Monday, 24 May 2010

Stockingers and Croppers

The only good thing about having a fluey-throaty-coldy thing is that when you have gone past the unable-to-lift-aching-head-from-pillow-stage you can take advantage of the strangely emptied hours to read Very Long Books that under other circumstances might take months to finish. I’ve taken advantage of my not-yet-done-with-me cold to read several books connected with a novel I’m working on, and in particular the work of E P Thompson. I’ve galloped through Whigs and Hunters and enjoyed it enormously, and now I’m on Customs in Common, a collection of studies looking at how the customs and culture of working people resisted the march of what the ruling elite – and later historians - liked to give such names as enlightenment, reform, or progress.

I find Thompson a very refreshing read. It’s partly because it’s an antidote to the thing called Social and Economic History I was taught at school. It was not merely that this was dull – all those spinning jennies, mechanical threshers, and fattening pigs – but that I was troubled by some vague feeling that the whole thing was somehow fraudulent. In this history (as I remember it) everything was subsumed into the great scheme “progress”. Luddites and other rioters throughout the eighteenth century were silly fellows with no grasp of the significance of the events in which they were caught up. They rose up in the text books, burly chaps in corduroy trousers and big boots who moved and spoke very slowly. They pounded away ineffectually at the magnificent machines their superiors and betters had introduced and when they had done their backwards, blinkered worst those S and B, with patient benevolence, picked up the pieces and pressed on with their reforms.

It just didn’t ring true. I’d already done Roundheads and Cavaliers and the Battle of Blenheim. I knew there was always another side to the story. But not in the tale of Progress. Something was being left out.

It is thanks to historians like Thompson that that something has been put back in. His aim, he said, was “to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ hand-loom weaver, the ‘utopian’ artisan, even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity”. In his marvellous, passionate, often satirical, sometimes angry prose he demands that we look a bit closer, dig a bit deeper, ask a few more questions. Ask: is that the whole story?

Take the case of Mary Houghton, wife of John, who in 1788 was prosecuted for trespass when she entered a farmer’s fields to exercise gleaners’ rights. The lawyers argued about property rights, Mosaic law, the limits of charity, and she lost the case. Yawn. But Thompson wasn’t convinced. He suspected there was a lot more going on than simple trespass on a farmer’s land. He dug a bit deeper and a complex and fascinating story emerged, a tangle of relationships and interests, power and vulnerability, loss and gain, a story that takes us from Timworth to Bengal. And if that sounds like the blurb on the back of a novel, it’s deliberate.

Historian Peter King took up Thompson’s tale and dug deeper still. Between them they pieced together something of Mary Houghton’s life. She lived in the parish of Timworth, Suffolk, which was almost entirely owned by Earl Cornwallis. She was the daughter of a local husbandman. In 1762 she had an illegitimate daughter. Two months later she married John Houghton, a shoemaker with dissenting connections from a neighbouring village. Through a small property owned by Mary’s father the couple had access to a number of common rights, such as pasture. They must have made enough to live on as they paid at least one rate and did not draw parish funds.

Then they made the fatal mistake of blocking Cornwallis’s enclosure plans. The court case followed; the legal costs ruined them. They fell into debt and were forced to sell their property. It was purchased by Cornwallis. The Houghtons lost everything: their land, their common rights and their home, which Cornwallis demolished as part of his enclosing programme. The last we hear of Mary is that she is a widow living on the parish. As for Cornwallis, as Governor General of Bengal he went on to impose on India the same pattern of property rights and ownership that resulted in the ruin of the Houghtons with, in Sir Charles Metcalfe’s words, the destruction of “hundreds and thousands of proprietors”.

