Saturday, 17 February 2018

Roman Holidays

Romans don’t seem to make much of a fuss over Valentine's day. This proved a welcome relief from the somewhat over-commercialised version of the day that is now marked in the UK. Hence, we were able to find somewhere to eat easily enough in Rome on Wednesday, without discovering that every trattoria was suddenly full of candlelit tables for two. Only at the top of the Spanish Steps did we observe one of Rome’s legion of street vendors trying (without much luck) to sell individual red roses to courting couples.

Keats-Shelley house at the foot of the Spanish Steps

There is an irony here: not only is Rome one of the world’s great romantic cities, but St Valentine himself was a Roman. Little is known of who exactly he was, but Valentine may have been either a priest from Rome, or the Bishop of Terni who happened to be staying in the city (or indeed it is possible that both martyrs have somehow come to be known as St Valentine). Either way, a beheading on the Via Flaminia to the north of Rome, in the time of Emperor Claudius (around AD 269-73), is what is really being marked on 14 February. 

St Valentine's beheading
Not that there was any connection between such gruesome events and ideas of romantic love – that was a later, medieval, fabrication, perhaps contrived simply because the date helpfully coincides with the first signs of spring, when lovebirds start to choose their mates and so on. (As ever, I take my information here from the endlessly fascinating book by Steve Roud, The English Year.)

Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome

It turns out that being in Rome for February half-term also meant we were there for another even older date in the Roman ritual calendar: Lupercalia (15 February). Lupercalia was a festival of purification, and ought to be better remembered, not least because the name of the month derives from februum (meaning ‘purgings’). The Roman festival involved the priesthood of the Luperci sacrificing goats and a dog and then, blooded and naked, running through the streets around the Palatine Hill administering lashings with their ‘shaggy thongs’. Receiving such a lashing was said to boost the fertility of childless women. The festival was likely to be pre-Roman in date, and links back to the foundation myths of the city itself (Romulus and Remus suckling on the she-wolf, and all that). Not surprisingly, Rome’s early Christian leaders attempted to end all such rituals, though it would seem the festival continued to be marked for some time subsequently, even by those professing the Christian faith.  


We did not see any evidence of Lupercalia being observed in the streets of modern-day Rome, as we searched (with some difficulty) for a reasonably priced lunch on the day we visited the Colosseum and the Palatine Hill. But we had been fortified in the morning by our trip to the Colosseum – a most amazing structure, where even the barest historical imagination is sufficient to bring the days of imperial Rome to life. It was said that the opening of the Colosseum in AD 80 was marked by a hundred consecutive days of games, during which 9,000 animals were slaughtered. The arena was built to hold 70,000 spectators and took 100,000 Jewish slaves to construct over a period of eight years from AD 72.

Another astonishing building we experienced was the 2,000-year-old Pantheon, built as a temple to all the gods but converted into a church in the 7th century. The Pantheon’s dome is constructed of blocks made from poured concrete, thicker at the base (6m) than they are at the top (1m), where a 6m-diameter hole (the oculus) lets in sunlight and rainwater. 

The dome of the Pantheon, with oculus

The hole is integral to the entire construction, apparently, since the compression ring that lines it helps to redistribute the tensile forces that otherwise might bring the dome crashing down. As it is, the dome is the largest unreinforced concrete structure of its type anywhere in the world. The proportions are beautiful: the diameter of the rotunda (142.2 ft) is the same as the height to the oculus, meaning that the whole thing would sit in a perfect cube, or that it could contain a perfect sphere of 142.2 ft diameter.

Pantheon, Rome

The Pantheon continues to inspire engineers today, and no wonder that it was also an inspiration for 18th-century travellers. One of these was Robert Adam, the Scottish architect who spent time in Rome imbibing the classicism of the architecture at places like the Pantheon and Colosseum. He wrote to his sister to say,

“Rome is the most glorious place in the universal world. A grandeur and tranquillity reigns in it, everywhere noble and striking remains of antiquity appear in it”.

