A Derelict Delight – St Michael’s

StM-roof

According to my copy of ‘The Popular Guide to Suffolk Churches – No 2 Central Suffolk‘ by D P Mortlock, St Michael’s Church in Upper Orwell Street, Ipswich, might not have an impressive exterior, but a visitor should not be put off because “within is a beautifully spacious setting for worship in the C19 Evangelical tradition”.

StMichaels-derelict-glass

As you can see from the photographs since the publication of the guide nearly 30 years ago St Michael’s has suffered extensive fire damage and no longer has any spacious interior. It is now derelict. In one of those twists of fate the irony is that in 1880 the first foundation stones of the church were laid on a site previously cleared of dilapidated, ‘slum’ cottages especially to make way for a brand new church. The architect of St Michael’s was Edward Fearnley Bisshopp and this was his only complete church. Within the remains there is still some original stained glass in two of the three lancets of the east window. It was made by Victorian glassmakers John Underwood & Sons. It shows St Paul, St John and St Luke oddly reversed as unexpectedly viewed from the exterior.

John-Underhill-and-Sons-Glass-saints

The three saints filling the other lancet are St Matthew, St Peter and St Andrew although it is hard to distinguish their attributes. Within the general body of Victorian stained glass this work is unremarkable and is of a plain workmanlike utility, but its mere survival amongst the ruins has endowed it with a special quality.

StM-glass

The overwhelming drama of the roofless church is the unexpected effect of seeing the exposed, jewel-like glass illuminated by bright, clear early evening light from the inside.

StMichaels-full-evening-sun

More photos of the interior of the church immediately after the 2011 suspected arson attack can be seen here.

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Stealing from the past – painting Silvia

Agnes-Ashe-clover-pink-close-up copyLiving in East Anglia there are many parish churches that still retain both medieval and Victorian church art. Painted rood screens and colourful stained glass provide a wealth of inspiration for my silk scarf designs.

I like to steal ideas for motifs and also re-work various colour combinations. Often I will just use a tiny part of a much larger stained glass window whether its from a Tudor pane or details ornamenting a Victorian light.

And, once I have created the whole design and transferred it to the silk I then steal colour combinations from a completely different medium such as the oil on board paintings of local medieval rood screens.

The finished work may not obviously look either Victorian or medieval in style, but if you look closely you may be able to spot a motif or two and recognise the ‘dirty pinks’ from the painting of St Lawrence’s robe.Silvia-square

Available from my online shop Agnes Ashe.

More than a museum – ostentatious Victorian living

Leighton House Museum in Kensington, London, is a sharp reminder that bling and an overt display of conspicuous consumption is certainly not a 21st-century phenomenon. This glorious, ornate house was the private home and studio of Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-96). Leighton was a painter, sculptor and illustrator, and a leading Victorian neoclassicist who was so successful during his lifetime he was knighted in 1886 and then ennobled in 1896 by Queen Victoria.

His home, the house at 12 Holland Park Road, was designed and built by George Aitchison under Leighton’s personal direction and was to reflect his, Leighton’s, premier status as arbiter of taste. And, at the same time the house was to augment his successful career as an artist.

'Flaming June' by Frederic Leighton.  Oil on canvas. 120 cm x 120 cm.  Museo de Arte de Ponce, Ponce, Puerto Rico.
‘Flaming June’ by Frederic Leighton.
Oil on canvas. 120 cm x 120 cm.
Museo de Arte de Ponce, Ponce, Puerto Rico.

Art historically he is known as a neoclassicist however he did associate with some of the other famous Victorian ‘art celebrities’ of the period such as the Pre-Raphaelites Rossetti, Millais and Burne-Jones. Walking round the Arab Hall, the Narcissus Hall, the drawing room, the Silk Room and the studio you can imagine how sensational it must have been to have attended a social gathering hosted by Sir Frederic Leighton.

IMGP3500

The current exhibition ‘A Victorian Obsession’ (ending on Monday, 6 April 2015) is comprised of 52 paintings that have been collected over the past 20 years by the Spanish born, Juan Antonio Pérez Simón, one of Mexico’s most successful businessmen. The art, mostly by Leighton and Alma-Tadema with a few canvasses from other artists of the same period, is displayed throughout the house. In my opinion hanging such an exhibition in this rich, original interior enhances the viewing experience and also provides the essential context for looking at paintings that are often viewed as saccharin and distant from our contemporary ‘less is more’ taste.

