Dragon Hall and the Ghosts of a Medieval Christmas

Dragon Hall Norwich medieval
Dragon Hall, King St, Norwich.
Timber & brick 15th-century medieval trading hall originally known as Splytts.
Community traditions are subject to the vagueries of fashion just as any other aspects of human society. A month ago I mentioned Mummers and a rural tradition that eventually became part of a Royal Christmas for Edward III. This Christmas tradition has ebbed and flowed in popularity across the centuries. It had been widely practised across England through the 18th and 19th centuries, but largely faded as a regular community activity with the onset of the First World War.

timber crown post roof
The medieval timber crown-post roof of Dragon Hall.
So it was with curiosity I went to Dragon Hall in Norwich to see some contemporary mummers. Local volunteer/supporters of the restored medieval hall, now a museum and tourist attraction, decided to revive some mumming entertainment. They performed a light-hearted, rhyming version of St George and the Dragon, a popular theme at Christmas for a mummers’ play. I expect this theme would no doubt have found favour with the successful merchant and alderman, Robert Toppes who had funded the building of the 15th-century Splytts (Dragon Hall) and had been a member of the Guild of St George.

Alice or Joan-ToppesThe old village traditions of mummers’ plays were based on the death and re-birth theme. This theme was incorporated here not by the dragon being killed by St George, but by the death of St George. Having fought the dragon, poor old St George then has to fight a bully of a knight called, Slasher, who cheats and kills him with a much bigger sword. Luckily for St George, working within the traditional re-birth theme, a doctor armed with a magical potion brings him back to life. The play is introduced by ‘Little Johnny Jack his wife and family on his back’ and along with St George, Slasher and the Quack Doctor are all traditional mummers’ characters portrayed in Christmas shows from 18th-century Southern England. Often acted in disguise these performances allowed poorer members of the community to earn extra money during the festive season.

There was a homespun, local feel to the Dragon Hall performance in keeping with the informal roots of mumming. Although the mummers were costumed they didn’t have masks. I know it is difficult for actors (even professionals) to work from behind masks, but I think that the element of disguising would have added a medieval depth to the piece that the venue of Dragon Hall so invited.

Carved dragon
The carved dragon found in the roof timbers during the restoration of Dragon Hall.

Coffee Sets – Are They Beautiful Dinosaurs?

Meissen Riemerschmid
Richard Riemerschmid, for Meissen porcelain factory. 1905
Cast porcelain with hand painted underglaze decoration.
At the V&A, London
Some objects are beautiful as well as useful, but then time moves on and they become purely ornamental. It would appear that the usefulness of the coffee set has had its day, well, in my home anyway.

Slater Sunray for Shelley

Eric Slater for Shelley Potteries, Fenton UK. 1930
Bone china, thrown, trimmed and shaved on a lathe. Printed in fawn and painted in enamel colours.
At the V&A, London

Of course, there is nothing to stop you collecting beautiful china and displaying it in its own right as aesthetically pleasing, but there’s a little tinge of sadness when something previously functional is no longer used. And, I’ve realised it is the ugly machine that’s finally taken over in my kitchen this past decade. The Bialetti Moka pot and the cafetière, both attractively designed, had a few glory years, but now they’re permanently at the back of the cupboard as the boring, grey machine actually makes the best coffee.

Nowhere as beautiful as the above Meissen, my own coffee set has suffered the loss of the small milk jug, the sugar bowl has been repaired more than once and the coffee pot has been relegated to occasional use as a flower vase.

Coffee pot as flower vase!
Coffee pot as flower vase!

Death of a Hero, Trafalgar Day & Nelson Memorabilla

Today, 21 October, is Trafalgar Day in the UK. A school history textbook date when in 1805 Vice Admiral Lord Nelson died at the Battle of Trafalgar. He was commanding the British navy when he was fatally shot on the quarterdeck of HMS Victory during the battle that saw the combined French and Spanish fleets defeated.

death of Nelson Staffordshire ceramic
Death of Nelson – A hand-painted earthenware figurine made by Staffordshire. Ceramic, c. 1840s.

