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The complex of buildings found at Westminster is a little architecturally confusing. We have Westminster Abbey, clearly old from what you see inside it, Westminster Hall and the Palace of Westminster, which look similar, and Big Ben, which screams Victoriana. These buildings can easily blend together if you don’t look carefully and that blending was indeed the intention of the designers.

It’s pretty shocking that in 1834, not that long ago, we lost an enormous historical palace at Westminster which consisted of amazing medieval and early modern buildings. This ‘Old Palace’ was destroyed by a terrible fire and the only surviving buildings are the Cloisters of St Stephen’s, the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft, the Jewel Tower and most notably Westminster Hall.

Illustration of the Old Palace of Westminster in the reign of Henry VIII - Henry William Brewer, 1884

Illustration of the Old Palace of Westminster in the reign of Henry VIII – Henry William Brewer, 1884

The Westminster site was used as a residence for Kings of England since the 11th century and much was built and extended over the course of the next 500 years. The oldest part we can still see is Westminster Hall, which was built by William II. In 1295, the Model Parliament met at Westminster, beginning the tradition for all future parliaments of England.

Because the palace was not designed for intensive parliamentary use, drastic alterations were made to it between the 16th and 19th centuries. The palace must have looked a little dilapidated and in the 18th century there were calls for a new palace to be built. This clearly coincides with the fall in popularity of the medieval gothic architectural style. People preferred classical styles and Palladian additions were made. Most notable, Sir John Soane demolished the medieval House of Lords chamber and rebuilt it in the neo-classical style.

This period saw a backlash against the neo-classical style and this destruction of medieval buildings. Several key thinkers began to mourn the loss of the older gothic parts of the Palace of Westminster. Some architectural writers appreciated the aesthetics of England’s gothic buildings. Horace Walpole built his gothic house at Strawberry Hill in 1747 and described the style as ‘venerable’ and ‘charming’.

The enthusiasm for the style among architectural writers increased and many illustration collections and studies were published, including the influential Essays on Gothic Architecture by Thomas Warton and others, published in 1800. The cause was taken up by Auguste Pugin, who published Specimens of Gothic Architecture (1821) and Examples of Gothic Architecture (1831).

The fire of 1834

The fire of 1834 at the Palace of Westminster

The devastating fire at the palace must therefore be seen in this context. The fire was caused by an overheated stove beneath the House of Lords Chamber and raged overnight destroying almost everything. Many people helped fight the fire, preserving some of the buildings, but many watched the fire with glee, seeing it as a punishment for unpopular politicians. If you want to learn more about the fire itself, I recommend a podcast from the House of Commons – listen here.

Architects saw the fire as an opportunity to get rid of the hodgepodge of architectural styles that cluttered up the gothic. After the fire, parliament decided they needed a building more fit for purpose, but that emphasised the governments historical origins. Therefore, a competition was held for architects to redesign the palace in ‘either Gothic or Elizabethan’ style, to lessen the shock of the destruction.

An architectural struggle raged through the nineteenth century between classic and gothic adherents. In 1884 Robert Kerr gave a paper to the General Conference of Architects detailing this ‘architectural civil war’, describing how

at the moment when Barry in his Club-houses offered us a new version of Wren’s Classic, we threw it over and reverted to Gothic; and at the moment when Street in his Law Courts had brought Pugin’s Gothic to a supremacy, we now cast that aside and return to Classic.

In February 1836, Charles Barry’s neo-gothic proposal for the palace was accepted and he employed Augustus Pugin to design the gothic interior. Construction was finally completed in 1870. It was designed to look medieval and fit into the surrounding medieval buildings, while still providing space appropriate for the running of parliament.

The Palace of Westminster, 19th century

The Palace of Westminster, 19th century

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The Adventures of Baron MunchausenYesterday I watched Terry Gilliam’s 1988 film, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen for the first time. It stars John Neville as the Baron and Eric Idle as Berthold. It’s a fantastic film, completely absorbing and surreal with amazing sets, stunts and action which look so impressive compared to today’s CGI alternatives.

With spectacle comes criticism however as, having done some research on the film, it is clear that Gilliam’s films are notorious for being dangerous and traumatic for the cast and expensive to film – watching this one, you can see why. Sarah Polley, who played 9-year-old Sally, said:

It definitely left me with a few scars … It was just so dangerous. There were so many explosions going off so close to me, which is traumatic for a kid whether it’s dangerous or not. Being in freezing cold water for long periods of time and working endless hours. It was physically grueling and unsafe.

