St Margaret of Antioch July 20th

St Margaret about to be beheaded.  Castle Howard (if I remember rightly from the label, this is by William Morris)

St Margaret’s story is a horrifying chronical of torture and multiple attempts to kill her. I walked past the rerodos shown below at least weekly when I worked in the V&A, and always stared at this and wondered why medieval martyrdoms were so very bloody and, frankly, sadomasochistic.

The reredos below is on display at the V&A, Kensington London. If you click it you will link to an interesting essay on Martyrdom for St Margaret’s Day. For more of my thoughts on this subject have a look at my post of St Catherine.

Forecasting the Harvest & the Downfall of the Mayor of Casterbridge. St Swithin’s Day July 15th

Photo by David Becker on Unsplash

It’s not just important for the farmer but, even more, for the corn factor, to get the weather right for harvest. If it rains on St Swithins Day it betokens rain for 40 days from 15th July. But the BBC tells us that, since records have been kept (1841) there has been no period of 40 days rain after St Swithins Day.

The price of corn is very dependent upon the weather. Michael Henchard in Thomas Hardy’s 1886 novel ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ has formed a terrible rivalry with his erstwhile friend Donald Fafrae and is determined to outdo him in the Casterbridge Cornmarket. He has a hunch about the weather and the price of corn, but needs reassurances. So despite his doubts about the efficacy of prophecy he goes to a lonely hand – built cottage to see ‘a man of curious repute as a forecaster or weather-prophet.’ Henchard is shrouded possibly to protect his identify and he will not stay to take hospitality from the prophet, not cross the threshold, and masks his face with a handkerchief as if suffering from a toothache.

However, the prophet knows this strange man is the former Mayor of Casterbridge, much to Henchard’s surprise. Henchard quizzes him. ‘can ye charm away warts?’ ‘cure the evil?’ ‘forecast the weather?’ Replying in the affirmative he takes Henchard’s crownpiece and forecasts:

By the sun, moon, and stars, by the clouds, the winds, the trees, and grass, the candle-flame and swallows, the smell of the herbs; likewise by the cats eyes, the ravens, the leeches, the spiders, and the dungmixen, the last fortnight in August will be – rain and tempest.’ ‘Twill be more like living in Revelations this autumn that in England.’

Henchard buys up grain at the current high price, and is ruined by the fine weather that sets in for a fine harvest with corn prices tumbling.

Local folklore was at the heart of many of Hardy’s stories. Perhaps the most dramatic is the ‘Withered Arm’. Gertrude has a withered arm wished upon her by the former lover of her husband, with whom she has an illegitimate boy.

Years pass, and she is still determined to cure her arm. She visits a Casterbridge Cunning Man. He tells her the only cure is to touch the neck of a recently hanged man. So she goes to Casterbridge on a Hanging Day, makes the arrangements with the hangman; touches the neck; is cured immediately, only to find the young man is the illegitimate son of her husband.

I first read these stories one after another at a time I was going through a painful period in my life. I remember throwing the ‘Withered Arm’ at the wall shouting ‘Oh Thomas Hardy’ you miserable man.’ It took me twenty years to come back to him, to appreciate his amazing descriptions of life in rural Wessex, with a cast of characters struggling to make a place for themselves in a world that was changing beyond all recognition.

First Published in 2022, revised July 2024

Twin, Twins – Festival of Castor and Pollux July 15th

The Ashwini kumaras twins, sons of the sun god Surya. Vedic gods representing the brightness of sunrise and sunset Wikipedia

The Divine Twins, aka the Dioscuri, were horsemen, patrons of calvary, athletes and sailors, one of many indo-european twin gods.   Pollux is the son of Zeus and Leda (raped by Zeus in the guise of a swan). His twin brother has a different and mortal father, the King of Sparta to the same mother, Leda.  So they are examples of heteropaternal superfecundation as Mary Poppins probably didn’t sing.

One is therefore immortal and the other isn’t.   They had many adventures including sailing with Jason as Argonauts.