Mary Houghton. What couldn’t an artist make of her! The novelist could give her madness, genius, illness, lovers, disappointing sons or beautiful daughters (though I don’t think such wild embellishments necessary). The painter could portray her as the Amazonian leader of rebellion marching at the head of her sisters to assert their rights in the land. The quilt maker could pay tribute with an ear of corn on a square tucked away in a harvest pattern. For Mary Houghton’s is a great story, and it is thanks to E P Thompson that we have it.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Horace and Selima

On 6 May 2007 Professor Sir Christopher Frayling unveiled a blue plaque at the London home of illustrator Edward Ardizzone. He spoke of his “passion for illustrated books”, which he also described as “an under-rated art”. Almost to the day three years later in Bristol he proved with his latest book, Horace Walpole’s Cat, that if it is true that illustration is an under-rated art, it is unjustly so.

Frayling was speaking on 7 May 2010 at an event which was part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas. This intellectual bash had been long overdue for Bristol. Cheltenham has its festival, Bath has its festival, but until 2005 Bristol had nothing comparable. Now we do, and it really is worth having. Topics to come this year include religious faith, art in the First World War, feminism, capitalism and lying (I wonder if the last two go together?), and you can be sure that I’ll be going to as many talks as I can. Though, just to prove how highbrow I really am, my favourite event so far is still Gerry Anderson on Thunderbirds in 2008. I loved Thunderbirds (and Fireball XL5 and Stingray) when I was a child. They seemed to me like the first programmes that actually told children proper stories with goodies, baddies, danger, suspense, and explosions.

But back to Horace Walpole and his cat.

Horace Walpole’s Cat tells the story – or several stories – of Thomas Gray’s Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes. It’s a wonderful exercise in connections, criss-crossing the threads between Johnson, Gray, and Walpole; cats, dogs and fishes; Gothic design, Chinoiserie, and Georgian interiors; society, art and pornography. Frayling pounces now on one connection, now another, with gleeful, gossipy relish, the breathless did you know? of the enthusiast. Did you know that Hodge was a name typically applied to an English countryman? Did you know oysters were cheap in Johnson’s day? Did you know that tabby was originally a kind of silk?

What’s particularly charming about it all is that Frayling also makes connections with the personal. In his prologue he tells us how his own goldfish, leaving Walpole out of his thesis, and a college cat called Hodge are interwoven with the goldfish, Walpole and cats in the book.

Published by Thames & Hudson, it’s a beautifully produced book. The paper is pale cream and carries the aptly chosen illustrations well. The book reproduces illustrations to the poem by Richard Bentley, William Blake and Kathleen Hale, together with Frayling’s commentaries on these wonderful and very different responses to the text. (There’s a brilliantly weird drawing by Bentley, by the way, in the Victoria and Albert’s Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill exhibition which I wrote about last time – A Prospect of Vapourland – get a glimpse of it here -

After the event I asked Sir Christopher Frayling to sign my copy of the book and we chatted about Walpole, as you do. He’s a very entertaining speaker and if you get the chance to see him, take it. Failing that, buy the book and enjoy!

For the Bristol Festival of Ideas see website

For Sir Christopher Frayling on Edward Ardizzone see

Monday, 3 May 2010

Strawberry Hill for ever

Last week I went to London for a day to look at a couple of exhibitions connected with the eighteenth century. My morning was spent at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill exhibition. This was a wonderful display of objects from the Thames-side house, as well as fascinating drawings and plans of the property showing not only how it was designed but something of what it looked like when Walpole lived in it.

What struck me was the number of objects in Walpole’s collection that were wrongly attributed. Francis I’s gilt suit of armour was never worn by the French king; a painting of the children of Henry VIII actually depicts three children of Christian II of Denmark; a portrait of Frances Duchess of Suffolk and Adrian Stokes shows Lady Dacre and her son Gregory Fiennes; early sixteenth century ebony furniture dates from some 150 years later; and coins from the reign of Elizabeth I are fake.

Of course, Walpole didn’t have access to modern scientific methods and scholarship, and like modern collectors he could be taken in by dodgy dealers. An inscription on a medieval comb linking it to Saxon St Bertha, for example, was added in the seventeenth century. Still, the errors were curious. Walpole had an enormous library – 7,000 books – yet in spite of this resource he was still unable to date and identify many of the items in his collection.

