Exhibition Review – Ocean Liners: Speed and Style (V&A)

Glamour is not something we associate with travelling nowadays, with shrinking legroom, tight security, baggage restrictions and the ingenious ways by which airlines (especially budget ones) routinely fleece their customers. However, that wasn’t the case as during the early decades of the twentieth century, long before air travel became a reality, travelling by sea was the only way to cross continents and travel lengthy distances. The great liners of the day with names such as Olympic, Mauretania, Normandie, Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth and the United States plied the world’s oceans and became a byword not just for technological prowess but also for glamour and beauty.

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Organised with co-operation from the Peabody Essex Museum, the V&A’s Ocean Liners: Speed and Style is the first exhibition to provide a comprehensive exploration of these “floating palaces” and operates on three levels: first it looks at the glitz and allure of travelling aboard a liner. As one enters the exhibition space, the visitor is treated to a recreation of that glamorous world where the interiors are as luxurious and lavish as any great palace or hotel as manifested by doors and panels from the SS France, the panel which adorned the grand staircase of the RMS Olympic as well as the furniture and panels from the RMS Queen Mary and the SS Normandie. Customer service was also paramount as the liners ensured that not only did their visitors travel in comfort and style, but every need and whim was anticipated;  for example. the Queen Mary having a room that could convert into a Roman Catholic chapel and a door that doubled as a menorah for use by Jewish passengers for Sabbath services.

Nowhere is the glamour of ocean travel shown more clearly than in the “life on board” section where the displays are meant to evoke the travelling experience for first class passengers. Ocean liners emulated grand hotels not only in terms of interiors but also in terms of food and service with top chefs acting as consultants. The entire on board experience was deliberately designed to replicate how the rich and powerful lived on dry land to make travelling as appealing and convenient as possible.  There were also activities on board such as sports and games for young and old alike but the main highlight is the fashion featured – a Christian Dior suit belonging to the actress Marlene Dietrich as well as a small selection of gowns worn by socialite Eleanor Grigsby as well the luggage in which their clothes were packed – dressing cases full of cosmetic bottles and Vuitton trunks that covert into chests of drawers – no slinging a soft bag into the overhead locker for these travellers. These clothes emphasised how much being on board was also to be seen and nowhere is this more apparent with the recreation of the “grande descente” where female passengers wearing their best gowns and jewels would descend the grand staircase of a liner on their way to dinner.

 

 

 

Secondly, the exhibition also takes a look at how technology has transformed how people travelled by sea. From its beginnings via Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Great Eastern, ocean liners were initially used to transport mail and cargo gradually extending to transporting people especially those who were emigrating for a better life. However it was not a pleasant experience and as the nineteenth century gradually grew to a close, advances in ship building and technology made it possible for travelling by liner to be glamorous and aspirational rather than dirty and dangerous. Models and illustrations from the period demonstrate how much attention was paid to the design of the ship and its engines not only to make the liner look aesthetically pleasing but to ensure that safety, comfort and speed were not compromised.

Speed also comes in to what I consider the most important aspect explored by the exhibition – how ocean liners were used as tools to promote nationalism, national identity and national pride. The Blue Riband which was awarded for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic became fiercely contested and it was understandable that Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany would be exulting over German liners wresting the Blue Riband from their British rivals in 1898 and holding on to it until 1903. In a way, the competition for the coveted Blue Riband reflected the growing Anglo-German naval rivalry during this period as well as Germany’s dream of possessing a powerful navy to ensure its “place in the sun.” Nowhere is this ambition more apparent in a painted panel that was part of the Kronpriz Wilhelm’s interior which depicted allegorical images of the sea and rather unsubtly pointed out that Germany’s future lay with its mastery of maritime power.

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Increasingly as well, the state was taking an active interest in the liners and what they could achieve for the nation. This was especially true as during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, liners were increasingly being built with government subsidies on the understanding that they would be requisitioned for public use in the event of war or any national calamity as was the case during the two World Wars where the likes of the Mauretania, Britannic and Queen Mary were used either as hospital ships or to transport troops and supplies to the front.

National identity and national pride were also heavily invoked especially during the 1930s. As demonstrated by two rival liners – the Queen Mary and the Normandie, which were seen by their respective governments as a way to promote Britain and France. Queen Mary, the first of the liners built by the merged Cunard-White Star Line drew heavily on a more restrained style in keeping up with the British national character to give prospective passengers a feel of being in a stately home at sea. Its interiors, fixtures and furniture made from materials sourced not only from all over Britain but also from its empire as a way of showing that the colonies were not a financial drain on the state but rather an important source for raw materials, and that the empire was of mutual benefit economically for the mother country and its dependents.

 

The Normandie on the other hand was unashamedly Art Deco in style and reflected continuing French influence in Western art and design by commissioning panels, sculptures and interior decoration from leading French artists. It was also a perfect showcase for the best of French industry as the likes of Lalique, Aubusson and other leading companies provided the liner’s furniture and fixtures. Both liners could be seen as floating representations of their respective countries at sea.

 

The Second World War put an end to the golden age of the ocean liner and the advent of airplanes such as the Boeing 747 and the Concorde rendered long distance travel by sea redundant. But the liners still provide inspiration for romance, dystopia and nostalgia as demonstrated by films such as The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and Titanic (1997). In addition, the liners themselves were a potent symbol for optimism in scientific and technological progress.

The exhibition is not without its weakness; more could have been said about those travelling in second and third class as well as the staff that saw to the needs of the passengers. But that’s a small quibble, the V&A has managed to give its visitors a slice of that glamorous life at sea that has passed into the annals of history and one that we will never see again.