Saint Valentine’s Eve and the Victorians of Norwich

Make-your-own-Vic-style-ValentinesCelebrating Saint Valentine’s Eve – a new idea perhaps, but not so, in fact an old local Norwich jollification. During the evening of February 13th wrapped gifts labelled with ‘Good Morrow Valentine’ were left on doorsteps all over the city.  Anonymous admirers then knocked on front doors and hastily retreated. In 1862 one local resident Helen Downes commented, 

‘We do not here content ourselves with lace-cut papers, but everybody sends everybody real presents anonymously; and, as on all gift-bestowing occasions, the children come in for the lion-share.’

During the Victorian times in Norwich the weeks before Valentine’s Eve found the shops so busy with extra trade that additional temporary sales assistants were hired. The folks of Norwich were shopping for Valentine’s gifts. The grander gifts on offer included workboxes, vases, tea caddies and umbrellas or for a very lucky lady a ‘Norwich Shawl’.

Norwich Argus newspaper
Local retailers advertise their Valentine’s gifts in the Norwich Argus, Saturday, 5th February 1876.

However, the most typical gifts were gloves and perfume together with the familiar Valentine’s day card. Victorian Valentine’s cards were elaborate affairs with embossing, paper lace, feathers and even hand stitching.

According to the information at Norwich’s Bridewell Museum both young and old took part in celebrating St Valentine’s Eve. The museum is dedicated to the history of Norwich and as part of displays showing the story of local commerce it has a superb collection of high quality Victorian hand stitched Valentine’s card. Similar examples are sometimes sold nowadays by antique dealers and I’ve also found a few vintage survivors (pictured above and below) on Etsy from Moon Maiden Emporium, The Jewel Mystique and SCDVintage.

I couldn’t help but think how we so often assume we are living in the most consumer conscious times, but nothing is new and the Victorian Norwich shopkeepers obviously spotted a lucrative opportunity over a hundred years ago. Of course, you could just have a go at making your own version! (Sorry no delicate sewing with silk and lace trim just wrapping paper, doilies and reproduction Victorian scraps.)

Vic-style-homemade-Valentines

Creativity, inspiration and mining the past

Sometimes it’s colour combinations, sometimes it’s motifs and sometimes it’s just the overall essence of an image that provides a creative spur when searching for inspiration. We all do it and the Victorians’ passion for mining their past is proudly visible in their cultural output.

Most of the stained glass windows that decorate St Edmundsbury Cathedral in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, are the work of three leading stained glass firms of the nineteenth century. Stained glass by Clayton and Bell, Hardman & Co and C E Kempe fill the cathedral windows with their work inspired by long-gone and unnamed medieval craftsmen. There is, however, one window whose lights are not Victorian, but date from the late medieval period. At first glance maybe they all look the same, but one has a different ‘feel’! (I’ve labelled it).

Pink kitsch – Victorian sentimentality and seaside souvenirs

Pink-shoe-Yarmouth-Souvenir

After Christmas and the New Year we are all encouraged to turn our attention to holidays. During the Victorian era with the coming of the railways more and more people could afford to take a holiday. And, a stay at the seaside became a family treat. Great Yarmouth on the east coast of Norfolk with its beautiful long sandy beach rapidly developed to attract the ‘new’ holidaymaker. Naturally, at the end of their visit people wanted to buy souvenirs as little reminders of their stay, and a porcelain plate decorated with pictures of various seaside attractions made the perfect keepsake.

pink souvenir plate Great Yarmouth
Printed transfers of ‘The Beach at Yarmouth’, ‘Town Hall Yarmouth’ and ‘Britannia Pier Yarmouth’ on a lustre pink souvenir plate. (Late Victorian)
Time and Tide Museum, Gt Yarmouth, Norfolk.

Plates, cups and saucers, mugs, jugs, and unusually, ceramic shoes were decorated with an appropriate topographical scene transferred on to white porcelain or earthenware. Coloured glazes then finished off the pieces. Glazes of pale blue and green were used, but pink was the most popular colour towards the end of the 19th century.

The popular Victorian preference for saccharin images of young children is used on this 'A Present From Yarmouth' plate. Time and Tide Museum,  Great Yarmouth, Norfolk.
The popular Victorian preference for saccharin images of young children is used on this ‘A Present From Yarmouth’ plate.
Time and Tide Museum,
Great Yarmouth, Norfolk.

However, a visitor didn’t have to buy the standard view of the seaside pier, they could always choose a ceramic adorned with the ever popular theme pictures of children.

The above pieces sum up in three objects so much about how we, in the 21st century, view the everyday Victorian and their questionable taste, but pause a moment and note that pink kitsch is alive and kicking today – not least in this pair of pink resin reindeers.

pink reindeers
Two pink resin reindeers curtesy of the shop ‘Holy Kitsch!’, Sydney, Australia.
(I just couldn’t bring myself to post pics of any of the truly, truly kitsch reindeers currently available – plastic, fluffy and cartoony)

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.

AND . . . THAT WARDROBE BUSINESS

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.