A Country House Christmas: Remembrance of Christmases Past

Originally titled Treasure on Earth and published in 1952, this small book was written by Phyllis Elinor Sanderman (born the Hon Phyllis Legh) and is a thinly disguised account of the Christmases that she experienced at Lyme Park, the Legh family residence in Cheshire. It’s a charming and affectionate look at Christmases past and would not look out of place as a Downton Abbey Christmas special with the big house being readied for Christmas, as well as the rituals and traditions that underpin Christmas at Lyme. The narrative is written in the third person, and while a few names have been changed Lyme is renamed Vyne Park while the author’s parents the 2nd Baron and Baroness Newton are Sir Thomas and Lady Vayne, but it’s easy to pick up that the author is describing her parents and home.

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However while what we see in Downton Abbey’s celebration of Christmas is pretty much a pastiche, A Country House Christmas while short delves into detail about how Christmas was celebrated in a house like Lyme Park before World War I. There are the family theatricals, the visiting relatives, the exchange and giving of presents: not just between the family but the annual distribution of beef to the tenants and presents for their children presided over by Sir Thomas and Lady Vayne. Phyllis’s anticipation of the big day jumps off the pages of the book as does her passion for the house and its history and contents. There are more than enough descriptions of the house which despite the absence of any photographs allow the reader to imagine Vyne Park and its inhabitants, upstairs and down.

Apart from the description of the house and the rituals associated with the festive season there are affectionate portraits and characters sketches of the servants: Truelove the butler, Fraulein Thur the governess, Perez the chef and Mrs Campbell the housekeeper. These sketches are woven into the descriptions of the preparations for Christmas and the acknowledgement that the servants are the engine that keep the house running. Prominent among the servants of course is Truelove – defined by Phyllis as “unquestionably the ‘Eminence Grise,’ the power behind the throne, holding the reins of government; with the ear of the queen, the confidence and (albeit reluctant) admiration of the reigning monarch, and with both titular rulers dependent on him and knowing it.” There is also a description of the wider community outside the confines of the house and the relationship between the Vaynes and the estate as demonstrated by Sanderman’s description of the present giving to the children of tenants presided over by Lady Vayne:

“When the children of the estate employees came up on Boxing Day to have tea and receive their presents, it was he [Truelove] who acted as master of ceremonies. After tea in the servants’ hall, it for the occasion with Chinese lanterns, they would troops upstairs in the Long Gallery, where the tree in all its glory for the second day in succession provided, except for the blazing fire, the only light in the room…..Then when everyone had walked around the tree and admired it thoroughly, Truelove would read out from a list, not the children’s names but their parents’ names and their respective ages – a nice distinction.

‘Jim Bowden’s little girl aged six years’ – and a small girl in her best frock and button boots would clatter across the shiny boards to where Lady Vayne stood beside the tree, received her gift with a bobbed curtsey and clatter back again……the same ceremony again, till from the youngest to the eldest they had all their presents. Then Truelove would make a speech.

It was the same every year – ‘I’m sure we’re all very grateful to Her Ladyship for providing this beautiful tree and presents. When I was a boy and Christmas came round I was pleased if I got a monkey on a stick. But of course times have changed. Now I want you all to give three hearty cheers,’ etc.

There was always the loyal response. Then the gallery would resound to the blowing of tin trumpets and whistles, the clicking of pistols and popping of crackers, and the broad North Country accents of excited young voices.”

The narrative is set in 1906, five years before the passage of the Parliament Act and eight years before the outbreak of the First World War; both of which would deal a death blow to the power and prestige of the aristocracy. Superficially, this account can be seen as a paean to aristocratic life with its unchanging routines, deferential servants and tenants, dressing up for dinner and the entertaining demanded of a house like Vyne but it goes deeper than that, as there is also the self-awareness that this aristocratic world and lifestyle could vanish.

And vanish it does. The narrative fast forwards to and ends in 1946, when as an adult Phyllis returns to Vyne again as the house has been given to the nation because the Vaynes, harassed as they are by rationing and rising taxes, can no longer afford to keep the house as it was during that Indian summer before 1914. One would have thought that Sanderman would be nostalgic for the “good old days” but clearly she isn’t as she writes in the introduction to the 1981 reprint of her book:

“The hard fact must be accepted that houses such as Lyme are now anachronisms, no longer able to fulfil their original function, namely that of dwelling-houses for the leisure class. They must either fall into decay or be turned into institutions – hospitals or schools – or become museum pieces, visited and enjoyed by the public at large.”

I would highly recommend this book, not just as a charming story of Christmases past but also a more thorough look at how the festive season was celebrated in a country house in a way that period drama such as Downton Abbey have never quite managed to capture.

 

 

 

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Christmas greetings and announcement

This blog is planning to review the Victoria (ITV) Christmas special which will be telecast on ITV1 on Christmas Day at 9pm but as the blogger will be out of the country, the review won’t be available until after the New Year.

In the meantime, we wish our readers and followers a very Merry Christmas!

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Come Dance with Me: When Britain fell in love with Ballroom Dancing

Long before Strictly Come Dancing debuted on British television in 2004 and reignited an interest in ballroom dancing, Britain had a period between the two world wars when the nation fell in love with dancing and it was the main competition to the cinema in terms of popularity as a form of leisure activity.

Dancing’s popularity was aided and abetted by a growing consumer culture that grew exponentially after the war, as well as foreign influences, particularly from America, that made their presence felt. This popularity also reflected changes in music tastes, the status of women, technology and many others. However this was also the time when there was anxiety over the growing “Americanisation” of British society and culture and for a minority of people who saw dancing as a contributor to the decline in moral standards. In this blog, we shall see how Britain put on their dancing shoes and took to dancing with a great enthusiasm that has not been seen since.

 

Dancing as a national pastime:

Prior to the end of the First World War, ballroom dancing as we know it today had its roots in the ballrooms of royalty and the aristocracy: where dancing was an important social lubricant and part of entertaining among the royals and the upper classes. Then and until the eve of the outbreak of the Second World War, dancing was an integral part of the London Season and the ability to dance was seen as a useful social skill.