According to some version of the story Castor was mortally wounded, and Zeus gave Pollux the option of letting his brother die while Pollux could spend  eternity on Mount Olympus. The alternative was to share his immortality with his brother. He did the good thing, and the twins spend half their year as the Constellation of Gemini and the rest, immortal, on Mount Olympus.  Thus, they are the epitome of brotherly love.

Their sisters were no less than Helen of Troy and Clytemnestra. They were also twins, Helen the divine daughter of Zeus and, Clytemnestra, mortal daughter of the King of Sparta.

It happened like this.  The Swan was being pursued by an eagle, so Leda protected the Swan and took it to bed.  On the same night she slept with her husband Tyndareus of Sparta. Two eggs were fertilised, each split in two to give two sets of twins.

Leda and the Swan, 16th-century copy after the lost painting by Michelangelo

Never mind the Brothers, what Sisters! Helen you know. But Clytemnestra? She was the wife of Agamemnon, the arrogant leader of the Greeks.  On the way to retrieve Helen from Troy, the Greek Fleet was becalmed. So, on advice, Agamemnon sacrificed his own daughter, Iphigenia, on the island of Aulis in exchange for a fair wind to Troy. (read Iphigenia at Aulis by Aeschylus, a great play which I studied in Classical Studies at University)

painting of Clytemnestra after she has slaughtered her husband Agamemnon _by_John_Collier,_1882 (Wikipedia Guildhall Museum)
Clytemnestra_by_John_Collier,_1882 (Wikipedia Guildhall Museum)

Meanwhile, Queen Clytemnestra, abandoned at home, broods on her husband’s heartless fillicide. She takes a lover. After 10 years of war, Agamemnon comes back, in triumph from the destruction of Troy, with his prize, the Trojan Princess, Cassandra. Strutting with arrogance, he demands Clytemnestra prepare him a bath, and, so she does, she gives him the hottest bath possible. With the help of her lover, she hacks Agamemnon to pieces with an axe.

Cassandra prophesizes that she too will be a victim.  She has been gifted with the ability of accurate prophecy, albeit twinned with the inability to get anyone to believe her! She is also slaughtered.

I visit John Collier’s painting of Clytemnestra at the Guildhall regularly and am fascinated by her grim expression.

In the 18th/19th Century rich people were into ‘attitudes’.  For example, Emma Hart, later Lady Hamilton, would be invited to present an attitude in front of a dinner party of mostly male aristocrats.  She would dress up in a flowing revealing unstructured classical gown and stand on a table presenting herself as: Helen or Andromache or any other classical beauty guests might fancy an eyeful of.  She would assume an appropriate facial expression and posture for everyone’s pleasure. 

Detail of Emma Hart modelling as Iphigenia by George Romney in ‘Cimon and Iphigenia’

Being Clytemnestra is difficult! I imagine Collier’s model being  prompted to look both sad at the loss of the daughter; outraged at the arrogance of the husband; horror at the gore of the murder but overall to portray a grim satisfaction that the bastard got exactly what he deserved.

Lord Leighton had a famous model who was exceptionally skilled at adopting poses for his paintings. He determined to help her with an acting career. As part of the plan he helped improve her cockney accent, and it is said this inspired Bernard Shaw’s story Pygmalion which, in turn, inspired My Fair Lady and Eliza Doolittle. 

Leighton’s model was Dorothy Dene.  She became a famous actress, outstripping the fame of Ellen Terry and Lily Langtry. She modelled for the famous painting ‘Flaming June’ which sold 500,000 print copies in 1895.  Lord Leighton went somewhat out of fashion and the original painting was purchased for £50 by the rather marvellously named Museo de Ponce, Puerto Rico where she still resides.

I have one of those half million prints on my bedroom wall.

Print of Flaming June by Lord Leighton

Before we finish, do have a look at John Collier’s Wikipedia because he is the most ridiculously well-connected painter you can imagine! Related to half the Cabinet and married to TWO daughters of Darwin’s Bulldog T.H.Huxley (grandfather of Aldous Huxley).

