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Archive for February, 2016

On this day in 1809, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane was destroyed by fire. Theatres were always burning down, so nothing really unusual in fact. What made this conflagration different, is the involvement of the magnificent Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Dublin-born, Harrow-educated Sheridan is one of my favourite Londoners. A duellist, MP, playwright, impresario and much besides, he obtained full ownership of Drury Lane in 1778. In 1791 he demolished the 120 year old building which had opened in 1674 (replacing the short-lived 1663 original), and built a fabulous modern theatre more to his liking and ambition. Designed by Henry Holland, it opened in 1794, apparently with the latest fire-prevention features. Here is Rowlandson and Pugin’s depiction of its interior, only a year before disaster struck.
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Sheridan himself witnessed the destruction of his beloved theatre from the street, glass of wine in hand, remarking laconically: “A man may surely be allowed to take a glass of wine by his own fireside.”

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A guest post by London Historians member Robin Reynolds.
You can see higher resolution versions of all images in this article in our Flickr space, here

Visscher’s view of London has long been a puzzle. If, as many people believe, he never visited the city, how was his panorama researched, and by whom? The further puzzle is why did his neighbour and rival, Ludovicus Hondius, publish the London panorama when Visscher himself was already an established and successful publisher?

We may never know for sure, but perhaps there’s enough, in the many engravings and etchings that he left behind, for us to understand something about the man, and to make a reasonable guess as to how the London engraving was compiled.

Visscher's London Panorama of 1616

Visscher’s London Panorama of 1616

Existing documentation allows us to sketch his life in outline. Son of a shipyard carpenter, he was born in Amsterdam around 1587. So he’s 13 at the turn of the century, and 16 when Queen Elizabeth I dies, to be succeeded by the Stuart King James I.

Visscher marries Neel Floris in 1608, and the following year they buy a house in the city centre, where he bases his studio and publishing operation. So already, aged just 22, he’s a thrusting businessman, originating new work and reviving worn-out second-hand plates sold off by other publishers. (In those days an engraved copper plate was limited to 1,000 prints or so before the grooves faded under the weight of the press. Visscher’s craftsmen would recut the grooves and print off new editions.)

He runs a highly productive workshop up to his death in 1652, and he hands on to his son one of the most successful publishing businesses in Europe.

His own achievements as an engraver are humbling. His series of small landscapes capturing the rural life and scenery of the Low Countries are the subject of academic studies today. He produced posters – for example promoting a lottery to fund an old people’s home. The creation of polders – large-scale drainage and land reclamation projects – began in his time, and he produced maps of the new farmland, in which he promoted the precision of the surveyors’ measurements alongside the quality of his own work.

Dutch countryside by Visscher_500

Dutch countryside by Visscher.

His most profitable line was publishing Reformation bibles, and his most spectacular work is Leo Belgicus, a stunning statement of the defiance of the protestant Low Countries in their long-running and bloody conflict with Catholic Spain.

Then there are his city panoramas. Not many prints survive, but we know that at least 28 came out of the Visscher workshop.

And finally there is his most intriguing line, news pictures.

Together, these works help us to picture the man and to get some measure of his personality.

Amsterdam’s Kalverstraat, where he lived and worked, was the publishing hub of the city, and a shared sense of humour and self-mockery seems to have attached itself to this emerging industry. Hondius names his workshop The Watchful Dog (Hondius = de Hondt = dog). Dancker Danckerts calls his publishing house In Gratitude. Likewise Visscher makes a joke of his own name, adopting as his trademark a fisherman with two rods. The figure appears again and again in different works, so perhaps this image – a cross between Father Christmas and a garden gnome – is how he saw himself.

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On the face of it he’s a likeable fellow, referred to fondly in a poem by one of the writers with whom he collaborated:

‘The young should rack their brains
And with great diligence strive for knowledge,
As did Visscher, who teaches in his prints
How one may become a master in this art’

But to judge from his news prints, he’s far from being Father Christmas. He’s a Calvinist activist, supporting the House of Orange in the Dutch Revolt. He produces diagrams and illustrations of battles on land and at sea, and he revels in atrocities perpetrated by the Calvinists against their enemies.