This all changed especially during the years of the Great War and after.  The horrors witnessed during the war and the changes that occurred as a result meant that people, especially the young, were keen to seize the moment and enjoy themselves. Popular entertainment became more widespread during this era and dancing particularly stepped out of the palaces and country homes to occupy “a pivotal place in the culture of the working- and lower-middle class communities in Britain.” Dancing’s popularity was only rivalled by the cinema and it’s easy to see why; it had universal appeal and something shared among generations as young people, their parents and grandparents danced. It was also social lubricant and an opportunity to meet other people. Crucially, it also provided an opportunity for social mobility and entrepreneurship as a whole new industry sprang up from dancing to provide employment for dance teachers, bands, singers, comperes, chefs, waiters and even builders, architects, interior decorators and engineers.

The “dance boom” was noticed as early as 1919 –  as The Sunday Sun observed: “There is a big boom in dancing. Ever since the silencing of the guns last November it has loomed large in the social life of the individual. Where it was once an art it has now become a craze…..if things go on as they are at present, it is safe to assume that dancing will shortly become an obsession with the majority of our younger citizens.” People danced at home, in dance halls and nightclubs and even between courses while dining in restaurants, and the popularity of dancing dominated the post-war scene. Loelia Ponsonby (later Duchess of Westminster), recalled “Supported by nothing more than tea or coffee (a glass of sherry would have turned it into an orgy) we fox-trotted tirelessly until it was time to dash home and change into evening dress for a real dance…dancing was more than a craze, it had become a sort of mystical religion.” If there was no formal afternoon dance available for Ponsonby and her friends they would meet at someone’s home and “we wound up the gramophone, put on a record and began practising new steps.”

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And this boom was encouraged and fuelled by the rise of dance halls across the country. Many were converted from existing facilities such as theatres, bath halls, assembly halls and even clubs but the rise of the purpose built palais de danse brought dancing to the masses: the French name signifying elegance and adding a veneer of glamour to the venue. They were purpose built for dancing and could also accommodate several bands, a café and restaurant that no other existing assembly hall could provide. They also became noted for their programmes which featured the latest dances, music and bands. The first of these palaise de danse was the Hammersmith Palace opened in 1919 by Howard Booker and Frank Mitchell, a Canadian and American respectively. It quickly became a success owing to the fact that its music was provided by touring bands (mostly from America) on a residency for a few months thereby keeping the acts fresh and novel. Its status as a place to be was cemented by the fact that the Prince of Wales and his younger brother the Duke of York became regulars. The formula became successful and by the mid-1920s, other palais de danse were opened in cities such as in Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Smaller towns followed suit and just like the cinemas, these dance halls with their imposing facades and plush interiors were monuments to the inter-war years as James Nott wrote:

“The growth of purpose built dance halls providing first rate facilities at affordable prices, with proper organisation and orderly conduct, shifted the focus of dancing by the mid-1920s away from its former upper class strongholds in the West End of London towards an urban lower-middle- and working class patronage. The palais de danse were providing facilities that would, by the mid-1930s, make dancing a truly mass leisure pursuit. Regular, cheap and modern, dances at a palais de danse were ideal for those with lower incomes who were interested in the new dance steps and new dance music.” (p. 22)

The late 1920s to the early 1930s (despite a short slump in dancing’s popularity during the mid-1920s) led to the development of a dance hall industry with the establishment of both local and national chains. The most famous was the Mecca Group which started out as a catering firm called Mecca Café, which provided catering for the likes of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden and other established venues. Mecca Café had its first forays into the dance hall business after acquiring a dance hall in Brighton which became a success. Its strategy was to buy halls that were faltering or losing money and turn them around. Mecca also pioneered business practices that were soon copied by other dance halls and chains due to the realisation that dancing alone did not attract customers – especially repeat ones. Infrastructure was deployed to ensure that facilities were comfortable, luxurious and state of the art; hence they were constantly updated and improved in order to keep up with trends and changes in technology such as lighting, acoustics and cooling systems.

Palais de danse

Dance halls also used marketing and promotions to attract customers both new and repeat and yet again Mecca proved to be the pioneer through the use of press agencies (forerunner of today’s PR agencies) to promote dancing as well as the use of “stunts” to liven up evenings. Examples of these stunts included talent nights, themed nights and special prizes given to, for instance, the fiftieth or hundredth customer to pass through the door.  Dance halls like the cinema were relatively unscathed during the Great Depression as despite record numbers of unemployment, more people went to dance halls as they offered escapism and value for money. For a single admission price, one person could enjoy an evening with music, dancing, a variety of entertainment, amenities and dining; not to mention the chance to meet large numbers of members of the opposite sex.

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Dance styles and music – the emergence of a home grown style:

During the 19th century dances such as the quadrille and polka were very popular but the first dance style that shocked polite society was the waltz, mainly due to its hold and the use of the closed position (i.e couples dancing face to face rather than side by side). Because of that it was seen as shocking and immoral but it outlasted all other dances and its hold and closed position becoming the standard for other style of dances.

In the years before 1914, popular dances included the cakewalk, bunny hug, Turkey Trot, tango and the foxtrot: with the latter particularly proving to be more enduring as the new jazz sounds introduced after the war provided the perfect tempo for the dance. Just as in the past, dance fashions came and went only this time many of them proved to be a flash in the pan. Novelty, group and party dances such as the Black Bottom, the shimmy, jogtrot and the Lambeth Walk were introduced with varying degrees of success, the most successful being the Charleston which was introduced from America. Its frantic and high energy steps became popular especially with the young but not everyone was enamoured of this new style of dance. A newspaper likened the steps to “reminiscent only of negro orgies” and many of the old guard frowned upon this foreign import as “neurotic” and “rotten”.