For more on Flaming June see my blog post of 12 July 2024

European Twin Gods

It is suggested that twin male gods are a feature of Indo-European religions, and that the Twins are associated with horses/chariots and are responsible for moving the Sun and the Moon. Their use of a horse above the water means that they can rescue  people lost at sea.   St Elmo’s fire was said to be the way they manifested their divinity to sailors.   Diodorus Siculus records that the Twins were Argonauts with Heracles, Telamon, and Orpheus. Further, he tells us in the fourth book of Bibliotheca historica, that the Celts who dwelt along the ocean worshipped the Dioscuroi “more than the other gods”.

First written in 2023 updated in July 24.

Fête Nationale Française. Le 14 juillet. Bastille Day July 14th

French Revolutionary Month of Messidor (June-July)

Today, is the French National Day, le Quatorze Juillet, the day to celebrate the storming of the infamous Bastille on 14 July 1789. It was a symbol of Royal oppression, but only had 7 relatively insignificant prisoners on the day it was stormed. 200 attackers and 1 defender were killed in the first round, and then the Commander surrendered to avoid more deaths, but was then himself killed with 7 of his soldiers. But it was symbolic of the collapse of the old order.

I wrote about the French Revolutionary Calendar earlier in the year which introduced a rational non-christian calendar to France.

Here is an except of what I wrote about the names of the new months:

I’m going to begin by giving you the names (of the months) as reported, satirically, by John Brady in England 1811 (starting with ‘October’ and separating seasons by semicolons).

Wheezy, Sneezy and Freezy; Slippy, Drippy and Nippy; Showery, Flowery
and Bowery; Hoppy, Croppy and Poppy.

The official name of this month was Messidor (or ‘hoppy’ in the list above). You might like to have a look at the post below to celebrate the French National Day. The 14th July was the day named after Sage in the Month of Messidor.

Sandals of the Saints

Copy of the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinca at the Collection Gallery, Royal Academy, UK
(Copy made 1515-1520, and was in the Carthusian Monsatery at Pavia in the 17th Century before being brought to the RA in the 19th Century)

Whilst visiting Flaming June at the RA, it was nice to have another look at the Last Supper. What strikes me most is their sandals (and the beautifully pressed table cloth).

Detail of the RA copy of the Last Supper

Details that bring the past to life. The shoes would surely sell today, while the table cloth really destroys the common idea that the past was dirty and smelly. It wasn’t. People took pride in their appearance and surroundings. Just look at the ironing!

Here, by way of contrast, is a medieval shoe from the 14th Century from the Museum of London. And this is a link to the Museum of London’s collections of medieval shoes, most have been collected from excavations, and it is one of the best collections.

Discovering Mary Beale in Pall Mall, Flaming June in Piccadilly

Philip Mould Galley,Bond Street.The home of painter Mary Beale

Yesterday, I was asked to do two Jane Austen’s London walks.  The walk explores Mayfair, where her brother, Henry lived and had his Bank, and where Austen placed the central drama of Sense and Sensibility. I decided to use the time between the walks to look for a shopping mall which dates back to Jane Austen’s time, but I got diverted as I saw a sign for a free exhibition on Mary Beale in Pall Mall. 

Mary Beale is that rare beast; a professional female artist of the 17th Century (1633-1699). So, I double-checked the ‘free entry’ notice because this was a posh West End private art gallery and the name Philip Mould was familiar.  I went in and realised that this was something special. I returned to the entrance to ask the very friendly staff whether I could take photographs.  ‘Yes, of course, they said.’ much to my surprise.

Mary Beale Exhibition sign.

Downstairs, the art of Mary Beale was beautifully displayed, and the exhibition had a very interesting story to tell, which was well-told, using excellent labels and a film narrated by Philip Mould.  He was, as I thought, the co-presenter of ‘Fake or Fortune’ (with Fiona Bruce, newsreader and anchor of the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow). This is a BBC art programme which is in its 12th Series. The conceit of the show is that they investigate dubious paintings to find out whether they are genuine or not.

The film revealed that Philip Mould opened his Art Gallery here over a decade ago, but research has recently discovered that this is the very address where Mary Beale had her studio.

Scene shot of Philip Mould in the Mary Beale Exhibition in his short film shot in his Art Gallery.

