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The Metropolitan Museum in New York held a really interesting, small exhibit earlier this year, and while the exhibit has closed( it ended in July this year) its catalogue is still available to purchase, and that is the book under review here today.   The title of the catalogue (and the exhibit) is self-explanatory: Rooms with a View: the Open Window in the 19th Century . The exhibit still has a page on the museum’s website, accessible here, and here is a page of images from the exhibition and catalogue. And now a confession. Prepare yourself for something truly dreadful. While these picture have much artistic merit, I throughly enjoy looking a them for not only do the majority of them date  from our period          ( 1800-1829)  they also give us tantalising glimpses of what homes of the period looked like. I am by nature a very nosy person ( not with malicious intent, note!) and glimpsing the interiors of homes as I pass by, on foot or when travelling by trian or bus, is one of my secret pleasures. You are probably appalled by this confession, but I love that moment in the year when darkness falls and people illuminate their homes but don’t pull back the curtains, as then I can sneak a glimpse of other rooms and other lives….. This exhibit allows us to do the same , but in rooms similar to those that Jane Austen and her characters would have known, and without any attendant accusations of voyeurism. I will show you a few of the pictures contained in the exhibition and the catalogue: the catalogues is 204 pages long and has detailed critical entries on 70 paintings, 115 illustrations including 110 in full and sumptuous colour. The first  one I find fascinating for the view it gives us of the effect of candlelight in a room. This painting, Man Reading by Lamplight, is by the German artist Georg Friedrich Kersting and it dates from 1814. The chap’s room is lit by a Bouillotte lamp which was first developed in the late 18th century in France to illuminate card players tables in the dark evenings.This chap is using his for a much better purpose, for reading. His room and its furniture is fascinating. Look at the bookcase with its attached reading stand. He has a green window blind. Jane Austen would no doubt approve… The next picture is also by Kersting but is nearly a decade later in execution, dating from 1823. It shows  a woman embroidering by the light of an Argand lamp. Argand lamps were popular from teh late 18th century onwards because they produced a very bright, even light and no smoke. They were powered by oil. Perfect for our seamstress/embroideress here. This painting also by Kersting shows Louise Seidler,the artist. She is embroidering at an open window, the light good enough for the task but her privacy is screened by the plants growing on the windowsill. I am intrigued by the painting on the wall festooned with ivy(?)…and I love the window dressing. We move to Paris for the next paining, executed by Louise -Adeone Drolling circa 1820. it is most probably a self-portrait of the artist in the studio she shared with her brother, the artist, Michael Martin Drolling who also had pictures in this exhibition. I like to think this may be the type of activity Fanny Price may have attempted in her room of her own…tracing a flower by holding it against the pane of glass in the window. The final picture puts me in mind of Anne Elliot and Captain Harville in Persuasion, shown during their vital discussion at the White Hart Inn: Again by Kersting its date is exactly  in keeping with Persuasion, 1817. This is a wonderful catalogue, I have found myself looking thought it again and again since it arrived in the post, wondering whether the rooms were like those inhabited by Mr Knightley and Emma, Fanny Price and Anne Elliot. I can highly recommend it to you.

I was lucky enough to be able to visit this exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in London last week. It is a relatively small exhibit- certainly when compared to the blockbuster exhibits of the past few years in London-the Reynolds, Gainsborough,Hogarth exhibitions for example -but a fascinating exhibit none the less.

(Sir Thomas Lawrence, unfinished self portrait circa 1825 )

For people interested in the personalities of the late 18th and early 19th centuries,  Sir Thomas Lawrence’s portraits are familiar works of art. When I first began to take note of the fashions in the art world it was with some uncomprehending dismay that  I discerned he was rather despised. After a flash of brilliant popularity in his life time, after his death, Lawrence’s works were quickly and completely disparaged by fashionable society and art critics, most notably by Thackeray in Vanity Fair.

…The ladies of Gaunt House called Lady Bareacres in to their aid, in order to repulse the common enemy. One of Lady Gaunt’s carriages went to Hill Street for her Ladyship’s mother, all whose equipages were in the hands of the bailiffs, whose very jewels and wardrobe, it was said, had been seized by those inexorable Israelites. Bareacres Castle was theirs, too, with all its costly pictures, furniture, and articles of vertu–the magnificent Vandykes; the noble Reynolds pictures; the Lawrence portraits, tawdry and beautiful, and, thirty years ago, deemed as precious as works of real genius

(Vanity Fair, Chapter XLIX)

How he dammed Lawrence by this unfavourable  comparison to Van Dyke and Reynolds…..As a result of his works suddenly becoming unfashionable and unacceptable, many were sold from English collections, finding homes in American collections and further afield.