 

Notes:

The bloggers visited the exhibition on 14 April 2018. Photos also taken by bloggers.

Ocean Liners: Speed & Style is on at the V&A London until 17 June 2018 after which it will transfer at the V&A Dundee from 15 September 2018 to 24 February 2019. For more information please visit: https://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/ocean-liners-speed-style and: https://www.vandadundee.org/exhibitions/ocean-liners

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Downton Abbey – an unhistorical historical drama

In his review of the 2013 Downton Abbey Christmas special, the TV critic Jim Shelley wrote that “Downton Abbey was shamelessly, shamefully aimed at the Americans, rather than the British audience that had made it so popular in the first place.” He could have been writing about the whole programme though and it became more apparent from the third series onwards as the history began to disappear and the soap opera aspect took over. It wasn’t helped by the endless junkets to America, where the actors seemed to be subjected to a Groundhog Day of the same chat show appearances, same questions, and same events over and over again.

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As we have said several times in our critique of this programme, Downton Abbey’s main problem is its very ahistoricity: it doesn’t just trivialise and misrepresent history but also the attitudes and behaviours of people during the time frame it was set. All of this despite the insistence that the programme is accurate, well researched and that it’s realistic. It is nothing of the sort, many of the story lines are anachronistic, crowbarred in a way that looks and feels forced; not to mention lacking any logical sense.

One of the main complaints with Downton Abbey and other period dramas in general is what one blogger calls “today’s imposition of 21st-century ideas and concerns on characters placed rather than fully located in [the past].” These dramas make an effort with the costumes, settings and props but that’s where it all ends, the way the characters sometimes behave and with the storylines, they might as well have been set today than say in 1912 or 1925!

We see various examples of these anachronisms in Downton Abbey – such as Robert’s reaction to his middle daughter Edith’s pregnancy which was more in line with a father from the 2010s rather than the 1920s. There’s Rose having too much freedom as an unmarried woman when someone like her would have been strictly chaperoned until she was married; or servants being buddy-buddy with their employers when that would not have been the case. Apart from the anachronistic storylines, there are two major omissions – the first being religion and the second being the empire.

Losing one’s religion:

As another blogger complained, this series projected “secularism back onto a time and place and way of life where it did not yet exist.” In an interview, the programme’s historical adviser Alastair Bruce claimed that the absence of religion was due to “executives in charge of the series had ordered producers to ‘leave religion out of it’, for fear of alienating an increasingly atheistic public.” He added, “Everyone panics when you try to do anything religious on the telly.”

This I believe is nonsense. Another popular period drama, Call the Midwife (BBC) not only has religion as one of the main themes of the programme but also religious people as central characters. Yet this programme time and again has been a hit with both critics and viewers. Although it has its flaws it’s not shy about tacking difficult story lines and depicting attitudes during the time the narrative is set no matter how unpalatable it is to our modern day sensibilities. It also depicts how religion and religious people still played a big part in Britain in the late 1950s and 1960s, even when organised religion was in retreat from everyday life. If Call the Midwife can do all that, then Downton Abbey which is set in the 1910s and 1920s has no such excuse.

Even Victoria (ITV) has featured religion in many of its scenes and one episode in the recent second series had religion as one of its main themes. And while the programme has taken some liberties with Queen Victoria’s life, aspects of religion such as the churching ritual that Victoria had to undergo following the birth of her first child and religious divisions hampering famine relief in Ireland was used with good effect to depict attitudes and customs of British society high and low of the late 1830s and 1840s. (It was as recently as 1979 that the Church of England renamed the rite of the churching of women in the Prayer Book to one of “A Thanksgiving for the Birth or Adoption of a Child.”)

Whilst it’s true that in Downton Abbey there have been a few scenes set in the village church and the local vicar has made few appearances in series 2 and 3, there is a complete absence of religion with all the characters lacking any sense of religious belief and practice. Any literature of the period and contemporary accounts demonstrates the importance of religion in people’s lives. Although there were some who identified themselves as agnostic or even atheists, this was mostly confined to the middle class intelligentsia. For the majority, people identified themselves with a particular faith or sect, went to Church or the synagogue every week, and discussed religious issues with some even turning their hand to writing about theology and other aspects of their faith.

Especially in a rural area, religion was part and parcel of everyday life and the local lord and his family were obliged to set an example to their servants, tenants and the local community. It didn’t matter whether they were Church of England, Church of Scotland, Roman Catholic, Jewish or Nonconformist (a shorthand term used for Protestant sects other than the Established Churches) but religious observance either of the strict or nominal kind was scrupulously observed. The majority of the aristocracy belonged (at least nominally) to the Church of England and this was reinforced by the fact that bishops also sat in the House of Lords, that the local vicar was dependent on his living on the local lord and that the Church was an acceptable career for younger sons of the aristocracy and gentry. In effect all these ensured that the unity of Church and State, prominent in British institutions such as the Monarchy and Parliament, was also replicated on the local level; which also meant that the local vicar and his wife were an integral part of the local community’s social life and were often related to the local aristocracy and gentry. They would be regularly asked to dinner and other social events in the Big House, while the vicar’s wife and the chatelaine would regularly work together on a host of charitable endeavours and appeals. Historically there have even been some aristocrats who took an active role in religious life and education, most notably Millicent Duchess of Sutherland with her Bible study groups not just confined to her household but among her husband’s tenants and the local village. There was also Father the Honourable Ignatius Spencer, the younger son of the 4th Earl Spencer, who started out as an Anglican vicar but converted to Roman Catholicism and took holy orders in that church. In light of this, the near absence of religion and its practice in Downton Abbey renders meaningless its claim to accurately represent British life during the early decades of the twentieth century.