As I learned at an excellent lecture given by Jeremy Musson the week before our trip (part of the 2018 European Year of Cultural Heritage celebrations), Adam’s particular inspiration was Giovanni Battista Piranesi, who depicted the Pantheon like this: 

Not far from where I live, Audley End house features a suite of rooms designed by Adam in the neoclassical style, when he was at the height of his fame after his return from Rome. How perfect therefore to travel such a distance to spend time in a foreign country, only to be better informed about one’s starting point. And that, surely, is the whole point of the 2018 European Year of Cultural Heritage (for more information, do visit
Little Drawing Room, Audley End, from Jeremy Musson's book on Adam's interiors 

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Sir George Clausen in Essex

Our local history group enjoyed a talk recently from Elizabeth Allen, on the artist Sir George Clausen (1852-1944). Clausen was a prolifipainterindependent  in artistic matters yet responsive to modern developments. He was an engaging and well-liked Professor of Painting at the RA - as popular, it was said, as Reynolds had been to earlier generations. If Clausen is less well known today, it is no indication of the respect that he was accorded within his lifetime. Too old to fight in the First World War, Clausen was appointed a war artist instead. Work commissioned for the Houses of Parliament in the 1920s, including a famous depiction of John Wycliffeeventually earned him a knighthood, and he died in 1944 after a long and studious career.  

Elizabeth’s talk mainly concerned the first half of Clausen’s life. Born in 1852, he was the son of a Danish decorator living in London. His talent was spotted early on, and he was schooled at the South Kensington art schools. Artists making their name at the time were obliged to spend time on the Continent, and Clausen chose Antwerp over Paris. His style, and his distinctly European surname, led some to mistake him for a native Dutch painter.  

After a brief period in Holland, by the 1870s Clausen was back in London, which at the time was experiencing an explosion of artistic energy. As well as the famous battle between Ruskin and Whistler over Whistler’s ‘Nocturne’ painting, London had become the destination for √©migr√© French artists escaping the Franco-Prussian war. Among the influences on Clausen’s development were French artists such as Monet, Pissarro and Bastien-Lepage, while James Tissot’s portraiture left its impression on Clausen’s depictions of everyday London street life.  

Girl at a Gate 1889

Clausen married, and moved out of London finding rural refuge at Childwick Green in Hertfordshire. Here the light, and the rural subject matter, further developed his art. Artists such as Millet had made labouring life in the countryside a subject of their work, and Clausen developed a similar fascination. His depictions of gleaners, stone pickers and turnip harvesters threw light upon the poorest parts of rural society at a time when the nation was experiencing the jolts of rapid industrialisation.  

Winter Work, 1883. Tate. 

Not that Clausen rejected the allure of modernity: he made use of a camera in taking studies for his paintings, and his choice of rural location was dictated to some degree by proximity to a train line back to London, where he exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery and the New English Art Club. After Hertfordshire, Clausen and his family located to Cookham Dean in Berkshire, where he continued to paint everyday scenes (such as Ploughboy (1888), Girl at a Gate (1889) and Schoolgirl (1889)).  

Little Haymakers

In 1890 Clausen moved to Widdington, Essex, where he rented a house called Bishops. A combination of the East Anglian light, and the traditional feel to much of the local farming activity, gave him a rich seam of subjects: men making hay ricks, or harvesting. There were several depictions of the interior of barns, no doubt inspired by Prior’s Hall Barn at Widdington (now an English Heritage property). Clausen’s sons went to Newport Free Grammar School, where the headmaster (William Waterhouse) had his portrait painted by Clausen. The painting still hangs in the school building in Newport.  

Clavering Church. 

Clausen’s artistic reputation seems to be reviving at present. Although he was painting at the same time as the Impressionists, his work is clearly different and distinct: more naturalistic and faithful to its subject. Clausen would spend hours studying the movement of a scythe-cutter’s arm, just to ensure the accuracy of his depiction. He was serious about his art, and about the traditions within which he worked. Elizabeth’s talk was a revelation, in throwing light upon the development of such an energetic and accomplished artist, who would have been a well-known figure in Newport during the 15 years he spent at Bishops.  