Michael Levey, the late Director of the National Gallery, who made a lifelong study of Lawrence’s works and life, wrote about Lawrence’s sudden fall from grace as follows:

Sir Thomas Lawrence is an artists  who has suffered a most unusual fate. His was a story of phenomenal talent as a portraitist, first revealed and recognised in early childhood; and during his lifetime he enjoyed phenomenal success- not only in Britain but all over Europe from Vienna to Rome. No British artist before him had travelled and worked so widely on the Continent or enjoyed such a warm reception at the courts of Europe. Highly intelligent, unusually literate and outstandingly handsome, with manners polished to a degree, he was almost as admired and successful personally as were his portraits. And yet from the moment of his sudden death in January 1830, reaction set in-reaction which bordered on revulsion and which has-at least in England never entirely vanished…

(See: Sir Thomas Lawrence by Michael Levey, page 1)

(W.M.Turners sketch of Sir Thomas Lawrence’s funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral in 1830)

The current  exhibition at the NPG seeks to address this situation and to re-establish Lawrence as an artist of the first rank. The 545 works on show are mostly  bravura works of art, massive portraits in the swagger tradition, but there are also quieter pieces which demonstrate very clearly that Lawrence was a fine draftsman capable of conveying great tenderness. In fact, I was drawn to these quieter exhibits far more than the bow-wow strain of the larger works, to paraphrase Sir Walter Scott (whom Lawrence painted, below, but who is not included in this particular exhibit.)

But before I get too carried away…what has this to do with Jane Austen? He never painted her and moved in much more fashionable circles than even Henry Austen could aspire to, so why  should Lawrence’s works interest us? Well, many of the people Lawrence painted were household names and Jane Austen would have been wholly familiar with them and no doubt  interested to view their portraits painted in such a vibrant manner. But something else connects Austen and Lawrence. Quite simply, he was one of her greatest admires, knew Sir Walter Scott (also an admirer)and received advance copies of popular novels from her publisher, John Murray. Here is an account of his literary tastes by Miss Elizabeth Croft which was contained in Sir Thomas Lawrence’s Letter Bag published in 1906:

She wrote:

From the year 1810 to 1821, Sir Thomas was in habits of the most constant and intimate intercourse with me and my friends in Hart Street, dropping in at all hours, and especially of an evening when too much tired with the labours of the day to accept the invitations of gayer and more exalted friends…Frequently he would bring with him the novel or periodical of the day-and who ever read like him! Most of Sir Walter Scot’s works we had the delight of hearing from his lips and I can never forget the charm of his reading “Marmion” to us. They were all sent to him and a few other chosen friends by the author before they were published, and at the same time that a copy was sent to George the 4th. Thus we were enabled to laugh in our sleeve at persons who roundly reported that Walter Scot was not the real author…Many of Miss Austen’s novels he also read to us, and she was one of his favourite writers.

(page 246)

Miss Croft, you may care to note ,was the sister of Sir Richard Croft, the unfortunate accoucher to Princess Charlotte,who died in childbirth in 1817 when he was attending her. After attending another difficult birth in February 1818 he killed himself, and here he is recorded by Lawrence,

…the sketch taken as he lay in his coffin. The drawing was done  by Lawrence in an attempt  to console Miss Croft for her sudden and terrible loss.

Back to the exhibit…..

Lawrence was a talented child,whose father was quick to exploit his talents, showing him off to visitors to his inn, the Bear Hotel at Devizes, most of whom were  fashionable society folk who were en route to or from London or  Bath. Fanny Burney mentioned him in her diary, for example. The family eventually moved to Bath where he began to establish his reputation as a portraitist. On moving to London he began to attract large commissions, and in 1790 exhibited two great works at the Royal Academy: Miss Farren the actress who was to become the Countess of Derby (see the picture at the head of this post, advertising the exhibit) and above, Queen Charlotte. Recognising a precious talent, George III  pressed the Royal Academy to elect Lawrence as a member,and eventually he was admitted when of  age, and, in turn, became its president in 1820

A dispute between Caroline of Brunswick and the Prince of Wales about the right to posses Lawrence’s portrait of Lord Chancellor Thurlow( included in the exhibit) seems to have alienated the Prince of Wales and set him against commissioning further work from Lawrence. But that changed with Lawrence’s magnificent portrait of the Prince in the Garter robes, and eventually the Prince was one of Lawrence’s most important patrons. He commissioned the portraits of the political and military leaders concerned in the downfall of Napoleon which were to be hung in the Waterloo Chamber at Windsor Castle and this enabled Lawrence to travel across Europe, something no British artist of his stature had been able to do for years due to the wars and the attendant difficulties of travel. Below is his portrait of Tsar Alexander I (not in the exhibit).