I like to think that he simply preferred his own, more colourful descriptions. I imagine that Frances Duchess of Suffolk was a much more racy prospect than Lady Dacre. Mother of Lady Jane Grey, she married a man who was not only 16 years younger but was her master of horse into the bargain. Mind you, Lady Dacre’s husband was hanged for murder so maybe there wouldn’t have been much in it…

Walpole didn’t get everything wrong, of course. The black mirror that Dr Dee used to summon spirits did belong to the good doctor. It’s a fascinating object and there’s something genuinely disconcerting about it: when you look into it you see your own ghost. What Walpole didn’t know was that it was Aztec. I suspect he would have found the idea that it had belonged to an Aztec priest much more exciting than that an Elizabethan necromancer once owned it.

There are many other wonderful things to see – paintings by Hogarth and Peter Lely, miniatures by Nicholas Hilliard, Cardinal Wolsey’s hat. I loved the Rowlandson prints, especially the antiquarian starting in amazement at Strawberry House – or the two maids peeping over the wall. If you can’t get to the V & A to see the print you can look at it on line – see You can view many other items in this on-line catalogue of the Strawberry Hill Collection – this fantastic website has already been added to my favourites!

I watched a short video about the restoration work at the mansion, which reopens this autumn. I’m looking forward to visiting it, and will be keeping an eye on the Friends of Strawberry Hill website ( for updates. In the meantime, curbing my impatience, I pottered over to Lincoln’s Inn Fields and the home of another renowned collector, Sir John Soane.

The particular attraction was their exhibition Mrs Delany and her Circle. Mrs Delany was a great friend of my literary heroine, Frances Burney. Miss Burney (as she then was) described her meeting with the old lady on 19 January 1783, when she was shown the “new art which she had invented”. This was the “staining paper of all possible colours, and then cutting it out, so finely and delicately, that when it is pasted on paper or vellum, it has all the appearance of being pencilled, except that by being raised, it has still a richer and more natural look. The effect is extremely beautiful. She invented it at seventy-five!”. Miss Burney adds “They are all from nature, and consist of the most curious flowers, plants, and weeds, that are to be found. She has been supplied with patterns from all the great gardens, and all the great florists in the kingdom.”

Beautiful indeed is the effect, and something more besides. Mrs Delany’s “paper mosaicks” as she called them are noted not only for their beauty but for their botanical accuracy. No longer regarded as a leisured lady’s time-filling pursuit, they are recognised as accurate studies, many of which were based on the dissection of specimens and the meticulous reproduction of their constituent parts. She annotated the pictures using the Linnaean classification. Sir Joseph Banks, who sent her plants from Kew Gardens, paid tribute to their accuracy when he said that he could learn exactly what a plant looked like from looking at Mrs Delany’s flowers.

The exhibition in the Soane Gallery sought to bring out this aspect of Mrs Delany’s work by placing her in a botanical tradition and allowing her work to transcend the level of feminine accomplishments. Truly, the works are striking and yet…I couldn’t help being a little dismayed by the image of a woman fussing with bits of paper, scissors, and glue, nor stop myself wondering why botanical paintings and sketches weren’t accurate enough depictions of plants without all this tiddling about. Heaven knows women’s art has been insulted enough, but if this “new art” was indeed meant as a serious botanical exercise I couldn’t see what advantage it had over pre-existing methods. Perhaps I’ll understand it if I read the book that accompanies the exhibition, Mrs Delany and Her Circle by Mark Laird and Alicia Weisberg-Roberts. One more to add to the reading list!

I have to confess, though, that I found it all a bit too prissy for my taste. By way of redressing the balance I went to have a look at the Hogarths. A Rake’s Progress and the wonderfully topical An Election soon restored my equilibrium. This done, I went to the Wallace Collection restaurant and treated myself to afternoon tea.

Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill is on until 4 July 2010 – see

Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill Collection – on line catalogue –

For news about the restoration of Strawberry Hill see

Mrs Delany and Her Circle is on at The John Soane Museum until 1 May 2010 – see

Mrs Delany’s flower pictures were bequeathed to the British Museum in 1897 and you can see them on line – though flat images can’t convey the full effect – at¤tPage=2