These new dances, like the novelty of jazz with its syncopated rhythm and flexibility, undermined older notions of respectability and propriety when it came to dancing and music. Just as the waltz nearly a century before had been considered shocking, so did critics baulk at the high jinks of the Charleston or the sharp staccato movements of the tango. Given the foreign origins of these dances and jazz music, it was inevitable that the dances and the music accompanying them would be denounced and thought of as offending British sensibilities.

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There is nothing new about this. During the early 18th century, the introduction of opera onto the London stage was denounced as “foreign” as it was an alien concept, sung in a language no-one could understand by foreign singers and staged with over the top props and scenery. The plots of these Italian operas were also suspect as being “too Catholic”. Fast forward to the 20th century and it seemed that little had changed – only this time the target was America and not Italy. American music and dance were slowly trickling into the UK before the war but its proliferation and ubiquity began during the last two years of the First World War following the USA’s entry into the fray on the side of the Allied powers. After the war ended, this carried with the dance halls, nightclubs, hotels and restaurants providing a platform for American bands and their British imitators.

The influence of America on British popular culture proved to be a breeding ground for envy and resentment. Although Britain was on the winning side during the war, the initial optimism faded as soon as the reality of high unemployment, ailing heavy industry and manufacturing base and crushing national debt hit home. This was further compounded by the encroachment of American films and music into British popular culture, which fed into growing anxiety about foreign (read: American) influences diluting and debasing British culture and taste. As a result, in a response to a growing Americanisation an “English” style of dancing and “British” music were born by appropriating foreign styles and modifying or changing them to suit local tastes.

The birth of the “English” style of dance was seen as one way to tame and “clean” up dances considered to be too risqué and this was done through formalising the steps and technique by recognised professionals and dance organisations. The growth of the dance halls and popularisation of dancing had also led to the rise of dance teaching as a profession and the opening of schools. During this period, dance teaching became more formalised and codified by the establishment organisations such as the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing (ISTD) in 1904, with ballroom dancing included in 1924. There was also the National Association of Teachers of Dancing established in 1906, British Association of Teachers of Dancing (1892), the Allied Dancing Association (1921) and the International Dancing Masters Association (1930) as well as regional associations and those at the local level.

Underpinning these organisations and schools were the professional dance teachers with some becoming household names. One of the most notable was Victor Silvester (1900-1978) who started his dancing career as a paid “dancing partner” at the Empress Rooms after WW1. In 1922 he won the World Ballroom Championship with his partner Phyllis Clarke. Silvester soon opened his own dance school and became instrumental in helping codification of ballroom dancing with the ISTD. He published several books on ballroom dancing and his Modern Ballroom Dancing (1927) still remains in print to this day. In addition he was also a proponent of “strict tempo” when it came to dancing and set up an orchestra to provide just that. Other famous dance teachers included Santos Casani (1898-1983), who became known following a feature of him dancing the Charleston atop a taxi with his dance school, as well as instruction newsreels, articles and books.

Codifying dance steps took on different ways such as for instance taking steps from novelty dances like the Charleston and incorporating them into what became known as the Quickstep. Older dances such as the waltz were given fresh impetus, Silvester and Clarke simplified it by eliminating the more complicated variations and introduced the “natural turn” to make it “more graceful and easier to dance.” As a result of the efforts of the likes of Silvester and Casani the “English” style of dancing with its emphasis on restraint, elegance, style, deportment and equality became popular abroad and help set the standard for social dancing abroad.

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dancing steps

Along with the development of an “English” style of dancing was the rise of the “British” style of dance music. British music as opposed to American was much more structured and less open to improvisation; it was also seen as “sweet” – more elegant and sentimental as opposed to the “hot” American beats with its syncopated notes. Also, British dance music also drew inspiration from the music hall with its emphasis on humour which was seen as an important ingredient in the British national character.

Radio and the nascent recording industry also helped popularised dance music. British radio was the monopoly of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) which under its first director general, John Reith took the view that the BBC’s output had to be impartial and that the BBC had the duty to educate, inform and entertain. With Reith’s high handed views however, entertaining would come a distant third to education and information. It would popularise jazz and dance music but only on its own terms and it did through the promotion of bands and performers they deemed acceptable and respectable while avoiding those that did not conform to the standards set by the Corporation. Among the latter was singing in the American style (called “crooning”) which the BBC banned in 1929 – “On no account will singing be allowed in the broadcast,” as the memo read, but eventually the BBC had to reconsider its ban owing to the popularity of singers such as Al Bowlly.

There were limits to Americanisation and it was not all encompassing; while British audiences patronised Hollywood films and looked to Hollywood stars for glamour and inspiration when it came to music, the public at large seemed to prefer home grown artists and music if record sales and public appearances were anything to go by. A prime example was the band leader Jack Hylton (1892-1965) and his Orchestra, as James Nott observed:

“[Hylton’s] popularity was enormous. In 1929, for example, Hylton played over 700 performances in365 days, travelled over 63,000 miles on tour, and his records – calculated on a twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week basis – sold at a rate of over seven a minute. Between 1921 and 1939 he recorded over 1,700 sides, and from 1923 to 1933 he sold nearly seven million records.”

 

The success of the likes of Victor Silvester and Jack Hylton demonstrate that as much as the British public did embrace foreign influences when it came to popular culture, home grown talent and music could hold their own against their foreign counterparts and even outsell them. The public had a way of showing their appreciation of certain dances and types of music and it was through voting with their feet and wallets.

 

Dancing and its discontents:

As mentioned earlier, the growing anxieties over the changes in British society after the war manifested themselves not only with grumblings over foreign influences on popular culture and taste but also with what was perceived as the decline in standards and morality. Dancing became a lightning rod for what was seen as what was wrong with post-war society. After the First World War there were debates about gender, the role of women, morality, and the growing influence of America. Negative opinions were held by a minority, however they were a vocal minority – usually members of the clergy, politicians and writers – and their expressed views became news used to sell papers and generate discussion.