Nelson was a son of Norfolk born at Burnham Thorpe in 1758 and had become a national hero following the Battle of the Nile in 1798 when his ships successfully destroyed Napoleon’s fleet. He was also the subject of 21st-century style gossip when he lived with his friend Sir William Hamilton and Hamilton’s wife, Lady Emma Hamilton, first in Naples and then later at Merton Place, South London. Gillray’s satirical cartoon pokes fun at Emma Hamilton depicting her as Dido posed in distress watching Nelson’s fleet disappearing as an old man is seen sleeping behind her. The text at the bottom of the print reads
‘”Ah, where, & ah where, is my gallant Sailor gone” ? –
“He’s gone to Fight the Frenchmen, for George upon the Throne,
“He’s gone to Fight ye Frenchmen, t’loose t’other Arm & Eye,
“And left me with the old Antiques, to lay me down, & Cry.’

dido in despair Gillray 1801
Dido, In Despair – James Gillray, print published by Hannah Humphrey 1801.
Height 253mm Width 358mm
British Museum, London

During the 18th century printed matter became widely available and a variety of newspapers, pamphlets and prints were in circulation. The contemporary ‘media’ reports of Nelson’s achievements and also the speculation surrounding his relationship with Emma Hamilton fed the nation’s interest in Nelson and contributed to the making of a national hero. Viewed in this light it was only natural when Nelson died in battle that he should be honoured with a state funeral. A state funeral for a commoner was an unprecedented situation, and when the news of Nelson’s death reached London from Cape Trafalgar, the Lord Chancellor’s Office began detailed preparations in order to provide the English public the opportunity to mourn their hero.

River Thames Nelson's funeral flotilla
Illustration of the flotilla that accompanied Nelson’s funeral procession from Greenwich Hospital to Whitehall on 8 January 1806.

Nelson’s body had been preserved in a casket filled with brandy for the journey back to London, and on 21 December 1805 was placed, as instructed in his will, in a special coffin made from the wood of the French ship, L’orient. L’orient had been a French battleship blown up at the Battle of the Nile. It would appear that when Nelson wrote his will he was conscious of his public status and his preference for a plain coffin significantly made from the L’orient wood, served to remind the public of his navel prowess. However, for the funeral ‘event’ the plain wooden coffin was encased in an elaborate gilded black casket. During the three days of the lying in state (4th to 6th January 1806) at Greenwich Hospital it is estimated that over 100,000 people came to pay their last respects. Then on the 8th January 1806 the coffin was transported up the River Thames to Whitehall by the King’s Barge accompanied by a flotilla of boats forming the Grand River Procession.

Nelson's funeral at St Paul's
Illustration of the arrival of Nelson’s funeral procession at St Paul’s, City of London.
Print at National Maritime Museum.

Nelson heraldic panel
One of six heraldic panels specially commissioned for the black velvet pall used to cover Nelson’s coffin during the Grand Procession from Greenwich to Whitehall.
The following day the coffin was transported in a procession through the crowd-lined streets of London culminating in a funeral service at the nation’s church, St Paul’s in the City of London. Along with Nelson’s relatives all types of dignitaries attended the service, but neither Emma Hamilton nor their daughter, Horatia, were invited. The coffin was carried on a funeral car designed to look like HMS Victory and covered with a black velvet pall with the white ensign from HMS Victory draped over the coffin. Sailors from HMS Victory accompanied the coffin into St Paul’s and at some point during the funeral service the white ensign was torn into pieces by the sailors and shared out between them. These pieces were some of the earliest Nelson mementos.

Nelson's funeral car illustration A contemporary illustration of Nelson’s funeral car designed to look like HMS Victory. The special heraldic panels are shown and I have seen the black velvet drape with the Regency gilded lettering ‘TRAFALGAR’. It was donated to the Sailor’s Home Museum on Great Yarmouth’s Marine Parade in 1861.

Over the following two centuries Nelson has remained a significant national hero and during this time all kinds of memorabilia has been made and collected, and is still manufactured to this day.

Fascination, interest and historical research continues and the latest findings are to feature in the National Maritime Museum’s new Nelson, Navy, Nation gallery which opens, today, 21st October 2013, the 208th anniversary of the battle.