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Defenders will point out that showing religion wouldn’t fit the storyline or that there is the religion due to the weddings, christening – and the vicar does pop up in the programme. I find this a spurious excuse – religion was a part of everyday life in the era around the period in which Downton is set, in a way we can’t imagine in our largely secular world.  Faith, or at least lip service to religious observance, was all pervasive, and the Church, along with the Empire and the monarchy, had a deep significance and importance for very many people. Religion and religious teaching was deeply embedded in people’s psyche, church-going on a Sunday was still common, and many children of all social classes attended a local Sunday School.

Churches also undertook a considerable amount of charitable and welfare work and provided a venue for social and community activities as well as spiritual comfort in times of national crisis. National days of prayer were particularly well supported during the Great War, Sunday was generally regarded as a day of rest and all shops closed on Sundays.

In her diaries written during the First World War, Lillie Scales describes the role religion played for her and many other people:

August 1914 – Intercession services are being held in many places…one feels that only hope is in God and that He will defend the right.

  1. On Sunday January 6th we had the national day of intercession and it was a wonderful day. We had good congregations, but one heard everywhere of crowded churches, and even queues.

November 11th 1918 George (Lillie’s husband) had gone to St Giles’s at 11 o’clock, and found people pouring into the church for an impromptu thanksgiving service, and there were services there all morning. There had been an impromptu great thanksgiving service in St Paul’s at 12 noon.

November 17th 1918 – There was a great thanksgiving service in St Paul’s, and churches everywhere were crowded, queues in many places.

 

Church membership (according to faithsurvey.co.uk) peaked in 1900 at 33% of the population, and in 1920 was just under 10 million in a population of around 40 million – and there must have been many more people who attended church because of social, moral or familial pressure or expectation. This aspect of existence – weekly church attendance, the great annual rituals of Whitsun, Easter, Advent and Christmas, the importance in public life that the established church had and the comfort religion gave to many (especially during the war years) are simply ignored – because Bruce claimed that he was told to show it would upset viewers.

To a great number of people in the UK now, religion isn’t important and they don’t realise the extent to which it was in the Downton era. That’s why Alastair Bruce got away with his comment and no-one picked up the logical fail to the claim that this was supposed to be an accurate depiction of life 100 years ago but that a very significant chunk of social existence was omitted. Write a drama that panders to what as writer you perceive to be the susceptibilities and prejudices of your audience instead of depicting historical facts and you end up with Braveheart – or Downton Abbey.

I think a good writer would have found a way to have people going about their everyday life in the background and the storyline in the foreground. I am of the view that one of the whole points of a drama is to show facets of these characters and religion might not necessarily be a major story line but it could be something in the background to give the viewer a picture of what was life then. If religion was depicted as part of everyday life in Downton Abbey, it could have added more poignancy to Thomas’s struggles or Robert’s crises. We could have seen Thomas wresting with the conflict between religious dogma and society’s attitudes against his own sexuality and desires, or Robert with his personal issues having a crisis of faith due to feeling unwanted during the war, realising that his marriage is not what it seemed and the family’s subsequent precarious finances. This is real story telling and not the half-baked and flimsy ones that we’ve seen on screen.

 

Don’t Mention the Empire:

When the TV critic Jim Shelley groused that the programme was pandering shamelessly to the Americans, it was an astute observation. One can see this with the casting of veteran Hollywood actress Shirley MacLaine as Martha Levinson, Cora’s mother in series 3 then contriving her return in the series 4 Christmas special with her son Harold (Paul Giamatti) in tow. The aforementioned special was seemingly designed to pander to Americans’ fascination with British royalty, pomp and circumstance as well as the endless parade of evening gowns and spectacle that the viewing public had come to expect.

Perhaps surprisingly for the producers and TV executives, the episode was greeted with derision and hilarity with the plot described as “ludicrous” and lacking credibility. Even the much-vaunted research and accuracy was panned, as several viewers pointed out mistakes ranging from the way the presentation was done down to errors in dress and uniforms.

This pandering to the Americans is perhaps one reason why the British Empire is conspicuously absent in Downton Abbey. For sure there are a few fleeting references here and there but it’s very much like Basil Fawlty going on about not mentioning the war. Just like with religion, Fellowes must have decided that the empire didn’t fit into his plot so it’s not mentioned at all. The only obligatory references are with Robert’s cousin the Marquess of Flintshire going to India to become a provincial governor, a fleeting mention of the Amritsar Massacre and listening to a radio broadcast of George V opening the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley (a very convenient prompt to tell the audience that series 5 is set in 1924).

Apart from what I’ve mentioned above, the empire might not as well exist in Downton Abbey. This is despite the fact that historically it was an omnipresent presence in British life and we are still living with its legacy for good or ill to this very day. The popular celebrity genealogy programme Who Do You Think You Are? (BBC) through several episodes featuring the likes of actor Charles Dance, Olympic athlete Sebastian Coe, chef Ainsley Harriott, journalist Natasha Kaplinsky, actress Meera Syal and most recently choreographer Craig Revel Horwood have demonstrated how much the empire is very much interwoven into the very fabric of this country. We can see the empire’s influence in the food that we eat, in our decorative arts and architecture, not to mention that many place names up and down Britain have their origins in places that were part of the empire on which “the sun never sets.”  These influences have been cemented further following the end of the Second World War when immigration grew steadily from countries that comprised the former empire.