The social side of dancing did not escape the notice of critics. It was an activity that could be enjoyed by everyone and seen as a way of meeting other people particularly those of the opposite gender. As such, it was seen as a way to mark key stages in a person’s life and to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood (the concept of “teenager” and “teen” did not emerge until the late 1950s) and as Nott observed “allowed young people their first taste of independence, where they could learn to socialise with their peer group and be introduced to the codes of behaviour expected of their sex. Dancing also gave young people familiarity with the opposite sex, offering a controlled environment in which to observe and interact with them. Indeed, it was at dances that most young people had their first experience of finding ‘dates’ and ‘dating’. In addition, dances often introduced young people to the ‘adult’ pleasures of drinking and smoking.”

Apart from the social side, there was also emphasis on the individual benefits of dancing. Victor Silvester in his book Modern Ballroom Dancing noted that dancing contributed to a person’s health but also gave them confidence through the acquisition of a skill as well as better posture and deportment.

Silvester could have been thinking about women especially, as dancing and dance halls played a significant role in the further emancipation of women. As a result of the war, women gained greater freedoms and entered the workplace in droves despite the move after 1918 to relegate them back to children, church and kitchen. Not only were they granted the vote but also had a freer and wider role in leisure activities. The new dance styles reflected a “thawing of relationships between the sexes and this was well represented in the new styles of dancing.”

If the men had their pubs, clubs and sports teams, the women had the department stores, cafes, restaurants, cinemas and the dance hall. Increasingly, dancing was also more of a female activity especially during the early evenings and weekends – while the men were at the pub or away at football matches, the dance hall became a female only space and a sort of a social club for women where they would practise dancing with each other (with one assuming the lead role of the ‘man’) as well as chat and gossip with each other. With greater disposable incomes, the post war woman was an attractive demographic to the dance hall industry. Dance halls were welcoming to women regardless of whether they came alone or in groups, with security and safety taken seriously by management. Much like the cinemas, the interiors of dance halls were female friendly with fresh flowers, crisp linen, state of the art lavatories and painted scenes giving the place an atmosphere of sophistication and luxury.

Dancing also provided a platform where women could establish careers as dancers, teachers, musicians, singers and even band leaders. One notable example was Josephine Bradley (1893-1985) who won the World Ballroom Dance championship in 1924 and later opened her own dance school. She also worked with Silvester in codifying ballroom dancing and from the 1930s onwards also had her own dance band whose records sold well.

With dancing providing an avenue for the young and women for self-expression, development of skill and self-confidence, it’s not surprising that dancing and dance hall became the favoured target of critics, who saw them as a byword for immorality, with the most strident criticism reserved for several types of dances deemed to be sinful and vulgar. Despite these criticisms however, dancing’s popularity continued on even into the Second World War then experiencing a sharp decline in the 1950s with changing tastes and demographic patterns: and while there has been a small resurgence due in part to the programme Strictly Come Dancing, dancing has never reached the dizzying heights of its popularity between the two world wars.

 

Further Reading and viewing:

James Walvin. Leisure and Society 1830-1950 (London, 1978)

James Nott. Going to the Palais: A Social and Cultural History of Dancing and Dance Halls in Britain, 1918-1960 (Oxford, 2015)

Stephen G. Jones. Workers at Play (London, 1986)

Victor Silvester. Modern Ballroom Dancing (London, 1927)

Martin Pugh. We Danced All Night: A Social History of Britain Between the Wars (London, 2009)

Andrew Marr. The Making of Modern Britain (London, 2009)

James Nott. ‘Contesting Popular Dancing and Dance Music in Britain during the 1920s’, Cultural and Social History, Vol. 10, No. 3 (2013), pp. 439-456

Len Goodman’s Dance Band Days (BBC4 documentary), first telecast 23 December 2013

Len Goodman’s Dancing Feet: The British Ballroom Story (BBC4 documentary), first telecast 27 December 2012

Dancing Cheek to Cheek: An Intimate History of Dance presented by Len Goodman and Lucy Worsley (BBC4 documentary), first telecast 17 November 2014

http://www.jackhylton.com/

http://tintrunk.blogspot.co.uk/2010/02/santos-casani-forgotten-dance-master.html

TV Review: Victoria (ITV) series 2 part 4 – Hellos and goodbyes

After another attempt on Victoria’s life and keen to get away from the pressures of life in the capital, the Queen decides to holiday in Scotland, a place that has captured her imagination since she was a young girl learning about Scottish history and loved to read the novels of Sir Walter Scott. Together with selected members of their household, Victoria and Albert visit Blair Castle as the guests of the Duke of Atholl (Dennis Lawson), where they are treated to a welcome by the Duke and the Atholl Highlanders.

Victoria, Series 2 Ep7 - Tom Hughes, Jenna Coleman and Denis Lawson

Over the next few days, Victoria and Albert explore the countryside and like what they see – the forests remind Albert of his native Coburg, while Victoria is reminded of the Walter Scott’s novels as she surveys the sweeping vistas of the Highlands. Elsewhere, the holiday becomes an excuse for the rest of their entourage to let their hair down, have fun and rekindle relationships; while Mrs Skerrett and Miss Cleary explore the joys of Scottish dancing, Duke Ernst sees the visit as an opportunity to renew his affections for Harriet Duchess of Sutherland who has returned to court as a lady-in-waiting following the death of her husband in a hunting accident. However, Ernst is hiding a secret as while in Paris, he “enjoyed himself a little too much” and is now seeking treatment for venereal disease. The doctors have prescribed inhaling mercury vapours and it seems that the treatment is working.

Following a fishing expedition, Victoria and Albert decide to ride back to the castle but take a wrong turn and find themselves lost. Finally they spot a cottage and Albert knocks at the door to ask directions back to Blair Castle but the residents of the cottage, an old crofter and his wife, reply that the couple had better spend the night with them and make their way home the next day. Not recognising who their visitors are, the crofter and his wife treat the royal couple like ordinary passers-by who happen to have got lost and need a place to stay for the night. We see Victoria and Albert help around the house, share a simple meal with their hosts and the crofter’s wife teaches Victoria how to darn a sock. Later Victoria confides to Albert that she doesn’t want to be found just yet: but alas the search party sent by the Duke of Atholl manages to find them the next day and that all too brief taste of freedom comes to an end.