The tombstone of Clausen and his wife in Newbury, Berkshire, apparently says that “They came to this village during the war and died here. He would have chosen to rest in the Essex countryside that he loved and painted. She would have chosen to be wherever he was.” 

Sunday, 26 November 2017

A walk around Hamburg

This weekend we had the pleasure of visiting Hamburg for the first time. The Speicherstadt (historic docks) and neighbouring Kontorhaus District and Chilehaus were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015, because of Hamburg's role as one of the world's leading maritime trade centres. 

Before reaching the Speicherstadt, we took a ferry past the Elbphilarmonie, a concert hall that opened earlier this year, designed by (Tate Modern) architects Herzog & de Mouron

Birmingham Symphony Orchestra played a concert here on the night of our visit. It turns out that residents of Hamburg have a particularly keen appreciation of British arts and culture, although this latest arts venue somewhat puts anything equivalent in the UK into the shade

Spectacular views were to be had from the viewing platform of the Elbphilarmonie, looking back across the docks of Hamburg.

The Speicherstadt is a district of nineteenth-century warehouse buildings. Originally these buildings would all have faced onto water. The copper hoods of the gables contain ropes and pulleys, used to hoist goods into the capacious warehouses. Many of the buildings are today used for storage of other goods: carpets, spices, coffee, tea etc, if they have not been adopted as museum spaces. 

Hamburg is proud of its links to the medieval Hanseatic League, an early alliance of cities that traded with each other across the North Sea and the Baltic. The Speicherstadt was built as a free port within the newly unified German empire and customs union.  I suppose therefore the buildings, which are lifted from the waters on timber piles, form an architectural manifestation of an early form of the European Union Customs Union.

Perhaps the Beatles felt especially at home here in 1960-62, when they took up residence. They had moved from one great maritime city to another, both of which are today recognised as UNESCO world heritage sites. 

Sunday, 29 October 2017

The seven ages of Newport

This was a talk I gave recently at a community service in my local church. It is an attempt to explain the history of my village, Newport in Essex, in seven ages....

Age 1       Ice Age

Half a million years ago, the land that is now our village was covered in ice. As the ice retreated and the land warmed up, river valleys were formed, such as the one that Newport sits in today, the gentle valley of the river Cam. We can still see evidence of the ice age in the large stones that are sometimes found on the sides of roads in this area of north-west Essex – they were the boulders left behind as the ice retreated.
Newport's 'Leper Stone'. So-called because lepers put money in the hollow, in return for food being left for them.

Age 2     The earliest settlers

As the land warmed up, it was settled. By the time the Romans came, the countryside was largely cleared of trees and was being farmed. The 11th-century chapel at Wicken Bonhunt is one of the oldest buildings not just in Essex but in the whole of East Anglia.  

Age 3     The making of Newport  

Newport was a prosperous medieval market town. The name Newport after all means ‘new market’, and there was a market here from at least the 12th century. Farmers would come from miles around to trade animals and produce, a practice that continued into the 18th century.  You might say, in fact, that we are a village that was once a town.

The church we are in is a testament to the wealth of Newport in medieval and Tudor times. Not too far away was St Leonard’s hospital, the stones of which can still be seen in the wall by the roadside. Its care for the sick and infirm gave the name to the leper stone that marks the spot where the hospital once stood.

  In 1587 a wealthy London widow Joyce Frankland left a bequest in her will to build a school in Newport. It formerly occupied a building on the site of what is now Church House.

Age 4    Georgian Newport

It was only the granting of a licence for a market in nearby Saffron Walden that led to Newport’s own prosperity being eclipsed. Since then we have been too small to be called a town, but perhaps still too large and important to be called a village.

Walk down our High Street today and you will see the evidence of the prosperity of 18th-century Newport. Five or six large houses dominate - these were originally the farms that employed the majority of Newport’s inhabitants back in the 1700s.

At either end of the village were the mansions of the men who actually owned the land – Shortgrove to the north, and Quendon to the south.

For many years our village was known as Newport Pond, because of its propensity to flood. Some things never change.