There were disputes surrounding the production and in the end it received limited distribution and only made $8 million in the US box office. Nonetheless, I really recommend it as it is so spectacular and engrossing – and it’s currently on Netflix!

The Baron in Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

The Baron in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

It really made me think about the stories that inspired the film and specifically the real Hieronymus Carl Friedrich Baron von Münchhausen. The real Baron was a German nobleman, born in 1720, who became famous for telling stories about his adventures.

Münchhausen moved to Russia where he rose to the rank of Rittmeister (Captain) in the Russian cavalry and fought in the Russo-Turkish War. He was known as a amiable and truthful man, however after he retired he gained a reputation as a teller of extraordinary stories about his time in Russia. He told these tall tales at social gatherings as entertainment and perhaps to poke fun at his contemporaries’ love for rationality. This theme certainly runs through the film as the Baron exclaims he is tired of the world because:

It’s all logic and reason now. Science, progress, laws of hydraulics, laws of social dynamics, laws of this, that, and the other. No place for three-legged cyclops in the South Seas. No place for cucumber trees and oceans of wine. No place for me.

Bearing in mind this relatively simple story of the Baron’s real life, it is amazing that his stories had such far-reaching effects. He began to be fictionalized before he even died, when 17 of his stories made it into the Vademecum fur lustige Leute between 1781 and 1783. In 1785 these were translated into English, as Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia by Rudolf Erich Raspe, and over the next century his stories were expanded and republished multiple times, becoming very popular.

It is likely that folk and fairy tales made it into the narratives that were attributed to him, so we cannot know how much of the material is really his. He was apparently very annoyed that his name was associated with these tall tales as he was given the name Lügenbaron or Baron of Lies.

Illustration of Baron Münchhausen underwater by Gottfried Franz 1896

Illustration of Baron Münchhausen underwater by Gottfried Franz 1896

Still it was way too late to stop public enthusiasm for the fictionalized Baron and the character and stories were replayed again and again on the stage, on radio, television, in films and even in video games. Some of the most famous stories that were in Raspe’s 1785 book and in Gilliam’s film include the Baron’s journey to the moon in a hot air balloon, his meeting with Venus and his escape after being swallowed by a giant fish.

Raspe’s book is available to read on Project Gutenberg and to listen to on Librivox.

Lastly, Münchausen Syndrome was named directly after the fictional Baron. In an article published in 1951, British doctor Richard Asher proposed the name Münchausen Syndrome for cases of patients lying about their illnesses, arguing that:

Like the famous Baron von Munchausen, the persons affected have always travelled widely; and their stories, like those attributed to him, are both dramatic and untruthful. Accordingly, the syndrome is respectfully dedicated to the baron, and named after him

He was criticised for this, since other physicians felt the name trivialised the disorder and downplayed the dangers associated with it and also linked it to a real man who did not suffer from the condition. Clearly though the name has stuck and is now in common usage.

I went to the V&A’s Museum of Childhood for the first time on Friday. I had always thought it would be interesting to see all the childhood-related objects collected by the Victoria and Albert Museum in one place, but I had never got round to visiting. The objects date from the 1600s to the present day and most of the exhibits are toys, with a section containing objects associated with home life and child upbringing.

The Museum of Childhood

The first thing you notice about the museum is its design. It consists of a large open space containing the café and shop, with all of the exhibits positioned around the centre. This makes it a great place to visit with young children as its impossible to get lost. There were many very young children there when I visited and it seemed to me that they were all really enjoying themselves.

Most of the objects on display are in glass cases with some interactive screens and activities and areas for children to play. I saw the kids interacting really well with everything and showing a real interest in the objects. Parents were also walking around showing their children the toys they used to play with when they were young.

As well as the 20th-century nostalgia available, there are plenty of amazing objects from earlier centuries. On one side of the museum, the toys are arranged by the technology behind them – so for example, clockwork, magnets, springs etc. The section for optical toys was interesting as it ranged from nineteenth-century zoetropes to the Megadrive, Xbox and Playstation.

These photographs are of a large 3-dimensional theatre made from layers of card, with different sections showing different scenes. It was made by  Martin Engelbrecht in around 1721, who was famous for his illustrations of children’s books. This section also has some good interactive screens which show different toys with videos of how they work and explanations of their mechanisms. They even have x-rays so you can see how the mechanism is arranged inside the toys.