Perhaps what’s not surprising is that Lord Alfred Paget (Jordan Waller) and Edward Drummond (Leo Suter) have finally acted on their feelings for each other after previous episodes have dropped heavy hints about a mutual attraction between both men. However as always there are complications as Drummond is engaged to be married and is being groomed for a political career: and the question is will both men carry on where they left off upon their return to London?

Victoria S2 E7

The final episode focuses on two main storylines – Sir Robert Peel’s battle to repeal the Corn Laws and Victoria and Albert’s row over the Princess Royal’s illness. Following the devastating effects of the Irish Potato Famine, Sir Robert is more than ever convinced that a repeal of the Corn Laws is the only way to ensure that there will be no repeat of the famine in the future, and for food to be more affordable to the poor and the working class. The majority of his fellow Tory party MPs and those in the Lords are opposed to such measures but with the encouragement of the Duke of Wellington (Peter Bowles), Peel battles on. He also has the support of the Queen and Prince Albert, and the latter makes an ill-advised visit to the Palace of Westminster to watch the debate. Upon seeing the Prince, one of the anti-repeal MPs makes a jibe in Peel’s direction about the presence of his royal nursemaid. Realising what he has done, Albert beats a hasty retreat and later apologises to Peel.

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In developments in the nursery, Victoria and Albert notice that the Princess Royal isn’t feeling well but Baroness Lehzen assures the anxious parents that all the young princess needs is her usual routine and lots of fresh air. Albert is doubtful about this especially as the windows in the nursery are kept wide open, and even he notices that the room is cold and draughty. He tells Victoria that perhaps they should close the windows to keep the draught out, and she replies that the windows in the nursery at Kensington Palace were always wide open and they never did her any harm. Albert isn’t convinced but decides not to press the point.

Matters finally come to a head for both Peel and Victoria – the former now facing the prospect of a possible defeat in Parliament while for the latter her daughter’s condition has developed into a full blown fever that is potentially fatal. Albert remonstrates with Victoria, telling her that Lehzen is not fit to look after their children and the doctor confirms Albert’s suspicion all along that the cold and draught in the nursery did contribute to the little princess’s illness. After months of heated debate, the repeal bill is finally passed 327 yes against 229 no. As for the little Princess Royal, the fever is broken and she’s out of danger but unfortunately following Albert’s earlier ultimatum, Baroness Lehzen has to go and she departs back to Germany with a pension. Peel also hands his resignation, as despite his victory with the repeal of the Corn Laws he knows that his days as Prime Minister are numbered. Victoria reluctantly accepts, says she will miss him and has come to appreciate his support and counsel. A far cry from in the beginning when the new queen clung to Lord Melbourne and refused to accept Sir Robert as the new prime minister.

The last episode also tied up a few loose ends and gave us a foreshadowing of what is to come for a putative series 3. There is no happy ending for Drummond and Paget as the former is shot dead by a disgruntled farmer who was aiming his pistol at Peel; while Ernst who was initially optimistic that he was on the way to recovery learns that the syphilis has returned and that leaves his future with the Duchess of Sutherland in doubt. Romance is also back on the cards for Francatelli and Skerrett.

So all in all, what do I think of this series? Overall, it is an improvement from series 1, there is more emphasis on the history especially with episodes 5, 6 and 8. The soap opera and romance elements never go away which is perhaps understandable as this is Sunday night drama but they didn’t really dominate series 2 in a way it did in series 1. Mercifully as well, we were spared any over the top flummery especially with the Drummond-Paget story arc; however it’s hard to care with these peripheral romances as I think they distract from the actual story which is Victoria and Albert.

As of this writing, ITV has yet to announce if a series 3 is planned but in the meantime, Victoria will return on Christmas Day which is fitting as the way we celebrate Christmas does owe a lot to the Victorian era.

TV Review: Victoria (ITV) series 2 part 3 – Pomp and desolation

Still reeling from the revelation that his father might not be his actual father at all, Albert is out of sorts even when the issue of the proposed Franco-Spanish alliance through a marriage between Queen Isabella II of Spain and Prince Antoine, Duke of Montpensier (one of the sons of King Louis Philippe of France) is raised. Sir Robert Peel informs Victoria and Albert that such a match will upset the balance of power because it could lead to a union of two crowns under one eventual ruler. He also reminds Victoria and Albert that their uncle Leopold is hoping that their cousin Prince Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha will marry the Spanish queen. Victoria initially proposes to write a letter to dissuade the French king from pursing such an alliance then decides to pay him a visit in person.

The visit takes place in the Chateau d’Eu in Normandy where Victoria and Albert are received by Louis-Philippe (Bruno Wolkovich) and his family with pomp and ceremony. While Victoria is enchanted by what she sees and the hospitality laid out in her honour, various members of her entourage aren’t as impressed – the Duchess of Buccleuch views the French court as like Sodom and Gomorrah while Albert is dismayed at what he sees as the loose morals of the French and the women wearing make-up. Some of these feelings are reciprocated, for instance the ladies of the French court find Victoria’s dress sense wanting; especially upon her arrival where she is carrying a handbag embroidered with the image of a dog.

Victoria S2 E5

While in France, Albert finally reveals to Victoria what has been troubling him and she sweetly reassures him that any niggles about his parentage do not matter to her, what is important is the life they’re building together and his support for her role as monarch. Once reassured, Albert and Victoria set about trying to persuade Louis Philippe to abandon the proposed marriage and it seemed like the royal couple succeed – until they later learn that they didn’t. The episode ends on a happy note when Victoria tells Albert that she’s expecting again.