Age 5   Victorian Newport

Newport continued to enjoy prosperity into the Victorian era. The coming of the railway in the 1840s was an important moment. The local farmers relied upon the railway to transport their produce to London.  

Age 6      20th-century Newport

The roll call of names on the memorial stone in the churchyard records the lives the village lost in the First (and then Second) World Wars.

The soldiers who returned from the trenches one hundred years ago marked the event by building a new social club in the village, which sat alongside Newport’s six pubs (which had names like the Hercules, the Star and the Three Tuns).

The men resumed lives as farmworkers, blacksmiths or labourers, the women also as farmworkers or in domestic service. Newport remained a predominantly agricultural village, weathering as best it could the vicissitudes of farming life. 

Within the space of half a century, all this had changed. Most of Newport’s pubs had gone, leaving us with just two (the Coach and Horses and the White Horse). The farms had gone too. In their place came hundreds of new homes – such as the houses on Frambury Lane and Cherry Garden Lane.
Behind us, the M11 ploughed an expressway through the fields – and the A11 was downgraded as the B1383.

Age 7      Today

Newport today is home to many people who would describe themselves as commuters – just witness the number of people catching the 713 or 743 to Liverpool Street every morning. New houses are being built, and our village may yet be transformed back into the town it arguably once was.
Yet we retain our charming rural setting, knowing that we are just minutes away from being able to walk in beautiful open countryside.

An Angel Roof in Newport, Essex

At our local history group talk this week, we heard a fascinating account by Michael Rimmer of Angel Roofs in East Anglian churches. Michael has written the definitive book on the topic, in which he speculates as to how and why this distinctive architectural form came to be found mainly in the Eastern counties, in churches dating from between c.1400 and 1536.

Actually the first Angel Roof turns out to have been that of Westminster Hall, commissioned by Richard II in the 1390s. The architect was Hugh Herland, and the roof was a feat of engineering by the standards of any age, featuring as it does timbers that weigh 660 tons in total.

Thereafter, the hammer-beam style decorated with angels was adopted in churches starting with King’s Lynn, where Herland happened to be working after Westminster Hall was completed in 1398. Michael set out some of the reasons why Norfolk and Suffolk might account for more than 80 per cent of all the Angel Roofs found anywhere in the UK (or indeed the world). This was the most prosperous area of the country in the middle ages, with ample wealth as well as access to skilled craftsmen and timbers as a result of the extensive trade across the North Sea with northern European and Scandinavian economies. Angel roofs were a dramatic expression of piety and godliness, helping to create a clear spiritual geography within church layouts (with the angels on high hymning and praising the image of Christ depicted in the rood screen below).
Blythburgh, Suffolk. Picture: Ben Cowell
Angels were carved with great care and artistry, using skilled craftsmen who clearly moved between the different churches as they plied their trade. The loss of angel roofs as a consequence of the Reformation in the 1530s was an act of aesthetic vandalism: many of the angels had their faces removed or otherwise obliterated. Yet 170 survive today, their beauty preserved by being so high and distant from the hurley-burley of the ground level.

Michael largely excluded Essex from his analysis, though he acknowledged that North West Essex did indeed share many of the attributes of the East Anglian counties of Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire.
St Mary's, Newport, Essex Picture: Ben Cowell
As it happens, St Mary’s church in Newport in Essex has an Angel roof, albeit perhaps not quite as impressive as others in East Anglia. Newport’s angel roof is not of the hammer beam type. Rather, the eight angels are a decorative addition located between the tie beams that hold the roof in place. The angels are unpainted, but are clearly angel-like, with wings and carved faces.
Newport Angel. Picture: Ben Cowell
The roof is not mentioned in Pevsner’s (or Bettley's) account of Newport’s church. This may be because the roof is not original, but a 19th century restoration. It is said that an earlier vicar of Newport, Benjamin Hughes (vicar from 1780 to 1796) ‘disfigured the angels that supported the nave roof by cutting off their heads’. Michael hinted that it is possible the current angels were brought in from another church altogether.Yet there they still are, gazing down upon the congregation. 
See Michael's excellent website for more on East Anglian Angel Roofs - and do get a copy of his book.