On the other side of the museum, the toys are arranged into categories like soft toys, dolls, building and making etc. They have some wonderful dolls houses and dolls including the first version of the Barbie doll from 1959. Some of the dolls and soft toys were very familiar to me, while others I had never heard of but were apparently very famous.

Soft toys Pip, Squeak and Wilfred with 1939 annual.

Soft toys Pip, Squeak and Wilfred with 1939 annual.

For example, above are soft toy versions of Pip, Squeak and Wilfred from the 1930s. These characters were from a long-running cartoon published in the Daily Mirror from 1919 to 1956. They were devised by Bertram Lamb and drawn until 1939 by Austin Bowen Payne. The cartoon was incredibly popular and successful, spawning dedicated newspaper supplements, annuals like the one pictured above and even in 1921 twenty-five  silent animated cartoons.

On of my favourite sections is about the history of children making toys and objects of their own, as I was obsessed with craft as a child. Pictured below is a paper mache duck and a campfire made from matches and bottle tops, both made by a three-year-old boy called Stephen, born in 1957. There is also a tank made by an eight-year-old in 1942 and some animal drawings created between 1890 and 1900. Looking at these objects really makes you realise how children from every era are just the same, as it is impossible to tell the difference between a child’s creation from 100 years ago and one today.

Some other interesting exhibits include dolls from the eighteenth-century to today. You can see how Barbie’s figure developed over the course of the last 50 years, but even more startling is the shape of older dolls, such as the 1720 doll pictured below. Also, while Barbie is usually the doll accused of being damaging to young girls, I was shocked to see how Sindy’s looks have changed since her introduction in 1963. Sindy had always been a child-like doll in relatively casual childish clothing, however her latest incarnations have made her older, wearing more revealing clothing.

The museum also contains sections on the history of the upbringing of young children, with objects relating to washing, feeding and learning. They have a large case showing the development of children’s clothing between the eighteenth century and today.

At the moment they also have an exhibition called War Games, which runs until 9th March 2014. This exhibition shows the various action and strategy war-related games children have played of the years, and also links the history of these toys to the actual history of warfare of the last 100 years. It ends by making the link to science fiction and asking visitors whether they think war-related children’s games are morally right.

The museum is really worth a visit, with children or without, and it isn’t so enormous that you can’t see everything in a few hours. It’s located just down the road from Bethnal Green station and is open every day between 10am and 5.45pm.

In the last couple of weeks I have been craving modern history documentaries, particularly those concerned with British and American politics. The next few documentary posts contain a few good ones I’ve discovered during my browsing.

Blair: The Inside Story

Several documentaries were made in 2007, on the 10th anniversary of Tony Blair becoming Prime Minister, including this one and The Blair Years. Both are on YouTube and are worth watching. I find this period very interesting as it is the only one I remember personally – my formative years were during Blair’s government. Blair: The Inside Story is presented by  award-winning political journalist Michael Cockerell and is a generally well-balanced look back at Blair’s time in office. It contains fascinating interviews with key players in government, as well as revealing footage of Tony Blair inside Number 10, filmed by Cockerell himself.

The NHS: A Difficult Beginning

This documentary explains how the National Health Service was created and the difficulties it overcame to get established. it was broadcast on BBC4 in 2009 to celebrate the 60th birthday of the NHS. It tells the story of Nye Bevan, Labour’s minister of health, who pushed the reforms through despite enormous opposition from the Tory Party, the press and most importantly the medical establishment. This is a fascinating insight into some often overlooked areas of modern history – definitely worth a watch.

Andrew Marr’s The Making of Modern Britain

This documentary was first broadcast in 2009 and cover the period in British history from the death of Queen Victoria to the end of the Second World War. it was made as a follow-up to A History of Modern Britain which covered the period after the Second World War and is unfortunately not on YouTube. It covers a very interesting period which is often neglected in popular histories and Marr continually makes the point that the Britain of today is closely connected to the developments of this period. He’s a great documentary maker and keeps things light and entertaining even when dealing with depressing and controversial topics.

Blood and Guts – A History of Surgery

This is a brilliant set of five programmes which I missed when they were first broadcast in 2008. They are presented by Michael J. Mosley, a medical doctor and journalist, and he is a really engaging speaker who is never scared of getting involved in experiments to show us the old medical treatments of the past. The programmes cover some really fascinating topics such as brain and heart surgery, plastic surgery and transplants.  He has made many other programmes for TV and radio including Medical Mavericks, wchich explores the history of self-experimentation and The Making of Modern Medicine on BBC Radio 4. Other examples of his work can be found on Youtube.