And while these large, imposing portraits are mightily impressive, I found I was more drawn to the more domestic and intimate of Lawrence’s works. Below is his pastel of the poet Elizabeth Carter which I found exquisite.

His portraits of women are very sympathetic, and Lawrence had a reputation of being rather a ladies man, becoming romantically involved for example with the actress Sarah Siddon’s two daughters, much to her distress. His portrait of Rosamund Croker, below, is stunning.

And while he is famed for his portraits of children, I confess they mostly leave me cold (low be it spoken). But I do like this portrait of the Marchioness of Londonderry and her son Viscount Seaham because to me she looks ever-so-slighty fed up with her young son’s antics….

The exhibition catalogue, shown below, is published by Yale and is sumptuously illustrated and is also a very good read. Here, on the cover, is Princess Sophia, George IV’s favourite sibling, who had a tragic clandestine love-life in the stultifying atmosphere of her mothers court, giving birth to an illegitimate son in 1800.

But also to be recommended is Michael Levey’s outstanding work on the artist, also published by Yale and shown below. Full of incredible detail, and again sumptuously and comprehensively illustrated  I can highly recommend  it for anyone wanting to increase their knowledge of the man and his works.

The exhibit is small (and I hated the way the continuity of the exhibition was broken up by the presence of a shop between two of the main rooms) but it is worthwhile making the trip to London to see it ( or to New Haven when the exhibit moves there in 2011) It is wonderful to be given the opportunity to see and  reassess Sir Thomas’s works en masse. They are magnificent, sensitive  pieces of work, and he deserves to be rehabilitated, in my very humble  untutored eye and opinion.

As you know, the Threads of Feeling Exhibition at the Foundling Museum curated by Professor John Styles opens this week. Concentrating on the collection of 18th century fabrics preserved in the ledgers of the Foundling hospital, tokens left by foundling’s mothers, it throws a very revealing light on the type of clothing worn by ordinary people in that era, as was disclosed in Professor Styles wonderful book, The Dress of the People.


I thought you all might be interested in two recently published articles which give a little more  detail of the exhibition. The first, accessible here is published by the Arts and Humanities Research Council,who helped fund the exhibition.

(A fascinating “Playing Card” printed fabric, ©Coram)

The second, is a fabulous interpretation of the exhibition by historian Kathryn Hughes, the  author of two great books,The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton and The Victorian Governess. Go here to access it

And here is a photograph of a section of the specially re-printed cotton to be used for recreating a garment in the exhibition.

This is called Florella after the child who was deposited with the original scrap of material.

Above is an image of the original ledger from the Foundling Museum showing the linen / cotton printed with dots and red flowers. The Foundling, a girl, was given the number 8959 and was admitted to the Hospital on the 19th June 1758:

The written inscription reads:

Florella Burney Born june the 19: 1758: In The Parish off St Anns SoHo. not Baptize’d, pray Let partiuclare Care be Taken’en off this Child, As it will be call’d for Again; …’

I find it fascinating to think that this might be the type of fabric worn by Harriet Smith’s unknown mother, or by the poor of Highbury who are visited by Emma,or even Hannah, the servant at Randalls who could shut doors with exquisite quietness…I have been very kindly invited to the opening of the exhibition on Wednesday but sadly cannot attend due to other commitments, but I promise to give a full report of the visit I am going to make to it  later in October.


I recently attended this fascinating exhibition which is being staged at the Victoria and Albert Museum. I say staged for it is a magnificent theatrical evocation of all Walpole’s interests, which were many and varied, collecting together, sometimes for the first time in over 100 years, objects associated with Walpole and his Gothic confection of a house at Twickenham, Strawberry Hill, here depicted by Paul Sandby. (and please note you can enlarge all the illustrations here merely by clicking on them)

Horace Walpole (1717-1797) was the youngest son of George II’s powerful prime minister, Robert Walpole. He was an MP for over 20 years but it was not his political causes which remain of interest to us, but his artistic endeavours.