In contrast, episode 6 deals with the Irish Potato Famine and Victoria, who is concerned about its effects on the populace, runs into indifference from Sir Robert Peel – who seems to be more concerned with keeping his party united – and Albert who is preoccupied with modernising the drains and sanitation at Buckingham Palace. Frustrated, she comes across a series of letters written by a Dr Traill (Martin Compston) published in the papers, which describe the scenes of devastation and desolation that he encounters and Victoria invites him to Buckingham Palace (which did not happen in real life) to enlighten her on what is really happening in Ireland. Following the visit, she implores Sir Robert to act on his conscience (knowing well that he is opposed to the Corn Laws) showing him her new born daughter Princess Alice and reminding him of the reports of mothers dying because they are unable to feed their children. The famine too has hit close to home, when assistant dresser Miss Cleary (Tilly Steele) having already sent all her savings to help her family, is aided by Francatelli who gives her his watch, tells her to sell it and not to accept any amount below £50. Unfortunately, the money she raises from selling the watch proved to be too late as her family is evicted and they decide to move to America.

Victoria S2 E6

Episodes 5 and 6 are a departure from the usual fluff, romance and soap opera fare that have  characterised Victoria, with emphasis on the actual history (with some liberties taken, of course). The state visit to France demonstrates Victoria and Albert’s interest in foreign affairs and foreshadows the “family diplomacy” that Victoria would deploy later in her reign especially in her dealings with her grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm II; and the attempts by Dr Traill to alleviate the Irish famine and the government’s inaction over the crisis demonstrates that disasters of national proportions are too big for one man and pave the way for greater government action during the late 19th century and especially into the 20th and 21st centuries.

Although the purpose of the visit was with regards to the proposed Franco-Spanish royal wedding, the marriage in question was actually NOT between Queen Isabella and Prince Antoine but rather her younger sister the Infanta Luisa Fernanda and Prince Antoine. Prince Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was never really seen as a possible consort to the Spanish queen; instead he ended up marrying Queen Maria II of Portugal. In addition, the episode ignored the close ties that already existed between the House of Bourbon-Orleans and the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha – Louis Philippe’s daughter Louise was Queen of the Belgians while one of his sons Prince Louis, Duke of Nemours was married to Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and another daughter Clementine married Prince August of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. The relationship between the two monarchs was close and cordial enough for Louis-Philippe and his queen Marie-Amelie to undertake a state visit to Britain in 1844 and Victoria and Albert to take on another visit to France in 1845. When the Revolution of 1848 forced the French royal family to flee, Victoria offered them asylum in Britain where Louis-Philippe and his family took up residence at Claremont House in Surrey.

Both episodes were excellent in terms of providing the sharp contrast between royal pomp and the desolation in Ireland. The depiction of Victoria and Albert’s arrival on French soil and the crowds and guard of honour that greeted the royal couple at the Chateau d’Eu was well done and its seemed to me that production took great pains to study contemporary records of the event such as this painting by Eugene Louis Lami  and recreate it to the best of their ability. The same is true with the scenes of the lavish dinners and garden parties laid out by the French court in honour of their British guests.

Contrasting with the sunny skies of France was the bleak desolation of Ireland. The Irish Potato Famine is still a fairly controversial and contentious topic and episode 6 handled it in a delicate and sensitive way. The scenes where Dr Traill encounters a group of children whose mother has died was poignant, as is those of farmers continuing to till their land only to find that the potatoes they have planted are useless and can’t be eaten much less sold. One aspect that this episode gets right is the prevailing prejudice demonstrated against Catholics by all classes high and low – from Sir Charles Trevelyan (Edward Bennett) who doesn’t believe that the government should do anything to help, asserting that the Irish should learn to live within their means and that the famine was simply a way of checking population growth,  to the Church of Ireland bishops who only favour helping if the Catholics agree to convert to the Anglican faith and refusing to receive a Roman Catholic priest that Dr Trail has been working with to alleviate the effects of the famine; down to Penge refusing Miss Cleary’s request that she be paid earlier so that she can send it to her family in Ireland.

Another was with regards to Victoria’s lack of prejudice. Although episode 6 depicts her as someone very concerned about the effects of the famine, the real life Victoria really didn’t share the same concern as her reel counterpart although she did give roughly £2,000 out of her own funds to the famine relief, which was a very huge sum at that time. The scene where Miss Cleary approaches the Queen to thank her for sending for Dr Traill and revealing that she is a Roman Catholic shows Victoria’s lack of prejudice and social snobbery – a trait that would manifest itself with regards to the Munshi, approving of Princess Helene of Orleans as a bride for her grandson the Duke of Clarence and her dealings with the more status conscious royals from the continent.

These two episodes show the heights of what Victoria could achieve without the soapy storylines and the emphasis on romance and the shenanigans downstairs. It’s a shame that it wasn’t like this from the very beginning.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity review

On paper, the artist Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) was part of the art establishment – a Royal Academician, a knight of the realm and a member of the Order of Merit, with a lucrative career that brought him fame and substantial financial rewards. Scratch the surface however and you find a Dutchman (born Lourens Alma Tadema), whose artistic career took him from his home country the Netherlands through Belgium and finally to Britain where he spent the last 40 odd years of his life.

The exhibition Lawrence Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity is a comprehensive survey of his life and career and using the Leighton House Museum as a venue was an inspired choice as it gives one an idea and feel of the studio-residences that Alma-Tadema created in London with his family. The ground floor rooms display paintings from the beginning of Alma-Tadema’s career, where his early paintings were heavily influenced by artists from the Golden Age of Dutch art such as Rembrandt, David Teniers the Younger and Nicholas Maes, as exemplified by portraits that he painted of members of his family. In the 1850s, he turned to historical painting, specialising in medieval subjects. Following his marriage to a French woman (Pauline Gressin Dumoulin) and during their honeymoon in Italy, the places they visited such as Rome and Pompeii provided new inspiration for his art – everyday life set in ancient Rome with titles such as Pomona Festival and The Flower Market. While Alma-Tadema ensured that his rendering of the interiors and clothing were as accurate as possible, some details especially the faces are very contemporary, as if the people depicted are playing at dressing up.