Her career is not only remarkable in itself, but it was recorded in great detail by her husband. She was the bread winner.  He was her partner, and in effect the studio manager. In correspondence, he describes her as his ‘dearest heart’. 

Self-Portrait of Mary, with her husband and son

It was a family business and their children also worked as painting assistants, doing draperies and other background details.   Her paintings gave them an income of around £200 a year, which is not riches but, by comparison, a labourer got about £30 a year.

She was associated with Sir Peter Lely, the Court painter who succeeded Van Dyke. Mary Beale made copies of many of his paintings.  She also painted many pictures of her family.

Mary Beale’s painting after Sir Peter Lely’s portrait of Charles II

There are several excellent short films about Mary Beale on the Gallery’s web site, which is well worth a visit. The exhibition ends on the 19th July, but there is also, for you to see, Tate Britain’s exhibition ‘Now you see us’ which is the story of British female artists from the 1520’s to 1920.

On the way back from the Gallery, I popped into the Royal Academy to renew an old acquaintance with ‘Flaming June’ by Lord Leighton, a copy of which hangs on my bedroom wall, and which is on one of its rare visits to the UK. There is also the statue of the Sluggard and it’s all free to view.

Flaming June by Lord Leighton
The Sluggard by Lord Leighton

It is days like this, that you realise what a wonderful thing it is to live in London. All this superb art, and all without laying out a penny (travelling on my free travel pass too!).

I wrote about Flaming June in a post you can read here.

Haymaking time. But the Wrong Time to Marry July 2nd.

Hayricks Photo by Roman Synkevych 🇺🇦 on Unsplash

‘They that wive twixt sickle and scythe shall never thrive’

The time between Haymaking and the corn harvest was such a busy period, that it was considered a bad time to marry. Haymaking was done by hand with a sickle, these were swung at an angle to cut the grass. It was easier if a good rhyme could be set up. The first man would step out in to the meadow but the next man had to leave a little gap to ensure he was safe from his fellows swinging sickle.

Apparently, the song ‘One Man went to mow, went to move a meadow’ gives the right gap, the second man would come in with the next line ‘Two Men went to mow, went to move a meadow’ and so on. Once cut, the grass needed to be dried out in the fields, and turned every so often with a pitchfork. Once dried, it was taken to the farmyard and the hay built into a hayrick. The rick typically had a thatched roof. The hay, normally made of a mixture of grasses, was cut off from the rick by a hay knife to fed to animals in the winter.

Experiments at Rothamsted Park Grass, in Hertfordshire, have allowed scientists to study the effects of annual hay cutting. This study has been in continuous operation since 1856 which makes it the oldest continuous field experiment in the world. Among the many findings is the counterintuitive discovery that when fertiliser was evenly applied, the number of plant species declined from forty to fewer than five. Here is an article on Rothamsted Park Grass which gives interesting details.

If you wish to grow your lawn to increase biodiversity and to make it wildlife friendly, then read this is article. It is very important that we revive our battered wildlife. 97% of the UK’s semi-natural grassland has been destroyed over the last 80 years says ecologist Jack Marley.

July Haymaking from the Kalendar of Shepherds 15th Century

First published in June 2023, and republished in July 2024.

July Julius Caesar’s Month

July – Kalendar of Shepherds 15th Century

July is named for Julius Caesar. Originally, the Roman Month was called Quintilis, as it was the fifth month of the Roman calendar, which originally started in March. Caesar reformed the calendar in 44BC and the Senate renamed the month after him.

It is called Lúil in Irish and Gorffennaf in Welsh. In Anglo Saxon July was Æfteraliða, or “after-mild;”, Liða, means “mild” or “gentle,” or the period of warm weather around Midsummer. June is Arraliða, or “before-mild”.

It is on average the warmest month in most of the Northern Hemisphere, where it is the second month of summer. The star signs for July are: Cancer (until July 22) and Leo (July 23 onwards),

July is the month of Haymaking, as you can see from the July image (above from in the Kalendar of Shepherds). To find out more, wait for the next post.From the Kalendar of Shepherds comes this description of July.

First published, in 2023 and republished in 2024.