Wednesday, 30 November 2011

     Our family loves Art.

I found a long lost folder under a bed the other day and blew the dust off some memories. It all started at school...

"My Friend Linda"

...then became decidedly surreal during college days

This one has a title:
"Christmas Fairy"


Art seems to be in our genes - J J's painting of hanging hams is a bit surreal too.

His portraits are full of nervous energy.


His brother's work is more abstract.

1999 was a particularly creative year for J W (see below!)


And we'll never forget that dear old H loved the sea...

... because he painted it constantly.


I have searched our genealogy for other creative family members, but in vain - perhaps we mutated! The nearest link to art and antiques that I can find is my distant cousin, Professor Gus Shurvell, a chemist and a specialist in Fine Art conservation.

At least he shares my taste for the amusing and absurd, if not the urge to wield a paint brush!


Sunday, 20 November 2011

History Detective

Some antiques dealers, believe it or not will not give old things house room - they cannot live with the dog-eared, the shabby, the patinated... 
Treasure seekers like us, however, adore the tatty - we think it's divine! Not only that, if we are umbilically attached to the internet (and many of us are), we love nothing better than exploring the history of the intriguing pieces we find, whether searching for information on 18th century tin-glazes, pondering turned chair legs of the Regency period, tracking down the mark on a Chinese vase that could be worth millions - or, like me, researching clues that might help me learn a little of the history of previous owners.
It could be something superficially insignificant that draws my attention. Two Scottish samplers I found recently, embroidered by sisters, were backed with carefully salvaged paper (saved by Mother? Teacher?). These papers tell a story of their own, of a habit of re-use that we would do well to copy, and they would make beautiful minimalist prints themselves, framed and hung in a modern interior. One is an unfolded sugar wrapper stamped with the refiner's name.

The other is an uncut sheet of wrappers for Property Tax demands (On Her Majesty's Service), carefully patched in one corner with a small, incomplete piece of newsprint, on which, tantalisingly, can be glimpsed "...wound...lacerated...violently...proved fatal..."

Of course some things we find have more personal and detailed tales to tell -  like this gentleman farmer's almanac and diary for 1820. In this he doggedly records the daily weather and sometimes hints at his sadness "My beloved died this day, five years since..." and "Little Ann went to school."

 Most of his words tell us everyday things, in a matter of fact tone. Here are some entries for a week in February. 
"King George 4th was proclaimed King of England today. Wilson gave me a hare." 
"My Old Favourite little French dog Rover died today. He was my sister Mander's dog. He was buried by the harbour."

Sadly, despite searching every page, I haven't found this lonely farmer's name.


The soldier who made this beautiful patchwork, with its vibrant plushwork flowers worked on squares of woollen cloth from uniforms, is almost as elusive as the farmer. I noticed a little piece of string sticking out from the seam on the edge of it, looked further and found, hidden in the lining, a small note, hand-written by a loved one - mother - wife - sister? 

It reads - Made by George E K (H?) Jones of the Northants Regiment at Jersey in 1900. He died in France August 8th 1916 of wounds received in battle. Despite this precise and poignant information, investigations are still on-going.


This lovely embroidered set of pockets for sewing requisites etc., known as a "hussif" or "housewife", was also made by a soldier. This time his name is clearly announced - Henry Lighton.

I think I've found Henry in Sheffield Barracks in 1851, aged 10, born in East India. His father was a Staff Sergeant at the barracks, born in county Mayo, Ireland. Later Private Henry Lighton pops up in the 1861 Worldwide Army Index - then - he disappears.


Mary Dance looks bright-eyed and confident in this watercolour portrait, dated 1841 

   In 1841 she lived in crowded Knotted Alley in the heart of Nottingham, home of workers in the lace industry. She was clearly a young woman who took care of her appearance.

She married a mechanic, William Hemm, in 1851. She and William moved around the Midlands where his modern skills were in demand on the new railways and in lace factories. They had five surviving children, the youngest being the only girl, another Mary, with whom she lived until her death in 1900 back in Nottingham, her husband having died in 1889. A little of her history is pencilled on paper, pre-internet, and tucked into the back of her portrait, though it contains one mistake. In fact she was born in about 1817 and in 1841 she was not 18, she was in her mid-twenties and determined to get on with making a life for herself - if appearances can be believed.

Here is Betsy Kitely's Valentine, dated 1814.

We can only wonder if Betsy remembered the club feast - or perhaps she had a better offer...


Thursday, 10 November 2011

Wash Day

Carrying on the theme of humble ancestry, I have been contemplating the life of the laundress in the 19th century. Mr N and I each have a many-times great grandmother who supported her family by this means (Mr N's was a rarity amongst the almost-gentlewomen who were the wives of the goldsmiths, clock makers, master mariners etc. in his background - mine was yet another poverty-stricken, heroic woman carrying on regardless after her husband's demise, he being worn out by a long spell of transportation on a convict ship and hard labour in the West Indies.) It seems it was quite usual for a community to donate a wash-tub or, later in the century, a mangle to a widow with children, so that she could support her family at home. Early in the century ashes and urine were mixed to make lye which was good for soaking whites as it helped remove stains and grease. The addition of animal fat to lye produced an effective soap, but washing clothes was still a lengthy process which took several days and demanded great stamina.

   We have seen quite a few 19th century wash-houses and laundry rooms this year, as we enjoyed our hard won right to wander, unrestrained, through England's treasure houses, paying our respects to the stalwart souls who kept life sweet and comfortable for the privileged few.

                          Victorian servants at Beningborough Hall

Mr N also has ancestors who lived on the moors of North Yorkshire - farmers, stonemasons and thatchers who lived in houses like this one at the Ryedale Folk Museum at Hutton-le-Hole.

The wash-houses here are orderly and well equipped, as be-fits a Yorkshire housewife.

I doubt that the good woman who laboured here had to travel as far as Mr. Turner's establishment in Leeds for her mangle or her washboard...

...and even his lively imagination might not have envisaged the way in which the humble dolly tub is used today - nor how much these desirable planters now cost.


A little-known fact - in the mid 19th century the aspirational middle classes thought having a weekly washday was a sign of poverty and lowliness. The more well off a family was, the more changes of linen its members were supposed to possess and so their laundry was done every 6 weeks or so.

If you would like to try laundering in the old way we are adding a wonderful antique wooden washing bat to our eBay listings this evening, all pale and weathered with ancient initials carved into it.