The Reith Lectures – Grayson Perry on ‘Art’

This morning the BBC broadcast the first of this year’s Reith Lectures on Radio 4. Traditionally, the Reith Lectures are given by a well-known and leading figure in a specific field tackling a prominent and contemporary issue within that field. There is an extensive archive of past series of lectures available on the BBC website.

This year’s series, “Playing to the Gallery”, is given by the Turner Prize winning artist Grayson Perry. (A previous post of mine discusses his ‘Hogarthian’ tapestry series.)

As an artist making contemporary pieces that carry subversive messages Grayson Perry uses the traditional craft forms of pottery or tapestry. His work is both popular and highly respected. Proposed with some glee as well as seriousness, he sets out to answer the significant question of who validates art. It is the theme for his first lecture called, “Democracy Has Bad Taste”. The lecture is a half hour talk with a 15 minute Q&A at the end. It is an easy listen as Grayson Perry fluently and amusingly covers the interrelationship between the different groups, artists, dealers, collectors, curators, media commentators and the public that make up the received consensus.

During the lecture he mentions painting and sculpture, but also discusses the significance of ‘found’ art (objet trouvé – Marcel Duchamp) and also the rise of performance art. He admits to bringing an autobiographical overview to the questions he poses and divulges his preference as a school boy for Victorian Narrative art such as works by Frith.

Derby Day - Frith
Derby Day – William Powell Frith, RA, 1858. Original in Tate Gallery, London.

But a surprising insight into what Grayson Perry personally values now as ‘great art’ was revealed in the Q&A when Art Historian and Tate Trustee, David Ekserdjian, asked, “If we could give you as a present, a work of art, what would you take?” Interestingly, he chose a sixteenth-century painting, Bruegel’s ‘Procession to Calvary’.

Bruegel Brueghel Procession to Calvary
The Procession to Calvary – Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1564)
Oil on oak panel
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
The Web Gallery of Art

Grayson then quipped, “You could probably get a tea towel of it, it’s that popular!”
Actually, the first image on my Google search for Bruegel’s ‘The Procession to Calvery’ 1564, was not a tea towel, but a T shirt for $24.99.

Bruegel  art t shirt
Not a tea towel but a T shirt!
From http://www.yizzam.com

The full lecture “Democracy Has Bad Taste” is available for one year.

Little note – I have to admit to being especially interested when I read reports of Grayson Perry discussing various aspects of his young life in Essex. He spent some time living in a small village called Bicknacre (hence the name of the pot – top right) and I grew up in Bicknacre’s adjoining village, Danbury.

Josiah Wedgwood and the Portland Vase

Portland Vase
The Portland Vase – the original glass-cameo vase on display at the British Museum.
In 1784 Sir William Hamilton, the diplomat and polymath brought a Roman antique vase to England where he sold it to the Duchess of Portland. This first century Roman cameo-glass vessel became known as the Portland Vase. Although Roman (thought to date from 5-25 AD) it is not mentioned in the historical record until the beginning of the 17th century. Hamilton bought it from the family Barberini who had owned it for 150 years whilst he was British Ambassador to the Court of Naples.
portland vase displayed
The Portland Vase in its display case. It is 24 cm (9 1/2″) tall and 17.7 cm (7″) in diameter.

In 1786, the vase became the property of the Third Duke of Portland who lent the vase to Josiah Wedgwood. Wedgwood was already a renowned ‘star’ of the times and a very successful businessman having made and developed major innovations in earthenware and stoneware pottery. He had developed a cream-coloured glaze over a cream-coloured body known as Creamware and when in 1765 Queen Charlotte commissioned a service from him the range was renamed ‘Queen’s Ware’. From 1772 he began work on developing what we now know as Jasperware. Jasperware is a durable, unglazed porcelain with bas-relief white cameo decoration. Metallic oxide colouring agents are used to stain the white Jasper and Jasperware is usually light blue, but it can also be pale green, lilac, yellow, black or dark blue. And, it was with this dark blue that Wedgwood chose to make his copy. It took four years of trials and experimentation until a reproduction of the Portland Vase was completed in 1790. The British Museum also has a Wedgwood Jasperware copy of the Portland Vase on display in the rooms showing 18th century ceramics.