Blackadder Rides Again

This is a fantastic run through of the history of the sitcom Blackadder, broadcast at Christmas 2008 to celebrate its 25th anniversary. For those who don’t know the programme, it covers in four series the medieval period, the Elizabethan period, the Regency and the First World War, with Edmund Blackadder as the protagonist.  It has become very influential in the historical knowledge of many British people – it’s even used in school lessons (it was in mine!). It’s also a great documentary with extra unseen material and interesting interviews with the key players.

A History of Britain

If you want to learn about British history, I think this is definitely the place to start. Simon Schama made 15 episodes in 3 series covering the entirety of British history, broadcast between 2000 and 2002. He also published three accompanying books. Of course it is a very broad overview, and some have complained at the overemphasis on the history of England at the expense of Scotland, Ireland and Wales, but I would say Schama does cover these areas in quite a lot of depth compared to some historians! Schama is a very captivating presenter and the use of music and imagery in the doc make it a very relaxing watch.

brummelOn this day in 1778, George Bryan Brummell (known as Beau Brummell) was born in Downing Street London. His father was private secretary to the prime minister, Lord North, and his family was very upwardly mobile, living at The Grove, in Donnington, Berkshire. In 1786 George was sent to Eton College. From the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:

He was also popular among fellow students for his wit, refinement, and a fascination with matters of dress and poise which defined his adult life and, as a schoolboy, earned him the sobriquet Buck Brummell.

Brummell went to Oxford for one term before inheriting  a fortune on his father’s death. He met George, prince of Wales at Whig society balls held at Eton and they became close. Brummell was offered a cornetcy in his personal regiment, the 10th hussars, and was promoted  to captain. He wasn’t much of a soldier and spent most of his time accompanying the prince to social events.

He became a leading member of London society, moving to 4 Chesterfield Street, Mayfair and holding many social occasions for the fashionable elite and aristocracy including the Prince. Oxford DNB:

The years between Brummell’s move to Chesterfield Street and his departure from England in 1816 witnessed the apogee of the fashion for dandyism of which Brummell was the leading exponent. The culture was characterized by its reaction against the excessive dress and manners of eighteenth-century men of fashion whose gentility had been defined by the magnificence and luxury of clothing and the fineness or delicacy of conversation. Dandyism, by contrast, drew on earlier English qualities—independence, self-command, capriciousness, and a hint of puritanism—to offer a rival style based on meticulous but simple tailoring and imperious, and therefore often impolite, displays of mannered etiquette.

Brummell’s concern for elegance and fashion led to a new way of dressing: a move away from breeches and stockings towards full-length trousers, shirts, starched cravats, waistcoats and long coats. He was known for his snobbishness, competitiveness, elegance, self-confidence and display.

Statue of beau Brummell on Jermyn Street in Westminster

Statue of beau Brummell on Jermyn Street in Westminster

His personality and celebrity caused him to eventually fall out with the Prince of Wales, but he simply moved to 13 Chapel Street in 1812 to establish a new social circle around the duke and duchess of York. Short of money, he turned to gambling, which gave him mixed success. In 1814 he was denounced by fellow members of White’s Club and left England for France on 16 May 1816. He spent the rest of his life in France, continuing his lifestyle despite further financial difficulties.

There have been many television and film adaptations of his life story, including a 1924 film, a 1954 film starring  Stewart Granger and Elizabeth Taylor and a 2006 BBC TV movie starring James Purefoy.

The phrase ‘motley crew’ derives from the eighteenth century. ‘Motley’ is a medieval word meaning mixed in colour and often referred to clothing. The Motley was therefore the court jester due to his multi-coloured costume.

The meaning of the word then developed to mean ‘mixed bag’ or ‘various things’ so the phrase ‘motley crew’ began to be used to mean ‘a roughly-organized assembly of characters’. The first use is found in 1748 in George Anson’s Voyage Round the World:

With this motley crew (all of them except the European Spaniards extremely averse to the voyage) Pizarro set sail from Monte Video.

By the nineteenth century, ‘motley crew’ was an well-used cliché. It refers to a mixed group of unlikely heroes coming together to overcome adversity. It most often referred to pirates and is now a common archetype for sports and science fiction stories.

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