Witness the fun he has over the execution of Hendrick Slatius, an Arminian protestant who plotted to kill the prince of Orange. As the sword falls, Slatius throws up his hands. One is sliced off and the other dangles by a thread. How do we know this? Visscher gives us a grisly close-up. Another image shows the headless torso exposed for the crows high on a wooden plinth. Thoughtfully nailed to the perch beside him is the severed hand.

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Visscher produces a veritable comic strip of ensuing events. The body, head and hand are retrieved under cover of dark by friends unknown, and buried decently – albeit secretly – in a farm field. But not for long. The farmer’s plough turns up the coffin, and the bits, including the hand with its distinctive nail-hole, are dragged back to town.

Visscher has a final laugh as the body is reinstated. The clumsy handlers lose their grip, and the headless, naked body slips off its perch and dangles upside down.

That was in 1623. Seventeen years earlier, Visscher produced a news sheet depicting the execution of the Catholic Gunpowder Plotters in what is supposedly St Paul’s Churchyard, London. But, revealingly, the bodies are being chopped and burned by men in Dutch clothing against a Dutch townscape.

So we can say with certainty that in 1606 Visscher didn’t know what London or Londoners looked like. Ergo, he did not make sketches of Elizabethan London three or more years earlier.

The way Visscher went about his 1611 Amsterdam panorama tells us this is a man for the short cut. Rather than row across the river to make his own sketches, he buys the plates of a relatively sparse 1599 Amsterdam panorama by Pieter Bast, adds extra ships and foreground characters, and bish-bosh, we have what is probably his first wide city view.

Amsterdam panorama by Bast.

Amsterdam panorama by Bast.

Amsterdam panorama by Visscher

Amsterdam panorama by Visscher

I think this is further evidence that Visscher wouldn’t have taken time out to go to London, but I also think it’s where Visscher’s involvement in the London project begins.

The London project almost certainly belongs to the publisher, named as Ludovicus Hondius following the recent death of his father Jodocus Hondius. In fact Ludovicus would have been just 14 at the time, so in all probability his mother Colette (of the Van den Keere engraving family) was pulling the strings.

But it’s a solid guess that the idea originated with the late Jodocus, who was familiar with London and had substantial London connections. A Flemish cartographer and artist, Jodocus spent nine years in England, a refugee of the religious troubles in his homeland. In that time he hooked up with, among others, the seafaring hero Francis Drake. Two Drake portraits at the National Portrait Gallery are attributed to Hondius.

It’s possible that when he moved to Amsterdam in 1593, he took with him a sheaf of sketches of London, made from the top of St Mary Overie (today’s Southwark Cathedral). However it’s more likely that he remained in touch with artists in London, and was sent a sketched view, by an acquaintance unknown to us, of the city around the turn of the century.

Either way, nothing is done with those sketches until several years later. Possibly not until after Hondius’s death in 1612. By then Visscher’s Amsterdam panorama is in circulation, and no doubt doing well.

I fancy that at Number 9 Kalverstraat Visscher is thinking it’s time for another city panorama, while a few doors away Mrs Hondius is going through the papers of her late husband. She comes across the London sketches, knocks at Visscher’s door, and a deal is done. She supplies the sketches, Visscher does the engraving, she takes it to market.

Neither of them, evidently, takes much notice of content. That the royal barge is still flying the Tudor flag, 13 years into the reign of the Stuart King James, is neither here nor there. One of them – probably Mrs H – decides that for this first edition, there should be a tract of Latin text, lifted from William Camden’s Britannia, describing London in glorious terms. When the copy falls short, their solution is to drop in a few paragraphs about, of all things, glass-making, taken from Johan Pontanus’s recent History of Amsterdam. Again it doesn’t seem to matter that people might notice.

Visscher London with Latin

Visscher London with Latin

Some thirty years after Visscher’s death, the family produced a catalogue of the prints they had on offer. The inventory includes 28 four-plate city panoramas, from Lisbon to Constantinople, Augsburg to Vlissingen, Rome to Cracow.