For anyone who studies the 18th century, encountering Horace Walpole is inevitable. He was a prolific author of many fascinating letters(collected in 48 volumes!) full of waspish comment; he moved among the highest social circles and his impressions of his world and the many, many people he encountered are engagingly reflected in his papers. He was an avid art collector and an antiquarian, an amateur architect and landscape gardener , and importantly for admirers of Northanger Abbey, was the father of the Gothic Novel, being the author of the first of the genre, The Castle of Otranto.

The exhibit, which is contained just in a series of ten sections all dealing with different aspects of Walpole’s life and interests is fascinating. I am even considering revisiting it as I don’t think I really managed to see and appreciate everything despite spending a long time there( luckily my companion is as interested in the 18th century as I!)

His house at Strawberry Hill– which is undergoing a thorough and needed restoration and will re-open in the autumn  -and its contents is at the heart of the exhibit.

Apart from the connection with Otranto,there is another Austenesque connection with Walpole: Horace, along with his circle of friends including John Chute

of The Vyne in Hampshire, were very influential in reviving interest in the aesthetic aspects of the Gothic era. Indeed a common name for this revived architectural style is Strawberry Hill Gothic. The Chute family – though the next generation on from Horace’s friend, John, were friendly with the Austen family ( especially Jane Austen’s eldest brother James who was vicar of Sherborne St John, the parish in which The Vyne is situated )

Horace consulted them closely on all aspects of the exterior and interior decoration of his house. Here, as an example of the interior, is the wonderful gallery complete with papier mache fan vaulting

If you go here you can view a short video of the exhibit and Strawberry Hill’s restoration, which I hope you will enjoy.

It is difficult to isolate pieces in the exhibit for mention here they were so many and so magnificent: a locket containing  Mary Tudor’s hair, a Cardinal’s hat believed to have been owned by Wolsey…..many wonderful things: so I’ve decided to show you a few items that I found particularly  interesting.

Horace Walpole was fascinated with the romantic aspects of the past: his collection of 17th century miniatures included these of the Digby family, Sir Kenelm Digby and his wife, Venitia. They were Catholic supporters of Charles I and Sir Kenelm is now remembered as the author of one of my favourite antiquarian  cookery books The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digby kt Opened(1669)

These miniatures, wonderful though they appear, are enclosed in an equally magnificently enamelled case:

Sir Kenelme’s wife died suddenly in 1633, and Sir Kenelme commissioned Sir Anthony van Dyke to capture her appearance on her death bed which was copied in this miniature

Another article I found fascinating was this cabinet, decorated with panels drawn by Lady Diana Beauclark,whose scandalous divorce from Visccount Bolingbroke after her adulterous affair with Sir Topham Beauclerk made her a sensation and outcast from her class.

She also designed the Wedgwood plagues used to decorate the interior of the cabinet

The relationship between Horace and disgraced women like Diana Beauclerk is an intriguing part of his personality . He never married and speculation on his sexuality rages today.

His home in the fashionable village of Twickenham was derided by the purist Gothick  admirers of the 19th century, most importantly and prominently, Augustus Pugin. But recently it has regained its rightful place as part of the history of design. If you cannot visit the exhibition which ends in July, then I strongly recommend the sumptuously illustrated catalogue of the exhibition edited by Michael Snodin the director of the Strawberry Hill Trust, published by Yale.

I am breaking into AustenOnly’s Easter Holiday( on Maundy Thursday and April the 1st of all days!) to give you some news that may excite my readers who live in the North Eastern US.

As you know Amanda Vickery,  author of The Gentleman’s Daughter has asked if I could keep you up to date with  her latest  events and the good news is that she  is to give a talk  on her latest book, Behind Closed Doors on Monday, April 12, 2010, at 6 p.m. at The Collectors Club, 22 East 35th Street, New York

But do note, reservations for the event must be made by the 5th April.

Here is a link to the website of the American Friends of the Georgian Group which give all the relevant details of the event and contact information.(Note, you need to scrioll down about a third of the way down the page to see the info)

Here is a link to the lovely Rae’s  account of her visit to hear Professor Vickery talk on this subject given at the home of the English Georgian Group at Fitzroy Square in London, which will  give a you a taste of what to expect.

I do hope some of you can get there to hear Professor Vickery. I have heard her give talks in the past and she is a very good and witty communicator.You won’t regret it , I promise!

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