National Trust is a conservation charity, not a subsidised Government organisation. Yes, it is most unlikely that someone will steal this particular altarpiece, but art crime is on the increase everywhere. If you are truly concerned with recording and disseminating knowledge of church history, I would expect you to show a little more respect.
From commentary by Simon Knott
How times have changed! Fortunately, in 2009 the National Trust changed their policy regarding photographs. It is, of course, still no flash photography (so damaging to delicate artworks), but the sensible decision to permit paying visitors to photograph and share their experiences can only help attract more visitors to National Trust properties. Furthermore, sharing pictures of minority interests such as the needlework of Mary, Queen of Scots, can only be a positive addition to our shared culture.
Now it’s time for me to return to my original task and get deleting those underexposed, overexposed and just slightly out of focus photographs.
It is amazing that an object, possibly used everyday, that can so easily be dropped or knocked over and broken, could ever survive 250 years, but that is the case with some of these beautiful old teapots.
Of course, many of them have been in grand collections and as such probably infrequently handled. I can imagine that most of these prized painted examples have not been in regular use for a couple of centuries.
Porcelain teapot with underglaze blue and enamel decoration. Nicholas Crisp, Vauxhall, London. 1753-1764
Porcelain teapot painted in enamels. William Baddeley (or William Littler at Longton Hall, Staffordshire) 1777-1784
They are currently on display as part of the Early Porcelain (1740-1780) section of the The Twining Teapot Gallery, Norwich Castle Museum.
For most of the 18th century imported tea was an expensive beverage not least as it was heavily taxed. The high price (5 shillings per pound in 1711) affordable only by the wealthy, was also maintained by the virtual monopoly held by the merchants of the East India Company. Although the tax was reduced in 1723 and again in 1745, tea was smuggled into the country. It was also adulterated with other ingredients such as dried hawthorn leaves. I can’t imagine what that tasted like.
Towards the end of the 18th century following pressure from Richard Twining, Chairman of the London Tea Dealers, the Tea and Window Act of 1784 reduced the duty from 119 per cent to 12 per cent per pound. With such a reduction in price tea became available to the lower levels of society and consumption rose, and, within ten years imports had quadrupled and tea smuggling disappeared. It was William Pitt the Younger who introduced these new much lower rates and at the same time, to mitigate the loss of revenue from tea imports, he increased the window tax hence the Tea and Window Act.
Naturally, teapots were used for tea, but, interestingly not exclusively tea. Below, this cream, textured teapot is one such example. Larger than most of teapots in the Early Porcelain section of the display, it may well have been used for punch. I should think that punch was infinitely preferable to ‘hawthorn’ tea.