It seems unlikely that Visscher engraved all of these himself, and still less likely that he researched them in person, on location. But in the world that explorers such as Drake had opened up, there was undoubtedly an appetite for the exotic, and Visscher exploited it to the full.

You can see higher resolution versions of all images in this article in our Flickr space, here


Visscher Redrawn, the brainchild of Robin Reynolds, is a project in which Robin drew a panorama for 2016 from the exact viewpoint of Visscher’s famous 1616 version. Both images are on display at the Guildhall Art Gallery from Saturday 20 February until November. Robin will be speaking at a London Historians evening event at the gallery on 8 March. Over a glass of wine. Event details and booking here.

London panorama by Reynolds, 2016.

London panorama by Reynolds, 2016.

 

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old pennyNew pee. Such an ugly phrase, introduced this day in 1971 with the decimalisation of the currency. It was, I suppose, to differentiate it from the outgoing old pennies – or pence: huge copper items which carried every monarch’s head from Queen Victoria onwards. On the reverse was the image of Britannia and the year. In written form, the old penny was “D/d” as in the Roman denarius. Most of them were tarnished dark brown or black. The old Victorian, Edwardian or George V ones were heavily worn.

Cui bono? Well, I suppose it was easier to teach and to learn.

But what did we lose? We lost the thrupenny bit and the Tanner (6d). We lost the bob (12d), the sov (sovereign, old pound: archaic), the crown (5s = 60d) and the half-crown (2/6 = 30d). We lost the ten bob note – that’s 50p to younger readers. Thankfully the word “quid” has survived. But let’s face it, it was an altogether more colourful currency than that which we have today.

Why did we have to learn the twelve times table? That’s the reason. You had to be pretty good at basic mental arithmetic to know you had the right change when you bought your newspaper. I contend that our complex currency made us a more numerate people before 1971.

Somehow the guinea survived, a wonderful anachronism. It remains the currency unit of choice at livestock sales and the Turf. It is worth, bizarrely, £1.05, or 21 shillings old money. The guinea was introduced during the reign of Charles II. Struck from pure west African gold (hence Guinea), it had an initial value of 20 shillings. But as the value of gold increased over time, its value went up to as much as 27 shillings. Eventually in the early 19C it was pegged at 21s. Strictly the currency of the wealthy (few ordinary people had more than a quid to spend back then), the guinea was used in horse and livestock sales, gambling, the art market and so on.

I realise that all this makes me sound a grumpy old reactionary: I don’t care.

Long live the mighty guinea!

More on the guinea.

 

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Benjamin Franklin in London: the British Life of America’s Founding Father by George Goodwin.

Benjamin Franklin in London by George GoodwinThe great American Founding Father and scientist, Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790), spent 20 of his long 84 years living in London. I suspect not many people know that. One hopes, with the publication of this excellent new book, more will come to do so.

Franklin spent three spells here, each distinctly different, even the two latter ones in the 1750s to 1770s which were separated by an 18 month spell back home in Philadelphia.

First, in 1724, he arrived as a very young man of 18 ostensibly on a business mission which turned out to be something of a fool’s errand. But as a fully trained and skilled printer, he soon found work in the Little Britain area, then a nexus of the print trade. Barely a decade following the first daily newspaper, there could barely have been a more exciting time to be a printer in London. This was the London of Defoe and Addison and young Ben wallowed in it, hanging out in the coffee houses, soaking up the atmosphere, the intellectual buzz, a vibrant, competitive and intellectual landscape like nowhere else in the world. As a supremely confident and un-selfconcious American, he approached Sir Hans Sloane and sold him an asbestos purse, still in the collection of the Natural History museum. While he was diligent and hard working, he enjoyed hanging out with young fellows who were anything but, losing a lot of money in their hare-brained schemes. Investing money wisely was not always Franklin’s strongest suit as we discover later in the book. Ben returned home to Philadelphia in 1726.

The asbeston purse which the young Franklin sold to Sir Hans Sloane. Natural History Museum.

The asbestos purse which the young Franklin sold to Sir Hans Sloane. Natural History Museum.