During the period in which Downton Abbey is set, the empire featured prominently in national life and everyday life (one example being the annual celebration of Empire Day). The positions of Colonial Secretary and Secretary of State for India were seen as prestigious, news concerning the empire was widely covered and the comings and goings of politicians and famous people from the colonies were headline news. There were also the various events that underlined the bonds between Britain and its colonies through industrial exhibitions held in major cities; the most famous being that held at Wembley in 1924-5. These exhibitions not only presented the best of home grown industry but also products from the empire such as timber from Canada, butter and lamb from New Zealand, cotton from India and others. In short, exhibitions such as those held at Wembley were, in the observation of Anne Clendinning, to “celebrate imperial unity and to increase mutual economic cooperation” as well as highlight the empire which was described by King George V as a “family of nations.”

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This idea of the empire as a “family of nations” isn’t a new one but it was used by Queen Victoria to cement the bonds between Britain and a growing empire during the second half of the 19th century with her sons and grandsons touring India and the white dominions (Canada, Australia, New Zealand) on her behalf. This was further underlined when Victoria’s son-in-law the future 9th duke of Argyll served as Governor-General of Canada. In 1911, George V went one step further by travelling to India to be present at a Durbar staged to mark his coronation as emperor of India; and following the end of the First World War, his sons all undertook tours of the empire on his behalf with the Duke of York (the future George VI) travelling to the Antipodes and Africa while the Duke of Gloucester undertook tours of Africa. However the most indefatigable was the oldest son, the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII) when during the 1920s and 1930s he became the first member of the royal family to visit nearly all parts of the empire during his world tours. These tours were so successful that in David Cannadine’s words, “the crown was made truly imperial and the empire authentically royal.”

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Royal tours followed a certain formula as described by Cannadine in his book Ornamentalism whereby “[t]hese were grand progresses by land and sea, lasting for many months and covering many miles, involving countless receptions, dinners, parades and speeches, and all carried on before vast, delighted and admiring crowds.” By the twentieth century, following Edward VII’s dictum that the more people see the royals the better it is for the country, the “arrangement for these tours became even more elaborate, and the tours even more novel, thrilling and spectacular, as the royal lineaments and sovereign symbols were brought vividly and vitally alive.”  There were also the reciprocal visits from African chiefs, Indian maharajahs, and royals from the various Pacific islands and sultans from Malaya where they were treated with the courtesy, deference, pomp and circumstance that their status demanded. All of these reinforced the idea that the empire was indeed a “family of nations.”

On a more personal level, the empire had an impact on huge swathes of the British population not just with what they consumed or bought but the personal and familial level. A huge percentage of the UK population had at least one family member or a friend living and working in the colonies. Thousands of people together with their families emigrated to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa in search of a better life lured by the opportunity afforded by huge tracts of land for farming, herding and mining; a cheaper standard of living and the chance to start anew.

A cheaper standard of living and lack of career prospects at home also drove many young men to try their luck in the colonies. The empire provided career opportunities and prospects for advancement that were not readily available in Britain. This was attractive for younger sons of the aristocracy and gentry as well as those from the upper middle classes in straitened conditions – there was the army, the colonial civil service as well as being on the staff of a governor or viceroy which allowed them avenues for promotion, enabling them to marry and provide for a wife and family in a way that would not be possible in Britain. Being an officer in a prestigious colonial or Indian regiment or being an aide-de-camp or private secretary to the viceroy or a governor-general made a young man a very attractive marriage prospect indeed.

There were also opportunities in the private sector for engineers, surveyors, bankers, scientists and the like as British firms and banks also opened branches in the colonies. Others saw the colonies as a way where they could be their own masters whether it be setting up their own business or acquiring land for farming or mining, prospecting for gold or other valuable minerals. For those who were not inclined towards government service or farming, the empire also provided prospects in the fields of religion, education, medicine and the social sciences. In short, the British Empire showed that there were rewards for those who were willing to take risks and leave the comfort zone of Britain.

In light of this, Downton Abbey could have made much more use of the empire with its storylines. For instance it could be used to write out characters such as Sybil after Jessica Brown Findlay refused to renew her contract. It’s true that Sybil, Tom and their baby daughter could have moved to America given they have family in that country but if they really wanted a fresh start and a clear break from their pasts then immigrating to Canada, Australia, New Zealand or South Africa would have been much better as the Bransons could create a new life of their own unencumbered by their backgrounds.

The same could also be said of downstairs, where it would be likely that at least a few of the servants would have at least known someone who had gone to the colonies for better work prospects, and again this could be another way to write out someone like Daisy or any of the footmen. Or even Anna and Mr Bates, the money that they have saved would have allowed them not only to open the guesthouse that they want but also perhaps begin a new life in any of the Dominions or try their hand at running at a rubber plantation in Malaya or a tea farm in India.

Crucially however using the empire would have allowed Rose to exit the programme at the end of series 4. The series 4 Christmas special could have ended with Rose departing for India to re-join her parents following her season. Given her straitened financial circumstances and her less than impeccable moral credentials, she would have had problems finding a husband in Britain especially as after the First World War there were fewer men to go around. In fact India would have been a much better bet if she was looking for a husband. There was the army, the Indian Civil Service, the Viceroy’s office, the staff of the various provincial governors (among them her father Lord Flintshire) and of course those who were working for British companies based in India. Rose would be no different to the numbers of young upper and middle class young British women going to India in order to find an eligible young man to marry. For the women who went to India and who were known as the “Fishing Fleet”, it was an attractive choice – as Anne de Courcy wrote:

“By the nineteenth century, India was seen as a marriage market for girls neither pretty nor rich enough to make at home what was known as ‘a good match’, the aim of all young respectable young women – indeed, perhaps not to make one at all. In India, where European men greatly outnumbered European women, they would be besieged by suitors, many of whom be richer or have more prospects than anyone they could meet in England.” (p. 3)

And that was the motivation to go to India especially as for women, the main goal was to marry and raise a family. For upper and middle class women, the social life such as the London Season and country house visits were all geared towards young women to make a good match but in reality a great number of them didn’t (especially after the First World War when Britain had been denuded of eligible young men). As Mabell Countess of Airlie and countless other social commentators observed, ideally a young woman should have received at least a proposal by the end of her first season and should be married by the age of twenty. A woman who had reached the age of twenty five unmarried was already considered to be an old maid so it’s not surprising that many young women were dispatched by worried parents to try their luck in India – a last throw of the dice before settling into spinsterhood and a future of caring for aged parents and/or nephews and nieces.

But of course, Rose stays on (even when there is no real raison d’etre to her character) and eventually marries the Hon Atticus Aldridge, the son and heir to Viscount Sinderby. Much was made of him being Jewish and while someone like him would have at least five years’ worth of debutantes to choose from with some as rich or richer than he is (thereby cementing an alliance between wealth and wealth) but no, love has to triumph even when it’s crowbarred in as a way of giving a redundant character something to do, and any parental objection to the match is dismissed as bigotry – forgetting that the parents (especially the Sinderbys) would by the standards of the time have legitimate objections to the match and not just with regards to religious differences.

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Once Rose and Atticus are married she is written out of the programme, but they make a brief appearance during the finale and its revealed that they are living in America. As Atticus works in banking and finance it would be more plausible to have based him in the City of London, where a number of Jewish founded banks such as Samuel Montagu might have provided a congenial niche for a rich and personable young man. If they were going to be posted overseas, it would be more likely that it would be Shanghai in China, which despite not being part of the British Empire had a substantial presence in commerce and banking. Why Fellowes had to contrive to say that they’re in America is baffling unless this is him still pandering to the American market until the very end.

 

Conclusion:

In our previous posts on Downton Abbey, we have mentioned several issues with the programme with regards to its writing, plotting and characterisation. Dramatic weight and rhythm has always been a problem with this programme, with trivial and irrelevant story lines being given equal time and importance with vital ones. There is as well no sense of the appropriate time for a story line and the programme itself has been riddled by one delayed action plot after the other; the war memorial; the lavish post-war entertaining after the family has lost its money rather than before the war, when it could be justified by having three daughters to marry off; even the family doing their bit for the war effort but not until the war had been going on for two years – all of these meant that these story lines have been robbed of their historical context and as a result the characters do not behave in a way that is of their time.

The history and its use and abuse as a narrative driver are a major issue. As stated earlier in this entry, Downton Abbey is ahistory not history. It might pay lip service to a few historical events such as the sinking of the Titanic and real life historical figures such as Neville Chamberlain but in the end, the programme portrays a false and incomplete picture of the period, using historical events to forward the writer’s pet agendas when that suits and ignoring them when it doesn’t. It is false because while the drama might be set from 1912 to 1925, the attitudes displayed (at least the majority of them) are more attuned to today’s norms. In many ways Downton Abbey is a classic case of ideas that were commonplace and accepted in 1925 being suddenly being labelled “bizarre”,“bigoted” and plain wrong today to suit the sensibilities of the audience and reinforce a belief that somehow we are so much enlightened than some of the characters we are watching. From attitudes towards gay men and unmarried mothers to men shot for cowardice during the war, it seems that a writer like Julian Fellowes can simply erase history in his mind and convince himself that because he holds one opinion today, anyone who held a contrary opinion in the past (notably, of course, Robert and Carson) must have been some sort of knuckle-dragging, sexist, mouth breathing, ignorant bigot who can be held up to ridicule at every opportunity. No doubt of course there were people like that around in 1925 – the history of the decades that follow amply bears that out – but while people like Robert and Carson may well have held opinions that we regard as odious, they were not alone in that. Prejudice against homosexuality and babies born out of wedlock and men who deserted their posts in war (to name but three stories in Downton) was taken for granted – it is our attitudes that at the time would have been regarded as odd and out of the ordinary. A drama written with no appreciation or understanding that the past is a different country, and that fails to honour that past, good or bad, by imposing contemporary standards upon the standards of another era is one that does not deserve to be dignified with the name of a drama – it is mere pastiche. Fellowes’ historical blindness is amply demonstrated by the descriptions of Downton being set in a “gentler, kinder time” – a time when there was capital punishment for murder, corporal punishment in schools was commonplace, workhouses still operated and the horrors of the Great War were all too fresh in the memory.

Not only is Downton Abbey false, it is incomplete; and it is incomplete because of its omission of major aspects of British life and society during that period. What is worrying is that many people have taken what they have seen in Downton Abbey as gospel truth; as is the deeply damaging notion that people in the past are just like us only in funny clothes. As result it ends up being not only poor historical drama but poor drama full stop.

The programme’s omission of both religion and empire robbed Downton Abbey of any claim to be realistic or well researched. Crucially both could have given more depth to the narrative and added dimension to the characters and added a real understanding of an era. Unfortunately, it was never meant to be and yet again, we have to return to the question of why Fellowes set his narrative in the past when he is patently uninterested in exploring its real story.

Exhibition Review: Winnie the Pooh: Exploring a Classic (V&A)

Long before there was Paddington Bear, Shaun the Sheep and Peppa Pig, there was Winnie the Pooh. For over 90 years, the bear with very little brain and his friends Piglet, Rabbit, Owl, Tigger, Kanga, Roo and Christopher Robin have entertained and enchanted both children and adults alike.