The original Portland Vase and the Wedgwood copy became an 18th century cultural hit taking London ‘society’ by storm and made Jasperware the most sought after ceramics in England and on the Continent. It isn’t entirely fair to make a direct comparison between the glass-cameo and the porcelain vases as being made with different materials there are different restrictions, but the Wedgwood version is a beautiful piece even if it isn’t quite as detailed and delicate as the original.

The Jasperware Portland Vase is a technical triumph and copies allow the beauty of the original to be shared. This is also an example of where the inspiration to copy a work from antiquity furthered the technical knowledge of the 18th century. It was such a success that it also secured the ever resourceful and inventive Josiah Wedgwood a permanent place in the history of ceramics. A famous name that still survives with Wedgwood Jasperware products made and collected in the 21st century.


Prized Silk Rediscovered during the Biannual Wardrobe Rotation

black mourning crape crepe
Antique silk mourning cape made from Norwich Crape, circa 1890.

Please feel free to laugh at the somewhat quaint way some of us choose to live our lives, but twice a year I reorganise my wardrobe and generally have a sort and tidy session. It’s a boring chore, but last weekend it ended on a positive note when I came across one of my forgotten vintage/antique textiles. Actually, antique is the correct term to use as this Norwich Crape mourning cape is over 100 years old.

norwich crape company bridewell
Framed poster for the Norwich Crape Company which is now at the Bridewell Museum, Norwich

Norwich is an old city and during the medieval period it was England’s Second City (after London) with its wealth being built on the woollen cloth trade. Fine woollen cloth was a premium product exported to Europe. Weavers were based in Norwich and in the surrounding Norfolk villages and the famous worsted woven wool originates from the village of Worstead in North East Norfolk. The importance of cloth to the economics of the city is an interesting, long tale, but essentially comes to an end at the close of the nineteenth century. (Update March 2016 – An accessible and well researched account used to be able at norwichtextiles.org, but since the UK extensive funding cuts this website is no longer in existence. Ironically it appears to have gone the same way as the Norwich textile industry. A small local charity is attempting to provide some historical information, but it’s more geared to an ‘informed tourist’ than any serious research. And, unfortunately, as I write this, the most informative book ‘Made in Norwich: 700 Years of Textile Heritage’ by Thelma Morris, is unavailable.)

Norwich’s final notable textile product during the Victorian period had been Norwich Crape. Crape was the term used for black silk or imitation black silk used to make women’s mourning dress (the term crape comes from crepe a type of crinkled silk). According to Thelma Morris at the Norwich Textiles Org – ‘crape is a crimped plain woven silk cloth. The crinkling was produced by weaving a soft weft on a hard twisted warp, the latter causing the cloth to ‘curl’ in the finishing process when it was passed over a heated roller engraved with the desired pattern of the finished crape.’

crinkled silk crape
Detail of the fine crinkled silk showing a translucent quality.

Cloth for mourning dress was an important trade as an upstanding Victorian was expected to wear black for a period of two years’ after the death of a close family member. This practice fell out of fashion as the etiquette of mourning became less rigid in the early twentieth century and with the decline in demand for black silk the production of Norwich Crape ceased. I think my mourning silk cape must have been used by a woman who was expected to be out and visiting, but still in black, as it decorated with a delicate pattern of tiny black glass beads. Despite it being quite fragile due to its age I have worn this over an evening dress and as with all silk it does look better in real life than in the photos!

black glass beads detail
Norwich crape decorated with tiny black glass beads.


You might not have guessed, but, I do like old stuff and I have this battered old Victorian mahogany wardrobe which was the only furniture I could fit into a small, cottage bedroom I once had – so I’ve got used to it even though you can’t hang clothes in it in the normal 21st-century way. Consequently, each spring and autumn I swap all my clothing round as I change from winter to summer clothes and then from summer back to winter outfits! Well, it helps to pass the time.

old fashioned wardrobe hooks
An awkward arrangement.