Alma-Tadema’s development as an artist is chronicled in the upstairs room. In 1869, his wife Pauline died and while in London seeking medical treatment he was invited to the home of the artist Ford Maddox Brown where he met Laura Theresa Epps and promptly fell in love with her. The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War and his growing feelings for Miss Epps influenced his decision to settle in Britain permanently and he married her in 1871; following which they acquired their first marital home near Regent’s Park (Townshend House). Laura became an artist in her own right and throughout the second floor there are paintings by her which show the influence of the Dutch masters and her specialisation in genre painting. There are also portraits that Alma-Tadema did of his wife and children that underscored them as a close and loving family unit.

Once Alma-Tadema settled in Britain, he became acquainted with artists from the Pre-Raphaelite movement and his colour palette changed; the darker tones of his Dutch and Belgian years giving way to the light hues influenced by his trips to Italy and his association with Pre-Raphaelite artists. By the 1880s, he was well established in his adapted country – garlanded with honours and awards as well as his paintings being well-received. In 1883, the Alma-Tademas bought a large house in St John’s Wood (located in Grove End Road) which also housed his studio. The interior of the house was done in the Roman style which served as his backdrop for many of his paintings.

During this period, Alma-Tadema also was commissioned to paint portraits and his portrait of the Polish pianist and future prime minister and diplomat Ignacy Jan Paderewski is a stark contrast to his historical paintings. While the colours are unmistakably Alma-Tadema, the rendition is almost impressionistic which showed that Alma-Tadema was more than a painter of scenes from antiquity. The same versatility can also be seen in the few landscapes that he painted, mostly while on holiday in Italy and from the view of his house in Grove End Road. The Italian paintings especially are notable for the skill with which the painter depicts the sunlight on flesh, marble and sea: paintings such as A Solicitation emit a tangible sunlit warmth and ease.

Sir Lawrence AlmaTadema Coign of Vantage 1895 Collection of Ann and Gordon Getty

Despite his dabbling in portraiture and landscape painting, Alma-Tadema was primarily known for his historical painting. There were recurring elements in his work such as the prevalence of blue skies, white marble and vistas as exemplified by A Solicitation and Pleading. By the later phase of his career, Alma-Tadema had crystallised the elements that characterised his work: the sea, alluring women, classical sculpture, rich textures and flowers. He was known for his attention to detail and accuracy to the best of his ability (which was aided by trips to Italy and Egypt as well as informing himself of new developments in archaeology) all of which are evident in his most famous works such as Coign of Vantage, The Triumph of Titus: AD71 and The Roses of Heliogabalus. The latter is particularly interesting as it pretty much encapsulates almost all of Alma-Tadema’s elements and USP. However, I find the study much more interesting and convincing than the finished product; while the actual painting is technically accomplished and aesthetically pleasing there is none of the sense of urgency and panic as the guests are being suffocated by the avalanche of the flowers streaming over them: they seem to be wholly relaxed about their fate.  In contrast however, the study for The Roses of Heliogabalus has more of the sense of the violence and suffering inflicted on the guests as demonstrated by the contortions of the body as the guests struggled to escape the shower of rose petals that threatens to engulf them.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema The Roses of Heliogabalus 1888. Perez Simon Collection

By the time of Alma-Tadema’s death in 1912, his paintings and style had fallen out of fashion, supplanted by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, post-Impressionism and Cubism. For most of the 20th century he fell into obscurity but while Alma-Tadema wasn’t exactly a household name, his paintings gained a second lease of life in cinema. They became influential in how filmmakers brought the ancient world to life in cinema; one look at The Death of the First-Born and I was immediately reminded of the same scene in Cecile B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) where the same muted colours and subdued lighting used by Alma-Tadema found its way into the film. More recently, Sir Ridley Scott was also influenced by Alma-Tadema for his film Gladiator (2000) where the scenes of gladiatorial combat are reminiscent of A Pyrrhic Dance and the costumes worn were inspired by the women depicted in various paintings dotted around the exhibition.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema A Pyrrhic Dance 1869 Guidhall Art Gallery City of London

While some might think that Alma-Tadema’s paintings are clichéd and only fit to decorate biscuit and chocolate tins, this exhibition shows that he was more than a painter of scenes from antiquity. That said, his main body of work was all about the ancient world and the way he brought it to life does show that Alma-Tadema was indeed an artist “at home in antiquity”.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema The Finding of Moses 1904. Private Collection

 

Lawrence Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity is on at the Leighton House Museum until 29 October 2017. For more information please visit the website https://www.rbkc.gov.uk/subsites/museums/leightonhousemuseum/almatademaathome.aspx?gclid=CIWW4KCZ8tYCFeaT7QodjWsNxg

 

The bloggers visited the exhibition on 4 October 2017. We would also like to thank Ana Garcia of the Marketing and PR Department of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea for permission to use the images in this blog.

TV Review: Victoria (ITV) Series 2 (Part 2) – Life, death, trust

Bloggers’ note: We would like to apologise for the delay as real life has intruded and meant that there is a delay with publication of our reviews

 

In the last episode, Victoria learns that she’s pregnant again and unsurprisingly she’s not happy as it is very soon after the birth of the Princess Royal. She is soon distracted, however, by a visit from a silk weaver from Spitalfields, seeking her help against competition from imported silk, especially from France. When Victoria raises the issue with her Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel, he advises her that it would be unwise to introduce tariffs against imported silk and in the end the Queen decides to hold a ball where all the costumes should be made of Spitalfields silk. By buying and wearing clothes designed and made in Britain it is reasoned that the Queen and the court will set an example for the rest to follow, hence stimulate demand for the silk and lead to greater employment. Sir Robert isn’t sure it’s a good idea as he reminds Victoria that a ball might not be appropriate given the economic situation, and Albert agrees.