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The exhibition is subtitled “Exploring a Classic” and it opens with the enduring legacy of Winnie the Pooh and his friends. There are merchandise dating from as early as the early 1930s with soft toys, puzzles and a child’s tea set that was presented to Princess Elizabeth of York, down to those based on the Walt Disney adaptation from the 1960s with toys, clothes, spin off films and TV specials. Pooh and his friends have also become iconic as demonstrated by editorial cartoons heavily based on the illustrations from the books. The stories themselves have become the inspiration for two self-help books that became bestsellers during the 1990s – The Tao of Pooh and The Te of Piglet. Crucially, the Pooh stories themselves have gone global with translations in various languages and they have never been out of print.

From the enduring legacy, the exhibition moves towards chronicling the history behind the books and the collaboration between A.A. Milne and E.H. Shepard, both of whom worked for Punch magazine; the former as an assistant editor while the latter was an illustrator. Milne wrote the Pooh stories based on his son Christopher Robin and his menagerie of soft toys. Already an established writer, Milne relished the challenge of writing a children’s story believing that “[a] writer should take his job seriously even though he’s taking it to the nursery.”

The use of simple words and dialogue belied a quick witted verbal humour which appealed not just to children. In addition Milne’s use and misuse of language, grammar and punctuation facilitated his storytelling as they were there for both dramatic and humorous effect. But Milne’s prose is only half the story – as the exhibition shows, the success behind a children’s book is a harmony between text and illustration and this is where E.H. Shepard comes in. His technique and pared down drawings draw attention to the narrative; in addition he also used subtle details to synchronise his illustrations to the text.

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All of these are presented through displays of letters, manuscripts and drawings that illustrate how the world of Winnie the Pooh and his friends came to life. One of the key highlights for me was the map of the 100 Acre Wood which was based Ashdown Forest, not far from the Milnes’ country home in Sussex, where Christopher Robin Milne used to play as a child. The drawings by Shepard, many of them works in progress, illustrate the creative process by which both men worked together to synthesise drawings and text.

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The exhibition has something for everyone – the drawings, books, merchandise and soft toys will appeal to those who grew up reading the Pooh stories or who discovered them after watching the Disney adaptation, while the large scale recreation of several key scenes from the books not to mention the multi-media displays would appeal to children who are just beginning to discover the world of Winnie the Pooh and his friends. If there’s any exhibition that would appeal to anyone between the ages of “two and one hundred and two” then this certainly is it.

 

Winnie the Pooh: Exploring a Classic is on at the V&A until 8 April 2018. For more information please visit the exhibition website: https://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/winnie-the-pooh-exploring-a-classic

The blogger visited the exhibition on 7 February 2018

Photos from the exhibition taken by blogger

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.

 

 

 

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.

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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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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

Revisiting Chatsworth and House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth

I first came across Chatsworth House while reading David Cannadine’s The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy and when I moved to the UK to do a postgraduate degree at the University of Manchester, one of the things on my list was to visit Chatsworth – which I finally did in 2006. I enjoyed my day trip so much that I resolved to return which I did in May this year, nearly 11 years after my first visit.

Known as the “Palace in the Peak” owing to its location and grandeur, Chatsworth House has been lived in by members of the Cavendish family since the sixteenth century. The present house stands on an earlier structure built by the formidable Elizabeth Hardwick (also known as “Bess of Hardwick”) and her second husband Sir William Cavendish and since then it has been the home of the Earls – later Dukes – of Devonshire and their family. Nothing much is left of the original Elizabethan structure and what took its place can be considered as one of the finest Baroque buildings in the country today. As the present Duke and Duchess wrote in their introduction to the visitor’s guidebook, “Chatsworth was built to welcome guests and to be seen” and the house has been open to visitors since the 1600s, welcoming visitors from all over Britain and then from all over the world. One noted visitor was a certain Jane Austen whose visit to Chatsworth would help inspire her best known novel – Pride and Prejudice.

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There is so much to see and do at Chatsworth that one day is not enough. There are 30 rooms on  the visitor route alone, each of them showcasing stupendous interiors, furniture and objects as well as a collection of art ranging from Old Masters to family portraits done by some of the biggest names in British art and modern and contemporary art collected by both the 11th and 12th dukes. And what has made this year’s visit even more memorable is a special exhibition that has been described as the “most ambitious to date.”

House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth, created and curated by the Countess of Burlington together with Vogue Editor Hamish Bowles looks at the history of the Cavendish family through the prism of fashion, with the exhibition spread throughout the visitor route of the house. Alongside actual clothes worn by various members of the family; there are accessories, jewellery, paintings, photographs, drawings and archival material. Various rooms feature clothes that would have been appropriate for their surroundings; for instance the chapel displays wedding gowns worn by Cavendish brides especially during the last 40 years, as well as christening dresses while the dining room features formal gowns and dresses that have been worn to balls and parties by various members of the family.

There is the wide diversity of fashion on display showing members of the family as trend setters – there is an emphasis on Georgiana wife of the 5th duke who during her lifetime was dubbed the “Empress of Fashion” and whose clothes and hairstyle were eagerly scrutinised and copied by other women. As a political hostess, she used her clothes to make a statement: most notably when she was campaigning for Charles James Fox where she was depicted in caricatures wearing a riding habit with a hat trimmed with blue and buff feathers shaped like a fox’s tail. The message was very clear and her riding habit with its masculine cut  can be taken as an attempt to play her part in what was essentially a male sphere.