Fast forward thirty years. Franklin had made his fortune as a writer, a printer and a publisher. He co-founded libraries and Pennsylvania’s first college. Early on he also started an intellectual gentlemen’s club: The Junto. He didn’t forget London though, corresponding with – among others – the Royal Society about his scientific endeavours, being awarded their Copley Medal in 1747. In 1753 he had become Deputy Postmaster General for North America, by his 50th birthday a very big fish indeed.

Pennsylvania was different from other colonies in that it was under the proprietary rule of the Penn family since its founding charter of 1681. This was personified by Thomas Penn who ruled in absentia from London. Franklin’s 1757 mission as the Pennsylvania Assembly’s agent was to gain concessions from Penn himself or failing that, from the king and parliament. He sailed to England with his son William and two slaves [whither #FranklinMustFall?]. They soon found digs at 7 Craven Street near the Strand (today renumbered number 36), which was Franklin’s base almost continuously until he left London for the last time in 1775.

Franklin’s second mission to London (1764 – 1775) was entirely different. First he was without William (who thanks to his work in London previously had won himself the governor-generalship of New Jersey). Second, this time his brief was to wrest government from the Penns and to direct rule of the crown. However this aim became completely sidetracked through the unforeseen Stamp Act, Townshend duties and other impositions which led inexorably to war and American independence. This third stay in London was also characterised by Franklin’s growing disillusionment with successive administrations leading finally to his hasty return to America in time to escape arrest. It had an altogether darker aspect.

Franklin's London home in Craven Street, W1. Today open to the public.

Franklin’s London home in Craven Street, W1. Today open to the public.

Although Franklin met with some success – in particular with regard to the hated Stamp Act – both of his missions ended in failure. This through no fault of his own it must be said, although he did make some major misjudgements. Problems included’ rapidly changing administrations: there was no cohesion of policy; a change in the monarchy; more pressing issues for the government, such as the Seven Years War and frequent street violence typically by followers of John Wilkes; post-war recession and criminality; probably most damaging of all, having the anti-American Lord Hillsborough as Secretary of State for the Colonies and also the Board of Trade for four years. In other words, America was just another problem, and it was far away.

These, then, are the bewildering issues that Franklin in London was faced with and which lie at heart of this book. Author George Goodwin does a wonderful job of navigating us through the whirlpools and rapids of a neo-colonial administration run by aristocratic big beasts. Franklin was no less an Empire builder than they, but their vision of how that should play out was utterly, utterly different from his.

More than anything, then, this book demonstrates through Franklin’s experience the casual (and fatally misjudged) disdain with which the London political establishment treated the American colonies. This was also very much a class issue. Franklin may have dined with kings, dukes, earls and prime ministers, it is true. But he was among them as a famous and feted scientist, never as an equal (except possibly Pitt, of course “the Great Commoner”). He may have been primus inter pares in America, but in London to the ruling elite he was still – and always would be – Trade.

Especially enjoyable are the accounts of Franklin’s man to man meetings with his enemies, in particular Thomas Penn (whom he had called in print a “low Jockey”!) and dastardly Lord Hillsborough. You sense the air crackling with tension.

I have spoken here mainly of the politics of Franklin’s second and third stays in London, because this is the real value of this work, particularly to historians of the mid-Georgian period, the British Empire and the American War of Independence. It’s important to note that the author does not neglect the more biographical aspects of Franklin’s life. There is plenty on his family, his writings, outlook, philosophy, religious beliefs, diet, likes and dislikes, foibles and so on. To the historian of London there is plenty to enjoy on Craven Street, his landlady Margaret Stevenson and her daughter Polly. And of course, Goodwin addresses Franklin’s scientific achievements, theories and inventions. I particularly enjoy his ahead-of-their-time thoughts on fresh air and keeping fit.

The book has two colour sections, mainly comprising portraits of the men and women of his circle plus other worthies – friends and enemies alike. Like all good history works, this has a comprehensive bibliography, index and end notes.

This is a deeply researched, well-balanced and thoughtfully written book of an American Great living in a rapidly changing, fascinating period of London and world history.