Despite any objections, plans for the ball get underway with the theme being a medieval one. Albert and Victoria preside over the ball dressed as King Edward III and his consort Philippa of Hainault and their costumes based on the tomb effigies in Westminster Abbey. Members of the household and guests are to come in medieval costumes made out of Spitafields silk and there is optimism that the ball will stimulate an industry that is in the doldrums.

Victoria, Series 2 Ep3 - Jenna Coleman and Tom Hughes

The ball also gives Victoria the opportunity to see Lord Melbourne again. He has been hiding the fact that he is gravely ill from her and has refused to reply to the Queen’s letters or allow her to visit him at Brocket Hall. He decides to attend the ball and despite his enforced cheerfulness it’s clear he’s not very well and after the ball she pays him a visit with a gift – a mechanical singing bird.

Just as Sir Robert fears, there is public criticism over the ball and on the night itself, an angry crowd marches to the palace to make their displeasure felt. Upset that her good intentions for hosting the ball have not been seen by the public, Victoria has the leftover food distributed to the poor but there is a small ray of light following the event, as a weaver reports that he has been inundated with orders following reports of the ball and description of what the royal couple and guests were wearing.

The next episode sees the birth of a Prince of Wales, the first since 1762, and just like with the birth of the Princess Royal, Victoria succumbs to post-natal depression. She is unable to bond with her infant son and does not understand why Albert is so besotted with babies: she thinks they look like frogs. Her condition is further worsened by the news that her father-in-law and uncle the Duke of Coburg has died and Albert is adamant that he should attend the funeral alone. Victoria insists on going with him but Albert tells her to rest, try to recover and bond with their two children.

Meanwhile, news of the “Boy Jones” incident has made its way to the papers which infuriates the royal couple and Baroness Lehzen is given the task of finding out who in the household has informed the press of the incident. Amidst all this and with Albert having gone to Coburg, Victoria falls deeper into depression. Her mother the Duchess of Kent and the Duchess of Buccleuch try to rally her especially with the latter assuring her that she isn’t the first woman to find herself in “low spirits” and being “out of sorts” (euphemisms for post-natal depression in the 19th century) while Sir Robert asks her to open a new tunnel designed and built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Victoria refuses to attend citing her nerves, and this is a foreshadowing of her reluctance to take on her public duties following Albert’s death in 1861.

Albert’s homecoming gives him an opportunity to reminisce with his brother Ernst about their father and uncle Leopold. The latter is still meddling with his remaining nephews, plotting to marry off their cousin Prince Ferdinand to the Queen of Spain and engineering a marriage between Ernst (who has now succeeded his father as Duke of Coburg) to a German princess Alda, who is invited to the ducal palace to meet with her prospective future husband and his family. The meeting is not a success and it’s clear that Ernst is still harbouring feelings for the Duchess of Sutherland who he last met at the ball in the previous episode.

Meanwhile, still on the trail to find out who leaked the “Boy Jones” incident to the papers, suspicion falls on Francatelli who has been sporting an expensive new watch and new clothes. Mrs Skerrett confesses to Victoria and the Baroness that it was her cousin who leaked the information and that it was she who had told her of the incident. She also mentions that her cousin who sold the story was the real Nancy Skerrett but had fallen pregnant out of wedlock and she had taken her cousin’s place.  The episode ends with Victoria agreeing to attend the opening of Brunel’s new tunnel and Mrs Skerrett isn’t dismissed after all – impressed by her honesty and believing that people do deserve a second chance, she is asked by Albert to stay on as Her Majesty’s dresser.

Overall episodes 3 and 4 do present a few key aspects of the early 1840s such as the overall poor state of agriculture: not just in Britain but in Europe (one of the triggers for the revolutions of 1848) and the continuing technical innovations happening in Britain at this point in time (series 1 saw the railways, now it’s advances in engineering).  A corollary to this was also a revival in the interest in the architecture, art and culture of the medieval era as exemplified by the ball in episode 3 (the costumes were almost accurate replicas of the original as depicted in Sir Edwin Landseer’s portrait recording the event) however the real Albert was enthusiastic about the ball and was heavily involved in its preparation. The ball was, in the words of Ian Hunter, one way of using medieval motifs in order to bolster the position of Prince Albert and demonstrate the historical continuity of the monarchy from the Anglo-Saxon period onwards, as well as encouraging the revival of the ideals of chivalry in an era that was witnessing unprecedented change.

The attitudes depicted towards Victoria’s post natal depression was more or less accurate: while women then were aware that not every mother would bond with her baby and the possibility of feeling low after the birth, PND as a medical condition was not fully understood until the late 20th century –  although I wish that there had been a more thorough exploration of this rather than simply skating over the condition and showing Victoria as “cured” through receiving a gift of a new puppy. The death of Dash and Lord M’s exit from the programme was tastefully done and restrained: mercifully we were spared the hammy dialogue and OTT acting over character and animal deaths that certain programmes have indulged in. Ditto with Leopold’s revelation that he might be Albert’s father. While this could be construed as a classic soap opera plot point, at least it did not degenerate into the whole “Luke, I am your father” spiel.

Victoria-1061210

However, the whole downstairs storyline was the one glaring weak spot here. While it’s true that confidentiality and security are recurring issues with regards to the royal family and those who serve them, the way Mrs Skerrett has been written is pure soap. As mentioned in an review last series, the real Mrs Skerrett was part of a family that had been in royal service for at least two generations, she was well educated and was not only Victoria’s principal dresser but also liaised with tradesmen, suppliers and even artists such as Sir Edwin Landseer on behalf of the Queen and was in charge of the junior dressers under her. The way Skerrett has been depicted in Victoria shows a striking similarity to Miss Baxter from Downton Abbey, the competent and kind-hearted lady’s maid with a mysterious and shady if not criminal past. The time spent on this clichéd and frankly unbelievable story line would have been better spent on focusing on Victoria’s PND and how it affected her and those around her. It would have been a good way to explore further how attitudes towards female illnesses and childbirth then were different from now but alas, it was not to be.