Several family members were also known for their personal style; Deborah wife to the 11th duke was both at ease with simple practical clothes and grand ball gowns particularly in the 1950s and 1960s when her husband was Lord Mayor of Buxton and a government minister.  She was particularly fond of brooches and had a good collection most of them in the shape of insects which she would pin several on a jacket in one go. Andrew on the other hand, kept up with his ancestors’ frugal ways by insisting that his jackets be patched up and shoes be re-heeled and re-soled until they could no longer be worn. Also known for his sense of humour, he had a collection of several navy blue jumpers embroidered with colourful slogans such as “Never Marry A Mitford”, “Bollocks!”, “After All We’ve Been Through” and “Far Better Not”.

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Other members of the family developed a reputation for being badly dressed, for instance the 10th duke was described by his one of his daughters-in-law as someone who “wore paper collars, did not possess an overcoat and would stand, oblivious of the weather, in the freezing wind on Chesterfield station in a threadbare London suit” while his cigarettes which he kept in his pockets resulted into blackened holes in his suits “which he would never dream of replacing.” It is no wonder that he was often mistaken as a tramp or a dustman by people who asked him for directions.

Another category of the exhibition features clothes from two members of the family who have worked in the fashion industry, first as models and presently as designers and buyers respectively. Two of the most striking clothes from this selection have been worn by Stella Tennant, the first being a “black wool, bias cut, polo neck dress” designed by Alexander McQueen and worn by Tennant to a British Vogue fashion editorial in 1993; and the other was a gown by John Galliano for Christian Dior created in 1998 and exhibited next to a portrait of Duchess Georgiana by Maria Cosway, showing how much Galliano during his tenure as head designer for Dior was very much influenced by eighteenth century fashions.

As this blog focuses on a particular time frame which spans the years 1870 to 1939, my main interests in the exhibition fell into the third category. These are the clothes associated with the public role of a Duke or Duchess of Devonshire. The centrepiece in the Painted Hall is the embroidered robe worn by both Duchess Evelyn and her daughter-in-law Duchess Mary in their capacity as Mistress of the Robes to the 1911, 1937 and 1953 coronations. Ever thrifty and resourceful, both duchesses had the robe patched up and repaired in 1937 and 1953, the former by recycling ermine from old clothes dating from the Edwardian period. However, the presence of two duchesses in 1953 presented a problem – Duchess Mary would wear the robe used by her mother-in-law but what of Duchess Deborah? In 1953, Britain was exhausted by the Second World War and punitive taxes and death duties meant that the Cavendish family wasn’t immune to the economies being made in order to meet these financial obligations. Ordering a new robe was out of the question but help came from an unlikely source – while rifling through old uniforms and livery that had been kept in storage, Deborah and her mother-in-law found a peeress’ robe that had been made and worn for the coronation of William IV in 1831. Owing to its out of date style which did not conform to the prescription laid out for the robes to be worn by each grade in the peerage, royal permission had to be sought and granted for the robes to be worn. This robe is also on display in the Painted Hall.

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The Grotto contains uniforms worn by successive dukes, with the main focus being on the full court dress worn by the 9th duke and the robes of the Order of the Garter worn by successive dukes, the most recent being the 11th duke after being awarded with England’s highest order of chivalry in 1996. Next door along the chapel corridor are accessories, ephemera and photographs used as a time line to chronicle the life and times of the Cavendish family from Bess of Hardwick to the present. Of particular interest to me were Duchess Louise’s embroidered evening bag, a badge bearing Queen Mary’s portrait that denoted Duchess Evelyn’s position as the Queen’s Mistress of the Robes and the frame of the Garter Star belonging to the 8th duke where the stones had been taken to make a diamond tiara for his wife. Again the accessories and ephemera tell us something of the person who owned and has worn them: from the gold locket containing her husband’s photograph that belonged to Kathleen Marchioness of Hartington to the chatelaine that was in Duchess Georgiana’s possession and a pair of slippers embroidered with the image of Elvis Presley that was one of the Duchess Deborah’s treasured objects.

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My favourite however has to be the dresses on display worn for the 1897 Devonshire House Ball especially Duchess Louise’s costume as Queen Zenobia of Palmyra. Made by the House of Worth, the gold, ivory and emerald green gauze and velvet gown is a wonder even after 120 years and it was wonderful to see the fine detail and colour of the gown considering I have only seen it previously in black and white photographs.

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After going round the exhibition twice, it was time to go for a stroll round the gardens. It had just rained so everything looked even more lush and green. Chatsworth’s gardens like the house are also world renowned and reflects the changing times and fashion with regards to garden designs. Whilst parts of the Baroque gardens survive, much of it today is based on the more naturalistic designs by William Kent and Lancelot “Capability” Brown during the 18th century and Joseph Paxton during the 19th. Since the 1950s when the 11th duke and duchess took up residence at Chatsworth, more improvements and work has gone into the garden and the modern sculpture dotted around were an excellent focal and talking point. The fountains of course are a sight to behold especially with the famous cascade and the Emperor fountain.

Before I knew it, it was nearly time to close and there wasn’t much time to explore the rest of the gardens. A return visit in the near future is certainly on the cards but hopefully I won’t have to wait for another eleven years.

 

When visited: 19 May 2017

Photos taken by blogger

House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth is on until 22 October 2017 and is included in the admission ticket to the house. For more information, please go to https://www.chatsworth.org/events/house-style/

Book Review – Queen Bees: Six Brilliant and Extraordinary Society Hostesses Between the Wars by Sian Evans

There was a time when the aristocracy dominated the social landscape and set the tone for the rest of society to follow. However, while their grip on society was challenged by the new rich both in the UK and the US, between the wars their comings and goings and activities were still reported by the press and society hostesses just like their predecessors entertained on a lavish scale with their events graced by people who mattered.