Benjamin Franklin in London: the British Life of America’s Founding Father by George Goodwin is published today by Weidenfeld and Nicholson with a cover price of £25. The dust jacket features a rather pleasing image of the 1767 David Martin portrait (The White House) superimposed on the 1762 William Marlow painting of Blackfriars Bridge and St Paul’s (Guildhall Art Gallery), an image which featured on London Historians member cards a few years ago!

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Benjamin Franklin House in Craven Street is open every week Wednesday to Sunday.

A signed copy of Benjamin Franklin in London is London Historians’ member book prize for March 2016.

George Goodwin is giving two talks hosted by London Historians and Benjamin Franklin House in Craven Street, W1. The first is fully booked. The second on 28 April still has places at time of writing.

Benjamin Franklin in London is BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week starting on Monday.

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jimi hendrixIn early July 1968, Jimi Hendrix (1942 Seattle – 1970 London) moved into a rented flat at 23 Brook Street, W1. It had been procured by his then girlfriend Kathy Etchingham, and they moved in together. Clearly delighted, the guitarist described it as the first proper home of his own. The couple had previously lived in various shared digs, no longer suitable for a man who’d become a superstar since moving to London barely two years previously. “For the first time we could wander out from the bedroom without having to get dressed,” said Kathy.

They decorated it themselves with the help of nearby Messrs John Lewis, who sent some men around to measure up. Similarly, cultery, crockery and all manner of domestic accoutrements were obtained from the same Oxford Street emporium.

In a vain quest for privacy, the couple had no doorbell. They valued their private time, which was rare. When not being pestered by the film crews, reporters, photographers, documentary makers, Jimi spent much time in the recording studio and on the road fulfilling a pitiless, brutal concert schedule over which he had little control. But during home time Jimi and Kathy would typically listen to records, loudly: Jimi’s collection was eclectic indeed, encompassing jazz, blues, rock and classical. Jimi also practised guitar and wrote songs, constantly. They drank either Mateus Rose or Lowenbrau. Beer and wine wasn’t easily and widely available in the late 60s except in pubs and clubs. Too lazy to go to the upstairs fridge, they kept the bottles cool on the windowsill. Jimi was also partial to an occasional dram – usually Dimple (is that still going?) – which he’d usually pick up duty-free when on tour.

60s cool. Mateus Rose on the windowsill.

60s cool. Mateus Rose on the windowsill.

Everyone smoked, of course. Benson & Hedges, Rothmans or frequently something menthol such as Cool. Menthol was very ‘in’ at that time. Jimi’s Englishness extended to enjoying milky tea and watching Coronation Street, which he adored, mainly because it seemed so alien to an American.

Jimi and Kathy split up in April 1969. He moved his stuff out gradually between then and October. They had spent less than a year at 23 Brook Street. A year later Hendrix was dead.

Legacy: Jimi’s Place
Almost 45 years later – this Wednesday – the rooms of Jimi Hendrix’s London flat open to the public as a permanent attraction. It comprises three rooms: an exhibition space; a recreation of Jimi and Kathy’s bedroom; and a small room between them to represent Jimi’s record collection. It has become part of the Handel House Museum which next door at Number 25*, was the composer’s home for over 30 years in the 18th Century. The combined attractions of these musical superstars are now known as Handel and Hendrix in London.

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The process started when a blue plaque was affixed to Number 23 in the late 90s. More recently, with Heritage Fund support, a long lease was acquired on the upper storeys of the building and the work began to create a permanent London memorial to a man whom many consider the greatest rock guitarist who ever lived.

* Hendrix himself thought that he’d moved into the same building as that occupied by Handel. On the strength of this he bought his own copies of the Messiah and Water Music.

52 and 54 Brook Street.

23 and 25 Brook Street.

Bohemian but tidy. As a result of his time in the US army, Jimi was a very tidy person, according to Kathy.

Bohemian but tidy. As a result of his time in the US army, Jimi was a very tidy person, according to Kathy.

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One of Jimi’s acoustic guitars.

Where would the late 60s have been without velvet? Plus some of Jimi's guitar strings.

Where would the late 60s have been without velvet? Plus some of Jimi’s guitar strings.

 

 

 

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