Six of these interwar society hostesses are the subject of a book by Sian Evans: Nancy Lady Astor, the first woman to sit in Parliament; the Hon Mrs Ronald Greville (nee Margaret Anderson); Edith Lady Londonderry; Sibyl Lady Colefax; Maud (later Emerald) Lady Cunard and Mrs Laura Corrigan. The backgrounds of these women were as diverse as the people they entertained – three of the so-called Queen Bees were American while Sibyl Colefax came from a middle class background. Edith Londonderry on the other hand came from an aristocratic family while Margaret Greville was the illegitimate daughter of a brewing magnate turned Member of Parliament.

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The diversity of their backgrounds characterised the change happening in society where birth increasingly didn’t matter – Maud Cunard and Laura Corrigan came from working class stock while Nancy Astor and Sibyl Colefax were middle class and a huge question mark hovered over Margaret Greville’s parentage especially who her father really was. Each of these women managed to make their way through society through marriage, calculation and chutzpah. Having money helped too especially in the case of Mrs Greville and Mrs Corrigan whose funds came from the brewery and steel business respectively. And while their paths would have crossed, each of the hostesses had their own “crowd” with both Nancy Astor and Edith Londonderry entertaining politicians, while Margaret Greville courted royalty (she had selected the Duke of York to inherit her country estate Polesden Lacey), and Maud Cunard through her affair with the noted conductor Sir Thomas Beecham championed classical music particularly opera. Sibyl Colefax was drawn to writers and artists and Laura Corrigan preferred the Bright Young Things and ferocious social climbing.

Rather than give each woman her own chapter, Evans prefers to lump them as a group and while this is useful in order to have the narrative in chronological order, the number of names can be overwhelming and in the end it can be rather confusing as the narrative jumps from one Queen Bee to the next and back again. The main strength of the book is the interesting details and anecdotes such as for instance Nancy Astor’s legendary spats with Winston Churchill where on one occasion she told Churchill that if she was his wife, she would put poison on his coffee. To which the future prime minister retorted, “And if I was your husband, I would gladly drink it.”

That same bitchiness could be seen with Margaret Greville. On holiday in France, Greville and her “frenemy” Grace Vanderbilt suffered a car crash which injured the chauffeur and ended up stranded in the forest of Fontainebleau. While Greville thought that they should flag down the next passing driver in order to get the chauffeur to the nearest hospital, Vanderbilt wasn’t convinced: “But supposing we were to be taken for two cocottes?” Back came Greville’s crisp reply, “I think, my dear, that we may take that risk.”

There were also Laura Corrigan’s desperate attempts to ingratiate herself into society. Snubbed in the US for her plebeian origins, she headed to Britain where the millions she inherited from her late husband meant that she could entertain in a way that many in British society could no longer afford. While society eagerly flocked to her parties, behind her back they sniggered at her appearance (all flamboyant wigs and heavy make-up) and her lack of intellect, and there was a jibe going round society that on a quiet night all that could be heard was Mrs Corrigan climbing. However, Corrigan had nothing on Sibyl Colefax who was the inspiration for Mary Borden’s short story entitled “To Meet Jesus Christ”, about a hostess who invites the Son of God as the guest of honour to one of her dinner parties.  Just as with Corrigan, people enthusiastically accepted Colefax’s hospitality but some couldn’t resist playing practical jokes at her expense. One of them had someone invite Colefax to “meet the P of W”, who turned out to be the Provost of Worcester College rather than the Prince of Wales she was expecting.

Although filled with interesting detail and anecdotes, Queen Bees makes exaggerated claims about the women’s importance. While it’s true that their parties and events made it to the papers, today one is hard pressed to name who they were much less any of their achievements and contributions they made. Despite Astor and Londonderry’s work with the poor and the marginalised as well as Colefax’s success in her career and helping turn interior decorating into a respected profession, the snobbishness, vacuousness and desperation to keep the status quo exhibited by the Queen Bees makes a mockery of Evans’ claim that they had a “profound effect on British history” and helped bring about “social revolution”. It was nothing of the sort but unsurprisingly these women would have been labouring under the delusion that they had political influence and could bend the will of politicians and statesmen with champagne, cocktails and weekends in country estates.

And this delusion led these women to flirt with appeasement, Fascism and Nazism – Nancy Astor and her so-called “Cliveden Set” were pro-appeasement while Margaret Greville, Edith Londonderry and Emerald Cunard were enthusiastic admirers of Mussolini and Hitler; the former two lavishly entertained the German ambassador to Britain, Joachim von Ribbentrop and members of the Nazi high command such as Hermann Goering. In return both Greville and Londonderry were invited to Germany and were Hitler’s guests of honour at various Nazi party events such as the infamous rallies at Nuremberg. Only Sibyl Colefax refused to jump on the bandwagon of toadying up to Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Always more left leaning and progressive than her fellow Queen Bees, Colefax saw through the Nazi Party’s real motivations and actively refused to socialise with their representatives.

None of the women end up likeable or sympathetic save for Colefax  – mostly for her efforts to turn interior design into a proper profession and serving an example for upper class and upper middle class women that it was acceptable to work and have a career as well as her principled stand for what she believed in. In the end however, despite Evans’ claim, these women never did have a “profound effect on British history”, they were simply entertainment fodder for the masses and nothing else, and today are largely forgotten except as footnotes in the social history of the 1930s.